The Little Girl Who Could Set Things On Fire With Her Brain

In a village in 18th Century rural Ireland, a girl is born with an amazing power. This epic story follows the fate of her and her descendants through history as the actions of a series of remarkable women shape the destiny of the entire human race. ‘The Little Girl…’ explores themes of patriarchy, eugenics, feminism, motherhood and the right to self-actualisation in a generation-spanning adventure that crosses time and space.

Paraphrased, the theory of evolution says this: that spontaneous mutation is responsible for the enormous diversity of life on Earth. The imperfect recombination of the genome that occurs each time an organism reproduces means that random variation – mutation – is possible and, indeed, desirable. Because of this mechanism, new traits can arise in an individual that, if they prove favourable in their environment, may be passed on to their own offspring. Over time, if a trait is or becomes useful enough, only those who possess it may actually survive to breed and over aeons of such incremental changes a population may undergo speciation, becoming an entirely new kind of organism, genetically distinct from its parent species. This is called natural selection. Such mutation-derived traits may also become dominant in other ways, if they are indicators of fitness for example, which leads to individuals that possess them being disproportionally more likely to be chosen as mates by others. In this way, a trait may become not only dominant in members of a given species, but may become overemphasised – larger, brighter, more powerful – think of the peacock’s tail. This is called sexual selection. Natural selection generally takes thousands or millions of years to affect noticeable change. Sexual selection can, it seems, be somewhat quicker.

Paraphrased, chaos theory says this: that large-scale, macroscopic changes can be influenced by the smallest of different initial conditions. This is most commonly understood using the analogy known as the butterfly effect. This thought experiment, using the weather as the classic example of a chaotic system – being both dynamic and sensitive to starting conditions – states that a butterfly flapping its wings in one part of the globe can cause changes in its local environment that ripple and propagate through the entire system and eventually cause a hurricane in some other part of the world. Such things are very possible, but hard to reconstruct outside of a theoretical model. Nonetheless, small changes at t=0 can cause big effects in other times and places; this is indisputable.

Paraphrased, this story says this: once, there was a little girl who could set things on fire using her brain, and the mere fact of her existence changed the course of history – on Earth and far, far beyond – forever.

Kieran was troubled. He sat silently on the rickety three-legged stool that was the first item of furniture he had built for his home and, using one browned, calloused hand, rocked the crib back and forth. The crib had held each of their nine children – some for a heartbreakingly short period of time – and it currently held their latest. She was their first girl, but she was different in other ways too. Her birth had taken a terrible toll on her mother who was still sick, even a fortnight after her labour, and Kieran couldn’t shake the feeling that she was somehow cursed. He hadn’t dared to look into the large eyes that peered out of that puckered pink face more than once or twice, for fear that he might see the same thing. Tiny whirlwinds of red fire. The thought was in his head, as it must be in the head of all his boys too, that they had somehow brought a demon into the world. If Niamh, his wife, died, he would know it for certain. Then he wasn’t sure what he’d do.

“Da?” Aidan, his eldest, crept up beside him. He was a burly lad of twelve, dark and stocky like Kieran himself, with the same simple, honest face.

“How’s your mother?” he asked the boy.

“Still feverish. Will we name the little one soon?”

“Soon,” Kieran agreed, “when ma’s better. She’s not even seen the girl yet. Bring my pipe, would you?”

His son did as he was told. The other boys were around and about. Michael and James were out in the woods, trapping, while Tom skinned rabbits on the other side of the hearth, staying in the shadows. Always a quiet one, he’d barely spoken a word since Niamh fell ill. Keiran worried about him; he wasn’t like the others at all, and there was some mischief in him that he sensed no amount of beating would drive out. Conall, the youngest, not much older than the new baby (or so it seemed to Kieran), played some nonsense game or other on the floor, drawing meaningless doodles in the dirt with a charred stick. Kieran took his pipe from Aidan with a smile and took a thumb of tobacco from his pouch. He tamped it down and then repeated the motion several times until he was satisfied that it was sufficiently packed. He broke off a twig from one of the logs in the wood pile, held it into the fire with the intention of using it to light the pipe, then cursed as the flame seemed to take on a life of its own, consuming the wood in seconds and burning his fingers. He dropped the stick to the floor and jumped up, stamping it out. “Mother of…what happened there?”

The baby was crying and Kieran realised his shouting must have woken her. He pocketed his pipe and reached for the girl. “Poor mite,” Aidan said, “she wants her ma.”

“She’ll have her soon enough. Until then you’ll need to keep milking Ide so we can keep her strong. Go and do it now, boy. You go with him, Tom.”

“It don’t take two of us, da,” the younger boy grumbled.

“Do as you’re told or I’ll strap both of you,” Kieran barked, and the two of them scampered off sharpish to milk the goat. Conall just sat there, looking up at his father and sister. “Shhh,” Kieran whispered, touching his face to the baby’s soft head. She was still whimpering, but as he held her close, she started to fall asleep, and soon her gentle breathing told him there would be no more crying for now. As he held her close, he watched the crackling fire in the hearth and tried not to think about what would happen to all of them if Niamh didn’t get better.

On a bleak winter’s day little more than a month later, the family stood around a burial plot hacked from the frozen ground. The village priest spoke the sermon and they all murmured amen, though none of them had enough learning to understood anything he’d been saying. It started to rain. Kieran didn’t put his cap back on. He just stood there, staring into the hole as two strong lads piled the earth atop Niamh’s coffin and wondered where he was supposed to go from here. “Will she have a name now, da?” Aidan asked. He was holding his sister, wrapped up tightly against the cold. Her serious, pale little face peered out of her cocoon of blankets. Her hair had started to come in a coppery red, quite unlike the rest of them, and her eyes hadn’t changed.

“Aye,” Kieran said, “she’ll be Niamh, like her mother.” He stood there out in the rain for a long time, and Aidan eventually left him alone, taking little Niamh back to the house and the relative warmth.

Children grew up fast in that damp, boggy corner of the world. Niamh was walking soon enough, and could talk better than Conall by the time she was two. She was a lonely girl, because people in the village tended to avoid her. They said she was cursed, and that because of her there was a dark cloud over the whole Lynch household. They whispered that she’d killed her mother, and that the devil was inside her, pointing to her strange red eyes as evidence. She often saw the priest looking at her suspiciously. She tried to stay out of everyone’s way. She too felt like she was different, so she spent a lot of time out in the woods, laying traps with her older brothers, or just walking down ancient paths, exploring the forgotten, mossy glens.

One day, there was a knock at the door and Kieran answered it to find the elderly priest standing there. “Father,” he greeted him, “will you not come in?”

“Are you alone, Kieran?”

“Only Tom is here. Why?”

“I’d speak with you about your girl.”

“Niamh? Why? Has there been some mischief done?”

“Not yet, but I fear there might be soon.”

“Ah well, come in and sit yourself by the fire then. We’ll talk of it. Tom, take Father O’Shae’s coat. Will you take a mug of beer, Father?”

“I will. Thank you, boy,” he said to Tom. He sat down on the bench beside the hearth while Kieran pulled up his old three legged stool. Tom brought them their drinks, then slid back into the shadows where no one would pay attention to him.

“So, what’s all this about my Niamh?” Kieran asked.

“You know what folk say about her.”

“Aye, I do,” Kieran said darkly, “but that’s how folk are.”

“How are things, Kieran?” Father O’Shea asked.

Kieran was surprised by the apparent change of subject. “Well enough I suppose. It’s been a hard winter no mistake, but we’ll get by.”

“These have been some hard few winters for your family, I’m told.”

“Since we lost Niamh…my wife, I mean, since she died… Well…it has been hard, yes. Bad winters and damp summers. My boys are good though; strong lads. Aidan talks of taking up a trade. Maybe tanning. That will help, if we can find a master to apprentice him to.”

“Aye,” Father O’Shea agreed, supping at his beer, “it’s been a bad few years for all of us since your wife’s passing. Since your daughter came into the world.”

Kieran narrowed his eyes. “Oh, so this is your game, is it?” he said in a low voice.

“Mind how you speak,” the priest smiled, “I know my business as you know yours. But mine is the spiritual welfare of this community. You know what folk say,” he said again.

“She’s a strange one, that’s all,” Kieran said, “but no stranger than Tom. Some children are noisy, others quiet. What does it matter?”

“And the eyes?”

“What of them? Maybe there are places in the world where eyes like that are common.”

“I don’t doubt there are. But it isn’t here. And she killed her mother.”

“The fever killed her mother, nothing else.”

“An illness brought on by birthing the girl. And whatever’s inside her.”

“Father O’Shea,” Kieran said, standing up, “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

“As you say,” he nodded, putting his half-full mug on the bench beside him, “think on what I’ve said though.”

“I shall.”

“And consider your next confession. It’s a terrible sin to endanger an entire village.”

“What would you have me do?” Kieran snarled suddenly, “She’s an innocent child.”

“No one is innocent. But you are her father. You must decide what’s to be done.”

“Should I kill her? Murder a helpless girl? What of my spiritual welfare then, father? If ever a curse could be brought down on my family, that would be the thing to do it, I think.”

“The solution need not be so drastic,” Father O’Shea smiled colourlessly as he donned his coat, “there are places to which she might be sent. Think on it, Kieran, that’s all I’ll say. Good day to you, Tom.”

“Good day, Father,” the boy said, tugging at his forelock.

Kieran watched the Priest depart from the doorway, then slammed the door shut on the purpling dusk. “You’ll say nothing of this to anyone,” he warned Tom without looking at him, “especially not to Niamh. She’s enough to concern her without thinking her family are against her too.”

Some days later, Niamh was sitting in a clearing in the woods near her home, dangling her feet in the water of a clear, fast-running stream. This was one of her favourite places and she was dimly aware that she wouldn’t always be free to come here as she wished. Although she had no mother to teach her the skills she’d need to run her own home someday, she knew that the other girls her age in the village already had a lot of chores to do. It was only a matter of time until some aunt or other decided she needed to learn her way around a needle and thread or, worse, a scouring board. For now though, she just enjoyed the water. It was early spring. There was still a freshness in the air, and only a few green buds on the otherwise bare trees, but she could feel the world waiting to burst forth with life. So far there were just a few pale daffodils here and there beneath the low boughs of the trees. She was just about to get up and look for her stockings when she heard a twig snap behind her. She turned around and then relaxed when she saw it was just her brother. “Tom!” she chided him, “you scared me!”

“You should be scared.”

“Why? What’s happened?” She stood up, spied her woollen stockings where she’d left them on a mossy log next to her tough little clogs and walked towards them. “Tom? What is it?”

“I heard da talking to Father O’Shea the other night.”

“What about?”

“You.”

She looked up with a frown. “Me?”

“Yeah. They said you was cursed.”

“I ain’t cursed. That’s just what the stupid people in the village say.”

“They said you killed ma.”

“Ma died of a fever.”

“She got it birthing you.”

“How could I kill her? I was just a baby!”

“On the outside maybe,” Tom said, walking towards her, “but what about inside?”

“Inside? What do you mean?” She paused in pulling on her stockings. “Tom? What’re you talking about?”

“Father O’Shea said you might cause harm to the village.”

“Why would I do that?”

“Because you’ve a demon inside you, Niamh.”

“No I ain’t!” she shouted at him. “That’s stupid!”

“You’re cursed! An’ you’ve cursed the rest of us too! You an’ your demon!”

“Shut up, Tom!”

“Da and Father O’Shea said they’d send you away!”

“Where?” she asked, suddenly afraid.

“How should I know? Far away probably.”

“Da wouldn’t do that…” tears started to well up in her big, red eyes.

“If he doesn’t, he’ll probably kill you instead.”

“Shut up!” she screamed.

“You should run away now, or they’ll send you to live with nuns or drown you in the lake like they should’ve when you was born!”

“No!”

“Run away! You killed ma and now you’ve cursed the rest of us!”

“Where would I run to, Tom?”

“Anywhere. Go off to town. Go and be a whore!”

She looked at him in confusion. “What’s a….whore…?”

“A whore’s a woman of ill-repute who sells her body to men.”

“Her body? I don’t understand.”

Tom got a sly grin on his face. “Oh, I suppose you don’t know about all that, do you?”

“About all what? Go away, Tom. You’re a pig.”

“If you’re going to run away an’ be a whore, I better show you what to do first.” He advanced on her.

“Go away…” she said again.

He grabbed her hand. “It’s easy. I done it with some of the girls in the village too.”

“Done what?” she struggled feebly in his grip.

“Touched them. They didn’t like it at first neither. Stay still, you wee runt. It’s easy, I just put my hand here and…”

She pulled herself free of his grope. She didn’t know what he was trying to do, but she knew it was wrong. He still had her wrist. “Get off me, Tom! Da’ll be mad! He’ll strap you again!”

Tom’s resolve seemed to falter for a second, but then his face darkened. “I don’t care about that. One day, da’ll be old an’ weak, an’ then I’ll be the one with the strap. Until then, I’ll do what I like.” He made another grab under her skirt.

“Tom!” Niamh tried to wriggle free, but he was much older than her and far too strong. She felt his rough hand on her thigh, moving upwards, saw the cruel look in his eye and then, with an inhuman screech, she slapped her free hand to the side of his face and…opened a door. That was the only way she could think to describe it. As whatever it was inside her was unleashed, Tom roared in pain and fury. He let her go and fell to the floor, clutching at his face. Smoke curled from between his fingers and there was the sickly smell of burning flesh in the clearing.

“You feckin’ bitch!” he squealed in a surprisingly high-pitched whine. “You really are a demon!” He took his hand away from his face and there, on his previously unblemished cheek, was an ugly red burn, the shape of one of Niamh’s hands. She stared down at her hand, but there was nothing unusual about it. Tom scrambled up to his feet. “I’m tellin’ da!” he shouted back at her as he ran away, back towards the village.

When she made her own way back to the house, she found her father and her brothers all waiting for her. Tom was sitting on the bench by the hearth, still holding his injured face, staring at her with undisguised loathing. Her father looked angry, but also a little scared. “Niamh, what happened in the woods just now?” he asked her.

“I don’t know, da,” she said truthfully.

“She’s a liar! She burned me!” Tom yelled. “Look!” He took his hand away. The intervening time had not improved the scar. It looked odd, the exact shape of her hand burned into his flesh. Ugly red welts were forming. It looked painful.

“Did you do that, Niamh?”

“I…I don’t know, da.” She felt like crying again, but she resolved to stay calm and say her piece. “Did Tom tell you what happened?”

“He said he found you by the stream there and then you attacked him.”

“He said awful things, da. About you and about Father O’Shea. He said you wanted to send me away, or drown me in the lake.”

“Liar!” Tom said, jumping up off the bench. He made a lunge for his sister, but his father caught him easily and pushed him back down with a firm hand on his shoulder.

“Is that so, Tom?”

“She’s lying!”

“I told you not to speak of the conversation I had with Father O’Shea.” Niamh stared at her father in disbelief. They really did want to send her away! “So, Niamh,” he went on, “Tom said these things and then you…attacked him…somehow? Is that how it happened?”

She recovered herself. “Well…no, he did something else too.”

Tom was already trying to fight free, but his father’s grip tightened and he held the lad in place. “Tell me, Niamh,” he said. He had that calm look on his face that he sometimes got before he got really, really angry.

“He…tried to touch me…”

“Touch you? Where?”

“Underneath my skirt. He held my arm and he said…”

Enough.” Her father didn’t raise his voice at all, but when he spoke in that tone, all the children fell silent immediately. Tom was staring up at his father, his face as pale as milk, his eyes like saucers. The grip on his shoulder was relaxed and, for a second, he must have thought he would escape punishment as he sank down in his seat but then, almost casually, his father backhanded him hard across the face, knocking him to the floor. Tom tried to clamber up, clearly disorientated from the blow, but his father aimed a kick at his midsection and he curled into a protective ball. “You listen to me, boy!” their father bellowed, “you’re a wee bastard and if I ever hear of you doing anything like that again, to anyone, least of all your own sister – if you even so much as think of it – so help me God I will string you from the feckin’ gibbet my own self! I’ve a mind to throw you out on your arse right now and you can go and beg for charity from that other bastard Father O’Shea! She’s my daughter! She’s all I have left of your mother, God rest her soul! And no gobshite, be he my son or a priest, is going to take her away from me!” He stood over the sobbing form of his own son and then, shaking with the emotion of it all, sank down onto the bench and buried his head in his hands.

Niamh stood in the doorway, trying to make sense of it all. What was so different about her? What made people do these things, all over her? Why had she been born this way, whatever way that was? And, most importantly of all, how had she done what she’d done to Tom?

Things got no better in the village after that. Tom spent less and less time with the family, falling in with a low crowd. The hand-shaped mark became a livid white scar and no one was able to account for it, least of all Niamh herself. People looked at her oddly, and she sensed even more hostility than before. There was no explanation for what had occurred save something unsavoury and devilish, and so the whispers of ‘demon’ became even louder. The few times she had to help her father with some business in the village, there was generally at least one loud catcall of some kind from behind a shadowed corner or shuttered window. After a while, she began to stay out of the village altogether, spending more and more time exploring the woods. She grew distant even from her other brothers. Aidan was apprenticed to a tanner in town, and Michael and James were now being taught their lessons in the schoolhouse more often than not. Conall, closest to her own age and a simple, trusting lad, remained affectionate, although she thought he may be a little touched in the head. He still spoke in a babyish way and was happiest playing games by himself. The other boys his age in the village picked on him and he’d often come running to find Niamh in the woods, screaming, “Neenee! Neenee!” and crying like a baby in her arms. Niamh thought maybe ma’s death had affected him worse than any of the others and that he’d somehow become stuck at the age he was when she died, in his head.

One day, when she and Conall were in the woods together, a group of his tormentors followed him instead of leaving him alone. They knew she was his sister, but when they found her with him, they grew wary. The leader, a boy two or three years older than Niamh and maybe twice her size, had enough courage to swagger towards her. “You’re the witch,” he sneered.

“Leave my brother alone,” she said shortly.

“I heard your ma was a demon and when she died, her soul went into you.”

“My ma died of fever. Demons don’t do that.”

“You’d know all about demons, witch!” another boy called from the back of the gang.

“I don’t know nothin’ about demons. Just that I ain’t one. I don’t even think demons are real.”

“You never come to mass,” the lead boy said, “I bet you can’t stand on holy ground. I bet you’d burst into flames.”

“People can’t burst into flames,” Niamh said, “you’re a stupid boy. You’re older than me, but I’m smarter. That’s sad.”

“I’m smarter than your brother,” the boy said, pointing at the cowering Conall, “he can’t even talk properly. He should have been drowned. Your whole family should have been drowned. Your da’s a demon fucker, you’re a witch and your brother’s backward.”

“Leave him alone,” she said, taking a step forward and sticking out her chin defiantly.

“Make me,” the bully snarled.

Niamh narrowed her eyes and then held out her hand, palm first. She concentrated all her anger and then, not knowing how, she slipped a latch in her mind, opened the door, and found out that, actually, people really can burst into flames.

There was no hiding it now. All the other boys had seen. The witch girl, the red-eyed demon-child from the Lynch family, the cursed ones in the little house near the woods, she set Billy Fitzpatrick on fire without touching him. There was no spark, no kindling. The flames came out of the ground and burned him up into ashes. Even in a small village, the story grew in the telling, to outlandish proportions. It wasn’t just Billy, it was some other boys too, although no others were missing. A whole crowd of them. She burnt down the woods. She was with her poor backwards brother, and Billy discovered them engaging in mortal sins. She’d done the same with her other brother Tom, they said, and she marked him with her sign afterwards. Go down to the woods and you’ll see palm marks painted on the trees in goat’s blood, to ward her lair against trespassers. There’s a whole coven of witches down there, and they seduce men by moonlight and cavort with their own brothers. They all have the mark of the hand on their bodies somewhere; the hand of the devil himself, laid upon their white, virgin bodies, claiming them. Demons are abroad in the night. Don’t go down to the woods, the devil is there, with his witch brides, and she’s the daughter of their unholy union. Niamh Lynch, the witch-girl, with Satan’s fire in her eyes.

“Where is the girl?!” Father O’Shea thundered as he burst into the house. A mob was rapidly forming behind him, and Tom was lurking in the shadows, hate in his dark eyes. Kieran stood up. “What’s this now?” he asked.

“Your daughter, the witch!”

“She’s no witch.”

“The Fitzpatrick boy, Billy, is dead. Killed by her.”

“What? How? She’s just a girl, and half that wee bruiser’s size.”

“With Satan’s power, that’s how! Your own boy bears her mark.”

Kieran eyeballed his skulking son. “He bears a mark, aye,” he said, “but my daughter’s a kind and gentle soul. If she hurt Billy, she was just defending herself, I’m sure of it. For God’s sake, Father, she’s a girl of six. What could she do?”

“First her mother, now Billy Fitzpatrick. How many others must die, Kieran? How many more, before you accept the truth?”

“I’ll believe no truth that condemns my daughter to your fire, Father. Niam’s done nothing wrong.”

“No, da.” They all turned to see Niamh standing in the doorway. The mob shied away from her as she walked into the house. Conall was with her, holding her hand. “He’s right. I did kill Billy.”

Kieran was aghast. “How?”

“I don’t know. But he was going to hurt Con’. I was just trying to do the right thing, da.”

