The Five Lords: Seeing the World

To celebrate hitting 50,000 words on my latest draft of The Five Lords, here’s another scene for you to experience with your eyeballs. This is separate to the scene I posted here a few months back; where before we were with Koron and his captors on the continent of Caras, this scene takes place in Kantis, the eastern continental neighbour of Caras. The scene is part of several Interregnums spaced throughout the story, where characters across the world, far away from our protagonists, show how they’re surviving the aftermath of the Great Punishment.

 

Enjoy!


 

Image taken from Most Beautiful Places: http://mostbeautifulplacesintheworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Winter-sun-at-Broadway-Tower-by-skipnclick.jpg
Image taken from Most Beautiful Places: http://mostbeautifulplacesintheworld.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Winter-sun-at-Broadway-Tower-by-skipnclick.jpg

 

It was a beautiful morning for all of Kantis.

            In Mimia’s mind, that was saying something. Kantis was the second-largest continent in the world, succeeded only by their western neighbours of Caras. The nation itself consisted of a multitude of ecological zones and weather systems; one city-state could be falling victim to the fiercest storm known to mankind, whilst another on the opposite end of the continent could be enjoying perfect seaside weather. For the day to be unilaterally gorgeous for all parts of Kantis was no small feat.

            Mimia knew the day was so good because she consulted her World Bowl, filled to the midway with Seeing Water. It cast her gaze high above the countries of the Kantis Empire, giving her a Lord’s-Eye view of the ground. No clouds, no rain, no encroaching storms. As far as she could tell, Kantis was in for one of the best days it had ever been gifted since the Punishment.

            She smiled, leaning back in her rocking chair, the World Bowl on the table in front of her. The room was at the top of the local Seer’s Tower, several kilometres inland from Kantis’s easternmost shore. The town of Kalab, famed in old days for its spicy food and hospitable locals, lay in ruins not six hundred metres from where the Tower stood.

            The thought of that made her smile ebb a little, but not much. A good day meant the Five – or, at least, one or two of them – were pleased.

            Loud footsteps from the Tower’s staircase told her Strenna had returned from her hunt. Sure enough, the younger woman reached the top of the stairs with an expertly-slain deer wrapped around her shoulders. She deposited it on the floor in front of Mimia’s table wordlessly, then took a long gulp from the water pitcher on the mantelpiece.

            ‘How many were there?’ Mimia asked, leaning back and closing her eyes for a moment. The breeze from outside gently kissed at her cheeks pleasantly.

            Strenna swallowed loudly, then regained her breath. ‘I counted sixteen, at least. This one was a little slow.’ She prodded the deer gently with the tip of her boot. ‘We should be fine for a few days.’

            Mimia nodded slowly, eyes still closed. ‘Can you remember the last time we had a breeze like this?’

            Strenna put down the pitcher and stepped out onto the balcony. From there, Mimia knew she had a full view of the ocean, the shore and the border jungles that lined it for kilometres. The younger woman stood there a moment before turning back to Mimia and wryly remarking, ‘Doesn’t take much to make you happy, does it?’

            ‘Not these days, no.’

            ‘Good. Means I don’t have to try hard.’ More footsteps told Mimia that Strenna had walked over to the table, probably to peer into the World Bowl. She confirmed that by asking, ‘See anything good today?’

            ‘Only the lovely day ahead of us.’

            ‘What did you give up for it?’

            Mimia opened her eyes, regarding Strenna with sardonic expression. ‘If I could tell you, I would.’

            ‘Uh huh.’ Strenna flicked a finger through the water. ‘Seems an odd price.’

            ‘Maybe. But it’s worth paying. I’ve told you that the last fifteen times.’

            ‘If I could, you know I’d throw this thing out,’ Strenna said seriously.

            ‘You’ve told me that the last fifteen times, too.’

            ‘Yeah, well, history has a way of repeating.’ Irritated, the younger woman went down to start skinning the deer. Her knife flashed quickly into her hand before making the first cut.

            ‘Do you really have to do that here?’ Mimia asked lightly.

            Strenna grunted in the affirmative. ‘Might attract bandits if they see me downstairs. I think I saw tracks near one of the jungles.’

            That wasn’t good. Mimia hadn’t presumed they’d be found so quickly. Granted, Strenna might only have seen animal tracks that looked like those of ruffians, but it was better not to take chances. They’d have maybe one more day before they’d have to leave.

            They still hadn’t found what Mimia had come here for, and the nearest Seer’s Tower was six days by horse gallop. Time was running out.

            ‘Are you sure they were bandits?’ she asked.

            ‘Pretty sure,’ Strenna replied, cutting off parts of the deer’s flank.

            ‘How sure is pretty sure?’

            ‘Decent chance. Why?’

            ‘I need to know for certain.’

            ‘Then use the Bowl.’

            That startled Mimia. In the four months since they’d first met and started traveling together, Strenna had never suggested using the Bowl as an option for anything. Fifteen separate conversations had given Mimia fifteen impressions that Strenna disapproved of using it. But now she’d apparently changed her mind, and in the space of a few seconds, no less.

            Strenna seemed to catch that she’d thrown Mimia a little. ‘I’m allowed to change my mind, y’know.’

            ‘Of course,’ Mimia said, ‘but it’s just…surprising.’

            The knife cut more off the deer, peeling skin back from the pink, raw muscle underneath. ‘You’re clearly intent on using it to find what you’re looking for. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from you, it’s that you can’t be shaken from a path once you start walking it.’

            Mimia smiled lightly. Good thing she’s learned something, at least. ‘It’s for the greater good.’

            ‘Sure it is.’ Strenna didn’t sound convinced. ‘Just do your thing, if you’re gonna do it.’

            It seemed trivial, now Mimia thought about it, but she couldn’t go outside if there really were ruffians out there. The power of the Bowl was only meant for strong magical purposes, given what it took to use it. But hadn’t she only just now used it to see the weather, itself a trivial thing these days?

            It’s beautiful. But maybe that’s a key.

            To see the tracks from here would not require a large memory. The weather today, and the picturesque view of Kantis, would do.

            Mimia clasped both hands to the rim, filled her mind with the memory of seeing Kantis, and poured it into the Bowl.

            What little of the water that had been flicked out when Strenna drew her finger through it returned. The clear water was replaced by the image of sand, small dunes piled near a beaten dirt path. Small footprints led across them, from out of the image and into the nearby jungle. She leaned in, looking closer, and saw…

            Yes. Definitely bandits; humans, at any rate. Those tracks were too narrow to be any local animal.

            Mimia stood from the table, walked around Strenna’s dressing of the deer and pulled the doors of the balcony shut. ‘We’re staying in today, and tonight. We’ll leave in the morning.’

            Strenna nodded, seemingly unsurprised. ‘Shame. It’s going to be such a nice day today.’

            ‘Oh,’ Mimia frowned, moving back to the table, ‘is it?’

            The water had gone clear again.

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The Five Lords: People Skills

I’ve been writing a story for the past couple of years. It’s the beginning of what I hope will be an epic pentalogy of medieval fantasy and fantasy western (that’ll make more sense once you read the finished story). Notice I said ‘hope’ in that last sentence; there is every possibility this story, once complete, will be a confusing mess of self-indulgent confusingness. The fact that I use words like confusingness should clue you in to the lack of writing caliber present in this story.

The series is called The Five Lords, named after the five androgynous gods who watch over humanity. The first book, Storms, takes place a few months after an event called the Great Punishment; the Five have destroyed most of humanity, at the height of their hubris and selfishness. Small pockets of survivors eke out livings and attempt to find homes, while others subsist on indulging whatever pursuits they wish in this newly unconstrained and blighted world.

One of the latter is Koron of Burning Sigil. He’s a Brother of the Blood, an ancient order of mystic swordfighters with strict ritual practices and beliefs (think if the Jedi were crossed with Shaolin monks, only a little more jerkish and possessed of the super-blood of Claire from Heroes). Koron was part of a group of survivors, but he’s been cast out for various reasons and is now spending his days hunting wild animals. Because, really, why not?


Image taken from Laughing Crow Permaculture: https://laughingcrowpermaculture.wordpress.com/2011/02/22/a-linguistic-permaculture-of-the-oak/

He’d walked for days.

            This was not the worst situation he’d ever found himself in – in terms of the immediate surroundings, anyway. He wasn’t stranded without a horse in the Abranthi Desert, nor was he at the bottom of a mine shaft in Skalleck. He was walking through a forest not far from Ascoth, with a full pack and waterskin on his person, a sharp sword on his back. In terms of where he physically was in the world, this was not as bad as things had been before.

            But right now, he could not think of a worse time in his life. His Brother was dead. The camp had abandoned him. Commander Drake would probably kill him if they ever met again. As far as Koron knew, he was the last surviving Brother of the Blood. The mythologies and lessons of an ancient, powerful order older than most of the rest of the world now rested solely with him.

            Koron did not want that responsibility. Right now, he did not want any responsibility. Right now, he wanted to kill something.

            He’d found an appropriate target last night; a scather lizard, long and quadripedal. Its lengthy tongue had probed around several trees during the day, gathering food for the family Koron knew must be nesting somewhere nearby. Scather lizards usually left their nest for days at a time, returning with enough food stored in their digestive pouch for the young to survive for weeks.

            The lizard, in full daylight, was a dark, burnished yellow with the odd black or brown scale, like a badly roasted cob of corn. It had light violet eyes above a wide mouth that hid a long, sticky purple tongue. The tongue snagged food – insects and small animals, usually – and swallowed it into the digestive pouch, where it would be slowly suffocated until it could be regurgitated for the younger lizards.

            The pouch was on a particular side for the lizards – left for male, right for female – and became engorged the more the lizard swallowed. This one’s pouch was on the left, and looked fairly full. That told Koron the nest was close by. It might have seemed ruthless to be hunting this lizard and its family; scather lizards had no edible meat or use for their scales. They were considered a pest given how frequently they consumed other wildlife, and the caustic secretion on their tongues had been to known to have a deleterious effect on human skin.

            So he stalked the scather lizard, resting a hand gently on the dagger Ordo had allegedly used to kill himself. The sword would have been overkill, and right now Koron relished a challenge.

            The lizard ponderously waddled towards a giant crack in an ancient greatoak a few feet away. It squirmed against the ill-made opening, squeezing its bulk through and slipping its tail in quietly afterwards. Koron bent his head towards the tree trunk, hearing tiny little cries and snaps alongside the repulsive regurgitation sound the parent lizard made as it gave its children its hard-hunted food. The little cries became muted as the babies started eating.

