A strange girl appears in the dead of night. She can’t speak or remember where she has been, what could her secret be?
Twisty turny, turny twisty. But. This time, some answers as well. A spaceship with multiple personality disorder. Jack meet Jackie. Ashley gets used to married life.
Thanks again to Robin, Chris and Jess. You guys rock. And to all of you who have stuck with my mad tale, especially those of you who take the time to comment. Not much further to go now…
Ship slipped through the darkness of space exactly the way bricks don’t. Command was focused on the blue, green and white plant, third from the star. Readings showed the atmosphere included oxygen. This indicated life. Primary Function required them to explore further.
The temperature of the Third Planet was colder than home, but the area around the equator was habitable. As yet, there were no signs of intelligent life forms, let alone civilisation. Speculation queried what civilisation meant. Command referred to Primary Function. A group of life forms significantly developed to prove a problem, or an opportunity for Home.
As Ship neared the orbit of the Third Planet’s moon, Command released Satellite. Ship stayed hidden behind the moon of the Third Planet as a precaution. For three turns of the planet Ship, stayed silent as Command monitored the systems. No communications were detected on the surface.
Half way through the fourth turn of the planet the first signal was received. Command noted there were no signs of electrical activity. Ship could move closer without fear of detection.
Command monitored the pictures as they were received. Large migrating beasts moved across the largest continental mass. Even in the coldest regions, life was complex and teeming. Perhaps if Command hadn’t been concentrating so much on the planet's life-forms, it might have noticed that the local star was going through a period of atypical instability.
The first Command knew was when Defence reported an unusual amount of radiation. The second was when Command lost contact with Satellite. Signal reported further waves of solar radiation heading their way. The Third Planet’s atmosphere was sufficient to protect the surface from solar radiation. Command moved Ship into the upper atmosphere.
The malfunction was detected a further quarter turn of the planet later. Radiation had burnt a small hole in the Ion harvest arm. Normally, this would have been picked up but for a mistake in Ship’s construction. A misunderstanding in production around the word Parsek, which on the Isle of Zog was a measurement in height but in the Heavenly Mountains was a measurement of width. This meant the sensor was too far away to pick up on the damage before it was too late.
Command ordered evasive action. It aimed Ship towards coordinates 53.4808° N, 2.2426° W. The area was covered by snow and ice that should help soften the landing and could be used to cool Ship’s engines if they overheated.
Again, the wrongly placed sensors let Ship and Command down. Without better information, Ship ploughed into the landmass and came to rest buried a hundred metres down.
Command waited. After 2,534 planetary orbits of the local star, Command stopped hearing the great heartbeat of Home. After a further fifty rotations of the local star, Speculation proposed that Home had faced a civilisation ending event.
All systems were alone. With no other orders coming, or likely to come, Command initiated its primary function. The categorisation of all life forms.
It was a further 1,986 orbits around the local star before Command detected the presence of the first human in the crash area. This creature was a strange one.
A little after lunchtime
“Jennet Device, come forward.”
Jennet watched the bailiff cautiously. Her eyes lingered on his giant fists. They were deformed, bones having been broken but not set properly. Perhaps he had been abroad fighting in one of the European wars?
“Don’t dawdle girl. Nowell is waiting.”
Jennet shivered. She feared Roger Nowell more than bailiff. More than the wood shed where James would lock her. More than the metal poker by the fire.
She nodded, shuffling forward. The Assizes were different up in the courtrooms. Down in the cells, the walls were bare cold, slimy stone. Up here they were clad with wooden panels. She imagined this was what one of the King’s palaces was like.
The two magistrates, Altham and Bromley, sat up high. Her neck hurt looking up at them. She remembered the two from earlier. Her legs wobbled as she moved. The bailiff led her to the centre of the room and told her to stand on a table. She was higher than the others, but still lower than the judges.
It was then that she saw Alizon, Elizabeth and James. They didn’t seem so scary. In fact, it was they who looked scared. She stood a little taller, straightening her leg and willing her hands to stop shaking. Even old Demdike looked sullen and avoided looking in her direction. She had never known anyone who could silence old Demdike. Jennet smiled.
“Are you one Jennet Device?”
