Chapter 2 – Evening Swim

Cal stood at the edge of the lake and stared across its still waters. The last weak rays of the February sun emerged from the grey ragged clouds at the horizon and lit up the tops of the surrounding trees.

A week had passed, but the encounter with the Xanthi still bothered him, and last night he had woken in a panic with Dace’s unearthly groan ringing in his ears. He had tried his best to rationalise it – the Major and Dace had broken the rules and had to pay the price – but it wasn’t easy. He felt sickened by how he had behaved.

To take his mind off things, he had cycled to the station and headed out of London to the one peaceful refuge he had found on this island of mud. There was only half an hour of decent daylight left, but it would hopefully be enough.

He removed his shoes and stuffed them into the bottom of his backpack. He then pulled off his trousers, folded them neatly and put them on top, along with his jacket, shirt and tie. There was just one task remaining. Giving the scene one last look to make sure he was unobserved, he ran his finger around the edges of his hairline and loosened the adhesive strips that held the wig in place. Working around his crown, he removed his hair and placed it within its small leather pouch. His eyebrows followed. He then tied the backpack to his bike, together with a handwritten note.

Running his hands over his smooth head, he relished the sensation of the cool evening air as it revitalised his sweaty scalp.

With a sudden burst of movement, he sped towards the water, reaching full speed as he stepped onto the wooden jetty. In a few quick steps he reached the end and dived into the water, slipping beneath the surface with barely a splash.

And then… nothing. The ripples spread out, reached the edge of the lake and dissipated. The birds in the surrounding trees restarted their evening song.

Ten seconds passed. Twenty. Thirty.

Cal rocketed up from the centre of the lake, rising ten feet in the air before arching his body round and re-entering the water. Five seconds later, he shot out, defined a graceful somersault and plunged back beneath the surface.

He had come here to open his gills and re-centre himself. He needed to wash away everything that the Major had said. He needed to get back to normal.

But it wasn’t working. Instead of the water helping him to forget, it was waking his brain up to more emotion. The shame of recognition stung him. The Major had known him, had remembered who he used to be, and the disdain in her eyes had been mixed with pity. She had known exactly what it meant for a Darmer of the Interstellar Congress to be reduced to chasing down runaways for a species like the Ascenti.

He propelled himself out of the water and executed a double twist before plummeting back down.

The damned Ascenti! He had spent his entire career in the Interstellar Congress dealing with their attempts to undermine and compromise everything he would try and achieve. Face to face, they were always full of smiles and pleasant words, but Cal had learned through bitter experience that the moment he took his eyes off them, the Ascenti would look for ways to leverage their influence and gain an advantage for themselves. He loathed most of the diplomats and leaders he had dealt with, but now he was taking orders from them. How had it come to this?

Another leap into the air, and Cal slipped back down into the black water.

He knew full well how it had come to this: he had chosen this life. Long before his ship had reached Earth, he was receiving regular bulletins warning him about the endless waits for asylum and the terrible state of the immigration camps. So when the Ascenti invited him to bypass all that and jump straight into a new life on Earth, he agreed to at least listen to their proposal. At first he didn’t take it seriously: bypassing Earth’s immigration would make him a criminal, and he had spent his entire career upholding planetary law. No matter how bad things were, he had to do things by the book. But when the Ascenti explained how much they needed his help to look after the community of aliens that were already living secretly, he became more interested. The chance to start a new life with a role that gave him a purpose had been irresistible.

Ugh. There was no point raking over the past. He couldn’t change his decision. He just had to deal with the consequences.

He cleared his mind and executed another few leaps before the last rays of the sun gave out and twilight fell. He swam to the edge of the jetty, pulled himself out and stumbled back to his bike, readjusting to the strange feeling of solid ground under his feet.

Retrieving his bag, he pulled out a towel and dried his smooth form. He then pulled on his clothes, buttoning his shirt with care to the top and positioning the high collar over the gill slits in his neck. Finally, he reapplied his hair and eyebrows, checking with a compact pocket mirror to make sure he would look acceptable to any locals he encountered.

It was then he noticed the message tied to his saddle.

“In the usual place. See you shortly.”

Good. She had seen his note.

He walked his bike around the lake until he saw the woman sitting on a bench by the edge of the water. She had short grey hair and thick-rimmed glasses. Her dark green woollen coat reached down to her ankles.

Cal had first encountered Phyllis during one of his early outings to the lake, and it hadn’t taken him long before he realised they had more in common than a shared interest in secluded spots. On the surface, Phyllis just appeared to be a middle-aged woman living on her own in the middle of nowhere. But if there was one thing Cal knew about Bizads, it was to never take them at face value. Back in the days of the Congress, Bizad was a planet of intrigue and secrets that valued information above all else. Phyllis may have radiated eccentric innocence, but you didn’t avoid years of detection on a new planet unless you were both smart and resourceful.

