Friday flash fiction – In the Desert of Dry Tears

Two riders crossed the Desert of Dry Tears, whipping their mounts with a fierce urgency. The taller of the two was a Tythri woman with hard hands and dusky skin, called the approaching storm Ghul’akkar, the Bone Scourge. The towering clouds behind and webs of lightning spreading like claws overhead frayed her Westlander companion’s nerves.

Hospitality obliged her to see to the Westlander’s protection, but Tythri were not ones to dip bitter words in honey. She told him, “Ride hard, foreigner. If it catches us, the storm will bear us skyward to strip off our flesh and drop our polished bones.” She indicated a stretch of white patches speckling the night-black sand to the dune horizon ahead. “My people call it Ghul’akkar’s Road. Your destination lies at its end.”

Colonel Cosmorris twisted the reins until they bit into his wrist. His sand lizard mount’s unfamiliar gait was a challenge to his horsemanship, not helped by the service pistol gripped tight in his other hand. “You’re certain of the direction, Lady Nephra?”

Nephra snorted. This Westlander! Pale and thin as salted soup, he was, with nothing of the desert baked into his papery skin.

“Only Greatmothers and Widow Aunts are ladies, Westlander. I’m just a guide, but I’ll lead you well enough. My people’s bones have paved this road for a thousand lifetimes.”

It was a slight exaggeration. The Tythri had served under the desert’s unforgiving skies for at least that long. Nephra would have done the same, if the elders hadn’t sent her abroad to study. Four years at the Conservatorio Esoterica in Penchant, studying Dry Climate Alchemy and Hex Engineering, broadened her worldliness and capacity to hold hard liquor, but withered her skills as a desert guide.

“It’s around here somewhere.”

“We’re going to die out in this hellish desert!” Cosmorris muttered, as flurries of sand began to whip about them.

“Many do.”

“I should never have accepted this wretched assignment!”

“Speaking of which, you were vague with the elders back in Ul-Tyth. What’s your business with the Unmapped Temple, Westlander?”

“It is a site of great antiquity and archaeological significance,” he declared, swelling proudly despite the skin-stripping wind and heat. “I intend to catalogue its relics and preserve them for posterity.”

Nephra frowned. “I don’t suggest that. This desert gets fiercely cold at night. It’s also crawling with manticores, obsidioids and hostile Salamandrian tribesmen. You won’t last a day on your own.”

Cosmorris waved her warning off with his revolver. “On my own? Don’t be ridiculous. I’ll put some of the labourers on guard duty to ward off wild animals and whatnot.”

Nephra looked from one horizon to the next. Other than the gigantic storm bearing down, they were alone in the desert. “What labourers?”

Cosmorris rolled his eyes. “Your people, of course. Once we locate the temple, I’ll send a radio signal to Captain Pillwilmott to round up a suitable workforce to help with the fetching and lifting. A couple of hundred ought to do it.”

“Oh, I see.” Nephra eyed a narrow canyon between two sand-worn rock formations, about a mile off to their left. “Aha, that’s the way we need to go. Follow me!”

“I though you said the Temple was at the end of the road?”

Nephra shrugged. “Just a figure of speech. This is a short cut.”

Cosmorris thumbed the chambers to ensure his pistol was loaded and clear of desert grit, but he followed.

The high walls of the canyon provided temporary relief from both the sun as well as the rising storm winds. They dismounted, leaving their panting lizards to flop on the canyon’s cool sandy floor. Nephra pointed into the gloom. “At the far end is a door to the main chamber. We must offer prayers to propitiate Kur’Aphua, the temple spirit. She doesn’t always welcome interruptions.”

Cosmorris’ eyes narrowed. “You know these rites?”

Nephra smiled like a sunbeam. “Intimately.”

“If this is a trick, I’ll shoot you.”

“I think we understand each other.”

She stood before the stone door and intoned words of appeasement to Kur’Aphua. The door swung silently open.

