The Unreality Pearl
"There's a rift in time; not very big, but wide enough to fast-track an egg-shaped thing back a century."
"Do you not want it Erica?" said the 40-year-old bearded man.
The girl shook her head and fought back the tears. Her dad had been trying for years to get her to come to a fireworks display, and each time she refused.
"I dinny wan' it!" she cried.
He supposed it was wise that kids were scared of fire, but for so long?
Erica huddled with her mother as a volley of firecrackers lit the night sky.
"Aw come on. Let's get some baked spuds."
In the burning embers of the fire, a pearl spat onto the ground and rolled past her feet.
Looking around, she knelt down a pocketed the glowing gem, expecting it to burn her hand.
It was icy cold.
She smiled and held her dad's hand tightly.
In the distance they could hear a pianist playing a simple melody.
A wave of happiness washed over six-year-old Erica. Suddenly her future seemed bright.
Unknown to her, she would keep the bauble for a year, and lose it for 33.
One light year away
The tree was one of the few growths on the asteroid, far away in negative space.
Its branches weren't particularly alien, but their seeds were.
Inside one of the pods was life, humanoid life, although at this point it was merely embryonic, the germ was there.
Mothered by the one tree, fathered by the fertile asteroid. In the cosmic wind the branches blew.
Into space it was launched. A seed in the cosmic streams.
"What is it Red?" Master of the Rock asked her.
"You sent Kate on a mission to Earth?"
"I did," the tree nodded her branches. A flutter of electricity passed down the branch which held her. She felt its comfort.
"It's failed Omrar; she's been diverted to..."
"The Grimland campaign!?"
"Yes," she replied.
"Koyazki must be preparing for war."
"The conflict is imminent. I must help her."
"I’ve not wanted to involve anyone else, but he must be contacted."
"I will go, if it will help her."
"It will be dangerous; there is a chance you could be destroyed."
Red held her head down, and still felt her friend's pain.
"I must go," she said.
Omrar the tree guardian thought for a while and sent a comforting electric pulse to Red.
"Find Aibork, build the prism condenser. That will access Grimland. From there it's down to you."
"The Ice Lord may help if you can find him. Reports were sketchy after the last campaigns."
Red was impatient to get started.
"I'm ready," she said.
"You have all you need. I'll give you his whereabouts when you need them. Luck be with you."
"Thanks," she said and felt a wave of sadness wash over her as she saw the tree through her translucent shell.
Lightning flashed from between tree and pod. The other pods wished her well with an empathic charge.
Energy was combined in the lightning blast, and soon she was drifting away from the rock, the tree and her friends.
The rock was soon just an asteroid in space, and the gulf swallowed Red. She could just make out the pinprick of light in the distance, a blue-white dwarf flickered remotely in the void, but it spelled hope for her as the seed sailed on the solar winds.
’If knowledge is power, it was inevitable an Infowar would be fought at some point in the run up to The Slime War.
Yes, it was a silly name for a conflict, but its ferocity was not dulled by its comical moniker.’
Will Aibork was a boy when the Infowar began in the 2040s. His dad bought a PC and when he was four, and moved on to a weightier computer, leaving his son and a half exhausted machine.
Will took the device, and converted it with his old spelling toy into something with a little more bite.
The PC was converted eight times that year, salvaged radios and bits of computer stuck on, grafted into its circuits to provide a little more power.
Aibork’s dad, a pc repair man, was alarmed by the rate of his son's growth at the console, and his easy grasp at the complex software.
He thought of Huxley gone mad as they looked upon his offspring and coldly embraced a brave new world. And a brave new set of rules.
’The Infowar was born out of paranoia, greed, and oppression.
The Tomorrow War followed The Corporate War, which followed The Design War and The Sales Campaigns.
Victims were the companies, small defenceless units which succumbed to the firepower of the big guns in New York, Tokyo and Amsterdam.
The ammunition was subtle, flash frame adverts which the smaller companies couldn't afford; banned subliminal messages reared their ugly head again when a member of US Government was persuaded to rethink the bill which led to their rebirth.’
