Sarah is a writer of science-fiction and fantasy roleplaying games and fiction, including the transhuman space opera novel “Mindjammer”, and the ENnie Award-winning RPG setting of the same name; the techno-fantasy RPG setting “The Chronicles of Future Earth”; and the “Legends of Anglerre” roleplaying game. She’s currently writing “Zero Point”, a series of globe-spanning World War 2 adventures for the “Achtung! Cthulhu” RPG setting, published by Modiphius; the “Great Game” campaign for the Steampunk “Leagues of Adventure” RPG from Triple Ace Games; and “The Worm Within”, the first “Chronicles of Future Earth” novel, to be published by Chaosium, Inc, in 2013. She lives in a field in rural France, surrounded by numerous farmyard animals.
Hi Sarah, thanks for agreeing to do the interview. First off, how did you first become acquainted with science fiction? With RPGs?
My first encounter with science-fiction happened when I was about 9 years old – back in 1977. Of course I’d been watching Star Trek before then, but Star Wars year was a huge thing for me – I lived in the sticks, and going to the cinema was a rarity. Star Wars just blew me away, awakened a love for stars, spaceships, and big bold space opera tales that has never gone away. Around the same time – maybe before or after, I’m not quite sure – I read my first “proper” scifi, in a book I borrowed from our local library. I now know it was a story from “Flight of the Horse” by Larry Niven – it tells the story of a dimensional traveller who travels *sideways* in time, and visits an alternate earth where people have evolved from wolves rather than primates. At the time, I remember being totally captivated not by spaceships and ray-guns, but by the sheer *strangeness* of what the universe could be like. After that I hunted down science-fiction wherever I saw it – I read the Star Wars tie-in fiction, I read Larry Niven, Asimov, M. John Harrison, Moorcock, a total science-fiction fan by the time I hit my teens.
Roleplaying games happened a couple of years later – I was about 11, my last day of first year high school, and I saw someone leafing through the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons softback Player’s Handbook. I blagged a look, and was captivated by the maps, the illustrations, the possibilities for stories. I went straight home that day and ordered “Buffalo Castle” from Flying Buffalo for the Tunnels & Trolls game – within a few months I discovered “Traveller” and the brilliant science-fantasy RPG “Metamorphosis Alpha”, both of which I played relentlessly in the years after, about the same time as I was discovering Harry Harrison’s “Stainless Steel Rat” and Niven’s “Ringworld” stories.
What’s the appeal of the genre for you?
To be honest, I think its optimism. No matter how dark or edgy science-fiction gets, the fact that we, human beings, are out there, in a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand years, exploring, evolving, achieving mighty feats, *being human*, is immensely encouraging. Even in the most desperate dystopias, there’s an element of hope – that we’re taking it on the chin, wrestling with huge issues, surviving…
Modern science-fiction, with its strong vein of transhumanism, fits me perfectly. Philosophically I rate thinkers like Nietzsche very highly, and I think I probably have a thoroughly Western, dialectic view of history. I’m not a millenarianist, I’m not looking for the perfectability of human beings or anything, but the eternal process of self-overcoming it’s possible to detect in history and extend into the future is something which transhumanism articulates in an immensely engaging way. I find so little of the vital discussion we really should be having at the dawn of the biotech age, about *what kind of* human beings we want to involve into, actually happening in the mainstream media or social arenas, that science-fiction sometimes seems the only open forum where we can properly debate these questions. In science-fiction, we can encounter how other writers have answered; and in transhuman scifi RPGs, we can actually play-out and stress-test our theories and ideas.
How did you end up writing for RPGs? For fiction?
I think like many other writers I’ve “always” written – my first attempt to write my own Lord of the Rings was when I was about 9 or 10 years old, my first attempt to write an RPG (of Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea!) was about 2 years later! But my writing for publication happened relatively recently – about 4 years ago, when I started to write for a setting I’d created called “The Chronicles of Future Earth”, which was a very far future science-fantasy, set perhaps a hundred millennia from now, when humankind had gone through its expansionary era, undergone massive evolutions and cataclysms, and had returned to Earth, wounded, stagnating, on the verge of extinction. In many ways it was inspired by the atmosphere in the paintings of Bruce Pennington – I was exposed to covers like The Pastel City and the Dune and New Sun series in the late seventies and early eighties, and their atmosphere of strangeness, familiarity, and haunting landscapes impressed me deeply. I wanted to write about a world in which those images were possible – that’s how Chronicles was born. I started writing the fiction and the RPG for The Chronicles of Future Earth roughly the same time – the RPG book was published first, and I’m finishing up the first Chronicles novel now, to be published in 2013 by Chaosium, Inc.
My published fiction notionally began with Cthulhu, I guess like many writers; writer and editor William Jones of Elder Signs Press edited my Chronicles of Future Earth RPG, and asked me to write some short stories for Cthulhu anthologies back in 2008. They were accepted, but ironically neither anthology has yet seen the light of day, for various reasons. “Disclosure”, which we’re showcasing on the Tuesday Fiction on the World SF Blog this week, was one of those stories.
My first published fiction piece is Mindjammer, the novel launched in August 2012…
How did the concept of Mindjammer develop?
I mentioned the Chronicles of Future Earth setting above. When I was writing the backstory for that, I envisaged a great interstellar civilisation which had somehow “fallen”, giving rise to the exotic far future science-fantasy of the Springtide Civilisations and the Venerable Autocracy of the Chronicles setting. At the time, I called this hyper-advanced civilisation “the Commonality of Worlds”. Over time, I got to wondering what it had been like – what the nature of an interstellar civilisation, tens of millennia in our future, would be. As far removed from us as the Stone Age, it occurred to me that in all likelihood such a civilisation would be so unimaginably post-human that it would be incomprehensible to us – even now, as we approach the Singularity, it’s clear that even the near future is going to be very strange indeed. But ten thousand years from now? Twenty thousand? How could that still be human enough for it to be able to collapse into the far future of the Venerable Autocracy?
That’s where the New Commonality of Humankind came from. It’s a massive sandpit for me to play around in – it’s extremely advanced, with technology which at its most sophisticated is unfathomable, magical; and yet parts of it are backward, sometimes deliberately so, like star-travelling Amish folk, refusing to participate in the galactic melee. Its interstellar, with faster-than-light travel and a nascent pseudo-wormhole technology; yet its recent past is slower-than-light, and filled with conservative cultures awash with culture shock. I wanted to design a setting where I could fathom out all of my favourite science-fiction questions – where the setting would respond to my poking and prodding and throw up even more questions and realisations as I went on. There’s so much to say about the New Commonality, both in fiction and in RPG, and it has that Golden Age optimistic feel, coupled with a post-cyberpunk transhuman ethos, that for me is proving very fertile ground. It constantly inspires me.
For those unfamiliar with the book, could you tell us more about the Mindjammer line?
The present-day of Mindjammer is seventeen millennia from now. For over ten thousand years, the conservative and tradition-bound Commonality of Humankind governed a slower-than-light civilisation centred on Old Earth and the densely-settled solar system of Manhome, and a small collection of near-Earth star systems known as the Core Worlds, all of which had been reached and now communicated slower-than-light. For ten millennia it had sent out slower-than-light colonisation vessels, most of which travelled too far to ever effectively communicate home. It was an extremely advanced society, with lifespans set by law at 500 years, sentient cities, starships, artificial lifeforms. But for all its riches and utopian visions, it was stagnating, dying; until, 200 years ago, it suddenly “discovered” faster-than-light travel, and set about “rediscovering” all of the lost colonies from its distant past.
The result is revitalisation, and chaos; cultural conflict on a galactic scale. The New Commonality is a new, outward-looking, optimistic, and yet somehow fascistic civilisation, determined to bring the “benefits” of its civilisation to all the many colonies it has seeded, whether they like it or not. Yet, at the same time, as it contacts those lost colonies, it often finds cultures very different from its own, which attempt to “infect” it with all manner to reverse colonial ideologies. The Security and Cultural Integrity Instrumentality is the Commonality agency tasked with managing cultural contact and integration – and one of its teams is the star of the first Mindjammer novel.
In the New Commonality, everyone is connected by biotech implant to a vast neural network called the “Mindscape”. Like a massive interstellar internet, it contains the sum total of humankind’s knowledge; but not just knowledge – memories, too. Using the Mindscape implant, Commonality citizens can upload their thoughts and memories to the Mindscape, and even download the memories uploaded by others – effectively “remembering” events experienced by other people. And, because memory is one of the cornerstones of identity, you get some very strange consequences. When a person dies, they’re able to upload the sum total of their memories, and perhaps even parts of their personalities, to the Mindscape – known as a “thanogram”; when synthetic intelligences are created (such as those piloting starships or running cities or planetary metroplexes), they’re often imbued with these thanograms as the basis for their own personalities. These “eidolons” know that they’re in no way the same person as their dead memory source – but they feel a close bond with their “donors”, sometimes verging on the spiritual.
In Mindjammer, a SCI Force team is investigating the breakout of something called the “Transmigration Heresy” in a newly rediscovered culture in the Solenine star cluster. The heresy is common among backward cultures, involving a mistaken belief that eidolons are the reincarnations of the dead, that identity can somehow persist after death into an artificial body – something the Commonality says is impossible. What the SCI Force team discovers is something far greater – and potentially far more destructive – than the Transmigration Heresy could ever be.
Mindjammer is the first novel in the setting – it’s standalone, but I’m working on a second book right now, Transcendence, which should see the light of day next year. I have a third book in the offing, and also two anthologies of short stories, one in the modern Commonality, and another tracing the ten millennia and more of its history. It’s a very fertile setting for creativity!
Could you share with us how the novels integrate with the campaign setting?
That’s a great question. When I play RPGs, I hate things to be too scripted; even more than fiction, when you hand a setting to a fellow gamer, you are abdicating all control over it. You simply can’t dictate what *must* happen in that setting, without stifling a lot of the creativity which kindles around a gaming table. When I write an RPG book, I try to provide everything a group of gamers will need to head off on wild flights of fancy, and nothing to hold them back. Obviously, that conflicts somewhat with the exigencies of fiction, the desire to tell great and epic stories. Very often, RPG tie-in fiction resolves this dichotomy with a simple device of requiring a “status quo” conclusion. In other words, a given piece of tie-in fiction can tell great and soaring stories, as long as it doesn’t destroy the underpinnings of the setting and as long as things return to “normal” at the end.
While that’s a viable approach, it’s not the one I’ve taken in Mindjammer. In the same way the Mindjammer setting is a springboard for my imagination, I hope it’ll be the same for those playing in it. The fiction is offered as a manifestation of those flights of fancy – my version, if you will, of how the story went. Without being too flippant, it’s my version of the “Many Worlds Interpretation” of the history of the New Commonality of Humankind; I hope you’ll enjoy it, be inspired by it, and, if you roleplay in the setting, only take from the novels what you want to take, and continue to let your RPG version of the Commonality forge its own story of our transhuman future!
How different and similar is writing a game supplement as opposed to a novel?
