by Cat Hellisen


We must be close to New Londinium by now. The jungle is thinning and this little clearing is as good a place as any to stop and rest. My current employer sits hunched on a fallen log thick with fungi and bottle-green creeping vines. She holds her hands against her face, palms over her eyes. Her hair has turned black as feathers.

“You all right, there?” I say to Louise. There’s a ghost ache between my shoulder blades, like I can feel what she’s feeling.

“Shut up, Attery,” she says through her fingers.

The change hurts, I remember that much and there’s naught I can say that will fix her. I settle down to keep watch – there’s clans out as well as the scientist-things. Chankly Bore isn’t quiet, but I know all the noises it makes. The peeping tree frogs and night birds and hooting monkeys are enough to make my eyelids heavy. Leastwise there’s no breaking branches, and no growling of army machines.

Louise is probably crying now – the way her shoulders are shaking – but she’s one of them that keeps her sobs silent. When I met her, back when she was going mental about breathing in spore, she still had a face on her like a stone pony. Course, she was also mostly human. Thought she was above me.

I shrug off my jacket and straighten my wings. They’re ragged as fuck, and they leave shiny gas-blue scales all over my fingers. Soon they’ll be past healing. I flap them slow-like, and wait for the blood to pump through. Even though I know it’s a dumb-fuck thing to do, I look over my shoulder at what’s left of my wings. They’re not looking too sweet. Shit. I flap harder.

“Stop doing that,” Louise says, her hands still over her face. “I can hear you from here.”

“You can’t hear shit,” I say, but then again it might be truths, could be already that her hearing’s getting all sharp. I don’t know how her change is going to go. I should try be kinder, like keeping a death watch over a sick dog. “You feel lighter yet?” If her change goes anything like mine, her bones will turn hollow and light, easy to break. Good for flying though.

“Shut up,” she says. “I am not turning into some revolting bug.”

Butterfly, I think to say, but she knows that already. She thinks she’s better’n me because she comes from the Smoke and she has a ma and da and two brothers. Or had. They’re all gone now. Eaten up by the war and the Chankly Bore jungle and the spore.

She’s a strange one though, even before she lost her gasmask. Wearing boy’s clothing and dressed all in grey. I’ve never seen girls who weren’t all in frocks and spangles and trying to look made-up as the Queen Vickys.

“Do you think they’ll catch us?” Louise says after a while.

I shrug, even though she still has her back turned to me. “May be.” I don’t bother telling her there’s worse than scientist-things all rigged up in sporesuits and carrying stun guns.

My old mates will be wandering about, looking for humans who’re too far gone and putting them out of their misery – and getting fresh meat in the bargain. If ever there’s a good enough reason to not sit too long – it’s that. I don’t fancy being no-one’s supper. “You ready to go on?”

“Yes.” Louise tries to stand like it’s nothing, but her back is all hunched and it’s easy to see the way the bones are shifting. Even her face looks stretched and sharp. She takes her hands away from her eyes, and there’s no hiding it now. They’re black and oily and shiny. Crow eyes.

“Attery?” My name is all awkward in her mouth, and she spits out teeth.

“Yeah?” I’ll wait to gather the little white pegs after she’s turned around. The ivory makes good buttons.

“We’re going to die, aren’t we?”

Curse the Queens who go and put me in this position. I’ve never been one to like making a girl cry. “Do I look like a deck of cards?” I say. “I don’t know your future, or even mine. I do know enough that sitting around here isn’t going to do us any good.”

A scream sounds out in the jungle, somewhere behind us.

“That’s them,” she says. “I know it is.”

“So let’s move, lover.”

Louise is trying to get back to New Londinium, even though it’s been bombed to fuck and back again. I must have been stupider than usual when I went and agreed to guide her through the jungle. Offered me a hard-boiled egg and a deck of fortune cards as payment – and well, it’s been long enough since I et an egg, and the cards will be worth something. Still makes me an idiot.

