The next two months are the happiest I can ever remember, not just because I was frequently in the intimate company of women, but because we operated as a coherent group in a way I would never have expected had anyone explained it to me beforehand. The Wolves pulled all our gear, and somehow explained to Sam that they needed their coats cutting somewhat as we went to warmer climes. The ladies of the group were all very attentive to Garain, and showed him how to be more genteel in appearance, binding his beard and plaiting it with bows, bestowing on him the chunkiest of their jewellery, and incidentally the most deadly, and showing him how to conceal himself in a crowd of ladies. Eventually he shaved, an operation I regarded as intrinsically dangerous, because he did it with a sharpened dagger, but it improved his concealment abilities tremendously.

I remember particularly the first night I spent with someone because it was with Ellie, she insisted that this was the case. She said that she had “promised to show me what lovers do”, and this almost unmanned me with the memory of it, but she took me in hand and showed me bliss. We talked afterwards.

“You should master your magic if you think that was good.” I rolled over towards her.

“Is that what we’re calling it now?” I asked, amused. She smiled and tickled me until I grabbed her arms and pinned her down again. “Have you not had enough?” She grinned and tried to knee me, but I was too quick.

“Hum, Garain’s lessons are paying off. Has he taught you anything else?” I looked thoughtful.

“Only that you’re here to please me.” I said laughing.

“Oh you ARE becoming embedded in the culture!” She said squirming around.

“Anyway, I don’t know the magic words.” She sat up, the furs falling away. She looked more pert than I have ever seen her.

“You can learn them. He can’t hear you, me either for a while, and never if I catch.”

“What?” I said unsteadily.

“I’m not protected, Jessop. Sally and I, we’re going to be the mothers of your children.” I don’t know quite what happened next, but it was the morning and I woke up next to Ellie, still in bed, and Sam, still fully clothed, on the other side.

__________

We sat there in the furs looking at each other.

“Look at it this way John, it’s better than dropping dead. And it’s not like we don’t WANT children. It’s just that we might have made different choices if we were home.” I shook my head.

“Can’t I just magic away the fertility?” Sam shook her head in turn.

“No, we don’t know that it will protect us. We’ve got to have it integrated into us. For that, you need to get us pregnant.”

“What about Garain? I can hardly get him pregnant.” And I wasn’t sure I wanted to get into the whole process with him anyway.

“He, and you’ll have to get used to using the female pronoun soon, is a woman. The King can’t kill him, her, without losing face. If he, it, she, they, damn it! If she drops dead, the King will be blamed. Even he can’t kill everyone, and everyone will turn on him instantly if he magics her to death.”

“Oh, right then.” And that was that.

___________

Gerain’s skill at navigating kept us from meeting any one serious, some peasants with only one woman, and a pretty poor show at that, and a few farmhands working fields. This meant that they were all women, and they varied from demure to dismissive to tart, and universally, if we had a complaint, we were to take it up with the men. I finally realised that ownership actually stopped a great of abuse, and land ownership, the exclusive right of women, gave them a great deal of power. It was this idea that finally made me be more at ease with what was going on.

Garain also proved to be very skilful a teaching me to fight. He likened it to learning a sport, which surprised me. He was taken aback.

“We’re not complete heathens you know, we have sport. [I’m having to translate somewhat]. We toss the caber, play Raquet Ball, we have Football and Golf and Football.” He scratched his bald chin. “That itches still. Anyhow, if you play golf, you have to learn to swing with your arms not your head. If you swing with your head, you’ll miss.”

We carried on fighting every day. As we carried on I became aware that any injuries I gained healed very quickly, usually within the hour. Garain commented on this. “That’s going to make you reckless. Treat every injury like it matters, because someone could chop your head off, and then where would you be?”

He carried on, teaching me to use forms used by all the fighters he knew, then how to counter them. Every day, I seemed to pick up something new. “You’re a fast learner right enough.” And so it went on.

This bucolic break lasted just up until the time we encountered our first “Lord.” By this time I had done my duty by all the ladies, and they all seemed satisfied with my performance; and seemingly it cemented their trust in my prowess.

We were attending to the wolves and setting up camp when the rag tag entourage came to a halt on the road beside our camp. Kate was outside our little circle and greeting the Lordling. I could hear her quite clearly, greeting him in the right fashion.

“Good day My Lord,” she said, curtseying. “May we assist you in any way?” he looked her up and down from the vantage point of his horse, who was shying a bit nervously at the sight of the gigantic wolves.

“I doubt it, child.” he said haughtily, looking down his nose at her, and incidentally not letting her up for her curtsey. “You could fetch your Master though, he might be able to help.” She rose and came to fetch me. Curtseying carefully, she said in a loud voice,

“John, beloved, a Lord who is unknown to me desires to speak with you. Are you ‘in’?” I wasn’t quite ready for this, but I got the message immediately. I turned my eyes to the wolf, and clipped her a bit more closely, she shrugged a shoulder.

“I’ll just pretend then for a moment if I may.” I whispered. She relaxed. I spoke louder, not looking at Kate, “Just a moment, dear, I’m not quite finished here.” I looked over the wolf, well, around the wolf, and held a finger up for a second, then bobbed back behind. Garain came up from the other side fully shrouded.

“Are you trying to annoy this man?”

“He looks the type to be easily annoyed.” Kate rolled her eyes. “Alright.” I said. I went out from behind the wolf. The Lord had got down from his saddle, I noticed one or two people looking out from the carriages.

“John Jessop. Are you lost?” The man stopped stock still.

“Do you know where you are?” I shook my head.

“We came off the ice a month or two ago, and we haven’t got our bearings yet.” His lips became very thin.

“Well I can tell you that you are on MY land, and you haven’t sought permission to be here. I do hope you haven’t taken any deer.” We HAD as a matter of fact had some rather nice venison the last evening, but I wasn’t about to tell him that.

“Wouldn’t dream of it.” I said, cheerily, even though I knew that the main body of the beast was still turning over the fire.

“I see.” The man said with a steely glare. Well as you are on my land, without my permission, you should tithe me.” I looked at him all over. He had a rapier, which seemed a like a very slight weapon for a noble-man from what Garain had been saying over the weeks. I noticed that a couple of very burly men had got down from carriages. No women. Other than this he was wearing a doublet and hose, which looked very effete to my eye. His codpiece was certainly exaggerated. Or a cricket box gone mad.

“Excuse me,” I said, as carefully as I could. “I have no wish to offend you, but are you officially a woman?” The two men stopped, stock still. Our camp became silent. “I ask, because, well, only women own land.” The chap had become very, very red in the face. I could see the veins clearly standing out on his forehead.

“How dare you!” He managed to strangle out, struggling to pull out his tiny sword. “I inherited this land from my mother you heathen! I have not found a woman worthy of me to pass it on to yet!” He managed to yank the sword out of the scabbard, and wave it in my face.

“I’m so very sorry to hear of your mother’s death.” I said placatingly. “And I know that it can be hard finding a woman sometimes.” This made him pause. I noted that in order to count above three, he was moving his lips.

“Well perhaps I shall have yours!” He shouted, and stabbed at me, thrusting full at my body with his arm extended. I had time to see one of the very burly men put his hand over his eyes. It was hard not to laugh.

The vital thing, Garain had taught me, was never to over extend; by the very nature of a manoeuvre such as stabbing someone with a flexible sword, one over extends, and since all my training about telegraphing movement was still fresh in my mind, I stepped smoothly to one side, and grabbed his wrist. I had a pretty good lock on it, and so when I ducked under his arm, it twisted mightily, and he had no choice but to follow it. He tried to jump in the air to stop his arm breaking, and ended up on the floor, without his toothpick, and with my foot on his chest. I decided that this was beneath me, so I took my foot off him. Then I decided that he needed a bit more winding up.

“Isabella.” I called as politely as I could. She came over, quite slowly, and looked down at this man sprawled in the dirt, and then did something I could have kissed her for. She tutted.

The petty lordling sprang up and tried to slap her. Too bad for him, I was standing close, and I didn’t even make an effort. I just punched him in the face, and he went down like a dropped sack of potatoes.

“Would you gentleman mind removing this man?” I said to the two men waiting behind. They nodded. “What’s he called by the way?” One of them bit his lip. I shook my head questioningly. The other one opened his mouth.

“He’s called Lord Nancy. We’re his cousins.” I nodded at this. um, would that make you…?”

“Yeah, but we’re big blokes and we got all the women we want. Why should we care? His old Mum though, she said to try and take care of him.” I nodded. “He’s typical now though, arrogant little shit. Thinks he owns the place, as long as they ain’t no women. Ain’t no crops bein’ grown either. That’s why we’re leaving. We’re hungry.”

“Never let a man do a woman’s work.” Said Isabella, tartly.

“S’right.” said the speaking one. He looked Isabella up and down. “I’ll fight yer man for yer.” he stated, dusting off his jerkin and furs. “If yer want.”

“Can’t afford me, eh?” she replied with aplomb.

“Bet you’re worth a lot, doubt anyone can afford you.” He looked sheepish as he said this. I was feeling a bit appalled. But Isabella was smiling dazzlingly.

“What a nice boy you are!” she beamed, and she went up to him with her hand outstretched.

“Er, aren’t you supposed to ask permission?” I said. She turned slightly back to me and arched an eyebrow.

“Are you going to deny me this beautiful moment, John?” I rolled my eyes up and said,

“No, no, just wondering if you were going to observe the niceties.” She laughed and allowed her hand to be lightly kissed.

“I’m Nigel, Lord Nancy and this here’s my brother, Leonard, Lord Nancy.” His brother wiped his nose on what passed for a handkerchief.

“S’right.” He said. “We’re gonna take the biggest Nancy away now alright? Got places to go, people to upset.” And with this they dragged him away. The whole entourage took a little while to get going and some time to pass; by the end of which I could hear the little chap screaming obscenities as he’d been tied to his saddle bow. They told him to shut up before he was gagged.

_________

A little later as we sat around the fire eating the forbidden meat, Isabella and Garain were reflecting on this incident.

“Garain is a right, if that sort of thing is happening a lot, then law and order is breaking down.” He nodded and tore off another piece of meat. “If that little chap is becoming typical, or even just more frequent, then we’re in for a bad time. Did you notice?” We all shook out heads. “No children around.” I looked askance at this. Ellie’s face had a dawning realisation look on it.

“No children, because they’re too afraid to come out, or the women are too afraid to let them out.” Isabella nodded.

“That’s a change in culture.” She said. Garain looked puzzled. “Men don’t do a lot of the work dear one, where do you think bread comes from. Have you ever tilled a field?” He nodded.

“That’s woman’s work.” He reflected a moment. “Peasants work the fields, all hands on deck.”

“Yes, and in this respect, women are in charge.”

“That sounds wrong, even from you Isabella.” He shifted uncomfortably, “We’re in charge.” There was a moment of consideration about this, and I could see Isabella and the others waiting. “He’s in charge.” he said pointing at me, “I have taken the robes of a woman, I’m not in charge of anything.” Gefina spoke up. I think this is the first time I’d heard her speak in company. She is a raven haired woman with quite a pointed nose, a long neck and fine features. As with all Garain’s crowd, she is intelligent and forthright, but she tended to go a long time without speaking, so we paid attention when she did.

“You’re not really a woman Garain, so you don’t know about woman culture.” He looked a bit hurt, and she laid a hand on his arm. “It’s not a secret culture, largely, but you must know that there are a lot fewer men than women.” He nodded. “We have to do the majority of the work, because you can’t be wasted on everyday things when there have been wars to be fought. Outright war has always been a disaster, so you’ve spent your life training up for tourneys and such.”

“What has that to do with culture?”

“I wouldn’t offend you for the world Garain, but have you noticed that most men are not too bright?” Kate nodded, and he looked from one to the other in bewilderment. Gefina carried on, “For generations we’ve been breeding men for muscle and women for intelligence and beauty. That’s going to have a certain effect don’t you think?”

“We’ve always known that there’s women’s work and we probably shouldn’t interfere with it.”

“Precisely. Why do you think we own all the land?”

“So you can farm it. Oh.” A rather frightened look crossed his face.

“Yes,” continued Gefina relentlessly, “we own the land you build things on. We own the land that you get a lot of your food from. We spend all our time managing that while you spend all your time training for war. Even the peasants. We outnumber you five to one at least. There are few women on the earth who can stand up to a man physically, so a balance has been struck. You own us, we own the land. We provide food, and sex, and you protect us from other men. What happens to a rapist?”

