Saturday, 7 January 2017

New Baby Writing Challenge SUPER//OVERTIME//MODE Story Nineteen: "Festival Night"

Well, here were are ladies and gentlemen. The final story. The first one "A Flash of Pink" dropped 135 days ago, back in August, and before the delightful wiggle machine that is Aurora arrived. It's been immensely fun to write these stories for everyone who wanted to play. I'm a bit sad that it's over, but secretly a bit glad that I'm going to get my lie-ins back for a while.

Definitely until I find the next damn fool thing to do!

Oh yeah - that's the next damn fool thing. Now that all of the stories are done - 56k words...novel length! - I'm going to give everything a thorough edit and format and release it for free download on Smashwords (and the Kindle, if I can work out how that works!).

This story was written for two good friends of mine who are getting married this year. Their wedding is actually going to be a festival in itself, which should make for spectacular fun this summer! Their chosen word was "festival" and the random genre picker gave me "time travel". I've tried to go out with a bang this time!

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you "Festival Night".

Festival Night
The revellers were scraps of bright paper blown about by a hurricane of music; I couldn’t see Shto anywhere in the chaos. The herd moved forever forwards, punctuated occasionally by festival floats that rumbled slowly onwards whenever a vacuum emerged. My gun shifted heavily in my holster; I hadn’t found Georges Shto yet, but I would.

He was here…somewhere… I could sense that predator slinking between the brilliant pools of coloured lights, forever seeking the darkness, but Shto wasn’t hunting now. No-one would die tonight like they had on so many nights on so many planets. Tomorrow morning there would be no grieving father or weeping widow but unless I stopped him now there would be one on Earth or Callisto or Minerva and another and another after that. Tonight though, Shto wasn’t hunting.

He was being hunted.

A shrieking clump of dancers, dressed in white and gold feathers, forced their way down the pavement. I stepped back into the shadows of a closed shop-front to collect my thoughts. What was Shto doing here? The planet of Pythia was far enough away from the Webway to be a backwater; clearly that’s why Shto had hidden here when he felt the heat. Where was he going now? He was using the festival as cover while he ran to…where? On the whole of Pythia, there was just one city and the surrounding jungle was far too dangerous to countenance entering. Shto was enough of a survivor that he wouldn’t indulge himself with a kill tonight, but he might have another bolthole in the city or, worse, confederates.

Fireworks burst overhead in a series of thunderclaps: sparks of gold and red and blue. The people around me were so busy buying drinks from a wandering vendor that they paid it no attention but there was a pleased roar from further down the street. Somewhere in this surging bedlam was a murderer.

I moved off, fighting my way through the swaying, laughing crowd. This bunch was all together: they’d daubed symbols in red and black across their faces, giving their good-natured faces a devilish aspect. When I shoved through them, their good humour evaporated and they scowled, baring their teeth.

I ducked behind the next float: a gigantic representation of one of the monstrous snake-beasts that lurked in the jungle encircling the city. Its ruby eyes glittered in the flashing festival lights and lasers stabbed out of them through the smoke for dramatic effect. The mock shrieks of the revellers made me reach for my pistol; they all collapsed into hysterical giggles when they saw my expression. I wiped away the sweat sticking my long hair to my forehead and tried to breathe. For a moment there, I thought our confrontation had finally come. Since he murdered Johannes, my deputy, I’d had nightmares about those watery grey eyes staring at me from beneath that ragged black fringe.

I checked my watch. The evening’s debauchery was only just getting going; there were hours of festival left. I wiped away more sweat. Pythian nights were hot, the party made it hotter and the necessity of wearing my jacket over my holstered pistol made me feel faint. I eyed the scantily-dressed dancers on the snake float’s back with envy.

Where were Pythia’s police? I’d asked for help tracking down Shto when I'd arrived, but they’d been disinterested. Looking at the chaotic festival erupting around me, I could understand why. Yes, Shto was a murderer, but there would be other murders tonight: murders committed through drunkenness, murders committed through jealousy, murders committed by accident. The Pythian police were stretched enough keeping this riot in check without worrying immediately about some off-planet warrant for a man they’d never heard of.

A group dressed in flowery garlands moved and left a gap in the crowd. I saw him.
He stared at me from across the road. A glitter bomb burst high overhead and the entire boulevard was being showered in silver and gold sparkles; neither of us blinked. There was communication there on a basic level in the moment - fear, anger, panic and revenge - but I couldn’t say who felt what. He smiled and I knew that if he escaped me today, that grin would be added to my nightmares. He knew it too.

“Georges Shto!” I bellowed, trying to be heard over the sound of laughter, fireworks and music. “I have a warrant for your arrest for…”

I knew that he’d run – I’d already been moving my hand to my gun – but he was so quick. He ducked behind two women dressed in flame-coloured ribbons and there was no way for me to get a clean shot. His vanity had persuaded him to give me a sporting chance, but it was going to be impossible to catch him in this crowd.


I ran too, barging my way past resting dancers, through groups of drunk spectators and crashed through a fast-food vendor’s grill. There were shrieks of laughter and howls of protest. Hot fat and embers scattered across my skin; I barely felt it.

Shto was on the other side of the street to me, having as much difficulty as I was penetrating the crowd. I desperately needed to cross over, but the main body of the road was packed with dance troupes spraying green glitter from wrist-mounted dispensers. There was no way to cross. As soon as I tried to force my way across that dense river, Shto would pull away from me and I’d lose him.

Without warning, another salvo of fireworks exploded against the night sky, belching glowing purple nebula and flashing silver flames. Just for the tiniest moment, the lead dancers in the troupe hesitated as they admired the display and a small gap opened between them and the float ahead.

I gratefully dived into it. Immediately I was stamped on from behind and thrown hard into the back of the float in front. The dancers shrieked and backed away from me.

I dived again and made it to the other side of the street. Shto was still visible ahead, but barely. Occasionally, a gust of ticker tape would obscure him from view and my heart would sink for a second. This wasn’t about my career like it had been at the start of my investigation; this man had killed again and again and had spread misery through human space, wherever the paths of the Webway led. I couldn’t lose him.

Shto shoved his way through a group of waiting robots. They were Metallics – human consciousness copied into robotic frames – and their chassis were too light to withstand his shoulder barge. They laughed it off and passed out strangely heavy balloons. Their first salvo of balloons was tossed over the road and erupted into a psychedelic nebula of swirling powder paint, but one from the next barrage hit me square in the face. I was blind; I could hear their synthesised laughter. When I scraped the powder paint out of my streaming eyes and my vision gradually cleared, Shto had vanished.