I was hoping to keep her change slow, keep her sane. It always works faster out in the wilds so I got us on one of the trains that still run. It would have taken us sweet straight to the Smoke, and no side trips into Chankly Bore. We lasted all of two stops before some fucker called us in.

Even wearing long coats and low hats, we must have been not human enough. We had to scarper and now we’re miles and miles from Babylon and there’re catchers after us. We’re hot property. In this war, anyone who starts to change catches the attention of the scientist-things.

See, once you breathe in the spore from the old beasts – you got two choices, only there’s no choice at all and the one’s as bad as the other.

Some people go mad; madder than, mad as, and totally fucking insane. They’re the ones who have to be tied up all day and kept knocked out in case they start trying to eat themselves alive.

And then there’s us. The people who start to go different, who go past madness and come out the other side, all touched by the beasts in the Space Between, and never, never the same.

We’re special, at least that’s what the army says. We can go back into the Space Between, and we won’t get any madder. That’s why the catchers want us. They want us to fly their machines back into the dark and the madness and fight the old beasts. Like that will make any difference.

“How many miles do you think we still have to go?” Louise’s voice has gone flat, unhuman.

“No idea.” Chankly Bore is growing faster than dutchman’s pipe, spreading out from the centre blast zone and swallowing all the cities and villages and farms. For all I know the jungle has already reached the Smoke, and et her up just the same. We could be walking through what’s left of the city.

“Fat lot of good you are,” she says. “I don’t know why I hired you-”

Yellow light blasts out of the greeny dark, and it cuts right across our faces and blinds me stupid.

“Stop where you are,” says a man’s voice, made bigger and machine-like. “We’ve got you surrounded.”

And just how did they manage to sneak up on me on my own turf, the bastards? They had to be using shields. Hardly fair to the likes of us when the scientist-things go and use magic too. I put my hands up all slow-like. It’s too late to see if my fucked-up wings will manage a flight now. They’ll shoot me down. They don’t need me to be able to walk or fly; all I need to be able to do is keep my finger on a trigger.

Men walk out of the shadows of vines and trunks, and only now can I hear their weird breathing and the crackle of the black plastic suits. Definitely had one of the court mages shielding them, then.

He’s standing back from them, wearing leather gauntlets and a mud-slick coat. He’s holding out a piece of vellum. The edges are charring under all the stress he’s put it through. The vellum catches fire and he drops it to the ground, where it curls and smokes. The last of the spell ends, and all around us is a crowd of helmeted men with their beeping wands and other mechanical shit.

“Keep your hands up,” says the nearest one and next to me Louise lifts her hands higher and higher and her bones crack in her back as her new wings push out of her skin.

“Attery,” she says in a fast little whisper through what’s left of her teeth. Her face is looking beakish, and her eyes are black. “What are they going to do to us?”

“Whatever they want.” We’re caught up in their stupid war against the great old beasts that come roaring thought the Space Between, whether we like it or not. I hold my head up high and get a good look at the mage what sold us out. Never trust a Queen’s Jack, for sure.

He takes another piece of vellum from his leather shoulder bag, and folds it neat as can be, his eyes glazed away behind the plastic face mask. The vellumancy takes hold, and Louise and me are tied up magic-tighter than those poor mad buggers in Bedlam City. We can’t even move a finger or a hair. The scientist-things load us into packing cases, and everything goes dark.

When the jolting stops I know that we’re finally off the dirt jungle path and onto one of the old roads. They’ve packed me in right careful, my wings wrapped, loads of padding all about to cushion me, so it hasn’t been all bad. Guess they’ve done much the same with Louise, and since there’s naught to do but lie here and ponder how everything managed to go so wrong, I decide to sleep instead. I’ve never been one for trying to scrape spilled water back into a jug.

The mage opens our crates and drops the spell off us. We’re in a clean white room, empty and sterile. He’s the only one there, which is surprising enough.