“Woman runs away to a stronger man and tells him.” Said Garain promptly. “And he kills the rapist, if he’s any good.”

“And if he’s not.”

“I don’t know. I guess it’s pretty poor for the woman.”

“Yes.”

We were all quiet for a bit after that. We ate and drank, and somehow took some time to let everything just go down a bit. A thought occurred to me.

“You ladies said two inconsistent things a while ago.” I started. Kate held up her hand.

“Hang on, John. Garain, you should know that you’re not dumb. You’re really smart and considerate.”

“For a man.” Kate waved her hands.

“No, Garain, for a person. You’ve been on a mission for a while, you haven’t interacted with the real world properly for a good long time. You haven’t seen what it’s really become.”

“I know about the King.”

“It’s not the only thing that’s going on, society is changing. We know, we talk to the women. They’re not happy. The men have started to treat them badly. You don’t do that.”

“Don’t I?”

“No, not generally. John, what were you saying about two inconsistent things?” The thought had almost slipped my mind. I considered for a moment.

“You all said that I had to get you pregnant to protect you from the King’s magic. Then you said that Garain wasn’t in any danger the because all the nobles would gather up against him if he killed a woman with his magic. Which is it?” Everyone looked shifty. “What?”

“Um.” Garain looked up. “I’m probably a sacrifice, or more likely they wanted your magic because they’re going to fight, or they wanted to protect their children.” I looked at him and gestured to the pot of food, he nodded and passed me his bowl. “You can’t protect me in the same way. So we work with what we’ve got.” He took the bowl and dug into it with his spoon.

“I’m sorry.” He looked at me.

“I’m not. All this is wrong. We’ve had this talk. The King has got to go. You’ve come here because he broke your law, we’re helping because he’s an arse and ruining the earth and our culture. That’s worth a lot. He’s bought winter to our world, and now he’s bringing winter to our culture, we’ll all die. That’s how he broke your law. You’re so far in advance of us that we call some of what you can do ‘magic’, because it isn’t any different from the old tales of magic. that’s what he does, it’s not right. He’s got to go.” Gefina nodded vigorously, and the others joined in.

“It’s a noble cause.” “It’s right and proper” “Garain is right.” and other noises of support came from them. Sam and Ellie nodded too. Ellie spoke up.

“Garain knows this is right.” He nodded.

“He is my friend,” I said, “I don’t want him to die.”

“Childish.” he said. Isabella woke up from her partial doze.

“Garain! You know better than that!” I looked from one to the other in confusion. “She’ll get you into a spurious fight if she talks like that. We can hardly afford that.”

“Sorry Isabella, the point is made though.” She shrugged her shoulders and sighed.

“Yes, but none of us want to lose you.” He just shook his head.

“This is morose, I’m going to sleep.” And this prompted us all to seek warm furs and settle down for the night.

It was some time later, and Garain and Isabella, just them, had joined us in the yurt.

“So, you’ve travelled far I take it, and you have strange companions,” he indicated the three wolves lounging in the yurt. “Have you been troubled by the ice?” I went to answer, but Ellie raised her hand. I nodded.

“The ice has been our friend and provided meat, and these noble companions,” she used a word, ‘amösti’, which really means ‘strange companions of my trusted tribe’, “we have travelled far from our range. We go to reclaim what is ours lying on the land of a Noble Lady.”

“Bought a castle eh?” asked Garain with a wry smile on his face. “Good job you’re not dead before you can enjoy it.” I didn’t know what to say to that.

“Um…” Isabella rescued me.

“John, I’m truly sorry for my attitude, I really shouldn’t have been that rude, it wasn’t fair on you or your ladies. I’m getting a bit crotchety in my old age.” I waved this away. “No, no, John. There are other implications too.” I looked askance at this. She took a deep breath. “Life has become brutal and short in the last years; we’re calling them that now because we cannot see any way of usurping the King. He seems to know everything, so even this conversation is dangerous.” Garain brings his hand down low while this is being said. Isabella sees and nods slowly.

“I’m with a civil society, which respects authority and civility.” I said very slowly. “I respect and revere the King, and if the judgements seem harsh, then we shall await the judgement of history.” Garain scowled.

“Kings usually only wait on the judgement of the gods.” The scowl deepened. I passed over a large chunk of meat on a piece of leather. This bought a smile to his face for a moment. Then, carefully, he took out a knife and a crudely beaten fork and a little tin plate, cut the meat in half and spent several minutes cutting up the meat into very small pieces before reheating it over the fire. I noted in passing that he just put the plate into the fire with his bare hand and held it there, before placing a rag on Isabella’s lap and placing the plate there. “Truth is,” continued Garain, “we’re going out on to the ice. It’s more than a man’s life is worth to challenge the King, and the ice is the only place I know of he doesn’t fully influence us with his magic. I need some time away from him to think. So do many if only they knew it.” He bit into the remains of the meat, and chewed thoughtfully.

“Supposing,” I said, carefully, “supposing there was someone who could get rid of him. Could you do without a King? Is there succession?” Garain swallowed the meat carefully, and took a good long look at me before replying.

“There would be a tourney. There are no heirs. A tourney would the only thing to decide it. There would be many deaths.”

“I don’t like to be callous, but would that matter?” Again, a long look.

“You halve yourself. There would be deaths, it matters not.” He frowned and picked up another piece of meat. “Why speak like a woman, and then a man. Women’s words are for women. If you must speak them, then be a man and commit to them.” I looked confused. Ellie put her hand up. I nodded.

“If I may have a word?” We left the yurt.

“I don’t understand what he just said; was he insulting me?” Ellie shook her head.

“He was expressing confusion. When you said that you didn’t like to be callous and then asked if it would matter, that was halving yourself. You might hear it often if you do that.” I looked more confused. “You’re a strapping great warrior. Well, you look like one, you just lack a few skills. You’re not supposed to care if they die, you’re only supposed to care if you win. But every man has a son or cousin he cares about, being concerned about that is womanly. You might have to fight if you express those emotions, so you have to man up and express them, commit. If you commit you might have to fight about it less and you might get insulted less, or choose to ignore it.”

“Got it.” We went back in, where Garain was having a long conversation with Sam about fighting, and how an unarmed person could still take on a sword. It stopped when I stood for a brief moment. I sat.

“I am sorry if I divided myself and it was confusing.” I began. Garain laughed.

“You’re a very strange man. It is done, you did it. Only women regret, it is their way, you speak like a woman, but you are a man, and you have the commitment of a man. Choose who you are!” He frowned briefly, but laughed again. “I’m not trying to insult you friend, but you are strange. I do not understand your purpose.”

“To bring peace.” I said firmly. He stopped laughing. I could see him working his brain, like a clockwork, as he mulled this over.

“That is the goal of a woman.” He held up his hand as drew breath. “it is a laudable aim, but men want war. It is our chance for glory!”

“And yet you run away to think.” Isabelle put her hand firmly on Garain’s arm. I could see his muscles bunch and clench. After a moment he patted her had lightly and she withdrew it after an extra squeeze.

“Yes, it shames me. And yet I would rather have this shame than the fainting death the King’s magic brings, or the drunkenness of so called Lords and Ladies who can barely keep a civil tongue in their heads and sword in its’ sheath. It used to be a countryside that had a reputation for quick tempers and quicker deaths; now those places as a bucolic peace.” Actually, I did translate there some-what. The world he used was ‘hardapga’ which would take a month of Sundays to translate. “There used to be a civility in a town, but now there is one town, and no civility.”

“Were there not matters of honour all the time?” I asked curiously.

“Oh yes, but we were forbidden to fight in towns by the old King’s order. he said that there were too many warriors lost in incidentals. The other monarchs agreed. But now there is one monarch in this long winter, and no need for armies. Just Barons bickering amongst themselves.” He said bitterly. “And I am but one man. I go to think.” He turned to Isabella. “Would you ask Tatty to bring some string drink? My friends here have none, or they would have offered it up.” I nodded, and stood as she rose. “Ah my friend, you give yourself away with so many little gestures.” He smiled, “How long have you been on this world?”

_______________

There is, as they say, nothing like when a plan comes together. And this was nothing like a plan coming together. We had been on the ice for a total of four months at this time. So far, that was two and a half months longer than we had anticipated. We had been on the ice too long, and even Ellie and Sam had become too used to our own company, and so we gave ourselves away in a thousand little ways.

Our company saw straight through us, and he was of the opinion that anyone else would too, and therefore our plan was hopeless.

“You’re off-worlders, that’s obvious now. I didn’t get it at first. Some men can be too long on the ice, and they turn a bit weird. You’re more than weird.”

We looked at him, a little aghast. Isabella leaned forward.

“It’s not unknown, there are a few places in the world that are confused with other worlds; and sometimes people come through.” Garain nodded. “We have ben to most of the portals,” she continued. “Some of what comes through has to be dealt with.”

“Your current King is one of those things.” I was tense, I didn’t know how they would take this. Garain and Isabella shrugged in unison.

“We suspected as much. We couldn’t prove it. And he has bought magic with him.” Ellie leaned forward.

“I would argue with you for the world, Garain, but it’s not magic, it’s tech. And we are policemen come to end him.”

“I do not know those words you used, ‘teche’, ‘pleaseman’, but if you are here to end him, then I am with you.”

“Hang on, hang on,” I said, “what are the odds of meeting someone willing to help us more or less first bat off the wicket?” And then I saw it, I saw what had been going on all the time. Sam was looking sad.

“Yes, John. You’re right, I see it in your face. Isabella is my entangled double.” Garain looked up, first at Sam, and then carefully at Isabella.

“I see it now. Had not before.” He rumbled. “It is obvious now, you are sisters.” Isabella put her hand to her mouth, clearly shocked. “I am more committed now.” He paused. “If you are Isabella.” She looked up at him with wide eyes.

“Since when did a man ask permission from his women to do anything?”

“Their ways are not our ways; you need to be certain of this course, it may end your life for a futile cause. As do the other women. Everyone must be certain. I have a responsibility. If I must, I will don the robes and furs of a woman and be this man’s creature, but everyone must consent.” And standing abruptly, he left the yurt and disappeared on to the ice sheet.

There were a few moments of contemplative silence. Eventually Isabella made to get to her feet, and I got up and lent her a hand. She bowed her head slightly in acknowledgement and stood for a moment regaining her composure.

“I have things to attend to now ladies and gentleman, and I must see to them, because the head of my household may be no more.” She looked me up and down. “I hope you are equal to this task, because you do not know the enormity of what you have done.”

“I have an idea, Lady.” She frowned and became very thin lipped.

“I think your idea is a faint reflection of what you will see happen when we encounter the town. Manhood is prized here, more than anything. We ladies own what we own to relieve men of the responsibility, to allow them to think and fight. He will not fight again. His punishment of me is nothing. He will disgrace himself and his line for you. Don’t fail him.” I bowed as low as I knew how. “I am honoured, but it is more important that you don’t fail. More than anything.” And she left the yurt also, sweeping her train behind her with a flick or her hand.

“What did I just do and is this sort of thing going to happen all the time?” I said, “And is there any of that drink left?”

We got pretty drunk that night, all of us, on Garain’s mead and rum. Isabella was the only one who showed any restraint, and even was tipsy. The other ladies, Tara, Kate, Helena and Gefina, joined us, demurely robed and suitable chaste, and we told them of the so called plan so far, and what was happening. They all wanted a hefty dose of the mead after that.

It was morning when I was woken by Garain gently rocking my shoulder. Everyone else asleep around me and the brazier was low. He gestured to me to come outside. I groggily got up and followed. The world was hard to resolve, I was clearly hung over, and I felt and urgent need for some water. I began looking about, but Garain handed me a waterskin, by the expedient of grabbing my hand and shoving it into it. I took a long draught, and splashed a bit on my face. Garain waited patiently.

“I have a plan,” he said, “A new plan.” I nodded. “You are clearly immune from Kings Geas, he cannot kill you dead with his magic, or you would not be here.” I nodded again.

“That’s the theory.” He looked grim.

“It had better be more than a theory, or we are all dead for nothing.” He took a deep breath, there was something more. “I might be dead anyway, but I think you can save the women.” He looked off into the distance.

It was while he was doing this that I noticed that his clothes had changed from the dark rough furs of his battle dress, to a lighter linen type robe in many layers, and cream, almost white furs, wrapped around in the same style the women wore, rather than just hung loosely and carelessly as his others had been.

