A man, a man walks into a room. His name is Midnight.

I Appropriate Responses

In a hamlet of red dust whitewashed houses huddle together facing a lake in a crumbling reminder of departed colonialism. Over their tired roofs with their cracked pantiles an unblinking sun chases noonday shadows away.

Days of fishes
Distant roar

On the lake a solitary fishing boat drifts with the breeze, its nets trailing through the shallows with a forlorn hope. Back near the shore a sign creaks gently in the wind: 10:31 Clinic. It has been here for eleven years in dry winters and in drier summers. The metal has rusted away in places yet the enamelled lettering has weathered well, a brighter crimson than the soil between the buildings. From behind the bead curtain in the doorway comes the sounds of clinking glassware and a deep laughter born not of nervous despair but out of the tranquillity only the personal certainty of death brings.

Turning to speak
Turning to hear

Dusk settles like a mantle around the scattering of homes. With the comic timing of a drunken Kilroy the descending sun sends a long nose from the distant hills over the still waters towards the village. In the clinic only two voices speak. One of the accents is English.

Open the kingdom
Open the kingdom

The fishing boat has returned to its harbour. A storm lantern swings on a hook beside the boathouse door. It has not yet been lit. Silhouetted in the broken window pane the fisherman whistles merrily as he sews up a tear in his net, practised fingers needing little illumination.

Open the kingdom
Open the kingdom

The clock in the old Postmaster's House has chimed twenty-two. From the open patio doors comes the chorus of an opera, a clear liquid tenor, rising and falling over the desiccated lawn, the patchwork rusted earth black in the silvered light of the moon:

In my way, in my way
Being most uncertain—


The Englishman who ran the clinic was not alone in his bed. It was strange post-coital feeling, part sated appetites, part nostalgia for the hedonism of his youth in London. The bed itself had proved a touch too small for their athleticism — he had thought such wanton revelry was behind him and though he would always yearn for the intimacy of another's body his daily directions were firmly focussed on his educational work. So few people came through the village now that to have found a passer-by who ticked all the right boxes was to him a secular providence. Sometimes a military convoy snaked through the streets on the way to the capitol, blank faces hanging from side of the trucks. More often than not it was the supply wagon that provided fresh excitement around town though the same driver had been doing the run for going on two years and was pretty much a fixture herself.

A hand reached for the repeat button on the sound controls whilst the other continued its ministrations on the man next to him.


"Don't you like it?" the Englishman asked.

"Your fingers, yes. Not so sure about your taste in music."

The newcomer's accent was difficult to place. Northern Co-dominion? American Free State? "I love old stuff. This is tail-end twentieth century. An absolute gem of a find." He moved his wrist in time to the aria's rhythm. "Tell me again about my eyes."

Soft breath lapped his ear like waves. "You have the most amazing eyes I've ever seen in a human."

Amiable nonsense but he enjoyed the compliment. "Go on…"

"They're hazel. Flecked with molten gold and the green of the ocean. I want to dive within. Subsume my soul in their rainbow depths."

"You're quite mad, you know that."

"I've been called worse," said the stranger cupping his shoulder in a strong hand and licking the patch of skin circumscribed by his thumb and forefinger. "Besides, all the best poets are mad." He was obviously enjoying the attention his cock was getting. "Shall we burn off another few calories?"

"Not yet." He breathed in, savouring the scent of foreign sweat, the tickle of the omnipresent dust. So much of the enjoyment of coupling was smell and sound. It had been over ten months since his last sexual encounter and he was determined to make the moment last: to memorize the texture of his bedmate's body; the way his back arched when he climaxed; the tight curls of his crotch. "I'm having enough fun just lying here." A bed spring squeaked as he dug an elbow into the mattress and turned over to look at his partner. "It may be a cliché but I don't think you've told me your name."

"It's Jack."

The word was alien, meaningless. "What kind of name is that?"

"A very old one," said Jack to the man called Ten Thirty One.


"I'm not used to guests," said Ten Thirty One, by way of an apology for the stack of used dishes in the sink. There was a brief sizzle above the counter as another fly flew into the UV trap. "But I can offer fresh bread, goats' cheese and a very decent coffee." He filled the kettle with water and watched out of the corner of his eye as the man with the odd name sneaked a glance at the leather wristband he'd kept firmly strapped on during their earlier exercises. It didn't look like much but the damn thing had beeped just as he'd prematurely shot his load all over Jack's chest. It really hadn't helped his confidence even if his guest had soothed his nerves afterwards saying these things happened and not to worry. "I hope you like it black. I'm afraid there's no milk."

