Listen Carefully

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.

This week, things get a little bit Lovecraft…

***

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Photo by Math on Unsplash

“Listen carefully,” she said quietly, willing her voice to be as discreet as possible. “How can you not hear it?!” The girl was terrified, paralysed by a consistent, eerie sound; the sound of…

…silence.

To be fair they’d come on this sailing holiday to get away from it all. Just the two of them. In some ways silence was what they wanted.

Her husband looked at her, confused, chewing the last mouthful of dinner, a two-week beard clinging to his chin like seaweed to a hull.

“That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?” he asked, eyebrow raised, not quite getting it.

Sophie looked at him irritably, stood up and climbed out of the cabin. Josh shrugged and continued to chew.

The sun hung low on the horizon, smouldering red like newly smelted iron in the quartz pink sky. Around their tiny boat, the Mediterranean was still. No wind blew, no waves lapped. The waters seemed almost frozen, like a perfect shard of crystal, their boat a trapped and dirty imperfection.

Sophie walked around the edge of the yacht, checking that everything was ok, her motion rocking the boat and finally disturbing the calm of the sea. The sea anchor was still down, the sails were still lowered, all seemed fine. Yet there was something unsettling about the eerie calm.

Josh finally joined her one deck.

“Oooo, becalmed,” he said in a dramatic voice, looking around.

“It’s not funny,” Sophie scolded him, “it’s creepy.”

“Relax Samuel Coleridge,” said Josh, rolling his eyes, “this isn’t Rime of the Ancient Mariner, we have a little something called an engine.”

The engine, as it happened, had ceased to work.

“Well, that’s a bit of a mystery,” said Josh as he emerged from the engine hatch thirty minutes later, wiping his oily hands on his shorts. He was stripped to his waist and glistening with sweat.

“Should we radio for help?” wondered Sophie, scanning the horizon. They were a long way out, deliberately so. There was no land in sight, and no ships either. She found the latter a little odd. This was the Mediterranean, they weren’t exactly in a backwater.

“Nah,” said Josh, clearly unwilling to be defeated by an inanimate object, “we were going to anchor out here for the night anyway. I’ll take another good look at the engine in the morning. If I still can’t get it to work then we’ll probably have some wind by then anyway and we can sail back to Sicily.”

Josh jerked his thumb over his shoulder to indicate the direction of Sicily.

“Sicily is that way,” said Sophie quietly, indicating the opposite direction. Josh’s brow furrowed for a moment.

“Oh yeah. Well, my point still stands.”

They both paused for a moment, silently reflecting on this new development. The sun was just thinking about dipping its toe in the ocean. High above, a fingernail of a new Moon scratched the velvet shroud of the darkening sky.

“Shall we call it a night?”

Josh had made overtures to her as they lay in the narrow bed, but she wasn’t in the mood. She didn’t want to rock the boat; it seemed like disturbing the Mediterranean in its calm reflections would have been disrespectful.

So now, an hour later, Josh was snoring into the back of her neck as Sophie stared into the darkness. Sleep eluded her, and eventually she gave up the chase. She eased herself out of the bunk. Josh gave a short snort and spread out, filling the space she had vacated like the incoming tide, but he did not wake.

Sophie climbed back up on deck, hoping to feel the gentle breath of the wind against her bare arms, but still all was calm. The stars stared down at her; ancient Polaris, watchful Antares, cunning Sirius.

She was the reason they were there. Sophie was a Classics professor. She had asked for this busman’s holiday, sailing the ports of the Mediterranean. She was right where she wanted to be.

And yet…something felt wrong. It was like the world was on pause. Holding its breath. Was this what the Romans had warned of; why their ancient custom forbade ships to sail out of sight of land on the eve of a new moon? Was this what the Etruscans had whispered fearfully of in the long watches of the night? Was this what the Minoans called the ‘Siren Sea’, when the old gods emerged from their deep homes below the waves and sung songs that were written when the world was young?

Sophie shuddered, and it had nothing to do with the chill of the cloudless night. She was letting her imagination get the better of her. Now that her eyes were adjusting to the dark, she scanned the horizon for the lights of passing ships.

It was then that she saw them, in the middle distance. Was the wind picking up at last, was that anaemic moonlight glittering off tiny waves, stirred to life by a new breath of wind? Or were those lights coming from beneath the ocean? A natural phosphorescence; the bio-luminescence of algae? It had to be that right? Or was it something much less benign?

No, that was silly she told herself. This was the twenty first century. Pagan gods held no sway here. And yet…who was to say what year it was beneath the waves? Who could dare to guess the calendar of elder things who danced and sang beneath the light of a new moon?  What strange rituals did they keep and what antediluvian festivals did they hold sacred?

