Friday flash fiction – Both Ends of the Lifeline

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

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

She knows she has to run before it sees her.

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

Francesca runs.


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

“How so?”

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

“She’s still alive,” she insists.

“How can you possibly know that?”

“I haven’t felt her die yet.”


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

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

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

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

Francesca climbs.


“Trent might be right.”

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

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

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

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

“Because you lacked Francesca’s power?”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Francesca takes the rope in both hands.

She lets them bring her home.

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

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Friday flash fiction – The Fall of Pallas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Captain Silver trapped him in an antigrav bubble.”

“Wow. The Irregulator, then?”

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

“Night Shrike?”

“Who even knows with that one?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’re…letting me go?”

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

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

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

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

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

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Friday flash fiction – Another Arm for Gemini

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

“Yeah, Doc, it’s me.”

“Why can’t I hear you properly?”

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


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

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

Gemini’s heist had begun so well.

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

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

“What’s it doing now?”

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

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

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

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

“Which means what?”

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

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

“I didn’t mention any good news.”

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

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

“You want me to leave my arm behind?”

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

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

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

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One Bite at a Time

Time gets away from you while your back is turned. We’re already three weeks into 2019 and I’m already miles behind where I want to be. I have at least three short stories in variously unfinished states. I have a story I wrote back in 2017 long overdue for editing. I promised a couple of book reviews to friends. I have a newsletter to prepare.

Oh, and I put myself on the hook to write a novel this year. I haven’t started it yet.

What prompted this bout of self-recriminatory checklisting noticing that I haven’t written a single blog post here since later October. While I am pleased not to have missed a weekly #fridayflashfiction post, three months is a long time for me to go without publically musing on the state of my writing work.

I suspect many contributing elements; exhaustion, stress and Australia’s increasingly off-the-charts summer heat are among them. (It’s crazy-hot here at the moment, folks).

Really though, it all comes back to one thing: resistance. I’ve been putting off breaking soil on the novel for several months now. I’ve told myself to get all the other niggling jobs out of the way, so there’s nothing to distract me from the Big Project for 2019.

Clear the decks. Sweep away the distractions. Something something Marie Kondo probably.

Yeah, nah.

My cunning strategy to demolish all niggling sources of procrastination has failed on two counts: one, I just procrastinated on the small stuff instead; and two, new small stuff emerged.

In retrospect it should have been obvious this was a terrible idea. I keep waiting for a big chunk of free time that I can commit to a big project, but it’s a delusional notion. A windfall of spare time isn’t coming any time soon, and pleasant daydreams don’t write books.

Waiting for a break in the weather is just another stalling tactic. It’s an almost perfect expression of procrastination: “I’m definitely going to do the thing. I just need to get off to a good start.”

Note to self: the only good start is the one that happens, not the one that will happen.

As soon as I post this email, I’m going to open a Scrivener file and type the first sentence of the first draft of my new novel. And, after that, I’ll type the next sentence. I’ll fit them in between whatever else I have to do.

And if I keep doing that every chance I get, I’ll have something to show for it beside apologetic blog posts.

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Friday flash fiction – Argus

At dawn every morning, Alexi Leadbeater rises alone, stokes the boilers, loads the camera and autocannons, and pilots the Midnight Sonnet toward the Argus Jungle, to search for Vijay.

Harroway, the squadron commander, doesn’t approve of these excursions. The war is not going well, and he can’t afford to lose another flyer. But the Leadbeater name carries weight, and the costs come from Alexi’s own pocket, so he has little choice but to turn a blind eye. The twinge of guilt Alexi feels at putting him in that position is not sufficient to keep him grounded.

The risk of an enemy encounter is minimal. Both sides consider the jungle to be hostile ground. It’s not worth fighting over, either strategically or literally. Nobody cares but Alexi.

He pushes the gyro-flyer high, staying above the wispy morning clouds as the sun rises. The thin air bites; Alexi breathes deeply between chattering teeth and occasionally pulls at the flask magnetically affixed to his instrument panel. The rough moonshine warms his blood, melting the distracting freeze and helping him focus on the search.

Only when he is over the Argus proper does he descend. Now he’s too far from human eyes to attract unwanted attention. Not war-born attention, at any rate.

