Friday flash fiction – Paloma Paz and the Agents of MAID

Sergeant Paloma Paz and her Primo Donnas crew hold the Midinoch Anti-Incursion Division’s record for demonic suppression operations. Nobody slaps down Realms-Next-Door nasties better. Whenever a multiversal rent pops up somewhere in Novo Midinoch, they’re scrambling.

https://pixabay.com/en/night-night-image-darkness-lighting-111974/

As their custom Acero-Leona J42 combat trikes roar up Valiant Avenue, Paloma calls for intel. “Tell us what we’re looking for, Sara!”

Sara “Bellum” Bentley is the big-brained psychic at the centre of the surveillance network. She’s strictly rear echelon. She sees the Realms-Next-Door so clearly, she has no attention to spare for anything else. She hasn’t been licensed to ride for years, much less carry electroplasmic weaponry.

“Massive ruptures within Fallowfield Mall,” reports Sara. “Multiple fissures detected. What I’m seeing looks like someone stuck a pelican head on top of a giraffe’s neck and painted it radioactive green.”

“Maracorva demons!” Paloma has been around so long, she’s forgotten more varieties of monster than most people have heard of. She remembers these ones well. “Last time they were in town, we called them Gulpers.”

“Last time they were in town, it was two of them,” cuts in the weary growl of Division Chief Watanabe, who only leaves her MAID HQ officer quarters once a day, to walk her pugs. “It’s getting worse, Sergeant Paz.”

Officer Kelly Rothe, better known to MAID fans as Kelly Both-Barrels, is only interested in numbers. “How many targets, Central?”

“Minimum of a dozen.”

So many? The Chief was right; it’s a bad situation. Paloma swears in three different languages.

“I guess there’s no news like bad news, huh Sergeant?” Officer Verity Sweet keeps herself so far below the radar she not only doesn’t have a nickname, but even most hardcore Primo Donna-spotters don’t realise she’s on the team. Ninjas might wish for Verity’s natural stealth, if they’d ever heard of her.

“Stay clear of their beaks,” orders Paloma. “Believe me, you don’t want to spend any time in a Maracorva bill. It’s like climbing into a body hammock made of acid.”

Engines roar as the Primo Donnas blast through the gap left for them in the tight-packed security cordon around the mall entrance. Already the crowds are chanting their names – not Verity’s – and singing their theme songs as they dismount and gear up.

They have the latest equipment: body armour layered with ballistic and anti-corrosive weaves, state of the art helmet sensors; and shotguns primed with shells of silver nitrate, rock salt and unstable chronidium scraped from the sizzling umbra of interdimensional wormholes. Everything a well-prepared girl needs when unwanted guests drop by.

Paloma likes to deliver a pep talk before an operation gets hot. “Division Chief Watanabe wants us to get to the bottom of this surge. And every person behind us expects us to keep them safe from the monsters. Let’s not disappoint anyone!”

“Primo Donnas!” shouts Kelly, and the watching crowd take up the chant. Paloma stays quiet because she hates her own singing voice. Verity stays quiet because she’s snuck inside the mall without anyone registering her absence.

Paloma says, “Let’s get in there before she vanishes completely.”

The mall is empty of crowds but the screaming, hooting monsters make it seem busy. The Maracorva have split up, and spread out. What are they up to? Paloma doesn’t like guesses, but she remembers how smart Maracorva are. They’re planning something.

The first one they encounter has a bill swollen up like an inflated toad; it has swallowed the entire perfume counter staff of Kilbey’s Department Store. While Paloma and Kelly pepper it with distracting shotgun blasts to its belly, Verity finds a nearby open portal. She ignores the infinite ultraviolet haze and unpleasant scorch oil smell coming from the other side. Unhooking a small mobile field disruptor from her backpack, she batters the portal’s fringe with electroplasmic waves until it begins to resonate at a slightly higher frequency.

