Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales is currently available on sale for just $2.99 through the Australia/New Zealand Kobo store:
The sale ends on the 10th of September 2018, so hurry now! Stocks are literally unlimited!
Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales is currently available on sale for just $2.99 through the Australia/New Zealand Kobo store:
The sale ends on the 10th of September 2018, so hurry now! Stocks are literally unlimited!
Do you remember where you were the first time I wrote you a sonnet? It was a glade of whispering grass, where the wind drifted lazily and sleepy shepherds tended to their listless flocks. You could never resist an idyllic pastoral scene. So I wrote my heart’s truth where you would see it.
I burned my poetry into the side of the hill in pillars of flame that reached for the sky like outstretched claws. My lungs were my inkwell, my breath was my pen, and the grassy hillside, woolly coats and sun-dark skins were the pages on which I set my words. Man and beast wailed in mortal agony, like a chorus echoing my passionate declaration of love. I roared, they cried, and you heard my heart.
How delicious was your reply!
The woodland city of bronze timbers and eggshell stone has stood for a thousand years, a peaceful and prosperous bastion of human civilisation. Its glittering lake! Its palace fortress! A centre for laws, learning and arts. I made sure to include several of its most famous statues and portraits in my hoard.
You spread your lustrous wings and soared aloft with such grace and power the flame caught in my throat and kindled the ovens within. You turned about on gentle thermals, fanning fear and panic in the scurrying creatures below, until they were feverish with terror. With elegant timing, you set fire to their sky. You painted your answer to my proposal in rains of ash and acid, scourging the insects away and leaving their white buildings streaked with coal-dark woe.
Our courtship spanned a dozen years, but I don’t regret its unseemly haste. Why should conventions and traditions matter to the likes of us? The memories are among my most treasured possessions, and I possess a great many treasures. You’ve seen the size of my hoard.
What about that time you drank dry the twisting river and then flew to the peak of the mountains? You found a rock formation you claimed looked just like me, and let the river gush free in a torrent that fell, you said, like tears of joy from my face.
I was touched, though in truth I didn’t think it looked much like me at all. The people who lived on its slopes and whose huts and bodies washed almost all the way to the ocean in a slurry of acidic mud used to say their mountain looked like a monster.
Do you recall when I raided that caravan carrying the fruits of the king’s silver mines? I swallowed the lot – beasts, guards and carts – and let it smelt in my guts for a whole week. Then I laid for you a great mound of silver, moulded in the shape of your favourite fore-tooth. Yes, a few bits of bone stuck out of it, but you were impressed. You’ve worn it on a chain around your wing-shoulder ever since.
And finally the day came, when we coupled.
I signaled to you with snorts of smoke and flame, catching the tempting emerald glint of my scales in the roaring pyres of companies of soldiers. You knitted your gnarled brows and let out a roar so loud it burst eardrums. I turned a flirting tail and took flight, growling in challenge. You snarled in answer; your lust gave strength to your wings and you gave chase. We circled the length and breadth of the great valley, flashing black wings and setting fresh wildfires with the heat of our passage.
And oh, the legends they’ll tell of the moment you caught me. Entwined, my throat between your slavering jaws, we tumbled to the valley floor. We rolled and thrashed, crushing forests, buildings and the slow-footed, who in their final moments were awestruck with the devastating sight of two shimmering mountains twisting and writhing as one.
We laid magnificent waste to the land. When we were done, our exhalations had cracked every stone, singed every leaf and turned the ground to glass. We basked in that luxurious glow together for weeks.
But those simple mortals lacked the capacity to appreciate our unearthly displays of prowess. They were consumed with petty rage. In their selfish jealousy they could not see past the destruction of their cities, their crops and stock, their fellows numbering in the thousands. So small-minded! They gathered their paltry riches, too pathetic to properly be called a hoard, and procured a grubby band of…oh, I can barely say the despicable words…dragon hunters!
