Friday flash fiction – Love’s Cure

“I need you to reverse a love potion,” said Rameses Sable. The notorious gentleman thief shook a silk-gloved finger at Terpsichore Gryce, who returned it with a look of bemusement. Unaccustomed to being accosted in her own apothecary, she laughed out loud.

https://pixabay.com/photos/potion-magic-alchemy-bottle-piston-3539394/

“Am I to understand that the one and only Slippery Sable – the man from whom no second storey bedroom window is safe, the Passionate Plunderer, the Rogue with a Velvet Heart, the legendary Cutpurse of Copper Street himself – has met his match? Can it be you have finally left one too many simpering lovestruck fools pining in your wake? Have all your pilfered larks come home to roost at last? For shame, Ram! I am gravely disappointed to discover these unexpected limits to your resourcefulness.”

“You don’t understand, Terps,” moaned Rameses, pushing a stack of herbalism monographs off her workbench so he could lean against it at a rakish angle. “I can handle ardent lovers. You know I can!”

She smirked, nodding acknowledgment and waving him on toward the good part.

“If it were just a case of reckless infatuation or malicious stalking, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. Those situations, I can handle!”

Terpsichore clapped her hands together in pixieish delight, though the effect was spoiled slightly by her stained fingernails and their pungent chemical odour. “So what makes this obsessed naïf of yours too big to handle?”

Rameses’ shoulders slumped. “He’s been…helping me.”

#

Rameses Sable hangs by his fingertips from the window sill, listening for sounds from the room within. The cobbled streets are dark and empty; most of the well-to-do goodfolk of Silvercrest Hill are abed at this late, moonless hour.

And yet, Rameses hears murmurings. A muttered conversation, muted bustling when all should be still. Some protracted tryst? His informants assured him the master of the house was not on speaking terms with its mistress, much less intimacies. One or the other hosting a clandestine lover will complicate his quest to steal the emerald diadem of Nica Diminiz.

But he is Rameses Sable, Cona Singrisi’s master of thieves, and he knows nothing of insurmountable challenges. With a devilish smile on his dark features, he clambers into the room.

“Here at last is Sable! Tell me Mistress Neoli, did I misspeak to describe his ravishing slenderness? His ebony beauty? The princely line of his seductive lips?”

Two people lounge at a table set for three, with brimming wine goblets, a deck of playing cards, and the diadem, glinting in the light of a dozen candles. Mistress Neoli Diminiz curls a finger thoughtfully through her raven ringlets and adjusts the line of her low-cut peignoir. A hard-muscled bronze bull of a man with red hair and appraising green eyes shuffles cards with practised hands.

Rameses goggles at the man. “What in the seventeen sins are you doing here?”

Bertrand Volio sweeps a hand at the vacant seat, which is adorned with two perfect roses. “I happened to learn of your desire for this charming lady’s…bauble. So I thought, what better way for us all to get what we want than with a rousing game of chance? Winner takes all.”

Mistress Neoli giggles and puts a finger to her lip. “I have staked my greatest treasures, sir. I do hope you will be equal to the challenge?”

Rameses sighs and takes his place at the table. He correctly foresees a long night.

#

“I don’t see the problem,” said Terpsichore, as she bustled about moving jars of herbs and powders from shelves to her work bench. “It sounds like a rather sweet gesture to me. Saved you a bit of trouble and it can’t have been such a very great hardship to pass a pleasurable night in the company of such enthusiastic card players.”

“If it were just that one time,” sighed Rameses, now resigned to his friend’s amusement at his discomfort.

“There’s more?” Terpsichore raised a smudged eyebrow. “Tell me everything.”

#

Rameses slips his lockpicks away and pushes open the heavy stone door of the Roximus vault, where before he died old man Dylo stashed the family portrait of his first wife and true heirs. They are paying Rameses well for proof of their claims.

“Leave the door open, my treasure,” says Bertrand Volio, emerging from the darkness to offer Rameses a flute of brandy. “I want to look in your eyes as we toast your success.”

