Archive for: September, 2011

Sita’s Stragegy by David Landrum

Sep 25 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

She had long grown weary of Western-style clothes. Through most of her childhood and early adulthood she suffered in corsets and smothering layers of petticoats. Recently she had thrown them off for a sari. It felt light and free as the moon in the clouds above the Thames. When she appeared before the Queen today, it would raise eyebrows, no doubt, but she was too valuable for Victoria to censure and too important as a technical strategist for the fools and bigots in government to murmur over.

And, of course, the political situation demanded her expertise. Dire circumstances had come upon Great Britain—so dire the Queen and Parliament had placed all their hopes in this half-caste woman born of a British father and an Indian mother. Britain’s enemies had encircled her. The Serbian Empire, with its endless supply of soldiers and its vast Eastern European resources, had all but declared war. The Caliphate of Cordoba had joined them. The Caliphate tended to be low-tech, but with the Serbs supplying them, they could be dangerous. Terrified of Eastern European/North African alliance, France, Italy and Germany had declared neutrality. So had the Lutheran Federation—the Premier had announced as much in Stockholm just this morning.

England’s traditional allies were dragging their feet. America remained silent. The Centrists—the long swath of Calvinists whose wealthy, powerful nation stretched from Holland to Switzerland—had not lifted a finger to help. The Kingdom of Prester John might come to their aid, but their territory was not contiguous with England’s and they did not think much of the Anglican religion or of white people. Their reluctance was maddening. Things did not look good. The government ministers had been counting on Sita to come up with a strategy that would save them, as she had done in the war with Spain.

She looked out her window at the clock tower on a near-by building. She would go in an hour. Edward came in. He assessed her, crossed the room, and kissed her.

“Lighten up,” he said. “It’s going to be fine.”

“I hope so.”

“Nonsense. Things were just as dire when the Spanish Empire surrounded us with troop carriers. You took care of that without any problem.”

She had, Sita thought, and her action still tormented her. The Spanish had gathered troops from Iberia and from their colonies in South America—probably a million soldiers, well-armed, well-trained, and poised to avenge the disgraceful defeat England had inflicted upon them in the days of Elizabeth and Francis Drake. The government turned to her and, as the ships steamed toward England, she converted every factory in the land—from textile mills to steel foundries, to umbrella producers—into facilities for manufacturing zeppelin parts. She had gotten the idea from Mr. Whitney in America that you did not build airships like you built ships that plied the seas. You manufactured the components at various locations, moved them to central sites, and assembled them there. The Spanish knew England had flying machines but never imagined they would have a large enough number of them to do significant damage to their new invading armada.

After tying up the British navy with their warships, the Spanish slipped the troop carriers through. The vast flotilla stretched in a line from Dover to Penzance and all the way up to Douglas on the Isle of Man. When the sun broke over the water, the Spanish trembled to see four thousand dirigibles lumbering through the sky toward them. They turned to run, but the steam-powered flying machines were upon them and dropped their loads of explosives, destroying the ships packed with soldiers. The few that escaped the rain of death from the air were intercepted by British warships and sent to the bottom.

Spain lost its entire army. Widows, bereaved mothers, children and parents wept from Barcelona to Caracas and Santiago. She thought of the helpless, terrified men drowning in the holds of ships. The battle, a symphony of death, acknowledged her as its composer and conductor.

“It was a terrible thing. I hope this can be settled through negotiation.”

“Not likely,” her husband said. He paused and then asked, “The new weapon?”

“It is functional,” she said.

“But?”

She shook her head. “Too terrible to contemplate.”

“Would ten million soldiers from the Serbian Empire crossing the Channel and overrunning our land be worse?”

“No.”

He put his arms around her. She remembered sweet love they had shared last night. In childhood, her Indian nurses had told her the embrace of a man and a woman can be worship. When she came to England, she encountered fear of sexuality. She remembered the girls in her boarding school who said that the thought of embracing a man “scared them.” Many of her old classmates, afraid of sex and childbearing, had settled into single lives and meant to stay there to the grave. As she remembered how he had had pushed into her, puffed and grunted, and how she had returned his motion with a ferocity that matched her despair, she knew what lay ahead in the next few days. She did not think she would climax, but she did, and he followed shortly. Sated but unable to sleep, she lay with him the heat of their bed and watched the sunrise.

She broke off the embrace.

“I have to see Wu Li,” she told him.

Sita called a servant girl to attend her and walked out on to the street. People stared. The sari, she thought, but she resolved to get use to the gawking men and women and the children pointing and giggling. She would not go back to English dress. The people around her would have to get used to it.

She came to the unobtrusive brownstone where Wu Li lived with his wife. Though a master of the ancient wisdom of China, he was not a monk but what his compatriots called a “householder”—an accomplished master who was married with a family.

She came to the door. The servant girl knocked for her. Sita looked about as they waited for the door to open. It had rained the previous few days, but this morning had been clear. Sun lit the puddles and the new grass pushing through the brown soil and the grey leafmeal. Hedges were beginning to blossom. She saw crocuses and daffodils. The door opened.

Wu Li’s wife met him. A stately woman with a winkled face and kind eyes, she bowed. Sita made namskar.

“Greetings to you, Jiang. I am fortunately met.”

Jiang led Sita and her servant girl inside. Wu Li came into the room. Sita dismissed her servant and then bowed to the floor, touching her forehead to the ground.

“Such a display of abjectness is not necessary,” he said.

“As I walked over I became aware of the reverence I feel for you—feel but do not often demonstrate.”

“You demonstrate it. Come, Jiang has made green tea for us.”

They sat down in the tiny, neat room that served as a dining area and the place where Wu Li and Jiang received guests. Jiang poured tea for them and left, giving Sita and her husband a small bow. Sita drank in silence. Anxiety stabbed at her. She wanted to blurt out everything in her heart, but propriety require that the master speak first. They drank in silence for some minutes. Finally, he spoke.

“You are troubled.”

“Yes. I think you know why.”

“You have made the weapon?”

“Made it and tested it. Now the government wants me to use it against”—

“I have studied the intricacies of the political situation,” he said. “No need to go into detail about it. Why are you burdened?”

His question, so obvious, asked her to reflect upon her own feelings more than to answer him. She had finished work on a new explosive device using unstable radium. She and a group of scientists and military men had tested it in the south Atlantic.

Sita had long known energy is matter and matter energy. This was a startling concept in Britain these days, but the sages of China and her own homeland had know it for thousands of years. They had not, however, she reflected bitterly, used this knowledge to produce a weapon.

Sita sipped the green tea. She had not realized the destructive capability of opening the volatile energy in the unstable ore they had mined in French Equatorial Africa. They had sailed in a battleship past Ascension Island, past Saint Helena, down into the cold waters near Antarctica. Whales spouted in the sea around them and silent, dazzling icebergs floated in the dim sunlight. After spending the night in a shabby, abandoned whaling outpost on the South Orkneys, Sita and her crew took small boats to a rocky islet and set the device up there. The military men wanted to get closer in, but she said the velocity of the blast would be greater than anything earth had seen. Some of the admirals and generals laughed in her face when she told them this. And her calculations had been wrong, though not in the way they imagined.  If they had been a mile closer to the blindingly bright explosion they would have all been killed by it. The tidal wave it generated almost capsized the ship from which they had watched. Aware of the toxic properties the explosion would expel, at least she had been had been careful to position the ship downwind from the conflagration. The sight of it made Sita ill. She rushed to a railing and vomited over the side. One of the Army Generals caught her—the ship still lurched and bobbed even though they had ridden out the tsunami the explosion generated.

“Made me a little seasick too,” he chortled.

Sita had returned to her cabin, stunned to the point of lassitude at what she had unleashed.

Her hands trembled as she put down the delicate porcelain teacup.

“I am meeting with Her Majesty this afternoon,” she said. “She wants me to use the weapon against the major cities of the Serbian Empire and the Caliphate.”

He contemplated. Sita marveled at what probably went through his mind when he thought on things—so much more than when she pondered.

“You did not realize the terrible power you would release,” he said.

“No.”

“Do your associates have the calculations?”

“They do, I am sorry to say. And they have mined enough of the ore from Africa that we can easily make as many as thirty of the bombs.” She paused then let her words spill out. “The power of embedded energy is much great than I had thought it would be. It is the velocity of light proportioned to the mass of the elements involved.” She felt ill once more. She rested her forehead on her thumb and two fingers. “Name of God, what have I done?”

“You have erred—erred in innocence, I would say. The question now is how to correct the error.”