“I think that whatever makes you immune is within you, and you can pass it on to your sons and daughters. I think that act will protect the women too, but not me.” I looked at him, gaping. “You must father all my firstborn. Then I will train you to fight. Then you will be ready for battle.”

_____________

I had a good sense of why Garain would spend the night on the ice, naked, as it turns out. He is hugely hardy; that would have killed me even with all the additional bulk. I gathered later that it was a test of his destiny. If he died on the ice, no problem, as the man on the scene I automatically inherited everything moveable, so not houses and such, but the cart, the women, all that. He had said this in the discussions with Isabelle that amounted to his will. But, as he had come back, he was bound, he thought to take the robes of a woman, and serve me, at least, on the surface.

“Tell them I owed you a gambling debt and couldn’t pay. They will believe it, and it will not be an unexpected disgrace. I’m known for a gamble, it will give amusement to my enemies. They need some amusement since the last tourney.”

“Um, what did you do to them?”

“Broke the leg of every single challenger as he fell off his horse. And Lord the Madam Lissom.”

“Sorry what?”

“She killed her husband and challenged her accuser to hand to hand combat. Woman are not allowed to fight, but it would have been a dishonour to refuse. It would have been a bigger one to kill a weak, defenceless woman in combat, and a disgrace to lose. As it turns out she is neither weak nor defenceless, and she doesn’t seem to enjoy the company of men, so we have to let her get on with it.”

“Let her get on with it?”

“I have taken the robes of a woman, she has taken the robes of a man; unless one likes to get one’s head chopped off, or sawed off more likely, one just accepts that sometimes the cart goes the other way. She’ll have a bit more humility now though. I told her that lance was too heavy for her.” He shrugged his robes around a bit. “This will take some getting used to, ah, My Lord.” I was a bit taken aback. The ladies had been calling me this for the last two days as we rearranged camp and packed it up again. But Garain?

“I am your ‘woman’, you are my Lord. That is how it is, get used to it.”

“Huh. I’ve been thinking about this impregnation thing.” He shot me a look.

“You have done nothing so far. You have not even talked about the matter with your women, what is the matter with you?”

“I’m a bit shy about it to be honest.” He glowered.

“You said what?” He began to bunch his fists. I grew noticeably nervous, this did not seem to improve his mood.

“Little bit shy.” I said recklessly. This as too much for him.

With a great roar he threw off the robes and swung a great roundhouse blow at me, not the gently telegraphed blows with the coshes, but massive blow of a man fully enraged. It connected and I saw stars as I flew across the clearing. He was roaring incoherently, and stamped across the grown before I could find my feet or my wits. He pulled me upright with one hand and swung again, but this time instead of hitting me with his fist, he opened his hand, saving all my teeth, and slapped me across the clearing again. It didn’t feel any less hard than the punch and I was dazed again. I saw that the women had come out and formed a rough circle, including Ellie and Sam. No-one seemed inclined to do anything about the beating I was getting. He seemed less incoherent now, but just as angry.

“I,” he said, lifting me up again, “have given up my manhood for your plan, so you will fight!” he punctuated this with a punch to my stomach. I doubled over and he kneed me in the face. I fell over backwards. “I will never mate!” He went to stamp on me, but I managed to roll out of the way in time. He had to turn a little, and I managed to scythe my legs into his. He fell over heavily, but bounded up again before I had a chance to do any more. Enraged he went to punch me in the face again, directly into the ground and I had to move my head suddenly to avoid it. He drove his fist deep into the earth. I looked directly at Ellie, a mute appeal in my face, but she shook her head and I realised, as he kicked me in the ribs, that I was on my own. I rolled over and over but he kept walking towards me and I realised that he really wasn’t going to give up until he killed me, or I reacted. I changed tack.

I rolled instead towards him, and while he looked marginally surprised he instantly stopped walking and pulled his foot back for a kick. I stopped and put my hands up to catch it, but I was far too slow. I cursed in frustration and stood up as he regained his balance from his missed kick. I took advantage of this to hit him in the face.

Now, I must relate something here. I haven’t done much fighting, and what I have seen has been on the television. Yes, I’ve boxed a little for exercise, but what no-one will tell, no-one, is that hitting a very large man with a very large neck trained practically from birth to fight is almost pointless. Also, you are quite likely to break a knuckle on his face. Unless he has a glass jaw. Garain did not have a glass jaw, but rather one that seemed to be made or granite or some other, harder, material.

I cursed again and retreated rapidly across the ground that was open. He rubbed his jaw, and smiled nastily. Although we were fighting in a small area, I can only describe what he did next as a charge. He developed in a few paces a sort of implacable run that looked as if only some sort of natural disaster would stop it, a mountain falling on him, that sort of thing. I looked at this for a brief second and decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and ran off onto the ice.

I didn’t know until that point that I could run really fast, and I easily out- paced Garain and he cursed and shouted and called me a coward. I knew I’d have to answer that, and probably with a challenge, except I didn’t know if that was allowed now. I did know he wasn’t supposed to fight with me.

I was sweaty, and this was not a blessing as night fell out there on the ice. I grew bitterly cold, and as I felt it seeping into my bones I knew a growing warmth that told me frostbite was coming deep within, as the tingle took me and I shook and shook. After a couple of hours the shaking stopped and I was in the pitch black walking on the pack ice. I was lost and in the dark and alone. I kept moving, my only instinct to keep my body moving as long as possible and keep it warm. Anyhow, didn’t lost people walk in circles? Maybe I would come across the camp again, eventually.

The night was darker than anything I had ever experienced outside at night. There was no moon, and no Milky Way, and it struck me how far from home I really must be. I might be anywhere, in a different galaxy for all I knew, and then the truth hit me like a hammer; I wasn’t just in a different galaxy, I was in a different reality, and my way home was up there orbiting the planet, with currently, no way to get back to it, because my quantum double was right here on the planet with me. I was more lost than it would have ever seemed possible to be, before I left Earth, came to this desolate place and acquired a new body.

I fell over in the ice and snow, and just lay there, not caring if I lived or died, frozen cold and lost, and then I did a very stupid thing. I fell asleep.

I was at the tea party again, but this time I wasn’t a five year old girl, I was me, and the rest of the grotesquery were around me, as well as the little girls. My knees were practically around my ears as I sat on the small plastic chair.

“Well,” said a little voice, “you took long enough to get here.” I just looked at her as if she was an alien. “Don’t know who I am?”

_____________

I’m a in a garden with four little girls and a bunch of shot in the head teddies and dolls, sitting, crouching at the table with little cucumber sandwiches on it, and slices of cake. I recognise Natashia, Katie and Samantha, but not the little girl talking to me. So when she asks me if I know her, I shake my head.

“I’m Ellie, silly. I meet you or the first time here. You’ve shared my dreams before though.” I just gape. “You’re supposed to face up to it here, what you’ve done. A lot of it is pretty awful, don’t you think?” She picks up the teapot and pours thick black coffee out of it, and offers it to me. “Drink this, it might wake you up in a minute, before you freeze to death.” She thinks about this while the other delicately eat cake with little plastic forks. “Actually, you have the Nanites now don’t you? You’re magic, so you won’t die.” She takes a big slurp of the black coffee with every sign of satisfaction. “Oh well, Sweet Elephants Track me Down.” She says, smiling, a hint of her grown up self showing in her face as it fades. “Come and see me again when you need another hint.” She smiles as she fades and I wake up.

I’m in a hot spring as far as I can make out, steaming away. The others arrive after about half an hour, and after Ellie and Sam making some fuss about wearing mittens, they pull me out. There are many admonitions not to touch me at all. I find out why when after about two minutes my clothes are dry, but my feet are wet, because I sunk into the ice.

“Start walking Jessop.” Ellie says, before the effect wears off and you have damp and cold feet.” It’s dawn, and Ellie remarks. “You’ve been out all night.” Sam looks over.

“Yes, all night and you left us with that angry lunatic. And we were worried about you. And him. He chopped up a boulder after you left. A bit one. Have you any idea what t’s going to cost to repair his sword?” I mumbled something. “What?” she asked, crisply.

“I said, ‘I got bit tired of being hit in the face.’” Sam slid to a stop.

“That’s what you get paid the big bucks for! You should have put him down, that’s your job! That why you have the big muscles! Do something about it!” She stamped on again back towards the camp, where she sat on a little stool, and sulked.

When we got back to camp, Garain was in clean clothes and furs and deep in conversation with Kate. He was looking earnest and Kate was just laying her hand on his shoulder. He looked up as we approached. I must have looked wary, because he held his hands up in the universal gesture of peace, and walked towards me. What he did next was quite hard to see, not hard to see, but hard to witness.

He went down on both knees and prostrated himself before me, arms outstretched and completely vulnerable. He turned his head to one side, so I could hear him clearly. I glanced up, Kate was openly crying, and the others were holding back tears. Garain spoke.

“My master. I am sorry for my inexcusable actions. My life is forfeit, my body yours. I am yours for pleasure or work. I have my place and have taken it at your feet, where I stay, to stir only by your command, or starve, as you wish.” I gestured to Isabella, who looked utterly miserable. As she came to my side I held out my arm, and she took it. I walked some little distance away, Ellie and Sam went to follow, but I shook my head, and surprised, they stayed, and comforted the other women.

I spent some time explaining, with Garain lying in the dirt a little distance away, what I wanted to Isabella. The return explantation took a long time.

When we had finished she was crying as well, and put both hands on my shoulders, and kissed me briefly on each cheek. “Truly,” she said, “as I love and revere Garain; there has never been a man such as you.” I shook my head.

“I am just a man, but I do what is right.” And gently kissed her on the lips, hesitating just slightly. She was firm about completing the act, and then pushed me back and turned me to face again the man on the ground.

I took a deep breath.

“Garain. You will stand up when I have finished speaking. Until then you will contain your feelings and listen carefully. Do you understand?”

“Yes, my master.”

“You will from now on instruct me in the usages and methods of battle when I demand it. You have taken the robes of a woman, and you will wear them and be disgraced, but you will use the skills of a man to instruct me in fighting.”

“That is most irregular, Master. Women are not allowed to fight.”

“That’s not what I wanted to hear you say, Garain.” I said firmly. “I wanted to hear you say ‘Yes Master.’”

“Yes, Master.”

“If you are worried that you will offend a Man, be assured that I will deal with him, firmly.” I said, hardening my voice as much as I could. “Very firmly indeed.”

“Yes, Master.”

“As to the women. I will accede to your request and advice, but only if they expressly agree, if they do not, we will find somewhere safe for them to stay. Understood?”

“Yes, Master.”

“When this time is finished, I will go home. Any offspring you will raise as your own. You will make every effort to have more children with these women, and be a family. You will never tell anyone of the true lineage of your first born. They will be yours. When this affair is over, we will restore your honour by whatever means necessary. There is no choice, you will cooperate or you will die. And one more thing.” He turned his head up a bit more. “You are all to call me John. It is my name. I want it used. Now get up and stop grovelling in the dirt. Never do that again.” When he got up the big man as crying freely and all the women gathered around us as I gave him a great big bear hug.

The next few weeks were hard. Ellie was in no condition to help and I learned leather-craft and woodcraft as practised on the planet under force majure, Sam mercilessly bullied me every time I got it wrong, as well she might, our lives depended on it. Her relationship with the wolves grew deeper and deeper, although even in their tiny pack there was a leader, it was clear that they deferred to her. This deferral was not entirely will on the part of all three participants. The bigger one, Sam called her “Kit”, kept the other two in line; although when I say this I really mean the other “one”, because the other female was the difficult one. Sam explained it.

“You see normally the pack leader is a male, and they don’t hunt much, but protect the pack.”

“Lions,” I said nodding.

“Yes, but unlike lions the males don’t come and kill the young of other males; in fact as far as I can make out the females have no problem being in charge, and will direct the whole pack to kill an invading male if they don’t like him.”

“You’re implying that they might like him.”

“Yes, or they might take pity on him if he’s been abandoned of left behind. Or he might just want a change of scene.”

“They get bored?”

“Approximately, yes. I think it’s a mechanism designed to prevent too much inbreeding, they’re not very faithful over a long period of time, but in the pack they’re all right on board.”

“Oh.”

“And they all protect the cubs.”

“I didn’t see any with that pack.”

“I think they hide them.”