            To kill this scather lizard and its family may have been somewhat strange, possibly even cruel. He doubted Ordo would have approved. But then, like Drake had said, things weren’t up to Ordo where Koron was concerned anymore. He could hunt and kill a bunch of lizards if he wanted. Who could stop him now?

            He slowly unsheathed the dagger and prepared to stalk towards the trunk. The lizards kept eating, and it was only through his Blood-enhanced hearing that Koron heard the arrow whistle towards him.

            He threw himself backwards and onto the floor of the forest, the arrow just narrowly missing his nose and striking the ground a short distance to his left. In response, he replaced Ordo’s dagger and retrieved a throwing knife; the blade travelled end-over-end in the direction the arrow had shot from, towards a cluster of ferns. There was a dull thud, followed by something heavy hitting the underbrush.

            Koron’s hand was already firmly grasping the hilt of his sword, swinging it over from the sheath at his back. He held it two-handed and charged into the underbrush, swordtip aimed ahead of him. No colour besides the dark and muted autumnal leaves greeted his eyes, and thus no confirmation of a kill from his throwing knife. He stepped into the ferns where his knife had flown, heart pumping, eyes searching frantically.

            Come on, you whoreson. Shoot a man while he’s

            There. He saw it; a body lying face-first, its legs splayed. It had obviously been caught mid-run. The dull glint of sunlight reflecting off metal in the back of the body told him where his throwing knife had gone.

            Koron smirked, a little disappointed. That had been too easy. He’d’ve preferred a chase, maybe even a duel. Something to liven up his current state of mind.

            His sword went back into its sheath while he stepped up to examine the body. With a quick motion he retrieved the throwing knife, embedded almost as hard into the body’s back as if he’d stabbed the person close-up. The corpse wore dull brown clothes, nothing terribly interesting. Probably an idiot bandit who thought I’d be an easy mark.

            He started to shift the body over onto its back, but stopped halfway. The figure had no face, but rather a stitched calico flat that had been rounded and stuff with something firm. A dummy.

            He rose from his crouch, hand rising to his sword again. Before he could brush the metal, there was a click behind him. It sounded an awful lot like a crossbow.

            ‘I really wouldn’t,’ a woman’s voice warned him from behind.

            Koron closed his eyes slowly, gritting his teeth. Taken in by an elementary trick. Idiot. ‘Crossbows don’t fire arrows,’ he observed.

            ‘No, they don’t,’ the assailant agreed. ‘This one does, though.’

            ‘Horseshit,’ Koron told her. ‘You’ve got friends nearby.’

            ‘A foul mouth on this one!’ the woman called out. ‘We’d best keep our manners about!’

            Five figures dropped from the trees, each dressed in clothing similar to the dummy. Koron made out three women and two men; the women all held crossbows, one of the men carried a yew longbow, and the last man had both hands on the hilt of a sheathed broadsword at his waist. Everything looked unremarkable about them except for the last man’s sword, which made Koron’s eyes widen slightly.

            The pommel bore a very distinctive purple gemstone, reflecting the light as brilliantly as a flaming torch in a darkened cave. The sheen of it was known as heartlight, named not for the organ but for the feeling it instilled in people who looked at it. Those of righteous disposition were bolstered by its luminescence, whilst those of a fearful or evil nature had their inherent cowardice amplified.

            Heartlight gems were as rare as they were invaluable, and usually only found in the pommels of swords belonging to king, queens and their retinue. Koron’s enhanced sight allowed him to see the edge of a bird’s wing sigil wrapped around the hilt, twining the edge of its feathers into the metal of the pommel.

            This man was, or had been, a guardsman of the King in Ravensweep. Given the weathered sword, he judged the man to have been fairly high within the guardsmen hierarchy. Maybe even a Guard Captain himself.

            Should that garner respect, or scorn? It wasn’t as if non-Blood lessers were entirely worthy of his respect. The Blood were above and beyond simple mortality. Even with a Heartlight gem – which would not affect Koron in the slightest – this man was probably nothing special now. It wasn’t as if he had a King to guard anymore.

            The others all watched intently as the lead guardsman, hands still resting at his hilt, strode forward confidently to look Koron up and down. The man was tall, lean and weathered like his sword. A salt-and-pepper beard framed a strong chin beneath faded charcoal hair. His knuckles, in prominent view on the sword hilt, were scarred from countless fistfights. He smirked, but not in a condescending fashion, his sky blue eyes glittering. ‘What’s a sworn Brother doing this far from the Temple?’

            The armour and sigil on Koron’s own sword probably gave it away. He suppressed the urge to bite off a retort. ‘Hunting.’

            ‘You mean that thing?’ The guardsman pointed in the direction of the greatoak trunk containing the scather lizard. ‘Not going to get much meat from him.’

            ‘I didn’t say I was hunting for food.’

            ‘True,’ the lead guardsman admitted, stroking his beard thoughtfully. ‘Does the Brother have a name, or should we make one up for him?’

            ‘My name,’ Koron shot back, quicker than he’d intended, ‘is go fuck yourself.’

            The others laughed quietly, right before the woman holding him hostage slapped him across the back of the head. It stung in the cool afternoon breeze. Koron ground his teeth and closed his eyes, opening them once the stinging subsided. She had one hell of a slap in her.

            ‘Well, Go Fuck Yourself,’ the lead guardsman said amusedly, ‘my name is Steth. My companions are Ansel, Kem, Jessa and Karryll. The one with the bow at your back is Tal.’

            For emphasis, Tal pressed the end of the crossbow bolt hard into Koron’s back. ‘Hello.’

            What a merry band of jolly robbers. ‘Wonderful. I’m sure I’ll forget those names in due course.’

            Tal slapped him again, harder this time. He felt it might leave a lump once it subsided. The others laughed again, Steth joining them this time.

            I swear, Koron promised himself, they’ll all lie bloodied at my feet when they let me go.

            ‘You’re not a very likeable young man, are you?’ Steth observed. ‘Far too quick to condemn and threaten. I’d be more accommodating to your captors, were I you.’

            Koron glared at him. ‘Good thing you’re not me, then.’

            ‘Also true. For one thing, I’m much prettier. I would like to get to know you, though.’

            ‘What for?’

            Steth shrugged, seeming far too nonchalant. ‘It’s not every day that one of the Blood strays across our path. Even rarer that we find one without a sibling present. I thought your kind hunted in pairs?’

            So they think as lowly of me as I do of them. Excellent. At least there’s that common ground. ‘Who says I came alone?’

            ‘We’ve been watching you for the past half-day.’ The other man with them – Ansel, was it? – piped up. ‘There’s no-one but us and you for kilometres around. We move fast in the trees.’

            ‘So you’re elf-born, as well as stupid?’ Koron spat.

            Ansel raised an eyebrow. ‘Stupid?’

            ‘You’ve captured a Brother of the Blood. The Five don’t look kindly on that sort of thing.’

            ‘Last I checked,’ Steth cut in, ‘the Five Lords in general weren’t really to do with your Brothers and Sisters, were they? That was more a Lord of Blood thing, specifically. Hence the name, I guess.’

            This man bore himself with near-regal air; there was no doubt in Koron’s mind that he was of high birth, almost certainly an upper-ranked guardsman from Ravensweep. He commanded immediate respect from the others, and they all interacted convivially whilst following his orders. But he was too casual, speaking in a way that one might reserve for a conversation between men at a bar. He was observing things about Koron like Morgan might, without the slightly crazed undertones. Had Steth been a full Guard Captain, he should have beaten Koron bloody at the first quip and left him broken in their wake. Ravensweep Guards had a reputation as being swift and brutal when necessary, especially if their honour was impugned.

            Not this man. He simply nodded, looking away more thoughtfully as he pondered his observation about the Five. He happened to be right – Koron’s brethren and the Lord were not same-named by coincidence – but Koron wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction of knowing that.

            ‘You think we should just kill him?’ Tal asked calmly, prodding him again with the crossbow. ‘I don’t think he’ll be saying much with fists or friendship from us.’

            ‘True,’ Ansel agreed. ‘Might as well kill him and be on our way.’

            Koron laughed bitterly. ‘So much for high and noble guardsmen.’

            Steth blinked. ‘Excuse me?’

            ‘You’d kill a man you find in a forest,’ Koron replied, ‘and call yourselves noble. I wonder what your King might think, were he still alive.’

            There was a long, protracted moment of silence from all six of them. Koron grinned, having finally hit a nerve. Quite pleased with himself that he’d managed-

            ‘Who said we’re here from the King?’ Steth asked.

            Koron’s grin vanished. ‘What?’

            ‘Who said,’ Steth repeated, ‘that we’re here because of any King?’

            ‘Or Queen, for that matter,’ Tal added.

            Steth nodded. ‘Or Queen. Tell me, who said that at any point?’

            It was a rare moment where Koron was temporarily lost for words. He tried to recover quickly, lest they think this an unexpected weakness. ‘Your sword. That Heartlight gem could only be wielded by one of intense emotional affect. It’s given to Guard Captains in Ravensweep.’

            Steth examined the purple gemstone thoughtfully, as if viewing it for the first time. ‘Yes. That is true, isn’t it?’ He pulled the sword from its sheathe and examined the light reflecting off the glinting blade. ‘Usually those we come across are deferential when they see this. They think, “Oh, thank the Five! Ravensweep is here to save us!” They don’t usually swear and threaten to kill us. It makes the whole thing much easier.’

            A sinking feeling crept into Koron’s gut. ‘What whole thing?’

            Now it was Steth’s turn to grin, and it was a wholly unsettling expression to be seen on a face that, only a moment, had been jovial and friendly. ‘We’re building something.’

            ‘Something grand,’ Ansel added.

            One of the other women – Kem, maybe – chimed in with, ‘Something that has never been done before.’

            ‘And we need people to do it,’ Tal said from behind Koron’s ear.

            ‘Lots of people,’ one of the other women, Jessa, supplied.

            ‘Quite a lot of people, actually,’ Steth clarified. His sword went back into the sheath. ‘I took this from my employer after the Great Punishment, because she told me it would make things easier. Worth its weight in gold, it is.’ He tapped the hilt appreciatively. ‘But clearly it won’t work on you. Must be that wretched Blood in your veins.’

