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We Float Upon a Painted Sea

By Christopher Connor All Rights Reserved ©

Adventure / Scifi

Chapter 1

1 SINK or swim

Lying naked on his bunk, he listened to the words of a virtual therapy session to overcome his fear of water. The monologue promoted the peaceful properties and cadence of the sea, and the visual scene of gentle waves rushing to a sandy shore was dubbed with calming synthesised music to further enhance the mood. “There’s a tempo to the sea,” said the voice in a softly spoken mid-Atlantic accent, “It isn’t immediately noticeable but after a while you become aware of its seamless beating pulse. The human heartbeat duplicates the timing, running in tandem and often creating an atmosphere of peace and tranquillity.” He removed the earpiece, returned the VR lenses to their capsule and sighed. The relaxation technique was not working.

He turned his gaze to the ship’s porthole and reality. Outside, as if to justify his decision to end the session prematurely, the sea spat foam at him.  He studied the grey pulsing mass running boundlessly to the horizon, there it would meet a dull grey sky. A featureless, monochrome scene with its own terrifying beauty. It filled him with dread. He questioned his decision to move to an island, so soon after the accident. At the time he thought it an astute idea. Someone once said to him he should dance with his demons, although he couldn’t imagine how this performance would transpire, or in what style: salsa, tap, the latest street dance or considering he was going to St Kilda, perhaps a ceilidh?

There was no point trying to deny it, in his mind there still remained an eroding fear. No virtual therapy session was going to dispel the shadow of doubt. Something had changed since the fateful day, he thought. It wasn’t just the headaches, the amnesia, the hypersomnia, the sudden light-headedness and loss of balance, or even the recent inability to concentrate his thoughts. It was something else, something more unfathomable. His mind would drift and then be brought back to reality with a jolt. It would leave him with a displaced feeling that somehow his soul, if such a thing existed, had momentarily abandoned his body. He was absorbed by an emotion he described as waiting on the edge of a precipice and counting down the days to an unknown event. It didn’t help the air inside the cabin was becoming unnaturally thick and heavy. His is normal reaction to the anxiety was to sleep. Today was no different.

His brain was sinking into the slow folds of somnolence and the onset of a dream when a noise roused him back into full consciousness. The sound reverberated from deep beneath the ship, down in the bowels of the earth. It was detected in his internal organs rather than the ears. The metal hull vibrated liked a plucked guitar string, sending a shudder the length of his body. He lay flat and motionless as if gripped by the cold steel jaws of a vice. The tremor passed. Silence descended like a comfort blanket to dampen his rising fear. He savoured the moment of relief. A seed of serenity was germinating from within and then an alarm bell sounded out in the corridor and the ship veered off course. He felt a heave in his gut and his chest bulged, as if recoiling from the crushing influence of a dead weight being lifted from his torso. He sat up and peered across the cabin to the porthole. He heard a thunderous noise from outside and then the natural light was snuffed out.

He felt his naked body falling. Like tumbling down an spiral staircase and then darkness. When he regained consciousness he found himself face down and submerged in water. Panic consumed him. His fingers searched for an anchor point, something fixed to hold on to. He pushed against the solid surface beneath him. On his hands and knees now, he gasped for air and tried to regain his balance. His cabin had been cast into an impenetrable gloom. He groped his way towards the door and finally, on discovering the handle, he opened it. A torrent of seawater swirled around his legs. Fighting the dizziness in his head he kicked his way through the slanting, flooded corridor and towards the dim green light at the foot of the stairwell. He climbed. At the top he stopped to take his breath. Making his way along the deck, he found a hatch door. He opened it. A welcoming burst of daylight blinded him but curiously, as his eyes adjusted, he found a swirling mist had engulfed the ship; like he had emerged within a cloud. The cold, salt laden wind strummed against his exposed flesh. He cursed the reality of the situation, wishing for the dramatic experience to be a dream or part of the virtual therapy session corrupted by a software virus and gone tragically wrong. He stood on the deck, his mind a negated vault, unable to provide reasonable or logical explanations to current events. A disorientated brain trying to make sense of a hopeless situation.

He felt an intense pain in the back of his head. He reached round with his fingers and found the lump where the blow had been received, presumably when falling out of his bunk. He wondered how long he had been unconscious. Strangely, there didn’t appear to be any other survivors fleeing from the ship. No hysterical characters being slapped across the face and told to stay calm. No lifeboats full of sobbing mothers holding their children close. No crew in high visibility jackets directing passengers to safety and enforcing a regime of calm sensibility. No string quartet playing reassuringly until the final moments. He presumed the lifeboats must have already been deployed, when he had passed out, and assembled on the opposite side of the ship. He could see no other reason for the deserted scene. The ferry was listing heavily, and there was no way of escape without jumping into the sea.

He edged further along the upper deck, holding onto the rails. He found a spot where he could safely fix his eyes to the water below. A paralysing fear consumed him. His breath quickened. Landing on the melange of wreckage, some visible on the surface but some under the swells, raised its own levels of concern, but right now the intrinsic fear of water itself had swamped his judgement. As he approached the bridge he came across the empty pod of a life raft. The interior was streaked with blood. He summoned his inner voice, searching for logical alternatives to jumping but all the while his subconscious was undermining his cognitive process with the stark realisation he was delaying the inevitable. He wondered how long he could he survive in the North Atlantic without a survival suit. Minutes? Hours? He convinced himself he would have jumped by now if he had spotted a lifeboat, so some level of logic had prevailed. He was also well aware if the ship went under he would have to swim well clear if he wasn’t to be sucked under. This concept was based on nothing more than watching disaster movies and he chastised himself for not knowing if this was accurate or not.

He wondered how long it would take for the ship to sink and considered the option of waiting it out until the Coast Guard sent out their cutters, or the emergency services dispatched a rescue drone to save him. If he could only find some warm clothes from one of the suitcases he had come across, strewn around the lower decks, but this would mean going back into the darkness. Into the body of the ship. He peered back towards the stern where he had come from. Water was flooding in from below. He decided he needed to find a higher level. His hands fumbled along the ship’s superstructure until he grasped a metal ladder. He scuttled to the top and stood, perched over the sea like a heron studying the waters beneath its feet.

Higher now, he was afforded a better view. Something else disturbed him. For the first time he could see through the surface of the water. A submerged light from the ship was illuminating the unfathomable depth of the precipitous green sea. New demons were now at work in his mind, egged on by the submersed orbs which danced in the scattering light. The scene instilled a primal fear of being swallowed whole, of drowning and being lost forever in the dark void below. His dark thoughts were interrupted by the high pitched screech from a passing flock of guillemots. He watched the birds fly towards, where he imagined, the coastline to lie. He envied their wings.

Finally he prepared himself for the jump. He decided he needed to take three deep breaths. The first breath made his head dizzy. On the second breath his body stiffened. Then, through his feet, he felt a metallic fracturing noise emanate from the ship’s hull. A shudder ran through his body, almost throwing him from the ladder. His fingers tightened around the metal rung. His breath was snatched away by the augmenting fear in his gut. He gasped for air. He was convinced the ship was at least mocking him and at worst was trying to kill him. “What in Christ’s name?” he cried out loud. His soliloquy sounded breathless, pitiful and high pitched for such a large man. The ship groaned. A slower but more sustained noise this time, but just as distressing. A metallic grinding sound reverberated through the air as the ship’s bulkheads filled with invading water, pulling the ship under. The vessel lurched and then progressively descended into the water, like a coffin being lowered into its grave. He felt his body arch, drawn towards the sea and for a nauseating moment it appeared the space between his widening eyes and the water had compressed. Gripping the rails tighter he muttered incomprehensible words dubbed with a roll call of expletives.

He had arrived on deck like a rutting stag running across the hillside, adrenaline coursing through his veins but the stag had disappeared and in its place was a frightened rabbit, caught in the headlights of an oncoming car. He was impotent with fear. He was consumed with a feeling of wretched helplessness. Like the draining grains of sand in an hour glass, every second brought him closer to the time he would have to enter the sea. He tried not to stare at the cold unwelcoming water. The aquatic Medusa, turning him to jelly rather than stone. He crept further up the metal ladder until he could go no further. He found a discarded lifejacket hooked onto the metal railing. He slipped it over his quivering body and for a brief moment he relished his morsel of good fortune. A degree of clarity returned to his brain. His breath quickened on conceding the jump could not be put off any longer. He needed to swim clear of the vessel and find a lifeboat, or face going under with the ship.

His eyes settled on the surface of the sea for one last time. He could see a clear patch of green water. His body began to shake but as if drawn to the water by an invisible force, he leapt forward, tucking his legs up under his chin as he fell. The fall lasted little more than a second. He smacked the surface of the water so hard his buttocks and thighs felt like they had been struck with a bull whip. He was submerged and his weight carried him downwards. The coldness of the water gripped every muscle in his body, stiffening him to the verge of paralysis. His bones felt as if they were about to fracture. For a brief moment he thought he could hear the stifled sounds of other passengers thrashing somewhere in the water, and then the buoyancy of the lifejacket carried him back to the surface.

Finally his head broke the surface of the water and once more he felt the cold wind on his face. He dragged deep breaths of air into his lungs and kicked back his legs until he gained some stability. He treaded water for a moment, remaining afloat until he came to his senses. He swam. Slowly at first and in no specific direction. His instinct was to move, if only to keep his heart pumping. He came upon a piece of wreckage and clung to it, allowing his teeth to chatter uncontrollably in-between catching his breath. And then a glimpse of something new. His heart began to race. Piercing through the mist, the bright orange image of a life raft, the pulse of the ocean making it rise and fall in the white tipped swells. A feeling of hesitancy engulfed him. He trembled at the prospect of drowning midway as he swam to his salvation. At last, he let go of the floating debris and swam. His pace was slow and cumbersome. He struggled to keep a steady course. A large wave swamped him. Salt stung his eyes and for a moment his vision was impaired. He stopped and treaded water for a while. The sea rotated his body and his eyelids closed over. He blinked repeatedly until the burning sensation passed. When he regained his vision he had lost sight of the raft. Time seemed to stretch, seconds passed like minutes, the minutes like hours. He turned his head rapidly, desperately trying to relocate the raft. His guts twisted with the sensation of despair and the disintegration of all hope, but finally the raft reappeared, observed in snapshots through the oscillating motion of the sea. He pulled himself through the cold sea, his hands clawing at the water and his legs thrusting back, and after a final lung bursting effort it was only a few strokes from his floundering body. At last he managed to put one exhausted hand on the grab rope and using his last reserves of strength, he held on, floating lifelessly like a rag doll.

With every heartbeat his veins had permeated with adrenalin, mitigating the effects of the cold Atlantic Ocean, but now his semi-naked body had stopped shivering and he started to become drowsy.  He heard excited voices from within the raft, a woman’s and then a man’s. Another woman interrupting, an older voice, frail but austere. An argument of sorts. It sounded like the survivors were panicking, but he was cheered by the resonance of human voices. He felt a surge of optimism growing from somewhere deep down inside. Using his final reserves of strength, he shifted around to the entrance of the raft. He forced his head through the aperture, hauled up his torso and dragged his bare legs onto the platform.

Struggling to catch his breath, he crawled to the far side of the raft and crumbled to a heap on the plastic floor. His mind was blank, his body spent and flaccid and his purple lips were pressed firmly against the synthetic rubber of the inflated pontoon. When he broke from his loving embrace, he surveyed his new found inner sanctum with nebulous eyes. Under the canopy his world was bathed in a soft orange glow, giving the illusion of warmth, but he was cold and wet. He shivered uncontrollably. There appeared to be only two survivors on board, both men. One lay flat out and brandished a nasty cut to the head. He was unconscious. The other man was moving towards him with a silver foil blanket and introducing himself with a number of questions. He ignored him, but he noticed the same look of apprehension in the man’s eyes reflecting his own fears. The man persisted ranting.

“Are there any other survivors? The man said, “How long were you in the water? What happened to your clothes? What’s your name?” He held up a weak hand in protest.

“Bull, my name is Bull,” came the reply to the last question.

2 McIntyre’s hangover

High up on Mullach Sgar, McIntyre stepped out of the observation pod and into the early morning light. He lifted his head to the slate grey sky and winced as the shards of light penetrated his eyes and needled the visual cortex of his brain. Trying to blot out the sound of the sirens, he staggered to the edge of the cliff and cast his gaze out over the ocean. There in the distance, the wave rose up like a dark wall on the horizon, indiscernible at first but growing in stature and velocity as it propagated towards the shallower waters encircling the islands of St Kilda. The wind preceding the wave hit him hard, flipping his large frame like an autumn leaf and almost knocking him to the ground. Stunned by its ferocity, he watched in wonder as the body of water finally broke against the shoreline with a terrible roar, the crest of the wave rolling and turning over until it collapsed in on itself. A foaming white discharge of detritus pounded the cliff face with an almighty force, sending spouts of sea spray two hundred feet into the air. As if excited by the commotion on the other side of the island, the rusting fishing trawlers bounced in the floating harbour, only settling down when the wave passed the archipelago and the sirens stopped.

This wave was different, thought McIntyre. Certainly different from the ones the islanders had become accustomed to. It was more powerful. Much more powerful. It had originated from a usual source, out in the west and not from the shale rigs. It had also taken him by surprise. If there had been the usual prelude to the tremor causing the wave, oystercatchers filling the air with their shrill alarm calls or the dogs in the village starting to howl, he didn’t hear it. Moreover, with each tremor, he had come to rely on small but discernible changes in his own body, but today there was no compression of the lungs, or quickening of the heart, not even a tingling sensation running the length of his spine. It was the same with last night’s quake, arriving as it did during the ceilidh. He had felt nothing. He blamed the poitín.

His mouth was dry and viscid and a surge of nausea churned the contents of his guts. On occasions such as this, when his hangover reached seismic proportions, he would pay Sheila a visit and acquire one of her herbal potions. She was the Island’s main source of homeopathic remedies, locally grown hemp and even mandrake root, when a more radical and unprocessed painkiller was required.

He started down the gravel path to the village, stopping only once to piss behind a sheltered outcrop and then again at the harbour, to reassemble a stack of rotting lobster pots which had fallen over during the tremor. He caught the news headlines from an information bulletin at the ferry terminal. The newsreader delivered her monologue in a typically laconic style, reporting state dogma concerning the curfew, the continuing state of emergency and the police response to the riots spreading from the shanty towns and into the city centres on the mainland. McIntyre tried not to be distracted by her breasts spilling out of her low cut blouse, but he did note the absence of news relating to tremors and monstrous waves. Also, nothing of the Government’s ineffectual response to the floods, the energy crisis or the nation’s crippling budget deficit. In an unemotional voice she finished her address, stating the world’s leaders had finally given up trying to reach an agreement allowing them to sign the 2066 Manhattan Declaration on climate change. This digital necromancer could not even end with a good news story, thought McIntyre.

When he arrived at Sheila’s croft he noticed her staff and muck boots were missing from the front doorstep. Always a clear sign she wasn’t at home. McIntyre headed to the beach where she was often found collecting kelp, picking up crabs or harvesting shellfish. She once had a thriving business selling handcrafted wind chimes and dream catchers make from drift wood, or whatever detritus the ocean had thrown up on the shore. The troubles on the mainland, or what folk were calling the Change, put an end to most of her enterprises.

He drew his eyes along the contours of sand. No Sheila. He walked to the Glen, the first of the artificial biomes created on the island, and followed the burn uphill. Trampling over the ancient ruins of a drystane dyke, he found her sitting on a log, smoking a hemp cigarette. Sheila fired up her Kelly kettle and said,

“I was wondering when you would show up.”

Like a slow train, the conversation moved through the subjects of the tremors, the waves, last nights ceilidh, the arrival of strangers to their shores, the surveillance satellites above their heads, the curfews on the mainland and an absurd accusation of witchcraft. Finally they arrived at the subject of McIntyre’s hangover and today’s visit from his commanding officer. On the Commandant’s last visit, he had threatened to put him on a charge for being under the influence of alcohol whilst being on duty. McIntyre needed to disguise the signs: his eyes, his breath and the smell of booze on his skin. Sheila enlightened him oral odours from overindulgence of alcohol mainly originated in the gut. She produced a rhizome from her rucksack, saying it would be good for his digestive system and also help with his flatulence. McIntyre told her he didn’t suffer from excessive flatulence. Sheila crowed with a contrary nod of the head and flap of the hand. She found a flat rock and using the back of her knife, crushed the root. She imbued the paste with a liquid from a potion bottle, counting out loud all three drops and presented the elixir to him on a piece of bark. McIntyre sniffed it.

“What is it?” he said, “It smells rank. Will it make me sick?” Sheila examined him with curious eyes. She took a draw on her hemp cigarette and said,

“I’ve never known you to be sick. I only see you when you’re after a hangover cure. Worryingly, that’s a lot.”

Sheila produced a frying pan from her rucksack and placed it over the fire base of the Kelly kettle. She cooked them a meal consisting of freshly picked mussels, wild fennel, slices of homemade soda bread and mushrooms.

Later, McIntyre walked Sheila back towards her croft. As they drew near, they could see three women standing at the gate to her cottage. Two were carrying placards. They were conducting a silent protest, presumably aimed at Sheila, thought McIntyre. One of them he recognised as the wife of Padruig McKinnon. He had been at last night’s ceilidh. His memories were still clouded by the moonshine, but he remembered the floor of the village hall had descended into a maelstrom of colliding bodies after an argument over whether to end with Strip the Willow or the much easier Gay Gordons. During the ensuing argument, the band started playing and the McKinnon clan, losing patience with the hold-up, went straight into the Cumberland Square Eight. Anarchy erupted. All accepted dance routines had been abandoned and decorum was cast to the wind. Drunkards indulged in the reckless practice of throwing their partners into the path of other dancers. Some missed their targets and slammed into walls or landed on tables, scattering bottles and tumblers to the floor as they landed. He didn’t see it himself, but one of the islanders had told him Padruig McKinnon had been hurled out of the hall doors with such momentum he had carried on down the brae, arms and legs flaying and never to be seen again. On his walk back to the observation pod, McIntyre’s temporary home since his wife threw him out, he had heard a loud snoring noise coming from inside a stone bothy, the previous inhabitants of the island called a cleit. When he shone his torch inside, Padruig McKinnon lay amongst a flock of dishevelled sheep sheltering from the rain. He could understand Mrs McKinnon’s resentment, espoused to a man who preferred the comfort of a cleit in the hills and the company of sheep to the marital bed. He had some sympathy with her sign calling for a crackdown on illegal distilled poitín. Sheila had little time for poitín. Why the protest was being directed at her was a mystery.

The other two protestors he recognised as the Commandant’s wife and mother-in-law. He had the misfortune of running into them on several previous occasions. They would sometimes accompany him on his visits from the mainland, taking the opportunity to conduct their firebrand missionary work for the Lords of the New Church. It normally turned out to be a futile gesture and looking along the deserted village street, today was no exception. He studied the oldest women’s haggard face. Her placard prophesied an impending apocalypse. Given recent global disasters, a statement not requiring the greatest level of foresight, he thought. Still, he assumed mankind’s destiny would not be concluded soon enough for this old harpy. The Commandant’s wife stood in silence, her hands clasped in prayer. Sheila smiled at the protesters and then turned to McIntyre. She kissed him with faux passion on the lips, started up the garden path and closed the cottage door behind her.

McIntyre said his farewells and walked to the floating harbour. From outside the Harbour Master’s office he could smell the Commandant’s cheap mousey aftershave and hear the crackle of the shortwave radio. He drew in a last lungful of salty air, turned the wheel lock and entered the building. There he was, thought McIntyre, sitting at my desk, deep in prayer, propped up by several cushions and wearing his cap indoors to give the illusion of height. The Commandant stood up. He had an expression like he had been sucking lemons for breakfast. He approached McIntyre, his arms out-stretched and ready to embrace him, saying.  “Maranatha!” McIntyre stepped back and drew him a quizzical look. “It’s the Church’s new salutation,” said the Commandant.

“Well, I’m not in your church.”

“I forgot you’re an unbeliever. Most of you islanders are.”

“Yet, I am a devout believer in personal space.”

“I find it hard to believe you are devout about anything, apart from demon drink.”

“The Community Council still refusing your request to open the chapel or have you and your family finally given up trying to convert us?” The Commandant ignored the question, his eyes now settling on an antique pewter quaich on the McIntyre’s desk. He examined the Celtic engravings and Latin inscription. He grunted his disapproval. McIntyre pressed a pad mounted on the wall and waited while a montage of 3D digital maps and images appeared. McIntyre said,

“I heard you were on holiday? Did you unwind a wee bit? Did you swim with the sharks and the dolphins, or just paddle with the crabs and dog whelks? I used to enjoy a paddle in a rock pool when I was a boy - one of my first memories actually.”

“Any spiritual benefits I gained from the holiday have been annulled by this awful news,” affirmed the Commandant. “Jansen and Lennox are still out in the cutter checking the west and north coast to confirm the shipwreck reports.”

“I thought we were told to stand down and probably for good reason. There was a tremor only an hour ago. It was followed by another huge wave. It’s not safe to send a cutter out.”

“How was I to know there was to be another wave? No matter, Jansen reported back ten minutes ago.”

“Did he find anything?”

“I don’t know. There was too much static on his transmission and then he cut out.”

McIntyre was distracted by the sound of a lobster boat’s four stroke engine. He gazed out the window and when the vessel came into view he recognised the pilot from last night’s ceilidh. One of the MacNeil twins, he thought. He couldn’t be certain which one, but he had heard Donald MacNeil had gone blind after drinking a toxic batch of poitín and was at a Glasgow clinic having a new set of retinal implants. McIntyre left the office and ran the length of the jetty until he caught up with the boat. The fisherman greeted him with a broad smile showing his impressive set of veneers. Putting the engine into neutral he said in a voice as rough as gravel,

“Madainn mhath.”

“Aye, and yourself, Lachlan,” said McIntyre raising a half-hearted hand in response. He was in little mood for making cordial conversation or preventing reckless fisherman from taking their boats out in treacherous conditions.

“It’s Donald,” replied the fisherman.

“I’m sorry Donald, I thought you were Lachlan.” Donald MacNeil kept smiling and said,

“Don’t worry, it’s a common mistake. I get confused which one I am myself sometimes.”

“How are the new eyes?”

“They’re fine, Mac, just fine. I got back from Glasgow yesterday. I’m still getting used to them.”

“How are things back on the mainland?”

“It’s a scary place Mac. Curfews by night and rioting by day. It’s going to pieces. I was glad to come home.”

“Aye, I heard things are getting out of hand.” Both men nodded, acknowledging each other’s concerns. Finally Donald MacNeil said,

“Hey, did ye see that Mac? Did ye see the tremor?” McIntyre found it amusing the islanders would always refer to the experience of the tremors in visual terms.

“Aye, I did.”

“And last night’s tremor was the worst yet. It was different from the usual tremors from the shale rigs. And the wave? It came from way out in the Atlantic, Anton Dohrn or the Rockall Trough. English Pete told me you moved into the observation pod, up on Mullach Sgar after the wife threw you out? You must have seen the wave?” McIntyre ignored the reference to his wife, he didn’t want to provide the island gossips with more information than they needed, or deserved. 

“I must admit, I slept through that one,” said McIntyre.

“I heard you were dancing.”

“Was Lachlan telling tales again? Where is he?” Donald MacNeil pointed below to the deck.

“He’s sleeping off his hangover. Six O’clock this morning and he was still mad with the drink. It must have been some ceilidh and a tremor thrown in for good measure. I’m sorry I missed it.”

When news came in of the wave hitting the west coast of the island, the ceilidh had been in full swing. Lennox, who was on duty at the time, had gone up to the village hall and informed him the seismic detection system had been activated. Even though it was getting dark, and he was drunk, he had wanted to take a cutter out to conduct search and rescue operations, but orders came in from the Ministry of Defence and Surveillance (MoDs) they were coordinating the response. McIntyre and his crew were instructed to wait for further instructions. One of the locals had called to say, he saw a squad of terra-drones, terrifying looking military-class droids, being transported to the island’s military base. He wanted to know if the they under threat of invasion. The Commandant finally made contact and afterwards Lennox insisted he went home, or to be specific, back to the observation pod where he was living rough. McIntyre drew a critical eye across the lobster boat and said,

“I hope you’re not taking her out, particularly if you’re only just settling in a new set of eyes?”

“After the amount of poitín I heard you drunk last night, my eyes will be in a better state than yours this fine morning. Anyway, we’re just picking up some crab pots close to the shore - not that we’re expecting anything.”

“It wouldn’t be a new batch of poitín from Barra would it?” Donald MacNeil grinned playfully and replied,

“God no Mac, that type of activity would be highly illegal and what with all the Feds arriving on a helicopter in the middle of the night, only a fool would...”

“How do you know about Feds arriving?”

“English Pete told me.”

“All the same, we don’t know the extent of yesterday’s damage.” Donald MacNeil disturbed his train of thought. He pointed to the ocean and said,

“I see some of the rigs took a battering and English Pete told me a ship run aground at Loch a Ghlinne? A Green Movement ship no less. The military arrested most of the survivors.”

“Aye, English Pete seems to know more about what’s going on this island than I do. Eight years on these islands and I’ve never met English Pete. Why is that?”

“He keeps to himself. He used to work for the National Trust, but when they were disbanded he stayed and devoted his life to protecting the puffins. He won’t leave them for a minute. He was upset about the wave. The last puffin colony in the world he tells me. He’ll be even more upset this morning.”

“I’ll need to pay him a visit one of these days. Anyway, the military won’t allow us land access to their section of the island so Jansen and Lennox have taken a cutter out to take a look. We’ll know more when they get back.”

“I’m heading to Boreray. How’s it looking down there?”

“There’s a lot of debris floating out on the ocean and the forecast is for a force 7 gale. I shouldn’t let you…” Donald MacNeil swatted the air as if to dismiss his protests. He said,

“I’ll just turn the bow into any big waves and ride them. See you for a drink, down the Puffin?”

“Aye, you might but I would rather you wait…” Donald MacNeil put the engine in gear, cupped his hand to his ear and gestured he couldn’t hear McIntyre over the mechanical sound. The lobster boat passed out of the floating harbour leaving acrid fumes dispersing in the air. McIntyre coughed. He rolled a hemp cigarette, lit it and watched as the boat made its way out to open sea.

The islanders were a hardy and adaptable people, he thought. Originally from the mainland, many of them were contracted to bioengineer the island and make it fertile. More arrived to work on the micro-climate control project and the biomes, but curiously some decided to stay; most likely to escape the troubles back home. The island seemed to be on the periphery of the modern world where the pace of change was slower. They had never experienced the same problems with drugs, crime and pollution as they had on the mainland. While folk from the city fretted about their diet, credit card debt and not meeting work targets, island life revolved around a more palpable world: the sea, fishing, the weather and good poitín were the main topics in the Island’s local brew shack.

In his opinion, city dwellers generally cared little for nature unless they were inconvenienced by the winter snows or floods. They were surrounded by a sterile environment of concrete, tarmac and tinted glass. They felt detached from the living planet and not part of it, but the change in the environment had affected all. Even on the island. The search for methane hydrate had brought more strangers to the shores of the island. Some assimilated with island life, others didn’t. When the tremors first occurred the natives would curse and mutter expletives under their breaths but now they were part of everyday life. Something they reluctantly accepted. There were some jobs but not as many as had been promised. It was said a number of drilling accidents had polluted the sea around the island with hydraulic fracturing fluid and the local marine life had started to die back. The production company denied responsibility, ironically pointing to global warming resulting in changes to ocean currents, temperatures and acidification. The military presence never mingled, he thought.

McIntyre watched the lobster boat hurdle a large swell.  He held his breath and then gasped in relief when Donald MacNeil waved to him in the distance. Smiling, he returned to the Harbour Master’s office. He examined the Commandant’s face. He was expecting his skin to be tanned after his holiday, but it was a shade of grey only described on a painter’s chart. McIntyre said,

“One of the local fishermen is feeling brave enough to take a boat out...”

“Fishermen?” interrupted the Commandant, shifting his eyes to the ceiling, “they’re not fishermen. I come from a long tradition of fishermen.”

“You mean aquaculture surely? Running a fish farm in Harris hardly makes you the Old Man of the Sea.”

“I still know a fisherman when I see one.”

“What else are they to do apart from picking up crabs?” The Commandant grumbled,

“As long as that’s all they are doing. I heard reports some fishermen have been unloading the odd crate of poitín with their catch of the day. Anyway, I didn’t come here to talk about fishing. We have a natural disaster on our hands.” McIntyre expanded the 3D map of St Kilda to display more of the British Isles. He pointed to the North Atlantic fault line stretching north to Iceland and then he drew his finger back to Rockall Bank. He stated,

“It’s obviously not a natural disaster. I mean, there’s no history of natural seismic activity in the Outer Hebrides. There is a fault line running the mid-Atlantic ridge but no plate boundary subduction zones. We’re used to waves hitting the island, but only from the east and not on this scale. A wave caused by methane hydrate drilling on a stressed fracture wouldn’t cause a wave of this magnitude. It’s possible a submarine landslip caused it, but even then the Coast Guard and not the military would be leading search and rescue. I think it was a military operation. If it was a natural occurrence or as a result of shale drilling, why the news blackout? Why have MoDs instated a no-go zone within a forty mile radius of St Kilda?”

“True. When I contacted them I was put through to some MoDs big cheese called John Gordon Cluny. He was a cagey bastard but he confirmed the no-go zone applied to all non-military personnel. He said MoDs will be coordinating search and rescue operations for now. I told him he was full of mince and I smelled a rat.”

“What did he say?”

“He said to follow orders or he would pull some strings and I would be cleaning out public toilets back in Stornoway.”

“So apart from the new hydrogen fuelled ferry sinking and the damage to the rigs, what else do we have?”

“There are a few other complications. According to one of my contacts in Norway, a Green Movement ship tried to disrupt a Russian drilling operation in the Arctic. A few Hedge Monkeys got arrested and one got shot, but the ELF captured several Russian security personnel and ransomed them in exchange for activist prisoners. The ELF also sabotaged a Russian oil rig and a military surveillance base so they couldn’t be followed.”

“Who the hell are the ELF? And what has this got to do with our operation?”

“The Earth Liberation Front are a group of eco-activists who are on the MoDs terrorists watch list. My contact believes after being feed by the ELF, the GM ship fled here, to St Kilda. Unfortunately, a Russian surveillance ship picking up their trail so it’s possible it was also hit by the wave, hence the MoDs involvement.”

“But you can’t confirm this?”

“With the Prophylaxis satellite network being down and the MODs muscling us out of the picture, I can’t be certain.”

“Find out what they are up to. Use your contacts. You used to work in Communications, didn’t you? Isn’t your brother some Government big wig? Ask him.”

McIntyre turned away from the Commandant and walked to the window - he didn’t want him to see his face flush with irritation. He resented his elder brother, Raymond being brought into the conversation. He hadn’t heard a word from him in eight years, and then last week he received a message requesting he contact him as a matter of urgency. He ignored it. McIntyre rubbed the temples of his head to alleviate the pressure spawned by his hangover. Finally, he said,

“One other thing. The MoDs research centre up on the hill is being mothballed.”

“So I was informed,” replied the Commandant. “I’m not sure what they did up there, but I’ve heard some rumours, so no bad thing in my opinion. What was left of the local shale industry was destroyed by last night’s wave, the climate control research project has ran its course and the military are winding down. I suspect this station will be next for the chop, but until then we have a job to do. I know this is against our orders I want you to take a cutter to Rockall Bank and see what the MoDs are up to. When you are done, report straight back. I might even forget about last night’s drinking session, and won’t put you on a charge.”

McIntyre walked to the boathouse wondering how the commandant knew about the ceilidh and he had been drinking. In the village, a small gathering of islanders had collected by the floating dock. Some were fixing new frack off placards on the lampposts, others were lifting plastic crates from a fishing boat. A new batch of poitín.

  3 The Lovers’ Whirlwind

2063 Three years earlier

The Protest in the Park festival was making little impression on Bull. It wasn’t as though he didn’t care for the planet’s changing climate, the plight of the famished, the aquifers contaminated by tidal surges or the millions of homes washed away by the most recent floods. Momentarily, he was more preoccupied by the unwanted attentions of a bumble bee. He was aware the bee was an endangered species, and in a curious way he felt privileged by the attention, but after such a prolonged attack the time had come to kill the insect. Ignoring the protests from horrified onlookers, Bull thrashed out at his assailant like an oversized ninja.

When the bee finally made its retreat, he became aware of a woman standing next to him. She was wearing a long black oilskin coat and knee-length boots. Her long dreadlocks were tousled across her perfectly symmetrical face. Finally she said,

“Hi, I’m Saffron. I loved your dancing.” Bull gazed at her intently, startled by her large brown eyes and salient beauty. He said,

“Hi, I’m Bull, virtuoso of the Bolshoi Ballet Company.”

Saffron looked at his immense stature and started to laugh.

“Sure you are.”

Throughout the evening, various environmental campaigners made speeches, in-between live musical performances, and at the end, people queued to sign the Earth Mother Covenant: a pledge to protect the planet at all costs. They proclaimed themselves Covenanters. Bull signed the petition and placed the green bracelet on his wrist. Side by side Bull and Saffron swayed in time to the music, occasionally taking furtive sideways glances at each other. At the end of the concert a spokesperson for the Green Movement entered the stage. She had a message to tell the leaders of the world. She said, “Enough is enough. We, the free peoples of the world, demand systemic change before you completely destroy the planet. Join with me today and tomorrow, we will start a revolution!” The crowd cheered and then gazed at the digitalised fog emerging above their heads, condensing to form harrowing images of the starving and the dying. Scenes of flooding and droughts flashed across the sky. These were followed by snapshots of laughing city financiers smoking cigars and drinking champagne.

On the fringe of the crowd, plastic bottles rained down on a police Snatch Squad as it moved in to arrest a masked man. The wearing of masks had been made a criminal offence by the Government and punishable by an indefinite custodial sentence at one of the new arbitrary detention centres. Bull turned to Saffron and said, “All this talk about famine is making me hungry. Do you want to go and get something to eat?” Saffron looked at him reproachfully and then she noticed his mischievous smile.

They exited the park through a hole in the fence and started towards the gothic tower on Gilmorehill, the structure bathed in the last embers of the sun’s light. They sat on the grass to watch the riot peter out and the crowds disperse and later took a shortcut through the Cloisters. They fooled around amongst the stone colonnades and when they entered the other side it was dark. Saffron led Bull across the Great Western Road, through the Botanic Gardens and over the Ha’penny Bridge to a brew shack called St Mungo’s. Saffron pressed a buzzer, rolled up her shirt sleeve and presented a tattoo for the security camera. The door opened and they made their way to the bar. Saffron ordered a bottle of poitín, slices of warm flat bread and dipping oil. They found a table in a dark corner and sat down. Saffron studied Bull’s eyes and said, “Bull is a moniker right? Not your real name?”

“Everyone calls me Bull, except for my family.”

“What were you called before you got your moniker. When you were young and don’t say Bullock or I will slap you.” Bull grinned. The poitín was taking effect. He felt like a schoolboy jumping off a carousel and enjoying the dizziness in his head. He played with Saffron’s long dreadlocked hair.

“Faerrleah O’Connell is my name, but Faerrleah is a bit of a mouthful.”

“So your moniker is Saffron?

“I don’t have a moniker. I don’t like them. It’s just plain Saffron.”

“Unusual. What’s your surname?”


“I was kind of hoping you had a Scottish name like McGregor or McDonald. Something with a bit of clan heritage and blood curdling history to make your toes curl.” Saffron faked a sad face.

“I’m sure I you could still make your toes curl, even if I do have a boring surname. So what brings you to Glasgow?”

“The Clyde flood barrier.”

“It’s a beautiful piece of architecture but…” Bull burst out laughing.

“No, I didn’t come here to look at it. I’m not a tourist, I work there.” Saffron drew her eyes up and down his enormous body and said,

“Do they get you to turn the big wheel that opens and shuts the gates. Are you like a big troll? Oh, you poor thing. So cruel!”

“Something like that.”

They drank and talked until the police arrived and raided the bar. They were looking for members of a particular anarchist group and demanded drinkers make themselves available and present their shackles for inspection. Saffron and Bull made their escape through an emergency exit door and into a side alley.

Except for the columns of search lights beaming down from the undercarriages of hovering police drones, the city was in darkness. Saffron peered up at the dark skies and to one of the Prophylaxis spy satellites being constructed in orbit and reflecting light from the sun on the other side of the planet. She thought about the talk of curfews to deal with the surge in crime since the recent blackouts. The loss of power was being blamed on a string of eco-terrorist attacks at gas fired power stations across the country, but Saffron suspected the Government were purposely orchestrating a circus of fear to justify every action as a reaction. Statements had been issued, through a managed media, designed to assure the public if curfews were introduced it would be a temporary measure. But Saffron knew it was the inception of a new order, the rolling out of an authoritarian state and ultimately the restriction of freedom. From the heavens came a pulse of lightning and a rolling clap of thunder. When the rain started to fall, Bull said,

“I don’t know where I am. I think you better walk me home.” Saffron took Bull by the hand and they made their way towards the Kelvin Walkway. One hour later and soaking wet, they stumbled into Bull’s narrowboat at Maryhill Locks. After drying off, they spent the night smoking hemp, drinking tea and making love. In the morning Bull lay naked with his head resting on Saffron’s breasts. He savoured the moment, breathing in her natural scent. For once he relished having an unnaturally strong sense of smell. He loved the feel of her long hair, strewn along his back, like a warming blanket. His eyes probed her naked body. Her skin was like white marble, reminding him of a statue of Aphrodite: Venus de Milo, but thankfully with arms, he thought. Saffron broke the spell. She turned away and said,

“Let’s go and get some breakfast. Then we can go for a walk on the Necropolis.” Her voice sounded raspy under the weight of Bull’s head, which she peeled from her chest. She disappeared through the toilet door like a rabbit flashing its tail before bolting down a burrow and the vision of Saffron’s naked posterior was engrained into his memory forever.

“What’s the Necropolis?” yelled Bull after her.

“It’s the city of the dead!” shouted Saffron from the bathroom.

They took breakfast at a local café on the Maryhill Road and later walked in a general easterly direction. It was still early in the morning when they entered the Necropolis. The previous night’s rain had made the ragwort and sedges glisten in the warm morning sunshine and the air was filled by the sweet smell of hawthorn bloom. They trailed the pathway snaking upwards towards the summit of the grey rock. Bull noticed most of the large tombs were still preserved many of the smaller gravestones were toppled over and overgrown with Himalayan balsam and knotweed. Obelisks, wingless stone angels and eroded statues lined their ascent. Bull studied some graffiti scrawled across a tomb – you’re a long time dead. He felt an uncomfortable wave of energy wash over his body. He took Saffron’s hand and squeezed it. The chattering song of a magpie pierced the background noise of the city. Saffron saluted the bird and greeting it with a good morning, she pinched Bull’s ribs.

“What was that for?” Bull asked. Saffron giggled like a school girl, 

“It’s bad luck to see a magpie on its own. So if you don’t salute it, talk to it and pinch the person you are with, misfortune comes your way.”

“Do you believe that? Or is it an old wives tale?” Bull rubbed his side where he had been nipped. He watched as another magpie hopped from behind a gravestone to join its compatriot.

“It’s a superstition but some people think it brings good fortune.”

“Do you believe in good fortune or do you think you make your own?”

“I think you can set the ground work by creating balance and harmony. It’s astounding what you can achieve when you channel all your positive energy.”

Saffron told him of the Chinese fable about a cowherd boy and a fairy weaver girl who become separated by the stars, but on the seventh day of the seventh month the magpies flock to form a bridge so they could meet and be together.

“That’s a romantic notion. I’ll remember the next time I see one scavenging around my bin looking for scraps,” said Bull.

“It’s not their fault,” laughed Saffron, “Magpies are like urban foxes, pigeons and seagulls - they are all creatures who have learned to evolve. They are nature’s true adapters and live off our waste – we could learn a thing or two from them.”

“Who, me? Take lessons from a pigeon? It’s a mad concept but I’ll give it a go, but not seagulls, I hate seagulls.” Playfully, Saffron pushed Bull, but she was unable to move him.

As they walked, Saffron told Bull the Necropolis was her oasis, stationed within the heart of Glasgow and over hundreds of years the city appeared to have grown around it, leaving it preserved. She told him she would go there early in the morning or before dark, when it was empty, to clear her head and meditate. Bull told her when he felt mirthless he would go to the wild animal sanctuary at the Botanic Gardens and talk to the timber wolves.

“The last time the park keeper asked me to move on. Apparently I was making the wolves feel uneasy.”

They came to the top of the Necropolis. Bull pulled Saffron tighter towards him. Words piled up inside him like vehicles in a road crash. He wanted to express his feelings about last night in gushing terms, but he found it impossible to utter anything coherent or meaningful. Finally, he let her go and looking behind him, he said,

“Who’s that fella up brandishing a brick? He’s got the best view over the city?”

“John Knox. He was a religious reformer. He’s holding a book called, the first blast of the trumpet against the monstrous regiment of women. I wouldn’t say he’s one of my historical heroes, but I suppose he is to some folk.”

“Not a feminist then?” Saffron took Bull by the hand, leading him to a bench. Bull sat down while Saffron remained standing, staring across the city.

“There’s loads of people buried in this graveyard,” she said, “some great, some not so great. He’s just one of them, but he gets the highest position. One night, a few of us from school came up here and put a traffic cone on his head. We wrote the word misogynist on it. Pathetic I know but we were young and drunk and we wanted to make a statement.” Bull lit a cigarette and watched Saffron as she studied the city. Her hair blowing in the breeze, she reminded him of a figurehead on a Spanish galleon. When she turned her head to face him, he could feel her eyes inspecting him with cold disapproval. She had noticed the packet of cigarettes in his hand.

“You smoke branded products?” she said. Bull’s face was warped with deep consternation. He reined in the emergence of a childhood stutter and said,

“They’re not mine. I’m holding them for a friend who is trying to give up.” Bull lowered his head like a condemned man. Saffron reached inside her bag and offered him a small pouch. Smiling, she said,

“Have you ever tried rolling your own? The tobacco is from a working cooperative in Venezuela.” Saffron gestured to the panoramic urban landscape tumbling into the distance in front of them.

“It’s funny to think the city was full of homes and industry burning coal. The sky would have been black with smoke. They closed all the factories and bulldozed the tenements and called it progress. Now the skies are filled with brown traffic smog. You’re from Manchester so you’ll know what I mean.” Bull was about to correct her mistake and remind her he was from Salford, but he was enjoying listening to her talking so allowed her faux pas.

“Do you ever wonder how we became enslaved by technology?” continued Saffron. “We have been convinced by a compliant media that greed can be justified and industrialists, who care nothing for the planet or the exploitation of its people, are best placed to lead us.”

“I’ve thought about it, but what can one person do on their own?”

Saffron looked at Bull’s Green Covenanters wrist band and said,

“The Necropolis always gets me thinking. Do you know before this hill was a graveyard, it was a rallying point for what they called The Scottish Insurrection? Thousands came here to demonstrate for labour reform and equality. They came to meet up with workers from England and they were going to march on a steel works, but Government agents infiltrated the group and the leaders were tricked and later hanged. They were what society would call radical and they paid for their beliefs with their lives.” Bull contemplated the panoramic view and with a laugh he said,

“You sound a bit like my dad, Saffron. Thank Christ you don’t look like him. So what do you do Saffron? What’s your thing?”

“My thing? You mean like my occupation? I’m an artist.”

“You will need to let me see your work another day.”

“We’ve yet to determine if there will be another day, but perhaps.” Saffron sat down beside him on the bench. She took the papers and tobacco from his hands, expertly rolled a cigarette, lit it and then passed it back to him.  Bull coughed hard, his chest rasping with the smoke.

Bull looked to the west and the Clyde Gateway where the last tidal surge engulfed the Barrier.

“Poor bastards,” he said, “All their homes and possessions destroyed in one night. The Change affects all, isn’t that what they say?” He stubbed his cigarette out. Saffron kissed him on his cheek. Saffron said,

“That’s what they say, but some suffer more than others. Like it has always been.”

Like an infatuated schoolboy, Bull contemplated her dark penetrating eyes. Saffron changed the mood by telling him she had to go. They left the Necropolis and walked through the city streets until finally they stopped outside St Enoch underground station. The Glasgow rain was now in full pelt so they put on their ponchos. Bull ranted about every subject that came to mind in an effort to delay the inevitable parting of company, but the moment came and the separation was ended by a kiss. Bull watched her disappear down the subway escalator, but before he turned to leave Saffron reappeared. She extended her hand and passed Bull a piece of folded paper. Bull looked down at the note and when he raised his head she was gone. A strange feeling churned in his stomach. 

4 The Elves of Anarchy

“Dear Professor Burke, if you are reading this correspondence I will presume you have received the decryption code from our contact and have successfully downloaded the files to the shackle we have provided you with. I would also presume you are feeling anxious and have many questions need answering. I sincerely hope to address your concerns, but can I start by reassuring you that coming to the Environmental Liberation Front with the information you possess was a wise choice. We would be more than happy to convene a meeting at a time suitable to both parties, however much will depend on you agreeing to certain conditions which I will need to outline prior to our meeting. One proviso is an assurance you will be prepared to go on record stating exactly what you know regarding the MoDs activities in the North Atlantic, and disclose all relevant classified documents, files and plans. However, I feel it only right to highlight the consequences of this decision, if taken forward: the Government will view your actions as treasonous and if caught, a lengthy prison sentence or worse will await you. Nonetheless, if you need to leave the country and move to somewhere without an extradition treaty, the ELF will be happy to provide you with the required documents and safe passage.

I cannot emphasise enough the need for discretion - you must not discuss your revelations with anyone else, and take extra care not to be followed. The shackle communicator we have sent you is a standard satellite device with all the normal built in functions, such as GPS and internet access. It is encrypted and DNA activated, so can only be operated on your wrist. The shackle’s credit facility has also been activated and will provide you with sufficient funds for sundries, until you get to your destination. Furthermore, we would ask you not to use the communicator facility, as Government surveillance will be attempting to locate you using voice recognition techniques. The curfew will not be suspended until the Prophylaxis Trident Satellite systems are back online, which we believe will be imminent, so until then, we have a window of opportunity to conduct daytime operations. The MoDs will be aware of our increased activity and will counteract this with manual surveillance, such as the personnel currently stationed outside your apartment.

We have provided you with a Tracked Electric Vehicle (TEV) which will be parked on Duncan Terrace, Islington. You will be travelling under the name, John Muir. I would like you to leave your apartment at 6pm on the 31st of August 2066, locate the vehicle using the fob and make good your escape. We shall arrange for the surveillance van to be delayed. Make your way to the TEV Portal where you shall enter the following coordinates: 55.9485° N, 3.2001 and 9am as your time of arrival. Automation will commence and will continue until you arrive in Edinburgh. We shall arrange for surveillance cameras on the roads from your London flat, the track network and onboard carriage to be manipulated so rendering your journey undetected. On arrival, make your way to a brew shack called the Splurge Bucket, which is located on Giles Street, Leith. Edinburgh is an ideal location as surveillance satellite systems have documented problems with image detection in this part of the world. Your contact in Edinburgh is an ecommando called Lúthien who will provide you with details of where and when we can meet. I would advise you to destroy or re-encrypt this message. Do not discuss your plans with anyone else, including closest family members. I will say no more until we meet.

Yours, Itaridlë (Leader of the ELF)”

The Professor had entered the coordinates at the Portal and the TEV climbed the ramp and then accelerated to join the high speed track. He felt uneasy with the sudden loss of control. It reminded him of the childhood experience of a rollercoaster, ascending the rail, the body storing more kinetic energy with every metre climbed, until subjected to the forces of gravity. Finally, passing the urban sprawl and shanty towns of London, he sat back and stared out of the window. His gaze fixed on the multiple rows of green painted laboratory meat processing plants lining the track for countless miles. He sat upright on his seat and began to recall everything he knew about his involvement in a covert project called Silent Wave. He extracted his notepad from his leather satchel and began drawing schematics and equations. Later, he began to write:

“For eleven years I have led a research team at University College London, investigating tsunami wave counteraction measures, through the deployment of Pulsed Power Technology. The concept of artificial oceanic wave generation is an esoteric theory, but not a new one: American scientists had first identified the potential of harnessing the catastrophic forces of the tsunami wave during World War II. The theory was rudimentary and involved the detonation of ten thousand tonnes of TNT explosives on the seabed. It was hoped the anticipated shockwave would create a tsunami, which would then be targeted against the Japanese fleet.” 

The Professor remembered the black and white film of the project and how, as a means of maritime warfare, initial tests proved disappointing. This provoked Admiral Chester Nimitz to comment on camera, I could make a bigger wave farting in my bath tub. The Professor smiled painfully at the image in his mind.

He continued writing: “The Government have been aware for years, as sea levels rose exponentially, billions of Euros were being spent on flood defences, only to find they were still exposed to the risk of large tidal surges or freak waves. The National Oceanic Centre provided evidence recent tsunami wave activity in the North Atlantic was a result of ice shelves calving into the Arctic Ocean, and propagating as the wave reached the shallow waters of the North Sea. A tsunami with a vertical height in excess of 10 metres would easily breach the nations flood barriers, putting large sections of the public in perpetual danger. To negate the tsunami, my plan had involved a safety net of Cyclone Particle Accelerators, drilled into the ocean bedrock, and linked to pulse propulsion devices, with electro-magnetic guidance systems. These would be located at various points circling the British Isles, and ready to be detonated to create a counter-wave, thus expunging the kinetic energy of the original pulse. My theory was designed only to be used in the event of a mega tsunami approaching a coastal area with a high population density. I believed the use of such technology could be justified to save the lives of millions, despite the potential for a minute level of radioactive contamination.”

The Professor took a carton of iced tea from the vehicles mini-bar and sipped it. He stared at the passing clouds and reflected on the ramifications of his actions. He had disclosed top secret information, copied intelligence files and worst of all, had contacted a prescribed terrorist organisation. His passport had been revoked and his credit cards frozen. He had been put under surveillance. The prospect of being smuggled out of the country, applying for political asylum in a foreign land, and never seeing his home again, was a daunting one. And then he thought of the paradox of creeping government powers and the debasing of civil liberties, justified by the threat to democracy from purported radicalism. Using embroidered fears, they colluded with the media, infecting people’s minds to create a siege mentality for a nation. He thought of the hundreds of journalist, political activists, civil right lawyers and internet bloggers, arrested by tyrannical governments around the world for speaking out. They were the true champions of democracy, thought the Professor, and I have never considered this until now. He returned to his writing with a new resolve:

“I suggested the utilisation of marine hydraulic fracturing drill sites in the North Atlantic, which provided a number of suitably discrete test sites. Using an existing borehole, the device would be placed at a sufficient depth under rock strata. There have been several submarine landslips in the area after methane hydrate extraction processes commenced at the Anton Dohrn seamount, therefore tsunami wave detection systems were already in situ. John G Cluny announced a decision had been made to test Silent Wave on St Kilda, after evacuation of the small local population. In essence I was confident a tsunami wave could be controlled in terms of size and direction and no lasting harm would be inflicted on the environment. In the long term, I believed the nations of the world could benefit from my research, and I planned to share my findings on an international stage. However, much to my dismay, I was warned the programme was of the highest national security, and subject to special intelligence constraints. It was at this point I received a notification, from a source within the Government the MoDs were preparing to adapt my research and use it to develop a weapon of mass destruction. After confronting John G Cluny, I resigned my position with immediate effect. Henceforth, I have been under constant Government harassment and intimidation.”

He put his pen down and reclined his seat, stretching out his legs until his knees clicked. Rain pelted the vehicle window. Ahead, lay a darkening scene, night was almost upon him. He had left London behind and imagined he would never see the city again. His mind was soon flooded with memories of when he first came to the city, and browsed the antique shops of Islington with his wife and child. At first he thought they would be happy there, but as his work commitments increased, he and his family drifted apart and eventually they left him and returned to Scotland. He began writing again, but this time he penned a letter to his daughter. When he had finished, Professor Burke scratched his bald head, wiped his spectacles with his handkerchief and allowed the hypnotic rhythm of the vehicle to rock him to sleep.

When he woke, sunlight was spilling in from the east, over the floodplains, and elucidating the rape fields clinging to the slopes of the Lammermuir hills, south of Edinburgh. He studied the farmland. At first the bucolic scene appeared benign, particularly in terms of colour. A typical glimpse of modern agriculture through the window of a slow moving vehicle, thought the Professor. And then he noticed the absence of trees and hedgerows. He remembered the devastating collapse of bee colonies which once pollinated the crops, and was now carried out by insectoid automatons, but with the dual purpose of mass electronic data surveillance gathering. The wheat fields of the countryside were once the bread basket of the nation. Now they were industrialised processes, its produce saturated in chemical control agents to stave off head blight, mildew and insect infestations. Moreover, most of the surviving crop was too toxic for human consumption and was destined for the manufacture of bio-fuel rather than food. 

5 Prima Facie

Under the orange canopy of the raft Andrew Douglas Ulysses Holmes’s mind had been a maelstrom of confusion and panic. Like the first waking seconds from a nightmare, disorientated and struggling to come to terms with the bridging between the dream world and reality. But unlike a normal dream, the dark cloud of anxiety had not been dispersed by the gasp of rationality, it had grown inextricably to consume him. The voices were returning to torment him, as they often did when he felt this way. He patted his jacket and felt a further pang of despair. He had left his pills on the sinking ship. Like Prometheus, he thought. Chained to a rock, but my brain and not my liver pecked at and consumed every day by Zeus’s Caucasian Eagles. His heartbeat racing, he rambled and raged out loud in a variety of voices, but his despairing thoughts had been interrupted by the untimely entrance of a large, almost naked man, appearing through the aperture.

