The airships were huge. They looked taller than your classic old-timey airships, and they had a very sleek, integrated design. There wasn’t a gondola under a balloon, it was more like the two had merged.
Blue and green lights streaked across their surface, which made the shape of it seem to change. Maybe it really did change and they were using technology the public weren’t aware of.
None of them were moving, which was probably just as well since we were indoors, but the way they hung in the air was unreal.
Huge lights shone down on us, making it hard to see too far up, but the ships were stacked on top of each other for quite some distance. I wasn’t sure how far down we’d come, but I had to be looking into the body of the building. Which meant the whole thing was hollow, apart from the top floor or two.
Was the idea to let them float up and then through a portal into another world? It would make it easier to keep the whole thing secret but it did seem an extraordinary length to go to. Which probably meant there was more to it.
Lillian was staring up, as bemused by the sight as I was. Orion was watching me. Around him, there were dozens of people scurrying about, dressed in overalls and wearing safety helmets. There really should have been a giant clock counting down to Doomsday.
“Allow me to show you around,” said Orion. “This way.”
We were here now, might as well take the tour. He took us to a table with hats and goggles on it and gave us both a helmet. Safety first. We followed him to a large staircase, like the ones at airports to get in the planes, only a lot, lot longer. It was an escalator, steps constantly moving. He got on and we followed.
“How many of them are there?” I asked him, looking around.
“Ships? Eighteen, at the moment.” He seemed a little nervous but my assessment was that he thought he could still work this situation into a win for him and his conglomerate of intergalactic corporate raiders.
“Your plan is to go over there with an invasion force and take over?” I said, scratching at my chin like I was considering the merits of this approach. Couple of F-15s might have been the better option than a fleet of Goodyear blimps.
“Our plan,” said Orion, “is to get Peter. After that, we haven’t made a decision.”
I pointed up at the airship. “This looks like a pretty firm decision.”
“We are preparing for all eventualities. Once we have the gate technology perfected, we don’t know what else we’ll have to deal with. As you saw earlier, you aren’t the only one who can travel between worlds. We have to be ready to defend ourselves.”
What he meant was they had to be prepared to use the traditional winning tactic of attacking first and justifying it later. I could see the temptation. Use all the knowledge and experience garnered from ten thousand years of human history perfecting the art of doing horrible shit to people weaker than you, and take the show on the road.
How many worlds were there out there? How many of them were still using sticks and stones to beat the crap out of each other? We could make a killing.
Should we give them smallpox blankets or hook them on opium? Drop napalm on their kids or put them in internment camps?
I had no idea what the universe considered reasonable behaviour but I was sure our export business would give them pause for thought. George Lucas was right, galactic wars are all about trade embargoes.
We reached the doors (more of a hole in the side) onto gangplanks that looked like metal, but made hardly any sound when you stepped on them. Plastic or some other man-made material. It was transparent, you could see through it, all the way down.
He led us through the ship which was still being constructed. People drilled and hammered and did buildery things. It was oddly quiet as they zipped and zapped and slotted things together. I think the whole thing may have come out of a 3D printer one piece at a time and then was assembled like an Ikea closet.
There were rows and rows of cubicles on either side of us, about the right size for a person to lie in. Either for troops or a very high-altitude Japanese-style love hotel. Hundreds of spaces in just this part of the ship.
“This is for an army,” said Lillian. “You want to be conquerors.”
“No, no,” said Orion. “And please don’t repeat that in public.”
“Or what?” said Lillian, like she had to ask.
“Or I’m afraid we’ll be forced to take legal action,” said Orion. Not the sort of threat I was expecting him to make, but fair enough. You don’t have to chop someone into pieces down your local embassy if you can get a gag order and get them thrown off social media. Death by irrelevance. “This is actually quite exciting, you’re the first people I’ve been able to show this off to. Here, let me show you the bridge.”
He led us through more walkways to an area that looked like a squash court. There was no furniture, just a bunch of levers built into the wall where a large opening looked out, like a window without any glass.
“It’s very basic at the moment,” said Orion. “No computers or anything like that.”
