21st Century Icarus

Note: This was originally written for a 1st Year module at University. I think the prompt was to re-write a myth or fable. It’s also longer than the usual Friday Flash… it’s a short story, I guess. 

21st Century Icarus

Mark Johnston tucked his Blackberry into his jacket pocket, stubbed out his cigarette, flicked it onto the floor and opened the glass door to the office block. The receptionist glanced at him and mumbled something about an umbrella. He ignored her and took the lift to his office on the seventeenth floor, using the brief ride to run his hands through his thinning hair to shake out some of the water. He grunted, as the lift stopped and the doors slid open. It had been the first cigarette break he’d managed that day, and it was just his luck that it had begun to rain. Bob Hotchkins nodded at him as he walked past the photocopier, which was churning out copies of some unheard of company’s most recent financial report.

Johnston’s office was at the far end of the office, where a large glass panel enabled him to keep an eye on all those working on the top floor. Not that he did that very often; watching the people down below outside was a far more interesting hobby. He sat down at his desk, and looked at his twin monitors. One showed a mountainous landscape of share prices, which rose and fell. But mostly fell. Another had a plea for investment from an eager graduate, who was sure that his venture was the next big thing. A television was suspended above the desk, showing a BBC News live feed, and behind that a modern steel LED light fitting adorned the ceiling. Once more Johnston ran his fingers through his hair, before beginning to read the proposal. He didn’t get very far before his desk phone bleeped into life.

“It’s your wi-”

“Tell her I’m busy”

“Again?”

“Still.” He placed the phone back on the cradle, reached inside his jacket, pulled out his Blackberry and turned it off. His assistant didn’t even wait for a response after knocking before he burst in. Johnston just put up his hand and motioned for the intruder to leave. Instead the assistant placed a paper file on the desk and retreated to a corner of the room. Johnston frowned, deeply creasing his forehead. He poked the document and glanced up at the television, where the Chancellor of the Exchequer was rambling on about the state of the European economy. His assistant, Michael Eden, coughed. Johnston opened the file, even though he suspected that he already knew what it contained. There was a single sheet of paper, with a single graph on it, which showed a single black line. He picked up the paper, and stared at the line, and then through the glass at his employees, and then back at the line.

“Bugger.”

“I’m sure that we can sort this out” Michael Eden said, moving out of the corner. Johnston stood up and pulled the blind across the glass panel, blocking out his employees.

“Sort this out?” He said.

“It’s –”

“Only a massive screw up on my part”

“Look”

Johnston turned and glared at his subordinate. “No you look.” He pointed out across the City.

“It’s taken my whole bloody life to get here, here above the rest of them.”

“Mark listen. Please.” Johnston pointed at an estate on the horizon.

“From there to here. Fuckin’ rags to riches.” He held up the sheet of paper. “One bloody decision”

“Mark, we need to consider the implications of this.”

“The implications?” Johnston thrust the paper at Eden. “I’m ruined. Your ruined.” He motioned in the vague direction of his employees. “I’ve screwed them”

“We can negotiate a bail out, the Chancellor’ll help.”

“A bail out’s not good enough. The shareholders will oh shit you didn’t tell them yet did you?”

Michael shook his head.

“Good.” Johnston sighed, and undid his tie.  He gestured at the estate again. “So much for exceeding expectations. I guess the working class really aren’t suited to the corporate world.”

“It’s not cause of that”

“Don’t give me the bullshit about how we’re all equal. You don’t see Oxbridge grad’s in this position do you?” He turned away. “Even if they were, Papa would fix it” Johnston muttered.

“It’s not the end, plenty of companies have recovered from similar positions.”

Johnston laughed a little, and began to walk around the room. The Chancellor was still being interviewed, and was still talking about the fragile state of the economy. Johnston turned the television off.

“Even if we were able to recover, the company wouldn’t be the same. There’s no way that the shareholders would let me stay. Christ, I’d be back on the exchange floor, you must realise that at least.”

Mark nodded.

“You managed it once. You can do it again.”

“Who’s gonna support me this time round? No-one’s gonna invest in someone with no qualifications and an apparently bad past.”

His assistant walked to the door.

“Look, think things over, and I’ll come back in an hour or so.”

Johnston nodded. “Just kept it under wraps for now.”

The door shut and the room was quite once more. Johnston gazed out of the window, looking out over the city. The rain had stopped, and the sun had returned, the two combining to form a glossy veil over the buildings. Down below people scurried past, oblivious to what would affect their lives. It must be nice, Johnston thought, nice to be innocent. He pulled himself away from the view and left his office.

He conversed with the rest of the top floor as normal as he made his way to the lift, pausing briefly to speak to Hotchkins who had finished copying the reports and was sitting attacking one with a highlighter.

The empty lift was a moment of solitude as he rode it down to the first floor, where young graduates bustled backwards and forwards, calling to each other over the cubicle walls. He stopped one that was walking past, her arms full of reports.

“What’s your name”

“Amy”

“Cambridge or Oxford?”

“Um Durham?” Johnston grunted.

“Do you even know who I am?” She shook her head.

“Mark Johnston, the guy who built this place.”

“As in the guy from the top floor.”

He smiled. “The very same.” She shifted the papers in her arms, and put out her hand, which Johnston shook.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“Take me to your cubicle, and we’ll continue talking there.”

They weaved their way through the partitions until they reached her desk, which Johnston promptly lent against.

“Guess which University I went to.”

“Oxbridge?”

“Wrong. I didn’t go.”  She looked at him.

“Yes, I didn’t go to University, yet recruitment won’t employ anyone with less than a two one.” He laughed.

“Then how?”

“Then how did I get to control one of the most powerful investment businesses on the planet?”

“Yeah.”

“Hard bloody work.” Johnston paused. “And I had someone who told me that I could.”

“Eh?”

“My Dad.”

“Oh.”

“He said that I could. He said that I didn’t have to go work in the factory if I didn’t want to. What do your parents do?”

“Dad’s a neuroscientist and Mum’s a teacher.”

“I guess you were expected to work at a place like this then?”

“It was either investment banking or maths research. And the pay’s bigger here.” She looked around, at the people who had a phoned glued to one ear, with the other dedicated to listening to the rest of the office.

“I guess that’s why most of us are here.”

“Not me.” She glanced at his suit.

“Yes the suit cost a lot, yes my car is expensive, and yes my salary is huge.”

“Then why?”

“For my Dad. Ambition.” He gestured at the papers that she had been carrying.

“Potential investments?”

“The renewable energy industry, should bring a good return.”

Johnston looked at her and made a quick mental comparison to himself in his early twenties before continuing.

“Want to know how to get a bigger return?”

“Who doesn’t”

“Start searching for a job.”

She sniggered. “Are you firing me?”

“This place is the Titanic, and you are being given something the passengers didn’t get. A warning.” Johnston pointed at the reports and continued. “Go for short term profits now. Get in and get out.”

Amy looked at him and then at the reports.

“But they promise a high return.” Johnston grabbed one of the reports and dropped it in the bin.

“Listen to me carefully. There’s an iceberg ahead, and it’s getting closer.”

“Are we”, Amy lowered her voice “going into administration, Mr Johnston?” He nodded, his shoulders falling.

“It’s not your fault” He waved an arm across the cubicle, motioning towards the rest of the office. “It’s not theirs either.” He prodded himself.

“I’m the one who ballsed up. I put money in a venture that even a schoolboy would’ve seen was gonna fail. When they asked for more, I delivered.”

“Why?”

Johnston pointed at the report in the bin. “Long term potential, I guess.” He shook his head.

“Who’m I kidding. It was stupidity, personal greed.”

“So we’re going to sink.”

“Don’t tell anyone else, otherwise it’ll get to the media.” He shivered.

“In the meantime, you’d better start searching for a job.”

Johnston pulled himself off the desk and wandered back through the sea of cubicles to the lift.

The top floor was tranquil in comparison; a bunch of middle aged men and women in drab grey suits churning through statistical data. Johnston nodded at Hotchkins who was still sitting with his highlighter, as he walked past them to his assistant’s office. Michael put the phone down when he walked in.

“Well.”

“Schedule a press conference for tomorrow afternoon. And set up a conference call with the shareholders asap.”

Michael tapped on his keyboard, already beginning the tasks.

“What about the rest of the employees?”

“Tell them all to come in slightly earlier tomorrow. I’ll talk to them then.”

Johnston walked to the door, turned and said:

“And call my wife, tell her I’m free.”

He walked through to his office, locked the door and sat down. The desk phone bleeped.

“Thirty messages I’ve sent you. Ten missed calls. That’s one long me-”

“Are the kids with you?”

“It’s half four, of course they are. I’ve told you before, school finishes at three.”

“At home?”

“Look, are you going to tell me why you’ve been ignoring me.”

“Are you at home?”

“Yes I’m at home, now why have you been ignoring me?”

Johnston span his chair round to look out over the city.

“You know why I chose investment banking don’t you?”

“What’s this got to do with anything?”

“Dad said to follow your ambition.” Johnston coughed. “I’ve followed mine too far, Marie.”

“What are you on about, are you drunk jeez it’s only half four Mark.”

“I’ve climbed too high. What goes up must come down.”

“Talk properly for God’s sakes. Is something wrong?”

“I’ve fucked up Marie. I’ve fucked up good and proper.”

“What.”

“I put money in the wrong place. I – I – I”

“Breath Mark.”

A message popped up on Johnston’s monitor. It was his assistant informing him that the conference call would be ready in half an hour.

“The company’s gonna fall.”

