Category Archives: Short Stories

Dueling magicians by Jeff Brown

The Angel’s Bridge

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A beautiful bridge was being built here and all he had to do was enjoy it. And he did. This kind of magic interested Dastan: the way it snapped into place, piece by piece. He didn’t notice a piece was there until it was. If Dastan wanted to weave magic it would flow outward and build on itself until it matched the shape he wanted. If Choros did it the same way, Dastan would have seen the shining strands evolve out of a distant will. He didn’t. He saw them pop into being, into perfect position. It was endlessly entertaining.

He could not feel Choros’s presence from here, across the planes. He only sat underneath the bridge that the angel was building. He kept his mind quiet, weighing the sensation of the bridge as well as his other magic. His sandy brown face, with closed eyes, lay in a languid smile.

Dastan’s heart swelled with love. Love for the angel Choros and this great project. If Dastan had opened his eyes he would see a sweep of jagged mountains thick with volcanic scars. The peaks thrust above a heavy gray cloud carpet. Constant thunders slashed the slopes and valleys below. He was too high up to hear them now. He would throw himself off this mountain if Choros asked him. He would do anything.

In his mind, he saw Choros’s shapely body. Bountifully curved, fit for all exertions, a face which reminded him of a heart, eyes which he could not escape, which had the hue of—

He opened his eyes. Hovering in the air a fair distance away was a feminine human-kin. They appeared exactly as they had in his mind: the ideal of desire, their skin a tone of red like silken clot and eyes a hue of burnished bronze. The being smiled, much deeper than he had been smiling, but that was all. His ward and their presence did not agree. Dastan figured that they would have broken his spell if they could have.

“What do you want, demon?” Dastan called. He didn’t get up. His hands sat on his knees, thick red trousers clothing his legs and hanging round his ankles. His top was a buttoned-up white garment threaded through with shining fibers, its sleeves puffing from his shoulders to his elbows, and then clinging tight up to his wrists. His hair was black with fringes of gray and he had tied it back, clasping it with a rubied gold ornament. His face was thin and dominated by a high-bridged brown nose. And though he had no instruments with him, his pinky nails were long like an alchemist’s.

The floating demon laughed at his challenge.

“I do have a name,” the demon called back, their own voice lush and tangy against his brusqueness. “My name is Grenzer. And you are Dastan.”

“You’re not wanted here,” Dastan said. He unfurled his body and lifted himself to a standing position. “You will not get through this ward.”

Grenzer’s face flooded with disappointment. It struck him between the eyes.

“Why won’t you let me in?” they asked him.

There was a world in which they were his and he theirs. He saw it in front of him. He felt their body against his, holding him while he held them.

He inhaled. He saw them floating so far away. He saw their face there and he saw it inside his mind, heartbroken and heartbreaking. He exhaled. He inhaled.

“You must go,” said Dastan. “Now.” He didn’t want to close his eyes. He didn’t want them to see him waver and he didn’t want to see his own fantasies. Their fantasies.

“Please,” said Grenzer.

His attachment to the subtle space trembled.

Dastan wanted to let her in. He knew that he wanted it. He knew in that moment that it would be greatest thing that he had ever done. The greatest good that could be reached.

But he also saw the shining something, the humming abstract, an arcane loop ringing around him. Tightening. So Dastan reached out, his stalks of subtle feeling reaching out past the words that rang in his ears, curling around, finding a way to drown out the tremor of the demon’s suggestions and peel them away from him.

This desperate effort was interrupted, his ward as well as his need to un-spell the demon’s persuasion both dissolving at once. All that, and everything else, was replaced by a single sensation.

A roar which should have scythed murderously through the human mage.

Dastan nervelessly dropped to his knees. He stared agape at a bestial creature the size of four great warhorses hurtling through the air directly at him, its pair of huge bat-like wings cracking the air with each terrifying beat. Two horns sprouted from its boulder of a head, the left one being crooked crazily, the right twisting like a ram’s horn.  That roaring maw was edged with dagger teeth and in both hands it drew back a sword which was as tall as Dastan. This nightmarish shape blotted out the view, the sky, the light.

On instinct, Dastan formed subtle shapes which cloaked him in rippling fire. His bones, still liquid with shock, at least warmed. His vision of the great beast before him was overtaken by flames, and then his body was. He snapped together into a thin tendril of flame which poured through the air, sluicing away from the oncoming terror, twisting and curling until he found a crag wide enough for him to stand. The snake of flame that was Dastan arced upward and poured his human form back into reality.

Atop the mountain, the winged creature stamped its cloven hoof and roared into the air, its crushing, harrowing bellow being met by a clap of thunder. Dastan shuddered and faltered. He based his hand against the rock so that he wouldn’t fall. He didn’t know if he would have stayed on his feet if he’d felt that full roar again. Even the thought of challenging that beast sent ice through his veins. It was the devil he knew. The one he dreaded. Malariel, grand commander of Hell.

Hiding from Malariel was out of the question. He had been too dazed to try and fade his subtle form during his escape. Instead, Dastan took a wide stance to steady himself and cycled his hands in front of him, arms making large revolutions, and the many stalks of his subtle form contorting and shifting in the same rhythm. From a mote of air blossomed a spiraling disc of bright orange fire that stretched until it was just taller than himself. In the same subtle way as he manipulated magic, he saw through the opaque shield. Malariel’s wings launched them into the air and they hovered, drew in breath and roared carnage directly at Dastan’s shield. The force of that howl smashed his magic fire into an outrush of smoke.

Dastan did not stand behind it.

There was no time to hide. The motes that were Dastan reassembled above Malariel, clothes and all apparel still intact, his face now crunched in concentration. He moved his fingers minutely and chanted under his breath, keeping his focus, reminding himself what shapes his subtle tendrils had to make. He had prepared for just this moment. He had hoped it would come under his own terms but now his only hope was to take advantage.

As Dastan conducted arcane reality, he could feel the devil’s subtle body being constrained. He could feel the bounds of existence squeezing around Malariel, so that he could only stretch out half of their full span, then half of that, and half again, until the bonds were closing against Malariel’s body itself. Then, suddenly, the binding was gone and Malariel streaked through the air at the sorcerer.

It was not enough. All his preparation was not enough. For a breath the thought paralyzed him, but the sight of Malariel ever-climbing pulled him back into the present. That sword, the fearsome blade called Trunksplitter, swung back again and, as Malariel shot in closer, slashed straight through the mage’s midsection with a single clean stroke.

Smoke wafted away along Trunksplitter’s edge. Then, unnaturally, the smoke pulled back and reformed into Dastan, hovering and anxious. Malariel snarled, their face warping to display a deeper rancor, and slashed back into Dastan. Again, he was smoke, and then himself again. The winged devil’s arms blurred as they hacked back and forward into Dastan’s body, each time meeting nothing but smoke which then combined and solidified. Then, in the midst of that flurry, a slash seemed to disperse the fumes of Dastan entirely, leaving the air before Malariel clear and blue.

Startled and growling, Malariel swung around into Dastan shoving a palmful of fire straight into his face. The explosion of force and flame launched Malariel backwards at great speed, the immense sword tumbling from their hands as they shot far into the haze and disappeared.

If this had been any other time, Dastan would have followed after Malariel, either picking up the sword or tracking down the devil themself. Choros was counting on him, though, and he didn’t know where Grenzer had gotten to. He had to return. Exhausted, Dastan carried himself through the air over the cratered and singed peaks with snow retreating away from the long wounds which descended beneath the storms. He felt Mount Meaira again and he lightly descended upon it. He had to build the wards back up. The angel’s work was still ongoing, the pieces of the bridge coming into being in their prescribed places. Dastan absently brushed his shirt free of some dust and sank down to sit on the ground.

As soon as he sat, the ground splintered into shards beneath him. Dastan’s arms windmilled and his legs kicked. He was falling. It wasn’t just that the ground had crumbled, it had completely fallen away beneath him. The mountain itself was gone, or shattered until it no longer broke the cloud canopy. And he was falling.

It took him a second to recover his senses and start shaping his escape, but once he reached out, he felt an iron-heavy clamp shut tight around his subtle form, choking his physical body the same way as it constricted his subtle form. The stalks he had reached out with now withered away until they were stumps and less than stumps. He could not move, not in any sense.

He was being pulled now. Not in a direction or even away from himself. He was being pulled into another state of being. Drawn not just inside but through and against, his self and his sense of self fraying against a surface that was not a surface. His body flopped limply against the grip on his inner body. His mouth opened wide but he could not scream or breathe. His eyes opened wide and he saw the grinning fangs of Malariel, patiently lifting up from the grey-black clouds, arm outstretched and fingers curled as if clawing some fruit with all five of his talons and savoring the red juice that ran out.

