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Fantastic Visions 2 - OpenDyslexic Edition

Fantastic Visions 2

 

An Updated Introduction to the Writing of Julian M. Miles

 

Copyright 2015 Julian M. Miles

Shakespir Edition

 

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Shakespir Edition, License Notes: This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

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Contents

Transit

Train, Train

Cold Smoke & Warm Tentacles

Little Foxes

Thinking of Jenny

Nanoland

Broken Like a Bottle

The Lady is Not

Zen and Ink

Marooned

Sister Strange

Two Graves

Aces Deep

High Fliers

Treason and Plot

Rivals

Secret Weapon

Black Rider

The Hunter

Tatters

Notes Written Whilst Sitting upon a Grave

Afterword

The Stories and the Books They Come from

About the Author

Connect with Julian Miles

Other Books by Julian Miles

Credits

*****

 

Transit

We met at a parts fair. We simultaneously laid hands on opposite ends of an Emptor storage array. She smiled and brandished a handful of gigaflex at me.

“Mine.” She said.

In one of those moments of prescient genius, I replied: “Ours.”

It started for real a week later and finished two hours ago, with fifty years in between. We had gone from two lonely computer geeks with a thing for efficient storage to the founders of DataSure.

Yes, that DataSure. The one that can map you into the Alphanet; “Making Death Merely a Transition” as our promotionals say. She’s there now, a Transited, getting used to peripherals that can operate kit in different galaxies. We argued so much about that. She wanted the merge as her body failed; I couldn’t bear to see her go. Her crossing was the end for us because a transited consciousness cannot run slowly enough to mix with mortals. It just isn’t possible. A machine slow enough to allow us to interface would demise the transited. A certain processing speed is necessary to maintain soulullar cohesion.

 

Yes, I am wealthy enough to ignore the assisted suicide laws and the mandatory consciousness directives, but my problem is something I cannot buy off.

In amongst the genetic diversity of mankind there is a peculiar combination that although mapped decades ago was a mere curiosity until Transit was discovered. It means that a minute fraction of one percent of the population cannot be transited. They are quietly and pityingly referred to as ‘The Bodybound’. Something in their makeup means their consciousness cannot remain cohesive outside the shell they were born into. I have the dubious, lonely privilege of being one of them.

So I lie here next to her precious body, the cortex feed bundle hidden by her still luxuriant white hair. I write this having just completed putting my affairs in order. Now I look at the dark sheen on the barrel of my antique Desert Eagle and hope beyond reason that one day my afterlife will find her eternal circuits, somewhere out there when science and heaven finally meet.

*****

 

Train Train

 

Thundering down the kaleidoscopic tunnel at point four light and all’s well. Got a cold vodka sliding down to join the steak and chips delivered from the catering car as I look over to where old Max is interfaced to the drive arrays. The screens show that the drives are lime green across the scales. Not even straining.

I flick the broadcast switch and pass the news: “Fems and Gens, we are now riding the fastest man-made thing in all creation, bound for Stevenson Station at four-tenths the speed of light.”

We’re due to arrive at the station in an hour. It’s in free space, as the wormhole generators and deceleration matrices work better the less gravitational influences they have about them. I’m looking forward to the look on Corvanto’s face as we pull in a full hour ahead of his much vaunted express.

Max slaps me on the head and points to where an urgent attention flag is lit. I’m meant to be watching the peripheral boards while he has his hearing, taste and smell slaved to the drive arrays.

I hop from my seat and hit the read tab:

MATRICES DAMAGED BY UNSCHEDULED OVERSPEED ARRIVAL AND TOTAL LOSS OF MALLARD TWO AT POINT THREE-ONE LIGHT. FLYING SCOTSMAN TWO MUST ENTER MATRICES UNDER POINT ONE-FOUR LIGHT OR RISK OVERSHOOT.

Overshoot? A slight understatement for becoming technicolour mince smeared across two star systems. Corvanto had obviously only partially succeeded in his industrial espionage: he got the accelerator plans. The greedy fool had implemented them without thought for the ability to stop several thousand tonnes travelling at double the speed rating of current catch matrices. I slide into the seat next to Max and slap the auxiliary interface cap onto my head.

“Max, we’ve got a problem. Corvanto’s express just tore up the sandpit and buffers at Stevenson as it smeared. We have to come in under point one-four.”

Max nodded: “Point one-four? They’ve had to switch arrivals to the old catch matrices. Our decelerators are only designed to resonate with the new units.”

Oh yeah. Forgot that little complication.

“I’m open to suggestions, Max. You’ve been riding star-locos since they first pulled out. If anyone can stop us becoming fractal patterns on infinity’s cloak, it’s you.”

“Your confidence is touching. Really. Now go and tell the passengers to sit down and strap in while I think.”

I had just finished that when the Scotsman shuddered and creaked. A big, unhappy, metallic groan that vibrates your bones. Things this big just do not do that, especially in the midst of wormhole transit! I leap across and slam the interface back on my head.

“Max!”

“All under control. There’s going to be more noises, but don’t worry.”

“Worry? I’m about to spontaneously pass kittens.”

Max smiled. “Then we’ll have three firsts to declare on our arrival.”

“Okay, give. We’re going too fast to slow down in time using the usual drop-off. The matrices at Stevenson cannot hold us. What have you done?”

“This loco is a streamliner. Each car has drive arrays, instead of putting big grunt up front and pulling the carriages in its wake. Simply put, the rear cars are now trying to go back home instead of forward. I’m keeping the stress margins under eighty percent and adding cars to the reversal as the hulls accommodate the stressors. I calculate we’ll enter the catch matrices at point one or less. I don’t want to push the impact loading after stressing the hulls in strange ways.”

“That trick could make big decelerator matrices redundant.”

“I know. I had the idea decades back, but no-one would let me test it.”

*****

 

Cold Smoke & Warm Tentacles

Esclatt is a frontier town. A miserable dust trap with no future beyond the end of the ore mines. Until then, it’s a single street with delusions of village. I’m strolling down the centre of the street, my poncho draped about me, twenty-gallon Stetson crammed down low, collar up and shades on. The temperature is a perky five above freezing and the vapour from my breather drifts behind me: white, cold smoke in the chill air.

“Hey, balloonhead. Thought we said your kind wasn’t welcome around decent folk?”

Lovely. Just what I need at the end of a shift, the local gunhands deciding to mix it up. I speak without turning: “Just going from the mine to the block, straight down the road.”

“Carnegil saw you talkin’ with his girl earlier. We warned you about that too.”

“So I spoke to the lady when she delivered the chow. What of it?”

“You got told not to speak to her. She got told not to speak to you. Now she’s never been too bright, so Carnegil just slapped her a bit. But you got to pay.”

I have travelled more light years than these idiots can conceive of. I have seen things that would blast their tiny imaginations to dust. Yet I am to die in the dust of some hillbilly infested mining colony because of the strange empathy between human females and my kind? I think not. I turn slowly, making no sudden moves. There are ten of them. Unfortunately they paid attention to the fall of my old friend Jefferson Squidly, which is awkward. I must expect to be shot at least once.

Their leader, the self-appointed Sheriff of Esclatt, is his usual decrepit self. A battered and stained black Stetson sits crooked above his asymmetrical face, moustache greasy and teeth chipped; yet Docherty is a paragon of self care compared to the others. I see Carnegil toward the back, with her shawl around his shoulders. On seeing that, I decide that today is a day for wetwork. With a quick prayer to Mother Hydra, I slip my arms two at a time up to my holsters, arming myself while appearing to be motionless. Carnegil takes a step backwards, warily watching his companions to make sure he is not observed.

Docherty is confident. He spreads his feet and stands relaxed, hand hovering by his holster. The hench-idiots follow his lead. I prepare myself, pulling my beak back and releasing the breather. It is Carnegil who spots the cold smoke stop. He turns and runs.

Docherty has a very fast draw. His piece is up and firing before I am fully spread. His first shot creases my cranium as my rear tentacles curl either side of my head. The roar of eight custom Magnums is enough to freeze the ninth gunhand in his tracks as seven of his companions and his boss fly or spin backwards to fall unmoving. I knew the investment in anti-personnel loads would be justified. I point a single Magnum at him.

“Are we done here, gunsell?”

He nods, grabs the nearest moneybelt from one of his fallen compadres and flees. His flight is interrupted by the epic blast of a triple-barrelled shooting iron. Carnegil flies from the alley he lunged down in wet chunks. The last man standing wipes the bigger bits off himself and resumes his panicked flight as Maisie steps into view, iron smoking and breath misting the air around her shaking shoulders.

I lift myself and disappear my pieces into their holsters. Picking up my hat, I ambulate over to her and coil a single arm around her shoulders. She shivers a little, then smiles and wraps my arm tighter around her. She tastes of cinnamon soap and adrenalin. As she leans toward me, endorphins sharpen the taste.

“I need a new shawl, Cal. Looks like I need a place to stay, too.”

“My arms are at your disposal and my vat has a guest bunk.”

She looks up at me with raised brows and a mischievous grin.

“Mister Lamarry, you wouldn’t be thinking of taking advantage of this poor country girl, now would you?”

I slide an arm around her waist.

“Depends. Can you stitch headwounds?”

*****

 

Little Foxes

Taffy leapt from the ridge, a howl of joy trailing behind him until he hit and rolled on the green grass below. He came smoothly to his feet and looked up at his launch point, a hundred metres above. A smile cut his grimy features as he imagined their faces. Didn’t say anything in the rules about gravtac boots.

He wondered where Sam and Ellie had gone. He’d warned them that trying to stay together was dumb. Then again, they’d only asked for money whereas he’d managed to strike the whole room silent when he asked for a platinum rated ID card.

Ellie levered herself up on her elbows and looked up at the elegantly dressed elderly gent, his stance reflecting a life of the very best in everything. He looked down at her with a cold regard.

On the other side of the clearing, Sam gasped as his attempts at shallow breathing sent waves of agony through him from where the impaling javelin pinned him to a tree. His vision dimmed as his blood formed fractal swirls in the little puddles that were scattered at his feet. Conversation sounded loud over his fading heartbeat.

“Oh, good kill, my Lord.”

“Thank you, Jenkins. A hundred metres with a torque-spear should net me the range trophy, I feel.”

“Indeed, my Lord.”

Ellie let her head hang so they wouldn’t see the tears. They had only wanted a life together, and Taffy’s idea of being Foxes seemed like such a good way to make their fortune in a few hours. She felt a hand grasp the hair her mother had loved brushing and pull her head back. Tears streaked the grime on her face as she stared into the dispassionate eyes of the elderly gent. His other arm did something below her vision and scarlet fountained up into her view just as the pain hit.

“Sweetly done, Messir. Clean to the spine in a single stroke.”

“I do think that they deserve a quick end. Pass me a towel, would you? It bled on me.”

Night was falling as Taffy strolled up to the gates of the mansion. He could almost taste his new life. The guards scanned the game tag on his wrist and let him in. The drive was long, and the clean gravel crunched under his boots as he quickened his pace to get past the trophy racks, staring fixedly ahead to avoid seeing anyone he knew. Ahead of him, the sounds of genteel partying rose into the tranquil summer evening.

Something hit his lower back. He tumbled forward as his legs went numb. By the time he heard approaching footsteps on the gravel, the numbness had taken his entire body away. A hand rolled him over, his eyes frantically flicking about before settling on the dapper young man next to the little girl in a ruffed summer dress. She stared down at him, her features pinched and eyes wide. She tore her gaze from him and looked up at the man: “Are you sure they’re animals, Daddy? They look like us.”

“Would the Watch let us hunt them if they weren’t, Cynthia?”

“No Daddy, the Watch only let us do good things.”

“Precisely, darling. Now can you do it?”

“Yes Daddy.”

The sweet little girl pulled a filigree-chased antique Webley .22 automatic from her designer purse. His eyes widened as she knelt down by him and patted his matted hair, gentling him like a beloved pet in pain.

“There, there.”

He felt the cold tip of the tiny barrel against his clammy brow.

A click.

Darkness.

*****

 

Thinking of Jenny

 

I was somewhere over the badlands between Albuquerque and Flagstaff, en route from Tupelo to Pasadena, comfortable and legal at flight level three-zero. It was a clear night, and the lights of civilisation were at the horizons of the darkness spread below me.

My thoughts had turned to Jenny, when I hit a solid nothing that tore my starboard wing off. The suddenly single-engined Cessna keeled over into a steep spin, as flashing lights and warning buzzers added to my confusion.

“Albuquerque Control, this is November Six-Niner-Seven Alpha Golf, I have lost a wing. I repeat, I have lost a wing.”

“Roger that, November Six-Niner-Seven Alpha Golf, we have you descending… err… fast. Rescue services have been alerted.”

Her tone showed that she knew all they would rescue would be bloody sand and bits, shovelled into bags. Three thousand feet into the ground – I was about to become geography.

The spin had gone from uncontrollable to debilating. I couldn’t even reach my phone to call her. She’d be watching for the lights and waiting for my text to say I had landed, so she could feel that inexplicable warm thrill she always said she got, knowing she’d seen my plane come in. Sorry, beautiful girl. I hope you can eventually enjoy wine and laughter on the veranda with someone new.

 

The impacts were not as brutal as I had hoped: if I were to be smashed like a bug, being unconscious first was my preference. I was thrown all over the cabin. Finally, my head met metal and the lights went out.

 

“Dominic! Dominic!”

I tried to open both eyes, but had to settle for one. My left eye didn’t seem to be working. The bright lights of a hospital ward were obscured by Jenny’s face interposing itself, her smile causing tears to blur my vision.

My words crept from my lips as a whisper, despite my having to shout to get them that far: “How am I alive?”

An unfamiliar face topping a uniform of some kind moved to replace Jenny’s.

“We were hoping you could help with that, Mister Alsper. Your aircraft came down as your final transmission and Albuquerque’s tracking indicated. But you weren’t in it.”

“What?”

“Miss Griegen returned home, escorted by her father after the shock of hearing about your supposedly fatal incident. They found you unconscious, sat in one of the chairs on the veranda. On the table next to you was an ‘Imperial’ bottle of Chateau Cheval Blanc 1947, and a note.”

“Which said?”

His brow furrowed in concentration: “‘In reparation for rendering your vessel defunct, have transposed you to your destination-in-mind and donated a container of your beverage-in-mind.’”

My look of bafflement made him smile.

“That bottle of wine is worth around a hundred thousand dollars. Whoever you collided with has a generous compensation policy.”

“Whoever?”

He shook his head: “Let’s just leave it at ‘you had a freak accident’. We’ll be keeping the wreckage, the wine and the note. The government will replace your aircraft and pay you the balance of one hundred thousand dollars. Apart from that, we’d appreciate it if you tell no-one what actually happened.”

I looked at Jenny crying quietly, tried and failed to properly absorb the truth behind what had happened to me, then made a decision.

“How about one of those new Tahoe PPVs, with the non-civilian equipment removed, instead? I’m done with flying.”

He blinked and nodded: “Wise man. I can’t say why, but good choice.”

*****

 

Nanoland

 

Nanotechnology. Touted as the great saviour or blackest evil, the end result has been underwhelming. It’s everywhere these days and the dire predictions have not come true. Plagues of destruction never happened, because although they can replicate, it’s not a binary fission scenario and it takes time. Between ten and a hundred machines can produce one machine every hour or so. Hardly the end of the world as not all machines are replicators. Tiny systems have tiny memories and thus tiny instruction sets. Most tasks do not need a batch of machines making more machines.

“Next left, Jim. Lace your boots; it’s in the old system.”

The sewers under London are marvels of modern engineering. What the public doesn’t know is that underpinning those surgically sealed conduits are the original Victorian tunnels, still in use and showing every year of their three centuries of accumulated shit.

“Right and down, should be a plate saying NW3 at the junction.”

You could argue that nanotreatment units under every house render the crap safe. I know that to be true. What they don’t tell you in your user guide is the fact that nanotech still does things that we don’t understand. Nanoturbines work, but whether the little blade spins or see-saws back and forth is unknown. Every nanite installation is approximately 0.00001 percent rogue. For about every hundred thousand nanomachines deployed, one of them does not do what it should. Which is not a problem until they take it upon their little selves to go wandering.

“Control, it’s evil down here. The walls are glowing.”

“I see that Jim. Recorders activated and sterilisation request sent.”

A lone nanite is harmless. The problems that never make the news start when it meets another rogue. They have two common behaviours that no-one can explain. They congregate, actively seeking other rogue units. As they accumulate, original instructions sets meet and mutate, but the drive to make more rogues is a constant. The end results are completely unpredictable. This is where replication is a saving grace, because in common with all the living things on this planet, the act of reproduction creates heat. Heat which can be detected, can be tracked to point of origin and there it can be dealt with.