Bull was coiled up and shivering at his feet, his huge form wrapped in a foil blanket and reminding Andrew of a gargantuan Christmas turkey. He studied Bull’s face, bloated and crimson from the exertions of the swim. He had fat swollen lips and was panting heavily like a pub dog on a hot summer’s day. He had vacant, gormless eyes, thought Andrew. Like the pleading eyes of a baby harp seal, a Russian fisherman stares into before he clubs it to death. Andrew wondered if the man was in shock or like him, just glad to be alive. Was he taking stock of his life? Now was not the time for such luxuries, he thought. It was hard to tell his age - similar to myself, mid-thirties probably, but it was difficult to determine with modern society’s obsession with cosmetic laser surgery. He examined the man’s long black hair. All men should have short hair, he declared. Andrew heard his wife’s voice resonate inside his head,

There you go again darling, making assumptions about people based on their appearance. It is pure, unadulterated presumptuousness and arrogance, and you know it.He struggled to control a nervous tick - it was like an impulsive reaction to every voice exploding in his brain. For the most part the voices would stay locked inside his mind, but occasionally they would escape. In times of acute stress he would say things out loud. He was confident the voices hadn’t broken free, at least not this time. His mother’s voice interrupted Ashley’s moralising lecture. Her words were challenging and contradictory. At first an impotent Andrew welcomed the interjection, but then she would qualify her objections by offering excuses for her son’s behaviour. She made references to a young Andrew locking himself in the toilet for hours, being a loner and a fairly odd boy. Much to Andrew’s delight his deceased Grandfather interjected with a deep booming voice to put the two bickering women to flight. “We need to get him some medical attention,” said Bull breaking Andrew’s delusional mental ramblings. Andrew was startled. He refocused his mind and drawing his eyes across Bull’s semi-naked form he replied,

“Dress it with what? The medical kit is missing along with most of the emergency supplies.” Bull looked at the sorry sight of the unconscious man, his head swaying from side to side in time with the rhythm of the pulsing sea.

“He’s going to bleed to death,” said Bull, his words disjointed and his body shuddering with cold.

“It’s just a matter of when we get rescued and then we can get him some medical attention, and perhaps get you some clothes.”

“You seem sure.”

“These ships are tracked by satellite and the authorities will be alerted. I’m sure of it. We just need to be patient.”

“I’ve got a library book I need to return, so let’s hope it’s soon.”

“A library book? There haven’t been libraries for years my friend.”

“It was just a joke. Something my dad used to say.”

“There will be a time for jokes, but only when we get rescued. Look on the bright side. You’re alive. Many others didn’t survive. I should know, I saw the bodies. We could have frozen to death by now but the life raft was here to save us and I haven’t seen any other life rafts so far, so count your blessings my friend, God is smiling on us.” Bull raised an eyebrow in confusion. He stared into Andrew’s wandering eyes and said through chattering teeth,

“Yeah, it definitely feels that way.” He paused and then said,

“Do you know him? Was he on the raft when you got here?” Andrew was irritated by the sudden eagerness of Bull’s questions.

“No, I’ve never met him before, but I think his name is Malcolm. Why? Does it matter? By the way he’s dressed I would guess he worked on the ship. He couldn’t have received the injury inside the raft, although how he made his way here carrying such a nasty wound is perplexing.” Bull sniffed the unconscious man and said,

“Well done Sherlock.”  Andrew, his eyelids blinking replied,

“Sorry, what did you say?” Sherlock had been his designated moniker at school, on account of his surname, Holmes. Andrew became aware he was frowning. His wife often pointed out the wrinkles around his eyes and forehead would deepen when he frowned. She teased him he possessed scowl marks instead of laughter lines. Andrew moved to the aperture to take a look out to sea. As he passed, Bull sniffed him before saying,

“It’s just a saying, you know, when somebody solves a puzzle.” Andrew grimaced and viewed Bull suspiciously. He wanted to know why Bull had sniffed both him and the unconscious waiter.

“He’s wearing a waiter’s uniform with the ship’s logo on it,” he snarled. “He also has a name tag pinned to his lapel. I tried to look in his bag to see if there was any further identification, but unfortunately it’s locked. So it’s just simple powers of deduction.” 

“Elementary dear boy,” retorted Bull through chattering teeth. Andrew frowned and said,

“So why are you naked, apart from your life jacket?

“Why does it make you feel uncomfortable?”

“No, I was just wondering.”

“I was showering when the accident happened,” lied Bull.

“Interesting you use the word accident.”

“What else would it be, if it wasn’t an accident?”

“We know the facts. An accident would imply responsibility, fault, blame…” Bull coughed up more seawater and forcing his head through the aperture, he spat it back into the ocean. Andrew winced at the sight of his naked behind. Bull closed the flap and moved to the far side of the raft. He cusped his hands and breathed into them. Bull said,

“Don’t you think we should try and turn the lifeboat around and pick up some of the survivors?”

“This is a life raft,” grunted Andrew, “There are no oars and the raft appears to be drifting away from the ship. The wind and the current are at work. If this was a lifeboat, it would be a different matter. They are usually equipped with several days’ worth of food and water, basic first aid supplies, oars, navigational equipment, solar water stills and fishing equipment, but these items are all missing on this craft. I’ve already checked. These rafts are designed as a temporary means of survival, until a rescue party can be assembled.”

“What do we have then?”

“There are two foil blankets, three flares, a rain catch, which drains into a plastic bladder, and although we have a hand inflator, there’s no puncture repair kit. I hope we don’t spring a leak. I can’t find a water bailer although it’s listed on the inventory. Bull picked up the drogue and examined it. He put it on his head. Andrew’s eyebrows narrowed in bewilderment.

“Don’t mess about with that, we might need it later on.”

“It will trap some body heat. I read somewhere you lose...”

“I’d rather you didn’t.” Bull ignored his protests. He asked,

“How come you aren’t wet?” Andrew inspected his own attire and said,

“I am wet but this clothing is designed for survival situations. It is neoprene lined with a water repellent skin so it’s thermally insulated with fast drying qualities. It’s a Roy Beer endorsed Swazi tahr anorak. So are the trousers. It’s standard army issue.”

“So were you in the forces?”

“You could say that.”

“I just did.”

Andrew sighed and moved towards the aperture. He unzipped it and stared out. The mist had lifted and the strong ocean currents and winds had dragged the raft further out to sea. The St Kilda archipelago was now a faint wisp of land on the horizon, rapidly dissolving into the iron grey sky, until finally it was gone. The rugged shoreline, peppered with grey misty cliffs, had once appeared ominous from the superficial safety of the ship, but now the absence of land unnerved him. Moreover, the ship’s upturned hull was shrinking before the low slanting sun and reflecting its rays like shards of shimmering red glass. It was a particularly foreboding sight. Andrew watched the troubled vessel appearing like an ancient beacon fire on the horizon. Still no sign of any rescue services, he thought. And then the clouds gathered once more and snuffed out the illuminating display. Andrew knelt upright, and almost standing he extended his body outside the raft and groped around the roof of the raft until he came to the apex, where the satellite beacon was located. He examined the snarled remains of the unit and returned inside the raft. Andrew felt a knot in his stomach. The anxiety was returning. He tried to calm himself and said to Bull,

“Look, it will be getting dark soon. We will need to rely on our own wits until a rescue attempt is made. It’s looking bleak if I’m being honest. The satellite beacon is busted up.” Andrew stared directly into Bull’s eyes, catching him with a sincere look. Bull resented having his safety bubble burst so soon after finding his refuge. Once more he felt exposed to the natural environment. Andrew continued, “We need rescued soon or we have merely traded a swift death for a slow one.” Bull grunted,

“Does pessimism come naturally to you or is it something you bottle up for special occasions?”

“I’m just stating the facts of our predicament.”

“So, according to you, our chances of survival are slim unless a rescue comes quickly – well that’s just fucking brilliant Sherlock!”

“I’m not saying we have no chance. I’m just assessing the situation as a means of identifying how best to improve our chances of survival.”

“We’re likely to die slowly…”

“This is a normal reaction. You are seeing yourself as a victim.”

“No, you said we are likely to die slowly. That’s what you said, didn’t you?” Andrew ignored Bull’s question. He was busy recanting script from his military survival handbook. He continued,

“The effects of the adrenalin in your bloodstream are wearing off, leaving you with the debilitating emotion of being trapped with an eroding self-belief.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my self-belief. I’m just cold and hungry and I wouldn’t mind getting home at some stage.” Bull contemplated, in actual fact, he didn’t have a home, at least not anymore.

Andrew was becoming frustrated. His amateur attempts at field psychology weren’t working. He so desperately wanted to convince Bull his experience and training endowed him with skills enabling him to lead all three of them to safety. It was important he took control, this way his mind would be occupied and focused, extinguishing the inner voices ignited by his anxiety. First and foremost, Bull would have to acknowledge there was a pecking order and despite the obvious dangers, he would be the one to lead them to safety. So far, he was hopelessly off course with his strategy. Andrew stated,

“Slowly but surely, you are becoming more conscious of the notion you are a fatality of an uncontrollable event, and you have been cast off into an unfamiliar environment.”

“The sea? What of it? I was floating on the sea, inside a passenger ferry and now I’m still floating on the sea but inside a life raft. The type of environment isn’t the issue. Getting rescued is.”

“Yes, but when you think all that lies between you and a mile of deep cold water, is a piece of reinforced black plastic. It’s a daunting prospect.”

“Have you ever been asked to talk someone off a ledge?”


“Somehow, I didn’t think so.”

“My words may sound harsh but part of the survival process is examining what one is up against. Not taking it for granted. Respecting your environment.” Andrew wanted to build the calm persona of a man who was in control of his own destiny, regardless of the harsh reality of the situation. He called upon his military training, remembering how overcoming stress was one of the primary obstacles to survival. Stress, thought Andrew, impaired the cognitive process. It increased the chances of making fatal mistakes and it sapped energy levels. Stress was their main enemy. Second on the list was complacency, which his companion seemed to be experiencing. He needed to be reminded of the perils they faced. Bull interrupted his thoughts. He said,

“It sounds like this isn’t your first time waiting to be rescued?”

“You’re presumption is correct. I’ve had experience of these situations. I know what you’re thinking and you would be right.”

“I was thinking you’re a jinx,” blurted Bull. Andrew’s eyes narrowed for an instant. Bull unzipped the aperture and looked out. His eyes settling on the surface of the ocean, he considered the dense body of saline water, descending a mile to the ocean floor. Bull lifted his head and noticed a suitcase floating near the raft. He pointed out to the sea. When Andrew joined him, he couldn’t detect the object. His eyes squinted and darted between the swells, and then firmly he stated,

“Let’s get it. There may be something inside to help us survive. We don’t have any oars, but you can paddle with your hands. Come on man!” Bull hesitated. He didn’t like the master and servant tone of Andrew’s voice. “Please?” said Andrew unconvincingly. They paddled with their hands, but with little success. Their muscles had seized up in the cold. Andrew cried out,

“This is hopeless,” and removed his jacket, Aran knitted jumper and boots. He slipped into the sea and cut a swathe through the water, stopping every so often to check his bearings. Finally he grabbed the suitcase and made his way back towards the raft, swimming with the object in his arms as if cradling a drowning child.  “A little help wouldn’t go amiss,” shouted Andrew, as he came close to the raft. He held onto one of the grab ropes to catch his breath. Bull heaved the suitcase onto the raft. He fumbled with the lock. Andrew crawled back to his original spot, wheezing and coughing. He redressed. Andrew put his hand inside his trouser pocket and withdrew his multi-tool. He passed it to Bull who withdrew one of the blades with shaking hands. He broke open the lock, opened the suitcase and rummaged through the contents.

“I wonder who this case belonged to,” said Bull. Andrew sat up and pulled on his jumper. He was impatient for Bull to reveal the hidden treasures of their find.

“It doesn’t matter who it belonged to,” said Andrew, “The main thing is we now stand a better chance of survival. There’s sure to be something we can use to help us survive. At least some warm clothes for yourself.”

“Yes, you might be right. This will come in handy,” said Bull, holding up a large black brazier. Andrew frowned. He said through chattering teeth,

“Joke all you want man, but there may be articles within this bag which could save your sorry life.” Bull draped a bath towel over his shivering shoulders. Curiously his eyes focused on a label - stolen from Lustrum Budget Hotel. Andrew crept closer and looked inside the case. He extracted a cotton underskirt and started ripping it into strips.

“What are you doing?” said Bull.

“I’m making bandages for the waiter,” replied Andrew.

“He has a name. Malcolm.”

“Well whoever he is, there’s a nasty head wound requiring tending.”

Bull removed his life jacket and wrapped a shawl around his torso. He made a makeshift sarong for the lower half of his body and draped himself in a white fur coat, held in place by the use of a belt hooked around two holes he made with himself with Andrew’s multi-tool. An impromptu turban was created from a scarf and then, he stuffed other smaller garments under the coat to further insulate the top half of his body. He was warmer now but the water collecting on the floor of the raft made him feel perpetually wet. He separated the brazier into two and used one of the cups to bail water.

“We’re in luck,” he said, looking up in mock delight, “She was a D cup.”

They found some food and drink in the suitcase. There was a bag of soft prunes, a bannock cake, a bottle of mineral water and a bottle of Talisker single malt whisky. Andrew had also come upon a pair of opera glasses. He used them to survey the sea for signs of life or more floating luggage.  In the distance he watched as the Andrea Starlight finally sunk. He knew there was no going back to the vessel but the sight of the ship sinking left him feeling vulnerable, as if the last link to civilisation had been removed. The wind picked up and shifted the raft. Andrew wondered why they were travelling west, further out to sea when the prevailing winds would be expected to blow them back towards the mainland. It occurred to him the ocean currents would be at work. He bemoaned the absence of a sea anchor and then he stopped, frozen with a stark realisation. His eyes darted towards Bull. He was no longer wearing the drogue.

“The polythene drogue you had on your head? Where is it?” he said.

“It must have fallen off when I was hanging over the side of the raft paddling. Was it important?” Andrew growled,

“We didn’t need it when we were trying to stay clear of the ship, but now the current and wind have taken control of us we could do with an anchor to stop the raft drifting. So yes, you could say it was important. Andrew admitted to himself, initially he didn’t think an anchor would be a crucial piece of kit, given the sea currents and wind, at this time of year, were likely to drive them back to the mainland. Something had changed. The wind appeared to be coming from the east. Mistakes in a survival situation can be fatal and he imagined his sorrowful tale and account of his mistakes being retold in a melodramatic documentary. He attempted to draw inspiration from survival books he had read by Roy Beer and conjured up pictures in his mind of what the author would do in this situation.

Later, Bull stared out of the aperture in silence. He contemplated the sunset and how he and Saffron would watch from the Necropolis as the changing light signalled the end of the day. In her arms he had felt the most content in his life. He collected pieces of floating waste from the surface of the sea. A wine cork, a cigarette lighter, a rubber band, plastic toothpicks and a piece of rope. He placed them in the suitcase and settled down for the night.

Andrew bailed some water using the brazier cup and when he was finished he zipped up the aperture flap. The indiscernible sun slipped below the horizon and their world was plunged into darkness. Exhausted, he rested his head against the inflated pontoon. He closed his eyes. The only noises were the sounds of the sea slapping against the raft and the distant songs from a pod of passing humpback whales. The close proximity of such colossal animals unnerved him at first, fearing a whale could easily capsize them, but eventually the songs faded. Andrew savoured the silence until Bull’s nasal symphony piped up, playing long and loud into the night.



2063 Three years earlier

Bull took a taxi from his narrowboat at Maryhill Locks to the Cenotaph in George Square. It wasn’t strictly in accordance with the specifications in Saffron’s note, but he stopped off for a drive-through breakfast en route. At the Cenotaph a small group of animal rights protesters had gathered. Some were still drawing up poster signs when one of them, a young woman, approached him and requested if he insisted on eating his mortified flesh, could he do it where they didn’t have to be subjected to the smell. Bull snorted defiantly and then he bit into his hamburger, sending a spout of tomato ketchup towards her sandals. He smiled and then turned his back on the muttering group.

One of them shouted, “Fucking deceiver! “Shameless liar!” shouted another and more bizarrely, “Put your big fake tits away!” Bull turned but quickly realised they were directing their abuse at a news presenter, her digitalised image beaming from the City Chambers. Bull ignored the emergency announcement concerning further terrorist attacks, fuel shortages and the riots ensuing last night’s Protest in the Park. This could all wait, he thought. Nothing would be allowed to spoil his day. He stood motionless, planning his time with Saffron. If the rain held off, he imagined them walking to the Botanic gardens and taking lunch at the Willow Tea rooms. He had always wanted to sit on one of those replica Charles Rennie Mackintosh designed chairs, or if she preferred, visiting the Winter Gardens at the People’s Palace. Later they would go for dinner in the Merchant City. He didn’t care, as long as they woke up the following day in each other’s arms back at his narrowboat. When Saffron arrived in her electric camper van she jumped out and waved with a beaming smile. Bull waved back and turning to the group he said,

“I’d love to stay and chat but I’m meeting a beautiful young woman, so laters.” To his astonishment the group approached Saffron and one by one they hugged her. Saffron walked up to Bull, climbed two steps of the Cenotaph and kissed him on the cheek. She said,

“I hope you don’t mind. I wanted to introduce you to my friends. We’re going to an anti-vivisectionist rally outside an Ayrshire laboratory? Scientists are testing a new synthetically engineered virus on apes. Are you sure you are alright. You don’t have to come. I could meet you later?” Bull watched the bodies file pass him and into the van. He whispered,

“I think one or two have already taken a shine to me.” Saffron smiled. She got back into the driver’s seat and turning to her friends she said,

“This is Bull? He’s going to join us at the rally today. I’ve got a good feeling you’re all going to love him. He’s got a wicked sense of humour.”

When they arrived at the laboratory, the anti-vivisection protest was already underway. Bull picked up a banner and watched in silence. Saffron and the crowd chanted slogans and sat on the road, in front of scientist’s cars as they left their workplace. The police attempted to disband the protest, peacefully at first and then the electronic batons were withdrawn and a sonic boom cannon was deployed. The crowd dispersed but not before a splinter group, wearing ear protectors and balaclavas, hurled a petrol bomb at the police line. They left the scene and retreated to a grubby brew shack and ordered some cheap poitín to restore some warmth to their bodies. Saffron’s friends were discussing the possibility the balaclava wearing anarchists were indeed the ELF. Saffron asked them to lower their voices and then she updated them on how her social media campaign was progressing. The landlord approached and asked them to leave. As they walked out the door one protester called him a fascist and skilfully flicked a pickled onion at his head.

A week later, they took a train to Cheshire to visit Bull’s brother. Patrick was attempting to fix one of his children’s bikes in the workshop. Saffron wandered off to inspect the flowers in the garden. Patrick could hardly believe what he was hearing.

“So this lass Saffron, who is currently walking around my garden picking my flowers, is moving in with you?  Just like that? She’s an artist and doesn’t have a reliable source of income, but even worse, to celebrate your impetuous decision, you visited a local pet shop and bought a cloned diamond backed terrapin?”

“His name is Boris.” 

“His name is irrelevant. Pets are a prelude to having children?” Patrick pointed out to the garden. “It’s a test. She’s testing you. Look at her, she’s at the it’s now or never stage of life. Check out those hips, they’re ripe for having babies. She wants to see if you’re a capable father and if you can look after a pet, you have the megerest foundation for caring for a child. But when the baby arrives the pets have to go. They’re no longer Boris the tortoise, it’s a disease ridden flea bag. Don’t do it man. Take the tortoise back to the shop and tell them they should be ashamed of themselves for trying to trick you into marriage and fatherhood. But I can see by the look on your big gormless face that I’m wasting my breath. Love has an astonishing ability to make the protagonist deaf. What’s happened to you recently? You don’t seem yourself. Are you in some sort of trouble again? One day you up sticks and move to Glasgow to work on some defence contact for BAe Systems and then you are in jail and now you’re released and working on a flood prevention scheme.” Bull was peering over his shoulder towards Saffron who was now sitting on the grass, brushing the hair of Patrick’s eldest daughter. Finally he returned his brother’s stare and said,

“Look, don’t mention jail or BAe to Saffron. Promise?

“Ok, but soon enough she’ll find out what you really are.”

“All in good time, but when you meet the right person it’s instinctive. Other opinions only reflect the limitations and insecurities of the critic.”

“Are they your words of Saffron’s words?” Bull grimaced and said,

“Does it matter? You can’t own words or concepts, but she might have said something like that at some point.”

“Do you actually believe this old bollocks Faerrleah? Or are you just playing the fool again? You don’t know much about relationships do you? You hardly know her and to be honest, this is your first true relationship I know about, if you don’t count Deirdre’s plastic mannequin doll which you used to practise kissing with. Even that didn’t go well for you after Deirdre found out and put a stop to the romance.”

“It was a forbidden love. The relationship was destined never to work out. We were different star signs. I’m Taurus and she was Zylon. We can add Poly to the list of things Saffron can’t know about.” Patrick laughed,

Poly? Like polystyrene? Is that what you called the doll? I never knew. Priceless.”

“Anyway, what would you know of love Patrick? You’re an accountant for fuck’s sake and accountants know nothing about emotions such as love.” Patrick stopped laughing, sighed exasperatedly and said,

“We know about the price of love and love is for fools. So in that respect you’ll do just fine.” Bull took the spanner from his brother’s hands and proceeded to fix the bike.

Later, Bull and Saffron took a train to Salford, to meet Bull’s sister, Deirdre at the family’s local brew shack, the Squealing Pig. Saffron went to the bar to get a round of drinks. Bull said,

“Well, what do you think of my new girlfriend sister of mine?” 

“Give over Faerrleah? She’s been your only girlfriend not counting my mannequin...”

“Why is everyone obsessed with that mannequin? It’s ancient history. In the past. Over.”

“If you must know, on first impressions, I find her a bit jolly hockey sticks but I might be wrong.” Bull tried to disguise his displeasure at Deirdre’s frankness.

“You need to get over that chip on your shoulder. She’s just preoccupied with the more spiritual aspects of life. Did you ever stop to think maybe your chat is a bit prosaic for her?”

“Well, I can see what appeals to you, she’s obviously a great beauty, but I can’t, for the life of me, figure out what she sees in you?” Bull brushed his sister’s cheek with the back of his hand and with a playful smile said,

“We communicate at a metaphysical level, free from the one-dimensional perspective apparent in the modern myopic society you are familiar with.”

“You’ve changed since you moved up to that Glasgow and you even talk differently. Patrick has also changed since he moved down south.” Bull grunted,

“South? Wilmslow is hardly down south.”

“It’s south of Salford. I’ll tell you another thing, both of you are spineless and know nothing about women. Mark my words, as with Patrick, it won’t be long before she’ll have you wrapped around her finger and treating you like a troublesome puppy. Before you know it, she’ll be making you take a piss sitting down.”

“Patrick pisses sitting down?” Deirdre’s head nodded up and down and they burst out laughing. Saffron returned from the bar with some drinks. “What’s so funny?”

“Oh, nothing. It’s just a family joke,” replied Bull, smiling warmly. He got up to go to the toilet, leaving his sister alone with Saffron. Deirdre’s laughter faded and she caught Saffron’s gaze. She looked back into her large dark brown eyes and shuffled uncomfortably, believing Saffron was reading her thoughts. Saffron said,

“You have your brother’s eyes.” Deirdre mimicked a comical voice,

“I hope not, he’s blind without them.” She cringed with embarrassment on realising her quipped reply sounded like something Bull would unwittingly say.

  7 leaders of men

Andrew woke at first light to the sound of heavy rain pummelling the canopy of the life raft. The previous night had been a bleak experience for him. When Bull finally stopped snoring he had felt desperately alone, floating in the darkness with his ear tuned to the silence. He had only managed a few hours of broken sleep. From underneath the raft he felt an unnerving rumble, like a far off explosion or distant roll of thunder. Similar to what he had felt back on the ship, he thought, but not as powerful to completely rouse Bull from his sleep. He moved towards the aperture and looked out, wondering what to expect. Nothing but slate grey sea. He waited anxiously for a wave which never came.

Andrew attempted to piece together the series of events leading up to the sinking of the Andrea Starlight. How long after the tremor did it take for the wave to arrive? He had been on deck, taking an evening stroll and brooding over the dark islands stretched out over the horizon. He felt an unsettling growl from under the ship and quickly became aware of a strong wind on the nape of his neck. He hadn’t seen the wave coming but he had heard screaming passengers and the alarm sounding. He had held on to the grab rails for as long as his strength would allow, then he was thrown forward and into the sea. His world had gone black. Seconds later he was submerged in the sea, tumbling and struggling in the churning cold waters. He had dithered, becoming distracted by the unfolding scene. The sea was giving up its victims. His world had stalled, skidding into a slow motion drama and all around him the muffled shouts for help filled the air. At last, the panic within him had subsided with the acceptance of his desperate fate. He wondered how long until hypothermia set in and death took him. The floating wreckage coiled on the surface of the sea, coalescing with several bloated corpses and then drifting by in the current like a funeral procession.

Andrew’s attention had been drawn towards a struggling woman. She reminded him of his ex-wife. He swam closer to her. One of her hands had gripped a piece of floating wreckage, the other remained still. He winced when he remembered the fragments of bone protruding from her exposed arm. Her hair had seemed tousled and matted on her face, obstructing her sight, and then she was gone. He had dived down searching for her but returned empty handed. He had treaded water, his eyes darting between the swells when the life raft came into view. He swam towards it. His body wracked with fatigue, he had managed to pull himself up and through the aperture. The only other survivor onboard was unconscious. An old man with a head wound. He had busied himself tending to the man’s wound and checking emergency supplies in an effort to keep the feelings of desperation at bay. But once the initial distractions were taken care of the black mist had descended to overwhelm him.

The wave would have hit them by now, concluded Andrew. Before turning away from the aperture he was distracted by the sight of a tennis ball, floating close to the raft. He reached out and grabbed it. Cutting the ball in half with his multi-tool, he made two cups. He filled one cup with rainwater from the rain catch bladder and drank. He checked on Malcolm’s condition, changed his bandages and then lay back against one of the pontoons. Bull was lying at his feet, curled into the foetal position and trying to keep the chilled air from biting into his body. Some people act irrational and out of character, he thought. He had his voices, acting like a pressure relief valve, he thought. Was it possible the Englishman’s annoying behaviour was a reaction to the dawning realisation he was the victim of an incident, or was he merely naive? Survival situations can bring out the best or the worst in a person, but a leader always emerged. He recalled the military training exercises where he had taught cadets how to filter muddied water by using a plastic bottle packed with sphagnum moss, how to catch and skin rabbits, build fires, erect shelters, and fend off relentless midge attacks by extracting an oil from bog myrtle leaves. He had relished survival situations in the most challenging of environments, but could he compare his time spent in the Northumberland wilderness to his current situation? He decided the same principles would apply. The situation had been forced upon him. It required someone to step forward and take command. The leadership issue was a pragmatic choice rather than a means to extract authority. He smiled, feeling pleased with his dabbler piece of field psychology. Andrew took hold of the improvised bailer and scooped water from the floor of the raft. A sudden sharp pain emanated from one of his prolapsed haemorrhoids. There was time for a quick relieving scratch before Bull stirred from his slumber and caught him with his hand down the back of his trousers.

Later in the morning, Andrew ignored Bull’s waking questions. Wasn’t it obvious enough they hadn’t been rescued yet? Why would he know anything about an earlier vibration from beneath the raft? Did it matter what time of day it was? Andrew had many tales of heroism itching to be told. He glared down at Bull’s form to find he had fallen back into a sleep. Andrew was too animated to let the moment slide. He directed a swift kick towards him. At first Bull didn’t flinch so he flicked stagnant seawater on his face. Again he failed to rouse him. He kicked him one more time, only harder. Bull cried out in shock rather than pain.

“Did you just kick me? Asked Bull, stirring from his sleep, “I was having a nice dream about being back home for Sunday dinner. We were all down the Pig having a few pints, roast chicken and Yorkshire pudding…” Andrew interrupted him by pressing a forefinger to his lips. He said,

“I didn’t want to mention it yesterday, but I’ve been in a similar situation and survived.” Bull rubbed his eyes. He felt queasy and his muscles ached from the yesterday’s ordeal. He was in no mood to talk. His mouth was parched, his head throbbed and his stomach made pleading noises to be fed.

“Where’s the water?” He said searching with his hand around the floor of the raft. Andrew filled one of the tennis ball cups with the water from the plastic bladder and passed it to Bull.

“It tastes like donkey piss.” said Bull, screwing his face up in disgust.

“I wouldn’t know, unlike you, I’ve never tasted donkey piss and hopefully will never have to. It is clean water, it’s safe to drink and it will keep us alive until we get rescued.”

“Are you sure you didn’t take a piss in it?”

“No, why would I urinate in the drinking water?” Bull shrugged his shoulders, unable to come up with a plausible reason. He handed back the cup and said,

“So what exactly was so important you had to wake me up?” Andrew coughed to clear his throat. He licked his dry lips and said,

“I was once marooned on an island with my uncle and brother. Our yacht capsized. I suppose it was my fault. I forgot to shout, ready to jibe! And my Uncle Alasdair got hit on the head with the swinging boom. It knocked him overboard and into the drink. He was unconscious and it was up to me to save him. You’ve already witnessed I’m a strong swimmer. When I was young I used to swim against a boy who later went on to win a bronze medal at the Olympic Games. I regularly beat him in competitions so take from that what you will.” Bull put down the makeshift water bailer and said,

“Are you sure you didn’t kick me?”

“Look, you’ve been oversleeping. It’s not good for you. I read somewhere it causes headaches.”

“You woke me from my dream to tell me you can swim. Good for you. Can I go back to sleep?”

“What were you expecting? Breakfast in bed?”

“Breakfast would be good actually. It might settle my stomach. What have you got?”

“Apart from soft prunes and bannock cake? Not much.” Andrew rummaged around in the suitcase. He found the bag of prunes and threw one at Bull who caught it in his mouth. With the blade of his multi-tool he cut a slice of bannock cake and handed it to Bull. He said,

“Look, do you want to hear my story or not?” Through a mouth full of cake Bull said,

“If there’s a choice, I’ll plump for not.

“Well you’re going to hear it anyway. As I said my uncle was unconscious and drowning in the sea and it was up to me to save him. Graham was in an awful panic. He was unable to control the yacht. We capsized and we were all in the drink.” Bull interjected.

“Is there a point to this story? I’m a busy man and time is getting on. I’ve got a list of interesting things to do today.” Bull sighed and looked upward seeking divine intervention. Andrew said,

“I’m sure you have but not before you have heard my story. It was touch and go for quite a while out there. I was always conscious of the depth of the water and the ocean currents, but more so, the almost irrational fear, due to the blood dripping from my Uncle’s head wound, we might attract sharks.” Bull’s eyebrows rose in expectation when Andrew mentioned sharks. Andrew sensed he was beginning to get his attention. He continued,

“It took forever but we all made it to shore. I dragged my uncle over the hot sand, cut a swathe through the vegetation and bandaged him using the bottom half of my t-shirt. I started a fire using a magnesium fire steel. I always carry it with me, and my multi-tool. You never know when they might be needed. The fire would act as a rescue beacon, just in case someone saw the smoke and also as a way of purifying water, if we were there for the long haul. Luckily my uncle regained consciousness but I needed to set off and get help. He wanted to go himself but was in no fit condition, so I insisted it was better for him to stay and look after Graham. It seemed like the best plan of action.” Andrew paused again. He wanted to give Bull enough time to build a clear picture in his mind, and for himself to reflect on the magnitude of his heroism.

“So there was no shark attack?” said Bull disappointedly.

“No, that was our only piece of good fortune but I think Graham was stung by a jellyfish.”

“A box jellyfish? Did he die?” asked Bull, now sitting back with his arms folded behind his head and waiting to be entertained. A voice sounded from the other side of the raft.

“Stop, stop this ma…it’s too late…” Bull edged towards Malcolm. He cupped his face in one hand and with the other he slapped his cheek gently. There was no further response. He said,

“Was I hearing things or did he just come out of a coma to tell you to stop talking. Are you sure you don’t know him? It sounds like he’s heard this story before.”

“This is a new low for you isn’t it? Reduced to mocking a sick possibly dying man.” replied Andrew with a sneer on his lips, “But if you must know he’s been making strange noises for some time now. You’re just usually asleep when he starts up.” Bull sniffed the air and said,

“The putrid smell inside this raft can’t be helping him.” Andrew opened the aperture and let some fresh air in. Bull said,

“Are you sure he’s unconscious, I mean people in comas don’t usually talk do they.”

“I didn’t hear him talk. All I heard was some incoherent mumblings.”

“I think he was dreaming about his mother.”

“What gives you that idea?”

“He said, stop this ma.

“He’s a bit old to be having dreams about his mother,”

“I have dreams about my mother all the time.”

“I think psychologists have a term for your condition.”

“I don’t have an Oedipus complex, if that’s what you’re implying. Anyway, you haven’t answered my question. Do people in comas talk? I thought you were the man with all the answers?”

“I’ve only got basic medical training, but there’s a thing called the Glasgow Coma Scale and once we had a gillie on the estate who fell down a river bank and suffered a head injury…”

“One story at a time Sherlock,” interrupted Bull. Andrew waited patiently, his expression pensive and his hands clasped and resting on his legs. He continued his story.

“Anyway, after much persuasion, he agreed to let me go in his place...”

“Who did?” interrupted Bull, “the wounded gillie or your Uncle?”

“My Uncle,” replied Andrew through gritted teeth.

“So your uncle was the gillie?”

“No, my uncle wasn’t a gillie, but that was another story I only mentioned to explain the concept of coma. You didn’t let me finish.” To Andrew’s surprise Bull laughed. Andrew continued,

“So I set off with some meagre rations. A bottle of drinking water and a Tunnock’s tea cake. I had just turned eighteen but I was as fit as I am now, although much slighter of frame back then. My Grandfather used to say I had the physique of a traveller’s dog: all ribs and cock.”

Bull’s eyes opened wide. He said,

“I don’t know how to react to your last statement.” Andrew went on. He said,

“My journey took me through bushes, thickets and all sorts of hazardous vegetation. At one point I thought I was never going to make it.” Bull heard a hint of emotion in Andrew’s crackling voice. He sat upright waiting for the flood gates to open. Andrew was inspired by Bull’s display of eagerness and proceeded to add a bit more sensation to his voice.

“Well, I decided I needed to be strong. To try to be brave. After my uncle’s accident, everyone was relying on me. Even at a tender young age, I was already showing leadership qualities well beyond my years. It was a matter of practicalities you see.”

“So what happened next?” asked Bull eager for him to continue the story.

“I came across some locals but they appeared to be hostile. I had heard stories about this part of the world. One of them even threw a projectile at me! I feared for my safety, so I decided to run and stay well clear of them. I wasn’t going to get any help there. I was pretty much left on my own, without a map or even a compass. The terrain was disorientating and the suppressive heat and humidity were combining to sap my energy levels. Nevertheless, I persevered and eventually reached civilisation where finally I managed to get help. Suffering from heat exhaustion and dehydration, I stumbled upon a phone box and one hour later, I returned with an ambulance, the Essex police and the Royal Coast Guard.” Bull’s face dropped as if consumed by gravity.

“What do you mean a phone box,” he sighed, “The police and the Coast Guard? Were they in the jungle looking for you?” Andrew said,

“I never said I was in the jungle. It was a hot summer’s day and we capsized off Canvey Island. It was the hottest day on record at the time. It was one hundred and three degrees Fahrenheit and the humidity was unbelievable. The incident made the Canvey Island Echo …” Bull held up his hand and said,

“It was hardly an ordeal. More of an accident involving you going for help. What about all your tales of the hostile locals?”

“Have you ever been to Canvey Island? It’s not the type of place strangers ask directions, especially if all you are wearing is a belly top, because you’ve used half of your t-shirt for bandages, thigh length khaki shorts, knee length socks and a pair of blue deck plimsolls.”

“Yes, I do know Canvey Island. It’s not even an island, sorry, wasn’t even an island. It was a peninsula before the Change, before the floods, so once again Sherlock, what exactly is the point to your story?”

“The point of the story being, I’ve had previous knowledge of such circumstances. So you shouldn’t worry. Even at a young age I showed good initiative during a time of emergency. I have experience in survival situations. I was an officer in the Territorial Army. I was Captain…” Bull raised his finger and stretching over, pressed it against Andrew’s lips. He said,

“I’m going back to sleep.”  Andrew sat crestfallen and staring at his boots, the silence only broken by the sound of the grab ropes tapping against the inflated pontoons. Later he positioned himself by the aperture and watched for signs of land or a passing ship.

  8 Subject of desire

2064 Two years earlier

 Saffron was sitting on the moorings at Maryhill Locks admiring the myriad of bright colours she had used to repaint the narrowboat. Her friends had just finished installing solar panels, a wind turbine and a water butt. Earlier she had planted some herbs and vegetables in pots and scattered them around the deck. To her delight Bull’s boat was now a carbon neutral home. She studied the new moniker and stated, “I hereby name thee, the Wangari Muta Maathai.”

“I hope he likes it,” said her friend Aisha. Saffron took a step back and viewed her work with a critical eye. She held out her paint brush to measure the proportions. She smiled and said,

“What’s not to like? It’s beautiful, if I don’t say so myself. I think he’ll love it and if he doesn’t, he’ll learn to love it.” Aisha’s face was wracked with doubt. She joined Saffron on the moorings.

“It’s one thing potting up a few herbs for the deck and fitting a few solar panels, but don’t you think renaming his boat is a step too far? Isn’t it unlucky or something?”

“You make your own luck Aisha. Oh, he’ll be fine, just fine. If he isn’t, he can paint it back to that dull shitty brown colour.” Saffron laughed, her head feeling light with the paint fumes.

 Bull had called earlier to say his flight from Svalbard had been grounded by a storm and he wouldn’t be home for the vernal equinox. This was a special time of renewal and rebirth for Saffron. In keeping with Saffron’s tradition, they had planned to travel to the Calanais standing stones on the west coast of Lewis and dance with fellow pagans until sunrise. This was a time of spiritual cleansing for Saffron. On this summer solstice she was frustrated. She had lost her sense of focus, but moreover, her independence and femininity had been compromised by her feelings for her new subject of desire. She had let her guard down. Recklessly, in the heat of the moment, she had professed her love for him. Love was not part of her plans.

The following morning Saffron felt the need to talk to someone. She brooded for a while, fed Boris and then walked to Woodlands road to meet an old friend from art school. Saffron pressed the buzzer on Maurice’s flat’s entry COM system. She listened to the hypnotic ringing until the screen lit up. Maurice’s face appeared. She said,

“Hi Maurice. Are you ready?” Maurice ran his hands through his hair.

“Un moment. Can I meet you at the Organic Café on the opposite side of the street? We can get a bus to the train station from there.” In the evening Saffron and Maurice were in Brittany, hitching a lift to Carnac to watch the sun setting over the ancient megalithic structures.

The following day the Arctic storm had passed and Bull managed to secure a seat on a flight back to Glasgow. When he arrived at the moorings on Maryhill Locks he walked past the narrowboat, and then realising something was wrong he stopped. At first he wondered where his home had gone and why another narrowboat had taken its place. It dawned on him this was his boat. It had been repainted and embellished with solar panels and plant pots. Bull glared at the new name on the boat, mouthing the words. He sighed, thinking it was bad luck to change the original name of a boat. Stepping inside the hatch he exercised a familiar ritual by accidentally banging his head on the companionway. He called Saffron’s name, but there was no reply. A note lay on the Jali coffee table. He lit a cigarette and read. It simply said, out of town for a couple of days and love you. At his feet lay a sketchbook covered in Saffron’s drawings. On the first page she had penned a title, an illustration of nature’s harmony. He flicked through the rest of the drawings, throwing it back on the floor when he had finished. He went into the study, located a false drawer under Saffron’s writing desk and withdrew a bundle of letters. He shook his head, replaced the letters and went into the galley. He poured himself a glass of red Baijiu.

The following morning Saffron returned to find Bull asleep on the sofa. Beside him on the coffee table lay an empty bottle of Chinese liquor. Saffron kissed the lump on his forehead and went up onto the top deck and finished potting the rest of the herbs. A honey bee landed on one of the painted flowers she had drawn onto the boat. Dizzy with delight she went below to wake Bull with news of the rare sighting. Bull was already awake, stretched out on the floor and staring at the ceiling. He was unimpressed with the honey bee story and asked to her whereabouts the previous day.

“I left you a note,” said Saffron.

“I read it but it didn’t say where you were,” said Bull peevishly. Saffron hugged him.

“So you’re not interested in my honey bee? They’re still on the endangered species list. I do miss real honey, don’t you?” Bull showed scant interest in Saffron’s discovery and said,

“I miss real beef, real pork and real lamb. I miss real food. I can live without honey.” She examined him, standing there in his wrinkled suit, creased from a night spent on the sofa.

“I know, it’s a shame you meat eaters are forced to gorge yourself on laboratory processed proteins, but you are where you are. Did you ever stop to question where your meat was coming from or what pollinated all the fodder crops?”

“Science has had to come up with an alternative to natural pollination.”

“I’d rather have bees any day to insectoid automatons. At least with bees we got honey.”

“Don’t like bees. Bees don’t like me,” said Bull laconically. He scratched his head. Saffron approached him and placed her hands on his face, pushing his cheeks together so his lips pursed.

“What’s wrong Faerrleah? Why are you scratching – has your little rash come back?” Saffron was now gently shaking his head from side to side. Bull mumbled through contorted lips,

“It would have been nice to surprise you. It’s so horrible to come back to an empty home, particularly when I didn’t recognise it. Who is Wangamama mafia anyway?” 

“Wangari Muta Maathai,” she said correcting him, “She was a Kenyan environmentalist.”

“Where were you anyway, and what’s that?” he said sitting up and pointing to the far side of the room. Saffron’s face beamed. She said,

“It’s a totem pole I bought from a market off Byres Road. It’s a spectacular piece isn’t it?”

“I nearly crapped myself when I saw it.”  Saffron released her grip on Bull’s face. She told him about her trip to Carnac with Maurice and their discussion of a book she was illustrating. In Brittany, she had taken a series of photographs to use as composite images in her book. Bull said,

“Is Maurice in your group?”

“You mean what’s left of my group. Most of them have been arrested or have fled the country.”

“I haven’t heard Maurice’s name before.”

“He’s not an activist. He’s a photographer I know from art school. He specialises in digital imaging.”

“If you had a shackle I could have tracked you.” Saffron looked horrified. She said,

“Do I look like a narwhal? I don’t need to be tracked. I don’t want a shackle. I don’t need a shackle. I don’t require constant access to GPS, credit facilities, the net, social networking or gaming. I live in the real world, not a transnational corporation’s virtualised Hades.”

“Jesus Christ,” exclaimed Bull, “It’s just a device, a tool, like everything else surrounding us. If they introduce a curfew and you don’t own a shackle, you’ll get needlessly detained and questioned by Officer Dibble, until they can verify who you are by other means like a retina scan.”

“I’ll take my chances. I’m not wearing one because it sits nicely with the Government’s neo-feudalist system. So they can profile me and analyse what I buy, where I go and who I meet. Once upon a time we lived in a democratic society. What happened? When did we become so marginalised by the fucks who govern us?”

“The last time I checked we were still a democracy.”

“You’re sweet Faerrleah, but incredibly naive. Democracy is the greatest illusion of our time. This country’s financial assets are owned by a non-tax paying oligarchy who send their children to non-tax paying private schools where elitist values are re-enforced, while the retrograde class gets tossed on the scrapheap. Our corrupt politicians are in the pockets of corporations and illegal wars are waged around the world to control energy production, manipulate food prices and prop up the weapons manufacturing industry. All facilitated by a compliant media whose job is to act as vassals for the rich and distract a gullible populace with fabrications and unqualified opinion dressed up as news. How is that fair? How is that practising the principles of social equity or democracy?” Bull was dumbfounded. He looked at the shackle on his wrist, and for the first time he saw the symbolism of being tied to a corporate machine, but he had no sage words to offer. He touched the screen on the shackle and a 3D projected image of a newsreader appeared. The voice said, “...riots are now spreading from the so-called shanty towns outside London to Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool...” Saffron barked,

“Turn the propaganda shit off. If most of you men averted your eyes from her breasts and listened to what she was saying, you would realise only lies come out of those painted lips. She isn’t real, she’s a computer generated animation. You swallow what big tits on your shackle is feeding you. I’m not wearing one. I’d rather think for myself.”

“It’s for your own protection. The city is not like it used to be. Not since the Change. The streets are not safe. There are lots of desperate people out there with nothing to lose. When people’s existence is threatened and their situations become hopeless, they become desperate. Desperation changes people. It can make them fanatical. They become irrational and it makes them capable of committing all sorts of despicable acts.”

“You’re beginning to sound like my father. No offence, but he’s Mr Responsible and I wouldn’t listen to him, so why should I listen to you?” Bull shook his head. He slumped back down on the sofa and pulled one of Saffron’s boho cushions towards his stomach.

“Fine, have it your way,” he said squeezing the cushion, “But you said yourself democracy always reverts to a Plutocracy but now you deplore its demise?” Saffron’s laugh was a cynical one.

“I remember you thinking Plutocracy was a Disney inspired canine government.”

“I was being facetious.”

“Were you?” Bull looked at his feet. Saffron continued, “Look Faerrleah, people in this country fought for centuries to eradicate dictators and tyrants...”

“Now you sound like my dad,” interrupted Bull.

“We may still have a vote and free speech, but this is not democracy, not like we should have, not where ordinary people have their say and are listened to outside an election campaign. The government might change its appearance every five years, but the face behind the mask remains the same. A network of privileged elite still make the rules, and the bourgeoisie order is still in place. The defrauding bankers still walk the street, still enjoying their protected status and are propped up by public taxes, which used to be spent on the people, while those who protest against injustices like this and the rape of our planet are put behind bars. I wish you would open your eyes.” Saffron waited a moment to see how he would respond. Finally, she knelt beside him and said, “What’s this all about anyway, something is troubling you, and it’s not because I don’t wear a shackle.” Bull lent forward, brushed the hair from her ear and sniffed,

“You forgot your sketchbook in your rush to meet Maurice. It’s lying over on the table.”

“I wish you wouldn’t do your sniffing thing. Why do you do that? Why do you have to sniff everyone? I would like to know.” Bull stood up, barging into the coffee table and knocking the empty bottle of Baijiu to the floor as he left the room. Saffron shouted,

“You didn’t tell me what you thought of the boat? I spent a whole day painting it. And the Solar panels got fitted yesterday.” Bull pretended he couldn’t hear her as he stepped into the bathroom and closed the door. Saffron made herself a cup of peppermint tea and sat staring out of the galley window biting her paint splattered fingernails. It was an annoying childhood habit she had struggled to grow out of. She considered Bull’s own habit of sniffing people. Initially it had made her laugh but now it irritated the hell out of her. She was confused and considered how her relationship with Bull was evolving. She considered how little of her cherished principles were currently reflected in her own life. She looked back into the living room and studied the empty bottle of Baijiu, lying tipped over on the floor. A residual trickle of red liquor streamed towards her Myakka hand woven rug. She rushed to intercept the convergence. It was too late. Later, Bull walked back into the galley. He was carrying a fresh shirt and was smoking a brand cigarette.

“What’s so special about him anyway?” he asked.

“Oh, he’s just got a mercurial personality,” laughed Saffron, “and a natural life balance, or maybe it’s just the way he takes off his sunglasses, lights his pipe and says oui. I don’t know but he’s always been a good friend.” Bull became churlish. His voice was laced with nervous sarcasm. He said,

“What do you mean natural balance? Like he can ride a bike without falling off? So what? Even I can do that.” Saffron sighed,

“Do you have a problem with me being friends with Maurice?”

“I don’t know him so I couldn’t comment.” Saffron’s lips curled into a devilish smile. She said, “Your Ying-Yang seems disrupted.” Bull frowned,

“Oh, speak English woman, just for a change?” Saffron looked at him reproachfully and said,

“When you’re not here, I need someone to talk to. I’m not the type to spend my days at the window, brooding until you return.”

“You have your mam.”

“Besides my mam,” said Saffron faking a Mancunian accent.

“What about your friend Aisha?”

“She’s leaving for Rome and won’t be back until after the winter.”

“Why don’t you email or video call her? Or use virtual presence?”

“I need people to be actually present. I need to feel their aura. I need to sense things like trust, hope, or even doubt, and you can’t do that without physical participation.” Saffron stood up and walked to the sink to rinse out her cup. She stared out of the porthole, examining the potted herbs on the deck, and then over the ragwort growing in the verge behind the moorings to the diseased ravished trees swaying in the wind. Drying her cup with a rag she said,

“After exhausting the subject of homeopathy all my mother and I talk about is the weather and cats. She knows little else about my life.”

“But there are no parameters when you talk to Maurice? Do you talk about me?”

“It isn’t like that. We talk about pagan art and spiritualism. He’s from Brittany, they’re mystical people. We also share our problems and talk them through.” Saffron recalled a previous conversation with Bull when they had first met. He had described her as a small cog in a bigger machine, turning the flow against those who tried to destroy what she held dear. Lately she felt like a hamster, treading a wheel for no other reason than to keep moving. She yearned to be back amongst her group, fighting for what she believed in. Initially, Bull had been interested in her group, but recently he had barely mentioned them. Bull said,

“And you can’t talk to me about that sort of thing?”

“We used to,” considered Saffron out loud, “And perhaps we could again, if you were around for long enough. Even when you are here, you’re not here. Your mind is elsewhere. You used to talk. Now you just drink, smoke and sulk.”

“I have a lot on my mind. Don’t you think I would rather be here with you? I don’t control the weather. I get just as frustrated as you when I can’t get home.” Saffron walked into the living room and Bull followed. She bent down and mopped the spilled Baijiu with the dish towel. Bull inspected Boris’s cage, making a few adjustments to his fake rock and plastic foliage display. Saffron turned to face him, saying,

“While we’re being candid, you didn’t explain why someone who works at the Clyde flood barrier needs to go to Svalbard.” Bull turned away and pretended to take an interest in the contents of Saffron’s bookcase. He picked up a book and read the title: News from Nowhere by William Morris. Nonchalantly flicking through the pages he said,

“I was asked to go. The company is selling its technology to their government. I can’t cycle to the Arctic. I used a solar flight to Svalbard but the connection to the places they send me is a different matter. After the storm, I was lucky…”

“Good grief, how naive do you think I am?” Saffron returned to the galley and picked up a salt cellar. Again, Bull followed her.

“The company offset the carbon dioxide they use by buying carbon credits, planting trees and building wind turbines - all tax deductible of course. I don’t make the rules Saffron.”

“Yes, but you play by the rules, don’t you. You’re an ecocrite. You talk about saving the planet, but in essence what are you doing apart from expending a lot of hot air and working for a company profiting from the effects of climate change? You don’t even wear your Green Covenanters bracelet anymore.” Bull looked away. Shaking his head he said,

“I just find so much of what you say about the environment and politics so restrictive and to be honest a bit moralizing. At times you sound like a religious fundamentalist, living your life by a list of constraints and clouding every decision you make by ethics. I want to understand, but it takes time.”

“I wish we had time, but we don’t. When challenged, the corporatist sponsored governments surreptitiously sell the lie to their wage slaves that the consequences for polluting our planet is a price worth paying, that industrialists will come up with a solution and that anyone arguing against them are standing in the way of progress. For some reason a neoliberal’s concept of time is only expressed in epochs when referring to the fucking up the environment. It’s a future catastrophe for another generation to pick up the tab. They have distorted people’s perception of time and reality. Even when the flood waters are lapping around people’s feet, they still refuse to admit they are wrong and still they get away with their bullshit believing they are immune to the fallout; but who will work in their sweatshops, clean their houses or serve them champagne when the floods destroy the common folk’s lives?” Bull snorted and said,

“You’re changing the subject and deflecting the spotlight onto me or someone else or subjects you feel confident on. It’s a trick you do a lot, I’ve noticed.” Saffron returned to the rug and started pouring salt on the wine stain. She looked up and considered the man standing above her. Despite who he was, she had managed to reach out to him, even change him. He was gentle and passionate but also stubborn. He would connect with her mentally as well as physically. He was a beautiful kisser, she thought, he must have had lots of practise. A moment of silence passed and then she said,

“Why don’t you read the book you’re holding and then you might start to understand me?” Bull put the William Morris book back on the shelf, took a draw on his cigarette and said,

“Have you slept with him?” Saffron was startled by his directness. She snapped,

“I’ve already told you it isn’t that sort of relationship. I knew you were too mentally stunted to understand. Is my English clear enough for you now?” Saffron noticed ash had fallen from Bull’s cigarette and was burning a hole in her rug. As she rushed to stamp out the cinders, Bull walked out of the narrowboat, slamming the hatch door behind him. She’d thought back to previous experiences before other subjects of desire, as she called them. She hated the phrase boyfriend or partner, the former sounded childish, and the later seemed like a dull business arrangement. One subject of desire had called her a praying mantis, elaborating she was like a predatory insect unsuspectingly pouncing and devouring its victim alive. She thought of herself more like a mayfly: ephemeral, but free and beautiful, finding a mate, living and loving, if only for a short but passionate passing of time before ultimately dying. Rather a transitory life than exist like two caged beasts, living out an unfulfilled and protracted life in acquiescent comfort.

