The Vanguard arch continues: Mevoine discovers his talents, an old threat emerges, and shoelaces start filing taxes.

*

The Heart of Oblivion sailed a relatively empty ocean. Distant stars peeked around its lumbering form, often described as a dizzying marriage of metal and forest, flowering nebulas sloshed through snaking vines and tree-tops and stared in wonder at their own dazzling reflections twirling across the battered metal.

The ship had seen better days. Many better days, many, many years ago. Better days were, in its brutally honest opinion, probably a hallucination it had personally fabricated to temper the emptiness and the loneliness, a sort of self-imposed madness in a sort of self-medicating way.

It was relatively close to hundreds of inhabited planets and systems. ‘Relatively’ is a word that gets thrown about a lot, and in fact, is thrown about so much there’s always someone there to catch it with a quantum mitten of ‘Well, actually…’. For example: an estate agent will say your new house is relatively close to the beach, when in truth it takes two trains, three busses, a short ride on a dangerous rickshaw, and no less than four human sacrifices to the Pagan gods to get there. But in comparison to the unfathomably lengthy leagues of space, that is to say relative to the mind-bending depths of the endless void, it is actually rather close, for any celestial hunk of rock is relatively close to its siblings and cousins when the cosmic frame is applied.

That isn’t to say the beach is close to your new house, but relative to the distance a single shred of light has to travel from star to planet, you don’t really deserve the right to complain and should probably just get on with the sacrificing and the brutish singing and dancing and whatever else rambles on at these sorts of events.

A mountainous phantom shambling through star-studded blankness, forgotten by those it passed and immune to the pitiless vacuum. Relatively glacier-slow and relatively lightning-fast.

Observers may find difficulty in describing its shabby, battle-worn appearance, for Nephilim fabrications couldn’t converse appropriately with perception, regardless of the internal language employed. Descriptions of the Heart of Oblivion had ranged from a limbless crustacean with an impressive head of hair to a lop-sided metal shark wreathed in a tangled net of tree limbs; none were pinpoint accurate but the vague idea they formed wasn’t far off.

One salient detail to escape the trappings of these impossibly defined perceptions was the ship’s excessive size. Even relative to the slumbering stars and curious planets it occasionally meandered past it towered over most of these celestial bodies like a mobile cathedral and sneered in arrogant contempt at its diminutive if temporary neighbours. It was undoubtedly much like a planet, it had the size, the weight, the patchwork look as if whatever hand had created it had also given up on completing it rather too easily, and its millions of disparate inhabitants swarmed through its internal compartments without offering too much concern for its nebulous functions or upkeep.

Thankfully, since this was not a planet, these functions and eternally necessary maintenance were all handled automatically. For a person can be clean, but a machine is unerringly immaculate.

Inside one of the ship’s impressively spotless hallways, almost devoid of murk or dirt but for the tidy heaps of liberated foliage that dropped from the invasive trunks congesting nearly every invadable province, Samir charged hastily towards the Bridge, dented armour shimmering in the dreadful glow cast by the unnatural light fixtures appended above.

His summons had been clear: drop everything and report to Morombe at once. Something akin to fear had glimmered somewhere in his mind, and like the battle-weary soldier he was, he had silenced it. Duty above all else, the motto they would inscribe on his tombstone. When Morombe wanted something he got it; the privilege of Nelia’s Prime was never left grasping.

Unwavering loyalty such as this could not be bought or traded or learned. It was simply surety of the self, that one’s convictions are like fire, and not until the body has died shall that blistering faith be extinguished, and even then the smouldering remnants would exude that pious heat.

He followed the hallway left, passed a group of initiates. They bowed solemnly, waited for him to fully move past, and only then did they breathe out, exchanging terrified and awed expressions in a panicked silence, like schoolchildren smoking on the sly when their headteacher rounds the corner.

He had taken the shortest route manageable on foot. The transporters were under maintenance for the third time that month, something to do with accidental dispersions of content matter. It didn’t really bother him where the matter went, long as he didn’t have to clean it up and wasn’t a part of said content matter. Let the initiates taste the vacuum, let them feel the cold breath of the abyss crystallize their skin. That is, if they had anything left to taste or feel with after the aforementioned ‘dispersion’.

As it was, not a bad journey to take. Twenty minutes’ walk from his bunk at the Commanders’ Offices and already he was in the productive way. A thoughtful journey cultivates the mind’s processes, streamlines the responses, sharpens the focus, and swats away those nagging parasites of memories. He was ready for whatever Morombe could throw at him.

The bridge domed the top half of the ship, slightly bulged from the main body like a golden marble eye. Inside was a deliciously opulent festival for the senses; here the forestry had merged with the metal slabs, bloomed into red lotuses and silvery lilies and baby-blue birds of paradise, all of which draped the intricately decorated and ornamentally inscribed gold walls like glittering Christmas lights, and burst from the leaf-laden brooks that entombed their aeon-aged limbs in the centre of it all. There were worse places for them to rest.

In the dim glow the walls, ceiling, and floor shimmered like shallow pools, across their sculpted decorations glistening ripples and waves lapped, as if the reality around them had a less than full grip on itself.

This was the atrium, a circular entrance to the larger Bridge as a whole. Directly ahead was the primary command centre, the ship’s brain, as it were; analysts, both living and machine, and a few un-living and un-machine for good measure, maintained the bustling lives of the throngs below and took care of the day-to-day problems that inevitably arose with such a titanic domain, preserved the ship’s innumerable systems as the brain preserves the nervous system. Samir had entered there once and found the experience as enlightening as a hammer to the forehead. Sure, it would probably help somewhat with other annoying aches and pains, once you’d felt that there was no feeling anything else, but inherent in the action was fanged aggression and you couldn’t help but feel at least a little under attack, that it might be a personal grudge and not simply for the basic function of hitting someone over the head with a hammer. The people in there were, even by the Vanguard’s infamously low standards, unwelcoming pigs, stone walls with barbed wire wrapped around. They looked at any and each intruder like they were tracking dirt into Morombe’s personal bedchamber.

Slightly to his left there was a pair of shimmering blue doors, almost aflame with a coat of ethereal smoke that seemed always shifting and morphing, interlocking with each individual tapered plume, so that the entire ordeal was like a saturnalia of profoundly rich, bellowing blue smoke. The doors reached from floor to ceiling, at least twenty feet in height. Forestry wrapped around the frame as if to peel it away and visit what hid on the other side. It looked drastically out of place among lavish golden surroundings, like the atrium had been built to accommodate the door, not the other way around, like this great portal with the living tapestry of smoke as its mask was alien to any perceivable or un-perceivable environment.

He bowed to the portal that was not a door at all, as was custom. He bowed to what lived behind the door that was not a door, and was only a door because that’s what he had been told it was when first he saw it, and stayed bowed for a moment of reflection.

A deep hum emanated from the writhing blanket of smoke, as of something breathing behind its wispy wreathe. Samir let it fill him, let it catch in his chest, like snatching a song from the air and living off the fumes of its melody. He knew the song well, could follow every beat with his finger, could speak every word with his mind, could soar with the tune as it crescendoed and swelled and surged like an eagle riding along the crest of an air current high above the world’s woes. For that song he had invested everything he had ever been and could ever be into the Vanguard. Nelia’s song.

Something behind him stirred. He stirred back.

‘Ma’voi.’

He relaxed.

‘Gywn. Sallu.’

Gywn pointed to his outstretched hand with a tree-trunk finger. ‘Would you mind putting away the gun?’

‘Not at all.’ He straightened, re-adjusted. Difficult to remove the mind from the song while it was being sung, it lingered forlornly in the ear, like it was afraid if it left it would never be heard again.

‘Dal sai, Samir,’ said Gywn. ‘Morombe sent for you.’

Phrased like a question, spoken as statement, and always that hidden layer of disbelief frosted on top.

‘I assumed he had urgent business,’ said Samir. ‘Perhaps, if you are here, that is not true. Business that is not your business is to be avoided, I understand.’

Gywn had this unexplained effect on people. Beneath the short veil of shock-white hair her eyes screamed out their sockets, seemingly desperate to escape whatever was happening in the brain. Scars shaped her high-seated cheekbones and scimitar nose, which had at some point rejected the concept of nostrils. Pointed bat-like ears shot to the back of her ghostly-white head. She wore, as was custom among Commanders, a severe and dark faux-armour that looked like she had recently attended a funeral and hadn’t bothered to change just in case she instigated another.

None of this contributed to the Gywn effect. The Gywn effect was directly proportional to her height.

Samir had to crane his neck to look her in the eyes. It was probably a good thing she didn’t have nostrils. Nostrils you’d lose a monkey in.

‘He is waiting for you,’ she said impatiently, looking down her nose – admittedly unavoidable. ‘Go safely, Ma’voi.’

‘And you.’

Another excited benefactor to the Gywn effect was her uncanny ability to be absolutely silent. Somebody that height lumbered and loafed and generally shuffled with an oafish gait, dragged their over-strained feet along for the high-rising ride, but Gywn never made a sound. Every footstep settled on the floor like a shadow.

