A Bad Run

It’s amazing how quickly things can change. One minute you’re pulling off a sleek and smooth data heist, and the next everything is going wrong.

As the red alarms filled their head up display, ArcFeather began to swear quietly and succinctly. The peripheral of their sight shifted to red and the escape timer appeared in the top right corner of their vision; five minutes and counting. ArcFeather spun away from the console, snatching the datajack and tucking it into a pocket, and began to run full-pelt at the window. Leading with their left shoulder ArcFeather hit the glass and burst out into the black night, 98 levels above Grid-0.

It wasn’t the blackness of night, of course, and the window wasn’t actually glass. There is no sky above the Grid, just an empty pallet, and it is black because this is the easiest thing for simpler systems to render. The glass was a representation, as was Maxid Tower, the building Arcfeather had just exited so dramatically. Giving datacores building-like structures made them easier to navigate, and allowed you to apply human logic to the world of the Grid. The logical approach to exiting Maxid Tower wouldn’t be via a window 98 levels above the main level of the Grid, however. Anyone with sense, and the correct levels of access, would just use a door.

But ArcFeather didn’t have the correct levels of access. Some might also suggest that xe didn’t have much sense either, but there you go. Now ArcFeather’s body tumbled downward toward Grid-0, a situation that needing rectifying ASAP. For all that the Grid wasn’t the same as the Real, hitting representative ground after a fall of nearly a hundred floors would still fuck you up royally. So ArcFeather tucked their arms in and pointed their head down, feeling a sudden increase of speed as they became more aerodynamic, and at the same time tapped a series of buttons on the keypad strapped to their thigh. With an electronic thrummm, silver and green glimmering threads burst from ArcFeather’s back, and in milliseconds a pair of wings twelve feet across had sprouted from their spine. They were semi-transparent, and exquisitely detailed, mimicking the shape and structure of raven wings, but each feather was a thin gossame material, like the wing of a dragonfly.
They had taken three months to create, programming the look and more importantly the physics, but as the wings snapped open and changed their tumble into a glide, ArcFeather grinned; three months well fucking spent.

All this had taken roughly 20 seconds, and the timer was still ticking. The countdown was a custom programme, a reminder to ArcFeather to hurry the fuck up; once the timer reached zero, whatever authorities that would be chasing them would have locked onto ArcFeather’s signal and entry point, and subsequently confirmed their location in the Real. ArcFeather had four and a half minutes to get off-Grid, and once back in the Real, to get lost. Xe banked to the left, still heading downward but seeking the stacks of silver and blue and purple buildings that were the smaller datacores. Once amongst those xe’d be harder to track and could lose any pursuit. As soon as the thought was finished another alarm message flashed in the top right of ArcFeather’s vision; incoming bogeys. ArcFeather looked back over their shoulder and saw three seekers glide around the edge of Maxid Tower and aim straight for them.

Seekers were silver and red insect-like shapes, simple but powerful AI watchdogs, automatic functions that chased and traced rogue programs and outlaw users. ArcFeather was the latter, and proud of it. Xe slowed in the air, allowing the three bugs to get a little closer, before tucking their wings in, dropping three levels before snapping them open again and jetting off in the opposite direction. It fooled the seekers for a moment, but soon enough they were following once more.

ArcFeather threw themselves into evasive action, looping around the other datacores, which looked like a mass of glistening skyscrapers, ducking and diving and swooping but the seekers kept up with every manoeuvre. The timer was at two minutes and counting; xe needed to get off-Grid fast. Another alarm beeped and ArcFeather twisted in the air, rolling to the right as a red harpoon hummed through the airspace xe’d just been in. It was a lockbolt; a freezer code that would lock an avatar in place, preventing them from moving but also from going offline. ArcFeather began a litany of four letter words, wracking their brain for a way out of this clusterfuck.

Then xe saw it. The lack of gravity in the Grid meant that, if you chose, you give a construct literally any impossible shape. On the edge of the group of cores that ArcFeather and the seekers were dodging amongst was something of a curiosity; the building, which had been nicknamed the Cluster, was the main core of a large design company, and whoever had coded it had taken an artistic approach. The building looked like a bird’s nest or a tangled mass of cable, each strand 15 feet in diameter. It was a vivid, shimmering purple, and had caused a stir when first coded into the Grid. The reason ArcFeather grinned when xe saw it, though, was that among the strands of building structure were gaps. Small enough for a human sized avatar, just about…

Ignoring the part of their mind that was screaming that the idea was insane, ArcFeather surged forward, racing toward the Cluster. The seekers also put on a burst of speed and followed. As xe approached, ArcFeather took a deep breath and held it, and as they reached the first gap they snapped the wings closed for a second, then open again. Through! Spotting the next gap ArcFeather jetted towards it, ignoring the booming explosion behind them that made the Cluster shake. That was one down, maybe…

ArcFeather was acting on instinct, trusting to reflexes honed from hours of flight and ghosting in the Grid, blazing a speedy path through the Cluster, around and down towards the bottom level, Grid-0. Another explosion echoed behind, and then a third, but ArcFeather didn’t slow; more seekers could come, were probably en route, and the timer was on 58 seconds and had begun pulsing. With 23 seconds left ArcFeather soared out into the open air, ten feet above the simulated ebony surface of the Grid floor, drawing a few surprised gasps from the figures wandering below. Xe snapped the wings shut, the silver and green lines vanishing, dropped to the ground and began to walk as casually as xe could manage. The Grid was always busy whatever time it was in the Real, so it was easy enough to blend in.

10 seconds.

ArcFeather scanned the street for the closest jackpoint, spotting one ten feet away. Xe lowered their gaze and made a beeline for it.

7 seconds.

Above the murmur of the avatars on the street came the faint whine of an approaching seeker, and a few turned to looked. ArcFeather ignored the sound and kept right on going.

3 seconds.

ArcFeather reached the jackpoint and without a backward glance pressed their palm against the top of the blue glowing column. As contact was made, the Grid vanished–

–and ArcFeather blinked their eyes, looking out at the Real once again. Xe glanced down at the wristcom and saw the escape timer paused at 1 second.
“That was too fucking close,” ArcFeather murmured as they pulled the jack from the socket behind their ear, their voice hoarse. They coughed, and patted the many pockets of their coat till they found the hipflask. ArcFeather took a swig of water and sighed; definitely too close. And what had happened, why had a simple job gone wrong? That was still a mystery. Xe shivered in the evening air, deciding that the problem would have to wait. Xe’d gotten off-Grid in time, but it would be wise to get gone from here anyway.

