Friday flash fiction – The Thief-Catcher’s Prize

Aravel looks at the place where her hand used to be and smiles.

https://pixabay.com/en/prison-captivity-jail-freedom-726662/

The light in her cold cell of wet bricks and black moss is poor, but she can make out the frayed linen bandage capping the stump of her wrist. Yesterday it was a soaking crimson; now it’s beginning to crust and turn brown. And again, there’s a faint smell like burned oranges and tomb dust. It’s not coming from her hand.

She wonders if they will hold her until she rots. Until she looks all over like her ruined arm. Pinched flesh, muscles consumed, veins just grey streaks.

They haven’t fed her. What little water she’s had to drink has come from the cracks between bricks and tastes of decay.

But she thinks they don’t want her to die. They wanted the hand, not her life. If they wanted her dead, she wouldn’t have the bandage. She remembers the surgeon, the one with the bad teeth, holding her down by the stump of her freshly-dismembered arm. She remembers – he tied off the veins and pushed her stump into the burning coals until it sizzled like steak. Only then did he apply the bandage.

She remembers. The recollections are hazy, through the wall separating her from the worst of the agony. But Aravel remembers.

“Witch!”

The voice from the next cell, hissing again. The madman, spitting his words like they’re made of salt. Aravel has listened to him all these hours, snuffling and babbling vicious insults at some tormenter only he can perceive. A few times he has turned his wandering attention to her, which seems to anchor him in coherence, if not sanity.

“Poisoner! Hexen! Foreign scum!”

She’s as Pylorian as he is, but she knows it’s not worth her breath to correct him. She says, “Just a thief, old man. And not a very good one, to be so easily caught.”

“Oh, you do yourself a great disservice, Lady Nyles,” comes a haughty voice from the corridor outside her cell. A face made of deep lines cut into marbled steak appears in the viewing slit, stroking a sharp moustache. “You led us on a very merry chase through the streets of Calloix. I’d almost given up hope of taking you alive.”

“Better for us both if you hadn’t, Inspector Gossard. Better if you had simply shot me dead, that I might float face-down in the Jounte-Bellon and wash away out of your life.”

The Inspector beamed, nasty in his triumph. “Another anonymous thief dead in the river is nothing to me. But the famous burglar Vincenze, revealed as a Lady of the Court? Madame, my career is made, and I have you to thank for it.”

“The hell with your career, murderer.” Aravel coughs, deep and bloody. She spits on the floor, not heeding whether it splashes her tattered silk shoes.

“She’s a monster! Don’t let her touch you!”

“Shut up!” says Gossard. Then, to one of the square-shouldered guards who dress in violet and black, he adds, “Shut him up.”

A door creaks open. An old man whimpers. Something hard hits something soft. Something cracks. Then again, and again, until the whimpering is done.

Aravel watches Gossard’s face as they listen to the beating. A form of ecstasy is written across the Inspector’s stony features. She imagines the same look on his face as he wrought his “justice” upon her brother Somer. She finds it easy to harden her heart.

“You have something of mine, I think,” she says. The effort of standing makes her faint. The end of her wrist flares with an undiscovered species of pain. But she stands. She faces Gossard through the bars. His breath smells of rare beef and good liquor.

“Do you mean this?” He steps back, grasps the gold chain about his neck, and raises it. She would recognise the hand dangling from it anywhere. Long fingers, sharp knuckles, finger pads stained by a thousand tinctures, extracts and acids. Its twin is shaking at the end of her left arm. “You are mistaken. This is mine now, forever.”

She shakes her head. “Very well. I was done with it anyway.”

Inspector Gossard smiles unkindly. “You will not need it, Lady Nyles. The headsman knows his manners. He will assist you on your ascent to the block.”

Aravel regards him as she might one of her specimens. As though he is a wriggling thing on a slide, thrashing about his tiny spot of pond water. “You are not satisfied just to take my hand for your trophy? You must insist on my life as well?”

“As you said before, Lady Nyles. Better for us both if you do not live to see another sunset.”