The Maracorva squawks in alarm, opening its fat pelican-bill. Ladies tumble out onto the tiles, their white uniforms now scorched and pitted with holes, and their faces puffy and red. They look back at the staggering, howling giraffe-demon and run screaming for the nearest exit.

“Clear!” yells Paloma, as the last of the perfume counter attendants scrambles past her. Kelly Both-Barrels drops her shotgun and charges the Maracorva, kicking it square in its bristly breastbone with both feet. The demon staggers and totters backwards, stepping through its own multiversal portal and vanishing. Verity reverses the electroplasmic field, siphoning off stabilising chronidium particles until the portal collapses and dissipates.

“One down,” says Paloma, “but there’s still another -”

“Look alert, Sergeant,” warns Sara Bellum over comms. “The remaining Maracova are reconfiguring to compensate for the loss. I think they’ve formed a-”

Paloma finishes the thought. “A summoning circle. For something big.”

“Too late,” says Verity. “Look.”

The Maracorva have surrounded the plaza’s ornamental fountain garden. Electroplasmic energy crackles between them, and spikes toward a hub centred on the splashing fountain.

As the Primo Donnas move into firing positions, an enormous figure, twice the fountain’s height, takes shape.

“On my mark,” says Paloma, as the smoking figure hardens into the shape of a huge woman, rocky and muscular, with a coal-black bob for hair and eyes like smouldering coals.

“Release your hostages or we’ll shoot!”

The volcano woman says in an avalanche voice, “Let them go.”

The Maracorva open their bills. Shop attendants, customers and cleaners tumble free. They run and crawl to safety. The Maracorva pay them no attention; as portals appear they step through and depart.

“They were not prisoners. They ran too slowly, and so required shielding from the portal energies.”

Surprise, Paloma asks the volcano woman, “What do you want?”

“The Realms-Next-Door are tired of fighting. I am Ambassador Tor. I wish to be friends.”

The Primo Donnas lower their weapons. “You mean, no more attacks?”

“Not from the Realms-Next-Door.”

“But other places?”

“Worse places, yes.”

“Oh,” says Paloma Paz. “Then how do you feel about joining the Primo Donnas?”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

 


This one is entirely written at the behest of my daughter, who requested a story about a “lady cop who fights demons”. I may have drifted slightly off my brief, but I’m confident the gratuitous mention of pugs will claw back any lost credibility. Writers are always being told “Write for your ideal audience,” which is much easier when the audience in question is specific about her requirements.

Hopefully the rest of you are also charmed by gratuitous pugs.

Did you seen my news this week? Two of my stories were nominated this week for Aurealis Awards (the annual Australian SF, fantasy and horror fiction awards).

Scroll down to the next post for the details, and if you’re curious to read the stories ahead of the announcement of winners in early May, you can read “A Moment’s Peace” in A Hand of Knaves, and “The Dressmaker and the Colonel’s Coat” in Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales.

(Sorry today’s story is slightly late – I didn’t notice that the upload scheduler was set to tomorrow).

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My Aurealis Surprise

Shortlists for the 2018 Aurealis Awards – Australia’s premier jury-based award for speculative fiction – were announced yesterday. To my considerable surprise, I have stories in not one but two categories!

“A Moment’s Peace” from A Hand of Knaves – aka “the light-hearted heist with the growly demon voice and the repeated painful death of the narrator” – is nominated in the Best Fantasy Short Story category.

“The Dressmaker and the Colonel’s Coat”, which appears in the self-published Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales – aka “the not-remotely-light-hearted weird western with the seamstress and her brother’s ghost” – is nominated in the Best Fantasy Novella category.

Naturally I am feeling amazed and delighted that these stories have struck a chord with the judges, who are all clearly gentle-persons of refined judgment and excellent taste. I love both stories for very different reasons, but I’m always genuinely astonished to hear that they work for other people as well. (Imposter Syndrome is alive and well and squatting in the bilge of my soul. Harder to clear out than barnacles, it is).

