The Desert Crystals – Part 28: Easy Ways To Die

Desert Crystals Part 28 – Easy Ways To Die

DesertCrystals7

The Dove’s Eye‘s fatal spin had been arrested, and the great airship simply plummeted through the blue sky. The twisted balloon was festooned with screaming and unconscious crew, dangling from their safety tethers. In all it resembled a rather ugly falling lampshade. Lord Corshorn wrestled with the controls, but no combination of thrust and steering would return the balloon to its original state. A bellow from the foredeck roused the captain’s eyebrows from their frown and directed their owner forwards. The rush of wind carried the words away and Corshorn was forced to creep out of the cockpit’s relative safety. He left the controls in the least harmful setting and clambered out onto the tilted deck checking first that his tether still held.

There was little option other than sliding down the deck as it pointed almost straight downwards. Corshorn alternated gripping at the edges of planks with the terrifying rush towards the ground below. In moments he had reached the source of the bellowing: Harvey, the Giant Centipede was still securely bolted to the deck after piercing the cave’s strange rocky wall with his carapace-mounted cannon.

“I must say Lord Corshorn, the perspective I’ve been granted is certainly dramatic.” Unable to turn away from the airship’s impending doom, the centipede’s ticking speech was tinged with an unusual panic.

“There’s no turning us,” Corshorn shouted, gripping Harvey’s shell with both fists, “the bag’s all snarled with tethers and for all I can tell, holed by those damned rocks.”

“I’d surmised as much, but as you can see my attention is somewhat fixed.”

Lord Corshorn reflected for a moment on what the great insect might be perceiving, with his simpler vision but vastly superior sense of space and distance. He was rather glad to be merely guessing at their remaining distance from the earth.

“I’d be grateful if you’d relieve me of my fixings, I rather fancy my own grip is quite sufficient to keep me aloft.”

“Well you’d be the only judge of that,” muttered Corshorn as he wedged his handy knife under the flattened top of the first bolt and levered it out with a twist and a judicious kick. True to his word, Harvey’s dozens of legs dug fiercely into the timber deck, easily taking his weight. With one bolt free Harvey was able to wriggle and snap the other bolt clean out of the wood. It whipped past Lord Corshorn’s face and vanished into the air behind them.

“Excellent. My thanks Lord Corshorn. Now let us see about this balloon of yours.” With the captain holding tight to the centipede’s harness, Harvey swarmed back up the near-vertical deck.

“What are your intentions sir?” enquired Corshorn as he transferred his grip to the cockpit’s doorway.

“I believe I’ll be able to untangle the canvas somewhat, though I must know which (if any) of the ropes may not be cut.”

Lord Corshorn’s eyebrows raised at the prospect. “I daresay we can survive the loss of a few guys here and there, but we must keep the key ropes – you’ll know them for the steel threaded through them.”

“Indeed,” was the centipede’s only comment before he ascended, climbing straight up the cockpit’s wall and, his forelimbs waving in the air for a moment, pulled himself up onto the first tangle of ropes that lead up to the balloon.

“Be careful not to slash the canvas either!” cried Lord Corshorn.

The centipede swiftly vanished from Corshorn’s view, to be shortly replaced by a set of fingers hauling their owner into the cockpit. With a an extended hand he helped to haul in his skymate.

“Thanks sir,” nodded Freymald, her face gashed open and bloody from lip to eye, “it feels worse than it is sir – took a door to the face.” She grinned a curious mix of nerves and fear at him. “The hold’s secure sir, and the cabin’s are locked. But I’ll not guarantee the state of the contents.” Freymald had been fortunate in falling back inside the ship as they fell from the sky cliff, rather than off and away like many of her crewmates.

“Excellent. That centipede’s gone up to fight with the balloons, there’s damn all I can do here till he’s unwound us.”

“Speaking of which sir, with some aid I reckon we could wind in some of the lads, those at least who are not too snaggled.”

Corshorn nodded his assent and the pair climbed back out and up the cockpit’s walls to where the gondola rose in a steel assemblage of rings and struts, joining the ship together and keeping the crew attached by their lifelines. The life ring was made up of a dozen slender circuits of steel and brass, with the clips and hooks of the crew’s tethers pulled tight with the strain.