I swore under my breath and slumped down in a doorway, grabbing a bottle of water from the tray of a passing vendor. When he tried to demand payment, I twitched my coat aside to show my pistol. He backed off.

Half the water went on my face, half down my throat. It didn’t wash the copper taste of failure away.

Shto had butchered my deputy, Johannes, amongst the decaying factories of Pegasus, when we’d cut off his retreat to the spaceport. When he ambushed us, our local support from the Pegasus PD had panicked and Johannes had lost his head.
I still hadn’t found it.

Shto was heading to the spaceport again, I realised. With Pythia’s police force occupied by the festival, he was planning to saunter straight onto a spaceship and, once he was into the Webway, he could touch down on any of a thousand worlds and begin again. For once, Shto had made a mistake. He’d gotten predictable.

I got up and rather than chasing down the packed road again, I turned left sharply and headed down a narrow alleyway with high walls and no exit. Tiny refuse robots were scuttling in and out of small holes in the far wall, some carrying spent cigarettes, empty alcohol cans and scraps of glitter. As I approached, the concealed access door in the wall unlocked to admit me. I was damn glad I'd remembered to register with local law enforcement this time and for all the permissions it granted me: this shortcut, for one.

Shto’s mistake was in not understanding the city. It was laid out like a spoked wheel: one broad road around the circumference and ten smaller roads heading inwards. Tonight, everywhere was clogged with revellers and Shto would have to fight down to the centre and back up again to the spaceport. If I could use my police accreditation to cross through each segment and avoid the centre altogether, I could head him off.

The recycling bay within the wall I'd entered was cramped, dark and hot. The roar of laughter and music was muffled as I climbed through the guts of the facility. Spider-like robots swarmed everywhere, separating materials into different coloured bins. They dropped onto my shoulders inquisitively and tugged at my coat. I brushed them off, reminding myself again and again that they weren’t real spiders, that they were just recycling robots, that the tiny legs grasping at my face couldn’t hurt me. A crack of light opened ahead of me as the exit from the recycling bay unlocked. I burst through into the open air: free of scuttling spiders, but not of the festival.

This was the Festival of the First Foot, the Pythian celebration of the first landing on their overgrown rock and the start of their New Year. There wasn’t supposed to be any way for someone to escape it.

This street had the same frenetic, colourful chaos at a different tempo of music and great clouds of narcotic smoke drifted from open doorways of bars and restaurants. Was this one of the commercial districts? The signs on the walls read DISTRICT 3. The spaceport was still two districts over.

I fought my way between a synchronised team of dancers dressed as cakes and a marching brass band for the Pythian football team and was stamped on and kicked by oblivious wandering spectators. As I dived down another alleyway, an incense bomb exploded overhead, showering the crowd with narcotic scent. By the time the purple vapour touched the ground, I’d already made it through the next access door.

When I eventually reached it, District 1 was dead quiet. There was music and crackling barrages of fireworks, but muted like it was behind glass. The breeze was heavy with the scent of the jungle, the smell of photosynthesis running riot. With all the excesses of the festival, it was easy to forget how overgrown the rest of the planet was and how isolated this little cluster of lights and concrete was.

I walked across to the spaceport entrance; the jungle air scraped scraps of trash through the echoing car park. Everyone who wanted to be in the festival was already here; everyone who hated it was off-planet. I was nearly alone.

Light from its entrance flooded out onto the road, revealing a pair of bored guards. They smoked and shifted their slung weapons from side to side. I ignored them: they wouldn't help or hinder me unless capturing Shto spilled over into their jurisdiction. Their job was crimes on the Webway and nothing else.

Perhaps I had outpaced him. I could wait outside the entrance and...

There was the sound of running footsteps from my left and Shto burst out from an alleyway, spattered with powder paint and glitter. His black hair was stuck to his forehead with sweat but that watery grey stare was just as disconnected as ever. That stare calmly assessed every organ and thought in my whole body as if he would soon steal his favourite parts.

He grinned with broken teeth when he saw me. Johannes managed to do that before he'd been decapitated. It had only enhanced his nightmarish appearance. It was those eyes and those teeth and the total disconnection from everyone around him: a polite interest but never anything more as he brought another innocent life to a premature end.

“Halt or I fire!” I shouted, scrabbling the gun from its holster.

Shto shrugged, looking as baffled as if I'd asked him to sing nursery rhymes. That absence of understanding, that blankness, stared out through the frosted glass eyes and told me that this wasn't going to have a happy ending.

“Georges Shto...I have a warrant for your arrest for multiple homicides and...”

He took a step towards the spaceport where the two guards waited, thoroughly enthralled by the drama outside their workplace. Neither one of them took any action to help.

“I don't want to shoot you, but I will if you take one more step,” I shouted, my voice echoing oddly between all the empty buildings.

Shto didn't move or speak. I realised that in all the months of chasing him, I'd never heard his voice.

The pause stretched on endlessly. After what he'd done to Johannes, he'd expected me to shoot him on sight and now he was waiting to see what I would do with the same cool interest as someone would watch ducks on a river.

“Tell me where you hid Johannes' head!” I shouted. “Tell me and I won't kill you!”

An ice-cold bead of sweat rolled from the nape of my neck and down my spine. My hand began to shake, the pistol barrel weaved this way and that. I'd visualised this moment in the dead hours of every night but now that we were both here, I felt deathly afraid, infected by a creeping terror that made my cold skin crawl.

Those milky wet eyes stared at me, sizing me up. I set my jaw and tried to exude utter self-confidence. Shto smiled and took a step towards me. The hairs on the nape of my neck rose; he had scented weakness and his delight was broadcast by every predatory step forwards.

“I don't think I'll be coming with you today, Constable,” he creaked.

His lips pulled back tightly over his broken teeth, cutting them so that little drops of blood stained those shattered white knives. I couldn't look away from his eyes. He expected to walk across to me and kill me where I stood. There wasn't a flicker of doubt in his eyes.

“Stop right there and tell me where Johannes' head is!” I shouted again, but the tremor in my voice made him accelerate to a gentle jog.

Time distorted and slowed. I couldn't believe that Shto was just going to come over and kill me, right in front of two armed police. My finger wouldn't squeeze the trigger. I had several firearm awards to my name and I couldn't shoot. Those dead eyes were paralysing me, bringing that broken smile closer and closer.

