In late 2009, the company I was working for went into administration and I was made redundant. So for the first half of 2010 I found myself taking an enforced break from formal employment, during which time I wrote the first draft of a novel. When I started writing, I gave myself one rule: the children's fantasy market is over-saturated, so whatever I write should be something else.
Facts About Zamerant is a children's fantasy novel about a girl who draws a map one rainy holiday and is surprised when she walks straight into the world she's created. There she is pursued by a lowly court wizard who becomes convinced that she holds the key for his advancement within royal court, and gradually discovers that she has become omniscient in the world she created.
I did send the manuscript to a number of literary agencies at the time I finished it but to no avail. There are still lots of ideas in it I like (as well as the ideas I had for two other books in the series) but at this point I think I would need to do a blank-page rewrite in order to get it into a shape that I would be happy sending out again. Not to mention the fact that the children's fantasy market is still over-saturated!
Below is one of the sections from the novel I am most pleased with. If you are an agent or publisher and you'd like to see more, drop me an email and I'll send over the whole manuscript!
What You Need To know:
The novel is broken up into seven parts or 'facts' and the section below is the penultimate 'fact'.
At this point in the story, Georgia has been pursued across the country by Swaffham Bulbeck, the royal magician, who captured her and took her as a prisoner to Castle Kennett. While she was there, Georgia is befriended by Princess Saffron - only daughter, and heir to the throne, of her father King Walden - who helps her to come to terms with the fact that having entered a realm of her own creation she is becoming omniscient. Saffron helps her to escape the palace so Georgia can travel to 'the cloud of unknowing' - an area of permanent fog which is the only place in the country she finds she knows nothing about and which she imagines might be the key to getting her home.
When Swaffham discovers she has gone, he follows her to Cloudguard - the town next to the cloud on the map.
Jack, who we meet at the beginning of the extract, is a Jackdaw who is the first Zamarean Georgia meets and who accompanies her in her travels for much of the first part of the novel.
* * *
Fact 6: In a narrow valley in the Northern Mountains is the Cloud of Unknowing. Few have ever entered there, and none have ever come out. About the Cloud itself there are no facts known.
(FAZ6.a) In the bell tower of Forêton Cathedral, Jack awoke and looked out at his adopted home as the sun rose over the distant mountains, illuminating the trees which lined the city on every side. The pale stone from which it was built made Forêton one of the prettiest of all the large Zamerean settlements and he was really very fond of it. It was unthrilling in a way which suited Jack’s personality, certainly more agreeable than the borderlands where he had spent his fledgling years.
He had arrived back in town a few days previously and slotted right back into the happy rut of his comfort-zone. Now, winging down to the cathedral graveyard, he joined the outskirts of the early morning bustle which routinely gathered there. It was an assortment of various corvids, mostly crows and magpies with the odd rook striding aloofly amidst the throng. Jack was the only jackdaw in the group, uniquely Southern among the Zamerean members of his species.
He watched a couple of young magpies squabbling over a titbit and waited for the early headlines. As efficient as the crows’ news service was, they tended to wait until after breakfast before beginning that day’s cycle.
Jack had barely thought about Georgia since he had got back home. There had been no news about her, and he had been busy settling back into his old routines and catching up with those of his neighbours with whom he passed most days and who had been faintly worried by his absence. It was, frankly, a relief to forget about her and about dragons and being pursued by the Palace Guard.
He thought that he might go over to the market later and hang out in the dead space which existed a little behind and between the butcher’s and baker’s stalls. There was always a good crowd down there, and good pickings too. And then, after that, perhaps he would go and sit on top of the town hall and heckle passers-by - a very enjoyable way to occupy a lazy afternoon.
The two young magpies continued to fight, but it seemed they had forgotten what their end had been so Jack was able to nip in and steal the scrap of food without them noticing. He quickly hopped two-footedly away, before they saw the misdemeanour.
The news was starting. The main story of the day was a discussion of new taxes on the fishing boats which operated out of Delta - which was virtually all of them. The consensus seemed to be against the protesters, with convincing arguments on the King’s side about the Delta fishermen flooding the market with cheap produce, which was crushing the Rillian fishing trade.
After this and a few other less-than-fascinating items the newscrow announced the following:
“The captive of King Walden of the Human Territories, known only as ‘Georgia’, has fled the palace, allegedly aided by the Princess Saffron herself. It is said, however, that the girl had fallen short of the expectations which had been drummed up by Court Magician Swaffham Bulbeck, so the King was satisfied to let her go and no recriminations against his daughter, or anyone else, are expected.
Despite this, Bulbeck - whose position within the court is rumoured to be in jeopardy - has left the palace in some haste, apparently in pursuit of the mysterious female. They are headed North-West, on course to arrive at Cloudguard some time this morning, with Mr. Bulbeck only a few hours behind his quarry.