I’d never cared to imagine such a thing. What kind of monster would stoop to such a murderous, ignoble profession? It’s worse than going into politics!
We underestimated their cunning and cruelty. They lured you with a paddock full of fat summer calves, which they treacherously laced to the brim with poison. Dragon hunters are vicious little tricksters.
When I saw what they did to you, it almost broke my heart.
There you lay, weakened and diminished. Your scales pallid and spotted, the fires inside guttering through thin, stretched belly skin. The glint in your diamond eyes was as dim as a winter sunset. You were so drained of magnificence, the air about you hardly shimmered at all.
But don’t worry, my love. I have brought you somewhere safe to rest. Lie still and let their smouldering forests keep you warm. I have followed them to their outposts, their strongholds, their fortresses. I have visited my cataclysmic wrath upon their every last den, hide and burrow.
And I have laid our eggs in the embers.
If any of them still live, huddled in their broken ruins, they will whisper fearful warnings for generations to come of our ferocious love.
Something a bit different this time around – this was the piece I wrote for the Canberra Writers Festival event in which I participated last weekend. The debate-style Romance Gauntlet – the Battle of the Sexes pitted teams of men versus women to ask the question of which of the (binary) genders is superior when it comes to writing romantic scenes in fiction.
Since the event pitted three very smart and successful professional romance writers against three goggling amateur fantasy writers, it wasn’t that difficult to arrive at an answer…
The women’s team all read rather steamy scenes from their various published novels, raising temperatures and eyebrows in equal measure. (The ladies definitely won the unofficial Battle of Bringing the Hot Hot Heat).
Lacking a body of existing work from which to draw – none of the three representatives of the masculine inclination write a lot of romantic fiction, it is fair to say – we men wrote new work specifically for the event.
Mine was written to be performed. Over-performed, if I’m honest. The vibe I was going for was “heartfelt epic romance, but with sly jokes and mildly ribald asides.” Whether it succeeded or not is left as an exercise for the reader, but the applause at the end of my set was polite enough not to leave me feeling as though I’d brought eternal shame down upon my household.
Much to my surprise, my sheer terror of reading in public miraculously vanished as soon as the MC began his introductions. More to the point, I think everyone had a fun time. And as long as nobody asks me to do anything like this again for oh I don’t know about a thousand years, I’m sticking to my story.
Most ghosts cannot be captured on film; there are exceptions. I refer, of course, to the posthumous career of the late Delilah Hargreaves.
Hargreaves first came to notice as the scene-stealing maidservant Irma Grace in Songs of Revolution (1954), a cheap historical drama rushed out by producer Antonio Grumman for contractual purposes. The film sank without a trace on initial release, but caught unexpected attention when it was re-released the following year in a double bill with the Kurt Nederland crime comedy The Hapsburg Poisoners.
Although welcoming cinema-goers’ enthused response to the double bill, which saved his studio from bankruptcy, Grumman was nonetheless baffled. The mystery deepened when he attended a late showing, and saw the re-released Songs for the first time.
The character of Irma Grace – the scatter-brained and clumsy maid who administers cherry ice cream and heartfelt advice to the film’s lead – does not appear in the script, nor do members of the cast and crew recall working with or ever having met performer Delilah Hargreaves. She appears in almost one-third of the film’s scenes.
Grumman recounts his reaction to seeing the new version of the film: “I stood up right there in the jam-packed Odeon and called out ‘Who is this dame? How did she get in my movie?’ But the rest of the audience shushed me and threw popcorn. They loved that kid!”
Hargreaves next appeared as a flirtatious hotel manager in 1958’s The Bungling Bellhop, which was conceived as a vehicle for the wrestling star, Titus Church. Church, whose alcoholism had made him the bane of wrestling promoters from San Diego to Eureka, frequently arrived on set “pickled and late”, according to his long-suffering co-star Gladys Pepper. He declined to rehearse, refused directorial demands for second takes, and before the shoot wrapped ten days later, Church had fatally crashed his Studebaker while drunkenly negotiating a hairpin turn along the cliffs of Laurel Canyon.
