The interior of the sphere was a mess and had been ever since it had been flung from Hope. It was roomier than it looked from the outside but was still cramped. Pieces of chrome-shine equipment were littered across steel work surfaces and silver shelves that hugged the concave walls. The shelves were not flat - that was impossible - but nothing fell. Nothing moved at all. And nothing made a sound, not even the yoghurt-faced little boy who sat at the middle of the sphere on no discernible floor. He didn't float; his legs were crossed and were clearly resting on something, but whatever it was, it wasn't visible because it wasn't actually there.
The boy's head was in his hands. He sat in silence, his elbows on his knees, his eyes, more a pair of dark depressions than eyeballs, like little pieces of dark fruit just below the surface of the yoghurt, were cast down, staring at the floor that wasn't there. He remembered Hope, remembered the feeling of excitement at the new beginning. Remembered his parents.
This was Christmas Day, an event they had embraced on Hope. They'd had seven of them before the crash. Seven Christmas Days after years of black and then that one light in the darkness. Seven years to reach it, not so much time; there was not even a risk of anyone going hungry before they could get there. Not even close to losing hope, not even close to the final hour, the final chance. They had years and years of supplies. They could have moved on.
But they had come and their four ships had found four tiny missiles and one huge crash.
But at first the missiles were years away. No one on Hope knew. Did anyone on the others? It was strange: all four ships were in regular contact with people all over the Earth, the humans' social media made it possible, but the People on the different ships rarely communicated across the void. Just the astro-navs and plotters. The people on the Earth assumed they were all the same, just like the People on the ships assumed all the people on the Earth were the same.
They should have known. If the Earth’s cultures separated themselves into new countries, agreed to be walled away from others, agreed to segregation in their New USA and their Middle East, then why would the People be any different?
Four ships. Four cultures. The promise of one shared future that many had thought impossible. The crash had solved any arguments.
Jermaine shifted slightly, shuffled his feet to try to shift the ache that he was barely aware of. The boy looked at his slack face, the pale, sunken cheeks, the docile curve of his mouth. 'Merry Christmas,' he said to the man. Jermaine didn't respond, just stood and waited for further instruction like he always did. The boy pitied him. Jermaine was used too much. It was her, she who was not from Hope but still hoped, she needed too much.
Kyle surveyed the dining hall. There was discomfort. Whispers passed amongst the diners, spread between tables. They lowered their heads as they tittled and tattled, looking to each other from beneath frowning brows. Some looked to the top table, stole glances of Tash, her weapon arm, her shining, golden head, the black cable that connected the two. She was a freak at their Christmas dinner.
Claire was the other side of her, not eating. She stared out at the dining hall, seeing the same things Kyle saw.
‘Excuse me,’ Kyle said. ‘I’ll not be long.’ He slipped away.
All heads turned as he left and a hush fell on the gathering. Christmas dinner was over.
‘Where does he go?’ Tash whispered to Claire. A plate had been brought for Tash but she had not touched the food.
‘I don’t know,’ Claire replied.
They waited, the silence slowly replaced by the hum of quiet conversation. Claire could hear that it was mostly questions.
Kyle returned, walking boldly through the door, carrying a pot. Claire recognised it immediately, as did many others in the room. It was the salt from the chamber, the salt he used for the stripings.
At first Tash didn’t realise. She looked from Kyle to Claire and to the crowd of staring faces. And then she understood.
‘No,’ she said. ‘No!’
Claire grabbed her by the arm, the weapon arm, held it down and held her still. ‘You must’ve realised,’ she whispered in Tash’s ear. ‘He can’t be seen to do nothing. The members will question your treatment if you’re not striped.’
Tash glared over her shoulder at Claire. ‘No!’ she spat. ‘I’ll not let him.’ The laser from her weapon discharged involuntarily, spitting a weak beam into the floor, and scorching the tiles. The crowd flinched away but Claire held firm and Simon appeared, grabbing her flesh arm and locking her in place.
Kyle stepped forward, pulling the jagged blade from his pocket. ‘You came back,’ he said loudly enough for the crowd to hear. ‘That means something. That shows you’re committed. But we must mark your betrayal. You knew that when you ran. You must have known that when you decided to come back.’ As he lifted the blade, Simon turned the flesh of her arm towards Kyle.