Sita did not reply. She remembered back to her childhood, to seeing the holy men in India who did not eat, who could walk on blazing coals or slash themselves and not bleed. Once, in Tibet, monks vanished before her in a flash of fire and rematerialized a hundred yards away. Even as a child, she had known these were not tricks and not illusions. Nor was it what people thought of as “magic.” As a young woman entering Cambridge, she had begun to grasp that the adepts from her own land and from China and Tibet achieved a state of being that defied the limits of physicality because they knew an ancient truth, one common in the East:  that the physical was in fact illusory.

She had long misunderstood this concept. She had thought it an expression of the ascetic’s contempt for the everyday and the quotidian. Somehow she had realized that their identification of the material world as maya, as illusion, was not the arrogant pronouncement of men and women who reveled in their moral superiority because they lived in celibacy, meditated for hours, and treated their bodies to punishing harshness; it was a statement of fact. The physical world consisted of energy. The sidhi, monks, the Zen masters, had learned to exercise that energy.

But they did this to center upon universal reality, not to make horrific weapons.

Reading the experiments of Marie and Pierre Curie, she had once again thought of the Eastern axiom that all things are energy. There seemed to be elements that were unstable in nature—that for some reason bled their energy out. (The release of it could cause death, many scientists had warned.) Sita began to experiment with radium, being careful to limit her contact with the material. Shortly after finishing school, she heard about the odd material the French had found in one of their colonies.

“I don’t know what to do,” she said, her mind returning to Wu Li and the present.

“The only recourse you have is wisdom.”

“Can wisdom heal a thing such as this?”

After graduation and her rapid rise as an engineer and inventor, she began experimenting in earnest with radium. Lead seemed to block its rays, so Sita developed safeguards for handling the material. All the while she thought of the relationship of matter and the energy of which it consisted.

She kept her musings on the subject secret. As an Indian woman—and as a woman—she found herself the subject of scorn and derision in the male-dominated circles where she travelled. Other scientists behaved contemptuously toward her because she was female. The men she worked work openly express their scorn of India and its people. Sita knew that if she revealed her interest in Eastern theories of physics, her colleagues, who wanted nothing more in the world than to discredit her, would use this as evidence of her unworthiness to be in the Royal Society or be an adviser to the British government.

One day a letter crossed her desk from a French scientist. He had read an article she published on the nature of radium and how to safeguard oneself from its destructive emissions. He mentioned that in the tribal area of Gabon in French Equatorial Africa a place existed where the locals said heat and steam arose in the soil. Examination of the site showed no volcanic or tectonic explanation for this. The heat of the area seemed to derive from unstable ore in the ground—some sort of mineral that, due to its nature, released energy. He had samples of it. Would she like him to send her some?

He sent her a great deal of it in a lead-lined shipping case. Sita examined it. One night—when she was in the very act of enjoying love with her husband—realization stuck her. If the material she had obtained released energy by its unstable nature, just as an adept at yoga or Zen could release the energy of his or her own body to defy physicality, what might happen if the energy of this particular element could be set free? It tended to release energy naturally. What if the process could be manufactured—and controlled?

When she thought of this, an orgasm more intense than any she had ever known shook her from head to toe.

Various war projects waylaid her. She used her spare time to calculate atomic weights and valences. Sita soon realized that if she drove the atoms of the unstable ore at high velocity into a mass of similar material, the energy would be unbounded. And its release would be considerable.

She had not even dreamed how massive and destructive the release would actually be.

“Wisdom,” Wu Li said, “is more powerful than any force. Energy is the work of the Tao. Wisdom is the soul of the Tao.”

“How can I use wisdom to stop our people from deploying this device?”

“What were you taught?”

“You’ve taught me so much.”

“Remember,” he said. “What is the prime concern of the people with whom you must deal in this matter?”

Her mind went back again. She had only intended to create an explosive device superior to any in existence. The Serbs had employed Prussian arms-makers to create long-range cannon and had placed them in the city of Stetin. They could easily shell London and Southern England. And knowing Britain’s dependence on airships, they had also developed high-velocity guns that were effective in destroying zeppelins. Sita had developed effective counters to the second weapon.  She had thought superior British airpower might checkmate the Serbs on their intention of using their long-range artillery to strike English soil and thus had developed the radium bomb. Now the English had a weapon that could incinerate millions of people in a flash and could poison soil and water for a hundred years.

She tried to concentrate on Wu Li’s prompt.

What was the prime concern of the people with whom she had to deal in this matter?

Then she knew:  war.

Wu Li smiled. “I see enlightenment in your eyes—a satori, perhaps?”

“How can this be a solution?”

“Dwell on what you have discovered. Do not dwell on your questions and your doubts.”

Sit recited:  “Weapons of war are inauspicious . . . killing is not the primary thing.

She could hardly remember.

“Very good,” Wu Li said. “Sun Tzu must be your teacher in this matter. How does the skillful warrior fight?’

The skillful warrior renders other’s armies helpless without fighting.”

“Can you use this knowledge in your current dilemma?”

“The men in the Cabinet will not listen to me. They want to violently destroy their enemies now that they have the means to do so.”

“They have listened to you in the past. You have saved the nation and the Empire. You have credibility in this.”

Her mind began to work. She and her research team had developed an ultra-hard ceramic covering that made shells glance off its surface. If the shells did not “bite”—if they did not encounter sufficient resistance to trigger their impact-detonating mechanism—they would be rendered harmless. The plan six months ago, before the test of new explosive device, had been approved and the entire fleet of British airships fitted with the new protective armor. If they used the shell-proof zeppelins to destroy the long-range artillery pieces and to disrupt supply of the millions of troops the Serbs were assembling on the north coast of Poland and in the harbors of southern Iberia, they could interdict their plans

“But will they listen now that they have the new weapon?” she asked.

“Lower energy always yields to higher energy. You should know this.”

She thought about ruining their alliances. The Kingdom of Prester John could harry the Caliphate of Cordoba. Five years ago Addis Ababa had handed the Sultan a devastating defeat and forced him to cede Cyprus. If he knew Britain and the Kingdom were allied, he would break his pact with Serbia. Another point of contention with the Kingdom was the British occupation of Kerala, the Christian province of India. If Britain gave control of that province to The Kingdom of Prester John in exchange for their support in the war, it would not only expose the Caliphate to attack but would also endanger the hundreds of miles of border Serbia shared with the massive, powerful Afro-Asian nation along the south limits of the Russian steppe.

Wu Li smiled.

“The Queen, for all her faults, is a wise woman,” he said. “She does not want to see millions of people die at her command and does not wish to be remembered in history as a slayer of millions of people. You will persuade her if you keep your soul centered in wisdom. This is the greatest force of all.”

The clock on the mantle of Wu Li’s guest room struck twelve. At one o’clock she would meet briefly with the War Cabinet and then sit down for a private dinner an consultation with Her Majesty. The Cabinet would be indignant when Sita suggested that they refrain from using the new weapon. The Queen, she knew, would be of a different mind.

She bowed, taking leave of her master, called her servant girl, and walked through the warmth of a beautiful spring day back to her home, where a carriage waited to convey her to the Halls of Parliament.

*

David W. Landrum lives in Western Michigan, where he has taught literature and writing at a number of universities. His fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Sinister Tales, The Monsters Next Door, Dark Distortions, And Now the Nightmare Begins, Alt Hist. His novella, The Gallery, is available from Amazon.Com.

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Mind Singers by R. S. Pyne

Sep 18 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

Ares’ twin moons had just risen; their light lending crimson hues to the night’s performance. The show’s brightest star greeted her audience, in a figure hugging velvet dress that accentuated every curve. Maestra Giulietta Tamassia bore the title Diva as if born to it, the highest earning singer in five generations and the only one with full Swettenham range. She waited until the room fell silent and the watching elite barely dared breathe. Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria had never been sung with such brilliance; every crystal note resonating against sonic panels so that the air changed colour. An assistant left the wings as the music died, holding a visual pattern generator visor, the virtual reality device set in true-silver. She helped the diva position it correctly and guided her centre stage for the second half. Visual stimuli did its work and the brain produced an electrical signal; gamma oscillation separated into rippling harmonics. Any amateur could ride sound waves to modify between four and nine notes. Giulietta’s range went all the way up to twelve and she was now at the height of her career, could fill a concert hall from Ares to Zenobia.

In the beginning, the research was never intended for entertainment. She had studied the original science at the Academy; all theory exams passed with honours before she was allowed near a functional visor. The basic explanation would stay with her forever even if she lived to the current span of one hundred and fifty. In 2009, scientists proved that studying how a human brain ‘sings’ improved understanding of epilepsy and schizophrenia.

