published in Great Britain
by Dodo Books 2010
© Jane Palmer 2008
is a work of fiction and any
resemblance to persons living or dead is
author asserts the moral right to be identified as
the author of this work.
978 1 906442 21 7
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science fiction books by this author
came to Auroal to smite the
bounced closer to the viewer. ‘What are they chanting now?’
he asked Ansopha who was lounging on a ceiling buttress, exuding indifference
and refusing to translate the droning coming from the artificial planet.
‘This is the chant of cosmic resurrection,’ the voice of Hunder
explained in an unusually patient tone.
Ansopha peered down from its precarious perch. ‘Let me know when
God arrives.’ Then the communicator stretched like a satiated carnivore
and closed its silver eyes.
‘And what will you do if He does?’ demanded Skirra.
‘Emigrate to the furthest reaches of deep space.’
‘Why not, it’s probably where you came from,’ the medical
The limb of Auroal could be seen rising impressively from the satellite’s
view port. Skirra and Orphanus, the engineer, were too immersed in the
ceremony taking place on the screen to notice. At the south pole of the
artificial world, species who didn’t share an atom of DNA had gathered
to indulge in an act of archaic and superstitious time wasting.
Hunder’s quantum processor had once computed the likelihood of so
many different species agreeing that they worshipped the same God. Given
the immediacy of communication, cosmic dissemination of ideas, and close
proximity to each other on the space-port, it was inevitable. Lashing
out at each other on such a small world over semantics wouldn’t
have been practical. The bio computer’s circuits silently groaned
as he realised they were on the threshold of a nonsensical episode generated
by the intolerance of consensus while the mysterious Ansopha, who probably
came from a corner of the Universe where deities weren’t permitted,
radiated contempt for the proceedings below.
Having agreed to share God, the inhabitants of Auroal now faced the problem
of what to do when He arrived. Blood sacrifices had gone out of fashion
long before Auroal had been a glimmer in the eye of the ambitious engineer
who had designed the spaceport. Had she been able see what was going on
she would have probably kicked her computer for visualising the concept.
Her world was supposed to be a galactic point of convergence for several
gravity lines, not the gateway to some mythological heaven.
Over generations Auroal’s inhabitants had become jaded. Supplying,
servicing, and organising space traffic from across the Galaxy could be
boring if that was all you and your ancestors had been engaged in. So,
to break the monotony, why not join hands with your neighbours, resurrect
a few cosmic myths and try them on for size?
Hunder was as old as the artificial planet. He had been designed to control
all its systems as well as the gravity lines through which traffic travelled.
Systematically up-dated by the elite technicians of Space Command, he
eventually developed the capacity to program himself. Being a reasoning
bio computer and as a consequence irritable, only to be expected in someone
with his cosmic intellect, Hunder was allowed to have his own way because
the saving on upgrading him was immense. At one time hundreds maintained
the bio computer’s satellite. Now it only needed a skeleton crew,
mainly to keep a mortal eye on Auroal and Hunder’s tantrums. The
atmosphere in the satellite’s cavernous spaces was only intermittently
restored to echo to the footfall of Orphanus as she checked welds and
connections, matters too humdrum for the mighty Hunder to bother with.
The bio computer liked company to reassure him of his superiority, yet
wasn’t so keen on the arguments his existence provoked in lesser
intellects, which included most sentient life. Orphanus was no problem.
The engineer knew her limitations, although he did have to disarm her
when she occasionally threatened to eviscerate an irritating mortal. Skirra
was always too busy with medical research and ministering to the needs
of the many species on Auroal to be bothered about the bio computer’s
ego. Then there was Ansopha, an enigma with no origin, gender, pretence
of social conditioning, or noticeable bodily functions.
Though the subject was never broached, the crew suspected that their communicator
knew more about deities than was healthy for all of them. Ansopha came
from the only species Hunder had been unable to categorise or Skirra make
medical sense of. Polarising molecules in any creature were pretty unusual,
and when that creature used them to become invisible – the only
evidence of its presence a faint, rustling sound - evolution took on a
Skirra knew that there was no point in interrogating Ansopha about its
origins. The medical scientist had even been denied the tissue sample
all crewmembers were obliged to surrender before a term of duty, and chasing
invisible entities with laser scalpels was not in his terms of contract.
The ceremonial chanting on Auroal grew more intense and the illumination
from the massive arena could be seen rising on the planet’s limb.
‘This is giving me a headache,’ moaned Ansopha.
‘Serves you right for being a telepath,’ snapped Orphanus.
She was a Vardel and capable of crushing bones with her thoughts.
Suddenly the chanting congregation below rippled back from the hub of
the ceremony as though God had tossed a thunderbolt into his pool of believers.
Given the different life support systems and body sizes it was a wonder
no one was asphyxiated.
On each narrow layer of the planet the rest of the population sat in their
respective ecosystems, fervently anticipating God’s appearance.
Ansopha also began to wish He would arrive; emotions this intense played
more havoc with its telepathic efficiency than the solar wind could with
‘Something is happening,’ Hunder announced.
‘They’re going home?’ a voice from the ceiling asked
‘There is an unusual blister of energy forming.’
‘How?’ demanded Orphanus. ‘Artificial planets don’t
have volcanoes - at least, this one didn’t the last time I inspected
‘The anomaly may have used a gravity line - but I never registered
it.’ Hunder sounded defensive.
‘Well hadn’t you better find out what it is?’
‘Why?’ The bio computer knew what she meant. ‘No, I’m
not going to let you train the satellite’s weapons array on it.
The thing hasn’t made any threatening moves and might take it as
belligerence if it is a sentient being.’
‘Looks like a proto star to me,’ observed Skirra.
Hunder’s circuits crackled at the inanities they had to contend
with. ‘Keep to medicine. If that were a proto star its gravitational
field would have torn us apart by now.’
‘Well Ansopha, is it a sentient being? Can you sense anything at
The communicator concentrated. ‘Only the telepathic equivalent of
a bad smell.’
The medical scientist wasn’t impressed with the diagnosis. ‘What
are you talking about?’
‘There is something unpleasantly, voraciously... hungry, in its
Skirra visualised the casualties he would have to deal with if there was
an explosion in the middle of a congregation containing ten percent of
the planet’s population. ‘But what is it for pity’s
sake? Hunder, you should send out a probe.’
‘It wouldn’t be politic.’
Orphanus noticed a change in the image on the screen. ‘Closer, Hunder.
Zoom in closer.’
The bio computer did as she said. The blister of energy had become a pulsating
mound of plasma.
The huge gathering on Auroal milled about uneasily; fear mixed with the
adulation, they backed away.
Ansopha peered down with its glinting gaze, unable to believe the thoughts
radiating up from the planet’s pole. ‘Well, well, well,’
it announced like a carnivore spying a lunch of poisonous reptile. ‘We’re
having a manifestation.’
Orphanus’ approach was more warlike. ‘A what?’
‘Believe it or not, God has arrived.’
Skirra bounced too high in excitement and collided with the communications
‘Don’t damage the sensors,’ warned Ansopha.
‘Just tell us it’s someone’s idea of a practical joke,’
demanded Orphanus. She didn’t relish the idea of meeting anyone’s
maker, especially the one of any species her ancestors had managed to
The manifestation on Auroal continued to grow. A rainbow knife of illumination
cut through the velvet sky. Believers wailed in ecstasy and waverers were
convinced. Even Hunder’s many monitors momentarily blinked. The
only creature not impressed by the aura of God’s ego continued to
limply straddle the ceiling buttress. It loured down with silver eyes
and analysed the bizarre thought rhythms of the apparition taking form
on the planet below. Of all the species witnessing this, was Ansopha the
only one registering the true nature of the entity? Had they switched
off their common sense for fear of offending God’s manifestation?
The communicator said nothing and, however curious Skirra may have been,
even he would think twice before chasing the Supreme Being for a tissue
Hodge stopped wheeling her luggage and put down her case of cameras to
pause for breath. She stood on the promenade and enjoyed the autumn air.
It had that comforting bite to it, as familiar as the cheap brandy that
her sister would now be pickling barely ripe apricots in for Christmas
presents, and the cappuccino Mansel Lascelle would soon be serving on
a lace tablecloth.
Here came Arnold, taking his wobbly, overweight Labrador for its afternoon
walk. Gladys had lost count of the times she had been stayed at Beachview,
but there had always been Arnold, always with the same dog. Yet she had
never discovered whether there was a Mrs Arnold, lots of little grand
Arnolds, or even where he lived.
‘Good morning Arnold. How are you?’ The elderly man was so
short-sighted he would have bumped into her if she hadn’t announced
her presence. ‘Still fit as ever I see.’ It was a lie. Telling
Arnold he looked as though a herring gull might carry him off at any moment
was not in her nature, despite the years as a photojournalist having to
deal with impossible people.
The old gentleman doffed his hat and dipped a bow. ‘It’s good
to see you so soon in the season, Gladys.’
‘Had the feeling Christmas was coming early this year. Wanted to
get out before the seasonal tantrums.’
‘Mr Lascelle and his mother will be pleased to see you.’
Gladys managed a tight smile. Mansel’s cockatoo was usually more
pleased to see her than his mother, and that always gave a bad tempered
squawk at her arrival.
‘I understand the season hasn’t been so good,’ Arnold
went on. ‘Brinton-on-Sea is not exciting enough for the modern holiday
That’s exactly why Gladys came. She had spent too many years dashing
after combat troops through jungles and snapping the crocodile smiles
of the world’s tyrants. The last thing she aspired to now was to
trip over dinosaur eggs in a desolate Mongolian landscape or eyeball some
mountain gorilla. Brinton-on-Sea was safe, had comparatively tame wildlife,
and the nearest the teenagers got to cannabis were the herbal remedies
produced by Nature’s Herbal Realm, the local major industry.
Gladys was suddenly aware that Arnold was still speaking and just managed
to stop her expression from glazing over in time.
‘At least Mr Butterworth is still there and they are hiring out
the saloon to the Moonstar Players for the rehearsals of their winter
Gladys groaned internally. The Moonstar Players were the only wildlife
she tried to assiduously avoid. This amateur theatre group was so excruciatingly
bad they had to bribe the local residents with tea and biscuits to watch
them. C’est la vie, as Mrs Lascelle would never say, being too crotchety
to be philosophical about anything.
Gladys grasped the handle of her luggage, said goodbye to Arnold, and
strode off towards Beachview Hotel. With only a few yards to go, she realised
that it was about time she took a taxi from the station. No seventy-two-year-old
should be lugging things that heavy, even if she was usually assumed to
be ten years younger. But then, Gladys had never acted her age - and occasionally
managed to forget what it was.
Though only built in the thirties, Beachview looked as though it had been
planted, facing the seafront, before the Victorian promenade was even
thought about. The hotel was the first facade to be picked out by passing
ships. Even the parish church tower, coastguard station, and amusement
arcade could be cloaked by the mists rolling in from the sea. Despite
them, Beachview flaunted itself like a cross-gartered Malvolio, confidant
that its cross-timbered facade was in the best possible taste. Behind
the three storeys of bay windows and mock Tudor timbers were ten guest
suites, a restaurant lounge, and a saloon large enough to contain the
egos of The Moonstar Players.
Mansel Lascelle and his mother lived in the basement flat, though Joabim
the cockatoo’s domain was the saloon bar. Over the past twenty years,
the bird had developed a taste for pretzels, peanuts, and flying at liberty
through the timber beams. As a consequence, food was only served in the
lounge restaurant by order of the health inspector. Apart from hygienic
considerations, Joabim had also been prone to sampling the meals of guests
and swearing in French when repulsed. Fortunately his English was impeccable.
Gladys blundered through the front door with her luggage and was enveloped
by the reassuring aroma of garlic, freshly ground coffee, and stale beer.
Had it been fifteen degrees hotter she might have imagined herself back
in an ex pats hotel adjacent to some kasbah seething with radical malcontent.
The most rebellious thing in here was the cockatoo that immediately turned
its back as she entered, which was just as well because the photographer
didn’t at that moment want to hear some French obscenity.
Mr Butterworth was in his usual corner of the restaurant lounge with madeleines
and Ceylon tea while Mansel, singing some risqué Jacque Briel lyrics
under his breath, cleared tables after the regular afternoon customers.
Gladys smiled to herself. His English was superb, probably to annoy his
mother, and it was odd to hear him relish his native tongue.
The proprietor turned in time to see Gladys catch her camera case as it
slid from her shoulder. He pushed the loaded tray onto the nearest table
and swept through the chairs like a tug in a gale.
‘Mrs Hodge. You are early.’ The large man planted a welcoming
kiss on both her cheeks. ‘You should not see the place in such a
Joabim now deigned to acknowledge her presence and gave a bad tempered
squawk which was probably cockatoo for, ‘Not you again? Brought
Mr. Butterworth came over to shake her hand. He had a bearing of military
correctness and, despite him having the most amiable of natures, Gladys
always imagined he was about to twirl his moustaches like the Demon Barber.
