Tuesday, October 18, 2016

One Bad Man

It is cold. That is my first thought as I stand against the Bielgorod, the walls of the White Town, watching the Neglina River rush past. Of course, October in Moscow is never what one might call tropical, but it has been many months since I was last up in the hours before dawn.
I draw my cloak closer around me and hunker down into the gloomy shadows, waiting for one Vasiliy Ivanov to appear. He will, at no later than two minutes past six, and I pull out my pocket watch – the bronze one with the green roving eye set in the lid, a token from Alexsey, my sponsor, and a not-so-subtle reminder that he is ever watching – and determine that I have but three minutes left to wait at most.
My breath puffs out, a misty white miasma in front of me, and my mind wanders back to the Chernye Miazmy, the black miasma that presently infect the town. They are spreading, quicker than before, and for all that they are careful to maintain face in public, I know that the administration is concerned. Three deaths in three days would leave any governor anxious, and although the century is old, it is not so old that Moscow has forgotten the Plague – fifteen years ago and more than half my own lifespan, and yet as real as the warmth of my breath on my hand when I remember the faces of my parents as they died.
Thankfully, Gospodin Ivanov appears around the corner before I can fall further into reminisces. Fifteen years ought to be time enough to put away the memory of my parents’ faces; alack, some days it is not. But Ivanov draws closer and I reach up to detach the little gears-and-rods contraption that cuffs my right ear; I don’t plan to let him out of my sight, so I should not need the sound-enhancement the earcuff provides, and I do not want it broken. Alexsey would not approve of that.
I slip the earcuff into a pocket, exchanging it for another cuff that this time fits over the tip of my finger. I glance down, twisting it so the nib, similar to a quill but fashioned from metal, sits over my nail. If I had a pot of ink at hand, I might write thusly; but this nib is not designed to hold ink. Instead, a tiny well is concealed in the band of the cuff. I apply light pressure to it, testing its hold.
Ivanov draws close and for a moment I hold my breath. If he spots me lurking in the shadows, I will have to forfeit today and come back again tomorrow – and that is assuming that he does not look close enough to learn my face. But my mission is blessed – I cast a grateful glance skywards – and Ivanov passes me, entering the city centre through the gate. I fall into step behind him, my footsteps kept light so the rushing of the tributary can muffle them.
My pulse pounds as we tread through the murky pre-dawn in the White Town. Above, the stars are diminishing and light touches the eastern sky. I chew the inside of my lip and run my thumb nervously over the cuff on my finger; logic tells me I should act now, while I can still be certain of both darkness and the element of surprise. But I have to be sure.
Alexsey would be proud. The very notion of wanting to make sure that I am doing the right thing means that some small part of me questions my orders, and that means questioning the Order that disseminates them, which in turn means questioning the One who orders. Alexsey is an atheist; he approves of questioning. I am a Shard; I am supposed to follow my orders.
My orders – God-given, monastery-ordained – have never been wrong yet, but a man’s life is not a thing to trifle with, and so before I send Gospodin Vasiliy Ivanov, who has a wife and a mother and a dog and friends, from this life, I must make certain; I must see that he is a bad man.
That is why, as he pauses in the doorway of an old building whose paint is flaking and brickwork is crumbling, I do not seize the opportunity to lunge at him. That is why, as he glances around, failing to see me, and enters the building, calling out a greeting to others inside, I do not give up and go home. Others pose a problem, but not so large a problem as murdering an innocent man.
I hesitate by the doorway, uncertain. Should I enter, and risk making myself seen, or should I stay back, and risk losing my quarry? A scream echoes in the building, cut short but nonetheless answering my question. I adjust my hood over my head and ease open the door. The scraping and thumps of a scuffle come from the right, so I take a deep breath and run.
