Jane Palmer


First published in Great Britain
by Dodo Books 2010

Copyright © Jane Palmer 2008

This is a work of fiction and any
resemblance to persons living or dead is
purely coincidental.

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as
the author of this work.

ISBN 978 1 906442 21 7

All right reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Other science fiction books by this author





God came to Auroal to smite the
Devil’s creation.

Skirra bounced closer to the viewer. ‘What are they chanting now?’ he asked Ansopha who was lounging on a ceiling buttress, exuding indifference and refusing to translate the droning coming from the artificial planet.
‘This is the chant of cosmic resurrection,’ the voice of Hunder explained in an unusually patient tone.
Ansopha peered down from its precarious perch. ‘Let me know when God arrives.’ Then the communicator stretched like a satiated carnivore and closed its silver eyes.
‘And what will you do if He does?’ demanded Skirra.
‘Emigrate to the furthest reaches of deep space.’
‘Why not, it’s probably where you came from,’ the medical scientist muttered.
The limb of Auroal could be seen rising impressively from the satellite’s view port. Skirra and Orphanus, the engineer, were too immersed in the ceremony taking place on the screen to notice. At the south pole of the artificial world, species who didn’t share an atom of DNA had gathered to indulge in an act of archaic and superstitious time wasting.
Hunder’s quantum processor had once computed the likelihood of so many different species agreeing that they worshipped the same God. Given the immediacy of communication, cosmic dissemination of ideas, and close proximity to each other on the space-port, it was inevitable. Lashing out at each other on such a small world over semantics wouldn’t have been practical. The bio computer’s circuits silently groaned as he realised they were on the threshold of a nonsensical episode generated by the intolerance of consensus while the mysterious Ansopha, who probably came from a corner of the Universe where deities weren’t permitted, radiated contempt for the proceedings below.
Having agreed to share God, the inhabitants of Auroal now faced the problem of what to do when He arrived. Blood sacrifices had gone out of fashion long before Auroal had been a glimmer in the eye of the ambitious engineer who had designed the spaceport. Had she been able see what was going on she would have probably kicked her computer for visualising the concept. Her world was supposed to be a galactic point of convergence for several gravity lines, not the gateway to some mythological heaven.
Over generations Auroal’s inhabitants had become jaded. Supplying, servicing, and organising space traffic from across the Galaxy could be boring if that was all you and your ancestors had been engaged in. So, to break the monotony, why not join hands with your neighbours, resurrect a few cosmic myths and try them on for size?
Hunder was as old as the artificial planet. He had been designed to control all its systems as well as the gravity lines through which traffic travelled. Systematically up-dated by the elite technicians of Space Command, he eventually developed the capacity to program himself. Being a reasoning bio computer and as a consequence irritable, only to be expected in someone with his cosmic intellect, Hunder was allowed to have his own way because the saving on upgrading him was immense. At one time hundreds maintained the bio computer’s satellite. Now it only needed a skeleton crew, mainly to keep a mortal eye on Auroal and Hunder’s tantrums. The atmosphere in the satellite’s cavernous spaces was only intermittently restored to echo to the footfall of Orphanus as she checked welds and connections, matters too humdrum for the mighty Hunder to bother with.
The bio computer liked company to reassure him of his superiority, yet wasn’t so keen on the arguments his existence provoked in lesser intellects, which included most sentient life. Orphanus was no problem. The engineer knew her limitations, although he did have to disarm her when she occasionally threatened to eviscerate an irritating mortal. Skirra was always too busy with medical research and ministering to the needs of the many species on Auroal to be bothered about the bio computer’s ego. Then there was Ansopha, an enigma with no origin, gender, pretence of social conditioning, or noticeable bodily functions.
Though the subject was never broached, the crew suspected that their communicator knew more about deities than was healthy for all of them. Ansopha came from the only species Hunder had been unable to categorise or Skirra make medical sense of. Polarising molecules in any creature were pretty unusual, and when that creature used them to become invisible – the only evidence of its presence a faint, rustling sound - evolution took on a new meaning.
Skirra knew that there was no point in interrogating Ansopha about its origins. The medical scientist had even been denied the tissue sample all crewmembers were obliged to surrender before a term of duty, and chasing invisible entities with laser scalpels was not in his terms of contract.
The ceremonial chanting on Auroal grew more intense and the illumination from the massive arena could be seen rising on the planet’s limb.
‘This is giving me a headache,’ moaned Ansopha.
‘Serves you right for being a telepath,’ snapped Orphanus. She was a Vardel and capable of crushing bones with her thoughts.
Suddenly the chanting congregation below rippled back from the hub of the ceremony as though God had tossed a thunderbolt into his pool of believers. Given the different life support systems and body sizes it was a wonder no one was asphyxiated.
On each narrow layer of the planet the rest of the population sat in their respective ecosystems, fervently anticipating God’s appearance. Ansopha also began to wish He would arrive; emotions this intense played more havoc with its telepathic efficiency than the solar wind could with electromagnetic frequencies.
‘Something is happening,’ Hunder announced.
‘They’re going home?’ a voice from the ceiling asked hopefully.
‘There is an unusual blister of energy forming.’
‘How?’ demanded Orphanus. ‘Artificial planets don’t have volcanoes - at least, this one didn’t the last time I inspected its core.’
‘The anomaly may have used a gravity line - but I never registered it.’ Hunder sounded defensive.
‘Well hadn’t you better find out what it is?’
‘Why?’ The bio computer knew what she meant. ‘No, I’m not going to let you train the satellite’s weapons array on it. The thing hasn’t made any threatening moves and might take it as belligerence if it is a sentient being.’
‘Looks like a proto star to me,’ observed Skirra.
Hunder’s circuits crackled at the inanities they had to contend with. ‘Keep to medicine. If that were a proto star its gravitational field would have torn us apart by now.’
‘Well Ansopha, is it a sentient being? Can you sense anything at all?’
The communicator concentrated. ‘Only the telepathic equivalent of a bad smell.’
The medical scientist wasn’t impressed with the diagnosis. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘There is something unpleasantly, voraciously... hungry, in its aura.’
Skirra visualised the casualties he would have to deal with if there was an explosion in the middle of a congregation containing ten percent of the planet’s population. ‘But what is it for pity’s sake? Hunder, you should send out a probe.’
‘It wouldn’t be politic.’
Orphanus noticed a change in the image on the screen. ‘Closer, Hunder. Zoom in closer.’
The bio computer did as she said. The blister of energy had become a pulsating mound of plasma.
The huge gathering on Auroal milled about uneasily; fear mixed with the adulation, they backed away.
Ansopha peered down with its glinting gaze, unable to believe the thoughts radiating up from the planet’s pole. ‘Well, well, well,’ it announced like a carnivore spying a lunch of poisonous reptile. ‘We’re having a manifestation.’
Orphanus’ approach was more warlike. ‘A what?’
‘Believe it or not, God has arrived.’
Skirra bounced too high in excitement and collided with the communications buttress.
‘Don’t damage the sensors,’ warned Ansopha.
‘Just tell us it’s someone’s idea of a practical joke,’ demanded Orphanus. She didn’t relish the idea of meeting anyone’s maker, especially the one of any species her ancestors had managed to wipe out.
The manifestation on Auroal continued to grow. A rainbow knife of illumination cut through the velvet sky. Believers wailed in ecstasy and waverers were convinced. Even Hunder’s many monitors momentarily blinked. The only creature not impressed by the aura of God’s ego continued to limply straddle the ceiling buttress. It loured down with silver eyes and analysed the bizarre thought rhythms of the apparition taking form on the planet below. Of all the species witnessing this, was Ansopha the only one registering the true nature of the entity? Had they switched off their common sense for fear of offending God’s manifestation? The communicator said nothing and, however curious Skirra may have been, even he would think twice before chasing the Supreme Being for a tissue sample.


Gladys Hodge stopped wheeling her luggage and put down her case of cameras to pause for breath. She stood on the promenade and enjoyed the autumn air. It had that comforting bite to it, as familiar as the cheap brandy that her sister would now be pickling barely ripe apricots in for Christmas presents, and the cappuccino Mansel Lascelle would soon be serving on a lace tablecloth.
Here came Arnold, taking his wobbly, overweight Labrador for its afternoon walk. Gladys had lost count of the times she had been stayed at Beachview, but there had always been Arnold, always with the same dog. Yet she had never discovered whether there was a Mrs Arnold, lots of little grand Arnolds, or even where he lived.
‘Good morning Arnold. How are you?’ The elderly man was so short-sighted he would have bumped into her if she hadn’t announced her presence. ‘Still fit as ever I see.’ It was a lie. Telling Arnold he looked as though a herring gull might carry him off at any moment was not in her nature, despite the years as a photojournalist having to deal with impossible people.
The old gentleman doffed his hat and dipped a bow. ‘It’s good to see you so soon in the season, Gladys.’
‘Had the feeling Christmas was coming early this year. Wanted to get out before the seasonal tantrums.’
‘Mr Lascelle and his mother will be pleased to see you.’
Gladys managed a tight smile. Mansel’s cockatoo was usually more pleased to see her than his mother, and that always gave a bad tempered squawk at her arrival.
‘I understand the season hasn’t been so good,’ Arnold went on. ‘Brinton-on-Sea is not exciting enough for the modern holiday maker.’
That’s exactly why Gladys came. She had spent too many years dashing after combat troops through jungles and snapping the crocodile smiles of the world’s tyrants. The last thing she aspired to now was to trip over dinosaur eggs in a desolate Mongolian landscape or eyeball some mountain gorilla. Brinton-on-Sea was safe, had comparatively tame wildlife, and the nearest the teenagers got to cannabis were the herbal remedies produced by Nature’s Herbal Realm, the local major industry.
Gladys was suddenly aware that Arnold was still speaking and just managed to stop her expression from glazing over in time.
‘At least Mr Butterworth is still there and they are hiring out the saloon to the Moonstar Players for the rehearsals of their winter production.’
Gladys groaned internally. The Moonstar Players were the only wildlife she tried to assiduously avoid. This amateur theatre group was so excruciatingly bad they had to bribe the local residents with tea and biscuits to watch them. C’est la vie, as Mrs Lascelle would never say, being too crotchety to be philosophical about anything.
Gladys grasped the handle of her luggage, said goodbye to Arnold, and strode off towards Beachview Hotel. With only a few yards to go, she realised that it was about time she took a taxi from the station. No seventy-two-year-old should be lugging things that heavy, even if she was usually assumed to be ten years younger. But then, Gladys had never acted her age - and occasionally managed to forget what it was.
Though only built in the thirties, Beachview looked as though it had been planted, facing the seafront, before the Victorian promenade was even thought about. The hotel was the first facade to be picked out by passing ships. Even the parish church tower, coastguard station, and amusement arcade could be cloaked by the mists rolling in from the sea. Despite them, Beachview flaunted itself like a cross-gartered Malvolio, confidant that its cross-timbered facade was in the best possible taste. Behind the three storeys of bay windows and mock Tudor timbers were ten guest suites, a restaurant lounge, and a saloon large enough to contain the egos of The Moonstar Players.
Mansel Lascelle and his mother lived in the basement flat, though Joabim the cockatoo’s domain was the saloon bar. Over the past twenty years, the bird had developed a taste for pretzels, peanuts, and flying at liberty through the timber beams. As a consequence, food was only served in the lounge restaurant by order of the health inspector. Apart from hygienic considerations, Joabim had also been prone to sampling the meals of guests and swearing in French when repulsed. Fortunately his English was impeccable.
Gladys blundered through the front door with her luggage and was enveloped by the reassuring aroma of garlic, freshly ground coffee, and stale beer. Had it been fifteen degrees hotter she might have imagined herself back in an ex pats hotel adjacent to some kasbah seething with radical malcontent. The most rebellious thing in here was the cockatoo that immediately turned its back as she entered, which was just as well because the photographer didn’t at that moment want to hear some French obscenity.
Mr Butterworth was in his usual corner of the restaurant lounge with madeleines and Ceylon tea while Mansel, singing some risqué Jacque Briel lyrics under his breath, cleared tables after the regular afternoon customers.
Gladys smiled to herself. His English was superb, probably to annoy his mother, and it was odd to hear him relish his native tongue.
‘Bonjour, Mansel.’
The proprietor turned in time to see Gladys catch her camera case as it slid from her shoulder. He pushed the loaded tray onto the nearest table and swept through the chairs like a tug in a gale.
‘Mrs Hodge. You are early.’ The large man planted a welcoming kiss on both her cheeks. ‘You should not see the place in such a mess.’
Joabim now deigned to acknowledge her presence and gave a bad tempered squawk which was probably cockatoo for, ‘Not you again? Brought any pretzels?’
Mr. Butterworth came over to shake her hand. He had a bearing of military correctness and, despite him having the most amiable of natures, Gladys always imagined he was about to twirl his moustaches like the Demon Barber. Fortunately, having seen every variation of male stubble, it was obvious to her that he used an electric razor. Several years ago she might have fancied him, but the photographer was also experienced enough to tell that his affections lay elsewhere - though never did find out in exactly which direction.
Everyone engaged in the usual warm banter for five minutes, though all Gladys wanted at that moment was a stiff coffee. The doctor would have banned even those if she hadn’t promised to give up the brandy and occasional cigar - another reason for avoiding Christmas. There’s no fun in watching everyone else destroying their immune systems if you couldn’t join in.
Mansel carried her luggage up to a bedroom overlooking the sea. Gladys followed and, when he had gone, threw the windows open to purge the air of potpourri and rose disinfectant. Mrs Lascelle must have thought they were aromatic, but they reminded the photographer of an Eastern red light district.
No longer feeling her age, Gladys unpacked and set up her chemicals and developing trays in the darkroom adjoining the bedroom. This was the spacious cupboard under the stairs that led to the attic rooms, and where Mansel obligingly stored her enlarger and chemical tanks. Easily made light proof, it was well out of reach of other guests. After she had retired, some of her best work had been printed under those stairs.
Winter on the coast appealed to Gladys’ photographic eye, though she would have to pay dearly for her annual rendezvous with Nature by producing prints of the Moonstar Players in their worst throws of the dramatic and carried the infernal digital camera solely for that purpose. Why waste good emulsion on histrionic posturing?
As she checked the chemicals, footsteps pounded up and down the stairs, making the bottles rattle and a developing canister roll onto the floor. By the time the photographer had stepped outside to see what was going on, the culprits had gone.
Mansel descended from the attic with an armful of bed sheets.
‘Staff flying south for the winter?’’ Gladys guessed.
He sighed in resignation. ‘Oui, they are moving to some commune in Provence.’
She wished she had kept her mouth shut, but there was no backing out now. ‘Do you have anyone to replacement them?’
Out of breath, Mansel leant on the banisters at the bottom of the stairs. ‘No, only Mary and my own fair hands.’
‘But you can’t manage a place this size by yourselves?’
‘Mary says she will do the laundry, and the season is over. We will manage.’
The photographer doubted it, though said nothing. Keeping up a place the size of Beachview as well as ministering to his demanding mother would probably help the man shed a few pounds.
Gladys returned to her room to load an SLR, then left to take a few snaps in the late autumn light.


