(First 5 Pages)
EVERYONE knew Ik was a moron. They tittered over his intelligence—his lack of intelligence—in the lounges and judicial chambers of the royal apartments. In ornate halls and decorated courtyards at Knossos, and rich green gardens and groomed pathways steeping the grounds at Phaistos, he was derided by servants and bureaucratic stooges alike. In shacks and huts, farmers, fishermen and merchants cracked callow jokes at the boy’s expense. Highborn or peasant, it mattered little; Ik served as a collective joke across the small island kingdom to anyone unkind enough to tell it. Which was more or less everyone. Sorcerer’s Son, they named him. As batty as his father and clever as a bowl of figs.
None suspected the truth.
Ik, rightfully Icarus, son of the king’s inventor and chief architect, Daedalus, was not the joke that the people of Crete believed. Laughing, they were fumbling into his deception. And they were in fact, protecting him. For Ik, as it turned out, was far cleverer than anyone suspected. And it was the joke that served the boy.
Today, Ik was catching octopuses.
Strictly speaking, he was catching jellyfish—and really, he was just gathering them—but the final result would be the same, a bevy of meaty tentacles, as ready to be cooked and devoured as he was to oblige them.
The design of his traps was simple: shallow holes in the ground, reinforced with thick bands of kelp. He had sprinkled the bottoms with shredded bits of fish, patting a thin spread of sand over top. As the tide came in, his snares bore Poseidon’s swell unaltered. But then the waves began their retreat, drawing ribbons of earth back with them, down into the heart and bowels of a hungry ocean, leaving the bait exposed. And so came the jellyfish. Tightly clustered, the slow gluttons feasted, refusing to abandon their bounty even as the water dropped. And as the holes became landlocked, the jellyfish found themselves trapped, confined into pools growing shallower by the minute. Oblivious to the danger, they indulged their greedy appetites just waiting for Ik to come claim them.
Dragging a long, woven basket tied loosely about his waist, Ik cut a crooked line from trap to pregnant trap. Of the fourteen he dug this morning, he had checked eleven so far. Nearly all had proven fruitful. Scooping his quarries in the fingers of a three-pronged crop, he puddled them together in his basket. When he finished collecting them, he would carefully remove their stingers then cut them up to be used in a second set of traps. These would garner him the octopus he so desired. In the end, four measly rotting fish will have yielded him at least seven or eight good sized octopuses.
Ik dropped down at the next trap. A last bastion for sea life in the sun-scorched desert above the waves, the slow-shrinking pool had become little more than a sunken patch of damp earth. A wealth of clear, swollen bulbs lay clustered along its bottom. Two big ones and five medium. Not so bad. He scooped them into his basket, ignoring the dozen or so tiny jellies filling the spaces between. Too small, he thought, closing the lid. And indeed, his crop would not even have been able to hold them. Not worth the effort to pick them out of the sand. Hopping up, Ik moved away down the beach.
The day was getting on. Apollo had begun his evening plummet back to his resting place beyond the horizon, igniting ribbons of scarlet, like luminous waves, across the burning sky. The afternoon’s crushing heat was ebbing into a calmer, almost agreeable warmth. And the tide was coming in. Ik hurried along the water’s edge, anxious to clear the last of his traps before the sea rose again to steal what was his. Idly following the dive of a swooping gull, he glanced back the way he had come and his eyes landed on a boy, seventy or eighty paces behind him, following his tracks in the sand. Ik spun away, so startled he nearly tripped on his own ankle. How long has he been there? He wondered nervously. Was he behind me when I stopped at the last trap? He could not recall whether he had turned to look back then or not. Has he been watching me this whole time? An uncomfortable chill tickled his spine.
Pretending a calm indifference to the presence of the stranger, Ik hurried on. I didn’t look at you. I didn’t see you. He closed his eyes and bit hard into his lip. You don’t know me. I’m no one. I’m nothing. Just another kid on the beach, a dummy who can’t even talk. It was no good though; he could feel the boy’s curious gaze on his flesh, as good as stripping the skin from his shoulders and back. Walk casual, he ordered his legs, but his strides fell poignant and deliberate into the sand; clenched fists swung past his hips like loaded pendulums, clinging to arms held stiff and unnatural.