I touched upon this a little above – there are several approaches, some more similar than others. In physical, workaday terms, I often feel writing an RPG supplement is perhaps more like writing a movie or theatre script than a novel; or, better, writing the necessary foundation for a group of actors to conduct improv sessions in a theatre environment. You have the history of the setting, descriptions of its locations, bios of its characters, the precursor issues to the plot, “what has gone before”, and so on. You have the technology, the culture, its mores. But, then, you write the scenario; and that’s where I personally really focus on *not* providing a rigid script. Some RPG scenarios out there happily provide a “railroad” for players to follow, giving the players the illusion of freedom but all the time guiding them through a series of carefully prepared scenes. As a game story teller myself, I find that ultimately unsatisfying, frustrating, even boring: I like to sit down at a gaming table with *no idea* of what’s going to happen next. For that reason, I take care when writing a scenario not to provide a rigid plotline. It’s like a layer in the story is deliberately “missing” – I provide the story teller with a guide as to the events that would happen if the players weren’t playing, and then extensive guidance for how to deal with the players’ interventions into the plot. I structure my scenarios in episodes and scenes, again like a movie script, but at the same time provide decision nodes everywhere for players to run amok!
Obviously that’s radically different from writing fiction, but that awareness of divergent plotlines is at the same time a very fruitful thing for a writer. In the past, my scenario approach caused problems for my writing; I found myself being too loose when I approached a fiction plot, expecting it to “fall into place” at every node. Of course, that doesn’t happen, and you end up with all kinds of consistency issues and blatant plot holes! Like many writers, I suspect, I have a vast store of unpublished manuscripts in my attic – depending on how you count it, Mindjammer is as much as my seventh novel! – and these days I find myself outlining more and more before I ever put pencil to paper – quite the opposite of writing for roleplaying games!
What made you decide to start Mindjammer Press?
I guess we’re in a revolutionary time. The walls between publishing, small press, and self-publishing are falling down everywhere. These days, with cartographic and layout software very affordable, ebooks and print-on-demand accessible and cheap, and social media, it’s possible to do a great deal of the publishing legwork yourself. However, it’s important to say that’s not always desirable! Publishing takes skill and a huge amount of time – if you want to work as a writer, it will devour the time you want to devote to writing and force you to spend it on other tasks. For that reason I don’t think publishing companies are going to go away – however, they are in flux, as we all wrestle with the massive changes our new technologies and economic relations are forcing upon us. I think many of the publicist and distribution functions of agents and distributors are starting to merge with publishers, certainly in the roleplaying game space, and some of the tasks of publishers are starting to merge with writing – typesetting, for example, some elements of layout, mapmaking and indexing, etc, in the case of RPGs.
Mindjammer Press seemed a very logical step. It allows me, and hopefully a small number of other writers like me, to produce fiction and roleplaying manuscripts to ebook and print standard, ready for ebook release, and even print-on-demand distribution. We believe we’ll also be in a great position to distribute our products to the RPG and related fiction audience, either directly ourselves or in alliance with a larger publishing and distribution partner, several of whom we’re in discussions with already. The field is rapidly changing, however, and I believe that the process of fission we’re seeing on the small press and self-publishing side at the moment will soon be met by a new process of fusion on the representation, distribution, and promotion side. The biggest issue facing any writer these days is ironically not the physical process of writing and producing books, but their promotion and distribution, in being seen and heard in today’s vast creative melee. I think there’s a great big hole for a new kind of agent or publisher, who’ll represent writers and small press publishers and be an aggregator or gatekeeper of selected high-quality content for readers and gamers.
With Mindjammer Press, we’re starting small, aiming to produce purely the RPG and fiction products associated with the Mindjammer setting. We’re aiming one novel-length fiction piece and three RPG supplements per year. I’m still continuing my freelance fiction and RPG writing work – Mindjammer Press has a very specific focus, but personally I regard it as a very exciting project in a dynamic and rapidly changing field!
What were the challenges in writing the books? In running the press?
I’ve alluded to the time issue above; that really is the major challenge. I think all writers today feel the pressure of not being able to be simply a writer, but having to spend huge amounts of time on promotion, publicity, social media. Of course it’s a delight to connect with readers and gamers – one of the great pleasures of any kind of writing is receiving feedback – but at the same time, the time spent on these “additional” yet essential tasks takes you away from your passion – writing.
That touches on the next issue, perhaps less obvious, but equally critical – the financial one, the need to make enough money to survive. I live in a field in Normandy and am semi-self sufficient, so my financial needs are relatively low, but they still have to be met. With Mindjammer Press, I’m able in a small way to be remunerated for the time I spend on promotion and publicity. Writing isn’t a well-paid field, and RPGs far less so, so anything which increases one’s survival margin and allows one to continue writing is a great thing.
So far the signs are good. If Mindjammer Press can fund itself, which it looks likely to, then it’ll be great for the Mindjammer line. But it’s a very dynamic environment, and I’m sure the next twelve months will be eventful and challenging in many unexpected ways. Perhaps you’ll have me back in a year’s time to give you a report!
What’s in store for the future, for both the novel series and the RPG line?
I mentioned Transcendence, above, the second novel in the Mindjammer series, and the third novel, provisionally entitled Revelation. There’s also Songs of Old Earth, the anthology of short stories chronicling the history of the Commonality of Humankind; and Tales of the New Commonality, a collection of stories from all across Commonality Space and the Fringe Worlds beyond. On the RPG side, after the release of the second edition RPG Mindjammer – The Expansionary Era next spring, we have a schedule of 3 RPG products per year, beginning with the Solenine campaign pack, which allows you to play with the events of the first Mindjammer novel (and rewrite its entire plot!), followed by a vastly expanded Black Zone campaign pack, and the long-awaited Planeships and Slowboats starships supplement. Beyond that, we hope to release two campaign packs and one supplement per year, covering star atlases, culture books, and some seriously transhuman adventures, all sitting alongside and complimenting (and being complimented by) the fiction line. It looks to be a busy time for Mindjammer!
Anything else you want to plug?
Well, obviously all of the above depends entirely on the Mindjammer fans, and on people continuing to support the fiction and RPG lines. So, if you’re a transhuman space opera fan, please give Mindjammer a go – there are links at the bottom of this interview, and the Mindjammer novel is available in trade paperback and Kindle editions. And, if you have friends and colleagues who you think might like the Mindjammer setting, please help spread the word!
Beyond that, as you know, Charles, I’m fiction editor of the World SF Blog, and I’d like to give a massive plug for that. You and Lavie have done a sterling job creating a vibrant and enthusiastic genre fiction community here, and I’ve felt truly privileged to be involved and receive some great speculative fiction submissions as part of my World SF duties – inspiring for their scope and inventiveness, and also for their truly global perspective. Please check out our fiction section, the brand new Apex Book of World SF Fiction 2 short fiction anthology, and, if you feel inspired, send through your submissions!
* * *
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Sarah Newton. Sarah is a writer of science-fiction and fantasy roleplaying games and fiction, including the transhuman space opera novel Mindjammer, and the ENnie Award-winning RPG setting of the same name; the techno-fantasy RPG setting The Chronicles of Future Earth; and the Legends of Anglerre roleplaying game. She’s currently writing Zero Point, a series of globe-spanning World War 2 adventures for the Achtung! Cthulhu RPG setting; the Great Game campaign for the Steampunk Leagues of Adventure RPG; and The Worm Within, the first Chronicles of Future Earth novel, to be published by Chaosium, Inc, in 2013. She lives in a field in rural France, surrounded by numerous farmyard animals, and blogs at sarahnewtonwriter.com.
This is the story’s first publication.
“Former NASA astronaut and moon-walker Dr _____ ________—a veteran of the Apollo 14 mission–has stunningly claimed aliens exist.
“And he says extra-terrestrials have visited Earth on several occasions—but the alien contact has been repeatedly covered up by governments for six decades.”
—Daily Telegraph, UK, July 24 2008
“Hey! This is Smash! Radio, welcome back! Oka-y, for those of you just joining us, we’re talking today with the astronaut—yes, that’s right, I said astronaut!—Bud Mitchum, direct by phone from his home in the US of A. Bud—are you still there?”
“Yes, yes, I still am, Philip.”
“Please, call me Phil. So, Bud, you were telling us before the break about your experiences walking on the moon—seeing the earth from space. Just what was that like?”
“Well, Phil, seeing the earth from space was probably the most profound experience of my life. All of a sudden I became aware of myself, not as an individual, separate from the universe, but as a living part of it. I realized—as a physical experience—that the atoms in my body were the same atoms that had floated in space for millions of years, that had been born in the centre of stars. I felt a great sense of peace, and a great sense of belonging.”
“Wow, that’s amazing, Bud! And tell me, does that make you a believer in life on other planets?”
“It certainly does, Phil. And it’s not just a belief—I have absolute knowledge that life exists out there in the vastness of space.”
“Whoa! Bud, that’s a heck of a thing to say. You’re saying you have—what, proof?—of life on other planets?”
“That’s right, I do, Phil, yes. Not only that, I have proof that extra-terrestrial intelligences have been visiting our planet for many, many years now.”
“Whoa! Bud! Now—hang on a minute, you’re pulling my leg, right?”
“I’m sorry, Phil?”
“Sorry, Bud… I’m just getting the feeling this is some kind of astronaut humour, right?”
“No, no, it’s not, Phil. I’m completely serious.”
“Whoa… wow. So, you’re saying that ET is—what?—here, right now, on earth?”
“Yes, he is, Phil. Our governments have been covering this up for many decades now, but they’re not always successful, and I’m sure you’ve heard all the stories about Roswell, Rendlesham, all those places where people have reported actual physical contact with extra-terrestrial beings. That stuff, well, it’s all true, Phil. I mean, there’s a lot of nonsense out there too, especially on the internet, but basically, yes, ET is here today.”
“Wow! Wow! Hang on, Bud, this is just blowing me away a bit here. I mean, you’re a world-famous astronaut, you’ve walked on the moon, you’re a respected scientist, you’re not some nutjob conspiracy theorist… Sorry, I didn’t mean to—“
“Not at all, Phil. No, I’m not a conspiracy theorist, no…”
“And—ahh—are these aliens, are they friendly?”
“Yes, they are, Phil, of course they are. They are benign. If they weren’t—well, uh, I guess none of us would be here right now.”
“What? You mean we’d be—“
“That’s right. Their technology is so far advanced of ours, Phil, that we have no defence against them. If they wanted us gone, well, then, we’d be gone.”
“Oh. My. God. Look, I just can’t believe this is happening on my show, Bud, I really can’t. This is major. Thank you for coming here and sharing this with us—I’m sure we’re going to be hearing lots more about this in the days to come!”
“You’re very welcome, Phil. I’m glad to have been here.”
* * *
“Phil, what the fuck was that?”
“Dave, man, I really don’t know. I was just totally lost. What did you make of the guy?”
“Whatya mean, what did I make of him? The guy’s a fucking astronaut, for Chrissakes—what am I supposed to make of him? I’ve had the director on the blower tearing me a new one for the past half-hour, letting fucking conspiracy nuts on the show!”
“He didn’t feel like a conspiracy nut, Dave.”