Leaving me aside, this year’s finalists are a wonderful cross-section of the Australian spec fic community. I can’t recommend enough that you check out some of the works on the list – the ones I’ve read are all very deserving, and most of the ones I haven’t seen yet are by authors whose writing I love. Not only that, but the new names on this year’s lists point to a healthy, dynamic writing community.

Congratulations and best of luck to everyone on the nominations list this year – there’s too many of my good friends and peers to name them all (seriously, most of the nominees are people I am lucky enough to know personally or know to be writers who deserve admiration).

As a personal note, because I just want to shout out to Leife Shallcross and Chris Large,  the editors of A Hand of Knaves, who decided they liked “A Moment’s Peace” enough to open the book with it, to Jodi Cleghorn, without whose encouragement “Dressmaker” would never have been written, and to the critiquing teams who knocked both stories into shape – especially Kristy Evangelista, Angus Yeates, Tim Napper, Shauna O’Meara, Juliette Morley, Kim Gaal, Simon Petrie, my mum Jean and probably several people I shouldn’t have forgotten!

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Friday flash fiction – Both Ends of the Lifeline

Francesca hasn’t fallen. There’s nowhere to fall. She’s in a place between the pull of gravity and the listless drift of space. She’s between light and dark, perfectly able to see there’s nothing to see.

https://pixabay.com/en/sunlight-light-rope-silhouette-264768/

Except the Stalker. She’s alone with it, in emptiness. Nothing separates them. It is enormous, grotesque, all razor beaks and scaled eyes and claw-tipped tentacles spilling like overripe guts from a giant cat’s corpse. This nightmare consumes whole civilisations, she’s heard. And yet to Francesca it’s small and intimate, like a killer she has known all her life.

She knows she has to run before it sees her.

She looks at her feet. Now she’s standing on a path leading away from the Stalker.

Francesca runs.

*

Alison Trent can’t return to the dreamscape, not since she killed Bob. The Yau Phyter, whom she’d understandably mistaken for a parasitic demon, was her tether between reality and humanity’s shared psychic bolthole, until Alison kicked them to death in her panic.

She can’t join the celebration. All around her, sleepers are emerging from the grip of horror, of a long-clenched throat suddenly released and channelling breath once more. The Stalker is gone. For years, all of humanity has been hunkered in solitary confinement, locked down through an extinction emergency, their numbers and hope eroding like a hurricane-chewed coast. The Yau have endured this crisis a millionfold times over.

For nearly everyone, the nightmare has ended. Not for Alison. A chilling certainty haunts her.

“Francesca isn’t dead. We have to save her.”

*

The Stalker is following Francesca. Its nature is to hunt and consume. Its relentlessness is a quality she understands, even respects, having remade herself as a predator.

Respect is one thing, but she isn’t reckless. She needs a place to hide, and her sanctuary appears in the shape of a forest. It is a shadowed, ancient place. Older than animal tracks. Older than birdsong.

She plunges into the gloom between the gnarled trunks of ageless giants, into dense and labyrinthine underbrush. Damp moss sinks underfoot, springing back as she passes, leaving no tracks. She navigates by instinct, ducking through gaps in the thicket, forging paths meant only for herself. Some distance behind, its howl is part ferocious threat, part confusion.

The Stalker doesn’t understand this place, but Francesca has begun to.

*

Alison’s ready to scream at her translators. She can only see the human half of the Gale/Jasper hybrid, who looks like a cartoon mad scientist with owlish eyes, wild beard and scorch marks. Between slow blinks, Caspian Gale summarises what they are saying about her in the dreamscape. “You’re mad.”

“How so?”

“I’m sad we lost Francesca Kincaid. We all are. Everyone left alive owes her a debt. But it took everything we had to slice the universe open and dump the Stalker into the irrational space outside. It would be suicidal insanity to reopen it just to fish for her corpse.”

“She’s still alive,” she insists.