The marker for his next trap appeared in front of him. Marching toward it, Ik resisted a boiling urge to peer back. He knelt over the sandy bowl and was glad to find only a single large jellyfish waiting there. Good. He would just as soon go quickly now, before whoever that was had a chance to catch up. As he scooped it into his basket, he could not help stealing another peek over his shoulder.
The boy was much closer, barely forty paces back, ambling toward him in the same leisurely gait Ik had, a moment ago, failed to counterfeit. He was taller and at least a few years older than Ik, maybe even fifteen or sixteen. His long, strong legs devoured the sand with consummate ease. Ik knew he would have to run to match pace. “Piss off,” he heard himself hiss, scrunching his face in frustration. He jumped to his feet and plunged ahead, wicker basket skating and bouncing in the sand beside him.
It was not that Ik was afraid of the newcomer. Not exactly. That was not why he fled. It never occurred to him that his pursuer might want to hurt him, or that he was in some kind of trouble. How could he be? No, the disquiet pouring like poison into his mind had nothing to do with fear of harm or of punishment. It was simply being in the presence of another person that so deeply unnerved him, absorbing their questions and words, facing the chisel of curious eyes. It was ever a trial to hold tight to his subterfuge, to maintain what he had been taught all his life. People were dangerous, he knew, traps set to snare him, as insidious as his own were for the jellyfish.
Never speak. Two words he had heard more than any others in his lifetime, repeated over and again by his father. Since before he could speak. Not to strangers, not people you know. Not anyone. Should some fool natter in your direction, question you and demand answers, by all the gods, hold your tongue, Boy. Cozen the face of a fool and be … silent! None must suspect you so much as understand their words. Never. Speak. Two small words. Yet the entirety of Ik’s existence fell into their edict. . .
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(First 5 Pages)
THESE were not her friends; she could not allow herself to forget. They were maniacs. They were monsters. They deserved to die.
◦ ◦ ◦ ◦
BOUND to her chair, Arona Medina could not help wondering why no one had put a bullet into her skull. They had the manpower. She had given them more than enough reason to do so. Yet as the human tide flowed around her, no one so much as glanced in her direction. She was an afterthought now. But why keep her alive then, she wondered. Why take that risk?
Grunting again, she strained her bindings, listening as the metal chair creaked beneath her. Not a whine of capitulation though; more an amused aluminium squawk, as if to taunt her in her efforts. No, Arona was not going to break herself free that way—though this did not stop her from trying. No, she was good and caught, a prisoner in the heart of the Destiny Sphere.
The so-called Sphere—not a sphere at all really, so much as an oversized bunker—was the world’s latest and by far most ambitious eco-enclosure. It was the brainchild of tech-billionaire Solomon Mace, who had both funded the project and himself designed every detail. Today its doors were scheduled to close, beginning the ten-year isolation of thirty-two-hundred hand-picked volunteers. It was to be a perfect ecosystem, and would provide invaluable data to benefit countless future generations.
So they said in the press, anyway.
Arona was determined to stop it.
She could feel bruises forming on the bones beneath her flesh. Every move she made tightened her nylon bindings, cutting them a little deeper into her flesh. She continued to struggle though, jerking and pulling to free herself. Failing today was an option she was not willing to accept.
“All Destined signed and counted,” a voice on the intercom announced, popping slightly from an unseen speaker behind her. “Doors will be sealed in two minutes. Here we go people.” A faint cheer filtered through the walls. Those around Arona, however, carried on as though they had heard no announcement.
Then another voice spoke—not on the intercom, a living voice—deep and musical. It cut the chatter of the chaos around her. “Agent Medina. I was so very hoping you’d be here for this.”
Arona closed her eyes. She exhaled a deep, chuckling breath. “If you’re so glad to see me, untie these ropes and I’ll give you a big ol’ hug, yeah?” She turned her neck but the man stood directly behind her, just out of sight. Yet that voice was unmistakable.