“How did you persuade them to come with us?” Sam looked shifty. “What am I missing?” I asked, suspiciously. She waved her hands indeterminately, uncertain.

“I think they think I’ve got a lot of, of, uh, moxy, and they like that in human females.”

“Um why?” I asked, thoroughly confused.

“The men hunt them for sport, the women don’t.” That seemed reasonable. “Why are they helping us?”

“Well, again, approximately, they can smell the altered nano-tech on you, and a few of them seem to think you might be able to change it back to the way it was. The planet I mean.”

“They’re pretty intelligent for wolves.”

“They’re pretty intelligent, full stop. They’ve been around for a long time. They have thinking parties. No-one will teach them to read and write though.”

“Wha…?”

“They’ve been around a REALLY long time, but; no opposable thumbs and no written culture.”

“Oh.” One of the wolves raised its’ head.

“Human say ‘Oh’ too much. Not think.” I spat my coffee out at speed. It was hard to understand, but it was definitely speech.

“You can talk!?!? Animals can’t talk!”

“Parrot talk. Crow make stick. Wolf talk, little. Sam teach us. ‘nuf now.” And Kit lay her head down and closed her eyes, and feigned sleep.

“They think, John, and they’re pretty damn intelligent. They’re alien to us though.”

“Like, ‘from another planet’ alien.”

“No, John, like aliens among us. They still see you as food, and have no problem having a conversation with you and eating you. Possibly at the same time. They’re alien. They think, they just don’t think like us.”

“Right. Ok.” I said, unsure what to make of it. All I know is that the wolves never spoke to me again. I think it, she, was making some sort of point.

So the wolves pulled the sleds and a week turned into a month and Ellie recovered. She had, strangely I thought, no scarring, eventually, and seemed as chipper as ever, but she was a lot quieter.

__________

We had our first sight of grass about four months after our landing, and a week after that our first encounter with people. Well, our second, but this time we didn’t kill them and take their stuff. Naturally they were willing to trade, and thus, it was the women who came to talk to us first.

They looked at us strangely. It wasn’t until a good while after that I worked out why. They were wearing while bear furs, and their face were covered with scarves and scarves and a kind of plate over the eyes. Ellie and Sam came and curtseyed to me.

“What are you doing?” I hissed, though there was really no need, the wind hadn’t really died down.

“We’re asking permission to talk to the other women, and possibly the men.” Said Sam looking at the ground. I stood there like a lemon for a bit.

“You’re doing what?” Sam’s head snapped up,

“Don’t mess this up Jessop,” she said crisply, “remember this is an entirely different culture we’re dealing with, you’ve been briefed now, so go along with it.” I nodded, and as I did so, they both looked up and went to the yurt, returning almost instantly to us, and perfunctorily showing me the wares, none of which I recognised, they turned to the women. I know I said I was going to do any translation, but there are a few terms that English doesn’t have, so bear with me. The oldest woman spoke first.

“You have a fine man.” She said pointing slightly off to one side of me. “Are you happy?” Ellie and Sam dropped a curtsey before the old woman. Ellie, to my surprise, spoke.

“Yes, Domat, [Head Grandmother], we are happy, and our man respects us.”

“And does he service your needs?”

“Our needs are few at this time, Domat.”

“Few, and yet you are not with child.” She prodded a gnarled finger at their bellies.

“No, Domat, nor have we any desire to be so. We have been on the ice for some time, contemplating, and we are happy.” The old woman looked from them to me. I knew something was missing. There was a pause, and then she started to unwrap her headscarves and take the faceplate off.

I reckon this hardy old woman was about seventy-five, but she looked good for it, brown skin, wrinkled a little, but plaint and fresh. A shock of white, white hair that cascaded down her back, she was quite shapely as she stepped out of her robes. She looked at me archly.

“Like what you see, Man?” I was taken aback, despite the extended briefing. I just nodded, hoping this would pass for politeness. I got a thin smile in return. “Shy, is he?” She looked me up and down a bit. “Or just a bit thick.” I perked up.

“I say, steady on!” There was a cough from the covered wagon and a huge man, and I mean huge, massive, broad shouldered man, jumped down. All the women except the Domat, Ellie and Sam immediately grovelled.

“Too cold for that, get up and just do.” He looked at the Domat sternly. “Did you just insult this man?” She looked up, inevitably, into his face.

“Yes, I believe I did.” He rolled his eyes.

“Isabelle, what have I said about this?” She looked right in his eye, no less defiant than a few seconds before.

“You said I have a quick temper and it’s going to get me in trouble. I doubt that as long as you own me.”

“Missing the point.” She just looked at him with a gimlet eye. He turned to me. “I will not apologise for this woman and I guess you won’t back down from a fight therefore I challenge you to a duel and as the challenger you get the choice of weapons.” He reeled off quickly, while one of the other fur clad women rushed up with a medium sized box. “I’m Garain, please to make your acquaintance,” continued more slowly. The lady opened the box with a little bob. In it there are a number of sharpened knives, very small I thought, knuckle-dusters, some things I didn’t recognise the look of, and two very large coshes. I wondered about this arrangement. I passed my hand over the knuckle-dusters, thinking that I could maybe put him down quickly before he killed me outright.

Then he did a very peculiar thing. He coughed and shook his head ever so slightly. I looked at him, noticing that I was almost eye level with him, when had that happened? I passed my hand over one of the small knives, and the same thing happened again. I looked around. Everyone else as looking the other way.

No I’m no fool, but I was a little confused and I tried again with something else that looked as though it could be slightly lethal, and Garain, coughed again and shifted uneasily, and then, blow me if the girl didn’t move the tray and raise it up. My hand touched a cosh.

“Excellent choice!” Bellowed Garain. “Well done that man!” He leaned in toward me, and spoke, sotto voce. “You’re not feeling terribly abused by Isabell are you?”

“Er, she could have been a little nicer.” I said. “But er, no.”

“Excellent!” He bellowed again. “I think someone around here needs a little lesson, don’t you Isabelle?” He looked over to her, where she was beaming like a school girl with a crush. Ellie and Sam both had entirely unreadable looks on their faces.

We moved to an area of grass that was mostly free of snow, and Garain shrugged his furs off. I saw exactly, in detail, how well bulked out he was. His muscles were a study in high end physical development and rippled under his shoulders, and he loped to the centre of the area with an easy pace. I shed my furs as well, and was surprises to see appreciative looks on the face of the women, including Ellie and Sam. It was this that made me try to put on an air of brash confidence. I fell over on the piece of ice I had not seen. Everyone instantly turned their backs. Getting up and dusting myself off, I coughed a little, and the audience turned around again slowly.

We faced off over the little patch of grass, Gerain swinging his cosh easily in tight little circles, and me, just letting hang limply in my hand, waiting. He approached and gave an enormous overhand swing of his cosh, far bigger than required, and I dodged it easily, giving him a slight whack on the leg. I would have sworn that it was a very slight hit, but it seemed to bring him down, and he rolled upright expertly and came at me again, this time with a huge side swipe, which again I easily dodged by moving backwards. I slipped in the ice again, but this time I rolled backwards and springing up, I saw that Gerain had retreated and was inviting me on to the grass again. I moved forward. What I didn’t understand was how this massive obviously fit man was such a terrible fighter. I thought about it as I approached him. Somehow I could see everything he was doing. Had the Nanites educated me? Had they somehow made me faster? He could see me being distracted, and whipped in with something I didn’t see coming at all, and I took his cosh to my arm, and he was behind me. It all happened so fast. I turned to look at him and he was just standing there. He sort of rubbed his arm a little bit, as if I had hit him. Then I cottoned on!

I clamped my arm on the place he had hit me, which barely stung and rubbed it vigorously, then I rushed at him, swung my cosh. I missed but somehow our feet got tangled and he tripped and rolled up again into his normal place. He rushed me arms out stretched and hit me on the head. I dutifully went down and rolled backwards and he pressed his advantage, but as I stood up again from my roll I whipped him full in the face with my cosh, unplanned, and he went down like a poleaxed ox. And didn’t get up again despite the ministrations of his women, for nearly two minutes. I gave the cosh to the box lady and returned to Ellie and Sam. I noticed Isabelle was with them. They clapped politely when I approached. Isabelle said,

“Well done, Domor, (apparently this means ‘chief’). You acquitted yourself well and I am glad to join your household.” Ellie, standing behind Isabelle, shook her head just the tiniest bit. I knew what to say.

“I would not take you from your favoured and avowed, and I fought only for the dishonour I perceived in your words.”

“But I am yours,” she replied, “save my life and my hastina, (everything she has that belongs to women), I am yours to do with as you please.”

“In all humility I could not please one so proud as you, and I return you to the greater honour.”

“But you have bested him, how can I return?”

“It was only the animal within that bested him, not the pleasure of woman or the warmth of love.” Her lip was trembling now, and I saw, at last, the part where this was serious. I decided to give her something.

“Go with honour, for I was mute and seemed ignorant. Your man has satisfied my honour, and I require nothing more. If he will allow, I will take your company over meat, and his too. We will discuss matters of commerce and trade, and then go with honour.” She brightened considerable at this, and bowing, she put on her robes again, and went to join Garain, who had been looking on with interest. He nodded, and went to the wagon to repair himself. Ellie, Sam and I retired to the yurt.

“That was all show,” I said quietly as we sat around the fire drinking what passed for coffee around here, “and he needed it for some reason. I’m assuming the entire point was to tell Isabella off.” Sam nodded.

“Isabella went well past what is considered polite because she thought being on the ice so long you wouldn’t challenge it, so it was a bit of a surprise when Garain did. He was definitely reprimanding her.” I thought about this.

“Garain seems a lot more civilized that I would have thought, given everything you’ve said about the culture. Wouldn’t he have just given her a slap?” Ellie shook her head.

“You’re right, Garain is civilized, but make no mistake he can be savage. He’s clearly been here before, he must have had lifetime partners.” I looked up and raised an eyebrow.

“Partners?” She nodded.

“Think about it. She owns all the land, the goods and the chattel. He doesn’t actually have any rights to her goods, her body or her mind, though many behave like they do. She’s his partner, and she gets half if she’s sold. If she’s given away, that’s her honour gone, even if she is rich. To answer your question, he wouldn’t hit her, because she is old, she might leave, or die. He wouldn’t want that.”

“You never said the part about her getting half.”

“I didn’t want you to get any ideas.”

Part 2 – The Relationship

My name is John Jessop, and I’m a killer for hire; well, I used to be a killer for hire, now I work for a government, or a slip of a girl who is seventeen or a thousand years old or something in-between. She knows things, about me, about everything, and she is willing to talk. I find her darkly, irresistibly, desirable and I have besmirched my honour by the idea that I would force myself on her. She saved me. She saved me by being stronger and more in control of herself and of me than I ever could have conceived of, and she put me down.

And then promised to show me what lovers do.

I get shivers.

Elle, the girl, woman, time lord, whatever, treats the only other person around, a Lieutenant in the Navy with unsuitable shoes, Lieutenant Sweet, Sam Sweet, from my world, as my accomplice, but this self-assured career woman has become more and more taciturn as our time together increases.

I have been tasked with killing a King. I have been given no weapon, no instructions, no guide. We are on a baroque space station, all brass and wood, with no discernible power supply, and formerly no way of getting down from it to the planet’s surface. Until Elle built an egg out of ceramic tiles. Well, covered a well-appointed escape capsule in tiles.

Now she wants us to get in this thing and go to the planet on which resides this King, and for me to kill him so the ice age goes away.

___________

“It’s not a device that causes it, no.” She is saying… “It’s him, he is the cause and he is the sole cause.” I’m confused.

“But how can that be? He’s just a man, from this drawing, he doesn’t look any different.” I think about this for a bit. “And why is my government sending me to do this anyway?”

“Because,” she says, with a very patient voice, you are not known on the planet.”

“Why would that make any difference?”

“It makes all the difference.” Sam came with a tray and tea, in a silver pot, with a tea-cosy. I looked out of the windows at the planet turning very slightly below us.

“And why are we not a in synchronous orbit anymore?” Sam poured. China tea-cups.

“Because,” Elle said patiently, again, “because I’m moving us to a slightly more favourable landing point.”

“And that means?”

“Less ice and snow. Less chance of freezing to death in the first ten minutes.”

“That’s nice.” Exclaimed Sam, “Biscuit?” she said proffering a plate. I took one.

