Empty Soul (Story)

And another story from the Continuum universe, crafted in the pub (you can probably tell). Just a short one this time though – it’s astonishing how much dialogue pads story size.

Empty Soul
by Ian Peters

I saw my first dead body three days after my thirteenth birthday. My mother, gasping in my arms, gurgling as blood filled her lungs. Her hands cradling my dust-covered face. Her blue eyes reaching out to me. I remember the sudden relaxation of her face. Her eyes drifting out of focus. Her hands falling limply to the ground.

I don’t know how long I sat there, holding her, rocking backwards and forwards to the distant crumping of the planetary bombardment, with grief forming a void within me. I don’t remember that much of that day, or the immediate aftermath, but the emptiness remained within me, my companion when all others may abandon me.

I made my first kill three weeks later. A gang of older kids had managed to find a stash of my food, and were busy stripping it bare. The first one never knew what happened – one moment he was rummaging around my food, the next his brains had exploded over his friends. They stood with shock, gore drippint into agape mouths. My next shot, ripping through the chest of another, sent them scattering, leaving their wounded friend behind. Mortally wounded, I thought, looking down at him. He was screaming with pain, face pleading for help. Only a single bullet left, I toyed with putting him out of his misery but opted not to. Instead I turned and gathered up my stash, supplementing my limited supplies with the contents of the dead kids’ sacks.

It was almost two months before anyone came to establish order, and until then Skegul-3 became a dog-eat-dog world. Gangs and tribes formed, scrabbling over the dwindling industrial-age resources of a suddenly stone age planet. I stayed clear. In any group, it’s far better to be at the top than at the bottom, and as a child of thirteen I knew where I would sit.

Eventually, the government came. The found me living in the bombed-out remains of a school – an indefensible location not desired by anyone else, it had a myriad of exits through which I could escape. Unfortunately the interplanetary government has resources far beyond those of a teenager, and so I didn’t stay free for long. After cleaning me up, I was stuck in a government-run orphanage, a storage-depot for the parent-less victims of the slaughter.

As a home, it wasn’t really that dissimilar from the ruins I had been haunting previously. A dog-eat-dog world in microcosm. The only difference was that at least here I was guaranteed warmish food, and a wash when I got too fragrant. Adult supervision was a fiction though, and the pecking order was rigorously enforced by the camp inhabitants.

Still, after a couple of major fights, I was left alone, which was all I really wanted. After a while though, a new leader appeared on the stage, a scarred bully who wasted no time in calling me out. It appeared he held a grudge against me for those scars.

I stole into his tent one night, past the ‘guards’ he had laughably placed around it. His crucified body guaranteed my privacy again.

It also brought the attention of the biggest bullies on the block – the Continuum government – who it turned out are always on the lookout for people with certain talents.

My first sanctioned kill was some time around my fifteenth birthday. I’m not sure of the date, exactly. Waiting for a target to arrive one long sleepless day and night, I had tried to calculate it, but the haze of the past had proven too dense to accurately penetrate.

I had been in training for over a year, when I was abruptly summoned. I was given a knife, a combat dagger heavy in my hand, and sent into a room. Told to kill the person within. No reason. No justification. Just do as I was ordered. Do as I had been trained.

The room itself was a plain office – blown-plastic partition walls, durable carpeting. The stench of sweat filled the room: old and stale, new and musk. A man in the far corner turned towards me as I entered. Fat, middle-aged. Middle-management type. A scattering of recent wounds on his face and hands, the slight tang of iron in the air.

He relaxed, perhaps seeing my age. A hint of a smile, choked off by terror as he noticed the blade in my hands. He fell to the floor, praying, pleading. Irrelevant protestations of innocence, and unreserved apologies for sins possibly committed. As I step towards him he incoherently begs, talking of his wife, his children.

It’s quickly over.

The execution marked my graduation from the academy. Whilst I would continue visiting them, performing post-graduate training, no longer would it be home. Now I could be used – now I was useful to the Continuum.

At first they used me for clean-up. Minor police actions and extra-judicial killings in friendly territory. As my skills and experience broadened, so did my horizons. Soon my handlers felt comfortable sending me deep into U.P. territory, far from support.

Months later, I was standing propping up the bar on some nameless planet. Some video-reel spooling in the background. Waiting for a local contact, someone whom I had been assured would be able to give me access to the local politico I had been sent to kill.

A surge of adrenaline and my pulse was suddenly firing. My subconscious had spotted something, some threat, and was desperately trying to get the attention of my conscious self. I scanned the room. Nothing. My eyes flicked up to the vid-screen. It was playing some awards ceremony, dredged from the archives, inter-cut with battle footage. A caption. Skegul-3.

Out of no-where, I felt a ball of anger erupt within me. I could feel again the distant explosions of planetary bombardment. Hear the screams around me. See blue eyes fixed on mine, then drifting out of focus.

I stared, sightless, at the screen as names flashed up and burned themselves into my memory.

It took me months to track down the first of them. A routine query, initiated previously on a dozen worlds, this time returning successfully. I completed my assigned mission early, then slipped away on a commercial transport, bypassing the extraction plans carefully laid out by my handlers.

Jason Marsh, in command of the Prometheus. I found him gambling away his holiday-pay in a high-end casino. A drop of liquid, tasteless and colourless, brought me my vengeance. But it left me feeling curiously empty, save for the undimmed fire of anger.

That particular trip almost got me in a lot of trouble with my handlers. I let my record speak for itself, and explained that something had felt a little off with the pre-planned route. They never questioned me on things like that. The death by natural causes of a minor officer in the U.P. fleet was never even mentioned.

Weeks later, I was on another mission. This time, I had managed to manoeuvre my target to be proximate to another, personal, target.

George Wellesley. Executive officer of the Excelsior. I found him in a building that was part hospital, part hotel. He had a small suite on the fifth floor, where he sat in his wheelchair and whiled away his time. He was greyer than I had expected, weary somehow.

I studied him as I slid my blade through his diaphragm, upwards towards his heart. He never shouted out. Never even tried to scream. He didn’t look angry or fearful, only sad to be caught at last. My anger remained, unquenched. Maybe revenge wasn’t enough. Maybe I needed them to beg for forgiveness. To show fear. Something.

I slowly lower my latest kill down onto the carpet, careful not to soil my clothing in the small pool of blood forming below him. Collateral damage on the way to kill target number six. My forty-two official kills are irrelevant now, only my personal targets count.

The anger flares up inside me, pounding in my ears, pulse shaking my hands. I force it down, control my breathing through flaring nostrils, close my eyes for a moment. I need to stay calm for this, my magnus opus. Mustn’t let an elevated heart-rate shake a weapon off target at the last moment.

Feet soft below me, I drift down the corridor. There’s the doorway. I place my ear to it, hear the sound of water running. The lock isn’t engaged. I scan quickly up and down the corridor, ease the door open and slip through. It closes noiselessly behind me.

The weapon locker and safe are in their customary location, above the desk to my right. A glance shows it is secured. The bed opposite me is unkempt, apparently he’s just awoken. The first watch is rapidly approaching – maybe he has assigned himself that duty on the roster. There’s only one other door, the bathroom judging by the sounds. I lock the door behind me and settle myself in to wait, concentrating on choking down the surge of bile as anger again tries to spill out.

He walks in to the room wearing a bathrobe, still towelling the water out of his hair. I think I see a slight stiffening as he perceives me, but he walks over to the wardrobe regardless.

“I see you finally made it here,” he starts speaking, voice calm. “I hope you didn’t have to hurt anyone – I ordered the corridors around my cabin emptied.”

My mind flicks back to the recumbent form I’d left a few metres away.

He looks up at me, blue eyes reading my face. They tighten slightly, reading the trail of corpses I’ve left behind me.

“What now? Do you want to talk? Or just finish it?”

I honestly don’t know. I’ve pictured this scene numerous times over the last few weeks. I’d pictured him pleading. Apologetic. Angry. I’d pictured stabbing him. Strangling him. Shooting him in the face. Even torturing him and bathing in his blood. For some reason though, his question, his calm, sets me on my heels.

“I’m sorry about your mother. I never wanted… any… of this.”

His blue eyes capture me again. I see them soften, turn doleful. Puppy dog eyes, my mother had once called them. A rare memory of her catching me up in a hug.

“We were following the fleet that had murdered us. The vessels which had killed tens of thousands of our friends. The – madness – that followed…” He hangs his head, closing his eyes.

Freed from the hold he has on me, I move in. Only to freeze again, as he again looks up at me with those cursed eyes.

“A moment of madness. And so much death because of it.”

The way his shoulders hang, the depth of sadness in his eyes – for some reason I’m face-to-face with Wellesley again. It’s different this time though. I still see the broken body, but now I see the crushed spirit within. He isn’t sad to die, in fact he seems glad. His body seems to thrust itself onto my knife blade, seeking a release. I recognise in the memory of his face an echo of the sadness sat in front of me.

“Admiral Thorn, you deserve to die.” My lips come unstuck, my vocal chords unglued. “For the millions you have killed, for the destruction of…” I trail off.

He just waits. Looking at me, as though he’s willing the words out of me.

“For the destruction of Skegul-3. For the murder…” His blue eyes reach out to me. Compassionate. Forgiving.

“…of your mother.” He finishes my words for me. I choke slightly. My anger burning, mutating, changing, in the churning of new emotions within me.

He continues, softly. “Maybe. Maybe I should die… I am in your hands, at your mercy.” He looks down again, breaking eye contact.

And then snaps his face up again. His voice hardens. “How many fathers, children have been before me? The blood of how many mothers are on your hands…” His blue eyes have hardened with his voice. Now they are weighing, judging. Hurt by my actions against her. But still loving. I can see in her eyes that she has found me wanting, is saddened by how I have behaved. I feel the lack of her touch. Hands falling away from me, not drawn by gravity but controlled by a will. All the lessons she struggled to teach me, that I have thrown by the wayside. I blink away the tears forming in my eyes, washing away her disapproving image.

