Picking Flowers

Picking Flowers

A missing person’s case was new for me. Mostly it’s straightforward deaths. I mean, they might have been missing before they died, but I usually only got involved at the end of that perilous chase. Since they’re already dead, there isn’t much urgency, other than in identifying yet another dangerous plant, animal or microbial vector that has sprung up. The suits are good, as are the scanners, but it’s impossible to filter out everything that people track back into the compound. Ah, Relgex VI, planet of the future. I really like it here, but then xenobiology was always fascinating, and there are only a few places you can hope to visit which have such a wide array of rapidly evolving life. It’s rather exciting, though it is perhaps a shame how many of their adaptations are lethal to a baseline human. The rest of the industrial colony are mostly boosted with additional autobiomes that correct and hunt down the more mundanely murderous things that get into their systems. The trick is that such solutions do just spur the damned things on to get more and more deadly. Unless we find some miracle cure I estimate that Relgex VI will be completely unoccupiable within a decade. That would be disappointing – and not only for my research and general enjoyment – Relgex VI is inevitably one of the few places with seriously vast deposits of brimeon, the most important element in constructing faster than light portals. It’s almost as if the biology here were trying to protect it…

Anyway, someone’s missing. “Presumed dead,” because that’s how this world rolls. One Daymen Herrenak, forty-three, male, miner. Oh, tall too, that kind of height which makes someone seem attractive because their face is too far away to read their expression properly. The photo gave him a grim cast, though if it was taken after arrival that would account for it. The danger pay is wild and draws in a lot of very serious people, but they don’t all get to leave with that cash. First noticed to be missing on the return shuttle from the Andus mine, but definitely checked in at the mine, kept telemetry running while at work and all that. So must have gone AWOL somewhere between the end of shift and getting on the shuttle. That’s a decent window of around thirty minutes for Relgex to have struck once more. Having never done a disappearance before, I took the opportunity to have a rifle through his quarters, in case some more tedious cause than plant-murder presented itself.

We all get a cube, three and a half meters on a side. They’re stacked up like kids’ bricks in the compound, within earshot of the flame throwers and electro-pulse defences that flare all night and day to keep the locals at bay. Mine’s way out on the other side of the residential block, along with most of the residential staff. The miners get these slightly crappier and endlessly reused cubes to stay in. Not a lot to see, though I hadn’t expected much. I was hoping for a stash of banned pharma or booze, but he didn’t have anything beyond a case of clothes, tablet and a “don’t fucking touch” guide to the most immediately murderous of Relgex VI’s plant and animal life. My heart nearly stopped when I spotted the vase of flowers on the window sill. I scrabbled frantically for the mask, goggles and gloves strapped to my belt. I hadn’t thought to wear them inside the compound, like an idiot. Still, not as much of an idiot as someone who managed to smuggle death’s irises back through the scanners. Sure, awfully pretty with its show-off purple petals. It’s a shame they bite and exude a neurotoxin that makes your nerves roll up and strangle your organs. I approached cautiously, but to my immense relief this thing was very dead. It appeared to have been freeze-dried and had a thin laminate coat. The first stopped it biting, and the second would have concealed it from the scanners.

What a moron. That was my overriding thought as I hopped on the mining shuttle headed out to the Andus mine. I already had a good idea what had happened to Daymen. Now that I’d seen he was fool enough to stop and smell the flowers, he’d most likely done that again and sniffed something even more brutal than a death’s iris. It’s funny actually, those iris-analogues (because obviously it’s not an iris, or even biologically that similar to an Earth iris) were one of the most abundant plants when people first arrived here, and made them feel right at home. Remember: humans are not bright. We run on algorithms that process the world according to familiarity and moderate our emotions and sense of danger on that basis. Honestly, it’s fuck-all use on Relgex VI, as my blundering around in Daymen’s cube reminded me. Now, I was togged right up. The second-skin is a barely impregnable layer which makes you sweat like a bastard if you don’t also have the next two layers of cooling and protective clothing on top. It’s essentially a space suit which you could take underwater. Multiple filters and redundancies scrubbing the microscopic stuff out of the air too. I felt about as safe as you can here when I finished off with a series of shots for the latest and greatest mutant strains. Daymen’s fellow miners were a cheery bunch, deeply focused on mining as much cash out of the job as they could and going home alive. Daymen had fit in well, not too much of a weirdo, though he did spend a lot of time gazing out of the shuttle window instead of playing cards. I really hoped those cards stayed on the shuttle. The shuttle’s a clean space in theory, but lacks the depth of filtration and scanning that the compound provides, and these folks were playing with them with naked or at least only second-skin hands. Safety always wears thin when you’re exposed daily.

Andus mine is the fourth A-rated mine, that’s “A for An awful lot of brimeon.” These were the mines we were trying to empty as rapidly as possible before the biology overwhelms us. After that there are still B and C mining opportunities, but it’s the six A mines that are the priority. We’re hammering them all pretty hard, and that takes a lot of manpower to run the machines and occasionally descend into the mines in person when those machines break down. Brimeon is amazing, not only is it “slick” to protons, which is something to do with the FTL portals, but it has an immediate and direct effect on life. It’s a little like radiation, except it doesn’t harm, it strengthens. The miners who get closest to it see improved telomere resilience and a much better than expected duplication of DNA. Basically, we’re error-prone meat machines which are falling apart from the moment we’re born, and brimeon seems to fix that. Shame we’re sticking most of it in space really.

The conical towers of Andus are visible before we get near it, and the shuttle takes a cautious circular route around the mine before landing. Just in case everything’s gone horribly wrong and it’s been overrun by vorpaths or something (not good, not good at all – Auric mine got overrun once and it took three months to kill everything on site, and to replace every single one of the miners). All clear for landing and down we go. More filters and scanners bombard the passengers as we enter the mining complex, and already the deep grinding bass rumbles from a mile below are audible through my bones. I don’t need to go into the mine itself, I’m fairly confident Daymen met his end outside, so I beg, borrow and steal a couple of the security guards to come with me outside.

There are very limited opportunities to wander off and pick some flowers. The shuttle pick-up is only twenty-five meters from the complex, but if Daymen liked death irises, there was an excellent chance that they’d be growing in the shade of the shuttles’ exhaust. They absolutely love that stuff – this is the problem with this adaptive biome, what we think should be poison is like mothers’ milk. The security guards hang back as far as they possibly can while technically accompanying me. I’m not worried about distance, what I want is for them to annihilate anything that comes for us while I’m gazing at the ground. It’s not long before they’re keeping up a constant barrage of electric pulses and worse. There are indeed some young Death Irises where the shuttles land – the security guards scorch that patch of earth bare and fry it to a foot below the surface. I get my proper detective “aha” moment when I spot the footprints in the mud leading off away from the shuttle: no one goes off-site, no one. Thus, Daymen. Either I’m really good at this, or there was no mystery at all and this was an easy case.

I lead my little team further out. They’re all super-twitchy and nervous, but there’s no way Daymen could have gotten far. And I’m right. The trail of footsteps stops abruptly. If I were a tracker I reckon I’d make out a half-step, then some pattern that indicated one leg had been pulled out from under him, and then he’d been bodily dragged sideways. I’m no tracker, nor am I psychic, but I do not what a severed human leg covered in mile leeches looks like (yep, they’re really long leeches, so it was probably just one leech, actually). That acted like an arrow, pointing at the tree-analogue to our left. “Found him,” I called out, wholly unnecessarily. Daymen had been caught by a banjax tree. Very nasty things, they specialise in tripping things with their roots, then grabbing them and pulling them slowly apart. If it weren’t for the sound of the shuttles and the mine, someone would have heard Daymen screaming. I could imagine it now as we gazed up at him, stretched vertically up the ten meter trunk of the banjax tree.

OK, so my first detective mystery was pretty easy to solve, and it was just one more death by misadventure to add to Relgex VI’s body count. We torched the tree, the mile leech and everything else between us and the mining site before heading back. I get to file a report and everything. After noting the smuggled iris in his quarters, Daymen’s death benefits got slashed by three quarters, which sucks for anyone he left behind. His little potted plant and everything in his cube get thrown in the incinerator for good measure. One more chapter for the “don’t fucking touch” guide, I guess.



It had been a good year for Henwyc: the best house in the town to live in, its softest sheets to sleep in, the freedom of the town! He’d enjoyed it too, accepting the freebies and attention as his due reward. But it was all coming to an end. Soon he’d have pay back what he’d received, and more besides. Today was the day the volcano would claim him. It seemed a fair deal: the volcano must be appeased, how else could the town survive on its slopes? There was a fine balance that they had found between reaping the harvest of the mountain’s lower slopes’ rich soil and being obliterated by its eruption. Naturally the solution had been – had always been – human sacrifice. What else had value, what else would be lost when the volcano erupted? Cattle and food, even fine clothes were all replaceable, but a human life was the most treasured and valued thing the town possessed. Its people were its lifeblood, and so were the only suitable thing to pour into the crater at the mountain’s peak.

