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.