He stumbled over a crack in the asphalt, looked down for a split second and the spell broke. By itself, my pistol shot him cleanly through his left eye as his head rose again. I felt light-headed as if I was watching it all from a distance. He kept jogging forwards like it hadn't happened.

I shot him again, through his other eye. The watery grey orbs were gone forever, replaced by crimson pits. The back of his head was cratered and matted with gore but he still moved, taking one step and then another.

My arm dropped to my side and my pistol clattered to the ground. Panic, near hysteria, overtook me. In my darkest nightmares, I'd always known that Shto wasn't human. He was an abomination, crawling up out of a dark and slimy pit to bite and tear. Now this monster was coming to get me too.

Shto crumpled to the ground at my feet, stone dead. He was just a man after all. I collapsed next to him as I all my strength fled. A few moments more passed before I noticed that I was weeping silently as I stared at his corpse.

Eventually, the local police turned up in a riot of sirens and flashing lights, swerving their cars dramatically across the empty car park. Some of them smelled strongly of alcohol and drugs, clearly enjoying the festival despite strict orders to abstain. Once they’d zipped Shto in a body bag and driven him away, a police detective with a glazed-over look asked me why I was crying for scum like that.

I tried to explain, but emotion kept choking my throat after just a few words. How could I explain? Now that Shto was dead, I’d never find Johannes’ head. His wife needed to give him a proper burial to begin grieving properly, but Shto had taken that away from her. He’d been roaming four different planets since he murdered Johannes: the head could’ve been hidden on any of them. Johannes’ wife would bury what she could, but it wouldn’t ever be complete for her, a wound which would never fully heal.

“Bring him home for me, Alma,” she’d asked me. It’d been a dismal autumn day back on Earth. Johannes had married old money, for love he’d protested, so his family house was more of an estate. It’d been raining all day and the smell of leaf mulch hung in the air like a whisper from the grave. Drops slid under my jacket’s collar as I stood in the downpour; Johannes’ wife hadn’t invited me in as I explained the grisly circumstances of her husband’s death. Her family’s estate was riddled with tombs and catacombs and I could tell by her anxious lip-chewing that Johannes’ funeral rights were at the forefront of her mind. I'd expected more overt grief.

I didn't understand it, but then I'm not rich.

I told all this to the drunk next to me in the spaceport bar, but he didn't even try to be interested. I was drunk too: I probably wasn't making much sense. I'd gotten the shakes bad after they'd carted Shto off. I'd never killed anyone before and even though Georges Shto was as evil as people got, my brain was still a balloon with its tether cut. The shame came quick: shame at taking a life, shame at how close I'd come to dying, shame at failing Johannes and his family.

It was that last insoluble chunk of guilt that drove me into the bar once I'd been questioned. There'd been the expected confusion about the precise validity of my arrest warrant but they'd swept that aside as the festival's casualties began to flood in, all intoxication and twisted ankles and clumsy stab wounds. A bad man was dead and that was all that mattered.

I drank deeply again. My drunk friend had gone now, leaving an empty stool. The alcohol hadn't made the shakes go; it'd made me less able to control them. I had to grip the glass like an anchor.

Whenever I stopped thinking about Shto's grey eyes, I started thinking about what I'd have to say to Johannes' widow instead. I couldn't even remember her name, but the smell of leaf mulch came back clearly. The scent of decay and failure.

Johannes would never be whole again and his wife would never forgive me. I’d promised.
Someone slid into the seat next to me and tapped me on the shoulder. I ignored them. Any more conversation tonight would interfere with getting seriously drunk.

“I can smell the regret on you…” came a whisper at my ear and for a ghastly second, I thought that Shto had risen from the crypt.

I wheeled unsteadily but instead of his vampire face, I saw an old man, heavily scarred and beaten but with penetrating eyes of a strange shade of blue.

“What?” I slurred. “Who are you?”

“A wanderer of the jungles,” he said through a mouth twisted by layered damage. “A seeker of truths.”

I turned back to my drink, already bored. The sales pitch was coming any second. Would it be another offer to tattoo a 'mystic symbol' from some 'lost temple' on me, or a 'once-in-a-lifetime' opportunity to fund an expedition into the deep jungle? If I left the bar now, there might be enough festival left for me to find chemical oblivion for a while. It would be nice, really nice, to stop thinking about Johannes' missing head for a few hours.

“You seem troubled,” he continued with the clear, steady voice of a much younger man. “There are no troubles which cannot be undone.”

“Go away,” I spat bitterly without turning.

He paused and stared at me. I turned back angrily and was about to start shouting when I was distracted by a new scar striped across his face, so fresh that it was still weeping blood. It hadn't been there a second ago. My confusion gave him just enough momentum to start his pitch.

“I wander out in the jungle. As long as you don't carry anything electronic, the beasts out there are peaceful. Electricity tends to make them...very hostile,” he said. “I find many strange things in the deep growth.”

Brilliant, I thought. He is trying to sell me something.

He set a small statue on the bar in front of me. It was a representation of one of Pythia's monstrous serpents carved out of dark rock but threaded through with pale blue veins that glittered in the poor light. I could've sworn that those serpentine eyes were looking straight at me. I couldn't help myself: I reached out to touch it before stopping myself.

“The natives here built temples to worship the snakes,” he explained. “I found this in the ruins of one of them.”

“What natives? There aren't any natives on Pythia,” I interjected without ever taking my eyes off the statue. “Where did they go?”

“They invented electricity!” he roared with laughter. The scars across his face writhed disquietingly. I tried to grin too, but the statue was still looking at me. Thoughts of a civilisation crushed beneath slithering scales kept intruding.

“Their god can fix mistakes, if you ask”, he said, gesturing at the miniature snake.

“It's a good pitch. I'll buy it,” I said, waving away the spiel. “How much?”

“There's no cost,” he smiled. “Not from me, at least.”

I picked it up. It was much colder than I'd expected and seemed to writhe in my hand.

“Ask it,” he said gently. “It can help...for the right price.”

There was only one mistake I'd want to fix. “I...”

The bar vanished in a wrenching thunderclap of colour and a deluge of babbling voices. The ground bucked under my feet like an earthquake was tearing it away. The bar vanished; I vanished. The last thing I saw was the luminous blue eyes of the scarred man, gradually dissolving away.

Pain ripped through my hand. My offering had been accepted; a boon would be granted. I could have my chance again, but the rules would be different. My benefactor was capricious and sly and enjoyed this game, had enjoyed it with others many times before.

