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