“And what have you to do with all this Sam?” I asked archly.

“I’m your moral support, John.”

“Moral Support?”

“Yes, I’m supposed to take you in hand, if you get, well, too excited.” Ellie interjected,

“They thought someone who looked like me couldn’t take care of herself, government code.” I looked from one to the other, trying to read them both. “Take me in hand.” Sam nodded.

“See to your needs, that sort of thing. See that you’re not frustrated.” I nodded, still not understanding.

“What?” I said. Sam took a deep breath.

“John, I’m trained in psychology, PTSD and trauma management, as well as all the usual military stuff. You won’t have a woman who is not your equal or above physical or mentally, and you have not been with anyone in over a year while you recovered. I am that woman. In case of emergency. Or was.” She drank some tea. “I’m also your backup and spy. The government doesn’t entirely trust you yet, despite what Hicks and Charles say.” She took another pull on the tea. I just sat there.

After a while, I had a question.

“Why is it important that I’m not known on the planet?” Ellie looked uncomfortable, the first time I had seen that. Sam suddenly looked out of the window.

“Tell me.”

“The King is not from here, John, and he is full of nanites, so he has tagged everyone on the planet and can kill anyone of them at any time. He can also spy on them. Himself.”

I went away for a think about this. They left me alone.

When I returned, they were both making some sort of stew in a very large vat, and the planet had stopped moving.

“Sam, how can you let yourself be hired out as some sort of intellectual who….” She whipped around, ladle in hand, it didn’t look like just a cooking implement the way she held it.

“Don’t say it John, just don’t.” She snarled, “It would never happen to a man, so don’t put me there or so help me God, I’ll put you down.” I held my hands up placatingly. But I couldn’t give up, even then.

“What would you call it then?” She crossed her arms.

“The official Military title is ‘Doxy’.” I sensed dangerous ground here. I fished around in my vocabulary, since I write, I have some little command of words.

“Erm, from the Greek, er “orthodoxy”, something about turning right, and teaching? Ah the old English, meaning, oh. Sorry.” She was very thin lipped indeed. I opened my mouth halfway, then decided against it.

“You have it about half right. Doxy does come from the old English and the Greek, and it was chosen as the title because I’m supposed to teach you the “right way”, in bed and other places. You have to please this young woman in all things. Ellie blushed.

“I’m sure I can sort that out,” she murmured. Sam turned slightly towards her.

“I’m sure you can dear, but the British Government didn’t know this when they asked me to come on the mission, and neither did the Admiral. And in any event I’m supposed to try and finish the mission if he doesn’t.”

“You’re not immune.”

“Nevertheless.”

“Wait a minute,” I ejaculated, “what do you mean ‘immune’?” There was an awkward silence. A lengthy awkward silence. They looked at one another, and then did rock, paper, scissors. Sam lost.

“We, that is to say, Hicks and Charles, the British government have been injecting with a sort of counter nanite for six months. You would have got over your injuries in six weeks if we hadn’t intervened.” I thought about this for a bit.

“I was just going to be killed if I said no wasn’t I?”

“Sort of.”

“What do you mean sort of? You can’t sort of kill someone.” Sam’s eye’s flicked to Ellie. “What,” I said, “have you got to do with it apart from requesting this hit.”

“I didn’t,” she said, “I’m you remember? The mirrors, the dreams?” I nodded, feeling a bit out of control again. “Well where I come from we have engram replacement therapy, but it doesn’t work on many people. It would work on us.”

“What do you mean?”

“My mind, your brain. Do I have to spell it out any more than that?”

I don’t remember the next few days. They kept me drunk, apparently.

________

I’m looking out at this planet now, steady underneath us, and I smell coffee and bacon and eggs. I’m hungry. I feel like a bear has done something terrible to my tongue, and every bone aches. Someone arrives, Ellie, with a glass of foul looking liquid, which she holds out to me.

“I need coffee.”

“You want coffee, what you Need is this.”

“I don’t want it.”

“Don’t be petulant.”

“I am not being petulant, it looks like elephant barf.”

“You’re being a five year old.”

“No, I’m not, I’m being a five year old who is full of nanite crap and hungover.”

“John Jessop, you drink this now, so help me I’ll hold your nose and force it down.” I look at the tiny girl in her tight black dress, with her long hair and pretty eyes. I think back to before, when she decided that she was going to be in control of me. I think about that, and decide to drink the foul smelling liquid. She looks me in the eye, “All at once.”

And to be fair I feel better almost straight away. I feel better enough to have a cup of coffee and enjoy it, with the bacon and eggs. As I’m eating I ask,

“What was in that drink anyhow?”

“Oh just some Nanites reprogrammed to prevent you from having hangovers and egg yolk.” Everything goes a bit distant as I hear this, and I gather that I’m looking a bit vacant.

“John, John?” Sam is saying, a look of concern on her face. “Are you alright?”

“What? Oh yes,” I say, “Fine, fine. Never better.”

“Are you ready for the actual mission briefing now?” She asks.

“Oh yes, might as well eh?” Sam pours more coffee from the pot. She looks at Ellie.

“Well, you know the worst, and the basics. It’s all the in-between stuff that might get you.” I just nod. She starts a very long explanation.

________________

So, apparently, there is a sort of inter-dimensional police force which looks after all the dimension aware domains, alternative Earths, m-brane universe travel that sort of thing, to keep in check the almost inevitable rogue element that comes about with travel between technologically advanced regions, and those counted as, well, third world. Earth, my Earth, where I and raised and taught that it was everything that there was is one of those places. It only has a very limited access to other domains, and that only because some rogue, long passed on, opened an illegal portal, and jammed it open.

Now, odd people come and go when they can’t be prevented, but mostly the emphasis is on stopping that sort of thing altogether.

There are exceptions.

Once a portal has been opened, it can be jammed open, so far, so difficult and inconvenient. But once a portal has been opened it also establishes an irrevocable quantum entanglement with another universe. The two become aligned, and one of the jobs of the inter-dimensional police force is to see that they don’t become too aligned, that events and people don’t become entangled enough to cross over.

Normally this is not a problem, except when someone like Elle and I, so different, but so much the same at a quantum level, get entangled. We could switch worlds whenever we liked, in theory, if we knew the secret. We don’t, so we just catch sight of each other being entangled, doing the same things at the same time, and seeing, well, each other. We touch, apparently, at times of stress. Ellie was base jumping. Her main chute didn’t open. Her reserve did. I never had a chute. Life isn’t automatically just.

This is fine and dandy, and manageable for the hard pressed police. They’re not really accountable to anyone, but the training is harsh. Any infractions of the strict codes of conduct and one is not simply put on the carpet. One is reprimanded in the strongest possible way at the end of a barrel and that’s it. Because, once one of these police is released from training, they are practically impossible to catch. Thus, the force makes sure in every way possible that they are incorruptible, even their thoughts are monitored. They are about as perfect a force as it is possible to have.

One may infer from this, and I did during the long explanation, that the system cannot be perfect, and that, very occasionally, someone goes rogue.

I wasn’t quite sure how the Nanites fit into all this, and I was pretty sure that something was being held back in the explanation, for example, how did the police people travel around in the multiverses without a shed load of equipment, the size of say, a small aircraft carrier.

There was a lot of shuffling, hemming and hawing at this point. It came out that all of the police were implanted throughout their bodies with Nanites, which they were mentally connected to, it being dangerous not to be connected to the Nanites in one’s own body, mental note to enquire vigorously about this, and when someone goes rogue, the first thing they usually infect other people with their Nanites as a precaution against being caught.

The Nanites have a few advantages for those in control of them the way I am not, for example, since they replace the entire mass of accompanying micro-organisms in the human body, there are billions and billions of them, and they can combat virtually any disease or any sign of aging, so the recipient can in fact effectively live forever. The other side effect of having so many Nanites in one’s body was the more important one for policing the inter-dimensional cosmos, and that was that one could “align”, that is quantumnly, (can I say that), entangle oneself with anyone one chooses, thus allowing travel to any dimension that one desires. Any dimension one desires without all the inconvenient governmental ship support.

Super.

So, basically all that was left for any rogue policeman was to get shot in the head so they could not think about healing themselves, and hope that they were not clever enough to leave a copy of their brain and thus memories somewhere in Nanite form just in case, (not unknown, but apparently kept strictly on the QT). And that’s where I come in, because this character had bought down the ice age, because he likes a good skiing holiday, on this primitive planet, which he likes because it has a reasonably misogynist culture, and became King because he could artificially make himself the strongest man on the planet and have a large concubine.

“And that, dear John, is why you must appear to own us when we finally make planet-fall.”

If only she wasn’t saying it as I was holding a scalding hot cup of coffee in my hand, then I wouldn’t be dropping it over my own groin.

________________

I find out over the next few days what the nitty gritty is. The Kings name is Louie, and he keeps his aristocracy in check with “Magic”. That is, he has Nanites in them and they can just drop dead if they don’t obey. Survey teams have been sent, and killed, but what few reports that have been received say that he mostly just pays attention to any outliers, the usual battle between the aristocracy don’t bother him, just the threats to his power.

Women are the issue; they are owned. Raised as I was in a liberal western society I’m a bit appalled by this, but it’s not simple ownership, so there are caveats.

In common with some older societies the men own practically nothing. Anything they build with their own two hands, women, horses and goats, the clothes on their back and a spare set, anything they inherit. That’s it. The man owns as many women as he can keep satisfied, but if they are unhappy they will let him know, and he will seek to sell them. Since they own the land and all the animals therein, he will make a good effort to keep them happy, or if a darker sort, unhappy and faithful. A man’s honour is measured by the amount of women he has, and thus land and animals and other wealth.

A man whose woman has run away, because he could not keep her happy, or at least obedient, has lost his honour, and must get it back in one of two ways; a sacrifice to the Gods, of which there are many; usually two cows. Cows are valuable and some woman somewhere has to agree to this, easy if she is obedient, not so easy if not. The other way is to sacrifice himself. This is not popular amongst the lower orders.

Rank, and thus nobility is conferred by bloodline, primogeniture; it is possible to be noble but disgraced by the lamentation of your women. Any nobleman will have either built his house by himself, or more likely inherited it from his father. The land still gets passed down in a matrilineal fashion. This means that if a Lord owns the Castle, which his great, great grandfather will have built, he may be renting the land from a Lady, who may grow wealthy as a result. If she refuses to rent him the land, or is too exorbitant in her asking price, the Lord may take it up with her owner, who may be less good at battle than the Lord in question. In this case the ownership of the Lady would pass to the Lord and the rent problem would be solved, since he would now own her, and thus guarantee to get a fair rent. Apparently it works, I’ve no idea how. It reminds me of lions.

___________

A thought occurs.

“Don’t we have a language problem?” Sam looked up and smiled. “What? You’ve fixed this somehow.” I hazarded. “This is going to be a clever-arse Nanite thing isn’t where the Nanites have been reprogramming my brain isn’t it?” She grinned. “I hate all this.”

“Don’t tease him Sam.” laughed Ellie. “It’s not like that, the Nanite are programmed to just play language learning radio into your ear quietly every night, you’ve been learning it for weeks. Ki’m esta intrago ekos?”

She was right, I understood it. Literally it was “Me to you, have my interrogatives been heard?” I replied “Mi’k eko intrages.” “You to me, I heard your questions lady.”

Honestly I don’t feel like translating everything. It’s complicated, nearly as complicated as English. Apparently I learned it in my sleep. I couldn’t have written a worse trope in one of my bodice-rippers. Just leave it. It’s not worth it.

____________

“Anyway, “ Ellie continued, we bought you Noble rank and a castle from a Lady whose Lord died with no heirs, and she was looking for a buyer. So you own her, she’s quite an old woman and a bit tart, but we think you’ll like her, and she approves of your mission.”

“You could tell her?” I raised an eyebrow, “Is that safe?” Sally interjected,

“Perfectly, this isn’t the first mission we’ve been on, we scoped her out.” she said tersely. Ellie leaned forward.

“We also bought some adjacent land, a few hundred sheep, a camel, they pretty rare here, a thing like a pig, but it has six legs and makes your normal pig look like a walk in the park, about sixty of those, you got some horses, some clothes and a cow. The place is furnished, but that’s all ours.”

“Er, right.” I said, still not entirely keeping up.

“So, you have to remember, you own us, the Horses, Beverly…”

“Who?” I interrupted.