“Start here,” directed Lord Corshorn, pointing to a rope tagged with a scarlet thread. It stuck straight out to the side, disappearing high overhead behind the canopy. Each sub-ring had its own winch, well-greased and ready. Freymald balanced herself with her back to the roof and feet pressed against the ring and wound the winch fiercely. Quickly a limp body was drawn below the bags and within Corshorn’s reach. He tested the man’s pulse, nodded with satisfaction and Freymald locked off the tether.

“That was the easy one,” noted Freymald. She jerked back in alarm as two of the other tethers whipped out at head height, racing along their rings, unwinding. Above them a flailing man could just be seen flying around the edge of the balloon.

“Looks like the centipede’s having some joy.” Following Harvey’s lead, Corshorn and Freymald began winding in the crew as they were released from their tangled bondage above.

Away above the captain and his work, Harvey scrambled further up the straining canopy, selecting ropes, hauling in the limp or screaming skymate and flinging them out counter to their rope’s twist. This was met with much further screaming from those crew unfortunate enough to be conscious. Once he was satisfied that the captain had wound in all those crew he’d managed to free Harvey moved on to the balloon itself. He severed the most twisted ropes and hugged the canopy as the balloon’s natural shape began to reassert itself, bulging improbably and shifting the remaining ropes. Finally he attained the attenuated peak of the canopy where  tattered edges of canvas flapped and the gas-filled balloons attempted to escape. He hissed in annoyance and gathered in the ragged sides, using the strength of his legs to draw them in tight. With a further sigh he pierced the canvas and zippered up the hole using his own body.

The change to the shape of the bag was immediately obvious to Corshorn, Freymald and the cluster of crew hugging the safety ring. With the hole centipede-darned it elongated as far as the remaining snarled ropes would allow and the deck flipped back up, slapping the heap of skymates between the roof of the gondola and the rings.

“He’s done it,” cried Lord Corshorn, with more incredulity than he’d intended. The angle of the airship was still unhelpful for their continued survival, but that at least he could do something about. He leaped to the cockpit and engaged the rockets once more. Their downward blast forced The Dove’s Eye into a sharply angled arc. The instruments reported that they were only a few hundred metres above the baking sands and the heat competed with the wind’s force in their faces. With a shuddering sigh the airship levelled out and the ship’s velocity carried them forwards and back up into the sky.

Coming Soon: Part 29 – Knives in the Night

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The Desert Crystals – Part 27: Fragile Things

Desert Crystals Part 27 – Fragile Things

DesertCrystals7Flesh and fat hissed in the darkness. Bones cracked, sending a burst of sparks up into the night sky. The makeshift pyres would burn till dawn when the sun’s fierce heat took over. By then the scavenged wood and tumbled Skymates would be dark ash muddled into the red sands. For now the fire lit the faces of Growlbrin Taqua and Brenhitch Taqua (the latter’s surname granted by his apprenticeship to the former). Their business was precisely this, the proper disposal of mortal remains. For three years now Brenhitch had accompanied his master in his erratic, winding journeys across and around the Great Bane Desert.

In that time he’d learned rather more about survival in the sands and how Growlbrin liked his tea than he had the burning of bodies. This was no great surprise, the Taqua’s had always been wanderers, their duty the final safety of travellers rather than those whose likely places of death were towns or villages. Those stationary ends were well provided for already. The Taquas tracked lone madmen through the desert or followed the aerial paths of skyships in case of accident, attack or age. Brenhitch often wondered if there were other Taquas following them as they trudged across the blazing landscape. For now he stood watching the blaze and leaned on his long pole with its meshed metal net, pondering the death of so many aeronauts. His hand returned of its own accord to the journal he carried, its touch oddly reassuring in the face of such loss.