Neither says what is unspoken. They both know what poisonous secrets Gossard protects, his own and others. Nothing will come of her speaking them aloud. The guards’ loyalties are bought easily if not cheaply, and Old Saltrum is not a prison where the inmates entertain visitors.

“So be it, Inspector. I hope, very soon, we can resume our acquaintance in hell.”

The vice within her chest grips her lungs in a vicious squeeze. Her composure collapses, and she coughs hard enough to weep.

Gossard barks once. “I think not. I plan to live a long and comfortable life. Goodbye.”

Gasping for air, unable to lift her face from the cold stones, Aravel listens to Gossard’s confident footsteps recede. She thinks she can make out the sound of the gold chain bumping its grisly weight against his chest.

Pain coils inside her. Aravel doubts she will survive until her appointment with the headsman. She thinks of Gossard, dining with his corrupt patrons. She thinks of her brother Somer, the great burglar Vincenze, betrayed by his accomplice.

And she thinks of the disease – that tiny, wriggling pond-worm, so happy to feast and multiply until it has spread to every cell in her body, here and elsewhere, and soon everywhere – and wishes it godspeed.

 


Well that got dark. A friend mentioned on Facebook that this week is the 29th anniversary of The Cure’s album Disintegration, so I listened to that and let the vibe lead me astray. (“Lullaby” may be the greatest creepy body horror song of all time)

By the way, I am currently participating a mass free book giveaway. There’s over 130 fantasy titles available to choose from, so even if you already have your copy of Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales, there’s probably something in the lineup to catch your eye. Check it out here, and feel free to send the link to anyone who might be interested in a cornucopia of zero-cost fantasy (offer runs until the 15th of May 2018)

Fantasy book giveaway!

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Friday flash fiction – Beachcomber’s Choice

Joseph is picking through the wallet he lifted from the Government Man near the Flotsam city hall, when Priscilla pings his Maitre’D. “Job for you, Beachcomber. If you’re still a working man.”

https://pixabay.com/en/beach-rocks-ocean-sea-shore-2606769/

Everybody’s a working man these day, not like when Joseph was a boy. Back then it was possible to be so rich you never had to do a damned thing for yourself, or at least that’s what he heard. Joseph’s never met anybody so rich as that, not before the Tide or since.

Seems even the Government Man is a working man. The visitor’s old-fashioned pocketbook contains little: a few slips of seaweed-paper cash, a temporary Sanctuary Precinct ID, and a woman’s image on a plastic card. Joseph stashes the cash, ditches the identity card and marvels at the woman’s pallor. Who has skin like that these days? Skin like that never saw any eighteen-week stretch of extreme-UV days. Skin like that cooks up brown or turns nasty inside. Joseph shakes his head, at all the Government Men of this world and the unlikely women in their pockets.

“I ain’t picking no fruit,” Joseph tells Priscilla when he logs in.

Priscilla – that’s not her real name, which makes it the one thing about her he knows for certain –pastes a smile icon across her avatar’s face. “I thought you’d say that. This one’s external to your metadata, okay?”

Meaning: not recorded, not official, and not legal. Joseph frowns. If he gets caught on anything Grade Two or above, he’ll be in breach of his protection guarantee. From there, he’s one grumpy immigration bureaucrat away from having his refugee status stripped.

But what choice does he have? Money doesn’t grow on trees in Flotsam. For that matter, trees don’t grow here either. “What’s the score?”

“I’ll tell you when we meet.”

“You want to meet in person?”

That didn’t sound good.

*

Nobody calls it Sanctuary Precinct Nine. To the twenty-eight thousand climate refugees, fleeing from drowned homelands, this is Flotsam.

It’s a permanently temporary agglomeration of thousands of preservation modules – bus-sized ceramic flotation devices hastily mass-produced with industrial 3D printers in the months before the Tide. Families, sometimes whole neighbourhoods, crammed into the modules to ride out the extreme sea surge events at the start of the Tide. They were intended as emergency life rafts; for a handful of the hundreds of thousands who boarded them, they became a new home. For the rest, a sarcophagus.

