And so Monday came, and within the boundries of the store was found a smaller store. A department, far away from any of the myriad that seperated the main shop, long walled off and compartmentalised. This used to be Steam and Pressure, but now had a different purpose: Training.
Silence rolled over the sleeping store like a really, really quiet blanket. The slam of the door echoed and faded into the gloom of the emergency lighting, and Alice was alone on the shop floor.
Pools of yellow-white light fell in cones from the ceiling, illuminating the department like the points of a grid. Some kind of furnishings area, she supposed, all lush blue carpetting and expensive sofas around idealized coffee-tables topped not with the rings from badly placed mugs, but with books of colorful illustrations, bright and shining birds, and inexplicably painted cats. She wandered around for five minutes or so, not noticing the door reopen and the suit emerge from it.
“Miss?” it said.
“Yes? Are you here to let me back out?”
“Soon. My boss would like a word with you.”
“Soon’s not really good enough, Richard. Is this likely to be quick, or do I need to phone the police?”
“Five minutes with my boss, and then I’ll walk you out. Promise”
“Five minutes. Just a second.” Alice found her phone and tapped out a message.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m telling my sister to call the police if I’m not back in the square in ten minutes. No offence, Richard, and you’re probably a nice guy, but right now I’m locked in an unfamiliar place with a guy who’s reacting really strangely, and I’m not feeling at my most trusting.” Alice pressed Send, “So lay on, Macduff.”
They went back though the door Richard had escaped though, which appeared to lead though more white corridors with blue and white tiles on the floor. Alice activated the thing on her phone she’d downloaded to track a theoretical morning run, in the hope that she could use it to get back out again if necessary. Eventually they got to a lift, the decor abruptly changing from the stark white of the corridors to a deep and comforting red carpet, wood-panelled walls, and regular pictures of similar looking men and women. One final door led to an impressive room with a desk piled with paper. A door from that led to an even more impressive room, lined with bookshelves and filling cabinets, and a huge desk with nothing on it save a silver laptop, behind which a man on the far end of middle age sat in a large leather chair.
“Dominic Maliceson” introduced Richard.
“Charmed”, oozed Maliceson.
“Alice Chatterton” said Alice.
“Please sit down” asked Maliceson, “That will be all for now, Richard. Please wait outside”
Richard left the room quietly.
“Look,” said Alice, “If you don’t want me to tell anyone about your christmas department, I won’t. I know Christmas isn’t something you usually do, and if it’s that big a deal, I’ll keep quiet”
“That’s… not it”, said Maliceson, “There are reasons we don’t generally do Christmas, and they’re quite important. Actually, I was going to ask you if you wanted a job.”
“Well, you saw someone who you had no idea about lose something, and you went out of your way to help them. While doing so, you attempted to help keep the store orderly despite it being of no consequence to you whatsoever. That’s impressed me.”
“Okay, yes, I’m looking for work at the moment. I wasn’t actually considering retail as a career, though.”
“Give it a try, until after the holidays? Two month contract? You’ll be helping customers find things, nothing too taxing. Also, I’ll need you to report to me if you see any of the departments sneaking in Christmas displays.”
“How much does it pay?”
Dominic wrote down a number on a piece of paper and slid it across the desk.
“Per week.” he clarified. It was quite a large number. “Week in arrears, two weeks notice either side after a week’s trial period. I’ll give you a full contract when my secretary gets in.”
“Subject to that… all sounds fine, I think.”
“Great. Happy to start on Tuesday?”
“Tuesday will be fine”
“Good. Pleasure to have met you.”
“Nice to meet you too.”
They shook hands.
“Richard will show you out”, said Maliceson, “Leave your address with him and I’ll send the contract tomorrow morning.”
Richard showed her out.
The contract arrived tomorrow morning.
At 8am on Tuesday, she started the job, or at least the training.
It was two weeks before anything exploded.
Everything that exists, exists within Malicesons. It’s that kind of shop. It doesn’t specialise, and it isn’t high class. Some of the departments are gilt-edged marble wonderlands of beauty and grace, others show scraps of concrete where the passing decades have caused the glue below the floor tiles to degrade into nothing.
Malicesons exists on the edge of a square. When it was founded, the square was the village common, but now it’s a faux-rustic cobbled wasteland of artfully angled marble-facade concrete walls forming a complex labyrinth around a crumbing war memorial, black and grey as the sky above it, shimmering and glinting gently in the sheen granted by the halfhearted drizzle of the British home counties.
Alice was beginning to get very tied of sitting by the war memorial in the rain, and of having nothing to do. Once or twice she had peeked into the bank her sister was meeting in, but there was no sign. So she was considering in her own mind whether the warmth of drinking coffee would be worth the trouble of getting up and finding a coffee shop, when suddenly a man in an ill-fitting suit ran very close by her. There was nothing so very remarkable about that, and nor did Alice think it so very out of the ordinary to hear the man say to him self “Fucksocks, I’m going to be late a-fucking-gain”, but when actually he took a pocketwatch out of his ill-fitting waistcoat pocket, looked at it, and then hurried on, Alice started to her feet, for his wallet had been pulled out with the pocketwatch and landed on her shoe. So, being a fairly diligent and friendly sort, she walked briskly after the running man. He paused at a small side-door to one side of the giant glass Malicesons enterence, scrabbled at his pocket for some keys, and waved his keyfob at a worn bit of wood by the door. The door opened, and he hurried though. Alice caught the door before it closed, and followed him, not really thinking of how she was going to get out again. The door clicked closed behind them.
