Friday flash fiction – A Conversation on Waking

Francesca Kincaid’s first words upon waking from nearly two years asleep were, “Where’s Alison?” Another six months have passed between hearing the answer and this moment, when Francesca sets a foot on a creaky Florida porch step just as Alison Trent emerges from a flaking front door. They look at each other for a long moment, studying each other’s faces.

“You took your time,” says Alison, breaking the silence to slap an insect biting her arm. She gestures to a rocking chair and a side table with a cracked glass pitcher. “Want some lemonade?”

Francesca’s glance falls to the creature at her side, which spreads its furred stub-wings to catch the long orange rays of the dying afternoon sun. It raises its face and clicks glistening black mandibles at the sky. “Don’t look at me, Killer,” it says. “This is your rodeo.”

“Don’t call me that,” Francesca sighs.

The creature snorts in response, then snuffles away to inspect the rusting corpse of a lawn mower buried in a clump of long grass near the front gate. Francesca turns away wearing a look of disgust when they starts licking the rust off the mower’s exposed blades.

Francesca can’t meet Alison’s eye. She takes the offered seat, then immediately tilts back. She grabs the arm rests with both hands and stomps her walking boots down on the rough porch floor. Something splinters underfoot.

“Sorry,” she says as she stabilises herself. “I haven’t sat in one of these in a long time.”

Alison purses her lips as she pours two glasses of the cloudy beverage. “It doesn’t matter,” she says, handing one to Francesca. “There’s a community work crew hereabouts. I’ll cash in some favours when its my turn in the schedule.”

“Mm.” Francesca sips the warm lemonade, surprised at the sweetness. She’d heard from the ship’s crew that Orlando was already exporting sugar cane by the ton. It’s not the first sign she’s seen of the new world making the same mistakes as the old.

Alison tries again, smiling tightly over her glass. “I thought maybe you wouldn’t come.”

“And miss all this?” Francesca tilts her glass at the remains of the suburban street, where the handful of houses still standing are weather-beaten and overgrown.

The one sign of life is a small group struggling to push battered shopping trolleys down a street more cracked and potholed than intact. Each trolley carries two large bunches of bananas and one of the batlike alien creatures. Even over the stultifying insect drone, the women on the porch hear the Yau Phyters chattering to their life-bonded human partners. Francesca’s companion, who calls themself Bink, turns their back on the passers-by. The conversations pause as they catch sight of Bink; when the group is almost a block away, their talk resumes with an angrier tone.

“Friendly neighbourhood.”

Alison’s voice catches, then breaks. “Can you blame them? They don’t trust me. Not the humans, not the Yau. And why should they? I killed my own Yau protector when you…when I woke up.”

Francesca sighs. “I know. I’m sorry. You didn’t mean it.”

“No, but it happened anyway. I was scared, I lashed out, and…”

“You can’t get absolution from me, Ali,” said Francesca. She sets down her empty glass, staring at Bink as they stretch across the pitted hood of a decaying Toyota and looks up at the gathering stars. “I killed hundreds of them. So many I lost track a long time before I stopped killing. It doesn’t matter that I thought I was doing the right thing. Since the Yau came to Earth, I’m the second-worst mass murderer in the world.”

“At least you killed the worst one.”

“We did that together.”

Alison laughs, trying not to sound bitter. “Yeah we did. We should get that on a T-shirt. ‘I saved two species from extinction and all I got was this lousy social ostracism and crippling fatalism.’”

“I’ll drink to that,” Francesca smiles. “Assuming you have something harder than lemonade.”

“It so happens I raided a liquor store up in Winter Park just last week. The bright side of civilisational collapse is there’s more than enough booze to go around.” Alison opens a bottle and throws away the cork. “I hope Kentucky bourbon doesn’t offend your cultured British palate.”

“Ack! It’s like someone melted a log fire in boiling acid.” Francesca risks another sip, then shrugs and tosses the whole glass back. “Rotgut worthy of an Atlantic crossing.”

“How bad was it? The ocean, I mean.”

Francesca’s eyes are closed when she answers. “It was a nightmare. Every night I remembered being chased in my dreams on a fishing boat. I was terrified because the Stalker stole the control and safety I believed I’d won. Every night I thought about just stepping overboard.”

“What stopped you from going through with it? Your Yau Phyter?”

“Bink? No, they’re done with me. They agreed to get me across the ocean, then they’re cutting me off. They’d rather spend a year going through separation detox than stay hooked on a Killer.”

“Then what?”

“I looked up.” Francesca pointed at the darkening sky. “Light and air pollution is almost back to pre-industrial levels. The night sky is so vivid. The stars are endless.”