‘A smaller mark that recognises your willingness to atone.’ Kyle reached forward, hooked his fingers beneath her jacket and tugged it away from her shoulder, revealing the white sleeve of her t-shirt. He cut the material with the blade, sawing at it, tearing as its teeth snagged at the material, exposing the pale flesh beneath.
Tash struggled but she was held firm. ‘No!’ she shouted. Her anger boiled. The laser fired again. Claire jumped back but held the weapon firmly. Tash could feel the heat against her leg and her foot from the blasts. She tried to contain the energy so as not to burn herself but it was so hard. Fear and anger swept through her like wildfire and it was discharged through her weapon. She was not ready for this, not ready to come here and do what she wanted to do. The heat built in her leg, burned her so that she didn’t even notice as Simon pushed her shoulder towards Kyle’s blade.
And then the teeth of the serrated edge bit into her skin and she screamed, cursing Kyle, spitting and shouting at him. The pain in her shoulder and her leg competed for her attention so she focussed on Kyle’s face, tried to ignore the pain and the fear and use her hatred to bring her weapon under control. Finally, the discharge ceased and it was just the blade dragging at the flesh below her shoulder. Just Kyle’s face staring back into hers. Just his eyes looking down at her, no emotion, no sign of the pleasure that she knew he took from this.
He stopped a few centimetres below her shoulder. ‘A smaller mark to show your repentance,’ Kyle said. Even though the stripe was smaller than others he had done, his hands and Tash's arm were still slick with blood. Claire moved close again, her grip on the weapon arm relaxing a little. Kyle produced the salt and without ceremony poured it over Tash’s wound. Tash screamed again, her weapon arm twitching and the laser firing down into Claire’s boot. The woman cried out in surprise and pulled away from Tash, but she kept her grip on the weapon and held it still.
Kyle rubbed the salt into the wound. ‘With pain we heal!' he yelled across the dining hall. He squeezed and pressed the crystals into the bloody wound, Tash struggling, screaming, swearing, spitting her fury, a cat in a cage.
The dining hall was silent. Some had turned away but most stared fixedly at the scene, their Christmas meal forgotten, the blood-red dregs of wine in the glasses ignored. One, Steph, the woman who had taken supplies to Ben the previous summer, stood and made to leave.
'Sit down!' Kyle barked. He still held his hand against the wound on Tash's upper arm. Steph returned to her seat, her head down, cheeks flushed. Kyle yelled at the members, 'We do this together. We all heal.' Slowly, Tash's screams turned to sobs and then to whimpers as he finally finished pushing the salt into her wound.
Kyle turned his back on Tash and faced the crowd and held up his bloody hand. 'With pain we have been healed.' The silent, staring faces of the members looked back at him. 'Dinner's over,' he said. 'Time to get to back to your duties.'
A banging on the outer hull of the sphere brought a sharp intake of breath and made the boy flinch just a little, the tips of his fingers pressed into the pale flesh of his cheeks. But he didn't lift his head.
The one knocking had accepted the boy's story, that he hadn't helped Stella Reeve to escape, that it had been an accident. Kyle had accepted it but still hadn't forgiven him and his temper was terrifying; it had a life of its own as if existed outside of him as well as inside. It drove him, gave him strength, made him seem terrible.
The boy knew he had made him worse, had known it even as he had carried out the work on the man's body. He'd given this raging flesh the kind of strength that nothing but angels should ever have.
There were enough demons in every corner of the galaxy without making more.
He would be shouting, the boy knew. He couldn't get in here, couldn't hurt him. He could survive in the sphere for years if he needed to, wait the man out, let him die, let the ones who died and walked come take him.
Sighing, the boy lifted his head and stared blank-faced at the wall. He stood, moved to another work surface, reached to the control terminal fixed there, flicked a switch.
'... can't stay in there forever!' the voice was shouting. The boy flicked another switch and Kyle’s face and thumping fists appeared on the curved wall of the sphere. He was angry. But when wasn’t he? The boy stared at his face, his wide eyes, his huge flaring nostrils, his shouting mouth, wide open, revealing white teeth. Little flecks of spit shot out in random bursts as he yelled. Behind him was an arch of fairy lights over the doorway into the House, a Christmas concession not extended to the boy’s sphere.
They called him the Engineer. He was the yoghurt-faced boy who had shown himself to Stella at the end of the summer when she had fought with Kyle and the red-haired woman. Abbie. The Engineer had been made to fix her as well. Another monster created to add to the galaxies of monsters.