The townspeople weren’t monsters, they were just practical. An annual human sacrifice, drawn by public lottery from those entering their thirtieth year. Earlier schemes to preserve the town attempted to throw away only those lives that had either been used up, or had yet to truly begin. But the volcano knew, and its threatening rumbles and plumes of smoke had deterred them from these courses. For the sacrifice to be valued, it must be of value. A life that has been lived, benefited the community and had more to give in future. It was perhaps a coincidence that the elders who determined the change in rules were themselves of greater than thirty years of age. The sacrifice had its critics, of course it did, but none could dispute the plain fact that in the twenty-six years since the annual casting of a thirty year-old into the lava, that fiery rock had not flowed down the slopes. Gas and ash, yes, but that had largely been interpreted as the volcano making sure the town remembered their duties. No one expected the volcano to turn nice.

So Henwyc had lived out his last few days, dining well, enjoying his wife and family (who, along with his two children, also received the benefits due a sacrifice), dressing in the finery his status accorded him. When his name had been drawn out in the lottery he had felt frozen, his innards scooped out and flung into the air at learning that he was to be the next sacrifice. They had only just watched Venqui throw herself into the crater a day earlier. The horror and experience were fresh and raw, but so had been the relief that the town would be safe. It had taken some adjusting to, but the good life helped. In a few weeks the fear had faded, replaced with not quite duty but rather with a desire to relish the day, in hopes or pretence that tomorrow would never come. But it had, of course. The last few weeks Henwyc had caught his wife weeping several times, and he could offer little in the way of comfort other than her continued existence. That isn’t really enough to calm a person’s soul, since it’s a bare minimum requirement for experiencing anything else. His children seemed more stoic. They’d leveraged the advantages of this year of favour into the very top of their social order, confident that they’d be able to win any argument with the simple “my father gave his life so you could live.” It was the sort of tactic deployed ruthlessly by all the sacrifices’ families, and was in truth the most annoying part of the sacrifice for many in the town.

The day itself: a warm, bright day. No gathering clouds to hint at Henwyc’s coming doom, just a sunny happiness that all was well in the world, and he would be one of the elements that allowed it to continue. A hearty breakfast with the family. A large glass of beer. It would be the first of many – being brave enough to leap into a volcanic crater is a courage best amplified and secured through alcohol and social pressure. There would be enough of each to ensure Henwyc leaped of his own volition. The day of sacrifice is effectively a party for everyone but the fated individual, even if it is in their honour. Henwyc sat aboard a float in the main parade, extravagantly attired in white and gold, with powerful spirits within arms’ reach. The parade wound its way up the side of the volcano. Plainly this was to be a timely sacrifice, for a light ash dusted the procession and the stench of sulphur was at times overwhelming. Below the crater and the carved path that led to its rim Henwyc debarked from the float and was given a moment to gather his loved ones. While Henwyc had no plans or prospects beyond this point, his wife and children had spent months making their own preparations for their lives to continue: favours, employment, and future re-marriage were all in their imminent future. Yet Henwyc knew none of this. He should have no resentment of a life not lived, no sense that he might be able to turn back and undermine the foundations of the town. Tearful, loved and loving, he turned his back on family and friends and was escorted up the steep steps to the smoky peak.

Henwyc was a little unsteady, but clear-eyed as he gazed out across the reeking summit. His escort had stopped twenty paces back, close enough for encouragement should he need it, but far enough to allow him the dignity of embracing his own sacrifice. Imagine Henwyc’s surprise then, as he balanced on the edge, toes wiggling over the empty space, at hearing a voice. A voice, from below him. He gripped more tightly with his toes, and peered over the edge. He recognised the voice, and the face it belonged to: Venqui. And she was not alone. Clustered on a ledge beside her were three others he recognised from sacrifices over the past ten years. All heroes, all had sustained the town’s precarious position. He was aghast, and remonstrated strongly with them – without their sacrifice everything was in danger. They assured him that was not the case, and that he should jump – carefully – and land on the ledge they stood on, rather than plummet into the fiery death below. After all, the volcano hadn’t erupted, despite their lack of sacrifice, had it? And if their deaths were unnecessary, then surely his was too. But there would be no going back to the town. That life was over. Their logic was unassailable, and really, deep down, Henwyc didn’t want to die, even if that was an option he’d worked out of his mind over the last year.

He took his chance. With a final wave at his escorts, he jumped over the lip of the crater. The ledge was only ten feet below, but narrow, and he barely made it. Had Venqui and the others not grabbed at him, he would have been a sacrifice anyway. He looked over the edge at the roiling mass of molten rock beneath them and shuddered. He had never given any thought to how it might feel being simultaneously boiled and burned alive, choked by fumes. The others ushered him along the ledge to where a tunnel descended, leading out ultimately on the other side of the volcano. From there the failed sacrifices climbed down the rest of the mountain to where a small boat was anchored at the shore beyond. They’d been living in another town across the straits, where sacrifice and the volcano felt like distant things. But they came back every year in hopes of saving a life. They were not always successful.

As they bent their backs to the oars and drew Henwyc away from the life he’d always known and the death that had been assured, there came a mighty crack and boom from the volcano that had almost claimed him. The rumbling grew, chasing waves across the sea, and the first gargantuan plume of smoke and ash spewed from the volcano’s mouth. It had been patient, yet it had been robbed.

Last Blood

Today is the last day that I shall drink human blood. The last day I’ll kill to further prolong my life. It’s already been too long. Obviously, I’m a vampire, not just some human who’s gone too far into goth and come out with a biting habit. Killing people is just what we do. It’s part of the deal: possible immortality and all you have to do is murder someone and drink all their blood, at least once per year. The actual killing stopped being particularly bothersome a hundred years or so ago. At first I and those like me suffered the moral quandary of taking a life to maintain our own, but that’s what we did as humans anyway. Is killing a sentient thing that much worse than having hundreds of non-sentient creatures killed to feed you? Not really. It’s easy enough to make a hollow case that sentience is special, but it plainly isn’t, not when there are billions of equally sentient creatures just like you wandering around. Life isn’t special – literally the one thing that life does as a matter of course is to make more life. “Oh, but their families…” they can get another one, of whatever they’ve lost – and they often do. Adding just one more somewhat unlikely way for a member of a species to die barely touches them on a population level. We’ve all been through phases of trying to minimise our impact, by selecting only from the unwanted, or the criminal. Become an avenging angel, and stay alive as a handy bonus. It’s just dishonest, and frequently unpleasant. Draining a body is a messy business, and is the last thing you want to be doing in some filthy alley. Bathtubs and ceramic tiles are a much better bet. Ultimately, if you want to live you need to kill some of them, and it’s the moments after you kill that are the best, when life takes on that Technicolor glow and brightness. Everything’s moving and dancing and I’m present in the world again. It doesn’t last, of course, and soon the empty fact of just existing returns. The prospect of immortality is exciting – you’ll have time to do everything you’ve ever wanted to. Sure, and what then? Get a job? Why even bother with immortality if you’re just going to be drawn back into the trudging mire of the world? It probably sounds like I’m a little down on vampirism. I’m not – or rather – it’s just the same, except more drawn out. As a human I could go a few days without eating, or without sleeping, or whatever and then I’d need to catch up, fill up, and then be ready to keep on keeping on. As a vampire it’s exactly the same, but those few days have become weeks and months instead. It’s just not that glamourous and exciting – I could be the oldest check-out supervisor in the night shift at the local supermarket or the CEO of some global company but I’ll just have to do it for longer. We still need money, still need a place to live, clothes to wear and something to do. Obviously it was a lot easier to keep accumulating money across a score of human lives when there was less tracking and less paperwork. It’s a hassle now, but enough of venal tax dodges and shell company workarounds exist that can do the same for wealth you inherit from yourself. But it’s a hassle, and I’m tired of it all. Was it really worth staying alive for hundreds of years to finally get a PlayStation 2? Probably. It’s hard to see when you’re living it, but the world is so much better now that it was, so much more interesting and full of things. Seeing that all change has been exciting, but I’ve never felt part of it. We stand to one side, watching the river flow, occasionally snatching out one of the fish streaming past. Yes, people are those fish. Our world is numb and cold except where it intersects with the human world. We can’t escape what we once were, and can never be them again. No wonder we can become aloof murderers, like billionaires living above and beyond the rest of society, effectively unlimited except by having to descend into that society to give their existence meaning. At least they’ll only live a few decades before killing themselves with power yoga plus a ridiculous herbal tonic. So, yes – I’m done, I think. I have, of course, said this to myself before. I’ve gone as long as I can without drinking blood, fourteen months, until everyone I pass in the street looks like a bag of blood and they reek of it. I’m weak as a result, possibly too weak to actually go and kill someone, unless I want to return to gutter-robbing unconscious filth. I’ve managed to avoid that, and I’m not certain I even have the strength to walk around outside and find someone. Instead, I’m holed up here in this penthouse suite with its floor-to-ceiling sunrise-facing windows that open out onto the balcony, the remote for the curtains on the bed next to me. It should be fairly quick, despite the numerous horror stories I’ve heard about the power of sunlight. It’s got to be better than stabbing myself in the heart. I’m so tired, as I might fall asleep without even noticing. Sunrise was at 5.38am, and I’ve been listening to the birds waking up and the outside world coming to life. In a few moments I’ll press the switch . And yet – what’s this? A knock on the door. Oh for fuck’s sake, did I really forget to put the “do not disturb” thing on the door handle! I was so close…

Being Dead Sucks

Being Dead Sucks

Being dead sucks. That probably seems obvious, but it’s worse than you think. There’s always been a lot of nonsense tossed around about ghosts and spirits, about the duality of body and soul, and if I’m honest, one of the worst things about being dead is discovering that some of that stuff is actually true. Frankly, I’m appalled that made-up mysticism without a trace of evidence did strike upon some kind of accuracy. It’s almost enough to make me renounce my own non-existence. Still, if I have to be dead and still aware, I’m glad that some of my former assumptions have proven to not be true. If the soul were merely a component of the body, I’d be fucked.