Which is where people like me come in. I used to be in the SAS. This may give you a hint of what occasionally happens. I have seen sculptures of incredible beauty made from faeces with the strength of mahogany, met gleaming amoebic things that clean their environment better than anything man programmed, and have fought multi-limbed horrors made from shopping trolleys and leaves.

“Control, are you seeing this?”

“Nanorat infestation. Looks like stage three. Agreed?”

“Confirmed. If they’re out here, what’s waiting?”

“Maybe you should have brought Mordred.”

Mordred is my cat. Actually it’s a nanofeline on a Maine Coon frame. Total organic replacement on the original skeleton. I found it under Hackney and just couldn’t bring myself to flatline it. Seems the replacement had occurred gradually on a dying stray, and somehow the nanite rebuild picked up behaviour patterns as well. It’s our unofficial mascot and providing I let scientists from all over the world examine it, I can keep it. Watching it change colour like a chameleon never gets boring. We have a standing order for cat toys, as they’re single use. Nanotech teeth and claws will slice anything to ribbons.

“I have a nasty feeling that Mordred might be outclassed. My hackles are up.”

“The last time they did that, you spent a month in intensive care.”

“Thanks for reminding me.”

It had looked like a rose bush. It was made of plastics and alloys. It was beautiful. Which nearly got me killed, because it was an ambush predator that struck only slightly slower than a preying mantis.

That’s the problem with this wonderland that I police. There are things happening down here that are miraculous and beneficial. But they are far outnumbered by the aberrations and malignancies. The size of nanites is the problem. To flatline them takes very focussed EMP. They are small and the most insignificant things can shield them, so the EMP has to be applied at less than a metre using weapons that have a very precise area of effect, because frying your own technology while you’re trying to put down some nanonasty will be the end of you.

That is why ex-special forces do the field work these days. The last of the civilian operators died eleven years ago.

“Jim, heads up. I’m getting increased heat ahead of you.”

“Control, I think it’s time to kill. Requesting strike authority.”

“Granted. The Metropolitan Police have evacuated the overground and Underground lines nearby are stopped. Containment units will complete spherical engagement on my mark.”

I wait, bringing my hardened systems online as combat status surrounds me in a field of ECM and ECCM. From when I go live, overground will not know a thing until I disengage and upload my tactical logs.

“Jim. Good luck. Three, two, one. Mark!”

I move into a fast jog as sparks spring from the brickwork and rats about me go into grand-mal seizures. This place is saturated in rogue nano. I bring both of my EMP guns online, the short range one for flatlining, the long range one for giving me the time to get into short range.

I emerge into one of the few remaining uncollapsed grand galleries, where sewer pipes discharge at multiple levels above the floor into an open pool that drains down a main line which used to run straight to the Thames, but now goes to a processing plant. The place is so unrecognisable it stops me in my tracks.

Each sewer outlet is capped with a mass of green, nano-architected to the point of its various original components being indistinguishable. From each pours a stream of what looks like mercury, falling various distances to splash turgidly into pools of the same substance. Each of these pools exits into a winding stream that wends its way through a rolling green expanse of what looks like metallic grass, scattered with clumps of ceramic daisies. Everything is clean, no trace of sewer grime. It looks like an idealised wild meadow. The walls are criss-crossed with silver-grey cabling that serves no purpose that I can determine.

I look down to see what the underlying materials are, as my defensive fields have flatlined the nanotech that underpins the section of nanomeadow under my feet. I am standing in a metre-diameter circle of twisted shards of metal and plastic alloy. The daisies are indeed ceramic, but their colours are pouring from them like sand as the nano dies.

A movement on my tactical display brings my head up to look at whatever I am already pointing my guns at. Blimey, it’s the White Rabbit.

The bunny in question is a bit of a legend amongst the nano-control fraternity. Rumoured to have been an original inmate of the first testing laboratories, it escaped with a load of experimental ‘double-load’ nanites on board. Double-load being the term for two nanomachines wedded together, one being the body, one the brain. It wasn’t a successful experiment as the unexpected increase in the percentage of rogues ruined the critical control needed for such complexity.

The lone surviving host bunny disappeared into the sewers of London and from there was sighted regularly but never caught. Its size grew with each sighting. We treated that as ‘the one that got away’ syndrome, but looking at the Alsatian size nanobunny charging at me, nobody was lying.

I let it have a full burst from my long-range EMP gun and it doesn’t even slow down. That’s not good news. Means the theories about nanites developing resistance in a similar way to bacteria are possibly true. With that, it launches itself at me and I get a very close look at incisors that would make confetti of my armour. Thankfully, I’ve got a hand in its throat as we go down, bunny on top. My defensive fields are having no effect either. Time to get down to business. I reach down with my offhand and encounter a lot of me leaking out. This fellow has claws like Mordred, which makes me suspect that I know how it disappears so well, it has Mordred’s chameleon pelt too. I pull out a thumping great tanto-style dagger, originally made by some obscure Norwegian company many years ago, and big enough for our R&D wizards to add some unpleasant enhancements.

I stuff the blade to the hilt in the bunny’s side and saw it down and across as nanogoop gushes out and dies instantly in my defensive field. Excellent, it isn’t immune; it’s just hardened against countermeasures in the same way as my combat tech. Bad news is that I am going to have to turn the White Rabbit inside out to kill it off, and do it quicker than the rate I am bleeding to death at. The sonics in my blade are wreaking havoc on the bunny’s structural integrity and it objects violently. I can’t really blame it but bloody hell that hurts.

Five minutes later and the White Rabbit is nanomince, and dead nanomince at that. Thankfully it only managed to convert bits of me to steak on the bone. I don’t care that the scientists are going to scream blue murder about samples. Some things cannot be brought back, and my experience has given me a very good feel for what should never see the light of a laboratory ever again. Scientists are responsible for man’s greatest advances, but sometimes they just create without considering the consequences of what’s going to happen when their masterpiece meets the real world.

I spend a long time in pain as Mike, one of the other field operatives, helps me strip naked and then hoses me down with EMP to ensure that I have no odd souvenirs travelling inside me. As I writhe in pain and swear a lot, I am dimly aware of the containment teams recording everything and then EMPing it into inactivity before sweeping the area with incredibly sensitive detectors. As the paramedics are allowed to get at me and cart me off, I watch the receding tunnel exit flaring white as plasma-sear is applied to fuse the remains into inert scenery.

Mike strides up to me as I’m being loaded into the air-ambulance.

“Total wipe, Jim. We got everything. Control says good job and shall they bring Mordred down to the infirmary?”

The problem with nano-control is that you can never be really sure about contamination until a few weeks after the event. Until then I’ll be living in my home from home at the Royal Nanomedicine Unit in St James Hospital. Mordred has special clearance because he can detect nano-infestations before they manifest to our instruments. I also want to have him nearby when I start making some very specialised enquiries into the double-load project and its supposed demise. Nobody’s going to be disappearing my nanomoggie to hide the evidence.

I sigh and relax onto the stretcher. I’ve survived another trip down the rabbit-hole. Before slipping into sedative sleep, I reply to Mike: “Yes. Mordred will fret if I’m not about. The last time that happened I had a scale model of the kitchen built on and out of the lounge carpet.”

*****

 

Broken Like a Bottle

 

The tide here has violet froth to its indigo depths. The sand is blue, like a summer sky back home, and the sky is green like grass. Across a world double the size of Earth, islands are the only landmasses. This one under my backside is the biggest we found. All eighteen point six-four by twenty-eight point one metres of it. If this world’s lazy weather could rise to something like making a wave, this island would go under regularly. At its peak, it stands point eight metres above sea level.

On that peak, there’s a burning bush: the gases emitted by the leaves glow like fire as they react with this planet’s atmosphere.

Just below the peak there’s me. Silver suit, chromed green visor, big black boots.

Between me and the tide’s edge, there’s Molly, lying in the middle of a purple stain on the beach.

Man went to the stars. Man took technology that made us look like gods to the races we met. Man became so damn good at being just all-round wonderful that he forgot something: he’d made everything better, except man.

Depression, mania, psychoses. They all went with us. With that marvellous tech we could do so much, and so much more when we were mad.

Molly always said that the depression made her feel like a wine bottle. Some days she was a Premier cru, others an Own Brand past vinegar stage. Either way, she was never full. The liquid that sloshed within the bottle of her was like a purple sea: always in motion, always opaque and never fulfilled, never still. She said that even at the height of making love, she knew that tomorrow she’d be down. That sort of constant dull ache of knowing you’re going to be worse wore on her like she carried her very own seasonal anxiety syndrome, and her seasons were daily.

When she saw this place, she said she’d come home. I hadn’t the heart to interfere in what I knew was coming.

Broken bottles have one thing in common, no matter what they held, or the value they had.

They’re empty of what made them special.

Goodbye, my love.

*****

 

The Lady Is Not

 

‘The night is yet young’, as my grandmother used to say. Apparently it was my grandfather’s favourite line before they’d go out to party. She told me about the two of them jetting off to Dubai for breakfast and always being in Shanghai for Chinese New Year. She also bemoaned the difficulty of remaining elegant in the face of a weekend of partying. It was difficult to be elegant on a Sunday evening when you hadn’t seen your wardrobe since Friday afternoon.

Fortunately, the times have caught up with the needs of the modern lady. Nanite refresher booths are a feature of every ladies room these days, and my nanofluidic couture allows me to vary my style in response to the slightest need.

Tonight I am a belle dame from the Mississippi Riverboat era, swanning about in a flounced and ruffed creation appearing to be of jade velvet over black leather. My Personal Access Device is transformed into a pair of long lace gloves. Elegance at will.

“Christina, my dear. You look ravishing.”

His choice of words makes me smile. Carmody has a reputation for taking the ravishing bit all too seriously. But he knows that I know his tastes. He slides closer with a devastating smile in a face that cost a million. A shame that making his personality pretty is more than cosmetic science can achieve.

“Why don’t we take a stroll somewhere quieter, mademoiselle?”

I am just about to tell him to fornicate and depart when my PAD clenches about my wrists as my dress locks up.

Carmody smiles: “Oh dear, cheap bodyware? Wonderful.”

My intent to shout for aid is pre-empted by my choker doing just that. Carmody is the very soul of attentiveness, helping me past concerned partygoers, onto the veranda and down into the bowers of the love gardens. The bastard is using a slaver program to turn my couture into a prison. I think about what I’m actually wearing and realise I am, to put it politely, vulnerable to manipulation.

Carmody walks through the starlit evening to a remote nook containing a low table, with me accompanying him like a meal in a serving-droid.

“I think we’ll start with obscene and get inventive from there. Any objections? Thought not.”

Bastard bastard rapist bastard. I am striving to remain calm when Carmody emits a falsetto shriek and collapses rigidly, his face slamming into the gravel with a satisfying crunch. A figure steps into view as my couture rushes to cover my nakedness.

“My apologies for being a tad late, Miss Christina. Your brother’s compliments; he felt that you would object if he insisted that you employed a Safeguard.”

Safeguards are personal bodyguards trained, enhanced and equipped with the latest countermeasures for just about anything. Using them is deemed gauche, but after tonight, I’m a convert.

He offers his hand and pulls me up without effort. His impeccable couture changes colour and style to complement mine as I take in his two-metre tall frame. I could become accustomed to this. Turning slightly, I nudge Carmody with my toe.

“What happened to him?”

“I thought it best to dampen his enthusiasm by restricting the volume of his codpiece as I locked his couture. The servants will take him to the gatehouse for collection by the Police .”

I like the edge to his voice as he describes defending me, but I have to confirm my suspicions: “What volume, exactly?”

He actually blushes.

“Four cubic centimetres.”

I laugh. My Safeguard and I are going to get along just fine.

*****

 

Zen and Ink

 

Byron was yet another spectacular disaster, and only the fact that it was an uninhabited planet kept the Borsen from warpkill, which meant the grunts on the ground got to experience what a massacre caused by outdated strategies felt like.

Why did Earth Command keep contesting every planet? It wasn’t like Byron had anything on it except for our military presence. Then again, as a decorated veteran and one of the very few to survive more than ten battles against the Borsen, perhaps I have more reason than most to ask such questions.

I swing down a drop-cable and hop off at sublevel eighteen; what used to be street level. The sheer mass of humanity concentrated on the six Earth Command base planets used to make me nervous. Now I know they’re never in danger from the Borsen.

“Evening, Colonel. Noodles or fakesteak?”

“Chop the pseudomeat into the noodles and add some of your devil sauce, Honchi.”

The old boy does as asked and I hold out my hotbox for the steaming, stir-fried mass. Foil bags and even plastics are scarce now. To be able to carry hot food any distance, you have to be an Earth Command officer who can bend the rules a little.

“Enjoy!”

“I will.” Of that there is no doubt. I took eight hundred men down onto Byron. I managed to bring back forty-six vacant-eyed veterans, only half of them from the unit I landed with. I was the only senior officer to return, something that I am getting used to. What is the use of getting to be a leader, through all the blood and mayhem, if you promptly sacrifice yourself with your command? How does that help us? The regen ships are long gone. Dead is dead.

I stride over to the next drop and swing on down to sublevel twenty. I guess you’d call it ‘colourful’. Previously, it would have been called ‘somewhere to avoid after dark’. At this time of day, it’s short on residents and long on echoes. But down at the end of the fourteenth on the left – after the local refuge office – I see a light burning. There are people outside the place and I hear laughter, music, and the click of dice tumbling. The air temperature rises, as if life itself can warm the parts that the weather towers can’t.

“Colonel Miller! You’re back!”

And, just like that, it’s like I’ve never been away. Old Gan waves at me from the far side of a backgammon table, where he’s gently thrashing some youngster who I suddenly realise is Ruben. The boy must have had a growth spurt since my last visit. Phil is playing three-string and Hella is pouring beer into his mouth, on demand, so he doesn’t have to stop playing. I make my way through the group, waving the hotbox as my reason for not stopping. I push through the door, and the warmth increases. As the door closes, I hear a muted conversation out back, one side of it in heated tones. Amanda is behind the counter, and smiles in relief as I enter. She mouths the word “Help” and points toward the studio. I put the hotbox on the counter, gesture for three portions, and head on out to see who’s bothering my only real friends on this planet.

The studio hasn’t changed. I pause and smile at the yellowed picture of a twentieth-century racing car, then listen to the conversation taking place just out of sight.

“You want how much for this? I can get it done on the base for a couple of credits.”

“Then why did you come here?”

“Because my sergeant said that you tattooed some hardass vets, and thought it would do me good to ‘feel the needle’, whatever that means.”

“So, do you want to get it done? The price is the price.”

“I could get you into a lot of trouble for doing this down here, you know.”

I do believe that’s my cue. I step into the studio and address numbnuts’ back while winking at Carl: “The hell you will, son. Because I will, personally, shove any report and the datapack it arrives on so far up your arse that you will have difficulty swallowing for a month.”

The soldier on the stool rises and spins round, to freeze under my very best ‘merciless’ stare. He flicks his eyes to the identity flashes down the sleeves of my dress blacks. His eyes widen. Yup, that’s seventeen markers. Sixteen campaigns, and the one at the top that reads ‘C5’. I’m a Colonel and you’re in the shit, kid.

I have to say that I’m impressed with the speed that he comes to parade attention.

“Sir, sorry, sir!”

“You just missed your chance. Tell your sergeant that Lazarus Miller will be in touch. Get out.”

He goes. He and his C1 are tomorrow’s entertainment. I’ll be in a better mood by then.

“Laz. You look like you always do, mate.”

Carl grins and holds his hand out. I shake it as I reach into my pocket and pull out the campaign insignia that the robotatt unit at the base burnt onto a piece of cloth for me.

“Got the patch for your dress blacks?”

I pass him that. He looks at the two.

“I can freehand the colours, and the stencil will take a few minutes. More importantly, do I smell some of Honchi’s cookin’?”

“Of course. Would I dare come here without hot food?”

Carl laughs and gestures me to go out ahead of him.

“Confucius always said that chow time comes before ink time.”

I grin and follow him out. Amanda has the food in bowls, and the table up. We sit down, crack open three bottles of local brew, and get down to eating.

Carl waves a fork at me: “I hear that things are changing. Hear that the Borsen may be coming too.”

I shake my head: “Changing, yes. Borsen, no.”

Amanda jumps on that: “Why no Borsen?”

I flip a coin in my head. It comes up heads: tell the truth.