ArcFeather sat huddled on the metal grille of a fire escape balcony, two floors up. The flat the balcony served was dark and silent; the occupant was away, which was why ArcFeather had chosen this spot for the jack. Xe detached the spike from the cable running into the wall of the flat and slowly rose, joints cracking and popping. A gentle rain began to fall, the drops making a faint pinging noise at they hit the metal of the fire escape. Rolling their shoulders, ArcFeather picked up their satchel and tucked spike, keypads and deck into it. They were waterproof, of course, but a professional looks after their tools. Then xe headed down the metal stairs to the lower balcony, climbed over the barrier and dropped onto the plastic lid of the industrial bin that stood next to it. Dropping at last to the floor of the alley, ArcFeather did a quick check of pockets to ensure xe had everything, then glanced out at the street. The glow of shop signs, the occasional whisper of traffic and the faint smell of Chinese food and falling rain permeated the autumn evening, and bodies drifted across the alley mouth, people heading out or heading home…

ArcFeather tugged their coat close about them to ward off the night’s chill, pulling up the hood and thrusting their hands deep into their pockets. A bad run, but they’d gotten away in time and clean, and that was something, at least. Nodding to themselves, ArcFeather moved slowly to end of the alley, stepped out into the street, turn right and started walking; just another figure drifting through the rain.


Paid & Displayed

Sam stepped off the pavement and moved across the road. Drawing close to the opposite side he glanced up at the blue sky, the bright morning making him squint. His eyes passed over a road sign, a common enough sight in any town. A blue square with a white ‘P’ and below it the not unfriendly query ‘Have you paid and displayed?’

It was hardly an unusual query, placed as it was 30 feet or so from a parking meter on a road that had numerous spaces for street parking, but for some reason the sight of it stopped Sam in his tracks.

“Paid and displayed…” he murmured to himself, and the image of a woman burst into his mind. Pale skin, eyes bluer than the sky above and a cascade of raven hair tumbling over one shoulder. And with the image of her face, the memories came as well, filling his mind as he stepped up onto the pavement and carried on walking down the street.


She’d smiled at him first from across the room. Or so he’d thought, at least. After a furious twenty minute process of building up the courage to take the initiative, to go and, for once in his life, be brave and actually talk to a woman – to make any move, let alone the first one – he’d walked awkwardly over to her and asked if he might buy her a drink. She had looked slightly surprised, and just as she was opening her mouth to reply, her friend returned from the bar with their drinks.

It was, of course, her friend she’d been smiling at, not Sam. Her friend, who’d been standing at the bar behind Sam. So there he stood, before the beautiful woman who hadn’t smiled at him after all, quietly wishing the floor would open and take him to oblivion. He’d mumbled an apology and turned to go, when she reached out to touch his arm. He turned back to her, a second apology on his lips, when she told him he looked cute when he blushed. And that was all it took.


After six months they took the plunge, moved in together. It was rocky, as you might expect, but the evenings curled up together with wine and a film or music, made up for the misunderstandings, the occasional arguments. Sometimes they’d live in each other’s pockets, sometimes life and work would mean the only moments they would find would be in the minutes and seconds before sleep came. They muddled their way through, and perhaps against everyone’s expectations, they were happy.


He’d found the ring in an antique shop one day, six or so months later. It hadn’t perhaps been the most conventional choice, but as soon as he’d seen it he’d known it was the right one, the perfect accompaniment to one of the oldest questions. He’d bought it without a thought, and when the moment came and he asked, it fit her finger as though it had been made for it.


They didn’t change each other, as such. That was what two of his oldest friends had told him one evening as they sat about a campfire.
“She hasn’t changed you, and you haven’t changed her. But you’re both… more when you’re together.”
It was a wisdom born of whiskey, but it rang true all the same. They had found each other and were more because of it, and he couldn’t imagine a world without her.


He’d opened the door to see a man and a woman on the doorstep, their faces calm and composed, their uniforms neat and tidy, imposing in their lack of threat. An iron band closed about his chest as they sat on the sofa, speaking quietly. It began to tighten, slowly, inexorably crushing his lungs and his heart.
“…unfortunate accident…”
“…three others killed…”
“…very sorry…”
The world shattered into pieces and the iron band grew tighter and tighter.


Time passed, in hours and then days, weeks and then months. Slowly, ever so slowly, he began to breathe again, finding his way around the absence of her. Their friends were kind to him, understanding and patient, though they had lost her too. He had raged and roared, and wept and waited, but in the end he had finally paid his dues of grief. The scars were still there, but only those who knew him well could see them. The iron band had loosened, though it would never fully let him go.


His remembering had carried him down the street, into and out of shops where he scanned the shelves, not really seeing. He stepped once more into the sunlight and moved to cross the road again, heading to his favourite coffee shop. As he reached the far pavement, he saw a second sign like the one which had started his quiet reverie. He paused beneath it, reading again the not unfriendly query.

‘Have you paid and displayed?’

Standing in the sunlight Sam shrugged. He’d paid as best he could, and whether or not the scars could be seen by all, they would heal in time. He smiled a sad smile as her face flashed through his mind again, and then he lowered his gaze and walked on in the sunlight.

A Hero Does What A Hero Does

[So the brief was write something in a style we hate. I don’t know that there are styles I HATE, so I have instead attempted to write something I don’t like and don’t consider to be any good… I won’t say I hope you enjoy it, because, well…]

So in the end it came down to a final showdown, just like in the great westerns; the good, the bad and the ugly, except that the bad was also the ugly, or vice versa. Max and Mr E, facing off, one with a handgun like a black slab of charcoal death, the other with nothing but the sun on his face.

As Max wondered whether there was any way to get out of this, hoping for inspiration to hit like lightning or a even just lightning to hit Mr E, the villain took a step toward him.

He smiled, a wide viscous grin that looked like the Joker as played by Jack Nicholson, and he raised the gun, till the barrel was aimed right at Max’s face, like the bit with Trinity and the Agent in The Matrix.
“Any famous last words?” Mr E asked, and Max shrugged.
“Not really. Are they very famous?”

Mr E smiled even wider, and in a split moment Max thought of a five minute video he’d seen on YouTube once of a snake dislocating it’s jaw to swallow an entire egg, and thought that Mr E was grinning like that, which was not a nice grin at all.

“Actually, I do have two more words, though they also may not be very famous.”

“Go on,” invited his nemesis, his teeth clenched like an ivory wall.

“Safety catch,” said Max, and as Mr E’s eyes flicked to the small black safety catch on the side of the gun Max jabbed his hand out and grabbed the gun, pushing his finger behind the trigger like the move Donnie Yen does in Ip Man and stopping the trigger being pulled. Then he spun, kicking his leg out and driving his heel into Mr E’s temple so hard his skull crunched, and his supposed nemesis dropped lifeless to the concrete.

