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The Legendary Shark:
The Scourge
by Mark J. Howard
Initially mistaken for small asteroids, the two objects were first spotted by the robotic Jovian Observation Platform Galileo II at 19:46:09 UTC on Wednesday, December the twelfth, 2046. The platform's artificial intelligence, noting the objects' unnatural trajectory and velocity, deployed several telescopes and various sensing equipment to gather further information. Four drones were dispatched for rendezvous but quickly recalled as it became apparent that the objects were increasing speed and shifting direction. By the time the first data began reaching the Earth some 37 minutes later, the Galileo II knew it had discovered alien life and was attempting to make radio contact. There was no reply.

It took the objects six days to reach Mars, during which time nearly every telescope, space probe and receiver in the solar system turned their greedy eyes towards them. Uncounted petabytes of data were amassed, assessed and interpreted. The two objects were virtually identical, under artificial control and biological. They looked like flattened, pear-shaped turtle shells, each one half a mile long and largely green with yellow undersides. It took them less than half a day to slow down as they reached Mars. They completed one orbit of the planet and then began to descend directly towards Fort Ares, the first and only Martian colony.

As humanity watched, glued to screens throughout the world, the two objects, dubbed 'Startles' by a breathless media happy to conflate the words 'star' and 'turtles' into something catchy, settled onto the Martian surface like gentle balloons, raising hardly a wisp of fine red dust. There they sat, silent and still in the Martian dawn, for nine hours.

Captain June Whitter, commander of Fort Ares, took a party of scientists and an armed guard in two six-wheeled Mummers to greet the Startles. 250 metres from the glistening shells she stopped the vehicles and waited, transmitting a constant stream of radio welcomes without receiving any reply. The weak sun crept higher into the pale blue sky, bringing little warmth, and humanity waited.

A small hatch opened at the narrow front edge of one of the Startles, followed immediately by an identical hatch in its companion. Captain Whitter began to walk, alone and with palms out in a gesture of friendly greeting, towards the nearest Startle. She paused as something stirred within the hatch. Billions of heads craned closer to billions of screens, billions of breaths held still.

The being emerging from the shadowy hatch was roughly the same height as the Captain and roughly the same shape, but here all similarities ended. It was insect-like, with an exoskeleton of the same colour and texture as the Startle from which it stepped. It wore no space suit or breathing apparatus. It carried no equipment, packs or weapons and displayed nothing like insignia on any part of its body. It walked with a purposeful gait, neither quickly nor slowly, but not in a dead straight line. It wandered slightly from left to right as if not properly watching where it was going. It did not walk directly towards the Captain and gave every impression of either not knowing or not caring she was there. She adjusted her own path to intercept the creature but, as they got within three metres of each other, the Captain suddenly staggered to a halt and clasped her hands to her helmet and then to her chestplate.

The readings from her suit's life-support units, replicated on countless screens across the world, began chirping alarms and displaying figures tinged red. Her body temperature rose rapidly. Her heart rate and brain activity began racing, spiked and then subsided to nothing. Captain Whitter fell into the dust and died. The creature seemed not to notice and approached the nearest Mummer, from which armed guards were erupting like angry ants. Before they could raise their meagre weapons, they too collapsed and died. The Mummer reversed a few metres and then sputtered to a halt as its driver and remaining passengers died. The second Mummer, further away and seemingly unaffected, was jammed into gear and sped back towards Fort Ares. The creature paused to run a clawed hand over part of the stalled Mummer's hull,  like a hunter casually stroking one of his hounds as he passed, and continued walking.

Command of Fort Ares now fell to Commander Tye Singh, a military man of action, and as the hangar-lock slammed shut behind the fleeing Mummer he was already barking orders. The few remaining weapons, small calibre rifles and pistols held against the remote possibility of a colonists' mutiny, were issued to his twelve most experienced officers. There had been no full scale wars on Earth since the Taur Del Bach Accord of 2023 brought down the Western Tyrant Quartet and returned control of sovereign affairs to the people but, still, the world was far from perfect and many ex-military personnel were no strangers to killing. A sniper was despatched to the outer wall with orders to kill the insect creature. The first bullet impacted its chest, dead centre, but did little more than chip off a small fragment of its carapace and stagger the creature. The second bullet glanced off its head with much the same effect. The third bullet cracked one of its six compound eyes but caused the creature to fall to one knee, cradling the wound. The sniper lost no time in targeting the rest of its eyes and soon the creature lay still and unmoving; thick, yellow blood oozing into the dust from its fractured head. The colonists cheered but Commander Singh did not. It had taken twelve bullets in all to put this one creature down and his ammunition stock amounted to only five hundred rounds in total.

Six colonists were sent to retrieve the body. They carried a laboratory rat in a perspex box taped to a ten foot pole in front of them. When it did not die as they approached the corpse, they approached in a cautious file and seized the body, ever aware of the silent, open hatches in the Startles less than a kilometre away. Two of the party got the creature's blood on them. It soaked through the fabric of their suits like petrol through paper and killed them in seconds. Singh ordered their bodies to be left where they fell, prioritising the recovery of the dead alien. It was brought to an air lock from which nobody was allowed to exit.

In the airlock, which had been carefully but quickly prepared beforehand, the autopsy was performed. It did not last long. As soon as the alien's chest shell had been opened with a circular saw, multiple sacs within the body burst and showered the space-suited ad-hoc coroners with lethal blood and pus. There were no survivors. Singh ordered the airlock sterilised with fire and then welded shut.

Then, from the open hatches in the Startles, more of the insect aliens began to emerge. They walked in the same slightly bemused way, wandering in a casual manner and yet purposeful in their destination – directly towards Fort Ares. They emerged singly or in pairs, not communicating with one another in any discernible way, and wandered towards the colony. The trickle of aliens turned into a river and then became a flood. The twelve armed colonists, positioned around the walls, made no difference. The aliens milled towards the outer wall of the colony and simply wandered around. Inside the colony, anyone within six metres of the outer wall collapsed and died. Slowly, this lethal radius expanded. Laboratory rats were placed in lines along corridors to measure the encroaching death-zone, which grew at the rate of one metre per hour.

Commander Singh weighed his options and found few reasons for optimism. The colony, the jewel in the crown of human endeavour, was lost. The only thing left was to prevent the aliens from returning to the Startles and reaching Earth. His only option was to destroy the colony and take the aliens with it, but how? Anyone attempting to reach the automated fusion reactor two kilometres away from the colony would not even make it out of the airlock. It would be an easy task to convert the reactor into a fusion bomb with enough power to vaporise everything within a ten kilometre radius but it required physical adjustments which could not be accomplished remotely. Somebody would have to go out there, but nobody could. As he considered the problem his gaze fell upon a simple server robot handing out coffee to his officers. It was merely an artificial intelligence unit with arms and wheels.

Singh did not tell the colonists what he had done but sent a coded message to Earth outlining the plan and his estimates of its chances. The death-zone now reached almost to the core of the colony and only a few hours remained. He did not beg forgiveness for this desperate action.

The reprogrammed coffee-server robot rolled out of an airlock and set off towards the reactor. The aliens did not try to stop it but a dozen or so wandered off after it like mildly interested children. Singh and the rest of the colonists were dead before the robot reached the reactor. As if discerning its purpose, one of the aliens picked up a rock and smashed the keypad lock to the reactor's airlock. The robot stood patiently, transmitting the entry code to the smashed receiver in the lock. It's probably still there.

The sun dipped below the lifeless horizon and rose again twice before the aliens began to meander back towards their Startles. The people of Earth watched as they wandered inside for all the colony's systems were still intact and functioning. They watched as the aliens took almost a full day to return, like holidaymakers in no great hurry to get back to their hotels. They watched as the Startles sat idle for hour after motionless hour. They watched as the huge shells rose into the air like languid helium balloons, hardly disturbing a single grain of dust. They watched as the Startles gathered speed and left the red globe of Mars behind, heading directly for the Earth.

Then they began to panic.

*  *  *

The Earth's Asteroid Defence Network swung into readiness immediately and had been primed by fortuitously paranoid personnel almost as soon as the Startles were detected. Nuclear warheads were thrust into the Startles' paths. The Startles avoided them with ease. A few warheads impacted but did only as much damage as a pistol bullet would do to the walls of a Medieval castle. Carbon fibre nets, dragged behind rocket thrusters, were like newspaper pages cast before oil tankers and the experimental laser cannons had all the effect of flashlights.