“Because they don’t want to conquer. I’ve seen them fight. In every battle, they have the edge. Sometimes in numbers, but these days it’s usually in quality. Earth Command is just throwing forces into each engagement, hoping to find the magic combination that gives them the win.”

Carl shakes his head: “Wars at this level are won by smart commanders using the best strategies. Sun Tzu still has the right of it. You taught me that.”

“Precisely. The last really smart Alpha Commander we had was called Spence, and you know how that ended.”

Amanda grins: “Wishing you had joined the-”

“Don’t say it! It’s one of the few words that will attract monitor drones, even down here.”

Amanda looks scared, and rightly so. Monitors bring Department of Civil Defence militia. Nothing good ever comes from those sorts of visitors.

Carl coughs: “Damn Honchi, that’s fierce! What does he make his sauces out of?”

“Best not to ask. Just be grateful he makes them. The food has been rough for a while now, and non-combatants get the poor stuff.”

Amanda persists with a smile: “Why no Borsen?”

“Like I said, I’ve seen them fight. They’re not trying. It’s like they expect something from us, like they’re waiting for something to happen. Until then, they just follow some unknown rules that occasionally let us win, but I’m sure it’s only to stop us from giving up completely.”

“What is it, do you think?”

“I have a couple of less than popular ideas. On Romala, the rumour is that we took out a Mistress. The same rumour says that incident is what prompted them to switch from raiding to open warfare. If that’s true, then possibly they are waiting for us to rise to that level again. To become an opponent that the Mistresses can respect, I guess.”

Carl nods: “They want to see signs of strategic intelligence to back the many instances of individual valour, maybe?”

“That works for me. Every battle that I have been in, they could have taken us apart. One hundred percent losses every time. But they didn’t. I’ve seen Mistresses in their hellish power armour just watching battles where their intervention could have saved them countless warriors.”

Carl taps the table with his fork: “You have a theory. I can see it in the crease of your brow. You’re thinking too hard, on top of the memory of what you’ve survived.”

I sigh. Perceptive as usual: “It’s not a theory about the Borsen. It’s about Earth Command.”

They both look at me.

“I think they have a long-term plan. I’ve been on classified missions to retrieve downed scoutships that have no reason to be where they are. I see everyone going without, while Earth Command increases its core troop numbers with penal battalions and regiments of people who couldn’t even qualify for regular service before the Incursion. It’s like a chunk of our best are nowhere near the war and need a lot of the basics. Spence’s command did that early on, but cut back their raiding when they got established wherever they are now. This is something different and run from inside our side.”

Carl looks thoughtful: “I presume that you’re just making an observation, rather than intending to do something heroic and bad for your health?”

I smile at the two of them: “Of course.”

With that, the conversation lapses to mundane matters while the food is finished and the beer is drunk. Carl pats me on the shoulder and returns to the studio.

Amanda watches him leave before looking intently at me: “He’s not seen them, but the DCD have been lurking.”

That, I can do something about. I reach into a back pocket and pull out a diplomatic datapack: “You and Carl need to retina-print this. If any goons turn up, show it to them.”

Amanda takes it and raises her eyebrows in query.

“It makes this place, and the both of you, a registered supplier to Earth Command. Commander Braun and I have notarised it. These registrations never require any details of what you supply, because it could be classified materiel. It just states that you are not to be interfered with, because you provide something essential. That statement will be backed by lethal force if necessary.”

Carl speaks quietly from the doorway where he’d been leaning unnoticed: “Does this put you in trouble?”

“Hell no. You provide me and Dave Braun with something that is impossible to find elsewhere. Speaking of which, shall we?”

Carl nods and steps out of my way. I hear the datapack beep, verifying two retina prints, before Carl re-enters the studio.

With a smile, I strip off my uniform top and relax into the recliner.

“You’ve got more scars.”

“And a new arm.”

“They did a good job. Which one?”

“Right. Borsen Knight’s energy blade. If it hadn’t already gone through a trooper named Higgins, I’d be an entry on the Byron roll of honour.”

“I’m saying nothing. Where’s this one going?”

“Left of my navel? Think there’s just enough room.”

“Your eye is good, as usual. Lean back. You know how this goes.”

I do. Commander Braun introduced me to Carl and his ancient art back when he was only a Major, and I was still a grunt. He brought every new soldier down to Carl’s place. He and I are now the only survivors of the few who took to this old way of healing mental wounds.

Surviving a campaign against the Borsen leaves you in shock. Earth Command calls it ‘carnage-concussion’ and they have some awesome drugs that make you forget it, and a lot of other things. The old words are Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It can turn heroes into cowards and sane men into lunatics. You have to face what happened, but, more importantly, you have to accept it and live with yourself. My comrades drink, fuck, watch films, party, work out, race every conceivable device that can endanger their lives and similar. Dave and I come down to sublevel twenty and let the needle take the pain away.

Traditional tattooing was nearly wiped out by the arrival of the robotatt unit. You feed it the design you want, and it will render it perfectly – on any part of your anatomy that is approved by the Department of Welfare. But the robots are perfect. Too perfect: it’s like photocopying onto your skin. From decision to delivery is a matter of minutes. You just pick a robotatt unit rated for the colour-palette and size. The anaesthetic spray lands, the air-injectors hiss, the gel-gauze covers and that’s it: you’re inked. Please rinse the cover with antibiotic gel once a day for a week, then peel it off. Do come back soon.

Dave’s family has been visiting Carl’s ancestors to be tattooed for four generations. Carl’s family tattoo business has run from various premises since before the Apocalypse. Every son and daughter has been a master tattooist, learning the craft from childhood like a martial-arts master learns his craft from infancy.

The textures, the colours, the right needle for the skin type and position. How to give a two-dimensional image depth, and even the semblance of a reflection. How to imbue every line with spirit, by understanding why the tattoo is being done. It is a unique art and it should never be lost.

But more importantly for someone like me, it’s the pain. There is nothing like the pain delivered by the steel needles of the traditional tattooing gun. I have experienced the usual pains from a rough upbringing and military training. In addition, I’ve been shot, burned, bludgeoned, impaled, stabbed, and half-decompressed. I’ve had limbs sliced off, burned off, and blown off. I even had my legs reduced to something that resembled chicken noodle soup by a hand-held warp weapon that they still say cannot possibly exist. As I arrived back on the ship without the puddle of my legs to prove it, I couldn’t contest the fact. It’s why all serving troops have their identities and service records tattooed on their torsos. Limb loss is fixable. Damage severe enough to get to your torso, through your powered armour, is usually fatal.

The gun hums and the needle tracks across my stomach. I quell the need to flinch that tells me I need to relax more. With that done, my breathing deepens, and I am just not entirely here anymore. The smooth strokes and the steady pain ease me. I cannot describe it adequately, but it sends me into a state where everything is the needle, and the needle is everything. In that pain I can leave behind the anguish of what I have done and seen, the grief of losing comrades and strangers, the anger of knowing that we’re being sent in to a slaughterhouse to provide fodder and propaganda, not victors. It all goes down into the mark that is being etched on my skin. All the accumulated distress, that could destroy me, is bound to the pattern being added to me. For me, each tattoo is literally an emblem of survival.

A while later the cool impact of the healing gel, that Carl deliberately keeps in the chiller, brings all of me back to here and now. Amanda has a coffee ready. I put my uniform over the strip of gel-gauze the robotatt unit extruded, along with the etched piece of cloth, earlier. It’s the ink that’s important, and the gel-gauze is designed to withstand the rigours of military life. I still need to be able to ruck and roll at an hour’s notice, fresh ink or not.

“Should we do anything?” Carl seems inattentive, but he rarely misses much.

“Keep yourself in non-black-market supplies. The monthly retainer that comes with your registration should help with that. Make sure you can fortify this place, and possibly the area around it, so your extended family can reside here as well, when things get worse – and have no doubt that things will get worse. Make sure that everyone who comes here, from now on, is someone you trust, otherwise, meet them elsewhere.”

Carl nods, and Amanda puts an arm around him, as I head for the door. No time for backgammon and music this trip: I have a regiment to rebuild. Again. I pause in the doorway and look back at the two of them: “I’ll be back.”

Carl smiles: “Hopefully only for decorative ink. I have a lovely parrot on a bed of flowers that would suit you, Laz.”

Amanda cracks up, while I give Carl one of the oldest ‘informal’ salutes and stroll off into the shadows, laughing.

*****

 

Marooned

 

It’s been ten years since the Humanis Confederacy swept the Roekuld from the Spiral Arm in a rebellion that no-one thought mankind capable of. In six months we undid the defeats and treacheries of fifty years. Victory was absolute and mercy forgotten.

We. Sadly. My blood is tinged with green and I can read the thoughts of anyone within eight metres of me. I am a Rho-Ka-Mismeja, elite of the Absalon Rage, premiere commando of the Roekuld. I trained for five years to join humanity. Underwent six months of irreversible surgery, losing half a metre in height and a digit from each appendage. But the ‘man’ who joined the harvest labourers in Barron, a small town on the frontier world of Fettya, had the rugged features and hefty build that marked the nomads of the mountain ranges. My willingness to work and drink got me accepted, and after the winter I moved to Dellaban, the capital city. Command knew there was something major being planned. I had barely been accepted into the resistance when that something became the end of my race.

I spent a year as a homeless drunk, risking the minimal chance of detection. Only a small group of humans pursued the ‘shadow company’. The rest thought that we only existed in wartime myth. A year later I had become a casual labourer when my remaining comrades commandeered an armoured freighter to strike at the heart of the Confederacy. I saw their final broadcast, all vengeful fury and bared teeth. They were blasted to dust and humanity celebrated the end of the Roekuld. I was alone, yet never regretted being too drunk to answer that final call to join them.

Three years later I returned to Barron, welcomed back like a prodigal son. Two years after that I had become the town smithy, with a profitable sideline in unusual jewellery: unusual because it used designs from my disintegrated homeland.

Early one dawning I was staggering home when a thought hit me: *You smell like a hebegraf.*

I spun round too fast and fell in a heap, opening my eyes to see a pair of grey eyes framed in a mass of tawny hair. She raised a hand so I could see one of my bracelets on her wrist.

Your work made me cry. To see Lethdargil scrollwork again was something I never expected to do.

I lay there as shock chased the hangover away. The smell emanating from me became all too clear. I smiled. *I remember hebegraf smelling better. Apologies, I thought myself alone.*

I am Atanel of Palameen.

Images of that vast, lush tropical delta spotted with small communities came to mind.

Bushlarl of Lethdargil.

She smiled. *The mountains bred another metalworker?*

Family trade. Here I am Bush.

Atane.

While I washed, she made breakfast and we spun to each other, the affinity of thought-sharing healing us in places we had thought unreachable.

I was wallowing when the last call came and was the only one to refuse it. Then I had to waste half a year out of my mind so they could not find me. After that, I wandered until I saw your bracelet. It’s taken me a year to find you.

She appeared in the doorway, mugs of steaming broth in hand and a faint smile on her face. *Shall I be your sister or first love?*

First love, please. The drinking was only partly to forget. It also kept Barron’s marriageable women at bay.

She laughed. I knew then that we could share, finding a refuge in each other’s mind while Barron became a comfortable place to slip unnoticed into extinction.

*****

 

*****

 

Sister Strange

 

The man is in uniform and he’s trying really hard to be nice, but I don’t like him. I don’t like this place, because it makes mum and dad look scared. I don’t like the men with the big guns, because they’re digging up our pond and the wood around it.

“You’re not in trouble, Samantha. Just tell us what happened, like you told your parents when you got home.”

“Will you put our pond back if I do?”

He looks at me funny, then the woman standing behind him leans forward and points to something on his datapad. He reads it, looks up and smiles at me.

“I’ll see what I can do. But it does depend on what you tell us.”

I sit up straight like Miss Jammor tells me I should, so I can speak clearly and with ‘proper diction’: “I was out of bounds. Dad told me not to go beyond our fields, but I wanted to go to the pond in the woods that we go to when we have picnics. So, after I did my housework, I told mum I was going to climb the tree at the back of the cornfield.”

He nods: “And then you went straight to the wood? You didn’t go anywhere else?”

“That’s right. I skipped most of the way because it was a lovely day. Granny says you should skip on sunny days.”

“Did you see anything unusual?”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand that word.”

“Unusual. It means anything odd, or anything you don’t normally see?”

“I saw a big blue eagle over the south pasture. We don’t get many of them round here.”

“Okay. So you got to the wood.”

“Yes. It was nice and cool and the squirretts were singing, and I just followed the path. Dad says that snapping orchids grab kids who leave the path.”

“Your dad sounds like a very wise man. So when you got to the pond, what did you see?”

“Water.”

He sighs a big sigh and his breath smells of coffee.

“What else did you see?”

“Rocks and grass, and the willows that came all the way from Earth, and the sun pansies were really pretty.”

“Nothing else?”

“No.”

“So what did you do?”

“I took my smock off and went for a swim. After that, I laid down on the big rock to let the sun dry me. It was nice.”

“So she wasn’t there?”

“Not then. Later.”

“Later? What did you do until later?”

“I went to sleep. It was warm and smelled good and the squirretts were far away, so they weren’t loud.”

“So you were sleeping and she woke you?”

“Yes.”

“How did she do that?”

“By splashing in the pond.”

“She splashed you?”

“No. She was just splashing and giggling.”

“Giggling?”

“Yes. Like when you have fun.”

I see the woman behind him smile.

“So she was splashing and giggling and you ran away?”

“No. I asked if I could splash too.”

“I see. What did she say?”

“She said of course I could.”

“What happened next?”

“I splashed with her, then we splashed each other. It was fun. We giggled a lot.”

“I see. Then what?”

“After a while, she said her arms were tired. I saw that her arms were funny and she said that she had been spawned like it. I guessed that being spawned is the same as being born.”

He smiled: “What did you do next?”

“I said that the big rock was a nice place to sit and dry in the sun. I asked her where her clothes were so she could bring them over.”

“And she said?”

“She said that she didn’t have any because she didn’t need them when she was out war-ping.”

“Warping?”

“That’s what she said. I asked her what that meant and she said that it meant that she was being a bad mistress, and her mother would be very angry, but not for long. I said that was just like my mum.”

“Then she told you her name?”

“No. I told her mine, because Granny says that is what polite people do.” I looked at him hard. I saw the woman behind him smile again.

“So you told her your name without being asked?”

“Yes.”

“Then she told you her name. What was it again?”

“Terr-buth-ah.”

“That’s a funny name.”

“That’s what I said. She said my name was the funny one. She tried lots of times to say my name, but it always sounded like Sum-nuth-ah.”

“So, after introducing yourselves, what happened?”

“We sat on the big rock and talked about school. She doesn’t like it at all. Says there are more fun things to do. I said yes. Then I asked her if she was truanting. I had to explain what that was.”

“Did she agree with you after you explained?”

“Yes. She said that she was truanting a long way from home, and no-one could get her until she went back.”

“I see. Did you ask why they couldn’t get her?”

“Yes! It would be good to be able to do that.”

“Why?”

“So I can do what I want, and only get told off when I get home. It’s no fun when mum or dad, or both, come and get me before I want to come home.”

“So what did she say?”

“She said that she had an ass-pecked that lets her do war-ping. No one else has it yet.”

“Yet?”

“She said that she would have to spawn a lot when she grew up. So there would be lots like her.”

He frowns and makes note on his datapad. He looks up again without a smile.

“What did you do next?”

“I taught her to play Frisbee.”

“She didn’t know how?”

“She said that her home was a big four-tress, and throwing games were only for grown-up mistresses.”

“Why was that?”

“When I asked, she said that her people’s throwing things are only for hitting bad people.”

“What then?”

“We played Frisbee and she was really good. We were laughing and throwing the Frisbee up and down the pond, splashing a lot too.”

“After that?”

“She stopped. She said a man was coming and whispering my name. She said that he sounded angry.”

“That was your father?”

“Yes. He came into the clearing, saw Terr-buth-ah, screamed like mum does when she sees a rubyrat, and then he fell down.”

Everyone smiled when I said that.

“What did she do?”

“She went to my dad and touched his neck, because I asked if she had killed him. She said she wouldn’t do that to a non-com-bat-ant, and that my dad had only fainted and would wake up soon.”

“Then what?”

“She said that she should go, and that I should stay with my dad until he woke up.”

“Then she disappeared, like you told your parents?”

“Yes. She just was not there anymore, and the water splashed like it was filling a hole.”

“So you waited for your dad to wake up. Then you went home and told your parents what had happened, and they called us.”

“No.”

“No? What do you mean?”

“You’re nearly right, but only after she came back.”

He sits up very straight: “What for?”