Jennet looked at Nowell as if he was stupid, “You know that.” There was a spatter of laughter around the court. She saw his jaw clench. She flinched, fearing what would come next.
“Yes,” he spoke with barely controlled anger, “I do. Please tell the court.” He gestured to the other people. The ones she didn’t know.
“I am Jennet Device,” she mumbled.
She repeated herself only louder.
The trial continued along similar lines. Nowell led her. She knew what she was supposed to say. She told them about the meeting at Malkin Tower, who had been there and what their plans were.
Then she got to Bell. She hated that dog. He always got the best scraps from the table and she had to wait for what was left. She remembered James feeding it the last stale bread as she cried with hunger.
Elizabeth, her mother, stood up and began to scream. Jennet kept her breathing shallow. She had heard it all before. She thought only of how itchy her new clothes were. Of how Nowell’s cook had scrubbed her clean the night before. Being clean was a special thing, she knew that. You could come from the poorest family in the village, but if you were clean they’d all remark on it with approval. Her mother had never kept her clean. She watched silently as her mother was dragged from the rooms still screaming. She felt light and free, as if she couldn’t be happier, no matter what.
A couple of times after that she caught sight of her brother and sister. Each time it made her feel stronger. There was going to be no heated poker, no draughty, dirty shed to be locked in. What did it matter if some things weren’t quite true? Weren’t they witches? Wasn’t she doing God’s work? Soon she would be free of them.
She watched James’s face as she told the court he’d conjured a black dog and told it to kill Townley. She could have laughed out loud as he began to shake.
Once she was done, the bailiff led her from the room. She wanted to stay and watch the trial, but he said it was no place for a child. She reminded him she’d been given special permission to give evidence. Permission from the King. He told her to sit quietly in the passage or she’d feel his fists.
She sat still, hands in her lap, listening to the voices coming from inside the courtroom. She couldn’t make out what they were saying. During the long, dark hours she’d been shut in the shed she would pass the time by counting. If she could know exactly how long she was there she’d have some sort of control.
The light was getting dim when the people came out. She couldn’t see her mother or family as they were led out. She tried standing on tiptoes but the crowd was too tall. She heard voices shouting. She wanted to know what had happened.
She had to wait another hour before Nowell’s cook came and collected her. She had wanted to tell her all about the trial. What she had said, how everyone had listened to her, even the high ups, but as she spoke she noticed the cook wouldn’t look at her.
“Listen to me!”
The cook didn’t stop. She walked fast with long strides. Jennet had to all but run to keep up.
“Listen old woman!”
“Listen witch!” She hadn’t meant to say it. The word had been there at the front of her head.
The cook stopped suddenly. She turned and with one swift blow she hit Jennet. The force was enough to knock the girl to the floor.
“Your voice killed people today. I don’t want to hear it.”
The church school was cold. The walls old and full of holes. Jennet hated the clothes they gave her. They were clean, too clean to go through the forest and fields in. On the day she had arrived, the teachers had made her stand on a chair in the middle of the main hall. There she had to stand for the whole day, holding a sign while the other children walked by. Later she had learned that the sign read, ‘I am the daughter of a witch. The child of sin.’
She wasn’t surprised that the other girls kept away from her. During the mornings, she sat at the back of the class learning her letters. Most of the others were much younger than her. Even the older ones were too scared to speak to her. It didn’t bother Jennet, she had vowed not to speak.
At first, the teachers and the priest beat her. They made her stand on the chair holding the sign. One time they had her made stand there all through one day and night. She then had to stand there while the other children ate around her. None of it broke her. Nothing was as bad as what she had come from. She didn’t have to fight a dog for food. She didn’t have to stay awake in case James came back drunk.
You can put a bird in a cage, but you can’t make it sing. Old Demdike had told her that.
As time passed, her teachers began to explain her dumbness away. They said her mother had cursed her before she went to the hangman. One claimed to have seen a giant black dog watching the school from the moors. They knew the stories from the trial.
None of this mattered to Jennet, she knew the truth. In her silence, she was ensuring she couldn’t hurt anyone else. By not speaking, she wouldn’t allow them to use her again. When she spoke again, it would only be because she had chosen to.
About a year after she had arrived ,Jennet woke in her bed. The air was cold, even in the gloom she could see her own breath. Looking through the high window on the opposite wall she could see a full moon outside.