After she had left in her ghastly silent way, Samir bowed again to the doors that were not doors, glanced over his shoulder to make doubly sure she had left, and entered Morombe’s lavish chambers.

The upper echelons of the Vanguard force didn’t usually surrender to excess, for their war was beyond the physical, and materialistic attachments provided no real, tangible effort towards triumph. Samir, like many other Commanders, had only his weaponry and armour, and for him these were the Promethean tools the Creator had gifted in the efforts of victory.

Morombe thought differently. His chambers were a labyrinth of mirrored auditoriums, each lined with freakishly lifelike sculptures, stunning paintings and photographs of transcendent vistas and awe-inspiring panoramas that melted into the mind and lingered there like a sweet taste on the tongue, models of ships and valiantly garbed armies, plus a few Nephilim as Morombe understood them to be, hung in the breezy air like flocks of brightly coloured birds, and looked frozen in time. Pipe organs, like those used in churches, covered the walls and merged spectacularly with the nosy foliage that had barged through gaps in the ceilings and swarmed from behind the marble cylinders like vines. Prisms of glittering light hovered and banked and dived through the gold-laden halls.

Everywhere there was an untouchable marriage of the natural world and the fabricated world. The rest of the ship was similar but here the union was like law.

Samir squeezed through a particularly low branch, which had begun to produce pale cherry blossoms that sparkled and winked like gems, and looked for a sign of his enigmatic lord among the winding, twisting membranes of reality as they crashed and tussled for superlative authority.

To search, one must use their available senses. Sight, sound, smell, even touch and taste. Seasoned Vanguard had an extra sense, in addition to any they may have learned from other species, which involved the awareness of what is known as ‘nexus energies’. Everything that exists contains within it a trace of the Creator, and it was by this trace anything could be tracked, hunted, found and understood, and separated from their innumerable copies spread across an infinitely reaching creation. Morombe’s teeming chambers were tailored to nullify the use of this sense, to overload those energies to breaking point, that anyone searching the clutter could find what they were looking for was like expecting a blind man to correctly choose which speck of dust had fallen most recently into a vat of cotton wool.

Samir grimaced – at least, as close to a grimace as his stone features would allow. The metal and gold jungle shifted perpetually, and didn’t care in the slightest for eager intruders stumbling through its internalised chaos, even if it served the same master as them.

He experimented tentatively with the sense, and grunted as he instantly turned it off. The feeling was like waking up from a deep sleep and having a pyromaniac shoot jets of fire into your retinas. Too much stimuli overloaded the brain, couldn’t sort the myriad images into a reasonable and understandable map. Within the chaotic, undulating jungle brimming with incongruous energy, normal senses were the only option for exploration.

He detected movement in the corner of his eye, turned slowly. There, navigating the bushes and dripping vines and swamping flowers, Morombe emerged from the caustic jungle like an unseen predator choosing its moment to pounce.

Silvery white eyes, devoid of pupils, swam in a brilliant ebony ocean that reflected the sparkling light with the astounding splendour of flawless diamonds. He was dressed in ornate black robes embroidered with Nelia’s golden sigil on the front, and the Creator’s considerably more reserved sigil on the back. They covered most of his tattoos – which were like the doors that were not doors, in that they were tattoos that were not tattoos – other than the surgical exploration of a clock on his neck beside the fat, ugly bars that marked his survival of Iron-Kwell, and again both the sigils of Nelia and the Creator made stark and proud appearances on the top of his admittedly gargantuan hands.

His bald head rose far above Samir’s own. At least an arm or two taller. What Gywn had in sheer verticality, Morombe more than made up for in declarative presence. The presence of anything else, no matter how resilient or haughty, yielded at once to his, like a gale force surrendering to the thundering majesty of a rampant hurricane. One glance at the ebony Adonis, who had the self-satisfied stride of a god, and indeed had probably met a few, and everyone else seemed to shrink.

Samir himself was no small man. But in Morombe’s overwhelming presence, anything and everything was much, much smaller. A brief, albeit powerful, flicker of terror arrested Samir. One swipe with his hand, if he even bothered to use his hands anymore, and Morombe could send him flying into the nearest star – some thousand light years away.

He bent to his knee, gave his sign of fealty.

‘Ma’voi,’ he said respectfully. ‘Sallu. May your victory be mine.’

‘And may yours be mine,’ replied Morombe in a voice like thunder. ‘Come.’

The furrowed curtains of boughs and branches separated under conscious direction as deeper into the semi-sentient maze the two commanders explored. Sheets of glimmering light split and unfurled. The chaos retreated, if only slightly, and revealed as though by divine providence the round and magnificent vestibule at the dead-centre of the chambers. Samir knew this was the bullseye point of the larger auditorium’s board; the centre of gravity around which orbited the neighbouring galaxies of golden, untamed jungle. And it was where Morombe had made his home.

Corrugated walls of air slid upwards and vanished, rogue squads of blue and orange orbs followed them. Their master’s appearance pushed them into a rushed retreat.

Bulky limbs of bark and petal curled back like serpents preparing to strike, handsome verdures and smug crawlers peeled apart, and within the newly excavated space the master seized his throne of thorn and wood.

Samir hovered uneasily at the vestibule’s entrance. A soldier awaits orders, he doesn’t think for himself. And he aimed to be the best soldier Morombe had ever taught.

‘Do not stand on ceremony. Sit.’

Gorgeous blossoms settled on his crouched knees. Arboreous fingers poked at the back of his neck. The tree branch chewed uncomfortable and spat out downright miserable, and on that decrepit, almost spitefully rough throne Samir presently sat. The sentient flora did consciously alter their bodies on command, it wasn’t like they couldn’t choose to be comfortable. But like Samir, their loyalty and sense of duty was exclusive to Morombe. Anyone else was just a faceless, armour clad idiot, not deserving of their finest comforts.

The busy vestibule relaxed in radiant columns of warm light floating atop calm crests of the jungle’s buoyant breath. A few pale sculptures glared eyelessly into the centre from their sentinel posts. Pythons of branches lazily scurried around the jungle.

A thick black desk, made of an almost transparent material through which glanced embers and sparks, and ribboned with cherry-red pewter, occupied the divide between servant and master. Bauble-topped spires lanced from its corners. It looked like an ancient design salvaged from some deep ocean floor, an ugly trinket from an historic empire now resigned to anonymity.

There was an organic quality to the desk, as if at any moment it would suddenly sprout legs and scamper away into the surrounding madness like mobile luggage with a death-wish.

‘The usual?’ said Morombe.

‘That will do fine.’

The desk’s core sunk like a platform. After a few loud moments, during which the desk shook and vibrated, and emitted sounds not unlike someone taking apart their cupboard to find a coveted pair of socks hiding at the bottom, the desk produced a blood-red bottle and a pair of blue-tinted glasses.

The bottle hovered up from the intricate platform and poured its dark and watery contents into the glasses. Morombe took one and handed Samir the other. They looked like tiny snowglobes in his meaty palms.

‘How goes the fight?’ said Samir, venturing a sip. It looked like wine, smelled like wine, and tasted a lot like wine, but was more like the memory of wine as recalled and recreated by a serial amnesiac. This was, however, Morombe’s favourite drink, and he refused to entertain the notion of rejecting his lord and master’s kindness.

‘As one might expect,’ said Morombe. He settled deeper in his lush seat. ‘I received some news earlier this morning.’

It was never worrying news or good news or sad news, just news. That was the grey dullness of Morombe’s emotional spectrum – nothing spiked or brooked from the bleary colours. Ol’ dead-eyes they called him. Not to his face, of course. People who took to the adventure of saying this to his face often found their own faces suddenly elsewhere.

‘Ranav’s forces are overrun in Nebus,’ he continued with an almost genetic weariness. ‘It would appear a strategic mistake is forcing us into a full retreat. Losing this quadrant is, I have been painfully assured, the first step in the Pantheon’s further conquest. The front-line has moved and once again we must move with it. Ranav will not be returning home, I’m afraid. He is fighting to the last.’

‘What mistake?’

‘Ranav miscalculated.’ He drunk half the glass, clicked his fingers, and the still hovering bottle replenished the lot. ‘And like all things, he will be held accountable. In his own way. Nelia does not wish to judge too harshly the man who will not see tomorrow’s sunrise.’

‘What chance do we have at taking back the line?’ said Samir.

‘None. We have already lost it. Sending troops,’ he added as an argument reached Samir’s stony lips, ‘into an unstable zone like Nebus is the same as feeding our forces to a meat-grinder. Unwise, given how many we have lost recently. We cannot afford to over-extend ourselves on this one.’

‘Lose the battle, not the war?’

‘That is the hope. Whether the intent triumphs over the outcome remains to be seen, as so often is the case.’ Silver tails chased flickers of golden light. Despairing sparks swamped the vestibule. Morombe’s features darkened. ‘Cog is back.’

Samir seized up, rigid. It was all he could do to stop himself lashing out like a caged animal catching the scent of blood. Hot hate and rage poured out every crack.