Max stood looking down at him like Batman with blood on his boot, and smiled his own wide smile.

“Bye bye, bad guy,” he said, and turned. The day was still bright and clear, but if there had been a sunset, he would have been walking into it, towards his new adventure….

The Threshold

Step not out beyond the Threshold, for beyond is danger. In the distant Before, it was those who stepped out of Safety brought down the Crash.
                                                                                           – The Testament of the Rules

As I scrambled over the last rise I saw the edge of Safety come into view, saw the wall of light and five figures stepping towards it. I pushed my legs to run faster, panting with exertion as the first figure, a familiar one, stepped into the wall of light and then through. The others followed suit, and as I finally reached the glowing barrier, I forced myself to call out.

“It’s not safe!”

My shout was loud, and should have echoed away across the night, but it did not. Instead, it fell dully in the air, all traces of the sound beside the shout itself absorbed by the Threshold. The wall of dull orange light glowed faintly, and within it dust motes drifted and swirled.

Jackson and his friends turned back to look at me through the Threshold, and he smiled.

“Maybe not, Alex. But we’ve done all we can in Safety, I can tell you that. Our future lies beyond.”

“But you… You can’t!”

So even then, at the breaking point, our friendship still followed the same old pattern; Jackson leading any who would follow down a path of folly, and my voice crying out the familiar, futile denial. It had always been the same.


Jackson and I were the same age, were in the same class in school. But Jackson was popular, and I… Wasn’t. I can’t even claim to have been one of the geeky kids who finds other geeky kids to align with, I was just a loner. Not even unpopular, just… Unnoticed. The odd one out, who listened a little too hard to the teachers, followed the Rules a little too precisely.

But then, what was the point of having the Rules if we didn’t follow them? Surely we had to learn some lessons from the Crash? The world had cracked open and burned and drowned because of us, and if we wanted to make sure it didn’t happen again, we needed to be careful. As the Testament of the Rules stated, ‘In the distant Before, it was those who stepped out of Safety brought down the Crash.’

No one had ever been able to give a clear answer on just what had happened in the Crash, or what precisely had caused it, beyond human folly. It was so long ago now, ten generations at least, and now there was no one living to remember. But the Rules had been written shortly after mankind had discovered the Threshold and established Safety, and following them had kept us safe enough, it seemed.

I’d been raised by my aunt, who was kind and caring, but a fanatical believer in the Rules and drilled me in them daily, so perhaps my vehemence could be explained. Most of the children at the school whispered stories of her being a secretly a witch, so perhaps that also explained my solitude in childhood too.

My first proper encounter with Jackson had come when I was around seven years old, at the small park nearby my aunt’s house. ‘Park’ is perhaps an overstatement, but it was a patch of ground that had at least some grass, with some benches scattered about and a small stand of trees nearby. My aunt had settled herself with her book on her favourite bench and instructed me to go and play. I had wandered toward the trees, idly thinking of perhaps climbing one, but as I drew close I heard voices arguing.

“That’s stupid, you’d die!”

“Says who?”

“Says everyone!”

I recognised some of the voices, and I slowed, crouching low and moving slowly forward. Soon enough I caught sight of a group of children whom I recognised from school. At their head was Jackson, holding a stick which he waved as he spoke again, emphasising his point.

“Says everyone cos that’s what they’ve been told! But I reckon it’d be alright. The air’s fine out there, the Threshold doesn’t stop that.”

A boy to Jackson’s right, who I definitely recognised, snatched the stick out of Jackson’s hand and snorted.

“It’s not just about air, doofus. There’s nothing out there, which is why we’re in here.”

The speaker, who’s name was Travis, stabbed at the ground and I realise Jackson had drawn a picture to illustrate his point. Slowly I stood up, trying to see, and made out a very crude sketch of Safety, humanity’s stronghold, and the border with the world beyond. The Threshold, the barrier that kept us safe, had been marked but someone, presumably Jackson, had drawn an arrow through it, point outward.

“There might be something,” Jackson said, snatching back his stick. “Who’s to know, if someone doesn’t go and find out?”

The realisation of what Jackson was suggesting shocked me into betraying my presence. I stepped forward out of the trees, and spoke loudly.

“But you can’t!”

Everyone turned to face me, and I quailed under the gaze of the group. I recognised all of them, and whilst most had never spared me a word or glance, Travis had seen fit to make me the brunt of a joke or harsh word every now and again. Now he and the others looked at me with surprise and annoyance.

“What do you want, witch’s boy?”

The only person who didn’t look annoyed was Jackson; instead, his face was openly curious, and he raised a questioning eyebrow.

“I just, um…” Some of the others sniggered, but Jackson just smiled at me and waited. So I screwed up my courage, and spoke. “It’s not about whether or it’s too dangerous beyond the Threshold. It’s about whether or not we are too dangerous to go beyond the Threshold. Humanity, I mean.”

“He’s a nutcase,” Travis said, and a few others laughed, but Jackson shook his head.

“No, he’s got a point.” This silenced them all, and they looked at Jackson, surprised. “We caused the Crash, after all. But maybe we could go out, if we’re careful. That’s all I’m saying.” He stood and moved towards me, and I fought my usual instinct to back away. “It’s Alex, isn’t it?” Unable to hide my surprise, I nodded, and Jackson grinned. “You want to sit down?”


That was how our friendship had started. I never got on so well with the others in the group, but they tolerated me because of Jackson; he was a natural leader, even then. You followed him, because it just made sense.

The years passed, we grew up, and fell into a pattern of my being the occasional member of the group, there because Jackson wanted me. He’d lead the others on silly schemes, and I would often watch and warn him against it, without effect. But always he kept coming back to the same idea, of setting out to see the world beyond the Threshold.

And then it became more than just an idea, it became a plan. He and some of the others gathered supplies in secret, and were going to set out in the middle of the night, cross the Threshold and see what lay beyond. I wasn’t part of the group, Jackson hadn’t asked me because he knew I wouldn’t go, but I’d worked out his plan all the same. The night they planned to leave, I’d lain on my bed staring at the ceiling, the opening of the Testament of the Rules running over and over in my head.

Step not out beyond the Threshold, for beyond is danger. In the distant Before, it was those who stepped out of Safety brought down the Crash.

They were fools to follow him. He was a fool to lead them. But… He was my friend. And so I’d dressed quickly and snuck out of my aunt’s house, heading to the place I knew they planned to cross over…


So there I stood, on one side of the Threshold, Jackson and his companions on the other.

“Go home, witch’s boy,” Travis said, falling back on the old insult. Jackson put a hand on Travis’ shoulder and shook his head. Travis shrugged and turned away.