"It's fine."

"Where are you heading?" For good measure he added a couple of extra scoops into the cafetiere, crossing his fingers that the supply van would be a day or so early.

"I'm not sure yet."

"Well, where have you been?" He wasn't used to making small talk either and he was afraid it was showing. Part of him just wanted to stare at his guest and the way the sun streamed through window, through the thin white fabric of his shirt emphasising the gentle curves of his chest and waist. Part of him wanted to push the man to the floor, slide his rough trousers down his smooth thighs and ask him every minute, silly question that bubbled up into his brain.

"Kinshasa a few days ago. Nairobi last week."

"I heard it was bad in Nairobi."

"It was bad," Jack replied, standing up and crossing over to kiss him on the back of his neck. A pair of strong arms encircled Ten Thirty One's stomach. "It's bad everywhere." He didn't add it was worse in Europe.

Something hard and rigid pressed against the curve of his buttocks. "Look," the Englishman said, after a moment savouring the embrace, "I think you've got the body of a fuckin' angel but I'm not used to being with anyone and if you continue to stand that close to me I'm frightened I'm liable to disappoint you again."

A laugh, completely devoid of malice. "You won't." But Jack backed off anyway and returned to sit at the small table by the window. Though the glass he could hear a few birds trilling in the bushes. "What time do you have to open up?"

There was an angry hiss of steam from the kettle. "Seventeen Six will do the needful. If there's an emergency someone will come up from the village."

"You're a doctor then?"

"Just a health worker. I can set fractures, hand out antibiotics and bandage wounds but that's the limit of my expertise. For anything else it's a sixty mile trip to the nearest hospital." If they had petrol for a car. If there weren't any road blocks. "There — coffee." He set the glass pot down on the wood alongside a couple of tin mugs that clattered in his grasp. "Don't stand on ceremony," he muttered, pushing the handle towards Jack and reaching for the bread knife. "And what exactly do you do?"

Jack carefully poured an equal measure of steaming coffee into the cups before replying. "I'm on a mission."

"What kind of mission?" Ten Thirty One dropped a thick slice of brown bread onto the bare table top and began sawing an identical piece off the end of the loaf. The cut grains were coarse, looking nothing more appetising than weevils fossilised into place.

"To save the world." He took a sip and tried not to wince at the bitter taste. It was obviously one of the few luxuries the man let himself succumb to.

"I'm not sure if you've noticed," the Englishman said as he paused midway through cutting, a catch in his voice, "but the world's shot to buggery."

Jack reached for the cheese. "I know."


He watched the dark blob of a sail as the rising heat made it flicker over the surface of the lake. Eighty years ago this place would have been a working paradise. Hard living yet with the benison of nature's beauty to soften the edges of life's struggle. If he'd just passed by without stopping he might still have left with that impression. Only in close-up was the village as insubstantial as a movie set — empty houses, untilled fields: the bush encroaching on good fertile soil that three generations ago could have supported hundreds. He'd met six people. No — met four people and been avoided by two others obviously wary of strangers. He'd assumed the latter were what kept Ten Thirty One's clinic going.

"Did you… Did you see any children on your travels?"

He could have lied, put a fresh spark of hope into Ten Thirty One's hear, yet that seemed in the quiet of the morning the cruellest of all possible answers. "There were twins in Kinshasa around ten years old."


"No." One look into the eyes of their parents had been enough to tell him that.

Ten Thirty One sat down on the thin grass, head bowed. "When I came here we had half a dozen Clear children." The youngest had been three and blessed with the loudest pair of lungs in the village. "Now we have two." He couldn't blame them of course. It was impossible to keep active kids wrapped up in cotton wool. At one stage or another there would be fights, falls, grazes… He tugged at a tuft by Jack's boot. "I've heard rumours of a settlement at Zanzibar. Somewhere registered Clears can go to and have children in safety." An island of fecundity in a parched desert. "A whole settlement with children and their parents protected from us."

