A CAUSE for Concern*

There is a fine and delicate art to getting another’s attention without making any noise or movement. During that particular lesson, however, I was probably doodling in the margins and gazing out of the window.

My entourage had increased, severely. My outer protection ring of CAUSE had its own outer ring of Daleks – calling into question just how many of us were really being escorted.

While we went, down identical bronze corridor after identical bronze corridor**, I did my best to telepathically call upon each of the five heroes, to no avail.

The Captain was too close-minded. Spark Plug either didn’t notice or couldn’t. Trying to mentally tune into Ethereal was like trying to watch a billion different TV shows at once. Unnamed Owl had reverted back to its original size and was now about as useful as, well, a regular sized owl. And Angel Demon’s telepathic mind told me not politely to “f*ck off.”

Well then. Surrounded by potential allies and yet still going it alone. Some things really don’t change.

Our armoured escorts reached a large bronze door that split into equal segments and slid out of view, revealing the ship’s bridge on the other side.

I was about to gasp, but just managed to stop myself. Such sounds of surprise are quite unbecoming for someone constantly acting like he knows what he’s doing.

I’d been on this ship before. Still didn’t know its name, and would be forgiven for not realising earlier on given the conformity of Dalek architects; but I’d definitely been here before. There was a large, gaping hole in one side, with the eternity of space just beyond. Rather than repair the damage, some unit(s) had set up a clear force-field around the hole. It was blue-tinged, transparent and constantly flickering. I didn’t trust it even a little bit.

I understood, though. A rebellion faction can hardly call in to home for a repair job…

“Dalek Elder!” I called. Every pair of eyes belonging to CAUSE turned to me in alarm. “Your package has been delivered.”

The ship’s bridge was a large, bronze, domed room split into two levels. We stood on the bottom , looking up at the mezzanine level – a control deck, with long windows and panels built for sink plungers. A Dalek that had been looking out towards space turned to face us.

Black metal. Platinum accessories. Red eyestalk lamp. And two guns. I make my enemies properly.

Also looking a bit more scratched and tarnished, given my last exploit on this ship.

DE: “OUR SCANNERS INDICATE THAT YOU ARE WITHOUT YOUR TARDIS.”

I was back in my element again; I strolled out of the circles, considering CAUSE as little more than a five-piece set of lounge furniture. The other Daleks twitched, but would not fire without the Elder’s command.

“Nope, so you can relax your tentacles. Nothing’s going to blast another hole in the wall,” I replied, joining their master on the upper level. Other machines who were flying the oversized craft clocked me with their eyestalks, but continued working. “Just me this time. Well, if you ignore your little…” I glanced their way, “taxi service.”

CAUSE had lost their composure. None of them had expected their charge to walk towards their kidnapper; much less address them like an old acquaintance.

I lowered myself down to sit on the edge of the upper level, my legs dangling and swaying in the air.

“What’s this about then, Elder?” I asked upwards. “Since when do you lot go in for delegation and contracts? All a bit Vogons, if you ask me.”

DE: “YOU ARE GUILTY OF THE THEFT OF OUR TRANSMITTER AND THE ATTACK ON OUR HULL.”

Several eye-stalks roamed the way of a very large, and very crude, window.

DE: “THE DAMAGES YOU CAUSED” – I winked at the team – “HAVE LIMITED OUR MOVEMENTS.”

“Yeah, well, you left me on a cliff-hanger, so, I guess we both have our reasons to be angry. I mean, yours is hardwired, but there we are. Also you didn’t want the transmitter back, did you? Only I got rid of it after my plan worked. I presume you heard the song?”

DE: “YES.”

“Did you like it?”

DE: “NO.”

“Ah well. It wasn’t meant for you, anyway.”

CS: “Excuse me?”

A Timelord and a Dalek looked down upon someone, in unison. I can’t blame the Captain for flinching.

CS: “If this matter is now resolved, we shall be on our way.”

“I suppose you did pay them up front,” I commented, absently. “Which I still don’t really get, by the way.”

DE: “WE DEVISED AND UNITED THIS TEAM HAVING DRAWN INSPIRATION FROM YOUR OWN MIND.”

I got angrily to my feet. “Wait, whoa, back up there, Elder Scrolls.” I stared down the barrel of its red-lit eyestalk. it was like glaring into hell. “You put them together? You picked a packet of five weirdoes because you thought I’d like them?”

DE: “A RANDOMISED AND CAPTIVATING LURE, THE LIKES OF WHICH A CERTAIN ECCENCTRIC AND…. IMMATURE TIMELORD COULD NOT IGNORE.”

“Ouch.”

DE: “I ADVISED YOU OF THIS PREVIOUSLY. WE HAVE RECORDS OF ALL GALLIFREYAN EXTREMISTS.”

“Even about my-”

DE: “UNCONVENTIONALITY, YES.”

I was being read for filth by a motherf**king Dalek!

Which I suppose would just further prove my bizarreness…

Dammit.

“So what about them?” I asked, not-so-subtly trying to change the subject.

The Dalek Elder paused. I believe if it had owned hands, it would have put one to an equally non-existent chin.

DE: “IT STANDS TO REASON THAT THE TRAP HAS WORKED.”

The five CAUSE members brightened, slightly. I did not.

DE: “THEY ARE NO LONGER NECESSARY.”

Daleks. Masters of universal conquest, and terrifyingly dead-pan deliveries.

The ring of Daleks that had led CAUSE here all turned inwards, facing them – more than a dozen guns were suddenly pointed their way. They huddled closer together, back to back, with Unnamed Owl hooting indignantly.

More and more Daleks joined in, increasing the numbers to this firing squad.