“That’s it?”

“It wouldn’t be a very useful temple if it were hard to enter, would it? Come on before the storm catches up.”

She conjured a simple hand-flame, which illuminated the chamber. Its light flickered across two walls of gold-lined inscriptions. Beyond the flame’s borders lay more walls with embedded sarcophagi, scorpion statues and stone carvings, all adorned with more gold.

Cosmorris’ jaw dropped at the sight. “What treasures! This will make my career!”

“Is that so? Well, congratulations, I daresay.”

Cosmorris twitched his pistol suspiciously at Nephra. “What did you say?”

“That was me,” said a short Tythri woman with long braids, appearing from nowhere.

“Greatmother Kur’Aphua!” smiled Nephra, bowing warmly. “Auntie, I’ve missed you. May I present this Westlander, who wants to take your temple away for safekeeping across the sea.”

“Does he? That seems unnecessary. My temple’s perfectly safe right here.”

Cosmorris pointed his pistol at the spectral woman. “I claim these primitive trappings and burial offerings in the name of the Westlish Empire. Surrender them immediately.”

Ignoring the gun, Kur’Aphua turned to her descendant. “Nephra, did you bring him through the servant’s entrance?”

“Yes, Auntie.”

“Did you explain the curses that bind him and his followers in perpetual service to the temple?”

“Slipped my mind, Auntie.” Nephra pointed at Cosmorris’ shoulder satchel. “By the way he’s got a talking gadget called a radio that’ll bring his followers straight to you.”

Kur’Aphua clapped appreciatively. “That’s more convenient than turning into a jackal to hunt them down and drag them back. Go ahead, Westlander.”

Sputtering angrily, unable to resist the curse’s power, Cosmorris dropped his pistol and cranked the handle on his radio, “Come in, Captain Pillwillmott…”

Kur’Aphua turned to Nephra. “Thank you for the offering, dear one. It’s become quite dusty while you were away. But next visit, do you think you could appease me with some honey cakes? I love those.”

My household’s been bereft of phone and internet connections for a week, thanks to a lightning storm with poor timing and no sense of personal space. Hopefully it will have been restored by the time you read this, but the service centre has taught me a valuable lesson about not holding my breath. Anyway, if you happen to be waiting on a reply from me for something, I apologise and beg your indulgence for a couple more days. I will get to you soon, I hope.

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Friday flash fiction – The Antlion’s Nest and the Magpie Stratagem

The official cartographic record of the SPF Destroyer Queen Ranavalona referred to the thick band of icy, dusty rocks as Asteroid Belt KFPK-9, but when someone dubbed it “The Antlion’s Nest”, the name stuck.

It was, decided Captain Herrea Talakhamani, an excellent place from which to watch and wait for prey.

“Summary reports, please,” she said as her senior officers sat for morning briefing. She hoped her bright tone concealed how rattled she felt by both the blazing conflicts outside the hull and the Captain’s-eyes-only dispatch from Fleet Admiralty.

“A quick overview, Captain.” First Officer Gaia Renshaw stood, waving her hands through a holographic map of the Kettery system. She highlighted the pocket of space around the Queen Ranavalona. “The Cha’sorva pursuit squadron knows we’re here, obviously, but their scanner technology can’t break our Bittik-Kintti chaff field. They dispersed into a search-and-destroy configuration shortly after arriving in-system. Big mistake. It left them completely exposed when the Sanxescene warp cruiser opened a gravity slide near the fourth planet.”

Strategic Operations Commander Nelson Quay added, “The Sanxescenes have vaporised half the Cha’sorva ships with quantum tunnelling missiles.” Giving the appearance he too had not slept for days, he mopped his forehead with agitated swipes. “All this activity has attracted attention. We’ve detected Fidimisi surveillance drones in the system fringes, the Gulthano Centerium sent a warteam of Sybil-class corvettes, and in the last hour we’ve spotted a Praeternaturalist Godship lurking in Kettery’s solar corona.”