Sophie knew she should go back into the cabin, close her eyes and pretend she was asleep. That’s definitely what she should have done, but she felt like she was rooted to the spot. Just another few moments, Sophie told herself as the glow grew gently brighter, and the subtle notes of conch shells drifted out of the darkness.

In the morning, Josh awoke to find himself still without an engine, and now also without a wife.

Four Digit Number

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of an ongoing writing prompt exercise with a fellow writer. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.

***

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Photo by Nick Hillier on Unsplash

All his life he had been able to see how old people were in years, the numbers loomed over them. Each year at the exact  second they were born the number changed with startling precision. He had learned to ignore them by now. But today was the first time he saw a four digit number.

For many years Myles had wondered what the purpose of his “power” was. It was certainly difficult to use it to fight crime, unless it some sort of age-based fraud. He had mused on the idea of becoming a nightclub bouncer; but other than the fool-proof ability to spot underage people with fake IDs, he had none of the prerequisite skills.

Although Myles ‘used’ his power every day – in the sense that it was always active – it had still taken him many years to puzzle out the fine details of how it worked. On the eve of his 16th birthday he had eagerly stayed up late looking in a mirror – his pale face and blue eyes bright with excitement – at the number over his own head. Midnight came and went, and the number stubbornly remained stuck on 15. He went to bed disappointed, wondering if his “power” was broken, wondering if he’d been celebrating the wrong birthday all these years. But the next morning sure enough there it was, a number ‘16’ floating above his short blonde hair. It wasn’t until 2am on the morning of his 18th birthday that he realised the digits changed at the literal moment of birth.

Myles had spent a lot of time looking at the numbers. It was hard not to. The weird thing about them was that the closer he stared and the more he concentrated on the numbers over someone’s head, the more indistinct they became. It was actually quite difficult to study them like this too often, as people tended to become unsettled or alarmed if Myles spent a lot of time staring intently at the space just above their head.

It was also hard to tell what the numbers were actually made of. There were a sort of bluish-green, and semi-transparent, like a hologram or an augmented reality display. Myles had wondered if they were literally there, or if it was just his brain interpreting some other stimulus like…like pheromones? Biological cell clocks? Was he detecting age via some other means and his brain was adding a visual interpretation to help him understand what he was sensing? Myles couldn’t see ages for people on television or in films, so this added weight to the idea he was sensing a physical stimulus. Plus when he looked at his reflection his own number showed up the correct way around – not mirrored – which again led him to believe the numbers were not a literally physical object with a real presence that only he could see.

Myles had seen his first three-digit number when he was a teenager, visiting his elderly Nan in a care home. One of the other care home residents had a ‘102’ floating over his head; a fascinating distraction that had led his mum to chastise him after they left for daydreaming and not paying more attention to his poor Nan during the visit.

He had seen his second three-digit number when he started University. He had met the person during Freshers Week; a student in his halls had a three-digit number floating over his head that both fascinated and horrified Myles…’018′.

That had been a moment of bitter and frightening revelation in a number of ways. He’d seen plenty of other numbers starting with a zero before – every child under ten that he could recall meeting had a zero before their single-digit age. But Myles realised that because he had seen it so much when he was young he had never questioned why it was one zero, and not two or three or more. Looking at this fellow student, he had a sickening realisation that was two-fold; firstly it was logical that people must only have a third digit if they were going to live to be at least one hundred years old. Secondly, Myles only had a two digit number over his own head…

It was a weirdly sickening thing, to know that, whatever happened, he would be dead before he reached his one hundredth birthday. Statistically, he knew that was pretty much a given anyway, but to be told it definitely in no uncertain terms…Myles found that oddly deflating.

That revelation had been five years ago, and now, with a ‘22’ over his own head, Myles had seen his first four-digit number. He had been sitting in a coffee shop on Saturday, just watching the world go by. At first he didn’t register it – well, he did, but it took a few seconds to digest it. A dark haired girl was walking past the shop window, minding her own business, with a ‘0021’ floating over her head, plain as day.

Myles gawped open-mouthed for a few long seconds, before she reached the end of the window and disappeared from view. He hurriedly took one last gulp of coffee and rushed out of the door, oblivious to the mutterings of people he pushed past in his haste. He easily spotted her again as soon as he reached the street. He began to run to catch up with her, and then slowed down. What would he say to her? What could he say to her? He settled for following her at a borderline-creepy distance, transfixed by the four-digits that wavered just above her long, straight, dark brown hair.

At last, was this it? Myles wondered to himself. Was this the point of his “power”; to find four-digit people? Perhaps he was supposed to protect her and ensure that she reached her thousandth year? Or was she some sort of near-immortal monster that he was supposed to fight? Was this advancing technology or creeping magic? Was she aware of the unimaginable lifetime ahead of her, or blissfully oblivious? What was special about her, and if he found out what it was, would it allow him to finally understand his own “power”?