I watched the targets. They’d drugged me, stolen me, hauled me through realities and across the universe, and delivered me to one of the deadliest races in existence. I had given them the chance to escape, and they hadn’t taken it. They had brought it upon themselves.

I could just let it happen…

DE: “EXTERMINATE.”

Couldn’t I?

HH

* I won’t apologise for the pun title but will offer warning that it won’t be the last – R

** Daleks do, against popular belief, actually have architects. What they lack in imagination they more than make up for in dedication. Storage bay? Bronze. Ship’s bridge? Bronze. Toilets? Not applicable.***

*** That said, one designer Dalek did suffer an emotional and computational error, leading it to glide into rooms and declare it all SO LAST CYCLE.” Skaro had never seen such a swift and all-inclusive extermination before…

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Escorted

It would have been a good day for laughter. My sense of derision has a fast-route to my sense of humour, and positively travelling at light speed when confronted with a brightly-coloured male cheerleader, an unfinished demon, a ghost, and a dwarf, accompanied by an oversized owl.

Oh yes. I watched its party trick, at long last. Unnamed Owl went from regular to XXXXXL with no break in between. Anyone blinking at the right moment would have believed another owl had materialised.

And all of them taking themselves so 100% seriously. I couldn’t wait to witness what all of their respective “superpowers” turned out to be. I would have loved to giggle myself into regeneration. Which, given the previous 12 uses, I’d have been fine with.

But my first proper, full-bodied laugh in ages was choked and chucked into the fire in the instant we stepped off the ship. I was flanked on all sides – Captain and AD in front, Spark Plug and Ethereal either side, massive owl behind. Whatever landing bay or docking station we’d entered, it was lit very marginally by the internal glows of the Riptide. Beyond that short radius of light, the room was entirely dark.

I stepped off the access hatchway onto a surface of smooth, clean metal, and instantly froze – then got enveloped by a soft belly when the owl didn’t stop fast enough.

“Turn back,” I said, quietly, once free of feathers. I sniffed the air. It wasn’t fresh. Smelt faintly of ozone and oxidizing metal, like an atmosphere heavy with old pennies.

CS: “Problem, Timelord?”

“Are you absolutely, entirely certain, that this is where you’re meant to be?”

AD went to grab me, thought better of it, and gestured to get walking again. I refused to move.

“Because I don’t know what undesirable types you’ve survived during your travels through the under-cities of the universe, but I can tell you that this,” I knocked a foot against the floor, “is a Dalek ship.”

The floor was gently humming, alive with static electricity. A distant and dull woom-woom echoed through the walls, to punctuate the shared, digital heartbeat of several thousand death machines. No other ship makes that noise*.

My use of the five-lettered D word had merited an overwhelming lack of reaction.

“You must have heard of them?”

SP: “‘Course we ‘ave.” The dwarf punched behind my left knee and I took an unwilling step forward.

“Then you know what they are? What they’re capable of?”

AD: “I’ve seen worse.” A very pointed look came my way.

CS: “We have had little time to contemplate their existence, having been preoccupied since our introduction……two years ago?”

Our landing bay suddenly wasn’t quite as dark. More than a dozen, eye-level blue lamps switched on in unison against the blackness. They cast little light of their own. Not nearly enough to see the rest of them.

Darkness truly can be populated by nightmares.

I spoke barely above a whisper. Their acoustic range is incredible and infallible, but, old habits. “Please. Listen to me. Get back in your ship, and run. As many tears as it takes.”

SP: “Yer call tha’ beggin’ fer yer life?”

“No. I’m doing this to save yours.”

UO: “Hoo?” I noted that the larger owl had a deeper voice.

“I’ve been requested by the Daleks. To kill me, most likely, and that’s fine. Probably even justified. But you’ve heard the phrase ‘don’t shoot the messenger’?”

CS: “So?”

“They haven’t.”

No-one moved, and yet, I would swear I felt a distinct shift in doubt. No member of CAUSE could look anyone else in the eye.

“Please. Go. I’ll stay with them, accept whatever hand I’ve been dealt – as always – and you get to leave. Live the rest of your lives telling people that you outran the most dangerous race in the universe.”

AD: “We did better than that.”

I met the Demon’s gaze, and they glared back.

AD: “We kidnapped one.”

CS: “Escorted.”

“Listen to me!” I raised my voice, and the silence. It could not settle back. The room was then filled with whirring motors, and the blue lamps drew smoothly closer. “Daleks don’t make deals!”

CS: “Perhaps not with the likes of you.”

He turned to address our audience. One of them had broken ranks and glided into the meagre light, revealing the pepper-pot design which every Timelord knows all too well. Gleaming bronze and gold coloured metals, eyestalk, dome lamps, egg whisk and sink plunger. Literal recipe for disaster.

CS: “You may inform your leader that the Timelord known as Homeless Helper has been acquired.”

The rest of the blue lamps grew ever closer and thus slightly larger. The room was then intermittently illuminated by their flashing dome bulbs.

“YOU WILL FOLLOW.” An orchestra of chainsaws on chalkboards then twisted into speech. Never fails to set my teeth on edge and my eardrums on fire.

As a bizarre unit of six, we started to walk again. Whatever was due to happen, I wanted CAUSE to realise they’d brought it upon themselves.

Then again, Daleks are masters of helping their victims realise that on their own…

HH

* I did stress the importance of learning ships by their interior.

A Demon’s Debrief

Croatia is gone. The wrecked hotel is gone. And I am returned to the Riptide, flat on my back, with CAUSE gazing down at me with concern.

Not companionable concern, of course. More the type of concern typically felt when the most valuable merchandise has been dropped; an unsettling sensation that some digits just dripped off the asking price.

AD: “You kept your eyes open, didn’t you?”

“Was I not supposed to?” I was suffering a headache, some almighty retina burn and clouded vision; that or the lights had fused.