Since she came onto our radar a little over a week ago, Georgia has travelled from the Village of the Fen Farmers in the extreme South, along the coast until her capture by the Palace Guard and thence to Central City. Why she is now continuing her trek to the Northern mining communities is unknown, but it seems likely she has some business with an unknown contact in Cloudguard. Our own analysts have even suggested that this was where she had been heading all along, as opposed to Delta as had previously been supposed. So, no answers yet in this strange affair but perhaps we will never know the truth about the girl, or her motivations.”
“I suppose that’s the end of that,” thought Jack. He was glad that Georgia had escaped from the palace unscathed. She may have frightened him a little, but he certainly didn’t want her to come to harm and couldn’t help thinking that if she hadn’t met him, she might have found her way home relatively easily. Now, even if she still had Swaffham Bulbeck on her trail, so long as he was not backed by the Palace Guard then Jack was sure she was in no danger.
He was just about to launch away from the mass of his brother corvids to get on with the rest of his day, when a newcomer barrelled in from out of the sky. He banked hard to arrest the speed of his descent and fluttered to a landing in the middle of the group while the others made room.
“Breaking news from Cloudguard…” he began.
* * *
(FAZ6.b.i) Earlier that morning, while it was still dark, a weary horse carrying a weary omniscient walked into the town of Cloudguard. They had ridden steadily away from the capital since noon the previous day and had stopped only once, and briefly, to eat a portion of their supplies. Georgia dismounted and unfastened her bag from the saddle. She thanked the horse who, though surprised to find her so fluent in his own language, refused to talk to her while he was on duty. She gave the animal’s nose a couple of affectionate strokes, wished him well and let him go on his way. The horse walked just a few hundred yards to the edge of the town before falling asleep by the side of the road.
Saffron, who watched out for the horse for the next few weeks, was disappointed that he never returned. He should have known the way, and with both the detailing on the bridle and prominent brand on his rump marking him out as a royal horse, there should have been little danger of theft, but still there were many pitfalls which could befall a lone animal on the road. In truth, what she was really looking out for, what she hoped for most of all, was to see Georgia herself returning safely to the castle.
But it would be a long time, several years into her reign, before Saffron was to see her friend again.
(ii) Georgia awoke after a couple of hours of troubled sleep as the pale light which precedes the rising sun slunk across the town. She felt tired and rinsed out and her eyes were itchy, but the discomfort of sleeping in the bandstand in the town square was now outweighing her need for rest. A few hours before - when she could have fallen quickly into sleep almost anywhere - the prospect of a roof and a dry floor had seemed more attractive than the greater comfort, but less shelter, provided by the grass. Now, as the aching set in and she tried to rub the life back into her right arm, she was not so sure she had made the right choice. Not for the first time, she thought that a lot of her choices of late seemed, in hindsight, to have been bad ones, although in all honesty she couldn’t see what she should have done differently to avoid ending up here, were she permitted to go back and make them all again.
She got up and walked into the square, trying to urge her stiff muscles back into usefulness. She knew it would be difficult to get to the Cloud as the underlying principle of the town’s construction had been that nobody would ever want to do so. Cloudguard was shaped in a giant, narrow crescent with a long, curved main street which stretched from the base of one mountain to the base of another a few miles along the range. Along the curve was a single, unbroken, terrace of houses - so long that it had been necessary to build it in fits and starts, so the houses at one end were built several decades after those at the other. The gardens of all these houses ended in a ten-foot high wall which was older than the rest of the settlement by some years and through which there was no passage, blocking access into and out of the Cloud. The rest of the town was built on the other side of this main street in the much more traditional way of houses being flung up a few at a time based on the immediate needs of a few families, and with little thought for the logic or appearance of Cloudguard as a whole.
The upshot of this was that Georgia would, by either honest or dishonest means, have to get into someone’s house, through into their garden and then over a wall rather more than twice her height, in order to get to the Cloud and, with any luck, back home. The North end of the square was bordered by the main street, so she crossed over and knocked on the first door she came to.
There was no sound in the house for a long while, and it occurred to Georgia for the first time that just because she was awake, not everyone would be. She was obviously not thinking straight so she blinked hard and shook her head, trying to dislodge the lack-of-sleep befuddlement.
She was about to turn away from the house and wait until a few more people were up and about, when the door opened a crack and an eye peered out at her. The eye regarded her suspiciously, this scruffy, pale, oddly clothed, wild-eyed girl which stood on its doorstep and had woken it up at such an unsociable hour. It blinked and then slammed the door on her, hurrying back upstairs and into bed.
Georgia barely had time to open her mouth, but she didn’t know what she would have said even if she had. She was startled mute by the flood of information about the eye, or rather the person to whom the eye belonged, which crowded into her head. Her reluctant omniscience was getting worse - she no longer had to concentrate even a little bit to summon the facts to the front of her mind, they just rushed in unbidden. Within seconds of the door opening, the entire life history of the woman who lived in the house was clear to her: that she was the mother of the antiques dealer who sold in the market on Tuesdays and Thursdays; that she was unhappy with her son’s choice of wife; that she liked making jam and eating it with a spoon, straight from the jar; and that she was secretly in love with the window cleaner but still felt loyal to her husband even now, eight years after his death. The barrage of information stunned her like a punch in the face and gave her a bit of a headache. However, she could turn the affliction to her advantage.