Captain Talakhamani smiled at the new Chief Engineer. “Impressive, Commander Salk. Praeternaturalist cloaking technology is supposedly unbreakable.”

A ragged crack opened in the Jomokoro engineer’s granite-like face; Talakhamani had learned to read the apparent seismic catastrophe as a modest smile. “Only Inheritors of Wiosse knows how. We incorporates Inheritor subsensors. Now you knows also, Queen.”

“Excellent work, Commander. We are lucky to have you with us. Though I remind you again that I’m the captain. The name Queen Ranavalona refers to this ship.”

Stone flakes tumbled from Salk’s gritty shrug. Jomokoros considered a ship and its crew as indistinguishable components of a whole. Interchangeable and replaceable, but equally critical.

Talakhamani consulted her briefing notes. “Lieutenant Ephram, kindly outline our prospecting options.”

The bright-eyed specialist in applied theoretical physics bounced excitedly to her feet. “Captain, the Admiralty has standing orders to secure any and all Praeternaturalist technology, so -”

“For the last time, Lieutenant,” interrupted Commander Renshaw, “that directive only applies to fleets classified Herculean and above. We have one ship, not sixty.”

“Oh, right.” Lieutenant Ephram continued with breathless enthusiasm. “In that case, our sub-light propulsion systems haven’t been upgraded since our skirmish with the Unkaran Brigands eighteen months ago. I recommend we disable a Gulthano corvette and scavenge its tri-phase thindrive. With one of those babies bolted on, we could outrun just about anyone from here to Andromeda.”

The nods around the table outnumbered the frowns. “Very well, Lieutenant. Commander Renshaw, assemble a team for tactical analysis. I want a salvage plan in two hours. And see if you can include options for provoking one of the alien fleets to pick a fight with the Praeternaturalist vessel. Fleet Admiralty would kill for some combat data and we have ringside seats.”

“Yes, Captain.”

As the officers filed out, Talakhamani said, “Commander Quay, please remain for a moment.” She pretended not to notice her departing senior officers’ furtive exchange of worried looks.

When they were alone, she examined the sweat beading his brow for a long moment. “Nelson, please sit down. There’s something important we need to discuss.”

Commander Quay leaned forward confidently. “You’ve considered my suggestion of a deep-range infiltration into Grivenari territory?”

“I have. Hold that thought.” Talakhamani steepled her fingers. “Commander, please state Queen Ranavalona’s mission.”

Sweat now gathering in a damp ring around his face, Quay recited, “To engage hostile alien cultures, to acquire and evaluate alien technology and protect humanity at all costs.”

“Very good Commander.” Talakhamani waved up a political map of the galaxy. The small region of human-dominated space was surrounded on all sides by the red-shaded areas belonging to the genocidally hostile Cha’sorva, Bittik-Kintti, Sanxescene and dozens of others. “Humanity is under constant threat of extinction. As you know our only hope is the Magpie Stratagem: to obtain whatever we can to use against those who would destroy us. Are you aware I received a personally-coded transmission from Fleet Admiralty, for my sole attention?”

“Yes. All executive-level orders are routed through the senior StratOps officer-”

“Did you manage to crack it?”

Quay went quite still. “Captain, unauthorised access to closed orders is a breach of security protocols. Are you insinuating-?”

“I’ll take it you were unsuccessful then.” She flashed a hologram of the decoded message between them. Quay’s eyes remained fixed on Talakhamani.

“Twenty-four hours ago, Grivenari shapeshifters posing as senior Strategic Operations staff – from your command unit – attempted to open a wormhole between Fleet Admiralty headquarters in Boston and the centre of the sun. The attempt failed. StratOps rerouted the wormhole tail to Grivenari Prime and launched a Bittik-Kintti vortex annihilator through it.”

“They what?” Quay’s face fell and kept falling. His skin and hair drained off like melting butter, leaving a waxy orange head stricken with horror. “Grivenari Prime?”