9 one enchanted evening

Bull woke to the sound of a ditty. Through opaque eyes he observed Andrew lying back on the pontoon and working the hand-inflator. Andrew’s lips were puckered as he whistled. Noticing Bull had stirred from his sleep Andrew said,

“Do you swim?” Bull examined his surroundings. He was overcome with a sense of disbelief. He was still on the raft and not enmeshed in a bad dream. He raised his hand, protecting his eyes from the glare of the sun filtering through the orange canopy. There was a fetid smell inside the life raft. It made his gut wrench. Finally he replied,

“Why are we sinking? Andrew sighed,

“No, we’re not sinking, you fool. I’m just making polite conversation but…” Bull interrupted,

“And calling someone a fool is your idea of making polite conversation.” Andrew grimaced,

“It’s just a turn of phrase. My apologies. Anyway, I didn’t ask if you can swim, I know you can swim. Even a dog can swim. I asked do you swim, say, competitively or for enjoyment, back home, wherever that part of the world may be.”

“I can do a couple of lengths of my virtual swimming pool.”

“Virtual swimming isn’t real swimming.”

“It feels real enough when you’re hooked up to the hardware.”

“Still, you can’t substitute the feel of the water against your skin or the sensation of weightlessness as you glide through the water.”

“You’ve obviously never tried VR have you?”

“Several times. Military simulations. I’ve never used it for leisure. It makes me feel queasy.”

“I have the same affliction with the sea. If I’m going to swim, the sea would be my last choice.” The first waking exchanges were becoming predictable, thought Bull. Andrew would force a pathetic smile and commence his verbal ramble, impatient to release the mental pressure building as Bull slept. Andrew said,

“Weren’t you scared of drowning when the ship capsized?”

“I was petrified. Weren’t you?”

“I’ve been trained to deal with fear and to channel my emotions. I was an officer in the army.”

“You said. So why did you leave.”

“I was medically discharged, but this isn’t about my military past.”

“What is it about then?”

“After my M.D, I joined the Territorials as a training officer.”

“I’ve never met anyone from the T.A. but then again I only socialise at weekends.”

“We didn’t just train at the weekend you know, but I suspect you already knew that and were just being facetious again. We saw action in Sudan.”

“You want kudos for fighting in another oil war?”

“We didn’t invade counties for their oil. We liberated the people from oppression and gave them democracy.” Bull rolled his eyes and said,

“Liberating their natural resources you mean and installing puppet governments dependent on the global corporations. Democracy with conditions. Funny how we only liberate countries with vast reserves of natural resources like oil?”

“I take it you don’t drive a car or fly or use electricity or wear waterproof clothing or anything else made from oil derivatives?” Bull looked down at his improvised sarong and stated,

“As you can see I’m into natural fabrics.” Andrew groaned,

“Without oil, the world would grind to a halt. Is that what you want?”

“Oil is the putrid fucking diseased lifeblood of the world and humans have become hydrocarbon junkies.” Andrew gazed at the green plastic bracelet on Bull’s arm. He said,

“I see you are a Covenanter.”

“What if I am? I can see you’re a Denier.”

“I can see the subject upsets you.”

“Yes, since the Change I have become a touch ratty. Perhaps the systematic destruction of the environment does make me a little uptight. I would have hoped one day, if I ever had children, they would be born into a better fucking world than this.”

“There are better ways to relieve your stress than using profanity.”

“Don’t I fucking know it, and if you weren’t on this boat I would indulge in a few of them.”

“The world economy revolves around energy and fossil fuels. It’s a fact of life you cannot deny. You all use fossil fuels but you still run the industry down. I don’t understand your kind.”

“I wouldn’t imagine you could. You Deniers are myopic, you can only see as far as the next financial year. And don’t talk to me about consuming fossil fuels. Choices are limited by design, for economic reasons. We don’t opt for oil or gas or methane hydrate, we have little choice.”

“It’s a natural resource God has given us to use.”

“Are you using God to justify mankind’s recklessness?” The raft fell silent with the exception of the rain pelting the canopy and the waves lapping against the pontoon. Bull picked up the bailer and toyed with it. Finally Andrew said,

“I can see where this conversation is going and I refuse to be dragged there. Let’s just agree to disagree and leave it at that shall we?”

“As you wish, Sherlock.”

 The life raft drifted aimlessly, the wind and ocean currents wrestling to take control of its direction. From the aperture, they gazed out to the vast and featureless expanse of wilderness. In the distance, the twisted vestiges of an abandoned oil rig, its frame shattered by the wave. Its pillars decaying in the ocean, like the carcass of a once colossal animal. At one point they thought they had spotted land but the excitement was quelled when the contour changed shape and dispersed. Both men took turns to check on Malcolm’s condition. They drizzled freshwater into his mouth on a regular basis. Blood oozed from under his dressing, trickling down his back and discolouring the stagnant water collecting on the floor of the raft. Andrew changed Malcolm’s bandages using the last piece of the shredded cotton skirt and a sanitary towel from the suitcase. Andrew threw the soiled bandages overboard after Bull complained of the pungent odour. Flies, attracted by the faint whiff of blood, relentlessly dive-bombed them. Andrew swatted several of them and arranged them on the palm of his hand. He said,

“We may be forced to eat these when the bannock cake and prunes run out.” Bull shuddered,

“Flies are food for arachnids and reptiles, not humans.”

“Some African tribes make patties out of flies and bake them. Apparently they’re good.”

Good, compared to what? It comes back to choice again. I would say if they are eating flies it’s because there are few alternatives. You eat flies. I’d rather starve.”

“If I could make some tackle, we could fish. We would have to eat any catch raw.”

“There’s not a lot of fish left in the sea. You might be wasting your time.”

“Don’t be a drama queen. There’s plenty fish in the sea.”

“Have you been living in a cave Sherlock? Have you not heard of changes in the marine environment? Changes in acidification? Temperature? Salinity?”

“Bollocks! Fish just migrate to more amiable conditions.”

“Commercial fishing has depleted stocks the world over, vacuuming up wild fish to make fishmeal for more profitable farmed species. It’s the same with meat. We’ve messed around with the ecosystem so much livestock viruses and diseases have become endemic. I’m no expert but even fodder crops are blighted due to fungal pathogens or parasites in the soil or the damp conditions. And our water supplies are contaminated with agricultural toxins, just so we can have cheap meat. And where are we now? Resorted to eating lab-grown crap?”

“I would have thought laboratory protein was more to your taste. Your lot are always banging on about animal rights. This way no animal suffered and there’s no pressure on the environment.”

Your lot? You mean people that care about animal rights? It’s all us and them with you isn’t it? If you must know, I’m rather partial to real food. I’ve got no problem with the killing of livestock for food, as long as they are treated with respect while they are alive.”

“So, you’ve killed an animal for the dinner table then. At last we have something in common.”

“Not as such, but I’m content with the principle of it.”

“How noble. So as long as someone else does the killing for you?”

“We all have our jobs to do. You kill, I eat.”

Bull unzipped the aperture and gazed into the sea, wondering if there were fish below the surface other than the jellyfish he could see. He looked out to the horizon for signs of land. Nothing. The sun was nestling somewhere behind the grey clouds and the night was coming. He sat back against the pontoon and started reading the diary he had found in the suitcase. He chuckled to himself until he became bored with the rambling of a frustrated suburban housewife. Eventually he closed his eyes and fell asleep. Andrew continued to bail water and pump the hand-held inflator. When he was satisfied the pontoons were fully inflated, he zipped up the aperture and settled down for an evening under the orange dome. The temperature was plummeting and it wasn’t long before Bull was awake again. His dreams had been unsettling. He tried to speak but the hunger pains re-emerged and his words dissolved in his mouth. He had no idea of the time. Andrew passed him a prune and a slice of bannock cake and said,

“I’ve created a rota for the duties onboard the life raft, including bailing, inflating the pontoons and keeping lookout. You’ve been sleeping most of the day so you’re on first watch tonight.”

“What about him?” Said Bull pointing to Malcolm. Andrew sighed heavily,

“Another one of your tasteless jibes I take it?” Andrew passed Bull half a tennis ball of Talisker whisky. Bull said,

“Not having one yourself?”

“I don’t drink. Well not anymore.”

They sat in silence. Later, Bull looked directly into Andrew’s eyes and said,

“Cold isn’t it Sherlock?” Andrew considered asking Bull to stop calling him Sherlock, but he suspected this would only encourage him .Never stoop, he thought. Andrew snorted,

“I think at this time of year the northern winds haven’t started to blow down from the Arctic, so it can get a wee bit colder than this. I was in Caithness with the Territorials once and…”

“You don’t think we could catch hypothermia do you, particularly after drinking this alcohol? I don’t mind admitting it’s made my head a wee bit light and dizzy.”

“It’s not a disease you know. Hypothermia is a condition when core body temperature falls below 35.0 °C. Alcohol can bring it on but I think with only a cup full, we’re fine.”

“So we couldn’t catch it off each other then?” said Bull playfully.

“No,” replied Andrew, “As I said it’s a condition, it’s not an infectious disease.” Bull tried to smile but his lips quaked. Bull look directly into Andrew’s eyes. He said,

“You seem to know lots about this type of thing - survival stuff, I mean. So you’ve done a lot of survival training soldier boy?”

“I told you, I was in Special Forces before joining the Territorial Army as a Field Instructor.”

“Yes, you said before, I remember. So if I contracted hypothermia, what methods would you use to revive me?” Andrew sat up and rubbed the stubble on his chin with the back of his hand.

“There are three ways to tackle hypothermia - active core warming.”

“Like hot drinks? Well unfortunately that option is out. What else?”

“Active external warming such as chemical heat packs or Bear Hugger blankets…”

“We lost those during the sinking, so what else?”

“If my memory serves me right the other method is passive external re-warming, which simply involves sharing body heat with… Good God!” Bull stretched his arms back behind his head and yawned seductively, like an unbridled enchantress. His foil blanket slipped from his shoulders and his fur coat slid open, showing an ample wedge of white fleshy midriff. Andrew coughed feebly and zipped his Swazi anorak closer around his neck. He backed away averting Bull’s alluring eyes, recoiling in disgust and rigid with homophobic paranoia. Bull’s voice shifted to a slower and huskier tone. He said,

“It’s the second law of thermal dynamics - heat transfer between two bodies. We could see it as a scientific experiment.”

“That would be a last resort. I’m not experimenting anything with you.” Andrew shifted uneasily. “I was just teasing you. Christ you’re stiff!” said Bull laughing. Andrew glared at him and snarled,

“You think this is funny? Being permanently wet, cold, starving, uncomfortable and sore? Drifting aimlessly in the North Atlantic with a seriously injured man? Well, I’m not laughing. I’m constantly inflating the pontoons and bailing out bloody putrid water with a brazier cup for a bailer while you sleep, purring like a kitten!”

“I’m just trying to keep our spirits up and boost morale with some light banter, that’s all. Keep your hair on. I used to work in the Arctic so I know a thing or too about hypothermia. I was just testing you. I’m sorry. I meant nothing by it.” Andrew regained his composure. He asked,

“What were you doing in the Arctic?” Bull’s grin slid from his face. 

“It’s a long story. Maybe another time.”

They spent what was left of the evening taking turns bailing, re-inflating the pontoons and checking on Malcolm’s condition. Bull opened the suitcase and changed his head attire. He picked out a white woollen bobble hat with ear flaps, and using Andrew’s multi-tool he made some adjustments, so it would fit over his large cranium. Andrew’s mood was sullen. He fidgeted awkwardly against the pontoon. Finally, he said,

“I need to get some sleep. Wake me if you see a ship.” Bull sat by the aperture scanning the horizon for ships. Later, he returned to reading the diary from the suitcase, occasionally emitting a little chortle, until the last of the light faded.

When Andrew woke, it was dark and Bull was asleep. He considered the uncertainty of their future and reflected on their fate, deciding the only crumbs of comfort were for the moment, they had drinking water, meagre food rations, clothing and shelter. He had read somewhere it was possible, with a strong will, to survive up to six weeks without food. He shuddered at the thought of enduring the effects of muscle wasting. He decided if they were going to survive he had to set his mind on catching fish. He took up his place at the aperture and spent most of the night looking for passing ships.

At first light Andrew got to work rigging up fishing tackle. From the side pocket of the suitcase he withdrew a chiffon nightdress. He unravelled the nylon stitching and spun it to make a leader, to which he attached a fish hook, fashioned from a drop earring. He embellished the hook with a small piece of tinfoil he unwrapped from a piece of gum. Andrew considered the invaluable nature of women’s sundries and how useful they could prove to be in a survival situation. He contemplated on the contents of a woman’s cosmetics bag and how one had a mirror for signalling, a nail file for sharpening hooks, scissors for cutting tasks and sanitary towels for field dressings. With a woman’s accessories, combined with his know-how, the perfect survival expert could be created.

Andrew studied Bull’s sleeping form on the far side of the raft. He extracted the scissors from his multi-tool, leant over and cut a lock of Bull’s hair. Using tweezers and thread, he tied the human hair behind the eye of the fish hook. When he was finished, he held the lure aloft and satisfied with his mornings work, he chortled to himself, wondering how long it would take until Bull realised a sizeable hank of his hair had been removed.


2064. 18 months earlier

Saffron stared at the self-portrait she had just completed. She didn’t recognise the image. She removed the canvas from the easel and walked through the narrowboat trying different angles and shades of natural light. Finally she painted over it and in doing so came to a decision: it was time to transform her life. Saffron regarded her existence in the universe as a journey. A journey which is enhanced by sharing experiences with another human being but not necessarily one she loved physically, as long as they could meet halfway on her spiritual bridge. But love or companionship was not her raison d´être. She would rather continue her journey alone than share it with someone who bridled her aspirations. Saffron considered how, unlike most humans, Bull dealt with basic emotions such as anger or embarrassment or happiness stoically, but jealousy was a more complex emotion for him to contend with. Bull had an inner strength rarely evident in previous subjects of desire, she thought. He had an aura of kindness about him. He was compassionate and had a wonderful, if somewhat immature, sense of humour. She had promised herself not to try and change him, but rather exert a positive influence on him, but she wanted him to be more passionate and observant about the world around him. She had taken him as far as she could. She had to admit to another failure. Her work with him was nearly complete. 

The following morning, Saffron found Bull lying on the living room floor, wrapped in her Myakka hand woven rug. She reminded herself of how negative feelings were natural. She understood the concept, for those searching for completeness in their lives, such thoughts should be acknowledged as part of the evolving process. Failings should be accepted as a human trait. Saffron knew it was wrong of her to judge him by her own standards, after all she had identified many failings of her own. Subjecting the same demands she expected from herself was unfair. Examining his inebriated form she discovered a nasty cut to his head.

Saffron stepped into the toilet cubicle and opened the medicine cabinet, stopping only briefly to catch her reflection in the door mirror. She grabbed the first aid kit, opened it and found a bottle of liquid plaster. As she turned, she lost her balance. She slipped on the collateral damage from Bull’s drunken urinal misfire. Struggling to find her feet, she bemoaned the months of persuading him to urinate whilst sitting down. Saffron returned to the living room and walked over his sleeping carcass. She cleaned his wound with a swab and applied the plaster. She placed the swab in a culture tube, placed it in her hemp bag and left for her studio.

Bull went for a walk in the Botanic Gardens, stopping off to see the timber wolves at the sanctuary. He explained his troubles with Saffron to the dumbfounded beasts. When the wolves became antagonised and aggressive an unsympathetic park keeper asked him to move on. He returned home to Maryhill Locks. Stepping onto the narrowboat, he overheard Saffron talking in the galley. He peered through the porthole. He could see an older woman. Perhaps Saffron’s mother he thought. At last he would meet her. He removed his jacket and listened.

“We don’t even have to say much to each other,” said Saffron, “But instinctively we connect on a spiritual level and that is enough.” Bull smirked, deluding himself Saffron was listing some of his virtues, however at odds with yesterday’s outburst. He nodded in agreement when she described the kindness and sensitivity he often aspired to, and even mentally adding a few suggestions of his own to her list. He stepped onto the upper deck and continued to eavesdrop but was overcome with a new found modesty, even questioning some of the perceived qualities regarding his background. Salford was culturally rich and diverse for sure, but he would hardly describe it as mystical. Although he had heard that Eccles Parish Church was haunted by a priest who had hanged himself. Saffron persisted, “You know how I’ve always needed someone like him in my life. Even more so since Aisha has gone. He’s special to me. I only hope Faerrleah will understand. I don’t think he likes the idea of Maurice much.” When Bull heard Maurice’s name, he dropped his jacket onto the deck in disbelief. When Saffron heard the clang she abruptly changed the conversation. “So an infusion of comfrey, burdock and evening primrose may cure his rash.” Saffron left her mother, walked out through the hatch and up the steps to the upper deck. She blinked when she came into the daylight. She watched Bull sitting on the wooden bench, his head in his hands. She waited for him to face her. She wanted to see his expression and gauge his mood. After a moment of silence, she said,

“I didn’t hear you come in. Normally you bang your head on the companionway? How is your head today. I cleaned and plastered it while you were sleeping.” Bull didn’t answer. Saffron looked at his head to examine the wound but the plaster had gone and there was no scaring. Not even a bruise. Continuing to look at his head in disbelief, she continued, “My mother is here if you want to meet her? She has given me an herbal remedy for your eczema.”

“It isn’t eczema,” said Bull churlishly. He fidgeted on the edge of his seat, his mind filled with rambling paranoia and agonising scenarios of Saffron and Maurice in intimate positions. He couldn’t bring himself to look at her. He stared out onto the algae blooms floating on the water and the multi-coloured rows of narrowboats lining the canal. Saffron tried to explain whatever he thought he had heard, it was part of a conversation and they needed to talk about the context. When Saffron put her hand on his shoulder, he walked out onto the moorings.

“I know you’re confused Faerrleah but we need to talk. There are a few things I need to explain to you. Don’t do this!” wailed Saffron. Bull walked away. Saffron watched him saunter along the canal bank and towards the bridge. Out of sight, she wiped the tears from her face. She sat sobbing until her mother joined her, offering her a comforting arm and a kiss on the cheek. Saffron turned to her mother and said, “I just can’t do this anymore, it’s too hard.”

“I know dear. I understand,” replied Saffron’s mother.

“That’s the problem, you don’t understand. No one does?” Saffron’s mother gave her a handkerchief and then left. Later Saffron went below to the galley. She lit her pipe and made a cup of herbal tea. Saffron heard the sound of a phone ringing out on the deck. She went outside and from Bull’s jacket pocket she retrieved a satellite phone. She picked it up and examined the device. It looked antiquated. I haven’t seen one of these in years, she thought. She blocked the 3D projection and listened to the voicemail: “Hi, it’s Fergus, hope you’re feeling better? I’m sorry but we need you to go back to Svalbard and carry out some more tests on those drill sites. They are not happy with your model results, the ones identifying pipe fatigue in the bearings and sealing systems. It’s going to cost them and you know the industry, always squealing about being under so much financial pressure and constraints. We need you to re-run the model but this time we need more favourable results. Call me when you get this message.” Saffron ended the call.

Later, Bull returned to an empty home. In the morning he left for Svalbard. When he arrived he found a payphone at the airport and called the narrowboat. Saffron answered. She was cold and distant. He was glad the visual display on the payphone wasn’t working. He didn’t want to see if the tone of her voice matched her face. She said,

“This isn’t working out the way I had imagined it would. We’re not the people we think we are. I’ve realised that subconsciously I’ve been trying to change you. I have no right to expect you to change.” A bubble of panic rose up within Bull’s stomach. He felt sick but somehow still managed to speak. His words were laced with anxiety.

“I’m sorry. I’ve being childish but I see that now. I was jealous and foolish. Look, I need to go. I’ve got more ice bores samples to analyse. I’ll see you at the Naked Bike Ride for Climate Change at Kelvingrove Park tomorrow tonight and we can talk then, if you like? I love you Saffron.”

The line went dead. During the conversation with Saffron he had noticed a young girl sitting beside him and listening into his conversation. He winked at her but to save himself any further embarrassment, he continued talking into the communicator. “Yes, well, I’ve tried to be fair but enough is enough. I’m not a man to be trifled with. I’ll say no more on the subject.” Bull pretended to hang up the communicator and turning to the girl said, “That’s women for you. Don’t you grow up to be like her?”  The girl looked up and in perfect English, replied,

“She hung up on you, a while ago, didn’t she? You can tell by the light on the top of the com changing from green to red. Call her back, I want to see her 3D projection – I bet she’s ugly, if you’re anything to go by.” Bull frowned at the young girl and said,

“She’s beautiful if you must know but more importantly she’s a good person.” The little girl smiled and said,

“Why is she with you then? You lied.”

“I didn’t lie.” The little girl pointed to the com and said,

“You did, you pretended she was listening and she wasn’t. You’re not a nice man.”

“Neither are you!”

“Ha, ha you think I’m a man. You can’t tell the difference between boys and girls. You’re a big freak.” Tears began to well up in Bull’s eyes. The girl continued,

“Ha, ha and now you’re starting to cry. You can’t even beat an eleven year old in an argument.” Finally Bull said, “Didn’t your parents teach you not to eavesdrop on adults conversations?” The girl’s father approached and led her away by the hand. Then she stopped and turned back, repeatedly jerking her fist. Bull sunk his head into his hands. He wondered if his secret was out.

The following day Bull returned to Glasgow from Svalbard. Thinking of Saffron’s lecture on using low emission transport, he took the Sky Tran from the airport to the Salt Market and picked up a rented bicycle. An air quality warning had been issued, so he put his respirator on and wheeled the short distance down to Glasgow Green.  The Naked Bike Ride for Climate Change was already under way when he arrived. Bull stuffed all his clothes in a plastic bag and placed it on the wet ground. He was naked apart from his respirator mask. It started to rain. He mounted his rented bike and waited for Saffron amongst the hundreds of nude cyclists. He waited for over an hour. Saffron failed to appear. The last cyclist departed and he was alone. He felt like an abandoned child at a fun park. He wanted to go home, hoping Saffron would be there. He decided to dress but his bag of clothes were gone. Bull approached a police officer and asked if he had come across a plastic bag containing his belongings. The police officer snorted,

“I saw a gang of neds kicking a bag around like a football, about twenty minutes ago.”

“What’s a NED?” asked Bull.

“A Non Educated Delinquent. One of them kicked the bag skyward and into the river.”

“And you just stood there and watched the little scrotes steel my clothes?”

“It’s not in my job description to jump into rivers to retrieve garments discarded by their civilian owners.”

Bull cycled naked along the Kelvin Walkway, in the opposite direction of the other cyclists and back towards Maryhill Locks. When he arrived home he opened the hatch to the narrowboat, taking care not to bang his head on the companionway. It took a while for him to realise Saffron had left. It wasn’t immediately obvious. Most of her furniture was still there but her easel, paints and canvases were all gone. Still naked, he stood for a while, alone in the lounge area, marinated in the Glasgow rain. The bunch of weeds, he had picked for her on the way home, filled the air with a mousey aroma, and he was convinced the sap from one of the plants was burning his fingers. He threw the flowers on the floor and walked through the galley and into the sleeping quarters. The drawers and wardrobes were emptied of her clothes. Turning back towards the lounge, he sensed something was missing. It wasn’t the embroidered Boho cushions, the totem or the patchwork Batik tassel throw from the sofa. He realised their pet terrapin, Boris was gone from his cage. He had failed the worthy father test, Patrick had told him about. A handwritten note lay on the coffee table, weighted down by one of the glass pebble wishing stones he had bought her from a Svalbard market. The stone was inscribed, trust. She had returned it, and the Kama Sutra book he had given her for her birthday.

11 the curious sharks

Bull scanned the horizon for land or passing ships. It was raining heavily and the sky and the sea were interchangeable shades of grey. He yearned for a visual stimulus. Yellow or green, even brown. Shades of the land. Anything but grey, he thought. His heart fluttered with excitement when the sun broke through the blanket of cloud, its rays catching the suspended droplets of rain, to form a rainbow. His eyes feasted on the optical ambrosia. He savoured every colour of the light spectrum. He wanted to share the experience with Andrew, if only to break the monotony of the day, but the dark mantle returned to spoil the display.

Keeping watch was mind numbing, thought Bull. Without the necessary means to react, it was a distraction from more pressing issues, such as dreaming about the past or dealing with his rampaging hunger pangs and nicotine cravings. If land was sighted, they had no paddles to row ashore. They had flares if a ship was spotted, but would they work? Bull abandoned his watch and sat fidgeting in his garments. The fabric of his homemade sarong was making his skin itch. The underside of his legs felt tender to the touch. Tiny blisters bubbled on his bleached white skin. Andrew disturbed his thoughts when passing him the hand-inflator. Bull said,

“We’ve been floating for miles. Where the hell are we going?” Andrew looked up from his fishing lure, viewing Bull with a disparaging eye. He scratched his beard and said,

“Wherever the wind and current take us. Hopefully we will drift into a shipping lane or land. I’m guessing we have drifted sixty or so miles in a westerly direction.”

“How did you arrive at that figure?”

“I did say it was a guess, but earlier, when you were sleeping, I watched the sunrise in the east, giving me a bearing. Later on, when you were sleeping again, I counted the seconds for us to drift, and using a buoy as a marker I calculated our average speed. I also made a sextant from three pencils, which I found in Mrs Formby’s luggage. I gauged the maximum height of the sun at midday, when you were still sleeping, and then I used my wristwatch and the position of the sun to calculate our latitude.”

“I’m picking up on a recurring theme here.”

“What recurring theme?”

“That you have a problem with me catching a few hours sleep.”

“You’re sleeping for the best portion of the day my friend.”

“It keeps my mind off the hunger.”

“While you’re getting your beauty sleep, I’m bailing water, inflating the pontoons, keeping watch and changing Malcolm’s bandages.” Andrew held up his homemade sextant, “I also made this device to help answer your relentless questions about where we are.”

“Let me ask you this Sherlock. What’s the point of making a sextant to find our latitude when we have no map to reference it with? You’re just as much in the dark as I am.”

“Admittedly there’s a lot of guesstimates, but at least I’m doing something positive in an effort to get rescued. You can’t expect to sleep and merely wake from this nightmare.”

“What buoy did you see? How close?”

“It was a weather buoy I think. We nearly collided with it. What point are you making?”

“Well Sherlock, if it was a transmitting buoy, all we needed to do was board it and disable the satellite communicator. Eventually a drone would be sent out to fix it. We could have established contact. You didn’t think of that did you?” Andrew’s face flushed with anger. He made a noise between a squeal and a laugh. Folding his arms tightly, he said,

“Where were you at the time with this little gem of information? What were you doing? Sleeping! You’ve been sleeping on and off all day. Sleep will not help our plight.”

“You could have woken me? Just don’t wake me to listen to one of your pointless stories.”

Irascibly, Andrew passed Bull a slice of Bannock cake and a dried prune. Bull sniffed the air.  

“The stink in here is getting worse and don’t blame it all on Malcolm. He’s turning into your blame dog,” he said. Andrew sighed,

“The only dog in here is you. It is Malcolm. His wound has festered. I can’t stop the bleeding without a means to stitch it. There’s a constant trickle of blood flowing down his back and collecting in this stagnant pond at our feet. We need to get him proper medical attention or he’s going to die. This makes getting rescued, sooner rather than later, even more critical. We are at the mercy of the current and the wind. Malcolm’s fate is in God’s hands now.” Bull nibbled on his prune and then said,

“What has God got to do with our predicament?”

“You do believe in God, don’t you?”

“What I believe in is none of your concern, but just because we are faced with a set of extraneous variables, doesn’t mean our fate is predetermined.”

“Well, you may not believe in predestination, but we are no longer masters of our own destiny.”

“If I found a piece of wood and carved it to make a paddle, destiny would be our own.”

“I’m going to sleep. Wake me if you spot anything.”

Andrew woke to the sound of excited noises. Thinking Bull had spotted a ship, he got to his knees and fumbled for the flares. He stopped when Bull brought a log into the raft.

“Give me your multi-tool,” demanded Bull, “I’m going to carve this wood into a paddle.” Andrew stopped himself from strangling Bull’s idea before it had time to breath. He was about to say, he was wasting valuable energy and would blunt the blade on his multi-tool, but he decided the task would focus Bull’s mind. Even fruitless tasks were essential for morale in survival situations.

In the evening Andrew cast his fishing line into the ocean, retrieving it by reeling the nylon line onto an empty plastic water bottle. He could see fish swimming under the raft, using it as shelter. If only I could catch one, he thought. After an hour he gave up and retreated back inside. He stretched out his legs. He wished for a book to read, a crossword puzzle or even a pack of playing cards. Anything to pass the time. He allowed his mind to drift and he contemplated his life before his separation from his wife. He dwelt on the times he had spent playing with his children and his long walks over the Southern Upland hills, near his home in the Scottish Borders. This was a place where he had always felt free and unshackled from the pressures of life He yearned to be back there. He watched Bull carving his paddle. The wood shavings drifted like a flotilla of tiny boats on the pond of stagnant water collecting in the middle of the life raft. Andrew closed his eyes and slept. When he woke Bull was grabbing his leg. Bull mumbled,

“We hit something or something hit us,” said Bull brandishing the blade from the multi-tool.

“Hit what? Land? A ship?” exclaimed Andrew, creeping towards the aperture. Only the pewter sea greeted him. A sudden jolt came from under the raft and then another. Andrew froze, gripped by a fear he hadn’t experienced since jumping from the floundering Andrea Starlight. He peeled his eyes from the sea and turned to face a catatonic Bull. They listened attentively for what seemed an age. Nothing except the unnerving pulse of the sea beating against the raft. And then the calm was extinguished by two abrupt attacks. A multitude of thumps. They began to spin. Visible through the orange canopy was the silhouette of a fin circling. Andrew felt the blood drain from his head. He held out a trembling finger and said, “There, to the starboard side…”

“What do you mean, starboard side,” replied Bull nervously. His eyes were still fixed to the floor, “When did we acquire a starboard side?” Andrew ignored his question and crawled to the aperture. When he returned his ashen face hung heavy on his skull. He said,

“There’s something circling us. It’s large. Look, it’s portside now!”

“Sorry Sherlock, all these sides look the same to me?

“I meant to your left. You know, Port left, Starboard right?” Andrew shoved his head out the aperture. Bull appeared to be talking to his buttocks. He said,

“How can a hexagonal shaped raft have port and starboard sides?”

“Perhaps we could have a debate on nautical terms another...” Andrew’s last words were prematurely strangled. The raft was briefly lifted from the sea. A protruding figure appeared in the centre of the synthetic floor, scattering the puddle of stagnant water to the six corners of the raft. There was a flurry of activity. Legs recoiled in fear. Bodies jostled to find an escape route from the malicious shape. Their limbs became entangled. Bull fell on the open suitcase. He held the multi-tool at arms length, like a dagger to protect himself. The shape disappeared. Malcolm lay face down, slumped on the floor. Bull repositioned him against a pontoon. Without warning, the raft was propelled across the surface of the sea. Bull fell forward and tumbled towards the aperture. If Andrew hadn’t grabbed his ankle, he would have been cast into the sea. Still now, his head was under water. Bull opened his eyes. There, in the murky waters, blurred shapes moved towards him. His body was possessed by an involuntary spasm of fear. His legs kicked out. His foot caught Andrew square on the jaw, knocking him backwards. Bull stabbed at the oncoming shape. He missed. The blade plunged into one of the pontoons. Bull kept stabbing until he felt his body being dragged back into the raft. A horrible hissing sound came forth from under them.

“What the hell?” Shouted Andrew. Bull’s voice crackled with fear. He wiped his face with the bath towel he had found in the suitcase and cried, 

“I saw a shape in the water. It came at me. I think I stabbed it.” Andrew’s eyes bored into Bull’s head, his finger stabbing at the deflating pontoon. He howled,

“Look what you’ve done you idiot. You stabbed the raft, not the…” A thrashing noise. The sound of churning water. Andrew thrust his head outside the aperture. His breath checked at the sight of a dorsal fin skimming across the surface of the ocean. From underneath the raft, water boiled with escaping air. He turned to Bull and said tempestuously, “You need to reach down under the raft and fix the hole. The pontoon is losing air. We are going to sink.” Bull was startled by Andrew’s change of tone.

“Reach down with what?” he said.

“Your arm!” cried Andrew. Bull emitted a manic laugh,

“Not on your life,” he exclaimed, “You stick your hand in the water. I need my hand. I’ve become quite attached to it over the years. I use it quite a lot. I don’t fancy having it bitten off.”

“Someone has to do it and I don’t see why it should be me. I didn’t puncture the raft. It was you who damaged it, so you should fix it. Take some responsibility for your actions!”

“Sue me when we get to the nearest maritime court or take it out of my rations, but I am not sticking my hand in the water, not while those creatures are attacking us!”

In a dreadful silence, they watched the life raft wither on one side. Cold seawater rushed in and swirled around them. Their eyes widened with every frantic second of unfolding theatre. Andrew’s brain went into overdrive. Overwhelmed with fear he moaned,

“Thiscan’t be happening to me. Is this it? Is this the end? He started to pray, mumbling the words incoherently and whimpering like a beaten dog,“The Lord is my Shepherd, there is...” Bull picked up his half-carved paddle and said,

“Where is your God now, Sherlock? I think we need something sharper than archaic words to defend ourselves.” As he approached the aperture, his weight put further pressure on the struggling side of the raft. More water flooded in, rising around their waists. Malcolm was floating head first towards the aperture and the ocean beyond. Bull caught him by the belt and Andrew returned him to a sitting position. Bull felt envious of Malcolm. He would be oblivious of his own demise. His own death would be slow and agonising. With his head protruding from the vessel, Bull searched for signs of their tormentors. Momentarily, he was distracted by seagulls swooping above his head, as if drawn to the desperate spectacle unfolding below. To him their squawking sounded like cynical laughter, confirming his belief, in essence, that all seagulls were maleficent incontinent bastards. Bull looked down and through the water, into the deep. He returned his torso inside the raft. His face was ashen white.

“There’s more than one. They’re underneath us, rising up from the deep,” he said. Andrew’s complexion was like cold grey marble. Bull’s words passed through him. He was staring at Malcolm, slumped by his side. Hysterically, he said,

“I don’t want to die, not here, not like this. We need to escape, but there’s nowhere to go. No way out. We need to think!” The voice of Andrew’s Grandfather emerged from the shadows of his mind. Andrew unwittingly spoke his words out loud, “Think man. Think! You’ve been in tighter spots than this. You’re a fighter! You’re a winner. A leader. You have the blood of the Black Douglas in you...” Andrew’s mother’s voice interjected, challenging his Grandfather, “Oh, shut up you tiresome old toff. The boy’s in a pickle and he needs some practical advice, not some of your dubious claims to be remotely connected to the Crown.” Bull stared at Andrew aghast. His mouth was wide open and his face contorted by the incomprehension of what he was witnessing.

Hush now,” said Andrew. His voice was an octave higher as Ashley entered his mental fray. Returning Bull’s worrisome glare, he realised the internal voices had been released and had become audible. He fought to control his ramblings and keep them caged inside his mind. We need to work together and pull as one continued Ashley’s voice, but now concealed within his brain. Roy Beer’s voice then boomed above the internal utterances. A rising sensation grew within Andrew’s chest when his hero stamped his authority. Ashley is right, this is not a time to squabble but a time to act as a team. Andrew, is there anything on the vessel you could use to distract the creatures while your shipmate makes some repairs to the raft?  It dawned on Andrew there was a means of surviving the ordeal. Andrew’s upper and lower teeth were set together as one and his neck twitched like a caged battery hen. He grabbed Bull by the arm and nodded to Malcolm. He said,

“We could throw him overboard. He’s practically dead anyway. While they are eating him, you could make the repairs.” Bull gazed at Malcolm slumped in a far corner, the lower half of his body submerged in water. With a look of contempt he turned to Andrew and said,

“That’s murder. I won’t let you do it! Think of something else. We could strap your multi-tool to the end of my paddle and fend them off.  They might leave us alone if we put up a fight.” Bull waited for a sign of approval but was disturbed by Andrew’s cold sneer. He squealed,

“Stab it in the eye? Look what happened with your last attempt. You punctured the raft!” Bull tried to swallow a lump at the back of his parched throat. Petulantly, he withdrew his arm from Andrew’s grip and growled,

“Fuck you Sherlock. We can play the blame game later, but right now I need you to entertain it while I try and fix the puncture.” Andrew’s voice was laden with anxiety. He yelled,

“Entertain it? Are you for real? I seem to have misplaced my bagpipes!”

“Just distract it!”

“Distract them with what!” Bull held up his piece of wood and exclaimed,

“Punch them, kick them, throw something at them, it doesn’t matter.”

“This isn’t some brawl in a sleazy Manchester brew shack.”Bull turned with a look of incredulity on his face and said,

“Who said I was from Manchester? I never told you where I came from. Did my parochial accent give the game away? You’re an arrogant bastard …” Andrew turned to him in a fit of rage. His mouth foamed like a rabid dog. He roared,

“We are going to die! If you’re going to become enraged then why not direct your insults at one of those things out there?” Bull’s face contorted in confusion as if the idea was, not only insane but pointless.

“Go take a meat hook to yourself Sherlock,” said Bull before he poked his head out of the aperture. Bull’s eyes were wet with fear as he contemplated putting his hands into the water to repair the damaged pontoon. Andrew looked at Bull’s rear end He contemplated Hextending a two footed kick to send him into the sea. To his surprise, when Bull turned his head, he was smiling. He stated with a wry look,  

“They’ve gone. You must have frightened them away when you lost the plot back there.”

Andrew let out a long lamentable sigh and then fell silent in prayer. Pulling his knees up under his chin, he rocked himself. Later, he wondered how Roy Beer would have marked him if the sorry episode had been a simulation in one of his field training exercises. Unlikely to receive full marks, he concluded. When he looked up, Bull was hanging out of the raft repairing the puncture. From the items he had collected from the sea, he used a wine cork to plug the hole and a rubber band to hold it in place. For further strength he inserted several plastic toothpicks, to help fasten the rubber to the cork bung. He returned several times to check his repairs under the waterline. A trickle of air could be detected, but as long as they kept inflating the raft was secure, he thought. His head dripping wet, he returned and attached the inflator to the damaged pontoon. The raft started to regain its shape. Andrew said,

“Where are you from then?” Bull stopped to take his breath. He gasped,

“Salford. It’s not Manchester. There’s a difference. So you play the bagpipes do you?”

Later, from the aperture, Bull looked towards the heavens. He spotted an isolated patch of blue sky unmasked in the moisture laden heavens. It was merely an affirmation there was an actual celestial sphere behind the clouds. He knew the image was merely short-wave bands of blue light from the sun, scattering in the earth’s atmosphere, but for an instant he felt connected to something out-with the life raft, out-with the boundless sea and beyond the planet.

Bull was convinced this day’s sun was sinking in a different location from yesterday’s sun. He looked into the darkening, featureless ocean desert and wondered if they were going in circles. A last burst of sunlight penetrated the grey curtain of cloud. An onyx sky. Layers of scarlet meandering bands appeared in the west. It felt like a good sign, but he didn’t know why. There was just something sublime and metaphysical about certain sunsets. He returned from the aperture and sat in cold contemplative silence, bailing the raft, re-inflating the pontoon and only stopping to take sips of water. The hunger pangs returned with added vengeance and his stomach made rumbling protests, demanding to be fed. Bull decided to sleep.

Andrew believed the canopy was making him feel claustrophobic and even considered this as an excuse for his recent outburst. With Bull asleep, he folded down the canopy. A blanket of darkness crept from the east, snuffing out the trailing sunlight. The invading shadow affected him spiritually. At a pagan level. He remembered stories his grandmother told him before bed, tales of mythical creatures travelling over the sea and into the living realm, from the Otherworld. They would emerge during the succinct moments before dusk and only return at dawn, when the door between the two worlds was reopened. The Druids had called this movement, the Ninth Wave. Without warning, a gust of wind brushed over the raft and the night descended on them like a falcon on its prey. Andrew trembled at the sudden change of light and temperature. So close to the sea and exposed under the night sky, he felt small and vulnerable. Like a child on a first camp without the adults. He disentangled his lure and decided that a spot of night fishing would re-focus his mind.


12 the difficulty with honesty

2065. One year earlier

The rain had been relentless and Bull’s clothes were soaked through to the skin. He sat in the garden of a shisha bar on Maryhill Road, trying to light a cigarette. Patrick stood over him, holding his umbrella at an angle, in a futile gesture to keep the rain off his brother. Patrick was looking above his head, his attention drawn to a large drone cruising across the skyline. Making a thunderous roar, it came to a halt and hovered several hundred feet above a cluster of tower blocks. Finally, it split into a formation of smaller drones, all speeding off in different directions. When they strayed from his sight he said, “Getting back to the subject. So you returned to your narrowboat and she was gone. Are you sure? She’s relatively small. Did you check to make sure she wasn’t in the bath or had fallen down the back of the sofa?” Bull looked reproachfully at his brother.

“That’s not funny Patrick,” he said, “I’m in bits here.” Patrick swirled red wine around in his mouth. He gagged. He examined the contents of the bottle in his hand and said,

“Viticulture, as we know it, has ended but what the hell is this stuff? Cough medicine?”

“What do you expect, the Greenland ice sheet melted, it screwed up the North Atlantic thermal conveyor belt and devastated the vineyards of Southern Europe. What an awful inconvenience for you. Here, try this.” Bull took a hipflask from his pocket and passed it to Patrick. Sipping the malt whisky, Patrick smiled with approval. He said,

“Tastes expensive.”

“It also comes with a guarantee you won’t go blind, unlike the moonshine from the Islands.” Patrick held the whisky up to the light and examined its clarity. He said,

“Are you sure this place has a license? I saw people smoking pot. They have hashish for sale behind the bar. It better not get raided. I can’t afford a criminal record.” More large drones passed overhead. Bull ignored them, concentrating on his cigarette disintegrating in the rain. Turning his gaze to the sky, Patrick said,

“It’s well bad up here. Lots of dibble drones. It’s the same in Manchester. They’ve been using terra-drones for crowd control. It’s a disturbing development.”

“Have they? They use drones for everything now. Surveillance, military, crowd control...”

“That’s a thought. She could have been arrested. Folk get lifted off the street or taken away in night raids by snatch squads all the time, particularly nihilist types like Saffron. Have you checked the fed’s database?”

“No, she left me a note and told me she was leaving me, and taking Boris with her.” A thin smile spread across Patrick’s lips. He said,

“Being honest about her new fella, you have to admire her.”

“Boris is a Terrapin, Maurice is her new fella.”

“You have to adapt brother, its evolution. Those who adapt survive and those who don’t perish. Change is a natural progression. We all have to make sacrifices.” Bull sobbed,

“We were meant to be together. Forever. Like Siamese twins,”

“You mean conjoined twins. You didn’t actually wish to share the same internal organs with each other. Although, if you did it would have been much harder for her to leave you.” Bull groaned as if in pain,

“Is this an attempt at humour, Patrick? It’s not working. How would you feel if you came home one day and the wife had left you?” Patrick thought of his own marriage and how the initial elation, he had felt after the wedding, didn’t last: like a passing aura displaced by a perpetual fog of disenchantment. He thought of the lonely nights he had endured sleeping in the spare room, the frosty silences between him and his wife and the feeling his children had turned against him. But what infuriated him most was the prospect of having to move out of his family home. He had already viewed a number of flats, all homogenised bachelor pads with 4D printer furniture, downloadable from Ikea. Putting a hand on his brother’s shoulder, Patrick said,

“Now then, I’m just being honest. Anyway, isn’t it you who always evangelises on the subject of humour being the finest remedy when life is a mither – well that’s what you said to Deirdre when she found out her boyfriend, Thomas, from the margarine factory in Eccles, was cheating on her. Didn’t you say, some guys just liked to spread their love more than others and you were utterly butterly devastated for her. So don’t criticise me for serving you up some of your own medicine. I’m sorry she left you brother, but a dose of realism is what you need right now.”

“I just didn’t see it coming. She had been spending quite a bit of time with this Maurice fella. He’s a French photographer. We were going through a rough patch but out of the blue, I get a letter telling me it’s over?”  Bull handed his brother the note Saffron had left him. Patrick studied both sides of the piece of paper and said,

“Cute. You don’t see many of these anymore. Did the digital revolution pass her by?”

“She knows her way around a computer for sure. Once I had a problem with some software I was running and she fixed it like it was a kid’s puzzle. She just doesn’t like digital methods of communicating. I think she might have been a hacker in her past life and maybe that’s why she doesn’t trust computer networks, mail servers or the internet. She doesn’t own a passport or use credit. She hates all electrical appliances. She doesn’t eat cooked food so she doesn’t even own a microwave or a toaster. She gets everything she needs from a network of independent cooperatives in exchange for her artwork.” Patrick wasn’t listening to Bull. He was rubbing his chin and reading the note. Finally he said,

“She likes a good metaphor doesn’t she? Suppose it makes a change from the usual drivel.”

“Meaning?” Patrick affected a whining voice,

It’s me, not you, or it’s just not working out the way I thought it would, or I’m changing into something I’ve always despised.” Patrick crouched down. He looked into Bull’s face to see any reaction but detected only grief. He continued, “Relationships end, it’s a fact of life, just enjoy them while they last. At least she was honest enough to explain her feelings to you in a letter.” Bull took a slug of tonic wine and Patrick took another sip of malt whisky from his brother’s hipflask. He cast his glance across the city and to the rows of grey high-rise flats, their rooftops lost in the low lying cloud. Each building paraded a large brightly coloured number for aerial identification. To the south of the city he could see thick black smoke rising from several locations. Police sirens wailed in the distance. Patrick said,

“Saffron was right about one thing, we are all just tiny cogs in a greater machine.” 

“Not you Faerrleah. You’re like a spanner in the works.”

Patrick sat down on the bench, closer to Bull who sat with his head in his hands, listening to the muffled sound of the rain thumping against the umbrella. Under his impromptu shelter he wrapped himself in warm memories of Saffron: a particular time they spent together on the Isle of Jura. They had taken a boat out to watch the Corryvreckan whirlpool. He recalled the image of two opposing currents colliding to create a vortex. He imagined himself being pulled under. He thought of the hydrostatic pressure within the whirlpool, exerting its force upon him. Bull’s eyelids started to flicker. His body went into a brief spasm. Equations flashed in his mind. Patrick said,

“Why don’t we go inside? It’s full of mind bending smoke fumes but at least it’s dryer than out here?”

“No I’m fine. I’ll take my chances in the rain.”

“Are you sure you are feeling fine? You don’t seem yourself.” Bull rubbed his forehead. He felt the onset of a migraine. He said,

“Thanks for rushing up here from Cheshire to be by my side.”

“I didn’t rush up here to be by your side, Faerrleah. I’ve got a meeting with PwC in Glasgow. I was busy packing when you called me last night. Why didn’t you call Deirdre? She’s usually better with these delicate matters than I am.” At last he said,

“I did but she’s doing double shifts at the hospital.”

“Treating all the injured from the riots. The trouble seems to have reached Glasgow by the look of things. There’s black smoke rising in the south of the city. It’s spreading.”

“What is?”

“The riots. Haven’t you been watching the news? The curfew is being rolled out across the country. It’s not just the shanty towns in London anymore. They say we’re at war, a cyber war. That’s why I had to drive up to Glasgow. Our system was hacked. The news said the national grid, transport and even the military networks have all come under attack.”

“Who said?”

“The woman who reads the news...”

“What would she know about it?”

“She’s not some investigative journalist who broke cover to spill the beans on a big story. She just reads what’s in front of her. There’s no point having a go at the woman.”

“Sounds like you have a crush on her.” Patrick sighed,

“What if I do? She’s very attractive.”

"She’s not real, she’s a fake.”

"Who cares, everyone’s a fake. I can’t believe I’m the first person to tell you this. It’s the Change. Have you not heard about the last set of floods in Europe? The world is turning to shit. Scientists are saying we told you so, but nobody would listen and all those freaks from the Lords of the New Church are saying it’s an apocalypse and the beginning of God’s vengeful wrath. One thing is for sure and most agree, there is no way back and the planet will be unrecognisable within our lifetime. Things are looking bleak. The word extinction is being used quite a lot.”

“Tell me about it.”

I am telling you about it. Where have you been living, in a cave? You certainly look like you have been. Just because there’s an impending apocalypse, doesn’t mean you can’t shave.”

“Well I’ve been a wee bit preoccupied. I haven’t had much time to watch the news.”

“Or eat or sleep or take a bath by the looks and smell of it.” Patrick brought up some news feeds on his shackle and tried to show them to his brother. Bull grunted and looked away. They sat in silence. Finally Patrick said, “What about Dad? Did you tell him Saffron dumped you and ran off with a good looking French bloke?”

“I never said he was good looking.”

“The French are always better looking. They are sensitive lovers and fantastic cooks.” Bull rubbed his head with his fingers and then drained the last of his beer. He said,

“I did tell Dad. He said things are tough and the world was cruel and I need to move with the times. Then he banged on about the plight of the Levellers after the English Civil War. You know what he’s like – he has a tendency to start talking about historical tragedies rather than personal tragedies to avoid engaging on an emotional level.”

“He’s right, Faerrleah. You need to stop crying into your beer and get moving on with your own life. Saffron and Boris will be moving on with their lives.” With sceptical eyes Bull said,

“You mean Maurice.”

“Sorry, Maurice. There’s no mention of him in her note. Maybe you are just focusing your resentment at him in preference to where the real problem lies.”

“And where is that?”

“You deceived her, remember?” Bull remembered his alcohol induced discussion with Patrick on his shackle. He gave Patrick an aberrant look and said,

“Can I borrow your umbrella for a moment?” With a baffled look Patrick handed over the umbrella and watched as his brother withdrew a container from his rucksack. He began spraying the fabric. Patrick protested,

“What are you doing to my brolly? These are hard to come by these days.” When he was satisfied with his work, Bull attached a magnetic clip to the metal shaft of the umbrella.

“What’s this all about?”

“Did you know Umbra is Latin for shadow and parasol derives from the French parare which means to shield?”

“Ok, Faerrleah, no more booze for you.”

“This is an electromagnetic spray so what I’m about to tell you can’t be detected by surveillance drones or satellites and this device attached to the shaft of the brolly scrambles sound waves. I’ve been lying. Lying to you, the family and Saffron.”

“I know, you told me about your lie. You told Saffron you were overseeing flood prevention projects, but in reality you were working for the fossil fuel industry.”

“I was advising them on drilling methods and procedures, but I wasn’t working for them. Quite the opposite.” Patrick’s face stood to attention. He said,

“I thought you were working for an engineering company who kept sending you to Svalbard?”

“This is the lie I’ve been trying to tell you.”

“Go on,” said Patrick, his face stiffening. Bull sat his bottle on the table and took a deep breath. Under his brother’s umbrella he felt a strange sensation, like he was inside a makeshift confessional box. He rubbed the temples of his head with his fingers and said,

“I shouldn’t be telling you this, but I need to speak to someone. I’m going to go mad by bottling all this up inside. Do you remember when I did time in prison for disclosing classified information about BAe Systems and Government defence contracts to the Press?” Patrick nodded his head and listened to his brother intently for the first time. “Well,” continued Bull, “They put me in a MoDs prison, not the state system and wouldn’t allow me access to a lawyer. They said they were going to make me disappear and it happens all the time. I didn’t budge but then they threatened the family. They showed me surveillance information they had gathered on you, the kids, Dad and Deirdre. They threatened to destroy all of our lives if I didn’t cooperate.” Patrick was aghast. He said,

“The bastards. Why didn’t you tell me earlier? I know some good lawyers.”

“These people are beyond the law, Patrick. They offered me a deal. I was to work as a filter for the Defence Intelligence Committee, part of the MoDs. They work out of GCHQ in Cheltenham. I had one job to do and at the time it seemed pretty straightforward. I had to infiltrate the environmental protest movement.” Tears welled up in Bull’s eyes, but with them came a perverse sense of relief. After years of secrecy and deception he could finally come clean. Bull continued, “They said some of the groups had links to underground anarchist organisations, which were a threat to national security.”

“They’re right. A few of those groups are pretty hardcore. Radical. The Financial sector has been hacked hundreds of times by some of these groups. They’ve stolen millions of dollars and medical records and used them to blackmail staff. They were sending you into a snake pit.”

“They didn’t specify any group or person in particular. That’s why I eventually agreed. They just said I had to go to the Protest in the Park rally in Kelvingrove Park, sign the Green Covenant and join the Green Movement. It was there I met Saffron. She was the leader of a fringe environmental group affiliated to the GM but they were relatively minor - mostly a bunch of disillusioned students and peaceful intellectuals who like to demonstrate at animal testing facilities and indulge in a bit of graffiti. I wasn’t recalled by MoDs so I just continued with life, almost forgetting what I was doing. I think I got in way over my head.” There was a moment of silence. Bull looked at Patrick’s face, eagerly awaiting his penance. Patrick said,

“I don’t know what to say Faerrleah? I don’t know what to believe with you anymore. Are you like an informant? What about the engineering company you have been working for? How do they come into it?”

“This is where it gets complicated. The Green Movement contacted me through one of Saffron’s friends and asked me to apply for a job as a hydraulic computer modeller. The company is contracted by Gazprom who are extracting methane hydrate in the Arctic. I got the job and I’ve been manipulating data and supplying them with duff information ever since. We’ve disabled many of their drilling activities in the Arctic, but it won’t be long before we’re caught out.”

“So they just accept everything at face value? They don’t validate or run sensitivity tests?”

“Fuck no, my findings are corroborated by other modellers, but they are also GM people. Even if they find a discrepancy, it delays the process and gives the ELF enough time to arrange a sabotage operation.” Patrick scratched his head.

“Are you on medication Faerrleah? Who are the ELF?”

“The Earth Liberation Front.”

“Never heard of them.”