“How can you possibly know that?”

“I haven’t felt her die yet.”

*

There are no paths, but Francesca forges a path of least resistance and follows it to a mountain.

The forest becomes gloomier than ever. Thick twisting branches prop up a dense canopy blocking out a sun she’s only just become aware of, as it recedes into the impenetrably leafy overhead mass.

Steepness rapidly gives way to sheerness. Francesca climbs and soon emerges above the trees to see the forest sweep away behind her and the mountain loom forth. Unhesitating, she closes her fingers around protruding rocks and hauls herself up. It’s slow, but it’s progress. She keeps climbing, mindful that the Stalker has neither hastened its pursuit not relented from it. It’s not far away, but has gained no ground.

She wonders why it has not sought to close the gap. It’s a troubling question, but she has no plans to indulge it by waiting for the Stalker to find her.

Francesca climbs.

*

“Trent might be right.”

Most of what’s left of humanity has woken up. Only a handful of Francesca’s trusted crew remain in the dreamscape. Nera Skogg inherited their leadership from Francesca. The Yau half of the Gale/Jasper hybrid regards her with grave skepticism.

“The aperture hasn’t fully closed,” observes Nera. To demonstrate, she manipulates the dreamspace, replicating an image of the crack in reality. Like most of her audience, Nera was taught the craft of shaping the Yau’s dream environment by Francesca, for the singular purpose of destroying the Yau. “It’s an abscess that won’t heal. Too small for the Stalker to return but-”

Gale/Jasper considers the almost imperceptible warp Nera has conjured. “You believe this is evidence of life?”

“It took all of us to open that hole. After the Stalker fell through, we weren’t equal to the task of closing it.”

“Because you lacked Francesca’s power?”

“No. We think it’s because she’s resisting.”

*

The summit is icy and windswept. Murderously cold, but Francesca doesn’t feel it.

Her Stalker is just below, and now at last it gathers momentum, now she’s reached the top to find she has nowhere else to go. Up close, its hunger is as palpable as the scrape of its hide on the rock face.

“If you eat me, you’ll have nothing left,” she calls, sounding calmer than she feels. “You’ll be all alone.”

She feels pragmatic rather than sympathetic. The first thing she learned from the Yau nightmare realm was how to change it. In this place, hers is the only intelligent will, and she is its queen.

Below, the forest fills with the sounds and smells of life. Birds and animals, crying and calling. The Stalker hesitates, drawn by the cacophony. It turns from Francesca to begin a new hunt.

“All you can eat,” she says, though she can’t be sure anything she’s made is real. “You’re welcome.”

The air before her shimmers – not her doing – and something slips through from the other side, carried on the whisper of her name.

Francesca takes the rope in both hands.

She lets them bring her home.


For anyone who hasn’t been following along, this is the last-but-one story in a sequence:  Works Like A Dream, Any Dream Will Do, Alison’s Awake, The Nightmare Bargain and Everyone Dreams, Nobody Quits. If I’m right – and I won’t know for sure until it’s written – there’s one more dream war story to tell.

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Friday flash fiction – The Fall of Pallas

Professor Skink nervously licked her eye and called the meeting to order. “You know why you’ve been summoned. I call on each of you to relinquish your talisman. This is the final assembly of the Pallas Group.”

https://pixabay.com/en/blur-bowling-bowling-alley-1836980/

Sheer, the unsettlingly thin alien with mirrored skin and lapsed thirst for conquest, buzzed in dismay. “You called us together to disband us?”

“What is there to disband? Our schemes are undone. Our affairs lie in ruins.”

“We took a few hits, is all,” drawled the cowboy, Lasso Lyle, flicking a match with his thumbnail. The tip broke off without sparking. “Horse throws you, you dust yourself off and get right back in the saddle.”

“Can you not do that accent?” said Sybil, the future-glimpsing sneak thief with the faceless black mask. “I’ve got family in Texas who’d shoot you for that accent.”