“Look, I’m going to come to th-”

“No. Stay at home. The Board is phoning in a minute, anyway the kids”

“At least get a lift or taxi back when you’re finished. You’re not driving like this.”

“I’ll be late back, say goodnight to the kids for me.”

“Ok. Just don’t get upset with the Board, they’ll try and fix it.”

“It’s beyond them.”

“What would your Dad say?”

Johnston sniffed. “When the shit hits the fan, cover your head and you’ll be fine.”

“Exactly. The shit’s hit the fan and the Board will cover you.”

Another message popped up on the screen. A reminder that the call was approaching.

“I’ll see you later” His wife said.

“I said I’ll be late, don’t wait up.”

“Love you.”

“Love you.”

Johnston placed the phone back on its cradle and stood up. He walked out of his office and through the top floor, to the water cooler. He collected a glass of water and returned to his office. He locked the door again and walked over to the window.

The sky had grown cloudy, and the only area that seemed to be in the sun was a small estate on the horizon. Even though it would be a few hours before the sun would set, much of the City was covered in a dark blanket. Johnston looked out over the City, staring at the estate. He squinted, and could just about make out the puffs of smoke from the top of the factory where his Dad had worked, the smoke that was one of the causes of his Dad’s cancer. As he stared, he redid his tie and straightened his jacket.  Johnston could hear his Dad’s voice in his head as he tore himself from the window and began to pace around the room. The pride that his Dad had shown when his son had got a job not in the factory, the pride that he had shown when he had bought his first suit, the pride he had shown when his son had taken his parents to dinner, the pride his Dad had shown when the company was created.

Johnston stopped in front of the window and looked out once more. Behind him, the computer beeped. It was another message reminding him that the call would begin in ten minutes.

Johnston stood still and watched the clouds go by, stood listening to the people on the top floor working hard, and to the dull roar of the traffic down below.

In ten minutes he would destroy everything that he had ever created. He would get rid of everything he had strived for. He would ruin his Dad’s memory by failing, by failing to continue his ambition, failing to succeed.

Johnston finished the rest of the water in the glass, and put it on his desk. He pulled out a packet of cigarettes from his jacket. That was perhaps the one thing that his Dad hadn’t liked, especially when he developed lung cancer. Johnston opened the packet and took one out. He lit the cigarette and took a long drag, feeling the chemicals inside move around his body. As he smoked he checked his suit, brushed a bit of dust off and cleared his desk. He then stood up and walked to the door and reassured himself that it was locked. Michael might know that he was in a call, but he didn’t want the rest of the top floor barging in and asking for some irrelevant data. The blinds were shut, that was good; although the top floor may hear raised voices, at least they wouldn’t see him get upset.

Once more he returned to the window, leaning against it with one arm, his watch bared. He listened to the second hand tick, as the tiny complicated mechanism inside slowly moved the minute hand. The watch had been the last gift from his Dad, given only a matter of months before he had passed away. It was a simple watch, with a plain face and basic brown leather strap. A reminder that he could have been happy with a simple life, a reminder that he could have been happy without getting tangled in the corporate web. Most of all, a reminder of his father and the society that he had grown up in.

It was only a matter of minutes before the phone call when Mark Johnston decided that he couldn’t see his company fall. That he couldn’t destroy everything that his Dad had been proud of. It was his ambition, his dream, and his company. There was no way that he would let someone else run what his father had been so proud of.

Johnston finished the cigarette, and dropped it in the glass from the water-cooler. He moved his desk chair to the centre of the room, underneath the metal spotlight that was bolted to the ceiling. He undid his belt and removed it from his trousers, feeling the leather’s strength. He climbed onto the chair and wrapped the belt around the light fitting, and then round his own neck. He tied a knot and then stood on the chair.

The monitors on Mark Johnston’s desk switched to the conference call just as he said:

“Sorry Dad” and kicked the chair from beneath his feet.

N-Day: NaNoWriMo 15 is back again!

As I’ve said several times, I’ve written most of the novel that I wrote for NaNoWriMo 2015 (N-Day), but I missed out a chunk which meant that not all of it could be uploaded. The next bit is ready!

Reilly

The house was silent for several more days. Even after they had the funeral people remained subdued. Some drifted away straight after the funeral, refusing to see Reilly as their new leader. He didn’t argue with them, nor did his followers. They stood and watched as the leavers took their share of the resources and walked away.

Eventually sound returned to the house and organisation followed. The stockpiles were gradually refilled, and a few new people arrived. If and when they asked about the graves, they were told the truth. Reilly was keen to ensure that he was seen as an honest leader.

Just over a month after the funeral, when the rain was making the ground soft once more, a scout returned to the house and went straight to Reilly. He claimed that he had found the corpses of one of the groups that had left the camp.

He said that he couldn’t bring any proof because there was barely anything left of them. He said that everything they had been carrying, even their clothes, had been taken. He said that that bodies had been burnt. He only recognised one of them.

Somebody, the scout said his name was Larry, had appeared to crawl away from the fire; that he couldn’t have been dead when he was set on fire. His body was warped, the skin all pinched and twisted. But his face was vaguely recognisable. The scout described the bruises and that it had begun to decompose, and that he recognised Larry’s ginger hair and his crooked teeth.

Reilly drove to the corpses, following the scout’s directions. It was the first time that Reilly had left the camp for several months, having been too busy orchestrating the movements of everyone else.

To him, the world seemed to have become more grey. The ground looked beyond sick, like it was resigned to its fate. It was hard to distinguish where the horizon truly was: the grey ground gave way to grey sky. Reilly wondered how far the hunting parties were having to travel and what he was making them go through when they left the camp. He thought to ask the scout but decided against it for the time being. The matter at hand was more pressing.

Most of the corpses were crushed together, pushed into a pile of ash with the odd bone sticking out. When Reilly knelt and gently touched one, it collapsed into dust. He spent a while just looking at the remains of the pyre before moving to the corpse that the scout had recognised.

It was far worse than he had described.

The skin was twisted and had shrunk like melted plastic. There were tears in the skin that had begun to grow mould and little white maggots wriggled through them. For a second he wondered where the maggots had come from, then he felt the vomit rise in his throat and he turned away.

Wiping his mouth, Reilly apologised to the scout.

“Rain’s washed mine away.” The scout shrugged.

“Looks like there were seven of them.” Reilly said.

“It must be one of the last groups, I remember that Larry left quite late. He seemed to think that you’d do something amazing straight away.” He shrugged again. “Takes time.”

“Mhm.” Reilly grumbled and knelt down next to Larry’s corpse. He held his sleeve against his mouth, breathing through the thin fabric; he tried as best he could to ignore the smell. Gently he rolled the corpse over.

A cave went deep into the front of Larry’s chest. Reilly pulled the corpse over and glanced at Larry’s back. There was a small exit wound. The hole at the front exposed rotten organs.

He stood up quick. “He was shot.”

“Not good.” Scout said, although it didn’t really need to be said.

Reilly looked around at the ground, trying to make out any tracks. It had rained on their way out, and the ground had turned to a grey mush.

“They went that way.” The scout said, gesturing towards the north.

Reilly nodded and walked back to the truck. The scout followed and they sat down inside, watching the clouds in silence.

After a while, the cloud that they had been watching had faded into the sky, Reilly started the truck and drove them back to the house.

“Not good” He said. “Get all the scouts who aren’t out to meet me in the dining room.” He said, pulling the truck up outside the front of the house. Someone would collect it from there and take it back to the garage.

He sat in his room while the scouts assembled in the dining room. The gunshot wasn’t good. Part of him had hoped that the scout had been wrong about the burning too, that some animal had attacked the group. But a gunshot meant that there were scavengers around, unless one of the other groups of leavers had turned on them. As long as they didn’t come back and attack the camp.

The scout had managed to contain the news of the death well, and the only people who turned up the dining room were the other scouts. Reilly nodded his thanks at the scout who had brought them all in, then stood at the front of the room. A hush fell as he walked to the front.

“I don’t know how much he has told you but-“ Reilly realised that he didn’t know the scout’s name, and mentally cursed himself. “I’m going to pass over to him so that you can hear exactly what he saw.”

The scout stepped to the front of the room and recited what he had seen, skimming over the description of the wounds on the corpse. A few of the scouts raised their hands, and Reilly pointed at one.

“What Mark says is bad. How do we know the people didn’t follow you back?”

Reilly felt a weight, albeit small, lift itself from his shoulders. The scout’s name was Mark.

“I went out with Mark earlier and we looked for tracks. They appear to have gone in the opposite direction. I think that the killers may have been another group that left here.”

“How can you prove that though?”

“I can’t. It wasn’t animals that killed them, but no-one has reported any sightings of scavengers in the area. That’s why I asked you guys here. I want to deploy you all.”

A disgruntled look appeared on the scouts’ faces.

“I know, you deserve rest, but I need you out there, we all need you out there. Conduct your normal routes and be vigilant for any signs of scavengers.”

“If we see them?”

“Come back and we shall prepare just in case. As soon as you have finished your routes, return. If you see any other scouts out there, call them back for the moment.”

The room became noisy again as people left.

That evening, at dinner, word had got out about what had happened and Reilly made sure that he placated the nerves that had become jumpy. A few had demanded access to the weapons cupboard so that they could be prepared, while others said that those that left deserved it. In response Reilly doubled the night’s guards and promised that, as ever, he would do his best to protect the camp and its residents.

