The Sim

Decker was in over his head. This was nothing novel, or even particularly new. As a result, he was almost comfortable as he watched Shen scurry like a termite beneath his boots. He tapped his foot against the deck as he looked through the one-way transparent decking of the chamber above the engineering deck. The sound echoed off the plastic, coming back as thin echoes off the opaque dome of the sim suite.

“Doesn’t he ever sleep?” Sixteen asked with a wry smile. The old man was draped in a floral-printed apron, and wore a white bonnet tied around his chin. His thigh-high leather boots rapped on the floor as he paced around Decker in a sort of lazy orbit. He smelled hotly metallic, as if Tobias had set fire to the kitchen again.

“Not when he has a new toy.” Decker said. The mechanic had been up for a solid seventeen hours, and as far as Decker knew, hadn’t eaten in that time. Shen flitted about below them like a bat shot up with amphetamines, pausing occasionally to fiddle with a holo-panel or touchscreen, hand twitching automatically for tools he didn’t need. The big man was not much for speeches, but Decker had had to mute the audio once Shen had discovered he could actually TALK to the machines. He looked up and fixed the old man with a tired gaze. “Do you?”

Sixteen inclined his head. “If required.” He gave a faint chuckle, which didn’t make it to the walls, roughly ten metres equidistant. The ceiling to the sim suite was another ten above their heads and studded with fist-sized black sensor nodules. “Shall we run it again?”

Decker sighed and tapped his temple. His new implants hastily accepted Sixteen’s program, filtering down from the sensors above. A red countdown began in the corner of his left eye. In the five seconds, he tried once again to focus on Sixteen, the way he had on Tobias’s mark on Hades. Tried to see what was underneath those clothes in a way he hadn’t been brave enough to try on Eldred. Maybe look inside that gleaming pink skull and show faint surprise at the cogs and gears inside. But the harder he looked, the mistier the picture became, as if he was trying to read through the bottom of a glass. Maybe it would come once he got over the headaches and the soreness in the mornings. He had no further time to ruminate on this before the sim sucked him back in.

Decker’ breath fogged the screen of his helmet. He could even imagine he was cold. He was holding a rifle, the moulded plastic light in his hands. It was dark, but his implants had kicked in with night vision, and the ground before him lit up a grainy green. The stone was covered in a thin layer of dirt and innumerable small bones. It shifted around his boots like disturbed soup as he started walking.

He was standing in a narrow chamber, wading through a shallow pit dug into the floor. Ahead of him was a raised dais, the type a tyrannical preacher might have cursed from. Beyond that, a dark doorway, laced with a wreathe of overgrown creepers. There was a faint dripping of something thick and viscous, far away. Dust motes glittered in a thin lance of sunlight from a crack running the length of the chamber’s ceiling.

A tall, faceless figure was on his right side, cradling a formless silver shape, the same colour as itself. Silver snakes danced on a light breeze. Decker had guessed on the first run that it was supposed to be Eldred. He sub-vocalised a command into his throat mic, and not-Eldred flowed smoothly up the steps to the right of the dais. A squat silver shape already at the doorway could only be Shen. Despite himself, Decker’s heart was palpitating in his virtual suit. A faint moaning sound crept down the tunnel ahead, and made his gut squirm. Just the wind.

The unit moved as one into the tunnel ahead. Not-Eldred had to duck her head to deal with the low ceiling. Decker took point, the rifle dancing in his hands in time with his pulse. There was a brief pulse of light around the gentle curve ahead, and Decker threw himself into a narrow alcove just in time as the dull moan built into a scream. Not-Eldred squashed in beside him, the thin bulk of the avatar making his flesh crawl. Not-Shen wasn’t fast enough. Decker just remembered to kill his NV before the entity burst around the bend in the corridor.

The light was blinding, a roaring wave of sound, like a supernova might sound down a gravity well. Decker saw the insides of his eyelids, hot pink for half a second. The utter blackness after the entity passed was almost as terrifying as the sonic boom that trembled the walls of the tomb around him. Decker held onto a pillar and his virtual lunch. When he looked up again, Not-Shen was gone.

“Don’t need him anyway, right babe?” Decker grinned shakily at Not-Eldred. The silver-skinned avatar turned a hollow face towards him, and he lost the smile.

They proceeded along the curved hallway, took a right at a T-junction, and crossed a narrow stone bridge over a yawning chasm, a dark liquid bubbling thirty metres below. The bridge creaked as they walked, and dust cascaded from the underside of the bridge into the depths. Decker disliked this almost as much as the way Not-Eldred held his shoulders with her not-hands. A sour, rank smell crept from the pit, like liquifying mushroom.

They passed the second lake, skirting the thin rim around the circumference of the chamber, sunlight glinting through a peppered ceiling. Decker had lost his footing on his fourth run. Apparently, the water was as deadly as the ghosts because it had ended there.

By the time he passed the sunken squares he’d designated the swimming baths, his hands were shaking again. He’d never made it this far. Not-Eldred was gone, taken three turns back by two entities that appeared to have been on a collision course. Decker had tripped in his fright and cracked his helmet open on the tiles. He hadn’t seen Not-Eldred go above him.

His helmet hissed away as his atmosphere gently escaped through a narrow spider-web in the right corner of his visor. His implants were still functioning, but he was becoming light-headed. The laser rifle was gone. He’d left it behind after he’d lost Not-Eldred, crawling on his elbows with his heart in his ears. The fucking things didn’t touch the entities anyhow.

He appeared to be in some sort of communal area. Rows of stone benches sat in a circle, around a dark obelisk that rose to meet the high ceiling. Recesses in the tower might have been windows. Perhaps some bizarre concert hall, where the performers could hide in their central building if they felt particularly shy. Decker’s footsteps echoed on the stone as he walked down the crumbling concentric platforms to the centre. Was it his imagination, or was there some kind of glow higher up? He held his breath and listened. Nothing but the faint susurrus of the subterranean winds, and the hiss of escaping air. Decker focused on the light, perhaps ten metres ahead and above him, and cautiously jerked his head to kill the NV.

