Beshemoth is not dead and is technically an Author! Announcing the ‘Women in Practical Armour’ anthology

Oh look, its been two months since I came back from Iceland and I still haven’t finished writing up the tale of my non-adventures. Other things that haven’t happened since then: finishing the upstairs of Beaky Hoose (although the plasterers are thumping about overhead as I type), getting the last few raised beds edged, the fiasco that is my working environment cohering into any sort of order. And not for lack of effort on my part – I’ve been back working full time to make up for folk being off with stress. Things have got so chaotic that any day where I leave the office and it is not actually on fire is now being counted as a personal success.

However, all of that has to be put aside now, because it is the month where I traditionally have a minor mental health crisis time to promote the Women In Practical Armour anthology!



The kickstarter page can be found here.

As you can see, it is chock-full of amazing authors, some of whom you may have heard of already (and also me, presumably due to some cosmic oversight). I didn’t expect that to happen, I certainly had only the vaguest clue how kickstarter actually worked (rather like those ‘just giving’* pages where you get sponsored for running a marathon, I assumed) but it’s here and I’m here and apparently there is marketing and self-promotion to be done, by God!

(I would rather eat a cardboard box, sans condiments, than self-promote, but it’s For The Team, and I’m a sucker for doing things For The Team. As you can tell, from the fact that I’ve upped my hours at work and simultaneously got snidey comments from members The Team about how it would be nice if I upped my hours at work! Ba dum tish!)

So hi, both my readers, please feel encouraged to follow the link, back the kickstarter and receive swag!

More updates will follow, until the month of August is over. You have been warned.

*Fun fact: before the advent of ‘just giving’ pages, I used to put up sponsorship money myself and make up a bunch of names and signatures on the sponsorship form, rather than tote that thing around and pester people with it. Tis the attitude of champions, not!

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Iceland, Day Three: In which Beshemoth is horribly, horribly hungover but discovers a Cure

Damn you, Snorri No.10 beer, I felt exceedingly rough all day today and I didn’t even have that much. So that was the G-Monster driving again (hey, I have only just started with this driving lark, and we’re on the wrong side of the road here).

We made it to a carpark without a fight this time, at least. Even though the G-Monster kept asking me if I was embarrassed about the night before, which I wasn’t, thankyou, because for once I hadn’t done anything wrong at all. Victory!

I was a bit concerned about the amount of money I might have spent, though.

We went to the Whale Museum, which is down by the docks and consists of a bunch of life-size models of whales. All very impressive, and with loads of information in English, even if the only fact that made it into my aching brain was that the Right Whale’s bollocks weight half a tonne apiece, but not really worth about a tenner a head, perhaps? (If I have the exchange rate right today). Unless you’re really, really into whales.

We went to the Saga Exhibition too, which was just along the road, and that was just what I needed – it was dark, you put on these headphones and wandered round looking at dioramas of various points in Icelandic history and didn’t have to talk to anyone for a while.

After that we drove through the lava fields to our booking at the Blue Lagoon, for which we were horribly, horribly early, so I suggested we go a bit further to this wee seaside village called Grindavik (and probably pronounced ‘Cushdadushdadush’ or something).

I’m not sure where I picked up the impression that Grindavik was going to be a lovely wee picturesque place full of tweeness, possibly just from the name, but it was kinda more of a fish-processing place? Although we were off-season, I bet it looks very different when it’s stuffed full of people like me. There was a pizza place, however, where once again they didn’t have the one thing I quite fancied off the menu (my quest for Local Icelandic Fare is proving futile, possibly because everyone here prefers pizza and burgers or something sensible like that).

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Blue Lagoon except that it would be touristy as hell, and probably involve being herded about, and I was wrong about neither of these things. It also involved having to get changed into a bikini in public (during which I got the damn top-piece on the wrong way round three times in a row, and eventually got caught in it and took forever to get out again. It is not easy to Houdini your way out of very simple pieces of clothing while trying to look casual about it). By the time I made it to the actual outdoor lagoon, the G-Monster informed me that he thought I’d been eaten by a whale or something.

Well, it was everything the pictures suggested. The water was nice and warm, the breeze, while chilly, was not the car-door-killing gale it was on the other side of the rocks they’ve piled up around the place, and there was a sunken bar where you can drink beer without ever having to leave the water (and die, presumably). I was quite tempted, but feared it might be my turn to drive home, and I didn’t want a fight. It didn’t even smell of eggs there, which is quite impressive, because sometimes when you turn on a hot tap, a farty smell comes out along with the water?

After we’d gotten wrinkly enough to consider we’d Done Geothermal Lagoons already, I discovered my hangover had entirely gone away. Hurrah! Secret: discovered! Shame it’s of no sodding use anywhere but here, really.

We went back to the pub for dinner, very cautiously, but didn’t see anyone from the night before. Just in case, we didn’t stop out late. I may have had another Snorri No.10 though. Clearly the magic of Saturday night was gone, however, since this time nobody had any clue what I was on about until the guy next to me said, ‘Shnorri’.

I shall have to Sean Connery it up bigtime if I want to be understood.

Some other points I’ve noticed (two whole points!):

  • The seagulls here have a definite Accent
  • There are buds on the trees (note: there is pretty much one species of tree here, everything else is a dwarfy bush) but no leaves yet, and it’s three weeks to midsummer. I have no idea how these things have time to get leafed up before it’s autumn again, but I suppose the very short summer nights helps.

In conclusion: That bleak and marshy plateau that Beaky House sits on? Is going to look ever so lush when we get back!

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Iceland, Day Two: In which Beshemoth goes to Reykjavik and meets Icelandic People

As predicted, the weekend dawned dim, with clouds covering the majestic mountains across the valley so thick you couldn’t even have guessed their height. Also, it was already threatening to rain.

For some reason I felt far more at home. Also, the landscape suits misty and threatening weather much more than it suits being all sunny.

We decided to drive into Reykjavik and do the sort of touristy things where you can bolt indoors if it chucks it down. This was far less onerous than I’d imagined – the place is tiny, the roads are relatively clear, and driving through down-town was more like driving through a wee market-place or something. I imagine, since I wasn’t driving. I still sodded up the map-reading like anything and the G-Monster had destinations in mind he did not actually tell me, so we had our first fight of the holiday, good stuff. Helpful travellers’ tip: right off the back of your first fight of the holiday, do not hand your partner your credit card to use in the parking-meter, because you may find them trying to pay two weeks’ parking up front with it. Although he says that was an accident.

As is usual Abroad, half the adverts are in English, which is equal parts reassuring (because I am probably not going to end up dying because I don’t understand something) and depressing (because it’s all aimed at idiots like me). I did like the ‘Island’s Got Talent’ poster though. Apparently Iceland in Icelandic is Island, which I find amusing. I did not tell any Icelanders this, because I wanted to live.

So the first thing I wanted to see was this mad cathedral they have, which you can see from miles and miles away (and we did, regularly) and which I was totally unable to find up close. Eventually we wandered down a wee alleyway and a guy came running out of nowhere at us and gave us directions, which is much nicer than what usually happens when you wander down a wee alleyway in an unknown city. Although it was a bit embarrassing because he thought we were looking for his taco restaurant.

Flushed with success at finally finding the damn thing, which is very tall and also on top of a hill, I went to look at the wee artisany shops round about. The G-Monster suggested I Viking up Beaky House (and indeed I plan to – the décor may be plain, but only so I can use it as a canvas for the most hideous monstrosities known to man) so I started off with a cheap wee metallic-ceramic Viking warrior you put a tea-light in. It wasn’t quite as impressive as the bigger version, but I am Scottish, dammit, and far too cheap to spend a two-figure (Sterling) sum on something you put a tea-light in.

It wasn’t until we got outside that I discovered I was wrong about the exchange rate by an order of magnitude, and had indeed spent a two-figure sum on something you put a tea-light in. Quite a whopping two-figure sum at that. I can only thank god I cheaped out, or it would have been a three-figure sum.

We went for a wee coffee after that, which did nothing to calm my nerves. The really exciting part is, I won’t even know until much later if I have the most expensive sodding tea-light holder ever, or merely the most expensive shards.

Having decided to buy nothing else whatsoever all holiday, we went down to the oldest street in the city where I paid a crippling amount of money (by this point, all additional sums of money were crippling) to go see the Settlement Exhibition, excavation of the oldest house in Reykjavik, as well as some of the original thousand-year-old documents. My god, these people had neat handwriting, especially when you consider the temperature they must have been writing in. And the light.

(The oldest street in the city has a pleasingly large number of craft-beer pubs on it. We never did get around to going, sadly. The street intersecting with it has the Irish Pub, the English Pub, the American Pub and the strip-club, all in a row. Zoning or what?)

It rained on and off all day, mostly whenever we stepped outside, but we still managed to go out and visit the Arbaer Open Air Museum, where the one bit the G-Monster wanted to see (the train) was shut, and the wee family zoo and the Laugurdalur park, which are right next door to each other. The park was free, oh thankyou merciful god. Sadly the park was also in the Icelandic equivalent of February, but one cannot have everything.

During all this, I discovered I might not need that phrasebook I didn’t bring after all, for sure isn’t Icelandic very, very similar to my own language in many ways? ‘Hreindyr’ for reindeer, ‘hravn’ for raven, ‘mjolk’ for milk… all I need is some verbs and I am in like Flynn!

Back at the hotel, we discovered there is another, larger pub around the corner, so we went along for a bite to eat and some beers. I asked for the traditional Icelandic dish, and it was the one thing on the menu that wasn’t on, so I was forced to scoff down the same sort of food we get at home, the horror, the horror. The Snorri No.10 beer was really tasty, however.

Eurovision was on again, worse luck, which might explain how empty the pub was on a Saturday night, but there were quite a few folks willing to have a chat about it, which made it way more fun, and there was a halftime lassie who came onstage and sang as well as any of them (although none of them had their mum or whoever keep phoning during their set). The bar might have been nearly empty, but it didn’t stop everyone (local) getting up and dancing. And Sweden won, so that was sort of a local victory.

A local guy struck up a conversation with me at the bar, and it turned out he was writing a book (hurrah! One in ten Icelanders is apparently a Published Author and here I am meeting someone who wants to join their ranks, that’s gotta be worth a coupla Tourist Points, right?)

He came and sat with us and we had a chat about bad fantasy writers, which was fab. Unfortunately, both for him and for my peace of mind, he’s writing the book in Icelandic and I took fright when he started in complaining about the grammar rules. So I asked him to say ‘Hreindyr’ and it turns out it’s pronounced more like ‘Hooshkarooshkavoosh’ and Icelandic is not easy at all. As far as I can make out, two ll’s together sound like ‘k’, which I could understand if they didn’t have a perfectly good letter k that they use all the time, and so Thingvellir (where they held the parliament, and where we plan to go) is actually said more like ‘Thingvekish’. Which means ‘r’ is apparently pronounced ‘sh’, only Reykjavik is not ‘Sheykjavik’, at least as far as I can tell, and oh god I just give up already.