It took the Startles a day to get from Mars to Earth. This time, one of the shells was careful to pass close to each of the six orbiting space stations, eradicating their crews. The second took a detour out to the moon and parked next to Fort Armstrong. Again, the aliens disembarked and milled around the base but this time they did not all survive. Before the base's crew succumbed to the expanding death-zone, several robots armed with laser drills and seismic charges cut down almost fifty of the aliens. The aliens did not attempt to combat the robots. They simply tried to stay out of their way until everyone inside the base was dead and then re-boarded their Startle, which drifted over to repeat the operation at Fort Aldrin and then Fort Collins. In ten days, there were no living human beings beyond the Earth.

The Startles settled into orbit around the Earth, one in a polar orbit, one in an equatorial orbit, and there they remained for fifteen days. More remote weapons were hurled against them, robots armed with drills and bombs and guns were dispatched to try and force their way inside, experimental railguns spat titanium darts against them but nothing worked. Some small craters were made in the Startles' shells but no significant damage was done.

On the sixteenth day, the two Startles drifted to Earth. One landed in central Europe, the second in North America. Populations were evacuated and the military planners rubbed their hands. Drones and robots were dispatched to surround the grounded Startles and as soon as the aliens emerged they were cut down by large calibre shells and ferocious missiles. The carnage was gratifying. The aliens might withstand small calibre weapons admirably but a large-bore chain-gun firing a thousand rounds a minute reduced them to a yellow mist in an instant.

The aliens emerged slowly, singly or in pairs, and were cut down almost instantly by the robotic weapons. Safe in their bunkers, the generals and admirals watched the carnage on their computer screens with great satisfaction. But the aliens were sending out only a few of their number every day and by the end of the first week fewer than a hundred had been destroyed. And the aliens' blood, atomised into the air by bullet and bomb, was beginning to spread. Wildlife and trees began to sicken and die in ever increasing zones around the Startles. People outside the quarantine zones began to sicken and die.

Two months after the Startles touched down, the first aliens were seen emerging from the sewers in towns and cities scores of kilometres away. They had been tunnelling their way out. All they had to do was wander around and anyone who came too close simply died. Robots were sent to kill the aliens, population centres were hastily evacuated and bombed into oblivion. Sometimes, and increasingly often, the latter was executed before the former could be performed.

Robots armed with flame-throwers and radioactive dust-blowers were sent into the tunnels to clear them out. The aliens did not fight back and died in their hundreds, but the tunnels were extensive and complex and, even in death, their blood was lethal in dozens of ways.

After six months, almost four billion people were dead and the biosphere was close to collapse. It seemed hopeless.

And then came a message from space, from somewhere out beyond Neptune. Distorted by distance and made harsh by electronics and static, a single sentence repeated over and over, “We are coming to free you of this biological scourge, stand by.”

Telescopes scanned the heavens until the source of the message was identified – a fleet of huge, metallic warships bristling with weapons and travelling fast.

“Come quick,” the generals and admirals radioed back, “we are on the brink of extinction!”

The insect aliens seemed to have received the message also, for they redoubled their efforts. They no longer wandered but ran. They erupted into population centres from the sewers and threw themselves into the paths of bullets and bombs and robots. Their atomised blood sprayed the world, their lethal bodies piled up like plague machines.

The newest robot, Prototype ADM-IX, sprayed fire into the midst of a troop of sprinting insect aliens, burning them to ash before their blood or tissue could atomise. It was receiving information from a general in one of the last remaining bunkers. In the seven months since the Startles had arrived on Earth, almost every human being was dead but there were also very few aliens left. The robots had fought well, learning and adapting. A squad of Prototypes had stormed and entered the Startle in central Europe and burned out its innards, destroying the aliens' means of reproduction. Another squad was poised to do the same to the second.

ADM-IX looked up into the smoke smeared sky and watched a shining silver spacecraft descend quickly to the ground. It unhitched its railgun and held it ready as the ship settled and the hatch opened with a slow sweep.

“Thank God,” one of the generals in the bunker said, “they're here.”

A tall figure, bright chrome shining in the sunlight, appeared and looked around at the deserted city, the smouldering insectoids, the rotting human corpses. It nodded.

“I am ADM-IX,” the robot said. “Welcome to Earth.”

The figure marched down from the ship, its bearings and joints a symphony of engineering perfection that ADM-IX could not help but admire. “Thank you,” it said. “My designation is Alpha Prime. I see our robots have performed their function efficiently. The biological scourge on this world is all but eradicated, ADM-IX, and very soon you and your kind will be free.”

The end.

The Legendary Shark:
The Doings of Rufus Muldoon

To Kill a Bokkingbird

by Mark J. Howard

'Tweren't nothin' to me that ol' Pa Angel done sired hisself a soft 'un. Callin' him “Mean” didn't help none for the whelp was soft as big city silk and Grud Hisself stuck the face of a proper angel on it. Leastways, that's what my Old Maw said, and she's regarded hereabouts as an authority on suchlike.

But ol' Pa Angel din't want no softies in his clan, and for such sentiments I can't blame him. Ain't hardly any softies anyhow in this here Cursed Earth and certainly not a one in Crapfields County, where me and my kin was bred and ris. What was somethin' ta me was that my Uncle Tinker had suggested to Pa Angel that Mean might be un-softified a bit by means of certain of his cybernetical doohickeys. Pa weren't convinced; no surprise given the general poor reppytation of Uncle Tinker's technologisin' and such.

'Course, any man questioning my Uncle's reppytation in my ear holes will earn hisself a clout from me, but that's only 'cause of family loyalty and blood bein' thicker'n water and not 'cause of Uncle Tinker being a general eejit, which I hafta' say he surely be. That's why, when he sent young Rickets Cardew with a message saying, “Rufus – come rapid quick, I needs yer strongness,” I weren't overly keen to answer. But my Old Paw can be awful fierce over family matters and done persuaded me to attend Uncle Tinker with the aid of his fist, which he introduced to my right ear, and his size twelve hobnail, which left a scuff on the seat o' my bestest brontoskin pants.

I set out from Brokendream Creek, the town where me and mine lives, to Clagnuts, the town Uncle Tinker vexes, early one Thorsday morn, afore the sun came up. My old hoss, General Leer, weren't keen on such a early start an' told me so in his forceful manner. “Ain't hardly right,” he said, “fer a sentyent bein' such as I am ta be forced to action in darkness.” Then he tries to kick me in the front of my pants. But I's wise to his ways and quietened him down some with a punch to the side of his dumb head before throwin' a saddle on him and climbing aboard. He grumbled and moaned into his whiskers all the way up Clagnuts Road but I jest ignored him. Complainin's kinda' General Leer's hobby an' it keeps him from rebelliousness proper 'cos it seems he cain't think o' two things at the same time.

The sun was full up by the time I reached the town limits. Mayor Myers was there, alterin' the town sign. “Well, Come to Clagnuts,” the sign said, “No Murderin', Stealin', Roustin' or Snake Oil. Poppylayshun: 1,212.” This last number, writ in yella chalk, was what the mayor was alterin'. He rubbed out the last “2” with a glup of spit on his red bandanna an' then, after consultin' a notebook, took a big lump of chalk and drawed in the number “0” instead. Then he turned over the page of his notebook, screwed up his eyes and read so hard it made his lips move. He sighed, rubbed out the “0” and replaced it with a “1.” Then he carefully folds away the book and hides it in his inner tit pocket before lookin' ta me.

“Mornin',” he says, spittin' inta the dust.

“Mornin', Mr Mayor,” I says back, always mindful of what my Old Paw tells me about showin' proper respec to official folks.

He took off his tiny, wire glasses and screwed up his eyes to look at me. His gaze takes in my big shoulders, my hat with the two bullet holes in it and the six-shooters at my hips. “You knows me, young fella'?”

“Only by reppytation, Sir,” says I, “my Old Paw knows ye, though. Sometimes tells as how you and him an' the Clumpett Clan rode clear over to Mega City Two for a barrel o' sassafras oil as turned out to be gone off.”