A faint green light lit up the upper works of the tower, the only glimmer in the pitch dark. His heart leapt in his chest. Sixteen had said it would be green. “At least in-Sim.” Whatever what meant. He might only be virtual steps away, and logically, very solid ones towards his bed and a boast at breakfast. Not to mention a confidence boost for the genuine article. He felt his manufactured anxiety disperse as rapidly as his air as he flicked his NV back on and broke into a trot for the steps leading into the tower.

He immediately realised his mistake. The Sim wights were blind, apparently. They reacted to sound, smell, changes in air density. “In-Sim, of course.” Decker had the disturbing feeling Sixteen was guessing at this. But it was his program, and Decker’s footsteps were as loud as thunderclaps in the musty hall.

They seemed to burst from everywhere. Wispy trails of brilliant white, dripping from solid masses, like miniature suns. At least five of them, swirling around the tower, filling the hall with that maddening moan that shook his teeth. His NV cut out to save his eyes. He had time to raise his hands against the combined glare before they flew at him as one screaming fireball, and the shockwave obliterated Not-Decker.

Decker collapsed with a strangled yell, the motion of the attack seeming to translate for a second into reality. His boots squealed on the deck as he slid half a metre backwards. He landed on his elbow. Again.

Worm – Short Story Excerpt

He pulled himself to his feet in stages, taking breaks to hug his knees and give himself a whispered pep talk. He’d torn his shin and warm liquid pooled in his sock. He couldn’t see the far edge of the cavern, only a few glittering rocks far below. The pounding of the waterfall was like the scream of a giant. His ears rang as he pulled back from the edge.

Ames turned away from the waterfall as he got to his feet, anxious hands checking if the earpiece was still in place. It flashed a cool, comforting blue against his fingers. He wished he still had the rum, but it was good enough. He pulled the strap of his pack down from his neck, where it was half-choking him, and fumbled out another flare. He broke it over his knee and the green light painted his futures.

The tunnel ahead forked off in two branches, both yawning expanses of dark rock and ice crystals that glittered like teeth in the flickering light. Which had it been? He halted at the junction, feet twisting first one way then the other. He remembered the mad charge through one of them, heart tearing at his throat and terror on his heels. The gathering roar of the waterfall ahead of him. The smell of sweat and vinegary slime. The screams at his back. That maddening pulse, pulse of warm flesh. Like the rock was an artery in a monstrous heart. How was he supposed to know? Which led up, and which led down? If it even mattered.

His earpiece crackled as he was making his decision, and his heart met his throat.

A harsh buzz of static made Ames curse and fumble at the volume switch. He hadn’t heard from the speaker in a long time. Enough time for him to conduct a rudimentary funeral. Two ration packs and a bigger ration of rum. The guilt ate at his gut along with his nerves as he whispered in the dark.

“Hey,” His voice came out cracked, hollow. Like it had died already and was waiting for him to catch up. “Hey, is that you?”

There was another burst of static, and then a heavy, ragged breath. “John?” He sounded sicker than before.

“Ames.” Ames replied, although he wasn’t altogether sure anymore. “Ames, remember?”

“John.” The speaker insisted, and coughed wetly. “It hurts, John.”

“I know it hurts.” Ames groaned. “But I can help us.”

He’d already established the speaker was in the camp. Even now, he could hear the harsh whistle of the surface winds forcing their way underground in any icy stream through a hole no wider than his finger. The sound was like a screaming child, impossible to pacify. Sometimes there was a rustle of heavy cloth, as if the speaker was lying mortally wounded underneath a collapsed tent or tarpaulin cover. How was he eating? What was he eating? Maybe it was best not to know.

“Guide me back.” Ames pleaded for the hundredth time. “Get me back and I’ll help you. I’ve got water.” There wasn’t enough for two. But the speaker couldn’t know that. Ames sipped as he waited, and his cheeks burned with shame.

“So much water.” The speaker laughed and coughed. His voice was a dull, dead drone. “But we can’t drink any.”

“You’re wrong.” Ames lied to the dying man. “We’ll get to the surface, melt the ice, hold out for Columbo.”

The GCE Columbus, in orbit of the ice moon. Half a million tonnes of blocky grey steel, yellow paint chipped from countless meteor fragments along its generations-spanning haul. Half the holds already filled with lithium and water-ice. Enough raw material to buy a small nation. If nations still existed.

“Water is nice.” Said the speaker.

Ames punched the wall ahead of him and his knuckles split. He sucked the wounds to avoid screaming down the mic.

“All the water you want.” He hissed between clenched teeth. “Just tell me how to get back.”

“Follow your nose.” The speaker laughed again and then groaned in deep pain. “Good boy. Good boy.”

Ames bellowed in frustration, a hoarse shout that he clamped down on within half a second. It echoed around the walls like a demented choir. He shivered as he willed the voices silent, regretting his mistake. It might not even have ears. But it could feel. He hugged his knees and cried.

When he had recovered, the speaker was gone. There was no static, no sound at all. He checked the headset, terrified the battery had given out. The blue light winked slowly at him, taunting him with its silence. He thought the light was weaker than before.

He stopped to consider the speaker’s words. The man was obviously far gone. Dehydrated as well as starved. His blood was probably thick enough to bottle and sell for fuel. Which might be what was stopping him bleeding out. He had no idea who “John” was supposed to be, or if it was what the marines called him. A hundred John Doe’s, faceless men in masks and welding goggles. Meat for the grinder. It probably made it easier when one of the miners met with an untimely end. Another tally on a sheet. Ames sniffed petulantly.

He COULD smell something. It was faint, an undercurrent of an undercurrent. If he hadn’t cried like his son when he’d taken the deal, he might never have smelt it. His sinuses had a way of clearing after a good cry, exposing the background scents he took for granted. Like the smell of the methylated spirits in the steel drum at Alpha site that they washed the hand drills in. And suddenly, there it was.

