A sneak peek of the third chapter from my upcoming novel, The Light Station

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This is where we really start getting to the nitty-gritty of it all: domesticated time travel.

Hope you enjoy.


CHAPTER THREE: The Light Station

“Welcome to the Light Station. All passengers are reminded to submit themselves for screening before transfer.” A smooth and metallic voice droned out an endless string of slogans to the uninterested masses below. “Thank you for choosing FutureForward – ‘Where the Future is Waiting for You’. Welcome to the Light Station…”

Caesar wasn’t listening. He was too busy trying to take it all in. He had known, of course, that the practicalities of time-travel could not possibly live up to the sci-fi fantasies of his boyhood, but even so, he had not been prepared for what lay before him. Everything looked so… clinical. As a man of comfort, of denim and corduroy, he couldn’t help but feel out of place surrounded by all these clean lines. The forced poses of the über-modern architecture and carefully controlled portions of synthetic light here portrayed about as much hope as a prison meal. He surveyed one of the sculptures with distaste. A towering mass of integrated wires, writhing like boiling spaghetti, had been frozen mid-convulsion for his viewing pleasure. Art like that infuriated him on the best of days – today more than usual. It spoke of nothing. In fact, everything in the room screamed of irregularity and lack of purpose.

“Perhaps everything in the future is silver and white, and they’re just trying to break it to us gently,” he muttered to himself nervously, snorting into his polystyrene DissolvaCup. It was already beginning to recycle itself before he’d had chance to finish his coffee, and now proceeded to dribble all over his moleskin loafers.

All around him, the station was heaving with an array of distasteful, moving meat. Dough-flesh hens in matching cowboy hats and photographic hologram T-shirts were clumped together close by, delightedly comparing crude DIY snapshots of their lopsided, fisheye breasts. Neon teenagers with dead eyes and nasty mouths spattered themselves through the crowd like acid. In one white shadowless corner, a boy of no more than thirteen threw up violent shades of cocktail whilst egged on by his dribbling father.

He was surrounded with good reasons to escape the twenty-third century, and yet he was afraid. He twisted his neck and looked up at the light board. A dizzying series of blinking symbols scaled across the gigantic hologram projected in the air above them, stretching the entire length of the station. He saw his departure was scheduled soon, and felt the chill on the back of his neck. Shaking coffee-drips from his shoes, he rose and flowed into the run-off of the crowd, hoping to collect naturally in a puddle of unoccupied space. A cyberpunk dressed in velvet and chainmail shoved past him without apology, casting a disparaging look back at his head-to-toe textiles. Unlike Caesar, he obviously belonged here – even his asymmetric hair gleamed silver. The metallic sculpture in the corner would have looked at home poised by his side, a twisted aluminium guard-dog. His presence had left a scar on the air behind him. Caesar stepped rather feebly into it.

A stricter, more authoritative voice cut across the others.  “Attention: Passengers six-oh-one to seven-five-oh, please prepare for transmission. Thank you.”

The masses began to respond. Caesar took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. His ticket confirmed that he was Passenger 616. It was time to go. After all, the future was waiting for him, and FutureForward had promised it would be oh so bright.

After queuing for twenty minutes or so due to transmission delays (demonstrating that, despite technological advances, some things never change), Caesar was escorted out of the departure lounge by a Synthetic Hostess. These glitchy, soulless holograms manifested whenever customers in the vicinity of a Public Help Point required assistance (and very often when they didn’t). The latest version, hanging in the air beside Caesar, possessed ideal features for replication. Her magnified eyes and exaggerated rose-blush lips threw her face out of proportion, but she was still the most attractive woman Caesar had been close to for quite a while. Even though she was not real, her gender made him nervous by default. A mane of powdery cinnamon curls fell over her petite shoulders in startling detail. Forgetting his manners for a moment, Caesar reached out his hand and ran his fingertips through the illusion. A detached voice issued a warning without disturbing the Hostess’ lips.

“FutureForward would like to remind passengers that it is impolite to interfere with the Hostess.”

Caesar removed his hand from the space occupied by the projection of her elbow. “Is that your way of telling me to ‘fuck off’?” Suppressed laughter turned his final words into a soft, playful rumble, like baby thunder practising for its big debut.

If she had been human, the Hostess would have glared at him, but her eyes were as dead as her voice. Instead, she led him to the seventh of thousands of doors within Transportation with vacant serenity before her programme abruptly disengaged, causing the pixels forming her to wink out of existence.  All the doors were lined up side-by-side, each one granting access to a different room within the vast, white hive.

Feeling intimidated, Caesar ducked through his designated doorway. The room was most easily comparable to the interior of a monolith glass pencil. Skin-thin mirrors of imposing height encased the room, positioned with geometric perfection. These extended beyond the point where his view was obscured. Descending upon him was a prism of equal grandeur, as precise and terrifying as a military weapon. Its point aligned with the room’s exact centre, poised and ready.

Being in the presence of technology powerful enough to manipulate the rules of space-time was intimidating.  Caesar could smell the burnt particles still in the air from the previous transfer.

Two gentlemen in white coats, presumably scientists, entered the room and busied themselves with preparations without acknowledging him. When they finally approached to review him they did so objectively. He was just another variable to be determined, calculated, processed and shipped.

His anxiety was building. He couldn’t help but wonder in his half-panic which century the scientists were from. The clinical setting made his skin and canvas feel so out of place, he began to fidget in it. This journey to the future was feeling less adventurous and more absurd by the minute.

Those are not mere men, he thought in panic, they are Gods. There is no real separation anymore. This is a house of progress. Even God is a relic here. I don’t belong here. No man belongs here… 

The shorter of the two scientists circled him, estimating his mass with keen, bristled eyes. After about a minute, Caesar realised she was female. Stout, hard-faced, with a near crew-cut the colour of fox fur, he could be forgiven the confusion. “Is the passenger ready?” She aimed her face and her question away from Caesar.

He wasn’t. His inner eight-year-old was squirming with the combination of accelerated anticipation and fear usually reserved for leaping from high cliffs and removing the legs from insects; the elation of both acts near-sexual.

She took his silence for assent, and returned to her operating dock without another word.

The harsh, clipped tones of the second scientist pierced the space for the first time, causing Caesar to jump slightly. “Passenger 616, prepare for transmission.”

The technician had a cruel, crow-like face which filled Caesar with unexplainable dread. For one distinct moment he felt compelled to halt the whole insane process and flee the building without ever looking back.

It was already too late for that.

“Destination fixed. Light-beam activated. Dematerialisation in 3… 2… 1…”

Turbo-charged light poured over him like electric milk, and Caesar felt himself begin to evaporate.

 

 

Dog (A Short Story)

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Virginia always took the same route through this shithole: a weathered mining village that was forgotten after Thatcher and left to rot. Somehow, in this part of the neighbourhood, all the greys of the concrete, mud and sky seem to bleed together and combine in the rain. She hid underneath her hood. There was an element of grey about her, too: a cold deadness in those eyes, a separation reflected in them, in which she stood on one side and the rest of the world lined up against her… and yet, there was a strange wistfulness present, too.  As if Alice fell down the rabbit-hole and found Hell.

