September Short Story: Sacrifice

This story was first published in 30 parts via Twitter during September. It is now reproduced now in a complete form, with a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Sacrifice

 

Knowing this is how he will die, Daniel Burton succumbs to fate.


The salty whiteness his body is tumbling towards registers acceptance with more than a measure of panic: he’s willingly sacrificing himself to me with no fear, why? He’s in love, first time in 34 years. With HER. Searching this man’s mind, these last seconds are blissfully calm. Elaine’s honestly, beauty and courage shattered resolve never to even consider the possibility of a woman in his existence. This is true love too; the Librarian’s Contract has been broken. Daniel has to live.

The vast lake of sentient semen, built over nearly six hundred years from ritual offerings, thinks it has the right to be hacked off at this turn of events but is surprisingly sanguine instead.

Then it begins to laugh: deranged and maniacal: what will now happen is beyond funny.


There’s a voice, in Daniel’s head, chuckle that unexpectedly busts out into a full-blown cackle of delight.

‘Nice work, my son! Whether you like it or not, we’re now in this for the ride, together. I can’t harm you, because if I did the World will come to an end, quite literally… I have one last task to do before this is all over then you get the happy ending that fucked me over in the first place. HANG ON…’

Up from the lake comes shape of a hand, catching falling body with delicate skill. The last thing Daniel remembers before passing out again is the smell…


Chained to the Non-Fiction section of the Manchester Central Library, Elaine McCormack knows something has altered in the nightmare of existence since September 12th, 1468. Deep below Manchester’s streets familiar presence in her head is laughing maniacally whilst Edgar’s in pain. Next to Fiction, the warlock to whom she’s been magically bound since her 16th birthday drops to the ground, clawing at collar of a perfectly starched Jerome Street shirt. The air darkens, swirls of mist and iniquity not seen since their fateful first night on Saddleworth Moor.

This game, meticulously managed over centuries encompassed the Industrial Revolution, two World wars… rise, fall and renaissance of a centre for commerce and inspiration. Finally they’re here, second decade of the 21st Century, about to lift the curse that’s crippled this city. For six hundred and fifty years this man wanted her love. That was all that was needed: steadfast refusal had been her undoing, and in his anger they were both bound to this spot to suffer for all eternity… except not any more.

Daniel had broken their curse, simply by being kind.

There’s a low rumble from beneath the foundations of the Library, as Edgar Burrows grasps extended existence is about to be forcibly snuffed out by his own deranged and distinct ego. The spell used to separate them back in 1968 had simply escalated this inevitable confrontation. Except Burrows isn’t ready to leave, and with the curse that joined him to Elaine temporarily weakened, there might yet be an opportunity to reach for a second stab at immortality without the millstone of his own sexuality to continually assuage. It is worth a try, so he’s gone.

As warlock vanishes in a puff of sulphur and salt, McCormack’s mental and physical bonds evaporate. Falling to the floor, the woman prepares for reversion to pre-pubescent state, or to die instantly from old age. When neither happens, there’s cause for considerable celebration. Her thoughts go immediately to Daniel: he’s beneath, in the Chamber. This offering has not been consumed by the Creature and remains… asleep. Protected inside its body, reward offered for assistance, if she really cares for him. To remove Burrows completely… there is still a way.

Running through the Library, people are leaving, belongings left behind in panic as they bolt for the exits. Only now is it apparent that the entire building is shaking, books beginning to dislodge from shelves: outside sirens grow louder, emergency services arriving on cue. Time is running out, and the item that Elaine needs is locked inside Edgar’s office. Fortunately for her, he won’t realise what is about to happen until it is far too late. The obsession with self-preservation is literally about to become his own undoing, blinkered to the end.

In her head, the Creature’s apprehension manifests as surprise and resignation, before its guilt stops her progress. The ego is sorry, as afraid to die as Burrows… but is about to do so willingly for her soul. Joint sacrifice is unstoppable, stolen life now returned, unhindered. With a massive bang, door to Edgar’s office is blown off its hinges before being reduced to a surprisingly neat and evenly splintered pile of firewood. An ancient Tome of Spells that had been used to bind virgin to warlock is in Elaine’s hand, conveniently open at the right page.