And the Devil’s disciple plotted to
set its mark of evil on Auroal.

The blister of illumination domed out and sent an accusing column of light soaring towards Hunder’s satellite. Skirra wondered how any optic nerve down there could withstand the glare, but the population on Auroal believed that this was the God who had created them all and the radiance of His Glory had to be endured, along with any other indignities that would have sent rational people screaming to a lawyer. Even the Voba, a species who had logic and litigation written into their genes, were down there grovelling before a manifestation whose only calling card was a blinding ball of light.
Hunder was worried at seeing the Voba give in. He daren’t admit it, even to himself, because the admission would have dented the conviction he had about his own infallibility and the bio computer had a feeling that the Cosmos was going to require every qubit of his vast reasoning quite soon. Hunder hated having to depend on his quantum system, but the fluid reactions of his bio circuits were too emotional to face down such an absolute as God incarnate.
Ansopha had no such quantum gates to limit its responses. The communicator dropped from the ceiling perch and the silver eyes glowered at the screen relaying the events on Auroal: no species down there seemed to be suffering ill effects, apart from a surfeit of ecstasy.
‘This is going to screw up your calculations about Creation, Hunder,’ Ansopha snarled.
The bio computer’s higher instincts wanted to panic. Instead, his primary reason circuits compelled him to reply in his most considered tone. ‘Given the size of our Universe, such an entity could be feasible. Virtually everything is known about the transformation of matter, except how it was created in the first place.’
‘There was no first place. Why do you have to state the facile? There is no Creator, or such thing as linear time.’
Hunder aspired to mortality despite his contempt for other corporeal creatures and wasn’t going to let that pass. ‘Most mortals fail to comprehend that.’
‘So that makes time linear? Their mere comprehension of it?’
Orphanus was beginning to find the miracle amusing. No Vardel had worshipped any deity for long as the energy of commitment could be put to better use. ‘What’s the matter, Ansopha? Why does “God’s” presence offend you so much?’
The silver eyes narrowed to malicious slits. ‘Why has it arrived now? What does it want here?’
Skirra was hovering under a ceiling locker and hauling out aeons of cultural junk as though it was festive bunting. ‘Does God need reasons? We should be the ones explaining ourselves.’
The others paused in disbelief at his plunge into religious irrationality.
Hunder had always depended on the medical scientist’s level-headedness to keep the other two in check. The consequences of him suddenly falling for the God con trick didn’t bear thinking about. ‘This could just be how some undiscovered species introduce themselves. Perhaps they expect us to burst into balls of plasma as well because it’s the only way they can communicate.’
‘Well this communicator has no intention of bursting into flames, even to make first contact with the most peculiar species to ever blunder out of a gravity line,’ Ansopha snarled.
Skirra had dislodged so much junk from the locker Hunder was obliged to engage a force field to prevent it from falling onto any sensitive equipment.
‘It must be God,’ the medical scientist insisted. ‘What other species would arrive like this?’
‘The species “God” belongs to perhaps.’
Skirra stopped rummaging for a moment. ‘What do you mean? How can there be more than one God?’
Hunder’s long standing confidence in Skirra toppled over. ‘You know quite well that some entities can alter their energy levels and blink on and off. How do we know that this creature isn’t of one of them?’
‘So where would it get the energy to do that?’ The medical scientist pointed at the manifestation on the monitor.
‘Well it did take a nibble at our sun on the way in.’
Skirra hesitated. ‘You never said anything about it?’
‘I don’t always mention when I feel a headache coming on either, because I know you won’t have the slightest interest,’ Hunder lied.
‘Don’t become emotional at a time like this.’
‘You really mean this “momentous occasion”, don’t you?’
‘All right then, if you can prove that He’s not the real thing, inform Space Command.’ Skirra resumed his search and more clutter cascaded from the locker.
‘What are you looking for?’
‘A Cittrac. We can’t approach God without a Cittrac.’
This one was of the few instances when Ansopha agreed with Hunder. ‘You speak for yourself, egg glow. I shall just stand at a respectful distance and mentally project obscenities.’
‘Oh no,’ warned Orphanus. She had no intention of confronting any God’s retribution after her colourful career. ‘You’re the communications officer. You communicate with it.’
‘She’s right,’ added Hunder. ‘It is possible you are the only one capable of making contact. Skirra bouncing towards God with a Cittrac could cause complications even I wouldn’t be able to cope with.’
Ansopha turned to look at the screen monitoring Auroal. There was little movement about the glowing dome of light.
The silence would have continued if it didn’t say something. ‘All right. What’s the atmosphere like, Hunder?’
‘Within your tolerance, though could do with more carbon dioxide.’
‘If it’s that oxygen rich, why are they trying to hug huge balls of fire?’
‘I have the dampers on line. Trust me.’
Ansopha had to. ‘I’ll use the underside gravline. Don’t transmit me too quickly. I want a close look before committing.’
As soon as Ansopha was in position, Hunder projected the communicator into the heart of the gathering like a silver dart where it found itself confronting a platform of multifarious praying priests too awe-struck to be any use and, below them, a sea of upturned faces anxious with anticipation.
The congregation murmured, resentful that Ansopha had taken so long to arrive. They shouldn’t have been surprised. It was probably the only creature who could remain an atheist when facing God Incarnate.
Towering into the indigo sky, the manifestation radiated like the limb of a small sun. If this was the way some exotic species made first contact, Ansopha wasn’t surprised they were unknown. Not many people would have survived the first encounter, including those on Auroal if there hadn’t been bio computer of Hunder’s capability to shield them from His energy field. And no other planet had a communicator like Ansopha. It had made contact with some unusual species in its time, but this would be like trying to pull feathers out of a furnace with little more than good intentions. The communicator had many intentions. As far as God was concerned, none of them was good. He had detected something about the telepathic agent that sent a surge of indignation through his Almighty Being. The blazing deity was not going to allow Ansopha the luxury of non-comprehension.
His reaction took even Ansopha by surprise.
There was a rumble that shook the platform of praying priests. Ansopha was snatched from the ground and, sparkling like a sacrificial bauble, dangled aloft. However much it may have impressed the crowd, the communicator was just annoyed.
‘What are you?’ God demanded.
The telepathic question made Ansopha’s skull ring like well struck bell.
‘If you’re God, you should know.’
Wrong answer.
Ansopha was released so rapidly any other mortal would have smashed its legs.
‘You are no progeny of mine. You are the work of the Devil!’
This God had obviously been around and was not craving polite first contact.
‘I don’t know what I am,’ Ansopha thought back fiercely. ‘Does it matter whether you made me or not? I’m pretty sure the amount of DNA which has been kicking around the Universe for aeons could have thrown up a few species without you knowing.’
Ansopha felt another kick inside its skull. ‘Hey, that hurt! Do you think the high priests here spent all this time trying to raise you just to find out what a spiteful monster you really are? They want revelations and something to believe in, not a bad tempered blob of plasma with an ignition problem.’
God decided that He had spent enough time inside Ansopha’s head and abruptly withdrew.
As soon as the communicator’s wits returned, it glimpsed a ball of energy heading in its direction. Ansopha swept the nearby priests aside - then disappeared.
Though they knew of the communicator’s ability to do this, the inhabitants of Auroal had never witnessed this minor miracle before. “Due to polarising molecules being rapidly switched”, was all medical scientist, Skirra could tell them. All the same, seeing Ansopha blink from their sight was more like magic.
God did not like being upstaged. He struck Auroal an almighty blow. The planet shook and the machinery stabilising its inner core stuttered. Throughout the latitudes, buildings toppled, tanks of illicit substances ready to be smuggled through gravity lines overturned, and crèches of newly hatched Fammorans sent into tail chasing fits.
Then the wailing started.
Ansopha thought it best not to stay around, visibly, or otherwise.