Jack had been on Unguja. "There's nothing there now." Except old crosses. And old stars. And old crescents…

Well, that was it then. The stalk of grass he'd been worrying between his fingers fell to the ground. "Shall I see if Twenty-One Two has some spare fish for lunch?" He stood up abruptly and headed down the hill at a brisk pace, not wanting Jack to see his face until the sun had dried his tears.


At the clinic later that morning Jack was introduced to Seventeen Six, a man of seventy summers and a constant smile. He was laughing as he swept up the dust on the empty waiting room floor, humming an old sea shanty to himself as he waltzed with his broom. Ten Thirty One explained he was father to the fisherman on the lake.

"Have you always been a medic?"

"Started off as a neural courier," Ten Thirty One said, with a kind of skewed pride. "Worked at that for a few years until the big Corporations came to realise there weren't enough customers to go around, let alone anyone who actually gave a fuck about their secrets." He finished tallying the list of supplies to reorder and handed the clipboard to Seventeen Six to telephone the order through to the hospital. "They paid me off — not a fortune but enough to secure a seat on one of the last flights out to Brisbane." He'd lasted a week in Australia before the guilt got too much for him and he'd boarded the first ship heading north. The clinic had been a kind of penance, albeit one he'd come to love.

"We're a long way from Brisbane," said Jack, watching him carefully.

A shrug that almost but not quite passed for nonchalance. "People moved around more then." He was relieved when the other man appeared to let the matter drop. "Want me to fetch the sprats from the fridge or would you rather we went back up to the house and fucked our brains out?"


Given they'd left Seventeen Six feeding a sample of blood into a machine even Jack didn't recognise he began to suspect the old man's role was less janitorial than it appeared. He questioned Ten Thirty One about it.

"He was a research fellow in Lagos. He's probably forgotten more medical knowledge than I'll ever know but now he's retired he's content just to help out." He tipped a plate of fishbones and scales into a bin. "I'd be lost without him." He rather feared he'd be lost too when Jack finally left. It was amazing how a few hours of casual sex and companionship had turned into a yearning for something far more permanent. Occasionally he'd pull a soldier from one of the squads that sometimes stopped at the clinic for first aid but their brutality always left him feeling shameful and grubby. It was demeaning to see the same mouth that had greedily sucked at his throbbing glans hawking up phlegm and semen onto the side of the road.

A tinny double bleep knocked him out of his reverie. Jack was tapping the mechanism strapped to his wrist as if it were a barometer portending bad weather and his touch could shift the needle.

"What the fuck is that thing?"

"It's not important."

Obviously it was. "It's part of your mission isn't it? To save the world?" He saw a faint trace of amusement cross Jack's face as the ludicrousness of his words came home. "C'mon. Out with it."

"If you insist on knowing it's scanning for a particular strain of prion."

Another thirsty soul dowsing in the desert for water. "You're not seriously still hunting for a cure?"

Jack pressed his palms together as if praying, then shook his head. "You could say I'm following the links in a chain."

"To see where it ends?"

"Oh I know where it ends," Jack said earnestly. "I just don't know where it begins."

Ten Thirty One felt the cool metal of the sink against the small of his back. "I'll repeat what I said earlier: you are bloody mad."


He'd been forced to make a promise not to put the opera back on. With Jack at the opposite end of the bed it had been tempting to sneak an arm up to the console and break his word though for the last ten minutes he'd been hyperaware of the tongue slowly progressing up the inside of his thigh — licking the dark hairs and leaving a trail like a snail's in its wake — to the detriment of all other thoughts. He could feel a nose nuzzling into his balls as they tightened. Judging by the dark purple swelling at the tip of his cock it was obvious why he was feeling light-headed. Not enough blood to go around. "I don't think I can—"

Two hands lifted his legs into the air and rested them on a pair of shoulders. Jack gave his calf muscles a good squeeze. His lips were wet and parted. "I like a man with hairy ankles." A slight shove he was inside Ten Thirty One, slowly moving back and forward with his breathing.

The Englishman looked down at the sudden wetness on his stomach with a pained expression. "Sorry…" Something hot flooded inside him and then, unexpectedly, an avalanche of sensation overwhelmed him and left him gasping for air like a fish. After a minute or so the power of speech returned. "Fuck. I think I just had a multiple orgasm."

"I should hope so too," said Jack, easing himself out and beaming from ear to ear.