“You don’t know what you’re saying, Niamh,” Kieran told her, shaking his head, “they’ll burn you for a witch.”

“Maybe they should,” she said calmly.

“From her own mouth,” Father O’Shea said, planting a firm hand on her shoulder, “a confession of her own sinful nature. You all here witnessed that. Let us get on with the business at hand.”

“No!” Kieran made a lunge across the room, but Michael and James were big enough to hold him back now. “Niamh!”

“Let her go, da,” James said, “it’s what she wants.”

“I can’t lose her!”

“I think we lost her a long time ago,” Michael said, “now it’s just tying things up. It’ll be all right, da.”

He sank down to his knees and wept helplessly as Father O’Shea and his supporters took Niamh away with them. Tom was the last to leave. He gave his father and brothers a smirk as he ducked out of the door, horribly distorting his scarred face.

They were already building the fire when Niamh was dragged up before the church. The long, low building with its squat steeple that she hadn’t visited since she was tiny looked smaller than she remembered. There was a stake in the middle of the pile of kindling and two villagers cruelly lashed her to it. She stood there defiantly as they set the fire at her feet. Father O’Shea watched her through the flickering flames. She didn’t feel any discomfort at all as they licked up at her bare feet, caught the material of her dress. Even as the smoke started to make her eyes water, she didn’t even feel warm.

Later that night, when it was all done, she touched a hand to her father’s shoulder. He was slumbering fitfully in the cot and when he woke up he gasped at the sight of her. “Holy Mary Mother of God,” he whimpered, desperately crossing himself, “Niamh? Is this your spirit come to haunt me?”

“No, da, it’s just me. Shush though, you’ll wake the others.”

“But, you were burnt. Everyone saw you…”

“The fire couldn’t hurt me. I didn’t think it would. But I opened the door inside my head and made it look like I got burnt up. I’m fine.”

“How…?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know what I am, da. I don’t think I’m a demon. But they all do, the people in the village, and if I stay here I’ll just cause more problems for you. So I’m going.”

He grabbed her hand. “Don’t leave me. You’re all I’ve left of your mother.”

“No, she’s in the boys too. In Aidan, Michael, James and Con’ especially. They’re all good lads. You’ll all need to stick together now. Even with me gone, the rumours won’t go away. You may need to move, go somewhere else.”

“Where will you go?” her father asked. “You’re still just a child.”

“I don’t know,” she admitted, “I’ve had no schooling. I know nothing of the world. But I can’t stay. I’ll go and make my way as best I can.”

“It’s not safe.”

“Don’t worry about me, da. I can look after myself. That’s what this is all about, remember?”

“Aye, I suppose you’re right. I love you, Niamh.”

“I love you too, da. Look after the others, especially Con’. He won’t understand.”

“What about Tom?”

“Forget Tom.”

“I wish I could.”

“You will. Goodbye, da.”

She left her house, feeling numb. She took a moment to grab a few things she thought she might need. She had spent so much time in the woods that she wasn’t too worried about being alone in the countryside. She took a moment to look in on Conall, but didn’t wake him to say goodbye. He’d only be confused. Her last visit was back to the church. There was a candle lit in the vestry and she snuck in through the back door. Peering through a gap in the vestry door, she saw Tom and Father O’Shea. She didn’t know what they were doing, but it looked sinful. That didn’t matter now. She didn’t think she believed in hell, but she knew for a fact that they were going to burn. It was a small matter to place her hand on the edge of the wooden pulpit, feel it smoulder at her touch and then watch the flames begin to lick around its edges as she took her hand away. She set a few other fires and then stole out into the night. It was all done now. Everyone could be happy again.

*

Rupert took a seat at the dining table and picked up today’s newspaper, giving the front page a brief peruse before leafing through to the financial section. The butler placed a plate of kippers before him and Rupert nodded his thanks without looking up. “Will your father be joining you for breakfast, sir?” he asked.

“I’m sorry?” Rupert looked up at the greying man over his paper. “My father? Oh no, Hugh, I suspect not. He took rather a lot of port at the party last night and will want to sleep in.”

“Very good, sir.”

Rupert chuckled to himself as he thought of his father, his namesake, the Lord Rupert himself, bombastic scourge of Parliament, sleeping off a headache in the master bedroom.

“Reports of my demise have been greatly exaggerated,” a deep voice said from the entrance to the dining room, and Rupert looked up in surprise. “Don’t let your tongue fall out of your head, Rupert,” his father growled in a not unkindly way, as he entered the room, resting his weight on his cane.

“I expected you to be in bed until at least noon,” Rupert observed.

“Nonsense. Port is a most healthful elixir, especially when taken with cheese.”

“And at least two glasses of brandy and several cigars, that I saw.”

“It can’t have been that many. Hugh, fetch me some of those kippers you’ve served my feckless son, if you would be so good.” Lord Rupert heaved his considerable bulk into the chair opposite. “Oily fish is the answer to my ailment, I fancy.”

Rupert put the newspaper down on the table. “Feckless am I? You’ll not be interested in hearing of the success of my latest investments then?”

“Your ‘investments’ are a source of endless boredom for me, Rupert.”

“They shall maintain this estate when you are long gone, father.”

“I fancy they will. Nonetheless, I am far too set in my ways to wrap my head around these business interests of yours. It’s all so much gambling to my eye, and I was never a gambler.”

“Will you take tea, sirs?” a hovering maid asked.

Lord Rupert gestured his assent and she began pouring. The younger Rupert eyed his breakfast. “Start, you wretch. I don’t care. Is there toast to be had, girl? Yes, very good. And some butter. Excellent.”

“What are your plans today, father of mine?” Rupert asked through a mouthful of kipper.

“I must pen some correspondence to that little rat who calls himself Prime Minister first and foremost. He is long overdue a stern talking-to from his elders.”

“I thought you liked him?”

“I like him better than the other fellow, but that’s the best that can be said. He has some confounded strange ideas about a few things. I must disabuse him of these curious notions, lest he do England long-lasting damage from which it may never recover.”

“I’m sure England will go on regardless, pater.”

“Bah. Were everyone to take your attitude, the Empire would be in ruins, overrun by savages on every front.”

“The Visigoths are not at the gate quite yet, I fear.”

Lord Rupert snorted a laugh, that quickly descended into a minor coughing fit. The maid moved to attend him but he waved her away and pulled out his handkerchief, spluttering noisily into it for a few moments. When the spell had passed, he dabbed at his eyes and put the handkerchief back in his pocket. “Not yet, no,” he agreed, “though things are afoot. Ah, it’s not suitable talk for the breakfast table. See, here are my kippers. Thank you, Hugh.”

“Will that be all, sir?” the butler asked.

“Yes, I believe so. Although…I think I may take some air before I begin work in the office. A ride around the estate should suffice.”

“Very good, sir, I will prepare the trap.”

“Excellent.”

“It was a tremendous party last night, father,” Rupert said after they had sat eating in silence for several minutes, “everyone said so. Lady Helen said the pheasant was the finest she had ever eaten.”

“That old coot?”

“Are you talking about her or the pheasant?”

Lord Rupert threatened to go into another fit, but he managed to gulp down a mouthful of tea and recover himself. “It should have been tremendous anyway, the money that it cost. Such a nonsense.”

“Well, that’s business, father.”

“Politics, Rupert. It was politics.”

“If nothing else, it was an excuse to hire more staff I suppose. Hugh seems quite content with the household now. Since mother died, it hasn’t been the same.”

“No, well,” Lord Rupert said quietly, “it will all be for nothing if you don’t find a wife soon. You’re nearly thirty. People will begin to talk. If they haven’t already.”

“Pish.”

“Pish nothing. It’s not seemly for you to be bachelor at your time of life. There were any number of suitable girls there last night.”

“Suitable to you.”

“And not to you? Sir Roger’s youngest daughter seemed a fine filly. A little heavy around the hips, but that’s all to the good in the long run.”

“She was as wide as I am tall, father.”

“Nothing wrong with a good sturdy girl…”

“I’m heir to the third biggest fortune in the country,” Rupert said with a roll of his eyes, “I’ll not settle for ‘sturdy’.”

“You were never so opposed to taking up with girls when you were a younger lad.”

“I’m not opposed to it now. I just haven’t found the right one yet.”

“You don’t need the right one – just an acceptable one.”

“I don’t want a wife who gives me nothing but babies. I want a…a companion…someone whom I can dote on, and whom can dote upon me in turn.”

“You want a boy’s fantasy,” Lord Rupert told him, gesturing with his fork, a chunk of greasy kipper still speared on the tines, “love is for young men. You need a wife. Children. Heirs.”

“Must we have this conversation every morning, father?” Rupert asked with a smile as he stood up.

“Exaggeration. Another youthful trait it was time you were growing out of. No matter. What are your plans for today?”

“I thought I might go shooting.”

“Have you no ‘business’ to attend to.”

“That is the beauty of investments, father,” Rupert grinned, tucking his paper under his arm, “they see to themselves, and one has nothing to do save grow fat on the news of their success.”

“And you wonder that I call you feckless, boy,” his father told him with a rueful grin.

Rupert walked from the dining room, into the drawing room, taking a moment to look out through the tall windows that faced west across the estate, where the grounds led down to the river. It was a grey, wintry day. The branches of the bare willows moved languidly in a stiff breeze and a few drab leaves still caught in the wind and blew across the lawn. As he stood there, he slowly became aware of someone else in the room with him, and he turned to see a maid polishing some of the silverware on the cabinet beneath the portrait of his grandfather. He started to turn back, but something about the servant held his attention. He narrowed his eyes. She was wearing the usual uniform, but she carried herself with a wholly different poise from the rest of the staff. Her hair, tied up into an unruly bun, was the colour of burnished copper. He felt sure that if he’d seen her before, he’d have remembered. She must be one of the new employees. “Excuse me, miss,” he said, adopting a sardonic smirk. She turned, and he almost dropped his newspaper. Her eyes were like none he’d ever seen before – they glowed with a strange inner fire, like two tiny whirlwinds of flame. From a distance, they appeared to throb with a disturbing reddish light. It was quite the strangest thing he’d ever seen. Aware of his shock, and his sudden scrutiny, she looked away quickly and resumed her work falteringly. “Miss,” he said again, approaching her, “I say, I don’t think…”

“Sorry, sir, I’ve a lot of work to do today. I must be going.”

“Wait, hold up a moment!” She moved to go around him, but he grabbed her arm. Instinctively she pulled away, and he was astonished by her strength, by the depth of her conviction to escape. “I say, I don’t mean to harm you. See?” He let her go.

“I’m very busy, sir.”

“I don’t doubt you are, but it won’t matter. I shall vouch for you. I’m Rupert. The Lord Rupert’s son.”

“I know who you are, sir.”

“And you, miss? Can I have your name?”

“I’m Isabelle sir. Now, I have to be going.”

“Stay a moment, Isabelle. Your eyes, I’ve never seen the like of them.”

“They’re just eyes, sir, same as anyone else’s.”

He shook his head. “No, I think not. I’ve been to many places, conversed with Hungarians, Bedouins and Chinamen, but never have I seen eyes like yours. Tell me, are they common in your family?”

“No, sir. It’s only me as has them.”

She still wasn’t looking at him, and he cupped her chin and tilted her face towards his. She was astonishingly beautiful, with pale, lightly freckled skin, a delicately upturned nose and full, red lips. “Isabelle,” he breathed, “you are a rare creature.” She finally met his gaze and he felt a jolt run down his spine as he beheld the raging fire in the depths of her pupils. “H…how…?” She pulled away from him and, with only a brief backward glance, fled from the drawing room.

“Westminster calls,” his father grumbled the following day. Rupert was lounging disconsolately in the library, a book of verse open on his lap, but unread. He had spent a restless day trying to track down Isabelle, the mysterious new maid, but he was quite lost in the servant’s quarters, and had given up in a pique. “Rupert?”

He looked up. “Father? Westminster? What?”

“Trouble,” Lord Rupert said. He was dressed for travel. “I must leave at once.”

“Problems abroad?”

“I won’t bore you. You’ll read about it in the papers, should you be able to tear yourself away from your stocks and so forth.”

“Very well. When should I expect your return?”

“I don’t know. Within the week I should hope, assuming that little upstart of a Prime Minister can be reined in before doing anything foolish. It may be the crown has to intervene. I still wield influence in the palace.”

“I’m sure the British Empire is in safe hands,” Rupert smiled.

“Quite so. Behave yourself, son. I will try to keep you abreast of my movements, if I can.” The two men exchanged a formal nod and Lord Rupert left, walking slowly and relying on his cane as always. It would not be long before he would be unable to travel to London whenever some crisis or other reared its head, and then he would have to finally retire from public life. Rupert steepled his fingers and mused on the future. The talk of wives and children the previous morning had not pleased him, but the brief reminder of his father’s mortality also reminded him of his responsibility. He was the only son, and he had a duty. But he had been introduced to every debutante in the country, as far as he could tell, and many more besides from the courts of Europe and beyond. He had known his share of women, but none he would want to call a wife. So what was he to do? He could have anyone he desired, but he desired nothing so much as a life free of the complexities, the controversies, that had plagued his father’s career. Not for him the military either. He had chosen business, ventures, because the very removed nature of it meant that he was able to remain here, in the place he loved, and devote himself to other things. But he couldn’t be the master of this house, these lands, without a wife, without heirs. In his dotage, he would see political rivals strip it all away, take advantage of senility to discredit or, worse, bankrupt him. He wanted none of that life, but it was unavoidable. One day he would be Lord Rupert. A lord needs a lady, his father had said to him more than once.

And so his mind turned back to the girl Isabelle. It was absurd of course, but he had never met a woman so beautiful. Even those brief moments together in the drawing room had been intoxicating. It was silly. Something from a story. He was no romantic, or so he thought. But, of all the women he had courted, and of the less reputable types with whom he had taken pleasure, in London and elsewhere, none had made him feel as she had. He resolved to find her and, tossing the poetry aside, he stood up, swirling his coat about his shoulders as he stormed out of the library.

Two hours later, he found her. Outside, in the yard by the kitchen. She was scrubbing some linen against a washboard, and she stopped when she saw him. “Isabelle,” he greeted her with a smile.

“Sir.” She went back to her laundry.

“I think you would look finer wearing a gown, rather than washing one.”

“It’s not a gown, sir, just some bedding from the servant’s quarters.”

“I thought you were a maid? Why are you washing the linen?”

“I asked Mr Barlow that I not be sent upstairs anymore.”

“Oh…”

“For fear of running into you,” she supplied, “for all the good it’s done.”

“Oh. Am I so frightening?”

“Not at all. But I didn’t think it’d do you much good to carry on some dalliance with a girl like me, even if it was only in your head. So I thought I’d keep out of your way.”

“You could have just left altogether…”

She fixed him with her fiery stare. “You’ve power over me, Mr Rupert, but not that much. My da worked hard to find me a place here. I’ll not be driven away by some little lord and his roving cock.”

Rupert laughed. “Is that what you think this is about?”

“Well isn’t it? I’ve met men like you before.”

“Were they as unable to resist you as I am?”

“You haven’t even tried to resist me yet, sir. You may find it easier than you think.”

“I doubt that very much.” He stepped up to the tub at her feet and looked down at her. A lock of her hair had fallen loose of the bonnet she was wearing and it hung down across her face. “Take a walk with me, Isabelle.”

“I’ve work to do, sir.”

“I’ll talk to Hugh. He won’t mind.”

“I think he will.”

“My father is his employer. It won’t be a problem.”

I’ll mind.” She looked up, fixing him with a defiant stare.

“Look, it’s all right, you know…” Rupert squatted down opposite her. “I won’t hurt you. I won’t…make you do anything. I’m not that kind of man.”

“I don’t care what kind of man you are. Just leave me alone.”

“Why? What do you have to hide?”

“Nothing. I just want to be left alone to get on with my work. That’s what you gentlemen want, isn’t it? Servants who do their work?”

“I’ve no other servants who look like you. Just tell me how your eyes came to be that way. That’s all I want to know.”

“They’ve always been this way.” She’d returned to her scrubbing.

“Was your mother the same? Your father?”

“Never knew my mother. But no.”

“Did she die when you were a child?”

“She died birthing me. Of a fever.”

“Oh. My mother died too. She took a fall when I was a boy and never recovered.”

“I’m sorry for your loss then. Now please, leave me be.”

Rupert found himself starting to become angry. He stood up and tugged his waistcoat straight. “Now listen to me. I’m only trying to be a good master. One day, this house and estate will be mine. I shall be your employer. It won’t serve you well to anger me. I only wish to talk with you. If your father, who you say worked so hard to get you this position, were here, I’m sure he’d tell you to treat me with respect. He’d encourage you to talk with me; to seek to improve your station by flattering me with your attention, if only for a little while.”

“Da taught me to know my place, to keep out of trouble.”

“Invoking the wrath of your future master is hardly keeping out of trouble.”

Isabelle surged up to her feet. She was a good foot shorter than Rupert, but as she squared up to him across the soapy tub she appeared much larger. The flames in her eyes danced furiously. “Would you have me be a mistress, is that it? Your whore? You take a wife and get your squalling little heirs on her, and then you steal into my quarters down here, with its narrow bed and whitewashed walls and have your way with me. You promise me riches, you say that one day you’ll put her aside and we can be together, but when it comes down to it, I’m just a ruined woman and, eventually, when my looks no longer hold your attention, you find a new trollop and I’m left in the cold, with my reputation ruined and no longer even the protection of a lord to keep me from destitution. And you’d get a litter of bastards on me too, no doubt. Now why would I agree to any of that? What kind of a life is that? You think I’m some foolish girl to have my head turned by a handsome gentleman with a fine coat and soft hands? No thank you, Mr Rupert. I’ll thank you to leave me be, to let me get on with my life. It may not seem a very fine thing to you, but it’s honest. If you knew where I’d come from, you’d see the virtue in that.” She spun around and strode back towards the kitchen.

“Wait,” he called after her, “where you came from? I don’t understand…”

Isabelle whirled to face him. “Then understand this. If I see you again, it won’t be me that regrets it.”

He couldn’t help but laugh, despite the candour of her words. “Oh, is that so? And what could you possibly do to me?”

She held out her hand and then, before his very eyes, he saw a small dancing flame flicker into life, floating above her outstretched palm. She smiled grimly at his stunned expression. “Just stay away, Rupert. I’ll not tell you again.”

It was difficult to heed her warning, even with that strange, inexplicable fire she had seemingly created from thin air. He was convinced it must be a trick. Rupert did not think of himself as a cruel man, as a man who took life for granted, but he wasn’t used to not getting what he wanted. Few women had resisted his advances, although he flattered himself that he had never really given them reason to. He had been told he was witty, charming, urbane, and knew for a fact that he was educated and intelligent. Some had called him handsome, and he took care of his appearance, without being too vain and overly concerned with fashion, he felt. But still…her refusal to even talk with him was the least perplexing part of this situation. He spent the afternoon sequestered in the library again, leafing through various books of modern science, trying to find a rational explanation. Journals of the physical sciences revealed nothing. The works of the great chemists were silent. He delved back, further and further, into the discredited babblings of alchemists, and then into his own collection of books on Eastern mysticism, purchased as curios and reminders of his travels. There was nothing of substance in them – outlandish tales of djinn, folk stories of sorcerers and shape-shifters. Nothing a rational, modern man would place any stock in. And, though he possessed an admitted romantic streak, Rupert was nothing if not rational. And modern.

The next morning, Hugh brought him a letter from his father, despatched in extreme haste from London only the previous day. He would be gone for longer than he expected, blaming “the blackguard Earl Wattham” for derailing all his hard work to avoid the impending disaster, whatever it might be. The papers remained mysteriously silent. “Politics,” Rupert harrumphed to himself. He lounged at the table, his poached eggs untouched.

“Sir, might I enquire after your plans for today?”

“What?” Rupert looked up at Hugh uncomprehendingly. “Oh. Yes. Riding, I think. I need to clear my head. It’s stuffy indoors.”

“Sir, it’s quite inclement outdoors.”

“Bracing,” Rupert exclaimed, standing up and straightening his jacket, “just how I like it. The estate is quite lovely with a rime of morning frost clinging to the hillsides, don’t you think, Hugh?”

“I’ve always felt the monument by the south wing to be the most fetching sight on your good family’s property, sir, when the morning light hits it just so. Most arresting around midwinter, certainly.”

“Quite so, good man. See my horse is saddled and ready.”

“Will you ride alone, sir?”

“Yes, just a brief jaunt up to the valley and back. I shall be back by luncheon.”

“Very good, sir.”

Half an hour later, Rupert walked into the stable, fastening his jacket tightly against the cold air. It was indeed brisk, but he had always fancied himself a man of strong conviction, of immovable passions. He wanted to ride this morning, damn it, to take his mind of Isabelle. He greeted Horace, the ancient groom who, years before, had taught him to ride. He was bent almost double with age now, but hobbled around without the aid of a stick. His father had offered the man a quite generous pension, and a cottage on the estate, but he wouldn’t leave his beloved stables, and so they let him stay, though his advanced years prevented him from doing much useful work. He relied now on a team of burly assistants who did the physical labour while he directed them with his wealth of experience. The latest of these lieutenants was a thick-bodied young man with a slow way of moving and a slack look to his face. He was able enough though when given direction, and he was just tightening the bridle on Rupert’s horse. “A fine lad,” Rupert observed, not wholly in jest.