What were two more? And there was always Claire to temper him. After Kyle had ranted and raved for weeks when the Engineer had helped Stella escape, only Claire’s interventions had prevented physical attack. It was only ever Claire who protected him. The boy liked Claire. She was pretty and kind, like a mum should be. But she wasn’t a mum, she was Claire, just Claire.
Kyle wanted him to go to the Thames Barrier and make sure it could still function, fix it if needed. It was dusk, just turning dark, a perfect time to go; Kyle didn’t allow the sphere to be taken out in the day.
And it wouldn’t take him very long; the technology for the barrier was not complicated and the solar panelling had been installed before the crash. The worst it could be was a few missing panels. The boy sighed again, let his head drop just a little, his white hands played over the switches but didn’t move any of them.
Movement behind him made him turn his head. Jermaine shuffled into view from behind stacks of equipment, his dead eyes staring to him.
‘Yes,’ said the boy as if answering an unspoken question. ‘We’re ready to go.’ He flicked the switches and without any sensation of movement, the exact same lack of sensation which saw it ejected from Hope, the sphere was gone.
Kyle stumbled forward as the sphere disappeared.
Claire, standing just behind him, reached out a hand to his shoulder to steady him but he shrugged her off. She couldn’t see his face and in the deepening gloom and she probably wouldn’t have been able to assess his mood from facial expression anyway. Without even glancing at her, he stalked away towards the House.
Before Tash's striping, Kyle had seemed to enjoy himself, had even relaxed, pleased at Tash's return, which had made up for Abbie's absence, and either not noticing or ignoring the uncomfortable looks the now-altered young woman was getting. But Claire knew that could never last. As the meal wore on, the rations of wine exhausted, the wait for the strange, almost-Christmassy pudding, all of it weighed on him. Sitting still was exactly that for Kyle and he could never do it for long. So he'd gone to get that salt. When the members had gone she'd asked him why he hadn't just used the salt that had been on their table. He'd ignored and spoken about the Barrier instead. He'd wanted to know that it would be operational by spring. It can wait till tomorrow, she'd said, but she couldn't talk him round. And when the Engineer hadn't responded immediately...
Claire fell into step behind Kyle, saw Tash just inside the doorway, her golden dome shimmering beneath the arch of white fairy lights. She didn’t smile as they approached but she didn’t flinch either. She wasn’t the same young woman who had left them more than a year ago.
The pain was obvious in her face; the stretched sunken paleness of her cheeks, the tightening around her mouth, the shadows under her eyes, the creases in the flesh of her forehead that made the golden dome move slightly.
Claire glanced to the weapon arm; it hung loosely, seeming to swing from the shoulder, a dead weight inside the sleeve of a jacket, its cuff rolled up to reveal the snub barrel of the laser. Tash noticed her attention and glared at Claire, her eyes flashing with a mixture of anger, pain and embarrassment. Claire felt sympathy for the other woman, a deep feeling in her gut that she forced herself to ignore. There was too much history between them, too much pain to start feeling sorry for her. Besides, sympathy was something Claire had forced herself to leave behind.
Except for the Engineer. Her heart ached for that boy. No matter how many times she told herself that it was for the best, that it was the only choice, that their new society, Kyle and all, would not function, would not exist without him, her heart still ached for that little boy. These were feelings she kept from Kyle; there was no point in giving him even more leverage.
'Tash,' Kyle growled as they approached the young woman. 'I need you to go to the rooftops, check over the solar panelling.'
Tash simply nodded and walked away. Claire opened her mouth to say something, to speak on Tash's behalf, to say she needed rest, to say that it was Christmas and she had been striped in front of the rest of the members, but she said nothing. In his way, Kyle had loved her, had even had a picture of her on the phone he had lost in that hotel, and so Tash’s betrayal was stronger than any other and he would test her now and forever. Christmas Day was just the first day of the rest of her miserable life.
Kyle turned on Claire. 'Get an instruction to Abbie. Tell her to go to the Barrier and check on the Engineer. I want to know that it works.'
Claire nodded. 'Are we going to make the rounds? The other Members will want to see you.'
Kyle stopped, started a loud sigh and stopped that too. He looked down on Claire. 'You're right.' He turned and headed back for the Victoria Tower and the members clearing up after Christmas dinner. When they came back into the dining hall there were murmurs of greeting which grew louder and happier as the cleaners realised that Tash, the new monster in the House, was not with them.