“Don’t do anything really fecking stupid.” He sounds like he hasn’t slept in days. Looks it too, now that the mask is gone and I can see his face, as naked and honest as a mage’s can get. “I asked them if I could speak to you alone first, and it took every threat and promise I could think of to get them to agree.”

I push myself out of the crate, little spongey packer-things dropping off me like the strangest snow in the world. “Seemed to work.”

He shakes his head and makes a sound almost like a laugh. “Not really. Had to go and beg a favour off Vicky.” He stares at me, and for all that he looks tired and drained and older than he should, his eyes are right sharp. “Know what that means?”

“You got yourself a Queen’s debt to pay off.” He’s a Queen’s Jack, with no more right to his name than a dog.

“Too true.”

It means: this is important. That getting us alone is bigger even than this mage’s ego and life, because he’s sold himself to the Queen. I don’t like that none. Don’t like the implications, if you get my meaning. I turn away from the mage and help Louise out of her crate. Gives me an excuse to get a good look at just how far she’s gone. Her face isn’t even a little human anymore. She’s a starling-headed girl with useless baby-bird wings, all bare and goosey, with just the stubs of feathers ready to grow. Her white shirt is bunched up by the new wings, and the skin I can see on her stomach and chest is still girl-soft. That’s how the change is – you stay mostly human, just not human enough.

Louise tilts her head. “Bad?”

“You’ll look better once the feathers grow in.” And she’s luckier than me, though it’s not something I’ve told her. She’ll work it out for herself, soon enough. Birds live longer than bugs, after all. “More important,” I say, “This here Queen’s Jack wants to have a little chat with us, all private like, before we’re sent into the Space Between to go blow old beasts out of the darkness.”

The Queen’s Jack curls his hands up tight when I say this. He’s still wearing those thick leather gauntlets. Maybe he’s also less than human. “Not blow them up,” he says. “Though that is what you’re meant to be doing. That’s what the army will think you’re doing.”

Mages. Never can give you a straight bloody answer. Carefully, I straighten Louise’s feathers, since she’s too thick to do them herself. “You’ll need a proper shirt,” I say to her. One that can take wings.

“We’ll provide all that,” says the mage. “You need to take them a message.” He says it fast and soft, like he’s worried that somehow, someone will be breaking the Queen’s trust and recording all this.

Louise caws, and it takes me a second and a half to work out she’s laughing. “A message – to the old beasts? How? Are you insane?”

And truth be told, I’m wondering if he’s been at the spore himself. The old beasts are nightmare things, madness-bringers, bigger than cities, some of them. We’re not exactly talking the same language, if you get me.

The mage actually grins at that, like he’s got an old-fashion trick up his sleeve. “Magic,” he says.

“Don’t piss about.”

“I’m going to put the message in your heads,” he says, and I don’t like the sound of that any more than you think – it’s bad enough to be turned half-way into a giant butterfly and press-ganged into a war I couldn’t give two shits about. I don’t need a mage scrabbling about in my brainpan on top of that.

“You fucking won’t,” I say.

“It’s really not as bad as you think. Once it’s in, you won’t even know its there. It’ll only activate when you’re in close proximity to one of the Nar.”

“Means it’ll work when we get close to the old beasts,” says Louise, and I’d be happy to thump her for that. Just how stupid does she think I am?

“And what do we get out of this?” Because sure as shit he’s going to do this whether we say yay or nay, but I’d like to know there’s at least something half-way shiny in this for me.

“If I’m right,” he says. “You’ll get to live.”

Well, there you go then. It’s shiny enough.

Ten days later my pea coat is probably in a rubbish heap somewhere, along with the rest of my mouldy old crap. The scientist-things have us kitted out in hightech. The suits are smooth as an inner tyre and body-tight, and the wing slits easy to use.

They’ve fed us well, and even my broken wings have been repaired with biostruts. I’m tired though. I can’t sleep right. My head is full of things that shouldn’t be there, and no matter what that damn mage said, my dreams are all the wrong shape and colour.