“She came back, gave me my Frisbee, and said I would have a lot of people pretending to be nice while they asked me questions. She said that I should tell you something.”

His head creases like dad’s does before he shouts at me.

“What did she tell you to say to me?”

“She said that I am a sweet little mistress, and she can be anywhere she wants, and you can’t stop her because if her mother can’t, you have no chance at all. She said that you should only question me and my dad.”

“Why?”

“She said that she will be very unhappy with you if you do anything nasty. She even made me say the last bit back to her so I would get it right.”

“The bit you just said?”

“No.”

“Then say it.”

“‘If you harm my little sister I will bring ray-peen to you and yours’.”

He sits there and his face turns a funny colour. He leans back and whispers to the woman who frowns and then nods. He looks back at me.

“Thank you, Samantha. If your sister comes back, I’d like to speak to her.”

I smile. Terr-buth-ah said he’d ask something like that: “She said that I would not see her again for a very long time, because of people like you.”

His face goes all red.

“Did she say anything else?”

“Yes. She said that she would check on me every now and then. Just to make sure that you behave yourself.”

*****

 

Two Graves

 

They say that a man who seeks revenge should dig two graves, one for his target and one for himself. I dug two hundred and seventy-nine.

Into two hundred and thirty-seven of them I put all that remained of the inhabitants of my home town, Padgest – toward the end, I had to guess which bits belonged to which body. The two hundred and thirty-eighth is Karen’s.

Filling the next forty has taken me six years. Six years to track down every member of the Twenty-Third Special Operations Commando: the people who turned my home into an abattoir during the dying days of the ‘Endless’ Empire. They went their separate ways after the war: slipping anonymously back into the newly-freed populations as their training had taught them to do.

The first squad ran an adventure holiday company on Eridanus. My quest for vengeance nearly ended there. Eight-to-one odds were only offset by the fact that they had all gone to seed quickly, partying hard with their customers. I shipped the corpses home in a freight container.

The second squad was ruling the planet of Haberdesh. I had to start a rebellion to get them, and only salvaged a suitcase full of remains to bring back.

The third squad had become bounty hunters. I realised that my need to look them in the eyes as they died would get me killed, thus personal vengeance ceded to practicality: I sabotaged their ship. I brought their frozen corpses home strapped to the outside of my hull like sculptures.

The fourth squad came after me. It was inevitable that they would keep in contact with their former comrades and work out that someone had declared open season on them all. I spent eight months in hospital after the month-long running battle with them, wading through the stinking swamps and blighted mires of Kelsige; relying on a native crossbow as the planet’s corrosive atmosphere destroyed their kit and removed their advantages.

The command squad split up while I was in hospital and went to brutal lengths to conceal their tracks, forgetting one thing: a trail of bodies is easier to follow than a trail of transactions.

I found them all and dealt with them one at a time. As I didn’t have their training, I had to improvise: hiring a truck to crush a coffee shop, dropping a skip on a stationary car, using a tourist submersible to sink a yacht. The survivors became even warier, so I used home-made bombs to cause the avalanche, the rockslide and the bridge collapse that finished them.

The former leader of the 23rd SOC retreated to a hunting lodge in the mountains of Tarkerut. He used all his skills to make the place lethally inaccessible. So I used mortar bombs filled with Charo musk to paint the walls and roof. Charo are voracious and look like the furry, bastard spawn of lampreys and cockroaches. He tried to stop the infestation I attracted and died very badly, if the screams were anything to go by. I had to wait two months before I could retrieve his remains.

Today I filled his grave and walked across the blue grass meadow to where Karen’s mound lies; next to the only empty grave. I sit on the edge of the open grave and tell her about the last death while I finish my champagne and cyanide. Then I check the deadfall holding the earth back from the grave.

 

“Now I lay me down to sleep,

Next to my girl, forever to keep

Come judgment day or ending times

The guilty have paid for their crimes.”

 

The darkness washes in as I feel myself topple into my grave.

*****

 

Aces Deep

 

I flick wing-over-wing and dive, engines howling, as some bright blue nastiness passes through where I was. Half-committed in the dive, I pull the nose up and jink sideways, broadside to the angle of travel. The parachute effect yaws me, and I float for a moment as the world goes slow. Echo One seems to drift across my nose, and I squeeze the teat that causes my railgun to punch a chunk of ferrocored titanium through his centre section. His drive objects to my percussive realignment, and my screens have to flash-compensate as he leaves this life at Mach 9, in pieces. Wanagi Wichothi is not for enemies of the oyáte, so I hope his afterlife has a place of honour for fallen warriors.

Even as his pyre dissipates, I bring the hammer down and perfectly bullseye the corona of his demise. Wish I could see that in long shot: a ring of energy, a ring of smoke, a ring of fire and pieces, and my exhaust like a shaft through the middle, with me as the arrowhead.

My proximity-detector flashes amber, and I corkscrew into an inverse slingshot before even looking. Echo Two coming for the title, out of the sun. In this day and age? I continue the dive until he’s happy, then shut the back door and open the flue. Still hurtling surfaceward at Mach 8, I flip apex-over-base, so the sharp end is pointing the right way. Echo Two discovers this as he flies head on into a few kilos of iron and titanium doing Mach 20. Ouch. This allows me to close the flue, reopen the back door, and hurtle through his expanding debris-cloud without a scratch.

This is frustrating for Echo Three, as he was expecting me to still be heading down, due to the impossible g-forces involved in attempting sudden manoeuvres at these speeds. Of course, any airbreather would be jelly by now. Forty gees will do that, unless you’re some sort of mutant cartilaginous cyber-spawn of a predator from the benthic depths of the Pacific, suspended in a hyperconductive saline gel. Handily enough, that’s exactly what I am. I’m callsign Kilo-Ten-Ten. A revered ancestor was callsign Kraken. Got a proud family history of killing things to live up to.

Echo Three pulls a half-loop with a roll out of his attack and ends up screaming down at me, flat out and very angry. Opens fire, way out of range. He could have been dangerous if he’d kept his cool. As it is, I release a nanotube-braced monofilament net, stand myself on my tail and punch it. Echo Three is about to become a cloud of hundred-mil chunks that will be a bigger threat than he ever was.

The skies clear as I ascend, and I click my beak as the blue fades to black and the stars come out. There’s always something magical about that transition.

Seven hours to base. One hour for debrief, while the gel is cycled, then I get to go hunting again. The depths of any ocean are nothing to the vasty deeps of space, and I like to think we’ve made the transition well. Sleepless predators we’ve always been, but Ghost Command gave me the stars, the enhanced smarts to love them, and the means to defend them.

I pass the moons before engaging Hirsch, then flutter my tentacles to work out the kinks, while my arms cue up some cetacean jazz and sketch three more kill-kanji, for the hull, on my datapad. They need to be ready for the techs to etch on my hull while I’m being debriefed.

Three more down, with hundreds to go. This ocean of stars is rich with wonders – and prey. My siblings and I will continue hunting until the Borsen, and Earth Command, understand that the stars are not theirs for the taking.

*****

 

High Fliers

 

Bloody hell, but it’s a long way down.

It always gets to me at least once each shift. Burlaria has a vast atmosphere envelope. The result of it becoming the capital of the Nineteen Worlds was a huge increase in population. As the planet prided itself on the beauty of its natural countryside, something had to be done.

An architect called Gingky came up with the idea of ‘Skyspires’: vast tower blocks, supported by the latest in deep space technology and each independently powered by the gravitic core housed at the apex of the tower. Which allowed the core to be jettisoned into orbit, with ease, in the event of an emergency.

The idea swept all before it and, within the constraints imposed by the physics involved, each Skyspire was permitted to be individual in appearance and style. Kilnrock looks like a classic evil wizard’s tower from old fantasy tales. Orbitville is the preferred habitat for spacers. There are six hundred Skyspires, and they themselves have become a tourist destination, where airships full of sightseers take tours around them, snapping movies and stills of the light shows, inlaid designs and – my personal favourite – the gargoyles.

The gargoyle had been a mountain-dwelling winged predator in danger of extinction. Burlaria had tried so many times to halt the decline of these long-lived, magnificently ugly, stony-skinned pre-sentients. They were unique in the experience of the NWFPC – Nineteen Worlds Fauna Protection Council – but that uniqueness doomed them. There were no applicable behavioural or environmental models to adapt.

Then the Skyspire I’m on today, Lifespear, was completed. Within a month, there were sightings of gargoyles in the uppermost zones. Investigation showed gargeries in numbers never before seen.

The height was the thing. When Burlaria had been discovered, it had gigantic polyps drifting in the high sky. They were part edible, part refinable and part weavable. The rest was top-grade fertiliser. Extinction occurred before controls could be introduced.

It seems that the gargoyles needed the polyps to lair and reproduce, high above the highest-flying of the competing raptor species. Skyspires gave them back their havens, and their population has recovered, with divergent species and variants still being catalogued – eight decades later.

 

Something small and fluorescent purple hurtles past me, a vicious rattle emanating from its throat sacs.

“Leave me be, you ugly son of a seagull!”

I patch my video feed directly to ‘Gargoyle Central’, as we call the NWFPC watch station here.

“Gail, darling. What’s glowing purple and wants to eat my eyes?”

“Casey, that’s a broodmother of the Lesser Mauve Tyrant subspecies. Very, very rare. If she’s threatening you, you must be near a newly-established gargery. So stop what you’re doing.”

A gargery? Made from excreted resin and scavenged rubbish in whatever aperture appealed.

“Gail. Is this species a hot-laying or cold-laying one?”

“Hot. Why?”

“I’ll come back in, but you have to call Lifespear Maintenance and tell them exactly why their expensive contracted external works engineer will not be clearing the heat exchanger on level seventeen-hundred, but will still be charging them his premium callout rate.”

She’s laughing as she replies: “Done.”

*****

 

Treason and Plot

 

The national unrest that prompted the emergency session of parliament on November 5th 2053 can now be seen in the correct light: a massively and carefully orchestrated strategy.

At 13:57 a BAe Nightwraith stealth bomber was seen flying up the Thames estuary at near-supersonic speed and at an altitude of barely fifty metres. By the time an alert was raised, it was too late. The bomber unloaded its entire high-explosive payload into the Houses of Parliament with the accuracy this aircraft was famed for. There were no survivors and in the aftermath the lone Nightwraith escaped northwards, never to be seen again.

from Shattered Empires: The Fall of the Western Hegemonies.

Lunar Press Edition, 2088.

 

The mystery around that plane haunted me for years. The planning required to put the targets in place was almost inconceivable. But I always felt for the pilot. What drove him to volunteer for that mission? How did he escape?

I’m sitting in near darkness, listening to the wind howl and rain hammer at the doors of this semi-subterranean hangar. It was secretly constructed by roofing over and then extending a WW2 era Spitfire dispersal pen at long-derelict RAF Skeabrae in the Orkneys. Bracing my back is the perished remains of a Nightwraith front undercarriage wheel. Above me in the firelight looms the blue-black darkness of a piece of history. I could just make out the word ‘Fawkes’ stencilled on the port intake earlier, but the night has closed in.

In my mittened hand is a dead tablet computer I found in the cockpit. The words on its screen were written with acid-etch marker. I’ve read them so many times, but what to do with all this eludes me. So I read them again:

 

I have no idea when this will be found. The later the better, really. Governments like that I have just decapitated are useless against invisible opponents. Give them a name and their propaganda machines will make mincemeat of any cause. But give them ghosts and their paranoia will cause them to oppress their populations until rebellion occurs.

Who am I? A veteran pilot. Someone who flew missions in the service of the government I have just slaughtered. I did seek alternatives, but circumstances and evidence brought me to the decision I acted upon earlier today.

As for my name, so that I may be immortalised or condemned? No. Hopefully I am the one who has started a change, given others something to build upon. I am content with that.

Let me remain -

Anonymous.

 

I cannot encompass this. A selfless act, denounced as treason, that started a change in the way the western world was ruled. The realisation that a government had to be truly accountable. Fear of this Nightwraith and a greater fear of those who sent it was corrosive.

The only other remnant I found was a crumbling flight glove, under a panel in the Nightwraith’s cockpit. Scored into the cuff, in the same hand as on the tablet, were three letters:

AMY

I sit here and imagine a darkened field, a terrifying stealth landing on a runway supposedly too short, followed by a wait, during which time the note was etched into the tablet. Then for some reason, a hasty departure, probably to meet a ship to take them out through the lochs. No time to hunt for a glove dropped in an out of the way place.

Where did you go, Amy?

With that question, I realise that my quest is not over. Tomorrow I begin again, this time with a heroine to find.

*****

 

Rivals

 

The rage in her eyes has faded. My head is in her lap. From the look on her face, she’s realised it too.

“You stupid bastard.” Her voice is hoarse. My last throat-chop had been vicious.

We were both Ultimates. For rival corporations. It was inevitable that we’d clash. This rain- and wind-swept ruin was the setting for our twenty minute battle. I spent the first few minutes running, having seen my mother’s face on my adversary.

“I thought you looked familiar.” She’s crying.

I swallow and smile: “You too.”

“Cleveland Bight?”

I nod and wince.

“With dad?”

I nod slowly: “Only for a little while. He wasn’t as good as he thought. Pilmarken took him down and adopted me as his protégé.”

Her face goes white with shock: “Mum turned down Pilmarken several times just after dad took you. The last time, he said we’d all be sorry.”

“What happened to him?”

“Incinerated in a dead-end alley.”

I smile at her: “Saves us having to kill him.”

She nods and smiles: “You’re not dying?”

I check my diagnostics. I had been: “Not any more. You came closest.”

I see my mum’s righteous grin on her face: “Too right. What now?”

“Phuket.”

“Swearing won’t – oh, of course.”

The Vory-Triad alliance has been desperate for Ultimates. A brother-sister team with inside knowledge of two corporations? We’re a bargain no matter what we ask for.

“If you pull your cyber-breaker out of my lower spine, I can make the intercontinental on my own legs and do my share of the fighting on the way.”

Her eyes go wide and she gasps: “Oh shit! Sorry.”

*****

 

Secret Weapon

 

When the Steampunk crusade from Shamblyca met the Cyberpunk forces of Datrine, it turned ugly really quickly. The two greatest empires left on this ruined earth set about trashing anything that was left in style.

Shamblyca, the empire formerly known as China, had manpower to spare and huge reserves of raw materials. Datrine, the empire formerly known as the United Territories of North and South America, had technology that seemed like magic to the peasant armies (and many of the leaders) of the east.

Not that either side hesitated one bit. The war raged across what used to be Russia, Europe and Africa without mercy or respite. The two ideologies that had started out as allied subcultures had become almost theocratic in their outlook. The only thing they agreed on was that the Dieselpunk raiders from Ozria were not allowed to play in their war. So they took a while to reduce what had been Australia to a wasteland where Bunyips preyed on the few surviving Aborigines. Then they got back to having a serious neopocalypse.

Most of Europa joined Shamblyca, ancient hatreds running deeper than memory. Sheer weight of numbers gave us the field. Their clever technologies could not compensate for odds of a thousand-to-one and two-ton shells hurled from artillery pieces bigger than Stonehenge, that venerated monument that stood undamaged on a small island just a couple of hundred miles North of us. The days of the Datrine were numbered. All we had to do was convince them of their defeat.

“Incoming, Captain!”

Lady Jennifer Riggs is my second in command, hailing from the nameless island chain that is all that remains of Britain. She points with her elegantly silk- and leather-gloved hand at the huge shadow in the clouds above. Good gods, what have the Datrine laboratories come up with this time?

“Holy Babbage! Those are wings!”

Honourable Feng Di Fung is right, whatever it is, it’s flapping.

“DRAGON!”

Well, that’s unusual for a Tuesday. Unfortunately correct, too. What swoops from the clouds has all the hallmarks of the mythical beast. Scales, membranous wings, dorsal ridge spines, bloody great claws, pointy teeth and lots of ‘em, a long tail that tapers to something that resembles a huge double-bitted axe head.

It comes past us at a speed that rocks the dirigible in its wake and we get a grandstand view as it reduces our flagship to flaming chunks, falling debris and screaming bodies in seconds. I note that the tail functions like a huge battleaxe as well as looking like one.

“We’re doomed!”

I spin round and cuff Warchief Nbtoye across the head. Talk like that just cannot come from officers.

“Get a grip, people. It may look like a legendary creature but I see wounds on it. It can be brought down. Set to! Ready all bombards and Gatlings!”

The crew spring into action, their fear abated by the resolve in my voice. “Give them something to do and they’ll not fail”, as my Officer’s College tutor once said.