They were the first ones, the pioneers, their statues given pride of place in the Heroes Hall: Drs. Muthukumaraswamy, Edden, Swettenham and Professors Jones and Singh. Their work at the Cardiff University Brain Research Imaging Centre discovered that each human brain produced a unique electrical signal – a gamma oscillation at a particular frequency when shown a visual pattern. The concentration of a neurotransmitter chemical GABA in the visual cortex determined oscillation frequency. Each brain ‘sang’ different notes in the 40-70 Hertz range; similar to notes in the lowest octaves of a piano keyboard or lower notes on a bass guitar; high concentrations of this chemical led to higher oscillation frequency and note. The study of gamma oscillation frequency offered a new window into the action of neurotransmitters such as GABA and how their function was compromised in diseases such as epilepsy and schizophrenia. It helped develop effective drugs to treat these and other neurological conditions.

The scientists who made the discovery never lived to see what the next century did with it but they were remembered: the notes split into five groups, one named for each of the research team. Gods bless their descendants and those who made a good living from their work. Giulietta gave the audience one last curtain call before the stage hard air screens came back on.

She looked at the panic on her assistant’s face and knew something was wrong. There is a problem, the young Singh novice said without going into detail. You only had to listen to the noise of conflict outside the concert hall to realize that, but the Diva went anyway. A tall man in a severe black uniform who held death in his eyes met her on the steps, snarling at one of the braver security guards to keep the stage doors unlocked. Wild eyed and clearly deranged, a teenager lurched down Main Street shouting that his brain was filled with molten lead. A woman went mad as if the psychosis was infectious. She tore at her hair and threw the baby she had held so tenderly high into the air. It would have fallen onto unforgiving cobbles if the one sane man left had not braved the lunatic mob to catch it. Giulietta moved to help as her bodyguard touched her elbow, the touch feather light but it made her pause.

“Be careful,” Kair said in a voice designed not to carry. “Remember Arachne?”

Only last month; that had been a riot worthy of the name; half the city in flames, a hundred dead and the Company arrested for being in the middle of it. Mind Singers were not immune from prosecution if charges came.

“This is different. Can’t you feel it?” She hit one of the mad with a bouquet of roses and the shipping box they came in.

“That is madness,” her assistant whined, “think of the negative publicity.”

“Hell with that,” sometimes, the only way to release post-performance adrenaline was to release a pent-up berserker controlled for too long.

Maestra,” he said; careful not to give advice. “This is not a good time to meet your fans.” A strong Ares burr to his speech, Kair Raven fell into step behind his employer and made the mob think twice. The people storming the concert hall drifted away to go mad again somewhere else. She watched the assistant bolt to the safety of the hall and turned to her bodyguard, friend and lover. “Shall we dance?”

His ice-blue eyes did not waver, a dangerous stillness in a face made for playing poker. “Nice night for it.”

They stepped out, as if on a moonlight stroll. One, two, three –counting was a charm, helping him ease the situation. Four, five and, by seven, everything was alright until the next time. Close, but he had given his word not to kill anyone. In the early years of their arrangement, when she was a rising star and he an out of work soldier no-one would hire, they had barely spoken to each other. He needed a job and she had too many enemies to worry how he did it. Now, all his demons were tightly controlled, but occasionally they roared to the surface.

On those days she declared a sudden interest in going to the worst part of town where they were sure to find a fight. In the time they had been together, she learned she liked tavern brawls as a relaxation aid.

“Gods, I need a drink,” he spat blood from a split lip and winced when an AA-chip triggered at the sentiment. Three years ago, when post traumatic stress left over from the war and drinking to forget got too much, Giulietta was there to pick up the pieces. They needed each other, completed the circle but his reputation scared people, the top ranked personal attack dog for the top ranked singer. He had stopped killing if it could be avoided but there were times when fans needed a lesson. They cut their way through the mayhem before control squads arrived, the first riot gas beginning to blow on an indifferent breeze. Closed the villa gates on the night and went straight to bed, easily ignoring twenty messages left by an agent in danger of turning obsessive.

Giulietta held out a visor watching the tension lift. “You promised me a duet,” she said.

Kair had no family and lost his last friend years ago. Where he went when they were apart was a mystery and he discouraged anyone from trying to find out. There were rumours and an alcohol problem – the one shrouded in half truth and speculations, the other openly on file. Two years sober now, he had enough sense to know he could never drink again. He saved her life more than once and, in a way, she did the same for him – giving him a way back to sanity and the light.

The amplifier magnified notes and separated them into constituent harmonics. In his days of drug and alcohol schizophrenia, GABA concentrations made his note high in the scale; now he ‘sang’ a pleasant Jones tenor. It contrasted nicely with her cerebral voice, a compatible joining of minds, but they sang together rarely. He had no wish to perform in public but his mind had a power and rare clarity in someone not trained to use it. She responded easily; the harmonies of her Swettenham tones rippling as she crafted them. Free composition allowed a much needed relief after four sell out performances in as many nights. Kair instinctively followed her lead, running two harmonies together until they twisted through each other like silver threads. The music they made together remained in their memories, repertoires expanded forever.

Giulietta traced the scars across his ribs, moved on to a cluster of starbursts – each one a healed bullet wound. He worked his way up from the ranks of the Ares Militia from private to Sergeant-at-Arms, from Sergeant to acting Lieutenant; every scar a memento of the time of war. When Earth decided it wanted its colony back, it sent superior numbers and firepower and fought a three year campaign. While he continued to fight after the final invasion, the Mind Singers Academy remained neutral. It refused to take sides and that neutrality was respected. Giulietta graduated on the day of the last battle, the final notes of her master song dying away at the same time as the ceasefire. They made love at dawn and forgot about their war stories. It was late morning when her assistant met her at the doors of her private study.

“You have visitors. They are waiting inside.”

She whispered the Muthukumaraswamy name as if it was a dirty word, one eye still swollen from the riot when a complete stranger punched her for belonging to the Singer’s Guild.

“Thank you,” the Maestra gathered her thoughts as the doors slid into place behind her.

Ash and Willow Darien were old friends, close in age but different as fire and ice: one a risk taker, the other deeper with more self control. They bickered offstage but came together in performance with a unity that made them unbeatable. Both trained at the Academy a year after Giulietta’s master song, but they had been friends from early years spent career building. Polite greetings exchanged; the reason for their visit became apparent – they did not bring good news.

“Garret Mac died this morning,” Willow said, barely able to keep back the tears.

Willow glanced around the room to check that Kair Raven was not there.

“You are still frightened of my bodyguard?” Giulietta asked, seeing the truth.

She gave an embarrassed half-nod and admitted it.

“He is a scary guy.”

“Who has absolutely no reason to hurt you,” Giulietta said but that did not seem to help.

Ash nudged his sister, urging her to get to the point. “We heard two hours ago – the investigating team found him with a visor set on offensive.”

“He wasn’t the type to fight a duel.”

She barely remembered Garret McGowan even though they were on the same intake, shared classes and got drunk together more than once. A poet and a dreamer, he had been a hopeless romantic without the means or family connections to make that a practical lifestyle choice.

“He lost one.” There was a note of triumph in Darien’s voice, reminding her that the two never liked each other. Brother and sister excused themselves for she had an afternoon performance and needed to prepare. She sang as well as ever but left the stage thinking there was something lacking. The near-riot that followed the last encore did not help. She travelled through a ravaged city and wondered what the hell was happening. One man might know, even if he was a Seller and the lowest of the low – a scum peddler of information who was not picky about where he sold it. During the time of war, he dealt with both sides and made a good living. Now he ruled a sector and held court in one of Ares’ most notorious nightclubs. Even with Kair by her side, she did not enjoy walking into The Rings to ask for audience. Permission came, granted as if it were a great favour. The man had a handshake so damp you wanted to wear gloves just to touch him. The remains of last week’s dinner stuck to his shirt and he was always counting down the hours to his next meal. Vargas was a slob, but had useful connections.

The waitress brought ice cold water and three bottles of beer, put them down on the table and moved away as if trying to escape the smell. Grossly overweight during the war, he had ballooned to a spherical shape. He bathed once a year on his birthday and that had been nine months ago. She watched Kair disappear in search of fresher air and forced herself to smile. Vargas leered at her performance gown, a long train of brushed feather silk stirring sawdust from the floor. He wiped showed all three of his remaining teeth.

“Julie. My songbird.” he still refused to use her proper name. “What can we do for you today?”

“I need some information, and please take your hand off my thigh. What is going on?”

