Stef lifted her head from the book, pulling her mind away Narnia when a bell was rung. She recognised it – it was the breakfast bell, but it hadn’t meant much when she’d been at the mansion the first time, as breakfast had been brought to them, rather than having to be searched out.
She left the book on the steps, having every intention of returning to it later – even on the brink of battle, Narnia felt so much safer than the real world did.
She found her way down to the dining room – the hackers hadn’t been welcomed into it, instead being served in the main room, or in their small bedrooms. It was large, an ornate dining table occupying only a small portion of the space.
Shelves lined the walls, knick-knacks from all over stood collecting dust despite the number of servants in the mansion. A small, faded packet of photos caught her eye, so she opened the shelf’s glass door and pulled it out. Faded, fragile black and white photos showed a birthday party of a young man, his friends and stacks of birthday presents.
‘Party games next, right?’ she asked her mother.
Her classmates milled around the backyard, playing with the stereo, insulting the magicians and rattling her presents.
‘Hm, what Stephanie?’
She frowned, but didn’t correct her mother – no matter how many times she’d insisted that she preferred the short form of her name, neither of her parents cared to notice. ‘Hide-and-seek,’ she said. ‘It’s time for hide-and-seek, isn’t it?’
‘Presents, wonderful idea. You can see what your friends-’
‘Most of the presents on the table are from you, James and grandfather.’
‘Yes, such wonderful parents. You’ll like what I got for you. Let’s open them.’
‘No. Later. Perhaps – I don’t want your guests getting their party clothes dirty. I mean, we’re barely managing to keep you clean, and-’ Her mother cut herself off and walked over to the table, gathering up the party guests – the little girls in their frilly dresses and the few uncomfortable little boys in smart shirts and shiny shoes.
She grimaced at her own pinchy shoes, digging them deeper into the ground, hoping to dirty them enough so that she could take them off.
‘Apparently that was my twenty-first. I barely remember it.’ Jon lifted one of the photos from the pile in her hand. ‘Except for me, everyone in this one is dead now. Oh, and the photographer, you know him.’
‘I pity him, dear, I truly pity him. It’s the worst thing in the world to outlive everyone you care about. I survived my parents, my daughter, my wife, all of my friends. Die young if you can, never grow old.’
‘I- I’m not even sure I’ve…’ She swallowed and carefully placed the photos back in their packet. ‘I’ll take that under advisement.’
‘It’s such a terrible thing to outlive your family, to be the only one left. To be burdened with all of their memories. Memory…’ he waved a hand, as if trying to catch his train of thought, ‘it isn’t supposed to be a private thing, it’s supposed to be something shared so it becomes part of the race memory.’ He barked a short laugh. ‘Oh me, I’m talking like I’m human, the rest of my race is long dead, so there’s no-one left to carry on my memories.’
‘I’m sure that Dorian-’
‘I’ve been such a burden to him,’ the old man said as he sat at the large table. Plates of egg and toast were brought in, along with a large teapot and two small cups.
She stared at the bone china. ‘I haven’t had tea since…’ She rubbed her temples, trying to extract the memory. ‘Since the last time I was in England. God, that was a lifetime ago.’
He dropped a couple of sugar cubes into his tea. ‘I should have gone back there, just for one last visit.’
‘Don’t humour me, girl, I’m not long for this world. The stress of the trip would probably finish me off.’
She lifted a sugar cube with two fingers and popped it into her mouth. There wasn’t anything she could say, all of her grandparents were still living – at least to the best of her knowledge, they were – and the other deaths in her family had been sudden, she’d never been told how to react to someone who had a certainty about their own death. ‘So…’ she said lamely.
‘Buttons on ice cream and see if they stick,’ the old man said before sipping his tea. ‘Oh, oh, I remembered something. Come on.’ He lifted his cane and stood up from the seat. He crossed the room, and pulled a painting from the wall.
‘I keep the thing that are less than valuable in there,’ he said. He knocked on the back of the painting and three small disks appeared. ‘That little bit of magic was very expensive,’ he said. He plucked the disks from the painting and handed them to her. ‘Put them on the table.’
She did as instructed, and he hobbled over after replacing the painting. He touched a tiny silver button on the closest disk and a tiny holographic image of Astrin appeared.
‘Help me Jonowoi Kenobi?’
‘This is the system you were paid to crack. They were the only technology we could salvage from the crash.’
She looked from the holographic image of Astrin, to Jon, then back again. ‘Why is he a monster and you aren’t?’
‘The price for going into the void is always different. For some, it’s changing their bodies, others, it’s changing their minds. Stealing an arm, or a leg. Stealing a memory, a love, the ability to be kind.’
‘What did it take from you?’
‘My father. Then your world took my mother. The bombs that fell on London, not a week after we got here. We escaped one war, just to find ourselves in the middle of another.’
‘War is something people excel at. My grandfather used to say that, like it was something to be proud of.’
‘He was a warrior, then. My father wasn’t, he was a scientist. His science led to his death.’
‘But saved you.’
Jon went to reply, but shook his head. He lifted the disks and pushed them at her. ‘I’m tired, it’s not easy being old. Take a look at these, and he’ll have someone to carry his memories, else his whole world will be forgotten.’ He tapped his cane twice, then left the room.
She stared at the disks in her hands, put them down, wrapped up the toast in an expensive cloth napkin, and fled back up to Dorian’s room, picking up the book on the way.
She finished off the book while mechanically chewing her way through the pilfered toast, and by the time she was finished, a few dozen buttery fingerprints stained the silk shirt. She pulled the blanket up and stared at the disks, unsure of what to do with them. The holographic image had disappeared from the one the Professor had activated.
The device stared at her, so she picked it up. She ran a finger over the button and it activated.
‘My name is Astrin…’
The monstrous form that she had come to know froze, and an overlay of alien language covered it, then disappeared – leaving behind something that was far more “man” than “monster” – complete with a bulging belly.
‘What was your world called?’
‘Dajulveed. And you, what of you? Your eyes have seen the void, you aren’t from this planet.’
‘Saiharan. Our war woke our god. We brought about our own destruction.’
‘War is something we grew out of,’ Astrin said.
The image froze, turned sideways and went black. ‘Jonowoi?’ a disembodied voice called. ‘Hold onto your mother, Jonowoi.’
She bit a knuckle as the image of Astrin returned.
‘Tell me,’ Astrin demanded. ‘Tell me if the mirror is going to fall here.’
‘Yes,’ Jon’s voice said. ‘The parade of ghosts has already started, it’ll be coming here.’
‘I need to possess it, at any cost. Indenture me if you must, but allow me to find my love first – my son must have a mother. A child can live without a father, but without a mother, how will they learn to be strong?’
‘I’ll do what I can to help you, but I need information. I need to know everything about your trip. I need to know-’
The image froze again.
‘Jonowoi? It’s ok to be scared. We’re almost there. Maybe it’ll be a planet with sunshine. Remember the photos? Remember what sunshine looks like?’
She pressed the button on the recorder and set it aside. Other people’s tortured memories was the las thing she needed. There was nothing she could do for them – she couldn’t even help herself.
The pillows behind her were soft, soft enough to make her feel safe – at least she’d stopped jumping at shadows. She put a hand up her shirt and placed a hand over her non-beating heart. ‘Beat, please,’ she begged it quietly. ‘I keep-’ -wanting to scream. I feel-
‘You’re in my room.’