“You always could work things out, Alex. Don’t tell anyone, okay? But thanks for coming to say goodbye.”

“You can’t go,” I said.

Jackson opened his mouth to speak, but closed it again. He looked at me for a long time, and then the familiar grin spread over his face.

“Come with us.”

That caused a stir, I can tell you.


“Jackson, what are you–?”

Jackson waved the others to silence and moved back towards me.

“Don’t get left behind, this time. Come with us. Please?”

I stepped up to the Threshold, the faint glow colouring my pale skin. The barrier had no smell, gave off no sound, there was only the light and the swirling of particles caught within it.

“It doesn’t hurt, Alex.” Jackson had moved to stand before me, close to the barrier. His voice was low, for my ears only. “I didn’t feel anything when I stepped through.”

I looked at my friend. He stood just in front of me, that same cocky smile on his face. With one step forward I could be standing at his side. With one step forward I could cross the Threshold. I clenched my fists, straightened my shoulders. That’s all it would take, to join my friend, to not be left behind again. I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and willed my feet to move forward. One single step…

Slowly I let the breath out and opened my eyes. The orange glow of the Threshold before me, my friends hopeful face beyond it.

“I can’t, Jackson.” Sorrow filled every word, and I could see in his eyes that Jackson heard it. “I wish I could, but…”

Then he smiled again, but not the cocky smile I knew so well. This was a smile of sadness, and regret, but also of understanding.

“That’s okay. I guess someone needs to stay behind, to remember us.”

“And wait for your return.”

His smile dropped then, and for the first time in a very long time, I saw uncertainty on Jackson’s face. But in a flash the cocky smile was back.

“Exactly. Well, Alex, you take care, alright?”

“You too, Jackson.” I raised my voice, looking at the others where they stood watching us. “All of you. I know we’ve never really… But take care, everyone. Good luck.”

Some of them smirked, but most looked genuinely grateful, and Travis even murmured a reply.

“Thanks, Alex.”

Jackson stepped backward, nodding at me and smiling. Then he turned to his companions, and without another word they turned their backs to the Threshold and began to walk. I watched them go, but very quickly they were all but lost in the darkness. At the final moment someone, I think it was Jackson but I still can’t be sure, turned and waved a final farewell. I waved back, and then the small group vanished into the night beyond the Threshold.

“I’ll remember, Jackson. And I will wait.”

So I stood on the edge of Safety and looked out through the barrier I could not cross, no matter how much I wished to, wondering if I would ever see my friend again.


Jack sat in the cockpit of the Animo, feet resting on the left hand side of the console. Long practice ensured his battered leather boots rested in a space where they didn’t actually touch any of the buttons and switches, and anyway, the left bank of the console held all the docking controls which were inactive until the Animo was in range of a station, or planetside. Docking at a station was a rare enough occurrence, but Jack had never taken the little ship down into atmosphere. Couldn’t remember the last time he himself had stood on rock, in fact. Not in a long, long time, not since…

The sharp beep of the proximity alarm pulled him out of his thoughts, and he shifted himself in the seat, dropping his feet to the floor as he reached out to tap a flashing button on the right console.
“What’ve we got, buddy?”
Jack regularly spoke to his battered little ship, even though he’d never receive a reply; he’d never forked out for the expensive ship AI voicepack extension. The habit was born out of solitude, not a desire for conversation. A green overlay blinked on, filling the edges of the viewscreen with details of ship status, current flightpath details, and the reason for the alarm; an incoming ship.

A rendering of the ship was displayed, and Jack sighed; he recognised it.
“Fucking pirates,” he muttered, and typed in the activation code for the jumpdrive. It would have to warm up, however. “Let’s hope they’re feeling talkative today, eh?”
He called up a chart of the surrounding area, his eyes settling on a nebula not too far off. “That should work…”

The blip of the approaching ship moved closer, and as soon as it was within comms range the call light started flashing. Jack glanced at the jumpdrive counter; 18%. He’d have to keep them talking as long as he could. He let the call light flash til he saw the ship itself come into visual range. The real thing looked more threatening than the rendering, the nose of the ship painted with a snarling face, and three sets of vicious looking laser cannons. The pirate ship was at least twice the size of the Animo, and where Jack’s ship was a basic wedge shape with some aerodynamic curve to the edges, the pirate seemed made only of angles.

As the familiar ship came to a halt five hundred metres away, Jack took a deep breath and thumbed the flashing call button. The comms screen on the console blinked to life, and Jack saw two familiar figures sat in a dual cockpit. One figure was humanoid but reptilian, its mouth a curve of jagged fangs set in a grey-blue lizard face, eyes cold and calculating. The other was human, or close enough; there was something rat-like in the man’s features.
“Fungus and Xith,” said Jack, and the man, Fungus, smiled wider.
“Jacko! I thought it was you!”
“What do you want?”
Jack had encountered this pair once before, when they’d stolen his whole shipment of axis crystals and left him crippled and drifting in space.
“How you doing, kid?”
“I was doing great. What do you want?”
“Whatever you’ve got,” hissed Xith.
“What you carrying, Jack?” Fungus’ smile was turning malevolent.
“Nothing you can make much profit on, Fungus, so don’t bother.”
Jack glanced at the jumpdrive counter. 49%. Back on the screen, Fungus was looking offended, Xith murderous. They began flicking switches on their consoles, and Jack’s sensors began to give more warnings as he saw the cannons begin to shift their aim.
“Is he telling us what to do, Xith?”
“I think he is, Fungus. I don’t like that.”
Unobtrusively as he could, Jack eased his feet into the booster grips and settled himself, powering up the engines and his own two tiny cannons. He placed his hands on the sticks and rolled his shoulders.

“Look, guys, it’s lovely to see you again, but I really can’t talk. I’ve got farming supplies to deliver to the Atreyan Outpost. Just tools and seeds, that’s all.”
“Maybe you have, and maybe you’ve got more axis crystals. Either way, it’s ours now.” Xith’s sibilant voice sent a shiver down Jack’s spine, and he forced himself to smile at her.
“Go fuck yourself,” he said, and threw the engines to 100%. The Animo shot forward and upward, skimming the hull of the pirate ship as it soared over the top. Jack saw Fungus and Xith actually duck in their seats before he closed the call and pressed his feet down hard, firing the boosters and making his little ship leap forward.

The jumpdrive counter was at 56% as the proximity alert flashed again; Fungus and Xith were following. Suddenly the black above the Animo was peppered with blue laser fire as they let rip with their cannons. Lifting one foot off the booster Jack sent the Animo into a spin and then flipped the ship around, driving straight at the oncoming pirates. He let them have both cannons on constant fire as he spiralled towards them, though he knew they’d barely scratch them; it was a bluff and a surprise more than a real attack. The Animo shuddered as some laser fire hit, but the shock tactic worked and they steered out of the way of his apparent suicide run.