He pulled a lever, a simple tug and we started to very slowly move up. It was hard to tell if it was just us, the whole ship or the other ships were moving down. It was incredibly smooth.
“Still needs a lot of work, as you can see, but the engines are online. It’s quite fun, isn’t it? Like a carnival ride. No weapons, nothing like that. Very little fuel, too. Mostly solar. That’s why we need all the big lights, artificial sunlight.”
“So,” I said, “your plan is to send troops over there, set up shop like the old East India Company, and ship back valuable stuff you find. Something like that?”
“No, please, you’re jumping to conclusions,” said Orion. “As I said, there are no fixed plans as of yet. We don’t plan to go anywhere. It’s this world we need to secure and make inhabitable first.”
“And if you can’t?” It occurred to me that maybe I was looking at this wrong. Things were pretty borked on Earth. Climate change and overpopulation, too many wannabe dictators and too many people with access to nukes.
It had to be very hard to maintain any sort of unfair advantage. It wasn’t like the old days when the Spanish said, “Bagsie this way,” and the Portuguese said, “Okay, we’ll take this way.”
But with a brand new world all to yourself, you could establish yourself and lock everyone out of the game.
Orion, from my perspective, wasn’t afraid of me. He didn’t respect me or admire me or even like me. What he was doing was feeling me out.
The longer he got to be around me, the better the chance he’d have to figure out my vulnerabilities. There was no way he was going to accept I was the guy in charge and become my bitch. All this polite regard and acquiescing to my demands was just a means to an end, and added more fuel to the fire. The fire that would eventually be unleashed once he felt he had the upper hand.
They had never encountered anyone like me, so this was just recon. And if he could butter me up into thinking I was Mr Big Stuff, get me overconfident and strutting around like a cock, so much the better. It’s always easier to take someone down when they wrongly believe in their own superiority, their own untouchability.
I was only too happy to oblige. It’s even easier to take someone down when they wrongly believe you’ve fallen for their bullshit.
“And what about Duncan? Where does he fit into this?”
“I’m sorry…” said Orion. “Duncan?”
I looked at Lillian, who had said very little so far. Everyone was playing the waiting game to see who would blink first.
There was Lillian, there was Duncan. There was the Council of Four and there was Orion. They were all after the same thing, more or less. If I was a smart boy, I could probably work out a way to get them to turn on each other.
But I wasn’t a smart boy, I was a lazy boy, and that sounded exhausting.
These people wanted access to the world I had come from. Their relationships to each other may have been quite complex, built on mistrust and deep-seated enmity but, to me, they were all the same, all equally annoying.
And they would be equally happy to put aside their differences, for a little while, to join forces against me.
Me against them, one versus one. Seemed fair.
“Lillian works for a man called Duncan — big guy, American, obscenely rich, you know, like you — and he’s also offered me whatever I want to show him where to find the Yellow Brick Road. If you don’t know who he is, I suggest you find out, and sort it before things get messy.”
“There are probably quite a few people interested in this matter,” said Orion. “That’s why we must be as discreet as possible.” He gave Lillian a look. She gave him a look back.
“And he’s also working on genetically modified food,” I added. Lillian’s look shot in my direction. “Coincidence?”
“Are you trying to get me killed?” said Lillian. “I haven’t been giving away any company secrets.”
“You think he doesn’t already know about your boss?” I said.
“He isn’t my boss,” said Lillian. “And neither is he.” She pointed at Orion.
“You’re a free agent?” I asked. “The LeBron James of short psychics? What’s next for you? The Utah Jazz?”
“I’m keeping my options open,” said Lillian. “Which you’re making very hard.” Lillian grabbed my arm and pulled me closer. “I have a bad feeling.”
“Me too,” I said. “It usually starts when I wake up and stops when I fall asleep. Actually, it tends to reemerge when I’m dreaming, but those two hours either side of REM sleep, best part of my day.”
“I mean it. This place. I recognise it. This is where I die.” Lillian took on a suitably dramatic pose. It was an Oscar-worthy performance, but Marisa Tomei Oscar, where you accept it but you don’t quite understand it.