“What would your mother think of you, of what you have become? Ours was a moment of madness. But you have chosen murder as a career. A life depriving sons and daughters of their parents. Think of them! Remember them!” I feel his last words shudder through me as an order. Unbidden, the faces of my victims flash in front of me. Deaths on a hundred worlds. Killings implacable and without remorse. But now framed by those blue eyes. Judged. And found wanting.

I let out a sob, which becomes a torrent as I fall to the floor. I don’t taste the bitter tang in the air as the hypnotics are flushed from the room, or feel the subliminals being disabled. I’m begging forgiveness, cradled in the arms of my mother.

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I Spy (Story)

Honestly, pubs appear to be good for me. I knocked together the following story in 4 hours (and 4-5 pints) whilst sat in a local pub. And to my drink-befuddled mind it’s not too bad. It was pretty fun writing in the first person for the first time in a while – although given what happens to the protagonist, maybe this should be a cause for concern… Also quite fun flipping between tenses – I’ve found I default to past tense if not careful.

I Spy
by Ian Peters

Barrie continues to drone on. Behind him, the early afternoon sun slips between the slats in the shades, dust motes twinkling in the light. Skyward city glitters through the window, bright in the sun, a contrast to the grey artificial light in meeting room 1013A.

“And so you see, if we don’t allot sufficient time to point 3 on the agenda, likely as it will be that the discussion will segue to also cover AARF, then the entire meeting will slip. I’d like therefore to allocate an extra 10 minutes to point 3, which time can be taken from the AoB at the end.”

Barrie importantly sits back and looks pointedly at the meeting chair.

“Very well, and very well put Barrie. Now, to point 4. I think it can be merged with point 7…” The chair’s voice continues the self-important, tedious drone which has characterised this meeting, whose sole purpose is to discuss the plans for a meeting later in the week. I phase out again, and continue to look out through the window, keeping up the patina of an appearance of attention by periodic nodding and shaking of my head.

I run through my to-do list for today. Happily there isn’t too much left. After this meeting (90 minutes to discuss the agenda for a 60 minute meeting – an impressive waste of time even by Secu-corp standards) I have to catch up with the messages and memos which no-doubt have been accumulating whilst I’ve been sat here, and then I can head home. Marcie has asked me to get some groceries, and I should probably have a look in the shops for some form of anniversary present for her. Hopefully, with leaving work early I should be able to sneak in some time to sit in my customary spot in the park, soaking up the sun, peace, and quiet, before heading home. Oh, and I had better update the fantasy spaceball league.

“Victor, anything else you’d like to add?”

My mind snaps back to the meeting. Who knows what had been said. And frankly, who cares? “Nope, I think all my queries have been handled.” I throw a smile at the room.

With that, this particular waste of my time is over. We shuffle out, mouthing inoffensive small talk, and shortly I am back in my particular cubicle.

Happily it appears to be a light afternoon for inter- and intra-office communications. One memo from HR to skip over and click the “I confirm I have read” button. A couple of easily answered queries, which frankly anyone with access to the Secu-corp search engine, or a brain, could have answered. And now I can focus on my main interest.

I had begun an small fantasy spaceball league a couple of years ago. The null-gravity successor to ice hockey, its violence, frenetic play, and the pure randomness of three-dimensional action had always drawn me in. At first it had just been a game for a small number of friends, a way to compete for a tiny prize fund, and something to add some fun to a dull work day. Now I was managing some two hundred accounts, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to have to spend several hours each day dealing with the trades, scoring, and disagreements that arise whenever more than one person does something. In fact, if it wasn’t so important for my unofficial job, I’d probably have packed it in by now.

As it was though, I had to send out a status update. I began typing, describing recent news and an update on the current league tables. I looked down to confirm the date – yep, the thirteenth day of the third month. Accidentally, or so it seemed, I put an extra space between the sixteenth and seventeenth words of the second paragraph.

Message sent, and the league now up-to-date for another day, it’s time to go home. I lock my computer, and physical file stores, accidentally forgetting to replace a data-slab. It remains sitting in my trouser pocket, heavy with company confidential data.

My early escape allows me a quick exit from the grocery shopping. On the way out I snag a copy of News of the Continuum, and let my feet carry me to the nearby central park. I step through the park entrance and feel the weight dissolve from my shoulders. The grass has been cut recently, the scent heavy in the air. Butterflies and small birds flit through the late afternoon sunlight, cruising a light breeze kicked up by the approaching dusk.

My normal spot is free, a bench near a tinkling fountain. A brief hint of mist brushes my face as the breeze gusts, refreshing without dampening. At peace, I peruse the newspaper, absorbing without believing the one-sided reporting of ‘facts’. Relaxed, I cross my legs to prop up the paper, and the data-slab slips out of my pocket, coming to rest, hidden, in the long grass remaining by the foot of the bench.

Task done for the day, a stab of adrenaline flushes my system. Even after two years, I still feel the rush every time I make a drop. A smile creeps onto my face, masked by the beatific peace others expect from sitting in such a relaxed place, on such a beautiful evening.

The peace, and the smile, have dissolved within an hour of my getting home.

A proforma greeting with Marcie, followed by an inevitable nagging. Who knew that there was apparently such a huge difference between types of penne? Apparently the organic brown penne is wildly different to the brown penne, and inevitably I have gotten the wrong one.

An average dinner follows – Marcie is only marginally better than I am at cooking – followed by the expected soap-operas – Marcie’s choice, of course. There’s an interesting news documentary on, which I try to pay attention to, whilst responding appropriately to the suddenly chatty wife. The necessity of paying attention to that conversation has been dulled by years of similar conversations; an automated Pavlovian response has taught me the correct responses to situation x (what a bitch), situation y (what happened then?), and situation z (that sounds awful).

The evening continues as have a thousand before, and then it’s time for bed. A surge of marital affection stirs me to a kiss, and the glimmerings of foreplay. An urge rebuffed even before it has really started. Apparently we need to be up early tomorrow. I roll back over, and try to sleep.

In the stories, in movies, ‘they’ always come in the night. No matter who the baddies are, we suffer a primal fear of what happens when our eyes are closed. There’s even a logic to it – the body relaxes in a deep sleep, the circadian rhythms slowing the body’s metabolism, the reactions dulled as the need for activity approaches its nadir. In fiction, they always come at night, using the victim’s biological weaknesses against them.

Apparently, this is true not just in fiction. The crash of the front door being smashed inwards brings me groggily awake. I struggle in the bed, trying to free myself from the tangle of bedclothes, no idea what response is necessary but body certain that one will be. I tear my eyes open, but even the minimal light of the bedside clock sears them shut again, 04:01 burned into my retina. I grab at consciousness, to a soundtrack of shouts and the thud of battle-shod feet. They come for me, and a sharp spike of pain in my neck jars me finally completely awake. But too late. I drop back into unconsciousness.

A dull throbbing in my mouth announces my return to consciousness. I try to open my eyes but the bright light forces them immediately closed again – the light is so bright that I swear I can see a network of veins in my eyelids. I try to raise an arm to shield out the glare, and feel the rough bite of straps on my arms. Unable to move arms or legs, I probe the inside of my mouth with my tongue – the roughly textured flesh and a taste of iron where enamel should be.

“Good morning, Mr. Kraznowsky” The voice is urbane, gentlemanly, comfortable in my ears.

I turn my head towards it, squeeze a pin-prick of space between eyelids, and seek out the source.

“My apologies. You have been asleep for a few hours.”

The light burning into my skull suddenly disappears. I open my eyes, feeling the eye-lashes come unglued. My sight falls on a man, thin almost to the point of emaciation. A well fitting uniform, all dark blues and blacks, except the bright steel of a Gordian knot on one breast. I try to speak, croak out a question, but nothing seems to work properly. Little more than a grunt escapes my bruised lips.

“Please, relax for the moment. Your mouth is no-doubt a little dry. Guard, a little water for our friend please…”

No liquid has ever tasted so sweet. The trickle of water barely reaches my gullet – almost every drop appears to be absorbed by the tongue and palate on the way down.

“I must begin by apologising for the surgery. We have had some unfortunate experiences, suicide pills hidden in teeth, that sort of thing. Very difficult to detect by x-ray. The only safe answer is removal. Of course,” a smile meant to be comradely and apologetic, “if you’re found innocent then we will of course replace them. Better than replace them in fact, we’ll furnish you with the best that money can buy.” Another smile in the dim light.

He looks down at a folder in his hands. “So, you are Victor Kraznowsky, formerly of 1138 Fempton Arcade, Skyward City. Grade 17 manager at Secu-corp. Married to Marcie Kraznowsky, nee Schubert, six years ago on…” he looks up, “congratulations on your anniversary next week.”

He looked down again. “No children, assorted friends of no real consequence. B-level security clearance as of three years ago,” he looked up again, catching my eye, “and a spy for the United Planets.”

I feel my bowels loosen. Neither fight nor flight are given the freedom to act, all I can do is struggle ineffectually in my bonds as the reality of the situation unfolds on my drug-dulled mind.

“Would you like to confess, now, before we have to begin more, ahem, distasteful questioning?”

My interrogator has the good grace to actually look embarrassed by the latter, as though he really wants to avoid the next step. My mind whirrs into an approximation of action. My disappearance will eventually be noticed. I owe it to my friends, my co-believers in the rightness of the U.P. cause, to hold out and given them time to escape.

“No? Very well. I’m sorry we have to do this. Know however that we’re not going to do any permanent damage. Yet. All you have to do to stop the pain, is speak. Just admit your guilt, and we can stop the pain.”

He steps back from the table I am strapped to, and allows a black-robed man access to my cruciform body. I hear the clink of metal on metal as he reaches down for a first instrument. My bowels finally let go, and the stench fills the air. I feel embarrassed, of all things. Embarrassed that I have messed myself. And then the first touch of metal on my skin and such irrelevant concerns disappears.

They begin with my feet, and then move to my other limbs. Thin slivers of pain as slick blades cut in to sensitive skin, followed by shards as exposed nerve endings are stroked. Gouts of fire as nails are removed. The sharp sting as small, deep, cuts are made, followed by the slowly increasing agony as they are levered apart, skin and flesh tearing.

