Searching for the answer to Samir’s riddle, Ailandra and Syna visit the Grand Archives and discover more than they bargained for, while Mevoine struggles with impossible questions and makes his own terrifying discovery.
The great causeway that connected the Grand Archives to the larger host swung behind the Heart Of Oblivion’s globular flank like a snaking extension lodged into an overgrown bulb of thick forestry. In dramatic contrast to the rest of the ship’s countless hallways and titanic auditoriums and cramped dormitories, this was a narrow, tidy causeway whose sleek flooring ran like a white metal river, pristine and perfect. Bright orbs hung from the messy, colourful ceiling, itself an experiment in how loyally chaos followed its own vulgar scent, golden wires coiled around them like shiny nooses around tiny stars.
Excess was a concept the Vanguard had succumbed to in every sense of the word; expansive hallways were filled with gold-trimmed decorations, grand foyers orbited lavish sculptures, complex paintings and scripts occupied the sleek metal walls like an overdone art gallery sunken in creative debauchery. Since Nephilim ships were notoriously copious in size it is unlikely that, even with the Vanguard’s incredibly extended lifespans, any one person had visited every hallway, and indeed there were unknown, hidden places the shadows treated with caution, but enough had been seen to intimate sultan-like indulgence; the gold-laced decorations, the needless sculptures and paintings and scriptures, the unnatural cleanliness, how the surfaces shined with the spotless glimmer of diamonds and pearls.
Though there were such untouched places, a short trip around the ship would reveal considerably more than the pearly surface shine the Vanguard were eager to inspire. A happy, dazzling surface is like a mask, and as one peels the mask off, for even a second, the true face and the blemishes beneath are revealed.
Lorle maintained a vigilant watch over the Archives’ entrance. This was mainly because Lorle had nothing else to do, and in moments of having nothing to do, people fall to default functions like sweeping, washing, drying, twiddling their thumbs, whistling a tuneless melody, washing and the like. All that dreadfully boring stuff normal people did like it made a difference, as if they could soothe their boredom with greater tedium.
He stared out the lonely portal in the wall, out at the sparkling emptiness beyond. Glittering stars drifted passed, each one a shipwreck survivor waving and winking as the heartless ocean swallowed them into the crushing blackness.
And there was his reflection in the force-field separating him from the stars; that tired old man, lips curled into a limp sneer, grey hair glued to his forehead. Empty eyes. Melted face. Nothing new. He couldn’t remember becoming that old. It just happened one day, woke up in the morning, looked in the mirror and didn’t recognise the twisted reflection, with its soul-deep sadness, lined, wrinkled forehead. And those sad eyes. He could barely look in them anymore.
The single seat, rooted in front of the doorways, curled around his arms and legs. One of few pleasures he could still enjoy. Just a seat.
He leaned forward. ‘I trust we’ve received news?’
‘I hate to disappoint. I’m afraid I must.’
Lorle swept his greasy hair from his eyes, tapped his forehead, frustrated. ‘Nothing at all? How is that possible? You’re monitoring three different ships. There must be something; a rumour, a whisper.’
A semi-transparent screen materialised in the air; holographic data lines ran top to bottom like raindrops down glass.
‘I logged all the chatter I could find,’ Ophelia explained. ‘Any mention of the Optivarr is here.’
His eyes followed the lettering as it plunged, inspecting with clinical appreciation.
‘Our fellow soldiers are fools,’ he observed glumly. ‘Trust the young to open their mouths and vomit forth the first thing that festers in their tiny brains. “The Optivarr are this, the Optivarr are that.” It’s like reading a toddler’s notebook.’
Ophelia switched the feed. ‘As you can see, these are unconfirmed sightings. The Optivarr, they’re like ghost stories to the uneducated. Whenever something appears to be supernatural or unnatural, the event is ascribed to them. There are also reports, also unconfirmed, that random energy spikes are occurring frequently in high-contact zones, some of which have caused… unexpected consequences.’
‘I’m far too old to be chasing ghost stories. I’ve met a few, mind you. Very depressing creatures. It’s like they’re spiritual vampires, draining the blood of enthusiasm.’ He rubbed his greasy forehead. ‘No, the Optivarr are not ghost stories or horror stories, not legends or mythical creatures skirting civilisation’s boundaries. Not this nonsense these ill-informed idiots are speaking like fact. Are they even taught anything anymore or are they thrown out into the war and told “sink or swim”?’
‘Based on my data,’ chirped Ophelia, ‘it’s almost certainly the latter. And most will sink before the last bubble bursts.’
There was a time, he remembered, the Vanguard were proud to be precisely that; to engage the mind as much as the body. But such times had whistled passed, glaring not for a second at the tired old man clinging to the frozen bones of history.
The Optivarr had faded from view but not from popular consciousness; having become etched into Vanguard culture there was little the authorities could do to remove them without inviting righteous protests and widespread fury. All they could do was mitigate the damage and hope the Optivarr would return, one day, and bring with them their heavenly might and grace.
Unlikely, Lorle had theorised. For one of them to die at the hand of a Vanguard – the de facto leader no less – they were just lucky they hadn’t been wiped out in a surge of divine vengeance, in a hectic blur of blood and fury and fire.
That wasn’t to say it couldn’t still happen. Maybe that was the very reason the Optivarr had vanished – preparations for genocide would take a while to plan, after all.
Unless, he shuddered at the thought, they’d forget all the planning and unleash that beast of theirs. The girl. The unknowable one. Could crush galaxies with her fingers. To her the Vanguard would be like trapped rats in a grimy basement, and she the sadistic, starved cat, grinning as they swarmed at her feet for easy pickings.
He was all for justice, but that wouldn’t truly be justice. It would be a senseless massacre.
‘Lorle?’ said Ophelia.
‘I’m fine.’ He’d forgotten himself: it was the duty of the young to predict the precariousness of the future, it was the privilege of the old to sit back and watch the climbing flames.
‘You’re quiet. Shall I make tea?’
Lemon tea was presented in a silver teapot, alongside a gold-rimmed mug that dazzled in the brilliant light. How many times had he taken his tea in that infuriating mug? It was a smug mug, the kind that knew all too well it was exaggerating its purpose with its encrusted handle and the gold lip around the top, and no matter how many tea-stains he willingly left on the blasted thing, it would return to him untouched as though an entirely new mug altogether, maddening smugness replenished quicker than the tea.
Not Ophelia’s fault, he reminded himself. A smug mug is no excuse for poor manners.
‘Thank you, Ophelia.’ He sipped the tea, ruminating. ‘Another perfect brew. It’s like heaven in a cup.’
‘Any time,’ Ophelia beeped.
Peaceful at last, he leaned back in his seat. Marble limbs, warm to the touch, wrapped around him like a conscious blanket.
Something you could always rely on: the serenity of having nothing to do. For some the loneliness of the Archives was deafening and obtuse, isolated from the rest of the ship like a quarantined zone and you the sickly Patient Zero, fenced away and forgotten for the good of the whole. For Lorle, however, this quiet sequestration made the Archives all the more appealing; he and Ophelia were permitted an unprotested access to the numbing sum of knowledge the Vanguard had acquired over their impossibly lengthy history, with the exception of a few classified articles, salacious treatises Ophelia had firmly advised him against reading.
Surround yourself with knowledge, Lorle thought, and loneliness is a fading nightmare. Serenity is won by ignoring the call of sociability, then blocking the number and throwing away your phone like a drunk who can’t stop texting their ex.
Peace is inherently fragile; one must handle such a fragile object as they would handle a new-born. It takes time, due patience, vigilance of one’s own actions and consequences.
This is why, not three seconds later, Lorle nearly choked on his tea when a winged woman bubbling excitably barged into his precious glass sanctuary, a hungry-eyed vampire at her side.
Thick branches waved violently in the breeze, like serpents writhing through the air. Curious frost-spangled trunks peeked into the hallways and found the place already claimed by its brethren, wreathed in cold metal and shining gold. A chapel made not of stone and mortar and timber, but an unbreakable marriage of the natural and the fabricated; like the two had been stitched together by a creator slipping into hot madness.
Mev was still getting used to it all – and there was a hell of a lot to absorb. The whole ship tended to overwhelm simpler minds, and his was a remarkably simple one. Some may venture so far as to call it worryingly simple.
Despite this guileless charm which plodded along without much resistance to anything remotely significant, like some sort of brainless ant separated from his all-knowing hive, recent developments had forced introspection, a word Mev didn’t know and had never bothered to learn, and if he had would probably have been terrified of the implications.
Introspection is a person holding a mirror to their mental framework and studying the reflection, not so much an exercise in vanity as it is the opposite; dissecting what makes them them, figuring out how their reflection should look, tracing the ugly deeds as if the mind were a road-map, and each twisting turn another bump in the moral path. Why any sane person would look inside themselves, turn the eye inside-out and gawp at the meaty parts and the confusing emotions – why anyone would even think about not only admitting but broadcasting their deepest flaws, it was enough to give up on the childish notion of personal evolution, that someone could find pride in their capacity for change.
This new feeling, the creep of introspective thought, sat in his gut like a coiled viper. Prod inside too often and come away with a bitten finger, he thought. Reflection of the inner self has its merits, but what if you look and don’t like what you see? What if you know the person you are, you know what your reflection will look like, and its ugliness is more than you could handle?
What if you knew you were a useless coward?
The Hub appeared around the next corner and dispelled troubling thoughts. Inner reflection was virtually impossible when you were in the Hub – it was sensory warfare. Nothing existed clearly in your head when this much happened outside it.