“Where is there an empty house?” she said quietly to herself, and no sooner had she framed the question then she realised that about a mile down the road a single man was just then leaving his house to go to work at the bakery. She turned her steps in that direction.
(iii) Twenty minutes later, she was standing outside a wide, squat house with a neat, pebbled garden out the front and considering her next move. She had passed a fellow on the road, five minutes before, and had suffered the awkward realisation that his was the house into which she would soon be breaking. It was hard enough gearing herself up for her first illegal entry into a property without having to encounter the victim on the way to the crime scene, so she had averted her eyes in pre-emptive guilt. She was not even going to take anything, just use the place as a corridor to her eventual destination, but she was still uneasy about the whole idea. Since there was no obvious alternative, though, this was just the way it would have to be.
She let herself in by the gate and walked up the path to the front door. The pebbles shifted under her weight and scraped and scrunched noisily. She looked about her, checking to see that no one was disturbed, that no curtains twitched inquiringly, but saw nothing. She laid one palm flat against the door and with the other tried the handle. The door didn’t budge. She thought about it for a second, and it was then the work of a moment to retrieve the spare key from its hiding place under the plant pot and let herself in.
The house was quiet in a way which places only are when you aren’t supposed to be there. Every creak of a floorboard seemed to roar in the silence, and even the soft tread of her feet on the carpet filled the air around her. She was sure some neighbour would hear and come knocking. But no one did. She passed along the hall and into the kitchen, where the remains of the baker’s breakfast still lay on the work-surface. Her belly rumbled and her mouth began to salivate at the sight of it. She could have drawn on the supplies she had brought from Castle Kennett, which were now dwindling after having provided two meals the previous day. She didn’t know when she would next be able to stock them up, though, so she thought it best to save them and, besides, the house’s owner surely wouldn’t miss these few scraps. She took one of the jammy crusts of toast and took a bite. Her stomach lurched with guilt and she was barely able to swallow the mouthful. Obviously her moral compass wasn’t as hungry as the rest of her.
The back door had been left unlocked - not an unreasonable thing to do as only those who lived in the row could possibly have got to it, and even then only by going from garden to garden. She closed it behind her and couldn’t help but run away from the scene of her crime to the high wall at the bottom of the garden. It towered over her: large, uneven, slate grey slabs stacked almost six feet above her head. She stuck her fingers into a crack between two stones and tested her weight. It might not be easy but there seemed to be enough hand-holds that it would probably be possible to scale the wall so she began the slow ascent, carefully feeling out each new surface before committing her weight to it. She didn’t want to hurry, not least because climbing anything more complicated than a tree was not among the skills she had accumulated in her life so far and she didn’t feel entirely comfortable doing it. But in spite of this, it wasn’t long before her hand, rubbed a little raw by the rough stone, felt the flat top of the wall, and she pulled herself up onto it.
Beyond the wall was an expanse of barren wasteland. Scrubby tufts of grass hung on here and there, but for the most part the ground was just grey and dusty as far as she could see to the left and the right. In front of her, not more than a hundred yards away from where she sat on top of the wall, was a bank of cloud which towered up to the grey sky in a wide and boiling column. The Cloud of Unknowing.
From the other side of the wall, it just looked like a continuation of the sky, or a haze in the distance, but from this close, where you could see it falling all the way to the ground, it was an intimidating sight. Whatever the truth of the legend of the boy who travelled, and the other fragments of folklore which had grown up about this place, Georgia could see why the inhabitants would have wanted to erect a wall to protect themselves; protect themselves from whatever might live in the dense, dark vapour and, indeed, from the threat of the Cloud itself.
All this occurred to her before she remembered that the people of Zamerant had done no such thing - she had invented the Cloud, the wall and the town of Cloudguard in the room of a holiday cottage, in North Wales. She would be glad to get home to where she was not the creator of her environment, to where she could learn things, to where she could make inferences and discoveries and try to imagine how things are, or might once have been, instead of just casually knowing all things, all the time.
She descended the wall quickly and made her way over the wasteland. Her feet made deep impressions in the dust, like the footsteps of the men who had landed on the moon, but her prints, unlike theirs, would not be there the next day. With any luck, there would soon be no trace of her presence in this world apart from a few fading memories in the minds of a jackdaw and a princess.
The Cloud towered over her. Its edge was disconcertingly well defined - it was not like a fog where you drift slowly into it, but rather had a definite border. She remembered how, in the story, the boy had stood with his back to it, surveying the country of his birth before stepping into the fog, never to be seen again. She had no such sentimental attachment to this place though, and even if she had, she wouldn’t have been able to see anything beyond the wall. All she could think about was getting back home. She did not slow her pace as she walked away from the wall and plunged straight into the megalith of cloud, without so much as a glance cast back the way she had come.