Whatever the correct question, and whatever the mysterious answer might be, Myles didn’t really care. He just wanted to know what it was. He trailed behind her, hypnotised and desperate for any sort of an answer.

The Glass House

The following is another short story that I wrote recently as part of a writing prompt exercise. This is an ongoing project with a fellow writer that gives both of us a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt text is in bold.

***

Chink!

Chink!

Karl looked up, just in time to see the the third stone arcing through the air. Chink!

“Stop throwing stones at my house, it’s made of glass!” yelled Karl in a flash of anger, rising from his plastic chair. The teenagers in the street laughed and threw another stone.

Chink!

Hold on, why do I care, it’s not like I even want to be here? thought Karl with a sudden sense of clarity. Even though that was the case, he was still annoyed by the attack. It felt like a violation of his personal space. Karl snorted quietly to himself in faint amusement; the irony of that last sentiment not lost on him. Still, the teenagers were here for a show, and if he gave them one by getting angry then they’d just hang around. If he just ignored them, then hopefully they’d get bored and wander off.

“You know what, that’s fine,” Karl yelled loudly, picking his book up and sitting back down. He wasn’t sure if they’d heard him; they seemed to be laughing and he couldn’t hear that, so probably not. There were no windows for him to open and shout through; you didn’t need them on a glass house, and you definitely didn’t need them on a prison.

Chink!

Chink!

Karl read and re-read the same sentence in his book six times, not really taking it in.

Chink!

The silence lengthened after the seventh impact; moments became seconds became minutes. Karl was finally able to proceed to the next sentence. The next sentence in his book that is, not the next prison sentence.

Karl was a convicted criminal. His crime was voyeurism. He’d taken advantage of his job at the local leisure centre to install hidden webcams in the changing rooms. Five years and countless terabytes of video files later, and he had finally been caught. The long years of successful filming had made him blasé. He could never imagine getting caught – until he was. Then suddenly he was staring down the barrel of fifteen years, and a lifetime on the sex offenders register.

Except…except then he had been offered another option. The current government was slipping and sliding dangerously to the right and were keen to answer media charges that prison sentences weren’t tough enough and criminals weren’t visibly seen to be punished.

Well, you can’t get much more visible than this, mused Karl, looking up through his roof at the grey sky. Karl had been offered an alternative to his lengthy sentence; take part in this pilot scheme for high-profile punishments and he’d only have to serve five years, with another five years on the register after release. All he had to do was spend those years under house arrest…in a house made entirely of glass.

Was this justice or irony? After the first week Karl had decided it could be both. The shorter prison term had seemed like the no-brainer choice at the time and he had seized the opportunity with both hands. But now he wished he’d thought about it for a moment or two longer, then he might have chosen the fifteen years of privacy instead.

There were some good bits to his situation, like when there was a storm. Karl could watch uninhibited as the lightning danced across the sky and the rain made mesmerising patterns in the transparent guttering. But mostly it was bad. Like transparent-bathroom-wall bad. Like plastic-bed-sheets-bad. Like being-woken-up-at-4:30am-on-a-sunny-summer-morning bad. Like only-allowed-three-small-books-a-week-so-he-couldn’t-build-a-wall-with-them bad.

Sometimes people came by to jeer and throw stones – like today – but mostly they just came to stare. Karl often wondered if any of the people he’d secretly filmed over the years came to watch him. He knew he would have done, had the situation been reversed. But then again, that was kind of his thing.

Karl stopped reading and looked down at the barely visible notches he’d carved into the arm of his transparent plastic chair; 72 weeks down, 168 to go. Karl groaned quietly to himself. That was still a hell of a lot of early sunrises and fast-as-humanly-possible showers…

Unless He Got The Lights Working…

The following is a short story that I wrote recently as part of a writing prompt exercise. I was fairly pleased with how it turned out, so thought it was worth sharing. I may revisit this story again at some point in the future. Caution: some adult language ahead!

***

No wordplay intended, but unless he got these lights working his future was looking pretty dim. Ryan had no idea where the Occluded had come from. Not the ones currently trampling the flower beds in his garden; they had crawled from the sewer, or the storm drains, or under a compost heap, or from some other dark, shitty place.

No, no-one knew where they had come from originally. People just started vanishing, in ones or two at first. Then it wasn’t long before someone caught one of the Occluded on video, and then suddenly they were everywhere and it just became a thing that you had to sleep with your lights on in your bedroom at night. Because if you didn’t, the Occulded crept into your house and ate your fucking eyes or some shit and turned you into one of them. I mean, Jesus Christ! It was bizarre how readily everyone had accepted this. Just getting on with their lives as though the world hadn’t gone insane.

As Ryan fumbled his way to the circuit breaker in the dark he could already hear the creepy things scratching at his front door, testing the handle, whispering their dark secrets through the letterbox. He shivered in fear and redoubled his efforts, the thin torch beam dancing wildly over the breaker box as his hands shook with adrenaline. Then, his fingers found the switch.