“Nobody has heard of them because every attack they carry out on gas pipelines or shale rigs are blamed on Islamist terrorists like Al-kabab or whatever.”

“It’s Al-Shabaab. You’re not particularly good at this are you?”

“It’s close to lunchtime and I’ve sunk a few ales. Get off my case. They are the military wing of the GM but it’s always denied. Most of them are ex-military who have become disillusioned with the system. They’re not the type of people to be messed with. They are very secretive, very well funded and impossible to penetrate. A few filters tried and have never been seen again.”

“Does Saffron know what you have been up to?”

“No. I wanted to tell her but it might have put her at risk.”

“What are your real employers going to say about your extracurricular activities?” 

“There was no remit, just get involved with the GM. I had carte blanche to do as I wanted.”

“Hence the ponytail, earrings and tattoos? And I thought you were having a midlife crisis. So what’s the end game? I take it your employers don’t come round one day, rap on your door, sit you down and ask you some questions over a nice pot of tea?” Bull grimaced,

“They use a FMRI – a brain scan. One of the reasons I started drinking more. To protect her. I thought the alcohol would cloud my memory, but I’ve probably just damaged my liver. In the original briefing I was told to go deep, it didn’t matter how or what I did, only that I penetrated them.”

“I think you’ve been doing your fair share of penetrating for king and country, Faerrleah.”

“That’s a bit harsh, Patrick. I didn’t ask for this.”

“Fuck me Faerrleah! How the hell did you get yourself trapped in this sordid web? Why would you introduce her to the family if you were one of these filters? Or were you penetrating us too? Will this conversation come out in the brain scan?” Bull rubbed his temple lobes with his forefingers and said,

“I won’t allow them to scan me. I’ll go on the run first. I’ll leave the country if I have to.”

“That might be an option for you, but are you planning on taking Dad and Deirdre with you? No, I didn’t think so. Still only concerned with yourself aren’t you?”

“I’m sorry, but contact with family members was part of the procedure. In the past, when the old Metropolitan Police used to infiltrate anarchist groups, their informants all had the same profile – they were only children or orphans with no friends or family. They had no baggage, so no way of being traced, but most of them eventually got sniffed out.”

“It’s still wrong Faerrleah. You shouldn’t have got the family involved and put us at risk.”

“You were all already at risk. I’m sorry I lied to the family. I’m sorry I lied to her. I should have told her but I was afraid of losing her. It’s a big fucking mess. I wish I could explain to her.”

“To hell with her Faerrleah. It’s one thing lying to some hippy chick you just met but you’ve dragged us into your big lie and now you think she might have found out? Well boo fucking hoo. She lives in a twilight world, on the fringes of society, but we have jobs and livelihoods. They could be ruined if the secret service seeks to punish you in some way. Is sabotaging drilling activities and disclosing it to your brother in a Glasgow hookah lounge part of the contract? I hope you are right, for all our sakes.”

“The strangest thing, it started off as a lie, but I started to believe in what she believes. She’s converted me.” Patrick was startled by what he was hearing. His eyes darted around from side to side as if looking for something to settle on. He noticed the green covenanter bracelet on his brother’s wrist and said,

“Are you involved with these eco-terrorist? This ELF? Is she?” Bull’s eyes flashed. He said,

“No, she’s totally opposed to violence. I can’t for the life of me comprehend why she would be of interest to the Government. As far as I could see into her life, she’s just a hedge monkey. She was like a door - the way in to their world. I got connected with the GM through her contacts and it was they who got me the engineering job in the Arctic.”

“It’s like what Mam used to say, if you tell a lie you need to tell another to cover it up.”

“Dad used to say, why tell the truth when a lie may fit, but I think he was just winding me up.”

“So what are you going to do – resign?” Bull picked up the wine bottle and examined the label.

“It doesn’t work like that. I wish it did,” he said. Patrick looked at his watch and sighed,

“To be honest I don’t know what to say. It’s a big mess.” Bull gazed at the distorted image of his sodden boots through the green tinted glass of his bottle. Patrick said,

“Look, I need to go. I’m going to be late for my meeting. There’s an air quality alert and I haven’t bought a respirator yet. I hate the city life!”

“Here, you can borrow mine, I’m going home. I won’t need it.” Bull passed him his respirator. Patrick stared at him critically and then he took a call on his shackle. Finally he said,

“That was work. The meeting has been cancelled. Apparently the riot has spread to the city centre and they are evacuating staff.”

“You can stay at my gaff tonight if you want?” said Bull, “There’s plenty of room.” Patrick took a final sip of his whisky and said,

“I’m going to head back to Cheshire. I need to make sure the kids are sorted. Will you be alright? At least get out of the rain, you’ll get pneumonia again.”

“Oh, you know me, I’ll get by.”

“You always do Faerrleah, nothing seems to get you, not pneumonia, meningitis or even falling three storeys from a building and nearly braking every bone in your body. You always get back up, you’re a survivor. Laters brother.” Patrick punched his brother on the shoulder and left him sitting alone in the rain. By late afternoon Bull was drunk. He left the shisha bar and staggered back along the road to the narrowboat at Maryhill Locks.

13 the road to redemption

2066.  9 months earlier

The following day Bull climbed to the summit of the Necropolis and stopped at the bench where he and Saffron would sit and talk.  He lit a cigarette and stared over the city. His gaze centred to the east where military drones circled a tower block which was engulfed in flames. The flashing blue lights of emergency vehicles flickered in the urban expanse and public alert sirens sounded all around him. A distant scream sent a shiver down his spine. He wondered if it was a fox or someone in distress. He stretched out his hand and touched the rough, weathered wood of the bench. A magpie hopped out from behind a tombstone. He saluted the bird. Seeing it felt like reacquainting with an old friend. Like him, it was alone. He remembered the time when he watched Saffron holding onto the bench, facing the city, her hair blowing in the wind. He remembered thinking she was the embodiment of everything he felt was perfect in a woman. He considered her feminine compassion, her respect for life, her passion for the planet and the strength and resolve she showed against injustice. He missed her peculiar sense of humour, her silly quips and nonsensical stories. He began to feel foolish. He conjured up the pathetic image in his mind where he was Greyfriar’s Bobby, the Skye terrier who spent year after year pining for his master and guarding his grave until the end of his days.

He drew deeply on his cigarette and leaned back. He examined a wasp stripping a few layers of wood from the bench. He pondered on the point of wasps. They contributed little or nothing to the world and most thought of them as parasites. To him they were merely an annoyance. During late summer they would get drunk on fermenting fruit and subsequently launch unprovoked attacks on people, he thought. And then Bull reflected, if Saffron had been present she would have laughed at his hyperbole and point out the irony of his statement, considering the same criticisms could be laid at the feet of mankind. His thoughts were disturbed by the sound of an explosion and then gunfire. A petrol station on the Gallowgate was engulfed in flames. It was getting dark and the curfew would soon be in place. It was time to go home.

Walking down Cathedral Street he heard further explosions and gunfire from the east. He picked up the pace. When he arrived at Queen Street station he found it closed. The city streets were unsettlingly empty. George Square was littered with discarded protest signs and overturned crowd control barriers. On his walk home, Great Western Road was blocked off by a police checkpoint. A twitchy police officer holding an assault rifle asked Bull to identify himself. Bull lifted his arm and paraded his shackle. After a brief examination he was waved through. He continued his walk until he reached the St Mungo’s brew shack. He pressed the buzzer but it was closed. Across the road he noticed a soup wagon. Waiting for his order he heard a young woman’s voice from behind.

“Faerrleah, is that you Faerrleah? It’s me.” Bull’s heart stopped and his guts churned. In the gloom his eyes tried to focus on the approaching form. Aisha stepped out of the shadow and said, “It’s Aisha. Saffron’s friend? Don’t you remember me? We met in George Square before setting off for the anti-vivisection protest in Ayrshire. You spilt ketchup on my sandals.” She kissed him on the cheek. Bull said,

“I think you might have got your revenge when you repainted my narrowboat.” Aisha laughed,

“All Saffron’s idea, Faerrleah. She gets the credit. Hey, I was gutted to hear about you and Saffron breaking up. You two made a lovely couple. She wouldn’t say why things ended and I didn’t want to ask. So what are you doing with yourself?” Bull feigned a smile.

“Oh, drinking myself to death, watching Swedish movies, playing Solitaire. You know the usual stuff.”


“I thought you were in Venice?”

“Rome actually. It’s heavy. Most of the protest groups had been infiltrated by filters and the police were giving it laldy to every covenanter on the streets. I had to come home and what do I find?” Bull’s face contorted in confusion, and then he said, “More laldy?”

“You guessed it, loads more laldy. I barely got out of Rome with my life and the journey home, particularly getting through this country’s border control was an ordeal in itself.”

“Its time to leave the cities, they’re not safe.” Aisha reached up and put both hands on Bull’s shoulders. Bull took the opportunity to smell her. Her odour was different, not natural like Saffron’s. It was masked by a strong perfume or deodorant, but not something he was familiar with. Not mentioning his indiscretion, she said,

“Ye can’t run from it you big fud. The whole world has gone mad. Folk have lost their livelihoods. They’re being flooded out their homes, they’re starving and they’ve had enough. Not everyone has the luxury of just upping sticks and moving to pastures new.” Aisha smiled and then said, “You’ll be alright in your narrowboat. You don’t care if the electrics go off. You generate your own energy, collect and filter your own water. You’ll be fine.”

“I’m selling the Wagamamma mafia, Aisha. I’m moving away.” Aisha grinned and said,

“You mean the Wangari Muta Maathai. That’s a shame. Look, have you heard from Saffron since she left?” Bull shook his head. Aisha continued, “I’m worried about her. If you do hear from her, would you let me know? I’ve pinged your shackle so you have my contact details in case you need a wee chat. Maybe I’ll come round sometime and say goodbye properly, before you go? Saffron always said what a great cook you were.” Bull smiled thinly and then said,

“Cushdy.” Aisha hugged him and then left. Bull stood like an immoveable piece of urban sculpture until the sound of a police siren brought him out of his trance.

The following day Bull took a train to Manchester. He found his father in the Squealing Pig, playing a game of Muggins with three old-timers. Deirdre was living up to her reputation as a precocious harridan, scolding the men for their belligerent behaviour and general immaturity. Later she gave Bull an anecdotal account of the argument between their father and Patrick, when it was suggested he should vacate the family home. She said,

“The last flood damaged the foundations. The house is worthless. The insurance company said it was pointless carrying out any repairs. Dad won’t even have the interior redecorated. He says he likes it the way it is but I know the real reason. It reminds him of Mam.” Bull offered no verbal response. Deirdre continued, “Patrick says it’s not healthy. It’s as if he’s living in a museum dedicated to a memory.” Deirdre stopped and slapped Bull on the shoulder,

“Are you listening?” Nonchalantly, Bull turned his head and said,

“How is Patrick?” 

“He’s coping. His decree nisi came through. I can’t remember the exact date of the divorce, but he’s a bit clearer in his mind now he knows what’s going on but you know Patrick, you never know what he’s thinking.” Patrick could finally empathise with my own misery, thought Bull. At last they had something in common. Deirdre continued, “Anyway, it’s been nearly thirty years now. Dad needs to move on and it starts with the house. What do you think Faerrleah?” Bull was lost in his own thoughts.

“What did you say? He said, “I was watching the game of dominoes over there, looks like Dad’s going to punch someone.” After a sharp intake of breath Deirdre said,

“Leave it out soft lad, you were thinking about her. Saffron. I can tell. You have that doleful, pathetic look on your face again. Like a drowning kitten in a bag. There are more important things going on in life Faerrleah, but you’re too busy staring at your feet to notice. You’ve got to snap out of this melancholic hole you’ve dug yourself into or life is going to pass you by. Others need you, like Dad, Patrick and me, so give your head a wobble. She’s gone Faerrleah and all the mourning and drinking in the world won’t change a thing. It’s like when Mam died, it was hard at first we had to get on with things. I’m sorry if I sound heartless, but it’s the way I see it.”

Their father joined them at the table. He sat down, tasted his beer and pointed at Bull. He said,

“What’s up with him?”

“Since he broke up with Saffron, he’s been in a right mingin mood. Acting like a soppy martyr” Before he returned to his game of Muggins, Bull’s father took a gulp of beer from his glass and offered an anecdote concerning the plight of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and their fight for a trade union. Clutching a silver chain around his neck Bull whispered to Deirdre,

“All I have to remember Mam by is this medallion of Saint Jude. When she gave it to me, she said he was the patron saint of lost causes. I know what she means now.” Deirdre sighed and turned her head away towards her father and the old men arguing over their game of dominoes. Raised voices came from the far side of the bar. A fight was breaking out.

“At least you have a job, a roof over your head and food on your table. It’s more than some folk have. You still working in Lapland, building igloos or something?”

“Svalbard actually, but you need snow to make an igloo Deirdre.”

“I know Faerrleah. Where’s that famous sense of humour gone?”

“I’d rather not talk about work.”

“So as usual, it’s a secret.” Deirdre beat Bull to his standard response, “It’s complicated. If I told you, I would have to kill you.” Bull drew his finger across his neck. With a weak smile he said,

“I’m considering a job opportunity. A wave energy converter project in St Kilda, the Outer Hebrides and then some. I’ve said too much. I will have to kill you now.”

“I thought you always hated water?”

“I don’t know where you get that idea from.”

“I remember you screaming when Dad threw you into a rock pool. You said you had nearly drowned the last time we were at the beach. You said you had been cut off by the tide, but you were talking shite, because it was the first time the old man had ever taken us to the beach. We wondered if you had been reincarnated but decided you were just a big queer hawk, as Mam would say.” Bull raised his exasperated eyes to the ceiling.

“You don’t need to bring childhood stories up every time we meet up. It’s embarrassing. Anyway, you were too young to remember. You’re just listening to Patrick’s version of events.”

“Do you get to claim you’re saving the planet? Is this job a ruse to impress Saffron and win her back?” said Deirdre in a teasing voice.

“I wouldn’t be saving anything. It’s more to do with a career in marine technology. And I won’t be anywhere near a rock pool, so don’t fret. I just need a change of scenery.”

“There’s something you’re not telling me. Are you in trouble?”

“No, I just need to get my head together. I’ll stop off soon. I just need to pick up my birth certificate and a few documents.” Bull’s father returned to the table. In an unusually austere tone, he said,

“What documents?”

“The audiologists report on whether your cochlear implants are working effectively, but they seem to be fine, right Dad?” Bull’s father turned to Deirdre and said,

“What’s he chattering on about love?” Deirdre huffed,

“He’s talking about your hearing dad. Don’t mind him, he’s just in a foul mood.”

“Tell him to go shave and take a bath, he looks dead on his arse. What’s he doing here anyway?” Deirdre turned to her brother and said in a loud voice,

“He wants to know why you are here…” Bull finished his drink and stood up to leave. He said,

“I know what he said Deirdre. I’m not the one with the hearing aid.” Deirdre took her brother’s hand as he moved towards the brew shack’s door and said,

“Faerrleah, she isn’t worth this, no one is.”

It was getting dark as Bull left the Squealing Pig. Walking along Adelphi Street he saw several young boys, their faces partly concealed by their oilskin hoods. Some of them walked while the others rode scooters. One of the boys took out a knife and as he passed Bull, scored a deep gash along the side of a burnt out police transporter. Since the Change many symbols of authority were being targeted by a new wave of disaffected youth trapped in spiralling poverty, with few opportunities in life other than becoming wage slaves for the corporations. He didn’t condone their methods but he could understand their anger and sense of grievance. To them, the police were defenders of an inequitable system, designed to maintain the current class structure, and keeping them languishing in the most abject position in society. Accordingly, in their minds, the police were an integral part of a partisan state and viable targets. They had given up policing the inner cities, they were declared no go zones.

Bull wondered how civilisation had arrived at this impasse. As Saffron was fond of saying, capitalism could offer no solution to climate change. When the first floods came, they arrived with such ferocity and destruction even the climate scientists, who had predicted them, were taken by surprise. Tidal surges and landslides wiped out homes, sources of employment and arable land. People started to move. Across borders, sometimes across seas in whatever would float. Border security could not halt their progress. The United Kingdom shut the Channel Tunnel but still they came, crammed into boats, crossing the Straits of Dover and dodging the freight vessels in the world’s busiest shipping lane. A siege mentality gripped the nation.

General strikes were followed by long summers of social unrest. The young, the old and the sick were always first to suffer as a result of the gluttonous excesses of the wealthy and they blamed them for the complacency shown towards the planet. The first riots started in mainland Europe and Central America. The corporate controlled Media compared the disorder to the spread of a disease. Soon it was pandemic. A symptomatic reflex to the fear and panic gripping the world. A Ministry of Food was established and Governments diverted more funding to build inadequate sea defences, but it was too late. A state of emergency was declared in, not only the UK, but many countries throughout the world. Soldiers were now a common sight on city streets. Bull, like others, had ignored the Change, it was something you watched unfold on a documentary or a news bulletin. Now it was at his doorstep. The world was shrinking and it seemed so real.

Bull watched as a large gang crossed the footbridge over the river and converged with the hooded youths. Bull could see the flashing blue lights of a police drone hovering above the tower blocks towards Broughton Bridge. It appeared to be struggling to maintain its balance, and then it completely lost control. The malfunctioning drone plummeted from the sky and crashed into a row of derelict terraced houses, sending a ball of flame into the sky. The gang of hooded youths ran towards the crash site, no doubt eager to get their hands on some of the drone’s graphene components to sell for scrap, thought Bull.

Coming close to the family home, he could hear the roar of the swollen river Irwell in advance of seeing it. As long as he could remember there was always an orange tint to the water. Old mines collapsing upstream after heavy rains were to blame, polluting the river with iron oxide. Today was no exception. Bull entered the family home and spent an hour searching for his documents. Later, he walked back to Victoria train station empty handed.

14 professor burke’s story

It was early morning when Professor Burke’s TEV left the elevated automated highway and arrived in the centre of Edinburgh. He left the vehicle at the underground station car park and walked the empty streets. The city was somnolent and shrouded by a haar from the North Sea. The only sign of human activity was an Asian family fussing over a burst plastic bag of defrosting seafood. He walked towards Leith docks, indulging a lifelong habit of avoiding the pavement cracks as he went. He was hoping to find a café to pass some time before his meeting with Lúthien. In Leith Walk he came across a kiosk and spent some time flicking through a selection of global broadsheets on an old newspaper carousel. The owner of the kiosk watched him, slumped forward on his counter, his flabby breasts resting on a pile of cooking magazines, like two puffed up muffins. Finally the Professor selected several international newspapers and purchased them using the credit facility on the shackle the Elves had given him. The Professor bade the kiosk owner good morning and then shuffled towards Leith Docks. On the way a preacher approached him. He demanded in a loud voice,

“Will you accept the Lords of the New Church as your infinite authority on earth and the Bible as the infallible word of God?” The preacher followed him, brandishing his Bible like a primitive weapon. The Professor retreated down a side street and stumbling over his feet, he collided with a recycle bin. He looked up to see a neon sign. The Splurge Bucket. The preacher continued to shout at him. His voice booming in the alley, he shouted, “Turn your back on me if you like demon, but you cannot hide. The End Times are upon us my apostate familiar. You won’t find the answers to life’s problems at the bottom of a bottle. Drink is not the answer, drink is the devil’s buttermilk and you are his churner. Only the Lord has the answer. Repent before it’s too late.”

The Professor retreated into the brew shack and found a stool at the bar.  He examined his newspapers for a mention of his story. He noticed the bartender approaching from the corner of his eye. He prepared for the monotony of exchanging pleasantries and ordering a beverage. He had entered a brew shack only once in his life, back when they were licensed and called pubs and only out of a need to seek shelter from the rain. On that particular occasion he felt obliged to buy a coffee. He looked behind the bar. There didn’t appear to be a coffee machine. His olfactory senses were not overcome by the rich aromas of roasted coffee beans, but rather the malodorous stench of stale ale, sweat and desiccated urine. He was unaccustomed to drinking this early in the morning but he was convinced asking to buy anything other than an alcoholic beverage would only bring unwanted interest. He surveyed the array of bottles hoping to locate a recognisable brand. The bartender stood over him, waiting for a response to his offer of assistance. Feeling under pressure he ordered a Bombay Sapphire gin. This was his favourite spirit. He imagined a scene at home, most definitely later in the day, relaxing at his desk, listening to his Grafonola gramophone and savouring subtle mixes of juniper berries, spices and citrus fruits. The bartender laughed, presenting his set of silver studs on his tongue. With an outstretched arm he introduced his collection of cheap moonshine stacked behind the bar. “We seem to be all out of the Bombay Sapphire today sir,” he said with strong, earthy suggestions of sarcasm. The Professor apologised. He pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose and said,

“Just a whisky then please. Any brand will do.” The bartender smiled.

“There are two types of drink in here my friend. One is cheap and unregulated. The other has your fancy labels and government stamps and all the rest, but it’s expensive, although everything is expensive since the Change. Even then, there’s still no guarantee it’s authentic, if you get my drift. I can vouch for the poitín. I have my own still on the Islands.” The barman placed a coaster on the stainless steel plated bar and filled a glass with an amber liquor. The Professor considered the ambiguity of the unlabelled bottle. The initial results of his nasal assessment made his face wince. He considered the day ending in glycol induced blindness. He had heard tales of poitín, distilled in remote parts of the Outer Hebrides and sold to unscrupulous licensee owners after the Government trebled taxes on alcohol.

He raised the glass to the daylight and checked its clarity. Drinking through pursed lips, his face squirmed like a child being forced to take medicine. His cautious sipping noises started to catch the attention of other early morning drinkers. A few awkward glances were directed towards him. Finally he knocked the liquor back in one quick motion. The alcohol caught the back of his throat and he began to rasp. Curiously, he received a thumbs-up from an old man sitting at the end of the bar. He presumed he was old. His face was weathered but for all he knew, the poitín may have artificially aged him. Professor Burke punched his chest as if to act as an expectorant against his spasmodic fit and then, in an unconvincing wheezing voice, he ordered another glass. The bartender offered him a beaming smile. He said,

“That’ll wake you up in the morning eh?” He filled his glass and continued, “You’re not from round these parts. A tourist I take it? Don’t get many tourists this neck of the woods. You lost?” Professor Burke looked startled at the sudden inquisitiveness of the question. Instinctively, he remained silent but nodded his head. He began to scratch his goatee beard. He could feel beads of sweat congregate on his forehead, ready to burst and run the length of his face. The bartender continued to smile and his demeanour was progressively warming. He sensed the Professor’s uneasiness and not wanting to add to his discomfort, he elaborated, “I just mean we don’t get many customers in here as civil as you. I’m lucky if I even get a grunt for a pleasantry, never mind a tip. You’re different. Then again, most of them remember to take their hats off. You’re alright pal, I like your look. There’s not a lot of folk who feel confident enough to dress the way you do, not these days anyway, but as I said, you’re not from here.” Professor Burke blushed. He removed his hat, put it into his leather satchel and looked down at his khaki shorts, thick woollen socks and hill walking boots. He instantly regretted his choice of attire.

He picked up the Guardian and looked for his story. The newspaper was running a special edition dedicated to an inspired lecture by the Dalai Lama at the 2066 Earth 8 Summit. He addressed the leaders of the world’s largest industrialised nations on the subject of global warming. His speech condemned mankind’s materialistic obsessions and compared its relationship with Mother Earth to an unappreciative and immature grown man who still lives with his parents - someone who seldom helps with the bills, eats out of the fridge without ever replacing any of the food, throws dirty laundry wherever convenient, starts destructive fights and trashes the house with hedonistic parties. The Washington Post ran an article detailing how much carbon was used to fly the Dalai Lama to the summit.

Professor Burke downloaded some news feeds to his shackle and continued his search. With every new page his face became more etched with disappointment. Fumbling in his jacket pocket he found his handkerchief. He wiped his forehead and neck before ordering another glass of poitín. He was sure his recent actions had set the wheels in motion and the world would be waking up to the dramatic unravelling of his story. His newspaper search was turning out to be fruitless. The Professor gazed in amazement at the photographs of worldwide suffering: flooding, droughts, cyclones, world food shortages and victims of terrorist attacks. The Japan Times concentrated on the riots engulfing the country. La Repubblica concentrated on the street riots in Naples being brought to an end by flooding. The Italian Government had been unable to complete their flood defences on time and the newspaper’s editor suggested the sea had done a better job than the police water cannon.

He cleaned his spectacles with his handkerchief, downed his poitín and then noticed a television hanging behind the bar. There appeared to be a news report underway outside the Freedom Tower Conference Centre in New York. Professor Burke strained to hear the report from the news presenter over the background noise which was drowning her out. He caught the attention of the bartender who was busy explaining the concept behind one of his tattoos to a customer.

“Excuse me," he said, “Would you mind turning the volume up on the television set, please?”  The bartender, although initially irritated by the interruption, was warming to Professor Burke and his good manners. He hadn’t been spoken to so graciously for such a long time. The Professor’s courtesy had made him feel special for a brief but flirting moment.

“Sure thing ma man,” he replied, smiling coyly.  “I’ve been meaning to upgrade to one of those fancy 3D projection sets but as you can see there’s not much money being generated in a dump like this.” An old man with a Hibernian baseball cap looked up from his table and slurred,

“Less eh the insults. This place is practically my home.” The barman shouted back,

“I’ll be charging you rent soon enough you old fud.” The Professor said,

“It’s fine. I’ve never taken to holographic projection technology myself. I find the parallax disconcerting.” The bartender looked blankly into the Professor’s face and then said,

“Another shot pal?”  The voice on the television became more audible. Drinkers raised their heads. The bearded man at the end of the bar shouted out,

“Oh, hang on, I like her, she’s gorgeous!” The news presenter continued. “…who picks up the tab for global warming is the question on everyone’s lips. Well, it’s ironic I’m standing here outside this building, the Freedom Tower, a symbol of capitalism. It has been claimed by some the giant edifice was designed like a glass prism, beaming a solar glory of light towards the eastern horizon, acting as a sign of defiance to those who sought to destroy democracy. Does capitalism have an answer to this question? I have here with me a spokesman for the Green Movement, Dr Ma Xun. What are you expecting from the Earth 8 Summit, Dr Ma Xun?” The Doctor said,

“I don’t think the leaders of the free world can answer this question. This isn’t the first time they have gathered. We’ve been here before: Kyoto, Copenhagen, Paris, Lima, Berlin, and Wellington. History has taught us not to expect too much from politicians. And now we come to Manhattan. The world’s industrialised countries have been brought to the precipice of a global environmental cataclysm and forced to look down into the abyss, but the economic pecking order has altered since the western economic apocalypse, disintegration, collapse or the Change as you in the media call it. Environmentalists have long stated the writing was on the wall, even years ago when we weren’t a collective voice. Then, as I suspect today, we’ll hear more hot air, promises and lies.”

“Drama queen,” hissed the bearded man. A woman sitting at a booth by the thick frosted glass window shouted back to him,

“Why don’t you tell the poor folk in Limerick, Yorkshire, Somerset or Belfast they are drama queens? Tell that to all the poor bastards who aren’t fortunate enough to live behind a flood barrier, you daft old fud!” The old man shouted back,

“Why don’t you fondle my cute furry balls!”

“Right!” shouted the barman, holding up his hand, “Any more of your crap and you’re out the door. Clear? She’s right, you are a daft old fud.” The barman turned to the Professor and said,

“Sorry about that pal. They’re not all like him in here. Take big Janusz over there, he’s a scientist.” Janusz tuned his head on hearing his name mentioned. He said,

“Somehow I don’t think an unemployed domestic science teacher qualifies as a scientist, but thanks anyway.” The barman grimaced and said,

“Throw a dog a bone here. All I’m saying is, ah forget it, I give up.” The Professor went back to watching the television. Dr Ma Xun was answering another question. He stated,

“The world has put its faith in trying to defy nature, like constructing colossal flood defences to hide behind when it would have been better tackling the Siberian and Canadian permafrost through a reduction in carbon emissions. The permafrost melted for the first time in eleven thousand years, billions of tonnes of methane released into the earth’s atmosphere. We reached the tipping point years ago but still all we heard was more flannel and empty promises. The earth’s fate will be sealed if we don’t act. It may even be too late. I’m afraid we have been failed.”

“And what do you make of the Dalai Lama’s intervention?”

“The GM agree with his holiness. The time has come to reinvent our relationship with the planet and try to reverse the damage we had inflicted, if that’s possible. Even as I speak to you today, the impact of man’s activities on the planet in the form of deforestation, urbanisation, over fishing, industrialisation and intensive agriculture has culminated in a series of events leading to a distinct threat to mankind’s own existence. Reflecting the words of the Dalai Lama, throughout history Mother Earth has cultivated an environment for mankind to evolve and flourish, it has nurtured and fed him, but now she has taken enough of his unacceptable behaviour. The Earth Mother is about to flip mankind on his proverbial backside and unleash an almighty spanking upon her ungrateful child”. The old man with the beard shouted out,

“It’s all a conspiracy so they can buy up all the good land and sell it off for a profit.” He was interrupted by his Rastafarian friend who had joined him.

“Shite, it’s the white racist patriarchy trying to destroy Africa and rid themselves of the poor and weak. It’s like Haile Selassie talked about, the coming of Babylon.”  The bartender told them both to be quiet. The Rastafarian laughed and clicking his fingers.

“Hey, take a leaf out of this guy’s book why don’t you,” said the bartender pointing to the Professor. “He’s got manners, something you two old losers could only dream about!”

“Who is he anyway? Never seen him in here before!” shouted the Rastafarian.

Professor Burke fidgeted uncomfortably in his seat. He gulped down his drink. The programme had returned to the digitalised news presenter. The voice stated,

“Dr Ma Xun from the Green Movement was granted a special visa to enter the United States as he has been labelled a communist, pro-terrorist, anti-democratic and anti-family by the Government. Olga Petrinski was reporting for ABC outside the Freedom Tower in New York. It looks like another hurricane is on its way, so on that note here’s Natasha with our weather this side of the pond, sponsored by ExxonMobil.”

Looking down at Professor Burke, the barman said,

“Drink up man. It looks like it’s the end of the world.”

“End of the world? No, I don’t think so. The end of the human race possibly. One day anyway. The planet will carry on regardless.” The barman smiled and said,

“Ach, it might never happen.”

“It already has happened,” replied the Professor. The barman shrugged his shoulders. He wiped the cold metal surface of the bar with an old cloth on his way to where the two old men were seated. They were continuing their argument about conspiracy theories. The Rastafarian said,

“They control the people through food additives and contamination of the water supply,” said

“Just because you have a beard, doesn’t make you a philosopher.” The bartender berated the drinkers. Professor Burke gave up all hope of finding any mention of his story, or his meeting with the Elves. Surely Lúthien would have approached him by now, he thought. He gulped down the last of the poitín took out a pen and paper from his satchel and began to write. When he had finished, he took a photograph of his family out of his wallet and stared at their faces. He then put his Tilley hat back on and walked out of the bar. Dark churning skies loomed ominously above his head, but the haar had been lifted by the wind. Shuffling along the rain soaked street, he could smell the sea. He was close to the docks. He was considering the prospect of hiring a boat when a man and a woman approached. The woman took him forcibly by the arm and pushed him into the back seat of a parked vehicle.

15 bull’s nightmare

While Bull slept Andrew tried to catch a fish for dinner. Fishing kept his mind off the ravishing hunger pains. In the half-light he cast his line into the still sea and reeled the lure back. He wondered if there were any fish within the vicinity of the raft. He thought of the sharks and why they had attacked them. The floor of the raft acted like a large sump, filled with stale saltwater and blood from Malcolm’s festering wound. He wondered if this was the reason why the sharks had arrived, attracted by the scent of blood. He thought of the soiled bandages he had thrown overboard. After an hour of fruitless endeavour he gathered up his tackle and lay back against one of the undamaged pontoons. Odd, he thought, no stars shining in a rare clear obsidian sky. With the canopy lowered, he was free of the claustrophobic conditions and the smell of Malcolm’s putrefying wound. He tilted his head back and adjusted his ears to the rhythm of the palpitating sea. A stiff wind picked up. It buffeted the raft, making it spin and move at pace. For an instant it felt like they were changing their direction. Initially, he was overwhelmed by a feeling like he was on a canoe, heading down river at speed and towards the rapids. The elements were working in harmony, he thought, colluding to draw them closer to their destiny.

His eyes settled on the damaged pontoon. He considered events from earlier in the day and how he had reacted. Andrew contemplated their perilous situation but concluded at least they were still alive. He wondered why they hadn’t encountered a search and rescue drone. There had been no sightings from overhead. Surely, it hadn’t gone unnoticed one of the life-rafts from the Andrea Starlight was not accounted for. Surely, there was someone looking for them? Perhaps they were presumed dead and they went down with the ship. They had to stay alive until the picture became clearer. They had shelter, drinking water, since the morning deluge of rain, and they were now heading in a delineated direction. Continuing to drift aimlessly would have reduced any hope of finding land or a shipping lane. It was their only realistic chance of survival. He was still concerned by their lack of food and Malcolm’s deteriorating condition. The perpetual wetness was once a minor irritation but the blisters on his skin had developed into sores. But above all, the damage to the raft was his major worry. Bull’s emergency patch-up job was keeping them afloat for now, but he was fearful of falling asleep and waking up to find they were sinking.

Andrew shifted uncomfortably in his wet seat. The colour of the sky was changing. Clouds were reforming. Where was the moon, he thought. He had not expected the temperature to drop so quickly. All around him hung a gloom, empty and daunting. He was becoming increasingly distracted by the sound of Bull’s somniloquy. His nocturnal mutterings made no sense but the tone and disturbed nature of his words put a shiver down his spine. As the night drew on Bull began to scream out - a high pitched wail, followed by a bout of violent head twitching and leg thrashing. Andrew decided the time was right to rouse him from his nightmare. He knelt over Bull and slapped him on the face. Andrew said, “Wake up, you’re having a nightmare.” Bull was dazed.  He struggled to regulate his breathing and whimpered for a few moments. He gasped,

“Saffron? Where am I? I’m wet. It’s so cold.” Andrew slapped his face once more but harder this time. Enjoying the sensation, he said,

“You’re having a nightmare.” Bull’s eyelids hung like two sacks of coal and his voice slurred like a drunk. He mumbled,

“Must have had a nightmare. I dreamt I was with Saffron.”

“Was she your partner? Your wife? Your sister?”

“She was pregnant but it wasn’t my baby. It was Maurice’s child.”

“So not your sister, although if you were from certain parts of Ayrshire…” Bull ignored Andrew’s feeble joke. He spoke as if in a trance. He tried to raise his hands to his head but his arms were weak and unable to complete the move. They wilted by his side. Andrew adjusted Bull’s woollen bobble hat and attempted to feign interest. Bull said,

“I’m pathetic. I couldn’t even take care of a terrapin.” Andrew raised his hand to slap Bull’s face again, but instead he said,

“Sorry, but I’m not following any of this. Can’t it wait until the morning?” Bull’s breathing was becoming slower but heavier. Andrew poured a shot of Talisker into one of the tennis ball cups and put it under Bull’s bottom lip. He said, “This will help you sleep.” Sipping the whisky Bull said, 

“We were back on the narrowboat, but all was not right. There were other forces at work. Things you couldn’t see. Some you could.” Andrew looked around as if pleading with Malcolm for support. “Well you’re safe now, floating on a half inflated raft somewhere in the North Atlantic. Only tangible concepts such as the freezing to death, the possibility of drowning or being eaten alive by sea creatures to fuss over here.”

“I’m ok now. I just feel groggy. Thanks for asking.” Andrew looked around in confusion to see if there was someone else on the raft apart from Malcolm. Bull’s eyes turned to white once more and with a feeble hand, he grabbed hold of Andrew’s sleeve. His words were slurred. “It was mouldy and damp. The floor was wet. Smelled of rotting flesh. The boat was decomposing. Everywhere was infested with flies and larvae, sprouting out of the woodwork, in the night, when I was asleep. They swarmed over my face, suffocating me, crawling into every orifice. My body was paralysed.” Andrew lifted his eyes to the sky and yawned,

“Well these narrowboats are fashionable these days but many do carry wood boring infestations, it has to be said. There’s no chance of that happening on this raft. It’s made of plastic but it is still prone to the odd attack from a clumsy Englishman.” Andrew sat back against the pontoon and stretched his legs out. In the darkness he could barely make out Bull’s form until the moon reappeared and then he could see him, cowering in the wind and rocking in time with the raft. Andrew sat back against the pontoon. He continued listening to Bull’s account of his nightmare. Bull said,

“Saffron went into labour. I tried to call an ambulance, but the line was dead. I had to deliver the baby myself. I tried to boil water but when I turned on the taps, the water was green. I used a bowl of cheap moonshine to sterilise everything.  The towels were wet. Covered in slime. Saffron cried. An excruciating scream. She held onto my wrist and twisted the skin. I couldn’t stand the pain. I pulled back my hand and she pushed me away. She delivered the baby herself. The child lay there, silent and still. Matted in blood and mucus.”

“All babies are born into the world this way,” muttered Andrew.

“It was covered in thick black hair. It was a hideous creature.” Andrew tried to smile. He said,

“Are you sure the mother is not from Ayrshire?”

“Saffron began breast feeding it. I asked her to stop. She started mocking me, laughing at me. The creature stopped feeding and turned to face me. It pointed a twisted finger at me. It was old and wrinkled. It spoke in a language I couldn’t understand.”

“Most likely standard English.” Bull began to rock back and forth in a metronomic motion. Once more Andrew gazed to the heavens, as if seeking divine intervention. The moon slipped behind a band of cloud, plunging them into complete darkness. Andrew could only just hear Bull’s voice above the sound of the waves slapping against the raft. Bull said,

“The wind began to howl. The narrowboat started to shake. A tremor ran the length of it. The boat crumbled into the canal. I tried to piece it together but I failed. The water started to rise. It was around my waist and then my neck. I was under the water. The boat sunk further and further down into the deep. There were boxes, and furniture blocking my way out. At last I found an opening and floated to the surface. I swam around searching for Saffron, but I couldn’t find her. It was so dark. The street lights were out. And then a bolt of lightning lit up the sky and I saw her. She and hairy child were walking along the moorings. They were leaving me alone in the canal. I called out, but she didn’t look back. Someone was waiting for them under the bridge, and then they disappeared into the darkness. I floated, treading water and then, from the corner of my eye, I saw a dense blanket of mist rolling on top of the canal. As it crept closer, I could see thousands of small bodies writhing inside it. And then it engulfed me. I was blinded by the mist. It stung my eyes. Icould feel their presence around me. I could feel their cold breath on my skin. I tried to shout but tiny hands stretched out to cover my mouth.”

Andrew nodded like a psychiatrist chasing the clock down until it reached the end of the session and he would no longer have to listen to the monotone voice in the darkness. The wind chilled the nape of his neck. Bull seemed almost invisible now. He wanted him to stop talking. He wanted to erect the canopy back into position, but he felt stiff and immobile. It would have to wait until first light, he thought. Bull continued to talk, in-between taking deep breaths and sips of whisky. He continued, “I managed to peel their emaciated hands from my mouth. I wanted to swim but I couldn’t get my muscles to work, and then a red light appeared from underneath, illuminating thousands of naked bodies. They swam around me, and below, in the deep, as far as my eyes could see. They carried me under the surface, wailing and crying out, saying they were the drowned children of the world. They were the victims of the floods, the abandoned, and the washed away. They pulled at my limbs, tore my clothes, ripped into my skin with their fingernails. They drew blood. It seemed to excite them. I was paralysed and helpless. They dragged me further down. One grabbed my head, turning my face towards hers, forcing me to look into her dead black eyes. There, I saw an image of children struggling in a quagmire of mud, made to work while fat pigs in suits watched them from the safety of a hill. Then a loud muffled bellow sounded way down deep in the bowels of the earth. The children stopped. Some began to howl. Some became excited. The waters began to bubble. A voice whispered in my mind, telling me their lot was one of everlasting agony and they said I was to meet him.”

In the darkness, Andrew could only make out the whites of Bull’s eyes.

“Him?” said Andrew, trying to swallow a lump in his throat. Bull’s speech was now ponderous and taking on a malevolent tone. He mumbled,

“The Walker has crossed the ninth wave. He’s coming for a mortal. You can’t escape him. Once he’s left the Otherworld and crossed the ninth wave, he will find you. There is no flight. The Walker is abroad. The Walker is abroad.” Andrew shivered. He pulled the collar of his shirt up to cover his neck and said,

“The Otherworld? The Ninth Wave? How do you know about that?” Andrew drew his head closer as if trying to collect the last few garbled words from a dying man, but Bull had fallen back to sleep. Andrew normally dismissed ancient myths as superstition and the antithesis of the Presbyterian upbringing bestowed upon him. He had always believed in spiritual salvation in the afterlife, but he could not resolve the beguiling concept of his soul existing in a celestial eternity, with the philosophy of the paranormal. He had been brought up by his father to dismiss such mystical notions as superstitious nonsense, and challenge his grandmother’s fables, but there always remained a residual doubt.

Andrew sat in silence, wondering if it was by chance or design Bull also knew of this legend. He was overcome with an unearthly, disturbing feeling. He became infected with a sensation of someone or something staring at him from out in the sea, and now from inside the raft. Once more he wished he had put the canopy up before the darkness settled. He became aware of the sound and sensation of his heart pounding in his chest. His lips were dry and blistered from the constant exposure to the salt laden ocean winds, and his ears were attentive to every sound around him. Andrew had not touched alcohol for over a year but he could stand the withering thirst no longer. He had left the whisky by Bull’s side. In the pitch darkness he stretched out a groping hand to clutch the bottle but as he did he felt the soft wet fur of Bull’s discarded coat. Impulsively he jumped back in alarm. He fought off the emerging voices from his head. His hands crept out once more. He located the bottle and snatched it to his chest. He took tiny sips, stopping only to peer towards the sea. A voice came forth from the dark.

“You shouldn’t be scared.” Fear now gripped Andrew like a sharp winter frost, chilling him to the bone. This wasn’t Bull’s voice. Towards the aperture appeared the figure of a man resting against the damaged pontoon.

“Who or what type of demon are you,” stammered Andrew.

“What a strange question to ask,” replied the figure. “Do you like asking questions? I do. I have a few questions for you.”

“What questions?”

“Like where is this place?”

“I don’t know what you mean. It’s a raft. We’re floating on the sea.”

“Is it the painted sea?”

“What?” A prolonged moment of silence came and went. Andrew pressed his back as far into the pontoon as the pressure would allow. Finally he said, “Look, go away.” Andrew heard a baleful laugh and then the figure said,

“Look you say? I would look but, I – cannot - see. I was asleep and now I – cannot – see! Who are you voice in the dark?”

For a fleeting moment the darkness seemed to lift. The clouds had parted once more and there was the comforting sight of a full moon. Andrew took his opportunity to locate the flares. His hand grasped one. It was still wet, but immediately he pulled the ripcord and fired it off into the night sky. He turned to view the exposed figure, but the illumination filled him with new dread. The figure had vanished but his eyes became transfixed towards the black ocean. More bleak thoughts circled in his mind. No previous experience had prepared him for the sight which unfolded in front of his eyes. Dark shapes surrounded the raft – tall and hooded, moving in the darkness amongst the waves. He was overcome with a feeling of spiralling dismay and foreboding. They drifted silently. He shut his eyes, hoping when they opened again, the malignant inventions would have vanished, like the figure in the darkness. The waxing moon illuminated obelisk shaped objects out in the sea, emerging on the surface of the water, circling the raft and then disappearing again. The wind whistled as it passed overhead, creating vortexes of air and turning the vessel like a carousel at a funfair. With every ellipse of the raft, the objects appeared nearer. His hands trembled with fear.

Black, hooded forms surrounded the raft. Strangest of all, amongst the host was a white shrouded figure, its black companions appearing to rally around, as if protecting it.  “Their leader,” thought Andrew. He felt like his eyes were conspiring with his imagination to deceive and to torture his nervous system. The clouds returned and the shapes began to fade, but to his horror, a large splash sounded close to the raft. Andrew stiffened. He wondered if Bull or Malcolm had fallen overboard, worse still, taken by one of the hooded forms. He could see little in the darkness. He was awash with negative emotions. The sea was his prison and nature his jailer, unwilling to let him go and each new day, it devised fresh ways to torture him and to make him lose his mind.

A growling noise sounded nearby. Andrew was rigid with fear. His eyes remained focused on the spot where Bull lay sleeping, but he couldn’t be sure of anything. He imagined a creature, breathing heavily and curled up only inches from his feet. Convincing himself he could detect a pungent, animal odour, like wet fur, he reeled in his legs and tucked his knees under his chin. For an instant, he drew his eyes to the surface of the pulsating black mass, of which, by day, he recognised as the sea. Nothing appeared as it should be anymore, thought Andrew. The overwhelming feeling of several thousand metres of sea water beneath their flimsy vessel, expedited his dread. Until now, he hadn’t contemplated the cold depth and darkness of the ocean. He thought of all the strange contorted creatures existing at pressures unbearable to humans. He thought of the water in the oceanic trenches, unaffected by the motion of the waves above, and remaining stagnant for thousands of years like a maritime soup.

The initial elation of avoiding death when he survived the sinking of the ship, and the shark attack the previous night, was a distant memory. A gastric rock of fear continued to rise up inside his gut. Andrew’s brain battled to make sense of the situation and stay in control against an incoming tide of despair. He entertained an erroneous image of him being swarmed by the figments of his own hallucinations, unable to stave off the frenzied attack and being dragged down to the extremity of the deep green sea. He yearned for any object with no association with the sea. He thought of trees and mountains but in his mind the trees turned to flotsam and the mountains into foam crested waves. The imminence of insanity was falling upon him. He visualised happier times, moments of joy shared in the first few months after meeting Ashley. A serene moment, holding her hand as they attended a Jan Fabre exhibition at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery called the Blue Hour. The relief was brief. He recalled the inspiration behind the art forms – the blue hour was a moment of residual light, circling around the time which exists somewhere between light and dark - what artists call the sweet light as it spilled across the earth, and what the Celts believed was the opening of a gate to the Otherworld. Was the visitation from a supernatural realm, he thought. He wanted to raise the bottle of Talisker to his lips and drink, but his muscles were debilitated and his joints felt arthritic. He could do no more than sit upright, keep his eyes unfastened and stare.

He recalled more stories from his Grandmother. She had spoken of the ninth wave, a mystical barrier which divides the lands of the mortals from the land of the dead, of how it lay somewhere between the ocean and the Isles of Paradise, where suffering and contempt are absent and how these were lands inhabited by immortal beings. Between dusk and dawn an immortal would come forth and return with a soul. Had Bull experienced a premonition? Was “The Walker” his visitation? Had he come for him? Was this the end and now was the time for his redemption? Were they already dead and this was some form of Purgatory? Andrew wrestled with his galloping psychosis. He even wondered if he had already crossed over the ninth wave into the Otherworld. Ashley’s voice raced through his brain like a herd of wild horses to save him from the brink. Oh don’t be so ridiculous, would you listen to yourself man. Have you gone quite mad? There is no such thing as an Otherworld or spirits crossing from other dimensions. Andrew’s Mother now joined in the discussion. Poppycock, balderdash and country bumpkin talk! Only a fool would listen to your grandmother’s fairy tales. For once I have to agree with the skinny chain smoking bitch. You are barking mad my boy if you believe in such nonsense...

Engaged in an harmonious dance, with the white shrouded figure always in the middle, the shrouded figures continued to congregate around the raft. He imagined the safety of home in a fruitless attempt to counteract his conscious nightmare. If only he could get one last chance to make his life good, he thought. He would beg Ashley’s forgiveness for acting like a maniac, he would kiss his children’s foreheads one last time, smell their sweet skin and cradle them in his arms. If only God would take pity on him, show him divine mercy by allowing him one last chance to resolve the issues in his life.

All night he stayed awake, watching his breath condense before him and staring back and forth from the sea to the far side of the raft where he wanted to believe Bull lay sleeping. He waited for his assailants to end their tormenting game and finally attack en masse, but curiously they kept their distance. He passed the hours praying for the sun to rise, to see the diurnal illumination of daybreak and to stare into a liminal world. The gates to the Otherworld would close and his life would be spared.

Andrew cursed Bull and castigated himself for waking him from his nightmare. He denigrated his grandmother’s superstitions, and then he began to feel sick. His mind was beginning to ferment in new depths of paranoia, twisting interminably with fresh inventions to explain away the images in front of him. He cursed the manufacturers of the raft for not properly securing the emergency pack, for not making the pontoons resistant to being punctured by a sharp multi-tool and for not making the satellite responder more robust. He cursed them for not providing rations, for surely the lack of food was driving this hallucination. He wondered if he could send a letter of complaint to them from the Otherworld.

Later, he became conscious of the changing colour of the sky, now holding some of the diffracted light from the other side of the planet. The blackness dissolved and faded to a grey, and the sun poured its red light onto the seascape. He watched as the warm glow cast off the darkness and spread out on the emerging horizon. He concentrated his listless eyes on the shapes, refusing to disappear back to their Otherworld. The light increased by the second and Andrew found his mystical apparitions unveiled as a pod of killer whales. He sighed, “Oh thank God, thank you God.” The reprieve was short lived. Andrew now faced a more rational, earthly fear as he contemplated the prospect of the whales ramming against the raft. He looked towards where Bull lay, curled up sleeping in his white, faux fur coat and foil blanket, still snoring like a hibernating bear. He was, for the first time, glad to see his face. Malcolm still lay motionless like a crash-test dummy, but at least he was still alive. The pod of whales continued to swim only metres from the raft. It was obvious to Andrew the shrouded figures had been the shapes of their large dorsal fins rising in and out of the water. In the middle of the pod there was one white fin. Andrew stared in disbelief. His mouth was cast wide open, aghast at the sight of an abomination of nature, he thought. He wondered if his eyes were still playing tricks on him, but as Bull awoke and joined him on his side of the raft, he too could see the white orca.  “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost mate,” said Bull.

“It feels like I have. It’s a pod of whales. They’ve been following us all night. Do you see the one in the middle of them? The white one. I’ve been staring at it all night.”

“Is that your ghost? A ghost orca? An interesting thought. Perhaps the other whales don’t even realise that it travels with them? Perhaps the ghost whale doesn’t even know it is dead, itself.”

“It’s been a long night. I’m in no mood for your banter.”

“You would insist in leaving the canopy down and staring at the sea. Seriously, that will be that albino killer whale that’s been in the news lately. It’s been spotted a few times but some marine scientists say it’s not possible, but it clearly is. Shows you what they know.” Andrew’s nerves were still raw and on edge. He said,

“Don’t killer whales ram small boats thinking they are seals?” Bull put a comforting hand on Andrew’s shoulder and said,

“They would have probably attacked us by now if they had wanted to. There are two types of killer whale - one hunts fish and the other sea mammals. I think these are fish eaters so I think we’ll be alright. Maybe the raft has attracted some fish and that’s why they are following us?”

“There was something else, when you were asleep, there was…”


“It was nothing. I need to sleep. Can you take the look out?” 

Bull erected the canopy. He crept towards the aperture to take up his position as look out for the morning. The pulse of the sea was beating faster and harder. Waves pounded the raft. He gazed out, watching as the light of the morning drained from the sky. On the horizon there lay a black wall of cloud. He spent the day counting the elapsing seconds between the forks of lightning cascading down the skyline and the rolling claps of thunder. A storm was approaching.

16 change

2066. Six months earlier

Bull’s father held the view that most of the obstacles his son traversed in life were self-inflicted, and in one way or another he would resolve them in his own time, and hopefully learning from the experience in due process. He was of the belief that a solution to a problem should only be derived from personal knowledge, and as he had only a modest association with his son’s particular difficulties, it was better to change the subject. Moreover, the notion of people talking openly about their personal issues was something he found difficult to comprehend.

 Bull had returned to Manchester on hearing the family home had been flooded. A storm surge had breached the river Mersey flood barrier, sending a tidal bore inland, and coupled with the 390 mm of heavy rain which fell in one day, the river Irwell flood defences were overwhelmed. Salford was underwater. Bull’s father was recovering at the National Football museum in Cathedral Gardens, Manchester, which had been turned into a rescue centre. He sat at a table, wrapped in a foil blanket and playing a game of Mugginswith another old man. Bull’s father looked at his son’s face. He coughed and said,

“You’ve got a face like a bulldog chewin a wasp. What’s up with you?” Bull talked about Saffron and how his life was going through a period of turmoil and change, Bull’s father listened, sipping his tea. Finally he said, “Change is good in some instances, but some folk don’t like the idea of change. Take the Luddites for example, they smashed all the textile looms right here in Lancashire during the Industrial Revolution. Some thought they were just opposed to progress but they claimed they were only protecting their livelihoods. It’s all about adjusting to a new set of circumstances lad.” He returned to the game of Muggins he was playing with his friend.

 Bull made circular motions with his forefinger towards his temple lobe. He said,

“Dad seems to be taking it well.” Deirdre whispered back,

“He doesn’t know how bad the flood damage was and that the house is going to be demolished, so don’t mention anything to him, not yet anyway. I don’t think he could cope. Most of his belongings and his wooden box, where he kept all Mam’s personal stuff, floated out the door.”

“It’s about time he moved on. Keeping a box of her junk wasn’t healthy.”

“You have a nerve telling anyone to move on. Dad’s box of junk was his connection to Mam.”

“I know the feeling. Saffron left a lot of her junk on the narrowboat.”

“Don’t be going comparing Mam and Dad’s decades of marriage with some hippy bint you shacked up with for a season or two.” A look of hurt glinted in Bull’s eye. He said,

“Talking of chieftains of the understatement, where is Patrick?” Deirdre sighed and then said,

“He’s back at the house trying to see what he can salvage. He was hoping you would help him when you arrived, but he couldn’t wait any longer for you. What was up with the trains this time? Software failure? Flooding? Vandalism? A dog shat on the line?”