The clockwork bastard was back. His name alone thawed Samir’s mind, melted long frozen and buried memories; the smell of oil and the hiss of steam, the clatter of pistons, the clockwork bastard in his clockwork heap, and those bulging, lidless eyes…

‘Perhaps reserve yourself for later,’ said Morombe dryly. ‘I just cleaned this place up.’

Samir realised he was standing. The hovering lights had gravitated to the raw magnetism of his fury.

‘Apologies,’ he managed. ‘Just… Cog.’

‘I had my misgivings about telling you,’ said Morombe. ‘History has a way of repeating itself. It’s a powerful cycle and we are all caught in its currents. I’d rather not see you pulled beneath the surface but Gywn suggested it would be advantageous to stoke your flames, not pinch them out. I trust this was the wise decision.’

‘Yes, Ma’voi. Wise.’ Thoughts organised to fully consider the old threat now resurfaced. ‘Contacting the Optivarr may be our best chance. If Cog has indeed emerged, we must be ready for him.’

Morombe’s pearly eyes narrowed. ‘Do you take me as simple-minded, Samir?’

‘No, Ma’voi. Never.’

‘Then I urge you to re-adjust your verbal tactics. If you wish to know about the Optivarr, you need only ask.’ He grunted, re-filled his glass manually. ‘The Optivarr have abandoned us, disowned our troops and commanders. We are not to attempt contact and we are to keep our distance. Where do we go when our gods have left us? What are we to think? The fault lies with us, of course. Our sins, our weaknesses, they have been identified, measured, and exploited. Short-sighted minds have used those to take us off course, blinded us with empty promises and led us from the Creator’s path. I don’t blame them. You know the official statement, that the Vanguard are business as usual, nothing is wrong, our mission is unchanged. This is a lie. A lie we must perpetrate to preserve our borders and protect our ideals. How often falsehood is a compass we must follow to find our way out of the woods.’

Samir nodded.

‘Stenror’s betrayal and subsequent execution has created a vacuum and like any vacuum, something rushes to fill it. Willow has already made her wishes clear, Sorbek pulls strings in the shadows, and I suspect, with nothing to show for it, he is pushing for his own ascension to the position.’

‘A race he can’t win,’ said Samir.

‘But a race he will run all the same,’ replied Morombe. ‘The damage can be mitigated in the lower bands of the hierarchy, they’ll believe whatever we tell them. The world spins, everything is normal, our leaders and lords and masters are in control – believe in what we say and assuage your doubts, locate faith in your internal atlases. Small minds are easily filled with faith, after all. But I digress, and you are humouring an old man lost in his troubles. You are here to discuss your last mission.’

Samir had predicted this. His last mission had spiralled out of control – it was a glaring fault in the Vanguard’s methodology. Throw fresh soldiers onto the battlefield and watch them flail and flounder, watch them grow and adapt or be swallowed by the bloodshed.

‘We paid a small price,’ Samir explained. ‘Loss of life is to be expected.’

‘And this loss, was it of your wards’?’

‘No…’ Uncertainty leaked into him. ‘No, I’m afraid it wasn’t. I am certain…’

He searched for the names. Morombe respectfully allowed this search until he coughed a mental hairball.

‘Lakir and Dent,’ Morombe illuminated. ‘Bodyguards assigned to you by Veritas.’

‘They knew what they were walking into,’ Samir reasoned defensively. ‘I can’t be expected to hold their hands.’

‘Just their lives in your palm.’ Morombe leaned forward, milky eyes blazing. ‘Not that I can blame you for their premature demise, but do not mistake my patience for acceptance. Good soldiers have now died on your watch, and the finger of blame will swivel unerringly toward you. When a resource is lost, I expect an explanation.’

Samir felt like his head was about to explode. Morombe’s eyes blared with an accusatory defiance, and they scoured every outlying refuge of pride like blistering spotlights.

‘The initiates,’ he rallied, ‘they’re untrained. Uncontrollable. Unworthy to be Vanguards. Cowards on the battlefield.’

He thought of them: the four-armed shrimp thing built like a carrot and had just about as many brain cells, possibly the most underwhelming dragon to have ever called itself a dragon, the split personality in denial, the winged girl who was basically a bubble of excitable energy with feathers attached, the two paler than pale women with an obvious vitamin D deficiency, and the flat-head with jelly skin and ugly shoes that spilled fire.

There was also the old dusty gunslinger. Samir wasn’t sure he counted.

‘Weaklings, Ma’Voi,’ he added. ‘Idiots and weaklings. Empty-headed fools.’

Morombe’s gaze never left his. He could feel his thoughts falling away underneath him.

‘A glass,’ Morombe flourished his own for effect, ‘is most useful when it is empty. It is the duty of the wealthy to enrich the poor and you have a wealth of experience, Samir, and with you it would simply waste. Wisdom left unshared is wisdom wasted. Is it not better to reveal to them how to be, how to act, how to be one of us, then reap your just rewards?’

‘And if they won’t learn?’

‘They will. And it will be painful and slow and they will hate you for it. But they will learn as you did, as I did. The philosophy of sink or swim is tempting fate and it doesn’t help that you have an unbreakable fixation with the former.’

‘What would you have me do?’

There wasn’t a question: when Morombe told you something, it was inscribed onto the heart like holy scripture. If he said you were bad at your job, you worked and practiced and worked some more until you were undoubtedly the best. If he said you were deaf, you learned sign language. If he said you were a shoe, you untied your imaginary laces and went hunting for a foot that fit.

‘I would have you practice patience,’ he commanded. ‘An unwilling teacher will cultivate unwilling students. Teach them to swim, take them to the shallows and have them tread water, acclimate to the temperature, then when they are comfortable, steer them into the deep end. Do all that you can and you have done all that you should. Do you understand?’

‘Yes, Ma’voi. Patience.’

‘And Cog is a secondary target. Until he has been fully revealed, you will not pursue him. Bury your lust for revenge, let it multiply and gather strength, then unleash the animal when the time is right.’

‘Yes, Ma’voi.’

‘Good,’ Morombe exhaled. ‘Now that is dealt with, we have something else to discuss. The Jenhanian – the one with the four arms and blue hair, I’m informed,’ he added at Samir’s blank expression. ‘You know initiates are tested and screened on conscription and arrival, we measure their capacity to detect nexus energies and, for our own good, scan for Lamian energy. The Jenhanian – the one with four arms,’ he added again, ‘has a substantially above average awareness. Everything else was below the line but his ability, at the very least his potential, to identify nexus energy was the highest we’ve ever experienced from an initiate. His awareness was almost equal to highly trained Advocators.’

‘A very difficult skill to hone by oneself,’ Samir observed.

‘But no Lamian energy. Not a trace. Gywn has said the boy is like a toddler, and an obedient one at that. There’s little doubt that he is loyal – if only because he is too afraid to be anything else. But keep an eye on him, in case I am proven wrong.’

‘As you wish.’

Morombe stroked the stitches on his neck irritably. Something was on his mind, rolling around that vast expanse of memories and thoughts. A place Samir would never wish to see. A mind like that, like the thickest book in existence, would inform more on the world than any one person should ever know.

‘Something the matter, Ma’voi?’ he said.

‘Nelia’s empire is infected with parasites, it appears,’ he said mournfully.

‘The old man.’

‘He’s been annoyingly active ever since Stenror’s execution. A lot more involved in our activities, it’s like he can’t sit still. Despite this he must be treated with the utmost respect, of course. More so than you would offer myself or Nelia. Someone that powerful, and that destructively irritating, must be given all that he wishes. Dire consequences lie before us if we do not.’ He looked around as if catching something scampering across his peripheral vision. ‘Ah, and right on time. Parasites breed and breed. Where you find one, others writhe beneath. Visitors.’

Samir glanced around, found the draping vines and swaying lights performing their intricate concert. Touching his extra sense scorched a tunnel into his brain, and through that channel devastating swathes of colourful mayhem billowed and screeched. He muted the incompatible chaos, exerted great mental muscles to hold down surges of pain.

‘What visitors?’ he said. Maybe they were hiding among the branches and bushes, lost amidst the layer upon layer of green and gold.

Morombe grinned. This was, of course, incredibly disconcerting. It was like a lizard wriggling above his chin, and could only be achieved by someone who didn’t understand what a grin was meant to imply.

‘Marshall and Marshall,’ he announced, to Samir’s great chagrin. ‘Treats for treats and for all who want one.’

*

Space. Empty star-studded space.

The stunning panorama commanded by the wall-length visor sung complex melodies in the cosmic orchestra; conducted by unseen forces, and the Creator’s poetic lyricism laced into the celestial manuscript. Nebulas swirled into lonely black holes like water down a drain, saluting with colourful arms as they were dolefully consumed. Deep lakes of stars sank into deeper oceans of profound black.

Mevoine stared at this snapshot of infinity with admiration and fiendish compliance, and felt very, very small. A dizzy ant crawling beneath the fortress of space, looking for an easy mouse hole to invade.