So anyway, me and him went out for a smoke (I assumed everyone in Iceland would be very clean-living, but it appears not. Or maybe, I just met all the ones like me.) During this, a lassie who looked like she coulda been one of the Eurovision hosts (not to mention so incredibly drunk I briefly thought she was one of the Eurovision hosts, who had fallen out of the telly. Hey, it’s a magical place, right? Or it goes to show how good Snorri No.10 is) came and leaned all over writer-guy, much to his very obvious annoyance, until the much larger, grumpier man who fancied her stomped off.

I thought I had better hang around in case Trouble came of it, which it did, but not in the way I expected. Drunken-supermodel woman started bewailing the fact that her oldest daughter (who turned out to be older than I thought she was) was about to make her a grandmother. Then another woman came out, who looked about thirty, and accused writer-guy of firing into drunken supermodel grandma, who turned out to be her wee sister. I am starting to think the old guys from last night who were taking the piss out of Eurovision are actually the original Saga-writers.

Drunk supermodel grandma wandered off, leaving writer guy and the second woman, who turned out to be a local teacher, to a somber-sounding conversation in Icelandic, probably about something highbrow. I took the opportunity to rescue the G-Monster from inside, and get in a round of beers for everyone. I didn’t realise until I got back with them that the conversation actually consisted of the writer threatening to smash the teacher’s face in with a large metal ashtray.

This was a bit awkward, especially since I’d just bought them both a beer, so after making sure there wasn’t actually going to be any violence between them, we took our cue and left. Not a moment too soon, because when we went back inside (which you had to do to escape the smoking area) the pub was full, fights were breaking out and the G-Monster informed me that someone had puked in the urinals.

When we reached the safety of the hotel, the G-Monster further informed me that, in his opinion, the writer had been trying to pull me the entire time. However the G-Monster was obviously suffering the effects of Snorri No.10 as well, because he thought the teacher was also trying to pull me, and just because someone tells you they’re psychic and you have a lovely aura and strokes your face and tells you you’re pretty does not mean they fancy you. Not when Snorri No.10 is involved.

In conclusion: the sagas are still going on, its just nobody’s writing them down any more. At least, not by hand.

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In which Beshemoth fulfills the lifetime dream of going to Iceland

So I’m heading up to the end of another year, another decade, even, and to mark the occasion I’m having a Milestone event. And I’ve always wanted to go to Iceland because it has everything, seriously. Vikings, glaciers, volcanoes, geysers… and it’s practically on the doorstep! On the minus side, I’ve heard it’s so amazingly expensive I just would not believe it. However, the G-Monster has been incredibly sweet and decided we should go (although he did try to talk me into going somewhere he might actually enjoy. Hawaii, he said. But even he did not have the readies for that.)

The milestone, however, isn’t even the going to Iceland, (which I have been trying not to get my hopes up about, for anything I want this bad will suck, eh), but packing to move house and packing to go on me holidays at the same time. This took never-before-utilised powers of concentration. Also, since I packed all me books to go to Beaky House sodding months ago, isn’t my handy phrasebook that I laid in last year still in one of those many boxes? Yes it is. Have I learned even a single word of Icelandic? No I have not. I am the worst tourist ever and we haven’t even left yet.

I was kinda miffed on the flight over when the person who had the precious window seat used their power to shut the sodding curtains, (seriously, why even take the window seat if you’re going to do that?) so I had no chance to see what the weather was going to be like or anything. Still, the menu was amusingly sarcastic.

Turned out it was sunny. Very sunny. Blue skies over a very bleak landscape dotted with retail parks. Well of course it was, we had no time at all to do anything that particular evening. I predict rain for tomorrow and so did several weather websites; although I was interested to note that while British sites have ‘weather’, and maybe ‘pollen count’, the Icelandic one has ‘weather’, ‘earthquakes’, ‘avalanches’ and so on. The last alert up there was for a flood, which seemed relatively pedestrian, until I read the rest of the entry and it was about a flood caused by a glacier collapsing and was accompanied by an outgassing of hydrogen sulphide. Oh my. For all my ‘its got glaciers and volcanoes and geysers OMFG!!!’ I had always assumed they were the sort of passive hazard where you were okay as long as you didn’t arse about and fall in. I hadn’t really thought about them actively coming looking for you.

But, here we were, and the weather was good and it… wasn’t very prepossessing really, sort of tired and untidy, like a ski resort in summer, or an allotment in February. There were some impressive-looking snowy mountains in the distance, however, and it turned out me, the G-Monster and our wee hire car were heading right for them, since he’d decided we didn’t want to stay In Town but somewhere out in the countryside. And was it ever! There was nothing but our cute wee motel-style hotel, a KFC, Dominos pizza and a massive great off-licence.

This might just be an amazing holiday after all.

We started the night with a wee wander round town while Dominoes made us a pizza. Even the wee lassie behind the counter had really, embarrassingly good English and got us a half-price deal we hadn’t known about. We blew the proceeds in the hotel pub (about a fiver a pint, which is not bad) where, for a Friday night, there was just us and two very ancient blokes singing along sarcastically to Eurovision.

I wondered, are people here incredibly polite to your face and then incredibly sarcastic behind your back, but then I realised I had more urgent problems, like the whole town being powered by geothermal energy. Not only was there no way of turning down the heat in the hotel room, which was like a sauna, but when the wind was in the right direction all the manhole covers steamed with a smell like unto eggs.

Strangely enough, I have never seen this mentioned.

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The Beaky Blog O’Doom – Spring 2015

Nearly summer already, what. Must’ve missed spring, being busy or something… Which does not mean Beaky House is finished or even that we’ve moved into it, naturally. Although progress has been made – we now have an actual working kitchen, and a big room which may one day be a lounge. And they are all painted, and it took fecking weeks. Soul-destroying it was too, since I’ve never painted a place from scratch, just tarted up an already-painted one, only it turns out to take about three times as long, even when you’re not covering up a room the colour of Irn Bru. (Which I have had to do several times, now, it seems a terribly popular colour).

In case anyone unfamiliar with Irn Bru is reading this, have a swatch:

irn bru

Anyway, parts of inside now look like a Proper House!

beaky lounge april 2015 beaky kitchen april 2015

Woohoo! So I was all set for moving in already, only it turns out the G-Monster is not happy with the quirky, characterful nature of the upstairs floors, and so instead we are ripping them all out and jacking up the beams and putting in floors of a more modern nature, that aren’t a foot higher in the middle of the house than the edges or something fancy like that. At the rate of about 36 square feet a day, or approximately two doors’ worth, so it is going to take some time.

I assumed we weren’t moving in until it was done, for the G-Monster’s stuff has filled the wee annexy bit to the ceiling and there is nowhere for all my stuff to live except under the stairs in what-will-be-a-lounge, with all the Crap of Ages that lived between the floorboards falling on it all the livelong day. However, apparently we are. Next week. Am I packed? Am I feck.

Since only two at a time can work on the floor, one being the G-Monster’s mate Who Knows What She Is About and the other being one of us handing her the correct size of screw, I’ve been mostly working on the garden. The G-Monster’s brother came along and took out the rest of that nonsense that used to be a hedge, but escaped and grew to Godzilla-ish size, and I had a whole clean slate to work on. Bwahahaha.

Starting with transplanting the allotment. I was lucky with the weather, and I was lucky it coincided with my week off. Sadly, it also coincided with a lurgy so bad I could barely walk a hundred feet for puking, and in that state I was going to dig up and pack up a whole van-load of stuff and plant it again at the other end. Ha ha. I felt so rough I actually put the feelers out for aid, but nobody fancied it, also the G-Monster had rooked himself. I will not lie, I thought I was going to sodding die for most of it, but in the end it got done on schedule and everything and I only had one really big sulk (although opinions on the number of sulks probably vary).

Surprisingly enough, all me stuff seemed to like their new home, and they’ve all grown like the clappers, hurrah. Then we bought them some friends, so potentially there are ten whole fruit trees and ten whole fruit bushes now.

It’s sodding windy here though, even with the big six-foot fence, so I hatched a cunning plan to plant a windbreak hedge and protect my wee orchard-to-be. Not only that, but a useful, In-Tune-With-Nature windbreak hedge of Native Species, most of which make nice fruits that go in wine. So I spent two days digging out a fifty-metre trench for the damn thing. At first it was the dandelion roots that gave me gyp, then the buttercups, but soon enough as I worked along it was tree-roots as wide as my thumb, and then as wide as my thumb is long, and then they formed a massive snarl that took the pickaxe, hatchet and saw to carve through. I looked like Swamp Thing by the time I was done, and there were still bits of tree in my hair at the office the next day, even though I’d washed it.

Not that anyone saw, because I got back to the office to discover both my colleagues had got their ops scheduled, hurrah! And also, eek, that was me holding the fort alone for the forseeable. All my shifts got changed to compensate, so that was the end of working on Beaky for a bit.

The weekends were still mine, however, and one sunny day we bought eight more fruit trees and I planted them all, and felt pretty damn good about myself, because that’s six more trees than I’ve ever planted in a single day before.

At which very moment a bloke turned up with a box containing one hundred and eighty more trees, which I hadn’t been expecting until the next day, and it was all hands on deck because I’d cheaped out and gone for the bare-root ones and had to get them in before their roots dried out.

Admittedly they weren’t trees per se, just bare, dead-looking little sticks with a wisp of root on the end, apparently called whips, and did they ever look exactly like all the bare, dead sticks lying on the ground if you put one down just for a minute.

I got all that done too, although I was kinda crab-shaped by the end of it. I’m still not sure if the trench or the planting was worse. No, it was the planting, because I wasn’t under the impression the trench would die if I didn’t hurry up. Also, I didn’t then have to sit around worrying if I’d done the trench wrong and if it was going to survive. As it is, half the hedge might really have been dead sticks for all I know. The others are doing pretty well so far, but ‘giant bald spots’ was not quite the effect I was going for.

However, I have now dug five raised beds out of fairly virgin soil, during the course of which I have discovered all the trappings of a previous civilisation, including foundation walls, a lintel stone as wide as the pickaxe, drainage pipes, old batteries, full shampoo bottles and a flex with a three-pronged plug still on the end. I suspect previous civilisations have been throwing rubbish bags into the back garden and calling it a day, since I found a lot of them, too.

Some of that stuff really stank.

Anyway, there was no time to deal with that either, because they closed the hospital where I work (sniff! End of an era, etc. Although I wasn’t there that long, so it wasn’t as bad, but there were tears and hugs and meltdowns in the corridors, which might have been due to people not being told where the hell their job was getting moved to until the very last minute. I don’t know if some of them ever found out at all, and one guy, who hadn’t heard as of the last day, had been there 35 years.) We had to pack everything up, which was rather more difficult because there were cabinets and cabinets of ‘everything’, most of which I hadn’t been allowed near before, and nobody to tell us what was to stay and what was to go. Also, we had one medium-sized crate apiece. In the end everything went through the scanner and into the confidential waste bins and we’ll just have to hope that was what was meant to happen.