“Industrial action.”

“I thought striking was illegal during a state of emergency?”

“The unions have a different opinion.”

Bull’s father stood up and greeted a man who had just limped into the rescue centre on a set of crutches. Together they shuffled towards the canteen. Bull moved to assist his father in carrying the two cups of hot tea but was told firmly to mind his own business. Deirdre said,

“They had been down the Pig all day, thinking the flood defences wouldn’t be breached. The emergency services had to forcibly remove him and his mates. He refused to get on the rescue boat because he was winning a game of Muggins. That’s when it all kicked off.”

“Another fight? With the old fella he’s talking to?” Deirdre nodded and said,

“Dad’s developed this horrible cough ever since he was rescued. I’m not sure if it psychosomatic but I’m going to get it checked out, once the trouble dies down.” Bull’s father helped the man with the crutches back towards his table and together they sat down and started a new game of Muggins. With tears welling up in her eyes, Deirdre turned to Bull and said,

“Anyway, he won’t be here for long. Patrick is sorting out a bungalow for him in Croker Hill.”

“And he agreed? I didn’t think he would ever leave Salford?”

“There’s nowt much left of Salford that isn’t under ten feet of water, Faerrleah. Have you been to see the damage? It’s like the four horsemen of the apocalypse rode into town and had a major strop. The whole of the Mersey Basin, including the Irwell Valley was flooded. We got six months of rain in one day. They’ve been picking bodies out the river all night. It’s much worse on the east coast. It wasn’t just all the rain, there was a big tidal surge. Did you not see it on the news? All the inmates at Strangeways thought they were getting left to drown so they all went mental. There’s been riots all over the city. A terra-drone opened fire on a group of protestors in St Peter’s Square and I’m not talking about sonic blasters or Taser cartridges either. The feds claim it had been hacked by insurgents and it malfunctioned but they’re not convincing anyone. The whole country is in uproar. There’s talk of an armed revolution. It’s not just the shanty towns anymore. Where have you been recently, living in a cave?”

“I’ve been busy.” Bull’s father looked up and said,

“Riots? It’s not the first time there’s been riots there. Parliament sent the army in to attack the crowd at St Peter’s Field in 1819, just after the end of the Napoleonic wars. They called it the Peterloo massacre. Those Dragoons didn’t care for whoever got in their way. Women, children and all were cut down. The people were starving and protesting about the Corn Laws. They were ruthless back in them days, ruthless.”

Later, Patrick joined them at the table. He shook his head remorsefully, sighed and said,

“The house is gone. I’m sorry Dad, there was nothing much to salvage. You’re coming to stay with me until we get a new place sorted. The car’s waiting outside. We need to be leaving now to avoid the chaos. There’s an Atlantic storm on its way and the floods will be even worse this time.”  Bull’s father sunk his head into his hands and when he showed his face again his eyes were red and glazed. He coughed and said,

“Well not until I finish this game.” Bull patted his back gently and said,

“You need to go now you daft old bugger.” Bull’s father turned and looked him in the eyes. He emitted a rasping cough and clutched his chest. His breathing sounded shallow as he said,

“I was always waiting for the right time but now is probably as good a time to tell you. You were adopted. I hope knowing brings some clarity to your life son.” Bull’s eyes widened and his jaw dropped.  As Bull’s father stood up to leave he noticed one of his friends making an unscheduled move in their game of Muggins. He grabbed his companion by the throat and the domino pieces spilled across the table and onto the floor. The old man with the crutches was trying to join in the affray but only succeeded in falling over and taking the table with him. The pile of pensioners grappled and thumped their way across the floor until Bull, Patrick and Deirdre intervened and separated them. Bull’s father protested, “Cheating bastards. The whole lot of them!”

Bull’s father was dragged outside and bundled into the back of Patrick’s car. Before they drove off Bull offered his brother an apology for burdening him with his problems, involving his family in his complex life, and not being there for him during the ending of his own marriage. They said goodbye in their customary fashion of a playful punch to the shoulder.

“Look after yourself brother in the Outer Hebrides. I’ve got a feeling we won’t be seeing each other for a while.” Deidre linked her arm around Bull’s arm and together they watched Patrick’s car speed off to the end of the street. They walked towards Victoria train station, taking a detour when they came across lines of police battling with protesters.

“You’re quiet,” said Deirdre.

“It’s just something Dad mentioned. Silly old bugger. He said I was adopted.”

“Adopted? His head’s always been a bit ragged but he’s making even less sense recently. Never mind him, what’s this life changing experience you were buzzing about when you called?” Bull’s expression changed. He felt a rare wave of optimism wash over him. He said,

“I feel silly talking about it now but I now know why I reacted so badly to the break up with Saffron. It’s much like the predicament with Patrick’s divorce. Different people react differently to different situations, and all in their own different way.”

“Flipping’ heck, now you’re the Salford Confucius?” Bull laughed.

“Hardly, what kind of world would it be without diversification. Look at our family - you’re the voice of reason, Patrick represents stability, and I’m turmoil.”

“What about Dad, what does he represent?”

“After the barney back at the rescue centre - anarchy by the looks of it.”

“Maybe I only appear reasonable when sat beside you, and that’s an unfair comparison considering you’re such an impulsive big sod. I have my moments. My head gets cabbaged from time to time. I just don’t go around bleating on about it like you do.”

“You mean talking about stuff rather than manning up and taking it on the chin like Patrick does?”

“You don’t know for sure how Patrick is dealing with all this, Faerrleah. It’s often the silent types who end up taking their own lives. You have an outlet for your feelings. It’s the healthy thing to do, but there are others who find it near impossible to open up. They keep problems concealed until it festers away and one day, they can’t contain the pressure anymore and it explodes.”

“I suppose you’re right sis. I think you’re most definitely the Salford Confucius, not me.”

“Anyway, what do you mean by reliable? You mean stuffy and boring don’t you?” Deirdre clouted Bull across the back and then asked, “So what happened in Glasgow? Tell me about this revelation.” Bull became excited. He put his arm around his sister’s shoulder and pulled her in tight. He said,

“I met up with an old university friend called Brian and we went out to an old brew shack called the Scotia bar. The place has remained unchanged while the city redeveloped around it. There’s like this atmosphere like the pubs of old. A bit like the Squealing Pig before it got washed away.”

“I still can’t believe the Pig has gone,” moaned Deirdre. Bull’s mind was still in Glasgow. Like a story teller Bull described a scene of log fires and steamed up windows, of drinkers high on poitín arguing in an animated state one minute and then hugging each other the next. He made a point of describing an old man and woman dancing a jig while a Celtic folk band played on an impromptu stage, and where young couples fornicated in the dark alcoves. Deirdre sighed,

“Is there a point to this story Faerrleah, I’m growing face wrinkles here.” Bull went on.

“So we approached the bar as if we were regular drinkers. I ordered some drink then asked the bar person, if the place had any darts for the dartboard. I was greeted with a huge puckered mug, snarling teeth and the growling reply, look you big fud, your here to drink, not to play games. A large hairy hand came slapping down on the wooden bar, shaking the glasses. Bull was inwardly impressed with his Glaswegian accent despite his sister’s unsubtle and disapproving shake of the head.” What’s a fud?” said Deirdre. Bull deliberately ignored her question. He continued his tale.

“I stood there startled at first, staring into her face with amazement. She had hit the nail on the head. It has all been a game. Everything up until now has just been one big silly game!”

“She?” Bull nodded his head. He was smiling. His face was lit up like a Halloween pumpkin. Bull went on, describing the moment when his mind began to fill with revelations like a nebulous gloom being dispersed by the appearance of an illuminating star. He concluded his happiness was to be found in the act of being honest with himself and with others. Bull was now only concerned with the present moment in time. What happened in the past could not be changed but he could influence the future. He was ready to let go of the past and moreover, he didn’t feel mourning his loss was a waste of time. This was a transitional period which many go through when a relationship ends. He had devoted enough time to analysing the past, mulling over why Saffron had left him for someone else, even though, deep down, he suspected it was for other reasons. It was time to move on, look to the future and stop chasing shadows. He said,

“It was like a wall of confusion or some mental impasse, but it crumbled - presenting a way forward. I had a direction. I began to experience a strange excitement in a way I had seldom felt before. I was now aware of time running away from me and change had to be embraced before time ran away from me and I got stuck in a maze.” A broad grin began to spread across his features, flexing facial muscles not used in a long time.

“So you got all that from a Glaswegian barmaid?”

“Messages can come in the strangest of ways. It wasn’t as if she was the Glasgow Confucius, she just said something and it triggered a reaction within me. It was like someone opened a door inside my head. The next day I got word about the wave energy job in St Kilda. I need to sell the narrowboat. And I won’t be able to pop back home to see the family as often. It will be tough, but I’ll achieve nothing just crying into my beer.”

“Patrick did mention that even your tears had a wee frothy head on them.”

Deirdre was thankful her brother had come out the other side of the tunnel and was rejuvenated by his life changing plan. How he arrived there still seemed to trouble her. She suspected he was suffering from some temporary mental reaction to grief, not just the loss of Saffron but also the lingering childhood pain left behind after their mother died. Deirdre had a muddled recollection of how poorly he had coped as a child with the transformation of his life when she had passed away. Her predominant memory was of Bull taking to wearing his Batman costume and refusing to take it off, even for the funeral. She later came to understand he had felt protected from the hurt by pretending to be someone else and by hiding behind his black masquerade and his fake padded muscles. He could believe he was a superhero, taking all the pain the world could throw at him.

She remembered sitting beside him on the church pew, Patrick felt both sorrow and embarrassment when the priest addressed the family individually, in front of the congregation of mourners, and feeling relieved he hadn’t mentioned Bull’s costume. He ignored it as if it was somehow normal to dress as Batman to your mother’s funeral. Bull refused to take his outfit off. He would even wear it to school under his uniform and wear the mask at break. One day Bull was set about by the school’s self styled bully, Robert Clark and his sidekicks. When Patrick arrived on the scene, Bull was in floods of tears. His mask had been unceremoniously ripped from his face and was lying on the ground in tatters. With one well directed punch, Clark was dispatched to the floor where he stayed until Patrick was dragged off him by a teacher. The following day Bull’s bruises had gone and he left his Batman costume at home. 

Outside Victoria train station they watched a news bulletin. Gazing at the avatar, Bull said,

“It’s as if she’s fighting back the urge to break into a grin, despite how distressing the news is.”

“She can’t help it. She’s just a computer animation.”

“Well, whoever programmes her, they should make more of an effort and start by wiping that insincere smirk off her face.” Scenes of the storms and floods sweeping across the country were shown, followed by a smiling family drinking a branded fizzy drink at a rain drenched Euro Disneyland in Paris. When they approached the armed guards at the entrance to the railway station, Deirdre said her goodbyes.

“Send me a postcard, you daft bastard,” she shouted, managing to laugh while fighting back the tears forming behind her eyes. Bull sat on the train, staring out of the carriage window at the 3D projection advertising display. Developers were selling houses, with weather proofing facilities such as storm moats, in the Cambrian Mountains of Wales.

17 operation savage elf

Professor Burke sat on a plastic chair. He had been staring at his shoes for at least an hour. His hush puppies were by far the most interesting feature in his line of sight. The room was dimly lit and undecorated. After leaving the Splurge Bucket, he had been taken to an abandoned biomass power station on Leith Docks. His introduction to the Elves was not as cordial as he was expecting. He had been escorted off the street, put into the back of a vehicle and strip searched. His body was scanned from head to foot for hidden transmitters and listening devices. Such an undignified experience, he thought, and they hadn’t even offered me a cup of tea.

He heard the metallic sound of a key in a lock. A bright light illuminated the figure of a woman standing in the doorway. He heard a female voice with a hint of a North American accent.

“I would like to apologise for the treatment we have subjected you to, but we had to be sure you weren’t spying for the Government. I hope you understand Professor Burke, but there is much at stake. I am Itaridlë, the leader of the ELF.” She handed him his spectacles. The Professor clipped the legs of his glasses around his ears, pushed the bridge up the length of his nose and said,

“Where am I?” Itaridlë approached him holding a paper cup of hot tea and said,

“This is our headquarters.” She passed him back his leather satchel.

She had an athletic build, shoulder length brown hair, oval eyes and a perfectly symmetrical face. For an instant, he imagined her appearance would befit his daughter. She was dressed in combat trousers, boots and a black tight fitting vest which revealed both her muscular shoulders and salient breasts. She continued, “I think we should eat and then you can tell me all about this Silent Wave. You might be interested to know the project has been delayed.”

“Thank God. We still have time,” said the Professor before dropping his head.

He was led off to a canteen and offered a choice of foiled bags. He examined the labels. He chose one and looked questionably at Itaridlë. She took it off him, twisted the lid, and laid it on a deep tray. The silver container rumbled as if coming to life, then after a few more seconds, steam came from hundreds of perforated holes. They walked to a set of tables and chairs and sat down. The Professor opened the bag and indulged himself on the contents. It had been a while since he had eaten a warm meal. After another cup of hot tea, Itaridlë took him back to the room. A camera was set up in front of the plastic chair.  Professor Burke was asked to sit and begin his tale.

“You don’t mind if Inwë records you?” said Itaridlë. The Professor was in better spirits. He said,

“No, not at all. It will be a relief to get this off my chest.”

“When you are ready Professor. First of all state your name and who you worked for.”

“My name is Earl Burke, Professor Emeritus and ex-chief scientist at the National Oceanography Centre.  During the last six years I have been employed by the MoDs to lead a project called Silent Wave. The project was originally designed to counteract tidal surges and tsunamis caused by ice shelf slips and marine hydraulic fracturing activities. After several years of research a Government agency, which I later found out to be connected with the MoDs, took over jurisdiction of Silent Wave. I would like to state, for the record, at that stage I still had no reason to believe they were planning to use my research as a weapon of mass destruction.”

Professor Burke withdrew a small box from his briefcase. He held his finger against a pad until he heard a beeping noise. A pressure valve on the box hissed before opening. He withdrew a microchip and handed it to Itaridlë. He cleared his throat and continued, “I received a recording of a wire tap from an old friend of mine who must remain nameless. The recording is a conversation between John G Cluny and Raymond McIntyre, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Defence and Surveillance.” Itaridlë nodded to the corner of the room. Lúthien came forward and took the microchip from the Professor and slotted it into the side of his notepad. The file opened and two men’s voices became audible.

McIntyre: “I’ll get straight to the point Cluny. The Minister wants an update on Silent Wave.”

John G Cluny: “Would it be the Minister or would it be you who needs an update.”

McIntyre: “I am the eyes and ears of the Minister, unless you want him to call you personally.”

John G Cluny: “Don’t get your pantaloons in a twist.”

McIntyre: “I don’t wear pantaloons Cluny, you must have me mixed up with one of your old Gordonstoun school chums. The Minister is worried this operation of yours is over budget, getting complicated and you may also have a leak.”

John G Cluny: “I would dispute that McIntyre. I hand picked the team myself. I’ve already made it clear, most activities will be conducted underwater, therefore foreign satellites will be limited to observing surface activity only. We will put this down to hydrocarbon exploration activities. The leader of the project team, Professor Burke, has identified a test site west of St Kilda which geologically ticks all the right boxes. There’s a history of shale gas drilling operations in the general area so we have good cover. Let’s say, the islands are not unfamiliar with seismic activity.

McIntyre:  “We need to know about your evacuation strategy for St Kilda.”

John G Cluny: “I thought the islands were evacuated in the 1930’s?”

McIntyre: “It was but shale extraction brought people back to the island. It’s been repopulated.”

John G Cluny: “I forgot, aren’t you from that neck of the woods.”

McIntyre: “Not even close Cluny but I get the impression you’re fucking with me so lets be clear, there are ancillary workers, engineers involved in artificial biome construction, climate control project scientists and a small number of civilians. They all need to be evacuated.”

John G Cluny: “I just remembered what association you have with the Outer Hebrides. Don’t you have a brother who works for the Coast Guard stationed in St Kilda? I’m sure he will be fine. Is that what’s bothering you McIntyre? Are you concerned for your sibling?”

McIntyre: It’s not an issue for me Cluny and certainly not for you. I just smooth things out for the Minister and make sure people like you don’t screw things up and get egg on his face.”

John G Cluny: “I’m just messing with you McIntyre. We plan two test waves, baby waves if you like, which will hit the uninhabited west coast of the island. Depending on the validation results of our model we plan to unleash the mother wave soon after. The island will be evacuated, so no need to worry about little brother. However, there’s always a bit of collateral damage.”

McIntyre: “No collateral Cluny. The Minister wants it clean, do you understand?”

John G Cluny: “Without collateral, how can we assess the wave’s effectiveness?”

McIntyre: “That’s your problem. Find a way. I’ll brief the Minister but I must say Cluny, he is a wee bit concerned with the work you’re doing over there.”

John G Cluny: (laughter)

McIntyre: “I’m glad this amuses you. By the way, does Professor Burke suspect anything? You can’t afford any slip ups.”

John G Cluny: “Not a thing. You know scientists, always with their heads in a microscope, analysing the small things when the bigger picture is unravelling behind them (snorting).”

McIntyre: “You will wait for the orders to be released. The new attack submarine is ready to take up its position at the test site, tactical airlift squadrons are on standby and the first shot will take place at 19:00hrs on the 3rd of September, the second shot the following day at 06:00. Weather permitting.” The recording ended. Inwë stepped forward and whispered in Itaridlë’s ear,

“There’s no way the conversation is a wire tap.  I’m pretty sure it’s an inside job.” Itaridlë gazed at the floor then raised her head to look at Inwë.

“Can you analyse the original recording and let me know.” She handed Inwë the microchip and he left the room. Itaridlë paced about the room, her boots scraping against the concrete floor and then she stopped and said to Professor Burke.

“You need to find out from your mole, the identity of the person who handed him the recording. That’s our way in.”

“He wouldn’t say who gave him the recording and I couldn’t contact him now. I would be fearful of exposing him. I would imagine they will have him under surveillance, as they did with me, and as soon as I get in touch, he will be arrested.”

“Yes, that would be unfortunate, but we all have sacrifices to make Professor. His name would be beneficial to our objectives.”

“I’m sorry Itaridlë. All I have to give you is the recording at this point in time. I must insist on my friend’s anonymity.” Lúthien smiled and then said,

“We do have scanners that could extract the information with or without your permission, Professor Burke.” Itaridlë grabbed Lúthien’s arm and said,

“That won’t be necessary. I think the Professor has been more than helpful to our cause.” Itaridlë stood with her hands on her hips and examined the box in her hands. She turned to the Professor with an intense stare and said,

“This is a pretty low standard of technology you are using here Professor. I take it you have backed up all this data?” The Professor shifted in his plastic chair and said,

“The lower the standard of technology, the more secure the data in my opinion. For instance, I’ve even taken to writing with an old fashioned ink pen rather than a digital one, but yes the information is backed up.” The door opened and Inwë returned.

“As I thought, it is definitely an inside job. It’s not a wire tap; the sound wave frequencies are different. I made a copy as you requested.” Itaridlë took the microchip from Inwë, placed it back in the box and passed it back to Professor Burke. She then turned to the others and said,

“There you have it my friends, we now have evidence implicating the MoDs at the highest level. There is no time to lose. Inwë, get your copy of the audio file ready for publishing onto our website. I will tell you when the time is right. Lúthien, get the team together. I need them kitted up and prepped by 1800 hours. We’re shipping out.” Professor Burke stood up and said,

“So you don’t intend to publish the file until after the event? I can’t believe you will let this happen. We need to get to the control site and stop this madness. There isn’t much time.”

“Stop it? I don’t think so. But we will be there and use what we record for evidence purposes.”

“There are people on the island. Many lives are at stake. I know for a fact the model Cluny referred to is not fit for purpose. I need to find a way to St Kilda and warn the islanders.”

“You do what you have to Professor. We will even help you but as the shot was delayed and we have no other way of knowing when it will take place, unless you contact your mole and find out when the shot was rescheduled for? If not, our best tactic is to be there to witness it.” With a solemn expression the Professor shook his head. Itaridlë said,

“If that is your final answer, we can take you as far as Ullapool and there we will part company.”

The Professor was escorted to Itaridlë’s makeshift office. Passing the munitions room, he said,

“I wasn’t aware your organisation was equipped with such sophisticated military hardware. I knew your methods differ greatly from the Green Movement, but violence will solve little and merely invites a backlash.” Itaridlë smiled at the Professor and replied,

“How much change do you think is brought about by chaining yourself to an airport runway or scaling an oilrig? We originally tried seizing the moral high ground by protesting and showed our displeasure through acts of civil disobedience, but fun as they were, those tactics tended not to work. Unfortunately, greedy corporations, corrupt politicians and the compliant media are not concerned with civil acts of disobedience. The measures we now employ are in direct response to the rape of our planet, which we have taken a vow to protect at all costs. Nothing against our friends in the GM but we believe in a more immediate response before it is too late. They have their methods and we have ours.”  The Professor looked bemused. He shuffled uncomfortably and then said,

“Sadly, I find your opinions slightly depressing and a bit misanthropic. I think we can bring about change, but not through armed struggle. You will merely alienate your group and be labelled a terrorist.” Itaridlë smiled again. She said,

“I think it’s a little late for that Professor. Some may feel comfortable being led like lambs to the slaughter, but a few of us are willing to fight back and punish those who have brought us to this point in history. I care little for the label they pin on us.”

“Who exactly will you punish? Scientists like me?”

“No Professor, I think you are a victim in this tale, misguided in my opinion perhaps, but not one of the transgressors of which there are many – oil companies, bankers, the church, certain journalists and politicians. The list goes on. The time for political pressure is over.”

“What about using the law to stop these acts of destruction?”

“I could ask the same question of you Professor Burke. Why did you seek our help and not the GM? We work outside the law. The law has always been designed to protect the property and businesses of a select few who have gained their hegemony over the rest of mankind by exploiting the weak as cheap labour, plundering the planets natural resources, polluting our environment and avoiding their tax responsibilities. In the beginning, back in California, some of our members engaged in non violent protests and some resorted to the use of pipe bombs to fight against a company manufacturing a defoliant called Agent Orange and a pesticide called Agent Blue, containing carcinogenetic dioxins and toxic levels of arsenic. The U.S. Government were spraying both chemicals on the Vietnamese countryside, attempting to cause famine and desolation, all this in contravention to International Law. Our founding fathers damaged a building, killing or injuring no one, but they were all sentenced to long prison sentences regardless of their methods. Whereas, the U.S. Government claimed sovereign immunity for its actions which caused millions of birth defects and slow lingering deaths, not only to the Vietnamese people but its own military staff. That was nearly a century ago, but nothing has changed since then. This is how the law machine works Professor Burke.”

Itaridlë guided the Professor by a gymnasium and then into an office. It was mostly a bare place but one wall was adorned with maps and schematic drawings. On the desk there lay an old fashioned personal computer with a visual display unit perched on top. The Professor’s bemusement didn’t go unnoticed by Itaridlë.

“We don’t use modern computers like shackles, projection tech or e-pens. They use technology which can be detected and interpreted by the Prophylaxis Trident spy satellite. I take it you know what I am talking about?” The Professor nodded in agreement.

“I like old fashioned,” replied the Professor. Itaridlë looked the Professor up and down then said,

“So I can see. This computer may be slow and old fashioned but paradoxically, with all the billions of dollars they have spent on cybernetics technology, the MoDs find it hard to detect activity on antiquated communication systems such as this.”

“The scientific community invented the internet and we have retained methods of contact. It’s a tried and tested method of communication without the security services knowing? If I can contact my mole, he may be able to provide some updates, but if he knows I’ve come to you, he’s likely to get cold feet. More importantly, I think I can recreate a virus programme I previously developed as an insurance, so I could disable the operation if need be. It would require a manual uploaded from the control site.” Itaridlë said,

“I’d advise you to encrypt all communications, just to buy yourself a little more time, and if we can assist you in delivering the virus, let me know. Our plans are already in motion and this place will be torched as soon as we leave. That time is approaching Professor, so I advise you to work fast.” Itaridlë left the Professor working until the Elf contingent were ready. When she returned, he was applying a silicon seal to a micro chip. Itaridlë said,

“It’s time.” Professor Burke looked up and offered a rare smile. He said,

“I’ve left an encrypted message for my friend. I plan to deliver the virus personally.”

18 leaving

2066. Five months earlier

Bull stepped out of the driving rain and onto the narrowboat. He walked straight to the galley and opened the fridge door. He recoiled from the odour and the sight of a piece of meat, so rotten its original species was unidentifiable. From memory, he was almost certain it was pork. Moreover, to his horror, the bottles of beer were warm. He slammed the fridge door in disgust. He realised the electricity to the boat was out. He went up to the deck to check the connections to the wind turbine. The blades were spinning, but on closer inspection he found the power cable had been cut. The solar panels were also unresponsive, damaged by the wind no doubt. Another job for the new owners of the narrowboat, he thought. Tomorrow, he was setting off for Ullapool and from there, catching a ferry to St Kilda.

Bull returned to the galley. It was late afternoon, a time more suited to cold beer than hard liquor but nevertheless, he poured himself a glass of 30 year old Talisker. He heard a scuttling sound in the corner. There, on the galley worktop, was his new best friend, a mouse on his daily visit to the bread bin. Bull called him Musculus. He was rather large for a mouse, but this wasn’t surprising considering all the green mouldy ciabatta he had been consuming, he thought. Once he had finished munching on the bread he would normally move on to the rotting vegetables, and today was no exception. It was important, thought Bull, his new friend had a balanced diet. His only gripe was his presence on the vegetable rack disturbed the fruit flies. He didn’t know why he had presumed Musculus was a male mouse. The only way to be sure was to pick him up, turn him over and have a look at his genitalia. This, he decided, was an act far too early in their relationship to be considered appropriate behaviour. He wondered if it was conceivable to take Musculus to St Kilda. In the end he decided it was a terrible idea.

Bull’s train of thought was derailed when his shackle vibrated. Aisha’s face appeared on the display panel and she invited herself round for dinner. The internet outage made his normal method of ordering dinner or even groceries impossible, so Bull prepared for a rare trip to a local shop. He struggled against the wind and pummelling rain, but more than this, he was unnerved by how unusually dark it was for the time of day. He passed an elderly homeless man and his dog, sheltering in a bus stop. He stopped to chat and transfer a few credits to the man’s shackle. When he arrived at Maryhill Road, the street was deserted with the exception of the occasional emergency service vehicle speeding past, their sirens barely audible above the sound of the storm.

He found a mini-market with a light on. The shopkeeper mouthed through the grilled window that he was closed, but eventually taking pity on him, he let Bull come inside to buy two lab-free chicken breasts, a bunch of basil, a lemon and a bottle of Chinese wine. The shopkeeper pointed to the sky and said,

“There’s no such thing as bad weather son, only unsuitable clothing right? Bollocks to that!” He laughed and then pulled down the shutters to his shop window. As Bull walked the street he became aware of a strong vibration and then the lights from a hovering drone shone down upon him. There was a public address system attached to the underside of the craft. It stated he was in breach of the curfew order and was to return home immediately.

Bull started back up the hill, trampling over fallen masonry and broken glass. He held his hands out in front of him to prevent the needles of rain blinding his line of sight. He barely recognised the streets in the dark and for a brief moment he wondered if he was lost. Cars lining the street convulsed in the storm, the sound of their car alarms adding to the discordant caterwaul of the wind. At the entrance to Maryhill Locks, an uprooted tree had crashed through the bus stop where the homeless man and his dog had earlier taken shelter. There was no sign of them. Bull circumvented the tree, fighting to maintain his balance.

Bull finally reached the narrowboat and closing the hatch behind him, he felt a surge of relief. He dried himself down with a towel and changed his sodden clothes. After dumping the rotting food from the galley fridge, the mouldy ciabatta from the bread bin, the empty beer bottles from the living room and all the scrunched disposable handkerchiefs into a plastic bag, he looked out some of Saffron’s scented candles and placed them on the coffee table. He put on some ambient music and prepared the dinner; crushing garlic, squeezing lemon juice and chopping basil while his body swayed in time with the rocking boat. He fried the chicken and was making the sauce when he heard a knock at the door. When he opened the hatch, Aisha stood wearing an ankle length oilskin, raindrops clinging to her face.

“Do you fancy a bit of Alfresco?”  She said, smiling. Bull grimaced,

“Alfresco? It’s a bit windy.”

“Come on, don’t be a big jessie all your life. Let’s sit out on the deck and watch Mother Nature reap her havoc upon the world.”

“Well, maybe for a little bit.”

“I brought you a bottle of Vodka. Real vodka, not moonshine. Have you got a towel and a bowl of beelin water?”

“Beelin?” Aisha affected Received Pronunciation and said tartly, “Sorry, Faerrleah, do you have a bowl of boiling water.”

“Why are we going to deliver a baby?”

“Is this the famous sense of humour Saffron warned me about?”

Walking into the Galley, they found a steaming frying pan lying upturned on the floor. Bull crouched down and tried to scoop the chicken back into the pan, burning his fingers in the process. Aisha said,

“Never mind, I’m a vegetarian anyway. Sorry, I should have said. Vodka, out on the roof, watching the forces of nature it is then?”

“Are you sure you’re not hungry? I could make something else,” pleaded Bull pitifully, still on his knees.

“You could get on with fixing the hot water so we can make a cocktail?”

“I’ll need to do it the slow way on the gas hob. The storm damaged the turbine, so the electrics are off, hence all the candles.” Aisha sniffed the sandalwood scented air and said,

“And there’s me thinking you were trying to impress me.” Bull almost blushed and averted his eyes from Aisha’s gaze. He filled a steel kettle with water and walked towards the cooker.

“The stove was one of Saffron’s ideas. It uses bio-methane linked to the chemical toilet. Who would have thought you could help save the planet by just taking a…” Aisha’s top lip curled. She held up her hand and drew him a look of disgust. She walked out and up onto the deck.

In the galley, Bull waited for the water to boil. Through the porthole, he watched Aisha sitting cross legged on the deck, her hair blowing in the wind. In some ways she reminded him of Saffron. She was of comparable build, he thought and the dreadlocks no doubt added to the similarity, but she lacked Saffron’s beguiling eyes and playful smirk. Bull was overcome with a pang of awkwardness. Something felt wrong about inviting a woman into the home he had shared with Saffron. He poured the boiled water from the kettle into a glass bowl, fetched a towel, a bottle of warm beer and went out on to the upper deck. He found a place to sit by Aisha.

Aisha decanted most of the vodka into the bowl of hot water. She took out a small bottle which she said was Ylang-Ylang and added a few drops to the water. Putting the towel over her head, she breathed deeply and inhaled the hot vapours.

“Oh I needed that. It clears the sinuses and slows down the heart-rate. Your turn.” Bull gave her a perplexing look.

“If it’s all the same, I’ll give it a miss. I’m fine with my warm beer.”

Aisha pleaded with Bull to try the nasal cocktail.

“You like to sniff things don’t you? Saffron told me about your wee habit. You even sniffed me when we met on the street. I noticed but didn’t let on. What’s that all about?” Bull grimaced and said,

“You can tell a great deal by someone’s odour.”

“It’s kind of weird.”

“It’s scientific. Pheromones, released by the body, each carry its own signature. You can detect people’s feelings and changes in behaviour. Stuff like that.”

“So you could read my mind by sniffing my odour?”

“You can’t read minds but with training you can recognise different emotional strains, like aggression, anxiety, sexual arousal and bonds like empathy or trust.”

“So what do you get from me Faerrleah?”

 “You’re a strange one, I can’t detect much from you. It must be your perfume or deodorant.” Aisha laughed,

“I’m a strange one! That’s rich coming from you. Anyway, come on, what do you say, will you try my cocktail?”

 “I’m old fashioned. I like to drink my beverages, not sniff them.”

“You only inhale it until the cocktail goes cold, you big fud,” pleaded Aisha, “And then you drink it.”

“Is that after everyone has secreted their mucous into it?” Aisha ignored the taunts and slipped her head under the towel once more. Bull looked on with a look of bewilderment. She inhaled and exhaled under her flapping vapour tent as Bull drunk the rest of the bottle of vodka.

When the subject got round to Saffron, Aisha listened attentively until she was taken by the sedative influence of her vapour cocktail.  To Bull’s annoyance, she talked of her own grief when her own relationship ended and how she had spent a small fortune removing the tattoos devoted to Frankie. Bull attempted to steer the conversation back to his own plight. Aisha laughed when he mentioned Maurice’s name as a figure of Saffron’s desire. Bull was upset at her candidness and wondered if her cruel cackling was on account of the nasal cocktail.

The storm continued to rage, and Bull suggested they go inside to finish the last of their drinks. They descended the steps and staggered into the living area. Bull was glad to be back indoors and retrieved another towel from his bedroom to dry them off. Aisha sat on the sofa. He put the towel around her neck and pulled Aisha towards him, simultaneously stooping to receive the anticipated kiss. Bull closed his eyes but instead of a kiss he felt a fist in his chest.

“You’ve had way too much to drink, Faerrleah,” exclaimed Aisha in a sobering voice.

“Sorry Aisha, I must have misread…” Bull’s protests were cut off.

“Misread? You must be fucking dyslexic. I thought you loved Saffron?”

“I did, but she’s with someone else now.”

“Who is she with? Please, enlighten me or are you just looking for someone else to blame rather than yourself?”

“Maurice.” Aisha cackled.

“Maurice? I hardly think so. Maurice isn’t interested in Saffron you big daft fud. Not like that anyway.”

“Why do folk up here persist in calling me a big daft fud?”

“Because that’s what you are, Faerrleah.” Aisha picked her coat up and headed to the hatch door. Turning to Bull she said sarcastically,

“I can’t understand for the life of me why Saffron left you. I’m at a total loss.”

“What about the storm? What about the curfew? Let me walk you home.”

“I’ll be fine, you needn’t bother. And not that it would’ve made a difference, but Frankie’s wasn’t a man, you just presumed she was.” The door opened, there was a gust of wind and Aisha was gone.

Bull stood transfixed to the floor. When the last candle flickered out, he picked up the glasses and poured Aisha’s leftovers into his. He gulped back the contents and walked into the kitchen. He placed the glasses in the sink and then slumped to the floor. In the darkness he would most likely have slipped into an alcohol induced sleep but the sound of the glass bowl rolling from one side of the boat to the other, disturbed him. He could take no more of the irritating sound and ventured onto the upper deck to remove the offending item. He searched by sound like a nocturnal hunter. His eyes adjusted to the gloom, and then he saw it, the bowl spinning around the wooden planks beneath the solar panels. On the moorings he saw two figures approach the narrowboat, but his mind was fixed on his purpose.

As he stood upright with the glass bowl in his hand, Bull’s foot became entangled in the electric cable. He tripped forward and shunted towards the edge of the boat. He lost his grip on the gunnels and fell into the canal, bashing his head against the hull as he went. For an instant his world went dark. Visions flashed and swirled across his mind. He felt his body sink and curiously, he was overcome with a brief sensation of weightlessness and serenity. Then, like waking from a dream, Bull’s consciousness switched back on. He felt a stabbing pain in his lungs and panic rise from within. Instinctively, he kicked back his feet but he was overcome by an unbearable feeling of suffocation. His acute stress response was to thrash his arms and legs until his head was above water. He felt the wind and rain on his face and stretched out his hands to feel the rough stone of the tow path. Curiously, he felt a large hand. It hauled him out of the water. He rolled over on his back. His eyes were stinging and blurred but he could detect two masked faces in the dark. He could hear them breathe but they made no other sounds. The wound on his head throbbed and trickles of blood slithered down his face and into his mouth. He tried to speak to the figures standing over him, but his mind was a void and then he passed out.

When Bull regained consciousness he was back in the narrowboat, lying on the living room sofa. It was still dark but he could hear no sound of wind or rain from outside. His head throbbed. He felt disorientated and then a wave of dejection washed over him. He sat up and noticed a framed picture of Saffron lying on the coffee table. He reached out and ran his fingers down the image of her face. He was overcome with grief. Memories of her jumped out at him from every corner of the room.  He held the frame aloft and looked into her familiar dark eyes. To his horror, the eyes in the photograph blinked. Bull dropped the photograph, span off the sofa and sprang backwards into the galley. He didn’t stop back pedalling until his back crashed against the cupboard. Cooking utensils rained down on him. His breathing shortened. Finally, he gathered up enough courage to creep towards the photo-frame and using a metal kitchen tong, he turned it over. The photograph of Saffron appeared normal.

Bull retreated to the toilet and examined his head injury in the bathroom mirror by candle light. Curiously, the blood from the cut had congealed and scabbed over, almost healed and his customary bruise from repeatedly banging his head on the companionway, had disappeared. For a while, he stared at his face in the mirror, checking for unseen wounds. He stiffened. Behind the shoulder of his own reflection there stood another image of himself. He dropped the candle and the flame snuffed out as it hit the floor. Bull groped around the floor for the candle. When he found it, he lit it again with shaking hands and stared towards where he saw the apparition. Nothing. He fumbled in the dark towards his bedroom. He put on a housecoat, slumped on his bed and stared briefly at the ceiling, listening to the sound of the narrowboat creaking in the still waters of the canal. The storm was over. No howling wind, or pounding rain, or glass bowl rolling around on the deck outside. Within seconds he was asleep.

Bull woke to the sound of knocking. When he opened the hatch door he was greeted by Saffron’s mother. She critically viewed the man who was wearing her daughter’s silk housecoat.

“You must be Faerrleah. I’m here to arrange collecting Saffron’s things. Have I caught you at a bad time?”

“No, sorry, come in. Good to finally meet you, Mrs Wilton.” Bull looked down at his robes and offered a painful smile.

“It’s not how it looks Mrs Wilton.”

“Faerrleah, what you do in the privacy of your home is your concern. However, if you want my opinion, the kimono style isn’t you. The housecoat belonged to Saffron’s grandmother. She was bigger than Saffron.” Saffron’s mother looked at the bump on Bull’s head.

Saffron’s Mother went into the Galley and put the kettle on. Bull followed her. She said,

 “I wanted to phone but the network service is still down. It was a frightful storm Faerrleah? There’s been damage to property, we lost thousands of trees, and the power lines were cut. The country has come to a complete standstill. There are lots of roads still closed off, even the TEV network, and they’re only running a skeleton train service, but you would hardly notice the difference in that respect.” Bull nodded in agreement. He stood in uncomfortable silence, waiting for the opportunity to arrive where he could take his leave, and change out of Saffron’s silk housecoat. Saffron’s mother made a pot of tea while Bull went to shower and change into his own clothes.

When he returned, Mrs Wilton was picking up Saffron’s belongings from the floor and piling them into a box. She turned to Bull, looking at the empty bottle of vodka and said,

“Did you have a little party on your own last night?”

A cold shiver came over him. It occurred to him if he didn’t sit down, he might faint in front of his guest.  Mrs Wilton grimaced and then said, “You don’t look too good Faerrleah. Go and sit down and I’ll get you that drink.”

They sat drinking tea and talked about the riots, the national curfew and Bull’s plans to move to St Kilda. He had planned to leave for Ullapool in the afternoon, but considering the state of his mind, he would now leave it until tomorrow.

Mrs Wilton said she would send a van later in the day to collect her daughter’s belongings to take to her new house in the countryside. Curiously, she asked if Bull knew the whereabouts of her daughter. She hadn’t heard from her in a while. Bull shook his head and changed the subject, mentioning his father being made homeless after the river Irwell burst its banks, and described the devastation to his home town. He was cheered by their conversation but saddened he hadn’t had the chance to meet her before his split with Saffron. As she left, she put both hands on Bull’s shoulders and kissed him on the cheek.

“It was lovely meeting you at last. I’m sure everything will work out for you in the end. You just need to find your path first. Look after yourself, Faerrleah. It’s a changing world out there. To be honest, I don’t recognise it anymore. You seem like a good man, if only slightly troubled.”

“I promise. I’m not myself today Mrs Wilton.”

Later in the day, Bull went for a walk. The streets were filled with army and emergency service personnel. He passed a 3D street projection reporting stories concerning the storm and the rising death toll across the British Isles. Bull strode by, ignoring the news reader’s emergency donations plea. He entered the quiet of the Kelvin walkway and after traversing several fallen trees, arrived at Kelvin Park to find it was closed to the public.

The following day, Bull looked at the bare interior of the narrowboat. He didn’t recognise it in its current state, since Mrs Wilton removed the rest of her daughter’s belongings. He allowed himself one memory, recalling a childish game he and Saffron would play when they would take turns throwing Saffron’s large floppy hat, trying to land it on each other’s head. He smiled thinly, remembering the laughter it would cause. He shut the hatch door for the last time and locked it behind him. He rubbed the wooden companionway with the palm of his hand, expecting to feel the curved groove where he and previous owners had bumped his head so many times. There was nothing.

Bull walked along the moorings in the late summer warmth and away from the narrowboat. His arms were weighted down by his two large suitcases, acting like anchors, dragging him back as he shuffled along. He refused to look behind, aware every step was tearing him away from the past and from the memory of Saffron. When he noticed the cab pulling up and waiting on the bridge above the canal, his knees wobbled. As though snatched by a serpents jaw, he was overcome with a feeling of emptiness and loss. A protracted ascent of the stairs brought him face to face with the taxi driver who helped him load his baggage into the taxi. He had expected the more phlegmatic experience of an autonomous taxi, but nevertheless he confirmed she was taking him to Ullapool.

He promised himself he would not look back, but Bull couldn’t resist one last farewell. As he turned his head to face the canal, a slow trickle of tears glided down his sullen face. He stepped out of the taxi and walked towards the bridge wall and gripped the metal balustrades. He looked down at the narrowboat. The taxi driver appeared at his shoulder, attempting to persuade Bull to return to the cab. Her sage counsel failed. She resorted to peeling Bull’s fingers one by one from the railings then she bundled him into the back of the cab. Finally, she thought. When she looked in her mirror she found the back seat empty again. Bull was back on the bridge, sobbing uncontrollably. After a few maternal embraces, the driver motioned him back into the cab and applied the child locks to the cabin door.

19 an imperfect storm

In the morning, Andrew unzipped the aperture and gazed out. The world outside was Stygian. All around him, a grey malevolent sea. A bloated entity, he thought, lifting them up and down as it inhaled and exhaled. The wind whipped across the surface of the ocean teasing up white tipped waves which broke against the raft with malice. The squalled sheets of rain drove against the plastic canopy, filling the interior with the sound of rambunctious crackling. Andrew’s face was showered with cold sea spray and his guts heaved. He yearned for a hot cup of peppermint tea to settle his stomach and warm his insides, but instead he relieved his bowels while Bull slept. It had occurred to Andrew he hadn’t noticed Bull urinating since their first meeting. Andrew wondered if the man, underneath all the brashness, was indeed quite shy. He dismissed this notion and considered the yellow tinted liquid in the water bladder and then the stagnant water he was sitting in. He flicked an accusing gaze towards Bull’s sleeping form. Curiously, his companion had taken a do not disturb sign from the suitcase, and had hung it round his neck.

Later, when Bull woke, they finished the last of the prunes and the bannock cake for breakfast. Andrew fished for most of the day while Bull concerned himself with Malcolm’s deteriorating condition. He took the tubing from the rain catch and inserted it into the unconscious man’s oesophagus, forcing fresh water into his body. On closer inspection, Bull discovered the gash on his head was showing signs of infection. There were also other wounds to his ribcage and back which had previously gone undetected. Bull went back to bailing water and re-inflating the damaged pontoon. He complained to Andrew, stating,

“Malcolm’s wound is looking nasty. It’s getting septic. He needs antibiotics. He should be in a hospital by now, on a drip or whatever.”  Andrew’s head was protruding out of the raft, hovering over the surface of the sea, like a predator waiting for the tell tale signs of its prey. He barked,

“We all desperately need rescued or none of us will survive long.”

“I think Malcolm’s need is more urgent.”

“We have more immediate concerns. Has it escaped your attention there’s some massive swells out there and some ugly dark clouds boiling above our heads. There’s a storm coming.” Bull pushed his head out of the aperture to take a look at the horizon. He said,

“We’ll get rescued. It’s just a matter of time. We have to wait it out.” Andrew sighed,

“There hasn’t been sight of land or a ship since we were capsized. We can’t go on, indefinitely floating adrift forever. If we are being dragged further out to sea then the Canadian coast will be the next stop. These rafts were built for short term survival. With the damage you have inflicted on it, I’d say we have a slim chance of surviving the elements.”

“We’ve survived this long so we must be doing something right. We have water and if we keep bailing and pumping air back into the raft, there’s no reason for us to sink. We’re cushdy.”

Cushdy? I don’t call this cushdy, what ever that means. My skin is chaffing in this salt water, I have blisters on my backside and I’m famished. We’ve finished the last prunes and bannock cake.”

“My point is, we’re still alive and that’s what matters. We need to keep believing we can survive or what’s the point. We might as well end it now.”

“And the food situation, what do you propose we do about food?”

“Where’s the fish you’ve been promising us? It’s your lure. It looks like something you’ve pulled out a plughole after taking a bath with a chimp. You’ll catch nowt with that.” Andrew smiled inwardly. He retrieved the lure and then let it sink again. He said,

“You’re a fishing expert are you? I’ve fished the river Tweed all my life. I know what I’m doing.”

“In case you haven’t noticed, that’s not the Tweed out there.” Andrew froze. His eyes flickered and his face contorted in a joyful spasm Bull had not yet witnessed. Andrew yelped,

“Oh, I don’t believe it! Yes! I think I’ve got one. I’ve hooked a fish!” Bull edged closer. Andrew hauled in a small eel. It slapped onto the floor of the raft, splashing the stagnant sump water in their faces. Andrew tapped it twice on the head with the handle of his multi-tool and then gutted and rinsed it in the sea. Bull watched attentively as he sliced the eel, expertly filleting two slices, using the suitcase as a chopping board. Bull inspected it, saying,

“It’s just like sashimi but your presentation leaves a lot to be desired Sherlock. Where’s the seaweed, soy sauce and the sliced ginger? Have you even got any wasabi?” Bull tried to smile.

“Back home, we would coat this in oatmeal and fry it with a couple slices of smoked streaky bacon. Delicious.”

“Well, you imagine you’re back home on the banks of the Tweed and I’ll visualise myself in Manchester, sitting by the window at Teppanyaki’s restaurant. Ok, I’ll go first?” Bull popped a piece of raw fish into his mouth and chewed. He grimaced. “It’s not how I remembered but you can’t argue with the freshness.” Andrew swallowed his piece whole and then cast his line back to the sea and within seconds had caught another fish. Andrew said it was a pollock and again they had their fill of sashimi.

Later in the day, the rising and falling swells made fishing impossible and Andrew retreated to the far side of the raft. The wind strengthened and churned the surface of the sea. The motion made Bull’s stomach feel queasy. The colour drained from his face and he fell silent, fighting the urge to retch. Andrew’s complexion was also ashen white. Sea sickness and the effects of dehydration were taking control. Andrew zipped up the aperture. The raft rocked in the palpitating sea. Bull removed his flip-flops and studied his feet. The skin was wrinkled, blistered and bleeding. He had slipped on a pair of woollen tights from the luggage, cutting off the ends so his feet could pass through. He shuddered at the grim image of his body being washed up on shore, dressed in old women’s clothing.They worked tenaciously in silence, bailing and re-inflating the pontoon. The smell from the gutted fish and Malcolm’s festering wounds hung heavy in the air. Finally Bull’s stomach could no longer resist the urge to heave. He moved towards the aperture, thrust his head outside the raft and vomited his lunch of raw fish back into the sea.

When Bull recovered from his bout of sickness, his attention was distracted by the damaged pontoon succumbing to the higher waves. He thought of the external patch up, below the waterline and how it would be holding up to the buffeting waves. He examined the repairs, making some adjustments but turning to Andrew and pointing to the damaged pontoon, he said,

“Sea water is flooding through the gap under the canopy.” Andrew’s ears adjusted to the resonance of Bull’s alarming cry, breaking through the repetitive roar of the storm. Bull grasped the hand inflator. He ignored the anaesthetizing weakness in his arms and the nausea in his head, and began pumping air into the pontoon. Andrew was staring at Bull, detecting a glint of panic in his eyes, when a large wave pummelled them, casting all three men to the far side of the raft. The raft slumped to one side. Sea water flooded in. Andrew helped the lifeless body of Malcolm back up and tried to find a pulse on his neck until another large wave struck them. Andrew said,

“I’m not a doctor, but it’s not a good sign he hasn’t regained consciousness. As you said, he should be in a hospital. We can’t care for him here in an ocean desert, he’s too far gone. We might have to prepare for the prospect, he might not be with us when we get rescued.” Bull looked at Malcolm with a heavy sinking feeling in his heart. He shook his head and stated,

“What happened to all your confidence and leadership qualities Sherlock?”

Andrew’s mood plunged to new depths as he mused on their chances of survival. He tried to block out the contemplation of the raft being torn apart by the waves, treading water and finally succumbing to the sucking vastness of the ocean. He held his hands aloft and yelled,

“I’m doing the best I can with limited resources! We’re in a damaged raft, taking in sea water and being battered by a storm! We’re sitting too heavily in the water! We’ve got too much ballast!”

“So we need to jettison the case? Let’s do it. We’ve used practically everything in it anyway.”

“I’m not talking about the luggage. We need to consider other options.” Andrew raised his eyebrows and nodded towards Malcolm. Bull, his voice full of emotion, whimpered,

“What, are you saying? That we should just let him die? Look at all this rain? We’ve got drinking water to last for weeks now. You’ve been catching fish, so we have food. We must hit land sometime or come across a shipping lane. We could get him to a hospital and they can heal him.”

“Great plan, but what are we going to do about the here and now? We’re sinking.”

“He’s only a little fella. How much can he weigh us down? We can keep afloat if we keep trying. You can’t tell me there’s no hope, because I won’t give up on him, not until the last moment.”

“There’s hope, but it’s a forlorn hope without professional medical help. He could even be beyond the point of no return. I failed to detect a pulse. He might even be dead already. We’ve done our best for him. I’m not saying we should throw him overboard right now. All I’m saying is the time may come when we have to consider letting him go as an option. Stark choices have to be made in situations like this. It’s a case of sacrificing the few for the greater good.” Bull turned away in disgust. He adjusted his foil blanket like a petulant school boy. Sheet lightning flashed above their heads, the ultraviolet discharge filtering through the canopy and illuminating the half-light. This was followed by the predictable sound of rumbling thunder, rolling and clapping until the circle was completed by the next electrostatic pulse. The wind howled around them. A blitz of hailstones bombarded the canopy. They felt under attack. The powers of nature converging upon them. Bull looked around for his woollen bobble hat. It was floating in the expanding water at his feet with Lisa Formby’s diary, the ink running on the saturated pages. Dullest and most poorly written book I have ever read, he thought.

Wave after wave slammed into them. Bull stuck his head outside the aperture. A black wall of rain moved towards them and shut out what was left of the residual light. Bull wanted to zip the aperture up but he needed it open to dispose of the water he was collecting with the bailer. The darkness was nearly complete apart from the intermittent channels of fork lightning flashing like electrostatic veins, pulsing against the black aura. Through the canopy they could witness the natural spectacle. It unsettled them both, draining what was left of their resolve. Bull coughed violently then rubbed his hands together to regain some warmth and muscle movement. He pumped the inflator with new vigour. Malcolm was still lying slumped over after the last big wave hit. The strap of his bag had risen up and twisted around his neck. Bull leaned over and pulled him back to a sitting position. He removed his bag from over Malcolm’s shoulder and whispered in his ear,

“I’ll look after this for you.” The intenseness of the waves made bailing impossible. They would spill most of the collected water before they reached the aperture. Finally, they zipped up the aperture and sat back and contemplated riding out the storm, hoping the raft would stand up to the punishment being meted out by the weather. They held onto the undamaged pontoons as they rose and fell in the sea swells. The raft writhed around in the swells like a fairground attraction. Malcolm’s body was in freefall. The two other men looked on, powerless to help.

Finally the damaged pontoon started to collapse. The sea gushed through the gap under the canopy and swirled round their legs. Bull tried to snatch the hand inflator as it flew by him, but a mountainous wave struck the raft and lifted it onto its side. Bull crashed into Malcolm and both men came toppling down on top of Andrew. Bull’s foot caught Andrew in the face as he fell. A painful scream cut through the noise of the storm. Bull crawled towards Andrew who was looking out of the aperture and into the darkness. Andrew, still rubbing his jaw, turned his head. His face was gaunt but there was a glimmer of hope in his eyes. He pointed at the sea and yelled,

“I thought I saw something flashing through the canopy.”

“It will be the lightning.”

“No, not lightning. A pulsing yellow light. Like a beacon.”

“You probably imagined it. We’re in the middle of nowhere. It’s pointless. You were right. We don’t stand a chance. The raft is disintegrating. I’m sorry. It was my fault. I damaged it.”

Andrew’s voice became excited. He yelled through the roaring wind, “Just look man! Look! I can see something. Something over there. An object, floating in the sea. It’s a bloody boat!” Bull, still struck down with deep foreboding, moved towards the aperture. His eyes narrowed. At first all he could see was the black pulsing ocean and then, from between the swells, he saw the beacon flashing in the distance. Soon, the unmistakable shape of a lifeboat came into view, appearing and then disappearing in the floundering sea. It appeared to be coming towards them. Bull felt like embracing Andrew and kissing his head but all expressions of emotion were put on hold. Chilling sea water poured into the raft and lapped around their waists. Andrew said,

“I’ll swim out to the lifeboat and get them to pick you and Malcolm up.” Andrew noticed a distant look in Bull’s eyes. Bull edged his body towards the aperture. Andrew screamed,

“What are you doing? Didn’t you hear what I said? Are you mad?” Bull said,

“I’m sorry,” Like a sea lion, he dropped into the ocean and was gone.