Something moved outside the dormitory room. One of the teachers at the ale she thought. She lay down hoping for sleep. It was probably only a few hours before the cows would be needing her.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The noise seemed to come from one of the windows in the hall. Jennet looked around, none of the other girls seemed to have heard it.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The sound called to her. Like her mother’s voice in her dreams.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
She was out of bed and half way to the door before she realised what she was doing. She halted at the door, her hand on the knob, frozen.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The door was heavy, but unusually made no sound as she pulled it open.
The corridor was empty. From the moonlight she saw a little bird, a robin at the window. She let go of the air in her lungs, not realising she had held it there. She scratched the pane of glass next to the bird who looked up at her. That’s when she heard the singing.
“Here's to the maid in Lancaster Town
Here's to the maid in the calico
I vow and declare he loved her so dear
Cause she did wear pretty caps upon her hair”
It was coming from the big hall. “Fol the dol the day,” Jennet hummed under her breath.
“Says Master unto Missus I'm going out of town
Says Missus unto Betsy, You go unto your bed
And I for your Master
Will wait up in your stead.”
She walked slowly down the corridor. As she got closer she could see the faint flickering of light. Someone had lit the great fire. The master wouldn’t be happy.
“Twelve o'clock came and knock was at the door
Missus went out to see who was there
And on the cold ground he tumbled her down
And into her hand he put half a crown”
Entering the hall, she saw a figure huddled next to the fire. She wanted to run, but her body kept moving her closer, and closer.
As she neared the figure she reached out her arm. It took seconds before they touched. It felt like years.
The back felt surprisingly frail. The shoulders hunched and the spine bent. The figure turned at her touch. It was Old Demdike. She leapt backwards. She could see the red marks where the rope had been tightened around her neck.
“Don’t fret girl. I ain’t here to hurt you. I’m here to begin your training.”
Jack woke up as her balloon was pulled out of the van. She couldn't see what or who was moving her. Mr Bubbles was nowhere to be seen. Jack and the other helpless captives were carried down what looked like an alleyway and into what, for all the world, looked like a little allotment.
The area seemed to be in a little valley. On each side was a steep slope, at the top of which were wooden fences. She imagined they were the backs of people’s houses, but didn’t hold out much hope they’d be seen. The incline was too steep, and anyway, she expected there would be some sort of magic concealing them. Jack's bubble was in the middle of the line so she could see something of the direction they were heading in.
Ahead of them was a rickety old shed. In the dim light, Jack could just about make out a sign above the door saying 'My Office'. Was this Mr Bubbles hideout?
As she watched the bubbles in front of her being taken inside, she wondered how they would all fit. With everything that had happened to her she wouldn't have been surprised if the shed was some sort of Tardis. However, once she was through the door, she saw the opening to a tunnel.
The inside of the tunnel was like a mineshaft, with wooden props holding up the roof. There was only just enough clearance for one bubble and whatever it was that was carrying it. Jack had to keep her head down as close to the bubble as possible to avoid concussion.
Their strange little party kept on moving. In the dark, all notions of time became meaningless.
Jack let out a silent cry for help. They had entered a room with a much higher roof. So high it disappeared in the gloom. What seemed like hundreds of bubbles were lined up on huge shelves, looking like a giant's snow globe collection.
Cranes and pulley systems were set up to help put each bubble into place. Jack's mouth hung open as she saw the little people operating them. They looked like gnomes. In fact, they looked like garden gnomes. Their happy little faces turned demonic in the light from the torches.
"Isn't it amazing!"
Jack looked down to see a happy little face looking back up at her.
"Mr Bubbles has totally revolutionised the way we fight evil!"
There was a small 'donk' sound as Jack kicked the side of her bubble closest to the gnome.
"Of course, thousands of you are signing up to his plans for bubble protection. Isn't it marvellous!"
'Donk, donk' the little man seemed entirely unaware of the two punches Jack had aimed at his head.
He turned Jack on her side and began rolling her bubble towards one of the makeshift lifts. She was nauseous from the spinning and the fear. As he placed her bubble on the lift he arranged it so she was now upwards and facing forwards.
