THE FIRST DANCE

They had taken away the memory that Alejandro cherished most. He wanted it back. The Muninn in his shoulder whirred warmly and recalled everything. The old man relaxed, allowing the device to take him back, he did not hope – did not allow himself to hope – that this time would be different. He accepted the pain that must come.

*

Alejandro, as he has always done, looked around at the faces of friends and family. So many were now long gone. Even the community centre was rubble today, cleared for some office building that was never finished. But here were the people, young and bright. And here was the room still filled with the smell of fresh paint.

He let the soft rumble of conversation enfold him, Arsene’s barking laugh, the tinkling of glasses and the scraping of chairs on the red-tiled floor. He felt the warmth of the summer’s day seeping through the building’s thick walls and the gentle breeze from the single fan that stirred the air above the hastily cleared dance floor. His stomach felt heavy from drink and food, his head light from an unexpected depth of joy.

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FREEDOM

Gull idled. This was what she lived for, these moments high above Freedom, released from the city’s grasp. Pedalling just fast enough to keep her paracycle in the air, she circled and ignored the stall light fluttering orange on its console. The city span slowly around her, but Gull was not part of it.

Even here where the black towers of the corporations pressed against the dome’s sharply sloping roof, she could glimpse The Elle through the city’s artificial canyons. The needle at the heart of Freedom rose from Rhaeticus’s floor to the dome’s roof. Close up it was too large to comprehend, it was overwhelming, but from out here, on the edge, it seemed slender and graceful.

Lifting off her goggles, she twisted her head and stretched to look upwards to the point where The Elle met the top of the dome and passed through. It glowed, sunlight reflecting off its smooth white walls, throwing light into the shadows between the towers. It lifted Gull’s heart. The Elle was the only way out of Freedom. The Elle was escape.

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PALACES OF FORCE

Our journey to Paris and the Exposition Universelle de 1889 did not begin auspiciously. The trip required us to catch a train from Victoria Station, which is a terrible place. From Victoria Street the station appears to be nothing more than a shabby wooden shed, held together only by the many layers of paint that have been plastered on it over the years. The station’s exterior, however, offers barely a hint of the horrors within. The inadequate walls conceal the most chaotic, the most crowded and, assuredly, the dirtiest place I have ever seen.

And I am from Calcutta.

Everything was stained black by the smoke and clouded by billowing steam. I felt certain that, if I could but find a moment’s pause to contemplate it, I should be able to feel the station’s grime smearing itself across my face.

But there was no pause. The crowd heaved back and forth between the great hissing beasts of the engines. Men pushed and grunted, women screeched and shoved, and the children scuttled like rats and bellowed like savages. In terms of both volume and shrillness the noise of the crowd was almost a match for the whistling, rumbling, rattling, and hissing of the great steam engines that loomed over us all.

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SEVEN-SWANS-A-SWIMMING

Lir was a great lord who ruled the lands of the white hill. His fields were bountiful, his rule prosperous and his people content. Lir and his wife Aodb were happy and they had two beautiful children, a boy and a girl, when Aodb fell pregnant again. This time she bore twins, two fine boys, but in childbirth Aodb was lost and darkness descended upon Lir and his lands. During these dark days the king’s only solace was his children.

Alice stared at the rain streaming down the car’s windscreen and absentmindedly drew patterns on the misted glass. Boxing Day was starting damp and grey and Alice, nursing a bad hangover, felt the weather was reflecting her own life back at her.

How had it gone so wrong?

She’d had such plans for the holidays. This Christmas was going to be perfect. Just this once, everyone was going to be happy.

The presents were wrapped. The fridge was crammed with food and drink. She’d spend far more than she should have, but it was going to be worth it. The little ones were excited and she really thought that she and Bill were happy together.

And then it had all fallen apart.

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ESKRAGH

We buried Thomas’s da today. We put him in the same patch of ground that we had pretended we were putting Thomas. Eighteen months. I never thought the old man would last so long.

The day was bright, clear and warm but there wasn’t much of a crowd. A couple of the fellas that he’d started drinking with, after Thomas, and his wife. She came up and shook my hand, afterwards, thanking me for coming.

She looked more relieved than sad.

“These are hard times,” she’d said. “But at least the priest didn’t take long about putting him in the ground.”