My senses returned to me grudgingly, like I was waking from a hangover. I was on my feet and the bellow of clashing music was in my ears. It was the Festival again; it was hours earlier than it had been. The old man hadn't lied. The old man? It was something that hadn't happened yet. I was going to meet someone in a few hours in some place...

The thought was gone. I was here to catch Shto before he could kill again, before he tore at the hot flesh of another unsuspecting victim. I had to stop him. My partner was dead and there was no help coming for me. I had to do this alone.

Crowds buffeted past me, but I didn't notice them. The sensation of deja vu was almost overpowering. I had seen these parade floats before, had seen these people before. A couple laughed at a drunken dancer who'd dropped their drink on the floor: I'd known that was going to happen. When an errant firework burst low over the street, everyone flinched but me.

My hand ached, I realised. My little finger was gone. I shuddered with horror. I was missing part of myself; something had been amputated away. I was maimed. My head swam again as conflicting thoughts collided like crashing icebergs. Of course, I wasn't maimed. It was an old injury, one that I'd got in the line of duty many years ago. Johannes and I had been chasing down a counterfeiter and he'd slammed a heavy steel shutter down on my finger. I'd always intended to get it regrown, but time had raced on by until it didn't bother me anymore. Why was it hurting today, though? I examined it. For such an old wound, it was strange to see it weeping fresh blood.

As my eyes refocused across the street, I saw Shto. He looked different to how I'd remembered: somehow he'd found the time to get himself upgraded into a Metallic frame – a robot body. Though the grey predatory eyes had been replaced by clusters of sensors, I could tell that his impassive face still held nothing but malice for me. The shiny metal of his new face had been cast in an evil smile that mocked me in the middle of the Festival's frivolity.

In a flash, he gathered his powerful piston legs beneath him and sprang straight up a wall and onto the roof of a low building nearby. There was a scattering of applause from those in the crowd who'd seen the feat; I just stood there with my mouth wide open. I'd been reasonably confident of catching him before, but now? I didn't stand a chance. Why hadn't I planned better? I'd known that Shto had upgraded himself right after beheading Johannes, but why hadn't I brought better weaponry with me?

Fireworks crackled overhead, barely audible over the din of the music. I stood there, illuminated yet baffled. Apprehending Shto in a Metallic form would be difficult, but not impossible. I would need to get to the spaceport before him and request heavier armaments there. They might help me or they might not, but I couldn't think of where else I'd be able to get something that could penetrate his carapace.

Somehow, I knew that he was going to the spaceport. It was the most logical place for him to flee to, but there were others. I knew it with rock-solid certainty. To beat him there, I'd have to get moving straight away; with upgraded mobility, he could scramble over buildings and leap between rooftops. That kind of energy expenditure was difficult for even a robotic body to sustain, so he'd need to pause. If I started now, if I was smart, I might still outpace him.

I started running, weaving between the surging crowds of people. It felt like a puzzle; it felt like negotiating my way through an endlessly shifting sea of icebergs. Whenever the music changed, the puzzle reset and I had to scan the crowd again for my path through. Revellers spattered me with sweat as they danced and ash from a hundred narcotics inhalers pitted my skin. This was too slow. I'd only been running for less than a minute, but I knew already that this wasn't fast enough.

I could try cutting through the city's segment by slipping through utility buildings, but somehow I knew it wouldn't be fast enough either. Perhaps against Shto on foot, but not as a piston-powered robot frame. What, then?

It was the traffic, I realised. My progress was so slow because the floats were forcing the crowds onto the narrow pavements. If I headed away from the centre, away from the floats, perhaps the roads would be clearer. It might actually work: up this road, along the great circumferential road ringing the city and then back down the road that serviced the spaceport.

My hesitation had cost me seconds. Heart pounding erratically, I turned around and started back the way I came. Confused citizens swore at me as I forced my way between them for the second time.

The crowd thinned as I sprinted further and further from the city's heart. The people here were sober and less erratic; rather than dancing, they were engaged in earnest conversation. Those that hadn't located a partner yet, that is. The ones that had were easier to avoid, but whenever I collided with them, the swearing was more profuse.

The closer that I got to the edge of the city, the more I could smell the jungle. It was easy to forget in the middle of all this decadent urban chaos that Pythia was a jungle planet. The city had barely made a dent in the mass of jungle covering the planet. I guessed that the only people who ever thought about it were employees of the pharmaceutical megacorporations that had funded the city's founding. They'd been out there and knew exactly how dangerous it was. The smell of hot photosynthesis blew from the jungle on the night air and a strange lizard smell accompanied it.

Before long I was at the city's perimeter road. This late at night, the jungle was merely a tangled silhouette against the stars of the night sky but when fireworks exploded overhead, the brief bursts illuminated things moving in the darkness: huge, serpentine monsters slithering slowly.

All along the perimeter were complicated globes of intermeshed wire, sitting like a bird's nest up on the top of poles. They crackled with high voltages; green lights blinked beneath them as they stretched off around the perimeter road in both directions until all they were was twinkling lights in the distance. They were the city's repulsion nodes, I had been told repeatedly upon my arrival. The planet's native fauna was antagonised by any electrical currents in their vicinity to the point of rage. The first city of Pythia had been destroyed by a handful of berserk serpents. Since then, the nodes had been built to ward them off.

The road was nearly clear of traffic and I ran as fast as I could. The thick jungle air stuck in my throat; the omnipresent smell of vegetative decay almost made me gag. All was quiet, except the hum-snap of the high voltage nodes and the crash of toppling trees in the depths of the jungle as gigantic beasts slunk from place to place. My breath rasped in my throat and my heart pounded. Sweat streaming down my face. I gasped and wheezed and realised that I'd have to stop for breath soon. When I did, I'd concede enough time for Shto to escape. In my mind's eye, he was already at the spaceport, climbing aboard a star freighter, snake's pit of a brain already scheduling the next round of atrocities.

My feet pounded on the pavement. My vision blurred. I was just about to collapse when I spotted my salvation: an ambulance. It dawdled slowly along the road, sirens silent and lights dimmed, waiting for an alert that would send it fighting into the city's heart. I wondered how many people were also keeping a lonely vigil around the city's exterior tonight while their fellow citizens indulged in hysterical excess.

I waved it down and I must have looked in sufficiently bad shape that it responded. As it drew nearer, I saw that it was crewed by a young doctor in a bright white uniform.
When he stopped, I pulled out my pistol.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm in pursuit of a fugitive and I'm taking your vehicle."