“I heard it from reliable sources that a splinter faction is plotting something big.” He stopped; a typical Seller’s gambit to press for more money.” She laid a gold credit on the table and cursed when he shook his head. All four chins wobbled their disapproval at such a low offer, taking it as a personal insult. A handful of coins loosened his flabby tongue and he continued: “Some of the Muthuk want true independence for Ares instead of the compromise the powers that be worked out after the war. I guess that they got tired of sharing.”

Giulietta felt sick, waves of sudden nausea washed over her until she almost drowned in the back wash. Muthukumaraswamy Singers were rare now but had the most powerful cerebral voice – potentially a deadly weapon. Illegal, immoral, it was unthinkable that someone could use their Science given gifts for evil. She cleared the thought from her mind. One question left. “Someone I trained has just been killed in a duel.”

“He must have got in their way.” Vargas shrugged. “Aye, Garret was part of the plot, a true patriot and too stupid to know that they were using him. Unfortunately my source has disappeared without trace so I don’t think I can tell you anything else.”

He leered again and patted the chair next to his massive bulk, his hand spider-like crawling up her leg as if she would not notice. She looked down at her glass of iced water with regret. On a world where bottled water was far more expensive than alcohol, it seemed like such a waste. It would take an ocean to wash him clean and so she threw the beer at him instead and finished her drink. She swept out of the bar with all the dignity of her profession and then spoilt it all by having to vomit in a back alley.

Next morning, she threw up three times before breakfast and waited a week before admitting she had a problem. Mother’s House offered a discrete consultation; fiercely protective of favourite clients. She waited in the well scrubbed reception room, enjoying the mingled scent of burning frankincense and pine resin until the healers came in to see her. They treated her with the respect due to her profession, their gentle voices asking questions while the scan array did its work.

“Your child has the Muthukumaraswamy range,” the older Healer said, showing her an image on hard air screens. “There is a clear signal, unusual at this early stage of development”. She paused. “You didn’t know?”

Giulietta shook her head, the news hitting hard but it was not unwelcome. “I had no idea. Is that what all this is about – the spreading madness wherever I go?”

“There is a battle in your belly. The medical people call it Contrary Foetal Syndrome where a mother and child’s brain sings out of harmony – two notes trying to sound from the same body and it will only get worse.”

“But it is treatable?” She had no wish to cause riots anymore; those wild student days were long gone. “Please tell me you can help.”

The healer held out a wrinkled hand and smiled, her face like an afal-lime kept too long in storage. “There is a way to realign frequencies, stop the harmonic fractures from affecting everything else. No risk to either mind and I can do the procedure now.”

She smiled again as Giulietta hesitated. “It doesn’t hurt. I promise you that. Close your eyes and count down from ten to one, concentrate on the flow of breath.”

A medical visor lay on the table, a functional grey frame interwoven with copper wire and panels of psychic glass. The healer reached for it and laid a hand on her patient’s stomach; she sang notes of realignment with her true voice and then used her mind; a simple children’s nursery rhyme that enveloped and soothed.

“There will be no more riots.”

Giulietta opened her eyes and watched violent energy spikes that surrounded the projected image fade to a normal colour. Her unborn child smiled as it sucked what would soon be its thumb. She left Mother’s House with the scan burnt into psycho-responsive film and tried to reshuffle her engagements. The streets were busy, dawdling market-day crowds and traders made progress slow but she was content to walk with her own thoughts. Infant wranglers corralled their charges while parents shopped in peace or left the city. All unclaimed babies went to the next stall after three days, sold on to couples who could afford an adoption license.

She stopped to watch a virtual cockfight; pairs of brightly coloured computer generated holograms battling to simulated death on the cobbles. Gambling was strictly illegal, but nobody had told that to the crowd. A triumphant roar went up as the losing ‘bird’ vanished in a puff of exploding pixels and money changed hands, bets placed openly before  the next bout started.

“Never had you down as a betting woman,” Ash Darien said, his sister not far behind. Her delicate face was slightly flushed by the bitter weather, the pale reflective beauty given more warmth when she smiled. Ash bent to pick up the foetal scan when it dropped to the floor, a secretive smile marring his perfect features. “Looks like someone is keeping things from us?” he said and reverted once more to the friend she had trusted for a decade.

“I would have told you sooner or later,” Giulietta retrieved the precious image, seeing that Willow at least was genuinely pleased to hear the news. “Who else will cover my engagements while I take a break?”

“Congratulations,” Ash said and almost meant it.

They promised to keep what they knew private, but she had not wanted to tell anyone. No help for it now; the secret already shared. She arrived at the ident-coded gates of her private villa and punched in the password, remembering to reset the scan for two. From the look on her assistant’s face, the young woman was about to burst with excitement.

Rowena blurted the latest news out before she was asked, “Another Swettenham top rank died last night. No witnesses, no physical evidence except a broken visor clutched in her hand.”

“Who was it?” She felt sick again, the ginger root tablets offering only a short-lived relief. She started singing to the child in her womb, using mind song and true voice in a subtle combination that had never been more private. It eased the nausea, something more positive to do than just sit all day with her head held low over a sanitation vortex.

“The latest news feed said that her name was Maestra Elena Mesaroli. I think you knew her. She had a power and a range almost equal to your own, but she died in the gutter. Somebody is targeting us.”

Rowena made a face. “The citadel forces have put three sectors under curfew – patrols with orders to shoot first and ask questions through a psychic afterwards.”

“There must be something you have to do?”

For a novice due to make her first public performance to a paying audience in only a few weeks, Rowena showed little inclination to practice. She preferred to exchange news, gossip and scandal and practised only when she could not avoid it. Watching Kair Raven increase the villa’s security field from amber to double then triple red, Giulietta thought that it was more like living in a fortress than ever.

“No-one gets in or out without invitation,” he said, competent as ever. “I put people I trust on the door, more on the inside. Do you still want to do tonight?”

“You know I can’t pull out.” The very thought was impossible. In her entire career, she had never cancelled a concert and did not intend to start now. Even five months pregnant, she had standards to maintain and there were many singers who would be only too happy to take her place on the stage. Once they took one performance from her, they would never let it be forgotten. They would not rest until they replaced her and took top billing. “I will not hide away like a frightened child in the middle of solar wind season.”

“Of course not“, he was non committal. Transport arranged he called a favour from the Guard Commander so they had an armed escort. In the end, even that was not enough. The concert passed off without incident, her performance as flawless as ever. Watched by the First Speaker and his glamorous consort in their floating private box, she sent her mind voice to new heights of brilliance and forgot all about the murders. She walked into the dressing room after her last song, still full of adrenaline from the rapturous applause as she called her assistant’s name. Only a watchful silence greeted that sound, the warm room in darkness until a sensor registered her presence and brightened the glow orbs. She called out again and then saw the aide seated at the corner desk. Rowena looked as if she was asleep, her head bent low over a musical score, but what had taken her was more permanent than sleep. Still warm, a trickle of blood at her mouth the only sign of a struggle. Giulietta did not scream. Someone shut her eyes, she thought as the hooded shapes closed in from all sides. They covered their faces, black shadow screen obscuring every feature.

The first one reached for her and she kicked out, using concentrated rage as a weapon. A seventeen year old girl lay dead for absolutely no reason – Rowena never deserved such an end to what might have been a promising career.

As the door burst open, Giulietta Tamassia wanted to kill them all. She shouted a diva’s battle cry and embraced the inner berserker that was never far from the surface. Kair Raven was at her side in a heartbeat and he never needed an excuse. They flowed together in the fighting style he had taught her; Capoeira, every controlled movement more like a dance than martial art.

Even though purists thought that using the hands was inelegant, she hit one of her attackers over the head with an antique lamp brought from Earth a century ago. Converted to glow sphere power instead of electricity, the heavy marble base made an effective weapon.

Kair killed two, rendered a third unconscious in a heartbeat but there were still too many of them. The advantage of numbers, a pair of red robed figures waited for minions to get the job done but they were growing impatient. One of them raised a hand in an all too familiar gesture: adjusting a pattern generator visor set as a weapon instead of mind music. The taller red robe made a contemptuous flick and the wind song slammed Kair against the back wall. He crumpled to the floor and did not move again.

“Hello,” the shrouded figure whispered in her ear before she could react. Darkness took her, the needle kiss of hypodermic dreamless sleep but the voice was all too familiar. She regained consciousness but still could not move; an acrid fog clouding her mind to keep her paralyzed. A wall loomed at her back but offered no clear suggestion where she was; the only clue the smell of salt in the air and the cry of the Sea Mews. When she opened her eyes, a familiar face greeted her; one she had called a good friend.

“How did you sleep?”

She blinked, the only option open to her, but tried to make the blink sarcastic.