Fortunately, having seen every variation of male stubble, it was obvious
to her that he used an electric razor. Several years ago she might have
fancied him, but the photographer was also experienced enough to tell
that his affections lay elsewhere - though never did find out in exactly
Everyone engaged in the usual warm banter for five minutes, though all
Gladys wanted at that moment was a stiff coffee. The doctor would have
banned even those if she hadn’t promised to give up the brandy and
occasional cigar - another reason for avoiding Christmas. There’s
no fun in watching everyone else destroying their immune systems if you
couldn’t join in.
Mansel carried her luggage up to a bedroom overlooking the sea. Gladys
followed and, when he had gone, threw the windows open to purge the air
of potpourri and rose disinfectant. Mrs Lascelle must have thought they
were aromatic, but they reminded the photographer of an Eastern red light
No longer feeling her age, Gladys unpacked and set up her chemicals and
developing trays in the darkroom adjoining the bedroom. This was the spacious
cupboard under the stairs that led to the attic rooms, and where Mansel
obligingly stored her enlarger and chemical tanks. Easily made light proof,
it was well out of reach of other guests. After she had retired, some
of her best work had been printed under those stairs.
Winter on the coast appealed to Gladys’ photographic eye, though
she would have to pay dearly for her annual rendezvous with Nature by
producing prints of the Moonstar Players in their worst throws of the
dramatic and carried the infernal digital camera solely for that purpose.
Why waste good emulsion on histrionic posturing?
As she checked the chemicals, footsteps pounded up and down the stairs,
making the bottles rattle and a developing canister roll onto the floor.
By the time the photographer had stepped outside to see what was going
on, the culprits had gone.
Mansel descended from the attic with an armful of bed sheets.
‘Staff flying south for the winter?’’ Gladys guessed.
He sighed in resignation. ‘Oui, they are moving to some commune
She wished she had kept her mouth shut, but there was no backing out now.
‘Do you have anyone to replacement them?’
Out of breath, Mansel leant on the banisters at the bottom of the stairs.
‘No, only Mary and my own fair hands.’
‘But you can’t manage a place this size by yourselves?’
‘Mary says she will do the laundry, and the season is over. We will
The photographer doubted it, though said nothing. Keeping up a place the
size of Beachview as well as ministering to his demanding mother would
probably help the man shed a few pounds.
Gladys returned to her room to load an SLR, then left to take a few snaps
in the late autumn light.
the Devil’s disciple plotted to
set its mark of evil on Auroal.
blister of illumination domed out and sent an accusing column of light
soaring towards Hunder’s satellite. Skirra wondered how any optic
nerve down there could withstand the glare, but the population on Auroal
believed that this was the God who had created them all and the radiance
of His Glory had to be endured, along with any other indignities that
would have sent rational people screaming to a lawyer. Even the Voba,
a species who had logic and litigation written into their genes, were
down there grovelling before a manifestation whose only calling card was
a blinding ball of light.
Hunder was worried at seeing the Voba give in. He daren’t admit
it, even to himself, because the admission would have dented the conviction
he had about his own infallibility and the bio computer had a feeling
that the Cosmos was going to require every qubit of his vast reasoning
quite soon. Hunder hated having to depend on his quantum system, but the
fluid reactions of his bio circuits were too emotional to face down such
an absolute as God incarnate.
Ansopha had no such quantum gates to limit its responses. The communicator
dropped from the ceiling perch and the silver eyes glowered at the screen
relaying the events on Auroal: no species down there seemed to be suffering
ill effects, apart from a surfeit of ecstasy.
‘This is going to screw up your calculations about Creation, Hunder,’
The bio computer’s higher instincts wanted to panic. Instead, his
primary reason circuits compelled him to reply in his most considered
tone. ‘Given the size of our Universe, such an entity could be feasible.
Virtually everything is known about the transformation of matter, except
how it was created in the first place.’
‘There was no first place. Why do you have to state the facile?
There is no Creator, or such thing as linear time.’
Hunder aspired to mortality despite his contempt for other corporeal creatures
and wasn’t going to let that pass. ‘Most mortals fail to comprehend
‘So that makes time linear? Their mere comprehension of it?’
Orphanus was beginning to find the miracle amusing. No Vardel had worshipped
any deity for long as the energy of commitment could be put to better
use. ‘What’s the matter, Ansopha? Why does “God’s”
presence offend you so much?’
The silver eyes narrowed to malicious slits. ‘Why has it arrived
now? What does it want here?’
Skirra was hovering under a ceiling locker and hauling out aeons of cultural
junk as though it was festive bunting. ‘Does God need reasons? We
should be the ones explaining ourselves.’
The others paused in disbelief at his plunge into religious irrationality.
Hunder had always depended on the medical scientist’s level-headedness
to keep the other two in check. The consequences of him suddenly falling
for the God con trick didn’t bear thinking about. ‘This could
just be how some undiscovered species introduce themselves. Perhaps they
expect us to burst into balls of plasma as well because it’s the
only way they can communicate.’
‘Well this communicator has no intention of bursting into flames,
even to make first contact with the most peculiar species to ever blunder
out of a gravity line,’ Ansopha snarled.
Skirra had dislodged so much junk from the locker Hunder was obliged to
engage a force field to prevent it from falling onto any sensitive equipment.
‘It must be God,’ the medical scientist insisted. ‘What
other species would arrive like this?’
‘The species “God” belongs to perhaps.’
Skirra stopped rummaging for a moment. ‘What do you mean? How can
there be more than one God?’
Hunder’s long standing confidence in Skirra toppled over. ‘You
know quite well that some entities can alter their energy levels and blink
on and off. How do we know that this creature isn’t of one of them?’
‘So where would it get the energy to do that?’ The medical
scientist pointed at the manifestation on the monitor.
‘Well it did take a nibble at our sun on the way in.’
Skirra hesitated. ‘You never said anything about it?’
‘I don’t always mention when I feel a headache coming on either,
because I know you won’t have the slightest interest,’ Hunder
‘Don’t become emotional at a time like this.’
‘You really mean this “momentous occasion”, don’t
‘All right then, if you can prove that He’s not the real thing,
inform Space Command.’ Skirra resumed his search and more clutter
cascaded from the locker.
‘What are you looking for?’
‘A Cittrac. We can’t approach God without a Cittrac.’
This one was of the few instances when Ansopha agreed with Hunder. ‘You
speak for yourself, egg glow. I shall just stand at a respectful distance
and mentally project obscenities.’
‘Oh no,’ warned Orphanus. She had no intention of confronting
any God’s retribution after her colourful career. ‘You’re
the communications officer. You communicate with it.’
‘She’s right,’ added Hunder. ‘It is possible you
are the only one capable of making contact. Skirra bouncing towards God
with a Cittrac could cause complications even I wouldn’t be able
to cope with.’
Ansopha turned to look at the screen monitoring Auroal. There was little
movement about the glowing dome of light.
The silence would have continued if it didn’t say something. ‘All
right. What’s the atmosphere like, Hunder?’
‘Within your tolerance, though could do with more carbon dioxide.’
‘If it’s that oxygen rich, why are they trying to hug huge
balls of fire?’
‘I have the dampers on line. Trust me.’
Ansopha had to. ‘I’ll use the underside gravline. Don’t
transmit me too quickly. I want a close look before committing.’
As soon as Ansopha was in position, Hunder projected the communicator
into the heart of the gathering like a silver dart where it found itself
confronting a platform of multifarious praying priests too awe-struck
to be any use and, below them, a sea of upturned faces anxious with anticipation.
The congregation murmured, resentful that Ansopha had taken so long to
arrive. They shouldn’t have been surprised. It was probably the
only creature who could remain an atheist when facing God Incarnate.
Towering into the indigo sky, the manifestation radiated like the limb
of a small sun. If this was the way some exotic species made first contact,
Ansopha wasn’t surprised they were unknown. Not many people would
have survived the first encounter, including those on Auroal if there
hadn’t been bio computer of Hunder’s capability to shield
them from His energy field. And no other planet had a communicator like
Ansopha. It had made contact with some unusual species in its time, but
this would be like trying to pull feathers out of a furnace with little
more than good intentions. The communicator had many intentions. As far
as God was concerned, none of them was good. He had detected something
about the telepathic agent that sent a surge of indignation through his
Almighty Being. The blazing deity was not going to allow Ansopha the luxury
His reaction took even Ansopha by surprise.
There was a rumble that shook the platform of praying priests. Ansopha
was snatched from the ground and, sparkling like a sacrificial bauble,
dangled aloft. However much it may have impressed the crowd, the communicator
was just annoyed.
‘What are you?’ God demanded.
The telepathic question made Ansopha’s skull ring like well struck
‘If you’re God, you should know.’
Ansopha was released so rapidly any other mortal would have smashed its
‘You are no progeny of mine. You are the work of the Devil!’
This God had obviously been around and was not craving polite first contact.
‘I don’t know what I am,’ Ansopha thought back fiercely.
‘Does it matter whether you made me or not? I’m pretty sure
the amount of DNA which has been kicking around the Universe for aeons
could have thrown up a few species without you knowing.’
Ansopha felt another kick inside its skull. ‘Hey, that hurt! Do
you think the high priests here spent all this time trying to raise you
just to find out what a spiteful monster you really are? They want revelations
and something to believe in, not a bad tempered blob of plasma with an
God decided that He had spent enough time inside Ansopha’s head
and abruptly withdrew.
As soon as the communicator’s wits returned, it glimpsed a ball
of energy heading in its direction. Ansopha swept the nearby priests aside
- then disappeared.
Though they knew of the communicator’s ability to do this, the inhabitants
of Auroal had never witnessed this minor miracle before. “Due to
polarising molecules being rapidly switched”, was all medical scientist,
Skirra could tell them. All the same, seeing Ansopha blink from their
sight was more like magic.
God did not like being upstaged. He struck Auroal an almighty blow. The
planet shook and the machinery stabilising its inner core stuttered. Throughout
the latitudes, buildings toppled, tanks of illicit substances ready to
be smuggled through gravity lines overturned, and crèches of newly
hatched Fammorans sent into tail chasing fits.
Then the wailing started.
Ansopha thought it best not to stay around, visibly, or otherwise.
had several promising rolls of film to process, Mansel was recovering
from a flurry of early Christmas shoppers, Joabim had just helped himself
to a bag of mixed nuts that were now strewn over the saloon floor, and
Mrs Lascelle had made one of her rare appearances to hang the front door
curtains against the chill sea breeze. As always this time every year,
it was business as usual.
The proprietor sat on a stool at the bar and looked mournfully at the
remains of the cockatoo’s last snack. Mary, his general factotum,
bounced in with a tiny Yorkshire terrier in her apron pocket.
‘Moonstar Players ahoy!’ the jolly young woman warned.
Joabim squawked at her as she let the small dog snuffle up the pieces
Mansel groaned and tried to concentrate on the fee they were paying for
use of the saloon.
‘I’ve left Mr Butterworth’s sheets airing in the laundry
room and will change Mrs H as soon as she’s finished developing.’
‘Thank you Mary.’ Mansel felt he deserved a stiff drink and
poured them both a sherry. ‘Your cousin could not manage a few hours
each week then?’
‘Sorry. Too much seaweed to process. Good crop this year. And the
factory had a new consignment of evening primrose, so they won’t
be laying anyone off either.’ She took a swig of her drink. ‘Never
mind. Something will crop up. How’s Mrs Mansel?’ she whispered
in case the old woman was wearing her despised hearing aid.
‘Howling like a tigress because I will no longer cook her tea.’
‘Well, it’s too much for you. She understands that - deep
‘Oui, so deep only angler fish know.’ Another cavernous sigh.
‘And now you say the Moonstar Players are coming. Could any man’s
lot be gloomier.’
From some way up the promenade came a cacophony of voices vying for attention.
It sounded like a troupe of high-pitched Tasmanian devils disputing territorial
rights. Mansel rolled his eyes and quickly tried to move the saloon furniture
into a formation that would defy the Moonstar Players to arrange it into
a stage set.
‘You pop downstairs for a nap and I’ll make their tea,’
‘You are an angel.’ Mansel pulled the tea towel from his shoulder,
laid it neatly over the counter, and then darted across the lounge and
through the kitchen, down to his basement flat.
‘And I wish you were my husband, poppet,’ Mary muttered when
he was out of earshot. ‘Pity about that old bat you have for a mother.
Bet she scared off a few likely damosels.’
From her perch on the stepladders, Mrs Lascelle fancied she heard someone
take her name in vain. She snapped at Mary to hide her dog.
Mary snatched up the Yorkshire terrier and hid it in her apron just as
the Moonstar Players swept in with a theatrical flourish, allowing in
a bitter wind that nearly toppled Mrs Lascelle from her steps.
Henny Stenson doffed his wide brimmed fedora with unnecessary affectation.
The old woman scowled. She uttered something from Joabim’s repertoire,
then closed the stepladders and bustled out.