As blackness closed in on his vision, he saw a single spark of silver become two, running through Malariel’s body. Dastan’s suffocation lifted, the force stretching his essence relented, and his vision cleared. It was a spear that had run straight through Malariel’s body. The devil grabbed the shining haft with one hand, black blood heaving out of its chest and its back. Their immense wings beat at the air, flinging Dastan away at speed while they spiraled through the air and streaked away to safety.

Dastan did not think anything. He was free but still exhausted, still drained, still without anything stable. He spun through the sky with the wind dragging at his body, pushing breath out of his lungs and choking him with pressure. Everything ripped by him so tremendously fast. At any moment, his confusion could end cold. He couldn’t even speculate.

His side slammed into something steady and large wings whipped the air around him. He twisted on impact, arms and legs splayed, and immediately began to drop. A pair of arms hooked around his chest and held him up. Those wings still beat to keep both Dastan and the something aloft. Feather-like wings, of a shining whiter-than-white.

He looked up into the proud and perfected face of Jephra Blindlight. They were dark-haired, though despite the color their hair shone as brightly as their wings. They wore a sleeveless tunic as most angels did, belted around their waist with the sword of their office hanging from it. Their eyes shone silver, without iris and without pupil. They did not look pleased. He supposed that this time they had a right.

“How hurt are you?” Jephra asked. They shifted their grip, sinking an arm under Dastan’s legs so they could carry him like a baby. He tried to relax, his head lolling. They were already flying away from Mount Meaira. He didn’t want to look back.

“I don’t think I’ve broken anything,” he said. “But I could sleep for a week.”

“You won’t have a chance to if you stay on Sangir.”

“I’ll take my week in pieces, then,” he said. “I can’t leave now.”

Dastan collected his breath a moment. The wind rushed past them noisily but both were well versed in the tricks of flight, so the wind’s intrusion was kept distant.

“Why were you fighting Malariel?” they asked. “Foolish thing to do, sitting out in the open like that.”

“Why weren’t you fighting him?” Dastan asked. “Before, I mean. I thought he would have been tied down with you all the world away.”

“He flew off in the middle of the battle. I followed. And a good thing I did.”


He knew they were looking at him, so he didn’t look at them.

“It was a favor,” Dastan said. “Choros was building a bridge for the dead to finally escape this world again. But I know how you feel about the other angels so I thought it was best to leave you out.”

“Hellfire,” Jephra said.

“I’m sorry,” Dastan said. “I know we planned the uprising together but this was important. I wouldn’t have manipulated you otherwise.”

“That’s not it,” they said.


“Was it really your idea not to let me in on it?” Jephra asked.

Now Dastan understood. He didn’t say anything.

“How much blood do they want me to spill?” Jephra asked. Not of him. Not that he could face the question. “What does the King want from me? Centuries of service, of waging war against the infernal powers, but still… but still…”

Dastan groaned. Everything ached. He didn’t think he could even light a candle at the moment. Every bit of this plan had collapsed. The uprising against Malariel’s armies had probably crumbled without Jephra and now Malariel was free to assume Choros’s bridge, which meant that the archbuilder would have to leave the project unfinished. Dastan’s crude banishing had utterly failed against the devil. And atop all that, Grenzer – a succubus demon, of all things – had seemingly found common cause with Malariel. Dastan sighed and tried to relax in Jephra’s arms again.

“Don’t worry about the other angels,” Dastan said. “I know I made a mistake. If you’d known what I was doing, maybe… but we’ll figure it out. We have to drive Malariel off the Mortal Plane. That’s clear to me now more than ever before. Once we do that, I think that your people will think of you differently.”

He felt their fingers tighten against him. They kept flying, turning slightly, seeking out a safe place they’d used months before.

Eventually, Jephra said “I hope you’re right.” They said it quietly and to no one.

Dastan didn’t hear her. He had fallen asleep.

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Idyllic valley (artist uknown)

Fatima and Jerod

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A short sketch I wrote years ago, I believe in college.

Fatima and Jerod were married in a small chapel called the Canticle of Light. Fatima’s family — her mother, two sisters, and brother — attended and dabbed at their eyes in the pews. Jerod had no family he cared to invite. The pastor was a tall thin white man with white hair and a friendly smile. They were the sixth couple he had married that Friday. He had performed marriage ceremonies for thirty odd years and he was tired of it. He smiled still.

Fatima’s mother cooked them dinner in her house, which was a tiny spartan flat on the twenty-sixth floor of the Newsom rise. She was still wide-eyed at the prospect of Fatima’s marriage. Jerod would take her to live in a house out in the country while he worked on a share-farm. It was the sort of thing she had dreamed about all her life.

Here, in Sachang, there was no space. The Newsom was where the poor were born poor and died poor or floated here from some other rise to meet the same fate. The community floors were always lousy with people. Most worked to support their ragged destitution, shuffling like graveborn husks from one place to another. It felt at times as though you couldn’t take a breath without stealing it from your neighbor. The crowding wasn’t much better in the other rises. Just a bit cleaner.

Fatima’s mother remembered their younger days when Jerod would moon over her daughter. Fatima was very beautiful. Raven hair still worn long despite changing trends. Smooth skin of dark olive. A full-lipped smile that always brought joy into Jerod’s heart. In those days she had dated the stronger boys, the athletes. They thought they would be drafted into one of the hexball leagues. How could all of them be drafted? And of course none of them were. Fatima and her mother tittered and Jerod’s cheeks burned.

But of course Jerod was a smart boy. Fatima’s mother had always said he was smart. She had always told Fatima to be nice to Jerod. Now Fatima joined Jerod in embarassment. Jerod had saved up for the thing that Fatima really wanted: open space. Freedom. And now they were happy and ready to start a life together.

Jerod smiled and reached across the table and Fatima gave him her hand. He squeezed it and smiled at her.

You must call me to visit, Fatima’s mother said. I’ve always wanted to see the country but could never find the money.

It’s hard to get the money these days, Jerod said. Things are hard all over.

But we’ll survive, Fatima said.

Of course. And thrive. The country will be wonderful.

When they were younger, they had gone to the roof of the Newsom house and looked out. Everyone did it. To see the soft green expanse, the purity of the world outside the city Sachang. A world they might observe in vids or read about but never be a part of. The promised land, where four years of honest work would bring a comfortable fortune. They had gone up separately in those days. Now they would see that dream together.

Two days passed while they packed for the trip. Neither had much to take with them.

A skycar met them on platform G-North. The bearded man that met them called himself Dalton. He was shorter than Jerod but broader, more solid. Dalton sized Jerod up and was unconvinced, but he was not being paid to judge Jerod’s fitness for work. They got in the car and soon were streaking through the sky over Sachang and out to the south, toward distant mountains blue-brown against the Earth-like sky.

Fatima stared below her as they crossed the vast countryside. Lush green crop fields were arranged in orderly rectangles below them. Here and there were groups of houses, mostly smallish, each suitable for three or four at most. These were separated from the others by many miles. There were also many buildings that must have been used for farmwork, some grouped, some separate. Her eyes grew large when she saw a very long building with a rich red roof. She called Jerod over and he said it must be a patron’s house. A great landowner. Fatima felt as if she were in a day drama.

There were some low grassy patches against the long fields of crops. Portions of these fields were fenced off and she saw big fat four-legged animals and sleeker four-legs and puffy ones and more. There were men tending to them, and dogs near the men. Fatima asked what the animals were.

Cow. Horse. Sheep, Jerod said.

You’re looking at a pad aren’t you?

How else would I know?

The skycar landed on a square of drab gray endurite at the edge of a group of five houses. The houses sat on a parcel of brown dirt. Each was of the same sort: whitish walls of composite, a brown roof of one enviroplast slat sloping forward over the front. Dalton pointed out his house then led them to their own. Fatima frowned at the houses. Jerod patted her arm.

Their house had been lived in before. Two of the chairs in the living room had broken legs. Dalton did not offer to have them fixed. Against one wall was an inter-cook unit, tall white complast appliance with range, oven, and nuker. Dalton informed them they would have to use matches for the range and the nuker was shoddy. They had a bedroom and a cramped bathroom with a shower. Their bed sagged in the middle.

Dalton was the facilitator for this living group. Every second Monday, they would get their req list to him. The next day, he would take the skycar to Sachang and buy supplies for two weeks. There was only one skycar for the group and Dalton had the run of it. Any issues, come to Dalton. If they were a problem, he would find them. At that he left.