Andrew, looking out from the aperture, tried to follow his path but failed to see him through the sea spray. There is no time to prepare, he thought. He took one last look back at Malcolm and then hurled himself forward. He fought off the bitter cold which engulfed his body, but he managed to resurface and locate the lifeboat. Andrew swam until he was upon it. He raised his head over the gunnels and pulled his body onto the deck. His legs felt weak and unsteady from days of inactivity. He held on to the grab rails and looked through a port hole, half expecting to see Bull taking his seat amongst fellow survivors. There were no signs of life. He edged round to the main cabin and located the escape hatch door. He went inside. He stopped to catch his breath and appreciate the respite from the remorseless wind and rain. He located a food ration box, cracked opened a high energy drink and gulped it down. He found a lifejacket and put it on.

When he re-emerged from inside the boat, he peered out to the sea. Apart from the faint light from the boat’s beacon, he faced a wall of blackness. Andrew surveyed the seascape for the raft to use as a reference point. From there he hoped to detect Bull. He located him after the next flash of lightning. He was treading water one hundred feet from the lifeboat. Andrew launched himself back into the water. He swam until he was at Bull’s side, and then caught him around the chest. He cursed Bull’s stupidity and began the process of dragging his body in the direction of the lifeboat. He kicked hard and pushed forcefully against the sea. Andrew’s face was twisted with fatigue, and then a moment of despair descended upon him. The lifeboat was gone. Desperately, he looked for the old raft, it would be better than treading water until hypothermia took them. He saw only bulging swells. He was overwhelmed by an urge to close his eyes and yield to his fate, but another flash of lightning elucidated the gloom. Through blearing eyes, stinging with salt water, the lifeboat appeared for a fleeting moment. He located the beacon and instantly recommenced with his swim, using the last of his strength to save himself and Bull.

In due course, Andrew managed to get within touching distance of the lifeboat. Another flash of lightning ripped across the sky. The unequivocal roar of thunder. Bull’s eyes were open.

“Have you the strength to hold onto this warp?” shouted Andrew. Bull nodded his head wearily. Andrew hauled himself aboard the lifeboat and located the windlass. He jumped back into the sea and tied the rope round Bull’s chest and then returned to the deck of the lifeboat. He cranked the handle of the windlass and dragged Bull’s body up and over the gunnels. Andrew untied him and then pushed him through the hatch door. Bull fell unceremoniously to the floor and Andrew stood on the deck, gazing out to sea. The raft had vanished. He returned inside and secured the hatch door. He limped to the wheelhouse, believing if he could start the engine, he might be able to search for Malcolm. The ignition turned over but the engine was dead. Bull wheezed,

“What about Malcolm?”

“If you want to go back and get him, be my guest,” replied Andrew. By midnight, the storm had faded. They sat in silence, staring through a porthole, into the darkness. Sea water drained from Bull’s hair, congregated with his tears and as one, ran like tributaries down his harrowed face.

  20 time to reflect

Bull was swathed in an emergency blanket, his face pressed against the porthole. For most of the time, he was staring at his harrowed reflection in the glass window until the lightning would flash on the horizon and supplant the pitch blackness with a fleeting glimpse of the monstrous sea. He thought of Malcolm and how he had failed him. He wondered if he had a family back home, a wife or a partner. Curiously, his passing felt like the death of a friend. Despite them sharing no words they had been brought together by a wretched fate, and although his wounds may have proved fatal, thought Bull, he held himself accountable for abandoning a helpless man. On seeing the lifeboat, he hadn’t considered Malcolm’s welfare, he had only thought of saving his own life.

Andrew sat on the centre bench in silence, holding on to one of the boat’s stanchions for support and gathering his own feelings. He called to mind the two episodes where he had offered Malcolm up to the sea as a human sacrifice in order to save his own life. He quelled the urge to submit to despondency and decided any staid observance should be conducted after they had been rescued. This was not the time for grieving, he thought. As Andrew dampened the fires of guilt, Bull’s mourning was stoked by it. Andrew was first to break the silence. He said,

“I know you’re feeling bad right now but this is not the time to apportion blame. That time will come during the inquest, when we get to shore.” Bull unfastened his nose from the porthole. He turned his head and offered Andrew a sorrowful expression. With a lump emerging in his throat Bull replied,


“There’s always an inquest. I wouldn’t worry. It’s a formality. There’s no need to blame yourself.”

“I do blame myself though. A mental fog must have descended upon me. Seeing the lifeboat in-between the waves, the darkness, fear, my heart beginning to race, falling forward, and then…”

“Your pitiable attempt at swimming towards the boat?”

Bull fell silent. He could feel Andrew watching him. He considered his actions and wondered if he had jeopardised Andrew’s life. He felt pathetic. He thought of himself like an over excitable puppy dog, let off the leash and bounding off towards the cliff edge. If it hadn’t been for Andrew coming back for him, he would have certainly perished. After they had boarded the lifeboat, Bull had shivered violently but there had been chemical heat blankets onboard. Andrew attended to Bull first and then himself. He had saved Bull’s life.

Bull analysed every emotion. Was it selfishness, irrationality, the instinct to survive or unadulterated cowardice? Or a combination of them all, he thought. He challenged the morals he believed he once carried and held dear. In the end he concluded no one is entirely sure how they would react when such a desperate situation is forced upon them. Bull said,

“I suppose his suffering is at an end now.” Andrew sat trembling under his blanket. He grunted,

“And at least you stayed with him until the last moment, as you said you would.” Bull wondered if Andrew was, in some twisted way, enjoying the moment and revelling in his torment. Bull staggered to the bench and sat beside Andrew. He began to mumble,

“I’m sorry I nearly got you killed. I’m sorry I acted so recklessly.” Andrew opened a flask of water from the emergency ration box. He took a drink and then passed it to Bull.  Andrew said,

“He’s gone now and there’s nothing we can do about it and who knows, with our weight out of the raft, he might even make it. I didn’t see the raft sink, did you? He might even get picked up before we do, and we’ll see him again. He won’t know us but we will know him and we can tell him our tales.” Andrew’s attempted wry laugh got stuck in his larynx and escaped as a grunting noise. Bull clasped his hands as if in prayer and stared at his bleached white feet. His long dishevelled hair fell forward and clung to his face.  “In the meantime,” said Andrew, “we need to figure out how we’re going to get out this damn sea and get our feet onto some dry land. We now stand a better chance of survival in a thirty foot rigid vessel.” Andrew brought his boot down on the hull as if to test the sturdiness of the boat and then he surveyed the interior. Bull concerned himself with a box, concealed under the far side bench. He opened it and found a number of Datrex food ration bars. He ripped the foiled packaging with his teeth and then greedily forced the whole bar into his mouth. Bull ignored the pain from his chapped lips and chewed lovingly, emitting absurd moaning noises as the food dissolved in his mouth. On hearing Bull’s satisfying groans, Andrew raised his hands in alarm. He shouted,

“What are you doing man? I know you’re hungry but we don’t know how long we’ll need to make the food last.” Bull sulked for a while, feeling like a hungry child caught with his sticky fingers in the family cookie jar. He wiped the crumbs from his mouth and put the food bars back into the survival box.

Bull lay down on the bench and stretched out. His eyes flashed for a second on noticing his flip-flopswere not on his feet. He sighed and pulled his blanket closer around himself. He said,

“I’ve lost everything. I know it wasn’t much but they were mine and not some hand-me-downs from a bitter old spinster’s suitcase.” Andrew looked at the woollen tights, fur coat and bobble hat drying on the bench. He said,

“You’re still alive man. That’s what matters. You’re not the only one who has lost something. Many of my personal artefacts went down with the Andrea Starlight. Some only had sentimental value but other items I actually need. There are things more important than plastic sandals.”

“I know it sounds ridiculous but I feel naked and vulnerable without something on my feet. It wasn’t so bad on the raft because we spent all of our time sitting on our backsides, but in here I’m proper feeling it.”

“Perhaps you should have taken Malcolm’s shoes when you had the chance. They would have been no use to him now anyway.”

“That would have been immoral” Bull stared at his bare feet and then added, “Anyway, he was a size nine and I’m a size sixteen.”

 The storm eased and Andrew searched the inside of the vessel, inspecting every compartment and cubby hole. He entered the wheelhouse and sat on the pilot’s seat. He tried to fire up the engine. A high pitched whining noise came forth from under the boat, and then the motor went dead. After several attempts, he slapped the control panel with the palm of his hand and cried,

“I think the engine has given up the ghost. We’re not much better off than we were before. We’re still drifting aimlessly.” Bull entered the wheelhouse and pressing a light switch above Andrew’s head, he said,

“Now we can see what we’re doing. This is a good sign. The battery hasn’t gone flat.” Bull located a tool box underneath the pilot seat and dropped down into the engine room. Later, he returned with an oil pump, examining it under the cabin light. He adjusted it with a screwdriver. Andrew watched with fascination. He grunted,

“You do know what you’re doing there, don’t you?”

“I’m no expert but I know a thing or two about gas propulsion engines.” Bull disappeared down into the engine housing again. When he returned, his hands were covered in black grease and he had a grin cast across his face. He turned the ignition and the engine spluttered into life. Andrew’s face came alive. The sound of the engine filled him with a feeling of hope. Bull said,

“The engine looks sound. I checked the hydrostatic interlocking unit and the crank shaft and there doesn’t appear to be any problems. I would imagine the propeller must have been damaged and the engine stalled. It’s a common occurrence.”

“You never told me you were a mechanic.” Bull turned the engine off.

“I’m not. I’m an engineer. Mechanics are the ones who do all the hard work. Computational fluid dynamics is my speciality.”

“So we can travel?”

“Once we repair the propeller we can put the engine in gear and there’s half a tank of LPG, so why not? We need to inspect the external communications systems in the morning. I don’t know about you, but I’m exhausted and still getting used to using my legs again.”

“Alright. The morning it is.”

Bull followed Andrew back to the main cabin. They sat on the centre bench. Bull said,

“Do you miss her? Andrew looked confused. He replied,


“Your wife. I noticed you wore a wedding ring, back on the inflatable. I presumed you must be married.” Andrew held up his hand and examined his finger where his wedding ring only recently rested. The white indentations on his finger were still visible. He accepted the marks would fade in time, but the loss of his ring was symbolic of his failed marriage. He wondered if he had lost it in the sea while rescuing Bull. He said,

“We are separated. She lives in Barcelona with my two children.” Gathering his blanket under his chin, he sat in contemplative silence. Bull packed a corner of the cabin with lifejackets and both men settled down to sleep.

When Andrew woke it was still dark. He waited for signs of first light and cursed his shackle for stopping on the day the Andrea Starlight sunk. Finally, with the first signs of daybreak, he got to his feet and rubbed some heat back into his stiff muscles. He opened the escape hatch and prayed the morning would deliver some signs of hope. The world was monochrome. A parapet of pearl grey mist surrounded the boat. He walked the deck, all the time looking out to the inanimate sea hoping for a patch of clarity in the blanket of fog. He climbed the mainmast and inspected the communications antennae. He returned to the cabin, slamming the escape hatch door behind him. Bull woke and rubbing the sleep from his eyes said,

“Where’ve you been?”

“I just popped outside for a while.”

“Did you bring back some bacon rolls?”

“No. I’ve got good news and bad news for you. I climbed up on top of the wheelhouse and found the VHF and UHF aerials are smashed beyond repair and the GPS is busted. So is the radar. This boat has been through the mixer.”

“Great, so we’re still no wiser to our location. What’s the good news? You found another bottle of Talisker?” Andrew rubbed his bearded chin and said, 

“I think I’ve got a rough idea what direction to take.”

“Did you find the compass?”

“I did, but it’s an electronic compass and it needs calibrated. I’ve looked everywhere for a magnetic compass but found nothing.”

“So what do you propose Sherlock?”

“Well, there are some old charts in the wheelhouse so if we can judge the position of the sun at noon, and I construct another sextant, we can get a bearing.”

“It’s been a long time since we saw the sun.”

“All we need is an approximation of the sun and we can get our bearings. If we go east, we will make land. Until then we need to mend the propeller.” Bull looked at the survival box.

“I’m proper starving,” he said. “Any chance we could get some breakfast before carrying out the repairs? If we mixed some of those ration bars with water, we could make cold porridge.”

“I suppose breakfast would be a good idea.”

Bull pulled a number of boxes from under the side benches. He found a bowl and a spoon. He half filled the bowl with water and then blended in a crumbled Datrex ration bar.” His mood lifting, he handed Andrew the bowl and said,

“Get tucked into this.”

“I think I’ll forgo the porridge. It looks like school gruel.”

“Did you go to school in the nineteenth century?” said Bull spooning porridge into his mouth.

“It was a gastric tradition, either that or early morning torture.” Andrew opened one of the ration bars and chewed. With an emaciated smile he said, 

“It’s funny to think when I was at school I used to actually daydream about being marooned at sea, being washed up on a tropical island and trying to survive on nature’s bounty. Have you ever read Coral Island or Robinson Crusoe or Lord of the Flies?” Bull shook his head. Andrew continued, “I was fascinated by tales of epic adventures, books telling stories of being marooned on an island and voyages on the high seas. What about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner?” Andrew glanced out of the porthole and onto the sea for inspiration and tried to remember a line from his favourite stanza. Andrew recited,

“Instead of the cross, the albatross about my neck was hung.” Licking his bowl clean, Bull gazed at Andrew with an impish glint in his eye. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and said,

“I was watching this nature documentary with Saffron. It was about how albatrosses mate for life, and if one of the partners dies, it’s known for the other partner to waste away with a broken heart or even end its own life. On the other hand, a dog will basically copulate with anything that moves, and once he’s finished his business, he’s off looking for another bitch on heat.” Andrew stared at Bull, his expression aghast at his boorish statement, but incongruously he was still curious. He said,

“I’m struggling to see the relevance.”

“Saffron took my hand and looked straight into my eyes and asked, so which one are you Faerrleah? Are you the dog or are you an albatross?”

“And what did you say?”

“I woofed in her face.” Bull laughed until he coughed. Andrew chortled,

“Faerrleah? Is that your name then?” Bull noticed Andrew’s devilish smirk and his cackle came to a stuttering halt. He looked reflectively through the porthole and to the ocean. Finally, he said,

“Yes but only my family call me Faerrleah.”

“What was Saffron like?”

“She had these big beautiful dark eyes, but with a softness to them. As if the iris had merged into the pupil to make deep, mystical pools. They drew you in. Totally mesmerising.”

“Like a bush baby? I read somewhere, no doubt in one of those in-flight magazines, that hundreds of years ago, Italian women would extract the juice from deadly nightshade berries, belladonna they called it, and they would drop the liquid into their eyes to dilate the pupils.”

“She didn’t squeeze berries into her eyes.”

“I never said she did. Although lots of women use chemicals these days to give themselves a puppy dog eye expression.”

“It was natural, she wasn’t a phoney and she didn’t use chemicals to enhance any of her attributes. She was organic. She didn’t believe in cosmetic surgery or faking anything. She was in love with the earth and in love with nature.”

“But not in love with you? I can sympathise with the sentiment.” Bull’s jaw dropped. He said,

“I wouldn’t need to stay up all night wondering why your wife left you.” Andrew looked at Bull’s empty bowl and barked,

“You’re right about one thing! You are a dog. I’m going to try and repair the radar.” Andrew opened the escape hatch door and left.

Later, Andrew returned to the cabin. Bull was studying a nautical chart of the Outer Hebrides in the wheelhouse. Andrew said,

“I’d rather you didn’t mess around with the charts if you don’t know what you are doing. I don’t want them getting covered in your sticky paw prints. We could end up heading for an island only to find it was a bit of porridge gruel which had fallen from your face onto the map.” Bull ignored Andrew and continued studying the map. He said,

“How did you get on trying to fix the radar?” Andrew grunted,

“No success there. It’s taken a bit of a battering.” Andrew placed his finger on the map and said,

“The prevailing winds and sea currents tend to go north east at this time of year so we’re somewhere over here I would guess.”

“We need to do better than just guess. Our lives could depend on it. Remember, there’s only half a tank of fuel. The Andrea Starlight sunk just east of St Kilda and we passed an abandoned oil rig and you said we floated by a buoy.” Bull stabbed the map with his finger and said, “So going by the charts, I think we’re somewhere in this vicinity. If we apply the worst case scenario, we won’t make it to the mainland by my calculations, but one of the islands might be feasible.”

“We can only go with the information available to us. For all we know, the raft could have been going round in circles but if we go east we will be going in the right direction. Hopefully, by nightfall the fog will have lifted and the stars will miraculously appear. If not, we wait until tomorrow and calculate our position in relation to the sun. All we need is a reliable reference point.” Andrew thought back to when, as a child he used to be able to pick out the North Star at random by drawing an imaginary line in the night time sky from the Plough. He imagined the early sailors of old plotting a direction in a similar way. Bull said,

“Okay, you seem to know more about maritime navigation than I do so get us out of here.” Andrew continued to study the charts in silence. Bull said, “Where do you think this lifeboat came from? Was it from our ship?”

“Perhaps, but I would imagine our ship wasn’t the only one to be caught by the wave. It would explain why there’s so much damage to the rigging. I don’t know enough about these vessels.”

Later, Andrew was back in the ocean, unravelling a wire rope from the propeller blades. Bull stood on the deck holding him on the end of a lifeline so he could work without drifting. When Andrew had finished, they returned to the cabin. Andrew wrapped himself in his dry blanket. He was doubled over and felt sick. Bull worked out how to use a self-heating packet of soup. He handed Andrew a steaming cup and said,

“It’s a bit bland. It could do with a little salt but it’s hot.” Andrew sat on the centre bench shivering under his thermal blanket. He clasped the warm cup and pulled it tight to his body. He vowed never to take a hot drink for granted again. It was the first warm beverage since dinner on the Andrea Starlight before it sunk. Eventually, he said,

“I think I’ve swallowed enough salt today. I used to love the sea. As a boy I remember visiting a lovely beach called Balcary Bay down in the Solway Firth, playing in a rock pool and getting caught out by the tide. Great memories, but if I never saw the sea again, I would die a happy man.” Bull stared at Andrew and said,

“I had a similar experience on Morecambe bay when I was young. Funny that.”

In the evening Bull joined Andrew on the deck. He brought tins of boiled ham, stewed apples and scalloped potatoes. Andrew sliced the ham with the blade from his multi-tool and mixed it with the apples and potatoes. They feasted until their guts were full. Bull said,

“I don’t suppose you saved the bottle of Talisker?” Andrew shook his head and returned below to the cabin and studied the nautical charts. Later, the wind picked up and the fog dispersed, revealing the moon and making their first appearance since their ordeal began, the stars. Andrew lay back on the deck, resting his head on the wheelhouse and wonderingly, he gazed into the celestial display above his head. The cool breeze brushed against his face and the sensation of fresh air invigorated his senses. He listened to the sound of the waves lapping against the boat and for a moment he forgot about his plight. Bull thought back to the narrowboat and the summer nights, sipping chilled elderflower wine and talking with Saffron until the sun came up. Andrew pointed to the North Star and said,

“That my friend is Polaris. I’ve now got my bearing. I can now calibrate the electronic compass. We’re going home.” They returned through the escape hatch door and started the engine.

21 salty tales of the holme’s family

During the night the rain returned and the North Star vanished behind a blanket of cloud. Andrew cut the engine. They dropped anchor and decided to bed down for the rest of the night. Andrew couldn’t sleep. In the morning he went up on deck and surveyed the featureless seascape. No land. Later, Bull followed him with two bowls of cold porridge. After breakfast they discussed if a dark line on the horizon was the coastline or a ribbon of slow moving cloud. When the contour changed shape and merged with the sky, they contemplated their next move. Bull looked around at the grey ocean and said,

“Christ’s sake, this is hopeless.” Andrew looked at Bull, licking his bowl clean and said,

“We’ve had enough bad fortune without you exacerbating the situation by blaspheming.”

“It’s just a common expression. Anyway, I don’t believe in God, so it’s not blaspheming.” Andrew looked at the grey sky and said,

“What do you believe in, if not in God?”

“I don’t go for the theory of an omnipotent deity, but I don’t have a problem with others believing whatever they like. It’s religion I have difficulty with, particularly the fundamentalist movement and their attempts to force feed us their views, whether we’re open to them or not. I prefer to keep outside religion.”

“As a child, my father would march my brother and I to church every Sunday and when we returned we were forced to read the Bible. I must admit, at the time, I hated Sundays. I wanted to walk out into the hills or play in the woods or go fishing with my grandfather, but I’m not so resentful now. In hindsight, it has made me a better person. It instilled in me a discipline which has remained with me through-out my years. There’s a time for work and play but more importantly there’s a time for prayer.”

“What has discipline got to do with religion?”

“Everything. Without discipline, you can’t have religion. There’s an order to life and religion is at its centre. It’s about taking responsibility and living our life through Christ’s example.”

“Christ’s example? I was under the impression, from my limited teachings, Christ was about love and tolerance. How many wars, all the way through history, have been fought in the name of God? How much trouble has been started by religion? Let’s suppose there was a God, do you think he would be pleased with the way his creation has turned out? All the bigotry, slaughter and torture carried out in his name? It’s a contradiction.” Andrew fidgeted in his seat. His haemorrhoids were playing up again and he didn’t like the direction the conversation was taking. He said,

“Not all wars were started as a result of religion, and granted, although some were, the people believed at the time they were fighting evil and doing God’s work. It was a different back then, you can’t judge ancient societies by modern standards.” Bull drummed a slow beat on the hull with his fingers. He said,

“What is evil? How would you define evil?”

“The Bible says...”

“I want to know what you classify as evil in a modern sense, not an inapposite quote from a two thousand year old book.”

“Evil is the opposite of good. Anyone with moral values can easily make the distinction.”

“But morals are abstract. Religious morals are absolutistic and not concerned with an individual’s intentions. Take science for instance. Most scientists believe they have ethics and their actions progress civilisation, but religion has always tried to restrict science.”

“What about laboratory experimentation on living creatures? Is that ethical?”

“This is the point I’m trying to make. Ethics are relative. Scientists, well at least the rational ones, have long-term objectives which they believe to be beneficial to mankind, but the journey there may require some short-term morally contentious decisions. I’m sure scientists don’t want to experiment on animals, but their justification derives from an ethical position. It’s for the greater good, which to them is the preservation of humanity.”

“I’m not sure what point you are trying to make, but it seems to me you don’t believe religion has a part to play in life. I disagree. Not all religion is malevolent. Religion still has something to offer. Faith can play a part in all our lives. It can bind society together.”

“It seems to me religion divides society rather than brings it together. Modern civilisation has outgrown religion. Power now lies in politics, law, multinational conglomerates and the media. But it’s the desire of power which is evil. With power comes corruption and the evil once resided in religion has evolved and jumped ship. Following the money. We still have conflicts over things like mineral drilling rights or the control of markets, but that’s not what they tell the public. They’re told how wars are a consequence of a struggle to protect our democracy, our freedom and our faith. It’s just tribalism disguised as culture and heritage, but wars are conducted for the same unadulterated reasons. Human greed. Religion has been complicit in this cunning deception.”

Andrew rubbed his forehead with a clenched fist. He contemplated his faith and how recently he had found it easier to walk away rather than stay and defend his beliefs in the face of constant challenges. He said,

“I think you are over simplifying things, just a wee bit.”

“I’m not insulting anyone’s beliefs but I think it is religion that has over simplified morality and in doing so has made an enormous non-tax paying industry out of it. You accused me of blasphemy. I’m explaining my beliefs by offering you an alternative theory. Surely your faith isn’t so weak it can’t stand the slightest of examination or criticism?”

“You’re not saying anything I haven’t heard before.” Bull shrugged, he glanced down at the sea. He watched a shoal of jellyfish float by under the boat. Finally, he said,

“One day I’ll tell you a story of my nan. She was from a small community in Alsace, called Col du Donon. She was proud of her Celtic heritage. She was a Druid and worshiped their gods. She was hounded for her beliefs and driven from her village by Christians like you.”

“I have never hounded anyone for their beliefs,” stated Andrew. He remembered a time when he was a member of the Kelso Young Earth Debaters Society. They had turned up at a local Humanist’s house who had started a petition against the establishment of a Creationist Zoo in the town. Things had turned ugly and the police were called. Later the young debaters marched to the Market Square to burn science books. He turned to Bull and said,

“So what are you saying? Everything we believe in is based on lies and we should revert to druidism, conduct human sacrifices and worship the sun?” Bull sighed,

“My point is the message has been lost in translation. In my opinion, people who follow religion are too ready to believe without question, instead they refer to various versions of translated, uncorroborated ancient writings as a blueprint for life. This is why religion is so preoccupied with children’s education, because it requires indoctrination as it doesn’t stand up to questioning. At its fundamentalist level it appeals to the gullible and at the sub intellectual and thrives on fear and paranoia to fuel its popularity. At a certain level it gets reactionary. Thankfully most of you are rational and just switch off and bury your heads in the sand and say something supercilious like, I feel sorry for your kind.” Andrew shook his head from side to side. He examined the palms then the backs of his hands. He took his lure from his pocket. He unravelled it and began to fish. He said,

“I do feel sorry for your kind. I was taught God created the heavens and the earth, and he alone was responsible for everything, seen and unseen. I feel content in this knowledge. I know the answers to the questions you have raised, whereas you are still looking for them. God created me; he even created you, although why and for what reason, I’ll never understand. He created the sea and the creatures living in the sea. He even created the storm, even though it nearly killed us, and the wave that capsized the ship. God is the engineer behind the Universe.”

“I think you will find the wave was brought about by a landslide in the North Atlantic, probably caused by drilling and the storm was caused by a differential in atmospheric pressure, on account of solar radiation, but I’m not a meteorologist so I might be wrong.” Andrew considered Bull’s statement. He said,

“You’re right about one thing; you’re not a meteorologist and even they, as with all scientists are capable of getting their calculations wrong. I wouldn’t put all my faith in science.” Bull replied,

“Ok, say you’re right, and God does exist. He creates everything you say, but in that case he creates viruses and diseases? And he just doesn’t get involved when his masterplan goes awry? He just watches while his chosen starve to death, get flooded out their homes and go to war in his name. He just shrugs his shoulders. A bit ambivalent, this God of yours isn’t he?”

“You are just trying to provoke me, but I’m not going to let you. Making your opponent angry, is this your measurement of success when debating against people of faith? You’ve got your opinions and I have mine. Let’s leave it here.”

“I have no intention of making anyone angry. Just stop and think first before you accuse someone of blasphemy, they may not share your beliefs.”

Andrew cast his lure into the water. He thought of Simon Peter, the fisherman who became Christ’s apostle and the rock on which Christianity was built. He was martyred for his beliefs in Rome, thought Andrew. Bull stared out towards the sea. For a moment he thought he saw a ship on the horizon but he concluded it was most probably another dark cloud. Bull said,

“I can’t help feeling the wave was on account of methane hydrate drilling in the Atlantic. You probably think it was God punishing us.”

“Why cultivate a blame culture? Sometimes things just happen.”

“I don’t want to sound misanthropic but we’re getting what we deserve. All the waste, all the deforestation, all the pollution and the greenhouse gases we have spewed out over the years. It has all come back to haunt us.”

“This has nothing to do with global warming. Anyway, there’s just as much scientific evidence supporting climate change as a natural cyclic phenomenon and man’s contribution is negligible.” Bull narrowed his eyebrows in bewilderment. With a mocking laugh, he said,

“What was that? Another one of your brain farts? Look around you Sherlock. Have you been living in a cave for the last century? The research you’re talking about is undertaken by the same tiny minority of discredited scientists, despite evidence from an army of reputable climatologists. These crappy reports written by these phoney scientists, who receive funding from the free-market think-tank, the Institute of Economic Affairs, a group of deniers funded by the fossil fuel industry, never get further than the peer review stage. But somehow the corporation controlled media latch on to their skewed findings, using their so-called research to plant a seed of doubt in the minds of the public.”

“And why would they contrive such a story?”

“They have a vested interest in suppressing the renewable energy sector because they compete with their dirty energy projects and threaten to undermine their financial investments. Industry has always tried to influence politicians and government policy, but the fossil fuel industry are the most sinister. That’s why we’re stuck on a ledge, waiting to take a tumble into the abyss.”

“I think I preferred it when you were famished and always sleeping. The climate is changing, I agree, but it’s not the first or the last time the world’s climate has changed.”

“The last time the world experienced such a dramatic climate shift, it was a gradual process, over thousands of years. This change shift has happened over a couple of hundred years.”

“You Green Covenanters just love to preach don’t you. You never get tired of seizing the moral high ground when the opportunity arises. You’re a self-deluder, wanting to live according to the rule of Nature? Well look around you - welcome to boundlessly indifferent Nature.”

“Save me the Nietzsche doctrine. I’m not being self-righteous, I leave this sanctimonious tripe to you monotheist types. I’m talking about the facts. Evidence. Nature has been contorted beyond recognition by mankind. The world is being flooded by the most powerful storm surges the planet has seen since records began, sea levels are rising and the poor, who can’t afford proper flood defences, are suffering the most. People are starving, they are dying, and they are being made homeless. I thought a Christian like you would be a bit concerned with humanity.” Bull thought of his father and the damage to the family home back in Salford. Andrew said,

“God looks after his own.” Bull shrugged his shoulders and said,

“What does your statement even mean? This is the myopic religious attitude I’m talking about – do nothing, it’s the will of God. Ultimately he will save us. You’re religion is designed to welcome death, to even look forward to it as a salvation. You care more for the afterlife than you do the actual life.”

“Perhaps when we get to shore you can find a tree and hug it.” Bull toyed with his Green Covenanter’s bracelet and with a snorted laugh said,

“Is that the best you can do Sherlock? You don’t have to be part of the GM to notice the earth’s climate has changed. All you need is a pair of eyes and a brain to process the evidence. It’s all around us. If we’re not careful our species will become extinct.”

“I suppose the dolphins will inherit the earth. The earth has flooded before my friend and mankind has survived.”

“You mean after the last ice age? Sure, mankind had to adapt. People migrated, but modern civilisation has constrained freedom of movement.”

“I’m not talking about border control. I’m talking about what happened after God sent a flood. It’s in the book of Genesis.” Bull’s head descended into his open hands. He seized his opportunity to laugh.

“Noah’s Arc?” Andrew scowled. His eyes bored into Bull head.

“I don’t see what’s so funny. God was angered by mankind’s wickedness and he sent a great deluge to teach man a lesson, but seeing Noah was righteous, he warned him and told him to save his family and all the animals. After the floods subsided, Noah was the first man to till the soil.”

“Don’t you think Noah’s Arc would have to be the size of an oil tanker to accommodate all the land bound animals of the world? Don’t you think it’s just an apocryphal tale which isn’t meant to be taken literally? Not least by educated adults? Well, there is one moral similarity with the story and modern earth, but it depends on your definition of wicked.”

“I tell you, it’s happening again, the world will end sooner than you think and there will be a judgement.”

“Oh, fuck me! You’re not a member of those whacked Lords of the New Church are you?” Bull laughed again. “And you think God will only allow people like you into his kingdom, the same ones who sat back in silence and watched passively as mankind’s greed and destructiveness brought about its own demise? You honestly think there’s a reward waiting for you? You’re the self-deluder my friend.” 

“The world will end. We are tied to this outcome. It’s just a matter of when. Let’s change the subject. Tell me more about your grandmother.” Bull scratched his beard and said,

“She was a druid and practiced the old Celtic religion. She believed in nature and the spirits associated with the earth and the stars. She believed we could connect and intermingle with them. One day she got into an argument with the local priest and people in the village hounded her until she left and went to live in Scotland, at the Findhorn Foundation. It was there she met my grandfather who was over visiting from Ireland.”

Andrew stood up and looking at Bull’s licked cleaned bowl, he said,

“You’re a bit of a mongrel aren’t you?” He opened the hatch door and climbed into the quiet sanctuary of the cabin. He sat on the centre bench, rubbing the temples of his head trying to stave off an emerging migraine. A pain throbbed behind his eyes He had intended not to talk about his faith. There was a point in his life when he would quote from the Bible, feeling the passages would act like a magic spell to silence the critics, but now the words seemed hollow.

He was thankful to be alone in the dim light of the cabin. All I need is silence. Silence to think, silence to relax and silence to pray, he thought. He cast his mind back to his upbringing in the Scottish Borders. He thought of his father. He remembered an incident epitomising their relationship. Andrew’s father had secretly installed an ultra sonic youth deterrent device in his study, where he spent most of his time. When he would interrupt him, he would flick a switch from under his desk and Andrew would be subjected to an irritating high pitched noise, only detectable to animals and teenagers. As he ran into the garden he would escape the din but could detect the rare sound of his father’s laughter.

Andrew had a much stronger bond with his Grandfather. He had played a large part in his religious upbringing and when he died, he was devastated. After the funeral his ashes had been taken back to be scattered at the foot of the family oak tree which had dominated the grounds of the house for hundreds of years. The oak was part of the family emblem, the rest being some unrecognisable type of bird which Andrew’s brother, Graham said was a pigeon.

Campbell Archibald Douglas Holmes was laid to rest under the tree, believing his ashes would find their way into the roots, and by osmosis, or in some other mystical process, he would become a living part of the towering oak. He envisaged himself standing tall, overlooking the old granite house, shedding his leaves every autumn and keeping guard each night. He told Andrew he would allow the odd raven to perch on one of his branches, as long as it promised not to shit on his favourite grandson.

After the trip back from the crematoria, they all stood around the tree while the Minister delivered his eulogy. A piper played a lament and Andrew was tasked with the job of scattering the ashes. As he opened the urn, a ferocious gust of wind lifted the incinerated remains of Campbell into the air and dispersed them onto the raised vegetable bed. As Andrew ran after the plume of ash, he tripped and dropped the remaining contents to the ground. He desperately tried to scoop the ashes back into the urn, but the rain had washed them away. When he looked up he was greeted with horrified expressions from the mourners.

For years to come Andrew was haunted by the incident. In his mind’s eye he could still see the silent contempt etched across his father’s face, and the tears of laughter rolling down the cheeks of his brother. Graham had fallen to the ground, hands clasped tightly over his mouth and gripped in a vice of silent hilarity which threatened to split his sides. Andrew’s mother looked away in disgust and consoled her mother in law, pulling the widow’s head to her breast in a vain attempt to muffle the sound of Graham’s hysterical howling, coming from behind the oak tree.

The following autumn, when the family came round to his grandmother’s for dinner, Andrew was convinced the image of his grandfather’s scowling face could be seen on a potato the gardener had dug up from the vegetable plot. Graham muttered a sentiment, offering the concept of Campbell turning out to be a “great fertilizer, if the tatties were anything to go by.”

Andrew left school to study business management at Edinburgh University and after graduating, stayed in the city to work for a finance company. Over the years he had become more reclusive and his introvert behaviour didn’t go unnoticed by his work colleagues. Joining the Territorial Army focused his mind, but being recruited as a filter by the Defence Intelligence Committee provided him with a truer purpose in life. After two years of training in Cheltenham, he was introduced to Ashley Louisa Maxwell, a daughter of a wealthy philanthropist and donator to the Green Movement. In accordance with his training, he adapted his character to suit hers, but for the first time in his life someone had brought a touch of colour to his bleak existence. Ashley wanted children and Andrew reluctantly agreed.

Andrew offered to provide business management services to the GM as a way of accessing the organisation’s financial accounts, but although achieving his clandestine objective, he was struggling to balance his work commitments with the demands of family life. Moreover, guilt was starting to tear away at his conscience. He released the pressure through excessive drinking and devising various strategies designed to drive a wedge between himself and Ashley. When the blinding headaches and blackouts started, Andrew was admitted to hospital and recalled by the MoDs. He was diagnosed with a major depressive disorder. Family life spiralled out of control. The following year, he moved out of the family home and into a flat in Edinburgh’s New Town, inventing an affair with a work colleague as an excuse to leave his wife and release Ashley from the torment of being married to a charlatan. He told his psychiatrist he believed this was the only noble act of his entire life. Later in the year, Ashley confronted Andrew at his flat after stopping off at his work colleague’s home to find out the truth about the affair. She was at her wits end.

“Why did you do this? What is going on in your mind man? Are you totally crazy? Have you considered what this is doing to the children?” Andrew had no answers. He stood on his front doorstep, looking at his slippers. He confessed to everything, including his activities as a MoDs filter to Ashley. It was the last time he saw her. During the last therapy session, his psychiatrist talked to him about his marriage and what he thought was meant by the concept of love. They discussed anti-social personality disorders and psychosis. He was prescribed pills but he didn’t mention the voices in his head. In the end, it was decided Andrew needed a change of scenery. The psychiatrist even went as far as recommending taking a cruise. Water has a calming effect on the mind, even the soul, he said. He called the theory Blue Space and drew his attention to a piece of artwork hanging upon his wall. It was called, the Painted Sea.

Andrew opened his sore eyes and peered into the half-light of the lifeboat. Ashley’s voice emerged in his mind,

Andrew, your thoughts are random and uncontrollable. Do you wish to live your life in alienation from reality and from everyone?

“I’m sorry, Ashley. Please don’t hold court. I was a fool. I was deceived. I deceived you and the children. I needed time, time on my own, time to think, time to come to terms with what I have done. What I have become.”

But this is not about you having time. This isn’t even about me and the children. This is about your inability to build meaningful lasting relationships. This is about you running away from your responsibilities.

“Forgive me. Please forgive. I still love you. Please don’t give up on me. I’ve got so much to explain to you. I see things so clearly now. I needed this time.” Ashley’s voice had vanished.

Andrew got up and clawed the tears from his face. He gazed out of the porthole and surveyed the featureless pig iron grey seascape. His prison. He went up into the viewing turret and rested his head on the pilot’s wheel. He contemplated his chances of survival and refused to resign himself to believing he was only delaying his death.

22 guillemots in flight

The following day, Andrew had been encouraged by the sight of a flock of guillemots. He cut the engine and sat watching them for a while. He tried and failed to find the sun behind the grey folds of cloud. He needed better verification they were heading in an easterly direction. Bull lay on the centre bench, his fist held against his stomach and only moving at the behest of the faltering boat. He was awake but his eyes were shut. Andrew twisted his head and said, “I’ve just spotted some migrating birds, heading south for the winter, so I’m quite sure we’re on the right track.” Bull failed to see the significance. He had stayed in the cabin for most of the morning fighting the nauseating storm brewing within his stomach. He was determined to keep his breakfast down, but the ailing feeling of semi-digested Datrex ration bars moving from his gut and up through his oesophagus, and the distinctive burning sensation of vomit at the back of his throat was beginning to consume him. Bull could take no more. He rushed to the escape hatch and then on to the deck. He clasped the guard rails and retched. Uncoiling from his gaping mouth, the wind caught hold of his gastric discharge and sent it hurling towards Andrew. Bull’s ejection splattered across the Perspex windscreen. Andrew gripped the pilot’s wheel and frowned. His sea view had been replaced by a close-up of Bull’s vomit. Andrew flicked a switch and the screen wipers activated. He heard the escape hatch door close. Bull popped his head up inside the viewing turret and said,

“I feel so much better. I’m human again. I could do with a hot bath right now.”

“Yes, on that sentiment we can agree,” growled Andrew. Bull felt a new remoteness in Andrew’s tone of voice.

“You hardly smell like a bowl of potpourri yourself. When can I get a turn at driving?” 

“I’m piloting this vessel and you’re the lookout, only you don’t seem to be doing a particularly good job of it at the moment. It was the same on the raft.”

“I’ve been ill.”

“Yes. I can see the evidence over my screen.” With a faint smile Bull said,

“I thought I would have my sea legs by now. Maybe it’s your driving,”

“Why don’t you try a spot of fishing? We’re running low on rations.”

“Are you sure you know where you are going? Surely we should have made land by now?”  Andrew didn’t reply. Finally he heard the hatch door close behind him.

“Oh God have mercy on me,” bewailed Andrew, “Of all the passengers to survive the sinking of the Andrea Starlight, why did I have to end up with him? Ashley’s voice emerged in his mind, introducing a pang of guilt and making him consider his sentiment harsh. Hadn’t they already been through a great deal together? And his companion was most likely dealing with the mental and physical hardship in the best way he could. After all, they were dealing with the most trying circumstances.

Andrew returned his gaze to the grey sea outside. In the foreground, his eyes settled on Bull. He was standing on the deck, one hand holding onto the guardrail and struggling to keep his balance. He looked at him with more sympathetic eyes and then Bull lifted up his fur coat, pointed his appendage out towards the sea and began to piss. The wind blew the fountain of orange urinal discharge back across the deck and showered the viewing turret. Bull turned his head and offered Andrew a half-hearted apology. Andrew’s psychiatrist had once told him, in times of intense stress, he should imagine a well. The well represented a deep reserve of strength. The well was a source of reassurance and he was tasked to picture himself drawing a bucket from the well. With every pull of the rope he would feel the cerebral sinews stretch and the muscles of mental willpower resurge. At the time Andrew felt little comfort in the technique, but today he visualised his inner well. He visualised the rope in his hand but inadvertently, the bucket was slipping from his grasp, the rope burning his hands as it fell. Holding on as tightly as he could, the bucket had jolted to a halt and pulled him forward and falling into the well. Underwater, he felt the cold and the darkness take him. Struggling to the surface. Deep breaths. A brief moment of calm and then something else. Another had invaded his inner sanctuary. Unseen, hiding in the dark, but he knew the entity was there. Its form was revealing itself as his eyes adjusted to the gloom. It was watching and tormenting him. He fictionalised Bull emerging from the stagnant pool, his long black hair dripping wet, his arms extended and moving closer. Andrew snapped himself out of the nightmarish vision. The morsel of confidence acquired in the morning had departed with the guillemots. Andrew started the engine and the boat motored forward through the grey swells.

Later in the day the wind dropped and a thick fog encircled them. The lifeboat continued to power its way through the waves, rocking from side to side in a hypnotising manner. Andrew considered the wisdom of navigating blind through fog, but he felt it was a risk worth taking. It had been a long time since he had felt land under his feet and he was itching to feel the sensation again. His mind wandered back to his home in the Scottish borders. He imagined the aromatic smell of the golden autumn leaves as he trailed through the Ettrick Forest and the Eildon Hills. He remembered the fishing trips to the Tweed, sitting on the banks of the river with his thermos flask, eating freshly prepared sandwiches. He remembered his Grandfather telling him about the secret hollow of the Devil’s Beef Tub, where the Covenanters would hide from the dragoons in the 17th century. His mind was filled with visions of the waterfall at the Grey Mare’s Tail, the haunted castle of Neidpath and days out with the family at the Kelso races.

On deck Bull noticed a rope dragging behind the boat. He tried to loosen the knot by hand but eventually he gave up and returned to the cabin. He shouted to Andrew from the hatch door, asking if he could borrow his multi-tool. No answer came forth. Bull looked at Andrew’s lower torso, not able to see his head up inside the viewing turret. He described how the rope should have been tied up and how foolish they would feel if they ended up having to repair the propellers again. He shouted once more. Still no response. Bull noticed Andrew’s anorak draped over the centre bench. He slipped his hands into one of the pockets but instead of clutching a multi-tool, he pricked his finger on a fishing hook. Bull examined the lure, still lodged under his skin. He yanked it out and sucked his blood with his lips. Examining the lure, he was struck with the concept of the tail appearing to be made from a lock of human hair. He wondered how Andrew had come upon a hank of black hair. Instantly, he was taken by the horrifying notion of Andrew cutting his hair.  Disturbingly, the vile act was committed while I was asleep, he thought. Bull was gripped by fury and went to the survival pack and withdrew a signalling mirror. It didn’t take long before his fears were confirmed and he discovered a sheared patch of hair on his scalp. He glared in Andrew’s direction and then the fishing lure. Once more back to the mirror. He stopped. There was something abnormal about the reflected background. The light didn’t seem right, he thought. It had an unnatural shimmer as it scattered through the portholes and danced erratically around the cabin. He turned his attention to his own reflection. Haggard eyes and the beard had aged him. He wanted to be sure the hair loss was on account of a blade before confronting Andrew.

Bull marched towards the pilot seat. His eyes narrowing as he focused on Andrew’s lower torso. He tapped him on the leg. There was no response. Bull stooped and twisted his head, taking a look up into the viewing turret. Andrew’s face was pressed against the pilot’s wheel. He was asleep. Bull shouted,

“Wake up you dopey bastard!” Andrew flinched. He muttered,

“What?” I was just resting my eyes,” Bull was now blind with anger. He had forgotten about his missing lock of hair. He shouted,

“You fell asleep at the wheel! We’re probably lost! Let’s see the compass?” Bull thrust his head up inside the viewing turret. The electronic compass displayed the word, calibrate. Bull hissed, “What’s going on Sherlock, why isn’t the compass calibrated.”

“I did calibrate it. Something has gone wrong. I’ve never trusted electronic compasses.”

“We’ve been motoring blind, towards the middle of nowhere. You’ve got us lost!”

“I was only cat napping. I’m perfectly aware…”

“No,” interrupted Bull, “If you were driving a bus full of school children and you fell asleep, you couldn’t say, sorry I must have taken forty winks. Pity about all the dead kids!”

Andrew was speechless. His eyes sparked back into life. He said,

“I can’t see the relevance considering I’m not driving a bus but piloting a boat, although there is a passenger acting like a child onboard. We’re not lost. I know roughly our location and for you to criticise me for sleeping is a wee bit rich.” Bull sniffed Andrew, suspecting alcohol for the reason behind his doziness at the wheel. Bull said,

“You’re talking shit Sherlock. If I sleep, it’s on my own time, not when I’m on duty and responsible for the safety of the boat and its crew. I don’t pretend to know much about marine safety, but I’m pretty sure travelling in the fog with no navigation instruments and a pilot sleeping at the wheel classifies as reckless.”

“You’re being melodramatic my friend. I could only have nodded off for a few seconds and why did you sniff me. It’s a strange habit and it’s not the first time...” Bull stretched his hand up inside the viewing turret and switched off the engine. Andrew grunted in annoyance. He climbed down from the pilot’s seat and followed Bull into the main cabin. Bull turned and said,

“If we had been sharing the driving we might have found land by now, but you have to be leader, you have to be captain, and you always have to be in charge. You’re enjoying this aren’t you?”

“Enjoyingthis? Do you actually think I enjoy being imprisoned on this boat with you?

“Your enjoyment is irrelevant. Surviving and getting rescued is paramount and our chances are diminishing when you pretend to know what you’re doing. You’re either too proud or too stupid to admit it. I trusted you, and it takes a great deal for someone to earn my trust, and now I find out you’ve been snoozing at the wheel and leading us around in circles. Also, you’ve been creeping around cutting my hair while I was sleeping!” Bull held the fishing lure aloft. Andrew raised his eyebrows and said,

“Have you been going through my pockets without my permission?  You’re no better than a thief. Are there no boundaries you won’t cross?

“You have a nerve. Did I give you permission to cut my hair? Where are your boundaries?”

“You’re overreacting. You liked the raw fish I caught. I couldn’t have hooked it without your unmanageable hair.” Bull’s lower jaw dropped in disbelief. He moaned,

“My hair is not unmanageable.”

“It’s thick and greasy. It’s full of split ends and frayed at the tips like buck tail. I wouldn’t get so precious about it.”

“It’s the salt water. It wreaks havoc with your hair and my diet of late can’t have helped?” He pointed to the supplies. “Not likely to be any avocado or buttermilk in there?”

“If there were, we wouldn’t be conditioning your hair with it.”

“It’s a pity there isn’t any strong coffee in the supplies, it might have kept you awake.”

“Coffee is a diuretic you fool, why would you need coffee in a survival situation when dehydration is of the utmost concern. I told you, I nodded off for just a few seconds…”

“Liar! For all I know you’ve been sleeping all the while, ever since we set off.” Andrew flushed viciously and looking towards the centre bench where Malcolm’s satchel lay, he snarled,

“Ok, I might have nodded off but it was an honest mistake. We all make mistakes. Fortunately, my mistake didn’t lead to a death. At least you saved his luggage, if not his life.”

Bull’s facial expression changed from bewilderment to hurt and then to anger. Andrew waited like a military general who had served off a volley of cannon fire and was anticipating the enemy’s response. He stared into Bull’s crimson face, his opponent’s lips trembling and small amounts of white foam seeping from the corners of his mouth. Andrew’s own lips curled into a withering sneer. Bull turned his head and stabbed a glance at Malcolm’s bag. He breathed sharply through his clenched teeth.

“It wasn’t like that. You said yourself he would have died anyway and I only took his bag because the strap got tangled around his neck.” Andrew shook his head and said,

“It’s clear to me you were only thinking about yourself and helping yourself to things that don’t belong to you. But I suppose this is a characteristic you readily portray in life.” Andrew’s derisory comment had hit the target with aplomb. He was starting to enjoy the discomfort he had dumped upon his fellow survivor when Bull leaned his head forward and said menacingly,

“I have another theory Sherlock. I think you would rather be lost at sea than return to your miserable life back home. You have nothing to return to. Not since your wife left you.” Andrew was taken aback. The flash in his eyes revealed his discomfort. Bull felt like a dog unearthing a bone. He walked to the middle of the cabin and leant against a pillar to aid his balance. As the boat rocked Bull continued, “And how many times did you offer to cast Malcolm overboard when the situation took a turn for the worst? What was he to you? A human sacrifice for the sea gods? So, spare me the lecture. You are just as concerned with self preservation as the next man.” Andrew felt the blood rising to the follicles of his hair. The cold sneer long since melted, he said,

“You really are an obnoxious, pathetic excuse for a man. It was me who tended Malcolm’s wounds while you slept. I kept him alive for as long as I possibly could. And you know nothing of my wife or life back home. You presumptuous fool.”

Andrew’s mind was lost in a red mist. Fists clenched, he growled and motioned himself towards Bull who held his ground, sniffing the air like a wild beast. Andrew was incensed with anger but undermining his rage was a growing apprehension of being confronted by a huge immoveable wall of damp fur. For the first time Bull’s eyes looked feral and menacing. Andrew took another step forward. Bull positioned himself for the oncoming assault, but in relinquishing his grip on the pillar, he lost his footing. He slipped on the wet floor and fell to his knees. Bull considered the notion, outside playground scraps, he had never physically come to blows with another man. Most potential assailants took one look at his formidable size and walked away, but he doubted if Andrew was the scrapping sort either. Finally, Andrew broke the tense silence. “I wish I had let you drown,” he said, pronouncing each word slowly to deliver maximum effect. To Andrew’s surprise, Bull’s face recoiled in dismay. Slumping against the bulkhead, he wailed,

“What type of human being are you?” Andrew remained rooted to the spot like a triumphant boxer, his knees positioned to give him maximum balance. He remained still, his chin protruding in defiance of his larger adversary. Perversely, he felt fearsome, filled with pride and antagonism. He had never stooped to the base savagery of male fighting, but he believed, in this situation, his actions would be justified. The tension only subsided when a large swell struck the lifeboat and knocked Andrew to the floor. He only stopped sliding when he collided with Bull.

Curiously, Bull stiffened and held his index finger up as a warning to Andrew not to utter a word. From outside came a distinctive thump on the hull. It startled both men and pierced the testosterone filled atmosphere like a hot needle pricking a balloon. Staring anxiously into each others petrified eyes, they listened to the muffled sounds of something flapping around outside on the deck. The noise echoed around the cabin. Andrew thought back to the shark attack on the raft and later, when the pod of whales had circled them. Bull remembered watching a news article about West African pirates hijacking boats and taking slaves in the North Atlantic. He prepared himself for the worst.

Their belligerent affectation had subsided and hastened to a panicking embrace. Andrew gripped Bull’s fur coat tightly. His face had contorted with the thought of an unexplained terror boarding the vessel and investigating potential ways into the cabin. He looked towards the hatch and wondered if it had been locked. Bull snatched at Andrew’s anorak like a child holding a comfort blanket. From the corner of his eye Andrew saw a shadow pass the porthole. He stabbed a hasty look at Bull, his face a picture of torment. He wished he could recall his harsh words. He knew they had only been borne out of pettiness and anger. He wanted to apologise by telling him he was glad to have rescued him and was glad to have met him, despite their differences, but time seemed to freeze.

Three loud thumps on the hatch door sounded and then the handle rattled violently. Finally, they heard the unmistakeable sound of human voices, subdued at first but distinctly human and speaking English in various accents. The intense moment of panic evaporated. Andrew and Bull let go of each other as if repulsed by their brief intimate moment. They moved towards the entrance hatch and engaged the locking mechanism. As the door opened a bearded face appeared, blocking out the daylight. The man said,

“Hello, anyone onboard?” Andrew stepped forward. He asked,  

“Thank you God.”

“No, thank you Robert McIntyre would be a more appropriate greeting.” He pointed behind his shoulder and said, “This is Ty Kurt. How many crew members are onboard?”

Bull, his spirits soaring as it dawned on him he was going to live through his nightmare said, “It’s just who you see standing in front of you.” There was a pause as Bull examined McIntyre’s uniform. He said, “Are you the Coast Guard?” McIntyre smiled and then said,

“In a previous life but not anymore. The Captain of the GM vessel the RV Mother Earth will explain everything to you and maybe you can help him with his lost ship.”

“Why would we know anything about a missing ship?”

“You’re in her lifeboat. They lost contact with her several days ago but continued to search. We were hoping to find some surviving members of the crew.”

“We were in a life raft but it sunk in a storm and luckily we came across this boat. We were heading for the mainland but I think we got lost.” Bull turned and stabbed a wry look at Andrew.

