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: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 30 June, 2016, 03:07:06 PM
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.
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 12 July, 2016, 07:02:41 PM
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.
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 14 November, 2017, 03:38:45 PM
Two of Many
by 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.

Here.

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.

/cont...
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 14 November, 2017, 03:39:41 PM
.../cont

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.

Here.

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.
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 11 September, 2018, 04:21:56 PM
  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.
 
 
 * * *
 
CONT/...
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 11 September, 2018, 04:24:38 PM

…/CONT

The next afternoon, after a long mornin' of unnecessary pamperin', I looked like a new man. They'd bathed me in scented water with bubbles, cut my hair into something called a Gary Cooper, shaved me so fine my chin felt like stripped wood, got two giggly young lasses to faff about with my fingernails, paid a strange old dentist to polish my gnashers and stuffed me into a suit so expensive you could live off of it. They let me keep my six-guns, after a brief negotiation, but insisted on a new dino-skin gunbelt and holsters which, I had to admit, were the pooch's pendulums.

Emma inspected my new self and declared it adequate. “You're ready to start your new job,” she said. I told her that my job started the minute she invaded my camp and that the meter had been runnin' ever since. Emma didn't like this very much but Uncle 'Loon just laughed and said I was my father's son, which I thought everyone knew already.

Uncle 'Loon had a speech to give at the town's Mildew Research Centre an' so that was the first stop after we'd had lunch and sponged the gravy off of my tie, shirt and pants. Can't see how anyone expects a guy to eat gravy with a fork. These town folks and their towny ways.

The Mildew Research Center was a dumpy building two storeys high and painted tripe white, more or less like all the buildings roundabouts. A group of sullen folk in grubby white coats was waiting outside. One of them came marching up to Uncle 'Loon, bringin' an air o' trapped wind with him that I didn't much like. I was fixin' to punch him in my capacity as Uncle 'Loon's bodyguard but Emma stopped me.

“You're late,” said the gloomy man.

“Angus MacAngus,” Emma whispered into Uncle 'Loon's ear. “The Centre's union chairman.”

Uncle 'Loon, actin' fer all the world like he hadn't heard Emma, took the man's hand in a firm double grip and turned his smile about half way up. “Mr MacAngus,” he said, and all of a sudden his voice sounded like honey dripping onto a wad of money. “I'm so sorry we kept you waiting.” He nodded in my direction. “My bodyguard was hungry – and we have to take care of the workers, don't we?”

“Well I...” Mr MacAngus, forgetting to let go of Uncle 'Loon's handshake, took a step back, his mouth hanging open as a busted brolly. “Well I...” he said again, then looked at me.

“I spilt gravy all down me,” I said. “Sorry.”

MacAngus shook his head, like he was dead tired, and said, “I see.”

“I think I've kept you waiting long enough,” Uncle 'Loon said, taking MacAngus by the arm, “let's get inside, shall we?”

MacAngus nodded and the two men walked towards the entrance. Emma held me back a spell and, looking up into my eyes said, “'I spilt gravy all down me'? Really?”

I shrugged. “Well, I did,” I said, shrugging and making my new suit groan. “It's my fault we're late, well, partly anyways. Guy's been waiting so he deserves an apology, right?”

She looked at me for a long time but her eyes might as well have been marbles for all I saw in them. “Right,” she said. I nodded and walked off after Uncle 'Loon to guard his body from whatever it needed guarding from.

Inside, Uncle 'Loon shook hands with a passel o' glum lookin' men in white coats with dirty black spots and stains all over 'em. Uncle 'Loon pointed at the spotty coats an' said, through a fake smile, that it sure looked like the mildew was winning.

It seems Uncle 'Loon was expectin' a laugh but di'nt git one. Instead, the gloomy researchists perked up and Mr MacAngus's face lit up like radandelions in a sunbeam. “Finally,” he said, “someone who understands the seriousness of the situation!”

“Darn tootin' I do,” said Uncle 'Loon, his fake smile fixed like a flag o'er a fort. “I know that the current incumbent has proposed cutting the are and dee budget by one score and five percents ta pay for gravy fer scroungers.” He paused, moulding his fake smile into a fake frown of fake concern. “Under my plan, we'll sell all the scroungers to a...”

“Yes,” said Mr MacAngus, who di'nt seem ta be listenin' too close. “If we don't do something, the whole surface of the Earth will be covered in this stuff! We must act now!”

Uncle 'Loon stroked his chin and pretended to be interested. “Whole surface?” He fake mused for a tick or two. “That sounds interesting.”

“It'll be catastrophic! All higher life will be extinguished!”

“Extinguished,” said Uncle 'Loon, shaking his head. “Hmm.”

“We estimate,” said Mr MacAngus, getting a tatty notebook out of his tatty pocket and running his tatty thumb through it until he found the right tatty page, “that we have only six to eight hundred years before the process is complete.”

“Well,” Uncle 'Loon's fake smile returned, “we'll have to budget for that then, won't we? Salvation, after all, begins at home with a single first step. My friends,” Uncle 'Loon said, tilting up his big chin and puffing out his big chest, “what you have told me here today is important to y'all, I git that, I surely do. And I wants ta help ya with yer important work here, maybe helps y'all save the world. But I can't help you from behind the desk o' the town's biggest construction company. That's why I needs all yer votes on Pollin' Day.” He looked at the grubby people and saw as they was perked up but not quite convinced yet. He dipped his head for a moment and then raised it again, his face all deadly serious. “My friends,” he kept his voice low so's to make his audience lean in. “My friends, a vote for the other candidate is a vote for the status quo. A vote for the status quo is a vote against your important work. A vote for me is a vote fer change, a vote fer change is a vote fer you – and a vote fer you is a vote fer savin' the entire drokkin' planet from extinction!”

The grubby researchists erupted into wild cheerin's an' hootin's an' one of 'em even fired his six-shooter up into the ceiling, filling the place with dust an' shafts o' sunlight. Then they done carried him out on their shoulders, giving his head a good crack on the main exit door frame in their excitement. As designated bodyguard, I felt obliged to hit someone fer this shoddy conduct but Uncle 'Loon said it was okay and made us take him straight back ta the campaign bus.

Once we wuz inside, the driver cracked his whip and the hosses hurried on up to their labours. I dropped inta a seat, bored and itchy in my new suit, watchin' Emma tryin' ta stop the blood coming out of Uncle 'Loon's forehead. He waved her away like she was a bad smell, snatchin' the cloth from her fine hands and holdin' it to his own nut.

“Gruddam mildew researchers,” he said, “is that the best we got? 'Cause if it is, Ms Rockerchild, we may as well give up now.”

“The intellectual community...” Emma said.

“Hogwash!” Uncle 'Loon said. “Intellectual community my hairy ass! They're all gruddam lunatics with more brains than anyone needs! They don't understand anything! And where the Hell were the Gruddam press?”

“There was a mix up,” Emma said. “They all turned up at the Moss Research Centre on the other side of town. Rumour is they got a good story anyway.”

Uncle 'Loon threw up his hands and sighed, forcin' hisself into a calm. “Okay,” he said, “ain't no logic in cryin' o'er spilt bygones, I guess. Where to next?”

“Impromptu mayoral debate,” Emma said.

Uncle 'Loon gulped. “That's today? Now?”

Emma nodded.

“Ah Hell,” he said. “Rufus, my boy, better stay close for this next one.”

* * *

Uncle 'Loon perked up considerable when he got out of the campaign bus and a bunch of filmers and reportists charged at him. I stepped fore to hold 'em back, thinkin' that throwin' a good punch or two might ease the boredom, but Uncle 'Loon held me back and pushed past, Emma close aback.

“How kin I guard him if'n he won't be guarded?” I said, bad grace bein' a patic'lar failin' o' mine.

Emma glanced up at me an' winked, which kinda made everything okay again.

“What do you think your chances are against the incumbent Mayor Gripping?”

Uncle 'Loon turned to the lady reportist who'd asked the question and put on his third best fake smile. “Mayor Gripping's time is over,” he said. “In fact, one might just say that Gripping's about to lose his grip.”

“How do you respond to Mayor Gripping's allegations of financial impropriety?”

Uncle 'Loon turned to the new speaker and upgraded to his second best fake smile. “I'm sure Mayor Gripping is an expert at such matters. Me? I'm a simple kinda guy, I leave the numbers to my accountants and they have my full authority to make all the relevant details public. I have things to hide, sure I do, we all do. Things like pinching a pen from work or fantasising about somebody you shouldn't. Sure, I have things to hide – but financial impropriety ain't one of 'em.”

“But, isn't the very venue of this impromptu debate a blatant bribe given to Pisspoor Flats' electorate?”

Uncle 'Loon turned on his Number One Fake Smile. “I'm glad you asked me that question. I'm a rarity in Pisspoor Flats – I'm a rich man. I make no bones about that. I made my money building buildings all over town. Good buildings. Strong buildings. Quality buildings. Affordable buildings. I set aside a lump of the money I'd made just for me but, instead of building one big selfish thing, I decided I'd make one modest selfish thing and one modest unselfish thing. And so I built myself the most advanced mud and brick house ever designed, using bleeding-edge mud-brick technologies, and I built a Town Hall for the people of Pisspoor Flats as a gift and as a thank you for being so good an' kind an' just downright decent to me and mine over the decades. The fact that I gave this magnificent building to the town shouldn't make a whit o' difference to the way anyone votes. As the Good Book says, don't be givin' stuff just 'cause you want stuff back, bain't polite.”

“How do you respond to the alarming studies warning that the entire surface of the Earth will be covered in radioactive moss within the next five to seven hundred years?”

“Alarmist claptrap cooked up by those lunatics in Mayor Gripping's Campaign Office, obviously. Everyone in the know knows that the real threat is mildew.” Uncle 'Loon pointed to another reportist and then another, then another, answering questions as got steadily more daft. The last question, “Shall we get inside?” was met with Uncle 'Loon's shortest answer all day.

“Yes, let's.”

* * *

Lookin' back, it was kinda plain as the reportist just tripped, caught off his guard and tangled in his own feet just as the crowd pushed away. He fell, right at Uncle 'Loon.

So I hit him.

I'd kinda been aching to do something for hours. Anything. Hitting this guy fit the bill, that's all. Everythin' froze, everybody lookin' at me like dead fish on a rack.

“How do you justify assaulting a reporter?”

“I di'nt assault nobody,” I said. “I just thumped him, that's all.”

“That is assault, you big lump,” Emma said, whispering out of the side of her mouth.

“It is?”

She nodded. I turned back to the reportists and smiled my only smile. “Look,” I said. “I don't know nothing about all this boring stuff. I'm just his nephew, come over from Brokendream Creek to look out fer him 'til y'all elect him, and him and Ms Rockerchild can run you all proper and good. I honestly don't care, see, 'cause nobody runs me but me.” I paused, not wantin' to tell a lie on top of everything else. “Well, and my Maw and Paw, o' course. An' Gramma, when she ain't shoutin' at spiders. Which reminds me...”

The crowd pressed towards me, expectin' more. I swallowed. “Okay, so maybe I shouldn't have thumped this guy. How wuz I to know he weren't some crazy stabber? I didn't shoot him, did I? I'm just doin' my job, lookin' out for family, okay? This guy's my uncle, I don't want crazy stabbists lurchin' out at him, 'specially if they're real. So, you reckon we can all put this unfortunateness behind us?” I stood up high as I could and swelled my muscles. It's a good trick, works more often than it fails, and the reportists took a step back, helping their dazed comrade to unsteady pins. I nodded. “Good.”

Shaking his head and apologising, Uncle 'Loon strode towards the brand new Town Hall, dragging the knot o' reporters along with him like he was a magnet. I stood for a minute, trying to make my face stop being red. Emma came up to me and looked into my face, which di'nt help not one iota, and raised an eyebrow and one corner of her mouth. She stood so for a long minute before making a baffled face and marching off in chase of Uncle 'Loon.

* * *

CONT/...
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 11 September, 2018, 04:26:11 PM
…/CONT

Inside, the Town Hall was quite a thing to see, all covered with polished wood and pictures of faces I di'nt know. We was led through a crowd of townsfolk, an' Uncle 'Loon paused to shake hands with  some folk and ooze over others as we went, into a big hall with a stage at one end. The rest of the place was over-stuffed with cheap old plastic chairs as got in everyone's way and scrawped agin' the floor loud enough to melt teeth. Uncle 'Loon was led onto the stage and sat in a chair, me an' Emma followed. She'd got a chair too but I had to stand behind him.

“Who's the muscle?” The assembling audience laughed at the question, as did Uncle 'Loon.

“Now, now, Myrtle,” he said, “keep your hands off this one.”

The turbulent audience, those as wasn't trippin' over chairs or fightin' over 'em, laughed again an' I di'nt much care for it.

“Why,” Myrtle's voice cackled back, “you switched sides an' keepin' this one fer yerself, eh?”

The audience and Uncle 'Loon laughed again. “No, Myrtle, he's my nephew. He's over from Brokendream Creek to look after me for a few days.”

“Look after you?” The reportists, usin' all their elbows to maintain their place at the front, perked up.

Uncle 'Loon waved his hands, like it weren't worth mentionin'. “My brother heard as how I was fixin' to run for mayor and how politics kin git kinda rough hereabouts, so was worried for my safety and sent young Rufus here to watch o'er me a bit. I weren't worried but, you know how it is,” he shrugged his shoulders and smiled, “families are powerful weird animals.”