The jumpdrive counter was now at 73%, and Jack brought the ship around, centring the snub nose on the distant nebula and opening the throttle. The call alert was flashing wildly but he ignored it, hands and feet shifting wildly as he tried to make himself hard to hit. 82%. The pirates were gaining, so he spiralled again. 93%. They dropped back, letting him gain ground, and Jack’s chest tightened with a sickening feeling. 95%. A new alarm blared; the missile sensor. On the radar he saw two small dots rocketing out from the larger ship and streaking towards him.

“Come on, buddy,” he muttered, as the counter flashed to 99%. He stabbed a button on the console and a spray of flares was released behind the Animo. The two missiles, confused by the heat signatures, exploded just as the jumpdrive counter flashed to 100%. Jack slammed his hand on the button to engage the drive, and the stars in the viewscreen elongated as the Animo shot forward, vanishing from the chasing pirate ship’s sensors. Jack breathed a sigh of relief, and after ten minutes disengaged the drive. The nebula he’d passed through would block all traces of his path, and when they realised that, he felt sure Fungus and Xith would give up any chase.

He switched over to autopilot, setting the Animo back on course for the Ateryan system and adding instructions to alert him if anything else came within range. Then Jack stood, stretching himself, then headed down the short corridor to his cabin. He lowered himself onto his bunk, placing his hands behind his head and closing his eyes. He’d had more than enough excitement for one day…

* * *

Cathy watched Jack for a few moments longer as he lay on his bunk, and then she turned away from the small screen and looked at the figure in the bed. The man’s body was frail, his limbs atrophied from lack of use, and the rough stubble which stood out starkly on his pale face was developing into a beard. Cathy made a mental note to arrange for him to have a shave again soon. The top of his head was covered with a criss-cross arrangement of metal and wires and tiny lights, feeding into pads attached to various key points on his cranium. She bent closer to examine the connections, and nodded to herself, satisfied.

She moved to the door, turning back once to look at the man in the bed. A black and silver cable stretched from the cranial cap to a small black box on the bedside cabinet, and two lights on the black box blinked constantly, as the microcomputer within processed the received signals and fed them back. The screen on the wall displayed the results of the process, allowing any visitors to watch.

It was a new technology, and had its objectors, of course. But as far as Cathy was concerned, it was the right thing to do. It gave the patients a life to live that would otherwise be impossible. She made some notes on her clipboard and stepped out of the room, heading down the corridor to the next patient’s room.

In the hospital room, the man’s broken body slept a deep, regulated slumber.

In the comfortable hospital bed, Jack dreamed.

And in the small black box on the bedside table, he lived.


Passenger – The Last Unicorn

They’d gravitated towards each other, each feeling the other’s pull in the crowded room, and at first glance they had seen something of themselves in the other. Loss. Pain. Inconsolable, and yet longing for some kind of consolation.

Their eyes had met, and they had shared a sad smile, seeing the truth in each other in that first glance. And so they had begun to talk.


The room was simple, unassuming. A table, chairs. The bed. Anonymous. Mutual consent had brought them here, an understanding they shared and an ache they each felt, and they stood before each other, close enough to touch and yet separated by miles.

“This isn’t…”

He couldn’t find the words. He feared to cause her pain, even as he knew that he could not, would not, and he feared being hurt himself. He shook his head, frustrated at his stupidity and his arrogance. She placed her hand on his cheek and held his gaze with bright blue eyes. Eyes he might have drowned in, he thought, if not for…

“You love who you love,” she said. “And so do I.”

He nodded, and her hand slid round to the back of his neck, and she pulled him toward her, their lips meeting in a kiss, cautious but urgent.


They twined about each other in the darkness of the room, their embrace eager, needful. There was no holding back in the darkness, no need to lie, for the truth was plain for both of them. Their shapes were imperfect together, neither feeling the connection, the seamless, perfect joining that they had both known and lost. But there was a connection, a joining, and as their bodies rose to meet each other in the shadows of that anonymous room, they found release and a kind of comfort.


The room was still hidden by the night when she woke, too conscious of the unfamiliar breathing pattern beside her, the incorrect comfort of the arms that held her. She lay in the darkness, comparing and remembering, despite herself. When he pulled away from her in his sleep, curling in on himself, she had not resisted.


Eventually the light of morning bled slowly into the room, filtering through the ill-fitting curtains to trace out the shapes of the table, the chairs, the large bed. Their two bodies curled inward, side by side; together, but alone again. Solitary once more as the morning chased away the shadows and illuminated the truth.

She watched his face slowly emerge from the darkness, listened as the rhythm of his breathing shifted as he, too, drew toward waking. He was handsome enough, she thought, but he wasn’t…

He woke, his body shifting slightly as he drew in a deep breath. His eyes opened slowly, and met hers. They looked at each other in the faint light and shadows, an understanding between them. After long minutes, she spoke quietly.

“What’s her name?”

“Who?” The question was unnecessary, and they both knew it. Her eyes stayed focused on his, and he shrugged, smiling. “Sorry.”

He turned away from her then, shifting onto his back and lifting his shoulders, swinging his legs out of the bed, the wooden floor cold on his soles. He rose, moving across the room to the window, and she watched his tall, slightly too thin frame. He looked out at the town, which was slowly coming to life as the morning sun rose higher over the horizon. He thought he heard the ocean, the faint whisper of crashing waves, but that was impossible, of course. The ocean was half a world away from here. The sky was lightening slowly, and for a while he stood, watching the blue shifting shades towards bright daylight. He still felt her eyes on him, and he sighed, pressing his forehead against the cool glass of the window and closing his eyes.

“Amalthea,” he murmured, and then he turned back to the woman, a sad smile on his face. “Her name is Amalthea.”

She stepped towards him, hand held out in entreaty, and he moved to her, arms enclosing her. In the shadowy room they stood, entwined in an embrace that brought both comfort and pain.

They neither of them had who they wanted. But for now, at least, they had each other.

A Little Thing

He pressed the dial down and turned it. There was the hissing of gas and three sharp clicks of the spark before the largest ring on the hob ignited with a whomph! He poured a drizzle of oil into the wok and watched as the heat caused the surface of the oil to ripple slightly. Judging the heat to be right, he picked up a handful of green beans from the chopping board and dropped them into the wok, then followed with the last few as the kitchen was filled with the sound of the beans sizzling.

“Can I do anything to help?”