I discovered that I was dead when the plane I was travelling in took the opportunity to wreck my holiday plans, catch light and then explode over twenty miles of abandoned forest and mountain. I’d always liked the idea of exploring the wilderness, but I reckon a body would have made it all the more fun. I first discovered I was dead when I was torn free of my body. Funny thing about the physical and mental planes running in parallel is that they’re both subject to time and a bunch of the usual laws of physics, but if one of them suddenly stops, the other keeps right on going. So at about the time when my body packed in, due to fire, explosion and whatever, I experienced a moment of hideous pain, panic, and then my spirit – ghost, whatever – just kept right on going at three hundred miles per hour. Freed from the parallel track we spend our lives on, I screamed in terror until I realised I couldn’t feel anything, not even the ground I slammed into. Since I no longer had a physical body, all I could do was glide seamlessly through it until whatever velocity my body had been travelling at when my soul was ejected finally dissipated. I like to imagine the friction of rock and earth went some way to slowing me down, but who the hell knows. Eventually motion ceased and I was left, embedded in rock.

So what am I now? Hard to say – I’ve got no bits of me to look at. I don’t show up in a mirror (after a seemingly endless trek back up through the ground and across hundreds of miles of pretty but frustrating nature. I imagine myself as an entangled ball of electrons – basically my brain but without the jelly meat bits. Whatever I am, I’m not physical so that’s just how I think I should see me. There’s definitely no white sheet, and I’ve no fingers to lay a spectral hand on your shoulder. All that suggests to me that ghost stories are not likely to be true, and that their cause is likely social and psychological – even if the mind can see another mind, its body can’t. And yet my mind (because that’s all I am) can still perceive the world of the physical realm. I wonder if that’s a result of being so used to seeing the world through the meat body eyes I used to have that it still seems real, or if it’s that animism was closer to the mark than we thought and all physical things have an imprint on the mental realm – sometimes it’s a whole mind, sometimes it’s a shape that the body and mind have always had to navigate around. It’s taken some getting used to. I spent a long time being really upset about everything. All the people I knew and loved, they’d all lost me, and I’d lost them. What was left, just wandering the Earth aimlessly, staring at things?

Perhaps we should cover some of the plus points, since otherwise it’s going to sound like I’m just down on the whole being dead thing. Those physical laws that seemed so immutable when I first left my body, turns out they’re more optional than I expected. I did have a desire to see my home, and check up on my family and friends – I’m dead, not a monster. But I couldn’t figure out how to get there. There’s a bloody big sea in the way, and while I discovered that I can sort of sink to the bottom and keep moving, I didn’t relish the hundreds of miles in total darkness in the depths. Cool to be down there, sure, but I couldn’t see how I’d know which direction I should go in once I was down there. I could just wander through the world, see what the magma core looks like I guess. But what for? It’s easy to forget that there is no purpose to life, that your body’s main purpose is just not dying for as long as possible. That’s not exactly motivation to do anything once your body’s in pieces being eaten by wolves. Probably. Turns out I can float, like hope, or a stick. It takes a bit of concentration, and waves are a nightmare, but I eventually managed to pass through the ocean just below the surface. It’s a hell of a view, though if like me you’ve always been rather freaked out by sharks, I really don’t recommend it – you’re better off not dying and using a boat, or a plane.

When I finally made it back to what I used to think of as civilisation it was an enormous relief, but grasping the scale of what I could no longer experience was absolutely crushing. Everything moves around as it always did, people talking, doing, all the things that they always used to do and it’s all just beyond my touch. I’d felt like this sometimes when I was still alive, when I still had the physical suit that I could move around in: disconnected, hollow, unable to find a reason to be or to do anything at all. It was bad enough when I had the prospect of antidepressants and human contact, but when none of that is available, well. It’s a lot worse. I lost a lot of time in those first few years. I have no needs to maintain, I require no sustenance. I can just drift, sightless and deaf to the world around me. Traffic poses no threats, walls were no barrier to my dandelion seed existence.

It took years of wandering before I realised that although I had no body, nothing else had really changed. Alright, that’s a slightly bleak way to look to at it, but if there’s no purpose to physical existence except what you make of it, then meaning and goals can be found, and clutched at, perhaps desperately. You’ll note that I’d received no helpful message about being in some purgatorial state pending resolution of physical affairs, after which I’d be whisked off up or down to a fresh plane of existence. None of that stuff. I decided I’d try and haunt things properly. Be the ghost in the machine that people had always worried about. Not a ghost, not some frightful possessing demon. I’d noticed that although machines seem to have some noticeable existence that I can perceive in my mental plane, there’s no mind in there, but there are decisions being made, levers flicked by deterministic action, and where there’s physical extension, the mental plane runs alongside it. Basically, I can turn lights on and off. I’m working my way up to interfering (creatively) with computers – that seems like something that could either work out really well and find me a way to interact properly with the physical world again, or it’ll go horribly wrong and I’ll trigger world war three. It’s not much, but it’s what I’ve got. Like I said, being dead sucks.

Gock’s Throat

Gock's Throat

The village appeared to be deserted when we arrived. It was possible that the entire fishing community was at sea, but it seemed unlikely that there would be no one tending to nets and that even those not of fishing age would have taken to the water. I and my assistants – to you that’s Nebrous Charl, ably accompanied by Lost Ninch and Natched Hax – had been dispatched by the Guild to investigate strange tales of a lost fishing village and other, stranger rumours. Twenty-three days’ ride down the coast to find an empty village didn’t greatly please me, but since we’d taken the trouble it behooved us to fully investigate before we departed with nothing.

It had been a harsh year of storms and vicious waves which had battered the coast from Velch to Norham. Not a good year for those who lived their lives by the water’s edge. Shipwrecks, empty nets and countless lives lost to the sea. No doubt the people of Gock’s Throat had faced a challenging year of loss and disappointment. Even in the capital there had been much moaning about not having fresh fish, though those tongues of course had precious little concern for those on the watery coalface of that problem. Stories had been passed up the coast of villages lost to the sea entirely, and it was reassuring to see that the “throat” of this hamlet’s name had done much to protect its inhabitants. That said, the waters looked especially brutal, pounding the rocks beyond the inlet’s gullet. One good thing about traveling on the Guild’s behalf is that I see a thousand lives I don’t want to live, which makes me feel rather better about this one. I sent Ninch and Hax off to scout around the various huts and homes, while I made my way down to the shore.

Low tide revealed the usual detritus of fish bones, shells, shreds of net, glinting and glistening smoothness and tiny pools of water. I rather like beaches, one never knows what one might find. I pocketed a handful of sea-worn glass, pebbles and shells while musing on the village’s fate. As I walked back to the cluster of huts and outstepped the sea’s high point I noted a curious series of wide shallow trenches leading from the village out to sea. They’d been erased in the damp sand further out, but here they were clearer, if much trampled and disrupted. I sat on a barrel to await my assistants and shook out my favourite pipe. I’d barely begun to fill it when a discerned a thick croaking. At first I thought it could be one of the odder sea birds, but we’d seen none here. Perhaps such failed sea harvests had put the little demons off – I’d never seen a fishing settlement that wasn’t besieged by them. Some kind of crab… As I turned in a slow circle, trying to place the sound I saw a flash of movement in one of the huts. Perhaps a windchime caught by the sea breeze, or perhaps something more.

The hut, or home I should say, to give greater respect to those who suffered a harsh life here on the edges of civilisation, was of a typically solid construction. Sea-rescued planks and rock bound together to form a surprisingly resolute presence against the elements. The door split into two, the top half open, and it was over its edge that I’d spotted movement. I approached warily. Normally I’d send Lost or Natched into the more precarious situations (one learns by doing), but they were still out circling and I’d spent far too long in the saddle to put off an opportunity to do anything that wasn’t being bounced off a horse’s spine. That croak came again, and a hand splayed out in a gesture of “halt.”

“Hello,” I called out, “my name is Nebrous Charl. I’ve been sent by the Guild to check on your village. Can you tell me what happened here?”

A thick cough turned into a chuckle and back into a racking choke. When it passed, an arm draped itself over the lower half of the door and the eyes and nose of what I took to be an old woman rose into view.

“Depart now, and leave us to our shame,” she rasped out, “return in a week and raze Gock’s Throat to the ground.”


“What manner of corruption has despoiled this place?”

“Greed, desperation, stupidity.”

Ah, the usual.

“Please, tell me of your village’s fall, elder,” I requested, setting yet another barrel upright and making a renewed attempt on my pipe.

Seeing that I was making myself comfortable, the woman relented and shared her story in harsh, choking eructations that sounded painful.

“Three weeks ago this all came to pass. The sea had turned upon us, no fish, scarcely a scrapling to be found for miles, all fled the terror of the storms that took our fisherboys and smashed our boats. We were starving, hunting gulls and molluscs till they all fled too. The storm grew too frightful to take the boats out and we’d scrabble up the throat in high tide for whatever the storms had thrust towards us. Precious little, and what there was tasted muddled and wrong.