            Koron lips curled back in a snarl. ‘If you’d like, I could show you what it can really do.’

            ‘A tempting, if violent, offer, but I don’t think so,’ Steth refused. ‘I think I’d rather just take you with us to the building site. You’ll understand soon enough. You’ll probably even thank us, in fact.’

            Tal hauled Koron up and held him fast, the crossbow still nuzzling his back. She took her other hand and deftly unclasped the belt holding his sword to his back, before grabbing it by the sheath and tossing it to Karryll. ‘Don’t touch the hilt,’ Tal warned as Karryll caught it. Then, to Ansel she said, ‘Would you mind?’

            The big man strode forward, long locks of lanky, dirty blonde hair waving in motion. He reached out a massive hand cautiously, retrieving Ordo’s ritual knife from Koron’s waist. As Ansel slipped it into his own belt, Koron’s anger levels tripled. They’d kidnapped him for an insidious construction project, and now they’d taken his Brother’s knife away.

            Yes. They will all die. Somehow, some way, I will kill them all.

            ‘Any other weapons on your person?’ Steth asked casually.

            Other than my trained, bare fists and years of knife-honed combat reflexes, you mean? Koron smirked wryly. ‘Go to hell.’

            Steth matched his expression, then walked towards him. ‘Silly man. I’ve been there already.’

            He rammed his fist into Koron’s head, leaving the Brother to take residence within the utter blackness.

Vail

 

A long time ago, before my writing was good and the state of current creativity wasn’t so appallingly awful, I wrote a little story called Intersections. I had the self-indulgence to write personal reviews of my own work, which, while finished, ended up becoming a mess of plot holes and lacklustre characterisation.
 
Then, I wrote a second draft. The plot holes were better this time round, but it all still felt a bit flat on the whole. You’d probably have gotten more enjoyment from an episode of Neighbours than what that had to offer.
 
Well, they say the third time’s the charm.
 
***
 
The place smelled like shit.
            That’s the only thing that warred in my mind with the desire to finish my job; this place really stank. The plaza, fashioned of sandstone and crowded with milling patrons, gave off an odour that made my slimy old CO smell like fresh milk. I could never work out why he kept using that fucking cologne, it made my nose want to bleed out in protest.
            I wasn’t supposed to be focusing on that pungency, nor the baking Tezra sun burning down on my back. There are times and places where leather body armour isn’t economical to wear, and this was fast turning into one of them. A couple more hours and I’d be a human-sized baked potato.
            No, I wasn’t supposed to focus on that. I was intent on my target, that slippery little bastard somewhere within the throng of gormless shoppers. You’d think civilisation would’ve reached this place by now, with the great and glorious MD running shit these days, but everything still looks and smells like the place is run by camels. It should’ve been way easier right now to find the Prisoner here than it was trying to track him on one of the Civilised Worlds – after all, unless he’s wearing a potato sack he’d be hard to miss.
            Not that I wasn’t sticking out like a sore thumb with the aforementioned leather outfit, but no-one seemed to care. Thank God for ignorantly-oblivious sheep-people.
            I moved through the plaza between yellowed buildings that almost blended into the sand Tezra’s wastes were known for, spreading across the city limits like arid fungi. It was unusually busy for this time of day, given the heat, but I guess this close to Christmas it’s important to get your gifts early. If they even had Christmas here. I dunno, it’s not like I study every little cultural facet on planets I do a job.
            In hindsight, probably not a very diligent thing to do.
            Shoppers and sellers tried hailing me but I ignored them, my eyes darting around looking for him. My right hand flexed near the concealed Bulldog pistol hidden inside my armour, though if he was close by that’d be a moot point. It was why the left hand tensed near the holdout knife pressed blade-flat against my stomach. The electromagnetic sheath meant I could whip it out within point-eight-seven of a second without so much as nicking an artery. Handy in situations like this.
            Come on, you sack of shit. Come get what’s comin’ to you. I got bills to pay.
            Wait. There.
            He was moving in the muted green jumpsuit that inmates of his severity wore. God only knew why he hadn’t raided a clothes shop after bailing from prison, since that would’ve made tracking him infinitely more difficult. Maybe he was attached to that prison smock – perhaps he’d lost his inmate virginity in it. Who knew. People like him were all nutjobs anyway.
            I didn’t waste time with any of the usual derivations of ‘You have the right to remain silent!’, instead opting for a silent move forward like an arctic panther with hand poised at the Bulldog. He didn’t turn, didn’t notice me until I was right on top of him, gun already being drawn.
            Then, his mate got involved.
            Whether they were together or just together eluded me, but the six-hundred-pound sack of bone and muscle knocked me aside before I could aim at the hundred-and-fifty-pound slender fuck in front of me. I went flying, crashing into a stall selling what I prayed were spices and not hallucinogen powders. I was in for a hard fight as it was, I didn’t need help.
            I got a better look at my immense assailant, similarly-clothed as the man he was protecting, as the Prisoner bolted from the scene. My Bulldog was out and I managed a shot that went wide, looking like it hit some random slum-dweller who happened to be on the side of the Prisoner’s path.
            Collateral. The client wouldn’t be happy about that.
            The fat sack in front of me took the opportunity to knock the Bulldog from my hand with one of his own fleshy mitts while using the other to throttle me awkwardly. Between his fat fingers, my wide neck and the leather making his grip slippery it was a tough job, but damn it if he didn’t give it his best effort. That’s something you really don’t see enough of these days, such commitment to the art of killing, however ill-advised.
            I decided to let the poor bastard think he was winning for a moment or so, even throwing in some believable choking sounds for good measure, before activating the magnetic grip on the Bulldog. Attenuated to the node surgically implanted in my palm, the gun flew back into my hand like a boomerang. He barely had time to acknowledge the movement with a dumbfounded noise before I blew half his brains out. The other half slowly dripped out of the cavity I’d blasted in his head, his thickset body sliding to one side limply.
            By now the plaza had exploded to life, with every civvie in range running, screaming and abandoning their precious wares as I calmly got up and dusted myself off. You’d think these people had never seen a gun before. Poor sods.
            I sprinted after the Prisoner, shoving aside idiotic runners as they tried to get in my way. After bulldozing through about a dozen of them I was standing outside a sandy building that looked identical to the other fifteen similarly-coloured apartment blocks in the plaza, which had a scrap of green fabric torn off on a loose bit of stone and blowing quietly in the wind. I put the Bulldog in front of me and walked in, ears open for any minute sound.
            When you got right down to it, the Prisoner was kind of a dumbass. No spare clothes, hopping across worlds in the Uncivilised, hiring fellow inmates as dumb muscle that went down faster than a hooker with a Glass addiction. How the hell had he gotten out of Llanfall MaxSec? And why was he so important to my client that they’d pay all travel expenses and a small fortune’s worth of ship upgrades and flexible currency for me to snatch him?
            I stepped up the first of four flights of stairs, still hearing nothing but the dull roar of fleeing marketers outside. There were at least five rooms on that level, and as if to save me the trouble of checking them I suddenly heard hurried footsteps above me. I tore up the next flight, hearing feet scuffing on the sandy stonework that made me think he was about to jump out one of the windowless portals the building had aplenty. I trekked up the last few stairs, not paying attention to exactly which floor he was on, and made it to the bare roof. I could see that he’d jumped from somewhere on the third level onto the building, a squat, lower version of the block he’d just exited.
            Not keen for any spur-of-the-moment gymnastic exercises I took careful aim with the Bulldog, firing a shot that pegged him square in the spine. I saw the edges of a chest bloom as his innards sprayed forward, the incredible stopping power of the Bulldog reducing him to a hollowed-out pumpkin in the blink of an eye. He fell flat forward, his arms lying outwards like a burlesque of crucifixion.
            I grinned. Easy money.
            I carefully dropped down from the roof onto his building, gun out but not aimed, and advanced on him slowly. Unless he was made of iron or a recently escaped lab experiment with super-regenerative lizard biology, there was no way any man on God’s sandy hovel could get up from that. Direct hits with a Bulldog usually elicited instant death and one hell of a blood spatter afterwards, hence the high price.
            I smirked as I tapped his limp form with my boot, garnering no response. It’s funny, usually at this point you’d expect some snapped-off snark as to how I’m superior to my quarry since I’ve got all my organs and he doesn’t. Admittedly I did enjoy that part of the job – the one part I never told any colleagues or clients out of possible embarrassment at the unbridled cliché of it all – but I didn’t get a chance this time around.
            Y’see, this time around, the bastard I’d blown a big damn hole in appeared behind me, completely unmolested by firearms, and thumped me across the back of the head. I staggered forward drunkenly, losing my grip on the Bulldog as he strode forward, showing me his complete collection of abdominal muscles on his un-smocked body. So he’d used a dupe – amateur trick I should’ve picked up on. My bad.
            I reached for the knife in my belly pouch but it seemed he had sleight of hand, too. Next thing I knew it was sticking out of my neck, and this time I was choking for real. I made a noise like a wounded animal and reached my gun-less arm over for a slug to his face. I was quickly losing equilibrium, though, and he seemed to realise that. It might’ve been why he chose that exact moment to slam a shoeless foot into my crotch.
            Well, armour or no, that bloody hurt. I saw stars right before I saw the sandstone roof rush up to meet me. Julian Vail, professional hitman, undone by a stupid berk in a prison smock with a fondness for dirty attacks.     
            I’d have to remember that for next time, when I got a golf club involved.

A Week in the Life of Commander Shepard

DAY ONE


Started the day off on a bad note when, after I finally woke from my 178-year coma, Nihlus started getting prima donna on us about the humans wanting more galactic control again. Anderson and I both secretly think he’s worried we’re gonna muscle him out when Earth takes control of the Council. I could totally beat him in an arm wrestle.

Arrived at Eden Prime just after lunch to find the colony being ravaged by what looked like a gigantic hand. Wouldn’t want to use that as a sex aid. Landed just before afternoon tea with Kaidan and Redshirt 192, the latter of whom died almost immediately after touching the ground. Reminds me to talk to the budget committee regarding use of second-rate shields for subordinates, though I suppose the galactic financial crisis affects us all.

Later met up with a young Gunnery Chief with a hideous birth defect that makes her face look like a pumpkin. Was going to ask if she could be my jack-o-lantern this year, but too busy shooting geth. Wait a sec, geth? Weren’t they, like, dead or something? I dunno. I’ve been too busy being in a coma from reading Twilight.