McIntyre looked Bull up and down, mystified at his choice of attire. He said,

“When you showed up on our radar, you were heading away from the Hebrides and out to open sea, but for the last twelve hours you’ve been going round in circles. You must have activated the tracking device which allowed us to locate you. But enough questions, let us get you onboard the Mother Earth and out of this odd clothing. There is a peculiar smell like a dead monkey coming from inside the cabin.”

Tears, driven by relief, welled up in Bull’s eyes. His mind full of more questions than answers, but he was content to allow his curiosity to settle for a while. He returned to the centre bench and upon picking up Malcolm’s leather satchel, he noticed the rusted lock had given way. Inside, the contents were wrapped in a heavy duty polythene dry bag. He opened it and found a number of items. He examined the Tilley hat, a pair of round metal spectacles and a photograph of a young girl. Bull studied the image, his eyes wide with curiosity. Written on the back of the photograph was written: Saffron, Calgary Bay, Mull. Summer 2033. Bull stuffed everything back inside the leather satchel apart from the photograph. He followed Andrew along a gangplank from the lifeboat and onto McIntyre’s cutter. He took his seat and gazed at the vessel which had been their home for the last few days. On the side of the boat was an inscription they hadn’t noticed before: The Flower Child.


Saffron needed to meditate. Her mind was still in a state of confusion. It wasn’t the first time she had witnessed violence, but it was the first time she had seriously feared for her life. Her plan had been to be brave and make a determined stand at the Arctic oil rig, despite knowing she and her GM team were entering a disputed zone: since the melting of the sea ice, and the opening up of methane hydrate exploration, the threat of international armed conflict was never far away. When the Russian security guards opened fire, Saffron had dropped her banner and climbed into the ship’s life boat to cower. Later she found one of the crew had been shot in the leg and seven others had been arrested and taken into custody. They would have certainly been destined for a Siberian gulag if not for the intervention of the Earth Liberation Front.

With the destruction of the drilling rig and the arrival of the Russian navy, it was time to flee. The GM trimaran had easily outrun the lumbering Russian warship, but it had been with great relief they reached Norwegian waters and the port of Hammerfest. They had moored at the floating dock for two days and after taking on fresh supplies and making repairs, the ship headed for the Shetland Islands. On entering open seas, they were followed by another ship flying a Russian ensign. The GM ship’s radar could not detect it but visual sightings confirmed it was keeping pace with them. In accordance with their orders, they continued to St Kilda, ironically hoping the military presence on the Islands would dissuade the Russians from following.

High up in the superstructure of the ship, Saffron watched the guillemots flying in an erratic formation, their little bat like bodies jostling for position only a few feet above the surface of the sea. They are a good omen on our journey to St Kilda, despite the pursuing Russian ship, she thought. For a time, a pod of bottlenose dolphins escorted them, but as the trimaran drew close to the Butt of Lewis the Captain decided on a change in direction. Now back in British waters, they had hoped for a triumphant return, but there had been no mention of the incident in the Arctic, at least not by the established media. Instead, they had been informed of a Royal Navy warship spotted close to the Finnan Islands. It was boarding all vessels in the area. They turned south and towards the Isle of Skye, hugging the coastline and still the Russian ship trailed them. On another day Saffron would have appreciated the scenery but on this day her mind was troubled. The landscape acted like an ominous backdrop to an unfolding situation. She studied the columnar basalt cliffs, stacked like the stone pipes of some giant organ and shrouded by vortexes of grey spinning clouds. On the shore below the crushing rocks manifested in Saffron’s eyes like ancient statues, moulded from the molten entrails of Mother Nature and sculpted by the motion of the chilling sea. This was a land steeped in nature’s historic violence, she thought. Such gothic beauty and bleakness. It sent a shiver up her spine. Saffron felt a sense of foreboding wash over her. Moreover, she had lost her Peruvian knitted alpaca hat to the ferocious wind and her face was numb with cold.

They slipped under the Skye Bridge and made for the sound of Sleat. Sandwiched between the Cullin Hills and the Island of Rum, they plotted a course towards Harris and then to Hirta, the largest island of St Kilda. As they approached the shoreline, above the roar of the wind, Saffron could hear the abrasive throaty call of nesting gannets and the softer trill of the petrels. The sounds of bird life offered her some cheer, but signs of human activity would have offered her more comfort. There appeared to be a gathering of sorts in the village. Even at considerable distance she could hear music. She yearned for a return to a level of normality she had previously enjoyed before the Change. It had been a long time since she had went to a ceilidh, danced and drunk poitín until dawn. Nonetheless, the Captain decided they would continue to the quieter side of the island, closer to the military base. Later in the evening they dropped anchor in Loch Ghlinne. A carnival atmosphere would normally have broken out around the decks when making land, but the crew’s hugs and kisses were borne out of a sense of relief rather than celebration. The falling gradient of the sun’s light did nothing to raise their spirits and to compound matters, the Russian ship was spotted on the horizon. They congregated on the foredeck waiting for the Captain to address his eco-warriors, but on this occasion there was no customary speech. He remained in the ship’s bridge and First Mate, Fredrick Van Blauvelt was left to inform the crew of the Captain’s difficulty contacting the other GM vessel. He told them they had to rely on their VHF radio as the satellite communication system was inoperable, but as things stood they were on their own for the time being. He reassured them the Russian ship had illegally entered British waters using stealth technology and would soon be challenged by the Royal Navy. So far the Russians had not responded to their own transmissions. Fredrick Van Blauvelt raised his hands in a reassuring gesture. He asked for calm and said,

“As soon as the Captain contacts the sister ship we will decide on a rendezvous site and…” Fredrick Van Blauvelt stopped, his face frozen. A low pitched, subterranean growl sounded deep in the bowels of the earth and rumbled on like a muffled groan, reverberating around the bay like a tumbling roll of thunder. Saffron gripped the guardrail while the trimaran shivered, its structure amplifying the bellowing sound from below. She gazed towards the shoreline where a precipitous ebb tide was drawing back the ocean to reveal the kelp strewn boulders of the sea floor. She felt a sudden wooziness in her head. Time slowed to a grinding halt. And then a sea stack close to the nearby island of Boreray crashed and fell into the ocean. In Loch Ghlinne, the sea quivered like milk being brought to a rolling boil. Frightened screams filled the air.

Many of the crew held each other in a terrified embrace, but some, like the Boson’s mate remained calm. He sat cross legged, took out his tobacco tin and began to roll a cigarette. The rumbling noise faded but was superseded by an unearthly sucking sound emanating from the water. As the water drained from the shoreline, the island appeared to grow. Saffron was overcome with the unsettling feeling she was waiting for an inevitable outcome, helpless like a fly caught in a spider’s web. Then she was overcome by an urge to take flight from the ship. The ship seemed to groan as its anchor strained against the reverse flow of the sea and then a sudden jolt as the three hulls of the trimaran collapsed upon the unveiled rocks. Standing members of the crew were cast down on the deck, but Louis Vedder, the Quarter Master lost his grip on the guardrail and fell from the ship onto the rocks below. He cried out in pain, his cries acting as a clarion call for a state of open panic to descend around the ship.

The crew stumbled around in no particular direction, like ants when their nest is exposed to the sunlight. Saffron climbed down to the foredeck and attempted to persuade anyone who would listen to follow her off the ship. Like a little girl trying to catch the attention of the preoccupied adults, she buzzed around them, pulling on their arms. More direct action was needed. Saffron untied one of the bow lines and threw it overboard. With some agility, she abseiled to the exposed seafloor, burning her hands on the rope as she went. Saffron ran to the wounded Quarter Master and tried to help him to his feet. Finally her actions caught the attention of the First Mate. It was Fredrick Van Blauvelt who issued the call to abandon ship. The klaxon alarm sounded. Slipping and falling on the kelp covered rocks, the crew stumbled to the shore. They didn’t stop climbing until they reached the top of the cliff. Catching her breath, Saffron looked back towards the ship. A chill of ice ran the length of her spine. Down in the bay, a monstrous wave surged up from the ocean, gathering height and velocity as it met the shallows of the island. Still in the bridge, she could see the Captain staring defiantly out to the sea. As tradition would have it, he was the last off the ship, but it would be too late for him. Panic rose in her breast. Her pitiful scream was snatched away by the roaring wind, throwing her and the crew to the ground in its path across the island. And then the rolling white wall advanced into the bay, raising the ship and propelling it against the rocks.


Saffron would take pride in her unconventional upbringing: her parents had both dropped out of university to join a ménage of new age travellers, taking off to Tibet on a Buddhist pilgrimage. She conceived and was born in a VW campervan a few miles outside the city of Mumbai, near the meeting place of two of Hinduism’s holy rivers, the Ganges and Yamuna. This was the same place where the ashes of Mahatma Gandhi were scattered and where Saffron had once believed was her spiritual home. She was a child of the earth even though the passport she travelled with would state otherwise. She believed nationalism only drove a wedge between people.

When her parents returned to Scotland they picked up their studies again, but both found it hard to adjust to normal life after their travels. When Saffron’s father was offered a scholarship to conduct his doctorate at the University of Southern California he took the opportunity but within four years he was back on home soil and working as a lecturer of Maritime Studies at Aberdeen University. The Burke family all moved to Aberdeen when Saffron was seven years old to start a new school, but within a year Saffron and her mother were back in Glasgow. The following year her father had taken a new job at the National Oceanography Centre in London.

As Saffron grew older she would get the occasional letter, Christmas present and birthday card from her father, but an invite to come and visit or to meet with her failed to materialise. This precipitated her mother to ostracise him from Saffron’s life altogether and she vowed she would, under no circumstances, speak to her father again. Saffron’s mother married a financial expert who worked in Edinburgh and Saffron took her stepfather’s name of Wilton. She protested at first but as she grew older she thought less about her father, Professor Earl Burke. Her step-father became the focus of everything she hated about a society obsessed by wealth, stature and vanity, but he treated her like his own child and put her churlishness down to what he called, “natural teenage rebellion.” Mr Wilton believed this doggedness would be driven out of her after a few years at the Cademuir International Boarding School for girls in Moniaive.

Her step-father’s attempts to normalise the young Saffron had the opposite effect, and as each semester came and went she became more radicalised in terms of politics and her views on society. The manner in which she dressed was a constant source of amusement to him. One summer she returned home for the holidays dressed in a tartan mini skirt, ripped tights and black knee length army boots. Her step-father stood in the doorway of their Kelvinside home and looking at her with a critical eye, he asked,

“Have you been earning extra pocket money working as an extra on that new zombie movie they’ve been shooting at the Necropolis?” Saffron stared at him with a look of contempt etched across her face. She brushed by him, dropped her bag on the floor and said,

“Yeah, if you like Alasdair. If that’s the best anecdote you can come up with?” Her step-father, not to be outdone, followed her down the hallway to continue their altercation. He was now joined by her mother who skidded to a halt and gasped, retracting her hands up to her mouth in surprise when she recognised her daughter under the heavy dark eye makeup, black lipstick and dreadlocks.

“Did you steal those boots off Frankenstein’s monster?” laughed her step-father. Without looking back, Saffron extended a fist with one erect middle finger. Saffron’s mother was now holding onto her husbands arm. She said,

“Don’t Alasdair, you’re only providing her with an axe to grind. I’ll go and talk with her later, when she’s calmer.” He shouted after her,

“Why don’t you just screw some bolts into your neck and be done with it, Saffron?”

When she was home Saffron would spend most of her time sketching in her room or playing with her cat. Willow provided her with the only sense of connection she had with her parent’s house. She would spend hours grooming her coat whilst all the time talking to her in both human and feline voices. Her parents had become more anxious about her pensive moods and need for solitude. One day she redecorated her room, painting a mural on the walls she described as a dichotomy of wealth versus nature. Her stepfather declared it an act of vandalism and ordered it to be painted over. He suspected one of the images, of a pig dressed up to look like city banker suckling on the teat of an exhausted Mother Earth, was too close a resemblance to himself. They talked about psychologists and whether she was taking drugs, but Saffron was never interested in laboratory processed narcotics, not when nature provided her with every bodily high she required.

She studied Sculpture and Environmental Design at Glasgow School of Art where she became involved with her environmental group. One evening they stopped a train delivering coal to one of a new batch of coal fired power stations. When the police arrived, they emptied the coal onto the embankment and chained themselves to the tracks. Saffron was later arrested and released without charge, much to Alasdair’s annoyance. “A good stint in prison will sort the girl out,” he said, only half seriously. Four years later she graduated. She took a year out to retrace her parents footsteps by travelling to India and Thailand and when she returned back home she appeared more content and settled, but not in the manner her step-father had hoped for.

One day, her parents were sitting outside on the garden patio furniture, soaking up the last of the evening sunshine with a glass of wine when Saffron returned from her trip. She was wearing an Indian embroidered caftan with an array of multicoloured ethnic beads around her neck. Her step-father looked around when he heard her voice and then immediately put his hand to his head in disbelief. He waited until she had exchanged pleasantries with her mother then welcomed her return with an embrace, talking to her like she was a child again.

“Ah, Saffron, you’re back and now you’re a hippy! Well it’s comforting to know all the money I spent on your education and sending you halfway around the world to broaden your horizons wasn’t wasted.” His face became sombre. “You better not be smoking any of that wacky tabacky.” Saffron turned to him, picked up the bottle of wine, held his stare and said,

“Still drinking wine from unethical sources dad?” When Saffron walked down the tree lined garden path, rounded the terracotta pots and entered the house, her step-father turned to his wife and imitating a tear in his eye and a sniff, said,

“Did you hear Mrs Wilton? For the first time, she called me dad. Who said money can’t buy you love.”


The Praying Mantis arrived at the Kelvingrove Protest in the Park and through the hordes of environmental activists she had noticed Bull. She watched him curiously from afar, his body gyrating out of time to the music. He then froze and moved his head from side to side as if surveying the scene and then he was off again, jumping up and down and flapping his arms at his side in sporadic movements. She withdrew a photograph of him from her bag and stared at the image. 339’s him, she thought, but why attract so much attention to yourself?  She continued to observe from afar, fascinated by his unsynchronised animated motion and ostentatious display of running in circles and then what appeared to be a crude figure of eight. As the choreography unfurled, the crowd parted to allow him space and Bull treated them to some violent head slapping and self-flagellation. This one was going to be a challenge, she thought.

She wondered if his frantic virtuoso display was provoked by a drug induced state of mind, or influenced by one of the symbolic tribal ritual dances similar to what she had witnessed during her trip to the Amazonian rainforest. She felt compelled to get closer, and as she did it became apparent the man was in actual fact being harassed by a bee. She moved towards her subject and stood in his shadow. She studied him – he was much larger than the usual MoDs filters. Filters tended to be weasel-like and ragged in appearance. Perhaps they were getting desperate, she thought. Her subject tracked the departing insect as it disappeared into the sky. She could now begin her psychological assessment. Edging closer, she was almost by his side. She noticed a curious statement written on his t-shirt. This was the trigger she needed. She started to laugh. “Hi,” she said, “I’m Saffron.”


One summer’s afternoon, Saffron called her mother to ask her about an herbal remedy for Bull’s eczema.  Soon the conversation turned to her problems with Bull. She complained about his personal hygiene and his slovenliness. Her mother tried to offer some understanding.

“Saffron darling, all men are like lazy, challenging children at heart. If you’re going to change them, you’ll find it’s just a slow process of re-education through a practice of gentle pressure and incentives. Think of it being a bit like house training a puppy, only not as fun.” 

“You shouldn’t have to change anyone, you should accept them for the way they are but he makes the narrowboat smells like the chimp house at Edinburgh zoo. When he’s not drinking beer he’s smoking. He lifts his leg to pass wind and he sleepwalks every night. He seems lost but somehow he always finds his way to the fridge. Yesterday, I caught him cleaning out his ears using one of my false fingernails, which he painstakingly glued to his finger for the job.” Saffron and her mother laughed at the ludicrous spectacle manifesting in their minds.

“Maybe you should travel together and experience a change of scenery,” exclaimed Saffron’s mother.

“His work and my campaigning commitments ensure we rarely have the time to emotionally unwind as a couple. Anyway, his idea of a holiday is the Munich Oktoberfest. I tried to tell him about my trip to Manchu Picchu. I tried to inspire him about the lost city of the Incas and share my experience of touring South America. He wasn’t impressed.”

“To be fair Saffron, retracing the motorcycle tyre tracks of Che Guevara isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.”

“His eyes glazed over when I tried to describe Peru, until I mentioned canoeing on Lake Titicaca. He laughed and said, I like the sounds of that resort. I told him Lake Poopo was probably more his type of place.” Saffron and her mother started to laugh again. “There’s so much I want to tell you, but I can’t at this time. I didn’t mean to love him but it happened all the same.”

“Are you sure you’re alright Saffron – there seems to be a lot on your mind. What is it you can’t tell me?”

“It’s nothing, I’m just tired and a wee bit confused. I’ve lost my focus.”

“Are you having second thoughts about Faerrleah?” Saffron regained her composure.

“He still makes me laugh, but if I wanted someone to entertain me all the time, I would have gone to the circus and hitched myself up with a clown.”

“But you were always terrified of clowns, darling. One of your first drawings was of a clown.”

“To be honest, my world feels like it’s shrinking. I don’t recognise what I’m evolving into.”

“You mean you’re conforming to a stereotypical housewife, something you have always resisted.”

“No, nothing of the sorts. It’s complicated. I’m at a loss and I don’t know what to do. There’s so much I would like to tell you but I can’t. I’ve made a bit of a hash of things.”

“Is it about sex?”


“You can talk to me Saffron, I am your mother.”

“It’s not about sex.”

“I was once like you but with children and age comes different perspectives, and it’s difficult not to conform to what’s deemed conventional. I don’t think you are quite ready for the conformist’s life just yet. Is your sex life boring, is that it?”

“It’s not about my sex life. It’s something else. It’s complicated. I will tell you about it some day, but not just now. I just needed to talk to you.”

“Ok Saffron, tell me about your friend Maurice.”


Saffron met with Maurice at the Organic Cafe on Woodlands road. He stirred his coffee thoughtfully and Saffron sensed he had something on his mind. Maurice told her about his plan to move to New Caledonia. Hopefully, his partner would follow and join him in the South Pacific. If he didn’t, he would find a new partner, perhaps even settle down with a native Kanak, get married and adopt some children. Art in Britain was dead, there was nothing for him here anymore, he said. Saffron kissed him on the cheek and declared this was exciting news and although she would miss him dearly, they would always be friends. Saffron went on to tell Maurice how her mind was made up about leaving Bull. She cried and Maurice tried to convince her she should talk her feelings over with her partner, but she announced she had signed up for the Green Movement protest in the Arctic. As Maurice held her hand, Saffron said,

“I’m travelling to Norway soon. The ship is stationed in Bergen. I’m excited about the trip but I’m worried about how Faerrleah will take it.”

“Oui,” replied Maurice still stirring his cold coffee, “This is sad news about you and Faerrleah, but I’m sure everything will work out for you, whether you are together or not. Sometimes our paths in life divide and take a different direction to our loved ones. Who knows, they may converge again? Life can conspire to do this from time to time.”

Saffron and Maurice went their separate ways and when she arrived back at the narrowboat, she put some of her possessions in a rucksack, picked up Boris and left for the last time. Saffron spent the night at her parent’s house and the following morning she hitchhiked to Aberdeen and then boarded a fishing vessel which took her to Bergen. Boris remained with her parents to be cared for along with all her other pets which had survived from her childhood. At first, her father protested, saying he was going to open an animal sanctuary at the rate she was abandoning her pets.

On the journey across the North Sea Saffron realised she was meant to be attending the Naked Bike Ride for Climate Change in Kelvingrove Park, with Bull. She only stopped sobbing when she arrived in Bergen. She was greeted by her fellow GM activists who had been surprised to hear she was going to be a week earlier than planned. They could see she had been crying and no further questions were asked until she boarded the GM ship. Later, she was introduced to the Captain who provided her with a tour of the vessel and showed her to her quarters. The following week, the ship left for the Arctic Ocean. They returned three months later to a hero’s welcome. Saffron rented an apartment in Bergen and spent most of her spare time, in-between missions, walking, painting and taking photographs of the Scandinavian coastline. At one point she helped out with a marine conservation project and even persuaded her stepfather and banker friends to fund the programme.

Saffron was on her third mission to protest at a Russian methane hydrate drilling rig in the Arctic when a letter arrived from London. Once decrypted, she discovered it had been written by her biological father, Professor Earl Burke and contained details of MoDs plans to conduct a sub-oceanic explosion close to the Rockall trench in the North Atlantic. Saffron immediately contacted the organisation’s headquarters and waited for confirmation her ship was to head for St Kilda to disrupt the Government operation.



  24 closer

The back of the truck was cramped. Two speedboats, boxes of food rations and military hardware accounted for most of the interior room. All extra space was filled by six Elves, only two of whom Professor Burke recognised as Inwë and Lúthien. They sat on aluminium boxes, their bodies rocking in time with the action of the vehicle as it made its way over the Queensferry Crossing and into the Kingdom of Fife. The Professor sat cross-legged on a rolled up blanket. He was also deep in thought. Later Itaridlë relinquished her seat in the front cabin to join him at his side. She said,

“I hope the ride isn’t too bumpy for you Professor? The back roads to the Highlands aren’t the best but we have a better chance avoiding MoDs detection and the views are more spectacular. Not that you’ll see much sitting back here. You can sit up front for a while if you like?”

“I’m fine. I don’t want to run the risk of being spotted by one of the surveillance satellites,” replied the Professor.”

“The satellites are temporarily down at the moment.” Inwë turned his head and said,

“The Prophylaxis Trident spy satellite has infra-red capabilities but its image enhancers can’t penetrate the fog so we normally wait...” Without warning, Lúthien came to life and interrupted,

“I don’t think Professor Burke needs to know any more.” She looked directly into the Professor’s eyes and then turned away with a look of disgust.  Professor Burke felt a strange prickling sensation in his head and then a shiver ran down his spine. He contemplated the temperament of the company he was keeping. Itaridlë put a hand on the Professor’s arm and said,

“Don’t mind Lúthien, she’s just a bit uptight about strangers in our company and always gets touchy before a mission, right Lúthien?” Inwë interjected but all the while staring at Lúthien,

“We’ve had enough problems with MoDs filters infiltrating our group – some of us even fell in love with them, moved in together and had children with them before finding out who they actually were.” Itaridlë put a firm hand on Inwë’s shoulder and continued,

“However, Lúthien is correct in stating that Professor Burke doesn’t need to know any more details concerning our activities. It will be safer for the Elves and himself, just in case anything goes wrong.” She stabbed a piercing stare towards Inwë who seemed to shrink before her. The Professor said,

“I wish you would reconsider your position and help me prevent a human and ecological disaster unfolding. I thought you were ecommandos and you wanted to protect the planet?”

“We have a chance to catch the Government red handed. It’s too good an opportunity to miss.”

“I don’t think I quite follow you Itaridlë. I thought we were going to stop this madness together. I thought we had a mutual arrangement.” Itaridlë adjusted the Professor’s spectacles like a concerned mother sending her child off to school. She said,

“Believe me Professor, where we are going is no place for an academic such as yourself. Things are going to turn nasty and you don’t want to be around when it does. This is a stealth mission and as far I can tell from Lúthien’s and Inwë’s account of your performance back at the brew shack in Leith, discretion is not your best mantra.” The Professor’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment. He offered an explanation, blaming his antics on the poitín. Itaridlë cut him off.

“By all means, go to the St Kilda and do what you have to do, but I can’t see what you are planning to achieve by just turning up at the control site.” The Professor said,

“There is someone who might be able to help me.”

“Names Professor? We need to establish a level of trust and we can’t help without a name.”

“As I said back at your base, I can’t divulge certain information. It would put him in grave danger.”

“So your mole is a male.”

“He’s not a mole, just a concerned human being. I can say no more.”

“Alas Professor Burke, without definite proof inside help is available and willing to assist we must make our own arrangements. What about the virus? If you could provide us with the code?”

“I can’t. I’m sorry. I will find someway of getting to the control site on my own.”

“Now might be a good time to tell you. We’ve just had word the control site has been moved to an offshore oil exploration rig. I believe it was originally a naval corvette. I can give you the grid coordinates. This might be valuable intel for you.”

“If all you want to do is collect vital evidence, then why all the military hardware? Why not camera equipment instead of assault weapons and explosives? What are you hoping to achieve by meeting violence with violence?” The Professor wiped away the perspiration collecting on his forehead. Itaridlë smiled and said,

“I can’t provide you with any details of our mission, but what I can tell you is we are not acting alone. There is a means to an end if that is what you are implying. There are others operating out there who share our knowledge and have the responsibility of gathering the evidence. It is our job to make sure they are in a position to gather evidence, if you see what I mean? Our job is to protect them. We all have our parts to play Professor Burke. We do not wish for anyone to get hurt but at the same time we are prepared to defend ourselves. If, on the other hand, you gave us the name of your contact, we could conduct our operation differently. There needn’t be any conflict.”  The Professor bit his bottom lip and said,

“I can’t divulge his name. I’m sorry but unfortunately once we get to Ullapool we must go our separate ways Itaridlë. I hope you achieve what you set out to do but more than that, I hope no-one gets hurt in the process.” Itaridlë put a hand on the Professor’s shoulder. The other Elves looked on. She returned their gazes and said in a deliberate manner,

“Over the next few days all will become clear. I can truly understand why you are trying to undo a wrong which you have been caught up in, but you have done as much as you can, and now you should think of calling it a day.” The Professor frowned. He looked at his feet and said,

“Where would I go? I have no home. I have no family.”

“You have a daughter. Saffron? Although I know her by a different moniker. Can’t you go to her? She could help you with her contacts.”

“I have no idea what you are talking about Itaridlë. I haven’t see or heard from my daughter in years. I’m on my own. I can’t go back to London. I would rather die than spend a minute in one of those detention centres, knowing I didn’t raise a hand to stop the monster I helped create. I have no option but to go on.”

The Professor looked into Itaridlë’s blue eyes, fixed into a beautiful face, but he saw no hint of compassion or emotion. He was dubious about the sincerity of the eternal gratitude she had expressed. Doubtfully, he wondered how Itaridlë was aware of the existence of his daughter or the control site being moved. Clearly, she had access to her own intelligence gathering. He racked his brain for further information likely to be of use to them and spent the next hour briefing Itaridlë on more of the technical details of the Silent Wave project. He said no more about his daughter or his contact within the Government.

Later Lúthien returned from the driver’s cabin and whispered something into Itaridlë’s ear. Itaridlë informed the Professor they were being forced to take a diversion because of police road blocks on the main road north. He was given some lunch and a mug of hot green tea. He then fell asleep. The truck snaked its way through the west coast, the route via Glen Shiel, Torridon and the banks of Loch Maree, before finally arriving at the town of Ullapool. When Professor Burke woke, the truck was still and he was greeted by Inwë who provided him with a drink of water and a high energy snack bar. Itaridlë opened the hatch door to the rear of the vehicle and asked the Professor to step out.

Itaridlë surveyed the area. The town was busier than normal and the muffled sound of folk music came from a large blue tent to the north. She shook the Professor’s hand and said,

“You’ve arrived just in time for the Loopallu festival Professor. You should be able to blend with the crowd.” Itaridlë looked the Professor up and down and then said goodbye. He watched the truck move off, trundling slowly through the street lined with white cottage buildings and then out of town. Professor Burke was overwhelmed by his situation and a feeling of being alone and vulnerable. It had been a while since he had left the familiar confines of his London apartment. He felt detached from reality and the rest of the world, and though he knew the Elfs didn’t trust him, they were the only meaningful human contact in the last few days, besides the bartender from the Splurge Bucket.

He rubbed some life back into his buttocks and then crossed the road to a hotel called the Ferry Boat Inn. He decided a quick malt whisky would sharpen his resolve. As he opened the bar door his sinuses were assaulted by a bitter and sulphurous odour. He turned his gaze towards the dock. He could see a number of fishing vessels harboured in the distance, but one ship stood out from the others: a large, white ferry with the name “Andrea Starlight” digitalised on the hull. To his side the ticket office advertised a cruise to the Hebrides and St Kilda with a caption, Witness the islands in all their majesty – see the last colony of puffins. Every trip was marked full.

The Professor turned his gaze to his feet. There, on the ground, he watched as his shoe rested across the crack in the pavement. He left it resting there and smiled. It was late in the evening and the Professor made his way through the streets, treading on all the pavement cracks as he went and enquiring at various hotels about lodgings for the night. He found a room and bedded down for the night. In the morning, after breakfast, he put his Tilley hat on, placed the strap of his leather satchel over his shoulder and started walking towards the dock. In his other hand was a bag which contained a survival suit and food rations the Elves had given him. As he approached the Andrea Starlight he could hear the engines humming, but there was something different about the superstructure. The absence of a funnel seemed peculiar to the Professor. He wondered if the ship was one of the new hydrogen cell reactor vessels he had read about in a science journal.

He noticed a group of catering staff enjoying a break. They were busy introducing themselves to each other and it was evident the ship was unguarded. A brief but strange air of excitement came over as he ascended the gangplank. He tried to appear casual and entered the ship via the kitchens. He noticed a table with staff uniforms still inside their cellophane wraps and with without any hesitation he picked one up, opened it and slipped the clean, black uniform on over his garments. They were a good fit even if the trousers were slightly tight around the crotch, considered the Professor. And then he heard voices. Two men entered the kitchen. One was a large black man with a chef’s hat. He was arguing with an officer. The Professor froze, his fists clenching at his side. The chef noticed him and stopped talking. He jabbed his forehead with an extended forefinger and shouted in a North American accent,

“Service staff have no business in the kitchens until I say so. Now, get your fanny out of here unless you want me to kick it for you. We only have six hours before our guests arrive and we still haven’t got my shipment of fresh salmon. Do you have any salmon for me? No? Then get the fuck out of my kitchen.” The Professor stood rooted to the spot, carrying a look of bafflement on his face. The chef turned to the officer and said,

“Is this what you’re sending me Purser? Old men to do a young man’s job? The Purser looked at the Professor’s name tag. He enquired politely,

“Malcolm? Oh, Malcolm Hoi Ying Li’ I take it? Everyone else has been accounted for so you must be Malcolm. I thought you were sick? Don’t mind Chef. He’s all bark.”

“I’ll bite your ass if you don’t get out of my fucking kitchen!” growled the Chef. Professor Burke’s eyes twitched. Regaining his composure and in-between a rasping cough, he stammered,

“I was ill but I’m much better now.” The Purser stoked his long beard and said,

“You better get your cough checked out by the ship’s doctor before you go anywhere. I don’t want you infecting the crew. I thought you said you had shingles or was that Craig? Anyway, we don’t have time for this so get to the doc, and then find Mr Healy who will show you your quarters. The Professor nodded and continued to stare at the two men until the Chef shouted,

“What are you waiting for cracker? Do you want a fucking letter posted to you with instructions? You heard the man, off with you and if I catch you malingering around in my kitchen again, without me expressly welcoming you in, which is highly unlikely, I’ll kick your ass.”

The Professor decided this would be a good time to leave. He entered the outside deck and noticed a number of passengers congregating on the dock and fussing over their luggage. For a moment he turned his attention to one of the lifeboats and considered hiding until they were at sea. Eventually, he decided he had bluffed his way this far and now had nothing to lose. He went to find Mr Healy and later was shown to a room where he would share the voyage with three other workmates. To the Professor’s relief, placed on top of his bunk, was a folder with Malcolm Hoi Ying Li’s details enclosed within, and an employment contract which he was urged to sign immediately before handing it back to Mr Healy.

Later in the morning, the Professor passed groups of passengers and crew in the passageway. He detected an excited buzz about the ship. He could hear a number of voices and different accents and languages from around the world. He was convinced the ship’s departure was imminent. Arriving at the dining area, he noticed a group of waiters all dressed in black but considerably younger than himself. Behind them was the bar. It was closed and on a barstool sat a giant of a man who asked in a polite but perceptible Mancunian accent when he could get a drink?

The following day, the Professor continued with his charade, all the while waiting to be exposed as a stowaway. To his surprise the deception continued until later he was asked to report to the Purser’s office at midday. The Professor’s stomach knotted and he was breathing hard. In a state of desperation he came across a pod. Inside was one of the ship’s inflatable life rafts. He dithered for a while, checking to see if he was being observed. There was no one else on the deck. He broke the seal, opened the pod and crept inside. He thanked the gods for his small stature which otherwise would have made the task impossible. Exhausted from his panic, he snuggled inside the plastic folds of the raft, closed his eyes and went to sleep cradling his leather satchel.

25 mother earth

When Andrew and Bull arrived on the RV Mother Earth, they were taken to one of the lower decks by a young woman who introduced herself as Nico. They were shown inside a store cupboard and told this would be their berth until they were set down at the nearest port. They were given bathrobes and shown to the ship’s shower room. Andrew asked for a razor, but Bull decided he would keep his beard. “It makes me look more intellectual, he said looking in the mirror,” he stated pensively.Once they had washed several days of dried sweat and salt water from their bodies, they were examined by the ship’s medic and returned to their accommodation. To their amazement, they found the room cleared of junk and illuminated by a soft light from an electric lantern. The floor was adorned with a Persian rug and a spiral joss stick was burning on a wooden table, filling the room with a sweet aroma of camphor wood. There were two hammocks erected in the corner, a psychedelic stylised poster of Geronimo pinned to the ceiling, a shell braided mirror on the wall and two beanbags provided for sitting on. Bull stood motionless. In many ways the scene reminded him of the narrowboat back in Glasgow when Saffron had lived with him. His eyes were drawn towards a pile of sandwiches lying on the table. Nico stood by the porthole at the opposite side of the room. She was smiling. She said,

“I’ll split and let you be in peace, and once you have chilled for a while, the Captain would like to rap with you. There has been much happening on the Earth and we were hoping you may have some news of our crewmates onboard the Flower Child, but rest for now. I have brought you a change of threads. I will take your old garments to be detoxed.” Nico placed a pile of fresh clothes on the table and left through the beaded curtains. Bull descended upon the sandwiches like a raptor upon its prey.

“I didn’t catch most of what she said, did you?” Garbled Andrew. Bull snorted,

“She said the Captain wants to talk to us about their missing ship and she’s brought us some fresh clothes.” With a fresh sandwich, he pointed to the clothes placed on the hammocks, “She’s taken our old clothes to be incinerated in the ship’s boiler.” On seeing Andrew’s alarmed reaction, Bull laughed, “I’m only joking. They’re just going to wash them.”

Bull lay down on his hammock. He vowed never again to take for granted the sensation of being warm, dry and comfortable. He looked at the skin on his feet. His blisters had gone.

Andrew removed his bathrobe and moved towards the table to inspect his new attire. He started to dress. Bull stretched his hand out to the table and picked up a shell braided mirror. He was admiring his beard when, in the background, he noticed there was no image in the glass where Andrew should have been. With a sharp intake of breath Bull turned his head and gawped. On noticing the look on Bull’s face, Andrew said,

“What’s up with you I wonder? Haven’t you seen another man’s naked body before?” Bull remained silent, watching Andrew and sniffing the air as he moved around the room. When he turned back to the mirror, he searched for a reflection of Andrew. Nothing. Bull was distracted by a hand coming through the beaded curtain door. The Captain entered the room. He was a large, muscular man with a grey beard. He wore a green baseball cap with a GM logo emblazoned on one side and a Stars and Stripes on the other. After a brief smile, he said,

“Welcome aboard. I’m the Captain but most of the crew call me Waxy. We’re just about to hold a ship’s meeting and I wondered if you would like to attend.” The Captain’s looked at Bull, noticing a disturbed expression on his face. Andrew’s voice cut through the awkward silence. He said,

“We would like that.” The Captain continued to look at Bull for a response. Finally, Bull said,

“Did you hear a voice?”

“A voice?” said the Captain, putting a hand on Bull’s shoulder.

“Yes, did you hear a voice?”

“Look son, you’ve been through a lot. You’re disorientated and probably mystified. I get it, but if you could just keep it together until we get you some professional help on the mainland, that would be cool.”

They followed the Captain out of their quarters and to the bridge where the crew had assembled. A hush had descended upon the room. The Captain stood with his hands planted on the head rest of his chair. He cleared his throat and then said,

“Ok settle down. I said I would have some updates on our missing comrades. As you know, the Flower Child was carrying out operations at a Russian drill site in the Arctic when things turned nasty with the oil company’s armed security service. Shots were fired and one of our own took a bullet in the leg. He’s now recovering in a Norwegian hospital. Most of the crew were in the process of being beat up and arrested when the Earth Liberation Front showed up. I’m not totally clear on what they did but the upshot was the release of the crew and the destruction of the drilling rig.” One of the crew raised his hand to ask a question. The Captain said, “Doobie, what’s on your mind, or can it wait until after the update.” A couple of crew members sniggered. Doobie lowered his hand and said,

“It’s cool man, it can wait.” The Captain continued,

“While Flower Child was still in the Arctic, the GM received intelligence from a valid source working for the MoDs. The military were carrying out an operation to detonate a sub-aqueous explosive device in the North Atlantic. The plan? To create a monster wave. Why? It would have the potential to kill everything in its path. Orders were given to plot a course to Rockall.”

Doobie cut through the muttering crowd and said,

“It’s the most westerly point of the British Isles.” A section of the crew started to laugh. The Captain continued,

“Thanks Doobie. Now, for any of you not familiar with Rockall, go look it up. I’m your captain, not your geography teacher. The Flower Child was pursued by a Russian warship into British waters. They took evasive action. However, fast as she is, they couldn’t shake the Russians off and the Captain must have decided there was little alternative than to head for St Kilda. There’s a military presence on the main island of Hirta. Ironically, with the Russian’s on their tails, they must have thought they were safe there. They were wrong. The detonation went ahead as planned and since then we have lost contact with the Flower Child.” The crew emitted a collective gasp. Doobie raised his hand but the Captain dismissed him. He said,

“When Mac joined us, he gave us a description of the wave he witnessed. If his assessment is accurate, and I have no reason to doubt him, the Flower Child would not have survived the impact of the wave. We now also know the Russian warship and a passenger ferry were also sunk. We have unconfirmed reports of most, if not all of the crew making it to shore before the wave struck. The bad news is they may have been detained by the Feds. To appease the Russians, as of today, the Green Movement has been officially listed as a terrorist organisation by the Allied Governments. We have lawyers fighting this decision so don’t overreact. There’s a long way to go on this one.” Bull’s jaw dropped when the news settled in his mind. The Captain continued, “All satellite navigation systems are now under MoDs control, including GPS and network cells are restricted, so we are back to the dog days of Morse code. Word over the VHF radio, before it was jammed, was that the Feds are rounding up all GM vessels and personnel. Yesterday, the ELF responded in typical fashion and destroyed the MoDs listening station at Taransay.” The sound of groaning noises rippled around the bridge. The Captain continued, “I know many of you are opposed to their methods and believe them to be infiltrated by agent provocateurs, but despotic times have called for radical measures and we are fully cooperating with them at this moment in time.” The Captain held out his hands to calm them.

Bull surveyed the room to locate Andrew, but he was gone. He could see McIntyre standing by a porthole, close to the Captain. Occasionally he would step forward and whisper in the Captain’s ear. “I’m not fully aware of all the details,” continued the Captain, “but with the Prophylaxis Trident satellites temporarily down and the MoDs pulse jamming capabilities halted, our adversaries are now operating practically blind. Our radar is up and running again, hence how Mac was subsequently able to pick up one of the Flower Child’s two lifeboats. Sadly, as you know no members of the original crew were onboard, but we did see some signs of life.” The Captain pointed towards Bull.  The Captain said, “Alright, settle down. I know what you’re all feeling. I’m going through the same emotions, but we need cool heads at a time like this. Our priority is still to find the Flower Child and document evidence to use against the Government. I for one still believe our comrades are still on St Kilda and I’m prepared to try and secure their release and expose this atrocity. I can’t force any of you to come along with me. You need to make that decision for yourselves. If you decide this is not what you signed up for I’m sorry, but I can’t drop you off on the mainland as the Feds will be waiting there for us. I can set you down on one of the other islands and we will collect you when all of this is over. So if there’s anyone who doesn’t want to go any further raise your hands now.” There was a moment of quiet then Doobie raised his hand. The Captain said, “Ok Doobie, get your stuff packed…” Doobie replied,

“No, I’m with you Waxy, I just wanted to ask a question.” Doobie lowered his hand and turned his head to the source of giggling amongst the crew. He scowled and then said,

“The Russians are pissed about something and their defences are on high alert. There’s talk of a potential conflict on the BBC World Service.” Doobie held up an old fashioned transistor radio. One of the crew shouted,

“The BBC also announced in a newsflash that you’re a total geek, Doobie.”

“Maybe so, but you’re a bunch of potheads,” replied Doobie, “There are still people broadcasting on medium and long wave and just as well since the satellites and the internet link ups have all gone cold. I knew this would happen. All I’m saying is, with the Russian’s testing the MoDs defences we might be putting our heads in the lions mouth. There was also a report about a tsunami in the North Atlantic hitting a passenger ferry, but they said the wave was caused by seismic activity linked to a submarine landslip. Nothing about detonations or even linking it to methane hydrate drilling activities.”

“Thanks for the intel Doobie,” said the Captain, “The Allies are playing this to make the GM look like the bad guys and portraying our activities as responsible for bringing the world to the brink of war. The public appear to be buying into it and a lot of folk are pissed with the GM right now, but we’re also pissed. Our so-called leaders have allowed greedy corporations to decimate the environment, they have endangered life and they are bringing the world into an age of chaos and armed conflict. So what do you say, will we go and get our comrades and bring them home? Will we expose the Governments nefarious scheme? Will we go to St Kilda?” The crew offered a nervous cheer.

Still dressed in his slippers and bathrobe, Bull stood in silence. He was absorbed by a moment of clarity. Andrew approached him from behind and whispered in his ear,

“What is up with you?” Bull shuddered and then he turned around. He said,

“Oh, it’s you, I was wondering where you had gotten to.”

“You’ve been acting all strange of late, and that’s saying something because you’re a bloody peculiar bloke at the best of times.”

“Go away, you’re not real,” exclaimed Bull.

“What are you talking about man?”

“You’re not real. You’re a figment of my imagination. I invented you. It must have been something to do with the trauma from the accident, but you’re not real.”

“You’re not making any sense and didn’t you hear the Captain, this is a time to put a stout heart against a stey brae.”

“What? At least on the life raft you were intelligible.”

“It’s an old Scottish proverb my grandfather used to say. It means you need determination to climb a steep hill.”

“Are there any Scottish proverbs about how to deal with hallucinations?”

“No as a nation we have a poor record of dealing with mental illnesses, but a fine history of locking them up. Maybe we should put you in a straightjacket and thrown into a padded cell? Look, when I was a child I had an imaginary pet which I used to constantly play with, but then I got bored with my imaginary pet and invented myself an imaginary friend, but he got bored with me, stole my imaginary pet and ran off with it. I know the symptoms…”

“Go away, you’re embarrassing me. People are staring. Wondering why I’m talking to myself.”

“Everyone is staring at you because you’re dressed in slippers and a bath robe and acting like a mental patient. You’ve been through a lot over the last week: stress, dehydration and hunger.”

“In our quarters, I looked in the mirror and I couldn’t see your reflection where you should be standing, so unless you are a vampire, you must be a hallucination.” One of the crew approached. He turned to Andrew and said,

“You’re the cat we rescued from the soup aren’t you? I didn’t get a chance to properly introduce myself, I’m Ty Kurt.” He extended his hand and gave Bull and then Andrew a traditional Inuit handshake. Andrew leaned forward and pulled Ty Kurt towards him and rubbed his nose against the Inuit man’s nose. He then said,

“My friend here isn’t feeling himself today.” He looked at Bull with a smug expression on his face. Bull returned his stare and said,

“Vampire it is then.” Bull walked back to his quarters. Ty Kurt smiled at Andrew and said,

“Hey man, we just shake hands these days. Only family members do the kunik and pretty much only amongst the elders now. I just thought you might want to know before you try that one again.”

  26 wilderness

Three hours later, McIntyre woke Bull. He said,

“I have brought you a straightjacket my friend. The Captain has asked me to ensure you put it on.” Bull sat up in his hammock, his eyes startled. McIntyre laughed and then said, “I’m only joking, it’s a survival suit. We’re drawing close to St Kilda. Don’t pull the inflation cord unless you have an accident and fall into the water.” Bull nodded laconically and replied,

“Ok, I understand.” 

“To be honest you’re lucky I am onboard and have a big spare suit for you. McIntyre pointed to a pair of boots and said,

“I think these will fit you. Size sixteen if I’m not mistaken?”

“How did you know?”

“When you were sleeping, I lay down in front of you and placed my feet against yours? It was a beautiful moment.”

“For real?”

“No, not for real, but it’s good to know how gullible you are. You’re about the same height as me so I took a lucky guess.” Bull rose from his hammock and biting his top lip he said,

“The Captain said you saw the wave and it was a monster.”

“I saw one of them and the destruction it caused to the west facing sides of Hirta and Soay. It was the like I’ve never witnessed before. Not in this part of the world anyway. The military have been conducting operations in this area for years but nothing like this. They’re hiding something. Even the Coast Guard have been ordered to stay away and they declared an exclusion zone. I said to myself, to hell with them and took a cutter out to take a look for myself. When I got close to the caves on Soay, one of the MoDs took a shot at me.” McIntyre stopped. There was a confused look in his eyes. Finally, he continued, “They are twitchy bastards and will put a bullet in you quicker than you can eat a plate of sandwiches. Nico told me.”

“I was famished.”

“Look, the GM need to try and salvage their ship the Flower Child and find any survivors. They’ll record the destruction and use it as evidence. They will then return to the Mother Earth and get you and Andrew home. You need to get checked out at a hospital.”

“There’s a girl called Saffron. She was in the GM and I’m fearful she was on the Flower Child. I can’t be sure but I feel it in here.” Bull clutched his chest. McIntyre said,

“Was she your girlfriend?”

“It’s a long story which I can’t go into right now, but we split up.”

“You both wanted different things and began to drift, but there remains a fire still burning bright in your heart for her.” To Bull’s surprise McIntyre burst into a song, “Don’t cry young lovers, whatever you do. Don’t cry because I am alone. All of my memories are happy tonight. I have a love of my own.” Bull didn’t know where to look as McIntyre pirouetted around the cabin with the elegance of a dancing bear. Bull considered he might be having another hallucination and then McIntyre stopped. 

“Sorry big man, you wouldn’t know it to look at me, but I am a big fan of musicals.”

“It’s ok. Someone once told me, never judge a book by its cover.”

“I’ll ask around the crew, maybe someone knew her.”

Bull looked at Malcolm’s leather satchel. The memories of his death awakened and the guilt of abandoning him flashed in his mind. He felt his heart thump in his chest and beads of sweat form on the nape of his neck. He said,

“There’s something else. There was a waiter on the life raft. He was seriously injured and didn’t make it. His satchel is over there. There’s items inside, I can’t help but feel is related to the incident the Captain was talking about in the bridge.” McIntyre picked up the satchel and examined its contents. He said,

“If it’s ok with you, I think the Captain will be interested in this.”

Later, McIntyre returned. He said,

“I am sorry big man but Ty Kurt said he knew your Saffron and the last time he heard she was on the Flower Child.” Bull was dressed in his survival suit. He said nothing but walked to the deck. McIntyre followed. Bull looked out to the sea and the approaching islands. He said,

“I take it you intend to set down on the island when we get there? Take one of the speedboats?”

“That is the plan, but only if there’s no military presence.”

“I want to go on shore with you? You can consider it my dropping off point. I’ll find my own way off the island. I’ll even swim there if I have to.” McIntyre wondered how many miles of sea he would swim for someone he loved. It depends how cold the sea was or what she was willing to do to reward my endeavours, he thought.

“Ok, anything to mend a broken heart,” he said, “But I need to clear it with the Captain first. He was interested in the contents of the bag.” McIntyre handed Bull back the leather satchel and left him standing alone to gather his thoughts.

Bull stood alone on the foredeck, feeling the bracing effects of the cold wind on his face. He spent the rest of the journey to St Kilda clutching the guardrail and staring out to the horizon. He reflected on the capsize of the Andrea Starlight, his fearful time on the sinking life raft, the cold, the dampness, the hunger, the death of Malcolm and his fight with Andrew. The islands of Boreray, Hirta, Stac an Armin and Stac Lee emerged from the mist. Together they made up the archipelago of St Kilda. The Mother Earth arrived to the sound of screaming gulls echoing back and forth against the sheer cliffs. Through the wisps of mist Andrew could see a ship lying capsized, the waves pounding against the hull. Andrew joined Bull on the foredeck and together they stared at the still intact graphene structure.

“Is that the Flower Child?” asked Andrew.

“McIntyre told me the Flower Child was a trimaran, a three hulled ship. It might be the Russian ship that followed them into British waters.”

The ship’s engine growled as it continued its way around the west coast of the island and into the mouth of Loch a Ghlinne. The crew waited in silence, anticipating the most terrible conclusion for their comrades on the Flower Child. Bull was distracted by the mechanical sound of a davit lowering McIntyre’s cutter onto the deck. Andrew turned to him and said,

“Feeling better or do you still think I am a figment of your imagination?” Bull frowned but didn’t look Andrew in the eye,

“No, you’re real all right. A real pain in the neck.” Andrew laughed.

“I can understand what you’re going through,” said Andrew more solemnly, “I had a little episode a few years back and not wanting to go into the details, my mind suffered an acute stress disorder. It’s what most people would refer to as a nervous breakdown. I started hearing things, voices in my head, of people I knew. During certain episodes the voices would escape, become audible, so to speak.”

“Like back on the raft?”

“Yes. I take medication to control my anxiety but my pills are at the bottom of the sea right now. I just thought I’d let you know you’re not the only one who is suffering.” Bull smiled sympathetically and patted Andrew on the back and said,

“I’m sorry I went off on one back there. I don’t know what came over me. Something seems amiss, not right, and even surreal.”

“We’ve been through a lot you and I.”

“McIntyre is asking the Captain if I can go on shore with the crew. I might not be coming back.”

“I hope you find what you are looking for.” Bull gave Andrew a playful punch on the shoulder.

Andrew offered a handshake and they parted company. Bull took his place with the crew, waiting to board the cutter. The Mother Earth held a slow but steady course towards the shore. Bull played with his beard and stared out to the black towering cliffs. The void in his heart and the surrounding melancholy threatened to engulf him. He cursed the slow progress of the ship but as they manoeuvred around a headland, the bay opened up and revealed the shoreline. Bull peered forward. In the distance, he could make out the triple hull of a trimaran marooned on the rocks. The ship crawled closer, revealing hundreds of washed up marine mammals lying strewn along the shoreline, their carcases picked over by skuas. Bull thought of Saffron trapped inside the wreckage. He felt his heart palpitate in the cavity of his chest and his stomach coiled into knots. He felt a sickness engulf him and the sensation of rising vomit from within.

He borrowed a pair of binoculars from one of the crew. Through the lenses he studied the bay. He focused on the strange sight of an old man sitting on a log by a fire. He was smoking a pipe and drinking from a cup. The Mother Earth came to a halt and dropped anchor. The shore party prepared in silence and when McIntyre arrived he looked at Bull sitting in the cutter.  He said,

“You waste no time. The Captain said you can go, but I’m responsible for your safety. I’m a bit concerned to be honest. This side of the island is off limits to even the Coast Guard. I’ve seen it from the sea many times but never set foot on it. It’s probably because of the debris washed in by the wave, but I don’t recognise it.” McIntyre threw Bull a survival pack and a transceiver. He stashed it in a borrowed rucksack along with Malcolm’s old leather satchel. The cutter was lowered onto the sea.

A few minutes later they had reached the beach. At first Bull was overwhelmed by the sensation of putting his feet on dry land and then the smell of decomposing carcases overpowered his nasal senses. His eyes fixed on the old man, he walked across the debris strewn shore.  Out of the corner of his eye he noticed a multi-coloured woollen hat. He stopped and picked it up, wiping sand and seaweed from it. He held it to his nose and sniffed it. “He couldn’t be sure but he wondered if it was Saffron’s Peruvian hand knitted alpaca hat. The old man’s expression remained broodingly fixed on the fire as Bull approached. The old man ignored Bull’s extended hand. Crouching down Bull looked into his grey, wrinkled face and said,

“Are there any survivors? The old man stared at the hat Bull held in his hands. He said,

“I’ve just put some coffee on the fire, would you like some?” Bull’s mind was a torrent of despair and his eyes filled with tears. He heard a crunching sound of boots. McIntyre arrived, standing beside him with one hand resting on his shoulder. The old man puffed on his pipe and then acknowledged McIntyre with a nod of the head. The old man asked,

“Would you like some coffee my friend?”

“Your alright,” said McIntyre, But you could tell us what happened here.” The old man gazed over their shoulders at the other members of the crew who were documenting evidence of the wave. They collected the bodies of dead puffins, grey seals and dolphins and lined them up with the larger carcass of a pilot whale.

“The wave was massive,” replied the old man. “The ship had no chance. It came at them so fast. They had little time to get clear but most made it. The military have been swarming all over this part of the island. Terra-drones and Marine Corps. Arresting folk. They were here all week. I hid out the way and only returned today to see if my puffins survived.” The old man removed the billycan from the smouldering embers of the fire and poured coffee into a tin cup. He had a habit of loosening his false teeth and projecting the tar stained denture outwards on his tongue, then replacing them prior to speaking. This was accompanied by an irritating sucking and clicking noise. McIntyre said,

 “English Pete? Are you the old fella who looks after the puffins?”

“What’s left of the puffins?” Bull said,

“Did you see anyone escape the feds?”