This was not what Fatima had expected in the country, but now she chided herself. What was she supposed to expect? A life of unearned luxury? Foolishness, foolishness.

Up until Jerod her life had been a litany of missteps. She had been the same as the others in the Newsom: destitute, aimless, destined for the same poverty she was born in. Perhaps real sorrow at the way her life unfolded had been burned out of her because there were no tears now. She sat on a leaning chair and stared.

Jerod threw himself into unpacking. After some time, she came to herself and joined him. He told her it would be alright. Just let him start making some money. They would fix this place up. They would be happy here. Fatima smiled and imagined it. For him.

In the morning, Fatima stood on the doorstep while Jerod joined the group of men milling around outside. They were all dark, by birth or from the hot sun. She shaded her eyes as the pale sun rose.

Two of the men were looking at her. They wouldn’t stop. Fatima glared at them. Jerod caught on eventually and put a stop to it. She smiled, small and private.

Jerod returned. Planting would begin soon according to the other men. Three days, Wednesday, and then he’d be gone working the fields of Ignatio Oudeen. Only one day to figure out what they’d need. What she would need.

Tuesday brought them two cases of paloaf. Each red tin contained a brick of pink marbled meat whose origin was not animal but experimental. In Fatima’s narrow room in the Newsom she had the same. Paloaf could be cooked to a blend of flavors with the inter-cook, tangy chicken had been her favorite, but it always tasted like gristle besides. She’d eaten few meals that didn’t include it. Very few.

They also got a catalog for stores from the city.

That night they drew the curtains low and had sex. Fatima could tell that he was sorry. Sorry he was leaving for so long. Sorry he couldn’t stay with her. And she was sorry also, not just for them but for herself. They had come so far to be together in happiness but it meant this. This place. This distance. So they enjoyed each other because they fought for this and because they would be apart for some time and because they were tired of being low so they lifted each other up.

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Mystic Mountain photog. Hubble ST

Fresh Air

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Fresh air. Always good. A little thin on this planet but he’d get used to it. Most people probably never noticed. After months aboard robo freighters, he was just glad it didn’t have that sterile conditioned smell.

Selassie Maerich stepped away from two crewmen guiding an anti-gravity lift through the door. Most of the work being done on this ship Gestalt 2 was cargo work, offloading needed supplies. In a few weeks the ship would be gone again with the produce of this little planet shooting to the nearest hub. It all ran to a precise, centrally-planned schedule. Sel was little more than a blip on it.

The sea-green kit of a Unipol officer caught Sel’s attention immediately. It was clearly on the mind of the woman who now patted him down for contraband. She inspected the minuscule frame device he kept in his pocket and the small cylinder that he showed her was a screwdriver. When she was done, she called that he was clear loud enough for anyone around to hear. She knew who he was here to see and pointed him that way. He nodded. The familiarity of frontier people never sat quite right with him.

Gestalt 2’s jagged vertical bulk and the artificial hump of the spaceport were slashes of searing ink on the picturesque farmland that reached out in every direction with its little groves of fruit trees and the here and there houses with broad barns and aging equipment. The sun was huge and too orange in the sky and noon was tinged purple as if the sun had a hidden wound. Now the port was active with hands in every corner making sure that the ship was in good order. Tomorrow it would be deserted and stay that way until the ship was set to launch again.

The woman he was to meet was tall, cracked and tanned by the sun, with her hair bound up tight above her head. Sel casually plucked the listening device that security had planted and flicked it aside before he shook her hand. Amateurs on this planet. He couldn’t hold it against them. Probably weren’t practiced in it.

She was Lithia Ryberg, prefect-chairman of the Ugarit Colony settlements. He was representing Sonnem Requirements?

He was.

They had quite a lot to talk about.

They did, he said, but also weeks to do it in. Right now, he’d prefer to lay down.

‘Come with me,’ she said, and led him to a hovercar nearby. She got in the driver’s seat. Selassie decided to stretch out in the back. The car pushed eight inches off the ground, then zoomed forward over the untracked ground. She looked in her rear mirror at him.

‘Didn’t sleep on the way over?’ she asked.

‘Guessing you’ve never traveled off-planet,’ he said.


‘Those ships aren’t made for “human cargo.” It’s a real crushed sort of sleep.’

She nodded.


Ugarit wasn’t really Sel’s kind of planet. Fresh air was good but you could get that on a civilized world, too. Chairman Ryberg had brought him to their chief settlement, Ugarit One, and put him up in the combine house. It was probably the only halfway-decent place to lay his head in the whole town. It was definitely the only concrete structure. It was used by people from the Combine that owned this planet when they came to visit; they did demand a minimum of comfort. Everything else was wood-built. He felt like he was taller than most of the houses.

He’d make do, of course. He always did. Still. Every second he was here he’d be thinking about how much he could get done if he was back on the Moon or New Zimbabwe. This escapade would be worth it if he could bring it off, but his frame had not made a single ping since he’d landed.

16 hours and nothing. Sometimes things happened. Sel knew that as well as anyone. When he’d made the deal, the engineer said that her man might get a little spooked. He was jumpy, she said. But she could trust him. Except now Dr Olmeg Lanne was lightyears away with 10,000 dex from his accounts and him waiting for this jumpy farmer. Once he saw the schematics he’d have the same again wired to her. Hopefully that kept her honest. If it was a con, she’d still be away with enough to set her up nicely on some cityworld.

For a while, anyway.

Sel watched Ryberg come up the path to the door. He’d honestly hoped to have this done before he started these talks. No putting it off, though. He met her downstairs and she handed him a thermos. Coffee inside. She wanted to show him some farms around the area, give him an idea of what they were already working with. Sturdy equipment, she said, but getting old. Having the Combine replace it had always been expensive. They were down to the wire here. Just farmers. Any savings would help.

The problem was common on these frontier worlds.

Ryberg drove the hovercar out past the settlement limits to the long fields brimming with swaying grain. The transparent dome between them and the outside dulled the heavy thunder of huge threshing machines chewing their way across the fields. Some of them crude powered, she explained. They could generate power but they didn’t have the facilities to charge everything in a timely fashion. Here around Ugarit One they had the benefit of the main generator, but the other settlements had to use more crude. At least that much they could get through the Combine and cheap.

Of course, Sonnem Requirements could give very good deals on expanded power generators. Clean electricity. They were actually very economical, he told her. The spiel was easy. Even without a brain implant, he could have mastered it in an hour. The crude explosion story he told was a bit of baroque of his own, from an early job. At first he said it was a warning. At the end, he said it was a joke. She smirked. He wasn’t convinced and didn’t really care.

They came to a stop beside a large house with a four-angled roof, a team of hoverbuggies out front. The door opened and a man came out, introduced himself as Bexley Church. Sel shook the man’s hand. He knew this part of the game as well. He let Church slap a hand on his shoulder and guide him toward the barn which, like a lot of people’s barns and farms in general around here, had seen better days. Sel wondered if Ryberg was planning to take him around to any others today. Sometimes these outworlders liked to crush you with hospitality.

* * *

The writ from Sonnem was simple: make them put every damn thing you can to paper. Make them put it in ink and make them sign it. It was a figure of speech whose meaning was more concrete out here. The Ugarit Colony was hoping to save some money. Sonnem Requirements wanted Selassie to convince them they just needed to spend that money more wisely. The bones of the agreement were there but Sonnem hoped for a corpulent final form.

Gestalt 2 did not leave for 16 days. That meant that Selassie could not close the deal for nearly two weeks. Until then, he was going to have to endure Ryberg dragging him around to see farmers who could help her understand their situation. Surely he could sympathize with disliking the authoritarian Sol-Centauri Combine? Of course he could. After all, Sonnem Requirements made money with inroads into the Combine’s monopoly. And the money could be used for other things, surely he could see that.

Ryberg looked across at him in the hovercar. It was the second day and they were off from a Mrs Hudros’s farm to that of a Mr Lalenga. He was watching the chaff spewed out the back of a thresher.

‘What even brings you out here?’ she asked.

He looked at her.

‘I mean we do get visitors sometimes. They usually like the serenity, that’s what they say. Like being out in the outdoors. Yet you seem…’



‘It’s just my way. Sorry. Thinking.’

‘About some cityworld?’

‘Something like that.’

‘I bet you’re from Earth.’

‘No. Annan City.’

‘The Moon! So this must seem real backwards to you.’

‘It’s nice.’


There was the hum of the gravity-sleds, the hiss of the air conditioning.

‘They call you a Programmer, is that it?’ Ryberg asked.