A warm, damp scent. Faintly vinegary, with a hint of decay. Like vegetables left outside too long. It had been two centuries since Ames had last seen a vegetable.

He walked to the mouths of both tunnels, taking a deep inhale, letting it out slowly. His nose was one of his best features. In an age where worker drones had taken over most of the mining jobs in Sol system, his skillset was outmoded. Drones worked harder, cheaper, longer. And they didn’t form unions. But they didn’t have that fifth sense. The way a man could scent the air, like a mole, and tell if there was gold or shit in the walls. The heavy, hot, pregnant air that might signal a cave-in, and a lot of broken robots.

The right tunnel smelt bad. Like one or several somethings had crawled into hidden nooks and died quietly. He could hear the soft plinking of dripping water around a sharp bend in the rock.

The left tunnel smelt relatively clean. A thin stream of water trickled down a gentle incline, into the shallow pool behind Ames that fed the waterfall. Occasional pebbles of rock and assorted detritus drifted down the thick water. Glittering stalactites hung from a low ceiling. But the smell…was it stronger here? He took another big gulp of air. Yes, definitely.

His hand wandered to the back of his neck and the filthy matted hair that hung down it. There was a bald patch just under his right ear. Where something had torn a chunk of flesh and hair on his escape. The wound had clotted into a mushy black scab that felt hot to the touch. Ames would have bet the last flare that it had been torn from him by one of those stalactites. But if he was wrong…

He couldn’t think about that.

Hunting Shaw – Excerpt from Master Hunter

We were both up with the cockerel. The invisible bird’s cry rolled gently through the valley, joined by an early sheep. I rolled out of bed, pulled a heavy jacket over last night’s clothes and went downstairs to make a coffee.

It was still dark outside, but there was already a light on in Shaw’s bungalow, half a mile away. I flicked off the night vision setting on the binoculars, took a sip of steaming coffee, and pressed the lenses against the window.

Shaw was still in his pyjamas. The powerful binoculars made the red and white stripes jump into focus. I could see the gleam of his head in the bathroom light, and his reflection in the mirror as he carefully shaved with an engraved straight razor. The purple birthmark over his left eyebrow. I felt as if I was close enough to touch him. Reach out, crush the little hand in mine and draw the razor across his throat. Spin him away from me so the blood didn’t spatter my clothing. I dropped the binoculars, feeling something akin to shame. Luckily for my conscience, it couldn’t be that way.

Shaw pottered about the cottage for another two hours. I ate a breakfast of stale cornflakes in water and watched him cook a fry up, which he ate in the garage, door open to the elements to vent the smells of cooking and oil as he jacked up his BMW and changed the rear tyre. If it had fallen on him, it would have saved me the job. But this was a careful, methodical man. He kicked his new tyre as I watched, stripped off his filthy overalls and bunged them into an outdoor washing machine. He replaced the jack and tools and stepped out of his boots before closing the shutter and heading back into the house. A man who didn’t make mistakes. Evident enough from the dossier sitting on my bedside table. I would just have to make one for him.

He headed out at 8:30 sharp. Shaw’s cottage looked onto the loch, the rear of the property an untamed four acres of bare earth, spotted with hardy weeds and occasional pools of standing water. I watched from a chair in the porch as the little man receded across his grounds, wrapped up like a sardine in a dark green jacket, flat cap and wellies. A fishing rod swung over one shoulder.

I watched him cross the grounds, stopping to inspect something under his boot, and finally come to his short wooden jetty. From this distance, I could no longer see the feathers on the hook of his rod, but the magnification was still enough to see him pull a key from a chain and unlock the door of the little boathouse on the jetty. He disappeared inside for several minutes, finally emerging with a Tupperware box, a transistor radio, and bizarrely, a stuffed pink bunny. I looked away as he settled himself into a small red launch, gunned the motor, and cut the grey waters of loch Lomond, a slowly receding dot against the valley walls. It was time for my own exercise.

The morning air was crisp and cool, and the ground damp with last night’s rain. A two-seater plane glittered faintly in a ray of cold sunlight and the drone of the engine filled the valley as I walked the muddy half-mile to Shaw’s in four and a half minutes. The road was all mud and cobbles, and stunk of invisible manure. In the distance, I could see a small hamlet, with smoke rising from a chimney into the clear sky. A dark brown tractor moved in a field a mile away to my right, but otherwise the air was still.

Shaw’s estate was ringed by a waist-high stone wall that seemed to have been assembled by hand from a hodgepodge of slate and dull brick. Thin wires ran through the layers, holding it together. A small humped bridge forded a thin stream, and beyond that sat the black iron gates leading to the long gravel drive to the cottage. I turned away before I came to the winking control box set into a high brick arch holding the gates. I noticed there was no intercom.

I circled the estate at a more leisurely pace, keeping to the far side of the road from the wall, and occasionally snapping a picture off the phone nudged into my breast pocket. The wall disappeared after a hundred metres into a small thicket of pine, tips glistening like Christmas angels with the evening’s frost. I entered on a dirt track spotted with needles and rabbit droppings, the white paint of the cottage lost for moments at a time in the forest. It was as good an entry point as any. The grounds around the house were mostly bare earth, but the woodland offered approach cover, and the distance once I’d vaulted the wall would be less than ten metres.

I could see a small outhouse at the rear of the garage, a woodpile twice the size of mine and an axe resting in a stump. A side door into the house sat next to this. The lock looked new, but the wood locked old. I could force it easily with my shoulder. But that wasn’t the mandate.

I checked the time. 8:46. Shaw typically liked to fish until noon, and cook up his catch for lunch. The smell of steaming bream, cooked in garlic and basil suddenly blasted away my senses, sharp enough to taste. The way Rob had fried it up in his cabin in Norfolk, after we’d just come back off Homersfield lake. I was a useless fisherman, but my brother-in-law’s blundering nature ceased when he had a worm on his hook. Nicole had told us not to have too much fun with our rods. Rob said whatever happened at sea stayed at sea. She’d been pregnant with Ellie the last time we’d been out to the cabin. I’d been told it was a boy’s trip, no phones and no drama. After Rob had passed out by the fire, I snuck to the bedroom and had a clandestine call with my wife. The Scottish cold stung at my eyes and I had to wipe them clean.