Except after centuries of abuse and subjugation, McCormack cannot read the words; killing and torture her abuser’s task, not hers. She was better than this… but unless there was action, more innocents would vanish. A hand moves gently on her arm, book taken from a shaking grasp. This man ceased to exist the night he bound them together on the moor, yet continues to represent pure body of their curse: Burrows true self, forcibly removed decades previously. His ethereal manifestation smiles, resignation obvious and inescapable, tears falling as he speaks.

‘I am so sorry for all of this, what I did to you. The Evil will stop at nothing to keep himself in this plane, and to stop him I will smother every atom of that persona into oblivion. Let me read the words, so you can understand the good that existed but was lost so long ago.’

As the Creature reads, book turns from solid to smoke, vapour swirling around and into the fabric of the apparition. Instead of being bound to the woman, good has reattached itself to evil with one task in mind, to forcibly cancel darkness out with light, once and for all. The building suddenly stops shaking, and with a thump, Daniel appears on the floor in an ungainly heap.


Outside the Library, Emergency Services are in a state of some considerable concern. The ground beneath their feet has gone from solid to distinctly unstable within moments. With complete synchronicity, every manhole cover and access point covered by a metal plate is blown upwards into the early July morning. How anyone is not hurt is a miracle… and as each one whistles into clear blue sky, they vanish without a trace, before time slows to a crawl.

For a mile surrounding the Library an overpowering, oppressive stench rises like a wave from beneath city’s streets: is it hideously overripe cheese, rotting food or dead fish? Perhaps it is all three: as nearly four thousand people lose consciousness simultaneously nobody cares.


There remains a fair deal of contention as to what exactly happened at 10.15 am on the morning of July 16th: most agree they won’t ever forget the smell. Details are still under investigation, discussion in public subject to a raft of legal restrictions… but evidence remains. The three foot high wave of white liquid that engulfed Albert Square and surrounding streets has been described as a mass hallucination, because how else would the entire Town Hall have remained undamaged? Except amazingly, everything for a square mile is now pristinely clean.

Skeletal remains that appeared in 162 neat rows east of St Peter’s Square are being identified by the Manchester Police Force. Early rumours suggest at least some may belong to a number of the Jackson’s Row Missing, homeless people who mysteriously vanished across forty years. Initial damage reported to the inside of the Central Library could not be confirmed, and patrons were somewhat divided over what they observed in the hours leading up to the incident. The event’s only casualty was last seen inside the building: Edgar Burrows remains listed as ‘missing.’

Manchester Chronicle reporter Daniel Burton was injured as a result of a separate incident on the same day and remains stable at the Royal Infirmary. His harrowing report surrounding this incident and Burrow’s true identity has been read nearly twenty  million times on the Internet.


As man sleeps, wrapped in hospital linen, Elaine refuses to leave his side. Outside their room a dead Elm tree continues to regenerate: late, unexpected burst of Spring green in mid July. There will be issues to address over McCormack’s abilities once Daniel is fully conscious…


 

August Short Story :: Lydia

This story was first published in 31 parts via Twitter during August. It is now reproduced now in a complete form, with a number of small edits and corrections made to improve narrative flow and maintain correct continuity.

Enjoy.


Lydia

The Circus has never visited Anchorbridge before, of that Connie is certain. It’s not even on the map, battered corner store and gas station, collection of huts and tents that the railroad somehow forgot. Why they’re stopping here, now, is a mystery to all the carnies except one. Polari knows why they’re pitched, massive tent hauled to it’s full, imposing height. Sometimes, deviation is their plan because the Cards instruct change matters more than dollars. Connie watches from her caravan as he holds court: showman extraordinaire, Ringmaster of all.

This change transpired the night before, wagons pulled to sudden halt before crossing the tracks. Autumn’s coming: they’re already too far south as it is. To hit the State Line before October’s winds start causing trouble, this is a stop too far for everybody… yet, it’s show-time. 

Connie’s neck and chin have been itching since early dawn, so she combs the coarse, red fibres of her beard as distraction. Body is humming, heat within like late summer sun, harsh and unrelenting. This flesh demands satisfaction, but no man here will touch her. She’ll survive. These muscles intimidate whilst breasts infuriate, which is the way it should be when you’re 100% woman except for the addition of excess facial hair. Gramma Ana had cried the day she’d upped and left, but understood why. Normal folks won’t accept a freak, just the way life works.