‘People call me that.’

‘And you’ve talked to aliens?’

‘A few. Yeah.’

Ryberg exhaled slowly. Beside them passed the fronds of wheat waiting idly for one of those crawling beasts to come take them.

‘Must seem real backwards,’ she said.


Chasley Buto. That was the name of his jumpy contact. So jumpy he hadn’t been given the signal in three days. Sel was supposed to be on Ugarit for two weeks but this Buto didn’t know that. He should have got the key and extracted the data by now. He was beginning to worry. He didn’t like worrying when he was so far away from any reassurance.

Selassie mentioned the name to Chairman Ryberg as they waited for a Mr Falus to find a fractured crude tank that he’d never been able to replace. She cocked an eyebrow at him.

‘He’s your communications man, isn’t he?’ Sel asked.

‘One of a few.’

‘He sent a few messages in our correspondence. Well, Sonnem’s correspondence. Brother’s got a sense of humor. I was hoping to meet him.’

‘Huh. Well, he’s not been around lately. Sick, probably.’


‘It’s harvest season, Mr Maerich.’


‘If you won’t call me Lithia, I won’t call you Selassie.’


She continued, ‘We’ve got a lot on our minds here. Chasley can take care of himself. If he’s really under the weather, he’ll get in touch if he needs to. If he just doesn’t want to work, we don’t need to pay him. He’s about half-nomad as it is. We don’t have the time to spend on a guy like him.’

‘You have an outbreak of nomadism? That why Unipol’s here?’

She shrugged. ‘There’s always a couple. Not everybody’s gonna like the working life.’ She looked up. ‘Mr Falus.’

The reedy man lugged out a heavy cylindrical tank, dragging a long furrow into the ground.

Ryberg didn’t make it sound like there was a mass clear-out going on. Sending a fastlight cruiser over one or two nomads seemed a bit excessive to Sel. And even so, he’d only seen four Unipol officers since he’d been here. If nomads were the problem, why hadn’t they sent a full resettlement squad?


Though there were no reps from the Sol-Centauri Combine here, Selassie didn’t have the concrete house entirely to himself. A wing, with a separate entrance, housed the communications and computation equipment that served the whole planet. From here, Ugarit’s tiny technical corps could read analyses from satellites and use the only ansible on the planet. Today there was just one woman inside and she seemed surprised when Selassie entered.

‘You’re the Programmer?’ she asked.

‘I believe so,’ he said.

‘I’m sorry, I just… they said you’d mostly keep out of this area while you were here.’

‘Problem? I can go.’

‘No, I didn’t mean that. I just sort of forget that we’re in the combine house.’

‘Sorry. Must be weird.’

She started to turn back to her work.

‘Chairman Ryberg’s told me that you work with a guy called Buto,’ he said.

She turned to him again. ‘Chasley? What about him?’

‘He’s an odd one from what she says. Been out of touch lately. Just piqued my interest, thought maybe someone here had heard.’ He laughed and shook his head. ‘Look, sorry, I know this is dumb. Just gets a bit boring sitting around here.’

She smiled. ‘Finding yourself a mystery?’

He shrugged and grinned at the floor.
‘Well, I haven’t seen him in a few days,’ she said, ‘but we usually don’t share shifts and uh. I don’t socialize with his sort.’

‘His sort?’

‘I don’t mean… it’s just…’ She sighed. ‘If you knew him, you’d understand. I’m glad we don’t share shifts more often than not, let’s put it that way.’

‘Little blessings.’

‘Uh huh.’

‘Well, thanks. I’ll quit bothering you, go pursue my mystery somewhere else.’

She waved. ‘Good luck to you, Programmer.’

* * *

Luck is a funny thing. Selassie seemed to have nothing but bad luck since he’d got here. Stuck on a boring as hell frontier planet, doing a podunk deal for tools and parts for a company with less than zero connections, and the reason he’d even made the trip had been out of contact. He’d gone from apprehension to worry, to the point that he’d force-shutdown his brain implants in an effort to make himself sleep.

Now, in the middle of the night, his frame roused him with the signal that he’d been waiting for. Why did Sel think his luck had just nosedived?

He swung his legs off the bed. The frame sat on his thighs and by stroking its sides he enlarged it to the size of a dinner plate. Even with his implant switched on he wouldn’t be able to process information directly as well as visually. The signal blipped onto the frame’s screen along with local topography, landmarks, survey notations. Instructs for him to connect his system with the signal node. Everything he expected.

At this point, he was supposed to ping it back so Buto would know he was there. Then Buto would get in contact, they’d meet and he’d get the key. Selassie didn’t think much of the idea that after three days, Buto had suddenly woken up and remembered to earn his 1,000 dex payout. He decided to play it close.

He crossed the room to the desk and laid his frame out on top of it, expanded it. He liked to have as much space as possible when he was working. He meant to find out just where Buto had buried this node. Now he let his implant kick in, knowing he’d need the extra computing power. Even then, he’d need time. He was connected to nothing in this primitive network. There was barely anything out there to hook on to. To pinpoint this he’d need to gain access to Ugarit’s satellites. At least he was lucky that no one here was likely to be monitoring systems too closely. The technical capacity of frontier worlds like this was always constrained.

By the morning, he’d managed access to two satellites. Weather observers, fairly basic in design. Good enough. All he needed were their positioning functions. He was halfway through the third when he noticed a shape coming up the walk. Ryberg. He let his frame run on automatic and unsynced his brain from it. Then he got dressed and went down to meet her.

Her sub-prefect of maintenance, a Jesi Quirlan, would arrive from Colmont in a few hours. Quirlan had a lot of questions for Maerich and was excited to meet him. Selassie told her that his frame was acting up and he’d need to troubleshoot; he wasn’t sure if he could make it. Chairman Ryberg protested. He wouldn’t be here more than a day. More than anyone, Quirlan needed have his concerns met because he had to know what he could handle and what would need a Techer to come out. If Ryberg and her board were going to sign on any deal, they had to know just what they were getting into, and Quirlan sat on that board.

Sel rubbed his eyes. He felt as though he was trying to feed everything she said into satellite instructs and queries.

‘Six hours.’

She protested. He held his ground. He had to have his frame working, he said. If he broke off too early he might lose his place, make it worse. Break it beyond repair. She frowned and gave in. Six hours. How could she object? She barely knew what a frame was, much less whether he’d need it or not.

His bit about breaking off early was not exactly a lie. Re-establishing connection after he’d been kicked out could take ages. A strong fix would require as many links as he could manage. He only hoped he’d get it done in six.

* * *

If Jesi Quirlan hated to be kept waiting, he carried it well. He didn’t know if he could get through everything – and he didn’t – but he was glad to meet the Sonnem representative anyway. They’d had a cordial conversation, an hour or so. No time to inspect the crews or look over their current equipment; Quirlan had to get back to Colmont and continue helping with the harvest. Selassie assured him that they’d have another chance to meet before he left the planet. They all three of them shook hands and went their separate ways. Sel went to the combine house but didn’t stay long. He’d already observed that they didn’t keep shifts in the communications wing overnight. He slipped out that way and, frame in hand, sought out the signal node.

It was somewhere in the settlement, not hidden out in the fields somewhere. He wasn’t sure of the precise lay of the place. Birds-eye images were not greatly helpful in walking around on foot. No one seemed to be in the street but more than a few were awake in their houses, lanternlight spilling out of windows into puddles on the grass. Sel walked carefully and kept his eyes open.

The night darkness didn’t much affect Sel’s cybernetic eyes, so what might have seemed like greyblack outfits showed plainly to him as sea-green uniforms. Not that these two were trying to hide. That wasn’t Unipol’s style. At first, he thought they were guarding a barn on the edge of town. He kept watching their movements, watching their eyes. When they stopped, where they stopped, when they spoke and when they shushed each other. They were guarding that heavy tractor. Right on top of the signal node.

So. Maybe Buto had gone nomad and they caught up with him. Maybe.

Sel drifted back, shrank his frame and put it away. His only chance to get the data was to take the node itself. Buto might not have known ho to remote link the node to the datastore, it could be all together there. It was a gamble. One he was willing to take. Had to take. But he wasn’t muscling his way past two police. He’d have to wait.

* * *

He’d made a small mistake the day before: he’d told Chairman Ryberg that he’d got his frame fixed. No other way to avoid talks without rousing suspicion, and even that would have been a stretch. That was how Sel found himself fighting to stay awake as Ryberg drove him out to one of their irrigation centers. He noticed her looking at him, practically waiting on him to slide off. It didn’t help keep him awake.

