Friday, 30 December 2011

The Dorothy Delusion - part 5

Previously on The Dorothy Delusion: .1. .2. .3. .4.

The year is 2032. This is the City, centre of world politics.

Leon ended the call. Somewhere deep in Omnet’s systems a hidden program birthed another that edited the record of the call, then ate it, then ate itself. He never used the same number twice and he never went through Omnet’s official channels. He never paid for his calls either, but that was just a fringe benefit.

Dorothy wasn’t thinking straight, delirious; although apparently as capable as ever – she had taken his men down with some speed. So he had set Scarecrow on the job, he just hoped she would still recognise her partner. They were a natural match; it was why he had put them together in the first place.

Years ago, Leon’s career as a field agent reached its natural end and he moved into operational control. He put together a solid core team: his old partner, the Tin Man, brilliant, calculating, tactical, and sometimes difficult to work with for those very reasons. Dorothy, rising star, great mind, great instincts, if impetuous. And Scarecrow, one of the only people to ever beat Dorothy in a straight up fight, reliable and skilled; he had brains, he just didn’t use them a whole lot.

They had been one of the best teams in the business, but the Tin Man had moved up, just as Leon had, and they’d never found a replacement. Leon’s own son, Simon, the Tiger, had seemed a good fit for a while, but Simon had ended up just another casualty in the long war with the General.

A war that should have been over, but seemed to have a few death spasms left yet.

Leon frowned, the older he got the more the past distracted him. So the General’s memory implant was missing. Leon scratched at his scalp. No, he realised, it wasn’t. He cursed.

“The thing about scummy places,” Munchkin said. “Is that they’re full of scum.”

“Our kind of people,” Fingers agreed.

To the west of the City’s redeveloped centre was an area known locally as The Blinds. It came up on planning committee agendas, but was never discussed; surveying inspectors who went there didn’t come back. The police made a very obvious job of going in, not stopping, and leaving as quickly as possible; the unwritten truce: we pretend we’re doing our jobs, you pretend everything is ok. Nothing to see here.

The tower blocks were old, first generation. There weren’t many other places in the City that weren’t built over the memories of that older city, or the villages and towns that had been its suburbs. It was altogether greyer than modern sensibilities allowed for. The original architects’ idea of green space had been a slabbed courtyard with corner bushes. The meagre greenery was all dead now and the slabs were uneven and rattled.

Fingers looked about, smiling nostalgically. He looked as if he was returning to an idyllic childhood home. In some ways, he was.

“Great place to hide, The Blinds.”

The five men looked around, they knew they were being watched, that was the way of this place, it watched you, it watched itself. And you watched it, as soon as you stopped trying to guess where the knife might come from, you were already dead. The neo-gangsters’ faces and dangerous eyes belonged here, their well-fitted suits did not.

“Whadda you see, Eyeballs?”

“Scum. Looking. At us. Violence. Decay. Don’t think she’s in these blocks.”

“Deeper we go, then.” Munchkin waved them on.

“Deeper. Dirtier. Darker. Doomed.”

Munchkin looked sideways at Eyeballs. He had lost his original eyes in a knife fight and the replacements were shiny black orbs with a broader range of function than biological eyes. They made more aesthetically pleasing prosthetics, of course, ones you could barely tell from the real thing, but Eyeballs had come out of the experience changed. He liked them like this; it unsettled people, put them on an even mental footing with him.

Fingers turned to their other two companions and raised an eyebrow.

“Doomed, eh? Us or them, you think?”

The other two – identical twins, down to the scars – looked at each other. Their mother had named them Smith and Jones and it was unclear if they themselves knew who was which.

They replied in unison. “Us and them, we think.”

>goto 6

Friday, 23 December 2011

The Dorothy Delusion - part 4

Previously on The Dorothy Delusion: .1. .2. .3.

The year is 2032. This is the City, centre of world politics.

It was dark outside but something had woken her, something out of place. She stilled. A breeze chilled her damp skin, from an open door or window. She knew everything had been shut, locked; some small voice had made her double check, triple check.

In her head she pictured the apartment. Empty of everything but carpet and curtains. A corridor ran straight up the centre from the front door, two rooms on the right, one on the left and the one at the end where she was.

The door to the other bedroom was the only one that made a sound and she heard it creak. There was the slightest quiet shifting of thick, coarse material, the hush of careful feet in heavy boots. Two in the corridor. Maybe just a two man team, but she couldn’t be sure there weren’t more, checking the other rooms. Could be a team watching the window too.

The door to this room was in the middle of the wall. She took up position behind it, they were unlikely to slam it open, too much noise, better to be cautious, take in the room, notice the empty cans from the cheap, rough energy drinks she had been living on. One man entering, one covering.

The door handle turned, the door began to open slowly, smoothly. She ducked low, dancing around the edge of the door, pushing up the intruder’s leading arm, no sense getting shot. Part of her registered that he was unarmed.

She led with a quick, disorienting strike to his chin, then shoulder to his stomach, shoving him. He was big, heavy, but she got a little lift and forced him backwards, throwing him into his partner, knocking them both down. Both unarmed. Don’t delay. A couple of steps and she jumped right, into the spacious living room. Empty.

The block of flats was an H-shape, stairwell in the middle, garden and path in the central gaps. The living room window was on the inside, onto the grassed area, a safer bet than either of the street sides. The window was a sash type; she shoved it up and climbed out.

There was a high wind up and the gusts tugged at her dirty clothes. She was leaning from a helicopter, a dozen helicopters. Men with ugly faces and uglier hearts looked up at her; her men. Had she ever had men? Confused, she saw the intruders in the room, their faces like skulls leering at her. They were shouting something she couldn’t understand through the hallucination.

She was six stories up. She stepped back. Dropped so she was clinging to the ledge by her fingers, then let go. She hit the next ledge down with her forearms, gripping hard concrete, exhaling hard as she slammed her ribs into the building, somehow hanging on.

Scarecrow was towelling himself off when the call came in. It wasn’t a number he recognised. Not so unusual in his business, except it was on his private line. He touched the virtual icon and answered the call.


He recognised the voice on the line.

“Haven’t heard from you in a while.”

“You have?”

“She did?”

“Listen, no, wait, do you have visual on this call?”

Scarecrow knew his apartment was rigged, that was policy. It was in his contract. Full audiovisual. He sat down and pulled a virtual keyboard into his vision. Any onlooking snoops wouldn’t be able to see the keyboard, of course, but they could extrapolate from his finger strokes; he hid himself in the corner, fingers out of sight.

He sent a brief outline of the General’s capture and Dorothy’s subsequent disappearance. His caller probably knew most of it already, he was a resourceful man. But he probably didn’t know the last piece of intel. That the General’s implant was missing, that someone had wiped every misdeed from his conscience, given the monster a very real absolution he most definitely didn’t deserve.

Scarecrow was angry, it should have been the high point of his operational career. But the victory was hollow, stained and soured by Dorothy’s disappearance.

He went back to voice.

“So, what now?”

“Of course.” He grinned, “You don’t work with Dorothy for fifteen years without picking up a few tricks.”

He went into his bedroom. The apartment was searched regularly but he was better than they were, well, Dorothy was. In the wall of the airing cupboard was a hidden cache. He pulled out the gun and pre-paid cards. They knew about the stash, of course. He reached further in, punched through a thin divider and pulled out the device. They didn’t know about the device.

Scarecrow knew exactly where the cameras in his apartment were. He winked at one, held up the device, smiled, and pressed the button. It knocked a temporary block-wide hole in surveillance. It gave him three minutes, he needed no more than two.

Recommended reading:
Name Day by Aidan Fritz. A sumptuous little slice of delirious flash fiction.

Friday, 16 December 2011

The Dorothy Delusion - part 3

Previously on The Dorothy Delusion: .1. .2.