“Is gone,” confirmed Talakhamani. “I’m grievously sorry for your loss. I wish it had not been necessary.”

“You knew I was Grivenari?”

“For months now. When we installed Doxomian genetic recognition systems to ship security, we left it out of the official record. You were marked when you came aboard.”

“Why accept the deception? You should have shot me as a spy.”

Captain Talakhamani grimaced. “What a waste that would be. You’re a highly trained infiltration specialist. As one of the last surviving Grivenari, your skills and knowledge are all but unique.”

“What are you saying, Captain?”

“I think we share a driving interest in survival.”

“The Magpie Stratagem?”

“Exactly,” said Captain Talakhamani, holding out a hand. “I’d like you to come and work for us.”

As I wrote this, it occurred to me the high concept is basically “What if the Enterprise was crewed by the Borrowers?” It feels strange to have an answer to a question like that.

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Friday flash fiction – Last Year Tomorrow

“There’s a problem with the New Year,” Penny McAlister told the new director. “Apparently it’s on hold.”

Bill Temple had spent the entire night on the phone to the Minister’s office, working his way through a thirty year old bottle of GlenClaymore, negotiating with a series of junior ministerial staffers for a moment of the Minister’s time so that Bill could beg for another appointment.

With dawn came clarity; no reprieve would come. He was assigned to the least desirable position in the entire Australian Public Service: Director of the Ashburnham Office of the Department of Abnormal Affairs. With no choice but to put on a clean suit and a brave face, he strode into his office to find his assistant waiting for him with a glass of water, two ibuprofen tablets and a summary of the evening’s weird events.

“Thank you, Ms McAlister.” He gulped the pills, thinking longingly of the last few fingers of whisky left at the bottom of his bottle. When he felt more composed, he said, “Local celebrations fall outside our jurisdiction. Surely this is a matter for the town council?”

Penny, who was barely visible having pulled down the blackout curtains in the office and come to work dressed in what appeared to be an entirely black tuxedo with a dark leather hooded cape, replied, “You misunderstand, sir. I’m not talking about the new year’s party at the showgrounds. I mean that the concept of 2019 has failed to emerge.”

“The concept of-?”

“2019, sir. It’s not coming. We’ve got clairvoyant forecasts, dream analyses and pretemporal scans coming in from our Third Eyes allies around the globe. Nobody can see past midnight tomorrow.” She handed him a folder. “It’s all in the report.”

Bill squinted at the summary page on top, wondering how she would react to him asking to turn a light on. “We’re in a small country town in the middle of nowhere. Why is this our problem?”

“Because whatever is blocking the new year from arriving, it’s happening right here in Ashburnham, sir. We’ve got independent assurance on the geomantic positioning, and quantum triangulation esimates from Ottawa, Tokyo and Vegas. 98 percent confidence.” Penny showed her teeth in a not-quite-smile. “I’m afraid it’s very much our problem, sir.”

Bill cursed. Five of his predecessors in this job had disappeared without trace under mysterious circumstances. Ashburnham chewed DAA Directors up and spat them out, possibly literally.

“Well, if tomorrow’s the end of the world, you’d better call me Bill. Any chance of a-?”

“Ten strong black coffees coming up, Bill,” said Penny, switching on the light on her way out.


Mickey Blundell was a senior technical officer who looked like he’d just come in from mowing grassy verges along the highway. “G’day, Bill,” he said as he spilled maps and glassy rocks across the meeting room table. “I’m the geomancer. I’ll take you through what we’ve got so far, eh?”

What they had were exasperatingly vague indicators and speculative hypotheses tumbling in from around the world. Mickey drew lines and curves on the map, making edits whever Penny delivered another prognosticatory report. Every so often he would scatter a handful of colourful stones on a map and mutter something about “meridial cessation” or “utter oblivion” or just “damn it”.

