At a time of night when sensible paranormal paraphernalia should have been snoring in a hole somewhere, something woke Brad up from a deep and boozy sleep. Propping himself up in bed, he looked across at the wall opposite and caught his own reflection in the mirror, picked out by the shaft of a sodium street lamp through the ill-drawn curtain.
The reflection was blurred. In Brad’s condition, it was going to be, but this was not a kind of blurring that was familiar to him; as if the mirror was vibrating.
Brad sat bolt upright as the mirror fell forward and smashed across the floor. He gripped his head, and moaned, putting his feet to the floor, which was moving. Blurred was ok, thought Brad. Smashing mirrors and vibrating floors was not ok. Brad’s befuddled brain was at least up to working that much out.
A picture of an ancient bridge fell off the wall and joined the mirror in fragments, while a china water jug slid across the dressing table to add to the crashing pile and the windows swung and battered back and forth showering glass through the bedroom.
Brad fell back on the bed and crushed his hands to his ears. Then it stopped.
The grey light of a new day slanted through the window of Brad’s bedroom. He was draped across the bed as he had fallen, and had, unbelievably, gone straight back to sleep. Staring up at the ceiling, he noted that it was still where he’d left it, as was his hangover. The blank stare began to swim with shocking visions of the war zone that had been his bedroom just a few hours ago.
He didn’t dare to move, not wanting to risk invoking more of the same, so he gingerly shifted his gaze around the room to assess how much of the day was going to be taken up putting the place back together.
There was nothing out of place. He sat up suddenly and almost failed to notice the pounding headache. No glass, no broken windows, no fragmented pictures; a place for everything and everything in its place. He stood up in a daze, cast a disbelieving look around and slowly walked out onto the landing.
Shakily negotiating the stairs Brad made reassuring coffee pot clanks while formulating coffee that could have soled his shoes, and pushed the evening of memories to the back burner; memories he was intent on ascribing to a heavy session on the scotch. But he’d never before been so far out of it as that. This was something he didn’t understand.
Most things Brad could handle. He was that kind of feller. Over the years, he’d been called on to adjudicate in family squabbles; seconded to help in accidental injuries; he’d dished out none-too-accidental injuries himself, in the interests of peaceful negotiations in the Bar.
Yes, Brad had taken on more than his fair share on many an occasion, without ever being put much off his stride. But this was different.
Walking through the bar, he unbolted the front door that scraped and squeaked just as it always did. That was ok as well, then. Looking back into the bar, it was in no better state than it had been the night before; but no worse, either. Overhead, the sign for ‘Brad’s Bar’ above the door was still where it should have been, and in more or less the same state of decrepitude.
If it had been a ‘quake, and if he hadn’t dreamt the whole episode, this resulting ordinariness gave him the creeps in a big way. His knees wobbled and he sat heavily in an old carver chair on the front porch, and nursed his coffee.
So far as he could piece together, the earth tremor had been at the start of it all. That was plenty strange enough; but with the discoveries of this following morning, it became a bigger mystery. His blank stare gradually focussed, and as it did his fit of the creeps gave way to a serious case of panic; completely out of character for Brad.
The road that Brad’s Bar pressed up against had split along its length, for an extraordinary distance, almost following the white line, so accurate was its path. Set against the fact that nothing else had been affected, not a single tile disturbed from a neighbouring roof; now that made no sense. Brad suspected that he was losing his mind. But there was more.
It was a small town; not much bigger than a village, and the road sheared it more or less in half. This road continued its inexorable slash across the desert, north-south as far the eye could see. There was the buzz of local gossip throughout the day, but the central slice through the road stayed unmoved by it all, and everything else that had been so extraordinarily unaffected remained so.
For such a catastrophic event, Brad thought there should have been some epic showing in the local rag. Ed was always desperately short of newsworthy events. One might reasonably have thought that an earth tremor splitting the road in half in such a spectacular way might, in lineage at least, have displaced Mrs. McCleary’s cat stuck up a tree. But there was nothing; the cat in tree was resplendently undisplaced, and that event even pictorially celebrated for posterity, with a splash on the front page; but no earthquake.
Brad was out bright and early the following day to watch the town’s maintenance crew (which was, in its entirety, Walter) do its stuff. Brad was always on the lookout for gossip material he might bandy around in the bar; it was the closest thing to a floor show they were going to get in Brad’s Bar.