The year is 2032. This is the City, centre of world politics.

Scarecrow was in his small apartment, off-duty, waiting for his next assignment. Not that he was expecting one; he knew when he was on suspension, even if they hadn’t explicitly said so.

The apartment was sparsely furnished. The small TV was never turned on; the several bookshelves contained nothing but travel guides. On a single desk in the corner four laptops were set up, all currently blank. To one side was a set of weights, an exercise mat and a heavy duty punch-bag suspended from the ceiling. He didn’t do entertainment. He was always preparing, always prepared. In his head, he was never off-duty.

The root and cause of his current situation was being held in the maximum security prison on the outskirts of the City. He pulled the feed from the cell’s camera into his visual overlay. It popped up to the right of his vision, a picture-in-picture frame. Nothing had changed. He double-checked the timestamp at the bottom right of the image. It was definitely real-time, he was watching live, though it may have well have been yesterday or the day before.

The General just sat there in his prison blues, smiling beatifically, as if he were some angelic choirboy, not a mass-murdering, genocidal psychopath. After years of operations and lost agents they finally had him, but he had one last trick to play: he had no working biological memory, and when they brought their prize in, his implant was missing.

Everyone had implants but for most people it was a more symbiotic relationship. For all intents and purposes, that memory implant was the General. All they had was this blissful idiot.

Scarecrow raked a hand through his messy, straw-blonde hair. He was frustrated. The operation had gone wrong, somewhere. And he had been part of the operation, so until they knew what had gone wrong, he was pulled, stood down. They would be watching him, but it didn’t matter, he didn’t know what to do.

He stepped up to the punch bag and began laying into it. He knew his reputation, the spy with no brain, and now the General had him trumped on that score too. He wasn’t supposed to be the one doing the thinking, that was Dorothy’s job. And now Dorothy was AWOL, another casualty of the operation.

He watched the General’s smiling face and thumped the bag till sweat poured from him and sand scattered the carpet at his feet.

Leon scratched at his scalp; his hair was still in its trademark dreadlocks but they were thinner and only vestigial traces of the old chestnut brown lined the ashen grey.

He hadn’t returned to the Tree House, his base of operations; he might have been drawn out specifically to reveal its location. Besides, this thing would be easier to see through from within the City.

He had the Tin Man’s intel strewn across his retinal display; maps, rumours, possible sightings. He flicked things around with hand gestures, trying to match pieces of the puzzle together.

Dorothy’s projected entry into the City was most reliable piece of information. After the operation that brought in the General, she had been rushed back with severe cranial trauma. But before they arrived at St Mary’s hospital, if reports were accurate, she had broken free, run away. It made no sense.

Everything else was conjecture, ghosts and guesswork. He began chopping the data up and feeding it to his operatives.

“Where are you, girl. What game are you lost in?”

She jerked awake, eyes wide, mouth opening and closing, gasping. Most people would have been screaming after a dream like that but years of honed instinct kept her quiet. What instinct? She couldn’t remember. All she could remember were the bodies, piles of corpses higher than any man, and laughter, a man’s laughter that seemed to be her own.

>goto 4

Friday, 9 December 2011

The Dorothy Delusion - part 2

Previously on The Dorothy Delusion: .1.

The year is 2032. This is the City, centre of world politics.

The Siberian looked over the men in front of him. You couldn’t deny their muscle but that wasn’t why he was hiring them. They had a reputation for being smart. Not his kind of smart, there wasn’t a whole lot that approached his kind of smart, but smarter than your average bear. And they knew the City, they worked the City and they didn’t get caught, which was impressive when you knew the City had the biggest urban law enforcement budget in the world, the best tech and the sharpest officers.

These men played at being hoods and gangsters, but with a knowing humour. They were strangely anachronistic in the modern world and he suspected they liked it that way.

The Siberian was a tactician of the highest order. But the problem with brilliantly cunning plans was that you had to count on less brilliant people to execute them. Which was what had gone wrong, which was why he needed these men to help him fix it.

“Gentlemen. Mister Rollins.”

He let that one sit for a second.

Munch growled, his real name was not public knowledge, it afforded his dear mother some protection. But there were no lengths of retribution the Siberian would not go to and he felt that an important fact to establish early on, to curtail anything which might lead to the necessity of such retribution.

“I’ve lost a package, I’m reliably informed it’s somewhere in the City.”

“No offense, Gov, but we’re not the postal service.”

“Ain’t lost and found either,” Fingers added.

“Ah, let me elaborate. This package is about one and a half metres tall, red hair, green eyes, the most delightful freckles. Not quite, ha ha, herself.”

The Siberian produced a photo.

“I need the package alive, but beyond that, well, you’re not the postal service, so I expect you can manage it at least reasonably undamaged.”

There weren’t many people who could draw Leon from his woodland retreat, but one of them was missing, and another had requested a face-to-face, so a compromise was reached and here he was, a wooded park, on the outskirts of the City, uncomfortable territory for both of them. He rubbed his temples. Cities were too sterile, it took too much to disturb them, made it harder to tell when someone was coming. 

His team had arrived early and settled. This tiny pocket of nature had resumed its natural rhythms and the dissonant clamour of the City was muted. He listened. He could hear the bustle of rats in the undergrowth, the patter of squirrels over branches, the rustle of the wind through drying leaves. Autumn was fast approaching.

He turned his hands in front of his face, fascinated by the dusty hue that had crept into his dark skin the past few years, like old chocolate half-remembered and rediscovered; which was not far from how he felt, now. He flexed his fingers, grimly amused at the insidious twinges of pain. For him, Autumn was already here.

The bird chatter changed, panic, a blackbird’s warning cry. Leon heard tread, a twig snapping. He didn’t need the whisper of his perimeter guard to know they had company. The guard attached video, but he didn’t open it.

“Still jumpy, Lion?”

A thin figure, impeccably dressed, entered the clearing and stood beside the chair opposite Leon’s. He wore a grey, tailored suit, so well cut most people wouldn’t have realised there was a small pistol holstered beneath; his head was shaved close to the skull but you could see his hair had gone silver; he was wearing wire-rimmed glasses and he supported himself on a thin cane. In the old days Leon would never have heard him coming.

“You get rusty, Tin Man?”

The cane was new. It might have been a concession to age or, knowing him, it might equally have been for show, camouflage. The glasses were old, and they were camouflage too, or maybe he needed them now. Leon thought it more likely he wore contacts and kept the glasses as a prop.

Leon rose and they shook hands, then settled into the chairs and considered each other.

The Tin Man’s voice was thin but not frail, never frail. “Dorothy is here, in the City.”

“That can’t be the good news it seems. Or you wouldn’t have called me.”

“We don’t know where in the City. And you have the resources here, the man power, the connections you have always hidden behind.”

Leon didn't rise to the bait. He was alive, and older than most people in this business, because he didn’t put himself at risk.

“OK. You know I’ll help. So why meet in person, why risk both our exposure?”

“The game is changing, Lion. You’re too removed these days to feel it. Maybe I needed some reassurance that you haven’t changed, too much can be hidden behind electronics.”

Half the truth, Leon thought. The Tin Man was too calculating for that to be the only angle; too heartless to be that sentimental. And that made Leon worry.

There was one whole truth in what the Tin Man had said though: Leon was too removed from the board. The game had definitely changed.

> goto 3

+ + +
I would normally use stars to separate story from my ramblings, but I'm already using stars so...
I'm going to recommend a couple more non-space-based SF serials.

The Vagrant by Pete Newman (part 1 here)
Kind of Lone Wolf and Cub meets Lords of Light, post-some-apocalypse. Shaping up to be something quite astounding.

Dusk by me and three other writers. (part 1 here)
Chaotic, post-apocalyptic collaborative writing. A broken reflection of a fallen civilisation; the twilight years of mankind.