The monstrous beast rises with great sweeps of its pinions and I feel a niggling seed of doubt spread in my mind. Something about dragons. What was it?

“Ready, lads.” Sergeant-at-Arms Maxwell Prendergast is stoic. Just what you need in a fire chief.

The creature swings to face us. We’ll have to wait until it’s on top of us to get a telling broadside into it, which is disconcerting because I can see the whites of its eyes from here and it’s nowhere near close.

It hangs there, the shield bearing the coat of arms of the infamous Datrine Biotech Elegaunt Meyes clearly visible, embedded in the creature’s breastbone. The great mouth opens and I see a glint in the beast’s eyes. An icy epiphany shakes me: that’s not a glint, that’s a twinkle of mischief in the eyes of a thinking being. Good gods, what have they created?

As a lava-coloured glow roils in the depths of the creature’s throat, I remember: firebreathing. Oh, for pity’s sake, they really did their homework. This one beast will devastate the morale of the superstitious multitudes that form the bulk of Shamblyca’s armies; those that survive, anyway.

An unearthly shriek starts as the flames spew forth in a gout of fury. We don’t stand a chance, but I’ll be damned if I’m going out like a target.

“Open fire!”

*****

 

Black Rider

 

“What the hell is he riding – or is that piloting?”

“Riding. The round bits front and rear aren’t wheels: they’re gravtac repulsor loops.”

Blake turned to stare at Neville: “Nice. So what the frack is it?”

Neville smiled: “Vincent Black Banshee.”

“Aren’t they illegal?”

“Not yet.”

The ten-foot-long vehicle they pursued – seemingly made only of flowing lines and reflections of the objects it passed – accelerated away from them without difficulty, then pulled an impossibly sharp left-turn, before performing what used to be called a ‘wheelie’. Instead of careening into the building it was headed for, it hit and then shot straight up the side, disappearing from view in the smog above.

Blake punched the roof lining of their unmarked pursuit car.

“Bloody marvellous. How are we supposed to catch something that can do that?”

Neville grinned: “Vincent’s Black Ghost was the first gravtac motorbike. As the gravtac was like you get on the boots, it behaved like a motorbike. The Black Banshee added a gravitic field generator and Lenkormian Forever Drive. That means as far as it’s concerned, ‘down’ is whichever way the underside points.”

Blake clamped a hand on Neville’s shoulder: “He’s been causing chaos for months. Given the state of the streets inside the London Orbital, his antics were tolerated – until he started tagging secure vehicles.”

“He only showed the inadequacies of our security versus new technology. He saved lives: we revised our procedures and stopped two hi-tech assassination attempts cold.”

Blake nodded: “I’ll give him that, but the feeling is that he’s with the activists.”

Neville slammed the car to a stop: “They what?”

“They think he’s setting himself set up as a popular icon to heighten the impact when he pulls something grievous. It’s not like we could stop him.”

Neville chuckled.

Blake stared at him: “What’s so funny?”

Neville pointed out the window on Blake’s side. Barely twenty feet away, he could see his reflection in the gleaming black panels of a thoroughbred hybrid of drag bike and cruise missile. It hung inches from the pavement, the rider sitting relaxed, with hands in lap and helmeted head turned toward them. The gloss black bodysuit, bulky from chest inserts, matched the gloss black finish of the machine. Just forward of a shapely thigh, Blake could see the word ‘Vincent’, in white block capitals on a curved gold banner.

He paused; shapely thigh?

“That’s no man!”

Neville applauded: “Well done, detective. That’s Metropolitan Armed Response Sergeant Suzy Mandrill. It was the only way we could think of to get urgent security improvements past the bureaucracy.”

Blake’s head came round so fast he winced: “’We’?”

Neville smiled: “You must have misheard me.”

Blake clenched his fists and pointed out of his window: “You just told me that two elite officers conspired to subvert security protocols.”

Neville peered over Blake’s hand: “Me and who?”

Blake looked back. Between his window and a shop entrance, only a solitary fox trotted by.

 

Neville drove while Blake swore himself out. After the silence had stretched for an hour, he stopped the car and turned to look at Blake.

Blake glared and snapped: “What?”

“I was wondering if you’d like to come round for dinner one evening. Bring Heather; I’m sure she and Suzy will get along.”

Blake’s face turned a colour normally reserved for beetroot: “Your girlfriend is the Black Rider?”

Neville smiled and shook his head: “You do have the strangest ideas, detective. We just thought you’d like a relaxing evening. Maybe even go for a ride. You know, see how pillion suits you?”

Blake rested his head in his hands: “We’re all going to jail.”

Neville patted his shoulder: “Only if you tell, detective, only if you tell.”

*****

 

The Hunter

 

Talan prayed that it would be a bright, clear day as he slipped over the wooded ridgeline in the ghostly twilight before dawn. He moved confidently down to the left toward his vantage point, a weathered outcrop of moss-seamed rock partially obscured by a bramble thicket.

Tunnelling his way to his usual niche, collecting another batch of the tears and scratches that made his mother despair, Talan dared a peep over the rock into the shadowed valley below. Her lair was a darker patch at the foot of the cliff opposite, while only the occasional glint betrayed the presence of a pool under the great willow to the left of the cavern entrance. The old oak stood at the south end of the valley, its mighty spread concealing a large tract of scrubby ground in a shadow that would remain for some hours yet. The stillness of the pre-dawn lay unsullied by creature rustle or leaf murmur: she liked her mornings quiet.

Talan settled himself belly down, chin resting on the heels of his palms, watching for scavenger movements within her boneyard that lay to the right of the cavern entrance.

In the lulling silence, he remembered his first sally into the vale. It had been during a game of Thorn Tag, when he had disturbed a slumbering Tykynos while trying to evade the Malgun brothers. The beast had pursued the brothers, while Talan’s panicked flight had ended when he had raced over the ridge top and plummeted down onto the very rock he now lay upon. Recovering from that impact he had glanced about, utterly lost. Down in the valley his gaze had fallen upon her for the first time, lying beside her pool. A metallic silver-grey mass the size of six carts, with talons the size of scythe blades upon gnarled feet that ended massive limbs. On the nearest of them her great head had lay, ridged with curving spines that were connected by translucent membranes. At that very moment, her head had lifted in a cavernous yawn, revealing a set of teeth the size of pickaxe handles, while a red forked tongue flicked negligently forth with the sound of a giant whip crack. The shock of seeing a dragon made Talan faint.

Talan did not return to the vale until he had recovered from the hiding his father had given him when he finally reached home. He had still been limping and pale when he was dragged to the Malgun boys’ funerals, where the shockingly small caskets containing what the Tykynos had left were sent to the heavens on a pyre of yew and blackthorn.

About a moon passed after the funerals before his parents relented a little and Talan started slipping away to the valley as often as he could. Being the youngest son of an innkeeper meant a seemingly ceaseless series of dull, dirty, menial chores for which he was apparently supposed to be grateful. He was not. He did the minimum amount of work necessary to avoid a thrashing, and then only if a member of his family was nearby to ensure he did not escape. Given the slightest opportunity, he was off to his niche in the valley. He eluded all attempts to follow him and silently endured many painful questionings about his whereabouts during his absences. After a few months and many abortive efforts to confine or discipline him, his parents resigned themselves to his frequent day-long disappearances. They wrote it off as a phase he was going through.

By listening at the window looking out into the alley between the tavern and the bakery, shivering in the night air, or from beneath the pile of musty winter furs under the stairs in the taproom, Talan had discovered many things, a number of which he was sure his mother and elder sister would blush about. But he also found out that the dragon in the vale was known to men as Silversteel, a female of many years and great renown. She was also to be avoided at all costs. The travellers’ tales said that she had slain and eaten two dozen knights of the realms, horses and armour included. Her valley was strictly off-limits to all children, but Talan was nearly a man so that didn’t count.

He spent many a cheerfully petrified hour watching her roam the valley, calling forth the creatures of the woods by the power of her will. She would settle her body quietly to the ground before staring intently at a patch of growth. Within a few minutes, a glassy-eyed creature would stumble forth, making plaintive noises swiftly stilled by a blink of her silver eyelids. The denizen of the woods would then chitter or chirp or bark in a strange, communicative way before suddenly looking about in terror and plunging back into the verdure. Her reasons for this totally eluded Talan, but they must have been important, for she would often spend an entire day interrogating a succession of ensorcelled woodland creatures.

From his observations, Talan had concluded that the tales about ravening dragons were woefully exaggerated, as Silversteel only seemed to eat about once a week. This was a sickening but addictive sight, as the mighty beast glided effortlessly into the valley, carrying her prey in her front claws. She then reduced the captured oxen, sheep, Tykynos or horse to steaming wreckage with delicate but devastating claw swipes, before consuming the entire repast in four mouthfuls and a slurp or two.

But Talan’s favourite pastime was watching Silversteel fly. She was graceful on the ground, but it was a calculated grace, the grace of something powerful holding itself in careful restraint. When she was airborne, there was no such restraint. She made tears of joy and wonder stream down Talan’s face. Her flight always seemed to be accompanied by the distant strains of a complex melody, a tune one strains to hear but never quite catches. She flew for pleasure, it was obvious from the relaxed loops and rolls, the cloud-piercing ascents and flame-spewing dives, which terminated inches from the ground, gusting pale smoke across the valley as she soared upward again, wings outstretched, toward the sun. She rarely flew for more than a morning or an afternoon, probably because such aerobatics were a tremendous strain for one so huge. She would frequently settle and doze for a while afterwards, before leaping into the air again; the purpose in her movements revealing that she was off on the hunt.

Her speed was so exhilarating, her manoeuvres so graceful that Talan longed to leap into the valley, pleading for a ride, begging to be ecstatically terrified like no man in living memory. But he restrained himself with memories of the blood-curdling tales told about what dragons did to those who spied upon them, recounted in the late nights by slur-voiced drinkers at the inn.

One day several months ago Talan had seen another dragon in the valley, a small grey one that had been badly wounded in some unimaginable event. Talan found it difficult to conceive of anything that could injure a dragon, let alone kill one. The small dragon had talked with Silversteel for the entire day, in the spine-tingling and hackle raising tongue of the dragons, a language that many believed to be a myth. As they spoke Silversteel stared intently at the wounds upon the other, and Talan watched in awe as a nimbus of golden fire crackled about the wounds as they closed. This amazing feat seemed to be accompanied by another faint melody, more restrained, simpler than the flying tune.

When the sun had started to set the small dragon had departed at a speed that even Silversteel could not match. After that visit, Silversteel had lain virtually unmoving outside her cave for nearly a week before winging slowly away to hunt.

Then there had been the day when a knight had arrived at the inn, demanding directions to Silversteel’s valley from Talan’s father in a haughty voice. Talan had bribed his next oldest sister with his entire week’s sweetmeat portion to take over his dishwashing so he could run to the valley.

Breathless he arrived to find that Silversteel was away, probably hunting. He carefully concealed himself in his niche, pulling brambles close and smearing dirt on his face, for it was said that the knights of the realms had formidable powers of observation. After a while the rhythmic sound of hoof beats betrayed the knight’s approach, the mid-morning sun reflecting painfully bright from his sturdy metal armour, his lance pennon snapping lazily in the mild breeze. He had reined in his steed opposite the cave entrance, nearly in the thicket below Talan’s rock. He had paused and then brought a twisted metal horn to his lips and blown himself a commendable fanfare before standing up in his stirrups to bellow his challenge: “Silversteel, foul creature of the ancients, I have travelled a hundred leagues to be your nemesis. Come forth and do battle, craven reptile!”

Due to the fact Silversteel was gone; the classic challenge received no reply. The knight waited a while before rising again and repeating his challenge. When that produced no dragon to fight, he slowly dismounted and cautiously reconnoitred the area. He had returned cursing after tripping over something in her bone yard and sprawling spectacularly in the semi-liquid mulch, covering his gleaming armour in lumps and streaks of rotted carrion and dragon droppings. He had to wash himself three times in her pool and polish his armour twice before he was satisfied with his appearance. His horse cropped grass, indifferent to the litany of profanities that accompanied his master’s labours. Suddenly Silversteel glided into the valley from the north, arcing gracefully over the frantically mounting knight and making his horse shiver violently. Talan heard its barding rattle and the soothing murmur from the knight in the silence that descended as Silversteel landed.

The knight finished calming his steed and rose again to issue his challenge, changing “come forth and” in favour of the more appropriate “prepare to”. The answer was swift and unexpected: “No.”

The knight was obviously dumbfounded. He crashed down into his saddle, shaking his head. Talan gasped in wonder. She could speak the language of man!

The knight gathered himself.

“As I said, thou art craven!” he shouted, waving a mailed fist at her, while she casually threw an ox and two sheep into the cave mouth.

She slowly turned and levelled her gaze at the horse and rider. “I am not craven, o man. Nor am I deaf. I am merely attempting to reduce the wastage of capable knights.”

“You impugn my ability, foul lizard!”

“I thought you would take it that way. Well, do you want to charge me or shall I just flame you and your nag down where you stand?”

The knight was clearly unhappy with the situation and the demeanour of his foe. He turned and rode toward the great oak, muttering imprecations to the heavens. There, he put on his great helm, settled his shield upon his arm and couched his lance into the ready position. Uttering a deep sigh and a single muttered word in the draconic tongue, Silversteel turned to face him.

With a mighty wordless cry, the knight brought his lance parallel with the ground as he kicked his heels into his horse’s flanks and commenced his charge. Talan held his breath as Silversteel slowly lifted her forequarters from the ground, exposing her scaled breast to the swiftly approaching, wickedly pointed tip of the lance.

The impact was tremendous, the knight grunting in surprise and lurching forward and up over his horse’s head as it impaled itself upon Silversteel’s poised tail and coming to a sudden, wetly screaming stop. That particular noise haunted Talan’s nightmares for many years after. The knight himself described a graceful arc in the air, foreshortened as the tip of his lance dug into the ground, causing the weapon to bend and then splinter. With the support for his flight gone, the knight crashed down with a force that made Talan wince.

The armoured man climbed shakily to his feet as his horse vomited blood and slumped to the ground. He drew his sword. It was a strange weapon, with jagged saw-toothed edges instead of the fine, straight edges Talan associated with a knight’s broadsword. He had cried a wordless denial at the sight of Silversteel withdrawing her gore-slicked tail from the limp body of his horse, held still by her right rear claw on its ribcage. She looked down and back at him over the still form, her voice sorrowful.

“It can end here, warrior. That blessed hacking blade you carry is not worth any of what the zealot who sold it to you claimed. It cannot harm me. Let it be, sir knight. Go home to your lord in honourable defeat.”

The knight squared his shoulders and raised his sword in salute to his steed’s body, then to his opponent.

“I hight Clomas Caer Morg, knighted son of Caer Morg. You have slain my faithful Blackmane, and you must now kill me.”

He ran forward, sword raised. Silversteel swivelled to face him as he swung a mighty blow at her rump, which rebounded with a dull clang. She snapped out her right wing, hitting the knight across the abdomen and throwing him across the width of the valley, to land with a metallic thud and an agonised groan. She completed her turn in a more leisurely manner, furling her wings close against her back. Clomas regained his feet, retrieved his sword and advanced warily, sword weaving. With his free hand, he made a pass in the air, describing a triangular symbol, whilst muttering in a guttural tongue the likes of which Talan had never heard before. Silversteel must have recognised it because she suddenly reared up, spread her wings and spewed forth a gout of searing flame. Clomas leapt to his left, cursing loudly as his arcane working sputtered and died. Landing lightly, he seemed to recover quickly and charged toward the exposed underside of the dragon. Talan held his breath, but just as the knight completed his backswing, Silversteel dropped to her belly, wings furled and front legs lifted to allow her underside to impact the ground without mitigation.

The concussion shook the valley as a muffled scream died suddenly and bright, bright blood sprayed from under her as something gave way with awful snapping and grinding noises.

Talan had retreated, white-faced and with a hand clamped over his mouth. He paused several times on the way home to be violently and then just wrenchingly sick. He had avoided the valley for a whole week. But when he dared to return, there was no trace of Clomas Caer Morg, his horse or the battle.

A month ago, Silversteel had flown off early one morning with an indefinable air of intent about her. A few days later Talan had overheard a merchant telling a rapt audience a tale he had got from a courier riding for aid. The dragon Silversteel had descended on the duchies of the coast, extorting tithe in treasures and magic or laying waste to those unforthcoming. He had waited about ten minutes before letting his long-held dream take him to the valley. He had carefully watched and listened for a while, but reassured by the normal forest sounds so obviously absent when Silversteel was in residence, he clambered down into the valley and ran swiftly to the cave entrance.