The pressure on Bill climbed during the day, with the Minister’s office in Canberra demanding hourly situation updates while pointedly ignoring Bill’s increasingly blatant hints that they should send an expert to take charge.

By the end of the afternoon, Bill was a wreck from caffeine jitters and stress. “My career is over,” he moaned.

“Never mind,” Penny consoled him, “it’s only for another seven hours. Besides, you said this job was a death sentence for your ambitions before anyone knew about the termination of linear time.”

He raised a twitching eyebrow. “I didn’t say that!”

Penny shrugged. “I’m good at reading body language.”

At nine pm, as Bill tucked into a final dinner of takeaway sandwiches, Mickey entered waving a street directory wildly inscribed with a red whiteboard marker. “We’ve calculated the address, right here in town! The Chief’s checking it out now.” Seeing Bill’s shaking fingers and pallid expression, he added, “I’ll drive, eh?”

At ten, the Samoan office security chief Kylie Tamatoa called from the target site to give the all-clear. “The place is quiet as a cemetery,” she reported.

Penny was waiting for them in the car park. She handed Bill water, painkillers and a sealed envelope. “Open it after you get there.” She didn’t let him leave until he swallowed the pills and drained his glass. “Good luck, sir.”

At eleven, Kylie rapped the passenger window, snapping Bill out of his exhausted daze. Opening his eyes, he recognised the car park.

“This is the source of the interference? The Split Palms Motor Inn?”

Mickey waved a sheaf of calculations. “Room Eight.”

Kylie said, “The night manager’s on my rugby team. I’ll get the keys.”

“Don’t bother,” said Bill, waving a plastic card. “This is my room.”

The room inside was almost how he’d left it. Tidy. Bed made. Suitcase packed, ready for transfer to the Director’s residence.

“That’s new.” Arranged in front of the easy chair and side table where he’d spent the night negotiating his position was a mirror. Bill stood behind the chair to stare at the reflection.

An indistinct shape slumped in the mirror’s chair. It frantically thumbed a phone with one hand; the other held a sloshing tumbler. On the reflected table sat a near-full Scotch bottle.

“Who’s that?” asked Kylie.

“That’s the interference,” said Mickey, looking from the mirror to Bill. “A temporal null-state. Time can’t progress until it resolves.”

Bill remembered Penny’s envelope. A handwritten note in her precise script was attached to the front.

Dear Director Temple, I recognised the address. I’ve prepared a requisition authorisation to book Room 8 at the Split Palms Motor Inn for a period of not less than 365 days, and a personal leave request for the same period. I’ve marked where you’d need to sign, if that’s what you decide. Good luck, sir. Happy new year.

Bill scribbled his signature and put the papers in Mickey’s hands. “Ask Penny to file these, okay?”

He sat in the chair. The bottle by his hand was now as full as its mirror counterpart. Small consolation, but acceptable. He poured a shot and raised it as his phone chirped midnight and 2019 settled over him.

“Here’s to moving forward,” he said. “I’ll see you when this year is done.”

Like this story? You can get my short story collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales free by joining my mailing list.

Happy 2019, I guess? I hope you’re embracing the inevitability of change and unenviable choices as much as necessary (and preferably no more).

This week’s story is something of a sequel to Business as Usual, inasmuch as the Ashburnham office of the Department of Abnormal Affairs and executive-assistant-in-perpetuity Penny McAlister have appeared before.

I’m still on the road this week, so unfortunately at the moment I can’t do anything about the intermittent issue where the image doesn’t appear. Possibly I won’t be able to do anything about it when I get home either, but let’s remain optimistic about the future, shall we?

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Friday flash fiction – Anarchy (in the EA)

In a grimy Soho bar in November 1975, nobody recognised her when the heir to the Empire of Albion walked in. As a human-saurian hybrid fashionably dressed in nearly-shredded jeans and a tartan waistcoat, she drew no particular attention. She ordered a vodka, received watery whisky paid for with crumpled counterfeit bills bearing her mother’s face, and set to work fomenting revolution.

