29

I can’t tell you how long it is dark for, only that it’s not forever because my eyes open.

My mind fumbles to grasp something, something it knows it’s forgotten.

Oh, that’s it.

There’s a “me”

As I crawl back to consciousness, I’m flooded with sensations, sights, sounds, smells. The knowledge of where they end, and I begin takes time to seep in. There are sensations, but are the sensations me? Am I them? Am I just making them? If something else is making them, what exactly is something else? I have to redraw the line in my head of what is me and what is not me. When I do, it seems arbitrary.

Noises, complicated and wet, dominate my other senses. Eventually I recognise them as voices and after a while I can understand them.

“Give her a bit,” a deep voice is saying. “The inner realms blur things.”

A voice, but not mine.

Great.

Now I have to deal with the idea that there’s not just Me and the World, but that there are other Mes. And for some reason they’re closed off to me, which doesn’t seem right. I groan, wholeheartedly.

“That sounded like proper pain,” the deep voice notes. “Did that sound like pain to you?”

“Well, she didn’t sound happy,” says a higher voice.

“Good, that’s good, pain is good”

For the space of a heartbeat, high voice doesn’t say anything, then: “Did you have a difficult childhood? I’m just asking because, mutt-chops, you ain’t right.”

“I would have liked a childhood,” deep voice says dreamily. “I’ve heard they are a blissful period of constant wonder, when done right anyway. I was called into being pretty much as I am now.”

“Because someone needed a sadist in a hurry?”

Deep voice chuckles, “Yes, as it happens. But pain is currently good because pain requires a point of view to feel it. Closer to the source all divisions are softened. Most outer realms folk who even glimpse it are… smeared. Imagine you are wet ink on a wet ink landscape and a thumb is dragged across it.”

“That’s what’s happened to the brat?”

“Most likely.”

“Bloody hell. Can she recover?”

“I think she was sent into the dark to protect her before the damage was done. Of course, time is something that gets smeared too, so “before” may be meaningless.”

“Sent into the dark? Knocked out you mean?”

“More or less. More less actually, but that’s not important.”

“By… that thing she showed me?”

“By my charge, yes. My reason for being.”

The shapes I’m seeing start to feel familiar. There is wood beneath me, pressing against my face. Deck, says a part of me called memory. I am lying on it this “Deck.” It is a vast plain on which are standing two giants, each many miles high. One has skin covered in short black fur, wears tattered trousers and has the head of a dog. Drool hangs from its jowls. The other has more clothes, a long mauve leather jacket and she has a furred face too, but a reddish blonde colour. I touch my hand to my cheek and feel skin. I’m bald. I want to cover up in shame. The woman has luxuriant moustaches that flow down to her legs. I am a hairless horror.

Another part of me tells me they are not giants and the deck is not a plain. I blink and my sense of scale returns and…

Wait, I know these people.

The dog-man, I know him best. He’s been chasing me. He is an August, a respected elder of Footfall, but also this beast. Somehow, that is my fault. The cat lady… a hepcat. She is Marney. I’ve just met her but she’s tough, capable, I like her.

Why are they together?

I ask them. It comes out as: “wherrarootoogeffa?”

“Hello, sunshine,” Florend says and gives me a doggy grin, lolling his tongue out.

“Are you okay?” Marney asks.

I try again, “Why… are you… together?”

“Oh, I thought I’d try a different tactic,” Florend says. “Intimidating you has not been productive. I am trying honesty and reasonableness. I was created to attack anyone who might be a thief. Unfortunately, you’ve already stolen my charge and my methods have not been paying dividends.”

“Yeah,” add Marney, dryly. “And he’s trashed the barge, so we’re not going anywhere.”

I look about, groggily. The sides of the boat are ripped up. There are chunks of machinery scattered on the deck and exposed wires, fizzing with purple energy. The purple energy Mimmereremere mines from the rock of Old Looma.

“Okay, yes, I vandalised the boat, but I didn’t kill her, did I?” Florend says and points at Marney, who does not seem grateful.

“What happened?” I ask, meaning why am I lying on the deck of The Steerpike.

“You looked up,” Marney says. “Told you not to, but brats won’t be told.

Looked up? I start to do just that.

“NO!” they both shout and take a step towards me.

Their urgency jolts my memory.

“Oh! I saw legs. Old Looma and The Foot are legs. It is a creature. And there was a hole. A hole in the sky. Everything was unravelled inside. I saw…” I frown. I don’t have the words. I don’t think there are enough words.