Friday, 2 December 2011

The Dorothy Delusion - part 1

The year is 2032. This is the City, centre of world politics.

She hadn’t slept in four days. The floor of the room was littered with cans of energy drink, all empty; she held the last in her hands and they were shaking too much for her to open it. She would have to move on, whoever owned this place might come looking, whoever was after her might come looking.

Whoever was after her... She should know that, but everything was confusing, conflicting. Her head hurt, inside and out.

Sleep was the enemy. Sleep was full of horrible things, nightmares like memories, impossible imagery. There were other enemies, but sleep was the hardest to keep at bay. The longer she evaded it, the closer it got, until it crept into her vision unbidden, with dirty hallucinations and blood-slick visions.

Her eyelids fluttered as she slid sideways a little and jerked back. The room twitched, the green-grey carpet became a muddy field strewn with corpses, their lifeless eyes gaping upwards, bile and blood and mud mixed across their faces like some demonic child’s colouring book, with no regard for the lines.

She slapped herself, hard, twice.

“Stay awake, stay awake, stay a-fucking-wake.”

She had to figure it out. That was what she did, right?

The room swam, darkness coiled about the sides of her vision. Why would the dead not leave her alone? Why had she killed so many? Didn’t she stop that kind of thing? Wasn’t that her job? Was it? She couldn’t even remember her name.

She felt paralysed, unable to move more than a shudder as dead things snuggled up to her. A skeletal arm curled across her waist, tattered edges of greening meat hanging from it like ragged clothes. A rib cage pressed against her for comfort and warmth. A skull settled beside her head, facing her, chattering cold nothings into her ear.

The General stared blankly at his cell wall. He was a model prisoner, he never made a fuss, he never did much of anything, just smiled his infuriating, oblivious smile.

Beneath a bright strip light in the warehouse district four heavyset men waited while a fifth, bigger man buzzed the intercom. The problem with modern technology, they often agreed, was that it made the night too bright. They liked the old movies, where this same scene would have taken place beneath a blinking, yellow lamp, the flickering glow caught on wreaths of cigarette smoke.

None of these men were smoking, not here, on a public street where they might draw the unwanted attention of the law.

They were thugs, men of violence, and they would have revelled in fitting the old stereotype; they would happily have worn it like a badge of office, but for the fact it might impede their job in unnecessary ways. They liked efficiency. For example, why carry a weapon when your fists can do the job; there’s never been a law against fists.

“Who’s this keeping us waiting, Munch?”

Munch, short for Munchkin, was the absurdly large man at the buzzer. He knew better than to buzz twice and it was insight, not his size, that put him in charge. He had heard of the man they were meeting, and he knew impatience on their part would do nothing to ingratiate them.

“They call him the Siberian.”

“I hate Russians.”

“I don’t think he’s actually from Siberia, Fingers.”

Fingers’ main topic of conversation was usually what to do were someone to find themselves in an interrogating situation, and where might be the best place to start.

“So why call him that?”

“Why call me Munchkin? It’s supposed to be ironic, ain’t it. On account of the Siberian landscape being so icy, snowy, and generally white and him being so–”

The door opened, a man’s eyes glinted dangerously from the shadows within.

“Warm.” Said a voice that wasn’t. “You were going to say ‘warm’, weren’t you?”

> goto 2

Friday, 25 November 2011

Black and White (part 2 of 2)


Allequella was a conical being about two metres high whose body consisted of layers of thick, grey fronds. He sighed and it was like a Christmas tree rattling its needles; he had no concept of Christmas, or trees. As he stared out of a portal at the bright white of space, watching the dark specks of distant stars, he fancied he could see the galaxies spinning, slowly, though he knew that was really more an effect of their shape than reality.

This was a universe riven by war, the same war that is fought everywhere: to keep what is yours, or take what isn’t.

Their small group had a plan for peace though. This research facility was one of many clandestine collaborations, a secret conclave of scientists, top thinkers from all the warring races of the bright universe, all seeking an energy source that could be shared.

And they had found one. A dark universe where all of space was like staring into the darkest star. And it had life, and colour. Colour was something strange and new and humming with power, and the life was not like their own – it throbbed, it was vibrant, it was the manifestation of colour. Here in the bright universe that colour and life was so much raw energy.

In the dark universe their attack fleets were like native night-time, invisible. And the locals used light-based weapons, it was like trying to attack their ships with nothingness, like trying to strike them with the void of space, ineffectual. Their own weapons worked though; they brought something of the bright universe with them when they crossed, and focussed beams of darkness struck out devastatingly.

Allequella was both relieved and troubled. The research facility had become the template for a power station that could supply each race with all the energy they could ever need, but it had also become a prison for the natives of the dark universe, where they were drained of their precious, volatile colour, their lives.

He knew that right at that moment each station chief, one from each major race and all of equal standing, was opening a communications channel. They were ready to announce to their governments and peoples that peace was nigh.

It was Allequella alone who was witness to the dark universe’s first incursion into their own. As he was gazing from the station he saw space dimple; it seemed to ripple, then bulge. What had been empty, peaceful white became swirled with black whorls, curving spiralling lines of a painfully dark black.

Allequella had worked with colour, so he was one of the few who could understand what he was seeing as two ships emerged from the disturbance. Two ships built of colour. One ship was dark blue, approaching the densest forms of colour they had identified, the other was red, the least dense end of the energy spectrum. Both ships opened fire, liberally spraying colour as if it weren’t the most precious thing.

In the dark universe their weapons had been powerless against the bright universe’s ships, but here, in the bright universe itself, the tables were turned. Their lasers were something terrible and the dark-based native weapons were useless against their ships, like stroking them with nothingness and void.

Allequella cowered and knew they had done a terrible thing. They had not found peace, only more war.

- - - -

Jelilah was silent. There was none of that ecstatic hysteria bubbling up inside her as she knifed into combat, just a cold, quiet fury. A bleak harshness that matched this strange white space she now flew.

Maarz Riizen had brought them here. The Draazi Infinity Gates had been built at a pinnacle their race had long since fallen from, but Maarz had been an expert, once, part of a team trying to recover what they had lost, before some undisclosed shame drove him to war. His expertise was enough for him to track their attackers. It was enough for him to crack a hole into another universe.

Riizen was impressive. Jelilah was his equal as a pilot, but that was all she would ever be. Having seen this other side of him she knew it would be enough to lose her a dogfight.

For now, side-by-side, they methodically destroyed every ship they found. They freed those Draazi and Humans they could. They killed every native thing they came across. It was a rescue mission; it was a calculated massacre.

Riizen rigged the return jump so it would tear a permanent rift, leaving a deadly maelstrom of colour in the bright universe that would eradicate any traces of the facility and its research. A warning to anyone who might have known what work they did there, who might have been tempted to continue it.

Back in their own space she watched Riizen’s red fighter twist through the Draazi ships. The two fleets were in temporary truce. Warring forces in brief unity against a greater enemy. The first pause in a hundred years.

War as peace, now there was an idea.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Black and White (part 1 of 2)


Jelilah’s cannons blazed rainbow fury. The lasers flickered through a sequence of random wavelengths; let the Draazi shields cope with that. The stars wheeled around her and local space sprouted red flowers: brief curling balls of flaming oxygen from exploding attack ships, both Human and Draazi.

We’re all aliens out here, she thought, and not for the first time.

Dazzling beams strobed round her hull, illuminating her face. It was a close dogfight, only a few kilometres ship-to-ship and she was having the fight of her life. Her full lips were stretched in a wild smile and it was all she could do to not laugh madly; she had been told it disturbed the comms operators.