After all the years they had been using Beachview for rehearsal meetings
he should have known better, yet the performer in Henny was still wounded
at the proprietor’s lack of bonhomie. ‘Strange woman.’
He turned to Mary. ‘What did happen to her husband?’
‘She probably shot him for collaborating with the human race.’
Loralie Stenson patted the small head peering out from Mary’s apron.
‘Hallo Louise. You never grow any larger, do you?’
Mary put the woman’s comment down to a need to say something, rather
than stupidity. With a husband like Henny, she didn’t often have
the chance to get a word in edgeways.
The Moonstar Players swept into the saloon for their first rehearsed reading.
Joabim muttered a few swear words in French and flapped off to a nook
in a ceiling timber while Mary left to bring in their tea urn. Under Henny
Stenson’s supervision, this was a strictly teetotal troupe as beer
fogged the mind and weakened that vital spark which should burn brightly
in every performance. The only question now was, would a mere two months
be long enough to do justice to their production of A Christmas Carol?
For fear of attracting attention to themselves and being roped in, a couple
of regulars in a private partition put aside their rustling daily papers
and tried to slurp their light ales silently.
Having moved the armchairs and sofas into a circle as though expecting
an attack from a tribe of critics, the company pulled out scripts and
the bloody business of casting began. Henny Stenson had already worked
out who was going to play what part. Nevertheless, the pretence of a little
democracy helped morale.
Oliver, the company’s leading light was, of course, cast as Scrooge.
For such a plum role he even didn’t mind giving up the velvet collar
and medallion to play someone his own age. His partner, Gerald, having
suffered fifteen years of his companion, was ideal to take on the downtrodden
Bob Cratchit with a minimum of make-up. As he was directing, Henny cast
himself as Marley’s ghost and Christmas Present - that would allow
him to replace his toupee with even more hair - and Loralie had hectored
for the part of Christmas Past so she could wear her best silk and carry
a diamante wand. Unfortunately she would also have to play Tiny Tim. The
Stenson’s son was now a fifteen-year-old Goth and would have nailed
himself inside his coffin at the suggestion that he play an infant with
Gloria would have to double as Mrs Cratchit and Scrooge’s housekeeper.
She was busty and lusty, and totally unsuitable for both parts, but had
to be given something. Mavis Brink would have been better in the roles
if she hadn’t refused to act, preferring to put together all those
things like props, advertising, and ticket sales that no production could
do without, yet would seldom admit to. She was a woman with hardly any
discernible surface. What went on behind those pale grey eyes was deep
and carefully thought out. Her conclusions about the world baffled most
people, especially the other Moonstar Players who were nothing but surface.
There is at least one Mavis Brink in every amateur theatrical company
that manages to survive past its inauguration.
Between cups of tea, the Moonstar Players haggled like horse traders,
knowing that they would eventually have to acquiesce to Henny Stenson’s
casting anyway. Whatever their leader’s faults, he did have the
knack of making the most of limited resources. There was little else the
Moonstar Players could do without abducting members from a larger theatre
company as they always kept a low profile when Henny Stenson advertised
auditions in the local free newspaper.
This left the troupe with one major problem. Who was going to play Christmas
Future? Henny could have easily doubled up, but was not prepared to part
with his toupee, even to play Death. They also needed a narrator to fill
in the gaps and allow for quick changes.
With a tone more suited to declaring the country a republic, Henny Stenson
announced that the casting was settled and handed out typescripts from
his briefcase. ‘Our first reading, just to see how everything fits.’
The cast immediately riffled through the stapled pages to see how many
lines their characters had been allocated. Mavis Brink, glasses on the
end of her sharp nose, began to calculate the props and sound effects
required. She was like a teacher hunting quotations from Shakespeare,
her pen working as though she had been given a copy of Hamlet.
Pleased with her latest batch of prints and the world in general, Gladys
Hodge unsuspectingly strolled into the saloon, realising too late that
the Moonstar Players already occupied it. Before she could double back
to the lounge Henny Stenson pounced.
With an expansive flourish of his arms and stentorian tones he announced,
‘Mrs Hodge, so nice to see you again.’
‘And again, and again, and again,’ Gladys muttered to herself,
too diplomatic to swear at him in a foreign tongue like Mrs Lascelle.
‘Mr Stenson, I didn’t realise how near your next production
was.’ Her mind raced to try and think up some faux pas that would
totally alienate the Moonstar Players before she could be roped in as
an honorary member. ‘What is it this year? A pantomime perhaps?’
The atmosphere became charged with indignation, and faint sniggers rose
from the other side of the partition.
But needs must when in a tight corner. ‘Dear Mrs Hodge, I take it
you will be staying over Christmas?’
‘Er... Yes.’ She could hardly pretend to break the routine
of so many years.
And then it came, with jingle bells on. ‘We are one member short
for the most vital part. It will not be necessary to memorise lines and
can even be given seated. With your resonant tones and commanding presence,
you would be ideal.’
Gladys had found more presence of mind when confronting genocidal maniacs
with nothing but a SLR. But this was the Moonstar Players. So mesmerised
at the dreadful prospect of becoming one of them, she was horrified to
hear herself asking, ‘What part is it?’
‘The narrator for A Christmas Carol, my dear Mrs Hodge. You would
With any other company she would have been flattered, and perhaps even
given the proposal some thought. But this was Brinton-on-Sea’s answer
to the Great McGonagall pursued by the Keystone Cops. Her eyes became
glazed as she wished her journalist’s way with words would return.
They had seen her through hostile checkpoints, ingratiated her to royalty
and the Pope, and persuaded psychopaths who had a camera phobia that she
was only some harmless tourist with an instamatic.
When faced with the irrational self assurance of an amateur actor, her
mental thesaurus could only produce, ‘How kind of you to think of
Opportunely Mansel, refreshed after his nap, made an appearance.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he announced amiably, ‘Mrs Hodge
is here to rest. Her doctor would not allow such a thing.’
Groans of false sympathy for her delicate condition rose from the circle
of players, and Gladys wondered at the accuracy of his guess.
‘You have plenty of time to find someone else,’ he went on.
‘Do not things always work out?’
‘Of course they do,’ Oliver agreed, wilfully ignoring the
fact that most of their productions were usually disasters with or without
the requisite number of players.
Gladys gathered up her white umbrella and camera and gratefully slipped
out to photograph whatever creatures might have been clambering down the
evening beach to escape being auditioned by the Moonstar Players.
the Devil’s agent attempted to smite God.
hovered over Ansopha, directing beams of healing light at its head. ‘The
first time in recorded history God turns up, and you have to make him
mad. You’re too bloody weird.’
‘Shut-up. My brain hurts.’
The medical scientist acquiesced. Ansopha’s biology was confusing,
even for his vast knowledge of everything alien, and he needed to concentrate
on what he was doing.
Hunder knew only too well what headaches were and had no sympathy for
anyone else’s. ‘How did God get inside your brain without
Ansopha groaned. How could a bio computer with Hunder’s capacity
ask such a banal question?
‘He didn’t just get inside my brain, He mined it. Every time
I gave a wrong answer there was an explosion.’
‘You can say that again,’ muttered Skirra.
Ansopha resentfully watched the buoyant, round, medical scientist prod
his bizarre anatomy with light beams and the occasional hard instrument.
Skirra was the one to talk about weird; the medically adept race he came
from were composite creatures - several species rolled into one. Their
ancestors had decided, for efficiency’s sake, to assume the most
useful attributes from a range of alien forms and genetically graft that
DNA into their own. This created an egg shaped being with tapering legs
and ability to hover. Skirra looked like an inverted teardrop from the
massive duct of the Supreme Being Ansopha had just insulted. The medic
was oblivious of his own oddity. It seemed quite logical to him. If it
was your destiny to treat so many different beings in the known Galaxy,
the least you could do was share as many parts of them as possible.
At last Ansopha’s head cleared. Being able to blink out of harm’s
way faster than a flea meant that its life had been relatively pain free.
No entity had ever managed to land a punch on it before, however well
deserved, so it was inevitable that the communicator would eventually
meet its match. Most mortals would have been gratified to know that it
took God Incarnate to do it, but this new experience of pain annoyed Ansopha
on a level that surprised even itself.
‘Now what?’ snapped the communicator.
‘The good people of Auroal want to see you fired into the sun,’
Ansopha hardly expected thanks from the high priests for saving their
lives. Historically marginalised as an archaic irrelevance, they had at
last found the status they believed their irrational calling deserved
and thought that this heretic deserved death at the hand of God.
‘Fired into the sun! That monstrosity wouldn’t want it polluted
with a blasphemer.’
Skirra was puzzled. ‘Why would God be interested in what happens
to our sun?’
Hunder knew that this was not the time to tell them. He wasn’t in
the mood to cope with outrage.
Ansopha worked on instincts and had no clue as to where the idea had sprung
from. ‘It was something I picked up when He was inside my head.’
‘I can’t describe it. A sort of hunger only a mouthful of
star could satisfy. Given all the rage swilling about in there, it was
difficult to isolate anything much apart from me about to die.’
‘It will be best if you keep out of the way. Let any negotiations
be routed through me,’ Hunder told the communicator.
‘Negotiations? What sort of God needs to negotiate?’
‘We have to persuade Him not to eliminate you from your illegal
habitation of His sacred universe.’
Ansopha rose, despite the annoyed twittering of Skirra who was about to
surreptitiously snatch a bio sample. ‘It really is going to destroy
‘Something about you has certainly upset The Almighty. I can’t
The communicator wished Hunder had never programmed irony into his circuits.
From a machine, however sophisticated, it was disconcerting. ‘That
demented cosmic firework is up to something.’
‘As He’s not here to sign autographs, keep away from Him until
we know what it is.’
Skirra floated over to face the glowing amber depths of Hunder’s
monitor. ‘What does Ansopha mean? Up to something?’ he insisted.
There was a demand in the round features that said Hunder ignored the
question at his peril, and reminded him that Skirra had the means to inhibit
his bio functions if he judged it necessary,
‘Readings from the sun’s corona suggest that energy is being
leached away,’ he admitted reluctantly.
Ansopha had already guessed that much. ‘What sort of energy?’
‘It might be something to do with omnipresence. I’m not going
to waste my computing capacity with that sort of data while Orphanus is
on Auroal monitoring the entity.’
‘Given her ancestral past, very carefully I hope,’ observed
‘The entity doesn’t seem interested in individual mortals.’
‘Only Ansopha. I wonder why?’
The communicator turned on the medical scientist. ‘All right then,
why do you think it wants to atomise me?’
Though Skirra had wanted to keep his suspicions to himself for a little
longer, honesty appeared to be the order of the day and now seemed the
right time to air them. ‘I think it’s because you don’t
come from this Galaxy.’
Even Hunder had to pause before responding to the revelation. ‘That
means Ansopha must be ancient. To reach here, even from the nearest satellite
galaxy, would take thousands of years. There is no evidence of gravity
lines crossing deep space.’
‘As God said, our communicator is not His creation.’
‘Then whose is it?’
Ansopha was needled by the dispassionate discussion of its peculiar origins
and left the medical couch to do some profound thinking of its own.
It went down to stand in the heart of the satellite and watch the huge
fusion reactor powering the satellite where the atmosphere was too rarefied
for Skirra to pursue, and lack of pressure would have inflated him like
a carnival balloon.
The dreadful feeling that Skirra was right began to gnaw at Ansopha. The
medical scientist may have been absurd, but never made a wrong diagnosis.
Until then, Ansopha had not taken on board just how weird its own biology
- for want of a better definition - was. After all, “weird”
was the most accurate medical description the supreme diagnostician, Skirra,
could come up with. The communicator could switch its atoms to become
invisible and survive environments that would have scorched, flattened
or suffocated most life forms. Of course it was bloody weird. It was hardly
surprising that an entity with illusions of godhood had taken exception
to the communicator.
Hunder and Ansopha appeared to be the only ones who understood that “God”
was an energy thief stealing cosmic matter He considered to be His by
right and had probably made appearances in other regions. Ansopha was
determined to find out where.
Hunder informed Space Command of God’s arrival, and they automatically
logged it in their classified files. This was the opportunity Ansopha
needed to telepathically lift the access code from Hunder’s bio
memory and break into Star Command’s database. The communicator
had hacked into it many times before Hunder had realised and sent a charge
to stun the thieving bird like digits.
There was no point in trying to outwit Ansopha. The bio computer had more
universal matters to juggle and didn’t even bother to ask what the
communicator had started to construct in Orphanus’s workshop. If
he had possessed fingers, Hunder suspected he would have been doing the
When Orphanus returned from Auroal she discovered a bizarre mechanism
sitting in the wreckage of the machines Ansopha had cannibalised. The
engineer pushed up the visor of her helmet and glowered at it, unable
to believe that one entity, other than her, could cause so much mayhem
during such a brief period. The engineer had no idea what the machine
was for, and didn’t care. Orphanus was better at rage than reasoning.
The communicator had anticipated the Vardel’s reaction and hidden
in the workshop’s buttressing to avoid it. Given enough time, she
would work out that the machine was intended to destroy God. At first
it looked as though she wanted to destroy Ansopha’s wonderful toy,
then her rage subsided.