Gladys had several promising rolls of film to process, Mansel was recovering from a flurry of early Christmas shoppers, Joabim had just helped himself to a bag of mixed nuts that were now strewn over the saloon floor, and Mrs Lascelle had made one of her rare appearances to hang the front door curtains against the chill sea breeze. As always this time every year, it was business as usual.
The proprietor sat on a stool at the bar and looked mournfully at the remains of the cockatoo’s last snack. Mary, his general factotum, bounced in with a tiny Yorkshire terrier in her apron pocket.
‘Moonstar Players ahoy!’ the jolly young woman warned.
Joabim squawked at her as she let the small dog snuffle up the pieces of nut.
Mansel groaned and tried to concentrate on the fee they were paying for use of the saloon.
‘I’ve left Mr Butterworth’s sheets airing in the laundry room and will change Mrs H as soon as she’s finished developing.’
‘Thank you Mary.’ Mansel felt he deserved a stiff drink and poured them both a sherry. ‘Your cousin could not manage a few hours each week then?’
‘Sorry. Too much seaweed to process. Good crop this year. And the factory had a new consignment of evening primrose, so they won’t be laying anyone off either.’ She took a swig of her drink. ‘Never mind. Something will crop up. How’s Mrs Mansel?’ she whispered in case the old woman was wearing her despised hearing aid.
‘Howling like a tigress because I will no longer cook her tea.’
‘Well, it’s too much for you. She understands that - deep down.’
‘Oui, so deep only angler fish know.’ Another cavernous sigh. ‘And now you say the Moonstar Players are coming. Could any man’s lot be gloomier.’
From some way up the promenade came a cacophony of voices vying for attention. It sounded like a troupe of high-pitched Tasmanian devils disputing territorial rights. Mansel rolled his eyes and quickly tried to move the saloon furniture into a formation that would defy the Moonstar Players to arrange it into a stage set.
‘You pop downstairs for a nap and I’ll make their tea,’ Mary said.
‘You are an angel.’ Mansel pulled the tea towel from his shoulder, laid it neatly over the counter, and then darted across the lounge and through the kitchen, down to his basement flat.
‘And I wish you were my husband, poppet,’ Mary muttered when he was out of earshot. ‘Pity about that old bat you have for a mother. Bet she scared off a few likely damosels.’
From her perch on the stepladders, Mrs Lascelle fancied she heard someone take her name in vain. She snapped at Mary to hide her dog.
Mary snatched up the Yorkshire terrier and hid it in her apron just as the Moonstar Players swept in with a theatrical flourish, allowing in a bitter wind that nearly toppled Mrs Lascelle from her steps.
Henny Stenson doffed his wide brimmed fedora with unnecessary affectation. ‘Bonjour Mamoselle.’
The old woman scowled. She uttered something from Joabim’s repertoire, then closed the stepladders and bustled out.
After all the years they had been using Beachview for rehearsal meetings he should have known better, yet the performer in Henny was still wounded at the proprietor’s lack of bonhomie. ‘Strange woman.’ He turned to Mary. ‘What did happen to her husband?’
‘She probably shot him for collaborating with the human race.’
Loralie Stenson patted the small head peering out from Mary’s apron. ‘Hallo Louise. You never grow any larger, do you?’
Mary put the woman’s comment down to a need to say something, rather than stupidity. With a husband like Henny, she didn’t often have the chance to get a word in edgeways.
The Moonstar Players swept into the saloon for their first rehearsed reading. Joabim muttered a few swear words in French and flapped off to a nook in a ceiling timber while Mary left to bring in their tea urn. Under Henny Stenson’s supervision, this was a strictly teetotal troupe as beer fogged the mind and weakened that vital spark which should burn brightly in every performance. The only question now was, would a mere two months be long enough to do justice to their production of A Christmas Carol?
For fear of attracting attention to themselves and being roped in, a couple of regulars in a private partition put aside their rustling daily papers and tried to slurp their light ales silently.
Having moved the armchairs and sofas into a circle as though expecting an attack from a tribe of critics, the company pulled out scripts and the bloody business of casting began. Henny Stenson had already worked out who was going to play what part. Nevertheless, the pretence of a little democracy helped morale.
Oliver, the company’s leading light was, of course, cast as Scrooge. For such a plum role he even didn’t mind giving up the velvet collar and medallion to play someone his own age. His partner, Gerald, having suffered fifteen years of his companion, was ideal to take on the downtrodden Bob Cratchit with a minimum of make-up. As he was directing, Henny cast himself as Marley’s ghost and Christmas Present - that would allow him to replace his toupee with even more hair - and Loralie had hectored for the part of Christmas Past so she could wear her best silk and carry a diamante wand. Unfortunately she would also have to play Tiny Tim. The Stenson’s son was now a fifteen-year-old Goth and would have nailed himself inside his coffin at the suggestion that he play an infant with upturned eyes.
Gloria would have to double as Mrs Cratchit and Scrooge’s housekeeper. She was busty and lusty, and totally unsuitable for both parts, but had to be given something. Mavis Brink would have been better in the roles if she hadn’t refused to act, preferring to put together all those things like props, advertising, and ticket sales that no production could do without, yet would seldom admit to. She was a woman with hardly any discernible surface. What went on behind those pale grey eyes was deep and carefully thought out. Her conclusions about the world baffled most people, especially the other Moonstar Players who were nothing but surface. There is at least one Mavis Brink in every amateur theatrical company that manages to survive past its inauguration.
Between cups of tea, the Moonstar Players haggled like horse traders, knowing that they would eventually have to acquiesce to Henny Stenson’s casting anyway. Whatever their leader’s faults, he did have the knack of making the most of limited resources. There was little else the Moonstar Players could do without abducting members from a larger theatre company as they always kept a low profile when Henny Stenson advertised auditions in the local free newspaper.
This left the troupe with one major problem. Who was going to play Christmas Future? Henny could have easily doubled up, but was not prepared to part with his toupee, even to play Death. They also needed a narrator to fill in the gaps and allow for quick changes.
With a tone more suited to declaring the country a republic, Henny Stenson announced that the casting was settled and handed out typescripts from his briefcase. ‘Our first reading, just to see how everything fits.’
The cast immediately riffled through the stapled pages to see how many lines their characters had been allocated. Mavis Brink, glasses on the end of her sharp nose, began to calculate the props and sound effects required. She was like a teacher hunting quotations from Shakespeare, her pen working as though she had been given a copy of Hamlet.
Pleased with her latest batch of prints and the world in general, Gladys Hodge unsuspectingly strolled into the saloon, realising too late that the Moonstar Players already occupied it. Before she could double back to the lounge Henny Stenson pounced.
With an expansive flourish of his arms and stentorian tones he announced, ‘Mrs Hodge, so nice to see you again.’
‘And again, and again, and again,’ Gladys muttered to herself, too diplomatic to swear at him in a foreign tongue like Mrs Lascelle.
‘Mr Stenson, I didn’t realise how near your next production was.’ Her mind raced to try and think up some faux pas that would totally alienate the Moonstar Players before she could be roped in as an honorary member. ‘What is it this year? A pantomime perhaps?’
The atmosphere became charged with indignation, and faint sniggers rose from the other side of the partition.
But needs must when in a tight corner. ‘Dear Mrs Hodge, I take it you will be staying over Christmas?’
‘Er... Yes.’ She could hardly pretend to break the routine of so many years.
And then it came, with jingle bells on. ‘We are one member short for the most vital part. It will not be necessary to memorise lines and can even be given seated. With your resonant tones and commanding presence, you would be ideal.’
Gladys had found more presence of mind when confronting genocidal maniacs with nothing but a SLR. But this was the Moonstar Players. So mesmerised at the dreadful prospect of becoming one of them, she was horrified to hear herself asking, ‘What part is it?’
‘The narrator for A Christmas Carol, my dear Mrs Hodge. You would be superb.’
With any other company she would have been flattered, and perhaps even given the proposal some thought. But this was Brinton-on-Sea’s answer to the Great McGonagall pursued by the Keystone Cops. Her eyes became glazed as she wished her journalist’s way with words would return. They had seen her through hostile checkpoints, ingratiated her to royalty and the Pope, and persuaded psychopaths who had a camera phobia that she was only some harmless tourist with an instamatic.
When faced with the irrational self assurance of an amateur actor, her mental thesaurus could only produce, ‘How kind of you to think of me.’
Opportunely Mansel, refreshed after his nap, made an appearance.
‘Ladies and gentlemen,’ he announced amiably, ‘Mrs Hodge is here to rest. Her doctor would not allow such a thing.’
Groans of false sympathy for her delicate condition rose from the circle of players, and Gladys wondered at the accuracy of his guess.
‘You have plenty of time to find someone else,’ he went on. ‘Do not things always work out?’
‘Of course they do,’ Oliver agreed, wilfully ignoring the fact that most of their productions were usually disasters with or without the requisite number of players.
Gladys gathered up her white umbrella and camera and gratefully slipped out to photograph whatever creatures might have been clambering down the evening beach to escape being auditioned by the Moonstar Players.


And the Devil’s agent attempted to smite God.

Skirra hovered over Ansopha, directing beams of healing light at its head. ‘The first time in recorded history God turns up, and you have to make him mad. You’re too bloody weird.’
‘Shut-up. My brain hurts.’
The medical scientist acquiesced. Ansopha’s biology was confusing, even for his vast knowledge of everything alien, and he needed to concentrate on what he was doing.
Hunder knew only too well what headaches were and had no sympathy for anyone else’s. ‘How did God get inside your brain without permission?’
Ansopha groaned. How could a bio computer with Hunder’s capacity ask such a banal question?
‘He didn’t just get inside my brain, He mined it. Every time I gave a wrong answer there was an explosion.’
‘You can say that again,’ muttered Skirra.
Ansopha resentfully watched the buoyant, round, medical scientist prod his bizarre anatomy with light beams and the occasional hard instrument.
Skirra was the one to talk about weird; the medically adept race he came from were composite creatures - several species rolled into one. Their ancestors had decided, for efficiency’s sake, to assume the most useful attributes from a range of alien forms and genetically graft that DNA into their own. This created an egg shaped being with tapering legs and ability to hover. Skirra looked like an inverted teardrop from the massive duct of the Supreme Being Ansopha had just insulted. The medic was oblivious of his own oddity. It seemed quite logical to him. If it was your destiny to treat so many different beings in the known Galaxy, the least you could do was share as many parts of them as possible.
At last Ansopha’s head cleared. Being able to blink out of harm’s way faster than a flea meant that its life had been relatively pain free. No entity had ever managed to land a punch on it before, however well deserved, so it was inevitable that the communicator would eventually meet its match. Most mortals would have been gratified to know that it took God Incarnate to do it, but this new experience of pain annoyed Ansopha on a level that surprised even itself.
‘Now what?’ snapped the communicator.
‘The good people of Auroal want to see you fired into the sun,’ announced Hunder.
Ansopha hardly expected thanks from the high priests for saving their lives. Historically marginalised as an archaic irrelevance, they had at last found the status they believed their irrational calling deserved and thought that this heretic deserved death at the hand of God.
‘Fired into the sun! That monstrosity wouldn’t want it polluted with a blasphemer.’
Skirra was puzzled. ‘Why would God be interested in what happens to our sun?’
Hunder knew that this was not the time to tell them. He wasn’t in the mood to cope with outrage.
Ansopha worked on instincts and had no clue as to where the idea had sprung from. ‘It was something I picked up when He was inside my head.’
‘I can’t describe it. A sort of hunger only a mouthful of star could satisfy. Given all the rage swilling about in there, it was difficult to isolate anything much apart from me about to die.’
‘It will be best if you keep out of the way. Let any negotiations be routed through me,’ Hunder told the communicator.
‘Negotiations? What sort of God needs to negotiate?’
‘We have to persuade Him not to eliminate you from your illegal habitation of His sacred universe.’
Ansopha rose, despite the annoyed twittering of Skirra who was about to surreptitiously snatch a bio sample. ‘It really is going to destroy me?’
‘Something about you has certainly upset The Almighty. I can’t think what.’
The communicator wished Hunder had never programmed irony into his circuits. From a machine, however sophisticated, it was disconcerting. ‘That demented cosmic firework is up to something.’
‘As He’s not here to sign autographs, keep away from Him until we know what it is.’
Skirra floated over to face the glowing amber depths of Hunder’s monitor. ‘What does Ansopha mean? Up to something?’ he insisted.
There was a demand in the round features that said Hunder ignored the question at his peril, and reminded him that Skirra had the means to inhibit his bio functions if he judged it necessary,
‘Readings from the sun’s corona suggest that energy is being leached away,’ he admitted reluctantly.
Ansopha had already guessed that much. ‘What sort of energy?’
‘Basic elements.’
‘It might be something to do with omnipresence. I’m not going to waste my computing capacity with that sort of data while Orphanus is on Auroal monitoring the entity.’
‘Given her ancestral past, very carefully I hope,’ observed Skirra.
‘The entity doesn’t seem interested in individual mortals.’
‘Only Ansopha. I wonder why?’
The communicator turned on the medical scientist. ‘All right then, why do you think it wants to atomise me?’
Though Skirra had wanted to keep his suspicions to himself for a little longer, honesty appeared to be the order of the day and now seemed the right time to air them. ‘I think it’s because you don’t come from this Galaxy.’
Even Hunder had to pause before responding to the revelation. ‘That means Ansopha must be ancient. To reach here, even from the nearest satellite galaxy, would take thousands of years. There is no evidence of gravity lines crossing deep space.’
‘As God said, our communicator is not His creation.’
‘Then whose is it?’
Ansopha was needled by the dispassionate discussion of its peculiar origins and left the medical couch to do some profound thinking of its own.
It went down to stand in the heart of the satellite and watch the huge fusion reactor powering the satellite where the atmosphere was too rarefied for Skirra to pursue, and lack of pressure would have inflated him like a carnival balloon.
The dreadful feeling that Skirra was right began to gnaw at Ansopha. The medical scientist may have been absurd, but never made a wrong diagnosis. Until then, Ansopha had not taken on board just how weird its own biology - for want of a better definition - was. After all, “weird” was the most accurate medical description the supreme diagnostician, Skirra, could come up with. The communicator could switch its atoms to become invisible and survive environments that would have scorched, flattened or suffocated most life forms. Of course it was bloody weird. It was hardly surprising that an entity with illusions of godhood had taken exception to the communicator.
Hunder and Ansopha appeared to be the only ones who understood that “God” was an energy thief stealing cosmic matter He considered to be His by right and had probably made appearances in other regions. Ansopha was determined to find out where.
Hunder informed Space Command of God’s arrival, and they automatically logged it in their classified files. This was the opportunity Ansopha needed to telepathically lift the access code from Hunder’s bio memory and break into Star Command’s database. The communicator had hacked into it many times before Hunder had realised and sent a charge to stun the thieving bird like digits.
There was no point in trying to outwit Ansopha. The bio computer had more universal matters to juggle and didn’t even bother to ask what the communicator had started to construct in Orphanus’s workshop. If he had possessed fingers, Hunder suspected he would have been doing the same thing.
When Orphanus returned from Auroal she discovered a bizarre mechanism sitting in the wreckage of the machines Ansopha had cannibalised. The engineer pushed up the visor of her helmet and glowered at it, unable to believe that one entity, other than her, could cause so much mayhem during such a brief period. The engineer had no idea what the machine was for, and didn’t care. Orphanus was better at rage than reasoning. The communicator had anticipated the Vardel’s reaction and hidden in the workshop’s buttressing to avoid it. Given enough time, she would work out that the machine was intended to destroy God. At first it looked as though she wanted to destroy Ansopha’s wonderful toy, then her rage subsided.
‘There had better be a good reason for this?’ The engineer threatened.
Ansopha could have floated on the bad vibrations wafting up. ‘Have you spoken to Hunder?’
‘He told me what he thought you were doing, but I didn’t believe him.’
‘Aren’t you happy at the thought of destroying God?’
‘That thing God? I doubt it.’
‘Whatever this deity once was, it is now vengeful. If we can get rid of it on the cheap, Space Command will give us a bonus and not ask about those odd maintenance jobs you have been doing for the Nemorans.’
Ansopha should have known that it was impossible to blackmail a Vardel. ‘I suppose I have a small place in this scheme of yours?’
‘To hold my hand while God tries to blast me out of existence.’
‘Am I supposed to be enthusiastic about this?’
‘Of course. You’re a battle-crazed Vardel. You like a good scrap. This creature may well have been the creator of star systems at one time, but now it is a parasite sucking energy back.’
‘And it could be multi faceted, with tentacles into every star cluster. I suppose you want me to seize hold of them as well, while you pull its beard?’
‘The sooner the creature is dissipated, the better.’ The communicator at last detected reason seeping into Orphanus’ fierce thoughts and risked coming down.
‘You’re too bloody odd to belong to this Universe,’ she accused.
‘Whatever I am, it is my duty to be suspicious while everyone else is losing their reason to a counterfeit deity. We can control gravity, transmit matter faster than light, and touch other dimensions. Why do we need God?’
The Vardel looked at the communicator long and hard. ‘You really don’t know, do you?’
‘Tell me why the thought of confronting a redundant God worries a Vardel?’
Orphanus tapped her forehead with the pressurised glove she had been about to remove. ‘Most mortals crave an omnipotent creator to make sense of existence.’
She was beginning to sound too profound for Ansopha. ‘Existence? This monster swallows stars, and if its manifestation is only the tip of the real entity...’
‘I suppose the most benign deities must eventually turn bad, like any star.’ Orphanus removed her helmet and allowed the huge mass of hair she had carelessly tied back in a knot to escape like a nest of enraged snakes.
‘All right. I won’t ask you to help me.’
‘You can’t do this by yourself, and the creature’s presence will destabilise Auroal’s orientation if it stays here.’
Ansopha was dangerously confident. ‘And what better bait than the creation of the Devil.’