The director walked off the picture, leaving the husband and wife team of Clyde and Vanessa Merrill to salvage the wreckage in the editing suite. With no script to hand and having not so much as visited the set, they nevertheless assembled a creditable farce from the reels of footage available.
“Going through the rushes we quickly spotted that the character of the manager, Natty, was the spine of the movie,” said Vanessa Merrill, interviewed some years later by Haunted Hollywood Magazine. “She was terrific. A real live wire. Everyone else looked drop-down drunk or mad as a mongoose, but Natty just popped off the screen.”
Husband Clyde agreed. “She was pretty lively for a dead lady.”
When Bellhop was released, word soon spread that its standout performance was delivered by a non-corporeal presence. As Gladys Pepper put it, “If you saw me up there with that gal, you’d think we were a comedy double act from way back. I kind of wish we were, as a matter of fact. Damn, she had killer timing.”
When asked if she was upset about being upstaged by a supernatural presence, Gladys was philosophical. “Not so much. I can’t blame the kid for seeing her shot and taking it. And that film was a burning bag of dog business without her. I owe her one.”
Audiences went wild for The Bungling Bellhop, which enjoyed a success far beyond anyone’s expectations. However its popularity was limited to US audiences. A studio push to export the film to Canadian and UK markets proved disastrous, as the prints turned out to be just twelve minutes long and comprised mainly of establishing shots of Church and Pepper.
Hargreaves was nowhere to be seen.
While all known American prints of the film soon found their way into the private collections of occultists with deep pockets, Hargreaves appeared to become restless.
She began appearing in more films – some estimates put the number at three dozen, but perhaps a hundred more are the subject of hot debate. Most of these were crowd scenes or brief background shots, though two scenes stood out as notable. The first is a scene in Yellow Teeth (1961), in which she offers a morose George Appleby her cigarette lighter at a rainy bus stop, an incident which papers over a plot hole in the script where Appleby later uses the lighter to escape being tied up. The second scene is from The Fiend in the Studio (1963), in which Hargreaves, appearing as a previous victim, helps scream queen Kelly Neimeyer turn the tables on the sadistic portrait artist played by Walter Caxton.
“Yeah, I never thought that scene made any sense when we were rehearsing it,” observes Caxton. “But you watch it now, when Delilah picks the lock on the shackles and gives Kelly the jar of paint stripper, suddenly it all hangs together.”
Delilah Hargreaves had by now become a minor celebrity. In late 1962, “Delilah-spotting” was a popular sport among first-night crowds, and incredibly, films in which she didn’t appear performed conspicuously poorly at the box office.
By comparison, the minor and otherwise tedious anti-war film Wings of the Dove (1962) contains just nineteen seconds of Hargreaves as a Polish farm widow, wordlessly watching fighter planes crash in her fields. It topped the box office receipts for two months in a row, and was briefly the subject of rampant if optimistic Oscar speculation.
At the height of her popularity, Hargreaves vanished. For reasons unknown, her clandestine insertions into popular Hollywood films ceased after a fleeting stint as roller-skating waitress Polly Oswald in Drive-In of the Damned (1963).
Theories explaining her departure abound. Had she fulfilled unfinished business from her lifetime? Did the Kennedy assassination in some way disrupt her career? Was she unsatisfied by her string of supporting roles? Many who rate her performances as star quality prefer this supposition.
Perhaps Hargreaves had the last word herself, in her final scene as Polly:
“I can’t hang around here all day, Professor. It’s been good talking, but now I gotta get back to work.”
I’m a fan of ghost stories. If I were to go back through the Friday flash fiction archives I suspect they would be over-represented in comparison to other genres. But while I enjoy reading stories about twisted revenants taking bloodthirsty revenge from beyond the grave, the ghosts I tend to write about are melancholy haunts, not so much obsessed with unfinished business as a bit confused as to how they’ve ended up dead. Just for once I thought I’d feature a previously-alive character who embraces her new circumstances.