‘There had better be a good reason for this?’ The engineer
Ansopha could have floated on the bad vibrations wafting up. ‘Have
you spoken to Hunder?’
‘He told me what he thought you were doing, but I didn’t believe
‘Aren’t you happy at the thought of destroying God?’
‘That thing God? I doubt it.’
‘Whatever this deity once was, it is now vengeful. If we can get
rid of it on the cheap, Space Command will give us a bonus and not ask
about those odd maintenance jobs you have been doing for the Nemorans.’
Ansopha should have known that it was impossible to blackmail a Vardel.
‘I suppose I have a small place in this scheme of yours?’
‘To hold my hand while God tries to blast me out of existence.’
‘Am I supposed to be enthusiastic about this?’
‘Of course. You’re a battle-crazed Vardel. You like a good
scrap. This creature may well have been the creator of star systems at
one time, but now it is a parasite sucking energy back.’
‘And it could be multi faceted, with tentacles into every star cluster.
I suppose you want me to seize hold of them as well, while you pull its
‘The sooner the creature is dissipated, the better.’ The communicator
at last detected reason seeping into Orphanus’ fierce thoughts and
risked coming down.
‘You’re too bloody odd to belong to this Universe,’
‘Whatever I am, it is my duty to be suspicious while everyone else
is losing their reason to a counterfeit deity. We can control gravity,
transmit matter faster than light, and touch other dimensions. Why do
we need God?’
The Vardel looked at the communicator long and hard. ‘You really
don’t know, do you?’
‘Tell me why the thought of confronting a redundant God worries
Orphanus tapped her forehead with the pressurised glove she had been about
to remove. ‘Most mortals crave an omnipotent creator to make sense
She was beginning to sound too profound for Ansopha. ‘Existence?
This monster swallows stars, and if its manifestation is only the tip
of the real entity...’
‘I suppose the most benign deities must eventually turn bad, like
any star.’ Orphanus removed her helmet and allowed the huge mass
of hair she had carelessly tied back in a knot to escape like a nest of
‘All right. I won’t ask you to help me.’
‘You can’t do this by yourself, and the creature’s presence
will destabilise Auroal’s orientation if it stays here.’
Ansopha was dangerously confident. ‘And what better bait than the
creation of the Devil.’
His Almighty Majesty
confronted the blasphemer.
bundled her hair into her helmet and tightened the pressure suit until
its armoured carapace dug into the ribs Nature had the foresight to reinforce.
‘How do you manage to breathe through that hedge?’ asked Skirra,
who had decided to wait around until the engineer was safely out of the
airlock: she had been known to severe digits in the heat of engineering
keenness, and he had become quite used to sewing Vardel extremities back
‘Orphanus can’t damage herself with this equipment. It only
emits negative energy,’ Hunder told the medical scientist. ‘Ending
up prettier is the worst thing that could happen to her.’
Skirra accepted the bio computer’s word for it, and allowed the
engineer to leave for Auroal’s north pole which was used as a port
for the occasional supply ship too massive to ply the gravity lines. Before
they could do anything else, she had to evacuate the area of robot dockers.
The atmospheres at the poles of the artificial planet were stable enough,
yet something else bothered Orphanus. Even she could tell that, Ansopha
arrived, it wasn’t going to be Heaven that was let loose and Hunder’s
amazing capabilities might not be a match for the reflexes of this God.
The inhabitants of Auroal tolerated Hunder because he controlled the vital
machinery that kept the artificial world in orbit and prevented pile-ups
in the gravity lines. Without the bio computer the world would have, very
messily, ground to a standstill.
Sacrilege was quite another matter.
Through the warm, reassuring amber glow of his monitors, Hunder had painstakingly
explained to Auroal’s population the true nature of the entity they
had helped to raise. He even showed them evidence of its destructive behaviour
in other systems.
No one listened; God only smote those who deserved it, and God was never
Orphanus felt edgy because her engineer’s intuition insisted that
God was bound to know a few more things about elementary particle physics
than her, and Hunder didn’t want to calculate what could happen
if Ansopha’s idea never worked. What if, instead of dousing God’s
Majesty, it just enraged Him even more?
Then, true to form, the bio computer’s circuits had a panic attack.
Space Command must have been mad to trust the security of the Galaxy to
him and an insubordinate communicator of unknown origin. Surely this would
occur to them before things really got out of hand? It was insane to try
and put out God’s light. Hunder felt quite justified in having a
spasm of apprehension and if it weren’t for his uncomplicated quantum
processor, all the lights in the satellite would have blinked.
Suddenly Ansopha appeared on the planet, next to the machine it had designed.
Hunder’s bio circuits now had something to become paralysed over
as he realised they had no control over it. How did the communicator create
a device even Hunder had trouble making sense of? How did Ansopha know
that it would work? None of the tests Hunder surreptitiously made qualified
it for a God slaying guarantee. The more the bio computer scanned Ansopha
and its infernal machine, the more his quantum system struggled to stabilise
his thought processes. That didn’t have the capability to comprehend
what it was to be mortal and was becoming increasingly irritated at the
frequency with which it had to drag Hunder’s bio mind back from
the brink of mortal breakdown.
To make matters worse, Hunder became aware that God was watching Ansopha
with a wrathful, devouring vengeance.
There was no turning back. Sensing the entity’s presence, Ansopha
armed its infernal machine. ‘Where is He, then?’
Orphanus wondered at the communicator’s calculating coolness, which
was just as well given Hunder’s state of mind. ‘How would
I know? Could be communing with the stars for all I care.’
‘Or eating them.’
Orphanus told her wrist communicator. ‘Ready, Hunder?’
The Vardel’s harsh voice snapped the bio computer out of his fit
of mortal anxiety. There was something in her warrior tone that wouldn’t
have thought twice about taking on the Universe.
‘I’m aligning your co-ordinates.’
Being telepathically linked to Hunder, Ansopha didn’t need a wrist
link to know that his wits had returned. ‘Is there an energy surge
Hunder detected gleeful anticipation. What was wrong with these two? They
should have been experiencing mortal terror. But then, mortality was probably
wasted on them.
‘Orphanus, you’re too close,’ Ansopha told its partner
in crime. ‘You won’t stand a chance if you’re caught
in its photosphere. And Skirra says that your pressure suit is too tight.
You could suffer internal injuries in the gravline if you don’t
‘Where’s the point in a loose pressure suit?’
‘Don’t argue, just do it!’ snapped Ansopha. ‘And
put some distance between-’
‘I have a reading!’ Hunder interrupted. ‘It’s
Ansopha and Orphanus sprinted for a gap in the spaceport shielding.
The engineer barely made it before a dome of light blazed from nowhere.
The creature at its centre was taking its bearings.
God’s attention settled on Ansopha. It was obvious why He was here.
‘Spawn of the Devil!’
Ansopha’s thoughts should have been immobilised by terror, but some
infernal demon had provided the communicator with the mental saliva to
respond. ‘Doesn’t God like a challenge?’
‘You are not a challenge. You are an insect.’
‘All of which you made.’
‘I never fashioned such an abomination. You are an unnatural abhorrence
with no right to be in my Creation.’
Ansopha detected that Hunder was still inconveniently trying to claw his
way out of his paralysing spasm of doubt. Aspirations of mortality may
have been admirable in less dangerous circumstances: then and there, the
communicator wished its mind were plugged into a more reliable machine,
even one with cogs and a gyroscope.
The bio computer managed to control his tumultuous thoughts long enough
to reply, ‘It’s not at its full strength yet.’
God heard the telepathic exchange. He couldn’t believe it had anything
to do with Him. They wouldn’t have dared!
There was nothing else for it; Ansopha had to play for time while Hunder
pulled himself together. ‘Tell me, God, why am I so unnatural? Plenty
of others are insolent or atheists. They don’t get struck by bolts
of lightning. Why pick on me?’
‘My hand has touched all living things - but not you.’
Still no sensible response from Hunder, and the communicator could think
of no more ploys to distract God. There was only one option left, so Ansopha
threw out its thin arms and called aloud, ‘So smite me down!’
God’s instantaneous burst of energy was so sudden Orphanus held
her breath, expecting to smell incinerated mortal remains when she released
Ansopha was faster. In a split second it had gone and reappeared on the
other side of God’s photosphere.
Hunder at last managed to pull himself together. ‘Get ready,’
he ordered. ‘Another minute and He will be at maximum.’
‘A minute is a long time down here. He can sense the molecular trail
of my clothes. I only hope this God’s targeting system isn’t
‘I warned you not to wear anything.’
‘If Orphanus can dress for intergalactic battle, I fail to see why
I should not cover my modesty.’
‘You have no parts to be modest about.’ There was still a
desperate edge to Hunder’s tone. ‘Say something to it!’
‘I find His conversation boring.’
Thwarted and furious, God felt left out of the telepathic exchange. ‘Who
is Orphanus?’ He boomed.
The plan was unravelling. This was supposed to be a slick operation to
exterminate a cosmic parasite, not an argument between a stressed computer
and insubordinate spawn of the Devil. Even Orphanus was confused.
God’s point of view was more straightforward. ‘I should kill
Ansopha could even sneer telepathically. ‘Why don’t you? You’ve
wiped out solar systems.’
‘They were mine to do with as I pleased.’
‘Say that out loud so everyone on Auroal can hear.’
‘I explain myself to no mortal.’
‘Now!’ Hunder’s signal was like a balloon popping inside
the communicator’s skull.
Ansopha pressed the trigger on its neckband. ‘Then die, you miserable
bladder of omnipotence!’
A missile from the communicator’s infernal machine spat out like
a furious wasp and zigzagged through the entity’s photosphere.
God froze in disbelief, and then tried to swot the device like an annoying
insect. But its sting was lethal and He thrashed about as His energy field
began to dwindle.
Ansopha was hurled away and caught by Orphanus. The Vardel pulled the
communicator into cover where she armed a more conventional weapon - one
In His death throes, God sent several fireballs roaring towards them.
Orphanus easily picked them off.
God dwindled away, unable to believe that a mere mortal would have dared
slay Him, even that spindly, silver-eyed spawn of the Devil.
After Ansopha’s missile was eventually spent, all trace of The Creator
Now the stressed Hunder had to tell Auroal’s priests that Ansopha
had just killed God.
But, as God’s assassins left the scene of the crime, another dome
of energy appeared. This manifestation was small, little more than a dark
red glow, and filtered about like a bloodhound trying to pick up a scent.
Hunder was too consumed with self-analysis to bother with it and put the
anomaly down to residual radiation from Ansopha’s missile. He also
needed to analyse the data so he could construct another in case God’s
relatives came looking for him. The bio computer overruled his quantum
memory, too logical to overlook such humdrum matters as mysterious red
manifestations. But this new arrival was no mere afterglow. It had an
rubbed her freezing fingers before applying the last label to the boxes
of evening primrose oil and wished she had chosen the job in the distillery
instead. To preserve the potency of the ingredients, the temperature on
the production line was always kept on the low side. She could cope with
that, but the rooms where consignments were dispatched were open to the
elements. It was as much as the Victorian stove could do to keep a kettle
warm. She decided to go onto invoicing after lunch; that just involved
punching buttons and she could put her gloves on.
The Nature’s Realm factory may have retained its cottage industry
ambience, complete with draughts and Stone Age technology, but the productivity
deals and Christmas bonuses were worth it. Everyone was good company,
and dispatching consignments was better than washing seaweed.
In keeping with its health image, the firm employed a vegetarian cook
who believed in portions large enough to satiate carnivores. Today the
canteen menu included tomato and cheese pasta, vegeburghers, and a concoction
that lurked in a dish under scrolls of something that once used to be
green, probably seaweed.
Sandra played safe and opted for a mug of tea and nut loaf. She took them
to a corner table where general dog’s body, Bernard, sat gloomily
nursing a mug of Marmite. After the fisherman who trawled up a chest of
Spanish bullion only to have it swept overboard, he had to be the most
morose man in Brinton-on-Sea. Sandra knew what it was like to have your
numbers come up the very week that you forgot to do the lottery. Bernard,
arguably, had even more reason to scowl at life.
‘Cheer up, love. Christmas will soon be here.’
Bernard grinned ruefully. ‘Can’t help thinking about Miriam
this time of year. It’s when she disappeared, you know. Beginning
‘Yes, of course. Sorry. Wasn’t thinking. Rather be left alone?’
‘No, ‘course not. Bit of company might take me mind off it.’
‘How long has it been?’ From what Sandra could remember, the
couple were no more suited to each other than her cousin’s Yorkshire
terrier and Mrs Lascelle’s Persian cat. Absence usually casts a
‘Ten years ago now. Should’ve stopped wondering what happened
to her, I suppose.’
Sandra started to tuck into her meal. ‘Not necessarily. It was all
so bloody odd, her going off like that.’ She chose her words carefully
given that Bernard and his wife had squabbled like two magpies after the
same diamond. She suspected that the woman had taken off with some fancy
fellow from Europe. There had been plenty of ferries to get on.