After a while we found Nihlus, dead. Guess he couldn’t get along with anybody. We shot some geth, who looked more like sentient garden hoses with flashlights stuck on the end, and found ourselves standing before a bit stick-thing. Kaidan said it was some kind of beacon, so when Little Miss Jack-o-lantern started getting too close to it I threw her aside before she could break it. I mean, what if the beacon could call Pizza Hut? The Normandy’s been out of supply for a while now, and we’re not at Earth anytime soon.

Unfortunately its power lines must’ve been faulty, because it electrocuted me. I saw some odd images in my head – my neural implant probably went on the fritz and accessed 4chan by mistake – and woke up in Doc Chakwas’ infirmary. Apparently my head downloaded something from the beacon. AVG will probably take care of it.

DAY TWO

We ended up back at the Citadel to explain to the Council what happened on Eden Prime. My head hurt like I’d just downed a bottle of krogan absinthe, but I was able to sit through the Council meeting without needing sunglasses.

One of their Spectres, some dude named Saren, is apparently responsible for the shenanigans on EP. Looks kinda like an iguana had a baby with a centrifuge. He seems keen to avoid political crap, and reckons the 4chan virus I downloaded doesn’t prove anything about his duplicity. He sounded pretty defensive. Maybe he’s been surfing 4chan too.

The Council seemed pretty eager to get rid of us – maybe we look like freeloaders – and dismissed Captain Anderson’s claims of treason as silly and stupid. This might be an odd thing to notice but that turian councillor keeps giving me air quotes whenever he mentions something to do with me, as in ‘Ah yes, the “vision” you received from the “beacon” on “Eden Prime”.’ If he does it one more time I’ll make air quotes out of his head flaps.

On our way out we found out about some other turian named Garrus, who has evidence of Saren’s duplicity. I vaguely remember seeing him on the way in, but my head still felt like a monkey playing with light switches. We went off to find him and ended up in a Mexican standoff with Space Yakuza who were shaking down a poor old doctor for information. Deciding to take swift action for Garrus’ sake, my team and I moved in quickly and defused the situation by shooting the doctor. For some reason no-one seemed particularly happy about that.

Garrus reluctantly decided to tag along if we could find some quarian hanging around the lower parts of Zakera Ward. I kinda phased out through most of that, though I do remember some guy called Fist pissing his pants when we drew weapons on him. After we found the quarian and rescued her from giant-head pirates we brought her before the top Council brass, finding out what she knew. With her testimony and Garrus’ stuff that he knew, we were home and hosed.

Except then the Council decided to pull a dick move extraordinaire, and sent us off to find the bastard. They gave me a “promotion” to Spectre before ol’ Cap’n Anderson stepped down as CO of the Normandy. He gave the ship to me as a present.

Fuck I hate birthdays.

DAY THREE

Started our heroic voyage by setting out to some dig site planet in the ass end of nowhere. Had a bit of a problem when Joker accidentally scraped the Normandy’s exhausts when pulling out of the Citadel, so now it looks like an alligator’s tried to eat it. I’d give him mop duty if it wouldn’t break his fibulas.

Apparently we’re supposed to find some asari doctor – Lee-something – and tell her that her mom’s involed with Saren. Having met this guy firsthand, I can’t fathom why anyone in the civilised galaxy would consider sleeping with him. Unless they’ve got some kind of auto-erotica fixation. Oh well, different strokes.

After a lengthy descent into some creepy-ass underground thing we found the good doctor, trapped in some kind of giant sheet of bubble wrap. She said something about triggering a defence mechanism left by old aliens, but I didn’t pay much attention because dear God in heaven she is hot. It’s like if a Vindicator Rifle had sex with a Carnifex Pistol and then grew a pair of boobs. Seriously, Kim Kardashian could’ve painted herself blue and still not be close to how smokin’ this chick is. The mission brief did say she’s over a hundred years old, but that just means she’s got experience.

Sometimes I wonder if I should legally change my name to Kirk. Kirk Shepard – would that not be badass?

Ran into some more garden hoses people, smoked ’em good. Yeah. Taste that Avenger rifle, you flashlight bitches.

After we removed the bubble wrap with some handily-functional ancient controls we took the hot doctor up an elevator where some bounty hunter dudes were waiting. They went down faster than an elcor with one leg missing.

Back on the Normandy Dr Liara Lingeriemodel said she was a bit pissed that her mother was involved in all these Saren-related shenanigans, and promised to help us find her and any info she might have. All I could do was fantasize about her and the gunnery chief making a Shepard sandwich (with a side-order of pumpkin) with me later that evening.

DAY FOUR


Went to a colony world called Feros. The natives went feral. There was a giant vagina plant. We killed them all.

I don’t remember much after that; some green Asari chick (I thought they were all blue? Maybe she’s inbred?) did something to my head and now all I can think about is carrots. I mean, damn. Carrots are sexy, right? All I could do afterwards was fantasize making myself a Shepard sandwich with some carrots later.

Awww yeah. Carrots.

DAY FIVE


“Time to hit the snow!” says Kaidan “Smugbitch” Alenko. He’ll be the first to die.

We landed on Noveria this morning and were treated to a face full of rifle when we docked. The local female Eurojapanese security forces seemed concerned we might cause trouble here. Personally, I think they just felt inadequate next to Liara T’Hotstuff and Gunnery Chief Sexy Pumpkin Williams.

It turns out Liara’s mum is at the top of some laboratory mountain with a bunch of horny bodyguards (one of the administrators here mentioned not many of them had seen a…mature asari before. Squick). We made it to the top of the mountain – after a trench run in the Normandy’s jeep that made Luke Skywalker’s little gig look like something out of Galaga – and found that Liara’s dear old lady was trying to recreate the extinct rachni race.

They are ugly. Like if a Vindicator and a Carnifex had a baby that then became a heroin addict. Brrr.

Liara seemed torn between helping us and killing her mother for a moment, but after her mum revealed that she’d fed Liara’s childhood teddy bear to the rachni queen she was strangely quick to come to our side. Seems she may have some unresolved mommy issues. I hate it when they do that.

We killed the mother and talked to the rachni queen. She mind raped an asari corpse to talk to us, which would’ve been bad enough on its own if it weren’t for the creepy singy-songy voice she used, then asked us somewhat politely if we’d let her go.

“Bitch, please,” I said, “no-one gets past Commander Shepard.”

So, yeah, she ended up feeding the snow leopards outside. Liara seemed pretty broken up about it. I’ll give her a massage later.

“Kids, have I ever told you the story of how I met your mother?”
“No.”
“Well, she was trapped in a cave and our first real date was going to a mountain to kill her mother. The end.”
“…that’s a lame story, dad.”




DAY SIX


So now we’re finally ready to go after Saren. About bloody time. Seriously. I’m starting to get sick of this crew, and Joker’s constant guilt-tripping over his hollow bones disease is making me want to see how easily he can wisecrack his way out of a geth skirmish.

We landed on Virmire, looking eerily like New Jersey, and met up with some salarian commandos run by a guy whose name I forget, so we’ll call him Captain Kickass. He said Saren had a base in some mountain facility thing – what is it with these people and mountains? Are they dwarves or something? – and he’s apparently developed a cure for the krogan genophage, a disease that afflicts the big dinosaur people we live with, like Wrex.

Wait, who’s Wrex? I must’ve forgotten about him. I’m high as a kite right now.

Anyway, Oedipus Wrex is a bit pissy that we’re planning to kill the dude making his cure, so we killed him instead. I ain’t got time for crotchety dinosaur people. He wasn’t a main character anyway. It’s not like he’ll be missed.

We made it to Saren’s facility and busted up his shit, but not before we encountered some AI called “Sovereign”. He told us – in one of the sexiest voices I’ve ever heard – that our race is coming to an end, and the Reapers are coming to kick our asses. Hell, if their voices are that tasty I mightn’t mind being killed by ’em all. Might ask Liara if she can mimic it for me tonight. 😉

We decided we’re gonna kick Sovereign’s ass instead, and on the way out we came across Saren the Slippery himself. Somewhere in his travels he’d adopted an eyepatch, and to be honest it kinda makes him look a bit more badass. I think I’ll need to requisition an eyepatch back on the Normandy.

Captain Long Kirk Shepard. Got a ring to it.

After a brief hair-pulling scuffle Saren buggered off, and for some reason a bomb was about to go off somewhere. I dunno, that bit wasn’t really clear. All I clearly remember is that Kaidan volunteered to stop the bomb and I didn’t say no. I mean, that guy’s got a smoker’s voice and just keeps bitching about his headaches. He’s bringing crew morale down, so I figure why not kill two birds with one stone?

Surprisingly, everyone else was kinda broken up about it when the bomb exploded and took out him, the facility and most of the planet’s tropical continent. I was just kinda broken up that I didn’t record the thing. Could’ve sold it to Michael Bay for a tidy profit.

Oh well. Where’s that eyepatch?

DAY SEVEN


I think I’m over Liara now. All she wants to do is play in caves. Caves. They’re fucking boring, and you can’t have sex against a mossy temple wall without contracting fifteen venereal diseases in this day and age.

We were on some lost planet called Ilos, which was apparently the gateway towards wherever Saren’s heading. We came across Virgil, an old AI dude, who told us that Saren is going to – PLOT TWIST! – use a mass relay here to transport to the Citadel, because it will in some way activate a gateway that will bring all the Reapers to our galaxy.

After that we took the jeep to the relay and jumped through. We crashed against a wall, which turned the jeep into a write-off (the insurance people are not going to be happy), and started making our way to Saren’s location. All the while Sovereign’s out there knocking on the door and blowing dozens of ships to pieces.

Makes Jehovah’s Witnesses look like puppy dogs.

The next bit’s kinda fuzzy, coz I got vertigo when we started scaling the gravitationally-challenged parts of the Citadel and Garrus took it upon himself to sling me over his arm like a bear with a fresh deer. He carried me all the way to the Council chambers, where Saren was preparing to unleash Reaper hell upon the universe. If he’d sounded any eviler he’d’ve needed either an epic beard or a Sinestro moustache to pull it off.

As he was elegantly soliloquying I put a bullet in his brain. With a pistol. At range. Because I’m a boss like that, and this entire Reaper bullshit is making me depressed and sexually frustrated.