She jinked and span her Hawk fighter, was it bad to be so in love with this feeling? She was glad they were winning the war, but glad, too, that it was only slowly. She briefly felt guilty about not feeling guilty, despite the lives lost. Then she saw Maarz Riizen, the Red Death, the Draazi’s own ace, and there was nothing but him on her mind.

His lasers were all power, no psychedelic, rainbow trickery like hers. There was no finesse, no slipping quietly past inattentive shields, just brutal force. She watched them punch straight through a Hawk’s shields and hull in one concentrated burst; just another death blossom blooming in heartless space. She sent him two Draazi flowers in return as they spiralled closer.

This was everything she needed, everything she wanted, everything she was.

Then the stars went out.

The telemetry feed died, comms chatter went quiet. Something darker than space began reaching out and swatting fighters of both races. A fleet made of nothing, that came from nowhere. She fired on what she couldn’t see and her lasers just vanished. She saw Maarz Riizen pass in a frantic red streak, evading as madly as she was, having as much luck in taking them down.

This wasn’t fun anymore. She saw her command ship die; saw something creep over it until it simply wasn’t there. Black ribbons slipped around her, but she found gaps, slivers of starlight to follow out. There were more, like grabbing hands or snapping jaws, but she was the best and no alien - Draazi or shadow-thing - could beat her in open space. She was flying for her life.

She screamed until she needed to draw breath or pass out, then she screamed some more. Her thoughts became pure instinct. She was more than a pilot, more than human, Jelilah and her Hawk were riding currents that no other being could feel; nothing could touch them.

And then she was alone. Her fleet was gone, the Draazi were gone, the nothings were gone. Just her and the distant stars, debris, and... Riizen. The Red Death drifted into her field of vision. His ship was intact but he seemed stunned by the sudden absence of action.

She grabbed for the control stick, paused. They were drifting towards each other. Warily, she waited for the distance to narrow, waited till she could see into his cockpit with her helmet’s enhanced vision. He was looking back at her, watching her. He pointed at her, then himself, then motioned towards the remnants of a Draazi Infinity Gate.

With a flare of boosters his fighter kicked towards the Gate. He was turning his back on her, inviting her attack, inviting trust. Humans had trusted Draazi before, once, and the result had been a century of war.

She pushed her Hawk after him, watched his ship slip into her targeting reticule.

Part two - White

Friday, 11 November 2011


Jacob rested his back against the cold stone wall and took a deep breath. As he waited for Brother Silas the fingers of his left hand unconsciously traced the tattoo on the inside of his right wrist, a habit so deep he no longer needed to look to know his fingers followed the pattern precisely.

The tattoo was of two overlapping circles, one towards his palm, the other towards his elbow. The mark of the High religion, Heaven converging with Earth.

Jacob was tall; he was broad in body and in features, muscled and tanned from working the hard soil of the outlands. Seven years he’d spent among the Outliers. At first they had barely tolerated him, but with time they had begun to accept his presence, had begun to talk with him. When he talked of Heaven though, they would look away, or change the subject; all except a few of the younger ones. Maybe the next generation would have seen the truth, maybe they would have earned themselves a place.

That was never going to happen now.

“Brother Jacob.” He jumped, he hadn’t noticed Brother Silas approach. “You’re still in your travel robes, and still troubled, I can tell.”

The anonymous, dark grey robes were standard journey-wear for priests, although not uncommon for other travellers too. Jacob nodded. “Can we talk in your office, brother?”

“Of course, step inside.”

The office was as austere as any room in the mission. A wooden desk, pitted and stained, a similar bench and two chairs. Brother Silas opened the shutters, letting in a little of the season’s cooler air. It looked to be another cloudless day, not good for the land. He waved Jacob to one of the chairs, and took the one behind the desk.

“Tell me about Ashfall, Brother Jacob. How was the city?”

Jacob took a deep breath; he leaned forward in the chair with his elbows on his knees and his fingers steepled. When he looked up, his dark eyes, usually so placid, seemed haunted. His thick brows creased with the difficult thoughts he was grappling.

“It was... disappointing, Brother.”

“Tell me.”

“I waited at the Ministry for thirty days and thirty nights before anyone would see me. They kept telling me I should go to the city churches, I kept telling them it was too important. Why would they not take my word, are we not all servants under Heaven?”

“They have a city to run, Brother, it is not such an easy task. But you saw someone eventually?”

“I was escorted, escorted, to see Minister Brand. His office was,” Jacob looked around their bare surroundings, “vulgar. Cushioned chairs, gilt picture frames, glass in the windows. I could go on.”

“Maybe the Lords have seen fit to grant him a taste of Heaven in this life, for his services. We each serve in our own way. What happened next?”

“I told him the horror I had witnessed. The savage people like wraiths in the morning mist but horribly real, the slaughter, the bloodshed. I told him what they did to the bodies afterwards. How I had to take the dripping corpses from the spikes and how I burnt them all that they might find their way to Heaven.”

“That must have been difficult to relive.” Brother Silas looked at him pityingly. “And what did the Minister say?”

“He thought I was exaggerating, as if my own imagination could conjure up such images. I will never get them from my head. He shrugged off the idea that the savages could be any threat to the city. Then he asked if the village had begun donating a tithe.”

Brother Silas frowned, “They hadn’t, had they?”

“No, Brother, they hadn’t. They are further North than most, we had not been visiting them for many years. But they were starting to see the truth.”

Jacob looked down at his hands. His gaze rested on his right wrist. “The Minister said it wasn’t enough. That Heaven would only take those who had served it in this world.”

“That is what the Lords have taught us. I was afraid he would answer you in that way.”

“Why would Heaven allow such suffering with no reward?” Jacob’s throat felt tight.

“Heaven does not dictate life on Earth, Brother Jacob. Heaven is gracious to allow us respite in the afterlife, in return for serving the Lords, its envoys, on Earth.”

“What have I done, Brother?” Jacob knew his eyes were red, on his cheeks he felt the streaks of fat tears. “They will not be allowed into Heaven and I have denied them their own afterlife. If I had only put them into the ground, they might have returned to the Earth, as they believe. I have set their spirits loose with nowhere to go.”

“You did what you have been taught, Jacob. You did no wrong. I worry that you show some belief in their Earthbound teachings.”

“Heaven is my master.” Jacob answered quickly, “but, I find my thoughts shadowed by doubt. I must find myself, brother, and my faith.”

“Heaven tests our worthiness in many ways, Brother Jacob. Where will you head?”

“I have no desire to return to Ashfall in the south, and certainly no urge to go north to the savages. With the sea to the east I have but one direction: west, with the setting sun.”

“West will eventually lead you to the sea, also.”

“But not for a while, and if I reach the sea and still have not found myself, well...”

“You will seek the Farland over the waves.” Brother Silas looked worried, “if it even exists.”

“I will. Peace on Earth, some say, or certain death. May Heaven guide me.”

Haunted was written as a stand-alone character study. So what place does it have in Spare Parts, a chapter of Missing Pieces where I am experimenting with serial flash fiction? Well, Jacob is part of a larger world, the world of Dusk.

And Dusk is a serial work. It is also the collaborative work of four writers. In a world centuries beyond a global apocalypse, human civilisation of a scrappy, malformed sort has risen again. The old world is no more than ghosts, and the final night approaches. This is Dusk.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Fifteen Feathers - pt. 6

- Part 1 -
- Part 2 -
- Part 3 -
- Part 4 -
- Part 5 -
- Part 6 -

Katya woke at dawn. The curtains were still open and the first golden rays of the rising sun lit up one corner of the room, right where Selina was curled into a chair, asleep. Her friend held peacefully in hazy amber.

Then there was a rapping at the door. Katya jumped. She stared towards the hallway, then back at Selina, confused.

“Don’t bother getting up,” Selina said, with a soft sadness to her voice. “He has a key, doesn’t he? I’m sure he’ll let himself in.”