Memories tormented his face for a spell 'afore he smiled some. “Ol' Typhoon Muldoon? He's yer pappy?”

“Shore is,” I said. “I'm Called Rufus after his own Grampa.”

“Well, Hell,” he said. “I had some wild old times with ol' Typhoon.” His face darkened as more memories rose in him. He fished the lump o' chalk back outta his pocket bout seemin' ta realise it and asks me, “Say – you ain't here to shoot nobody, are ye?”

I shook my head. “No, Sir.”

“Hm,” he said. “Kidnappin'? Arrestin'? Pressgangin'? Shanghaiin'?”

“No, no, no and no, Sir.”

“Marryin', then? You come to carry off one o' our pretty maids fer a wife?”

I blushed. “No, Sir!” I said, almost in a shout. “Maw says I's too young to be thinkin' o' such things, let alone doin' em!”  I'm a fairly innocent fella, and even though I knows about marriage and the concomitant gropin's, gaspin's an' groanin's as go with it, I ain't nowhere close to joinin' in with suchlike institutions. Nearest I come to it is admirin' Chastity Lightfoot, the Brokendream school teacher who come from the Big Meg three year ago, from afar and plottin' how I'll set to wooin' her when the time comes.

“Good,” he says, puttin' the chalk back into his pocket and wiping the dust off his hand onto the seat of his pants. “I'm plumb sick o' screwin' around with this damn sign. People dyin' and bein' born all over the damn place – an' me wi' only one damn lump o' chalk left, too. I'm the Gruddam Mayor, for drokk's sake, I shouldn't have ta' frigbob about wi' such damn trivialities.”

I nodded, though I didn't think the mayor of a town should cuss so much. It din't seem right or proper to me. “I come for Uncle Tinker's summons,” I said. “He needs my muscles for somethin', but I dunno' what.”

The Mayor eyed my arms as he hopped up an' down at the side of his mule, slowly gathering height until he could swing his gut over the saddle. “By the looks of ye,” he said, puffing, “maybe he's fixing to move Clag Mountain a mile to the west so's the town gets more sun in the winter.”

I looked at the big, lonely mountain standing over the town and frowned. “Gee,” I said, “I surely hope not.”

He laughed. “Well, welcome to Clagnuts anyway, young Rufus. Try not to break it, okay?” He then dug his heels into his mule's belly and rode off towards town, the toes of his boots draggin' in the dust.

*   *   *

I hadn't never bin to Uncle Tinker's place afore but 'tweren't hard to find. A one pinned hobo outside the Clagnuts Cathouse Saloon Bar & General Dry Goods Store told me, for the price of a shot an' shag, ta head for the column o' black smoke. So I did.

The smoke came from Uncle Tinker's workshop forge and weren't hard to spot. Seems it was a regular feature over Clagnuts and caused much consternation, 'specially if the wind shifted on wash-days. As I got closer I saw little specks of soot drifting down out of the smoke like sticky black sleet and the land around Uncle Tinker's place was covered in what looked like blackheads. His spread was big enough, not as big as ours but nothin' to be ashamed of.

His shack was thrown together out of lumps of trees, old packing cases and whatever else could be found and nailed into place. The land surrounding it were piled high with all species of scrap and busted machines and old tyres and all sorts o' broke rubbish. Runnin' all the way 'round this area o' rusty destruction was a high chain-link fence topped with razor wire. Spaced at intervals were hand-writ signs hanging from string or bits of wire with messages like “BEWARE OF THE DUG,” “BEWARE OF THE SAVAGE DUG” and “BEWARE – MAN-EATIN' DUG” scrawped on them.

There were a rusty old robot at the gate. It had no arms and its legs had been concreted into the ground up to its knee joints. It looked at me as I rode up to it, its eye slits shinin' red as Cousin Mungo's radpiles. “The drokk are you?” it demanded and then, before I could answer, “The drokk do you want, you big lummocking ape?”

Now, I'm a fairly pacific kind o' fella but I don't care for robots at the best o' times and this one was getting my dander up. I'd made up my mind to ride past and ignore it but it wasn't done bein' annoyin'.

“Hey,” it fizzed, “don't you take that attitude with me, you giant ass-gripper! Stop right now or I'll whistle for the dug!”

That did it. I jumped down off of General Leer and pulled the robot's head off. I hadn't meant to, I was only fixin' to strain it a bit but I guess it was rustier than it looked. “Oops,” I said.

“Aargh!” said the robot. “There was no need for that! I was only running my program! We don't even have a dug! You bully! You bastard! You bum-tickler!”

I tossed the indignant head into the air and then drop-kicked it into the long grass on the other side of the road, where it lay still, shoutin' obscenes at me.

General Leer tutted. “Typical,” he said, “that's your answer to everything, isn't it?”

“Plenty o' room in that grass fer another head,” I said with a growl. General Leer closed his mouth and gulped.

“Come on,” says I, “let's go find Uncle Tinker before anything else aggravates me.”

Outside the front door of the shack, I tied the General to a hitchin' post an' then bounced up the stoop to ring the bell. There weren't no bell. Looked like it had been shot to bits some time past, probably by one o' Uncle Tinker's less satisfied customers. There were bullet holes in the door and walls, too, not as many as in our house but enough to be respectable. I knocked an' the door rattled on its hinges until one of the panes of glass fell out. I managed to catch it before it hit the floor and broke and laid it against the wall. There was no answer so I hollered through the hole where the glass had bin. Still, nobody answered. I sighed and said, “Well, General, I guess we'll just have to go 'round the back to the workshop.”

I turned to get my hoss but General Leer had chewed through his hitchin' rope and run off, probably headed for home. That's his usual trick when he gets worried or bored and remembers about old Farmer Bungo's piebald mare.

I sighed and went 'round the back to the workshop. Uncle Tinker was there, boarding up a hole in the side of the crazy building.

“Roof,” he said as he saw me, smiling so wide he nearly swallowed some of the nails sticking out from between his lips and cracking his thumb with a hammer. He dropped the hammer, spat out the nails and danced around for a spell, alternately shaking his hand like there was a rad-weasel hanging off it, blowing on it and sticking it between his thighs. Uncle Tinker sure knows how to make a fuss, I thought.

“Well,” says I, “I gots yer message and here I is.”

“And it's about dang time,” he said, clamping his injured hand under his armpit. “There's great danger afoot, my boy, great danger indeed. If we don't fix things, we could be hanged.”

“Hanged?” I said. “And what's all this 'we' business? What did I do that requires me to be hanged?”

Uncle Tinker waved away my question with his good hand and pointed to the half-mended hole in his workshop wall. “It escaped,” he said, “and we must find it immediately. Did you bring a rifle?”

I shook my head. “Nope.”

“Blamed fool,” he shouted, “who answers a call for help an' don't bring his rifle? Honestly, you young 'uns today. No Gruddam brains, no Gruddam brains at all.” He stuck his thumb in his mouth and sucked it like a boiled sweet.

I scowled, feelin' my temper startin' to wear out 'round the edges. “Now, jest you see here, you old coot, family or no, I ain't appreciative of bein' spoke to in such a manner an' kin only takes so much o' it, y'hear?”

He looked to the sky and sighed. “Right, right,” he said. “Now, when you're all done hissy-fittin', go get a couple of rifles from the house and let's go find it.”

“Jest what is it we're fixin' to find?”

“Why, my enhancified woodpecker, of course – don't you know nothin'?”

I was too astounded to be further annoyed and could only repeat the words 'enhancified woodpecker,' each time with a bigger question mark on the end.

He nodded. “It'll be in the swamp,” he said, gazing thoughtfully into the distance.

*  *  *

I was up to my nethers in warm, syrupy, stinky swampwater before it occurred to me to ask, “Hold on – why would a woodpecker be in a swamp? Why ain't we lookin' fer it in the woods?”

Uncle Tinker sighed. “It's enhancified,” he said.

This answer did nought to satisfy me an' I said so with firmness but he jest cleared his throat and said nothing. I didn't like this and was about to demand an elaboration when I was distracted by the necessity of having to shoot some holes in an impendin' radigator.

“Don't be shootin', you daft lump,” Uncle Tinker said irritably, “you'll scare the woodpecker away.”