Dave waved his hands in front of him, screwed up his face. “Don’t talk to me about it! It’s a fucking mare, I knew we should’ve just cancelled today. Fucking space cadets! What the fuck’s that noise!?”
A massive ruckus had broken out in the street in front of the studios. There was already a crowd, only it was all a bit difficult to see because of something… something sprayed all over the front window in the lobby. Oh, shit…
“Fuck me, Dave. That’s blood… Somebody’s been hurt out there!”
More than hurt. As Phil leapt down the stairs four at a time closely followed by his still raging boss, the crowd outside parted to let a couple of paramedics through with a stretcher. By the look on their faces when they arrived, there clearly wasn’t much point, and the police turned and hurriedly set up a cordon to keep people back. The whole pavement in front of the studios looked like it was covered in smashed-up pizza.
Phil dashed up to the door and yanked it open. A copper thrust out a brawny hand and pushed him back in the chest. “Keep back, sir, please.”
“What is it, officer?”
“Just keep back a bit, sir, while we try and get things sorted.”
Phil turned back to the foyer. At reception Suzie and Lynne were crying in one another’s arms. A phone was ringing deafeningly. Phil picked up the receiver and slammed it down again. “Girls,” he said, breathless, “did you see what happened?”
Suzie was sobbing. “It was that bloke…” she cried, pointing. “He’d just been in here. Wanted to talk to you. He was all worked up about that interview you did with that astronaut.”
Dave was approaching ballistic. “What the fuck’s going on, Phil? I don’t fucking need this. We’ve got shooters, now?!”
“Shut up a minute, Dave. Look, Suzie, did he say anything else? Did he say what it was about?”
Still snivelling, the girl peeled off a post-it from the front of the desk. “Just this.”
Mind racing, Phil scanned the message. “Must talk. You’re being set up. Deadly serious—astronaut a plant—believe nothing.” There was a phone number—inner London.
“What does it say?” asked Dave, peering.
On impulse, Phil screwed up the message, stuffing it in his pocket. “Just mad shit,” he said, dismissively. “Some kind of junkie, I reckon… that’s what all that must have been about,” he said, nodding towards the carnage and flashing lights outside. “Fucking drugs gangs.”
The riff from Brown Sugar suddenly blared from his back pocket. Phil pulled out his mobile and answered it.
“Mr. Morten?” asked a disembodied American voice.
“Look, I’m sorry, ahhh—could you phone back in an hour or two? I’m really busy right now.”
“I understand, Mr. Morten. That looks a terrible mess out there. This won’t take a minute.”
Phil’s eyes flicked out the window—to the crowd out there with their mobiles, talking, taking pictures; to the endless rows of windows on the street opposite, reflecting impassively.
“Sorry, who is this?”
“Mr. Morten, I was very interested in your interview with Mr. Bud Mitchum today,” the American voice continued evenly. “I think many people feel the same. I wanted to make sure you’ll be covering the story again. Say, for example, tomorrow?”
He couldn’t see anyone out there who looked like they might be talking to him. His eyes shifted focus to the blood-spattered window. “Look, I’m not sure, yet… I really have to go.”
“We’d be very grateful if you did. We’d be very willing to show our gratitude—in concrete terms, provide you with material. We’d make sure you’d have no further problems with your superiors.”
“My superiors? How did you know about that?”
“Good. I think we understand one another. I look forwards to your next show, Mr. Morten.”
“Hang on a minute! Who are you? How did you get my mobile number?”
The phone went dead. Phil stood there in the foyer, watching the world out there watching in. The flashing lights strobed across his face; he suddenly felt very vulnerable.
Dave had pretty much blown himself out. “Trouble?” he asked. Phil shook his head. “I dunno. Don’t think so…” His eyes flicked over the crowd outside again. “I don’t know what the fuck’s going on,” he whispered, half to himself.
“Look, everyone,” said Dave, “let’s pack it in for a bit. I’ll bung some tapes in, stick the phones on night call for an hour or two. ‘S’all gonna be the same shit once word gets out, anyway. You girls get going, I’ll cover things till Jemma gets in at six. Use the back way out, yeah? Phil—how you feeling?”
Phil didn’t know how he felt. Adrenalized, wired to fuck, knackered, shocked, traumatized, buzzing his tits off. Weirded out. Take your pick. Right now, he could do with getting away from that window. Take a half-bottle of Jack Daniels and a vat of coke, and just drink it out of him. “I’ll be all right,” he said, once he’d made his mind up. “I could murder a drink.”
“There’s a bottle in my desk,” said Dave. “Let’s see if we can’t finish it.”
* * *
That night Phil sat by his mobile with the screwed up post-it in his hand, racking his brains. Rubbing his eyes one last time, he downed the remnants of his whisky and dialled the number.
The phone line was crap, full of crackles and whoops. He got an answerphone—kind of figured. “Hi, you’ve reached Matt Moseley. If you’re a mate, please leave a message. If you want to talk about work stuff, you can get me at Prime-dot-com, on…” And then another number.
The receptionist at Prime-dot-com was in tears too. “Look,” she said, over crackling static, “I’m really sorry but we don’t have anything to say right now. Maybe you could call back in a couple of days. This isn’t a very good line.”
“Sure, I’ll do that. Do you guys always work this late?”
“Yeah, sometimes,” she said, suddenly a bit more human. “We’ve got a big contract on at the moment…”
“Oh, right. What is it you do?”
“We’re a web development company. We build custom-built dynamic websites for business, finance, and the e-commerce world—”
“Hey, sweetheart, can I leave a number? My name’s Phil Morten, I’m a radio DJ. Matt was trying to get in touch with me today, I don’t know what about.”
“The Phil Morten?” asked the receptionist distractedly. “Wow. Yeah, sure… I’ll pass it on, if anyone… Just a minute—” she said suddenly, after a particularly spectacular burst of static. Phil could hear her hand cupped over the mouthpiece. “I’m sorry—I thought there was somebody else on the line. What was your number?”
After the call, Phil sat with the phone in his hands, thinking. On an impulse, he dialled Matt Moseley’s number again.
The call was answered almost immediately. “Mr. Morten…” said a familiar, American drawl. The line was crystal clear this time.
Phil’s heart thumped. His hands felt cold, clammy. “Look… whoever you are… Are you tapping my phone? Who the fuck are you?”
The American voice remained placid, controlled. “This really isn’t your affair, Mr. Morten. I recommend you don’t pursue this line of investigation any further. You’re on the wrong track—stick with the Mitchum story.”
“Look… you can’t just go bugging my phones. It’s against the law! I’ll go to the police!”
The voice sounded slightly amused. “I wouldn’t advise that. Stay with the astronaut, Mr. Morten. It’s much more interesting—and much safer.”
The line went dead.
* * *
“Terror suspects could be convicted on the evidence of ‘electronic eavesdropping’ of phone calls and emails under sweeping moves to combat the threat of an al-Qaeda atrocity.
“In a blunt admission that the risk of attack remains ‘real and serious’, Home Secretary David Blunkett will pledge a massive staffing boost for MI5. Priorities will include linguists, translators and surveillance to help infiltrate overseas-sponsored terror networks in Britain.”
—Observer, UK, February 22 2004
The next day Phil’s mobile and landline popped and whistled constantly whenever he tried to make a call. Even his internet connection seemed dog-slow, his PC too clogged-up doing something else to bother letting him check his emails and do his morning surf. Pale-faced, he unplugged his webcam.
The phone book said there were three Matt Moseley’s in central London—including his man. Address was something-or-other Mansions, up north-west; probably a flat share.
He wasn’t on till the evening, and took a walk down the High Street for a paper. He’d never seen it so busy, people and cars everywhere. He kept looking behind him; were they watching his home as well?
It was chaos at the traffic lights as usual. Buses, bikes, vans, lorries, cars, exhaust fumes everywhere, horns blaring, pedestrians hurling themselves into every available gap trying to get across before the lights changed.
On impulse—just as the traffic was pulling away–Phil threw himself into a black cab and shouted Matt Moseley’s address to the driver. He slumped down in the seat, and after a few minutes looked behind. What the hell would they look like, anyway?
The house was pretty much as expected—one of the long, grandiose, Edwardian apartment blocks which give the sidestreets off Finchley Road and Hampstead their touch of faded splendour. The street was empty as he got out, apart from a post-van doing pickup at a red pillar-box up the road.
The landlady answered the intercom and buzzed him up. “’Ere, hello, what a surprise seeing you round here, I do like your show, you know, I do like listening to all those interesting people you have on. Marvellous, it is, absolutely marvellous. You’re nothing like I imagined you.”
Phil smiled, awkwardly, and mentioned Matt. The landlady’s face folded in concern. “Ooh, that’s a terrible business that is, Mr. Morten, a terrible business. ‘E was such a nice lad, as well, always polite and tidy, not a peep of trouble. And to think in my poor house that young lad, now e’s…” She began to snivel loudly.
Phil took her arm and gave her his best empathic gaze, and she obediently wrapped herself around his neck and began to sob theatrically. Once that was done, she vanished into the heart of the apartment to get some tea, leaving Phil to “pay his final farewells” in Matt’s room. On the proviso, of course, that “he didn’t touch nothing”.
The room, as the landlady had said, was polite, and tidy. A pile of geeky magazines flanked the gas fire perched incongruously in the blocked-up fireplace, some faded arthouse posters covered spots of damp and peeling paint. Two large do-it-yourself desks ran the length of one wall, covered with computers, printers, cables. Phil began to gently rifle through the piles of empty hardware boxes, CD cases, manuals.
His hands lit on a simple exercise book, bright red with a coat of arms on the front, the type you could get in any corner shop. Inside it was filled with neat handwriting, on one side of the page only, with a neatly ruled margin. Phil read a few lines; it was a diary. Curious, that a computer programmer should confine his innermost thoughts to paper, and not some snazzy gadget.
There was a rattling sound from somewhere outside the room, as the landlady began her final approach doubtless laden with teapot, cups, and biscuits. On an impulse Phil stuffed the exercise book into an inside pocket, and flashed his eyes up and down the desk, quickly opening and closing the drawers.
One of the drawers was empty except for a plastic jar with a weird-looking object in it. Something like a piece of coral, or a crab claw, or maybe a dried and desiccated mushroom, it was clearly none of these.
“Ere, Mr. Morten, would you mind doing the honours with the door? I’m a bit heavy-laden…”
Phil turned, pocketing the weird jar and closing the drawers before opening the door to the landlady and the tea. She had done her hair and applied—swiftly, and none too accurately—a good layer of makeup, and smiled gorgeously. “It’s a very sad time, Mr. Morten,” she said, beaming. “Would you like a bit of cake?”
