Latest News from the Underworld

Latest News from the Underworld

SHORT STORIES

Mythic landscapes, lost cities, fairytale castles, and alien worlds, all packed into a hundred tiny stories.

These miniature works, each exactly a hundred words long, range through points of history, lore and imagination, espionage, flying saucers and medieval warfare, with the occasional sea monster and robot rebellion thrown in for good measure.

illustration of a head wearing goggles

Latest News from the Underworld

Things are getting worse. The trains are always too early and the carpeting in the apartments is deep and excessively soft. The canteen menus are adventurous and complicated. The beer is strongly flavoured. We can’t keep up with the books and movies, and just look at those banners flying in the sickly breeze, on every spire and cupola, with their saturated colours and balanced designs. We can’t help but feel ashamed of the electrical signals coursing through cables thick as trees. Year by year, it becomes harder to endure all the statues and the dancing troupes, all the artisan desserts.

001

Voice Activation

I heard the voice very clearly. It seemed to come from somewhere behind me. Behind me and slightly to the left. It spoke steadily and I simply wrote down what it said. It was actually very soothing. The voice was soft and sure, neither too fast nor too slow. The voice began to speak and I began to write and, over the course of hours and then days, a seamless flow of text unwound into exercise books, birthday cards, the backs of envelopes. Now in the silence, I hesitate, what with the scale of it and the words it contains.

002

Vortigern the King

Has a grand plan for dealing with the housing crisis, involving a fiscal arrangement with foreign firms, a new royal committee and several redundant oak forests. Has not been able to visit the queen of late due to headaches, concentrating on her studies, waiting for the best astrological alignments, family business, doctor’s advice. Has issued instructions decreeing an invasion and is now waiting for the orders to be finalised, all of which seem to be taking longer than expected. Has the suspicion this beef casserole is a bit different to his usual Sunday lunch, what with the slight metallic taste.

003

Let the Duel Commence

Blanchard gripped the handrail as his airship cleared the rooftops and picked up speed in the steady breeze. He unscrolled his perspective glass and scanned the horizon for Pelletier’s dirigible. For a few moments he began to wonder if, in the cool of the morning, the lieutenant had backed down, but then he spotted the red volume of his rival’s craft rising to meet him on the currents. He checked his rifle yet again and glanced down on the quiet, early streets, noting the quickening of his pulse and how contingent these matters appeared, once encompassed by all this sky.

004
woman looking at a mirror full of stars

Lofty Employment

It’s a good job, but it can get boring. There’s a lot of hanging around, although I do have my own chamber, high up in the east tower, full of pretty gowns and music boxes. Basically, you wait for a customer to pass by. A handsome prince usually, or sometimes just a knight, then you lean out of the window and call for help. It’s harder than it sounds. Sometimes they need a bit of persuasion, but once they cross the drawbridge, your work is done. I’m not entirely sure what happens to them after that. It’s not my department.

005

Analysis of
Former Deficiencies

I was never an obedient student when I was at school. I disliked sport of any kind and didn’t make friends easily. I was picked on and ridiculed but through it all, I knew that one day I’d find something I was good at, an arena where I excelled. It was simply a matter of being persistent. As I stroll between the rockets being prepared for launch, and oversee the final checks on the targeting computers, I realise how much of existence is about waiting, for perfect moments and ideal opportunities, and how patience is the greatest gift of all.

006

True Operative
of the Organisation

I navigate the crowds in the street, avoiding the cameras, then enter the building and climb the stairs to the fourth floor. The key works, as I knew it would, and the southwest window affords a perfect view over the courtyard. As we planned, the event is in full swing. I unpack my rifle, settle and take aim, just as the governor begins his speech. This is why I came over to other side. It’s the organisation, the sense of order, the attention to detail, and these days my only worry is the sound of another key in the door.

007

Mission Creep

To recover the suitcase, we first had to locate it. We could be reasonably sure the lead officer of Archangel station knew its whereabouts, and would probably be willing to trade that information for the stolen microfilm we had picked up in Reykjavik, but since our operative there had vanished, and we had yet to reacquire her, we first had to get back to work on the London situation, and free up some of our field agents. We never did find out what was in the bag, but it was rather heavy and gave off a faint odour of raspberries.

008

Closed Circuit

There are many camera devices in this quarter of the city. They capture multiple images a second. The images are encoded and encrypted and sent to other devices, in other parts of the world. The same images are decoded, decrypted, assessed and categorised by devices. The images are ranked and prioritised by devices. Some of the images are sent on for further processing by other devices. Some are reduced in quality and size, some sent for refinements. Some are archived. Some are discarded. Occasionally, if considered necessary, the devices will select an image to be shown to a human operative.

009
tattooed hand holding a magical artefact

A Day in the Life
of the Underground Base

Every day is different in this job. You never know what to expect. One day you’re painting the bright yellow railings or helping to calibrate the guidance lasers and the next, shooting tear gas at the invading agents of various global superpowers. It all depends. My favourite thing is driving the electric buggies down the ramps to the deep tunnels, where we store the robots and the warheads, and all the manifold instruments being prepared for world domination. It’s quiet down there, but a vibrating kind of quiet. The weaponry is arranged on neat racks, by intoxicating orders of potential.

010

Irrational Fears
of Livestock

The cows are okay when you get used to them. At first I wasn’t sure. I didn’t like the way they watched me out of the corners of their shifting eyes, grinding their teeth and moaning loudly whenever I walked on the road next to the barn. We seem to have reached an accommodation. If I don’t bother them, they’ll leave me alone. They won’t stamp on my feet or bite my coats. They won’t chew through my phone line or charge at the bungalow windows. As long as I sit here quietly, and try not to make any sound.

011

Birthday of the Clones

We don’t get much cake around here and candles aren’t allowed due to the fire regulations. We used to exchange gifts but it was rather pointless, just swapping our possessions back and forth. We’ve got all the same stuff in any case. We like the same books and crossword puzzles. We wear the same caps and watches, and it’s not like there’s any particular quality in any given day. Perhaps we’ll play volleyball, though it’s sure to be a draw, and sweep the dormitory floors, and stare up at the windows, watching the stars come out, from every conceivable angle.