“Hi, Wally” said Brad, pulling on his checked cheater over a substantial chest, the morning being a brisk one. Wally sat on the tailgate of the truck, blowing across his first cup of tea of the day before ‘making a start.’
“How do, Brad.” Walter showered crumbs through a bacon sandwich doorstop. He dropped from the back of the truck gripping a distressed enamel mug in a ham shank fist and ambled over to the fissure in the road, in the company of his bacon sandwich. Brad, but a step or two behind, had difficulty in avoiding Wally’s heels, his pace being slow enough to defy gravity.
“A few barrows of hardcore with a skim of tar on top should sort this bit out.” added Wally with the blasé confidence of somebody who’s seen it all before. “Shouldn’t take me long; the council gang will do their stuff at the signpost at either end of the village.”
Tea and bacon roll conventions complete, Walter hefted the wheelbarrow from the truck and shovelled it full of hardcore. Brad by this time had gone back into the bar to sort out his own bacon sandwich. He heard a shout from outside. Thinking that Wally had decided on another cuppa, Brad walked out with his cup, but at the door he saw that was clearly not the case. Wally was staring into the hole in the road and scratching his head.
“I’ve just poured the whole of that barrow of hardcore into there, and it’s just gone.” Brad couldn’t argue with that. The barrow was empty and the crack was definitely not full. “What do you think, Brad?” They stood either side of the fissure, hunched shoulders, pockets full of hands. Brad picked up rock.
“Not valuable this, is it Wally?” Walter huffed and chuckled a bit.
“Just about as valuable as my pay packet, Brad.”
Brad dropped it into the hole in the road; they waited. Nothing.
“Phew!” whistled Brad. “You’re going to be a long time filling that, with that” he said, gesturing between barrow and road.
“What you doing Brad?” said Wally as Brad walked along the road dropping rocks into the crack, tipping an ear at each operation.
“It’s the same all the way along, Walter. And if you put your hand down there, the sides are smooth. What do you make of that, old feller?” Brad, stooping over the crack, looked up at Wally who was bending over and squinting into the gap.
“It’s like it’s been cut, clean as a whistle, is all I can say. I’ll tell the council gang tomorrow, they can sort it out; they get paid more than me anyway.” Wally idled his way over to the truck, slammed a creaking door and drove off.
Brad walked across the road to sort out the bar in time for Sam Stokes and Laurie Charlton. Brad could set his watch by those two.
“It’s time Wally retired y’know, Brad,” said Sam Stokes over a beer. “Anybody what can’t shove some gravel in a hole should be thinkin’ serious ’bout retirin’.”
“I’ve ‘eard there’s something strange about that there ‘ole, Sam. What do you think Brad?” said Laurie.
“Oh yes; I think I can go along with that.” Brad wiped along the bar absently. He walked outside, flicking the bar towel against his leg; a habit of his reserved for moments of extreme distraction. Sam’s eyes followed him.
“Come on Laurie, there’s something queer about this. Brad never leaves the bar unattended if there’s a customer about,” said Sam, lifting himself off the barstool and making for the door. Brad was standing astride the gap in the road staring down. With the sun directly overhead he could see as far down into the fissure as he was going to. Sam nudged him.
“Uh?” Brad came out of his reverie abruptly.
“What’s the matter, Brad?” asked Laurie, frowning.
“There’s no bottom to that hole; not so far as I can see, anyway.” The beam of sunlight disappeared into the blackness and illuminated nothing.
Andy, the printer at the Bugle, walked into the bar that evening, and sat alone in a corner pensively studying the depths of his glass. Andy was Ed’s apprentice, sort of. When Ed was out snooping for gossip, he would do the typesetting on the old Linotype machine.
Brad slid quietly from behind the bar, and sat across the small and pitted table from Andy, who gave the impression of being quite somewhere else.
“Something’s up, Andy?” asked Brad quietly. Andy looked up suddenly. He was a fresh faced, sociable young feller; the life and soul of the party, usually.
“Don’t know Brad” he said with a dark look. Andy downed a gulp. “Hope not,” he added.
“Well I’d guess that something’s not right by the look on your face. I can clear off if you like.”
Brad was a natural ‘shoulder to lean on’ and had that understanding of human nature that some barmen seem to foster. Brad pointed into the pint glass, and Andy nodded sullenly. A minute later Brad drifted back with a pint in each hand; for conviviality’s sake.
“On the house Andy; that’ll loosen things up. Cheers.” After knocking back half the beer, Andy twiddled with a mat, while Brad looked on patiently over his pint.