The stage had earlier been removed. Marshall And Marshall’s bizarre employees did their work quickly. Barely anything remained that suggested mere hours before the place had been like a festival site, brimming with bright chaos, dizzy with people and that devilish, odd-headed champion, Not-Marshall, drinking from the deep well of the crowd’s ecstasy like a shaky drunk slurping the foamy dregs – save for the few scattered pieces of cheap confetti, and the bruised stragglers licking their wounds.
The Lights, as he had grown to call them, and yes, even in his mind this was capitalised, threaded confidently between each other. Impossible to tell if they were aware how close they almost touched; like candles gathered for a vigil, sizzling flames squirming like drowned worms.
Everything looked in place. The Lights were accommodated for, as if the surrounding world was built just to house them.
But there’s always something out of place if you look hard enough. Any busy place filled to the brim with a parade of people has something to hide, and plenty of secret gullies and nooks in which to secrete them. Usually these shady hovels are glanced over once and forgotten or are invisible to the naked eye unless one knows precisely where to look. Mevoine was, however, peculiar. He didn’t realise it yet but his world of Lights opened a unique perspective unknown to most except the war’s oldest and weariest titans.
He felt it before he saw it. The livid heat of an unwanted ember before it hurtles into an unsuspecting leg. A strange taste in the air. The looming tower of a tidal wave before the fall.
Remarkably out of place and out of sorts. Whatever it was, it was far from home. It felt almost lonely, afraid. This, Mevoine guessed, meant nothing. The Lights didn’t feel, they were just mobile candles. Something else leaking from the Hub into his mind, then, making him sense this displaced terror.
He followed the trail, carefully side-stepping the mountainous and unnameable things he had come to begrudgingly recognise as his ship-mates. As impossible as it seemed, for they were all a sort of patchwork bunch, vastly varied species that never quite glued together, his fellow soldiers belonged on the ship as much as he did not; it seemed they were in the right place, predestined to be there. This anomaly burning in quiet solitude, it wasn’t meant to be, at least in the strictest context, here, as if ripped from an alien environment and thrust into this one without a care it didn’t fit. The effect was much the same as removing a rather confused tiger from its pack and cosy home in the jungle and dropping it in the middle of the Pacific.
He managed to trace the fiery signal to a patch of wild forestry climbing the wall. Around him scurried sentient machines and alien horrors mangled beyond reality’s understanding, presumably more of Marshall and Marshall’s indentured labourers removing the last few specks of evidence. They paid him no attention – this he was used to.
The branches proved resilient, knotted together like some obscenely green tapestry, whose sole purpose in an aging existence was to disparage would-be-rescuers from their noble cause. He experimented prying two apart, then stood back and scratched the back of his head, in that way only those who had attempted to mantle Swedish furniture would understand, and took stock of the situation.
Behind this curtain of stubborn foliage, he knew hid the Anomaly. It was as if it was broadcasting a distress signal, to which answered his forever malleable, putty-like mind. It’s not as if he could ignore it. What if he got in trouble?
He checked over his shoulder. The workers were still busy dismantling their stock towers, each vanishing in plumes of black smoke when the order was called. No wayward eyes, how he liked it. Social outcasts learn early on to distinguish between people who are willing to help and those eager to harass, like those ancient pioneers who took up the thankless task of separating innocuous fruits and berries from the infinitely more hazardous bunch. These creatures weren’t of the helping sort unless compensation greased their huge, meaty palms. Plus, if a social outcast were to do something extraordinarily dumb, say, extract a mysterious migrant from its leaf-covered nest in the middle of the ship’s busiest and highest-trafficked area, it’s plain as painting a bullseye on your forehead surrounded by the words bullies hit here.
He pressed his palm to the cold bark, felt the simmering heat beneath. The Anomaly’s Light snuck through the gaps in fiery slits – vaguely orange, blackened edges dark as coal, and underneath that fortress of fire, deep below its ember-laden core: loneliness, fear, confusion. Not the Hub leaking into his mind, then. An innocent fearing for its life, somehow trapped in the forest’s prison.
He pulled at the stubborn vines. Strength wasn’t precisely what he was known for, but he doubted the forest would submit to his sublime awkwardness or social impotence.
Wedged a finger in, pulled, pried. Almost asked the roguish vines to peel apart, if just for a second, so he could reach in and complete the rescue. He could hear the thing calling to him, frightened and alone, and as any kind-hearted person would do when confronted with a whimpering, beaten animal, took it upon himself to put this above all else.
His distress consigned to secondary concern, he heaved apart the tight vines, four arms fully exerted – the second of strange new experiences in the last twenty minutes – and snapped the wayward ember from its nest.
I’m gonna get caught, I’m gonna get caught, I’m gonna get caught. Samir is going to kill me!
He recovered his hand from the knotted snare, and brought with it… a curiously shaped rock, charred black on the outside, cold as a glacier. It fit perfectly in his palm, curved at the edges, and reflected the light peculiarly, like steel with a crude stone coat.
A lonely rock. Third strange experience and counting.
‘What are you doing?’
Cowards are terrible at certain things: confrontations being at the top of the quivering pile. Followed closely by ordering coffee, sending food back to the kitchen at an expensive restaurant, and the coward’s principal trouble: answering the phone to an unknown caller. They are, on the other trembling hand, exceptionally endowed with other talents. Like panicking. And hyper-ventilating. And whimpering and worrying and crying and screaming and panicking again.
And running away.
‘Would you humour me and repeat that just one more time? Please?’
The Archives, Aila had discovered, were bone-numbing boring. Nothing but an old man and a huge set of intricately carved golden doors half the size of a mountain, laced in luxury and over-indulgence. And the old man, Lorle he was called, didn’t offer much in the way of conversation, other than to berate and deride in whichever seemed the nastiest way at the time.
Balding on the top, grey at the sides, drooping eyes, face like a melted candle dropped in a saw-mill, Lorle was decidedly boring. Smart, too. Unfortunately, Aila had also discovered, he was the kind of smart that holds the ego’s hand and leads it into the snob-nosed riches undeserved arrogance provides. There’s nothing worse than a smart person who knows they’re smart. It’s like their head pounds with undiscovered facts and figures and pointless ‘did-you-know’ segues, and the only way to alleviate the pressure of having that big bulbous brain-box weighing them down with knowledge is to let it slither off the tip of their tongue, right into your innocent virgin ear, and there it settles; the curled maggot of knowledge.
Just as the rich seldom use their wealth to elevate the poor, so do the undeservedly intelligent rarely use their knowledge to enrich the people around them. It’s all to satisfy the ego’s cravings.
Presently he tormented Syna – who was keeping stern aloofness – due to her apparently ludicrous question.
‘I said,’ she repeated wearily, ‘we’re looking for a door that isn’t a door. Do you know -’
‘Wait, wait, wait,’ said Lorle, beaming like a wolf spying an injured sheep. ‘Just one more time. Please. This is simply too much for me. There’s not a lot of entertainment around here.’
‘I’ve asked you five times now.’ Syna stepped forward, aiming for intimidation. ‘It’s not a tricky question. Do you know a door that isn’t a door?’
Lorle grinned, sunk lower in his liquid marble seat. Relishing the fighting spirit.
‘Oh, yes. That’s the stuff! Now, let me think here.’ He pantomimed serious deliberation. ‘It’s a tough one. Toughest question I’ve pondered for a while. Not the cosmic framing problem or the Optivarr absence. No, this question is the axiomatic big one. The very fabric of existence could be unravelled lest we answer this! A door, not a door. When is a door not a door?’
‘If someone says -’ began Syna.
‘When it’s ajar!’ Aila blurted. ‘Of course, we have to find a jar!’
‘Aila, he’s being facetious.’
‘Just let me handle this,’ said Syna. ‘Look, you old grey hack, this is the Grand Archives, isn’t it? One of the officers told us this was the greatest repository of Vanguard knowledge you could ever find. If you’re telling me it’s incomplete, and you don’t know anything about doors that aren’t doors, then where’s the point in all this? You’ve got these stupidly massive doors, the place is buried under purple light and gold – making my eyes water, by the way – and you’ve got nothing to back it up with?’
Syna was also smart, a dangerous fact Lorle had overlooked. Unlike him, her intelligence revolved around her ability to find and exploit weak-points, chinks in the ego’s armour. In this case, as with all know-it-all’s too clever for their own smarmy good, Lorle had such an exploitable weak-point, somewhere easy to jab the verbal knife: pride.
The old man leaned forward, knuckles whitened as he gripped the chair, sweat-beaded cheeks red and flustered.
‘You dare,’ he hissed. ‘This is indeed the Grand Archives. It is without equal, an intellectual paradise. At the very least, a paradise for the intellectual.’
‘And you’re the only person here,’ Syna observed. ‘I wonder why.’
The old man stood now, jowly red chins flapping like an unfurled cape. Syna stared him down, refusing to back away from the sweaty pig.
And then came another voice; empty, robotic, emotionless.
‘Disrespecting superiors: shall I notify the Advocators?’
Blue veins throbbed rhythmically along the walls.
‘What the hell is that?’ said Aila.
Lorle withdrew from the stand-off. ‘At this point I’m not surprised to discover your ignorance. They really do teach you new-starts nothing. Allow me to be direct: you are at the mercy of your superiors at any time. If I so decided I could call in the Wolves with a click of my fingers and you’d both be torn to pieces. Now, since I respect my home and I’ve no interest in decorating it vampire and idiot, I’ll experiment with patience. Do not speak to me like that again. What I am surprised about is that your commander hasn’t beaten this behaviour out of you already.’ He glanced around the room. ‘We’ll give them one more chance, Ophelia. Let’s see if they can figure it out.’