‘We won’t take too long here,’ she said. ‘Just want you to be able to see what we have working here, if it’s something you at Sonnem would stock.’

‘That’s good,’ Sel said. ‘I’m sure they would. An exceptional stock of water treatment equipment.’

‘Under the weather?’

‘Don’t think so. Just one of those nights.’

‘That’s a shame, really.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘I’d got to thinking yesterday,’ Ryberg said, ‘and figured it’d be best if you met everyone important on the planet at some point. You’ve met one of my sub-prefects. Two others are in the city, plus the prefect of Ugarit One and a few of the important farmers. We were going to have a town meet. We’ll still have it, lots to take care of, but if you’re beat…’

‘We’ll have other chances, won’t we?’

‘I don’t know. Not many others where Lt Tanner will be there. He’ll be updating us on our nomad situation.’

‘Lieutenant?’ Sel said.

‘Yeah, he’s the captain of this Unipol patrol. He’s been giving us some advice on how to handle more troublemakers when they crop up. When he can spare the time.’

‘Maybe I should come, then,’ Sel said. ‘If you’ve got a nomad problem, that’s something Sonnem would want to know about.’

Ryberg grimaced. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing. Just precautions.’

Selassie did his best to sink into his seat. ‘Even so.’

She sighed.


* * *

Selassie didn’t think he’d need all three ladybirds but he always liked to be sure. The long lodge where the town assembled was well suited to the two dozen or so milling about amiably. Most were intimately known to each other, neighbors since birth, families long intertwined. A couple had migrated from other settlements. And there was Hugh Tanner in his smart sea-greens, shaking hands curtly and speaking little.

They had already heard from the settlement alders about how the harvest was going, what machines were wearing down, what needed replacing. Lt Tanner informed them all that they weren’t getting as many reports of nomad movements as they had, due to Unipol’s intervention. They would still like to stay a while and check further. Plus, he’d spoken to Chairman Ryberg about training a local watch group to help prevent runaways in the future.

Many of the alders wanted to talk to Selassie. They all had ideas on what should be part of the contract or questions on what would or could be part of it. Each their bits and pieces that needed getting or augmenting or repairing. Could he help? Of course. One at a time he tried to assure them that Sonnem had everything they would need and they’d be getting a very inclusive deal. A Mrs Eluran with a nasal voice asked a series of questions about prices that Selassie heard with one ear.

Across the room, Tanner was making his excuses. Wouldn’t have time for the chat, he was saying to Ryberg. Selassie didn’t need to hear his voice to read him. It was for the alders, not him, he was saying. As Tanner shook Ryberg’s hand, Sel extracted himself from his conversation. He let his implant take over for his natural motor functions. It took a lot of effort for it to mimic a casual human walk but it did the job admirably. What he needed now was precision. He’d suffer the headache to get this done.

‘Lieutenant?’ he called. Lt Tanner looked. Sel smiled in the fake way that one did in these functions. With a shift of his elbow he let free one of his ladybirds which tumbled down the outside of his arm the blade of his hand where his pinky curled and snagged it. As he reached his hand out to shake Tanner’s, he disappeared the ladybird again, the vanishingly small device undetectable in his hand. Their hands unclasped briefly, then unlocked. Sel’s came up, the ladybird floating on the tip of his middle finger, ring finger, and tapped against the crook of his arm. Immediately, it would flatten itself and thread through his clothing, embedding in the fabric. With the implant working, with his ultra-precise movements, Tanner hadn’t seen just how Sel’s hand had moved and hadn’t felt the dust-light touch of his finger. He knew he hadn’t. If Tanner was cybernetic, Sel would have picked that out. Largely because Tanner would have picked Sel out himself.

‘I’m hearing a lot about nomads lately,’ Sel explained. ‘My employers would like to know anything you can tell us. We’re investing in the planet, you understand.’

Now he shut the implant’s processing down. A sting flashed through his brain and he shook his head to clear it. It started to fade already. The worst would be later.

‘You alright?’ Tanner asked.

‘Yeah. Been a long couple days for me.’

‘We’re not sure just how many nomads there are on this planet,’ Tanner said. ‘Don’t really have the equipment for an extended search into the secondary zones. But we’re securing the settlements, disarming those who look like they’ll cause trouble. No reason not to invest in this place, I guess.’

‘Really? Good to hear, but what will they do when you Unipol guys head out?’

‘They know how to call us, and I’m sure that your company does, too, if they get spooked. Listen, I’ve got to go. Business to take care of. Nice meeting you.’

‘And you,’ Sel said. Tanner gave another goodbye to Chairman Ryberg and left, closing the door hard. Ryberg approached but Sel waved her off, touching his head as if it hurt and sitting down for relief. The pain wasn’t back quite yet. When Ryberg shifted away, Sel reached into his pocket. The tool, which he’d shown earlier to be a screwdriver, he now tuned to receive transmissions from his ladybird. He could hear the sound of anti-grav boosters, the whir of a buggy.

Sel got up and asked for some water. He told everyone that he’d be fine after some rest. Ryberg suggested they do his question and answer now. Sel thought that would be a good idea.

* * *

It was never advisable to run a cycle while one slept but Sel often had no choice. This was one of those times. If he didn’t listen in on Lt Tanner, he might find himself on the wrong end of a pistol. But if he didn’t sleep, he’d be utterly useless between the grogginess and his splitting headache. A headache that wasn’t helped by taxing his implants with even this low stress cycle. It couldn’t be helped. So while the rest of his brain slumbered, a single area ran hot, as it were, so that his hipik could keep feeding him the sounds of Lt Hugh Tanner’s life.

His eyes shot open. He replayed the last audio so he could pick it apart consciously.

‘-sure?’ someone ended. Not Tanner. ‘Guy’s a Programmer. Could have all sorts of booby traps set up in there.’

‘Most people who walk into a Programmer’s place uninvited don’t get to walk back out,’ said someone else.

‘Why do you think I had to size him up?’ A third. Tanner. ‘But he’s not that type. He’s a talker. You charge in on him, take him by surprise. Let him babble. Just bring him here. And remember, don’t shoot unless you have to. Easier if we can claim some nomads got him or something. They hear a gun, we’ll have to figure out some crime to pin on him.’

‘I just hope you’re right,’ said the second.

Sel shut off the audio. When had Tanner got on his trail? Why was Tanner on his trail? Questions he didn’t have time to puzzle out right now. He climbed out of bed, snatched up his hipik, his ladybirds, his frame. He paused. No. Better to leave the frame. He hated to do it – it was his most expensive bit of external hardware – but he didn’t want them scouring all over for him. If they got the frame, maybe they’d think he’d just stepped out. Maybe they’d turn their attention to cracking it. Either way, it could give him time.

He decided to walk out the front door. The recording wasn’t more than two minutes old, they’d need a bit more time than that to gear up. He hoped. In any case, he only saw a pair of people strolling when he walked out. Selassie doubled back to the rear of a nearby wood house. His implant kicked on again and he stifled a little yelp. It wasn’t as bad now because he didn’t care about how complex and natural he looked. He His hands shot up and clamped the edge of the flat roof with mechanical directness. With strength seemingly more than he could possess, he silently pulled himself up and slid onto his belly.

After several minutes, an old hovercar swam up around the other side of the combine house. The three who got out didn’t carry themselves like locals. He could hear the hatchets, one chop, two chop, and in. They were out of his sight now, prowling around the empty combine house. He saw lights flash on, the long glow out of the house’s portholes, and then snap off. There were voices muffled by distance and obstacles. Selassie waited.

He saw the shapes again, the three leaving the combine house for the car they’d come in. He wondered if they’d left empty-handed or if by some miracle they’d left the frame. He didn’t dare check, though. As soon as they’d gone, he climbed down from the roof and set off in the direction of Ryberg’s house.

As he got close, he decided to sit behind a barn and wait. The spheric moon was still high in the air. Stars still bright against their preferred background. Even if Ryberg was willing to deal right now, Selassie wasn’t. He figured that, between his flight and the frame decoy, he’d bought himself a few hours. Enough to wait for daylight. He was already in a corner. He wouldn’t negotiate looking any more harried than he had to be.

If only this headache would give up.

* * *

Chairman Lithia Ryberg answered the door in her nightclothes and rubbed her eyes clear enough to see Selassie Maerich in front of her, cloaked in morning light. He bowed and she let him in, closing the door behind him.

‘I’d really like to get dressed or something, first,’ Ryberg said.

‘Haven’t got time,’ Sel said. ‘Hate to rush, here, but Sonnem’s just contacted me, wanting to have this deal signed and delivered. Trouble with shareholders.’