At some point in the future, when I least expect it, I am in so much trouble.

We met the new crew we’re integrating with at the new hospital, I unpacked all the crates, and then I had to bugger off because I am turning a horrible terrible old age with a zero at the end of it TOMORROW (dun dun DUN). There certainly wasn’t time to organise a party or anything, what with moving house and moving hospital and having to put in the floors so we have somewhere to live, so instead we sodded off to Iceland for a week. Seriously, it was less stressful. Besides, I have no less than two invitations to other birthdays of people of the same age, on the same day, to look forward to. I’ll rather cheekily just piggy-back on one of them!

Posted in allotmenting, forever coming down with something, I Make Thing!, so much for plan b, weather-dependent lifestyle | Leave a comment

Short story time – “Polyanna”

And now some crappy sci-fi i wrote back in the late autumn of 2014, for there is no better time for writing crappy sci-fi, right?


Even after all this time, I remember my first sight of Anna. My first real sight of her, that is; there had been the holo before that. Which also sticks in my mind, but only because it happened right after the glitch – because of the glitch, in fact, in one of those strange, slippery quirks of chance that we all like to pretend don’t affect the path of history as much as they do.

Not that I knew it at the time, of course. All I knew was the three-beeper alarm that heralded our merge back into real-space had suddenly swelled into the far louder alarm heralding our imminent demise. I had barely started to wonder if it was a prank or merely a drill when I was torn from my inspection of the engine-output holo and thrown against the bulkhead behind me with a force that should have been fatal. Provisionally, however, it happened to be the one that had auto-triggered open to reveal my survival-suit, which somewhat cushioned my impact. I remember giving thanks for tradition – but that was afterwards. At the time, I merely looked up at the locker-lip, observing that it had missed splintering my skull by an extremely narrow margin, and then gave myself over to the centuries-old emergency-drill. With rather a lot of bones broken, as it turned out later, but having been thrown squarely into the suit’s embrace, it required very little on my part to persuade it to close around me.

With that achieved, and the support of the exoskeleton, I wrenched the door open and stepped – or staggered, to be accurate – out into the corridor to see what was going on. Fortunately it was only a small craft; the problem would be close enough to deal with in a timely manner, if it could be dealt with at all. Less fortunately, whatever had torn through us had also obliterated an essential part of the local emergency-sealant system. The hurricane of escaping air was louder than the alarm itself, I remember that much – but it was relatively simple to muscle the hatch between myself and the ship’s exit-wound shut. That done, I had merely to report the fix, trusting that someone up-ship was still uninjured enough to have patched the entry-hole – and then persuade my helmet to roll back, because I had suddenly realised just how much everything hurt and how badly I needed to vomit.

In retrospect, it was a little naïve of me to assume that was the end of the emergency. As a ship-mech, however, I was a very small cog in the light-years-wide machine called civilisation – it simply wasn’t my place to speculate on what the Authorities would make of the glitch. Assuming they made anything of it at all, and at the time I saw no reason why they should. (I only discovered much later that it had merged us where a rock the size of my thumbnail was already ploughing along at twenty-five klicks per second, inside the massive sweep of the shields). Only it wasn’t known to be a glitch, just then, or a micrometeorite; and with a minor official on board, carrying important face-to-face-only intel, what the Authorities were making of it was a resurgence of the Falling Away. Just when they had been decommissioning the troops dealing with it, too.

Under the circumstances, I suppose that’s why there was rather more lather about it than might have been normal, and instead of ending up in sickbay, I ended up in high-sec containment deep within the planetary crust. On Earth, of all places. If I hadn’t been so dosed on painkillers and passivitors, I might have been quite aggrieved at not getting to see any of it. As it was, I was so far removed from real-space myself that when they had done every test short of trepanning and dourly pronounced me too ‘stolid and unimaginative’ to be a secessionist, I didn’t even manage to take offence.

Apparently that helped impress the official. He certainly mentioned it – once I had been released from what I considered rather irrelevant restraints – while he congratulated me on discharging my civic duty by saving his life. With hindsight, he seemed somewhat taken aback when the conformity drugs prompted me to inform him that it really hadn’t been on my mind; I had simply seen a door that needed closing and done what was necessary to close it. At which point I was led, blinking, from high-sec containment to vacuum-car and back down to what I blearily assumed to be the high-sec penal facility I would live out my days in. Even with the drugs, I felt that rather unfair.

Which is when they showed me the holo of Anna.

“Do you know who this is?” one of the Authorities demanded, as the image of her head rotated, life-sized, above the table.

Mixed crews having fallen out of fashion some three centuries previously, my job didn’t give me the opportunity for meeting many women. All the same, this one certainly didn’t look very nurturing; more as if she had just been presented with a mess to clean up and was thinking of committing violence against whoever had made it. I remember thinking vaguely that she wasn’t terribly attractive, either, especially in comparison to the women one usually saw in holo. It wasn’t a very charitable thought, but unfortunately one of them was depicted on the far wall, the babe in her arms not quite hiding her cleavage, looking fondly up at a man who was striking a heroically conquering pose.

In retrospect, it is worth noting that I didn’t much resemble that man, either.

I didn’t know the holo-woman, of course, and I told him so. The readings on the monitors I was still hooked up to didn’t spike when they told me it was Dr Anna Vega, either, so they had to explain that to me as well.

“You are aware of the Obliteration War?” one of them asked me sternly.

I informed him that I was, thank you; three centuries was hardly long enough for anyone to forget how close humanity had come to destruction. I nearly added that while it may be axiomatic that women nurture and men conquer, our own axiom is that engineers remember, and we were hardly about to forget something that important. However, I was interrupted.

“Well, she won it for us,” he said, with a degree of some negative emotion I couldn’t parse at the time. “Wiped out the Obliterators – cold. As gone as they wanted us gone.”

I remember being vaguely irked by that; considerable numbers of troops had been poured into the all-out, all-or-nothing desperation of that defence. I could even recall the school-marm’s terrible expression as she told us about it, before moving us briskly on to matrix multiplications.

“What, all by herself?” I ventured.

It produced some laughs, here and there around the table, which irked me more. I think the passivitors had finally started to wear off at that point.

“Broadly,” one of the higher Authorities said, in a mild tone.

Then he swore me to a vow of silence, backed by both the highest of Authorities in the system and the feedback of every monitor I was hooked up to, and told me the Secret.

Before I had quite recovered from gaping at it, I was led back out of high-sec and into another vacuum-car, this time to the star-port, and from there into a far higher-spec ship than I had ever set eyes on – ever been aware existed, in fact. And from there, across more light-years of space than those spanned by civilisation, all the way to Annaheim.

All that, and me still in the ‘temporary’ bone-cast, from neck to knee to elbows.

I might have had some time to ponder the Secret and its implications, in the week-long unreality-flight, if I hadn’t been subjected to yet more dosings and testings. It was a wonder I could see straight when we finally merged with real-space.

Possibly the pilots agreed with me – that or it was the bone-cast, but they certainly pushed my little shuttle into the system on remote, as if I was a toddler on my first solo-sail. Not only was it embarrassing, but it led to my having to frantically relay the angry squawking my comms burst to life with, when the denizens of the planet – still alive, against the Authority’s private bet – told me I was crossing their lines and should leave. I was still trying to persuade Annaheim of my peaceful intentions when a great field swamped my console to the point of shorting out, and I was brought forcibly in to dock with the planet’s elevator.

It wasn’t easy, getting along the docking-umbilical unaided, and the planetary gravity that tugged at me as the vacuum-car descended was greater than that of any world I’d been on. Admittedly, there weren’t so many of them, since a ship-mech is expected to stay with his craft – just home and Earth, in fact – but it was enough to make me queasy, especially coupled with the after-effects of the drugs. When the planet-side doors finally opened, admitting a gigantic, luridly-coloured spider larger than I was, I gave up and fainted.

When I woke up, I had my first sight of Anna. She was seated at my bedside, one cool, broad hand on my brow and the other scratching at the brow of the huge, fuchsia spider that wasn’t a hallucination after all. I believe I screamed when I saw its front limbs were resting atop of mine.

She shooed the spider away, before asking me why they were being recalled – was it the Obliterators, or some new threat? From the intensity of her question, I gained the impression she had been asking this for some time.

(She had, of course, but it was only later that I realised it was her habitual manner of speaking; all the Annas I encountered did it.)

The only thing that really stood out for me from the Secret at that point was the importance of not letting the Annas off-world, ever again. I did my best to assure her that there was no such emergency, that they were not being recalled to action – my babbling probably not helping, with hindsight – but she seemed to believe me. At least, I couldn’t see any monitors. After ascertaining that I was healed enough to walk, she led me out to where a trio of other Annas lounged in the shade, and attempted to engage me in a discussion of the purpose of my visit.

I say ‘attempted’, because I was in no state for such a conversation. Not when I realised one of the Annas had the spider half-laid atop her hammock, its great palps pattering at her hands in an apparent demand for affection, and another was wreathed in tiny, fluttering creatures she called dragons, each no larger than my longest finger.

When I tore my eyes away, the landscape beyond them was no less surreal. A first impression of a floodplain with distantly-snowy mountains behind it was short-lived – the whole sky was alive with winged things which darted and swarmed in a host of peculiar manners belying their apparent size. The land itself was no better; as I watched, a gigantic, eight-legged sauropod undulated, barely hidden, behind the towers of what appeared to be a full-size basilica. A rainbow of butterflies, each surely as large as my shuttle, veered around its head; basked on its great, vermillion spine. Worse still, everything was loud.

“Um,” I heard myself saying, over the cacophany of hideously-altered life. “Could we perhaps go somewhere quieter?”

They were at once solicitously concerned with my welfare, even shooing away the spider again when the first Anna informed them I didn’t care for it. (“It’s just a monitor,” the Anna who turned out to have bred it told me, as if that was reassuring. “Who wants a machine, when you can have a big shaggy arachnid do its job instead?”) It made no difference to my state of mind. I was offered refuge in a ‘lair’ under the ocean – “perfect tranquillity while you watch the reef-fish!”, or burrowed into the highest mountain on the planet – “nothing to watch but howling snowstorms, but you’re quite safe!” They seemed disappointed when I insisted I just wanted to be close to the elevator.

I had been overly-optimistic on that point – being indoors on Annaheim was no less harrowing than being outside. Garish murals overlaid every surface within the basillica, clearly with some sort of theme the Annas found significant, and from every corner there was the click of claws as ‘usefully’ mutated creatures crept, no-doubt ‘conscientiously, out of my line of sight.