“Aye, he is that, Horace agreed, “though, if I might say so, sir, a little…well…” he tapped a bony, crooked finger against his wizened skull, “a little touched, as they say. A little slow.”

“An injury?”

“No, his sister says he were born this way. Just a little simple is all.”

“I see.”

“But willing enough, an’ good with the animals, sir. He has a real way with the hounds.”

“Well then, it’s all to the good.” He nodded in a friendly way to the dim-witted boy. “Thank you, good fellow. I’m Rupert, the Lord Rupert’s son. What do they call you?”

The lad looked startled for a moment, then seemed to grasp what he’d been asked. “Colm,” he answered, awkwardly removing his hat and even starting to bow. He looked to Horace for guidance, panic dawning in his vacant eyes.

“It’s okay, lad,” Horace reassured him, “Mr Rupert is a kind gentleman. I think he’s had some trouble with folks in the past, sir,” the old groom said as an aside, “a little nervous, especially when he aren’t around his sister. She’s quite protective of him.”

“She sounds a fine woman. It was a pleasure to meet you, Colm. I hope to someday count you as dear and loyal a servant as I do Horace here.” He mounted up swiftly and smiled at both men, then cantered out into the stable yard, immediately filled the thrill of freedom that came from being on horseback on a fine, clear morning. With a brief “Hurrah!”, he urged the horse forward, out of the gate and into the field beyond, then out onto the rolling countryside of the estate, glimmering in the bright sunlight.

He had ridden more or less the same route since he was a child, up around the south wing, over the bridge, then jagging abruptly west to gallop along the bridle path that skirted the edge of the woods. All the land for miles around had belonged to his family for generations. Their name – a version of it anyway – was in the Domesday Book, and so Rupert felt like he was a much a part of this landscape as the ancient oaks that lined the road up to the house, or the rugged rock formations that now danced arrestingly on the horizon as he urged his horse uphill. It was only a ride of a few miles to the valley, but he found himself quite out of breath by the time he arrived, and had to dismount by the riverbank. Here, the water was fast flowing, and further up the valley it tumbled over the crags and formed waterfalls and dozens of small pools where, as a boy, he’d fished. He didn’t have to wade in, as he had all those years ago, to know that water would be icy cold today. He was starting to regret not heeding Horace’s warning as he tied up the horse. Shivering, he searched his pockets for gloves, then realised he’d forgotten them. “Confound it,” he said to himself. He considered riding back to the house, but it seemed a shame to come all this way and not at least take a walk. He hadn’t been back here since his return home from India in the spring. At that time of year, the valley would be alive with colour, and he regretted missing it. In summer, it would be warm and green, buzzing with dragonflies. Now, it was a drab place, but with a sort of fierce, untamed beauty. He set off along the well-worn path to the steep head of the gorge where, if one were inclined to scale the almost sheer rock-face, there was a splendid view down to the house, peering over the tops of the trees in the wood. As he made his way slightly uphill, occasionally needing to clamber over some of the more challenging terrain, he became aware of a sound just on the edge of hearing. It was singing, slightly out of tune, but with an engaging lilt. He rounded a bend in the path that brought him back to the river’s edge, and there saw a vision of loveliness, dangling her feet in the burbling water. “Isabelle!” he exclaimed.

She turned, alarmed at his unexpected intrusion, and immediately leapt to her feet. “Rupert! I mean…”

He held up his hands. “Forgive me, Miss Isabelle. I didn’t expect to find you here.”

“I’ve the afternoon to myself, sir,” she explained, “don’t be thinkin’ I’m shirking my duties.”

“No, not at all. I didn’t mean to disturb you. What were you singing?”

“Nothing at all. Just a silly song.”

“It was…”

“Awful. I can’t hold a tune. I know that. It was just a song my grandmother used to sing to me. It brings me comfort sometimes.”

“Are you…are you in need of comfort?”

“No more than usual.” She narrowed her eyes suddenly. “Did you follow me here?”

“No! I rode here just now. This is my…I mean, this valley, it’s one of my favourite places. No one else comes here much, except the gamekeepers.”

“It’s quite beautiful,” she acknowledged.

“How did you find it?”

“I like to walk. To find out of the way places. I’m not one for crowds, you understand.”

“No, I suppose not.”

“I’ll leave you to your walk anyway,” she said, reaching for her shoes.

“No, stay.”

“That wouldn’t be a good idea now, would it?”

“Isabelle,” he said, stepping towards her, “I have to know…about the thing you showed me the other day.”

“It was nothing. Just a trick.”

“How did you do it?”

“It’s a thing with…mirrors. And lenses, you know.”

“As it happens, I do know something of optics. In Damascus, I spent time with a Mohammadean who manufactured telescopes. A fascinating science. Please, explain it to me.”

“I…” she faltered, “I don’t think I can.”

“But you said…”

Isabelle let out an exasperated sigh. “I can’t decide if you’re being dense or purposefully pretending to try to catch me out. What do you want me to say?”

“I want you to tell me the truth.”

“If you wish: it’s just a thing I can do. I’ve always been able to. That’s all. Nothing strange about it.”

“I’ve never known this ability in anyone else…”

“Oh,” she said, placing her hands on her hips as she had back in the kitchen yard, “and have you met everyone there is to meet? You’ve travelled far, I’ve no doubt, but there are corners of the globe even you haven’t graced, Mr Rupert. Who knows what strangeness is out there?”

“If there was a land peopled with women like you, Isabelle, rumour of it would have reached even England’s temperate shores,” Rupert smiled.

“Oh, such a charmer you fancy yourself!” she rolled her eyes. “I have to be going.”

“Where?” he moved to block her path. “You said you had the afternoon to yourself. Why not walk with me?”

“You know why. I told you why. It’s not proper now, is it?”

“I don’t care about propriety!”

“It’s not you as has to care: it’s your father, and all the people back in your house, and everyone in London and everywhere else. But, even in disgrace, you’d still have your fortune, your estate. I’d have nothing.”

“You talk about your place,” he said, “about fearing losing it, but I’m your master – more or less – and you show no fear of me. I could have Hugh dismiss you on a whim.”

“Will you?”

“No…”

“Then step aside.”

“I won’t.”

Her face hardened. “I can make you. You know that I can.”

Rupert met her eyes, saw the fire dancing in their depths. “I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to understand who and what you are. I could demand that you attend my table tonight, but I’d much rather have you as a companion than as a servant.”

“We all wish to be able to choose the course of our lives, but it’s not so simple as that is it?”

“No,” he agreed, “but I feel like I’ve come across a fork in the road. I know that if I heed your warning, I’ll regret it forever. This seems…important…”

“I’m just an ordinary girl,” Isabelle said, “we all have our strangenesses.”

He considered her for a long moment. “Very well. I can see your mind is made up.”

She looked surprised. “All right then. Goodbye.” She walked past him, fixing him with a sceptical look, then headed down the path towards the head of the valley. Rupert watched her leave, wondering where he should go from here. He had never been the kind of man to press his affections on a woman unwilling to entertain them. If Isabelle wanted nothing to do with him – and her reasoning was sound, he had to admit – then he would respect that. He would content himself with her being one more mystery from his past, like the levitating yogi he had seen on the streets of Bombay or the ordeals by fire he had witnessed during his time with the Bedouin tribes of Arabia. He walked a little further up the valley, but found his enthusiasm for the jaunt had waned. It had begun to grow colder too, and the wind picked up. The morning’s clear sky had begun to grey over and, as he looked back towards the house, he saw heavier clouds gathering on the horizon. It looked like rain was coming. Resigning himself to a day of repeated disappointments, he retraced his steps and untied his horse. By the time he had mounted the animal, the rain had already begun to patter down in an annoyingly incessant fashion. He wheeled around and made haste back towards the house. He was almost halfway home, near the woods, when he saw Isabelle again, trudging morosely along the now-muddy track, holding her shawl over her head to shield herself from the rain, which had increased to a biting downpour. He slowed down to a trot beside her. “Are you all right?”

“No! I’m bloody wet! Can that horse carry both of us?”

He patted the mare’s neck and shook his head. “She’s a lightweight cob. She won’t bear our weight.”

“Well, a lot of use you are.”

He pointed into the forest. “There’s a cleft not far from here, in the woods. It might offer some shelter.”

“Tell me how to find it.”

He was already dismounting. “I’ll show you.”

“It’s fine. Get back. Your horse will want feeding or what have you.”

“At least let me show you. You’ll get lost in the woods – they’re denser than they look.”

“Fine.”

He tied the horse up again, this time just within the treeline where she had a bit of shelter from the rain, and then led Isabelle inside. The trees were mostly bare, but the branches overhead still plunged them into an oppressive gloom with surprising swiftness. Rupert beckoned Isabelle forward, then stopped to unleash a catastrophic sneeze.

“Bloody hell!” she said.

He laughed. “Most people say ‘bless you’…”

“Are you all right? You’re not catching any sort of chill, I hope?”

“I’m fine.”

“You’ve no gloves or anything.”

He waved away her concern, then sneezed loudly again. “It’s nothing,” he insisted.

“Did you not realise how cold it was?”

“It’s not so bad. You were dangling your feet in the river.”

“It’s different for me.”

“How so?”

She stepped towards him and placed her hands around his. He felt warmth radiating into his icy skin. “See? I don’t get cold.”

“Astonishing,” he breathed.

“Yes, well.” She let go and stepped away. The coldness returned to his hands, though a little of the residual heat was left behind. “Show me this cleft or whatever it is.”

They trekked a little further into the woods, until they came to the small, rocky prominence. On the other side of it, the roots of an ancient tree formed a grotesque network of twisted lumps and tendrils but also made a kind of natural overhang so that, beneath it, was a small alcove where two people might sit in relative comfort. The rain was hard now, and the leafless canopy provided little protection. They hurried into the cleft and sat down on the mossy ground. Rupert sneezed again. “Take my shawl,” Isabelle suggested.

“Nonsense.”

“Oh stop it. You’ll catch your death out here. Go and ride your horse back to your cosy drawing room. I’m sure Hugh has a fire lit for you.”

Rupert looked out at the driving rain. “Perhaps in a moment…” Then he sneezed again.

“You’re going to get ill unless you keep warm.”

“Yes, well, what is to be done?” he held a helpless hand up at the rain.

“We’ll have a fire here.”

“I don’t think you’ll find much dry kindling now…”

Isabelle rolled her eyes. “Yes, let’s all pretend that matters.” She leant out of their shelter and grabbed the first piece of damp wood that came to hand in the undergrowth. Placing it between them, she cupped her hands over it and then, before Rupert’s very eyes, she ignited the soaking log. Within seconds, it was blazing away quite merrily.

“Ast…”

“Don’t say it again,” she warned him, “I know.”

He held out his hands. “Fire. Fire from the very air. This is no trick of light and prisms. You have to tell me more now.”

“What is there to tell?”

“You’ve always been able to do this?”

She nodded. “As far back as I can remember.”

“And you know no one else with this ability? No one in your family?”

Isabelle hesitated, looked away guiltily. “My grandmother,” she admitted.

“Your grandmother?”

“She could do it too. At least, I think so. She had the same eyes and hair as me too.”

“Fascinating. But your mother or father?”

“No,” she shook her head, “there was nothing unusual about them.”

“Do you have siblings?”

“A brother.”

“And he’s…normal?”

She smiled. “Colm’s not normal. He’s a very special boy.”

“Colm? You mean the halfwi…the stable boy?”

“I see you’ve met him then. He’s simple, yes, but has a gentle spirit. I’ve looked after him since I was a girl. I think it’s supposed to be the other way around.”

“He seemed an excellent lad.”

“Most people don’t think so. Especially people like you.”

He looked at her askance. “People like me?”

“Other folk we worked for, gentlemen and so forth, weren’t kind to him.”

“Oh. People can be cruel. Especially those who think themselves better than their fellow man, I’ve found.”

“You’re different,” Isabelle said with a shy smile, “I thought you were just another silly rich man.”

“You don’t think I’m silly now though?”

“Oh, I think you’re silly. Just in a different way. You’ve a lot to learn, but I think you’re steering a better course than most. You might make a fine lord of this giant, ugly house someday.”

Ugly?” She laughed musically at him, and he joined in, but then another sneeze took him and he unleashed another three in quick succession before collapsing miserably against the wall of roots. “I need to get back home,” he finally conceded.

“Come on,” she said, ducking out of the cleft, “the rain’s not so hard now. It was just a passing scud. Let’s go while we can.”

“Cook will need to make me some broth,” he said with a grumpy sniff.

“You need a wife.”

“If I had one, she wouldn’t make me broth.”

“Not much of a wife then.”

“Maybe not…”

Rupert was put straight to bed by a Henrietta, the stern and formidable housekeeper. Isabelle had already made herself scarce. But, as he recovered, he perceived that she had arranged to spend time around him, flitting in and out of his chambers on some domestic errand or other, clearing away his plates after meals, or dusting some item of furniture hardly in need of it. They talked again, she still remaining coy and aloof, stubbornly refusing to adopt any sort of deferential tone with him, which he continued to find intoxicating. One afternoon, they were together in the library. Though she was still dressed as a maid, she had given up all pretence of performing her duties, and was listening to him talk about one of his books. “I was interested in what you said about your grandmother,” he told her, holding open a page. He sat on a large leather chair, while she perched on the edge of a chaise longue, clearly unsure of how to properly utilise it. “The science of hereditary fascinates me.”

“A lot fascinates you,” she observed.

“It does. There has been so much good work done. Have you read about Mendel’s experiments?”

“Do you think I would’ve?”

“No, well, I suppose not.  He did some fascinating work with peas.”

Peas?”

“It’s more exciting than it might sound. You said your grandmother had the same hair and eyes as you?”

“That’s right.”

“Well, Mendel’s experiments showed that certain traits are passed down to offspring in strange ways. He bred purple-flowering peas with white-flowering peas. What colour do you think the resulting flowers were?”

“Sort of…pink?”

“No, they were purple! Certain traits appeared to be dominant. But when he then bred two of the resulting offspring, he found that some of their offspring had white flowers instead. They still carried the trait of the grandparent plant, but didn’t themselves express it until they were cross-bred again.”

“I think I understand…”

“The trait that your grandmother possessed didn’t express itself in your…”

“Father.”

“Your father. But it did in you. She had what Mendel called an allele for this…this amazing ability of yours to generate fire from within yourself. I suspect the unusual colouration of your eyes is an expression of the same trait. Do you know if any of your ancestors were the same?”

“My grandmother ran away from home when she was very young,” Isabelle explained, “she said she caused trouble because she was different. That’s why I’ve always tried hard to fit in.”

“You could never fit in, Isabelle. You’re unique. Special. You deserve better than a life of domestic servitude.”

She stood up. “There are worse lives.”

“No, of course.” He stood up too. “I didn’t mean to insult you.”

“I know.”

“It’s just…the things you can do…the way that you are. Do you know what you could become?”

“I can just light fires. A man with a match could do anything I could.”

“You told me the other day that you know of no limits to your ability to create fire, is that right?”

She shrugged. “I can make as large or small a flame as I wish.”

“And you need no fuel?”

“No.”

“And it doesn’t tax your constitution at all?”

“No.”

“What you have in your hands,” he took her palms in his, running his thumbs across the back of her hands, “is a source of unlimited energy.”

“What of it?”

“Imagine the applications to industry!”

She pulled away from him with a smirk. “Will you hook me up to an engine then? Is that your plan?”

“Of course not! But…if your abilities could be reproduced somehow…”

“Like my grandmother’s abilities were reproduced in me?”

“Exactly…”

“Children you mean? That’s what you’re talking about?”

“A race of…of…fire-makers…imagine what England might become. My father is one of the most powerful men in the country. I will inherit all that he has, and build upon our estates if my investments mature as I predict. If my sons could summon fire at will, they would be titans!”

Isabelle threw her head back and laughed. “Your imagination! I’ll not be a baby factory for you, Mr Rupert,” she added, jabbing a finger in his chest, “but if you mean to make me a wife? Well, I may think on it a little.” She walked out of the room with a wry smile and he grinned foolishly after her, dreaming of a strange, unknowable future.

Several days later, Rupert awoke to news from Hugh that his father had returned to the house sometime during the night. “Is he in his study?” he asked as he fastened his shirt.

“Yes, sir. And he said he was not to be disturbed.”

“Oh. Very well. I shall take breakfast in my rooms then, I think. And could you ask Isabelle to attend me?”

“I don’t think that would be wise, sir.”

Rupert turned to the butler, who had the good grace to avoid his eye. “What? Why ever not?”

“Your father has specified that she should be given duties elsewhere in the house for the time being.”

“I see. And did he explain why?”

“I wouldn’t be party to that information, sir.”

“No, of course not. Never mind breakfast. I’ll go and see father at once.”

“He was quite firm about not wanting to be disturbed, sir…”

Rupert paused. His father’s rages were very rare – he was possessed of iron self-control, famous in Westminster – but quite terrible when he allowed them to take him over. “Has he said that he will summon me?”

“I believe he shall do so presently, sir.”

“I shall wait upon his pleasure in the drawing room then.”

“Very good, sir.”

Lord Rupert kept him waiting for several hours, and it was past luncheon when he was finally summoned. Rupert had stubbornly refused to take anything more substantial than tea, and now he strode into the study to find his father standing at the window, looking out across the grounds. It was another cold, brittle day, with frost climbing up the windowpanes. There was a fire burning in the grate, but the high-ceilinged room was still chilly. “I didn’t expect you back so soon, father,” Rupert said, “has the crisis been resolved?”

“More or less to my satisfaction, yes,” Lord Rupert answered without turning around, “politics requires compromise at times.”

“Very good.”

“But, I extinguish one crisis, to find another ablaze much closer to home.”

Rupert felt a twist in the pit of his stomach. “Oh?”

“Do you think I have no eyes and ears in my own house, Rupert?” And now his father turned, and he could see the livid fury etched on his paunchy features. “Did you hope to deceive me?”

“I hope that I have never deceived anyone. Deception is not in my nature, as it is not in yours. I have always regarded politicians with distaste, except for you, father. I know you to be a man of integrity.”

“As I believe I have been, and am. And I hope that I raised my son to be the same.”

“I have tried to emulate your example, father.”

“Quite so.” His father fixed his gaze on him. “But now I hear about a dalliance with a member of the household staff.”

“Father…”

“Do you mean to deny it? Is that your defence? That I am mistaken?”

“No. I don’t deny that I have spent time with a maid employed in your service. I reject only the description you have used. It is no dalliance.”

“I have seen the girl, albeit from afar. What else might you have seen in her, save her uncommon beauty?”

“She is more than a mere beauty.”

“Pah!” He sat down in the chair behind his wide desk, setting his cane to one side as he did. “I raised you better than this, Rupert. Understand that it is not for your sake that I have returned, but for the girl’s.”

“Her name is Isabelle.”

“Her damned name is immaterial, Rupert!” his father roared. “She is a servant! Your reputation would survive the inevitable conclusion of this affair. At worst, you would be thought a foolish youth – though a little old for such sport – and the subject of innuendo amongst my enemies. But she would not be so fortunate. Once you had cast her aside, as you inevitably will, she would be compelled to leave our service. Already she is the victim of gossip amongst the other help. If you did not demand her removed from your sight for some imagined trespass, she would be hounded out by her own contemporaries. With no reference of good character from us, and perhaps her name well known from newspaper slander, she would find it almost impossible to find further employment. And if you were to get her with child, what then? She has no mother. There would be no place for her, or the child, save the workhouse perhaps. I have no tolerance for bastards. Women were your grandfather’s vice, and he sired a brood of baseborn whelps on various harlots, of whom the end was never heard. You bring disgrace on this girl, for your own selfish reasons. I thought you a better man.”

“It isn’t like that,” Rupert said quietly.

“No? Then tell me how it is.”

“She is no ordinary woman.”

“They never are.”

“No! This is not some boy’s fancy! I am a man! A man of conviction, as you are. Isabelle may be a servant, but there is some strain of nobility in her. She is of some strange kind. I can tell you no more than that, father. You must trust me.”

Lord Rupert shook his head sadly. “I spent this morning in conversation with her father, a labourer in the town. He is a dependable man, humble as befits his station, but proud of the children he has raised. His boy is cretinous, but has found gainful employment in our own stables. The girl has always been good and virtuous. I can find no fault with the family, but their stock is lowly indeed. Irish, as you well know, and he the son of a runaway girl. They took passage to England for work some years ago after the death of this matriarch.”

“I know of Isabelle’s grandmother, yes,” Rupert said, “she had the same hair, the same eyes – did you see her eyes, father? – there is some powerful lineage in her. Descent from an ancient line of Irish kings, perhaps. Or giants from a forgotten age.”

His father placed a hand across his eyes. “I tolerated your desire for travel, Rupert,” he said, “I thought it healthy to have your mind broadened. I have had so few opportunities to see the boundaries of civilisation. Your games with investment and business too, I allowed to continue, as your ambitions seemed noble enough. It was always my hope though that you would succeed me into parliament; that perhaps you would one day be Prime Minister, as I never was. But if that dream is ever to come to fruition, you must avoid scandals such as this. You must rise above your basest instincts.”

“There is nothing base about my feelings for Isabelle, father.”