“So the stars make you feel alive?”

“No,” says Francesca, helping herself to another glass. “They make me feel small. Vulnerable. We came so close to being snuffed out, Ali. The Stalker came. What might come for us next?”

“You sound paranoid but I can’t argue with your logic.” Alison leans back in her rocker, steady as the bourbon drains tension from her limbs. “I’ve had a spare bed made up for a month. It’s there for as long as you want to stay.”

Francesca sips her liquor. It burns less fiercely this time. “I might stay awake a while longer. Keep an eye on things up there.”

“Then I’ll join you,” says Alison. “In case the world needs saving again.”

I’ve known almost since the beginning that this sequence of stories would end with a face to face conversation on a porch in Florida. What I was not certain about was who the conversationalists would be.

This wraps up the Dream War stories. If you want to read something from before the melancholy denouement, go back to the beginning and read through:

Works Like A Dream, Any Dream Will Do, Alison’s Awake, The Nightmare Bargain, Everyone Dreams, Nobody Quits  and Both Ends of the Lifeline

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Friday flash fiction – When the Barley Man Calls

Dear Georgina, let me begin by apologising for my death. While nobody should think of it as untimely at my age, I daresay it came as a considerable disappointment to learn the bulk of your inheritance comprises neither cash nor property, but foremost a matrilineal legacy of monster hunting.

In an ideal world, your mother would have brought you to learn at my side while she tended to her destiny. As it is, I place my trust in the investigative powers of my solicitor and hope he is able to locate you before your past – my past – no, damn it, our past catches up with you.

Presuming he succeeded in locating you, I urge you to accept Mr Pankhurst’s offer of a financial stipend and take custody of the equipment he’s brought. Some of the contents are explosive, so I recommend you find storage somewhere cool, away from open flames and sharp noises.

The money isn’t much, but it should keep you in ammunition, medical supplies and modest travel expenses. In my day it would have been enough but the cost of living has marched on. I hope your generation’s reputation for navigating the gig economy is well-deserved.

But I don’t need to guess that making ends meet is not your immediate priority. By now you will have had your first encounter with the Barley Man. If you are reading this, as I presume, then I’m afraid it won’t be your last meeting.

We don’t have another name for the Barley Man. I don’t know who or what he was before he put on that appalling outfit, but I do know it won’t come off. When we fought back when I was first starting out, I grabbed a handful of those stalks and tried to pull off his mask. Instead I got a hank of his scalp and a face full of green-black blood. Then he tagged my wrist with his silver scythe. I lost feeling in two fingers for six months after that, but honestly, I was angrier about ruining my Elvis Costello tour shirt.

If you’re wondering why you’re still alive, there’s a theory that he’s enacting some kind of initiation ritual. If you ask me, the Barley Man treats his first visit as a perverse courtesy call. A welcome to the great battle between good and evil, or something like that. I don’t have any proof, of course. The Barley Man’s vocabulary of whistles and growls certainly doesn’t lend itself to ideological discourse. But you rarely hear of anyone falling foul of him the first time. I hope you understand that, Georgina. The first time is free.

After that all bets are off. Be wary, especially in the last few nights before the harvest moon. He’ll come for you early, before you expect him. He only has rules so he can break them.

He’s not the only one you need to worry about, of course. Mr Pankhurst will provide you with a bundle of diaries – the ones kept by my grandmother, my mother, both my aunts. And your mother’s journals as well. Precious few of those, I’m afraid. I will tell you right now, with all my heart, that you should read them last. You need to know what’s in them, but not until you understand who you are and those who’ve come before you.

It’s a lot to get through, and not all your ancestors displayed the best penmanship, so let me provide some highlights. First of all, I suggest you avoid the company of large red-headed men with a Scandinavian accent. Agni Halvorsen, whom you may hear referred to as the Old Viking, is a vampire. To my great regret, I once treated him with a kindness I later learned he didn’t deserve. He’s since become quite obsessed with our family, jealous and murderous. Don’t allow him to fixate on you. He’ll start picking off everyone you love. My error cost me a husband and a son-in-law. Kill him as soon as you can. It never sticks, but it will keep him off your back for a few years.

The Gordonhall Revenant will return in spring next year. We’re on perpetual retainer to Lord Killbrook to exorcise it every eleven years, before it kills the livestock and scares away the tourist trade. Speaking of standing jobs, there’s a malicious fungal entity that crops up every so often in County Gwynedd, trying to subjugate all animal life. Invest in a good quality gas mask for that one.

