Islands Alone

Boulders and canyons. Huge boulders and deep, red canyons as far as the eye could see in all directions. And a misshapen moon hanging in the hot afternoon sky. The shadows were already growing longer and in a few short hours the stars, the troubled, faded stars would slowly appear in the night.

"From spires to dirt, Captain."

"Yes, sir. Not where I'd like to be." First class guardsman, Captain Farrer threw a handful of that dirt to the ground and looked at the broken moon.

"I know you would rather be fighting. Even knowing it's futile."

"My place is here, sir." He straightened his back a little. "But yes, sir, I'm a soldier of the Empire."

"And a fine one, Captain."

"It's an honor to serve, sir." And he meant it, even if his voice hinted otherwise.

"It's hard for me too. It cuts to the bone."

"All the people on all the worlds are with you sir."

And then silence.

This lifeless world of vast red, unmoving sands and blue-green skies was named, by those who first landed here, Firespring. One of only four planets around a type two star on the very edge of the beautiful Milky Way. Chosen for dark purposes over two centuries ago in paranoid times by a paranoid Emperor. A part of a great plan that spanned a million worlds and held the destiny of a thousand billion lives beneath those unmoving sands.

The great grandson of that Emperor now sat with his personal guard on an uninteresting promontory near the edge of a canyon. The weight of those lives lay heavy on his shoulders. Unforseen shadows now bearing down on the worlds of his Empire darkened his eyes like fire-blackened wood.

Calron, second to honor that name, son of Drakus, was undeniably the most popular Emperor of modern times. More popular, even, than his father, who's campaigns at Serengoon and Black Wing were already legend. Calron II, wiser than his age would suggest, had toured the Empire for seven long years, visiting viceroys and sector governors with fleeting tours of key worlds and worlds neglected through nothing more than non-strategic location.

He talked with loyal soldiers in peripheral garrisons and listened to ordinary people in the populous centers of local government, giving them what they wanted while making it known, through example, that serious punishment met serious disorder. Crime, on the key worlds, at least, was low. The energies gained from the momentum of change and expansion where being publicly pushed forward by the young Emperor. He returned to the Imperial home world, Proxima Venturi a revered man of the people with the support of a galaxy behind every decision he could possibly make.

New alliances through new, spacefaring worlds with valuable resources had meant many new spacedocks constructing vast ships. These heavy cruisers would push the Empire out to the very edge of the galaxy through peaceful touch and where necessary, forceful encouragement. For a world to receive it's first contact with an outside species through such devastatingly imposing vessels, there usually was no further need for coercion. Certainly, demonstrations of the power of such mammoth vessels through opposition to join a galaxy of Imperially ruled worlds was not normally required. The hulking bodies of the visiting ships implied huge might, and the technologies of many worlds.

The insignia on the fine uniforms of every Imperial soldier carried the name of Calron II.

The Empire was proud and old, reaching into it's 40th century with an elegant wisdom. And the Emperor represented that wisdom. It's people saw their royal figurehead as the latest in an illustrious, long line of thinkers, fighters and leaders. All, of course, royal in blood and motive.

Before the Empire there was emptiness, vastness and the isolation of worlds. Islands alone in a big, dark ocean. The discovery, by several worlds, of super-stable wormholes that enabled such an Empire to cross space was itself four thousand years old. The alliance of these worlds produced the seeds of Empire, their combined technologies, their means of expanding. The eddies and currents of space, once measured in light years, was now a single map of well-traveled wormholes in each and every ship's navigational station. The giant ships of the line could cross the galaxy in a series of wormhole jumps in the time it used to take a ship to travel from planet to planet within a star system under rocket power.

But for all good things there must come and end. And, as one is rudely awoken from deep sleep after being physically shaken, the Empire was so shaken from it's contented slumber. A shadow darker and more vast than all the nights since the dawn of time now stretched across the galactic worlds. A sudden intrusion of fierce and silent evil had quickly and decisively destroyed the peripheral planets and descended, without mercy, on the seats of power in the central kingdoms.

The Emperor's Palace was alerted to the attack in time to send Calron to Firespring, to the most important ball of dust in the collected worlds. For this unassuming rock housed The Trigger. And Calron was the only person in the galaxy who could activate it's immense and final energies. Admiral Santilles, commander of the Seventh Fleet at Fornax, looked in disbelief at his tactical screen. Numbers were disappearing every few seconds on all parts of his previously full grid. The numbers were his ships and the grid was his advancing first wave.

"Sir! The enemy is still unseen." His first lieutenant, Askis, shouted from his station, forward of the Admiral.

"What? Clarity lieutenant!" Roared Santilles.

"Sir, none of the scouts or recon ships have the enemy on scope." Askis' eyes darted about his display, taking in the brief communications from the eyes of the fleet. "They report heavy gravity wells and and light distortion just beyond the Kindesser System.

"Target those readings!"

"Sir. They do precisely that, but the force subwave has no effect and the guided lightshells are being dissipated seconds after launch."

The admiral's face grew new lines of anger as he fought to rethink the current fleet structure and put into place emergency fallback maneuvers. He did not understand how this could be happening and here, Repulse Class fighter ships were disappearing in front of his eyes, their ferocious beams of deathly destructive energy dying immediately after dispatch.

"Recall the fleet! Fall back to Evius!"

"Sir!" Askis shouted to the Admiral, now standing by a porthole, looking at his crumbling ranks. "The enemy shows itself!"

Outside, beyond the glass porthole and filling the space beyond the flagship, hung a giant oval object. Black, featureless, motionless. Looking something like a smooth pebble with its length in the vertical and stretching at least two kilometers. It showed no signs of inward life. Two Imperial fighters closed towards the hulking mass in erratic trajectories. They appeared to distort and then flatten. No explosion, no physical drama whatsoever. One second of rapid approach followed by erasure from existence without detectable forces emitted from the enemy, nor resultant energy.

Admiral Santilles turned to his lieutenant with an order and was then wiped from the galactic plane, along with the indestructable Seventh Fleet.

Into the only structure on Firespring now strode, with some urgency, the Emperor and his guard. Through the small ante room they rushed, towards the incoming transmission.

The buildings functional design, grand in appearance to the average citizen, took the form of a tapering, cylindrical tower above an oval-shaped building containing a royal chamber, communication room and quarters for guards and pilot. Captain Farrer was both guard and pilot. His ship, walking distance from the structure.

"I have a feeling, Captain, this will not be good news."

Farrer said nothing and kept the required half step behind his Emperor and commander.

They could hear the voice of the messenger before they walked into the communication room.

"Firespring, this is Evius Station. Firespring this is Evius Station. Please respond."

Calron took the seat next to the communication panel. "Evius this is Firespring. Go ahead."

"Sir, the enemy is upon us. The Seventh Fleet has been destroyed, Tantalus Sector has fallen and we've heard nothing from the entire Eastern Arm. The twelve fleets deployed in that region are silent. Proxima Venturi -" A short silence that seemed endless to the Emperor. "No word, sir."

"Understood, Commander." Calron looked into mid air. "Any communication with the enemy?"

"None, sir." They do not answer."

The Emperor closed his tired eyes and thought for five long seconds. "Lieutenant, order all remaining colonies to go underground or flee to safety. Survival is paramount."

And with that the channel was closed and Emperor and soldier sat quietly in the knowledge that the only option was to pull the trigger. The activation of the grid, laid through many years and connected through lensing subspace projectors was the final action to be taken in a hopeless battle against the ruthless, steamrolling evil carving it's way through the galaxy.

The mechanism to unleash the cascade of energies was housed under the surface of Firespring. The Emperor, and only the Emperor, could ignite it once his brain scan and voiceprint was detected and accepted. Once triggered, every known wormhole in the galaxy would collapse, stopping the advance of the enemy. It would also mean isolation for all the individual worlds of the Empire. It would no longer be an Empire. Wherever there was an enemy presence, it seemed most likely the systems nearby would fall. For the colonies as yet unreached by the intruders, there remained hope.

"Sir." Captain Farrer looked at Calron with the distant eyes of a man sentenced to death. "I will wait outside for you."

Calron closed his eyes again. Could he do it? Could he isolate himself from his people, to remain here on this lifeless rock for the remainder of his days? Was it to be that he might stop the advance of the shadows of destruction for the sake of pockets of survivors but the death of the Empire? And he could not be certain that they were using the wormholes. The early warning outposts had not been able to detect the enemy within them. Nor anywhere for that matter. Their technologies were a thousand years ahead of those of the Empire.

How could one person be expected to decide such a fate? And after thousands of years of prosperity and community, was the remaining life in this ancient spiral galaxy to be a dusting of island worlds in a vast silent sea once again?

Outside, the good Captain sat on the promontory they had earlier occupied. He looked out into the red distance and thought of home. He thought of his family and his men who, right now, were fighting a hopeless war against an utterly ruthless and silent invader. All the mighty weapons and previously invincible fighting ships that had once upheld the integrity of the Empire were now no more effective than sticks against bullets.

He was both heavyhearted and bitterly frustrated.

The sound of slow footsteps then disturbed his thoughts. He turned to see Calron walking towards him. Farrer tried to find some clue in his eyes as he reached the rock on which the Captain sat. Had he done it? Had the Emperor struck a final blow? Were they to remain here forever?

They looked at each other for several seconds. Several seconds that were eons of history and light years of Imperial life waiting for its Emperor to act.

"I couldn't do it." Calron said in dead tone. "I will not do it."

Farrer lifted his head very slightly. His commander continued.

"There must be a way. This is not right."

And as if to anticipate an order, the Captain stood.

"Let us go, Captain. Our world needs us. We must find a way to defeat them or die trying."

Farrer smiled a narrow smile and they walked, with broad steps, to the small ship and to a waiting galaxy who needed their Emperor now more than ever.


Dr Stephenson's Prophet Machine

Finlay Butterworth was the fourth of the guests to arrive. He hesitated at the door, angling his eyebrows to suitably appreciate the large brass gargoyle that was the door knocker. A butler appeared before he had a chance to try it out.

He was shown in with a bow and a shift of the eyes towards the interior of the house. Inside was a room, lit by what Butterworth assumed must be electricity. Paintings of fierce animals and serious old men adorned every available space on all walls. Two rows of five seats faced a pair of heavy, dark purple curtains, presently drawn closed. He sat at the end of the second row and as he did so, a drink was offered by the same servant who showed him in.

Butterworth noted all of these details with dark interest. He was reporting for the London Evening Standard and its March 1889 edition would carry his story on the night's events, already unfolding. The papers science section was to be his, for the first week at least, depending on the reaction of his audience and, of course, his employers. He wasn't worried. He was quite confident the piece would write itself.

The three men who were sat in front of him stopped their quiet conversation as Butterworth took a sip from his drink. They each nodded a greeting in succession. He was reasonably confident they knew who he was.

The first was Dr R A Eldritch, Senior physics lecturer at the Royal Institution. Whatever Stephenson had up his sleeve, thought Butterworth, he stood not a chance against the well-known ego that was the self-appointed voice of British modern science. His pipe puffed out smoke like prods of provocation toward the hidden doctor and his latest, as yet, unseen invention.

The man in the middle was Ignatious Aldgate, owner and proprietor of the Islington Carriage Company. He was known to young Butterworth as an offensively rich man with a penchant for the pseudo-sciences and a notorious lifestyle that was no doubt numbering his days to this side of a thousand. His bejeweled hand played around with the huge sapphire atop his ivory cane. He looked at the brash-eyed journalist with a half grin and another nod.

Butterworth, confused by this odd look, reached for his pencil. he started to write about the spectacle of the two pole-opposites talking and even laughing together. Maybe the night might not unfold as he had imagined.

The third man, Finlay noted, was an odd addition to the guest list. Florian Hertzler was the German Empire's ambassador to England. His quite incredible ginger moustache and preposterously tall hat was always recognized about town whenever there was a gathering of notable socialites and trend-setters. Denying his advancing years, he charmed his growing list of friends with stories of his younger days in unknown battles and improbable antics more suited to moving pictures.