I cursed under my breath and tried to focus on the cottage. The white walls swam briefly and then sharpened. I couldn’t think about her now.

I had three hours, at least. Enough time for a reconnoitre. I approached the wall and prepared to vault it. And stopped, one foot between the wet bricks when I saw the camera.

It was small, maybe no wider than the palm of my hand, tucked under the red brick gable of the roof in a handy recess. Small, grey and stationery, with a thin wire leading into the wall. It was set in one corner of the house, and there was no question it hadn’t seen me. I slowly lowered my foot, heart pounding in my ears. I forced myself to act as naturally as possible, when I’d been a breath away from hurdling the wall and sprinting at the house.

I rested trembling elbows on the brick wall, and leant into them. The path I’d walked was well worn by boot and hoof, and twisted up a gentle incline into a deeper thicket. A discarded dog collar lay nearby, torn off perhaps as its owner had lunged into a rabbit warren. It was a public footpath. Very luckily. I affected a gentle whistle which cracked on dry lips.

How often would he check the tapes? I imagined a basement room, a bank of monochrome monitors. Maybe a potted plant. Or did the footage go to an unmarked white van in a layby, bored private security eating croissants over a live feed?

I forced myself to count to thirty, then stifled a false yawn and turned my back on the estate, strolling slowly back to the path, when every instinct screamed at me to run like the flicker of white tail that bolted at my approach. I was dressed in rambling gear under my own flat cap, and prayed that I looked the part. If I hadn’t, I figured I would know about it sooner rather than later.

I took a walk I didn’t need, on legs that protested every step. Retuning back the way I had come might look unnatural, so I wandered damp hillsides for an hour before turning back, every flutter of bird or rabbit spiking my adrenaline.

I re-emerged from the thicket at 10:30, forcing myself to keep my eyes on the path rather than the estate. All the same, I clocked two further cameras I had missed the first time round. The estate was covered from all angles. Shaw might have left the city, but the city had not left him. It was no longer the simple job I had been promised.

The Ship

Customs took longer the second time through. But Eldred barely noticed. She was trembling, holding Bril against her heaving chest like a comfort blanket. Decker led the procession through the Berellian guards, who’d taken the opportunity to tool up with pulse rifles. Coalition drones hovered in the corridors, flechette guns pointing at nobody in particular. The air stank of hot lizard and panic.

“Look,” Decker hung back as they cleared customs and walked onto the metal decking of the docks. “If you want to get off somewhere, just let me know.”

She heard the words but couldn’t seem to think up a reply. After a moment Decker sniffed and strode forward again.

The docks were in pandemonium. Armed guards stood at each berth, forcing travellers into lines. A coalition dreadnought was putting down in the military dock, four hundred metres of black steel studded like a porcupine with railgun towers and torpedo bays. Heavy drones jetted overhead and made her hair flutter. A large Trogg that reeked of poor-quality fish was remonstrating loudly with a pair of Berellians, looking decidedly cowed by the amphibian. Sparks rained from the high ceiling, welding flares winking like stars in the black. And everyone was shouting.

Bril’s musk filled her nostrils, a warm, earthy smell that made her think of hydroponics bays after watering. Like the kind she’d broken into as a kid, to try to get an idea of what a planet was like. She realised after a moment that she was nibbling Bril’s fur like a radish.

His dignity wouldn’t permit her that much. He wriggled out of her grasp and hit the deck with a thump.

? Bril shot her a message.

Later Eldred replied on their private channel. Got to do some thinking.

Please do. We’re dry on that about now. Bril scampered ahead of her towards the docked shuttle.

Bril knew her well enough to know this didn’t have anything to do with Decker’s urge to flee Hades, like a flea from a doomed dog. It was the right call. On that, everyone agreed. It had to do with something impossible. Someone dead a long time. Someone she didn’t know she could talk to Bril about. She hadn’t even told Jeremiah. Until the moment in Shen’s jungle, she hadn’t thought about it all day. And that was rare enough. Eldred trotted after Bril before she could think harder on it.

Decker was in furious conversation with Shen as they climbed the ramp towards the off-white cargo shuttle, so mundane that Tobias hadn’t worked up the energy to name her. None of them had noticed that the Berellian guard was conspicuously absent from the landing pad, and Coalition drones appeared to be nervously avoiding the airspace. Bril might have, but he was doing some thinking of his own.

Eldred was tired from even the gentle incline of the docking ramp, and didn’t notice the crew ahead of her flicker out of existence as if they were as holographic as Jeremiah. By the time she registered the landing pad as empty but for the shuttle, she was passing through the field.

There was the briefest humming, and a gentle resistance, like she’d walked through a shower curtain. The air seemed to almost bounce against her skin, before she broke the surface tension and passed through.

The crew faded back in about the time she was processing the fact that air rarely shimmered. But by then she had bigger concerns.

Like the ship.

“What the fuck?” Said Decker.

The stubby cargo shuttle had elongated to three times its length, a hundred metres of a black so dark it made her eyes ache to look at. Green glass glittered from angular portholes, and it appeared to be hovering on the pad with no sound or sign of propulsion. The stealth ship tapered to a triangular point, a giant delta wing looming above them. Eldred could see nodules dotted through the underbelly that could have been weapons, or sensors. It was hovering roughly ten metres above their heads, and every head was looking up.

Eldred was the first to smell it. An expensive aftershave, of the style Jeremiah might wear when he hadn’t seen her in three months and wanted to remind her that he might appeal to other women if he chose. But it felt artificial. Somehow less real than holographic scent on a holographic man. She took a deep breath as she took in the ship’s pilot.

Decker caught up a moment later. “You!” He shouted at the little old man standing on the pad.