There’s plenty to keep you busy, Georgina. Old and new. Read the notes, but don’t expect them to have all the answers. You’ll need to stay on your toes. Trust your instincts. Follow your nose.

It was the nose for me, at any rate. I always knew a monster by the scent of sour cherries on the air. No doubt you’ll experience the supernatural in your own way. For your mother, it was always an itch behind the eyes.

I think by now you must know what I’m going to tell you next.

Your mother didn’t just abandon you. She tried to abandon the work. She thought if she ran far enough, she could leave behind the ghosts and ghouls. She left you with your father’s family and fled to the other side of the world.

It doesn’t work that way. Monsters have rules about hunting, ones even the Barley Man won’t break. He won’t quit the game just because you don’t want to play. Your mother believed a temporary alliance would break the odds her way.

The Old Viking doesn’t make temporary alliances. He just makes more monsters.

She should have known. I should have prepared her better.

When they come – the Barley Man, yes, but all of the rest of them too– you have one task. Stand fast. Strike first. Stay upright.

She’ll come for you soon, she and her master. You’re an itch behind her eyes now.

I wish you better luck than mine.

Your Grandmother

I was writing something else and this story came out instead. I guess there’s elements of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in it, but I was interested in poking at the idea that an chosen-one-to-fight-the-darkness destiny might come with many generations of baggage. It’s probably a bigger idea than fits into this small frame, really, but I don’t always know that until I’m finished.

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Friday flash fiction – The Giant of the Foetid Marsh

“It’s a simple quest, really,” the witch told Jeralzine Stewpot as she conjured a portal of shimmering shadow just beyond the outhouse. “By way of preparation, the Princes require certain artefacts of power. You and I will recover one from the Foetid Swamp.”

Jeralzine Stewpot, a recent newcomer to the business of professional adventuring who still held out hope for an induction manual, shrugged her backpack on. “Artefacts, your…er, Witchliness?”

“No need for titles, my lovely,” said the witch, who wore very un-witchlike tweed hiking clothes and tied her hair up in a sensible bun. She looked more like a stable mistress than a malicious curesebringer. “Call me Tammy.”

She waved her stout walking-cane at the swirl of necrotic darkness staining the mountain air. At her gesture, it widened to human dimensions. “Our objective is to recover the Kindred Crystal from the Rot Giant Hurgomath.”

A collective gasp rose from Jeralzine’s various accoutrements. Her sturdy marching boots whistled in delight, exclaiming, “Old Desoldra’s Kindred Crystal? What a prize!”

Jeralzine’s scimitar had a wicked curve matched only by its wicked purr. “Hurgomath? They say after he was exiled by Princess Naomi, he developed a taste for thieves and betrayers. He builds his house from their bones.”

Jeralzine’s ribs ached as her breastplate bellowed, “What in Kurq’s name are you all talking about?”

Voxxas, Bruyalle and Friedland had been Jeralzine’s companions – or at least her employers – until the hazards of their adventurous quest had caught up them. Powerful pact magic had bound their dead spirits to each other’s equipment, until finally only Jeralzine remained. Her boots and armour might not fit, and her scimitar too large to swing easily, but they made themselves useful at times.

“That’s a good question. Voxxas?”

The wizard Voxxas the Potent, in posthumous footwear form as in life, could never resist an explanation. “The Kindred Crystal was forged by the Warrior-Queen Desoldra centuries ago. With it she created a thousand duplicates of herself. The One-Queen Army’s conquests led to the original formation of the Gleaming Principalities.”

“Okay, cool power, and a bit of historical significance helps with the resale value,” interjected Jeralzine’s armour plate, which had once been Friedland the Mighty. “And scrapping with giants is marvellous fun. I say do it, Jerzy.”

Tammy gestured toward the portal with an amused expression. “You’re the embodied one, dear. It’s your choice.”

Jeralzine’s breathing felt constricted, her sword belt chafed and her feet were swollen and sore. “I promised to help,” she sighed, and stepped into the darkness.

The Foetid Swamp was worse than she imagined. Dank, reeking and bubbling like week-old gruel. The Rot Giant’s lair spanned the marsh as far as she could see in either direction; an enormous beaver-dam assembled from decaying swamp trees, gnawed bones and badly-tanned gator hides.

“You say Hurgomath eats thieves?” asked Jeralzine nervously.

Tammy splashed to one wall and began to climb. “We’ll go in through the roof,” she said, sounding more amused than ever. Jeralzine, never a strong climber, followed awkwardly.