I thrash around, trying to escape, but am held firmly in place.

“Who do you work for? How were you indoctrinated? How long have you been a spy?”

I throw my head backwards, trying to knock myself into unconsciousness, until they bind it in place. Deprived of motion, my mind thrashes in place of my body.

“Who do you work for? How were you indoctrinated? How long have you been a spy?”

Swear-words flood from my mouth, incoherent in pain and anger. I begin to black out, but am hauled back to reality through drugs trickling through a drip in my arm.

“Who do you work for? How were you indoctrinated? How long have you been a spy?”

More pain. The delightful approach of blackness, again torn aside at the last minute, as I again feel the inside of my elbow go cold.

“Who do you work for? How were you indoctrinated? How long have you been a spy?”

Finally, my mind manages to escape the present, seeking refuge in the past. The pain slips away, becoming a dull ache in the background, a boil I try not to brush up against.

Two years ago. A bar in the depths of Skyward City.

“Seriously, it’s like that thing with the industrial plant on Apophis-8. I was involved in the audit of that, and seriously, what the news said was bullshit!” A few too many beers had me slurring by this point in the evening.

“Wha’d’ya mean?” Harold, one of my drinking compatriots for the night, slurring more than I was. “Terrorist blew that place up – everyone knows.”

I shook my head. “Nope. Bullshit. Was an idiot controller, screwed up the flow. But you know how it goes, he was brother of someone-or-other, and so…”

“Terrorists,” quietly completed Peter, another drinking buddy.

“Yep. Makes you think though. If they’re reporting bullshit on the things you know, what about the rest…” I leaned back, having successfully made my main philosophical point.

The conversation had continued in a similar vein for most of the night, although my recollection of it was rather hazy. The next morning, head heavy with a hangover even the oxy pills hadn’t managed to shift, I stopped in at my favourite morning joint for a cup of coffee and some unhealthy food.

“Morning, how’s the head?” I lifted my bloodshot eyes to be greeted with Peter’s grave visage.

“Hey!” I let loose with far too much vigour, to be punished with another stab of pain.

“Mind if I sit?”

“Sure. Want some?” I pushed over the greasy fry-up in front of me. It had seemed a great idea, but now the assorted components appeared to be disagreeing within me.

Peter shook his head, an action I wouldn’t have wanted to try, and fixed me with a serious-looking face.

“Victor. We’re friends, right?”

I nodded.

“What you were saying last night, it really got me thinking. You’re absolutely right that most of what we see in the so-called news is complete rubbish. And it’s worse than that. The system is full of self-serving people, and where promotion is in theory merit based, we know that’s rubbish. How many times have you seen somebody’s cousin, or brother, or whatever, promoted ahead of you…?”

Anger stirred within me. This had just happened in fact; I’d been lobbying for a promotion for a few months now, only to be beaten at the last moment by some pimply 18-year-old cousin of the regional director.

“How much do you know about the United Planets…?” Peter fixed me with a glare. For some reason I knew this was a serious question, heavy with portents for my future.

I breathed deeply, and forced my dehydrated, toxin befuddled, dendrites into action.

“Well, I know what the news says… But then we’re at war, so what else would it say?”

“Exactly. And while the Continuum lies to itself, what chance do you think there is for peace? How can there be peace with the maniacal monsters the press describe the United Planets as being?

I’m a member of a small group of people, on both sides, who are trying for peace, through truth. We share information between each other, to find out what is really going on, to get real information, not just rumour and hyperbole…”

I looked quizzically at him as he tailed off. What he was saying stirred my interest. The idea of getting the truth, from both sides… I honestly didn’t believe that the United Planets were the evil monsters described in the press – they were human after all. And it would be really interesting to know what was going on. And they wanted me!

I was nervous with the idea though. “But isn’t that treason? Won’t we get in trouble?”

Peter smiled. “Don’t worry. I’ve been doing this for years, since before the war began. You know I’m involved in inter-planetary trading, well these are all friends and colleagues I’ve been trading with for years. It’s not like we’re sharing military information, anyway. We’re just a group of intelligent people, who believe in the truth, and want to look beyond the spin and lies that our governments are trying to blind us with.”

I was convinced. To be honest, I’d been looking for an opportunity like this for a while, although I hadn’t realised it. I was bored with my life, unhappy with my work, disgusted with my government and the overall society around me. It took a little while longer for Peter to fully get me on side, but really I was convinced from the start.

Peter then introduced me to the concept of what he called ‘tradecraft’. At his urging I started a fantasy sports league, and convinced a few friends to join. Messages sent to the league were a perfect way to communicate with others in the group. An extra space here, an obscure word choice there, it was easy to pass basic messages around, hidden in plain sight.

And where more information was needed, I was introduced to dead-drops. Places I could go and drop off or pick up data-cards full of information. Places such as the foot of the bench near a certain fountain in the park, or a certain gap between seats on the mass-transit system. In my mind I rattled through all the locations, as my consciousness avoided the distant ball of pain, and the droning voice of my interrogator.

Awake again, and conscious. My body is a scatter of dull aches, but the sharp pains which had threatened my sanity have disappeared. The room is empty, as far as I can see with the limited mobility I have – my head is still strapped in place. I must have passed out from the pain. The dim light in the room remains, I don’t know how long I have been here. There’s no hint of natural light to provide cues to my internal body clock.

I hear a door creak open, the groan of rusted metal jarring with the surgical precision of the torturers, and the medicinal smell of bleach and chemicals.

“Welcome back, Mr. Kraznowsky.”

My voice strains against chords shredded by screaming. A statement meant to sound strong and positive comes out as a croak. “I go somewhere?”

The interrogator steps into my eyesight, and fixes me with a glare both humorous and pitying.

“You died, Mr. Kraznowsky. But death is no escape for you. I must admit to being impressed however – your ability to survive pain deserves respect, especially given an apparent lack of any training. You have done very well, but… all stories must end Mr. Kraznowsky. And this is real life, not some story where the plucky hero is rescued at the last moment. There is no magical rescue, and a princess to marry.

So far, we have avoided any permanent damage. Everything that has happened to you is reversible, everything will heal. So far.

Unfortunately time is now becoming a factor. Unless you start naming names, we shall need to use more, ahem, damaging techniques…”

I steel myself. This has become a conflict of wills. I know that at best a bullet is my only likely escape, but when all that is left is death, how you die is all that remains to you. I steel myself. I know my own limits, and know I can beat them.

I think I do, anyway. They begin by flaying the skin off my toes, and then the fingers on my left hand. Each scrape, each slice, followed by a request to name names. Were before a single blade would scrape over a small cluster of nerves, now every digit feels on fire. I try to hold back my voice, but it is only seconds before screams echo around the room.

The way has been opened for me now though. My mind chases after the escape route from before. I seek, and find, the refuge of my memories. My mind escapes the pain of the present by replaying the comforts of the past.

Happier times. Groups of like-minded individuals discussing, arguing, deliberating. Armed with the truth, shod with righteousness, clad with an anger at the society in which it existed, and especially the falseness and injustice of the government that led it.

Mario, the restauranteur. Gleefully participating in the humour his name, and selected trade, together provided. Happily sharing the gossip he learnt serving the tables of the high and mighty.

Kurt, the army officer. Passed over for promotion, bitter, always keen to share his knowledge of what was actually happening in the war, especially when he could depict his seniors as fools.

Joseph, the university professor. Always on the look-out for like-minded souls within the student body. Laying a groundwork for the future, while keeping the group grounded in the present, feeding back the tensions and the concerns of the next generation.

An army of faces comforted me, and helped me avoid the terrible things they were doing to my body. An army to continue the fight for truth. An army which I must protect with my life.

As though bidden, I felt the darkness approaching, and I welcomed it.

Again, I awaken, my mind flashing into consciousness. But this time the scenery around me has changed.

I’m no longer lain, spread-eagled on a steel table. Now I am sat upright, in front of a steel table. My limbs remain restrained. In front of me sits a piece of paper, empty but for a scant scattering of text half way down.

Again, the incongruous creak of a rusty hinge as my interrogator enters. The look on his face is different this time though. No longer the pitying look of someone being forced to play a horrible part. No longer the look of respect, as of a soldier to his fallen enemy. All I can think of it that he looks smug. Horribly, repellently smug.

“Welcome back again, Mr. Kraznowksy. And welcome to the most important decision left in your life…

You have two options left to you now. That you are a traitor there is no doubt, however we’re not vindictive. And there is a useful role for the penitent sinner.

Option one is to sign the confession in front of you, and swear to it on camera. If you do so, we will put you in the work camps. Whilst not a pleasant place, there is still some joy there, and you can live a constructive useful life for many years.

Option two is death, by spacing. For you, your wife, and however many others we can be bothered to get rid of.

In either case, your guilt is proven. Sign the confession, and the proof will remain a private thing. Don’t sign and your guilt will be spread across the airwaves. We will publicly destroy your name, and that of every friend, colleague and family member. Those who don’t kill themselves will never work again. They will live out their days beginning in the streets, throwing tricks for pocket change.

You have 15 minutes to decide.”

The interrogator throws a pen on the table, and nods at a person behind me. I feel hands on my arms, and suddenly am free to move my right arm. Blood rushes into the limb, leaving a fire behind.

“Oh, and in case you were wondering what evidence we may have…”

He steps out, and I can hear the shriek as the door behind me opens and shuts. For a moment, there’s silence, and then a voice starts up. It starts off quiet, at the limits of my hearing. As it gets louder, I can hear a slight slurring to the voice, undoubtedly a side-effect of drugs. The voice is describing a conversation with a man called Peter. It clicks. The voice is mine.

Skirmish at Galakhad (Story)

Another short story, set in the same universe as my last one. As ever, I’m not completely happy with it, but meh.