Click.

Nothing.

Shit!

Click-Shit!-Click-Shit!-Click-Shit!-Click-Shit!

He frantically flicked the circuit breaker again and again, the rattling of his front door increasing in tempo in time with his panic. Any second now he’d feel them breathing down his neck and then-

Click-Fizz-Pop!

With a surge of electricity and a surge of relief, the lights came back on inside his house, and the porch security lights outside too. The front door fell silent instantly. It sounded like a bulb had blown here and there around the house, but it wasn’t enough to stop the building from once again being extremely well lit.

Ryan walked slowly around the house, checking all the the doors and windows were still locked, and then even slower up the stairs, pausing on every creak to listen. Checking that was the hammering of his heart that he could hear, and not something trying a door handle.

Finally he reached his bedroom and, after a brief pause to gather some courage, opened the curtains. He could see them there – just – at the end of his garden, lurking in the shadows between the street lights. They were called the Occluded, but he preferred to call them the Eyeless. It rolled off the tongue easier when yelling a warning to your friend who was about to be dragged off into the shadows. Plus it was literally what they were – people without eyes. Just two bloody holes in their faces. How they got around and did their thing, he had no idea. That was probably what made them all the more terrifying.

Ryans house lights were on, but they were still there, outside. Why were they still there? The Occluded never entered a well lit area. It wasn’t that the light hurt them, it was just that they had a total advantage in the dark and they were loathe to give it up.

But his lights were on, and they were still there.

Getting annoyed now, he threw open his window.

“You suck!” he yelled down into the darkness.

“I think you’ll find it is you who sucks!” one of them hissed back from the shadows.

“Pretty touchy for a fucking sewer mutant!” Ryan yelled back.

There was some laughter from outside, then silence. That was especially creepy.

They were still there.

Ryan turned on his extra bedside lights, left his torch switched on on his nightstand and wound-up his clockwork lamp. He laid down, closing his eyes and trying not to think about how some of the Occluded outside were likely once people he knew.

It’s was going to be a long night.

Dark Skies, Green Jungle

It’s time for a mid-week visit to the Warhammer 40,000 universe with some Ork-themed fan-fic.

***

Monolithic storm fronts were common on the planet of Mariner’s Pity. The world was close to the system’s star, and the weather systems were in a state of permanent agitation from the ionising solar winds. Granite clouds hung low over the steaming jungles, lashing the swaying trees with driving rain. The air was close and humid, the vegetation was twisted and impenetrable in places, but, worse still, the jungles were teeming with Orks.

Og Throatchoppa was laying on a small ridge at the edge of the jungle, overlooking a ramshackle town that, until a few days ago, he had ruled with an iron fist. But now it was bustling with human soldiers. Once, more years ago than the Warboss could count, this world had belong to the pink-skins, and now it seemed they wanted it back. Hastily erected flood-lamps lit the buildings as the ‘Umies worked through the night to turn the Ork settlement into a forward operating base, stacking supplies and rebuilding defences.  The invaders had cleared the jungle away from the outskirts of the town, leaving open ground approximately equal to the effective range of an Ork shoota, forcing Og to perform his reconnoitre from a distance.

Dat was kunnin’ of ‘em, mused the Warboss as he thoughtfully chewed his cigar, shifting it from one side of his mouth to the other. The massive greenskin lay in the long grass, crude night vision lenses held in from of his beady eyes and his soaking uniform plastered to his skin by the endless deluge. In the distance, humans patrolled on the partially burnt walls of his town. Og thought the green hue of night vision made the Imperial invaders look like pale, lanky grots.

“Look at dem ‘Umies down der,” said Og to no-one in particular, “sat on our stuff like a squig on a turd.”

There were mutterings of assent from his entourage. A huge number of Orks crammed into the undergrowth with him; officers, advisors, meks, doks, kommandos, drinking buddies, hangers-on, grots, food sellers, squigs. It would perhaps have looked comical under other circumstances, if there weren’t there to plan a slaughter.

“What do yoo fink?” said Og, passing the night lenses to Wazzdakka. The Big Mek took the lenses and watched their former home for a few seconds.

“Yer, dey’s ‘Umies alright, boss,” replied the Orky engineer.

“I know dat,” grunted Og, cuffing Wazdakka round the ear and snatching back the night lenses, “I meant can we take dem?”

“I’d say so, boss,” muttered Wazdakka, rubbing his sore ear.

“We need our stuff back,” someone grumbled from elsewhere in the bush.

“Dat’s right, all me delikate fine adjustment toolz are still in me hut,” complained Mek Gunzog, patting the empty spot on his belt where his number 5 lump-hammer normally hung, “I can’t fix anything ‘til we get dem back.”