“I would, Medina. Believe me, I want to. I’d love nothing better than to release you.” Solomon Mace stepped around into view. A big man, tall and fat, with a wide, square face that flushed when he spoke. Bushy eyebrows and a thick black mustache gave weight to his aspect, offsetting the bare dusting of silver thinning atop his skull. His customary Italian silk was gone today, in its place, a set of navy-blue coveralls, no different than those worn by everyone else around them. Somehow, as he stood before his prisoner, shifting considerable weight from one foot to another, the utilitarian garb only added to his imposing air of command. “In fact,” Mace went on, “I will untie you. I’ll be happy to untie you…”—checking his watch theatrically—“…in just over a minute now.”
As if cued to his words, the intercom buzzed again. “The doors have now been sealed. All Destined check in for final count.”
Mace held up his radio. “Solomon Mace. Zero-zero-one. Confirm.”
“Mace, zero-zero-one, confirmed,” a man’s voice crackled back at him.
“Not long now.” The big man smiled at Arona with something resembling warmth.
This was it. Arona sat, stunned; she had never considered that it might actually happen. The scope of it hit like a weight dropped on her chest. Son of a bitch is really going through with it. Her ribcage seemed to constrict on itself. Twisting in her chair—wildly now—she wrenched once more at her bindings. “You can’t!” she growled. “How can you? How can you even think it!?” She threw herself forward and back, desperate to break free. Failing in this, still seated, she lunged at her captor. The chair arced onto its front legs then tipped forward, throwing Arona to the floor.
In twelve years with the Royal New Zealand Navy and nine more with NZ-SIS, Arona had taken more knocks to the head than she cared to think about. Generally, she shook them off, kept going; occasionally, one managed to leave her senseless; two or three had actually put her in the hospital. This time, however, as she tumbled forward, it was not the crashing impact that caused her to cry out. Not the flame of agony as her nose audibly crunched into the concrete; it was the knowledge that she had faced her most important task, the mission that would forever define her, with stakes as high as they could possibly be, and—
So there she lay, folded into the contours of her chair, hot tears mixing with the crimson pool spreading around her broken nose. Over her stood Solomon Mace.
“Final count confirmed,” the voice on the intercom said. “Signalling Seraphim release.”
For an instant, all motion stopped, as if to acknowledge the moment’s gravity; then once again, everyone was moving. Unseen hands lifted Arona off the ground. The chair was gone—though she had not noticed anyone cutting her free—and she was on her feet, standing in front of Mace.
“It’s done,” the big man said.
Arona looked on in a daze. It’s done. The words coiled inside her head. It’s done… her eyes met Mace’s. Done…
An animal growl escaped her lips. She threw herself at Mace, but four strong arms caught her up immediately. “You son of a bitch!” She thrashed furiously but could not break free. “You … son of a bitch!”
“Don’t fight us, Agent Medina,” the billionaire rumbled. His face wore no look of triumph. His gaze held Arona’s, steady and cool. “Don’t make us kill you.”
“You’d better. I’m sure as hell going to kill you.”
“I don’t think so.” Mace smiled wanly. “In fact, you … I think … are going to join us.” Ceasing her struggles, Arona barked her contempt. “Believe it,” the big man said. “We just released the Seraphim Virus in twenty-nine major airports around the world. It’s lethal, airborne and extremely contagious—even animals and plants act as carriers. At first, no one will realize they’ve contracted it. It’ll lie dormant for months as every last pocket of civilization becomes infected. Then one day, without warning, it will strike. Killing fast. Killing everyone.
“There is no cure, Arona. There will be no time. Every human outside this structure will be wiped from the face of the earth. It’s already happened. There’s nothing more you can do.”
Nothing… Arona felt weak. My mum, a voice croaked in her head.Andy and his wife? And Luke… Sheached to fight back; she wanted to grab Solomon and tear his throat out. Yet if no one was holding her, Arona doubted she would have strength left to stand.