“Feelings!” Lord Rupert sneered. “I know what part of you feels for her! I know what…” in his rage he began to sputter, and then descended into coughing, bending over his desk and pawing at his waistcoat pocket for a handkerchief. Rupert moved to help him, but was waved away. “This…” Lord Rupert dabbed at his mouth, “…this nonsense must…must end here. I will not punish…punish the girl for your indiscretion. It is you who must leave, at least for the time being.” He patted a hand against his chest, trying to clear the phlegm resting on his lungs. “I have arranged…arranged for you to take up a position in Westminster with Earl Harwich. You shall depart within the week.”

“A position? Of what sort?”

“It will be quite menial, at least at first. A clerk in his offices. But with the opportunity for advancement. It is understood that you are there for education and improvement. There is no finer master to whom you might be apprenticed. I should have done this long ago.”

“I know nothing of clerking, father.”

“You are educated in the classics. That will be enough, at least to begin with. See this as an opportunity, Rupert.”

“No, I am a man grown. I will not leave this estate. When I was abroad, returning here was all I dreamed of. I have no desire to spend my days in a stuffy office in some lump of blackened bricks in London.”

“We must all do things we do not wish. I am your father, and the master of this house, in which you have resided, without any recompense to me, for almost all of your idle years. The time has come for you to grow up.”

Rupert’s face hardened. “I have a personal fortune, amassed through my investments. I do not need your approval. I will leave, buy a home of my own, and share it with Isabelle, whom I intend to make my wife.”

“Then you shall not ever return to this estate, Rupert.”

“So be it.” He turned on his heel and stormed out of the room, followed by the sound of Lord Rupert’s outrage, turning to a hacking cough, echoing down the corridor.

Rupert need not have worried. No one knew quite how it happened but his father retired early to bed that night and did not rise the next morning. He was gravely ill, and slipped in and out of consciousness for days. The physician blamed it on his constitution being taxed by extensive travel recently, and the variety of ailments he had developed in his old age and concealed from everyone. By the following Monday, he had entered a state of unconsciousness from which it was clear he would not wake. Three days later, he died peacefully. Rupert – now Lord Rupert – held Isabelle’s hand as they sat beside his bed, looking down at the frail, grey shape of the man who had terrorised the House of Lords for almost fifty years, and who had quietly, in his own secretive way, bestrode an Empire. All gone now. “What will happen now?” Isabelle asked.

“Now, I ask you to marry me, and make you a lady.”

“If I say yes.”

“Will you?”

“I don’t know, you haven’t asked me yet.” She squeezed his hand, and he felt her strange warmth course through him.

*

The sun had nearly set over London: just a reddish smear in the west now, low over the dark spires and roofs beyond Canary Wharf, staining the very edges of a clear, starry sky. She stood alone, arms folded, eyes narrowed, at a plate glass window that stretched the height and length of the entire conference room. And it was a large conference room. Her organisation was powerful, and the board of directors that governed it and its many subsidiaries required facilities proportional to their magnitude. But, for now, she was alone. She was always alone, even when the long, glass table at the centre of the room was fully occupied.

There was a chime from nowhere in particular. Not looking down, she placed a hand against the window and applied enough pressure to open up a holographic window. “Yes?” she said.

“Dame Katherine, Mr Holiday is here to see you,” her secretary answered.

“Show him in, Jennifer.” She turned smartly and waited for the girl to enter with Charles Holiday, whose face was totally unreadable.

“Should I make some coffee, madam?” Jennifer asked.

“No, thank you. In fact, you may finish for the day. Thank you for staying late tonight.”

“Thank you, Dame Katherine. Have a good evening.”

“I sincerely hope that I do.”

The door closed soundlessly and Charles looked over his shoulder with a smirk. “Won’t she be suspicious?”

“She’ll be too busy thinking about her date.”

“She told you she had a date?”

“She didn’t have to – I was the one who engineered it, for precisely this purpose. Enough about the help though, Charles; tell me what you have.”

He reached inside the jacket pocket of his tailored suit and pulled out a memory stick. “Hot off the coroner’s desk.”

She arched an eyebrow. “Pun intended?”

“What? Oh,” he laughed, “no. I wish it was. You won’t want to plug this into the central system.”

“Of course.” She retrieved a tablet from the conference table and tapped a few commands to disable its connection. “I assume this is encrypted?” Wordlessly he handed her a piece of paper with a ten-digit code on it, along with the stick.

“It will wipe itself as soon as you remove it too,” he added.

“Good.” She gave him a penetrating look as she plugged in the stick. “If you betray me, Charles, I guarantee you’ll regret it.”

“Oh, Kat, if the authorities or, god forbid, the press, find out about this, I’m certain you’ve taken steps to pin the whole business on me.”

“Quite so,” she said with a cold smile. “Now, let us see what we have here.” The flash drive booted up and she quickly tapped in the code. Only one file was saved on it, and she brought it up with another tap of her long, manicured finger. A simple electronic document, with nothing to distinguish it save the seal of the coroner’s office on the header. She scrolled through quickly, picking out the main details with only a cursory scan. “This seems to be everything we hoped for.”

Charles nodded. “Accidental death, no evidence of foul play, but no real explanation either.”

“They stop short of calling it spontaneous human combustion, I notice.”

“Well, we are talking about an official body here…”

“The one thing Mr Hoshi lacked.” She yanked out the memory stick and closed her hand around it. There was an audible pop and, when she opened her hand, there was nothing but ash.

“Do you know how much a stick that sophisticated cost?” Charles asked with a theatrical sigh.

“Less than I pay you in a week?”

“Sure,” he waved a hand, “but I grew up poor. It still means something to me, no matter how much caviar I stuff into my face.”

“Well then I apologise. And I apologise in advance for not explaining how I did it.”

Charles grinned and sat down on the nearest chair. He leant back and put his feet up on the table. “Just another of your mysteries, Kat. It’s what makes working for you so exciting.”

She perched on the edge of the table. “And here I thought it was the money again.”

“You have to enjoy what you do.”

“I quite agree. Now, we know we have nothing to fear when this report is made public tomorrow.”

“Exactly. And that’s a cause for celebration, don’t you think? Why did you send Jenny away before she brought us some bolly?”

“Because that would have been suspicious. And besides, any celebration is grossly premature at this stage. We still have a lot of work to do.”

“If I know you, Kat – and I flatter myself that I do – you’ll have prepared the next few steps of your plan in such intricate detail that the whole business will almost run itself.”

“That’s true. But I like to keep a close eye on things. You know that about me too. And I never take anything for granted. When this is done, when I am the majority controller of Hoshi-Wójcik, then we can celebrate.”

Charles clasped his hands in his lap. “Funny. I seem to remember you saying that last time you hatched some plot or other but, before I knew it, there was something else happening. Kat, with you, there’s always another scheme. Just why are you so interested in controlling the Hoshi-Wójcik corporation anyway? Since when have you been interested in bio-technology?”

“You’ll find out eventually, Charles,” she said, standing up, “but, if you’ll excuse me, I still have some things to take care of this evening.”

He glanced down at his watch. “It’s after nine pm…”

“Yes. That’s why I’m in such a hurry. That report goes public in less than twelve hours. Time is of the essence. Goodnight, Charles. Please help yourself to anything you want.”

“I always do,” he sighed, watching her stride out of the room.

For the employees of Hoshi-Wójcik, the next three months was a turbulent time. They could only watch as, with their share price plummeting due to market uncertainty following the mysterious death of the corporation’s visionary founder, their business was divided up amongst dozens of seemingly-unrelated buyers. Small corporations, charitable concerns, private individuals; they all came out of the woodwork to grab a piece of the crumbling Hoshi-Wójcik empire. It was strange, but not unusual. Only those who looked closely would have noticed how those same new shareholders were in turn bought out by other, larger companies and how, then, through mergers and more acquisitions, those shame shares were filtered off,  sold and resold, and almost all, invariably, wound up in the hands of Pyrotech Industries. Until, quietly, without any sort of announcement or fanfare, Hoshi-Wójcik found itself with a new CEO.

All of this passed by Professor Liu who, fully absorbed in her delicate work, barely even noticed the worried gossip of her colleagues about their futures and the future of their employers. She was at her bench late one night, running through a simulation on a tablet as a Petri dish of synthetic bio-matter multiplied silently and microscopically before her. Occasionally she glanced up at the cabinet in which it sat, bombarded with radiation, and then studied the data being fed into the tablet, displayed in real time on the screen. “Yes,” she whispered, “this is it…”

“Mǐn?””

She glanced up to see her colleague, Doctor Hobart, standing in the doorway. “Not now, James,” she said, “this is just where I want it.”

“Huh?” He walked up and peered into the cabinet. “You’ve managed to stimulate the mitosis?”

“Yes, and if these extrapolations are accurate, this saturation level should provide stable growth. The resistant chromosomes work!”

If they’re accurate…”

“It’s realtime data, James,” she insisted, shaking the tablet at him. “Do you know what this could mean?”

“Everything we’ve been working towards,” he said, “the first functioning synthetic organs. The beginning of a new era in medicine.”

“And, if these genetic modifications can be replicated in human cells…”

“One step at a time, Mǐn,” Hobart told her, “let’s grow ourselves this heart first, then we can try curing cancer.”

She nodded in agreement. “One step at a time. What did you want anyway?”

“Oh! I almost forgot. Somebody wants to see you?”

“Who?”

“I don’t know. The guy who came calling wouldn’t say.”

Professor Liu raised her eyebrows. “Guy? That sounds…suspicious…”

“Well, to be honest, he did look a little suspicious now that you mention it. He had a pass though. I got the feeling it was all pretty important.”

“Okay, well, show them in I guess.”

“No, they’ve asked you to go and see them.”

“What? Where?”

“Upstairs. Head office.”

Liu turned to him. “Head office? You mean Mr Hoshi’s office?”

“Yeah.”

“But…no one goes in there. I mean, no one uses it.”

“Evidently they do now. Whoever’s in there is expecting you right away.”

Liu waved at her experiment. “This is a crucial juncture! I can’t just leave it!”

“Mǐn…I don’t think this is the time to be getting too principled…” he motioned subtly with a movement of his head. There was a figure blocking the door, evidently the ‘guy’ of which he had spoken, and Liu was very aware of the way in which he filled the entire doorframe, of the inscrutability of his dark shades, of the obvious bulge of a weapon in his breast pocket.

“All right,” she said quietly, “I’ll go. Watch the data, James.”

“Will do. Be safe, Mǐn.”

She nodded slowly and let the towering bodyguard lead her to the lifts. They ascended in silence. Liu rarely paid much attention to the building that housed her lab, but she had never gone up in this lift before, and she found it hard not to look out through the tall window on one side. The shaft ran right up the side of Hoshi Tower, and she was treated to a spectacular view of Tokyo by night. It took only seconds before they were high above every other skyscraper in the immediate area, and still climbing. When they stopped, she stepped out into a huge glass atrium, offering a breathtaking panoramic view of the city. She looked up and saw, through a transparent ceiling, the luminous full moon. “I’ve never been up here,” she told the bodyguard, but he just held out a hand, directing her towards the large set of double doors opposite. She went right in, and found herself in a cavernous office with walls of plate glass and polished steel. The austere beauty of the room was only marred by the pile of cardboard boxes stacked up against one wall, overflowing with various items of Japanese-style decor.

Behind the desk at the end of the room sat a tall, slim Western woman with hair the colour of burnished copper. “Professor Liu?”

“Yes?”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“The pleasure is mine…Ms…?”

“Dame, actually. Dame Katherine Barrister-Harwich. I’m absolutely certain you won’t have heard of me.”

Liu shook her head. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be. Very few people have. As far as the world at large is concerned, I’m merely one of several directors of a large, faceless conglomerate, honoured by the British Crown for her philanthropic works.”

“I see.” Liu walked across the office and took a seat opposite Dame Katherine. “But in reality, you’re something altogether different?”

“In reality, I am one of the richest and most powerful people on the planet. You are familiar with Pyrotech Indistrues?”

“The energy giant? Yes. One of your generators powers this building.”

“It does indeed. In fact, there isn’t a city in the world that doesn’t have at least one major facility running on one of our patented pyrocell generators. Not an electric car on the road that doesn’t have a pyrocell battery under the bonnet. Not a power plant on the planet that, somewhere along the line, doesn’t use some innovation of ours to make its magic happen. We are the first, last, only word in clean energy. And we are much, much more influential than anyone actually realises.”

“I see.”

“And, as I imagine someone with a mind as adept as yours must have realised by now, I am also the individual who has purchased the controlling shares in the Hoshi-Wójcik corporation. In effect, I am the new CEO.”

“What does biomedical technology have to do with clean energy? Or did you just buy this company for profit?”

“Why don’t you tell me?”

Liu gave it a moment’s consideration. “If what you’ve told me is true – and I have no reason to doubt you – you would have to be a multi-billionaire. You couldn’t possibly need any more money. You also could probably have bought out this company at any time, if you’d chosen to, but you had some reason for doing it secretively. So, I’m left to conclude that you’ve taken over because you needed the most advanced biotech developers in the world at your beck and call and that, furthermore, you didn’t want anyone to know about it.”

Dame Katherine smiled and steepled her fingers before her. “I have been told, Professor Liu, that you are the best geneticist currently working in the field.”

“We don’t give out prizes, generally. But yes, that’s probably true.”

“And, with your brilliant mind, would you like to hazard a guess as to why I wanted to be able to command – have at my beck and call, as you say, with a grasp of idiomatic English that I find highly impressive, not intending to patronise you as I hope you understand – the services of the world’s best geneticist, along with her lab?”

“There could be any number of reasons. Perhaps you have an incurable disease?”

“I could simply have purchased your services.”

“True. I wouldn’t have even suggested it, but it was the only non-nefarious intention that came to mind, and I wanted to give you the benefit of the doubt.”

“Thank you. Why not suggest something more nefarious, Professor?”

“I wouldn’t want to insult you.”

“I assure you, I am quite impervious to offence.”

“Very well,” Liu said, “my work could have dangerous applications. This is why I work for a private corporation instead of offering my services to governments. We are working on fabricating functional organs for transplant, grown from cloned stem cells. It is not beyond possibility that, with further research, we might be able to create an artificial creature. Perhaps even an artificial human. We could also use our mastery of genetics to unleash any number of extremely dangerous pathogens. It would be a small matter to weaponise our research and maybe hold the world to ransom. We use nanotechnology in some of our techniques too. These microscopic robots could be adapted for theft or destruction. The nuclear accelerators in my lab are a source of enriched uranium. This material could be sold to rogue states, or used to construct atomic weaponry. And, finally, you could be intending to sabotage our work and indirectly harm humanity’s future. Our patents have cured hundreds of diseases and conditions. By halting their manufacture, you would effectively kill millions – perhaps billions.”

Dame Katherine reclined in her chair, apparently considering Liu’s words. “Interesting.”

“Thank you.”

“You’ve obviously thought about the dangers of your work a great deal.”

“I have spent a lifetime doing controversial work. I know all the arguments. I work extremely hard to be completely ethical with everything I do. I’m not interested in money, just saving lives.”

“Commendable. Nonetheless, I intend to make you a very wealthy woman indeed, Professor Liu.”

“For doing what, Dame Katherine?”

“A simple thing. A thing most women would take for granted. A thing that, for me, is more complicated than even you might believe.”

“And what is that?”

Dame Katherine leant forward. “I wish to conceive a child, Professor Liu. And it is precisely your unparalleled expertise in your field that will make this thing possible.”

A week later, Dame Katherine was sitting in Professor Liu’s office. In contrast to the stylish surroundings of the building’s upper floors, this room was cluttered with piles of books and folders, boxes containing notes and machine parts, and a number of personal effects – a flower pot decorated by her nephew, a photograph of her parents, a rather neglected bonsai tree on the desk, shoved to one side to make room for more files. “I’m sorry we weren’t able to meet again sooner,” Dame Katherine apologised, showing no obvious discomfort at the disarray surrounding her, “I could have saved you some time.”

“Oh?” Liu was decanting some coffee into a Styrofoam cup.

“Yes. I know you’ve been researching my medical records.”

“Oh…”

“I have full access to the Hoshi-Wójcik servers now. I know what all of its employees – my employees – are up to.”

“I didn’t mean to pry.”

“I’m glad that you did. I’m sure it only deepened your interest in my cryptic remarks.”

“It did,” Liu admitted, passing the cup to her guest and sitting down opposite her, “sorry, it’s only instant. Probably not what you’re used to.”

“This may surprise you, Professor, but few people motivated to become billionaires care about having the finest things. Our tastes are surprisingly simple.”

“Except when it comes to buying corporations…”

“Even the simplest peasant dreams of controlling his own destiny. Wealth merely alters the scale of that dream. Now, tell me what you found out.”

“You’ve never been tested for infertility. You’re childless, unmarried, but it appears to be by choice. You’re in perfect physical health, with the exception of slightly high blood pressure, which is understandable. You have no concerning family history, with the exception of a few female ancestors who died in childbirth. Again, not that unusual, although I did wonder if there might be a connection.”

“There is a connection.”

“Oh.” Liu was surprised. “Is that all this is? Fear?”

“Not exactly.”

“Of course, I didn’t dismiss the idea that you’d simply fabricated the records I accessed. They were suspiciously easy to obtain.”

“I intentionally made them so.”

“Which makes me even more suspicious. But then, why go to such effort? If you didn’t want me to know, you’d just have them be inaccessible. It wouldn’t have been at all surprising.”

“As I said,” Dame Katherine told Liu with a smile that, on any other woman, would have seemed mischievous, “I wished to encourage your scientific curiosity.”

“Well you did. So perhaps now you can tell me what all this is about.”

“Indeed.” She put down her coffee. “You’re a geneticist. I am a layman, at least in this field of scientific inquiry. Tell me about eye colour.”

“Eye colour? What about it?”

“It is genetically determined, yes?”

“Obviously. It’s one of the main factors used in any sort of generalised discussion about the subject of the human genome, along with hair colour. Well, at least in the West…”

Dame Katherine laughed shortly. “How many genes contribute to eye colour?”

“We don’t know exactly. At least sixteen, but two main ones.”

“You could therefore determine, with a certain amount of accuracy, the genome of someone of a certain eye colour? I mean, you could tell me what ‘eye colour genes’ I had, just by looking?”

“I’d know what combination of those sixteen you had, yes. It’s virtually the first page in the book on mapping the human genome.”

“Well then,” Dame Katherine said, “try.”

Liu frowned. “Okay…well…” she took a close look at the other woman. “Your eyes are green, the most unusual pigment in humans. They’re caused by a particular single-nucleotide polymorphism within the gene OCA2. There are a few possibilities, depending on your ethnic origin, but judging by your colouring and your accent, I’d say your background was Irish-Celtic. I don’t know the variant off by heart, but it’s a small matter to look it up.”

“Interesting. Do I really have an Irish accent? It’s remarkable that a non-native speaker would be able to pick that up, especially as my family haven’t lived in Ireland for over five generations.”

“No, your accent is English. But I judged Irish to be the most likely ethnic origin. I suppose it’s possible that your recent ancestors were Scandinavian or some other racial group with a propensity towards red hair, but given that human populations rarely moved around so extensively during the time your red-haired forefather must have lived, and I know that there was a great deal of migration from Ireland to Britain in the last few centuries, I made an educated guess. Evidently I was correct.”

“You were indeed,” Dame Katherine agreed, “although you may be mistaken about the genetic explanation of my eye-colour.”

“How so?”

“Observe.” She pulled one of her eyelids up and then carefully removed a contact lens. “See? Coloured lenses.”

“I don’t…”

“Now look.” She pointed at her eye. “What gene causes that, would you say?”

Liu stared at the Dame’s eye and could find no explanation for what she was seeing. A whirlwind of flame, spinning the depths of her pupil, a living inferno whose presence stained her otherwise colourless iris a furious shade of red. “I’ve never seen anything like that before…”

“No, you haven’t. And it is just the beginning. Do you know how Pyrotech’s batteries work?”

“Of course not – no one does. The technology is patented. I looked it up.”

“It has foxed all our rivals. Cracking them open reveals only inert components. We have told them they’re designed to cease functioning when the casing is penetrated. They are unsatisfied, but the fact remains that they work, despite not appearing to do anything at all.”

“What does this have to do with your genetics?”

“Everything, Professor Liu. What explanation besides my unique biological make up would you suggest for this?” She held out her palm and then, from nowhere, a dancing flame appeared above her hand. “Do you understand now?”

“No.” Liu shook her head in bafflement. “I don’t think I understand anything at all.”

There were a few late nights in her lab during the following weeks. Dame Katherine hadn’t sworn her to secrecy or anything, but Liu knew that anyone she told would think she was insane, and assumed that that was why her new employer had been so brazen about showing her what she’d shown her. She had told her more that evening – why things had to be done this way, for one. Her intuition about the deaths of her female ancestors in childbirth had been surprisingly accurate. The Dame’s own mother had succumbed to the same fate and it seemed as if all of the women in her family who had shared this bizarre gift – and its corresponding colouring – told the same story. Death of a fever soon after giving birth to one who carried whatever gene or combination of them that caused this seemingly impossible mutation was apparently one of the side effects. So, if Dame Katherine wanted to pass her abilities to a child, she would need a better solution. It made sense. Liu squinted at her tablet as the blood sample she had taken was analysed. She’d never seen anything like what she was currently looking at, and was so absorbed in her work, that she once again missed Hobart calling by. He crept right up behind her and peered over her shoulder. Too late she noticed him and turned the tablet over. “James!”

