Jemmy Harrison's unnamed music shop wasn't the best place for a scientific conference, but it would have to do. Jemmy had quite an impressive array of computers, albeit mostly obsolete ones. The Babbage-engine brain of the dead steampunk ornithopter was also there, with Nalda translating. And Axel was there, and he was a genius after all, as was Mildred Po, perhaps the world's most talented amateur rocket scientist. And of course there was Fanaka, who seemed to be in charge of everything, after retrieving the mysterious Crystal Skull from its hiding place in Emile Fortunado's cellar.

That had proven more difficult than he'd hoped. Emile's shop had been closed, so Fanaka had gone to see Emile's colleague in the liquor business, Harry Montressor. But Harry's shop was also closed, and building noises were coming from inside, so no one could hear Fanaka knocking. In the end, Fanaka had to bribe a dodgy looking yellow cat in a straw boater to pick the lock on Emile's door, and retrieve the Skull from under a pile of receipts for fortified wine.

Now the Skull sat on a piano stool in the middle of Jemmy's floor, while the assorted geniuses and AIs stared at it, glowing softly in the dark.

"Creepy, isn't it?" Jemmy offered. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 41: Destiny"

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"It's all coming to a head," Karl said. "I can feel it. There are forces at work, finally coming together."

Karl was sitting in the backroom of his former shop. It had been closed up for non-payment of rent, but Mrs Lebeaux the Super Centre manager had – perhaps deliberately – been dragging her feet about throwing his things out. This meant that the backroom still contained not only his beloved conspiracy map with its string and pushpins, but also a cupboard full of spare suits.

"And why, exactly, do you keep a spare suit in your shop?" asked the grinning purple cat who sat on top of an ancient box of Dolly magazines. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Interlude: Chart"

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Donna tried not to think about what Donna had told her. Or what Delia had told her. Or Alfred, or Christian or Fanaka or basically anyone. She was doing something that she suspected anyone would argue her out of. But she was doing it anyway, because it needed to be done and there were few people around doing what needed to be done.

"One chicken and beef kebab, extra cheese, chilli sauce, Mr Theopoulos," she said, striding into the kebab shop.

Stavros Theopoulos smiled and paused in his restocking of his ice-cream fridge. He gestured Donna to a seat, and waved at his counterhands to serve her. "Donna, isn't it? Not usual to see any of the Handy Pavilion crowd in my shop. You don't like me, or something?"

"You're a ringleader of a weird cult that worships the Pyramid," Donna said.

"Am I?"

"We have witnesses."

"Do you? So what if you do. It's a free country."

"Is it?" Donna said. "I haven't checked today's news yet. Good to hear. Anyway, you've probably heard that the DIY Barn people have been making a comeback?"

Theopoulos shrugged, straightened his back and collapsed an empty Paddle Pop box.

"Yes?" ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 40: Yeeros"

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Delia arrived at the intersection where Alfred had been cornered by the Huge Evil Bubble. He was pressed against the wall, his hands up in a gesture of surrender. For once, she didn't feel annoyed with Alfred's timidity. She hadn't known exactly what the Huge Evil Bubble would look like, but she hadn't been prepared for… well, a huge bubble. She'd assumed that the description was more poetic than prosaic, and the discovery that it was actually a straightforward, factual description came as a surprise.

The thing was a little under two metres in diameter, translucent and spherical. Some long-forgotten schooling floated to the top of Delia's mind, and she began calculating its volume in cubic centimetres before quashing that foolish equation half completed. The bubble looked basically like a giant white party balloon, except that it was clearly alive and exuded an aura of sheer, unholy menace.

"Don't make any sudden moves," Alfred said, quietly. "I think I've managed to talk it out of eating me, but it won't back off." ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 39: Romance"

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Fanaka stood in the clock shop and thought about time. This wasn't unusual, as he was a scientist and engineer specialising in the study and control of time. And yet he wasn't thinking about time as a scientist would. He was thinking of it more as a poet, wondering at how it came and went and how you always seem to have too much or it at any given minute, but too little in any given week. He was thinking of how time felt, not how it moved. The sound of all the clocks ticking away was a reminder just how many years it had been since he'd last stood in the shop.

It was while he was thinking of how odd time was that Axel Platzoff walked into the shop and reminded him of how easy his own relationship with time had been. Axel's villainous younger self had been catapulted forward in time from the 1990s to the Battle of Wellington Road, where he had died, somehow leaving Axel's present self alive and well.