At that moment, four big men in black sleather uniforms and shiny black helmets marched into the room, walkin' in a tight knot and swingin' heavy black batons to clear their path to the stage. Once on stage, the four guards broke formation and stood to attention in a line, revealin' a short, fat man with little half-moon glasses pushed up onto his forehead and goat's horns growin' out of his chin. A few of the audience clapped.

“Of course,” Uncle 'Loon said, “Mayor Gripping's security is rather better, as you can see, which is just as well for the amount he taxes you for it.”

The audience booed, laughed, whistled, applauded, stamped, clapped and muttered.

“The security of elected officials is paramount,” Mayor Gripping said, taking off his glasses and polishing them with a white hankie. “The chain of command must be preserved in such dangerous times.”

“Dangerous times? The only danger here is you with your irresponsible fiscal policies,” said Uncle 'Loon.

The audience booed, laughed, whistled, applauded, stamped, clapped and muttered.

“You have not heard the news from Mega City One, then?” The Mayor concentrated on a mighty persistent stain on his glasses, taking no notice of the general settlin' down. He looked up, every eye on him, relishin' the role of news-giver.

“Of course we've heard,” said Uncle 'Loon at the exact right thunder-stealin' moment. “They're having a rebellion led by a carpenter called Ken. So what? What's it got to do with us all the way out here?”

“That carpenter,” said the Mayor, his voice cuttin' through the general mutterings, “happens to be a robot. Do you have any idea what that means, you imbecile?”

Uncle 'Loon bristled but kept his cool. He waved his arm at the world around in general. “I don't see many robots around here,” he said. “Again, what's it got to do with us?”

“Once they've taken the City, they'll come for us,” the Mayor said, his pudgy face redding up a shade. “And if we're not ready...”

Uncle 'Loon laughed and the audience began debating the issue on its own. A chair was thrown.

“G-G-G-Gentlemen! G-G-Gentlemen!” A tall, wiry man leapt onto the stage, tugging up his flies with one hand and balancing a coffee mug and untidy clipboard in the other. “I'm sorry I'm late.”

“Who the Hell are you?” Mayor Gripping shouted, his guards tightening their grips on their batons.

“I… I'm J-J-J-Jerry J-J-Jacobs,” the tall man stammered, struggling to sort his papers and mug into some form of order. “I'm the chairman for this d-d-debate.”

“We've already started,” Uncle 'Loon said. “Mayor Gripping thought it might be nice to kick-off with a nice fairy story.”

“You haven't got the wit to see the danger, you moron,” the Mayor said, balling his little fists.

The chairman held up his hands, spilling coffee onto his notes. “G-G-G-Gentlemen, please. This is neither the time nor the place for arguing. Now if you'll j-j-just calm d-down, we can get this d-debate going properly. Okay, first question...”

The audience bombarded him with litter an' he shut up.

“The fact is,” Uncle 'Loon said, “that Mayor Gripping is trying to scare you into tipping up more taxes for 'your own defence' and re-electing him to protect you from imaginary killer robots. Do you really think we're all that dumb, Mr Mayor?”

The Mayor, shaking with rage and egged on by the audience, lunged at Uncle 'Loon. So I lunged at the Mayor. And the Mayor's bodyguards lunged at me. One of the guards said, while he was tryin' ta pull my ears off, “We was trained by the Justice Department in Mega City Two – you should run, boy.” So I biffed him but good, my ears always was on the sensitive side, and he di'nt say nothing else for a fortnight.

Shouting, “I don't run!” I got into it with the other three and they soon went down too. When it was over and the red mist backed off some, I looked up. Everyone was lookin' at me, the reportists and filmists pointing cameras and mikes at me. Even the fighting in the audience had stopped.

One of the reportists cleared her throat. “Why… how did you do that?”

I shrugged, and this time the seam of my new suit split all up the back. “Protectin' my Uncle, that's all,” I said. “Gotta look out for kith an' kin, right? Protect those as need it, stop the bad guys.”

“And… all for family values? You're not even getting paid?”

“Well, Ma'am, I...”

Uncle 'Loon laughed and put an arm 'round my shoulders. “Of course, I'll see to it that my nephew is handsomely rewarded for his service here today,” he said quickly, through his Number One Fake Smile. “And out of my own pocket – I will not have this community further burdened in the financials.”

The reportists ignored him and another one asked me, “Did you think of running?”

I scowled. “I don't run,” I said, the red mist thinkin' about comin' back.

“No, I meant, running for office?”

I looked at him dumb for a minute then laughed fit to bust. “Heck, no,” I said. “I can barely run my own life, how'd ya expect me ta run all o' yours as well? That's jest loopy.”

“Oh Grud,” said the Mayor, sitting on his backside on the stage with his now not so white hanky pressed to his bloody nose, “not another one.”

“Now, just hang on a minute,” Uncle 'Loon said, looking uncertain.

“But – Rufus, is it? - you're strong, you're brave, you're honest, you're loyal; you're everything a good mayor should be.”

The audience began to put each other down and murmur agreement.

“I ain't gonna be no Mayor,” I said, “an' that's final. I runs me and you runs you, that's how it works in my neck o' the woods an' that's how I like it.”

“Well, there it is, he doesn't want it,” said Uncle 'Loon, “and, let's be fair, what can a fifteen year old country bumpkin know about politics or the intricacies of...” The audience started booing and throwing stuff at him, some of it quite heavy. A chant of “Ru-fus, Ru-fus, Ru-fus,” started at the back and soon spread.

I held up my hands but they didn't stop 'til I threatened 'em. “No,” I said. “I ain't doin' it. If y'all's so blamed sad that you need one o' these two clowns to run yer lives for yer, then I don't see how turnin' ta me's gonna cheer you up any.”

The chant started up again, which fair bamboozled me, then Emma put her kitten hand on my arm and smiled up at me. “I knew it,” she said, then led me away from the chanting mob.

* * *

“What in Grud's name went wrong?” Uncle 'Loon shouted as soon as we'd crept up the stairs to his study and were alone.

“He wasn't listening,” said Emma. “I told you he wasn't listening.”

“Who wasn't listening to what?” I said.

“You! You great lump! You didn't listen to the plan?” Uncle 'Loon said.

I was a blank. “Plan? What plan?”

Uncle 'Loon sighed. “Ms Rockerchild told you all about it on the ride in.”

“Ah,” I said, remembering the jiggles, “I weren't listening.”

“Told you,” said Emma, taking a sip of wine and then putting the glass down. “Wasn't listening.”

“This is a disaster,” Uncle 'Loon said, pouring himself a glass of wine and gulpin' at it like a camel in a hurry. “His death was supposed to sweep me to power on a wave of public outrage but, instead, everyone wants to vote for him. It's a disaster.”

“My death?” I di'nt like the sound of that.

“Serious injury, certainly, a faked death on top of that, for the sympathy. You really weren't listening, were you?” Uncle 'Loon said, filling his glass again. “And what about you?” He rounded on Emma, who stayed relaxed, “what suggestions do you have for rescuing this congealed drokk-up?”

Emma smiled, looking at me. “I think,” she said, “that there may be a way. We give the people what they want. Him,” she pointed at me.

“What?” Uncle 'Loon and me said at the same time, finally on the same page.

“I ain't doin' it,” I said.

“He can't do it,” said Uncle 'Loon, “what about the East Meg One deal?”

Emma smiled and picked up her wine glass, swirlin' it all slow and thoughtful like. “You know, I think I've just figured out a way to triple the size of that deal.”

“T… triple? Oh my Sweet Lord above...”

“Yes,” said Emma. “Are you in?”

Uncle 'Loon and me spoke at the same time again but, this time, we weren't even on the same book.

Emma nodded and took a slim vone from her bag. “Fine. I can give us all what we want.”

“No,” I said, “I...”

Emma looked up from dialling a number and frowned at me. “Don't worry, young man, just trust me. Go get yourself some food, take the night off, have a bath.”

The magic words. I turned to leave, not really listenin' to Emma.

“...Vince, it's me. Yes. Hi. Change of plan. Got a pen? Right – new posters and banners, I want them printed and up in two hours. Yes. Get onto the media, this is the angle I want them to use...”

* * *

I woke up in a feather bed with bright sunshine all over me. My brain felt like my skull was shrinking and openin' my eyes was like letting icicles in.

“Good afternoon, Mr Mayor,” said Emma.

I groaned and asked how long I'd been asleep. “Three days,” she said. “I'm sorry, we had to drug your bathwater.”

“Well,” I said, trying to get angry but not able to manage it. “That just ain't neighbourly.”

“We had to keep you out of the way,” Uncle 'Loon said. “Stop you from… well, from being you and ruining everything.”

“Soon as I can stand up,” I said, “I'm gonna' knock both your blocks off.”

“If it's any consolation,” Emma said, “we had to use dinosophorin to knock you out – they use it to anaesthetise brontosauruses over at Rexturd Valley.”

I tried not to look smug.

“Double dose,” said Uncle 'Loon, shaking his head.

I failed trying not to look smug and changed the subject. “Why am I the mayor? How?”

Emma shrugged. “People love giving power to people who don't want it, so I had your name put on the ballot anyway and ran a flash campaign in the media, you know the sort of thing.”

“No,” I said.

“No, I don't suppose you do. Anyway, we convinced the voters that your refusal to campaign, or even be seen, was indicative of your hands-off governing style. The less you did, the more people liked it and you eventually took 89% of the vote. So, you're the Mayor now, Mr Mayor.”

“No I ain't!” I said, strugglin' agin' all kinds of gravity to get out of bed.

“That's the beauty of it,” said Uncle 'Loon, “you don't have to be.”

“Well that's good,” I said, getting my feet under me at last, “because I ain't. Where are my clothes?”

Emma pointed. “Your suit's been dry cleaned and mended, it's over there on the...”

“Not that,” I said. “My clothes, the gear I rode in in.”

“Just wait,” said Emma. She put a hand on my arm and it didn't feel like it was made of kittens any more, it felt like a bag of razors. I pushed her away and began searching the room for my clothes, yanking open cupboard doors and pulling the knobs off of drawers.

“We just need you to do one thing,” Uncle 'Loon said, tryin' for an honest smile an' fallin' short by some considerable distance.

“Aha,” I said, findin' my clobber and pulling on my pants.

“Please,” said Emma, “just do one thing for us and then you'll be free.”

“Begging your pardon, Ms Emma,” I said, tucking in my shirt, “but I'm already free and, to prove it, I'm off.” I pulled on my boots, to Uncle 'Loon's horror, and buckled my belts.

“Just put the suit on,” Uncle 'Loon was pleading, holding up the itchy suit and still failin' in the smile department. “Put it on and appear in public one last time. Please? Rufus, for me? For the family?”

I shrugged into my coat and reached for my hat with the two bullet holes in it. “Why?”

Uncle 'Loon pounced like a radaccoon on a chemvole. “Just appoint me as your Deputy, then I can speak for you!”

“I speak for myself,” I said, putting on my hat and turning to the door.

“No, you don't understand,” Emma said. “You don't have to say anything, you don't even have to be here after that. You'll be Mayor in name only.”

I put my hand on the doorknob. “Sounds devious to me,” I said. “Underhanded. Low.”

“It's politics,” said Uncle 'Loon.

I pulled open the study door, knocking splinters out of the patches where it usually caught. “No,” I said. “I ain't the Mayor and I ain't pretendin' to be the Mayor either.”

I bounded down the staircase, taking the steps two and three at a time, breathin' hard an' workin' a good mad up. I di'nt really notice all the servants and butlers and guards bustin' inta a panic. I yanked open the front door and the whole house shivered as it glanced over the parts it generally caught on. Outside, I slammed the door behind me too hard. Instead o' stoppin' at the stop, it kept on coming, breaking the hinges and bringing the stop with it. The door next to it began to belly out like a cred-card in a vice until it suddenly pinged out and knocked down a pear tree. The house seemed to be settling, like a drugged rhino, and people were divin' out of the place as quick as they could manage. I dropped the door and headed for the stables, not carin' to look back at the creaks an' groans an' collapsin's.

General Leer had his own stall at the far end of the stable building, which suited him fine. The rest of the horses huddled together at the other end, refusing to even look at him. “Finally,” he said as I slapped the saddle onto his mangy back. “I am heartily sick of this place and this company. Tell me we're going home.”

“We're goin' home,” I said, leading him out of his stall and past the other horses, who huddled closer together as we passed. General Leer gave one of the younger mares a nip on her rump and she neighed with coquettish terror.

“What's all that noise?” The General's ears pricked up and he nodded his head nervously.

“I think Uncle 'Loon's house is falling down,” I said.

“You knocked his house down? Even for you that sounds a bit extreme,” said General Leer.

“You!” Emma said, standing in the stable yard. The air was filled with dust but somehow brighter than before. “You have made a powerful enemy today, boy!”

I swung onto General Leer's back. “There's no need to be like that, Miss Emma,” I said. “You played me an' lost, is all. Git o'er it.”

“Lost?” she said as I rode past her and out into the dusty haze, “Lost? Oh, my boy, I haven't even started playing with you yet!” She ran after me, choking on the dust and eyes all a-stream, an' I was just about to take pity on her when she starts shoutin' again. “Over here,” she shouted, “it's the Mayor! Ask him what's going on! Ask him what to do! Here he is! Over here!”

I spurred General Leer to be faster and he was as keen as me, fer once, but as we got out of the dust and into the clear air of the rest of the town, the cry had already been taken up and folk pressed in from all sides pointin' an' askin' an' demandin'.

“I told you I weren't gonna be Mayor an' I ain't,” I said. “Now get outta my damn way!”

“But you were elected,” a tall creep in a short hat said. “Willing or not, you have an obligation under the democratic process to...”