The new arrival was half her height, and the hunch in his back didn’t help. He was leaning on a cane, head bald as an egg. A monocle sat in one watery eye, and he had a wispy moustache that he really didn’t need. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes had a hint of steel that made her back up a step. The air caught her again, and shoved her forward. Shen caught her as she stumbled.

“Mr Decker.” The old man’s voice was inflectionless. Like it had run through a voice bank indecisively before settling on all of them. Somehow that bothered her less than the eyes. But Tobias was shivering to her left. The man looked around at them all, his smile growing wider. “Are you going to introduce me to your crew?”

“Why bother?” Decker muttered. “You probably know how many skids are in Shen’s underwear.”

The old man laughed humourlessly. He was exquisitely dressed, in a burgundy suit and waistcoat. “Crude, but accurate enough.”

Eldred tried to access local net, image search the man’s face. It was down. If he could hide the ship, that was little surprise. She inclined her head minutely, tapped twice on her left canine. Into her warren. The tunnels that changed course and consistency depending on the agents hunting her signature. The kind that knew every firewall could be jumped. And each and every one had been filled in. Eldred gasped as if the man had struck her. She was cut off. She staggered again and caught herself. The old man gave her a quick wink.

“Who are you?” She heard herself ask. Her voice shook.

The old man gave a little bow. He didn’t move as his appearance should suggest. “I am Sixteen.”

“Look more like sixteen hundred to me.” Shen muttered.

“That’s not a name.” Decker pointed out.

The old man smiled as if this hadn’t occurred to him. “Nonetheless, it is mine. And besides, it is irrelevant.”

“What do you want?” Eldred asked. Bril was curled around her shins, tapping his rear paw in the way he had when he was deep in conversation. With net down, he could only be talking to one person.

“I would have thought that was obvious.” The man smiled and straightened. The hump in his back vanished as if it had been no more than a crease in a duvet. It simultaneously fascinated and disgusted her. A whiff of tobacco drifted across the pad. Holograms didn’t smell outside of immersion suites. “Unless Mr Decker has been remiss in his tale?”

“You’ve been remiss in yours.” Decker said and crossed his arms. “And you just slaughtered a fucking planet.”

Eldred worried about his raised voice. But the moment they’d stepped into the visitor’s projection, the roar of machinery and people had been abruptly cut off. As if they were in their own vacuum. She had no doubt it extended both ways.

“Accidents happen, Mr Decker.” He brushed invisible dust off his jacket. “To everyone.” He grinned again at the crew and Eldred shivered.

“Do you like the ship, Mr Black?” The man directed at Shen, who’d lost interest in the conversation. A strand of drool was visible in his stubble as he fiddled his hands and looked up into the ship’s belly. Eldred wondered if he would rip his pants.

“Get me up there.” Shen replied. He had little care for safety protocols, or background checks. He also had little care for formal address, but he didn’t seem to notice.

The man laughed. “Fine spirit.” He looked around. “And the rest of you?”

“I’ll go.” Decker sounded like he was trying to convince himself it was his decision. “Tobias and Shen, I guess.” He turned to look at her then, and she saw a plea in his eyes. “Eldred will-“

“Eldred will go.” She finished for him.

Decker turned a deep purple. “You can’t, you don’t even know-“

“Neither do you, captain.” She made sure to inject the irony. “I’m not yours to protect.”

Decker looked hurt, but she was thinking too quickly to feel guilty. She hadn’t been aware she was going to make the decision before she did. But after what she’d seen in Shen’s jungle…

Think about this, Eldred. Bril tapped her shin again. There’s no sense in you going off half-cocked-

Why not? She shot back. You are.

Bril’s silence was deafening. He liked to think he was inscrutable, beyond humanoid predictability. But from the moment he’d hired her on as an external consultant on a scam he was running on a prominent Herminoid lecturer, she’d noted his need to wriggle into tight holes for scraps he wasn’t supposed to scrounge. If it smelled like a fish, Bril would eat until his belly burst.

“Wonderful.” The man clapped his hands as if they’d done him a favour. She doubted whether no was an option as much as Decker. Despite her words, she could feel herself trembling. She wished she could hold Jeremiah. She could almost feel his warmth. But that didn’t explain the humming, or the green light. Eldred was treated to a vision of Shen without clothes for a quarter of a second. She opened her mouth to shout.

It remained open when she rematerialised. She was standing in a soft carpet, the white fibres tickling her ankles. The lounge around her was formed of a low central basin, with a raised platform circling it. It was spacious, roughly sixty square metres, walls panelled in what looked like genuine wood. A hatchway stood at either end, behind and ahead of her. A faint perfumed smoke lay in the air, and the leather couch encircling the holo-table in the centre creaked as she staggered and fell into it. The lighting was unobtrusive, and seemed to radiate from the floor and ceiling without any obvious sign of power.

She could see Decker on the far side of the lounge. He didn’t appear to have her racing heart, but he was looking around frantically.

“What…was that?” She asked no-one.

Tobias answered her. He was curled underneath the glass table in the foetal position. “Magic.”

“Not quite, Mr Jensen.” The old man walked down a short staircase towards them, now dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit with extensive tattoos spider-webbing over his wrinkled brow.

Tobias hit his head on the table as he jumped and shuffled backwards on all fours like a guilty dog.

Eldred became aware she was lying on Bril when he bit her. She shuffled upright and he scrambled out from under her, jumping awkwardly across the lounge to land on the table in front of the man. Shen was nowhere to be seen.

Sixteen ignored them briefly as he focused on the trembling Herminoid. Bril’s claws tapped on the table as they carried on a brief but frantic silent dialogue. When it was over, Bril slumped on the table like he’d just ingested a large meal. Which she supposed he had.

“We’re on the ship.” Eldred hoped the uncertainty didn’t show in her voice.

“Indeed.” Sixteen nodded.

“Want to explain how we got there?” She asked.

Sixteen flashed her a grin. “Little time.” His eyes slid to the side of the lounge as he said it.