“Odd.” Louise plucks at her hightech leg covers.  The rubber twangs back against her thigh, and she looks up at me. The feathers have all grown in proper now, and her wings are sleek as her suit. Her buttonglass eyes don’t give anything away, but she seems calm enough.

“It’s just going to get weirder.”

Louise clacks her beak.

There are boots in the passages. They’re coming now. We’re going to be strapped down in the ship they’ve made to travel into the Space Between.

The door opens and the scientist-things walk in. The Queen’s Jack is with them, but he don’t bother looking at us. His leather hands are full of vellum. We follow them out, quiet as lambs, to the Nar-space transporter.

The room is small – just big enough to hold a small gunship. They only have the one. Its hatch is open, and it looks like a trapjaw insect, black and spiky and glitter-threatening.

“You first,” says a scientist-thing, and points at Louise. He hasn’t bothered to learn our names. Can’t right blame him.

Louise gives me a backward look. “Thanks,” she says. “For trying.” Her voice is flat, and maybe that’s the crow talking, or maybe she just don’t care anymore.

“Yeah,” I say, because really, what else is there? We’re fodder now. And this message isn’t going to save us or no one else. Maybe I’ll believe the mage knows what he’s doing if Louise comes back hale and all together. Maybe.

Once she’s seated, the scientist-things swarm around her, checking this and that and tightening her in place, and giving her last-minute warnings and all that shit. Louise don’t nod or nothing, but I see her look once at the mage, and click her beak like she’s nervous.

Then the hatch is closed, and everyone swarms out of the room, ’til it’s just the gunship and the mage standing outside it. He’s laying out his vellum in a fanned-out circle, and his mouth is moving, though I can’t hear nothing from behind the big glass windows. He’s careful to keep outside his circle, but there’s still a chance the gate he opens could suck him through and then he’s dead as dead.

He steps back, and the vellum flares. The pages stay burning, unnatural-like, and we watch and wait. I can still just make out the gunship thought the fire, all hazy, like a mirage.

When the flares finally die, the gunship snaps back into focus. It’s scratched and battered, smoking. The hatch opens, and inside is empty.

The mage don’t look at me, just sets to laying out a new pattern with his damned papers.

“Next,” says the same scientist-thing who sent Louise to her death. I feel like I just doused my head in a pail of ice water. I do what he says – it’s this, or nothing. They lead me in to the machine, strap me tight. The message the mage imprinted into my head is blaring peace peace peace, but I’m thinking hard over it, trying to drown it out. There’s no peace for us. Not as long at the Nar are out there.

“Once you’re across, we’ll lose all comms, so you need to know exactly what you’re doing,” the scientist-thing says. It’s not like he has to tell me this, Louise and me spent the last ten days simming. I could fly this fucker in my sleep. The hatch closes, and the dark glass makes it look like I’m at the bottom of a lake. Drowning. I thumb the gun control gentle-like, wondering how they expect me to kill one of the old beasts.

The mage don’t expect it at all. He said, just drift in, just get close. You won’t register as a threat if you don’t start shooting. That’s how small we are.

Insignificant, Louise said, and that’s a good word. A right and true one. Did Louise get in close – or was she blasted from life even though she was insignificant?

Guess I’ll find out soon enough.

The room is empty now, just that mage looking at me through the dark glass, his face all twisted-like. He nods once, and then he’s gone, hidden behind a wall of fire.

Everything disappears.

I’m drifting through the Space Between – Nar-space, the scientist-things call it. It’s not really darkness, it’s more like angles and planes that don’t sit right in your brain, and colours that don’t make sense, and everything warps all wrong, and so it’s easier to see nothing. Nar-space feels like the jelly inside an eyeball, like drowning in diesel and rainbows.

I shut down the engines, take my thumb off the firing button. The little gunship spins about, leaf-lazy. I don’t even right know if there are any old beasts out in this part of madness. I could just be flying around forever, until I come back all mummified.