CS: “You admitted to having traversed dimensional tears before. Normally, it is the expectation that experienced persons only kept their eyes open the first time.”

“I don’t tend to go in for ‘normal expectations.'”

I sat up, CAUSE leaned back.

I studied them all as if seeing them for the first time. During our excursion, I hadn’t seen the future. The divide between realities had temporarily displaced me and I’d lived it. Something had happened was going to happen to this lot*. All of them except:

“Quentin?”

A vibrantly decorated, physically substantial boot was planted against my windpipe, and pushed decisively downwards. My head met the floor, having already been damaged by an earlier wall. With spots exploding in my eyes, the Captain loomed over me.

CS: “What did you just call me?”

I made a sound like a broken whistle, and – not for the first time – idly wondered why there are morons in existence who use strangling as an interrogation device. Next, we’ll blind me and then stick me in front of a line up…

CS: “Use those two syllables in my presence again and I shall relieve you of your spine, via your mouth.”

The Captain removed his heavy footing, and he, Spark Plug and the owl exited the bridge. Ethereal did and didn’t do the same. Only Angel Demon remained, staring at me with an even greater intensity than before.

They’d known my name. Now, inexplicably, I had one of theirs.

AD: “What did you see in there?”

I coughed like a lifelong smoker and forced my eyes to stop streaming. In response, the bridge of my nose started to itch.

“You should already know,” I muttered, hoarsely.

AD: “Memories gained between realities are unreadable.” Spoken in the condescending tone adopted for a slow audience.

“Because they are not memories,” in an equally derogatory tone. A future lived is a foresight, not a memory, and the mind will eagerly delete it for arriving in the wrong order.

I rubbed my forehead. All well and good saying that, but, Timelord brains aren’t exactly prone to losing things.

Sudden additional pressure clasped around my neck; effortless strength lifted me upright and off the ground. Angel Demon had shifted into their latter category. A solitary, leathery wing burst free from the right shoulder blade, the same side as the arm holding me. Their face became a darker shade of red, and fangs crept over the bottom lip.

Five additional pressure points in my neck announced the arrival of claws.

Bad day to be HH’s neck…

AD: “What. Did. You. See?”

My eyes trailed upwards to the cockpit screen, and the depths of black space beyond, fully aware that it wasn’t “space” at all. No stars, no planets, no anything. We were no longer adrift, I can tell, the Riptide has mass again. We had torn through the universe, and landed.

AD squeezed slightly, bringing my attention back around. My concentration has never been well prioritised. Threats upon my life do usually lead to an inspection of the local scenery. I’d like to die somewhere nice, after all.

I inhaled, badly, wheezed instead and AD relaxed their grip a fraction.

“Ff…future.”

AD: “Whose future?”

“Mine.”

AD: “You don’t have one.”

I hadn’t been kidnapped/escorted for a catch-up, then.

“Nor…”

I reclaimed another slight percentage of my windpipe.

“Nor do you.”

Angel Demon snarled; a deep, guttural disturbance in the air, a sound that threatened torturous years of darkness. Their mouth was now mostly teeth.

My headache was worsening and foggy vision was drifting towards opaque. I’d had enough. Both my hands latched onto their muscular forearm, a limb that felt stronger than most steel girders, and activated Greed( ).

Angel Demon howled and stumbled backwards, staring in horror at their arm. I dropped the few inches to ground level, rebalanced, and rubbed my neck. My hand came away with the faintest smears of blood.

“Con…congratulations,” I croaked, “your right arm is now…” – a pause for the QUARK report to kick in – “three point eight years older than your left.”

Angel Demon was still transfixed by their limb. There was no tissue damage, scarring, burn marks, nothing; no evidence to show I’d done anything. Yet, the rush of energy and input from my right wrist confirmed that I had. It wasn’t nearly as bad as stealing life from the robots, but my veins were pulsing with energy and I could feel myself trembling. I felt more alive, probably because I ever-so-slightly was.

AD: “What did you do to me?”

“I don’t know.”

They glared back, in a mixture of amazed anguish, knowing that I was telling the truth.

“Did it hurt?”

AD: “You really don’t know?”

And in that moment, demonic entity or not, I saw upon them the same expression as Aloy’s. Fear, with none of its complexities. After two years of dedicated hunting after me, suddenly Angel Demon appeared eager to inhabit any space that was as far away from me as possible.

I’d frightened an entity that would call perdition their paradise. I almost apologised; when the Captain called out from the next level down.

CS: “AD! Bring the cargo. Then we can get the hell on with our lives.”

A void of silence reopened at the end of his sentence, containing just myself and the demon, staring each other down.

“This price, whatever it is, that I have on my head? Is it worth it?”

I’d love to know how much I’m worth. Who wouldn’t?

“You were each given a gift, weren’t you?” I asked, remembering the jewel tucked away in Spark Plug’s denim pocket. “What was yours?”

AD: “I get to do the universe a favour.” Angel Demon did their best to compose themselves. “Saving it from you.

They reverted back to their more ‘conservative’ form. I watched them debate securing my arm, an idea that was instantly dismissed. AD pointed to the door and followed me out of the cockpit.

Into a future that none of us would enjoy…

HH

* I also get a holiday to Croatia. So…silver linings and all that.

Kupari Bay

…a future…….somewhere near Dubrovnik, on the coast of the Adriatic Sea…

A calm sea broke upon a calmer shore, forever returning and receding like a mind unable to ignore one particular memory. Its dull crash upon the coastline still reached me, standing on the top floor. There is little noise besides, here, to compete for my attentions; excluding the occasional, errant seagull, borne aloft overhead on ocean winds, splitting the silence with each intonation. Since carrying a gun, I have often needed opportunity to practice my aim…

I sniffed, breathing deep through the nose, enjoying the fresh taste after so long deprived of sea-air. It smelled clear, of salt, of sand, of the promises of tropical storms.