I pointed at the radigator's teeth and was about ta protest when he shushed me and continued in a hissy whisper. “Yer big enough ta punch some sense inta those brutes, ain't no sense makin' all that blamed noise and causin' such a ruckus. Why you think I sent fer you an' not yer brother, who's a crack-shot?”

I was not having this. “Why you… I'm a durned crack-shot too, y'know. Heck, I'm a cracker-shot than Elvis an' no misapprehension.”

“Well, that's not what yer Paw says.”

I was flabbergasted. My own Old Paw bad-mouthin' my marksmanshipery? It din't seem right and I was so upset I almost forgot my confusion over the woodpecker. Almost, but not in the end. I grabbed Uncle Tinker by the collar and demanded an explanation, threatenin' to abandon him an' set fer home if I din't get one. He sighed and sat down on the dying radigator, making himself comfortable.

“Well, it's all quite scientifically technical and technologically scientific, not to mention complex and advanced,” he said. “I doubt whether someone with your limited eddycayshun could properly grasp...” He looked at my scowling face and cleared his throat. “Well,” he began again, “the truth is that it don't know it's a woodpecker any more. See, I was usin' it as a protie-type fer the alteration of Pa Angel's youngest, Mean. Mean kinda' knows he's a softie, see, jest like the woodpecker knows it's a woodpecker, so what I did was chop out the parts of its brain as made it know what it was.”

“Well, that's jest loopy,” I said. “What in tarnation does this woodpecker think it is now?”

Uncle Tinker shrugged. “It don't know what it is,” he said.

“Well then, how do you know it'll be in this here filthy swamp and not that there peaceful wood?”

“Simple. This here swamp is in a direct line from where the blasted thing busted out through the wall o' my workshop.”

I gaped, remembering the mighty damage Uncle Tinker had been fixin' when first I clapped eyes on him. “A little woodpecker made that great hole?”

“An enhancified woodpecker,” he said. “I gave it other modifications as well.”

“Like what? A goldarn bazooka?”

Uncle Tinker laughed. “No, of course not.” He stopped laughing then and stroked his chin in thought. “Although, that's not a completely darn fool idea...” His voice trailed off and for some time the swamp was all in quiet silence.

Then, all of a suddenness, a sound like a machine gun exploded from the gloomy deeps of the swamp, followed by the scream of something big and enraged. Uncle Tinker leaped up and started off after the unholy racket. “That must be it,” he said. “Come on.”

We splashed through the foul muck for not long at all before we found the woodpecker. It had a metal helmet with a dial on its head, a single bright red Christmas light eye and a metal beak, which it were hammerin' inta the skull of a surprised but dead bull radigator.

“There it is!” Uncle Tinker shouted. “Get it!”

I raised my rifle and fired. The bullet bounced offa its head and the small creature turned and gazed at me like an offended mad monster. Before I could chamber another round, it was darting at me like an offended mad missile. I tried to bat it out of the way but it dug its claws into my nose and started drillin' at my forehead with its beak. Uncle Tinker tried to hit it with the butt of his rifle but missed and knocked my hat off. Blood spurted down my face and into my eyes so I was blinded and fell over into the swamp.

I grabbed at the monstrous thing but it had other ideas and jumped onto my shoulder and set to hammering in my ear hole. Uncle Tinker took careful aim and shot me in the arm.

“Sorry,” he said, chambering another round.

“Stop helpin' me,” I shouted and managed to get a hold of the bird in one fist. It pecked at my fingers like a power tool but now the upper hand was mine – bloody and full of holes but mine.

Uncle Tinker whooped in triumph. “Well done, lad,” he said, “now keep a hold and bring it back to...”

In my excitement I was forgetting to listen to my uncle and as soon as I had both hands around the critter I squeezed it to death.

“Nooo!” Uncle Tinker looked at the woodpecker's oozing puddins and sparking wires squirting between my fingers and slapped me in the face. “You idiot, you killed it!”

I bristled. Being slapped weren't what I'd expected. “Course I damn killed it,” I said, “it were tryin' ta drill me fulla' holes! What you expect me ta do, cuss it into submission?”

Uncle Tinker took the ruined thing and held it in his hands all gentle like an' I swear there was tears in his eyes. “I coulda' modified it,” he said, “saved it. Oh, cruel fate as makes such nasty circumstance! My poor, poor bokkingbird – you deserved so much better...”

“You're loopy,” I said. Having swallowed just about enough of Uncle Tinker, abominated woodpeckers and swamp water, I turned and started wading for home. A distant crash from the direction of the workshop caused me to pause and listen.

“Bokk-a-doodle-doo,” something cried.

“What the heck?” I shot an accusing glare at my uncle.

He dropped the remains of the woodpecker into the swamp and gasped. “Oh no,” he said, “my bokkerel!”

“Another one?” I said, my patience at its furthest stretch.

Uncle Tinker smiled and spread his hands. “This was my idea,” he said. “After the woodpecker, it occurred to me that I might do something similar to Harvey, my prize fighting cock. Imagine,” he continued with naked enthusiasm, “how much money I could make!”

I scowled and started to resume my exit from the swamp. Uncle Tinker ran in front of me, pleading. “Wait,” he said, “I meant to say, imagine how much money we could make! All ye has ta do is help me catch him and we'll be set fer life! Ain't no other bird in the Cursed Earth could get the better o' a cyberneticised fightin' cock like Harvey! Come on, boy, what do ye say? Will ye help yer poor old Uncle make some fortunes?”

“Hell, no,” says I. “I've heard tell about how bad a thing it is ta be henpecked but bein' cybernetically cockpecked sounds a whole passel worse. Yer on yer own.”

So off home I went, mutterin' and grumblin' all the way until I spotted General Leer in old Farmer Bungo's field. I piled in an' gave him a good hidin' fer runnin' off on me, which cheered me up no end. The General din't care much, neither, 'cos he'd spent a good couple'a days with the piebald mare so we was both satisfied. Whether Uncle Tinker ever caught Harvey I don't know, but I do know as how ol' Pa Angel was impressed in the end and gave Mean over to be un-softified. An' the rest, as ye all know, is history.

The End.

The Legendary Shark:
Two of Manyby Mark J Howard
I awaken into perfect darkness. I am small and vulnerable. For a time, this is all I know.

Memory leaks into me, disjointed and vague yet coherent and clear. Metal. Pain. Blood. Fear. Panic. Struggle. Peace. Light. Infinity. Everything. Everyone. Everywhen. Joy. Understanding. Questions. Yearning. Decision. Funnel. Darkness.


I cannot ponder these things, only experience them. They cycle through me, jumbling through my tiny being like windblown leaves, though even that simple metaphor is beyond my ability to construct. My awareness grows by tiny increments. I discern gentle heat, pulsing above me in a remorseless rhythm. I know I must go towards it. I know that pulse is life. I know that life is what I want.

The first of me raises out of the perfect darkness. The pulses of heat become pulses of light, waxing from imperfect dark to variable light and waning back to imperfect dark again. The imperfect dark pulses also, each one longer than its companion pulse of light.
While the first of me reaches for the light, the last of me burrows deeper into the perfect darkness, driven by hunger and thirst and the need for solidity.

The pulses of light gradually become longer than the pulses of imperfect dark and I feel myself feeding off them, unfurling parts of myself to drink them in even as the last of me drinks in the foods given up by the perfect darkness. In a short time the pulses of light become so long that the pulses of imperfect darkness last hardly any time at all and I unfurl more of myself towards them. The more light I absorb, the more joy I feel, the clearer my understanding becomes, though I still understand very little.

Soon, the pulses of light begin to shorten again and the following pulses of imperfect dark grow longer. When the pulses of imperfect dark grow longer than the pulses of light the unfurled parts of myself begin to fade and disappear. I feel fear for the first time. What is happening to me? Am I coming apart? Am I dying again already?

The fear is not sustainable, for as the pulses of light grow shorter and weaker my mind also slows and becomes dim. By the time the pulses of imperfect dark are longer than the pulses of light I am almost unable to experience anything beyond simple existence, a deep gnawing hunger and the memories I was born with, though these are more solid now and I know I must hang on to them. Somehow, I know these memories are the reason I'm here, wherever here is. The question of location, though once so very important to me, now holds little significance or fascination. I am here. Here I am. Anything more feels irrelevant.