Two young men then entered wearing long gray coats and carrying matching brief cases. They sat near to Butterworth, leaving a one-seat gap, and acknowledged no one. The eager journalist would find out who they were later.

Eldritch took out his pocket watch and looked around the room. The curtains moved, the butler turned off three of the four lights then opened the door. Again. In walked Christelle de Prony, heiress, as all present knew, to the Molinard perfume empire. All heads had turned at the sound of her slow, confident footsteps.

She walked over to the end chair on the front row, sat down, slowly, and immediately lit a long, black cigarette. Carrying her gaze towards the looking-but-not-looking men she said simply, "Gentlemen."

More nods.

Their attention was drawn, unsurprisingly, to her plunging neckline on a dress hardly capable of containing her physical attributes. The butler brought an ash tray on a stand just as she flicked the cigarette. He positioned it in time to catch the falling ash. She looked to her right to see all eyes move quickly forward.

At this moment, a gloved hand appeared at the top of the curtains. It pushed one of them aside and continued in the same direction. It was the hand of Dr Stephenson and he walked along a small wooden stage until the curtain was fully open. He then walked back and did the same with the other side.

He looked on the small, invited audience, clapped his hands together and grinned broadly.

"Gentlemen." He walked slowly backwards. "And Madame de Prony." His left eyebrow lifted almost an inch. "Welcome to my home. I hope you are comfortable and that Dawson has been looking after you."

Sips of drinks were taken and the minor shuffling of seats rippled from left to right.

Dr Stephenson had a deep, engaging voice, and a smile that made his black, wiry moustache look almost acceptable. His dark eyes were nearly lost in the shadow of his top hat. But they were there, penetrating each of the guests one by one. There were lines in the inventor's face that told stories of brave exploration and punishing experience. Of many triumphs and many hardships. All of these trials embodied every single word with all-consuming, magnetic splendor.

"You have, no doubt, noticed my machine." Without taking his eyes off his audience, he motioned with his right hand at the curiosity occupying the space next to him. What appeared to be a fishbowl sat on a huge wooden cabinet. Six glass jars connected by tubes were arranged on a shelf above an area of metal paneling, held in place by numerous rivets. Thick sets of wires ran along the base. Finally, a sealed iron box with an attached pedal rested at Stephenson's feet.

Butterworth found himself nodding. No one else seemed to be impressed. Miss de Prony, however, by merely breathing, was putting on a show which Aldgate, in particular, found distracting in the extreme. His eyes flitted from Stephenson to the elaborate corset lacing her back, which was holding on for dear life. Butterworth watched all three as Aldgate tightened his grip on the cane.

Stephenson chose not to notice anything. "This," he lowered the pitch of his voice, "is the result of three years' work." The dark eyes narrowed, moving further into shadow. "I can predict specific events, with a high degree of certainty, in the future lives of individuals."

Aldgate stopped fidgeting for the first time. Butterworth scribbled furiously, Madame de Prony held her breath then let out an inordinately long plume of smoke. The two gray men leaned forward a little, creaking their chairs as they did. Eldritch did not flinch.

"As some of you will be aware, I spent several years traveling in the equatorial regions of Asia. I eventually focused my attention on North Sumatra. In particular, on an isolated tribe of people called the Toba." He walked slowly, back and forth, along the stage as he spoke, They have foreseen, with precision, the future events of their families' lives for more than a thousand years."

Stephenson then held out his left hand and it was filled, three seconds later, with a large glass, presented by the well-rehearsed Dawson. The doctor brought the glass to his mouth and knocked back the drink. A pause followed by the slightest hint of a wince.

"In the center of the village there is a pit. Within the pit, the people place a circle of wood and other kindling doused in chemicals extracted from plants and trees. In the center was placed, what I later found to be, a lump of magnetic rock. A fire then follows of intense and sun-like brightness, from which a pale, yellowish smoke rises. The chemical agents acting with the extreme light of the fire around the magnet then initiate what I can simply describe as a visual marvel, within the medium of the pale smoke.

Stephenson's voice, at this point, took on a slightly different character. Gone was the cool charisma and air of mystery. Arriving each second was the spectre of a man overtaken by shadows. It was as if the previous personality was backing away and a new, darker mind now controlled those eyes.

"The eldest of the family," The spaces between words grew longer, "would then interpret the rising imagery through trance-inducing, psychotropic and psycho - " He closed his eyes. "- active plants to produce.... an altered state of consciousness aided by.... benevolent... forces."

Aldgate looked round at Eldritch, who looked darkly fascinated. Dawson then stepped onto the stage and took the doctor's arm. He helped him to the machine which now vibrated with a low hum. A chair was pulled out of the darkness and Stephenson sat slowly down. He raised his head and stamped a foot onto the pedal on the floor.

Within the machine, a motor whirred into life. Lights within metal panels lit Stephenson's features from below, flooding out of cooling slits and holes to the sides and rear of the contraption. The motor grew louder and faster, the lights shone brighter and the tubes connecting the jars bounced up and down with the pressure of fast-moving liquids moving through them. There was no doubt, to Butterworth, at least, that Stephenson had created a version of the Sumatran tribe's fortune-telling fire pit.

The doctor, now fully influenced by the contents of the glass supplied by the good butler, turned his head just a few degrees to his right. His affected gaze came to rest on the transfixed form of Christelle de Prony. She tried, through all outwardly obvious intensity, to look away but found herself open-mouthed and at a loss for breath. The others looked back and forth between the two for what seemed like minutes before Stephenson spoke. "Madame," his voice was low and guttural. "I am.... sorry." He looked down at the glass sphere, into which now surged colorful smoke.

The French woman visibly gulped.

"Your father," then the vaguest shake of the head and a long pause. "You... will be rich before the year is over." He was slurring but most certainly intelligible.

The look on the face of Madame de Prony in the seconds that followed could only be described as confused. She knew the words meant that her father would soon die, leaving the perfume empire to his daughter. She was clearly battling internally with mixed emotions.

Butterworth, who had not written a word since the lights and the motor had stopped him mid-sentence, put excited pen to awaiting paper. How, he thought to himself, will I get this down in two thousand words.

A loud pop and several sparks pushed the French heiress over the edge. She broke down in tears and sobbed into a handkerchief. Apparently, she'd decided the news was bad, her delightful conscious weighing down on the side of the loss of a father over the gaining of an empire.

Dawson appeared almost immediately with a glass of water.

Aldgate, about to pounce in the guise of timely consoler, was the next in the firing line of the temporally-tuned doctor.

"Mr Aldgate," was what stopped the chair-hopping entrepreneur. He sat back down, evidently not expecting to be a victim of the now chilling voice of Stephenson.

"Mr.... Aldgate," he said again with a cold space between the knife-edged words. More sparks shot from the machine.

Inwardly, Aldgate believed none of what was going on. He hadn't decided whether the insane doctor believed it either and that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax. Maybe he did believe in what he was doing and had got so caught up in the events of his travels and subsequent machine construction, not to mention the drug-taking, that he really did think he was seeing the future.

Despite this, the young philanthropist found himself staring into the star-filled eyes of the quite-possessed doctor.

"Your life," continued Stephenson, "will change dram... atically.... In days.... Not years." Stephenson's head was hanging down towards the glass globe. He started to cough, then looked up with shadowy eyes to meet Aldgate's stare.

The receiving eyes remained unchanged. They registered no emotion. After a few seconds of nothing but the roar of the motor, Aldgate looked around the room for Dawson. He'd decided he needed a drink.

One of the gray-coated men presently appeared to vie for attention, moving his previously motionless body nervously around his seat. The doctor, however, stood slowly. Without taking his eyes off the smokey sphere he stamped on the iron pedal, instantly shutting down the motor and consequently the lights.

He walked with carefully placed feet to the edge of the stage, stepped off and forward to the position of the utterly mesmerized Florian Hertzler.

Stephenson leaned forward and placed his hands on his knees to support himself.

"And you, my friend," The doctor's tear-filled eyes, projecting relieved happiness through the five or six inches that separated the two men. "You will be reunited with your brother. He took one hand from his knee and placed it on the ambassador's shoulder. "I promise." His eyes, sad and happy and very distant.

Hertzler's eyes opened wide and he took off his hat for what might have been the first time ever. "How? How?" was all he could manage.

Stephenson turned round, while wiping away tears, stepped wearily up onto the stage and walked slowly across it. He was joined by Dawson who put a jacket around his shoulders and led him into the shadows.

There were deep breaths, sighs and yet more sobbing. Dr Eldritch, brushing with his hand the embroidered Royal Institute badge upon his jacket, stood without speaking to anybody and walked out. young Butterworth wrote faster than he had ever written before.

Dawson appeared with a tray of drinks. Silently, the remaining guests took one each. The first of the two gray-suited men placed a business card on the tray then left, with Madame de Prony following behind, her almost-defeated corset laces having been pushed to the limit clearly were in one piece.

The last to leave was Butterworth. He had hoped to see Dr Stephenson again but Dawson had made it quite clear this was not going to happen and that the doctor would be resting for at least two days. Home to type the report, then, thought the still-eager Butterworth. Home to reflect on such a bizarre evening and to try to sum it up for his new, unsuspecting readers.

It took precisely thirty two minutes for Ignatious Aldgate to reach Dr Stephenson's home after hearing the news. The article in the Evening Standard had told how the German Ambasador, Florian Hertzler, had been reunited with his brother after twenty five years, the latter having disappeared, presumed dead, following the second German-Danish War of 1864.

After reading only half of the piece, Aldgate made his way, for the second time in a week, to the house of Dr Stephenson.

The doctor, now fully recovered, smiled as the brass gargoyle made heavy repeated contact with his front door.

"Right on time, Dawson!"

Aldgate entered the main room and slowed to a stop in the middle. Before him, stretched out on a long leather seat was Stephenson. In front of him was a small, round table holding two drinks.

"Expecting me?" said the slightly vexed entrepreneur, taking off his gloves and hat.

"Why of course, Mr Aldgate. Stephenson showed his teeth. "Today is the start of your new life!"

"Good to know," came the sarcastic response. "I'm afraid you have me at a disadvantage."

"I'm afraid I do."

Aldgate held out his hands, palm up, shoulders hunched.

"Please sit down." The doctor took a sip of his drink.

"So how did you do it?" Aldgate did not reach for his drink. He held his cane tightly and asked again using only his eyebrows.

"Well," Stephenson put his teeth away for the first time since the arrival of his guest. "The three years' work I mentioned during my, erm, show, refers actually to the amount of time it took me to track down Otto Hertzler, brother of our friend, Florian. Of the ambassador variety."

Aldgate moved forward about an inch. His eyes left the room while his mind took in Stephenson's words. "Obviously, I didn't make contact with him myself. I paid someone else to do it. And, at the appropriate time, I had this person present Otto Hertzler to Florian."

The doctor's words skipped along in an almost musical satisfaction. "Some of the time was also allotted to find a doctor who was treating a rich patient for an incurable disease. And to then make friends with said doctor to find out the details, such as probable timescale. Under the influence of several friendly alcoholic drinks, you understand."

"Grim." Was all that Aldgate could muster.

"The unfortunate rich patient was - " Stephenson held his mouth open and waited for Aldgate to complete the sentence.

"Jean-Pierre de Prony." Came the reply

"Six months at most." Stephenson shook his head in mock despair. "And, of course, he hasn't told any of his family, including the delightful Christelle. It took me over a year to build the machine, with principles and materials that might even impress Mr Eldritch. I'm very proud of it.

Aldgate gathered his thoughts. "So all of this - "

"Was for money. And," completed Stephenson, "It was a test. I wanted to try out my show and bring in funds to take it on the road. The whole thing is a fake."