Her smile was abstract, obscure. When she did smile, there were only two variations, both outrageous in their forgery; one, more of a sneer, expressing near-evil pleasure derived from watching the world shit on someone else for a change (but even this is exaggerated – her savage joy is saved for special occasions); the other, her speciality, a humourless farce, a skin-merely-stretched-across-scaffolding smile – no genuine joy or twinkle of childish delight beaming out of her. Her soul was smog. In company, if you offered her a sweet, she would turn it down, declaring the sugar a dental attack and ridiculing the offer, even if you suspected that secretly her heart yearns for a friend, a real one, who she could maybe share with… maybe then, she could find pleasure in feeling the rough texture of the candy sugarlump against her tongue, or in slurping the sherbet from sachets. She doesn’t seem to believe that person exists, however, and so she would ensure her rebuke was scathing; the best form of defence is attack – or so she has learnt. She currently needed no Gobstopper; she probably believed she had nothing to say anyway.

She tried to envelope herself in the surrounding grey and fade into the background, but the disguise seemed to keep stealthily sneaking away from her, leaving her vulnerable to the rest of the world. So, silently, she walked, almost creeping: her shoes were scuffed and ill-fitting. She deliberately stepped on the cracks, in an attempt to break her mother’s back, but funnily enough when Virginia closed the front door behind her at 3:15 her mother’s voice still rung out, clear as anything despite the slur. She didn’t know, or care, what was said – she had stopped listening a long time ago…

She heard the dull, familiar clunk of a glass bottle which confirmed her suspicions. Her mother rarely had anything to say worth listening to when she’d had a couple (or more)… surely today was no different.  She climbed the stairs, her feet dragging along an aged, dirty-looking carpet the colour of terracotta, her toe scuffing on every step. She closed the bedroom door, stood silently for a few minutes with her back against the door, as she had done a thousand times before. She exhaled exaggeratedly, performing, it seemed, for the room. There was no one else to fool here. She looked over to the unmade bed and her teddies and stuffed animals, her only friends.

She was a young thirteen: there was only a small inclination that her breasts would one day grow, swell, bulge even, or that she would not have the fine blonde hair of a child on her legs forever, that one day it would grow dark and prickly, like thorns. A mess of dirty blonde hair seemed to be trying to escape her; it contorted and writhed in uneven waves that stuck out at random – there was a particularly aggressive flick of hair that always poked out behind her left ear that made her look like a scruffy, overgrown child, much younger than she was.

She had much older hands though; they seemed to have existed long before she did. The dirt wedged firmly under those cracked, splitting fingernails implied years of dedication to a filthy, tiring job, yet hers was the product of childish games and daydreams (her toy panda as the protagonist), played in the grit and dirt outside the house, in the wasteland her mother had the cheek to call a garden. She would lie on her belly for hours, sprawled on top of a couple of the scarce clumps of grass (zombie scarecrow hands reaching out of the dirt), playing make-believe, occasionally glancing up at the dereliction of the estate. These shitholes, these shacks-they-call-houses, were cramped, terraced prisons, standing toe-to-toe like awkward-feeling commuters sandwiched between each other on the rush-hour train. Virginia wouldn’t have minded an elephant in the room, but wished desperately for the drunken parent in the lounge to vanish. She could never stand to be in the house for long when that train-wreck was home.

Trying to ignore drunken snores from downstairs, she took her broken-legged, pitiful little panda out of her pocket, sat it in the palm of her hand, then offered her captive an invitation to escape through the open window. As always, though, the panda remained still. Virginia was glad; she had always been fond of it. It was familiar, reliable. It might not win many beauty contests, but then again, neither would she. She had always thought of herself as awkward-looking (not ugly, just disproportioned), something that her peers had no qualms with pointing out on regular occasions. Still, she had never taken to make-up, high heels and pretty dresses in the way other girls her age had. The contrast between her and those pastel-clad princesses did not work well for Virginia. She had shown no real desire to paint herself like a geisha girl in an attempt to attract one of the sweaty, clumsy handed, pimple-riddled man-boys she had to share a classroom with daily… not that any of them would try that with her. She was more of a game, a sport, to tease, to laugh at. One of them had tried to undo her bra through her t-shirt in double Maths one day whilst balancing precariously on two legs of his wobbling chair: she had spun round in her seat, looking him full in the face for the very first time, before slamming her tightened fist down heavily on his supporting hand, sending him sprawling. For a moment, there had been a spark behind her eyes, a savage enjoyment – you could imagine her pulling the wings off a fly with much the same expression on her face. She struggled to trust anyone.

The train-wreck was throwing up; the sound clattered insensitively up the stairs. It was usually Virginia’s job to ensure something suitable was underneath her drooling mouth, but the thought of entering the place that foul creature had inhabited for the last three days (she hadn’t come to bed or left the house or gone for a piss or anything – the throwing up was the only proper indication heard that guaranteed she was not dead) would make anyone’s skin crawl. So, instead, she exited stage left – out into the garden, into her daydream world.

She dusted herself down, illogically, before she took up her spot and settled her elbows into pre-worn dents in the ground, ready to watch the nothingness of life happen. She watched neighbours walk past one another and neglect to say anything, avoiding eye contact all the while. She watched a group of six or seven children, of varying ages, playing a game with constantly-mutating rules, seeming to be based on ‘Tag’. It never crossed her mind to ask if she could play with them: she had lived with the assumption that the answer would always be ‘no’, delivered in acidic tones, for much longer a time than a child should have. She lay there, observing passively, saying nothing, walking her beloved panda back and forth across a make-believe Saharan desert, still, like a lizard baking in the sun – not much chance of that here, though. The clouds made a mockery of sunshine; that poor fireball didn’t stand a chance.

The shouts and squeals of the game intruded on Virginia’s daydream and brought her back to Earth with a bump. Mrs. Otterman emerged from behind one of the countless corners that led to a scruffy little jitty linking to Barker Grove, half-dragged by a yappy little terrier. Little Jaffa was her pride and joy, with his tufts of uneven fur and slightly mismatched eyes. She struggled with her bulging shopping bags as the dog jerked her hand excitedly between lampposts; their tatty canvas stomachs could barely hold the treats they were laden with. Mrs. Otterman had always been an indulgent woman, even in her youth, but since the death of her husband her self-pity had ballooned and taken over. Every day, rain or shine, Virginia would see her carting this collection of cakes and chocolates and biscuits back from the little corner shop down the way, led by Jaffa. Virginia had once offered to help her carry some of her shopping but had been rudely dismissed. Since then, Mrs. Otterman deliberately looked past her in the street, as if Virginia had simply turned to vapour and no longer existed. If the terrier sniffed happily at her feet she would jerk his leash and make him yelp. Virginia hated her for it: she had decided to sneak him dog biscuits whenever she got the chance.