“Who–?“ Katya began, but she knew.

She just didn’t know why.

The key turned in the lock, she heard the door open and close, and then he was there, in the doorway. Larry. He looked at Selina.

“Here already?” He growled softly.

“Well someone wasn’t playing by the rules.” Selina’s answering voice was shod in steel.

“Whose rules? His rules? That’s kind of the point, isn’t it?”

Katya looked back and forth between them. Selina bathed in sunlight, her blond hair incandescent, the glow catching and cradling her fine features. Larry where he stood in the dusky darkness of the hallway, his dark eyes bottomless, shadow crouching about his shoulders like an ethereal familiar.

And Katya in the middle.

“What is this?”

As she asked she felt her world crumbling beneath her; she felt the rush of her dreams, the air buffeting her, shaking her; something of great import, great mass, rushing towards her.

Larry looked at Selina, “Well, will you tell her?”

Selina held Larry’s gaze. Katya knew they didn’t get on, but this felt deeper than anything she had witnessed before. Something cold and heavy stirred in the pit of her stomach.

“Your time is up, Katya.” Selina said at last. “Thirty three years and three days to know what it is to be human. And now you must choose.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will remember,” Selina continued. “I suspect something has been coming back already, the feelings, if not the memories. What it was like to fly, to truly see a person. What it was like to be the angel you once were.”

“I...” Katya’s mouth worked, but no more came out. She stared at Selina. The world roared mutely. The room tilted. It was too much, and then it was gone, and she knew it was true, but no more. She could not remember. Not yet.

Selina seemed to sense Katya reaching this understanding. “An agreement was reached, a contract drawn up, that we might experience human existence, that we might sample this thing that was the pinnacle of His creation.”

Larry laughed then. And part of it was the chuckle she had grown to love, when the joke was only between the two of them, but part of it was something far darker.

“And do you see what pathetic creatures they are? You see how weak, small and confused you have been made by this self-determination they are given so easily. Simple unruly love has broken you.”

“You have to preach, don’t you?” Selina looked at him pityingly. “Trying to convince yourself, still? You twist reality, but that has always been your way. Katya, you have felt love that arose from your choices, and you have felt heartache, through your own choices. With every choice comes some new experience. Is that not something wonderful?”

“Pure Fallacy. Choice should be earned. We spent millennia knowing nothing but love for Him; when we made our first choice it was the hardest thing, so we knew it must be right, we knew we had earned it. Humans have no appreciation for the free will they are born with.”

“Wait.” Katya screwed up her face in thought, chewing her lip. “So I’m a fallen angel? I turned against God and now I have a chance for redemption.”

“Redemption? Redemption implies some act of wrongdoing; it implies those who left – left, not fell – were in error.”

“Every angel gets the experience, and the choice, Kitty Kat. Both sides.”

“The battle lines are being redrawn. You get to make your choice again, Katkin.”

He spat the name at her like an insult. The entirety of human weakness summed up in the absurd emotional bondage of pet names.

“You can go crawling back to His side, give up at the first real choice you have ever had to make, the hardest, and bow to these pathetic, destructive, unappreciative, whiny animals–”

“Or,” Selina cut across him, “you can appreciate the simplicity we had. The choice that was never ours to take, and the honour we were freely given.”

“Honour?” Larry sneered. “What honour?”

“That we had a hand in this strong fragility, this flawed beauty, these divine contradictions. That we have stood beside perfection and been shown how to appreciate the imperfect. That we get to watch over all these tiny wonders.”

“I have to choose?”

Larry nodded, “your last choice or your first.”

Selina frowned at him, “honour or perfidy.”

“Freedom or slavery.” He countered.

“Protect them or persecute them.”

Katya looked from one to the other, her mind a rushing tornado of feathery chaos.

Then her mind calmed. Really, it was a choice all humans have to make, most days of their lives. Others, or themselves. And sometimes it was a big decision, and sometimes it barely mattered. Sometimes it was easy, and sometimes it was hard. For her, this wasn’t a difficult decision at all. This was something she had decided a long time ago.

Thanks for reading Fifteen Feathers. I hope you've enjoyed it, I hope you like the ending as much as I do, ambiguous as it may be. - John X.

Recommended Reading: The Tiger Machine by R.S. Bohn
Marvellous moustaches, monstrous machines and not-quite-tigers. Outstanding.

Friday, 28 October 2011

Fifteen Feathers - pt. 5

- Part 1 -
- Part 2 -
- Part 3 -
- Part 4 -
- Part 5 -

Katya cradled her mug of tea. She was sitting up. Still on the sofa, but sitting up. It was a step in the right direction. Well, maybe not an actual step, but a metaphorical step, at least. And it had been several steps to go to the kitchen and make the tea in the first place.

It was Friday afternoon, the post had been, twice. There would be two of the little, neat, black envelopes that were ruining her life. No, that wasn’t right, Larry had ruined her life, somehow. Something about the envelopes, and the black feathers, was twisting her into worse of a tangled mess than her hair had ever been, and that was saying something.

Larry wasn’t the vindictive type, that’s what she didn’t understand. Sure, he had a dark side, an edge that came through in the bedroom, but it was never out of control; he had never really hurt her in all their time together.

And she had done nothing to deserve this, she was sure.

She stared into the sweet depths of her steaming tea, frowning, deriving some comfort from the warmth seeping into her hands. Was there something she should remember? Her tired mind kept drifting. All she could think about were her dreams, the rush of air and the Earth wheeling beneath her.

There was a knock on the door, quiet but firm. She jumped, her heart quickened. No, she wasn’t in. No one was home. Go away.

“Katya?” A woman’s voice, familiar – Selina.

Her best friend, her boss, Selina had seen her at her worst, but she just wanted to be alone; people couldn’t be trusted.

She heard a key in the lock. They each had keys to the other’s place, just in case. And of course Selina wouldn’t stand by if she was worried about her friend. She could trust Selina, Selina had an abundance of empathy and compassion, Selina had always been there for her.

She heard the door open, the drag of mail pushed over carpet.


“In here.” She hated how feeble she sounded.

Selina came in with the mail in her hand. Her long blonde hair was hanging loose about her face and as she looked around the gloomy room her delicate features took on a look of tender concern. She noticed the black envelopes already on the living room table, and the black feathers. Something changed in her eyes, her lips tightened and she looked at the two similar envelopes in her hand. She put the rest of the mail to one side.

“Oh, Kitty Kat. I’m sorry. It was Larry, wasn’t it?”

Katya nodded dumbly as Selina opened the two new envelopes. Selina and Larry had never got on, there had always been a tension between them. Her best friend and her boyfriend, both seemed jealous of the time she gave the other. But they had accepted her desire to spend time with both of them, if only grudgingly.

Two feathers. One feather. Selina held them up and shook her head. Katya’s vision swam just a little as she looked at them, but nothing worse.

“Remember this cruelty, remember that it isn’t in your nature.” Selina said as she went over to the drawn curtains.

Katya watched as her friend took hold of the curtains and flung them wide open. Bright light cascaded through the window. It crashed over Selina like a breaking wave, scattering and splashing brilliant droplets outwards into the room. Selina was limned by the sun’s radiance, ablaze with a luminosity that caught and leapt out from her shoulders, cascading into the room like flexing, effulgent wings.

Then Selina stepped away from the window and the vision was gone.

“You don’t look well, Kitty Kat. I’ll stay here tonight. I’m not working tomorrow, I’ll look after you.”

That was just like Selina. Always looking out for people.

- Part 6 - the grand finale.