Bernard stared into his Mug. ‘“On the beach” the last
person to see her said. What was she doing on the beach at that time in
the evening? She should have been making dinner, not poncing about on
‘Don’t let it get to you Bernard. You’ve got to accept
that you may never know and get on with your life.’ The words didn’t
come easily. Bernard was hardly a catch when Miriam had disappeared. Over
the years he had really let himself go and was never allowed front of
house in case he frightened off the buyers. The nearest to elegance this
dog’s body was ever liable to get, was soaking his teeth in nicotine
‘Why don’t you do something to take your mind off it?’
‘In Brinton-on-Sea? Like what? Ask a couple of seals out for a pint?’
‘Well, Mary says the Moonstar Players are still looking for a narrator
and Christmas Future.’
Bernard choked on his surreptitious cigarette. ‘What, join that
load of poofters? I’m not that desperate.’
‘What the hell, they’re fun in their own way. Always trying
to get Mary to join in. Even wanted to give Louise a part.’
‘What, that little terrier thing of hers?’
‘Wanted a bit of colour for Pygmalion.’
‘They should have auditioned Mansel Lascelle’s parrot. It
would remember its lines better than any of them do.’ Bernard nipped
out the end of his roll up under the table and put it in his tobacco tin.
‘He still looking for staff then?’
‘Yes. I could do a couple of evenings, but he really needs someone
full time for the saloon and lounge.’
‘Would have thought some youngster would snap the job up?’
‘They would, if it weren’t for his mother.’
Bernard nodded sagely. Their paths had crossed. ‘He’ll never
get his act together until that old bat’s dead and under the ground.’
Sandra wondered what Beachview’s proprietor would be like without
his mother. Married with a family most probably. ‘Mary only copes
because she don’t pay attention to her. What Mansel needs is someone
who can hold their own, because he’ll never stand up to her.’
‘What happened to that old crow’s husband?’
In Brinton-on-Sea, the curious had their own theory about that, rather
like the disappearance of Bernard’s wife. Sandra’s was that,
as Mansel never mentioned him, the man must have been guillotined for
some horrendous crime and he had moved to the UK with his mother to forget,
obviously not taking into account that this was a nation which lived in
a soap opera.
Sandra decided not to share her theory about Mansel’s father. Bernard
was one of those consummate gossips.
She looked at her watch. ‘What are you on today?’
‘Bottling iodine.’ He held up his stained fingers. Not even
the nicotine was visible. ‘Still can’t get used to the smell.’
‘Ever tried taking some of the vitamins? Might perk you up.’
‘Nah, don’t hold with all these fancy health cures.’
Bernard gave a lung-convulsing cough and pushed his tobacco tin into his
jacket pocket. ‘Reckon they does more harm than good.’
Sandra said nothing. As he was now breathing through something resembling
flower arranger’s oasis, he probably wouldn’t live long enough
to find out anyway.
‘Try not to think too much about Miriam,’ she advised.
He got up and pocketed a paper serviette to cough into. ‘Probably
wouldn’t do if I knew where she went to. It’s just like she
disappeared off the face of the Earth.’
Sandra laughed nervously. ‘Oh come on, you don’t believe she
was abducted by aliens, do you?’
Bernard shook his head. ‘Nah. She’d arranged to meet someone,
I’m sure of that. I reckon she’d even bought a new suitcase
so’s I wouldn’t know she’d taken some things. I’m
not that daft. Some men may never pay attention to what their wives wear,
but I could tell that some of her smalls and other togs were missing.’
Sandra gave a tight smile. If someone was determined not to be found,
it was easy enough to disappear without trace.
Bernard left the chilly canteen to briefly bask in the bright sunlight
filling the courtyard.
When he had gone, Sandra couldn’t help wondering about Miriam. If
Bernard’s wife had found a fancy man she would have told someone,
not being the sort to keep good news to herself. And she certainly hadn’t
been looking for cuttlefish on the beach; that had all vanished years
Sandra finished the nut roast, then turned her thoughts to what she was
going to wear for the photo session that she had promised to do for Gladys
Hodge at the weekend. A sepia tint of her, Mary and a Yorkshire terrier
could well be hanging on the wall of some up market photo gallery next
year. The idea cheered her up no end.
the Devil’s creature struck out at God’s
Majesty, but He did transmogrify it.
detected an insistent clicking on Auroal’s abandoned mining asteroid
and he snapped out of his introspective mood.
Shale was cascading down the side of a quarry as dense black creatures
blinked into existence. Their armoured carapaces glinted in the thin atmosphere
and giant claws snatched at particles rising from the asteroid’s
long dead interior, trying to catch atom-sized black holes. The inexplicable
appearance of this exotic fuel became visible on the electromagnetic spectrum
and jammed the receivers of Auroal and its satellite. Incoming transport
travelling through gravity lines was blinded while Hunder attempted to
supply them with alternative tachyon bands.
It was just as well the only person able to make sense of these clattering
arrivals and their bizarre diet hadn’t been fired into the sun after
Having to deal with such dangerously voracious creatures on the asteroid’s
volatile crust as well as their jamming of interstellar traffic was enough
to send Hunder into another panic attack. As he had only just recovered
from the last one, the bio computer managed to persuade Skirra that it
was due to a short in his quantum circuits. Whenever Hunder needed an
excuse, he always slandered his despised quantum processor. Skirra was
busy preparing medical resources for Armageddon and didn’t have
the time or patience to argue with him.
Just in case Ansopha couldn’t get any sense out of these carapaced
creatures, Hunder armed Orphanus with the asteroid’s self-destruct
trigger - it had been a long-standing precaution because of its erratic
orbit and explosive mineral composition - then he sent her and Ansopha
down a gravline as the mining asteroid turned towards the sun. The engineer
had only just got over her last encounter with an arrival from deep space
and, however warlike her species, there were times she would have preferred
to knit; a throwback from the period the Vardels had been obliged to calm
down to avoid obliteration by Star Command’s strike force. Unfortunately
Orphanus was the only one who could keep Ansopha out of trouble and knew
she would have to revert to her primal instincts sooner or later: Hunder’s
reflexes were useless when he was having one of his moods.
So the engineer tucked her hair into her helmet and tightened the pressure
in her suit yet again. She may have helped destroy God, but had more respect
for the seams of dangerous, volatile ores in the asteroid.
Orphanus peered over the quarry rim at the carapaces. ‘Where do
you think these characters came from?’
Ansopha tossed some spoil at the creatures. They ignored it. ‘Hunder
insists it wasn’t through a gravity line. Their carapaces and respiratory
tracts could survive a vacuum, so they might have drifted in from a rogue
‘Why didn’t Hunder pick it up?’
Ansopha gave a shrug of its narrow shoulders. The flash of silver caught
the attention of one of the black-shelled creatures. Their clattering
snatches at atomic fuel stopped.
‘Are they trying to communicate?’
‘The only thing I’m picking up is “Klitt”. I don’t
think they have brains.’
‘They’re not machines?’
‘Until they start doing whatever their designer or Nature intended
them to, it’s impossible to tell. They’re not giving anything
away.’ Ansopha climbed over the quarry rim to confront them.
‘If I can move faster than God, I’m hardly going to be bothered
by these creatures.’
‘It smells of ambush to me.’
‘You have a suspicious mind, Orphanus.’
Hearing that from the most cynical creature to ever fall through a gravity
line made the engineer blurt out a laugh. Vardel humour was a vigorous
matter and she lost her footing on the explosive shale. Orphanus tumbled
through the thin gravity in a slow motion cascade of rubble.
Ansopha half turned to see what she was doing. ‘For pity’s
sake increase your mass before you float off.’
Orphanus stepped up her suit’s density a couple of settings and
half clambered, half floated back up.
As Ansopha continued its way down, the warrior’s instincts still
nagged that something was wrong. These Klitt were more than jetsam from
an interstellar experimental ship. It was possible the space they took
up had exceeded their usefulness and their dangerous diet blocking transmissions
couldn’t have done much for internal communications. But Orphanus
doubted it. Her engineer’s mind knew no sensible mechanic would
have designed such creatures; no use for welding, loading, exploration
or transport. No intellect lurked behind the tiny bead like eyes and their
claws wouldn’t have been any good for cargo bay operators, even
if they had enough brain to tell a consignment of exotic DNA from excavator
Ansopha was wandering amongst the Klitt, trying to find some glimmer of
sentience it could slip a conversation into. As the occasional claw snapped
too near it, the communicator nonchalantly blinked out of visibility and
reappeared somewhere else.
Since Ansopha’s dealings with God, it had become over confidant.
As something in its manner suggested that the communicator wasn’t
bothering with its telepathic link to Hunder, Orphanus kept her transmission
to the bio computer open.
Thankful to be marginalized, the Vardel sat on a large slab of mining
spoil and watched the odd ballet going on below.
The mindless Klitt clattered about Ansopha as he baited them for devilment.
It was just as well the atmosphere was thin. The resulting din could have
loosened a few explosive rocks.
‘What is going on?’ Hunder demanded.
‘I don’t think our communicator is taking this contact too
seriously,’ Orphanus warned him.
‘Well tell Ansopha to stop playing with the creatures until we know
more about them.’
‘As soon as we find out what they are, Ansopha’s last inclination
will be to play.’
Orphanus was an unlikely person to make a pronouncement on the basis of
instinct. It worried Hunder. ‘What do you mean?’
‘They’re all wrong.’
‘No engineer who created a machine for any sensible function would
design something like these, unless those claws-’
There was a sudden fluctuation in the asteroid’s energy level. Something
was about to explode.
‘Get out of there!’
It was too late. Ansopha could no longer blink out of sight. Hemmed in
by the Klitt, a column of energy blocked its escape, and then turned into
a blazing, vengeful God. Ansopha’s missile hadn’t dissipated
all the entity; some of His atoms had reformed in the vacuum of space
and turned into an even meaner God, with just enough over to manifest
the Klitt. They had merely been bait.
Ansopha should have tried to run, but the concept was alien to it and
arrogance and the prospect of a good argument persuaded the communicator
to stand its ground.
‘You again? You don’t give up, do you?’
‘Jump, Ansopha! Jump!’ Orphanus ordered.
It was too late.
God was now a tower of energy throbbing with rage. Conversation was not
on His mind. ‘You have doubted too long.’
‘So strike me dead,’ Ansopha dared Him.
‘No, that would mean nothing to the spawn of the Devil. You have
no fear of death because you do not understand what it is to live.’
Ansopha had no idea what God was talking about. ‘So teach me.’
Suddenly Hunder understood Ansopha’s true nature.
The thought paralysed his ability to calculate.
‘Get us out of here!’ Orphanus demanded.
Hunder panicked. ‘I can’t. Something has locked all the satellite’s
‘Listen Hunder. You must construct another of Ansopha’s missiles.
We’ll keep the creature occupied.’
Hunder’s signal was barely audible. ‘But I can’t.’
‘Can’t? Of course you can. You have the capacity to replicate
‘I haven’t analysed the weapon yet.’
Orphanus didn’t believe him. ‘Liar! You’re programmed
to analyse everything. Not unless-’ She groaned. ‘Oh Hunder,
you haven’t broken your programming again?’
‘Why now for pity’s sake?’ Orphanus’s soul sank
to her weighted boots. ‘You’re having another turn, aren’t
‘Don’t worry. I’ve retrieved the data and am now working
on another missile.’ Hunder tried to sound confident despite knowing
it would never be ready in time.
The claws of the Klitt surrounding Ansopha were raised skyward in a horribly
bizarre ballet. The communicator desperately tried to switch its molecules
and become invisible, without success. It’s sylph like body was
now leaden. For the first time in its existence, Ansopha felt blood coursing
through veins and a heart pumping like one of the satellite’s generators.
Painfully aware of every laboured breath, the communicator sank to the
Satisfied, God filtered away into the vacuum of space.
Orphanus broke cover, swearing non-stop Vardel at Hunder.
The Klitt clattered towards Ansopha, jagged claws raised murderously.
The engineer pulled out her sidearm and vaporised the creatures.
Ansopha was astounded to find it could no longer contact Hunder telepathically
and couldn’t even access the thoughts of Orphanus as she gazed down
in amazement at the bizarre transformation. The atmosphere was rapidly
becoming unbreathable and Ansopha felt as though it was being crushed
as something touched every nerve of its new repellent body and made them
dance a jig.
And it couldn’t make sense of the Orphanus’ expression. ‘What
The Vardel hesitated. ‘What in damnation’s name what have
you become, Ansopha?’
‘It’s hyperventilating and the brainwave rhythms are odd,
even for Ansopha.’ Skirra couldn’t make sense of what had
happened to the communicator and was sounding overly professional to hide
the panic welling up from the pit of his rotund stomach. He didn’t
even know what environment Ansopha’s new body should be in. The
increase in atomic density had been so great it could only breathe with
the help of a respirator and, to prevent the collapse of the internal
organs, Skirra had isolated his patient in a bubble of low atmospheric
Orphanus always viewed inconvenient medical problems with the intolerance
of a true warrior. ‘Well, what happened to the infernal creature?’