All that soaring emptiness, eternally stamped on the universe’s canvas. All those strange planets and distant stars, all those unknowable secrets caught on the verge of event horizons, all those impossible continuums, all those races and species and wars and famines and droughts and petty feuds; how trivial it all seemed when it was on the other side of the glass.

With that excitement and size, another often ignored impression wandered absently alongside the others, Mev reflected.

Space was really, really boring.

Sure, it seemed interesting. A lot to look at, a lot to muse about, a lot of trite nonsense to reflect upon. But it was like the best wrapped chocolate sweet in existence; it promised ingredients and flavours beyond simple imagination, but when you finally sink your teeth into the contents you recoil with a mouthful of what tasted like ground dirt, none of the slapped together ingredients forming in any way shape or form a coherent taste to enjoy or imbibe. Ask any half-decent chef and they’ll tell you the potency of a dish is not measured by how many flavours are slopped carelessly on to the plate, but by how proficiently each individual ingredient compliments the others.

The universe was the Creator’s soup pot, and It had chucked in just about everything but the kitchen sink. It needed that for the inevitable cleaning up once the whole damn thing had started boiling over.

He turned away from eternity’s window, gave space the cold shoulder, and scrambled onto his feet. At least all the ingredients in one of the ship’s countless gyms gelled coherently. He couldn’t comment on the others since he hadn’t explored any than this one. He also couldn’t correctly identify if it was normal for a gym to have robotic training dummies, crowding the ground area like metallic blue mannequins, since he had never been to another gym in his life.

He inspected the closest one. It was jarringly convincing as a living thing, like its maker had worked overtime at the workshop to rival the Creator’s attention to detail. The only thing that really gave it away as a machine – an unthinking one, at that – were the glaring joints at its elbows, shoulders, and on either side of its square jaw, and its utter lack of any conscious, self-deciding animation.

He clenched his fist. How hard could he hit it? How much power in a strike could it survive? He wondered, could I match it?

The punch wound up at his side. Pure fury. He could unleash a haymaker, get a couple of good hits in before the dummy even knew what was happening, and how it would remark to its robotic friends, ‘What a sucker punch!’

The pent-up fist launched forward and found unwittingly the ‘sucker’.

‘That was probably the most telegraphed punch in the history of punches. I should know, I’ve taken a few.’

He looked up from the ground, groaned as his head finally caught up with reality and started to throb. He had missed the crash mats that covered almost every inch of the white metal floor.

Syna released his hand and leaned against the dummy. The robotic one, that is. The other one was lying on the floor nursing a swollen bruise on the back of his head.

‘They’re not even switched on,’ she observed, and glared that owlish glare. ‘You don’t go after an opponent that’s not turned on, it’s just bad manners.’

Mev used his four elbows to get to his feet. He was a bit, in a way, all elbows and knobbly joints and awkward knots. It got him into all sorts of trouble. To really function as a proper bi-pedal being, you should have more than elbows and knees. He was even willing to trade since it seemed like he had an abundance of both.

Syna had agreed to train him under very specific stipulations. For one thing, he had to protect her wife, Lyrik, whenever he could, which was not an easy mission for someone who could barely protect themselves. And for another, he had to do everything she told him. That had been, to her growing dismay, rather too easy. It was like he’d been given extra elbows and knees to make up for his clear lack of a backbone.

‘Get up,’ she said. ‘I got you some food, nerd.’

He took the tiny foil container with the quiet timidity of an orphan at a soup kitchen. ‘Thanks.’

‘We can sit over there. Looks like the gym’s about to get busier.’

The bench Syna had nominated wasn’t their usual place. It was pushed to the very end wall, noticeably isolated from the crammed army of motionless dummies and levitating weights, and the rest of the remarkably alien apparatus and equipment attached to the walls and ceiling.

She rummaged around her bag – black, for that was the colour permanently fixed to Syna and Lyrik, broken only by their vividly unusual hair and their paler than ghosts complexion – and withdrew a small, clear bottle filled with a severely red liquid.

Mevoine hoped it was tomato juice. He didn’t have the courage to uncover the truth.

‘You know, I think Lee’s hiding something,’ she said suddenly. ‘You saw how he shot, right? Perfect accuracy. And that gun, that gun’s not a normal one. It’s like a pistol that’s a sniper that fits right in your pocket. He got that from somewhere he shouldn’t have, I just know it. And accuracy like that isn’t taught, it’s learned.’

‘Yeah,’ said Mev.

‘And Monsoon didn’t shoot a lick of fire! Not one bit! For a dragon he’s severely underwhelming in the fire department.’

‘Yeah.’

Her nose wrinkled as a teeming stream of people – or rather, beings – entered the gym, experimenting confidently with the wrangles of equipment and testing the dummies’ robotic responses.

‘I wish I had my own gym,’ she lamented. ‘Nobody else would touch my stuff. Half them don’t even have the decency to put it all back in the right place. They just leave it lying around! Downright disrespectful. It’s like coming into someone’s home, pulling up the carpet, eating everything in the fridge, then making on the bathroom floor.’

Mev couldn’t quite wrap his head around the idea but nodded anyway. Syna’s rants were like cheap watches; they started very suddenly and wound down very quickly.

She shook her head, disappointed, and switched her attention back to him.

‘Anyway, you’re doing surprisingly not terribly, heinously awful. I could’ve sworn you’d be in the Med Centre by now, maybe missing a limb or two. I was thinking though, and you can take this with a pinch of salt if you want, I was thinking we up your food intake. You need some meat on your bones, Mev. There’s no other way of saying it. I’ve seen healthier skeletons.’ She paused. ‘Not that I’d know what a skeleton looks like. Got nothing in my closet. Lyrik and I cleared that out when we came out.’

‘Okay,’ said Mev, happily munching away at his quiet serving of salad.

Her critical owlish gaze, which could melt glaciers with a glancing swipe, focused on him. Not so much as a peep of rebellion – she’d settle for a yelp of argument. It just wasn’t healthy. And how Samir could exploit that blind obedience, that genomic cowardice wired into his DNA, to do with as he saw fit.

Fear paraded through the cramped city streets of her mind. If Samir saw an opening he’d take it, and with Mevoine that was dangerous. He could be told to do anything, no matter how demeaning or morally unsound it was, and he’d do it without question. A desired trait in a soldier; a shame then that Mevoine was a soldier in the same way a paddling pool is an ocean.

And Samir knew it.

‘And maybe we could increase your regiments,’ she ventured with added urgency. ‘Get you training three times a day, not just once. Invest in training and see your shares double, that’s what I’ve always said.’

Mev nodded sheepishly, then doubled over.

Something was screaming in his ears, like someone had shot a gun right beside him. His mind dulled the piercing stabs until they were numb prods from a soft bat, circulated the echoing thumps round and around until they formed an intelligible and, more importantly, moderately painless message.

Aila was calling him and Syna somewhere… Somewhere…

The hub. She wanted them at the hub. He could just make out the golden archways scattered across endless layers of loud static. Stratified slices of white noise wrestled against each other for transcendent abrasiveness, before eventually fading away from his mind like they had never existed; like smoke merging into clouds.

Little rhythmic thuds of pain loitered as the rest escaped. Syna rinsed her ear with an unfortunate finger.

‘Right then,’ she said, wincing. ‘The hub it is.’

*

The hub was on the first floor of the ship; the first floor of seven-hundred and below that the basement swelled from the bottom, requiring the larger area for the frankly excessive arsenal Morombe had accumulated; fleets of fighter ships slumbered gently in their sealed pockets, extensive armouries laid in wait at the end of every meandering hallway, discarded siege engines and elephantine machines hibernated in the corners like broken toys, and Nelia’s massively disciplined strategists and generals requisitioned from the greater Vanguard force everything they needed to quell the gathering disquiet around their immeasurably lengthy borders.

To say the hub was like a bustling supermarket would be insulting to the word ‘bustling’ and categorically offensive to supermarkets. It babbled and roared with a tsunami of people, creatures and machinery crashing down upon the snarling boughs and immodest flowers, congregating around the bronze edifices of fallen heroes as only the truly devout can flock to the monuments of their saintly idols. It swallowed sixteen floors in height and in length occupied half of the ship’s full cubit.

In its entirety, millions swarmed through its tall golden archways, little sheep come to play in majestic elysian fields; their shepherds surely at the heart of the explosion of volcanic activity erupting somewhere near the front of this unruly crowd.

Mevoine had latched on to Syna, following her through the crowd like a lost toddler looking for their mother, and Syna the ever-patient attendant eager to dismiss the poor little fellow.

Where she saw the undulating crowd, that massive horde of bodies and limbs and tentacles and god-know-what-else and what-the-hell-is-that-thing and what-are-those-for-please-don’t-point-them-at-me, he saw a dazzling, enthralling forest of lights.

Every person a tree, and every tree a distinctly different colour. Some were deep red, others fuscia pink, royal purple and snot green, midnight black and twilight grey, all colours and all permutations of those colours standing smugly on ethereal roots. And he could feel them all, as if connected to the same spring of life from which they had drunk so heartily, sensing their ghostly forms sailing in the ocean of souls.