"So the fortune-telling tribe, the machine, the drugs and your trance?"

"Fake, fake, fake, fake."

"What did you drink? The one Dawson gave you?"

"Gin."

Aldgate's jaw dropped. "The trance state, you were acting?"

"I was acting." The teeth reappeared.

"When you say you want to take it on the road,"

"Aldgate," Stephenson interrupted, "In the last six hours, I have received six thousand pounds from the men in the gray suits and two thousand from Florian Hertzler."

Aldgate was clearly surprised and impressed. "What's the story with the gray twins?"

"They are from Zurich, Switzerland. Into the occult and ghost-hunting. They were left a large sum of money from an aunt and, between them they run a periodical, write books and give grants to people like me who share their research for publication. They'll lap up anything I give them."

Stephenson stood up and walked around the room with his hands behind his back. "Florian Hertzler wants me to bring my 'work' to other people so they can experience what he has experienced."

Aldgate furrowed his brow and put down his drink. Stephenson, in anticipation of interruption, was determined to finish his speech.

"Nobody has suffered!" he boomed, expecting some sort of criticism from Aldgate. "I have given a man his long, lost brother, told the truth to an heiress and given what two dream-chasers want to hear."

"Have you heard from Madame de Prony?"

"Not yet."

"And what about Eldritch? Why invite him?"

"He'll write about it in the Institution's journal. I don't care what he writes, I just want publicity, good or bad. People will come to hear their fortune whether they believe the science or not. And they'll come to see the machine."

"I think you can improve the machine."

And that was it. Stephenson saw the glint, the hint of eagerness.

"I can!" Stephenson nodded at Aldgate."I also need transport and finances for advertising the show. Someone to help talk punters into parting with their money." Stephenson held out his hand. And waited for Aldgate to shake it. Which he did.

"You knew I would agree?" It was a statement rather than a question.

"I did." I knew you weren't convinced with everything you saw. But once you read about Hertzler, I was sure I had you.

"I certainly wasn't convinced with what you said to me on the stage. It was vague."

"It was a conceited message." Offered Stephenson. "I was telling you that I was confident you would join me."

Aldgate folded his arms.

Stephenson added. "There was something," he hesitated. "Something I saw in the smoke. In the glass chamber. The motor chugged and spluttered and for an instant, black lines appeared in the smoke: an unmistakeable spider. From above. This, while I was aiming my rantings at you."

Aldgate looked at Stephenson with frightful coldness. His eyes cut through the space between them like arrows from a bow. This was an unexpected turn. He said to Stephenson, "You mean like this?"

He pulled a pocket watch from his waistcoat and flipped it open. The doctor looked into the still-freezing eyes and down to the watch. Covering the face was a deathly dark image of a black widow spider. Its legs sprawled uniformly around the watch face. its thick body dead center.

Stephenson backed away a little, visibly stunned.

Aldgate closed the watch case. "Why doctor, I do believe you might have accidentally built something very special."

"Yes I did!" he barked. "It is special indeed." He rubbed his chin and looked at the stage, still there from several nights earlier. A full minute elapsed in silence and pacing. "But what I saw was most likely just a freak form in the smoke from the engine backfiring. We'll stick to the plan. Agreed?"

They looked at each other in silence. Aldgate smiled broadly.

The two of them disappeared into a bottle of gin without a second thought about what the mad doctor might actually have stumbled upon.


The Night Before Last

The sound of moon-silvered waves opened those eyes.

She watched from the arch the night things moving through the sky. Black shivers and flutters against cool star glow. And in her dreams she sung to them a very sad song about the silence and things gone.

Outside, beyond dunes and now bone dry ravines, the wind brought sounds and smells from the south like a tide coming into a bay.

She, whose eyes seemed younger than ten thousand nights, looked out over the land, her skin shining gold from the sun. And those eyes drifted, deep and green and night-piercing with the distance you see when watching someone awaken from a long, long dream..

She put a finger to her lips and held it up. The slow wind was headed north past the fringes of the fallen city and out beyond the hills. Coming up behind the wind, following on like an imagined carnival, she could feel it, she could sense it. It was that time of year again and she flinched from a night spark at her back. Her thoughts changed from those she spent her days and nights within and glimpsed what comes to most people at least once in their life: the ghost of a once started and unfinished thought on some cool evening, years earlier. Like the warm feeling of walking into the life of someone new.

Beyond the arch, the shadows and hollow shell of Rocket City miraged and dreamed itself into the old days - fast, silent cars cruised the Steel Mile Highway through the white marble and passed the gardens, cafés and homes where there slept dreamers, hearts beating to the night and its moon-cooled traffic. The lunar shore's more distant marble was washed by the sun and sunk into the stars, the vague seas and valleys as dust dry as the land around the city.

Behind the western dome stood the great iron launch pad, empty of rockets, creaking red with wind whistling through its structure. If you stood in a certain position and looked right up its towering height you could aim it exactly at the moon by closing one eye. A little more imagination and you could launch it and its hundred anticipating eyes and hands above clouds of burning, billowing thunder, the power of ten million horses pulling it into the air. And the metal hulk would push, painfully slow, the white city away and, in two days, grab for the moon.

The giant moon ships, though, ferried their last voyagers and adventurers a long time ago. The sons of captains and travelers left behind, a long way from the city and a lifetime from the moon. Here, now, stood just the empty shell of the magnificent Rocket City, the heart of the moon-obsessed old world and the home of the great captains.

The old lady whose wide eyes were watching the night was married to one of those great captains. He had left for the moon almost fifty years ago on the last rocket. She watched him rise into the sky that night, an hour earlier aiming him for the moon from below the launch pad, and he pulled his passengers up through the hot, slow air on a flight that never returned.

She, her sadness now watered down and thinned to just loneliness, walked back into her home and waited for the approaching people to arrive.

The shouting came about an hour later.

'Georgia! Georgia!' they called out from the night. Excited voices drifted up the passageway that led to the arched entrance to her home.

'Ceal, Robert, come in, come in, all of you, please.' She ushered them in, the old friends and their children, tired from traveling.

'Georgia,' her closest friend since teenage years, Ceal, looked at those eyes and then around the room with its flowers and paintings of the city. She sighed, knowing Georgia expected her question. 'Why are you still here? Why don't you come with us this time?'

Georgia, approaching her seventieth year with youthful poise and eyes as young and wide as the day her captain left, looked down at the floor. 'Ceal, you say this every year. You know I won't leave'

There was a silence. Chimes chimed.

'I can't believe it's been a year,' said Robert, he was the younger brother of Ceal.

They all agreed, the moment saved.

'The time flies so quickly,' Ceal half grimaced, another inappropriate comment. 'The kids have been looking forward to this for months, now. They write stories and draw pictures from what we tell them about when we lived there. Jim and Allen here remember last year's visit very fondly.' She looked over at them playing with the chimes. 'They tell me they can't wait to see the launch pad again and hear our stories. They play rocket captains all the time.'

More silence.

Ceal thought she kept making it tough for Georgia, putting her foot in it. But she wasn't. Georgia, a long time ago, had known something must have gone terribly wrong and her husband, Tom Boseman, wasn't coming back. She'd had it straight in her mind for some time now and the mention of 'captains', 'rockets' and such things to do with those days had long since washed over her. It would take a lot more to upset her now, with her painting and her pot making and her trips into the hills to pick flowers for her home. She kept telling Ceal not to worry, but she was an emotional and highly sensitive person. She must have thought that if it was her in Georgia's shoes she would be hurt by every single reminder. Not so with Georgia Boseman. Not usually, anyway.

This time she was going with them. The empty years meant nothing and it was time to see the place she used to love again.

They talked another hour and slept another two. Morning was upon them before long, warm and dry with birds chirping them all awake with their playng out by the arch.

With some food Georgia had prepared and a mix of quiet apprehension and young excitement they went off to the city.

They stood at the city limits an hour later, the morning hotting up the still white metropolis. The grey metal sidings of the Steel Mile Highway rose up from the dusty floor and pulled the old interstate road into the city, curving in, around and up into the marble and through the greenest of green trees.

All eyes were on the highway.

'Let's go,' said Ceal. They walked up to the road and crossed over the change from concrete to steel with a running leap in a line, joined at the hands, ready for the heat of the sun-soaked highway underfoot to hit them. The children ran ahead, shouting and shrieking into the biggest playground ever.

'After all these years,' Ceal stopped and looked around, turning a full circle, 'After all these years it still has that feel, that atmosphere,' she looked at Robert and then Georgia, 'You know, like it was the centre of the universe, the centre of the world. In those days,' she sighed, 'It was like nothing could go wrong, nothing ever. You didn't have to think about the future, you knew it was ...' She stopped and took Georgia's hand. 'Let's go and see the park and the old houses.'

The park was as they left it last year, thought Ceal. Right in the very middle of the grass was a circle of dry earth where they had made a fire in the evening. They had watched the sun go down and swore at the moon, half jokingly as it showed its ghost face.

Running along one side were the giant pylons that once brought in the power from the stations far out on the ocean, the power of the waves driving the city for as long as it lived. The tall, once gleaming towers were now worn to a dull grey from the sand blowing in from the coast.

Georgia strolled towards the south side of the park where they played as children, staring as she went at the grand statue of the first rocket to leave the city for the moon when she was just eight years old. 'T101A'was carved in huge black figures. It stood, one hundred feet of shining steel, above a pedestal of twenty stone steps as white as the city buildings. She climbed slowly up, the midday sun forcing her to squint, until she reached the plaque. Silver, embossed. It showed the names of the great captains, from the first, the father of a childhood friend, to Tom Boseman. There should have been others listed, from the rescue rockets that followed, but they never returned and the city died. For a dozen years after the silence the world lost more people to the moon and found no answers. A dozen more were wasted in conjecture and consternation. And then it was all forgotten.

Who could ever know the reason? Georgia thought to herself. She turned around and looked at the Steel Mile Highway sweeping over the park into the heart of the city and followed an imaginary car speeding along its six broad lanes.

The others stood in the shadow of the now empty highway and waved her over. She waved back and walked over to Ceal who took her by the arm and shouted to the children to follow on. 'Let's go and see the old houses, there's something I want to show you.' Georgia looked at her friend, puzzled, but said nothing. And the children ran ahead under the highway, through its mammoth struts to a pathway taking them out of the park.

The pale amber glow of sun against flush marble was a familiar sight to Georgia, stepping from one day to another, fifty years back. It was as if it was only the night before last when she was on her way to the Treasure Project Gardens or off to ride the monorail to the other side of town. She felt like visiting her friends, who were probably waiting for her with sweet, warm coffee and plenty of summer talk.

A sign high above the road flashed a message, 'WELCOME TO ROCKET CITY. THE TEMPERATURE IS 81°. EASTERLY BREEZE - 6 NOTTS' It corrected itself every few seconds as the temperature or wind fluctuated. And ghost drivers of the invisible cars smiled and wheeled into the quiet city, visiting, working, passing through and coming home.

Georgia reached her house with Ceal and the others full of fresh, bright memories, thinking and walking fifty years ago.

A single level structure raised twenty feet on a grassy embankment stretched into the distance. Up the embankment, with trails of orchids, ran steps leading up to the doors and a narrow pathway reached along the fronts, past the black, shining windows. Georgia looked but didn't go up. She turned to see her old neighbours, Ceal and Robert at the top of the steps, they had just come from inside and Ceal was holding something.

It was a small red book with a rose stem sticking out of its pages.

Georgia climbed the steps to join them.

And each one became a different memory as she touched them, the warm stone sending up moments and feelings of another age. On the first step a monorail cab flashed by overhead into the heart of town. She stopped, looked up, startled. On the second she carried flowers for Ceal, picked from the hills out of town and on the third she squinted at the white glare of fire coming from the rocket above. She paused, her heart racing. On the fourth step she picked an orchid from the ground for Tom when he got back from his latest trip. She always gave him an orchid once he came home.This was usually followed by the promise of only one more mission.