Kiera met with him after dinner, the two of them walking round the residents’ attempts at a farm. Furrows of grey dirt were dug and anything that was hoped to be a seed was planted beneath. A few sprouts of pale green stuck out of the dirt, but more often than not, the ditches lay empty.

“You really think that it was people who left the group?” Kiera asked.

“I honestly don’t know. I’m not sure which would be worse. If it is scavengers then that means they might find us. If it was people who left us, then they too might turn on us. Perhaps there are both out there and they will fight each other.”

“Perhaps. Perhaps it’s time for us to move on.”

Reilly stopped walking and let go of Kiera’s hand.

“We can’t just leave.”

“We give people the choice: they can come with us and try and travel further south, perhaps go across to France, or they can stay here.”

“Maybe.” Reilly said.

They had reached the back of the camp, past the graves of Mason and Maureen.

It had taken several months but they had managed to construct a ramshackle wall around the back of the house, high enough that it would make it difficult for people to attack – they had dug a ditch the other side, but low enough that it would not obscure the lookout’s vision at the top of the house.

They followed the wall for a few steps, before curving away from it and round the back of one of the sheds.

Kiera stopped walking. “You would tell me?”

“If Marauders were coming? Of course.”

She shook her head. “If you thought we should leave.”

His eyes shifted. “I wouldn’t leave you behind. It’d be our choice.”

She seemed placated and continued to walk.  “I kinda meant that you wouldn’t just decide to do it and then tell me as we did it.” She wondered if that made sense.

“I’d let you know before.” Reilly said. “We wouldn’t be alone anyway.” He nodded towards the house. “I couldn’t just leave them behind. I’d ask them if they wanted to come with us.”

They walked back into the house and joined the rest of the residents to eat dinner. The meals had become uniformly coloured – either grey or brown – and uniformly tastless.

The scouts began to return the next morning, the droning of their engines growing louder as they grouped together on their return. A row of motorbikes, their paintwork chipped and covered in mud, got longer as more and more of the scouts returned. Most moved straight through to report back to Reilly; a couple, who had nothing to report, washed and ate before seeking out Reilly.

Those that did report news, reported bad news.

Write faster: How I increased my writing speed.

Over the course of NaNoWriMo 2015, my daily word count fluctuated between 0 and approximately 20,000. That’s a huge difference. Over the past two months, I’ve reflected on how I worked throughout NaNoWriMo and have a few of conclusions on why my word count fluctuated so much, and how I can increase my daily word count further. Here’s how I managed to write faster:

1.) Planning is key.

On the days where I had extensively planned what I was going to write, I wrote more. This culminated in my final sprint where I wrote just over 14,000 words. At this point in my NaNoWriMo journey, I had spent a couple of hours planning out each scene. The extent of this planning ranged from a couple of sentences of what was to happen in the scene (sometimes I had a few pieces of dialogue that I wanted to use), to a list of bullet points and various sentences. This made it much easier to write – I was able to have the plan open on one screen and the novel open on the other. Every so often I would look across at the plan and check what I was going to write.

Having the plan also allowed me to write in a non-continuous way. As I had been trying to upload my daily additions on here, I had been writing in a chronological way – IE: From the start of the novel to the end. The extensive plan (and the looming deadline) pushed me to write different sections of the novel – when one scene was getting difficult, I could move to another scene. This did lead to a problem. When the deadline came, I had huge sections of the novel written, but the middle was missing. This has prolonged my uploading of the rest of the novel (N-Day readers… it will return soon!) while I juggle my PGCE, other writing, and the rest of the novel.

I have a number of writing ideas that I am pursuing, and have begun to create extensive outlines so that I can write more, and faster.

2.) Set timers.

On that final day, I kept setting 1 hour timers and seeing how many words I could write in that time. Once the hour was up, I would take a very brief break before trying again. Each time I would try and beat my previous score. A small element of competition – even if it is with yourself – can help to increase your writing speed.

3.) Music. Get some good music.

That final day I searched for, and found, a huge Spotify playlist of Soundtracks. Some of these soundtracks were from films, some from video games, and some were specially made songs for film trailers (look up Two Steps from Hell). The playlist was extremely long and meant that I could click play and forget about it. I chose Soundtracks because they can be fast paced and they can create a really strong atmosphere – I’m sure that some of the songs I was listening to probably influenced the scenes I was writing.

While I like to write to Soundtracks, I think that fast-paced music would work well. Just as there are plenty of running CDs made to make you run faster, I think that fast-paced music – or at least emotive – music will help you write faster.

 

One of my aims for 2016 was to write 1,000 words a day. I think that I can easily surpass this and write a lot more. Let’s find out.

Any techniques you use to write faster? Let me know in the comments!

Post NaNo update: The next bit.

Reilly

“She’s gone.” Mason repeated again. Everybody in the room looked at him, trying to convey as much sorrow as they could, silently.

“She’s gone. What do we do?”

“Her body is gone, but her spirit lives on.”

There was a thud as Mason span and punched the wall, his fist ploughing through the plaster, dust exploding out. He punched again, this time with his other fist, then again with the first fist, striking up a thumping rhythm.

Reilly dropped from the chair upon which he stood and ran across the room. He grabbed Mason’s fists, struggling to hold them.

“Stop.” He said. Mason struggled against him.

“What’s the fucking point?” Mason shouted, wrenching his arms free and pushing Reilly away. Reilly stumbled, feeling someone grab him from behind and push him back up.

“Stop it.” Reilly said.

“Why? First half the fucking country is blown to fucking pieces. Then the cunts continue to kill us with radiation. Can’t they just let us live in fuckin’ peace?”

Mason stormed away. Reilly followed him, waving his hand behind him, calling back to the others, telling them to stay. He was relieved that he didn’t hear any footsteps behind him.

Mason stood in the kitchen, his face red and his head shaking. He grabbed at his necklace and ripped it from his neck, fumbled with the key and plunged it into the store cupboard door’s keyhole. He twisted it and flung the door open. Reilly leapt forward, tried to push him away from the door, but Mason was stronger. He stuck out an arm and pushed Reilly over.

Reilly felt something crack in his arm, but he stood up as quick as he could, ignoring the pain; the adrenaline that pumped through his body helped. He knew that he had probably broken, or at least fractured his right arm; it hung limply against his side and, although he couldn’t feel much pain, he could feel it throbbing as it began to swell.

Mason disappeared into the cupboard, and Reilly heard metal fall to the floor. He swore under his breath and moved closer so that he could see in to the cupboard.

Red shotgun shells rolled on the floor. Mason was crammming them into the shotgun.

“What are you going to do?” Reilly asked. “Loading that won’t help. You can’t hurt anyone. You can’t kill radiation.”

“Oh for fucking hell’s sakes Reilly. Stop going on about not fuckin’ killin’ things. I don’t want to hear it.” Mason swung the shotgun round, pointing the barrel at Reilly. There was a click as he cocked it.

“Say it again and I’ll fucking kill you.” Mason said.

The kitchen door opening distracted them both, and Reilly siezed his chance. He jumped across the room, rugby tackling Mason. Even the adrenaline was not enough to stop the pain that suddenly shot through Reilly’s arm, and he screamed.

The shotgun blast was deafening in the tiny cupboard. Reilly thought he had been shot. His body certainly hurt enough, and was covered in enough blood. But when he rolled away, he saw that the shotgun had caught Mason. He had fallen on top of it, his head propped up on the barrel; the rest of his skull was plastered across the ceiling of the cupboard. Blood and brain matter dripped from the ceiling.

Ears ringing, Reilly threw up, vomit splattering across the wall and Mason’s body.

There was another scream in the kitchen, and Reilly tuned his head, still vomiting, and saw that Martha was standing in the kitchen, her hands covering her face.

“Help.” Reilly said and passed out.

He awoke to find himself in bed, his clothes changed and the blood and grey brain washed from his body. His ears still ached, and his arm really hurt. He lifted his head and looked down at his arm. It had been splinted with a bit of wood. The table next to his bed was covered in what appeared to be half of the house’s medical cabinet.

His voice was hoarse when he called out. There was a chorus of rapid footsteps up the stairs. Kiera and Martha burst into the room.

“Tell me Mason’s still alive.” He said.

Both of them shook their head. “He died.”

Reilly burst into tears, his body shaking.

“It wasn’t your fault Reilly. It was an accident. He did it himself.”

Reilly wiped his eyes with his left hand. “What have you told the others.”

“Most of them believe that it was an accident, others think that Mason shot himself and hurt you. A few think that you shot him on purpose, but everybody else is arguing with those few, telling them that you wouldn’t kill a fly, let alone Mason.” Martha said.

Kiera sat next the bed and laid her hand on Reilly’s shoulder. “They want you to come down when you can. It’ll be good for you to speak to them. They need a leader now that Mason and Maureen have gone.”

Reilly nodded. “Have you buried them yet?”

Martha shook her head. “No, we’ve dug a grave, and put them in a coffin. We were waiting for you to wake up. We thought that you might want to say something.”

The pair of them helped Reilly out of bed. He was okay to walk on his own by the time that they reached the bedroom door.

“How long was I out?” He asked as they walked down the stairs.

“Just over a day.” Kiera said.

They reached the ground floor without seeing anyone. Martha took him through to the living room and he sat down on the same chair that he had been standing on when Mason had come into the room. The fist holes were still in the walls; he hoped that the kitchen had been cleared of blood.

It took a while for all of the residents to gather in the living room; they waited for the sentries to be called in. It was deemed that the issue was important enough that the risk could be taken. The sentries stood near the door, their shotguns hanging over their shoulders. While people arrived, none of them spoke to Reilly, standing far away from him, until the room begun to become full and they had no choice but to stand closer to him.