He tried to reply, but he managed was an outraged squawk. I waved him away with my gun and climbed in. It was the work of a moment to locate the siren and lights controls; heralded by the strobe and shriek, I pushed the ambulance's engine as hard as it would go. With every beat of my heart, I travelled a dozen metres more. I'd be at the spaceport in moments.
In my haste, I almost sped past the turning. I slammed on the brakes and slid to a halt. The spaceport was almost in sight but something was wrong there. There were people milling around nearby. There weren't supposed to be people here. I had the strangest sensation of deja vu, but deja vu defied. The world was supposed to be one way, but it was another. I had imagined myself running across an empty car park to the port's entrance, but I never expected people here. The game had changed.

I nosed the ambulance down the crowded road and slowed, trying not to hit anyone. I still should have lots of time, I reassured myself. Even a Metallic frame couldn't outrun a car.

There was something wrong else with this crowd. I looked again at them, instincts howling that there was something very wrong. It was just a group of people, wandering this way and that, so why was I so tense? It was unusual to find people away from the party, but not impossible.

A moment more and I saw it. Some people were wandering casually, but not all of them. Peppered throughout the crowd were figures standing almost completely still. If you just focused on the movement, you'd miss them entirely but they were there, glaring fiercely at each other. I bit my lip: did Shto have confederates here, waiting to ambush me as I came to ambush him? Was it possible? He'd only been here a few days before I arrived: had that been enough time for him to amass a gang?

That word sparked: gang. Those static figures on the right had blue ribbons wound tight around both of their forearms and those on the left of the street had clusters of bright red badges pinned to one of their shoulders. They were gangs and I'd just driven blindly into the beginning of a gang war.

Tension was thick in the air; hands dropped towards pockets and reached into coats. Who were these people? They weren't supposed to be here. No-one was supposed to be here, but me and Shto.

As I thought the name of the devil, he suddenly exploded onto the scene, crashing through a solid brick wall. For a second, everyone just gaped as shattered bricks showered down through a cloud of pulverised mortar. Before the wreckage had crashed to the ground, someone decided it was the start of an ambush by the rival gang and opened fire.

Everyone dove for cover and gunfire roared throughout the crowd. Civilians screamed and tried to run; some only made it a few steps before being hit. A salvo of bullets slammed into the ambulance's side with a shriek of tearing metal. I swerved to a halt. More slugs shattered the windscreen into a thousand pieces. I threw myself to the vehicle's floor as brilliant razors sliced down around me.

My heart pounded and my palms were slick. I'd never been shot at before. Apart from Shto, all of my arrests had been relatively peaceful affairs. Now there was a war zone outside and seconds left before my quarry escaped into the sanctuary of the spaceport.

With all the courage I could muster, I opened the ambulance's door, crawled out and under the chassis. The gangs were still blasting away at each other, but they were ignoring the wrecked ambulance now. Nearly everyone else had fled, but a few terrified citizens still crouched in cover. Blood trickled across tarmac; firework light turned it alien colours.

I saw Shto. He stood there in the blizzard of gunfire, bemused. Shots occasionally ricocheted off his metal shell, but he was nearly invulnerable. He knew it too. The glittering sensors packing his eye sockets swept back and forth, like he was looking for an explanation. When it never came, he shrugged and walked towards the spaceport. He waved a lazy hand at the two guards at the entrance who were raptly watching the gunfight. They were so entertained by the raging chaos that they didn't return it.

A gang member collapsed by the ambulance, blood oozing from a dozen small wounds across his torso. His rifle clattered to the ground. I snatched it up and sighted down the barrel at the gleaming oval of Shto's metallic head.

My shot rang out, nearly inaudible in the howl of gunfire and fireworks, but the aim was true. It just wasn't enough to penetrate the armour of a metallic frame. His head rocked forwards slightly, but it only made him pause, foot on the bottom step of the spaceport's entrance.

I sighted again. Metallic frames were tough, but not invincible. There had to be a weakness somewhere.

The neck holding that head up! The circuitry running Shto's personality was encased in armour, but it had to be supplied with power from somewhere – probably inside his chest. If I could sever a few of those cables winding up around his throat...

He'd taken another step when the slug connected with his neck. The whole gleaming globe snapped violently forwards. Something sparked and blue fluid gushed from a split tube. I didn't know if I'd hit anything important, but Shto's silver hand slapped at the wound like he'd been stung by a bee.

He turned, slowly. I'd gotten his attention.

I probably only had enough time for one more shot.

Heart thudding, palms sweating, I squeezed the trigger again. As it slowly depressed, Shto moved faster than I’d thought possible and grabbed a black-haired woman hiding behind a waste bin. By the time the shell had left the barrel, he’d moved her in front of him.

She didn’t have time to react. Neither did I.

I didn’t hear the sound of the shot connecting.

The bloody impact was deafeningly loud in my mind, though.

She twitched once, then was still.

Shto casually threw her body to the side and charged at me in a blur, tracked only by cracked tarmac where his feet slammed down to get purchase. I only had time to react at ll because he paused slightly to knock someone out of his way. The man sailed high through the air and slammed into a wall with a broken neck.

I managed to aim the rifle one more time, but the discreet click of the empty ammo chamber sounded like the end of the world. I shrank under the ambulance, cowering from what must come next.

When Shto reached me, he grabbed the ambulance's bumper and toppled the whole vehicle onto its side. When the dust settled, Shto was looking down at me. I was as exposed as a turtle without a shell.

Steel fingers grabbed my throat and lifted me effortlessly into the air. My feet dangled and kicked uselessly above the tarmac. I clutched at the skeletal arm like I could overpower it; the rifle dangled uselessly at the end of its strap. I couldn't shifted the arm a single millimetre. Shto examined me forensically as if confused by what he saw. Perhaps he knew that this wasn't how it was supposed to end too.

The world started to fade and Shto wasn't even trying to hurt me yet. A microsecond of exertion from the powerful pistons in his fingers would crush my neck to sludge and bone splinters. With my dwindling reserves of strength, I grabbed the rifle and slammed the butt as hard as I could into that grinning demon mask.

He didn't even flinch. The rifle rebounded with a hollow clang.

I saw it. One of my shots had cracked the metal armour of his head and that desperate strike had widened it slightly. It was my chance.

I raised the rifle and struck him again.

“I don't think...” came his strange synthesised voice.

I hit him again and again. He didn't know I was damaging him; his armour lacked nerves. The crack split wider, caving back into the darkness of his skull. He laughed a metallic howl. The second he stopped being amused, I was dead.

The next time I tried to hit him with the rifle, he snatched it and threw it away.

“Now then...” he growled.