Her voice was quiet, and he glanced at her and smiled as he gave a flick to the wok, tossing the beans to cover them in the oil.

“You can grab the butter from the fridge?”

She did so, and cut a lump off and passed it to him. He gestured at the wok and she dropped it in. A hiss and fizzling as the butter began to melt, and he stirred the beans out of the way with a wooden spoon, settled the yellow rectangle into the centre of the pan. As the butter melted, he ground pepper and a little salt into the pan, and tossed the beans to mix them.

“Is that all it is?”

He smiled and shrugged.

“That’s it. Butter, oil, salt and pepper, let them blister.”


“It works though.”


He looked at her.

“You doing okay?”

She watched the beans in the wok, and the question went unanswered. He opened the oven door an inch or two and looked in. The sweet potato wedges were browning nicely, and the bacon wrapping the chicken was crisping up.

“Not long,” he murmured, and closed the oven door. As he straightened, she spoke.

“Sorry if I’m quiet.”

She was leaning against the kitchen doorframe, eyes on the hob, but looking inward, he realised. He smiled at her, and shrugged.

“Nothing to apologise for. Quiet company is still company; it’s nice spending time in yours. And if there is anything I can do…?”

She smiled a small smile, and then moved to the drawers next to the fridge. She tried the first, then the second and rummaged among the cutlery. He murmured thanks as she moved to the table and set places, and he reached for the handle of the wok once more. The beans were blistering nicely now; they were nearly ready.

He knew that there was nothing he could do to help, not really. But in going through his own few troubles, he’d come to believe two things very strongly. The first was that sometimes, little things could make a big difference. He tossed the beans one last time, and nodded. Cooking was only a little thing, after all. But it might be enough, for now.

“Right then,” he said brightly. “I think we’re about there.”

She poured two glasses of squash as he turned off the hob and the oven, then leaned once more in the doorway as he plated up their meal. Chicken breasts stuffed with mozzarella and wrapped in bacon. Sweet potato wedges seasoned with paprika and soy sauce. A mountain of blistered beans. Food that sought to comfort. She carried the glasses to the table and set them down, sliding into a chair as he placed the plates down, sitting opposite her.

A moment of silence between them, before she spoke.

“Thanks for this.”

“Welcome anytime. Hope it’s alright.”

“It looks great.”

She speared a couple of the beans with her fork and lifted them to her mouth. He paused as she chewed, watching for her reaction. She met his eyes, and smiled.

“Bloody hell.”


“Oh yes.”

“Good. And…”

He faltered, seeking for the right words. The second thing he’d learned, that he believed… She waited, her eyes questioning, and it came to him.

“I just wanted to say… Storms come. But however bad they get, they can be weathered. And, in time, they pass.”

He smiled at her, worry at overstepping himself creeping in at the edges of his thoughts, but then she smiled back at him.

“Thank you.”


And so, sharing food and friendship, they ate together.

The Story on Her Skin

He lies in the dark, a spill of faint, pale light coming through the window to splash the top of the opposite wall. The room about him is a world of shadows. She lies unseen in the dark beside him, and he gazes at the imagined shape of her, a disturbance of bedclothes and, so faint as to be illusory, her soft breath. He watches her, though he cannot see her in the darkness of the room, for long minutes before she speaks.

– Tell me the story again.
– Now?
– Now.
– We should be sleeping.
– Please…
– I’ve told you already tonight
– I like to hear it.
– You only like to hear it because you know I like to tell it.
– Well, isn’t that the same thing?
– Ka-
– Please?

He sighs in the dark, but he knows she can hear the smile in it.

– Okay…

And so he begins the story.

– There once was a woman with a story on her skin, intricate beautiful images that told the tale of her life, her loves and her losses.
– Was the woman beautiful?
– The woman was very beautiful, and her story was beautiful. She had drawn it herself, you see, on parchment and paper, in pencil and in ink, and then a wise old apothecary-
– Tattoo artist.
– -apothecary… He traced the images she gave him onto her skin, writing her story…

The night is still, the world beyond the window silent but for the wind, within only his slow breathing. He considers for a moment longer, and then continues.

– Her story began at the small of her back, a single lily for her father, lost when she was only six. Then a swirling pattern of white feathers rising up, for the freedom of leaving home and seeking out her own path. On the left one of the feathers is a quill, tracing out the letter ‘P’, a sign of her first love. But from the letter falls a drop of scarlet blood, for her first broken heart. Between her shoulder blades a large blue orchid, for the passion in her heart as she ventured out into the world. At her right shoulder the feathers darken to black and coalesce into two ravens, for the thoughts she cannot stop and the memories she never wants to lose. Her story grows and changes with every passing moment, and she captures it all in pencil and ink on paper, and picks out those that matter most to paint on the parchment of her skin.
– What about her left shoulder?
– I’m getting to that, be patient.

She sighs beside him, and he hears her shifting slightly as he continues.

– At her left shoulder is the newest part of her story. On that pale, smooth field of skin a tree grows, a cherry tree for the love that she has found. It is a young tree but strong, its delicate branches topped with pink blossoms. The branches and blossoms stretch out onto her shoulder and the top of her arm. The tree is the only part of her story that she did not draw herself. It was drawn by the man whose love it represents.
– Why didn’t she draw it?
– It was her gift to him. The greatest gift she could have given.
– Why?
– It was the chance to help tell her story, to write it permanently on the parchment of her skin. Permission to be a part of her, forever. It meant more to him than she could ever know.
– A cherry tree…
– With blossoms of pale pink. The tree looked as though it were swaying in the wind, and at the tip of the branch that touch the top of her arm, a blossom was blown free, caught in ink as it drifted over her skin.
– A single blossom?
– To begin with. But as the years passed their love grew and strengthened, and each year she added a new blossom, tracing down her left arm.
– A blossom for every year? How many were there?

In the darkness he reached out a hand toward the mound of covers, his fingers seeking out her pale skin. But as before, as it had been for years, they found nothing beneath the cloth; he was alone in the dark. He sighed as he lay down, in the bed that had been too big for too long now. From the shadows of the room, he thought he heard once more her last imagined question.

– How many were there?

He closed his eyes against the darkness and memories, and whispered his response to the night.

– Not enough.

© Matt Beames 2019

Greener Grass

Ed sat on the sofa, staring at his phone and wondering if he could go through with it. Was he overreacting? Were things really so bad? He hesitated, his finger hovering over the bright yellow app icon. Did he have to do something so extreme?