“There’s hundreds of old cleits on the island,” stated the old man, “Maybe when the military arrived, some went to hide in them.”

“What’s a cleit?” said Bull. McIntyre frowned,

“A storage hut made out of stone with a turf roof for drying peat.” McIntyre looked towards the Flower Child beached on the shore. He said,

“I’m going to check the ship out. I’ll return soon.” Bull took a seat on the log beside the old man.

“Am not too sure about that one,” said the old man pointing his pipe towards McIntyre. “He’s got shaking hands and shifty eyes.” Bull looked towards the distant walking figure of McIntyre.

“He’s just a bit twitchy after the military took a pot shot at him. He’s probably fine once you get to know him.”

“Oh, I know him alright. He doesn’t know me though. Look son, I did see someone running into a cleit when the feds arrived.”

“A woman?”

“Like my good looks, my eyesight isn’t what it used to be and it’s hard to tell unless you want to have a debate about the peculiar ways of women and how they run.” The old man smiled thinly but he recognised Bull’s anguish. “I don’t want to give you false hope son, but the figure could have been a woman.”

“Could you take me to the cleit?”  The old man extended his dentures and clicked his tongue.

“There’s been a lot of strange stuff going on lately. It’s difficult knowing who to trust. The island had been abandoned for well over a hundred years until they started fracking for gas out at sea, and then the earthquakes started. And then the military moved back to Hirta and left again and all of a sudden we have tsunamis killing folk. Times are screwed up son. The Change they call it? Everything is changing and not for the better. Even in this wilderness. Lots of strangers about these days. You’re no from round here are you? What’s your name son?”

“I’m from Salford, England. My friends call me…” Bull paused and then continued, “Faerrleah O’Connell, my name is Faerrleah O’Connell.” The old man said,

“I’ve been to Salford. Do you know a brew shack called the Squealing Pig?” Bull was astonished and then sadness took him. Eventually he said, 

“It’s gone. The Pig got washed away in a flood.”

“A pity, one of the last proper pubs that was.”

The old man stood up. He poured the rest of his coffee onto the shingle and started to walk the path from the shore uphill. He gestured for Bull to follow him and together they climbed. Looking back out to sea, Bull noticed a black dot on the horizon. He decided it was a sea stack.

McIntyre made his way to the bridge of the ship where he found the Captain of The Flower Child. He was still holding onto the wheel. The sound of gun shots rang out in the bay. McIntyre ducked for cover but on raising his head above the binnacle he could see Marine Corps on the shore rounding up crew members from the Mother Earth. He looked towards the grey smoking fire. Bull and English Pete had gone. McIntyre removed his rucksack and brought out a pair of binoculars. Out in the bay, one of the RV Mother Earth’s speedboats was in full throttle, trying to out manoeuvre a high speed military patrol boat. The Marines Corps opened fire from a mounted heavy machine gun and almost cut the boat in two. He watched in horror as an enfilade of gunfire peppered the hull of the Mother Earth above the water line. A member of the crew, who was filming the attack, ducked for cover in a hail of gunfire. The Mother Earth was boarded. Through his lenses he could make out Andrew and some other members of the crew being grouped together and handcuffed. They were escorted onto a patrol boat.

McIntyre turned his lens back to the shore and towards where he left his cutter. The GM rescue party were sitting on a large log, guarded by three black suited Marine Corps and a military terra-drone. He could now detect Bull and the old man. They were high up on the cliff scrambling towards the old man’s hideaway. Two Marines spotted them, and after making hand signals towards each other, they gave chase with the drone. All the time looking back to the bay, Bull assisted the old man through the path leading up the hill. From behind an outcrop came several figures wearing distinctive green combat suits. At first McIntyre believed them to be more Marines in pursuit of Bull and the old man. They beetled their way stealthily across the ground but at a slower pace. They took up position behind two small cleits. Elves, thought McIntyre. He watched in wonder as the terra-drone was disabled by an electromagnetic pulse grenade and the Marine Corps were surrounded and then led away at gunpoint. When he looked back to the bay he noticed the other crew members had been freed.

McIntyre climbed down from the bridge and left the ship. He ran, stopping only once to dart behind a boulder when he heard the sound of a drone from overhead. He headed up the steep path towards the hideaway. When he arrived, he took a moment to catch his breath. Bull was nowhere to be seen. He climbed an escarpment to get a clearer view of the bay, dropping to the ground and proceeding on his stomach. He slithered across the grass until the sea came back into view. From his binoculars he could see a warship moored alongside the Mother Earth. An aerial attack drone hovered over the bay searching for the Marine Corps who had failed to call in their positions. McIntyre edged back from the cliff face and back towards the path.

 He continued climbing the hill through Gleann Mòr until he arrived at the military fence. The wire mesh was cut. He slid through the gap and continued to walk. He was on Mullach Sgar. He took out his binoculars and surveyed the island to the east. The observation post, his temporary home was gone. He could see the village. No signs of life. No smoke rising from Sheila’s cottage. The island looked like it had been abandoned and then he drew his focus to a large cleit the islanders called Tigh an t-sithiche – House of the Fairies. It was much larger than the other cleits and built into the hillside like the entrance to a cave. He could see movement. He started to walk. As he approached he heard voices emanating from within. When he entered the cleit Bull was squatting with two figures going through the contents of Malcolm’s leather satchel. The figure tried to point a gun at McIntyre, but he was too slow. McIntyre took two steps forward, shifting his centre of gravity as he went. He brought his fist down on the butt of the rifle, grabbed it and twisted it free from the figure’s grip. With one sweeping motion, McIntyre was holding the rifle and pointing at the hooded figure who immediately raised both arms in the air. The other hooded figure ignored McIntyre’s presence. He continued questioning Bull. He said,

“Where did you get this satchel from?” McIntyre interjected,

“I think everyone needs to calm the fuck down. It’s a bit dark in here.” Much to the hooded figure’s surprise, McIntyre handed back the rifle as he reached inside his rucksack and retrieved a lantern. He switched it on and a yellow light filled the inside of the cleit. He could see the two figures were dressed in combat uniform, but hoods concealed their faces. The figure offered him the rifle back. McIntyre said, “You keep it laddie, but I hope you like hospital food because you’ll be eating it for a month if you point that thing in my face again.” Bull said,

“The satchel belonged to a waiter from the life raft I was on. He was called Malcolm. He was badly injured. He didn’t make it.”

“He’s dead?” said the figure. Bull’s heart was now galloping with apprehension. He replied,

“Yes. There was a storm and the raft was damaged. We were sinking and we had to make a swim for it. I’m sorry, was he your friend?”

“No. Have you taken anything from it? I need you to be honest, much is at stake, much more than you could even imagine.” Bull swallowed hard. After stabbing a glance at McIntyre, he said,

“Only a photograph of a young girl. I know it sounds impossible but I think the photograph is of my ex-girlfriend...”

“Saffron? I believe you were acquainted with her?” Bull’s face contorted in painful confusion.

“Yes. How did you know?”

“We know everything about you. You’re a MoDs filter.” Bull looked up at McIntyre. He said,

“I was, but only because they threatened my family.”

“We are aware of your circumstances and how you turned against them. We would have shot you otherwise.”

“I still don’t understand how an old photograph of Saffron was in Malcolm’s satchel?”

The Elves searched the satchel for further items. A small plastic box was revealed. The seal was broken and a short emission of gas hissed from a pressure release valve. The hooded figure put down the rifle and produced a small gas canister. McIntyre said forcefully,

“What’s that?” The hooded figure sprayed the box and said,

“This type of box is used to store liquid pico-micro processing chips. Once you release the pressure valve, you activate the molecular self assembly and solar carbon picotubes are formed, but it can only be triggered by the person who designed it.” The other figure said,

“How is this possible if the Professor is dead, presumed missing?”

“It’s DNA activated and this bottle contains DNA from the daughter.” McIntyre said,

“What happened to English Pete?” Bull shrugged his shoulders. A digital image appeared.

“Is this the man you left?” said the hooded figure. Bull nodded his head. The figure continued, “So you left him but you didn’t forget to take his satchel?”

“I was already carrying his satchel when the lifeboat came by. It was riding up and the strap was cutting into his neck. Everything happened so quickly and before I knew it, I was in the sea.” The hooded figure ignored Bull’s lamenting tale.

“You couldn’t have saved him then?”

“Malcolm never regained conscious during the time I spent on the life raft. When it came to abandoning him, I couldn’t even save myself. If it hadn’t been for Andrew I probably would have died.” Bull stopped for a moment, contemplating the effort Andrew had made to save his life during the storm and how he had subsequently behaved towards him.

“His name wasn’t Malcolm, said the hooded figure.” His name was Professor Earl Burke. His daughter is Saffron Burke otherwise known as Saffron Wilton and known to us and hackers around the globe as the Praying Mantis. Do you understand now?” Bull was dumbstruck. He couldn’t see a family resemblance. The image disappeared and was replaced by blueprints and digitalised drawings. Bull remained frozen to the floor of the cleit. McIntyre’s voice cracked through the silence. He said,

“This might not be the best time to tell you this but a naval corvette has arrived in Loch a Ghlinne and it’s equipped with aerial attack and terra-drones. They destroyed a Russian research vessel with the first wave so they obviously don’t care who or what gets in their way. They will want no more witnesses. I’ve got a feeling what ever happened here, someone in the Government desperately wants to cover it up, and if anyone gets in their way, they’ll end up as part of the wave’s collateral damage.”

Bull tried to get up but his leg muscles felt weak and he was unable to force himself up. He pointed out of the cleit towards the cliff and finally he wailed, “There’s someone out there. The old man I think.” McIntyre was helping one of the figures decipher the contents of the leather satchel. He turned and leaning closer to Bull he said,

“Forget that old queer hawk.”

“But he knows where Saffron is hiding.” McIntyre said,

“Shite!” You better take a look.” McIntyre was now in full control of the computer, dragging and dropping virtual folders from the graphics display tablet to the wall of the cleit. He turned to Bull and said, “They’re looking for who may be carrying this satchel and more precisely this box of pico-micro processing chips.” Bull refused to leave his trance. Finally he said,

“I don’t understand. I don’t understand any of this. What are you saying? This is a fucking nightmare?” Bull began pinching himself as if to try and wake up from a bad dream. McIntyre’s face was etched with a seriousness Bull had not yet witnessed. McIntyre said,

“There’s no time to explain. We have the virus. We need to take it to the Elves.”

“This is some drug induced hallucination. I’m sure of it now.”

“What are you talking about laddie? The E.L.F. can use this to stop the next wave.”

“And after we find the elves, can we meet up with the dwarfs and drink ale at the House of Elrond?” One of the figures folded his hood back, turned to them and said,

“We are the Earth Liberation Front. We are the Elves. I am Erurainon and this is Inwë.”  

“Where are the rest of your team,” said McIntyre.

“Freeing your crew from the MoDs. Look, we have little time before the Prophylaxis Trident satellites come back online and when they do, they will surely find all of us, so your co-operation would be most appreciated.” Erurainon looked at Bull and said,

“We have the satchel now so go and find the old man if it makes you happy, but try not to be seen.” Bull got to his feet and crawled out of the cleit. When McIntyre looked outside, Bull was running towards the cliff edge. Inwë said,

“Professor Burke was working on a programme called Silent Wave while in the employment of the MoDs. It involved creating a pulse by exploding an explosive device using a cyclone particle accelerator equipped with pulse propulsion and electro-magnetic guidance systems. They didn’t even need to drill it into the ocean bedrock as there was already lots of existing boreholes from the methane hydrate drill sites. A perfect smokescreen for them.”

“So St Kilda has been selected as a testing ground? That would explain a few things.” McIntyre read the ELF files regarding the MoDs attempts to extract a mole inside the Government who had made contact with Professor Burke, and provided him with the means to design a virus which could cripple the Defence Satellite Communication System. The malware had to be uploaded manually. When the eyes in the sky were back online, another shot would be taken. The wave would be much bigger than the last. He was overcome with horror. He said,

“They are literally going to wash all the evidence away. Over my dead body. They took the first shot knowing the island was inhabited. The fuckers don’t care. Your boat? Where is it?”

“We have two boats in Village Bay.”

“How many more passengers can it hold?”

“We have about room for four more passengers, six if we jettison some supplies.”

“I need to warn the islanders and evacuate as many of them as possible and then I need to find lover boy and get him and hopefully his true love, Saffron off the island.” Erurainon said,

“Itaridlë will know what to do, when she gets here. She’s our leader.” 

McIntyre rested his arms on both the Elves shoulders and pointing to the digital image he said,

“The way I see it we have two clear choices: we could give ourselves up, but I don’t get the impression they want to sit down for a chat, or we can find a way to upload this virus and totally fuck their operation up. Regardless of what we decide, my guess is we have a few hours to play with, unless they plan on destroying their own warship anchored out in Loch a Ghlinne. Inwë nodded his head and said,

“This MoDs system cannot be hacked or remote accessed. It’s not on a network so how Professor Burke planned to access the command and control system manually is a mystery. Maybe he was planning on getting himself arrested and somehow delivering the virus to his contact, who must have security clearance or be in a position of authority. It stands to reason his contact must be on the Corvette.”

“We can’t use our communicators so we need to go and find Itaridlë.” With that, Inwë and Erurainon left. McIntyre put faith in his gut feeling the surveillance satellites were still down. He took a sheltered path to the village where he wouldn’t be spotted from the military vessel out in the Bay. He arrived at the backdoor of Sheila’s cottage and knocked. He told her of the MoDs plan and to spread the word the village had to evacuate and or make their way to the communications station at the top of Mullach Mór or what English Pete called the Big Hill Summit.



   27 a means to an end

Bull ran towards where he saw the old man standing by the edge of the cliff. When he arrived at the spot he found only a dishevelled sheep trying to find fresh blades of grass. He asked the sheep if he had seen an old man. What with the strange goings on, it’s worth a try, he thought. The sheep stared at him blankly. Bull walked along the cliff until he came to an outcrop shaped like a giant’s finger extending over the ocean and pointing towards the sky. Bull approached it and sat down. He ran his hands through the grass then plucked a small blue flower. It had been a long time since he had been acquainted with any natural entity other than the marine variety. He heard a small voice behind him.

“I would offer you a cigarette but I smoked my last one yesterday.”

Bull turned and saw Saffron standing on the fingertip of the protruding cliff edge, her dreadlocks blowing in the wind. He looked at her incredulously and with a painful smile he replied,

“I’ve given up.”

“Good for you. It takes a great deal of will power.”

“I didn’t have a choice.”

“We all have a choice.”

“No, I actually didn’t. I left my cigs on the ship. Sometimes your choices are determined by other factors out with your own control.”


“Why don’t you come away from the edge of the cliff, Saffron?”

“This is the Lover’s Stone. I thought it was an appropriate place to meet. I’m perfectly safe.”

“I see you’ve taken to wearing shades?”

“I need them to see in your world.”

“You’re a hallucination aren’t you? I’ve been having a few recently.” Saffron climbed down from the Lover’s Stone and said softly,

“Come with me, there’s something I need to show you.”

They crossed Claigeann Mor to find the path over Mullach Geal and towards the military cabins and the communications station. Bull held out Saffron’s Peruvian hand knitted alpaca hat and said,

“It’s getting cold. You might want to put this on.” Saffron smiled,

“You hold onto it for now.”


McIntyre had returned to the cleit. He was alone and then from outside he heard the footsteps. He receded into a dark corner, becoming as one with the cold, damp stone of the cleit. He could now detect multiple shadows moving around the entrance. He covered his mouth with his hand, convinced his deep breathing would give away his location, but there was nothing he could do about the drumming noise his heart made in the cavity of his chest. No discernible words came forth from the dark figures but he could hear the sounds of assault weapons being primed. It wouldn’t be long before he was exposed.

A torch light shone through the darkness. He knelt down and picked up a rock and gestured to throw it at the first head appearing through the cleit entrance. If I go out, I’m not going without a fight, he thought. He heard the shuffling of feet and then someone approached. He launched the rock which found its target with aplomb. A loud painful screech came from the falling figure. The torch fell to the ground and span round to illuminate a face which he recognised as belonging to Andrew. He was clutching his head. McIntyre exclaimed,

“Andrew? I’m sorry.” Seven Elves arrived with their weapons pointed at McIntyre and then Itaridlë, Lúthien, Erurainon and Inwë joined them from behind. Itaridlë ordered the other Elves to lower their weapons. Andrew was nursing his head and unstable on his feet, but McIntyre put his arm around his shoulder to steady him. He said,

“Are you alright man?” Andrew sounded groggy. He replied,

“Why did you hit me with a rock you big ape?”

“Come on, it was more of a pebble. I couldn’t find any rocks. How did you escape?”

“I didn’t intend on escaping but then this lot arrived. They also captured some Marines, tied them up and marched them up here. They assured me they would come to no harm. I think we’re in a whole lot of trouble. I felt safer in the hands of the Navy.”

“They are not the Royal Navy, Andrew. I’m not sure who they answer to. They look and act more like a private army to me.”

The Elves had gathered around the graphics display tablet and were in deep discussion. Andrew tried to listen in to the conversation, but the hushed tones disintegrated into inaudible mutterings. He did detect a debate over whether they could trust Professor Burke’s informant. McIntyre told him, according to the Professor’s last communication, his contact would be on a military vessel called the HMS Cumberland, which had been dispatched to the Outer Hebrides. Finally, they decided McIntyre would leave the cleit and take the captured marines to the village and wait.

Andrew felt uneasy at McIntyre’s departure. Before he left, McIntyre told him if he was captured with escorting military prisoners, he might be tried for treason, so staying with the Elves was a better idea. When he returned they would find Bull and get off the island. Itaridlë turned to the others and informed them there was no alternative other than someone boarding the military vessel and passing the microchip to the Professor’s contact.  She stated,

“Taking a boat out to the ship is not an option, so it would need a strong swimmer.” To her surprise, Andrew stepped forward and volunteered.

“I was in the Territorials,” stated Andrew.

“You said before, but you also said you were an accountant at heart.”

“Accountants don’t have hearts,” he replied. Itaridlë smiled. Inwë turned to Andrew and said,

“Itaridlë is right, they’ll be keeping a lookout for a boat. They won’t expect someone to swim out to the ship, so there’s a good chance of success. When you arrive at the ship, stick this magnetic laser marker to the hull, so we know you got there safely.” Andrew took the device and nodded. Itaridlë said,

“It’s nearly night fall, it’s the best time to sneak onboard the ship and get yourself arrested. Ask to see the Commander of Operations and tell them you have information regarding Professor Burke. If the Professor’s mole is onboard the ship, he will make contact. Give him the microchip. If not we will have no alternative. We will sink the ship.” Inwë, staring at his tablet stated,

“There’s something not right here. The last email is a week old. A lot could have happened in that time. What if the Professor’s contact isn’t even on the ship? According to these files, the control site was an oil rig and not a ship. The shot was delayed so who is to say the control site hasn’t moved somewhere else. We could be sending this man to his death for no reason…” Lúthien interrupted,

“The correspondence clearly states the Professor’s contact would be on a Navy vessel and the ship out there in the bay is most definitely a stealth corvette, a tactical communications vessel with satellite synchronization capabilities.” Inwë moaned,

“I’ve already told you, this system doesn’t link to satellite communications. The satellites are only for surveillance so the ship in the bay isn’t necessarily the command and control centre just because it has satellite interface capabilities.” Lúthien growled,

“We can’t take the chance. We have to go on the information we have. Someone has to board it. We’re wasting time and we don’t have much time left. As soon as the satellites come back online they will launch an assault on this island, the corvette will take off and the wave will finish everything else off, so if you’re quite finished Inwë? Andrew, you better get into the dry suit.” Inwë stared at the ground, his face flushed with frustration. Itaridlë placed the microchip inside a tooth cap and then asked Andrew to open his mouth. She inserted the cap over one of his molars. She looked into his eyes, searching for hesitancy and said,

“McIntyre must have bashed your head good with that rock. Are you sure about this? You don’t have to go through with it. You don’t have to prove anything. Do you have a family waiting for you back home? There’s still time to reconsider? I will tell them you suffered from a sudden attack of bravado.” Andrew was struggling with the dry suit. Itaridlë helped him. Andrew said,

“My mind is already made up. For the first time, I’m beginning to see things clearly. This is something I need to do. To atone for mistakes of the past.”

They waited for darkness. The sun seemed to glow for an age behind the clouds, spreading across the horizon and then it was time for Andrew to take his leave. He made his way along a path and down to a rocky outcrop at the edge of the bay. Andrew waited, gazing at the lights on the ship until darkness was complete. He dropped into the sea and began to swim. Through infrared binoculars, Inwë watched his progress as he swam through the water. Then Andrew drifted out of sight. Inwë’s heart began to race when he saw a military gunboat come into view.

At first, Andrew had powered his way through the cold sea, then half way to the ship his arms and legs began to tire. He was unusually breathless and he wondered if the fatigue was a result of all the punishment his body had taken after the sinking of the Andrea Starlight. The darkness was settling around him. Swallowed by a feeling of loneliness, he began to doubt his own courage, but when he passed the damaged Mother Earth and the destroyed Green Movement speedboat, he found his resolve. He was drawing closer and could even make out the name of the ship. The HMS Cumberland. He made his way round to the stern, keeping an eye out for marines, and then, from behind, he heard the sound of a jet propulsion engine coming closer. Andrew’s body went rigid with terror. The first bullet whizzed over his head. It was a sound he had become familiar with since an early age, hunting deer and grouse on his grandfather’s estate. He arched his body to dive under the surface of the sea for cover.

Andrew tried to plunge deep into the darkness, his arms pulling himself under and his legs kicking back with all the force he could muster but the dry suit hampered his descent. And then the second bullet found its target. Hot metal burst through his ribcage, penetrated his lung and exited the other side. Andrew’s body went into a violent shock. He waited for a blinding pain to follow but nothing. Still holding his breath, he tried to dive deeper but another bullet hit him in the back. Andrew was paralysed. Numbness engulfed him but he could detect the sensation of cold sea water flooding his survival suit. His body turned and rose upwards and through his flickering eyes, he could detect the spot lights of the gunboat darting around on the surface of the ocean.

Curiously no panic beset his mind and the last few seconds of consciousness were spent in a serenity the like he had never experienced. He thought of his children and Ashley and in his minds eye, he could see himself pushing the children on the garden swing and her broad smile when he failed to notice the swing return and hit him on the head. The sun had been shining, it had been warm and for a change it hadn’t been raining. Andrew saw a powerful light shine from above and his weightless body rose towards it. He closed his eyes and his mind went blank.

On the island, the Elves gathered at the edge of the cleit to watch one of the Prophylaxis Trident spy satellites catch the reflection of the sun on the illuminated side of the Earth. It appeared like a distant star, only moving with relative speed across the night time sky. Inwë came rushing towards them.

“Anything from Andrew?” said Itaridlë.

“Nothing. He hasn’t attached the magnetic laser marker to the ship’s hull. A gunboat was heading directly for him so it’s not looking good. Worse still, the satellites are coming back online, any time now. There was activity in the bay. They are preparing to attack,” replied Inwë catching his breath. Lúthien grabbed Itaridlë by the arm and said,

“We can’t wait any longer. We’re exposed and escape will soon be impossible. We need to make a move back to the boats while we can. The best form of defence is attack and we still have the advantage. We are small and can move with speed.”

Itaridlë pulled her arm away and her face flashed with a curious sentiment. She beckoned all the Elves to their feet and said,

“The game’s up. The plan to upload the virus has failed. We need to move out. Our sole objective is now getting Professor Burke’s story exposed to the world before they cover this atrocity up.” Inwë spat on the ground and looking up from the digitalised screen he said,

“The satellites are back online. We’re too late. They’re going to find us and kill us.”

Itaridlë commanded the Elves to put on their night vision goggles and take a path leading to the village where McIntyre would be waiting with one of their boats. She and Lúthien would create a diversion so they could make their escape. Inwë and Erurainon led the remaining Elves from the cleit and into the darkness. From above, they became aware of a pulsating humming noise. A sensation of rising pressure was detected in their chests and the movement of air around them became noticeable. When they looked up they were blinded by lights beaming down from the undercarriage of a military transporter hovering above their heads. They ran for the path and then found cover behind the rock outcrop and waited to open fire.

They could see the silhouette of terra-drones and Marine Corps dropping to the ground and heading towards them. The military attack squad doubled back when they heard the sound of gunfire coming from the direction of the cleit. Inwë motioned to the Elves to be still and they crouched close to the ground waiting for four attack drones to fly over. They scrambled around in the dark, trying to find the path for a few minutes, but at long last they reached the other side of the island where they stopped to catch their breath. The bay was silent and in the moonlight they could see McIntyre sitting on the jetty, sharing a cigarette with one of the captured marines. McIntyre stood up when he saw the Elves running towards him. When they arrived he said,

“Are you alright? I could hear gunfire in the distance. Where are the others?” Inwë exchanged glances with McIntyre and still panting he said,

“The satellites came back online. Then the Marines attacked. Lúthien and Itaridlë created a diversion so we could escape. There was fighting. I don’t know what happened. We need to escape before the wave arrives.” Inwë gestured towards the captured marines, “What about this bunch? What do we do with them?”

“We kill them of course,” replied McIntyre, picking up a rifle. Inwë’s face turned ashen white and then McIntyre smiled and added, “I’m only joking. We let them go. They were told a number of their comrades were killed by the ELF. I’ve put them straight and told them no one died. It was all lies.” McIntyre returned their weapons which he had decommissioned and the marines were set free. McIntyre suggested they reached high ground if they couldn’t find their platoon and then he watched as they melted away into the darkness. He asked about Bull and Inwë told him the last time he was spotted, he was walking towards the Radar Station and hopefully out of harms way of the impending wave. McIntyre was eventually persuaded to leave Bull behind and board the Elf boat. They sped off into the open sea and to the mainland.


Bull stopped. He gazed up towards the grass covered hill towards the summit of Conachair. The island glowed red in the sunset. He said,

“I can’t believe the military tried to trash this place. It’s beautiful here isn’t it?” Wasn’t it a UNESCO World Heritage Site?”

“It was and then the shale extraction industry and the military messed it up and it lost its status, but it’s still beautiful.”

“From the sea these islands put the shits up you, but when you are on the land, the tranquillity is overpowering.” Saffron retraced several steps and stood in front of him.

“You haven’t lost your ability to wax lyrical have you? You’re the John Cooper Clarke of St Kilda.”

“He was from Salford, like me.”

“Yes, I know. That’s why I said it.” Bull took a deep breath.

“This beauty is worth protecting. I’m just sorry it has taken so long to open my eyes. Away from this wilderness you become consumed with all life’s arcane problems and our hearts have detached from what truly matters. There comes a time when we have to make a stand for something which is worth saving. We can’t allow everything we hold dear to be destroyed by mankind’s insatiable greed.” Bull congratulated himself for remembering an interview on the Discovery channel with a Cree tribal leader from Alberta whose community had been devastated by the shale oil industry. Saffron looked into Bull’s eyes and said,

“You got your speech from a documentary didn’t you? I watched it too.” Bull nodded his head sheepishly and then said,

 “So much has happened recently and it’s confusing, but my eyes have been opened. I’ve had time to consider my beliefs and feelings while being marooned on the life raft. I realise how fragile we are and how easy it is to get caught up in the small and insignificant problems when there are more crucial things at stake.” Saffron smiled. She sat down and picked a blue liverwort flower and rotated it between her thumb and forefinger. Bull’s eyes were transfixed by the spinning flower to a point where he almost felt hypnotised. Saffron broke the spell by saying,

“It’s better when you say it in your own words rather than reciting another, but I understand. We all follow our own path but along the line we come to a junction and need to make a decision.”

“I’ve missed your metaphors Saffron.”

“I’ve missed your bullshit!” Bull smiled and then swallowed deeply. His voice became brittle.

“I’m sorry about your father. One of the Elves told me he was on the Andrea Starlight when it sunk and he was the unconscious man we thought was called Malcolm on the life raft.”

“It wasn’t your fault,” said Saffron interrupting, “You’ve been through so much lately. Not to sound heartless, but my natural father was never part of my life. I never truly knew him.” Bull stretched his hand out to comfort Saffron, but she pulled away. Bull said,

“Are you still upset about me lying to you? I want to explain. I want to tell you everything.”

“All in good time. Come on, we need to keep moving.” Bull contemplated how his actions, single mindedness and warped logic had brought his life to a standstill, and had brought pain to others. He desperately wanted to explain his feelings to Saffron, how he had been blind and had led a self-absorbed existence, but ultimately he had unravelled the complexity of his life after coming to terms with his faults. He wanted to explain to her doors in his mind had been opened and she had shone a light in. She had helped him conquer his myopic view of the world. He wanted to describe the revolution and subsequent coup d’état occurring within his cognitive process. He would declare his brain was under new management. Saffron started walking again and Bull followed. She said,

“The beard suits you. It makes you appear more…”

“Intellectual?” offered Bull rubbing his chin and grinning.

“I was going to say masculine. And you’ve lost weight since I last saw you. What’s your secret?”

“I discovered this new diet where you get marooned on a life raft for several days and eat only raw fish and dried prunes.”

“You poor thing, this must be awful for you.”

“Yes, but it’s over now, isn’t it.”  Saffron stared at him sympathetically. Bull wanted to look into her eyes again, but all he could see was his own reflection in her visor. He continued to follow her until they reached the Radar complex. There were several cabins dotted around the site but Saffron headed along a gravel path and towards the largest one. Bull stopped to take in a final view of the scenery. He breathed in the salt air and studied the darkening island sloping towards the cliff, his eyes finally settling on the island of Boreray in the distance. He picked up Saffron’s trail leading to the cabin. Saffron switched on a light and a laboratory illuminated. Bull said,

“Why did you stay on the island? Why didn’t you escape?”

“I got off the ship just in time before the wave struck. Most of the crew followed me, but when the MoDs showed up they were taken into custody. I managed to escape, with some assistance from the local islanders. They wanted to smuggle me back to the mainland on a Lobster boat, but I decided to stay on the island, and with their help I’ve been hiding out in cleits and abandoned cottages. When they evacuated the islanders, I was upset and decided to give myself up. I walked up to the military communications installation but found it abandoned. And then I came across this research laboratory.”

“Why have you put yourself in so much danger?”

“I couldn’t leave when I found out they were planning another wave. I couldn’t let them get away with it again. I need to upload all this data. It’s almost done. Then I will leave.” Saffron examined the markings on a control panel. She said, “Before he was taken, my father was working on a computer virus capable of disabling the prophylaxis trident satellites. The authorities have been trying to acquire the virus, but it’s been under their nose all this time.”

“I know, the Elves have the virus. They can help. They know about you. They said they know you as the Praying Mantis.”

“The ELF have been led to believe they have the virus. They don’t. I’ll explain later.”

“Saffron, before you say any more, there’s something I need to tell you. I have to explain some things. It might come as a shock.” Saffron swallowed hard and then said,

“I know what you are going to say, let me make it easier for you. You are a MoDs filter. Three years ago, you were sent to spy on me because of the Government project my father was working on.” Bull’s eyebrows narrowed and then he buried his head in his hands. He said,

“It’s true, but I didn’t know about your father. I didn’t even know he existed. I don’t work for them anymore, you do know that don’t you? They threatened my family, they said they would destroy them if I didn’t cooperate. They said all I needed to do was get to know you, nothing more. I think they believed you were involved with an eco-terrorist group, but the deeper I got the more I realised it was all lies. You helped me see. I didn’t mean to hurt you, or lead you on. How long have you known?”

“I’ve always known.”

“I don’t follow you.”

“I hacked into the MoDs mainframe about three years ago and extracted a list of filters. You were on that list. I was asked to make you an object of desire and feed you useless information.” Bull put his head back in his hands and thought back to when he had met Saffron at Kelvingrove Park in Glasgow and how the process had coalesced so swiftly. Initially his intentions were to locate Saffron and join her environmental group, and over time, try to get to know her intimately. Paradoxically it was he who had been cursively written into her plans, not the other way round. Hadn’t Deirdre even suspected something, he thought. She had said he and Saffron were a mismatch. Bull said,

“So it’s true, you’re a hacker? The Praying Mantis? I thought you didn’t like monikers? Why didn’t we have this conversation three years ago? We could have worked our secrets out.” Saffron cast her mind back to the day she had volunteered for the job, thinking she could handle the pressure and keep up the charade, but she had got lost along the way. Finally she said,

“You’re right, if only we had this conversation sooner, Faerrleah.”

“Even though you knew who I worked for?”

“To be honest, at first I couldn’t bear to touch you. The first night I had sex with you made me wretch.”

“Was it the grunting piggy noises? It has been mentioned before.” Saffron laughed,

“No, only because of who you were. A filter. It became obvious your heart wasn’t in it. Prior to the MoDs arresting our filters, they were telling us that no information was coming in from you.”

“I don’t think you fully understand Saffron. I wasn’t supposed to send information to the MoDs. That’s not how it worked. You get sieved.”

“I know now. They conduct a brain scan - a FMRI, a functioning magnetic resonance imager. It scans the hippocampus and produces neural-images you have collected over the years.”

“I don’t think what’s left in my brain would be much use to them - I drunk so much alcohol after you left me it went to mush. I still can’t figure out why you left. I thought it was because of Maurice, but Aisha told me…”

“Aisha? When did you see Aisha?” Saffron refocused and her voice was cold and unemotional. Bull said,

“It was about a while after you left. She came round to the narrowboat for dinner.”

“What happened?”

“Nothing happened. Well, I think I might have tried to…”

“That’s not what I mean. Aisha is a filter just like you. She was turned when she got back from Rome. They got to her partner. She’s also now on the list. If she was on the narrowboat then…”


“How long did she stay and what did you do? I need to know everything.”

“We drank, well I drank and she sniffed vodka and some herb from a glass bowl and then I tried to kiss her.”

“And then what happened?”

“She slapped me and left. Later, I tried to find the empty glass bowl which was rolling around on deck, but I ended up falling into the canal.”

“Were you ill?”

“I banged my head and I might have lost a couple of days somewhere. That reminds me, I finally met your mother. The following day she came round to the narrowboat to pick up some of your stuff. She said she didn’t know where you were and asked if I knew.” Saffron shook her head,

“You’ve never met my mother, Faerrleah. You just think you did. It wasn’t her.”

“I did meet her, she looked just like her photograph.” Saffron became reacquainted with their predicament. She was momentarily distracted when the control panel sparked into life. She started reading a digital file on the visual display. Eventually, she said,

“You’ve already been sieved Faerrleah, but I didn’t realise Aisha had anything to do with it until now. It doesn’t change things.” Bull shot her a quizzical look and then he rubbed his head with splayed fingers. He began to breathe heavily. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind to handle any further mysteries. His heart began to race. Saffron continued reading and without looking up from the visual display, she said,

“Try to remain calm. Your heart rate and blood pressure is up.”

“How do you know that?” Saffron ignored Bull’s question and said,

“It must have been after you fell into the canal. That would account for Aisha being there and you thinking you had lost time and the subsequent hallucinations. We got wind of your type, but I never thought you were one until I took a blood and semen sample. We thought this technology was years down the line.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Saffron. What type?”

“The bastards didn’t tell you. They call you SELF’s.”

“What’s a SELF?”

“A Synthetically Engineered Life Form. I’m sorry, Faerrleah. I didn’t realise you were unaware. I thought they would at least tell you before sending you out into the field. The others don’t know either I take it?” Bull moaned,

“What others. I don’t understand. You need to explain. I can’t read, my eyes can’t focus in this darkness.” Saffron explained,

“You were part of a nano-scale engineering and genome manipulation project. I think the best way to describe you is a de novo human – it started out way back at the beginning of the century. Scientists were creating synthetic viruses in laboratories but the technology developed and soon they were manipulating human cells using nanotechnology. They were supposed to be using the technology to process protein-based drugs for the fight against hemorrhagic viruses, Alzheimer’s  disease and cancer, but the military took over the research and the bastards replicated the synthetic DNA of a human, but where human’s have a restricted genetic alphabet, the SELF subjects have genetically expanded alphabets making them superior.”

“What’s superior about me?” said Bull, his breathing getting heavier.

“They used you for undercover surveillance rather than military operations. According to your file your cells heal faster than normal and you have olfactory abilities to detect pheromones, so you can tell when people are lying. That would explain why you always sniff people. I think you were destined to conduct interrogation. You were a new prototype - not the finished article. Sorry, I didn’t mean to say... You lacked sufficient levels of aggression.”

“It’s alright,” stammered Bull pitifully, “I’m not digesting most of this anyway.”

“You started to malfunction and rebel against your genetic programming, even before I met you.”

Bull looked at Saffron through glazed eyes. His mind was finding the revelations incomprehensible. Her words were indigestible to his brain. He wanted to embrace her. He had fantasised about this moment for a long time but he felt a strange tingling sensation in his brain. He wanted nothing more than to hold her and bury his throbbing head in her hair. He staggered towards her. Saffron said,

“I don’t think touching me is a good idea right now. You best stay back Faerrleah.” Bull proceeded, but a humming noise rattled the metal cabin.

“Another surveillance drone,” said Saffron. Bull stumbled around repeatedly saying, I don’t understand. Saffron could see he was becoming distressed and confused. She wanted to calm him down. Finally, the drone left and the noise abated. Saffron said,

“What are your first memories Faerrleah?” Bull’s head twitched erratically. He found it difficult for his eyes to focus on anything.


“Your first memories, what were they?”

“The beach I suppose, playing in a rock…” Saffron interrupted, describing the scene before Bull could finish his sentence,

“Playing in a rock pool and then getting cut off by the tide?” Bull nodded his head saying,

“How did you know? Have I told you this before?”

“No, it’s all here. They’re memory implants. You all have the same memories up until you were placed with foster parents.”

“I found out I was adopted. It’s funny, I kind of knew they weren’t my real parents but Patrick and Deirdre…”

“They are still your family. Nothing changes in that respect. They still see you as a brother. Not biologically speaking but it takes more than a set of genes to make a family.”

“So I don’t have any parents. I was just grown in a fucking lab, like meat.”

“As I said, there are others like you – you’re not alone.”

“How many?”

“Literally, an army of SELFs. Not all were created for the military, some were developed for Intelligence, space exploration, satellite maintenance, radioactive and chemical decontamination - all the dangerous jobs, needing someone with a particular genetic code designed to adapt to certain conditions, but still an expendable workforce.”

“Where are they?” Saffron fumbled with the control panel and finally hundreds of 3D images appeared, suspended in midair – faces with an individual serial number. Some of the images flashed with the word terminated emblazed across it.

“These are the SELFs, like you, working in surveillance. It was only when I found this place, after the wave had struck, and the military had been evacuated off the island, that I realised the extent of their project.” Saffron turned back to the file and read some of the details out loud, filling in the blanks as best she could. Bull stood in silence watching the digital images of strangers faces flick by. He said,

“Just numbers – no names.”

“They didn’t usually give names until they were fostered out, but according to the file they labelled you Bull, probably because your incubation was completed in the month of May. I think one of the scientists must have taken a shine to you. It might explain why you weren’t terminated. After analyzing the data from digital surveillance, they realised you had turned. According to this file you told your brother Patrick about the IMAGEN programme. A decision was taken to bring you in shortly after. I’m reading as fast as I can but the process you went under was something called Neuroinformantics – acquiring data from brain scans or what you referred to as sieving. I need to come out of this data set and access your scans.” Before Saffron exited the database, Bull saw a familiar face. He asked Saffron to stop and flick back. He said,

“Go back. Yes that image. It’s Sherlock!” Saffron returned to the three dimensional display and pulled out a digital file. She read out loud, “Andrew D. U. Holmes. He was a SELF and a filter. One of the original ones like you. He was also deployed in surveillance.”

“There must be some mistake.”

“No, this is his file but it’s marked terminated. He’s dead. I’m sorry, was he your friend?” Bull nodded his head. Andrew already felt like a ghost to him. He tipped his head back expecting it to rest against the wall. He felt nothing. He considered Saffron’s words. None of them had made any real sense to him. Part of him still believed he was still suffering a hallucination. His world was beginning to empty. What remained had shrunk around him.

“So if you die in the programme, they switch you off permanently,” he said mournfully. “What about Mac? Robert McIntyre?” Saffron flicked through the digital files. Finally, she said,

“He’s here too.”

“Is he terminated?”

“No, he’s still active. He’s also one of the original SELFs. Interestingly, someone recently accessed his file. There’s an anomaly. He’s was given an unscheduled sieve. He was already living on St Kilda so this doesn’t tie in with their procedure which is to sieve you and then transport you here. I will extract his scan just in case he is connected.”

“What about the Elves? Are they in a programme?”

“They are all here. Your programme is called Painted Sea. There’s a file on my father. His neural-scan is also here. Someone has also accessed his file. There is a system error on his log. The bastards deliberately uploaded a zombie virus to his file.” Saffron read the data and then continued,

“The Elfs would appear to be part of Professor Burke’s, sorry, my father’s programme. His was called Savage Elf, but after extracting all the information they could, they transferred him and the elfs into Painted Sea. It would appear they do a lot of transfers, mixing up the programmes and seeing what new data comes out. Reading my father’s file, it looks like they were trying to identify the source of a major security leak, linked to the Silent Wave project. I’ll check the other associated files for viruses. McIntyre’s file was also moved to your programme, but with a patch. There are no signs of viruses but there’s a data entry in your friend Andrew’s file. They mistakenly corrupted his programme with another which was operating for other filters, but without a patch. A cross over. That must have been disturbing for him.”


“It would be like seeing a ghost or having a vision.”

“So all the stuff in the life raft was part of a virtual programme? The ferry sinking, losing Malcolm in the storm and the lifeboat were all a fantasy, and if I’m to accept what you say, I have never actually met, well not in real life anyway, Andrew or McIntyre or Malcolm, sorry Professor Burke who coincidently is also your father. And those Elves aren’t real? That’s a relief. Are pixies real?” Bull forced a pitiful laugh. Saffron induced a smile and said,

“Pixies are definitely real.” Saffron paused. She looked at Bull’s troubled face and grimaced. Finally she said, “Everything you’ve been through has been part of the programme they designed to test you, to manipulate parts of your mind they were unable to probe in the scan. You were never actually attacked by sharks or circled by killer whales.”

“How did you know about being attacked by sharks? I haven’t told you yet. Ok, I see, it’s part of the programme.”

“Correct, it’s all here in your file.”

“And what about the Earth Liberation Front?” Saffron closed all the open files. She said,

“I can’t say too much about the ELF. This conversation will be logged in your programme, but yes, they do exist. The MoDs have long been aware of an environmental paramilitary group called the ELF. When my GM crew were boarding a Gazprom rig in the Arctic we came under fire from a Russian Naval vessel. The Russians shot one of my crew and were taking another twelve activists prisoner when the ELF attacked them. They took five Russian sailors hostage. They held them until they were exchanged for several political dissidents. They destroyed the Russian rig and a gunboat during the battle. The Russians thought we were part of the ELF setup and sent a surveillance ship after us, following us to St Kilda. It was sunk by the wave. We were thankful at the time for the ELF assistance, but unwittingly, we have, in the eyes of the MoDs, become the same entity. I think the ELF planned it that way. We had no prior knowledge of their presence in the Arctic.”

“I’m confused. Hasn’t the incident caused an international situation. We’re on the brink of war.”

“The world has been at war for decades, Faerrleah. The rules of engagement have just changed. Wars are fought using cybernetics. The control and sabotage of surveillance satellites, defence networks and military systems software can do far more damage than a bullet or a bomb. Once infiltrated, you can bring a country to its knees by disrupting its power grid and water supplies, its transport and telecommunications network; even empty the bank accounts of a country by targeting its financial sector. Nuclear weapons have been obsolete for years. No country would dare launch missiles in fear their command and control system has been compromised by a malicious virus just waiting to be activated, and the missiles rain down on their own people. This is why they have been so interested in this Silent Wave project that my father was working on. Send a tsunami towards your enemy, taking out its coastal cities, its military and industrial ports, and nuclear power stations, and blame it on natural causes. They use cyclone particle accelerators and pulse propulsion so it’s hard to detect.”

“But the Captain on the Mother Earth said a war with Russia was imminent.”

“There is no ship called the Mother Earth. The Russians are part of the world economic cartel. There’s too much money to be made in trading dirty energy to start a war right now, but when fossil fuels eventually run out the shadow boxing will stop and the gloves will come off.” Saffron flicked through a number of files, dragging and dropping 3D images of Itaridlë and Lúthien into the air. The two files were labelled, terminated. Bull said,

“The wave that hit St Kilda, did it capsize the ferry I was on? The Andrea Starlight. Was it real?”

“Yes, the islands were hit by two waves and another is imminent. A ferry which was trying out a new fuel technology was sunk by the first wave, but it wasn’t called the Andrea Starlight, it was called the Pride of the Isles. The Andrea Starlight is also part of a shared programme. The programmes are a mix of the real and the unreal. That’s why you know about the incident in the Arctic with the Russians.”

“I don’t know what to believe anymore. This could be a hallucination for all I know. I’ve been seeing lots of strange things of late.”

“Occasionally, there are glitches, usually brought about by reflections or diffracted light, say at sunset or sunrise.”

“Like, seeing things in mirrors?”

“Exactly. Time lapses and strange images, things like that.”

“But the Flower Child was sunk?”

“There is no ship called the Flower Child. Our two ships are called the Xiuhtezcatl and the Itzcuauhtli. I think they must have created the ship’s name amongst other things in your programme.”

“What do you mean my programme? What other things.” Saffron said,

“It’s what your brain is suspended in. Your neural-scan needs something to keep it occupied or the synapses between the brain’s neurons and the glial cells get weaker by the day. They subject you to pain, cold and fear to keep your brain stimulated, they control your olfactory senses, your sight, touch, everything, even the weather around you. I’m sorry Faerrleah, I sound heartless - I don’t mean to.” Saffron flicked through the 3D files until she came to Bull’s file. She said,

“This is you Faerrleah, this is your programme.” Bull was almost breathless at the sight of the digital image suspended in front of his eyes – a flickering cosmic cloud, set like an oval shaped gemstone, against a background of dark matter. At first he thought it was a graphic projection of a nebula, but Saffron’s quivering voice interrupted his train of thought. She said,

“This is your brain, Faerrleah.”

“My scan?”

“In an essence,” said Saffron breaking up as she read the details of the file, “but this is the state your brain exists in now. This is the architecture of your mind.”

“I don’t understand. What exactly am I looking at?” Saffron pointed to the multi-coloured pulsing image and said,

“The flashing strands are cingulum bundles - neural pathways connecting the functions of the brain, like an electronic signature allowing it to be analysed. All the other activity is from lobes, neurons and glial cells. This is where your mind exists.” Bull approached the 3D neural-image. There was a deathly look on his face. Bull said,

“So if this is my brain, where is my body?”

“Saffron turned her back and used both hands to drag and drop virtual files. She worked at a frantic pace. Eventually, without turning her head, she said,

“You and the others, you were brought to this island after you were sieved. All the islanders are SELF’s, all the ones inside and outside the programmes, every one of them, even the military stationed here. Only a SELF is allowed to live here. You’re bodies are here, in an underground silo, somewhere on one of the islands. I’m trying to find out where.” Bull crept towards Saffron, leaning over and close to her hair. He breathed but could detect no odour. He reached out to touch Saffron’s arm. This time he connected with her. Her form flashed and pixelated for an instant. Bull recoiled in astonishment.

“What are you Saffron? You’re made out of light. You’re a 3D projection, but not like anything I’ve ever seen before. Please tell me this is all a hallucination!” Saffron turned to face him. Even if tears didn’t flow unrestrictedly down her face, she wiped them away all the same. She sniffed,

“I’m sorry Faerrleah, I don’t know how to explain this to you, but you can see me and talk to me, but you can’t touch me. I’m standing in a cabin on Hirta Island, in St Kilda and I have hacked into the IMAGEN Project. I’m being projected into your simulation, through an artificial neural network. I’m running out of time, but I found where they are keeping you and the others.”

Saffron looked at the clock hanging on the wall. Bull tracked Saffron’s gaze but instead of a clock he could only see a porthole, and through the glass, a distant light. Bull felt anaesthetized, as if the life was draining from his body. His vision began to blur. There was a strange taste in his mouth and then it disappeared completely. Saffron looked at him. Her voice still breaking up, she said, “They know I am here and they’re trying to sever the link. I need to extract the data from your scan before they destroy this lab.” Tears streamed down Bull’s face. He clawed them back with his hands and sobbed,

“If what you are saying is true, these aren’t even real tears. Simulated tears are they? What we had, that was real wasn’t it? Climbing over the Necropolis in Glasgow, was that real? Was Boris real? Waking up together on the narrowboat for the first time? Tell me it was all real? I need to know before you go.” The image of himself and Saffron walking across the Necropolis played like a loop in his mind. Saffron nodded her head and said,

“It was all real Faerrleah…” Bull buried his head in his hands. Saffron put her hand out to touch his cheek. Her fingers glistened and pixelated. When Bull looked up, Saffron was gone.

Bull sat in the dark for what seemed an age. He was faced by a wall of blackness. It was deathly silent. Even the whir of the electrical fans cooling the lab had ceased.  The cabin began to shake. Bull felt pressure rising in his lungs. He gasped for air. He fell forward and scrambled around on his hands and knees, rising only to be cast down by an invisible force. He felt dizzy and sick. His senses returned and his head throbbed with pain. Cold water swirled around his bare legs. He felt the urge to run. He could feel objects cascading around the cabin, hindering his progress to where he remembered the door to be.

Bull kicked his way through the dark water. He felt like he had climbed but he couldn’t be sure. Finally he found the door. He put his weight behind it and opened it. The daylight blinded him. He could hear the sound of seabirds. There, below his flip-flops lay the sea, strewn with floating wreckage. He shivered in the cold wind. He was naked and unnerved by the sound of metal bulkheads groaning under the pressure of flooding water. He felt his body arch towards the waves, but he gripped the rails to balance himself. The impulse to jump was overwhelming. He would take three deep breaths and then he would leap into the sea. He edged his way around the metal structure until he came across a lifejacket, lying at his feet. He put it on. The name Andrea Starlight was emblazoned across it. Briefly, he thought of the dream he had just woken from. It had felt so real. Saffron was there, but the rest of the dream had already faded in his mind. He looked once more at the grey pulsating sea and then threw himself forward. Submerged in cold water he could taste the salt. Rising. Breathing. Floating. A stinging sensation in the eyes, but finally, in the distance, he could see the orange canopy of a life raft, rising and falling in the swells. Bull swam.


Onboard an oil platform near Rockall, in a corner of the control room, a member of the project team was busy working on the new uploads for the Silent Wave system. One of the critical software programmes controlling the detonation was designed by Professor Burke. With one touch of a button the virus corrupted the ship’s command and control system. The malware copied the digital code, spread to the system’s hardware and corrupted it. The connection was lost and the detonation was cancelled. Professor Burke’s contact made a call.

“I’m happy to report there will be no surfing today Sir, and all specified players have been located and safely extracted as per your instructions.”

Raymond McIntyre ended the call and sighed. He looked out the reinforced window of his Whitehall office. Another storm was brewing. There was nothing he could do about the weather, but ruining the career of a dangerous upstart called John G Cluny and finding his brother, Robert, all in the same day, filled him with a satisfying feeling. He switched on his shackle and watched an emergency news bulletin, presented by inadequately dressed computer generated animation. It was reported the Prime Minister had resigned due to health reasons, and the Secretary of Defence would be acting as interim leader with new emergency powers. Amongst other matters, he would be addressing the nation about a clear up operation in St Kilda after an unusually powerful submarine landslip caused a devastating tsunami. Raymond McIntyre picked up the quaich his brother gave him nine years ago, after he was promoted to Permanent Secretary. He read the Latin engraving quoting the Roman poet, Juvenal:  Quis custodiet ipos custodes? Who will guard the guards themselves. Beside the pewter cup was a photograph of his brother. He had made a decision: he was paying Robert a visit. His ticket had already been delivered by a postal drone. He would take a ferry called the Andrea Starlight from Ullapool to St Kilda. 



On the Island of St Kilda, Saffron walked from Mullach Geal stopping only once to study the sea and the horizon for signs of activity. Nothing. But in the village she could see people congregating outside the community hall. She smiled. They had returned. The island was safe, but they didn’t know it yet and still they came back. She had already fallen in love with the islanders. She would see them later and thank them all over again. She was planning to take up their offer and stay. They had even picked out a cottage for her to renovate. Sheila had promised to help her. But for now, she had work to do. She continued her walk until she found a path which led to Glen Mὁr. Walking towards the shore, her eyes settled on a concrete facade built onto the hill. She now knew what lay beyond the myrtle green door: an underground bunker, leading to a silo and adjoined to a littoral cave one hundred metres below. She knew from the data files the storm gates would be left open to allow the wave to rush in and wash away the evidence.

She had friends to rescue, friends laid out in floatation tanks, linked up to life support systems, fed through tubes, their waste carried away by more tubes and then dumped into the sea. On the shore Saffron found the sea kayak Lachlan MacNeil had lent her. After casting off, she paddled to the entrance of the cave the islanders called Geo nan Plaidean. The ominous mouth to the natural hollow was dominated by the dark overhanging basalt cliff, stretching up to the summit of Conachair, where the seagulls screamed above her head as if to acknowledge her presence. She made her way to the back of the cave until she found a place to land. Taking care not to slip on the wet rocks, she made her way to the back of the fissure. As expected, her way was not barred, the doors were left open to allow the planned wave to rush in and drown its occupants. She found a spiral staircase and climbed until she came to a vast chamber. It reminded her of a tomb, but tombs were for the dead, the people laid out in rows, as far as her eyes could see were still living.

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