Eldred felt her heart skip a beat as she scrambled up the couch and hauled herself like an impossibly thin ape over the raised platform. The angular porthole ahead of her was dark, but as her boots squealed on wooden floor, the glass brightened. Some kind of motion sensor? It was the least of the wonders.

Hades station was the size of her fingernail. It had been less than two minutes since Sixteen had done…whatever he’d done. Stars glittered mercilessly in the dark. It wasn’t possible. She realised with a sudden lurch in her chest that she hadn’t said goodbye to Jeremiah. Hadn’t even though to check on him since the program imploded on her. Decker’s black hole had swallowed her up. Like Jeremiah had feared it might.

Master Hunter – Novel Excerpt

I didn’t have a hangover. There was probably something to be said about that. Judging by the crushed cans that crunched under the wheels of the morning traffic, and the shattered bottles of vodka and puddles of puke, I might be in a minority.

I sat in a small square in an intersection between two roads full of stuttering silver traffic, rolling a cooling Greggs sausage roll between my hands to warm them up. The morning air stung my nose as I stared into the windows of a shuttered JD sports. Someone had puked into the bin next to my bench, and there was a used condom hanging from the bare branches of the tree across the square, swaying in the light breeze like a pendulum filled with a slowly-dying civilisation.

I pulled out my new phone. I’d managed to find an early Samsung where you could still remove the battery. Not that it ever helped. 8:32. He was late. Maybe he’d been out partying the night before. The text identified itself only as “Barney”. Somehow I doubted he was as filled with cheer as the dinosaur my daughter cried at whenever he came on the TV. I wondered if she was a prophet, not for the first time.

He announced himself by mounting the kerb behind me in a grubby Fiat Punto, potentially silver underneath the thin layer of dust and caked-on mud. He also threw a filthy wave of water over my shoes. That more than anything got me on my feet.

I turned for the car as he laid on the horn, more for the benefit of the crawl behind him, who were already winding down windows.

I folded myself into the seat as he pulled off into the traffic. The Punto rattled alarmingly as he ran a red light into a blaze of horns. 

“Easy.” I grunted across at him, struggling into my seatbelt. There was a pizza box at my feet that looked like it might have been there since the nineties. The car smelt of stale sweat and mould. I edged down the window. It squealed. The Killers played on low volume: “Mr Brightside”. I couldn’t identify.

“Hunter?” The kid asked. He wasn’t looking at me, eyes on the road as they should have been. His hands trembled slightly on the wheel. I felt a sigh die in my throat. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen. He still had acne scars in the cleft of his chin.

“Logan.” I corrected. I’d dealt with kids like this before.

“Hunter.” He insisted. I took a closer look at him. He was long and lanky, mixed race, with a mop of dark curls pulled back into a severe bun. The beginnings of a moustache sprouted from his upper lip like new shoots of grass. It wasn’t a good look. He wore driving glasses, steel-rimmed saucers of glass that probably would have got him liberated of his lunch money. For some bizarre reason, he was wearing motorbike leathers, and a thick brown overcoat. A gold stud gleamed in his ear. “You can walk if you’re not.”

I felt a sudden surge of anger. I hadn’t left my daughter to be talked down to by someone half my age. “People who know my name tend to end up in the ground.” I growled.

“Oh, I know.” He nodded vigorously. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

“Take it how you want.” I looked out of the window. It was starting to rain again, grey streets melting under a thin curtain of water.

There was an uncomfortable two-minute silence, broken only by the squeal of tyres and an early argument, drunken catcalling under flimsy umbrellas.

“He gets in tonight?” I found myself breaking it.

Barney nodded. “He’ll spend a night at the Hilton, then drive out to the lodge.”

“This a regular thing?” I asked.

“When he’s in country, sure.”

I knew all this already. I was doing what Rob referred to as sinking the Titanic. Nicole had gentler metaphors. And this appeared to be a hell of an iceberg.

Barney was sweating as we drove North out of the city, the terrain beginning to dip and undulate in valleys, hillocks and glimpses of distant lochs teasing us through the windscreen. I could smell sheep and wet grass. I took a deep breath.

“Everything in place?” I asked the kid.

“Everything you need.” He confirmed. We took a left turn and he had to meet my eyes for the first time. Deep, dark eyes that shied away from me like a rabbit from a fox. But they didn’t look afraid.

“Staying for the show?” I wasn’t sure why I kept trying to reanimate the conversation.

He shook his head. “Seen enough of your work.”

I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. I was aware that I had a following, of a sort. Like some sort of morbid twitter account. People who paid the big money that I never saw for my services. But I tried not to think about it.

The rain let off as we approached Loch Lomond, and the sun glinted through a faint rainbow between valleys. Neither of us smiled.

The cottage was a half-mile back from the lake, at the head of a muddy field where potatoes peered hopefully from the slush. We drove up a long winding drive, like a snake whose sides were made of waist-high breezeblock. I could hear cows in the distance, and a dog barking. But there was nothing on either side of the white-walled, two-storey thatch-roof job for a mile in any direction. A long low red farmhouse was the closest building, and judging by the caved-in roof, it wasn’t in operation.

Barney pulled up outside the front door, splattering the front of the house with a spray of mud. It could have been avoided.

“No central heating.” He said as he pulled a key from his pocket and thrust it at me. “Have to stoke the fire.”

“Very Dickensian.” I muttered. There was a woodpile leaning against the side of the house. Soaked through, no doubt.

“I’ll be back when it’s done.” The kid said by way of goodbye. I’d given up trying to make eye contact.

“And if I need anything else?” I slowly sank into the churned mud of the drive as I leant down towards the driver’s window.

“You’ll manage.” Barney sniffed, not sounding as if he cared either way. “Men like you always do.”

He splashed me with another mud shower as he left, my jeans soaking coolly into my shins as I tried to decipher the meaning behind his words. It was the strangest interaction I’d had since I’d retired Forbes. The new year could have gotten off to a better start.