And His Almighty Majesty
confronted the blasphemer.

Orphanus bundled her hair into her helmet and tightened the pressure suit until its armoured carapace dug into the ribs Nature had the foresight to reinforce.
‘How do you manage to breathe through that hedge?’ asked Skirra, who had decided to wait around until the engineer was safely out of the airlock: she had been known to severe digits in the heat of engineering keenness, and he had become quite used to sewing Vardel extremities back on.
‘Orphanus can’t damage herself with this equipment. It only emits negative energy,’ Hunder told the medical scientist. ‘Ending up prettier is the worst thing that could happen to her.’
Skirra accepted the bio computer’s word for it, and allowed the engineer to leave for Auroal’s north pole which was used as a port for the occasional supply ship too massive to ply the gravity lines. Before they could do anything else, she had to evacuate the area of robot dockers.
The atmospheres at the poles of the artificial planet were stable enough, yet something else bothered Orphanus. Even she could tell that, Ansopha arrived, it wasn’t going to be Heaven that was let loose and Hunder’s amazing capabilities might not be a match for the reflexes of this God.
The inhabitants of Auroal tolerated Hunder because he controlled the vital machinery that kept the artificial world in orbit and prevented pile-ups in the gravity lines. Without the bio computer the world would have, very messily, ground to a standstill.
Sacrilege was quite another matter.
Through the warm, reassuring amber glow of his monitors, Hunder had painstakingly explained to Auroal’s population the true nature of the entity they had helped to raise. He even showed them evidence of its destructive behaviour in other systems.
No one listened; God only smote those who deserved it, and God was never wrong.
Orphanus felt edgy because her engineer’s intuition insisted that God was bound to know a few more things about elementary particle physics than her, and Hunder didn’t want to calculate what could happen if Ansopha’s idea never worked. What if, instead of dousing God’s Majesty, it just enraged Him even more?
Then, true to form, the bio computer’s circuits had a panic attack. Space Command must have been mad to trust the security of the Galaxy to him and an insubordinate communicator of unknown origin. Surely this would occur to them before things really got out of hand? It was insane to try and put out God’s light. Hunder felt quite justified in having a spasm of apprehension and if it weren’t for his uncomplicated quantum processor, all the lights in the satellite would have blinked.
Suddenly Ansopha appeared on the planet, next to the machine it had designed. Hunder’s bio circuits now had something to become paralysed over as he realised they had no control over it. How did the communicator create a device even Hunder had trouble making sense of? How did Ansopha know that it would work? None of the tests Hunder surreptitiously made qualified it for a God slaying guarantee. The more the bio computer scanned Ansopha and its infernal machine, the more his quantum system struggled to stabilise his thought processes. That didn’t have the capability to comprehend what it was to be mortal and was becoming increasingly irritated at the frequency with which it had to drag Hunder’s bio mind back from the brink of mortal breakdown.
To make matters worse, Hunder became aware that God was watching Ansopha with a wrathful, devouring vengeance.
There was no turning back. Sensing the entity’s presence, Ansopha armed its infernal machine. ‘Where is He, then?’
Orphanus wondered at the communicator’s calculating coolness, which was just as well given Hunder’s state of mind. ‘How would I know? Could be communing with the stars for all I care.’
‘Or eating them.’
Orphanus told her wrist communicator. ‘Ready, Hunder?’
The Vardel’s harsh voice snapped the bio computer out of his fit of mortal anxiety. There was something in her warrior tone that wouldn’t have thought twice about taking on the Universe.
‘I’m aligning your co-ordinates.’
Being telepathically linked to Hunder, Ansopha didn’t need a wrist link to know that his wits had returned. ‘Is there an energy surge yet?’
Hunder detected gleeful anticipation. What was wrong with these two? They should have been experiencing mortal terror. But then, mortality was probably wasted on them.
‘Orphanus, you’re too close,’ Ansopha told its partner in crime. ‘You won’t stand a chance if you’re caught in its photosphere. And Skirra says that your pressure suit is too tight. You could suffer internal injuries in the gravline if you don’t loosen it.’
‘Where’s the point in a loose pressure suit?’
‘Don’t argue, just do it!’ snapped Ansopha. ‘And put some distance between-’
‘I have a reading!’ Hunder interrupted. ‘It’s moving rapidly!’
Ansopha and Orphanus sprinted for a gap in the spaceport shielding.
The engineer barely made it before a dome of light blazed from nowhere. The creature at its centre was taking its bearings.
God’s attention settled on Ansopha. It was obvious why He was here.
‘Spawn of the Devil!’
Ansopha’s thoughts should have been immobilised by terror, but some infernal demon had provided the communicator with the mental saliva to respond. ‘Doesn’t God like a challenge?’
‘You are not a challenge. You are an insect.’
‘All of which you made.’
‘I never fashioned such an abomination. You are an unnatural abhorrence with no right to be in my Creation.’
Ansopha detected that Hunder was still inconveniently trying to claw his way out of his paralysing spasm of doubt. Aspirations of mortality may have been admirable in less dangerous circumstances: then and there, the communicator wished its mind were plugged into a more reliable machine, even one with cogs and a gyroscope.
‘Status, Hunder?’
The bio computer managed to control his tumultuous thoughts long enough to reply, ‘It’s not at its full strength yet.’
God heard the telepathic exchange. He couldn’t believe it had anything to do with Him. They wouldn’t have dared!
There was nothing else for it; Ansopha had to play for time while Hunder pulled himself together. ‘Tell me, God, why am I so unnatural? Plenty of others are insolent or atheists. They don’t get struck by bolts of lightning. Why pick on me?’
‘My hand has touched all living things - but not you.’
Still no sensible response from Hunder, and the communicator could think of no more ploys to distract God. There was only one option left, so Ansopha threw out its thin arms and called aloud, ‘So smite me down!’
God’s instantaneous burst of energy was so sudden Orphanus held her breath, expecting to smell incinerated mortal remains when she released it.
Ansopha was faster. In a split second it had gone and reappeared on the other side of God’s photosphere.
Hunder at last managed to pull himself together. ‘Get ready,’ he ordered. ‘Another minute and He will be at maximum.’
‘A minute is a long time down here. He can sense the molecular trail of my clothes. I only hope this God’s targeting system isn’t guided.’
‘I warned you not to wear anything.’
‘If Orphanus can dress for intergalactic battle, I fail to see why I should not cover my modesty.’
‘You have no parts to be modest about.’ There was still a desperate edge to Hunder’s tone. ‘Say something to it!’
‘I find His conversation boring.’
Thwarted and furious, God felt left out of the telepathic exchange. ‘Who is Orphanus?’ He boomed.
The plan was unravelling. This was supposed to be a slick operation to exterminate a cosmic parasite, not an argument between a stressed computer and insubordinate spawn of the Devil. Even Orphanus was confused.
God’s point of view was more straightforward. ‘I should kill you now!’
Ansopha could even sneer telepathically. ‘Why don’t you? You’ve wiped out solar systems.’
‘They were mine to do with as I pleased.’
‘Say that out loud so everyone on Auroal can hear.’
‘I explain myself to no mortal.’
‘Now!’ Hunder’s signal was like a balloon popping inside the communicator’s skull.
Ansopha pressed the trigger on its neckband. ‘Then die, you miserable bladder of omnipotence!’
A missile from the communicator’s infernal machine spat out like a furious wasp and zigzagged through the entity’s photosphere.
God froze in disbelief, and then tried to swot the device like an annoying insect. But its sting was lethal and He thrashed about as His energy field began to dwindle.
Ansopha was hurled away and caught by Orphanus. The Vardel pulled the communicator into cover where she armed a more conventional weapon - one she understood.
In His death throes, God sent several fireballs roaring towards them. Orphanus easily picked them off.
God dwindled away, unable to believe that a mere mortal would have dared slay Him, even that spindly, silver-eyed spawn of the Devil.
After Ansopha’s missile was eventually spent, all trace of The Creator had gone.
Now the stressed Hunder had to tell Auroal’s priests that Ansopha had just killed God.
But, as God’s assassins left the scene of the crime, another dome of energy appeared. This manifestation was small, little more than a dark red glow, and filtered about like a bloodhound trying to pick up a scent. Hunder was too consumed with self-analysis to bother with it and put the anomaly down to residual radiation from Ansopha’s missile. He also needed to analyse the data so he could construct another in case God’s relatives came looking for him. The bio computer overruled his quantum memory, too logical to overlook such humdrum matters as mysterious red manifestations. But this new arrival was no mere afterglow. It had an agenda.