Apparently killing him meant the allied fleets could kick Sovereign’s ass for realsies, and all was well afterwards. Cap’n Anderson got a promotion, I got to keep the Normandy, and I now had all the time in the world to make that Shepard sandwich with Liara, Sexy Pumpkin and some carrots.

Or, at least, I would’ve, if it weren’t for that absurdly-muscled cockblocker who drew both of them in after the final battle. Some dick named James Vega. If the Reapers ever do invade, he can die first.

Right after the turian councilor; he’s making those air quotes again.


Sometimes I wish there were jobs out there besides being an Alliance punching bag. Maybe those Cerberus guys are hiring.

New Blood

 

The corridor outside, leading to Bill’s office, was almost empty. The gunmetal walls resembled a marriage of a hospital and a prison, being foreboding but surgically clean and tidy. Apparently it was intentionally coloured to make both prisoners and failed agents uneasy, like being called to the principal’s office at school. The rumour mill said Bill had based the colour scheme off an old internment camp called Auschwitz, and even had his own “Little Red House” for executing incompetents and captives.
                The entire underground carried a very authoritarian feel, like the sort of bunker you’d expect the President to hide in when the nukes start flying. In truth it had once been an extensive fallout shelter, created a century ago during the Korean March, repurposed now as the headquarters of the Obsidian Guild.
                I hated it.
                Too many nights spent in bomb shelters when I was young gave me an impassioned distaste for living underground, feeling like a lab rat stuck in a lockbox. I’d been close to the shelter in Johannesburg when its central module caved in from enemy ordnance, thanking whatever God lived upstairs that I wasn’t currently crushed under tonnes of burnt metal and fractured concrete. Being underground wasn’t always a sure thing when it came to war, especially in this day and age.
                On the way to Bill’s I came across one of the Whites, a young lad named Squire, stepping out of the Cold Lab. He’d just been transferred from the Miami Arm with rave reviews from its coordinator. He looked like one of the Whites you knew wouldn’t be around for long, with that kind of enthusiasm.
                “Andrew!” he called jovially, striding over. “How’s it going?”
                It baffled me sometimes who the Guild saw fit to hire. Someone this cheerful belonged either in a children’s ward or as a punching bag for manic depressives. “Not bad, Squire. Just on my way to Bill.”
                He didn’t seem to get the hint. “Yeah? I’ll come along too, got to talk to him about this Kyoto op.”
                “You anticipating a problem?” I asked, trying to mask my irritation at his presence.
                “God no! Just need to finalise some specifics, wanna make a good first impression, you know?”
                Unless his personality had undergone a drastic shift recently, I doubted there was any way Bill could be impressed unless the sprog could give him a naked Yolanda Russo on a platter. “I do.”
                We were silent until just before we got to the office, when Squire held up a hand as he approached. “I think he’s on a call.”
                I had seen the faint yellow hologram glow coming from under his door before we’d arrived, so I already knew he was busy. I decided to indulge the White anyway. “Alright. He’ll only be a minute, he knows we’re coming.”
                Before Squire could reply I quickly slid out my gun, twisting it around my finger to rest in my palm in one fluid motion. The White was taken aback a bit, but seemed to relax a little when I simply ejected the clip to check on the ammo count. I kept it out, hoping it’d stop any more questions.
                Most Whites won’t say a word when a gun’s handy, especially the optimistic ones like Squire. Perhaps they think we’ll put a bullet in them. Fucking kids.
                The door opened after a minute and Bill swung his head around to look at us. He caught sight of my hands. “You planning on shooting this guy? Already?” He jerked his head at Squire.
                I shrugged. “Not yet. Maybe later.”
              I couldn’t see Squire’s face but I could tell he was at least a bit worried; he let out a weak chuckle, and I saw his body fidget a little in my peripheral. I holstered the gun and followed Bill inside, with the White on my heels. Maybe I would kill him later, when he inevitably screwed up Kyoto.
                Bill was a tall, lean man with a thinning crop of silver-grey hair and a long, slightly ovoid head. He’d been installed as the Arm Administrator for the past thirteen years, originally from the New York Arm with a passion for our business. He’d come up with the idea to revamp the front door and make our front company a bit more believable – apparently he got the idea from a very old television program that was popular in the Second Age.
                He took absolutely no shit from anybody.
                Bill sat behind his desk in a large and obviously comfortable magenta armchair at the opposite end from the door, next to a tall and oddly-spacious black wardrobe, and picked up a half-filled tumbler of what I could only assume was some kind of scotch. He eyed Squire cautiously, as if expecting bad news. “What is it, White?”
                All trace of joviality and enthusiasm evaporated instantly when Squire spoke. You could tell he was nervous. “All ahead for the Kyoto drop, sir. Just double-checking the specifics.”
                Bill looked annoyed. “You go in, eliminate the target, and leave no evidence. What’s there to double-check?”
                The White began shifting his weight from foot to foot like a metronome. “Well, sir, it’s just the implant –”
                “You got the surgery from the Blacksmith, didn’t you?” Bill cut him off.
                “Y-yes, sir,” Squire stammered, “but it hasn’t been…uh, field-tested yet. The Blacksmith was supposed to –”
                “Send me a report?” Bill finished for him. He picked up a blue folder lying on the desk and waved it. “Yeah, I got that. He said it was up to you to field-test the implant, and that was three days ago.”
                Squire looked dumbfounded. “Sir, y-you want me to kill an innocent civilian just to, to test an implant?”
                I could see the thunder clouds gathering inside Bill now. “Squire, you’re an agent of this Guild, aren’t you?”
                “Yes, sir.”
                “And you’re aware that all Arms of the Guild are required to carry out operations that involve necessary executions?”
                “Yes, sir, but this is –”
                “And that the necessary execution in Kyoto cannot be adequately accomplished without this implant being fully functional?”
                He swallowed. “Yes, sir.”
                “Good.” Bill suddenly threw his tumbler, still half-filled, at the terrified White.
             Instinctively my hand went to my gun, in case Squire decided to do anything stupid to defend himself, but as the glass smashed straight into Squire’s forehead and made him stagger backwards I saw Bill raise his opposite hand at me. I kept tense, in case the situation got out of hand, but if Bill reckoned he could handle it…
                The tumbler had shattered all over Squire’s face, and shards of expensive glass were lodged in the surface layer of his skin. The White was suddenly thrown off for a few seconds, small rivulets of blood making their way down his cheeks, unsure whether to cow in acceptance of his punishment or retaliate on his assailant. Bill strode towards him, still very visibly pissed off.
                “If this Arm is going to succeed, all my agents need to be ready.” He rolled up his left sleeve, and held his forearm out to Squire. “Use the implant on me. Now.”
                Squire blinked away the pain for a moment and shook his head. “I can’t do that, sir!”
              I could see where Bill was going with this now; I dropped my hand and hung loose, almost amused.
                Bill grabbed Squire’s right arm forcefully and pressed the White’s palm against the exposed forearm. “Now, dammit! Or you don’t have any future outside this office!”
                I always hated the sound toxic implants made when they injected their payload; it was the sickening noise of hypodermic needle piercing thick flesh that put you in mind of someone very loudly fondling raw meat in their hands. It wasn’t the piercing of the needle itself that made the noise, rather the technophage itself moving from internal storage canister to deployment device. It only lasted a second or two, but it still made me queasy to hear it.
                Squire’s implant must’ve put enough Neural Lockdown technophage in Bill’s bloodstream to give a rhino brain death. The Admin fell, withdrawing his forearm from the needle and collapsing to the ground. Blood began to dribble out of his ears, and his eyes stared glassily at the ceiling.
                The White freaked out.
                “Oh my God!” he screamed, as if someone else had been driving his body the whole time. He withdrew the needle and fell to his knees. He turned to me, his face contorted with anguish. You’d never have guessed he’d been chipper five minutes ago. “What have I done?”
                “What I asked you to do.”
                I swear Squire went as pale as his rank colour; he turned his head towards the voice that had come from inside the black wardrobe near Bill’s desk. The doors swung open and a clean, undamaged Bill strode out, clad in exactly the same clothes as the corpse lying bloodied and brain-dead on the floor.
                He looked at the body plainly, as if it were all perfectly normal. “I had that one for nearly five years. Probably about time for a reboot.”
                I didn’t need my intuition as an agent to tell me that Squire had absolutely no fucking idea what the hell had just happened. This was always my favourite part about meeting new Whites; seeing them find out the one big thing they don’t tell you in the job interview.
                “See that?” Bill pointed at the wardrobe. “You could call it a clone closet, I guess. It’s where my physical avatars grow, ready for deployment.”
                The White’s hands were shaking badly now. “Deployment?”
               Bill nodded, walking over to his desk and reaching for the scotch bottle. “I can’t operate efficiently in my natural state, so I grow clone bodies to walk around in. I find that being a head on a computer screen leaves new agents feeling unsettled.”
                Not that it stopped him using it unsettle the experienced ones, too.
                Recognition finally began to sink into the sprog. “You’re…an AI?”
                “Yep.” Bill filled up a fresh tumbler all the way to the brim. “Seventh generation, programmed for tactical application. Easy install into new bodies, Administrator of the San Francisco Arm for the past thirteen years. Let me tell you, travel through this Arm’s conduits is a breeze compared to the clogged shit they’ve got over in New York.”
                I’d been to the NY Arm, and whilst not experiencing the conduits myself if they were anything like the rest of the place – half-functional and covered with electronic detritus – then it must’ve been like trying to move through a choked artery. I was a little surprised the brass hadn’t shut it down; they’d never really recovered from the Bolivian rebel attack.
                “So,” Bill continued, starting to gently sip at the liquid, “can you handle this job or not, White? Because if not, tell me now so I can start finding your replacement.”
                Squire still seemed pants-shittingly terrified, but he regained a small measure of composure. He straightened up as best he could after another fleeting glance at the corpse. “Yes, sir. I can handle it.”
                “Good.” He gestured to the door with the tumbler. Squire didn’t need to be told twice.
                After he’d left I let out a quiet laugh. “I love it when they go pale like that.”

Announcing the Technophage™!

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A Week in the Life of a Skyrim Adventurer

DAY 1


Woke up after a rowdy night with two drunken barmaids and a flirty draugr to find myself tied up in the back of a cart with a load of people with really long hair. Ended up at some little keep called Helgen, where we were told that execution was the order of the day. Liking my neck where it is I protested, saying I was from the Empire and that chopping my head off for a barmaid-draugr orgy wasn’t exactly a capital offence. My complaints fell on deaf ears.