Prior to the last few days it had been a full year since the wandering pair of master and apprentice had come across a death. That last had been a man they’d tracked from out of Gross Nigh at the base of the mountains. He’d set off with just a pack of supplies and a Candy Beetle to carry him. There had been little doubt he would die, and the locals had supposed that was his purpose in setting out so wilfully unprepared. Still, he’d survived for five weeks, using the Candy Beetle’s uncanny ability to locate sweetmeats of the desert to maintain himself and his mount. At times the Taquas had followed just hours behind him, tidying the burrows and roots unearthed by the beetle, returning them to their natural buried and hidden state. It would not do to have the desert’s bounty laid waste by its scouring winds.

One evening the Taquas camped just a dune’s breadth from where the man had erected his lean-to. He had set it out in the desert way by stretching a canvas between the legs of the beetle and allowing the Candy Beetle to half bury itself in the sands with the traveller beneath its shiny belly. Growlbrin had been content to take his tea and retire to his bunk inside their Caravan Beetle. Brenhitch had been left awake as the sky turned purple and orange, gazing at the emerging stars. As he lay on their beetle’s broad shell a man’s voice rose high and strident from across the dune. The words themselves were lost in the constant susurration of the sands but Brenhitch was young, bored and awake so he scrambled up the sandy bank until he could lie above the man’s camp, and listen.

The man paced unsteadily upon his docile mount’s flat back, feet slapping on the huge coloured swirls that characterised the beast’s curious appearance. He was either drunk or sand-mad by his swaying, as well as that he was fairly bellowing as he read from a slender leathery notebook. It was poetry, of a sort, filled with anguish and shame. Brenhitch lay for hours listening to the fellow’s story of his life, expressed in verse, tears and angry shouts. Finally he nearly fell from his steed and in doing so realised he was standing in the darkness, declaiming his tale by starlight to an uncaring desert, not to mention to those predators that haunted its night. He shambled within his tent and Brenhitch returned to the caravan.

Next day they found the man dead. His camp was where it had been the night before, save that the Candy Beetle, sensing its owner’s death and responding to its own instincts had unearthed itself and begun its gruesome task (from which it was named) of flensing the corpse for its sweetmeats. Growlbrin burst over the ridge with a roar and rattling his staff of bells and screeching Song-Ants. The cacophany of brass and insect startled the Candy Beetle from its business. In a sudden panic it tore loose the bags and canvas that hung from its limbs and fled into the desert. The poet (as Brenhitch now thought of him) was scattered, a neat pile of skin and fat separated from the bloody bones awaiting the beetle’s further attention.

Brenhitch set to work making a neat stack of the dead man’s possessions, piling clothing, canvas tent and travelling writer’s desk and the ephemera of life on top of each other. The remaining water bottles and provisions he transferred to their caravan. He found a tiny empty bottle in the blankets, which sharply burned at his nostrils when he sniffed it. Growlbrin abruptly slapped it from his hand, murmuring “he may have chosen to take his own life, but he’d no plan for denying you yours.” Suitably chastened, Brenhitch added the phial to the meagre pile. While he was unattended he slipped the dead man’s notebook into his pocket.

Meanwhile Growlbrin drew on his claw-tipped black leather gloves and peeling apart the glistening meat of the man’s disarrayed corpse, peering into organs and beneath bone. Finally he grunted with satisfaction and withdrew from the man’s throat. Between two black claws was a marble-sized, golden bead. He cleaned it of blood and dropped it into one of the dozens of tiny bottles that chattered against each other on the bandolier that wrapped about his broad chest. Growlbrin took pen and ledger from an inside pocket to record the man’s place and date of death and the colour of his bead. Finally he scrawled a matching number onto the bottle and gestured to his apprentice. Brenhitch dragged the man onto the makeshift pyre and wrapped him up in the walls of his tent. That night they ignited the canvas.

Now, a year later Growlbrin watched the remains of the crashed airship burning, its fallen crew laid atop their own bunks and wrapped in the garish balloon that had apparently failed to keep them aloft. Fifteen men and women had met their end up in the skies. Though he’d said nothing to the boy, the ship’s hull showed signs of violence and the man they’d found first had clearly been shot in the chest. The manner of their death didn’t affect the Taquas’ duties however, though he’d record his suspicions and the name of their vessel, The Golden Zephyr. Brenhitch stood by his side, also staring into the flames, watching for the glint of the crew’s soul-beads in the fire, ready to scoop them out. He thought it likely they’d be sifting through ash in the morning.