A couple of the children, lost in their game, strayed into the saggy, waddling woman’s path. Items from her shopping were knocked to the floor in the collision: two apple turnovers, squelching and full of cream, fell into the muck and fag-ash and bubblegum, meeting the urban decoration of the pavement’s surface. A lone orange rolled into the gutter. The children laughed. It was a cruel sound. They did not help the woman gather her items. The smallest of the three boys, dressed undoubtedly in an elder sibling’s hand-me-downs, kicked the orange as far as he could down the potholed, twisting road winding out of sight, leading to places different in name, and yet exactly the same. The skin of the orange ruptured as it met his shoe – with a wallop it was gone, save the guts and mush left smeared on his sneaker. Jaffa, joyful, barking, leapt after it; Mrs. Otterman’s loose, distracted grip on the leash was easily broken. He dashed into the road, focused on his prize, unaware of his surroundings.

The impact was quick but painful. The culprit, a neglected-looking Ford Escort with flaking paint, in the familiar red of a post-box, its front bumper held together with duct tape, flattened the dog without difficultly. The noise it made was sickening. Virginia tried to protect her ears from the sound. Then, motionless, she watched its paw spasm in its final moment of life. Mrs. Otterman howled like a dog, over and over, knelt in the blood beside him. The kids ran away, horrified. Virginia lay still and watched silently. The only indication that she had witnessed the event was a tell-tale crease of her forehead and defensive hand moved to cup her beloved panda. In her mind, she replayed the crunch: it contrasted starkly with the happy yelps it had made (and it was an ‘it’ to her now, now it was void of life) just moments before. She lay unmoved. A single tear was shed from those eyes, less than you would expect from a child her age, but they looked deader than ever. After a while, she rose and dusted herself off with unnecessary focus, ignoring the increasingly desperate cries emitting from Mrs. Otterman.

Virginia re-entered the prison house, her feet dragged behind her, and walked dejectedly inside, up to her bedroom, older somehow. She told no one… who could she tell? Dutifully, robotically, she reached into her worn rucksack to retrieve her exercise books and started her homework. She did not notice until later that in the corner of each page she had drawn a dead dog.

Chapter 1, from ‘The Light Station’ (a novel)

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ONE: An Uninvited Guest

 

The pavement was greasy beneath Caesar’s feet as he made his way across town. As soon as the first raindrop had touched his nose, he had known it would be better to avoid the Underground – its rickety, old tunnels would already be full to bursting, and the subsequent delays from all those extra passengers were more than he could bear. Instead, he had turned up his collar, deciding to take a shortcut through the backstreets. Raindrops hit the hot slab of concrete beneath him, fizzing like fried egg. He knew he needed to get out of the rain, and fast –by cutting through the exterior courtyard of In Vino Veritas (an exclusive winery in London’s lower East side) he saved himself ten minutes, and made it to his destination at a little before nine.          

Charlie’s was a bare brick and boards sort of bar; a rarity these days, and one of the few places Caesar really felt at peace. There were no stools, only a colourful collection of pleather armchairs which had been reclaimed, lovingly patched up and generously stuffed by the owner. Strangers shared tables and found friends. Each of the locals had their own pitcher with their name on it (which was the same size regardless of whether they drank real spirits, synthetics or safeale). Best of all, there was no projector, only an archaic 3Di model TV with half of the pixels burnt out and a voice activation system which would only register Charlie’s voice if he emphasised each syllable at great volume and in sarcastic detail.          

Caesar and Charlie’s friendship had been cemented by a love of old things, though Charlie frequently swore he’d replace the old TV with a state-of-the-art projector with built-in ATS (Advertising Targeting Software). It was an empty threat, Caesar knew. Charlie hated those pesky little hologram ads almost as much as he did.          

The old man’s face split into a grin at the sight of him. “Caesar, m’boy! Good to see you! Sit down, sit down, and get that coat off too, you’re drenched. What, did you swim here?” he boomed in a voice as coarse as his beard. Charlie was a giant, grizzly thing but he laughed often and loudly, so much sometimes that he shook the tables. “Now, what can I get my favourite customer?”          

“I was just after a couple of bottles of something special, to take away, you know.”          

Charlie did his best to look hurt. He loved this game, and was good at it, too. “You’re not staying? Oh, Caesar, you wound me. Here I was thinking that you’d come all this way to see me…”          

“Yes, yes, and now you know I only want you for the contents of your top shelf,” Caesar chuckled amiably. “Alright, old man, you’ve twisted my arm – I’ll have a quick drink and then I’m out of here.”          

Charlie beamed. “Good to hear! It would be rude to refuse a drink from an old friend. After all, it’s got your name on it.” His favourite joke, told every visit without fail. Caesar loved him for that. “Now, what can I get you?”          

“Surprise me.”          

“Ah, yes. Charlie knows best.” He rubbed his hands together, like a man preparing for hard graft. “Let me see what I can do.”          

Charlie began removing bottles from his collection with ceremonious flair, wiping the dust from their labels, giving each one a long, intense stare.          

The Great Inquisitor at work.          

Every so often, he would unscrew the cap of one and inhale deeply, swilling the contents around to release the aroma. No two bottles were the same, in size, age, colour or content. Charlie often boasted that his stock was completely unique and came from all corners of the world. More likely it had come from the black market. It didn’t really matter to Caesar either way, so long as it was available for purchase.          

When he returned to Caesar’s table, Charlie had decided upon a portly red wine, deeply spiced and warm to the tongue. It was delicious. When Charlie offered him another, he did not feel inclined to refuse. Soon came the third pitcher, the fourth, then the fifth, all of them with his name on it. Before Caesar knew it, it was closing time and he was agreeing to a lock-in with a few of Charlie’s most devout locals (his firm ‘favourites’). There was Macmillan, the philosophical banker (who insisted that drinking his money away only served to prove his dedication to the capitalist ideal), Katya (an old widow who never seemed to leave), and Pond (a deadbeat crook with a stub of a nose and eyes that lingered for too long). He knew what Charlie saw in the first two – Kat’s legs opened for him at a word, and the banker had bottomless pockets – but had never understood why he kept Pond so close. He appeared as good a lapdog as any; small, slow and grateful for any attention. Still, there was something unsettling about the way he watched the old man.          

Charlie chose a table for the five of them closest to the window and opened it a fraction. Autumnal huffs and puffs teased patterns into contraband smoke as they talked and drank the night away.          

“Where better to be?” cried Macmillan in the hazes of alcoholic camaraderie, when the subject of the passing hours arose, “and who better to pass the time with than Charlie? To Charlie!!”          

“To Charlie!” they agreed in unison.          

“But in all seriousness, though –”          

Everything Macmillan said was ‘in all seriousness’. Caesar wondered if he started all his jokes like that. In all seriousness, Doctor, I think I’m a banana, when should I split? Why did the chicken, in all seriousness, cross the road? And did you hear the one about the Englishman, the Arabian and the Chinaman who walked (in all seriousness) into a bar?           

