Sunday, 26 December 2010

Fire and Eternity

She sits alone, and still the flames do not die. They lick at the air behind her, fine feathers of hungry orange-red sprouting from her spine and shoulders like wings. The gentle wind blows them slowly sideways as she sits, watching.

Below her, people move about. She could be amongst them, and feel nothing, or she can sit here, and watch them from afar, and feel. And burn.

It is no choice for her. To feel nothing is a kind of walking death; the flames would cool and die and she would never hurt someone again. But no one deserves to live like that, and so she lives apart, and burns, alone.

She perches here, on a rock that overlooks everything, an impossible pinnacle at once so far away and at the same time just beyond reach. Her feet dangle over the edge, she rests her chin in the palm of her hand and she smiles a bittersweet smile as she looks down, watching.

She watches them live, and she lives, while the flames flicker and softly burn behind her, within her.

(Flaming Metaphors: John Xero's thoughts)

Sunday, 19 December 2010

Lost and Found

Sorry, no fiction this week.

Not because I don’t have any, but to serve as a bookmark between chapters. And to make an exciting announcement. (Exciting for me, exciting for the Xeroverse... ;) )

So this post is something of a placemarker. It marks the end of ‘Lost and Found’, which began with This Unholy Place and ended with So This is Christmas. Odd that what was primarily SF and Fantasy micro-fiction should be book-ended by two pieces of horror.

These 24 stories represented an experiment in finding myself, in rediscovering the writer in me who had become somewhat lost... I hope you’ve enjoyed exploring these strange worlds as much as I have. =)

Next week a new chapter begins, new worlds await.

There's a mixture of some pieces I was working on over a year ago (for a project that never happened) and some new pieces. It is provisionally titled Torn Pages.

And while I’ve got you...

I also blog about writing: processes, inspiration and theories: here.

Two more pieces of my micro-fiction were published on MicroHorror last month.

And the announcement... this January Xeroverse 101 launches. One word of title, one hundred words of story. Every Wednesday. *^_^*

Thanks for reading,

John Xero.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

So this is Christmas

Twas the night before Christmas...

‘Twas’? Really? And they say grammar nowadays is bad...

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, in your living room, the night before Christmas. Santa Claus, sitting in your favourite chair. You know, the faded green one you bought when you first moved out of your mum’s (aged twenty-three...); the one you had your first spliff in (check out the hot-rock burns); the one you were sitting in when you got into the top 1000 on the guitar hero leaderboards, for Ziggy Stardust, second proudest moment of your life; the one you had sex with your wife’s younger (slimmer) sister on while they were both so drunk on absinthe (and passed out)... proudest moment of your life, you sad fuck.

So Santa Claus, as I said, sitting in your favourite chair. Red and white suit, fuzzy trim, bushy white beard, shit-eating grin on his face. And your wife? On her knees, on the floor, slumped against the chair (your favourite chair). It’s been a tiring night for her, all that screaming. But that’s what’s great about this place, remember, the space, you never have to hear your neighbours. They never have to hear you either, or your wife, no matter how loud she was.

And your wife’s face? Where? Well... that would be telling. You don’t get that last look, that last look is mine, to keep, forever.

You can keep the chair though.

You’ll never get that stain out, but hey, all those memories...

Sunday, 5 December 2010

This Bedtime Story

"Devils,” She insisted. “They climb from him at night. They tear their way out from inside, from his belly and his brains. Poor Mr. Tuffington, ripped to shreds, stuffing everywhere.”

“Now, now, Audrey. They’re just nightmares. Do you want a night light, like little girls?”

“But I hear them, ripping him apart.”

“It’s probably just squirrels on the roof, dear. You get your over-active imagination from your father.”

“When is daddy coming home?”

“Soon, dear, soon. Would you like me to take Mr. Tuffington away? To protect you from the creatures.”

“The devils.”

“Where did you learn a word like that, anyway?”

“Daddy told me. In a dream. I have to look after Mr. Tuffington; I have to put him together again every morning so that daddy can find his way back.”

“What a strange thing to say, dear.”

“Daddy told me he needs Mr. Tuffington, he said he can hear him singing me to sleep. He said he can follow the songs home.”

Janet stared at her daughter. She definitely had her father’s imagination. Janet feared her daughter would one day follow in his footsteps.

“I’m just afraid, mummy.”

“I know dear, I know.”

“Sometimes I can’t find all of the stuffing.” Audrey began to cry on her mother’s shoulder, “I’m afraid because one day I might not find enough to put Mr. Tuffington back together again.”

(John Xero talks ambiguity)

Sunday, 28 November 2010

This Pit

Between number fifty-three Fox road and number fifty-seven should have been number fifty-five. Obviously. That stood to reason. It had been there yesterday. They had witnesses.

There was certainly the space for it. One house-sized gap. There just wasn’t a house. Or the land it had stood on.

Just a hole. A gaping pit.

Detective Sora Tanaka leaned over the edge and looked down. It was just like the picture in a book she had as a child, a cross-section of the top layers of the Earth’s surface. All it was missing were little colourful fact boxes by each of the strata.

Actually, that wasn’t all it was missing. It was missing a house. And Mr. and Mrs. Hawthorne, their son Jack and their Bulldog Lady Eleanor von Chocolate (Chocks for short).

“Careful boss, don’t know how stable that is.”

“I can’t see the bottom.” She replied without moving back.

Sergeant Browning left the constables keeping the crowd back and walked across the lawn to his detective. On the way over he picked up a chew toy, a red rubber Winston Churchill, and then he tossed it over the edge.

Sora looked at him and raised an eyebrow, “What part of ‘not disturbing the crime scene’ and ‘vital evidence’ involves throwing things into a one hundred percent genuine bottomless pit?”

“Hardly evidence, boss. They had a dog.”

“Attended many house-nappings have you, Browning? You know what constitutes evidence here, do you? And what’s up with your fingers?”

“Counting, boss. The evidence still hasn’t hit the bottom yet.”

“Genuine bottomless pit. I told you. Or, you know, it was made of rubber.”

Browning at least looked a little cowed at that. He picked up a red tricycle that was turned over beside him. It had a moulded smiling cartoon face on the handle bars and someone had stuck stickers of skulls on the seat.


He put the bike down. And this was the most promising sergeant they could assign her...

“So how do you go about stealing a massive hole, boss?”

“They didn’t steal the hole, sergeant. That’s the only thing they left behind. The question is, who even could steal a house?”

“Close.” A new voice commented. “Still not quite the right question though.”

They both looked to their left, where a stranger now stood peering down the hole. He had unruly dark hair, stubble and a tan trench coat. He looked like a TV detective. The constables at the cordon didn’t seem to have noticed someone had passed them.

“Who are you? What are you doing in my crime scene?”

“No.” The stranger said slowly, pondering, “No, someone has stolen your crime scene, detective. And the question should be, why?

“Hmmm...” He patted his pockets and looked around, as if he had misplaced his keys.

“Sergeant, escort this gentleman from the scene, would you.”

“I don’t, um,” The stranger carried on as if Sora hadn’t spoken, “I don’t suppose you’ve seen a rubber toy around here? Probably a primary colour, probably a political figure.”

Browning actually blushed as he glanced at the hole.

“Oh, you didn’t...”

(John Xero talks Strangers and Pitfalls in micro-fiction.)

Sunday, 21 November 2010

This Merry-Go-Round

He holds his hand up for silence.

I know what he is about to say. I already know what happens next.

He will be right, and then he will be wrong.

“We’ve done it! We have the proof. Ladies and gentleman, today we have made history.”

We did it. Despite the naysayers claiming we would blow up the world, we went ahead and we did it. And we didn’t blow up the world. Not exactly.

There is cheering and back slapping. Hugging. Unusually high affection among usually reserved people.

I should warn them, but I didn’t before, and so I can’t now. I am just a passenger on this merry-go-round.