Next Week: Part 28 – Easy Ways to Die

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Terrible Dreams Made Into Stories: The Swans

The Swans

The bodies were found, finally, stretched out on the battered wooden boards of the old comprehensive school. It had been closed and derelict for years, a spooky ghost house, squat or health and safety hazard depending on your age. The police had been drawn in after a passer-by spotted a line of crows noisily queueing to squeeze in through a broken window. The window had been broken by a thirteen year old boy named John, not that anyone asked. He’d found the shattering glass went some way to pacify the anger and upset he felt with the world.

The bodies were incomplete. Of the seven, three lacked heads and all were missing an arm or a leg. They had been there for some months, lined up like toast soldiers getting soggy and seeping into the floorboards. The police forensics teams took the whole floor.

None of the bodies were identified. No one from the town was missing. No one else had heard of them either. The missing heads didn’t help, but the fingerprints were no use, the DNA was a dead end. No wallets, no badges, no clothes no nothing. Aged between fifteen and forty-five, three female, four male. They lay in the cold cold morgue like a charity shop jigsaw; with missing pieces and the wrong picture on the box.

Swans

Three months after the bodies were found and forgotten again the school was finally demolished. Spurred on in part by the failed investigation and the desire to erase those disturbing memories. The site was left newly derelict, bulldozed heaps of bricks and drainpipe, window frame and blackboard jumbled and smashed in a metal-fenced pen.

Behind the wasteland rose the forest, thrusting up into the stumpy hills that ringed the north and east of the town. They were not well-visited woodlands, being curiously devoid of rare fauna and flora. Had they been more interesting something would have been built there. A few thin paths blundered through the trees, edging the hills and descending to the town’s old beauty spot, Wendle Pool.

Despite being just a short walk from the town centre the woods and pool were the preserve of squirrels, small birds and teenagers. Two such, Michael and Evan who at the empowering age of sixteen considered themselves hunters and woodsmen, ventured out early on Saturday morning to inspect their attempts at rabbit snares and toss stones into the pool.

The snares remained empty and the boys’ pen knives remained pocketed and unused. They smirked at the routine disappointment of a failed hunt; acknowledging the failure had become an important ritual in itself. In commemoration Evan exchanged a loosely rolled cigarette for a Marlboro Light. The pair smoked and talked quietly as they hiked uphill towards the cliff that lurked over the pool. Even their conversation was routine, a form of words and habits that comforted and ordered the day.

They followed their familiar trail up through the scrappy birches and bracken that bedraggled the hills. The cold chill of the morning held a mist between the trees. It cast a glamour across the unremarkable landscape, imbuing it with softness and shadowy beauty that clarity would never grant. Beneath the furrowed brow of the ridge the boys climbed, the birches were supplanted by a small copse of firs. The green of their boughs mocked the emptiness of the needled earth beneath.

As they passed the last birch, Evan recoiled suddenly. The roll-up he was confidently dangling from the corner of his mouth stuck to his lip and he sucked it into his mouth as he cried out. He fell back into Michael, who failed to catch him and they both stumbled to the needle-strewn ground. Evan spluttered out the strands of tobacco and paper and choking managed only to point. Branches stretched across the clearing and hanging from the branches in the dead centre two heads leered at them.

An ancient scream was fixed in their faces; eyeless holes matched the gaping mouth as if they too were screaming. The boys recovered their fragile teenage swagger. Once they were assured that the heads were indeed just heads, a degree of self-deprecation and bravado could be reacquired. The hills were the regular domain of Michael and Evan, its contents their dominion, surely. With fluttering heart and an unusual physical proximity they approached the heads. They swayed with a breeze the boys had not previously noticed, swinging gently on their own hair which was knotted to the tree branch. The skin on the hanging faces was weathered, their gender was hard to guess. Being apart from their bodies and the hues that should have painted their cheeks left them neuter, inhuman; at once less and more frightening.