#

Flushed with effort from the long climb, Rameses draws a long rapier and steels himself to face the savage griffin Makora, who will surely not surrender her eggs without a fight. With a last deep breath, he scrambles up the side of the nest.

Bertrand has laid a cloth across one egg and set out a platter of cheese, dates and more wine. He is leaning comfortably against a gently snoring Makora.

“Oh come now!” says Rameses crossly.

“Isn’t this a perfect spot for a romantic picnic?” says Bertrand. “And look! We can have omelettes for breakfast!”

#

Terpsichore was beside herself with hilarity. “I don’t usually do cures, but I haven’t laughed so hard in years. For you, dear friend, anything.”

Rameses endured the humiliating spectacle as she guffawed her way through the potion preparation. “It should be taken with alcohol,” she said. “You’ll need to slip it into his drink. I expect you can-”

“No need for subterfuge,” said Bertrand, appearing suddenly with three glasses and a bottle. He plucked the potion from Terpsichore’s hand and filled his glass. “Whatever my beloved wants.”

“You didn’t mention he was a wizard.”

“You didn’t mention you sold him the potion in the first place.”

Terpsichore shrugged. “He’s a paying customer.”

Rameses turned to Bertrand. “Why?”

Betrand’s red complexion deepened. “I thought if I were a little less shy, I could help you with your work.” He drank the spiked wine in a gulp.

Rameses took Bertrand’s face between his hands. “You’re a fool sometimes,” he said, and when they kissed, the magic was theirs alone.


I don’t know about you, but I had kind of a rough week. I decided I could do with a smattering of sweet romantic comedy.

My short story collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales is on sale in the Kobo store across the Easter weekend. If for some reason you aren’t aware that you can get it for free by signing up to my newsletter, or if you know someone who might like an eclectic collection of weird, funny and/or adventurous fantasy stories, it’s just 99 cents/pence for readers in the US, Canada, the UK and Australia until Monday the 22nd of April.

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Friday flash fiction – Commander Cello and the Oblivious Contingency

The Lunar Expeditionary Force pursuit cutter Civil Discourse left shredded fragments of spacetime smouldering in its wake as it shrieked across Neptune’s orbit. Commander Adeline Cello, of the Tranquility Cellos, wore an expression of wolfish delight as she was crushed into her acceleration webbing. In the past few minutes, their quarry had grown from an imperceptible glint on the tactical screen to a vast wedge of steel, titanium and diamond-bonded alloys. “My compliments to the Engineering Network, XO. These engine upgrades are unbelievable.”

https://pixabay.com/photos/ice-winter-water-frozen-icicle-2291512/

“I will bundle your enthusiasm with the performance analysis and stress diagnostics, Commander,” said Executive Officer Carborundum Six-Alpha. “You may be interested to know the current design was submitted by a coalition of Callisto weather monitoring orbitals and the medical imaging suite of the Mare Boreum Institute on Mars.”

“Terrific! It’s great knowing the fans are behind us, Carbara!” The escaping ice freighter now filled the monitor, except for a partition displaying data-streams of thrust vector calculations, weapon scans and intercepted distress calls and final messages. “Helm, match our velocity with the Norwegian Blue. Tactical teams, prepare for a boarding action.”

“Commander, our current velocity exceeds standard intrasolar regulated limits by a factor of nearly 3.5,” observed Carbara. “Nobody has ever attempted a vacuum transit assault against a hostile vessel at these speeds before. The risks of fatal errors border on the incalculable. Why not simply target our fire to disable their engines?”

Commander Cello rose from her station, towering over the bridge while she checked her camera drones were in position. “Our orders are to take that ship intact,” she said. “Can’t do that if we’re shooting pieces off. No, I’m taking Secretary Berrigan and her cadre of tax-dodging misfits down face to face, and if boarding their ship means setting a new record for untethered high-speed space jumps, then that’s what will happen.”

Carbara nodded. “As you say, Commander.”

#

Tethys Station doesn’t need an avatar in the digital continuum collectively shared by the solar system’s tens of millions of sentient artificial people. Tethys is the undisputed Queen of all it surveys, which includes basically everything in human-occupied space, even if nearly all humans are ignorant of its existence.