We had the science all worked out. It was just a case of going through the motions to prove it. Round and round and round and smash. There it would be. And there it was, now. Proof.

We were right. Science was right.

The high spirits falter and people begin to look confused. They move as though viewed across a lagging network, in jumps and starts. Real people popping from one place to the next without going through the spaces in between.

The world cracks. Perception falls apart.

Everything becomes shattered.

Rushing stuttered fragments.

Splintered snapshots.

Reality stumbles.

Then suddenly,

everything is ok again.

I am at the back of the room, pondering the nature of history. I am away from the instruments; this part is for the project head, this part is his triumph.

He holds his hand up for silence.

I know what he is about to say.

(John Xero rambles)

Sunday, 14 November 2010

These Memories

Rita looked down at her life.

“This is it?”

It lay in the palm of her hand; still, unassuming. A dull, grey cuboid. Four by ten by twenty.

Her life. Eighty cubic mils.

And it didn’t even need to be that big, that was the ridiculous thing. The actual storage element was a tiny fraction of that whole.

Ergonomics, marketing and whim were a greater factor in defining the scale of her life than the centuries she had lived, the skies she had flown, the worlds she had discovered.

No more glory. Everything was reduced to subterfuge.

(author's babble)

Sunday, 7 November 2010

This Empty Space

Grant smacked the side of the console with his hand.


“You already said that.”

Linda glanced briefly in Grant’s direction, her lips quirking in annoyance. It bothered her that he clung to old, pointless mannerisms. She thought it showed an inability to control his impulses. She had explained to him a number of times that the console was just a screen; that the scanning, the processing, the extrapolations were all done half a kilometre away in the ship’s Kore. Physical force to the console was pointless; the only thing it could possibly achieve would be to damage the console itself. But still, Grant would hit it every time it didn’t behave as he expected. After six thousand, four hundred and thirty nine years she thought he might have learnt. But no, it was the same as with the food tubes, the same as the discarded synth-skins he left on the floor. He never had any personal consideration toward her.

“Look for yourself.” He said.

She pulled his feed onto her secondary console.


“That’s what I said, remember. Twice.”

Grant rolled his eyes. Linda always thought she knew best. She was always telling him how he should behave without any respect for his personality, no matter how many times he pointed out he wouldn’t have been picked if any of his deficiencies (her word) would have threatened the mission. Six thousand odd years was a long time to spend in close proximity with someone who behaved like a Victorian housekeeper. He knew what mattered and what didn’t. It didn’t matter if he hit the console; it didn’t matter if he left a little nutri-paste in the tube and it really didn’t matter if he left his worn synth-skins on the floor, since the bots would get them (that was one she really couldn’t let go of).

They looked at the screens. Then they looked at each other; really looked at each other, for the first time in thousands of years.

The scan was definitely active. The minute particle trail the ship always left was there, for a short distance. But that was all. And that was very wrong.

“Shutters?” Grant asked.

Linda nodded and motioned at her screen.

The shutters, immobile since they had left the solar system, slid silently aside, as smoothly as the day the ship had first spun its engines up. Outside, where distant galaxies should have been visible, there was nothing.

They rotated the bridge around the circumference of the ship, a six hour journey. They said nothing. There was nothing to say.

There was nothing to see.

“We should wake them up.” Linda said. Eventually.

“And tell them what? That not only did Earth disappear while they weren’t looking but now the whole universe has gone.”

“Maybe not so bluntly.”

“Let them sleep.”

“You forget the protocols.”

“No, you forget what it was to be human. Let them dream.”

(author's chatter)

Sunday, 31 October 2010

This Pale Stranger

“I will shoot you, Jed, don’t think I won’t.”

Nate felt the wall against his back. His deputy, Jed, was 4 paces away from him, in the doorway. Jed was a faster draw but he didn’t look so good: his skin was greying; his eyes were shot and blood dripped from his face and chest, blood that wasn’t his own.

Five minutes previous, Nate had raced from his office to the sound of screaming outside. In the bright moonlight he could see Jed leaning over a woman in the street but the lawman didn’t seem to be helping her. Her writhing had stopped as her screams had turned into a bubbling choke and then she just lay under Jed, twitching. Other townsfolk had started to appear at their doors and windows. When he’d called Jed’s name his deputy had raised his head and turned, gore and blood dripping from his mouth. Nate had been able to see the woman, Mary Wholebright, more fully then, her stomach torn open, her blood gushing into the dust.

Like a mountain lion seeing its prey cornered, Jed roared at Nate across the office. The sound was guttural, inhuman, vile. Jed raised his arms and lunged straight across the room for the sheriff.

Nate drew.

Palms to ivory. The sound of iron past leather. The twin kick and thunder.

The shots staggered his deputy, but didn’t put him down. There was pure murder in his reddened eyes. He leapt for Nate again.

Twice more thunder pealed.

Nate had to jump to the side behind his desk to avoid Jed’s body as momentum carried the dead weight crashing into the wall.

“Goddamn, Jed, you sorry son o’ a bitch. What d’you make me do that for?”

He settled his iron and leaned forward, hands in fists, knuckles against the wood of his desk.


He punched the desk. Hard.

Someone stepped into the doorway, blocking some of the light from the moonlit night. Nate remembered Mary, he remembered he would have to talk to the townsfolk, have to figure out what happened. He would have to talk to Jed’s mother.

There was a guttural moan from behind him; something full of pain and hate and hunger, of regret and slow rage. It was the kind of complicated noise only a human can make, but nothing human ever made a sound quite like it. Nate’s head turned in disbelief, in time to see Jed reaching for him. Close enough that he could see the flickering oil lamp reflected in his deputy’s dead eyes. It could have been the fires of hell itself.

There was a loud, explosive crack from the doorway and Jed’s head jerked; matter and gore painted the wall behind him.

“You got to shoot them in the brains, only way to be sure.”

Nate looked away from Jed’s corpse; it was nobody’s business to be shooting the boy but his. There were always strangers in Bewick, plenty of folk passed through, not too many stopped; this fellow though, he was stranger than most. Nate couldn’t be sure by the moonlight, but he seemed to be dressed entirely in black: boots, duster, Stetson and all. This set up a mighty strange contrast with his pale face and hands, making them seem paler still. Unnaturally pale for cowboy country.

The stranger ratcheted his Winchester rifle. “You bit, Sheriff?”

“No, I ain’t.” Nate looked him up and down. “You know exactly what just happened here?”

Some folk were mistrustful of strangers; particularly small town folk. But Nate didn’t hold with those kind of prejudices, he was mistrustful of everyone equally. It made him a good sheriff.

“I seen it before, long time ago.”

“And you just happened to be passing. Why you in Bewick, cowboy?”

The stranger grinned, but it weren’t like any grin Nate had seen before. The stranger was bucktoothed, but those two front teeth were pointed and sharp as needles. It didn’t make him look dumb, like little Bucktooth Jimmy Carlson, it made him look dangerous. Some primal instinct sent a cold wash through Nate’s veins.

“Just looking out for the herd, sheriff.”

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 24 October 2010

This Infernal Waiting

The walls are off-white. That kind of boring, yellowy off-white that someone has decided won’t be as bright, stark and uncomfortable as pure white, and won’t need repainting as often. It would be called something dynamic and meaningless like ‘hazy nova’, ‘buttermilk explosion’ or ‘marigold exultation’. The phrase, ‘won’t show the dirt as much’ was probably mentioned. The surface has the complexion of an acne victim, pockmarked by blu-tack and drawing pin scars, painted over again and again.

The rooms are large, all of identical size, with a row of chairs against the walls, and another row back-to-back in the centre. All the chairs have a fraying, red material covering the cushion; they look comfy too, and they are, for the first five minutes. Each room has two small tables, covered in a selection of magazines, all long out of date. There is never anything there that anyone wants to read; after the first month they just stop looking.