* * *
Later, Phil’s phone couldn’t get a signal at all. He hailed a cab on the Finchley Road, and on the way home flicked through the notebook, reading at random. The more he read, the stranger his picture of the dead programmer became. A chill of recognition ran down his spine: everywhere in his notes Matt Moseley seemed to be mortally afraid of being spied upon, a resounding paranoia which expected every phone conversation to be tapped, every email to be intercepted, until all that remained was to note everything down in longhand, far from prying eyes. Phil looked out of the window, absently. As far as he could make out, Matt had stumbled upon something he shouldn’t have in the course of his work—or at least believed he had. He appeared to have been seconded to a new and rather secretive company called “Pluto” or “Pluto-dot-net”, where he had discovered something which had disturbed him terribly. I’ve managed to get a sample, though god knows what good it’ll do me, he read. It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. God knows who’s building this stuff. It was the last pages of the notebook which troubled Phil the most, even causing the cab driver to ask if he felt all right, to which he nodded and gazed pensively out of the window again. The passage read:
I think I’ve found the evidence I’ve been looking for. There are protocols being written in every server we have—written automatically, and I’ve no idea what they’re for. They appear to mimic the standard protocols, but clearly they’re fulfilling some other function, too—some kind of surveillance, or perhaps feedback system, like an array of nerves. They’ve been piggy-backing on the global internet propagation service ever since we brought the new interfaces online last month. It sounds crazy to say it, but I think Jason may have been right: it’s like there’s something alive in the Internet. An artificial life form—and I think we’re the ones who let it out.
Phil stared out the window. It all sounded too bizarre. Something “alive”, in the Internet? What did they call it—artificial intelligence? Remembering, he fished in his pocket for the jar from the apartment. A sample, Matt had called it. But of what? It looked like nothing Phil had ever seen—maybe some sea creature, or some lump of crazily formed coral. But picked up at some techie web company as a “sample”? None of it made any sense—but there was a dead guy on a pavement back there that said otherwise.
The cab driver slid open the dividing window, peering at Phil in the rear-view mirror. “’Ere, mate,” he said. “Do you know you’re being followed?”
“What?” Phil’s voice suddenly cracked with panic. He spun round to look out the back window. “Don’t do that!” cried the driver, but it was too late. Phil’s heart thumped in his chest. Oh my god—they were after him! He imagined the blood sprayed on the foyer window at work, the crowd gathered to stare at the road pizza. How could he have been so stupid? He should have listened to the American guy’s warning. Of course they’d have followed him to Matt’s—they’d be watching and waiting there, too. Shit! Shit! He cursed himself.
The tail was a black four-by-four with tinted windows, a Chelsea Tractor with a dark and menacing air. He imagined men in black suits, sunglasses, impassive faces, pistols with silencers, the whole thing…
“How long have they been following?” He turned to the cabbie, his voice shaking.
The cabbie shrugged. “Dunno, mate. Maybe since pickup, I only cottoned on a few minutes back.”
“Shit… Shit… Can’t you lose them or something?”
“On my wages? This ain’t James Bond, you know.”
Phil looked behind again. Shit. What was this? He flung himself back in his seat, mind racing. Think, think, think…!
“Look, is there a big pub round here? A busy one? One that’s going to be crowded right now?”
“There’s the Rat & Parrot at Great Portland Street. Be heaving about now.”
“That’ll do. Drop me there please, man. As close to the door as you can.”
The cabbie did just that, ramping right up on the kerb and driving over the pavement so that the cab door scraped the pub walls when Phil jumped out and ran headlong into the lunchtime crowd. He hoped to hell he could lose himself inside; after that—he didn’t know. He needed time to think.
From the side of the bar Phil sipped his drink tensely and watched people come through the door in a mirror on the wall. The third person in stopped just inside, and stood there, his eyes sweeping across the sea of heads, gazing intently at each, searching. Short spikey cut, floor-length Drizabone, Bluetooth earpiece. Dead-ringer: that had to be one of them. Phil felt his breathing start to shake, stared at his drink, willing himself invisible.
A voice spoke very low just behind him. “Phil—I need to talk to you. It’s about Matt.”
Phil tensed. “Don’t know what you’re talking about, mate.”
“It’s okay. I work with him. Worked, I mean… Listen—Jenny at reception told me you’d called.”
Quickly, Phil looked round. Drizabone guy. His blue eyes looked serious, scared; a thin film of sweat covered his forehead. His smooth, wrinkle-free forehead. Just another kid.
Phil’s shoulders sank with relief. “Buy you a drink?” he said, shakily, trying to smile.
* * *
“According to the latest studies, Britain has a staggering 4.2 million CCTV cameras—one for every 14 people in the country—and 20 per cent of cameras globally. It has been calculated that each person is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.”
—Evening Standard, London, March 31 2007
“We’ve been working on a big contract recently. Really big. We’ve hardly been able to take on any other work. It’s for a company called Pluto-dot-net. You heard of them?”
Phil bit his lip, thinking back to the note in Matt’s diary. Play it close to your chest, he told himself. Let him tell you. “Not really, Gareth, no,” he said, flicking his eyes round the bar.
“Well, they’re new. As far as we could find out. But they’re loaded. They wanted the whole thing from us-–websites, hardware, connectivity, the whole thing. Took pretty much everyone up. But—“ he said, his expression hardening, “—then it began to get weird.”
Phil stared at him, concentrating. “How weird?”
“Breakthrough-type stuff weird. Stuff no one else out there is doing, weird. They were hooking up some entirely new kind of server from their head office. Something no one else was allowed to see—we just got the spec for the interface, nothing else. I went there once, to check out the hardware setup. Only got in for an hour or so—barely enough. Big, big security though. There were blokes in dark suits and guards all over the place. More than an airforce base. I was glad as hell to get out of there. Scared the willies out of me.”
“Matt ever go there?”
Gareth shook his head. “Not that I know of. Why?”
Phil reached in his pocket, drew out the jar, looking around the pub as he did. Set it on the table in front of the guy. “I found that in his apartment this morning.”
Gareth went pale. His eyes darted around the pub, he thrust the jar back at Phil, half in panic. “For fuck’s sake, put that away! For fuck’s sake, the mad bastard!”
Coolly, Phil put the jar back in his pocket. “What is it?”
Gareth was sweating. He seemed to be talking half to himself. “Oh, fuck, I can’t believe it. They killed him for that? They fucking killed him for that?”
Phil leaned over and grabbed his hand. “Calm down, mate. People are starting to look. Here—have a mouthful. Better? Now start again. What is that thing?”
Gareth winced from the drink, clutched the glass with both hands in front of him as if to steady himself. His voice shook slightly, was barely audible. “It’s an interface,” he said. “It’s the interface. Or part of it. That’s what they were wanting us to plug our hardware into on their side. What they wanted us to code to…” he spat, grimly.
“It’s technological?” asked Phil in surprise.
“No, it’s not. That’s just it. It’s organic. Now do you get it?”
Phil let out a low whistle. “Wow… I don’t know shit, but, wow… that’s got to be major, like, CIA crap.”
Gareth nodded. “It’s like nothing none of us have ever seen before. Scared most of us shitless even working on it. It was just… wild. We had mapping tables converting code output into electrical signals… like fucking nerve impulses, yeah? And back again. We were all working compartmentalized, weren’t even supposed to discuss it with one another. But, shit, it was obvious that this was something that was going to blow everything else out of the water.”
An idea suddenly struck Phil. “How many of you were working on this… interface thing?”
“Four, in the end.”
“In the end?”
“Five of us started. Jason Dixon… well, he sort of had a breakdown during the project, had to leave. It happens, sometimes,” he shrugged.
Phil registered the name. “People go mad coding websites?”
Gareth coughed out a laugh, bitterly, nodding. “More than you’d think. It’s a high-stress job. Jason’s not the first mate to burn out like that. He just did it on a high-profile project, that’s all.”
“Friend of Matt’s?”
Gareth nodded. “Yeah, they were as thick as thieves, those two.” He eyed him questioningly. “You think there’s a connection?”
Phil shrugged. “Where’s this Jason now?”
“I’ve got an address for him… Listen, I shouldn’t be doing this, I don’t know you from shit, and…” He stopped, helpless.
Phil clasped Gareth’s hand. “Hey, mate, it’s okay. This is starting to scare the crap out of me, too. But there’s something big going on here… I want to make sure we don’t end up like Matt, that’s all. Okay?” he smiled.
Uncertain, Gareth looked up Jason’s address on his phone, held it out for Phil to jot down.
“Your battery’s low,” said Phil, nodding at the screen. “Needs a recharge.”
“Shouldn’t do,” said Gareth, puzzled. “I recharged it this morning.” He looked at the screen, tapped a few icons, and his face fell. “Shit…”
“What’s up?” asked Phil, with a sudden, sinking feeling.
Gareth looked ashen-faced. “This thing’s been transmitting. Looks like someone phoned up, and I answered. Only… I didn’t answer.”
Their eyes met. Phil shivered, his eyes flicking round the pub. Who the fuck had been listening… And how had they…? He got up. “We’d better go.”
Gareth nodded. “Listen,” he said, quickly, as they shook hands. “If you do find him, tell him sorry from me. About everything. Tell him I’m sorry, okay?”
* * *
That night the show finished before the 9 o’clock news, and Phil left by the back way. There was a patch of shadow beneath a large rhododendron on the path from the door, and, as he passed, he caught a sudden whiff of cigarette smoke.
“Don’t turn around, Mr. Morten. I thought you might come this way…”
Phil’s heart pounded, and he felt himself prickle with cold sweat. Out of the corner of his eye, he could just make out a dark shape, see the ruby glow of a cigarette-end as the smoke blew his way again.
“Oh, God…” he said, thickly. “Are you going to kill me…?”
The American voice sounded vaguely amused. “I don’t think there’s any need for that right now, do you, Mr. Morten?”
Relief flooded over him. “No,” he said, softly. “No, there isn’t.”
“I’m glad we’re seeing eye to eye,” continued the voice. “You have a nice life. A nice house, a nice job. Don’t make the wrong decision without having all the facts.”
Phil blinked, staring ahead, desperate to turn around. “What facts?”
Another cloud of cigarette smoke. “Do you know what the State is for, Mr. Morten?”
“The State. The government.”
“Sure… it’s who runs the country. The people we elect…” He trailed off, feeling suddenly foolish.
“You don’t even believe that yourself, do you, Mr. Morten?” said the voice. “The State is an apparatus set up to enable the elite—the aristocracy, the landowners, the Church. Big business, nowadays, too—to control and exploit its resources more effectively. That means me and you, Mr. Morten. It’s like a big farm, and the owners farm us for the work we do, the taxes we pay…”
“So? What are you telling me for?”
“Does it really matter to you who the farmer is, Mr. Morten? Really? I mean, do you know who the farmer is now?”
“I don’t know. Big business? The banks?”
The voice smiled. “See—it doesn’t matter, does it? It doesn’t make the slightest bit of difference. Go home, Mr. Morten. Forget about all this conspiracy stuff, it’s not worth risking your life for. Nothing changes. This is how it is, how it’s always been. It’s the world, and getting yourself killed for some damn fool idea won’t change any of it.”
“Italian developers have created Ubisafe, software which, when used in conjunction with GPS enabled phones, will allow parents to check out their children’s exact location. Bunking off school could now become even more of a challenge for unruly youngsters.”