The mist clung to the edges of the copse, confining the boys and the heads in a grey cage. Neither boy felt inclined to touch them. A terrible sense that they would bite, or talk, or scream lingered in both their minds though it remained unspoken. There was no doubt that the decapitated heads had not been there the previous Saturday. This was the way they always came. They would have noticed. Of course they would have noticed. They must not have noticed. Perhaps the heads were tied to some higher bough, of course they must have been there. Just out of sight. Of course. Otherwise they were newly placed. Weird though. Really weird.

With their conclusion that the heads had always been present came a sense of acceptance, that this was normal. Concerns that had the heads always hung above their heads that those eyeless faces would have borne witness to a number of blushing youthful indiscretions were half-heartedly laughed off. They should continue with their routine. Finding that the path out of the copse was marked irregularly with amputated forearms, feet and hands pointing in the direction of their passage failed to alert the boys. Their fears screamed below a thin veneer of calm habit.

Leathery fingers crooked as they passed, toes curled. Knees and wrists flexed, dry and worn tendons tugged by unseen puppeteers. The mist was denser, followed them along the path as if the world dissolved behind them to reform before their feet. They breathed cold smoke into the woods. The copse opened out onto the ledge that frowned on the pond beneath. The boys stood shoulder to shoulder. Neither noticed that they were so close that their fingers almost touched; their digits twitched for the warmth and reassurance just within reach.

Below them the mists rose from the pool like a cold fire, burning away the vitality of the water. It lay black and still; clotted. Thoughtless, blinded by the icy smoke wreathing the teenagers they descended the steep path that lead down to the water. In a haze Evan splashed into the water. It rose up in languid waves which cracked and bled, blackly soaking the boy’s trousers. Michael remained on the bank, mutely watching his friend wade into the fracturing mire.

With each step Evan grew heavier. His skin mottled on contact with the diseased fluid that filled the pool. The flesh of his hands and face cracked, falling away in a fine rain. Michael swayed, held up by the smoke and smell of the water. Evan’s face collapsed, sliding down his jacket leaving only cracking bone which crumbled in turn, and Evan’s naked skeleton sank into the pool.

Michael lurched on the edge of the water, unable to draw his eyes away from Evan’s hair as it slowly spread out. The smoky murk lifted briefly as if a giant breathed over the pond. Between the fingers of mist came nightmare creatures. The swans glided through the rank scum, seemingly untroubled by its thickness. They were rotting as they swam, each kick of their feet blackening another feather that curdled. The swans dipped their faces to the water and emerged with rancid treacly beaks oozing bloody waste.

The corrupted swans gathered at Michael’s feet decaying wings raised. Their eyeless faces drooled a welcome call. Michael fell forwards and was embraced by the sludge.

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The Desert Crystals – Part 26: Spirals

Desert Crystals Part 26 – Spirals

DesertCrystals7The screaming started just after flames erupted across the throbbing rock. As the captain of The Dove’s Eye had hoped, the raging heat of the explosives jammed into the seeming walls stirred the strange cavern into motion. No one had quite foreseen the immediate effect of unleashing such a firestorm in a confined space. They were more concerned with forcing the curiously fleshy rock walls to escape the flames and grant them an exit. Unfortunately, since they were already near crushed by the contracting caves, and only feet away from the explosion, flaming debris set light to the prow of The Dove’s Eye almost immediately. It drove on regardless as the cave retched around it, vomiting the airship in a grinding rip of rock, wood and canvas.

The airship had entered the aerial cliff in the dead of night and at an altitude which had caused even their hearty balloons to sag, and caused their lungs in drawing satisfying breath. Though they had been within its humid confines for only a few days it felt like a lifetime. The eagerly anticipated relief of a blast of fresh air against their sweaty cheeks and the sun’s gentle touch on their eyeballs was cruelly denied them. Instead blinding light robbed everyone on deck of vital sight as the airship and her crew tipped and tumbled down into the day.

Fortune didn’t entirely mock the crew however. The air proved too thin to sustain the blaze and it snuffed out in a belch of smoke. The ashen remnants of the silk pennants tied to Harvey’s forelegs fluttered madly as The Dove’s Eye plunged into its fall. The canopy that restrained the huge balloons of gas had been gashed open by the teeth of rock on their rude exit, and canvas wings matched Harvey’s tattered semaphore. Ropes tore and whipped the falling airship, as if hastening the craft towards the ground.