Stepping inside, he pulled out a tallow candle and lit it with his father’s ‘lost’ tinderbox. With a comforting wan light for company, he set off deeper into Silversteel’s lair. It was a huge tunnel, many cart lengths long, with deep scoring upon the walls and floor. The air was heavy with a pungent musk that made Talan sneeze frequently until he adjusted to the thickly scented air.

After walking for what seemed like ages, he rounded a corner to be dazzled by the reflections that his little flame drew from the glittering horde before him. Coins and gems, jewellery and ornaments, weapons and armour: it all lay in a single immense pile with the occasional elegantly tooled cover of a great book or the wrought edge of a treasure chest protruding from the profusion of wealth. Talan’s wonder and amazement faltered a little as he saw a row of battered shields hung on the wall behind the heap. Each one had a different heraldic blazon. He counted them, knowing the number before he began. Twenty five. The knights that had challenged her, their family or clan arms displayed like trophy heads around a lord’s hall. The rightmost was sickeningly familiar, a black tower and grey wolf sanguine on a field of green, the arms of Caer Morg. Then Talan paused, surprised at the thought that drifted into his mind. At least the knights had come by choice to meet their doom, armed and ready. Each had died fighting. A hunted game animal would never have been accorded that privilege. Talan shook the sombre mood off and spent a delighted period of time rooting through and roaming over the precious nest, for that was what he discerned it to be. On top of all the treasures, a thick pad of uncountable large hides from more creatures than he had ever seen had been built up and pressed by Silversteel’s tremendous weight into a solid bed.

Closer examination revealed that the bed rested on a low hummock of stone, which the treasure horde had been piled about. As he left the cave Talan attempted to consciously commit as much of what he had seen to memory as possible. He doubted he would have the opportunity or courage to take this chance again. That day remained the most precious of all his cherished memories.

A nebulous uneasiness pulled Talan from his remembering and he wriggled forward to watch Silversteel emerge from her cave, probably to spend the morning basking in the sun on the hard-packed earth outside. She would move cautiously forth, looking about the valley with her pupilless sapphire-blue eyes. Then after a moment her bulk would gracefully settle, haunches first, onto the earth. Talan had lain for hours, just watching the myriad colours that the rays of the sun reflected from her scales as her immense lungs stirred the scaled hide. Talan peered down, eyes narrowing as they adjusted to the light before going wide with shock.

The impossible had happened!

Silversteel lay like a broken doll across her sunning place, her flawless hide rent and smashed. Her angular head was a darkly convoluted mass from the base of her upper jaw back to her batwing shaped ears. Gazing in fascinated horror, he saw that the willow was but a smoking stump, while her pool lay scattered across the gouged and pitted valley floor in the form of murky puddles. Several swathes of barren, blackened ground mutely attested to the savagery of the battle. He stood up on the rock to get a better view of the devastation, before scrambling down to the valley floor. Just as he took a step toward her cave, a pair of baleful yellow eyes opened in the shadows under the great oak. The voice that accompanied that event was deep and rasping.

“Stand still, manling.”

Talan froze.

“Now come hither, I shall not harm thee.”

Talan’s reluctant approach faltered as he made out the sheer, staggering size of the deeper dark within the shadow of the oak.

“Keep coming. My shadow cannot crush thee, nor can my breath burn thee.”

Faintly reassured, Talan moved to about a cart’s length from the edge of the shade of the mighty tree. As the first rays of sunlight illuminated the cliff above Silversteel’s lair, the eyes blinked as reflected light brought definition to its form. Talan gasped and paled. Another dragon! But this one blacker than night and at least twice as large as Silversteel.

“Tell me, manling. What do you see?”

Talan swallowed and after two stuttering starts, managed to reply: “A dragon, my lord.”

“Good.”

A smile showed yellowed teeth taller than Talan, and he sat quickly before his legs failed him completely. He breathed deeply, head spinning.

“You are not entirely incoherent in my presence, then. A refreshing change.”

A deep chuckle bent the grass, raised gooseflesh on Talan’s arms and briefly choked him in the miasma of blood and carrion. He gathered himself, youthful curiosity overriding his fear.

“What’s in-co-here-ent, lord?”

“Unable to speak, little manling. Which you are not. I am pleased.”

“Does that mean you’re not going to eat me?”

Despite every effort, the query emerged as a breathy squeak. The great fanged smile appeared again.

“I was not going to eat you anyway. I was going to tell you a tale.”

The answer was so unexpected, Talan just stared.

“Did you know she watched you, up there, under the brambles?”

“She did?”

Another squeak. Talan flicked a wary glance over his shoulder and swiftly wished he had not. Silversteel’s head was a nauseating mess, clearly revealed in the morning light. He swallowed hard and turned his attention back to the shadowed monster.

“Oh yes. She said I could tell you our story so that one day mankind will know the truth.”

“But what if I forget? And how can I let all the people know when I can’t even write my own name?” Talan’s voice wailed into the sudden absolute silence.

“You will remember.” A simple statement, the emphasis cracking like thunder. Talan felt something slide within his mind.

"Now listen well, young -?" The eyes flickered in question.

“Talan Donal Berris, lord.”

“Now listen well and hear my saga, Talan Donal Berris. I am named Salaxon, called Darkforge many centuries ago, now known only as Bane.”

Talan’s incredulous delight at being given a dragon’s true name turned to grim horror as the final name registered with his scant teaching. Bane, a dragon that slew dragons, hunter over all the earth for twenty centuries, a feared nocturnal visitor that left the great beasts dead, their gem hard eyes unseeing the dawn that brought the curious, the greedy and the bigoted to gloat over their passing.

“I see you know me, Talan. Now know my history. In life I flew with the King’s Wing, thirty of the greatest dragons to ever take fire under the Mother Sun. We fought many wars to make the land habitable for the coming folk, the humanoid races. The final war was the greatest and the most infamous. We rallied with King Flinaessa and his mages to rid the world of Mezlorahn.”

Again Talan’s scanty learning reared its shaggy head and spat grim details from memory to consciousness; Mezlorahn, called the Mad, a mage of such evil that his name alone was said to be able to conjure up demons. Ruler of the bloodiest empire ever known on Khyr, defeated in the battle that saw his evil citadel destroyed. Bane’s smoky cough brought Talan swiftly out of his contemplations.

“I will not bore you with the details of the campaign we fought against his draconian demons and their minions, but bring you to that final battle that raged along Chacsom Gap, a sheer-sided canyon that ended in a massive granite overhang, under which lay the blood stained gates of Caer Mordis, Mezlorahn’s ancient stronghold. We, the King’s Wing, had been reduced to seventeen by the intense fighting of that summer, but those that remained were fearsome and beautiful. I was the youngest, having only three thousand seasons upon me. Asarth and Kirlus, the oldest males, led the first wave into that canyon. They perished, but the second wave, led by Koro and Shuenna, my parents, breached the gates and stormed through. The great courtyard that lay beyond became the resting ground of all but two of the King’s Wing. It also marked the end of Mezlorahn’s demon dragons and all his remaining forces. We fought from dusk to dusk to stand before the doors of his sanctum. The bodies and debris lay chest deep in blood and ichor, for in the battle many of you little folk were crushed or batted aside. The very air itself was deadly from the breath and magics of so many dragons.

At the last, I and Silurana, my chosen, vied for the duty of entering the dread hall where he waited, at bay but also at his most lethal. I cheated and entered before she could realise my deception.

Within that dark place I fought as I have never done before or since. Mezlorahn had six of the fallen host at his call, such was his power. I dispatched two of the dark angels with words of power, invoked our Mother’s name to send three others screaming home to the abyssal plains. The final one, Strathang, one of the angels of war, I had to fight. It took me two hours and cost me my sight, my left wing and broke most of my ribs, but I rent him beyond even demonic aid. Strathang died laughing, which disturbed me. After healing myself with the last of my magics and charring Strathang’s remains with a dribble of my fire, I moved through the devastated halls to find Mezlorahn in his damned library, surrounded by the mutterings of his evil tomes.”

“But books can’t speak, can they?”

Talan wasn’t sure. Ever since the clergy had circulated the missive on ‘The Dangers of Literacy to Faith’, every book, scroll and parchment in Talan’s village had been reduced to ashes.

“Evil works take on a life of their own after a time, to aid in suborning those that use them to the dark power’s influence. Mezlorahn was so evil that the tomes actually flocked to him, by means that left many a potential dark wizard and hundreds of innocents insane, soulless or worse. His library was the greatest and most blasphemous collection of literature and arcane lore ever assembled.”

Bane paused, shifting his wings with the sound of stone sliding on ashes.

“Oh, his tomes cackled and whispered as I widened the doorway to enter. He drew himself up, reviling the dragon kin, speaking condescendingly of our abilities and magics, for no spell could touch his earthly form. He caressed his arcane staff as he spoke, madness in his eyes. I nearly succumbed to the emanations of that relic, but then he laughed and poured scorn on our Mother, deriding our love of flying in the Mother Sun’s light. My rage at his arrogant mouthings broke the evil influence, but I waited, outwardly calm, as his tirade drew to a close.”

Talan looked about, surprised that the sun had only risen a little way. He stretched his legs and then settled, turning his attention back to the great creature in front of him.

“Finally, he asked me in mock terror if I intended to rend him. I have cherished the look on his face as my flaming breath sloughed the flesh from his bones for all these long years. I had deliberately saved my incendiary venom because I knew that only dragonfire could truly injure a necromancer of his power. But in the long battle with the fallen ones and my healing thereafter, I had lost track of the time. It was night and the infernal powers that abetted Mezlorahn’s might had awakened. The entire library erupted in vengeful fury even as my fiery breath destroyed it. Black flames of malevolence that blew the entire face of Caer Mordis out of Chacsom Gap into the camped armies. The carnage was terrible.”

“But what happened to you and the lady dragon?”

“Silurana had departed, as her time of clutching was near. I died.”

Bane’s eyes glittered in the reflected sunlight.

Talan’s eyes went wide. He paused, took a deep breath and then with a look of resigned fear, asked: “But if you died, what are you doing here?”

The undead had a nasty repute. Undead dragons he had never heard of, but they were probably horribly nastier in ways that only sages and priests would know. Bane’s discomforting smile blossomed again.

“I died in that unholy blast, but I found no rest. Mezlorahn had invoked one of the great host, the one known as the ‘Angel of Fates’. Its delight is laying curses upon things. As a child of the Mother Sun, I was a welcome victim and my curse was a joy to its black heart. I was reformed, whole but black as night, the only one of my kind to ever exist. From that moment forth, I had to consume dragons to survive. To die, I had to slay every dragon in Khyr. In this half life, I could only function by night and the smell of a dragon drove me into a feeding frenzy that overwhelmed any chance of restraint. Thus I was lost to the Mother Sun’s light and from dragonkind. Over the years I came to accept my fate, leaving warnings at the scenes of my kills to reach my former kin.”

Bane’s voice had fallen to a rumbling whisper. Talan leapt to his feet in outrage.

“But why didn’t you fight it?”

“At first I tried, but the hunger drove me on. To a dragon, survival is the greatest urge. It dominates all our actions. I would find myself in flight after settling to starve and die in a secluded area. I would black out and my hunger would lead me to the nearest dragon. When it came within range of my supernaturally heightened senses, the feeding frenzy would drive me to kill.”

“Didn’t they try and stop you?”

“Oh yes, many times. But the nature of my unlife is resilient. I have but one way to die, and until that condition is fulfilled, I cannot die. I can be driven off by severe injury, even apparent death. But I recover. The longest it has taken me is an entire cycle of the moon, and that was after I had been blasted to dust by a group of mages who then summoned a ghostwind to scatter my motes all over the world. Besides that, dying gives me blinding headaches for weeks afterwards.”

“Couldn’t they just keep killing you?”

“You do not realise just how much it takes to really hurt me, let alone seriously injure me. That group of mages had been preparing for two years and I had given them my true name to enhance the ritual’s effectiveness.”

"So you kill them when you find them. That’s- Hey! The sun's up. How come you haven't blown up or something?"

Bane turned his head to the sky, then slowly returned his attention to Talan. His voice came as a whisper rich with emotions that Talan just couldn’t grasp.

“Because I have finished, Talan Donal Berris. Silversteel was the last. There are no more dragons left in Khyr.”

His sorrow was almost palpable.

“What about you?”

“I am dead. I am not a dragon. Dragons are magnificent creatures that fly beneath Mother’s watching eye, living in symphony to man’s plaintive song.”

“But you’re not dead. You’re living. So where’s the curse now?”

“On my last day, the angel said, I would see the Mother Sun rise, but she would take my tainted soul as she set. I have a day in her light as a reward for my cursed deeds of the last centuries, an irony not lost on that angel.”

“So you’re going to die at sundown?”

“Yes, Talan. I will be the last shadow of dragonkind to pass from this land.”

Talan looked up, desolation in his gaze: “So there won’t be any more dragons?”

“They will return eventually. Khyr will not be dragonless for long. I think they will be back before you grow too old, Talan. But I doubt any will clutch on Khyran soil for many centuries to come.”

“So what do you do now?”

“I wait for sundown, my final sunset. I have longed for and dreaded this day.”

“Why not fly? You said all dragons loved it.”

“I could not, even if I dared. Silversteel tore my wings in the battle, but even if she had not, I would not stain the sky with my damned shade.”

“Why Silversteel last? She’s been here for ages and many knew of her.”

“Because she was my daughter. She was the result of Silurana’s clutching after that battle at Chacsom Gap, a beautiful silver dragonette that sought her cursed sire for two centuries before she confronted me at the scene of one of my kills.”

“But why didn’t you kill her then?”

“Another feature of my curse. I could not gorge myself. After I killed, I was left to the loathing that rose within me at my crime. It would plague me for days and drive me near insane with grief. So one night as I recovered from the frenzy of a kill, just before my grief took me, she came to me. She hovered there, all moonlit and crying her love and pity. We talked for most of the night and then she departed so she could be far away before my hunger rose again. Since that night, I have flown with a purpose. I have spent twenty centuries slaying every other dragon in Khyr so that she could live to a full wing. She has, even clutching twice, but outside Khyr’s borders, so that her children will be safe from their grandsire’s curse. That was my message to my kindred: I am cursed to kill, but I shall take those ready or willing to die first. They agreed to my plan, and so for many years I took dragons that came to me, whether out of compassion, ennui or age, I do not know and could not ask.”

“What happened when you ran out of dragons that came to you?”

“Finally I had to start on the unwilling, but by then many eggs had been clutched outside the borders of Khyr. My curse stipulated every dragon hatched on Khyran soil. I have had to travel a long way to slay some of them, but in the end, I could not delay any longer. I fought my hunger for eight months so that my kill would be quick. She very nearly slowed me down, but my cursed unlife gives me the advantage of being able to ignore any injury that is not immediately debilitating or what would normally be fatal. Due to my age, size and power, I am formidable. But she fought her best regardless, my beautiful Silvastra.”

Bane’s voice had attained a husky quality that kept Talan swallowing lumps in his throat and brushing away tears.

In silent mockery of the tragedy below, the morning was beautiful and clear, a day to bring smiles to the menfolk and a lightness of step to the maids. In villages across the land, children plotted escape from chores whilst parents awaited the attempted breakouts with a loving resignation. A birdsong drifted, incongruously cheerful, into the silence of the valley.

Talan finally summoned up the courage to ask: “Bane, what about Silversteel’s treasure?”

“So it was you who saw it.” A statement, backed with an unwavering stare.

“Well, she was out, and I didn’t take anything, and I never told.”

“Good thing for you. A dragon can sense if its horde has been disturbed or if anything is taken. It is a fool who steals from a dragon, and a fool who has only a short while to live, at that.”

“But what now?”

“Let them have it, Talan. It is of no use to Silvastra now. But I am sure she would have wished you to pick a few things from it. She liked you.”

Talan sat, speechless. Bane stretched his ragged wings, settling them back carefully, taking several minutes. Then his gaze turned fully on Talan.

“Would you stay with me today, Talan? There is nothing else that dares to stand vigil.”

Talan stayed with the ancient, sad creature as the day passed by. Bane spoke quietly, reminiscing about his living days, taking Talan on vocal wings to far places and strange views, speaking of his youth in the snow-capped mountains to the west, of sojourns in the long sunken courts of Salass, amongst an aquatic elfin race long retreated from the knowledge of man. Finally, as the sun began to descend he spoke of the dragon kindred, of flying in praise, the purity of the magic word and the gifts of fire. Talan sat rapt and entranced as he received history in its purest form; from one who had seen it happen and had no ability to lie. But as the sun dipped low behind Silversteel’s lair, Bane fell silent and his scintillant eyes closed.