A band, already drunk and squabbling loudly as they set up their instruments, hid Violet from the disinterested view of the bar patrons. Most were there to see the short-fused gang of criminal miscreants calling themselves the Stegs, though it would be more precise to say the crowd were there to get mean-drunk and assault each other, to the beat of the Stegs’ recent hit “Tastes Like Chicken”.

Violet, on the other hand, was there to see a friend of the family. It occurred to her that the recent radical changes in her appearance – hair entirely shorn but for the glue-stiffened centre plume, pierced nose, ears and top lip, and the livid scar stretching from shoulder to clavicle – might confuse her contact, but Beryl spotted her at once and waved her over to a quiet table protected from the worst of the noise and thrown glass.

Beryl wrinkled her long nose in mock disgust. “This, of all places, is where you wanted to meet me?” Somehow she did not need to shout over the clamour of the Stegs’ amateurish sound check.

Violet waved a hand at the jostling crowd spilling flat beer and cheap liquor on the floor and each other. “Look at them Beryl. What do you see?”

“I see angry skinheads, drunken boors and young ladies who most certainly should consult a dictionary before getting tattooed,” replied the Great Dragon of Albion. In this grotty setting, her human presentation as an elegantly-dressed Middle Eastern woman of late middle age was barely less incongruous than a full-sized dragon would have been. She scrutinised Violet with an air of amused shrewdness. “Why, dear, what do you see?”

“I see a generation on the edge, great Wyrm. I see cynicism and hopelessness. I see the fruits of stagnation and corruption. I see youth with no cause for ambition and no heart for their future.”

Beryl twirled a fingertip in her drink, which was an implausibly colourful layered cocktail, complete with a paper umbrella. Violet has seen no such signs of sophistication when she’d visited the bar. At last Beryl said, “You speak of the youth of Albion, dear, as if you are not of an age with them. Tell me how you feel.”

Violet flushed, equally embarrassed and angry. “Does it matter?”

“Everything matters, my dear. The mind of the Empress is the will of Albion, and you will be Empress soon enough.”

The Stegs began to play something wildly cacophonous, less music than instrumental abuse. Violet’s glass splintered and shattered in her grip, spilling whisky. “That’s just it, isn’t it? What will I be Empress of?”

Beryl shrugged, perfectly able to hear and speak over the Stegs’ din. “The Empire of Albion embraces every corner of the earth, Violet. If that’s not enough for you, I understand there is talk among the more radical elements in the Society for Extranormal Research of mounting an expedition to the red planet.”

“It’s all just talk! All anyone does now is talk and get fat, unless they happen to be one of the billions who work their fingers raw to keep the Empire going.”

“There’s world peace,” observed Beryl. “Well, mostly. I admit things are a bit fractious here and there in the Americas.”

“Most of the world is a slave state making stuff to send back to England, to prop up a bloated, inbred ruling class!”

Beryl raised an elegant eyebrow. “Inbred, dear?”

Violet picked shard of glass from between the fine purple scales on her hand. “You do know that the Imperial Board of Heraldry is planning to recommend I be married off to one of Lord Growl’s great-nephews?”

“Snapmarrow? He seems like a nice lad.”

“He’s my second cousin!”

“So what are you saying, dear? Do you want me to help you get out of an ill-advised marital pairing?”

As the Stegs’ grand clamour climaxed in a collision of clashing drums, wailing guitars and guttural snarls, Violet scratched the symbolic A of the Empire into the table top, then slashed through it with her thumb-talon. “No, great Wyrm. I want you to help me free my people. All of them. Everywhere.”

“Well good for you, love. I think you’re right. It’s about time to move things along.”

Beryl winked. The idea of how it could be done, how their designs would unfold step by step, blossomed in Violet’s mind as if they’d been conspiring for months.