“– Tonight is truly a beautiful thing. You know why? Because it can never happen again. I mean, sure, we could have another lock-in on another night, but it could never be tonight’s lock-in, now could it? No. Tonight is a one-time deal. That’s the beauty of reality. We’re all just so fucking linear, you know?” Macmillan stood and raised his pitcher, swaying enough to spill a little of its contents down the rather fetching waistcoat he was wearing. “Take this drink, for example – and may I say what a fine drink it is, too –”          

That earned another chorus of “To Charlie!”          

“This drink can only be enjoyed once, then it will be gone forever and all that will remain of it is my memory of its sweetness.”          

“Too true,” crooned the widow. She had clearly drank far too much, and Macmillan’s words had made her uncharacteristically solemn. She gazed into the murky depths of her pitcher as if mourning its passing.             

“And your point is…?”          

Caesar didn’t really care to hear the answer, but old Katya actually looked as if she might cry, and whatever bullshit Macmillan came out with had to be better than enduring that.          

“Only this, my brother: that mortality defines us, and is responsible for the fleeting nature of our entire world.”          

What a prick. But Caesar could only sigh, smile and smoke his cigarette. They were both guests under Charlie’s roof, after all.

“An’ what’s that got t’ do with anythin’?” Pond scowled, looking confused. “We were talkin’ ‘bout wine. Wine’s not alive.”          

“On that, I beg to differ,” interjected Charlie, winking and tapping the tip of a nose already rosy from consumption.          

“Still…” Pond’s pockmarked little potato-face screwed itself up in concentration. “We were jus’ sayin’ how nice it is t’ be having a drink tonight wit’ ol’ Charlie here, and now you’ve gone an’ ruined it, talkin’ ‘bout the whole world dyin’. ‘Ere, you’ve even gone an’ upset poor Katya.”          

The widow assented to that with a loud, undignified sniff.          

Macmillan looked around, appealing to the others. “Doesn’t the wine taste all the sweeter because of the very fact that it does not last? We are all born and we will all die. There is no eternity for us. That truth can sometimes be painful, I grant you, but is unavoidable nonetheless. What matters is what we do with ourselves in between. We are all given the opportunity to make our mark upon this world: to build, to consume, to make children, make memories… and history too, if we are brave enough for it.”                

They sat quietly then, each lost in contemplation. Caesar thought of his historical namesakes and wondered if they had known they would be remembered even now. He avoided thinking about whether anyone would remember him.          

“Why can’t the ones we love live forever?”          

The voice that broke the silence was queer and thin, and it took a moment for everyone to realise that it was Katya who had spoken. She was a Romani gypsy by birthright and her voice usually sounded deep and throaty, lusty even, just like she was. Though they were not really close, Caesar had heard her carrying on with her barmates on countless occasions. She was always jovial, quick-witted and generous with both her banter and her company. Whenever she laughed, she reared her head back like a horse, shaking her spidery mane of black and white and grey. The woman sat beside them now had the same ornate jewels crammed onto her fingers, wore the same charms and woven-wool dress as the fiery little widow, and yet seemed like a stranger by comparison. She looked shrunken, frail and desperate.          

Hollow, Caesar thought, she looks hollow.          

Charlie knelt at her feet, enclosing both her hands in his with undisguised affection. Bent in half, he was still bigger than she was.               

“Forever would be a curse, sweet one,” he told her gently. “A good man earns the right to his rest, you know that. He is at peace now. So should you be. He would not want you to cry.”          

She nodded, her eyes still brimming with sadness. Soon after, she excused herself from the party. She did not bother to don her coat or shoes. Caesar could only assume she had retreated upstairs to warm old Charlie’s bed for him. And who can blame her? It’s a bad night to be sleeping alone. What is it they used to say? If you can’t be with the one you love…          

“I’m sorry, Charlie,” said Macmillan in hushed tones to the hulk of a man sitting beside him, “I did not mean to upset the lady.”          

“She’s no lady, lad… and she’ll be alright by morning, you’ll see.” Charlie patted his shoulder wearily and shuffled off to find a fresh bottle for them.                 

“Although,” Macmillan added once Charlie was down in the cellar, “women are far too emotional when it comes to death, don’t you think?”          

“Women are too emotional when it comes t’ everythin’,” Pond agreed with a cackle.          

Caesar was surprised – Pond’s concern for Katya seemed to have evaporated once Charlie was out of earshot. Fickle bastard. “She only got upset because she was remembering her husband. That’s understandable, isn’t it? Maybe she misses him.”          

Macmillan smiled. “Did you know her old man well, my brother?”          

Caesar shook his head. He didn’t know the man’s name, truth be told, never mind his character. “Why, did you?”          

“I had that pleasure, yes. His family fell on tough times a while back and I made sure he got approval for a loan he needed. I just pulled a few strings, nothing major, but he never forgot. He always had time for me after that. Used to get me a drink in whenever our paths crossed. He was a man of the old ways: well-liked, hardworking, charming in a gruff sort of way, you know the type. He knew how to scratch your back if you’d scratch his, if you get my meaning.”          

“He sounds like a good man,” said Caesar, thinking of Charlie.          

“Yes, a lot of people thought so. He believed a woman’s place was to obey, though… and, well, you’ve heard Katya when she gets going.” Macmillan sighed. “It was hardly a fairytale marriage. He used to beat her every time she overstepped the mark. It didn’t matter where they were or who was there. I even heard it told that he punched her in the face at his sister’s wedding.”          

Caesar didn’t know what to say. “Th-that’s… awful.”          

“Oh, don’t get me wrong,” Macmillan chuckled, “Katya gave as good as she got. She’d call him every name under the sun and didn’t care who heard her.”          

Pond chimed in. “They wer’ always at it. She wa’nt afraid t’ get physical, neither. Why, I remember seein’ ‘er and ‘er fella goin’ at it in this very bar, now that you mention it. Goin’ back a fair few years, mind.”          

“Too true. He had a rather distinctive scar on his cheek, and if I recall correctly, it was a gift from his darling wife.”          

Caesar was bewildered. “But then, why – ?”          

“– Didn’t she leave? A fair question. Why does any woman stay?”          

A series of images flashed unbidden through Caesar’s mind. His mother, frail and shivering on her deathbed, smiling to the end; the telephone ringing, and the subsequent tears that she would try her best to hide; his father returning home covered in the stink of alien perfume, dribbling gold and apologies with the ease of a man who knows he will always be forgiven; the uneaten dinners; the non-wrapped, hastily bought presents. Years and years of feeble excuses. A modest funeral.          

“I mean, why does she still cry for him, after all this time? Why isn’t she relieved it’s over? And why did Charlie call him a good man?”          

“Ah,” Macmillan smiled, “now we’re getting to the crux of it. It’s what I was saying earlier. Time is a funny thing, my brother, and so is nostalgia.” He walked around the table slowly, deliberately, and helped himself to one of Caesar’s cigarettes. “Have you ever noticed how the beauty of an object can increase solely because of your distance from it? Well, of course you have,” he snorted as he struck a match, “Charlie happened to mention that you share his fondness for old things.”          

