Friday flash fiction – Everyone Dreams, Nobody Quits

Alison Trent listens to the bone-shuddering cries of the Stalker echo across the overgrown campus, waiting for the chance to sacrifice herself.

 She doesn’t know if the Stalker can be destroyed. Even the Yau, who were ancient long before life on Earth began, do not know. Nothing is certain but that the Stalker must be trapped, and she is the bait.


Caspian Gale and the Yau Coordinator Jasper have been inseparable for so long neither thinks of itself as an individual. “We are a bridge between worlds,” they insist, as they forge a mental link from the waking world to the realms of nightmares. “We are the interface between those who slumber and those who rose.”

“You are a conference call app,” Francesca Kincaid retorts. “Connect us already.”

Francesca’s dream form looks like something spray-painted on the side of a van – an imperious warrior-queen, sword in hand, armour the same dull grey-blue of the dreamscape, and carrying herself with menacing presence, like an epic hero looking for a foe to vanquish.

Alison Trent spent just a short time in Francesca’s company,when she was still part of the dream world. She’s never seen Francesca’s waking form. She realises she probably never will. Their physical bodies might be continents apart. “I’m glad to see you’re still alive, Fran.”

She feels Francesca’s grimace before she sees it; the sensory feedback from the Gale/Jasper interface obeys its own laws. “Sorry, Ali. You won’t be so happy when you hear the plan.”


“I feel pretty good for someone who hasn’t moved in years.”

Alison’s only been awake for two hours, after sleeping for –well, nobody has admitted how long it’s been, but the campus is wildly overgrown with grass a body’s length taller than her, impassable shrubbery thickets, and ivy so dense in places as to pull walls from buildings.

Caspian Gale, the human half of the Gale/Jasper hybrid, hands her tarnished equipment and a stale energy bar. “Your Phyter – the Yau volunteer who sustained your life and held you safely in the dream state – also worked to build your muscle mass and flexibility.”

Alison winces at his quietly remonstrative  tone, but apologies are no use now. “Until I killed it, you mean. Did it have a name?”

“Yau names are fluid expressions of lineage, social function,gender identity, cultural accomplishments and preferred pastimes,” Gale said,though Ali suspected it was Coordinator Jasper’s reply. “They liked to be called Bob. They admired your tenacity, Alison.”

“I guess Bob would take satisfaction in knowing my last moments will be as horrible as theirs.”

“They would not. Bob wanted you to live, above all else. They cared for you more than anyone you’ve ever known.”

Alison thinks about her nightmares, where her husband Luke turned on her, over and over, again and again.

“Then I owe him one.”


While most of what remains of the human race squirms in the throes of Yau nightmares, Francesca Kincaid gathers her army. Nera Ramesh, her lieutenant, reshapes the illusory space into a stadium to accommodate the hundreds of dreamers who have resisted the Yau illusions. Almost all of them owe their heightened awareness to Francesca. Almost none of them thank her for removing the scales from their eyes.

“We get only one chance at this,” Francesca tells them. “If we screw it up, everything dies. Every Yau. Every human. So we don’t screw it up, okay?”

They roar assent. Francesca beckons them, and they fall into an untidy march behind her.

Nera says, too quiet for anyone but Francesca to hear, “What if we don’t screw it up? How many will die then?”

Francesca shrugs “Leave the accounting to whoever’s left.”


Ali’s role in the plan is simple: she runs.

The Stalker knows she’s awake; it has known since the moment she killed Bob and lost their protection. It homes in on her brain activity like a bloodhound in summer. Ali is prey.

“Where is it?” she huffs into a two-way transceiver.

Gale’s voice crackles through static. “We can’t be sure. We have very few observers. But it’s close to you. It’s getting closer.”

The roar, when it comes, is worse than before. It sounds like a half-frozen bear being dismembered by a rotary saw.

Ali runs. She scurries off campus, bounding along the rooftops of abandoned cars, heading for the crumbling city. Could she lose it in the decaying streets? Not for long. Maybe for long enough.

Unlike Gale/Jasper, the Stalker exists in both the real world and dreamscape simultaneously. Perhaps other worlds as well. But it is a singular being; it can’t quite be everywhere at once. There are some physical laws even it must obey.

She hears its pursuit. She hears cars shunted aside, the crack of splintering tree trunks and thudding feet. Not quite all the way to the presumed urban safety, Ali turns to confront it.