This time Reilly didn’t stand.

“I know why you are here. I know what you want to hear: the truth. The truth is, I don’t know exactly which of us caused Mason’s death, but I do know that it was an accident. I did not intend for him to die when I entered the kitchen. Far from it. I tried to take the shotgun from him, and in the scuffle it was fired. It was one blast, and that one blast proved fatal. I am sorry that it happened, and I hope that you believe what I am saying. I know there are multiple rumours going round, but I can only prove two of them wrong: Mason did not try to kill me, although he did threaten to do so. I did not intentionally kill Mason either. Please, trust me and take my word for it. Arguing will not do us any good. Let us not remember Mason how he was earlier, let us remember him for the man he truly was: A man who brought us together and cared for us all.”

Reilly stopped speaking and looked at the people assembled before him.  They stood in silence, watching and seemingly waiting for him to continue.

“That is all.” He said.

The sentries left first, in silence, returning to their posts. The others left in small groups, twos and threes. Again, all in silence. Eventually only Kiera and Martha remained, along with Reilly.

“You did good.” Martha said.

“I don’t think some of them believed me.” Reilly said.

“Of course, but hopefully they will keep those feelings to themselves, or they will argue with the others and have their opinions changed.” Martha said.

“I hope so. Otherwise this could be the end of us.” Reilly said.

Epic Session 3.2 (Manic Typing)

Reilly

Reilly woke pretty early. His sleep had been poor and he’d woken often throughout the night. Through the house’s thin walls he thought he’d heard sobbing, not just from Kiera. He had contemplated going over to comfort her, but decided against it.

The air was heavy in the house that morning as the residents continued to clean and repair the building. The trucks were driven muhch closer to the house and an inventory taken of their contents. The house’s armaments were drastically increased, with several shotguns added, along with a crossbow. In the back of the trucks they found boxes of tinned food, which Reilly helped to carry into one of the barns. In the last truck to be searched, were a few boxes of bottled water. These were taken to one of the barns and locked away, to be rationed for use. The house had run out of bottled water a few weeks before the attack. People had been sent out to the local villages to find liquids, and had returned with a variety of different soft drinks and alcohol, but only limited water. They found that it was getting harder and harder to find food and water; all of the shops and homes in Whitby had been searched and the entire town was now completely devoid of food and water.

Once the trucks were empty, they were driven round the back of the house and parked in a row. The fuel was siphoned out into containers and stored inside the house.

Mason led the group that piled up the corpses out the back of the house. They created two piles, one for the attackers and one for their own. Mason called everyone and they gathered in front of the piles as he worked to light them, using only a small amount of wood. It took a long time for the wood to catch and set the bodies on fire. The bodies stank as they burnt, acrid smoke filling the air, seemingly refusing to move even when the wind blew. Many of the residents cried at their loss. Kiera hugged Reilly, turning her body away from the piles.

The group dispersed, leaving the bodies to pump out black smoke.

Blood was scrubbed from the carpets. Where they couldn’t scrub the stains away, they cut away chunks of the carpet, leaving the floorboards exposed. Someone found a pot of white paint, a thick skin formed over its surface, hidden in a cupboard and they set about painting marks on the walls. The paino was broken up. Kiera watched and cried as the person wrenched it apart, piece by piece, and parts were used to patch up the holes in the walls. The rest was taken and stored with the rest of the firewood; the piano strings were rolled up and stored as well. Someone suggested that they could be used to make snares and other traps; someone else began to say for what animals, but then stopped, deciding not to reduce morale further.

By the time it was time to eat dinner, the entire house was exhausted. The bodies had burnt down and had almost become small piles of ash. Mason made the decision to use some of the tinned food found in the trucks, as well as the group of dead rabbits that had been hanging in the back of one truck, to make a dinner that would improve the house’s morale.

“Friends.” He said, with everybody crowded into the room. As many chairs as possible had been pulled up around the table, and more people stood holding their plates.

“We lost some good people last night. People that gave their lives for us. We must remember them and never forget them. They protected us from a threat and saved us. We are here only because of them. We must live in their honour and live well. It will be hard – it can only get harder. But together we can survive.”

Reilly wasn’t sure whether Mason was expecitng a cheer after his speech, and there wasn’t one, but some of the people nodded. Others wiped their eyes.

Life at the house changed after the attack. People were more wary about travelling out, and there were fewer volunteers for the hunting and scavenging trips. Reilly offered several times, but each time his and Kiera’s requests were vetoed by Maureen and Mason, who said that as the youngest, they must stay. Once, Mason took Reilly aside and said that if he were willing to kill, he would let him go. Reilly refused to say that he was, and was therefore not allowed.

Mason had begun to post guards around the estate, arming them with shotguns and grey flags made from old bedsheets. One person was to be in the highest room in the house at all times, checking each post with the binoculars. If they grey flags were shown it would mean that more attackers had been sighted, and that the house should prepare. In the event of another attack, a plan had been prepared. Wooden beams and panels had been constructed; that in itself had caused a minor argument about whether it was worth it as the firewood regularly ran perilously low. The panels would be put across the windows, and the beams fitted across the doors, preventing attackers from easily entering the property. They drilled handing out the shotguns and dousing the fires, sometimes drilling during the night when everyone was asleep. They became quick at implementing the plan.

Over time people began to talk more freely about the attack, and what they had seen when out hunting. It allowed Reilly to build up a better picture of the world outside the house. From the reports he gathered that there were numerous groups roaming the country, attacking people and taking their resources. Once or twice hunters arrived back, hurt. Sometimes they were close to death. But none of the hunters ever died from their wounds. Someone would always rush to the house’s medical cabinet, withdraw whatever was needed from their ever dwindling stock and administer it. Every time that someone arrived back injured, morale would drop for a few days and people would be more reluctant to talk to one another.

It was several months after the attack that Maureen became ill. Kiera noticed it first. The insistent cough that wouldn’t leave, the cough that only became stronger. It was while Maureen was teaching her how to play the guitar, that she doubled up coughing and coughed up a dark, sticky lump; Maureen told her it was blood. Initially the pair of them kept quiet. Maureen had told Kiera that it wasn’t good and that she shouldn’t tell anyone.

Kiera told Reilly straight away. For days Reilly was torn between whether to tell Mason or not. In the end he didn’t need to. Mason came across Maureen, collapsed outside. He lifted her and helped her walk back to the house. Once inside she explained to him about how she was coughing up blood more and more frequently, and about how her hair was beginning to thin, how she was finding it harder and harder to move and how she was constantly tired. Mason listened and soon realised that she was seriously ill.

Maureen’s condition worsened quickly and she was soon bedridden with radiation sickness. Her skin turned pale and she only let Kiera and Mason see her. The rest of the residents weren’t allowed; her illness scared many of the residents, and some became paranoid, constantly checking their bodies for any signs of tumours.

As Maureen grew more ill, Mason began to become quieter, eventually refusing to talk to anybody. People tried to continue as normal, but organisational problems soon began to appear: dinner became later, hunting trips became more infrequent, firewood stocks dropped. Reilly began to take more command, and people began to listen to him, recognising that Mason trusted him and that they needed someone to tell them what to do.

In the days leading up to Maureen’s death, Reilly took on more and more responsibility, until he was, in effect, running the house. He would ensure that the fires were lit in the morning, that the person stationed in the high room was rotated and that someone would prepare dinner on time. He tried to keep life running as normally as possible.

The day that Maureeen died, Reilly was out in one of the barns, moving stock closer to the door. Over time they had worked through the barn until they reached the piles of stock that laid against the rear wall.

Kiera came running into the barn, tears streaming down her face. Her eyes were red and her lip was quivering. Reilly knew what had happened as soon as he saw her, and he left the barn immediately, charging through the house, up the stairs, into Maureen’s room.

Mason had closed her eyes, and her body lay in her bed. Mason sat next to it, clasping her hand and crying. Reilly hugged Kiera and then walked to Mason. He put his hand on Mason’s shoulder and rubbed it.

“She’s gone.” Mason said.

“I know.” Reilly said.

“Now what?”

“We do what she would have wanted.”

“But how? I’ve lived with her forever.” Mason’s voice sounded tortured, like it was tearing through his throat, ripping it apart. Dark spots on his trousers marked where his tears fell.
“Together. How she would have wanted us to continue.” Mason continued to weep.

Reilly left him, his mind numb as he walked down the stairs with Kiera. He called the rest of the residents together, cramming them all into the living room. Standing on a chair he announced to them all that Maureen had passed away, and that Mason was upstairs grieving. Many of the people burst into tears and held each other.

Footsteps on the corridor outside told them that Mason had come down from Maureen’s room. He opened the door to the living room and walked in. He’d dried his face, but his eyes were sore and he looked distant.

“She’s gone.” He said.

Epic Session 3.1 (Time is running out!)

Arthur

“Are you the cleaners?” Arthur said.

“No. We leave here. We don’t go up, we aren’t allowed.” Rossi said.
Arthur struggled to process this. They were taught in school that the only people who came into the UnderCity were the cleaners and sometimes the academics.

“How long have you lived here?” Arthur asked.

It looked as though Rossi shrugged, but it was hard to tell because of how contorted his body was; two lumps moved up and down and Arthur assumed that they were Rossi’s shoulders.

“All our lives. I told you, we don’t go up. We are born and we die here. I know that once or twice someone has reached New London but they never return and we always get hurt as punishment.”