And one other thing…

“You’ve inherited many good things in your time, Captain. A smoking habit is not one of them.”

I turned around to the sound of footsteps. Captain Sceptre, once such a proud, colourful and somewhat respected scrap of personality, shambled in like a man late for a funeral and dressed accordingly. A hi-tar cigarette drooped from an equally droopy side of his mouth.

CS: “That dwarf left so many of the damn things lying around. Might as well dispose of ’em. One at a time.”

“You’re even starting to sound like him.”

CS: “Don’t say his name.”

“I wasn’t going to.”

I looked back out to sea, the Captain standing alongside me on the room’s edge. He scanned about the place, around and behind us, with a general aura that was less than impressed.

“I am sorry, Quentin.”

CS: “So you’ve said a hundred times before.” He tapped the cigarette, scattering ash. “Why don’t you tell me what we’re doing here?” His gaze trailed outwards, to the south. “Especially when there is a better hotel or six, right over there?”

I did my own swift survey of the surrounding area.

“This used to be a hotel, once. Then, it was a shelter for soldiers. Now…”

Windowless panes, crumbling walls, nothing but sunlight to greet us – a lot more filtering in than the architect had originally intended.

A place can feel dead, much like an ex-living thing. The Captain and I held a meet within the insides of a corpse, just one of metals and brick.

Quentin, nee Captain Sceptre, flicked the finished cigarette outside. It was an easy shot. The whole wall was missing.

CS: “And I used to be someone. What’s your point?”

“It was bombed,” I said, oblivious, “in a short war that made little sense to all involved, much like every conflict to come before and after it.

“And rather than tear this place down when the war ended, they kept it. Neat, don’t you think? Rather than bury their wounded past and move on, they decided to own it, make it part of the landscape, something to be seen. Croatia wears its battle scars with pride.”

When I consulted my one-man-audience, he was preoccupied with commencing a fresh cigarette. Some people are just hard to please.

Or set to grieve.

CS: “Fascinating.”

His first inhalation started a coughing fit; the first this plaza had heard in several decades. I ignored him, watching the boats below us stream across the waves. One caught my eye, due north. Tourists, probably, heading to Dubrovnik. Where all the “interesting” stuff and excitement is.

“Isn’t it just.”

I like coming to places like these. The literal spoils of war. Berlin. Moscow. Vietnam. Obviously, I visit at a time after the conflict has burned out and these monuments remain. 1970s Vietnam, for example, is a much more stressful visit than, say, 2970. The history and the stories remain, though. The structures. The bullet holes. The reminder, and honour, for those that fought to those who lucky enough not to.

I wonder what Silent Plains will look like, one day…

CS: “C’mon, old man, we are we here? War tour? Boat rides? Croatian stag do?”

I regarded the ravaged hotel room again. Collapsed walls meant I could see through several suites at once; similar situation with rotting floors. But no matter the damage, the decay, the evidence of entropy, the Kupari Plaza was still standing – which thankfully meant, so were we.

“A preserved piece of the past, in a world that has moved on.” I met his gaze. “I offer you your own piece of the past, Captain. A return to your halcyon days of jubilation, exultation, and desecration of the known universe.

“I need you to kidnap someone for me.”

CS: “Escort.”

“Escort someone for me.”

CS: “No. Do it yourself.”

“The very fact that I’m asking you to do it should suggest that’s not possible.”

CS: “I won’t.”

“And yet you accepted my summons, after all this time.”

The Captain shrugged.

CS: “Little else better to do.”

“Then here’s a job for you.”

CS: “I don’t do that anymore.”

“Not even for the right price?”

I withdrew my hand from an inner coat pocket, clutching an old relic. Another piece of the past, a symbol of a better time. A bit tarnished now, scratched in places, and missing both of its jewels. One was yellow. The other had been pink.

Its owner eyed it hungrily, incapable of looking anywhere else.

CS: “HH?”

I studied my companion with great interest. He had spoken without moving his lips, and thrown his voice to a point somewhere above us. My eyes roamed the ceiling, finding nothing but fades and holes, and went back to the Captain.

“Did you just hear something?”

I pressed a hand briefly to my head, unwilling to reduce my grip on the sceptre, lest its previous owner got grabby. A strange rushing sensation had just passed me by, like an airlock slamming open and then shut again. I shook my head.

“Where were we?”

…….the plaza would be quiet again soon…….

Tearing the Universe a New One

Will I ever stop caring?

I was playing cat’s cradle, lost in thought, finding it easier to redirect string than my own synapses. I’d just finished a Jacob’s Ladder when the ceaseless, background tremor of the Riptide  spiked; not unlike the full-form lurch usually felt when turning a car’s ignition key. A tell-tale sign that we were getting ready to leave, except this ship wasn’t about to shoot forwards into the galaxy. It was about to tear through it.

I heaved myself out of my deck chair, returning a very old and ragged loop of string to my pocket, and took an inwards, upwards stroll, back to the Riptide helm.

Given my enjoyment of 4D cocktails, most corridors required numerous attempts. The less said about stairs, the better.

CAUSE had taken to the controls of the Riptide. Four pilot chairs in pairs of two, one seat each, with Unnamed Owl on Spark Plug’s shoulder, and Ethereal occupying hers only half of the time. I couldn’t decide which of them I wanted to stand next to the least.

Thus I awkwardly hovered near the door.

CS: Prep the blades.

AD: Disengaging shields.

UO: Hoo.

SP: Blades prepped.

E: Howling inferno. Successful flight. No result. Wrong place. All-you-can-eat Lebanese buffet. Wrong time.