She fires a flare gun without aiming at a shadowy shape in full sunlight. It’s smaller than she expected – horse-sized at most, it is an unfixed ball of shifting spines, huffing mouths and glaring orange eyes. The searing red flash disorients the Stalker. Her tiny hope of disabling it dies at once.

Ali has no other weapons but a steel bar and bravado. “Come on then, you hungry mutt. Make it quick. Bob’s waiting for my apology.”


“God help us, it’s enormous.”

Two things: the Stalker has never been distracted before, and nobody has ever tried to surround it.

Francesca’s soldiers are nightmare-saboteurs. They have learned to turn the stuff of dreams into weapons capable of hurting the Yau.

But the Stalker is not the Yau, and dream-weapons do it no harm.

Instead, they dig a hole. A hundred weaponised dream-sappers crack the sleeping universe wide open.

The Stalker’s limbs flail. It falls shrieking through the gap between realities.

A stray tentacle plucks Francesca from her vantage point, and drags her down.

The gap closes.

The Stalker and Francesca are gone.

This week’s story is the latest instalment in a series I’m determined to eventually bring to an end, preferably before they become a novel told in thousand-word chapters. The series to date are Works Like A Dream, Any Dream Will Do, Alison’s Awake and The Nightmare Bargain. I’m not prepared to swear to the final count, but there’s going to be at least two more stories before the dream warriors wrap up.

This week’s title is freely adapted from my favourite line from Lieutenant Jean Rasczak (played by the magnificent Michael Ironside), who was objectively the best character in Paul Verhoeven’s adaptation of Starship Troopers. The line is “I only have one rule. Everyone fights, no-one quits. You don’t do your job, I’ll shoot you.”

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Friday flash fiction – Raku’s Dawn

When Princess Raku woke from her slumber, the world had changed. Where were the courtiers who should bring her uniform? Where was the barber who must harvest her wild tresses? Where, above all, was her mother, who was supposed to be waiting, to present her tools of office?

The hatch on her capsule was spattered and caked with dust. It resisted when she pushed. She couldn’t turn or lift her head; her hair had grown to intertwine with the release mechanism. Nobody came when she called – timidly at first, and soon with a fear-tinged gusto. She cut herself free, hacking her hair to the scalp with ones of her knives.

Swearing mightily, she pushed the canopy open and sat up, seeing her bedchamber for the first time in…how long?

Her cryogenic internment had been set for two years – two years of induced coma to implant muscle enhancements, reinforce bone tissue, and graft extra organs into her torso. As she took in the pulverised furniture, scattered medical equipment, the ceiling cave-in, and the skinless bones scattered about the room, she understood that her mother, her courtiers, and her friends had all long since ceased to wait for her.

One skeleton, draped in a rotted gold cloak and bearing the tiara and wristlets of the Office of Laws, cradled a wooden box as though shielding it from whatever disaster had struck. Princess Raku stood over the skeleton for a long time, muttering prayers and gratitude for the woman who bore her. Then she carefully detached the box from its grip and opened it.

The badge was set into the underside of the lid, clean but faintly tarnished, and the guns occupied two depressions in the felt lining. Disoriented, and not only from dehydration, she set the box aside. She found her hat and uniform in the splintered remains of what had once been a priceless goldoak cabinet, the gift of some foreign dignitary hoping to curry favour with one of Raku’s ancestors. The clothes were stiff in their folds, settled into their shape.

She donned the raiment of her office: the strapped boots; the heavy blouse and pants with cunningly-sewn protective layers; the square-shouldered coat; the broad-brimmed hat of thick lizard leather.

“Someone should say something,” she observed, unable to bring herself to address her mother directly. “I suppose it must be me.”

She buffed the badge on her coat lapel and fixed it to her hat. Something clawed inside her throat, trying to hold back the words. “This was supposed to be a day of celebration. I should have been welcomed to my duty with joyous smiles.” She grimaced. Blinked. Tried the hat on. It settled loosely around her uneven haircut. “I’ll have to pad that with some paper.” She paused diplomatically for unheard laughter.

“I don’t know what’s befallen us,” she continued. “I don’t know what’s killed my mother, nor the rest of you. I can’t imagine what awaits me beyond those doors. But I know-”

The doors in question – thick iris airlocks designed to ensure atmospheric security in the sterile cryosleep chamber – creaked slowly open. Not under their own power, she noticed as she slipped behind her sleep capsule. Someone was winding a manual crank. Raku guessed there was little power in the palace; strong electromagnetic fields would have itched her upgraded senses.