"I thought we'd put you on the top shelf. Seeing as Super Mr Bubbles has seen fit to give you a view."
As the lift started up Jack watched the little man walking away muttering, "What will he think of next, truly wonderful."
As the lift pulled her up she could see the room spread out in front of her. Shelf after giant shelf filled with bubble people and still room for more. When she reached the top, she was greeted by the grinning face of a female gnome.
"Hello, hello," the girl-gnome grinned at her. "Now which way do you want to be set?"
Jack nodded furiously, hoping to indicate head at the top.
"Don't want to speak. I don't blame you! No doubt Mr Bubble's mastery of social media has taken your breath away. I mean he can now bypass the biased pro-Elf mainstream media and speak to the real gnome in the street!"
'Donk, donk, donk,' Jack kicked the side of the bubble in pure frustration.
"You want to be careful there missy, that bubble is there to protect you for all time. You don't want to go damaging it in just the first century!" She rubbed her chin thoughtfully, "I tell you what, as you are a special case I'll see if we can't get you some pillows."
After that she was left alone.
Ashley was woken as usual by the sound of Heather preparing her bath in the next room. The blankets that covered her were warm and heavy but the sheets next to her were cool and empty. Edward, her husband, must have woken up early.
"Good morning my lady, your bath is ready when you are."
"And my paper and cigar?"
Heather nodded uncertainly, her commitment to her duties struggling against her conviction that young ladies didn't read newspapers. And if they did, they certainly didn't do it in the bath with a cigar. "Yes, of course ma'am. And what will ma'am be wearing this morning?"
Ashley thought of the bewildering arrangement of billowing skirts, crinolines, corsets and other clothes/death traps she had on offer.
"Something practical," she stated, if that wasn't a contradiction in terms.
"Will ma'am be going riding with sir?"
She looked out of the window at the blustery wind, "No, I don't think so."
The bath was warm and splendid. Every ache in her body just drifted away. She opened that day’s Manchester Guardian and lit her cigar. She could remember seeing her own dad doing the same on Sundays, back 'before' all this happened.
How long had it been? Over a year? She did the maths, nearly two now. Some days she thought she was going mad and her memory of the future was just a dream. But no, she had to cling on to it, and the hope of one day returning.
Something caught her eye, a small notice tucked away near the back of the paper. She read it through twice.
"Heather!" she called.
"Heather!" she leaned out of the bath to see if she could see her.
A few minutes later a head popped around the door, "What is it ma'am?"
Ashley looked down at the paper and read the notice for a second time. "I need to persuade Edward of something. I am going to need that purple dress he likes so much."
"And one of your, er, 'French style' corsets, ma'am?" She blushed.
Ashley sighed, "Yes, I suppose so."
It is an odd thing, as a grown woman, to have someone else dress you. That said, Ashley knew she would have no chance if she tried it herself. From the weird cage-like thing that kept her skirts laid out to the many layers that had to sit just right. What made the whole damn thing worse was that she would have to change it all again for the evening.
When eventually she was buttoned and knotted in she went downstairs. She found her husband in his study talking to Jacobs, the man who ran his estate.
"Ah, my lovely wife," He took her by the hands and kissed her on each cheek. Even now several months after their marriage Ashley felt a swoop in her stomach when her husband kissed her. She busied herself brushing and tucking at his jacket. He had clearly been expecting the grounds.
She was proud of him. He was handsome and kind. Respected by most people and those who disliked him did so out of envy. She felt certain of this.
Ashley waited silently while the two men discussed the business of the estate. She knew her chance would come.
"Do you have plans for tomorrow evening my love?"
"Hmmm, no why?" His tone was suspicious.
"There is an entertainment in Manchester that I'd like to attend,"
"Not another play!"
"No, not a play. A talk." She didn't look at him, instead moving closer.
"What is this talk about?"
"The gentleman in question is back recently from South America. He's been studying trees out there."
"Honestly, when have you shown the least bit of interest in botany? It’s all I can do to get you to come out and survey the grounds."
It was at this point Ashley decided to unleash the eyes. She looked up at her husband as innocently as she could stomach.