“It’s a work in progress, little lady,” replied Lyle, but he trailed off, his native Toronto tones breaking through.

“Unacceptable!” Gigantex, the size-shifting robot from the Venomous Dimensions, expanded its fist to eight times the regular size and used it to bash the pool table between them. Balls bounced and scattered. “Gigantex requires allies to enact its plans. Loss of support resources will cause intolerable delays to Schemes 7, 11 and 23.”

“Look around you, you fools! “Professor Skink grabbed the overhead light dangling by a chain over the table and turned it in random directions. Its sickly beams turned toward aged arcade consoles, a dusty refreshment booth and eight dull, scuffed bowling lanes.

“Does this look like the secret meeting chamber at the 21-Carat Club to you? Or the penthouse of Celestios Tower? Or Dame Grandiose’s personal yacht? No, it looks like my manservant’s cousin’s bowling alley, because this is all we could get. And incidentally, Gigantex, if you have damaged the felt on this table, the cost of replacing it will come out of your cut of the treasury.”

“Unacceptable!” Gigantex bellowed again, but it retreated to its seat by the slushie dispenser.

“Our situation is beyond salvage,” said Professor Skink. “We are the last members of the Pallas Group left standing in Colossus City.”

“Oh really?” said Sybil with heavy skepticism. “What about Centrifuge?”

“Captain Silver trapped him in an antigrav bubble.”

“Wow. The Irregulator, then?”

“That idiot? He fell for a fake lottery sting put together by the cops and Roulette Blue.”

“Night Shrike?”

“Who even knows with that one?”

Sybil snorted. “Did any heavy hitters get away? Present company excluded, of course.” Sheer nodded, and the plates of Gigantex’s metal face rearranged themselves into smug acknowledgment.

“None. Nobody’s seen Corona in weeks. She’s probably skulking in the heart of the sun.” Professor Skink repeated, “Surrender the talismans. Until they are returned to me willingly, our pact is vulnerable to those with mystic sight. And with Nightmare Kaja and the Singe Twins in custody…”

“We gotta bust them outta – er, out of there,” suggested Lyle, with a nervous glance at Sybil. “They’d do the same for us.”

Sheer, always difficult to look at, appeared to shake its head. “Every conceivable rescue scenario carries a significant risk of an encounter with Team Infinity. Their success rates for physical victories and criminal prosecutions have been rising ever since-”

“Ever since Doc Ontological took Tock Tock off the table,” finished Sybil with audible bitterness. “He did us no favours, stirring them up like that. The whole hero community’s been like a pack of wild dogs for months now.” She fished a small golden medallion from a pocket on her belt and dropped it into Professor Skink’s outstretched hand. “Take it, Scales. It stopped working for me a while back anyhow.”

Sheer reached into its own stomach as if plunging a hand into a pool of quicksilver. It produced a talisman, which it handed to Professor Skink. “The criminal fraternity is no use to me if it does not afford protection and resources. I rescind my association with the Pallas Group.”

Lyle, with a forlorn expression wrapped around a clumsily hand-rolled cigarette, gave two talismans to Skink. “I got Kevin’s when he dumped me.”

“What? The Stiletto and Dirk mercenary power couple have split up?” cried Sybil. “Is that what this Lone Ranger getup is all about?”

“I’m trialling some new gimmicks,” admitted Lyle, looking down at a carpet heavily stained by mustard spills and soda syrup. “It’s not easy, starting out all over again after a long time with one person.”

“Good for you. That takes a lot of courage.” Sybil offered a hug. After an uncertain pause, Lyle accepted.

Crackling impatiently, Gigantex flung its talisman at the Professor. “Unity magic useless to Gigantex if nobody unites. Gigantex will conquer humans without help!”