It’s been too long since I did this last. Not the running; that I do regularly. No, it is the adrenalin that my body is not accustomed to, the way nerves thrill through my stomach and my blood rushes past my ears. I know that afterwards it will leave me with a high that is very nearly addictive, but for now, the stress is greater than the excitement. At the end of this corridor, I will kill a man.
Another cry rings out as I reach the door. I fling it open and it crashes against the wall, making the occupants of the room flinch mid-stride.
There, that one is Vasiliy, with his great-coat flapping around him like bat wings, silver pistol a giant claw in his hand. He swings towards me, pistol raised, and I lunge towards him under the barrel of the gun. As I dive, movement blurs to my right and I tackle Vasiliy, swinging him around to block me from whoever else is in the room. I land heavily on my hip and just have time to register the fact that I’ll have a spectacular bruise there tomorrow before Vasiliy is drawn down on top of me.
I look up over his shoulder at a young woman whose bruise over her left cheek could be the twin of my forthcoming one. The strap of her sarafan is torn and her blouse ripped loose. She grins wildly at me, but before anyone else can act I wrap my arm around Vasiliy’s neck. He struggles, but I draw the nib on my finger across the skin of his neck, pressing firmly. The well inside the cuff compresses, squirting poison like ink down inside the nib, which pierces his skin and delivers death into his veins.
He kicks against me and I push him away, kicking in my skirts to untangle my feet and right myself. I am not worried about him any longer; this building has long been rumoured to be a centre for slave traffic and if I had any doubts, the fact that the woman can do no more than gnash her teeth at me from where her chains bind her in the centre of the room is confirmation enough.
It seems Gospodin Ivanov was indeed a bad man. And now – I glance at him dismissively – he is a dead man.
“Who are you?” the woman – probably not more than a girl, now I look again – asks of me.
I smile. “I am a Shard.”
Her eyes widen and she shrinks back a little, gaze darting nervously to the body on the floor that once was called Vasiliy. “Oh.”
I shrug and move towards her, flapping out my skirts as I tuck the now-empty poison nib away. “He was a bad man.”
“Yes.” She bites her lip, twisting her fingers subconsciously in her sarafan. “Yes, he was.”
I shrug again and gesture to the chains around her ankles. “The key?”
She glances up at me, then back to Vasiliy. “Around his neck.”
I sigh deeply. Killing when my God commands it is something I do because it is necessary. Touching the dead, however, I much prefer to avoid.
Nonetheless, there are others in this building and if I am to get the woman out unharmed – or at least, without further harm – I must move. I kneel beside Gospodin Ivanov and peel back his clothing, layer by layer, until I find the key on a chain around his neck. The clasp is stuck fast, but the chain just fits over his head, if I don’t mind squashing his nose.
There is something absurdly perverse about mangling the face of a corpse to remove their necklace.
Footsteps slap in the hallway. I throw the key at the woman – “Here, hurry,” – and press myself against the wall by the door.
As expected, the woman hunches over immediately to loose her chains – right in the centre of the room, in plain sight from the hall.
“Hey!” a man shouts. He is near: ten, fifteen steps at most. I stiffen. “Hey, stop, girl!”
Five, four, three… I raise my arm, committing to my stance.
One. He bursts into the room and lunges at the woman who is scrabbling frantically at the last lock.
I lunge at him, catching him in the back of the neck with a blow that knocks him soundly out. He slumps, landing awkwardly across the woman’s leg.
She shakes him off and hugs herself, still shaking. “Dead?” she whispers.
I shake my head. “I had orders only for one,” I say, stooping to unlatch the final clasp of her chains. I take her hand and encourage her to step away.  “Come,” I say. “You are safe.”

