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What the eye wants to see

It was too late. Probably it had always been too late.

But that was a lie, meant to console me, and today I could not console myself with lies.

I sat on the floor, his note in my hand, as the radio played on. I’d always hated that jaunty tune with its relentless, hectoring optimism. He’d always loved it. How had I forgotten that? I mean, in twenty years, yes, of course I could forget, but not that day, the day I found his note and the money wrapped inside it.

Don’t do it tomorrow, he’d scrawled.

… tomorrow, tomorrow, tomorrow … mocked the radio.

I’d been furious. A bribe to stop me going, when he had gone himself? How dare he interfere?

I’d stuffed his money in a charity box before I’d calmed down. But when I had calmed down, and decided that if he cared so much I should take his advice, a tiny corner of my mind – the corner that had been too terrified to buy the tickets – had been too relieved to consider any alternative meanings.

I never saw him again.

And now the note and the radio together, and now that it really was too late I understood.

“That was Don’t Wait Until Tomorrow,” the announcer informed me perkily.

And I wept.

I wrote this, oh, ages ago, for Visdare. I typed it up on a Tuesday night, editing as I went, and got it down to 148 just in time for my computer to freeze up … so here’s the long cut, and be told, kids – save as you go. 

Oh, and the story? That came because when I first glanced at the prompt I read ‘Don’t walk’.

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Behind These Walls – a Human 76 story


Old bonds were fading, and new peoples were forming, settled peoples able to defend their own, nomad peoples inured to loss, all manner of peoples. There would always be Searchers amongst them, all the same, as long as there were people such as the Prometheans to prey upon the weak.

… but Ghabrie is not weak, and when her sister is torn away from her she is determined to search until they are reunited. That’s the premise of Human 76, a multi-author shared-world anthology now available in paperback and as an ebook.

It has been an honour to be involved in this project, and to watch it to develop into the fine thing it has become. You can find out a lot more about its origins and development and about the other authors involved here, and you can find out more about Water is Life, the charity the anthology supports, here, so I’ll talk a little bit about Chrissy Finch and Behind These Walls.

Chrissy is old enough to remember a time when things were otherwise, but since the world changed she has lived in the Tour, a trading post at the mouth of the Barrantine Pass. Her exposure to the world beyond the safe walls of her community has been limited to her interaction with the guests who pass through. It has been her duty to harvest information any way she can, and she has been successful enough in her way, except when it comes to Glint, with whom

She had tried cunning, she had tried wheedling, she had blazed at him in fury that he was throwing away what mankind had once been and might yet be again, and at last she had owned her helplessness and asked that others might be sent to deal with him.

Despite this, Glint has become something almost like a friend to her. So when Glint, of all people, is seen in the company of one of the despised so-called Moderns it challenges her perceptions. Can she overcome a lifetime’s prejudice? It’s not looking good.

It was harder to put out of mind a second time, harder to put out of mind now that she had seen Glint treat Lauren as a real girl. Glint, she thought, would have expected her to pass news of Nahria to her sister. Glint could go to hell. Glint was wrong.
She held on to the thought fiercely, but it did not seem to help.


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For a Maiden Fair

The dragon plunged and swooped across a flat grey sky. In the beginning they had watched him eagerly, some in fear and some in wonder, but neither fear nor wonder lasts. For all his speed and majesty he was only a shadow on the subway wall, a shadow cast by a few tattered rags manipulated by an old man as ragged as his puppet.

As the year died his show became longer, the story more thrilling. There were mountains, a castle, a maiden in distress … but the crowd only huddled deeper in their coats, embarrassed for him with his tawdry show, and the few coins that accumulated in his hat were thrown in pity. It might have ended that way, with a whimper, if not for the girl.

On the first day after the end of term her mother had to tug her past the show, and on the second day too, but by the third day she followed obediently, only her eyes lingering.

On the fifth day, the dragon belched fire.

The crowd shrugged. A trick. Clever, but a trick.

On one face there was rapture. That was enough.

He was rolling up his puppet in the empty tunnel when suddenly it wasn’t empty anymore. He huddled back against the wall helplessly as the younger man plucked the dragon from his shaking hands. He fumbled a moment with the wires, remembering the knack of it, and the dragon took flight once more.

“You old fool. Why use fire magic? You could have hidden forever.”

As the dragon swooped, remembering the girl’s radiant smile he said

“You couldn’t understand.”

Even so, his nerve failed him at the end. There was a thin scream, and then nothing but a few scraps of cloth and wire on the subway floor, and a young man striding away.

Something I wrote for Microcosms last week (really, go and see), only a little longer than the official version. What can I say? Brevity was never my strongest suit.

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Don’t stay late

(There was a sour smell I couldn’t quite place.)

I didn’t try real hard; what Sonny had said distracted me. Just, be quick. He hadn’t said why. It really bothered me it bothered me so much. It was crazy.

(That smell, it belonged at school somehow.)

Worrying about a smell on the subway was crazier than worrying about Sonny yanking my chain. He hadn’t wanted to lend me the costume, but I needed to see Karis without being seen out, and who’s going to look twice at some schmuck in a rabbit suit? I’d begged, he’d relented, I’d had it out with Karis. And now here I was, heading home.