I punched his head wound as hard as I could. The metal broke and bent. I howled as razor-sharp metal sliced bloody furrows across the back of my hand, but I was through. I felt the fingers around my throat begin to squeeze; with my own, I tore at the delicate circuitry that made up Shto's mind. Whole glittering, translucent fragments came loose; cables as fine as spider silk tore free.

“I...” he managed before collapsing inert to the floor. I fell too, ripping my bloody hand free and jarring my ankles badly. I collapsed across his twitching frame.

The lights in his eyes were going out.

“No!” I shouted, pushing my face up against his cracked death mask. “No! Tell me where you've hidden Johannes' head! Tell me!”

I lifted the cracked globe and smashed it down on the pavement.

“Tell me where it is!”

The light in his eyes dwindled to nothing and sneering, shining face slipped from my hands.
It took hours before the police let me go. So many people had died in the shoot-out that they'd held everyone close to the action. They knew that I wasn't a ganger, but they also knew that I'd murdered a Metallic out on the street. A few witnesses had even testified that I'd shot at him first.

Eventually, they accepted I had a valid warrant for Shto, but there were errors in it that gave us all pause. It listed Shto as being entirely organic, but he wasn't. The deceased was indeed Georges Shto – the chassis' ID number proved that – but the warrant was wrong in its insistence that he was one hundred per cent flesh. In the end, the Pythian police decided that they had enough to deal with without quibbling over a typo on a warrant and let me go. God bless overwhelmed police forces everywhere.

I headed straight to a bar. It felt like something I had to do. When I sat down at the bar, I ordered two drinks as if I was waiting for someone. I waited in a trance. From the moment I'd seen Shto's sneering metallic mask out on the street, I'd felt strangely disconnected from everything. Even the pain from my ruined hand was being phoned in from a million miles away.

A heavily scarred man with piercing blue eyes sat down next to me.

“Hello again,” I said, sliding one of the drinks over to him.

Without a reply, he placed a small, very familiar, statuette of a snake on the bar surface in front of me.

“You know, it's a miracle you survived all of your expeditions into the jungle,” I said.

“Yes,” he said flatly, through a mouth rippling with scars. “It is, isn't it?”

As I reached out to take the figurine, he stopped me with a raised hand.

“Are you sure?” he said. “Will any outcome be enough?”

I knocked his hand aside and took the statue. There would be a cost. There was always be a cost. There was always a cost and there was always a trick.

The bar vanished again and was replaced by the festival street. It was the first time I'd seen it, but I'd seen this street countless times before, forever remembering it briefly. Soon, I would forget that I knew it at all. I would forget the dozens of times I had stood here now. The memories were already melting away like ice in the summer sun, replaced by this moment's immediacy.

This time, my arm ached. It took me a while to remember how I'd lost it. The pitched battle with Shto across the deserts of Gemini Rho, the grievous wounds we'd inflicted on each other over those long weeks, was coming back. The day he'd shot off my hand and the day he blundered into a trap I'd set and lost his foot. The gradual whittling away of us both. I'd almost killed him once, but he'd ruined my eye instead. Every fibre I had left hungered for revenge.

I'd had the missing arm replaced by a mechanical prosthetic: cogs and cables attached directly to tendon and bone. It was crude and ugly, but I couldn't spare the time from the hunt for anything more elaborate. The revellers sometimes stopped to look at me: this lady who was a strange patchwork of scarred flesh and cheap metal, this testament to many brutal errors.

I was so tired. Though I'd only been on Pythia for a few hours, I'd grown to loathe everyone at the party. Whatever loads they had, they'd lain them for the evening. It felt like I'd never be able to lay down mine.

There was Shto across the street. I wasn't surprised. He was exactly where I'd expected him to be. My shoulders sagged; he stared at me. Sometime since our last encounter, he'd been fully converted into a military-grade android. His body was sculpted from twisted metal ropes that glided smoothly over each other as he shifted his stance. He looked like he was built from shining snakes. The face, even rendered that way, was familiar but that superior smirk was gone. Only weary resignation remained. For a moment, it seemed like he couldn't summon the energy to run.

I raised my pistol, heavier than lead. It wouldn't scratch a Metallic frame as sophisticated as that, but the gesture had to be made.

A hand laid itself across my arm, preventing me from raising it any higher. It was cold and strong. I looked down at the silver snakes tightening around my flesh and up at the serene metal face looking down at me from a frame nearly eight feet tall.

There were two of them.

“Distributed intelligence this time,” the second one beamed. “I float in the ether between them. Clever, no?”

The original metal figure mouthed the same words at the same time. They both had the same broken metal daggers for teeth. They must've requested them as an optional extra.
The metal snakes tightened around my wrist. Where the hell had Shto gotten access to that sort of technology? When would he have had the time to upgrade as I'd chased him down from planet to planet? It made no sense.

“You're too much fun to kill,” the second body whispered in my ear. “You've turned tenacity into a vice.”

It released me and walked across the road. Even the surging, chaotic festival crowds fell back silent as the tall figure walked gracefully to its counterpart. The two figures looked at each other and smiled. They both raised both hands at the same time and flexed each finger in sequence. Shto was clearly in control of both powerful frames simultaneously.

Oh hell.

“Carlos Shto...I am arresting you for multiples homicides, multiple grievous bodily injuries, multiple...”

The two figures laughed with exactly the same sound and volume for exactly the same duration.

“If you resist, I am authorised to use deadly force to bring you to justice,” I called, raising my pistol.

The two figures ignored me completely. They were now tapping their left fingers against their right so quickly that they were a blur. Was this a dexterity exercise? It looked like it, but why was Shto calibrating these android frames now? Surely he'd had days to do that already. He couldn't be that new to these bodies, surely?

They both dropped their hands simultaneously, turned to face me and bared their dagger teeth.

To hell with it, I thought, and fired a round at one of their glinting, dead eyes.

It was a shot in a million, but it didn't connect.

One of Shto's frames casually plucked it out of the air like it was a gently falling petal. They looked at each other impassively before it dropped the bullet to the pavement. The two figures shrugged and ambled off into the crowd like a pair of tourists.

What the hell was I going to do? Those android frames could pull apart a tank with their bare hands and now there were two of them! They were going to stroll to the spaceport, vanish leisurely into the Webway and start a stereo symphony of horror and blood. Even if, by some miracle, I managed to destroy one frame, Shto's consciousness would just shift over to the other. Perhaps it was time to give up. I'd sacrificed so much so far. I didn't have to keep going.