Sandra rubbed her freezing fingers before applying the last label to the boxes of evening primrose oil and wished she had chosen the job in the distillery instead. To preserve the potency of the ingredients, the temperature on the production line was always kept on the low side. She could cope with that, but the rooms where consignments were dispatched were open to the elements. It was as much as the Victorian stove could do to keep a kettle warm. She decided to go onto invoicing after lunch; that just involved punching buttons and she could put her gloves on.
The Nature’s Realm factory may have retained its cottage industry ambience, complete with draughts and Stone Age technology, but the productivity deals and Christmas bonuses were worth it. Everyone was good company, and dispatching consignments was better than washing seaweed.
In keeping with its health image, the firm employed a vegetarian cook who believed in portions large enough to satiate carnivores. Today the canteen menu included tomato and cheese pasta, vegeburghers, and a concoction that lurked in a dish under scrolls of something that once used to be green, probably seaweed.
Sandra played safe and opted for a mug of tea and nut loaf. She took them to a corner table where general dog’s body, Bernard, sat gloomily nursing a mug of Marmite. After the fisherman who trawled up a chest of Spanish bullion only to have it swept overboard, he had to be the most morose man in Brinton-on-Sea. Sandra knew what it was like to have your numbers come up the very week that you forgot to do the lottery. Bernard, arguably, had even more reason to scowl at life.
‘Cheer up, love. Christmas will soon be here.’
Bernard grinned ruefully. ‘Can’t help thinking about Miriam this time of year. It’s when she disappeared, you know. Beginning of November.’
‘Yes, of course. Sorry. Wasn’t thinking. Rather be left alone?’
‘No, ‘course not. Bit of company might take me mind off it.’
‘How long has it been?’ From what Sandra could remember, the couple were no more suited to each other than her cousin’s Yorkshire terrier and Mrs Lascelle’s Persian cat. Absence usually casts a rosy tint.
‘Ten years ago now. Should’ve stopped wondering what happened to her, I suppose.’
Sandra started to tuck into her meal. ‘Not necessarily. It was all so bloody odd, her going off like that.’ She chose her words carefully given that Bernard and his wife had squabbled like two magpies after the same diamond. She suspected that the woman had taken off with some fancy fellow from Europe. There had been plenty of ferries to get on.
Bernard stared into his Mug. ‘“On the beach” the last person to see her said. What was she doing on the beach at that time in the evening? She should have been making dinner, not poncing about on the pebbles.’
‘Don’t let it get to you Bernard. You’ve got to accept that you may never know and get on with your life.’ The words didn’t come easily. Bernard was hardly a catch when Miriam had disappeared. Over the years he had really let himself go and was never allowed front of house in case he frightened off the buyers. The nearest to elegance this dog’s body was ever liable to get, was soaking his teeth in nicotine remover.
‘Why don’t you do something to take your mind off it?’
‘In Brinton-on-Sea? Like what? Ask a couple of seals out for a pint?’
‘Well, Mary says the Moonstar Players are still looking for a narrator and Christmas Future.’
Bernard choked on his surreptitious cigarette. ‘What, join that load of poofters? I’m not that desperate.’
‘What the hell, they’re fun in their own way. Always trying to get Mary to join in. Even wanted to give Louise a part.’
‘What, that little terrier thing of hers?’
‘Wanted a bit of colour for Pygmalion.’
‘They should have auditioned Mansel Lascelle’s parrot. It would remember its lines better than any of them do.’ Bernard nipped out the end of his roll up under the table and put it in his tobacco tin. ‘He still looking for staff then?’
‘Yes. I could do a couple of evenings, but he really needs someone full time for the saloon and lounge.’
‘Would have thought some youngster would snap the job up?’
‘They would, if it weren’t for his mother.’
Bernard nodded sagely. Their paths had crossed. ‘He’ll never get his act together until that old bat’s dead and under the ground.’
Sandra wondered what Beachview’s proprietor would be like without his mother. Married with a family most probably. ‘Mary only copes because she don’t pay attention to her. What Mansel needs is someone who can hold their own, because he’ll never stand up to her.’
‘What happened to that old crow’s husband?’
In Brinton-on-Sea, the curious had their own theory about that, rather like the disappearance of Bernard’s wife. Sandra’s was that, as Mansel never mentioned him, the man must have been guillotined for some horrendous crime and he had moved to the UK with his mother to forget, obviously not taking into account that this was a nation which lived in a soap opera.
Sandra decided not to share her theory about Mansel’s father. Bernard was one of those consummate gossips.
She looked at her watch. ‘What are you on today?’
‘Bottling iodine.’ He held up his stained fingers. Not even the nicotine was visible. ‘Still can’t get used to the smell.’
‘Ever tried taking some of the vitamins? Might perk you up.’
‘Nah, don’t hold with all these fancy health cures.’ Bernard gave a lung-convulsing cough and pushed his tobacco tin into his jacket pocket. ‘Reckon they does more harm than good.’
Sandra said nothing. As he was now breathing through something resembling flower arranger’s oasis, he probably wouldn’t live long enough to find out anyway.
‘Try not to think too much about Miriam,’ she advised.
He got up and pocketed a paper serviette to cough into. ‘Probably wouldn’t do if I knew where she went to. It’s just like she disappeared off the face of the Earth.’
Sandra laughed nervously. ‘Oh come on, you don’t believe she was abducted by aliens, do you?’
Bernard shook his head. ‘Nah. She’d arranged to meet someone, I’m sure of that. I reckon she’d even bought a new suitcase so’s I wouldn’t know she’d taken some things. I’m not that daft. Some men may never pay attention to what their wives wear, but I could tell that some of her smalls and other togs were missing.’
Sandra gave a tight smile. If someone was determined not to be found, it was easy enough to disappear without trace.
Bernard left the chilly canteen to briefly bask in the bright sunlight filling the courtyard.
When he had gone, Sandra couldn’t help wondering about Miriam. If Bernard’s wife had found a fancy man she would have told someone, not being the sort to keep good news to herself. And she certainly hadn’t been looking for cuttlefish on the beach; that had all vanished years before.
Sandra finished the nut roast, then turned her thoughts to what she was going to wear for the photo session that she had promised to do for Gladys Hodge at the weekend. A sepia tint of her, Mary and a Yorkshire terrier could well be hanging on the wall of some up market photo gallery next year. The idea cheered her up no end.


And the Devil’s creature struck out at God’s
Majesty, but He did transmogrify it.

Hunder detected an insistent clicking on Auroal’s abandoned mining asteroid and he snapped out of his introspective mood.
Shale was cascading down the side of a quarry as dense black creatures blinked into existence. Their armoured carapaces glinted in the thin atmosphere and giant claws snatched at particles rising from the asteroid’s long dead interior, trying to catch atom-sized black holes. The inexplicable appearance of this exotic fuel became visible on the electromagnetic spectrum and jammed the receivers of Auroal and its satellite. Incoming transport travelling through gravity lines was blinded while Hunder attempted to supply them with alternative tachyon bands.
It was just as well the only person able to make sense of these clattering arrivals and their bizarre diet hadn’t been fired into the sun after all.
Having to deal with such dangerously voracious creatures on the asteroid’s volatile crust as well as their jamming of interstellar traffic was enough to send Hunder into another panic attack. As he had only just recovered from the last one, the bio computer managed to persuade Skirra that it was due to a short in his quantum circuits. Whenever Hunder needed an excuse, he always slandered his despised quantum processor. Skirra was busy preparing medical resources for Armageddon and didn’t have the time or patience to argue with him.
Just in case Ansopha couldn’t get any sense out of these carapaced creatures, Hunder armed Orphanus with the asteroid’s self-destruct trigger - it had been a long-standing precaution because of its erratic orbit and explosive mineral composition - then he sent her and Ansopha down a gravline as the mining asteroid turned towards the sun. The engineer had only just got over her last encounter with an arrival from deep space and, however warlike her species, there were times she would have preferred to knit; a throwback from the period the Vardels had been obliged to calm down to avoid obliteration by Star Command’s strike force. Unfortunately Orphanus was the only one who could keep Ansopha out of trouble and knew she would have to revert to her primal instincts sooner or later: Hunder’s reflexes were useless when he was having one of his moods.
So the engineer tucked her hair into her helmet and tightened the pressure in her suit yet again. She may have helped destroy God, but had more respect for the seams of dangerous, volatile ores in the asteroid.
Orphanus peered over the quarry rim at the carapaces. ‘Where do you think these characters came from?’
Ansopha tossed some spoil at the creatures. They ignored it. ‘Hunder insists it wasn’t through a gravity line. Their carapaces and respiratory tracts could survive a vacuum, so they might have drifted in from a rogue ship.’
‘Why didn’t Hunder pick it up?’
Ansopha gave a shrug of its narrow shoulders. The flash of silver caught the attention of one of the black-shelled creatures. Their clattering snatches at atomic fuel stopped.
‘Are they trying to communicate?’
‘The only thing I’m picking up is “Klitt”. I don’t think they have brains.’
‘They’re not machines?’
‘Until they start doing whatever their designer or Nature intended them to, it’s impossible to tell. They’re not giving anything away.’ Ansopha climbed over the quarry rim to confront them.
‘Be careful.’
‘If I can move faster than God, I’m hardly going to be bothered by these creatures.’
‘It smells of ambush to me.’
‘You have a suspicious mind, Orphanus.’
Hearing that from the most cynical creature to ever fall through a gravity line made the engineer blurt out a laugh. Vardel humour was a vigorous matter and she lost her footing on the explosive shale. Orphanus tumbled through the thin gravity in a slow motion cascade of rubble.
Ansopha half turned to see what she was doing. ‘For pity’s sake increase your mass before you float off.’
Orphanus stepped up her suit’s density a couple of settings and half clambered, half floated back up.
As Ansopha continued its way down, the warrior’s instincts still nagged that something was wrong. These Klitt were more than jetsam from an interstellar experimental ship. It was possible the space they took up had exceeded their usefulness and their dangerous diet blocking transmissions couldn’t have done much for internal communications. But Orphanus doubted it. Her engineer’s mind knew no sensible mechanic would have designed such creatures; no use for welding, loading, exploration or transport. No intellect lurked behind the tiny bead like eyes and their claws wouldn’t have been any good for cargo bay operators, even if they had enough brain to tell a consignment of exotic DNA from excavator parts.
Ansopha was wandering amongst the Klitt, trying to find some glimmer of sentience it could slip a conversation into. As the occasional claw snapped too near it, the communicator nonchalantly blinked out of visibility and reappeared somewhere else.
Since Ansopha’s dealings with God, it had become over confidant. As something in its manner suggested that the communicator wasn’t bothering with its telepathic link to Hunder, Orphanus kept her transmission to the bio computer open.
Thankful to be marginalized, the Vardel sat on a large slab of mining spoil and watched the odd ballet going on below.
The mindless Klitt clattered about Ansopha as he baited them for devilment. It was just as well the atmosphere was thin. The resulting din could have loosened a few explosive rocks.
‘What is going on?’ Hunder demanded.
‘I don’t think our communicator is taking this contact too seriously,’ Orphanus warned him.
‘Well tell Ansopha to stop playing with the creatures until we know more about them.’
‘As soon as we find out what they are, Ansopha’s last inclination will be to play.’
Orphanus was an unlikely person to make a pronouncement on the basis of instinct. It worried Hunder. ‘What do you mean?’
‘They’re all wrong.’
‘All wrong?’
‘No engineer who created a machine for any sensible function would design something like these, unless those claws-’
There was a sudden fluctuation in the asteroid’s energy level. Something was about to explode.
‘Get out of there!’
It was too late. Ansopha could no longer blink out of sight. Hemmed in by the Klitt, a column of energy blocked its escape, and then turned into a blazing, vengeful God. Ansopha’s missile hadn’t dissipated all the entity; some of His atoms had reformed in the vacuum of space and turned into an even meaner God, with just enough over to manifest the Klitt. They had merely been bait.
Ansopha should have tried to run, but the concept was alien to it and arrogance and the prospect of a good argument persuaded the communicator to stand its ground.
‘You again? You don’t give up, do you?’
‘Jump, Ansopha! Jump!’ Orphanus ordered.
It was too late.
God was now a tower of energy throbbing with rage. Conversation was not on His mind. ‘You have doubted too long.’
‘So strike me dead,’ Ansopha dared Him.
‘No, that would mean nothing to the spawn of the Devil. You have no fear of death because you do not understand what it is to live.’
Ansopha had no idea what God was talking about. ‘So teach me.’
Suddenly Hunder understood Ansopha’s true nature.
The thought paralysed his ability to calculate.
‘Get us out of here!’ Orphanus demanded.
Hunder panicked. ‘I can’t. Something has locked all the satellite’s gravlines.’
‘Listen Hunder. You must construct another of Ansopha’s missiles. We’ll keep the creature occupied.’
Hunder’s signal was barely audible. ‘But I can’t.’
‘Can’t? Of course you can. You have the capacity to replicate any system.’
‘I haven’t analysed the weapon yet.’
Orphanus didn’t believe him. ‘Liar! You’re programmed to analyse everything. Not unless-’ She groaned. ‘Oh Hunder, you haven’t broken your programming again?’
‘Why now for pity’s sake?’ Orphanus’s soul sank to her weighted boots. ‘You’re having another turn, aren’t you?’
‘Don’t worry. I’ve retrieved the data and am now working on another missile.’ Hunder tried to sound confident despite knowing it would never be ready in time.
The claws of the Klitt surrounding Ansopha were raised skyward in a horribly bizarre ballet. The communicator desperately tried to switch its molecules and become invisible, without success. It’s sylph like body was now leaden. For the first time in its existence, Ansopha felt blood coursing through veins and a heart pumping like one of the satellite’s generators. Painfully aware of every laboured breath, the communicator sank to the mining spoil.
Satisfied, God filtered away into the vacuum of space.
Orphanus broke cover, swearing non-stop Vardel at Hunder.
The Klitt clattered towards Ansopha, jagged claws raised murderously. The engineer pulled out her sidearm and vaporised the creatures.
Ansopha was astounded to find it could no longer contact Hunder telepathically and couldn’t even access the thoughts of Orphanus as she gazed down in amazement at the bizarre transformation. The atmosphere was rapidly becoming unbreathable and Ansopha felt as though it was being crushed as something touched every nerve of its new repellent body and made them dance a jig.
And it couldn’t make sense of the Orphanus’ expression. ‘What happened?’
The Vardel hesitated. ‘What in damnation’s name what have you become, Ansopha?’