The metal emblems flared with chemical light and melted to slag in the Professor’s hand. “It’s done. Our strength and fortunes are our own once more. This is the end of the Pallas Group. Now I suggest we all go our separate-”

Plucking the two heaviest bowling balls from a nearby display rack, Sybil whirled and crushed Gigantex’s head between them. Sparks from its scrapped appendage illuminated expressions of shock that turned instantly furious.

Sybil swung a roundhouse blow that connected with Professor Skink’s ridged brow and sent her sprawling over the shoe-hire bar. She spun on one heel and released both balls like throwing daggers. One hit Sheer square in the face; the ball sank in and bubbles appeared on the surface of Sheer’s head. The other ball punctured Sheer’s torso, in one side and out the other. The alien squawked once and collapsed into a puddle.

“What the-? You’re not Sybil!” Lyle tried to catch her in his lasso but Sybil caught the rope and yanked it from his hands.

Sybil held up a finger to shush him. “Night Shrike to Team Infinity,” she announced. “Three trashbags ready for collection.”

She looked at Lyle. “You wanted a fresh start, Lyle? Be my guest.”

“You’re…letting me go?”

“On one condition,” said Night Shrike. “Lose the chaps.”


I figured it was time to check in on the superhero setting of Colossus City and see what’s up. This story is a sequel to more or less all the other CC stories to date, but especially Tock Tock. All of my superhero flash stories are linked using the Colossus City tag.

This week might have been the closest I’ve come to not finishing a story. I splashed hot cooking oil on my hand while making dinner, and had to spend most of the next hour with my fingers under a cold water tap, trying not to throw up from the pain.

Eventually the sting calmed down enough for me to use a keyboard. I’ll probably have some blistering tomorrow but I definitely avoided the worst of it.

(This is your periodic reminder that it’s a very good idea to have some basic first aid training under your belt. Tonight’s important medical tip – nothing but cool running water and lots of it for scalds and oil burns).

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Friday flash fiction – Another Arm for Gemini

Gemini called on Doc Farrah in late January, looking for a new arm before the storm season blew in.

https://pixabay.com/en/well-being-contrast-light-and-shadow-1681783/

If she missed the last flight from the port of Barnacle back out to the mines of the Scrape, the lightning, silica dust and salt spray might ground the shuttle choppers for a month. She couldn’t afford to be away from the Scrape for so long. She couldn’t afford for some mechanical fault or software error to hang a lump of dead plastic and titanium from her shoulder. And she couldn’t afford Doc Farrah’s fees, but here she was with a deadline and nowhere else to turn.

“Doc, ya gotta help me. My arm’s driving me crazy.”

Doc Farrah set their cutting tool on the workbench and cranked up the suction on the dust filters. Ideal conditions for a cybernetic repair bay – sonic barriers, double airlocks and disinfectant showers – were the stuff of idle fantasy this far out from the urbzones. The best Doc Farrah could scratch up in the Barnacle were the heavy industrial extractor fans, a few tireless brushbots, and a sensor that blared whenever the atmospheric dust content exceeded a handful of parts per million.

“I’m not surprised,” said Doc, shaking their shaved head and waggling a smooth, dark finger at Gemini. “This is one of the Aleph55 series, yes? ProphyloTronics closed the service window on that model three months ago. No more updates. No tech support. I told you to upgrade it while you had the chance.”

“Like I got that kinda mark lying around,” whined Gemini, sitting beside Doc’s consulting table and guiding the jittering arm into an inspection sling. “I know what you said, Doc, but I got bills to pay.”

Doc Farrah popped open a panel on Gemini’s bicep and winced at the flood of red diagnostic signals. “Huh. This is not just wear and tear.” They peered at Gemini through burning orange enhancement filters that lent them a stern feline look. “How have you been paying those bills, Gemini?”

Gemini looked out the window toward the docks, where gangs of metal-limbed workers divested the freight train cars of their loads, hooked the steel containers of processed ore up to cranes, and unhooked them aboard the decks of waiting cargo ships. It was honest work, if unbearably dull. “I’ve been getting odd jobs up at the Scrape, Doc. This and that.”