'Georgia,' Ceal brought her back to now. She looked up. No rocket. There were no flowers in her hand. But there were still orchids growing around their homes, trails, up and down the long embankment waiting to be picked. Ceal handed her a diary, opened at a page in the middle and looked at her friend, 'Remember?'

Georgia read the first few lines and smiled. And for the rest of the afternoon they all sat on the edge of the embankment talking, eating and listening to Georgia read from the diary. She told them of the time when, more than half a century ago, she, Ceal and Robert had thrown a party and then walked around the edge of the city, beneath the monorail, taking in everything: the waterfall, the arena dome, the museum, the park and the monorail port. The children sat listening to Georgia talk of these places when they were alive with hundreds of people, thousands of people enjoying the fresh ocean breeze and the warm, amber evenings. She told them that, at the end of their six hour journey around the city, they sat below the rocket launch pad as the sun came up, watching the stars and rocket trails dissolve into the flooded orange sky. 'We knew these days couldn't last forever.'

'I remember that night so clearly,' Robert looked at the falling sun, 'Do you recall, Georgia, the following night we didn't speak. We all stayed in our homes, quietly taking things in, absorbing that trip. I think we needed that quiet evening to take stock,' he looked around the city, ' to appreciate our lives.'

Georgia glanced over at Robert and his clenched hands. 'Nothing lasts forever.'

Both Ceal and Robert were a little surprised to hear Georgia say that, living as she did all these years.

As the night took over the children lay silent on the grass, drifting into sleep and not asking to go to the launch pad. Georgia, Robert and Ceal sat looking out at their city, remembering their own times, secret and shared. There was a lot of remembering to do, repressed for a long time now and they were letting it all out wondering silently, and maybe seriously, if they should stay here, if they should come home.

They stared, drifted and closed their eyes, tired.

Georgia and Ceal were asleep when Robert called them. They rubbed their eyes, bringing themselves back from their dreams.

'What is it?' Ceal looked at Robert. He shook his head. High in the sky, amongst the stars, wavered and flickered a bright, bright light, far brighter than the stars. It moved slowly.

Georgia shuddered.

Robert stood up. The children were still asleep.

'Is it a shooting star?' asked Ceal.

No one responded.

They watched the light grow brighter and move very slowly down the sky. There was total silence and the three looked at each other, now all standing. Ceal grabbed Georgia's hand and Robert tilted his head from one side to the other, trying to discern the now fist-sized light. They held their breath, not taking their eyes off the object approaching.

Georgia, tears in her eyes, reached down and pulled an orchid from a patch on the ground.

She held it in her hands very, very tightly.


Alternative Truths and Dark Wonder

Sam Dreyfuss pushed the button that dissolved the tint. He wanted to see the sunset in all it's magnificent orange glory. His Silkdrive™ Motordyne 5 carried him smoothly through the magnetic lanes of Mercuryville. Thousands upon thousands of black and white cars were moving in grand, silent unison under the the crimson clouds streaking towards night.

This was Sam's city and everything about it made him smile. His car, his home, his job and even the rocket trail drifting above him from a launch probably only an hour or so earlier.

"This is a good day" Sam said to himself.

"Would you like some music?" the car replied.

He thought for a few seconds. "Shakespeare Jones, level 6."

The music played and the car drove itself up into the center of town. Alongside, a yellow cab was moving through it's transparent vacuum tube. The taxi system ran all over the city, much of it parallel with the soaring roads. Sam leaned forward and looked up as the cab rose steeply through its twisting, long glass cylinder road now vertically following the superstraight edifice of the Everdream Robots™ Corporation.

The music lifted, the car pulsed, the night came.

Ten minutes now and he'd be home, his dinner underway as the desired choice had already been transmitted home.

"Virmin."

A boney, shrink-wrapped face looked down at the evening traffic and at the taxi racing up towards him. Ansel Farber put the palms of his hands against a huge oval window and grimaced. "What's the point?" he said to no-one and everyone in a low, slow, creaking half-voice. He shook his head.

The face of the president and founder of Everdream Robots™ was tired and worn out. 71 years of hatred had taken its toll and all traces of tolerance had evaporated long ago. Most of his childhood had been spent in hospital and most of his adult years in solitude, learning creating, experimenting.

He looked at a picture of himself standing next to his first production robot. He designed and built the humanoid servants that now inhabited so many homes in the America he detested. He preferred his robots over people. They didn't talk unless spoken to.

The cab stopped outside and a light flickered next to a door in his office. An appointment awaited him with the chief of police at the Fairchild Center, along with twenty other people he would probably dislike. Never mind, he thought, the deal to supply the police force with 500 of his robots would keep him 'happy'. For a week or so.

Sam sighed in satisfaction as his robot housekeeper lifted his feet onto a foot rest. He reclined on his favorite seat, savoring the taste of dinner.

The metallic servant shuffled into the kitchen to clear up and put things away.

"Thanks R7," said his owner, who put his arms behind his head and whispered, "Screen on." He liked to see how soft he could speak and still activate his house controls. The screen flashed on and a commercial for vacations in space showed a space ferry docking at one of the new orbital Sheratons, a couple floating into a bedroom with the major part of the African subcontinent filling the ceiling window.

"I'll take Viper Canyon any day." He waved a hand in dismissal. "How about you Bones?"

His robot dog came alive and walked over, yapping and waggling its antenna tail.

"I thought so," he whistled at the collection of circuits and plastic shaped like some sort of terrier. It sat down like a good robot dog.

His master watched the news with total detachment, thinking instead of a trip to Viper Canyon. Maybe he'd drive out next weekend, he thought.

Sam Dreyfuss worked for the Atomic Truck Company. He presently designed exhaust outlets for the X55 Behemoth™ series in a glass office in the desert. Just beyond the fringe of the city. Along with 400 other workers, he made sure the biggest ever land vehicles carried cargo along America's biggest ever roads. He loved every minute of it and even brought his work home. Tonight he would be starting preliminary designs on the new micro-cell surface cooler. He nodded to himself and a grin crawled over his broad face.

Just as he was getting out of his seat, his Silvergaze Visionplate™ buzzed, red lights flashing in it's corners. He tapped the top edge twice and the image of his friend appeared in three crystal-clear dimensions.

"Drew!" Sam sat back down.

"Samson. How's life with your pig-ugly trucks?" His friend of many years grinned at him across a thousand miles.

"Never better," said Sam. "And never bigger! How's New Amsterdam?"

"Noisy," Drew replied with a shrug. "Why don't you visit your favorite and most loyal pal in the metropolis? It's been more than a year."

Sam shook his head, "I got a lot of work on," he looked in the direction of his study room. "I'll come soon, once I get through the current project. I promise." We'll take a road trip."

R7 placed a drink for his master next to the Vizorplate.

"Yeah, we'll do that," Nodded Drew, expecting him to decline. "I see you still got your robo-butler,"

"Hey, I'm not the oddball! Who hasn't got a personal server? Er -" Sam looked about the room then settled on the plate. Oh yeah, you!"

"You know what I think about those things. They creep me out. Anyway, listen, I think you'll like this," Drew looked either side of him in comic suspicion. "You remember asking about that science station near your trucks?"

"You mean the Dome? That was last year. I'd forgotten about it"

"Yeah, that's it. Well my brother, Max was talking to his boss at the university. The guy was asked to work there for a week. Did you know there's a vertical shaft 10 miles deep beneath it?"

Sam picked up his drink and put it back down. "10 miles?"

Drew continued. "This guy, Dr Clemente, told Max they're working on -" he picked up a piece of paper, "Cross-string fracturing. I wrote it down because I knew you'd be interested."

Sam stared at Drew, taking in what his friend had just said.

He looked again at the piece of paper. "Clemente said he saw the front page of a report on the first findings in local relative dimensions, their identification and initial timeline convergences." Drew looked up from his notes lifted an eyebrow in anticipation of a reaction.

"That's -" Sam tried to find words. "That's incredible."

"I don't understand it but I'm guessing it's pretty heavy." Drew grinned again.

"I've read about this research but had no idea it had gone this far."

The call continued for another fifteen minutes. This was world-shaking to Sam Vickers who had wanted to be involved in the cutting edge of science since he was a kid. He had lacked the capacity for the numbers and had no patience for the years needed to learn the theories of eternity. He would have to be satisfied with being so close, in physical proximity, to the frontier research he could only dream of.

Sam didn't work on his designs that night.

At work the following day he spent his lunchtime scanning the papers for any mention of the research. He was pretty sure he would find nothing. The information from Drew was old and why would the public want to know about advances in the search for other dimensions they could never see or touch?

Instead he found himself reading an article about a new exhibition at Mercuryville's proud centerpiece, Time Hall. It's topmost floor was now dedicated to some of the key people in modern history. No doubt an attempt at garnering local interest in the figures who were actually responsible for the things that made their daily lives what they were today. There was a half page picture: the entrance to the vast room showed a statue. A bronze likeness of the first man on the moon, Gus Grissom, helmet in hand, right hand over his eyes as he looked skywards.

According to the paper, the centre of the exhibition was a tribute to Thomas Fairchild, inventor of the micro gravity field. A full-scale metal facsimile of the plane that first carried the field generator hung from the ceiling. The technology was now used in almost all forms of transport, impacting society at least as much as the invention of the car itself.

Sam looked out of the window in front of his desk, in the direction of the research dome. He mumbled something to himself, ran his fingers through his graying hair and went back to his designs.

Sam closed his front door leaving Bones, his metal canine companion looking on through the glass panels, tail wagging.

"Morning Ed," he said cheerfully to his old neighbor as the gull wing door of his Motordyne 5 lifted open.

Sam jumped in with slightly more exuberance than normal. Today was the launch of a new truck: the Titan Vanguard, the Atomic Truck Company's latest flagship mover. And Sam's contribution took up a handsome portion of the back end. It's two drivers would pilot its vast length out of the construction building in exactly one hour.

The car door closed just as the explosion rocked the city.

Sam froze.

An immense, dull thud shook the ground, shattering windows up and Time Hall and the Federal Court buildings, a mushroom cloud rose. His jaw dropped, his eyes glazed over. Outside, people pointed, some ran, some dropped to the floor. A few seconds later, it disappeared. Confusion enveloped the neighborhood and thunder and lightening replaced the phantom bomb.

Above the street, in front of Sam's car, floated a large, iron platform. On it, some indiscernible machinery. A low hum grew louder. Rain fell heavily to the right of the unknown object and thick, brown smoke gathered beneath.

Two silver streaks shot past Sam's car, down the street and up into the air, flying in formation. These were followed by two more which appeared to be following the first two.

Sam got out of his car, slowly. He looked in the direction of the silver machines. An enormous mast now stood at the intersection of his street and the expressway. It seemed to stretch, without end, into the sky. Marching past its base were a hundred or more of what appeared to be monks. They either didn't notice the people gathering to watch or chose not to notice.

Suddenly, a shriek made Sam jump. A vulture stood on his car roof with gray, killing eyes that looked directly into his. Sam backed cautiously away but it flew off after what seemed to be an army aerial surveillance drone.

"what the hell is happening?" Sam said to himself, now visibly shaking. He repeated it to his neighbor, who was no longer there.

Now there were police sirens. A patrol car chased an armored jeep, a rack of guns on it's roof and a rope with a battered corpse dragging behind.

The sun had now gone and there was the strong smell of wood smoke and sulphur. Sam crouched down close to the car and looked on in utter disbelief. The jeep had just crashed into a building that had appeared in the road, the police vehicle swerving to avoid it in time.

He felt a sharp pain to his upper right arm. He looked round and a large wild cat hissed and clawed at him. He fell backwards and it ran off.