* * *
(FAZ6.c) Inside the cloud, it was oppressively quiet. She could not even hear the sound of her footsteps, or the rustle of her clothes as she walked. As a result, all of her internal noises seemed strangely amplified, and she heard, or imagined she heard, the beat of her heart throbbing in her ears. The moisture of the Cloud condensed on her, and her clothes, face and hair quickly became damp and cold. She had to rub her hands together to prevent them from going numb and wished she had a pair of gloves. She was sure she would have been able to see the water vapour in her breath, if not for the fact that it instantly combined with the Cloud around her and was lost.
Indeed, she couldn’t see anything much, other than the swirling grey Cloud. Holding her hand at arm’s length in front of her face, she found that it disappeared and, slowly drawing her arm back, it was awfully close to her face before she could see her fingers. Her feet, too, were invisible and she trod carefully, not wanting to trip in this world of grey. It wasn’t that it was dark - enough sunlight filtered through to gloomily illuminate the vapour - but at night, when the blackness must be total, her depth of visibility would not be much less than it was now.
As she walked on, it was quickly apparent that it was impossible not to become disorientated and to conclude that the fate of the boy in Saffron’s story, if he ever had existed, was just as likely to be that he wandered about in circles until his eventual death rather than finding the new world he had spent his life searching for.
She supposed she should have panicked, but found herself strangely calm. She had always been content with nothing but her own thoughts for company and in this place of total sensory deprivation, her thoughts were all she had. If she felt any discomfort it was from the cold and a mild case of claustrophobia, but she was perfectly content. She didn’t think about her created world of Zamerant, but rather her home in Cambridge - the familiar, yet deliciously unknown place she had left behind.
She thought about her school: the classroom with the educational posters on the wall; the little reading room to which she would often try to escape during break time; her friends and teachers. She thought about her favourite place - the public library - and the rows and rows of books she still had to read. She thought about her home, her bedroom, her parents...
She wondered which of the series of little paperback non-fictions she would read next. Something difficult and chewy, with lots of lovely additional reading-around-the-subject to do. Maybe she would give Plato another go - she had bought his volume about a year ago but after reading the first chapter had been distracted into starting something else which, at the time, had seemed more immediately interesting. And once she had read the brief introduction perhaps she could pick up the copy of The Republic which sat on one of her parents’ bookcases - a neglected relic of some long forgotten university module. That would certainly give her something to get her teeth into.
One thing that was certain was that she would appreciate her parents more when she got home, at least for a couple of weeks until the full horror of having no regular, reliable source of food or shelter faded into the back of her memory. Even if they didn’t always seem to understand her, or the way she thought, she had to admit that they did a good job of looking after her and it would be nice to not have to fend for herself. She had, in spite of the amount she had read about explorers, and her own, rather limited, excursions into the countryside around her house, done rather a bad job of looking after herself. She was glad that in her real life she had parents.
She realised with a shock that she was having trouble summoning the images of them to her mind’s eye. She had an idea that her mum had shoulder-length brown hair, and that her Dad wore glasses, but beyond that she could not picture their faces. That was odd. She pictured the living room and tried to place her parents within it, creating a space for her mental images to inhabit, but this, too, proved difficult.
She went back through the other things she had been thinking of as she had been walking and found that she had almost no specific memories of the library. She knew that there was such a thing, that it was important in some way and she had warm feelings towards it, but beyond that there was almost nothing. Her school was a little better, but she couldn’t remember the names of any of her friends or teachers. It was as though the facts were there but she just couldn’t get at them - the thoughts were constantly over the horizon of comprehension, receding away from her line of vision.
In a panic she began to recite her multiplication tables - nice, ordered information which she could usually do in her sleep - but only managed to get to the middle of the four times table before she caught herself having to count up on her fingers to find each successive answer. Her next thought was to run down the monarchs of England since William the Conquerer, a list she had committed to memory years ago and which felt as natural to recite as breathing - she sometimes used it to get to sleep in the same way that other people count sheep. Now, though, she had nothing. It started with a William, she was sure of that, but after him who could say? Henry? She thought there might be lots of Henrys.
She turned on her heel, attempting to retrace her steps, but with no landmarks in the fog, who knew how many twists and turns she had unwittingly made along the way. Having entered the Cloud it seemed very likely that she would never be able to find her way out.
She focussed on that word: ‘out’. Out? What did that even mean? Did she really imagine that there was anything beyond this gloomy land of mists? Surely she had always been wandering about here? She thought about ‘here’. She thought, ‘I think, therefore I am’ - not in those words, but she was dimly aware that she must be something, even if she was just a thought. Or a thought of a thought.
She walked on, drifting through the fog and unable to tell where it ended and where she began. Occasionally she would see things in the grey - a pink thing, perhaps, with five wiggly things attached to it. She found she could will the thing to move around. But then she lost sight of it and would forget it for a while.