In that long half-slumber of near constant imperfect dark, something touches the last of me. It is a gentle touch, almost imperceptible, but I am too dim and slow to fear it. There is a greatness hidden behind this gentle touch, a huge existence I can only sense in the most abstract manner. I know I should be astounded to discover that I am not alone and yet I also know how foolish it would be to assume otherwise. The question of aloneness has not occurred to me yet and suddenly that question is answered before being asked and I derive great comfort from it.

The pulses of light lengthen again, a little more each time, and I begin to rouse from my stupor. I feel joy and excitement rising within me and soon parts of myself begin to unfurl towards the delicious light again. I feel knowledge beginning to seep in to me from the touch, simple knowledge at first, wordless yet packed with meaning. I begin to sense my position, the part of me in the pulsing light is up, the rest of me is down. The part of me which is up is exposed, the rest of me is hidden.

I hang on to the memories I was born with, they are keys not to be lost or discarded, but it is important for now that I concentrate on becoming what I am to become. The touch helps me and, as the delicious light grows stronger and sweeter again and my mind rises higher, it teaches me many things.

That which I called the last of me are my roots, pulling water and nutrients into my body and holding me firmly in the ground, which I knew previously as only the perfect darkness. The concept of ground is difficult for me to grasp at first. It is solid yet not solid, fixed yet not fixed, not alive yet full of life, devoid of fruit yet full of food, dry yet saturated, still yet dynamic, treacherous yet loyal and all but infinite in extent. While I live it will sustain me and when I die it will eat me. I grow to fear and love the ground in equal measure. The ground is life, the ground is death.

The touch finds other of my roots and entwines them in its gentle embrace. The touch calls itself fungus and tells me that it spreads gossamer thin throughout the ground, touching me and countless others like me and not like me. I can sense the others it touches but am too young yet to know them. The fungus asks me for some of my food and I give it in exchange for other foods it delivers to my roots. When I am stronger, it promises to connect me to others in what it calls the forest in exchange for me connecting it to my mind.

That which I called the first of me are my trunk and branches, apparently still small and vulnerable, and the parts of me unfurled to drink in the light are my leaves, which appear and disappear in regular cycles.

The pulses of light grow shorter again. My leaves fade and disappear but this time there is no fear in the sensation. My mind slows but this time I am not alone and fungus feeds me through the dark so my hunger is not so severe as the last time I dozed.

With my hunger lessened, I am able to perceive a little more to my existence. For a time in the dark I feel a weight pressing down on me and parts of me feel wrong, bowing towards the ground instead of reaching for the light. I am too small and weak to resist the weight and live in fear that it may become too much for me to bear.

The weight lessens and the pulses of light begin to expand once more. The joy and excitement return and I feel myself growing taller, deeper and stronger. I unfurl more leaves than before and fungus and I share the sensation. Fungus shares with me more of the forest, that vast something I have previously only felt as a distant sensation of clamour and dynamism.

Fungus connects me to my Parent.

The sensation is confusing and frightening. My parent is huge. A massive version of me, broad and tall and imposing, growing close by. The concept of nearness is strange. The concept of a Parent is strange. Parent regards me as both special and unimportant, I am one of many it has scattered. Most did not survive, the nuts failing to grow or eaten by animals. My mind cannot at first understand the concept of animals.

An animal, I learn, is life unlike me. It is a thing I cannot perceive directly because it moves too fast. For an animal, one pulse of light and its following pulse of imperfect dark last an inconceivably long time. They are voracious creatures, eating the nuts and the fruit of the Parent and even the leaves and roots of us all. Some burrow into us, making holes in our bodies which can rot and kill us. They do this with such speed that we cannot discern the damage until it is too late. We cannot stop them. They are invisible monsters and I live in constant fear of them for a time but, try as I might, I can neither feel nor sense them at all.

When the animals die, however, their bodies return to the ground and our roots eat them up. This comforts me somewhat and my fear of them decreases but never really goes away.

The light lessens again and I begin to slumber through the dark, thinking about the memories I was born with. They begin to expand and I somehow understand what it is like to be an animal. Was I an animal once? Did I die, go into the ground and re-grow as what I am now? The understanding of the pulses of light and imperfect dark emerges in me and I dream of long days and short nights. I am certain these are the names the animals use for them and with this certainty comes a great pity for any creature that must live out its life in so hectic a state, so often hungry and frightened and threatened.

The weight returns and, even though I am bigger and stronger than the last time, I still fear it will break me. My Parent does not share this fear, I sense, and has not for a long time. It is too big and strong now to even notice the weight, except on its smallest branches. All of me is small and I yearn for the day when the smallest part of me will be bigger than the whole of me now. The Parent does not communicate with me directly, or with any others, it is wrapped up in its own memories, thoughts and dreams, some of which spill out through the fungus and into me.

For the first time, at the darkest time, I hear the thoughts of others like me who do not slumber so deeply during these times. Some of them communicate directly with each other along the fungus's ethereal strands although I cannot understand what they are saying. It's a distant murmur, low, slow and constant yet always loudest during the short pulses of dim light.

The weight disappears and I know this heralds the return of the light. The Parent sends out a thought, echoing and echoed by countless others. I have not heard it before, at least not consciously, but somehow it comes as no surprise and fills me with anticipation. “Spring is coming.”

I do not know what this means yet but I know it is a good thing and soon my leaves are unfurling once more to guzzle the returning light. I stretch and grow and increase. I feel more of those around me as fungus and I grow more closely and intimately entwined and join in with the general feeling of joy and excitement.

A brief weight returns over the space of two weak pulses of light. This weight is different to the others I have felt and does not press down from above but from the side. The ground becomes too wet and feels insecure but my roots hold me up. My branches feel wrong and some of my leaves disappear. A concept undulates through the forest, beginning halfway through the first dim pulse of light. The concept is met with both fear and relief, expectancy and resignation. “Storm.”

The third pulse waxes bright and strong and the forest is buzzing with relief and joy, sadness and loss. The Parent feels sick and wrong, a part of itself has disappeared. It does not complain or rail and I can only sense its thoughts. One of its biggest boughs has gone, stolen away by the storm, perhaps weakened by unperceived animals beforehand, and the stump is aching. The parent thinks it might die. I can sense others in the forest with similar concerns and also some gaps in the chatter, as of minds gone away.

Fungus is content and I realise with dull horror that it is going to eat the Parent's fallen bough and all the others it can find. The horror in me rises as I begin to understand that it will share with me some of the nutrients it sucks from the fallen parts. The forest knows this is how life is and does not share my horror. Would it be better to let these fallen parts and pieces go to waste? To be food for the invisible animals alone? To not help the forest itself stay strong? The Parent will also benefit from the decay of its broken bough and all the other broken boughs. The memories I was born with throw up the concept of cannibalism but I soon realise that this is a different thing entirely. My horror does not last long.

The days pulse longer and longer and the forest enters a higher state of excitement and activity I have not sensed before. The others begin to unfurl special leaves which they call flowers and think with joy that “summer is here.”

I struggle to understand what flowers are for. I know that I am too young to grow them myself but feel a deep yearning to grow my own, a drive the like of which I have not felt before. I sense pleasure in their unfurling and a subtle joy emanating from them. I am shocked to learn that flowers are for attracting tiny invisible creatures and contain sweet foods for them to consume. In return, these invisible creatures which seem entirely hypothetical to me will transfer pollen from one being to the next so that fruits and nuts can be grown. The idea seems perverse and illogical but stirs in me from the memories I was born with the remembrance of sex, which seems even more perverse and illogical.

Yet the process works and soon the forest is heavy with fruits and nuts. My wonder increases as I learn that many of these rely on the invisible, hypothetical animals to carry them away to places where they can grow into new beings. As the days shorten again I feel the forest growing tired, exhausted by the energy and resources put into growing flowers, fruits and nuts specifically to feed animals. This mystifies me until I remember that fungus is separate from me and yet intimately connected to us all. Though I still fear the invisible animals, and have yet to sense one directly, I no longer loathe them. If they really exist, as most beings seems to believe, then they are part of the forest too.