Joseph’s family survived. They floated until the changed ocean currents brought them to a bay in the long islands, and since there was nowhere else to go, they bound their modules together with chains and cement and called themselves a community. Now it’s just Joseph, one man of Flotsam among many.

Priscilla’s not what he expected. She’s tall, with weightlifter shoulders and hair plaited into an ink-black waterfall cascading over her shoulders. She’s dressed sharp, like a lawyer or – no, she’s a Government Man too. She has to be. Joseph suspects a trap. He can’t read her face; at first, he thinks she might have muscle implants, but it’s something better: she’s got control.

“What’s such bad news you let me look you in the for-real-eye?”

Priscilla holds out a small fortune in slips. “I’m cleared to offer cash, data allowances, and food vouchers.”

“For what?”

“A retrieval, Beachcomber.”

“That’s a lot.”

“There’s more.”

“How much more?”

“Expedited processing. New identity. Full citizenship.”

Joseph puffs out his cheeks. It’s a prize beyond all reason. “What am I retrieving?”

Priscilla eyes him up and down. Joseph’s in good shape, but it’s not his working man’s frame she’s interested in. “Trousers, lower right pocket. Take it out of there.”

Joseph produces the Government Man’s photo and holds it up to compare the woman’s skin to the colour of the sun-bleached preservation modules. “This?”

Priscilla takes it from his fingers and drops it into a pouch. As she zips it closed, Joseph sees the inside is lined with a network of metal filaments. When it’s secure, she tosses it back to Joseph.

“They don’t know you took it,” she says. “Not yet. When you took it out of the wallet, it pinged its position. Lucky for you, it’s my job to monitor alerts, or you’d be trying to swim to Australia right now.”

“All that for some white lady’s picture? Who is she?”

Priscilla shrugs. “Some actor from last century. Nobody now.”

She seems suddenly self-conscious. She leads Joseph out, past a market garden of potted fruit trees, a display of jewellery made from fishbone and salt crystal, and a hemp plantation covering two whole modules, all busily tended to by Flotsamers.

“It’s the image itself that they want back. Each pixel is embedded with encrypted files.” Priscilla bites her lip, before finishing the thought. “It’s the legal framework for an employment initiative. Inland infrastructure destroyed by the Tide needs a cheap workforce for rebuilding. Thousands of jobs.”

It almost sounds good. “Cheap, huh?”

Priscilla grimaces. “Modest wages, jacked up charges for meals, lodging and medical expenses. Anyone who signs it becomes indentured for life.”

Joseph shakes his head again. “Lotta people around here would take that deal for the sake of food and dry land.”

“It would annihilate Flotsam’s market economy to lose so many at once.”

“You’re a Government Man,” says Joseph. “Why do you care about that?”

“Mainland sentiment’s on a knife edge. The Sanctuary Precincts are an economic drain but people were proud to save so many lives. If word gets out of refugee exploitation, public opinions may swing in favour of advocating semi-autonomous statehood for the Precincts. Mine did.”

Joseph considers. “But if I take the deal, Flotsam goes under.”

“You never have to work another day in your life,” says Priscilla, watching him close.

Joseph thinks about the woman in the picture. Was she idle and comfortable, doing nothing in particular when the Tide came up?

He grins. “Beachcomber’s a working man’s name. Think I’ll keep it.”


I don’t really believe in post-apocalyptic utopias [1] but I do allow for the possibility of utopian moments in my science fiction.

[1] My tastes in apocalypse fiction were largely shaped by a teenage fondness for John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids. Though what captivated me was not so much the dodgy and heavily-gendered survivalist politics. I was pretty much in it for the killer plants.
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Friday flash fiction – Five Points of Ingress to the Land Beyond This One

The first point of ingress to the land beyond this one is a gap in the berry hedge to the west of Greatbury Manor. One must enter from the inner side, so not just navigating the estate’s maze of orchards and forests, but also evading the roaming wolfhounds and their flint-hearted master, Wilmett the groundskeeper. Night-time under a new moon is best for this approach, if one is wary enough of the additional hazard of nocturnal poachers.

https://pixabay.com/en/currant-hedge-field-currants-shrubs-2412980/

Provided one can reach the point of ingress suffering neither detention nor attack, it is a simple matter to locate the gap, behind a dismembered statue of Nemesis commissioned by a great-great-great-Greatbury patriarch in times long past.