“I imagine swimming outdoors in February must be quite bracing,” she said, glancing over as he approached.

“It’s fine once you get going.”

She held her hand out in greeting. Cal looked at it nervously.

“Do we have to?” he said.

“Indulge me.”

Cal offered his own hand with reluctance. As soon as Phyllis took hold of him, a yellow worm emerged from her cuff, slid up to Cal’s elbow, did a few circuits and went back into her jacket again. No matter how many times Cal had greeted Bizads, he always found the experience to be unpleasant.

“Good,” she said. “You are indeed who you say you are.”

“Who else would I be?”

“Well, quite.”

Cal took a seat next to her on the bench and drummed his fingers on the arm.

“Come on then!” said Phyllis. “What’s got the great Darmer Tarekki so twisted up? Out with it.”

Cal had only talked to Phyllis a handful of times, but he always found her directness to be a little disconcerting.

“Just wanted to see a friendly face,” he lied.

“What nonsense! Arno is never wrong,” she said, stroking the head of the worm-like creature who had come out to get a closer look at Cal. “You are a man carrying a burden. Well, not a man. Or should I call you a man? I suppose you look more like an Earth male than you do a female.”

“Most Celaphynes use male. Makes things easier.” Cal looked up at the treetops. “How do you do it, Phyllis?”

“Do what?”

“How do you manage to live here on Earth without having someone else controlling your every move?”

“Ah,” Phyllis joined Cal in staring at the darkening sky. “If you are looking to extricate yourself from the cold grip of the Ascenti, I’m not sure I can help you.”

“But you’re out here on your own. No one tells you what to do. Right now I’m feeling like… like nothing more than a glorified service drone.”

“I do sympathise, but you know as well as I do that those odious power-hungry celebrities pretty much run everything regarding off-worlders. The only way I’ve stayed off their radar all these years is that I got here before them.”

Cal turned to Phyllis, amazed. “You arrived before the Ascenti?” he said. “But… how is that possible?”

“Keep your wig on,” said Phyllis. She smiled and leaned into Cal. “It wasn’t exactly… made public. The Bizad high command sent a few of us to scout ahead when Earth was first selected for the evacuations. But we underestimated the Ascenti, as usual. They were smart enough to realise the importance of making first contact and put everything into getting their landing ships here ahead of the rest of us.” She looked back up at the sky. “You wouldn’t believe what it was like when the Ascenti first turned up. The protests, riots… this whole planet ground to a halt for months. And then the appalling way they behaved – carrying on like benevolent gods, dazzling the humans with their shiny toys.”

“But you have to give them some credit,” said Cal. “Sharing their toys with the humans was enough to get them sanctuary. The humans got major upgrades to their tech, and the Ascenti got a new home. While the rest of us had to make do with the camps or…”

“Or the life you have chosen,” said Phyllis.

“I don’t know Phyllis,” said Cal. “Most of the time it’s fine. A lot of the time it’s helping new arrivals navigate supermarkets, or deal with difficult neighbours. But recently it feels like all I’m doing is making people’s lives worse.”

“Listen Darmer,” said Phyllis, suddenly serious. “If I could help you, I would, but the Ascenti are too powerful. They own too much, control too much. You need to play by their rules, no matter how unpalatable you find it.”

Not for the first time, Cal pined for his home planet of Celaph. Back there, the purpose of government had been to make people’s lives better. He couldn’t say the same for the mixture of self-preservation, self-interest and occasional vindictiveness that passed for governance in this off-world community.

“The only way to free yourself from them is to somehow  weaken them,” Phyllis continued. “Find something they are not paying attention to and exploit it. Destabilise them in any small way you can.”


“Don’t dismiss the idea so quickly. I’ve been keeping my eye on the Ascenti over the years, and… something is happening right now that is unusual.”

“What sort of thing?” Cal was intrigued.

“I’m not sure. There is a lot of urgent activity, but I can’t figure out a reason for it. Have you noticed anything?”

“There was an escape from the Abbey.”

“No, it feels more serious than that. Have you really heard nothing else?”

Cal was getting annoyed. “Phyllis, if you want an informant, find someone else.”

“Not at all. Not at all. Just… The Ascenti are worried about something. And that should make us all attentive. I suggest you keep your eyes open. For your own sake.” She stood up. “And if you’ll excuse me, I ought to get back. Take care of yourself Darmer.”


“What’s that?”

“My name. I’m no longer a Darmer. Cal is fine.”

“If you say so.”

Cal watched Phyllis disappear into the trees. He then straddled his bike and pedalled off towards the station.

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