Syna was a greyish colour with random scatterings of pink hemming her neck and arms. Mev himself, which was like looking into a mirror and seeing someone else in your reflection, was, to no small amount of apprehension on his part, a sickly yellowish shade, flickering bands of nauseating green and brown belted around his torso like some horribly designed harness.

To her merit, Syna did sense something akin to this. She could feel the lights when she walked closely, like passing a hand over an open flame, but it was to her simply another annoyance added to a growing list of bothers.

He blinked and switched off the lights, returned the world to its regular arrangements. No more lights, just boring old people. And tentacles – for some reason there were a lot of tentacles. It was like an octopus exclusive party and they were all doing the Mexican wave.

‘Excuse me!’ Syna shouted over the ballooning dissonance of the crowd. ‘Coming through! Get out the way! If that comes near me again, you’ll lose it! EXCUSE ME! SHIFT! GET OUT THE WAY!’

This was the polite, kid-friendly version. Mev was sure if he turned the lights back on he’d see the air around her mouth turn blue with embarrassment.

She had managed, with only a few minor ‘accidental’ damages to other persons that she really couldn’t care less about even if she tried really very hard, to get them close to the heart of the activity, maybe a couple of busy rows away from the front, around which the collected creatures had encircled and were glaring expectantly at a massive, curtain-draped stage that extended effortlessly halfway across the breadth of the hub.

‘Can’t get us any closer,’ she said, craning her neck over the crowd’s heady landscape. ‘I can’t see Aila, either. It’ll just be you and me. You can relax.’

She winked. He wished she hadn’t.

As for relaxing, that was like forcing a hedgehog to uncurl. You might win eventually but you’ll walk away with a handful of sharp spines for your valiant efforts. Mevoine couldn’t relax, not when the world was a minefield, every conversation a spiked pitfall, people were tentacled monsters with bone-grinders for teeth, every archway was the hungry maw of some great colossal beast, and the wave of holy duty had gripped his feet and looked to sweep him away.

Relax. Like that was possible. People like Mev didn’t relax, they suffered silently and tolerated their perceived shortcomings with pained diligence until somebody else slammed their formidable authority down like a gavel, and with that cold guidance they discovered their purpose as reverential puppets, defined not by who they were or what they did but by who pulled their strings.

‘I wonder what it’s all for,’ said Syna. ‘It’s sort of like a concert. Like when we first met Morombe and he feathered down on that big stupid platform. Doesn’t look like Vanguard material – that’s always Valensium and gold trim, and that’s not Valensium. That’s all dark and weird and alien, Valensium’s like a familiar thing, you know what it is as soon as you see it. But who do the Vanguard play host to? Who’d they let set up a stage and put on a concert?’

He spotted on one of the towering levels above, peering over the jewel-encrusted barrier, a line of grotesque wraiths, faces like blank masks. Dark rings circled their unblinking, antiseptic-white eyes. Thick reedy hair spilled from the tops of their heads and dangled down like frazzled beads. They dressed in padded robes with dark ceremonial embellishments. Nelia’s crest, that of a murder of crows, blazed like stars on their chests. Instantly constructible weaponry hung on their shoulders, muted packages only noticeable on second glance.

Advocators. If the ship were a truly living organism then these were the immune system, the internal police dedicated to absolution and order. Where there was pollution and chaos the Advocators stalked invisible to the world.

Walking death in white robes. Their faces never moved, never twitched to express. Mevoine knew from previous experience their otherworld lights were dimmed, like some crucial component had been suctioned from their very essence, left them like animated corpses. Their light’s colours were uniformly grey, bleak and hazy, as if inheriting the same lifelessness their physical bodies had suffered. They stared down at the stage, seven or so of them, immobile and impassive apparitions. It seemed they were, like the rest of the gathered crowd, expecting something explosive.

But if they were here…

Syna batted aside the hand tugging urgently at her arm.

‘I wonder where Aila is,’ she said, scanning the throngs. ‘She could be up on one of the – I TOLD YOU ALREADY! THAT COMES NEAR ME AGAIN YOU’LL LOSE IT! – up on one of the other levels. She could be flying, I suppose.’

Downy wings and serpentine tails sliced tunnels in the rather hectic air above. Billows of wind rushed from newly formed vacuums. The ground floor was like an army, the space overhead, right up to the curved ceiling, hustled and hummed with ripples of flying creatures pitching and swirling under, over and around one another.

Mev checked the lights, winced as the elegant streamers flared into his mind. Even if Aila was somewhere up there, he couldn’t sort her light from the screeching avalanche of brash flashes suffocating her.

‘Can’t see her,’ said Syna. ‘A lot of wings up there, mind you. It’s like a sea of feathers – I SWEAR TO THE CREATOR -’

Whoever would have suffered at her already rising hand escaped near decapitation as the curtain dropped with an echoing thump.

Blasts of glitter and cheap confetti shot from the stage, flickering embers twirled into the air and disintegrated. Lights swirled messily on the stage floor like the gleaming beams were actively avoiding each other.

The concert had begun.

A puff of blue smoke, a sharp bang, whirling colours rampaged like some spirited painter was arrested by his muses, and jets of glitter surged from unseen party cannons, and from the motley cloud imploding under the weight of its own colourful chaos emerged this sharply dressed man in possibly the loudest suit a demented tailor could fabricate. A well-trimmed moustache, coiled at the ends, shadowed his upper lip, directly above his devilish, corsair grin that could have sucked secrets from your ears if it got close enough, filled with perfectly conserved sheet-white teeth. Where the lips finished, the skin kept going and stretched back on an elongated, slightly misshapen head, a thin but noticeable scar split it into two halves, the top half visibly discoloured, as if slapped on top or stitched together from something demonstrably foreign to the rest. Savage eyes cackled with a sublime regality and seemed to arouse distasteful thoughts and impressions best left to the nocturnally inclined.

That wild grin saluted at the crowd. They lost it.

There are few descriptions that could equal the volume of millions of voices and voice analogues erupting at once in mad cheering. It was such that Mevoine would have cut his own ears off if he could only find a suitable instrument. The shuddering noise was inhaled upwards, aggregated into a low-hanging sonic nimbostratus, and like any clever rain cloud was ready to unleash it downwards in speared torrents.

A gold-frilled banner unfurled above the moustachioed man.

 

MARSHALL AND MARSHALL

PURVEYORS OF JOY AND SEEKERS OF ODDITIES

 

He jumped forward suddenly, that corsair grin widening. He was like a rock-star appeasing his enthralled legions of fans with cheap theatricals and as transparent as a snake-oil seller. But why was that deliciously evil grin so gallingly inviting?

He clapped his hands, the crowd clapped back. He swooned forward dramatically, they swooned too. The sheep had sniffed out their shepherd.

‘Welcome!’ he boomed, somehow rising above the clamour. ‘Hello, hello! Hello! Hello to you and you and you! WELCOME!’

He swivelled on his heels, threw his palms out towards the banner.

‘TO MARSHALL AND MARSHALL!’

Exhausts of flame bellowed out of the equipment.

‘Treats for treats and for all who want one!’ he continued. The energy showed no sign of dissolving. ‘Now, I see a lot of new faces out there. Eager to join the war, eh? Ready to show them Pantheon pricks what-for, eh?!’

The crowd jeered, thundering applause.

‘Well! Well! Aren’t we a lively bunch!’ He paced back and forth on the stage. ‘Those red-bellied bastards won’t know what hit ‘em! And now, my dear, dear audience, I must ask you to simmer down. We don’t wish to vex the otherwise endless patience of our lovely friends, the Advocators.’

Since all signs pointed to pantomime, Mevoine half-expected the audience to deliver a perfunctory chorus of contemptuous boos, the younger in the crowd may resort to pitiful shocked gasps and hiding behind their elders.

As it was, all spellbound eyes rejected the silky charm enough to stare at the group of Advocators looming above. They didn’t so much as flinch under the volley of concealed disapproval.

‘Ah yes. Our wonderful Advocators. Thank you for your service, ladies and lads.’ The man offered a very curt bow then sprang back into action like a puppy spying a new toy. ‘Right then! Treats! Treats for treats, that’s our motto! And what lovely treats I have for you today…’

The entire stage trembled. The floor gave way. And from some hidden compartments beneath – this was an educated guess on Mev’s part, and was unequivocally entirely incorrect – lantern-shaped kiosks, bells on top, trimmed with gold lacing and each with what looked like some very appropriately dressed gremlins inside, slowly rose and settled across the stage flooring.

The lights hammily reviewed these new additions. One decided to go rogue and stayed attached to the man – one half of Marshall and Marshall, Mev guessed, once again incorrectly.

Not-Marshall flung his arms into the air and caught at once the dwindling attention.

‘Shoelaces that file your taxes!’ he announced proudly. ‘Hats that never go out of style, they just go walk your dog! Earphones that play instruments! Self-warming blankets! Twigs that – oh, wait, that’s actually just a twig. Never mind. Twigs that twig and do twiggy things! Fridges that run marathons! All is possible within the wonderful emporium of Marshall and Marshall! And all for a fair price, for no price at all is fair price for all!’