His eyes drifted about the room, taking in the nice furniture (not too expensive, but by no means cheap), the pictures on the wall (nice, but not memorable), the stereo, the TV. It was… nice. He was lucky. And yet… There was no one to share it with. The armchair, which did not match but rather complimented the sofa, was barely used (he tended to gravitate sofa-wards). Down the hall, the spare bedroom had become a dumping ground for everything from the guitar he’d bought on impulse and barely played, to the boxes of books he’d promised would go on shelves when he’d moved in four years ago, to the collection of old toys he’d rescued from his parents loft. There was a bed in there somewhere, he was sure of it…

Ed sighed. So he was lonely. That was hardly a new development; he’d felt lonely most of his life. Half the time he felt relieved not to have to deal with all the crap his friends and other people had to deal with. Housemates. Relationships. Heartbreak. People in general, to be honest; he’d never been good with people. The other half of the time, though… Sometimes his solitary existence did get him down, but not enough to prompt his impulse to change it all.

So what else? His job was… fine. He worked in middle management in a middle-sized company in a middle-sized city. He was good at what he did, but he’d never make Managing Director. His workmates rarely became his friends, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, because it meant that he could escape the day job when he did socialise of an evening…

“It’s fine,” Ed said, and jumped at the sound of his own voice. “My life is fine.” It was true enough. It wasn’t a bad life. Maybe it wasn’t the best either. But it was okay. It was fine. So what was the problem?

His eyes dropped to the phone in his hand, the friendly yellow icon bright against the wallpaper image. The icon was two white stick figures high-fiving on a yellow background, and the app name sat below the icon: ‘2ndChance’.

“Maybe I’m sick of ‘fine’,” Ed murmured, and his finger touched the icon, opening the app…

* * *

Ed had, unsurprisingly, missed the life-swap craze when it had first emerged. His first encounter with 2ndChance was as a confused observer, and if not for the company’s intensive advertising campaign he’d have dismissed the entire thing as a trick of his imagination.

He’d been sitting in the coffee shop on the corner down from his office, listlessly stirring his cappuccino and looking idly about at the other customers. At the table next to him was a woman about his own age, her light brown hair in a short bob, a mustard yellow scarf knotted about her neck. The woman was fiddling with her phone, and something in the set of her shoulders and the intensity of her focus told Ed she was upset. In his mind he idly played out the conversation he would never have; where he’d catch her attention, ask her if she was alright, and they would start to talk. He’d make her laugh, and by the end of their coffee they’d be smiling at each other and wondering what might come next…

Ed sighed and shrugged away the daydream, glancing at the woman again. She sat there, still playing with her phone, lifting her hand to tuck her long light brown hair behind her ear… He blinked in surprise and stared at her. He could have sworn a few moments ago her hair had been a short bob, but now it was well past her shoulders. Her face had changed too, he was sure of it. But she wore the same mustard scarf, with the same knot… Same clothes, different woman…

Ed was staring openly now, and the woman finally noticed. She met his eyes for the briefest of moments, then she smiled. Before he could even attempt to smile back, however, the woman pushed her coffee cup away and rose. She shrugged into her coat, picked up her bag and headed for the door. Ed stared after her for a few moments, then down at his coffee.

He might eventually have shrugged the whole thing off as a mistake (he’d only glanced at her before swanning off on his daydream, really), but that evening he’d seen an advert online that brought him up short. It was a short video clip, one of the ones that finds its way onto your social media feed despite adjusting all the settings to try and stop them. It showed a coffee shop scene and a handsome but haggard looking man sitting at a table, fiddling with his phone. Another customer passed in front of the camera, and when they’d passed there was a different but equally handsome man in the exact same outfit, sitting at the same table. This man didn’t look haggard, however, and with a smile he put his phone in his pocket, looked into the camera and gave a winning smile and winked. Then the image faded to a white screen with the words ‘2ndChance – Because sometimes the grass really IS greener’ emblazoned across it.

Despite the grin and horribly cheesy wink to camera, it was so similar to Ed’s experience that afternoon that he clicked the link on the video immediately, and so was formally introduced to the idea of life-swapping…

Give yourself a new beginning with 2ndChance!

Have you suffered heartbreak? Are you frustrated in your job? Bitter at the hand you’ve been dealt? Has your life not worked out the way you thought it would? Do you find yourself wishing you had a way to start over? Well, now you really can!

2ndChance is a revolutionary new way to hit the reset button on your unsatisfying life and seek out a new one. Simply download our app and register for free, and you will be a few short steps away from starting out afresh!

2ndChance – Because sometimes the grass really IS greener!

The website used a lot of words to give very vague information as to what service they actually provided, but after some digging online Ed finally came to the conclusion that life-swapping meant literally that. You registered using the app, gave it all the detail of your life, and then you set search criteria for what you wanted to swap to. The app searched its users and proposed possible matches. You selected the one you wanted, and that was it; you and your match were instantly, physically swapped, and you carried on in your new life as though nothing had changed. 2ndChance switched your electronic identity instantly, and the real world adjusted to match the electronic world, as it always did. A second chance, simple as that.

Which was, of course, completely bonkers. And yet… Ed couldn’t stop thinking about the woman in the coffee shop, about the idea of stepping away from his own life, starting over. Finally he’d downloaded the app, just out of curiosity. Registered an account, filled in details about his life, the ‘fine’, middling existence, just to see what they wanted you to tell them. They were thorough, requiring every last detail in order to find a suitable swap. But whilst Ed had never gone so far as touching the ‘Search’ button, he never quite forgot about 2ndChance, until one day the usual week of meetings and work and solitude had become unbearable, and he found himself sitting on his sofa, his finger hovering over the friendly yellow app icon…

* * *

The 2ndChance app gave Ed a list of fourteen potential matches, and he scrolled through them curiously. When he reached number seven, he stopped. This was the one; Jack Ellory, a trained pilot, but currently owned and ran a moderately successful restaurant. Different. Maybe stressful, with ups and downs, sure, but definitely more than just ‘fine’. He looked about his lounge one last time, and then he touched his finger to the large yellow button at the bottom of the screen.

There was a sudden flash of brilliant white light, and then–

–blinking, the man who had been Ed looked down at the phone in his hand, text bright on the screen.

Welcome to your new start! Thank you for choosing 2ndChance.

And then the text changed:

2ndChance – Because sometimes the grass really IS greener!

Smiling to himself, the man who was now Jack downed the last of his coffee, stood, slipped his phone into his pocket, and left the coffee shop. Out on the street he took a deep breath, then set out to explore his new life.


Seventy-eight years. When he was twenty-seven they met on the bus, and he went six miles past his stop just to keep talking to her. She was the last thing he saw. Fifty-one years together ended with a view of her smiling face, her hand pressing his gently as he drifted slowly into darkness.