“Ooh,” said I, “could we try and aim for parallels 2 and 5, please?”

The not-so-good Captain swivelled around towards me.

CS: “It is highly recommended you adopt a braced position.”

“This isn’t my first time through a dimensional tear, my dear, and even then I didn’t have the added protection of being inside a ship. I’ll be fine.”

CS: “As you wish,” he said, adjusting various controls on the arm-rest console. “Our brief is to deliver you alive. Our client said nothing about your skeleton remaining intact.”

All five members – with one having difficulties – settled into their chairs. I heard Spark Plug wince when the owl dug its claws in.

SP: “Let ‘er rip.”

Out the window screen, ten terrible barbed blades, hooked, mean-looking things, lashed outwards on segmented arms – as though the Riptide was coughing up a kraken. In nearly-beautiful synchronicity, they shined like moonlight, formed into one gigantic scythe, and swiped at the universe from right to left.

I was about to congratulate the dwarf on a reasonably-well-executed pun, when three things occurred in quick succession, so much so they were almost in the same instant.

A rift/tear/slash/whatever was carved in the skin of reality.

The ship lurched forwards.

I did the opposite.

My skull connected with the wall behind me, and colour exploded into nothingness…

HH

HH AD

Ethereal had, for reasons literally known only to her, whipped up some 4D cocktails. These mind-buggering beverages are so called because the act of drinking one is to experience taste, texture, smell and song, all at once. Whatever the mixture, it’s the latter which messes with the head the most. I started sipping my Pina Colada and each time heard an extra little snippet.

and getting caught in the

She had asked me “would you prefer an American Pie?” but while I can take the whiskey, I’m not so fond of the rye.

Below the bubble-glassed cockpit and just above the ‘Rip’ mechanisms, I was sitting in a red-and-white striped deck chair likely stolen from Brighton beach, on the force-fielded open-air top deck. Gazing out into eternity.

In my hand I held my chosen drink, occasionally sipping a potent mixture of whiskey, vodka, lager and cider.

I get knocked down

And with a mix like that, it’s easy to see why.

I leant over and settled down my glass, pausing before sitting back upright. “Those wings are stealthy, I’ll give you that.”

Angel Demon had settled into the empty deck chair beside me.

AD: “You cannot have known-”

“No, of course not. I always set up two chairs when I’m by myself.”

Their silence rivalled the one of the void beyond the force field.

HH: You returned, then.
AD: We’ve hunted you for two years, I believe I am entitled to know why.
HH: With your ‘defects’ I imagine you already do.
AD: Is that what you call them?
HH: Spark Plug’s words, not mine. I’ve yet to figure his defect.
AD: And mine?
HH: Extraordinary telepathy, for one.
AD: Not quite.
HH: Regale me, then. Prove me wrong. I can tell you’re dying to try.
AD: I would never die to do anything.

I had never heard something so human from somebody who wasn’t.

AD: Telepathy treats the mind as an open book. My ability gives me most of the chapters, but not all of them.
HH: Depending on the main character, I suppose?
AD: Correct. I see the good in people, and the bad, and all the memories attached. Judgement without confession.
HH: So you can’t see, for example, the time I wandered deserts in isolation?
AD: No, but I can see memories of genocide. That’s memories, plural.
HH: You be so much fun at parties.
AD: Can you relate, Timelord? I find you drinking, as I thought I might.
HH: What can I say? Ethereal mixes a mean liver-killer.
AD: Typical habit of a haunted soul.
HH: Maybe you’re right. And y’know, it’s even better when left alone. Doesn’t come with a side order of judgement.
AD: I won’t apologise.
HH: No, of course not. Once you know someone well enough to apologise, it’s too late. You’ve already read them. A truth, once known, cannot be forgotten. Though I admit, drinks like this do help.

I get up again, you

AD: It is, as I believe goes the expression, my ‘thing’.
HH: Mmm. And how often do you have to say that?
AD: Not. Most can assume it from my name.
HH: Is that so? My initial reaction was white-wings and halo on one shoulder and red horn and pitchfork on the other.
AD: Angels and demons are the embodiment of judgement, both the act and result.
HH: And yet only one type is usually considered to be correct.
AD: They are both correct, neither assume otherwise.
HH: I do. Guess that puts me on the middle ground, huh? Never entirely sure what’s right but I am working on it.
AD: You used to know.
HH: I used to be a soldier. Soldiers aren’t there to consider right and wrong. They follow orders from someone who decides for them.
AD: They can still change their minds.
HH: As I said. Used to be a soldier.
AD: In the great Time War.
HH: Humph.
AD: I said something funny?
HH: I’ve yet to describe a war as ‘great’.
AD: And yet you won.
HH: No-one wins a war, but I survived them both.
AD: Ah yes. Another two words that fester in your mind. Silent Plains.
HH: Silent Plains was more than just a war. It was a place where over a hundred different races collided and killed in the name of something none of them, nobody, truly understands. I was conscripted and commanded to make sure nobody ever reached it. If the Timelords couldn’t know, nor could anyone else.
AD: You were born in battle, and have lived the life of a soldier, ever since.
HH: I deserted. Tell me, confessional buddy, was that right? Does that make me redeemable?
AD: It makes you a coward.
HH: Duck you. You don’t know a damn thing about me.
AD: I know how many people you’ve killed.
HH: Then you should also know how many I’ve saved.
AD: An imbalanced ratio.
HH: Give me time.
AD: How much, Timelord? How many years of penance and self-punishment will it take to undo your lifetimes of bloodshed?
HH: However many I have left to give.
AD: Humph.
HH: Now I’m funny too?
AD: You want so badly to be good, but you don’t know what that is. I don’t believe you’ll ever know.
HH: Nor will you. You’re colour-blind, seeing people as one or the other.
AD: I see people for what they truly are.