He did not seem to care. “The Irish Bards had a sleep strain to their harp music. That was thousands of years ago and Earth is a long way from here, but they could kill enemies just by playing one particular song.” Ash paused in the ancient history lesson, his eyes shining with a true believer’s light. “In the beginning, Mind Singing began as a treatment for Schizophrenia or Epilepsy but we have come a long way from that. Now it is an art form, used to entertain people who can afford to listen. Most of those who go to our concerts were not born on Ares. We fought a war but Earth still pulls the strings. Muthukumaraswamy has a powerful weapon at its disposal even if it has forgotten that for money. Your baby is the key to it all, which is why you are still alive. We need you. The only way for Ares to be truly free is to take back what was stolen from us at Wyvern’s Ridge.”

His voice trailed off as he noticed the chain around his captive’s neck for the first time; a red light blinking from the pendant like an accusing eye.

Kair Raven had come up behind him, silent as any wraith, holding a locator device.

The necklace looked like a simple piece of jewellery, undetectable in any scan, but it could pinpoint location to the nearest city block and building. He was bleeding heavily, one arm hanging broken and useless, but he was used to pain.

“A lot of people died at Wyvern,” he never sounded more dangerous. “I never saw you there. You talk about freedom for Ares but never fought for her when it still mattered.”

Other people would have been dead already but he had always been stubborn. He made no secret that he hated the new movement to keep Ares only for those born and bred there.

His own people were there long before official settlers came from Earth – never any talk of giving the planet back to them. The bloody war for independence had almost ruined his life. When the ink dried on the Articles of Settlement, all such dreams should have gone with it. People who still thought they had a cause to fight for reopened old wounds but did little else.

Ash whirled and sent out a blast of mind song, every note tempered to cause maximum damage, but he had not taken the time to build a proper Kill Strain. The bodyguard moved too quickly and ignored all rules of fair combat. He did not stay still, making the fanatic expend ever greater bursts of energy to ward off attack.

Giulietta revived when Willow Darien broke smelling salts under her nose. It chased away the last of the paralyzing agent. She stood up, in a filthy mood, and decided the best way to change it was a small amount of controlled violence. The scheming bastard tried to use her unborn child to take over the world and such liberties had to be paid for. She reached for the travel case as the other woman held it out to her, recognizing her performance visor.

Willow spoke in a small voice. “Please believe me – I wanted no part in this.” Conscience overrode family loyalty even though it hurt her deeply. Tears ran down her face as she apologized again and ran away without a backward glance. The door closed behind her, her retreating footsteps dying away to silence.

Giulietta gathered her power; the breathing exercises centred a mind unused to combat but trained for it. Kair sensed what she was about to do, distracting the Muthuk singer long enough for a systems check. She pulled the visor in place and trusted the visual pattern generator to work its magic as the baby kicked. Ash turned a fraction too late, unable to stop the siren song as a diva’s brain sent notes into attack formation. She crafted each and pictured them deadly as her tutors in the ‘Singing Brain as weapon – advanced duelling’ class taught her. The baby kicked and she heard its song, twisting around her own and making the inner voice stronger.

Her opponent recoiled as the sound wave hit, not expecting it to be so powerful. She saw Kair Raven stagger to his feet; a nod of acknowledgement that he would let her finish this battle alone.

Ash wiped blood from his mouth and tried one last appeal. “I thought we were friends.”

“We were friends once,” she said and did not speak to him again.

She knocked him back with a vicious aria, holding notes for maximum effect only the Swettenham strain could offer. A second aria increased GABA concentration in her enemy’s brain so that he sang higher, fractured notes, slapping him out of the Muthukumaraswamy Range that might have been an advantage.

He reeled, responding with a weak counter that barely touched her. She smiled and sang a long duet with her unborn child.

The mind music would have enthralled an audience, but this was not meant for others.

They sang a private song that had no beginning or end.

Mother’s love swelled the notes into a weapon.

It had no happy ending, nor did Ash have any right to expect any.

*

R. S. Pyne is a freelance writer and science journalist from West Wales. She has published thirty short stories in UK, Irish and US print and electronic magazines and is also the Ancient Tree Verifier for Ceredigion; on behalf of the Woodland Trust. Publication credits include: Albedo One, Apollo’s Lyre, Aurora Wolf, Bards and Sages Quarterly, Christmas is Dead – Again, Crimson Highway, Delivered, Fifth Di, Hungur, Lacuna –Journal of Historical Fiction, Macabre Cadaver, Midnight Horror, Neo-opsis, Orphan Leaf Review, Pen Cambria, Silver Blade, SMG Horror Magazine, Spook City, Star Stepping Anthology, Tainted – Anthology of Terror and the Supernatural and others. Seven stories are available on the Anthology Builder website.

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Wayfarer by Constance Rossman

Sep 11 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

The storm nearly slammed the hunter against the lonely house, but he welcomed it. Sureshot had been out hunting on this new world for three days, and now suddenly this sleet storm blew out of the sky and the winter-bare forest could not shelter him. He’d staggered between the trees, even his high-tech sensors blinded by blowing snow, and almost collided with the big white shape which loomed up in front of him.

He pressed cautious fingers to it to make sure it was real: a building made of vertical logs so natural-looking it might have been part of the forest.

“A house, a lodge,” he breathed. “What good Chance for me!” He’d wandered so far from the freehold’s trade center that he had two days to wait and many kri-veh to walk before he could meet up with the tradeship again. And while he had a sled-load of fresh meat to dine on and fill the trader’s bins, he had no sanctuary from the storm.

Until this appeared.

It looked lived-in, too. He groped round to the front and saw two windows golden with warmth and an entry door of polished carven wood.

“This is hunting luck, on-stat,” he told himself. Now he could claim wayfarer’s privilege and the good folk within would surely offer him sanctuary. They wouldn’t even have to feed him from their own stores. He’d killed plenty of game and could offer them some, in fact. His name was Sureshot for good reason.

And the Hunting People all over this tautsche’s galaxy took care of their own, freehold or clan.

Relieved and happy, he tied his platform sled to the porch railing, then climbed up and found the scratchpad on the lintel. He drew his arched finger-talons down it once, twice, to announce his presence, then waited, but nothing stirred. The windows still gleamed golden and the house exhaled heat, but no-one came to the door.

The storm howled and beat at his back, throwing freezing lines along the creases of his clothing. He shivered. Maybe the wind was too loud for anyone inside to hear him, though the Hunters have superb senses. Still…

He took a step back, arched his neck and roared: “Arooah the house! Is anyone here?”

Now that a deaf Hunter could hear; and he waited expectantly.

But nobody came.

For the first time, Sureshot hesitated. Someone should have heard that. And if they didn’t answer, that must mean  they didn’t want to be disturbed.  He sighed and eased back another step. The wind lashed him with renewed fury: his facemask instantly fogged over. Technology took care of that almost at once, but the sleet would keep blurring his vision and numbing his limbs, and the thought of spending the night freezing in a tree….

There must be another way. He leaned forward and gently put his talon-tips to the door, trying to think of what else he could do…

…when the door moved under his hand. He jerked back, startled.

But the door stopped moving at a hairline crack of light. No-one stood behind it.

Open…the threshold open as if in welcome, Unlocked, as the tautschen would leave it for the wayward traveler if they were not home. Had they left the lights on as well?

All his inborn caution returned, and he slid in alongside the door, weapon in hand, a hunter again. Did an invading beast lurk here? With his other hand, he thrust the door wide.

Nothing charged out at him except a waft of warm air. The threshold filled with a golden glow, which he now saw came from a fire.

A hearth fire inside.

Sureshot paused long enough to make sure nothing was going to leap out at him; then he whipped inside, put his back to the door, and snap-scanned the area.

He stood in a short vestibule. To his left, he could see the opening to the great room or hearth room, with the fire still flickering above cindered logs. To the right lay another open threshold into what looked like a cookroom.  No sign of people anywhere.

Sureshot relaxed a bit. Nothing harmful here. Perhaps the family was just in the back somewhere, bathing or getting ready to sleep. Ahead of him lay a long hall with other rooms opening off it.

On-target, then; he would seek out whoever lived here, making certain he didn’t surprise them. He would ask for shelter from the storm. He closed the door behind him, eased his pack from his shoulders, and added his facemask to it. He re-sheathed his weapon. No use for a weapon in a tautschen household. He no longer thought some animal lurked here, but just on chance—and he was a great believer in Chance—he still had his own fangs and claws…

He began to move silently down the hall.

Two rooms opened off this central hall, and he chose the nearer one, on the right, to look into first.

Tiny starlites flickered on at his entrance and he saw a marbled and muralled chamber with a round sunken tub nearer the doorway and a glass-walled chamber farther in. The bathing chamber.