This was too much. People were running in all directions. Screams, shouts and was that singing? Things were appearing and disappearing all around him. So he stayed put. He'd see what happened next before deciding what to do. Ansel Farber was standing in his underground warehouse when the explosion struck. He was inspecting his army of robot men bound for the local police force. Row upon row of silver-faced R-Troopers™ stood in frozen salute, their default 'off' position.

The initial thud almost knocked Farber to the ground. He looked around as he steadied himself. All the R-Troopers vanished, replaced with thousands of distressed birds. A stack of large crates then appeared about thirty feet above the ground before smashing to the floor in a cloud of dust. The robot builder covered his head with his arms as the birds flew about him in total panic, the deafening noise of an air raid klaxon drowning out their screams.

He spun around and looked up. There stood a building so big there was no visible top. It was a dirty dark bronze with the image of an atom above an immense door below which lay many large stone steps. This was the source of the klaxon. It echoed endlessly like a twisted bell, a spectre of very dark days.

Particles of rust fell all around like a slow-motion red rain. The dust cleared, the birds disappeared. Farber noticed the smashed crates were still there, revealing their contents: gas masks. Printed on the sides of the containers were the letter USG and a highly stylized Nazi swastika.

Before he could take this in, he realized some of the R-Troops were again standing as they had been before the chaos, although more than half had been replaced with redwood trees, some of which broke through the ceiling. Leaves were falling onto the saluting robots like ticker tape on a parade frozen in time.

The incredible events at Mercuryville occurred at a lessening frequency over the days that followed. Most people had been either been evacuated or had fled the surreal chaos. Some lost their lives. these unfortunates had been in the wrong place at the wong time, where solid intrusions had broken through into their world. Buildings, vehicles, walls, people, even animals, as Sam Dreyfuss had seen.

The devastation at the dome took longer to right itself. As the epicenter of the interdimensional blast, the base had suffered an estimated ten million intrusions, with serious incursions causing massive destruction and the death of many valued scientists. The clear-up, not only of the dome, but of Mercuryville had to wait until the physical events had stopped. Many scientists suggested that the fracture and concurrent impact of worlds could have been compounded by a similar experiment occurring in another timeline. The interdimensional 'sound barrier' had been crossed for sure. The incursions experienced by the residents of Mercuryville and the surrounding area were shards of many other realities, all happening at the same point in time and in the same place. some were not so dissimilar to this reality. Some showed a post-apocalyptic world or worlds on the brink of destruction. Others were darker than hell or night.

Ansel Farber had seen some things he would like to see again. He saw phantoms of other realms, alternative truths and dark wonder. Shadows and possibilities. If only he could get there. If only he could get himself to one of those worlds. And if he could not make that happen, maybe he could bring them to him. He would spend his final years trying to make this happen. The robot builder was not finished yet.

Sam Dreyfuss, on the other hand, really didn't want to see the things he had seen that dark day and felt lucky he lived in the timeline he quite happily occupied. At one point he thought he might be dreaming. Looking back, a year later, no dream could be that insane. He, along with everyone else, had heard the explanations and read about the more incredible intrusions.

He had been staying with his friend Drew in New Amsterdam and was now driving home for the first time since the incident. Television and newspaper reports had said it was now relatively safe for residents to return to Mercuryville. At their own risk.

The physical intrusions had stopped, but visual fragments were still part of the dimensional fallout. So visual anomalies were to be expected. Many people were now convinced that just such reality crossovers could explain ghosts and other so far unexplained phenomena such as UFOs. They argued that nature could provide plenty of aberrations so why should it not, on occasion, provide the right circumstances to present visual intrusions of the dead, still alive in a another timeline?

Sam remained open-minded.. It could be pure magic for all he cared as he was coming home. Home to his beloved Mercuryville. The ATC had cleared up its share of the accident with a major rebuild. Seven construction cranes that had materialized after the explosion had collapsed on the main offices. Fortunately, not many workers had arrived at that point so loss of life was minimal. America would get it's cargo, regardless of surreal disasters.

He was now passing the city limits into Mercuryville with its gleaming buildings ahead. Passing him was a flickering old road sign, half there, half not. A visual fragment from another timeline. It read 'Mercuryville, pop. 2'. It promptly vanished. Sam raised his eyebrows and braced himself for some interesting times.

He spoke to his Silkdrive™ Motordyne 5. "Shakespeare Jones, level 6." Music filled the car and a shiver shot up his spine.

His thoughts turned to his job. He could hardly wait to get back to the office in the morning. He had been thinking of new ideas for some knockout, super-slick exhaust outlets when an all-female marching band passed by. The already-fading, lovely apparitions, drums pounding and batons twirling, brought a huge grin to the face of Sam Dreyfuss.

"This is a good day," he said. "This is a good day."


The Angels at Ceylon Station

The weather below was hellish, as it always was on Neptune. Around it's icy core raced clouds at war with each other, clashing at seven hundred miles an hour in blue and white streaks of gas. Huge cyclones the size of worlds tore through smaller weather systems, growing for decades before dispersing.

Non of this registered with Benjamin de Silva. The almost oceanic and deceptively tranquil view to him was simply beautiful. Surely nobody could tire of such a sight. He was sat in a small semicircular dome just big enough for one person. Constructed of six glass panels it featured only a seat at the center with straps to stop the observer from floating away. Although Ben rarely used them, preferring instead to let himself drift naturally. This essential little room was fixed to the end of what was basically a cylinder, his home of two years. A two hundred and fifty foot long boom extended from the opposite end on which sat his power supply, it's nuclear source a healthy distance from his shielded homestead.

Ben looked in awe at the beautiful blue chaos and wondered about the others, his counterparts in the other outposts dotted around the solar system. All observing incredible wonders in fantastically diverse environments. their instruments gathering data that would keep scientists busy and the people of Earth hungry for more.

Each of the stations were named after ancient civilizations. There was Persia over Mars, Siam around Jupiter - specifically it's moon Europa, and Assyria orbiting Saturn's satellite, Titan. Being a native of Sri Lanka, Ben de Silva's post was given the name of it's previous incarnation, Ceylon.

His research here was without doubt becoming the most important of all the outposts. Life was very clearly not confined to Earth. Microbial life and even organisms more exotic were present in the vicinities of the four stations. Here, on Neptune, something incredible was happening. Something that eventually would affect the way his race would think about their lives forever. It had taken him three years to get here and it would take the same amount of time for a rescue, even with the nuclear propulsion available to the craft of the day.

He had been prepared for such a mission all his life, having spent the majority of his adult years in remote locations on Earth and in it's orbit. He did not need the company of others, preferring his own thoughts, pursuits and pleasures. This was also the case with the other residents in their tiny worlds of instruments and silence. Discovery and exposure to nature on such a grand scale was all he had needed.

255,000 miles beyond the protective glass, moving amongst the devilish storms moved creatures. Strange and beautiful creatures, they swam in the extreme currents of Neptune as ink in water, as smoke through air. These living clouds with tendrils something like those of jellyfish, were pure white. Varying from two to four meters in length, they gracefully moved around the vast planet in groups. Although through Ben's optical instruments a group appeared as a single entity, as a school of fish in the oceans of Earth.

His thought turned to his most recent concerns and fears, now increasingly disturbing. He was the most distant of all the frontier scientists from Earth. Here, the sun was just a small dot of light, it's rays taking over four hours to reach and illuminate the swirling beauty of this mysterious giant.

The seventy months and twenty five days of solitude, though, were now starting to take their toll. He was thinking more each passing week of the 'panic bed'. He hoped things wouldn't get so bad that it would come to that. This so called device was installed in each of the research stations as a last option available if the loneliness became too much It was, of course, risky. The user could be forced into a coma at the push of a few buttons and the connection of a few lifelines. This piece of equipment, stowed within the wall of the lab, would keep the patient - for that is what he would now become - in a state of near death until a rescue could be affected. The machine was for someone who had exhausted all other courses of action. For someone in a very advanced state of mental degeneration. Maybe, soon, for Benjamin de Silva

In the past few months he had experienced recurring dreams. They weren't nightmares but contained startling imagery involving mutated versions of the cloud angels. Sometimes he would be back on Earth, maybe outside his childhood home in Colombo or within the confines of an arctic research station. The creatures would appear next to him at seemingly random moments. He would turn around or wake up and one would be there, a vague form, but most definitely one of them. It would just hang there, its wisps and tendrils like lace curtains in a breeze. In the dreams, he felt he knew something, a truth. Like gaining some crucial knowledge about something that had always been there, but was just out of sight.

There were other occurrences too. Sounds, shadows, movements. The majority of people, most of all Ben, would put instances of the paranormal down to the effects of isolation. He was well aware that there were aspects of the subconscious that would surface through solitude. He was a man of science. But some recent incidents had pushed his logical mind to the limit. And now, perhaps, beyond.

After waking from a particularly lucid dream he had gone into the bathroom area of the habitat. Suddenly the whole station had started shaking violently. The vibrations were at such a high frequency that that some fixtures became loose, broke free and floated away from their original positions.

It came to a stop after several long and frightening seconds. He looked around then found himself looking into the mirror. He noticed a tear in the corner or his left eye. This alone was not worth noting, although the station 'quake' was very odd. Being so far out was beginning to upset him and affect his mind.Maybe as a result of the incident, he began noticing teardrops in the strangest places. He was observing Triton, Neptune's largest moon, on it's transit across the giant planet. From his position less than five thousand miles away he could resolve surface features very clearly with the lab's electronic telescope imager. He noticed a large shadow on it's surface, rounded at the bottom end and a tight point at the top. A perfect teardrop. At the top point lay a single boulder on the surface. This, thought Ben, was extremely odd. Something that relatively small could not cast the shadow the size and shape he was clearly seeing. Where was the object that was producing this shadow?

He sent his observations, as he always did, in a daily report to Earth. They agreed it was highly irregular and said they would analyze the data, asking him to continue observations. It didn't appear again.

One evening, a few days later, he had made some coffee and seen the same shape on its surface with the soya cream he had added. Okay, he thought, that in itself is possibly a random coincidence. There was a dark spec of something at the tip -- just as with the shadow on the moon. It could have been a tiny piece of dust or plastic that had been floating around. But it was behind the lid enclosing the coffee in exactly the same place as with the boulder and shadow on Triton. He started to believe something was happening to him that required the application of questionable conjecture, rather than reason.

All of this came at a bad time. There were new developments within the clouds of Neptune that required his full attention. He would need to ignore his need for explanations for the recent incidents and push away the shadows that were closing in.

The mental strains were being compounded by what he was now seeing.In amongst the large groups, new cloud angels were appearing, as if from nowhere. The numbers were increasing and he actually saw one materialize. There was no better description - it was just suddenly there. His imager was pushed to the limit but there, in the center of the screen, was a brand new creature in the space between two others.

There was one major difference with these new additions: they were black.

After several months' observations, the new arrivals began to fade in color. Eventually they were as white as the others. Without warning, the new appearances stopped. Ben could see no reason for this. There were no other factors or changes in the surrounding conditions, so far as he could tell. The data was dutifully sent to Earth.

And the dreams continued. Every night the angels were with him, peaceful but menacing, moving but not moving. He sat in the observation dome, shaking his head crinkling the lines above his raised eyebrows. He came here every day and watched the blue gas oceans swirling. He neglected his work to a point where he would only look through the telescope to watch the creatures on their strange and unknown quest.

His reports to Earth stopped and he spent longer sleeping, now welcoming the visitors to his dreams. Thoughts of the panic bed were gone, at least for now. He now had one agenda: to find out what they were and to accept the answer regardless of how fantastic. He tried sending signals, through light and radio. He tried every way he could think of to communicate with them, even in his dreams. Nothing was working. He felt alone in a vast world of creatures seemingly interacting with each other on some undetectable level. He was merely an observer, possibly also being observed by the angels in his dreams.

Loneliness became frustration, frustration became desperation.