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Glimmering Green Hope

Galen Andez crossed the threshold to his living quarters and set the door code to private. There were times when he would welcome the intrusion of his flight. Some days he left the door open hoping he'd catch someone from the training fleet to come and join him for an evening meal. Today his head ached, his muscles screamed in protest after extensive use, and he was the kind of fatigued that would end either with eighteen hours of sleep or with killing someone.

There wasn't an in-between on days like this. Too many hours linked to a Daylion Pride fighter could kill a man. This week he'd been hitting his limit every day ending in Y.

Stripping off his sweat-soaked shirt he tossed it in the general direction of his room before prowling over to the kitchen. Food. Lots of food, heavy on carbs and vat-grown proteins, and then he was going to sleep like the dead. Showers could wait.

He eyed the remains of a kitchen that had gone through this carnage six days trying to find something. Going out shopping was out of the question. Having his food delivered would require more human interaction than he could mentally entertain at the moment. There had to be something. A ration bar if nothing else.

A wink of emerald green caught his eye.

He tilted his head, watching the shimmering green to see if it would wink away, a hallucination caused by too many hours uplinked to a machine. Nope.

Stalking into the receiving area he stared down at the emerald green bra draped casually over the arm of one of the low, comfy chairs. None of the women in fleet wore bras under their body armor. It was, he'd been told, both uncomfortable and redundant. The body armor did an excellent job of keeping bouncing to a bare minimum. This... he ran a finger over the curve of the plush bra before picking it up. This was a fancy cage for full breasts.

The scent of warm wood and fresh grass lingered on the fabric like the memory of a ghost. Lyrian treesilk... expansive and luxurious. He caressed the fabric. Oh, hell yes!

There was only one woman he knew who would wear Lyrian made clothing. Last time he'd seen her he'd been a junior cadet still fighting for a chance to become a fighter pilot. She'd been... something else. Nothing like fleet. Nothing like the station-raised normcore people he'd been raised with. No ground pounder or starchaser could compare.

Just remembering her set his blood burning. The taste of her kiss was addictive, her voice hypnotic... Women like her were trouble. Sometimes the cause of it, but sometimes just there, like a rogue catalyst in the chemical equation of life.

A background sound he hadn't registered in his fatigued stupor became silent. He looked toward to the refresher room where the sound of water had stopped. Oh, hell no.


The door cracked open and a vixen with brindled hair curling from the refresher's humidity grinned at him. "Hiya, handsome. Dinner's in the chiller. I'll be out in a moment."

"Oh. No." Galen shook his head as his body tried to divide into two equal halves. One half wanted to run like a star was about to collapse in front of him. The other half wanted to rush to her embrace.
She tilted her head to the side, the little coquette. "No?" One bare foot crossed the threshold between the door and the living area. A tanned, toned leg followed, hinting at the naked body hidden from view. "Should I come out now?"

"What are you doing here?" His mouth was dry. Aching muscles found new life. She could have asked him to dance across the vacuum of space and he wouldn't have stopped to grab an EVA suit.
"My room wasn't ready, and I needed to shower. I didn't think you'd mind. Do you?" Her voice was pitched perfectly, a cross of sweet innocence combined with the fluster of a girl who knew he was cross but couldn't quite understand why.

Which was a bloody lie. Shyla was a 'pathic, one of the rare humans who could touch other human minds.

Every computer could read a person's fingerprint. Every 'pathic could read a mindprint, the unique pattern than belonged to an individual. She wouldn't have had to consult anyone to find him. She'd probably walked past, felt the impression of him in the room, and waltzed in without further thought.
"What if this were my girlfriend's room?" Galen asked, crossing his arms across his chest.

"I checked for women's clothes and signs of a lover. I wouldn't have stayed if I thought you were with someone." She stepped out of the refresher room wearing the shortest dress he'd ever seen on a woman. It might have been a long shirt. The navy blue fabric dropped from a string around her neck and unapologetically covered only the most spectacular views. Her back, arms, and legs were free to view, and he did, reveling in the sight of her.

Shyla reached out and stroked the side of his face with a gentle hand. "You're hurting."

He closed his eyes and took her touch too. The pain in his head eased, his muscles relaxed, the tension that wrapped around him like a boa loosened its grip. "Shyla..." He'd meant to rebuke her, to push her away, but it came out as a prayer.

One moment she was standing at arm's length, the next she was pressed against him, the heat of her body washing through him. Her lips found his, and he was lost.

When he opened his eyes he was laying on his bed with Shyla propped up on one elbow beside him. His pants were still on. The magical blue dress was still clinging to her and hiding everything he wanted to see. Shyla had added a knowing smile to her wardrobe. And he felt better than he had since the war started.

He flopped back on the pillow with his eyes closed. "Shyla."

"You needed it."

"No. I was fine."

"You were close to breaking."

"I was fine. I needed some nutrients and some sleep, not a full healing."

Two points of warmth touched his bare chest. Fingers, walking from his navel to his sternum, then dragging back down with the faintest hint of pain as her nails abraded his skin. He arched his spine involuntarily as she pulled her hand away. Every nerve in him thrummed with needing.