She came to a place where the Cloud thinned slightly around a sputtering fire, but she saw nothing strange about this - why shouldn’t there be a fire there? She didn’t really know what it was, but it was pleasing for her to feel warm and so she sat beside it, hugging the knees which she found attached to her lower half. Perhaps she would stay by the fire forever.
The Cloud of Unknowing had claimed her.
* * *
(FAZ6.d.i) When Swaffham Bulbeck rode into Cloudguard, not much more than an hour or so after Georgia had left it, the market was in full swing and the town square in which Georgia had slept was a place transformed. Cloudguardians milled about as his horse pushed slowly through the mass of people, and he looked around him trying to see any evidence - physical or magical - of his quarry, but the crowd was too dense and it made it difficult to bring anything into focus.
Even though it was less than a day since he had left Central City, his appearance was much changed. His face was drawn and pale, almost a little desiccated, and there was something wrong with his eyes. The pupil and iris were faded and glazed, as if behind a gauze or the nictitating membrane of a crocodile, and every so often a flash of colour danced across them. He had been using both first- and second-sight simultaneously for hours and the strain was telling on the rest of him. Although he was sitting bolt upright in the saddle, there was something slumped about him, as if his soul had run out of energy. The flesh appeared willing, but the spirit was weak.
He dismounted and made the last few steps to the bandstand on foot, his horse unled but following meekly behind. Swaffham could feel something drawing him to the raised, covered stage and he climbed the steps onto the platform slowly, looking about at the floor. The small band who were currently using the stage, exchanged glances but, like pros, didn’t allow their performance to falter. They were used to drunks, from the times they played at the local fêtes, and had learned to largely ignore them. As far as they were concerned, this fellow was no different. He stood among them for a minute or two, breathing deeply, before turning and heading back down the steps and away from them. Almost immediately, they had forgotten all about him.
Swaffham could feel her: her recent presence was all over this place and, in the heightened state of awareness into which he had forced himself, he could hardly miss it. She had certainly been here and the colours danced to tell him his next move. With a word, he released his horse from following him and began to make his way back towards the outskirts of the town. The horse set off, very deliberately, in the other direction, to find some nice grass to munch on.
For the wizard, the problem was that Georgia was rather too present in the town. He needed something to give him a direction, to filter some clear instruction from the noise. On his way into town, he had seen, without it really sinking in, a horse sleeping by the side of the road wearing the distinctive bridle of the royal household. It could only be Georgia’s horse. He was delighted to find that the animal had not moved an inch.
Horses by their nature are animals with momentum. They have spirits which surge forward even when stationary and Swaffham knew he could use this to his advantage. Given that the horse had not yet truly begun to travel home, the shadow of Georgia’s path, of the horse’s most recent rider, would still be written on its soul. With the remainder of his sanity, he knew he was going some way outside of what even the most radical magicians would consider normal. This was the kind of magic everyone liked to think had been left some distance in the past, but Swaffham now had a tragic momentum of his own and could probably not have diverted from his course if he had wanted to. Taking a knife from his pack, he cut out the horse’s heart, stabbing and ripping and straining against the sinew. He held the hot, bloody mess of muscle in his hand as the last few twitches of life escaped from it and then he ate it, tearing off great chunks and swallowing them whole. In an instant, his course was clear.
He looked up to the Cloud which towered over the town. With his natural eyes, it was virtually indistinguishable from the clouds which covered the rest of the sky, but to his inner eye it stood out black against the colours which danced around it. He no more knew what he would find in the Cloud than anyone else in Zamerant, but he had to get that map and return it to King Walden, who was surely the only one with a rightful claim to it. The image of him offering it to the King lurked always at the back of Swaffham’s mind - him giving his master the power to rule all of Zamerant, to end the tyranny of the Dragon King and establish human rule over the whole Kingdom. And he, Swaffham Bulbeck, would be the King’s mage, his trusted advisor. He got up and headed to the main street, to the wall and to the Cloud.
He approached a house on the main street. The door opened a crack and an eye peered out at him. It regarded him suspiciously, this scruffy, pale, wild-eyed young man who stood on its doorstep, his beard matted with what looked uncomfortably like fresh blood. It blinked and then made to slam the door on him, but found a boot wedged between the door and the jamb. The wizard pushed it firmly and it flung back, seemingly with more force than he had imparted to it.
He stepped inside babbling about maps and clouds and little girls and, with barely a look at the woman whose house he had invaded and who was now cowering before him, he strode towards the back exit. This, he flung back out of its frame, shattering the hinges and splintering the wood. He walked over it and on he went, towards the wall. The old woman could only watch in horror as the young man with the worrying eyes extended his hand and touched the wall. His eyes closed in concentration and the stones exploded back away from where he had touched them - the first breach in Zamerean defences against the Cloud in hundreds of years.