There, Fanaka thought. It was impossible to understand that malarkey as a scientist. A man's evil past killed, leaving his reformed present alive? That wasn't science, it was magical realism. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 38: Tulpa"

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As he hunted for the Huge Evil Bubble through the wood-panelled halls of Alice Hertling's Victorian-themed spaceship, Alfred found himself thinking about his daughters. He didn't see as much of them as he would have liked, now they had moved on to uni. They still came and visited now and then, but it was always a little awkward for some reason. He'd never been as close to them as he wished he'd been when they were younger, and he had no idea how to connect to them.

He had two daughters. Janet and Petra. Janet was a bookish type who wore oversized glasses and was studying political science or sociology or one of those feel-bad-about-bad-things sort of subjects. She tended to date earnest looking young men who were so keen to argue about everything that Alfred hardly dared open his mouth in front of them. Petra had ostensibly been Alfred's son, Peter, until the age of twenty when she'd tearfully explained that she really a woman, and Alfred had feign surprise and pretend he hadn't seen that coming a mile off. Actually he'd been a little pleased, since it was the one and only time he'd shown more insight into his children's lives than his ex-wife had.

Not that this insight had brought him closer to Petra. She still left her computer programming books everywhere, only now she had taken over half of the counter in Alfred's bathroom. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 37: Bubble"

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The Babbage engine that Donna had retrieved from the carpark was just a little larger than a fridge, so it had been easy to find space for it in the backroom of the Storage Universe. Donna's understanding of computing was fairly decent, but her understanding of mechanical AIs was basically nonexistant.

Fanaka was the obvious person to examine it, but he'd had to go and open the watch repair shop. Nalda, as an AI herself, was also a good choice but her shift had begun at the disposals store. That meant that the task was in the hands of Axel Platzoff and Vincent Pizaro.

Professor Devistato and Captain Stellar. A former supervillain and a former superhero, working together. Donna wondered whether Sadie would have appreciated this, or considered it an unfortunate compromise.

"Nothing," Axel said. "I can't see any obvious problem, but it's shutting down anyway."

"Hang in there!" Vincent said. "Don't give up now, damn it!"

"How does that stop something from dying?"

"I don't know. It just does." ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 36: Future"

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Sorry for delay. Should be back on track now.

...

Delia wasn't jealous of U. Not really. After all, it was Alfred we were talking about, wasn't it? And a drop-dead gorgeous twentysomething blonde was not likely to have been interested in Alfred with his cardigans and comb-over.

(Except that he looked a little dashing in his black blazer. And the comb-over had given way to a buzzcut that made him look like a short, fat Patrick Stewart except with a moustache.)

"So run this by me again," Alfred said. "We are in…"

Alice Hertling topped up Alfred's tea. The four of them – Delia, Alice, Alfred and U – sat in the crinoline-draped tea room of Alice's spaceship, hovering over the Suburb. Delia sipped her lapsang souchong, while U tossed back jam-and-cream scones like there was no tomorrow. By great effort of will, Delia refrained from thinking something stereotypical about U's figure and the future thereof.

"We are in North Hertling, Mr Pilbrook," Alice said.

"There is no North Hertling," Alfred said. "Only South."

"Why?" Alice said. "Why not just call it 'Hertling'?"

Alfred sipped at his tea and scratched his head. "There is no North Hertling," he said. "Only South." ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 35: North"

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The morning sun was shining over the Super Centre carpark. The earliest retail workers were arriving as best they could with the entire Easter parking area occupied by the massive form of the great metal bird. Mostly, they avoided looking at it. The people of South Hertling were becoming adept at not seeing things.

Fanaka yawned wide as he kicked the bird’s landing gear. “It’s an ornithopter,” he said.

“Yes,” he added.

“Is that all you can say?” Donna asked.

Fanaka shrugged.

“But you’re an engineer from planet Steampunk, right?” Donna said. “This should be right up your alley.”

Fanaka scratched his head, kicked the landing gear and made a ‘maybe-maybe’ sort of gesture. “Well,” he said. “There are giant steampunk ornithopters, and then there are giant steampunk ornithopters, if you follow me.”

...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 34: Ornithopter"

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Alfred awoke slowly and groggily. His mouth tasted sour and his tongue felt like it was made of gum.

"Must have been N on drugging duty last night," he groaned. "Always goes too heavy on the chloroform."

As soon as his head felt up to the task, he looked around. He was seated on a bench in a sunlit park. To his left was an open field, where some men in blazers were having a three-legged sack race, complicated by the fact that they were all running in different directions. To the right was the Huge Evil Bubble, the smooth white surface of which was smeared in mud. It groaned quietly.

"Bad night too, eh, mate?" Alfred said. He fished some biscuits from his pocket and placed them on the ground before the creature, which absorbed them into its body. ...continue reading "Clocks and Boxes — Part 33: Computer"

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