Caesar gave him what he hoped was an intimidating look. He wasn’t exactly happy about this act of overfamiliarity, but knew as well as Macmillan that he was helpless to do anything about it. “History’s one thing. Distance is something else entirely.”          

“Oh, is it now? Are you certain of that?”          

Caesar hesitated for a moment.          

“Exactly. Think of it this way – if we were to step outside now and start walking, the land behind us would get further and further away. After a while, it would be but a speck on our horizon. Only then could we look over our shoulders and sigh ‘ah! London! How beautiful you were!’ and forget about all the disappointments we left behind.”          

Pond nodded eagerly, like a child being told a bedtime story. With Charlie gone, he had latched onto Macmillan with the ease of a leech locating a new source of blood.          

“It is the same, in a way, with the record of history, is it not?” Macmillan gave them both a crooked smile, taking measured puffs on his cigarette. Caesar noticed that he wasn’t inhaling – it was all just for effect. “For what is history, if not a recording of the thoughts and deeds of old, dead men? We look upon them in the same way we would view that faraway city – from a distance, with all their foulness forgotten. That’s all time is, my brother. It’s just another place to stand and enjoy the view. It can’t heal all wounds, but it can put a bit of space between you and the smell.”          

Caesar wasn’t sure what to say to that, so he lit a cigarette for himself and turned his chair towards the window, smoking and waiting in silence. When Charlie finally returned from the cellar he had whiskey (“An excellent vintage,” he assured them) and the topic changed. The hours soon began to blur. Caesar’s head was spinning when he finally left the bar and when he checked his watch, he groaned. It was already five-thirty. He was due at work in two hours.          

All the coffee in the world can’t help me now.             

True to his word, Charlie had slipped him a package on his way out the door, the contents giving their usual promising clink as they changed hands. Caesar kept the bundle close to his chest, hands sweating and slipping on the cheap plastic wrapping.          

The streets were an ugly thing at this time of morning. Dense, rotting cubes of condensed garbage lined the pavement, awaiting the first morning refuse collection. Half the stacks had already been split apart and ransacked by urban foxes and tomcats, and now starved gangs of near-skeletal pigeons were rooting hopefully for anything edible that remained. The stink was palpable, despite persistent rain. Caesar kept his head down and did his best not to stand in puddles.          

By the time he finally reached his apartment building, he was shivering despite the heat, and the outside pockets of his parka were fat with rainwater. It took him another ten minutes to get inside his abode as his sneezes kept interrupting the retinal scan. Caesar cursed it aloud, inadvertently activating the voice recognition override he had forgotten about, and fell inside in a heap as the door supporting his weight suddenly gave way.          

Hey, honey, I’m home.          

Caesar eyed the empty apartment from his new position on the floor. Upside-down Putin sneered back at him contemptuously, but Caesar didn’t mind – he was glad to see him. He kicked off his shoes and his wet jeans, then stretched his limbs out across the hardwood, grateful for such a smooth solid surface to lay his head upon. His package sat forgotten on the floor beside him. Outside, the sun had begun extending tentative fingers upward, outward, feeling out a safe path through the jagged edges of the city skyline. Caesar could feel its progress as the warmth spread across his face. He didn’t think he had ever been so comfortable. When his home holophone suddenly began bleeping, he didn’t want to move.           Unfortunately, his presence was registered by internal sensors and after a short delay the call connected automatically.      

 “Hello? M–Mr Minnox, are you there? Hello?” An unidentified voice addressed the unoccupied lounge, formal but anxious.          

Caesar bolted upright and staggered in the direction of the sound. He was unaware of how shrunken and awkward he looked, dishevelled and bare-legged, still in his raincoat.          

“Who’s there?” He rounded the corner and found out for himself. “Oh, it’s you. I thought I told you not to call me.”          

In the centre of the room stood the head and torso of a plump, balding hologram. It was intensely lifelike, right down to the crumbs on the tie and wayward nasal hairs: clearly a real-time datafeed. This sort of communication had become commonplace now. The twenty-third century equivalent to having a gossip over the garden gate, Caesar thought. Not that people can afford gardens anymore.          

“I’m sorry to contact you at home, Mr Minnox, but I have important news regarding your father’s estate. Can I transmit the file?”          

Caesar sighed. “If you must.”          

A pop-up holoscreen sprung up in response, inches from his nose. He sighed and raised his extended thumb towards it. After a second or so of scanning, his personal details began to rattle across the screen in an endless blur of text. He had been Recognised.                  

The screen went blank for a moment. Then he saw the words he had been dreading.          

“Henceforth reads the last will and testament of Minas Theodore Minnox,” Caesar read aloud. “I leave the sum of all my worldly possessions and tangible assets to my biological son, Caesar Minnox” – of course, there’s no one left but me now… who else was he going to leave it to? – “to be paid to him in monetary form upon completion of the sale of my estate. The sum is approximately… holy shit!”          

He had known that his father was rich, but he had never suspected that he was that rich. He didn’t know whether to feel angry or pleased; robbed or victorious.          

He let her rot in that goddamned house…          

“Mr Minnox?”          

Caesar realised that the head and torso of the solicitor hovering a few feet from him was now surveying him with some concern, and felt a sudden desire to laugh. He was drunk, half-naked, and had just inherited more money than he could ever hope to have earned in a lifetime. Which, Caesar mused, makes it really hard to give a shit about the opinions of a man wearing half of his breakfast as an accessory.            

Instead of laughing, he asked the obvious question. “So, when are you planning on handing over this obscene amount of money?”          

“Well, that was why I’m calling – to let you know that it’s been credited to your account. I processed it myself this morning. I just wanted to let you know that I was closing the file. You won’t be hearing from me anymore.”          

The man hesitated for a moment, perhaps hoping Caesar would say something. When he didn’t, he looked disappointed. “Right. OK then. I will leave you to your day. You’re clearly very… busy.”          

His face soured; an expression Caesar couldn’t help but mirror. “Clearly. How very astute of you. Can’t be standing around chatting about nothing. Goodbye, Mr Solicitor.”          

“My name is –“          

Too late.          

Caesar karate-chopped the air between them, severing the datafeed connection, and the solicitor vanished before he could finish his sentence.          

Silence fell. Caesar stood alone, his back to the warmth of the window, trying to decide what to do next. First, he took care of the obvious. Two minutes of investigation confirmed what the solicitor had said. Seeing that amount of zeroes in his credit allowance made his head spin, and he had to stagger off and mix himself a drink before he felt steady again (Gin, with a fresh slice of cucumber and a splash of tonic – just what he needed). Good old Charlie, he thought, shuffling back towards his tattered, misshapen sofa, ice clinking in the tumbler he was nursing on every left step. Maybe I’ll finally settle my tab with the old man. That’ll make his fucking day – I must owe him a fortune by now.          