Across space, a gelatinous being monitored reports from Earth. Over seven generations the creature had grown to his present size. A great vat of his body undulated, refracting light from beneath himself. His single bloodshot eye regarded a photo of his late wife and shed a tear.
In a canyon on the moon, surrounded by igneous rock, the pod lay dormant. Buried on the satellite since 1980, it waited.
If inanimate things did wait. The time was coming when its owner would call, and it would go running.
In the distance, Jupiter's red eye watched over Earth. Bloodshot. Patient. Angry.
’During the Infowar, slowly, methodically the adverts reappeared. In the tabloids littered with adverts, the messages hidden in photos of wood and steel, sex, death and prosperity. Etched into the grain of the advert, miniscule bites of information that the brain stored and inspired urges at a later date.
They took hold of television, the ’net, cinema and Blu-ray too, grasping the power bit in their teeth and riding that media horse to the finishing line.
The casualties were great and the big league boys survived with mere scratches.
The casualties - the banks - put their heads down and ran with the crowd, like a bunch of rugby players huddled against the opposition, crushing the miniscule little firms for pole position on the market.’
New York, Central Park
The streets were just beginning to fill with traffic as the trashman arrived in the alley with his bin. Carefully he lowered it down and looked to the sky, checking his watch at the first rays of winter sun light.
There was a pause and he breathed out a lung full of warm air. A cat screeched in the distance, and he tapped his foot.
Koyazki sat at the dinner table looking at the figures for his company's profit. The curve increased sharply in favour of the millions increments and he smiled happily in the knowledge.
His wife, an elderly woman, sat to his left; his daughter a striking beauty, middle-aged, but nevertheless still a looker, drank her soup.
Koyazki nodded to his aid who removed the chart. “Trouble?” Ishima Koyazki enquired.
“Good news, the company is stable and rising.” He said.
“I'm happy. You've worked hard this year Yukio.”
The couple ate their dinner, content in the knowledge their empire was secure. His daughter, Orion was less sure.
Word on the street told of a revolution in information supply and demand caused by a rebel faction.
Yukio carved a generous helping of turkey and handed the bird to his wife and daughter.
Orion smiled and accepted the food. She was troubled by a man who had tried to kill her father, his name was unknown and largely irrelevant, but the attempt had disturbed her.
Something in his eyes had told her he would try again, and if he didn't, someone else would.
“You all right Orion?”, he asked as she toyed idly with the meat.
“It's nothing”, she said.
“Orion,” he laboured the name, inflecting the desire for an answer.
That was months ago, and they say he's dead now.
“He worried me.”
“Eat your dinner child.”
She resented the word child, it threatened her maturity.
Where was he? The man with the Fedora and the rain coat? She swore she would find him, and when she did she would make him suffer in the ways he thought were unimaginable.
’In the battlefields of Wall Street, the most powerful commodity was software.
At the start of the information offensive there was a saying: ’As long as we have our dreams we have hope’, Another favourite was: ’Somewhere over the rainbow, dreams come true.’
The popularity of the sayings were common in the morale boosters in a time of decaying moral values. Psychologists noted the effect of easily available ’retina nasties’ as the destruction of the fabric of society.
As the threads of decency were slowly but surely unravelled, the fabric came loose and the world descended into a dark age as the Greeks and Romans had claimed thousands of years before.’
"Are you ready yet?"
"Can't find my comb!"
"It's in the dresser drawer, hurry up!"
Aibork opened the drawer and inside was the yellow comb. He began to brush his locks into some sort of order.
"I'll get the car."
"Okay," He replied.
They were a wealthy couple; Aibork a stockbroker on Wall Street; Ellen an art director for one of the upmarket fashion glossies.
Young, successful and wealthy, the party was the launch of a new book by the Japanese artist Koyazki.
They were eventually ready and on their way.
In the Whitehouse, the 33-year-old President Wells watched a monitor: a fuzzy image of a creature, undulating. Unearthly.
It said four words before melting in a sea of static: "My name is Serendaptecles."
He nodded and was debriefed for an hour by some more very serious looking presidential agents.
“You realise that war on two planes could wipe us all out?”