“Alright alright, quit yer whining,” muttered Og, “we attack at dawn. Den we’ll have our stuff back, and we’ll have all der stuff as well!”

The warboss crawled out from the grass, wet vegetation slapping against his face. The scouting mission now over, the rest of his entourage pulled themselves out of the undergrowth, tripping over each other and slipping in the mud as they followed their boss back down the hill. The remainder of the warband were crowded in the shadows beneath the jungle trees, a discontented wall of shifting muscle and angry eyes, waiting for the order to attack.

“Right yoo lot,” said Og, raising his voice to be heard over the storm, “as soon as it’s light, weez gonna attack da ‘Umies and get our hutz back!”

There were a few cheers from the crowd, but most of the Orks looked pretty fed-up with having to be outside in the storm. Og knew a brewing mutiny when he saw one and decided it was time for some inspiring words. Or, failing that, a couple of inspiring skull crackings.

“Now I’ve ‘eard some of yo gitz sayin’ dat we shouldn’t have run away when da ‘Umies attacked in da first place,” continued Og, “but it was unfair of dem to drop out of the sky like dat when we weren’t ready. It ain’t a proper battle if yer don’t know yer fightin’ one! So as it weren’t a proper battle it meanz we didn’t lose by runnin’ away, see?”

There were some enthusiastic murmurs and nods of assent, but not all the greenskins looked convinced.

“Now, are we gonna stand fer ‘Umies comin’ down ‘ere and takin’ our jobs?” demanded Og. He was meant by a sea of blank faces.

“What jobs, boss?” someone piped up from the back.

“Fightin’ and killin’ all da other Orks on dis planet! Dat’s our job!” roared Og.

Resounding cheers this time, and some random weapon fire that the Warboss hoped was drowned out by the noise of the storm.

“Right, come on den, da sun is nearly up, time to get to it while da ‘Umies are still gettin’ der fort ready! They’ll never see us comin’! WAAAAAGH!” bellowed Og.

“WAAAAGH!” the boyz echoed.

The Orks set off at a jog through the trees and up the ridge, towards the town. In the distance the storm clouds were beginning to clear and the horizon was lit with a pre-dawn pink.

“‘Ere, boss,” said Mek Gunzog, coming up alongside Og as they ran, “why are we attacking if da ‘Umies ain’t ready for us? I thought you said it weren’t a proper battle if yer enemy doesn’t know they’re fightin’?”

“Nah,” replied Og, “I meant it ain’t a proper battle if da Orks ain’t ready, as we’re da best fighters. If we’re not fightin’ then it ain’t a fight. Stands ta reason, don’t it?”

“Oh, ok boss,” nodded Gunzog, apparently seeing the Warboss’ wisdom.

Og Throatchoppa hoped to Gork and Mork that would be the last time he was questioned today; he was much more in the mood for bashin’ ‘Umies round the head than Orks.

The Petitioner’s District – Part II

Another quick visit to the Warhammer 40,000 universe and the Siege of Terra during the Horus Heresy. Part I of this short story can be found here.

***

Tick-tick-tick. Letholdus’ blood dripped rhythmically on the floor of the tank’s transport compartment, the metallic ping audible to his enhanced senses even above the distressed growl of the Land Raider’s engine. He was breathing heavily, wracked with pain and heat as his transhuman body fought to repair the hurt inflicted upon it. But he was still standing, for the moment at least.

They had met the Iron Warriors in the streets and alleys of the Petitioner’s District, blade to blade and muzzle to muzzle. The Imperial Fists had burned out the lead tanks as the Traitors pushed their way through the fortified perimeter, choking their armoured column in steel and flames.

Shield-Captain Hyperion had led the Custodians down the right flank. Letholdus had not seen them clearly, just the occasional flash of baroque gold amongst settling rad-dust. But he had heard the Olympian oaths and screams over the unsecured vox though. The four Custodians had clashed with a full tactical muster of the Iron Warriors. By the sounds of it, the Iron Warriors had the worst of that encounter.

Letholdus had met the Traitors eye-to-eye in the shadow of the Triumphal Arch of Unity. Letholdus spat out a mouthful of blood, the irony of the location leaving a bitter copper taste in his mouth. His Breacher squad had locked shields and advanced into the narrow alleyways, hosing down the enemy Astartes with burning promethium from their flame throwers. A few succumbed, but flamers were for clearing nests of crawling Xenos and mobs warp-mad humans, not Space Marines. Here and there Iron Warriors fell to the flames, the weak joints and seals of their suits succumbing to the heat, but there was no stopping the tide of Traitors. The Palace walls were in sight. They had the scent of blood in their nostrils and insanity in their eyes.