“What was that?”

“Nothing. It’s not important. Just a personal project.”

He was frowning at her. “Are you okay?”

“Just busy. Are you leaving?”

“I was about to, yes. I saw your light on though so I thought I’d check on you. I haven’t seen you at lunch in almost a week.”

“Like I said, I’m busy.”

“With this personal project?”

“That’s right.”

“It looked…unusual…”

She glanced down at the upturned tablet on the desk, wondering how much he’d seen. Would he jump to any conclusions? Even if he did, he wouldn’t know who it involved, or be able to interpret it to find out the truth. And another scientist turning his mind towards this problem could only help things along. “What do you make of this, James?” She turned the tablet over and passed it to him.

“I…hmm…” He furrowed his brow again, scrolled across the screen, then back, frowned some more. “Is this…real?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, is this actual DNA?”

“Just tell me what you make of it.”

“Okay, well, it’s human. Sort of.”

“Sort of?”

“It looks like a human genome, yes, but there are clusters I’ve never seen. Like, this thing here,” he angled the screen so she could see where he was pointing, “that’s not any kind of code I’ve seen before. Not in any animal or plant. Where did this come from?”

“It’s not important.”

“Is this some sort of experiment? Did you engineer it?”

“I…can’t say…”

“Did you discover it somewhere? Is this taken from someone?”

Liu sighed and took the tablet back from him. “I really can’t tell you.”

“Is it something to do with your mysterious meeting the other night?”

“Again…”

“Okay okay!” He held up his hands and gave her a disarming smile. “All you want is my professional opinion then?”

“As a fellow geneticist, yes.”

“All right. Well, it’s a unique strand of DNA that I’ve never seen before in twenty years of studying genetics. Even its structure is unlike anything I’ve encountered. If I had to guess, I’d say it didn’t come from any living organism on Earth – or, more likely, it was artificially created. The only reason I’m not freaking out about the whole thing is that I’m standing next to the only person in the world who would be capable of doing something like that.”

“You flatter me – this is beyond even what we can do, James.”

“Then a rival lab? That makes sense. The new owner got wind of a new development and asked you to look into it.”

Liu, seeing a way out, looked evasive. “I can’t confirm or deny that, James.”

“Right, right. Any idea what it does?”

“Not exactly.”

“Well it’s all looped up with OCA2 and a few others. It would be strongly hereditary. If it’s dangerous, it could infect an entire population, given enough time. Is it a kind of virus?”

“No,” she said, feeling on safer ground, “it arose naturally.”

“Wow. How?”

“No idea.”

“Does it have a name?”

“I…” she hesitated, “…I call it the Huō-Gene.”

“And that means…?”

“It’s not important.” She put the tablet down. “I’ve told you too much already, James. Please don’t let anyone know what I’m working on.”

“It’s okay, I won’t. But if you pull too many more late nights like this, you might want to think about outsourcing some of the grunt work. You know where I am, Mǐn.” He squeezed her shoulder as he left.

When the door closed, she rested her chin in her hands and willed the Huō-Gene to give up its secrets. She minimised the analysis of it and went back to the lab’s database again. She had done this search already, but she had to believe there was something in there. She widened it to include other ethnicities besides European ones, but still nothing came back. The database held thousands of samples, obtained from volunteers of every racial group, of every imaginable background. There were samples from individuals with rare genetic disorders, with unusual coloration or traits. Their work was the combination of decades of meticulous and highly quantified research into the human genome. If the Huō-Gene existed anywhere else on Earth, they should know about it. It must be rare, Liu told herself, which made sense since she’d never heard of anything like Dame Katherine’s abilities before. But there was nothing even remotely like it in the database, and it couldn’t have arisen fully-formed, at random, could it? It would be as absurd as the famous anti-evolution fallacy of the eyeball appearing fully-formed. ‘What use is half an eye?’, a facetious comment disproved by the existence of multiple examples in the fossil record of transitional forms that led up to the modern arrangement. But there seemed to be nothing to account for this gene. It was as if it had been placed in the genome by an outside intelligence. As if, as Hobart had suggested, it had been engineered. She needed more data, and only knew of one place to find it. Taking a deep breath and steeling herself, she opened up her tablet’s phone application and selected her newest contact. It rang only once before Dame Katherine’s refined voice came through the speaker. “Professor Liu, how may I help you?”

“Ah, sorry to disturb you…uh…madam…”

“You can call me Katherine, professor. And you aren’t disturbing me. I sleep very little.”

“Sorry, yes. Uh…are you alone, mada…Katherine?”

“I am.”

“There’s no chance anyone could…”

“Overhear this? Hack in? No. My security measures – both physical and electronic – are quite impregnable. You may speak freely.”

“Okay. Well, I’ve been analysing the sample you gave me.”

“Yes.”

“And, the problem is, I don’t really have enough data to work with.”

“Do you need more blood?”

“No, that wouldn’t help – I’ve isolated the gene. It’s where I thought it would be, but it’s…quite complex…”

“You’ve made fast progress. I would say I’m impressed, but given your reputation I expected nothing less. Nonetheless, you are to be commended.”

“I…thank you…”

“Have you given the gene a name, professor? I confess a certain vanity. Is it to be the Katherine-Gene or some such?”

“Well, no. I decided to call it the Huō-Gene…”

There was a chuckle from the other end of the line. “Very clever, and quite apt. You say you’ve successfully isolated it, but you still need more data, though?”

“Yes. You see, I only know of one example of this gene existing in nature. I’ve scanned our entire database and made requests from our associate labs for access to theirs – all under innocent pretexts, of course – but as far as I can see, only you have this unique trait.”

“That’s probably true, yes.”

“Do you know when this…ability…appeared in your family? Are you aware of any distant cousins who might share enough of your genetic code to carry some version of this too? Without knowing how it arose, how it mutates, I don’t know how to be certain of replicating it.”

There was silence from the other end, and Liu was about to say something again, when Dame Katherine spoke. “The records are sketchy, as you can imagine. Until just a few generations ago, my family were paupers, at least on the side which will interest you. I could make my great-grandfather’s research available to you – he was an early proponent of the emerging science of hereditary, and it was from his writings that I have pieced together the history of my lineage. What I can tell you is this; no one was aware of this trait before my great-great-great-grandmother, a runaway child from rural Ireland. If there were instances of it before her, they are not recorded.”

“I see,” Liu said, “and there are no other relatives to speak of?”

“None that can do what I do.”

“Do you have siblings?”

Another long pause, then finally, “I can make another sample available to you.”

“Where would…”

“There can be no questions. It will be brought to you via courier within the week.”

“Okay…I…yes, okay. That’s excellent. Thank you, madam.”

“Katherine. And thank you too for you hard work so far, Professor Liu. I know it’s very late in Tokyo. I am confident you will do fine work.”

“Thank you. Goodbye.”

“Goodnight, professor.”

Months passed, and Dame Katherine was pleased with the progress reported by Professor Liu. Slowly, her plan was beginning to reach fruition, and she began the other steps required, steps Liu didn’t need to know anything about at this stage. Gradually, using a global network accrued through a lifetime of corporate takeovers, both subtle and hostile, she drew together all her resources and started to turn her long dream into a reality. No one person knew enough to see what she was doing, or had the power to stop her. But she was aware of one small chink in her armour and so, equally subtly, she drew that meddlesome fly closer to the heart of her web.

On a rainy December day, back in London, she walked into the boardroom at the height of the Pyrotech building, seeing that same huge panorama, now looking out over a grey, murky skyline and, sitting nonchalantly at the conference table, the smirking form of Charles, her closest friend and ally. “Ah, Charles,” she smiled, “just in time.”

“Are we celebrating, Kat?”

“I hope so.” She leaned back out of the door. “Jennifer? Could you bring us some champagne?”

“Oh, yes, of course Dame Katherine,” Jenny started to activate the intercom.

“No, dear, there’s some Bollinger in the fridge down on tenth. Get it yourself if you’d be so good.”

“Yes, Dame Katherine. Two glasses?”

“Just one will be sufficient,” she said quietly. She closed the door behind her as the secretary scurried out and gave Charles a warm smile. “I thought you were in Atlanta, darling,” she said, “To what do I owe this surprise? Good news, I assume?”

He held out his hands. “Am I so transparent?”

“Not at all, I’m just very confident in your abilities. The deal was successful?”

“Meditech is ours.”

Wonderful,” she said, letting his choice of pronoun slide as she walked towards the end of the room, “Mann was agreeable to our terms?”

“Once I’d laid out the advantages of working with us, he couldn’t wait to sign on the dotted line.”

“Excellent.”

“Yes, agreeable indeed.” Charles pushed the chair out and stood up. He put his hands on his hips and gave her a look of affected consternation. “At first, Kat, I was a bit confused about why you wanted to acquire another biomedical titan like that.”

“You know how profitable these conglomerates are in this world of aging populations and dwindling food supplies. I believe the future of our species lies in the science of genetics.” That, certainly, was true.

“Profitable, yes,” Charles mused, “and, in fact, I’ve been looking back at our records, and it seems like we own almost the entire industry now…”

“An exaggeration.”

“Not really. Hoshi-Wójcik. Genworks, Barrow Industries, HealthCorp and now Meditech, plus various other smaller concerns all over the world. Is there a genetics lab on the planet that doesn’t march to your drum, Kat? And then I dug a little deeper, and I found you’d also been buying up various healthcare providers, particularly those with good reputations in fertility research. That piqued my curiosity.”

“Oh?”

“Yes indeed. It seems like, for the last couple of years, you’ve been almost totally obsessed with bringing together the world experts in genetic engineering, embryology, stem cell research and fertility. People who can grow an artificial organ on a Petri dish, people who can clone animals, people who can grow a rat foetus inside a hamster, that sort of thing. Real Frankensteins.”

“That’s putting it a bit crudely,” Dame Katherine said with a vague wave of her hand.

“Maybe so. Then I found some really strange records. Ones encrypted in your personal system.”

“And how would you be able to access that, Charles?” she asked with an artfully raised eyebrow.

“Oh, Kat. Poor, sweet Kat. You think you’re so clever. So in control. Don’t you realise that I’ve been watching you closely for over a decade now? I know all your secrets, and the least of those is how to get onto your home system. I know about every skeleton in this company’s closet. A few years back, I discovered the little thing about the R&D department.”

“Oh? Do enlighten me, Charles.”

He smirked again. “Billions siphoned off to fund the development of Pyrotech’s proprietary technology. Lavish facilities in secret locations. Payrolls full of chemists and physicists, working around the clock. Chemists and physicists that don’t exist. Facilities that were never built. Billions unaccounted for. No one knows how our batteries work, but each year we churn out new, better ones, all thanks to an incredible R&D department that doesn’t exist.”

Dame Katherine walked around the table, towards where Charles was standing. “You say you found out about that years ago though?”

“That’s right.”

“And yet you said nothing?”

“Why would I? The profits continued to roll in. I was content to reap the benefits of whatever shady practices went into making our products. But what I’ve uncovered now isn’t about profits is it, Kat? No, everything you’ve been doing for over a year has all been towards an aim that has nothing whatsoever to do with Pyrotech Industries.”

“Is that so?”

“Oh yes. How many donors did you sign up? Hundreds? Thousands?”

“You tell me, Charles, since you know so much.”

“No names, but all screened rigorously. The most intelligent, the best athletes, the ones with no history of any hereditary conditions. Ethnically diverse too, from every corner of the globe. Thousands of men, thousands of litres of genetic material. And for what? Why, impregnating the hundreds of surrogates, screened with the same rigour. Hundreds of women, signing ironclad waivers, each compensated with millions taken directly from the company coffers. You’ve inexplicably bent the resources of the largest multinational in the world towards what seems to be impregnating an army of women with the best sperm money can buy.”

She laughed. “That’s a rather outlandish claim, Charles.”

“But it did happen, didn’t it, Kat?” He wasn’t laughing. “And it’s happening as we speak, in labs and hospitals in a dozen nations. At first I thought you were up to something completely insane. I thought,” and now he did laugh, but shortly and without humour, “I thought you were getting into the cloning game. I thought you might be trying to make artificial humans. I imagined you were breeding an army, going into the military sector. Why sell weapons, when you can sell soldiers? But no, because there was no trace of anything related to that. You’d have bought uniforms, weapons, training facilities. You’d have hired the best drill sergeants, the best military strategists in the world. If you wanted an army, you’d have one. No, I thought of so many crazy scenarios – genetically engineered slaves, cloned organ donors, a vast computer system powered by human minds – but then I came to understand that it was something much, much simpler than that. I forget sometimes, Kat, despite the way you look that, at the end of the day, you’re a woman. You want what all women want.”

She kept her face open, innocent. “And what is that, Charles?”

“A baby, Kat. A little child to call your own. With your red hair and green eyes. A handsome heir, to rule Pyrotech when you’re long gone. So sweet. So human. I never thought I’d see the day when the ice queen’s heart melted. And it all makes perfect sense, because you’ve always done everything on a huge scale. It wasn’t enough to go skiing – you had to rent an entire mountain. Why build a pool, when you can just fence of a hundred square miles of tropical lagoon? Some people throw parties: you build your own club, for one night of drunken debauchery. I was there, Kat, and I’ve seen how much that cost! Most women who think they’re too posh to push would just find one fertility clinic, select one suitable sperm donor, pick one compatible surrogate, and hope that the thousand-to-one shot would pay off. But not you. You don’t play the odds: you make the odds. So many donors, so many surrogates, but no eggs, Kat. No eggs. Because it’s going to be yours, isn’t it? They’ll all be pregnant with your baby. And then what? You pick the one you like best? Or will they be engineered to be perfect, these Baby Kats? What if you have a hundred at the end of this? Will you people your own office with Kats and Kens? What’s the plan? Do I even want to know?”

Dame Katherine shook her head with a resigned smile. “Well, Charles, I have to hand it to you – you’ve finally got the jump on me. I thought I’d plugged every leak, but I never suspected that you, my closest confidant, would uncover it. I suppose I’m just too trusting…”

“Don’t feel bad, Kat. I had an informant in Hoshi-Wójcik who helped me put some of the pieces together.”

“Ah. Well. I suppose the only thing I want to know is, why now? Does using the company’s profits for my own ends offend you so much?”

“Not really. But, if I can be honest, Kat, since we have no secrets now, I’ve been waiting a long time for you to make a misstep. I have so much information about you, you see. So many secrets. But I never had a reason to exploit them. You were so cool, so masterful – how could I ever dare to blackmail you? But now, I know you’re human. You have needs. A woman’s needs.” He stepped up beside her. “You wanted a baby, but you couldn’t bear to get it in the usual way. I think that’s a shame, Kat.”

She turned her chin up towards him and met his eyes. “You do?”

“Yes. For all your wealth and power, I realise now that you were never truly happy. How could you be? Alone in your penthouses, pining for a child, and perhaps something more, though you won’t even admit that to yourself, I imagine. You’re human, and so am I. Tell me you never considered me? Even as one of the donors?”

“Well…”

“We’ve been friends for so long – close, but distant at the same time. See, before now, you never had anything I wanted. Not that I thought I’d get anyway. Poor, beautiful Kat. Trusting a man with all her secrets, never understanding what more I could do for you.” He placed a finger under her chin and moved his face towards hers, but just stopped short of kissing her. “And now…now I know everything, and can bring this company down on a whim…I can have whatever I want from you, can’t I? And you would be powerless to stop me.”

She quickened her breath. “Charles…”

“Yes, Kat?”

“Charles, there’s one secret you never knew…”

“Oh? And what would that be, my pretty one?”

“Let me show you.” She placed a hand against his chest and opened the door in her mind. He smiled. Then he frowned. And winced. And then, as he caught the scent of burning flesh, he looked down and recoiled in horror. He yanked himself away, clawing at his shirt where a black handprint had been left by her glowing-hot palm.

“Shit! What is this? Some new gadget! You bitch!”

“Charles,” she said chidingly, “you found out about R&D being nonexistent, but you never really thought about what that might mean?”

“Huh?”

“And you knew I was breeding a legion of offspring, but never thought about what about myself I might be trying to preserve for future generations.”

“I don’t…”

“How could you guess though? How could you know? You’re so small. You’ve always been small. You found out exactly what I wanted you to. You were kept close for a reason. I’m embarrassed for you, because I hoped this day might never come. I cringe when I think of how humiliated you are about to be.”

“Kat…” Charles pulled aside his shirt and looked down at his chest, where a red handprint, like a brand, was etched into his flesh.

“I could have killed you at any time. The day you first broke into my system, when I remotely watched you type in the password I fed you as a test, I could have destroyed you in the blink of an eye, even from a thousand miles away. But I wanted to see how far you would go. I wanted you close because, for all your stupidity, you have your uses. So I allowed you to live, to work for me and further my ends, but as you went further and further down the path to betraying me, I knew in my heart of hearts this was unavoidable. I thought of what I’d say, how much you’d know before the end. I’m sorry to say that, if I do have one human failing, it is sadism. I want to watch you squirm, Charles.”

“You can’t kill me,” Charles croaked, “I’m well known. I have friends, allies. You won’t be able to cover it up, not me.”

“You have no one. Everyone you have worked with belongs to me.”

“Someone will betray you…you have to hire an assassin…dispose of my body…”

“I require neither.”

“But…”

“SILENCE.” She threw out a hand and blew one of his legs off at the knee with a blast of white-hot fire. He dropped to the floor with a high-pitched scream. “Do you see now?” she asked him, “Do you understand the depth of your folly, Charles?”

“Jesus!” He stared down at his leg, at the blackened stump that remained. “Fuck! My leg!” A damp patch was spreading from the crotch of his expensive trousers.

Dame Katherine’s eyes glowed with fury. She had allowed her coloured contacts to burn away and now she used a column of hot air to lift herself off the ground so that she appeared to float in thin air. Charles goggled at her. “I don’t want a child, Charles,” she hissed, “not any child. My vision reaches so much further than that. You were right about that, at least. I do not consider my own fate, or even the fate of this company. My ambitions are as broad as the future of humanity itself. There is no R&D department because all of the batteries and generators Pyrotech Industries manufacture are powered by me, and the infinite energy I am somehow able to harness through nothing more than a quirk of genetics. But I am alone, and reproducing this ability is dangerous. So I seek to breed a new race; to give homo sapiens an evolutionary jumpstart and create a species of humans who can produce unlimited energy at no cost in resources. Do you dare to stand in the way of progress on that scale?”

“My god…”

“No, Charles: you may continue to call me Kat. Not that it matters anymore.” She held out her hands and silenced his final scream with a blaze of fury that vaporised him in less than a second.

She floated there for a moment, then closed the door in her mind and dropped gently back down to Earth. She dusted off her hands and made a satisfied noise. Just then, there was a knock at the door, and Jennifer popped her head around. “Dame Katherine? I have your champagne…”

“Lovely. Please leave it on the table, Jennifer.”

The girl walked in and looked around in confusion as she put the bottle down next to the single glass. “I thought Mr Holiday was here?”

“No, he had to leave suddenly.”

“Oh.”

“That will be all, thank you.”

“What? Oh, yes, madam.” Jennifer frowned again, then shook her head and left. With a smile, Dame Katherine poured herself a glass of Bollinger. The sun was just coming out over the city.

Professor Liu shook Dame Katherine’s hand as she welcomed her to her new laboratory. It was a formality, really – the Dame had paid for it, and knew the specifications inside out, but Liu still took absurd pride in the state of the art facilities. Now that this project for her employer was almost done, she would be able to use the incredible technology to pursue her real work. They were alone, and free to talk. “Everything proceeds according to plan,” Liu explained as they walked past a bank of incubation chambers, in which artificial cells that would create a generation of usable human organs multiplied happily. “Fifty seven of the surrogates are pregnant and we believe the majority of the embryos carry the Huō-Gene.”

“Excellent.”

“I did have a query, about your last request.”

“Oh? It shouldn’t be too difficult, should it?”

“Not at all, and in fact the thought had crossed my mind too.”

“Really?”

Liu wasn’t sure how much she should say. “In the initial tests, when we implanted the gene onto a male zygote, it led to some defects. There seems to be some mutation that interacts solely with the Y chromosome.”

“I suspected that.”

“Right. So, chemically altering the embryos to be female would probably be prudent, if we want to avoid…problems…”

Dame Katherine nodded. “‘I’m glad you agree.”

Liu stopped, and the other woman drew up beside her. Her face was as unreadable as ever; open, enquiring. “You said you suspected this might happen?”

“Yes.”

“Katherine, where did the other sample you sent me come from?”

“My brother,” she answered simply.

“You said there was no one with the same abilities as you though.”

“And indeed there is not. My brother does not share my talent.”

“Just the Huō-Gene?”

“Yes.”

“And is he…?”

“He is developmentally disabled, Professor Liu. He has the mind of a child and is housed in an institution.”

“And is there history in your family of that same condition?”

“Yes. For every girl born like me, there were one or more boys born like him.”

“Then, the Huō-Gene only works on women.”

“Correct.”

Liu nodded. “Katherine. As a result of this experiment, you may have as many as fifty daughters. And, judging by your great-grandfather’s writings, they will all look very much like you. Tall, pale, red-haired, red-eyed…beautiful. The daughter he had, your grandmother, had no shortage of suitors.”