Skirmish at Galakhad
by Ian Peters

Station Galakhad-4A swung through the night’s sky, a constellation of lit windows and navigation lights against the ancient stars behind. A structure only seen as it occluded the stars behind – its low albedo, a consequence of the highly efficient solar cells covering every exterior surface, rendered further irrelevant by the eclipsing gas giant Galakhad-4. The star occlusion hints at offshoots from the central mass, irregular projections from the orbital plane, breaking the perceived symmetry of -4A.

“How long until we’re ready?” Commander Thorn spoke quietly, addressing the largely empty bridge of the Excelsior. Despite being flagship of U.P. Auxiliary Fleet 303, the majority of the crew were on shore leave, enjoying the dubious pleasures of Galakhad-4A. Especially the bars, simul-suites, and ‘companionship’ undoubtedly available on a such a backwater supply and requisitions station. An ensign looked down at the status displays in front of him.

“Nominal for departure in 36 hours. Logistics shows we are at 60% of combat load, 30% of overall load.”

Thorn waved a lazy thanks, and went back to studying the contents of the reader he was holding.

The viewscreen in front of the bridge flashed to a new angle – a new arrangement of stars casting their light across the bridge. The flicker of change brought Thorn’s eyes up in annoyance, turning quickly to interest as a torus of light burst across the faces of the skeleton crew, and then to alarm as the flowering toroid was joined by a bloom of others.

And then they came.

Holes in the shower of light, like the echo of an insect’s proboscis in the corona of an insect bite; the Continuum ships slipped through the wormholes and descended on the station and its captive audience of resupplying vessels.

“Action stations! All ships, emergency undock!”

With the crew staggering to obey, Thorn leaned towards the temporary Executive Officer. “Sitrep on crew?”

The officer looked wild-eyed for a moment, then calmed as he met the steady and collected gaze of Thorn. A quick look down at data displays to confirm. “All ships at skeleton. Pegasus, Prometheus, Grozulla have command staff. All other ships have minimal command representation. Emergency recall has gone out. Station is locking down…”

A siren sounded out, and the enemy icons on the tactical display flickered as the computer issued a launch warning.

Thorn studied the tactical map, measuring and calculating in his mind. He reached over to the command console, and triggered the fleet broadcast frequency – “Urgent message all ships: jump on my command, irrespective of safe distance.”

“XO, lay in a course for alternate-1. Disable jump safeties.” There was a pause from the XO, considering the command given, shocked by its consequences. Thorn again brought his command presence to bear, and repeated, still in a deceptively calm voice – “Now, please, XO. And drop a spread of recording buoys.”

He finally turned and started issuing orders, allowing Thorn to return to the tactical display. Cueing the main display to focus on the approximate location of the nearest missiles – accelerating by gravitic effect, invisible through stealth coating – Thorn stood and watched. Every second took the U.P. ships further from the station. Every second improved the safety margins for his next action.

A ripple of fire erupted on the viewer towards the top of the screen, as the chemical rockets of the missile terminal guidance systems triggered. Of its own accord, Thorn’s finger flicked the broadcast switch. Thorn heard his subconscious give the jump order; his conscious mind was preoccupied as it screamed at him that it was too soon, and that his action would cost the lives of thousands.

The crew performed as any well-trained military does – it mechanically obeyed his orders. More flowers of light bloomed in the sky around the station, and the U.P. fleet jumped to its destination, alternate-1. The gravity differential sucked the ships through the wormholes they had created, accelerating away from the missiles zipping in towards them, jumping to safety.

But the gravity differential didn’t just affect the fleet ships. Behind them, as they thundered away in all directions, the station was still spinning in space. Designed for the minimal gravity of a distant orbit around Galakhad-4, it was suddenly subject to the pull of gravity in 13 different directions. Metal shredded, pulled far beyond limits of elasticity. Fountains of frozen water vapour turned into ever-expanding clouds as the atmosphere within the station flowed into space, carrying with it the still struggling forms of the station’s inhabitants. Some 15,000 souls tried to scream out, their voices rendered silent by the vacuum around them.

The sirens sounding aboard the Excelsior abruptly cut out, as the wormhole slammed shut behind it. Out of sight, but not out of mind; Thorn continued to brood about the slaughter he had left several hundred light-years away. A tactfully cleared throat from behind brought him out of his reverie.

“Sir, Orders?”

Of the 13 ships in AF303, 9 had escaped the attacks, and of these only the Excelsior had escaped any damage at all. For the next few hours, a fury of activity took place on the other ships, as skeleton crews attempted, largely successfully, damage control.

On the bridge of the Excelsior, Thorn sat statue-still, eyes glued to a spot in the air in front of him. He had mechanically received status reports, approved actions, issued orders as needed, but mainly he had just sat.

The XO glanced again at the immobile Thorn. He was worried. As the interface between Captain and crew, he was familiar with the fact that captains were a species apart, and no two were alike. While the immediate fallout from the attack was being dealt with, the crew had been active, and the XO had been able to shield them from the void their captain had become. However, now these actions were coming to a close and the bridge crew had increasingly trended towards idleness. And the sidelong glances he was catching hinted that the crew weren’t happy either.

The fleet communications officer brought a final status report to the XO’s attention, “Sir, Guppy indicates it has completed damage control and is ready for action.” A nod indicated receipt, and the XO slid over to stand in front of Thorn, forcing the captain’s attention.

“Sir, Guppy is now online. All fleet ships have reported as ready. Perhaps we could discuss our next steps in your boardroom sir…”

This latest status update appeared to finally bring Thorn out of his funk. Eyes suddenly alive and active tore away from the void they had been staring into, and rested on the XO’s own. Thorn jumped down from his chair.

“XO, first of all we need intelligence. I want a signalling buoy sent out, to download the logs from the buoys we left at Galakhad-4.”

Seconds later a rocket fled away from the ship, accelerating at maximum speed. Essentially a fast-burn chemical rocket, with a one-shot gravitic engine that burned out within minutes, within a relatively short time it was several light-seconds away. At this safe distance, the rocket destroyed itself, creating a short-lived small wormhole back to Galakhad-4, allowing the Excelsior to bypass the limitations of the speed of light and query the stealth-buoys in near real-time for the fifteen seconds the hole remained.

The fleet went silent as the crews looked at the latest video footage from the attack. Where before a station had spun through the night, now only a steadily expanding cloud of detritus remained. Already, a multi-coloured display was forming around Galakhad-4, as metal and organic remains encountered atmospheric friction. A palpable anger filled the fleet. An anger which needed a focus, lest it be placed at the feet of the fleet’s commander, whose actions could be considered, after all, as condemning thousands of their comrades to death.

Meanwhile, Thorn had been working away at a console, focussed not on the destructive outcome of the attack, but on the blossoms signifying the attacking fleet’s arrival and departure. Task complete, and surrounded by the surging of raw emotions, Thorn walked back to the fleet comms panel.

He flicked the broadcast switch.

“Look well, and remember. Our friends. Our comrades. Our brothers and sisters in arms. All now rest in peace. It is with us now that the burden rests – to remember, and to act. And this burden we gladly take.

This cowardly attack cannot go unanswered, and will not. We will show these craven animals the proud hearts that beat within us. Creatures so terrified of our battle fleets that they attack supply convoys and unarmed stations; we will show them the error of their ways. We will paint a message across the stars with their blood.

Through our actions we will remember our friends. Through our actions we will revenge our friends. And through our actions we will teach such a lesson that the murderers of the Continuum will quiver with fear in their holes, as our vengeance is visited against their bodies.”

A cheer erupted around him, the crew’s anger finding a concrete target. Anger became blood madness as people remembered the friends they had lost, and eagerly considered the retribution they were to mete out.

As the cheers continued, and martial songs spontaneously broke out, Thorn flicked another switch to activate the closed circuit to only the senior officers, and privately addressed these individuals.

“The words I spoke were for the crew. They need the simplicity of a black and white fight. The lack of moral ambiguity that derives when the Continuum are considered evil monsters, and we are the proud representatives of what humanity should be.

But we, as leaders, cannot and must not fall victim to such simplification. For life is grey. And all wars end, not in the complete destruction of the enemy but through the agreement by all parties that no more blood need be shed.

When we fight, we must fight to win. But to win not just the battle, rather, we fight to win the war.

There’s a line that separates justice, and revenge. When the response to a military attack is disproportionate, we tread close to that line. When we mete out punishment to the innocent and the young, when we kill and maim those not involved in the war or the decision to go to war, when we destroy without compassion, without empathy, then this is not justice. This isn’t even revenge. This is murder.

And by committing murder, we only increase the blood cost we will need to pay to win the war.

Now we will go after the perpetrators of this crime against us. And we will mete out justice as promised. From the logs of the attack, I have identified the origin of the attacking fleet – sufficient astral information was visible through the attacker’s jump points for mapping against star charts. But when we get there, it is justice we seek. Not revenge. And not murder.

All ships are to go to battle stations in 30 minutes.

Excelsior out.”

Had Thorn been on the bridge of any of the other ships, he would have seen the frowns on the faces of the officers he had just addressed. In most cases the majority of the command crew had been aboard Galakhad-4A when it was destroyed, leaving only a skeleton crew of junior officers behind. These junior officers had cheered with their friends and colleagues during Thorns first address, but were neither senior nor experienced enough to fully adsorb the latter lesson he had tried to teach. Still, they were well-trained military officers, and would follow the orders given.

Thirty minutes later, the fleet was as ready as it could be. Weapons, offensive and defensive, were fully manned, and damage control parties were scattered around each ship. Each body was sheathed in an armoured vacuum suit, respiration systems set to flick over from atmospheric to internal sources at the slightest blip in air pressure.

Each commanding officer however, was not ready. Contrary to established routine, Thorn had neither briefed nor prepared his command staff. Thus on each ship bridge stood an officer masking, with varying levels of success, their unease. All they had been given was a list of co-ordinates, each identified by a codeword.

After a scan of the status boards, Thorn began the battle of Skegul. And unknowingly started the second galactic war.

“Fleet, radio silence for the next minute. XO, I want a comms buoy sent out, remote end set to point alpha. Seven seconds later, send a stealth buoy along the same exact bearing, target to be updated mid-flight.”