Tock Tock touches the glass face of the old-fashioned alarm clock, which is the timing mechanism on Doctor Ontological’s abstraction bomb. The Doc may be a genocidal mad scientist, but he certainly has a classical style.
Its examination complete, Tock Tock straightens its whirring metal legs and reports back. “Sympath, I have located the device. It’s not good news, I’m afraid.”
Its partner’s voice crackles over the collection of crystal, copper wires and radium batteries comprising Tock Tock’s auditory systems. “Hard to believe it could be worse than this, buddy,” she shouts back, over the pop of gunfire and the whine of heavy machinery.
Sympath is leading the search for survivors of the Dichotomists’ attack on the Brucker Building, Colossus City’s premier research facility. She’s been pitching in since the first assault an hour ago, in which the black and white-clad terrorists turned their deconception rays on the Brucker laboratories, blasting half of its staff, information and load-bearing structural walls out of existence. Sympath mopped the floor with the demolition squad, but as rescue crews arrived, more armed Dichotomists emerged from hiding to hinder their efforts.
Tock Tock went after their leader. When he cornered Doctor Ontological in the top-floor infraphysics lab, they exchanged the usual boasts of superiority, threats of incarceration and invitations to switch sides. They fought as well, though their brief battle came to little more than superficial scuffing and more property damage. Doctor Ontological had uttered one last tedious threat – “In a few moments, Tock Tock, you and this pathetic city will never have existed!” – before unveiling his bomb and disappearing in a haze of Higgs bosons and red quarks.
“The device is designed to collapse the barriers between thought and reality,” says Tock Tock. “It appears to contain hologrammatic representations of the collected works of Borges, Argento and Kafka, thirty hours of concert footage of various suicidally depressed performers, and a plastic Alice in Wonderland doll dating from 1951, still in the original packaging. The casing is made of planks from Baba Yaga’s hut.”
Sympath whistles. “I won’t ask how you know that,” she says. “Sounds like Doc Ont went to a lot of trouble. Can you defuse it?”
“I think so,” says Tock Tock, “but not from here.”
“What does that mean?” Sympath can control human opinions and punch holes in brick walls; very little gives her cause for panic. Tock Tock does not need her powers of heightened emotional intelligence to detect the signs of rising concern in her voice.
“The bomb does not entirely exist within the prevailing conceptual framework. I’ll have to follow it back to its source.”
“Tock Tock, you don’t need to take that chance. I’ve already called Sophie Osmosis. She’ll be here in eight minutes. She can move the bomb out of phase with this universe and-”
“That only moves the problem to someone else’s universe,” says Tock Tock. The hands on the old alarm clock sweep slowly toward midnight. “Besides, even allowing for the inaccuracy of this timepiece’s display, insufficient time remains for other plans. It must be now, and it must be me.”
“Tock Tock.” Sympath knows better than to argue with it, but Tock Tock understands she is experiencing an undesirable emotional state. “Be safe.”
“I will do my best to return intact,” it assures her, before cutting the transmission. It estimates two minutes to detonation, give or take a few seconds. The margin for error is slim.
Tock Tock is confident that only it is capable of dealing with this situation – an existential crisis with high explosives attached. It is almost unique in Colossus City – an artificial entity every bit as implausible as the bomb in front of it.
When it first appeared in Cutthroat Lane back in 1963, it had understood itself to be Tock McPherson, Robot Private Eye. McPherson had been a hard smoking, hard drinking, womaniser with a trench coat and a snub-nosed .38. After a decade of busting organised crime and exposing crooked property rackets, he had suddenly become Shiner, the political freedom agitator and self-declared Protectress of Protestors. In another six years, she became Sam Glass, the Ghost Warrior. Then DJ Statue. Then the Vanguard of Victory Street. Then Focus, and a dozen others.