Goddamn it, I thought to myself. It looked like I was going to try anyway.

What could I do, though? Somehow I knew that forcing my way down the streets towards the city's centre wouldn't work, that cutting across the city's segments wouldn't work and that even trying the ring road round the circumference wouldn't work. There were just too many people; everything was too slow. Even the unlocked riot van parked two streets over couldn't make headway through this chaos. There were many ways to get through this crowd and none of them was fast enough.

A terrible thought struck me. I just needed to get rid of all of the people.

Funnily enough, I didn't feel rushed. Shto knew that he was virtually indestructible and would take his time getting to the spaceport. I could take my time too: after all, once I caught up with him, I'd be dead seconds later. Tonight would be my last night.

I reached the ring road, ignored by everyone. Tonight was full of joy and celebration and I would end all of that. For a good reason certainly, but I doubted anyone would appreciate it.
I walked to the perimeter fence. The closer I got, the stronger the smell of jungle got: rotting vegetation, damp earth and a disquietingly alien undertone. Something huge and bulky crashed through the trees ahead in the inky blackness, uttering a rumbling, guttural rasp. I couldn't see what it was - the brightly blinking lights of the repulsor nodes on top of the poles were spoiling my night vision – but that was probably for the best.

Well, then.

I raised my pistol with my mechanical arm and shot a few rounds into the closest node. Its side exploded out in a shower of sparks and it went dark.

One by one, I picked off all the nodes within range until I'd disabled an entire hundred metre stretch of the perimeter.
I waited. There was a hiss in the darkness, soft at first then louder and louder until it filled the world.

I waited.

Klaxons and speakers started shrieking everywhere through the city.

“Alert!” it shouted. “Perimeter breach! Please evacuate to civic protection bunkers immediately!”

I heard the music across the city peter out; the pace of fireworks sputtered to a halt. Everyone was listening intently.

“Alert!” it repeated. “This is not a drill! This is a Category A emergency. Please evacuate to your nearest civic bunker immediately!”

The screams started. People knew what that meant, what was coming out of the jungle.

They'd be fine. Most of the buildings in the city had bunkers built into the basements. They'd be fine as long as they weren't near anything electrical which would enrage the beasts. They'd all be fine. Probably.

The sound of crashing amongst the trees grew louder. There were different pitches of snarls and growls now as the things in the dark headed for the breach in the fence. It sounded like there were a lot of them.

I wasn’t planning on being there to welcome them. I turned and fled as a huge shape loomed in front of the fence, blocking out a sizeable chunk of the night sky. By the time something had howled and flattened the sparking repulsor post, I’d found a small red car, abandoned by its owner when the alert started. When I revved its electric motor, there was a roar behind me like something was experiencing excruciating pain. I didn’t dare look back.

The city itself was eerily quiet. The roads I sped along where silent and full of nothing but drifts of foil streamers scraping along the tarmac. The sirens had been shut off along with most of the city's electricity; patches of darkness were spreading throughout the city in an attempt to limit the serpents' damage, but it hadn’t helped. There had been an almighty crash as the building closest to the breach had been shattered by something huge and angry. I wondered if these things might be smarter than everyone thought. Perhaps they remembered being antagonised by the city's electricity and were seeking revenge.

It didn’t matter; I had my own problems to deal with. One of those massive slithering shapes was following me as I sped along the silent, empty roads. I could hear the hissing snarl glide closer and closer. My mouth went dry.

Please, I begged whatever deity was listening, just let me catch Shto and let this be over.

Tarmac cracked under the thing's weight. Closer and closer until it was all I could hear.

I risked a glance behind me. Glittering blue eyes glowed at me out of the darkness: malevolent and maybe even intelligent and closer with every second. The vast shadowy mass of its bulk writhed behind it, but those eyes never shifted their unblinking gaze from me.

I checked the speedometer on the little electric car: it was going as fast as it could, but it wasn't going to be enough.

With a roar like an exploding volcano, the beast struck. I had just enough time to leap from the car before a tail as thick as a tree trunk smashed down through its roof. The rest of the beast wasn't far behind; the car detonated into razor sharp splinters which rained around me as I rolled and scraped along the road. My pistol fell from my jacket and slid away into the darkness. The car's electric motor, damaged capacitors sparking wildly, crashed down next to me.

The beast shrieked in discomfort and attacked again. The force was enough to pummel the motor two feet into the road, shattering it into chunks. It was all happening inches from my face; I could smell the disquietingly alien stench seeping off glinting scales the size of dinner plates.

Once the motor was utterly pulverised, the beast turned its massive head to look at me. I froze. Those glittering eyes looked into me with scrutiny that only intelligence could have given it. Their shade of blue was exactly the same as I'd seen in a tiny statue a long time ago, I realised, and in an old, scarred man's eyes. Even the weird gleam was the same. It was paralysing. I wasn't even going to be able to flinch when it attacked me.

Suddenly, the eyes withdraw and the monster slid away. I was alone, lying on the road. It was only then that I started to shake.

Before I'd even been allowed the indulgence of going into shock, someone was shouting at me.

“Are you crazy?” they yelled from somewhere. “Get inside!”

I lifted my head. I was maybe one hundred metres from the spaceport. One of the guards was shouting at me, so worried that she'd actually left her post and moved down the entrance steps. She slung his rifle and beckoned frantically.

“Get in here!” she shouted. “Hurry!”

I hauled myself upwards. Shto would be here soon. I couldn't see my pistol anywhere, but it was next to useless anyway. Punching through the Shto twins' military-grade armour would take something a bit more specialised.

I limped slowly over to the spaceport's entrance. This time, all of the lights were off and the sickly green glow spilling out of the surface came from dozens of low-tech glowsticks scattered everywhere. It seemed that even the guardians of the Webway were frightened of the things that slithered in Pythia's jungles.

“Didn't you hear the alert?” she said, reaching for my shoulder. I punched her hard in the face.

She fell heavily to the ground, but I caught her rifle before it followed suit. It would do nicely, I thought as I hefted it. Modern and powerful.

Her colleague gaped. No-one ever messed with Webway security. There were planets off the public Way where they put the people who did, bad places. Places where they'd dump you and you'd never see sunlight again. Places where the local plant life regarded the human body as a castle to be invaded. Places filled with the bones of lost souls. Today, all that meant was they weren't prepared for someone like me.

“Run,” I said. “Don't look back.”

The man dropped his rifle and ran like the devil was at his heels but before I could move to collect it, the Shto pair rounded the corner.

“Ah... good evening again, Constable,” the lead figure said before I shot him in the head.