The XO turned and began to question Thorn, but met his gaze and stammered to a stop.

“XO, timeliness is of the essence for some part of this plan. Now, if you please, the comms and stealth buoys…”

The Executive Officer forwarded the orders, and two new icons flickered into existence on the tactical display. A short while later, the comms buoy flickered out of existence, and was replaced by a small wormhole.

“Sensors, route the stealth buoy through the comms wormhole. Start telemetry by laser.”

The XO again turned and began to query the order, but the lieutenant sat on the sensors console had not such qualms. The stealth buoy tweaked it’s direction, and plummeted into the tiny comms wormhole. A data stream leapt towards the Excelsior, carried in a beam of coherent ultra-violet radiation, and almost immediately stopped as the buoy was shredded by the unstable gravity surrounding the sub-metre wormhole.

It turned out, however, that the received data was enough. The small sensor package, affixed to the front of the larger propulsion system, had sufficient time to detect and locate a number of ships within the target system. Just prior to being destroyed, followed quickly by the destruction of the wormhole itself, the buoy forwarded this information back to the Excelsior.

A sketch of the Skegul system appeared on the tactical display. The locations of planets, pre-calculated from known orbital information, was joined by the estimated positions of ships, which were broadcasting in the sub-second time when the sensor package was in-system, and represented as globes of red, slowly growing as elapsed time degraded the quality of the location estimate.

Thorn studied the map, then broadcast to the fleet. “IP two light seconds out from Skegul-3, on ecliptic. Point Bravo one light second, retrograde tangent to Skegul-3, on ecliptic. Form close wall formation, in plane derived from line between Charlie and Delta, origin Charlie, orient ecliptic.”

He watched the fleet drift into the ordered formation, then turned to the now thoroughly bemused XO. “Get Shuttle Ganymede to disable IFF, and evac. Shuttle Orion to pick-up and return to Prometheus at maximum speed.”

Whilst his orders were being followed, Thorn turned again and studied the tactical map. He watched as the symbol for the Ganymede, some distance away, flickered and turned blue, and the green Orion began to head back. As the Orion passed some indeterminate line, existing only in Thorn’s mind, he again addressed the fleet.

“All ships, target shuttle Ganymede, fire full offensive spread. Continue fire until initial load-out exhausted. Set terminal guidance on command only.”

A subset of the ships began to fire, a trickle of missiles began to flash towards the target, becoming a flood as inexperienced commanders followed the example of their peers. Remarkably soon, the flood became a trickle again, as weapon magazines grew exhausted. Thorn watched the cloud of icons approaching the distant shuttle. It was enough.

As Thorn sat, and his XO seriously considered the sanity of his commander, crew members around the fleet struggled to reload and rearm their primary munitions. The Auxiliary Fleet was made up of supply vessels, tenders, tankers and other non-combat ships. Whilst each had offensive weaponry, combat was neither their primary, nor secondary role. Systems automated and efficient on front-line vessels were manual and awkward when bolted onto non-combat ships.

And all the while, the cloud of munitions crept towards the distant shuttle, and Thorn’s consternation grew.

Finally, status boards began to trend to green, and it was time.

“Prometheus, I want Ganymede to jump to point Bravo, orient towards Skegul-3, in…” Thorn did some quick calculations, “five minutes seventeen seconds from my mark. Configure it to keep the wormhole open as long as possible, but to shimmy out perpendicular to insertion direction. Mark in… three, two, one, mark.”

“Fleet, on my mark, in around four minutes thirty seconds, jump to IP. Orient towards Skegul-3.”

As acknowledgements rolled in, Thorn studied the tactical display, measuring. At the back of his mind, he also considered his XO. There was no doubt as to his basic competence. When given a task, he could do it, with a minimum of thought but a maximum of consistency. For the U.P. fleet, these were the factors favoured in selection and promotion, and the reason why Thorn had been shuffled off to this unimportant fleet in a backwater sector. But Thorn was nervous about him. He had no real command presence, and appeared not to be able to separate himself well from the crew, and the infectious emotions a group of individuals can exert.

The clock counted down, and soon it was time. Thorn brought himself back to the moment, and counted down the last five seconds himself. With his final “Mark!” the fleet flickered and jumped from one location to another.

Skegul-3 proved to be a well-populated planet, situated slap-bang in the habitable zone of Skegul. Spinning around it were a number of stations, and scattered around these a fleet of ships lay at rest.

Repeating the tactic used against them, Thorn didn’t wait. Each ship in the U.P. fleet began to shudder slightly as it began to fire it’s primary munitions towards the enemy ships, as per Thorn’s orders.

However, this was no auxiliary fleet, docked and resupplying, that they were facing. Even as the 303’s missiles flew towards the enemy, the Continuum forces began to orient themselves. As defensive weaponry was unmasked, fire rippled along the flanks of the forces, twinkling in the distance. A fog of heavy metals raced towards the cloud of U.P. missiles, guiding towards the reflected echoes of the fleet radar signals.

As the defensive weapons fired, they were joined by an initial barrage of Continuum missiles, fired slightly out of the ecliptic and the dense field of obstacles forming between the fleets. Weapon platforms were ejected above, below, prograde and retrograde of the immediate field of battle, seeking to gain line-of-sight on the U.P. forces and avoiding the obstacle-rich field forming between them.

A single burst of light, well wide of the ongoing battle, announced the arrival of the Ganymede. U.P. forces ignored it, as they knew what it was. Continuum forces saw a single, non-combatant, ship arrive and likewise ignored it.

The battle continued. Now it was the turn of the U.P. forces to begin to fire interceptors. The Continuum weapon platforms were still trying to seek an angle-of-attack, but the surviving missiles from the initial response flashed as their terminal guidance began to kick in. Poorly supplied as AF303 was in offensive munitions, the ship designers had likewise scrimped on defensive weaponry. The element of surprise had helped, but even so the odd missile began to slip through.

The floor slammed under Thorn, and the local gravity disappeared, as a missile clipped the Excelsior. Dense metal mass, accelerated to fantastic speeds, suddenly decelerated. Several terajoules of kinetic energy flashed to heat and light, evaporating part of the ship. A shock-wave flowed through the remaining ship’s infrastructure, throwing its crew around, blasting free shards of stress-fractured metal, and in many places evacuating its atmosphere to the vacuum of space.

Thorn’s ears popped, and vision blurred as the pressure within his suit suddenly dropped, and then restored. The noise of the bridge disappeared, replaced initially by a scream of air, and then the hum of his suit, as the atmosphere was torn from the bridge. A reach and a grab brought him within reach of the floor, and he managed to get his boots affixed to the ferrous floor.

There was a clunk as someone clashed his helmet against Thorn’s. The XO.

“Sir, are you okay?” The sound bass heavy through direct helmet-helmet conduction.

Thorn tried to walk away, but one of his legs didn’t seem to be working. His eye’s were fixed on the tactical display, on the timer since the Ganymede had jumped into the system. He reached down, grabbed the grating of the floor, chunky fingers seeking purchase on the mesh.

Again a clunk, and a change in vector as someone tried to hold him back. The XO again. “Sir, you’ve been hit…”

It was an agony to drag air into his lungs. Even the XO seemed to be quieter now, despite that he seemed to be shouting. Thorn continued to claw himself forward.

It was getting darker now. His vision began to contract, centred on a button on the weapons console. The console operator himself was gone, a constellation of floating red globes all that remained. Another metre. Another drag. His body felt curiously heavy despite the lack of gravity. Every metre felt like ten, dragging a weight behind him. He reached out. Almost there. With a last gasp his finger dropped on the button on the console. And then blackness.

In the night, a ripple of flames erupted, orthogonal to the main axis of the combat. A cloud of missiles, fired by the fleet tens of light years away, brought to this system by blindly following a trajectory which intersected the Ganymede’s wormhole, a wormhole purposefully set such that the passive trajectory would bring them plummeting towards Skegul-3. The missile cloud became a storm. The radio pulse initiated by Thorn enabled terminal guidance for this initial barrage, and in a thousand missiles tiny silicon brains flickered into action. Reflections of radar energy tantalised their senses, and flickers of RF energy flowed within the cloud as each negotiated which of the multitude of valid targets it should head towards. Then the flames erupted, as each missile oriented itself and sent itself plummeting towards it’s target.

The Continuum were taken completely by surprise. Unprepared for an attack from that direction, only minimal interceptor defences could be called upon. The missiles plummeted towards their targets.

Thorn came to in the sealed capsule of a medical pod. One leg was swathed in bandages and padding, and the rest of his body ached. Clear plastic pipes led from assorted points on his body. He could feel a periodic thumping through his body, a signal forwarded through the ships frame, but he couldn’t place it.

The battle must have been long over. His wounds were tended, and he couldn’t hear the urgent sirens which signal a ship under fire or in trouble. His anaesthetic-dulled mind continued to gnaw at the signal. Weapons fire. That’s what it was. The medical bays were down near the main weapons pod, and what he was hearing was the periodic firing of heavy weapons.

But the battle must be over…

A hiss and a whirr sounded, and the med-pod door opened. The XO, flushed and with an unhealthy gleam to his eyes came into the cabin. There was a madness to his face, as of an anger no longer kept in control, but instead given gleeful release. He smiled, the sort of smile an anthropomorphised fox would have after feeding on an entire brood of hens.

Thorn felt a stabbing in the chest. He knew what had happened. But he had to ask.

“What have you done?”

The Mission (Story)

A quick short story, knocked up on the flight to Sri Lanka, and finished on the beach. Still not completely happy with it – some bits feel a little like they’re just listing what happened, rather than telling a story, but meh.

The Mission
by Ian Peters

“Corporal Miles, Reporting as ordered, Sir!” Roland drew himself up to his full 183cm in height, and saluted the crimson robed officer seated in front of him. The officer flashed a quick salute by way of reply, then looked expectantly at the corner of the room, away from the pool of light he had just marched into.