Like a holy mass lining up for communion, the crowd surged suddenly forward in a disordered clump, hands waving at the now open kiosks and the grinning gremlin creatures within, and screaming and elbowing their way past anyone who didn’t move.

Since Mev was, for lack of a better word, shrimpy, Syna had to cordon a circle of personal space to keep him from being swallowed by the swelling crowd.

‘Hey! If you’re that same guy from last time, you’re about to lose something very important!’

Battered and kicked to the ground, Mev crumpled into a ball. He was like paper, fragile and simply expendable. People trampled over him all the time; only on this occasion it was in a more literal sense.

He winced as someone stood on his wrist, heard a subtle crack. Moved his hands to protect his head, kicked in the shin, jabbed in the ear. Something hairy slithered over him.

Fingers wrapped around his wrist, yanked hard. Syna salvaged a mildly bruised and beaten Mevoine from the floor, and twirled him to his feet, pulled him aside. Before they could catch their breath, a couple of overly-zealous mongrels charged forward, either not noticing or not caring she was directly in the way.

Hands flicked in a flash of virtuoso movements, and the two empty-headed fools dropped like hollow bricks.

She wasted no time in establishing a safe space for them to stand. After the previous encounter, the surging crowd were almost happy to award them a preciously rare haven.

‘You could have been killed,’ she said sourly, inspecting the damage. ‘Stand up for yourself a bit, won’t you? It’s difficult for you, I know, but in situations like that you have to put up the fists, show ‘em who’s boss. Let people walk all over you and that’s all they’ll ever do.’ She wiped blood off his chin. ‘Seems like they’re calming down a bit now. We could probably find Aila if we looked hard enough. Although knowing her, she’ll find us first, and she’ll make a grand entrance and not have a clue it was grand.’

Not-Marshall was gone, he noticed. The Advocators, too. The massive, unfeeling crowd doted on their alien treats, wholly occupied with velvety promises and paper hopes. He wasn’t the only one to have been knocked aside in the muddled rush; fallen soldiers pocked the streaming scene.

And there was something else… Something moving within the forest. Something nobody would notice unless they realised they couldn’t notice it. He turned away from Syna and switched the lights on – sure enough, a flaring entity had entered the crowd, was now towards the front of the boisterous pack, an amorphous blob of colour never certain on its hue. It was bright, the kind of bright that outshines the stars and relegates gold to bronze. It hurt to look at, made his eyes water.

Just as a flame must give off heat to be considered fire, so too the lights exuded their colours like they were radiating personality. This is what imbued each aimlessly drifting light distinctive characteristics – and this nebulous blob had an ambiguously ancient quality; or perhaps, ancient had inherited some of its vague qualities from the blob.

‘What’s wrong?’ said Syna, following his gaze.

‘Nothing.’

Her owlish glare settled on him like an impatient teacher indicting an answer. He was used to this, as was she. Their dance of stares, his never finding hers and hers never leaving his.

For the countless time she conceded. ‘Fine. I’m not your baby-sitter. Go do what you want. I’ll find Aila.’

Mev felt a sting of guilt, and a greater stab of anxiety. This was the real reason he hated Syna acting like his carer. Not because of the shame – because without her, he was helpless.

Of course, he was helpless regardless of who he was with or what he was doing, that was just Mev’s way of existence, but at least with Syna beside him there was someone to help carry the burden.

He checked the light was still there. It was, gliding through the forest’s denseness. He didn’t bother to tell Syna where he was going. Why would she care?

The crowd were somewhat occupied with the greedy gremlins in their glittering kiosks, didn’t give much attention to the hesitant worm threading nervously through their cluttered warrens.

The lights were back, his vantage point of the world around him. Little stars drifted aimlessly. Flames given sentient form.

One did not have a sentient form. One had looked at the flames and thought, ‘I could do that and I could do it better.’ Colours splattered together, cracked inwards, and radiated bizarre energy that set Mev’s hair on end. It crackled like shattering ice, sparkled like the deepest flame, and within those cracked seams of a vivid shadow there hid something beyond recognition that resisted sanity’s egregious desire to categorise it.

He switched off the lights and stared deep into his own reflection. Two of them, to be exact.

An odd man. An odd old man. White stubble. Sagging cheeks. Sharp nose set between two glass halos that magnified bright eyes, savage harmonies playing in the pupils. Age spots speckled his leathery skin.

He wore a crisply pressed black suit, the kind that would match him perfectly to Syna and Lyrik’s gothic fashion catwalk, a silver tie knotted tight at his neck, a gold napkin embroidered with a symbol Mevoine didn’t recognise folded into his suit pocket. The bowler hat that should have, by all logic of fashion, looked entirely out of place, like putting a cape on train, somehow completed the overall archaic impression. A stopwatch – broken, Mev guessed, this time correctly – dangled from his pocket.

The odd old man grinned at the stage. It was a warmer smile than that snake-oil seller playing to his crowd but did have an undefined edge to it, a hint of smugness buried not-so-subtly. He looked like an artefact recently broken free from an earthly entombment.

He regarded the confused Mevoine momentarily, like he was glancing at a snail sliding near his feet, and turned back to the stage.

‘Marshall and Marshall,’ he muttered largely to the world in general. ‘Parasites, Morombe calls them. Always found that funny. They jump from universe to universe spreading a little joy in their wake. Trade your trinkets for better ones. Never expect anything from anyone, never ask for anything but a fair exchange. Nice people, really. Nice people. Don’t deserve the mantle of parasite.’

Mevoine studied the over-worked gremlins in their kiosks, taking all sorts of deposits: shoe laces, weapons, buttons, paper, hair trimmings, food, seeds, plants, metal, CD’s, and handing out equally as ridiculous items to the vehemently curious crowd.

‘It’s a good take this time round, it looks,’ the old man continued, embers floating across his lenses. ‘Some very eager customers. It’s not always like this, Nelia’s troops are usually a quiet crowd. Too obsessed with duty, I’ve always said.’

Mev nodded.

‘Can you speak, boy?’

He nodded again.

‘Good, I do like a conversation.’ He looked down his hooked nose at him, gaze forever locked behind glass. ‘Why aren’t you participating?’

‘I don’t know how it w-w-works,’ said Mev.

‘You give them your valuables and they exchange it with something from another universe,’ the old man explained wearily. ‘Very simple process. In return for your boot, you can get a CD that steams your vegetables while singing an opera. You must be new here.’

It didn’t sound like a question but he silently agreed.

‘A fresh face for the Pantheon to melt,’ the old man observed. ‘Like a pig happy to get some slop, they’ll eat you for breakfast, lunch and dinner. They might save some of you for brunch the next day. Not that there’d be much for leftovers.’

Mev shuffled his feet, never made eye contact. He was like a humanoid puppy who’d ripped to pieces their master’s favourite slippers.

The old man seemed knowledgeable if a little aggressively forward. Honesty was a disruptive quality when added to stiff upper-lip haughtiness.

‘How strange the war,’ he said, ‘that values the trivial above the meaningful. What do they have you call them nowadays?’

Mevoine searched for the words, the shred of Nephilim he could truly say he knew, which didn’t take long in the mostly empty wilderness of his mind.

‘Ma’voi,’ he said.

‘Ah. My lord. Or,’ the old man corrected, ‘Lord my, to be precise. Strange. It doesn’t hit the ear right. Why do you think they place the emphasis on authority? Why is your superior’s title before your own?’

‘Don’t know.’

‘Has the thought never crossed your mind? Have you never wondered?’

‘No,’ he said shyly, sensing this was the wrong answer.

‘Disappointing,’ said the old man, sighing. ‘Your lords and masters will take advantage of that, you know. Complacency, contention, compliancy – the holy trinity of service and beat-it-into-you loyalty. Your precious Ma’voi. The best tool is a tool easy to use. And you are quite the tool.’

He glanced behind him, smiled as he saw a shadowy group of Advocators gliding phantom-like through the assembled crowd.

‘Take them for example,’ he explained dryly. ‘Hollow shells filled with duty and service, not a thought to call their own. Emptiness incarnate. Incredibly boring, too. Nothing but dullness. They’re like space: cool on the outside, but then you really think about it, it’s mostly just boring old vacuum and unobservable particles. Bloody irritating.’

Mevoine backed away. Nobody spoke about the Advocators like that unless they wanted first-hand experience of limb-relocation. A thought dawned, which was rare since like the Advocators his mental landscape was a dead tundra, and the idea that any light could or would dawn anywhere on its warped horizon was, to put it bluntly, ridiculous.

But the thought did dawn. The dreadful light of thought broke across the horizon and sent gold eyes scattering across the tundra.

The old man wasn’t Vanguard. He was something else. Something else entirely. And his place in the forest, that unique brightness, it wasn’t normal. Whoever he was, he was a walking paradox – perfectly acclimated to creation, but never having been a part of it. He was a comfortable enigma, defiant and ancient beyond ancient. But what could possibly insert itself from outside the ship?