‘That so? Well, I’m sure I can get my wits about me.’

‘We’d already made a few agreements,’ Sel said. Ryberg gestured for him to sit down and he did, eagerly. ‘Yearly orders for the heavy equipment, maintenance training, maintenance call-outs. All things you need here. If I can link up my hipik I can show you what we’ve already had drawn up.’

‘What happened to that other one? The screen?’

‘Oh, it finally just gave up. One of the reasons I’ve got to get back, actually.’

‘Mhm. Well alright. I do have some sort of viewer, for when the Combine sends messages that I’ve got to review.’ She went to another room and rooted around for a bit before coming up with a small holo projector. Sel glanced out of the window. When she set the device down, he hooked up his hipik and brought up their contract.

‘By the way, when can you have a ship leave? Need to take this back myself, obviously.’

‘Well, twelve days, like you know.’

‘Twelve? That’s the earliest?’

‘Only way we can push it up is to list and launch an emergency flight,’ Ryberg said.


‘Afraid so.’

‘But this is urgent.’

‘Well… a lot of these clauses, we have to talk about. I can’t really make these sorts of orders without consulting the board.’

‘But you’re chairman-prefect.’

‘Elected by the other prefects. Not my decision alone.’

Sel kept himself from reacting.

‘The basic agreement between you and Sonnem has already been done,’ Sel said. ‘We’re just expanding upon that.’

‘Basic agreement,’ Ryberg reiterated. ‘And we all discussed that. I can’t make any other decisions without them.’

Sel looked hard at the contract glowing in the air.

‘So the basic agreement? Would you sign that?’

‘I’d be happy to. On the other hand, there are a lot of things that we may need in the future. A flexible ordering plan would be preferable. Without that, I can’t be sure that the other board members would go along with it. They do need to be reassured that they’ll have the equipment they’ll need.’

Sel deleted and rewrote as she spoke. Clause after clause pledging large payouts from Ugarit in exchange for large orders from Sonnem were stricken. Sel didn’t attempt to salvage them.

‘How does this look?’ he asked.

She surveyed the sparse document. ‘That’s very agreeable.’

‘You’ll sign it?’

‘I can’t see why not.’

‘Good. And the ship. To take it back and finalize the deal.’

‘Like I said,’ she said, ‘we’d have to log an emergency flight if we did that. And it’d cost us a hell of a lot to send, too. Our two robo-launches a year are subsidized by the Combine, but beyond that…’

Selassie glanced out the window. No Unipol yet. He wondered when they’d go back to hunting for him.

‘What if Sonnem paid for it?’ Selassie volunteered.

Ryberg stroked her jaw thoughtfully.

‘That could be possible.’

‘I’ll arrange it.’

Ryberg nodded. She keyed in her signature, then Selassie did the same.

‘Alright, stay here,’ she said as she got up. ‘I’m going to get dressed and call a launch crew together. I’ll come get you when I’ve got everything ready.’

Sel nodded at her and let her disappear. He unhooked his hipik from the viewer and tuned it back to the ladybird on Tanner. He grinned despite the situation. The man was snoring.

* * *

It was impossible to draw a full breath on a robo. Well, clearly he actually was, but with his arms pinned up against his ribs he could never feel comfortable. Once in flight he’d be able to lever out of his trouser press and explore his entire shoe box of a cabin, the only space he’d have for over two weeks of spaceflight. Nothing about fastlight travel was easy. He supposed that’s why they had to have cybernetic men like him jaunt from planet to planet.

At least he’d be leaving. The Unipol troop might protest, but without an extraordinary warrant, no one searched a loaded robo on orders of the Federated Technical Institute. In under thirty minutes he’d be off Ugarit and safe, for the moment, from people trying to sniff him out. But he’d quickly have a new job, one not even as lucrative as this one.

He’d supremely fucked up Sonnem’s contract. Not only had he failed to get anything out of Ugarit, he’d given them a very favorable flex orders plan, one that Sonnem would not be happy about. And he’d put Sonnem on the hook for this very trip. Someone who didn’t know better might think Selassie was a double agent with how thoroughly Sonnem had been fleeced.

Thing was, neither of these had enough cash to convince him to switch sides on any deal. That just made it worse. None of his peers or potential employers would believe he was doing a job for the other side. It would look like stark incompetence. If he’d managed to get the plans away, it would have been perfect. Everyone would understand. Now that he’d failed? He couldn’t explain that he’d botched a no-miss deal in order to get a blown chance to rip off his most stable employers.

His rep was shredded after this. Fit to be torched. But he’d been in this situation before. He could climb back out. He only wondered how many more chances he’d get before his time just ran dry.

[wpedon id=”566″ align=”center”]
Dark ruins (artist unknown)

Empty Belly

[wpedon id=”566″ align=”center”]

Rushes swept past Dao’s knees in a manner that might have been pleasant had his heart not been demanding an exit from his chest. He looked over his shoulder and saw the lights bobbing after him. If only she’d said she was the daughter of the village headman. Perhaps it wouldn’t have stopped him — she was, after all, the most beautiful woman he’d seen in a month — but he would have been warned at least. Might have had a longer head start on these vengeful villagers.

The ground beneath his sandals shifted with every hard step he took but he didn’t let that stop him. In his mind he fell each time, but somehow in reality he kept his strides going. Ahead, the rushes and tall grasses marched out to the riverbank, morphed into the lightly undulating water which threw a pale imitation of the moon’s light back up at its origin. He didn’t look forward to crossing this river. It would be an hour of swimming if he made good time.

Of course, it was not as if he had much of a choice. The spear that slotted noisily into the loam behind him told him that for however difficult the escape might be, it was better than capture.

Like that spear he flung himself headlong into the river, hands in place of flint tip, body arcing like yew, straightening as he sliced into the water and out of their sight. Rather than give them a target, Dao swam under the water, his light morning-gold skin rendered dark by the night and the depth, tunic billowing out as bubbles rushed underneath and against his chest. He slapped back at the water, kicked with both legs, frantically swam out from the riverbank. He could hear the splash of objects around him, faint as if they were quite far away. Dao saw a head-sized stone hurtling from surface to ocean-floor not two armslengths from him. Oh no, he was not quite safe yet.

His head broke the surface of the water and he gasped, blowing out the last of the air in his lungs. He inhaled deeply and quickly. Black hair whipped against his forehead when he turned to see the figures on the coast, four at least. One of them pulled his arm back and launched another spear. Dao sank under the surface again rather than watch it.

Opening his eyes in water like this was a terrible idea, but again, he had few options. His eyes burned as he tried to figure out just where he was at this point. It was all near-black at best. He could feel the thong of one sandal slipping further from his feet. He curled his toes, trying to keep it, but it caught something and drifted free. No chance to stop.

‘Keeper’s bones!’ he gasped as he surfaced again. He turned around, kicking backwards so that he could watch the tiny torchlights in the distance. He grinned. Either they’d given up, ran out of weapons, or simply couldn’t throw that far. Regardless, he’d got away from them. For the moment. If he tried back on that same riverbank he’d be caught in the morning, doubtless. The villagers were fond of their hunting dogs and he’d given the headman’s daughter a little ribbon to remember him by.

Stupid thing to do, anyway. The barmaid who’d given it him was barely worth remembering. He should have burned the thing weeks ago.

Turning around again, Dao resolved to keep pulling himself along through the water. Soon enough the ache in his arms and legs was almost unbearable. He’d have to keep going, he knew it, but he wanted nothing more than to rest. Now that he felt safe, the heat of excitement slowly leeched away, leaving him to feel the evil chill of the water fully. It should have spurred him on but it made him lethargic.

The darkness shaped a roof, walls, and a patch of solid dirt in the center of the river. Bridgeless, boatless. Isolated entirely. Dao squinted to make sure he was seeing it right, this new island. He knew how a starved and desperate mind could conjure up phantoms. But it stayed, not swaying, not fading, in fact growing more opaque. A little house upon a river isle. At the very least, a place where he could rest, sleep, and continue on in the morning.

If those villagers didn’t have boats of their own. It was a chance he had to take. Once he’d decided that the island was real, he knew that he was not making any further effort tonight.

His fingers dug into the mud on the islecoast. They scored lines in it as he pulled, getting no purchase, but he tried again, again, until he was dragging himself up onto the little island. He spat water out and flopped onto his back. Above, the stars twinkled, faraway, single spots of light that he imagined were wishing him a good rest, congratulating him for the effort. His belly was tight with hunger. At least he was safe.