Into the tumultuous din between songs, Beryl issued a high-pitched warble. Every full-blooded and hybrid Saurian in the club, as well as most of the humans, fell quiet. They stared as she chirped something to the Stegs’ lead singer, who snarled quietly at the rest of the band.

“If you lead them, dear,” Beryl said, draining her drink and standing, “they’ll follow you.”

With a grateful nod to the green-faced Saurian singer, Violet claimed the microphone. The crowd grumbled at the interruption to the Stegs’ mayhem, ready to throw whatever was at hand. She silenced them with a full-throated growl.

“I’m Vee! Some of you might know my Mum,” she bellowed into the shocked silence. “I’ve got a message for you, so shut up and listen close. Tonight, every single one of you is going to go home and start a band. Spread the word to the far side of the world.”

She looked around at the Stegs, who took up their instruments, and then at Beryl, the Great Dragon of Albion, seated at the drums.

“This one’s called End of Empire. One – two – three – four!”

Today’s spark of revolution against a corrupt and broken world order is set in the same world as Four Letters Undelivered Due to the Present Difficulties, and is a successor to An Imperial Engagement. You don’t really need to have read them to get this story, unless you’d like to know why some of the characters are dinosaur-people.

I’m having a lovely family holiday in northern New South Wales, where the weather is warm, the surf is cool and the car air-conditioner is – oops, it’s broken. Well, at least the surf is cool.

I wish you all a safe and cheerful end to 2018, and I hope you are doing what you can to recharge and prepare yourself for the year to come. I am sure that 2019 will be historically quiet and unremarkable and not at all one continuous garbage fire of malfeasance, incompetence and general iniquity. All the same it’s probably best to be prepared. Just in case.

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Friday flash fiction – A Dispatch from the War for Xmas

We could call in an airstrike on the Alfkin stronghold, but the Gift is inside. Besides the engines on X25-12 Candystripe Strike Fighters don’t hold up to Antarctic conditions. Me and my squad hunker down to plan the assault.

Back in the world, I went by Gwendoline Cordoba, but it was never my name to begin with. I renamed myself when I chose this life, and Red December Girls never look back.

“Sergeant Wreath, you have a suggestion?”

Lieutenant Ribbons is greener than fresh reindeer poop. I skimmed her file before we dusted off from Pole Charlie in Dunedin last week. She used to be one of those curse girls you read about; got put on ice back in the sixties by rivals in her own coven. Our boss Nick was the one who thawed her out, a couple of months before the Alfkin boxed him up.

“With respect, Sir/Ma’am, I know how the enemy think. They want us to give them a fair fight.”

“Fair?” I know that funny look. She’s eyeballing me like she can’t tell if I’m serious. I guess I can’t blame her. I still look like a nine year old. Witches have a lot going on, but they don’t know squat about shape shifting. “Since when do Alfkin engage in fair fights?”

My impatient huff comes out sulkier than I intended. Kid-sized physical forms don’t convey emotional nuance well. “Never, but we want them to think we will.”

This faction of my distant cousins we’re up against are called Humbugs. Haughty, arrogant ticks, even by Alfkin standards. Of everyone who took up the Queen of Winter’s banner, these were the hard-line crazies. Anti-Kringleist fanatics.

“You Alfkin, you’re all the same,” says Ribbons. “Everything’s a game to you, isn’t it?”

“If you say so, Sir/Ma’am.” If this looks like a game to her, it’s only because she doesn’t understand the rules.

The Lieutenant shakes her head. “Every day I ask myself, was this worth getting out of bed for?”

The Humbug stronghold is a cute little fairytale cottage snuggled in a shady woodland grove in the middle of the Antarctic Desert, three hundred kilometres southeast of McMurdo Station. Don’t be fooled by the postcard-picturesque appearance. The Queen is expending serious juice to keep it running in subzero conditions.

My plan’s pretty simple. The rest of the Red December Girls will split into fire teams and create a distraction by sabotaging the generators. Which is to say, the perimeter network of ancient, mystically-powerful elms that maintain this sun-dappled temperate forest inside a freezing blizzard.