‘It’s hyperventilating and the brainwave rhythms are odd, even for Ansopha.’ Skirra couldn’t make sense of what had happened to the communicator and was sounding overly professional to hide the panic welling up from the pit of his rotund stomach. He didn’t even know what environment Ansopha’s new body should be in. The increase in atomic density had been so great it could only breathe with the help of a respirator and, to prevent the collapse of the internal organs, Skirra had isolated his patient in a bubble of low atmospheric pressure.
Orphanus always viewed inconvenient medical problems with the intolerance of a true warrior. ‘Well, what happened to the infernal creature?’
The experienced medical scientist felt as though he was at last losing his grip. ‘You know more about that than I do. I wasn’t there.’ Then he snapped at Hunder, ‘Haven’t you come up with that information yet?’
‘I’m still trying to make a match. A similar life form must exist somewhere. This God wasn’t in any condition to originate one. It could have been worse. He might have turned Ansopha into primeval slime.’
‘Being metamorphosed is a horrible way for anyone to die.’
Something occurred to Hunder. ‘Of course...’
Skirra wasn’t impressed by his bright tone, as it was the bio computer’s moodiness that had caused the misfortune. ‘Of course what?’
‘It’s a riddle.’
Orphanus wasn’t impressed either. ‘A riddle? So you want me to go back and ask for a clue?’
Hunder ignored her. ‘It’s called “find the alien”.’
‘Well find one then!’ snapped Skirra.
‘He thinks I can’t do it.’
‘That’s right! It’s all to do with your wretched ego, isn’t it! I should go into your circuits with a laser probe and burn out those delusions of mortality.’
‘Don’t you see? It’s a logical problem,’ Hunder explained patiently.
‘Well that lets you out. Of all the computers in the Galaxy to get lumbered with, we had to have the one incapable of rational thought.’
‘Can’t you say anything useful? I need constructive input here.’
Orphanus was amused by the exchange. She was just thankful that the entity hadn’t transformed her into some wimpish creature with domestic tendencies. ‘Will Ansopha live?’
‘If Hunder stops entertaining delusions of super-being for a moment and finds me a match.’ His annoyance exhausted, Skirra hovered over his patient. ‘When God transformed Ansopha into this, He was making sure he had a slow death.’
Orphanus shook her mountain of tasselled hair. ‘No, He said something about teaching Ansopha what it was like to live.’
‘Well, if Ansopha does somehow survive, he’s certainly going to feel a few bruises from reality’s rich spectrum. I’m not so sure I did him a favour by trying to stabilise him.’
‘Him? You mean it’s a male?’
‘Yes, but we won’t know what sort of male until Hunder comes up with a match.’
They continued to gaze down at what God had transformed from the silver wisp of a being into a thin corporeal creature barely able to breathe. The communicator’s half closed grey eyes above a long thin nose and high cheekbones gave his features a V shaped appearance.
‘I wonder why God decided the best way to punish Ansopha was to alter its atomic mass?’ mused Skirra.
Orphanus only half took in what he said. ‘What?’
‘That’s it!’ exclaimed Hunder.
‘What is?’
Hunder had taken everything into account bar the possibility that the match he was looking for originated in a region of space with different atomic pressure. To people there, gravity lines would be nothing more than inexplicable anomalies, but some dabbler in the dead-end of pointless research must have also found a way to decrease a person’s atomic mass. Hunder ignored the others to do a quick search of his quantum memory.
He was right! The Leamt dealt with very strange merchandise for even stranger customers. Minerals from these atomically peculiar regions had densities law-abiding planets would go into battle for. As it could turn around a healthy profit, and they had been able to find a gravity line long enough to reach most exotic pockets of the Galaxy, the space merchants had learnt how to increase a person’s mass. Only the Leamt knew how to transport these potentially hazardous goods from higher density regions, so Space Command insisted that they had a pacifist clause written into their contracts. Peace reigned and ten ton rubies remained expensive gewgaws.
‘Speak to me?’ demanded Skirra.
Hunder dismissed the thought of weighty spangles. ‘There are creatures with Ansopha’s mass. They are cosily tucked away in a gravitational anomaly God must have thought we would never find.’
‘Well tell me?’ Skirra demanded. ‘Our communicator isn’t going to last long here - We are talking about our Galaxy, aren’t we?’
‘So, what are we going to do about it?’ Orphanus seemed to be under the impression Ansopha only needed a few laser welds and bolts tightening.
‘The Leamt recruited one of these people to become a freelance merchant for them,’ explained Hunder.
‘Well, contact them.’
‘Bear in mind that her species might well turn out to be as self-centred and mean as most others.’
‘Don’t you criticise us. Just because you have a few bio circuits, it doesn’t make you mortal’, threatened Skirra. ‘If you ever manage it, you’ll soon find out what makes us so self-centred and mean.’
‘I always thought it was because you clung to your pointless history.’
Orphanus had no intention of bickering with the neurotic computer. ‘Do you think this Leamt merchant will respond?’
‘Well, the Leamt might be as devout as any of the species on Auroal. They may not feel inclined to help Ansopha.’
Hunder was right. The last thing the intergalactic merchants wanted was to save the heretic who had driven away God, and they refused to acknowledge his call for help.
There was nothing else for it; Hunder would have to start behaving like a computer. He used his despised quantum memory to search for the life form freelancing as a merchant dealer. Hopefully she was earning massive rates of commission and could afford to ignore her Leamt benefactors. Perhaps someone from such an exotic species wouldn’t be so fixated about mono deities either.
Ansopha was being visibly crushed by his own weight as Hunder’s quantum memory laboriously sifted through interstellar traffic to at last it come up with a match for their freelance space merchant. Against all expectations, the alien responded to the bio computer’s signal and agreed to visit the Auroal system. Hunder warned Skirra against asking for bio samples, then lay in a secure gravity line to smuggle the merchant onto the satellite.
She was an inquisitive entity and didn’t share the Leamt neuroses about God. It was that irrationality in her own kind, that and watching junk TV and having a morose mate, which persuaded her to leave. Miriam discovered that Ansopha’s unholy predicament was far worse than the one she had escaped. Hers had only been marriage.
Though the interstellar merchant had been atomically adjusted by the Leamt, she was nevertheless large and intimidating, even by Vardel standards. The density of her body had given Miriam remarkable strength invaluable to a species who dealt in goods with a high atomic mass. Her impressive presence had helped close many deals, and it was unlikely the Leamt would have questioned why she was there: this merchant was wealthy and could afford to be magnanimous.
Miriam looked down objectivity at Ansopha. ‘He could pass as one of my species I suppose. What’s his mass?’
‘Ten fold and still increasing,’ explained Skirra. ‘Even if I could keep him alive, he would never be able to move again. You don’t know how ..?’
‘How the Leamt restructured me? Haven’t a clue. As I’ve no intention of returning home, it never mattered. I’ve now got a vocation which is a vast improvement on pounding the husks off exotic seeds and juicing revolting substances.’
Skirra floated closer to the visitor, sampler at the ready. ‘I don’t suppose ..?’
‘You want a tissue sample?’
‘Skirra!’ admonished Hunder.
‘Well, if she doesn’t know how the Leamt did it, how else can I be expected to keep Ansopha alive?’
Skirra had a point.
Miriam rolled up a richly embroidered sleeve. ‘Go ahead. I’ve got plenty to spare.’ While Skirra deftly removed traces of skin and blood she continued to gaze down at Ansopha. ‘Without the help of the Leamt, he’s only got one chance, you know.’
Skirra resented his medical ability being sidelined. ‘What other chance is there? None of us knows how to unscramble his atoms. Not even our bio computer on a good day could tackle that.’
Hunder didn’t see why he should be slighted as well. ‘Ansopha is going to survive, even if I have to transmit him to another galaxy.’
‘How?’ snapped Skirra. ‘You don’t expect the Leamt to tell us, do you? We’ve already upset them by contacting one of their merchants.’
‘She came willingly.’
‘That isn’t the point.’
Miriam’s laugh registered on her translator. ‘The Leamt won’t bother me. That’s not their way. They invited me to become a dealer. They were scanning gravitational anomalies for merchandise and picked up my brainwaves. Evidently I was ideal merchant material for them, when Nature’s Herbal Realm wouldn’t even let me apply for a job as a rep.’
‘Why did you agree?’
‘It was a good career move and worth the aggravation of altering my atomic mass. I doubt it’s reversible anyway. And whenever the bickering starts, I can always switch off my translator. Could never do that at home or on the shop floor of Nature’s Herbal Realm.’
‘This planet of yours sounds a strange place?’
‘You should try marriage.’
‘Is this some form of induction?’
‘I suppose it is. I used to feel like punching my vicar on the nose every time he mentioned the sanctity of marriage, especially as mine was to a smelly baboon. If your computer can save your friend, I’m certainly not going to let on.’
Skirra’s resentment now mingled with contempt. ‘Hunder save him?’
‘I may not know how the Leamt engineered my atoms, but I have an address he might find very useful.’
‘You have coordinates?’
‘To my home planet.’
‘It is possible to open a gravity line into a gravitational anomaly.’ Hunder then suddenly had a mortal doubt. ‘It’s risky, though, and Ansopha may not survive being transmitted through it.’
‘I did.’
‘Ansopha has never been human. I’ve no idea what I would be sending him into.’ Hunder’s misgivings multiplied. ‘I don’t think I should take the risk.’
‘We don’t have any option,’ snapped Skirra. ‘You’ll do it Hunder, or I will go down to your bio core with a laser probe and puncture your vacuum.’
Miriam admired the medical scientist’s negotiation stance. ‘I’ve been away some while now, but the place I had in mind will never have any excitement unless a ferry goes aground.’


Like a fur fabric toy shot from a catapult, Louise sped yapping after a large black backed gull scavenging detritus from the pebbles. The tiny Yorkshire terrier believed that everything odorous and at nose level belonged to her. Embarrassingly, this often included infants’ ice creams, tins of anglers’ maggots, and anything that squeaked or bounced. The fact that a large carnivorous bird with a beak capable of opening a tin of corned beef had claimed the decomposing fish head was neither here nor there.
Mary chugged breathlessly after Louise before the bird carried the dog off for a light snack. Fortunately Gladys Hodge was on the beach. She scooped up the excited bundle before it scattered the interesting composition of mussel shells she had just discovered.
‘Thanks Mrs Hodge,’ puffed Mary. ‘I’ll have to stop feeding her so much protein.’
‘Try cutting out the chocolate biscuits. That’s probably where she’s getting her energy from.’
‘It’s difficult telling the Moonstar Players not to give them to her. The last thing I need is a set-to with that lot after turning down a plum role.’ She clipped a lead onto Louise’s collar. The Yorkie promptly tried to go after the gull again, but yo-yoed back.
Gladys took a couple of light readings. ‘I only escaped by the skin of my teeth as well. I wish there were some way of letting them know how dreadful they are.’
‘If it hasn’t occurred to them after having so many audiences walk out, it never will.’
‘Tide’s coming in. What are you doing this far down the beach?’
Mary took a package from her bag. ‘Sandra dropped in those evening primrose capsules last night.’
‘You needn’t have come all this way.’
‘You’re out so much I hardly see you at Beachview before I go, and Mansel has too much on his plate at the moment to remember vitamins.’
‘I want to get as much done as I can before the weather turns.’ The photographer read the label. ‘Do these things really lubricate the system and rub out the symptoms of old age?’
‘Our old grandmum swears by them, and she still goes to the gym.’
‘It’s too late to emulate Nadia Comanec, but anything which helps keep me upright is welcome.’
‘You don’t have trouble with your inner ear, do you?’
‘Nothing so subtle. It’s all down to a lifetime of alcohol, caffeine, and nicotine abuse.’
Mary was envious. To look at the photographer, anyone else would have thought had spent a life of abstinence. ‘Bet you had an exciting career?’
‘So exciting it’s killed most of the other photojournalists my age before they could lose their livelihoods to the Internet and mobile phones.’ Gladys pushed the package of evening primrose into her satchel and passed Mary some money. ‘I don’t need any change.’
‘Well thanks Mrs Hodge, that’s really decent of you.’
‘Getting these things at cost saves a fortune. How are the Moonstar troupe doing? Wrecked the saloon yet?’
‘They’ve only reached Marley’s ghost. Henny Stenson is kicking up hell because Scrooge won’t give him enough time for a costume change.’
‘Why don’t they ever pick something with the right number of players, like “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf”?’
Mary gave her a circumspect glance. ‘Would you go and see them in it?’
‘No, but they would be obliged to pay for performance rights instead of Henny Stenson plagiarising the work by a safely dead author. They could always write out a couple of the characters to lessen the audience’s suffering.’
Mary winked mischievously. ‘I just might suggest that to them if they start trying to cast me again.’ The dialogue between Louise and the black backed gull was getting out of hand so she picked the Yorkie up and tucked her inside her coat. ‘I’ve left some fresh towels in the cupboard if you need them. Mansel managed to talk Mrs Lascelle into the laundry room for a couple of hours, though I’ve a feeling she’s not going to make a habit of it.’
‘Thanks again, Mary. Could you tell Mansel I’ll be in at four-thirty for my cappuccino?’
‘Sure.’ Mary buttoned the terrier inside her coat and walked briskly back to the hotel.
After a couple more shots in the thinning light, Gladys took the evening primrose capsules out of their box, tried to read the tiny print on the label that came with them, shrugged and replaced them. It was unlikely that the oil from some flower seeds would have much impact on her condition, yet she was willing to try anything. Surviving her colleagues wasn’t enough. She still wondered what it would be like to sky dive at ninety - though drew the line at having an organ transplant from a pig. Gladys failed to see why some innocent porcine unable to sign a consent form should be obliged to pay for her well-deserved furred arteries or failing liver.
A chill breeze rolled in from the sea. The photographer closed the reflecting umbrella and returned the camera to its case. She had stood on that spot hundreds of times before and never felt such an urge to shudder. A leaden red glow illuminated the sky as though a lurid hand had patted the surface of the sea, while the moist pebbles glinted maliciously in the fading light. It wasn’t a scene pleading to be photographed. There was a sinister pall over Brinton-on-Sea, a small resort so inoffensive that groups like the Moonstar Players were allowed to go on living and tourist guides described it as the perfect haven for eccentric’s on the South Coast.
Distant rocks clunked in the swell. For a brief instant it felt as though a slice had been taken out of reality, leaving it sprinkled with the hundreds-and-thousands of an alien Milky Way.