Before I could be decapitated the keep was attacked by a gigantic lizard that breathed fire and screamed a lot. Pandemonium ensued, allowing me to escape with one of the long-haired lads from my cartride into town. After a while we got separated, whereupon I was co-opted by a dangerous-looking fellow wearing really tacky red armour. Might as well have been wearing a bullseye on his chest.

After a few minutes of evading the giant lizard and running through some caves while fighting other unfortunately-dressed red-armour soldiers I ended up in some kind of forest, where the long-haired bloke intro’d himself as Ralof. He took me to a peaceful, idyllic and completely boring little town where his sister apparently had info for me on where to go next. After a short diversion where a jealous elf made me mess up a young bard’s relationship with his stalker love interest I decided the whole place was more than a little crap, and set off elsewhere in search of adventure.

Upon exiting the town I was immediately assaulted by giant spiders. Having only a battered sword and an even more battered temper I dispatched them quickly, but not before one of them sank his fang-things into the unarmoured parts of my leg. Sleep came quickly, right in the middle of an open field, though on reflection I probably should’ve done something for the wound before it turned too gangrenous.

DAY 2


As I awoke and snacked on a raw chicken breast I’d nicked from the caves the day before I saw that the spider venom appeared to have subsided. Hrm, maybe I’ve got a really good immune system.

Walking further on I arrived at a rather nifty little city called Whiterun. The lovely security forces there hired me to bloodily murder a local bandit leader in exchange for coin and a bed for the night, which sounded like a fair trade on paper but in practice it ended with me limping back to town with my left arm hanging by several sinuous threads and my sword being reduced to nothing more than a clump of steel wool useful only for cleaning up troll snot.

The Jarl (or King) of Whiterun decided that my triumphant effort against the bandits warranted a royal reward and the honour of having his personal favour, meaning that I could be protected by the wonderfully gruff and cranky city guards if anyone happened to stray nearby nocking an arrow with my name on it. He asked that I speak to his court wizard about the giant lizard that had attacked the day before, but that sounded almost as boring as the little river town I’d escaped to and caused me to politely and quickly exit the city as the sun began to fall behind the mountains.

I proceeded north, and as night fell a snowstorm began. I imagine I would’ve frozen to death if I hadn’t encountered a bandit camp up the road from Whiterun and punched all its tenants into submission. The bed roll I lay on may have been uncomfortable – and possibly made from a deer’s stomach lining – but it was better than last night’s field.

DAY 3


The deceased former residents of my temporary home had apparently possessed a knack for fine cuisine, and after a lovely breakfast of salted salmon and honeycomb I continued trekking north and found myself standing before a monolithic stone city that sat atop a rather precarious peak. Wishing that I didn’t suffer from frequent vertigo I hiked to the top and across some rather under-developed bridges and arrived outside something called the College of Winterhold. According to the rather snarky elf lady who guards the front door I could join the College – and therefore learn how to shoot fire and lightning from my hands like some kind of God taking physical form – if I could prove my magical potential by casting a high-level Fear spell without any prior training.

Thank Talos I’ve got all those magicka-boosting potions. Pity they all taste like dog saliva.

After necking enough magicka brew to turn a regular dog into the physical manifestation of Oblivion I cast the spell, and once the initial exhaustion and vomiting passed I was allowed entrance to the College. Brimming with confidence and excitement I was put into a class with three other dodgy-looking characters – being a boring human, a cat-person and the most gorgeous elven hottie I’d ever laid eyes on – and forced to listen to some old bloke yammering on about magic and wards and shit that was so boring I found myself thinking that the river town was lively and action-packed by comparison.

As if punishing me for my internal monologuing on how dull this class was the old guy then proceeded to shoot lightning at me. Given that my previous magical training consisted only of a snide gatekeeper making me throw up the contents of my stomach with magical exertion I was promptly blasted across the room, garnering sniggering from my classmates. My smoking robes did little to hide my shame at initial failure, and I made a vow then and there that by the time I had learnt how to conjure fireballs and apocalyptic demons from the ether I would have this old bastard slowly roasting on a magical roasting spit made of frost and solidified hatred.

By the end of the day I’d learnt some basic spells, and decided to practice them by adventuring inside an old tomb just outside of town. After dual-casting a giant gout of fire on some undead swordsmen and causing what little flesh they had left to crisp and flake off their ancient bones I found myself becoming quite enamoured with the Destruction school of spellcasting – not least of all because it was the antithesis of my old teacher’s preferred brand Alteration. I ended up at the center of the tomb, where my teacher had miraculously appeared, and discovered an enormous sphere of magical energy. I hazarded a guess that it was some kind of colossus testicle, much to my teacher’s disapproval.

While the magic men facilitated removing the sphere from the tomb and over to the College’s inner sanctum I headed off to my lodgings in the apprentices tower, trying to conceive of a way to get the elven babe to jump in with me. Unfortunately my only visitor that night was the grizzled half-orc librarian, who seemed really keen on my finding some old books for him deep inside some dead guy’s cave a few kilometres away.

He’s just lucky I didn’t snap and barbecue his balls off.

DAY 4


Once more I found myself on the road before the old teacher or librarian could pressgang me into further arcane minutiae, passing a few encampments of savages calling themselves Forsworn. I tried being friendly to them the first time I found one of their camps and was greeted by a hail of arrows and projectile frost. Fortunately they seemed particularly susceptible to electrical surges, and they might as well have named my path Corpse Road once I was done with them.

I arrived at the waterfall city of Markarth, where the lawmen seemed a teensy bit on the amoral side. Almost immediately after entering the city’s gates I witnessed a woman get slaughtered by a random civilian man who actually turned out to be a mole – apparently the Forsworn are no strangers to sleeper agents. The city’s guards didn’t seem keen on solving her murder so I ended up in cahoots with some random guy whose name made me think of wine every time anyone spoke it. The wine man said we’d both get to the bottom of her murder, because there was apparently some conspiracy involving the city’s Jarl, a high-profile banker and the imprisoned King of the Forsworn.

Way more interesting than river town.

During my visit to the banker – who turned out to be an asshole almost as big as the guard captain who’d ordered my execution three days ago – his staff were attacked by more sleeper agents. I used lightning to great effect, turning two of the assailants into piles of smoking ash. Annoyingly the banker didn’t seem very appreciative, and it took titanic restraint not to enact similar punishment on him for his hubris. Instead I settled for looting his personal vault, which told me that the banker was no stranger to the eleven o’clock wine hour principle.

The city’s Jarl was unreachable, although one of his lackeys did give me a contract for another bandit assassination some miles away in a misty cave. Leaving that for later I investigated further and found myself embroiled in the machinations of some local information broker named Nepos the Nose, who’d apparently ordered the murder of the woman that day. After going to have a quiet chat with the guy I ended up electrifying his entire house and killing everyone inside after he ordered his bodyguards to carve me into dinner meat.

Starting to feel slightly embarassed at the body count I’d amassed since entering the city I journeyed back to wine man’s hideout, only to find that the local corrupt city guards had turned him into a cold steel sandwich and were about to threaten me with the same fate. Being the combat pragmatist that I am I surrendered, whereupon I was relieved of all my equipment, stripped naked and knocked unconscious. If I had a nickel…

DAY 5


I awoke bleary-eyed to find myself in a delightful little underground jail cell. A dark elf prison guard – almost as hot as the College resident – told me I was inside Cidhna Mine, from which no man apparently escapes. I was then set to work swinging a pickaxe and keeping my ass well away from the rather unpleasant-looking orc security guard who leered over me rather frequently.

Thoughts of escape were not far from the minds of my fellow inmates, and it transpired that the King of the Forsworn was in the same prison as I and had concocted an exfiltration plan. Feeling a little awkward due to the fact that I had zapped most of his mates earlier in the week I meekly asked for his help. Let me tell you, the bastard took a considerable amount of perverse glee in tasking me with various dark acts in order to prove my loyalty to him and thus facilitate a quick escape.

After beating up a guy for his alcohol – considered the currency in this mine – and shivving a helpless, unarmed man who pleaded for mercy as I slid the blade repeatedly into his torso I wondered whether this escape would be worth it if by the time I got out I was almost as lethal to other people as the ebola virus.

The King and his men all piled out an escape hatch that had apparently gone unnoticed by the security guards and we all legged it for the exit. We ended up back inside the city, where that unpleasant banker fellow was waiting with a platoon of guardsmen.

Bloodbath ensued.

I don’t remember much of what occurred, but I do remembering throwing the banker into the air with a storm blast the likes of which even the fiercest typhoon could not manage, and by the time I emerged back into reality I was a good distance away from Markarth with half a dozen dead guardsmen and an equal number of prison escapees lying in a big smoking pile at my feet.

In retrospect, I may have snapped a little there.

The day’s exertions had left me tired, so I hiked along a mountain road in a southerly direction and arrived at an abandoned adventurer’s camp that had no shortage of precious jewels and enchanted weaponry. It was being guarded by a hagraven – sort of a cross between a moldy bird and an STD-riddled prostitute – which submitted rather quickly by taking a fireball to the face. Its feathers made rather a good blanket.

DAY 6


With massacred Markarth behind me I set off towards a little farming village down the way from the adventurer’s camp. Unfortunately they relied on income from Markarth in order to continue business, so they didn’t take kindly to the source of their sudden lack of income strolling in with dented armour and an apparent lust for blood. The ensuing mob of farmhands all fell like crispy little snowflakes as the elemental power of lightning once again proved its usefulness.

Starting to think the old zappy hands might be a little bit overpowered.

Further down from the farm was a cave that was apparently the final resting place of some guy named Red Eagle. His sword was meant to hold intense magical power, and after deciding that electrocuting everything within zapping distance should be the exception rather than the rule when it came to dealing with disputes I stepped inside and was set upon by skeletons. Magical powers proved useless, so I grabbed a random steel sword from a nearby treasure chest and starting smacking their skulls around like a horse’s arse.

After the triumphant battle, with my assailants now lying in broken piles all around the room, I walked over to Red Eagle’s coffin and found he was actually a draugr that had been sleeping all this time. He was able to pick up his massively overcompensatory two-handed sword with one bony set of phalanges and swung it full into my face. It was sheer luck that hit me with the flat end rather than the blade. I flew backwards a number of feet and landed in a heap, cursing the existence of the undead and wishing my boring teacher from the College had taught me a couple of undead-destruction spells before I’d nicked off the other day.