Once I had been promised that no crawling, fluttering or in any-other-way-mobile horror would accompany me, I curled up in the chamber I was assigned, drank off the soup I had been issued, and wondered what I, of all people, was doing here.

I could certainly see why civilisation’s Authorities didn’t want the Annas back. The Secret – so simple, yet so incredible to me when it had been told – now felt it had grown into a many-headed horror.

Eventually I drifted off into a nightmare sleep, from which I awoke to find all my nightmares pale imitations of reality.

The Annas I met that morning kept asking what things were like, after three centuries. I replied the way the Authorities had advised me to; by shrugging my shoulders and saying I supposed they were much the same as ever. Which I supposed they were, really, except that it had been realised that women weren’t suited, after all, to tasks demanding either intellectual or physical rigour.

Having seen the Annas’ relish of the former, however, I decided it might be best not to mention that. I have to confess, this was only partially motivated by a desire for tact, and rather more in case they decided to prove their scientific credentials to me; I felt it rather likely it might involve a whole parade of monstrous arachnids.

They gave up on that tactic, focussing instead on the reason I had been sent to them; which of course I couldn’t give either, more than that I was to observe and report back. Some were openly hopeful that my injuries signified I was a ‘brain-case’, whose good treatment might allow their planet to become a hospice; others muttered that there was some imbalance within civilisation, the nature of which I might not be at liberty to divulge. The more optimistic of these suggested that, in that case, it was because they shouldn’t develop any preconceptions as to said nature, in case it precluded them from helping.

They were all so earnest about ‘helping’, despite their self-imposed exile, that by lunchtime I had convinced myself it was all an elaborate, centuries-ripe scheme to overthrow the Authorities. Admittedly, this made no sense – the Authorities, too, had made note of the self-imposed nature of their exile – but I was sure something rotten lurked here, quite apart from the lurid, devastating carnival atmosphere. I was vaguely grateful that all of them, whatever their open, or quietly-held beliefs, made no effort at interrogation as the Authorities had done. I did, however, suffer nauseating moments of disquiet while pondering what a gigantic pink spider might eke out of a man’s psyche that a normal monitor could not.

These moments were brief, if only for lack of opportunity. The Annas encouraged me to experience their culture, in earnest, bewildering ways I was convinced hid something deeper. They posed for holos with their favourite pets, every one of them holding her chin aloft and slightly askew in the same unflattering manner; dragged me through swift tours of nearby strongholds.

Their openness felt deceptive, every revelation striking me as a cover for something else. Each one’s elaborately unique ‘lair’, for example – a territorial instinct I felt I could comfortably report as a weakness, until I discovered that they breezed in and out of each other’s strongholds whenever they felt like it. Any random gathering that was large enough, such as the one underway in the third ‘lair’, became part scientific swap-meet, part costume-party, which I remember finding rather narcissistic of them. They danced, badly, to terrible music, and laughed about it like a collection of stuttering drive-servos.

I was sure I had found something refreshingly amiss when two of the Annas present turned out to have been pursuing similar lines of research into ‘singing’ flowers, as if their world needed more cacophony, but disappointingly the confrontation was swiftly and saccharinely defused. Clearly the Annas prided themselves on their individual accomplishments; equally clearly, they had developed a system for ensuring rivalry did not get out of hand. At the time, I recall wishing their solution had been a retreat to such barbarities as duelling, so there might be a few less of them for me to encounter.

Having been encouraged to imbibe various, home-made yeast-cultures, I retired to bed early with a vertiginous spinning sensation, certain that such a collective should have self-destructed long ago. Three thousand Annas – three thousand, three hundred and fifty eight, as they all intoned, with a brief lapse into solemnity – on one world! How had they survived? And was that what I had been sent here to find out?

And why – because the Annas themselves kept asking it, not because it was something that had occurred to me – why check up on them now?

It had to be something to do with the Falling Away, I decided. Perhaps the shock of having system after system secede from central Authority had made them decide to bring this last bastion of outsiders back into the fold too.

I dearly hoped not.

Immortality was immoral. It was a tenet formed back in the Golden Age, when humanity was still young and thrusting its way among the star systems for all it was worth. Anyone achieving it would gain an unfair advantage over all his – or her – peers, one which might potentially develop into control over the whole shape of our race’s shared future. Naturally, this didn’t stop many people experimenting with ways to achieve it anyway, from uploading their consciousness into nano-computers to the more traditional biological tampering. Dr Vega had been rare only in the fact that she had had the wherewithal, derived from a number of shrewdly-applied patents, to do both at once. Even then – so both the Annas claimed and the Secret admitted – she hadn’t intended to go any further than a theoretical, all-enveloping patent that would cut any further research in those particular fields dead. She had had a passion, one peculiar to her era, for personal achievement as a goal that should be available to all. Although it might have helped when it turned out that even she couldn’t overcome that final barrier to ambition – to achieve immortality by any of these means, the original would have to die. Only the copy, freshly minted from a destructive, quantum-level scan of the brain, could awaken from the process; and who, aspiring to dominance, would be content when a mere copy of themselves ruled humanity?

Except then the Obliterators came, and changed everything.

My next few days on Annaheim did nothing to endear its inhabitants to me. Rather, after the shock of its ever-changing, lurid whirl – and the after-effects of the drugs – wore off, I found myself increasingly infuriated with them. They seemed to take nothing seriously – not their ‘research’, or their ‘experiments’, not the ‘philosophy’ they indulged in while imbibing intoxicants and giggling at the stars. The only time they even attempted solemnity was in dealing with my own mission.

Worse, the only instinct they showed me was their drive to create monsters, lurid colours and revel in their lack of taste. It was somewhat of a source of chagrin, as the only man on their planet in three full centuries. Once it occurred to me, at least. Shouldn’t they have been fluffing their hair and rubbing powders around their eyes to try to seduce me, unlovely as they were? Shouldn’t they all have wanted to bear my offspring, even if they were barren by design? Women nurture, men conquer, after all.

I realise now that I’d grown up rubbed by the idea, like bees are rubbed in their hive by other bees; socialised by it, I should say, but at the time I just sensed a profound lack. An absence that, once I realised its nature, was like an absence of timepieces.

I let the axiom slip from my lips, once, during a ‘dinner’ that featured more beverages than food; the eyes of the Annas in my presence grew wider and their lips thinner, but they never mentioned it again. (Indeed, that was when all of them together stopped asking about my mission, although I didn’t realise it until much later.) Yet still they didn’t stop being what they were; inconsequential, frivolous, entirely unmoved by appeals to authority. They were like children – centuries-old children, fascinated by light and colour and playing at dressing-up. They made me sick.

I eventually found out what they had meant by ‘crossing their lines’, when they switched on the monofilament net they had created around their planet. Its purpose was only to emit patterns of light, emphasising the home-hatched constellations inspired by those of Earth’s deep past. I found it a ridiculous, wasteful charade of engineering, which only left more of a bad taste in my mouth when it occurred to me that they were squandering their genius on such make-work because of their oath never to leave their system unless requested. They had no labour of value left to offer, either in nurturing or warring.

I could stand no more and told them I needed contact with the ship lurking at the edge of their system. They gave it, without visible hesitation, and then asked if I wouldn’t mind seeing one more thing before I left.

It was a memorial to the original Anna; that was my first thought. It was shocking in its plainness, after the overdone ornamentation of absolutely everything else on the planet. Then, as the outlandishly-sized moth we rode drew closer, I realised that it was larger than I had thought – although that was no longer much of a novelty. It was only once we had landed, an almost deferential distance away, and trekked up to it on foot, that I began to parse the reason for its size.

I had thought three thousand Annas to be around three thousand too many. Seeing the inscriptions on the memorial made me re-evaluate that. Waving a hand in front of any one of them caused a holo to appear, clinically stating the date of her ‘arrival’, and date and brief detail of her ‘departure’. Often, the two dates were separated by only a couple of digits.

I looked up at the memorial, trying to imagine the scale of the Obliteration War. Annas by the thousands; by the tens of thousands; all of them printed off into their capsulets, opening their eyes already aware of who they were and what their purpose was, springing out so they could be replaced by more. Dying, in their regimented, genius droves, implacable in the knowledge that there were more behind them, that they would never run out as long as humanity held. Dying so that individual, irreplaceable, proper humans, wouldn’t die in their stead.

There lay the rub, of course. None of them had expected to live through the war, any more than the original Anna had. They were exact replicas of everything she had been right up to the point, and purpose, of her death. They hadn’t imagined actually being immortal; that had been something thrown into the mix in desperation, a hope that it might give them an edge. Who knew how long the war might last, and what it might destroy? But the smoke had cleared and here they were, a remnant of their kind, admittedly, but still living embodiments of everything their original had worked to prevent.

I recalled that the records of that time – those that I had been shown – had reported their reaction as one of general embarrassment. It had not taken them long to suggest that they be cloistered, and forgotten.

“I was with them,” my accompanying Anna said, waving at a group of inscriptions bounded by a cartouche. “Evacuation of Gliese Mecca; fifty-five percent survival rate. Civilians, I mean – we did well there. Statistically. And them; the counterstrike against the Obliterator world in that sector. I didn’t die because I got lotteried to hang back with the sun-bomb.” She sighed. “We didn’t need it that day; well, everyone died ensuring we didn’t, but that was nice. It’s not good to destroy a star.”

“You can destroy a star?” I spluttered.

“We don’t though,” she told me earnestly. “We got rid of the means, immediately it was all over. But that was the only thing we had that the Obliterators didn’t, you see – they’d flood a refugee fleet with heavy G-rays, sterilise a planet, but never a star… Once we realised that, once we killed their stars – the heart went out of them, somehow. Although the hate never did; I think they were horrified to realise they weren’t alone, after all. Didn’t you know? Didn’t you see the stars in our net that aren’t there any more? All the merge coordinates in those sectors had to be recalibrated, afterwards… Or didn’t they tell you we did that, not them?”

“I need to go home,” I said, thickly.

“We won’t break our promise,” she told me, as I was escorted to the elevator. “That’s a message from us all. We swore we’d stay within this system, and never come out – not unless you need us to. And the template’s been destroyed, so there can never be any more of us, ever. Nobody wants to risk making a bad copy – it wouldn’t be right. They’d be caricatures, not sisters, and eventually not humans at all… But you have to say; you can’t come here and be coy and tell us about how women have to nurture. We can’t come out just because we think we might be needed, however much we might want to.”

I remember how I merely nodded, curtly, in agreement. I certainly didn’t want them to come back out; imagine the worlds of civilisation, and how the flamboyant, irresponsible, immortal

But I remembered the memorial, too, and the loss in that particular Anna’s voice. I remember how it occurred to me that, for them, the Obliteration War would never truly be a thing of the distant past, the way it was for me.

I remember thinking; let them stay lost on their little, lurid world. Surely they’ve earned it?