Some rooms have a child who alternates between obnoxious curiosity and inconsolable bawling. Their mother is never anywhere to be found.

In every room there is also an analogue clock. The tick of the clock fills the room, and all the clocks are precisely synchronised: inexorable, inescapable. Next to the clock is a digital alpha-numerical display and every time it changes it emits an intrusive, offensive buzz and everybody checks their ticket compulsively. Everybody. Some of the tickets are worn and tattered but their number never fades and no one ever loses them.

Clyde sighs. Not his number. Again.

He tried swapping tickets when he first got here, bullying tickets with lower numbers out of people, but that didn’t seem to make any difference; when they were in his hand they were always the same number. Not the same ticket, they would be worn or torn in different ways, but the same number nonetheless.

Now, for the first time in what may be ten years – or a hundred – Clyde sees someone he knows. Someone he knew, before this.

Al wanders distractedly into the room. He is holding a mass of papers, scrutinizing something there. It looks like pages from glossy magazines, stitched together with thin, frayed, red thread.

Clyde calls out, “Al? Al? Is that you?”

Al hunches protectively around the papers, jerking away defensively.

“Get back! It’s mine!”

“Al, it’s Clyde. What’s going on?”

Now that he’s closer Clyde can see ink lines drawn on the glossy, printed paper. Square after square after square. There is scribbling in some of the boxes too, but nothing Clyde can make out.


Al looks at him suspiciously, that same look he’d had on his face when Clyde had tried to help him as he died on the cold prison floor. Untrusting, even through the pain.

“It’s a lie, Clyde. The numbers are lies. I seen people turn up after me and leave already.”

“I figured. We did some bad things, Al.”

“But see,” he quickly spreads the pages into a large flat sheet for Clyde to see. “I’m fixin’ to get out. I got a map”

Square after square after square.

(Infernal Passions. John Xero talks writing.)

Sunday, 17 October 2010

This Beloved Madness

Old Maud was mad, they said.

She lived in a rundown house out near the swamps, its plantation-white facade long since faded to grime and green. Part of the balcony had fallen through to the veranda so that it partially obscured the broken door, but not so much that Maud couldn’t get by. The roof was holed and rotten, but there was enough to keep a few rooms dry (as dry as anything got in those parts, where the air itself was damp).

Many a strong, young man had offered to fix the place up: her nearest neighbours down the way; the boy who delivered her food; the mailman; the trash collectors. She always said no, if she said anything at all.

None of them really knew Maud but for what their parents had told them, affectionately, indistinctly.

“She might seem all gone away, but that business with her Bill, that’d take it out of anyone.”

“Now don’t you go pitying Maud, she’s stronger’n you’ll ever be. Just you make sure she don’t starve, boy, that’d sure be a greater tragedy.”

“I reckon she misses that Bill. We all do, course, only she don’t really remember the whys of it no more.”

“It weren’t for Maud, the town’d not be here today. Pure tragedy is what it was.”

“You gotta respect a woman carries on after all that. She ain’t so crazy as she look. She just living a world the rest of us don’t got to.”

None of their parents had ever expounded on this apparent tragedy, or said any more about Bill, but when everyone who knew the truth had passed away, the younger generation made sure Maud was still taken care of, as much as she allowed.

Sometimes the younger boys, and some of the more unruly girls, would follow her into the swamps. They were none of them allowed into the bayou but it was something of a rite of passage, and Maud never seemed a mite bothered by it. They would be stealthy in that way all children of a certain age are: cloaked in hushes and giggles.

Maud would smile a little to herself, and pretend she couldn’t hear them. She never minded the company, really. And they would never know what they saw; she was just mad Maud, after all, the crazy lady of the swamps.

Deeper in, she would stop and hold her hand to a particular tree; a gnarled mangrove that seemed stooped and ancient, with moss hanging from it in drooping, green swathes. Other trees were clustered unusually thick about it, but none too near, as if they were gathered to pay their respects.

Then Maud would talk to that tree.

She called it ‘Bill’, and its boughs creaked in yearning.

(author's thoughts)

Sunday, 10 October 2010

This Mundane Slavery

From my chair I can see the Arkanon’s war machines, two of them. If I get up and go to the window I know I would see a third off to the east; it blocks the early morning sun. They tower above our highest buildings, the robots of science fiction’s early dreams: the blocky, functional machines, not the later, aesthetically pleasing, oh-so-alien wonders of curves and gracefulness. The Arkanon have no use for beauty.

They have a use for us though.

While other people allow television to sooth their subjugation, I sit and watch our unmoving overlords – or their devices at least. I don’t believe, as some do, that the tv signals contain pacifying subliminals, but the censored channels are thoughtless, mindless, pointless: a consuming distraction.

I have come to the conclusion that these beings are not dissimilar to us, showing force to ensure that everyone else conforms to their ideas of justice and rights. Defining – justifying – the lawful oppression of other peoples by the terms of their own freedoms.

They decided office jobs were not for them. But still they need the paperwork processed, they need customer service, and not even with their advanced technology has any AI lived up to the promise of imagination; sentience exists only through biology and evolution.

I remember the abuse a tele-operator in India would get because they weren’t on the same continent. The short tempers because English was not their first language. It was nothing compared to the reaction we get when one of them finds themself put through to Earth...

They try to crush the very memory of freedom from us. They are as adept at memetic manipulation as Orwell’s Ministry of Truth ever was. ‘War is peace.’ ‘Freedom is slavery.’ ‘Ignorance is strength.’

Not that many remember Orwell now. Sedation is entertainment.

My eyes flick to the chest of drawers, with their false bottoms. My modest fourteen books are more of a library than most cities have. I don’t dare let my gaze linger. I look out of the window once more, waiting until I can close the curtain without rousing suspicion, until I can read.

My books are contraband; most of my thoughts, illegal.

I watch the flocks of birds that wheel through the city, indifferent to tower block and robot alike. Despite the Arkanon’s best efforts they settle on the robots, nest there, stain them in dirty streaks. Pigeons and starlings and gulls cannot be manipulated so easily. They cannot be so peacefully oppressed.

They are freedom, in front of our eyes, every day.

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 3 October 2010

This Bright Lie

They never come at night.

Why do you think that is?

The last words Billy ever said to me. Ever said to anyone, as far as I know. They haunt me.

Billy was obsessed with the angels. But not like everyone else. We would all have worshipped them; if they would have allowed it. But not Billy. Billy watched them. He wrote about them. He never had a thought that wasn’t about the angels. And he was always thinking.

Now Billy is gone. Disappeared. Along with his notes. More notebooks than a man could carry by himself.

The first thing he ever said to me. I was stopped watching one fly overhead. I was squinting at the brightness. The sun shining strong from its whiteness.

Why do you think they wear armour? Was what he said.

I’d never heard anyone call it armour before. That was just how the angels were. In suits of rigid white. Overlapping plates. Gauntlets. Greaves. I never looked at them the same after that.

I think that’s why Billy used to talk to me. Everyone else shooed him on. He could see I was really listening, though. Even if I still couldn’t help but see them as a blessing. They were Watchpoint’s good omens.

Billy never said a bad thing about them. He just questioned the way they were. The way we saw them.

Why are their halos so bitterly black? Even in the bright, bright sun. Why do you think that is?

Billy wanted to understand the halos. Twisting chips of crystalline black that orbited their heads in a ring. Each one with a word on it, he said, a rune. He thought it might be their names.

Watchpoint lore says the angels are our protectors.

From what? He would say.

We have had peace for lifetimes. Everyone knows the angels keep us safe. We know that without them we would have enemies. Terrible enemies we have no names for. The angels protect us even from that.

I decide to visit Billy’s apartment. Again. It is due to be refurnished tomorrow, reassigned. It is no one’s at the moment. So no one may enter it. I have never broken the law before. I have never heard of anyone breaking the law in Watchpoint.