Tock Tock has been more people than anyone it knows. Even Night Shrike doesn’t change identities so often. If anyone can deal with an existence-level threat, it’s an entity whose existence resides in fundamental unreality.
Ignoring the crackling neutrinos, Tock Tock finds a detached copper wire and threads its fingers along it until they disappear. As expected, the wire leads out of the reality to which the lab, Sympath and all of Colossus City is attached.
Squeezing uncomfortably through the microns-wide wormhole, Tock Tock emerges into a mirror of the physics laboratory it just left, though this one is pristine, unmarked by any super-battle. The end of the wire is wrapped around a nail hammered into a wooden crate about the size of the abstraction bomb.
Doctor Ontological leans against the empty crate, eating an apple.
“Welcome,” says Doctor Ontological. “You took your time.”
Tock Tock ignores the mad genius and carefully plucks the nail out of the box. The wormhole instantly collapses.
“You orchestrated the murder of dozens of people. You tried to kill millions. I am placing you in custody.”
“You haven’t saved them yet,” observes Doctor Ontological, crunching the apple loudly.
“I’ve disconnected the bomb from its power source.”
“Not at all. You’ve replaced its power source.”
A tug of gravitons plays at the fringe of Tock Tock’s senses. It feels them snaking back toward the bomb. If it doesn’t get far enough away, the bomb will detonate.
“Only you can stop my true master plan.” Doctor Ontological holds out a battered brown garment. “I brought you this.”
“Tock McPherson’s trenchcoat?”
“Give my regards to the 60’s. If you’re lucky, it’s far enough.”
Tock Tock dons the coat.
“This isn’t over,” it warns, as it jumps back to where it began.
It’s another Colossus City superhero story (past ones have been Mister Extra, Flyers, and Mother Sun and Sister Moon). This one owes more than a small tip of the hat to Grant Morrison and Richard Case’s early ’90’s run of Doom Patrol, which probably had a bigger influence on me than is strictly healthy.
Edit: Oh for goodness sake, I accidentally published this early and can’t seem to unpublish it. So, uh, enjoy the sneak preview, all you people inexplicably watching this page on Thursday evening!
My squad hits the dirt behind the fanned trunk of a giant kapok tree when a Mamba .511 starts bark-bark-barking from somewhere in the jungle. The kapok’s splayed base eats up the rounds better than armour, but the wood’s not hard enough for long term comfort.
“Poachers!” yells Ortez, stating the obvious. What are you gonna do? Kid’s a rookie.
“Take it to suit comms.” I mutter the command. Keeping a tight lip in a firefight goes against the natural instinct to shout, but giving your position away to trigger-happy desperadoes is a bad habit to get into. “Gimme full burn.”
“Roger that,” says Lerner, the Austrian with the Masters in Comparative Theology and Bowie face tatts. He’s been spoiling for a fight for days; I can practically hear him grinning.
A static hum fills the hollow at the foot of the kapok as our exo-skirmishwear powers up. I’m in the Villeras-Cristos Gigantic, with the static discharge plates and short-range spring boosters; the rest are rocking standard-issue armoured suits with ballistic compensators, muscle enhancement and skeletal reinforcement, all wrapped in bespoke Amazonian-camo skin with subtle corporate logos. We look like six of the roughest, meanest tropical beetles you’ve ever laid eyes on.
“Spread and suppress.”
Tannie and Bron Chisholm bound left on enhanced leg musculature, their forearm-mounted submachineguns chattering a retort back at the poachers. Ortez and Reed slink right into the low underbrush, camouflage filters dropping their contrast to match the rainforest shadow. They’re jacking themselves with a cocktail of sensory and reflex boosters, as well as neutralising agents to calm the edge off Ortez’s adrenaline spike.
The shooting cuts out as our attackers lose line of sight on their targets. I direct hand signals at Lerner; I want intel.