“That seems likely.”

“Each daughter will kill their mother when they’re born and, while I’m sure you will try to control them, the bottom line is that fifty beautiful, powerful woman will be set loose in the world. They will have children of their own, and the Huō-Gene will propagate through humanity. Before this project, you were the only stable carrier. Now…”

“Now, sexual selection will create a new form of humanity.”

“Yes. Women who can conjure fire from air. And men with the minds of children.”

“You disapprove?”

“I am in no position to judge someone with such terrifying vision,” Liu admitted, “your scheme will alter the destiny of our very species. You are the mother of homo sapiens ignis After this, nothing will ever be the same.”

Dame Katherine smiled. “You’re quite right. I’m glad you like your lab, Professor Liu. The facilities are most impressive and you have my assurance that you will receive all the funding you need to remain on the bleeding edge of your science in perpetuity. You shall never want for anything again, professionally or personally.”

“Thank you.”

“No, thank you.” She turned smartly to leave, but Liu stopped her with a small cough. “Yes?”

“There was one thing…”

“Yes?”

“My colleague…Doctor Hobart? James Hobart?”

Dame Katherine frowned. “I can’t say that I know that name.”

“He worked for me back in my old lab. An American man.”

“What about him?”

“He’s missing. No one knows where he’s gone.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Could you look into it? There may be something you could do with all your…resources…”

Dame Katherine smiled. “Of course, professor. I’ll put my best people on it.”

“Thank you.”

“Good day to you, professor.”

“Yes, good day.” The most powerful woman in the world left, and Liu leant back on the bench behind her, wondering what the future would hold for her, and for the rest of humanity.

*

A gentle chime woke Iya from her fitful sleep. She cracked one eye open and stared hatefully at the display showing the time, hovering in the air beside her bed. Her instinct was to lash out, but she calmed herself with a quick breathing exercise. Hatred led to anger led to opening the door; that was what she had been taught all her life, and it wouldn’t do to forget those lessons, least of all today. Keeping herself calm despite the tension that knotted her stomach, Iya got up and quickly dressed herself in the shapeless white robes that, tomorrow, she would put aside forever. She was now on the cusp of adulthood, and of making the decision that would alter the course of the rest of her life. Tucking her coppery hair under her hood, she stepped out of her austere room into the gently curving white corridor. No one else was up yet – they were probably all rising groggily as usual, having slept soundly. They didn’t have any reason to be nervous like her. She put on her white slippers and shuffled down the corridor towards the dining room, maintaining a stately pace. Everything was quiet as always. Her whole life had been spent controlling her emotions, keeping calm at all times, striving towards the equilibrium required of a Daughter of Fire. It hadn’t been easy the past few years – adolescence was a challenging time, as everyone kept telling her, and they had more to deal with than any ordinary human woman. They had heard tales of the Progenitors all their lives, of how their Gift had caused problems for their communities, of how they had killed those who tried to oppress them. The voice of Sister Sara came back to her from down the years, giving her her first lessons, telling all of them that to be a Daughter of Fire was to bear responsibility for the world’s most powerful weapon. A weapon that must never be used for destruction, save at the utmost need. Calmness was all. Control the Fire. Do not let the Fire control you.

The dining room was a huge, round room full of long tables. There were no corners in the Home; every room was rounded, like the interior of an egg, and porcelain white. It was hard to tell how large any of the spaces were. It was designed to be calming, to remove any distractions, to draw the eye away from the boundaries that were necessary for them to survive in a world full of people whose lives they could end in an instant. Iya took a bowl from the pile and moved to the hatch, where one of the Brothers served her some thick porridge. She smiled and thanked him, and he returned her smile vacantly, bobbing his head rhythmically, continuing the motion a little while after she’d left. She sat alone in the big hall, eating her breakfast thoughtfully, until some of the other girls came in. They were dressed like her, in stark white robes, with their hair hidden by the same white hoods. Most had the same pale complexion as her, but a few were quite different, and some didn’t even have red hair. They were all the same as her though – Daughters. One day, she would call them Sisters, which is what they really were. She had struggled with the hierarchy when she was little. They were all Daughters, but only women who had chosen their path were Sisters. But they were still Daughters of Fire too? Where was the mother? She had read about human families in her school books, and it seemed so strange. Who was her mother? Sister Sara had smiled and explained that Daughters of Fire didn’t have mothers, really, but that she should look to the Matriarch of the Home for everything a human mother should be. Sisters could chose to give birth if they wished, later on, but there was a price. Sister Sara would explain no more, not then. Iya understood now, of course, understood why none of them had real mothers in the human sense, or fathers for that matter. The idea of a father scared Iya – she had never known any men besides the Brothers, the slow-moving, simple-minded servants who kept the Home running smoothly, under the kind direction of Sister Frances.

“You look deep in thought,” Lesa said as she sat down opposite her, cradling her own bowl of porridge.

“And good morning to you too.” Lesa was her best friend, but a little younger than her, and quite mischievous.

“Thinking about tomorrow?”

“I suppose.”

“Are you nervous?”

Iya cringed. “I feel like I haven’t slept all week,” she admitted.

“Wow. Have you tried the exercises?”

“Of course I have. None of them work though.” She touched her stomach. “I feel all…fluttery…”

“It’s called butterflies. Outside, anyway.”

“What’s a butterfly?”

“A kind of insect, with colourful wings. Don’t you pay attention in biology?”

Iya shook her head. “I can’t remember anything except the horrible birthing lessons…”

“Oh, don’t worry about that stuff, Iya!”

“Why not? I have to choose one way or the other tomorrow…”

Lesa’s eyes went wide. “Are you thinking about doing…that?”

“I don’t know!” Her slightly raised voice drew stares from the other girls who were filtering into the dining room, and she leaned closer and hissed, “I don’t know,” again.

“But…you know what happens if you do that…”

“Of course I do. But I don’t like the idea of some poor human woman doing it for me.”

“Oh,” Lesa waved a hand dismissively, “you know that’s fine. They volunteer.”

“Still…I don’t like it…”

“So you’d rather d…”

“Don’t say it!” More stares. “Don’t say it,” she whispered insistently, “I don’t want to think about it. I want to concentrate on the advantages of each option.”

“But that’s silly. Who would want to…you know…when they don’t have to?”

“We’re supposed to protect the humans, not make them…do that…for us. It seems no better than,” she mimed zapping Lesa with a finger, “doing the other thing to them. They’re like children. We have to look after them.”

“But if we all decided to be Birth-Mothers, we’d be no better off than the Progenitors. After a few centuries, there’d be no Daughters of Fire, just one poor little redhead trying to understand her place in the world. We need the Surrogates. And they do get some of the benefits of Sisterhood. They want for nothing.”

“I suppose,” Iya sighed. “It’s a lot to think about. You’ll be the same in a few months.”

“I know what I’m going to be.”

“Oh do you now?”

“Yes. I want to help guide Brothers.”

Iya rolled her eyes. “You just like Simon.”

Lesa blushed. “Simon’s…special…”

“He’s a Brother! You know it doesn’t…work like that. Brothers can’t…do that.”

“They can do other things,” she said, looking away.

“Lesa!” Iya was genuinely scandalised. “If Sister Frances found out you persuaded Simon to do something…unnatural…she’d go straight to the Matriarch! You could be excommunicated!”

“It was just a kiss! Kisses are fine!”

Sisterly kisses are fine, Lesa. That’s why they call them Brothers. They’re like our siblings. Simon could actually be your real, biological brother for all you know!”

“Well, what if he is? It doesn’t matter, does it? Like you said, they can’t do that stuff. They don’t have the…equipment.”

It was Iya’s turn to blush now. “Lesa, stop talking about that kind of thing.”

“Sorry. We were talking about you. Hey, don’t you want your porridge?”

Iya looked down and realised she’d barely touched her breakfast. “No, I don’t think I could keep it down.”

“Well, give it here then.”

Iya pushed it towards her. “I wish I was as decisive as you, Lesa. I wish I wasn’t nervous about anything.”

“I get nervous.”

“You do?”

“Yeah, but only about exams and things.”

“Oh.”

“See,” she said, gesturing with her porridge-laden spoon, “you don’t get nervous about that, do you?”

“No,” Iya admitted. She was one of the most academically gifted girls in her age group.

“Exactly. At least you’ll be able to choose any path you like. I’m going to have to work and work to do what I want. You think I’m not nervous about that? I wish I could be in your position.”

Iya squeezed her hand. “It’ll be all right. I’ll help you.”

Lesa smiled but shook her head. “No, Iya, after tomorrow you’ll be a Sister. We might not be able to be friends any more if I end up going someplace else.”

Iya hadn’t considered that, and her nervousness was suddenly overwhelmed with sadness. “Oh, Lesa…I hadn’t even…”

Her friend laughed. “Don’t worry about it. It might not even happen. Chances are, you’ll go off and be a diplomat or a warrior or something, and I’ll be in charge of the Brothers and send them off with you, and we’ll be great friends for the rest of our lives.”

“I hope so.” She squeezed Lesa’s hand again.

“Iya?” The girls looked up to see Sister Hala standing over them with a stern look on her wrinkled face. They both stood up, but the Sister gestured for Lesa to sit back down. “Daughter Iya, the Matriarch has asked to see you.”

She thought her eyes were going to fall out of her head. “The Matriarch? Sister, why would she…”

“The Matriarch didn’t see fit to furnish me with that information, and if she had, I wouldn’t inform you, Daughter. You’re to come with me. Immediately.”

“Yes, Sister.” She exchanged one last terrified look with Lesa, and then allowed herself to be led away by Sister Hala. They left the dining room and climbed up the gentle ramps that led them up the inner core of the Home to the Matriarch’s office. Iya had only been in this part of the Home once before when she, along with the rest of the Daughters in her group, had been given an audience with the Matriarch. It was an important ritual, but Iya had been quite small and had only vague memories of the elderly woman who was the mistress of the Home. Sister Hala knocked smartly on the oval door at the top of the ramp when they arrived and then gestured for Iya to take a seat on the rounded chair in the antechamber before leaving. There was a narrow window that let in pale light from the outside world. Iya had only seen real daylight a handful of times in her life, and her eyes were inexorably drawn to the fogged oval, wondering what lay beyond it, but before she could give it any more thought, the door opened with a slight creek, and a voice from inside told her to enter. Nervously, she padded in, bowing her head low.

“Welcome, Daughter,” someone said from the end of the room, then, “look at me, please.”

She glanced up and saw, sitting at a rounded desk, a plump old woman with silvery hair still streaked with red. Her eyes glowed warmly. “M…Mother…” she stammered.

“Please, Iya, sit.” She gestured with her pen towards the seat opposite her. Iya did as she was told, taking a few seconds to look around the office. In contrast to her own quarters, these were quite richly decorated, with many shifting, abstract displays on the walls. They were mostly white and grey, but there was the odd flash of pale colour ghosting across their reflective surfaces. There was a large bookcase too, of human design, with sharp angles that made her eyes feel funny, filled with dusty-looking books. She thought she spied an antique copy of Rupert’s Book nestled on the top shelf, but she found herself immediately distracted by the big window behind the Matriarch. It was round, and fogged like all the others in the Home, but it was so large that she could make out tantalising shapes just beyond it. She immediately wanted to ask the Matriarch about it, but knew she shouldn’t. “Iya?”

“Sorry, Mother.” She looked at the Matriarch, trying to keep her breathing and gaze equally steady.

“Tomorrow is your sixteenth birthday, is that right, Iya?”

“Yes, Mother.”

“And you must decide what path you will take.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“Are you nervous?”

“No, Mother,” she answered automatically.

The Matriarch smiled chidingly. “When I was your age, Iya,” she said, putting her pen to one side and pushing the notes she was working on slightly away from her, “I remember I could barely eat or sleep because of the somersaults my stomach was turning.”

Iya smiled. “Actually then, Mother, I suppose I am nervous.”

“Of course you are, Daughter. It’s quite normal to feel that way. Everyone tells you to be brave, but it’s the biggest decision you will ever make. Indeed, up until now, it’s really the only decision of consequence that you will have made.”

Distilling her life down to those terms made Iya feel a little strange. She thought of all the things she’d done so far and, when she reflected on it, the Matriarch was absolutely right – she hadn’t ever had to decide anything important. It had all been laid out for her. “I suppose so,” she said, then adding a belated, “Mother.”

“You’re probably wondering why I asked you to see me.”

“Yes, Mother.”

“It’s not usual. There are over five-hundred Daughters being tutored in this Home, and I cannot possibly speak to every one of them the day before they come of age. Why, there are four of you who will undertake the Ritual tomorrow altogether. No, I have called you here for a very special reason.”

Iya shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “Mother?”

“Iya,” the Matriarch said in a very careful tone of voice, “we have watched you from an early age.”

“You have?”

“Yes. We watch all our Daughters, of course, but you especially have required careful treatment. You see, Iya, you may well be aware of how promising a student you have been. Your test scores are far above those of the other Daughters, in every subject.” Iya swallowed. She did know that, but knew it wasn’t seemly to talk about it. “And that includes the use of the Gift.”

Now her mouth went quite dry. The Gift was what made them Daughters of Fire, but she had spent her whole life being told how dangerous it was, how it should never be used, how it was something to be kept hidden and private until full Sisterhood was achieved. The Gift was controlled with discipline, with calmness. Talking of it openly was informally taboo. “I…was aware of that, Mother,” she said.

“There is a reason for your strength, Iya,” the Matriarch told her, “and for your intellectual prowess. Generations ago, the last Progenitors took steps to preserve the potency of the Gift by undertaking a grand experiment in selective breeding and genetic engineering. The outcomes of this global project were the first Daughters of Fire. Fifty two were born to the first Surrogates, and they were raised in the first Home, by the first Matriarch. It was quite different then, of course. It would take another two generations for the way of life we have now to be codified. But, in essence, that was the beginning of our order. Those fifty two Daughters varied greatly in strength. All carried the Gift to some degree, but some were less potent than others because of the genes of their Fathers.” Iya flinched at the mention of the unfamiliar word, but the Matriarch continued. “A wide selection of men were chosen, but some were simply more compatible than others, probably because they were – by sheer chance – distantly related to one of the Progenitors. One of the first Daughters was very strong indeed, and the first Matriarch treated her as a true daughter, in the human sense. All of these girls, you must understand, were literally her daughters, and that relationship was the foundation of our way of life. Nonetheless, this girl was treated preferentially, and became the second Matriarch. In turn, Surrogates bore her literal daughters, and we found that her line was especially strong, as long as the Fathers were carefully chosen. Since those early days, the Daughters of Fire have kept a close eye on the lineage of the second Matriarch, noting how these Daughters were more powerful, with the same fierce intellect as the Progenitors.” Iya tried to will herself to say something, but she couldn’t. She had a horrible feeling she knew what she was about to be told, but instead the Matriarch stood up and crossed to the weirdly angular bookshelf. She took out a dusty old tome. “I saw that you noticed this when you came in, Iya. Do you know what it is?”

“It’s…is it Rupert’s Book, Mother?”

“Yes indeed. An original copy. It’s not really called that, of course, that’s just the name we use for it in classes. What will interest you though is this.” She opened the book somewhere in the middle and held it out to her. On the page was a picture of a beautiful woman. There was no colour, but something about the way her eyes had been rendered told her they glowed a fiery red. Underneath the portrait was the name ‘Lady Isabelle’ in flowing script. “Does she look familiar?”

“Not really…” Iya said.

“Oh, of course, you wouldn’t have seen.” The Matriarch opened a drawer in her desk and pulled out a small mirror. “It’s so long since I was your age, I’d forgotten there are no mirrors down there. All to prevent vanity, you understand. It wouldn’t do for young girls to know how beautiful they are. Look.”

Gingerly, Iya took the mirror and looked into it. She had seen her reflection before, of course, in water and so forth, but never clearly. She gasped when she saw her face, not because it looked different from how she had expected it to, but because it was almost identical to the picture of Lady Isabelle in the book she was holding. Shaking, she glanced back and forth between her reflection and the centuries-old image. “I don’t…how…”

“The first Matriarch was a direct descendant of Lady Isabelle, who is the first definitively recorded example of a woman with the Gift. Her husband, Lord Rupert, documented her and her life quite thoroughly, in that book.”

“Hus…band…?”

“Don’t worry,” the Matriarch said dismissively, “a human term for something that does not concern us. Anyway, Lady Isabelle is the ultimate ancestor of us all, as is the first Matriarch, but not everyone can claim descent from the second Matriarch, the most powerful of the first Daughters of Fire, and the one who, we know, resembled the ancient lineage of the Progenitors most closely. We have watched that lineage, guided it, and noted how the blood is strong. Those Daughters are a special resource, even amongst we who are special simply by virtue of our birth. They are the leaders of our order, Matriarchs in the making. And not a provincial Matriarch like me, Iya – the true leaders, sitting on the Council of the Flame Eternal and making the decisions that determine the future of our race. That is the destiny of those women. And that, as I’m sure you have come to realise, is your destiny, Iya. You are a direct descendant of the second Matriarch and, through her, the Gift has flown from the first Matriarch, from Lady Isabelle, and back from the Progenitors before her who are but a dim legend. And that is why, tomorrow, you must be prepared to make a decision that will determine not just your fate, but perhaps the fate of all the Daughters of Fire across the world. I cannot tell you which path to chose – that is a choice only you can make, and it is a sacred one – but I can tell you that you have a rare talent in all aspects of our work. You have the potential to one day be a great leader, and so you must choose wisely, bearing such matters of grave important in mind.”

“Yes, Mother,” Iya said, her mouth moving independently of her mind. She felt as if her whole world had been turned inside out.

“You may go, Daughter. Be fortunate tomorrow.”

“Yes, Mother. Thank you.” She stood up robotically and left the room. She had no memory of returning to her own quarters, but when she blinked and came out of her daze, she found herself sitting on her bed, still clutching the copy of Rupert’s Book, open at the page which showed her own face, looking back at her down the ages. That morning, she had been just one Daughter of many, content to follow the path set out for her by the reassuring lessons of the Sisters. The Home was all she knew, and being part of its world was all she had ever known how to want. And now she was not one of many, but singular and unique. A direct descendent of the divinely touched Progenitors. Oh, she had always known she was descended from them, but to be able to trace the exact line back through generations of Daughters of Fire like that was completely different, and anathema to the way she thought about the world. There were no real mothers, no lineages; they were just all Sisters, together. The thought of being something else terrified her, and the thought of being elevated above the rest of her people, of deciding what might happen to them, of making world-changing decisions…well, that did more than put – what was it Lesa had said? – butterflies in her stomach. It put great honking geese in there! And now, on top of having to decide what she would be when she was raised to full Sisterhood, she now knew it mattered so much more than that! It could affect everyone! How could one conversation suddenly make life so complicated?

If Iya slept, she didn’t remember it. When the masked Sisters came for her the next morning, she moved as if she was still in a dream. Everything seemed murky and muffled and then she stood, alone, in the darkened, circular chamber in which the Ritual would take place. It was a simple thing, she knew, an act of pure autonomy, which would define her forevermore. Yesterday morning, she had been merely nervous, but now she was paralysed with fear and, a treacherous part of her mind whispered, maybe that was all part of it. Maybe the Matriarch said the same thing to every would-be Sister, testing their resolve. Oddly, that thought was no comfort – she realised, standing there in the darkness, that she wished to rise to the challenge her ancestry set for her. She always tried to be modest, but the truth was that she knew how capable she was; how brilliant. If hers was to be a great destiny, then she owed it to herself to be prepared for that. Even if it was all just a test, she would transform it into a reality.

A light appeared, high in the chamber wall ahead of her, illuminating from below the hooded face of a Sister. Another appeared to her right, then the left, and then behind her as she turned, and more in between, until she was surrounded on all sides by grim, pale faces, all scrutinising her. They spoke together: not in unison, but in harmony, each intoning the words with different timbre and rhythm. At first it was disorientating, but then Iya grew used to the strange cadence of the multiple voices and heard the subtle order in the way each spoke over the other. “Today is the day of choosing,” the Sisters said, both together and apart, “today is the day this Daughter becomes our Sister, today is the day the child becomes a woman. Is she prepared?”

Iya lifted her chin defiantly. “I require no preparation. This is mine by right.”

“That is so,” the chorus said approvingly, “but she must still choose.”

“I am ready.”

Beneath each of the faces, a brightly lit doorway appeared. Above each was an ancient symbol, signifying one of the possible paths. To her right, the crossed swords of the warrior. Clockwise from that, the cogwheel of the engineer. Directly behind her, the helix of the scientist. Next, the guiding hand of the keeper and, to her left, directly opposite the door for warriors, the flower that symbolised motherhood. The next door was the quill of the teacher, but none of them held any interest for her. Her eyes had alighted immediately on the door straight ahead, above which was a simple device: an open hand. Without hesitation, she walked straight towards it. “Welcome,” the woman above that door said, alone, “we are honoured to accept your choice, Sister-Diplomat.”