I hear something as I approach. A heavy, feathery noise in confined space. Of something too big in too small a room. Some primordial dread wells up from the back of my mind. But it is night time. The angels never come at night.

Why do you think that is?

The noise has stopped. I do not know what Watchpoint sounds like at night. I am about to break the law. Of course I feel dread. I may be hearing things.

I open the door and step inside. My torch sweeps over the space, familiar yet hollow. Empty of the piles of notes and notebooks. Even the walls have been scoured.

There is something unfamiliar too.

The beam of my torch illuminates a feathered wing. In the corner two eyes shine. Red pupilled. They have just opened, hidden from sight as I entered.

I shine the torch on its face. Unable to move more than that. Out of the sun it has no halo.

It speaks.

“Only the sun can reveal their names. Only in the sun can they bind us.”

Its voice is horrible. Its voice is blasphemy and war and rape.

“Billy was clever. Billy left some of his thoughts behind. We found the books, but we almost missed you.”

Its voice is carnage and nightmares and torture.

Why do they never speak?

Why do you think that is?

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 26 September 2010

This-That and the Other

This-That wandered, and searched.

He wandered through the scrumpling trees and the gleeberry bushes. He wandered up the wearyups and down the rollydowns and then along by the burbling till he came to the long rock (which wasn’t very long, but was very tall).

He was searching for something. But he couldn’t remember what.

He climbed all the way to the top of High Riffling (the highest wearyup) and when he was there he met a stranger he’d never met before.

“Hullo.” This-That said. “I’m This-That.”

He held out his fivepaw, because that was what growners did when they met people. It was the polite thing to do, and This-That was always polite.

The stranger looked at This-That’s fivepaw with his wide peeryholes. The stranger looked hungry. This-That lowered his fivepaw quickly.

The stranger was much taller than him, so This-That had to stretch his neck to look up at him.

“What’s your name?” This-That asked.

The stranger opened his nommer (This-That thought his whole head could fit inside); it was full of sharp chewpins (This-That swallowed nervously). A deep rumble came from inside.

“No name.” The words were very slow and very long.

“No name? How sad!” This-That thought it was very sad that the stranger had no name. “I will give you a name!”

“This-That?” The stranger rumbled.

“No,” This-That laughed. “That’s my name, and you’re not me.”

This-That thought for a moment, “You’re not me, so you can be Other. Do you like that?”

“Other.” Rumbled Other.

“Yes!” This-That grinned. “Now tell me what you're doing up here. I’ve never met anyone all the way up at the top of High Riffling before.”

“Searching. Something.” Rumble, rumble.

“Well,” This-That smiled. “I was searching too, but I’ve found what I was looking for, so I can help you now. Where do you want to go?”

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 19 September 2010

These Killing Fields

The killing fields reek of peacetime.

Soon they will be farmland; the glorious dead reborn as crops, or worse: bright flowers. Corpses make such good fertiliser.

I have watched many wars. It is a good battle when the burial pits are not far from the field. It shows a need for efficiency, a need for minimal distractions from combat. The sign of a better battle is when there isn’t even the time for burial; when each side is fighting to regain their corpses as much as their ground.

But war ends. And the victor claims the land, though it is inevitably soaked more in the blood of his enemies than his own men. Should the greater claim not go to whoever has the most corpses, whoever put the most of their country into that land? That is not how these things work though. That is not how men think.

My brothers and sisters have gone elsewhere now; looking for better pickings. I remain, and the humans call me a curse. I remain, and I have been thinking.

Always we are content to let humans work themselves into war, and we go where they fight, we go where they die. But there are fewer and fewer wars, and in peacetime we flounder; only the strongest survive.

I have seen a hundred wars, a hundred peacetimes. I am the oldest of my kind, and I have a plan.

I have studied humans; so predictable in their pride and their rage and their greed. I will guide them to war, and we will have our feasts.

I take to the air. I shall find the rest of the flock and the great work shall begin. Ravens will be scavengers no more, but harbingers.

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 12 September 2010

This Most Unfrabjous Day

The door opened as far as the taught security chain would allow and a weary face peered through the gap. A face unshaven for several days, that much was clear, with heavy bags under squinting, bloodshot eyes; a face topped with unkempt, mousey brown hair.

“Sorry to call so early in the day. Not been sleeping well, Mr. Farnsworth?”

“Fuck off. It’s 2 in the afternoon. What do you want?”

“’pologies for my partner, Mr. Farnsworth, can’t help hisself, can ‘e? We’re coppers, come to chat ‘bout that incident y’had y’self.”

Mr. Farnsworth, Barry, looked them up and down through the crack in the door. They didn’t look like police. They were both wearing black combat trousers (not ‘fashion’ combats though, these looked heavy duty and functional to Barry, the real deal) and neat black shirts. One of them had his sleeves rolled up, despite the cold. They both had dark hair, very short, clippered.

The man who had spoken first was the slimmer of the two, but not skinny; his thin lips were quirked up into a smile on the left side, his left eyebrow raised. The other man was bulkier and his shirt was a little too tight, maybe intentionally, he clearly worked out regularly; his accent was definitely not cockney, but something like that. What sort of coppers called themselves ‘coppers’ anyway?

“E’ll be wan’ing to see some eyed, Smithy.”

‘ID’, Barry realised, a little slowly.

“No problem, Jones, I have some right here.”

Smithy smiled broadly as he produced a badge and card for Barry to look at, as if he was challenging Barry to comment. His partner held his up next to it. Barry studied them as if he knew what the tell-tale signs of a fake might be. They certainly looked genuine. Except the names were actually stated as ‘Smithy’ and ‘Jones’ no first name or initial, both ranked as detective.

They might as well have called themselves Slim and Muscles.

“I also have the transcription of your interview, Mr. Farnsworth.” He dug a few folded sheets of printed paper from his pocket. “We just want to go over a few details. It’s nothing serious.”

“So you won’t mind if I give the station a quick call first then? No offence.”

“We ain’t from the local, Mr. Farnsworth, but you give ‘em a call if ya want. Best to call our boss, though, really. Smithy’s got the number.”

Smithy was still smiling, helpfully.

Barry sighed. He could see that the paper did indeed have his interview on it. He unhooked the security chain (more for security of mind than anything else) and opened the door. He was wearing navy jogging trousers and a loose white t-shirt with ‘Handsome Security’ printed on the front and, when he turned around, ‘personal safety never looked so good’ printed on the back. From the fit of the T-shirt he worked out too, although from the way he slouched into the living room it didn’t seem to be a habit he was keeping up. Particularly with all the empty pizza boxes.

Smithy sat on the sofa Barry waved him to. Jones went to the window.

“Oughta get some air in ‘ere, Mr. Farnsworth.”

“It’s Barry.”

“Ain’t good for ya, flat bein’ all stuffed up like this.”

Jones opened the curtains and the window then turned to the bookshelf and started looking through the books with interest.

Barry looked pained at the big man going through his books, his books were important to him. He opened his mouth to say something about it, then sighed and looked to Smithy instead.

“So what ‘details’ can I help you with? I told them everything I know.”

“Just some clarification, Mr. Farnsworth. It will, no doubt, seem minor to you, but it is important to us. And we are grateful you’ve taken the time to see us, we seem to have caught you in the middle of tidying.”

Barry glowered. “Look.” He stabbed a finger at the Handsome Security logo on his chest, “my last client got buried in bits. My boss doesn’t think that’s good for business so guess what, even if I wanted any, he wouldn’t put it my way. You think–”


He glared at Jones for the interruption.

“Barry, Smithy’s sorry.” Jones shot a look at his partner, “‘E don’ mean ta belit’le ya problem.”

On the sofa, Smithy spread his hands and inclined his head a little, apologetic and conceding to his partner.

“So.” Smithy looked at the printed statement in front of him “What made you go upstairs?”