The Doc tapped their sensor probe at an indentation in Gemini’s wrist. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear this and that resembled a bullet hole.”

“Some jobs are more that than this.” Gemini affected nonchalance, but knew she wasn’t fooling anyone. “Listen Doc, this is between you and me, right? Doctor-patient confidentiality?”

“Do you seriously think I’ve sworn a Hippocratic Oath?” The Doc sighed. “Okay, fine, I’ll do what I can. I can probably scare up a replacement inside a couple of weeks -”

Gemini yelped, “A couple of-? Doc, I need it today! If I don’t catch the chopper, I’ll -”

Doc Farrah raised their hand. “I said I’ll do what I can. I’ll hunt up a grey market firmware update to keep your Aleph55 going until the replacement arrives. You’ll be on the shuttle in an hour. Acceptable?”

“Thanks Doc, I knew I could count on you.”

The Doc started opening secure search frames on their worktab. “Sure, Gemini,” they said. “Remember this moment when I present my bill.”

#

At four a.m. two nights later, Doc Farrah’s comm woke them from a deep untroubled sleep. They streamed the call, not bothering to open their eyes. “Gemini?”

“Yeah, Doc, it’s me.”

“Why can’t I hear you properly?”

“Well, for one thing my comm’s encryption filters are strong enough to cause minor data degradation,” replied Gemini. “For another thing, there’s a lot of wind thirty storeys up and outside Gang Jin Tower.”

“Outside?”

“Well, my arm is outside. The rest of me is focused on avoiding glass lacerations or falling out a window to my certain death.” Gemini took a long, heavy breath. “Doc, the arm’s worse than ever!”

Doc sat up in bed. “Start at the beginning.”

Gemini’s heist had begun so well.

The codes she’d extracted from the mining company’s servers got her past the delivery bays, the service elevators and the outer offices of Gang Jin Tower. Her arm’s processors had deployed the codes to the Gang Jin systems fifty times faster than manual typing. She’d entered Operations Executive Jianyu’s office two minutes ahead of schedule. Jianyu’s personal workpad had unlocked itself and begun uploading its juicy cargo of sensitive corporate data to the storage matrices in Gemini’s arm.

“Then suddenly it waved to throw me off balance, and when I staggered it punched out the window and stuck itself outside.”

“What’s it doing now?”

“Pointing straight up and emitting an encrypted signal pulse.”

“Ah,” said the Doc. “Sounds like it’s turned into a beacon.”

“Doc, it’s getting cold and I’m leaning on cracking glass. Got any ideas?”

Doc Farrah isolated the firmware download and hammered it with diagnostic applications. “Hmm. The bad news is this package conceals embedded override protocols activated by recognition of specific system markers.”

“Which means what?”

“They’re specifically designed to co-opt hardware and initiate a security response in order to protect the property of Gang Jin International Extractors.”

“Snitchware? In my arm?” Gemini groaned. “Jeez, Doc, what’s the good news?”

“I didn’t mention any good news.”

“Great. Doc, every time I try to pull my arm in, the fingers grab hold of the window frame. I can’t budge it. And I can hear sirens.”

“All right, listen to me if you want to avoid the Gang Jin detention centre. Around your bicep there’s a ring of circular inserts. Peel the cover off each and hold down the button underneath. Unlock all seven to dislodge your arm.”

“You want me to leave my arm behind?”

“You might as well,” yawned Doc. “The trade-in you’d get on second-hand cyber is practically criminal.”


Thanks to a series of unexpected expenses rolling over me with the sort of exquisite comedic escalation I’d never get away with in fiction, not to mention persistently hot weather, I’m altogether done with this week.

On the other hand, this week I also started work on the novel I’ve been procrastinating over since at least last August. There’s not much on paper yet, but it’s definitely underway. More news as events warrant, but I will say this: it’s a fantasy, and the word dragon does appear in the title. Adjust your expectations accordingly.

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