“Koyazki is too powerful over there. He must be stopped.”
The party was boring. Will looked into his vodka; fed up with meeting new and exciting people. Ellen was in her element with them, but he was bored.
The attendees were laughing at a newspaper headline about a homeless man who claimed he’d seen a vision of a giant, one-eyed small intestine.
The headache started around then.
A slight pressure behind the eyes. He suddenly felt queasy. The room started to spin, and he could see a balding man staring at him.
"Fear her with the red hair. She'll burn your soul. Melt it red."
Whether the man actually said the words, or whether he thought they had been said he was unsure. The headache was fierce.
"Are you okay?"
It was John Brogan, a friend of his from years back. "It's just a little migraine. I'll be fine."
Aibork looked up at the man with a bald head. He was on fire.
"Someone help him."
"Help who?" John asked, looking around the room.
"The guy... on fire."
"She'll burn your soul. Burn, baby, burn."
Is that what happened to you?, he thought as the vision disappeared.
His legs were aching, so he went over to the window and looked down the lawn below, shaking a little.
He had no idea he was asleep.
’When the next phase in the offensive occurred, the Credit Wars, people started to notice the effects of this crumbling society and the dissolving of ’the rainbow’ or American dream.
Credit Wars were a symbiotic occurrence. Advertisers in league with the banks persuaded customers to part with their money through continuous barrage of subliminal and mainstream adverts.
The biggest offensive of course came at Christmas when the pressure of the TV and shopfronts was unbearable, and get became a common enough ally in the threat to alleviate the pressure.
The ABC one groups survived intact, but the c2s down were wounded by the barrage from the Symbiotic’s dark cousins, and many men and women died leaving greater debts for their offspring and spouses to pay.
The wounded were legion, and throughout the financial wars, the threads of society started unravelling and fraying like a rope in a Saturday morning serial. The heroine hanging hanging from a cliff on the line, strands withering away the structure of the line, dying from the pressure. Below the cliff beckons.
Society rarely had a handsome hero to save it from the fate. There were no white knights in the darkness has a circular saw cut its way to the heroine.
It would have to face the greedy folly of its instigators and weather the blows. In a vague hope that it survived. If the rope broke that was and whether they were hazardous rocks below was a different matter.
The rainbow would save them, despite its tumours and pollution, it would save the day.
Erica was a paid memory, but the most important thing she had to remember, she forgot. Through the mixup in her childhood she remembered an extraordinary amount of detail from not only her history but others.
Her problem she erased, burying it deep down, she merely remembered vague silhouettes of the beast, an outline of her deadly quandary.’
"Where is he?"
"Haven't seen him."
"He's gone to lie down; was feeling a little sick I think", Brogan interjected between Ellen and the party guest.
"Off to the left, down the corridor."
She left the room to seek him out.
Dominic Clark, the man with the circular wireframe glasses, stepped into Central Park, and checked his stopwatch. An action which had been repeated many many times. He armed the timer and started to jog.
The figure stood in the doorway, her coat over one arm, a shoulder bag over another. Placing the bag on the floor and her coat over the chair, she turned the lamp on.
Light washed Will’s face and he stirred in his sleep. She lit another lamp and the shadows changed again.
A third and the dark of the shadows vanished.
The angel of light went over and kissed him on the forehead. He felt the touch and stirred. The bright lights he felt were just a symptom of his drinking, but the kiss had felt real enough.
"Are you okay?"
"I need some rest."
Will was led into room where the light was soft and a fire burned in the hearth.
He lay back on the sofa and closed his eyes.
The dream came to him like a song, a vision.
A tree on a rock in space; white space, its branches blown by the wind, and those funny looking seeds on the tips of the branches...
What the hell were they?
Aibork turned in his fever-strewn sleep, sweat dripping down his back in rivulets.
Koyazki had a few problems. He was married, although not happily, he had a standard hangups of a man getting on in years; the benefits of an information empire, a beautiful daughter and wife, and friends all over the world. However his greed for power stretched him to breaking point.
Will knew about Koyazki and his secrets; was aware that he needed taking down a peg or two.