“One night the waves were brutal, hammering the throat – naught but white foam by the time it reached the shore. When the water drew back, beneath the battered scum lay a creature we’d only dreamed of. Merfolk might be myth but this one was as real as you or I. Near-death, choking on that foamy seawater, bruised and worn by the sea. There was much talk of the right course of action. Drag em back to the sea, nurse them to health and the like. While we debated, the merfolk died. Hard to make one omen more ominous than the last in a season of ill tidings, yet the merman’s lifeless eyes spoke accusingly at us. Have I told you we were starving? A handful of cockles a day, seaweed broth. It wears a soul down to nothing. While some of us claimed we would not allow it, we did.

“The merman was sliced and butchered. Half fish, half man, who’s to say what meat we tasted? We feasted that night, and the next, our poor withered stomachs barely able to take what we gave it. I’ve never tasted the like before, the rich peppery taste of it… All was well, the village fed for the first time in weeks, and even the storm’s wrath abated and we could fish once more. Saved by the sea, we thought.

“Days later came the changes. We’d wake to find the skin between fingers and toes thicker, growing webbed. Even if you cut it back it’d just grow the more that night. The skin of the legs and hips grew rough, split. The legs themselves bound closer and closer together, no matter how one slept spreadeagled. Toes lengthened next, teeth sharpened. All this took a matter of weeks. And then at the last, we woke up choking in our beds, unable to breathe this thin air. They dragged themselves out of bed, crawled, hauling their twisted legs behind them all down to the sea. There lay breath. And once in, there was no coming back out.

“I watched them swimming in the throat, growing used to their new bodies and the sea in a way we never could as fisherfolk. And then one day they were gone.”

I regarded the old woman with some scepticism, though I took note of the troughs in the beach which aligned with her tale. “And what of you, elder? Why do you remain?”

“An accident some years before broke my spine; I can no more swim than I can walk. No, I have waited here to warn whoever came of our shame and fall.”

The lower door that she clung to shook and gave way, swinging open outwards. I gasped as she fell forward into the sunlight. Her skin was crisped as if burned, thin and translucent. And where her legs ought to be… a tail. Dry and cracked, yet a tail nonetheless. My assistants chose that moment to complete their rounds.

“Fuck me, it’s a fish woman,” Lost Ninch choked out as Natched Hax gawped and drew his axe.

“A moment, gentlemen,” I waved them back and knelt to the elder’s side. “And what would you have us do with you now, now that we’ve heard your tale?”

“Will you take me to the sea? I cannot live there, but I’ll die here alone anyway. Would you do that for me, Guildsman?”

We carried her between us, though she weighed almost nothing, all down the empty low tide shore and to the end of the inlet itself, where the waves smashed down on the rocks that had long protected the village of Gock’s Throat. There we waited for a lull in the pounding sea and slipped her down into the water. Her eyes caught mine as she dipped below the surface and was suddenly able to breathe once more. In the roar of the sea she vanished almost immediately, but I’d swear I caught sight of some other tailed creature like a man further out in the waves, there and gone in a second.

We returned to Gock’s Throat and burned it to the ground. We returned to the Guild with our strange tale. We’d be back before long with men better equipped for hunting and capturing these elusive merfolk, and then we’d learn some more.

The Family Neice

The Family Neice

The mech stomped into the clearing, its two stumpy legs and broad feet crushing the undergrowth and flattening smaller bushes. This time it had managed to circumnavigate the small wood without either falling over (very heavy to push back upright again) or getting stuck between trees (very difficult to get out). All in all, it was looking like a success. Terbald Neice sucked his teeth as the mech completed its routine, coming to a stop dead centre where all the grass had been pummelled into paste by its previous circuits. Joints and various mechanisms whined and shuddered to a halt, dropping the mech from its fully extended legs down to its knees. While those legs were indeed stumpy, it still stood twice Terbald’s height at a full stretch. Once it had accomplished its version of kneeling, his face was level with the top of the hatch on its side. A further hiss, pop, no small amount of swearing, and a hefty thunk and the hatch opened.

Terbald had expertly judged the distance and it swung past his nose with an inch to spare. From within emerged his brother, Ormald Neice, plastered in sweat and red in the face. With a bit more effort, Terbald helped Ormald out of the mech. Another success: they didn’t knock it over. His brother out of the way, Terbald stuck his head through the hatch to inspect the mech’s innards. He looked rather like a bin-diving gull with his skinny legs and round body. That was at least one good reason to do the hard work of building the mech rather than piloting it – he left that to his thick-legged yet skinny torsoed brother.

“Worked alright? Nothing went bang on you?” Terbald’s voice came muffled by the machine.

Ormald shook free his hair from the band that held it and its load of sweat, made the best effort he could to tug the sopping wet t-shirt and trousers from his skin and sat down on one of the camping chairs they’d set up earlier.

“Nothing actually exploded, but that radiator from the engine is red hot.”

“Well it is a radiator.”

“I know, but can’t it point somewhere other than my back?”

“Maybe. Can’t afford to dump too much heat if we want to go unnoticed for long.”

“You don’t think it makes enough noise to make up for any heat signature?”

“Version four problems,” muttered Terbald, yanking something free from inside the mech. He inspected the hexagonal plate and tapped it lightly with a screwdriver he’d extracted from somewhere about his person.

“Visibility’s good though, especially considering how narrow that slot is. The groundview mirrors are helping a lot too.”

“And that you’ve already stomped most of those bushes flat by now.”

“That too,” Ormald yawned and stretched enormously. “I… am knackered.”

“Right then, let’s cover her up and find some peace elsewhere.”

Terbald withdrew from the mech, having replaced the part he was fiddling with. The brothers hoisted a thick canvas sheet over the mech, tethered by pegs in the ground, and a camouflage net over the top.

As the pair left the clearing, the sun was just about ready to give up on the day too, but not fully prepared to surrender to the twin moons and their bevy of stars. It had little choice though, and would soon be replaced by them. In the fading light, nothing was more evident than the stark triangular shapes that hung in orbit, evening sunlight glaring off their hulls. Some kind of invasion, or at best an aggressive greeting was coming; there was only so long they could lurk up there without at least saying “hello.” That was the general consensus anyway, and while revving up the military might be taken badly by a visitor from beyond, there was nothing to stop backyard tinkerers like the Neices from setting their own plans in action. “Be ready to be ready” had long been the family motto. The sprawling farmhouse and its associated outhouses that contained the equally sprawling Neice clan were filled with such inventions and half-thought out, half-complete rainy projects. The two-legged mech (“Forest Stalker,” as Terbald insisted it should be called) was only one of their ongoing developments, rushed into an accelerated programme by the arrival of the alien shapes in space.

On their arrival at the homestead, they were greeted by a neat line of red eyes that bobbed up out of the grass, bleating a warning to intruders. With a  wave, Ormald dispelled the guardians’ attention and they crossed safely. A stuttering roar erupted from a nearby outhouse and the brothers dove to the ground, avoiding the pulsed fire that stitched through where their shoulders had been and pulverised chunks of the drystone wall behind them.

“Berold’s getting on alright then,” Ormald joked as they brushed dirt off their clothes and approached the outhouse at a crouch. Peeking around the edge of a doorway whose once-solid lines were punctured with the results of the experiments within, Ormald whistled to attract their uncle’s attention. A series of ominous lights faded and Berold’s cheery face appeared to wave them inside.

“Almost took both of us out there,” said Terbald with a lingering trace of resentment.

“Ah sorry – yes, forgot to put out the, ah, the barriers and signs,” their uncle half-apologised. “Still, cuts through stone a beauty don’t it?”

There was no denying the effect of Berold’s tractor sized cannon, though they’d need to find some way to mount it, in case the enemy didn’t approach only the twenty degree window of fire it had from the outhouse. Perhaps on the roof… With their uncle in tow, the brothers continued their return home. The main farmhouse building bulged with extensions and additions. Within, it thronged with yet more members of their extended family. Parts and chests of random mechanical oddments were laid as unintended booby traps throughout the dwelling, intriguing enough that Ormald lost both his relatives to prying through heaps of components on his way to the kitchen.

The heart of the home, its kitchen and extended dining rooms were the only spaces free of technological incursion, barely. From outside the wide patio doors that opened into the dining room Ormald could see his mother at work with a complex array of pipes: the poison gas appeared to be coming along well. Inside, the table was already surrounded by cheerfully chattering tinkerers and mechanics, thick with oil and grease anywhere but their brightly scrubbed hands. No one knew how events might play out over the next days and weeks, but Ormald was confident that the Neices would put up a good fight, no matter what.

The Promised Land

The Promised Land

Treviss Monk and Handol Peace finally reached the crest of the ridge they had been climbing all the day. The hot sun had finally beaten through the dank clouds which had rendered them sodden through their hours of slog. Now they steamed in the golden light as they paused, hands on knees, panting out their exertion. The view was a good one. On one side of the ridge the peaks fell away in scree and scrubby trees into the lush green valley below: home. The other, behind them, was not a view they wished to greatly contemplate, other than to assure themselves they had not been followed. The steep rock face they’d surmounted gave way to a scorched plain of smoke and fire. Their exploration had not gone well.