The gunship hits something, and bounces off. I spin upside down, and thank Vicky and all her minions I’m strapped in tighter than a moth in a spider’s web.

A silver light, thin as a fishing line, cuts through the dark. It comes to me and wraps around the nose of my gunship. I’m frozen. Damn the mage and all his stupid ideas, I should just start shooting and try take at least one with me when I go. My thumb squeezes down, just the smallest bit. The peace peace peace is bugling inside my head and I squeeze harder but my body don’t listen.

Fine, I think, and take my hand off the trigger. If I’m going to go to my death, it may as well be a choice I make, and not one some fucker in a court or a laboratory made for me. I unclip all the buckles, and let myself go.

“Come on, then,” I yell to the madness. “She’s dead. I’m as good as. Come on and do it clean, cleaner than those bastards back in the real world.”

I’m tired of scientist-things and mages using me for their god-damned war and not even having the decency to ask me my bloody name first.

“I’m Attery St John, you fuckers.” I bow to the shapes in the darkness. “A pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

More silver lines come for me, wrapping my gunship up like a silkworm.

A panel of dark glass cracks, and one of the fishing line things is inside, nosing about, blind as can be. I can’t close my eyes. Not since I changed, and all I can do is float here, and let the old beast eat me.

It prods at my face, and the touch of it is a trigger. The thing the mage stuck in my head breaks open and the hatch fills with magic. The tendril pulls back, puffing a cloud of spore. The spore and magic meet, and I can feel them both tearing through my brain, mixing up.

They’re talking.

They’re honest to Queens fucking talking.

They talk for longer than years, and just seconds, and then the tendrils turn to me and hold my face, gentle. They’re tapping at me, all playful, and the air is full of spore and I’m choking on it but it’s sweet and good and I can see the past and present and future and everything.

~stay?~ they say inside my head. ~pretty here. safe~

And I think, well, why the fuck not. And the hatch opens and I’m in the Space Between, but I’m all right-like, and the silver fishing lines have me, and then I’m inside-

Oh, inside the old beasts and there is Louise, bright and shiny black, her beak open in a bird smile.

She’s real as real, and I wasn’t expecting the feeling that runs through me now, a human thing – relief. All around us, the Nar touch and talk, explain the world in new dimensions, taking away our deaths and giving us a new kind of sanity, one that even Queen Vicky with her court mages wouldn’t understand.

I drift up to Louise, my wings spreading, growing bigger and bluer and that’s okay because right here right now, that’s as it should be.

There’s nothing strange about being a boy who is also a butterfly, or being a starling who is also a girl.

~yes~ say the old beasts in the tones of parents who have been trying to explain simple things to small children.

“I could have pressed the trigger,” I say to Louise.

“He didn’t think you would.”

Never trust a mage. Not even the ones on your side. I smile. I wonder if the scientist-things know what it was he did right under their noses. If the Queen knows what her debt really bought her. How many more of the changelings will he send through before Queen Vicky cottons on and hangs him as a traitor, I wonder.

It doesn’t matter.

There are others already here. We were not the first.

We won’t be the last.

We are in the beasts now, and we are them and they are us and one day there will be a new world, and we will go back, and New Londinium will be the jungles and the Space Between and Bedlam and Babylon and we will all have changed.

And perhaps, like gods, we will raise the dead.

Copyright © 2012 by Cat Hellisen

[hana-code-insert name=’ArticleBlockOpen’ /]

Cat Hellisen

Cat Hellisen lives by the sea and writes about people. She accepts gifts of alcohol and truffles.

[hana-code-insert name=’ArticleBlockClose’ /]

2 Responses to “Jack of Spades, reversed”

  • Unbelievable talent here. My very first read of Cat’s and not disappointed, but hungry for more. I devoured this in one sitting. This was fantastic.

  • MJG:

    Liked this a lot, cool mixture of the bizarre- though couldn’t help wishing there was a better name for the ‘scientist-things’. Felt a bit cumbersome.