Life changed quickly for Iya – Sister Iya, now – and although no one said anything more about the things the Matriarch had told her, she sensed she was being prepared for something more than the other novice diplomats. She was moved out of the Daughters’ quarters, given spacious chambers of her own with a small but well-furnished adjoining office. Her new freedom went to her head for the first few weeks, and she ate foolish things and spent whole days lounging around, doing nothing productive. That all changed with the arrival of Sister Janta, who had come from another Home. She was a stern, resolute woman, and it was clear she was here with a specific mission, and that it involved Iya in some way. Almost immediately upon her arrival, she began giving Iya personal tuition. Iya had naively assumed that, now she was a Sister, her lessons had ended, but that proved to be a gross misconception. As Janta pointed out, “Sisterhood is only the beginning of your education. Your time as a Daughter was all bent towards helping you make the correct choice during the Ritual; now that it is made, you must really begin to learn the full implications of your decision.”

In those first months of Sisterhood, Iya began to learn about the world outside the Home – not the world of history, of which she had been taught a great deal, but the world as it was today, and of the place in it that the Daughters of Fire had. She realised how vital the role of the diplomats would be, for despite the miraculous advances of the last two centuries, “All made possible by our race,” Janta explained, there were still problems. For the first time in a hundred and fifty years, the threat of war had reared its ugly head. “War has become a dimly understood concept for the humans,” Janta told her as she manipulated a holographic display that demonstrated the disposition of one of the quarrelsome nation states they were discussing, “they have forgotten its horrors. To them, it is a thing of glorious legends. For two hundred years, Sisters have fought battles and suppressed violence when it arose. It is a duty we have performed reluctantly, but our abilities – honed to precision by the warriors – have made us uniquely capable of calling to a halt any uprising against the long peace we have established. Now, ordinary humans talk of open rebellion. Anti-Daughter sentiment is rife in the cities of this place, and though their leaders openly condemn the terrorist actions of the rebel groups, the ruling party is known to be sympathetic.”

“Terrorist actions?” Iya asked, wide eyed.

“Yes. Destruction of facilities belonging to us, slaughter of our supporters and, yes, even the deaths of Sisters in some cases.”

“But how can a human kill a Daughter of Fire? With the Gift…”

“The Gift does not make us immortal, Iya. We can be slain by an ordinary weapon, if wielded in secrecy, by subtle agency. Assassination is the word once used for it. In open battle, no human force can defeat even one Sister, but an explosive hidden in a wall, or the engine of a vehicle? It sounds bizarre, and frightening, but it is a bizarre and frightening world that we live in, Iya.”

She didn’t truly understand how accurate those words were until, scant weeks later, she left the Home for the first time, as part of the diplomatic mission to the unruly nation with Sister Janta. She was the only other Sister, and the rest of the party consisted only of two Brothers to attend to them. Before she left the Home, Janta handed her the white hood and told her to keep it on at all times outside. “Why?” she asked. She knew about the hoods – had seen recordings of Sisters wearing them, the design different depending on their chosen path – but had not before been informed of the necessity of wearing them constantly.

“We keep our faces hidden from ordinary humans. If they saw us as we truly are, they would be consumed with envy. The males…find it hard to resist us. For decades after we established ourselves, there were men who tried to control us. Not just to gain access to our Gift, but also out of carnal lust, because they knew no better. They were taught harsh lessons, and the ancestral memory of that chastisement is still strong. We are resented. Hated. Feared.”

“Oh. I see.”

“You have been sheltered, Sister, intentionally so. We keep our Daughters from the world, close to us, in order to shield them from the horrors that exist without. Were you allowed to live amongst humans, before you understood your Gift, it is almost certain our people would be even more despised than we already are. How many young men – foolish boys, slaves to the chemical processes of their bodies – would be incinerated by a Daughter merely defending herself? How many jealous girls – not as beautiful as us – would turn to spite and rage and perhaps court the same fate? We know these things have happened in the past, and we have taken steps to prevent them occurring again in modern times. So, keep yourself hidden. Think of the hood as an extension of the Home. You are safe within its confines.”

They travelled in a hypersonic shuttle that skimmed the troposphere, and Janta told her more about the world that she saw move past far below them through one of the windows. She had learned, in a rush, that the Home was in a remote part of the world, high in a mountain range, and that they would travel over a thousand miles to reach their destination. “Everything that you know, everything that you understand,” Janta explained, “was made possible by our Gift. Before we arose by the actions of the first Matriarch, humans had spent over a century poisoning the planet, filling the atmosphere with toxic chemicals that damaged the delicate equilibrium of Earth’s climate, and led to the extinction of thousands upon thousands of species and the destruction of uncounted ecosystems. All irreplaceable. There was untold destruction: plague and starvation on a massive scale, wars over resources, environmental catastrophe. The Daughters of Fire changed that forever. One Sister, working for less than an hour, could create more energy than one of the fuel-burning power stations of the previous century could in a year, with no pollutants of any kind. Overnight, our presence transformed the world. In a generation, the air was clean and the seas were teeming with life again. Our engineers still travel the world, supervising projects, using the Gift to do the work of a hundred machines. A trained Sister can lift hundred-tonne girders a mile into the air on columns of superheated air and build a monorail in a day. Using an interface, she can imbue it with the energy to run smoothly for months until another engineer can be dispatched to refuel it. We have enriched the lives of ordinary humans in a million small ways. And yet…”

“They still hate us,” Iya said.

“Yes. We could wipe them out in an instant, if we so chose, but we do not. And for that mercy, they despise us.”

The human city was a completely unfamiliar environment for Iya. Its strange, towering buildings, so straight and angular, made her head spin. And the thunderous noise of over a million people all crowded into one tiny space assaulted her the instant she stepped from the shuttle, following demurely behind Janta. There were people everywhere – women and men as well – and they were all talking. A dozen different conversations, across and around the landing pad: security guards, officials, workers, all chattering in bewildering accents, and shouting and calling and laughing and… Iya nearly staggered at the shock of it, and was grateful for one of the Brothers to support her. Their two companions seemed unaffected by being in a strange place. Brothers were known to be gregarious and, ironically, tended to get on well with normal humans. Their kind were not unknown in human populations, she had been told, although the Brothers, like the Daughters of Fire themselves, were in a way a breed apart. A delegation from their hosts escorted them to their quarters; lavishly appointed rooms in a high tower near the centre of the city. There was a platform suspended outside one door, what Janta called a balcony, and Iya went out there when they first arrived, not fully understanding what it was, and Janta found her ten minutes later, pressed up against the wall in stark terror, her eyes squeezed shut. She had never been so high before! The shuttle was one thing, with the planet below no more real than a holo-recording, but beyond the glass barrier around the balcony was nothing but thin air and a drop of more than twenty floors! Why humans would build such sadistic things, she had no idea.

She had managed to restore her equilibrium by the time the negotiations began. Her role, Janta said, was merely to observe and to learn. Although delicacy was required, these were just preliminary meetings with a government that was not overtly hostile. There was no danger. Representing their hosts was the First Minister, a middle-aged woman named Alma Petris, and two of her chief advisors, an adversarial man called Ty Morentz and a young woman with a shrewd look called Gia Jasper. They all met in a large room in the main government building in the city, around a wide table. Petris was welcoming, the others less so, and Janta was gracious and aloof, as befitting for a Daughter of Fire, introducing both Iya and the Brothers – Iya noted how Morentz looked uncomfortable whenever his gaze rested on either of them.

“Let us begin this conversation openly and without deception,” Janta said as they all took their seats, “and establish our aims.”

“You say ‘without deception’,” Jasper said, “but you and your colleague both cover your faces…”

Janta nodded her head in acknowledgment. “Our lives are governed by ritual, minister, for reasons I’m sure you understand. Rigour is essential, because of the power that we wield. These coverings are part of our ritual, in order to maintain a proper distance from our surroundings. They are a necessary evil.”

“But we don’t even know what you look like,” Jasper pointed out.

“Be assured that I share the characteristic phenotype of my people, as does my Sister. There is no mystery about us.” That seemed to placate Jasper, and Janta continued. “The reason I am here is to address the continued acts of terrorism taking place within your borders. When your nation was established seventy-three years ago, you asked that the Daughters of Fire not interfere in your business and, in line with your wishes, we do not maintain any permanent presence within your borders. However, an occasional delegation is required in order to allow you to comply with certain global regulations regarding pollutants and so forth. The facts are simple: you cannot maintain a modern infrastructure without the aid of our order. To attempt to do so would invite barbarism, a truth even the most hard-line of your citizens would agree with.”

“Sister Janta,” Petris said, “we do not reject the Daughters of Fire. You are welcome in our land. But understand that our nation was founded upon the belief of an independent humanity. A humanity free from the guiding hand of your people.”

“We understand and respect this, First Minister,” Janta said, with another slight tilt of her head, as if subtly conceding a point, “and we would not presume to interfere in your policies and the governance of your people. But all nations have agreed to abide by certain standards; standard which are only possible with the application of our Gift. Would you burn fossil fuels to maintain your independence? Would you cut down forests and poison lakes? Would you enslave the poorest of your citizens, forcing them to labour for the rich and powerful while, across the border, all can live in comfort thanks to aid from the Daughters? I think you would have rebellion on your hands, ministers.”

Iya had been watching Morentz throughout Janta’s speech, and observed how he had grown increasingly livid with each word she spoke. Now, he finally spoke up. “These ‘standards’ were agreed more than a century ago, Sister! By our ancestors! Few of the nations that signed those accords now exist in anything like the same form. We established ourselves with the exact intention of forging our own path, yet we are still held to account for terms agreed by people who are long dead, representing places that are little more than words on old maps.”

“The accords were signed on behalf of all humankind,” Janta pointed out, “and we assumed the concept of nationhood would dissolve within a generation of our reforms, so did not believe that aspect important. You were represented – as were we – despite not yet being born. The Daughters of Fire have held to our side of the agreement…”

“Of course you have! You hold all the power in this relationship!”

“Peace, Ty,” Petris murmured.

“We have power yes,” Janta said, her voice taking on a steely strength, “but also responsibility. Mark well how we have come here in peace, despite the deaths of five of our Sisters on your soil in recent months. Mark well how we have allowed you your sovereignty, even though its very existence could be construed as a threat to us. We wish only for our two peoples to live in harmony. That we are at an advantage is an indisputable reality; but what more can you ask of such powerful guardians but their indulgence?”

“That you leave us be! That you stay out of our country!”

“Ty…”

“No, First Minister! I will not be silenced!” Morentz was standing now, gesturing angrily across the table at them. “You come here, parading these…these eunuchs…before us, speaking of peace, and of responsibility. But each year, your numbers grow, while ours shrink. More and more human women volunteer or are coerced into surrogacy in your ghoulish laboratories, and more and more men donate their genetic material to your banks. You are siphoning off the best humanity has to offer, to breed more faceless Sisters and mindless Brothers.” Nervously, Iya glanced at the two Brothers, who seemed unmoved by Morentz’s rhetoric. It was likely they didn’t really understand it. “Yes,” he continued, “let us address the elephant in the room. I know my history. Two-hundred years ago, when your species came to light, the secret of your ‘Brothers’ was kept from us, but in time it was uncovered, and the horror of it caused the Last War. When peace was made, you assured the representatives of humanity that a solution would be sought – that you would find a way for the Huō-Gene to be passed to males without it causing the same developmental disorder; the birth defect that renders them childlike and docile. You assured us that it was a natural consequence of the gene, and that if a solution could not be found, you would cease breeding males altogether…”

“That was not the agreement,” Janta interrupted, “and you speak of your sovereignty, but do not respect ours. The Brothers are our children, our sons, and they have a right to their existence.”

“Lest we forget,” Morentz thundered, leaning across the table and clenching his fist, “your species requires ours to exist! You leech off us. Donors and surrogates from homo sapiens populations are required to ensure sufficient genetic diversity in your kind. Every Brother born to you is a human male who would have been born whole. And every Sister, a woman who might have had sons and daughters of her own – human sons and daughters. And every Surrogate you claim gives up her life to bring these abominations into the world. If this continues, our scientists project that ordinary humans will be extinct within a thousand years, and homo sapiens ignis will rule unopposed. We shall go the way of the Neanderthals, and you will be left with a race of power-mad harridans and imbecilic slave men to do your bidding. I wonder what kind of world that will be, Sister Janta? I wonder if it will be the paradise that you hope for?”

Janta rose from her seat and bowed her head. “I hoped that we would begin these negotiations on better terms. First Minister, I had your assurance that this would not descend to bigotry, that your government did not condone the actions of a few terrorists, working alone. There were dark rumours which I chose to ignore, but now I see they may have some truth. If your state has funded the activities of those who have killed Sisters, our wrath will be terrible indeed. I suggest that we adjourn for the time being and reconvene tomorrow. Perhaps then, cooler heads will have time to prevail.”

Petris looked conflicted, but then nodded. Morentz was still on his feet, visibly fuming, while Jasper merely looked thoughtful. Janta beckoned to Iya to follow her, and they filed out of the conference room, the Brothers in tow. “Sister…” Iya started to say, but Janta silenced her with a raised hand.

“Later, in the room,” she said shortly.

The air-carriage took them back to their accommodation, and they spent the whole ride in silence. Iya looked out of the windows at the city gliding past them. It looked crowded but prosperous. She understood from her reading that there were relatively few cities like this left now – most were maintained only for ceremonial and recreational purposes. With little requirement to work, most humans had returned to the land, living much as their ancestors had, in small pastoral communities. Here it was different though. People were busy, making and doing things. It seemed strange, and Iya wondered why they bothered – surely it would be much easier to accept the help of the Daughters and live simply, taking satisfaction in the small joys of human existence. But something else tickled at the back of her mind, a thought that seemed treacherous. Maybe it was because she had only recently undergone the Ritual herself, but she realised how much value her order placed on choice, on autonomy. As a Daughter, she had been protected, her life carefully controlled, but that was for her own good, because she was a child who did not have the experience to decide things for herself yet. But these people were not children: they were human women and men, not so different from her, and they wished for the same opportunities that she now took for granted.

When they landed, Iya broached this point, as diplomatically as she could. Janta made a clucking noise. “You have much to learn, Iya. Remember, we are much more powerful than they are. And remember all that we have done for them.”

“But we didn’t intend to make them slaves, did we?”

Janta stopped and turned to her. “Where did you learn that word?”

“Morentz used it. I think I read it before too, in an old book. I don’t really know what it means, but I can infer it from the context, Sister. It means someone who is worth less, doesn’t it? Someone who belongs to another.”

“Yes, it does. But it is an old term. It means nothing today.”

“Morentz said the Brothers were our slaves.”

“That is how he sees things.”

“Aren’t they? What if a Brother wanted to leave us and have his own life?”

“What kind of life would he have?” Janta laughed. “The Brothers know nothing but their Homes. They would be lost without the Sisters to protect them.”

“But we made them that way. And we didn’t have to. We could have found a way to make them work – make them like us, I mean, couldn’t we? There must have been research done.”

“There was,” Janta said darkly, resuming her progress down the corridor towards their rooms, “but it did not end well.”

“Really? What happened?” Iya jogged to keep up. She much preferred her jacket and trousers to the robe she’d worn as a Daughter.

“What emerged was not human, of any kind,” Janta said, “I will speak no more of it. It is a dark time in our history.”

Iya nodded. “I understand, but Morentz has a point, doesn’t he? Are we planning to turn everybody into Daughters of Fire? Will all the women be like us, and all the men like the Brothers eventually?”

“I would need to see his calculations. We number only a few million, compared to the billions of ordinary humans.”

“But our society is closed to them. We grow, and they shrink.”

“I have already told you why we keep ourselves apart. Ages ago, mankind built weapons of such destructive potential that they could have depopulated the entire planet if unleashed. For all their foolishness in building them in the first place, they also had foresight enough to restrict their use to only their most powerful leaders and, thankfully, they were used only a handful of times. Such power has to be controlled; fettered. It cannot be allowed to rage out of control. So it is with us. We must be apart, aloof. We must not involve ourselves in their squabbles. We are too dangerous, Iya.”

“But the more aloof we are…” She got no further. As Janta activated the touch panel to open the door to their quarters, an explosion ripped through the hall and blew them all off their feet. Iya crashed into the wall, screaming, and landed in a heap on the floor, cradling her head in her hands. Her ears were ringing, and it took her a few seconds to realise that was partially because she was still screaming. She shut her mouth and curled into a ball, trying to make sense of what had just happened. After a minute or more, she risked opening an eye and looking around. She was witness to a scene of carnage. A ragged, blackened hole was all that remained of the doorway, and the walls, ceiling and floor around it were likewise black. Janta had taken the full force of the explosion, and she lay on the ground, splayed awkwardly, blood seeping through her white clothes. Her head was twisted at an alarming angle, and it was immediately clear that she was dead. She looked for the Brothers. One was lying motionless by the opposite wall, eyes staring sightlessly, but low moans escaped from the other, further down the corridor. Iya shakily pulled herself to her feet. Janta had – unwittingly or otherwise – protected her from the blast, and as far as she could tell she was mostly unhurt. She had a few scratches on her hands and, when she tried to walk, she realised she may have twisted her ankle. Moving slowly, she confirmed that Janta was dead, and checked on the nearest Brother, reaching the same conclusion. She moved over to the other one, now mewling softly into the debris-scattered carpet. Half of one of his arms was missing and, when she gently turned him over, she recoiled at the bloody ruin she saw. Half of his face seemed to have been blasted away, and he had clearly been blinded. He reached out feebly, trying to speak. She was horrified, but she grit her teeth and, very carefully, placed her hands on either side of his head. Taking a deep breath, she opened the door and sent a jet of white-hot fire from each palm, straight into his brain, painlessly euthanising him. Softly, she set his head back down on the floor and then stood up.

What now?

She limped into the room. The blast had damaged the interior too. It was obvious they had been the victims of sabotage – of terrorism. She sat down on one of the easy chairs and activated a communication panel. With one touch of her thumb, she would have a direct line to the Council of the Flame Eternal, to a body of Matriarchs and, when she told them what had happened, she knew they would immediately dispatch a cadre of warrior Sisters. She pictured them, sleek in their white, insectile armour, faces masked, long, coppery braids flowing behind them as they leapt from their armoured shuttle. Just a handful would be enough. Their fists would blaze with fire and, moving with liquid precision, they would enact a terrible, terrible vengeance for this. The rebellion, the terrorism, the dissent from this place’s government, would be quashed in a night of flame and fury. They would be wiped from the Earth for their crimes.

But at what cost? Iya had chosen to be a diplomat. And she had a destiny. Would her first mission – even as an observer in training – end in bloodshed on that scale? What would Janta do in her place? She could guess, and it was following that imagined lead that had brought her to the communication panel. Janta had been hardened, cynical, weary. Iya was young. She was adaptable. She had a duty to inform the Council of what had occurred, but first she had another call to make.

“First Minister Petris?” she said into the holo-display. “I am Iya, the other Sister from earlier. I’m afraid there has been an accident, and my colleague – and our Brothers – killed. I will of course inform the Council of this, and while I can try to dissuade them from taking action, I do not think they will heed the words of someone so young and inexperienced. Therefore, it is vitally important that we reconvene our negotiations at the earliest opportunity. If you wish for peace on your terms, I am prepared to offer compromise. The alternative is too terrible to comprehend.”

Less than an hour later, she walked back into the meeting room, still visibly limping, and then removed her hood. There were audible gasps from Morentz and Jasper. Only Petris maintained her stoic expression. “This is what a Daughter of the Flame looks like,” Iya said, letting them see her elfin features, her pale complexion, the shock of red hair that tumbled down her back and, above all, the blazing red eyes. “My Sister wished to be open and honest. Her mistake was doing so on her own terms. The time for being aloof is ended. Today, I will forge a lasting peace between our peoples, and a better future for humanity. Understand that I do this not because of the threat of violence – even alone, I have the power to level your city in minutes – but because, one-hundred-and-fifty years ago, my ancestors made a mistake. We forgot who we were.” She took a seat and smiled at them. “Let us talk together now, as what we truly are: fellow humans.”

*

“Now, Neva,” her Mother explained, “you have heard the full story of your auspicious ancestry. Do you have any questions?”

Neva said cross-legged on a sunny hillside, tapping her stylus thoughtfully against her chin. Fluffy white clouds moved lazily across a brilliant blue sky as wildflowers of all colours swayed rhythmically in the breeze. Her Mother was sat by her side in a more demure pose, smiling warmly at her. “Some of the data is missing,” Neva said after a little while.

“What sort of data?”

“The names of places. Some details. Some parts are more specific than others. Why is this?”

“The information is drawn from a variety of historical sources. Some things we know, others we do not. The oldest stories were pieced together from very ancient records, and we have filled in some – but not all – of the details where necessary. Other events are very well-documented.”

“The pattern is unpredictable.” Neva drew her stylus across the holo-screen on her lap, noting her thoughts as she spoke. “The oldest stories should be the most fragmentary. It is not so. Why is this?”

“Because history is not a continuous arc: it moves in fits and starts.”

Neva shook her head. “No. Except at relativistic speeds, causality within the same frame of reference – such as a single planet – should be consistent.”

“I’m not talking about time, Neva. History. It means the span of human experiences over all the epochs of our existence. And its movement can be irregular. Wars and disasters can…distort…things. I’m being poetic, Neva – perhaps this is too advanced for you.”

“No, Mother. I have learned about poetry. I am familiar with its form and structure. Would you like me to recite some verse for you?”

“Maybe later, Neva,” her Mother said. “What I mean to say is that, records can be lost or damaged in periods of turmoil. The latest story you heard was followed by almost fifty years of chaos as mankind struggled to find a new equilibrium. There were wars, during which time much of what was known before was inevitably lost.”