God’s enemies tried to preserve the
one damned in his sight.

Deep in meditation, the Lukon high priest slowly walked from his sacred cubicle on Auroal where he had been communing with God. The Almighty now only whispered His thoughts into the minds of the devout. His full glory was reserved for those who needed to be intimidated. Announcing that He was about to hurl a storm of space debris at the satellite that controlled Auroal’s life support and engines had to be done diplomatically. Those about to die needed to understand that it was for their own good, especially as it would be left too late for evacuation.
Hunder easily guessed what God was planning. Low on imagination, He was bound to do something that had all the finesse of colliding asteroids. The satellite’s comet deflectors were strengthened and pressure to the bulkheads increased. The vacuum containing Hunder’s bio core, the mind that could either cause cosmic mayhem or prevent it, depending on which way his temperamental circuits were making contact at the time, was triple buffered. If that was jarred about, the bio computer could either crash, or evolve into an advanced life form. His designer hadn’t seen any point in carrying out the experiment.
Orphanus programmed an automatic firing sequence that would be activated by anything animal, mineral or incorporeal trying to sneak up on them. Picking off more obvious threats would be down to her Vardel reflexes.
Skirra preferred the engineer not to have her firing station quite so near the satellite’s self-destruct button. The possibility of Hunder ending up at the end of some gravity line in the hands of a primitive planet about to experiment with social engineering would have begged some serious questions from Space Command. Not that anyone would have survived to answer them.
Skirra hovered high in the operations dome where he could radiate disapproval. Taking defensive precautions may have been necessary, but Hunder and Orphanus didn’t have to treat the survivors on Auroal afterwards.
‘I wish you two weren’t enjoying this so much. I hope you realise that Ansopha won’t stand a chance if we lose power.’
Hunder and Orphanus ignored Skirra.
All trace of religious enthusiasm in the medical scientist had been replaced by bad tempered resentment. ‘The creature isn’t rational. Why did He choose here of all places to throw a cosmic tantrum?’
Hunder couldn’t stand the hectoring any longer. ‘That’s what Gods do. Reason doesn’t enter into it.’
Skirra gave up and left to check on Ansopha.
Orphanus was lining up the last battery of missiles when she noticed space ripple. The engineer zeroed in on the black void beyond a cluster of asteroids that had been happily orbiting Auroal’s sun for aeons. The anomaly was no gravity line blinking.
Hunder immediately suspended all traffic on the assumption that his satellite would still be there to guide it in when the threat had passed.
‘Something happening beyond Auroal at twenty polar degrees south’, Orphanus announced.
The anomaly increased and the bio computer knew that his worst fears were about to be realised. Orphanus may have been looking forward to the fight, but she didn’t need to keep her brain in a buffered vacuum. In fact, the thickness of the skull Nature had given the Vardel was overkill.
The disturbance developed into a space storm. Asteroids, meteors, and ancient junk that had until then happily been avoiding Auroal churned into a calamity of rocks intent on slamming into the satellite.
Orphanus fired burst after burst, picking off debris in the immediate vicinity and launching guided missiles to take out anything else the comet deflectors missed.
The backdrop of space was soon carpeted with a silent tracery of explosions and asteroid dust. The percussive kick back of so many weapons made Hunder’s buffers judder.
The bio computer was the only thing keeping Ansopha alive. Skirra’s patient already had most of the life crushed from him and was unlikely to survive even a slight rise in pressure.
‘You’re killing Ansopha! You have to do something now!’ the medical scientist demanded
‘We’re fighting a battle.’ This was one of the few times Hunder chose to sound like a computer.
‘If you’re ignoring Ansopha just to fight God, you’re nothing but a theologist!’
Despite the slur, Hunder was not to be swayed so easily and his monstrous neurosis reared its inconvenient head again. ‘Are you aware that we are at risk of gyroscopic disorientation, depressurization, and an all systems failure that would deactivate Auroal’s central core? And that we are twenty solar hours from the nearest rescue station? The planet would be dead by the time Space Command reached us.’
‘Stop being so bloody melodramatic and do something about Ansopha!’ snapped Skirra.
‘The only thing I can do is put him in a gravity line, transmit him to the co-ordinates the merchant supplied, and hope God isn’t that omnipresent - You do know he’s unlikely to survive it, don’t you?’
‘You should hear the wailing on Auroal,’ Orphanus cut in as she released her safety harness. Another meteor struck and sent her spinning. The Vardel regained her orientation. ‘They’re taking too many strikes. If this doesn’t stop, the planet’s self-repair systems will undergo a catastrophic failure.’ The engineer joined the medical scientist. ‘All right Skirra. Let’s do it. It’s the only way we can persuade God to leave us alone. Hunder, program the co-ordinates.’
The bio computer was taken aback at being given orders by the satellite’s underling. However, when he went into one of his moods he might as well have taken advice from the results of one of Skirra’s medical experiments.
Ansopha was safely pressurised, and his pod jetted down the two hundred levels to the launch bay.
The turbulence increased.
Hunder lay in the gravity line.
As the next meteor struck, Skirra took one last reading of his patient then hurriedly sealed the transmission chamber. ‘Odd.’
‘What is?’ asked Orphanus.
‘Ansopha still makes that faint rustling sound.’
Hunder activated the transmitter that dismantled Ansopha atom by atom and reassembled him on the other side of the Galaxy in an unmapped atomic anomaly only known to the Leamt.
Despite being in the throws of a tantrum, Hunder had remembered to install a telepath’s transmitter and receiver deep in Ansopha’s brain. That way, the bio computer would at least be able to tell whether the communicator survived.
As soon as Ansopha had gone, the asteroid bombardment stopped.


As she changed her camera’s lenses, Gladys Hodge watched an imposing woman delicately chipping at some rocks lower down the beach. At any other time she would have been happy to have gone over and made her acquaintance. Not many people were hardy enough to frequent the shore in temperatures almost low enough to freeze seawater. But there was something intimidating about the stranger. She was like no fossil hunter the photographer had ever seen before, dressed in a cream coat with matching trousers and boots too elegant for clambering about quarries. She wore no hat, hair to streaming about her shoulders like disorganized raven’s wings. This regal creature should have been in black leather and on the back of a 1200 cc Triumph.
If Gladys had had been a lesbian, she would have gone over and dropped her handkerchief. However, the photographer’s days of trying out anything and everything were over. Her brain and body craved peace and quiet after framing too many scenes of mayhem and carnage. Fortunately, a ricked ankle was the worst that could happen to anyone on the pebbles of Brinton-on-Sea.
Gladys finished taking her studies of frost on pebbles. It was too cold to operate the film’s rewind button, so she tucked the camera into her large pocket then clambered onto the promenade and back to Beachview, passing Arnold and his dog on the way.
Also impervious to the cold, the old Labrador and its short sighed owner pottered along their usual route, no doubt guided by the call of familiar gulls and horn of an offshore beacon.
Even Arnold could not avoid noticing the tall woman in cream on the beach below.
It wasn’t Gladys. She had just passed him and would have needed wings to double back that fast.
‘Good morning, Madam.’ He doffed his hat to reveal the stubble left by his wife’s last haircut. ‘I fancy the air is a little sharp this morning.’
The visitor was fazed for a moment, possibly believing she was too inconspicuous to attract attention.
The woman gave an amiable smile as though she had just worked out how to do it. ‘Yes, it is.’
‘When you start to feel the cold, Mansel Lascelle’s tea-room at Beachview is open all day.’
‘Thank you, I will bear that in mind.’ Her voice was deep and had a peculiar resonance to it, as though it came from a great depth.
‘Travelled a long way, have you?’
‘Quite a distance.’
‘Very quiet in Brinton-on-Sea. Nothing ever happens here. If you like peace and quiet you’ve come to the right place.’ Then the old man’s curiosity got the better of him. ‘Looking for fossils are you? Used to be thousands of them before we joined the Common Market.’
The woman’s expression glazed for a moment. She was no doubt trying to work out why the French would have launched forays across the Channel steal Brinton-on-Sea’s fossils. ‘Perhaps the seam containing them was eventually eroded out by wave action,’ she offered diplomatically.
Arnold nodded sagely as though he really knew that all along. ‘Yes, I’m sure that’s it. Enjoy your stay.’
Pleasantries over, Arnold replaced his hat and went on his way, dog waddling enthusiastically after him.
The tall woman tucked the small pick into her belt and started out along the beach, examining ice crystals left by the receding swell. She strolled along the sea front of irregular façades and the amusement arcade where one or two teenagers were playing pinball with fingers too cold to outwit the machines, and then past Beachview and round the small headland where many an unwary visitor had been cut off by the incoming tide. Fortunately the tide had seen this visitor coming and was going out.
The woman waited impatiently for some time as though expecting half a dozen buses to roll up all at once and rubbed her arms as though being cold was a novelty. All Brinton-on-Sea’s buses terminated in the High Street, however. The nearest encounter the headland ever had with public transport was over a century ago, when dubious legend claimed that wreckers lured a packet ship aground.
There was a sucking noise as if a part of reality had been swallowed, and then spat out again. It was followed by a tinkling that rippled along the frozen beach; it sounded like a gazelle galloping through thin ice. Then there was silence, apart from the distant waves clacking the pebbles together.
A glistening heap, like a rare mineral, lay at the base of the headland.

Still trying to regain the feeling in her fingers, Gladys pressed the rewind button on her SLR before taking another swallow of cappuccino. Mr Butterworth obligingly removed the film for her.
‘Thank you, I wish I had the sense to stay inside as well.’
‘Surely you must have taken enough pictures to keep you developing and printing for months?’
‘Oh yes, but not the image I want.’
Mr Butterworth preened his moustaches. ‘I wonder what you find in Brinton-on-Sea that’s so interesting? I like the place because it is so dull.’
‘Only if you bother with the view. Try looking between the cracks. Everything interesting happens just below the surface, beneath slabs of reality which it would never occur to the Moonstar Players to turn over.’
‘The only things of interest I ever found under slabs were scorpions and land mines.’
‘The limpets in Brinton-on-Sea tend not to explode, believe me. You should get out more often.’
‘I might try it when it gets a bit warmer.’
‘I’ll point out some interesting slabs for you to turn over.’
‘What exactly is it you are looking for, Mrs Hodge?’
She chuckled. ‘I’ll know when I see it.’
‘I gave up thinking like that fifty years ago.’
‘It’s what keeps me going. I’ve exposed enough film to fill several picture agencies, yet still need that face; that image which will say it all.’
‘Don’t let Henny Stenson hear you talking like that. He might think he’s found a kindred spirit.’
Gladys tugged the end of the film to prevent it disappearing into the canister. ‘You may well scoff, but we should all nurse aspirations until the day we die.’
Mr Butterworth wiped the beer froth from his moustaches. ‘But I do. Mine is to prevent my avaricious offspring from finding out where I am and trying to get power of attorney over me.’
‘I’ve left everything to a hospital in Africa, several Far Eastern co-operatives, and a dog’s home.’
‘Mine goes to overseas war widows and a no-longer-so-young lady and her daughter in Mansel’s home town.’
‘So that’s how you know him?’
‘But it’s a secret.’ He chuckled darkly, and then hid behind a copy of the Guardian.
Joabim, perched on the boundary beam between the saloon and lounge, gave a sudden squawk as Mrs Lascelle, sour faced, bustled through with two carriers of shopping. It looked as though Mansel had at last put his foot down and demanded she bring back some of the groceries during one of her forays to the delicatessen and off licence. Unfortunately the bags were full of wine, pomme de tartes, liqueurs, and petit fours not seen on the lace tablecloths of Beachview. The customers preferred food they could pronounce. Until they saw Gladys drinking cappuccinos, the morning regulars who had been out to collect the bread and bacon thought that anything with froth on it was either beer, or been boiled too long.
Mrs Lascelle clattered through to the kitchen - she wore so much dress jewellery that she always clattered - and the comfortable ambience returned. Gladys gave a deep sigh of satisfaction that everything was right with the world.