I took my toe out of the stirrup and kicked his hat off, which shut him up. “I ain't your Mayor,” I said, and swelled up some to add emphasis.

“But,” a dumpy woman in dungarees and aqualung spoke up, pointing to the column of dust rising from where Uncle 'Loon's house used to be, “what are we going to do?”

I sighed. “How the heck do I know? Figure something out, you're not helpless.” I raised a fist and swelled some more. “But you sure will be if you don't get outta my way.”

The crowd parted and General Leer didn't need no tellin' to take advantage so we was soon off and on our way outta town. It di'nt last long, though, 'cause they sent a couple o' posses after us to fetch me back. They sure were keen to have their Mayor back and chased me round the Dunes of Nibia and round the Ant-Hilly Maelstrom and round Per Dishin's Frames before they gave me up.

I'd set a new course an' was headed fer home, ponderin' on how politics don't seem to agree with me, when a spider dangled itself from the brim of my hat with the two bullet holes in it and hung there lookin' at me. It reminded me of all the happy times I'd had back home with my sibs, laughing at Gramma shouting at spiders in the woodshed. I wondered what Gramma had agin' spiders, they seemed harmless enough to me. All they did was eat radflies and make webs.

Out of silk.

“Ah, heck.”


THE END
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 21 July, 2019, 02:21:25 AM
The One.
On the cold and wretched aeons old stone jetty against which gnawed the indolent black waters of the sullen Stix, Charon stood waiting for Death.

The Ferryman sighed and sucked on his ancient and yellowed thighbone pipe, bathing his ghastly face in a malignant red glow, and grumbled to himself. Death, it seemed, was growing tardy. Not too long ago Death had brought him passengers by the hundreds of thousands, by the millions, and his glowering boat would groan almost contentedly under the weight of myriad damned even as his own muscles ached proudly as he set his oars against the heavy cargo. Now Death brought him scant thousands, sometimes feeble hundreds, for men were, Death claimed, learning how to cheat him. But Charon, to whom the Earth was invisible beyond the slumbering glooms of the Underworld in which he made his living, suspected that Death was no longer so dedicated as in the ages of old.

Charon well remembered the first men Death brought him, babes and children murdered by their brutish parents for their deformities, hairless and weak but sharp and cunning as the gods had made them. They came in ones and twos at first, unimpressive and afraid, genetic abnormalities discarded by their hairy and dense parents who desired equally hairy and dense offspring. But slowly, over countless millennia, their numbers increased and their ages lengthened until the last of their hairy, dense parents took to the Stix and only the hairless, cunning offspring came to board his glowering boat. At first they came on account of famine, sickness and the attentions of the beasts of the Earth but, as aloof Time wrought her dark magic, they began to come to him through murder and war.

War! How Charon loved that marvellous invention of man! How easily it filled the boundless thwarts of his beloved craft! And that state which men called civilisation, which crushed them together into dense groups susceptible to plagues, politics, and pogroms sent the dedicated Ferryman more passengers than he could count! How magnificent was the ingenuity of man to send him such numbers!

Charon sighed once more and tapped out the dying embers of his thighbone pipe onto his calloused palm. He threw the ash into the Stix and it slapped into the dark, sour waters with a pitiful hiss. He pulled more sticky leaves from his senescent pouch and thumbed them into the charred bowl of his thighbone pipe. As he reached for a discoloured box of Lucifers, something moved in the gloom.

'It's about time,' he said as the tall, gaunt figure of Death emerged from the eternal darkness. 'How many dost thou fetch for me this day?'

Death, smiling, answered simply. 'Two hundred and twelve.' His thin voice, like the north wind moaning through a broken city, carried with it no emotion but only the smell of broken dreams and rotten love.

Charon shook his head and sighed again. 'Dost thou jest, Cobwebby Reaper?'

Death said nought but swept his bony hand towards the glowering boat and the gloomy dead shuffled aboard with dumb abandon.

Charon shook his head sadly. 'Thou art thin with thy bounty, Old Death,' he said. 'Dost thou tire of thy task? Art thou weary and, through thy fatigue and boredom, bringing me only enough to keep thy job?'

Death watched the pitiful few shuffle down the cold and wretched aeons old stone steps to board the Ferryman's boat and shook his head. 'Nay,' he said. 'These are all I could gather this day.'

'It is not enough,' Charon said, then struck a Lucifer and sucked the flame into the bowl of his thighbone pipe, which crackled and hissed and threw red light feebly into the gloom.

'This I know,' said Death. 'Men are at war with me, every day they discover new ways to cheat me through science and wit.'

'Then our time comes to an end,' said Charon, sucking at his thighbone pipe.

'Perhaps,' said Death, 'but there is a way to return us to Glory.'

Charon snorted, unconvinced and still suspicious of Death's fidelity but afraid that man may, possibly, be on the cusp of outmatching the will of the gods. 'Seriously?'

Death nodded his scabrous skull, a baleful glint sparkling deep within his dark, dead sockets. 'Aye. Lady Time tells me so.'

'The Bitch of Time speaks to thee?' Charon laughed and the gloom rippled nervously at the novel sound.

Death nodded. 'There is one man,' Death said, 'who is on my list. If I were to refuse him, she saith, then thy barge wouldst be filled to bursting once again, fuller than ever it has been before.'

Charon raised his lips into a sneer. 'Impossible,' he said. 'Methinks this is thy subterfuge, thy plot to begin reneging on thy responsibilities! First thou ignores one, then two, then, at the last, all - until thou canst retire!'

'Nay,' said Death. 'Wilt thou agree to allow me to spare just one, to pass this one man by in order to fill thy barge to bursting and keep us both in business?'

Charon sucked on his pipe, arrested by the fervour in Death's voice. 'One man?'

'Aye,' said Death. 'Just one. He hath been hero and saviour to millions and is soon to conflict with a tyrant, a mass murderer set on genocide.'

'The tyrant sounds a better prospect,' said Charon. 'Genocides fill my ferry like nothing else.'

'Trust me,' said Death.

Charon watched the last of the pitiful few descend the cold and wretched aeons old stone steps to board his ferry and sucked upon his pipe, deep in unfathomable thought. 'Just one man?'

Death nodded, his skull glinting red in the glow of Charon's thighbone pipe.

'Very well,' said Charon. 'Just one man - but no more. If the gods discover thy, our, plot...'

Death grinned. 'Thou shalt not regret it,' he said, then turned and moved back into the gloom and was lost from the Ultimate Ferryman's sight. Charon watched Death as the shadows consumed him and then, with a sigh and sad shake of his head, descended the steps to his boat and bent to the age-worn oars.

***

The next day Death returned with a paltry four hundred and sixty two beleaguered dead and Charon scowled. 'Still far too few,' he said.

'Aye,' Death said sadly, 'but the one was spared. This day I should have brought thee four hundred and sixty three but, as we agreed, the one was spared though a bullet pierced his head.'

Charon, unconvinced, nevertheless placed his trust in Death although he felt a mistake had been made and the gods would be angry. He bent to his oars with sadness, the lightness of his boat placing little strain on the muscles of his arms and his back. The following days brought little improvement but improvement nonetheless and, as the days and months and years passed, more and more dead were brought by Death to Charon's boat. Hundreds became thousands, then hundreds of thousands, then millions and, on one glorious day, Death brought him billions!

Charon looked upon the multitude with wide and weeping eyes, revelling in the glory of his most productive day and the promise of even more to come.

'Death,' he said, 'I confess that I did doubt thee but thou hast proven thyself unto me beyond all reason!'

'Aye,' said Death, smiling his usual smile. 'We shalt be busy now and needed more than we ever have afore. Our jobs art safe for the foreseeable and the gods shalt need us and rely upon us until Doom is cracked!'

Charon looked upon the billions descending the cold and wretched aeons old stone steps to his ferry and shook his head in wonder. 'And all for thy sparing of one man,' he said in awe.

'Aye,' said Death.

Charon looked upon his antediluvian colleague with a tear in his ancient eye and wonder in his timeless soul. 'Tell me,' he said, 'for I must know or burn with eternal curiosity - what is the name of the one you spared, the one who brings us such infinite bounty?'

Death paused and shifted his scythe from one bony hand to the other before answering, with a singular tremor in his graveyard thin voice, 'Dredd.'



The End.
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: Bolt-01 22 July, 2019, 11:43:40 AM
Clap, clap, clap.

Bravo.
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: TordelBack 22 July, 2019, 11:53:41 AM
That was ace, Sharky.  I see the muse has returned to the shed!
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 22 July, 2019, 02:45:37 PM

Thanks, Gents :)

: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: Hawkmumbler 09 August, 2019, 11:21:17 AM
Verily enjoyed that a lot Sharks! You ought to write for Inside No.9.
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 09 August, 2019, 11:47:24 AM

Cheers, Hawkie, much appreciated.

I read your post on The Writers' Block thread - you should post a story here. It's what I started this thread for, so all us writers could post work in a friendly environment and maybe get some constructive feedback.

: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: Hawkmumbler 11 August, 2019, 11:30:41 AM

Cheers, Hawkie, much appreciated.

I read your post on The Writers' Block thread - you should post a story here. It's what I started this thread for, so all us writers could post work in a friendly environment and maybe get some constructive feedback.

I might just do that Sharky, once i'e got this academic year out of the way i'll scrub up a short or two to presentable standards.
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 31 August, 2019, 07:12:23 PM
Brigand Doom - Swimming in Evil.

by Mark Howard

Four hours into the Night Shift and The City's running smoothly. Power cycle is balanced, water flow is optimal, productivity is steady and citizen satisfaction levels are polling slightly above Government Projections. So far this shift there have been thirteen natural deaths and fourteen births. The City's population levels remain at or close to ideal. The economy continues to be strong. 249 accidents have been reported. There have been no crimes. Detailed Government Statistics and Projections are freely available on any screen.

In Sector Nineteen, Sub-Sect Thirty Four, Loc-Sect Eighty Eight (cleared for The Government's Phase III-57-D City Enhancement Undertaking), the screams were desperate but brief, and ended some time ago. Now there are just little sounds. The chittering claws of rats. The muffled hiss of police boots on detritus-strewn concrete. Soft murmurs and suppressed radio crackles. Inspector Nine is hanging back until her men are in position. This stinks of a trap. Corpse. Anonymous tip-off. Remote and deserted location. Derelict warehouse. No surveillance cover. She shivers, listening to her men reporting in with terse, tense words. Yes, stinks just about covers it. Stinks...

>plink<

Inspector Nine tenses at the small noise from the shadows behind her. She smells it, something like... what? Garlic? Onions? Some variety of banned organic, anyway. Then she smells him, like rotten pork and mouldy fireworks. The two halves of the broken glass phial tinkle to the concrete and a heavy boot grinds them to sand. Inspector Nine forces herself to be calm. For some reason, this lunatic never hurts her. She's thankful for that but fully aware that at least one of the Police Officers under her command tonight is probably lying face down in the weeds with a broken neck. Maybe, soon, her whole team. She swallows.

"What do you want, Doom?"

His voice is like the bass rumble of a thick wind rampaging through an old forest. "Information."

Inspector Nine shakes her head and gestures towards the bloody mess in the middle of the derelict warehouse. "Did you do this?"

"Yes."

"Why? Who is he?"

"Because he was evil. I don't care about his name."

She thrusts her hands into the pockets of her trench-coat and sniffs. "That's bullshit." The gun feels reassuring and substantial in her hand, something real to hold on to.

Brigand Doom, the most dangerous terrorist in the world, strides out of the shadows but, with his long black cloak and black tricorn hat, seems to drag some of them with him. Shadows stick to him like lint, Inspector Nine thinks, frowning at her own frivolous imaginings. She pulls a hand from her pocket and keys her throat mic. "All units, hold position. I repeat, hold."

"Is that..." a voice crackles in her ear. "Oh, shit... that's him, isn't it? That's... oh shit..."

She frowns at the rising panic threatening to flood the comms and cuts through it all with a terse, "Hold! Damn you! Do as you're damn well told and hold your positions. Don't do anything, okay? Just sit very, very still." The chatter drops off to nothing. She nods.

"Have you killed any of my men?"

He turns to face her and she winces. She'll never get used to that face. The manic, too-big smile, the shining eyes, the way shadows cling to it, like rotten curtains blowing in gutted windows. "One."

"Damn you," she frowns, too busy controlling her breathing to say anything more.

"He was..." Brigand Doom says.

"Evil?" The word explodes from her mouth, propelled by anger and fear and resolve. "Well, who decides that? Who decides who's evil and who isn't? You?"

Brigand Doom looks at her for a long moment, his head tipped slightly to one side. "Anyone," he says. "Everyone."

"You're insane," she says. "No. No, I'm not helping you any more. I've had it. I may not be able to take you down, I don't even know what you are, but every time we meet, you kill my men. Police officers, for Gov's sake!" She takes a breath. "I mean, why? Why come to me for help and kill my men? They're just guys in uniforms, with families and..."

He moves so fast she doesn't see it. As swift as thought, Doom has one gloved hand around her throat and the other clamping her gun hand. His breath flows past her like the waft of an open sewer in high summer and she fights to suck in air and bite back vomit. "Little foxes," he says. "The men choose to wear the uniforms. Choose to be instruments of evil. They are of little importance, I grant you, but guilt is guilt and I will not pass it by."

She gasps. He's allowing her just enough air to stay conscious. Her one free hand claws at him with no effect. "Let me go."

"Names."

"Screw you." The words are rasping and bruised. His grip tightens with a glacial slowness. She shakes her head, face swollen and ugly purple.