The train journey in was totally uneventful and verging on dull. Ashley had long become accustomed to the strange sight of mills billowing out smoke, rather than playing host to discount warehouses and upscale flat conversions. The walk from the railway station was a little more exciting as Ashley felt the noise, sights and smells of the city hit her. There was something about the grime and the solidity of the city that made her feel real.
The stonework of the buildings was the same as she remembered from the future. At least the grander ones. The ones that survived.
It wasn't a long walk down Oxford Road but, used now to the silence of the country, she felt overpowered by the confusion around her. They walked past the building site that would one way become the museum she he'd been brought to on school outings many times. The arches of the doors and the shape of the structure were beginning to become visible as they passed. They headed to Owen College and the talk.
The room wasn't large and only had around twenty seats set out. Being the only woman in the room her bright clothing stood out against the black and dark colours of the men's suits.
The man was short and round. He seemed to be bursting out of his expensively tailored suit. His blond hair was tousled and badly kept. Ashley watched him intently. She could see the beads of sweat forming on the back of his neck. The projector contained a single bulb, which generated a lot of heat.
He wasn’t the only one drawing attention. Females weren’t common at scientific meetings. It didn’t help that Ashley’s billowing dress took up a full two seats. There was a general din in the room coming from the different directions. She could feel the eyes on her. No one spoke to her yet she could feel them all looking.
“Have you been here before?”
Ashley turned. The man, smiled at her, “I may have a job for you. In my company.”
Isaac woke, his head still fuzzy from the night before. He was surprised not to find Jack there. He knew she didn't have work today. Rubbing his head, and with half remembered memories from last filling his head he staggered into the kitchen.
By now, he could work the coffee machine in his sleep. As it came slowly to life, he sucked the cupboards for paracetamol. He grunted as he found two empty packets, throwing them quickly into the recycling. His luck was in, he found two tablets in their packaging near the back.
Downing them with a glass of water his vision came into focus. There was an envelope next to the kettle. At first, he thought it was a bill, then he noticed 'For Isaac', written on it. He recognised her handwriting immediately.
Rummaging through the envelope he pulled the paper out.
'Dear Isaac' it started, 'I was born Jack Sheppard...' it continued. At first, he couldn't take it in, his mind too overwhelmed by the effects of alcohol. It took him a great effort to focus. After he finished reading he turned it over again, reading it twice before putting it down.
So she had figured a way around the enchantment. She was clever. He went to look for her, but the flat was small and he knew she couldn't be here. Eventually he went out onto the little balcony to smoke and think. Through the window, he watched Ben sleeping. Perhaps Jack had gone to the shop?
Re-entering the living room, he noticed a scratching sound. At first, he thought it must be in his head but when it didn't stop he went to investigate. In the hall, he located the noise to be coming from the front door. The other side of the front door to be precise.
Slowly he opened it. As soon as the gap was big enough, Jess sped in. The cat seemed to be crazed running around his legs.
"Did we shut you out?" Isaac bent down scratching the cat behind his ears. The cat looked at him oddly before dashing into the living room. Isaac walked slowly behind her.
"Get off!" Jess had jumped up on Ben and was already licking his face. Ben waved his hands around wildly before suddenly going quiet.
Ben turned to Isaac, "She says something has happened to Jack."
Isaac began to talk but Ben motioned for him to be quiet.
"Jess is saying something about a bubble man," he looked at the cat again, "Jack’s been kidnapped.
"By who? The unseen people?"
Ben replied slowly, "Jess wants to know how you know about the unseen people?"
"Wait there," Isaac disappeared. He returned a few minutes later with a pack of what looked like sticks. He sat cross-legged, throwing them on the floor. He looked at them for a while before turning to Ben.
"They have her in a special place," he looked back at the sticks, "a very magical place." He looked back again staying silent for a much longer time. "On an allotment."
“Jack. Jack.” Jack’s head was pounding, “Wake up Jack!”
Jack woke up suddenly. She was sitting in a leather armchair in a darkened room. Sitting opposite of her was the outline of a figure. The figure stood up and moved into the light shinning down from above Jack.
“What the fu…” Jack stopped, “Hey, I’m speaking!”
“Of course you are speaking!” the young man in front of her smiled, “We’re inside our mind. You can always speak in here.”