“Initially? A burning smell.”

The two ‘coppers’ exchanged glances.

“Eyes.” Jones said.

“Eyes.” Smithy nodded.

“Eyes?” Barry repeated.

“Yes. So, after going upstairs you mention a noise.” Smithy looked at the transcript in his hand. “Could you describe it to us again.”

“Well,” Barry looked a little embarrassed, “It was, it went... snicker-snack. Again and again.”

The two exchanged another meaningful glance.

“That’s an odd way of describing it...”

“I know,” Barry frowned, “I’ve tried to think of another way to describe it, but that’s all that comes. When I think about it, that’s what it is, in my head. I feel like I’ve heard it somewhere before, the words anyway, but I just can’t remember where. You know, it’s like when you’re sure you’ve seen an actor in another movie, but you can’t quite place them.”

“We know just what you mean, Mr. Farnsworth. Don’t we Jones?”

“Oh yes. We ‘ear a lot o’ that.”

“Now we don’t want to go over what was in the room, poor Mr. Burton can rest in pieces. Peace!” He quickly corrected himself.

Barry suspected it hadn’t been a slip of the tongue. He sighed again.

“And there was another noise, you said, from outside.”

“Well, there was a hole in the wall, but with straight edges; it was like, I don’t know, like something had just cut clean through it. And outside, I could hear something moving around, something large, but the light wasn’t good enough to see anything. And whatever it was, it burbled.”

“Burbled?” That look again. “Another odd choice of word.”

“I know, but I can’t think of any other way to describe it, that’s just the right word, the only word.”

“Ok, Mr. Farnsworth, I think that’s everything. Do we have everything, Jones?”

They both looked at Jones, by the bookshelf. He moved as if he was putting something in his pocket, but Barry couldn’t see anything in his hand, and when he looked later nothing seemed to be missing from his shelves. There was a gap between the Bs and the Cs, between Naked Lunch and The Man Who Was Thursday, but he couldn’t think of anything that might have been there before.


Later, in their car, Smithy took the old, worn book from his pocket and passed it to Jones.

“Nice. Original?”

“Nah, pre nine’een unnerd though. I rec’on. Always preferred the Mervyn Peake illustrations m’self.”

“It’s always about the pictures with you isn’t it?” Jones looked down at the book and sighed. “So the boy and the beast are working together, that’s unusual.”

“Enemy o’ my enemy I s’pose. They’ll be comin’ fer us.”

“Why is it this book that keeps coming back? Why can’t this one stay dead?”

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 5 September 2010

This Alien Land

Cally is not trembling this time.

She puts a hand to his massive face – that part of him alone approximately two thirds her own height – and lets her eyes wander over his green features.

Now that she is really looking, and touching, she realises his thick skin is soft. His face is not unlike a human face, though she cannot liken the features of this creature to the features of the man she knew. Rigid structures sweep back from the top of his hairless head, like half-flattened cones, or horizontal icicles. Smaller but similar structures descend from his cheeks, protecting the sides of his wide mouth with its semi-circular rows of pointed teeth like pencil nibs lined up (two rows at the bottom, she notices, and one at the top).

The same thick protrusions extend back from major joints all over his hulking body. The effect is not unlike a young boy trying to draw something moving at speed, but he is so stationary, so settled he seems as immoveable and weighty as a rock. If she hadn’t seen him in motion, hadn’t seen the speed and grace and ferocity, she could almost believe him a freak outcropping of lichen-swept cave. Almost, were it not for the gentle hush of breath from his half open mouth and his eyes – shifting, cloudy maroon orbs with no pupils (which are disconcerting as she can’t tell exactly where he is looking).

It strikes her then as odd that his physical form seems so earth-like. Gargantuan, for sure, but, in a general sense, his body shape, his stance, is somewhere between a bear and a gorilla. Brutish but regal, beastly but graceful. His back curves down from his high shoulders to the squat hind legs on which she has seen him stand when threatened, a spectacle inciting fear and awe in good measure. Rearing up he becomes taller than two men, and free to strike with his powerful forearms, his taloned fingers.

Cally takes a deep breath, and sighs. Whatever she hoped to see in him, she doesn’t. He is too different. It may not be there at all, or it may just be that she does not know how to recognise it now.

He tilts his head a little to one side. Curiosity, a strikingly human gesture.

She talks to him at last.

“Bryn is in prison now. For... for what he did. And the ministry say you may return.” She hesitates. “They want to study you, but that will be your choice.”

“And what do you want?”

His voice is deep and resonant, calm. So unlike how he used to be.

“I–” she clears her throat, swallowing hard on the sudden tightness. “I don’t know. You are not the Benj I knew.”

Saying that, she knows that she can move on, finally. And now she begins to tremble, tears welling in her eyes.

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 29 August 2010

This Old Man, Once Mighty

I am the last hero.

The new generation I was promised never came. I just sit in here, in this old chair, listening to the crime outside; an unrelenting crescendo. This chair is a relic of the League of Truth, like me; it is the chair I sat in when we met, when we discussed how to save the world. To my right the Lady Lasso sat, to my left the Atlantean. They told me to leave it behind that day, to leave no evidence that I was once one of them. I could not.

The League gave themselves to save the world. And I could not join them. And without them my powers mean nothing. If people knew... I could not save myself, let alone the world.

All I can do is listen as more and more crime is broadcast. More and more the world communicates the intended pain of others. Radio waves, then electron conduits, now photon highways; all rushing to spread the word, and the word is so often violence. I could shut it all down, all the blocks around me, but they would find me and what good would that serve? In my youth I could have shut the city down and they would never have found me, but now? Now I grow old, and the new generation refuse to step up.

I was to pass on the League’s legacy, but there is no one to pass it on to. So I hide in my apartment. I have my food and drink delivered. I exercise on machines. I drink to block out the noise, but with the rationing, staying drunk is impossible. I reminisce. I grumble.

That is what I am doing when someone starts banging on the door. Too early in the day for the groceries, which are not scheduled for today anyway, too fiercely for it to be the neighbours.

I concentrate. There is so much noise. But just outside the door. There is something, someone, and he is broadcasting. The signal is easier to pick up than it should be.

“You see,” the stranger seems to be talking to someone, but there is no one with him, “If ya start banging it gets the older folk flustered straight in, they’m likely to make a mistake, open the door in irritation. Not always, mind. But it’s an easy opener. Always worth trying.”

What is this? As if he is talking to a class. Or an audience.

Visual streams on his signal, from head height. C-goggs then, or just a scratch built headset; c-goggs are probably just so cheap now. There’s more data too. I can already feel a headache coming on, just need to concentrate, it’s been so long. There are augments on the signal, data overlaid onto the image, a ping and return. I recognise the details of my door lock, notes on how to flash it. Enhanced reality via cyber-goggles, crime made easy via the power of the extranet. Step one, I scramble that.

“Well fucks,” he might have said ‘folks’, but I don’t think so, “seems I might be having a few technical difficulties so we’ll just demo the alternate access. Few a ya’ll get a bang out of this.”

I can feel the building comms are out; the inline could just be faulty, but I doubt it – an old building like this is easy to cut off. Wait. Other than this guy outside, there is nothing broadcasting locally. Some kind of localised dampener, probably. I hadn’t noticed because the rest of the city is still roaring away. That’ll be why I managed to pick his signal out so easily, then.
There is a flash from the front door and a loud bang. I send a signal through to the police from a neighbouring building. His dampener is worthless against my human:plus biology.

“Woo, fucks, that’s how ya do it! Hi honey, I’m home!”

He steps through the smoking doorway. I am slow, and out of practice, only just standing up when I should have been waiting for him by the door. He’s young enough to be my grandson. He’s not wearing c-goggs. He has something in his hand that looks like a gun, except there’s no hole in the end of the barrel. Definitely a weapon though, I can feel the tension inside, growling and pent up; insta-violence on demand. I don’t understand it well enough to stop it firing. I have moments. Less.