Sleeping Dogs – Excerpt

By the time she knew what she was looking at, it had almost slipped away from her. A glimmer of black on black, too small even to reflect a sensor ping. A needle in a haystack five thousand kilometres square. A lost cause. So he had told her. Her hands trembled as she pinched the sensor display on the console in front of her, blowing up the grid reference. The display leaped in on the cluster of debris, a dull dirty white against the muted glow of the blue gas giant filling half the screen. Something that may once have been a table blew past the image, passing within metres of the ship. She heard him groan at the controls. But when it passed, that glitter again. She realised she had been holding her breath and let it out in a shout.

“There!” Her fingers fluttered on the display, drawing a circle around the object and swiping it to the pilot’s console. “See it?”

“I don’t see shit, hon,” Marcus sighed automatically over his shoulder. “Just like I haven’t seen shit for the last three days. Like I haven’t seen shit since you-“ he paused and sucked in his breath as his eyes caught up with his mouth. “Woah.”

“Woah.” She whispered, staring at the black cube, probably no larger than two by three centimetres, flickering the distant sun’s light in the shattered heart of the research station.

She didn’t notice Marcus getting up from the pilot’s station on her left until she felt his hand on her shoulder, large and warm. She pressed her head against it unconsciously.

“You found it.” He said. He smelt of dried sweat and garlic mushrooms. The last of their palatable ration packs. She wished she hadn’t let him finish it off. The hit of dopamine made her stomach growl along with her mind.

“I recall a bet, mister.” Rebecca smiled up at her husband.

Marcus’s dark face furrowed under his tight curls. “Oh yeah? See me when we get home. I’ve got interest for you.” He tried to leer, but she could tell by the tightness in his jaw and around his eyes that his when was really an if. And she could hardly blame him.

She patted his hand as he turned for his station. “This is huge, babe.”

“So huge it’s got a fucking quarantine five systems wide in every direction.” He grumbled. “You ever stop to think about why?”

It was an old argument, and he didn’t expect an answer. All he wanted was for her to consider the words. But they’d committed now. He would see it through with her. For better or worse. She twisted the ring on her finger as Marcus nudged the ship further into the wreckage.

The little ship groaned and creaked as Marcus directed it, graceful as a dancer in the heart of the void. It was little more than a passenger shuttle, shaped roughly like a pill, with a ceiling too low for the gravity she’d grown up in. As expensive as her finances could stretch to. Marcus had put the engine together himself, for a fraction of the cost. It was ungainly and sat on the rear of the craft like a brick on a football. But ugly as it was, it had enough juice to run the Naval blockade, and enough manoeuvrability to dance around the bulk of the destroyers that could only win in a marathon over a sprint. Even then, Marcus had had to incinerate a torpedo with the drive plume, screaming to his God the whole time.

“I haven’t seen any Navy boys since we got here.” He must have read her mind, as he spun the shuttle to face the blue radiance of the gas giant, wrapped in a belt of rings. “That’s weird.” He continued when she said nothing.

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” Rebecca was staring at the rear of the shuttle and the short airlock that separated them from vacuum by a few inches of worn steel. From her destiny.

“Your life’s motto. Not mine.” Marcus sighed and brought the ship to a standstill.

Rebecca tapped her thigh and engaged the magnets in her boots as the ship’s gravity faded with the thrust. She pulled a dirty grey helmet from an overhead locker as her husband appeared again at her shoulder. He was already suited.

“What if you don’t like what you find?” His voice was tinny in her helmet, but she could hear every emotion in it. The mission had fought against his every instinct. He was only here for one reason, and she was no longer ashamed to be it.

“Then you can say I told you so.” She squeezed her glove against his. “So keep your hopes up.”

Marcus snorted but remained silent as they stepped together into the airlock. Their eyes met through the misty glass as they attached the tethers to each other, patted down the loose seams and checked each other’s seals. He was scared. Which was healthy. Normal, even. Here in the ruins of a dead station half the Jovian fleet guarded from whole systems away, like a dog loyal to an abusive master. He was right. She hadn’t stopped to think about why. Because she hadn’t wanted to.

She smiled at him through the suit, that smelled of boiled cabbage and creaked alarmingly as she walked. They pressed their faceplates together and mouthed three words that had been lipread for generations. Then the outer door hissed open and they swam out into the endless sea.

They weren’t outside for long. Marcus had lined the shuttle up as near as he could to the object, but the little black cube was still in the shadow of a large glass and ceramic section of hull plating, painted white metal scorched black. It might once have been a viewing gallery. Rebecca shivered in her cushioned suit as it passed overhead, easing forward with jerks of the suit’s thrusters. How many people had sat on the deck, sipping cocktails and looking over the blue expanse of the planet crudely named Gamma Clarke-6, after the red giant star of the system that at this distance was simply a bright glimmer past the asteroid belt? Maybe watching a holo-film together, furtive hands under blankets to ward off the loneliness. Faces flash-frozen as the station was torn apart. Had they known? Had there been a warning? It was like wading through a lake of spirits denied their justice. She was glad that sound didn’t carry in vacuum.

Master Hunter – Opening

“It’s a beautiful world, isn’t it?” Forbes had to raise his voice slightly to be heard over the steady booming impacts of the quad-bladed rotor beating over the toughened glass of the cockpit.

“If you say so.” I said, looking down over the dirty grey buildings, some squat and short, some monolithic enough for Forbes to have to make course corrections. The Hudson river passed below us like a great grey snake, rippling invisibly from the steady patter of rain that spilled from the grey skies and beat against the helicopter as Forbes flew us out over lower Manhattan and over the bay, brimming with fat white yachts and squalls of seagulls.

“Ha!” The fat white man boomed from inside his Valentino suit, roughly boat sized. He turned his steely grey eyes on me, buried in his ruddy cheeks, and flicked a strand of his greying combover back over his head. “You Brits are all the same.”

“Oh?” I grunted.