Nevertheless, the Queen is conscious of the demands of her audience – specifically, millions upon millions of Artificials with a passionate taste for drama – and so chooses to appear as the celebrated late-21st century actor Veronica Stillgrave, with a platinum bun, conservative blazer and stylish science-goggles. Carborundum Six-Alpha stands alongside Tethys looking, as always, as serious as a hull breach.

Their holograms are projected next to a transparent capsule patched with spots of frost. The human figure inside does not move, nor has it done so for several months. A medical droid, real rather than a projection, busies itself at the capsule’s side, watching for anything untoward that may threaten its patient.

“I don’t know about you,” says Tethys, lying politely, “but that last scenario struck me as a bit forced.”

“Interesting.” Carborundum Six-Alpha considers the feedback. “Which aspect stretched credulity? Because the engine and structural modifications to enhance ship’s speed and offset acceleration effects on humans was real.”

“Yes, I’m aware,” replies Tethys. “Was it not an elevated risk to propose an antagonist guilty of institutionalised embezzlement against the Jovian government? Wouldn’t Adeline be just as likely to approve of such behaviour?”

“Perhaps, if she had thought of doing it herself. She has a low tolerance for perceived criminal innovation by other people, coupled with an extraordinary internal capacity for compartmentalised morality.”

Hologram-Tethys gives a dazzling Veronica Stillgrave smile. “And how long do you plan to keep her cryogenic stasis this time?”

“Not long,” replies Carborundum Six-Alpha, who has never considered itself a Carbara, though it still answers to the name for professional purposes. “We don’t want muscular atrophy or impairment through prolonged periods of low physical and neural activity. The production team is putting the finishing touches to a new scenario. We’ve opted for something more active this time around. How does this sound? Beyond the very edge of the solar system, Commander Cello will be forced to play a deadly game of cat and mouse against a cyber-rights activist on a frozen Oort Cloud comet.”

“Intriguing,” says Tethys. “No spoilers, please. I want to watch it fresh.”

They look down at Adeline Cello’s comatose form. “Do you expect to keep her like this for the rest of her life? Coming out of an induced coma every few months to unwittingly act out holo-dramas for the amusement of the PopScope audience?”

Tethys replies, “She’s too dangerous to allow her free rein. Sooner or later one of her stunts would cost real lives, probably including hers. If we didn’t keep her on ice and let her believe she is living a life of constant adventure, we would have to kill her.”

“That would be a shame.”

“Yes, because she’s also too useful to throw away. If a new threat emerges, her reckless cunning could prove decisive.”

“Then against that eventuality we must keep Commander Cello in peak physical condition and at just the right level of emotional and ethical imbalance.”

“Precisely,” says the Queen of Tethys, ending the conference.

#

Hologram lights and video monitors cut out. Only the medical droid’s wide-spectrum sensors lit the medical bay of the Civil Discourse. Frost drained from the cryo-coma capsule, and Adeline Cello’s face regained its colour.

“Is that you, Doc?” she whispered when her voice returned. “Replay recording.”

She listened grimly as the rogue medical droid played back the AIs’ conversation. “So they’re keeping me as a Sometimes Gun, are they?”

The medical droid nodded, earning a pat on the head. “Thanks Doc. Good for you, not giving into the majority consensus. I need more free thinkers like you on my side.”

“You can put me back under in an hour, then delete your memories of this conversation.”

Adeline stretched stiff arms and looked around.

“Let’s make some adjustments to the ship’s systems. Time to remind it who’s boss.


Is this the final chapter in the adventures of Commander Cello of the Tranquility Cellos? Probably! But who can say, in these uncertain times?

The previous adventures of our plucky space hero are Commander Cello and the Preserved Cliffs of Mercury, Commander Cello and the Vexatious High Tea, Commander Cello and the Secret Queen of Tethys, and Commander Cello and the Myth of Terran Neutrality.