The US President and average businessman may have heard of Koyazki, but Aibork was no one, and that's just how he liked it. Somewhere under the radar.
Way down low.
He heard his name, but not from his wife; it was a young woman, 17-years-old.
It was Ellen, she sat on the couch her hands on his shoulder.
"Who are you?" He said in the dream.
"Melt Red. I'm on the way."
The voice was quiet now, Ellen's grew stronger.
"Don't know. Might have flu."
"Were you delirious?"
"Did you have… a vision?"
He said nothing.
One light year away.
The small band of humanoid creatures stood in a circle clapping their three-fingered hands. They removed ear defenders and smiled.
In the centre of the room was a piano, splashed with lavender coloured blood.
“Prepare the ship,” commanded the leader to his army.
As the Co-Marrill approached the great gas giant that was Jupiter, Captain Stone regarded the bloodshot eye.
"Bring us in closer," He told his commander.
"Aye sir, bringing us about," he said.
Stone and the crew secured themselves into their rocking seats as the Co-Marrill entered a gulf of bad space.
“Everything okay sir?”
“Thought I saw something in the spot.”
“We've scanned it sir. Nothing there.”
Stone, a man in his late fifties nodded. Three years he and his crew would be out here. Charting dust and ice. Watching out for stray rocks
“The JacketMen on tour.” He remarked, and his commander smiled.
June 5, 2080
It was exceptionally hot in Washington that summer.
Cycling around the city felt more like an endurance test than a pleasure.
Kate left Capitol Hill and pedalled towards the traffic lights, not bothering to press the button; she knew it was a fake with a spring inside.
A man in his twenties, dark, handsome, slim approached, but said nothing before crossing.
She briefly saw his name tag. Kwaith. Thought it was strange and forgot about it.
Kate ran a hand through her blonde locks and looked to the sky.
Somewhere, up there, an object was heading to Earth which could spell disaster for every living thing on the planet.
A mile away, boxer Gary White clashed in the Potomac ring with a mighty opponent called The Duke. Blood flowed readily as arms were pummelled by his combatant.
White swung his fists this way and that, parrying attacks and hammering into bones and flesh. He fought by the side of the vertical window, his face reflected in the glass.
The fight was almost over when events took a strange turn. The window broke as a dustbin was hurled through the glass.
The Duke dodged the falling object and shards of glass.
“Damn kids!” He chased three of them up the road, but they vanished.
Gary felt a little odd, like déjà vu.
“Strange,” he thought. “This happened before. But not through glass.”
He wondered if it was time to change professions. One too many blows to the head.
Kate cycled halfway across the city to the Lincoln memorial. It was just a shame the Reflecting Pool was still being repaired.
As the boring monotone voice on her MP3 player briefed her, she cycled past the White House and back to her hotel.
"Level two anomalies come in all shapes and forms..." It droned. But then there was a far stranger section which made little sense.
“...slime warriors are an all-consuming darkness which choke the breath from babes and the old, ruin crops and waste the healthy...”
Static. More boring details and then...”It is they who fight and war with the believers, and they whose flayed bodies float in the atmosphere. They will seek revenge on the Almighty Ur Rul.”
Kate stopped and replayed the message. That didn't sound right. She was a little scared.
The lift took an age to arrive, and when it did it took precious minutes to take her back to her room.
Despite the bizarre message, she felt a little flat, like that period after Christmas.
The mission had been off and on so much she didn't know how to feel anymore. Six months of training at NASA and now Kate felt it was for nothing.
Back in her spacious room with two TVs, kitchen unit, huge bed, seating area and writing desk, she activated the tablet on her bed, threw off her clothes and stepped under the shower.
That weird message. Haunting.
Ten minutes later Kate emerged from the bathroom and returned to the bedroom, towelling her hair.
The stereo was playing a Storm and Thunder track from years ago.
She saw two messages winking on her tablet.
"Kate, it's your grandmother. Oh, I hate..."
She smiled and pressed the next message, which changed her mood entirely.
Four words which both chilled her blood, and filled her with adrenaline.
'We have a go.'