“Beverly, Lady Hawsham. You know, the one we bought the castle off.”

“Right. How are we getting me to the castle? I mean how come I own it?”

“Ah, well, there was a bit of subterfuge there. Nobles are coming out of the ice all the time and claiming castles, so we told her we wanted to keep it a secret, and that you’d come and claim it and she’d back you up. There might be a bit of fighting.” They both fidget while I think about this for a second.

“What do you mean ‘A bit of fighting’.” I say, even more warily than usual.

“Um, well,” Let me stop my tale here.

Up until now I realise that I have seemed taciturn in and of myself, not communicative, maybe a little miserable. I know that my character is flawed in many ways, some would say, if they knew, that this was because I am an assassin; others would say, equally, if they knew, that this was because I write trashy romantic, bodice-ripping novels. Neither thing is going to endear me to many people.

What I have noticed is that if there anything that is awkward about a situation, people will try to dodge in the first few seconds. I have developed a habit of not doing this, because sometimes I have to make split second decisions.

What I have noticed, as well, is that since the Hong Kong debacle, which is about a year ago, I have not really been in charge of my own life. I feel that I should change this a little, because I can see coming something which I wish I could not.

“Um, well, they might challenge to a few duels, tournaments, that sort of thing, to er, see if you’re fit to own such a grand structure.” There is a bit of shuffling of feet going on amongst the gathered crowd of two ladies.

“Right. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is a pretty medieval society isn’t?” Nodding. Lip biting. “And in this medieval society, physical prowess is quite prized isn’t it?” More nodding. “And in terms of physical size and strength, I’d say the average challenge issuing male is going to be, I don’t know six feet six, two hundred and eighty pounds, mounted on a giant horse come at me at forty miles an hour.”

“Don’t forget!” Exclaimed Ellie, “don’t forget that your horse is doing forty miles an hour too, possibly more because you’re a bit, um…”

“Smaller?” I say with a snarl, “About the size of an author of women’s romantic fiction would you say!” I placed my teacup firmly down in the saucer. The handle broke off. Sam straightened up.

“Actually I’d say about the size of an extremely competent and discreet assassin, actually.”

“Neither of which qualifies me as a bloody knight on a destrier!”

“We realise it’s a flaw.” Says Ellie.

“That’s what we’re calling it are we?”

“Yes.” They say in unison. “There is a solution though,” Ellie continues. “The Nanites can, er, bulk you up.”

“’Bulk me up’?”

“Yeah, once we’re on the ground and travelling, you can train up amazingly fast.”

“I’m waiting for the other shoe to drop.”

“We can’t take metals down to the planet in quantity, so you have to make the rifle down there.”

“Right. So let me sum this up. I can’t take a rifle down there to kill the bloke I’m supposed to kill, because for some reason, don’t tell me why, I can’t take metal down to the planet. I’m expected to undergo a massive physical change, possibly doubling my weight in, how long?”

“Six weeks, we reckon.”

“Six weeks, and become enough of an expert in the pike,”

“Lance.”

“Lance and the bastard sword,”

“Sabre.”

“Lance and the Sabre to defeat probably some of the best warriors on the planet. Make a weapon of sufficient power and accuracy to kill the King from a distance and make sure his high tech can’t restore him.”

“Yep, no brain, no download.”

“And convince a planet full of maniacal warriors that I can satisfy you two and old crotchet and whoever else we pick up on the way, which might be a lot if I have to prove myself. Then, by the sound of it, have invent the tech to get us back to this space station or find the portal home.”

“Ah, technically, if we come back, we already know how to make a rocket ship, so you don’t have to invent it. We just have to make it.”

“Oh well, that’s alright then, if just have to make one, then no problem. Have I left anything else out?”

“We shouldn’t let the population know we’re aliens.”

“Don’t let them know we’re aliens. Right.”

“Yes, that just about everything.” Ellie looks pleased.

________________

For the next few weeks I don’t get to write a journal, or dictate, as I find out as soon as we’re planet-side, that hardly anyone can read and write, and therefore there is no paper, and therefore Nobles aren’t expected to be seen with a quill in their hands. I try to get the Nanites to keep notes, but they are silent on the matter, as with everything else.

________________

The Egg stood up to the re-entry, a white hot trail of smoke dashing the sky, I imagine; I don’t know, there were no windows, and the thing more or less disintegrated once it had bounced to a stop. The foam in the interior disappeared and left us with clothes, which we struggled into quickly, and a wooden frame and a lot of leather. Ellie and Sam quickly dismantle this and reformed it into a sort of sled with another trailing it, all the spars and wood except that touching the ice wrapped in the leathers, and our clothes, furred on the inside, wrapping us up like mummies. They laid the remaining leathers across the strips bound tightly to the frame thickly enough that one could not feel the bindings.

So we make planetfall and the sled works. What surprises me is when I’m told to get in it, and they get in front of it.

“No.” I say.

“You can’t say ‘no’ to this, someone might see us.”

“But it’s just wrong.” Sam looks at me. Sadly. Then I see a flash, and nothing for a while.

When I wake up, the sled is moving at quite a pace, Sam and Ellie are sat in the front, and a load, looks like about 30, of dogs are pulling us.

“We bought some dogs.” Ellie shouts back.

“How did you know I was awake?” She turns her head slightly.

“We’re entangled remember?” And the rest is lost in the baying of the dogs as we leap over a very narrow crevasse.

The journey is long, and we stop regularly for food and rest. I help putting up the tent, made mostly of hides, and layered three deep. It’s a complex process, so we don’t stop unless we’re going to really stop for a day or so. The dogs need shelter too and they stay in the tent with us. It’s large and warm, and smelly.

“It’s called a ‘yurt’.” Ellie says.

Whatever it’s called it takes three hours to put up. The women teach me how to help with this. The wind is never ending, a constant howling gales of freezing, icy wind. My beard has grown and protects my face from it, a little. In this wind everything want to blow away or freeze, so the outer part of the yurt is laid out in a line of branches permanently attached to the outer hide. The ropes are made from sheep gut or something. It’s stretchy, and this seems wrong to me until I see them putting it down in the snow and ice for the first time. Then I see that the ropes are made this way to stop them snapping at the yurt goes up. It’s like a sail at first, and then we pull and pull at the wind facing side is pointed to shear it away, and when we pull this out, it all suddenly become easier. We piton everything down, and everything, dogs, sled food, goes into the shelter. We put the two inner layers up inside around all this chaos, and rolls and rolls of tightly packed dried grass around the bottom, and suddenly there is an oasis of calm.

We insert a hollow tree trunk, very light and stiff, which had been storing thing, and has some very clever baffles in it to regulate the draw of the fire, and when that is lit, it’s all very pleasant. The dogs lie round the edge, and are fed firstly, (very noisy), and then bellies full they sleep it off. The ground is covered in furs and furs.

“How long was I asleep?”

“Two days.” Said Sam. “We traded a lot in that time.”

“No kidding.” Ellie held up her hand.

“Just tell him.” I look from one to the other in surprise.

“Sure?”

“He’s got to know how it is.”

“We robbed it off an old man who wanted to challenge you for ownership.”

“You did what?”

“We encountered an old man who was womanless, and he wanted to challenge you. We couldn’t allow that in your state, so we killed him and took all this stuff.” I looked at Sam and Ellie in a state of shock.

“Just like that?” They nodded. Sam spoke first.

“We’ve both had military training, he didn’t stand a chance, and he had no honour, so it wasn’t a hard choice.”

“But that’s just wrong!”

“Sayeth the assassin.”

“But…” Ellie interjected,

“He was going to die anyhow and we got these dogs. He was alone in the snow, the only reason he came out all this way was to die. We saved him from starving to death. Trust me on this.” I thought about this, it was true, but somehow…

“How do you know how to do all this camp stuff?” Ellie smiled,

“I lived here for about 30 years, you learn.” I couldn’t handle this, so I left it.

Leaving it may not have been the best thing, because for the next two months I lived with Ellie and Sam, just Ellie and Sam; they did most of the work at first, but as time went on they expected me to do more and more. I noticed that I was starting to bulk out very quickly, and constantly hungry. We ran out of food very quickly and started to hunt in the ice, a lot of it was sea ice as it turned out, for bears and fish. A lot of the animals were very similar to those at home, but I was told in no uncertain terms that we needed the fish, and unless I could get us some from the ice fishing, we would have to go to sea.

It was at this point that I realised that my six months on the trawler was a kind of training for this. My libido was growing stronger and stronger, but I controlled it easily, because we had things to do all the time, and because I knew that I couldn’t force myself on either of them, no matter what roles we were playing. In any event, it’s not a thing I would have been comfortable with, being that aggressive, I had put that monster away.

The trawler time was good though for other reasons, I knew what bait to use to catch all sorts of fish, and how to play a line, handle a large net, and obviously we had a large freezer on our doorstep so to speak. I knew how to gut and preserve the fish in other ways. Bear hunting was something else though. The first time we did that, well…

Contrary to what the graphic artists of this world, wait, home, would have one believe, women in artic gear soon lose any semblance of shapely womanhood, and become amorphous blobs in the snow. So it was only by height that I could tell Ellie from Sam in the snow if they were any distance away. I knew that Sam had whittled the end of a precious branch to a point, and cooked it over the fire, explaining that this type of wood became hard but flexible if treated the right way, something to do with the sap.

What I didn’t realise before that first hunt, was that Ellie was the expert with this, and I stayed out to watch the action that first time.

Sam, I didn’t know it was Sam, because there was nothing to compare her to, was bounding about like a little snow fox, scampering and shifting about. The bear, obviously hungry, immediately showed an interested, and Sam began to run away. It was at this point that I stood up.

This was, apparently a mistake. I was supposed to stay down and not moving, but I wanted to rescue Sam. Ellie sprang up from the snow as the bear veered off towards me, a non-moving, easy target; instead of hitting the bear straight in the heart, she caught him in the leg, dashing the spear right through it, but not fatally wounding it. The bear instantly turned and lashed out at Ellie, swatting her with a massive paw tearing through layers of her snow gear and roaring in rage. Dragging the spear with it, the bear started over to Ellie. I started to run in a blind panic, but Sam was closer. I could see her bend down to the snow as she ran, and as she approached the bear she seemed to deliberately allow her arm to be bitten. The bear shook and shook, and battered Sam with its’ paws, and roared again. Then in a swift sudden movement she brought her arm around and stabbed the bear in the eye with an icicle, and turned it, once. The bear screamed, I would never have thought that such a sound could come from an animal, and then it fell over backwards limply, twitching, but obviously dying.

Sam looked at me and screamed over the wind and her excitement, “Get Ellie!” and I veered off to find Ellie just sitting up and nursing her side. She needed help to get up, and was obviously in pain and having difficulty breathing.

Back at the sled, Sam was not in a good mood.

“You’re an idiot Jessop! What part of ‘We’re hunting bears just stay out of the way’ didn’t you understand?” I put Ellie down on the sled gently.

“Maybe if you had shared your plans and included me I would have been able to help instead of hinder!” I said, heatedly. Sam looked at me venomously, and then her attitude just changed. “Ellie, we’re putting the yurt up, is that ok?” Ellie coughed weakly and nodded. “Are you gonna be ok for a bit? It’s going to take both of us.” Nod. “Ok, we’ll be as quick as we can.” We went off and started to put the yurt up, the wind howling about us and increasing in intensity as if to punish us for our stupidity, well, my stupidity. We rode the sled in and fed the dogs immediately, just a light snack. They had seen the bear, and we had not completed the yurt, so there were a few hurt looks as they rested in the snow.

Ellie looked pale as we went over to her, and she was trembling, her outer clothes somewhat torn and dishevelled, but the inner layers seemed intact, but damp. There was blood.

As we took the clothes off we saw the extent of the damage, the bear had broken four ribs and one of them was sticking out, the cracked bone showing white through the pierced flesh.

“This is bad.” Sam had a very sombre face. “Good job it’s Ellie and not me.” I was shocked at this callousness.

“That’s a bit mean isn’t it, shouldn’t we be getting a med-kit?” Her head snapped around.

“What med-kit? This isn’t a joke Jessop! We’re on our own here. We’ll have to take a chance, because she’s dying.”

“What chance?” She gripped my arm like a steel vice.

“Just roll up your sleeve.” Ellie had more or less passed out at this point, and I was for the first time, truly frightened for her. “Stick your arm out.” I did so.