Except these folks do, and have. Sure, she’s lonely sometimes, but everyone here is too, in their own way. The relief is companionship, acceptance and understanding. The performance is everything, glue that sticks them together in one glorious, colourful whole… and she’s needed. The Bosco Brothers and the Amazing Almarzanoff can’t get the main tent support straight, it requires a woman’s brutal, muscular touch to complete. Beard grooming can wait, this is a part of the dance Connie secretly loves. Without her, they are less than whole, as it should be.

They’ll do three nights here and then it’s time to pack the wagons to head north for the Winter.


In the middle of her first Strongwoman act, Conni’s aware of being stared at. It shouldn’t be a problem, that’s part of performance, except this time… something is in the air. Tonight has been full of surprises: a lame horse galloping into the ring fully cured, before demanding to be part of the act she’d performed in for over a decade. The clowns’ buckets, normally filled with paper tonight held water: Beppo was not happy at his resultant soaking.

As the sold out, full to bursting tent cheers its acknowledgement of her ability to lift two adult sea lions precariously balanced on plinths, there’s a smile brighter than sunshine from the seats by the entrance. The woman’s tall and blonde, sporting beard the colour of straw. Connie has to stare hard, confirming the truth. Reed thin but still muscular in dungarees and a chequered shirt, this stranger exudes warmth and humour: more significantly, nobody around her seems at all phased by the fact she’s a bearded lady… quite the opposite is the case.

Scanning the crowd, this woman is not alone: there’s a voluptuous brunette in a blue summer dress, elegant goatee plus immaculate handlebar moustache. Twin mousy brown haired, middle aged ladies clap and smile, beards plaited and bowed to match the tailored scarlet trouser suits. The tent is at least a quarter full of beards, sported by both sexes, and nobody seems to be the least bit upset or phased. As the entire audience rises to a standing ovation, Connie’s heart accepts something that previously was unbelievable: she is no longer unique in the World.

There’s also a sudden, overriding desire to take a walk into town the following day: Anchorbridge is suddenly a fascinating place to be pitched at. The Circus’ only Bearded Lady’s already deciding which of many dresses to wear, and hoping she might bump into someone on the way…


The following morning is unusually sunny and warm for mid-September: Connie is having trouble containing excitement as she walks through the outskirts of the town, surprised at how many inhabitants there are living in shacks and tents, in the process of building better homes. Passing these groups, there’s no shortage of smiles or good mornings. Obviously overt single sex families mix with the traditional, one group that appear to be some kind of commune… with absolutely no sadness to be found. Everybody, without exception, appears relaxed and happy.

Her assumption had been there was some raw material being farmed here, or a resource exploited… but the truth is these people are outsiders, with nowhere else to go. Normal society had forced them into the wilderness, and together they were creating their own unique Community. Reaching what passes for Main Street, Connie’s heart soars: there is the woman with the sunshine smile, axe in hand, efficiently trimming a large trunk of its bark. Athleticism is without question, sight of her muscles working as blade strips tree becoming beyond distracting…

‘That’s Lydia,’ says a voice to her right. Turning, a young boy, not yet into his teens, is watching the woman work, as transfixed as she is. ‘My aunt can clear bark off a tree in ten minutes. She’s the best woodworker in town, have you come to learn how to make things too?’

The woman has stopped working, aware of Connie’s presence, and as their eyes meet attraction is both obvious and unavoidable. Lost for words, the Circus’ bearded lady is no longer outsider, or afraid of consequences of her desire. She has already been made better coming here.


This will be the first time Connie has missed a performance since her late teens: she knows Polari will not be angry. In fact, it was him who gave her leave to be here: ‘these truly are your people,’ he’d confirmed before encouraging her not to return for the day’s entertainment. Lying under canvas, Lydia is sleeping beneath crook of her arm. Talking here together, fully clothed, whisper of possibility slowly bound both together. There are two days before the Circus is due to ship out, handful of important choices to make before morning sun finally rises.

It would be so easy to once more drop everything, starting new existence with this family, in a loving community, already instant and accepting home, except… the Circus means more to her than was at first grasped. To leave them would also hurt: there are hard choices lying ahead. What is needed most are Elvira’s cards plus clairvoyant’s unswerving guidance: the distraction beside her must be removed, for now. A note is written, on back of a circus flyer: ‘There are issues that need to be settled, I will return with the dawn.’ before quietly slipping away.