“Wait.” Jack looked around. She could see an old lamp and framed pictures on the wooden panelled walls, “So this isn’t real then? Is that why you are me?” She looked her male self up and down, “Or who was me… or whatever.”
“I didn’t say this isn’t real, just that it’s inside our heads.” The young man smiled, “And yes I am you and you are me,” he paused, “Goo goo g'joob.”
Jack laughed nervously.
“That is to say I am Jackie and you are Jack,” Jackie ran a hand through his hair, “Or maybe that should be the other way round.”
“It’s how we escaped.”
“I don’t remember.”
“No, that’s what I am here for.” Jackie sits back down and lights come back on. They are in some sort of library. The style is mid-century modern. One wall is made completely of glass. Outside is a windswept beach.
“Where are we?”
“I’ve already answered that.”
“I recognise it.”
“Well you would. It’s you. Or us?” Jackie scratches his head.
“It is the beach mum took us to. Somewhere near Morecambe I think? We had ice cream and ate sandwiches in the sand dunes. I had crab paste.” She ran a finger over her mouth remembering the grit of the sand mingled with the softness of the bread.
“It’s a fix point for both of us.”
Something jolted in Jack’s head, “You said we exchanged places so we could escape.”
“So you could escape.” Jackie smiled, like a teacher watching a pupil get her head around long division. “I stayed here so one of us could remember.”
“Remember what?” Jack was looking out of the window, watching seagulls swooping in the sky.
“Trees, what are the trees?”
“The trees are a ‘who’ not a ‘what’. They captured them and turned them into trees so they wouldn’t change. Or at least not so fast.”
The scene changed, they were in a strange forest, surrounded by the most unusual trees she had ever seen. Their branches twisted up into the sky like contorted limbs.
Hearing a cracking of twigs Jack spun around, “Hey there’s someone else here with us.” She watches as Wren and the paramedic walk into the clearing. They look tired. Wren moves like someone about to fall from exhaustion.
“Hey!” she waves her hands, “Hey! Inspector Wren!” She was standing right in front of the older woman yet she didn’t even flinch.
She turns back to the male Jackie, “Can’t she see me?”
Jackie shakes her head. “We are just projecting ourselves here. We can’t do anything.” Jack watched them move on. She holds herself realising she is still in a T-shirt and pyjama bottoms.
“You can’t feel cold here, we are inside your head.”
“So why am I shivering?”
“My guess? Because you think you’re cold.”
Jack tried to stop herself from shivering. It didn’t help. She crossed her arms and turned to Jackie. “OK no more of this vague Mr Miyagi bollocks, what is going here?”
Jackie sighs, “Well, put simply, we were kidnapped by a pan-dimensional computer that crash landed here roughly nineteen thousand years ago.”
“How does Mr Bubbles fit into all of this?”
“He doesn’t. He thinks he’s helping everyone by trapping them in the bubbles so the computer can’t turn them into trees.”
“It’s all, well… It’s all bollocks.”
“That’s a more concise summary, yes.” Jackie taped his fingers on the armrest of the chair, “Tell mum we love her. Tell her we forgive her…” He paused for a moment before adding, “Remember Jack, music is magic.”
These were the last words Jack heard before she blacked out.
Jack woke up. The air was so cold it hurt her lungs to breathe. She looked around the landscape. It reminded her of pictures she had seen of Iceland. On the horizon she could see what looked like a giant white wall. Further down the black slope she lay on was a lake. The water was bright blue from the melting ice. A lone duck swam on the surface. How did she get here?
Looking left and right she realised her vision was blocked by a fur-lined hood. She was wearing something that looked like ski-wear. She was a little disgusted to find it was pink and white.
She turned 180 degrees. No signs of life aside from patches of tough looking grass and a couple of birds in the sky.
“Where am I?” she muttered to herself. She could speak. Did that mean this was all in her head again?
“It seemed easier if I gave you back your vocal cords.”
Jack swung around. Standing behind her was a seven-foot tall silver humanoid. The shape was female but the surface was completely smooth and shiny.
“You are Jack,” its voice seemed to be coming from outside its body.
“Yes, I know,” there was a pause, “Is this in my head or is it real?”
“Is that possible?”
“Can you say anything other than yes?”
“Yes,” the robot was featureless. Jack wasn’t sure if it was joking.