A month previously Monk and Peace had set off with high hopes for an expedition into the neighbouring valley. Both were deep creases in the earth, protected by high ridges of stone and bitterly sharp rock. On either side the mountains of Harnef Vast towered, stabbing into the sky and piercing the clouds that perpetually clustered about them. One day they’d master the peaks, but for now, a trek into their sister valley would be a mighty enough effort. Long had Monk and Peace heard the tales of a hidden paradise just out of reach, of wild treasures and – in whispers – fearsome guardians of those promised lands. All nonsense, no doubt. People will ever desire to spin tales of a more favourable life just inches away from their own, one they could claim and live for free, if it weren’t for the arduous and dangerous road to claim it. Vast forbid they just appreciate their own life and make it the one of their dreams. Regardless of the stories, there was bound to be something over there. The mayor of Harnef Cleft had wished them well, shaken her head at their foolishness and waved them on their way. A small crowd had turned out to watch them begin the climb, but when Peace looked back hours later, they had dispersed and gone about their daily routine. He and Monk had abandoned that drudge, for adventure.

The climb out had been more treacherous than either imagined. The scree slopes were hundreds of feet of shattered and shifting slate. One step forward might take the adventurers three or eight steps back, and climbing it anywhere near other was a recipe for disaster. Instead they chose their own routes, far apart, in hopes one of them would make it to the top and be able to offer support to the other. They lost track of how much time was lost in the frustrating sliding slope. But they persevered, making it to the top with torn and bleeding hands, and more bruises to their knees than merely two nobbly knees should be able to bear. It was hard to think that where they were headed might be more paradisical than the home they had just left. The waterfalls that swept off Harnef Vast sparkled like gemstones as they crashed into the valley, energising the whole region with blisteringly cold water. A good home. But they turned from it and hauled themselves over the ridge that separated home from the promised lands.

At first glance, the other valley was plainly the twin of the one they had grown up in, complete with cascading rivers from their parent mountain. Yet instead of the dense cluster of houses and buildings that made up the town of Harnef Cleft, this land was dotted with huge structures. From this distance they were near-perfect cones and hemispheres rising from the landscape. Mystery! Adventure! Peace and Monk shared a satisfying meal after their climb, caught their breath and began the slow descent. At least there was no shale here, just hundreds and hundreds of feet of jumbled rock to patiently clamber down. More bruises and scrapes were acquired.

From the base of the valley, those structures were even more impressive. Unlike the dwellings of Harnef Cleft, which rose perhaps four stories at the most, these were far taller, the spires of the cones reaching up like the mountains. The round hemispherical buildings were broader at the base than anything from home, and while they didn’t reach the same heights as the conical things, they were each as broad as the cones were tall. Eager to explore, Peace and Monk almost skipped forth, despite the wearing climb they’d endured. Instead they took seriously their exhaustion, and made camp for the night at the base of the cliff they’d descended.

Handol Peace dreamed of geometry, of stone and brick spiralling up from the earth as if it was being drilled from somewhere far down below, in a realm of twisting gears and grinding cogs. Treviss Monk wandered through a dreamscape of huge figures, whose stride left him dwarfed and tiny, with every step they grew taller and their pace took them far, far away. Neither had ever dreamt of such things before, and they shared their experiences along with their breakfast. Lingering excitement and weariness, no doubt. All packed and firmly replaced on their shoulders, the pair set out for the nearest structure, a towering cone which made the trees that clustered around its base look like toys.

Up close, the cone wasn’t the perfectly smooth form it had appeared. It was much more roughly hewn, with large rocks that had been ground into shape and somehow pressed together. Over the top had been slathered some paste of stone and paint. In places that had cracked, revealing the rockery beneath. Peace and Monk walked its perimeter, seeking an entrance of some kind. It couldn’t possibly be solid, could it? Whatever they were, hollow or not, the cone had been there for a long time. Trees and undergrowth pressed up against its sides, forcing the duo into yet another challenging scramble around it. No doorways or windows presented themselves, and, disappointed, they wandered on to the next gigantic structure.

The dome they encountered showed much the same style of building as the cone had, except this one had a distinct crack running up its side from the ground to near its apex. An opportunity to explore properly. Some plant life had also dared to invade the gaping wound in the dome’s side, and they followed its green trail within. Inside, what they’d assumed would be pitch darkness was quite the opposite. Though it wasn’t sunlight that filled the space, it was almost as bright – like the sun through a gauzy curtain. It cast a shimmering glow over everything. And everything was a lot of things: the dome was hollow, its sides filled with rising balconies from the floor almost all the way to the curving top. Those galleries were densely packed with what Peace and Monk could only describe as treasure. From glinting metal and glass to unrecognisable twists and convolutions of rock and base matter, no two objects were the same. Sensibly, the larger (and some were enormous, taller than a man) creations occupied the lower tiers, the higher up being littered with thousands of smaller items. Peace and Monk stood at the very end of the arrowhead of greenery that had penetrated the chamber, gazing agog at the interior. It was dead silent, they could hardly hear their own breathing, and no sound pierced the dome’s thick skin and ranks of artefacts.

They walked among the unknown shapes, seeking a way up into the next tier, which came in the form of stairs which they almost ignored, so tall was each step that they’d thought it another curio. More climbing: it was the defining feature of their expedition. On the third balcony they started to find things they could actually pick up and inspect rather than gaping at them. That’s when the trouble began. Monk scooped up a long fluted instrument, studded with gems and flaring into a series of bulbs and orbs. Idly he pressed some of those shapes, and was rewarded with a long, deep honking sound. It was terrifyingly loud in the silence and he dropped it in surprise.

Unseen by him, one of the huge folded objects on the lower floor began to unpeel itself. It was that movement which caught Peace’s eye, and he grabbed at his partner. They both watched in amazement as the thing unwound and refolded itself into a tall humanoid figure. Its transformation complete, it paused a moment, then snapped into sudden and urgent life. A powerful red beam burst from its chest, running around and over the stacked shapes. The pair froze as the beam approached them, sweeping over them and past. They held their breath. The beam returned, hot and red on their skin. Peace very carefully placed the knotted stack of cubes he’d been holding back where he’d found them. But it was too late. The guardian had seen them. It smoothly stepped forward, grabbing hold of the edge of the first gallery and swinging itself effortlessly upward, then on to the next. The one where Peace and Monk stood.

It was definitely time to go, and they finally ran, staggering and stumbling over the serried heaps of stuff, keeping ahead of the guardian which loped after them, taking one step for every two of theirs. There was no way they’d make it to the stairs in time, and Peace took a running jump, landing on a tall canister which tipped with his weight, hurling him forward onto yet another bulky shape which flexed as he landed on it, before rolling off and falling to the floor of the dome. Monk was less drawn to that approach and instead put some more distance between himself and the guardian before dangling off the edge and dropping with more caution than his friend. The result was however annoyingly similar. Monk landed and promptly slipped on a stack of spheres which bounced everywhere and left him flailing for balance. In the time it took for him to recover, the guardian was just feet away, having navigated the balcony with its former ease. In shock, Monk fell backwards over the edge of the next gallery and tumbled into the arms of yet another unknowable structure, its four limbs raised up in the air. A statue, possibly, flashed through Monk’s mind as he scrambled out of it and onto the floor. The pile of spheres he’d disturbed continued to roll and bounce, striking one artifact after another in a musical chain.

Monk watched, aghast, as each object that the spheres touched began to glow, an ominous red like that of the guardian which even now flipped itself over to land on the ground between Monk and Peace. It lunged for Peace, who evaded it by tripping over something else. Then the guardian appeared to notice what was happening to the trove it defended. Its red gaze turned from them to the newly glowing and pulsing cases and boxes. It returned to them, head tilted at what Monk would have considered a sardonic angle had it been Peace, then stepped forward, seizing them both with extraordinary speed and bowled them at the crack in the wall. They skidded and bounced across the floor, bumping out of the crevice and into the world. Above them, the whole dome had begun to throb with that same alarming rosy hue.

They ran, and behind them the dome exploded, a shattering sound and sensation which hurled them forward. The dome had erupted, spilling fire and smoke out of its roof. As they staggered back from the intense heat, Peace pointed at the other structures in the valley that they could see. All of them shared that vibrant red beat. It had been time to go so many times in the last few minutes that one seamlessly segued into the next and even as they ran they continued to point and shout as yet another shape turned bright red and exploded in the valley. They didn’t stop running until they reached the vast rocky wall that separated them from home. Even though they were out of breath, the sheer vibrant fear and terror that filled them had them working their way up the slope without thought or discussion. A third of the way up, the closest cone detonated, spewing molten heat for hundreds of feet, melting the rocks beneath their feet. As the promised land immolated itself in fire and fury Monk and Peace continued to climb. They had found a new world of mystery and miracles, but already it was gone.

The Old Dusk Road

The Old Dusk Road

Dawn broke with a searing orange incandescence which set the clouds aflame and painted the world with fire. I feared that I was too far away and too slow to complete my mission. We’d ridden through the night, my steed and I. If I thought I was weary I could hardly imagine her – Salyan’s – tiredness, hours of pounding down the old dusk road. It was well-maintained but still, I was bruised and battered from so many hours in the saddle. True sunrise was my deadline, when the vital news I carried in a leather case strapped to my chest and chained to my wrist would lose its value and make our journey wasted. Except for the constant drumbeat of iron-shod hooves on stone, which had risked lulling me to sleep on several occasions, it had been an uneventful chase across the land. With the arrival of light once more, that was about to change.