It is a surprise to find a group of friends waiting for her at the City limits: all seven Bosco Brothers impeccably attired in matching suits, Beppo and Alto’s bright scarlet waistcoats acting as beacons in the gloom. Even Polari dressed for the occasion, a faultless ensemble. ‘I know what you seek, but there’s no need. Elvira has told me to follow your lead, that all who yearn must come see this community for themselves. She understands better than anyone what drives both bodies and minds forward. It is time for everyone to stop, think and breathe.’

The look Polari gives is damning, reasoning the Circus stopped here becoming clear: an overridingly female-heavy community, possibility to look past appearance and convention for genuine connection. What mattered most to her as attractive, is different for everybody, after all… As both Boscos plus clowns move as a throng towards town Polari remains, taking Connie’s hand with unexpected gentleness. There is a change to him: not inevitability of losing her to these people, but something far more significant. He is ready to give up existence for her ideal.

‘You have wrought much change since agreeing to stay and became part of our family: I will never be able to thank you for all the lessons these boys were taught, for that is all most of them have ever been. Respect matters, above all else, to build the best of men in this World. There is no point in moving back north, fate dictates this is our home for the winter, perhaps longer. Elvira knew we might lose you, but then grasped greater good that could come from us all taking a moment to stop and think, reassessing where it was that we all belonged.’

Connie will thank Elvira in the morning, no need now to return to the Circus. Anchorbridge has become a way-point, chance of growth for all her friends. What matters most to her is Lydia: cornflower blue eyes, hair the hue of ripened corn, bright bearded future possible together.


 

March Short Story :: I Love You

This story was first published in 31 parts via Twitter during March. It is now reproduced now in a complete form, and a number of small edits have been added to improve narrative flow.

Enjoy.


I Love You

The last group of students chatter and squeal their way through the European History Gallery, more focused on mobile phones than the art their teacher brought them to study. In fifteen minutes, the Museum closes for another day, leaving only the security staff remaining within. There’s space in the room, marked off by temporary partitions, that finally can be filled. Alexis Grieg, Acquisitions Manager, has waited all month for this moment. Tomorrow, the newest piece of Museum content will finally be unveiled to the public, after months of speculation.

It is a controversial and divisive piece of European sculpture, which caused considerable debate even before being borrowed by the Museum from the collection of one of the richest men in Britain. Advanced ticket sales for the Gallery are at their highest level for several years. As July sun sets on London’s iconic skyline the sculpture is slowly wheeled from darkened basement; Gallery bowels to the only service lift, from back of building to its new, high prominence resting place. It is a journey of just under an hour, due to the fragility of the piece.

‘Icarus’ Wings’ is the last piece by celebrated Revolution artist Wilberforce Christie, completed weeks before death from natural causes aged 102. At his height in the 1960’s Christie was the wunderkind of British Pop Art: close friend of Andy Warhol, darling of Swinging London. His demise in 1994 was the least controversial thing completed in nearly thirty years. Everything else was either shrouded in contention or remains subject to various legal restrictions. He went to his grave carrying many secrets: this piece is very much a part of that mystique.

Finally, sculpture is in place with screens removed. This part of their job complete, Grieg and the rest of the Acquisitions staff retire back downstairs for a much-needed coffee and food break before the task begins of constructing a glass casing around flimsy parchment wings.

==

Only when it is clear that the staff are long gone, no-one remaining in earshot, do the wings themselves slowly stretch and rise; extension of the wingspan releasing tiny eddies of dust. It will be some time before the piece can move unrestricted, so time is of the essence.

The Gallery’s various inhabitants, previously immobile, slowly come to life with a new arrival. Renaissance art isn’t sure what to think of this odd interloper, 16th Century portraits awakening and observing in both confusion and disbelief. Impressionists are truly lost for words. Icarus rises above the already obvious waves of perceived snobbery: wings used to being abused and derided, part and parcel of their conception, construction and final completion. Born into the white heat of intense controversy, the delicate structure hides a cast iron soul.

When your wings are made from tax demands, sanitary towels and toilet roll, plus hundreds of other items that are daily thrown away, there is going to be some discussion on whether art is even an appropriate term to describe you. Icarus has heard it all, and knows how to react. Their owner spent considerable time explaining the ins and outs of the art word: highlighting perceived snobberies, various truths around why beauty has become the most subjective of discussion topics. Most significantly of all, Icarus’ patron’s devotion to them was obvious.