Arthur recalled hearing rumours of beasts that roamed New London during the night, crawling out from the darkness and invading homes. But any investigation into the rumours quickly found that they were created by drunks, and the investigations stopped.

“Who hurts you?”

“You do.” Rossi pointed at him. “People like you. The people who live in New London.” He lifted his arm and used his other arm to point at it.

Wobbly pink scars looped round the flesh, the skin pinched and tight. “They wrap rope round our arms really tightly and pull us along. Sometimes they beat us. If they are really angry they kill us.” Rossi said.

“I’m sorry.” Arthur started to pace around the room. “Why haven’t you tried something? Surely if you all came up together people would take notice. We don’t know that you’re down here.” He said.

“We tried once.” Rossi said. “The people spat fire at us.”

“Perhaps I can help.” Arthur said.

“How.”

“I know of a different network up there, where they men don’t usually go. We could use that to travel around and go to a place where their leader – Reilly – will be.”

Rossi spat when he heard Reilly’s name. “Don’t mention him. He is the one that causes us this pain. He is the one who hates us.”

“Trust me. Reilly is a good leader. He won’t know of this. He wouldn’t allow this to happen.”

Rossi spat again. “What do you want to do?” He said.

“I don’t know yet.” Said Arthur. “I don’ know. How many of you are there?”

“Come see.”

Rossi, Morgan and Swan left the room; Swan held the door open with his hand for Arthur to follow.

He followed them down a dimly lit tunnel. Sound echoed towards them, the voices merging together to create a drone. One side of the tunnel began to drop as the wall fell away. It was replaced by a rough barrier, created from different sized bits of metal. Arthur moved over to it so he could see over it, down to what was below.

People moved around amongst cloth tents, some carrying what looked like rubbish, some empty handed. Others sat at the side playing musical instruments that sounded odd and looked even odder. The tunnel began to descend and turned into a set of stairs that finished in the centre of the noise.

“Trading place.” Said Morgan. “Come here and get new shinies.” He reached into his belt and pulled out what appeared to be a broken watch. “Shiny.” He said and rubbed at the metal strap. The hands on the clock-face didn’t move.

Rossi waved his hand around. “Main trading place. Morgan’s sorta right. We scavenge from what New London throws down here, feed and live off of it.”

People had begun to notice Arthur. They were scuttling around him, calling out cries of “New London, New London,” before scuttling away. None of the people looked the same. Some had large heads, some were short. A couple looked like they came from above, but when they turned to face Arthur, to see who it was that was being called “New London”, he noticed that foreheads were hugged, their facial features shifted to a cluster around their chin. Arthur tried not to stare at any of them, eventually keeping his eyes turned towards the ground.

He felt a hand on his back. Swan pushed him. “Keep walking.” He said and pushed Arthur again. People parted to let them through, some scuttling away on the ground and some walking one two legs; all of them jeered at Arthur. A few held objects and waved them in the air, threatening to throw them at Arthur.

Morgan left them to return to the gate while Rossi and Swan guided Arthur out of the market and into another tunnel. More tunnels sprouted off this one, like a network of roots. Many of the tunnels were empty, although Arthur could hear various noises echoing through them. Dark objects would move over pools of light that appeared in patches down the corridors.

“How’d Morgan see me?” Arthur asked as they walked.

“We can all see in the dark pretty well. Most of us have good smell and hearing too. Some have none. We’re all different.” Said Swan. He held a door open for them to walk through.

“Living.” Rossi said. The room was more of a cavern. Metal struts stretched high into the air, sticking out of the concrete lattice that suspended New London above the UnderCity. Smaller beams stuck out haphazardly, seeking out each other before coming together in a metal web. Wide strips of cloth hung down, one end knotted to a metal bar. A few of the strips were knotted at both end and swung like hammocks. Rossi noticed that Arthur had stopped and was looking up.

“We all sleep up there. Not enough space for us all to have.” He paused, searching for the word. “Beds. They aren’t too uncomfortable, and they adjust for all our different shapes.”

The ground of the cavern was covered in piles of boxes, some open and some shut. People moved through the piles, opening and closing different boxes, moving objects between them.

“Sorting.” Swan said. “We collect as much as we can from the rubbish and then bring it here and sort it out into different uses and values.”

“But if you sort everything, and then have a trading place, how to people buy stuff?” Arthur asked. He was confused. He thought that they might barter and the fact that they called their market a “trading place” strengthened the idea, but he couldn’t help but think that they must have some sort of value system.

“People don’t buy stuff. We trade. Somethings are worth different amounts of other things; you can get the same thing in the trading post for different costs.” Swan said. “These boxes are the stuff we find, plenty of us go out looking ourselves and those things are usually worth more.”

“So why would people collect stuff for you rather than themselves?” Arthur said.

“Because then they get more respect and are able to have a say in how we do things down here.”

They had reached the other side of the cavern; a drop of water, green and foul smelling, fell from one of the metal beams and hit Arthur on the head. The liquid ran down his neck and he shivered. It was the first time that he realised how cool the UnderCity was; the air smelt, but its stillness held the cold like a child a sweet.

Another door was opened. Swan left Arthur with Rossi, claiming that he needed to go and check on the trading post and give them an explanation of why a person from New London was in the UnderCity.
Rossi led Arthur through another series of corridors. Unlike the corridors in New London where the walls were smooth and the corridors stayed an equal width, the corridors in the UnderCity had walls that slanted into the path, forcing those who walked to twist and turn; often the roof of the tunnels was too low for Arthur and he had to duck, sometimes he had to crawl along. Steps and stairs were rare in the Undercity. Instead the corridors became very steep, often turning round corners at the same time. By the time that they reached the next door, Arthur’s arms and legs burnt from overuse.

“Do you guys just scavenge and sleep?” He asked. He thought that the question was a bit ridiculous but he hadn’t seen any evidence that the UnderCity dwellers did anything else.

Rossi laughed; like his shrug, Arthur was unsure whether it was a laugh. “We spend most of our time doing those two things, yes, but we do other things too. Kids get to read and sometimes adults read too. But finding books is hard. You New London people don’t throw them away very often. We managed to steal a few though.”

“They’re hard to find that’s why. We have people like your scavengers who go out of New London to find new things and bring them back.”

The pair stopped and Rossi cocked his head. “What’s New London like?”

“I didn’t think it was too bad, but obviously something is because otherwise I wouldn’t be here.” Arthur said. “I told you, we can change it so you can all come up.”

“Hm. Speaking of that. Behind this door is the room where we decide what happens. I’m supposed to leave you here to be spoken to. I’ll be sitting in the crowd listening.”

“What are they going to ask?” Arthur said.

“Could be anything. Why you’re down here, what you’ve done, what you know about what’s going to happen to us.” Rossi nodded at him and scuttled off down a tunnel that Arthur hadn’t noticed.

Arthur knelt and opened the door.

The door opened to a balcony. The floor, about five metres below, was full of the UnderCity’s residents. They were crushed against each other, talking rapidly. When they noticed that Arthur had entered the room they hushed and some pointed. He scanned through the crowd but couldn’t see Rossi.

Across from him, on another balcony, were a row of benches upon which more dwellers sat. They stood as best they could as he entered and then sat back down. Arthur leant against the barrier. The people opposite were the most dressed UnderCity dwellers he’d seen. They were dressed in a mish-mash of different browns, clearly old clothes thrown away by those who lived in New London. Arthur was surprised. They had been taught to recycle everything they had, that everything was precious and could be re-used with a little effort.

“Arthur.” One of the dwellers opposite said.

“Yes.” Arthur said.

“My name is Train, and I am the leader of the UnderCity. I am the one who has been chosen to speak to you today. Are you here as a leader of New London?”

“No. I am here because I fled New London.”

“Why did you flee New London.”

Arthur was slightly annoyed that he would have to recount his story again and didn’t see why Rossi or Morgan or Swan couldn’t have relayed the story to the people opposite before he entered the room; he realised that it was probably for the benefit of all the people below who hadn’t heard it. He told the story carefully, adding more detail to it than in the previous retellings.

“So you need sanctuary?” Train asked. The people around him nodded.
“No. I want to return, but I can’t.”

“Do you know what they are planning to do with us?” Train asked.

Arhur shook his head vigorously. “No. I didn’t even know that you existed until I was chased and I met Morgan. Most of the people up there don’t know that you exist.” He paused and cleared his throat and then, hesitantly, said “I don’t think Reilly knows that you exist.”

The crowd below erupted and he heard a chorus of spitting. Train and the other people opposite waved for them to be quiet. They ignored them. Even after Train called down at them to be quiet, it took a few minutes before the spitting became sporadic and then stopped completely.

“Go on.” Train said.

“Well. Everything that we are taught about Reilly is that he is a good guy, that he created New London out of dirt and made us live good lives. Everything that we read about him is about seeing the good. It can get rather annoying actually.”

“So you don’t think that Reilly is capable of this? Capable of ordering our extermination?”

“Extermination?”

“Yes. The last person that came down here killed the person on the gate and left a note saying that we had to leave or we would be exterminated.” Train pointed at another person who sat further down the bench. “We had to send someone up to New London to find out what exterminated meant.”

“When?”

“Soon. That message was found a while ago. We know that you are all celebrating tonight, and when he was finding out what exterminate meant he heard that Reilly was planning on announcing his new leader tonight. It seems logical to sort us out in time for a new leader.”

“Why can’t you go up there? Most of us don’t know that you exist. We’d be against killing you all.” Arthur said.

“We don’t know how to, we’d get caught too quickly. We looked at ways to get out of the UnderCity but we can’t find any. We’re stuck here.”