—BBC News, March 7 2008
That night Phil hardly slept, and when he did it was filled with nightmares of guns and knives and betrayal by his closest friends. He would wake in sweat-soaked sheets, panting and staring wide-eyed into darkness, listening for the slightest unusual sound. His tongue felt huge, his eyes burned, he felt feverish. The next morning, when the endless night was over, he got up groggily and made himself some coffee and sat in the corner away from the door, glaring sombrely at the window. The thought of turning on the TV or radio repelled him.
He noticed his hands were trembling slightly. Suddenly, he stifled a sob. God—they could have killed him last night, as easily as that, and no one would ever have known why. What a fool he’d— He held his hand over his mouth, staring into space.
Why hadn’t they? They’d killed Matt Moseley; he presumed they’d bugged his conversation with Gareth; so why had they satisfied themselves with just threatening him last night? There was a bigger picture here, he could feel it…
Cursing, he washed and dressed and caught the bus to Marble Arch. He took the back streets around Bond Street, went as far down as Oxford Circus, where he milled with the crowds before heading out on a long and circuitous walk to Baker Street. His feet ached with the pounding pavements, he bumped shoulders with as many people as he missed, he kept his head down, fingering the jar with the weird, crab-like thing in his pocket. Finally, it started to rain, and he took refuge in an old-fashioned coffee house, feeling suddenly ravenous, eating pastries and drinking warm milky coffee as the street lights started to come on.
Nobody out there knows, he thought—and they’ll think I’m mad if I say anything. He felt utterly alone. Compartmentalized, Gareth had called it.
Suddenly, something went click. That was how they did it. Out there, London rushed by in all its millions. And not just London: New York, Paris, Tokyo. And all of them filled with millions of rushing people, all of them compartmentalized; working in isolation, cut-off from one another, non-communicating. That was how they did it; that was how they controlled people. Keep them separate, isolated: convince them they’re alone, that it’s hopeless even to try…
He jumped out of the cab before the Maida Vale address Gareth had given him. He wanted a good clear look ahead before he decided what to do. It had stopped raining, and a ragged bunch of clouds were scudding swiftly across a deep, star-filled sky, fading to light-pollution orange round the horizon. He turned his collar up, stuffed his hands in his pockets, and strode off down the pavement, avoiding puddles.
A hundred yards on he stopped, and looked behind him. The street was empty, just a procession of vacant pools of light around street lamps. He started off again, then just as quickly stopped, and turned round fully this time, and froze. One by one, as he watched, the streetlamps began to go out. What the hell—?
Something struck him hard, on the head, and he fell to the ground. Fuck… They must have been—
A blast of wind hit him from the side, and a terrible smell, like rotting meat, open sewer, mixed with all the chemicals from hell. He gagged, groaned, tried to pull himself up. All around, the lights were going out. On the streets, in the houses, everywhere… blackout. Damn…
Another blast, and another blow, sending him sprawling again. This time, something buzzed past his head—something enormous, like some great cloaked moth bigger than a man. Fuck! What the hell was that!
Panic overcame him. Panic, and a primal fear, of the dark, of the unknown, of monsters and bogey men and ghosts and aliens. Shit, shit, shit, he hissed to himself, shit, shit, shit.
He had to run. He scrabbled to his feet. Somewhere above him he heard the sound of whooshing wind, a swooping of some enormous black shape in the air out the corner of his eye, a sinister buzzing sound. He cried out, and tried to run—and the thing came rushing up behind him.
Suddenly there was a flash of light ahead, a crackling, sizzling sound, followed by a terrible, unnatural shriek, like nothing he had ever heard before. A burned, ammonia stench filled his nostrils, acrid, making him gag, and another burst of light and sound from ahead seared into whatever chased him from behind. There was another, inhuman shriek, and suddenly he felt the presence peel away behind him.
“Quick!” came a voice from ahead, “Over here—the manhole!”
Blindly, insanely, Phil forced himself to move, to hurl himself towards the voice. In the black of night, in starlight, he saw a face and a hand beckoning from a manhole in the pavement—his brain would make sense of this later—and dumbly he threw himself after, almost falling down the metal rungs of a ladder and into a tunnel to one side. Scrabbling, scraping, grazing his hands, there was a tear in his jeans, he tasted blood on his lips. Behind him the manhole clanged shut, and a man crawled up beside him. “Keep going,” he hissed. “There’s a room up ahead.”
There was. Phil threw himself into it, panting uncontrollably, ankles kicking at the floor till he felt a wall behind him. A light bulb swayed gently from the ceiling—still lit—and Phil, wide-eyed, watched as the man crawled into the room behind him. Slowly, he sat down, never taking his eyes off Phil. With one hand he brushed some mud off his knees, with the other he cradled a strange-looking metallic device. Phil stared, breathless. He raised his hand to his lips, winced, looked at the blood.
“It’s not serious,” the other man said. “You’re lucky to be alive. The Mi-Go normally just grab you and you’re gone.”
Phil stared, dumbly. “The what…?”
“Mi-Go,” the man said. “It’s Tibetan. I think. Means ‘Abominable Snowman’.” He smiled, ironically.
Phil shook his head. Suddenly he became aware of the room around him. He jumped, half to his feet, looking around him in panic.
The man held out a hand. “Calm down. You’re okay here. You’re safe, for now. They can’t get down here, and even if they could… well, they won’t find us. Not for some time, yet.” He narrowed his eyes. “Who are you?”
Stammering, shaking, words tumbling out in any old order, Phil told him. Told him everything he knew, sometimes laughing hysterically with the bizarreness of it all, sometimes on the verge of tears, sometimes cold, dumb, traumatized. The man sat and listened, saying nothing.
“So they got Matt at last, did they?” he said, finally, frowning sadly. “He was a good chap. I liked him, out of all of them.”
“I met a guy called Gareth. He told me to tell you sorry, if I saw you. Sorry for everything, he said.”
The man’s face hardened, and he smiled, grimly. “Did he? So you know who I am then…” Phil nodded.
“None of us knew what we were getting into, at first,” Jason began, shifting his position on the floor. “How big or how bad it was. I was the first to figure it out—the rest of them just ran for cover when I tried to tell people. Gareth, Matt—all of them. The Pluto guys were coding stuff weirder than I’d ever seen—multiple states, temporal dimensions. They didn’t even use binary. It was completely beyond me from the start.
“I think I got closer to the underlying stuff than any of our guys. Multidimensional, highly parallel, it even looked like there were hypertextual properties in the code itself. It was streets ahead of anything we were capable of; it was like DNA, like it had written itself.
“Anyway—the organic interface you got from Matt’s, yeah? That’s where the shit really started to hit the fan. They called it the ‘core server’; it took us a while to work out they’d got things tied up so that none of us actually got to see the thing. I did, though. I’d got clearance for a week’s work at their HQ, and I’d been working late on some of the port access protocols for the primary interface—the organic thing. I needed to ask one of the Pluto-dot-net technologists about the spec; they had their own space, all shut up behind pass-keys and stuff. That night, the door wasn’t closed. Maybe they thought I’d gone home or something.
“I could hear voices as I got nearer. One of them I recognized as Joss Stuart, their chief technologist, but the other one I didn’t recognize at all. It was plain weird. It was this flat voice—a bit like Stephen Hawking’s synthesizer, but with all the emotion and intonation taken out of it. I wondered what the hell it was—I couldn’t make out the words.
“I got somewhere where I could see through the window in the door. You know what I saw? There was only one person in that room—the technologist guy. He was talking to… well, I guess it must have been the core server.
“It wasn’t like any other server I’d ever seen. It was cylindrical, made out of something like stainless steel. I thought at first it was some kind of stylish new Mac box or a Unix station, but there was something—well, weird—about the aesthetic. All the proportions were wrong—I couldn’t imagine why anyone would design such an ugly-looking box. It was just all wrong.
“I couldn’t see the back of it, but there were four ports on the front. Three of them had some weird kind of USB adapters plugged in—hooked up to a webcam, pair of speakers, and a mike. Really bog-standard gear—it all looked really incongruous.
“Then below it—I guess that must have been the interface we’d all been working on. Shit, that was a weird-looking bit of kit. Matt’s piece, yeah? Except—the bit Matt took looks kind of dried out, now, yeah? Kind of dead? Well, the main interface on the core server looked alive. It was pink, red, glistening, like it was moist. Something really disgusting about it.
“I must have made some noise—not surprising, it freaked the hell out of me—but the voices suddenly stopped. I ducked back away again, dashed as quickly as I could to my PC.
“I don’t know whether they saw me, but I got laid off shortly after when I started talking. Said I’d had a breakdown due to overwork…”
“But you know what? This is the mad thing. All that webcam gear—well, it could have been broadcasting over the internet, Joss Stuart could have been talking to someone by webcam, that’s all possible. But I still don’t think so. That weird flat voice coming out of the speakers, that disgusting pink interface, the strange shit we’d been programming to hook up to it—I reckon Joss had been talking to the core server itself, right in front of him. I reckon there was some kind of actual brain in there, maybe even an organic one. Maybe even a human one.”
Phil stared at Jason, dumbly. “Matt’s diary said he thought there was something living in the internet…”
Jason looked away. “You know, it’s weird to think the whole planet has no idea what’s coming to them. It’s right around the corner—the next few weeks or months. They don’t know the whole world’s about to change, forever.”
“What’s going to happen?”
“It’s already happening. You’ve seen the way things have been going the past few years, haven’t you? Things getting scarier, a bit harder for everyone, yeah? There used to be a lot of money around, people could buy houses, say what they wanted, go where they wanted, read what they liked. Now suddenly everything’s about fear, and staying put and doing as you’re told. Everyone’s in hock to the big banks, the government’s been slowly repealing our civil rights, till they can pretty much arrest you and lock you away for any damn thing. And not just here, you know. It’s everywhere, all around the world. All being conditioned, prepared, set up. All because of those guys, Phil—those flying bastards who just tried to tear your head off.”
Phil sat there, staring. He fingered the strange jar from Matt’s apartment, shuddering as he remembered the primal terror, the feeling of being hunted, the terrible foetor which had swept over him. “What were those things?” he said, finally.
Jason frowned, deeply. “Your astronaut guy was right about one thing, at least. They’re E.T., Phil. They’re space aliens. They’re all that stuff.” He waved his hand towards the ceiling. “They come from out there, somewhere. They have a base in our solar system on Pluto.”
“Yeah. Hilarious, isn’t it. Alien space humour.”
“But what are they doing?”
Jason suddenly looked exhausted. He placed the weird metal device he’d been holding on the ground before him, and rubbed his face with his hands. He fixed his eyes on Phil.
“They’re taking over, Phil. They’ve been here for years, centuries, secretly mining our planet. There’s some stuff they need here they can’t get anywhere else, don’t ask me what. But they’ve been taking it from us under our noses and we’ve never noticed. Now, with all our clever technology, it’s becoming harder and harder for them. People have been seeing them here and there for years, governments have been covering it up. Now the aliens—the Mi-Go—have lost patience, and they’re coming in force, openly, once and for all.”
Phil looked away. “There’s been some weird CIA-type guy following me since Matt got killed,” he said, softly. “Threatening me, warning me off digging any further. He kept pushing me to continue reporting the astronaut’s story.”