Recommended reading:
The Factory Floor by Chris Gladis
Commercialisation and industrialisation come to every industry... spend a day in the Dream Factory.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Fifteen Feathers - pt. 4

- Part 1 -
- Part 2 -
- Part 3 -
- Part 4 -

Katya was on the sofa, again. She liked the sofa, the sofa didn’t betray her, the sofa didn’t confuse her or hurt her. It held her in its deep cushions and didn’t for a moment judge her. The postman had been, a moment ago, so now she was just waiting, fearfully for the second drop.

Yesterday, her birthday, had been a disaster. She kept playing the scene over and over again in her head.

She had wrenched the door open to find her ex, Larry, holding the next black envelope. There had been a stalemate, for just a moment. Then the tableaux had subtly altered, they were stood in the same positions, only she held the envelope. She had reached out and tentatively taken it from him, barely trembling at all. She almost convinced herself the tremor was too much tea and no breakfast.

Something dark slithered about Larry’s feet, like a coiling black mist. She had been seeing things, auras, for the past couple of weeks. She had been worrying it might be a tumour, or a mental break down, or both.

“You should open it.” He said in his gentle growl. She used to call him her friendly tiger.

She felt curiously detached as she opened the envelope. She didn’t really want to, but there was a dark fascination, a sense of inevitability manhandling her through her trepidation, forcing her onwards.

The mist at Larry’s feet shivered excitedly, began crawling up his legs, as if climbing to a better vantage point, anticipating something, whatever was in the envelope.

She already knew. The first envelope had five feathers in it. The next had four. She looked up at Larry, frightened, confused, hoping he would stop this, somehow. He just smiled at her, expectantly. She reached in, no longer able to pretend she wasn’t trembling. And there they were.

Three black feathers.

The darkness rushed triumphantly up Larry, it seemed so real she had to take a step back, gasping, dropping the feathers and the envelope. The dark smoke burst out from his shoulders like plumes of ash. They hung in the air, dusting downwards, as phantom wings.

She stumbled backwards into the house. He was smiling as he closed the door, leaving her alone with his last words.

“Time to wake up, Katya.”

She sobbed into the sofa. She was so confused. Her head ached despite the painkillers, a throbbing, brooding thunder that slowly rolled from the back of her brain to settle behind her eyes.

The letterbox sounded off. The second drop. She didn’t move, just curled up on herself and buried her face in the dark, oblivious crack between seat and backrest.

She knew what would be lying in the hallway. Another black envelope. This one would have two black feathers in it, she knew. And tomorrow it would be one.

What happened when there were no more feathers?

- Part 5 -

Friday, 14 October 2011

Fifteen Feathers - pt. 3

- Part 1 -
- Part 2 -
- Part 3 -

Katya had a plan. Everything felt wrong, but she could ride this out. Today was her birthday, she was thirty three for god’s sake. Thirty hadn’t been this bad. Being dumped had never been this bad. This was the first time she’d been dumped since being thirty, though. Nine years of her and Larry, gone. There was nothing she could do about that, but whatever jerk was putting those envelopes through her door. That she could do something about.

She wondered if they’d been dosed in something, but it didn’t feel like drugs, and it kicked in way too fast. She admitted she was making that judgement as a veteran of the club scene, not through any medical proficiency, but still, she couldn’t believe there was anything that could have such a violently hallucinogenic effect so quickly and so briefly. There had definitely been plenty that left her feeling this crappy the next day.

She was sat in the hallway, her back against the wall, her knees pulled up, waiting by the letterbox. Selina, as much of a friend as a boss, had agreed to give her some short notice holiday to ‘get her head sorted out’. If Selina could see her now, hiding out of sight, ready to pounce and wrench the door open, she would definitely think Katya needed it. What a way to spend her birthday.

She had met Selina the same night she met Larry. And Selina had always been there for her, looked out for her; kept her on the straight and narrow... lot of good that had done, Larry had left her anyway. Maybe she should have had some fun when the opportunities had presented themselves. Uck, she had to stop thinking about him.

She nearly shrieked as the letterbox coughed up two slim, white envelopes. Damn sneaky postman, she hadn’t even heard him come up the path. Must be more vigilant. She flipped the envelopes, bank statement, not even worth looking at, she was depressed enough already, and a water bill, both wadded out with commercial bumph, telling her to spend more and wash less, or vice versa.

She picked up her tea cup, then remembered it was empty. She should have prepared a thermos... Yes... and sat on the floor, in her hallway, with tea cup, thermos, sugar bowl and tiny jug of milk; maybe a small plate of bourbons. Yes, that was what being an adult was about. Crazy picnics in your own hall. Although, she hadn’t found any other occasion to use that little ceramic jug with the floral pattern her mother had bought her as a moving-in present. Were they still called jugs when they were that small? Or were they boats, like gravy.

A milk boat, was that a thing?

She decided that making bad jokes probably meant she was starting to feel better.

Then her heart leapt into her throat as she heard a footstep outside. Her eyes snapped to the steel rectangle of the letterbox, and as soon as she saw a triangle of black begin to push through it she was up and grabbing for the latch.

She yanked the door open. Her head swam from getting up too fast, but that was definitely...


Her tall, dark and handsome. A scratch over six foot, perfect for her to rest her head on his broad chest. Scruffy, coal-black hair – over-styled and amazing, somehow not gunky despite the amount of product he put in it. Deep eyes, hypnotic pupils that were dark to the rim with just the slightest ring of reddish brown; like looking into a well you could fall down forever. That lop-sided smile, more to the left than the right; the trick was making him break into a full smile, not easy, but so rewarding...

She opened her mouth to say more, but couldn’t work out what to say first. She stared at the black envelope in his hand.

His left eyebrow arched in an exquisitely curved circumflex, an accent to the half-smile, a change in nuance.

“Happy birthday, Katkin.”

That voice. Low, untroubled, a purr with just the tiniest curl of a growl. Got her right there, every time.

He proffered the envelope.

“It’s for you.”

- Part 4 -

Friday, 7 October 2011

Fifteen Feathers - pt. 2

- Part 1 -
- Part 2 -

Why is it impossible to call in sick without feeling guilty?

Katya was on the sofa again, having slept there, fitfully, and she really was sick. She wondered if this was what a migraine felt like. Her head throbbed. Closing her eyes was some sweet relief, and she wasn’t feeling as ill as she had the day before. She thought she might manage some toast. And a cup of tea.

The TV was off; the distraction wasn’t a distraction, and trying to watch the screen had just made her feel worse. She was playing a Classic FM CD at low volume, it was helping, after she’d skipped Ride of the Valkyries. The off-white curtains were still drawn, glowing with the sun directly behind them. That hurt to look at too, but she couldn’t exactly turn that off, could she?

She heard someone at the door, rustling, then a short, firm knock. Nope, not moving, definitely not letting anyone see her after a night on the sofa. She smelt funky and her hair would be like a nest of black vipers; she would probably turn them straight to stone if they didn’t just run off, screaming. The letter box creaked, she could hear something squeezing through, barely fitting. Oh well, that was probably something important, crushed now.

She twisted round, trying to make herself more comfortable. She wanted to call Larry, moan, whine, get him to come over and make her tea. Not going to happen. That was the worst thing about break-ups, the person you most wanted to go to for comfort was suddenly the last person on earth you could go to. What an awesome birthday tomorrow was going to be.

That did it.

Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Kitty Kat.

She was going to have a shower, throw on something clean, make that cup of tea, make herself feel human, make herself better through sheer force of willpower. She swung herself off the sofa and stood up. Then faltered as all the blood drained from her head and her vision blackened. OK, wait a minute, then, slowly, do those things.

The shower was a revelation. The water seemed to sluice away more than just the miasma of overnight sofa; the eucalyptus-scented shampoo and conditioner seemed to untangle far more than just her crazy hair. She didn’t feel great, but she felt better.

She wrapped her hair, and then herself, in fresh, fluffy white towels and wandered down the stairs. Next stop: breakfast.