Talan waited, unsure what to do. Then Bane began to quietly hum, a low monotone that drifted into a crooning, mournful, wordless tune which seemed to fill the valley and call to things far away. As the last light left and the valley sank into twilight, Talan heard Bane’s song interwoven with his last words.

“Mother, although I have slain my kindred, your children, bless me into darkness that I may rest at last.”

From far above and further away, Talan heard a gentle voice calling.

“Salaxon, come home. Come to us, Darkforge.”

From the black body shot a grey form that spread spectral wings as it ascended to the sky. Turning silver in the last light of the sun, his mournful song turned sweet at last, the spirit of Salaxon flew down the last rays into his Mother’s embrace.

“Remember us, Talan Donal Berris.” The gentle voice nought but a whisper, fading, gone.

As the evening star sparked into shine, so the dark body crumbled to dust. Wiping his tears away, Talan ventured into Silversteel’s lair, careful not to look at her remains again. He moved slowly, using his touch on the wall until he heard his footsteps start to echo. Then he lit his precious candle.

Searching the horde he took a small sword, a hand axe, some beautifully made leather boots and a suit of fine mail. Filling a pouch with coins and gems, he rested in the lair on Silversteel’s great nest until the following dawn.

Striding into the shadow of the great oak, he turned and raised his new sword in salute to the still body outside the cave, and to the dusty outline in front of him. Wiping his eyes quickly, he sniffed hard and turned to head northeast, toward the big cities and places where he could learn to read and write.

*****

 

Tatters

 

The leaves are tinged with premature autumn shades by the few rays of the setting sun that penetrate the lowering grey clouds. I turn off the quiet B-road and the sunlight disappears as the rain starts to hammer down. The long, slow cruise up the wide gravel drive lets my mind wander back to the day that Lathan Dove first came to me, five years ago.

 

He was a nondescript young man in a scruffy off-the-peg suit, awkward and somehow furtive in his movements. He walked in off the street, without warning or fanfare, and loitered in the reception area for an hour before approaching the desk. In our offices, that meant we had been watching him very carefully for fifty-six minutes.

He sidled up to the low marble-topped desk, looking quickly about to ensure no-one was nearby. When the receptionist turned her warm smile on him, he blushed scarlet to the roots of his conservatively cut blond hair.

“I’d like to speak to Daniel Marsh, please.”

The sheer unlikelihood of that request actually caused Jennifer, our receptionist, to momentarily lose her calm face, but she recovered quickly, distracting Lathan with her finest ‘you interest me’ look while she pressed the panic button with her toe.

For poor Lathan, knowing him like I do now, enduring the following minute must have taken all his willpower to prevent himself curling into a ball on the floor. Security screens crashed down and six heavily armoured men surrounded him, their submachine guns steady: aimed at his head and torso.

“Sir, I am going to ask you to place your bag on the floor and step away from it. If you do not comply, we will shoot you.”

Lathan didn’t move. Jennifer saved his life by smiling warmly as she said: “Put it down, sir. You know we have to be careful.”

He put the bag down and was promptly felled by over four hundred pounds of security guards. When they climbed off, he was unconscious. No undue force had been used; Lathan was simply not a physically robust young man.

 

An hour later, I knew more about Lathan than his late family had. The searches we can run are extensive and invasive. For obvious reasons, we are not bound by privacy laws, data protection or bureaucratic divisions. What we want, we get.

Lathan Alexander Dove, son of William and Mary Dove, both former professors at Oxford. He was an exceptional student, a loner with few friends, and had had no steady partners of either gender. He held degrees in several areas of science and computing, and could have been working for us, but his mother had some odd history in her twenties. Until a year before his arrival, he had been programming in the City, turning his brilliant mind toward making rich people richer. Then his father committed suicide, after killing his mother. Lathan resigned, spent six months sorting out their estate, then disappeared completely. The sort of off-the-grid that makes normal security agencies worry, and makes us positively paranoid.

It is a bigger, scarier world out there than many realise, and it terrifies me that we do not have the resources to be the omniscient protectors of humanity that we need to be. Our particular Pandora’s Box was opened a long time ago, and we can only fight the results that we detect or deduce. All we can do for the rest is pray.

While a couple of nursing staff made sure Lathan was unharmed and comfortable, I made a couple of calls to some people who had the means to track some of those who dropped off the grid. It took eighteen minutes for one of them to come back to me with a single sentence: “He bought Gathern’s copy.”

My off hand was pressing the ‘lockdown’ button as I returned the mobile to my pocket. Young Mister Dove had just become a confirmed threat. Whether to us, or only to himself, was all that remained to be determined.

 

Lathan came round an hour later. He sat up on the low bench and surveyed the small room he was in: the toilet in the corner, the chair, and the door without any visible handle. He nodded, looked up at the camera, and said: “I can remove the play from the ’net.”

 

We had a crisis meeting. Never in our brief history, and never before in the records of all the organisations that preceded us, had this happened: an owner of the play coming forward willingly – and apparently sane. We discussed every scenario, even the ones beyond the daily insanity we knew brooded just beyond the reality we live in. I think we might still have been discussing what to do with Lathan Dove, but someone had other ideas. Jennifer went in with fish and chips for two, along with a couple of mugs of tea. I was in the midst of something highly theoretical – and, quite frankly, unlikely – when our duty sergeant crashed into the room.

“Jennifer’s having dinner with him!”

The minutes state that the meeting adjourned swiftly to allow remedial actions to take place. Actually, it fell apart in a chaos of people shouting and running for the door. None of them made it before me, and my heavy-handed ‘queue jumping’ left two of them needing medical attention. Jennifer is my daughter.

 

A short time later, I was watching Lathan and Jennifer getting along like two young, smart people who don’t get out much sometimes do. My belovedly annoying daughter had even switched the feed to visual-only. I was considering ways to justify an extrajudicial shooting when Jennifer raised the remote that activated the audio and looked over her shoulder at the camera.

“Don’t you dare. I’ll be out in a bit and then you can shout at me, but I’m not leaving until you stop trying to massage the rules so you can have Lathan suppressed.”

Lathan smiled: “‘Suppressed’ as in ‘killed’?”

Jennifer nodded. I heard Lathan say “Oh”, before Jennifer switched the audio off again.

I cannot fathom how she knows when I’m watching, but she does. It usually happens when the situation is of importance to one or both of us. So I went and got myself a coffee and made my apologies to those I had mowed down on the way out of the meeting.

By the time I got back to the control room, Jennifer was sitting quietly off to one side, a security guard lingering nearby. I waved him away. She looked at me, noting that my knuckles were white where I gripped the steaming mug.

“Dad, you need to relax. Take a deep breath.”

I gave her my sternest stare. She smiled. Daughters: who can defend against them? I eased off a bit, and she nodded.

“Lathan is not influenced. He is fixated, but not where you think. Come and talk to him.”

For all my parental-reflex reactions, Jennifer worked with me because she’s very good at reading people. If she vouched for Mister Dove’s state of mind, I had no real evidence, bar over-protectiveness, to doubt her.

 

Out of deference to Jennifer, I had Lathan brought to one of our meeting rooms. It was the one with guard positions concealed in the walls, but she didn’t need to know that.

Lathan entered, after holding the door open for Jennifer, then sat in the chair furthest from me. Jennifer sat between us: “Anyone for tennis?” she quipped, looking back and forth. I shook my head and moved down the table. Lathan stayed put.

“Mister Dove. Let me be clear. You are a cause of great concern to everyone in this building, except this young lady. Please, do your best to change that.”

Lathan nodded: “I’ll need my bag. With all of its contents.”

I raised my hand and, within a couple of minutes, a security guard silently entered, handed Lathan his bag, and exited swiftly.

Lathan rummaged about for a while, seemingly confirming that all was present and correct. Then he turned his attention fully to me. His gaze was steely. I recognised it as something similar to those I had seen in men returning from the wars in Afghanistan.

“Mister Marsh, I presume. Or, at least, he is probably listening by now. I shall start at the beginning so you can get the full picture.”

He hunched forward and picked a single strip of torn paper from his bag. The paper was yellowed with age, and he held it almost tentatively.

“This scrap is all that is left of what I believe to be a full transcription of the play, made by one of my father’s students, Ellery Grant.”

I knew that, in the control room above, that name was being investigated.

“He’s dead. You can tell your people to ease off.”

Observant or informed? I wondered.

“As you know by now, my father was a brilliant psychologist, specialising in autosuggestion and induced states of mind. Ellery approached him because he had discovered what he considered to be proof that certain occult writings could induce detrimental states in the reader. Furthermore, he proposed that a group of readers in an induced mental state could exert an influence over certain aspects of what we call reality, in a scaled application similar to that of observing quantum events.”

A good thing Mister Grant was dead. It saved me having to order him suppressed.

“My father was sceptical: a state he achieved with ease, I might add. He tasked Ellery with providing a paper to formally quantify his thesis, along with the usual proofs.”

Lathan paused to take a sip of water, his need to gather himself obvious to both Jennifer and I.

“Three weeks later, my father returned from a week’s sabbatical to find a large treatise on his desk. Ellery could not be found. Unbeknownst to us at the time, he was already dead. His remains were discovered in the wreckage of his camper van, on one of the rarely used side roads that overlook Loch Ness, a few weeks later.”

Lathan reached into his bag and pulled out a sheaf of torn paper: quality vellum, by the look of it. The lower edges were singed.

“These few pages are all that remain of my father’s daybook entries, from the day after the treatise arrived, to the day he committed suicide. It was a loose-leaf notepad-cum-diary. Keeping it was a habit from his youth, and one he maintained religiously. On these pages he made notes and also wrote down extracts.”

I straightened up. Extracts of what? Lathan saw my increased attention.

“Yes, they were extracts from the play. From the first act. But what got me was the fragmentary note that survived on the last page.”

Lathan held the note toward the camera before holding it high in front of him. He squinted slightly to read the cramped handwriting.

“The main part of the note on the page is lost, but what survives is: ‘PTSD slash Somme et al, question mark. Must see original. Find Maxwell Gathern.’”

I could almost hear people upstairs dropping things in shock. What a concept! I decided to move things along.

“You say that’s the last page? What happened?”

Lathan looked at me. He refilled his glass and drank it. To my surprise, Jennifer took his hand.

He sighed: “I am not sure of the timing. As far as I can tell, my father threw all his work on the treatise, and the treatise itself, into the fire haphazardly. Some books and documents he threw in whole, some he tore up, some he shredded. But everything went into the fire in his study. Then he went downstairs, twisted and knotted together two of my mother’s silk scarves, Thuggee-style, and stalked my mother through the house after she saw him coming and ran. Eventually, he knocked her down the stairs and strangled her in the hall, leaving her hung from the banister. Then he left the house, walked to his car, and siphoned the fuel tank all over himself. He struck the matches just as I returned home. The blast knocked me down. I thought it was an accident, ran to the car and, seeing dad was beyond reach, ran into the house to get mum. I found her in the hall and I am told I put out the fire in the study before it could destroy the house, but I have no memory of that. From seeing mum hanging to coming round in hospital, a week later, is a complete blank.”

I slightly regretted moving things along, as Lathan seemed to withdraw into himself. Jennifer leaned close to him whilst pointing toward the door with the hand he couldn’t see. Knowing the guards would protect her, I left.

 

A little while later, Jennifer called me back to the meeting room. Lathan had composed himself, and the table was strewn with bits of paper. He looked up, hesitating momentarily, before he carefully placed a last piece in a corner, away from the rest.

“This is everything I could salvage from my father’s notes. I should point out at this point that I am under treatment for post-traumatic stress, but not taking the medication. If I get better, I’ll be as susceptible as the usual victims of the play.”

Good gods. He knew.

“The stress induced by seeing my parents dead, and knowing why, has induced a disassociation in my mind. That disassociation, I am told, will be detrimental to me. But until I have to have it alleviated, I would like to work with you. I can help, and I am about the only person who can. You have a serious problem that I think you haven’t spotted yet.”

I raised an eyebrow: “Really?”

Lathan sat down and stared at the ceiling for a while. The silence stretched. Finally, he clapped his hands and looked straight at me.

“What do you know about Carcosa Servers?”

My expression must have told him of my total ignorance.

“I am a programmer by inclination and trade. With a little more amorality and less respect, I’d be a hacker. As it is, I like exploring the World Wide Web, both open and dark sides. I have the skills to get to places where I am not exactly welcome, and to remain undetected. It was on one of those excursions that I found some data which contained familiar prose.”

Any icy finger of premonition stroked leisurely down my spine.

“There are people out there who consider the play to be the only way to change the world. They view it as some sort of ‘reset’. Bring down the governments, the corrupt, and the ultra-wealthy by caving in their minds. The fact that no-one is immune, and only a few can withstand the effects of the play for any length of time, is irrelevant to them. That those who can withstand the effects have to be suffering some form of dissociative psychosis, is also ignored; if they even care.”

The icy finger curled back into the chill fist that twisted my guts.

“The one thing they have in common is organisation. They’re distributed, encrypted, stealth-moded, and backed up to hell and gone. You could spend the next ten years blowing up server farms, and they’d end the decade with more servers than when they started. The self-orbiting satellite initiatives open up entire vistas of untouchable madness.”

Jennifer raised her hand: “But how will they deliver it?”

Lathan grinned: “Ever heard of things ‘going viral’? Well, that’s how I’d do it. Make the play something people want to see. Make it a thing of mystery. Rely on the international accords, that I guess are already in place, to ensure that the play achieves the notoriety of censorship. The rest is just waiting. Victims will fall, and those initially unaffected will join. Exponential spread of induced psychoses, with no common symptoms of affliction. My rudimentary calculations predict that it would take a month before being recognised as a problem, by which time it would be unstoppable. The main vectors would be the followers of participating counter-culture and dark ’net ‘icons’ on social media: more of the ‘fashionable’ rebels than the actual disaffected. So the greatest impact would be in teenagers and twenty-year olds. They may not bring down civilisation, but they’ll certainly cripple two generations at the very least.”

My backside hit the seat so hard it rattled my teeth. Lathan didn’t let up.

“The nearest scenario I can relate this to would be the Spanish Flu pandemic. Except this will have a vector of anywhere with internet access, no cure, and no drop in lethality.”

Jennifer raised her hand again: “Drop in lethality?”

“Pathogenic viruses tend to become less deadly over a period of time, as the hosts of the deadlier strains die off.”

I raised a hand: “You are aware that victims of the play do die?”

He nodded: “The number of new readers should offset the losses that would otherwise limit the spread in the way virus fatalities do. In addition, as I had no metrics for those who would suffer deferred onset, I did not include them. Apart from being victims, that group could act as long-term vectors, which only enhances the spread.”

 

I pause in my reflections to park the car. The door behind me opens and closes, without a word being said. I open my thermos, pour a cup, and sip black coffee whilst returning to my memories.

 

Lathan started working for me that evening. While everyone about was suffering confusion, nausea or closeted denial over his hypotheses, he started gathering a team to work on his proposals. He would not state any of it was definite until he could prove it, and only paused long enough to reassure me that the copy of the play he had obtained from Gathern had been burnt to ashes.

With our computing resources and security clearances, it took him three weeks. It was a bleary-eyed Lathan who placed an inch-thick binder on my desk. I flicked it open and looked up in surprise: the whole thing was hand written. He grinned sheepishly through his exhaustion.

“I don’t trust computer security. I know what people like me can do, and I’m not one of the best.”

All of my veteran ‘hacking’ staff disagreed strongly, but Lathan never admitted to his programming genius.

I read his report that night, with Jennifer by my side. She’d come round after settling Lathan down at her place. Which was something else I was not coping at all well with.

The next day, I discussed various aspects of Lathan’s single proposal with my information technology teams. All of them agreed that it was theoretically possible. Several of them said that only Lathan, and maybe a dozen other programmers in the world, were capable of doing it. All of them agreed that Lathan could not do it without better information to derive targets from.

So, when Lathan came in with Jennifer after lunch, I endured my daughter’s cold, angry stare and handed him what he needed to make his proposal work. It was also the thing that could finish him, but I had no choice.

Lathan looked at the slim binder, reading and rereading the title page. Eventually, he looked up. There were tears in his eyes.

“Where did you get this?” he whispered.

“Your father sent it to Ellery on the morning of the day your parents died.”

“Does it have the information I mentioned in my report?”

I looked at Jennifer. Her gaze said a lot of things, none of them good for a father-daughter relationship.