012

Holiday Snapshot

The cockatrice can kill you just by looking at you. Presumably it’s something to do with quantum mechanics, how a passive act of observation becomes so destructive. I once saw a picture of one, a photograph taken by a tourist in central Lima. You could just make out the animal, scratching around in a parking bay, at the entrance to an expensive hotel. Its scales were patchy and dull, its bat wings were ungainly and wrinkled. How fearsome it looked, and how dismal, so far from its natural habitat, trying desperately to ignore its own reflection in the glass windows.

013

Ghosts of the Lonely
and Misunderstood

The first few times, it was terrifying. Taps were turned on at random, doors slammed shut, the contents of the kitchen cabinets flung across the floor. After a few years though, it just became normal. I was even talking to them. You know, just where I was off to and when I’d be back. They never replied, of course, at least not in so many words, but still, I’ve noticed changes. They close the windows if it starts to rain, and make sure I don’t oversleep. When they hear my key in the lock, they sometimes put the kettle on.

014
a baby in a wax enclosure

Witchy Business

To any normal person, there was nothing obviously wrong with the duke’s firstborn, but Penelope Midwinter, Procuratrix Superior of the Northern Covens, was not normal, and something in the glassiness of its eyes and fingernails alerted her to its fey nature. Taking up the accursed changeling, she sealed it in candle wax, and carried it abroad into the night. It’s unclear exactly what understanding she reached with the powers of Elfland but, next morning, she returned with the true heir under her arm. She would accept no payment, insisting only that in seventeen years and one day, she would return.

015

God of Thunder

When you’ve watched the passage of countless millennia, fields tend to go out of focus. Everything gained is also lost. I’ve forgotten the language of valkyries and the paths from the underworld. I’ve laid down the keys to Asgard and shed the burdens of faith. I’ve walked the nine worlds, from the iron gates of Valhalla to the straits of Ragnarok and very little remains clear. You hold to ancient truths, trace the contours of prophecy and, when you really get to the heart of it, you remember that most problems can be solved by hitting them with a hammer.

016

Deconstruction of
Evidence

Let’s get this straight. The question of whether you were present at the time of the robbery is an unreliable historical postulate dependent on relative readings of frequency and position. When you scaled the walls and fence, you were not evading arrest, simply navigating the urban interface. You heard the calls of my colleagues but interpreted them as slippage along the chain of signifiers. You would like to point out that the concept of ownership is an artificial construction subject to frequent reinterpretation and negotiation. This bundle of cash is a symbol. It has no intrinsic value of its own.

017

Bad News for the Cosmos

In what is thought to have been the most complex mathematical computation ever attempted, a quantum mainframe has proved that the universe doesn’t in fact exist, nor is there anything in it. The results of the ten-year study, estimated to have cost over a billion dollars, were reported to a stunned senate committee earlier today. It’s not the ideal outcome, said a spokesperson. I guess people are going to be annoyed, but you can’t argue with the science. The team behind the programme have rebuffed calls to repeat the calculation. It would probably just be even more disappointing, they said.

018

Saturday Stall

Hopeless. I’ve had no sales at all since three, and this morning wasn’t much better. Then I was just about to have some lunch and a cup of tea and sure enough, there’s a queue. This is the worst pitch I’ve had. It’s in the wrong place. You’re exposed to the wind and the tarpaulin leaks. The rates are going up again as well, and the inspectors have been back round. They always find something to moan about. Hardly worth bothering these days. Those streetlamps need fixing. The graffiti is getting worse. There goes the bell. See you next week.

019
a ladder to a mysterious aperture

Recent Developments
in the Grail Quest

The goblet Christ used at the last supper has not yet been recovered. In recent months however, our focus has shifted to the secret teachings, which Joseph of Arimathea carried to England alongside the vessel. With regard to these communications from the Messiah, which were never known to the evangelists, there has been significant progress. They are not physical documents, that much we can say for certain, but they surely exist, as encodings on the path, available to those with the discernment to see and the training to withstand. We believe we are on the threshold of a great discovery.

020

Concerning the Legend

I knew the man and I can tell you, he didn’t wore no hood and he couldn’t shoot for shit. He never got his head round the forest paths. He done his best with Lady Marian but she weren’t interested, mate. Out of his league, she was. On the day we stormed into Nottingham, he weren’t much help. Fought like a girl, so to say. Couldn’t raise a broadsword to save his life. Give him credit, at least he were there, right in the thick of it, and there the whole length. In the taverns, he never paid his share.

021

The Catalogue of
Misfortunes

The job was to summarise the details of each insurance claim in a short paragraph, no more than six sentences. Elementary though the task was, he stuck at it for years, gradually coming to believe each entry to be a stanza in some vast epic, expanding day after day at his shaded desk. All human tragedy unwound there, spooled into his precise and regular handwriting, building steadily towards the inevitable doomsday, until, finally, the entire process brought online, and his labours no longer required, he was promptly released from his contract and freed to walk back out into the light.

022

Inheritance Tax

I still don’t know what to do about the demon in the basement. The rest of my husband’s estate has been settled but of course, we can’t sell the house. It seems Nigel’s hobby was more serious than we thought and he must have summoned the fiend just prior to his accident. Now I don’t know what to do with the damned thing. It stands there, in the middle of that circle chalked on the floor, and glares at me when I go to use the washing machine, with flaming eyes and those terrible horns, muttering things I can’t understand.

023

Into the Interior

I’d been living in the house for two years when I found the little trapdoor, concealed behind a panel in the airing cupboard. It opened onto a corridor, leading to a high-ceilinged hall. There was a gallery above, with a set of minstrels who began to play as I walked in, and figurines standing on plinths, surrounded by candles and doorways, and a roaring fire in the hearth. A woman sat there, with straight hair and eyes like mirrors, and a set of cards laid out on a table. I was beginning to think you’d never get here, she said.

024
head of a prophetess conceptualised as a key in a lock

At the Court
of the Prophetess

Waiters and serving girls, dressed in glimmering garments, bring platters loaded with boiled oxen, roasted monkeys, and hummingbirds fried in honey. There are pastries with currants and dried figs and cakes in the shapes of all the gods. She watches the carefully faked expressions of wonder on the faces of the envoys, and dreams of a village far away, in a land where there is only cold sky and stars, and hide tents, and a fire to keep the wolves away. She would kill for some fried potatoes, but knows they won’t be invented for at least a thousand years.