She changed the subject, “Who are you?”
“I am Command, this is Satellite 2.” Jack felt like she was staring at one of those magic eye pictures and she was the only one not able to see the image.
“A split personality?”
Command/Satellite tilted its head slightly as if observing her.
“Did you bring me here?”
Jack rolled her eyes, “Why?”
Command/Satellite pointed, “Human subject number one.”
Jack followed the robot’s finger. On the lake was what looked like a little canoe with a man sat in it. He was too far away for her to see his features but he was dressed in animal furs, looking a little like the picture of an Eskimos she remembered from a book her mum used to read to her.
“Follow.” Command/Satellite strolled off before Jack was ready. She had to run to keep up with its stride. She didn’t have time to think if it was a good idea.
By the time they reached the shore, Jack was out of breath. As she took in deep breaths of sharp, cold air she watched the man in the little boat. It didn’t seem like he’d seen them. He held a spear in his hand while watching the surface. In a quick, sharp movement he plunged the spear into the icy water. When he pulled it out a fish was impaled on the end.
Jack watched transfixed for a long time. Command/Satellite stood still making no sound but a low hum.
She saw the man jump back, almost capsizing the boat. A metallic ball lifted out of the water. The man threw his spear at it, but it just broke, falling uselessly into the water.
Command/Satellite pointed, “Satellite two.”
A circle appeared in the metal sphere, a little like an eye. Out of the eye came an eerie purple light that engulfed the man. The man let out a scream, his body contorting into bizarre shapes. Then the light was gone.
The world changed around Jack. First, she was plunged into darkness, then a tiny prick of light appeared in front of her. She ran, or possibly flew towards it. It was hard to tell. As she got closer she could see the light flickering. Closer still and she could see it was a fire.
Strange shapes danced in the flames. A giant with the head of a sabre tooth tiger. A woolly mammoth that breathed fire. A giant fish swimming amongst the stars. The closer they got Jack could see small figures dancing with these giants. Child-like they danced to some unheard drumbeat. Around them the sky lit up. Stars brighter than anything Jack had ever seen.
Jack had once gone on a camping trip to the South of France. It was so long ago now she wasn’t sure which life it had been. She could remember lying on the ground watching the shooting stars, visible because of the lack of cities or cloud. This beat even that memory.
“What is this?”
Command/Satellite looked at her, “Form.”
Jack woke up. She was covered in dew and surrounded by long grass. It was the same landscape as before, only now the ice had retreated. The lake, no longer fed by melting ice, was now a river. The air smelt of spring.
“Why am I here?”
“This must stop.”
“What must stop? Turning people into trees?”
Command/Satellite just looked at her with a blank face. The spring sunlight reflected and refracted off its face, breaking into a tiny rainbow. It pointed again. This time Jack saw a collection of round thatched roofs.
“Change must stop? You can’t stop change. It's the one thing that stays the same.”
“Funny.” It gave no sign of laughing.
“You understand funny?”
“Funny is not hard to understand. It serves little purpose. Trees serve a purpose. Trees evolve slowly. Time to categorise, understand.”
Jack tried to sit up but only tripped on the hem of the woollen skirt she was wearing. When had she changed? She landed painfully on her bum.
“Is that why you are here, to take me back?”
“You shouldn’t be here. Humans don’t travel in dimensions.” Command/Satellite turned its head to face her again. “Trees have use. Trees can be categorised. Trees live longer than humans.”
Jack began scrambling backwards, trying to escape it’s reach. She knew it was no use, she couldn’t outrun it and there was no time to hide.
“Trees live longer than humans. It is a kindness.” It reached its long arm out towards her. Its hand was almost touching when Jack heard it.
Someone, or something was throwing rocks at the robot.
CLUNK, CLUNK, CLUNK,
Command/Satellite turned to see what was happening. Jack took her chance. With all the strength in her body she kicked hard at the monster’s right leg. Her feet stung, but she had done enough. It began to wobble. Its foot became lose as it skidded on the soft ground.
Jack was stunned, she didn’t expect it to work. The next thing she knew someone had taken her by their hand and was pulling her away. Her senses returned and she began to run. She could see the back of her saviour. It was a he.