He opened his eyes, blinking lazily. Light slowly filled the room, warm but neutral. As it grew brighter, so his surroundings grew more familiar. This was his room. Plain, as they all were, but definitely his. Slowly Hunter sat up in bed. The memory of aching, aged joints was fading, and he stretched a younger body that was growing more familiar by the second. He looked about as he did so, noticing the white notebook and pen sitting on the small table beside the bed.


Twelve years. Polio took him early, but there was something in the eyes of one of the nurses. It was a look that was utterly familiar, though he was too young to understand…


“Thank you, Gideon.” Hunter murmured. He reached for the notebook and opened it to the first blank page, noting that he was over halfway through now. As he thought for a moment, wondering what to write about his last life, his gaze fell on the shelf on the wall opposite him. A row of similar notebooks was lined along the shelf, each one already full. Then inspiration hit, and Hunter pressed his pen against the blank page and began to write.


Fifty years. They passed once in the street when he was thirty years old. She looked at him, smiled… Then turned her eyes to the man whose hand she was holding, and walked on… Those eyes haunted him for the rest of his life, even as the heart attack hit him years later and he slumped to the floor, clutching his chest…


“Hunter! Over here!”
Arcady and Eleanor were waving to him from across the canteen. He grinned and nodded, making his way over to them. As he did so, he looked searchingly at the faces of the other diners, but did not find what he was looking for, as usual. Finally he reached his friends and sat, but before he’d settled on the chair Arcady spoke.
“So? How did you do?”
Hunter sighed.
“Do we have to compare notes immediately? Can’t I eat first?”
“Come on, spill.”
Hunter looked at Eleanor, who just rolled her eyes and shrugged. Relenting, Hunter began to tell them about his latest life.


Twenty-five years. He was a soldier, she was the childhood sweetheart he’d had to leave behind. As the bullets tore through his torso and knocked him to the ground, his hand fumbled for the photo of her he’d kept by his side every day since they parted…


Hunter took a bite of toast and looked about the Canteen, searching each face. He noticed Eleanor and Arcady were watching him, and raised an eyebrow.
“Looking for someone?” Eleanor asked. Hunter gave her a small smile and shrugged.
Arcady frowned.
“You’re sure it was her again?” Hunter nodded, and his friend shook his head. “Hunter, I keep telling you, you must be making a mistake. It’s just not possible. I mean, statistically if nothing else.”
Hunter shrugged.
“It’s her. It’s always her.”


Sixty-eight years. They’d met via an online dating website, a measure which neither of them thought would work, but then spent thirty happy years side by side. Then, in his sleep and unaware, he drifted slowly away from her…


Three lifetimes later the trio walked through the Park after eating, taking Eleanor’s favourite path, the one that wound down to and then around the lake. Arcady chatted on about his latest life, but Eleanor and Hunter said little. Hunter would have wondered at Eleanor’s silence, which was unusual, if he hadn’t been caught up in his own thoughts. Finally Arcady fell silent too, looking at both of them.
“Well you two are being cheerful today.”
Ignoring Arcady, Eleanor caught Hunter’s eye.
“Hunter, supposing it is the same person each time…”
“It is.”
“Well… Shouldn’t she be here, then?” Hunter gave her a lopsided smile.
“Who do you think I’m always looking for?”


Forty-five years. They’d met in school, and his heart had been hers ever since. But she’d never wanted it, never felt more than friendship for him. They had remained close, and he had kept his silence, and given her the best friendship he could. Then one day as they crossed a road towards a coffee shop a lorry could not stop in time, and so he pushed her out of its path…


“She’s here somewhere. I just have to find her.”
“And how do you propose to do that?”
Hunter had no answer, and Arcady grinned. Smiling sympathetically, Eleanor spoke quietly.
“You’re sure it’s always the same person?”
“It’s her. Every time, it’s her.”
“Then… Well , even if you don’t find her here, at least you have each other when you’re there. That’s something, right?”
“It’s something,” Hunter said, quietly. “But it’s not enough.”


Thirty-six years. They’d met through friends, and over a few years their friendship had grown, blossoming into a love that they’d each never dared hope for. Then, on the return train from a magical day in a beautiful city, weather and disrepair combined to end it. Time seemed to slow as the carriage shuddered and twisted and rocked, the shattering of glass and grinding of metal made no sound; he heard only the beating of his heart as he reached for her hand one last time…


A few lifetimes later they sat once more in the Canteen, and Hunter was searching each face for a familiar gaze.
“You’ll never find her, Hunter. Stop doing this to yourself.”
“I find her there, every time. Why not here?”
“Well, here’s different, I guess. It’s not meant to be, here.”
“No,” Hunter said. “No.”
And before either of his friends could speak, he stood and walk out of the Canteen, his food untouched.


Eighty-one years. He’d missed her terribly when she passed, leaving him alone. For seven years he’d carried on as before, but his heart wasn’t in it. Even if every step is the same as those you’ve taken before, the path changes when you walk it alone. Then, sixty-three years after she’d stolen his heart, seven after she’d taken it away with her, he sighed one last time and slipped into darkness…


Hunter stayed away from his friends for a few lifetimes. He kept himself to himself; he wrote notes on his lives, he ate, walked in the Park, sometimes laying on the grass and gazing up at the birds gliding high overhead. And he vainly searched every face for the gaze he’d seen over and over, across a thousand lives and more.


Sixty-two years. They’d met at university, fallen so deeply, so immediately for each other that they both knew it had to be something more than just the freedom and exploration of youth. Then one day they’d been crossing the road when an oncoming car could not stop. She had cried out, shoving him as hard as she could. The car had crushed his foot, and though it eventually healed, he had a limp for the rest of his days. But she had taken the full force of the impact, and he was assured she’d been gone before she hit the ground. In time he had found another love, married, had children, lived a happy life. But the young woman who had saved his life never truly left his heart, even as he fell into his final slumber…


Hunter lay on the grass, his eyes closed. He heard the faint whisper of footsteps on grass, then the sounds of two people laying down beside him. Finally Hunter spoke.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Yeah. Me too,” Eleanor said.
“And me,” added Arcady.
“We know you want to find her. We just worry about you.”
“I know.”
The three friends lay together on the grass, reunited.


Seventy years. Their time came together, which their children thought was typical of them. Fifty years side by side, hand in hand, and then they slipped into the dark one night, lying in each other’s arms…


He sat in the Canteen, the memory of his last life slow to leave him, when a voice spoke beside him.
“Do you mind if I sit here?”
“Of course not,” Hunter murmured. “I’m sorry, I was just…”
But his voice trailed off as he looked up at the speaker, and his gaze was met by a pair of eyes he’d seen countless times before, though never in this place.
“Hello,” she said. “I’m Ariadne.”