The experienced medical scientist felt as though he was at last losing
his grip. ‘You know more about that than I do. I wasn’t there.’
Then he snapped at Hunder, ‘Haven’t you come up with that
‘I’m still trying to make a match. A similar life form must
exist somewhere. This God wasn’t in any condition to originate one.
It could have been worse. He might have turned Ansopha into primeval slime.’
‘Being metamorphosed is a horrible way for anyone to die.’
Something occurred to Hunder. ‘Of course...’
Skirra wasn’t impressed by his bright tone, as it was the bio computer’s
moodiness that had caused the misfortune. ‘Of course what?’
‘It’s a riddle.’
Orphanus wasn’t impressed either. ‘A riddle? So you want me
to go back and ask for a clue?’
Hunder ignored her. ‘It’s called “find the alien”.’
‘Well find one then!’ snapped Skirra.
‘He thinks I can’t do it.’
‘That’s right! It’s all to do with your wretched ego,
isn’t it! I should go into your circuits with a laser probe and
burn out those delusions of mortality.’
‘Don’t you see? It’s a logical problem,’ Hunder
‘Well that lets you out. Of all the computers in the Galaxy to get
lumbered with, we had to have the one incapable of rational thought.’
‘Can’t you say anything useful? I need constructive input
Orphanus was amused by the exchange. She was just thankful that the entity
hadn’t transformed her into some wimpish creature with domestic
tendencies. ‘Will Ansopha live?’
‘If Hunder stops entertaining delusions of super-being for a moment
and finds me a match.’ His annoyance exhausted, Skirra hovered over
his patient. ‘When God transformed Ansopha into this, He was making
sure he had a slow death.’
Orphanus shook her mountain of tasselled hair. ‘No, He said something
about teaching Ansopha what it was like to live.’
‘Well, if Ansopha does somehow survive, he’s certainly going
to feel a few bruises from reality’s rich spectrum. I’m not
so sure I did him a favour by trying to stabilise him.’
‘Him? You mean it’s a male?’
‘Yes, but we won’t know what sort of male until Hunder comes
up with a match.’
They continued to gaze down at what God had transformed from the silver
wisp of a being into a thin corporeal creature barely able to breathe.
The communicator’s half closed grey eyes above a long thin nose
and high cheekbones gave his features a V shaped appearance.
‘I wonder why God decided the best way to punish Ansopha was to
alter its atomic mass?’ mused Skirra.
Orphanus only half took in what he said. ‘What?’
‘That’s it!’ exclaimed Hunder.
Hunder had taken everything into account bar the possibility that the
match he was looking for originated in a region of space with different
atomic pressure. To people there, gravity lines would be nothing more
than inexplicable anomalies, but some dabbler in the dead-end of pointless
research must have also found a way to decrease a person’s atomic
mass. Hunder ignored the others to do a quick search of his quantum memory.
He was right! The Leamt dealt with very strange merchandise for even stranger
customers. Minerals from these atomically peculiar regions had densities
law-abiding planets would go into battle for. As it could turn around
a healthy profit, and they had been able to find a gravity line long enough
to reach most exotic pockets of the Galaxy, the space merchants had learnt
how to increase a person’s mass. Only the Leamt knew how to transport
these potentially hazardous goods from higher density regions, so Space
Command insisted that they had a pacifist clause written into their contracts.
Peace reigned and ten ton rubies remained expensive gewgaws.
‘Speak to me?’ demanded Skirra.
Hunder dismissed the thought of weighty spangles. ‘There are creatures
with Ansopha’s mass. They are cosily tucked away in a gravitational
anomaly God must have thought we would never find.’
‘Well tell me?’ Skirra demanded. ‘Our communicator isn’t
going to last long here - We are talking about our Galaxy, aren’t
‘So, what are we going to do about it?’ Orphanus seemed to
be under the impression Ansopha only needed a few laser welds and bolts
‘The Leamt recruited one of these people to become a freelance merchant
for them,’ explained Hunder.
‘Well, contact them.’
‘Bear in mind that her species might well turn out to be as self-centred
and mean as most others.’
‘Don’t you criticise us. Just because you have a few bio circuits,
it doesn’t make you mortal’, threatened Skirra. ‘If
you ever manage it, you’ll soon find out what makes us so self-centred
‘I always thought it was because you clung to your pointless history.’
Orphanus had no intention of bickering with the neurotic computer. ‘Do
you think this Leamt merchant will respond?’
‘Well, the Leamt might be as devout as any of the species on Auroal.
They may not feel inclined to help Ansopha.’
Hunder was right. The last thing the intergalactic merchants wanted was
to save the heretic who had driven away God, and they refused to acknowledge
his call for help.
There was nothing else for it; Hunder would have to start behaving like
a computer. He used his despised quantum memory to search for the life
form freelancing as a merchant dealer. Hopefully she was earning massive
rates of commission and could afford to ignore her Leamt benefactors.
Perhaps someone from such an exotic species wouldn’t be so fixated
about mono deities either.
Ansopha was being visibly crushed by his own weight as Hunder’s
quantum memory laboriously sifted through interstellar traffic to at last
it come up with a match for their freelance space merchant. Against all
expectations, the alien responded to the bio computer’s signal and
agreed to visit the Auroal system. Hunder warned Skirra against asking
for bio samples, then lay in a secure gravity line to smuggle the merchant
onto the satellite.
She was an inquisitive entity and didn’t share the Leamt neuroses
about God. It was that irrationality in her own kind, that and watching
junk TV and having a morose mate, which persuaded her to leave. Miriam
discovered that Ansopha’s unholy predicament was far worse than
the one she had escaped. Hers had only been marriage.
Though the interstellar merchant had been atomically adjusted by the Leamt,
she was nevertheless large and intimidating, even by Vardel standards.
The density of her body had given Miriam remarkable strength invaluable
to a species who dealt in goods with a high atomic mass. Her impressive
presence had helped close many deals, and it was unlikely the Leamt would
have questioned why she was there: this merchant was wealthy and could
afford to be magnanimous.
Miriam looked down objectivity at Ansopha. ‘He could pass as one
of my species I suppose. What’s his mass?’
‘Ten fold and still increasing,’ explained Skirra. ‘Even
if I could keep him alive, he would never be able to move again. You don’t
know how ..?’
‘How the Leamt restructured me? Haven’t a clue. As I’ve
no intention of returning home, it never mattered. I’ve now got
a vocation which is a vast improvement on pounding the husks off exotic
seeds and juicing revolting substances.’
Skirra floated closer to the visitor, sampler at the ready. ‘I don’t
‘You want a tissue sample?’
‘Skirra!’ admonished Hunder.
‘Well, if she doesn’t know how the Leamt did it, how else
can I be expected to keep Ansopha alive?’
Skirra had a point.
Miriam rolled up a richly embroidered sleeve. ‘Go ahead. I’ve
got plenty to spare.’ While Skirra deftly removed traces of skin
and blood she continued to gaze down at Ansopha. ‘Without the help
of the Leamt, he’s only got one chance, you know.’
Skirra resented his medical ability being sidelined. ‘What other
chance is there? None of us knows how to unscramble his atoms. Not even
our bio computer on a good day could tackle that.’
Hunder didn’t see why he should be slighted as well. ‘Ansopha
is going to survive, even if I have to transmit him to another galaxy.’
‘How?’ snapped Skirra. ‘You don’t expect the Leamt
to tell us, do you? We’ve already upset them by contacting one of
‘She came willingly.’
‘That isn’t the point.’
Miriam’s laugh registered on her translator. ‘The Leamt won’t
bother me. That’s not their way. They invited me to become a dealer.
They were scanning gravitational anomalies for merchandise and picked
up my brainwaves. Evidently I was ideal merchant material for them, when
Nature’s Herbal Realm wouldn’t even let me apply for a job
as a rep.’
‘Why did you agree?’
‘It was a good career move and worth the aggravation of altering
my atomic mass. I doubt it’s reversible anyway. And whenever the
bickering starts, I can always switch off my translator. Could never do
that at home or on the shop floor of Nature’s Herbal Realm.’
‘This planet of yours sounds a strange place?’
‘You should try marriage.’
‘Is this some form of induction?’
‘I suppose it is. I used to feel like punching my vicar on the nose
every time he mentioned the sanctity of marriage, especially as mine was
to a smelly baboon. If your computer can save your friend, I’m certainly
not going to let on.’
Skirra’s resentment now mingled with contempt. ‘Hunder save
‘I may not know how the Leamt engineered my atoms, but I have an
address he might find very useful.’
‘You have coordinates?’
‘To my home planet.’
‘It is possible to open a gravity line into a gravitational anomaly.’
Hunder then suddenly had a mortal doubt. ‘It’s risky, though,
and Ansopha may not survive being transmitted through it.’
‘Ansopha has never been human. I’ve no idea what I would be
sending him into.’ Hunder’s misgivings multiplied. ‘I
don’t think I should take the risk.’
‘We don’t have any option,’ snapped Skirra. ‘You’ll
do it Hunder, or I will go down to your bio core with a laser probe and
puncture your vacuum.’
Miriam admired the medical scientist’s negotiation stance. ‘I’ve
been away some while now, but the place I had in mind will never have
any excitement unless a ferry goes aground.’
a fur fabric toy shot from a catapult, Louise sped yapping after a large
black backed gull scavenging detritus from the pebbles. The tiny Yorkshire
terrier believed that everything odorous and at nose level belonged to
her. Embarrassingly, this often included infants’ ice creams, tins
of anglers’ maggots, and anything that squeaked or bounced. The
fact that a large carnivorous bird with a beak capable of opening a tin
of corned beef had claimed the decomposing fish head was neither here
Mary chugged breathlessly after Louise before the bird carried the dog
off for a light snack. Fortunately Gladys Hodge was on the beach. She
scooped up the excited bundle before it scattered the interesting composition
of mussel shells she had just discovered.
‘Thanks Mrs Hodge,’ puffed Mary. ‘I’ll have to
stop feeding her so much protein.’
‘Try cutting out the chocolate biscuits. That’s probably where
she’s getting her energy from.’
‘It’s difficult telling the Moonstar Players not to give them
to her. The last thing I need is a set-to with that lot after turning
down a plum role.’ She clipped a lead onto Louise’s collar.
The Yorkie promptly tried to go after the gull again, but yo-yoed back.
Gladys took a couple of light readings. ‘I only escaped by the skin
of my teeth as well. I wish there were some way of letting them know how
dreadful they are.’
‘If it hasn’t occurred to them after having so many audiences
walk out, it never will.’
‘Tide’s coming in. What are you doing this far down the beach?’
Mary took a package from her bag. ‘Sandra dropped in those evening
primrose capsules last night.’
‘You needn’t have come all this way.’
‘You’re out so much I hardly see you at Beachview before I
go, and Mansel has too much on his plate at the moment to remember vitamins.’
‘I want to get as much done as I can before the weather turns.’
The photographer read the label. ‘Do these things really lubricate
the system and rub out the symptoms of old age?’
‘Our old grandmum swears by them, and she still goes to the gym.’
‘It’s too late to emulate Nadia Comanec, but anything which
helps keep me upright is welcome.’
‘You don’t have trouble with your inner ear, do you?’
‘Nothing so subtle. It’s all down to a lifetime of alcohol,
caffeine, and nicotine abuse.’
Mary was envious. To look at the photographer, anyone else would have
thought had spent a life of abstinence. ‘Bet you had an exciting
‘So exciting it’s killed most of the other photojournalists
my age before they could lose their livelihoods to the Internet and mobile
phones.’ Gladys pushed the package of evening primrose into her
satchel and passed Mary some money. ‘I don’t need any change.’
‘Well thanks Mrs Hodge, that’s really decent of you.’
‘Getting these things at cost saves a fortune. How are the Moonstar
troupe doing? Wrecked the saloon yet?’
‘They’ve only reached Marley’s ghost. Henny Stenson
is kicking up hell because Scrooge won’t give him enough time for
a costume change.’
‘Why don’t they ever pick something with the right number
of players, like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf”?’
Mary gave her a circumspect glance. ‘Would you go and see them in
‘No, but they would be obliged to pay for performance rights instead
of Henny Stenson plagiarising the work by a safely dead author. They could
always write out a couple of the characters to lessen the audience’s
Mary winked mischievously. ‘I just might suggest that to them if
they start trying to cast me again.’ The dialogue between Louise
and the black backed gull was getting out of hand so she picked the Yorkie
up and tucked her inside her coat. ‘I’ve left some fresh towels
in the cupboard if you need them. Mansel managed to talk Mrs Lascelle
into the laundry room for a couple of hours, though I’ve a feeling
she’s not going to make a habit of it.’
‘Thanks again, Mary. Could you tell Mansel I’ll be in at four-thirty
for my cappuccino?’