Jason nodded, grimacing. “Our governments have been in contact with them for years. The Mi-Go. Certainly since the last war, if not before. They’ve been getting dribbles of technology from them in return for… concessions. And the aliens—they’ve been infiltrating our societies, our systems. They’ve been preparing us for years—microbes on Mars, oceans on Titan, exoplanets. Preparing us for the great news that We Are Not Alone. It’s called Disclosure. They’re going to tell us how wonderful everything is—but even then it’ll all be still a lie. That’s who your astronaut is working for; that’s why they wanted you to broadcast. That’s who your man-in-black guy is.
“They’ve got agents everywhere. In our governments, controlling the internet: they can get at you anywhere and anytime—DNA databases, medical records, emails, telephone calls, CCTV cameras, passports, bank accounts, everything. You know, their technology lets them separate their consciousnesses from their physical bodies. They could even do it with us, if they wanted. That’s what the core server project was: we plugged one of them directly into the internet. Matt was right—it’s living there, now; it more or less is the internet. Governments have always had it in for the internet—it was the one thing that always escaped their control. Not any more.” He smiled, bitterly.
“But… but… can’t we do some kind of deal with them? Cooperate? I mean, they must be advanced… beings (is that the word?), they’ve got to be able to see sense…”
Jason eyed him with a kind of pity. “Look, Phil, try and get your head round this. The Mi-Go are aliens. Really, totally alien, and totally hostile. They’re so far ahead of us we’re not even physically capable of understanding it. They look at us like we look at sheep and cattle—just something to be milked, exploited, and then carved up and eaten when the time comes. They’d no more negotiate with us than we’d consider negotiating with a bunch of livestock. None of what we do or what we are matters to them, Phil. Can you imagine that? None of it—Jesus, the Bomb, the pyramids, all our history, art, technology, all our achievements—it’s just bugs scratching around in the dirt to them. We don’t matter—none of us. The best thing we could do is keep out of their way. But we can’t, not any more.”
“What can we do?”
“I don’t know. It makes me sick to think about it—they’re so powerful, we don’t have a cat in hell’s chance of fighting back. I sometimes think all our modern society—the whole damn modern world—has been manipulated, formed by the Mi-Go specifically to better control us. Our governments, the media, they’re all on their side, carrying out their nightmare agenda, telling us what they want us to know. It’s like everything we’ve ever known was wrong. I just don’t think we should lie down and die, though. We’ve got to try and do something—otherwise… well, otherwise it’s just the cattle farm. Otherwise we lose, forever. There’ll be no going back.”
Phil shook his head. It was all too much. But there it was before him—the weird jar from Matt’s, the “ray gun”, this room, the CIA guy, the creature out there… He closed his eyes, lowered his head. He wished none of this had happened.
Maybe the CIA guy was right. Did it really matter who ran the farm? Wouldn’t it just be better not to know? To be one of those cattle, to go about your daily life, happy in your blind ignorance, unaware of the great arm reaching out for you, unaware of the slaughterhouse ahead… Wouldn’t it?
He looked up at Jason. “We’ve got to tell people about this. We need to tell people what’s really going on. So they can’t pretend it isn’t happening.”
“I don’t know yet. Maybe we’ll use the show. Go viral. We can’t use the internet—not any more. We need to just get the truth out there, so that when that thing happens—what do you call it?”
“When Disclosure happens, people will know it’s bollocks, and they just might try and do something to stop it.”
“We can’t win, you know.”
“We don’t have to, for God’s sake. Just refusing to line up for slaughter is enough. If we’re on the brink of extinction, let’s go down fighting, for fuck’s sake. Are you up for it?”
Jason sighed. His hands were shaking slightly.
“Oh, why the fuck not. We’re already dead anyway.”
“You don’t know that. If we fight… well, you never know. We might force a draw or something. You never know. Give me a one-in-a-million chance of survival to certain death any day.”
Jason smiled, wryly. “Death or glory?”
“Death or glory.”
“The process of Disclosure is the fundamental objective of UFO research and investigation. Based on this overwhelming mass of evidential material both within the UFO research community as well as within the sequestered data residing in government archives, Disclosure is the ultimate terrestrial imperative for the human race as we discover ourselves, the universe and those who share it with us. The question remains: are we ready for it?”
—Victor Viggiani, International Metaphysical and Scientific Symposium, Brisbane, Australia, August 2003
Two days later Phil got a hastily scribbled note from Jason. “I’ve found out what they’re going to do. It’s amazing, the whole thing. It’s full disclosure. They’re going to announce it to everyone, everywhere. It’s the end of the world, Phil. We’ve got five days.”
Two days after that, Phil put an entry in the schedule for the next day. “1900: JD interview”, it said. “Can you come?” he asked cryptically from a call box that evening. “Yes,” came the reply. “I’ll bring some toys.” He hung up.
The next day minutes before seven was still a no-show. Phil paced up and down the smoking room, an undrunk coffee still steaming on the podium table. Selina popped her head round the door. “Still no sign of your seven o’clock, Phil,” she said, concerned. “What d’you want to do?”
Phil took a drag on his cigarette, tried to clear his head. His fingers trembled, Ashes To Ashes kept running around in his head. My momma said, to get things done, you’d better not mess with Major Tom. My momma said…
He turned to Selina, whirling round so fast she jumped. “Listen, Selina. I’m going ahead with the interview spot, I’m gonna do it all myself. Whatever happens, keep me on air, okay? Promise me, sweetheart, whatever happens, you’ll try?”
Selina’s face broke in a look of alarm. “But… Phil… it’s your job… And mine…”
He grabbed hold of her hands, and for the first time the girl looked scared as she saw the terrible seriousness on his face. “Look, I’ve never asked anything like this from you before, and I won’t again. It’s the most important thing I’ve ever asked. If we all get through this, I’ll make it up to you, sweetheart, I promise I will. Will you do it?”
Tears welled up in her eyes, and now she looked really scared. She couldn’t speak, but just nodded her head. She tried to say something, but the sob which was welling up in her throat stopped her. She broke free of his hold and fled into the control room.
In the DJ booth Phil settled his earphones on his head and nodded to Selina through the glass. She looked pale, but controlled. It was going to work.
* * *
“You’re an absolute diamond!” Phil laughed, as he ran out of the booth and crushed Selina in an almighty bear-hug. “God bless you, darlin’. We did it!”
Phil was beside himself. It had gone better than he could ever have imagined. Everything he had wanted to say, everything he knew, all the accumulated evidence from Matt, Gareth, Jason, everyone who knew anything about the terrible secret unfolding on earth—he had said. It didn’t matter what they did to him now—the information was out there, it was public. People would be talking about it, swapping recordings. Never mind if they thought him crazy: when Disclosure did happen—just days from now, if Jason was right—people would realize; there would be an alternative explanation out there; and some people would believe it. Not everyone, not by a long shot, but enough. Maybe enough to make a difference.
He didn’t know what he was going to do now. He suspected he wouldn’t have to be the one to make the next move. If Jason was right, everything was about to go to hell in a handcart anyway…
Outside, everything was normal, just as it always had been. People went about their business, cars inched through the traffic, pubs and bars blared out tinny, manufactured pop music into the street. So… normal. It felt unreal.
On the way home he stopped the cab at his favourite deli. “You like my show today, Ali?” he called over the counter, beaming. Ali smiled back, handing over his tapas and falafels, “yes, I did, Phil. It was great. I’d been kicking myself I’d missed it before, so I recorded it this time. You’re a funny guy!”
Phil’s face faltered. “Funny? How d’you mean?”
“The stuff about the fake hairdresser, it was really good. Reminded me of that chap on the telly. Was it really you doing all those voices?”
A gaping abyss opened up in the pit of Phil’s stomach, and he reached out to the counter to steady himself.
“Hey, Phil, you okay, boss? You look like you seen a ghost…”
They hadn’t even broadcast it. They’d let him go through with the entire show, and it had never even gone out. Slowly, all around him, he felt the walls of his world crumbling away, leaving him alone, vulnerable…
He turned, and ran out of the shop, heedless of the protests and shouts behind him.
In the cab his mobile rang. Phil knew who it was even before he answered it.
“Sorry, Mr. Morten. You understand of course we couldn’t let you broadcast. But it’s good to know you’ve taken a side in what’s coming. I admire that in a man.
“I would say sorry about your comrade Mr. Dixon, but as a fellow soldier I’m sure you’ll understand we had to wait for you before we could make a move. Good luck, Mr. Morten. Death or glory, wasn’t it?”
* * *
It was dark at Jason’s place. Even before he got there, he could see the flashing lights. Crime scene. The manhole was taped off, the scene of the crime covered by a tent. A bored looking policeman stood by a wall wearing a dayglo vest and listening to the chatter on his radio. A small crowd of onlookers milled about in the street.
“What happened here?” Phil’s voice was hoarse.
One of the onlookers looked concerned. “Bloody hell, you all right mate?” he said, steadying Phil at the elbow and guiding him to the wall. “You don’t look well at all. Here, come and sit down.”
Phil pushed him away gently, stood up, swaying. “I’m all right. What happened?”
“Right bloody mess. Some kind of psycho, I reckon. They say he took the top of a chap’s head clean off. Left him half out of a manhole, didn’t take nothing, except cleaned out his brain completely. Totally gone. They say the chap was actually living in the drains, too.”
Phil’s eyes burned. He felt numb. He turned, his stomach rising, and staggered off into the night.
* * *
In a living room filled with catalogue furniture Phil lies sprawled on a sofa in front of a TV. Other than the pictures moving on the screen, the scene is utterly static. One of Phil’s arms, flung out at right angles over the edge of the sofa, drips out blood into a large pool on the parquet floor. Phil’s eyes are open—half-open—and flicker, slightly, as his dying heart beats out its final feeble timpani into the otherwise empty room.
On the television, a crowd is gathered on the White House lawn. The President is there, and the world’s media. Everyone is waiting. Then, like a scene from Disneyland or a Steven Spielberg movie—in the background somewhere, a band strikes up—beings come drifting down out of the sky, enormous, semi-humanoid intelligences drifting down on great, gossamer wings. They make one think of crustaceans in some strange way. They land on shining, pinkish claws, and one of them shambles across the lawn to the waiting President, who walks forwards boldly and extends his hand in greeting. The visitor from the stars holds out a bony, crablike claw in return, which the President takes and shakes, warmly. And so, a new age dawns for humankind.
Elsewhere, as night falls, there are explosions, and gunfire, and the buzzing sound of helicopters fills the sky.
Back in March this year I had the great opportunity to take over from Debbie Moorhouse as fiction editor here at the World SF Blog. In the previous months, Debbie had blazed a trail, publishing short fiction works by authors from all over the globe, and naturally I jumped at the chance to help build this increasingly diverse and stimulating resource for speculative fiction fans everywhere.
The past six months have been filled with inspiring submissions exploring the nature of speculative fiction. In my university days I studied Russian and German literature, and have always loved classics from all around the world; but, like many English language readers, my exposure to non-English language speculative fiction—apart from the obvious canon titles—was always lacking. That’s a crazy situation in our increasingly global society, and one I knew needed remedying. That’s why it’s been a delight every week to read the subs to the World SF Blog, excited that my mind is going to be stretched and reshaped in new and unexpected ways.