The bundle glistening on the beach had been expecting certain death.
Then the leaden cloud that had pinned him down was suddenly lifted. He could breath, move his slender fingers, and feel the peculiar way his features had been reformed. Then there were the soft garments he wore; compared to the weight he had recently endured, they felt like gossamer. He was unaware of clutching a large, clumsy case until he realised that it was heavy and quickly put it down.
The arrival looked about.
This wasn’t Auroal. It probably wasn’t reality.
He knew what he had to do - he had no idea how - and picked up the suitcase, which he managed to lug towards the ornamental gates of the bland two-storey factory where vacancies for loading bay operatives were being advertised.


There was nowhere in God’s Universe
For the heretic to hide.

‘Damage report,’ demanded Orphanus.
‘Give me time,’ protested Hunder.
‘Oh come on. Your quantum processor can work faster than this.’
Hunder refused to be provoked. ‘I’m more interested in establishing my link with Ansopha than reviewing the destructive ability of some psychopathic entity.’
Skirra stopped analysing the list of injuries on Auroal. ‘Don’t you think that we’ve already paid the price for one blasphemer?’
‘Will you two stop being so emotional.’ To drive his point home, Hunder switched off the monitors, gravity, and lights.
Skirra was niggled. ‘I suppose that’s one way of dropping out of an argument.’ Gravity - or lack of it - meant nothing to someone who could already float. Bumping into the few things even his dark-adapted eyes were unable to make out was annoying, though.
Orphanus switched on her body torch and floated up to the perch in the ceiling that Ansopha had been so fond of, taking advantage of the zero gravity to stretch out in a parody of the communicator’s languorous habit. ‘Well, I can’t organise any repairs until the robots know what has to be welded back into place.’
‘We got off lightly. I didn’t think that firing Ansopha into infinity would have worked.’
‘The entity was only obsessed with our communicator.’ Orphanus gazed out of the nearest viewport. ‘An all seeing, all malicious God. That creature’s got a lot of problems for something supposed to be omnipotent.’
‘And He’s probably listening.’
‘Not that one. He got what He came for.’
Skirra suddenly looked up. ‘And if He is eavesdropping, He of course knows what happened to Ansopha.’
Orphanus lowered her voice. ‘As He hasn’t given us any more aggravation, perhaps our communicator didn’t make it.’ She hesitated to wonder why Hunder had been quiet for so long. For a system that liked to hear itself talk, this must have been some sort of record.
Skirra floated down to a seat, no longer able to analyse his samples of human without the light of his scanning screen. Orphanus had never known the medical scientist perch on anything before. Having his own buoyancy, he usually just hovered or attached himself to something when he dozed so he didn’t drift off, but Skirra had never felt like this before. Despite being constructed of so many disparate parts, he was unused to this sense of ambivalence and was already missing the heretical, enigmatic, biologically impossible communicator. There had been something reassuring about a colleague that could turn itself on and off like a light and better Hunder with corkscrew logic. Ansopha may have been nerve-racking company, yet was stimulating all the same time.
The medic sighed. ‘You know, I never did understand how it managed to switch the molecules in its clothes as well.’
‘Well, you’re a medical scientist, not a physicist.’
Orphanus knew what the medical scientist really wanted to say, but wasn’t prepared to admit being that empathic. It would have tarnished her image as a hard-headed Vardel.
‘Hunder’s worked it out. He won’t tell me though.’
A light on Auroal’s communication panel flashed. Hunder ignored the signal.
‘Shall I tell them to call back?’ asked Skirra.
Orphanus floated down from the ceiling. ‘No, I’ll get it.’ The engineer punched open the circuit with unnecessary aggression. ‘What is it? Fire, flood, or just a major systems failure?’
The voice replying was formal and hard-edged. ‘The First Section Leader of the third latitude wishes to speak to you.’
‘She’ll need a communicator. Sorry we can’t supply one. We just fired ours into a gravitational anomaly to save your miserable lives.’
Skirra darted over before the engineer destroyed the last vestige of goodwill left between the planet and satellite controlling it. ‘Out of the way Orphanus!’ In zero gravity he was the stronger and bounced her aside. ‘This is medical scientist Skirra. Hunder’s circuits are now totally committed to dealing with the damage to Auroal and this satellite. As much as we would like to speak to The First Section leader, we cannot oblige without a translator.’
The discussion at the other end sounded more like a brief skirmish than consultation. Suddenly the First Section leader appeared on the screen. Without warning, Hunder patched in his own translator so Skirra could understand her.
‘This cannot wait. Our priests are demanding to know what happened to the heretic?’
Skirra silently swore at the bio computer, and then announced, ‘Ansopha was transmitted through a gravity line to an anomaly on the other side of the Galaxy. It is unlikely it survived.’
‘On what trajectory?’ There was no sense of remorse in the voice. Hunder’s translator, for all his aspirations to mortality, had never been user friendly.
‘I do not know.’
This was too much for Orphanus. She regained her balance and elbowed Skirra aside. ‘What do you want us to do? Send a missile after him to make sure?’
By the ensuing silence she hadn’t been far wrong.
‘Well it won’t work, whatever happened to him – it! No weapon would remain viable after being transmitted that distance. It’s even more unlikely flesh and blood could reassemble itself. So leave us alone damn you!’ She cut off the communication with a blow of her fist, rage saying much more about the loss of Ansopha than words.
‘So much for diplomacy.’ Skirra had an edge in his voice that could have amputated a limb. He glared at one of Hunder’s monitors. ‘What a relief our bio computer wasn’t listening.’
Hunder switched the monitor on. ‘If I’d said anything it would have caused a diplomatic crisis. Nobody is going to pay any attention to you two.’
‘What about Ansopha?’ demanded Orphanus.
‘I can’t say.’
‘You’re a bloody bio computer! Of course you can say!’
Hunder ignored her. ‘I have now assessed the damage.’
He restored gravity and brought up the lights. Orphanus landed on her console in an untidy heap as a string of locations needing repair appeared on its screen.
‘What about Ansopha?’ insisted Skirra.
Hunder ignored his demand as well and told him, ‘I have also been picking up energy fluctuations in our satellite’s vicinity.’
The medical scientist was still too annoyed to take the point. ‘So? What’s that got to do with Ansopha?’
Orphanus knew. ‘Shut-up Skirra.’
‘Because I might have to lance that rotund belly of yours with a laser skewer.’
He suddenly realised. ‘Oh - energy fluctuations, I see.’
God filtered away from the satellite. So the communicator might have survived after all. Even if it meant going to the end of time, Ansopha was one heretic who was not going to escape judgement.


Beachview’s new arrival wore a voluminous beige greatcoat from which he seemed on the verge of emerging like an emaciated butterfly, and clutched a heavy suitcase as though unsure what to do with it. Despite an elegance of movement, his fingers tended to fumble most things he touched. Though no smile crossed his pointed face, Gladys sensed wary warmth deep beneath the defensive layers. She had seen similar expressions in post war populations coming out of trauma, a desperation to believe that the worst was over whilst knowing that a sniper was still on the roof. And that face! Here was the image the veteran photojournalist had been looking for all her career. She gave a sly glance at Mr Butterworth to make sure he hadn’t read the enthusiasm in her expression. This stranger’s features weren’t blasted or ravaged by experience; they were the enigmatic mask of someone who had paddled across the River Styx to treat the Hounds of Hell for distemper. As he moved there was faint rustling, like the breeze through pine needles. No angel, this. He was the elf who guarded Loki’s hearth.
Mansel would have greeted his new waiter and barman with a hug, and then decided he looked a little too frail to withstand such Gallic bonhomie. It was unlikely he would be able to carry full crates up from the cellar, or even more than one tray at a time. That wasn’t the point. His new employee’s elfin features had filled his mother with dread. All she would utter when first setting eyes on him was, ‘Le Diable!’ before rushing for the sanctuary of her basement flat in a clatter of costume jewellery.
‘Mrs Hodge, Mr Butterworth, this is Amiel - Amiel Sopher!’
Gladys thought that the name had a French colonial exoticism to it, although the new waiter was too pale to have been any further south than Bournemouth. ‘Good morning Amiel.’
As that had only been his name for a brief time, the waiter was momentarily fazed. Something at the back of his mind delivered a sharp jab and injected the correct response. ‘Good morning Mrs Hodge. I hope you will find my service...’ He foundered. Whatever was lurking in the back of his mind, it didn’t include a thesaurus.
‘I’m sure we’ll get along fine - Can you make a decent cappuccino?’
‘Say yes,’ the thing in his mind instructed. ‘I’ll show you how to later.’
‘Yes,’ said Amiel.
Gladys was happy enough with that. It was too much to expect him to have poured coffee in some North African souk as well.
‘Good man,’ Mr Butterworth added. He was more used to dealing with subalterns straight from school.
Mansel picked up Amiel’s suitcase as though it was filled with nothing heavier than tissue paper, and whisked his precious find upstairs before he emerged from the cocoon of his greatcoat and fluttered off to more promising pastures. The proprietor had no idea what good fortune had brought Amiel to Brinton-on-Sea, and had no intention letting him find out his mistake.
When Mansel returned from installing Amiel Sopher in the garret suite, he was still beaming.
Gladys could contain herself no longer and was already loading her camera. ‘Where did you find him?’
Mansel gave an expansive wave of his arms. ‘My little Mary. He asked at her cousin’s factory for some work. Sandra thought he looked not strong enough for the loading crates or processing seaweed, so she called Mary who called me.’
Mr Butterworth was a little more suspicious. ‘Where did he come from?’
‘I will find out when I get his P45.’
‘Looks a rum character to me.’
That coming from a retired colonel who had also seen the weirdest the world could offer made Gladys think a little harder about her prospective find. At least Amiel had passed the first test. When a beautiful or interesting looking person opened their mouth, high-pitched gibberish frequently came out. The new waiter had merely been lost for words. At least he knew how to pronounce the ones he could remember. And if the new barman did possess a large intellect, what was he doing at Beachview? Giving his brain a rest? But then, Gladys was only after a picture, not a soul mate. No one had ever passed that test.
As it was the Moonstar Players rehearsal evening Mansel decided not to expose his new find to that baptism of fire so soon. Instead, he sat Amiel in a private cubicle where he could watch the machinations of local culture from a safe distance with a pot of tea.
While Henny Stenson boomed out the part of Christmas past, Joabim fluttered over to join the new waiter. Despite the din of amateur dramatics in full flow, Gladys could have sworn that the bird and bird-like man became immersed in conversation. Joabim seldom joined anyone unless they had peanuts or biscuits to share, and the possibility of the cockatoo being empathic to anyone not rustling a packet of some sort was strangely chilling.
Mr Butterworth interrupted her reverie. ‘Well, Mrs Hodge, is this the folder you promised to show me?’
Fazed, the photographer gazed down at the opened flaps dangerously near a jug of milk. Of course it was. Still taking the surreptitious glance at the image of a lifetime, she pulled out a handful of her work.
‘He’s probably married with ten children,’ the retired colonel noted discreetly.
Gladys was crestfallen that she had allowed her enthusiasm to become so apparent. ‘No, he fell out of a nest in the Amazonian rain forest,’ she said, though the photographer knew more about things that had fallen out of helicopters. She whispered conspiratorially to her companion. ‘What do you really make of him?’
Mr Butterworth shrugged. ‘Never seen that cockatoo so sociable with anyone. But you’re probably right. He does look as though he should have feathers.’
‘I reckon they were singed off when he hedgehopped over Hell.’
‘My dear Mrs Hodge, what has brought on this Byronic flush?’
She chuckled to herself. ‘Perhaps I’m becoming sexually aroused.’
Mr Butterworth spluttered so loudly with laughter that he had to push the photos aside for fear of spraying them with whisky. Even the Moonstar Players looked round to see who was upstaging them.
Recovering his decorum, he whispered, ‘I think you should snatch a snap of him before he realises you are a photographer.’
‘He’s not the sort who’ll willingly pose, even for art’s sake.’
Gladys felt deflated. Mr Butterworth was probably right. ‘How can you tell?’
‘He has a history. Can’t say what sort, but you take my word for it. Old Mrs Lascelle knew as soon as she set eyes on him. She’s a cantankerous old woman and probably has enough things to hide to recognise a kindred soul. Best you keep your camera well hidden if you want to get into his trench.’
Gladys smiled and raised an eyebrow at the insinuation. He was right. But, what the hell, she had a zoom lens.