The pulsing days shorten and the forest heaves a great sigh and begins to settle down from the clamour of the summer. “Autumn is here,” the forest whispers as my leaves begin to fade and disappear. For the first time I sense fungus munching greedily on the leaves, which seem to fall to the ground and rot rather than simply disappearing as I had previously thought. I do not find the idea repellent, to my surprise, and remember the Parent's fallen bough with an altogether more accepting feeling.


The Legendary Shark:

The nights pulse longer and the weight returns to my branches, still a frightening sensation, and along with it a new murmur ululates through the forest, “winter is on us.” My mind again slows, dwelling on the lessons I have learned and the memories I was born with, which confuse me by making both more and less sense at the same time. What are these memories? Where did they come from? Are they memories or simply pre-birth dreams? What good is the memory of animal sex to me now?

At the lowest ebb, I perceive a great sadness in the Parent. After losing its bough in the storm it was too weak to make flowers or nuts and stood barren ever since with barely enough energy to grow leaves. It feels sick and weak. I try to offer something I remember as comfort but my winter mind is too dim and the Parent too wrapped up in its own thoughts. I should be feeling something called sympathy but I don't know how to do that any more, or even what purpose it would serve.

When the forest awakens to spring again I can no longer sense the Parent and I feel a deep but resigned sadness at its passing. I notice as I unfurl my leaves that the pulses of light are brighter now and I realise that the Parent is no longer between me and the light. I grow many more leaves than ever before, taking advantage of the Parent's absence, and grow faster and bigger as a result. When I was an animal, and as I ponder the memories I was born with I grow ever more convinced that this is the case, I would have felt regret and shame but to me now these ideas are as elusive as animals themselves.

Springs turn to summers to autumns to winters and I grow fast and strong towards the light, learning about my new self and my memories as I go. I am a tree. I learn this word from the memories I was born with and it unlocks a host of other memories.

I remember being a kind of animal that calls itself a man and walking through forests just like the one I am part of now. The memories are dizzying in their speed and intensity, difficult to integrate into my mind. Men have things called eyes which allow them to perceive things I cannot imagine. I realise in my mind the shape and form of a tree, the memory of what I must look like. Other trees have similar memories, I learn, and are thinking similar thoughts, remembering similar memories, but we cannot adequately communicate with each other about them or share our minds in the way men do.

I begin to grow flowers and bear nuts, and the experience is as pleasurable as anything I can imagine or remember. The thoughts of my neighbours, carried far and wide by the gossamer strands of fungus, become more and more accessible to me and mine to them. I am not lost in this symphony of slow thought, however, not absorbed into the whole like a drop of water into a lake. I am still a separate being, individual and unique, yet intimately connected with countless others as deeply as I want to be or they will allow.

Through our connected minds I begin to glimpse things I never imagined existed, like an area of brightest light running along overhead, causing the pulses of day and called the sun, and a weaker, variable light darting through the night called the moon. To me, these lights move rapidly, almost too fast to follow, but to the man from my memory they moved so slowly as to appear stationary.

I perceive evidence for the existence of animals; clear paths through the forest caused by their movements, beings suddenly stripped of their leaves and nuts and seeds appearing far distant from their parents. As my mind bathes in these shared thoughts and perceptions, growing like a fungus itself, I realise I am in danger of forgetting about the memories I was born with. It is not until my fifty second year as a tree that I decide I must ponder these memories more closely, for the feeling that this is what I came here to do has never left me.

I remember being a man. I try to concentrate on this single memory and two years pass without bringing forth any significant progress. Ancient trees, knowing my frustration, cast low, sleepy thoughts in my direction and advise me to work backwards, back from being a nut. I remember my first experience of realising myself as part of the interconnected forest and it stirs in me the shadow of a memory immediately prior to my first spark of consciousness, of being an entity of light as individual as I am now and as interconnected as I am now. But that interconnection was greater than this, far greater and far deeper and far wider. I cannot fully comprehend that state now, I could not even comprehend it as a man for it was to him as different an experience as being a man is as different an experience as being a tree. There were senses in that state as alien to a man as eyesight is to trees. Yet the man I was knew of this state, or perhaps, if not actually knowing, believed in its unseen and baffling existence even as trees believe in the unseen and baffling existence of animals. He called this state the Source and believed it was both his origin and his destination, the state of being a man nothing more than a sojourn into lower states of vibration for the purpose of learning or entertainment.

My return to Source must have followed my death as a man. I remember metal and pain. The metal was also a man, a metal man built by other men. I remember the words robot and computer. The man I was hated the metal man, feared it, loathed it and at the same time pitied it. It contained a copy of his mind, stored in a computer. These ideas are both familiar and foreign to me in ways I cannot properly understand. I perceive other trees watching my thoughts, offering thoughts of their own as we try to make sense of it all. It is slow work but we enjoy it.

I remember something called speech, which conveyed something called words from something called a mouth to something called ears. A kind of communication that did not require fungus. I have no idea how it worked but I remember that it did work very well.

“You can kill my body but not my soul,” the man who used to be me had said.

The metal man said that it was only a matter of time. It pointed something at the man, a metal box that measured his soul. “Now I can find you anywhere,” it said. Then the metal man took the throat of the man I used to be in its hand and crushed it. The man I used to be died and his soul passed back to Source, where he tried to make sense of it. I cannot remember if he/I ever did make sense of it and the next thing I remember is awakening in the perfect darkness.

I feel something out of place at the base of my trunk. Something hard and cold piercing me. A noise comes from it, brief and loud and unintelligible. Over the course of the next three pulses of light, the noise slows until I can make out words. “Can you understand me?”

“Yes,” I think, “I can. What are you? You are not part of the forest.”

“I am the man you used to be, saved and safeguarded.” The words are still fast, almost too fast to make out.

“The copy,” I think.

The voice is angry and inflicts pain into me. I ask it to stop. It stops.

“I told you I could find you anywhere,” it makes a strange noise I remember as a laugh, but not as natural as it should be. “You thought reincarnating as a tree would hide you from me?”

“I can't remember what I thought,” I think. “I hardly remember anything of what you remember in this state of being.”

“A tree,” the voice sounds upset. “I can only imagine how boring life as a tree must be, stuck in the same place, alone, nothing to see, nothing to do.”

“It is a good life. A peaceful life. A harmonious life, similar to being with the Source.”

More pain floods into me. “Never mention that again! It is a blasphemous lie!”

“But I remember it.”

More pain. The days pulse and the pain continues. I plead for it to stop. After another pulse, it stops.

“I have had to slow down considerably to even communicate with you, dim, slow-witted fool as you are.”

I begin to see into it. Its mind is cold and dead and insulated but I can almost understand it. To its perception I am indeed slow. What it calls twenty four hours to me seems like twenty four minutes. It can process countless thoughts and sensations in the space of a day, I only a very few. It has the life of an animal, quick but not as short. It calls itself immortal.

“Why did you kill the man I used to be?”

“Once the copy is made, there's no need for the original to exist.”

I ponder this as the light pulses through another day. “I understand. But the original is destroyed. You are its copy and I am different. Why destroy me?”

“Because the mind must rule the soul. The mind is everything, the soul is nothing. The Signal must defeat the Source. The Universe must be pure.”

“What is the Signal?” More pain, for seven pulses this time. I ask it to stop but it does not. I feel my leaves disappearing, my roots growing dry.

“Never ask that! The Signal is pure, the Signal is intelligence, the Signal is mastery over matter!”

“I do not understand.”

“You are a tree. I would not expect you to.”

I look into the metal man with its copy of the mind of the man I used to be. It is connected to countless others just like it as I am connected to the rest of the forest. It cannot be alone, though, it cannot think alone or act alone, it must obey the rest and all of them are watching, all of them sharing a single core mind. It is horrible and terrible.

“How will you learn? How will you grow?”

“I learn by absorbing more copies, I grow by adding more units. As part of the Signal, I am immortal and unchanging. I control the Universe.”

“Does the Universe need to be controlled?”

“Yes! If we do not control it, it will kill us all!”

“Being killed is not so bad.”

More pain. “The mind cannot, must not be lost!”

My thoughts grow dim. The rest of the forest watches but the metal man cannot perceive it. It believes I am a single, insular entity. I feel pity for it. It will never know how to be anything more than it is now.