‘Sure.’ Mary buttoned the terrier inside her coat and walked
briskly back to the hotel.
After a couple more shots in the thinning light, Gladys took the evening
primrose capsules out of their box, tried to read the tiny print on the
label that came with them, shrugged and replaced them. It was unlikely
that the oil from some flower seeds would have much impact on her condition,
yet she was willing to try anything. Surviving her colleagues wasn’t
enough. She still wondered what it would be like to sky dive at ninety
- though drew the line at having an organ transplant from a pig. Gladys
failed to see why some innocent porcine unable to sign a consent form
should be obliged to pay for her well-deserved furred arteries or failing
A chill breeze rolled in from the sea. The photographer closed the reflecting
umbrella and returned the camera to its case. She had stood on that spot
hundreds of times before and never felt such an urge to shudder. A leaden
red glow illuminated the sky as though a lurid hand had patted the surface
of the sea, while the moist pebbles glinted maliciously in the fading
light. It wasn’t a scene pleading to be photographed. There was
a sinister pall over Brinton-on-Sea, a small resort so inoffensive that
groups like the Moonstar Players were allowed to go on living and tourist
guides described it as the perfect haven for eccentric’s on the
Distant rocks clunked in the swell. For a brief instant it felt as though
a slice had been taken out of reality, leaving it sprinkled with the hundreds-and-thousands
of an alien Milky Way.
enemies tried to preserve the
one damned in his sight.
in meditation, the Lukon high priest slowly walked from his sacred cubicle
on Auroal where he had been communing with God. The Almighty now only
whispered His thoughts into the minds of the devout. His full glory was
reserved for those who needed to be intimidated. Announcing that He was
about to hurl a storm of space debris at the satellite that controlled
Auroal’s life support and engines had to be done diplomatically.
Those about to die needed to understand that it was for their own good,
especially as it would be left too late for evacuation.
Hunder easily guessed what God was planning. Low on imagination, He was
bound to do something that had all the finesse of colliding asteroids.
The satellite’s comet deflectors were strengthened and pressure
to the bulkheads increased. The vacuum containing Hunder’s bio core,
the mind that could either cause cosmic mayhem or prevent it, depending
on which way his temperamental circuits were making contact at the time,
was triple buffered. If that was jarred about, the bio computer could
either crash, or evolve into an advanced life form. His designer hadn’t
seen any point in carrying out the experiment.
Orphanus programmed an automatic firing sequence that would be activated
by anything animal, mineral or incorporeal trying to sneak up on them.
Picking off more obvious threats would be down to her Vardel reflexes.
Skirra preferred the engineer not to have her firing station quite so
near the satellite’s self-destruct button. The possibility of Hunder
ending up at the end of some gravity line in the hands of a primitive
planet about to experiment with social engineering would have begged some
serious questions from Space Command. Not that anyone would have survived
to answer them.
Skirra hovered high in the operations dome where he could radiate disapproval.
Taking defensive precautions may have been necessary, but Hunder and Orphanus
didn’t have to treat the survivors on Auroal afterwards.
‘I wish you two weren’t enjoying this so much. I hope you
realise that Ansopha won’t stand a chance if we lose power.’
Hunder and Orphanus ignored Skirra.
All trace of religious enthusiasm in the medical scientist had been replaced
by bad tempered resentment. ‘The creature isn’t rational.
Why did He choose here of all places to throw a cosmic tantrum?’
Hunder couldn’t stand the hectoring any longer. ‘That’s
what Gods do. Reason doesn’t enter into it.’
Skirra gave up and left to check on Ansopha.
Orphanus was lining up the last battery of missiles when she noticed space
ripple. The engineer zeroed in on the black void beyond a cluster of asteroids
that had been happily orbiting Auroal’s sun for aeons. The anomaly
was no gravity line blinking.
Hunder immediately suspended all traffic on the assumption that his satellite
would still be there to guide it in when the threat had passed.
‘Something happening beyond Auroal at twenty polar degrees south’,
The anomaly increased and the bio computer knew that his worst fears were
about to be realised. Orphanus may have been looking forward to the fight,
but she didn’t need to keep her brain in a buffered vacuum. In fact,
the thickness of the skull Nature had given the Vardel was overkill.
The disturbance developed into a space storm. Asteroids, meteors, and
ancient junk that had until then happily been avoiding Auroal churned
into a calamity of rocks intent on slamming into the satellite.
Orphanus fired burst after burst, picking off debris in the immediate
vicinity and launching guided missiles to take out anything else the comet
The backdrop of space was soon carpeted with a silent tracery of explosions
and asteroid dust. The percussive kick back of so many weapons made Hunder’s
The bio computer was the only thing keeping Ansopha alive. Skirra’s
patient already had most of the life crushed from him and was unlikely
to survive even a slight rise in pressure.
‘You’re killing Ansopha! You have to do something now!’
the medical scientist demanded
‘We’re fighting a battle.’ This was one of the few times
Hunder chose to sound like a computer.
‘If you’re ignoring Ansopha just to fight God, you’re
nothing but a theologist!’
Despite the slur, Hunder was not to be swayed so easily and his monstrous
neurosis reared its inconvenient head again. ‘Are you aware that
we are at risk of gyroscopic disorientation, depressurization, and an
all systems failure that would deactivate Auroal’s central core?
And that we are twenty solar hours from the nearest rescue station? The
planet would be dead by the time Space Command reached us.’
‘Stop being so bloody melodramatic and do something about Ansopha!’
‘The only thing I can do is put him in a gravity line, transmit
him to the co-ordinates the merchant supplied, and hope God isn’t
that omnipresent - You do know he’s unlikely to survive it, don’t
‘You should hear the wailing on Auroal,’ Orphanus cut in as
she released her safety harness. Another meteor struck and sent her spinning.
The Vardel regained her orientation. ‘They’re taking too many
strikes. If this doesn’t stop, the planet’s self-repair systems
will undergo a catastrophic failure.’ The engineer joined the medical
scientist. ‘All right Skirra. Let’s do it. It’s the
only way we can persuade God to leave us alone. Hunder, program the co-ordinates.’
The bio computer was taken aback at being given orders by the satellite’s
underling. However, when he went into one of his moods he might as well
have taken advice from the results of one of Skirra’s medical experiments.
Ansopha was safely pressurised, and his pod jetted down the two hundred
levels to the launch bay.
The turbulence increased.
Hunder lay in the gravity line.
As the next meteor struck, Skirra took one last reading of his patient
then hurriedly sealed the transmission chamber. ‘Odd.’
‘What is?’ asked Orphanus.
‘Ansopha still makes that faint rustling sound.’
Hunder activated the transmitter that dismantled Ansopha atom by atom
and reassembled him on the other side of the Galaxy in an unmapped atomic
anomaly only known to the Leamt.
Despite being in the throws of a tantrum, Hunder had remembered to install
a telepath’s transmitter and receiver deep in Ansopha’s brain.
That way, the bio computer would at least be able to tell whether the
As soon as Ansopha had gone, the asteroid bombardment stopped.
she changed her camera’s lenses, Gladys Hodge watched an imposing
woman delicately chipping at some rocks lower down the beach. At any other
time she would have been happy to have gone over and made her acquaintance.
Not many people were hardy enough to frequent the shore in temperatures
almost low enough to freeze seawater. But there was something intimidating
about the stranger. She was like no fossil hunter the photographer had
ever seen before, dressed in a cream coat with matching trousers and boots
too elegant for clambering about quarries. She wore no hat, hair to streaming
about her shoulders like disorganized raven’s wings. This regal
creature should have been in black leather and on the back of a 1200 cc
If Gladys had had been a lesbian, she would have gone over and dropped
her handkerchief. However, the photographer’s days of trying out
anything and everything were over. Her brain and body craved peace and
quiet after framing too many scenes of mayhem and carnage. Fortunately,
a ricked ankle was the worst that could happen to anyone on the pebbles
Gladys finished taking her studies of frost on pebbles. It was too cold
to operate the film’s rewind button, so she tucked the camera into
her large pocket then clambered onto the promenade and back to Beachview,
passing Arnold and his dog on the way.
Also impervious to the cold, the old Labrador and its short sighed owner
pottered along their usual route, no doubt guided by the call of familiar
gulls and horn of an offshore beacon.
Even Arnold could not avoid noticing the tall woman in cream on the beach
It wasn’t Gladys. She had just passed him and would have needed
wings to double back that fast.
‘Good morning, Madam.’ He doffed his hat to reveal the stubble
left by his wife’s last haircut. ‘I fancy the air is a little
sharp this morning.’
The visitor was fazed for a moment, possibly believing she was too inconspicuous
to attract attention.
The woman gave an amiable smile as though she had just worked out how
to do it. ‘Yes, it is.’
‘When you start to feel the cold, Mansel Lascelle’s tea-room
at Beachview is open all day.’
‘Thank you, I will bear that in mind.’ Her voice was deep
and had a peculiar resonance to it, as though it came from a great depth.
‘Travelled a long way, have you?’
‘Quite a distance.’
‘Very quiet in Brinton-on-Sea. Nothing ever happens here. If you
like peace and quiet you’ve come to the right place.’ Then
the old man’s curiosity got the better of him. ‘Looking for
fossils are you? Used to be thousands of them before we joined the Common
The woman’s expression glazed for a moment. She was no doubt trying
to work out why the French would have launched forays across the Channel
steal Brinton-on-Sea’s fossils. ‘Perhaps the seam containing
them was eventually eroded out by wave action,’ she offered diplomatically.
Arnold nodded sagely as though he really knew that all along. ‘Yes,
I’m sure that’s it. Enjoy your stay.’
Pleasantries over, Arnold replaced his hat and went on his way, dog waddling
enthusiastically after him.
The tall woman tucked the small pick into her belt and started out along
the beach, examining ice crystals left by the receding swell. She strolled
along the sea front of irregular façades and the amusement arcade
where one or two teenagers were playing pinball with fingers too cold
to outwit the machines, and then past Beachview and round the small headland
where many an unwary visitor had been cut off by the incoming tide. Fortunately
the tide had seen this visitor coming and was going out.
The woman waited impatiently for some time as though expecting half a
dozen buses to roll up all at once and rubbed her arms as though being
cold was a novelty. All Brinton-on-Sea’s buses terminated in the
High Street, however. The nearest encounter the headland ever had with
public transport was over a century ago, when dubious legend claimed that
wreckers lured a packet ship aground.
There was a sucking noise as if a part of reality had been swallowed,
and then spat out again. It was followed by a tinkling that rippled along
the frozen beach; it sounded like a gazelle galloping through thin ice.
Then there was silence, apart from the distant waves clacking the pebbles
A glistening heap, like a rare mineral, lay at the base of the headland.
Still trying to regain the feeling in her fingers, Gladys pressed the
rewind button on her SLR before taking another swallow of cappuccino.
Mr Butterworth obligingly removed the film for her.
‘Thank you, I wish I had the sense to stay inside as well.’
‘Surely you must have taken enough pictures to keep you developing
and printing for months?’
‘Oh yes, but not the image I want.’
Mr Butterworth preened his moustaches. ‘I wonder what you find in
Brinton-on-Sea that’s so interesting? I like the place because it
is so dull.’
‘Only if you bother with the view. Try looking between the cracks.
Everything interesting happens just below the surface, beneath slabs of
reality which it would never occur to the Moonstar Players to turn over.’
‘The only things of interest I ever found under slabs were scorpions
and land mines.’
‘The limpets in Brinton-on-Sea tend not to explode, believe me.
You should get out more often.’
‘I might try it when it gets a bit warmer.’
‘I’ll point out some interesting slabs for you to turn over.’
‘What exactly is it you are looking for, Mrs Hodge?’
She chuckled. ‘I’ll know when I see it.’
‘I gave up thinking like that fifty years ago.’
‘It’s what keeps me going. I’ve exposed enough film
to fill several picture agencies, yet still need that face; that image
which will say it all.’
‘Don’t let Henny Stenson hear you talking like that. He might
think he’s found a kindred spirit.’
Gladys tugged the end of the film to prevent it disappearing into the
canister. ‘You may well scoff, but we should all nurse aspirations
until the day we die.’
Mr Butterworth wiped the beer froth from his moustaches. ‘But I
do. Mine is to prevent my avaricious offspring from finding out where
I am and trying to get power of attorney over me.’
‘I’ve left everything to a hospital in Africa, several Far
Eastern co-operatives, and a dog’s home.’
‘Mine goes to overseas war widows and a no-longer-so-young lady
and her daughter in Mansel’s home town.’
‘So that’s how you know him?’
‘But it’s a secret.’ He chuckled darkly, and then hid
behind a copy of the Guardian.
Joabim, perched on the boundary beam between the saloon and lounge, gave
a sudden squawk as Mrs Lascelle, sour faced, bustled through with two
carriers of shopping. It looked as though Mansel had at last put his foot
down and demanded she bring back some of the groceries during one of her
forays to the delicatessen and off licence. Unfortunately the bags were
full of wine, pomme de tartes, liqueurs, and petit fours not seen on the
lace tablecloths of Beachview. The customers preferred food they could
pronounce. Until they saw Gladys drinking cappuccinos, the morning regulars
who had been out to collect the bread and bacon thought that anything
with froth on it was either beer, or been boiled too long.