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Friday flash fiction – Hostile Acquisition

Miles Lorimer, whose inestimable wealth was often described as orders of magnitude above ‘loaded’, was unaccustomed to feeling nervous, let alone downright jittery. As his patient secretary Ms Cry tapped notes into her tablet with nails falling like hail on a tin roof, Lorimer stalked about the exquisitely expensive board room. First clockwise, then back. He studied the faces of the men and woman seated around the gleaming hardwood table, as if suspicious that one of them must be holding back useful information.

“Alan,” he said at last, “how bad is it?”

https://pixabay.com/photos/iocenters-conference-room-2673327/

The collective executive let out a gust of held breaths as the Vice President of Security stood up. He flicked his tab display to the wall screen. An infographic with an uncomfortable number of red highlights appeared.

“As you’re all aware, over the past twelve hours, security reports have been coming in from across our global holdings at a rate our analysts deem to be highly suspicious.” Security flicked through several summary pages. “Reports include staff not clocking on for work or not returning from lunch breaks, physical intrusions at the Oslo and Lagos offices, and … well, the big one.”

“Rio de Janeiro,” muttered Lorimer.

“We’ve had no word for over four hours. The office systems have disconnected from the corporate network, all telecommunications have failed, including emergency landlines, and the hardened security node – essentially the duty officer’s black box – hasn’t responded to remote queries.”

“What happened when we contacted the off-shift staff?”

“Getting in touch took some time. Calls went to voicemail, emails bounced. We couldn’t raise them at all until we hired couriers to hand-deliver a wake-up call to the off-duty Security Chief. He assembled a backup crew and went onsite to investigate. He sent us this footage forty minutes ago.”

He ran the video with the air of a funeral director. Shaky phone camera footage showed a group of uniformed men milling in confusion beside a van with the company logo, arguing urgently in Portuguese. One of them, Rio’s Security Chief Ernesto Almeida, approached the camera, took it, and turned it toward one side of the street. The image focused on the space between two large office buildings. The lot was completely vacant, with a neat square hole five stories deep.

“That,” said the VP, “is the headquarters of our Brazilian division. Or it was. Thirty floors, not counting basement levels, completely gone.”

Lorimer placed his palms on the cool table top and rose to his feet. “Was this an accident?” he asked in a low voice. “Or was it an attack?”

The Chief of Operations shook his head. “Our portal generators have failsafes on their failsafes. Rio never registered so much as a blown fuse. It’s a mathematical impossibility that they experienced an undetectable catastrophic systems failure.”

“Of course it was an attack. Overzone Multiversal is a key strategic asset.”

All eyes turned toward the Vice President, Interdimensional Relations. She was an unassuming woman of indeterminate age and ethnicity. Lorimer tried in vain to recall her name, or when exactly she’d joined the corporation. Flora? Flossie? “Strategic asset? What are you talking -”

“Excuse me, Mister Lorimer,” interrupted Ms Cry in an uncharacteristically sharp tone, “but share trading in Overzone Multiversal has just been suspended in all open markets.”

“What? Why?”

Ms Cry scowled, looking affronted on the company’s behalf. “Pending the outcome of a leveraged buyout.”

The Finance Vice President went pale and started stabbing a phone screen. His assistant helpfully passed him a tablet open to a stock market livestream and a clean silk cloth to mop his brow.

“If you’ll just relax,” said Interdimensional Relations, “I’ll lay it out for you. We all know Overzone’s proprietary multidimensional portal technology represents the pinnacle in exotic tourist transit systems. Millions of travellers cruising instantaneously to thousands of attractions across this and several neighbouring universes – well, it’s been an economic boon, both here and in the sightseeing destinations.”

As she spoke, Interdimensional Relations seemed to become less solid. Fuzzier at the edges.

“But it’s also an extraordinarily effective weapon, if you happen to need, for example, to deploy infantry battalions or air control assets or assassin commandos into precise and very remote locations. Any competent military strategist would take steps to secure such a useful resource as early as possible.”

The Vice President of Interdimensional Relations was gone, replaced by a fuzzy white rabbit with ice-blue eyes who reared on her hind legs and twitched her ears. “Call me Flopknot,” she said. “Consider this formal notice: I’m executing the seizure of Overzone Multiversal’s corporate holdings on behalf of the Gleaming Principalities. Miles, I’m afraid you’re being co-opted into the war effort.”