The figure who stepped out from the shadows needed no introduction to him. A short, grim man, with the creases of a frown fossilized into his face. Scar on his cheek, from an almost fatal shrapnel fragment. The hard unblinking stare of a legend. Colonel Elias Rathburn. Survivor of Kadesh, Victor of Kadesh II. A man who had literally written the book on special forces warfare, passing on in ink lessons learnt in blood, on moons, planets, and hunks of rock across the known universe. Roland gulped.
With a mild quirk of his lips, Rathburn spoke, “Good morning Corporal, I believe you may have heard of me.”
A firm “Sir!” was Roland’s reply.
Rathburn looked down at a file in his hands. “Corporal Roland Miles, enlisted 2/10/466, from Kalisthead, Ursurus 9. Good marks during training, followed by exemplary performance during two tours of the Scorpio quadrant. Recommended for special forces training 19/3/470, by Ricardo Schmidt.” Rathburn looked up. “Good man, Schmidt, I served with him, but that’s all way above your clearance level…”
Rathburn continued, “9 months of S.F. training, again with good performance evals, and here we are.” He stopped talking and looked expectantly at Roland.
The silence dragged out, and Roland decided another “Sir!” may be called for.
Appearing to deem that sufficient, the crimson officer spoke for the first time. “Corporal, fate appears to have delivered us with a man of your skills, experience, and training just at the right time. There’s a mission coming up, one for which you are perfectly qualified, however I am loath to order you to do it. It’s dangerous. Very dangerous. In fact our estimate is there’s an 85% chance that whomever goes on this mission will not come back. I’m looking for volunteers…”
A thought flashed through Roland’s mind. High-risk, meant high-reward, and something like this could be just the step he needed to kick his career into high gear. “Sir, I’d like to volunteer.”
The crimson officer just sat, looking into Roland’s eyes, measuring him. Roland must have passed whatever tests he was being measured against – the officer eventually nodded.
Rathburn took over again, “We have been informed that deep within Continuum territory a new research and development facility is being spun up. Amongst other things, this facility will be working on further improving their Project Anchiom weaponry. As you no-doubt know, Continuum R&D centres are normally too well defended to infiltrate or attack. Even if successful, there is a nuclear failsafe to contend with. However, we appear to have an opportunity – a new facility on 7728-C is still under construction, but for some reason has already received it’s data core.
Your mission is to be inserted by shadow pod to the facility, infiltrate by whatever means necessary, and obtain a copy of the data core, especially any data related to Project Anchiom. You will leave in 3 days. In 60 earth-standard days time, we will be launching an offensive against the Continuum. Knowledge of Anchiom weaponry could be vital. Therefore you will take whatever data you have gathered to a new U.P. R&D facility on system 11659 for analysis in no later than 15 days time, then report to our fleet staging area in orbit around system 21873.
This mission is critical to our future.
Due to security concerns,” here Rathburn’s gaze drifted over to the officer, “no official record is being kept of this mission.”
Rathburn paused, and handed Roland a slim ovoid cylinder.
“The only record of this mission is in the identification cylinder in your hands. This contains a copy of your orders, background and briefing material, and is signed by both myself and General Hackett here. Use this to avoid getting shot by our R&D facility, and the fleet. Do you have any questions?”
Roland considered what was being asked of him. Security concerns were nothing new, and he’d heard all about black ops during his special forces training. The mission sounded pretty standard – get in, get the data, get out.
“No, sir.”
“Well, good luck then. Dismissed.”
Roland saluted with a snap, turned on his heel, and marched out of the office with mind whirring. This was exactly the sort of thing he’d signed up with special forces to do. A secret solo mission, dangerous but potentially a career maker, and involving not only the famous Colonel Rathburn, but also General Hackett, one of the most influential military leaders of his day and currently in command of the Strategic Services! With a bounce to his stride, Roland marched back to his room to begin his mission prep.
——-
Back in General Hackett’s office, Rathburn watched the departing Corporal, closed the door, and slumped into chair opposite the General.
“Well, that’s all eight done,” Rathburn said, “the dice have been cast now…”
The General replied, “Yes, and we’d better hope this works. You know as well as I that the Continuum are making steady process in the war. If this doesn’t work, then I’m rapidly running out of ideas… Still, the dice are as loaded as we can make them. Even if we only roll a couple of 6’s, that would be enough.”
He looked suddenly weary as he let his guard down, and unbuttoned the neck of his command-staff uniform. “We’ve both ordered men in the field, even to almost certain death, but this feels different…”
Rathburn caught his eye and nodded. He knew exactly what the General meant, and he also felt the need to take a shower after the last few hours of briefings. The two war-weary officers paused, each lost in memories of other times, and other comrades, then General Hackett straightened in his chair, and composed his features.
“What’s next?”
—-
Roland pried his gummed-up eyes apart, and cued the status display on the goggles embedded in the foam in front of him. Head still foggy from the left-over super-c anaesthesia, he tried to focus on the report in front of him. All told, things looked nominal to profile. An intercept trajectory was automatically plotted to the third planet of system 7728, and on the second attempt his croaked “execute” told the computer to follow it.
Four days had passed since the mission briefing, the first three of which had been a maelstrom of activity. The data within the ID cylinder had been surprisingly complete – floor plans, authentication and identification points, security shifts and patterns, and details of the development schedules for the facility. It was these schedules which had given him the first inkling of a plan.
The facility was being constructed by indentured servants, drawn from the workforces of a wide assortment of Continuum planets. Security was focussed around the single port of entry for the planet. Once he had gained access to the lightly-protected HR system, he should then be able to schedule himself on work tasks, ultimately gaining him proximity to the R&D data core. It was by necessity a very rough plan, as he’d need to rejig things when on planet, but Colonel Rathburn had given him final approval.
Roland thought back with pride to the message he had received, “Plan approved. Arch-Chancellor Wainwright concurs, and wishes to pass on his best wishes. Good luck, and see you at 21873 in 12 days.” The Arch-Chancellor himself had been briefed on this mission!
A beep from the computer brought him back to the now. Whilst he’d been daydreaming, his stealth ship had caught up with the planet and inserted itself into an elliptical polar orbit. The drop pod was now prepped for planetary insertion, and there was only 5 minutes until he reached the insertion window. With minimal movement he clicked throught the status screens on his goggle display, verified the board was green, and ordered the computer to proceed.
Seconds later he felt a clunk through his crash padding as the pod was ejected from the orbiting ship. In theory, the orbit he had selected would avoid any of the official trans-system traffic. For the next minute, his life was in the hands of fate, and the under-paid workers who had built the pod.
The whistling outside grew as resistance battled with speed, and then dropped off to a whisper as a truce was called. Finally, after what seemed an interminable wait there was a second clunk as the terminal guidance fins slide into place, and the computer flashed up a ground map of the area near the workers camp. Three different landing sites were offered on the display, in accordance with criteria Roland had entered during the planning stage. He selected prospect 1 with a flick of a thumb, and then waited as the pod banked, slid, and glided to the marked location. A flashing light eventually indicated a successful landing, confirmed when the pod-local gravity field was disengaged and planetary gravity asserted itself.
Heavy. At 1.4G he had been expecting it but still he was surprised. The pod levered open, finally allowing the movement of more than his extremities as the crash pads separated. Roland rolled out of the pod, rifle ready as he had been trained, and found his heart beating even from this minor exertion.
Hearing nothing, he reach up and plucked his goggles from the crash padding. All systems green, the goggles glowed at him – the pod hadn’t even been tickled by radar on the way down, and its systems were all ready for launch and evacuation with only a moments warning. Replacing the goggles, he retrieved his pack then pressed the button to order the pod to close up tight and enable its chamaelion coating, rendering it all but invisible. Lofting the pack, he started walking.
Prospect 1 was 10km from his first port of call – a low grade storage depot. Back home that would have taken him only a couple of hours to travel. In the higher gravity, and with the much denser-than-expected jungle, of 7728-C it was some 6 hours before he arrived, panting for breath, within sight of the depot. As expected, it appeared to have no guards posted. Dropping his pack, he crept stealthily forward.
His stealth proved unnecessary. He realised as he drew nearer that not only were there no guards, the depot had no cameras or automated defences either. After scanning for entry sensors he slipped through an unlocked side entrance into the dim glow of standby lighting.
The lack of security made sense when his eyes grew accustomed to the light. The building was largely empty. But Roland wasn’t there for petty larceny; a scan of the room showed his target – a data terminal used for stocktaking, connected to the base central logistics system.
Rushing now, he strode over to the computer and inserted a slim black box into the I/O port. The screen flashed in front of him as the quick-deployment auto-backdoor, a gift from the Strategic Services CNE team, installed itself, logging him in with administrative privileges. A final flash and he was in. He started browsing through the available systems, and found his first step – personnel. A few taps and he had created a new persona – an IT tech Grade 9 called Richard Moyles. A few more and his alter-ego had an embarkation date of earlier that week, had been allocated housing, and had a slot on the work rota.
He backed out of the system, making sure he’d left no trace, and performed a final arcane set of incantations which triggered the backdoor to delete itself, restoring the system to its original unused state. Pausing only to retrieve the deployment canister, he made a swift exit and returned to his pack in the jungle.
His new identity now established, it was time for him to take up his role as Richard Moyles. A calm stole over him, and a mild sneer formed on his face as he slid into his carefully constructed persona. As his personality changed internally, he changed his external form. Off came the form-fitting combat-suit, with chaemeleonic coating, gekko gloves, and tactically placed armour. Replacing it came the Continuum-standard uniform of an indentured servant, grade 9, albeit with a few very non-standard modifications. Opening up the shielded bioports in his fleshy flanks, he double-checked the charge of his emergency weapon, and the silver bullet designed to take the copy of the data core. Pondering for a moment, he decided to take the identification cylinder, with his orders, with him – he couldn’t be certain yet which route he would take to escape the planet after the job was done. Refitting the equipment, he closed the bioports and felt the sweet pain as they hermetically sealed.
He was ready.
Entry into the main complex was marginally more difficult than the storage depot, but only marginally. The security appeared to be very much geared to stop inmates escaping, rather than outsiders gaining entry, although some extra building foundations implied this wouldn’t be the case much longer. A quick hop up some foolishly placed windows and he was up the exterior wall. A shadowy corner, sandwiched between two temporary buildings provided an opportune place to drop down. Wearing his new personality like a cloak, he walked out from the corner as though he belonged, and headed to his assigned quarters. It was 7pm of day 5, and he was in.
—-
Day 6 began with a reveille. He was rota’d onto an 8am-7pm shift, and it appeared that that required a wake-up call at 6am. Stretching out muscles abused the day before, Roland got dressed and ready for the day ahead. Not knowing what the procedure was in mornings, he hung around the door until he saw movement along the corridor, at which point he slipped out. Floor plans ran through his mind and he came to the conclusion that the growing exodus was headed towards the dining hall. He snorted with self-derision, he should have expected breakfast to be in the plan.