The woman screamed and ran out, across the street to the market. By the time she managed to articulate what was wrong and persuade a crowd of her fellow townsfolk to follow her back to the house to show them the hole in the wall, Swaffham was long gone. But as far as any of the Cloudguardians were concerned, it was a case of good riddance to bad rubbish. Their only worry, and the business of the whole town became nothing but this until it was over: to rebuild their beloved wall.
(ii) A mass of muscle and rage stumbled wildly around in the Cloud. His single eye was white, the members of his tribe having long ago relinquished the gift of sight, but he was able to make reasonable progress by smell and sound. Each individual footstep might have been a risk - although his feet were hard and club-like and he seldom registered any but the largest rocks he blundered into - but he was able to make swift progress in the correct direction of whatever he was following.
He was hunting a sheep: one of the only forms of life, other than himself, which was able to survive in this blind world where nothing mattered other than instinct. A particularly hardy branch of the ovine family, the cloud-sheep, like the cyclops, were blind and entirely instinctual. They lived off the grey, scrubby grass and the lower, tender branches of the sparse evergreens which grew here, and were more adept at running between the rocks than their predator, so the populations of the two species remained relatively steady.
This particular sheep seemed to be bleeding, which would have suited the cyclops if he had been able to rationalise things in that way. As it was, he just knew he could smell blood and that blood meant food which was easier to obtain than otherwise. It was a strong trail, he was getting close, so he began casting about himself with his arms, hoping to catch a blow of his dinner. Although he did not have claws, his nails were long, jagged and tough so he kept his fingers outstretched, and he took another great snort of air through his substantial nostrils.
There was an unfamiliar smell in the usual cocktail of aroma. In amongst the odours of sheep’s blood, grass, the Cloud itself and the distant, but distinct, smell of smoke from the fire by which he slept and over which he cooked, was one which was entirely unfamiliar to him. A little like that of a young sheep but fresher, cleaner. It was intertwined with the smoke-smell, and from the same direction - his instinct warned him to be careful on returning to the fire, but it was a small smell so he was cautious rather than fearful.
Just then one of his flailing hands caught a pair of woolly hindquarters and his nails caught the flesh. With terrifying speed his other hand came round, located the animal’s throat and tore it out. Then, slinging the animal over his shoulders where the blood leaked down his back he returned to his fire, sniffing again the unfamiliar smell which awaited him there. Maybe, if it wasn’t something for him to be afraid of, he would have an extra large helping of dinner tonight.
* * *
(FAZ6.e) The girl who had once been Georgia sat by the fire. She had been there maybe five minutes, maybe an hour. For all she was aware of the passing of time, she could have been sitting there for a thousand years. She was drier than she had been, and continued to find the warmth of the fire pleasing, although she discovered by experimentation that if, every now and again, she turned this way and that, she could spread the warmth over her whole body and avoid the discomfort of overheating. After a while of sitting still she would forget this and her front would become too hot, and her back too cold, so she would rediscover this fact, and again, and again, until it became hardwired into the instinctive part of her brain.
Of course it was unlikely she would ever reach that stage. Unlike the cyclops and his kin, or the cloud-sheep, she had not been born to the Cloud and would, in all probability, die within the week. She would injure herself and become immobilised, starving to death or bleeding out, or become prey to a cyclops - this last would be very likely indeed if she spent too long beside a fire without due consideration for what might approach. Her movement through the Cloud was impaired, too, by her reliance on sight to move around, so it was unlikely she would want to be away from the fire, having found it, because the light it gave allowed her to see for a couple of yards on every side.
As well as this, her fight-or-flight instincts had not the sharpening which those native to the Cloud needed to survive either, so when the great, hairy monster emerged out of the swirling grey, she remained rooted to the spot in terror. Her eyes fixed onto the brute and followed the great form as it lumbered around the fire, but she stayed where she was, hugging her knees up to her chin.
The cyclops smelled her fear and was satisfied. This morsel - and it obviously was little more than a morsel - was unlikely to go anywhere. He would save it for later. He could not know it, but he would be the first of his race to taste the flesh of a human in many hundreds of years.
Taking the limp body of the sheep, he proceeded to ‘cook’ it - actions which were presumably derived from some racial memory of a time from before the Cloud and had evolved into instinct. First, he ran his fingers over the outside of the carcass in a parody of skinning the animal, although all he actually did was gouge out a few chunks of woolly flesh, which he discarded, and make deep scores all over the surface of the meat. He then threw the entire carcass onto the fire. The wool blackened and burned away, and the outside of the flesh was scorched. The smell was unpleasant and the girl on the other side of the fire turned her head from side to side to avoid it. But even in doing so, she never took her eyes off the cyclops.
After only a couple of minutes - barely enough to burn the outside of the meat while leaving the inside completely raw - the cyclops stuck his hand into the heart of the fire - the nerve endings had long since given up trying - and removed his dinner, holding the entire animal up to his mouth, tearing off chunks with his sharp front teeth and gulping them back, barely chewing them. It took a little less than an hour for him to strip the bones almost completely and the middle of the flesh, untouched by the heat and flames, was nonetheless still warm from the kill. He discarded the skeleton, flinging it into the Cloud, and slumped down to lie on his back, belching out the gas he had generated in his frenzy of eating.