“You foresaw your own death? Bit stupid coming here, then.” It was clearly a tense moment so I was going easy on her.
“I didn’t know it was going to be here until I saw it,” she said.
We were in a weird plastic room that didn’t look like much of anything. I could see how it would be hard to identify this place from a photograph or a vision.
“But you don’t know when, do you?” I said. “It could be here but next week or next year. Or it could be one of the other ships.” I pointed through the window at the dirigibles floating past outside. “I bet they look exactly the same inside.”
“It was here, this place, now.” She sounded very sure of herself. “It was just like this. Exactly. This is it.”
“Okay, well, I guess this is goodbye. It’s been swell.” I didn’t really believe her. Or I didn’t care, one of the two.
“You have to find Jenny. In my office, there’s a ball in my desk.”
“A crystal ball?” I asked.
“It’s made of crystal, yes, but it’s not what you—”
“Okay, fine,” I said. “Do you have any last words?” I was guessing she had a speech all prepared, so the quicker the better.
“I was about to ask you the same thing,” said Orion. He was holding a gun. An actual gun.
“Is that a real gun?” I said to make doubly sure. “I mean, I know you’re American and everything, but there aren’t any school children here so I’m not sure who you’re planning to shoot.”
“I’m sorry about this,” he said, “I really am. I have no choice, unfortunately. Orders.”
“You do remember I can heal myself, right?”
“Not from this,” said Orion. He sounded pretty confident. “It’s a special bullet made just for you. It took us a while to get hold of your DNA and create the genetic poison that will attach itself to every cell in your body, but I assure you it will do the job.”
I looked at Lillian. “You couldn’t have mentioned this was going to happen?”
“If you know too much you might change the future.”
“Good,” I said. “It’s been fucking terrible so far. Are you sure it’s not her you want to kill? She had a vision about it and everything.”
“I don’t want to kill anyone,” said Orion. “Don’t worry, it will only sting. It’s your body we need, you see. Please try to fall without bruising anything.”
So far, whenever someone had tried to stick something in me, I’d gone into transubstantiate mode. He knew that. How was he planning to stop the bullet going through me?
“I know what you’re thinking,” said Orion, “but that’s why I haven’t fired yet. We need to put you in the right light.”
He pulled the lever again and the ship had stopped moving. A light went on from somewhere above, like a stadium floodlight. Suddenly, I was bathed in light. I could feel it on me. Not a warm glow like sunlight, I could physically feel it, the way you feel water hitting you in the shower. It was quite pleasant. I also felt very heavy, rooted to the spot.
“You can’t move and you can’t change.” Orion lifted the gun. “Again, apologies.” He pulled the trigger. The gun went pfft.
Lillian leapt in front of me to take the bullet for me, like a fucking idiot. I’d seen it coming, and I wasn’t even psychic. I kicked her in the leg so she fell on her face. At the same time, I grabbed the light — it was solid in my hand — and pulled it in front of me. If it was solid, it would act like a shield.
That’s not quite what happened. It wasn’t a bullet, it was a dart. It hit the light and stuck there. A black liquid oozed out into the white curtain I was holding.
More darts hit the wall of light. Orion looked panicked. He was backing away as he fired. Not sure where he was going. His gun clicked empty.
It was weird holding onto a beam of light. It was solid and real, but also light and flexible. I pulled on it, hard.
There was no weight, no resistance. It was big and bright, but it was still light and light doesn’t weigh anything. That’s why they call it light.
A loud creaking sound was followed by a whoosh as an enormous lamp fell out of the sky, or wherever it had been placed. It fell past us, about the size of four-wheel jeep suitable for a hairdresser, single but looking, and smashed into the top of the airship below us.
The ship buckled in the middle, some sort of gas shot out, and the airship plummeted downwards at greater than terminal velocity. I watched it hit the ground and explode, sending up a fireball, but only a small one. Hollywood exaggerates everything (apart from the extent of their paedophile problem).
Next two chapters are up now on Patreon.Afterword from Mooderino