For me, that’s what the World SF Blog is about. As writers and readers, we love to be exposed to the wildest flights of fancy about what our world is and could be. Here at the blog, anyone writing in English, regardless of whether it’s their first language and whatever their culture of origin, participates in a polyphony. We publish works by writers of all countries, making the site a constant dialectic, discussing and redefining speculative fiction, exposing, explaining, and working magic with cultural backgrounds, archetypes, perspectives.
That’s an editorial challenge. In a former life I was a translator and interpreter of Russian and Japanese, and I’ve a passion for languages. I’m no stranger to the issues of writing in a language that’s not your first language, or of translating your own language into another. When I edit a native English speaker, I view their writing from the perspective of a native speaker. With a non-English speaker, I find their writing sings with cadences, idioms, and structures of another culture, which it would be a crime to try and shoehorn into a rigorous, native English form. Over the past six months I’ve worked with writers to polish pieces, gently nudge turns of phrase, spellings, and word choices, so that they don’t appear jarring or obscure to the reader’s ear, while at the same time preserving the music and internal harmony of the writer’s own language and culture. Lyricism is an integral part of speculative fiction, and it’s essential to help it express itself fully.
Like the past, the future is a foreign country. But its foreignness is the stuff of our dreams and hopes, and sometimes our nightmares and fears. Whether speculative fiction talks about utopias or dystopias, personal experience or cosmic ideas, it offers suggestions for what our world could or should be. Its role as a forum for debating our future is amazingly powerful. Where are we heading? What kind of world do we want to live in? What decisions should our society be making to secure tomorrow?
In my novel Mindjammer I write about a “Mindscape”—a vast, interstellar repository of human memories and knowledge, to which every person is connected. That’s not just a metaphor: the Mindscape is out there, now, and we all access it every day. Over the past two decades it has mutated from an artefact of top-down cultural patronage into a decentralized, anarchic mass mind. The conscience of the human race is now online, and we as its readers and writers are helping to define it. We can allow cacophony and conflict to proliferate, or synthesis, debate, and exchange.
Blogs like the World SF Blog are the arenas for our many voices, visions, and questions. That’s why I hope you’ll continue to send us your flights of fancy and hard-written dreams. And let us know what you think of the stories, too—I’d love to see readers and writers increasingly use the World SF Blog to discuss the engaging ideas expressed here.
So—what sort of submissions are we looking for? Well, I think it’s important to stress that the “SF” in “World SF” refers to speculative fiction of all kinds, and not just science-fiction. In the past six months I’ve seen tales of psychological horror, magical realism, lyrical post-apocalyptic myth, zombies, werewolves, space colonies, archaeology, mystery, and metaphysics cross my desk—all of which are perfect. I haven’t seen much fiction set in more traditional fantasy environments; but, whatever you submit, the “speculative” should be uppermost—tales of the weird, the fantastic, of “what if” and wonder.
Readers—let us know what you like, what you’d like to see more of, or just ideas you have for the blog. Writers—if you’re out there with a beautiful idea or a story to tell, then send it through. It doesn’t matter which country you’re from—we publish works from the “main” English-speaking countries just as much as we do from those for whom English isn’t a first language. Email us, then sit back and wait a few months for us to reply. We’re blessed with a great number of high quality submissions, and it can take us time to get back to you, but rest assured we’re passionate about speculative fiction, and will give your stories every attention they deserve.
Thanks for making my first six months so stimulating and inspiring. Long may it continue!
Fiction Editor, World SF Blog
Today’s Tuesday Fiction is by Ben Godby. Ben writes mysteriously thrilling pseudo-scientific weird western adventure fantasy tales. He lives in Ottawa, Ontario with a girl, two dogs and a cat, and blogs at www.bengodby.com.
This is the story’s first publication.
The Princess and the Shadowspawn
Along the banks of Big Kruarnoth, factories compete to make the loudest din: the forges hiss, assemblies drum, meatpackers scream.
Black hills, gray skies, and fishes witness. It’s been ten thousand years now—unabated.
* * *
A shitty afternoon like all the rest, a rider—lone—emerges. He sits astride a thundercycle: big wheels, big boots, black shining leather ideals. His hair is loose and flies free in a windsphere, a paraphysical channel he has conjured up, a force he summons with his demon speed.
But otherwise, the air is dead round Big Kruarnoth.
The rider’s name is Scorn Defeat. His heart is hard, but wasn’t always: his mother and his father placed a spark, a flame, inside his infant chest, and now—like an oyster—a stone hides in the folds of living flesh. He grips the handlebars with molten knuckles and chivvies the accelerometer in his brain, for he’s brought only one bit of wisdom with him: that you must go very quickly to get nowhere, if from all worlds and landscapes you seek escape.
The thundercycle spits and screams, while the banks of Big Kruarnoth quake and shudder, and call his name.
* * *
Beneath Scorn’s wheels, the desert turns to glass.
Long behind him are Big Kruarnoth and her tributaries, the hills of moldering chlorophyll and those volcanic cliffs of scree, those bracken thickets, hedgerow deadpools, and the chasms of sparkle-deadened gneiss and blackened basalt bands. The earth has become an aqua-mendicant, and yet a river’s tongue still ebbs and flows, and eddies in the pockmarks of Scorn’s soul—not quite as forgettable as the rider once believed.
“Turn back, Scorn,” here spits the sun. “This world is always only wasteland; all ruined hearts and ruined dreams.”
The rider wonders, thinks, denies; his thundercycle laughs, then screams.
The sun, a disc; the sky, a wheel; a blade that’s blue and black as ice, strapped to the back of Scorn Defeat.
* * *
The earth metastasizes at the desert’s end: erratically, black life perfuses. The ochre dunes begin to slip, then stumble, rear, and march toward an ocean that, beyond the bleeding sun’s horizon, stinks of salted bones. Silted tendrils comb the limbus; trees lift their legs out from the muck—unsure, unsown.
The rider has been lulled by lengths of red and yellow sand, and on this border of the land the change is jarring, jolts him awake, though still too late. Scorn’s wheels spin; the heavy metal chassis starts to sizzle, splutter, spark and steam. The rider is immersed in green water that, when he stands, rises barely to his knees.
Scorn spits, and swears, and drags himself beyond the sopping marrow of the bog. Insects titter, and the daylight bats that hunt them pause, rest their eyes upon this interloper, and consider. He stands to let the water sluice free of his jacket, but he can’t stop the swamp-juice leaving stains.
Somewhat drier and halfway calmer, the rider climbs the shallow hill, where he parts the bracken and the boughs and gazes up at the enameled road he just blazed across the sands. His path forms an iridescent track, a highway betwixt the dunes that, soon—as those stolid hills begin to shift—will crack.
He wonders if, along it, someone might follow; if he, or if this swamp, holds something that maybe someone wants. He thrusts his hands below the waterline, sifts the muck, then sniffs it once.
Nothing but the putrid. If something’s here, it’s buried deep. He looks toward the sun, now wrapped in a corona of clouds and atmospheric gauze.
“Perhaps there’s something, down below, for you,” says Scorn. “You have, I think, the time to look.”
He pulls the vehicle from the swamp and drains it. Its pipes piddle on the sodden grasses; its gas tank, never filled, burps with approval. Then, unconcerned the sun was unresponsive, Scorn climbs aboard his cycle, lights the engine, tests the boiler, then through the mangroves and the deadfall passes.
* * *
Twilight descends just as Scorn finds the town. At first he thinks it must be an illusion. Wooden frames, thatched roofs and gables; water pumping, cattle braying; Scorn finds himself amidst a panoply of village sights and village sounds.
In the face of this domesticity, he kills the engine, slows his thundercycle down.
“BONEDUST,” reads a sign. And: “WARNING: THOSE THAT LEAVE SHALL NOT LEAVE ALIVE.”
Scorn wonders how the village ever got its name, when it’s so near those fens of groundwaters deep and soils moist. He’s seized by an instinct: he tests the blade that the sun made upon his back, and tastes its ice.
That, too, a riddle—though only such as life.
The sun is setting, yonder, among the rifts of distant hills: a yellow hulk, and midnight mounds.
* * *
Two steel rails run straight from nowhere and onwards through the village square. The railroad rests on ties of timber, stained with blood, and the ballast is of bones. They are the diplomats of industry, and Scorn hates the feeling he feels of home.
The village is now settled with a silence deadly (long gone, or never were, those phantasmagorical pastoral sounds). Shadows rule the alleys which are more numerous than the dwellings, from which windows lurch and shudder as though their casements were alive. The shopfronts yawn, awaiting produce, and the rails run too plumb and narrow—as though modeled on some equation straighter. Beyond the limits of the village they enter forests hot and deep, and, somewhere beyond them: a castle on a rotten hillside, very dark.
A cuckoo-clock goes off somewhere, chiming nine.
The forest’s lips grumble, smack, and lick—then open wide.
“Help!” a weak voice cries. “You must save me, interloper, or else surely I’ll die!”
Scorn cuts Bonedust’s welded air with his blade, sending azure tracers through the sky. He ponders this gutless reaction without conclusion before he looks; then, there, in that window of that tower, that slender claw of black and broken stones that stands from here not very far (a dozen steps from anyplace would get Scorn there), he sees her drift among the lintels, like a curtain: nocturnal wisp, a midnight willow, some unfortunately fallen star.
The rider wonders if he hasn’t been equipped just for this—if Providence is not an overarching plan, but rather like a guiding fist restricted to the heroes and the heroines of myth. The sword, his thundercycle, and Big Kruarnoth refute all other explanations, and, like a mollusc wrenched from water, Scorn’s flesh—for better or for worse—tastes air.
“I wouldn’t think, if I were you, of doing anything so daring.”
Scorn spins, his weapon once more fighting for him. A man in black—cowled, leering—stands just beyond the village clearing.
“Who are you?” snarls Scorn.
The cowled man pauses, smirks, considers. “Azdrobanus?” he says at length. “Mecrathanthum. Gillee-Talril, or maybe Est-Ton-Bal-Rol.”
The sun has set quite completely now, and a sudden cool sets Scorn’s blade to dripping. His fingers clench the frozen hilt. The creature laughs.
“More important: lord of Bonedust, and chief engineer.” He stamps the railway, which straightens. Then he again considers. “Necromancer. King of Darkness. Enemy of All That’s Living. And my daughter, Sweetly, is not for the taking.”
“Help me, Scorn!” the princess screams—his name written on his face like in all ages.
For that one moment—the duration of her sylvan voice—Scorn feels transported. The clatter, the hammering, the ignominious deafening, that din, that song, that wretched hurlyburly known as Big Kruarnoth that roils in his heart is then dead, and buried—its grave site lost.
“You cannot stop me,” says Scorn Defeat.
Azdrobanus moves too freely, his body melding angles easily; antiquity is painted on his face like some infernal scar. “If I can’t, well… they surely will.”