"You need so much more than healing, Commander." Her breath was hot against his ear.

"Shyla." This time her name came out as an impatient growl. Seven years without her. Seven years of thinking of what he would say next and all he'd managed to grind out was her name. Galen pressed his palms to his eyes in a desperate attempt to center himself. "Why is it that I can't think around you?"

"Because you haven't had a decent sex partner in three years and you've spent every waking hour since we parted beating your body into a pulp for the glory of the fleet and the safety of humanity."

"It's not about glory." Not anymore.

"Dying to save the rest of the species isn't a very efficient plan," Shyla said. She shifted on the bed and he felt the weight of her pulling the mattress down, the heat of her body near but not touching. "You should at least donate to the gene pool before you kill yourself."

A horrible thought occurred to him. "You're not-"

"No." She didn't need to hear the question. She probably didn't need to hear him talk at all. "Breath, Galen. I'm on the station for work. Lawfully hired. You aren't aiding or abetting a fugitive."

"This time."

"This time," she agreed. "Nor did I come to seduce you, well, not with the intent to procreate. Children aren't really in my five-year-plan at this point." The bed bounced as she got up. "Come on, flyboy. You need to rehydrate before you fall back asleep."

He let her take his hand and pull him out of bed. "Shyla?"

She stopped in the doorway, silhouetted by the light of the kitchen. "Hmm?"

"I'm glad you're back."

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Crystal Mountain

Somewhere in the world is a crystal mountain. People often ask it why it's made of crystal, to which it replies:

"Why does green make you feel happy?"

To which a number of psychologists opened their mouths, but the mountain quickly added:

"It's a rhetorical question. I don't know why I'm made of crystal. Why would I know the answer to that?"

To which the philosophers opened their mouths--

"Rhetorical question, guys."

Now, inside the mountain were several angler fish and goblin sharks, and they could be seen through the sides of the mountain. They swam about within the mountain, completely unperturbed by the implausibility of their own existence. Various people tried to ask the fish how they could possibly survive inside a mountain, and how they could survive without food, for none of them were ever seen to eat.

This proceeded to do nothing but give the mountain a headache, about which it complained loudly.

At the centre of the mountain was a star, which shone very brightly at night and faintly during the day.

"How does it change brightness like that?" the people asked the mountain, correctly assuming that trying to ask the star this would end the same way as the fish interrogation.

"What about my questions?" asked the mountain. "Why do you get to ask me all the questions? Don't I get answers, too?"

The adults all looked at each other, trying to figure out if they should be offended.

"What answers?" said a five-year-old.

"Oh, I like this one. This one's smart." Then the mountain leaned in close - complete with its implausible fish and changeable star - and continued in a quieter voice. "Why do people say they'll be friends forever with someone only to not call them when they move away?"


The mountain harrumphed. "Well, why do children make fun of one child just like them and exclude that child from their number?"

"Because they're weird."


The five-year-old thought about it. "Probably not."

"Then why?"


"You're not being particularly helpful."


The mountain leaned back. "Does anyone else have an answer?"

All the people around the mountain began speaking all at once, but none of them could agree on the answers to the mountain's question. After more of this than it could stand, the mountain shouted at them all to be quiet and leaned in towards the five-year-old again.

"I gather no one else knows the answers to those questions, either. They just take more words to finally say it. Why don't they know the answers?"

The five-year-old, who had never considered that adults might not know something, had to think very carefully. "Maybe they're not old enough yet."

"What do you mean?"

"Sometimes when I ask questions, my parents say:" the five-year-old pointed a finger at an imaginary child and said in a lower voice "'You'll understand when you're older.'"

"What do you do when they say that?"

"I stick my tongue out at them. Then I play with my toys." The five-year-old held up a set of Lego. "These are my favourite."

"I've never played with toys before." The mountain looked sad. "I don't even have toys."

"Do you want to play with mine?"

"May I?"

"Yeah! Here, you can be this one…"

So, while all the people looked on, the mountain and the five-year-old sat down together to build a kingdom, with a unicorn and a dragon and lasers and spaceships and mountains and cars and aliens and knights...

Frankly, they ignored everything else so thoroughly that all the people left them to their play.

It was the best day ever.