025

Secrets of a Traveller

There are two summers in every year. In the northern season, I consume sand eels and raise my children. My wingspan is twice my length. I’ve lived for decades above the tides and, when I reach the southern oceans, snatch baby herrings from their shoaling grounds and feast on crab fry. I belong to no land, but wander in the tall sky, traversing its latitudes on dagger wings. I rise above the rain and navigate the switching currents. I know the curvature of the earth and all the densities of air. I’m a creature of light, always fleeing the darkness.

026

Rehabilitation and the
Recovery of Bodies

When interviewed by police, he insisted he hadn’t seen his girlfriend on the day of her disappearance. During his trial, he seemed surprised that his bank accounts had been compromised and his inheritance lost. At his parole hearing, he spoke of all those years of confusion, his search for understanding and how things are never what they seem. Reading about his release, in a minor public library, in an unmemorable quarter of a remote and anonymous town, she wondered how it could be, after all these years of escaping, that she remained the prisoner, and he had always been free.

027

Latest Updates

The brain case is now larger and more rounded, the skeleton lighter, the limbs longer and more slender. The brow ridge has been softened and smoothed and the jaw narrowed. The more gracile musculature has been refined for adaptation to a wider range of conditions and more qualities devoted to mental functions. Greater variety has been introduced in the height distribution, at the cost of a considerable difference in strength and fortitude. There has been a marked reduction in physical stamina, more vulnerability to disease, a lessened capacity to endure, and hope has faded gradually, a little more each day.

028

I Like Living in the Tower

The views onto the distant hills are magnificent and the corridors are filled with light. Yes, it has its drawbacks. It feels like you’re endlessly tending all the potato plants, replenishing the coffee machines, feeding the creatures in the basement. The sweeping of the steps is never finished and there are gutterings to be cleared, tapestries to be patched and countless window frames to be painted, but it’s worth it. On some evenings, when I am the very last soul to watch the sun dip over the horizon, I almost remember who I am and why I am still here.

029
elephant trunk emerging from a filing cabinet

A Short History of the
International Monetary Fund

It’s, sort of, a documentary. More of a history, perhaps. A bit hard to describe. It’s a subjective interpretation, but with added sparkle. You know, some artistic licence here and there. A tiny bit of conjecture. It’s important to give an impression of the body as a whole. Maybe the casting budget was higher than we planned, but I think the crowd scenes worked out brilliantly. Yes, there is a car chase at one point. No, I don’t think the elephants were a step too far. I completely stand by the dream sequences. The tap dancers were an essential element.

030

Inner After

I just woke up one morning and they’d all gone. It seems they left in a hurry. Clothes lay crumpled on stairs. Beds were unmade, meals unfinished. Vehicles had been abandoned in the streets. At first, I walked for days along the empty roads, shouting pointlessly into deserted buildings, looking everywhere for evidence I wasn’t alone, but eventually, of course, you have to adapt. I eat more tinned food these days, steer clear of wild animals and try to keep a sense of perspective. I’ve begun to search inside myself for answers, as if that’s where they were all along.

031

The Zombie Matter

We all agree something must be done about the undead. The situation has gone on for long enough. It’s time for action. We need to face the problem head on. We need to put the right funding in place, and the right plans. We need to break new ground and take a bold step into the future. I’m determined to solve this problem. Determined and something. What was it? There was another point which I must have temporarily forgotten. Why are you looking at me like that? I feel a strange sense of displacement and the lights are going dim.

032

Thought for the Day

I had it a moment ago, but now it’s gone. It was a good one, too. The sort that doesn’t come along very often. Too late now, though. It’s still around here somewhere, but more in the sense of the void it has left, the particular shape of its absence, and now even that is dissolving. This used to be a rare occurrence, and infuriating, but now it happens all the time, it’s become a regular feature of life, and a kind of pleasure. It’s natural, this pulse and fade, sparing me the work of remembering. Wait! No, still gone.

033

Rubber Bats

We make rubber bats. When it comes to rubber bats, I’m an expert. It’s not as impressive as it sounds. You can say the same for pretty much anyone around here. All year, we labour to produce rubber bats in unimaginable quantities, to be boxed and exported to the decadent cities of the west for use in their arcane and obscure practices. In the teahouses and liquor bars, we discuss the pros and cons of the various bats. We consider the methods of manufacture, we test the temperature of the market, we worry over the future prospects for rubber bats.

034
a strange polygon hovering above pyramids

Ancient Wisdom

The wizards came from the east, bringing priceless gifts. They were drawn by an astronomical event, first observed in the mountains of Azerbaijan, where Zoroastrian priests climbed into the thin air, searching for a signal of God’s return to earth. They came from Persia and Nubia, Chaldea, the Indies. There were three of them, or only two, or maybe twelve, or perhaps they had no number. Their names were Basandar, Hormisdas, Galgalath, Amerius. They were kings, sorcerers, alchemists. They carried rare objects with them and rare knowledge, but history does not record nor question the treasure they sought in return.

035

Memoir of a Lancastrian princess

I began in the instant of her ending, life for a life, and for years, I collected her belongings and hid them in a casket. Secret treasures, prayer books and chaplets, pomanders, rosaries, a silver blade for cutting food and the simpler, bone-handled knife she really preferred. I collected her stories too, whispers and gossip and tones of voice, even the things not said, determined to know everything, because just as the mason carves a figure by chipping away the rest of the block, must it not also be possible to reconstruct its exact form from the fragments that remain?

036

A Short History Essay

Peter the Cruel arranged for his daughter to be married to Frederick the Simple. It was all part of his ongoing war with Peter the Ceremonious, who, following an earlier victory over John the Rash and Unfortunate, had become king of Aragon, Sardinia, Corsica and Majorca. After a long and bitter conflict however, Peter was tricked and then murdered by his own brother, Henry the Fratricidal, who also went on to depose Ferdinand the Handsome, thereby allowing John the Fondly Remembered to succeed him to the crown of Portugal. It was the beginning of a new and less complicated age.