(Grade school. The smell that metal rail left on the kids’ sweaty hands.)

And that was craziest of all, because the suit had gloves.

I flexed a paw, twitched my nose, and went back to brooding about Karis.

I thought this was going to be whimsical, but it came out rather on the dark side. I should know better than to be surprised at where Visdare takes me.

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Never to be yours

“Dr Shaw?”

His voice startled her, and her hand slipped. She swore softly and set the trowel aside. Here he came, blond curls and an earnest smile, the same boy she had met so long ago on the field of Bosworth. She had only been a post-grad then. He had been an uncertain appendage to his wealthy father, inspecting the work that his grant had funded, and for the sake of his uncertainty, and of that bewitching smile, she had let him push the barrow that she could have pushed herself.

That had been her first mistake. As he toiled towards her she wondered if she was about to make another. He hadn’t been supposed to find her here, and she wasn’t ready to face him. She had no faith in her resistance if she must face that boyish smile unprepared. Seeking some cause for offence to stiffen her resolve she demanded

“Why the formality?”

“I think I’ve lost the right to Rosalie.”

And there was that smile, and his halting charm, and she was falling once more. She knew where that led, but before she could find an answer he had rushed on

“I’d like to earn that right again. Lunch?”

“No.” It came out harshly, but she had to take that line. She’d tried to be his girl, to hang off his arm in fancy restaurants; it hadn’t worked.

Crestfallen, he swung the bag from his shoulder, and as he opened it she saw flasks and soft bread rolls.

“I got it wrong before, I know. I thought, lunch here? At your place?”

She gave in to the smile that had been fighting for control of her features from her first glimpse of him. She could never be his girl. He could perhaps learn to be her boy.

This was inspired by Microcosm a few weeks ago (the prompt was to involve a doctor in a battlefield romance). I cheated, and in any caseit was – you’ll never guess – far too long.

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John found her in the small attic where she kept her equipment, the painting propped in front of her.

“I thought that had gone?”

“They’ll not be taking this week.”

But not, he noted, they can’t; she was honest even in her perks. He stepped behind her for a squarer view, but it didn’t recommend itself to him any more than at first glance.

“What’s it say to you?”

Her interest was usually in technique, not substance. He was a little surprised when she said “Death’s-head symbology? You know this stuff better than me. Repentance, loyalty, concepts of honour.” After a pause she added, as if changing the subject “I’ll take whatever work Francis has for me, if McAllister agrees it.”

He left her contemplating shadows, and he left her sadly. He had wondered why his father had sent her after that piece. He thought now that perhaps he knew.

Twice in a week? And a return from Kathryn Blake, as well? Take it as a good omen …

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A trick of the light

“Vanitas,” she said, with the irritability she had been trying to mask all afternoon finally breaking through, “is only supposed to include an intimation of mortality. There should be flowers, ‘n fruit, ‘n … stuff.”

She finished with an airy wave of one elegant hand, her bubblegum persona firmly re-established, but she couldn’t recall the fault, and I was glad I to have seen the slip; I was going to be working with her a lot, and I preferred the sharper version.

I moved to her side to view the piece straight on, a huge pewter bowl of roses, so far into bloom that the petals looked as if they would start to drop at the slightest breeze. It was well executed but artistically uninteresting, and veiled by a layer of varnish thick enough and discoloured enough to make a conservator weep. From this angle I could no longer see the odd brushwork that was the only indicator, to my eyes, of the image that for her obscured the roses. I had seen it only once, under special lighting, and I shuddered at the thought. She saw it, and her polite concern gave me the opening to say

“I was just wishing our founder had come up with a less spine-chilling test – though it would only be half the test if he had.”

No surprise, no eagerness. Barely even interest, though she had dropped her vapid mask again. I held her gaze for a moment, thinking to force her to ask, but she got the better of that exchange. The best I could do was make her wait until I had ushered her towards the inner door before I continued.

“There is natural variation on all things, of course, and that painting is an eye test. The image that you saw demonstrates that you can see the barest fraction further into the infra red than average. Not even enough to notice, except that some types of radiators may have a faint lambency to you.”

“But this is useful to you?”

She was sceptical. I love sceptics, but I can’t resist teasing them at this point in the induction.

“Only if it’s combined with a tendency not to be freaked out easily.”

She didn’t rise to it, and her step didn’t falter.

“That’s the second element of the test.”

There wasn’t even the hint of a question in it, and as I stepped through the door, trusting her to follow, I wondered how much it hurt her to maintain that dizzy mask of hers. There was a relief in the thought. Too often my job felt like kidnapping. This time it felt like a rescue, and I knew I was really going to enjoy working with our latest recruit.

This one comes with a whole slew of apologies. To anyone with more than a nodding acquaintance with biology or physics (I couldn’t bring myself to spoil a neat idea with research: sorry), to Angela Goff (I’ve been away from #VisDare too long, and I still can’t manage brevity: sorry), and to anyone who’s desperate to know where this one’s going (I have no idea either, but I’m open to suggestions: sorry).

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