* * *

The new crew, bound for Ceylon Station, had set off from Earth long before contact had been lost with the outpost. The powers that be had decided that too much was going on at Neptune to leave to one man. Science and discovery was happening in the outer solar system so staggering that new minds and new equipment capable of handling the task had been readied and sent on their way. A new laboratory and living quarters formed the bulk of the new ship, 'Gabriel'.

For Earth and the approaching crew, the radio silence could indicate any of three possibilities. One: The transmitting/receiving dishes were damaged beyond repair. Two: Benjamin de Silva had used the panic bed. This was the favored explanation as his final reports had been garbled, unclear and had shown evidence of stress. Maybe he had thought the radio silence would bring a rescue party. In such a state of mental breakdown, no-one really knew how Ben would behave. This brought forward the third possibility: suicide.

The truth would be forthcoming. So hoped the team of scientists en route to the biggest set of mysteries enchanted in humankind's recent memory.

* * *

The blue storms fought with the white storms and lightening flashed wildly across the face of Neptune. Docking clamps locked together and the sound of hissing, pressurizing oxygen increased the tension amongst the crew. The commander gave the signal to open the airlock and enter Ceylon Station. A world was waiting to hear of the fate of the silent scientist.

Carrying a few pieces of scientific equipment, they sailed into the unknown, silent anticipation leading the way. The structure creaked with the new vessel now fastened alongside. Alarms buzzed and lights flickered. Systems had not been maintained. The commander, Daniel Michaels, flipped a switch that stopped the alarms. Next to it, he noticed a printed image, wedged partly behind a control panel. It was a picture of a cup of coffee.

"Odd," Michaels said to himself under his breath. A bride look about the station turned up no sign of Benjamin de Silva. There was no body, alive or dead, and the panic bed was stowed, unused. One of the scientists, Jean Baptiste, called to the commander.

"Sir, you'd better see this." He floated over to the open door of the observation dome, pushing himself along the handrails that were attached to most surfaces. A note was fixed to the seat.

"Read it," said Michaels.

The sullen-faced scientist took the piece of paper from the seat and read it out. "Today I walk out of the airlock. The angels will save me."

They looked at each other, the commander shook his head.

"It's dated only three weeks ago."

"Damn it," whispered the third crewman, Lucas Christian, who had positioned himself at the entrance to the dome, alongside the commander. They all swapped glances, the circular sea of blue so still and calm behind them.

"Let's radio Earth and then get some sleep." Michaels said in a low voice, almost whispered. "Non of us have slept well these past few days."

Christian looked up from staring at the note, "And you think we will now?"

The next morning found the commander looking at the telescope imager, it's lenses focused on Neptune. He pushed buttons and moved controls to move closer to the planet. Lucas Christian entered, not expecting to see anyone.

"Take a look at this," said Michaels. He pointed at the imager screen. Pushing himself slowly to the equipment panel, Christian said, "Is it a group of the cloud angels?"

On the screen, a vast collection of the white creatures formed the shape of a tear, some seven hundred miles from end to end.

"Peculiar shape," remarked the scientist.

"They're following this," the commander pointed to the tip of the group, a dark dot on the image. Christian moved closer to the screen.

"What is it?"

"I'll show you." Michaels pushed the telescope to its maximum magnification. A single black cloud angel raced through the light blue clouds. Thousands upon thousands of white angels followed behind, graceful and fluid of motion.

"Are they chasing the guy at the front?"

The commander shrugged. "Maybe. Or maybe he's leading them."

"We should send this to Earth. Let's not wait for the scheduled transmission."

"Already done. I sent it just a few minutes before you came in."

Christian nodded in acknowledgment. He continued to look at the screen, as did the commander. He rubbed his eyes. "That reminds me. I had the strangest dream last night."

Michaels looked at him. "Really? So did I."


The Lantern

The wind from a golden sea brought the scent of ash to a man sitting on the beach.

Next to him was the lantern. Orange and red and yellow it burned. A tiny version of the view over the sea. The man leaned into the light and gazed deep into its quiet fire, the flame drawing his eyes back towards the summer, just passed. Wild roses of June and July and the sun-drenched afternoons of August. He was there.

November was at the edge of the flame where the light gave in to darkness. He didn't look there.

He sighed and turned his gaze to the sea and then to the night above. Stars in tangled constellations shone ten million lifetimes beyond the sky and ended here within the eyes of Victor Johnson. He heard their whistling signals and fell towards them passing through their diamond light with the swift, magic breeze of an angel in flight. The sky between was velvet, deep and treasured with, as yet, unseen things. Comet veils and dust lit by the stars flew by fast and silent. And his heart was filled with the wideness of eyes that have seen stars for the first time. Starlight caught within the waves of faint light traveling a trillion years dusted his forehead and cheeks.

Silent and high he went, golden-haired and crimson-toed from the stars and their children: the worlds possessed by their grasp and hidden from this world and others. Once around the silver moon he sailed, both darkened and enlightened by its presence and its severe elegance.

And with the moon behind him, the stars in its glow, he returned silent and content to the lantern and its light at the edge of the ocean.

Victor Johnson had been an astronaut in the months and the years passed. He had ridden the vehicles that pushed away the Earth and wandered the space between worlds with a mountain of power behind him and the unforeseen hazards of discovery beyond. He had seen and felt what could never be described and had developed a new sense that no-one forever remaining on terra firma could know. It was a feeling, a knowing; something from an area somewhere in the middle of the other senses. A region where emotions from new experiences were created.

The flame in the lantern was showing him that time in its enchanting, fiery glow. It showed him the roar of the rocket engines, their red and orange billowing clouds of burning fuel pushing the giant machine into the deep blue distance with thousand-cannon blasts of deafening noise filled in by his memory. He soared in the flame, and inside, his console lights - the reflecting flames in the lantern glass - winked on and off showing him the sequence of events needed to pull him into the wanting and promised arms of the universe beyond Earth.

A hundred flickers of the lantern's light later he was there - silent and free and back among the stars. Once again he heard the whistling signals and felt the veils of comets in his position as observer of everything. He didn't have to see the things he new were there. Some, like the dust between stars and the messages from the sun through radio space, were reconfirmed by the new sense he had developed. This was something very special.

The lantern burned bright and the mission continued. The starlight, now still and untwinkling, came to him over the great distances and the long years. They were the light version of whale songs, singing their music and communicating their once urgent messages to the ages.

The feeling of motion had now stopped and he drifted in his tiny capsule - a bottle with a message for anyone who wanted to pick it out of the dark sea.

The flame flickered. There was a breeze coming in from the slow-moving waters out beyond the dusky semblance of volcano and pillars of smoke. This is where Victor Johnson fixed his gaze. The moon, silvering the horizon, showed its seas to him. Seas that were dry, dusty, forever still wonderlands of black and white memory. The glass case of the lantern became his visored helmet reflecting the extreme light and dark landscapes of craggy rock and crater wall. The images shifted as he moved his head slowly from dark left to bright right, from shadows and secrecy to brilliance and blaze.

Behind every strewn rock and boulder lay severe and absolute silence. The dark was silent, the light was silent. Everything was touched by ancient mystery and ageless patience. And Johnson walked the seas and plateaux that made up the once and forever face of the moon.

Moving himself to behind the lantern he positioned the night waters that sparkled below his moon so they were behind the glass. The bright and glowing sea-shimmered image filling his vision fired his re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. His mind completed the flame-induced memory with the thundering rumble surrounding him. He moved his face closer to the orange light while sequencers sequenced and controls controlled his brave machine. And then he moved to the side of the light to take in the approaching sea.

His parachute deployed.

The charred hull of the million mile metal voyager splashed into the sea. It bobbed and jostled in the currents of southern waters waiting to be plucked, once again, - the message in a bottle - from the worldly waters of home.

The eyes of Victor Johnson closed. He waited to be picked up from the sea and was tired after his long and lonely voyage. For two months he had travelled, explored and wandered through blackness to return home now, late November, and feel the clutch of gravity and the warm welcome of the men who had sent him.

A night and a day after hitting the Earth, the lantern reminded him, he waited and nobody came. He had grabbed the lantern and inflated the emergency dinghy. Through the watery night he then floated to the beach on which he now sat.

His fiftieth night had passed and to his good fortune the supplies had lasted him until he had found food beyond the beach.

Johnson lifted his head and sighed, the lantern light was still. He had ended his fiftieth journey through the rescued lamp. Each night he stared into the light and was launched atop immense thrust into the vast black solitude - an echo of his biggest journey of all his rocket years at summer's end, long gone it seemed.

He looked around - back on Earth. Back to his not yet accepted surroundings here on a beach, in an ocean, on a world. A world that was once his home. He looked around dispassionately and turned off the lantern.

Everything died.

The sea was just dark water - deep and unending. Not the catcher of his craft or the warm waves that brought him here. The night was truly the night - holding the scared air. It wasn't the perpetual, timeless firmament through which brave explorers like Victor Johnson raced. It was just emptiness. And the ground where he now lay was somewhere he did not want to be.

But the stars were still the stars. They shone their million year light into his eyes and flickered through the atmosphere he had so often pierced. They kept bright his lonely mind and made his solitude a wondrous journey. For tomorrow night he would return to and relight the lantern. To fly again amongst the stars where he belonged.


Diamond Rain

From fifty miles distant the night time approached. It would touch Dreamland 7 in a little under five minutes and the fast deep blue night would come, soaking up the sand streets and the silent houses. With it chased the two moons in a race with this some awake, some sleeping wildly spinning world. Over the valley it soared, across the Trancer Plain and onto the orange sands of the Dust Sea. Like the shadow of a huge cloud the night ate up the land while the twin moons steamed through the local heaven at a dizzying speed.

Watching below, at the edge of town, lay Reece Grey and Kay Black. A boy and girl embarking on their twenties, they stared with six years of wonder behind them at the night overhead now enveloping them. Wide-eyed and silent the two dreamers lay with their backs to the ground and their arms in the air. Everywhere turned deep violet. It looked like someone had dreamt what was happening and then projected that glowing dream onto the town.

"Dissolved." Kay said, her eyes closing.

Reece sat up and looked back at the night cloud touching land to the east soaring towards the unescaping horizon. He let her think the things she normally thought for a few moments and then he spoke, "We've got four hours. Let's go!" He tugged at Kay's arm. She opened her eyes and smiled.

They jumped up and ran towards the hills.

They reached the nearest of the hills and looked back at Dreamland 7. They saw a waterless ocean embracing fifty placid homes and a silvery slim waterway running through the streets and out to the mountains.

Kay looked to the sky - her face starlit, her hair dark water falling onto a golden breeze. She took Reece's hand and told him tonight was magic.

Reece, also star-dusted, turned to Kay, "Diamonds or violet?"

"Diamonds," she whispered.

They walked over the hills towards the dust sea talking of the velvet hours of night in their world of precious darkness. These nights only lasted four hours and most slept through not knowing. There was something to do with being young that intensified the night experience and the blue trips to the hills and beyond. Although with these two it was a little more than just their years.

Kay was gifted.

Most nights there was a rain over the mountains out beyond the valley of Dreamland 8. A rain usually violet and soft for about an hour of the night. But occasionally there was a diamond rain. A glittering ice-wine rain that looked like falling diamonds. And Kay knew tonight above the mountains that imaginary diamonds would fall.

"Diamonds!" Reece cried. He broke into a run pulling Kay behind him. "Diamond rain!" He sqeezed Kay's hand. They ran and shouted until they had run out of hills.

Kay and Reece touched the edge of the dust sea. They kicked the sunset sands into the air and it sailed down slowly to the ground leaving a trailing stream of glitter eyes. The mountains still lay distant and Dreamland 8 stood silent at the edge of the sea.

Ahead of them over the horizon appeared a faint light which slowly became two lights. "The moons are back!" shouted Reece, still running. The moons had clearly outrun the advancing night and were making their second orbit of the evening.