Another sin eternal in the overly smart is the condescension attached to every drop of poisonous pride. Lorle would keep them there, Aila guessed, so long as they provided him entertainment; brainless court jesters juggling and dancing and singing for the glorious king’s regal enjoyment.
Syna glanced around, following his grey gaze. ‘And Ophelia would be?’
Aila knew the question she’d rather have asked, but even if she hid it spectacularly well, the old man’s threat hadn’t gone unchecked. This was her at her most polite.
‘A ship this size,’ began Lorle, in dull tones that could lull whales to sleep, ‘requires constant upkeep and rigorous maintenance. It’s impossible to stress, really, just how much unseen work goes into keeping us cosmically afloat. And despite our technological brilliance, and trust me, we are brilliant, there are highly complex matters that can’t be plainly remedied by our hands. In the old days it was easier, our technology was simpler, but as the war evolved so did our need for advanced systems. Think of it like a parasite. Simple to begin with, latches to the closest food source, and relentlessly feeds. Sort of like our neck-friendly fiend here. Only instead of drawing its strength and sustaining itself, it learns from what it feeds on, developing and evolving over time to become a sentient system, constantly learning and growing.’
‘Right,’ said Aila. ‘Obviously. That all sounds well and good expect the part you said all that stuff.’
Lorle chuckled – not jovially or humorously, a laugh without mirth or meaning. Even his laugh was hollow.
‘I suspected you wouldn’t keep up. Not to worry, lass. It happens. Ophelia is the ship’s primary system. The voice of everything that keeps you alive. Centuries of work have gone into feeding our mechanical parasite the meat of our data, the blood of our history, the ore of the war, and from that it has built itself into the greatest, most sophisticated artificial consciousness, from whose air you breathe, and on whose back you now walk. Difficult to wrap your head around, if you’re as dumb as you, that is.’
Aila wrinkled her nose. The old man, the dull bastard, he couldn’t help himself. Vile condescension oozed out of him. He enjoyed having Ophelia like his personal assistant, there to pour his tea and satisfy his every awful whim.
Say something, Syna. Say something and bring him down a peg or two or three thousand.
The vampire’s thin lips showed no signs of opening. Up to me then, thought Aila.
‘So you have this hugely advanced piece of technology,’ she began, ‘and you’re using it for what?’ She craned her neck upwards. ‘What’s he making you do, Ophelia? Can I call you Ophy? Or… Pheely?’
‘Why’s she not talking to me?’
‘Imagine we let anyone and everyone speak to the sentience that literally controls the weather of our space-borne nation,’ Lorle snapped. ‘Imagine! A lowly initiate like you, barely a toddler out the pram, and you expect that level of honour and respect?! You’re a greater fool than I thought, and I rarely get things wrong.’
Aila glanced sideways at Syna, staring quietly at her feet. Why was she not saying anything? Syna was a verbal juggernaut, once you got her going, the engine never stopped until her opponent’s argument was battered and bruised and whimpering in the corner. It seemed now she’d run out of steam.
‘Alright, I’m sorry,’ Aila tried. ‘They haven’t taught us much. Samir’s our commander, he doesn’t really talk to us except to bark orders or shout at us for doing something wrong. He’s like this guy I knew, back home I mean. You could tell he’d order weird coffee, like a caramel pumpkin skinny latte Frappuccino with extra cino. Know what I mean?’
Lorle’s heavy eyes widened. ‘Thankfully, I can say I do not. What exactly have they taught you?’
‘Um… We fought a giant snake.’
‘And what did you learn?’
‘To not fight giant snakes.’
‘And now you’re looking for a door that’s not a door. That sounds like a step-down from your previous mission. Your chance at glory has nose-dived and crashed and you’re left with the smouldering wreckage. I’ll throw you a bone since I’m nothing but gentlemanly.’
Aila held her breath and bit her tongue.
‘These doors are, unluckily for you, not the doors you’re searching for. It’s a riddle – a riddle your commander has tasked you with solving and despite my temptation to reveal the answer just to see the stupid look dawn on your faces, I alas cannot belay your commander’s orders. We’re all at the mercy of the Wolves in some respect and this information I offer you free: fear the Wolves, for their proclivity for destruction is equalled only by their hunger.’
‘Don’t mess with the Wolves, got it,’ she said. ‘But back to the doors that aren’t doors…’
‘It would serve your interests well not to interrupt me.’ The fat lump grinned and was swallowed nearly whole by his grasping seat. It looked like an elephant ensnared in a purple swampy marsh. ‘Perhaps I shall guide you to the answer…’
He drifted off, then settled his tiny beady eyes on immobile Syna.
‘What’s wrong with you, dear?’ he taunted. ‘Your friend has surplus haemoglobin supplies if you’re short on snacks.’
She looked unsteady, wobbling on her feet. Even for her usual deathly-pale complexion, some sort of sickness had greyed her cheeks and sucked in her eyes.
Sweat poured down her forehead, made her skin gleam.
‘Ah, I see,’ Lorle chuckled, that same lifeless grunt doused in disdain. ‘I didn’t have you as the marrying type.’
Aila took her hand, cold as a corpse. ‘Talk to me. Just because this guy’s…’ She remembered the threat, the Wolves. ‘Just ‘cause this guy doesn’t like people doesn’t mean he doesn’t like you.’
Syna turned to her, and Aila almost screamed.
The face Syna wore was nothing like her own; bulging vacant eyes devoid of pupils, circled with oily black smears; pink lips trembling and glittering with sweat; an animal wearing her skin, violently tugging the muscles into this horrific visage, as if to con the world with its skin-suit and feast ruthlessly on meat and blood.
Aila backed away. Syna – or this skin-wearing wild animal – had blood on the mind. Sure, Lorle would be soft and supple and there’d be plenty on which to feast, but she was closer, easier, and knowing how the Advocators worked she’d suffer no consequences for slicing and dicing her way to a free meal if that meal was a-la Ailandra. Confit Lorle, however, had a tense, and probably unjustified, costly charge.
Not that the animal would be thinking about consequences. It would feed on Aila, then Lorle, then the
‘It’s not me,’ Syna whispered, hushed, frightened.
‘Bloody hell, mate. I know it’s not you.’ Aila took another tense step back. ‘I’m just wondering who it is.’
‘Telepathy,’ Lorle said suddenly, ‘is a gift and a curse. When two minds link, it’s like they become water, formless, to fill the vessel that is the consciousness. And when two minds are intimately linked, unbreakably tethered together, they adopt qualities of each other’s vessel. It’s difficult to imagine right now I’m sure, with your friend looking at you like I would a juicy steak, but she speaks truthfully. This isn’t her, it’s not her impulse, not her prerogative. She’s acting on someone else’s hunger.’
And finally the proverbial fang sunk. This pale, hungry thing with greedy ambition was not only monstrous, but the monstrous display of someone else’s growing problem. And knowing Syna, there was only one person this could mean.
Blood is life.
It pulses through veins, the coppery fuel that powers the body. Without it, there would be no life and for some, whose fuel must be extracted like oil from beneath the skin, this is unbreakable truth.
The girl sat alone and read from an electronic device. She was pretty; flowing blonde hair matted in enviable curls, popping blue eyes, curved cheekbones, caramel skin. Long neck and pulsing jugular – this was important.
A cute lamb. An oil reserve.
A quick snack.
Savage compulsions were rising like bile. If the body truly acted like a machine, with its oiled cogs and complex whirring parts, Lyrik’s was suffering some technical issues, the kind likely to break the entire system if left unchecked.
She skulked around the little lamb. She smelled delectable, fresh. Crisp, clean blood, and all it needed to do was pass the barrier of skin, to go just farther than it had gone before. Blood runs close to the surface and can be charmed free with little effort. In Lyrik’s experience blood was stupid, and fangs were the flute to its serpentine stubbornness.
The lamb hadn’t noticed her, engrossed with her blocky tablet, no idea fanged, hungry danger loomed over her like a towering shadow.
Just a bite to sate the appetite. Just a sip to quench the thirst.
She couldn’t help a toothy grin. Not for anything would she stop draining every delicious ounce of blood. At least the lamb would make a pretty corpse. A dried-up shell of a corpse, but a cute one all the same.
She licked her crusty lips, reared her neck back like a balled-up fist. It would be over in seconds…
And then, chaos.
Like some crazed murderer cracking open your skull with a sharpened ice-pick. Splitting synapses, dulled senses. An outside thought ramming into the sanctuary of the mind is something you never adapt to, and something you never want to – it’s screaming pain, hellish fire inside the skull, melting the delicate structures life took particular pride in making.
‘Lyrik?’ Aila’s voice.
‘Uh-huh.’ Patience had already burnt out. It hurt to speak. The hunger didn’t want to speak, it wanted to feed.
‘Syna’s gone a bit weird… We’re with this guy and he said… well, he’s saying… You need dinner?’
Lyrik grimaced. She’d almost forgotten about Syna. She’d be feeling it too, not as strong, of course; more like the distant echo of hunger. This did prove a problem. Aila was with her, and despite her tendency to annoy with over-talking, Lyrik had grown to think somewhat fondly of the walking bubble of excitement. Having Syna tear her to pieces was perhaps too severe a punishment for what were ultimately minor discrepancies.