The sight made him draw in his breath with an “Aaah…” How good a hot whirlwater bath would feel to soak in right now! He suddenly felt clammy and cold; even his thermo-suit had been soaked and half-frozen from the vicious wind, and he longed to cast it off and jump into a steamy, sudsy bath.

But first—“make yourself known, hunter,” he chided, “or they’ll think you a lawless beast.” So, reluctantly, he turned aside from the bathing chamber and went on down the hall, looking for the tautschen who lived here.

As he drew up next to the second room, a cold draft met him through the half-open door.

Was it a cold-storage room? he wondered. If so, someone had left the door open. Or maybe they’re in there. He reached up to scratch on the door panel—when something bit down on the base of his brain….

…a feeling of danger and wrong.

Sureshot’s breath caught. He’d had these feelings before, in the field, when some beast lay in wait for him, when taking another step would have proved his last. And he’d always respected the warning.

Now it came to him in what should have been the safest place of all, a room in a Hunter’s home.

Don’t call out, his senses warned. Instead, he flattened himself to the half-open door and tried to peer into the room.

He saw the corner of a thick mattress on a bed hung by heavy chains from the ceiling, so it could sway the inhabitant gently to sleep. But the sense of wrongness prevailed and Sureshot eased closer to see beyond the threshold.

A spillway of blankets and furs met his eye, the bed coverings in disarray, half of them on the floor. Shock numbed his reflexes. No tautschen lived like this, unless…unless they were in trouble.

Suddenly bold, he pushed farther into the room, beheld more disruption: the bed coverings sprawled on the floor, cabinets pulled over and their contents strewn, a bewildering rough spot in the life of this otherwise peaceful home.

And then he smelt blood, and he lunged all the way in.

Cold blasted him from a large broken window opposite. Strewn furs and blankets lay in a long scallop descending from the bed; and something was entwined with it. Something which gave off heat—and blood.

Sureshot gasped. He took one long stride into the room and fell to his knees. Suddenly, impossibly, he knew what he would find, even though every experience in his life, every fraction of his training in honor and Hunt Law rebelled against it. It could not be, and yet, and yet…

He reached out gingerly, nipped a fold of blanket between his talon-tips and began to pull it up. Something tumbled out, fell soft and heavy to the floor.

An arm and leg, still attached to the body that bore them.

Sureshot had seen death before. Many, many deaths, mostly of animals he’d slain. And once, of a packmate who died on a hunt, so suddenly that healing could not save him. Nothing like this…a young tautsche woman who had been killed in her own home, her own room.

A little cry escaped him. He reached for her, thinking that despite the blood, she might still be alive. Her face was composed, but her mane all askew and her arms and hands thrust out as if to defend herself. But she had no pulse and her body heat lifted off her like smoke, dissipating.

“Milady, milady, how did this happen?” he whispered. “What did this to you?”

The broken window. Something had hit it with enough force to shatter it—some beast going out, for almost no glass sparkled on the floor inside. The creature must have entered the house in some other way…

 

Grieving, horror-struck, the hunter barely knew what he was doing as he half-raised the woman in his arms. His dazed thoughts raced: he had to get her to help; he had to call someone—

Then her head fell back and he saw the terrible throat wound, and his brain blanked out…

*

“Here, this way, brothers; I’ll get R’sylda. She’s probably in back.”

Voices? Here in the house? Time blinked in again and Sureshot raised his head.

He had just levered himself to his knees, still cradling the body, when a light flicked on and someone’s silhouette blocked the threshold.

Another hunter—who stared straight and uncomprehending at what he saw. Disbelief, then shock, then—

“R’sylda!” the man screamed and lunged into the room. He pulled her away, then whipped around to Sureshot. “Don’t touch her! Who are you? What have you done?”

And he went for Sureshot with death in his eyes.

They crashed to the floor with Sureshot trying to keep the other hunter from sinking in fang or claw, trying to stay alive long enough to explain. They rolled over and over, a high-pitched keening sound coming from the other’s throat. Sureshot tried to fend off talons and teeth, his hands a blur, when they smashed into the wall and he ended on the bottom.

The other hunter throttled him and swung his arm back to strike….

“Keras! No, stop!” someone shouted and hit the attacker side-on, dislodging him.

Sureshot twisted free and started to get to his feet.

Only to be knocked down again as two more hunters hit him.

They yanked him up and pinioned him, and all he could hear was the Hunter Keras screaming, “My wife! My wife! He killed her!”

That stilled everybody. One of the hunters pinning Sureshot muttered, “Great Spirit,” while Sureshot tried to croak, “T-t’chak—I didn’t.”

“Look, look,” Keras screeched, mad with grief. He reached for the body, “R’sylda…R’syl—“ then crumpled in his captor’s grip, his hands over his face, and howled.

The death-howl. It tore from the hunter’s heart, from his broken soul.

“Keras, brother—ah, what a dire sight…” mourned the hunter who had been holding him. “Are we sure?” turning to the pair who held Sureshot. “Alantor, check on his mate.”

She went, releasing Sureshot, but just confirmed what they already knew: “She’s dead, Chief Hunter.”

The confirmation stunned them. As uncertainly hardened into reality, they looked at each other, then at Sureshot, their eyes afire with hate.

“Who are—“ the Chief Hunter began, but was interrupted.

The husband Keras lurched up from the floor and almost made it to Sureshot before his Chief Hunter tackled him again. Keras kept fighting, snarling and demanding “Let me have him! It’s the Law. His life is mine!”

Sureshot backed up as his accuser nearly went airborne. The Chief Hunter, a big, strongly-muscled tautsche, managed to keep him anchored, but Sureshot could feel his own captor’s hands on him going pain-tight, talons denting his flesh. He realized with a shock how very bad his situation was here. He was a stranger, a trophy hunter, and he’d been found holding the dead woman in his arms. Who else could have killed her?

“On my Oath, I didn’t do it,” he began.

Liar!” screamed the bereft hunter, surging again. “Oathbreaker!”

The Chief Hunter once more dragged him back, scruffing him and commanding, “Hunter, attend! Obey the Code.” He hauled him off his feet, shook him to emphasize; “I know what this looks like, Keras, but you cannot act yet. We have to call in the huntpack to judge him. And then you may take vengeance; or let the freehold do it for you.”

What was this? Sureshot made a small sound in his throat. Was the Chief Hunter already declaring him guilty, just on appearances? Weren’t they going to bring in a tracker or an evidence hunter? A chill shivered down his back. That meant the hideshare was already stacked against him.

The Chief Hunter let Keras down, so he could go to his wife. He crawled to her, lifted her upper body in his arms and wailed piteously. The Huntress Alantor moved over to comfort him.

Sureshot felt his remaining captor take a better grip on him and heard the man utter a low growl.

Quick judgment there, too. T’d’faal, who else had they found on the scene? Why even listen to theories of another killer? The beast had fled.

Meanwhile, the huntress murmured something to Keras. He looked up, his eyes blank. Then he seemed to “connect,” and what color he had left drained from his face.

“The little one—our chk-kiy,” he whispered. “I…don’t…know.” He turned a horrified glance at the huntress, then heaved to his feet.

“Where, vr’hunter?” Alantor asked.

Keras made a head motion toward the doorway. “If not here…then…in the play-yard? The next room.”

Suddenly they all began to move, Keras, the huntress, and the Chief Hunter, making for the door. Sureshot’s captor shifted his grip and half-turned away…

Sureshot abruptly went limp and slid from his grasp. He dropped down to balance on his hands and double-kicked his captor off his feet. He somersaulted to a stand, took three long running strides, and hurtled out the broken window headfirst.

He landed rolling in the snow, snapped to his feet, and ran for his life.

His life. Which these excited freeholders would take from him because they could not see past their pain. He had only one throw at Chance: get away from here long enough to find the perpetrator himself.

In a sleet-storm, with the tracks covered and cold. Get a clawhold, hunter, his mind taunted him. Running away will only make them certain you did it.

But he had no other choice. So he ran.

And he’d seen something the others had missed. Whatever had crashed through that window after killing the young woman had not escaped unscathed.  He’d seen blood-trace on some of the jagged edges, and he thought he would find more out here.

The icy wind nearly blasted him off-stride, but he kept his balance and used plain old keen tautschen eyesight to scan the ground before him.

He’d landed in a large flat spot where something else had landed first. And it hadn’t been subtle—it had bulled its way through the tree-cover, smashing everything aside, leaving a hole big enough for a maddened spearhorn…

…and stripes of hot blood, which the sleet hadn’t quite covered yet.