It collapsed to the ground, sparking spasmodically through the fist-sized hole. I was done with talking.

“Hyperkinetic slugs? Very smart, Constable!” the other one called as it dodged behind a building. Was that what I was firing at him? All I knew now was a burning hatred to rip and tear and bludgeon and burn him until he was dead. It felt like my motives should be more complex, but they weren't anymore. I wanted him to die and I wanted him to suffer while he did it.

I stepped out onto the street. The frame I'd shot down had stopped twitching finally; now the entirety of Shto's warped mind in his remaining body. The second he showed his face again, I'd put a bullet straight between his eyes.

“Don't you want to know where your partner's head is?” Shto mocked from the shadows. “Let's bargain!”

I fired at the voice, blowing a chunk out of the wall.

“Isn't that what your one woman crusade is about?” he called. “Put down the gun and I'll tell you.”

I fired again. Chunks of brick and plumes of dust rose into the air.

“Suit yourself,” Shto said and stepped out under a street light. “Take your best shot.”

With an ecstasy I barely thought possible, I shot him squarely in the chest.

The shot ricochetted off. He took a step back but was still standing.

“Adaptive armour,” he said. “Lovely stuff.”

I shot him again. This time, he didn't even step back.

“My turn now, I think,” he said and started sprinting.

I turned to the spaceport and ran. He should've caught me in seconds, but whatever his armour had done slowed him down. I almost made it inside before he grabbed my arm.

“I've stopped enjoying killing recently,” the metal death mask smiled. “But I think you're going to be something rather special.”

He wrenched at my good arm and I went sailing through air. I had enough time to stupidly wonder what had happened before I crashed back onto the floor and slid into the wall with an agonising smack. My prosthetic arm bent and broke under my weight and the rifle skittered away across the floor. Shto followed after me, each step of the armoured frame a hammer blow on the floor's neat tiles.

“In a strange way, I think I know you better than anyone else,” he said, reaching down and grabbing me, “though I'm sure this is the first time we've met face to face. It is, isn't it?”

I opened my mouth to reply, but he threw me up the stairs to the waiting area. I had just enough time to bring my arm in front of my face before I smashed through the glass doors.
Shto followed closely. I started to crawl along the long rows of seats, leaving a broad bloody trail behind me from dozens of wounds from broken glass. I couldn't get enough grip with one hand to even contemplate standing. It was all too slow.

“I feel like you've put up more of a fight than your partner,” he said, daintily stepping around the blood. “Again, I don't know why I think that. You got off one good shot and now...this...At least he put up a fight! This is just sad...”

I didn't know what I was thinking anymore. Just get away, bind my wounds and think. There must be heavy weapons somewhere else in the building. Anything to stop the festival ending like this.

I'd almost made it to the next room when I felt a steel hand grip my ankle.

“I...” I managed before Shto threw me through the window down to the spaceport's passport control. The glass broke; I bled more; something snapped in my chest. I cried out, but there was nothing in the world but pain. Even hope had fled. It felt like there'd always been a trick I could play before, some ruse, but there was nothing now but weary resignation in my mind. Yes, I wouldn't be going to that bar again afterwards, but at least there would be peace finally.

Shto jumped through the window after me, landing gracefully.

“You've always been after your partner's head,” he said as I slithered forward achingly slowly over my blood trail. “If I'd known how much it was going to hurt you, I wouldn't have burned it.”

Like that, a weight lifted from my shoulders. There was nothing to find. I rolled over to look at him. If I hadn't been dying, I might've managed a few defiant words. I managed to blow a bloody bubble in my spit, but that was all.

Shto gently placed his foot on my throat. I heard millions of nanoscale electric motors whirring as he carefully judged the amount of force required to cause me discomfort.

He seemed to be trying to think of some pithy final line before he crushed my throat. The moment stretched on and on. Eventually, he shrugged.

“I guess...goodbye?” was all he managed before the wall exploded in a fury of rubble and twisted metal.

The great bulk of a Pythian serpent roared through the breach. Smaller than the one I'd seen before, it was still screaming in pain at the weak electrical fields generated by Shto's robotic frame. The great head with its gleaming blue eyes reared up over us. For the first time, I could see one of their mouths as it yawned open, full of ringed teeth as cruelly curved as scimitars.

“I...” Shto said.

The beast struck like a hurricane. With the last of my strength, I rolled out of the way as the great ripping mouth descended on Shto. That sleek frame, a metallic sculpture of a Greek god, vanished inside its maw, smashed into the ground. I blacked out, just in time to see the weakened structure of the spaceport starting to come down in lumps, like meteors of divine wrath. The whole world shrank to one small dark dot before even that winked out.

I didn't expect to wake up again.

There was a pain in my arm. The missing one. A tearing pain in the stump that was gradually joined by a chorus of other complaints from every joint in my body. I opened my eyes slowly with the amount of effort it'd take most people to scale a mountain.

A doctor was looking at me over the top of her medical mask. She had worried eyes and seemed completely human. That seemed very important for some reason. I was laying on a hospital bed that clearly wasn't as comfortable as it was supposed to be: everywhere ached.

How are you feeling?” she said neutrally.

I swallowed dryly.

“We've treated you as best we could after they pulled you out of the rubble,” she explained. “You're lucky to be alive.”

I swallowed again. My arms and legs were struggling to move at all.

“Your friend – the metal man attacked by the snake – he didn't make it. Lots of folks didn't last night. Lots of folks found out the hard way that the breach in the fence wasn't a drill. Lots of body bags down in the morgue. They're still looking into how it happened.”

There was a lot of crying out in the corridor. I tried to sit up, but none of my muscles seemed to be working.

“We've had some difficulty treating you,” the doctor continued, flipping through her clipboard. “There are a lot of inaccuracies in your medical records for one. They don't mention the artificial arm, they don't mention your extensive scars and they even get your eye colour wrong – they say it's brown!”

“My eyes are brown,” I eventually croaked.

The doctor shrugged.

“They're not,” she corrected me. “They're a really odd shade of blue. Very unique. I'd love to know the clinic where you had them grown.”

She made a note on the clipboard and started to leave. She turned back at the door from the room.

“Oh,” she said. “You had a visitor. I told him to go because you were still unconscious, but he insisted on leaving something for when you woke. In case there was anything that needed fixing, he said.”

She pointed with her stylus at my bedside table, at a small object. I turned my head painfully. It was a small statuette of a snake with piercing blue eyes, which stared at me intently as I reached over and picked it up.

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