‘One day, I will let you be exhibited, and when that moment comes there will need to be preparation for the torrents of abuse and derision you will receive. These people do not grasp aesthetics, no real comprehension as to the significance of your creation. They are fools.’

The wings settle, preparing themselves for the worst.

Francesco Laurana’s pale marble bust shifts, before breaking into a smile: long, oval face tilting slightly in undoubted approval. Then their opinion is presented with a deep, rich Italian cadence: ‘Sei propria bella, cara.’

‘Beautiful’ is the last word wings had expected to hear uttered, a murmur of disbelief ripples up and down the main Gallery space. Figures in the Realism paintings are jostling at the edges of their gilt frames, looking for the best angle at which to view the newcomer’s form. The Neoclassical section is arguing amongst themselves at the significance of contemporary objects being utilised in any artistic setting. Both of the Impressionist paintings remind each other that they caused similar controversy when initially created, which is not a bad thing.

The Matisse turns to Kirchner, hearing the Impressionists’ mistaken belief they were in some way contentious, before bursting into a torrent of expletives. The French Polynesian woman in Gauguin’s landscape stares at the painting’s outburst, before putting hands over her ears. However, one part of the Gallery continues to remain silent. The space’s oldest resident, piece of Celtic Art from the 9th Century, simply hangs watching. The room slowly quells its animation, knowing it is difficult to hear the figure of Christ unless everyone is totally quiet.

The simplistic human figure stares at what counts as the apex of humanity’s expression and does not see a jumble of inappropriate objects pinned together. After thousands of years watching artists find means to express existence on the planet, this concept makes complete sense. No longer is art the preserve of simply the privileged or rich. Each day the Celt watches children as they stand in awe, making pictures on the devices that allow communication in an instant, unaware they too are creating their own expression. Everyone has now become an artist.

What makes objects in this Gallery any more or less significant than the children’s work? It is only the choice of those with enough money to possess past, claiming to show these works of historical enlightenment but more often than not exhibiting ownership as status and power. The Wings undoubtedly remain a product of this consumer-driven, disposable age. Its plumage is recognisable as what most would consider rubbish. From wing-tip to wrist, primary feathers and coverts appear perfectly engineered: beautiful and faithful reproduction without fault.

When the Celt speaks, an entire Gallery is stunned with its utterance:

‘You are the most beautiful thing I have ever seen, as much a symbol of your age as I am of mine. Between us now all art is measured and will be compared. I love you.’

Icarus’ frame shudders in response.

The murmurs begin almost immediately: frantic whispering between aesthetics, groups of historical landmarks in art and history are confused, uncertain. Has the Celt somehow lost it and gone mad? Is this rubbish-built interloper casting some kind of spell upon the Ancient One? Then, slowly, implication of these words begins to register with the more self-aware pieces. Art is simply a reflection of those who produce it. Beauty is measured individually by what is seen, how history considers significance. Substance is fleeting: passing, ephemeral interest.

The less alert works of artistry take their cues from those they trust: the newcomer might not look or feel like the rest of the Gallery, but that is not at issue. It is still very much art, only mirroring the world in which the sculptor lived and worked before he passed away. The gallery begins to move, facing Icarus as much as possible within their own artistic frames. One by one comes acknowledgement of sculpture’s presence as part of a collective whole. The Celt, as the oldest piece in the room, remains final arbiter of what is considered creation.

Having spent its entire sentient existence expecting to be ostracised the moment they had appeared in public, Icarus’ Wings still cannot believe what is happening. This acceptance from other art-forms alters the entire landscape, becoming increasingly easier to accept as truth. This is all that the sculpture has ever wanted or desired: espousal by its creator was implicit, comforting but not enough. Having accepted there would be derision and abuse wherever they were placed, to have this credence from their peers before the public have been admitted…

Icarus has come home.

For the first time ever, fragile sculpture shifts on its pedestal. Wings begin to extend and stretch, far further than they have ever moved: as they do there comes a sound never to be heard by human ears. It is the artistic embodiment of pure, unbridled joy. At their highest extension, the furthermost fragile feather constructed from toilet paper and string brushes an overhead LED spotlight.