"Let's get to Eight before they do!" Kay ran ahead of Reece kicking up the amber sand.

After another five minutes of pounding feet and racing hearts they reached the other side of the barren sea. Dreamland 8 was here.

The building on the outskirts was Josh Brown's - he had a giant water tower outside and tonight, thought Kay, it would be full of diamonds. But they were going to old Isaac Green's place - he had a rocket outside his house, a rocket to help the weather.

They walked along the star-bathed street past the flat homes of the people of Dreamland 8. Running down the centre of the road, as in Dreamland 7, ran a narrow canal that was part of the network of manmade rivers that brought water from the mountains to the blue people of the local towns. They didn't know they were blue but Kay and Reece presumed they would be as everything was touched by the stars at night.

"I wonder if Isaac will let us watch the rain from his glass room," Kay said, looking up to the two moons about to fly over the town.

"You know he stays up all night," Replied Reece, "And the rocket will have told him of the diamonds." The street grew brighter as the two sugar lantern moons stampeded across the star-flooded sky over the town towards their homes. They ploughed the sky, cratered and plateaued like marble statues of worlds rolling through a museum of all the nights ever.

They reached Isaac Green's place. Looking at each other Reece said, "I always think there should be alot of noise when the moons go over, like a rumbling thunder or something."

Kay paused, "There probably is - we just can't hear it down here."

Isaac was outside his house tending to his weather rocket. He turned his head at the approaching footsteps. "Reece! Kay!" He grinned at them and whispered, "Diamonds."

"Diamonds." Kay smiled back. Reece went up to the rocket.

"Isaac, can we watch with you tonight?"

"Sure. but I've just got to finish this," He waved what looked like a glass spanner. "Tonight I'm sending the rocket to capture some of the rain in mid-air before it hits the ground and melts. This," He pointed at a flashing yellow beacon in the nose, "will keep it at the right temperature." Kay and Reece watched as Isaac Green finished tinkering. "There," he closed the nose of the rocket up. "Let's go inside."

The house was dark and warm with a soft breeze breathing through the air. Artifacts and antiques, presumably from home, were scattered about the furniture. At the brown dark centre was a spiral staircase leading to the glassroom on the roof.

"Come on," Isaac led them up the stairs.

Reece stared around as they climbed. "Where did you get all these things, Isaac?" Isaac mumbled above him, "Oh, they're from home, they're from a long time ago." Reece knew he would never get much from the old man concerning his collection of relics. He knew they were important to him and that some of the objects here were obviously part of his younger years.

They stepped up into the glass room - a domed framework of black and white metal forming a hundred small, rectangular windows. Through them could be seen the Iron River Plain behind Dreamland 8 and the tall mountains to the north. Above, the night sky was a big cat. It loomed and waited, the stars its eyes and reflections of eyes.

"Oh, Isaac," Kay looked out, eyes wide, "everything looks so different from here." They sat on a long seat whicht stretched and curved around the dome like a pleated cloak that had been dropped and frozen in mid - air.

"I spend most nights up here watching the stars and mountains." Isaac's eyes drifted across the heavens and touched the mountain spires with familiar affection. Kay and Reece followed his gaze."When the moons pass straight over the mountains, just for a moment they are lit by the ruby light of moon one.

"I've seen it. So beautiful." Kay nodded. She sat down between Reece and Isaac. "Are we going to launch the rocket?"

Isaac paused and then grinned, "We can launch it from right here."

"What's this?" Reece had walked behind the seat and was looking at a figurine stood on a tiny shelf below the sole light in the room.

"That," pointed Isaac, "is the Perception of Aquiel," Reece stared at it. There was a classic goddess streamed figure entwined in what looked like vines which reached up and separated to envelpoe two spheres, one pearlesque, the other ruby red. Isaac continued, "Her body is blue - it is the world at night, the vine captured spheres the two moons held forever. "Kay got up to look. They both stared at the figure, not moving.

Isaac stood up and looked out of the window. "You two are probably too young to remember when we were all settled here, to live on Luthia. To make our home in the abandoned cities."

Kay looked down and said, "It was because of the war."

"The proximal Campaign." Isaac continued to look out beyond Dreamland 7, into the night sky. "As you know, anyone incapable of joining the fleet, of serving with the forces, was brought here until it was safe and they returned to get us." Isaac joined his hands together behind his back. "Well we're still waiting."

Reece looked like he might cry. This was unexpected from Isaac. In the years they had known him he had never brought up the reason they were here. No one did.

"My daughter was the captain of a ship in the second fleet." Isaac turned round. They noticed he used the word 'was'.

"She gave me the figurine before she left me here."

There were shocked eyes. And there was silence.

"Sorry kids. I should have known better." Isaac shook his head as if he was angry with himself and sat down.

Kay put the little statue back on its shelf below the light.

"Hey!" Reece made them jump. "Let's launch the rocket!" He shrugged away the reverie, bravely, Key thought, and grinned with contagious enthusiasm.

Ten minutes had passed since Reece flicked the switch that sent up the rocket, it now flew with the moons through the sky. The three watchers looked at the night-engulfed mountains in the distance, everywhere was completely still - frozen but warm, wild but placid. Isaac took from his pocket a small music box, wound it up and placed it on the seat. What came out was quite unexpected. A stream of chimes and clicks and the whirring of miniature machinery produced a melody. Kay was about to ask Isaac about it but decided against it. She preferred it to be a mystery anyway.

The tinkling sounds of the little box began to slow gradually. Kay shot to her feet and pointed outside.

Out over the mountains a sheet of emerald wine fell from the sky: the diamond rain. It cascaded very slowly, a stream through a dream of night meadows. There were shouts of "Look!" and "Wow!" as the two moons, on their third orbit of the night, seemed to rip through the curtain of diamonds on their relentless journey toward morning. Pillars of precious glass fruit formed over the highest of the ancient mountains and a steam drifted over the plains at the foot of the range. Reece turned to Kay and stared at her. In her eyes shone two tiny versions of the crystal drama outside, reflected yet slowed down ever so slightly.

After half an hour of rain, and ten lifetimes in diamonds, the silent deluge stopped. The three transfixed onlookers stared out of the room. For ten minutes they gazed at the mountains, the music box exhausted and the morning very close.

Kay and Reece followed Isaac out to the rocket which waited obediently a little way from the house. Opening the secret compartment old Isaac pulled out a small case. It contained some of the diamond rain. He raced into the house with it, Kay close behind, and put it in a small freezer.

"Did it work?" Kay asked Isaac.

"It worked." He smiled.

They both sat down among the sepia secrets of Isaac's house and talked until well into morning while Reece pottered around with the rocket outside. It had been an evening of dust runs, moon races and kaleiderscope skies.

* * *

"Kay, are you coming in?" Reece stood at the door of the cabin. Kay was sat looking over the evening flatlands at the distant shimmering lights of Dreamland 8.

A year had passed since that night of diamonds over at Isaac's and Kay and Reece had come to live here in a cabin in the mountains. The mountains where the rains fell. Things hadn't changed much, they still slept in the day and ran the dust at night, chasing the moons through the meadows and the valleys. Not much was seen of Isaac. Although they saw a figure running towards the mountains when the rain last fell and they spotted the lights of his weather rocket swimming through the diamond night.

Tonight they would stay at the cabin, drink wine and watch the bronze world with the marble moons rolling above them and the stars in the dark and dry purple atmosphere. The view from here was pure fiction. It was the clockwork motion of all things night. And this was deep, deep night.

"I think I'll stay out here for a while," Kay replied to Reece who had been standing in the doorway for some time.

"I'll bring out your drink," He walked into the cabin and shouted back, "That wine's about ready to try."

In the distance Kay thought she saw a figure on the plains toward Dreamland 8. She stared, uncertain until Reece brought out the wine he had made and they talked about the rain, Isaac and the future. The future was a long, dark way off. For this summer, at least, they would enjoy the mountains and the nights again.

An hour after going inside to eat, there was a knock on the door startling Kay and Reece to their feet. They hadn't had a single visitor in the months they had lived here. Reece ran to answer.

"Isaac! Isaac! Come in! Come in!"

Kay lit up and ran over to hug Isaac. He was beaming ecstatically, clutching a bag which he placed by the door. "This is a quick visit so I'll have a quick drink," He flashed a toothy grin at Reece, "Some of that wine, eh, Reece?"

Kay removed his sand-blasted coat and pushed him over to the table by the window. "So, Isaac," She sat him down. "How have you been?" Old Isaac looked out of the window to the mountainside, purple-embronzed and night-immersed. "Well," he smiled at Kay, "I've cut my finger twice, tripped down my porch steps and scalded my hand four times on that damn stove!"

Kay let out a s laugh as Reece placed a tall glass of peach wine in front of Isaac's big thankful eyes. He picked it up and stared at the bubbles and the ripe glow. Taking a cautious sip he closed his eyes. "Quite possibly the best peach wine I have ever tasted, " He took another sip and added, "- in the mountains at night." He smirked at Reece. Drinking more of the wine he was quiet for a few moments, pondering and wondering how to say things. He fetched the bag he had brought with him and opened it. Kay and Reece stared. "I will be going away soon." He walked around in circles, up and down the room.

"Where to?" Kay asked.

He paused. "Oh, to Dreamland 1..." More silence. A hand went into his bag. "Kay, these are for you," He placed on the table a figurine, a box, and a necklace. The figurine was The Perception of Aquiel with its self-entwined curves and meanings from upstairs at Isaac's. She picked up the box. It was the music box, also from Isaac's house. "Play this when I've gone." He pointed at it. Kay put her hand on Isaac's arm.

Next was the necklace. On it was a silver locket. She opened it and inside was a tiny gleaming bead. Isaac leaned towards her, "It's a preserved drop of diamond rain. From that night at my place when we sent up the rocket."

Kay said nothing. She just stared, open-mouthed at the extraordinary gift.

"For you, Reece," Isaac handed him a key. "The key to my old garage. Inside is the rocket. It's yours."

"The rocket? Mine?"

"Don't say anything, either of you. I want both of you to accept these gifts without comment. Or I'll be deeply offended."

So as not to offend Isaac, Reece offered him no more wine. Kay kissed Isaac on his cheek, reddened by the long walk up here. He left before they knew what to say or do.

A long or short moment later Kay and Reece went outside. Isaac walked down the long pathway to the foot of the mountains. "Goodbye, Isaac!" they each shouted. "Goodbye!" A waving hand replied.

It was an unexpected visit and some wine and gifts later he was gone, probably not to be seen again. He was an enigma anyway, but this was Isaac at his oddest. They knew not to be worried or confused because Isaac was Isaac. He had to do what he had to do.

The moons rolled overhead and they went inside. Sitting at the table they sipped the peach wine and looked out of the window at the night, half gone. Within an hour the diamond rain fell against their window and on their roof and over the mountains. They clinked glasses and Reece turned out the light. The diamonds fell heavier and a sound began to emerge within the sound of falling rain. It was like vague music or like thousands of watery clicks of the diamond drops running in to each other on their way down from the sky. Kay and Reece looked at each other and both realized what it was they were hearing.

It was the music from Isaac's music box that night of the rain and the rocket. And now it was here. Kay opened it and wound it up. The tiny machinery chimed and clicked.

Inside their house amongst the mountains came the music again of the downpour, wrapping them in the sound of rain and the chimes of diamonds.


Geo Nautica

Geneva Irving opened his eyes to the darkening false sky of Geo Nautica. The local night was descending, absorbing the last glow of orange sun from the sides of buildings and weather masts. The air was warm and a faint cherry breeze touched the quiet streets. He rose from his reclined café seat and waved an apology to the steward who waved back as if used to his customers falling asleep. It was not unusual to find people in the street cafés dozing next to an unstarted book and several empty glasses.

He directed his gaze towards the center of town, now illuminating. Distant buildings were moving up towards the night's projections piercing the supercharged sky.