“This feller has been frightened” he thought to himself, and felt his skin prickle a bit. Andy burst into tears, and turned away.
“I was putting some typeface together, day before yesterday,” said Andy, as much to the wall as anyone, “when Ed walked in, and said about that weird crack in the road and that we’d run a front page spread ’cause it were a lot more interestin’ than the church hall whist drive.”
“You can’t knock that for a plan. This front door stuck this morning and even that was more interesting than the whist drive.”
Andy chuckled a bit, but it was a forced laugh and his face was white as chalk.
“Then Ed walked into his office and a minute or two later he rushed out and smashed up the typeface I’d done; his face was all screwed up an’ ‘orrible, Brad; an’ his eyes starin’ an’ all. Then he shouted in a real weird voice and said not to set that story ’bout the road. I ain’t seen him since.”
The success of the council’s maintenance team, the next morning, was on par with Wally’s. The whole of the lorry-load of hardcore disappeared down the gap, which had by then opened out to a couple of feet.
“That’s some strange fault in the road” said one of the council workers to Brad, while testing a lunchtime beer.
“You’ve not had any luck filling it in, either, then,” said Brad, wanting to pump for information, but then deciding that he might learn more if he kept his mouth shut.
“Yeah,” continued the council man, thoughtfully, “there’s another one just like it, about twenty miles up the road; follows the Mendsil Bridge road off to the West. Straight down the middle. Can’t fill that either.” He drained the dregs, rattled some change down on the bar, and dashed out in time to jump on the back of the departing wagon.
He returned late in the afternoon.
“We’ve put five loads down it and we can’t even see where it’s gone. We’re putting up ‘road closed’ signs. It’s too dangerous to drive that road as it is.”
It was turning into a pleasant evening so Brad sat outside the bar with a cigarette, musing on recent events. He noticed a figure in the distance treading a very unsteady course towards him, partly on the pavement, then in the gutter. He was sweating, shaking and waving his arms about as if trying to fend off some invisible thing.
“Ed!” shouted Brad, jumping up and toppling a chair. The editor of the Bugle looked at Brad with wild and frozen eyes.
“Get away.” Ed clawed at his face. “Get away!” he screamed.
“Ed, it’s me, Brad. Don’t you know me, my old pal?” A blank expression crossed Ed’s face and he slumped down in a heap in the gutter.
“It’s alright, Ed; everything is alright.” Brad held Ed about the shoulders, and felt a cold shiver.
“No, it’s not, Brad.” He shook his head as if trying to clear it. “It’s not alright Brad. I don’t know why they’re here, Brad.” Ed turned his eyes away and swayed back and forth. “Why are they here, Brad?” said Ed into his hands; Brad slipped back to the bar to bring out a stiff brandy.
Ed was as paralysed as a sculpture, his manic stare directed at the split along the road. Brad pulled at his shoulder with a heavy hand, and Ed glanced round, snatching the brandy and throwing most of it down in one. He stared into the glass, rotating it, fascinated by the swirling ripples.
“Who are ‘They’ Ed?” Brad sat down next to him in the gutter. Ed looked up into his face, but he wasn’t seeing anything. The eyes gave Brad the creeps. He’d looked into dead eyes before, but not those belonging to somebody who had just been walking about.
“Them silver birds. I’ve seen enough, Brad; don’t want to see no more.” He stood up suddenly, and walked to the centre of the road. His actions were stiff and mechanical; ‘crow-like’. Brad was put in mind of a bird walking. The barman sat staring, transfixed. Ed straightened up, and turned.
“Bye, Brad,” he said, and walked off the edge of the fissure. Brad was on his feet and at the centre of the road in a couple of strides. He had the impression of a flash of silver far below, but Ed had gone. No sound; no nothing. Brad turned mechanically and walked a shaky course back to the bar, where Andy had let himself in by the back door, plonked a pile of change on the bar, and was pulling himself a pint as Brad entered.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost,” said Andy, shocked by Brad’s face.
“I think I might have just spent the last ten minutes talking to a prospective one, Andy. It was Ed. He jumped down the hole in the road.” Brad passed the back of a hand across his forehead; where a sweat stood in droplets. He looked at his wet wrist vacantly. “Maybe you’d be so good as to pour me large scotch.” Andy dispensed a generous double into a shaking glass.
“Steady, Andy” said Brad, watching the progress of the scotch, “I’d hoped there might be some left in the glass by the time it got to me.” He swigged it down and shoved it back over the bar for a refill. After a tense silence, Brad looked into Andy’s face.