The instant I was back aboard the ship, of course, I was once more piped so full of drugs and monitors it was a wonder my limbs didn’t simply fall out of shape into a lifeless, floor-dwelling jelly as soon as they were withdrawn. I was thankful that if the Annas had done anything at all to my bones to make them knit faster, it was something so subtle that I wasn’t taken apart to discover it. Eventually my healing rate was grudgingly decided to be within normal parameters, and I found myself back on Earth, at what appeared to be the very same table where I had first been sworn to the Secret.

Which was where I met Brad.

Unlike my viewing of Dr Vega’s hologram, I could tell at once that he was trouble. Chisel-jawed, cheekbones as crisp as hospital bed-corners; he looked exactly like the sort of man you saw in holos. He also reminded me of the worst kind of manager a mech could ask for – the sort that, while he had no idea what it was you were doing, was certain there must be a better, faster way for you to be doing it, if only you would try. When he stood to shake my hand, he was a head taller than me, and despite the bland pleasantry he made about the importance of engineers in maintaining order, his eyes – the eyes of a zealot – informed me I had already been categorised and dismissed before he turned away.

“Why is he at my debriefing?” he asked the Authorities arrayed opposite him, in a casual tone. It the sort of question I would never have dared give voice to, even while I was wondering what he was doing at what I had thought was mine.

“Engineer Svensen has been performing a reconnaissance mission for us,” the left-most Authority said smoothly.

I didn’t miss the way Brad’s eyes flickered to me, as if doubtful of my suitability for such a task.

“Another system declaring independence?” he frowned. “Really, they spring up as fast as we can be shipped out to deal with them-”

“This particular system has always been independent,” the central Authority informed him. “We think it might be, ah, something you’d care to look into. Engineer, why don’t you show us the holos you took on Annaheim?”

I did so, wordlessly. There was a nasty crawling feeling in my spine as I realised the nature of the troops that had been dealing with the Falling Away. Brads, to a man, or I’d eat my own name-tag. What Dr Vega had done to protect humanity, the Authorities had somehow persuaded the original Brad to do to maintain civilisation.

It explained the eyes, at least; he must have believed in unity very strongly. Somehow, I didn’t get the impression that his successors would be satisfied with their own system to play in now that it was achieved.

This Brad was certainly no more impressed by Annaheim than I had been, although rather more open about his disgust. I didn’t want to look at him; perhaps from some deep instinct warning me to avoid behaviour he might take as a challenge. Instead, I watched the faces of the Authorities as they watched him flick through the holos. It struck me that they were as wary of him as I was.

“Unacceptable,” he announced, finally. “Sirs, this – chaos – is beyond endurance. With your permission, now that stability has been re-established, I respectfully suggest that we be dispatched to stop this… nonsense.” He flicked back to the image of the Anna hugging her huge, luridly-coloured spider, and made a strangled noise.

I must have made some similar sound, because he turned sharply towards me. “You agree, Engineer?” he asked, although it was phrased more as a command. “Women nurture, men maintain order – and these women have been allowed to run riot for far too long.”

“Men – er-” I started, wondering if I dared finish the sentence, let alone speak my mind. My eye fell on the mural, which seemed slightly different from the last time I had stood here. I was fairly sure the man had been wearing a flashier uniform, for example, and hadn’t been gripping a spanner.

Perhaps it wasn’t the same room after all.

I had missed the moment, of course; I still feel the sting of shame whenever I remember it. It does no good to reflect that, really, what could I have done? The Authorities were squirmingly aware that their solution to the Falling Away was now their biggest problem; for all this new axiom about maintaining order, the Brads were natural-born conquerors and would be trouble as soon as they had a spare five minutes to realise it. Who was a lowly ship-mech to protest at the solution that had been found for that?

Still, the thought of that planet full of happy, ugly, war-heroines being informed that ‘this nonsense’ was over gave me a dull, leaden feeling, like the first roilings after a badly-prepped meal, which I couldn’t properly explain. After all, I’d hated the place myself.

I had vague hopes of being allowed to slink away after that, but the Brad wanted a lot more detail about their new target. I was grilled on the planetary defences (none that I had recognised as such, unless the docking-field counted), the locations of the strongholds and, seemingly most importantly of all, the precise number of Annas. I disliked him more thoroughly than I had disliked Annaheim, by the time he was finished.

“Engineer Svensen should accompany us to this system,” he decided eventually. “He will no doubt recall somewhat more useful information on the way.”

The Authorities present made what even I could see was a great show of welcoming his ‘suggestion’; I wasn’t the only one who wanted to wash my hands of him as fast as I could. Of course, their own case was rather more urgent, since the Brads were men they’d managed to train in taking down governments very much like theirs.

For my own part, I suspected that as long as I wasn’t any trouble, I wouldn’t be in any trouble. With that in mind, I tried to look as if my obvious reluctance had to do with returning to Annaheim, rather than the prospect of a week cooped up with an unknown number of Brads. After which – but I tried not to think about that.

I remember wondering, uncomfortably, how they arranged their own internal conflicts. There had to be a hierarchy – the informal, convivial sisterhood of the Annas clearly wouldn’t have sat well with them.

I had ample leisure to find out, unfortunately. This Brad – and the others, when they began to ship back from their various victories – wanted to depart en masse. Their intention seemed to be to provide the Annas with a fait accompli they couldn’t escape; not without breaking their oath and fleeing the system. It sounded depressingly like a surprise attack, and I was rather shocked to find they made no bones about the fact that they felt battle might become necessary. Clearly, they didn’t trust the Annas to comply with their new orders, although I felt privately they could hardly be faulted for objecting when they found the Brads foisted on them.

I certainly didn’t enjoy it myself. Every commanding Brad sent a member of his own unit to hear my assurances that I hadn’t given anything away during my time on Annaheim. I was forced to explain, over and over to the same pair of suspicious eyes, that there was simply no way for that to happen, since I hadn’t been privy to any information I could have let slip, not even the reason for my mission.

It did remind me, however, of the axiom I had let slip, and of the way the Annas had, to a woman, immediately abandoned the topic. Still, I supposed it couldn’t have done too much harm; certainly not enough to be worth mentioning. Besides, had been the old axiom, not the new one about maintaining order.

Which was everywhere, suddenly, although I had only been away a year, in local terms. I had the opportunity to explore Earth, a little, when I wasn’t needed to answer questions, and that was one of the things that struck me, although nobody ever mentioned it.

Naturally, I found it prudent not to bring up the topic either.

The other was how disappointingly similar Earth was to my own home-world. Of course there was the occasional relic from deep history – I spent a morning queuing dutifully to admire the shattered stump of the Washington Monument, for instance. Overall, however, the street-plans, the buildings, even the hairstyles of the women who nodded hello to me on the transport-tubes, seemed depressingly familiar. In my darker moments, which were rather plentiful since I had no real work to do anymore, I found myself recalling some lurid vista of Annaheim with a kind of wistfulness. Not that I wanted to spend any more time there whatsoever; but the thought that somewhere, someone had built something different, was somehow a comforting one.

Of course, things wouldn’t be that way for much longer. I remember feeling stronger, more churningly-conflicted emotions during that time than I ever had before, even through the supposedly hot-blooded years of puberty and early manhood. I concluded that I clearly wasn’t cut out for high-level politics, and wished as fervently as I had wished anything that such matters had left me alone in return.

All too soon, the inevitable came. I was summoned to the star-port and shunted back aboard the high-spec ship with the rest of its cargo. Things this time around felt a good deal more cramped; I suspected it was the company, since Brads had replaced the original crew. Other, somewhat lesser-spec ships, held the rest of their number. Twelve hundred Brads – surely the most terrifying invasion fleet since the Obliteration war.

At least, I found the journey rather terrifying. The Brads themselves, once free of the constraints of civilisation, seemed to relax. Not quite as the Annas had done, admittedly, but they waxed slightly more loquacious, describing their recent missions to each other in a manner that suggested an undertone of jockeying for position. With little privacy aboard, I soon overheard more than I had ever wished to know about the Falling Away and the methods by which it was curtailed.

On our third day in-flight, I happened to enter the bridge while the Brad-in-chief, who had overseen the last such action, repeated the words of that system’s final independent broadcast. At the time I thought they sounded like just the sort of grandstanding someone who had placed his system’s eminence above that of civilisation as a whole would indulge in, but I still recall them now.

“…And empires have always risen, only to ebb into darkness and be replaced by fresh vigour arising elsewhere. So it was on Earth – Thebes gave way to Rome, and Rome to Constantinople, London to Delhi, Washington to Abuja. Earth itself now ebbs, having turned its back on human endeavour. Though it may not be our time, the time will come for fresh vigour from the fringes. Humanity must be replenished if it is to survive, and we cannot be kept down forever. The ashes of this dull, enforced mediocrity will birth a new phoenix.”

There was a silence when he had finished speaking, followed by a chorus of derisive snorts.

“Not this time,” two or three of the Brads concluded, in a unison I found as disturbing as their obvious satisfaction.

Since protocol said this was the time to health-check our sweep-shields, useless while we remained in un-merged flight, I tried to work on as unobtrusively as possible.

They turned to talk of tactics that could be employed on arrival, and then to a subject they had so far shied away from whenever it seemed about to come up; apportionment of the Annas. Even positing their estimated minimum and maximum casualties – they had quickly stopped pretending this might be a peaceful establishment of ‘order’ – it was clear some Brads would have to make do with only two Annas to maintain order over, while others would have three.

As I worked, I gradually realised that therein lay the rub. The original Brad would never have been selected if his copies were incapable of working together, and they clearly understood that there must be a chain of command. Indeed, each seemed happy enough to do his part within it, as much a cog in service of the whole as I myself. Rank, to them, seemed as inconsequential as whose turn to brew the beverages was among my own fellows. However, this ‘division of the spoils’, as they called it, was a different schematic entirely; a two-tier system, a caste system, denoting the boundary between the merely competent and those who excelled.

The point seemed rather esoteric to me, as they were concerned not so much who would end up with more, but who would have deserved it – and how that was to be decided. To a man, they recognised the problem, but to a man, their first instinct was to come out ahead – and then broker a more egalitarian arrangement. Even though the closest I could come to understanding it was imagining a fight over who decided the order of the tea-making rota, I could tell that trouble was going to come of it.

“So you see,” the Brad-in-chief said, raising his voice; I jumped when I realised I was being directly addressed, for the first time since coming aboard. “It is important to keep casualties to a minimum – their casualties, that is – in order to maximise the numbers of us who will be satisfied with the outcome.”

“Yes, sir,” I agreed, cautiously, wondering if he was trying to forestall a coup by the dissatisfied. More importantly, I was wondering why I was suddenly being involved. Maybe it was a grandstanding of his own, something he wanted an audience for that didn’t solely consist of men exactly like him.