The store wasn’t open yet, and wouldn’t be for an hour or more, and the corridor Alice found herself in was brightly lit, absolutely still, and silent save for the squeaking of the trainers of the hurrying suit, and the quiet echo of Alice’s boots on the tiles. The corridors went on and on for a while, passing a few wooden doors white save for a small label. “Jams” said one, “Maps & Pictures” said another. The man in the suit stopped at the end of the corridor, which was capped with a painting of autumn leaves, and turned left though a door, where Alice followed him a moment or two later.
The shop was dark and still as she exited the corridor, looking around to find the man in the suit and slightly regretting the decision to follow him in the first place. They appeared to be in a furnishing department, full of deep sofas and glass tables topped with fruit that would be tempting were it not entirely wax. She spotted him in the near distance, and picked up the pace to follow him. As she passed a shelf Alice noticed something and paused. A small plastic snowman lay forlornly on the path in front of her, obvious and crushable in the middle of the carpet. She picked it up and looked around for the shelf it had fallen off, but couldn’t see one. Alice wasn’t surprised – Maliceson’s not having any kind of Christmas department was almost proverbial – but then the query remained, where had it come from?
She walked towards the man in the ill-fitting suit, who in turn was heading towards a door. Not wanting to drag this out further, and wondering why she hadn’t thought of it earlier, she called out to him.
“Hello? Excuse me?”
The effect was somewhat electric. The suit appeared to jump a couple of feet in the air, presumably taking the occupant with in. He span around and landed like a watered cat, spikes and sharp edges as far as could be made. There were a lot of sharp edges, too. He – the badge on the suit pocket said “Richard”, which could also be the occupant – was medium height and would have been slightly shorter than Alice even without her heels and his weird semi-crouch defensive stance. Resisting the urge to laugh at him, Alice waited patiently until he gathered enough of himself together to say:
“Who are you? How did you get in?”
“My name is Alice, and you dropped this outside. I’ve been trying to catch you up to give it to you.” Alice handed him his wallet.
“Oh,” said presumably-Richard, “Thank you. Thank you very much. I should show you out, though. We’re not actually open, and you shouldn’t really be here.”
“Sure”, said Alice, “Oh, I picked up this, you should put it where it belongs, or in lost property or something.” she gave him the snowman.
If the effect of calling out to him shocked Richard, it was a slight tremor compared to how he reacted to the snowman. Turning white as a sheet, he actually seemed to cower from it for a second or so, before whipping a handkerchief from his pocket and grabbing it from her hand before she could react. At this point he bolted directly for the same door he was originally heading to, which slammed shut – locked, she discovered shortly afterwards – behind him, leaving Alice alone in the dark and empty store, as the echo of the door’s closing faded across the shop away from her.
The first shaft of light broke over the horizon, igniting the border between earth and sky, and indirectly illuminating the city. Early morning joggers shielded their eyes against it, rendered a black silhouette against the morning sky. Rooms of houses, flats, offices, shops. Empty shells of broken bottles, marble arts of figures past, the forgotten window of a rented basement where somewhere below a small beaker of something unfortunate bubbled and roiled against the unexpected light. A smash against a hard stone floor, and a silent plume of its smoke drifting over the last dawn the city would now see.
The soft unsilence before the tune begins serves to wake me up, and I consider the dreams of the night before giving in to the hopes of the day.
The kettle has water from last night in it, and so it is emptied, refilled, and put on to boil.
The teapot is warmed, dried, and two spoons of leaves are added. English Breakfast today.
The water boils and is added to the pot. It steeps while I clothe, brush my hair, find my shoes, turn on the PC.
Milk into the cup. Tea into the milk.
And the day can begin.
The darkness turned into the light.
The dawn spread into morning.
The morning drifted into afternoon,
The afternoon faded to evening.
The sun set over the evening.
The stars spread out over the sky.
And nothing turned, nothing shifted, nothing moved.
As it never would again.
The daytime came from the night.
The dawn lit the ruins of city.
The morning cast light over the university.
The afternoon shone brightly into the laboretry.
The sun set hid the shards of the experiment.
The stars shone over the oceans.
And nothing spoke, nothing thought, nothing moved.
As it never would again.
What about earth, did you speak to them?
Oh, the meat things? yes. Leaps and bounds, my friend. Leaps, and also bounds. They have a new thing.
Oh? They’ve stopped being trapped in meat?
Not quite, but they’ve discovered a way to process plants so that they form bricks.
Don’t they have rocks for that still?