As he walked, a nagging doubt crept into the back of his mind. Something was wrong. He could feel himself standing out. Then he realised – as people were walking they had formed little groups, clusters of friends or acquaintances. There were very few people walking alone, and a general hubbub had grown to fill the corridors – a hubbub in which the vacuum of silence surrounding Roland was beginning to stand out. He sidled over to another group of Grade 9s, and tried to blend in.
“So how’s things going on the lab complex? Managed to get that seal in place yet?”, a haggard older man asked of a brawny young one.
“Nah. The damn thing’s been spec’ed wrong. I’ve tried telling you-know-who over and over, be he just says ‘your problem, you fix’. Damned C….” he tailed off as he noticed Roland for the first time.
Roland decided to dive straight in – “I know what you mean! The data interfaces for the computer system are crusty beyond belief, and I don’t know what magic is needed to get the transverse buffers working but I can tell you swearing at them doesn’t help. I try to explain all this, but you can guess what the answer is…”
This set off a ripple of agreeable grumbling, despite no-one, including Roland, knowing what on earth a transverse buffer was. The conversation continued in a similar vain, with Roland offering vague interjections whenever appropriate, and by the time they reached the dining room he was established within the group.
The dining hall was a large hangar-like room, with a line of servers on one side, and banks of tables filling the rest of the room. Posters lined the walls, offering a mixture of advice – “Work hard, Work Short – good behaviour reduces indenture length”, threats – “Refusal to serve is a capital offence”, and propaganda. Roland followed his adoptive group and retrieved his portion of grey sludge.
The conversation continued over the unappetising meal. Eventually, actual introductions were given, with Roland explaining he was “Richard Moyles, here doing IT”. He explained he had been bounced around both in accomodation and duties, and was starting a new job working on the R&D data core interfaces.
Following breakfast, one of Roland’s new group helpfully pointed out the direction he needed to go. Here was the first real test of his new credentials, and one of the first times he’d seen a Continuum soldier up close on this planet. Each person in the column had to submit to a biometric scan before passing through the checkpoint. This check was administered by one of a cluster of soldiers – the soldier holding the portable tester was surrounded at a safe distance by a number of others, weapons held at the ready.
Roland could feel twinges of doubt grabbing his stomach, and sweat beginning to bead on his skin. With an effort he took control of his emotions, and fear, and slid back into the persona of Richard Moyles. Just in time for it to be his turn.
He offered up his left eye, and right hand, as he’d seen the others do, and the soldier tweaked the controls on the portable tester. There was a flash which temporarily blinded that eye, and for a moment he thought he saw some reaction from the soldier with the other. His moment of doubt vanished though – the man just waved him on, and he was in.
His mind again ran through the schematics he had for the place, and his feet unerringly followed the necessary track. After a few turns he was within sight of his target – an innocuous looking data terminal. He looked around. The corridor he was on, and the room which was his target, were both too busy to retrieve his equipment – someone taking objects out of their own body would draw attention anywhere.
A small side-room provided the necessary opportunity. Looking both ways to check the coast was clear, he slid into the room, closing the door behind him. Really more of a closet than a room, there was still sufficient space to do what was needed. He quickly pulled off his shirt, then stroked the trigger pattern onto his chest, all whilst focussing on making his brain-waves follow a specific pattern – ‘if you’re happy and you know it clap your hands…’.
A twinge of pain announced his success as the bioports opened, and he retrieved the items he had stored within. Closing himself up again, he dressed, composed his features, and mentally ran through what to do next. Confident now of success, he opened the door and stepped out.
Straight into a cluster of soldiers, waiting expectantly.
“Roland Miles?” The officer in charge, a lieutenant judging by his collar tags, asked him. Roland jumped with reaction to his real name, but tried to cover it up. Drawing on the personality profile of his alter ego, he replied.
“I’m sorry Sir – do you mean me? Richard Moyles?” he simpered.
The lieutenant looked less than impressed. “Corporal Roland Miles, assigned to U.P. special forces, serial number 83249342. You are under arrest.” He nodded and two of the soldiers moved in, one to grab each arm.
His arms, however, where no longer stationary by his sides. The fact that the officer had known his name, serial number and other details had not, as perhaps hoped, frozen him in shock. Instead it had seemed to free him from the constraints of a role no-longer necessary.
He spun on one heal, and kicked the leftmost soldier, sending the soldier recoiling into his comrades. Roland used his residual momentum to swing close to the other solder, checking the soldier’s assault rifle against his chest and preventing it from being brought into play, whilst at the same time covering that flank against counter-attack – the soldier’s compatriots would have to shoot through their colleague to get to him.
His right covered, he brought his emergency sidearm into action, the short rod emitting a sputtering of laser fire into the stunned soldiers across from him. With a fizz, the rod burnt out, but now the enemy was down to two soldiers plus the lieutenant, and his opposition was yet to open fire.
The lieutenant was the first to recover from the shock of the suddenness with which violence had been dealt out. Showing a complete lack of regard for his team, he opened fire towards Roland, shooting through the soldier currently providing cover. At first the soldier’s body armour held, but very quickly the hyper-rapid fire of the AK-7400 began to punch holes through.
Roland twisted to face the now deceased soldier, jumped, and kicked outward. The body flew through the air and collided with the lieutenant, bring both down in a tangle of limbs. Roland flew backwards from the kick, landing on his back a couple of metres away from where he’d been standing. He tucked his legs back into his body, rolled over backwards, and lay prone next to the smouldering corpse of one of his victims. Rolling to one side, he grabbed the corpse’s firearm and hosed down the remaining guard. Three seconds had elapsed.
He waited another three seconds, weapon trained at the ready, whilst the remaining echos from the gunfight chased themselves up and down the corridor, and his mind churned furiously. The opposition had known his name, and that he was here, so there was a leak. But how much else was compromised? Did they know about the stealth ship? The insertion pod? His target?
He didn’t, and couldn’t, know. But what he did know was that there was no longer any point to stealth. A broad grin lit up his face as he decided it was time to, as one instructor had called it, ‘go loud’. Stooping, he collected several magazines of ammunition, an assortment of grenades, and a backup assault rifle.
Just because the mission was blown, he reasoned, didn’t mean its purpose was no longer valid. He removed the safeties from a couple of grenades, and jammed them between the door and frame at either end of the corridor. He then smashed in the glass door to the data terminal, and inserted the silver bullet of the data storage device.
The bullet was completely automated, and would search through the data core sifting out and copying the needed data. A simple counter was counting down from 15, and a green light showed that the core data was valid. Apparently either the opposition hadn’t thought he’d get this far, or had decided that if they didn’t use real data then their trap may have been detected. Either way, they had made a mistake and Roland planned to make them pay. His grin broadened.
A loud explosion from one end of the corridor announced the appearance of reinforcements. Roland stuck his rifle through the door, and squeezed off an entire clip of 100 rounds, aiming below waist height. Screams of pain and shouted curses echoed down by way of response.
10 seconds.
His ears perked up as he heard a metallic tinkle on the ground. Instinctively, in his hyper-aggressive state, Roland dived out of the side-room and towards the matt-black spheroids rocking on the ground. Grabbing one grenade in each hand, he rolled onto his back and flung them away back to the enemy. It felt like only an instant after the grenades left his hands before a surge of pressure, with accompanying whistle of shrapnel, burst over him. A corpse besides him jumped with the impact, but Roland remained protected. More screams and curses showed that the grenades had found a mark, or several.
5 seconds.
A second explosion announced the arrival of reinforcements at the other doorway. Thus far, the enemy had shown a real lack of training and insight, and so Roland decided to gamble. Reaching into a pocket, he snagged a pair of the smoke grenades he had liberated previously. He triggered these, sending billous clouds of dense smoke, blocking not only visuals but also IR and even some kinds of radar. He waited until the cloud was dense enough, stepped into the side room, stuck his arms out into the corridor, and let rip with both his main and backup weapons, one aiming each direction down the corridor.
True to form, the Continuum troops responded badly. Each group opened fire towards the phantom target in the middle. As friendly fire slammed into the troops, each set of reinforcements stepped up their assault, filling the corridor, and each other, with explosive-tipped ammunition.
0 seconds.
A cheerfully triumphant da-dahhh anounced that the data copy was complete. Roland snatched the pod from the data interface, and listened as the weapons fire ran down. Whether this was due to their wising up, running out of ammunition, or running out of people, he didn’t know. And didn’t really care – his plan was the same irrespective.
No doubt whomever was in charge of this debacle either knew or had guessed that he had arrived in a military pod, and would likely depart via the same route. Only a fool did as the enemy expected however, so he had decided to try for the spaceport. Yes, it would be well guarded. Yes, there was a possibility that there wouldn’t be a ship prepped. But he still had the pod as a backup plan.
Turning left, he threw several grenades through the smoke, after holding them for a couple of seconds to run their fuses down. A few screams sounded out, which were then choked off as the last grenade went off, throwing red-hot fragments into vital organs.
He ran down the back-corridors, towards the space port. A complete lack of opposition showed that he had picked well – the enemy was on the back foot and leaning the wrong way. With just a little luck, he would make it. And what a story he’d have to tell!
Skidding to a halt, he peeked around the last corner before the main docking gates. The remains of a checkpoint showed itself: abandoned fixed weapons emplacements, barriers, and a still burning cigarette. Roland grinned to himself, he could picture the chagrin of the enemy as they rushed towards his drop pod, and saw his hijacked ship scream up through the atmosphere.
He jogged down the access corridor, and into the docking corridor. The stars continued to align – there was a scout ship docked directly in front of him, and he knew Continuum procedure was to keep all such battle-vessels on warm start, ready to go at a moments notice.
Two steps in, a fantastically bright light exploded around him. He was blinded, disoriented. He tried to head back into the cover of the access corridor but couldn’t seem to find the way. Groping around, his vision began to return. From behind he heard a click. Roland turned instinctively, weaving a combination of martial arts movements with one arm whilst the other brought his annexed weapon to bear. But too slowly. He could just make out the outline of a man, blurry with tears from his seared eyes. He refocussed, to something the man was holding in front of him.
“Good try, Corporal Miles.”
He didn’t hear the shot which followed.
—-
“Well, that’s it for Aztec Gamble,” Colonel Rathburn uttered, closing the file in front of him.
“So the leak in the Arch-Chancellor’s office is confirmed,” replied General Hackett.
“Yes, and the others. All eight were captured and killed, mostly within an hour of landing. We almost had one disaster though…”
The General threw a quizzical look at Rathburn.
“Number eight,” Rathburn opened the file again, and looked up the details, “Corporal Miles, almost managed to escape with his data. That wouldn’t have been a problem, as he apparently had confirmation that it was a trap…”
Hackett interjected urgently, “but he was carrying the lure. Did it survive his death?”
“Yes. Our source reports that the lure was taken – the Continuum are going to launch a surprise attack on 21873 in a few days time, with a large part of their second fleet. We will be ready for them. And then…”
“And then we’ll have struck the first major blow against the Continuum for months. Worth the sacrifice of eight good men.”
The mention of sacrifice reminded both soldiers of the casualties. Eight men lost on a gamble. Eight men for whom death had been guaranteed from the moment they walked into this very office. It felt nothing like combat, rather it felt like murder.
But then what was war, if not murder on a grand scale.

