The Bloody Fingers of the King

PART I

IN AN ULTERIOR LODGE huddled beside a nameless pass through the Barbarian Mountains on Outer Pell, waiting for a brutal spring blizzard to pass, I was dozing by the fire and half-dreaming of Emily when the outer door slid open and a figure all in ragged furs staggered inside, dragging an ill-tempered limb of the blizzard thrashing in with him. The other patrons, there were four, and the innkeeper scowled at the sudden intrusion but the door slid shut behind the figure immediately, amputating the blizzard’s thrashing claw so that it exploded into a puff of feeble, harmless snowflakes.

The figure removed his furs and hung them on the rack. His clothes were as distressed as his furs but still serviceable and warm. He seemed human, or thereabouts, slightly shorter than average but also more sturdy. His wild beard and wilder hair were a deep almost blood red and his eyes sparkled in the firelight. It is hard to guess a man’s age now that we can all live forever, but in those sparkling eyes I divined a youth belying the careworn cicatrice scored into his leathery, midnight blue face. 

The innkeeper, a bipedal hairy mammal with a silicon shell and talons on his knees and elbows, bowed to the man and handed him a bowl of hot broth. I was intrigued, and more than a little peeved, to note that the innkeeper did not ask the ragged man for payment. Payment was the only topic upon which the innkeeper and I had touched, and then extensively so. Payment for broth. Payment for drink. Payment for a room. Payment for heating said room. Payment for hire of linens. Payment for sundries. Payment for parking my little explorer ship in the lee of a sheltered escarpment half a mile away. Payment for local taxes. Payment for Imperial taxes. Payment for the blizzard tax. Payment for hire of the comfortable armchair by the fire. 

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Gods are Patient but Monsters Endure

PART I

BEYOND THE FABLED EDGE, where the stars are lonesome and the planets fall by inches into shadow and frore, I found myself amongst people after too long a time wandering the dead worlds of the Dhar-Ah-Sum Wastes in search of forgotten things. My mind, even accustomed to such solitary expeditions, was still numb and leaden, weighted down by memories and discoveries, by logical extrapolations and dark fantasies. My little explorer ship, the S.S. Ess, creaked and groaned as I nursed her, finally, into a docking bay at Dhar-Ah-Zhul Station, a small but busy Imperial outpost servicing the transport and distribution needs of a remote and small, but busy, province of the Empire with stars in its soul. She came down with a thump, external sensors all out of whack, and clicked and moaned and sighed as I shut her down. A deck-tech team advanced on the S.S. Ess with umbilical feeds and refuelling pods but I waved them away, having a better plan. I grabbed my Civilization Tag and disembarked.

The cavernous landing bay was about half full, with naval, civil and commercial ships coming and going at irregular intervals. Most of them, like my own beloved S.S. Ess, were of standard Imperial designs and manufacture but a few sprang from different minds; a Ziffrosian mining claw, a Zorth Imperium star-shaver, freighters from Ath, Koh-Lajr, The Span and Ziffros, private yachts from Cartella and Luxok, and at least seven A.I. Alliance drones huddled in a belligerent knot near the space doors. 

Lifters and gravs flitted between the ships with cargo, fuel pods, spare parts, robots, repair crews and passengers. Radioed instructions, sirens, buzzers, bells, hollered communications, power tools, engines and the occasional bursts of laughter rang around the place, a mere cacophony to me but an exquisite running commentary for the experienced crew, a symphony of organization. The ships smelled of space, ionisation and rot, as I strolled past them. The bay was overloaded with the fumes from spilled fuels, lubricants and coolants, the confusing, nauseating fug of spilled foodstuffs from disparate cultures, the stench of leaking waste systems, and a thousand other things my nose had no clue about. After so long breathing the dusty drab air of dead worlds, though, my nose cared not and strove, in its own way, to grasp the concept of orgasm.

Outside the docking bay, in a wide and colourful carpeted hallway, the sound was far less; dull and enveloping like sluggish summer breezes. I shouldered my bag and made my way to one of the pilots’ bars at the station’s port side. The corridors were busy, teeming with people from all over the galaxy, a dizzying parade of body shapes, colours, twitters and growls, and further aromas for my nose to embrace like lovers. A few people knew me, and I they, sometimes acknowledged with a wave or a rushed statement of regret at having no time to talk and sometimes having so much to say and so much time in which to say it that the excuse of fictional impending deadlines spilled from my lips.

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In the Wink of an Eye

IT HADN’T WORKED. Tens of thousands of man-hours, billions of dollars and trillions of computations all culminating in a big, fat nothing. Professor Palmer’s senses returned to her slowly, almost reluctantly. For what felt like a long time her entire awareness had been filled with one overriding thought—the project was over.

She was uncomfortable, lying amongst broken glass and twisted debris, and as this discomfort began to register she tried to rouse herself. A klaxon was howling and she grimaced at its closeness as she struggled into a sitting position. The lights were out and the lab, or what was left of it, shimmered behind a thick veil of acrid, grey smoke. Coughing and gasping for breath, Palmer reached out for a shattered computer housing and used it to pull herself to her feet. There was a deep gash on her forehead and something sharp was embedded in her left shoulder, but apart from that and the headache she was fine. An involuntary laugh sprang to her throat, where it caught and mutated into a racking cough.

“Hans!” she called out, as soon as she was able. “Hans! Are you there?”

There was no answer from the wreckage, but the klaxon was too loud to hear anything else and the smoke and darkness made it impossible to see anything but the broadest details. As she called her colleague’s name out again, she caught sight of the looming bulk of the transmitter in the centre of the devastation. Half of its outer plating had been blasted away and it seemed like the core had shattered.

She cursed. Radiation. End of story. Continue reading

Conscription

Earth Sector 19, Sub-Sector 12, Habitation Block 10774, Unit 408. July 12th, 2389: 22:55hrs.

It was not the worst of times that was still to come. Carrie could feel it in her bones, a deep ache of despair that clung to her like a parasite. She assumed everyone else felt the same way but that the social convention of defiance prevented them from saying so. The war had been raging now for five years, and in that time Earth had reduced from a shining hub of commerce to a shantytown, grim and under populated. Today, though, was the worst day so far. It was Isaac’s fourteenth birthday.

The day her son went off to war.

Carrie looked at herself in the bathroom mirror and her forty four year old face stared back impassively. She was so used to her mask of calm that now she couldn’t imagine living without it. She remembered when that face used to laugh and had eyes that knew nothing of loss or despair. The hair had been full and golden, but now was flat and dull, casting a minimal shine from the harsh strip light running along the top of the chipped glass. The lips had been kind and welcoming instead of thin and cold and few of those harsh lines had been there. Countless emotions used to play on that face, unashamed and naked, but now only grim acceptance remained. She washed her face so that if Isaac saw her eyes she could say that she’d got soap in them. 

He had to be back by eleven to pick up his kit bag, and then the bus would come for him at midnight. Carrie wanted to be strong for Isaac, didn’t want him to see her cry. She thought that if she could leave him with a memory of her as a strong and beautiful woman, and as a loving mother then perhaps that memory would help him in the horrors to come. Something to hold on to and keep fixed in his mind, something to fight for and, more than anything else, something to survive for. 

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