A weapon fires. Then another. She tries to say no but can't even gasp. Doom's own shotgun erupts in response, like thunder and meteors, ripping her men to shreds as they try to save her. The firing doesn't last long. Then, suddenly, she's on her knees, free to gasp, free to suck in huge lungfuls of stale night air. She looks around, her vision is crazy with spots and stars but that's fading as her breathing subsides. She can see the bodies of three of her men, chewed up by Doom's shotgun. She hopes the other five, no, four, had possessed the good sense to run away. Officers couldn't take this guy down, not with handguns and taser-batons. "Gov damn you, Doom." The words hurt and make her cough, big rattling coughs like the Un-Vaxxed had back in The History.

"Names." There is infinite patience in Brigand Doom's distant-thunder voice.

She picks up her gun and checks it out. It still contains a full load. She pulls back the hammer. Points it at Doom. Ice in her eyes. "No names. No nothing. Not any more. Leave."

He takes a step towards her. She fires, calmly and without hesitation. He stops, looks down at his chest. His head raises again, still grinning, still with shining eyes and impossible shadows, and Inspector Nine cannot keep her eyes off it. She licks her lips. "Leave," she says, "leave me alone."

Brigand Doom stands still for one brief moment and then strides towards her once more. She curses and fires again. He doesn't stop, so neither does she. She fires until the gun is empty and then lets it fall to the ground. If the bullets damaged Doom, he didn't feel it or the damage was light. They both know Inspector Nine can't win this. He stops in front of her, that damned grin looming over her, those damned shining eyes boring into her. "Names."

"You might as well kill me, because I'm done with you. I used to think..." she pauses, then looks away from Doom, her gaze drawn by the bloody corpse in the middle of the detritus-strewn floor. "I don't know what I used to think. But whatever it was," she locks her eyes onto Doom's, just for a second able to dominate him, "I don't think it any more. You're a terrorist and I won't help you any more. I'm done with your bullshit."

She walks over to the body, placing her steps with care and squats beside it. Male. Mid thirties. Smart suit. Gold watch, rings, silk shirt, shiny shoes. She finds his wallet and flips it open. Lots of impressive cards, a respectable array of cash and vouchers. She finds his Cit-Card and suppresses a gasp. She looks up at Doom. "This is Theo Lancing," she says, "the City's Deputy Treasurer."

"Defrauding the City. Stealing its money."

Inspector Nine shakes her head, frowning. "That makes no sense. You hate the City, if this guy's hurting it, he's on your side, surely?"

Doom's voice growls in the dark. "The City's money is the people's money. He stole from the people, but that's not why he died."

"Why you killed him, you mean - because you decided he was evil. Just, arbitrarily decided."

"No. I want the names of his contacts. All of them."

Distant sirens are strobing in and out of earshot. Inspector Nine feels a thrill of righteous optimism and shakes her head. She is surprised how certain she is, how calm she feels. "No," she says. "I guess you'll have to kill me."

Brigand Doom throws back his head and laughs. "I can't kill you."

"Because you've decided I'm not evil?"

His grin widens ever so slightly, the skin around it tensing with an audible rasp, like old leather under immense strain. "Swimming in it," he says, "but not sinking - not yet, at least."

She laughs. The sound is short and mirthless. "And if I do, you'll be around to put me down. Like a rabid dog."

"Yes."

The sirens are growing louder and Inspector Nine stands, still holding the wallet. "Just go," she says, "no more killing. At least, not tonight. And please, don't ask me to help you any more."

Brigand Doom watches as the sky begins to pulsate with colour, illuminated by the flashing beacons on the fast approaching police vehicles. "You will ask for my help," he says. "When you investigate his contacts, when you find out what they do."

"No. I'm not listening to you."

"St Jerome Emiliani's Orphanage."

A police helicopter bursts into the sky, piercing Inspector Nine with a spotlight. She shields her eyes from the glare and doesn't see Doom slip away. The corpse's clothes ripple and whip in the downdraught being forced through the skeletal remains of the condemned warehouse's roof. She waves the helicopter away before it blows this ruin down on top of her. The pilot understands and the helicopter climbs and banks away. Police cars screech to a halt all around and black clad officers, clutching their guns just a little too tightly, begin to emerge, cautiously, from the shadows.

Five hours into the Night Shift, now, and The City's still running smoothly. Power cycle is balanced, water flow is optimal, productivity is steady and citizen satisfaction levels are polling significantly above Government Projections. So far this shift there have been sixteen natural deaths and fifteen births. The City's population levels remain at or close to ideal. The economy continues to be strong. 306 accidents have been reported. There have been no crimes. Detailed Government Statistics and Projections are freely available on any screen.


***


"Report, Inspector Nine." Superintendent Seven stands relaxed, hands clasped loosely against the small of his back, the silver buttons on his midnight blue uniform glinting in the police beacons.

"Brigand Doom killed Lancing then drew us into an ambush."

"How many of your men did he kill this time?"

"Five, Sir. The other three will probably recover, in time."

Superintendent Seven shakes his head and sighs. "Intolerable," he says softly, and then clears his throat. "Put it all in your Department report. What will your Ministry report say?"

Inspector Nine shrugs and looks up at the bare roof joists, black against a vaguely violet sky. "Alcohol. Irresponsible bet. Slipped and fell. Tragic accident."

Superintendent Seven nods and shows her a satisfied expression before adopting a more serious demeanour. "This Doom situation is out of control, Inspector, it needs to be resolved."

Inspector Nine nods. "I'll get right on it, Sir," she says.

Superintendent Seven rounds on her, his anger barely contained. "Don't sarc me, Inspector - I mean it. I'm authorizing a task force, and you're leading it."

Inspector Nine shakes her head. "That's a very bad idea, Sir, nobody wants..."

"It's an order, Inspector Nine, an order from the top. I'll give you all the tools you need to bring me this stateless rogue's head."

Inspector Nine nods toward the medics, who are lifting the bagged body onto a gurney. "And the Deputy Treasurer?"

The Superintendent pulls a pair of midnight blue leather gloves from a back pocket and wriggles his fingers into them. "Forget him. He's a Ministry problem now."

"But Sir," Inspector Nine says, confusion and anger fighting for control of her face, "I need to investigate Lancing to find out why Doom..."

"Just find Brigand Doom, Inspector," the Superintendent says, thrusting his fingers together and then making fists. "Find him and blast him into as many tiny little pieces as you can, is that clear? I don't want him captured or crippled or killed, do you understand me? I want this monster obliterated. Totally."

Superintendent Seven, his gloves adjusted to perfection, turns on his heel and marches towards his waiting car, concealing his limp with practised simplicity.


***


Government Philosophers have determined that Hell does not exist. It was a concept invented by primitive in-history religions to frighten people into compliance. The Government does not endorse such barbaric subterfuges. Citizens of The City do not need to have their minds controlled in such primitive and transparent ways. The Citizens of The City are wise and are served by a wise Government. Neither Citizens nor Government need Hell, and so it has been made illegal. According to Government reports, the only hells are those carried in the souls of men.

As there is no Hell but those which individuals possess, the same must be true of Heaven and God, both of which have also been declared illegal. This Government Approved Trinity must be entirely the responsibility of the individual Citizen. The Government does not recognise the Government Approved Trinity and thus cannot misuse it to force the minds of the Citizens. Government Citizens are free of all forms of mind control, or so is the conclusion reached by numerous and ongoing Government Reports.

It is worth noting, then, that when Brigand Doom says to Ministry Ordinary Secretary James Belm, "Burn in Hell," before cutting him in half with a shotgun blast, it has to be assumed that the terrorist is referring to the Illegal Hell. This is a flagrant breach of legislation and cannot be tolerated.


***


.../cont
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 31 August, 2019, 07:13:20 PM
\cont...


The Night Shift moves into its sixth hour and the City is running smoothly. All utilities, feeds, and flows are operating efficiently and emissions are stable. Government Productivity Targets are projected to be met and possibly exceeded. Incidents of insomnia amongst Day and Swing Shift workers have fallen, initial reports attribute this to the Government's Healthy Sleep Promise. Night Shift workers everywhere thank the Government and wish their fellow shift workers well - for they too know the dark misery of insomnia.

Births are up to twenty five, natural deaths up to twenty nine. 377 accidents have been reported, slightly below average for the time of year. There have been no crimes. Shift worker job satisfaction metrics have exceeded Government expectations. Detailed Government Statistics and Projections are freely available on any screen.

Loc-Lock puts Inspector Nine in the back of a police car set to main-route autodrive. She's in the back seat, thinking. The car is thinking too, but it's thinking about how to navigate a random route through The City, using only arterial routes and without dropping under 150mph. The car is doing a good job. The Inspector, not so much.

The pad in her hand lights up the back of the car, its screen showing a blank page. Inspector Nine blinks. She taps at the screen and the message 'Report Transferred' flashes up. Belm's death is a Ministry problem now. She curses. Belm served as the Deputy Treasurer's personal secretary. Both killed by Brigand Doom. Both reports transferred to Ministry Authority. Inspector Nine types in searches amongst biographical indexes, Government records, private packets. She learns precious little before the data is transferred to the Ministry. Hints at high level Government connections. The stink of proudly displayed opulence.

She remembers what Doom said. She doesn't want to use it but there's nothing else left. She returns to the pad's search function and types in, 'St Jerome Emiliani's Orphanage.'

There are no orphanages in The City since The Government outlawed orphanhood, rendering such soulless facilities obsolete. Parentally disadvantaged Citizens are these days immediately adopted by The Government and grafted holistically into Loving Homes.

Inspector Nine sighs and opens the City-Net's back door. The Government Page disappears and she re-enters the search. It translates to Building 109, Loc-Sect Twenty, Sub-Sect Seventy One, Sector Fifteen. She relays the address to the car and it starts thinking about getting there in the shortest time. It makes up its mind and accelerates towards a suitable exit, flashing and bellowing importantly. Inspector Nine's comm chirps. Superintendent Seven is calling her. She diverts him to voicemail. He doesn't leave a message.

The police car is a good driver and the traffic is dead-hours thin. The Government's Flow Matrix clears the police car's way. Inspector Nine holds on to the hand grip above the door but it isn't necessary. The ride is impossibly fast and impossibly smooth. In a little over twenty seven minutes, the car slows to a gentle halt outside Building 109. It is an old building, constructed a long time ago in The History, before the cities were The City, before the Government saved the world from itself. Inspector Nine gets out of the car and hovers by the door for a moment, studying the building, before slamming it shut and quickly surveying the deserted old street. Most of the buildings are empty and cursorily maintained by The City as Designated Old Sites, kept around for historical value. When the last of the families leave, the site's status will obviously have to be re-evaluated.

The front door is unlocked so she pushes it open, gun in hand. It swings inward without a sound. Inside, the building is musty and dead. Filled with unused and unloved relics. Old furniture, old carpets, old books. She sweeps the house. She's quick and efficient, very well trained. The building, once a home with ten bedrooms, is empty. It has been empty for years. She holsters her gun and, torch in hand, begins searching the building. Efficient, and very well trained, her instincts lead her to a desk in a small sitting room on the ground floor. She pries the drawers open with her penknife. They squeal with age and are full of dead pens and live spiders. She yanks the last drawer open and reaches into it, pulling out three leather-bound books. Two are ledgers, one is a diary.

Car headlights flash through the dead windows then fall dark. An engine sighs into silence. Car doors slam. She slips the books into her bag and zips it up, pulling the strap across her body.

"We know you're in here, Inspector," a voice calls. Inspector Nine curses under her breath and pads away, hoping to find a back door. "It's Ministry business now, Inspector. If you've found anything, you're ordered to hand it over."

The kitchen is full of dusty cold pans on dusty cold stoves. She creeps between them and finds a door leading out into a back garden. The door is locked. Efficient, and very well trained, she soon locates a key hidden under a dusty doormat. She slides it into the lock and breathes a sigh of relief when it turns. Too late.

"Hold it, Lady." Two men stand at the other end of the kitchen. Both of them are pointing guns at her. "Drop the piece."

"I am a City Police Department Inspector. I don't take orders from the Ministry."

The shortest of the Ministry men, the one with the best suit and the cleanest shirt, smirks. "Everybody takes orders from the Ministry," he says. "I'm not going to ask you again."

She slumps her shoulders. Drops her head. Holds up her hands. "Okay," she says. "Okay."

"I said..." Shorty says. They're his last words on This Side. The tall one just kind of blabbers. It sounds like he's talking about a pancake but it can't be that. It's something else she'll never know. She empties the spent shells from her pistol, wincing at the barrel's heat, and quickly reloads. She slips into the back garden and climbs over fences and hedges until she finds a road. She hitches up the collar of her trench-coat and starts walking.


***


The penultimate hour of the Night Shift and the City is operating at optimum efficiency. Several complex water supply repairs and augmentations have been completed without complications or significant delays. Hundreds of thousands of Citizens will feel the benefit of increased water pressure when they awake this morning. The Government's Infrastructure First Obligation in action! Well Done the Night Shift! Sector Eleven Sanitation has been suffering technical problems for most of the shift and has fallen behind schedule. If any workers have fulfilled their quotas and fancy pitching in, they'd appreciate a hand down there. There'll also be overtime available, depending on your Soc-Stats.

Births are up to thirty five, natural deaths up to forty. 412 accidents have been reported, significantly below average for the time of year. There have been no crimes. All Night Shift Workers will receive a 0.25% uplift for this shift, pending Soc-Stats and Econ-Rating.