‘Right, right. Um… You got any, you know, food on you? Not that I know much about how it all works but that looks like the easiest fix.’ Aila blubbered incomprehensibly. ‘I mean, not a fix like a drug fix, like a fix to a problem. Although, I guess this is kinda like a drug fix, innit? Not that you’re an addict. Although, Syna does look like a druggie right now. Sweating and kind of sick looking and all that stuff. Doesn’t look great, has to be said. What do you look like? Have you got weird eyes, too?’
Lyrik glanced out of the static. The lamb was still sitting there, minding her own business. Her supple caramel neck tempted hot saliva to rise in her mouth.
‘Where are you?’ she grunted.
‘Grand Archives. Syna says she has the stuff. The stuff.’ Aila laughed. ‘Like drugs, you know? You get it?’
She exited the dingy foyer, skimming the walls with her shoulder to stay on her feet. Abandon the lamb and get to Syna, that was the mission. Hope and pray no-one else comes stumbling across. No-one with a naked neck, or delicious blood, or pink lithe skin, or a throbbing, pulsing jugular…
The Mite static retreated from the corners of her eyes, Aila retrieving her mental ice-pick, hopefully hiding it somewhere it could never again be found. Telepathy through nano-machines was rough, unrefined, felt like the brain was being cruelly violated, and those unaccustomed to using it properly, such as Aila, were inclined to thrust the telepathic spear in the mind’s squishy soft parts, simply because it is far easier to use brute force than finesse.
Faces passed in the hallways; nameless, featureless creatures; walking blood bags. Mobile meat. Strolling snacks. Had to ignore them, pretend they weren’t there. She was a famished snake in the grass, and they the juicy mice, scurrying in the corners of shade.
She slumped down defeated in the junction of the wall, beneath flickering lights bathing her purple. The hunger was fire in her veins and venom in her bones, festering deep in the marrow. Might as well give up and let loose the beast. Delaying the inevitable seemed like the brave option but there’s a reason the inevitable is the inevitable. It’s like bailing water from the shore to stop the tide. The flood is coming, all you’re doing is exhausting yourself, using energy best saved for running in the opposite direction.
Something ran in front of her blurred vision. Panicked, hurried, like it’d heard famished vampires were on the prowl. The blur swooped to the end of the corridor, then it stopped, stepped back. It stooped – or had it always been stooped? – and peered curiously at her. It looked deformed, vaguely mangled, like some malnourished hunchback.
But what a sight she must look right then, back pressed against the wall, legs splayed, wolf’s eyes, sweat dripping off her chin, a certain zombie-ish palette. This diminutive little thing probably looked a damn sight better than she did.
The something prodded her shoulder like a snotty child aiming for a hanky. She waved it away, again it prodded.
She sucked up slobber. ‘Go away. I’ll eat you.’
A third prodding. Fine, if it wanted to play like that.
The hunger surged like vomit, bubbling in her core to begin with, then charging up her throat like lava. Control lost, she settled comfortably into the passenger’s seat of her body’s impulses, giving in to them almost entirely, numbly accepting that casualties were inevitable.
As the animal pulled her jaw apart and prepared to thrust them together around anything fleshy, the blur coagulated, its wavy outline piecing together. There were slight details she hadn’t noticed before – the deep blueness of its cropped hair, how its stomach bulged like… No, not bulged. Extra arms, three or four of them, wrapped loosely around its torso. Memories stirred above the roars and snarls of the emerging beast. The part that was still Lyrik slammed its foot on the brakes and forced the struggling animal into submission. It growled, infuriated to be so close to brink and pulled away at the last moment.
Staring at her dumb-eyed and slack-jawed as usual, was Mev. Harmless, innocent, dumb as a bag of emotionally stunted rocks. Certainly fast food material, but not worth the trouble.
He held out his hand, presenting his palm for inspection. She feebly raised her own and completed the odd ritual with a high-five.
He squinted, surprised. Then tried again.
‘Mev, I don’t have time… Why are you handing me a rock?’
It was a suspicious rock, as suspicious as rocks can truly be qualified such. It seemed warm in a mysterious sort of way, hot on the inside and cold on the outside, but she couldn’t explain how she had arrived at this conclusion.
‘I need food,’ she growled. ‘Not rocks. Grand Archives.’
He cocked his head sideways, like a puppy sure they were getting a command, unsure as to what it might be.
‘I could c-c-carry you,’ he offered.
Poor Mev. Too dumb to recognise danger.
‘Bad idea. Too close to your throat.’
Plus, she thought, can’t treat physical capability as an afterthought. It was incredible he managed to keep himself upright with those straw muscles.
He shrugged helplessly.
‘Fine. Just keep your distance and don’t do anything stupid. I don’t want to eat you but that doesn’t mean I won’t.’
The idiot managed to pull her up with what was ultimately a rather embarrassing display of strength – or lack thereof.
‘You n-n-need food,’ he said, and winced. ‘I’m s-s-sorry.’
She grunted. ‘Stop… Stop apologising for your stutter. And yes, I need food. Food that’s running through your veins as we speak. Help me get to the Archives. Pick me up when I fall, otherwise don’t come near me.’
She managed a wobbly step, then stopped.
‘If I look like I’m about to bite you, I am. Good luck.’
The entrance to the Grand Archives was precisely as the conceited name suggested. A shimmering gold-rimmed halo through which ventured intrigued knowledge-seekers, and based on the complete absence of people, the ship was somewhat deficient in the knowledge seeking department.
The utter silence and emptiness was near impossible. A single corridor was like walking in a cramped city, yet here, in an abundantly open space, the only life that could be found was the verdant forestry snaking up and down the pristine, polished metal.
Lyrik fell through the halo first, as if suddenly inflicted with temporary paralysis. Mev wanted to help but her words had arrested his senses. He’d offered a hand once, when she had tumbled down a flight of stairs, and this fleeting offer was quickly rescinded after she snapped her fangs and cursed his apparently sweet-smelling blood.
Syna was there as soon as she fell, arms wrapped around her, worrying maternally.
Mev had to suffocate a gasp. Lyrik looked awful, remarkably removed from her usual calm, unsuspecting grace, but Syna looked just as horrible; reflecting Lyrik’s bestial fury, those unsettling white eyes ringed with charcoal-black halos, bleached skin tight around the bones and drowned in sweat.
Aila stood uncomfortably beside a purple marble chair, its meaty tentacles ensnared around an ungainly lump of grey blankets.
‘She okay?’ she shouted.
Syna had Lyrik over her shoulder and held a peculiar bottle filled with red liquid to her mouth, ignoring Aila. She tried to feed the starved vampire like a nursing child, holding her jaws apart and squirting the liquid directly into the mouth. Lyrik gurgled down the stuff like the parched desert survivor gulping the heavenly oasis.
Feeling like he was witnessing something deftly intimate, Mev turned his attention instead towards Aila and her bland company of ugly blankets. Blankets… with eyes? There was a mouth in there, somewhere, among the flabby flaps. A strange pendant hung around the area that was possibly a former neckline.
‘Meet Lorle,’ said Aila, with a tone suggesting this was a terrible idea. ‘He’s been… helping us. Talking to us.’ She grabbed Mev’s shoulder. ‘Be nice. He’s already threatened to bring in the Wolves if we’re rude to him. Bloody bastard.’
Mev squinted. ‘W-W-Wolves?’
‘Advocators. Says they’ll rip us up if he gives the order. Could be a bluff but I’d rather not risk it.’ She checked over her shoulder. ‘Syna, is she okay?’
Lyrik lay on the ground, absorbing the delicious euphoria sinking into her stomach.
‘She’s fine,’ said Syna. Her eyes had returned to normal, her skin was catching up. ‘She’ll need some rest but she’ll be fine.’
Aila nodded, grinned. ‘Resting vampires! Brilliant! How come you drinking the blood wouldn’t do anything? It’s obviously a two-way connection.’
‘With most things,’ explained Syna, ‘it’s two-way. With this, it’s different. The hunger’s like an infection that can only be quenched at the root.’
‘If I may interject,’ said Lorle moodily. ‘I believe there are greater matters to deal with than hungry vampires. You, boy. Jenhanian. You’ve been on quite the adventure, haven’t you?’
Mev gripped his lonely rock to his side. But because all cowards are fundamentally bankrupt when it comes to disobedience, seconds later he presented it for the red lump’s inspection, holding it like some infinitely precious holy artefact, and Lorle’s beady blank eyes the official evaluators.
‘Ah. I assume this is jetsam from Marshall and Marshall’s untimely visit? That you have somehow acquired through nefarious means?’
Aila glanced over the odd thing. ‘It’s a rock.’
‘And that’s another loss for team brain,’ grunted Lorle. ‘No, not a rock. See not with your eyes, girl. Engage with the mind, look deeper.’
She focused hard on it. ‘It’s… It’s like it’s hot. I can feel heat! But I haven’t even touched it!’
‘And yet if one were to touch it, it would feel cold. Such is the burden of our profession, to know what could not be known. Should not be known. Your senses are heightened to assist you in this, and I can assure you, it’s deeply unsettling. It’ll take time for you to adjust – for some it takes moments, for others it can take years. This is your first step on the path to proper enlightenment… But this is a plain fact compared to what we have here.’
He moved for the first time, shifting ungodly weight from the poor, sweat-beset chair with tectonic effort, and swiped the air. Hovering script appeared in thick columns, lettering glowing like heated steel.
‘You see, your little rock here isn’t a rock at all,’ Lorle explained. ‘Anyone have any guesses?’
Syna pulled Lyrik, still purring like a kitten on the floor, towards the transparent screen.