“How are they going to exterminate you?” Arthur didn’t like asking the question. “I guess that they can’t come charging down here? New London doesn’t have an army.”

“We aren’t sure. We think some sort of gas or something.”

The realisation that the container Arthur had moved that morning was heavier than it should have been, that the painting didn’t weigh nearly enough, made him stumble backward. The weight of the box would have been about right for a canister of compressed gas.

“I think they will have a problem doing that tonight. I think it went missing. I was meant to deliver a package this morning and I was accused of stealing something. I think that it was the gas.”
“So we might be safe for a little while longer?”

“Potentially. But I can’t be completely sure. If you were to show yourselves at the C-Day celebrations, that would definitely give you a little more time, perhaps a lot of time.”

“And you could get us to the C-Day celebrations?” Train’s words were acccompanied by some muttering in the crowd below. The people around him were whispering each other.

“Yes. Most of the corridors will be empty, and we would be avoiding those anyway. We would use the delivery infrastructure. That will definitely be empty. As long as you could get us up to New London; I don’t know how to get there.”

“We can do that easily.”

Train turned and looked at the rest of the people around him. Some were nodding vigorously, some less so, but all were agreeing in some way or another. Train peered over the balcony.

“We are in agreement up here. Raise your hands if you are also in agreement that we should rise to New London. I must tell you that it will be dangerous, but it appears that we have little other choice.”

A wave flowed through the crowd below as hands were raised. Train nodded.

“It appears that we are in agreement.” He looked across at Arthur.

“Thank you.”

A thick, lumpy hand tapped Arthur on his shoulder and he turned. Rossi had come onto the balcony behind him.

“It’s time to leave here. You’ll meet with the leaders and plan our ascension.”

Epic Session 2.2

Walt

Poorly fitted brown tiles covered the floor. The walls were covered in hanging fabrics that moved as Lucy and Walt walked past. Lin’s office was the third one down the corridor. They knocked on the door and then tried the handle. The door swung open but the room was empty. Their hearts fell as they wondered whether they would ever find out what had got their friend into so much trouble.

As they turned to leave a voice called down the corridor.

“You there.”

Walt left Lucy in the room and walked back out. A man was approaching from the other end of the corridor. He hobbled as fast as he could, his cane cracking on the tiles.

“What are you doing in Lin’s office.”

Walt didn’t recognise the man and he felt himself get ready to run. He back-pedalled slightly so that he could see Lucy in Lin’s office.

“We are just looking for him.” Walt said hesitantly.

“Why. It’s C-Day someone your age should be out celebrating.” He said.

The man was close now. “Where’s the girl?”

Lucy emerged from the office.

“We need to speak to Lin.” Lucy said.

“He’s at the celebrations, that’s where you should be.” The man looked at them both and waved his cane in the air. “Why aren’t you two there?”

“As she said, we need to speak to Lin. It’s important.”

“What about?”

“We need his advice.”

The man impatiently tapped his cane on the ground. “What for?”

The pair didn’t say anything.

“My name’s William.” The man said. He continued to tap his cane on the ground. “At least tell me your names.”

“Walt and Lucy.”

The three of them stood in silence, staring at each other. Eventually the man turned.

“Come on then. I’ll see if I can help.” Lucy looked at Walt and he shrugged.

William’s office was at the other end of the corridor. Where Lin’s office was meticulously tidy, his was a mess. Paper was piled on every surface except his own chair, and the room smelt faintly of sweat. William placed his cane on his desk and sat down.

“What’s the problem. It must be pretty bad if you are missing the C-Day celebrations?”

Lucy nodded.

“Our friend has gone missing and we thought that Lin might be able to help.”

“Us Academics aren’t much use at the missing people’s game.” William chuckled. “Try the police.”

“It’s a bit complicated.” Walt said. He leant against the wall.

“Arthur was a deliverer like me. He opened a box and saw something. We wondered if Lin could tell us what it was he saw.”

“I’m not sure I like the sound of this.” William said. He pushed his chair back and picked up his cane. He knocked a pile of paper from the table and swore under his breath.

“You two should leave.”

“Please.” Lucy said, stepping forward. “Art’s a nice guy. He didn’t mean for this. Something is wrong.”

William frowned and sat down. “Continue. But, if I don’t like it I’m going to get the police.”

“He said the box contained a picture. A picture of an old lady with something on her head. I heard him get questioned by some men and they said that he stole something else from the box. The box came from here.” The words tumbled out of Walt’s mouth.

“A picture of an old lady with something on her head.” William repeated. He frowned again.

“When was the package sent?” William said.

Walt reached into a pocket and pulled out the crumpled manifest. He passed it to William who read through it and grunted.

“It’s possible I guess. How’s your history?”

“Not bad. Lin taught us it.”

“You focused on the extreme past and people then. Not too much modern stuff.” William leant back on his chair and rolled it over to a bookcase. He pulled a book from it.

“Lucky find this. And the trader knew it. Damn expensive.” He opened the book. A faint whiff of vanilla came from the book, and the binding cracked softly as he leafed through.

“I think it was.” William turned more pages. “Yes. I think it was her.”

Walt leant to look at the book.

“Queen Elizabeth the 2nd” He read so Lucy could hear.

“Indeed. The Queen of England.” William said. “The painting was sent to the market, was to be used as part of Reilly’s speech. Strange that they had a deliverer carry it. I thought the intention was to have it taken by one of us straight to Reilly. You say your friend was accussed of stealing it?”

“No. He didn’t steal it. The men said he stole something else. Art’s not a thief.” Walt said.

“I don’t recall that we were going to send anything else with the picture. Perhaps a note of gratitude to Reilly or something; nothing that anybody would notice going missing though.”

William closed the book and looked at them both. “I’m sorry I can’t be of more help.”

“Who sent the package?” Said Lucy.

“We did.” Said William. “The Academics.”

“No, who specifically. Don’t you keep records of who works on what? Is it possible that.” She stopped speaking, aware that she was about to accuse one of the Academics of theft.

“No idea. I suppose we could take a look.” William stood up from his chair and took his cane. He ushered them out of the room and locked the door. He pointed and said “That way.”

It took a while for them to go back down the stairs, down to the first floor where much of the general administration took place. A thump in the distance suggested that the first barrage of fireworks had been lit. William opened a door to another office, where rows of desks and shelves filled the room. He walked a little way and then sat down at one of the desks. To Walt and Lucy it looked random, but they guessed that William knew what he was doing. It was as William fumbled through a drawer, spilling loose paper all over the ground, that another person entered the office, from a door further down the room.

“Is that William?” The person said.

William turned in the chair and nodded. “Evening Ford. What you doing here this late? We getting any packages?”

Walt realised that this room must have been the equivalent of the foreman’s office and processing rooms, just at the other end of the package’s journey.

“No, just got some paperwork to fill in. Something’s gone a bit awry.”
Ford looked at the Walt and Lucy. He was a tall, broad man. His afro had gone grey and a scar ran down his left forearm. “We got guests?”
“Yeah, they’re with me. We’re trying to sort something out.”

Ford sat at the desk next to William. “What’s your problem?”

“Kid’s gone missing.”

It was as if William had lit a fire underneath Ford. He sprang up from his chair and pointed a finger at Walt and Lucy.

“They friends of the kid?”

William looked at them and then back at Ford. “No.” He said slowly.
“Really William? Why are they here then?”

“They’re my brother’s kids. I’m taking them down to the celebrations once I’ve sorted this.”

Ford put a hand on William’s shoulder. He winced. It looked like hwas gripping it tightly.

“Are you sure.”

“Yes.” William said, but less sure this time. The grip eased and the pained look on William’s face disappeared.

“I don’t like liars.” Ford said.

William tried to change the topic. “What’s the thing you’ve got to fix?” He said. For an Academic he was remarkably stupid, failing to see that the two issues were linked.

“The kid who went missing stole something from a parcel we sent.”
William moved slowly, folding the manifest and slipping it into his pocket. “What he take?”

“It was the box with the Queen drawing. It was something that would help fix the problems that people have been complaining about with the UnderCity.”

William was vaguely aware that some of the cleaners who worked in the UnderCity were getting angry with their working conditions and that they were threatening to strike.

“Oh yeah?” He said. “What they decide to do?”

Ford looked over at Walt and Lucy who were milling around the entrance to the office, trying to pay as little attention as possible to the two men, while listening intently.

“Don’t worry about them.” William said.

“Decided to use some gas down there to calm them down a bit. Should knock ’em back to where they belong.” Ford said.

“That in the box then?”

Ford nodded. “Yeah bloody costly stuff. Took me days to make. Now some kid’s gone and stolen it.”

William continued to rummage through the desk and then he stood up. “It’s no good. I can’t find what I’m looking for. Don’t want the kids to miss out.” He said.

“Later.” Ford said.

Walt and Lucy left the room and William joined them shortly.

“How much did you two get?” He said.

“Most of it. Doesn’t sound good.” Said Walt.

The three of them walked away from the office. When they reached the stairs, William stopped hobbling and leant on his cane.

“I can’t come with you. Just in case.” He said. “Besides, I should probably keep an eye on Ford. I didn’t like any of the suggestions to fix the UnderCity.” He said.

“Just what is the UnderCity?” said Lucy.

William chuckled. “People live underneath us.”

“The cleaners?” asked Walt.

“Not just them. People somebody decided that we didn’t want up here. Funny types. Haven’t met any of them myself, never even been down there. Not my area.” With that, William ended the conversation, hobbling away.