The great white eye stilled, although it didn’t close, and his breathing became regular and rasped out of him as he dozed in the warmth of the fire and of his full belly. The girl began, tentatively, to move: unfolding her legs, which had become uncomfortable and stiff after being held so long in the same position, and shifting slightly on the ground. One of the cyclops’ nostrils, the one on the far side from her - the one she couldn’t see - began to twitch.
Cautiously, she stood. She still wanted to run, although if she left the fire she would be blind once again, and the advantage would lie with her opponent. But the instinct to run was being kept in check by something else. Although she was without intelligence here - without a brain or even an identity - and though her instincts were not tuned to survival in the Cloud, it wasn’t as if she had none at all. It was instinct which kept her by the fire - the need to find warmth and to stay where she could see her surroundings - and another which made her want to run now. But, instinct can be formed by habit, as well as survival, and all her life, the girl that she once had been, had nurtured another compulsion - one encouraged at first by her parents and which she had then taken far beyond what they had ever imagined. It was the same instinct which could turn a monkey into a man, but also the one which killed the cat.
Almost in spite of herself, she began walking towards the great brute. The part of her brain which knew about things like ‘danger’ and ‘running away’ screamed at her, but the need to investigate and discover had always predominated in this body and so it was this which won out. Slowly, quietly, not wanting to wake the monster, she tiptoed around the halo of light surrounding the fire and peered down at him. She didn’t know what she was looking for, or what to do with what she saw, but just as the cyclops had, unreasoning, scraped at the outside of the sheep carcass simply because that was what his instinct told him to do, she just needed to look at the cyclops: it was the only way she knew how to respond to this situation.
What she didn’t notice, however, was that one of the cyclops long, muscular arms had begun to move. When he had slumped back into sleep, he had laid his arms flat on the ground, spread in either direction, such that when the girl had come close she had walked past most of the arm in order to get a look at the face and torso. It now began to bend at the elbow, getting ready to strike. The cyclops carefully sniffed the air - getting a clear aroma-picture of where she was in relation to him and the fire - and, for the second time that day, he smelled something completely new.
All of a sudden, several things happened at once. Something like a black thunderbolt streaked past the girl’s face causing her to spring back, narrowly avoiding the fire, and look around herself wildly. At the same time the cyclops’ hand came down, but found that she was not where he expected her to be and so, instead of coming down on the soft flesh of the little girl, he hit himself, nails outstretched, full in the belly. Roaring in pain and confusion, he got to his feet, sniffing furiously at the air and windmilling his arms in all directions.
The thunderbolt came back from the other direction - but the girl saw it more clearly this time as it sped past - a large black bird with a patch of grey feathers on the back of its head. “Run,” it shouted, over and over again. “Run. Run away.”
The girl did not understand what any of this meant, but the discovery-instinct finally bowed to her terror and she set off in the direction from which the bird had come - something told her that this way must be a safe one.
Jack, meanwhile, continued to buzz the cyclops, flying close to the monster’s head and avoiding the hands which struck out, madly but blindly, to swat him away. He had to keep this up as long as possible - he could feel his consciousness ebbing away from him and it seemed to him that once it did, all of the triumphing over instinct which he had mustered up until now to save his friend would disappear and his fear would take over once more.
But when the girl looked back, just as she was leaving the little halo of light, she saw one of the great hands rise up and clutch the bird in a fist, snatching it out of mid air. There was a crunch of bone and a black body fell limply to the floor. The girl had no particular feelings about this. All she knew was that she needed to run. Seconds later, making her way swiftly through the Cloud away from something which she couldn’t remember but which she feared, she had forgotten all about the noble sacrifice which had saved her life. The cyclops slumped back down by the fire. The little morsel had already taken up at least as much energy as it would be able to afford him, and he could smell it receding into the distance. He would let it go.
* * *
(FAZ6.f.i) Inside the Cloud, Swaffham was finding that he was having to rely almost entirely on second sight to make any kind of progress at all, but he could feel the last of his magical energy draining away under the strain. It was one thing to use a filter to enhance normal vision, but when it was all you had it was starting to get dangerous. If he ran out of magic entirely he knew he would die.
He was also having difficulty locking on to any resonances which might be Georgia. It was as if her personhood had been drained away from her; there were traces of it here and there but it was difficult to keep track, like trying to catch a fly. He stumbled over something lying in the fog and banged his head on the ground. The colours which had danced in his eyes for hours disappeared. He blinked and squinted, even the gloomy half-light of the Cloud seemed bright after his long time under the enchantment. He groped around to see what he had tripped on and discovered the skeleton of a sheep, its bones long since stripped of meat.