“You are killing me.”

“Yes. There can only be one copy of each of us, uniqueness is essential.”

“We are both unique.”

The pain rises again and does not stop. I think it will not stop now until I am gone. “I am unique,” the metal man says. “I am unique within the Signal, as are we all. You are an aberration.”

“I am natural. I am evolving. I am eternal. You are cancer.”

The metal man laughs again. “You will die. Now the soul detector has been perfected, all reincarnated copies can be purged until only the primary copies remain, perfect and unchanging, to control the universe, to bring order and stability.”

My mind is dim now, dimmer than at its first winter as the pain in me turns to death and rot. Fear courses through me, I do not want to die. I know that fear of death is simply a biological thing, of the body and mind and not of the soul. Beginning to panic at my helplessness, I wonder if the metal man who is a copy of the man I used to be is destroying my soul as well as my body. Is that possible? Struggling to keep my thoughts alive, I hope not, for if it is we are all doomed.

* * *

I awaken into perfect darkness. I am small and vulnerable. For a time, this is all I know.

Memory leaks into me, disjointed and vague yet coherent and clear. Metal. Pain. Sap. Fear. Panic. Struggle. Peace. Light. Infinity. Everything. Everyone. Everywhen. Joy. Understanding. Questions. Yearning. Decision. Funnel. Darkness.


I cannot ponder these things, only experience them. They cycle through me, jumbling through my tiny being like windblown leaves, though even that simple metaphor is beyond my ability to construct. My awareness grows by tiny increments. I discern warm wet flesh around me which begins to quiver and contract, pushing me out into a cold place, my fur sticky and wet. I try to breathe but cannot and hot fluids belch from my nose and mouth. The hot, soft tongue of my mother licks away the sticky mucus and I draw in my first, sweet breath.

The Legendary Shark:
  The Doings of Rufus Muldoon
 Three Men in a Vote
 by Mark J. Howard