His first reaction each day is to form the same thought: the Argus is denser than ever. At first, he thought it was a trick of the light, or of his growing despair. He believed he was imagining it, but a few nights ago, his suspicions were confirmed.

Alexi had been drinking with Enderby; a botanist before the war had seen fit to make other use of him. As they grimly watched the rainbow fireworks of chemical artillery shells exploding on the horizon, battering the young soldiers of one side or the other, Enderby drained his fifth glass and rasped, “I’m afraid the Argus was my fault.”

Something in the distant brutality, or perhaps the corrosive grain liquor, had soured Alexi’s mood. He turned on the bomber captain. “What are you talking about? Your fault? A whole jungle?”

Enderby poured himself another with shaking hands. “It was …six months ago, I think? Not long before your squadron was assigned here. Field HQ wanted to turn the Argus into a flanking front but to move the foot-sloggers through they’d have to clear the jungle.”

Alexi understood. “You were assigned to blast the Argus with weedkiller bombs?”

“HQ was willing to tear up the ancient treaty for a tactical advantage,” said Enderby, unable to quash his bitterness. “A bad business. The Verklunder locals were up in arms, of course, they practically worship the forests. Nobody was happy about it though. Even Harroway questioned the orders, for all the good that did. When it became obvious a court martial for insubordination was on the cards, I volunteered my crew.”

“What? You flew the mission? But the Argus is -”

“Like I said, the Verklunders were angry. With so many of them in the ground crew, we’ll probably never know which one swapped out the payload. Boffins think it must have been alchemical fertilisers. The jungle doubled in size in less than a week. It’s still growing.” Enderby swallowed his drink and rose. “I’m damned sorry about Vijay, but we’ll never see him again. Nothing walks out of the Argus any more.”

The Midnight Sonnet dips low, over the treetops but not too close. The trees twist and gnarl, like claws ready to snatch a passing bird from the air. The thought is ridiculous but compelling. Alexi keeps his height.

His cautious elevation pays off handsomely. He catches a glint of metal and sees ribbons of silk flapping about the skeletal frame of another gyro-flyer.

He slides the Midnight Sonnet into a hover, inflates the gasbags and angles up the propellers to maintain his position. One glance through his binoculars at the upturned nose cone, the tripled shock cannons, and the tattered mural of a silver chrysanthemum confirm it. The crashed gyro is the Avenging Command. Vijay’s ship.

Alexi manoeuvres closer, until the Sonnet is directly above its fallen sister. He tosses a climbing rope overboard and clambers from the cockpit, sliding downward to the wreckage. As he passes, he sees the cavities gouged by enemy flak bursts, various scorch marks, and the neat stitches of bullet holes. No sign of a pilot though. He continues to the forest floor.

It’s night-dark beneath the canopy. Alexi is forced to ignite his phosphor lamp before he reaches the ground. He notes spongy, dense moss, and a constant dripping sound surrounds him, but he has eyes only for the trees. Their trunks are massive, the leaf coverage absolute, their branches overhead intertwined like noodles in a bowl.

One of them moves toward him, and before he can draw his pistol, he recognises it. Vijay’s uniform hangs in shreds from woody limbs; bunched leaves sprout from his bark-covered torso, and his round, familiar features have hardened and taken a chiselled look.

“You should not have come.” This hollow, jug-band voice like a breeze through a hollow is almost unrecognisable from Vijay’s baritone.

Alexi struggles to relax the grip on his revolver. “I came to bring you back.”

“I cannot return.”

Alexi searches eyes obscured by wood-knots for some hint of the old Vijay. “Come now, none of that talk. The company surgeon can remedy…this.”

“I do not wish to be remedied.”

Alexi puts a hand on Vijay’s shoulder, finding rough brittle bark where smooth dark skin had been. “The thing is, we need you back with us. I need you, Vijay.”

Vijay raises an arm like a breeze lifting a branch. He rests a hand of green digits and feathery leaves on Alexi’s shoulder. Fresh tendrils sprout from what were once thick fingertips.

“The Argus grows ever wider, Alexi. It spreads and grows strong.” The tendrils settle on Alexi’s neck and sink roots there.

“We will be back with them very soon.”

No real news this week, so this is just an occasional reminder to any new visitors that you can get my short story collection, featuring nineteen short and flash fiction stories as weird or weirder than this one, as a free ebook when you sign up to my newsletter. Just click on the link below:

Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales

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