‘Could we try and stay focused -’
‘On your doors that aren’t doors?’ scoffed Lorle. ‘No, that’s boring and far too simple. Any idiot could figure it out. This right here,’ he gestured to the rock, ‘I haven’t seen something like this in a long time, not since the days of Vrasen Gel and the Slaughter Of Ten Thousand. We used to use these back in those days. Back when Vanguard were real Vanguard. Vrasen Gel, now he’d make you look like flies, I just make you look stupid. Well, I help you make you look stupid. But I digress…’
‘The rock that’s not a rock?’ said Syna, tapping the mysterious item in Mev’s hand. ‘You used rocks?’
‘Don’t belittle the punitive rock, dear. It might seem harmless enough now but with enough force I could bash your pale, pretty skull into pieces. Alas, this is not a rock, as I’ve said several times now. Please keep up. Guesses, anyone? Would anyone care to rise to the occasion and champion the underdog?’
Mev reviewed the script hovering in front of his face. The Nephilim language. He’d only heard snippets here and there, never seen it written out before. The way it flowed in the air like a melody, each letter a musical note and the world its manuscript, and the composer was the observer, placing the notes precisely where they should always be. Musical language composed off its own volition, deciding where the lyrical syllables should fall and rise, where it should move and change, to be malleable as water or harsh as fire. A language that was so immaculately precise, one would hear the word and know instantly the implied article.
And he read from the script, not knowing that as much as you read Nephilim, it reads you twice in return.
‘Hm? Anyone?’ Lorle continued, then swivelled his gaze to Mev. ‘Boy, any startling revelations jumping out from the written word? Anything you’d like to share with the class?’
He shook his head.
‘Come now. Telepathy is a terrific instrument but I’d rather not spend too much time alone in your head. How about if I were to, I don’t know, threaten you with punishment for disobedience?’
‘It’s an egg,’ Mev blurted out instantly.
‘Very good!’ Lorle mocked. ‘If only I had medals or gold stickers or something, to really make you feel the weight of this mighty accomplishment. Would you settle for a hearty head-rub?’
The rock was lifted out of his hands. Aila turned it around in her palm, examining.
‘An egg?’ She was less than enthused. ‘What are you doing running around with an egg?’
‘Stolen,’ said Lorle, and grinned.
‘Ah, I mean rescued. The fact it’s an egg is mundane, it’s what the egg hatches that’s the interesting part. Guesses?’
Syna huffed, playfully slapped Lyrik on the cheeks to make sure she was still breathing. Aila pretended to consider the question, unbearably cute dimples formed in her cheeks.
Lorle beseeched Mevoine for an answer, tapping his foot, waiting expectantly. When this inevitably failed he sighed and angrily jerked at the Nephilim writing. Catching the very subtle clue, Mev studied the screen.
‘Laprosian Vallen,’ he said, and felt his insides turn.
‘A bird…’ said Aila, shaking her head. ‘How do I know it’s a bird?’
‘It’s Nephilim,’ Lorle explained. ‘Withhold your discomfort, we’re at the prosperous apex of discovery and you’ll ruin the moment. Jenhanian, what’s important about the egg? To loosen your lips, I suggest a visit to the Wolf pen.’
Aila rushed to Mev’s defence. ‘He’s not great at talking and stuff.’
‘Thank you, dear. Now shut up and let the idiot talk.’
Sensing real threat, Mev conceded.
‘It’s… It’s f-f-from another… universe,’ he managed.
‘And another gold star for the four-limbed fool!’ Lorle snickered. ‘Many congratulations! You see, this is why it felt strange to you, why it felt unknown and alien, even compared to the dramatically alien creatures roaming around the ship. Discovering something from another universe for the first time is like walking out your front door to an extra-terrestrial invasion. It all feels wrong, even should it be peaceful and calm. Luckily for us, Marshall and Marshall aren’t complete fools despite Morombe’s impassioned preaching. They wouldn’t bring an article into this universe unless it was a close fit. It could exist in this universe, but thanks to the ever-kindly system of chance and happenstance, it hasn’t and never will.’
Mev stared at the item stolen from another universe, a mix of awe and shock. He’d never seen anything from another universe – as far as he knew – and to hold it in his hand as if it was nothing but a perfectly ordinary rock, like this frigid block was just another forgettable, everyday pebble, it amazed his easily-impressed mind, and struck him dumb with awe and respect. Or dumber.
‘To be honest,’ said Aila, ‘I was kind of hoping it’d be a dragon.’
‘We’ve already got one of those,’ Syna reasoned. ‘And he’s very disappointing.’
‘So, what’s this Lapros bird do?’ Aila asked.
‘Well… where to begin?’ pondered Lorle. ‘Unwaveringly obedient once trained, loyal to a fault, fierce fighters, too. When we attacked Ol-Tor’s flagship, oh, must’ve been a few thousand years ago, the first wave were Lapros, squadrons of the beaked beasts. Hundreds flooded the battlefield, slaughtered the Pantheon where they stood. Quite the sight, so I’m told. Songs are still sung about the Lapros’ descent that day. And they were used at Iron-Kwell, as you’d imagine. Something that powerful had to be utilised.’
He pointed to the rock – the egg – and smiled.
‘You are holding a cold-blooded killer. A soldier in waiting. When that hatches, it will bring fire and death like holy rain.’
Mev squeezed the cold thing in his hand. It didn’t feel much like the murderous sort, and he hadn’t confused its fear for anything else, it was too decisive to be misconstrued. If Mev didn’t know better – and let’s face it, the idiot wouldn’t know better unless it was injected directly into his brain – whatever was inside the egg, this Lapros creature, seemed almost afraid.
Aila thought this all over and arrived at an interesting destination.
‘So in this massive, universal war, that we’re all here to win somehow, we’ve got these super-soldier birds that can apparently slaughter thousands at the drop of a feather and we don’t use them anymore? Isn’t that like having a bomb that incinerates anything in a ten-mile radius but refusing to set it off?’
‘For the morally intelligent there’s various reasons you would think twice about blowing everything up. Only certified psychopaths and the mentally deficient press the big red button – and only the worst of the worst even have such a button. I thought you’d know that, given where you come from.’ Lorle licked his lips. ‘Lapros, on the other hand, they were gradually weaned off their violent diet. Raise a child on meat and that’s all they believe can be offered to them. We reared the Lapros on blood and fire, and so they were to believe that’s all we would offer them. Combine that with a rebellious spirit and we have the mutant child that even its mother couldn’t love.’
‘They rebelled,’ Syna laughed, then stopped short. ‘Don’t look at me like that. Put something in chains and it’ll find a way free, that’s how it works.’
‘Surprisingly succinct,’ mused Lorle. ‘And of course, entirely true. Those they bonded with had to say goodbye to the little blood-soaked bastards. We tried to tame them, properly domesticate them, but this is often an impossible task where the war is concerned.’
‘A war-worthy stolen bird,’ said Aila incredulously, then quickly realised her complicity. ‘Wait, wait, wait! Don’t call the Wolves! It’s just a stupid bird!’
Lorle grinned. ‘I don’t care that it’s stolen. You’re allowed whatever you want on board so long as it doesn’t interfere with your duties. Hence Marshall and Marshall’s unlikely success.’
His scrunched eyes, blanketed by sweaty flaps, looked Mev up and down, and settled uncomfortably on the egg. There was piggish desire in his eyes, and it looked for a second that he might lunge for it and steal it away. Mev wasn’t sure what he’d do with it – study and dissect it, add it to some morbid surgical collection. He couldn’t let it happen… But he couldn’t stop it. Not if the Wolves got involved. And there was the issue that Lorle was his superior, and denying the inner voice that demanded his obedience, as to argue or fight is to invite punishment, would take stronger willpower than he could ever gather.
The sweating grey mass leaned forward. Mev tensed, prepared to hand his one possession over without a fight. The pig would get his slop, even if he had to steal it from another’s mouth.
As he gripped tight to the egg, holding it like his heart, a strange sensation spread through his hand. Slight at first, only vaguely noticeable.
Then it kicked.
Lorle jumped backwards as if under assault, hands raised to defend himself. They slowly lowered and revealed a horrified expression, which melted into firm acceptance. Mevoine watched the unfolding emotions, equalling the shock simmering beneath the changing faces. It felt like a punch of energy: a crammed fist launching through the divide between the egg and the advancing greedy pig. The message couldn’t be clearer: ‘Stay away from me.’ Mev guessed this had come from the Lapros and checked the tiny thing in his palm. The rock was untouched, the peculiar sensation had dissipated, everything was back in its ordinary arrangements as if nothing had happened.
The old man recovered. Ran his stained hands through his congealed weeds of greasy hair.
‘Raising a Lapros… that’ll take time,’ he explained quietly, almost shamefully. ‘Maybe longer with you. All the information you need to know, what they eat, the logistics of raising one, it’s all available on your Mite. It means you won’t have to bother me every time you’ve got a pitiful question to ask.’
He huffed and returned to the liquid hold of his chair; his tiny throne in an empty graveyard.
‘That’s it?’ said Aila. ‘That’s all you’re doing for us? What about the doors?! That’s we came here for!’
He scoffed. ‘Think outside the box! I told you before I can’t just give you the answer! I can guide you there but I can’t open the door. Or whatever one would do with a door that’s not a door. Now, get out and leave me in peace. Have fun with the biting and clawing and murderous urges.’
They stood there, bewildered, as if waiting for the old man to suddenly withdraw his invitation to leave.