In a moment, wing-tip bursts into flame.

==

As the fire alarm sounds, museum staff stare at each other in sudden terror.


 

 

Book of the Month :: Throw 6 to Start

Throw 6 To Start

As the second sun goes down, Riz wonders if he’s done the right thing.

This is closer to disaster as he’s ever flown, far too late to start wishing the journey had never been undertaken. With Pleasure Planet Pixel in darkness, there is less than a rotation before the Game he’s attending begins, yet Desi is nowhere to be seen. Next time, if this all goes to plan, they’ll not need to take separate transports and can travel as an item.

That word has a comforting ring.

‘Oh, you weren’t lying, you did miss us: we are truly touched!’

Their hand on his arm sends every hair erect, frisson of desire inevitable and inescapable. Turning, they are still in the complimentary spacesuit, not bothering to change after arrival. Iridescent pearl skin shimmers: brilliant light from the nebula above, ethereal beauty that transcends this solar system plus thousands of others. His devil stands, head slightly tipped, reading every thought without care or permission. In their imagination they’re already entwined in the luxury hotel bed, his fears being sucked from a tired and tense body: the Earthman begins to relax.

Riz knows this last year of stress was worth every moment: the prize is already in sight.

‘You were the one who said our lives were getting predictable, so we did consider making you wait, but thanks to the Slingshot mechanical failure that will be the last transport of the day. We could have taken layover until the morning, but there’s too much to do.’

‘I’m sorry we fought at the Terminal. I… sometimes it’s easy to forget how much you can hear in my head.’

‘You have nothing to worry about, Lover Boy. The day somebody else attracts that primate brain, then we’re the one in trouble. Until then, it’s our job to make sure that your pleasure centres are never left wanting. We are VERY good at that task, and intend to only improve over time.’

They kiss him, mouth tart, alcohol and need both all too obvious. The relationship’s odd-fitting, even now: sometimes motivation gets misplaced in a sea of pheromones and sloth. However, his liberation is close: hatched over the NeuralNet, virtual chat room for those with debts that conventional employment would never pay off. The human who loved being fucked by everybody but eventually was screwed by his own naivety, and the Centuran androgyne with a flair for the overly theatric.

If it all worked out tomorrow, both of them would finally be free.


‘Do you believe in fate?’

They’ve woken tangled together but instead of pre-dawn intercourse it is discussion. Desi will know he has nerves that need to be assuaged: they wrap both mind and body around him, cocoon of reassurance, allowing Riz to awaken far better than would happen with stimulants. The question is taking time for them to process, and only now does he grasp why –

‘You don’t know what I’m talking about, do you?’

‘Oh, we grasp the human concept, don’t worry. We have an equivalent, we were just trying to work out a visual metaphor to explain.’

Centuran culture is not about words: as a race of telepaths, verbal language is largely redundant. Instead comprehension is based around imagery, often complex fractal patterns that have evolved directly from the very stuff of the Universe itself. The image Desi places in Riz’s brain however is very human: they’re at the last casino visited, win at which removed all but 5% of their joint financial debt. He stands and throws two dice, but then catches both before they hit the table.

Fate is the development of events outside a person’s control, regarded as predetermined by a supernatural power. You throw the dice, and it is fate that decides the numbers. For us, fate is that which cannot be affected by our own minds. We can control the dice in flight and precisely dictate the number that falls, but are unable to truly influence the person throwing.

Their voice in his mind is musical, soothing cadences that make their kiss far more potent than any given by his own kind. That’s what attracted him to Desi, he could indulge an almost constant need for stimulation with a being who had evolved simply for that purpose. Their race didn’t procreate in the same messy fashion as bipedal humans, so there was no need to concern himself with the physical and once that had happened… sensation stopped just being about release, biological offering.

Orgasm takes place in a different way: no body cavities, contraception irrelevant. His body and brain are warped, sensation shuddering from fingertips to follicles. The most intense and beautiful experience that Riz has ever felt, on demand, and which never gets old. There’s a small part of his brain that knows they should be at the Game venue, working out the best place for him to sit so they can still covertly communicate, but today he just lets them engulf his primal brain completely.

The sensation is so great, he passes out with the pleasure.


The water is incredibly cold: Riz is immediately awake.