He swapped his coat for a fleeced dressing gown and slippers, and proceeded to make himself comfortable. After a moment’s thought, he went back to the kitchen and returned with the bottle of gin. He set his home communications status to ‘DND’. The next few hours passed in a comfortable haze: Caesar drank and smoked cigarettes, tapping ash into a giant ornamental seashell near his feet. He listened as the city geared up for a new day. Honking horns and guttural engines took their place in the Great London City Orchestra alongside the nasal whines of distant motorbikes, the hammering of workmens’ drills, the boisterous hollering of exiting schoolchildren and the barks of their lonely dogs and mothers (both insisting that they return home to them, safe and soon). He could hear streets full of people chattering, and knew without looking down that almost none of them would be talking to each other – instead, each would have a top-of-the-range device pressed to their ear as if their life depended on it, talking to someone who was somewhere else entirely.          

He thought about calling work; about storming into the office, late and unapologetic for once in his life. He imagined saying the words “I quit”, playing the scene over and over in his head. Each new glassful spawned a fresh version, in which he became wittier, stronger and increasingly attractive to the opposite sex (in one case, sweeping Ms Oswald – who, despite her height and huskiness of voice, Caesar had always found quite alluring – into the sort of kiss that only existed in those archaic, dusty Technicolor motion pictures that his mother had been so fond of). However, none of these visions inspired him to move, or reconnect his holophone and make the call. In his state of blissful drunkenness, he decided instead to log onto the Web – something he normally avoided (unless, of course, he had money to spend).          

“Welcome back, Caesar,” sighed the operator, in her usual state of ecstasy. “It’s been too long. We’ve missed you. Are you ready to connect?”          

Caesar nodded his head a fraction, but it was enough. In the blink of an eye, a 32-screen live action hologram built itself around him like a cage, woven from tiny fibres of blue-green light. Each individual square contained a different datafeed which vied for his attention.          

It took him 172 seconds to spend his first million. He was led through a digital bazaar where he wanted everything he saw. ATS meant that capitalism now operated mostly on an unconscious level, and so consumers no longer sought out products in the old way – there was no need for that. Anything you could possibly imagine and more was available for purchase, and you didn’t have to go looking for it – it found you. It was already waiting for you. It knew that you wanted it before you did.           Caesar bought rare printed first editions of Dietovsky, Marlowe, Heidegger and Kant; bootlegged mp3s from last century’s Russian garage/punk revival, thought to have been lost forever to the subsequent Government Suppression Initiative; memorabilia from the British Space Exploration Mission to Mars in 2114; an all-white baby Grand piano; a set of ornate bone-china teacups. He found a man who claimed to possess an original Van Gogh and Banksy’s Telephone Box and said he would be willing to part with them if the price was right. Another claimed that for just a few billion credits (a bargain, really) he could put individuals in direct communication with the one true God (although he explicitly avoided stating which of the many Gods on offer he meant). Safe to say, there were no money-back guarantees. Cynicism helped him steer his focus away from those two windows.          

He found manufacturers of hand-stitched clothes and a conversion device that would let him watch old films, playing formats long since out of use – digital video discs and magnetic tapes and even the old reels of film they used to use in the cinema houses, before they went out of fashion. He stumbled across bookstore after bookstore after bookstore, and bought more volumes than he possibly had space for. When he spotted a little paper notepad, bound in laser cut purple suede and complete with a matching click-top pen, he snapped that up too. He couldn’t recall a time that he had ever written on a piece of paper using ink. The closest he had ever come were novelty, digitised versions – a digital stylus made to look like a scroll, a peacock-feather quill disguising a digital pen, that sort of thing. This was real paper, and it came with real ink. The thought of owning it made him feel warm inside.

Ha! Like a true capitalist. Macmillan would be proud.

And yet, as he thought that, he knew that what he was looking for could not be found within the electronic matrix of the Web; that id party-house – he was looking in all the wrong places. It was just that he didn’t know where else to look.

Russian Rose (A Short Story)

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Her hospital room held a single window, cradled between its palms. Its clumsy fingers blocked out the majority of the light, leaving meagre scraps behind. Svetlana shuffled close and pushed her face up against the glass, her slippers soundless against tile. Her view was dominated, plagued, by concrete and stone – a bizarre juxtaposition, although in Moscow there was little else.

She observed a fly on the opposite face of the glass, savouring its freedom. Her envy of the insignificant, disease-ridden bug was evident. It could dance on the wind if it wanted. She was a caged dove in this place. She sighed in defeat at the robe she had been made to wear. She was certain she wasn’t imagining it – it accentuated her lack of shape, taunting her for her lack of a belly.

Her thoughts wandered to a different dress, the dress she had worn to dance a few nights before.  The memory haunted her, casting shadows on her thoughts. That night she had lost her grace, lost it forever.

Never had Svetlana been more lost or afraid: she was inconsolable, pacing around her little prison, her agitation growing with each plucky little tick-tock of the clock. It had been three days, and there had still been no word from her fiancé. Never before had he missed a performance or phone call.

The first time she had met Pierre was almost a year ago, after a stunning performance of Swan Lake at the Bolshoi. He had fallen over himself to present her with an armful of roses, brimming with awe. His eyes sparkled, as if her greatness had crystallised into stars to fill his eyes.

He had sworn that he would love her forever; the stars would surely fail to ignite without her inspiration; that even the light looked clumsy beside her, such was her grace. He told her the willows wept with envy when she danced; that her performance had stolen breath from him that would never return. All these proclamations had fallen from him without so much as a preliminary ‘hello’.

The exuberant bouquet he had brought for her tormented his nose, meaning his declaration of affection was punctuated by ill-timed sneezes. Svetlana had found him adorable. That night he had promised to be in the crowd every night, waiting to throw her a single, red rose.

Her little Parisian in Russia: for her, it was delicious. His colourful, European tongue exercised the mechanics of her language so terribly; she couldn’t help but envisage a weary poet at work, pouring with sweat, amazed at the effortless strength and execution of burly, sturdy Russian men. They had lost weeks to the blur of sightseeing, these two people so thoroughly wrapped up in one another, losing themselves in the old streets of Moscow. She had initially traipsed around the tourist spots for him, smiling although she was rigid as a puppet throughout.

At night, though, she came alive. Time froze around her to allow her to glitter. When Pierre mentioned his observation, she swore at night, if she put her ear to the ground, she could hear the pump of the lifeblood around the heart of Moscow. She said, at night, she felt its warmth swim the streets. Slowly, steadily, Pierre began to understand what Svetlana meant.

Bohemian cafes with ramshackle walls trembled as rapturous music flowed through them like the cheap wine they served. Splintered tables housed strangers becoming friends, and friends becoming enemies. Men without fortunes wearing silk neckerchiefs sang songs of revolution and change, raising glasses to their long-suffering wives. Tortured artists and aspiring musicians snaked the streets past dawn. Like a show for the lovers, night after night the broken city had come alive for them, all the while masking the approach of winter.

So, that Friday on her opening night, Svetlana had stood in the wings concealed by plumes of luxurious, crimson velvet. She had stood on tiptoe wrapped in that curtain for over half an hour, straining to catch a glimpse of the Frenchman she had fallen for. On occasion she thought she saw him out of the corner of her eye, but was left disappointed on further inspection.