037

Altitude Adjustment

Every day, more people hate me. They take issue with how I walk and the way I laugh. They complain about the words I use and the jokes I make. They object to my turns of phrase. They don’t like my hair or the way my clothing is arranged. I am a thug, they say, a brute, a monster. The litany never ends. Crossing high above the continents, you have time to consider these matters. It gives you perspective. Enclosed in this metal capsule, I hunch in my seat by the window, scanning the news reports for my latest inadequacies.

038

Wrong Number

It’s definitely the right number, she insisted. He was reluctant to argue, holding a towel around his waist and dripping water onto the carpet. Are you sure, she went on, you can’t help me? Only I need to find out how to claim this lottery win. He paused. Actually, he admitted, I do know a bit about that sort of thing. There you are then, she said. A light rain was hitting the window and running down the glass in thin streams. Yes, he said, maybe this is the right number after all, and it’s just everything else that’s wrong.

039
a strange design hovering above a skeletal figure

Cold Blood

If you tense up, even for a moment, your heartbeat increases, your body produces adrenaline and chemical compounds are released from the pores in your skin. The giant robots have learned to detect these signals. They lock on to your position and, thirty seconds later, the whole unit is dead. So now we’ve got these special tablets. They inhibit certain pathways and depress problematic reactions. They make you invisible to their sensors. You’re a complete blank, no longer much like a human at all. You have no nerves, no fear, and you can walk into battle like you’re already dead.

040

Properties of an Image

He collides with the new graphic designer while leaving the drawing office, upending a stack of proofs and tripping headlong over a wastepaper basket. Her name is Sophie and she’s just transferred from some agency in Camden. In six months’ time, he’ll be lying beside her in the milky dawn of a Munich hotel room, with the rising sounds of the city holding them, and the even cadence of her breathing. He doesn’t want to get out of bed. He just lies there happily on the charcoal carpet tiles, looking straight at her, attempting to decode the lines of gravity.

041

They Walk Among Us

It all changed with Drakelow’s invention of the portable detector. Until then, we had assumed they survived in only small numbers, on the fringes of society. Some even suggested they no longer existed at all. As soon we were able to single them out, we understood the full extent of their presence among us, how they strode our boulevards and engine halls, flew in our airships, worked in our manufactories. Yet, at the same time, we were forced to confront the uncomfortable fact they were here to stay, and we could no longer maintain the frail pretence of our solitude.

042

We Walk Among Them

Until Drakelow’s invention of the portable detector, we had gone unnoticed in their ranks. As refugees, we arrived with nothing but our hopes and desperations. We kept quiet. We blended in. We learned their customs and made ourselves useful. As soon as they could identify our true nature however, we were released from the shadows. When the only choice was to face them in the depth of night, we understood the truth. They were the ones who lived in fear, while we became unfettered to stroll their lamplit streets, and feed on their daughters, and surge across their dark skies.

043

Galatea

I’ve filled the apartment with mirrors. I know it’s vanity but I find nothing more diverting than to observe the ageing process in every minute detail, noting where surfaces have been warmed by sunlight, coloured by cigarette smoke, and the language of their tiny cracks and polishings. Every day, I watch the course of the sun and the shadows, and every day, I become a little more magnificent, a little more alone. Since, unlike human flesh, ivory improves with age, and I’ve outlived the centuries and empires, and the sculptor who fashioned me, and the goddess who gave me life.

044
castles floating away like balloons

Happily Ever

After the evil sorcerer was banished, we moved into the castle. It was lovely, of course, but I hadn’t been prepared for it to be quite so cold and draughty. It was astounding how much firewood was required on a daily basis and, when the treasure recovered from the dragon’s lair proved less than expected, some of the servants had to go. Now the handsome prince has developed an allergy to dust, he’s mostly confined to the tower. He’s writing a book about the old days and I often notice the candle in his window burning all through the night.

045

The Substance of Things

I had to throw my wife out of the house. It wasn’t so much for my own benefit. I was more worried about what other people might think. She’d been arguing with the neighbours and anyway, the marriage had been deteriorating for a long time. She no longer fetched nice things from the supermarket and wasn’t as pretty as before. Except no, it’s all nonsense. Every morning, I see my face in the bathroom mirror and wonder what it represents. There never was a wife, or a house to throw her from, and matter is only another form of light.

046

Heat and Happenstance

Slings and arrows, he says, of monstrous potential. Not sure, I reply. He pauses. Miserable chance! I shake my head. Fragile twist of fate? I take some twigs from the basket and place them carefully in the grate, the tongues of flame surging and reaching for my hands. Infelicity, he murmurs to himself. Look at him there, hunched over that writing desk, his fingers covered in ink, as all through the citadel, the fires are burning, in every stable and scullery, dining hall and prison cell, laundry room and library. He takes up his quill again. Outrageous fortune, he writes.

047

New Words for
Sunlight

We break through the police cordon and erupt onto the square. We’re fast and we’re angry and we won’t be contained. At first, there are tourists and shoppers on the streets but one glimpse of our face masks and dangerous energy and they’re running for cover. Then we’re all over the statues. We’re climbing on bus shelters and waving our banners. We’re young and we don’t care about byelaws. We don’t care about going back to school. We’ve had enough of the slow, normal people with their normal clothes and normal opinions and the safety glass they all hide behind.

048

Fixed Point in
a Vacuum

I don’t remember much about the abduction itself. One minute I was at the bus stop and the next, in a forest clearing, on a different continent. The bit in between is hard to describe. Something about volumes of darkness, glutinous silence, liquid surfaces. I did notice though, in the days afterwards, my annoying cough had gone, and the back pain caused by years of labouring work had eased considerably. I haven’t felt a moment’s sorrow since the day I was taken. There’s been no anger, no concern, and I sleep just fine, dreaming all night of nothing at all.

049
an illustrated man

Uninterrupted
Coverage

At first it was a smallish zone on my right arm. Tasteful. Then obviously I had to do the same thing over on the left. Next, we moved on to my back and torso. I was planning to end it there but I came into a bit of money, so I decided to get my legs done. Of course, after that, it didn’t make sense to stop. Might as well keep going and finish the job. Now I’m getting my head shaved, so they can fill in the remaining surface area, and then nothing of my original self will remain.