“I think that the best plan is to send you ahead, as before,” he told me. “We can control your shuttle by remote while we wait at the edge of the system, and you can inform them that you have returned with your superiors. You will persuade them to allow our ship to orbit, and ourselves to land. Once that is done, we can take control of their defences. You can manage that?” he added, as doubtfully as the first Brad had done, during our first meeting. Perhaps it was the first Brad.

I recall how his words made me feel almost physically ill. It was one thing to watch, helplessly, but quite another to be an active participant in what was to come. On the other hand, what else was I to do, alone aboard a whole ship of eager conquerors?

“Won’t they detect the rest of the fleet, sir?” I asked, carefully staring at his set jaw, rather than his eyes. I did recall some talk regarding our launch schedule; the slowest ships had left real-space first, in a sequence carefully timed to allow the fleet to arrive all at once.

It reminded me, suddenly, of the glitch. I hoped our merges had been carefully spaced to allow for that sort of thing.

“Our launch preparations were completed a few minutes ahead of schedule,” he informed me, with a cold smile. “A small saving, but one that should leave us with a comfortable lead of twenty-four hours, standard, once we merge.”

Those assembled broke into grins. I had no doubt that all aboard would be allocated a triple share of the ‘spoils’, rather than a double – all the Brads aboard, at least.

“I will do my best, sir,” I said, woodenly.

When nothing further appeared to be expected of me, at least for the moment, I returned to my diagnostics.

It certainly seemed providential that I was working on the sweep-shields just when I was given this information. I was one of the few men – or so I assumed – who knew about the glitch at all. With hindsight, however, it might well have been that the Brad-in-chief knew very well about what had happened on my initial trip to Earth, and was setting up a test of my loyalty.

If so, his suspicions remained his own business. Sabotaging the shields – in the very manner I had been suspected of previously – was hardly a practical scheme. It was vastly unlikely that any micrometeorite would be both within immediate range of our merge and heading in our direction, and it would take only a few minutes after that for the absence of shielding to be noted. Besides, almost all aboard had survived the previous encounter, and that on a smaller, lower-spec ship. Mainly due to my own, dazed efforts, it was true, but I was certain the Brads could handle such a matter with more aplomb.

Meanwhile, the rest of the fleet would pass blithely on toward their goal.

The question remained of whether I would indeed lie to the Annas that we came in peace. I wrestled with it for most of that night. The problem was not so much morality as practicality, or so I thought at first – what good would it do, giving the Annas warning? They had assured me that they had no defensive systems in place; unless they had lied too, all my little act of defiance would do would be to ensure a disproportionate number of Brads remained second-tier – at best. Even if it were enough to trigger an attempted coup, Brads of one side or the other would emerge victorious, changing nothing.

On the second night, it occurred to me that giving the Annas warning would at least allow them to choose their fate. Immortal they might be, but not unkillable. Perhaps they would rather die defending their freedom than have it taken from them – or some of them might – and after all they had done for humanity, surely they deserved that much.

It is perhaps worth noting my certainty that the Brads, despite their inferior numbers, would win the day. None of the Annas had ever fought another human, to my knowledge, and they were certainly three centuries out of practice at fighting anyone at all. No – I felt their instinct was to analyse, to understand, to debate; and while they were doing that, the Brads would be undertaking their rather more single-minded mission against them. Unless they had some Brad-negating defence that was somehow non-lethal, they probably wouldn’t use it until it was far too late.

On the third night I belatedly realised that if they had lied about their defences, then they might well have other systems still in place too – the star-killing ones. The thought of those falling into the hands of the Brads was the most unpleasant jolt I had had yet. In fact – as it now occurred to me – once the Brads had finished establishing order on Annaheim, what was to stop them coming back to establish it over the rest of humanity as well? Only in this case, they would be armed with whatever they could glean from thee centuries of unbridled research. Had the Authorities had a plan for that eventuality, or were they merely hoping to buy themselves some time?

Had I been chosen in the hope that I would rally the Annas; to have our first cadre of identical soldiers save us from our second? But then, would they not have informed me – or did they fear that the Brads, well-versed in monitors and drugs from their rooting-out of secessionist tendencies, would rootle that out too? Had they managed to choose so well for my ‘stolid and unimaginative’ traits that I had missed some hint as to how I was supposed to act?

Those were the thoughts that kept me from sleeping for most of the fourth night. In the end, I had to arise, horribly drawn and fuddled, and find my solace in the reflection that at least nobody trusted me to pilot the shuttle this time, either.

I had been keeping to myself for most of those days, as much as it was possible, with my head down and my thoughts firmly on autopilot, running through the inspection protocols. Under the circumstances, any air of tension aboard on the seventh day – the day we were due to merge – I recall only as my own.

There was obvious concern, however, on the eighth day; consternation on the ninth.

On the tenth day, one of the Brads seized the front of my uniform and held me up against a bulkhead, demanding to know what I had done to the ship. He was stopped by another before he could do me any irreparable harm, but my suspicions that they had brought aboard their own cargo of monitors and dosers were quickly confirmed. In the end they decided I hadn’t damaged the ship after all – probably – and, still having failed to merge with real-space, turned out for the next-nearest system, presumably to lick their wounds and decide upon a different strategy for deciding which were the superior Brads, prior to rejoining the others.

We couldn’t merge there either. I only found out later that we had tried again and again, retreating out of range of the sudden, strange deviance in star-coordinates, far back towards the home-fires of civilisation. It wasn’t as if we could call for help, or guidance – communication was no more possible whilst un-merged than sensor-readings were. Indeed, the ability to abort a merge-less voyage had only been achieved long after the discovery of how to dodge the light-speed barrier into unreal space, and our safety protocols were still handed down from that period of deep-time.

These included the rules on supply-stocks; which worked against us here. If we had only carried enough for the supposed duration of our flight, we would have had to turn tail for Earth almost immediately. Instead, equipped with supplies for a couple of months in unreal-space, the Brads decided to push our reserves to their thinnest, as they attempted again and again to find a working merge-point. Nosing back along our trail cost them less, in terms of real-time, than they would have lost to the other Brads if they turned for home; by now, the compulsion to reach Annaheim before all the resistance was ‘mopped up’, as they put it, was almost a hysteria.

I missed most of this, since one obvious way to cut consumption was to keep me hooked up to the monitors, and fed only by IV. My muscles wasted, then were fed upon by my own body. The only reason I survived was that the Brads’ metabolisms required far more fuel than mine; that, and we finally found a useable merge-point.

Starved and enraged, the Brads fell upon the system and commandeered its resources. Perhaps mercifully, it was one which had already seceded and been put down, so there was little blood shed while they had their way.

There should have been none, of course – not with the degree of terrified cooperation I now understand they received – but they had been thwarted, possibly for the first time, and were deeply, wrathfully affronted about it. When I heard how they had behaved, I was surprised that I had survived being cooped up with them at all.

Of course, their anger still might have spilled over onto all of us, were it not that another, far slower, ship of the fleet merged mere days after our arrival. Crewed exclusively by Brads and unencumbered by any notion of sabotage, on discovering they couldn’t merge, they had come directly back to the nearest civilised system.

Nobody could reach Annaheim. It might well have been the only thing that could have shocked the Brads out of their fury. They sprang into action, demanding further system resources in order to punt out wildfire, near-light probes in search of fresh parallax data, new merge coordinates. From these, they could repeat the process until they discovered what mere light was too slow to tell them – that the star of Annaheim’s system simply wasn’t there anymore.

It made a terrible sort of sense. All our merge coordinates were incompatible with the absence – not just the ones for that system, but for every system within a significant distance, as the sudden loss of its pull skewed the courses of nearby stars.

When I was told this, I vomited. I was still weak from the dosing treatments, the weeks of starving inactivity, but the thought of the Annas killing their own star was too much. When had they done it? I wondered. Was it because of what I had let slip? Had they read so much into it that they somehow guessed what I hadn’t even been party to – or had they been tragically wrong, in a way that only I knew happened to be right?

More importantly, had they remained, stoically, within the system when it died, or had they broken their oath and fled?

I was still shuddering through my recovery when I heard the news that another ship had arrived. This one bore telemetry from a different region; combined, the data suggested that the star was not dead after all – it had moved.

Not only that, so it filtered down to me, but it was still moving, and quickly accelerating to hyper-velocities previously unseen, except in cases of slingshot systems, displaced by massive black holes or the gravitic shockwaves of galactic collision.

More ships arrived, merging both from Earth-radial and its opposite direction. Apparently this, the closest civilised world to Annaheim’s former position was a natural assembly-point, at least in the identical minds of the Brads. Word was spread and compared, and the velocity of the Annas’ sun was confirmed.

Worse, stellar telemetry was rumoured to suggest its course was unstable.

I remember how I felt when the meaning of this sank in; a curious jumble of relief, disbelief and sheer joy at realising what the Annas had achieved. They had found a way to remain true to their oath after all, fleeing their subjugation while remaining within their system. Surely, they had modified whatever their star-killing device had been, using it to hyper-propel their sun away from danger. I lay in bed for some days, since that was all I could do, imagining it coursing through unvisited gulfs of space, Annaheim and all its other planets whirling along with it.

Maybe they had planned for the eventuality; maybe that was why they had strung their orbit with monofilaments that they could light with familiar constellations, whenever they became homesick.

The Brads took the news less well, of course. Perhaps, it was a blessing in disguise – at least from civilisation’s point of view. I am told they flung themselves into pursuit of their quarry like hunting beasts, abruptly oblivious to all other concerns. Vessels and supplies were commandeered, almost stripping the system, hurried conferences held – it became clear to those serving them, or at least to me, when I was informed in turn, that the outcome of the hunt for Annaheim had become the factor determining status. From the complaints I overheard about suddenly-countermanded orders, I gathered that factions had already arisen between them.

Still, the main point was that they left – on a number of trajectories, clearly each making their own gambles as they set out for coordinates whose validity was still solid. The rest would be a delicate game of probes and guesses.

They had no chance of catching up; that was the projection of the councillors of this world. The system’s ever-changing trajectory gave its pursuers no opportunity to correct in mid-flight. Worse, the miscalculations, once discovered by the inability to merge, would result in long, lost months of real-time before calibration could begin again. It was on every tongue, repeated with a grim satisfaction, so I found it out even before I discovered where I was and what they called this world.

Munin, as it turned out; it was rare in having a twin planet, Hugin. They orbited almost together, but on opposite sides of their sun, Odin; the first settlers had held off from committing to a permanent home for over a decade, until they were assured that this was a very ancient, stable arrangement, unlikely to suddenly collapse into a death-spiral of the two brothers.

Naturally, with immediate threat from the Brads past, Annaheim’s flight was itself cause for alarm. The effect on a system this far away was slight, as proved by the continued validity of the merge coordinates, but who knew if it might prove enough to destabilise such delicately-balanced planetary orbits? Even if the disastrous outcome lay a few hundred thousand years down the line, the psychological impact of knowing their home was now doomed might be devastating.