Ten Thirty One flopped back on the pillow, an arm thrown over his chest. "I can die happy after that." A grunt of acknowledgement. "I mean I had a pretty wild time before I left London but it was never that good." Up until then he'd been Clear but he'd never wanted a wife and child and with money in his pocket he felt he'd nothing to lose. For a month he'd done as he pleased, doing all the things he'd only dreamed of as a teenager. At the Australian terminus he'd got off the aircraft feeling lousy and had thrown up the instant he got to the rest room. If it had been anyone else they'd have put it down to travel sickness but he'd known with all the certainty of night he was paying the price for his revelry. He'd been angry. So very angry. It was then the young man had come into the room, eighteen and only a few years younger than Ten Thirty One himself, eager to be treated as an adult and so very willing.

"There was someone in Brisbane," he said slowly, drawing the words out one by one. "I never knew his name. Never asked if he was Clear." Guilt brought a fresh flush to his cheeks.

His name had been Three Fourteen, and he had been Clear up until then, Jack knew. But he kept quiet, pushed a lock of hair away from the medic's eyes and placed a small black object on bedside table. It was almost time.

"Do you remember when you first realised you had it?"

Ah, confession time. Jack kissed him once on the forehead. "I was never infected." He sat still on the edge of the mattress whilst the information was assimilated with growing alarm.

"Are you a fuckin' nihilist?" Ten Thirty One shouted, scrabbling to get off the bed. He stood holding on to the corner of a pillowcase, body visibly shaking, with an expression like a kicked puppy, pupils blankly staring into the space between them. "I'd never have slept with you if I'd known."

"That's why I didn't tell you."

"Why me? Why did you have to sleep with me?"

Strangely that was what the last woman had asked too. "Because you're special." Not him specifically, but the base-pair sequence of the prion in his blood. Almost pure, little changed since its inception according to the scanner which had finished its analysis an hour ago. "You're a special kind of carrier."

Ten Thirty One's cock bobbed around as he pushed himself into the corner beside the bed, shrunk with stress. "That's why you're here. Justice. Revenge."

"Not at all," Jack said, trying to sound calming. "I'm trying to track the strain back to its origin. I only need to know who you caught it from."

"I've no bloody clue," the Englishman spat back. "It could have been any number of people."

That was the sad part, Jack thought, with a twinge of regret at what he had to do. Though technically speaking if he accomplished his mission Ten Thirty One might never exist at all.

The medic had finally focussed on the small black device Jack had placed near the bed. "I've seen one of them before." The look in his eyes got even wilder. "That's a neuroleptic extractor." He made to grab it but found his hand trembling uncontrollably. "Fuck. Fuckfuckfuck."

"Where I come from it's called a remembrancer." Jack watched as the air around the device began to shimmer. "They use it in mortuaries to record the memories of the recently departed for posterity." Though of course in this time stream Ten Thirty One would know it primarily as weapon for corporate espionage. "Unfortunately as you know it destroys the hippocampus and most of the temporal lobe." As Jack watched some of the tenseness leached out of the man's muscles. "I am sorry it has to be this way."

It was mad. Yet wasn't the whole earth mad? If only he could believe. Some small part of him wanted to trust that there was a way to reverse humanity's decline. That this impossibly handsome creature magnificently naked in front of him wasn't killing him irrationally. "How can you possibly reverse a century and a half of decay?"

"Just know that I can." There was a long way still to go but he'd come back down the line this far though the price had been high. Very high.

"And the clinic? My children?" His two pure innocent children.

"It's much too late for them," Jack said. "You have to see that."

He did. And it didn't surprize him to discover he must have known that for quite a while. He bowed his head for a moment as if in prayer, then awkwardly settled into a more comfortable position, as best as his numb muscles could manage. As endings went it could have been far less dignified. "You know I had started to love you."

"That's just lust."

"No," Ten Thirty One said. "I can tell the difference." He blinked hard but the field effect of the remembrancer was too strong — only Jack was now visible in his sight; the walls of the room had faded into a grey fog. He'd seen a leopard last week at the end of the village. With fewer humans around the animal population had risen to healthier levels. At the end of the day only nature was likely to inherit the earth. "Talk to me again about my eyes."

"You have the most amazing eyes I've ever seen in a human." Jack leaned forward to take his cold hand. "They're hazel. Flecked with molten gold and the green of the ocean."


(to be continued)