The voice came to him through a formless and plotless dream. Dao hadn’t even realized he was asleep until he found his eyes opening, staring up at a pillar of hair which bore a flickering candle in its left hand. It took him a moment to decide that this was indeed something to be feared, then all at once he scrambled to his feet and nearly splashed back into the water.

‘Wait!’ cried the man-beast. Dao couldn’t tell if those glossy black eyes could see his hand drifting to his belt, the hilt of his back-knife. ‘Friend, wait. Do you need shelter?’

‘Who are you?’

‘I am Chang Wu,’ said the beast. His voice seemed to come from far away, as if speaking was not the primary function of that muzzle mouth. ‘You look tired, wet. Please, come. I have no extra clothes for you, nor a bed, but there’s shelter.’

To trust a weird was never expressly wise. It was something that Dao knew from an early age. And this one, taller than most men, with limbs meant for rending and teeth meant for ripping, seemed one of the more dangerous sort. But despite his fearsome appearance, Chang Wu seemed friendly enough. Besides, it was either this or swim, and Dao was not sure that he could make his arms work well enough to cross the rest of the river.

‘Alright,’ Dao said. He stood up then. In the darkness, his slight form was likely even less impressive than it was in daylight. He came up to this creature’s chest and no taller. He tried not to show his intimidation and hoped those keen eyes could not detect the trembling in his knees. ‘Let’s go inside. Have a fire?’

‘No,’ Chang Wu said, stepping aside and gesturing for Dao to walk first. ‘I have fur.’

‘Food?’ Dao walked now, keeping at an angle so that he could watch the weird.

‘Some fish that I could not eat.’

Dao stopped then and all at once collapsed into a cross-legged sit. ‘Bring them, then. We’ll see if we can’t start some fire.’

The weird watched him curiously for a moment. Then, wordlessly, he went inside the crude shelter. Tales told him that both men and weird were creatures of nature and magic, but while men could harness magic, weirds had it infused into their being. They distrusted each other for their cross natures. There was nothing for it, though. Dao must have at least a little fire if he was to eat.

With the back-knife, Dao described a circle in the mud, and then a pentagon inside it, and inside that dug a small and shallow pit. He looked upwards at the stars and tried to find the star-sign of the Thinkers, which must be high tonight. His magic was not advanced by any measure, but with the right alignments he might just light the nothingness.

Chang Wu returned with one huge hand full of filleted fish. Dao was still busy waving his hands in a practiced pattern over the shape in the mud, intoning words in a language his people used only for this art. The bestial weird watched him carefully as a mongoose might the snake.

Dao could feel the beginnings of heat at his fingertips but no more. A spark was born, wailed, and died in the center of that little pit. He frowned. The Thinkers might have been an adequate sign for someone more tutored than he. If only this had been summertime. His hands fell to his thighs and he sighed heavily.

‘You should still eat,’ Chang Wu said, extending the bunch of fish to Dao.

‘It’ll make me sick,’ Dao said. ‘Have to cook it.’

‘Oh.’ Chang Wu tried to copy Dao’s posture. It took him a bit of effort, his legs not being made to fold the way that Dao’s were, but he eventually managed it. ‘It has been a long time since I’ve seen a human. I forget what you need.’

‘It’s okay,’ Dao said. He stuck the back-knife into the center of the circle, breaking the arcane pattern. ‘I’ll survive.’ Chang Wu was already eating, covering his jaws and lips in the mashed gore of dead fish. Dao stood then and turned away from the creature. He was slightly apprehensive, of course. Disrobing in front of someone he didn’t know was always a bit nerve-wracking, especially if he had no carnal goals with them. Still, if he stayed in these clothes he’d catch a cold. Besides, the weird was naked as well. Perhaps they found it odd that humans felt the need to wear clothes at all.

‘You came from the coast,’ Chang Wu said. Dao could hear the creature licking his hands jaws, cleaning them of the excess fish guts and muscle. He was out of his tunic and trousers by now and he squatted, beginning to wring them out.

‘Yes. Not my idea, of course. Sorry to disturb.’

‘No.’ Chang Wu stared out the way Dao had come. Or at least Dao assumed so. It would take a bit of squinting for him to make out any direction over any other in this darkness. ‘They harry me as well. Those villages, I think only evil of them. You’re not the first to flee them.’

‘At least I’m not alone,’ Dao said.

Dao continued to wring out his clothes. The splatter of water flecked his legs and dropped idly into the water that stroked the coast. It seemed that no matter how much he twisted and torqued, there was always still water inside. He had to be satisfied eventually. The tightening of his limbs and the yawn forcing his mouth open and tumbling out towards freedom marked the deadline.

‘I’d like to sleep,’ Dao announced. He stood up and gathered his clothes. ‘Can I go inside?’

‘Please,’ Chang Wu said. When Dao looked, he saw that the weird’s shaggy head was turned skyward, towards the twinkling stars. ‘I feel a song. It won’t wait. I hope my voice will not disturb you.’

Dao was sure it would, but he told the weird it wouldn’t. He was in no position to refuse hospitality after all. He picked up his knife and crossed the doorless entrance into the little hovel. There were no furnishings inside. He could just make out a spear leaning against a wall, driftwood with a bone tip. He didn’t care to think about just where Chang Wu had got the bone. Instead, he spread out his clothes on the floor and laid down next to them on his back. Hopefully sleep would come soon. He’d like to forget this whole escapade as quickly as possible.

What started as a moonward howl was modulated, falling in steps and slides, rising like a squirrel bounding up branch to branch. The sound was not that of an animal. Chang Wu’s howl was abrasive to Dao’s ears, but for some reason, he found it relaxed him. Perhaps he had heard such a thing in another dream and now, hearing its cousin, he was being beckoned back to familiar sleep.

The first sensation Dao felt, before even the need to open his eyes, was of metal digging into his wrists and hands. He tried to sit up and realized quickly that he was vertical. Not standing, as his big toes barely reached the floor. He opened his eyes and looked up to see that he was trussed like a butcher’s project, once a pig, to be pork. He could move his legs, lift his knees, but no matter how he kicked he couldn’t swing away from the wall.

Morning reigned outside. Despite the pillar of light flung in through the shed entrance, it gave him no hope. Brightness couldn’t erode these manacles. As much as he struggled, he was getting nowhere. He flexed his fingers to keep the blood flowing through them.

It was only in times of desperation that a man would direct his prayers to the Blood God Azkythiir. An evil power such as he scarcely had an equal, which was fine, for his terrors were feared almost intrinsically. And yet for some terrible reason, Dao’s soul was ultimately his to ransom, so he found it in himself to promise that soul for Azkythiir’s eventual devouring if only he’d save him from whatever fate approached.

All at once, Chang Wu’s head swung into the room. Beady yellow eyes fixed themselves on Dao and the canid weird’s tongue lolled out of his mouth. The beast-man’s body followed the head in then, hunched forward as if now he saw no reason to pretend at civilization. In his hands he cradled a thick root like a mace.

‘Oh, come now,’ Dao protested.

‘I must admit,’ Chang Wu said, ‘you are a bit skinny for what I would prefer. But humans are always a better find than fish. Might make you last for the week at least. It has been quite a while since I’ve had a proper meal.’

‘I treated you decently,’ Dao said. ‘More than those villagers have done, at least!’

‘And I’m to believe that if you weren’t running for your life, you’d still offer your politeness?’

‘I’m not a false man, I’m cordial and pleasant to everyone.’

Chang Wu was clearly not listening. His demeanor was now equal to he who’d trussed the pig up for the purposes of cleaving, cooking, and eating.

‘Shoulders first, likely. Wonder if I can pull them all the way out of the socket. Do hate gnawing on you all together.’ The weird hefted that makeshift club high. ‘And scream, if you would. Much easier for me to know when I’ve broken a bone.’

Before the weird could begin his swing, Dao started one of his own, curling his body up and kicking Chang Wu hard on the underside of his muzzle. Two voices cried out. One was the strangled groan of the monstrous creature. The other was Dao shrieking at the pain that had now taken the place of his foot. He was sure he’d broken toes as the end of his right foot was just a throb, just the sensation of pain.

Chang Wu woofed, barked, and lunged in again. Somehow Dao swung his body up again, legs scissoring out then clamping around the weird’s neck. The beast thrashed frantically. It was as if it had the memories of its distant cousins having their paws snapped in steel traps, caught away from their packs and prey, left to starve and die. Determined not to endure that himself, Chang jerked backward, twisted, did whatever he could to free himself, but Dao had locked his legs tight. He cried out awfully when the weird’s struggles made those manacles straighten out, the cuffs sawing into his wrists until they bled. He refused to let go, though. After all, what had he to lose?