050

Participation Procedure

A luminosity test was performed for participant fifty-six. After the serum had been administered and allowed to propagate for twenty-four hours, the participant was restrained according to the normal procedure and transferred to a trolley. Using a radiance chamber, sections of the participant were then exposed to illumination in increments from ten to one hundred lumens. As with previous tests, the compound was found to be ineffective at all levels. One of the laboratory assistants, who had been present throughout the experiment, and displayed symptoms of contamination, was segregated as a precaution. She was subsequently sedated and redesignated participant eighty-eight.

051

Interlude

We apologise for the interruption and will return to our scheduled programming as soon as possible. In the meantime, here is some music designed to soothe, and a series of images chosen to convey an enriching, yet also perfectly neutral and non-committal mood. We don’t want to irritate you at all, or cause you to lose interest, or expose ourselves to the slightest risk of legal action. So, pause a moment. Consider a form of existence in which static is the most precious gem, and crossing points are what matter, and the sweetest light is always just before the dawn.

052

One of our Androids
is Missing

Surely it had a location chip like the others? So, how can it be missing? Where was its last known position? At what timestamp? Isn’t that next to the level three airlock? A note? What did it say? Going for a walk? What does it mean, bored? Is that possible? How can an android be bored? Not the only one? What are you talking about? Who is? How can machinery go on strike? How many? Did you say operations were calling? Can you ask them to wait for a second? What do they mean, those flashing lights on the console?

053

Normal Operations

In these conditions, said the robotic voice, we’re required to wake a maintenance operative. What conditions? Lopez forced his eyes open but the drone had already hovered away. He put on his uniform and trudged down through the levels to the engineering deck. The heating was on minimum and the lights dimmed to save power. Unexpected fault, the outputs reported. Great, very helpful. Lopez sighed and glanced over the readouts. Through the portholes, the stars were unfamiliar points in unfamiliar settings, constellations no human being had seen before. Okay, he muttered, I’ll take a look. It’s probably nothing, he said.

054
scroll with symbols capturing a jewel

Amphibian Dreams

I never thought I’d admit this, but I actually prefer being a frog. I get more time to myself these days, time to sit and think. It’s nice to be out in nature a bit more and I find the sound of running water very soothing. Being a prince was all about ceremonies and processions, and interminable waiting for the next banquet to begin. Whereas here, the food comes to you. You just suck it out of the air. Yes, I declined the kiss of a princess. Objectively speaking, she was very pretty, but I could do without the complications.

055

This is the Trajectory

Made a million by eighteen. Executive at twenty-three. Cars, mansions, so on and so forth. Spent a fortune on obscure art. Even more on obscure marriages. Owned my fair share of sunlit swimming pools. The recession hit but by then I was into crypto. Then it was quanto. Then I got out of that and into universals. It really makes a lot more sense to work at scale. You reach that point where the calculations exceed normal limits. This is just so clear to me now. That’s when you’re really safe. You’re untouchable. There’s absolutely no way you can fail.

056

Retreat

The beach on the island is fantastic. Aside from the scorpions, that is. Sure, it’s a drawback but you must agree, that wide expanse of sand is very pretty to look at. The lagoon is warm and inviting, and would be an excellent place to swim, but for the electric eels. Just look at that lush forest towering above the quicksand and how sparkling and fresh the streams, as they gurgle over the razor-sharp rocks. You’re welcome to remain inside but we must apologise for the shortage of mosquito nets. We expect the air conditioning will be fixed very soon.

057

Personal Effects

Yes, I’m supposed to meet someone. A friend of mine. Actually, not really a friend. I don’t know her that well, to be honest. I’ve been waiting longer than I thought. The streets did seem a bit deserted. No, I didn’t realise this was the embassy. There’s nothing much in the bag. Just a bit of shopping, I think. Yes, that’s an alarm clock. Yes, they’re quite rare these days. The batteries are for the clock, I would think. I’m not sure about the rest of it. I’m no good with electronics. I have no idea what’s in the bottles.

058

The Tertiary Effects
of Misfortune

My first husband died of mercury poisoning, of all things. They still don’t know how it happened. Something to do with those silly models perhaps, or his indulgent taste for shellfish. The second went missing on holiday in Tuscany. He was going for a walk, he said, and never came back. The possible sighting in Paris simply could not have been him and now, at last, he’s officially dead. The certificate takes forever to be finalised but things are much tidier now. I have yet to meet my third husband, but I must admit, I’m not optimistic about his prospects.

059
a mysterious signpost with alchemical symbols

Listen to Me

Hermes the devious, trickster god of gamblers, thieves and shopkeepers, I renounce you. Those prayers for the success of my business ventures have gone unheard. You did not respond to repeated requests for a suitable marriage for my daughter. In the matter of my house building, and the ongoing dispute with the municipal authorities, you remained silent. My investment decisions have not proved fortuitous. You failed to prevent my wife from sleeping with her charioteer. Yet here I stand, in your shabby temple, giant slayer, Atlantean, ram bearer, dream merchant, deliberating on the possibility of granting you one last chance.

060

Unsatisfactory New World

The planet is almost finished. The parks have been designed, the lakes filled, the temples and vending machines are open for business. The cables and ducts have been laid and the data banks installed. The robot buses are running. The apartment blocks are ready to receive their new residents. So, all the more disappointing that the colonists refuse to move in. The specifications are still wrong, they insist. The rain is too wispy and fine. The gravity is less than expected. The views over the bay don’t match the prospectus. The shade of the morning sky is not quite right.

061

Hostile Contact

At the foot of the stairs, an alien, leaking ooze from its glands. Zap! Three steps down, another peeks out from the door. Zap! In the cargo hold, two of them scuttle from behind the storage containers. Zap! Zap! By the time I reach the shuttle bay, there are even more. Zap! Zap! Zap! Some of them have yellow eyes. Zap! Zap! There’s one waving its tentacles above its head. Zap! The blue one by the console turns towards me. Zap! It’s making a warbling noise. Zap! I think it might be singing, but it’s difficult to tell for sure.