The lines of transhuman warriors clashed in the narrow alley. The sound was deafening. Overwhelming. Maddening. Letholdus felt the thunder of it in his chest even through his plate. Mono-edge combat blades hacked gouges in ceramite shields and bolters barked desperately into the face of the enemy. There was no room for blade-craft, no room for fancy footwork. Just blood, sweat, gunsmoke and raw, straining muscle. The Iron Warriors were expert stormers, but this sort of close action with shield and blade was meat and drink to the Imperial Fists. The line ground back and forth like a slipped gear, neither side gaining traction.

Then Letholdus spotted his opposite number in the press of bodies. An Iron Warriors Siege Breaker. A Centurion and a ruiner of worlds. The Traitor officer wore his helm, but Letholdus could still read the contemptuous sneer on his face from the way he held his head. The two officers surged through the melee towards each other, their subordinates knowing better than to come between them. The Iron Warrior carried a huge powered mace and was attended by a cyber-vulture familiar that squawked and snapped at the Imperial Fists around it.

As they came within a few paces of each other, rank and name idents of his opponent began to automatically scroll across the feed from Letholdus’ bionic eye. He blink-clicked them away in rapid succession. Tick-tick-tick. Irrelevant. All irrelevant. A Traitor was a Traitor.

The Siege Breaker struck first. He snarled a challenge and swung his mace in a huge arc. Letholdus had been expecting it, but there was no-where to go in the alley. Even if there had been, he knew that his pride would not allow him to take another backwards step now he was face-to-face with the enemy. A powered mace could pulp flesh in an instant. But Letholdus was not flesh. He was metal and stone and war.

The mace crashed into his reinforced shoulder guard with the noise like over-eager thunder. One of the sub-layers cracked, but Letholdus’ armour was wrought by the finest artificers that his Legion had to offer. He rode the blow, shrugged it off, and stepped through the arcing lightning wake of the mace and inside his opponent’s guard. His cyber-vulture screeched in alarm and the Siege Breaker tried to ride the momentum of his own back-swing to carry himself clear, but it was too late.

“TRAITOR!” roared Letholdus, blood and spittle flying into the melee along with his words. His energised Solarite gauntlet crackled with lightning as he pumped it into his opponent’s chest. The Iron Warrior was knocked directly backwards by the blow, his brothers around him losing their footing and stumbling. Letholdus lunged forward to finish the job, but the press of warriors closed in around the fallen enemy officer.

TRAITOR!” howled Letholdus again, furiously pulping the helm of an Iron Warrior trooper with his mighty fist. He reigned in his rage; to be denied his chance to finish the enemy warlord was a frustration, but he had a company to command. Besides, it would be a miracle if he survived the injury that Letholdus had inflicted. The resolve of the Iron Warriors was wavering. Now he just had to-

Tick-tick-tick. The sounds of three heavy canisters sailing overhead to strike the stone walls of the buildings one after the other in a perfect rhythm. Tick. Tick. Tick.

With a sucking PHUT the Iron Warriors’ Phospex canisters exploded in the twisting streets, the white alchemical fire licking around boarding shield and melting proud yellow armour. Screams were burnt from throats and hideous shadows were etched on the walls as the eerie living fire crept and fed and consumed.

Letholdus staggered back with the surviving Breachers, preparing to receive the inevitable charge of the Iron Warriors. To deploy hated Phospex in such close quarters boarded on a desperate madness that was so typical of this fratricidal war. But the expected charge did not come. As the crawling white fire finally guttered and died, a colossal Leviathan Dreadnought smashed its way into the alley to cover the retreat of its brethren. An incoherent snarl crackled from its vox amp, accompanied by the sounds of cycling autoloaders.

“Shields!” called Letholdus. The Breachers reacted in less than a heart-beat, just as the Leviathan began raking the surviving Imperial Fists with a ear-splitting fusillade of high calibre shells from its storm cannons. The rain of fire was beyond punishing, like the bezerk punches of an angry god. The Breachers tried to form a shield wall, to fall back in an orderly fashion, but ceramite buckled and boarding shields gave way one-by-one. A shell struck Letholdus in the greave, knocking him down onto one knee, then another took him in the shoulder, then the chest. As the Breachers died around him he was weighed down by the press of armoured bodies and pulled into momentary unconsciousness.

He came to less than a minute later, dragged clear of the massacre in the alley by the few survivors. The Imperial Fists had triumphed. The Iron Warriors had failed to take enough ground within their allotted mission parameters, so they had fallen back to regroup and replan. Tick-tick-tick. The timer was counting down again, sloughing away the seconds until their next advance. And Letholdus had too few men to hold the Petitioner’s District against a second wave. So here he was, in the Land Raider, listening to the tick-tick-tick of his life blood dripping onto the metal deck, and grimly watching the walls of the Imperial Palace loom large on the view screens as the fell back towards the Imperial Fist’s next defensive line…

 

The Petitioner’s District

I’ve taken a quick break from writing I should actually be working on to write another short piece of Warhammer 40,000 fiction, this time in the Horus Heresy setting during the Siege of Terra.