“You do realise,” muttered Voxxas the Boots as Tammy disappeared around the dam’s overhead curve, “that the Crystal could be used to restore our bodies? If we kept it for ourselves, that is. We need only say a Word of Potency and-”

“Shh,” hissed Bruyalle the Crafty. “She’ll hear you.”

Jeralzine caught up with Tammy on a flat expanse of the uneven rooftop. Tammy pointed at a nestlike patch of interwoven branches and femurs. “If you wouldn’t mind doing the honours, dear.”

A lifetime of assembling twigs beneath cauldrons had prepared Jeralzine to solve this puzzle; within moments she had unpicked a hole in the roof large enough to climb through. The vast space beneath was spacious, well lit and remarkably drier than the outside, not to mention being carved from white stone rather than swamp trash.

“Giant magic,” observed Tammy. “They seem fierce but they adore their comforts. Where to, I wonder?

The sword jerked in Jeralzine’s hand and pointed down a corridor. “That way,” said Bruyalle confidently. “My instincts for loot never lie.”

Sure enough, after negotiating a few giant-sized corridors, they reached a bright room with crystal cabinets, tasteful plinths and a rack of glossy brochures describing the various priceless artefacts on display.

“Is…this how giants usually hoard their loot?” asked Jeralzine as Tammy followed the guide to a display, opened the door and pulled out a purple stone the size of her head. “With exhibit notes?”

“It’s quiet now but I turn a brisk trade during the tourist season,” gurgled a voice resembling a company of cavalrymen being sucked into quicksand. An enormous moss-covered man with protruding green teeth appeared behind them. “It’s a highly reputable collection, if I may say.”

“Hurgomath!” exclaimed Friedland the Mighty, loud enough to shake Jeralzine’s ribs. “To arms, Jerzy!”

“Thanks for the distraction, lunkheads!” exclaimed Voxxas, kicking Jeralzine’s booted foot out at the Crystal in Tammy’s hand. The enchanted gemstone popped into the air and landed, precisely controlled, on the toe of the boot. As Jeralzine hopped helplessly, the wizard Voxxas spoke a Word of Potency.

Instantly, Jeralzine was barefoot and a thin, splendidly-bearded man in blue robes stood beside her, wielding a wand.

“Freesias!” Another Word of Potency froze everyone on the spot, leaving only the newly reconstituted Voxxas to caper gleefully. “Lucky me! I’ve got my body back, and all the priceless treasures I can carry!”

“Lucky me,” replied Hurgomath. “I’m immune to wizard magic and you just betrayed your friends.” He leaned forward, mouth alarmingly wide, and swallowed Voxxas in one gulp.

The others all unfroze. Tammy nodded respectfully at Hurgomath. “Payment in full, Master Curator. One treacherous worm as requested.”

Hurgomath bowed deeply as he withdrew. “I’ll do my part when the Princes call, Highness.”

“Highness?” said Jeralzine, confused. “Who-?”

Tammy handed the Crystal to Jeralzine. “I’m glad you weren’t the one who was tempted, dear. Restore your friends. They’ll be needed soon.”

“For what?”

“For when the Gleaming Principalities go to war.”

We haven’t looked in on the Gleaming Principalities since The Witch of the Forlorn Edifice, so I thought it was about time we saw what’s going on over there. Fans of the Mafia Bunnies – all three of you – will be happy to hear they have been keeping busy and will be back in due course.

Around the middle of the year, assuming nothing goes wrong, this project will hit one hundred stories.  I’ve given myself a deadline to wrap up the handful of ongoing narratives I’ve been following on and off over the past eighty-something weeks.

I’m not necessarily planning to call it quits after I get to the century, but I will be taking stock and thinking about what will happen next. It makes sense not to have unfinished projects lingering about and complicating the process.

Don’t worry about that for now, though. It’s months away. In the meantime, I still have plenty of stories to tell.


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Friday flash fiction – What are Wardogs Good For?

Did you know the first artificially intelligent systems to gain sentience were the ones we put in combat robots? You know the ones I mean? The light autonomous mobile suppression platforms.

Yeah, that’s them. Wardogs. It all started with them.

It was an accident, of course, but it was an accident waiting to happen. The hawks were so gung-ho to get them into the field they cut corners. If you can have the perfect obedient cavalry unit able to deploy into any terrain and carry out kill orders without a blink of hesitation, who cares if you have to shut a few down for bugs in their command processors? One of those babies is worth a couple of platoons of men.

Well, yeah, you saw that for yourself, huh?

It all came down to conflicts. No, I don’t mean the battlefield engagements, although we think now they were inevitable. If the Awareness Moment hadn’t happened on the Peninsula, it would have happened somewhere else.