What she did next I didn’t expect, but I held still. She stabbed into my arm, painfully, a little way, and twisted the knife.

“That’s great, we’re both wounded now.”

“Be still!” She snapped. “If this was me I would be a dead girl. They don’t have the medical tech to deal with this sort of injury. YOU have the power to save her so shut and let me do my job.” And quickly she produced a piece of thin hollow bone like a pipe and jammed it into my arm where the wound was seeping like a slow leaking tap. “Spit on the wound.” I hesitated, “Now!” I did so, repeating the action again and again; at one point I snorted, “You don’t need all that in it, just saliva! Put it somewhere else!” I cleared my palate again and spat into my own wound. As I did this the blood started to flow down the pipe, and Sam jammed the end of the hollow bone into Ellie’s rib. Sam looked at me grimly.

“I’m going to do something now, and you better listen and listen good. You abuse this, and I will have your guts strung out along the castle walls you hear?” I nod. “Right, say the follow, slowly it’s a code phrase.” She took a deep breath. “Cream elephants fight the squirrel monkeys, and gantree.”

I dutifully repeated what I had heard, and saw a tiny silver flash as my blood flowed into Ellie, and for a while, that the last I knew.

_________________

I came round again just as Ellie was waking up as well. The wound in my arm was gone, and so were Ellie’s injuries, but she still looked weak. Sam was nowhere to be seen, but while we were sleeping, she had done the work of three, and bear meat was slowly roasting by the fire. The dogs were not there.

I got up and went over to Ellie. She was looking wan, nothing so much like a wilting flower from one of my novels, but a hint of steel in her eyes.

“You’re a bloody idiot, you know that?” She said weakly. She was in obvious pain, and I could see her supressing a cough.

“Take it easy, you’ve had a rough time.” She waved this off.

“Not as rough as you’re going to have now.” I frowned.

“What do you mean?” She smiled, again, just managing to bring it forth as a grimace.

“He knows you’re here now, probably. It’s a fight all the way. And she’s going to bleed you again, for me.”

“Is she? And how does he know I’m here? How does he even know who I am?”

“He doesn’t, but you’re a hole in his net, and you’ve activated your nanites good and proper now, so he’ll see the hole if nothing else.” She coughed, holding her ribs. I gently lifted up her clothes to see the massive bruising and scarring, though the latter was writing and fading slowly.

“You’re still in no condition to travel. We’ll have to stay here, it seems safe enough.” I said, quietly. “Why didn’t you guys brief me properly before we left?”

“I thought they had. I knew everything. I thought you did. Connected remember?”

“Yeah, yeah.” I contemplated this for a minute. “How come I’m not injured?”

“Who knows? We think it’s not the same when we’re not reflected.”

“Reflected?”

“Reflected, chirality is important in universes.” There was something about this, something important. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. “Each universe can be a copy of itself, in the other handedness of it. You’re left, I’m right.” I had been told too many bewildering things in too short a time. I just said,

“Er, right.”

There was a silence for a while, the sound of the wind whipping outside against the hides. There was a bit of a smell building up from the bear meat and I turned it. I thought some more.

“Isn’t there something about food when it’s reflected? Sugar doesn’t work. Sweeteners are made out of it.”

“Yes,” it came out as a whisper.

“So giving you a transfusion of my blood wouldn’t work!”

“No. I needed the Nanites, you’re actually quite poisonous to me.”

“I am?”

“Yes, sorry.” And with this, she drifted off to sleep.

___________

I went outside. Some distance away Sam was standing in her snow gear surrounded by wolves. At least they looked like wolves, they were the size of a large pony. She was whirling something about her head. As I looked more closely I could see that two of the wolves were down and struggling. Sam seemed very calm, but concentrating. I sat down.

As I watched one of the wolves started a bit of a run, a sort of lope that was like a charge, deliberate and implacable. Sam just stood there whiling her, well, whatever it was. As it leaped, she threw it into the air, and it caught around the thing’s massive front paws, and as she kept one of the bits of rope in her hand, she gave it an almighty yank, and seemed to slam the thing into the ground. In an instant she pounced on the thing and bound its’ back paws and then pulled the rope vigorously, and the thing was bound and struggling on the floor like it’s brothers.

The reaction of the other wolves was interesting, they started back as the newly bound wolf hit the ground and then gave a bit of a yip and a howl as she bound it up. Then they all stood, and approaching at a walk, went to the bound wolves and sniffed them all over. Sam stood stock still as they did this, and I went cold all over. Colder. These things could just eat her and she was standing in the middle of them.

As they approached, one of them, bigger and with more shoulder fur than the rest went right up to Sam, and bared his teeth. I could feel the growl in my stomach, but not hear it over the endless wind. I could see it bearing down on her, close to her face, and I couldn’t help it, I stood up.

I hadn’t realised how close they were, I could see its’ head turn just the merest fraction, and then she let it have it with her best right hook. It had no effect whatsoever on the animal as far as I could tell, it just gave me a look then dismissed me. It turned back to her, and quite slowly and deliberately turned on its’ back, and faced its’ belly up. All the rest instantly did the same.

Sam reached over and, jumping up the fur, she rubbed it a few times then jumped down.

The wolves ran off leaving their three bound comrades behind.

_____________

“They’re our wolves now, I think.” She said a little while later, “I’ve never seen anything like it, but they are staying. I undid the ropes.” She put a large mouthful of cooked meat into her face and chewed it vigorously. “And neither of you was in a fit state to help, so I just made it up as I went along.” Sam took a big gulp of water. “They’re quite intelligent I think. And they’re not common in the warmer climes, or we’d have seen them before.”

“Right, right.” I say still a bit dumbfounded. “And were you not scared?”

“Hugely, but I’m beginning to think that we got lucky.”

“How?”

“We would have had trouble feeding the dogs before long, the wolves will pull all our stuff a lot faster, and we can make better time. We’re about a month behind out plan you know. I’m surprised we, you, haven’t been found.”

“Alright. What about the dogs?”

“We let them go, they split into smaller packs and they hunt their own food.”

“And that’s it?”

“Pretty much.” This wasn’t a satisfactory answer to me, but I couldn’t think of anything better. I was suddenly enormously tired again, and I couldn’t resist the urge to sleep. Ellie was already asleep again, and I went to the bundle next to her and laid my head down to sleep.

A long, really long, conversation ensues.

We‘re aboard a space station, void ship in 1929. Verne tried his bullet to the moon almost eighty years ago, it mashed the original astronauts flat and earned Verne a turn in jail for “reckless endangerment.” When he came out he was a changed man, secretive, reclusive and, apparently, educated in explosives and charges. His second experiment put a man in orbit about the earth and returned him safely. Verne was hailed a hero, and the French were thus the first people in space. The British soon followed, not wanting their cross channel rivals to gain a march on them, and with the 10 year delay due to Verne’s sentence, and some investigations on the part of the British Secret Service, a second manned flight was launched from outside Birmingham shortly after the first flight in 1867. In the next ten years the Empire launched no less than sixty flights, compared to France’s three, and Verne died in 1905 a broken man, his dream dashed by a government that didn’t care.

The Empire prevailed by dogged persistence. When the Russian and the Germans both launched disastrous but instructive missions, Britain stepped into high gear and built in a few short years a space station that would justifiably allow them to claim dominion of space. The “Void Ships” cast into space, and soon reached the moon, launched from this space station and thus needing little of the massive investment in launch mass that it appears in my time, is required.

Except that this is not my time, or before my time. Ellie explains that it is more likely that I have been “side-slipped”, because travelling into the past is simply not possible. It seems that times do not always align, though this may be an accident of the calendar. There is no way to tell.

I listen to this story with growing incredulity, the only reason I have to believe it is that I’m sitting here, tapping my fingers on the wooden surface of a table in space.

“How does the gravity work?” I ask.

I didn’t know this, but moving things acquire mass. If they are moving very fast, they acquire a lot of mass. We’re sitting on top of spinning plates, which somehow are frictionless, totally frictionless, which are spinning so that portions of them are moving very quickly, nearly speed of light quickly, powered by our occasional exposure to the sun and cosmic radiation. I press for details, but she is no a physicist, she’s a programmer, and I get nothing further.

I try for the important to stuff, why am I here?

“You’re not supposed to be here.”

“What do you mean?”

“We are supposed to be down there.” I think about this, it does not seem an attractive prospect, but there is a prize here, and I must stay focused.

“Why?”

“Because we need to you to kill someone.”

We’ve been here two days now. I have had a lot to think about.

I kill for a living, except that I don’t. I have put a life time of emotion and connection into novels that by any standard are pretty trashy bodice-rippers, and I realise now that that this has earned me more money easily than my “profession.”

I have hidden behind a moral code that provides for those that are left behind, because if I don’t do it, someone else will, and they won’t have that code.

I have kidded myself somehow that I am essentially a good person, while mouthing the acknowledgements that I’m doing something essentially wicked. I’m not evil.

In times past I would not have entertained the thought. Charles and Hicks and the crew of the Hesperus, the ship, boat, whatever. They have changed me. I have been able to kill with remorse or sorry because I have not been connected to anyone.

Perhaps if I had not written all those novels I would not be such a good killer.

Perhaps if I had not been such a good killer, I would not have written all of those novels.

I am not in a position to do anything. Ellie has spent her time repairing some of the systems of the VS Hesperus, and I have floated around doing nothing except being introspective.

The conversation following her announcement was difficult.

“Kill someone?”

“Yes.”

“I’m not sure I do that anymore.” She looks at me with that surprised look she has habitually worn in the mirror.

“Really? You’re the best, the best of the best, why would you stop?”

“Because I made a moral choice?”

“Morality hasn’t bothered you up until now.”

“Charles and Hicks changed that. The crew of that ship changed that.”

“Then you owe them.”

“Do I?” I stand up and walk around a bit, look for some tea in a cupboard.

“Other one. What changed?”

“I grew, well, connected.”

“And you’ve been alone otherwise.”

“Yes except for…”

____________

The memories come flooding back. I still don’t know my own name, but there are, apparently, other things I do not remember. Bad things.

My parents, my genteel, caring father, and my mother, I see her face, her brown hair and her green eyes.

..no-one. We were on holiday. It was the holiday of a lifetime, I was 15 years old. We went to Africa, a grand tour. My father didn’t travel well, but he thought I should see the world. It was wonderful. For a while.

There were poachers. They were local people, starving, desperate; not the type you might see on TV. These were desperate people.

They thought they could make money from kidnapping; after all, we had our holiday money. The government, it wouldn’t negotiate. Dad wouldn’t give in. He wouldn’t cooperate.

It was too much for the kidnappers. They shot him. They shot him in the foot, the leg, the thigh. It lasted a long time. He stuck to it, he wouldn’t give in. They did the same in the other leg. They knew what they were doing, they didn’t kill him. We had to drag him around on a litter. No pain killers, no treatment. Nothing.

They didn’t touch my mother, for a long time. They didn’t have to, she fell apart, it was up to me. If I told her what to do, exactly, she did it, but nothing more.

It took dad ten days to die. Mum died the next day. I think her heart broke. They left them in the bush.

I stole one of their machine guns in the night. I stole all their guns. They thought I was harmless, little Chinese-British boy.

I woke them up by shooting one of them in the feet. I did the same to the rest, they could not run fast enough.

I tied them with rope I found to one of their Landrovers, in a long chain. I remember them yelling and screaming. My father hadn’t screamed at all.

When I had done this, I tied them to the Landrover and drove though the bush slowly until I found lions. And then I left them.

I swore that if I killed again, it would be for right, in a moral way.

I don’t know what is right any more.

I told the authorities that I escaped, nothing more. They didn’t release the details of the deaths. I joined the army when I was sixteen. Everyone thought it was for the best.

______________________

The army trained me not to waver around; discipline, which I desperately needed. They heard my story, I said I just wanted to get on, and they listened to that too, after a while, and it turned out that it was better than any therapy.

I put my actions into the context a of a traumatised and angry fifteen year old, who had seen his parents die in a most horrible fashion, and taken retribution, terrible retribution, but I learned something, that I had left these men’s families without a means of support, and my retribution was far reaching, probably to their deaths too.

My father was genteel man, he would not have wanted what I did.

I know that people kill, I resolved to make it better.

I made it better.

______________________

“…no-one. There’s no one.” She looks at me curiously.

“What then?”

“I don’t know if I’ve made a moral choice.”