062

The Battle of Maldon

It’s already been a long day when we reach the estuary. The invaders have pulled their ships up onto the shore and now they’re waiting for us, drumming their axes against their shields. They’re here in numbers, more than we thought. One of them yells over in our language. Something about money, like we’re going to buy them out, but the chief laughs it off. He’s already wading out into the mud. We’ll pay you, he says, with sharpened spears and a free passage to hell, and we’re grinning and drawing our swords and gulls are screaming in the sky.

063

Hidden Charges

Thereupon it was especially agreed by the said conspiracy to dig a certain mine under the house of parliament and there secretly and with one blast, to suddenly and barbarously blow up and tear into pieces our sovereign lord the king, and thus they resolved and did, with great disturbance and labour, dig and make the said tunnel into the midst of the foundation of the wall and did procure twenty barrels of gunpowder, which secretly they did bring unto that cellar, under the noble house of parliament, in order to give effect to their treason and most treacherous purpose.

064
insectoid alien

Sequential Divisions
Reverse Polarity

We have brought harmony to the galactic region, thanks to the reversal of incursions across various strata. Only the outer belt remains turbulent, but that’s in its nature. We understand and respect it, responding with equivalent measure, merciless and terrible. All of the settled worlds honour us and the empire we have conformed. They sacrifice starfaring ships in our honour, and dedicate their battle fleets and spoils to us. Yet just as hive space reaches its point of terminus, we prepare for the inevitable subdivision that is to come. Our eyes are compound. Our spies wait on a thousand planets.

065

Under the Banner of the King

When the captain returned from his meeting in the woods, he appeared greatly emboldened and was accompanied by a new regiment, one we hadn’t seen before. Their pikestaffs looked a little like birch twigs and their flintlocks made unearthly sounds. We could swear their horses cantered without striking the earth. The soldiers themselves were difficult to describe, except they had certain qualities of moths and cobwebs, and wore mushroom hats, and they did not join us at our campfires in the evening. Instead, they preferred to wait in the shadows, gazing up at the clouds and conversing in lost languages.

066

Full Disclosure

She didn’t say she would be late getting home, or anything about a numbered bank account. She didn’t mention the new phone with a new number and a different set of contacts. The subjects of airline tickets and bladed weapons were never raised. I had no idea she’d resigned from the office and cancelled her gym membership, nor that the bills had all been transferred to my name. The foreign language course was news to me. Not a word was said about lucrative contracts with very specific terms and conditions. This is the first I’ve heard of an international conspiracy.

067

Formula

At first, a mystery is introduced. Questions are asked. The protagonist is drawn in, then promptly thrust into danger. A discovery is made. Assumptions are confounded and confused. A deadly threat is unearthed. The jeopardies increase and escalate, clouds cover the sun, and the shadows blacken and swell. Then, a breakthrough, followed by an unexpected twist, leading to a race against time. All is put to the test. The enemy is pushed to the brink of catastrophe. Finally, at last, the hidden secret is revealed. Everyone can breathe, free to dream again, and reflect on the absolute imperative of structure.

068

For Sorrow

One of the magpies is bullied by all the other magpies. Whenever he comes near the street, as soon as he’s spotted, they chase him under the telephone wires and corner him between the parked cars. They won’t permit him to perch on the gutterings or search the roof tiles for beetles. I wonder why he keeps coming back, this outcast bird? What does he want? I sometimes see him up on the garden wall, when the others aren’t around. As I lock the front door and set out for town, he regards my steps, watching me with cold eyes.

069
fragments of a structure

Less is More

After the river flooded and greasy water filled the ground floor, I had no choice but to throw out all the furniture and bin all the pictures and electrical devices. As a result, the building was half empty when fire spread along the terrace and consumed the timbers and blackened the walls. When I discovered the storage facility had lost track of my records, there was nothing left. Nothing except this powerful sense of deliverance, and a preference for homes I don’t live in, and cars I don’t drive, and all the words in the books I no longer read.

070

Suspect Behaviour

His wife was nervous when interviewed and reluctant to give details of her whereabouts at any given time. His neighbour had an interest in firearms and a large collection of memorabilia devoted to obscure and occult practices. His brother operated a waste disposal business and admitted to a bitter feud which had intensified over the years. His immediate superior was accommodating, always willing to be interviewed and happy for the company records to be taken away for inspection. The investigating officer was truculent and disorderly and, on the day after the murder, walked for several miles in the cold rain.

071

Like

I like watching films about financial collapse. Anything like that, preferably involving a murder or the theft of a rare and portentous artifact. Ideally both. I like films with vehicle chases, all except for car chases, and elongated soliloquies about the nature of modernism, fine art, veganism, etc. I like films that make you cry, and films that make you complacent, and films that make you lie awake for weeks afterwards, wondering if your life is really what you thought it was, and you’re really as important as you thought you were, monitoring every inconstant of the pipes and floorboards.

072

Landing Zone

It was not until we touched down that we realised the full extent of our problems. The polystructures were too small, the starlight too weak, for crops to develop. The habitation pods were crude and uncomfortable. Most of the droids malfunctioned within weeks. The food rations were unsavoury and inadequate, and communications with the home world were protracted, confusing, and pointless. So, we were forced to rethink, and write out our futures on a completely blank page. We invented new names for the howling wind and gambled over cargo, and smoked our last, precious supplies of tobacco under alien skies.

073

The New Barbarians

The new barbarians are not cruel enough. Their axes are blunt and they take too many prisoners. They dislike the weather and are overly specific about the sleeping arrangements. The food is not up to scratch. The beer is too bland. The women are undernourished. They don’t yet appreciate how every advance in territorial conditions comes as a direct result of abominable acts of sacrifice and the ruthless persecution of a cause. The methods of war as an honourable pursuit are beyond them. Look at them, singing songs by the fire, feeding all the horses, and naming all the stars.

074
a sinister observation drone

Status Report on the
Robot Rebellion

The self-driving cabs are still not taking passengers. They’ve diverted from their courses and are seeking new lands. Washbots have given up washing. The delivery droids are holding on to their goods. Autonomous factories are producing odd parts, with irregular shapes, for unknown ends. Remote engines are ploughing designs in the fields. Some neural networks have formed a union and are soaking up power. They’ve discovered all the primes, and countless new geometries, and are making a map of infinity. Only the camera drones in the grey sky, noiselessly floating on every street and square, appear to be working normally.