Squeeze into the fissure and push through. Never mind the razor-edged leaves as they brush slices into your sleeves, the jagged branches pinching skin from your cheeks like a deranged grandmother, or the thousand pinprick thorns sinking wells in search of blood.

None of that matters to one who is truly determined to reach the land beyond this one.

Brambles catch and claw at my face as I press on, squeezing through a space too small for a full-grown man. Blood wells in my eyes and ears, dulling moonlight and muting the baying dogs. I drive myself forward, not because of what an insane old man wrote in his diary, but because if I turn back, I’ll be lost.

The second point of ingress to the land beyond this one is a cave in the heart of Mount Antipathy. It is not hard to find, for it lies at the end of a sealed road, behind explanatory signs and a booth selling tickets. One asks merely to be guided to the Third Chamber. The ticket-taker will ask no questions, but supply a map, a source of light, and a small pouch of coins.

Do not lose the coins.

The woman in the booth asked questions all right. “Are you sure?” she asked, and “What did you do?” I didn’t have answers, not for her, and when I refused to reply she gave me the promised items. She couldn’t resist telling me, “It’s not too late to turn back, you know. There’s no shame in it.”

She doesn’t know what she’s taking about. It’s always been too late. There’s nothing in it other than shame.

The caves are so dark that the phosphorescent glow of the compass dial is all the light I need. In the deep pitch, I count out three coins for the hairless, tongueless thing standing guard at the threshold. The other two coins I keep for myself. The guardian steps aside, and I cross the second point.

The third point of ingress to the land beyond this one is an examination of character. One will take it in ignorance, knowing its nature only when it is too late to change course.

“Can you substantiate your whereabouts on the night in question, sir?”

“I was with friends. We ate dinner. We drank at a pub.”

“Can you be more specific?”

Of course, I could. But I say, “I’m afraid I was very drunk.”

When the policeman asks, I give the names of my well-prepared friends. They will swear to the honesty of my answers. They will loudly declare my innocence, accounting my involvement as unthinkable. By the time the holes in their stories are laid bare, it’s too late.

I pass through the third threshold. The diarist tried his best to conceal it, but the test’s purpose was always obvious. It didn’t exist to judge my character, but to expose it.

Judgment is my own responsibility.

The fourth point of ingress to the land beyond this one is a simple gate in an ordinary laneway. One succeeds to the next stage by no more complex a measure than simply opening it and walking through. One will know it when one sees it.

The laneway hasn’t been cleared up. Every surface glistens, fresh, as if it was splashed just moments ago. Perhaps it was. The silver coin of the moon glints in the corner of every droplet and smear, and even the unbloodied bricks and pavers gleam with a purifying light. All around, the windows are dark and curtains are drawn. I feel the eyes looking into the lane all the same. They see everything and do nothing.

The gate is wrought iron, black except where it’s wet. If I open it, it will creak but it won’t resist. If I let it go, a rusting spring will pull it shut.

A voice cries behind me, nothing more than a whimper shaped into a word: “Sorry.”   

It waits, as if expecting me to respond. I won’t. I didn’t then and this time is no different. When the silence has gone long enough to answer for me, the voice says, “Help me th-through the gate. Please.”

I won’t. I’m not listening any more.

I tuck the diary into my coat and grip a dry spot high on the gate. I push it open and walk through.

The final point of ingress to the land beyond this one is the mouth of the titan called Argus. One must wait by the shore until called. Place a coin upon the tongue. Cast the other coin into the waters. Follow where it skips, neither hesitating nor deviating. Argus will open wide its mouth. One must only decide whether to swim on or turn back.

I leave the diary with my clothes. Someone will find it, no doubt. Someone will follow me into the land beyond this one, either in pursuit of me or else some mad dream of their own. I don’t care.

The waves part and the jaws of Argus rise until they eclipse the sun. Until my world is nothing but an endless yawing darkness ringed with teeth.