Mrs Lascelle clattered through to the kitchen - she wore so much dress
jewellery that she always clattered - and the comfortable ambience returned.
Gladys gave a deep sigh of satisfaction that everything was right with
The bundle glistening on the beach had been expecting certain death.
Then the leaden cloud that had pinned him down was suddenly lifted. He
could breath, move his slender fingers, and feel the peculiar way his
features had been reformed. Then there were the soft garments he wore;
compared to the weight he had recently endured, they felt like gossamer.
He was unaware of clutching a large, clumsy case until he realised that
it was heavy and quickly put it down.
The arrival looked about.
This wasn’t Auroal. It probably wasn’t reality.
He knew what he had to do - he had no idea how - and picked up the suitcase,
which he managed to lug towards the ornamental gates of the bland two-storey
factory where vacancies for loading bay operatives were being advertised.
was nowhere in God’s Universe
For the heretic to hide.
‘Damage report,’ demanded Orphanus.
‘Give me time,’ protested Hunder.
‘Oh come on. Your quantum processor can work faster than this.’
Hunder refused to be provoked. ‘I’m more interested in establishing
my link with Ansopha than reviewing the destructive ability of some psychopathic
Skirra stopped analysing the list of injuries on Auroal. ‘Don’t
you think that we’ve already paid the price for one blasphemer?’
‘Will you two stop being so emotional.’ To drive his point
home, Hunder switched off the monitors, gravity, and lights.
Skirra was niggled. ‘I suppose that’s one way of dropping
out of an argument.’ Gravity - or lack of it - meant nothing to
someone who could already float. Bumping into the few things even his
dark-adapted eyes were unable to make out was annoying, though.
Orphanus switched on her body torch and floated up to the perch in the
ceiling that Ansopha had been so fond of, taking advantage of the zero
gravity to stretch out in a parody of the communicator’s languorous
habit. ‘Well, I can’t organise any repairs until the robots
know what has to be welded back into place.’
‘We got off lightly. I didn’t think that firing Ansopha into
infinity would have worked.’
‘The entity was only obsessed with our communicator.’ Orphanus
gazed out of the nearest viewport. ‘An all seeing, all malicious
God. That creature’s got a lot of problems for something supposed
to be omnipotent.’
‘And He’s probably listening.’
‘Not that one. He got what He came for.’
Skirra suddenly looked up. ‘And if He is eavesdropping, He of course
knows what happened to Ansopha.’
Orphanus lowered her voice. ‘As He hasn’t given us any more
aggravation, perhaps our communicator didn’t make it.’ She
hesitated to wonder why Hunder had been quiet for so long. For a system
that liked to hear itself talk, this must have been some sort of record.
Skirra floated down to a seat, no longer able to analyse his samples of
human without the light of his scanning screen. Orphanus had never known
the medical scientist perch on anything before. Having his own buoyancy,
he usually just hovered or attached himself to something when he dozed
so he didn’t drift off, but Skirra had never felt like this before.
Despite being constructed of so many disparate parts, he was unused to
this sense of ambivalence and was already missing the heretical, enigmatic,
biologically impossible communicator. There had been something reassuring
about a colleague that could turn itself on and off like a light and better
Hunder with corkscrew logic. Ansopha may have been nerve-racking company,
yet was stimulating all the same time.
The medic sighed. ‘You know, I never did understand how it managed
to switch the molecules in its clothes as well.’
‘Well, you’re a medical scientist, not a physicist.’
Orphanus knew what the medical scientist really wanted to say, but wasn’t
prepared to admit being that empathic. It would have tarnished her image
as a hard-headed Vardel.
‘Hunder’s worked it out. He won’t tell me though.’
A light on Auroal’s communication panel flashed. Hunder ignored
‘Shall I tell them to call back?’ asked Skirra.
Orphanus floated down from the ceiling. ‘No, I’ll get it.’
The engineer punched open the circuit with unnecessary aggression. ‘What
is it? Fire, flood, or just a major systems failure?’
The voice replying was formal and hard-edged. ‘The First Section
Leader of the third latitude wishes to speak to you.’
‘She’ll need a communicator. Sorry we can’t supply one.
We just fired ours into a gravitational anomaly to save your miserable
Skirra darted over before the engineer destroyed the last vestige of goodwill
left between the planet and satellite controlling it. ‘Out of the
way Orphanus!’ In zero gravity he was the stronger and bounced her
aside. ‘This is medical scientist Skirra. Hunder’s circuits
are now totally committed to dealing with the damage to Auroal and this
satellite. As much as we would like to speak to The First Section leader,
we cannot oblige without a translator.’
The discussion at the other end sounded more like a brief skirmish than
consultation. Suddenly the First Section leader appeared on the screen.
Without warning, Hunder patched in his own translator so Skirra could
‘This cannot wait. Our priests are demanding to know what happened
to the heretic?’
Skirra silently swore at the bio computer, and then announced, ‘Ansopha
was transmitted through a gravity line to an anomaly on the other side
of the Galaxy. It is unlikely it survived.’
‘On what trajectory?’ There was no sense of remorse in the
voice. Hunder’s translator, for all his aspirations to mortality,
had never been user friendly.
‘I do not know.’
This was too much for Orphanus. She regained her balance and elbowed Skirra
aside. ‘What do you want us to do? Send a missile after him to make
By the ensuing silence she hadn’t been far wrong.
‘Well it won’t work, whatever happened to him – it!
No weapon would remain viable after being transmitted that distance. It’s
even more unlikely flesh and blood could reassemble itself. So leave us
alone damn you!’ She cut off the communication with a blow of her
fist, rage saying much more about the loss of Ansopha than words.
‘So much for diplomacy.’ Skirra had an edge in his voice that
could have amputated a limb. He glared at one of Hunder’s monitors.
‘What a relief our bio computer wasn’t listening.’
Hunder switched the monitor on. ‘If I’d said anything it would
have caused a diplomatic crisis. Nobody is going to pay any attention
to you two.’
‘What about Ansopha?’ demanded Orphanus.
‘I can’t say.’
‘You’re a bloody bio computer! Of course you can say!’
Hunder ignored her. ‘I have now assessed the damage.’
He restored gravity and brought up the lights. Orphanus landed on her
console in an untidy heap as a string of locations needing repair appeared
on its screen.
‘What about Ansopha?’ insisted Skirra.
Hunder ignored his demand as well and told him, ‘I have also been
picking up energy fluctuations in our satellite’s vicinity.’
The medical scientist was still too annoyed to take the point. ‘So?
What’s that got to do with Ansopha?’
Orphanus knew. ‘Shut-up Skirra.’
‘Because I might have to lance that rotund belly of yours with a
He suddenly realised. ‘Oh - energy fluctuations, I see.’
God filtered away from the satellite. So the communicator might have survived
after all. Even if it meant going to the end of time, Ansopha was one
heretic who was not going to escape judgement.
new arrival wore a voluminous beige greatcoat from which he seemed on
the verge of emerging like an emaciated butterfly, and clutched a heavy
suitcase as though unsure what to do with it. Despite an elegance of movement,
his fingers tended to fumble most things he touched. Though no smile crossed
his pointed face, Gladys sensed wary warmth deep beneath the defensive
layers. She had seen similar expressions in post war populations coming
out of trauma, a desperation to believe that the worst was over whilst
knowing that a sniper was still on the roof. And that face! Here was the
image the veteran photojournalist had been looking for all her career.
She gave a sly glance at Mr Butterworth to make sure he hadn’t read
the enthusiasm in her expression. This stranger’s features weren’t
blasted or ravaged by experience; they were the enigmatic mask of someone
who had paddled across the River Styx to treat the Hounds of Hell for
distemper. As he moved there was faint rustling, like the breeze through
pine needles. No angel, this. He was the elf who guarded Loki’s
Mansel would have greeted his new waiter and barman with a hug, and then
decided he looked a little too frail to withstand such Gallic bonhomie.
It was unlikely he would be able to carry full crates up from the cellar,
or even more than one tray at a time. That wasn’t the point. His
new employee’s elfin features had filled his mother with dread.
All she would utter when first setting eyes on him was, ‘Le Diable!’
before rushing for the sanctuary of her basement flat in a clatter of
‘Mrs Hodge, Mr Butterworth, this is Amiel - Amiel Sopher!’
Gladys thought that the name had a French colonial exoticism to it, although
the new waiter was too pale to have been any further south than Bournemouth.
‘Good morning Amiel.’
As that had only been his name for a brief time, the waiter was momentarily
fazed. Something at the back of his mind delivered a sharp jab and injected
the correct response. ‘Good morning Mrs Hodge. I hope you will find
my service...’ He foundered. Whatever was lurking in the back of
his mind, it didn’t include a thesaurus.
‘I’m sure we’ll get along fine - Can you make a decent
‘Say yes,’ the thing in his mind instructed. ‘I’ll
show you how to later.’
‘Yes,’ said Amiel.
Gladys was happy enough with that. It was too much to expect him to have
poured coffee in some North African souk as well.
‘Good man,’ Mr Butterworth added. He was more used to dealing
with subalterns straight from school.
Mansel picked up Amiel’s suitcase as though it was filled with nothing
heavier than tissue paper, and whisked his precious find upstairs before
he emerged from the cocoon of his greatcoat and fluttered off to more
promising pastures. The proprietor had no idea what good fortune had brought
Amiel to Brinton-on-Sea, and had no intention letting him find out his
When Mansel returned from installing Amiel Sopher in the garret suite,
he was still beaming.
Gladys could contain herself no longer and was already loading her camera.
‘Where did you find him?’
Mansel gave an expansive wave of his arms. ‘My little Mary. He asked
at her cousin’s factory for some work. Sandra thought he looked
not strong enough for the loading crates or processing seaweed, so she
called Mary who called me.’
Mr Butterworth was a little more suspicious. ‘Where did he come
‘I will find out when I get his P45.’
‘Looks a rum character to me.’
That coming from a retired colonel who had also seen the weirdest the
world could offer made Gladys think a little harder about her prospective
find. At least Amiel had passed the first test. When a beautiful or interesting
looking person opened their mouth, high-pitched gibberish frequently came
out. The new waiter had merely been lost for words. At least he knew how
to pronounce the ones he could remember. And if the new barman did possess
a large intellect, what was he doing at Beachview? Giving his brain a
rest? But then, Gladys was only after a picture, not a soul mate. No one
had ever passed that test.
As it was the Moonstar Players rehearsal evening Mansel decided not to
expose his new find to that baptism of fire so soon. Instead, he sat Amiel
in a private cubicle where he could watch the machinations of local culture
from a safe distance with a pot of tea.
While Henny Stenson boomed out the part of Christmas past, Joabim fluttered
over to join the new waiter. Despite the din of amateur dramatics in full
flow, Gladys could have sworn that the bird and bird-like man became immersed
in conversation. Joabim seldom joined anyone unless they had peanuts or
biscuits to share, and the possibility of the cockatoo being empathic
to anyone not rustling a packet of some sort was strangely chilling.
Mr Butterworth interrupted her reverie. ‘Well, Mrs Hodge, is this
the folder you promised to show me?’
Fazed, the photographer gazed down at the opened flaps dangerously near
a jug of milk. Of course it was. Still taking the surreptitious glance
at the image of a lifetime, she pulled out a handful of her work.
‘He’s probably married with ten children,’ the retired
colonel noted discreetly.
Gladys was crestfallen that she had allowed her enthusiasm to become so
apparent. ‘No, he fell out of a nest in the Amazonian rain forest,’
she said, though the photographer knew more about things that had fallen
out of helicopters. She whispered conspiratorially to her companion. ‘What
do you really make of him?’
Mr Butterworth shrugged. ‘Never seen that cockatoo so sociable with
anyone. But you’re probably right. He does look as though he should
‘I reckon they were singed off when he hedgehopped over Hell.’
‘My dear Mrs Hodge, what has brought on this Byronic flush?’
She chuckled to herself. ‘Perhaps I’m becoming sexually aroused.’
Mr Butterworth spluttered so loudly with laughter that he had to push
the photos aside for fear of spraying them with whisky. Even the Moonstar
Players looked round to see who was upstaging them.
Recovering his decorum, he whispered, ‘I think you should snatch
a snap of him before he realises you are a photographer.’
‘He’s not the sort who’ll willingly pose, even for art’s
Gladys felt deflated. Mr Butterworth was probably right. ‘How can
‘He has a history. Can’t say what sort, but you take my word
for it. Old Mrs Lascelle knew as soon as she set eyes on him. She’s
a cantankerous old woman and probably has enough things to hide to recognise
a kindred soul. Best you keep your camera well hidden if you want to get
into his trench.’
Gladys smiled and raised an eyebrow at the insinuation. He was right.
But, what the hell, she had a zoom lens.