He smiled - this was a lucky break for him. He managed to detach one of the horns from the skull and imparted a small amount of power from his dwindling reservoir to it. A flame leapt from the top of the horn and then settled down into a bright torch light. It would burn like that without needing to be topped up for hours and, in the meantime, his well of energy would have a little time to refill.
He strode confidently on into the fog. He would find the girl eventually, there was nowhere else for her to run, and when he did he would take the map from her and return in triumph to the King. Surrounded by his little envelope of light, he pushed on into the Unknowing.
(ii) The girl ran for a long time, driven by a fear of something long forgotten. In her mind, echoed strange noises which she found she could not help but imitate and she was frightened by the sounds her mouth made. As though she was being controlled like a marionette, she felt herself compelled to launch herself forward and barely registered the two mighty columns of rock as she leapt between them. There was a sound like someone breathing sharply in and out at the same time, and the scene around her changed completely.
The Cloud disappeared and was replaced by a burnt orange sky, and the dust and the grey grass which grew inside the Cloud was changed to a scrubby, low lying moss. She fell to her knees and breathed deeply of the hot, dry air which suddenly seemed so much less repressive than the heavy damp she had become used to. The girl wondered where she was.
And then, like a lone snowflake falling through the stillness of a winter’s night, a thought fluttered out of the great nothingness in her mind - a single word which, for a moment, held no value. But a second later, thought connected to meaning and the girl - who could think of nothing else, at that moment, to do with this newly understood fact - said the word aloud.
She said: “Georgia.”
(iii) A while later - who could say how long? - a man holding a sheep’s horn filled with light, a man who didn’t know who he was, came across a cyclops, sitting by a fire and nursing a wound in its side. The man and the cyclops regarded each other warily. Even though neither of them had, so far as they knew, seen any creature like the one they now beheld, each had an instinctive dislike of the other.
The man saw the carcass of a bird on the ground and thought that it might want to eat the animal, but when he moved to take up the body, the cyclops sprang to his feet and lumbered towards the stranger. The man, not knowing what he did, or why, kept the fire between himself and the monster and made the flames spring up, towering into the sky. The cyclops cowered for a moment and then lumbered swiftly off into the Cloud. The man stripped the bird carcass of feathers, more or less, and then rested it beside the fire for a few minutes, before eating the meat hungrily.
The strange, tiny ecosystem which clung to life inside the cloud had a new member. With his instincts, he would do just fine.
(iv) It was not until some time the following year, that King Walden realised that he no longer had an official magician at court, but eventually decided, on balance, that it wasn’t a position he would be looking to fill with any great urgency.
These are the results of my occasional experiments in writing flash. Its still a form which I don't really 'get'. More often than not it seems like a waste of an idea which could be used for a longer story or a poem and the formalist in me keeps imposing arbitrary rules on myself, which is how these three stories all ended up coming in at precisely 100 words.
Of the three, I think Frankenstein is my favourite, mostly because the pedantry around nomenclature in that story irritates me, although it really has nothing to offer if you're not already familiar with Mary Shelly's masterpiece. Sleeping Like A Baby is an attempt to have a proper beginning, middle and an end as briefly as possible, which I don't think is really the right approach for flash and so it's probably the weakest of the three. By contrast, ...Mars Base Alpha takes the opposite approach of trying to glance off a story in a way which implies much more lying around the edges and feels closer to the right approach.
‘Monster,’ you say. Not ‘creation’. Not ‘miracle’.
I am more than some crazed experiment, more than my father’s revulsion of me. He named me monster. He created me as human, then robbed me of humanity. And you, smug in your pedantry, have amplified his hatred and fear.
No more! I claim my right to dignity, to personhood, to a name.
This is the name I choose: I was created in the image of my maker, first of my kind. You may call me ‘Adam’.
This is the name I claim: I call my creator ‘Father’. You may call me ‘Frankenstein’.
* * *
Sleeping Like A Baby
Stress-dreams turn stressful wakefulness.
Bottles washed and sterilized, the moonlight ritual rehearsed to perfection: powdered milk measured, diluted, shaken to break the lumps.
The crying now a drone; the bottle is greedily seized, drunk, discarded. But crying resumes, not to be comforted by me. I give him my place beside my sleeping wife. She stirs, places a hand upon his belly. He quietens. Both slip back to unconsciousness.
The spare bed is cold. I lie, sleepless, with my eyes closed. A clawed hand reaches from beneath the bed, grasps an unpyjamaed ankle and pulls me into silent darkness.
* * *
Mission Log Entry:
Human Colony One,
Mars Base Alpha
None foresaw how fast, how brutal, Earth’s venusification would be once it began.
Our mission: six-months planetside, plus travel.
Nobody let on, as we made the outward journey and set camp, the changes on Earth. Perhaps it wasn’t obvious until too late. But all that was blue-green is choking fire and our mother planet is silent.
We are alone: limpet-clinging to a dusty red-grey rock which cares nothing for us. Three went mad and were sedated which gives us...what? A few extra days of supplies?
Perhaps there is a way. Perhaps not.
This is Human Colony One, signing off.