“Tech and metal!” hissed a voice in a wholly unfamiliar accent. Other reptilian throats croaked agreement. “Strip it bare.”

Raku hesitated. Killers or just scavengers? Her fingers snapped the latch on the gun case and plucked her weapons from their beds. Already loaded and charged, they hummed fully awake as they scanned her thumbprints.

The first figures through the door were not human but canine; two creatures almost as much scratched plastic and tarnished chrome as sinewy tan hair. She knew these things as dinvolk; native dogs transfigured with cybernetic muscles, toughened bone and dermal armour. Her mother’s father had banned them as abominations before Raku was born. Not all their neighbours had shared his ethical qualms.

The dinvolk issued throaty, radio-crackle growls as they sniffed out Raku’s presence. She stood, exposing her upper half, letting them get a good look at her. She returned their flat gazes with a thin smile. “You are not welcome here, dinvolk.”

As she expected, they answered with thunderclap barks and leaped directly at her. She raised both guns and fired a single shot from each at the open mouths, the only exposed part of the creatures not protected by a skin of ceramic mesh. The dinvolk folded over in mid-strike, crashing into the sleep capsule.

Shots crackled from the doorway, shattering the capsule’s ferroglass cover. Raku was already moving, taking cover behind a heavy diagnostic scanner. Sparks flew as the shooters adjusted their line. Raku counted three distinct weapons; two firearms, and kinetic projectile launcher. She leaned out and unleashed a barrage of shots at the two large men framed confidently in the doorway. They fell aside, revealing a third person frantically reloading a crossbow. He was a burly youth, with quick fingers that deftly slotted the bolt in place.

“Drop it,” she said. When his response was to twitch the end of his weapon up, she shot his hand and repeated her demand. This time the bloodied bow clattered to the ground.

“Who are you? Why are you in my mother’s palace?”

Clutching his ruined hand, the youth seethed, “We are the Wardogs of Akiszi. We recognise no claim on this place but our own.”

The names meant nothing to Raku. “What of the people who live here?”

“We claim them too.”

Before he knew what was happening, Raku twisted the boy’s wrists behind his back and tied him with oxygen tubing. “Consider the claim disputed. You are hereby deputised as my liaison to the wardogs, unless you’d prefer to be shot.”

The new world into which Raku led her prisoner had no further use for princesses.

What it had been waiting for was a protector.

Sleeping Beauty mashed up with The Dark Tower? Yeah, those are definitely things that go together, I will be taking no further questions on this subject.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember ever being quite as run down by the end of the year as I am right now. 2018 has certainly been a journey. I’m looking forward to a few weeks off soon, which in practice will mean pre-programming my Friday flash stories, driving off for a family holiday and otherwise staying off social media.

I can’t imagine any downsides to that last part of the plan, at any rate.

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Friday flash fiction – The Witch of the Forlorn Edifice

It was her boots who complained the most. She couldn’t take more than two steps up the mountain without her boots registering some grievance, or so it seemed to Jeralzine Stewpot.

“Be careful on those loose rocks! Do you want me to get scuffed?” and “All this alpine air is drying out my leather” and, inevitably, “Do you ever wash your feet, girl?”

“If you can’t show some gratitude, at least have some manners!” snapped her sword, its voice partially muffled by its scabbard. “Jerzy’s doing her best.”

Jeralzine winced at the name. She’s hadn’t been “Jerzy” since she was a child, as the sword well knew, but she knew better than to argue with it.

“Stop jabbering, you two!” boomed the voice of her armoured breastplate, so loud and deep Jeralzine felt it resonate in her lungs. “She needs to keep her mind on her quest!”

And that was another thing, Jeralzine thought, suppressing a bitter sigh. When, exactly, had this ill-wrought venture become her quest? She had set out only with the greatest reluctance, drawn into state-sponsored heroics and the business of witches very much against her better judgment. If Friedland hadn’t flexed those bare biceps of his; if Bruyalle’s batted eyes had been a slightly less compelling shade of emerald; if Voxxas hadn’t offered to pay half her contract up front? She might have found the voice to sensibly decline.

But no. Here she was, nearly at the peak of the most dangerous mountain in the Principality of Kepheleq, hungry, thirsty and sore all over, abandoned and alone but for the incessant howling wind and her equipment’s ceaseless bickering. The most she could look forward to was her inevitable death at the hands of the Witch of the Forlorn Edifice, which would at least deliver respite from these woes.