But halfway down the stairs she froze. Her heart skipped a beat.

On the doormat, by the front door, on top of a crushed, white, puffer bag parcel, was a small black envelope.

It looked exactly like the one that was on the table in the living room. The one with the five black feathers inside, which she had reacted to so badly the day before. And now her heart seemed to be falling over itself trying to catch up.

She warily descended the last few steps and crossed the couple of paces to the door, bent down and picked it up.

It was identical. High quality black paper, completely unmarked.

She opened it and reached in, clenching her jaw, gritting her teeth and steeling herself for... something. She didn’t know what.

Soft to the touch. Feathers, again, black. But four this time.

She clamped down on the rising nausea. No. She was not going to vomit. Dark drops slipped down the walls, leaving lines like black paint drips; glistening sick black streaking down from the corner crack between ceiling and wall. She clenched her fists.

And then. It subsided. She was standing in the hall, still standing, trembling, breathing heavily, panting. So much for feeling better.

-Part 3-

Recommended Reading: Loose Ends by Peter Newman.
Let snoozing demons lie... humorous and strange, just the way I like it. =)

Friday, 30 September 2011

Fifteen Feathers - pt. 1

This was the dream that Katya always had. The world was spread out below her: fields, roads, towns, cities. The green breadth of nature punctured by the red and grey staccato wounds of civilisation as it pumped poison outwards on throbbing black veins. It was all nature, of course; man was a part of that, nature had always adapted to the dominant species, the dominant conditions. Man was both, now, and the rest of nature was struggling to keep up. In her dream, as she fell, that was important.

Her friends told her that everyone dreamt of falling, and woke with a start before they hit the ground, heart pounding, sweating, afraid of the impact. It’s just fear, they said, of things beyond your control. Katya never told them that she felt no fear. It was exhilaration that set her heart beating wildly as she awoke.

She never mentioned the wild thoughts that accompanied the whirling world below, man versus nature, man beyond nature. They were out of character, she was not the philosophical type, such things would just raise eyebrows amongst her friends and colleagues.

That morning she woke up on the sofa, to the letterbox chatter and soft tumbling thumps of new mail. Ever since Larry dumped her a week ago something had gone wrong with her head. She was having difficulty sleeping, and she was seeing things, colours, auras around people. When she did sleep the dream was waiting for her, and when she woke, after barely an hour or two, there was a sense of disappointment, of something she was about to remember, lost now, stolen by the rough, high winds.

Not to mention it was her birthday in two days. Thanks Larry. Thanks a bunch.

Today was Monday, her day off, and she had resolved to stop moping. She had planned to do things, make a start on all the DIY Larry had always promised he would do; write a long overdue letter to her mum; buy something special for herself... but she felt so weary.

She got up and went to the door. The usual suspects waited on the mat with smug inevitability, a bill, not yet red; a letter from her mother, who would also have emailed her to check she had received it, and make amendments; a catalogue offer from a company she had ordered a pair of knickers from, once, ages ago and a hearing aid brochure addressed to the previous owner, a man named David Krapowski who had died here eight years ago. Katya sighed.

Tea, that was the answer. She shuffled through to the kitchen, putting her fingers through her long black hair, trying to make something of the tangle. She listened to the excited pop and bubble of the water as the kettle began to do its thing and rubbed her eyes, not needing a mirror to see the dark bags underlining her dark pupils – her boring, dull pupils. The kettle climaxed and as she poured the steaming water into her Hello Kitty mug the letterbox clattered for attention again.

Postie must have missed a letter. She was surprised he hadn’t just put it through a door further down and relied on neighbourly charity to see it home safe. Then she told herself off for being uncharitable.

Leaving the tea to brew, she went back into the hall. How unusual, a black envelope. She turned it over, no address window, no writing, no stamp. Some gimmick then, some local business. Still, the paper of the envelope felt thick and textured, expensively tactile, as paper goes. The seal opened with a satisfying crackle as she slid her finger under it. There was no letter inside. She looked deeper, spreading the envelope wider. There was definitely something in there. She pulled it out.

Feathers. Small, black feathers about the length of her fingers, with downy tufts at the base. Five of them.

Something throbbed in her brain, a thick jab behind her left eye. Her vision doubled and she dropped the envelope as she put an arm out to steady herself on the wall. She screwed her eyes shut, unable to stop a short, breathy moan of pain fluttering out from somewhere inside.

She opened her eyes and the corridor swam. She focussed on the feathers. Black feathers. She felt cold suddenly, unsteady, then sweat prickled her skin and a wave of nausea broke over her. She gagged, dropping the feathers as she dashed for the toilet below the stairs.

The feathers drifted downwards, wafting a little, spinning and spiralling.

As the last one settled gently, tentatively, on the carpet, Katya retched, and vomited. It felt as if the world were shifting beneath her, as if the floor, ceiling, walls had become fluid and interchangeable. She clutched tightly at the white porcelain lest she be flung about and injured by a world suddenly unreliable, treacherous.

-Part 2-
Fifteen Feathers is a short (6 part) serial. Come back next week for part 2! =)

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Xeroverse and the End of the World...

While I'm between serials... I've been awarded the Versatile Blogger award again, this time by the lovely folk over at In Case of Survival.

It's a real pleasure to receive the award as one of the things I try to do here is produce a wide variety of work, in genre and style, and it's great to be recognised for that. So thank you, ICoS! ^_^

If you're into you're post-calamity scenarios then ICoS is there for you, particularly if you like your doomsday with a large dose of irreverent humour. They leave no apocalypse unturned, whether you're worried about zombies, what you can eat in the wild, if you want to know what place knitting has, post-civilisation, or what today's books, movies and games can tell you about the inevitable wasteland of the future.

They also publish the occasional apocalyptic flash fiction. The first ever of which was my very own Ragestorm Requiem.

And if you've come over here from In Case of Survival then here's a few stories you might like, from the archives... =)

Gunship Afterlife
When the world has ended and even the hardware is out to get you...

Orion and the Bear
Civilisation has collapsed and the gods walk the earth once more.

This Pale Stranger
Zombies in the old west.

A delirious hallucination of a world where death is not the worst you can wish for.

I keep trying to push myself, and try new things, so at the moment I'm experimenting with serials. My 6-part fantasy, Godstorm, has just finished (part 1) and this Friday my new serial, Fifteen Feathers, starts.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Godstorm epilogue: Clear Skies

The Godstorm so far...
Part 1 - Clouds like Murder
Part 2 - Wailing Winds
Part 3 - Blood Rain
Part 4 - Dark Thunder
Part 5 - Bright as Lightning
And now, the Godstorm has blown over. The epilogue, Clear Skies

Ephea remembers little of his fight with Brattur. Whatever he did must have been enough, though. Certainly it was enough to see Elenor live, and honour her word.

Even with the return of Kraius he has been set free. He is Godska no more.

As he walks the streets of Vallya, heading for the gates and the outside world, the air feels clear, light. Before the murder there was an oppressive tension in the air, the gods could feel the coming storm, even as Kraius had foreseen it, though maybe not as clearly as Kraius had.

How Kraius returned is a mystery to him. He saw the godking die, witnessed the frenzy of the black shrikes. But, much like his life before he entered Kraius’ service, the events of the funeral are unclear, like the spectre of a memory. And no one has enlightened him.

Haftagg and Vorka seem to have some regard for him now. After he announced he would be leaving Vallya, the two gods of light, in turn, had grasped his hand and pulled him close, slapping his back in a warriors’ farewell. Even Shin and So, in their inscrutable bone masks, had bowed deeply; Ephea felt moved, it was as much emotion as he had ever seen from them before.

Kraius simply nodded gravely at his decision to walk the world, but Ephea had the feeling he approved. Elenor had smiled at him, quite fondly, he thought, though she was not his mother, and that had puzzled him the most. Maybe he had more of his father’s appearance than whoever his mother had been.