‘Didn’t you lot hear me?!’ he growled. ‘Fiyli’ui!’
The Nephilim words drilled into nearby ears like an ethereal middle finger and the message was taken strictly to heart. In less colourful words, less likely to turn the air blue: ‘Would you kindly remove thyself?’
Syna slung Lyrik over her shoulder and made for the exit. Mev, considering his options, defaulted to cowardice and joined her. Aila was the last soldier standing.
‘Just out of curiosity,’ she said softly, ‘could you actually have called the Wolves?’
Lorle peeked out of his confinement, a snake’s smile coiled between sweaty folds.
‘You ugly lying prick!’
‘What a pleasant place you’ve got here!’ She tried her warmest smile. ‘It was truly wonderful – enlightening! – to talk with you. So very educational. I feel smarter already!’
‘For the record, Noumostian,’ said Lorle, returning to his reading. ‘The Wolves won’t react to rudeness. If you were to repeat to Morombe my Nephilim cursing, then yes, they’d come for you, but only because Morombe is the Wolf’s Head and as such is awarded wonderful privileges you and I can only dream. Being rude to me, that’s nothing. Ophelia could call them but it’s unlikely they’d answer. Belaque oversees minor charges and he’s never particularly liked me. I don’t know why, I’m honestly the best thing about this rotten edifice. I will give you this warning, though, and I suggest you listen well. Do not raise your hand against a superior – believe me, the temptation will rise one day. They will beat you, they will bully you, they’ll call you every name under the sun and the moon and the quasar, they are ruthless against initiates, and in a way they’ll antagonise you into attacking them, then the Wolves will catch your scent.’
‘But why?!’ Aila gasped.
‘Because people are cruel. War attracts those running from their pasts, those who feel they have a shot at glory… and worst of all, it attracts the psychopaths and the lunatics who want nothing more than to bask bloodied in the carnage. And what attracts the fiendishly deranged?’
‘Power,’ Aila replied, almost instantly.
‘As you know well,’ he chortled. ‘Raise your hand in your own defence and you’ll be in waste disposal within the hour. Probably several waste disposals. Once the Wolves have your scent, it’s over. You can’t run, and you certainly can’t change your smell. One may as well try to change the order of atoms.’
‘I could wear deodorant!’ Aila reasoned valiantly, to Lorle’s dismay.
‘It’s not a smell you can … You know what? Figure it out on your own. Fuck off.’
And there in his bland sovereign kingdom she left him – a tired old man cursing the miserable world for its insulting offer of company.
In their communal dorm room, Mev slid the egg under his pillow and ruffled the edges of the blankets to cover it. Lyrik, Aila and Syna all knew what it was but Durane, Berrel, Monsoon and Lee didn’t, and he was keen to keep it that way. Durane had a nose for weakness and any suggestion that Mev had taken on the oath of a protector stunk to the highest degree – he’d be in his twisted element chucking the egg around like a bouncy ball, taunting all the while, snickering at how the fool was no more a protector than the egg was alive.
Or – and this was the reason he’d hid it beneath the pillow and not in an easy-access container – Durane would cook and eat the poor thing. By the look of it, he ate just about everything he could get his tiny grubby hands on.
Monsoon spilled over his bunk, greenish scales sparkling like fairy lights.
‘Did you discover the doors?’ he asked.
Aila skulked up to her bunk, which overflowed with gaudy trinkets she had begun to collect from around the ship.
‘Couldn’t find ‘em,’ she said dismissively. ‘We did meet a guy named Lorle. Real nice guy. Threatened to sic the Advocators on us. Insulted me, Syna, and Mev. Real nice guy. Looks like we have those in abundance.’
‘And he wouldn’t tell you where we could find the doors?’
‘He told us an idiot could figure this out. You didn’t happen…?’
The dragon’s eyes narrowed. ‘Not this time. The Vanguard are unlike anyone I’ve ever known – ask them a question and they look like they’re about to stab you in the chest just for the inconvenience of having your voice in their ear. Expecting help is a fool’s gamble.’
‘So, we’ve got nothing,’ said Syna, stroking a still unconscious Lyrik’s hair. ‘How’s Samir going to react to this?’
‘Badly,’ grunted Monsoon.
Aila slapped her palms together, cracked her neck like she was readying for a fight. ‘Right. Right! Put your heads together, let’s figure this out. It can’t be that hard. Doors that aren’t doors – and it’s not a jar before anyone suggests that frankly brilliant answer.’ She laughed, then cackled, then caught herself, wiped tears from her eyes. ‘A jar! Whoever thought of that’s a goddamn genius.’
‘We could consult our Mites,’ Berrel offered. He was sitting on the bunk next to Monsoon. ‘There’s unlimited data, history, and information waiting to be tapped and used. We haven’t even scratched the surface. The answer could be in there.’
‘I’ve already tried,’ Monsoon groaned. ‘It’s impossible to sort it all out – it’s like having an encyclopaedia with all the knowledge possibly obtainable, but you can’t choose which page you get to look at.’
‘There must be a search function in here somewhere,’ Aila complained, and went about finding it. ‘Is there a search function for where I can find a search function?’
For the first time in the conversation, a crooked voice crackled into being.
‘There are doors,’ said Lee, face half hidden in shadow, ‘that appear only as doors if the observer is told beforehand they are.’
‘They are what?’
‘And this great revelation is coming only to you now?!’ Syna snapped. ‘After we went hunting for the answer to this ridiculous riddle and ended up talking to some walking potato with teeth?!’
Lee grinned, a silvery crescent in the darkness. ‘Every day’s an adventure.’
‘And exactly what are these doors, then?’
‘The entrance to Nelia’s chambers,’ Lee explained. ‘Up next to the bridge. Huge things, you can’t miss ‘em. If you happen to be told they be doors, they be doors. You happen to be told they be magpies, they be magpies. Doors that aren’t doors.’
‘Uh… what?’ exclaimed Aila. ‘In what world do any of those sentences make sense?’
‘Go up and see,’ shrugged Lee. ‘They’re up there. It’s part of the Nephilim’s silky charm: morphing disguises to fit expectations. I reckon they do it for fun, just to cause chaos and arguments. No matter what you see, that ain’t what it is. Perception by proxy.’
Syna took up a bold stance, moving to Lee’s bed. ‘How the hell do you know all this? Every time there’s something we don’t know, you’re there to fill in the blanks. How do you know so much when we’re all in the dark?’
Lee, as usual, dismissed this line of questioning. ‘Nothin’ to it, just speak to the right folks and they’re happy to spill their secrets.’
‘Makes sense,’ mused Aila. ‘Nelia’s mysterious, she likes her privacy. The entrance to her chambers should be disguised. Even if it’s by magpies… allegedly.’
‘You’ll see doors,’ Lee reasoned casually. ‘I told you they were doors, it’s easier for your simple mind to understand than what they really are.’
‘And what are they really?’ Aila pressed, either not noticing the insult or not caring.
‘Not a clue. No one knows for sure. Only Nephilim can see something like that I guess, something as alien to existence as you can get. They’ve seen everything that could ever be seen, experienced all there is to experience – can’t imagine a creature like that not having perfect perception.’
‘Great,’ sighed Durane, who had been sulking in the corner. ‘The answer was right here all along. You might want to speak up next time – you old idiot!’
‘You didn’t even go looking for it!’ Syna shouted. ‘You just sat in here eating all day!’
‘I reflected on the question,’ argued Durane. ‘Which clearly you should have done – running around this place like a bunch of brainless chickens, that’s your solution? – since the answer was right under your nose, and stunk like year-old rotten meat.’
‘Cheers,’ Lee grunted.
‘Just saying – wash yourself once in a while if you’re going to get pissy about it.’
‘So… Nelia’s chambers,’ said Aila softly, breaking the awkward silence. ‘That was easy.’
Mev swivelled toward the door. Something was waiting outside – he could feel it; cold and lifeless as stone. He knew instantly who it was – he’d been expecting the visit.
The entrance slipped open.
‘It is customary for initiates to stand to attention.’
A mad scramble – everyone getting in place. Even Lee, who was always the first to neglect his duties, took part in the line-up, with surprising obedience. Lyrik remained sleeping on her bunk, presumably exempt from the usual rules.
The jokes were over now Samir had arrived. Nobody dared to look at each other, heads down, chins secured to chests, hands clasped behind sweat-stained backs.
Samir peered over them, through them, regarding the dorm like one would the unwanted dirt on their boot. Stalked around, sniffing the bunks, recoiling from the smell and what he saw as organised chaos. Generally disapproving of everything they had done to achieve some sense of homeliness.
He stopped at Mev’s bunk. Tilted his head. Empty eyes searching for something beneath the pillow…
Then grunted and smirked, turned his black pits to more rewarding horizons.
‘I trust my task wasn’t too difficult,’ he boomed.
The group shuffled anxiously.
‘Nah,’ said Aila glibly. ‘Pretty easy if you ask me.’
Samir’s stone features rearranged themselves as close to disgust as possible.
Aila grinned at him blankly.
‘Your answer. Give me the solution.’
She cleared her throat, flexed her wings. ‘At the entrance to our Lady’s chambers, the answer is plain. Doors that aren’t doors… unless you’re told they’re doors, then that’s what they will be…’ Her train of thought hurtled past the station. ‘Uh… I think. I think that’s how it works. To be honest I can’t say for certain… Like, it’s probably that. Should be that. Can’t think of anything else it could be.’
Samir’s grave expression offered nothing.