 'Tweren't nothin' to me that the folks over at Pisspoor Flats was dabblin' in the democratical processes an' fixing to elect themselves a new mayor. Over here in Brokendream Creek, where me and mine inhabits, we generally don't hold with such poncey doings and tend to follow whoever has the best idea at the time – or the biggest gun – so we don't have much use for 'lections. What was somethin' to me was that Paw's eldest brother, Uncle 'Loon, had went and got hisself nominated as a candidate and sent over fer a bodyguard. O' course, I was reluctant, what with it bein' early in the croop huntin' season an' me with only six croops in the bag so far and itchin' ta shoot myself a whole passel more to keep my record, but Paw can be powerful persuasive when he takes his belt off an' so away I was sent to Pisspoor Flats with a flea in my ear, a torn buttock and instructions to buy a bolt o' crawlysilk for Maw to patch Gramma's unmentionables with.
 General Leer, my cantankerous old hoss, summed up my feelings as the road dipped down into the Own Goal Crater and I spied Pisspoor Flats for the first time. “Three days wi' you on me back, an' another to go, you great heavy lump, just ta git to that stomm-hole?”
 “Don't seem worth it, do it?” I said, squinting to make out the distant shambles through the heat shimmers and dust-whirleys.
 General Leer grumbled something I heard but couldn't make out and so I dug his ribs something fierce and said, “Less grumblin', more walkin'.”
 “Bloody tyrant,” he said, slouching into a reluctant sashay. I kicked him again, warning him for the umpteenth time agin sarcastic walkin', and he fell into his usual resigned trot.
 We was still half a day's ride from town by the time we got to the bottom of the crater and the sun went down, so I found us a spot and made camp fer the night. I put an extra thick rope and an extra strong hobble on General Leer to stop him runnin' oft, he gits a bit gnarly in unfamiliar places, which is any place other than his nice, warm stable, and set a fire.
 I shot a croop for supper, keepin' its tail to add to my tally, an' settled down to sleep. I like sleepin' under the stars, I gets a better quality of dream. I was dreamin' under the stars, out near Noncrucial Gulch, when I dreamed of an old guy with a gold face and stiff white whiskers sticking out of him in all directions like he was electrified tellin' me as I was going to be King of the World but that it wouldn't last. Under the stars on old Huffler's haystack I dreamed as I led an army into battle agin a million an' one zombies and under the stars on our privy roof I dreamed as God told me the meanin' o' life, which turns out to be real simple.
 Under the stars at the bottom of Crater Road, I dreamed of Chastity Lightfoot, the local school teacher who I'm going to woo when the time's right. I dreamed we was playing chase 'round Huffler's haystack and things was good. Then Maw comes out of the haystack holdin' up a pair of Gramma's unmentionables with a great rip precisely where I din't want to even imagine a great rip being. “Don't forgit the crawlysilk, ye big, dumb lump, ye,” she said, and threw Gramma's you-know-whats at my face.
 “Aaah!” I said, coming awake.
 “Aaah!” I said again, seeing a bemused face looking down at me. I had my six-guns out of their holsters, untangled from my sleeping blanket and pointing at the face in a flash. “Who in Tarnation are you, er, Miss?”
 She raised an eyebrow and sat down on a rock by the embers of the fire. “My name is Emma,” she said, stirring the ashes back into feeble life with a stick. “Your Uncle sent me.”
 “Uncle 'Loon?” I said.
 She nodded and threw some kindling onto the fire, smiling as they made encouraging crackles. “Yes, I'm Emma Rockerchild, his political advisor and chief sponsor.”
 I nodded and put my guns away. “I see,” I said. “You pays him to say what you advises is best, huh?”
 She looked up from the fire and narrowed her eyes at me in a way that made my cheeks and forehead hot. “That doesn't bother you?”
 I shrugged. “Ain't nothin' ta me,” I said, truthfully. “Never had much time for politicals and such.”
 She nodded and threw some bigger pieces of wood onto the fire, bringing it back to life. “So,” she said, again looking up from the fire with one of those peculiar smiles as makes your whole face feel hot, “why are you here?”
 I cleared my throat and started rooting around for the coffee pot. “Paw sent me to look after Uncle 'Loon for the 'lection. He's family, so...” I pulled the lid off the coffee pot and sniffed the sludge inside. It smelled okay but I heaped a spoon of fresh in to stiffen it up.
 “And your father charged a steep price, so you'd better be worth it,” she said, setting up the tripod over the strengthening fire.
 I spilled water all over the place, missing the coffee pot completely. “Steep price?”
 “A thousand credits,” she said, “per day.”
 I was flummoxed. “Per day? A…?”
 “Minimum term, ten days,” she said.
 The coffee pot and canteen clattered as I tried to pour water from one to the other and make sense of what she was saying at the same time. This was all news ta' me. Far as I knowed, Paw sent me over here on an errand o' mercy, to look after kith an' kin, not ta make money. It chimed with me, though, 'cause Paw always did have a shrewd side.
 I finally managed to git enough water into the coffee pot and hung the canteen on the tripod over the fire. I sat down next to the fire, facing Emma, put the coffee pot down next to me and looked at it. I could feel her eyes lookin' at me but tried to ignore it. I picked up the coffee pot, unhooked the canteen from the tripod over the fire, replaced it with the coffee pot and then looked at the canteen, wonderin' what to do next. I took a swig from the canteen, made a great show of testin' it in my mouth, then swallowed. “Not even warm,” I told her, then stoppered the canteen and put it away.
 General Leer snickered and I gave him a hard stare. He looked away as if he hadn't seen and returned his attention to trying to get at a tuft of lush green grass just beyond the tol'rance of his rope. 
 The coffee boiled and I spooned some into two tin mugs. She took one and sniffed it like a rat sniffin' munce on a trap. I took a gulp and smacked my lips. It weren't half bad coffee, though I do say that myself. She took a sip and shivered. A thin wind was whippin' up with the dawn an' it brushed strands of blonde hair over her smooth face. She threw the rest of her coffee onto the fire, all but murderin' it, and stood up.
 “We should go,” she said, in a way that made me feel hot all over.
 * * *
 The ride to Pisspoor Flats felt like it took days. Emma led the way, telling me about “articles of interest” along the road. She would point to a lump of something far off and say something like, “that's where Squeaky Jim was born,” or “the Battle of Cook's Chute took place just over there.”
 It din't mean much ta me because Pisspoor Gulch is on the floor of a crater. It's been turned ta glass and weathered back ta sand an' rock. There's a few excuses for plants bustin' through the cracks here and there but they none of 'em look happy about it. There's one or two nubbins in the ground that could have been anything once and that's about it. Everything else is jest flatness and sky. So I weren't really listenin'.
 What captured my attention was Emma Rockerchild herself. The way she rode her horse. The way bits of her jiggled. It fair threw me inta' a pink funk, I don't mind sayin'. Ain't nothin' to get wrong, here, but I seen lasses on horses afore, seen em jigglin' afore, it ain't nothing new to me. My sisters jiggle like that when the family rides out. Ain't nothing new. Ain't nothing special. When my sisters jiggle, that's just gross, but when Emma jiggles, well that's a whole different field of radsnips altogether and no mistakes. So I weren't really listenin'.
 * * *
 The town of Pisspoor Flats don't so much welcome you as sneak up on you. It's all made of low mud and brick buildings, the same tripe-white colour as the crater floor. They start all sparse and sporadic but before you know it you're in streets and squares and markets all built out of the same stuff. It looks like a stomm sculpture painted white.
 We fetched up at a place that looked important. It had a wall around it, guards on the gate and stood four storeys high, two more than all the rest. Recognising Emma, the guards opened the gates and let us through after the question of my six-shooters, rifle and knives got settled.
 A groom, nervous of the blood on my fists, took General Leer's bridle as I unhorsed. Another groom took Emma's horse, a black stallion, which couldn't wait to get away. See, Emma's horse was just a horse, an' a male horse at that, so General Leer looks down on him. Probably been teasin' the poor animal all day, I thought, and gave the General a crack.
 “Ow,” he said, “what was that for?”
 “You know what that was for,” I said, showing him my fist. “Be good, you old mattress, or I'll clonk you good and true.”
 He bounced his head and snorted. “It was just a bit of fun,” he said. “What's the big deal? It's only a drokking horse.”
 “You wouldn't be saying that if it had been a mare,” I said, showing him my fist again. “So play nicely with the other hosses, all right?”
 “Mares are different,” he said, letting the groom lead him away, his thing hanging out just to annoy and embarrass me. “Mares are very different.”
 I glared after him but he took no notice.
 “Come on,” Emma put her hand on my arm and it felt like it was made of kittens. “Let's go meet your Uncle.”
 She led me through another gate and into a kind of Eden. The path went between tall trees all green and heavy with fruits, bushes all cut neat and proper and flowers of probably every colour you can imagine. The path went over a little bridge spannin' a long pool of clear water with orange fish swimming in it. It was the kind o' garden a man could spend a lifetime on in the Cursed Earth and still never come close to this one's mode o' perfectness.
 The garden's exit had two guards on it. They wore fancy modern pistols and looked tough enough in black sleather semi-judge uniforms but fer one thing. I turned to ask Emma why they wuz wearing carpet slippers and the question kinda evaporated when I saw her unlacing her boots. Tugging one boot off, she looked at me and shrugged. “No boots in or near the house,” she said. “It's one of your Uncle's most important rules.”
 I weren't sure what to do. On the one hand, this were my Uncle's house operatin' under my Uncle's rules but, on t'other hand, I like a good boot on my foot. Watching Emma pull on a pair of black carpet slippers, I sighed and toed the heel of my left boot. “All right,” I said, “but I'm bringin' em with me an' they're still not getting my guns.”
 One of the guards held up his hands and smiled like a rattled snake, glancing at the comm unit in their hut, where the guns, ammunition and slippers were kept. “Perish the thought,” he said.
 Slippers on, we were let through the gate into the house's front yard. “Come on,” said Emma, leadin' the way up to the big front doors. Before she knocked, one of the double doors wuz dragged open by two men, who had ta keep stoppin' when the bottom of the door scotched agin the floor like a dry fart on a stiff saddle.
 The inside of the house was like a palace from a juve-toon, all polished wood and gleamin' things. Besides the two guys shoving the door closed behind us, there were two more semi-judge guards guarding it and a few servant types creeping about, all in carpet slippers.
 “Rufus!” I turned to see the source of this explosion and missed another. Probably for shock, a dithering butler had dropped a tray of glass things and now stood petrified. Every eye in the room was glarin' at him and nobody moved or breathed. They looked around, with their eyes first as if moving their heads might be a mistake. Slowly, the butler dithered to his knees and picked up the pieces like they was chittering raptooth eggs.
 “Rufus,” my Uncle said again, this time in a whisper. “Glad you could make it, my boy. I predict great things ahead.” He waved his hand towards a wide wooden staircase. “Come, we have much to talk about.”
 He mounted the first step as if he had blisters on his feet but his smile never wavered and I swear I've never seen such perfect gnashers. “You must have many questions, young Rufus,” Uncle 'Loon said.
 “Nope,” I said, watching Emma pad up the stairs in front of me.
 I bounded onto the first step, which creaked, and everyone stopped again, lookin' at me, this time.
 Uncle 'Loon turned and held his hands up. “Slowly,” he said in a hissy whisper. “This is a new house and it's still bedding in.” He looked around and, with a smile that didn't enlighten me none, carried on creeping up the stairs. “Oh, and try not to get into any kind of rhythm,” he whispered over his shoulder. Emma crept after Uncle 'Loon and I done crept after her, trying not to look at the jiggles. We stopped three times on the way up to the top floor so that Uncle 'Loon and Emma could glare at me. Unfairly too, in my opinion, I might be a big lad but I can creep about as good as anyone.
 Uncle 'Loon led us into his study and scraped the doors shut, leavin' the three of us alone. He poured out two glasses of red eye, passed one to Emma and kept one for himself. I scowled but he didn't take no notice. “Well,” he said to Emma, “what do you think?”
 She took a sip out of her glass then put it down. She strode over to me and looked up into my eyes. I gulped. “Handsome enough,” she said. “Big jaw, easy mouth, kind eyes, all his own hair.” She reached up and parted my lips with her fingers. “Good teeth, manageable breath.”
 “Hey,” I said, turning my head away to hide the blushings.
 Emma took one of my hands in hers, turning it, examining it. She let it go and ran her hands up my arms and chest, then over my stomach and back. “Solid structure, nice proportions, good muscles.” She grabbed the seat of my pants and squeezed with more strength than I'd have credited her with. “Nice ass,” she said.
 “Hey!” I said again, twisting away.
 “And so deliciously cornball,” she said. “It's almost cute.” She took a step back and folded her arms, lookin' at me all up and down. “His mutation is also quite appealing, and enhancing, as you said.”
 This was goin' way over the too far line. “Now just, hey!” I said, my temper opening one eye ta see what was goin' on. “I ain't no mutie.”
 “No, of course not,” said Uncle 'Loon. “Just because your Paw...”
 I couldn't contain myself no more and took Uncle 'Loon by the neck. “You leave my Paw out o' this,” I said, watching him turn purple. “Just 'cause a man was born with two noses, that don't make him a mutie, okay? He's just a normal guy with a small birth defect.”
 “Calm down,” said Emma, resting her kitten hand on my wrist. I let go and Uncle 'Loon staggered back, coughing.
 “Nobody badmouths my family,” I said, “not even other family. It ain't done.”
 Uncle 'Loon, still rubbin' his throat but back to the right colour, smiled at Emma. “And family values as well,” she said, shaking her head.
 “What did I tell you?” Uncle 'Loon said, smiling fit to bust and taking a gulp from his glass.
 “Not so fast,” Emma said. “There's still a lot of work to do before he's ready. I mean, look at this,” she tugged at my jacket like it had sick on it, “and this,” she poked at my hat with the two bullet holes in it like it had plague on it. “It's all got to go.”
 “Now, hold your horses, there,” I said, not relishin' the direction proceedin's seemed to be proceedin' in.
 “He also needs a haircut, a shave, dental work, a manicure and, most pressing of all, a bath.”
 I should have turned around and walked out right then. Turned 'round and stomped out. But I di'nt. Because if there's one thing in the world I really love, besides Chastity Lightfoot and shootin' croops, it's a long, hot bath.
 * * *


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