Short Fiction: How Soon Is Now? Pt2 by Michelle Foster

Part Two

How Soon is Now by Michelle Foster

I was aware of a presence as I awoke.  A comforting atmosphere that reminded me of my mother. The smell of soap and water.  Freshly laundered cotton.  I was far too comfortable to be in my bunk at the dorm.  I opened my eyes slowly, not wanting the illusion to disappear.  My eyes were gluey and at first I just saw a figure.  She was sitting by my bed, her hands folded into her lap, her dark clothes familiar.  The Queen smiled at me.800px-Queen_Victoria_60._crownjubilee

‘My dear,’ she said, running a hand over my head, ‘how do you feel?’

Horrified, I tried to jump up and salute, but she pushed me back into the pillows gently.

‘Sshhh, shhh.’

‘Your Maje…’

‘Sshhh.’

I sshhh-ed.  The Queen reached behind her and squeezed out a cloth and wiped my forehead.  She smiled down at me.

‘Major Cybille C-.’

I cringed at the use of my full name.  She noticed and chuckled.

‘I know you prefer Billie, but my dear, Cybille is so very apt. Cybille – the soothsayer.  You managed to see what no-one else could.’

I was silent.  The Queen wasn’t the person I was going to share my bizarre, if ultimately correct, theory with. I still couldn’t believe it myself.

‘You are a hero, my dear.’  She leaned forward, her serene face earnest now. ‘Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, Billie, for saving my life.’

My heart swelled until I thought it might burst. Turning red, I muttered ‘I’m sorry for shoving you so hard, your Majesty.’ Her laughter echoed around the rooms of the Palace.

Back at the barracks, I was subject an equal measure of praise and ribbing.  Dash, somewhat embarrassed that his female partner was the hero instead of him, was chief mischief maker but at night, alone in our dorm room, he quizzed me.

Dash was my best friend for a reason.  He knew everything about me, what I felt, how I acted and mostly when I wasn’t telling him everything.  I held out for a week and if it hadn’t been for the next dream, one that affected him directly, I might not have confided in him at all.

It was two days after I had left the Palace.  Back in the barracks, back to the scratchy blankets of my bunk, the dream had begun as a dull replay of a routine patrol.  We were tracking a suspect along the riverbank.  When he disappeared under a bridge, we abandoned the glider and followed on foot.  The smell of the dank river was suffocating.  Dash turned to me to complain – and the suspect attacked, He brought up a small pocket knife and slashed my partner across the face, cutting a grotesque smile into his cheek.  Dash howled and dropped – and I awoke.

With a sense of dread, I accompanied Dash to the glider.  It was only ten minutes later that we were ordered to pursue a looter.  My heart sank. If I could I would have abandoned the chase but we were under orders.  We had to follow the suspect.

I waited until we had reached the bridge.

‘Dash – when we get inside the bridge – don’t lose focus, don’t stop searching.  Don’t leave yourself open to attack.  Promise me.’

Dash gave a strange look. ‘What are you talking about?’

I took a deep breath. ‘He has a knife.  He will use it on you if you are distracted. I know this. Please.’

There was a pause.

‘Okay,’ he said finally. ‘But after, you are going to tell me whatever it is you’ve been hiding.  Deal?’

‘Deal.’

The scene played out exactly as I dreamt, right up to where the suspect attacked.  Dash was prepared and we took the Eugene_Ivanov_2441looter down with minimal fuss and no injury, thankfully, to anyone.

After we had dropped our prisoner off at the station, Dash signed us off duty and returned to the barracks.  In silence, he led me back to the dorm and locked the door.

I told him everything.  In the hush that followed, I waited for him to mock me

Nothing.  His silence became unbearable.

‘Say something!’

Dash cleared his throat.  ‘I…well, I just…that’s incredible.’

‘Do you believe me?’

‘Without question.’

I relaxed.  Dash looked thoughtful.

‘Have you tried to deliberately dream about something?’

I was taken aback.  ‘No, I mean, I have only had those two dreams, and they are about specific events.  I knew before that first dream we were to protect the Queen, and patrols are our everyday lives.  It was just the specific attacks…’  It had only just occurred to me that both precognitions had been about violence.  This unsettled me.  Dash, meanwhile, was pacing the room.