“Yes, Lathan, it does. My people say that it contains a lot more than the minimum you hoped for.”

He smiled: “How can you say that?”

I smiled back: “We have scanners. They look for specific words and word-patterns. Even allowing for the limitations of enhanced optical character recognition, they are accurate enough for us to be sure.”

Lathan opened the document in the centre and started reading. I reached forward and closed it before he could become engrossed.

“I wouldn’t normally say this, but as my daughter is glaring at me like her mother used to when I was about to catch hell, I’ll concede this once. Lathan, even if the scanning result is only eighty percent accurate, the report could be as dangerous as the play itself. Your father was brilliant in his analysis and distilled many key aspects: from phrases to common imagery and mood creation. I have no doubt you can get what you need. My people doubt that you will come out untouched, even with the buffer provided by your mental disorder.”

Lathan stared at the cover of his father’s last treatise. He looked at Jennifer. He looked at me. He looked at the ceiling. Then he did something I never expected. He took Jennifer’s hand and turned to look her in the eyes: “With your help, I can do this. There’s an outside chance I might even get away with it. Without your help, I can probably do this. But I’m certain that what remains won’t be all of me. Either way, I have to do this, because only I can, and I cannot ask for your support.”

I watched my daughter cry onto his hands, and wished I could reach back down the centuries to strangle that playwright at birth.

Jennifer nodded: “I’ll help.”

She turned to me: “I know you had to do this. Please forgive me if I can never forgive you for that.”

 

That was the last time my daughter spoke a whole sentence to me. Over the next six weeks, Lathan went places with programming that left my best scratching their heads. Then he set them to seeding every possible nook and cranny of the world-wide web, and its subsidiaries, which so many of us take for granted, with his carefully designed programs. I got the job of forcing the owners of several major operating systems, and the people behind a large number of security packages, to add some programs to their ‘approved’ lists, or next releases, and to do so without any testing or documentation. I got a lot older during those few weeks.

Jennifer spent all her time with Lathan. The people I had tasked with observing said that she seemed to calm him, to be able to bring him back from the contemplative silences he fell into: ones that glazed his eyes with increasing frequency.

 

Five months, two weeks and six days after Lathan started, I got a call in the dead of night. Lathan had been taken to hospital. Jennifer had left a DVD with one of my special operatives, with instructions to place it directly into my hands. I got dressed and went to the office. The DVD was handed over, and the operative was stationed outside my door, before I pressed ‘play’.

The scene was Jennifer’s bedroom. Lathan was sitting in bed with books, papers and my daughter’s underwear scattered about. Nice touch, Jennifer. From the timestamp, it was about two months after Lathan had started his programming. He looked wild-eyed but more relaxed than I had ever seen him.

“Hold it steady, Jenny. No messing about. Your dad will need this.”

At least one person in that bedroom bore no malice.

“Mister Marsh. I’m recording this now, in case I am unable to report in person.”

I heard a stifled sniff from the holder of the camera.

“I’ll try and leave out the technical bits. You need to know what the beastie I’m writing will do. This program can simplistically be described as a virus designed to do good things. It also has to do them without anyone being aware of what it’s up to. So I’ve put bits of it all over the place, each bit being something that no-one will pay attention to. A little program left over from earlier versions, a ghost of an image remaining from a system tidy up; there is lots of obsolete code lying about on computers. But now, some of it is mine.

My program is made up of a lot of smaller modules, and in a very complex way borrows from two-part explosives. Harmless and untraceable apart, effective together. I thought this was the best way to ensure the program perpetuates. With your inclusion of modules deep in most operating systems and security suites, it should exist as long as the internet runs architecture and software that resembles what we have now. I don’t see that changing for a while. Not forever, but long enough for this threat to go quiet. Each complete program is part payload, part defences. Attempts to reverse engineer my work will cause the most amusing things to happen to analysis or editing software. Whatever your definition of amusing, the end result is that I am happy that my stuff will be considered too much trouble when there are so many other programs out there to hack.”

Lathan paused and waved at Jennifer: “Back in a bit.” The screen went black. A moment later, it returned, the timestamp having moved on an hour.

“What the program does is as I laid out in my proposal. It searches computer files for traces of the play. It can penetrate virtually every file type out there. The ones it can’t, I have listed in the documentation, and you’ll have to find a way to access them so my program can do its stuff. What it does when it finds a copy, or part, of the play is the tricky bit. It doesn’t destroy anything. It replaces. It substitutes words, it swaps out phrases. The end result is the play, but with the trigger points removed. It’s still disturbing, but only on a par with classic weird fantasy. What I aimed for was to shred the dangerous elements, to defuse it, but without letting anyone know it has been messed with. That way interest will wane and the play should sink from the public eye without fanfare, in the same way that all over-hyped internet crazes do.”

He paused to take a sip of water, then grinned: “Of course, read-only media presented a challenge. In the case of a DVD or similar, what is on the media and what is displayed will be slightly different. If my software can censor, it will. If it can’t, the media will show as being ‘unreadable’.”

Lathan gestured with his hand and the camera angle rose, presumably as Jennifer stood up.

“Give me the camera, Jenny. Could you go and get us a snack?”

There were a few moments of chaotic angles, and then darkness. Then the picture returned, and Lathan loomed large in the view.

“Better make this quick. I’ve finished the program. Tomorrow I start extracting key data from my father’s treatise to give the program its targets. I’ve loaded the substitutions already. The only thing left is typing the extracts of the play in. Then I have to test it. Either way, if you’ll excuse my language, I’m expecting to suddenly become badly fucked up sometime in the next few weeks. Jenny doesn’t know that it is a certainty, not a possibility. Be ready, she’ll need you. Especially if she has to help me hold my mind together for an extended period, while I complete this project. The play turns its victims strange. Too strange for most to handle without scars.”

He paused and seemed to consider something for a moment, then nodded to himself and added: “I’m no expert outside of computing, but please consider this layman’s opinion: I’m certain that there has to be more to this than just a play.” He paused again, then held the camera close: “I couldn’t have done what you did, letting your daughter stay with me. Thank you.”

He cocked his head.

“She’s coming back.”

The screen went black for a moment, then he resumed as if he was finishing off a topic that he’d covered while Jennifer was out of the room: “The program will self-replicate and hunt whenever it encounters new systems or files. I predict it will eventually suffer a lot of interference, but hope that the discovery time will be after it has done its work.”

A door opened and he looked off screen to his right.

“Oh, that looks good. Take this so I can stretch, then after I finish, we can eat.”

The camera angle went off again, before settling back into the original view.

“As I said, the program cannot get everywhere. There is also a chance that some of the smarter system administrators may spot it. Either way, it will not be a clean sweep. It’s like an inoculation. It may not be able to get all the places distributing the play, but it’s got a high percentage chance of de-fanging copies of the play opened on most computers before the reader can reach the venomous bits. That’s where your people come in, Daniel.”

He called me Daniel. First and last time ever.

“You will need to police this like you have been, except with a little more attention to net distribution. I’ve left your teams my scanning programs, and the only copy of the entire program will be added to this disk when I finish, along with the source code.”

A cursor flashed and green letters scrolled across the bottom of the screen like a ticker feed:

 

The program and source code are on here. The target data from my father’s treatise has not been included and I have destroyed the original document you gave me.

You will also find that some of the test files I used to prove my programs were your scans of the treatise. Sorry, but the potential for trying to use this as a weapon is something I cannot chance, even with you.

 

I smiled with relief when I read that. I was relieved because I wouldn’t have had the courage to do it, or to order it done.

“That’s it. Anything else would be telling you what you already know. Wish me luck, and good luck to all of you.”

Lathan raised a hand in farewell and the screen went blank. I took the disc out of the player, unplugged it, and walked the disc, escorted by the operative who had been outside my office, down to the vault. The disc has not been disturbed since.

 

I take a swig of coffee and look up at the swooping architecture of the place, lights shining on the rain-slicked stonework. My eyes track without conscious effort to the far window on the second floor, where the corner room benefits from the finest views of dawn across rolling woodland. Up there, Jennifer is reading to Lathan. More correctly, she’s reading to what’s left of him. He looks the same, except his features seem a little slack, and he’s lost weight. But the biggest loss shows in his eyes. He went too far into something mankind should never have set eyes upon, and it kept most of him.

 

I look at my watch. Another three hours, or thereabouts. She always reads him Alice in Wonderland. It calms him, and the staff say that for the few hours while my daughter is reading, he doesn’t cry.

*****

 

Notes Written Whilst Sitting Upon a Grave

 

‘If you are reading this, then I am dead.’

I have always loved that line, from its origins as a literal statement to its modern usage as a plot device in so many tales of mystery and intrigue. For me, it is humorous because I have resisted the urge to use it at the start of every message I have written for the last eight centuries.

 

I am dead. Not suffering from some strange disease that can be cured by love or science, not whiling away my days pining for my humanity. I never rue my loss of daylight, nor do I worry over the morality of what I do. I ceased to be human over twelve centuries ago and adapted well to this existence. Vampire is what you would call me, but my nature is singularly lacking in the modern dilutions of that term. You are my prey and like every predator that ever lived, I have no qualms in using every skill I possess to keep you ignorant of my presence until it is too late. My choice to exercise finesse while doing so could be regarded as a weakness. But, as I am still extant and many who derided me for said weakness are not, I regard it as a desirable edge to my nature.

 

Some time in 680 CE saw my birth and in 703 I fell to the night; that momentous event we call Ederu. It was 1120 when I fled certain redeath at the hands of fools and malcontents, thus instigating a second unlife that has been far finer than the first.

 

Tonight I am lounging on a grave in a rural graveyard, somewhere in the south-west of England. It is a beautiful summer evening, the sort of English summer evening that is a thing without compare on the rare occasions that it occurs. As far as I can work out, a few days ago I passed thirteen-hundred and thirty-three years walking the soil of this planet. In a few hours I am going to kill another of my kind, but I will expand upon that topic in a while.

 

I started a journal about eight centuries ago, initially as something to practice my newly-learned skill of writing. After that, it became somewhere that I could record the few memories of my living years and first unlife; things that have become both precious and abhorrent to me as time moves on. Everything that happens, the good and the bad, is what makes a person – not just the bits you prefer to remember.

Everyone forgets. With nightwalkers, it is more akin to trauma victims forgetting the worst details: we do it to survive. While a body can be immortal without harm, and indeed will show substantial improvements over time, a formerly human mind is unsuited to holding an eternity of memories.

There is a caveat to our forgetting: a nightwalker can never forget one who has opposed him. I have concluded that it is a survival mechanism. Forgetting an enemy is not wise when said enemy could wait centuries before striking again.

 

When I first read vampire fiction, it amused me intensely. But after a while, it became clear that several of my kind were indulging themselves, either via ghost-writer, by pseudonym or by trusting to the disbelief that you mortar the walls of your fragile reality with.

I considered it all a bit frivolous until one – whom I shall introduce later – started a daybook in the fabulous virtual world that you depend upon so much these nights. So I decided to take my writings and go a step further. I would create a book. Our ‘rivalry’ being what it is, I cannot in all honesty do aught else.

 

This tome could be regarded as a warning. It is a memorial for friends who have fallen. The few nightwalkers who may be unimpressed have held me in low esteem for so long that their opinion is irrelevant.

 

You may find some of the language herein strange. If necessary I have used anglicised modern parlance to translate archaic turns of phrase, but our history predates Akkad. The scholars of that city were the first to codify our abilities and society (such as it was), so their terms remain in places where no modern words exist that encompass the nuances inherent in the original form.

 

This will not become a habit. There will be no interminable series of publications to chronicle my nights in agonising detail, conferring ephemeral immortality upon my every trivial contemplation. I was not a wise man and became a nightwalker who has grown not much wiser, although a jaded familiarity with the foibles of my prey could be misinterpreted as such.

The escapades narrated herein are, for me, the more memorable ones from my thirteen-hundred-year journey as I remember them. Like all memories, they suffer from time’s bias in my favour. I make no apology for that. History is ever written by the victor.

 

I have had many names, but the one I use for myself is Rafe. I am delighted to come to your attention and make your acquaintance. With a slight bow, I bid you enter of your own free will.

To abuse the time-honoured words of bards down through the years, let us begin at somewhere near the beginning and see where the night takes us from there.

*****

 

Afterword

 

Thank you for reading this far. Since you have given my work your time, I hope that at least some of the stories in here have entertained you. Naturally, I hope they have intrigued you enough to indulge in a whole book of mine, or maybe more than one.

Either way, I would like to get your opinion. Feel free to drop down to the ‘connect with me’ section and put words to email. I can only improve with input from my readers. As I’ll be doing this until the day I die, do stay in touch.

***

 

The Stories and the Books They Come from

 

Transit’, ‘Cold Smoke & Warm Tentacles’ and ‘Little Foxes’ are from Destinies, my first anthology of science fantasy flash and short fiction: http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/161803

 

Train, Train’, ‘Marooned’ and ‘Nanoland’ are from Tangents, my second anthology of science fantasy flash and short fiction: http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/300683

 

The Lady is Not’, ‘Treason and Plot’ and ‘Secret Weapon’ are from Come Tomorrow, my third anthology of science fantasy flash and short fiction: https://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/355331

 

Two Graves’, ‘Rivals’ and ‘Thinking of Jenny’ are from Agents of Fate, my fourth anthology of flash and short fiction: http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/472713

 

Broken Like a Bottle’, ‘High Fliers’ and ‘Black Rider’ are from Infinity, my fifth anthology of flash and short fiction: http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/546174

 

Zen and Ink’, ‘Sister Strange’ and ‘Aces Deep’ are from The Borsen Incursion, a saga of space warfare: http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/429427

 

The Hunter’ is from Fire in Mind, an anthology of fantasy short stories with pagan and magical themes: http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/104441

 

Tatters’ is from Stars of Black, a collection of weird horror tales inspired by the original King in Yellow. Recommended for mature readers only: http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/494651

 

Notes Written Whilst Sitting upon a Grave’ is the opening chapter of my vampire horror novel A Place in the Dark. Recommended for mature readers only: http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/370576

***

 

About the Author

Julian M Miles (a.k.a. ‘Jae’) has been a storyteller, writer and poet for longer than he likes to admit. He lives in the South of England, lurking in a tiny place made smaller by the ridiculous number of books and films that cohabit with him. His head is cluttered with writing projects and he insists that his only advantages in life are a large vocabulary and a winning smile.

***

 

Connect with Julian Miles

If you’d like to get in touch, please email [email protected] or use the email link on the homepage of my website http://www.lizardsofthehost.co.uk/. It’s worth keeping an eye on my site as it is the place where the majority of my online work is hyperlinked from, plus it’s the place where new publications and projects will be announced.

I publish my own paperbacks too. Visit http://www.lothp.co.uk/ to see what’s available and what’s coming.

***

 

Other Books by Julian Miles

This Mortal Dance, a poetry collection drawn from over thirty years of creating verse.

http://www.Shakespir.com/books/view/38699

 

Gammafall will be my sixth volume of flash and short fiction. It will be published in May 2016.

 

Six Degrees of Sky will be my seventh volume of flash and short fiction. It will be published in May 2017.

 

There are many more books to come. Visit http://www.lizardsofthehost.co.uk/ regularly to see what’s new.

***

 

Credits

My thanks to artist Simon Mitchener for providing the original art for the front cover. He can be contacted via his deviantART gallery http://simonjm.deviantart.com/

*


Fantastic Visions 2 - OpenDyslexic Edition

OpenDyslexic is a typeface designed to make reading easier for some symptoms of dyslexia. Thanks to Rob Meijer - @Timelord_Ninja - I will be offering OpenDyslexic editions of all my books and ebooks. Starting with this, the ebook introduction to my work. With thirteen books published, and many more in progress, I thought it would be a good idea to update the introductory selection of my work. This revised collection has retired a few tales but added more, and is back to representing what I write so that people can see if my writing and their imaginations get along. As a lot of my science fantasy work uses the flash fiction format (originally attributed to Hemingway), a prose form that may be unfamiliar to some readers. Put simply, it is telling a story in less than one thousand words. Some people consider that impossible, for others it just doesn't work. But for many, it's a new and exciting form of storytelling. And so, here is a collection of tales for your entertainment. Drawn from all of my currently completed books, using flash, short and excerpt format to bring you a little look at the worlds, futures and alternatives my imagination sees. I hope you enjoy the journey, and the destinations you visit.

  • Author: Julian M. Miles
  • Published: 2015-10-27 22:20:09
  • Words: 28127
Fantastic Visions 2 - OpenDyslexic Edition Fantastic Visions 2 - OpenDyslexic Edition