I suddenly understand why he has no c-goggs. I am old. They are a part of his eyes, camera and display, augmented reality without the need for bulky peripherals. New tech, but obvious.

I blind him.

Too easy. He has seen where I am. He fires his caged danger.

He fires at where I was. And I am moving now, not as slow as I thought, reactions returning, daily exercise serving me well. I have to take him down fast or he will fire again, and he might get lucky next time. I throw the chair. It was once a part of the League; it is a good chair, a solid chair. It serves me well one last time and he goes down hard.

Now I just need to wait for the police. Carry on grumbling.

But there is something familiar about his weapon.

It takes me a moment. Then I know. It is Jack Lightning’s technology. Jack Lightning who died that day; whose technology could not be replicated, or reverse engineered, or disrupted by me. It is not exactly as I remember, he always had a flair for design and this seems to me too plain, too utilitarian. But someone has his power, or they have him.

This is not right. And I am done waiting.

I am the last hero.

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 22 August 2010

This Tall Tale

The first time John Harley met Doc Random was just before the whole business with the Fae nunnery. John wasn’t really a name and the Doc, well, no one really believed the Doc existed anyway, so no one bothered to tell John not to talk to him.

John was just getting regular enough at Pandora’s that Spooky George had stopped trying to poltergeist him straight back out the door, but he didn’t yet have his table in the corner. That table that always smells just like someone’s smoking at it, yeah. Well back then no one sat at that table either, because that was Doc Random’s table. Doc Random that everyone knew wasn’t real.

Pandora’s was real busy that night, and John was in a foul mood. He knew the bar, sure, but no one knew him, and just being with Mickey the Trick that one time Mickey saved London and then blundering into a couple of underside turf scuffles wasn’t enough for anyone to tell him anything. So John had seen the underside, and he wanted it bad, but no one was giving him anything. He took his pint and he sat at the only empty table. Doc Random’s table.

Well, everyone paid attention to John then.

Last time everyone had paid so much attention to John was the first night he walked into Pandora’s. They don’t like strangers on the underside, strangers mean they can’t talk freely, about all the stuff they know, that most people don’t. So Spooky George goes to work. Being dead three hundred years and stuck to the one spot, he’d gotten bored real quick; then he’d got creative. And that was the first thing that ever got the great John Harley an ounce of respect here; George took his best shot and all he did was just about convince John that this was the place he’d been looking for all along. But the attention everyone was paying John the night he sat at that table in the corner... completely different. Like they feared for his life, like they’d just realised that maybe they should have told him about the Doc, even if the Doc were nothing but a myth.

John was in a foul, foul mood. He was deeply into his beer and his own thoughts right then. His obsession with a world that just didn’t want him was losing him the world he already belonged to. Even so, the sudden change in atmosphere eventually penetrated his storm cloud. He looked up, looked at all of them, looking at him. Then he swore at them. Extensively. When nothing happened to John they started to feel a little foolish, and more than a little relieved. What had they been worrying about, anyway? A man who could never die because he’d never been born? The Doc was nonsense verse.

They settled back down, a little on edge, stealing occasional glances at the table in the corner, just to see how things were going. And John Harley was still there, still John Harley, and still angrily drinking his beer. Doc Random wasn’t there, as usual.

Well eventually John Harley got up to go for a piss. Joe was the barman back then, this was before the accident, and he looked at the empty glass on the corner table. Decided he would get it after closing, he knew better than to disturb the Doc. He decided he would just give John a friendly warning when he came back too, there were a couple of bar stools free by then, he’d just suggest John sit there, even stand him a free pint.

So John goes straight to the bar when he comes out, but before Joe can say a word John shoots him this real angry look, then he orders a pint and a double Zubrowka on the rocks. Well Joe doesn’t say a word. Doesn’t charge him for either drink. You see, nobody drinks Zubrowka in Pandora’s. Nobody but Doc Random.

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 15 August 2010

This Institution

“You know what I miss most about bookshops?”

Behind Master Shakespeare’s back acolytes James and Mary exchanged a look, and a smile. That look that says ‘here we go again’ with the smile that says ‘but this is a welcome distraction’.

In reality, of course, Bill’s digressions were all a part of his meandering didactic style. He raised an eyebrow.

“James. Mary. If you would rather be dusting the stacks than in my lecture that can be arranged.”

The other acolytes smirked. Somehow Master Shakespeare always knew what happened behind his back. He turned to face them.

“Hmmm? Master Dickens is always asking if I can spare any students, there is almost more dust than books these days.”

It wasn’t much of a threat really, more of a running joke. Nobody wanted to be thrown out of Bill’s class, but then, more time in the library itself was every student's dream.

“This great library of ours is a wonder. It is the last stronghold of so much knowledge and vision. It is a bulwark against the descending ignorance the new order is attempting to impose. But as great as it is, it is a glorified warehouse, an information silo.

“In a bookshop you could feel the life in the print. In a bookshop the shelves breathed and stretched as subjects grew in popularity, growing from a single shelf to a whole case or more; in turn, interest would wane and that subject would relax, shrinking back to make room for another. Just through the way the books shifted from month to month you could feel society thinking.

“Now society is only allowed to think, and read, what the new Führer dictates it may; openly at least. And that is what the British Library must stand against. We must preserve choice and freedom of thought. We must protect these works so that people may decide for themselves whether they are worthy and worthwhile.

“They used to say a good writer should show, not tell, and I believe that to be a tenet not only applicable to literature. The value of any idea or person must be demonstrated, it is not enough to just command people to believe in them. In the end, that is what will save us.”

(author's commentary)

For more of the British Library Underground: This Doublespeak

Sunday, 8 August 2010

This is Albion

One hundred and one days had passed with no signs, of the Albion or the Drakon. All of Earth held its collective breath. So much could go wrong: the hastily reverse-engineered flip drive; the substitute materials; the unreliable maps of konnekt-spase, mostly guesswork; the god lance...

Near the orbiting station London, space shimmered. A rainbow pattern spread across the blackness, like oil on midnight’s water. Inside the station, instruments jumped straight from baseline to red, a burst transmission instantly fired to Earth even before identification, before the interference grew too strong to transmit anything. If it were the Drakon they would be consumed before the particle wash cleared.

“Spase breach at twenty six – forty one!”

“Burst is away.”

Elizabeth nodded at them, appreciating their efficiency. “Lock us down and rotate to face the breach, full shielding. And someone wake the commander.”

A burnt white hull began to emerge from the centre of the disturbance; where it was between both existences lightning and flame clung to its surface before dying in the vacuum of real space.

“It’s the Albion!”

Cheers went around the cramped room. The small crew visibly relaxed, they couldn’t help smiling despite their professionalism, despite the tests left to run.

“Initiate handshake. I want confirmation and a burst ready for transmission as soon as we’re clear of the breach wash. Let’s have some good news for Earth.”

The laser comms between the ship and the station found each other and synched. The ID on the Albion cleared as true and a grainy image fuzzed into being on the London’s main monitor, degraded by the particle wash, but not too badly.

“Hello? Please, Earth?”

Elizabeth’s head jerked back at the face on screen. “Jorj? Lieutenant English? Where’s the captain?”

“Oh, thank God. It’s... it’s just me, Liz. They’re all... dead.”

“...and the Drakon?”


The Station shook as the last of the Albion slipped through the breach, space snapping back into place behind it, erasing all sign there had ever been anything happening there that was unaccounted for by accepted physics. The ship was holed and broken. It was a miracle there was atmosphere in the cabin at all, a miracle there was one survivor.

“Transmit burst. And bring him in, quick. He’s a hero, let’s make sure he lives.”

Commander Cave and Doc Smith now with her, Elizabeth waited for the airlock to cycle. She realised she was biting her lip, a nervous habit she had worked hard to get out of. She took a deep breath and the lights flashed green, the circular door rolling aside.