***

The dust from the bombardment had given the sky a permanent red cast, even here in the old Himalisia. The hellish glow had choked the normal cloudless azure of the sky. But that was just another irrelevant detail for Letholdus to file away as his world was swallowed by the siege. It ground on and on, consuming all of his existence. The Traitors were being made to pay for every single step they took towards the walls of the Imperial Palace. They paid in blood, and in iron and in transhuman lives. But it appeared the Treacher Legions had more than enough coin enough to spend on their advance.

Letholdus was numb to it all. Numb to the insanely spiralling casualty figures. Numb to the weeks of only fitful half-sleep. Numb to the faces of friends and foe alike, faces that even now faded to grey in his mind’s eye and were swept away in the ash. It had all become a rhythm; a ticking metronome that measured their backwards steps across the Kathmandu plateau.

Tick-tick-tick. The thermal contraction of Mark VI power armour in the cold Tibetan nights. Tick-tick-tick. The chrono counting down to the next bombardment. Tick-tick-tick. A faulty actuator twitching in his powered gauntlet. Tick-tick-tick. The butcher’s tally steadily rising as their defensive perimeter tightened across the Petitioner’s District.

His Command Land Raider crushed a low wall to powder beneath its relentless tracks, and Letholdus steadied himself on the cupola. The cyclopean walls of the Inner Palace loomed on the horizon, a rockcrete smear in the haze, dwarfing the district they currently traveled through. As the Imperial Fists fell back and the walls became clearer, so too did their…their what? Defeat? No, never that. Their situation. Their limits, logistics and supply lines. That’s all he saw now, in crystal clarity. Letholdus watched the walls grind inexorably closer and listened to the tick-tick-tick of Land Raider’s systems beneath him.

The vox snapped. Letholdus touched his earpiece.

“Reinforcements, Praetor,” a voice crackled, the words of his vox operator distorted by magnetic backwash.

The information was unnecessary, he had already seen them. As the Imperial Fists consolidated further towards the Palace walls, a golden arrow flew out to meet them. Letholdus watched the baroque grav-carrier skim towards them, feeling the tick-tick-tick of muscle spasm around the edge of his bionic eye. In better times would he have considered their arrival an honour or an insult? It was neither now, he was simply numb.

Letholdus called a halt. They had reached their latest fall-back line. The Iron Warriors weren’t far behind. Ranging artillery was already stamping flat the slums to the east. Soon these streets would run red with genhanced blood. The Imperial Fists began to dig in. Tattered but proud banners were raised. Letholdus issued orders. The grav-carrier slowed, disembarked four gilded lions, and then sped away, back towards the Palace.

Tick-tick-tick. Four pairs of gold armoured boots rhythmically crunched through the dust and broken glass towards Letholdus.

“Praetor Letholdus,” said their leader, removing his helmet, “I am Shield-Captain Hyperion of the Legio Custodes.”

***

Part II of this short story can be found here.

Flash Fiction

Today I entered the flash fiction contest at reflexfiction.com and I’d encourage others to do the same. Flash fiction is an excellent format when you have the kernel of a great story that you’d love to see the light of day, but that might not have enough substance to it to flesh out a full novel or even a regular short story.

I can see flash fiction becoming a habit; it’s the only way I’m going to get through every item on my ‘Story Ideas’ list in this lifetime.

And yes, cash prizes and free entry help too.

“Winterhill” Novel Finally Finished

“Winterhill”, a project that started life as short story in 2012 and that I last mentioned in 2015 , is now at long last a complete Young Adult Fantasy Horror novel. The name “Winterhill” was just the working title; it has a new title that I’ll keep under wraps for the moment.

This was the reason that all my recent blog entries have simply been about Baby001,and nothing else. All non-essential projects were put aside so I could finish this novel.

Now I just have to do something with it!

The Enforcer and the Neophyte

More Warhammer 40,000 fiction on the theme of Genestealer Cults, following on from The Church of the Astral Ascension short story.

***

A pall of smog from the refineries hung over the ore merchant’s district, guarding the secrets of the alleyways and barter houses as jealously as any territorial Guilder. The streets were full of life, the people of Grovsenor II going about their daily business in the half-light and petrochem fumes. The sunlight barely reached the ground. Eventually it gave up and took its business elsewhere.

Garon casually scanned the throng from his vantage point. The entrance to his patron’s house was raised a few steps above the dust and dirt of the thoroughfare, the height symbolic as well as practical. The Zavr dynasty were an ancient and well respected merchant family of ore traders. Any cargo coming into the hives from the Kolt Mountains to the north, or from far Asa Prospect, or even the orbital Parable Station, chances were it passed through the Zavr-run ports.