The people here had been through enough already. I was glad to help out with cobbling together monitoring systems from such relics as we had left; glad, too, to volunteer for the cramped, difficult shuttle-journeys to set them up. Our small crew spent weeks on the rocky, outer planetoids and the few moons of the dying gas giant that orbited almost out of sight of its sun. These little motes would be the first to feel a tweak of gravity and stir their orbits.

Despite the conditions, it was good work; good to have work. Besides, I was unsure at the time what planet-side opinion made of me. While many of my visitors had expressed sympathy for my plight, others had made it clear that they viewed me as a patsy; at best.

In time, the majority view became one of my – attempted – valour; something that made me glad that I had made the decision to warn the Annas, even though I had never had the chance to follow it through. The feeling was an undeniably welcome change – although the Brads had never once thought to ask about it, through the long months of unreality, I had never stopped fearing, somewhere deep down where I could still feel things, that they would. If they had done, I would have had no hope of concealing it. As it was, I felt I had only survived with my sanity intact by the merest shreds.

Being on a world nearly as broken as I had been, I had no shame in admitting it when I returned from the outer reaches and what passed for the local Authorities descended on me. The techniques of my would-be interrogators were almost laughable in their lack of subtlety, but the questioning was conducted over drinks in a coarse bar, rather than on a clinical operating-table, and their own eyes told a similar story to mine. The Brads’ spiralling paranoia, in the days before their departure, had taken a heavy toll on this system. I was largely unsurprised when they responded to my words by declaring my innocence, and that I might live out my years here, if I so desired.

I remember deciding that it wasn’t a bad choice. Life on Munin was almost as quiet as on its lesser-populated brother, and if things proved too much here, I could always slip away to the other side of the sun. Moreover, there was plenty of work for a ship-mech. With no aid from outside, the system was forced into a phase of industry almost reminiscent of the Golden Era, as we strove to remake all that the Brads had taken.

Even so, the new axiom had penetrated – unmarried women I encountered were more than happy to converse with someone who had helped to set up telemetry in the cold wastes. Several even sighed, admiringly, that they only wished they were fit enough for such a task; these I thanked, as politely as I could, and went home alone, to brew my own tea and reflect on a world, three centuries previously, where we could have taken turns at such a task and perhaps discussed schematics in between.

Even here, it was not to be. Two doses of violence had left the system so thoroughly chastened that there was no question of breaking orthodoxy again. The women maintained the homes of their men, raised their children, or if unmarried, did the sort of work considered suitable for the feminine nature; and I remained alone with my musings.

Perhaps it is no surprise that my thoughts waxed philosophical, especially on the clear evenings when I braved the chill to watch the stars come out. We were on the fringes here; on my home-world, every bright star had a human observatory – a human presence – who would see, within my lifetime, the light produced by our star at the very moment I looked out at theirs. Out here, there was nothing but the pitiless stares of stars whose worlds we had probed and judged to be uninhabited – camp-fires all, but none of them attended. Worlds we had intended to inhabit, but had turned away from, because what was the point in filling the galaxy with more of ourselves?
I didn’t realise it at the time, but that was the thought of the Authorities of my age. Why make more settlements, more potential trouble, when what we had would suffice?
So we bolted the door, grumbling about the dangers and irregularities of life outside, and settled ourselves down by our various stellar fires; an old man of cosmic proportions, huddling under his blankets and awaiting the inevitable end.

If I thought about it at all, I assumed that the lesson of the Brads had been learned. Besides, infrequent visitors to the system brought no word of any fresh catastrophes in need of solutions that would prove to be merely new problems in their own turn.

So the years passed, while my face grew lines and the roundness of my cheeks became a hollow that the Brads – still chasing their prey across the further reaches of the galaxy – would not have envied in the slightest.

One day, however, a ship arrived on an unscheduled merge. There was a brief spate of alarm, before they made their intentions known, and those disembarking asked for me by name. Since I had no desire to be a further cause of panic, I was ushered aboard – with barely a chance to say my goodbyes, few as they were – and whisked away. On a trip which, I was only told as an afterthought, was back to Earth.

They didn’t bother with the probes and the drugs this time – perhaps they thought it might finish me off before they could even tell me what task they had in mind. Still, I remember how terrifying it felt, how surreal, to be back in what might well have been that very same room, once again facing a group of grave young Authorities. At least, it looked the same, to my dulled eyes, and perhaps some of them were middle-aged, but they all looked like school-children to me. I was so taken up with the observation that I found it hard to concentrate as they explained the latest stage in their schemes.

It pains me to reflect that it still caught me by surprise. For one thing, I hadn’t ever realised just how much real-time had passed while the Brads cast their high-spec ships back and forth, seeking a secure merge, let alone deigned to relay the news of events back to Earth. Half a lifetime, it turned out; a long time for the Authorities to squirm and wonder what was going on. Perhaps it hastened their shift to this point of view. For another, it brought back to me the words the Brad-in-chief had repeated; about the empire ebbing into darkness, and humanity needing replenishment. I wondered if there was any immanent phoenix out there, waiting to stretch its wings.

Not if they could help it, apparently. Along with the propaganda, of which the murals and holo-women were a mere part, singular viruses were now abroad, subtly affecting the brains of those not inoculated against them. The populace, spotted across the light-years, would never again surpass its rulers.

I remember the doubt, and then the bewilderment I felt at hearing such horrible tidings. I remember asking, in a pain of confusion that would normally have prevented me from being so blunt with my superiors, why?

They misunderstood. They told me that I was the only one, aside from themselves, who knew it all. About the secret of the Annas’ existence, and the less-secret existence of the Brads, and the reason there must not ever be any more Annas, or Brads; and yet, somehow, civilisation must be preserved. They didn’t want anyone young and thrusting and bright and zealous anymore – they wanted someone humdrum. Someone who, while loyal, knew their place; someone who, like an aged retainer, or a night-watchman, would creak along on his rounds, keeping the peace in a slow, stolid way, while they sat huddled by the fire and knew that, come what may, they didn’t have to watch their backs. Didn’t have to feel jealous.

Someone, I admit, who was far too much like me. They already had a name picked out for us – the Charlies.

I remember my reply, and the walk, between two heavily-armed guards, to the room where the templating-machine was based. It was surprisingly large, filling the ceiling and walls of what must surely have been a room large enough to hold a ship, drive-engines and all. I almost baulked, then, knowing that if I did, they would have had to let me go, because any copy based on my refusal would be worthless-

I marvel that I can still recall these events, centuries before I was printed, as clearly as when they happened; right up to that last, bitter memory of accepting my duty. As can my brothers – it is a miracle to us all, although one we can never admit to when we meet, except by the flicker of an eyelid or the twitch of a smile. The old hearth-fires may be dying, but they are a long time about it, and in their dotage our rulers have brought in ever-more paranoid and dangerous measures to counteract the darkness. Any one of them could be humanity’s undoing if we are not constantly vigilant in our caretaking.

It is a relief, however, to discover the Brads were not created immortal after all – that was the Secret the Annas took with them. Even in the slower passage of unreal-time, around a thousand years from hence the Brads’ vigour will fade and they will start to age. Our calculations, stealthily undertaken, suggest that the grip of the Authorities will run down around the same time. Our civilisation never did get around to making self-repairing machine intelligences, as the Obliterators’ makers had; perhaps it is for the best that we relied solely on our own flesh. Perhaps, indeed, that in itself is one of those hidden, quirky chances, like the simultaneous failure of the Brads and the Authorities. I do not know, no more than any of us do.

Either way, I try to be practical about it – I have no desire to become a zealot. Plans have been drawn up for when the inevitable occurs; I can only hope they are passed on faithfully to our newer brothers. I suppose I should call them our sons, for it transpires that our lifespan was designed to be shorter than that of the Brads, and none of us have an aptitude for biology. Why would we? We were chosen for our ability as ship-mechs, as maintainers, not as innovators.

We retain our template, however, and we have contingency plans in case our whole line should fail. Centuries ago, we plotted the maximal outward path of the Annaheim system, for a thousand years in any direction. We contrived to divert the parts needed for automated probes, a little at a time, each one slowly assembled and fired off in secret. They hang around that periphery now, in their tens of thousands, waiting for a shift of gravity to activate their recorded messages. Although my contribution to this great effort was minor, I still retain a quiet pride – as I know we all do – when I think of the words that fleeing system will hear;

The time has come for fresh vigour from the fringes. Humanity must be replenished if it is to survive, and we cannot be kept down forever. The ashes of this dull, enforced mediocrity will birth a new phoenix.”

The Annas, after they hear our long-dead voices, will know they are at last welcomed back from their long exile. If anyone can repair the effects of the virus, reinvigorate humanity, it is them; that is the important part. Still, I would dearly like to think that my sons will be here to see that day. While it may not be important, it matters to me that someone who remembers our first meeting with them will be here to see their return; and although we may not speak of it, I know that my brothers feel the same. Nobody is so stolid and unimaginative that they cannot dream.

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The Beaky Blog O’Doom – 2015. As far as Valentine’s Day, anyway

New Year’s day set the pattern for the year so far; feeling deflated but not quite dead, we went out to Beaky Hoose and worked like bastards. We ventured into the shed, and discovered that someone had apparently been throwing everything from curtains and tools to actual bins of rubbish in there for several years, after which a cat had been coming in to pee on whatever wasn’t rotting quickly enough on its own. Emptying that lot took days. We tore out the rest of the carpets, we steamed woodchip out of the lounge, we steamed wallpaper out of the upstairs bedrooms, we painted the newly-plastered ceilings again and again and again, we jack-hammered up the tiles in the kitchen. Then we hired an even bigger jack-hammer to take up the stuff under the tiles in the kitchen. I shall now show the before and afters, so you can agree that this place is actually getting worse.

Behold what we have done to the kitchen!

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And the lounge!


We also trashed the three-phase plan of doing stuff (which I discovered when I realised there was still rather a lot of timber and gyprock to be carted out, even though I had cleared it all the day before. On investigating, I found two massive holes where the built-in wardrobes had been. I… had thought we were going to leave that until some rooms were finished? Oh well. And we’re going to rip up all the upstairs floors now and make them straight? Oh dear god.) At least that meant we found the woodworm, where someone had apparently carted in an untreated plank; so that got painted with poison. One day, we may even make some walls where it used to be. And some floors. God willing.