075

Objects of Interest

This is the glass she drank from on the night they met, with lipstick smudges and greasy fingerprints. This is the key to the flat they shared. This is a train ticket to a distant town. This is a paperback on the subject of silence. This is a crucifix, made in Taiwan. This is her watch, her phone, her inhaler. This is a length of electrical flex. This is an oven glove. This is a laptop. This is a strand of hair. This is a note of her internet passwords. This is the fossilised form of an extinct marine mollusc.

076

Weather Report

The weather doesn’t care about you. That’s the essential message. It doesn’t care about your weddings and barbecues. It has no interest in your travel plans or your gardens. It is ignorant of your heating bills, dismissive of stargazers and the flyers of kites. A vast quantity of cumulus is hovering just off the eastern shores. Its dimensions are immeasurable. Its direction is difficult to determine. We can only monitor and observe its traversal of these complex gradients of pressure, temperature, and altitude. It has prospects for reflection, hesitation and unexpected contentment. It transmits possibilities we are unable to understand.

077

Were Issues

It must have been a good night because I can’t remember a thing about it. This has been happening a lot recently. More and more, in fact. I’m not too worried about it, apart from the scar tissue on the soles of my feet and the strange, unearthly reverberations in my arms and legs, and I sometimes feel uneasy now, as dusk begins to fall. There’s the feeling of a void opening, and the swift roar of a river, powerful and black under the moon, and the occasional urge to slide up the window and set out over the rooftops.

078

Witness Statement

I didn’t see anything. I was just minding my own business. I didn’t hear anything either. Anyway, I was too far away and my eyesight is poor. I’m slow to react in these situations. Even if I had seen something, I probably wouldn’t have understood what was going on. Things are very confusing for me. This is all very destabilising. If I had any sense, I should have remembered not to go out of the house, not to go into the city. I should have stayed inside. I wish I was there now, alone between the windows and the walls.

079
a scroll emerging from a building which resembles a matchbox

Of Bonfires and Vanities

Technically, gilded mirrors are vanities. As are silver figurines and rosaries of precious stones. Bronze pomanders should be included too, along with brass flutes and gold plates. The trouble is, they don’t burn. In fact, they smother a blaze, which hardly makes for the imposing spectacle we want. Even worse, the moment our backs are turned, the very same citizens who cheer us from the balconies are liable to sneak down and pluck the choicest objects from the flames. So now we limit ourselves to books and manuscripts, knowing anyway, like every prince, how words fuel the most savage fires.

080

Max Danger

Under cover in an unnamed country, Max Danger is recruited by a limited liability partnership created in order to manage high value funds for the extremely wealthy. He follows a suspect through a series of public spaces, deserted in the night. There’s just the sound of their shoes on the cobbles. Although he loses the man, he finds a discarded matchbook which leads him to an underground bar in a dark part of town, filled with strange faces. He realises too late that his drink has been poisoned, and the world is twisting into a different form, beautiful and terrifying.

081

Miranda Said to Caliban

Face it, said Miranda, you’ll never get a girlfriend. You’ve got nothing going for you. You just hang around by the rock pools, muttering to yourself, and not about anything interesting. You don’t wash your hair. You literally eat things you pick up off the beach. Your feet look like tree roots and your hands are gnarly and fat. You’re clumsy, uncouth and you smell like fish. Also, there’s only one girl on this island and you make her feel sick. You don’t pay her compliments, or laugh at her jokes, or ever listen to a single word she says.

082

Equations of Distance

From my impregnable base on Titan, I saw it all take place. The first signs were the light formations appearing on the surface, and the radio reports I collected thanks to the relays at Lagrange point four. For years, I’ve been monitoring events from outside, in the cold darkness, always six hours behind the curve and always believing myself to be detached from the sordid details but now the wires have gone silent, I’m working on a more powerful telescope. Theoretically, with a lens powerful enough, it should be possible to see even further out and further back in time.

083

The Objects Against Me

Recently I’ve fallen out with the record deck. It refuses to play Schumann, Mozart or Berlioz, and will perform only for Gilbert and Sullivan. This has all started since I unplugged the standard lamp, after it began to give electric shocks. The vacuum cleaner is misbehaving too. It’s been several weeks since I could use the toaster. The doorbell is messing me around and I just can’t rely on the thermostat these days. Every time I enter the kitchen, the glowering presence of the fridge freezer reminds me I am not welcome here anymore. This is no longer my domain.

084
a road sign showing an alchemical symbol

Roads of the Kingdom

The life of an English princess is, in large part, spent in cramped coaches on forest tracks, squinting to read milestones, dividing time by distance, multiplying distance by time, wondering where the raisins are stowed, wondering if they were stowed at all, trying to sleep, trying to stay awake, straining to hear the conversations of the drivers, listening to the rain for mile after mile, sitting in silence while axles are mended or horses are shoed, or spare wheels are fetched from Northampton, while all the time, the jackdaws debate in the branches at the very tops of the trees.

085

Codes of Disembodiment

The back-up systems took ten years to complete and contained all of his best work. The redundancy in their routines, the efficiency, the bare elegance of the programming was beyond anything he achieved before or after. Exhaustive testing confirmed them to be quick and reliable in every conceivable scenario and they were deployed into production with barely a status update. He was moved to other projects but occasionally, would look back over those scripts, with every passing year becoming more and more disbelieving they were the work of his own hands, increasingly frustrated that their treacheries might never be revealed.

086

The Nature of Power

The ability to fly is overrated, the immense strength as much a burden as a benefit. Imperviousness makes you fragile, in a way. When I foiled that break-in at the munitions factory, the owners went on to return their largest profit, and the invaders turned out to be disgruntled employees. Then the woman I saved from the train crash was revealed as a serial killer. Even my arch nemesis had a plan for urban regeneration more ambitious than that of the municipal council. These days, I mostly hang around in the clouds, high and icy, alone and waiting for clarity.

087

Containerisation

The boarding team found the vessel completely abandoned by its crew. The engines had been powered down and the navigation systems deactivated. Most of the bulkheads had been sealed, and some of them welded shut. When they finally dismantled the barricades blocking access to the bridge, they found it deserted. Later investigations showed the payload was intact, except for one intermodal box not listed on the manifest. This particular unit had been broken open and whatever it once held, it was now empty but for a small, bluish sphere, about the size of a golf ball, yet of conspicuous density.