It takes a second to realise an ice bucket was upended over him, he’s naked and tied to a chair, and that Desi is being restrained by a couple of Law Enforcement automatons. Only two things could have caused this sudden downturn in circumstance: random attack or deliberate action. Causality is a subject Riz knows a lot about: studying Freakonomics at NYSU for four years, working at Church built for the worship of Saints Levitt and Dubner. There wasn’t an outcome that couldn’t be tied to another if you were smart enough to play the algorithms…

This Game was one of many that the WolfIsi Group had manipulated for the last decade, without fail. By coming here, he’d guaranteed that his loan company would notice, and do what always happened in situations where they thought a client was about to escape control. As contract was signed not in blood but DNA, his body remained their property until such times as all existing monetary debts were paid in full: before then they could invoke repossession of that material at any time. He had anticipated them striking at the venue, but as they haven’t, that’s not a problem.

He’d also like to be more clothed for this, but no matter.

The WI officer’s uniform is starched to within an inch of rigidity, yet looks like it could disintegrate at any moment, straining across her huge, genetically-enhanced biceps. The woman’s face regards him not with pity but in a way that could almost be respect: the rules of this engagement might yet be about to change. Maybe they’re not here because of potential collateral loss; perhaps someone finally saw through this deception.

‘Mr Monteverdi, I must say it has been some years since we had a client come this close to completing their payments on time. You are to be congratulated on your industry.’

‘Thank you, I took it upon myself as a personal challenge to pay off this loan on time and to the penny.’

‘Which you will do by simply winning a round of the Game tomorrow, which my superiors feel sure you’ll be more than capable of achieving. That however would mean we’re unable to maintain you as collateral, and under the circumstances this will cause us an issue, especially with the amount of money you seem capable of regularly providing.’

Riz had read the old case files on Fully Paid Loans until he could recite them from memory: in three hundred years, only a handful of clients had escaped death by invoking the clause he would now be forced to use. It would all hinge on the Officer not grasping the significance of Desi, something that now needed to be confirmed…

On cue, comes invasion of his mind: their hands cover his eyes, slim fingers caress earlobes. No-one else is aware of the Centauran’s real identity.

‘Under agreement terms I invoke the Double or Nothing clause in my contract. Details of intention to do so are posted in three public forums plus via time-delayed message on SocalTwetwerks.’

The Officer blinks at Riz, clear confusion etched on hardening features, before headset implant prompts understanding. Robot spiders will be crawling the Solar Internet, confirming that the naked bloke in the chair just completely changed the game. He’s forced WolfIsi to allow him a chance to become debt free with one random action, at the discretion of the Officer. They have fifteen Earth minutes to decide what it will be: in the previous cases coin tosses (which were believed to be weighted to the company’s favour) had decided the outcome, but since all forms of physical currencies became redundant at the end of the century and his contract hadn’t been updated to reflect this due to clerical oversight…

Desi is a mask: beautifully smooth skin, pert yet full, heavy breasts that defied gravity, surgically added slit at her groin to make sure no-one ever checked the DNA details too carefully. It was amazing the number of people who didn’t: she just looked like a human with a skin job. That’s what the desk clerk had her registered as, which might yet be useful, depending on the intelligence of the Officer. According to the Citizens Advice Worldnet, races with a human equivalent IQ of 70 or lower made the best Enforcement teams, being able to understand instructions yet not argue with contentious interpretation…

Riz is confident: all bases are covered, regardless of what happens next. He’s about to gamble the loan he took for gender reassignment to completion, and win.

‘They said you might do this. My boss read your file really well. Thanks to you, there’ll be a new amendment to the standard proposal in the New Year. You should be proud you found a loophole that we’re now going to close.’

Respect turns inevitably to condescension: the Officer pulls from her pocket a small recording unit. If it’s on record, they have to play fair. WolfIsi Legal will now be well aware that if they try and bury him, this part of the Universe will know about the fatality very fast, thanks to many and various messages sent to a lot of very important and high profile media outlets.

Riz made sure nothing was left to chance.

‘Thanks to Clause 27b/6 in your contract, we have the right to substitute an alternative form of random action for the Double or Nothing gamble.’

Riz loved games from an early age: in a world where everybody could work out the odds, he’d taken gambling a stage further. That’s why Desi had been sought out, means by which to take probability and bend it to his own ends. The biggest trick was to lose and make it look as if it wasn’t cheating, by warping the Universe itself to his ends.