Foreboding gnawed at her like rats; the hope inside her sank like rotten floorboards under the weight of the vermin. That night should have been the biggest night of her life for a very different reason. Instead, her mind kept skipping to savings and schools, credit and cradles. Her thoughts became one giant mouth to feet.

Trying to force her great confession to the back of her mind, she graced the stage. She felt clumsy, somehow; misaligned; a weighted die. The thoughtless intrusion of foreboding crashed over her once more as she caught sight of the chair her fiancé should have been occupying. Form failed her upon realisation that he could be gone forever, never again gifting her with a rose. It had become a symbol of their devotion to one another, but tonight he had broken his promise. Was she a fool to fall for his sweet lies?

Would she have to do this alone?

This new sensation of isolation and doubt displaced her feet. With infinite stealth, the floorboards seemed to re-align themselves. Grace deserted her as if someone had cut the marionette strings.

She remained where she had fallen, head hung in confusion and shame. A tsunami of offered hands came surging towards her, in a fight to reach her first. Their hands stank of it false kindness and the eagerness, so she attempted to brush them aside.

Svetlana realised that she had ripped her dress and that she had begun to cry silently. Mascara made ink spats on sugary-pink tights. It was a crude and ugly sight, the first sign of weakness. It was only when she tried to stand that she realised the reason for the panic around her. Svetlana had a lapful of blood. It was a thick and pungent brown; life blood. Death blood.

The soul she had been nursing left her behind that night. Then, as if it had been Svetlana who had died on that stage, they had packed her off in the ambulance and shut her in this little white box; a prison masquerading as a hospital. They had taken her dead, formless child and left her alone, all alone, with only her thoughts for company.

Her thoughts, and an empty vase, awaiting roses…

Dog Burglar in the House of Clocks (flash fiction)

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Gerrard Houdini would never be a cat burglar: that required stealth, poise and a certain arrogance he simply didn’t possess… dog burglar would be more accurate.

Gerrard perched on a brick wall in the spring sunrise, watching the warm fuzz cast its patchwork blanket, each home seeming open-armed in welcome. He struggled to think of his hobby as theft and trespass – they were such dirty words! He just loved to explore, and the trinkets he stole were mementos of strange houses and unrealised friends.

Tonight it was the house on the corner that had set his bulbous nose twitching like a wagging tail. It was tall and spindly, distinctly different from the surrounding gingerbread terraces, and looked like it might be hiding a few mysteries in the backyard under clumps of neglected daffodils. When he saw the interior windowsills were lined with the dull twinkle of silver, he lost his footing in excitement and fell, colliding face-first with an overflowing metallic dustbin in a blur of noise and banana peel.

Not a curtain twitched as Gerrard Houdini rolled his podgy midriff clumsily over the garden fence. Tonight the gossips set their gaze elsewhere, for no one wanted to interfere at mad Madame Clockwork’s house. After jimmying a window and climbing inside, disturbing a couple of dozing pigeons in the process, Gerrard reached out a gloveless hand without thinking and flicked the lights on.

“Oh f – !” Gerrard realised his mistake and hastily corrected it. The momentary flash brought the realisation that he was surrounded. The occupants were enormous buxom women with chocolate skin, great squares swathed in great drapes of silk – wait, square?

Gingerly, he flicked the switch again. The room was lost to a swarm of antique furniture, arranged too closely and awkwardly to indicate use. Cotton dustsheets thrown by short-reaching arms barely covered their half-imagined modesty.

Gerrard found every room he entered in a similar state of mid-dress. They were like ladies awaiting assistance from handmaids long since dead. Didn’t anybody live here? Failing to spot the Edwardian table leg emerging from under a cotton corner, he tripped and fell in a clatter.

Impatience drove the great dope to descend the stairs. It was curiosity’s fault, though, that he opened that door. Despite the silence, the light made him certain someone was behind it. The room was not what he expected, and neither was its occupant, but what was strangest was their juxtaposition. The room was pale gold and gleaming, garnished like an appetiser not meant for eating. Its tall walls were drenched in clocks, set mere inches apart, their stern round faces towering over him. Each shelf and decorative table, too, teamed with a battalion of time-keepers.

Stood at the centre of all the luxury was a woman so elderly she seemed to degrade before his eyes. Age made a mockery of what once must have been a handsome face. Her chandelier cheekbones were long lost behind the cobwebs of wrinkled, translucent skin.

This breathing antique gave him a much-delayed smile, toothless but warm, then beckoned him inside with feather-light fingers. “You’re just in time! Come in and make yourself at home, my dear.”

A smile broke like eggshell and slid across Gerrard’s face. In his pleasure at being expected by her, he forgot that he was an intruder and made himself comfortable in a tasselled armchair so cushioned it half-swallowed him.

“Nice place you’ve got here,” he stated with a vague but vigorous nod. Observing all the absurdities of British politeness, he started to look around meticulously at nothing in particular.

“Oh, yes. Shame it’ll all be gone soon.” There was a great sadness in her eyes that Gerrard struggled to interpret.

“Throwing a few things out in the spring clean?” His head began bobbing mindlessly again. “I hope you keep the clocks!”

“Oh yes. Without the clocks, how would I ever know when it’s time?” The silver bells of her laughter rang senile.

“Time for what?” In confusion, Gerrard’s face was all angles.

“Why, my dear, the end.”

Gerrard’s wit flailed uselessly like a Labrador’s tongue. “The end…? Of… the month?”

Madame Clockwork adopted a dramatic stage whisper. “Of the world.” She shuffled closer and beckoned him into a conspiratorial huddle. “At exactly 4:54 we will experience THE LAST SUNDAY.” She spoke the last three words in capitals.

Gerrard Houdini glanced at the clock. It was 4:54 now.

“That clock must be wrong,” he murmured dismissively, exercising all the tact of a bull loose in porcelain Legoland, “the sun’s rising.”

“That just proves it! Don’t you see?! The sun is rising now because there won’t be a 6:00!”

It took the great Houdini longer than most to defeat her warped logic with common sense.  “It’s because you haven’t changed the clocks! They went forward today,” he departed with a knowing nod. “’Spring forwards, fall back!’ I’ll give you a hand changing them… shall I put them to 5:55?”

CHANGE?!? To FIVE?!?” Words spluttered from her in ugly, volcanic fury. She swung her arm at the clock Gerrard was resting his clumsy paw on. Her strength in anger was surprising.

“Noone changes time! NOONE! Get out of my house! How dare you tell me it’s already past five? How dare you come here and ruin an old woman’s happiness?!? GET OUT!!”

And then old Madame Clockwork began to tear the room apart with fierce, tiny claws. The air was suddenly awash with fragmented glass and cushion-stuffing, and punctuated by frantic, frustrated shrieks. Houdini fled through the unlocked front door, loudly cursing the day he ever heard of Daylight Saving Time.

Old Madame Clockwork concluded that The End Of The World was a complicated and time-consuming business, unlikely to be thrown off by something as whimsical as ‘spring forwards, fall back’. It would no doubt be along shortly. No matter that it was 5:15.