‘I think you should try.’  He was excited.  ‘Just about something small.’  He looked around our bare dorm room.  He tapped the wall, grinning.  ‘Imagine we found something, a picture, anything, something to make this place more…jolly.’

‘Jolly?’

He grinned.  ‘Just think about it a lot as you’re falling asleep.  Just try, what harm could it do?’  His mood was infectious.

‘Okay, okay, I’ll try.’

So that night, after Dash finally shut up trying to ‘prep’ me, I closed my eyes and thought about a picture I had seen in the Palace.  It was a rail carriage, in fact the first Royal rail carriage.  It was in a small plain frame amongst far more ornate paintings but the simplicity of it had struck me.  The Queen, who had taken to accompanying me on my walks around the Palace, had told me that it was one of her favourite art works. I thought about the clean lines, the detail of it as I drifted off.

It worked; at least, the picture had appeared in my dream.  Upon waking, I scrambled for my notebook and pen and wrote down everything I could remember about the dream.  It was more fragmented than my other ‘prediction’ dreams but of course, I wouldn’t know for a while if this was like them or not.  Dash was excited when I told him – and a little smug.

It was a study day and the message came during lunch.  The Chaplain wanted to see me.  I sat in his dimly lit office, wondering if he would notice if I pilfered some of his books.  He was a kindly man, usually with some sort of food stuck in his beard and a perpetually surprised look thanks to an errant eyebrow.  He wore a monocle which fell out with the slightest movement.

‘Cybille, I have some wonderful news.’  He shifted excitedly in his chair.  ‘Her Majesty will be presenting you with the highest honour she can bestow.’ He smiled at the expression on my face.  ‘There will be an official presentation ceremony on Friday. I trust you’re free.’

‘Yes, sir.  Thank you.’ My voice came out squeaky.  He chuckled and stood, shaking my hand.

‘We are all so very proud of you, Billie.’

The ceremony was overwhelming.  So many emotions and when Her Majesty pinned the small cross to my chest, I felt like I was flying.  She requested a private audience with me afterwards.  She greeted me warmly.

‘Billie, I have a gift for you.’

I started to protest but she waved my words away.  She handed me something draped with fabric.  When I removed the cover, it was the painting.

‘A little gift from a friend to a friend.  I know you admired it.’ I was still shaking when I was led from the room.

Outside the Palace a man was waiting.  Tall, formal in a tweed suit, a neatly clipped moustache.  The footman with me nodded at him and melted away.Eugene_Ivanov_2431

‘Major C-, may I speak with you?’

We sat in a small café, one of the few left still in business.  The man had bought me a cup of tea.  He had nothing.

‘Major…’

‘Please, Billie.  And you are?’

He smiled and said nothing.  I stared at him, confused.

‘You have been having dreams, yes?’  I almost dropped my cup.

‘How…?’

He smiled. ‘I have observed you since the assassination attempt.’

That was unsettling. ‘Who are you?’

‘Think of me as an…observer.’

‘And you won’t tell me your name?’

‘I’m sorry.’

I was silent for a moment then sighed.  What harm could it do?

‘Yes, I have been having dreams.’

He nodded. ‘Pre-cognitive dreams.  That’s why you were able to save the Queen.  How many others?’

‘Three.  That I’ve been aware of anyway.  The last one was about this painting.’

He glanced down at the frame, resting by my feet.

‘The thing is,’ I squirmed a little, ‘I sort of…caused the last one.  I mean, I deliberately forced myself to dream of this painting.’

The look on his face made me feel worse.  ‘It was an experiment, to see if…’  My voice trailed off.  I felt horribly guilty.

‘Billie, you have a gift.’  He raised his hand at the waitress, who skittered over with a fresh pot of tea and a cup for him.  Clearly he was a regular here.  He topped up my cup and poured his own.  ‘I have seen it before.’

That stopped me. ‘There are others like me?’

‘A few.  And I’m going to tell you what I have told every one of them. Whatever the dream, whatever the outcome, do not act upon it, do not save those who are doomed.’  His voice was hard.