‘re never gonna keep me down

HH: Whatever. I’ve just finished my drink, and decided that I don’t care. The opinion of a morally misguided wanderer, friends with a dream and an owl, matters very little to me.
AD: Change the owl for a penguin and you describe yourself. There’s your problem, Homeless Helper. There’s what keeps your good and bad side so at odds.
HH: And that would be…
AD: No matter how much you force yourself otherwise, you do care. About all of it. You. Care.

Angel Demon stood.

HH: Hunting me, for two years. I thought you wanted to know why?
AD: I do. I just needed you to keep talking while I read you.
HH: And was it worth it?

Angel Demon vacated the deck, no doubt satisfied in their revenge over my disarming knowledge, earlier. Swaying slightly, I upended my drink, yearning for whatever drops were left. The war veteran with a drinking habit. I must’ve been front of the queue when they were handing out clichés…

I returned the glass to the ground, then addressed the entity I’d been ignoring.

“Will I ever stop caring?”

E: “Yes.”

I waited for the other answers, the other versions, but there were none. My hearts beat a little faster.

“When?”

E: “Three endings and the last is your own. It happens before then.”

And then Ethereal was gone again.

I trailed off, gazing into the distance, staring into the infinity of space.

And I felt as though it was staring back.

HH

The Riptide

As any hitchhiker will tell you, and as any affluent moron will point-blank deny, there are many and plenty of ways of traversing our known universe. TARDISes use timelines and their adjoining vortex like a series of back-alleys and cut-throughs. Improbability Driven ships will take any number of scenic routes, yet always arrive slightly before you left – and you may no longer be the same species, gender, or even still alive. Dreadnought-class starships employ such monstrous, matter-splicing engines, they leave a trail of distortion in their wake, like a power-boat navigating a narrow stream.

In short, some means of travel aren’t harmful to the infinite and airless environment, and some of them are.

CAUSE’s ship was in a new class altogether.

I stood at the front edge of the cockpit, looking down. Angel Demon stood nearby behind me. I think they could tell I wasn’t impressed. A blind and deaf person could have probably known that, but, I suspected that AD had an advantage.

First point of business, though…

I said something undecipherable, unclenched my teeth, and tried again. “I haven’t seen one of those in a while,” I said, alluding to the business end of one ungodly mover.

Angel Demon’s response was too proud for my liking. “Less than a hundred were ever made, and all were subsequently banned.”

And rightly so, I thought/thundered internally. “What did they call this one?”

AD: “Spark Plug has removed its original name…and its original owners. We call it the Riptide.”

It deserved something a bit more devastating. Not a mere riptide. A planet-scale tsunami.

When I last saw a ship of this design, I was wearing another face, and not for nothing chasing after it; though frankly it would have been easier to hunt down a motorbike with a bulldozer. Ships like this redefine words like ‘nimble’ and ‘agile’, not to mention ‘immoral’ and ‘unnecessary’. They work by a system of Devastation Devices, referred to in the Timelord dictionary as DO NOT TOUCH.

I looked down again, at the Riptide’s jaw. From here, a series of antimatter blades are unleashed to tear at the fabrics of space and time, with the skillset of an amateur surgeon wielding a blunt axe. A crude rift is cut into reality, and the ship drifts through the damage, arriving at wherever it needs to be. Why go around the forest, when cutting and forging a new path is so much faster?

“You are too quick to judge, Timelord. You attempt passivity, yet beneath it all, your primary, reactive emotion is infallibly anger.”

“You’re flying an illegal and outmoded space-ship that wreaks havoc on causality whenever you so much as glance at the accelerator.” Abandoned my people as I have, I still feel these urges of preservation. “I’m not the one in the wrong, here.”

Angel Demon took to some controls, and projected a 3D image to fill the room. In a grid of blue lines forming a shape, I finally got my first glimpse of the Riptide entire. It was long, low, obsessively streamlined and basically resembled an F1 car with barbed-wire wrapped around its nose. Angel Demon flipped the projection, so we could see its rear.

AD: “Tell me what you see.”

I peered forwards at the blue-lit image, screwing up my face in concentration. An F1 car…with modifications at the back…

Moments later my anger diminished, so quickly I imagine Angel Demon would see steam pouring off me.

“Is that-?”

AD: “An additional design, imagined by Ethereal, realised by Spark Plug.”

I gave a low whistle. “That dwarf knows his stuff.”

Tacked onto the back-end of the Riptide, like a home-made spoiler, was a different mechanism to counteract the damage. Another set of blades, but with what appeared to be lassos, and matter-making materials.

Like a needle and thread…

“So,” I said, slowly, “a serial killer at one end, and a seamstress at the other?”

AD: “If you like. Our design lets us fly through the rip we have made, and mends the damage while we pass.”

“You couldn’t fix all of it.”

AD: “You may be right. But, it is better than nothing.”

I studied the image again, of the double-ended space-ship, and glanced sideways at my second guide.

“Maybe I misjudged you guys.”

Angel Demon switched off the projection. “Maybe you didn’t,” they said, turning away.

I determinedly faced outwards, capturing another perspective of the universe. “And you’d be the best to know, right? Ay Dee?”

They looked back, with something in their eyes that was more their last name than first.

“You’re not the only one on-board with what simpletons would call ‘telepathy’. I felt you knocking about up here,” I flicked my left temple, disturbing my top hat, “moving the furniture about.”

I didn’t turn to look at them, but their reflection folded both pairs of arms.

“Tell me,” I said, glancing down, “how you earned your name.”

AD: “If you are what you say you are, you should already know.”