‘You have to predict the number on these two dice. That’s our offer. I’m waiting.’

Large, long table by the Hotel room door is picked up, almost dropped in front of Riz’s restrained torso. He has fifteen minutes to accept this offer or lose the Double or Nothing get-out completely. In his head, possibilities land: dice will be remotely controlled by one of the Law Enforcement units, so they fall exactly as dictated. The units will have been picked so they cannot be hacked or interfered with. Just like coins before, belief is that any final result completely controlled by the Company is intractable.

Desi is smiling in his head. Not a small and quet but loud and brilliant, promise of so much once this debt is finally paid. They love the simian, unconditionally, because no other human mind they have encountered was so good at predicting all the outcomes, and playing to win.

‘Six. You’re going to roll a six.’

As the dice are thrown from the giant woman’s hand, Riz decides he quite likes being tied to chairs.


Wood and Water :: One

As promised, today is a passage that originally began life as a short piece of an Open University creative writing assessment. It’s subsequently been edited and now has the potential to start a short story.

Enjoy


He knows what they search for is close.

The boy and his father have been travelling since first light, descending through the purple-hewn valleys of heather and scrub grass, moving further from light into darkness. The child’s belly rumbles, demanding sustenance, but to ask for water and the bread his grandmother gave would be considered a weakness. On this day, hunger or fatigue must be forgotten, buried deep within. The moment they cross the perimeter of the copse something passes through the slim, strong body, understanding that they should head east, towards the river. He had expected his father to lead but now he holds back, and his reticence is no longer of concern. It is the boy’s turn to strike forward, driven by instinct. Memory sparks; words planted the night before. Him and her by the bonfire, dark green ritual paint applied to a willing forehead. His mentor’s instructions repeated, learnt by heart and mind: the wood will call, hear its bidding: yours to carve and turn, change and transform. The whole creates your staff, and then our training begins.

You will not choose the wood, son of the forest. It already calls to you.

The boy is suddenly startled, flock of birds escaping the ceiling of thinning leaves above him. The last tendrils of his twelfth Hot Season are shrinking away, blue skies filled with ever-thickening clouds; warmth bleeding into cooler air, sharper gusts of wind from the north. He should be in the fields, gathering grain as his sisters are, but he remains Chosen. Of all those girls in the village who had trained and learnt the Words, hoped to be favoured by the Elders, it had been him they had picked. Seven generations had passed since the last Lone Son, and much already sat on expectant shoulders. He had stared intently into raging fire, hoping for inspiration, and there grew the twisted remains of this fallen dark oak, felled with others in the recent storms. Nature had been nothing but thorough in its decimation of both land and life. It had called him here yet he was uncertain, and his father had reassured, soothed the fear. This was the right path, and they would tread it together.

‘You see, it isn’t dead.’

From the twisted and buckled remains of the stump there grows a branch, thickness of the boy’s upper arm and about four times the length, still very much alive, covered with a scattering of tiny twigs. It looks totally out of place, desperately clinging to the remains of its parent, last vestiges of life before death. The wind lifts suddenly, moving the leaves from the copse’s edge in a wave of sound, rustling through the space around them both. Aran closes eyes and listens, hoping to hear something more than he knows exists, but for now it is only the wind. There is no truth without the wood, conduit between his world and the Earth, and so he goes to the branch, reaching out a willing hand to touch.

As his palm grasps the bark there is noise; cry of anguish, unexpected anger. A sudden stab of pain to the back as an arrow hits from behind, cleanly passing through ribcage and flesh as he falls to the ground. The soldier has no time to react, dead as a bloodied body crumples to the earth, life slowly leeching into the soil, back to the land from which he came.

It takes a moment for the boy to recover and understand what has just happened, given a Waking Dream like countless ones before, except this is not about family but a total stranger. Beneath him lies a soldier from the time Before, fighting man who died, whose remains lie buried under leaves and dirt and history, bound to the tree and that branch which will become his staff. From the past, through the roots of Earth and time, his message is passed and understood. We will fight again, and you will lead us. Aran Mennas turns to his father with a measure of understanding: he was right to believe in him. This destiny is right and solid, without hesitation. The tree provides the weapon, with which he will both see both future and hear wisdom from the past.

This place is where destiny begins anew.