Sureshot went through that same breach after it, oblivious to the shouts of pursuit stirring behind him.

*

The beast left a trail a blind Hunter could follow, crashing along through brush and scrub, cracking saplings and digging up divots of earth in its flight. It seemed to be running on two legs; and Sureshot filed through his knowledge of this world’s creatures to see what it might be. But nothing came to memory, and its prints were too blurry to read.

Sometimes the pre-settlement searchers didn’t find all the species: they could hardly account for every animal on a planet, no matter how many hunters went down. And satellites and probes weren’t good enough to catch every living thing, either.

Even so, they rarely missed anything as large and strong and dangerous as this seemed to be.

The trail was so fresh he must have just missed the beast in the house. Perhaps his shout had startled it and sent it running through the nearest exit—the quartz window.

Except…if it had killed a full-grown huntress, why would it be afraid of him?

He slowed to a jog, thinking, and wiping the ice from his eyelashes. Another thing puzzled him: if the creature had killed the young woman, why hadn’t it taken its prey when it left? Its earlier actions did not seem to be those of a fearful beast…

Suddenly he remembered the stricken hunter’s last words before he’d escaped: “The little one—our chk-kiy…” and he knew.

The beast had taken its prey with it.

Sureshot surged into a full-out run, crashing through brush and timber as recklessly as the beast he chased. Find it—the child might still be alive!

The trees began thinning out as he ran. His adversary’s path was no longer clear in patterns of broken branch and brush. He concentrated on ground-trace instead—on footprints, for the sleet melted at their centers, so fresh were they…

And warm blood was pooling in them, getting warmer…hot…

A warning keened in the hunter’s mind and he ducked and swerved to miss a heavy branch overhead—

–just as something big swung down and struck him hard on the side of the head. Knocked sidewise, he grunted, and heard the whicker of claws slashing at his face.

He twisted, fell on arms and knees, immediately bobbed and rolled—and came up feeling the hot streaks of blood across his cheek—clawmarks that could have sliced his throat just as easily if he hadn’t acted on his feeling.

He paused at a crouch, weapon primed—and at the last moment pulled his shot, so it fractured the tree limb rather than the body lying along it.

The child—if it still held the child—

The beast roared to shake the forest, slid away from the falling limb and jumped off, putting the tree trunk between it and his sights.

But not before he saw it, and knew what it was he faced.

Shock stilled him just long enough to let the prey escape; then he lunged to his feet and ran after it, his heart fluttering like a bird’s wing—for what he hunted now, he had never faced before, and his nerves throbbed with horror at what it was, and what it had done.

The trees cleared away and he found himself on the verge of a long curving rise, frosted with ice, which bridged a deep ravine and led to tumbled rocks on the other side. Long scuffed foot-marks gouged the snow leading up to the ridge and halfway across—where they stopped.

Sureshot raced out into the open, where he stopped, too. Had his quarry run out on the ridge, and jumped? Or worse, fallen? Or was it hiding somewhere nearby, camouflaged and ready to attack? The hunter spun in a half circle, wary and afraid.

It was the only way he saw the attack coming from behind him.

He turned his shoulder to the attacker, his hands forcing away the other’s; but Keras’ momentum slammed them both to the ground.

“Killer! Liar!” the other snarled. “Take your death like a man!”

Sureshot wrestled him over to one side, gasping, “Not me! Not me—look!”

“AROOAGH!” The blood-chilling roar froze them both. It came from the ridgeline, and as they glanced over, a huge figure arose, shaking off the covering snow. A Hunter, a tautsche, one of their own. It glared down at them from a distance halfway across the ridge, too far to run, too far to leap—then it raised one arm and held the small writhing infant over the ravine below.

“Keras!” it thundered. “Do you remember me? How you and your friends exiled me to death?”

Sureshot felt the Hunter beside him go boneless. “Murgoth…” he heard the man whisper.

“H’vack?” Sureshot asked.

“A…criminal…a Codebreaker. We sentenced him to exile half a continent away, and now he’s come back and he has…he has…”

“Your chk-kiy, hunter!” The outlaw bellowed, shaking his arm to make the baby wail. “You took everything from me, all of you—and now I take from you. First, your wife…and then”—He swung the infant over the abyss, grinning. Then swung it back again. Then forth…then back. “Let us see who”—

That’s when Sureshot blasted him with the laser. Not in the chest, but across the elbow, which sheared the forearm off at the joint. It and the baby fell to the snowy ridge with a soft thump. Murgoth stood there dumbfounded. He didn’t yet feel pain. The laser seals as it burns.

“Eiiaaah!” Keras screamed and bolted from the snow, running full-tilt, in the blinding charge of the panther for its prey.

Blanking Sureshot’s target from sight.

“Hunter, hold!” the marksman began. But he didn’t shoot. He could hardly draw down on a guilty tautsche, let alone this innocent one.

Still standing, the outlaw saw his chance. With a feral grin, he leaned over to reach for the child with his other hand.

And a rocket shot from the sky, streaked into his chest and knocked him off the ridge and into the ravine. The explosion ensured the kill.

A brace of rakken, the Hunters’ swift airbikes, slid into view above the clearing. The Chief Hunter watched as Keras swept up his child below, then glanced into the ravine with a look of satisfaction. He met Sureshot’s eyes and said:

“There. That is one twisted soul that will not trouble us again, at least in this world.” And—“That was a fine shot, vr’hunter. I could not have done it, myself. What did you say your name was?”

This time he told them.

*

They’d made a mistake in accusing him, and they tried to make it up to him. But by the time the tradeship returned, Sureshot felt glad to go.

He’d learned that the Codebreaker Murgoth had been generally a bully and a troublemaker, but it was not until he began attacking others and stealing their kills that they exiled him.

“Not a murderer, then?” Sureshot asked.

“T’chak,” said the Chief Hunter, “but he hated well.  It took him more than a year, but he found us again. And Keras was one of the witnesses against him.” He shook out his mane slowly, in regret. “R’sylda fought for her child and he killed her.”

“Churr…” Keras agreed, his eyes downcast, his arms tight around his little girl-child, who now purred in contentment. “We—I –owe you a life-debt, vr’hunter. First I wrongly accused you, and then…”

“Krr…it is no debt. I’m still here, and the past is a dry bone, and dust, as some would say.”

“Still,” the Chief Hunter intervened, “we hope we have learned from this: not to jump at the first prey in sight, because the greater may be lurking in the brush. Here is your hideshare, then, vr’hunter,” giving him his sled’s tow- rope. “We have added something to it. At least accept that, and our deepest apologies for the wrong.”

Sureshot gave a curt chinlift but said nothing. He took up the towrope and pulled the sled up-ramp toward the tradeship. He could hardly wait to get this run over with and go back to his home world.

But Keras called after him, “And my thanks, Esteemed One, for whatever it means to you. My heart-deep thanks for the life of my little one.”

That he did acknowledge: he turned at the top of the ramp and inclined his head once. Then he pivoted and strode inside, and the ramp closed after him.

*

Constance Rossman – I’ve been writing about the civilized carnivores the tautschen and their spacefaring adventures since the early 1990′s. My first book, “Renegade the Hunter” told the story of one young man growing up and learning to become a man through his society’s very dangerous Master Hunt.

I followed up with two more novels and about 20 short stories in 2003-on, most of them about this race that follows its code of honor and tries to incorporate ancient wisdowm with modern technology.

What, I wonder, would mankind have been like if we had done the same?

I was for many years a reporter and columnist on various Michigan newspapers. Now I am writing fiction about my favoirte characters, the fierce yet disciplined Hunters; and have been published in a number of print and online magazines like “Golden Visions,” “Strange, Weird & Wonderful,” “Crossed Genres,” “Aoife’s Kiss” and “Afterburn SF.”

 

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The Little Things by Jake Christie

Sep 04 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

They’ll be sorry they laughed at me now, thought Dr. Eugene Francis.  He wrung the steering wheel in his hands as if he could squeeze the shine right off the plastic, wrung it until his hands were slippery with sweat.  The world was wrong about revenge.  It was a dish best served piping hot, while the cook could still relish the smell.

He ran the plan through his head once more, even though he had finished the same train of thought just a couple thoughts before and would board it again in a few minutes time.  Things would go smoothly right from the start.  He no longer had his PharmaMed ID, of course, but this shouldn’t cause any problems.  He’d always been close with the security guards, very friendly, offering them pieces of his lunch and asking after their kids, so they certainly wouldn’t object when he told them he’d forgotten some personal effects in his locker when he was ushered out of the company.  He’d walk calmly onto the elevator, and then he’d get out on the top floor, nowhere near the labs and his old locker but right into the corporate offices.  The big-wigs, the board, those finks, those penny-pinching small-minded plebians, they’d be out at lunch.  He’d have plenty of time to get into the conference room before they were back for their board meeting.