They ran and ran. From behind her Jack could hear the fud, fud of Command/Satellite. Against her better judgment, she turned back. The robot was growing. She let out a scream. Then there was a cutting sound. For a second she couldn’t breathe, see or do anything but feel the man’s hand pull her forward. Then they were alone.
All round them was space. Literal space. Stars, galaxies like glitter on a black dress.
“You!” Finally she saw the face of the man.
“Yes me.” Peter Pan grinned back at her. Now she recognised him, he had been the man in the boat. “I think it is time you took me up on my job offer. Don’t you?”
The glass tower gleamed in the sun. It was even taller that The Shard and it dwarfed the Gherkin.
“I based the design on a tower in a fairy tale. Apt don’t you think?”
Peter Pan was sitting behind a large desk. All around them were glass walls. Above them, a glass dome. Jack thought of a bird cage.
Jack tried to move back away from him and nearly tripped. Looking down she realised she had, had another wardrobe change. She teetered in her stilettos. Her legs further restricted by the black and white sheath dress she was wearing. It reached down below her knees.
“Please, take a seat,” He gestured to a seat on the other side of the desk to himself.
She had heard dresses like hers referred to as ‘wiggle’ dresses. As she moved towards the chair she understood why. She carefully smoothed the skirt underneath her as she sat down.
“I suppose I should thank you?”
“Oh, no need my dear. I am the one who should be thanking you. It’s not everyday I find someone with your talents.” Peter pulled out a cigar from a drawer, “do you mind?”
“No, but those things are not good for you.”
Peter paused to think, “Jack, you’ve seen how long I’ve been alive.”
Jack just watched him as he lit the cigar. He took two giant lungs full of smoke and puffed them out. As the smoke disappeared up into the roof he smiled.
“Now let’s talk about you working for me.”
“Making money of course.”
Jack sighed, “I wouldn’t have the first clue what to do.”
Peter Pan beamed from ear to ear. He tousled his messy blond hair, “Jack, I want you to meet someone.”
Jack turned as she heard a lift pinging behind her. A woman in her early thirties exited the lift.
“Jack please meet my assistant, Ashley.”
Ben and Isaac hid behind a compost pile. They watched as the procession of Gnomes led the human balloons into the shed. Mr Bubbles stood by the door watching impassively, his face largely hidden by shadow.
“Shit, what’s on my arm?” Ben moved his arm suddenly.
“Shhh! They will hear us.”
“Something just crawled on my arm!” Ben half leapt, half fell backwards.
Isaac grabbed him by the arm to stop him falling further. “Stay calm. We don’t want to be detected.”
“Do you think she’s in there?”
They both turned to look at the cat. Isaac waited as Ben appeared to be listening to Jess. “What did she say?”
“It smells like it,” there was a pause, “but something is off.”
Ben turned to Jess for a moment longer, “The Gnomes smell wrong. Something has happened.”
“Do we know what?”
Jess shook her head. The three of them looked at the shed again. The last of the bubbles was inside. Mr Bubbles looked around, for a moment he seemed to look at them. And then he was gone, shutting the shed door behind him.
“Can we get closer?”
“Jess says she will go. Less chance of being detected.” Ben kept looking at the cat, then laughed.
“Long story short, humans smell and make too much noise. The Gnomes would know we were there.”
The two boys stayed silent, watching Jess as she darted across the allotment. She zig-zagged, hiding behind over turned wheelbarrows and plant pots. Her back fur was hard to see against the dark shadow of the shed. Isaac did catch a glimpse of her pocking her nose against the wood of the door. Her face momentarily illuminated by the cracks of cold light coming from within.
It seemed like an age before she returned.
“What did she find?”
“She could smell their emotions.” Ben watched the cats face, “Fear, confusion. Anger as well. They are fighting amongst themselves. Panic.”
Isaac nodded. That couldn’t be good.
“Is she still in there?”
Ben looked at Jess for a while, “Yes, no. Jess can’t tell.”
“We need to get in there,” Isaac said, his voice louder than he intended. “Anything else?”
“Just a message. Left there in the… I can’t really explain it. Jess says it was left by someone. Not human.” He stopped listening to the cat, “She says it was left in the smell.”
“What was it?”
“Music is magic.”
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