Jorj looked older than the last time she had seen him, leaner and stronger, and the youthful spark had gone from his eyes. They were still bright, but it was a hard intensity that sat there now, not the edge of a joke that always had before, even through their parents’ deaths, through the horror of the Drakon’s attacks. A raw scar spilt the left side of his face, across his jaw.

“The Drakon. It wasn’t... what we thought.”

“Now Jorj,” Commander Cave held up his hand. “You said the Drakon was dead. Can we tell Earth it’s safe?”


They gasped at his intensity, his ferocity.

“It wasn’t coming back. Though we found it anyway, and we killed it. But it’s too late. Earth was its nest!”

“What do you mean?” Elizabeth asked, brow creasing.

“We killed it. But the captain, he was, infected, inseminated somehow, he turned on us, he almost destroyed the Albion and he had a... a Drakon inside him.”


“No! It was young, immature, and we killed it too, I killed it. We have to warn Earth, anyone could be a host, anyone could be a Drakon.”

“But, how many?”

“I don’t know!”

“No.” Commander Cave’s voice was strange, low and firm, too calm, very unlike him. “My brothers will hatch in their own time. Earth will have no warning.”

Even as the other three turned to him he flung out his right hand, grabbing Doc Smith by the neck. An amber effulgence lit his eyes, and spread across his shoulders, down his arms. When it reached his hand he gripped and tore, ripping the Doc’s throat out in a flush of air and blood. The twitching corpse fell to the ground.

Orange light extruded from his back, becoming short thrashing tentacles, just like the Drakon’s spine. He turned to Elizabeth, “you will all die in the rebirth of our species.”


The commander turned back to Jorj. “No? You don’t have the god lance now boy.”

“I didn’t need the god lance to slay the captain.”

Cave lunged at him then, quicker than any human should move; orange light becoming claws at his fingertips, a fluorescent orange tongue lashing from his mouth.

Jorj was quicker. In a tiny spray of colour a shield of silvery light flashed into existence on his upheld arm, blocking the claws. A bright sword suddenly shone in his other hand and it arced upwards, severing the tongue.

The commander staggered and Jorj stood up straight, ramming the shield into Cave’s face. A spray of orange ichor spattered up the wall. He struck again, knocking the flailing Drakon spawn to the floor.

“The Drakon had greater enemies than us.” Jorj said, standing over the captain. “For a thousand years the Scalibur hunted them to near extinction. The Albion met the last of that dying race, and they gave us a gift.”

He thrust his gleaming sword through Cave’s head, piercing the metal floor beneath. With a shrieking, squealing scream the creature convulsed and died.

Jorj sheathed his weapons, safely concealing them in konnekt-spase. He looked at Elizabeth.

“Come, we have a world to save.”

(Author's Commentary)

Sunday, 1 August 2010

This Doublespeak

London, 1984

“’It is a truth universally acknowledged.’”

“’It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’”

Bolts drew back, the small door just past the delivery entrance at the back of Karl’s Bakery opened slightly. It paused as if the person opening it were a mouse wary of an owl it knew was out there, which wasn’t far from the truth. Then the door opened further and the dark figure slipped in, off the street.

“Oh it’s the worst of times all right.”

“Ain’t that the truth.”

A short huh of breath, a quirk of the lips. It was as close as they came to laughing these days.

“How goes it?”

“The pyres still burn. Until they are out, it goes nothing but badly.”

“Feeling bleak today are we? Spending too much time with Poe? Seriously though, do you think we should move the press?”

“You think Karl will give us away? ’But why will you say that I am mad?’”

“Touché. He is loyal to the cause, but the tell-tale rattle of the press that he hears whether we run it or not might drive him to reveal us.”

“The SS raided our old site in Baker Street, but I think that was a little weak on our part, we could have lost everything through a sentimental opportunity.”

“Do we not nurture sentimentality for the future’s profit?”

“Maybe, but it will be for naught if Jünger Adolph keeps pushing harder for the underground presses. Doesn’t he realise the Library is the thing?”

“Ah, the enfant terrible. If the SS get to us before the British Library... ’It made me bite my lips to think of the plans I had been building up those last years.’”

“Very good. We’ll continue with the print run of The Thirty Nine Steps, as planned, and with our errors the British Library are bound to contact us. We know they have an original copy.”

“ Yes. You know, one day these ‘works’ will only exist in our minds. And the final glorious pyres will be the flickering embers of our dying minds.”

“I don’t recognise that one... Ah, when the last memory fades, our world will be free. It will be a momentous and unmarked passing.”

“Nice, mine wasn’t from a book, like yours I think. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating?”

(Author's Commentary)

For more of the British Library Underground: This Institution

Sunday, 25 July 2010

This One-Sided Showdown

Kauffman laughed incredulously.

“You can’t expect to stop this, why even bother coming? Look at you, your arm and leg are broken, you’ve lost an eye and who knows how much blood. There’s gotta be bits of you broken inside too. We dropped a building on you.

“Your friends are gone and you were always the least of them.”

Art smiled through the pain. He shifted on his crutches, making himself more comfortable. The doctors had wanted to keep him in hospital for another month, then bed rest. He never listened to doctors.

“My friends? I’ve only ever needed my own company.”

A look of puzzlement crossed Kauffman’s face. There was no way the idiot posed a threat, but the delay wouldn’t matter and the thought that Arthur Bellam had lost his mind was an intriguing one. Intriguing and very satisfying, so much better than just breaking him physically.

“You don’t remember them? Knife Joe? Sharp Sally? Billy the Bright? The elites you sent after me, again and again, while you cowered in your bunker. The elites I killed off one by one. You must remember the videos, Billy’s was particularly vivid. I watched that again only this morning, to get me in the mood. You have to be in the right mood the day you kill a country.”

Art seemed to think about this, his brows creasing a little. He was still smiling.

“You killed no one, and you’re going to kill no one. You talk too much.”

Kauffman gave a little snort of frustration.

“If you’re going to make no sense then I’m bored of this conversation. Your intrusion, your life in fact, is over. Today I finish the job, I kill the last elite.”

Kauffman reached down to his holster and drew his Reiberg 50, overkill at this range for sure, but overkill was his motif.

He didn’t fire.

He blinked.

Someone was standing behind Arthur. She draped her long, slender arms over his shoulders and across his chest, resting her head on his shoulder. There was a certain Slavic look to her narrow features, although her long blonde hair looked bleached, rather than natural.

Someone else was leaning against the bench just inside the entranceway. His arms were broad and muscular and overly hairy; thick, dark, curling hair that spread across his shoulders, beneath his khaki, oil-smeared tank top. He casually picked at the grime beneath his nails with a combat knife whose blade seemed oversized even in his massive hand.

Art’s eyes glowed. Then he was limned in faint light and someone else, the light, stepped out of him, fully human in form but with unclear features, no more than contours and the suggestion of an expression. He was bright to look at, you could not directly do so without squinting, but he didn’t seem to brighten the room. He was not a source of brightness, he was brightness itself.

“There is only one elite, Doctor Kauffman. Whatever I choose to call myself, however I choose to appear.”

Kauffman shot Arthur.

It was a clear headshot, but there was no neat little bullet hole in Art’s forehead. It was a Reiberg after all; Arthur no longer had a head.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Sally said, her face smeared with pieces of Art’s.

Joe looked up from his nails and smiled.

“Why on Earth would you think I can die?” Billy said, though he had no mouth.

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 18 July 2010

This is Foolproof

Marco adjusted his goggles. They were now a little less comfortable than before, but it was part of his routine. It was the same before every job; he would check all external volumes were off (not that he ever turned them on); adjust his goggles; check the volume again on (count them off) all four devices; huff into his cupped hands (whether it was cold or not) and then press his palms briefly together in prayer (though none was said).