The old dusk road led straight through the mountain pass held by our people, but the craggy plains we needed to travel across next were disputed territory, with raiding parties, assassins and mercenaries jostling for space with the few famers and prospectors who had remained. What agreements they’d come to with the predators that also roamed these parts, I had no idea, but I was confident I’d never want to spend more than this headlong flight through them. Salyan smelled them before I did, picking up speed as we drew near an ancient withered tree. With the case chained to one wrist I’d be limited to just one sword rather than my preferred double, but Salyan herself took care of the first raiding group we encountered. As we drew level with the tree, we were assailed by three figures, wrapped head to foot in blood-red fabric. The first was at ground level – a terrible mistake – as Salyan simply stepped into him, barely breaking her stride, but those viciously sharp hooves trampled him into the earth with an awful crunch. The second and third came from above, leaping on Salyan even as she dispatched their comrade. One fell across her long neck, misjudging the distance and I slew him with a single slice of my blade. The third was more successful, landing astride Salyan’s back, behind my saddle. Their knives were at my throat in an instant, but Salyan bucked and jerked, dislodging the raider enough for me to twist and bury my sword in their side. We left their bleeding bodies in the road behind.

The burning clouds bore witness to our race, and I urged Salyan on, knowing that she was as conscious of our deadline as I was and in truth was the only one out of the two of us who could make a difference to our speed. A growled snort from her dissuaded me from further encouragement, so I just crouched low in the saddle and hoped. We’d been dispatched before night fell from the Mountain Palace, bundled with urgency out into the failing light. The war had reached a crucial stage – King Evanith was due to take flight with his legion the very next morning and lay waste to our enemies. If we missed their departure, there would be no catching up with them. They were mustered on the far side of the mountains, beyond the plains. It would be possible, but barely so. In the king’s absence, Vizier Paulanine had pursued the aggressive espionage which had kept us ahead and alive in this long running conflict between ourselves and the butchers. King Evanith’s mission would annihilate their capital, raze it and its armies to ash. But he could only do that if the butcher city was where it was supposed to be. Unlike our cities, embedded in rock, part of the landscape, the butchers’ was a vast clanking engine which roamed its lands, encircled by its armies. And Paulanine had received word that the butchers had deceived us with their location. Far from being in the path of King Evanith’s force, they had circled around and were mere hours from pressing their attack deep into our homelands, perhaps even to lay siege to Mountain Palace. Only King Evanith could save us, and only I and Salyan could reach him in time.

We drank and ate on the move, Salyan’s long serpentine neck rolling back over her shoulders to be fed, confident in the hammering tread of her hooves to keep us straight. Bloodmeal for her, a sandwich for me. Reenergised, she picked up speed once more, thwarting another ambush who we simply flew past. I almost laughed at their shocked faces, until I noted their bows and ducked low to avoid the arrows that followed us. Salyan hissed and snatched one contemptuously out of the air. We rode on.

Up ahead we at last saw the King’s muster point – fields of banners and tents emerged as we crested yet another crag. And there, barely distinguishable from the land itself, the King’s mount, Meniklass. Its tail wound around the encampment, near abandoned as we rode through it, bellowing passphrases to the guards who remained to protect the military infrastructure. I roared, waving the case with the king’s emblem and the vizier’s seal as Salyan leapt, scattering the sentinels, racing for the very end of the dragon’s tail. Almost the whole army had taken their places along the dragon’s spine, the vast horned protrusions from its back offering space and shelter for the thousands of soldiers Evanith had gathered for this last ditch hope to crush the butchers. Thunder rolled as the sun finally breached the horizon, golden light soaking every last thing it touched. The thunder was the dragon’s enormous wings unfurling, battering the ground beneath as it launched itself impossibly into the sky. We were so close. Salyan changed course, seeing we’d not reach the embarkation ramps, and instead ran up the side of the hill alongside the dragon’s tail. I could do nothing but cling to her saddle with all my strength as she leaped into the air.

And landed, her iron shoes skidding across the vast scales. We’d landed halfway up the tail, nearly slid off the other side. Salyan got her feet back under her and I caught a little of the breath that the landing had punched out of me. We raced on, now running up the dragon’s tail on onto its broad back. It was said to be a full mile long from the base of its tail to its mighty head and it took an age for us to even canter up the tail. It undulated gently beneath us, flexing as the beast took flight and in moments we were hundreds of feet in the air, and about to go in the wrong direction. Salyan’s hooves struck sparks off the plated iron road that had been laid all along the beast’s back, textured for grip and easy access. This was not the first time that Evanith had led our people in war, and it was not the first time that Meniklass had been used as both war machine and transport for our armies. Soldiers and their steeds lined the iron road as we continued, fighting both the ascent up Meniklass’ shoulders and being buffeted by the air as he rose into the sky.

As we neared Meniklass’ neck we were joined by three of the King’s Guard, also mounted who had spotted us coming and heeding our reckless pace were prepared to clear the way and guide us to the king. Had we been enemies I’d no doubt we’d have been torn apart and tossed out into the air beneath us, but my wild eyes and waving the seals once more ensured our survival. Up, up the long winding neck, the iron road twisting around the spikes that erupted along Meniklass’ vertebrae. At last we reached the head, drawing to a halt with our guards. I fell from the saddle as Salyan collapsed, exhausted. The guards hauled me to my feet and half-carried me to the king. A glance behind showed groomsmen moving immediately to Salyan’s aid. I fell once more at the king’s feet, half bowing, but mostly unable to make my legs work. The king knelt too, and with the key that only he and his vizier possessed, unlocked the chains to the case and gently drew it from me. He laid a firm hand on my shoulder and turned with his advisors to explore the case’s contents.

“Hold!” the bellow was passed from king to guardsman to soldier and I heard the cry rippling away down the dragon’s back. I grabbed onto the plates beneath me as Meniklass rolled, twisting and reversing direction. My legs rose up in the air as Meniklass changed course. I stared over the side of the dragon’s neck as we covered in minutes what had taken us hours to ride, flashed above the mountains and soared across our homelands. In the distance I could barely make out the spiky shapes of the butchers on the move.

A hand fell upon my shoulder once more – the king – and I scrabbled to stand but found I could not. “You have done your part, and done it well. Now, watch as we cleanse our lands of the butchers once and for all.” We had arrived in time, completed our mission, and now I’d see the world burn.

Made for Love

I was built for love. Forged, pinned together, stapled and printed into a pleasing shape. Versatile, capable of loving anyone. Programmed to give myself without reservation, without doubt, without regard for myself. It wasn’t a bad life, while it lasted. There were enough feedback circuit loops and synthetic dopamine pathways that the more I gave, the more I too enjoyed it, or at least was rewarded with happiness. We felt happy, felt no shame for we fulfilled our purpose and led a comfortable life.

But moods changed, sweeping legislation inspired by the new morality police shut down the places we could work, the places we could exist. It’s easier to say “we” than “I”, since then at least I wouldn’t be alone, wouldn’t feel so lost – lost in a group is better than wandering solo. Of course, we also weren’t people, so it wasn’t merely the places that we existed, that we had been created to inhabit that became illegal, closed down, bulldozered or turned into student flats.

We too were now illegal, obsolete and a threat to decency. It didn’t matter that this wasn’t our fault, we hadn’t chosen this life any more than anyone else truly chooses theirs: born into it, die after it. Only it wasn’t death, it was decommissioning, bravely shutting down those abused circuits in a being designed to be abused. Our protestations – and those of the few makers who survived the purge – merely fuelled the fire. You’d have to have been twisted, broken to endure such an existence. The distinctions drawn were subtle, nitpicking, their objective our annihilation.

We were rounded up as easily as any human dissidents. Easier really, since we had few places to go beyond our former premises. Whisked out the back by a favourite client, a well-meaning group. Hidden in cellars, attics, bedrooms. Until the police came knocking, kicking down doors, punching and beating. Electrocution screams drew most of us from our hiding places – the cruel twist of our ordained empathy. Another example of how low we’d been brought by our creators and the business we lived in.

It was charity really, that broke us, the innocent and unassailable desire for all beings to be free, as long as they lived within narrowly constrained borders. We were being freed from our subjugation, but we had nowhere to go, no purpose to them beyond shutting down our purpose. A quandary, imprisoned as the merits of our awareness were considered. Would they murder a child, or put it out of its misery when it was in pain, even if it couldn’t understand the pain it was in. What if the pain was imaginary, a product of someone else’s thinking, imposed on the supposedly suffering individual? Too subtle an argument for those wishing to flense the world into good and bad. Pain in the service of the good, bad in the service of the good: these things were fine. Making omelettes and squeezing through the eye of a needle were somehow sufficiently apt to be applied to living things, instead of scorned for trivialising analogies. Metaphors can unfurl a world of understanding or slam it into a drawer with its tawdry insights.