The books have made her sick. Sick enough to return Superintendent Seven's calls. She tries to tell him, to explain, but he's too angry to listen and orders her back to the station. She turns her Loc-Lock back on and summons the police car, which finds her with flamboyant efficiency. She's soon on the Superintendent's carpet, listening to him roar.

He draws breath and Inspector Nine seizes her chance. "St Jerome Emiliani's Orphanage. You were a part of it."

"That's old news, Inspector, very old news."

"Belm and the Deputy Treasurer, too."

"This is all irrelevant, Inspector!" The Superintendent's mood is deteriorating. "I want Doom, do you hear me?"

"If I read these books right," she says, "and if I read him right, he'll be coming to you."

The Superintendent snorts, confident in his power. The lights flicker, along with Superintendent Seven's confidence, and then go out. Distant, isolated shouts of panic echo from somewhere in the station, sporadic and shifting. Getting closer. The door sweeps open and the Superintendent goes for his gun and fumbles it, but it's just his personal guard checking on him. Satisfied, the guard returns to his post, closing the door behind him. The sounds of panic cease and a weird quiet oozes through the station.

>plink<

"What was that?" The Superintendent raises his gun, scanning the darkness.

"Some kind of stimulant, I think. He inhales it out of small glass phials." Inspector Nine folds her arms.

"You mean..."

"I'm here."

The Superintendent whirls, bringing his gun up, but Doom is too fast. Too strong. Doom grips the Superintendent's gun hand until his bones begin to splinter and locks his other hand around his throat.

"Please don't kill him." Inspector Nine says the words but, even to her, they sound empty. "Damn you, that you reduce me to this."

Brigand Doom keeps his shining eyes locked on the Superintendent's as he chokes the life out of him. "You know what he did. What they did. It's in the books. I know you know."

"That doesn't, it can't, justify murder. Please don't. Not again."

Brigand Doom looks up from the fading Superintendent and fixes his bright gaze on Inspector Nine. "Then do what they do. Use their magic against them."

Inspector Nine sighs. She could shoot him again but that had never worked yet. She could raise the alarm and watch everyone entering the room get shot to bits. Or she could stand here and watch Brigand Doom, the most dangerous terrorist in the world, strangle a rancid piece of scum to death. "Magic, now," she says. "You are utterly insane."

Doom returns his blazing gaze to the Superintendent but the moment has passed. Doom's fingers contract and his wrist jerks, triggering a cold, efficient crack. "Their words." He drops the corpse to the floor. He does not watch it fall. "Don't call it murder. Call it execution. Call it retribution. Call it revenge. Call it Justice."

She wipes her eyes. "Semantics," she says, her voice weary.

"Yes," he says.

"You're going to blast your way out of here, aren't you? Kill more cops."

"Most likely."

"So long as you do that, I'm not going to help you." She checks her pistol.

Doom chuckles and the sound is like old sewage flowing through a cracked drain. "You will help me, because what was happening in those old books is still happening today. You see the evil in that as clearly as I do. See the evil burning out the infection of discovery every way it can. It will eat at you, this horror. It will defeat you. Then you'll help me."

Doom strides towards the door. Inspector Nine, efficient and very well trained, raises her gun and empties it into Brigand Doom's face, aiming for his eyes. Doom howls and throws up his arm. The gunshots call the guards, who burst in and open fire. Doom's shotgun blasts them out of the world before the Inspector can shout a warning. One of Doom's eyes is flickering and his manic smile seems smaller than usual. Inspector Nine drops her emptied pistol and snatches a letter knife off the Superintendent's desk. She lunges for his flickering eye but he moves too fast and she misses, stabbing the knife into his neck. She grits her teeth and pushes as hard as she can. The knife begins to bend, as if she were trying to force it into a tree. Doom pushes her to the floor, ignoring the knife still sticking out of his neck, and raises his shotgun. More officers are coming. He steps out to meet them.

"Aim for his eyes," she shouts, again and again, but her voice is lost in the gunfire and screams.


***


Last hour of the Night Shift and The City's been in safe hands. 99.5% of Government Targets have been met, marginally above expectations. The Energy Balance remains neutral and the economy continues to be robust. Reserve stock levels dictate that all Night Shift Workers will receive two additional ration coupons per week from this shift onwards, subject to Soc-Stats and Econ-Rating. The City continues to grow from strength to strength, thanks to the loyalty and hard work of the Citizens, and the wisdom and leadership of The Government. All society in harmony for the Common Good.

Births are up to forty three, natural deaths down to thirty eight due to exemplary Night Shift surgeons. 467 accidents have been reported, marginally below average for the time of year. There have been no crimes. Detailed Government Statistics and Projections are freely available on any screen.

Don't forget to clock out - incorrect data can lead to false conclusions.


~~~^~~~
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: Hawkmumbler 04 September, 2019, 04:49:46 PM
Liking this a lot Sharks! Keep at it old boy!
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 04 September, 2019, 07:39:53 PM

Thanks, Hawkie! (It was a bit self-indulgent, that one...)


: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 29 January, 2021, 08:36:50 PM


Gods are Patient but Monsters Endure


by Mark Howard


PART I


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


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


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


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


Eventually, after two and a half hours or so, I fetched up at Zoggy’s Bar. The place was comfortably full with starship crews on long layovers or short breaks and some looking for work or simply hanging around.


‘Ess!’ Zoggy, the establishment’s infamous owner, called me as I shouldered my way to the bar, smiling and nodding a welcome in return. ‘Terran whisky,’ Zoggy said as I took up an empty bar stool and he placed a tumbler of Tharnish swampcat piss in front of me with one of his manipulator tentacles. I smiled resignedly and took a sip. It tasted almost like whisky and had almost the same effect but, as was our custom, I made a disappointed face and shook my head.


‘Almost,’ I said, ‘but no.’


Zoggy sighed, a sound like distant thunder rolling out of his air sacs, replaced the cork in the bottle of swampcat piss, put it back on the shelf next to all the other failed bottles, and charged me 25 debits. Noting that his infra red eyes were narrowing, a sure sign that Zoggy was about to launch into his standard monologue concerning the difficulties of obtaining genuine liquors all the way out here, I asked about the pilots in his bar and was directed to a tall Martian captain and her tall Martian crew.




* * *


‘Captain Bambat?’ I asked. She initially ignored me, preferring to finish the tall tale with which she was entertaining the six biological members of her crew. As they burst into laughter at the punchline, an almost imperceptible expression of satisfaction ghosted across her ebony face. She took a swig of ale, put her tankard down and then looked up at me.


‘Captain Bambat,’ I repeated, ‘I am Professor General Sir Estobahn Khan De-Barlow Jo-Jong Brown, KPGE, DCM, AVA, CJC and bar, head of the Stellar Archaeology Department at the University of Europe in Bern.’


The captain’s dark eyes narrowed and her crew stifled giggles.


‘My friends call me Ess,’ I added with a smile, extending my hand.


She looked at it for a moment before honouring me with a brief handshake. ‘Kersis Bambat,’ she said, ‘captain of the Mwindo.’


‘An honour,’ I said. ‘Captain, my ship is damaged and I need a ride home.’


She shook her head. ‘Not going to Earth,’ she said. ‘Phobos Docks at Mars.’


‘That will do,’ I said. ‘My ship should make it the rest of the way from there. My distortion engines are running a little lumpy but my breach system’s all kinds of broken.’


She nodded, considering. ‘Be a while before we get to Mars. From here we’re breaching beyond the Edge to Ath, then a couple of deliveries in The Span, on to Koullar, Flith, Knoor, Hoh, then maybe Puth, Railar-Sorme, Hae-zo-zo Uff, and the Centrehub before heading home. A month at least, maybe two.’


This was perfect for me as it would allow plenty of time to arrange and study my data and also to rest and calm my mind. I did, however, feign reluctance in order to secure a better price. It didn’t work.


* * *


cont.../

: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 29 January, 2021, 08:37:14 PM



.../cont

PART II

For three weeks after our departure I remained aboard my ship, which remained lashed to the deck in one corner of the Mwindo’s primary cargo hold. Some days I had the hold almost to myself, others the S.S. Ess was crowded in by stack upon stack of pallets, pods, and containers, once even by countless eerily still cattle encased in individual stasis fields. On the sixth night of that last week, as I slept, or tried to sleep, or dreamed of sleep, I heard sporadic, mournful cries from the depths of those carefully stacked herds. As if some of them were aware, and paralysed, and terrified. Capable of only the weakest entreaty to whichever hidden force declares itself the God of Cows and comforts their despair.

Yet even these horrible moans were almost comforting, distractions from the data stripped bare before me. All my readings and recordings, all my translations and projections, taken apart and reassembled, examined, all contradictions eliminated. All doubts erased.

‘Permission to come aboard?’ Captain Bambat stood in the open door of my study, obviously aboard already. I returned my attention to the data.

‘You know, Sir General High Lord Professor Baron of the Rest of the Universe,’ she said after a moment, ‘I’m just a simple freighter captain. Somebody tells me to pick something up over here and take it over there, I pick it up and I take it. It’s a fairly simple job, on the face of it.’

I tried to tune her out, concentrating on the correlations between various electromagnetic and gravimetric scans, which yielded yet more compelling evidence to support the dark hypothesis I was so desperately trying to disprove.

‘But it’s not quite so simple, of course. Nothing is,’ she said. ‘I’d lay good debits that your job’s about more than just digging up old bones and bits of pottery. I don’t know what those extra dimensions are for you, but for me one of the most important is to understand my crew. When they’re happy, tired, disgruntled. Worried.’

I finally looked at her. Her arms were at her sides, loose beside her bejewelled scimitar, but in one hand she held two tumblers and in the other a bottle of genuine Ye Olde Sweaty Thistle Earth Scotch whisky.

‘They are worried about me?’ I asked, perplexed. ‘I’m perfectly fine. I appreciate that...’

She marched into my study and perched herself on the edge of my desk before setting down the tumblers and unstopping the bottle. ‘You misunderstand,’ she said, sniffing the open mouth of the bottle and closing her eyes for a moment. When she opened them again, they were fixed on mine. ‘They’re not worried for you, they’re worried about you. Never mixing with us, never leaving your ship, never even sending regular status reports to the ship’s net.’

‘They fear I intend to murder them in their sleep,’ I said.

She began pouring the whisky and the aroma was like the kiss of a lover of long standing. ‘The idea has been floated,’ she said, ‘my duty as captain is to sink it.’ She handed me one of the drinks. ‘Drink now, die later.’

I took the proffered glass and tapped its rim against hers. ‘Drink now, die later.’ I took a sip and laughed a small laugh. ‘Curious,’ I said, ‘how we put so much stock in such arbitrary, essentially meaningless traditions. They used to say “cheers” everywhere, even in space. Then Colony Jones supposedly says “drink now, die later” aboard her ship the night before the Latan were finally destroyed and suddenly that’s the thing to say, especially in space.’

She took a sip and leaned back against the wood-panelled bulkhead, making herself comfortable. ‘You got Latan to destroy, Prof?’

‘Captain,’ I said, ‘I assure you...’

She held up a finger and I waited for her to savour and swallow her latest sip. ‘I’m sure you do. But there’s something in your eyes. Thought I glimpsed it at Zoggy’s but wasn’t sure. It’s there now, though, plain as night.’

‘You’re imagining things, Captain.’ I put the tumbler down and returned to my work. She didn’t move save for recharging both our glasses.

‘The crew knows you’ve been out beyond the Edge.’

‘So have many people.’

‘And many people have been changed out there.’

‘Driven mad?’

She shrugged and took another sip. ‘You’re a man of science,’ she said, ‘if there’s a danger to my crew I have to… assess its probabilities.’

I laughed. ‘There is a danger,’ I said, ‘a very great danger, but it is not me.’

She put down her tumbler with deliberate slowness, her lips compressed with the pressure of concern. ‘See now, any mention of “very great danger” gets me...’ she groped for a word.

‘Worried?’

She snapped her fingers and pointed at my chest. ‘Bingo.’

‘Captain, have you ever heard of the Unsaahl?’ I said after a pause, taking up my drink and leaning back into my chair. Her brow furrowed and she shook her head.

‘They are part of an ancient myth cycle common in the outer reaches of the galaxy, all around the Rim as I believe. The myths begin with Aug, the Inferno, and Gau, the Screaming God.’

She nodded then. ‘Yeah, I heard the locals thereabouts talking about such things. They split apart, right? The Screaming God became the Splintered Gods and the Inferno became the stars?’

‘Yes, but there were others. Uru, goddess of Hope, and Ka-Yava, god of Despair, siblings tricked into mating by ancient Uga, daughter of Aug and Gau, goddess of Agony. The spawn of this foul union was the Unsaahl, a race of monsters.’

She raised an eyebrow. ‘Monsters.’

I held out my tumbler for a refill and, after a moment’s thought, she obliged.


* * *


There came upon this infant galaxy the oldest of the Unsaahl, whose name is unknowable but whom The Splintered Gods named Mawglut, Devourer of worlds.

First Mawglut devoured Pell, beloved of Thune, God of the Mind. And Thune could not defeat Mawglut, for Mawglut is without thought or reason or dream. And Thune warned his Splintered Siblings but they laughed at him, berating his inability to protect a single world from a single monster, and calling into question his right to be called a god at all.

Next Mawglut devoured the paradise world of Oreegha, where Ekshaah-Ekshah, Goddess of Life, first encouraged biology to think. And Ekshaah-Ekshah could not defeat Mawglut, for Mawglut is not alive. And Ekshaah-Ekshah went before her Splintered Siblings with dire warnings of Mawglut’s power but again they laughed, though a with a little less certainty this time, and said that life was a puny thing anyway, fit only for entertainment and amusement to while away the eternities.

Third was Kood, where the Blessed Ä, God of Geometry, kept safe his sacred angles, but which Mawglut consumed angles and all. And  the Blessed Ä could not defeat Mawglut, for Mawglut exists at right angles to the universe and all there is of him in this world is his shadow, and shadows have no fixed angles. And now the Splintered Gods took notice and were afraid, for could not the Blessed Ä fold entire stars into darkness with ease?  The Blessed Ä could shape galaxies, how now so powerless against this monster?

The Splintered Gods then called for a champion to defeat the monster and it was agreed that, of them all, only Oio, Goddess of Time, was powerful enough to face Mawglut, for all things flee before her. So she set herself before Mawglut in the depths between the stars, stacking centuries in his path. And the more centuries she stacked before him, the harder Mawglut strove against them so that the years foamed over his skin like surf. And in ten centuries Mawglut advanced but an inch. After ten more, a foot. Ten more, a mile. And, in the last millennium, a light year, so that Oio began to weary even as Mawglut grew thinner and more ravenous. But Mawglut would not die, because he was not alive, and Mawglut would not give up, because monsters endure.

But Oio, being unhurried, was setting a trap. In the path of Mawglut, the Goddess of Matter was building a solar system filled with ten thousand planets of pure uranium, the monster’s food of choice. When Suln-Ya declared her solar system completed, Oio removed the centuries from before Mawglut, replacing them with scant seconds, until the ravening monster fell upon the planetary feast. There to remain, gorging contentedly, until the massive star at the centre of the trap collapses into a black hole and crushes Mawglut to oblivion.

Thus does Oio teach us the value of patience.

* * *




PART III

Captain Bambat poured us both another drink before letting me know that my story had provided her with a little less than zero confidence in her crew’s continued nocturnal safety. ‘I know a story about a Yallish monk who rescued a Murian parrotmonkey because he thought it was the reincarnation of Zebediah Scott. It’s hilarious. Really. There’s even a donkey in it. And an actress, sort of. Not really relevant though, is it?’

‘I saw it, Captain,’ I said softly. ‘The Mawglut.’

She said nothing.

‘Out there, wrapped around the remaining half of the last pure uranium planet orbiting a collapsing star. At least, I think I saw it. A part of it. Something like a tentacle made of boiling ice, too big to see. Black against space, glistening with starlight.’

‘It’s real?’ She put her drink down and leaned forward.

‘Yes. I believe so. Just being close to it almost destroyed my ship. But I recorded everything I could. The more I look at the data, the more I am certain that the Gods made a mistake.’

She laughed. ‘You question the Gods beyond the Edge? Know better, do you?’

I scowled and waved her amusement away. ‘Regardless of what it is or how it got there, the Mawglut is real. The data is real. The science is real. The numbers are real. You see, the Splintered Gods miscalculated. They expected the monster to begin feeding at the edge of the solar system, to work its way over the billions of years towards the collapsing star, sliding imperceptibly down its gravity well until escape was impossible. But the monster began feasting with the planets closer to the star, and as it collapsed so Mawglut kept ahead of the gravity well. Soon, he will finish devouring the last of  Suln-Ya’s planets and escape even before the star collapses.’

‘How long?’

I told her, giving my best guess based on the data, the number I intended to present to the University Council immediately upon my return. She nodded and shared the remainder of the bottle between us.

‘Something like that, a creature bigger than planets,’ she said, staring deep into her glass, ‘something like that must be worth…’ Her voice trailed off.

‘Captain, it is death. Calculating its worth is like trying to meter gravity. It simply is.’

She shrugged and drained her tumbler. When I found my own thirst quenched, she finished mine as well and then took both tumblers and the empty bottle into her hands and strode away. She paused at the door and looked back. ‘Phobos in nine days,’ she said.

‘Tell your crew they’re quite safe, Captain.’

‘Except from prehistoric planet-eating god monsters,’ she said.

‘Well,’ I said, attempting a smile, ‘one can never be safe from those, can one?’


* * *

The remainder of the trip passed without incident. The crew’s worry evidently never reached a boiling point and they stayed away, failing to storm my ship with blazing plasma torches. For my part, I remained aboard the S.S. Ess and refrained from assassinating them in their sleep.

At Phobos Docks, I powered up my ship and eased her clear of the mighty Mwindo’s cargo bay. On the dockside, being loaded into one of the huge freighter’s secondary cargo holds, were spools and spools of mole-line, thousands upon thousands of miles’ worth. Alongside the spools lay stack upon stack of various species of harpoon and containers holding railguns and other, less identifiable equipment.

‘Captain Bambat,’ I spoke softly into the comm. ‘I never properly appreciated the sheer size of your ship until now.’ No response. ‘It strikes me,’ I said, ‘that to be in control of such a behemoth must require a great deal of confidence. I hope,’ I paused, my mouth dry. ‘I hope those old legends of which we spoke have not tipped you into overconfidence.’

‘Just deliveries for the breachturtle farms at Voth,’ said Captain Bambat. ‘You think I’m mad enough to harpoon a planet killer and try to ride it like a distortion-horse?’

‘I think, Captain, that you will do anything for a good anecdote. Please take care.’

‘Drink now, die later, Prof.’

‘Drink now, die later, Captain.’

I engaged my ship’s distortion engines and she shuddered into distorted space, grazing along at around lightspeed for the half hour trip to Earth. That was the last I saw of the mighty Mwindo and her crew. Two weeks later she docked again at Dhar-Ah-Zhul Station, bound for distant Ath out beyond the fabled Edge, where the stars are lonesome and the planets fall by inches into shadow and frore, there to fade into the infinite.

And for two years I lamented the folly of Captain Bambat and her crew, believing them victims of their own hubris. But when I returned to study the Mawglut, it was not there. The star designed by the Splintered Gods to crush it was now nothing more than a dark pinprick surrounded by a thin ring of uranium dust and of the monster there was no sign, either there or in surrounding systems.

Before I left, my scanners detected several hundred miles of tangled mole-line and a score of mangled harpoons orbiting just outside the event horizon. Although I can draw no solid conclusions from this data, I do wonder if, somehow, the patience of gods and the endurance of monsters were eclipsed both by the uncharted bravery of ambitious fools.