I gaped at him. ‘What?’

‘I believe I have made my point.’

I couldn’t speak.  He took pity on me.

‘Billie, every action has consequences.  Consequences that you cannot possibly imagine.  Everything happens for a reason.  Are you ready to take responsibility for the consequences of your actions?’

I couldn’t believe this.  Less than an hour after being feted, awarded for my actions, this man was now telling me I shouldn’t have interfered, that I should have let the Queen, Dash, all those people, myself, die at the hands of the assassin.

‘I know this seems harsh.  Imagine this, imagine the pendulum of a clock.  It swings one way and it always, always Billie, swings back the other way.’

Later on, staring at the picture now on the wall of our room, I thought about his words.  How, how could I be wrong to save a life?  Had anything bad happened since?  Not that I knew of.  I ignored the obvious point there.  I slid my hand under my pillow and felt the little metal cross.  I had done a good thing, I was sure of it.  I didn’t dream that night.

A few days later, something happened, something rare but always welcome. A God-ray.  It had happened a few times, light from our hidden sun would break through the Corruption and cast a ray of golden warmth down on the city.  It was beautiful.  Everything stopped and people would crowd onto the street to watch the phenomena.  It would only last for a few minutes but it caused so much joy.  I looked at the people around me, their faces cast up to the light and an idea began to form.  I started to walk back to the barracks when I saw him. The Observer was watching.

Dash commented on my distraction at dinner.  I grunted back at him.  So many thoughts in my head, so much to consider.  I scanned the newspapers everyday to find evidence that my actions had caused something bad to happen – and could find none.

More and more the dreams came – some I didn’t react to, others I couldn’t not take action.  I could not watch a child mown down by a carriage in the street, or watch an old man be beaten to death for his pocket watch.  I began to not check the papers so much, not consider the Observer’s words.  I liked it too much, being a hero.  Dash basked in my glory too, but surprisingly, not for himself.

I got back after patrol one night to find a small table set up in our room and a nervous Dash, hopping from foot to foot.

‘I just thought someone should do something for you for a change.’

Our relationship was very different after that night.

634px-Nelson's_Column_during_the_Great_Smog_of_1952Despite my happiness, the Corruption continued to thicken, casting a deeper pall over us all.  As the world darkened, the fight over gas supplies started wars overseas.  Our city held on by the skin of its teeth.  The University closed, all of its funding rerouted to keeping the populace warm.  Our patrols began to get more dangerous.  With my ‘gift’, I tried to do as much as I could but the sheer number of people in trouble now overwhelmed me.  I wished I could do more, something bigger, to help more people.  I began to wonder if the Observer was able to read my mind because he showed up after almost every time I used my gift.  Usually, he just stared at me in a way that made me feel as if I was back at my father’s knee.

Then the unthinkable happened.  Dash disappeared.  On a solo patrol he simply didn’t return.  I was inconsolable.  I spent days, and nights, searching the city for him.  Nothing.

Time moved on, the city darkened.  After a week passed, with no sleep, my friends intervened.  Under sedation in a hospital room, nothing seemed real.  Visitors drifted in and out.  Even the Queen visited but the sedation was so heavy, I barely registered the fact.

Then one day, The Observer came.  I was more lucid now, having achieved some level of resignation.  He knocked politely.

‘May I sit with you a while?’

I shrugged and nodded.  We sat in silence.

‘I’ve lost my dreams.’

He nodded.  ‘Under the circumstances, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.’

I studied him for a time. ‘Who are you?  Will you tell me now?’

He hesitated.  ‘Billie, I am no-one, an observer.  I’m not with any sort of organisation; I’m just someone who takes an interest.’

I shook my head.  ‘You know too much, that can’t be all.’Eugene_Ivanov_2445

‘Billie, as I tried to explain, none of us know anything.  Why do you think we haven’t come up with a way to combat The Corruption?  Because we don’t know what caused it or why it happened.  Without that knowledge, we can’t fight it…or embrace it.’

‘Embrace it?’ I was stunned.