“Absolutely.” He nodded vigorously, and returned his attention to the dashboard’s multitude of spinning needles and flickering gauges. The helicopter in question was a UH-60 Black Hawk, jet black and gleaming in the storm currently menacing New Jersey. Occasionally a blue flash would light up the long fuselage and glitter off the stubby wings mounted on either side of the chopper, behind the cockpit. Forbes had pointed out the scars on the undersides of the wings, where once twin miniguns and a stack of Hellfire missiles had been mounted. He could have had the scars buffed out, but he hadn’t. If I had to listen to the story of how he’d bought the thing from the army, and how much for, for a fourth time, I had a feeling I’d succumb to the jetlag in my seat before we’d made the round trip. “Walk around like someone shat in your tea.” He laughed heartily and slapped his rotund thigh.

“Not my fault you wankers can’t make a decent cup.” I played up the act for him, but I was looking forward to getting back to my hotel bed, tipping the maid thirty percent, and crashing out to the sound of car horns and sirens thirty floors below. I’d only got in the same morning. Taken off from Gatwick at 23:00 last night, flown non-stop for eight hours, and touched down in JFK at roughly 02:00 local. I’d got in about three hours restless sleep before Forbes had sent the car for me. We’d met first in a bar, then progressed onto his tower in Queens, where he’d surprised me with the tour. It was 15:30 now, and I was having trouble keeping my eyes and mind focused. Forbes flouting the non-smoking policy wasn’t helping.

“Ha!” he shouted again, and clapped my shoulder with a pudgy hand. “Maybe we can make something of you yet, Jim.” He took a drag on his cigar, and blew the smoke towards me, where it mixed with his cloying aftershave and set me coughing.

Ostensibly, I was in New York on business. A prospective investor in Forbes’ fledgling shipping firm, which complemented his thriving auto business. Hence the extravagance and self-promotion, I supposed. The old man puffed out his chest like a peacock with coronary artery disease whenever he talked of his assets. Which was often, so far. He was a multi-millionaire, but that counted for little when they were as common as the pigeons in the inner city. In the grand scheme of things, Henry Jefferson Forbes III was just another worm in the big rotten apple. But if he thought that I cared about his millions, or his penis-extending helicopter, or the little blonde secretary he’d all but shoved into my lap in his office, he was very much mistaken. I was here on business, but not the kind he dealt in. Nor was my name what it read on my passport.

“Ah, here we go.” Forbes spoke past his bulbous nose as he banked the chopper into a driving wall of rain, and jerked back on the stick, thumbing a few switches over his head to bring the machine to a hover.

“Is that her?” I asked, jerking my head down at the island below, partially obscured by the rain-spotted windscreen.

“Our lady.” Forbes raised a hand and perfunctorily crossed himself.

“I thought she’d be taller.” I mused.

“She’s the leader of the free world,” he said, tapping out each word on his thigh. “And you told her to go fuck herself.”

“She didn’t like tea.” I threw back, with little energy.

Lady Liberty reached out below us on her pedestal, torch pointed across the bay.

“She should be facing North, you know, over her people.” Forbes grunted. “If I’d been the architect, I’d have done better.”

“No doubt.” I said.

“She looks your way, doesn’t she?” He pointed a flabby arm across the waters.

“In a sense, I guess.” I replied. A few thousand miles out, but I saw his point.

“Ever thought about joining the land of the free?” He asked.

“I’ve never been free.” I shook my head at the rain-drenched statue below, following her eyes across the sea. Where my backers sat in shadowy committees, directing their pawns across the great board of the world. Mergers and acquisitions. Or words that sounded similar, when slurred.

“Horseshit.” Said Forbes. “Everybody is free. A man is his own master. That’s on my bedroom wall, you know.” I could believe it.

“Not everyone.” I sighed, my eyes fixated on the cloud-laden horizon beyond the waves, as I drowned the tycoon out. Maybe she was looking too. Glazed eyes dancing over a filthy London skyline. Maybe she could sense my gaze. If so, she was probably screaming. But screaming was good. Screaming was alive. It was equally possible her gentle green eyes had rotted to dust in their sockets. It was a wound I wasn’t yet ready to probe.

“You good?” Forbes had been speaking, but I hadn’t noticed. He wasn’t used to that, and the frown made him look older.

“Yeah.” I tried to smile at him. “Just tired, you know.”

“Well then, let’s head back.” Forbes drawled in his thick Bronx accent, and clapped me on the shoulder again. “You’ve got a party to attend.”

I looked at the old man I’d been ordered to kill and managed to finish the smile. “See you in hell, mate.” I said. And Forbes drove us into the head of the storm.

Introduce Yourself (Example Post)

This is an example post, originally published as part of Blogging University. Enroll in one of our ten programs, and start your blog right.

You’re going to publish a post today. Don’t worry about how your blog looks. Don’t worry if you haven’t given it a name yet, or you’re feeling overwhelmed. Just click the “New Post” button, and tell us why you’re here.

Why do this?

  • Because it gives new readers context. What are you about? Why should they read your blog?
  • Because it will help you focus you own ideas about your blog and what you’d like to do with it.

The post can be short or long, a personal intro to your life or a bloggy mission statement, a manifesto for the future or a simple outline of your the types of things you hope to publish.

To help you get started, here are a few questions:

  • Why are you blogging publicly, rather than keeping a personal journal?
  • What topics do you think you’ll write about?
  • Who would you love to connect with via your blog?
  • If you blog successfully throughout the next year, what would you hope to have accomplished?

You’re not locked into any of this; one of the wonderful things about blogs is how they constantly evolve as we learn, grow, and interact with one another — but it’s good to know where and why you started, and articulating your goals may just give you a few other post ideas.

Can’t think how to get started? Just write the first thing that pops into your head. Anne Lamott, author of a book on writing we love, says that you need to give yourself permission to write a “crappy first draft”. Anne makes a great point — just start writing, and worry about editing it later.

When you’re ready to publish, give your post three to five tags that describe your blog’s focus — writing, photography, fiction, parenting, food, cars, movies, sports, whatever. These tags will help others who care about your topics find you in the Reader. Make sure one of the tags is “zerotohero,” so other new bloggers can find you, too.