‘I suggest you think cleaner thoughts, Mevoine,’ said the old man, not turning around. ‘It would be disastrous for you if a particularly inquisitive telepath peeked behind your eyes. Especially if that Ailandra is around. You don’t want your thoughts broadcast to all who could receive them, do you?’

Red-hot terror, knife-edge panic, a quagmire of anxiety; Mev felt like his body was swallowing itself.

He raised a curved, grey eyebrow.

‘You live in a multiverse. This is knowledge known to you. Telepathy should be a very small adjustment to make to your perspective. People in other people’s minds; it’s normal.’

‘You’re tel-tel-t-t-t-’

‘Never tried. A person’s thoughts are their own, wouldn’t you agree?

But he read my mind, thought Mev. Maybe he’s reading it now. Shit! Think something else, anything else! Don’t let him know what you’re thinking about!

‘What did I just tell you?’ snapped the old man. ‘Come now, if I were to read your mind, I’d know precisely that you were thinking not to think about what not to think about, then you wouldn’t really be thinking anything at all but what you were trying to not think about. It’s very counter-intuitive.’

Mev nodded slowly and backed away again, scanned surreptitiously for Syna. She was lost somewhere in the forest, sucked into its glowing everglades.

The old man tapped his shoulder. A sudden voltage electrified his extremities; it was like being touched by lightning. Muscles spasmed, toes trembled, mind went a little overboard trying to rationally explain the whole thing.

The electric old man turned Mev around on his heels like he was turning a doll’s head and scrutinised the terrified little creature.

‘What were you just doing, boy?’

‘N-N-Nothing,’ Mev managed.

Those old watery eyes narrowed, contracted, and at once seemed like tiny black spears pitching from their icy fortresses.

‘It would not serve you well to lie to me,’ he warned, his voice suddenly adopting darker, heavier tones. ‘The Vanguard are notoriously unkind. You are nothing but an ant to them – less so. They will not flinch at your death, the Advocators will not rush to your aid, the crowd will step over your lifeless corpse and wonder what happened, but they will not care. Speak, boy. Speak.’

Mev went limp, looked to scurry away. Run away and hide. Get under the blanket.

The old man was right in his face now. As aggressive as it was, he didn’t seem motivated by anger, just dancing to the curmudgeonly tune of impatience.

‘You see the lights.’

‘Yes.’

‘You know what they are, what they mean?’

‘No,’ said Mevoine only half-truthfully. He had guesses but nothing substantiated.

‘Well then. You’ve simply acquired a very unique talent, how could I possibly begin to berate such a natural occurrence? I’ll be keeping an eye on you, Mevoine. Can’t be having with unanswered questions.’ The old man’s smile re-appeared on his lined face, he let go and produced from somewhere unseen a silver-topped cane as if retrieving it from his own shadow. ‘Say, would you be so kind as to gaze slightly to your left? No, a little further. Little further. There you go, boy. Honoured to meet you.’

When Mevoine finally returned his head to a normal angle, the old man had vanished. Dainty laces of delicate red light swirled momentarily where he had stood, and were eaten by the ravenous air.

*

Fierce gold and blue light spilled from the largely deficient lantern in the corner, filtering through the gnarled, rickety tapestry of trees, that endless vortex of crisp leaves and frost-coloured branches, and sloshed over the solid pews spread throughout the hall.

‘Really?’

‘Really.’

Aila leaned back in her seat, compressed her wings.

‘That’s awkward,’ she said. ‘Did he say why?’

‘Just wandered off,’ Syna grumbled. ‘Didn’t say a word. You know what he’s like, just doesn’t get the point of conversation.’

‘Where did he go?’

‘Off into the crowd. Had that glazed look over his eyes he sometimes gets, like he’s looking at you and looking at something else at the same time but his brain obviously can’t cope with both.’

‘You left him by himself?’ said Aila incredulously.

‘Sink or swim,’ Syna explained. There was a barely noticeable crack in her voice that suggested this was a philosophy she didn’t truly hold stock with.

‘And you think Mev’s capable of swimming, in this case?’

‘I think he has to show us he can at least be in water. Can’t keep holding his hand.’

What little Aila did know about Syna was that despite the spiked shell that curious handlers might find pinned to their hands if they got too close, she was a profoundly well-learned scholar and formidably proficient fighter. Like a lake, when you delved beneath the murky, hostile surface, you discovered on the lake’s sand-laced carpet hitherto hidden sea-critters rich in colour and unforeseeable potential.

She acted like she didn’t care. Aila saw the disguise for what it was – a disguise. Admittedly a well-crafted disguise, but one riddled with holes once you knew where to look.

‘He’ll be fine,’ Syna added urgently. ‘Nothing to worry about. What’s the worst that could happen to him? He gets lost, we find him.’

‘He ends up in Morombe’s chambers, he’s dead,’ said Aila.

She craned over her shoulder. Most of the busyness had deflated and the thronged crowd had dispersed. Stragglers clung here and there to the railings overlooking the heart of the Hub like children watching the disassembling circus tent.

They were in what was known as a relatively good cafeteria. Relative to scraps left in a grimy bin, it was exceptional. Relative to a five-star, French-waiter having, coffee-grinding masterclass of a cafeteria, it wasn’t even swill fit for the grimiest bin.

Uncomfortable benches and pews took up the cramped space, laid like their architect hadn’t had much of a flare for interior design, grubby veins of unkempt bark slithered across the pale walls and ceiling – the floor of the level above – stoic ranks of self-service robots were dotted around carelessly, from which luckless customers would be provided food and beverages, most of which were tasteless spectres of their bona-fide counterparts. The whole area reeked of rotten food and poor choices.

Aila was one of the few, if not the only, who actually enjoyed the place. The reliability of her enthusiasm was somewhat lessened when one learned she was the sort of person who’d actually enjoy being on a sinking ship. She’d love to see all the fish and other than the impending drowning there wasn’t much to worry about.

She held the opinion that goodness, happiness or enjoyment weren’t relative qualities. To say happiness could be measured against another instance of it, say finding money in your pocket measured against finding a briefcase filled with solid gold bars, is equal to fuelling your own unhappiness. You can’t split happiness down into smaller fractions, satisfaction isn’t like an atom that can be cracked open to reveal further and incrementally smaller pieces, each with their own fractionalised value. It just is what it is. Happiness is face-value, and if you haggle with your own evaluation of it, whatever value you’ve attributed to it will render it worthless. Don’t contextualise your own happiness, just enjoy what you have.

She liked the cafeteria; the slimy vines were fun to pull at, the robots were funny to talk to when they weren’t in use, the railing commanded the most beautiful view one could find on the ship, and all sorts of creatures employed the cafeteria as the happening place to be – and in her mind, this elevated its sleazy status above and beyond anywhere else. Where could you find a werewolf and a sentient pig sitting at the same table discussing farmyard politics? The Last Stop. Where could you look over the splendid topography of the Hub? The Last Stop. Where could you eat at a place that has lenient understandings of the word salmonella?

Probably The Last Stop but nothing was ever proven.

She turned back to her drink – beer if the droids were to be believed, something fishy if the taste-buds were to be.

The lantern’s glow brightened, casting fiery shadows that swayed between the dark pews.

‘I could hail him on the Mite,’ she said. ‘He’d figure out where to find us. Well, maybe. Hopefully. Probably not but it’s worth a try, right!’

‘If you say so,’ Syna conceded. Arguing with Aila, even if you used the sturdiest logic possible, was like arguing with a very cute, very sweet, very talkative brick wall. Once she’d decided to do something, you’d need to build a brick wall around her to stop her – and then she’d politely talk the brick into moving out the way. She maintained the opinion that you should always do the unexpected, say the unthinkable, and be the impossible.

‘What’s a mite?’

‘It’s what they call Socils, apparently,’ Aila explained. ‘I can’t remember the word for it… is it schlong?’

‘Slang.’

‘Slang! That’s the one. I don’t know why I had schlong on the brain.’ Someone at a nearby table chuckled. ‘It’s all confusing, you know? It’s like being back at school again, there’s so much to learn! There’s a rhythm here I’m just not getting.’

She took a long sip from her glass. Syna prepared.

‘Like, it’s not like I was bad at school,’ the rant began. ‘The teachers were nice enough, I guess, and the other pupils were – look at that thing! It’s like a giant fly! – there were some bad apples, there’s always a few. Most were mostly fine. Mostly. I grew up never knowing that arguing was angry talking, I just talked all the time! I didn’t even know I was arguing! I swear, I just did things without thinking. Nobody ever stopped me, mind you. My mouth’s like a train, once it gets going don’t get in the way – what were we talking about?’

Syna tapped the desk irritably. ‘Mevoine. Mites.’

‘Right, right! Mevoine. How’s his training going? You got him in fighting shape yet?’

‘He almost hurt himself on a training dummy this morning.’

‘Almost? He’s improving!’

‘Improvement is painful. He knows that better than most.’

‘I’m sure he does, I’m sure he does,’ Aila agreed.

A tiny, semi-transparent bottle was extracted from somewhere in Syna’s armour. This, Aila knew, was the type of bottle both she and Lyrik kept secreted about their persons at all times, and was perpetually filled with an odd red liquid.