Eugene glanced at the five test tubes resting on the passenger seat.  Each one contained a number of mosquitoes, all hungry females, and they kept landing on the glass and being shaken off by bumps in the road.  Eugene looked back ahead and absentmindedly pat the pocket inside his jacket, just to make sure that it was still empty.  Plenty of room for five test tubes.

In the board room of the near-future, the board room of his mind, he uncorked the test tubes one by one.  He shook the mosquitoes out over the middle of the table, hoping he wouldn’t get bitten.  He was safe from infection, of course – he’d immunized himself before injecting the females – but a female with a sated appetite meant less bites for the board members.  Once the mosquitoes were free he hid behind a long curtain, pressed between lush fabric and a commanding view of the city, and he waited.

In his car, he giggled.  He began giggling so hard that he had to slow down and wipe his eyes.  After they’d made a fool of him, made him feel so small, this would be beyond fitting.  It would be beyond perfection.

In the inevitable board room of the future, the members of the board filed in, fat from their expensive lunch.  They fanned out graphs and budget reports and earnings diagrams on the table.  They discussed their achievements in cornering the market on cancer medications and influenza vaccines.  They discussed the senators and representatives they could count on to keep medical care private and profitable.  And one by one they slapped pesky mosquitoes, until every member of the board had been bitten.

One of them said, inevitably, “What’s with all these bugs?”

Then, gloriously, Eugene revealed himself from behind the curtain, swept it aside with one fluid motion.  “Remember me, gentlemen?” he said.

Even in his fantasy, some of them didn’t remember Eugene.  This gave him the opportunity to explain that he was the head researcher in the infectious disease department of PharmaMed until a few weeks prior, when somebody had discovered his extra-curricular activities.  They’d forced him to present his research – at least what they found of it – to his superiors.

Now one of the confused board members recognized him.  “They shrinking guy?” he said.

“Dr. Eugene Francis,” said Eugene.  “And I promise it is a name that you will remember… for what little time you have left.”

“Didn’t you get fired?” asked one of the stupid board members, stupidly.

Yes, he explained, he’d been fired when they discovered he was using company time and resources to pursue his “shrinking serum.”  Or maybe it was when they found out that the serum’s effects, at least from his calculations at the time, could not be stopped.  Or maybe it was when they found out he was shopping the idea of a “shrinking serum” around to various organizations that some might call “foreign militaries.”  No matter.  They’d ridiculed his formula, told him it would never work, likened him to a mad scientist and a comic book villain, and cast him out of the scientific community.  Yes, he’d been fired, but that just gave him time to perfect the serum.

Eugene had tackled the next phase on his own, and with vigor.  He lacked resources and money, but he was unfettered of the constraints of traditional laboratory science.  His first test subjects, those brave casualties of scientific progress who had shrunk down to the size of thimbles, then grains of rice, then fleas, then atoms, then who knows?, were not the customary mice but, in fact, drunk homeless guys.  They had served their species well.  The formula worked, inasmuch as it shrunk things smaller, smaller, irreversibly smaller, until they disappeared.  Where the board had seen a small insignificant failure by a small insignificant man, he saw potential writ large.

From the passing lane of the highway Eugene saw the PharmaMed building rise into view.  He took the exit and cursed the red light at the bottom of the ramp.  More obstacles to scientific greatness!  He glanced at the clock.  Plenty of time, still plenty of time.  The mosquitoes, stirred once more by the ramp, attempted to settle on the glass.  The red light turned green and Eugene, his spirits instantly lifted, giggled once again at his rapidly unfolding plan.

In the destined boardroom, Eugene leapt onto the long expensive conference table and paced like a wild animal.  At first, he told the board, he’d hoped to control the shrinking, to allow brave researchers to miniaturize themselves and explore the microscopic world firsthand.  But for his new purpose, which became clear as soon as he was fired, the shrinking didn’t need to be stopped.  It needed to be turned into a virus.

The board members felt their mosquito bites begin to itch.  They began to feel dizzy.  The color drained from their faces.

“As you’ve no doubt realized,” said Eugene from on high, “the mosquitoes that have spent the last five minutes buzzing around your heads are carrying a viral version of my so-called ‘shrinking formula.’  If you somehow avoided a bite, don’t worry – once present in humans the virus is incredibly contagious, through saliva, blood, spit, and even through the air.  Every person in this room is quite infected by now.”  He paused.  “Except for me, of course.  I’m the only one with the vaccine.”

“You’re crazy,” said one of the board members.  Another board member nudged him, as if anything he said or didn’t say could make their situation any worse.

“Do you feel it, gentlemen?” said Eugene.  “Do you feel yourselves getting smaller?  It must be nearly imperceptible now, like peeling off layers of paint.  Soon you’ll feel how I felt when I was fired – small, and getting smaller.  Do you feel it?”  There’s still time, gentlemen.  One shot of the vaccine – and I have plenty – could stop you shrinking.”

“What do you want?” asked another member of the board.

In the car and the fantasy, Eugene began to drool.  “A million dollars, first of all,” he told the boardroom of fifteen or twenty minutes from now.  “For my considerable scientific achievements.  And I’d like my position back.  Or make that a new position, ‘The Head of Experimental and Incredibly Important Research’ at PharmaMed, or something similar.  I want the resources to consider my research as I see fit, and access to PharmaMed’s connections in the private sector, the government, and the military.  Oh, and an office.”  He spread his arms wide and did a turn on the table.  “This one looks good.  Maybe knock down one of the walls so it isn’t so constrictive.”

The board stared at him, mouths open.  Some of them chanced glances at each other, or at the door.  “Ah, of course, Dr. Francis,” said one of them.  “We’ll see what we can do, but first we’ll have to speak with–”

“No!” said Eugene.  He kicked one of the piles of graphs and reports.  A year’s worth of figures flew into the air.  “You’ll give it all to me now!”  Papers floated to the carpet.  He took a deep breath and paced steadily.  “Unless, of course, you feel as though you need to lose some weight.  In an hour’s time you’ll be a few pounds lighter.  In two hours you’ll be able to fit back into those jeans from high school.  In five hours time you’ll be too short to ride the roller coaster, and in ten hours, well, I haven’t really been able to determine what happens then.  You might be crushed by a grain of sand, or maybe you’ll just disappear completely.  They won’t be able to see your funeral with an electron microscope.”

At this point the board members all fell to their knees.  “Whatever you want, Dr. Eugene Francis,” they intoned.  “You are a genius.  You deserve whatever it is that you desire.  It is yours.  We are sorry, Dr. Eugene Francis.  Please, we beg you.  Don’t make us any smaller.”

Eugene giggled once more, then began to laugh.  He laughed so hard that drool sprayed onto his seat belt.  He laughed so hard that he cried.  He laughed so hard that he didn’t see the squirrel dart out in front of his car until the last second, when he cranked the wheel to one side and drove straight into a tree.

Officer Frank Mallory took a long gulp of coffee and stepped under the police tape.  Officer Erik Ladd, traffic division, stood next to the wreck with his own styrofoam cup, directing the ambulance closer to the metal mess.

“Morning, Erik,” said Frank as he approached, stepping as lightly as he could on the broken glass.  “What’s the story here?”

Erik stopped guiding the ambulance long enough to shake Frank’s hand and shrugged.  “Same old, same old.”  He pointed at a mass of wet fur and rubber skids in the road.  “Looks like that squirrel there became one with the pavement just in time to make the driver lose control of the car.  He hit the tree at full speed and got intimate with his steering wheel.  He didn’t last long after that.  D.O.A.”

“Any sign of drinking?” asked Frank.  “Drugs?”

“Nope,” said Erik.  “Couple of broken test tubes in the passenger seat, but no drug residue or anything like that.  Bunch of papers covered with numbers and letters and scientific mumbo-jumbo.  Probably one of those lab techs from PharmaMed.”

Frank looked at the PharmaMed building at the end of the block, just a few hundred feet away.  “Greatest minds of a generation,” he said, shaking his head, “but they can’t avoid a squirrel in the road.  How can something so small do so much damage?”

Erik shrugged again and slapped a mosquito on his neck.

*

Jake Christie is a writer who lives in Portland, Maine. He has a BA in Media Studies and Writing from the University of Southern Maine. His work has been featured online and in print, in such varied venues as Yankee Pot Roast, Word Riot, 365 Tomorrows, Weirdyear, Ramble Underground, Cell Stories, College Humor, Points in Case, and FACE Magazine.

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