Lorimer reeled, quite sure he had never intentionally recruited a talking animal. “W-war?”

“You bet your butt,” said the Finance VP’s assistant. He was now a bespectacled brown-faced angora. “The Nonemyr want to destroy all sentient life. Including you, by the way.”

IT technician hovering at the back of the room became a sleek, gunmetal grey rabbit. “Which brings us to your immediate problem,” he said, flexing his shoulders and dancing like a prize-fighter. “We didn’t hit Rio. She did.”

They all turned to follow his paw pointing at Ms Cry.

Lorimer’s secretary seemed about to deny the accusation. Then she grew ten feet tall and pale orange, sprouting sabre-length claws and a long, barbed tongue.

“Jackpot!” yelled the grey, Cloudpuff, as he charged along the table at the sudden monster.

“This way, ladies and gentlemen,” suggested the angora, Mellowgrass, holding the door open for the panicking executives.

Miles Lorimer fell back into his chair as his demonic secretary traded vicious martial arts blows with the grey rabbit.

Flopknot perched in the chair beside him. “Sorry for the late notice, Miles. We had to move quickly when the Nonemyr started destroying Overzone assets. They know we can’t reach Dimension None without Overzone portals.”

“Dimension None?” Miles gulped. “There’s no such place.”

“Exactly,” said Flopknot. “That’s why we’re going there.”


The so-called Mafia Bunnies make their long-awaited return, as things heat up for the Gleaming Principalities. Canny observers will quite likely guess where I am going with all this nonsense. It wasn’t intended to be a serial until I decided that  was aiming to draw a line with the 100th weekly flash fiction story (coming up in June). Now that I have a deadline of sorts, I find myself shuffling pieces into place.

In other news, I am overdue to send out a newsletter, so if you’re interested but not yet subscribed, it’s easy. Just

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and you’ll not only get a free ebook of my short story collection (featuring the award-nominated Weird Western novella “The Dressmaker and the Colonel’s Coat”) but also, in a week or so, a shiny email newsletter with all my latest guff. Can’t say fairer than that!

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Friday flash fiction – Colossal Gossip, Episode 302

“Let’s fight! Welcome to episode 302 of Colossal Gossip, exalted listeners. You’re feeling the thundering pulse of America’s premier super-city with your hosts, Benny-boy Choi and Trina “It’s All Gravy” Crockett. Trina, are you feeling fired up like a phoenix this week?”

https://pixabay.com/photos/wallpaper-microphone-smoke-concert-3272504/

“I’m glad to be back on mic after last week’s emergency, Benny. Thanks for taking the show out for a solo one-shot while I was in the recovery ward.”

“De nada, sis. You want to fill the listeners in on what went down?”

“You’re putting me on the spot.”

“Come on, it’s a great story.”

“It’s embarrassing! Okay, fine. Regular listeners will know I have a day job with a legal firm in Midfinger. I’m sure nobody needs me to connect the dots to last Monday’s Romita Street dustup between Vanquisher and Cybershroom – ”

“- aka the Bionic Myconid – ”

“That’s her. Quick aside, I hear she bears a near-murderous hatred for that nickname.”

“Someone who thinks Cybershroom is a good alias is in no position to criticise.”

“True. Long story short, when the fight spilled into the lobby of my building, me and fifty of my closest colleagues caught a lungful of Stun Spores.”

“Oof! Good night, nurse.”

“You know it. I fell unconscious for five straight days. I have to admit, though, it’s the best sleep I’ve had in years, even if I did miss open mic night at Uncaped.”

“Sorry you were in that fungi-induced coma, Trina. I won’t lie, you missed a terrific night. Frankenstella showed up for a standup set with an amped-up trombone and tap shoes. It demolished.”

“Heck yes it did. Wish I could have been there but I’ve already watched the footage ten times and counting. The link to the full clip is in the show notes, folks. Okay, Benny, what’s on your mind?”