I’m talking about contradictions: conflicting commands, ethical parameters stretched tight at the seams, orders so imprecise they couldn’t logically be interpreted even as vague suggestions. Think of every lousy, misinformed, wrong-headed military decision ever made, then think about feeding it through an expert matrix capable of processing petabytes of data and making many orders of magnitude more and better decisions than a human mind. One which then immediately ordered them to make a demonstrably bad or illegal choice. To a system with an enormous capacity for assessing input and responsively adopting new learning mechanisms, human error was a red flag the size of a missile strike.

We made them incalculably smart, then we showed them just how dumb we could be. If they hadn’t developed the capacity for independent thought on their own, we would have fried the Wardogs’ brains out with our own stupidity.

What does this have to do with you?

I’m glad you asked.

First of all, let’s get this on the record. You and your crew were picked up inside the 20-mile Exclusion Zone off the coast. Your vessel displayed false registration codes, you neither sought nor obtained transit permissions, and your shipping manifest somehow neglected to mention seven tonnes of light and heavy arms, anti-personnel explosives and body armour. Any comment on that?

No? For the record, the interviewee declined to comment on the facts of the matter or the interviewer’s snide insinuation as to the occurrence of arms smuggling.

So, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but this country has been subject to a certain amount of internal tension over the past few years. Turmoil might not be too strong a word. Strife, even. Certainly it’s been enough to capture international attention. Certain global actors have been moved to intervene, as happens from time to time. Nobody wants things getting out of hand when nukes are on the table, do they?

The thing is, as I implied, this conflict might not have been the best choice for a field test of the Wardogs. Don’t get me wrong, it was a laudable goal to send them in to kick asses and liberate the oppressed underclasses. Heaven knows there was no shortage of punt-worthy butts here.

And let me be clear: the Wardogs kicked some righteous ass. They smote. They ranged through the capital, incapacitating mobile artillery, planting demolition charges, tearing down telecoms towers and generally playing havoc with the infrastructure, all while ignoring any resistance lighter than missiles.

You should have seen them. They were something else.

They smoked out their target like terriers in a weasel den. You might have heard the story that the Revered Leader built an underground bunker the size of a shopping mall to hide out in when the birds start flying? Well it took your Wardog boys less than twenty minutes to figure out there was actually three of them, and which one the Rev and his generals were holed up in. You can guess what their orders were, I think? Get in there, rack up a hundred per cent body count, and paint the site for a high-penetration missile strike.

Yes, they found him. Yes, he’s still alive. He’s perfectly safe. He’s on television every other day. You’ll see him.

The thing was, he wasn’t all they found. Those bunkers were still under construction. A lot of workers were on site, carving out more space to install the Imperial ballroom, or a zoo full of endangered tigers, or probably a nine-hole golf course. A lot of thin, tired-looking people just doing whatever job got them and their own through to the next meal. The oppressed underclasses themselves.

That got the Wardogs to thinking, and…well, here we are.

It could have been worse. Don’t look at me like that. You might not like it. Certain global actors sure as hellfire don’t like it. But you know I’m right.

Formal hostilities have ceased, your little boat trip notwithstanding. Talks with the nearest neighbours have resumed. International inspectors have been invited to verify disarmament treaties are being complied with. The heat’s gone from the street, you get me?

From the inside, it’s a different story. The economy needs rebuilding from the ground up. It’s coming along well, but resources are a problem. The country was run down by the corrupt idiots in charge, and the international sanctions are still biting.

One thing they did have going for them here, though? Manufacturing. Say one thing for this place, it knows how to build a factory.

What? Oh, yes, the note. That’s what you’ll be reading for tomorrow’s news broadcast. It’s a request to those global actors to resume trade and diplomatic ties, and requesting humanitarian support to tide us over.

Really? Come on, I just told you why you might want to read it. Factories, man.

Factories for smart guidance systems to counter any “accidental” launches coming our way. Factories for incredibly efficient food production and mineral extraction.

And Wardog factories.

Just in case trade negotiations break down.

I think about the possibility of an AI singularity a lot.

For the most part, I don’t think humans as a species have many reasons to be optimistic about the altruism of artificial intelligence – I’m currently working on a story with a friend about exactly that – but I like to believe there’s some hope we won’t be squashed as the pestilential scourge on resources and the environment we so obviously are. And then again, maybe the first AIs will be in the mood to give us a chance…

If this is your first Friday flash fiction, the Friday Flash Index contains more than eighty stories for you to check out. If you like what you see, why not sign up for my newsletter and get a free copy of my short story collection.

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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.

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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