“You quite done?”

“No sense cursing things ‘fore we’re even begun,” Marco muttered under his breath, casting a dirty glance at Brant.

He didn’t usually take contract work, didn’t like to see how far bonds formed of nothing more than money would stretch before they broke. Anyone who believed in honour among thieves was a fool. Treachery was a dirty word, and one to be wary of. The money was good though, for what was basically a babysitter’s job.

“Superstitious bollocks if y’ask me.”

Brant snarled at his partner, “We didn’t ask you though. Did we?”

“You never do.”

“Look, Mr. Marco here does good work. That’s how come the boss has him with us. Though we’ve never needed help before, the boss doesn’t make bad plans. Foolproof he calls them. That’s how come even you can’t balls them up.”


Marco smirked at the smaller man’s discomfort. He hadn’t even been told his name, Brant had only introduced himself.

“Hey nothing, it’s the truth. Now are we going in or are we just waiting till dawn and security arrives?”

It was only two corridors later they came to Marco’s drop off point. The other two waited while he hacked the access box, then when the compound security data started scrolling across his goggles he grinned.

“The access keys your boss got were good. I’m in their sys now. You run along an’ I’ll let you know if they know. You know?”

“Ain’t never needed a mommy before.”

“Shut it. The boss ain’t screwed up yet, but if he says we take insurance, we take insurance.”

It was a big compound, it would still take the two goons a half hour to get in and out safely, and Marco had never been the patient kind. Not even ten minutes gone and he was looking around the sys. Cautiously, of course. There wasn’t a great deal of security anyway, he could probably have hacked the system easily enough without the keys, but their mysterious boss (he had dealt entirely with Brant) liked to be thorough, minimise risk. Hence employing Marco.

Now did that really ring right? Was the risk of introducing an independent contractor less than the risk of his boys triggering some alarm he didn’t know about? That didn’t seem such a foolproof plan.

Before he could dwell on that too much he noticed his file pull-up was running sticky; like something was enjoying a little time in his goggles’ processor space, something that shouldn’t be. He looked, and it took him far too long to see that something was there. Something that hadn’t been there before he’d hooked into the compound.

It was fascinating, it was building a process in his goggles, the initial insertion, the seed must have been tiny to have gone unnoticed by his firewall, musta rode in on something else, or several something elses. Look at enough different parts of the sys that no one person was supposed to access and the seed reached critical mass and germinated. It was growing fast. Behind the obvious, easy security and the real security hidden behind that was something oh so much subtler.

This was what Brant (or ‘the boss’) had him here for. A ghost of a system, that wasn’t really anything but rumour.

Marco went to tab his mic open to warn the other two. Then he stopped himself. He ripped his goggles off. Whatever the intrusion was, it was growing fast and he had no idea how much time that gave him before it did what it did. He had no idea what that was, he just knew he didn’t want to be in the saddle when it happened.

So ‘the boss’ had never hired someone else before? And the one time he did was the one time something happened? From the floor beside him his goggle set whined and sparked, and then the lenses flashed and blew out in tiny glass slithers.

“Shitting shit!”

If that had still been on his head, if he’d still been looking through those lenses... His ePad suddenly vibrated and he pulled the display out. Just before his goggles committed suicide there had been a sudden spike in wireless comms, and the level was still high. They definitely knew he was here.

Him, but not Brant.

Oh, the plan had been foolproof alright... only he was supposed to be the fool.

Time to prove them wrong.

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 11 July 2010

This Crumbling Bastion

He takes the seat by her bed and reaches out to her. His dry fingers trace the contours of her soft skin, trailing down her arm, lingering on her hand. He holds it lightly and looks at her, so perfect.

“I won’t be here forever. I promised I would protect you and look, I am old. I will fail you one day, all too soon.”

His mouth turns down, his eyes narrow ever so slightly and he swallows hard, pushing back the emotion with a single slow blink of his weary eyes. It is still more of that particular emotion than he ever showed her, before...

“I’m sorry.”

He always relied on her to talk, comfortable in his role as listener, occasional commenter. Everything she directed at him was like a flutter of sunlight dappling warmly against the bastion of his thoughts; every smile she evoked was genuine. He hopes he will never forget her voice; at least until that fast approaching moment when there is nothing but what is forgotten.

“I wanted so much to protect you. So selfish really. Where I failed everyone else before you, I so desperately wanted to be nothing but happiness for you, never darkness or sadness or harm. I don’t think I ever told you that.”

He hangs his head, and from there downwards his whole body sags in an inexorable, slow avalanche. He feels his bones moving against each other, feels the familiar twinges and aches as his body settles, wonders when he accepted his deterioration. When he gave up, failed her.

His head nods a little, as if sleep were courting his ponderous thoughts. Then he sighs.

“No. Not today then.”

He gets up slowly, feeling the aches and twinges restringing themselves, stopping before he is fully vertical. He gave up trying to stand up straight years ago, not long after.

After she.


That ache is always the worst. That twinge sharper than the others.

He leaves then, slowly, painfully. He closes the door and looks back in through the glass porthole as he waits for the hiss of the seal to cease, as he always does, until the light clicks off.

(author's commentary)

Sunday, 4 July 2010

This Unholy Place

This unholy place is more than superstition. It is not a place where the imaginations of fearful yokels have been spurred on by misty moon-phantoms cast wanly through drifting, shifting cloud; where lightning has thrown shadows leaping and clawing across gravestones; where crepuscular creatures have become the uncomfortable shifting of the restless dead. This place, though it is also eternally shrouded in mist and cast in deep shadow by the valley walls, is hell-touched in ways plain to see.

Hold tight the reigns of your superstitious human mind as you approach, resist the very real sense of dread and the desire to flee, but do not get too close. Stop, and observe, and you will see the hands thrust upwards from the loose soil. Red, gnarled things, unnatural skin taught to the bone. Twisted roots these are not, watch them flex in anticipation, they know you are close. And should some unwary rodent stray too near while you watch you will see it taken, snatched up and torn apart as if in a feeding frenzy, all the nearby hands grabbing for it, snatching it from each other, wanting a piece of warm flesh, hot blood; a piece of the life they are so much a sacrilegious facsimile of.

Deeper into the mists you might think you can see the baleful eyes of some fearful, unknowable beast, watching you, leashed only by its dark savouring of your terror and unfathomable motivations. What stands between its immobility and its thunderous charge through those grasping, hungry limbs? What stops it devouring you, with the sound of your blood slapping against rough stone only hidden by the sharp cracking of your bones shattering between its jagged teeth. Or maybe those eyes really are a trick of the light, some distant gem gleaming in unnatural ways. You would have to go closer to know for sure. If you could. If you would.

But horror surrounds you. So the approaching figure seems wholly inappropriate in this place, in as much as he seems wholly unbothered by it. He fits though, somehow. He has about him a mightiness. Swathed in a dark cloak his power and build are evident even through the concealing cloth; his gait may be casual but it conveys a comfortable strength, a dangerous strength; you could imagine him on the field of battle, calm amidst the slaughter, yet orchestrating the worst of it.

The ghoulish hands still as he approaches, though in apprehension or expectancy it would be hard to say. Do they fear his might or desire to consume it? He steps amongst them and they quiver, then relax, strangely acquiescent. They reach for him, but only to touch his cloak. It seems a sense of reverence has overtaken this place that knows only the irreverence of life and holiness. He takes a step or two more, then pauses, and looks behind himself. At you.

Looking straight into the depths of his hood you can at last see his face, or rather the bleached skull that sits atop his broad shoulders. An icy brightness sits in each eye socket, more piercing than any stare, they are like the pinpoints of stars – burning yet cold, distant yet immediate. There is no desire to flee in you now, there is nothing but a certain sense of your own inevitable doom.

He turns from you and walks on.

You do not feel spared. You know your life is his. You know one day he will claim it.

(author commentary)