The crew, wisely and in accordance with Lord Corshorn’s direction, were all firmly bound to the safety ring – albeit on lengths of rope themselves. In all, their experience was much like that of a Maypole’s worth of dancing children being abruptly hurled from a cliff. Skymates were tossed from the deck when the ship began her violent descent, to be battered against the ailing balloons till they reached the ends of their tethers where they flapped helpless against the chill racing air, and each other. The airship’s construction and integrity was based on keeping the gondola below the balloon. In its tumble from their stony prison the balloon had tipped forwards, dragging the gondola under and behind it. The natural balance of the lighter than air balloons attempted to rectify the situation and in doing so twisted lines and began an inelegant spiral.

Those skymates lucky enough to be inside the gondola (or in Rosenhatch Traverstorm’s case – standing in the doorframe and therefore bounced inwards via concussion) were treated to a smoother ride. Once their bodies had met each wall and settled on the new floor, and all the unfixed furniture and luggage had struck them more than once, centripetal force glued them safely in place.
Inside the cabin where poor one-eyed Jacob Bublesnatch lay bound to his bunk, the first few rotations of the airship had smashed the bunk back into the wall, acting according to its hinged nature. Maxwell, who had been toying beneath the bunk with one of the foul grubs that had popped from the cabin lad’s eye, froze perfectly in place on the floor, his claws rooting him in the instant of the firey explosion and terrifying scream that the Sky Cliff had uttered. He noted the bunk flip up and batter the boy into the wall.

Maxwell bounded from the floor to the bunk. He leaped from the bunk in the time between it bouncing on its hinges and returning Jacob’s bruised face to the wall (at which point the hinges snapped, flinging Jacob and bunk upwards. He nimbly evaded the cascade of jars containing the rest of the ghastly worms as they shattered against the wall, floor, porthole and Jacob. He defied gravity as he skipped over the flying glass. And, as the airship spun out into its downward spiral, dragging Jacob in his battered bunk to lie against the outer wall, Maxwell jumped once more, to land, claws extended into the soft cushioning comfort of unconscious Jacob’s stomach. He felt safe, but not safe enough to retract his tiny paw anchors.

‘Safe’ is a relative term at the best of times, and Lord Corshorn had eschewed its use for most of his sky sailing days. His present disposition – wedged in a corner of the cockpit, gripping his telescope and holding the map cabinet shut with one foot – was angry. From his vantage he could see the vast expanse of desert beneath them revolving behind the thrashing form of their Giant Centipede, Harvey who was still securely pinioned to the deck. He swallowed his concern for the crew he had seen whipped from the deck by the speed of their exit and subsequent tumble. His duty was to the ship itself; once secured he would be able to see to his crew.

The spin pulled at Lord Corshorn as he dragged himself across the cabin. It dragged at his hands and face and head, threatening him with blackness that seeped into the bright edges of his vision. He clenched his teeth, hard enough to hear them crunch, and reached for the levers that could redirect their reckless whirling. They had used their rockets to escape the crushing confines of the Sky Cliff, but their departure was so swift that it had torn Corshorn’s fingers from the switches. When his hand finally reached the switch he hesitated. Concern rippled across the lines in his face. He yanked the lever as far down as it would go. The airship shuddered and lurched. The pressure on his face abated and the map cabinet closed on its own. The spin would slowly ease but as yet the captain had done nothing to stop their descent.

Next Week: Part 27 – Fragile Things

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The Desert Crystals – Part 25: Ghosts of Dawn

Part 25 – Ghosts of Dawn

Desert Crystals 3

His bunk had become his refuge. The childhood appeal of his hammock fort and the close darkness had reached out through the years and seized him. For all his mature years and gentlemanly ways, Guldwych Ryme still found himself huddled beneath the thin blanket. It was a poor shield from the world. Not thick enough to block the light that poured through the porthole between the opposing bunk and his own hiding place. Not thick enough to block out the sounds of the airship’s crew screaming as it plummeted from the sky. He supplemented the shadowing sheet by squeezing his eyes shut. Just as a child he had kept out the cold and angry fights between his parents he now closed out the shouting of skymates and the creak of wood and the ratcheting cracks of the wings sweeping up and down.