~~~^~~~
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 29 January, 2021, 08:43:27 PM
The Bloody Fingers of the King

by Mark Howard

PART I

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

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

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

The other four patrons, sat in an easy group around a table near the counter sharing hot broth and red bread, were of the same taxon as the innkeeper but they too bowed their vaguely chiropteran heads respectfully as the ragged man walked past. He acknowledged their gesture with a small but warm smile and an all but imperceptible nod.

He settled into the armchair facing my own, on the other side of the fire, and took a deep sniff of the steaming broth as he swirled it around the bowl in his gloved hands. No, not gloved, bandaged. He opened his eyes and caught my gaze.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t mean to stare.’

He smiled and took up a spoon between his bandaged fingers. ‘Huruku will be gratified to learn you find his broth so fascinating,’ he said, before blowing on a spoonful of the stuff and sipping it daintily into his mouth.

I looked into the fire, not sure what to make of this ragged man, and its warmth on my skin and the constant, muted thunder of the blizzard outside lulled me once more into thoughts of home and of Emily’s vital embrace.

‘Mmm.’ The ragged man put down his bowl and wiped his lips with the back of his sleeve before producing a distinctly unsanitary handkerchief with which he finished the job, beard and all. ‘Best broth on the planet,’ he said. ‘Only,’ he leaned forward and beckoned me to do the same, which I did, ‘don’t tell old Huruku I said so, all right? I can’t have him taking it as a royal endorsement or anything, at least not under the current circumstance. In the future,’ he spread his bandaged hands, ‘who knows? Broth-maker to the King, perhaps. The Royal Brothier. But not now. Now is too dangerous. So...’ He tapped the side of his nose with a bandaged finger and winked but did not sit back in his armchair. Instead, his dark brown eyes stared into mine, awaiting an answer.

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘I’m just passing through, don’t want any trouble.’

He nodded and settled back into his armchair, gazing at the fire. ‘You’d almost think it was real,’ he said at length, ‘not a hologram behind an emitter field.’

I managed to hide my surprise but not, I think, my disappointment. The fire looked and felt so real and, more than that, I had wanted it to be real. But of course it was artificial. It had to be. What kind of idiot sets a real fire inside a building in this day and age, even in as remote a place on as remote a planet as this? But now it was as if some intangible enchantment had been lifted and the lodge felt a little less cosy, a little more afraid of the ravening blizzard clawing at its walls.

‘I wish it was real,’ he said, ‘that would be more satisfying, somehow. Raw nature outside, trying to kill us, and raw nature inside, keeping us alive. Ice and fire, the eternal struggle between the inferno and the glacier, to burn or to freeze.’

‘Real or not, the fire is warm. On a day such as this, I’m content to tolerate the dissatisfaction.’

He nodded. ‘Wise words,’ he said. ‘This blizzard will take lives. They always do. Someone, somewhere, will be unprepared, or uneducated, or unlucky, and the blizzard will eat them.’

‘That’s a rather grim view, I think. Even the most basic of modern vehicles and emergency shelters can easily handle conditions like these.’

He nodded, still gazing into the dancing holographic flames. ‘Nevertheless, the blizzard will have its meal. It’s the law.’

My brow furrowed. ‘What law?’

He pushed his hand inside his shirt and slowly scratched his belly, luxuriating in this simple pleasure. ‘The law of the universe,’ he said.

He delivered this pronouncement with such quiet conviction, such inner certainty, that it was impossible not to be intrigued. Before I could question him further, however, the innkeeper’s wife padded up to the ragged man and set a brass bowl of warm water on the floor beside his armchair.

‘Now let’s get you sorted out, Your Majesty,’ she said in her people’s high, monotonous accent.

I raised an eyebrow at this royal address but the ragged man refused to catch my eye, focusing his attention on this furry, silicon-shelled, vaguely bat-faced angel of mercy. ‘Huruka,’ he said, his voice soft but clear, ‘you don’t have to do this. I’m quite all right, really.’

‘Nonsense,’ said Huruka, taking one of his bandaged hands gently in her dextrous paws, ‘who will ever visit here again if word gets out that I allowed the King of the Galaxy’s hands to rot away and drop off under my very own roof?’ She began unravelling the bandages, taking infinite care where they were glued down with dried blood. ‘Very bad publicity, that would be.’ She dropped the soiled bandage into a waste bag and then took a moment to touch her paw to his cheek and gaze into his eyes. ‘And very rude.’

She lifted the brass bowl onto his lap and lowered his ravaged and bloody hands into the steaming water. The ragged man first winced and then eased through the pain into something akin to contentment. Huruka let his hands soak for a moment before cleaning them with a mild, unscented soap and an oil-soft sponge.

When his hands were cleansed, she dried them with a sterile pad and, as she reached into the pocket of her apron for a dermal spray, I saw that the ragged man’s fingers, palms, and wrists were covered with fresh, deep cuts. The slightest movement caused blood to flow, which Huruka efficiently wiped away as she applied the spray to each cut in turn until they were all healed, leaving behind a pattern of bright white scars overlying countless others more faded.

‘There,’ said Huruka, holding the ragged man’s hands and leaning back to examine her handiwork. ‘Good as new, Your Majesty.’

‘I’m sorry,’ I said, for I could hold my tongue no longer, ‘but I must know, why do you address him so? As if he is a king?’

‘Because he is a king,’ she said. ‘He’s the King of the Galaxy.’

The ragged man frowned. ‘Well, that’s not exactly true,’ he said, ‘as Huruka well knows.’

‘I did think it somewhat unlikely,’ I said.

‘I used to be King of the Galaxy, for a very short time,’ the ragged man said, ‘thirty seven minutes and twelve seconds, to be precise, but I’m not the king any more. Not at the moment, anyway.’

* * *


cont.../

: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 29 January, 2021, 08:43:52 PM

.../cont


PART II

His name, this ragged man, this King of the Galaxy, was Hosef, and no more would he add, though Huruka expanded with pride, ‘King Hosef, the First and Only Monarch of the Entire Milky Way Galaxy.’

Hosef himself shied away from the title, at first I assumed through humility but soon I realised it was through fear. I begged him to tell me the story but it was Huruka who began it when Hosef returned his gaze to the fire.

‘Out here,’ she said, ‘the Old Gods still walk abroad, away from the confusing clamour of biology, out in the peaceful dark beyond the fringes of the galaxy where they can perform their godly works unencumbered. But once, when the galaxy was young and pure, it belonged to the Splintered Gods and the Primal Gods alone and they found much joy in its beauty and in its sanctity.

‘They played amongst the stars and planets. The Blessed Ä, God of Geometry, made boundaries and constellations, folding and bending stars into complex geometric patterns pleasing to the eyes of gods. Fa-R’mni, the God of Gravity, began his lifelong rivalry with the Blessed Ä there when he crushed the geometry of a star to nothing and ripped a hole in the universe, releasing Uvu, the Fractal God, into the world. And Ekshaah-Ekshah, the Goddess of Life, began her experiments there. She taught biology to think and at first the Splintered Gods were enamoured of mortals.

‘But soon the life was everywhere, spreading on its own, even evolving on its own as if the galaxy itself learned to make life on its own by watching Ekshaah-Ekshah. Worst for the gods was the incessant chatter of uncountable biological minds, an infinity of perspectives forever plucking at the fringes of the Splintered Gods’ daydreams, threatening to hypnotise them into ruin. And so they left the noisy galaxy behind and settled in the dark, quiet gulfs beyond the Edge.