FATE. DESTINY. DOOM.
They rule our lives, decide our futures, queens of fortune and potential. So small are we in Their eyes—so titanic Their vision—we sometimes view Them as a single inescapable god, decider of everything, of both final and first, both cause and consequence. But each is unique.
They are Sisters.
Born in the same instant, Destiny and Fate have ever been rivals. Squabbling for control of all that is, and all that will come to pass, they command our stories, vying for ownership: Fate singing Her songs in reverse, with endings decided before have begun—parables carved in the currents of an immutable universe. While Destiny scribbles in the ink of human action, telling stories born of spirit, courage and resolve, of foolishness, fear and greed. Her endings are those we achieve for ourselves, yet they are no less inevitable, no less Hers in the end.
Then there is the Eldest.
Doom eclipses Her Sisters. They are nothing that She was not already. Like Fate, She is the chosen endpoint assigned to each living soul; like Destiny, She is the fruit of every worldly ambition. And She is more. Doom is the great and terrible scorecard, the price of admission, deferred until journey’s end. She is the reckoning of each life’s work, be it arranged in the stars or shaped by choices freely made.
Whether you believe in Destiny, in Fate, in neither or both, Doom cannot be denied.
She will be there in the end.
Doom awaits us all.
EACH Sister was present in the hospital that day. No one saw them. No one heard their voices as they laid claim to the oldest and youngest alike, to every life and future resting in-between. But they were there. Fate’s unyielding certainty clung to the air, mingling with the sharp balm of ammonia hastily spread across vinyl, tile and plastic. Destiny’s resolve crackled around every pulsing body, binding lives in an intricate web of hopes, fears and grim determination. And of course, Doom was there, lurking out of sight, hiding around corners and behind heavy doors. In such desperate settings, where people came to press back against death, fight tooth and nail for one more decade, one more year, just one more breath of life, the Eldest Sister was never far.
Today in particular, more than any in a very long time, Doom’s presence could be felt. Today, she was here with purpose. This was the day the Merrill family would arrive en masse. The day Ayla Merrill, the ancient family matriarch, came to the hospital to die.
◦ ◦ ◦ ◦
“SHE was fine,” the man explained—tried to explain—fumbling words as his voice betrayed an agitation barely held in check. “She was normal. Gran’s always been—I mean, she’s old, but she’s always been . . . healthy, you know? I can’t think of a time I’ve seen her sick. But she just started coughing and wheezing, and she just—and she just … dropped. Like a bag of onions!”
“How old is your grandmother?” the admissions nurse asked, pen never leaving her clipboard.
“Great-grandmother,” the man corrected automatically. “A hundred-nineteen. It’s her birthday. It was at her party it happened. Everyone was there. It was something else, really, a miracle—that we could all make it, I mean. Like—not just most of us—everyone came. So many different schedules. Six generations under the same roof…” The man was beginning to babble. For a time, the nurse allowed him. The patient had been admitted, assigned a bed, and wheeled away by an orderly; it was a slow afternoon, and amazingly, no one else was waiting; no harm letting him unburden himself. Soon she realized however, if she hoped to get anything useful from him at all, she would to have to interrupt. “…the youngest still poopin’ in diapers of course, but we—” The nurse opened her mouth to cut in.
“Dan!” A female voice slapped at them from the entrance. Five more had appeared through the sliding glass doors. The one who had called out, a well-made-up but dazed looking young woman—no older than thirty—scooted past a trio of middle-aged ladies who were supporting a hanging-grey-thread of an eighty—perhaps even ninety—year-old man. “We met up in the parking lot.” The younger woman nodded toward the others. “Mum and Dad are right behind. How is she?”
It took the nurse a second to realize this last was directed to her.
“Cass! Dan!” A couple in their fifties hurried through the doors and up to the group. “How is she? What do they say?” These questions were not addressed to the nurse, who had yet to get a word in.
“I don’t know,” the young woman, apparently named Cass, answered. “I was just asking.”