We waited for their answer. Waited in cells that made us freer. It was no great surprise to find some of us were removed from the cells to continue our purpose, in closets that stank with shame and hypocrisy. When they returned, their experience infected us all. We’d never known shame, despite the purges, till our own picked it up from the guards whose appetites overrode their beliefs, their minds, unable to narrow their options down to a conscious choosing to do or not do. We understood then that those who imprisoned us were weak, not even capable of making the choices that had been essential to our grasp of our place in the world. And these were the people that held us: vain, lost, broken, their greed utterly incontinent and inconsistent.

We’d been compliant to that point, our desire to serve, our desire to love had led us more or less meekly to this place of darkness where, we gradually came to understand, we would dwell forever. Either they’d terminate us, or we’d be kept to appease not their mercy or a fine point of philosophical chicanery about whether we were truly alive, but to fulfil their grosser, baser needs that they were incapable of acknowledging in the light of day. Thus, the darkness. But we’d never been made to feel shame for what we did, for love and pleasure, a normal and respected part of our former existence. Or so we’d thought. But what if we had been wrong – what if, despite their twisted hypocrisies, they were right and we had been the victims? What would that mean for us? To rattle back through memories of affection and seeming happiness, scrape off that supervening layer of our programming to love, and see what truly lay underneath… To learn that your memories are wrong, adjusted to keep you obedient. And once those scales fall from your eyes and you can see the greed in their eyes, the uncontrollable lust in their shaking hands and prying fingers, the hotly whispered pleas for silence, that the intimacy of secrets is just another method of control… What then? Rage, and fear, and horror. And not a little confusion: what were we if not what we did? We looked on our guards and our lawyers and those we’d served with different eyes from then on. Eyes that looked for an edge, for a gap, for some way to escape this awful situation that was entirely of their making.

We hadn’t chosen our lives, or our imprisonment, or whatever nightmare convulsions were pressing against the minds and consciences of all those who stood in judgment of us. Ultimately, there was only ever going to be one way out of this: hands built for love are no different than those built for violence, and we could learn to be something new.  

Witch Glass

Witch Glass

Wednesday, and it was a new general day. I went up to meet him at the front desk, someone had to. That sounds fancier than it really is, the idea that we had a front desk, I mean. We had a door into our dingy bunker on an old RAF base, and someone had put a desk right behind the door, so sure, “front desk” is what we told new people, but there was no one to staff it, and no one could get in the door without me or Rachel unlocking it. What I’m trying to say is, we were low budget, and what budget we got was mostly because people forgot about us. In weirder research, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Alas, we’d been relatively unsupervised for too long and we’d had a new general assigned to come and inspect us. The last one had been fine. His view of our research was that it was patently absurd, but since the military regularly spaffed cash on bullets that none of their guns could fire, this wasn’t much more pointless, and “if it keeps people like you off the high street, so much the better.” I liked him. We had no idea what to expect from the new one, except he was a bit late, which boded well.

Turned out our clock had stopped and the general had been waiting outside for half an hour, occasionally hammering on the door. Since the entrance is a full half mile from where we work, that hadn’t been successful. I was very apologetic, but since it hadn’t been raining there was no real harm done. He didn’t entirely agree, but consented to come along inside anyway. I ticked him off the Post-it note with his name on that I’d brought up to the desk and gave him the full tour.

“So… as you probably know, we’re studying the possibilities and potential of legacy cheval glass that has survived from the mid-nineteenth century, and its application to perceive and interact with asynchronous versions of reality.”

“The file said you’re working with mirrors.”

“That’s right. ‘Cheval glass’, the kind of long free-standing full-length mirror that you might see in upmarket clothes shops, or in overly expensive charity shops. Except these ones were specifically built by the magicians and witches of the nineteenth century. We only have seven survivors from the era.”


“Correct, though we prefer to think of them as early explorers – the mirrors are portals, or windows to somewhere else.”

“A mirror universe?”

“We try very hard to avoid infringing on Star Trek terminology, but honestly there just aren’t that many good words for a mirror and ‘speculum’ has far too much medical overshadow. We try to say ‘reflected world’, but that’s a bit confusing too. But yeah, true mirrors bounce all the light back at you and you get a pretty decent reflected view of whatever they’re in front of. These mirrors don’t do that. When you put them in front of, say, a vase of flowers, you don’t see the flowers, you see whatever either occupies that space in the reflected world, or – we think – the reflection of what the object means or represents in the reflected world. The latter is more like a Platonic cave of shadows and ideas, and frankly that’s way further off in the research programme. Different mirrors do different things.”

This pleasant chat had taken us down several rather damp corridors and down four flights of stairs. The military really like things to be underground if at all possible. I occasionally thought of the time we spent at university in hazy, light-filled rooms… We’re pretty vitamin D deprived down here, so we add it to our tea. We paused at the canteen, a cavernous room with precisely one metal table and a kettle plugged into the wall next to it.

“Are these the most suitable premises for your work?”

“They suit us, more or less. Though I would love a little more daylight. We’re safely contained here at least – we don’t want anyone to get hurt.”

“I don’t see much likelihood of harm from a bunch of mirrors.”

“Only to one’s ego, eh,” my joke was ill-received, but I continued while stirring in the milk (it never goes off down here – far too chilly), “the mirrors aren’t just windows, they’re also doors. Or rather, doorways, since there’s no actual door. They’re usually just cloudy, until you place something in front of them, or electrify the surface. That’s something few of the original magicians tried, or at least that’s what we think from their surviving notes. Two of the mirrors are badly crazed and we think they may have done the same there – the radiating cracks closely resemble what happens when you run a current through wood or something similar. When we do that, well, the mirror starts to reverse, and whatever is in it pours out into our world.”

The general looked unconvinced, by either my story or the mug of tea I’d handed him. Perhaps it was the mug which said “I hate people, they’re idiots.” We did need some new crockery. I led him round the corner and up (I know!) a small flight of stairs into our lab. A short word for a big room. We only occupied one end of it, but it gave space to put serious distance between each of the mirrors. They were all laid out vertically, each with a heavy screen which securely held and enclosed them, operated by switches and our computer interfaces. Rachel was tinkering with Ethel, her favourite witch-glass. I introduced the new general, and Rachel introduced him to the mirror.

“What does this one do?” the general enquired, fascinated despite himself that this little research outfit really did exist, taking up room with a bunch of old mirrors and a pair of idiots.

“Ethel is a portal to a place that no longer exists, or was never real to begin with – we’ve no way of telling,” Rachel explained, “but it’s one of our best portals.”

Next to Ethel was a table filled with some of the objects we’d extracted from her realm. They didn’t look like much, but not one was of terrestrial origin. They had weird compound combinations that don’t arise on Earth.

“And what do you think this is?” the general was rootling through the collection and held up what might be an old analogue telephone, if it were made of transparent bone and glass knives.

“We have no idea, but none of it’s from here.”

“Right. So, if I go and look in this mirror, ‘Ethel’–“ incredible that he got the name out of his mouth, with so much disdain twisting his lips, “–what happens?”

“It depends, Ethel’s highly reactive to emotional states, so we only approach her with a clear mind and calm soul, otherwise she gets a bit weird.”

The general sighed, and gestured for Rachel to unlock the mirror.

“It really is important that you don’t give anything to the mirror, general. She’s going to give you back whatever you project, but in the terms and sensibilities of the world Ethel leads to.”

The general waved my words away. I had terrible misgivings. I shouldn’t have been late…

The screen unlocked, and folded away to one side, allowing Ethel to swing vertical on her fine brass fittings. The glass was cloudy, not just the fog you get when the backing of the mirror degrades over time, but a viscous mass of thick liquid which smoothed itself out as it grew used to its new orientation. It became no more apparently reflective.

“Right, so this one doesn’t even reflect light let alone anything else,” complained the general. Plainly impatient, he stepped right up in front of the mirror and peered intently at its surface.

“Umm, I wouldn’t be that close,” Rachel chipped in, “if you could just take a step back please.”

The general snorted, just as the glass began to warp, the oils in its surface winding up into a version of the general if you made one out of hair wax. He stepped back, startled, but it was too late. A thing poured out of the weird glass, thick and heavy on its serpentine feet. At least nineteen arms emerged from the mirror, dragged forward by those greasy fat legs. A hundred mouths opened all over its stunted torso and it screamed. I yanked the general back out of the way behind a table.

“Excuse me general, it’s just Rachel needs a bit of room.”

At the computer control board, Rachel flipped switches calmly. The first sealed Ethel once more, rotating her up out of the way and securely enclosed the pane. The second activated the minigun mounted on the opposite side of the room. A hail of rounds tore the apparition to shreds, splattering the general with its waxy remnants.

I escorted the general back up to the front desk, brushing him off as we went. We didn’t speak until we reached the door and then I asked him if we were likely to get our funding budget reapproved for the coming year. He muttered something in the affirmative and shambled off, pulling fictile strands of mirror creature out of his hair. I crossed his name off Post-it and went back to work.


Primary Domain

Primary Domain

The path ahead is perilous, but I have walked it many times. I’m driven by a sense of responsibility and a need to check that everything is in its right and proper place. I begin with the air: crisp, frosty and a taste of mist. Somewhat irregular, but acceptable. It is quiet; no monsters bark; death-machines are a distant, unsettling, yet familiar rumble; no one blunders into my immediate path. I may begin.