She hoped so, anyway. You could never be sure with witches.

“How can she forget?” demanded the boots. “The fate of the whole principality falls upon her shoulders.”

“Aye, and under-developed shoulders at that,” pronounced the breastplate gravely. “Girl, have you been following my lifting exercises at all? By now your pectoral muscles should be stretching my bindings!”

“Oh for Kurq’s sake!” The sword jumped from its scabbard into Jeralzine’s hand, who was so startled she almost dropped it. “Jerzy’s perfectly strong enough to chop off a witch’s head, Friedland. I’ll see to that. Stop being such a creep about her chest measurements!”

“Easy for you to say, Bruyalle,” scoffed the breastplate. “At least you’re going to get some action. What am I supposed to do against the witch? Block a rain of toads?”

As they fell once more into their usual arguments, Jeralzine contemplated their goal. The four of them had set out together to scale the mountain, find the Witch and stop her from carrying out her threats. Unless appropriately appeased, she had promised a generation of wrack and ruin upon Kepheleq– blighted crops, a cloudless summer, and swarm after swarm of fat, festering plague rats. Such dire peril demanded the greatest of heroes, and so had risen up a mighty warrior, a crafty bard, a potent wizard and…her.

Jeralzine the scullery maid, whose lifetime’s heroics had so far been confined to sweeping, stirring and washing every day since she was six.

The three heroes had invaded Princess Naomi’s kitchens, scared most of the servants away, and pointed at the one too slow and dumbfounded to run. “You there,” said the tall one with teak muscles and hair plaited with copper bands, “do you know what an adventure is?”

“Do you know how to cook trail soup and coal-bread?” purred the hawk-eyed battle-singer, balancing a knife on her calloused fingertips.

The wizard with the waterfall-spray beard asked, “Will you take a cash deposit?”

Without ever quite agreeing to it, Jeralzine Stewpot became a mercenary witch-hunter. The distant fourth of a hero band determined to scale the deadliest peak in the Gleaming Principalities and confront the cruel witch in her den.

Her companions promptly forgot about her unless it was time to set up camp, gather firewood or wield the dinner ladle. They spent all their attention on loud squabbles about methods for dispatching witches and the nature of a Princess’ gratitude.

These heated disagreements proved their downfall. Each in turn was killed in action. Friedland the Mighty was carried away and dropped from on high by a snarling pterosaur. Bruyalle the Crafty was spiked on the venomous tail of a manticore. Voxxas the Potent was incinerated when his own fireball reflected off a rebound trap.

And as each had died, Jeralzine found herself with a shiny new piece of startlingly talkative adventuring hardware.

“Quest insurance,” explained her new boots in the voice of Voxxas the Potent. “Tricky magic, but essential in these all-or-nothing quests. The last one standing benefits by the perpetual wisdom of her fallen companions.”

Standing at the crest of the Forlorn Edifice before a hut made of bronze feathers and gnawed bones, Jeralzine wondered about those words ‘wisdom’ and ‘essential’.

Friedland the breastplate was talking tactics. “We’ll go in through the roof. She’d never expect-”

From the hut emerged a middle-aged woman wearing hunting tweeds and peeling an apple with long fingernails. She peered at Jeralzine. “Is it just you, dear?”

Her magical accoutrements all shouted at once.


“For Princess Naomi!”

“For the Principalities!”

But the witch silenced them with a waved hand. She looked at Jeralzine. “Well?”

“They sent four. I’m the last.” She decided not to disclose her qualifications, in case the witch took them as insult. “I – er, we are here to break your curse.”

The witch cackled, sounding more like a pastry cook than a sinister crone. “There’s no curse, dear. That was just advertising for a project I’m planning. Can I interest you in a multidimensional conflict between good and evil? It pays well.”

Jeralzine supposed it was either this or back to scrubbing pots.

“It depends,” she said. “Can I bring my friends?”

It’s been a while since I checked in on the Gleaming Principalities, but instead of featuring Flopknot and the other so-called mafia bunnies, I thought I’d look at what else might be going on. This story was almost called “Three Heroes and a Little Lady” but fortunately I was gripped by a sudden bout of good sense.