“I’m not usually a modest man, but, I’ll admit that your ability out-ranks mine by several generations.” Angel Demon’s receptive mind is a telescope. Comparatively I’m holding a single dirty and cracked lens up to my eye.

“And besides, I prefer to hear people’s stories rather than read them.” I glanced back. “Autobiographies are so much better as audio books.”

AD: “Might want to settle in,” they said, coolly. “We’ll be tearing the universe a new one shortly. What’s waiting for you on the other side…let’s say you won’t care about me, or any of us, when we get there.”

“I wouldn’t count on it,” I replied, in vain.

I had been left alone on the bridge.

I smirked, and my reflection smirked back at me

HH

A Name to the Cause

Our tour had cost me an hour, or several years what with Spark Plug’s smoking habit, and ended as we wandered into a communal area. One full of dust, interspersed with furniture which had apparently been stolen from the charity shop of the galaxy. Nothing matched, nothing was new, but it looked undeniably lived-in.

Two-years lived-in, I reminded myself.

Captain Sceptre was playing snooker with the blunt end of a golf club. Angel Demon had returned from their errand, and was reading a book by Dan Brown. Ethereal wasn’t there.

Then she was.

Then she wasn’t.

CS: “Enjoying the tour?”

My tour guide had devolved from the words ‘this way please’. Their ship was every hoarder’s heaven. I’d seen several different breeds of ants.

“Definitely.”

Sceptre knocked the white ball, which I swore was a snow-globe at full blizzard. Angel Demon turned a page, and laughed at whatever they read.

“Hey, so, who’s the engineer around here?”

SP: “Yo,” said a voice somewhere around my left hip.

“How does this ship of yours move? Anti-matter converter, Obliv-Ion core, black star displacer?” I’d been trying to place the background tremor ever since I’d stood up*.

SP: “Nope, nope, and, nope. I’ll show yer, if yer in’trested.”

“No,” said Ethereal, “Angel will show him.”

AD: “No, I’ll show you.” Angel Demon book-marked their place, put the words aside and got up from a nest of bean bags with impossible grace and agility. Then again, that’s what eight wings will do for you.

Spark Plug lumbered away and grabbed an armful of electrical devices off a shelf; his intentions, unknown.

The multi-winged not-so-celestial passed me, stopped when I hadn’t moved.

AD: “Well?”

Five heads were turned my way, briefly four, back to five.

I pointed at each of them in turn, going around the room. “Captain Sceptre. Angel Demon. Unnamed Owl. Spark Plug. Ethereal.”

SP: “I didn’t say anythink about no tour quiz.”

“Collectively,” I raised my voice, “you are hereby known as CAUSE.”

Nobody spoke; Ethereal momentarily ceased to exist.

“One of you needs to get good at puns, stuff like, ‘let’s cause some damage’ or…’just be, cause’ or…if one of you goes solo, you’d be a subordinate cause. All right, so it can be harder than it looks. But I believe in you. Maybe not you, Cap, you take yourself wayyyy too seriously for someone wearing that.”

The sceptre-wielder glared.

“Spark Plug, personally I think the responsibility should fall to you.”

“You’re welcome,” I added, to a silent room.

And passed Angel Demon on my way out.

HH

* Always learn a ship by its vibrations, not its noises, because being outside a space-ship is mostly a bad and soundless place to be.

Ordinary Antihero

I hurried along after Spark Plug, and the hi-tar clouds left in his wake. Having caught up, I wafted cigarette smoke away from my face.

UO: “Hoo.”

“I am paying attention,” I said, hotly.

UO: “Hoo.”

“That from an animal with three hundred and sixty degrees of neck.”

UO: “Hoo.”

SP: “Be wise not ter upset ‘im. Just sayin’. ‘Dem talons ain’t just fer show.”

“Is that the extent of his powers? I mean, I’m still hazy on what all your ‘special abilities’ include, or what it is you actually do…”

SP: “You-oh ‘as a unique, whajercallit? Dex’erity.”

“Which would be…?”

SP: “Um. ‘e can turn into a sig-nif-i-cant-ly bigger owl.” The time needed to teach him that word had been well spent, apparently.

Two very large and reproachful eyes swivelled upon me, fresh in judgement. I almost cracked several ribs through supressed laughter.

“Hoo?”

“Of course not. Heh. I can’t wait to see it in action.” With tremendous effort, I disguised a snort into an almost-believable sneeze. “I take it each of you has some form of…”

SP: “Defects?”

“I was going to say super-powers, but no, yours is good.”

But whatever the remaining four had hidden up their…well, actually, only one of them was wearing sleeves, but whatever. It couldn’t be better than a significantly bigger owl

Spark Plug adopted a level gaze with me, although he couldn’t achieve ‘level’ so settled for ‘inclined’.

SP: “Ain’t nothing ‘super’ about us, mate.”

I frowned downwards.

“No extraordinary abilities?”

SP: “I didn’t say that.”

“Ah. Presumably though, you’re not playing the part of ‘heroes’ per se.”

The dwarf shrugged.

SP: “That ain’t no way to make a decent livin’.”

“Five selfish outlaws working together? Seems a little unlikely.”

SP: “Why do wolves ‘unt inna pack?”

Spark Plug grinned an evil grin that was in dire need of some good dentistry.

“Because no matter what one unique individual can do, there’ll always be something a unique group can do better. Yes, alright. Point taken.”

Spark Plug took two more cigarettes; the one behind his ear, and another to replace it. He lit the sweat-stained one, re-positioned the second, and started walking again. His strides versus mine, it was difficult not to accidentally overtake.

“And this ‘pack’ has been…hunting together, for how long?”

SP: “Two years.”

“That’s pretty impressive. Must’ve been some event to unite you all for that long. What was it? Prison break-out? Private army contract? Coincidental costume party?”