The fire teams get to work setting fires, attracting all sorts of attention.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant Ribbons and I walk up and knock on the front door. Alfkin magic works by certain rules, and one of the rules is, if a couple of shivering, unarmed girls knock on the door of an abandoned cottage in the middle of nowhere, it is bound to invite them to enter, usually to their extreme doom. Unfortunately for the Humbugs, Alfkin magic lacks an appreciation for such subtleties as one of the girls being a centuries-old changeling, and the other a smallish Croatian twenty-something, neither of whom requires weapons to go armed.

“We’re in. What now?”

Lieutenant Ribbons tries to sound cool and focused, but there’s no shame in an awestruck reaction to Alfkin architecture. The interior of the cottage is a vast cathedral of bone and petrified wood, lit by wafting firefly lanterns and candlewax stalactites of glowing golden sap. It’s intentionally eye-catching.

“Get down,” I hiss, dragging Ribbons behind a bench made from the shoulder blade of a greater Pacific kaiju. Two strange shapes emerge through the great ribcage-doors to the inner compounds. Each figure is an entire Alfkin mobile artillery crew manning a heavy arbalest weapons platform, from which sprouts large avian legs. They stalk about like hungry scavengers, hunting us.

“Baba-Marshall Yaga should sue for copyright infringement.”

“Never mind the name dropping,” I snap. “Can you take the one on the left?”

“Five immortal fey on an oversized chicken-mounted crossbow?” scoffs Ribbons, flexing her hexing fingers. “I’d be chanted out of the coven if I couldn’t.”

“You were chanted out!”

“Just get them, Sergeant Wreath.”

The arbalesters fight hard, with spring-propelled spears, and razor claws, and cutlasses when we get close. But their fighting styles are a couple of centuries out of date, and Red December Girls are This-Minute-Or-Sooner, if you get me.

So before long me and the LT are wrestling to rein in our new ambulatory gun emplacements. It takes a few words of old Alfkin and a soothing hex to calm them enough to start hunting for the Gift.

Various problems arise: more chicken-crossbow crews; several enlarged leopard seals guarding various important doors; and more than a few arguments over whether to turn left or right at the animated statue of the Queen of Winter.

Neither, as it turned out. The Gift is hidden – or perhaps shoved negligently – beneath the flowing ermine robes of the Queen’s statue, out of sight and probably forgotten almost immediately by the sullen, feckless Humbugs.

“Do you want to open it?”

“Sir/Ma’am, how many times do I have remind you I’m a lot older than I look?” But the Gift has a bowtie and beautiful gold-green wrapping paper, so I open it.

Old Saint Nick’s snugged up asleep inside. “Same kind of heavy-slumber curse my coven laid on me,” says Ribbons, reversing it. “He should come to in three – two – one.”

“Ho ho ho?”

“Welcome back, Sir/Ma’am,” says Ribbons, snapping a salute.

“What time is it?”

I nod to the Big Man, who’s not technically in the chain of command. “December 24. I’m afraid we didn’t get you anything.”

Santa smiles, looking from me to Ribbons. “But I see I got you something. The gift of cooperation and mutual respect.”

We exchange a look of our own, and smirk. Maybe he’s half-right.

“With all due respect, Santa, next time I’d prefer world peace and a pony.”

Season’s greetings, one and all. Since this is more or less a sequel to Nestled In the Gift Wrapping from late December last year, I guess it is now a Friday flash fiction tradition to have an Xmas story starring Santa and various combative elves. You’re welcome.

As this Year of Trials comes to a close, we all must contemplate the uncertain specter of 2019. Will it be a harbinger of greater malignancy, or will it do us a solid by not abjectly sucking? The future is murky, but I offer this balm: my newsletter comes out once every six weeks or so with glad tidings, writing news and free fiction. Sign up using the form below to get all that goodness and a free ebook of my short story collection:

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