‘Syna?’

‘Yeah?’

‘What’s in the bottle?’

‘Pig blood.’

Aila stared at the bottle, and back to the geisha-faced woman holding a rancid vial of pig blood. This would usually be the point most sane people turned around and ran away screaming bloody, bloody murder and spouting frantic prayers to various deities, but insanity was to her nothing if not an opportunity.

‘Right. ‘Course. So… You and Lyrik…’

‘Everyone keeps making silly jokes about it but basically, essentially, yes. Does it scare you?’

The grin Aila wore like a badge of joy stretched her rosy cheeks.

‘Can you turn into a bat?’

‘No.’

‘Mist?’

‘No.’

‘Uh… aversion to garlic?’

‘Love the stuff.’

‘Stake through the heart could kill you?’

‘It’d kill you too so I’m obliged to say yes.’

‘Coffins?’

‘Optional.’

‘Huh,’ Aila offered. ‘Huh. You’d have thought that was a big part of the whole thing. Like, I couldn’t imagine being what you are and not laying my head in a coffin.’ She slapped the table desperately. ‘Fangs?’

‘Can’t live without ‘em.’

Aila stared in wonder at Syna’s open mouth – specifically the shark-tooth incisors jutting from her gum like calcium-coated death.

‘Sharp!’ she exclaimed wistfully. ‘Toothy death, that is! Do you, uh… Do you go for people blood? Only asking cos we all gave Durane a slap on the wrist for eating meat and if you’re stalking around stealing chunks out of people’s necks I think we owe him a small apology.’

‘Pigs don’t count as people,’ said Syna softly. A pig sitting at the table to their left, who had been eavesdropping the conversation with a fat floppy ear, started to sob pathetically into his hooves. ‘What I mean is we don’t just shuffle around in the shadows waiting for some unfortunate young girl in a see-through nightie and a pink neck to walk by in a slightly drunken stupor so we can drain every last drop of precious haemoglobin. Blood is life to me. To Lyrik, too. Water is life to you, food is life to you, but I don’t see you jumping into every lake and farm you pass just because it’s got everything you need.’

Aila’s artful grin blossomed into a full-blown laugh.

‘Are you undead?’

‘No, heart still beats.’

‘Sunlight?’

‘Doesn’t bother me. Where I’m from there wasn’t a whole lot to spare, besides survive.’

‘I see, I see. Well, you’ve got none of the usual weaknesses,’ she reasoned. ‘What about strengths? Hypnotising’s a good one! Get whatever you want that way. I knew this guy, right, a nice guy, and he got brought up on stage at this show, audience participation or audience humiliation, whatever you want to call it. And he got up there with this hypnotist and he told ‘em, he told ‘em ‘When I click my fingers, you’ll fall into a deep sleep, and you will not wake until I click them again.’ This guy, this poor guy, he ended up thinking he was a boar! Started charging up and down the stage, crashing into things, sniffin’ with a snout he didn’t even have! The wings, oh, his bloody wings caused him so much trouble. Couldn’t figure out why a boar would have wings. Then again, now that I think about it, a boar doesn’t have arms and legs either, it has hooves. Anyway… the poor guy’s running about like a spooked horse, chucking his head into all sorts, when he accidentally knocks the hypnotist and he goes crashing into the audience, splits his head on a chair leg and dies right there on the floor!’ Here she tentatively partook of her drink. ‘Died right in front of me. First death I ever saw. They arrested the guy, obviously. Put him in a padded cell. When that didn’t work they took him out into one of our bio-domes, let him out into the refuge with the other boars. Still there to this day, I think. Not a clue he isn’t a boar.’

The inner engine that fuelled Ailandra’s over-worked lips finally ran out of steam. Alternatively, her internal dictionary had exhausted its words.

‘What were we talking about again?’

The weary reply faded into a tesseract of noise and static. Woven between the strange undistinguishable images, unclear and alien, a foreign agent snuck into the citadel of the mind, its appearance flickering and distant, and settled like a shadow cast by fire. Deep pits swirled into nothing, dark caves etched in the colossal rocky figure like endlessly black puddles, glowing blue brooks meandered across its grey-stone landscape, and against the white lines of noisome static clashing together and slicing beneath the surface of the flickering sheets it stood like a perfectly sculpted mountain, the kind that would inspire the clouds to form atop its head and the rivers to flow beneath its feet.

Samir’s glowering stone face emerged from the writhing sea of static. Unlike Aila’s amateur command of the Mite, he had sharpened his senses, attuned them to the telepathic network connecting all Vanguard soldiers, and had refined his mental stab to slip the knife in unnoticed.

‘Initiates,’ announced the voice that rumbled like a storm of rock. ‘There is, somewhere on this ship, a door that is not a door. It is like every other portal known to you, but there is expanse behind it, unknowable and secret, and it slides across the edge of eternity. This is the task I set before you: locate this door that is not a door that is concealed somewhere inside this ship. Find this door and report its location to me. You will know you’ve found it. Bring this information to me and you will be rewarded. Fail and there will be severe punishment. I expect nothing but a comprehensive response. You have two hours.’

Like the receding tide, the static pulled away from mental shores, curling backwards into the murky, fathomless ocean of nebulous thoughts and formless ideas. It was like a weight slowly released from weak muscles, and as it alleviated normal cerebral services returned. Aila thought it felt like unplugging an ounce of earwax from your ear canal – that sweet, lovely weightlessness and clarity as sound flooded the freshly excavated channel.

The table’s marble shine materialised in front of her, summoned into vision out of the telepathic fog.

Syna rubbed her eyes, shook her head clear like a dog shaking its coat clean. ‘What’s the deal with these Mitees?’

‘Mites,’ said Aila woozily, comforting her throbbing forehead with her palm. ‘And I really don’t know. Feels like someone’s stowed a foghorn in my head and keeps setting it off.’

‘That was nicer than you do it,’ said Syna, with an innocuous dose of venom. ‘When you do it, it’s like someone’s taking your brain apart with an ice-pick.’

‘I’ll work on it. What’s this about a door that’s not a door? Where do we start with something like that? Bit of an odd request, innit?’

‘First things first,’ said Syna apprehensively, ‘you’ll need to get a hold of Mev. You’ll have to… You’ll have to use the Mite. It’s a tad unfair on him but we can’t leave him roaming the ship alone. God knows what’ll happen. Wouldn’t surprise me if he ended up not being on the ship at all.’

‘Those transporters have been malfunctioning,’ Aila echoed. ‘I’ll give him a buzz.’

Better him than me, thought Syna.

*

Deep in the Hub’s sprawling gilded chaos, the stage was manually dismantled; the confetti guns were removed, returned to their steel-casing homes, the pale-skinned gremlins and their shining kiosks vanished uniformly in bright puffs of black smoke, the littered confetti painting the canvassed white floor was promptly tussled into disposal units, and the congealed crowd that had laid waste to the place finally split and separated, wobbling blearily homewards, undeniably content with their newly acquired treasures and trinkets.

Heavy mountains of unused and reserved stock loomed patiently at the back of the automatically dissolving stage, their lofty towers thrown and bundled together without much thought to their safety, unsound mini-skyscrapers mortared with laced metal ties. Spiky bits of unnameable things speared from the blocky towers.

As the workers rallied around the last few tedious jobs and cleared away any hint of their presence, avoiding the dead gaze of the Advocators watching their every movement from above like hawks studying their ill-fated meals scampering in the weedy undergrowth, one of the countless towers surrendered to the ship’s artificial gravity and leaned precariously to the right. Its lofty head sagged, looked to find the floor.

One worker noticed the perilous situation in the corner of his eye and caught the tower mid-fall in his meteor-sized palms. There was a faint tinkle, like something light rolling softly across metal, and the tower was restored to its rather sad placation and wishing the whole damned experience could just be over and done with.

Workers and labourers mutate into entirely different beasts when over-worked. No longer is the question ‘What can I do to fix this?’ or ‘How can I better facilitate the flow of work?’, it is ‘When is finishing time?’ or ‘Why do I care?’ but most often it is ‘Why even bother? I hate this job!’. And therein lies the issue at the heart of almost every job and career. When a bright-eyed worker begins to hate what they do, becomes fatigued with the constant tedium and the shouting and the illogical decisions, the seed of disillusion buried in the minds of the working class starts to mature, and blossoms into a warped lonely tree that bears the fruit of loathing.

The meteor-hands retracted, their owner pondering why they had bothered to rescue the tower when it wasn’t like he’d be thanked or the rescue would be noticed, and abandoned the depressing tower of unclaimed stock, believing it would be doing everyone a favour if it kissed the metal floor with a flat mouth.

Nobody noticed, nor did anyone care about, the sudden gap in the discarded tower’s messy blocks or the quiet, metallic sound of a cherry-hued orb rolling across the floor, that was carefully lifted from its aimless tumble and accepted into the forestry’s avaricious clutches.

Branches waved and curled as the orb glowed like a fiery coal rescued from a nest of flames.

It waited.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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