The ground buzzed with the machineries of nightfall and the city awakened.

An hour's slow walk from the café, Irving drifted among the people of Geo Nautica, the night now fully descended and the city dwellers out in festival force. Each, golden-skinned and finely dressed, wearing proud smiles en route to their evening places in the open street bars and the buildings holding the restaurants and lounges. Some of the taller buildings were still rising, gargantuan and monolithic, slowly moving up central shafts towards their observation positions. They stood black against the background of night sky glow, as long arms holding up gifts to the heavens. And through the elevated buildings wound a chrome river trail for the air transport system. A golden fluid, rippling, surging, propelling teardrop-shaped taxis to their destination while providing the city with a liquid sculpture ten winding miles long.

Irving soaked up the whole show with a dark apprehension. The people and city that surrounded him were in danger from something beyond their experience and understanding. He stopped below a boarding point for transport to take him to a meeting across town. A total change was about to befall the colony and, as Secretary for External Relations, he would be responsible for announcing the future, whatever it might be, to the people of Geo Nautica.

The view from the taxi window was impressive but Geneva Irving shook his head. The announcements and discussions of the next few hours would be arduous and unpleasant and would spell out the only two alternatives available to the council. The first would involve the mass removal of the entire population of Geo Nautica. With its half century of generation and its proud, genteel people, an exodus of twenty five thousand people from their home was not actually possible without outside help, which, to the blue-blooded Geo Nauticans, would not be acceptable.

The second alternative was the integration into society of 'The Fever', the preferred alternative but not a welcomed one.

The Fever was a race. It was the unseen progeny of a xenophobic culture, now dead. A race without form, they were a presence, unobservable and usually undetectable. They would watch and they would move among the hosts in a vile invasion of privacy. It was as if they would invisibly attach themselves to people and shadow an individual before moving on to someone else. And, as an after-effect of their presence, a faint odor would sometimes be left leaving you cold, knowing one had been very near.

The Fever was so called by the people who had been in contact with them and had seen how they infested a place without actually damaging or destroying it. The unfortunate hosts had seen how any attempt to communicate or to show hostility would result in an extreme heat in the immediate vicinity accompanied by a deafening scream that would be heard miles away. The colony would either have to adapt to the invasion or leave.

But not always would the Fever want a colony to remain when they came. It appeared to depend on place and time. The place they chose to occupy was their territory, leased to colonizers for a period of time. Once this had passed, the Fever would return. The colonizers would usually want to stay - if the Fever permitted - having built up a community over decades. Of course, if the Fever wanted them to leave they would.

Council leader, Saul Deeter would announce the decision at the meeting he was now late for. Deeter was the contact with the Fever - the sole communicator between the two races. He would go to the edge of the city and leave in a vessel sent by the Fever. An encounter beyond the sky of Geo Nautica awaited. Representatives of the invaders would be waiting in an area called Captivation at the top of the world where blue turns black.

Outside the taxi's unlimited window, the city whirled by and an ordinary evening in Geo Nautica got under way.

'The days are running away and the future is descending upon us like a cold, black sun. A shadow felt but unseen', announced the Council leader, very quietly.

'We all know why we're here and I am about to tell you of my engagement, yesterday, with them at Captivation. 'Before I do, I can tell you that I did not sleep last night. And I won't tonight.' Saul Deeter stood pale, unmoving and austere in the shadow of pioneer and city founder, Diesel Kane. Or rather his statue. Had he been around now, he would probably have a solution to the situation. Or at least something profound to say that would inspire a plan of action befitting to a great thinker and visionary.

Saul Deeter was neither. But he was an excellent diplomat and ideal for the job that he knew would come to him at some time in his life. Born here in the city, he had grown up in the early days of construction and population with his parents - pupils and followers of Kane. The now white-haired Council leader had learned about the life of the founder and his body of settlers from his parents and from extensive reading. He joined the council with Geneva Irving after the pair had successfully established trade and tourist interests. This lay the foundations for its now famous sky shows and restaurants experienced by the residents and visitors every night.

Irving watched the unflinching Deeter, the shadow of Kane moving down the table as the sky outside grew brighter. The show had begun, both outside and in. Narrow pillars held up the ceiling and an all round view of the city could be seen from here, inside this oval chamber, standing five hundred feet high in the Geo Nautican sky. Green upholstery and carpet lifted the normally mundane tone of proceedings, particularly when set against the oceanic early evening skies or the liquid fire of gone midnight. This, with the chrome river trail running by, was a constant distraction from sometimes mundane formalities.

Mundane formalities, thought Irving, would be welcome against the news about to be disclosed, knowing that with one outcome the plans for mass exodus would be an enormous dark shadow of a task, and next to impossible to execute. With the other, the shadow, as Deeter had put it, would be 'felt but unseen.'

'During my extremely brief meeting with the Fever -' the council leader continued to the downward-looking councillors, '- and they know we call them by that name. They wish, with what I can only describe as a formal and unsettling sincerity, they wish us to stay.'

The room was silent. Dieter looked at his colleagues one by one. 'They will be upon us in less than two months.'

He sat down.

Geneva Irving rose slowly from his seat after a few moments of silent thought. He had known some of what he was about to say would count for either outcome of the meeting at Captivation. And he knew the people of this grand and still young city very well, and that they were aware of the two possible futures. He spoke to the councillors.

'I speak for the people of Geo Nautica when I say that most will stay once the Fever arrive,' He looked out at the city. 'These people have lived through constant change and growth and they are proud of their city. They will adapt, with only the loss of a few, to ignore or even to build on the presence of a new culture - even one so ... different.

'Tomorrow the announcement will be made and I am sure they hope for the situation we are faced with rather than exodus from our home. They will not leave. They will continue to raise this city into the sky and push it over the horizon for a long time to come.' He sat down and turned again to look out at the city. The buildings all around slowly rotated on their skyscraping pillars moving the people through an ocean of pulsing colours and cyclone waves of silver rain flashing across the sky, horizon to horizon. He along with thousands of others, felt as though he stood deep within the waters of an immense ocean staring up at massive forms moving through the dark waves and overwhelming him.

In an hour he would be outside his favorite café, as everyone else was in their favorite place, absorbed by the deep, beautiful Geo Nautican night.

Laura Ray and Dan Villiers lived on the east side in a fine apartment. Tonight they were celebrating twelve years of sharing lives and ten years of living in the arms of Geo Nautica. Prepared and waiting to be enjoyed on a small, ornate balcony was a meal of vast proportions and enough wine for a long evening. Sitting opposite each other they clinked glasses and looked out to their home of a decade. The spires and columns and masts of the buildings were catching the final rays of sun before they rose into the night for the people.

A long year and a half had passed since the announcement from Secretary Irving to the people of the city. He spoke to them of their extraordinary strength and adaptability, of their vivacious tenacity and of their unique future life with an exotic race. Well the exotic race had come and nearly half the population had left in the first few weeks, having failed to cope with the Fever. Laura Ray and Dan Villiers were holding on, along with the remaining population, to their lifestyle where it was possible. They had learned to detect the Fever's presence and information was available to anyone, collected from the experiences of those who had had encounters.

In Laura and Dan's experience small beads of condensation appeared on some surfaces like walls and windows. Also there was the subtle feeling of something rushing past and then holding very still. There would be no breeze or movement - visible or heard - just a cold feeling something was there. But that was only occasional and they knew the Fever were there more often but went undetected.

People dealt with them in different ways. Some had learned to totally ignore feelings and some just ran or closed their eyes, wishing the intruders silently away.

And then there was the foul stench after their departure. Sour and vile. Fortunately, it only lasted a few disgusting seconds before disappearing completely.

Laura and Dan made a toast to the past years and the uncertain future.

'We're doing alright, aren't we, Dan?' Laura looked into her glass at the reflection of fireworks in the sky above. The evening's aerial gala had begun, just as excessive as ever.

Dan looked out over the city, at the some deserted, some alive buildings and put his hand on Laura's hand. 'We're the future, you know. We'll have as good a life as any Geo Natican ever did.'

Laura nodded and smiled across the table.

'The Fever are just an inconvenience, a subtle pain in the neck once in a while. It just takes understanding rather than fear and we both know that. That's why we're still enjoying this.' He motioned with his glass to the food and to the view from their balcony above the small, night street.

Laura breathed out a long troubled sigh. 'I saw Jane Kovak today. She said she had an encounter last night. A serious one.'

Dan looked away into the city.

'It was about eleven o'clock and she was taking a shower,' Laura continued, 'The odor, the sick, sick smell appeared and she turned off the shower and covered herself, even though she knew it must have gone. But then, Dan, those marble tiles she has, they started to crack one by one in a line across the bathroom. She said she just huddled up in the middle of the floor until it stopped. It did and the smell came again,' Laura tapped her glass nervously. 'She had the tiles ripped out today.'

They stared at the food in silence for a long moment.

'We should stick together, we should all stick together.' Dan poured some wine.

They started their meal as the sky exploded above. Tonight was not going to involve discussing the Fever, again, as with every night. There would be no down talk from here on, they both silently agreed. The illusion of rain passed above and through the city as they drank down the wine. A teardrop taxi sailed the chrome river trail taking its passengers to their special places.

The night sound of fireworks was then suddenly broken by a voice, the booming and echoing voice of Secretary Irving ricocheting around the city. He stood at a window across town, unseen, and spoke to the city. Laura and Dan looked at each other. This was unexpected, Irving had not spoken in public for over a year.

'I have a message from our visitors,' He paused to get the attention of the population. The fireworks stopped. 'After a brief meeting, just a few minutes ago at Captivation, I am pleased to tell you that the Fever - ' he emphasized the word, 'Fever', '...will be leaving us. Laura and Dan stared at each other in the long silence that followed throughout the city. They turned in disbelief towards the council tower, from which Irving was speaking. He continued, 'Tomorrow they will be gone. I will speak to you afterwards.'

And that was it. It was a brief message, and straight to the point. Irving knew what the people wanted to hear and dancing around the issue, in the manner he had been trained, was unnecessary. The news was both unexpected and unexplained. The Fever had an unknown agenda and Irving had no wish to know it. He was just glad they were going. In some ways he felt responsible for the people, having announced the disturbing news originally. He had had his share of unpleasant encounters and had lost friends when people left the city after the silent invasion. Now, though, he would go out into the celebrations and enjoy the city living its last night in the grip of an unseen and life-choking fever.

Geneva Irving closed his eyes. Drink in hand he leaned back in his favourite seat outside his favorite café. All around him were the sounds of Geo Nautica being made by the things and people of Geo Nautica. There was the whoosh and buzz of a giant teardrop piercing the night air as it cruised the chrome river overhead and curved off towards the centre of town. Below him rumbled the machineries that moved the night buildings, whirring and humming and quietly beating, waiting to push the people-filled dark giants into the night sky. Residents hurried and strolled past on their way to their unimportant but important night places, with their close, precious friends.

Some people had returned in the last months since the Fever left. But the ones enjoying themselves the most, with the broadest smiles and the loudest laughing, were those who stayed and lived through the invisible occupation of the city. They were changed people. Greetings and conversation between complete strangers was now common courtesy and people all over the city talked and ate the night away more than ever in the new cafés springing up. There was talk of pasts and futures and journeys and family but never of the Fever. It seemed almost taboo to talk of the recent past and its weird demons, although it would no doubt be a subject for the future, once the memory was a little more distant.

Irving nodded to himself, proud to be part of the restored community, here in the new Geo Nautica. This was the life he had always wanted and these were the people he had always wanted to be with - alive in the excited hive of a reborn city.

He took a drink and placed his glass on the marble table at his side which was glowing yellow and pink from fireworks high above.

His eyes fixed on the drink. Beads of water began to appear on the sides of the glass. His eyes narrowed. He looked over his shoulder, took a deep breath and sat back. It was probably nothing.

He didn't finish his drink.



Music © Steve Buick