“Did Ed say anything about birds, Andy?”
“Silver birds,” said Andy in a monotone, without looking up. The front door banged open and Sam rushed in. Grabbing Brad’s arm, he pulled him off the barstool, and dragged him outside.
“Have you lost it altogether, Sam? That was my scotch that just…” Brad stopped. They were at the slight rise in the road at the edge of the village.
“What in Hell’s that? Out of sight, quick.” It was Brad’s turn to do the pulling. They flattened against the gable of the last house, breathing hard.
“What is it, Brad?” Sam whispered. In spite of being scared out of his wits, Brad inched his head round the corner of the wall. Sam was clinging onto his sleeve.
“Birds.” Brad hissed to himself, pulling his head back fast. “Hard to say,” he said aloud, with this back against the wall, “but it’s astride the fissure in the road maybe a mile off, and it’s bloody big.” He screwed up the shredded remains of his courage and eased his head round the corner of the wall once more. The extent of its wings draped across the landscape either side of the road for a hundred yards, silver scales scintillating and radiant as they reflected the low sun. Its head was hawk-like, and it appeared to be staring downwards between its claws into the blackness of the trench. A cloud of similar creatures in miniature flew around and about it.
“This is a bad dream, Sam, that’s all. I am not looking at a silver bird as tall as a three storey building. Those things do not exist.” It lifted its head as Brad spoke and looked straight at him. After a second or two, which stretched out like a few calendar months tacked together to Brad, it lowered its head and continued to stare down into the fissure.
“It don’t seem to be interested in us, Sam. But it’s hard to make it out from here; there’s a sort of mist floating about. I’m going to get a closer look.” Brad looked at Sam and jumped into the pickup standing outside the bar. He didn’t blame Sam for shouting after him calling him a ‘fucking idiot’. Brad entirely agreed, but he put his foot on through the floor, and roared off along the ruler-straight road towards whatever-it-was.
Seemingly satisfied for some reason, the bird looked up again; an unblinking red eye burned into Brad’s brain and he stamped on the brake in a shriek of smoking rubber. The eye flickered like flame, multifaceted, brilliantly shimmering. Brad pulled hard on the wheel, floored the accelerator and spun round in a wobbling skid.
Although the vast beast was clearly not happy with movement overland, after a couple of experimental twitches of its wings it started to shift along the road after Brad like a train, scrubby trees smashing around in its wake. The monstrous bird drew close, skimming the tarmac, low enough to shave the verge. Brad turned in the driver’s seat of the speeding truck and stared with glazed eyes, frozen.
The truck spun in the road and the bird soared upwards, looped an impossible aerial manoeuvre and with a silver claw extended swept down and lifted the truck. A slight metallic rustling preceded it, and Brad saw through a haze that it appeared to be swimming in the surrounding azure wash, gleaming. A million questions flooded into Brad’s head , but his tongue was dried like parchment to the roof of his mouth. The metallic rustling that had accompanied the bird rang in his head, and it lowered a tower of a neck so that its eye was within a foot or two of Brad’s. He blacked out.
He found himself sat in the old carver outside the bar, with no idea how he had ended up there. At any rate, Brad did not feel the urge to open the bar for the evening, but in the interests of what seemed to pass for normality he strolled to the front door and unbolted it with a shaking hand.
The bar filled up steadily over the next hour, and conversation, at first strained, gradually began to flow along its usual purposeless avenues. As was mentioned, in Brad’s Bar most things he could handle. But Brad had no idea of where to start with a six-foot silver birdlike creature with arms. It stood in the doorway of the bar looking about it, while the Bar’s ‘regulars’ fought for the doors and windows. Turning back to the door the strange creature quietly closed it, and walked over to the bar, its wings furled gracefully, scales shimmering in a subtle draft.
“You have met the Mother.” It said after a pause that stood the hairs on Brad’s neck like a nailbrush. “She said to explain.”
“Excuse me one second” said Brad, rescuing his deserting vocal cords long enough to pour a generous scotch and belt it down in one. “That might help”. The single red eye, although of a more manageable size, still put the heebie-jeebies up him.
“There are many things out there” she flourished an arm; (Brad was convinced that ‘she’ was a she) “of which you know nothing. Nearly everything, in fact, your people know nothing of; and certainly nothing of our business.” Brad nearly choked.