The following battle with Red Eagle was long, arduous and tense, and quite a few times I believed he’d actually hit home with that giant hunk of metal he called a greatsword. In the end, however, I swiped his molding head off with one clean sweep of my steel, which landed almost perfectly back inside the coffin.

I felt power flood through my arms as I hefted the looted greatsword, and as I slung it over my back I threw out one last fireball on my way out that burnt the inside of the tomb to a crisp. His coffin was still immolating when I stepped back outside.

Night had well and truly fallen by the time I breathed Skyrim’s air again, so I walked back to the farm I’d razed earlier that day and fell asleep on a pile of hay that looked more than a little crimson.

DAY 7


A passing band of merchants woke me up the next morning on their way to the Imperial capitol of Solitude, a short distance away from the farm. Since they were the first people I hadn’t had to murder in the last few days I tagged along with them.

The city itself was wide, expansive and full of friendly relatives of the lads who’d tried to take my head off earlier in the week. None of them seemed to bear a grudge on me or the giant lizard so I strode through the city confidently and found myself outside a nice little place called the Bards College. Perhaps my enemies could have their disputes settled with a quick lute riff?

The owner of the school refused to let me in unless I went off and hunted down a lost verse of some ancient poem that they wanted to play for the Queen on festival day. After running away faster than I had from Markarth I was waylaid by some Bosmer woman who said my attire looked rather unflattering. Well excuse me for wearing a dented steel cuirass that stops me from being impaled by troll swords, lady.

She gave me some nobleman clothes and asked me to show them off to the Queen so that she might buy from the lady’s dress shop. She told me the Queen was recently widowed and apparently needed a new wardrobe to come to terms with her loss. I finally took off my smelly assault gear and slipped into the…ooh…that’s comfortable…

The guards allowed me passage, probably on account of me looking so fabulous, and I met with the Queen. Good golly, Miss Molly (or rather, Miss Elisif the Fair). Talk about a knockout monarch! (Well, alright, she was still only a Jarl, but if I had to pick either her or one of the grizzled, grumpy male Jarls I’d met so far to be owner of Skyrim, I know who I’d rather get naked with).

She didn’t seem particularly interested in my lightning tricks, which was disappointing, and seemed to be flanked on all sides by burly men wearing thick metal armour and hefting swords almost as long as my erection. Probably wasn’t worth snatching her then jumping out the nearest window, so I made my excuses and left.

Dejected at once more being alone I idly walked back down the street, after shaking off some lizard bloke (not big) who wanted me to switch off a lighthouse with him, thinking I’d just find a cheap inn with decent food for the evening. While walking I overheard a conversation between two local merchants – something about an Amulet and some chick called Mara in some city called Riften. Apparently the Amulet showed you were romantically available, and could thus conceivably land almost any member of either sex that crossed your path.

Grinning, I stopped and asked them for directions.

Differentia Specifica

It was always dark now.
            As he ascended the steps of the Melancholy Furrow he was assailed by visions, past and future; there was the grey and black cat standing on hind legs beside his mother’s deathbed, the open window displaying the crimson pavement, and the IV drip he’d stolen from the old hospital.
            This was not the Epiphany. This was not what was promised.
            It would only come in the howl of terrible suffering.
            Unshift.
The day got off to a flying start when Derek arrived at the office, a brown cardboard holder in his hand with four steaming cups of local coffee. He ascended in the elevator to Floor Eleven, looking outside the panoramic window at the tall spectre of the Obama Memorial a few blocks away. The towering obsidian bell-topped spire served as a constant reminder of the times they lived in.
            Shift.
“MacCarver’s on the phone, boss,” Fergus blathered in his exaggerated Brooklyn accent. “Says he wants a proposal on his desk by noon tomorrow.”
            “Does he want bended knee or the old ring-in-the-champagne-flute approach?” Derek asked, paying only half a mind to Fergus and sorting through unfiled reports looking for the damages claim.
            Fergus laughed throatily, and Derek could almost hear the smoker’s phlegm sliding around his larynx like wet paint. He finally found the report he was after, taking a sip from the coffee container. It tasted like asphalt now.
            His mind was in overdrive, helped by the Vicodin he’d taken that morning. Within seconds he’d analysed the damages claim, essentially a summary of “How Not to Advertise Alcohol”, and was already formulating an appropriate response.
            Shift.
           
DAMAGES.
            Client is suing for almost three million dollars pursuant to their belief our ad campaign harmed their image. Using Bacardi at a kids party not conducive to product integrity.
            Damage. Breakage. Cartilage. Homage. Stoppage. Breakage. Homage.
            HOMAGE.
            Of course. We turn the ad into a combination of Bacardi advertisement and “Responsible Drinking” slogan. Insinuate former capitalist involvement in underage drinking, reinforce notion that fellow socialists don’t engage in such “evil” activity.
            Might work.
            Shift.
That was where it had all gone wrong.
            And to think, it had all been Whitman’s fault.
            Unshift.
“And as you can see, we are not intending for your product to be represented merely as an aid to a hard day’s end,” Derek continued. “We can see this as juxtaposition against what was and what is. A grand dichotomy between our former capitalist benchmarks and our modern socialist reforms.”
            He clicked the button on the powerpoint remote, displaying the finalist advertisement on the white screen; a typical American family, sitting on their backyard patio at a broad, immaculate green outdoor table. The mother and father were each holding a crystal tumbler with the Bacardi logo etched onto the side, and the latter was in the middle of sipping a combined-with-coke mouthful. The three children sitting at the table – two boys and a girl, all between 8 and 12 years old – watched their parents with Stepford smiles.
            The tagline above them bore the words – “BACARDI: For When They Grow”.
            It was a roundabout campaign, a desperate attempt to reiterate their advertising value to the company, and in any other world it would make little to no sense and wouldn’t have even made it past the drawing board. Derek was certain, however, that this was going to work. He had a gut feeling, and his gut never let him down.
            His vision blurred with anxiety for a moment before the Bacardi president, all tanned Cuban skin and thick moustache, began to speak. “So you present us with this, alongside your revamped television advert, and believe this to be a successful campaign?”
            Derek hadn’t lost the high ground yet. “This wouldn’t have worked a decade ago. Remember the Smirnoff gig with the Alaskan teenagers getting hammered? That was fully funded by a government-supported ad agency, backed by capitalist profits and given the green light to promote drinking amongst the underage.” He reached across the table for the scotch decanter, filling his tumbler with ice from the bucket as well. “It was one of the many hundreds of precursors that led to that government’s downfall, all in the name of the opportunistic dollar.”
            “And so you think it’s a good idea to involved children here once more?” the president asked, slightly incredulously.
            “Absolutely,” Derek answered promptly, garnering a shocked look from the president and his financial advisor sitting next to him. “To extricate children from all forms of alcohol would be naive; most of them are going to drink it anyway, whether it’s through idiot parenting or fake IDs. While we don’t want to target children as the consumer bracket for Bacardi, we still want to involve them.”
            He gestured to the digital poster on the projector screen. “Look at the tagline. ‘For When They Grow’. Those kids are watching their parents enviously, wanting a piece of the action. They want to be like grown-ups, and one day they will be. When they are, the parents can share the drink with them.”
            Upon use of the word ‘share’, the president and the advisor perked up their ears a bit. Derek had been around long enough to know the right buzz-words. “Remember the bit in the new commercial that shifts from the young kids to the young adults, all drinking from tumblers? That’s the juxtaposition of age; one day they’re kids, longing to be like mom and dad, then suddenly they’re of age and enjoying the fruits of adult life.”
            Out of the corner of his eye Derek caught MacCarver nodding slowly, a grin starting to spread across his freckled face. He pressed on, ready to drive in the final point. “Bacardi is to share. Bacardi is something to be experienced by everyone. Bacardi is produced for everyone.”
            He could see the neo-socialist wheels turning in the president’s head as he came to the same conclusion Derek had. There would never be a better campaign, even if Derek thought their drink tasted like drinking cyanide.
            Finally, the big Cuban grinned broadly. “Fantastic. Absolutely fantastic.” He stood from the table before his nebbish advisor could interject. “Start work as soon as possible.”
            Shift.
“To booze for all!” Fergus cried, raising his Victoria Bitter can high into the air.
            The other five different cans all crashed together in congratulatory cheers. The office was half-empty, with only the pre-inebriate or over-deadline workers remaining.
            “So, Derek lands us more alcohol work, and our public approval goes up by another notch,” Michelle summarised, looking as Derek questioningly.
            “That sounds about right,” he affirmed, taking a big gulp of Indian ale.
            “Can you imagine a world without Bacardi?” Fergus asked, his Brooklyn starting to slur a little. “They were ready to pack up shop for good if we couldn’t get them better publicity. Might’ve even moved in with the Smirnoff junkies at the den on 40th Street.”
            Michelle laughed, spraying Budweiser all over Fergus’s trousers. He didn’t seem to care. “Are they still over there?” she asked, utterly incredulous. “I’m surprised the Marx boys haven’t already cleaned them out yet. What do they call that place? The ‘Melancholy Furrow’ or something?”
            “Only a matter of time,” John interrupted, drinking most of his Heineken in one swallow. “Without good advertising, most major produce companies will be going to way of the dinosaur. Those capitalist thieves can’t hold out in that shabby old house forever.”
            Derek didn’t care much for the few surviving members of the market-driven companies that now lay lower than the sewers they mostly inhabited. The Smirnoff rebels would be driven out soon, maybe repurposed as cheap labour to build the new Social Hub where Wall Street had once existed.
            Shift.
It had been fifty days since the Bacardi failure, and he was alone.
            The morphine drip snaked into his deadened arm like an intrusive tentacle. It was strange; he couldn’t feel it, not even when his late mother’s cat, whom he’d adopted to live with him in the Furrow, had walked past and bumped into him by accident. His entire arm had gone numb.
            He moved the still-functioning right arm over to the Vicodin container, tipping it towards his open mouth. One more tab.
            Unshift.
It had been fifty days since the Bacardi deal, and MacCarver’s expression was strange; Derek had never seen it before. It wasn’t trepidatious or angry, happy or despairing. It just was.
            “There’s been a change of plans, Derek,” his boss began, sounding like he was choosing his words carefully. “This Bacardi deal… Well, it’s really given us a lot of attention. Made the higher-ups reconsider a few things.” He reached under his desk for what Derek assumed was the scotch decanter; when his suspicion was confirmed, Derek noticed uncomfortably that MacCarver’s window was wide open behind him. Unease crept into him slowly.
            “Care for some?” he asked.
            Derek nodded, accepting the full tumbler graciously and taking a long, uneasy sip. The boss turned to the window, looking outside at the expanse of Manhattan. From where he stood Derek could see the edge of the Obama Memorial.
            “So what kinds of changes are they making?” he asked, uncertain if he really wanted to know the answer.
            It felt like an age before MacCarver decided to reply. “They’re making you creative director. You’ll be taking over my job, starting next week.”
            The unease evaporated, and Derek had to struggle not to spray his scotch the way Michelle had ejected her Budweiser. “Excuse me?”
            MacCarver smiled; clearly he knew Derek hadn’t been thinking of a positive outcome, given the foreboding atmosphere he’d walked into. “The whole socialist spin you put on it, salvaging the project from that bumbling idiot Whitman – it really saved our asses. We were an inch away from total shutdown, Smirnoff-style.” The smile grew wider. “You saved us.”
            Derek felt pride swell within him, mingling with the scotch. He felt like a great falcon was spreading its wings in his ribcage, proud and fierce.
            “Now,” MacCarver continued, moving over to shut the window, “there are a few things we need to sort out before my reassignment.”
            Shift.
No, he died that day. He didn’t close the window, he jumped out of it.
Must be the morphine. Or the Vicodin. Just one more. All it takes.
            The Note. The Note. The Epiphany. Yes, that was it.
            Can’t understand why I didn’t just cut out the middle man.
            Unshift.
A week later, it was all ready.
            MacCarver’s former office was now decorated with Derek’s awards, commendations and family mementoes. His favourite picture of him and his mother sat on the desk facing inwards, and as Derek glanced over it he idly told himself to give her a call when he got home.
            The others had gathered for a congratulatory party that evening, and Derek had vague memories the next morning of having had sex with Michelle that night. As he took down the last Vicodin pill from his current container, making a mental note to go get some more that day, he walked over to the bedside table next to the elegant four-poster that had Michelle sleeping on it.
            He smiled at her, reaching into one of the table’s drawers and retrieving his grandfather’s service revolver that was hidden under piles of business socks.
            He put the barrel in his mouth.
            Unshift.
Boss,
            I really don’t know what I’m supposed to say in this, but I guess first of all I’m real sorry. I had no idea MacCarver was going to off himself like that, or that he was going to make you watch. Never realised you could fit a whole body through that window. Jeez. Pavement must’ve been real messy afterwards.
            Try not to blame yourself for what’s going down. The Bacardi bastards are already shutting down, and I know MacCarver didn’t accuse you of being the sole factor behind us following suit. If anything, you were the best damn thing in that entire agency. Not that any of us would ever admit it.
            Your creativity helped put us on the map. Without ads like the new McDonalds campaign we wouldn’t’ve kicked the ass of every other agency out there. You gave us the ability to keep going after the New Marx regime started.
But at the same time, you were the sacrificial lamb. The dirty secret is MacCarver knew there was no way to salvage the Bacardi deal, not after Whitman screwed it all up, and he threw you in front of the train tracks to give them a revamp they wouldn’t accept. I mean, I thought “For When They Grow” sounded great, but MacCarver knew they’d think it was shit. Someone had to take the fall for them leaving, and he figured it might as well be you. He always said in private you’d be the one to replace him one day. I think it must’ve scared him.
I’ve spoken to the others, and they all agree you weren’t to blame. They know MacCarver was a dirty S.O.B., and we were willing to back you all the way. If we’re ever allowed to reform, you’ll be the first person we call.
Take care of yourself, boss. If you ever need to talk, just call.
Best,
Fergus Dillinger
Stop.