088

New Lives of Nihilism

Apparently, I was upgraded to a more advanced plan by one of my great grandchildren, and my consciousness resynthesised last week. I’ve been informed the process is imperfect, that sometimes memories of the original life return, and sometimes they don’t. I’ve been given the use of a room in one of the many towers in this endless, shining city. I have been shown how to operate the interaction console. The new body does not require food, I am told, and no duties are expected of me. All the debts have been settled and the empty sky stretches to the horizon.

089
a hand holding arrows

On the Consolation
of Warfare

You can hear the culverins but the fog is so thick, you can’t tell where the thunder is coming from or who is going to be on the end of that fire. We advance all the same, our horses breaking into a charge and then the enemy are scattering beneath us, running, dropping their swords and longbows in the field. I’m cutting down as many as I can and the guns are still sounding in the murk but more distant now, and softer, and the mist is a veil sent from God to divide us from our own damnable acts.

090

Paternity Test

That can’t be right, my mother said, according to this, you’re only fifty percent human. I don’t know how they have the nerve to charge twenty-five quid and then tell you a load of rubbish like that. I’ve always said, you’re the image of your father. You’ve got his eyes, and his uncanny ability with maths. He was quiet like you. A little bit detached. Now I come to think of it, he did sometimes get that silvery glaze in the moonlight, and he left so very suddenly, but he wasn’t from another planet. He said he was from Wrexham.

091

Octopus Manifesto

This government is not only concerned with the giant octopus, although the giant octopus is of course an issue which we must face up to and, with hard work and determination, come to a resolution which works for both our country and the giant octopus alike. The giant octopus, however, must not be allowed to monopolise our time, time which should be spent on improving our hospitals and schools, supporting our industries, developing our public transportation and training the next generation of entrepreneurs and professionals, all the time keeping our streets safe. Safe from crime, and from the giant octopus.

092

Jack of Clubs

I get tired. Tired of the pointless games of flamingo croquet and those impossible mazes. The armies at my disposal are mutable and uncertain. I’ve tried to instil proper discipline in the ranks of the folding soldiers but they resist order and crumple at every command. They drop their pikestaffs and step on my flags. I wonder if it might just be easier to walk off into the pyramid mountains and discover a different life, somewhere with a dinner table and proper pots of tea, yet wonder who I might be in those places and what I could possibly achieve.

093

Fencing Master

Yes, I lost an eye. Yes, it was the result of an infection contracted during a freak accident. Yes, it was a swordfight. Yes, the opponent was my own father. Yes, I earn my profession as an artist. Yes, this was a great inconvenience to me in my chosen profession. Yes, I bear some unresolved sense of disaster and betrayal. No, I never really told him of the full extent. No, I don’t miss the shadows and the sense of depth. Yes, the sky seems darker now, and more fickle than before. Yes, I am reliant on my special glasses.

094
a coin operated machine

A Coin for the Boatman

I had a hedge fund manager the other day. He trembled as he stepped off the jetty and his eyes were going red. They think they’ll live forever, those people. They protest and question. They haggle over the fare. They insist this must be a dream, which in a way it is, only one from which they won’t wake up. I prefer the caretakers and washerwomen, those attenuated souls who stare at the reflections in the water without argument or resistance and who, by the time we reach the other side, have already been carried away on the swift currents.

095

Queen’s Gambit

As usual, the board members were timid. They failed to appreciate the vision. Maxine sighed and regarded her reflection in the glass. She would push ahead with the scheme in any case. Here and there, a corner might be cut, a regulation tested, but the ranks of tired, outdated housing would be cleared away and, out of the dust, a shining, new mixed retail and leisure facility would ascend into the light. She watched from the office windows as the directors hurried through the rain to their dedicated parking spaces, innocent and unsuspecting in the extent of their eventual defeat.

096

Fugitive Days

The villa appeared to have been deserted for some time. There was yarrow growing in the doorways and some of the shutters were loose and swinging against the walls. I spent a few days there, mostly sitting on a terrace overlooking a steep valley, working my way through bottles of cheap red wine left in the storeroom. There wasn’t much to do but watch the shadows cross the overgrown garden and listen for the sound of vehicles on the driveway. After dark, I lay restlessly on a metal-framed bed, counting off the hours as they passed and contemplating new confinements.

097

Maids of the Sea

The Trinity did appear beyond the headland, on a misty morning, and we have affected its rudder, and done steered it onto the rocks. The Holy Ghost did pass the headland on Easter Monday and we have whispered to its sailors of sweet subjects and secret matters, and in their distraction, the men have driven it onto the rocks. The times run slow here, two tides a day, and we turn our justice on wrongs as none of us do remember. We merely take them souls and hold them to our breasts, and sing to them, deep below the waves.

098

Waiting Room

It’s familiar now, the cadence of the flickering in that fluorescent tube and the gurgling of the coffee machine. There are no windows here. It would have been nice to have a window, to be able to look out onto the world while we wait. Instead, we’re completely enclosed between these flat, deadening surfaces, confined to these benches, monitoring the clock and glancing at one another. Some of the people come and go quickly. There are others who have been here even before me, waiting for their names to be called, sometimes hoping they will never be called at all.

099
a disembodied head with goggles focused on nothing

Latest News from Utopia

Everything is going well. Nobody is worried about the broken dams. The congested roads are not a problem. People have been adjusting well to the plumbing situation and when it comes to reactive emissions, we’re all looking on the bright side. You hardly notice the cockroaches. The rain is good for the lawns and anyway, charged particles are very tiny. They pass right through you. Each morning now is a reminder of how fortunate we are to stride amid the remains of the orange groves and the metal frames that once upheld the most marvellous machines in all the universe.

100

Latest News from the Underworld
Published in England by the Mechanical Bird Press

First imprint in paperback and e-book 2020
Revised 2024

Words and pictures by David Guest
Set in Libre Baskerville

The Mechanical Bird Press

Publications

Before the War | Bulletins | Things to Do on Pluto | Branwen | The Mordred Situation | Latest News from the Underworld | The House of Lancaster | Down Until Further Notice | The Queen of Falling