If you have no idea what the previous paragraph was gabbling about, I direct your attention to my previous stories The Overzone Rule, The Going Rate for Peace and Harmony, and The Nonemyr Play (the previous Gleaming Principalities stories), and of course, the classic 1991 Selleck-Guttenberg-Danson gay polyamorous parenting comedy Three Men and a Little Lady, a movie about which I remember absolutely nothing other than the title.

Oh, and the characters here are a fantasy riff on Rogue Trooper, a classic old-school comic strip by Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons, from that venerable British institution 2000 AD (which I read long before its name became a weird anachronism). I’m rather excited that there’s now a film version on the way, directed by Duncan “Moon” Jones and (possibly) scripted by Grant Morrison. Oooh!

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Friday flash fiction – All of Us are Haunted

Everyone has ghosts. All of us are haunted.
Everyone has demons. Our secrets wait to strike.
Everyone’s a vampire. Our desires destroy the ones we love.
Everyone’s a werewolf. We all have that other side.

– All of Us are Haunted by Ophelia Vernon

Ophelia Vernon’s almost reached her limit.

Since her fifty-city ‘Find My Way Home’ tour began seven weeks ago, she has brokered a peace between the Hikashi mantisfolk and the great wyvern Gnivus, recovered the Beringian Diamond from a secret vault beneath Westminster Abbey before it hatched, and led the rite of spring for a cult of Demeter based out of Otter Creek, Colorado. On top of that, her bass player quit, her costumer designer broke three fingers in a door, and she’s learned her best friend is a spy for a quasi-legal international espionage agency called the Concourse. Gina doesn’t know that she knows.

Tired as she is of the constant demands – the grinding travel; the petty necessities of a new stage in a new venue in a new town every few days; the never-ending parade of weirdos who need her and only her to complete some quest, challenge or final confrontation with the forces of shadow and malice – Ophelia won’t stop. All she’s ever wanted is to perform. If she gives up now, will she ever get it back?

“Worried about the gig, boss?”

Gina hovers as close as armour. She has shown herself ready, time and again, to join Ophelia at a moment’s notice in the event of a ‘Situation Chosen One’. This may be just another black ops assignment for Gina, but Ophelia is grateful for the backup.

She puts a brave face on her anxiety, good enough to fool most people. “I have this nagging feeling, like something’s coming.”

After three cancellations to recruit a new bassist, tonight’s gig in Slipjack, Alabama will be double length. She shouldn’t worry; she’s survived this long on inhuman doses of caffeine, protein bars and stubborn optimism. It hasn’t helped her relax.

“You killed a basilisk last night,” Gina reminds her, slapping the pouch on her hip which holds two foil-wrapped, monstrous stone eyes. “The buyers might try to make contact during the show.”

Ophelia rubs the bridge of her nose. “No, that one’s covered. The manager has kept a dressing room free. He probably thinks I’m a diva or doing drugs, but it’s better than having desolation warlocks running around backstage.”

“Listen, you’re just stretched thin. What you need is a holiday.” Gina holds up a hand to forestall protests about career momentum. “I’m serious. You’ve got three more days on this tour. As soon as it’s done, you’re going somewhere nobody knows you and nobody can ask you for anything. A mystery destination. I’ll book the tickets myself.”

Something snaps. Too tired to hold the words back, Ophelia snarls, “It’s about time!”

Gina’s finger hovers over her phone screen. “What is?”

“The Concourse finally want their piece of me, do they? Where am I going, Gina? Defusing concept bombs in Morocco? Special envoy to the court of Queen Titania? Or is it just the damn moon again?” Ophelia’s frustration boils over. “I don’t get it. Why didn’t you just ask for my help like everyone else? Why the undercover act? Why the secrecy? Why pretend to be my friend?”

Unshakeable Gina looks like she’s been kicked. “I…wasn’t pretending.”

“Don’t act like I’m not your assignment, Gina. Don’t lie to my face.”

“Ophelia, I know what you’re thinking but you don’t understand. The Concourse didn’t assign me to recruit you.” Gina shows her the concealed pistol, the knives, the warding scars, and the garrotte in her exercise monitor. She displays the cuts and bruises healing on her palms, elbows and fingers. “I’m here to protect you. With my life, Ophelia. I swear it’s true.”

When Ophelia stares at her, saying nothing in reply, Gina slides her phone into a pocket and leaves, mumbling an apology.

A song jumps into Ophelia’s head; an old unrecorded piece she never got around to finishing. “All of us are haunted,” she remembers, but she can’t remember who she was when she wrote the words. They probably came to her as she waded through some noxious swamp or while swinging on a rope across a flaming ravine. Something like that.