Book Review: Talking to the Enemy

Talking to the Enemy

Violent Extremism, Sacred Values and What it Means to be Human
by Scott Atran

Talking to the Enemy is an extremely interesting study, providing a (certainly to me) new viewpoint to jihadi behaviour and Islamic extremism. It is generally consistent in the quality of writing and information provided, so much so that the rare non-sequitors and poorly drawn conclusions stand out by comparison. The latter couple of chapters are an exception to this – I felt these to be rather chaotic and filled with poor conclusions. It was also these latter chapters that felt more political in nature, and more like a pulled-together collection of subjects that the author hadn’t been able to shoe-horn elsewhere.

The overall argument in the book is that our understanding of jihadi behaviour and aims is often incorrect and furthermore that as we act on these erroneous conclusions our actions are often dangerous and counter-productive; the standard problem of rubbish-in/rubbish-out. It is generally believed that Al-Qaeda and similar organisations have relatively strong hierarchies, and convince people to become suicide bombers through brain-washing; Atran makes a cogent and thoughtful argument that we are in fact foisting our western prejudices on foreign cultures, and that instead most jihadis self-radicalise in small friendship groups and act with minimal or no command-and-control from formal extremist organisations.

This argument is well supported and I found it rather convincing. It also presents a point of view that is not normally given in the mainstream press. Atran doesn’t fall into the easy trap of just lumping all Islamic terrorists and extremists into one category or grouping – the history, aims, reasons, and methods of Al-Qaeda, other AQ-related organisations, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Palestine, and several other places and organisations are all broken out and discussed separately.

The book is hard reading in many places, however this is more due to the subject matter than the writing. Scott Atran is an experienced and successful anthropologist, and has obviously fought against his scientific training to attempt to make his work accessible, whilst keeping it well-argued and referenced. Indeed, a plethora of evidence is offered throughout the book, with extensive referencing. The root cause of the difficult readability is simply that subject matter is very complex and broad.

Overall I believe Atran has succeeded in producing an excellent work, which should be read by anyone looking for alternative views on Islamic fanaticism. It is well argued and challenges many dangerous preconceptions of the western world, offering alternatives to the current firepower-focussed efforts (mis)used worldwide.

Scores

Original: 4/5

Cerebral: 5/5

Language: 5/5

Ease of reading: 2/5

Value for money: 4/5

Overall: 4/5

Book Review: The Last Ring-bearer

The Last Ring-bearer

by Krill Eskov, translated by Yisroel Markov

My first book review is actually not of a traditional ‘book’. The Last Ring-bearer is in fact a piece of Russian fan-fiction, translated by another fan, and available for free download. However, it is an excellent story with an interesting twist, and worth bringing to the attention of a wider audience.

The Last Ring-bearer takes the well known, but slightly simplistic, construction of J.R.R. Tolkien and passes it through the filter that “History is written by the victors”. The resulting tale re-interprets much that occurs in the documented history of Lord of the Rings, casting the actions of the original heroes in a much darker light.

In this version, the Elves have striven, through the machinations of Gandalf and others, to keep power through maintaining Middle Earth in a pre-industrial agrarian state. Their magical skills provide an edge in such a world, but cannot stand against the widespread use of technology which would undoubtedly result otherwise. Seen through that filter the whole war of the ring takes a slightly more harrowing turn. The destruction of Mordor, and the resulting genocide against the peoples who lived there, is no longer a justified first strike, but instead becomes the purging of technology and those who seek to use it to improve people’s lot in life. It is no longer a defence against a sub-human race, but instead state-level Luddism, with the enemy characterised as evil sub-human monsters in order to justify their extermination.

Whilst the story is set in the Lord of the Rings universe, with some reuse of characters, this is generally just a lens through which to investigate how two observers may come up with diametrically opposed descriptions of an event. The whole tale is sufficiently different to, and with enough of a twist on, the original that it feels fresh, and keeps the reader interested. Moreover, contrary to some criticisms I have heard, I personally do not feel this work in any way diminishes LOTR.

The story itself is slightly complex at times, and has quite a medly of characters. Unfortunately I read it in a slightly piecemeal manner, which did leave me slightly confused at points. This is only a minor complaint however, and one I’m sure wouldn’t arise if the book is read over the course of less than a week.

Unfortunately the fact that I was reading a translation did feel apparent at times – there were grammar issues, and the tale at times appeared to randomly swap between present and past tenses. Some sentence construction tended a little too much to the informal, and not in keeping with rest of novel. A bit of time with an editor would much improve things. Overall though, I was happy to take the rough with the smooth, and would recommend you do so also. It should be remembered that this is a fan translation of fan fiction (albeit of the highest calibre). And it was still in much better shape than your typical Dan Brown book….

The Russian source of the story felt apparent in not just the words, but the storyline itself: distrust of leaders, a conciousness of political machinations, the acceptance of double-talk and of wide-spread involvement of intelligence services and secret police. This is in no way a criticism however, rather these more modern aspects of the story are intriguing when applied against the rustic world of Middle Earth.

In conclusion, the story is an excellent read and fresh in it’s reinterpretation of the original work. A should-read for any lover of the original, but keep an open mind rather than being a slavish adherent to the cult of LOTR.

Scores
Original: 3/5
Cerebral: 4/5
Language: 2/5
Ease of reading: 3/5
Value for money: 5/5
Overall: 4/5

The book can be downloaded for free from here, in both the original Russian and as an English translation.

Terminal Reflections

Written as an exercise for a creative writing course. I quite like it, although every time I look at it I want to tweak/edit it. The topic was “to write a descriptive excerpt”.

——

Terminal Reflections

“It’s over”, I utter with sadness. The pistol in my hand pays testament to the finality of the statement. A weapon with a bloody history, this act would be its swan song.

I look at the face before me; trace the features I know so well. A bead of sweat forms high on his brow, as though I hold a hot iron rather than cold steel against his head. With fits and starts, the bead runs slowly down the side of his face, the lines of a hard life causing it to zig-zag haphazardly over his leathery skin. I watch as the bead disappears into the blonde beard he’d grown to hide behind – a foolish conceit. He’d worked with those people long enough to have known they would find him in the end. For some reason he thought he would be different, could beat the odds; no-one beats the house.

Mr Average he’d been called, a name perfectly suited to his physical form and behind which his career had flourished. My gaze wanders over him – neither tall nor short, skinny nor fat, attractive nor ugly. It was a body and a face which people wouldn’t remember, wouldn’t even pay attention to, a form so conforming to the average that the mind failed to register it other than as a vague recollection. No blemishes or identifying characteristics had been obvious on his person when they found him, clad in a cheap suit, tying up the loose ends of a former life, but I knew… I knew of the scars under the polyester shirt: bullet holes patched up in haste, shrapnel damage, knife wounds, the assorted trophies of a life spent in violence.

Not so now the ordinary face. A spider web of broken blood vessels marks a cheek. Oozing burns freckle him. His blonde hair, normally set in a neutral business-like manner, now hangs lankly, darkened blood matting it where they’d subdued him with a cosh. No longer the neutral smell of a generic scent, the air now is rank from the stale sweat of his fear, the bathroom they’d led him to is saturated with the bouquet of bodily functions. They’d not gone easy on him, as they explained what had to happen.

Betrayed by his trembling body, his eyes show a curious calm within. Not the dilated pupils of fear for this one. Instead a focus, steel blue looking back at me, measuring and calculating, trying to read into my soul whether I’m capable of the act. The eyes relax almost imperceptibly, soften with acceptance of necessity, and then look beyond me.

It was a look I’ve seen a thousand times. In the last moments of life the mind seeks refuge in itself, memories of loved ones float in front of you: the smell of your wife, the day of your child’s birth, all the good and happy memories that relieve the burden of a hard life. A tear rises unbidden.

He closes his eyes and whispers a last goodbye to people far away, “You’re safe now. I love you”. It is time. I squeeze the trigger, and as the hammer falls, setting off the chain reaction which will send the slug hurtling through my head, I reflect on the mistakes which had led me to this ending.