Captain Flame’s actions had profoundly shocked the rotund academic. In principle he knew that there were pirates and had read accounts of such in the Meridional newspapers. At least one colleague had reported losing valuable cargoes from far off cities and digs to accidents of the air (as the conservative language of the insurance houses had it), as well as the more common accident of nature – the beasts of the Northern Continent. Ryme’s heart raced and he sweated a thin grey dismay that left his clothes and blanket rank with the scent. He feared he might be having a heart attack, save that he had thought he might be having a heart attack for some hours now, since watching Flame put a bullet in the other ship’s captain.

The venture to challenge Rosenhatch Traverstorm and his ego-blushed expedition was feeling rather hasty as he lay curled in the cabin of a pirate ship. Not just hasty, but downright foolish. He could have just as easily booked passage on a larger vessel, though he’d have had to wait a few weeks for departure and still longer to arrive. The haste, he reminded himself, had been necessary, to ensure he could intercept the idiot before he got another exploration team killed. That didn’t feel quite as important as it had done yesterday. But he could have waited – even until Traverstorm had returned in order to denounce him (though whatever lives the maverick academic were to expend would have already been lost by then).

Ryme’s mind happened to be one of those for whom personal responsibility and blame slide smoothly from the self and pool insidiously on others. The nature of Flame’s crew and vessel had been obvious from the start – how many captains threaten a paying passenger before take off? Nonetheless, that had been Ryme’s first encounter with the bold and dangerous captain. But Eslie had been confident of the captain and The Sky Viper’s ability to put Ryme ahead of Traverstorm. Possibly Ryme’s trust in his colleague, Eslie Chem was less well founded that he had thought – had the man known he was booking passage with a band of outlaws and murderers? Surely the need for haste had not necessitated that they associate with such people.

But then, as Guldwych pondered further (accepting any line of reasoning in which he was not directly at fault), the nature of his relationship with Chem became a source of consternation in itself. For several years the man had provided a discreet, helpful and relatively inexpensive service… in regard of whatever need Ryme had had. Precisely how they had met, and become so entwined was lost in a fog of professorial handovers, favours, the subtle puncturing of reputations and loaded gifts. All Ryme could be sure of was that he had grown increasingly to depend on the slight fellow – seemingly omniscient, endlessly capable, always available. Yet Ryme had seen little of Eslie Chem (the only man he knew on the vessel) since they boarded, which was disconcerting in itself – the Viper was a small enough space for eight crew, the captain and two passengers to see more of each other than most people could handle.

Ryme wrestled with his mounting anxiety while outside Eslie Chem leaned against the cabin door, listening to Guldwych’s panting sighs and choked sobs. He drew a deep breath for himself and knocked hard on the wooden doorframe. Within, Ryme jerked upright under his blanket, only its thin cushion preventing another concussion against the upper bunk. He cautiously pulled the blanket down over his face until he resembled an anaemic grub emerging from its pupa. It was that sweating picture of dishevelment that greeted Chem as he poked his head around the door.

“Hello there Professor. How are you?”

Ryme’s desire to blame Chem for his current state fought with his need for a familiar face to talk to.

“Hello Eslie. Well, I don’t feel terribly good, if I’m to be entirely honest about it.”

Chem thought he looked appalling – as if Ryme had been the one shot in the chest. “Oh dear. The captain was concerned, as her passenger, that you might not be feeling well.”

Ryme shuddered violently. “Oh, well that’s kind of her to consider me-”

“Since of course, sickness while on board is a serious matter,” Eslie added with a careful frown, “Any hint of contagion is to be dealt with severely, and swiftly.”

If anything, Ryme contrived to look even paler and more sickly.

“The usual course of events Professor, begins with an inspection by the ship’s doctor. Obviously it’s a mate’s duty to prevent their airmates from falling ill.”

Ryme managed a weak “oh”.

“I’ll look in on you later then.” Chem managed to withhold a sneer as he closed the door behind him.