Walt and Lucy went down the stairs.

“You think Art knows?” Lucy said.

“Doubt it. Wouldn’t be suprised if he’s ended up in the UnderCity now. Would be a good place to hide.”

“So?”

“We need to stop them from using the gas. I doubt many people are even aware that there are people who live in the UnderCity.” Most, like William, thought that the only people who entered the UnderCity were the cleaners and some of the academics.

“To the market hall. Let’s cause some havoc.” Walt said.

Epic Session 2.1

Walt

Yellow bulbs glowed in the tunnel. Walt and Lucy walked quickly through the tunnel, Walt guiding Lucy away from the side tunnels; the tunnel curved round through New London.
“You think they’re going to be able to help us?” Lucy said.

“If they believe us.”

“If they don’t?”

The pressure on Lucy’s hand increased as Walt gripped it tighter. “They will.”

It had been a long time since Walt had been to the Academic’s tower. The majority of the deliveries that he was assigned were sent to the more industrial or domestic areas. He had to delve deep into his memory to find the route to the tower and make sure that they were following the right corridors.

“Who’d we talk to?”

Lucy’s question had been playing round Walt’s mind since the foreman had told them to go to the Academics for help; the thought was fighting with the image of the corridor map he’d created in his mind.

“What did you think of Lin?” He asked.

Lin had been the last Academic that had taught them. A slightly overweight man of Chinese descent, who had a good sense of humour and had given both of them extra tuition to make sure that they passed their exams.

“He’s alright I suppose. Will he still be there?”

The idea that Lin might not be at the Academic’s Tower, and instead down in the market hall, celebrating C-Day hadn’t dawned on Walt. His pace slowed as he thought about it.
“I hope so.”

If the only person that they thought they could trust wasn’t at the Tower, then they would have to risk entering the market hall and finding him, pulling him away from the celebrations and speaking to him down there. The men in suits would probably still be in the market hall.

“We can always try someone else.” Lucy said. “Your boss didn’t get angry.”

“It’s risky. But if we have to.”

They turned down a corridor. This one was straight, and slightly thinner than the one before. It marked their turning off the main infrastructure, into one of the tunnels that led directly to a specific tower in New London.

“What was the picture of?” Lucy asked

“Reilly said some old lady with something on her head. He took it to the market hall. He said that he guessed it was some form of decoration for C-Day.”

Neither of them had seen the picture on the wall in the market hall, but the room had been busy and the walls were covered in loads of streamers.

The corridor ended in a door, and they stopped. Walt let go of Lucy’s hand and fumbled in his pocket.

“A light will come on in the office as soon as I unlock this door.” Walt said. To observe how the deliverers worked, the foreman had a simple alarm system built into the infrastructure; it also dissuaded anybody who had heard about the separate infrastructure from using it.

“If the suits are there they will see where we are, and we won’t have long.” He said.

Lucy nodded. “Quick then.”

Walt pulled a skeleton key from his pocket and pushed it into the keyhole. He turned it and there was a click as the bolts moved and he pushed the door open.

The exits of the delivery infrastructure never opened into the main entrances of the Towers. Instead, they were tucked away in little rooms and side corridors, nearer the Tower’s self-contained delivery services. Not all of the parcels that the deliverers moved had to be taken straight to the customer. Many of them were just taken to a sorting room for another worker to take to the customers. It was only the higher priority and confidential packages that were hand delivered.

In order to reach the rest of the tower, they would have to go to the main entrance and go up the central stairs. Rather than turning left towards the post room, Walt turned right and they soon reached another door. They went through and found themselves in the main entrance to the Academic’s Tower.

Sheet metal, adorned with burn lines that cut across the surface in ornate patterns were bolted to the walls. A reception desk curved out from the far wall, quotations from some of the few remaining books that been collected had been scrawled across it’s front. Nobody sat behind the desk and the main entrance was silent, except from a current of wind that slowly tuned some of the statues that sat on revolving podiums. The statues were all created by students at the Academic Tower, people who had worked to create new art for New London. Walt didn’t like many of them; their abstract representations of knowledge were too confusing for him. He preferred art to be clear and obvious.

The Tower’s stairs were at the back of the main entrance. A barrier down their centre was a symbol of the Tower’s order: one side to ascend and one side to descend. A board next to the stairs showed a list of names and floor numbers. They walked to it and looked through the list of names for Lin. Before they had left he had been near the bottom, but that had been two years ago. The list of names was, in effect, a ranking of the Academic’s abilities. As they became more knowledgeable and more respected in the tower, they moved up the list, switching offices with other Academics.

Lin’s name had climbed four spaces: he was now on the fifth floor. The Academic Tower didn’t have a lift. They were keen to show that success was created from hard work and they showed that by making everybody walk hundreds of stairs.

After each flight of stairs, they stopped and rested. Every twenty steps the stairs doubled back, and they could see down into the main entrance. They were getting to the height were thick glass had been forced between metal girders, allowing the Academics to see out across New London. The higher up the Tower they ascended, the clearer the glass became. Each successive floor was built later, and the quality of glass that the workers could make had improved. At the level were Walt and Lucy stood, New London looked foggy and the towers they could see ballooned into odd shapes.

They resumed climbing and reached the sixth floor.

Epic Session 1.4

Reilly

After several months at the house, during which Reilly and Kiera learnt to shoot, hunt, cook, and build, the weather turned bad. Storms became frequent, blowing across the country in clouds of white ash; rain would fall and turn the ash into snow-like paste, suffocating anything beneath. The ground became hard like metal, the ash reflecting the clouds. Trees began to twist and curl, their leaves blown away; their trunks creaked and cracked as radiation fell across the country. In the course of a week most of the trees that could be seen from the house fell, their trunks snapping and the branches collapsing to the ground. In the gaps between the storms Reilly and others would rush out and chop the wood with their axes, hauling it back to the barns, before they would run back inside to the warmth.

Kiera had used nearly all of the fabric that Maureen could find, making herself a variety of clothes. Reilly grew taller and more muscular, so that he soon fit all of Maureen’s son’s clothes. He finished Machiavelli and worked through many of the other books in the house, favouring the non-fiction. One of the other women, Martha, had begun to teach Kiera the piano, and often in the evening she would sit and play while Reilly read. Sometimes one of the other residents would bring out the chess or backgammon and they would sit and play until the early hours, playing by flickering candlelight.

Twice they’d seen people on the horizon and sent out the truck to find them, but every time they disappeared. The radio message stayed the same, insistent and confident that something would change and someone would rescue them; the house’s inhabitants stopped playing the radio as much, from twice a day to once a week to, by the middle of what they calculated to be as December, less frequently than once a week.

When Christmas came the house came together and ate the last pheasant they had caught, each getting only a small bit of meat and vegetables; canned food filled the rest of their plates. Maureen and Kiera had managed to cook some biscuits on one of the stoves, using the last of the cinnamon.

It was as they all sat in the living room, with people sitting on every chair they could find and others leaning around Kiera as she played the piano, that they heard the explosion.
People crowded round the window, craning over each other’s necks to see what had happened.

Another explosion, closer this time, shook the house. Kiera looked across at Reilly.

Mason clapped his hands and everybody jumped. “Do not worry too much. We don’t know what it is yet, it might be nothing.” Mason began to order people to various places, some to stand guard upstairs, others to extinguish the fires so that smoke wouldn’t come from the chimneys and show they were in the house; others were made to pass round jumpers.

The house grew silent as people waited and more explosions came and went. A shout from upstairs alerted them that trucks had been seen heading towards the house.
Mason charged upstairs and Reilly followed. A man passed Mason a set of binoculars. He swore and passed the binoculars across to Reilly, who also swore.

A row of trucks, clad in black metal, rumbled across the countryside towards the house.

“Doesn’t look good does it.” Mason said. Reilly shook his head. “You ain’t gonna like it Reilly, but I think they aren’t gonna be nice to us.”

They left the man with his binoculars and went downstairs, through the kitchen and opened a cupboard. Shotguns hung against the wall, above a shelf that was covered in faded shell boxes. “You going to take one?” Mason asked.

Reilly shook his head. “I don’t want to kill. If they get too close…” He said.

Mason nodded. “I believe you.” He passed out the rest of the shotguns to other people, almost handing one to Kiera, but catching Reilly’s eye and his faint glare, he didn’t.

“Stay upstairs.” He said.

Reilly took a knife from the kitchen, just in case, and went upstairs with Kiera. They watched from their bedroom as the trucks got closer. Soon they could make out the drivers – People with skin heads, or roughly cut Mohawks, piercings scattered over their faces. The explosions had stopped as the trucks got closer, replaced by the insistent roar of their engines.

The trucks slowed and stopped in a row about a hundred metres from the house. They sat for several minutes, revving their engines. Two of the drivers got out and walked closer. Reilly could see that they clutched shotguns in their tattooed hands. It seemed like it took forever for them to reach the house, and Reilly soon ducked down to avoid being seen.

The people downstairs could hear the drivers talking and joking. Their faces peered through the windows, looking at the rooms inside. One commented that it looked like people were still there, or if they had left they wouldn’t have got far.

The shotgun blast echoed through the house as the front door was blasted open. Another blast shook the house as the bolts held, and a third blast blew the door off it’s hinges. Reilly could hear the drivers wooping as they stormed into the house.

He peeped through the window and saw that more of the drivers had got out and were running towards the house. Reilly and Kiera pushed their beds against the door.
Shouting and screaming broke out beneath them and shotgun blasts echoed throughout the house. Reilly hugged Kiera as some of the screams turned to wails of pain which were cut off by more shotgun blasts. The noise died down and the shotgun blasts stopped.