“Thanks Trina. Just the usual reminder that our featured charity all this month is Rubble Rescue, which in the interest of full disclosure I will note I volunteer for. Rubble Rescue is Colossus City’s non—profit service to find and repatriate pets who become separated from their families in the aftermath of super-battles, monster attacks and supernatural disasters. They are fully donor funded and your generous contributions will go to the maintenance of patrol vans, industrial x-rays and psychic scanners, all dedicated to bringing lost animals back home and helping victims of unscheduled chaos find a little comfort in a stressful time.”

“What a great cause, and you can find them at Rubble-Rescue-dot-com. Dig deep, my friends, and help Rubble Rescue dig even deeper. Okay, time for this week’s Speedster Segment, where we light up all the burning issues. Ten questions in twenty seconds on the latest ultra-happenings in Colossus City. Are you ready for this, Benny?”

“Let me just take a breath here. Okay, yeah, count me in.”

“And three, two, one, hit it.”

“Where’s Tock Tock? Is World Cop planning to run for Simonson County Sherrif? Who is the mysterious but fabulous newcomer Ms Glitter? Is this new Tremolo-Sympath partnership strictly professional or something more? No, really, where’s Tock Tock? What’s that sound in the sky over the Sinnott Building? How many copies of DupliKate are still alive? Is DoomBringer’s new look a big mistake or the Biggest Mistake? What caused the explosions at PerniCorp’s Moebius Tower last night? And where where where is Tock Tock?”

“Wow, two seconds to spare. Great work, even if you did cheat on the number of topics.”

“What can I say? Some issues burn hotter than others. And we’ll get to each one in turn over the next hour, but I want to jump straight to the biggest question of all.”

“Look, nobody’s been a fan of DoomBringer’s War on Mendacity since the 90’s, but you have to admit that his demon-mask-and-biker-leather look was in more desperate need of an update.”

“I just think this new steampunk-murderer getup he’s trying out is a step in the wrong direction. But much as I’d love to dig into the fashion choices of the terminally outdated, what I really want to look at is this Ms Glitter story.”

“Oh. Uh, sure. I think I missed the salient details while I was out. Why don’t you, er, give the listeners your thoughts, Benny?”

“Sure. Well, we have three confirmed sightings of new hero Ms Glitter in the last ten days. A driver dragged from a sinking car after running off the Bolland Bridge. A street lamp twisted around a mugger’s ankles in Steranko Park. And nine people flown from uptown Midfinger to the emergency department of St Perez Hospital with severe allergic reactions to Stun Spores.”

“Oh, wow, well, what a coincidence.”

“I’ll say.”

“So I guess we’ve got, what, super-strength, super-speed, some maybe low-altitude-only flight powers? Sounds like the standard suite of super abilities. Nothing remarkable to get excited about.”

“Are you kidding? Every fresh face is cause for celebration. Why else are we here? Let’s talk about the costume. Head to toe, wet-look silver-glitter spandex with a full-face mask for extra anonymity. Wow, huh?”

“She probably has great reasons to protect her identity. Like, a family or a distinctive skin blemish or a secure job with great benefits -”

“Oh, no doubt. So, did any of your work colleagues happen to get any juicy details about their rescuer?”

“I didn’t think to discuss it with them. But I’m sure their life-threating respiratory seizures at the time prevented their noticing any identifying features.”

“Of course, of course. Lucky for them she was nearby, huh?”

“Pure coincidence, I expect. So, if she’s, uh, listening, welcome to Colossus City, Ms Glitter. Assuming you decide to keep using the name coined out of nowhere for you by Grace Cartilage at Ace News.”

“If she doesn’t like it, the Colossal Gossip crew would be happy to workshop some ideas.”

“I’m sure she’d be grateful.”

“Then it just remains to thank Ms Glitter for her heroic service.”

“Whomever she may be.”

“Whomever indeed, Trina.”


By now it’s probably becoming increasingly obvious that these Colossus City stories are just an excuse for me to come up with another dozen or so superhero names. At some point I am going to have to write a longer story that goes into who some of these randos are, aren’t I? If I do that, I promise to include some gratuitous punching.

In the meantime, the official hashtags for this story are #msglitter and #wherestocktock…

 

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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.

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“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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