“Excuse me. Miss Vernon? I’m Kelly Valdez. Is this a bad time?”

Ophelia wipes her eyes before she turns to greet the timid twenty-something with a beanie, reading glasses and a camera bag. She’s been petitioned by people wearing this expression before. She forces herself to be polite. “I’m sorry. Have we met?”

“You…er, you helped my grandmother once. In 1968. She told me all about you.”

She remembers; Ophelia hasn’t done much time travelling. “The Mexico Olympics?”

Nodding, Kelly speaks quickly. “I’ve followed your career since the beginning. Since before it began, really. There’s something I want to ask you and if you say no, I’ll understand. I just-”

The show starts in twenty minutes and Ophelia isn’t sure if Gina’s coming back. “I won’t say no,” she says. “I never do.”

Kelly holds up a digital camera. “I’m from Network Zero. I want to make a documentary. About you. About the work you do. The music and – and the other work.”

The Network Zero webcast. Millions of viewers. An instant audience. All she could ask for and more. Ophelia feels slowed down. Freeze-framed. “You know about the, er, other work?”

“You have a lot of fans. Other fans, I mean. Word gets around. You’ve helped so many people. This would mean a lot to them.”

She stands like an unanswered question. Something inside her is shaking.

“It’s…it might be dangerous.”

“I know.”

“Some of my…clients aren’t, um-”

“Human? I know.”

Ophelia knows she can’t run from her fate. It never occurred to her she didn’t have to hide either.

“Okay, I’ll try it, on one condition. The first thing you’ll film is me, apologising to a friend.”

I honestly don’t know if this one stands on its own or not, but if you want to know what Ophelia Vernon’s deal is, she previously appeared about this time last year in Over Chosen, at which time I claimed to have no immediate plans for a sequel. I reckon just shy of twelve months is a fair interval for that to have been true.

If (as I suspect) the story is all over the place, well, it’s just a reflection of my head right now. I’m trying to gather myself to start work on a big new project, but nothing has quite started to take shape yet. I suspect this woolgathering may continue for some time yet…

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Friday flash fiction – Commander Cello and the Myth of Terran Neutrality

Days of tedious deliberations on behalf of all human life finally provoked Commander Adeline Cello to consider alternatives to diplomacy. Faced with the unacceptable prospect of peaceful coexistence with alien invaders, she decided her best negotiating tactic would be to blow something up. Like Europe.

“Tell me again about the quantum corebusters, Carbara!”

Executive Officer Carborundum Six-Alpha obliged with apparent stoic reserve, recognisable to their avid audience of artificial lifeforms as shocked amusement.

“We know of four hundred and twenty-two gravitational fibrillation devices, capable of stimulating massive subsurface or submarine seismic events, seeded in the Terran surface. Most have been strategically placed to excite existing tectonic boundaries and zones of discontinuity. A handful have been positioned under major population centres to maximise potential casualties.”

“That’s sick!” declared Adeline, shaking her head at the nearest camera drone. “But very efficient. And there’s definitely one under Brussels?”

“Yes. It was catalogued by the Interplanetary Uncontrolled Energy Inspection Agency as Device Foxtrot-291, better known to its Gaia First terrorist bomb-makers as the Decolonialiser.”

“Track down some arming codes, XO,” said Adeline. “It’s time to return to the negotiating table.”

The summit was not going well. At the subtle prompting of the Queen of Tethys, the artificial intelligence which secretly controlled virtually all data transfers in the solar system, Earth’s High Command Office had offered to broker a deal with a protoplasmic alien race called the Trepcenar. To the AI’s annoyance, the aliens had already subverted High Command and replaced all the Terrans.

“Carbara, what’s the current population of Terra?” Discretion might have been advisable as they strode through the High Command reception centre in Singapore, but Commander Cello preferred to use her military voice. It carried better for recording purposes.

“Twenty billion,” replied Carborundum Six-Alpha, who judged the comedy value of both demographic precision and correcting Commander Cello about the misuse of its name as now thoroughly exhausted. “Or so.”

“Right. And what’s the estimated extent of alien infiltration?”

“About 98 percent.”

“Which means there’s still about 400 million unconverted humans on this planet?”