There was little time for him to appreciate the sound of splintering wood. Less than a second, really. Without the support to keep him tethered to the wall, Dao’s upper body slumped down sharply, and he unlocked his legs to allow himself to drop heavily to the floor. He came to his knees, barely able to make sense of the world in front of him in his daze. Somehow the dancing and gyrating colors formed themselves into the evil form of Chang Wu just in time for Dao to throw himself out of the way of the beast-man’s club.

Like a rabbit, Dao scampered out of the house. The sun highlighted the blade of his back-knife with a blinding aura. He caught up that knife by the hilt and swung it up like a talisman before the emergent weird, hoping that in daring the beast to fight he would actually be causing him to think again. Of course, the creature could see that Dao was injured, barely able to fight. He advanced with blood on his mind.

The sound of a sharp impact just near Dao’s feet caused him to spring back. An arrow. He glanced up to the right and saw a tiny flotilla arriving, three small rowboats with men standing and slinging arrows to the little island with little regard for the safety of the two on the island. Chang Wu stared in that direction as well. He swept his club through the air as if he controlled some magic that would ward them off. Instead, an arrow lodged itself in his bicep, drawing a piercing howl of agony.

Dao turned and flung himself into the water. He was not sure if his muscles had gained strength in his horrible sleep or if he was simply too afraid to care about their fatigue. What he knew was that he was escaping, however undignified, from human and weird alike. He hoped his luck would be better on the other bank, though he had to admit, he’d find it a trifle difficult at first without any clothes to show he was a decent man.

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Image from film Armored Car Robbery (1950)

The River

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The boy was running across the field like a madman, his tan suit flapping about him like ineffective wings, his bag bouncing against his side. Judge Hansson saw him at the end of his ironsights, a bobbing, lanky thing that could never shake the twin metal spurs. The judge wore drab camoflauge and a brown deerstalker. His hair was wispy under there, past steel, now weak and sloughing off slowly. The grass was tall and he sank into it like a nest.

He watched the boy coming on. His lips were thin and pressed together. Old age had made his right eye rheumy, but his aim was true. He wanted the boy to stop finding him but the boy wouldn’t, he kept finding Judge Hansson, kept chasing him.

The sky was more blue than grey but only just. Clouds were creeping in from the southwest, moving like a herd, making the sunless sky dark with the question of rain. Wind swept in from that direction. Slow and steady. Judge Hansson breathed it in through big nostrils.

Not one deer all day. He had thought that all the deer were scared off by the development in town. He’d thought that they went north where there was less of it, where they could bound freely without the threat of some long jut of black char. When Edward Quinn had shown him the new deer head he had mantled, Judge Hansson couldn’t resist the pull. He thought he might mount the deer’s rear end just for a change. He’d use the deer’s legs for tablelegs.

The boy was getting close enough, perhaps, to see where the rifle was trained. Those spurs came up under the boy’s armpits, sizing him up.

It was quiet except for the wind hissing along the tops of the blades of grass. He could concentrate. He licked his lips, his lower one the longest, really wet it. The boy kept on running.

Judge Hansson sighed and dropped his aim. He didn’t really have the nerve to do it. Those spurs framed the boy’s knee.

Water rushing. Judge Hansson looked down at his hands, how red they were. Blood in the grout of his palms. He had stripped to a wifebeater that was wrong for his old, saggy body. The kitchen was lit by a single lamp in a half-ornate candlebra. Rustic was the word.

“You didn’t think you’d get away with it,” his wife was saying, standing in the doorway. She was a thin woman, small, wizened. Her face was narrow and a halo of undaunted white fluff surrounded it. Hair, maybe, but not quite. He knew she was in that white robe she always wore, the one she got from a New York hotel. “Nate.”

He put his hands into the water and took them out again because it was too cold. He hated the smell of this kitchen, the overbearing smell of turkey and bread and mustard and wine. He watched the water, running so fast it was white instead of clear. It was warming up. He could feel it through the air, in his fingers.

“You told me so when you were starting,” his wife said. “‘It’s not gonna work out but let’s ride it for a laugh and get what we can.’ Your exact words, Nate. You knew it wasn’t gonna last forever.”

Those were not his exact words. He looked at the bottle of dishwashing soap next to the faucet. It was less than a quarter full with neon yellow liquid. He thought about taking it, but he’d get blood all over it. Not his blood. An argument like that wouldn’t hold up in any court. The water was still warming up, filling up the bottom of the sink but never rising too high because so much of it ran down into the drain.

“But those girls deserved better. You know they did. They didn’t do anything wrong enough to get sent to prison, not at their age.”

Those girls got used up and screwed, but not by him. Not him alone. The system. He put his left hand under the water. It was warmer than before but not yet warm, not the way he liked it. He put his right hand under and rubbed them together as the water warmed up. Blood was coaxed out by the water and a liquid, lighter than blood but redder than water, ran out from his hands and into the sink and into the drain.

“And then you shot the server!” His wife sounded exasperated. “Thank goodness you brought him back here. Can you imagine if you’d left that boy out there to bleed to death?”

He could imagine. He looked at his hands and they were still bloody, running with it, water sluicing off his palms and into the steel sink. His nails were ruined with blood. He put his hands back together and ground them together, rubbing the blood free from the places it was hiding, trying to make it break its clinging habit. The water was warm now and wasn’t warming any more.

“Have you looked at the letter?”

He reached out with bloody water dripping from his hand and he took the bottle. He squirted yellow detergent all over his hand.

“D’you want me to open it?”

He rubbed his hands together, worked the soap into them. Suds piled out from between his hands, between his fingers, openings he had never seen before. To clean his nails, he used his palm as a buffer, went over them one by one and then changed to the other. Bubbles spread around the base of the sink. He heard his wife sigh.

“I guess you know what it says anyway.”

The water ran free as he flicked his fingers down, sending droplets of water off into the basin. His hands didn’t feel any drier. He could see the little streaks of red blood at the base of his nails. It was always that way.

“I can see it in you, Nate. It’s the stress. That’s what’s making you do all this. You just need to calm down. They can’t put a man your age in prison.”

He heard his wife’s slippers hushing across the tile floor as she came towards him. He reached up and turned off the faucet. The hiss-hiss, the look she probably had on her face, all quiet and demure and understanding. The hiss-hiss of those slippers drove him insane.

“Go talk to the DA, Nate. This’ll blow over. He can probably even make this assault disappear.”

“Don’t touch me,” Judge Hansson said before she touched him. “Don’t you lay a hand on me, Beth, or I swear I’ll knock your teeth right out of your mouth.”

Beth didn’t like to be teased about her dentures. He wasn’t teasing.

He turned away from her and walked out of the kitchen. His jacket was hanging on the back of a chair and he picked it up as he walked, pulling it on without breaking his stride. He crossed from tile to the hardwood of the living room, the warmth of the fire, the coziness of rug and couches and deep-brown oak table in the center of the room.

Judge Hansson stopped at the arm of the long couch and looked down at the boy bleeding all over it. The boy’s left leg looked as if it were in two, separated by a wholly red bandage. The boy looked up at him and Judge Hansson met his eyes. The judge looked down at the black dufflebag.

“Whaddya got in there?” he asked. “Heads?”

“Sir?” the boy asked.

The judge walked past the boy and across the living room to the side door that went straight into the garage. He didn’t need to flick on the light. He maneuvered his old body towards the front of the garage. The chill was almost too much for him or might have been some other time. The light that rolled in from inside was blocked partially by the form of his wife.

“It’s the stress, Beth,” he said as he pulled on the cord hanging from the ceiling, tugging up the garage door slowly. His muscles threatened to show against the flab in his arms as he strained. “It’s got me. Don’t come near me, Beth. Wasn’t too old to start this mess and I’m not too old to hurt you.”

She was silent as he opened the garage up to the graying outside. He took his keys out of his pocket and opened his station wagon. He got into the familiar old car, started it up, felt it coughing around him. There was enough gas to get him to a gas station and he had money in his bag in the backseat. He wasn’t too old to start over.

Oh yes he was. But he didn’t care.

That stubborn station wagon pulled out of the garage and turned. It had been defeated long ago. Judge Hansson wouldn’t let it die. He wondered how his wife would handle the server and the subpoena and the DA and the bills and life without him. She would cope. That’s who she was.

As for him, he didn’t have long left and he wasn’t going to spend it pawning his dignity off to some bullshit attorney because a couple girls got molested and went up the river and a server got shot boo hoo.

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