‘Be silent,’ he ordered quietly. ‘And focus. I don’t want to hear this rambling drivel, I wished to hear your solution, and if that’s the best you can offer… you have all failed me.’
‘What?!’ Syna exclaimed. ‘It’s not that?!’
The stone commander’s pitiless sockets drilled into her. ‘I will not tell you again! Be silent.’
Syna returned to the safety of the group, pride dented.
‘Now, since you are all clearly insufficient to bring this matter to light,’ he began, ‘I shall enlighten you. I’m told you went hunting in the Archives – that was your first mistake. You insulted the Archivist, the vampires nearly descended into a bloody rampage, one of you sat in this very room twiddling their thumbs and staring at the ceiling like some paint-huffing layabout, another dawdled in the sauna and partook in luxury fit for a king, yet another combed the fine pages of the Vrasen Grimoire for the better part of six hours, and the last remaining fool in this parade of empty-headed, miserable idiocy took his bloated stomach’s fill at the Last Stop!’ His temper exploded. ‘None of you seem to be comprehending the severity of this war! I don’t know if you’re all just that stupid that you think you can sit back and do nothing while our people, your fellow soldiers, good people who have laid down their lives in the protection of all we know are slaughtered like fucking pigs! You’re treating this like a joke! Like this is some holiday adventure, like you’ll go back to your tiny lives in no time, and this brutal war will be nothing to you but a distant, fading memory, nothing but a feverish nightmare that will fade over the years. You will not grow grey and old, you will not settle down and have children and watch them make the same mistakes you did. You will not visit the countryside, you will not enjoy the warmth of home ever again. Your families are ghosts, your parents are nothing, your siblings, anyone you ever loved, forget them! They are not who you are. This war is who you are now. It’s part of you. It’s inside like a parasite, eating you up, but it’s still a piece of you and it’ll be there until death stomps your heart to pulp. Everybody on this ship plays their role in the grand theatre of war. Learn your lines, learn your cues, stop treating this like it’s only temporary!’
Durane stepped timidly forward. ‘But how-’
The sentence was snatched from his dry lips with a fistful of hard stone. A geyser of blood. A pained cry, sagged to the floor. Dazed, confused. Searching for cover. Another fist grabbed his ankle, yanked him screaming backwards.
Durane opened his eyes. Samir’s empty pits sizzled with rage not an inch away from his beaten face.
‘Speak when you are spoken to,’ Samir growled. ‘Do not talk when I do not invite you. You will obey me or this ship will be a shrinking dot on the horizon.’
He released the quivering pile and turned on the rest.
‘This is not temporary. You will not move on to a greater, grander purpose, this isn’t a money-in-your-pocket job to tide you over until you find something better. Your lives belong to the war – to me. There is nothing else for you out there, the universe is not yours to explore or exploit anymore. This is you until the day you die, in a shallow grave, a blood-soaked battlefield, it doesn’t matter where. Disobey me ever again and I will kill every single one of you.’
He moved to leave, arms heaving, shoulders heavy – the tired soldier disembarking the battlefield, blood-stained, exhausted, and triumphant. The room was silent; eyes stayed focused on the ground. Until…
Mevoine tensed. Why would Lee invite him back?!
Samir rounded, granite mouth twisted in a vicious sneer, a stone cobra tasting the air for its injured prey. Mevoine nearly ran for the door; had to consciously lock his knees in place to stop him fleeing. Those black, hate-doused tunnels seemed to channel their intent into the skull – obedience by dramatic means, subservience at the cost of a life if it was necessary.
The goggled geriatric tipped his hat to the commander, grinned cruelly.
‘Way I see it,’ he said giddily, ‘you came here to clarify, so do us a favour here and enlighten us: the door that ain’t a door?’
He’ll be slaughtered, Mevoine thought and side-stepped. Aila obviously thought the same and side-stepped on the opposite side.
The armoured mountain towered over the shrivelled dust-collector with his scoundrel smile, saying nothing, giving away nothing. Then he approached the lone portal in the wall, that silver-hemmed circle with its black, star-sprinkled block of space.
‘The door that isn’t a door…’
He pointed. Smiled.
‘… is a window.’
He left, ignoring the blank, bemused, angry faces working out what had just happened.
‘What just happened?!’
Aila helped Durane to his feet, still shaking. Face covered in sweat, cascade of blood from nostril to chin. Crooked nose, bruised cheek. For the first time in as long as Mevoine had suffered him, the strange man was quiet; lips zipped shut. Confidence devastated. It had to happen sometime, but not like this.
She shushed his whimpering and put him into bed. Sat on the edge, sweat beading on her forehead. She wiped it clean.
‘This is nuts,’ she whispered. ‘I can’t believe he’d do that…’
‘Maybe we should have expected it,’ Monsoon considered thoughtfully. ‘Vanguard commanders are notoriously difficult. I think they enjoy causing chaos in the lower bands.’
‘There’s difficult, then there’s this!’ Syna hollered. ‘Were you not paying attention? He just assaulted Durane! There has to be something we can do – go to the Advocators, take it over his head, make sure there’s some sort of punishment for him doing this!’
‘The Advocators won’t care,’ Lee spit. ‘There’s nothing we can do. Commanders hold the power here, the Wolves serve them, not us. Justice is decided by whoever holds the biggest stick.’
‘I’m talking to them,’ Syna decided and made for the door. ‘We can’t let him walk all over us! Durane might be a pretentious, selfish ass but he didn’t deserve to be hooked in the face. At least not by Samir,’ she added. ‘In this circumstance. We let him get away with this and he’ll never stop doing it. People like Samir, they live on power-plays, making the people around them feel small and worthless. They’re like alcoholics – they don’t recognise the damage they cause because they’re too drunk to take notice. Samir’s drunk on power and if we just sit here licking our wounds, he’s going to keep drinking, keep getting aggressive, until he’s so drunk it doesn’t matter what we say, what we do, he’ll beat us into dust because he knows he’ll get away with it. If justice isn’t served, you have to find it.’
‘Hold on a sec, darlin’,’ Lee shouted. ‘The only thing you’ll be findin’ out there is disappointment and an early grave. Leave it be.’
‘You think this’ll mar Samir’s conscience? Think he’ll be up all night cryin’ himself to sleep about how he lost his temper? He won’t care, neither will the Advocators. You go lookin’ for a fight, you’ll get something far worse. Leave it be, it’s not worth dying for.’
Syna glared at him.
‘You’re a coward.’
‘And you’re a pig-headed snake in the grass,’ Lee curtly replied. ‘Best rein that anger in, ‘cos the folk out there, they ain’t lettin’ you walk away when your mouth starts runnin’. Consider this a friendly warning.’
‘And again you know more than us. You’re awfully knowledgeable about a world we all entered at the same time.’
Lee grumbled, waved her away, and returned to his bed, pulling the lip of his battered hat over his goggles. ‘You’ve been warned,’ he griped. ‘Ain’t my fault if some brainless vampire goes to the Wolf Pen and ends up like slaw in a feeding trough. Might be good for you actually, to see what it’s like being on the receiving end of the fangs for once.’
Shark teeth glinted, long canines looking for somewhere juicy to park their tips.
‘Bad idea,’ Lee cautioned aloofly, hat brim covering his wrinkled face. ‘Those sparkly toothpicks would be permanently relocated somewhere near the back of your skull before you had a chance to use them. Don’t test me, girl. I’m quicker than I look.’
‘Everyone calm down!’ Aila shouted. ‘Nobody’s fighting anyone. Syna, put the teeth away and sit down. Lyrik probably needs you right now, don’t go running off trying to fight the world.’
Mev climbed the ladder up to his bunk while the arguments ignited, dodged the adventurous tree branch prone to finding his forehead, and lay with his back to the room. His fingers scurried under the pillow and found the Lapros egg. Scared, hated the noise and the arguing. Wanted somewhere quiet, secluded and warm. Away from prying eyes and spontaneous outbursts.
He tucked the egg into his pocket, pulled his shirt over it. It felt different than before; warmer, more intense, like a flower ready to blossom, all that pent-up energy eager to explode.
He bumbled back down the ladder. Syna was screaming at Lee now, who had moved to the edge of his bed and seemed to have been drawn into argument largely against his better judgement, and Aila smacked the side of her bed in a futile attempt to silence them both.
Mevoine slipped quietly into the back-storage area – Aila had unofficially claimed the glorified cupboard as her personal rubbish dump, her clothes were strewn across the few surfaces and other personal items cluttered the floor. Treating the mess with greater respect than it deserved, he threaded through the colourful catastrophe, closed the door behind him, and from his pocket withdrew the egg.
Something had certainly changed about it. There was a vague pulse in the cold shell – a slight vibration in the stone. He took it over to the make-shift make-up station Aila had somehow constructed and formed a seat from an empty wooden box. The sounds of argument were muffled against the door, but snippets leaked through the gaps in the frame, as anger always finds a way to seep where it’s not wanted.
His thoughts pulled him towards the old man in the Hub, who’d observed Marshall and Marshall’s flashy performance with detached amusement. Questions inevitably arose: Who was he? What was he? How did he get on the ship? Should he tell someone about the grey-haired conundrum? What if he was Pantheon?
And the question burning a hole in his mind’s pocket… What were the Lights? What did they mean? How did the suave, finely-suited, funeral director-looking old man know about them? Thus far he’d believed them as his personal hell, his mind finally collapsing under the impossible, but he was starting to believe otherwise. If someone else knew about the Lights, they weren’t confined solely to his crumbling mind. There were secrets, Mev knew, the Vanguard kept closely guarded – anything from the general courteousness the commanders expected from the unassuming soldier to the grandest, wildest mysteries existence collected on a minute-by-minute basis – and this forest of lights growing forever around him seemed to be yet another fingers-on-lips situation.
