Nathaniel Howlett’s existence was known to five people. One of them was in suspended animation. Another had fled following possession of the revelation and the other two were enjoying lunch whilst they discussed the situation.
One of them was a man who appeared to be in his late fifties, with the bearing and demeanour of a military man. He wore a suit designed to soften his bulk, but moved with the care and skill of a man who knew how to hurt people without relish. The jade ring on his right hand hummed when he forgot to mute its presence.
His dining companion was striking, dark hair which fell in rich curls down her taut and defined back and a face which compelled awe with its bone structure. She wore a peach blouse and a pencil skirt with court shoes as she picked at her food.
‘Is it true?’ she said.
He nodded and took a sip from the bottle of lager.
‘Yes. Too much to hope that we might enjoy a bit of peace and quiet.’ he said
She sighed and shook her head
‘He was never boring, I’ll give him that.’ she said.
Laughter was something the man found useless but he gave a thin smile and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and nodded.
‘No, he wasn’t. Thing is, things have been smooth without him.’ he said.
‘Smooth is boring, Hal, Howlett was a gentleman but not a gentle man.’ she said.
He leaned forward and studied her expression before he sat back and gave another thin smile.
She blushed and looked away, unable to meet his questioning gaze.
‘Really?’ he said.
She looked around and leaned forwards, closing the distance between them so she was not overheard by the other diners.
‘Remember the pocket universe? Well, seeing as time moved at a different pace and there’s only so much two people can do when they are bored of fighting.’
He picked up the bottle of lager and took a long swallow before setting it down.
‘I didn’t know.’ he said.
She waved him off and looked down at the tablecloth.
‘We don’t share everything, Hal. It was fun while it lasted but it was a clue to why he retired, don’t you think?’ she said.
Hal raised a questioning eyebrow and she chuckled.
‘He fell in love.’ she said.
She laughed and shook her head.
‘No, Hal. You would have figured it out if we had.’
Hal sat back and turned the jade ring on his finger, it sent waves of reassurance through him but never touched the unspoken affection he held her in.
The conversation petered off, smothered by the unspoken affection between them and Hal’s unyielding stoicism.
She stood on the balcony, watching the party guests trail in and fought the rising tension which burned in the back of her throat as she sipped from a tall flute of champagne.
It had been two years since she left. The rash of opinion pieces and speculation predicted a wave of criminal acts on a grand scale, but they never materialised. She found a kind of relief when all the predictions failed to come true, but late at night when she could not sleep, she nursed a quiet ache, a homesickness not for a place but a person. She was happy, after a fashion.
No, she chided herself, you’re comfortable.
She drank and it tasted of his lips.
The theme for the party had been Victorian England, and the ocean of tweed spilling onto the lawn reminded her of political conferences she had recovered as a correspondent. The memory bit her hard enough to draw blood and she blinked away the tears which came.
Beautiful bastard, she thought and went to change into her costume.
She drew gasps of admiration, some of them as fake as the costumes but she smiled and gravitated to her fiance’s side.
He was talking to Rupert Murdoch, or at least the latest version of him and she had to tug his sleeve to get his attention before he turned with an expression of bored irritation before he saw it was her and smiled.
‘I’m sorry, Rupert and I were discussing business. I’ll be with you in a moment.’ he said.
She swallowed, feeling pinched by his dismissal and forced herself to pretend this was how her life was now.
There was enough time to store the indirect insult before gasps of shock burst into life around her. Guests were looking up at the sky, and a primal charge of intuition ran fingers down the small of her back.
She turned her head and looked up.
The sky was a child’s painting, dusk rendered in pastels to show the transition from day to night. She had shared his appreciation for nature, a fact which surprised her about him and the association pinched her somewhere soft and painful.
Hot air balloons. Some of them were made from shining mylar with rectangular plates set underneath, sending arcs of green energy, reflected like x-rays in the material of the balloon. There were too many of them to count but as they drew closer, she saw each of them were occupied.
A couple. Male and female. They drew closer and her head swam with the details.
The women in the balloons resembled her.
No, not resembled. There were variations on a theme, one of them had her hair shaved up at the sides and her eyes glowed like LEDs as she leaned forward, gripping the side with a hand rendered in dull, functional chrome. Another had gossamer wings and antennae waving around, but each of them stood with a man she had never forgotten.
There were variations on him too, in line with the variations of her appearance and physiology.
They moved into position, around one large balloon. One man stood in the gondola, with his hands gripping the sides as he stared and found her with his gaze.
His gondola floated ahead of the others as he looked around.
The champagne flute slipped from her fingers and shattered on the ground as she stood there, dry mouthed and wide-eyed.
‘Hi.’ he said.
The front of the gondola shimmered like light on the surface of the water, and liquefied into a tongue-like protrusion which rippled into a series of functional steps as he stepped down. She remembered how he had enthused about Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo, and realised he was appropriating the sequence from the film they had watched together.
He stepped down, effortless and casual even as his face was taut with a cautious mien. Hope and anguish danced across his eyes as he came towards her.
‘I went silent like you asked, and it didn’t help.’ he said.
She shook her head and stepped backwards.
‘This isn’t fair. I can’t trust you, Nate.’
He smiled and gestured behind him.
‘These represent multiple versions of myself. You’re there, Jennifer even the cybernetic Nazi couple, and christ knows what they’ve done together.’ he said.
The couple he referred to, held hands, communicating through strings of binary code engraved onto bacteria and passed to one another with each breath. She stared at them, her mind turning over in her skull as she fought to make sense of it all.
He put his hand out to her.
‘I’ve done terrible things to people before, and I will live with those things for the rest of my life. But it doesn’t mean I have to repeat them, does it?’
She felt her fiancee’s gaze on her cheek like a scar. Despite herself, Nathaniel’s presence stirred her into a rising excitement.
‘It’s not that simple, Nate. I don’t know if I want that.’ she said.
He smiled and extended his hand.
‘I looked into the eyes of a million versions of myself, and do you know, in the versions of me which were happy, guess who looked back?’ he said.
Her eyes were damp, and she wiped them, stepping away from her fiancee before Nathaniel reached out and stopped her from stepping on the shards of her champagne glass by putting his palm on her upper arm.
She knew. He did not move his hand but waited until he had her attention and held her gaze.
‘You can come with me now, and I know a lot of it is unknown territory for you. It is for me, but I know it would be a bigger, better adventure if you came with me.’ he said.
The rising sea of phones captured nothing tangible. Nathaniel’s counter measures rendered him invisible to media, a hive of block pixels and emojis circling in the black mirrors of their screens. Jennifer stepped towards him, her hands pressing against his chest as he turned and led her onboard the gondola.
They took off, the gondola vibrating as the mycelium engine generated the necessary alterations to physics and he put his hand at the small of her back.
She kissed his cheek and rested her head on his shoulder as they joined the other party ahead of them, floating and waiting to offer their version of what awaited them.