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)