The portly academic sank back into his bunk, realising that it might not be the refuge he craved for much longer.

Next Week: Part 26 – Spirals

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Slightly Broken: Morbidly Musing

Dark Thoughts, Wayward Minds

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I think about dying a lot. Well, sometimes. I don’t have an especially good grasp of the regularity of these thoughts, maybe I should attempt to keep track of them. When I was undergoing a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) in the early part of last year each session began with a series of questions and scales to enable me to rate how I was feeling, mood and such to provide some quantifiable information about the therapy. The last few questions were ‘have you thought about self-harming or killing yourself this week?’, followed by another about frequency and seriousness. I always said that I’d thought about those things on most days, but that I hadn’t made a plan for it and that I still had things to live for.

Just being asked those questions reminded me that I do find my mind in dark places at some point on most days. Since the mind and my models of other minds are based on me I never really thought that was unusual. Apparently it is not usual. Oh well. What to do? I’ve always figured that the contemplated horror is less awful than the uncontemplated. To consider a thing is to give it both life and the possibility of death in your mind. To have a lurking horror that is given no expression or exploration is a thing of infinite potential. If you grant it enough room to be played out inside you can get to know it. You can see where it would go, what it would actually do and what the outcomes might be; you remove its relentless and remorseless shadow power.

Skipping To The End

I have never attempted suicide, in part because it would be so galling to attempt and fail – to get halfway through and fail at that. I don’t think I could live with myself… The reason I always gave in therapy was that ‘something new will happen tomorrow’. Dying and denying myself the possibility of a future strikes me as even worse than ceasing to exist. I would also not wish the pain on my family and friends, but honestly that concern comes second. Suicide is often described as a selfish act, but it’s so much more than that – it’s the ultimate self-denial, denial of choice, of opportunity, of agency. It’s also an assertion of power, of destiny and of independence. If we can choose nothing else in this world we could choose to escape it.

The Pain Runs Freely

Self-harm seems much the same, though less drastic of course; it has far more opportunity for future choices. I suspect it’s about seizing control. I know that from when I was trying to put myself back together after that catastrophic trip to Amsterdam when I was sixteen. There was no other way to excise or supplant the pain I felt inside, the sense of utter loss and degradation, the horror at my own memories and mind. Slicing strips out of my own skin was strong, decisive, painful, and hugely distracting. You can bleed out the pain for a while. It doesn’t work for long though. Long term I needed more substantial fixing.

Nearly twenty years later I am a different person, though I remember feeling that way. I still consider the freedom of a razor blade. Some short sharp pain that lingers and draws out the suffering. I choose not to indulge. I know it’s an indulgence, I know it’s a distraction. It’s also a way of not dealing with information. We can’t always choose how we respond, and I know that when I’m tired – either physically or emotionally, when frustrated by failures or by others, what my mind turns to first is that it could all just be over. I could just not be here, and it wouldn’t matter what is happening anymore. I wouldn’t need to choose, to argue it out and fix it. I could just step away, off this mortal plane and nothing would ever concern me again. It would just… stop. All of it: the noise, the feeling, the colours, me.

Out Of Control

I think about dying when it is not of my choosing. Accident, cars, fire; being broken and just dying. Dying alone. I’ve always felt that I’ll die alone somehow. But I can’t imagine the world without me. I don’t mean that ‘I’m just so damn important that it just won’t make sense’, I mean that I can’t conceive of the world when it’s not from my perspective. The whole of reality is intimately bound up with existing. When we go to sleep the world may as well stop for all we are connected to it. When we die, the world presumably goes on through others eyes, but that’s not the same world.

Why so gloomy today? I don’t feel gloomy, just a little sad and emotional. We went to see Gravity which is pretty much as good as everyone is saying that it is. I found it frightening and deeply upsetting – I guess the prospect of dying utterly alone struck a chord rather violently. Oddly, the film’s outcome didn’t make me feel less horrified but rather more appalled and filled with tears. Strange.

We saw Gravity on Monday and I wrote this immediately afterwards, but it didn’t feel like something I wanted to post right away. It’s later in the week now, and I’m less gloom-filled, which is nice.