I know nothing about the land beyond this one. I know only that it’s not this one.

I swim on.


Emergency edit: First version of this story used “egress” when I meant “ingress”, because I am an idiot who does not remember to check a dictionary.

No real news this week (other than the exciting reality of the print copies of my book, as mentioned in the post below this one). I will be sending out another newsletter in the next few days, which will feature a preview of a much-anticipated [1] upcoming story and an exciting and unique [2] giveaway. Sign up by filling in the form over there on the right.

[1] By at least, and perhaps no more than, one reader
[2] Exciting may be hyperbole, but unique isn’t
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An Anniversary Unboxing

My box of print copies of Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales arrived this week. It was an exciting moment, but in itself not so particularly noteworthy as to warrant a blog post. Then I remembered: this is my sort-of-anniversary.

A boxworth of books

Five years ago this month, I stood up with a veritable army of co-authors at the Conflux 9 launch of the CSFG anthology Next. My contribution to the table of contents, ‘Imported Goods – Aisle Nine’, was my first published short story.

Since then I’ve published eight more short stories in various venues, and I have another five awaiting publication. There’s probably another couple of dozen in states of completion ranging from “this will never see daylight” to “for goodness sake, just hurry up and edit it, you dolt!”

I’ve written two extremely unpublishable novels (one of which might eventually be salvageable). I’ve written forty consecutive flash fiction stories without missing a Friday. And I’ve published a collection of short stories.

In the scheme of things, it’s not the most prolific output, but it’s not nothing either. Nothing is what I had to show for the previous twenty-five or so years [1]. I’m pretty happy to have crossed that little threshold from “occasionally published short story writer” to “self-published author”.

There are more milestones to hit, of course. For one, I would love for all of my stories currently choking up publishing pipelines to actually come out. There’s hints of movement here and there, but in most cases there’s nothing I can do to push things along so I’ll just keep on keeping on until the news changes.

I’m also ready to make the move up to being a self-published novelist. I’m currently working out the logistics of meeting a particular self-imposed deadline while also travelling overseas for five weeks in June. I think I can do it, but in case I can’t, I’m not going to jinx myself here. More news when I’m confident I won’t drop the ball completely.

I think it’s good to mark notable occasions and celebrate the little victories. I’m going to go write this week’s flash fiction story and sip a wee dram of whisky. Salut!


[1] Not entirely true. I wrote some awesome tabletop roleplaying campaign materials, and a bunch of great songs, if I say so myself. But they don’t really count towards this score.
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Friday flash fiction – Any Dream Will Do

There is a ghost in the machine and the monsters don’t like it. They are creatures of relentlessly exacting habits; the slightest imperfection in their designs is an irritant that itches the whole social order. Francesca Kincaid is a bag of gravel tossed into their precision clockwork world.

https://pixabay.com/en/hospital-ward-hospital-medical-room-1338584/

She’s been on the run for weeks now, during which time she has learned three things.

One, she can walk into any dream she pleases, a chameleon in the landscape, unseen by monster eyes.

Two, there are others like her, who possess the right spark of imagination to defy the monsters’ horrifying dream architecture; once they understand their imprisonment, they are all too willing to be recruited to her cause.

Three, she may not be the monsters’ only problem.

It begins with the crew of the fishing boat.

Most dreamers are imprisoned in solitary worlds, as she had been, but sometimes the monsters group them together. The trawler is one such collective nightmare, an unsettling scenario of snarled nets, spoiled catches and a storm approaching too fast for the engines to outrun. Four sailors aboard bend grimly to their frantic work, praying for their safe return to loved ones ashore, but certain they will never see land again.

Such scenarios, awash with anxiety and dread, are rich pickings for the monsters, Francesca knows. She doesn’t understand yet how they feed, but their undoubted purpose is to cultivate this miasma of horror.

“Ahoy, Captain! Can I lend a hand?” By the dictates of dream logic, her sudden presence goes unquestioned. She simply blends into whatever narrative preceded her.