I stood for a while, after everyone else had gone, and admired the view.

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PROPER LITTLE SOLDIER

Solomon and I had tried to push too far the previous night and so we spent the daylight hours lying in a ditch at the side of the road. It had seemed a comfortable enough spot to start with, a slightly deeper hollow hidden by the branches of a willow and an ancient, overgrown hedge. It was out of the wind and pleasantly shady in the early morning sunshine. But the rain started falling heavily from about midday and the ditch quickly filled and the hollow became a freezing pool.

Solomon refused to move on – he was certain there was a pod nearby but the rain and the whipping wind were making it difficult for him to pin them down. So he sat and strained to hear and I just got soaked, too afraid to make a sound and getting colder and more miserable as the day went on.

The rain stopped just before nightfall, the clouds cleared and a sparkling frost began to crisp the grass and spread rainbow crystals across the tops of small pools of rainwater. It was too early, the Western sky was still a stripe of burnt orange, but we had to move or we were going to freeze.

We took the chance that the cold would have sent any pod back wherever it had come from and clambered out of the ditch.

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PATHFINDERS

Chen was outside, blowing the dust from the mirrors of the solar collector. The sun was low and distant and gave no warmth. The ground was hard and barren. The job he was doing was tedious and pointless. The damned solar collector barely worked, a failed experiment that was already half-forgotten by the engineers at Earth Control.

     Everything was made more complicated by Chen’s suit. The gloves were stiff and hard and Chen had already lost one fingernail to their predations. A little stream of sweat burbled between his shoulder blades, an itch he couldn’t scratch though he twisted and shrugged in an effort to get some relief from the growing discomfort. Chen would have been happier in one of the old Orlans he’d lumbered around in while training in Star City and on the ISS. He was going to write another memo about the Mars suit to the design committee. Maybe they’d listen this time.

     When his suit radio buzzed to life and Commander Arsenyev told him to stop what he was doing and come to the living quarters, Chen’s first reaction was a sigh of relief… which distracted him from the peculiar tone of the commander’s request. By the time he registered that there was something wrong, Commander Arsenyev had cut the connection.

     Chen thought about contacting Brad and asking him what was going on, but he decided against it. The commander had said he was calling the whole crew together. That had never happened before. The commander liked his schedules, and if he was breaking them it meant there was something urgent he felt they all needed to hear at the same time.

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KING ROOK

I grew up in a housing estate that was built on a gently-rising hillside. The top of the hill was ringed with trees, ancient sessile oaks, wych elm and horse chestnut. You wouldn’t call it a forest, it’s not that big, but it’s a bit more than a few random trees. We called it Hangman’s Woods because in the old days they didn’t bother building a scaffold in town, they just dragged people from the courthouse down the road, stuck a rope around their neck and pulled them by the neck over a branch of the biggest oak in the wood.

Justice. So they said.

The rooks were probably there then, watching and waiting for a feed. They still rule the place today.

These were big birds with heavy black beaks and bodies matt as coal dust but their hoods shone like satin and framed beaded eyes that saw everything.

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AND DUBLIN WEPT

They sent me out to Swords to get Willy O’Brien. I handed him the message and watched his lips form a tight line. He looked up, rubbed his nose where his glasses rested, then climbed into the cab of the lump of an Austin lorry I’d borrowed. We bounced along the road back to Dublin, the truck leapt and bucked on every rut and pothole but I drove as hard as I could. Willy was quiet. Every now and then he’d take out the bit of paper I’d given him and read it again.

Maybe he was hoping the words would change.

No survivors, he muttered once. Later, they’ll blame us. I turned to say something, but he wasn’t with me. He was watching Drumcondra through the rain.

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What will “living with the virus” actually mean?

Over the last few weeks, and especially since the end of Matt Hancock’s tenure as Health Secretary there has been a notable shift in the government’s language regarding the future of the UK’s response to Covid-19. When he announced the further extension of restrictions at the start of June, the Prime Minister used a phrase that hadn’t been much heard since the disastrous Christmas relaxation. He said we were going to have to learn to “live with the virus” – a line he has repeated again this week and which was taken up by new Health Secretary, Sajid Javid, and others.

As infections accelerate again and new variants continue to emerge, what does “living with the virus” actually mean?

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