He decided the answer would come in time, unlikely that the answers to some of his life’s most infuriating mysteries would materialise in the dimness of a dingy storage cupboard littered with a golden angel’s spent makeup. There were other matters demanding his attention, potentially more dangerous than some wandering pensioner, as confusing as he might have been.
The dark egg lay on top of the metal table, a jagged ember removed from its noble fire. He poked it, rolled it in his palm – nothing. Blew on it, wiped it – nothing.
But inside, he could sense it right below the shell, trapped and trying for an escape. It wasn’t difficult to believe there was something within it; it radiated life and hope, as if purposefully communicating the desire to be hatched, to shed the black rocky chains of this abnormal cell and be free.
Sensing an impending moment, Mev shimmied his stool backwards, gave the egg some breathing space. People were arguing still, he could hear the tell-tale growls oozing through the door. Whatever happened, he’d be facing it alone.
The egg vibrated. The shell split…
Colour first, some sort of mutated appendage… Something red, then blue. Feathers. Thin neck. Pointed beak. Black – a lot of black. Slimy, oily, one layer of thick liquid sloshing over another. The shell cracked further, veiny fissures spreading around the rock, and all the while the escaping creature within churned and slopped around. Slick oil squeezed out the gaps in the shell and collected repulsively on the clear metal.
An oil-coated wing emerged from the mad singularity, erupting from the thick membrane like the rotting claw of the recently exhumed. Then another. Then two more.
Then out of the shattered egg slipped the full body, which rested on the table, covered completely in the stringy remains of its stone prison.
Mev sat shocked, staring at the new-born as if it had been birthed from hell itself. This ugly thing drenched in its own birth juices wasn’t what he had expected.
And suddenly he felt like his father must have, regarding the tiny new-born, this shapeless clump fallen into life, cursing its idiocy, its ugliness, its worthlessness. How pathetic his father must have thought him then, etching his first pungent breath on the world.
Don’t be like that, he told himself. His father’s sins shouldn’t his own. Learn from the mistakes of the past and build the future with the timber of hope. Value the innocent life, it’s not long before pain and turmoil brandish it ugly and mangled. Be better than the past has been to you, be kinder. Just because life is cruel to you, it’s no excuse to pass this on like a virus, as if the burden of your pain could be halved if you infected another with it.
He snatched a towel from the floor, hovered over the poor creature as it stumbled through the lakes of its birth. If it was to start life from the start, it should start clean.
As he moved to wipe away the viscous gloop attaching itself to everything it touched, the tiny creature – which was no larger than his hand – tried feebly to raise its wing to him. The second time it managed to bring it above its head. He took this is a sign for help and bundled the towel to its wing.
The thing had taken a nip out of his finger. He tried again, this time it repelled his hand with a decisive swipe of its crooked wing. It cawed weakly, then dragged its lifeless limbs towards the back of the table, where the mirror rested against the wall, leaving a black devilish trail behind it.
Mevoine let it go where it wanted, sensing there were no arguments to sway it otherwise. It knew what it needed, and it certainly wasn’t him. Just another creature there to exploit and ignore him.
He cleaned the table after the thing had vanished behind the mirror, then mused on its apparent disdain. It really shouldn’t have surprised him. Even something fresh to the world would know his near total incompetence at nearly everything. He collected the shell, disposed of it in the refuse bin, and considered leaving. It seemed unfair to abandon the new-born but it had made its wishes clear – it wanted to be alone. There was nothing he could do for it, no way he could help it. Just had to begrudgingly accept its privacy.
But leaving an innocent, defenceless creature, it wasn’t right. Couldn’t renounce this impoverished child, wash his hands of the responsibility. It was he that brought it here, watched its messy birth, cleaned the aftermath. However he mentally juggled it and however taciturn the bird seemed, this was his solemn responsibility, and for once in his short miserable life it was a responsibility he was ready to support.
The bird might be fine now but when it got hungry, cold, lonely, he would be there.
He placed his head on the table and closed his eyes – and fell asleep to the weeping lullaby of the infant Lapros.
Dreams have a way of spreading to reality. Nightmares slither into the world from their hellish domains, weave themselves into the tenuous fabric in which reality has wreathed itself. This is why the shocked start as a nightmare comes to an end and the real world thaws around you is rather more startling than it should be – one wakes in a cold sweat, checking the shadows for grotesque monsters and lost relatives, former loves now dashed and forgotten, tentatively examining the area beneath the bed for the ghoulish horrors that might be confessed as real, and then wiping away the congealed stains of embarrassment as it is childish to think that monsters are real, and that they could navigate from the mind to the material.
But for a brief, horrifying moment, those two separate worlds collide, and the fact is that a nightmare, for the most fleeting of seconds, is believable. You look around your room expecting ghosts and murderers, not because the real world has ever threatened such, but because the nightmare is there, lending malice to the immobile darkness.
You shiver, tell yourself it’s just a bad dream and everyone has those, so what’s to worry about?
Yet the pregnant terror remains and for all the reasoning in the world the cold won’t shake off, the worries won’t dissipate, and the nightmare has you by the throat with coal-black hands.
Mevoine was having such a nightmare. His mother. Not shouting or screaming, not coddling affectionately and telling him he was the handsomest boy to have ever graced the ungrateful planet. Just standing there, pleadingly.
He reached out to her, sobbing. Love’s warmth hanging heavy in the air between them. Screaming apologies, begging for forgiveness or divine retribution.
That was the worst part. She never uttered a word – it made sense in a way. He’d never heard her voice before, and while he agreed with himself that it should be beautiful and graceful, stern and fair, his mind could only guess at how it might sound. She stood there like a statue, glaring, an accusatory fire burning in her wide pupils. No forgiveness, no revenge. No scolding, no hope, no pleasantries. Face like a long-buried corpse.
His mouth chattered noiselessly. Echoing nothingness. On his knees now, pleading to the emptiness and to his lost mother. The mother he never knew, the voice he had never heard. The love denied him – the maternal love and care he had denied himself.
Sudden sound, the nightmare dissolved. His mother’s outline lingered, shivering like a quenched candle-flame in the oppressive bleakness, and then melted into ash on the wind. Metal table, mirror. Streaked black ooze. And something else…
Black eyes, dark stars. His morphed reflection wrapped around glossy marbles. Matted feathers and sticky wings. The creature’s beak almost up his nostril. Looking for another soft part to bite?
He withdrew fearfully, and felt his cheeks – wet, salty. He’d been crying in his sleep, nothing new. The Lapros infant was beside him on the table, glancing upwards with buggy, coal eyes. Its wings were raised. It looked as if inspecting him, like it was checking up on an acquaintance.
It cawed softly and lowered its beak to the table. Mevoine could barely make out the body, still tightly cocooned in oily slime, but there were vague colours beneath, especially on the wings. Fiery orange, blood red, and scatterings of deep blue. Head too large for its slim body.
It had woken him – pulled him out of the nightmare’s greedy clutches… Like he’d rescued it from the tangled forest. A kindness repaid. Perhaps it wasn’t the stubborn creature he had believed it to be.
He smiled, grabbed the towel. If it repaid kindness, then maybe it…
Nope. Snapped again. A clean cut on his index finger. The bird screeched, a warning cry, and shuffled its sickly body; wings splattering the table with stiff muck. He withdrew again and sucked the cut. It slinked with serpentine agility, had clicked its soft beak around his finger before he’d had a chance to move. It reminded him a little of Syna, that inability to relinquish control, to fight even when the entire world is telling you that fighting is the worst possible choice.
The message was clear: ‘Don’t push your luck.’
This time, however, the bird stayed where it was on the table, mewing contently and didn’t flinch when Mev brought his seat over. Progress. Small progress, yes, but progress all the same.
He had a feeling this tiny new-born wouldn’t take to the mantle of pet. It would be an equal or it would be nothing to him, wouldn’t settle for anything less than military grade respect.
But everything should have a name, a title, a distinction. Lapros was impersonal – bird was outright stupid. Fluffy? Feathery? Bitey?
No, it should be personal. Relatively speaking, they were strangers – this odd creature painted in its birth was just another bird in the sky, unknowable and strange, and he was the silent observer on the ground, following its flight but knowing not its world – but as far as excuses go, this couldn’t remove his responsibility. A fragile newcomer to life’s out-of-control party needed an accomplice, someone to show it which drinks were spiked and which weren’t, the cool people to talk to, the general etiquette expected from the raucous party-goer.
Mevoine admitted himself a poor candidate, but presently he was the only one. Winning by default was really the only way he’d win anything.
He considered the slime-covered mess. Not exactly elegant, stewing in its own birth waters. There was the question of the colours though, hidden as they might be. The chaos of the storm may rage above, but beneath the madness there is beauty.
He smiled. The name found him. A finely aged name, it would be awash with age spots and wrinkle lines if it had a face. It was unfortunate that its original owner hadn’t aged so finely. In fact, not at all. It seemed oddly appropriate, the living will always belong to the dead, long after their bodies have shrivelled their memory endures, and it is by that maudlin hand of memory the newer generations are raised. The wisdom of the old becomes the intuition of the new.
He wasn’t sure his mother would approve, naming the bird from another universe in her sombre memory, but Salen… Salen seemed right, and it’s not like she could argue.
He lay his head on the clean part of the table and watched proudly as Salen took her first small steps in the big world.