They do, but these bricks are a lot lighter. A single person can carry loads of them at once, but when you get them wet and dry them, they form a substance harder than any of their rocks.
That’s great! They can build massive towers, beautiful arching towers that reach the heavens and prove their place in humanity.
Yes. Except they don’t build things from the bricks. They eat them with milk.
They call it weetabix.
Another thousand years, then?
It was a dark and dismal morning the day I didn’t arrive at the convention, but I was fairly sure there was something strange going on. For starters, although it was close to when sunrise should be, there was not a sign the balcony. I could see the warning lights atop the dome, the flashing hazard lights of the olympic construction site, and the confused flickering of streetlights sure they should be turning off about now.
To the south I could see canary wharf and my first hint that this wasn’t any ordinary mysterious darkness cloaking the capital, because there appeared to be a white elephant sitting in the middle of town.
Now, I live in Hackney, so even from the top of my tower block it would be difficult to see a single elephant, white or otherwise, that far away surrounded by so many buildings, in the eldrich darkness. This elephant made its visibility more obviously apparent by being somewhere between fifty and a hundred metres tall, and glowing softly.
The power in our flat appeared to be out, and my mobile was out of battery. A small amount of time with a wind-up charger later, it informed me that it couldn’t find a cell tower and furthermore searching was why it had no battery. I thanked it for its service, and turned it off.
The block of flats was absolutely silent. No noise save the tramping of my boots as I decended the spiral stairs to the ground floor under the flickering florecence of the emergency lighting. The lobby was dark and empty, the security guard absent from his dark desk, the lifts still and closed, the doors locked shut. My passkey didn’t work, obviously, so I found the fire escape to the rear and clanked though it.
My bike was where I left it, and I started to cycle towards Oxford Circus, where I guessed the prodigious pachyderm posed. Absent the low rumble of traffic – for there were no cars moving on the roads – the silence of the streets lent London something close to a dream-like quality, my only companions in this dark world the occasional pedestrian bundled up against the sudden chill.
I’m not a practiced cyclist; and despite living here for almost four years a lot of my mental geography of London is based on small island districts of streets centralised upon tube stations, pubs or resturants, but once I got close to the centre I started to get the glow of the elephant above the houses and shops to guide my way. I had been a little wrong about the location, and the Elephant was sitting on a pile of rubble where Tottenham Court Road tube station had been until fairly recently. It was huge on a scale that becomes hard to describe, but as it sat in the flattened remains of the shops that would have been on the site it dwarfed the buildings around it. The soft glow that spread from it appeared to come from no specific part of the animal’s giant body, but spread out over the skin. It sat, appearing somewhat dazed, gazing balefully up at the hulking block of concrete that makes up Centre Point, the ugly skyscraper at the foot of Tottenham Court Road. Near the top, lit by the elephant, a huge gaping hole was obvious, as was the new threat of the top half of the building snapping off at any moment.
Even this square was eerily silent where I had expected crowds, people, TV cameras. There was a man in a suit not far from the elephant’s giant foot, and he beckoned me towards him.
“I expected more people”, I said.
“There’s a radio broadcast, people are being told to stay away”.
“Still. People are more curious than this, surely?”
“It was kind of more than a request. It affects most people, but not you.
My name is Benjamin Stack, I work for the govenment.”
“Not sure. Whatever it was, it seems to have crashed”.
“So it does. How did it get here?”, I asked.
The streets were not close to wide enough for the creature to have walked down, and the position of the crash some hundred feet in the air produced the frankly terrifying image of this huge animal somehow flying. Unless someone could demonstrate a magic feather, I was sceptical of this.
“It appears to be attached to the thing blocking the sunlight”.
Ben pointed, and I looked, and from the shoulders and haunches of the dazed beast, I could see a faint outline of silvery thread going up far into the sky. Lent Stack’s binoculars I could see them go as far into the sky as the glow lit them.
When I heard the crash of falling masonry I pulled away from the ropes into the unmagnified world, just in time to see the massive animal stand up. For all that its environment shuddered and crashed, the elephant stood quietly and stayed still for a few moments before curling its giant trunk around one of the cables and pulling decisivly twice.
The ropes tightened, and lifted, and the enormous elephant elevated, drifting upwards slowly and rocking side to side as some of the more powerful winds buffeted him.
“How is that working?” I asked.
“The thing that is blocking the light appears to catch solar winds in some way we don’t understand. We’ve seen them floating around before, usually over less populated areas. This one seems to have come in far too close. It’ll be a light year away by the time anyone else wakes up. Now, if you could come with me, I’d like to ask you a couple of questions…”
I went with Mr Stack, still confused, while bright shafts of sunlight started to appear on the far east horizon, as the elephant’s strange craft left our world. Looking back on it years later I realised it was perfectly natural.
What other way for such a ponderous pale pachyderm to wander the universe…
… than with a white elephant sail?
(This is the last of the batch I created two weeks ago. Monday’s update is entirely dependant on me writing and shooting more scripts. Do you feel lucky?)