“Best not think about it,” Florend says. “You saw a portal to the source of all possibility. Our very large friend up there (she’s the one who originally assigned me to be a guard, by the way) is having a chat with something that lives near the source. Time’s weird close to the middle, you may have noticed, which is why it’s taking so long.”

“What?” I say.

Florend sighs, “You know how the universe is essentially a spiral of possibility sprouting from a hot source of pure chaos out to the absolute cold rigidity of order?”

“No.”

“Well, you glimpsed somewhere close to the source.”

“I’m confused,” I say.

“That’s totally the spirit,” Florend says approvingly. “I’d be worried if you weren’t. Now, Shoo, will you please give me back what you stole from me?” He coughs, gives himself a little shiggle and starts speaking earnestly in a clear attempt at laying his cards on the table. “The reason I was asked to guard it was to stop it being active in the world. It is utterly alien. From somewhere else entirely. Even its idea of chaos is different from ours and it’s homesick. It’s impossible to know its intentions, but they are almost certainly bad. For anyone not from an alien universe anyway.”

“Um…” I say.

“This is why I have chased you and threatened you and-“

“Set fire to Mimmereremere,” I supply.

“Wasn’t me,” he says.

I don’t believe him.

“I don’t believe you,” I tell him.

“Think about it, Shoo” he tells me. “I had my creatures all over town watching for you. How would the mayhem of setting fire to the city possibly help me find you?”

Hmmm, that actually sounds reasonable but if it wasn’t Florend, who was it?

Marney’s wrist computer bings an alert. She checks it, swiping about on the screen. Her eyes widen and her moustaches droop. I’m about to ask her about it when something else occurs to me.

“You killed Mondey,” I accuse Florend.

“I probably didn’t,” he says. “Tepcats are springy and don’t break as easily as humans.”

This is true too. Somewhere back in Footfall, Mondey may still be alive.

Gosh, I wonder if he’s looking for me?

“You killed all the dogs in the city and turned them into monsters,” I say.

I didn’t kill any of them. That was you and your chwillion friend. I just borrowed them for a bit. As you can imagine, I have a certain affinity for hounds,” he says and points with both hands at that doggy grin of his.

Darn it, that sounds like the truth too.

“You threatened to do terrible things to me,” I say.

“True. Of that I am guilty,” he says, looking like he’s fondly reminiscing. “There were some corkers in there too but, no, I’m sorry about that. I was just trying to scare you into giving it back. Listen, Shoo, if you return it to me, I’ll bury it and guard it. If it stays at large in the world, people will die. Would you condemn others for the sake of… whatever reasons you have to keep it?”

Well, when he puts it like that

I don’t even want the Thing any more, I really don’t. It’s caused me nothing but grief and it’s meant I’ve been pursued halfway across the country and dragged to the edge of madness. If I return it to him, I could just go home to Footfall, find Mondey, and get on with my life as it was. Yes, I was on the streets, but it was better than this. Also, now I know people – Moh and Tosh, Marney, the Bridgemen of Footfall – surely one of them could help us find work, maybe even somewhere to live.

Gods help me, I actually believe August Florend.

I reach into my pouch and pull out the Thing. It’s warm and heavy in my hand. There are no buttons on it this time, it just is what it is. I expect it to make a fuss about being returned to its guardian, but it only lies there, hanging down either side of my palm like a dead bird.

Am I really going to give it back?

Yep.

I hold it out to the August.

“I’m sorry,” I say. “We didn’t know what it was. We were just paid to steal it. You can have it back.”

Florend smiles at me and it’s a gentle smile. I never thought I’d see such an expression on his normally leering face. Maybe he’s not actually going to murder me the second he has the Thing back in his care.

“Thank you, Shoo,” he says, reaching a clawed hand out.

“Sorry, Shoo,” Marney says, in a strained voice.

“What?” both me and the August say.

She’s holding one of the crackling wires that Florend tore from her ship. The purple energy in the cable is mined from veins in the mountain of Old Looma. I now know Old Looma is the leg of a great stone god. The veins of ore are its veins. The glowing purple mineral hauled out of the rockface is its blood. This is a ship powered by living god’s blood. The wire fizzles and smokes eagerly.

“I have no choice,” Marney says.

And she touches the wire to the Thing.

“No!” I shout.

I was nearly done! I was nearly out!

In my hand, the Thing screams. It’s got no mouth, but it screams in a way that makes every cell in my body vibrate. Energy crackles through it, through me, and into the deck, I think I might be screaming too.

And the Thing rips us both into a trillion pieces. It flings us elsewhere to get away.

Or it tries to. The purple god-energy is doing something strange to it.

I don’t think we go where it wants us to go.

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