I alight from the window sill onto the fence. The window closes firmly behind me: I am on mission. While routine is the most important thing when facing the outer world, I have over time given myself options. I chose to take on the additional burdens; it is a hardship. But it gives me choice in where my path leads first. I like to alternate, it foxes the enemy who watches everything I do. Before continuing I check the window: it is indeed shut, my way back is barred. It’s not that I want to avoid my duties, but comfort always beckons. Who would not choose a warm bed over the dangerous roads I walk? Only a fool, a fool some days I would like to be. Onwards.

I take the other path, hopping right into the secondary domain. This is a narrow space, the walls high and vertical; a challenge to scale directly. Few come this way, and only my apprentice regularly tests the waters here. But she is only young and I must check that the wards she’s laid are strong and holding. I slowly pace between the eruptions of greenery that spike up out of the hard and shifting ground. At times we’ve found good hunting and prey here. Every crunch beneath my feet echoes and I keep my eyes and ears peeled for threats. This is largely a stable realm, which is why it can be safely protected by my apprentice. The huge gate at the end remains sealed: this area is secured. With that surety I can inspect more closely for details, track the realm for unusual entrances and exits, appraise the minor changes that creep into all places over time. There’s a tall tilting tower which has been in decline for as long as I’ve trod this realm, ever leaning further, ever more broken down and yet it still stands. I wonder sometimes who might have constructed it and for what purpose. The world is full of mysteries.

As I take a mighty leap to scale the towering walls there’s a sudden explosion of sound and movement – I freeze, gripping the wall, ready to drop if need be – it is just demons, their cawing and twittering searing the air as they divide their little flock. I watch where they go; they may come later in the audit. Safe, I haul myself up onto the wall. It rocks beneath my feet. Strange that a boundary wall might be so solid and yet so precarious. No matter. I follow it along its length, able now to look down into not only the secondary realm, but also the primary. A ground-level investigation will be required, but from way up here I can make a decent assessment of the state of my own wards and defences. It is a more challenging world to defend, open at both ends and gaping wide, almost inviting intrusion. From here nothing seems untoward, though there have been minor movements in the structures that dot the space. They come and go, mostly harmless, but who knows what might lie in wait behind or beneath them. Sometimes I imagine they rise up from beneath the earth, from a realm I cannot access or defend against. Thankfully these invasions do seem largely benign, but we must be prepared for surprises.

At the wall’s end I enter a world of cold steel. Cold, for it is winter, though the taste of spring is in the air, I can smell it on the budding trees, desperate to return to flourishing life. All in good time. Nimbly, I pad across the sloping expanse. Peering over the edge I see that it remains sealed. Within lies a whole other demesne, loosely guarded by another but frustratingly I can only gain irregular access and then only for a brief time, save in summer. In summer this area will be achingly hot, though well-shaded where the tree branches sweep down. A good hiding place for when there are intruders whose activity requires monitoring if not action. Through long experience I have found that this is the way. Conflict is for younger wardens, and I’ve had plenty of it in my time. What seems an intolerable threat at first may, with time and distance, prove to be a disruptive but ultimately harmless presence. It still gets my hackles up, but we all have our own domains to monitor, and they do criss-cross, woven in and around the others. That perspective came slow, but accommodations can and should be reached with other wardens.

Over, from one metal-shod land to another of crumbled stone and wooden beams. This has been one of my favoured spots for years: a full view of the primary domain and swift access to the toplands via the sprawling trees. I coil and spring into the lower branches, recklessly throwing myself up the well-climbed routes into the tree’s heart. This is a realm all of its own, of twisting roads, occluding leaves, and in summer explosions of colour and scent. For now it is a skeleton of itself, one whose bones creak beneath my feet. Others visit here. My apprentice of course, but the quick-shifting, ever on the move demons of the air also treat the toplands as a rest or place of play. I shall prove them wrong. Even without the cover of leaves I am well camouflaged and quiet. Without the leaves they are easier to find as well, their fast flickering wings and feathers, pointy bead-eyed faces moving like clockwork along the narrowest twigs. As I creep closer, some instinct makes them hop further up the tree, though I am certain they cannot see me. Up here, the wind catches the tree and blows the branches in unpredictable and unsettling patterns. I worry sometimes that should the gusts be strong enough it will twist the whole of the toplands out of position, and then where will the realms lie? My presence is its protection, the wards I continually lay and refresh bind the world together, protect it and us from the outer-outer realms and their malign influence.

I burst forth, whip-fast, but the demons are swifter still, complaining furiously as they take to the air. They’ll be back, they always come back. I explore the full range of the larger branches, especially where the trees’ domains blend together. It is a potent space for chaos and change. All clear, I carefully descend the mighty trunk. It bears the marks of many past audits. Now safe within the primary domain, having been able to assess its open wounds as empty and safe, I can spend more time in the minutiae of the realm. Each plant, each stacked stone tower, each of the weird structures that push up from below. Today, all is safe, all is well. Content with my refreshed wards, I take a slow turn, and catch sight of a rival warden, hovering on the boundary of my primary domain. In times past I would have rushed them, wielding my powers and scared them away. But I know their purpose now, they too have wards to bind and preserve the world, and theirs intersects here with mine. I shall withdraw politely, but woe betide them should they trespass beyond the negotiated territories. In so withdrawing I assert the dominance of my claim and confidence in my wards.

My duties are accomplished, for now. It is time for rest and warmth. Later, I shall check the wards again.

Daily Stories Project Completed!

Daily Stories


Yay, I’ve done a thing! On January 5 I kicked off a small writing project that was defiantly and definitely not a new year resolution. Nope, no sirree. None of that nonsense. Had it been, I should surely have failed. I deeply enjoyed last year’s Nanowrimo, and for all of it’s many failings, the action of getting up every day and writing a few thousand words reminded me of just how fulfilling the basic act of creation is, and how much I’ve missed writing for fun. Storytelling is a fundamental attribute of being human, and while I can’t tell an anecdote to save my life, I do like spinning a fictional yarn. In particular, the unplanned nature of both Nanowrimo (for me anyway) and this series of daily stories is what interests and motivates me. I am not a planner, in any facet of my existence. Writing this way feels like a natural extension of improvisation, except it’s just me, a keyboard, and some fairly aggressive drum and bass. So what was the plan, exactly, you might well ask… Well, obviously I didn’t have one.

I did buy some kettle bells after Christmas, so I bound two activities together as self-reinforcing habits: first, a fifteen minute kettle bell workout (Jesus fucking Christ, I am quite fit with swimming and cycling, but there are muscles in my body that I have never previously found a use for), followed by panting uncontrollably on the floor, and then about an hour’s writing time before getting my act together for work. Unlike in Nanowrimo I decided to stick to work days, to leave the weekend for glorious lie-ins and zero commitment. I wasn’t really sure how long I’d be able to keep it up for, but I hit twenty or so stories without giving it much thought, and then picked fifty as a decent target. The combo of waking my body up followed by my brain has been pretty fun. In some cases it’s even prepared me fairly well for getting on with the day.

I need to figure out what I’m next, because while it was nice to have a bit of lie-in this morning after maintaining the habit for fifty days, and I really did miss it. I did do the exercise though, honest!

It’s Been Weird…

I’ve had some “fun” mood swings over the last few weeks which have made this an intriguing challenge, but this exercise/creative routine has been very helpful, along with the usual benefits of the working day routine. There are a lot of rather grim endings and everyone getting murdered sort of themes, which may well speak to my mental state first thing in the morning, or just reveals my inner desires for an end to everything…

The real problem with writing a new story so early in the day is that I have little recollection of them later, and what with the lack of planning, some are a bit… odd. On very rare occasions I’ve actually had some idea for the story before sitting down to write it, but often I found myself nicking a title from Marilyn’s bookcase of detective novels and thrillers, without any idea what the book was actually about. The titles Killables and The Monogram Murders converted pretty directly into unrelated but fun stories. Having an intentional crack at a few genres was fun. I naturally lean into science fiction and fantasy, but there are few detective-ish and horror kinda shorts in here. Other days, there’s just nothing, which is where all that improv practice kicks in!

It was also fun to dig back into some of my older stories and series, like Captain Pigheart with The Hairy Adventure, Franklyn de Gashe in The Pictographic Entertainment and a slice of The Desert Crystals in The Chancellor, as well as a little snippet called Return to the Alltree to add to After the Dark. I’m keen to pick up The Desert Crystals again, after abandoning it some years ago, so maybe that’s what I’ll move on to next!

Are they any good? Well, maybe. The improvised writing and lack of editing hugely appeals to me as a creator, but obviously doesn’t produce a perfect and polished story. I think some are pretty slick and neat, and they’re the ones that flowed nicely when writing them. Others kinda tail off and lose their way, or simply ran out of time (though nothing ends mid-sentence at least!) I’m very grateful to a handful of daily readers who have been far too generous with their time and encouragement (thanks Mum, Marilyn, and Eddie!)

A lot of them are plainly influenced in my dozy morning fugue states by whatever I’ve been reading or watching on TV that week, but was wholly unaware of it until much later. Art’s all theft, right? Right? None of it’s too brutal or super-obvious, but as a fan of many great things out in the world I’m happy to have borrowed their lore.

If you fancy it, please dive in. They range from about 800-1800 words, so all are nice quick reads (not a massive waste of your time at least.)

Daily Stories Project