The G-Monster’s vow that the garden would just have to wait was foiled when his brother informed him that trees Must Come Down before the end of March. Yas, the trees will come down and I will have somewhere to plant… new trees! This is Important, because I sent a finishing-up email to the lady in charge of the alittlement, and she told me that I would sorely be missed and am just the loveliest person ever, which was very sweet, although I fear she just tells me this stuff cos she knows I have mental health wobbles and fears I will die if she fails to coddle me on every single interaction, but it was very sweet nonetheless. Also, she told me it would be considerate to get my greenhouse, my tools, and all my perennials out of there. And as I am Known for being so amazingly considerate… wait, was I being played? Anyway. That would be: two apple trees that are just getting started and will probably die, eight bushes, six crowns of rhubarb and, erm, every single strawberry plant? Yikes! Thing is, until the trees come down, there is nowhere to put these guys that they won’t get squished. On the other hand, they do have to leave the allittlement. So I was mighty glad when the G-Monster’s brother came round and felled some mighty trees, on some fairly tight angles right between the shed and the house, too. The back garden was suddenly doubled in size, and without the one-time hedge even being touched!

Of course, the back garden was now entirely full, to the same height I am, with brushwood. But there was no time to worry about that, because we had finally found a sparky who didn’t flee in horror from the Herculean task that rewiring the whole gaff was going to prove (and no, diverting a river into it was not an option this time). This was a great relief, because we couldn’t get the plastering done before the rewiring was done, we couldn’t get the floors in until the plastering was done, and we couldn’t get a kitchen in until the floors were done, and the first part of that wasn’t due to start until… February? Oh god.

Fortunately, we had no time to worry about that, because we had to sod off for the FOSDEM conference in Brussels. Did I say ‘fortunately’ there? I didn’t mean it; I was so stressed out by this point that I had got ill. Worse, I was in a state of brain-drain so bad that I could write down all the things that needed to be done and yet not be able to fathom how to go about any of them. Even the ones which weren’t, ‘get photos taken for bloke who is kindly making my website’ and were more like, ‘wash dishes’. I had been hoping to take part in 28 Drawing Later again this year (where people do a drawing every day during February, or is that rather obvious?) but it became rapidly apparent that I wouldn’t be able to; worse, I had hardly done any art since November, me two-thirds-done novel had languished for months, and if it wasn’t for the short story I was working on for an anthology competition the G-Monster had sent me, I would be doing nothing creative at all. Which was getting to me, and I was mad at myself for letting it.

Also, the G-Monster had announced one day that ‘one person should deal with all the contractors, for that will make things easier’. I guess it did, for him, since he wasn’t that person – I, on the other hand, was now stuck in the middle of a giant game of telephone. However, there was that thing where the G-Monster revealed he didn’t want this giant mess of a project at all, so it seemed only fair that I take as much of the burden from him as possible, so he didn’t grow to resent me for it. But despite my best efforts, the flat was a tip, Beaky Hoose never seemed to look any better either, and I was waking up in the morning unable to work out what day it was, what I was late for, and whether I should dive into my suit or my horrible painty outfit. (So far, at least I haven’t got it wrong. So far.)

So we went to Brussels. It should have been nice, but I was in such a state that every moment we weren’t doing anything ‘productive’ (i.e. the entire time) I was in a state of heightened anxiety. I think I managed to conceal this? We did lots of good things – the Natural History Museum has the world’s biggest display of iguanadon fossils, all found in a local coalmine (and displayed in such a way that I cannot take good photos of them at all), but it also has masses of lifesize dinosaur skeleton (ditto) and a good example of the difference between the local languages. “Les geantes de la mer” says one sign, above the giant clams, (‘the giants of the sea’). How calm it sounds. GROTTE KLEPPERS! it says underneath.

‘Grotte klepper’ promptly became the G-Monster’s go-to insult for me for the next week.

There is a war museum, which is free, and we spent the afternoon wandering around it (and around it… and around it… good god I was knackered even before we found the immense hall of planes) and then collapsed in that lovely wee quite pub I found last year, The Grimbergen. Where we had a nice relaxed evening drinking ten-percent beer and eating traditional local dishes. I was a bit alarmed at closing time, when all three barmen formed a Knot to come over to us en masse. Surely we hadn’t been that obnoxious?

They presented us with complimentary shots and souvenir glasses. We were so embarrassed we stayed away from the place forever after. Which was awkward, because it was right opposite our hotel.

The next day, it turned out the G-Monster had announced what we had been up to on The Interweb, so a mate of his who specialises in making period weapons had requested photos of specific weapons for this book he’s writing. Back to the war museum it was, with only half a dozen stops so I could get fruit juice en route. Sadly, the G-Monster couldn’t get the interweb to work this time, so we had to leave and amble around the car museum opposite until he could find out what was needed. Then we went back in. We are almost certainly on a ‘potential thieves’ list of some sort now.

The conference this year was… not as exciting as previous years? It was nice to see all the nerd fashions, and note the increased number of both female nerds and nerds of colour, and I did plan a big blog about it in my head, but… eh. I was tired, and ill and desperately wanted to hunker down somewhere and do a lot of writing.

Needless to say, the next time the opportunity arose, I did not arise to it.

Which was not immediately, however. When we got back, it was time to head out to Beaky Hoose, armed with hatchet, bow-saw and cooking oil, and spend two days burning everything in sight. Also, the neighbours were moving out and gifted us all their unwanted furniture, which was highly providential but turned out to have to go several hundred metres, when you went around by the road. Sniff. We had only just made friends. Farewell, little spaniel.

We met the new neighbours, who have an even smaller spaniel. What a coincidence!

Also, I got to meet the neighbours at the end of the road; when someone who was out helping us backed their car into the neighbours’ lamp, and I was sent up to confess/ apologise. Now, the G-Monster has met the neighbours several times, but for some reason he thought I should take this opportunity to meet them myself. Needless to say, the bloke looked at me with absolute disgust and stomped off to let his wife deal with me; she was lovely about it, but I didn’t make any friends that day.

When I returned to the car, the G-Monster revealed that, lo, he pretty much knew that was how it would go down, and didn’t want them hating him. He was unhappy, however, when I revealed that I had said ‘we’ had knocked down their lamp, because obviously that implied he was driving. Well, dammit, shoulda chapped the door yourself then. I am not sorry at all that your plan to make me local enemy No.1 backfired.

Then I had to scrub off the stench as of a smoked haddock, and go catch up on things at the office. With haste, because I had a whole week off coming up.

Now the thing about the week off was, the G-Monster had another conference abroad, this time, on the other side of the world. Accordingly, I had packed all me stuff and prepared to brave a whole week at Beaky Hoose. Yes, the hoose with no kitchen, no beds (well, now it has some beds) no adequately-working showers… it was going to be cold and uncomfortable, but I was damn well going to see some difference in the place by the time I was done, or die trying!

Except, the G-Monster, too, had got ill. Too ill to get out of bed, too ill to be able to tell me what to do or what flights he was meant to be on; definitely too ill to go abroad. I stayed with him until he could move about and talk, then rather callously left him to look after himself, after he assured me half a dozen times he was perfectly able to look after himself. I mean, there were four separate folks turning up at Beaky on the morrow, and somebody had to be there to let them in.

Well, at least he was going to be in a place with heat and hot water and plenty of food. I got a lift off me driving instructor up to Beaky, since everyone was horrified by the prospect of me getting a train to the country, at night, and walking down a streetlit road to my abode, and settled in to ignore every strange noise (there were plenty) and be up at the crack of dawn to start getting things Sorted Out Already.

That part was not hard – the mattresses kindly given us by the neighbours are so ancient that I’m surprised I didn’t wake up with spring-marks on my face, and for the first time in my life I became aware that I could feel the dust in the air I was breathing. Getting up was therefore marginally less uncomfortable than staying in bed – especially since, with no curtains, doors or furniture, Beaky Hoose sheds heat like a cinder in the snow. (Also, I think we should shut the hatch to the loft, but what would I know.)

As usual, there turned out to be an Order in which things were to get Sorted Out Already. My plan for the week was, for instance, to get the back garden tidied up and three rooms decorated. Part one of my plan, therefore, was to get rid of as much of the dust as possible. It would come back – it would always come back – but so do the dishes, and nobody’s found a cure for those yet.

It took an inordinate amount of time, considering.

Part two was Painting The Fence That Has Never Ever Been Painted. This was because the G-Monster had decreed that the only place we can stack the logs, to be out of the way, is in the corner of that fence, ‘just for a bit’; I foresee future generations having to unstack those logs. Someone has painted the back of the fence, but since that’s not the bit that gets the weather (and is there ever a lot of it) I thought it rather prudent to paint the front. Also, I had cunningly laid in some paint.

Well, was it ever the wrong paint – that kinda luminous orangey stuff, not the dark brown everything else was painted. I suppose that’s why it was on offer. Still it was better than nothing, and I made slow but steady progress making the neighbourhood look worse, until I had to have a meeting with a contractor. Then there was more progress, until I heard another car. Was it the G-Monster’s brother, come to cut down trees? No. It was the G-Monster. I stared at him in bewilderment, because what the hell dude, you are ill, and if you don’t stop in bed you will never not get ill. Meanwhile, I had a stabbing pain in both ears like someone had shoved a knitting needle through them, and suspected I wouldn’t be on my own feet much longer.

Anyway, the G-Monster needed tea and consoling and the instant he was feeling better he discovered a tin of the correct paint, grr, which meant all my efforts were worse than wasted. At least I got the rest of the fence done the right colour, and his brother came over and cut down two more trees, thus forcing me to do over the work I’d done the week before. No, really, everything is going to be fine.

Well… sort of. No, actually, not at all. The more hours I put in, the more hours I was forced to spend stopping and making people cups of tea, or stopping and moving massive piles of stuff out of people’s way, or stopping because someone had come in to take up the floor all around me. By the fourth night, when the G-Monster’s awesome mechanic came to stay over and help out, I was horrified enough by the thought of her having to sleep on those crappy, murderous mattresses that I insisted we get the air-mattresses out. Sure enough, there was nothing anywhere in the place – and we had three different types of pump between us – that would fit the bastards, and just getting her set up with somewhere to sleep took forever. I passed out after twelve near-fruitless hours of labour, and was woken up at two in the morning when she snuck in to bleed the radiator in my room.

Feeling rather shown up by that, I resolved to work harder than ever the next day. I swear, though, the harder I worked, the more people showed up to need tea and things moved out of their way. By Thursday I had had enough – the hot water was off, the one non-leaking shower was off, the emergency kitchen had been shut off, the heat had been off all day because the radiators were getting raised, and I was washing in cold water in a sink in a bathroom with a door that doesn’t shut, let alone lock. At six in the morning, because all the kitchen appliances were coming at seven. As soon as they arrived, I sodded off home to get clean and warm and have some proper food for once. And lo, despite having ever so much to do, I have pretty much spent the week following that in bed, which is a) vastly infuriating and b) not something that has happened to me in… damn, years. A decade, even.

No, wait, we had to go back out and move even more things on the Saturday. Apparently that was valentines day; you can imagine how much celebrating was done by two ill, stressed-out people who’ve taken on far too much. I am a wreck.


Above: so now I just have to dig all the tree-roots out with a pickaxe and… ARGH.

Oh yeah, also I painted the shed, once I got near it. But still. After all that, not one room got decorated!

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