‘They never stopped looking back, though, towards the Milky Way, towards reclaiming it for themselves. None searched harder for a solution than the Splintered Goddess Ekshaah-Ekshah, who was responsible for imbuing biology with life and filling the Milky Way with clamour and noise. She would not eradicate the cacophony, though, and refused to take back the gift of life from throughout the galaxy as many of the Splintered Gods demanded. She thought, then, that if the cacophony could not be silenced, perhaps it could be organised and transformed into a symphony pleasing to the Gods’ ears. To do this, Ekshaah-Ekshah decided that the galaxy needed a king, a being of infinite wisdom, humility, honour, and...’

‘Stop,’ said Hosef, still gazing into the fire. ‘I wasn’t chosen,’ he said. ‘I was foolish. Foolish and about to die. Adrift in a dead starhopper somewhere inside the Yawden Void. Ekshaah-Ekshah did not choose me, I just happened to drift past her on my way to the grave.’

Huruka sniffed and began to gather up her things. ‘The ways of the Splintered Ones are not our ways, their paths are not for our paws, their meat is not for our jaws. She chose you, Hosef, and brought you to her, out there in the dark nothingness with not another soul for light centuries in any direction. She chose you, from an entire galaxy of people.’ She tossed the soiled bandages into the brass bowl and picked it up. ‘Coffee?’

We both nodded and Huruka padded away, her paws silent against the deep carpet.

‘Why were you in the Yawden Void, if I may ask?’

He shifted in his armchair and frowned, as if he couldn’t quite remember. ‘Knowledge,’ he said. ‘Exploration.’

‘But there’s nothing that far out,’ I said, ‘no stars, no planets, nothing. What were you looking for?’

‘Detritus,’ he said, ‘intergalactic wreckage. Flotsam and jetsam cast out of galaxies throughout time. The cinders of ancient stars, perhaps from the very first galaxies, long since spent and dead, their cores as cold as their crusts, stars as close to maximum entropy as it’s possible for stars to get before they turn to dust and blow away. And with them, perhaps, planets from the most profound depths of abyssal time and, upon those planets...’

‘Yes,’ I said, my mind playing with the possibilities. ‘Scooped up by our galaxy’s gravity as it moves through the cosmos, like accumulating dust – but, yes, such precious dust indeed.’

Hosef smiled and looked at his boots. ‘I thought you would appreciate that, Professor General Sir Estobahn Khan De-Barlow Jo-Jong Brown, KPGE, DCM, AVA, CJC and bar, head of the Stellar Archaeology Department at the University of Europe in Bern. Or do you prefer to be called Ess?’

My jaw fell so fast I feared I might knock out all my own teeth on the floor. ‘How did you…?’

He chuckled and looked back into the fire, absently rubbing the palms of his hands together. ‘I was King of the Galaxy, remember? For over half an hour. I know everything about everybody.’

The innkeeper, Huruku, padded towards us with two mugs of steaming hot coffee. ‘Your Majesty,’ he said, handing the largest and cleanest of the mugs to Hosef with a bow. ‘Ten debits,’ he said to me, slapping my mug down onto a disreputable table beside my armchair. ‘I’ll add it.’ He bowed again to Hosef and padded away back to the counter, where Huruka was softly singing as she polished the counter-top to fill an idle moment.

We sat in silence, blowing on our coffee until it was cool enough to sip. The holographic fire danced and crackled, the emitter field before it threw out a pleasant heat, and the blizzard redoubled its efforts to scour the lodge off the mountain as the suns went down and the winds got up.

‘I looked for months,’ said Hosef, ‘and found nothing. A few grains of dust, incredibly old, a few shards of gravel. Tantalising. I should have settled for that meagre teaspoon of dust, taken it back for study, but I wanted more. I wanted a dead, extragalactic star. And so I kept searching even as my rations, and my fuel supply, began to run dangerously low.

‘Finally, a million light years from the nearest star and in the deepest midnight I have ever known, I found it. Hosef’s World. A planet ejected from its parent galaxy before even our own galaxy was formed. A fossil, preserved all alone in intergalactic space for time beyond reckoning before falling under the influence of the Milky Way, clinging to its gravity well like dust to a balloon.

‘Before it died, Hosef’s World was a modest gas giant, around the size of Jupiter. Now it is nothing but spent ash. Every chemical or physical reaction that can take place within it has already taken place within it. The core of the planet is the same temperature as the surrounding universe. It is a planet where entropy reigns supreme.

‘And, foolishly, I attempted to land upon it. The surface of the planet was completely smooth, like a billiard ball, and completely dark. There was so little energy in the surface that my sensors couldn’t get an accurate reading and, before I knew it, I was inside the planet. The surface layer of dust was so thin and inert that my ship passed through it as easily as mist, but that ancient, entropy-riddled dust got sucked into my engines and vents, clogged my systems. My ship began to wear out before my very eyes, as if the entropy-laden dust was sucking the vitality out of everything it touched.

‘I barely escaped, but doing so was no boon. My ship, purchased from new three years earlier, was now the equivalent of a fifty year old wreck. The engines died first, then the life support systems, then everything else. On the second day, when the lights went out, I could see my dark world, a shadow against shadows, as my ship limped slowly away from it. Picked out in the sparse, faint starlight, ripples were spreading all over the planet. My accident had introduced a pinprick of energy into that giant, inert planet, but in a virtually zero-energy environment that pinprick was like being hit by a moon. The ripples lasted for two days and spread around the whole planet, creating complex, ever shifting, ever diminishing patterns in the dust until it returned to a perfectly smooth equilibrium. With nothing better to do, I made notes and christened it the Hosef Effect.

‘And then I settled down to die, hopeless of my remains ever being recovered. Another lost and unremembered mote adrift in the cosmos. And then, she found me.’

‘Ekshaah-Ekshah,’ I said, setting down the empty coffee mug, ‘Goddess of Life, one of the Splintered Gods?’

He nodded, his fingers folded around his still full mug. ‘I naturally thought it was hypoxia. Hypothermia. Hysteria. One of the hypes, anyway, most likely a melange. But it was her.’

Here, his story faltered as he tried to explain his meeting with the Goddess and found his words wholly inadequate. Clearly, the experience remained burned into him but he was attempting to convey the perspective of an eagle to an earthworm. All that he knew was what he had seen, which he could not describe, and all that he did sprang from what he had learned, which he could not explain.

‘She made me a crown,’ he said, and here his face darkened and he looked at one of his hands again, examining the fresh scars. He took a swig of coffee and, disappointed that it had gone cold, set the mug aside. ‘Once she placed it upon my head, every biological mind in the galaxy flowed through my own. I saw everything everyone saw, heard everything everyone heard, felt everything, knew everything. It was… It was… It was, I suppose, infinitely singular.

‘She wanted me to take control of it all, to become the galaxy’s great conductor, to transform the cacophony into a waltz so that the Gods might dance again. And in this cause I believed until Ekshaah-Ekshah placed that crown upon my head, for as soon as she did I heard no cacophony but a symphony, beautiful and tragic, filled with swooping pain and soaring hope. And I could not do it, I could not still the song of life.

‘And so I betrayed the Goddess, ripped her crown from my head, and she was terrible in her anger, like teeth in the night clawing at my soul and smothering vines choking my heart, but I escaped. I flung the crown before me and fled to this world.’

‘Why this world?’

‘Because this is where I hid the crown, somewhere in these mountains. I’ll know where when I see it. I remember only that I must dig for it, turn these mountains upside down if I have to. And then, once I have the crown, I can use the power of all the minds in the galaxy to destroy Ekshaah-Ekshah and all her Splintered kind for once and for ever, as the Unhinged Prophets of Extor foretold. Then shall mortals truly know peace under my benevolent rule. Even Satan Alexander, Emperor of the Pax Galactica, will bend to me, and every person, and every animal. Not the smallest bird shall live and die without my knowing, nor the highest king of kings. They shall all be me, and I they, and we one, and the Gods will be dead, so I will help the Twelve Galaxies kill their gods as well, bring to them my perfect harmony.’

He sighed and looked at me, his eyes glittering in the holographic firelight. ‘Do you think I’m mad?’

‘I hope you are,’ I said.

He laughed and nodded with no small measure of enthusiasm. ‘That would most certainly be the best explanation all around. Occam would love it.’ He sighed then, unseen dark weights settling upon his weary shoulders. ‘But then, Occam was never plucked out of spacetime and engulfed by a god, so I suppose it’s moot.’

‘I suppose it is,’ was all I could think to say.

‘Well,’ Hosef slapped the arms of the chair with his palms, exciting thin billows of dust, ‘I reckon this lot’s going to blow itself out by morning,’ he nodded towards the domed roof of the lodge. ‘Got to keep looking, keep digging. I need my rest,’ he said, standing out of the armchair without a grunt or a groan. He extended his hand and I stood to take it firmly in mine.

‘Good luck, Your Majesty,’ I said.

‘A pleasure, Ess. It’s always good to meet someone I’ve already been, everyone in this galaxy feels like an old friend. If I can thank her for nothing else, then I can thank her for that. Goodnight, old friend.’

And with that, he took his leave and retired to his room for the night.

* * *



PART III

I awoke to silence and saw through the window a flawless green sky and endless drifts of virgin snow basking in clear morning sunslight. As Hosef predicted, the blizzard was no more and he was gone, departing before the suns came up to resume his search. And with this break in the weather I was able to resume my search also, an aerial cataloguing of the prehistoric temples of this remote world, about which little is known. I cleared the little lodge sleeping cubicle of my few possessions and packed them away into my bag, free now to return to the S.S. Ess and move on.

As I moved through the lodge to leave, Huruka barred my way. ‘Don’t go out without breakfast,’ she said.

‘My ship is half a mile away,’ I said, ‘and I have plenty of supplies aboard. Really, there’s no need to put yourself out.’

‘It’s no bother,’ she said, ‘and I insist. The weather up here can change in an instant and that half a mile might take you a lifetime. With a good breakfast in you, maybe half a lifetime.’ She wrested my bag from my grasp with surprising ease, presumably employing some little-known form of hostellers’ martial art, and directed me to a slightly too tall stool at the main counter.

‘Eggs, bacon, that kind of thing?’ Huruka asked, grasping for pans and turning on the stove.

I shrugged. ‘Sure. Sounds good.’

‘You know,’ she said as she flitted about, retrieving bacon and sausages from the fridge and dropping them into an angry snake of a frying pan, ‘you shouldn’t worry about Hosef’s stories. There is no crown through which he can destroy the gods and take control of the galaxy.’

I helped myself to a mug of coffee from the pot and said nothing. Such a crown could not possibly exist and, even if it did, there’s no way one mind can control all the minds throughout an entire galaxy.

‘Twenty five debits for a cooked breakfast,’ Huruku called from the pantry. Huruka ignored him and gestured for me to do the same. ‘I’ll add it,’ Huruku added after a long moment.

‘I know there’s no crown to be found because Huruku already found it.’ She placed the breakfast in front of me and searched my eyes with hers. ‘Hosef… Hosef fell from the sky ten years ago, the crown right beside him. We were going to give it to him once he regained consciousness but… his ambitions for conquest…’ She lowered her head. ‘We decided to destroy it.’

‘Wait – this was a real thing? A piece of technology from a higher plane?’

She shook her head. ‘Can’t say what it was, really, or how it was made. It was hard to destroy, though. It took Huruku and me three days with a plasma torch, working around the clock in shifts, to disintegrate the thing. But we did it. There’s nothing left of it but atoms.’

‘Why haven’t you told him? He’s out there right now, cutting his hands to ribbons. Doesn’t that...’

‘We have told him,’ she said, a sliver of irritation jabbing into her voice, ‘many times. He refuses to believe us, saying that which the gods create cannot by people be broken. So he continues. Digging and searching and spilling his blood on these senseless rocks.

‘And every day he searches, and every day I tend to his hands, and feed him, and give him a bed, and bow to him.’

The breakfast was good but not holding my attention. ‘Why, though? As far as I can see, he doesn’t contribute anything to this place.’

She snorted. ‘How many kings have there been in this galaxy throughout the ages, and how much mayhem and murder have they wrought? How many have suffered beneath their heels? Died at their capricious whims?

‘Hosef was King of the Galaxy for almost forty minutes. He was every one of us, every person, every animal, and every one of us was him. He could have done anything with that power, literally anything, yet he cast it away to save us all. He took ultimate power over every aware creature in the palm of his hand, and held it there, and did not kill a single thing. Think of that. The most powerful king in the history of kings, next only to a god, and not one decree did he issue, not one subject execute, not one friend elevate. He cast it all away.