It was only a matter of time.

A sneak peek of the prologue from my first novel, ‘The Light Station’

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OK, so I’m working on a novel, called The Light Station. It’s set in the twenty-third and twenty-eighth centuries, and follows one Caesar Minnox, a lonely forty-something with a drinking problem and a house full of relics. In a nutshell, this is a story about sex, death and time travel – amongst other things.

We all know the importance of a strong start, so I’ve decided to share my prologue with you. I’d be delighted to hear what you think – whether it’s good, bad, or downright ugly.

 


SYNOPSIS

Caesar Minnox is a lost soul. Unable to find his place in a deteriorating twenty-third century society, he decides to embark on a life-changing journey and travels forward in time 600 years to the colony of Neo-London. At this point in the future, time-travel has become little more than a package holiday. It has been commercialised; tamed and domesticated. People visit to sample the inventive methods of intoxication, the exclusive health spas, or simply to say that they’ve done it. No real attention is paid to the world beyond their window.

Outside, the Sun is eagerly eating itself. As it morphs into a red giant, prompted by failing stores of helium, its radius expands and advances ever closer. Now, only a few protected colonies remain amongst otherwise disintegrated cities, generating their time-travel tourist trade whilst the planet awaits its inevitable fate.

Upon arrival in 2813, Caesar hopes to achieve the sense of belonging he has yearned for his whole life. Instead his sense of alienation is crystallised by his interactions with his fellow tourists. He finds himself drawn to a native scientist who confirms the existence of nomadic communities living outside of the colony’s boundaries. Though they are poverty-stricken and live devoid of all technology, Caesar develops romanticised notions of escaping to join these godless outlaws. He imagines himself being accepted by those learning to live in the dirt, and begins to wonder if his salvation lies beyond the colony’s glass perimeter…

Intent on escape, Caesar rushes into a nearby souvenir shop and buys a poorly thought-out survival kit before disappearing unnoticed into the night. What he finds out amongst the wastelands is far beyond anything he could ever have imagined and will change life as he knows it forever.

 


 

PROLOGUE

 

Dusk was falling on a damp, sticky autumn night; the first of many. Caesar surveyed the city from above with eyes the colour of a gathering storm. London was sprawled out beneath his sixtieth-floor apartment in all its glory, lights twinkling in greeting of the gathering crowds. Already he could hear the familiar night-time song – the buzz and thrum of distorted basslines, the crescendo of a siren’s wail, the guttural chug of rails and clattering heels-on-tile from deep within the Underground. The city rose out of the smog like a Valkyrie, fearless in the face of a sun that edged ever closer.

The days were always hot now. Even when it rained, the days were hot. The seasons had ceased to matter in that respect. Those who could took refuge inside, where the climate and air quality could be controlled. Those who couldn’t took measured breaths and hoped for thicker skins.

Caesar wouldn’t choose to be anywhere else though. The heat was everywhere, and besides, London was his city. The architecture spoke to him of ages past and battles won, and hiding in amongst the blocks and office buildings, he had found structures as old as digital memory. Caesar liked to think that they had stood watch over the years, as silent vigils of the city. Up close, London was all cramped streets and towering walls, drowning in smoke and dirt and crowds that shoved from every side. That didn’t matter. Not from up here. He could gaze down as if he were watching a television screen and could change the channel at any time. The people below him were nothing but a distant, thinking swarm – they could be anybody, anything. He liked it better that way.

It wasn’t that he hated them. He just didn’t know how to be a part of their world. The life he had been born into fit him poorly and he never seemed to grow into it, no matter how tall or wise he had gotten. His father used to joke that at some point during his childhood, the world had moved on and had chosen to leave him behind. He preferred his mother’s words – but then, he always had. During the years after she was gone, he had had to listen to his father unabated.

Not anymore though, he told himself, and never again.

He settled himself by the window, snuggled deep into his favourite chair and returned to his book. Paper was an expensive commodity nowadays, but books had been his guilty pleasure ever since he was a boy. The volume he was currently reading dated back centuries and was bound in luxurious, embossed leather. It was the only one left of its kind. A work of art, Caesar thought, even before you’ve opened it. He ran his fingers over the raised letters of the cover as he had done a thousand times before. This illustrated edition of Blake’s work was his favourite and held pride of place on a bookshelf which lined most of the room. The insurance for that alone had cost him thousands; printed material was now considered antique, as were most of his belongings. The majority of the furniture in the apartment was carved from solid wood, and the fabrics were hand-woven in the old way. Mock-ups of famous Impressionist paintings covered the walls. The surfaces were filled up by eclectic accessories, like the bust of One-Eyed Putin which sat poised in the hallway to greet him – half of it was kitsch, obsolete nonsense, but that didn’t matter to Caesar. That wasn’t the reason he had purchased these things. He collected them because this world no longer had a place for them. Their presence gave him a comfort he had never found in a crowd.

Though he had tried to make the technology in the space as unobtrusive as possible, its presence was inevitable. Most aspects of the home environment, from cooking and cleaning to monitoring and security measures, were fully automated. Furthermore, it seemed no one could get by in the twenty-third century without at least one reader and projector in every room.

Gods forbid I was to miss out on something, Caesar mused, it would turn to history before I knew about it. Seems I’m the only one left who cares about what’s past. He sighed. No-one cares about the facts, about the fear and death and sacrifice that’s come before us, about what’s made us who we are. All they care about is the present; the here and now. It’s all about e-tabloid headlines and bright lights, the Next Big Thing, and of course the fun, fun, fun. When did we become so shallow?

He spent many of his nights like this, alone and melancholic, pondering where the world had gone wrong. As an employee of the British Library, Caesar spent his days recording every last speck of cultural data deemed to have potential value for future generations. Given that nobody wrote books anymore, the definition of ‘value’ had been somewhat transformed: the last three months of his working life, for example, had been dedicated to documenting all the packaging, advertisements and examples of consumer feedback – including every comment or spin-off ever uploaded – for the controversial Japanese cereal, ‘Tii-To’ (famous in the mid-22nd Century for using topless schoolgirls to sell their merchandise). No wonder I’m so grumpy. The world’s gone bloody mad and I’m the only one who seems to have noticed.

As usual, that called for a drink. He shuffled into the gleaming marble kitchen, intent on topping up his glass. He found the bottle empty, but for a measly capful or so. Dammit, he cursed himself, I knew I’d forgotten something.

He had synthetics on tap within the apartment, of course, but Caesar had never really taken to any of the Government-approved intoxicants. They were clean, tasteless and ultimately unsatisfying. No, what he really wanted was the good stuff – a mature Scotch whisky or Russian vodka, perhaps, something with a real kick to it.

Big Ben rang out over the city, solemn and unflinching as ever. The eighth gong told him that he had time to get to Charlie’s before he closed up for the night.

He scooped up the bottle and peered through its eye. “One for the road?”

He shrugged and drained the last of it before slinging a coat around his shoulders and making his way out into the darkening streets of London.