A Ballad of Bones

It’s only a shadow, right?



The bearer could never become the borne without first passing


Through those gates that only lie within


The eye of the needle.






But when is it proper?


For should I turn against the thrice-wounded center


And lounge with Lucifer


In damnation’s living room.






For how is there hope?


The apex is only as high as the reach of the lowest man


But within it is the chance


For one’s redemption.






Stay tuned for next week’s episode.


 
Submitted as part of my mid-semester Writing Poetry assignment. What’d you guys think?

Espress-To-Go: A Fluke Street Excerpt

It had been the busiest day Miranda could remember.

There was nothing particularly memorable about it; no parades, no Olympic torch relays, no NASCAR derbies going on in the next town over. Yet somehow they’d made a bucketload of cash from several busloads of patrons, and her boss could only have been happier if Miranda had told her she was a lesbian.

Which she wasn’t, of course. That could only hurt her chances with Dirk if he ever found out.

She stood at the main register, counting out what seemed like a thousand twenty dollar bills. The two secondaries were being unloaded and banked by her co-workers, who were as elated and worn out by today’s business as she was.

“Was it the Napuccino that did it?” Jervis asked. “A recent study pointed out that most businessmen these days are sleep-deprived, and we got predominantly males, so maybe they were in need of a sleep aid?”

Berry shook her head. “Nah, it’s totally the Long John Black. Rum coffee’s always a hit when the weather gets a little cooler.”

Jervis seemed unconvinced. “Are you insinuating that our customers only want our coffee coz it’s cold and they need booze to keep warm? Coz that’d mean most of our clientele are closet alcoholics, and I’m pretty sure the health department would frown on us promoting alcoholism so flippantly. Besides, vodka’s the one that warms you up, not rum.”

“Have you ever had rum?” Berry asked, sounding affronted. “One time, over in Silk Valley, I got stuck with my boyfriend Terrence coz of a landslide near Providence-On-Black. All we had was a bottle of Australian Bundaberg that he’d brought back from Melbourne.” She winked knowingly. “We kept ourselves warm after that.”

“Because you screwed him in a prop tent?” Jervis asked scathingly. “The rum made you drunk enough to fuck, it didn’t make you warm by itself. Vodka is the one to do that. Why do you think the Russians have adopted it as their national mascot?”

Berry’s voice took on a very pissed-off quality, one that Miranda recognised as the ‘you’ve just accurately pointed out that I’m an idiot, but I’m still going to argue with you anyway’ tone. “If Russia had a mascot, it’d be that stuffed Lenin corpse they’ve got in Red Square. Wasn’t he, like, their version of Santa or something?”

Before Jervis could shoot back with a venomous retort Miranda stepped in. “Have you ever noticed that all our coffee names are just puns on coffee that most people probably find horribly cheesy?”

The two bickering co-workers stopped dead in their tracks to look at Miranda as if she was crazy. Berry looked murderous. “You mean the names that won us national coffee awards, like the Peppermint Peach Potbrew and the Coco Loco Mochachino? Those cheesy names?”

“But they’re so obvious!” Miranda protested. “I mean, Espress-To-Go is kinda cute, but why are we ploughing on with names like the Jumbalino Frappucino or the Cunning Lemon Linguist? I mean, are we meant to be a serious coffee shop or a comedy store?”

“A little of both, I’d think,” Berry argued. “If you need proof that people love stupid puns, just check this out.” She held up her hand, clutching a wad of greenback as proof.

Jervis took on a mocking tone. “You know what it is?” he said, his tone scandalous. “Miranda’s worked here too long. The puns are bleeding into her Harvard English-Speaking Skills, or whatever it is she studied –”

“Critical Discourse and Language Specialist,” she interrupted, cutting Jervis off from further mangling the name of her degree.

“Whatever it was,” Jervis continued, “it’s become infected by years of constant worldwide punomenons that have pervaded her precious, pretty little head. So now she can’t take one more customer asking her for a Ginseng Rinsing. She won’t be able to brew one more Caramacchiato with the knowledge that she’s directly supporting the horrid, despicable puns she’s come to loathe, hate, despise and detest with every fibre of her being.”

He raised a dramatic hand into the air, his voice going quite Shakespearian. “Damn the money! Damn the regular work! Damn the neverending supply of free coffee whenever you ask for it! Miranda Dillinger, the puns have invaded your life for too long! Will you finally free yourself from this torture, and abandon the independent coffee shop you helped build from the ground up? Will you cast off the shackles of the business you aided in toppling the local branches of Sundeers and Estefan Corduroys?” His hand dropped down, pointing an accusatory finger at her. “Will you yield your job and leave us forever?!”

Inside, Miranda was laughing her ass off.

Outside, she merely nodded grimly, her expression downcast and forlorn. “Yes, Jervis Baker, you’re right. I am so dissatisfied with my life of puns, I’m just heading off to Spectre Point to commit sepuku and cast my lifeless body into the shadowy abyssal maw below. I cannot live with the knowledge I’ve fostered such puntastic behaviour.”

Jervis nodded, his expression equally defeatist. “I know, sweetie. It’s a hard admission, but we all come to it at sometime.”

He held Miranda’s gaze for a moment, as they both looked at each other in grim assurance of Miranda’s sealed fate. The air became like dampened electricity, with the two coffee workers watching like mournful vultures circling the abyss below. Miranda heard a slow, funeral-like dirge playing slowly in her head, minor key in full force and piano meshing beautifully with deep horns.

Jervis was speaking the truth.

“But you can’t die! You’re my friend, and I’d be sad!”

Miranda and Jervis turned their heads slowly to regard Berry, her expression horrified and her hands lowering from her mouth towards her chin in shock. The young girl’s pale grey eyes were wider than Miranda had ever seen them.

There was a pause, then the laughter that Miranda had felt when Jervis accosted her exploded outwards in a wave of hilarious reaction. Jervis joined in, laughing jovially and squinting his eyes shut as they burst out into jolly sounds. Miranda haphazardly put down the bills she’d been counting and walked over to Jervis, giving him a hug and still laughing herself sick.

It took Berry a few seconds to work out that she’d been duped, at which point she fixed Miranda with an icy, decidedly un-joking glare. “That wasn’t funny.”

“Are you kidding?” Jervis shouted through laughs. “That was the best thing I’ve heard all day!”

A shrill cry rang out from the back of the shop, where Mildred was running up EFTPOS receipts. “What’s going on out there?”

Miranda and Jervis turned and answered in unison. “Nothing, boss!”