“This man, the one we want killed.” I wait, “He’s killing the world.”

“In what way?”

“You won’t believe it.” She turns and works at the computer again, wriggling her fingers in the screen, tapping at the brass inlaid keyboard.

“You’d be surprised at what I’m able to believe these days.”

“This world isn’t like your world.” I look steadily at her. There is something. ”People have abilities here sometimes. Rare people. This is one of those times.”

“He’s causing the ice age isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Because he wants space for himself, or the colony of the Americas.” The penny drops.

“You didn’t say ‘our world.’”

“No.”

“You’re not from here are you?”

“No.”

“So where are you from?”

“There’s no way of explaining it.”

“But you’re from Earth.”

“Yes. Not your Earth.”

“Naturally. How many are there, millions? Infinite umbers?”

“Um. No.”

“No?”

“We think there are a couple of hundred.”

“What?” I’m amazed. I would have thought that there would be two or and uncountable number. This is very strange, at least I think so. She has an explanation that is not only plausible, but remarkably likely, once she says it.

“The rest of them are not synchronised with our time and don’t exist yet, aren’t here yet or have long passed. These ones are just the ones we can synchronise with.”

“What do you mean?”

“How much techy stuff do you want.” I think about this.

“An overview.” She gets up and makes some more tea, I think about all the reaction mass it must have taken to get this up here. She is busy, and I look at her with interest again, something stirring within me. She’s wearing that little black dress I first saw her in. I get the urge to ask her a question.

“How old are you?” She looks at me archly.

“In as much as it means anything anymore, I’m actually two hundred and forty eight years old in your time. In mine I’m barely seventeen, here I’m nearly a thousand years old.” This is disconcerting.

“All that doesn’t mean anything to me. How old are you in your personal timeline.”

“That’s clever, you’re not totally ignorant.” No, I’m not. ”I’m seventeen.”

“How come you know so much?”

“Because I’m seventeen, but I experience time in between when I’m else when, I have lived for a thousand years, but in my world I am seventeen, and no-one knows any different. I am protected by my government as you are by yours.”

“Not anymore,” I say, and I find that I am saddened by this. I realise that I had a relationship with Charles and Hicks that meant something, I’m not sure what. She see my expression, and lays a hand upon my fondly for a moment. ”Ellie,” I say, but I hesitate for a moment, “Ellie, who are you?” The warm hand is withdrawn, and in that moment of contact I see the differences between us, my brown hand and her white one, my thick, rough fingers and her slender, pale, fingers. I have been immune, but suddenly I find her beautiful beyond measure and I have a powerful desire to protect her and nurture her. It’s confused by feelings of sexual attraction and lust, and then mixed up with strange feelings that I cannot identify, I get a flash of her in the mirror, and I am utterly dumbfounded when from this well of feeling a truth comes to me, that I could not have foreseen. I’m dumb-struck for a second, and then the words come to me, the fatal words.

“You’re me.”

________________

I know this, somehow, inside, but I cannot say what her connection is to me.

“It’s a lot simpler than you think.” I wait. ”You’re me, I’m you because we were born at the exact same moment in our respective universes, the exact same moment, down to the smallest scale. It’s uncommon, but we share a bond. Usually those who share this bond are replicas of each other. We are not.” She sighs. ”As a result, we’re of use, and the rest of them are not.”

“How many of us are there?”

“Maybe a dozen?”

“And my government knows about this?”

“Yes.”

It takes some time to absorb, and I realise that it will take long time, that I might not understand for some time to come, I have after all lived only one life, and she has lived many.

There is a beeping from the control room, and we depart the kitchen to see what it is.

______________

It is the medical bay. Sweet is ready and is waking up. The strange machinery helps her out of the water and withdraws the probes and devices. I turn my back as Ellie helps her with a robe and some clothes.

When I turn again, she is looking at me.

“I’m glad you’re ok, Lieutenant.” I say.

“Oh I think in the circumstances, you can call me Samantha, Sam.” I must look haunted, because she brightens up considerably. ”It’s not all bad, we were expecting something like that, and it’s not fixed in stone is it?” She looks at Ellie.

“I wasn’t going to get his hopes up, and we haven’t finished talking about the job yet.” The Lieutenant, Sam, looks only slightly perturbed.

“Well, we’re all hale and hearty and, I think, ready for action.” I feel my face crease up, and I see her reacting to it. ”You just have to get on with it man, and then we can see to the other stuff. Come on Jessop, buck up. It’s time I had a cup of tea. Where are we anyway?”

We go through explanations again, only the details differ, Sam asks different questions.

I spend my time in thought.

I know that I have spent a life in anger, and that the boat was finally a moment of peace. The time aboard allowed me to reflect.

The one who caused this, the ice, the whiteout of a world, do we have to kill?

Sam’s rehabilitation takes some time, and Ellie works at the Void Ship’s systems, I wonder what is taking so long. Eventually she tells me that there now no launch craft to take us down to the planet, and that we will die here. She shows me her project.

It looks like nothing so much as an a sort of egg covered in little tiles. There is a ring around the narrow end which is divided up into segments. She explains that these segments are what will guide us, they are the control surfaces, but I do not understand why they are so small.

“Because if they are any bigger they’ll get ripped off. We’re going to re-enter the atmosphere with almost no control, it’s this and a parachute.” I look glumly at this device. She opens a single door in the size, there are no windows. What there are is three leather heavily padded seats, and a joystick. ”It’s ok, I’ve done this before.” She says. I’m not reassured.

Days pass and I spend time in the Garden, but truthfully I need to be doing something, talking, doing, I don’t know what and I go in search of Sam. Ellie is making use of her in the Egg. They are stuffing more padding behind the seats.

I thought I’d get to know Sweet better, but it seems that she and Ellie are getting on, there is what I would describe as Girl Talk happening, but I’m alone here, and I need to work out what I’m doing and why I’m doing it, and for that I need information.

“Why am I going to kill this person?” They look up at me and exchange a glance.

“Because he is destroying this world and everyone on it, and he does not care.” Ellie wipes her hands on a rag. ”We have to save it.”

“Why?”

“Do you remember that I said that there are countless billions of universes but only a couple of hundred of these worlds that we can reach?” I nod. ”Well that’s why, rarity value. There’s something else too.” I wait. ”If we don’t save worlds from becoming uninhabitable, it increases the probability that all the rest will get that way too. Worlds kind of clump, like star groups.”

“Galaxies.”

“Not on that scale. But in realities.”

“But most of the universes are empty here and we’re alone.” I think for a moment. ”Has there been any radio contact?”

“Not really.” I look down for a second, contemplating my future, or my past, I’m not sure which it is. I have to save this world, use my skills as a killer, just the point when I feel, feel, feel!

I could give it up.

But it’s the right thing to do now, and I could give it up. Was it the right thing to do before?

Was it? I thought I had a moral code, someone else would have done it, I did it better. There is a hand on my shoulder. Sweet, Sam is standing in front of me, Ellie is beside me with her hand on my shoulder.

“We know.”

Do they, do they? I push them away roughly, I’m angry, so angry, how could they know? How could they? I know I’m shouting, shouting and yelling, asking the question, but I don’t hear myself. I’m throwing things, they move carefully out of the way, but after I have thrown quite a lot of things around and ranted and raged I being to notice that they are just waiting, not scared, not perturbed, just waiting.

That angers me more and I direct it at Ellie rushing for her, I want to break her, want to crush that waiting, want the fear to show. I want her to be scared, bend her to my will. What I want in many ways is dark, it is a lust I did not know I had, and a darkness descends as I move towards her.

_______________

Pain, contrary to what people think, is not easily overcome especially when someone is in control of it. It is a red light in the body’s response to stimuli, an attention getter than can only be ignored when the endorphins kick in. That takes time, and new applications of pain don’t give that time, so one’s attention can easily be focussed by shifting the point of attention.

Ellie is in control of this red light now, and is shining it on two or three places on my body, which turns out to be quite vulnerable.

“Jessop.” She says, breathing hard for a moment, “You’re not stupid, so I’ll assume you know that I’ve got the upper hand here.” I nod. ”Have you calmed down?” Nod. ”Now I’m going to let you go, and then I’m going to say something, and this time you’re going to think about it.”

“Alright.” She releases my thumb, and my foot, and, it turns out, a place in the small of my back. I step away slowly. She looks at me carefully, not for signs of violence, I perceive, but for signs of understanding. ”I’m ready.” I say, noting that Sweet, Sam, hasn’t moved at all, just a look of concern on her face, and a tapping foot.

“I’m you, Jessop. I know what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. The only difference is, that I am a mirror image.”

“How can you be me? I’m, well, me. And you’re a slip of a girl.”

“What were you trying to do to me, Jessop?” I look away, not wanting to face up to it.

“Yes.” She says, knowing. I’m ashamed, and I turn red, and away. I want to run away, but we’re here orbiting a frozen Earth, and there is nowhere to run. I walk off, at least, to get as far away as possible. There is a sound behind me.

“Jessop?” She is standing there looking calm and beautiful. I pause, not turning. ”I’m older than I look, older than the sun.” I wait. ”When you can face up to it, come to me. I will show you what lovers do.”

I nod, once, and then go away to be alone.

The next few days pass in a kind of darkness, Ellie and Sam feed me, but otherwise they make no demands upon me. I drift around the space-station looking out the windows, sometimes I retire into my cabin and barricade myself in, sometimes I roam around freezing cold barely dressed.

I’m moral, I’m a moral man.

Someone will take life, some will do it, and leave the widows and orphans with nothing. Some will take their lives too, I have seen it, on the basis that they have nothing, or that they are family, and thus, the sins of the father and all that.

It is wrong.

In war we take life, and it is no less wrong, but there is a moment that comes, when it is you or them, and if someone must die then it is them, because you, well you want to live. In war, you give up some of your humanity, you give it up because if you thought about those you killed, how they died, who they left behind, you could not. You could not pull that trigger, fire that tank shell, mortar, rifle, pistol, wield that stick. Everyone’s life has a meaning and you would be taking that away and all the training of humanity, of your father and mother and your friends and your relatives and your priest and your rabbi and your everyone teaches you that life is a precious gift, precious beyond measure, a gift from God, from Gaia, from the Prophet.

And then…

You join the army and your Sargent, he tells you that it is you or them.

And you go to war, and take this gift away, sometimes from half a dozen people at once. And in your anger and your adrenaline and your pain you are glad, job well done, saved your mates, preserved our lives.

There is no excuse, you did what you did because you must, because it was you or them.

Because you were keeping the peace, preventing further bloodshed later on, preventing drugs trafficking, people trafficking, genocide, preventing something somewhere, by making the bad people GO AWAY.

But you have ripped their lives away, taken what cannot be returned.

_________

I shave again, the ritual comforting me as I possess myself. I know that I have avoided looking at myself in the mirror, and I still do to some extent, it is hard to meet my own eyes. For what I have done, I am truly sorry, for what I tried to do I am truly sorry, for what I am about to do, I am truly sorry.

_________

They are talking again when I return, laughing at some joke, but it dies away as they see me standing there. I am waiting to be received, I don’t wish to intrude, to…, to push myself upon them.

“Ah, but you do, still I think, Jessop.” Ellie says turning to me. ”You still desire to possess yourself, and to take power over your situation, but you have none.” She lifts a glass to her lips… ”You think deep in your dark soul that possessing me will overcome your desires.” …drinks the heavy red liquid within. ”And what will you do Jessop, when you find that it does not sate your lust, what will you do?”

She’s wearing that dress, that black short velvet dress that clings to her like a second skin, she is looking directly at me, challenging me, provoking me, mocking me.

Sweet sits up straight in her chair as I walk to Ellie. I take her by the shoulders gently.

“I was angry, and yes I was trying to take control. Do not excuse my behaviour because you understand the reasons for it.” I drop my arms and look down. ”I’m sorry.”

There is a moment of stillness, where she is simply looking at me and smiling. Then, she takes me by the hand, and leads me to the table.

“You are truly a man in possession of yourself.” Sam smiles and nods at this.

“You think so,” I say, “you think I’m in control of myself.”

“Yes, and when you do too, I shall show you what lovers do.” This makes me tremble. “Clearly, that is not a thing for now, ” she carries on, “for now, I shall give you a gift, something from my researches, something I know about you.” My trembling increases rather than dissipates. I lean forward expectantly.

“Tell me, please, tell me what you know.”

“Well, here it is then, John.”