SP: “Same reason yer ‘ere, Time-kil’er. We were ‘ired.”

“Hired by whom?”

SP: “Our client. ‘Oo else?”

By now we’d reached a narrow passage way that was receding in height. I stopped in my tracks, only partly due to the lack of room.

“You were hired…two years ago.

UO: “Hoo.”

SP: “I know, ‘e is payin’ attention.”

“And you’ve been tracking me, all that time?”

Spark Plug the dwarf looked as though I’d offended mining, gold and inedible bread, all in the same utterance.

SP: “Well you don’t ezzactly make it easy, do ya?”

“How much have you been paid, to hunt a time-traveller, with four other people-”

UO: “HOO.”

“-beings, sorry, you’d never met before?”

Spark Plug reached a hand, that was covered in multiple electrical burns, into an inner pocket of his denim jacket. He extracted an item that illuminated the hallway. It would, in fact, have illuminated every hallway in existence, and gone on to fill all the darkest and deepest of caverns with its glow. It could have restored light to the end of the universe.

The owl’s reflective eyes resembled two small suns.

“Fair deal,” I breathed. “One each?”

The dwarf returned the item. Murkiness reclaimed its space. I blinked the retina burn out of the way.

SP: “Don’t be daft. What’s an owl gonna do wiv it?”

UO: “Hoo.”

SP: “We each got arr own prize. Now c’mon. Me feet are killn’.”

I ducked low and followed slowly behind, wondering in the silence what gifts would be bestowed on the Captain, the Angel Demon, the Ethereal, and the owl.

And by whom?

HH

Better Acquainted

The one known as ‘Spark Plug’ resembled a fantasy-genre dwarf, dressed as an Earth-based electrician……with a pet barn owl. Woollen cap, fingerless gloves, a cigarette pushed behind one ear, and five o’clock shadow on a jaw that jutted teeth. He didn’t look the hero. He looked like the hero’s lighting guy.

Amateur lighting guy.

He provided a tour of their ship; some outer space digs akin to a university student flat that had sprouted thrusters. My TARDIS may well be untidy at times, but the level of theirs was almost artistic. No corner was spared from piles of junk that couldn’t be any more unrelated; violins mixed with broken canoes interspersed with hi-tech weaponry components and maps of Bulgaria. We walked past a bookcase of DVDs that had a bottle of ketchup on it; a pair of slippers in a toaster; shampoo on the ceiling; tracks in the dust and wrapper after discarded wrapper of hi-tar cigarettes.

Spark Plug hiccoughed a plume of foul-smelling smoke, sniffed a few sinuses out of hibernation, and pointed a clawed finger down one of the hallways.

SP: “Tha’s dorm rooms, down there. You don’t touch anythink, you’ll keep your fingers. Don’t go in Angel Demon’s room, neither, real protective.”

My imagination ran amok at the kind of artefacts hoarded by someone named Angel Demon. I could guess which one she was…apologies, they were. Their voice was decidedly female, but they were not – made immediately obvious by their clothesless, genderless body, crimson coloured skin on full display. Their lack of attire was, if anything, understandable. It’s probably hard to find clothes that comfortably fit four pairs of wings…

“What do you call yourselves, anyway?”

Spark Plug returned an impassive, upwards glare.

“Oh, come on. Which dramatic noun did you choose to affix yourselves?”

Silence, from the dwarf and its barn owl.

“Come on! Your team name? The Avengers? The Revengers? The Justice League? The A Team, Guardians of the Galaxy, Stormwatch, Elementals, Time Squad, Watchmen, Eternity, the Bastards – stop me if I guess it? I’ve got more. A lot more. At least fifty more.”

SP: “We ain’t got no team name?”

I scowled, at a steep diagonal. “Well you’ve got that wrong for a start. How can you get all those gorgeous slo-mo shots if no-one even knows who you are? I mean, there’s a city in turmoil, its desperate leader abandons all self-respect, and says ‘There’s nothing else we can do. We’d better call…?” I held out my hopeful hands.

SP: “Us.”

I deflated. “Duck me*. That role you’ve got going in your PR department? I’ll take it, and have a team name ready within three working days.”

Just what this universe needs, another rag-tag band of lovable misfits. Each of them all so individual, there’s no way they could all overcome their differences and be friends, but lo and behold…

“So,” I said, changing trains of thought, “which of you has the tragic backstory. Excuse me, the most tragic?”

?: Prob’ly Unnamed Owl.

It was like I’d walked into a wall. Spark Plug, and his ironic owl, looked round to the halt of footsteps.

“Unnamed Owl?”

UO: Hoo.

“That is a name, surely?”

Two impassive expressions; one had a beak.

“We’ll work on that, too.”

We carried on, walking in a mutual silence, until we neared a doorway with steam curling out of it. Inside was the messiest kitchen I’d ever encountered – there weren’t actually any work-tops, just cluttered heaps of unwashed items, and a buffet of food poisoning. Ethereal stood at a blackened stove, doing her best to lift a saucepan. It worked when she was more on our side of reality, but when she wasn’t…

<clang>

“E is our cook,” Spark Plug stated, lumbering along past the door. “Takes ‘er a while ter make anythink, but she tends ter know ezzactly what yer in the mood fer.”

<clang>

She phased back, into starker relief this time. In the brighter overhead lights, I noticed that Ethereal wore a ball-gown the colour of amethyst. Whatever decision had shattered her, it had been somewhere fancy.

<clang>

SP “Keep up!”

HH

* Statistics relating to Earth-based text messages speak for themselves. The most common phrase of frustration is ‘duck me’. Expressions of surprise or distaste include ‘what the duck’, or, ‘you’ve got to be shutting me’. If the typist is really annoyed, the appearance of ‘what a cent’ may appear.