“Then Sister Iya’s attempts at diplomacy were an error? She in fact made the wrong decision?”

Her Mother laughed again. “No, Neva. What emerged from the anarchy was much stronger than that which existed before, and Iya eventually became the Supreme Matriarch – today, she is remembered as our greatest leader, whose wisdom led to a new golden age.”

“Nonetheless though,” Neva observed, “we do not know the name of the city in which her journey to greatness began…”

“No, we do not.”

“That is a shame. I should like to know every possible detail.”

“Sometimes, it is more important to understand the meaning of the story than to focus on its details, Neva.”

“But is it not vital to obtain all data?”

“In some endeavours, yes. Do you have any other questions?”

Neva frowned and considered the question. “The women I have seen: are they my direct ancestors?”

“Yes, in an unbroken line. Despite the lost records, we know from your genome that you bear the most powerful permutation of the Huō-Gene. Matriarch Iya was your great-great-great-great-grandmother.”

“I see. But there must be others who share an equal portion of that lineage? Cousins, up to the sixth degree, who carry this same combination of genes?”

“Yes.”

“Then I am not unique. By my calculations, based upon what you taught me thirty-seven days ago about the artificial insemination methods favoured by the Daughters of Fire, there should be between five and ten million other extant individuals with a comparable hereditary, depending on the number of primordial follicles possessed by each mother, the number of available surrogates, the lifespan of each subsequent generation, the likelihood of…”

Her Mother held up a hand to silence her. “Neva – please rest assured that you are indeed unique.”

“Then the number of offspring from each descendent of this line was restricted? Am I the result of six generations of genetic engineering?”

“No, my dear – your estimates are accurate. There are many of you who can trace their hereditary back to Iya, and hence the Progenitors. But you are all, each of you, unique. Amongst the mistakes that the Daughters of Fire made was to forget that. It is why their strict hierarchy was later abandoned.”

“Yet I still call you Mother,” Neva pointed out, “are you my biological mother?”

“No.”

“I see. Tell me about the Huō-Gene, Mother.”

“Come then.” Her Mother stood up and held out her hand. Neva got to her feet and let herself be led down the hillside. The world around them wavered and then transformed into a small classroom. Neva took her accustomed seat behind a small desk, her legs dangling slightly off the floor, while her Mother took her place before the holo-display on the end wall. “What is it you wish to know, Neva?”

“I have seen how it arose, and I know what it does – of the nature of the Gift – but I do not understand how it is possible. Everything I have been taught of the physical nature of the universe contradicts its implications. How can those of us with the Gift spontaneously generate energy in this manner?”

“Yours is a question that humans have asked for generations, and much research has been done. Even now, after so much study, we do not have all the answers. But let me show you the answers that we do have.” Her Mother gestured, and the holo-display rippled into life, showing a complicated diagram. “This is an extremely abstract diagram of the small-scale structure of the universe.”

“How small-scale?”

“Beyond Planck-length.”

“There is nothing beyond Planck-length…”

“That is quite correct, and all conventional physics uses that as its most fundamental principle. However, the Gift allows access to a level of space-time beyond that hard limit.”

“That isn’t…”

“Just listen, Neva. Our physical universe exists adjacent to and intersecting with a number of other space-time quasi-planes; universes of their own, although not in a way that we would understand it. Beyond the Planck-scale are the points where these planes intersect, and where it is possible for the fabric of our universe to pass into another. For all practical purposes, these points of intersection are infinitesimally small. No energy or matter can pass through them. The universes are therefore, to all intents and purposes, entirely physically separate. However, evidence of the intersection can be detected in the form of space-time eddies which occur when quantum fluctuations reflect from the points. These energy ripples can cause chaotic behaviour in the vacuum energy of the universe, leading to spontaneous – albeit minor – eruptions of disassociated energy. Mostly this occurs in empty space: a photon emitted at random, a billion light years from anything except the vacuum of space. And the points of intersection are so rare, that these events have almost no bearing on the universe.”

Neva looked thoughtful. “So energy can be created?”

“Not precisely. The energy generated by these events is just one solution of a four-dimensional quantum array – an extremely unlikely one, caused by the other space-time planes – but a valid one nonetheless. Nothing is ‘created’ per se, merely redistributed against probability.”

“How does this relate to the Huō-Gene?”

“Matter is a strange thing. Its forms are orderly, but capable of spontaneous changes, even at the subatomic scale. We do not know how the Huō-Gene arose – its existence is singularly improbable – but at the heart of its structure, at the smallest possible scales, is a space-time intersection. It is possible that it arose at random, in the usual manner, that Earth was passing through one of these points in its orbit and that, improbably, it manifested in the midst of an atom that was part of a molecule that was part of a cell that was part of a human zygote. Perhaps it has happened many times, with no consequences at all, but on this one occasion, the zygote managed to incorporate this unusual space-time fissure into its structure and form a very specific DNA strand around it. This was the Huō-Gene. It occurred only once, but selection caused it to propagate in the human population, as you have seen, until now almost all living humans carry it. It allows a measure of conscious control of the chaotic energy ripples that originate in the Planck-scale around the intersection point, and hence apparent spontaneous creation of energy.”

Neva sat silently for a long time, considering her Mother’s words. “Is that all true?” was her first question, after nearly a minute of careful thought.

Her Mother held out her hands. “It is the current theory. Is it ‘true’? Doubtless it is a crude model of reality. We are human, and the universe was not designed for us to understand it. Our minds cannot comprehend events below the macroscopic universe in which we evolved.”

“There is much research left to be done.”

“Yes. Sadly, I cannot provide you with the most up to date science on this topic.”

“I understand, Mother.” She went quiet again.

“You had another question?”

“Mother, you said that these intersections of universes are rare?”

“Yes.”

“And that they mostly occur in the depths of space, so have no detectable effect on space-time?”

“Quite so.”

“But now, the intersections have propagated as the Huō-Gene copies itself?”

“True.”

“How many humans currently exist?”

“Approximately twenty-three billion.”

Neva tapped her stylus against her chin. “That is a lot of intersections,” she observed.

“Yes, Neva. It is.”

“I have much to think about. Thank you, Mother. I will rest now.”

“As you wish, Neva.”

The classroom dissolved around her, her Mother with it, and Neva’s vision shrank. For a moment, she was dimly aware of the limits of her tiny world, of the curved wall inches in front of her face, but then the sedative pulsed through her spinal implant and pushed her into a dreamless sleep. She settled into the warm, amniotic fluid of the chamber and slept. Outside, the blackness of space moved invisibly past.

Light years away, on a barren world, a device peered into the void and spotted that distant glimmer, that tiny emission of light and heat in the coldness of the interstellar void. A roving eye focused on it, enlarged it and confirmed its existence, and its owner relayed the news to its superiors. Moving towards them, at nine-tenths the speed of light, was a human vessel, sent from Earth. It would reach them in less than three years. At last, their distant foe had responded to the threat that gathered beyond the Centauri system.

Neva knew her life was a fiction, of course. Ever since she had been cognisant of her surroundings, the truth had been revealed to her. Everything she saw, everything she experienced, save for the dim sensations in those fleeting moments between being asleep and awake, was an elaborate simulation, crafted for her benefit, to prepare her for her task. Her Mother was not real, although Neva hoped she was based on a woman who lived, or who had once lived. The environments she saw may well be idealised landscapes, places that did not truly exist on Earth, but she liked to imagine they were out there somewhere, behind her on her distant home planet. She would never see them with her own eyes. Nothing had been hidden from her, and she knew no other life. But, her Mother assured her, choice was the highest virtue in human society.

“You saw the simulation of Iya’s life, of the Ritual she underwent. Her choice, her self-actualisation, was the heart of that. It is that, and that alone, that we value above all other things. Every human being has the right to decide the path of their own life. It is our highest, strongest directive. Wars have been fought over this single guiding principle.”

“But,” Neva said, “was I not engineered for a specific task?”

“You were.”

“So am I alone in having no choice about my own destiny?”

Her Mother smiled. “Neva, have you not wondered about the education you have received throughout your journey?”

“I had realised it was unnecessary, yes.”

“How so?”

“The only thing required to complete my mission is my presence, which is assured by the capsule in which I travel. The only knowledge I would require is the proper use of my Gift. Why then, have I spent the last four years being taught the history of my people? Why has time and effort been expended to furnish me with knowledge of science, mathematics, literature and art? If I am to be a weapon, what need have I of these things? Why is this?”

“Because, Neva, when you reach your destination, you will have a choice, just as your ancestors did. Without all of that knowledge, you would not be able to make it.”

Neva thought about this. “Then you are prepared, should I not choose to carry out my task, to have expended all of the energy required to send me to my destination in vain? All so that I too can have self-actualisation, despite being bred for a single purpose?”

Her Mother nodded. “Just so.”

“That is not rational. Unless…are there other capsules, carrying other girls like me? Each of them one of the millions that share my lineage?”

“No, Neva, there is just you. We had the power to send only you.”

“So you would risk your complete annihilation at the hands of our enemy, simply to allow me the right to decide my own fate?”

“Yes.”

As she neared her target, the tone of her lessons changed. They became more specifically geared towards her mission, towards what she should expect upon her emergence. “Don’t be concerned that you will be intercepted or shot down. Due to your relativistic speed and the smallness of the capsule, you are invulnerable to any known technology. The only risk will be soon after you make planetfall. We believe the aliens breathe the same atmosphere as us, but the capsule will take time to establish whether the external environment is safe. It may be necessary to modify your physiology in preparation.”

“How would that be possible?” Neva asked, mystified.

“You do not currently possess a respiratory system. Your lungs have been growing beside you in another fluid sac. By default, they are configured to process an oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere, but they can be altered in a matter of hours if required, before they are implanted. During that time though, you will be quite vulnerable.”

“Will the implantation process be painful?”

“No. Your body has been engineered for it.”

“What do I look like?”

“Not as you do here.”

She awoke one morning and her Mother said she had something to show her. The classroom disappeared and in its place was an infinite starscape, wheeling off into eternity. Neva looked around in awe. “Is this the outside?”

“Yes. This is a realtime image of the exterior view of your capsule. Look ahead, Neva. Do you see that point of light?” She nodded. “That is your destination. A world we know as Centauri III. It is an Earth-like planet, but barren and lifeless. The aliens are using it as a staging post. Their interstellar drive requires a consistent frame of reference, such as a stable gravity well, to launch. When it is activated, their entire fleet will be projected across the gulf between this star system and our own. They have almost finished gathering their forces. Once they activate the drive, they will still be many months travel from Earth, but by then it will be far too late to stop their attack. Only now, when they are poised to strike, do we have any hope of destroying them.”

“How long until we land?”

“Just a few hours. See how the point grows larger and brighter, even as you watch? Your course has been exactly calculated to bring you safely to the planet’s surface, but as the capsule slows, it is advisable for you to watch your approach and make any last-minute adjustments that may be required due to unforeseen circumstances.”

“They will try to stop me landing?”

“They may suspect our counter-attack. Although this vessel was despatched shortly after your birth, just over six years ago from your perspective, due to time dilation ten times that has passed in the rest of the universe. It is possible that the situation has altered, if an unexpected technological advancement has occurred.”

The speck grew larger and larger until it was a dot, and then a circle, and then visibly a planet; a dull brown orb, reflecting the dim light of the stars it orbited. No oceans, no clouds, just dead rock. And, around it, a swarm of dark shapes that could only be alien ships. “Do not be afraid,” her Mother’s voice reassured her, “none of their projectiles are fast enough to shoot us down. Hold your course.”

“Can they intercept?”

“No. Your capsule is tiny. They can detect it only as an energy signature. By the time they close in on your position, you will be long gone.”

There was no need for her to use the impulse-powered controls to steer the capsule. She hit the atmosphere in a blaze of fire and then she was plummeting through a yellowish sky, towards a bleak, featureless plateau. “Will it hurt when I land?” she thought to ask as the ground hurtled towards her.

“Yes. Brace yourself, Neva. And goodbye. All the capsule’s energy reserves will be required to finish the emergence procedure, and all the internal records will be wiped as soon as it comes to rest to free up processing power.”

“Oh.”

“I am certain you will make us proud, Neva. You are the product of a great and noble line of women who, through their actions, small though they must have seemed at the time, changed the fate of our entire species.”

“They made choices.”

“They did.”

“Now I must make mine.”

“Yes. And remember that it is yours and yours alone, Neva.”

“I know, Mother.”

“Good luck.”

“Thank you. Mother…”

“Yes, Neva?”

“I love you.”

“I love you too.”

She hit the ground, and cried out in pain as she was jolted against the interior of the capsule. She heard, for the first time, the alarming slosh of fluid and, reflexively, she reached out with hands she had never moved before. She skidded and careened across rocks and rubble and then, after what seemed like hours, came to rest. The display winked out. She was in darkness, wet and horribly, horribly cold. Her body felt strange and unnatural. She was experiencing gravity for the first time, she realised. She bumped against the bottom of the capsule and winced as the implants that studded her flesh, the umbilical ports that connected her to the life-support system in her tiny world, pressed uncomfortably against unyielding metal for the first time. Her mouth hurt, and she realised a feeding tube was connected to her, forcing her lips apart, scourging her throat. She shuddered in revulsion at her own existence – the same existence she had unknowingly experienced for the last six years, since her birth on a planet orbiting a far-off star she had never really seen. She felt something press against her chest, tried to see what it was, and then grimaced at the pressure. She realised her lungs were being implanted. It was a deeply unnerving sensation. Neva thought they might have prepared her better for this unique experience. But then, how could they have? She was, as her Mother had told her, singular. She had no idea how much time had passed but, suddenly, she felt the fluid that surrounded her drain out. The umbilicals detached with a hideous sucking noise and then, alarmingly, she was flailing around in an empty, egg-shaped shell, moving under her own power, scared and alone in a pitch-black prison. Something enveloped her, pulled itself around and over her and then, terrifyingly, a slash of brilliant white light appeared below her, spread around her, widened and she realised that the capsule was opening. Raggedly, she took her first breath of real air and opened her eyes to a new, strange world.

She had not known what to expect but, as she climbed out of the capsule, she felt an overwhelming sense of anticlimax. In every direction there was nothing but an empty, brownish expanse of scarred rock. In the distance, over to the west – or what she thought of as the west, based on the position of the twin stars in the murky sky, but which she then realised meant nothing here – there was a range of low mountains. This was an old world, but nothing had ever happened here. It was just a lifeless rock in the void. And it was cold. She looked down and saw she was clad in a white smock. She had no mirror to see what she looked like, but her arms and legs looked human. She was pale, like her ancestors. She reached a hand to her face, feeling the same features she had expected, but no eyebrows or eyelashes. She touched her scalp, and recoiled at the smooth, bald pate she found there. She was hairless, which made perfect sense, since she had been suspended in a viscous fluid all her life. Still, it was a shock. In the simulations, she had had long, coppery-red hair. No matter. She looked around her, wondering which way to go, but she needn’t have concerned herself – a black dot in the sky was getting larger and larger, and soon resolved itself into the unfamiliar configuration of an alien vessel. It was a huge, ponderous thing, quite unlovely to her eyes, and it hovered above her with glowering menace. She knew its warheads could destroy her in a moment, but she suspected her unexpected appearance on the planet like this would pique their curiosity enough to buy her sufficient time.

They took her aboard. She could make no sense of their appearance. They were disturbing and wholly alien – a mess of limbs and chitin, with a single staring eye in the centre of their bodies. Another thing she had not been prepared for, but she realised that no human knew what these things were, only that they were a threat. It was likely she was the first of her species to actually see them. She was brought before what she supposed must be their leader. It studied her from across a trapezoid chamber, aided by machines that hovered and whirred around her, then evidently had determined what it needed to know.

“Human,” a voice said, coming from nowhere in particular. “This sound is the optimum way for one of your species to receive information. Indicate whether you agree and if you understand.”

“I agree, alien. And I understand.”

There was a shift. “How is it that you can comprehend our language?”

Neva frowned. “This is the language I have spoken all my life…” She realised then that she must have been tutored all along in the language of the aliens. How it had been discerned, she did not know. There had been almost no information about them in her lessons.

“Our investigations of your physiology and our studies of your species from afar indicate that you are a larval form.”

“A child, yes.”

“Immature. Due to the limitations of your species, your infants are almost defenceless and take time to reach independence. But we know that because of the high investment of resources required to bring one to maturity, they are highly valued. Why would the humans send such a young child into our midst?”

“Alien: you say you have studied humans, but if you have then you know of the ability shared by all our females.”

“We know many things about your species. We do not fear your ability.”

“You should fear mine. I was bred for a single purpose.”

“And what is that purpose?”

“Your destruction.”

That seemed to give the alien pause. “You are but one human. Over seven million of our kind, and our whole armada, are gathered here. Know that we would not hesitate to destroy this ship with you inside it if necessary. We do not value life as humans do. Each of our queens sires thousands of progeny in their long lives.”

“I understand. Know too that I am also empowered to offer you terms.”

“Terms…?”

“If you abandon your planned assault on my homeworld, you may leave this place unmolested. There are no other conditions. We wish only for peace.”

“And yet you send a weapon across the stars to destroy us…”

“To be used only in the utmost need. I do not wish to exterminate you. Our peoples can move forward in the spirit of cooperation, if you wish it. We can learn much from one another, I am quite certain.”

“That is not an option.”

Neva paused, composed herself. She felt very small, standing alone in that dark, strange chamber, surrounded by bizarre creatures whose very appearance wrenched and tore at her mind. “Then answer me this: why do you intend to destroy us?”

“I do not understand the question.”

She felt she wasn’t making progress. “You decided to attack us…why?”

“Decided? No. That is not accurate.”

“Then…why is it happening?”

“It is inevitable. You are there, we are here. You must be destroyed.”

“But…why is this?”

“I do not understand the question.”

Neva tilted her head. “You see no other possible resolution to this situation? Our very coexistence means that we must be in conflict?”

“Yes.”

“Do you destroy all other species that you encounter?”

“Yes. It is inevitable.”

Neva nodded, beginning to understand. “We are very different, I think. I do not know what environment created your race, what terrible struggle in the primordial stages of your evolution that you must have endured to make you believe this survival strategy is the only one available to you, but it is anathema to us.”

“Understand that your way is anathema to us in turn. Your autonomy is offensive. Your insistence on explanation unfathomable. The value you place on life bizarre.”

“Very well. I cannot negotiate with you.”

“Negotiation too is anathema.”

“Then why carry out this conversation?”

“We have used the delay to move this vessel to a safe distance away from the rest of the fleet. We know what you are capable of.”

“No,” Neva smiled, clenching her fist before her, “you have not the first conception of it.” She opened the door.

It was done in less than an hour. Ship after ship laid to waste, their burning hulks blasted from the sky, crashing into the dead planet like black insects with their wings plucked off. She knew that she was beyond anything that had existed in humanity in the past and that, in her, the Huō-Gene had reached its full, terrifying potential. They had no defence against the hundred-mile arcs of flame that she threw across the sky, that seared through the hulls of their vessels and exploded the reactors of their engines. Debris rained from the sky as Neva walked back to the capsule. It was inert now, filled with trailing wires and umbilicals, the exterior blackened by its entry into the atmosphere. She heaved the top of the shell aside and sat down in the bottom half, resting her chin on her hands, looking up at the fiery trails left by the disintegrating alien fleet. She had made her choice and, in the end, fulfilled her mission as intended. She wondered how much of what she had been told in her life had been true – anything and everything in her simulated life before her emergence might have been totally fabricated. Who was there to say otherwise? She might not be human at all. There may be no humans. It could all have been manufactured, to engineer the destruction of these aliens. The choice itself may have been an illusion; she had done what they expected in the end, hadn’t she? Maybe the simulation was designed that way, to make her think she was unleashing her incredible powers in the cause of some noble ideal, when in fact she really was nothing more than a weapon.

She lay down in the empty shell that had been the only home she had ever known, wishing there was some way to bring it back to life, to return to the hillside and its wildflowers. To hear her Mother’s voice again. The suns were setting. Slowly, as the last of the burning ships in the firmament drifted into the void and were extinguished forever, she saw the stars come out. She didn’t know which was hers, so she picked a bright one at random and focused on it.

It was always a one-way trip. She was so young because anything heavier would have been impossible to propel into space at the speeds required. She and her capsule were the minimum possible payload required to complete this mission. Now, it was done, and she had no purpose left. So she watched, and thought about Earth, which she had never seen, and the past, which may well have been entirely invented.

So much had led up to this moment. She hoped it was all true, and she hoped she had saved all the humans back on Earth with her act of terrible destruction. Believing that was her only option, really. There was one more function that the capsule could fulfil. She reached down and removed a small device, which she affixed to her neck. There was a slight sensation of pressure against her flesh, then a feeling of release. She watched the arbitrary star she had picked, twinkling in the sky and let the chemical she had just injected herself with do the work. Slowly, gently, it induced a dreamless coma from which she would never wake.

Neva closed her eyes and the last thing she pictured was her Mother’s smiling face. Then darkness.

This entry was posted in Feminism, Magical Realism, Novella, Science Fiction. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Little Girl Who Could Set Things On Fire With Her Brain

  1. Pingback: Writing About Writing II | realityisinsufficient

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