His voice was soft when he spoke. ‘We have no proof that it is a malevolent force.  Despite the blocking out of the sun, despite the pollution, how do we know now what lies behind it?  It is the same with your gift – how do you know that by saving one life, you are not damning another?  You cannot ‘see’ all, Billie, but you can see that your actions have reactions.  In that way you can make a choice.’

I stared at him. He smiled and stood.

‘I know you will make the right choice.  Your dreams will return, Billie.  Take care with them.’

My dreams returned that same night. Strange, disjointed images.  Dash – on the glider, healthy, smiling then on the ground, crumpled, broken.  I awoke, struggling to keep my screams under control.  I slumped back onto the pillows and soon entered that twilight between awake and sleep.  Now I was hunting, searching every part of the city. My eyes squinted through the all-pervasive gloom.  It was light I needed. I looked up into the sky.  In my hypnogogic state, I remembered the God-rays. In my dream, holes began to appear in the Corruption.  Sun-light streamed through the murky fog.  Where the light hit the Earth, I saw him…but there were many, many versions of him, none of them completely human.  I ran from one to the other but each had something missing – an eye replaced with a clock face, an arm with the arm of an automaton.  Each replicant jabbered in a nonsensical language.  More sun broke through, more replicants until the sheer number of both overwhelmed and…

I awoke to bright sunsMilky_Way-Andromeda_Collision_close-uphine.  Sunshine.  I leapt out of bed and looked out of the window.  There was no question, the Corruption was breaking up.  Throwing on my clothes, I ran out to the street – where people were cheering.  Dancing.  I gazed around at the joyful faces.  So much happiness.  I relaxed.  How could this be a bad thing?  Now I had the light I needed to find Dash.

But Dash would not be found.  I searched far beyond the city but could find no sign of him.  The population continued to celebrate.  Street parties were held, with masters of ceremonies keeping the party-goers updated on the Corruption’s dissolution.  The heavy smog was lifting a little more each day, the air seemed cleaner, the brighter stars were shining through. The Queen ordered a day of celebration and a relaxation of rationing cheered a hungry nation. I continued my search for Dash during the daylight hours, falling into bed every night so exhausted that if I dreamt at all, I didn’t remember it.

 

The day the Corruption disappeared for good changed everything.  We Red_Giant_Earth_warm copylooked up, out, into a galaxy that had changed beyond all recognition. Galileo Galilei would not have known this universe.  The sky was crowded with new planets, new moons.  The light we had thought came from stars came from vast civilisations on these new earths.  Our own moon was dwarfed by these behemoths. But that wasn’t the worst of it.  From far beyond these news worlds, darkness came, a vast black mass. Visible to the human eye and hurtling towards us at unimaginable speed, this was a wrecking ball.  It would wipe out everything in its path. And we were most definitely in its path.800px-A_Horseshoe_Einstein_Ring_from_Hubble

I stood amongst the hushed crowds and I understood what The Observer had meant. The Corruption, as poisonous as it was, had been a protection.  A physical one –who knew what properties the smog could have repelled? Or was it a blindfold before the execution.

Man is a strange creature.  Even then, with death looming, mankind expected that something would intervene to save us.  Churches, mosques, temples full to bursting.  We knew we had at the most a few days left but still we hoped.  We believed.

Blink. Blink. Blink.  One by one, the gaslamps go out.  From the impenetrable darkness, a rush, a roar, building to a crescendo rushes towards me.  A berserker scream rips through my head but I cannot move. It is coming.

AmCyc_Nebula_-_Stellar_Nebula

Inexorably, mercilessly, the other world tumbles towards the Earth.  Black oceans, silver continents squirming like mercury upon them.  I look away, heartsick, and see the people, their faces contorted with unseeing terror.  They have lost their direction, their reason.

Then I see him.  Panama hat, tweed suit, fob watch.  He nods at me slowly.

‘See?’  For once a question, not a direction. He turns to go.

‘Wait,’ I call to him. He stops. ‘At least tell me your first name.  What harm could that do now?’

He smiles. ‘John.  My name is John.’

I look up to the destroying angel above us. I understand.  This is the end of days and it’s all my fault.

I’m sorry, I’m so sorry…I

 

 

 

 

 

The End

Images courtesy of Wikimedia/Eugene Ivanov

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