“Imagine this, if you can. There are many, many races; ecological systems, life forms that inhabit the extremes of this one little planetary community. Your ‘Solar System’ as you call it.”
“My head hurts” said Brad pouring himself another headache to go with the first.
“Within these many races are factions who do not, for one reason or another, wish to be assimilated in the generalities of their respective races. They wish to live in their own way, whatever that way might be.” The alien stranger was beginning to gain an audience as various members of the village emerged, absorbed by the bird’s story.
“Our business is in your asteroid belt. We make asteroids into small planets, with an atmosphere, and a simulated gravity. Then these communities can live in their own way on their own worlds. Sometimes their populations are very few, and sometimes many.” The alien looked around with a reassuring, yet very alien sort of smile.
“I can’t see how the crack in the road through our village can be connected with asteroids and things,” said Brad, becoming more relaxed and a little less coherent as the scotch took its toll.
“It is the seed,” said the bird.
“Oh. I see,” said Brad, who didn’t see at all.
“The fissure in the road skirts an area of your planet twenty miles across. We transport that to the asteroid we are planetising, and are able to build the rest of the asteroid from that. This piece was selected by our clients.”
“Your clients! That’s robbery! You steal our village.” Brad began to colour up.
“No, we replace it.” She said evenly. “An image of this place exists underneath here. You would not know the difference; but, for the seed, we need the reality. We can do this exchange without you ever being aware of it.”
“So why say anything?”
“In all our projects we give the current residents the choice of staying where they are, or moving to the new asteroid. It’s always part of the contract with our clients. It is not everyone who is happy with the way their race manages itself. Tomorrow we will be gone, and I am here to present you all with that choice.” Her wings made the familiar metallic rustle as they swept across her chest and she turned and left.
There were a lot of people on the opposite side of the road from Brad’s Bar. They were staying. But there were also a significant number standing around Brad’s Bar, Brad being one of them.
The morning was an unpromising shade of morbid, with a low mist hanging. A pensive whispering ran amongst the crowds of both sides, none of them having the faintest idea of what was supposed to happen. They soon found out. The same azure glow that Brad had seen the day before suddenly emanated in brilliant beams from the slit in the road. Save for a muted hum, all was silence, the curtain of beams continuing to flicker skywards through the mist, sometimes back and forth, sometimes circling.
There was a sudden babble and the crowd pushed back from the road in a panic; Brad’s Bar, along with the whole of the twenty mile section that the birds had cut, had lifted above the surrounding landscape and hovered, enveloped by the blue glow from the trench. It rose slowly, as if on gimbals, pirouetting into the haze and on, upwards.
Below, a subdued ‘Snap’ was all that gave away the return of the village; or at least, its replacement. It was identical; except that the fissure in the road had gone, along with all traces of its past existence.
Brad walked back into the bar, having spent a long time looking out into the rushing blackness of space with Sam and Andy, and poured several stiff ones. They sat at the bar in silence, until the creak of the door announced the presence of the she-bird person. She was the same one, though how Brad knew that he couldn’t tell.
“I have an admission to make,” she said, her head a little declined.
“Oh?” said the three, almost in unison, panic creeping in.
“Our mission is not quite the way I described it. As a team of rescuers operating from the other side of the galaxy, we do build planets in your asteroid belt, and we do perform that in the way I said. The seed, you understand.”
“We got that, and that’s why we’re here. We can understand those folks you mentioned who don’t get on with the accepted normality” said Andy, “and that’s also why everybody else is here, who chose to be.”
“Yes,” said the she-bird. “The untruth is that the asteroids, when finished, become your home. They do not. We have built very many, but none of them ever do, nor ever will. Not here.”
The silence hung dark as doom. Brad voiced everyone’s thoughts.
“What happens to us? Or don’t you care?” His voice trembled.
“In view of the distances we have travelled to be here, yes, we care. But we can save only a few representatives of the life of the star system Sol, before it is all too late. It stands on the edge of a catastrophe of which you know nothing.” She walked to the door. “You should see this. After all, it will be your home, if only for a short while. We must then move far from here, as all our small planets must before the end.”
The group of villagers trailed after the she-bird. Staring into a void studded across with asteroids and the debris of space, a spherical shape, slowly revolving, progressively expanded until it filled the sky. It had sea, and land, and a dome enclosing its atmosphere. With the smallest ‘Snap’ the nomadic village settled into its predetermined slot, and the fissure in the road was gone.
“Welcome” said the Mother as she swooped over the village and off into the void.