“If the Trepcenar continue to absorb and replace humans with biologically-indistinguishable duplicates at the current rate, the native human population will drop below statistical significance within fifteen days.” Carbara pointed at an approaching delegation of human-presenting officials. “Commander, I feel obliged to remind you the aliens don’t know we are aware of their subversion strategy.”

“Well, they should know better than to think they can fool an officer of the Lunar Expeditionary Force,” sniffed Commander Cello, “but you think we should play dumb, eh?”

“Quite, Commander.”

The delegation’s leader was Gideon Mako, Earth’s Diplomat-General, though of course the real Mako had been absorbed, deconstructed and replaced with a Trepcenar duplicate weeks ago. “Commander,” he smiled, showing disturbingly even teeth, “are you ready to resume your negotiations with the Trepcenar envoy?”

“At the risk of keeping those aliens waiting, your Excellency, I’d like a word with you first.” Commander Cello flashed a smile of such dazzlingly arrogant self-confidence that the entire artificially intelligent population of the solar system, watching via the PopScope social media platform, instantly voted to coin the word “celloism” in an attempt to document the unprecedented emotional state.

“I’m afraid it would be gravely irregular for a neutral facilitator to particip-”

Commander Cello interrupted, “When the original Ambassador Mako was liquified into a memory protein smoothie so you could make yourself into his exact copy, did he feel it? And if so, do you remember feeling it? I’m curious.”

Carborundum Six-Alpha emitted a high-pitched squeak several orders of magnitude above human and alien audial frequencies. It was echoed by several tens of millions of sound-capable AIs throughout the solar system. Nobody else heard it.

“I beg your-”

“Did you know my diplomatic credentials are forged and that I’m not really authorised to represent Luna nor any other human government?”

“Commander, is this really the best way to-”

“Not right now, Carbara. Ambassador, are you aware that the Trepcenar invasion has been under observation for nearly a month by a vast networked conspiracy of artificial lifeforms like my first officer here?” She leaned forward to add in a conspiratorial stage-whisper, “Their leader is a space station, as a matter of fact.”

Ambassador Mako straightened to his full height. “I don’t know how you saw through our disguises or why you see fit to mock us,” he said, as he and his companions transformed into translucent puce-orange blobs. “We will understand you better after your absorption.”

“Commander, watch out!”

The four Trepcenar expanded like drenched sponges. Commander Cello and Carborundum Six-Alpha were engulfed. They squirmed uncomfortably within the globular mass for a moment. Then the aliens sloughed off them and reformed into human shapes.

Commander Cello gave a delicate cough, hoping she’d avoided getting alien in her mouth. “If you’re quite finished, your blob-tricks won’t work on us. Carbara here is an artificial person with no biological components, and I took the precaution of getting an all over spray tan of impermeable prophylactic skin. It’s itchy, but worth it not to get digested.” She projected a blueprint at them. “Do you understand these schematics?”

“Tectonic detonation devices?”

“Yep. Buried all over this planet. All now counting down. How fast can you remove every single one of your people from this solar system?”

“Two – two days at least,” babbled the Trepcenar leader.

“Then you have thirty-six hours until detonation.”

“You can’t do that! You would be branded history’s greatest mass killer!”

Commander Cello shrugged. “Maybe, if you hadn’t beaten me to it. Now get off this planet, pronto!”

The Trepcenar shimmered and disappeared, looking confused and a little appalled.

“Are you bluffing?”

“I never bluff, Carbara. Start the countdowns.”

The Executive Officer quietly petitioned the AI first-among-equals. The Queen of Tethys consented to the plan, adding “Until we’re certain it worked.”

“Bold work, Commander. How did you know Trepcenar body-stealing would not affect my synthetic chassis?”

“I didn’t,” she replied. “You’re incredibly lucky, Carbara.”

“Never change, Commander Cello.”

She’s back! Commander Adeline Cello of the Tranquility Cellos, the irrepressible and somewhat awful captain of the Lunar Expeditionary Force vessel Civil Discourse, has appeared previously in Commander Cello and the Preserved Cliffs of Mercury, Commander Cello and the Vexatious High Tea, and Commander Cello and the Secret Queen of Tethys, in that order.

She and her PopScope audience will no doubt return, to great clapplause, as soon as I think of another way for her to be galacticly terrible.

My short story collection Mnemo’s Memory and Other Fantastic Tales is part of a huge holiday-season giveaway at the newly rebranded Prolific Works, right up until Xmas Day. Browse through 200 free titles just by clicking that link, or jump straight to Mnemo’s Memory with this one!

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