It was something to ponder, anyway, something to roll around in his mind as his meandered about the world. He wondered if he would find a purpose, a place, but he was in no hurry. He felt rejuvenated after his recuperation, revitalised. He took a deep breath, set the gods and their politics to his back and strolled down the slope, smiling, to his future.

Godstorm in a tea cup
On publishing a serial for the first time

One of the things I didn’t expect from writing a serial was the anxiety. There is freedom in writing a lone slice of flash fiction, each story is a fresh start. If someone likes it, they like it, if they don’t, well, next week there will be something different. I’m a notorious genre hopper, and I like to think that at some point I will hit the right genre/ story combo to please everyone (not everyone at the same time, but across the body of my work).

(Also, I’m not really notorious, not enough people read me, but I could be... ;) )

With a serial, you are tied to a genre (for the most part). Certainly, with Godstorm, if I’d broken out the rocket ships I think people would have shied away. This feels a little claustrophobic. Especially given that the next story (six parts, also) is something like supernatural suspense. That’s twelve weeks with nary a sign of science fiction! Much like in my reading, if I stay away from writing SF for too long, I get itchy...

The other factor I wasn’t expecting was the expectation. In two senses.

The first is concerned with direction. People will expect the story to go in a certain direction (and, of course, different people will expect it to go different ways). Now, if they spot your plot ahead of time, you run the risk of not being exciting as a writer, and if you go somewhere unexpected, it has to be better than what the reader was expecting, because otherwise you’re letting them down. I hope I achieved this with Godstorm, I hope no one saw it coming, that my hints were subtle enough but not too subtle, and, more importantly, I hope the twist was satisfying.

The second sense of expectation is one of fulfilling a promise. This is related to direction, but this is the side that leads to anxiety. Once part one is out there, and people like it, the following parts have something to live up to. There is a commitment you are making to those who come back for the second, and subsequent, parts. They are reading your story, and coming back for more, and in return you must honour that commitment and continue to entertain them.

Before posting I was full of fear that I was committing myself to six weeks of flash that nobody might like. Once I got some really great responses to part one, I was filled with the fear of letting people down. My twist, which I knew from the beginning, was unconventional and I was worried that people might be enjoying the more conventional fantasy aspects but not appreciate the twist; that I would fail to meet my side of the commitment. At the time of writing I’ve received some really positive responses to the twist... I just hope everyone liked it as much.

My main regret with Godstorm is in the rushing from beginning to end, with so little middle. Maybe the storm should have had an eye, a moment of tense calm in the middle. A fantasy author once told me that writing is like music, it has to have its crescendos, and its bold forte moments, but it needs the quiet moments too. In hindsight, I can see the potential ‘middle’ for building characters and intrigue, multiple suspects, instead of introducing and revealing my villain in the same part. But this was Ephea’s story really... and besides, all that other stuff? That’s the book, isn’t it? ;)

I can’t see me not revisiting these characters. Even if the book never gets written I should think there will be more serialised flashes. Elenor’s history (Anjelstorm), Kraius and Elenor meeting, defeating the Star Father (Starstorm), revealing Khao as a traitor (Demonstorm), and, of course, the upcoming war - what parts Kraius, Elenor and Ephea play in the Dragonstorm... (you notice a theme there... this is your weather warning... ;) )

For now though, I set the gods and their politics to my back, and stroll off, smiling, into the future. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have. =)

Fifteen Feathers will start in two weeks time, next week I will be posting two stories to Xeroverse: 101, to celebrate cracking 100 followers on twitter. Both based on prompts from followers. =)

Friday, 9 September 2011

Godstorm pt. 5: Bright as Lightning

The Godstorm so far...
Part 1 - Clouds like Murder
Part 2 - Wailing Winds
Part 3 - Blood Rain
Part 4 - Dark Thunder
And now: Part 5 - Bright as Lightning

Ephea leaps in Brattur’s way, hoping beyond belief that a weapon from Kraius’ own armoury might take a blow or two from Thunder’s black blade. As the sword leaves its scabbard a stark flash of brightest white illuminates the hall. The sword in Ephea’s hand is alive, jagged with power. It is like looking at mirrors in the midday sun, blinding with afterimages.

Every god knows Thunder’s twin sword: Lightning.

Ephea does not understand. Legend holds that anyone not Starborn who wields Thunder or Lightning will be reduced to nothing but ash and memory. Yet somehow Ephea still stands. At the sight of the sword something stirs within him, something like nostalgia, the edge of something long forgotten, buried deep.

Reality crashes back in. Even with Lightning, Ephea knows he cannot beat Brattur; the godprince is a renowned warrior, veteran of countless battles. But the sword gives him hope that he might buy the godqueen time to recover. Beyond that, he cannot think. Brattur attacks.

Brattur feints a strike to the right which twists into a sudden stabbing thrust at Ephea’s heart. Ephea stumbles, but the speed Lightning lends him brings the sword across in time to parry the blow. He pushes Thunder up over his shoulder, past his face. Ephea ducks as Brattur flicks the sword back and it grumbles just over his head.

When the swords clash Ephea feels the dark strength of Thunder pressing against him, it is like an invisible wave grabbing every particle of his body and shoving him back. But that feeling takes hold of something else within him; some strange recognition.

As they strike and parry, Ephea feels something swell inside him, a memory of strength and might, a memory of war, a memory of millennia. It is a complex of memories, but it has a single name. As the memories grow within him so he grows, filling his armour, becoming taller than his opponent. Swordplay becomes familiar to him, second nature, and Brattur is caught off-guard by Ephea’s metamorphosis, he does not understand what is happening. He does not understand that a godking needs more than might and posturing, a godking needs cunning and strategy and foresight.

What seemed brutal and powerful to Ephea mere moments ago now seems clumsy, and he avoids Brattur’s strikes with ease. Then he sees an opening. He takes Brattur’s sword hand off at the wrist, Lightning barely slowing as it carves through bone and flesh alike.

Thunder falls to the floor and Brattur grabs at the stump of his wrist with his left hand, red blood bubbling through his fingers in pulsing gushes. The godprince staggers backwards, eyes wide, mouth gaping as he looks disbelievingly at Ephea-who-is-no-longer-Ephea.

“Father.” Brattur gasps.

And as if to underline this simple statement the armour on the altar sags and crashes as it collapses, empty.

Ephea is no more, he remembers now that he is Kraius, that he created a larval form of himself, a godseed, when he sensed the winds of rebellion, when he foresaw his own murder but not the direction from which it would come. Lightning was the trigger, with the sword in his hand all his disembodied power would be drawn back to him, and with it, his memories and his might.

Kraius reaches down and picks up Thunder from the cracked floor, flicking Brattur’s hand away. He takes a step towards his treacherous son, who stands straight, defiant despite his grievous wound. The traitor expects death. Kraius raises his foot and kicks his son square in the chest, launching him halfway down the centre aisle of the hall. Everyone hears Brattur’s ribs crack, even over Thunder’s angry rumbling.

Kraius raises the swords high.

“I am Kraius.” He roars. “Godking.”

The answering roar is deafening and Kraius grins savagely. It might take cunning and intelligence, but it was the power they respected.

He feels a light touch on his back, a gentle, chill waft of air as wide wings fold into themselves. He leans into the godqueen’s touch.

“Elenor,” he says, softly, “my queen.”

“My king.”

And that will do them, for now.

Later, when they are alone, when they are no longer required to be king and queen in front of their subjects, they can be husband and wife, and say everything.

Later still, Elenor turns to Kraius.

“I made a promise, while you were... away. I would still see it honoured.”

The Godstorm is over... almost. Come back next week for the epilogue, Clear Skies.