Scorn looks around. The moon passes over Bonedust luminously, and in the village alleys, shadows… scraping sounds. Yellow pupils in green setting; mouths breathe fire, begin to glow.
Scorn shivers. The sword has been reduced to snow-leather grips and hoarfrost crosspiece: the nexus of an implement not present. The princess leans out from her window, but he can’t bear to see her now.
“Leave and don’t come back,” says Azdrobanus, “or they’ll remove you.” He grins slyly: lupine teeth in goblin visage. “Please don’t make me tell you how.”
* * *
Beyond the edge of Bonedust village, Scorn Defeat lies tossing, turning, and in certain lucid moments dreaming. The starlight wheels; his cycle purrs while gently sleeping.
“Why did I come here?” wonders Scorn. He stands and looks east, south, west and north: so many variations on the path he might have taken.
And yet his destination, he wonders—thinks—denies—believes—could be no different.
In his chest, a spark—a flame—is licking at live flesh again. What was it that his parents said—so ordered, clipped, regurgitated? Spoken in the language of machines, a dialectic that some men and women esteemed godly lore. An explanation: how things ought to be.
“Louder, louder,” and, “always, forever;” until the day a thundercycle rode up the banks of Big Kruarnoth, bearing Scorn Defeat. Across moldering hills, volcanic cliffs, bracken thickets and deadpool hedgerows, chasms of sparkle-deadened gneiss and blackened basalt bands, unto these midnight porticoes that stand just beyond the sands.
Scorn leaps to his feet and kicks his vehicle alive. His hilt spits a blade of fire, now; the thundercycle roars, and, with a voice of pistons pounding, Scorn cries.
“The future will burn what’s come before!”
* * *
The town of Bonedust lies silent underneath the waning moon. Nocturnal vistas propped on alleys are predicated on blind ends, and stir in languor; the air that winds around in cul-de-sacs snaps and snarls its own heels, while Scorn’s thundercycle’s engines boom.
Rubber screeches on the pave-stones, leaving black tracks on the graying monoliths. “Princess!” Scorn Defeat goes crying. “Princess Sweetly, trapped in yonder tower tall!”
The girl appears, a ragged mist; her face is neither energized nor listless. She seems to brighten, shedding lumens, gathering a blood-fresh humor, coinciding with the vision of this black-clad hero at her prison door.
“Have you come to rescue me?”
“Of course. My heart is melting! Never have I ’til now been living. Now let a ladder down, or else open up this wooden door; and flee, we shall, from Bonedust and our fathers’ stolid worlds, together, on towards a future without ceilings, without floors.”
“Scorn!” the Princess cries, now pointing. Scorn turns to watch the dancing yellow dots and listen to the scraping sounds—picking from the outside, inward—that, moving quickly, thwart the village square, spelling doom.
“Come, night monsters!” calls Scorn Defeat. His hands hold nothing, though he wields his sword, and his hair flies freely in a windsphere—a channel conjured by his motions and his striding forth. “I do not fear you. This princess shall be freed, and we shall live in peace forevermore.”
“Kill him!” Azdrobanus shouts. His voice echoes and assaults the air as though spoken from a thousand mouths—even though, at this late hour, he’s no more visible than a mote of dust, some fungal spore.
Skeletons and zombies crawl, and stagger-shudder, invite each other in their myriad droning mutters to come along on this their midnight stroll. They’ve been frozen, preserved, re-animated, and now enact their master’s vicious commands.
But Scorn’s got the breath of life inside him—the kind of life that’s stronger for once being dead.
With battle cries he cuts them down, and bludgeons them and strips their bones. There’s a fire burning somewhere, and a rod of ice that gleams; but at this late hour his sword is no more solid than his sorrow, or his shame.
Bodies pile in night’s shadowed corners; the ballast of the railway is buttressed more. Scorn stumbles through the shamblers, creepers, revenants and all these ghosts of yore, and fights his way back, returns to the base of the tower and its door.
It is Azdrobanus, his body taking shape.
“I’ll kill you, too,” says Scorn, a rictus scowling. “I’ve cut through all your deathly lore.”
“I’ll kill the Princess,” says Azdrobanus, grinning black through midnight’s spoor. “You think I wouldn’t? I hold her breath, just as you are master of your sword. Bonedust is my realm, Scorn, and you are just a wanderer within it.”
“I don’t believe you could kill her,” stammers Scorn—not sure what it was that clenched and tightened in his chest. “No, not your daughter. That would be worse even than fratricide, or the killing of my parents. There’s limits even when it comes to hate.”
“Ah, Scorn, your words are fine, but you understand it all too well—the bond that links a parent and their children, and how those ties do ebb, regress, and flow. Now look!”
From the window, some feeble cry: the Princess dangles, her body limp, her eyes wide and harrowed.
“No!” cries Scorn. “What are you doing? Without her, life is not worth living.”
“Is it? I wouldn’t know. But I’ll trust to your judgment if you trust mine. See, you can help me. Scorn, please understand: through that forest yonder I must pass. And yet, there’s something, some diurnal aberration, an abyssal darkness too unlike and like me, that guards the way to that very castle’s door.”
Scorn slowly turns, now unbelieving, to regard the sloping, wooded maw. He sees, as dawn begins to pale, the bodies strewn across the forest floor. Twisted rails and shattered stumps tell the tale of their work so far.
“Find me some way up that hill… and the girl is yours.”
“You’ll keep your word?” Scorn says, desperate.
“I will, if you can keep your life.”
Scorn ponders this and thinks it’s fair: better, yes, by far, indeed, than to live alone or on the banks of Big Kruarnoth, making noise with breath and deed.
He leaves Azdrobanus and his kidnapped daughter in his wake, and walks upon that ill-conceived and dreadful road with his pace now unsteady, now unsure. The castle looms, beneficent in all benighted glory. Scorn looks back toward the village.
“What did you say it was?” he shouts back, brushing icicles from his whiskers and his face. “This thing, this monster lurking in the forest?”
“I do not know,” says Azdrobanus, his voice a whisper swept upon the wind. “You’ll tell me when you’ve killed it.”
Scorn considers, disappears.
“Oh, Father,” mourns the wispy child, her virgin bosom heaving now. She still is crooked, strange, and brutal, hanging from her window like a ragdoll, the spell still cast. “What if Scorn Defeat does not return?”
Azdrobanus doesn’t answer… shrugs.
“Then another, we must assume, will come along.”
* * *
The wood stinks of must and loneliness; of rusted iron, calcified verdigris. There’s rotting matter lying on the ground, that—with time—will seep into the earth, and revivify it.
The trees all dangle, hunchbacked and calloused; the ferns bunch in groups, except for the occasional stray that’s wandered off in a desperate bid for solitude, or in response to some socio-botanical ostracism. These loners are sometimes fuller, capturing the forest’s paucity of nutrients for themselves; but alone, still, they are less impressive than the groups.
The air is cloying, and the rails run, run on, and run out.
Shadows play in dawn’s faint light, but as yet they spawn no interlocutor for Scorn to face. Ahead, the forest rises, sweeping up the hill like a blanket covering a giant. The castle rears, stoic and hard, a block of masonry that from where it sits atop the hill will not be moved.
The broken ground is fixed again, nature having reclaimed the spaces that the workers fought for. Scorn goes further; then, losing himself in the forest dawn, slugs the air. It covets him with heat and sweat, though inside he cannot warm enough. He tears apart his jacket, casts the leather down; ties his hair up for a moment before unleashing it again, for now he’s cold. This particular stretch of wild has something in its makeup, as though the very atmosphere were unclear.
He climbs up the slope, unsteady still, until he’s reached the top. The castle looms, a morning shadow; a low keening flies from darkened windows, some kind of din, fantastic and quite overbearing, that seeks to crush his spirit, turn its vane against the wind.
Or only, perhaps, to invite him in.
Scorn scowls, grabs his chest, and pries it open. Meatpackers scream; the pistons deep inside it growl and grind his name.
* * *
With dawn breaking over broken hills, and sunlight chasing undead ills, the forest groans and spits forth a warrior clad in black.
He looks the same, all chains and leathers; and still the grime of riding long and hard—without purpose, goal, or tactics—stains the space along his inner thighs. His hair is windblown and his cheeks are frozen fast.
He comes along the path to Bonedust, ignores the wizard at the lintel, and goes inside to gather up his Princess, Sweetly, for all time.
* * *
“Is something wrong, Scorn?” the Princess asks. “Something eating at your mind?”
Scorn stares out the window, toward a castle dark in deep forest; but all he hears is pistons, clanging, hammering out his name.
The Princess sighs and slumps in her chair. The dark tower with its broken fingers, its ragged claws, she has remade. There is fresh white wash across the stones, wainscoting, countertops, and brand new devices imported from the banks of Big Kruarnoth—across the wild land and the desert’s inland sea.
“What’s wrong, Scorn? For God’s sake, tell me! Ever since you slew that thing, that spawn of shadow…”
“That was nothing,” Scorn rasps, half-dreaming. His eyes are drifting, gaze ranging out the window—toward the rumpled, broken land.
“Nothing? Not at all! It had trumped my father—bastard though he is—for far too long. And you, with your bravery and guile, your aptitudes heroic, did defeat it.”
Scorn laughs. Then he chokes, turns to gaze upon his wife. “Nothing there,” he whispers.
“Nothing there?” The Princess pales. “Whatever do you mean?”
“There was nothing there!” screams Scorn Defeat. The whole tower shudders, shivers, quakes—though not for Scorn nor for his anger, but rather on account of falling beneath the yonder castle’s gaze. The sun, falling through the window, casts its blade upon the hero, that icy rod of puissance mighty; but on the hill that fortress waxes under spells still darkly—each brick mortared with a sticky shame.
“There was nothing there,” he whispers again. “Just the forest… some clever ruse…” He looks at the princess with hooded eyes. “Some aspect incomplete.”
“Then what…” The girl is fearful; swallows. “What happened in those dappled maples, among the darkling shrubs and bushes?”
“Look in my eyes, girl, and tell me, please: does anything—anything, anything at all—still remain?”
The Princess is backed into a corner by her husband’s deep gunmetal eyes. In them—in all their swirling grayness, flecks of whiteness and their pupils’ utter blackness—is surging the waveform crucible of that song: the banging, slamming, ringing tones of maritime manufactory. The banks of Big Kruarnoth, dread and total, in his eyes even while he sleeps.
And in the shadows of those surging verges, fishes watch, and something spawns; though the Princess, bless her, will never—ever—quite know how to speak its name.
“Yes, Scorn, my very darling,” the Princess whispers (shrinking further), “I think that something—something—must still, forever… always… remain.”
* * *
Along the banks of Big Kruarnoth, the factories compete in many games. The spark of life and screams of death are, to them, just One, and Same.
The tower down in Bonedust will one day begin to crumble, its stone-cut tendril-fingers reaching for the village floor. A castle, mired amongst the forest, casts its shadows over lands now listless; and a princess, on the hilltop, has been buried there in vain.
And of Scorn Defeat, his princess, and the Shadowspawn that bound them, one wonders whether something, anything, or nothing, might be, or has been, or will one day still remain.