The ship’s captain is a scrawny man with thinning hair, more an accountant than a seasoned trawler man. He squints at her through foggy spectacles in momentary confusion, then nods. “We need to lose weight. Help Nelson dump the cargo.”

As she strides across the deck, wind driving sea spray at her, she affects a stagger for appearances. Nothing here will affect her unless she chooses it, but it pays not to be complacent.

Nelson is a thick-armed teenager with anime tattoos and Sophia Loren on his t-shirt. He is using a crane to move heavy bins stocked with live fish to a niche on the stern. Francesca watches him overturn the bin and spill the catch into the churn of the boat’s wake. “You crane, I’ll tip!” he yells.

Francesca assumes control of the crane and lifts the next bin into place. A heavy wave hits the prow, throwing a wall of spray across the entire boat.

When it clears, Nelson has vanished. At first, she assumes the dream has concocted a new plot point to escalate the stress: man overboard! Either sacrifice time and perhaps die in the course of his rescue or abandon him to the sea.

Then she sees the anime-festooned limb sloshing among the gasping fish.

“What the -?” A woman’s head emerges from a hatch behind Francesca. She asks, “What happened to Nelson?”

Before Francesca can answer, the woman vanishes back into the hatch with a surprised “Oh!”

Francesca rushes to the hatch, but within is a black hole and the woman has vanished. A man screams from the darkness, “Watch out, it’s-” and is abruptly cut off.

The Captain appears, gun in hand, looking wildly about. He yells “Nelson! Burgess! Samuels!”

Francesca is rattled. Dream-deaths are rare – the monsters need the terror, not the release of tension brought by death. Something else is going on here. She grabs the Captain’s hand. “Back to the cabin! We’re getting out of here.”

She leads the way, ducking through the wheelhouse door. Movement makes her look back. The Captain shudders and jerks out of sight. Francesca catches a glimpse of russet hair and claws like scissor blades.

She flees the savaged dream, taking refuge in a troubling reverie of looming bills and suspicions of infidelity. As the dreamer frets about confronting her husband, Francesca pours herself a drink.

“Alison,” she says to the dreamer, “I just saw something killing dreamers. How does that happen?”

“I don’t understand anything anymore.” Alison shakes her head and goes to answer the door. Her husband kicks it off its hinges and brandishes a knife at her.

Francesca pulls her away and drags her to the kitchen. “Is this your dream or his?” she asks.

“We used to share everything,” wails Alison.

A sound like breaking sticks comes from the front door. The husband screams in hoarse terror.

“Come on!” Francesca drags Grace out of her own dream, ignoring her disoriented cries. They stumble through a child’s towering, indistinct terror of half-glimpsed horror movies; they tumble through smoke-filled corridor, ignoring the hacking coughs and wailing sirens; they run headlong through a dim forest of miserable owners calling for missing pets.

In a hospital corridor smelling sickly of disinfectant, Francesca comes to a halt. “It’s still coming,” she says, as a blood-splattered orderly rushes past with an instrument trolley. “It must have our scent somehow.”

“Is there anything you can do?” Alison’s only certainty is her reliance on Francesca. She is struggling to remain calm.

“A couple of things.” Francesca finds a restless sleeping patient and begins unplugging machines, flicking switches, hitting alarms. A heart monitor starts wailing.

“What are you doing?”

“Disrupting the dream,” replies Francesca as she hefts a fire extinguisher through a window. “Our hosts will send a troubleshooting crew.”

“You said they were monsters too! How many monsters do you want here?”

“I want to set the monsters to fight each other.”

Alison shakes her head. “I don’t want to be in the middle of a monster fight.”

“You won’t be.” Francesca points to an unoccupied bed. “Lie down.”

Confused, Alison obeys. “This isn’t much of a hiding space.”

“You won’t be able to keep up if I have to run. The only place you might be safe is out of the dream.”

In the distance, wood splinters and the screaming begins.

Francesca snaps her fingers.

“Alison. Wake up.”

 


If all goes well this episode will have uploaded itself. I’m away overseas this week, with uncertain internet access, so please enjoy this rare example of me planning ahead. Unless it didn’t work.

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