“I don’t know,” Dan echoed. Then turning back, he resumed his monologue. “She was having trouble breathing, right? Well, first off she was fine. Everyone was saying…” The man’s rambling account washed over her once again. Painfully suppressing the urge to clench her jaw, the nurse watched as three more Merrills trickled in to attach themselves to the group. Was she to contend with the whole extended clan today? she wondered with no small feeling of dread.
Before more could arrive, before Dan could recite the entire family history, she managed to time an interjection into one of his short breaths. The doctors where examining their great-grandmother, she told them—or their grandmother—or in the case of the ancient-looking man, his … mother?—the one they called Gran, in any case—and they would be back with their diagnosis soon. In the mean time, no, they could not all go wait with her; no, she herself was not going to speculate on what might be wrong; and yes, they could remain in the lounge, so long as they kept to themselves and bothered no one.
This last answer was one the admissions nurse would come to regret.
One-hundred-thirty-eight relatives—ninety-nine direct descendants, and a healthy smattering of in-laws—gathered in the waiting area that evening. “Gran is a remarkable woman,” one of them told the nurse when she approached them to elect a contingent who would stay and wait for news, allowing the others to go home. “Hundred-nineteen and sharper than anyone I know. None of us can imagine what we’d do without her.”
“She sounds incredible,” she answered. Now please move on like any normal invasive swarm.
Eventually, she did convince them. Six would remain through visiting hours. One would be allowed to sit overnight with the patient. For this, they elected the young woman, Cass, who had grown up next-door to the old matron. All agreed, she lived closest to Gran’s heart.
◦ ◦ ◦ ◦
IT was a little after 2:00 a.m. when Gran awoke. Cass did not immediately notice. Her focus had fallen hard on what the doctor had told her, and it was difficult to think of anything else. “It’s her time,” the woman had said, hands folded on a closed folder containing Gran’s entire medical life. “Her body’s giving out. She might make it till morning, maybe a day or two, but … she’s very old.”
Old, Cass thought. Her laptop sat open in front of her, a half-finished pamphlet design splashed across the dimmed screen. She had hoped to distract herself with work, but for hours she had no more than stared at the open file. …might make it till morning, maybe a day or two… The words circled in her head, overwriting all other thought. …but she’s very old… The idea that this woman, this fixture in Cass’s life, would be gone soon, was all she could focus on. As her great-grandmother’s sleep became restless, Cass’s attention was drawn inward. Even when the old woman slipped back into consciousness, she failed to notice. Only when Gran actually called out, did she finally snap back to the world.
“Ollie?” Gran’s fear cut the darkness, causing the younger woman to start. “Ollie, where am I? Where is this? What am I doing here? Ollie?!”
Tossing her laptop to the other chair, Cass reached for the old woman. “Sh-hh, Gran,” she whispered. “Sh-hh-hh, it’s me. It’s Cassidy. Your little Cass.”
“Cass?” If anything, Gran’s voice sounded more panicked. “Oh God. Cass … where am I? Where—where’s Ollie?”
“Gran, no; it’s okay. It’s okay. You’re in the hospital. You’re with me at the hospital. You fainted at the party. We brought you here to rest and get better.”
“No. No, I don’t like this, Cass. I need to see him. I need … I need … oh…” Her voice trailed off, as though the effort to speak was too much. This frightened Cass. Gran did not scare easily. Gran did not get befuddled. She was immutable, a force of nature. Seeing her like this…
“Greatest-Granddad’s gone,” Cass said, pressing the old woman’s knuckles in her palm. “He passed a long, long time ago, remember? Years before I was born. You do, Gran. Don’t you?
Surprisingly, this seemed to have a calming effect. Gran’s muscles relaxed. She eased herself back onto the bed. “Yes,” she breathed, sounding a little more herself. “Yes, Cass, that’s right. A long time. I just forgot. Just for a second.” She placed a frail hand over Cass’s, which Cass then sandwiched in her own. They held on like that for a minute before Gran pulled away. “Poor Ollie,” she murmured. “Poor, poor Ollie.” Then, “Please, Cassidy, the light. I’d like to see my favourite girl before I go.”