He drops an infoslim between us and calls up a map, pointing out our position. Our patrol range covers several hundred hectares of mountains, valleys and river networks covered in some of the densest foliage on Earth. We don’t always know where we are, at least not without checking.
Decades of military combat experience, state of the art mobile frames, combination arms ranging from tranquilisers to ground-to-air missiles, and an unpredictable beat? Usually, it’s enough to discourage poachers, but not always.
“We’re within a mile of Quadrant 148-beta,” mutters Lerner. “That patch belongs to the Romanian crew.”
In a jungle this big, the proximity was too close for coincidence. “Damn,” I replied. “They’re after the stags.”
“Are their insurance payments up to date?”
“Then let’s furnish our clients with the very best in protective services and deterrence management.”
The moment of silence stretches out to thirty seconds, which means the poachers are either prepping another ambush or pulling an orderly retreat. Since their first sucker punch missed its mark, I decide to assume they are, excuse me, bugging out.
Unfortunately, their best line of retreat from our current position is down the valley to our west. Directly toward the Romanian bug research encampment.
I access detailed aerial surveillance data showing the disposition of the Romanian facility: the glasshouse-domed field laboratory, the stock pens, the sonic fencing systems. Assuming the poachers were on foot, in good health but not enhanced, I figured they could hoof it down to the sonics in about ninety seconds.
Plenty of time.
“Break now. Intercept on these coordinates.”
Still in our fire teams of two, we cut loose and hit a run, trying to get ahead of the poachers. The beetle suits can scuttle up to 80 kays over short distances.
Trouble is, at that pace they shed a lot of manoeuvrability. Way we figured it later, Ortez crashed into the middle of the squad of poachers like a stolen cab through a shop window. He caught a ricochet off his own chest plate when they panic-fired at him. The round went up under his chin. Not a lot of ballistic mesh in that spot.
“Contact!” Reed tells us with his customary understatement. He’s carrying the heavy load, a sleek HammerJack 7.56mm machine gun on gyroscopic mountings. It slows him down a touch, so he was a few steps behind Ortez. It gives him a front seat for the chaos.
The poachers either sent in an advance party to disable the sonic barriers, or they have a man on the inside. Safest bet is to assume it’s the latter. Research assistants are never paid what they’re worth, except by organised crims looking for a low-stress score.
With the sonics down, the herd is free to wander. I burst out of the undergrowth just in time to see a large set of mandibles snip the poachers’ point man almost in half. It’s the size and roughly the shape of a VW Bug with an enormous claw attached to the front, and it’s not alone. The beetles burst from their grassy enclosure, spilling out in a green-black tide of hard shells and take-no-prisoners attitudes. Another tries the same trick on Reed’s reinforced suit, less successfully.
The poachers, who have guns, grenades and diamond-edged carapace-harvesting chainsaws, are no match for the beetle stampede. Knocked down or run through, they’re easy prey for our targeting systems.
Plus-sized Lucanidae – stag beetles – engineered and reared by the Romanian mad scientists for – something. Organ harvesting, probably, or maybe their shells can be ground down for cheap industrial sealant. Whatever. There’s about fifty such wild genetic experiments going on inside our patrol zone, each weirder and less legal than the last. I’ve never asked.
“Pheromones,” shouts Lerner, consulting our safety protocols on the fly. “Formulation sixteen.”
We all trigger a scent package which permeates the fibrous underlayers of our suits. The scent is undetectable to humans, but the bugs are repelled by it. We encircle them like sheepdogs. The stampede ends as quickly as it began, as the Lucanidae turn away from us and scuttle back toward their enclosure.
They leave a pulped mass of bodies and poaching gear in their wake.
I have a weird job.
Honestly, I have no idea where this one came from. I do like cool power armour, but the genetic tampering to farm gigantic beetles in the Amazon? I don’t know. I have a weird job.
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