All manner of people walked up and down the cobbled street, slipping wraith-like from the gloom and fading away again into the distance like unquiet spirits. Traders, negocitories, indentured ogryn, tax servitors – they all came and went. None approached the steps where Garon stood. You needed a gene-verified invite wafer to take that course.

Garon took pride in his work. He was an Enforcer. A Guild Enforcer, yes, not Arbites. Arbites wouldn’t deign to get their hands dirty with civil work, but Garon knew it was important never-the-less. The Pax Zavr kept the Emperor’s peace in the ore merchant’s district. He’d dealt with fraudsters, thieves, tax avoiders and even the odd Guild Assassin in his time. Each time he’d walked away mostly unscathed. Or still standing, at any rate.

Something changed in the flow of people. You didn’t spend as much time as Garon had in this district without a subtle appreciation of the way people travelled the streets. Citizens were moving aside. It wasn’t fear or panic, they were simply making way. Distant shapes twisted in the fog. Sound echoed weirdly from the brick buildings. Was that chanting? Singing? Praying? Garon activated his infra-visor. There was a partial heat-wash a little way down the street, a livid bruise in the air. A large mass of bodies? Or a lost ore conveyer? Garon’s hand rested on the holster of his autopistol. It was probably nothing, but he stayed alert.

Like an oceanic mass conveyor emerging from the evening mist, a throng of people, banners and motion emerged from the smog. Garon relaxed. It was just some kind a religious parade. Asteroid miners, down from orbit for a trip to the big city, by the looks of their pressure suits. A bulk hauler took off from the distant starport as if to confirm this, a grey blur ponderously fighting to pull itself back into orbit. The Enforcer watched it for a moment, then returned his attention to the pantomime unfolding before him. He’d seen it’s like before; every so often a religious frenzy would work itself up amongst the lower orders. Productivity would increase, church membership would swell and a few mutants would be whipped through the streets. Useful really.

This lot were really getting into it though. The precession marched through the street, handing out literature and propaganda to bemused or disinterested onlookers. At the centre of the throng, a zealot wielding a massive icon rallied the faithful around him. And behind him, a group of men followed in very convincing xenos costumes. They held Garon’s attention. They were fantastic! The parade drew to a halt outside the Zavr Guildhouse.

“Hark all ye the words of Jarick Ovid,” said the bald priest at the head of the procession, “I am Kodyn Oospore, his appointed Neophyte and messenger of the creed of the Church of the Astral Ascension!”

It annoyed Garon that they’d stopped directly in front of him, but technically they weren’t breaking any law. He scanned up and down the street, checking no-one was using the crowd as cover to sneak up on him. Everything seemed fine. Some people had stopped to watch. The poor and desperate mostly. The wealthy and the mind-wiped servitors were sauntering past, not sparing the faithful a second glance. Garon went back to listening to the priest.

“The time is almost upon us! Even now the rightful Emperor of all Mankind prepares for his Astral Ascension,” said Kodyn, “and when he walks abroad amongst the stars he will cow all the horrors and the unbelievers. See! Even the icon of his embryonic apotheosis commands respect.”

The icon bearer raised his precious charge high – a massive metal pole with an oddly monstrous symbolic embryo at its crown – and the men in the xenos costumes cowered before it. Well, sort of. It looked more like a bow of respect to Garon. Their outfits really were good, much better than the large paper wyrms full of dancers that you sometimes saw. Garon had seen a handful of his aliens in his time; an Eldar wanderer attached to a trade delegation. A Jokero that had joined a merchant’s retinue for reasons no-one could fathom. A mounted and stuffed Ork warboss in a museum. That one had been a tiny thing, laughable really, with a long pointy nose, big ears and sickly green skin.

But these costumes he was looking at now….he had no idea what they were supposed to be, with their bulbous purple heads and blue carapaces.

The Neophyte priest was still talking about the fate that awaited those that didn’t submit to the will of the Astral Emperor. He seemed like a man of calculating intelligence. In contrast, the icon bearer had the passion of a true believer, a real fire in his eyes. Garon idly wondered where that figure of speech came from, and if the zealot’s passion would actually manifest as raised ocular temperature.

He flicked his infra-visor down. He frowned. He flicked it back up again and looked at the men in the xenos costumes. One of them had fixed him with its burning red gaze. He lowered the visor again. They weren’t reading as men in costumes, they were reading as…

Garon fumbled for his autopistol with shaking fingers. It was too late. The Genestealer’s talon punched through his carapace armour. Punched clean through the armour that had kept him safe for over a decade. Punched through as though it was nothing more than a simple robe.

People screamed. Footfalls pounded on the cobbles. Guns were produced from concealed holsters under priestly robes. Everything was suddenly very cold. Garon hit the rockrete steps as medical alerts sounded distantly in his armoured earpiece. In one last act of loyalty to House Zavr and the people of the city, Garon found the strength to activate the silent alarm built into his gauntlet. Then he slipped into darkness.