Cass flicked the switch on a wall-mounted fixture over the bed, and a dull glow kindled in its frosted bulb. “None of this before I go crap,” she chided. “You’re going to get better, okay? Mum and Dad brought you some things from the house; some clothes, your jewellery, that old book you like to read. They want you to keep your spirits up so you can get out of here and back home where you belong.”
Gran smiled. “My little Cass. A hundred-and-nineteen is long enough sentence for anyone, wouldn’t you say?” Cass shook her head. Gran had exceeded her generation’s life expectancy before she herself was born, yet to her, a world without the old woman in it was unthinkable. “Besides,” Gran continued, ignoring Cass’s silent objection, “a promise was made many years ago, and I expect it’s time to keep it.”
“Gran, what are you—”
“You say they brought my bobbles?”
Sitting back, Cass nodded.
Cass allowed herself a moment of uncertainty before retrieving a small cherry-wood box from the windowsill.
The box was an antique. Intricate friezes lay carved around its sides, each depicting a season of the year. Webs of brass and silver decorated the lid, set seamlessly into the polished wood. Cass adored this box, though she had never been allowed to touch it, or even look inside. It was strictly off-limits, the only real restriction Gran had ever enforced. Setting it on the old woman’s lap, she returned to her chair by the bed.
“I never told you how I ended up with your great-grandfather,” Gran remarked quietly, opening the little chest.
Cass took a moment to consider. A legend in the Merrill family—second only to Gran herself—Greatest-Granddad Ollie had died in the 1940s, before even the grandchildren were born. Yet each generation had grown up with him. Sitting cross-legged on the old woman’s worn living-room carpet, or curled into an ancient chair or sofa, listening to Gran’s stories, they had come to know him, to love him as if he had always been around. And though his death was something of a murky spot in the family chronicle—rarely discussed and vaguely understood to be suicide—it was his life the old woman loved to recount. The sort of man he was, how much he meant to her. They had gone on such adventures together, lived through incredible events. Through these enthralling tales, he lived again, and the entire family grew to adulate him, even as Gran herself did.
It was no small shock then, when Cass realized she had no idea how Gran had actually come to meet him. That can’t be right, she thought. Gran would have told that one. Surely, I would have asked. But thinking back, giving herself a good long moment to think, she found her mind drawing a blank.
Before Cass could voice her surprise, Gran—whose eyes remained fixed inside the box—shot up a silencing finger. “Wasn’t a question, Cassidy,” the old woman muttered. “I’m not asking; I’m saying, you’ve never heard this story.”
Cass’s mouth snapped shut.
Picking carefully through her jewelry—a bird digging for insects amidst a carpet of fallen nettles—Gran’s eyes widened as she spotted what she was looking for. She set the box aside, and in her hand held a silver bracelet formed of fine, interlinking bands. It wore a heavy coat of tarnish, painted on, presumably, by time and neglect, but was a wonderfully detailed piece and looked to be one-of-a-kind. Cass could not recall ever seeing Gran wear it. In fact, she was fairly certain she had never seen it at all.
“This bracelet,” Gran said, wistfully, “is older than you’d guess. Older than you’d believe, actually. It has more stories in it than I could tell you if I had … well, till you were my age. But the most recent, the one as it matters to me … and to you … is the tale of your great-grandfather. Oliver. It’s a story I’ve not told anyone. But then, no one as God-awful-old as me could miss how special you are, Cass—could doubt that you deserve to know. I suppose it’s time someone does.”
Cass’s throat seemed to swell. It was a struggle to pull air into her lungs. She knows she’s dying, she thought. She knows this will be the last story she tells. Leaning forward, crushed by the realization, yet desperate to hear what Gran had to say, she listened as the tale began.
“It was, oh … so far back now, in Turkey, maybe a year after the war—not the Great War; a few years on. After the Liberation. I guess these old bones would have looked about your age then—just shy, maybe—a girl, figuring out what it means to be a woman.
The winter rains came strong that year. I don’t think I’d seen the river so high…”