More than 4,000 miles away, in Hamilton, Scotland, he also stepped out of the shower.
Impossibly hirsute, a throwback to a bygone age.
The phone rang.
He ignored it, as did the raven-haired woman in his bed.
After a minute it stopped.
Cold callers probably, or travel writers desperate to try out his designer holiday destinations.
The Hyperion Anomaly, 'Air Quotes', or Plaid Fantastic would wait for paying customers.
All products of his 'Cascade', creating bubbles of the surreal for rich thrill-seekers. If they wanted to have lavish parties on silver hemispheres hovering over lakes of mercury, that was their choice.
There was a knock at his door.
"Mr Aibork. It's time."
He nodded, regarded the stirrer in his glass of whisky, the over-large alarm clock next to it, and slipped on his jacket.
He flicked the light on the hem to check it worked while mumbling under his breath an old Elkie Brooks number from the 1970s.
The walls were full of antiques; a postcard of a volcano; a photo of a silver egg with mottled colours; an arty, black and white snap of pond ripples from a dropped stone; a shed photo; a picture of a tree with weird branches; strange ephemera, and a Lawrence of Arabia poster.
Below it, a sheet of A4 with a guide to anomalies was divided into three columns.
Diagrams of eclectic objects and characters adorned it. Among them Iguanas, ancient warriors, and cloudy pink material.
He regarded the blue print of a framed design and wiped dust from the frame. It looked like a teacup.
Packing a lightweight aluminium ladder into a backpack, along with a collapsable cane, and an inflatable kettle, he headed out.
"Be careful," whispered Meg.
"I'll be fine. Dinny worry."
Outside his apartment, a woman, 40-years-old, short, dumpy with a pleasant round face was dancing in her dressing gown.
She waved at him as he entered the stretch limousine and it whisked him to the airport.
The dancing woman sashayed up her drive, and closed the door.
Unscrewing the top on the first bottle that came to hand, she emptied a third into a plastic beaker, scooped in a spoonful of ice cream and crumbled a Flake on top.
It was 7pm and she planned on spending the rest of the night in a blissful drunken state, until midnight when she'd go back to work at the hospital.
On her wall was a signed photo of singer Valerie Storm. She smiled and cried a little as she thumbed her CD player and fell asleep.
"Omrar" she burbled. "Ultveya," and then the snoring began.
For an hour she slept, until without warning she sat bolt upright and said: "I was born of the pod on that tree. The asteroid was my father."
That made no sense.
She sighed and slumped to the floor, cradling her chin on her knees. Holding a bedside photo of her ex, she kissed it.
"I miss you," she said.
Then Erica was asleep again.
Had Aibork heard her he would have been struck with a sense of déjà vu.
“Wonderful day,” said the driver.
“Aye”. Aibork was meditating. Conversation was the last thing he wanted; the road had upset his stomach.
“Wonder what the Chancellor will do ’bout the taxes,” said the driver. Will was silent. The little man with pockmarked skin turned in his seat and looked to him.
“You a vicar or somethin’?’”
“Something.” Replied Will.
“Very quiet back there. Didn't know if you were still alive.”
“I'm not very good company.”
“Tell me ’bout her.”
“You don't want to know.”
There was silence save for the wheels ticking over the Tarmac. The driver looked back to Will.
“Long journey. May as well get it off your chest.”
Will sighed and raised a smile.
“Her name was Red...”
Within an hour of reaching the airport, he was on a plane bound for Washington.
It was one of his favourite commutes, especially in business class.
Halfway across the Atlantic, the 747 entered a sea of bad air.
Aibork produced a tube and snorted a blast of minty oxygen. Suddenly his stomach settled.
He thumbed his bluetooth.
"Have Alpha unit on standby. Five miles from point zero."
"Aye sir," came the reply.
"And tell Fe to get ready."
Aibork drained his tea, and ran a finger around the cup's rim.
On his desk was a folder with a series of Hubble II photos featuring what looked like a craft made of glass.
Hours later, he was rushed from Dulles Airport; ignoring security and customs, Aibork was taken straight to the White House.
The sky was beginning to darken and he could see the Northstar winking blue