“What’s happened? Is it safe?” Kiera whispered.

“I don’t know. They know where we are. They’ll come and get us if it is safe.”

Half an hour later, as the sky became completely black, a knock came at the door.

“It’s Mason. We’re safe now.”

Reilly pulled the beds away from the door and motioned for Kiera to stand back, just in case Mason wasn’t alone. He hide the knife behind the door and opened it a crack. Mason stood outside, clutching his arm. He was alone. Kiera ran up behind Reilly.

“How many.” Reilly asked.

“Seven of them. Two of us.” Mason replied. Blood dribbled from his injured shoulder, dripping onto the carpet. Reilly took a deep breath.

“Is it okay to go down?”

Mason nodded. “We’ve moved the worst out. It’s going to need a good redecorating though.”

Holes punched through the walls downstairs, plaster dust mixing with blood in sprays across some of the walls. The carpet was covered in mud and the air stank of gunpowder and cordite. Martha was unscrewing the rest of the front door, a new one leaning against the wall next to her. Splinters stuck out of the walls where the force of the shotgun blasts had embedded them.

“Where are they?” Reilly asked.

“Out the back, we’re putting them in one of the barns overnight and we’ll burn them first thing in the morning.”

“Can’t we bury them?” Kiera asked. “I mean two of them are ours.”

“Ground’s too hard Kiera. Can’t get the shovel into it. We’ll cremate them.” With that Mason turned and walked away. Reilly walked with Kiera down the hall, past the grandfather clock that still ticked, the pendulum swinging left and right, and into the living room.

A round hole blown into the side of the piano, strings splaying out of the hole. Cracks ran down the side of the piano, and when Kiera ran over to look inside, she found that half of the strings had been sliced by the shot. She turned back to Reilly, tears beginning to fall down her face.

“Don’t worry dear.” Maureen said, coming through from the kitchen. Reilly didn’t want to ask what the dark red stains, rapidly turning brown, were that covered her apron. “We’ve got a few other instruments in the loft.”

Reilly walked through to the kitchen. The air smelt different here, more like burnt flesh. A camping stove lay on the floor and he knelt down to pick it up. It was dented, and still warm. His stomach churned. The kitchen window was smashed, little cubes of glass scattered across the sink, and cold air blowing into the kitchen. Reilly walked back through to the hallway where Martha had finished removing the door. He picked up the bottom half and took it through to the kitchen. After finding a hammer and nails, he covered the empty window with the wood.

Someone had started the fires up again and the house soon became warm. Others began to scrub at the carpets and patch up the walls, while a small group, armed with the majority of the shotguns, undertook a brief search of the trucks outside. Once Mason was satisfied that the area surrounding the house was safe, the front door was locked and people began to drift to their rooms; the house became quiet, except for sobs of grief as it’s residents began to come to terms over the deaths of their friends. The shotguns were collected in and then one was taken bat out again as it was decided that someone would stay on guard overnight, as a precaution against any other unwanted visitors.

Kiera and Reilly went to their bedroom and stood and looked out of the window into the darkness. Moonlight glinted off the trucks.

“Do you think more will come?” Kiera said.

“Undoubtedly.” Reilly said. “Whether it’s one person or a group, there’ll be others out there trying to find life and take control of it; others will be seeking help or fleeing from harm. They might come here, and they might their predators here too.”

He put an arm round Kiera. “But these are good people Kiera, they’ve looked after us since we’ve been here and today they proved they’re willing to give their lives.” He felt her nod.

“I wonder who died.” She said.

“They’ll tell us in the morning. I didn’t notice anybody I recognised missing though.”

The amount of people staying at the house had grown in the previous months. Although no one had travelled to the house, some of the hunting groups had come across solitary people trying to live off the land. They brought them back and they were welcomed into the group. Reilly and Kiera hadn’t met all of them.

Reilly lifted his arm and closed the curtains, hiding away the cruel world outside. Kiera slipped into bed and Reilly changed and walked over to the fat candle that sat, dripping wax into the mug in which it stood. Kiera nodded at him and he blew it out.

Epic Session 1.3

Arthur
The darkness was oppressive. Arthur couldn’t see anything. He fumbled in his bag for a torch and turned it on. He’d landed on a pile of waste bags, thrown into the chute by the cleaners. He knew that those who didn’t do well in Academia and then didn’t do a good job of cleaning were made to work down here, pushing away the waste from the chutes so that they didn’t become blocked. The light from the torch didn’t reach far into the darkness. Arthur stood up and began to walk down the tunnel, away from the chute.

The smell of the waste was disgusting, as if someone had thrown rotting corpses down the chute. He gagged a little. There was no airflow in the tunnel. The ground sucked at his shoes as he walked; he turned the torch’s beam down to the floor. Black gunk with white mould spots covered the floor, sticking on his shoes. By the time he’d walked fifty metres, his shoes were completely black.

Arthur carried on walking, sweeping the torch across his path to check that the tunnel didn’t split. After a while the torch’s beam began to fade and he was soon surrounded by the darkness. As the darkness tightened round him, he slowed and stood for a moment. He put the torch back in his bag and continued walking.

A scuttling to his left made him pause and shrink away from the noise until his back hit the side of the tunnel; more of the black gunk stuck onto the bag. The scuttling came again, moving from his left to his right.

Two white balls appeared in the darkness. Arthur reached a hand into his pocket, feeling for the knife. Hopefully it was just one of the cleaners, coming out to see who had fallen down the chute.

The white balls moved closer and he realised they were eyes. In the quietness of the tunnel he could hear breathing, and it wasn’t his. It was a rasping noise, like water struggling through a pipe.

He flicked the knife open and held it next to him.

“Who are you?” He said, trying to keep his voice steady and as threatening as he could.

The creature didn’t respond other than to move closer. The eyes moved higher as the creature stood.

It was now close enough that Arthur could begin to see it’s vague shape. It was broad, and stood like a human. They eyes got closer and then moved back.

“Who are you.” It said. It’s voice rasped like it’s breathing. The thing elongated it’s words, as though it was struggling to get them out.

“Arthur.”

“Arthur.” The creature repeated.

Arthur heard a rustling and then bright light lit the tunnel.

He tried not to scream. The man, if it was a man, was covered in red boils. His lips were crooked and his nose was smeared across his face as if it was added as an afterthought. The man’s white eyes popped from his face, sticking out from the crater-like eyesockets. His arms were twisted, coming out of his torso at different heights. His legs were lopsided too. One bulged with muscle and sinew, the other was thin and bone showed through the translucent skin. In his left hand the man held a burning stick.

“Arthur.” The man said again. Arthur glimpsed the man’s teeth, yellow stones that stuck out at all angles from brown gums.It’s eyes turned to the knife.

“Weapon.” It said.

“Stay back.”

It raised both his hands. “No hurt. No hurt. Why here.” It said.

The torch began to falter, the flames shrinking and darkness creeping back. The man took another from his belt and lit it. He dropped the original and the black gunk extinguished it.

“Who are you.” Arthur said. He had wanted to say “what” but thought that might enrage the man.

“Morgan. Friend or hurt?” The man said.

Arthur closed the knife and put it back in his pocket. “Friend.”

Morgan didn’t seem to be armed and he thought if he had to he could stab him with the knife. Arthur pulled himself away from the wall and held out a hand. Part of him hoped that the creature wouldn’t shake it. It didn’t. Instead it flinched back, dropping to the ground.

He retracted his hand. “Friend.” Arthur said. Morgan rose once more.

“Come.” He said, dropping back down to the ground.

While Arthur walked, Morgan crawled along the ground, hopping from his strong arm and leg, only briefly putting his weight on his weaker side.

“Do you work here?” Arthur asked.

“Morgan not work. Morgan live.”

Every few metres they would stop and Morgan would light another torch. After another four torches, Arthur could begin to see light in the distance.
The light grew stronger and soon intermittent bulbs appeared on the sides of the tunnel, and the black gunk began to thin and then disappear from the ground. A gate ended the tunnel and Morgan looked at Arthur.

“Wait.” He said.

He pushed his way through the gate and disappeared for several minutes.

When he returned he wasn’t alone. Another person scuttled along the ground behind him. All of this person’s limbs were thin. They were naked except from a belt around their waist and wispy hair that ran down their back; their breasts sagged down to the ground. They stood up, leaning on Morgan for support.

“Arthur.” They both said.

Arthur nodded. “My name is Arthur.”

“Swan.” Said the new person. “Come.”

The two people fell to the ground and scuttled through the gate, holding it open for Arthur to pass through.

The lights on the wall were far more frequent on this side of the gate, running in strips along the sides of the tunnel; the tunnel itself widened considerably, and more lights dangled from cables that Arthur assumed were embedded in the ceiling, but couldn’t tell because of the darkness that hung above them.

They led him down the tunnel and through another gate, into a small room. They took his bag from him and left him there.

It seemed like an hour before they returned, although it was only minutes. A third person had joined them, and this person walked standing up.

“You must be Arthur.” The person said. Their face hung on their neck, their spine arched and sticking out above their head.

“Yes.”

“Rossi. I work at the gate. Why are you here.”

Arthur contemplated lying and saying that he had slipped down the chute. He decided that he would give the truth, but be conservative with it. “I was being chased and needed to get away.” He paused and then asked hesitantly: “Why are you here.”

“We live here.” Said Rossi. “You’ve reached the Undercity.”