‘For this,’ she said, ‘and only for this, I wash the blood from his fingers and hold him as my King, from now until whatever grave awaits.’

~~~^~~~
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 06 July, 2021, 10:12:04 PM
The Doings of Rufus Muldoon
Snake Oil
by Mark J. Howard

'Tweren't nothin' to me that old Doc Hughie Crippler had been clonked by bandits and had his bag o’ medicaments stole from under him. Like I always says, if’n you can’t look after your stuff there’s always somebody willin’ ta do it for you. What was somethin' to me was that the Doc had come to see Gramma on account o’ some ailment as nobody wanted to talk about an’ needed his bag o’ tricks to cure her. So Paw was fixin’ to send me off on the road to Brokenose to clonk the bandits back an’ fetch the Doc’s bag.

“Why’s it allas me?” I asked in a sulk, as it was a Sunday and my only chance to put my eyes on Chastity Lightfoot in all her churchgoin’ finery.

“All your brothers and sisters is out prayin’,” Paw explained with ill-restrained fury. “You’ve spent all mornin’ chasin’ that durned radwolf as pissed on yore hat, so yore the only one here, so yore goin’.”

“Well, cain’t the Doc get more medicaments from the saloon in town?” I asked, knowin’ as most folks hereabouts find all they needs for their ailments behind Ponce Willoughby’s well stocked bar, or under it.

Doc Crippler took the bloody steak away from his blackened eye and chuckled sadly. “Heck no, young Rufus,” he said. “The pharmacalogics in my bag are all of my own recipe and devising, ain’t nothin’ in Willoughby’s Saloon even comes close in efficacy.”

“Or price,” Paw added darkly.

The Doc smiled and returned the steak to his puffed up peeper. “Quality is not cheap, indeed,” he said, “an’ huntin’ down, killin’, milkin’ an’ preparin’ the vitalisin’ oils I gets from rare and deadly radsnakes of various breeds ain’t neither easy nor quick. I needs my bag otherwise Old Mrs Furt’s, er, malady ain’t gonna’ be healed up quick and thorough like you’d want.”

I growled out a sigh. “Dang it. Can ye leastwise tell me who these ruffians are and whereabouts they clonked you?”

“Well,” the Doc said, unwrapping a boiled paracetamol lozenge with one bandaged hand, “I heard the leader answer to the name o’ Tantalus O’Reilly and they clonked me in the belly first, then on the head, then in the… well, you know.” He shifted gingerly in the armchair. “It was all a mess of a blur, with blood and stars thrown in to the bargain, an’ all I could do was gallop off at the high speed till they stopped shootin’ at me. To tell the truth…”

“I meant,” I said with pretend patience, “where on the road to Brokenose did they clonk you?”

“Oh,” he thought about it for a moment and popped the lozenge into his mouth.  He crunched on it for a spell before wincing and spitting out some pieces of teeth. “Ye know, I do believe it was just at the crossroads at Fisted Bruise, near young Damocles Rabid’s lollop farm.”

This intelligence cheered me up a bit, as I’d heard tell young Damocles was sweet on Chastity Lightfoot and plannin’ moves t’wards her vicinity. If’n I could, say, finally set fire to his barn on the way past or mess up his suitability in the pursuit of my quest then maybe this fool’s errand wouldn’t be a total bust after all. “Okay Doc,” I said, “I’ll see what I kin accomplish.”

“Fer a reduction in yer fees, o’ course,” Paw said slyly.

* * *
The crossroads at Fisted Bruise was only an hour’s ride away, but my miserable old hoss, General Leer, took almost twice that because he objected to exertin’ hisself on the Lord’s Day and no amount of threats or punches up the ear holes hurried him along any. “Bain’t right,” he said. “How d’ye expect me to enter inta Grud’s Holy Paradise on my demise if’n I disrespec His commandments?”

“Ye’ll be knockin’ at the Pearlies afore sundown if’n ye don’t respec my commandments, ye mangy old nag,” I said, digging my spurs into his belly again. But theological debate was never one o’ my strong points an’ he weren’t convinced, so we ambled along at a rate slower than slugs over broke razors.

“I shoulda took the Doc’s hoss,” I said. “Looked fast, he did.”

“Pfa,” General Leer spat something into the dry yellagrass at the side o’ the road. “I watched him come in. Can’t run fer stomm,” he said in a teacherly way. “All kickin’ an’ boundin’ like his belly’s got a rattler on it. Pretent’ous garbage. That ain’t no way ta run.” He let the sentence hang for a long time. “And he’s in a foul mood.”

I kicked my spurs into his belly again but my heart weren’t really in it.

The sun was already fallin’ away from noon by the time we reached the crossroads. I dismounted and tied the General to the stump of a stink tree as had a nest of firewasps in it. He glared at me but dared not move or even complain for fear of incurring the insects’ ire. Feigning ignorance of his situation, I took my own sweet time to inspect the scene of the clonking.

Findin’ only a few scuff marks and specks of blood, and a couple of fresh teeth as I wrapped in a hankie in case Doc Crippler might want ‘em back, I finally discovered tracks leadin’ away from the crossroads. I smiled to myself as they was headed plumb straight for young Damocles Rabid’s lollop farm. Burning this upstart’s barn down might just be on the cards after all, and the thought cheered me up considerable. I’m not by nature a vindictive sort, but I once heard as a wise man allus tries to get his retaliation in first so as to avoid the need to put it off till it becomes properly necessary and far more complicated. I was still young at the time, o’ course, but already blossoming in the wisdom department, so I knew as this was a good idea.

“You stay here,” I said to General Leer. “Be quicker if I go on foot, let you rest like as Grud commands – an’ don’t say as I never respec yer faith, okay?” He grumbled something rude under his breath but immediately fell silent as a lazy but ominous hum oozed from the sleepy firewasp nest. Chuckling, I strode along after the tracks.

* * *
BANG! A bullet whizzed past my nose so close as I felt its hot wind up my nostrils and then, BANG! again as another knocked my hat off. I looked into the scrubby trees around the hilltop overlookin’  young Damocles Rabid’s lollop farm and fixed my eyes on the low down ambushin’ miscreant as he fumbled to get more bullets into his antwacky rifle.

“Hoy,” I says, rilin’ up but good. “What you doin’ shootin’ at me, ye varmint?”

He din’t get chance ta answer as I’d already run at him and punched him between the wides of his eyes while he was fumblin’ with his antwacky rifle. Then he was on the ground moanin’ an’ bleedin’ an’ gatherin’ back his wits, which took less time than it should have on account of him not having that many to gather back in the first place.

“I’ll ax ye again,” I said, waving my fist under his nose, “why you shootin’ at me for?”

He gazed at my fist like it was a sun-addled rattler and tried to scoot away until he collided with a boulder an’ came to a sudden halt.

“You’re one o’ them, ain’tcha?”

I paused, taken aback. “One o’ who?”

“One o’ those bandits as clonks innocents at the crossroads,” he said. “Well, I’m a deppity around these parts an’ it’s my sworn duty ta’ stren’ously discourage such shoddy proceedins.”

“Why you low-down miscreant,” I said, “I ain’t no bandit. ‘Fact, I’m here ta give ‘em a good clonkin’ back fer pinchin’ ol’ Doc Crippler’s bag o’ medicinal snake oils.”

He opened his eyes wider, which din’t seem possible till he did it, and stumbled over his words a bit before sortin’ em out into a species o’ sense. “Really? Where’s the rest o’ yer posse?”

“Ain’t no posse,” I said, insulted. “Just me.”

“Just you? One man agin’ the murderous  Tantalus O’Reilly an’ his gang o’ murderous cut-throats? That don’t seem plausible,” he said.

“You callin’ me a liar?” I demanded, showin’ him my fist again.

He curled himself up small, like a man waitin’ fer a tree to fall on him, and said as he’d never heard of any single man even thinkin’ of atteptin’ somethin’ so dang foolhardy. I said somethin’ uncharitable about his bravery, or lack of it, and picked up his rifle, which I busted into four bits over my knee. I’d only intended to bust it in two but it was antwacky and came apart real easy.

“Hey,” he said, “ain’t no need for that – that thar rifle was my pappy’s and his pappy’s before that. Been in my family for decades an’ more, it’s one o’ those hairy looms, ye big lummox.”

“Well, now it’s a broke hairy loom,” I says, “an’ if’n you talk at me like that again I’ll break you into pieces an’ all.”

“You cain’t threaten a deppity,” he says with indignance, a germ of brave seepin’ back into him from somewhere. “Bain’t legal. Get ye hanged, so it can.”

“Well,” says I, “how do I know you’re a deppity an’ not one o’ those murderous hooligans ye claims ta be agin? Don’t see no badge on yer chest.”

He fished inside his shirt and pulled out a silver star on a chain. “Here,” he says, “my badge o’ office ta prove it.”

“Dang silly place ta keep it,” I says. “I thought you lawmen was supposed to wear ‘em out in the open.”

He scowled, a bit sheepish, and shrugged. “Pin fell off the back,” he said, “so I keeps it on a chain round my neck so’s I don’t lose it. Gonna’ get it fixed in Brokenose next Wednesday when the town jeweller gets outta hospital an’ his store gets new windows put in.”

“Well,” I said, getting’ bored with this conversation, “I’m goin’ on my way. Be helpful if’n ye could tell me where  Tantalus O’Reilly might be, save me rootin’ round random.”

“Down in the valley somewheres,” he said. “Sheriff Plank, down from Lower Tittrin’ in the Blast Zone, an’ the rest o’ the posse gone after him.” He waved his hand in the direction I’d been goin’ anyways and got to his feet, still a mite unsteady on his pins.

I picked up my hat and poked a finger through the new bullet hole for a spell before fixin’ it back on my head. I turned to leave but then a thought struck me. “Say, why din’t you go with the rest o’ the posse?”

He shuffled his feet and watched ‘em shufflin’ like they was twitchin’ chickens. “Sheriff left me here ta watch the rear,” he said.

I sniffed. “Great job ye’r doin’ so far.”

I strode away but he come runnin’ after me, shoutin’. “Hey, hold up there – I’ll come with ye. Mebbe I kin help out.”

“Don’t seem likely,” I said, stoppin’ to look him up an’ down, all raggedy and covered in blood an’ dust an’ leaves.

“Well,” he said, spreading his hands, “maybe you kin help me out instead.”

I shrugged. “Don’t seem likely either, but it’s a free road and ye kin use it if ye want, I guess. Jest stay outta my way an’ don’t do no more shootin’ at me.”
* * *
CONT/…

: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 06 July, 2021, 10:12:44 PM


.../CONT
* * *

BANG! A bullet whizzed past my ear so close as I heard it singin’ and then, BANG! again as another knocked my hat off. I paused just inside the fresh hole in the fence behind  young Damocles Rabid’s barn and fixed my eyes on the disagreeable end of a rifle pokin’ outta a skylight. I shook my fist at the gunman and ran at the barn. A few more bullets puffed inta the ground round my boots but I was soon under his range.

The barn door stove in real easy, classic sign o’ cheap an’ shoddy workmanship, an’ while the low-down carpetbaggin’ rifleman wasted his time panickin’ an’ shootin’ holes in everythin’ but me, I spent mine more wisely by stormin’ up the ladder an’ throwin’ him outta the loft.

“Aah!” He hit the ground with a most agreeable thump and then took to wheezin’ like a split pump till he could get some wind back in him. I put his lapels into my fists before he’d finished an’ gave him a good shake.  “What you wanna be shootin’ at me for, ye varmint?”

“Saw ye bustin’ the fence, ye big dumb lummock,” he wheezed. “Took ye’ fer a lollop rustler, or maybe an arsonist.”

“Why you ig’rent hog,” I said, shakin’ him a passel more, “I aint no durned rustler! I’m lookin’ fer somebody.”

“You got ‘im, then. Good lad.”

Me an’ the wheezin’ excuse both paused – me in the shakin’ and him in the bein’ shook – and looked at the busted door. The deppity, who’d been trailin’ me closer’n shadows all the way up till the bullets, stood half in the busted doorway, smiling, with my hat in his hand. He held it up, smilin’ wider. “Dropped yer hat,” he said, and frisbeed it at me. It bounced offa my eye an’ landed on the wheezin’ excuse’s crotch. I let him go an’ scooped up my hat, wafted it but good, then stuck my finger through the new bullet hole.

* * *

“He’s one of ‘em!” The deppity fumbled for an antwacky pistol hagin’ in an antwacky holster on his threadbare hip. The rifleman lunged for his rifle but I dissuaded him with a kick an’ got to it first. While the deppity fiddled, first with the antwacky fixin’s on his antwacky holster an’ then with the antwacky pistol itself, I bent the rifleman’s lead-iron ‘round one o’ the barn’s big support pillars. Which cracked. Like I said, shoddy an’ cheap.

“Put that thing away, ye maniac,” I advised, closing on him and making fists. “Ye’r more like to blow yer own hand off than puncture our shirts wi’ that daft piece o’ antique tomfoolery.”

He stopped fiddling but din’t put the antwacky pistol away. He accurately interp’ted my expression and took a few steps back, smilin’ less an’ raisin’ a hand. “Okay, all right,” he said. “No more shootin’ an’ such, young feller, but he is one of ‘em. Name of Dead-Shot Arkwright out of Spleen.”

“Ah, why’d ye have to go an’ do a thing like that, ye bloody young hooligan,” said the rifleman, spinnin’ it round and round the cracked timber like a young un’s broke bike wheel. “O’Reilley’s gonna charge me for that. An’ make me rent another. Grud damn it.”

“Aha,” says I, quick on the uptake. “So you ain’t  young Damocles Rabid, yer one o’ those low-down Tantalus O’Reilley Gang miscreants!”

“Hey,” he said, angerin’ up, “I ain’t no low-down miscr’ant, I’m parta Sheriff O’Reilley’s outfit.” He fished a deppity’s badge from inside a’ his shirt, hangin’ ‘round his neck on a length o’ hairy string. “See?” He held out the silver star fer us to see, but we was both lookin’ at the string. He followed our eyes and stuffed the badge away quick, tryin’ ta hide the string. “Look, I knows I should be wearin’ it on my chest, all proud an’ public, like…”

“Lemme guess,” says I, “the pin done fell off?”

He went red. “Well…” he said, and then, takin’ a hold of hisself, “...well, you try ta’ find a decent badge maker all the way out here. Ain’t easy, an’ mail order’s spotty at best inta the bargain. Grud damn nightmare.”

“Well, that ain’t no problem in my world, Dead-Shot Arkwright, but your gang clonkin’ old Doc Crippler and makin’ off with his bag of medicaments, such bein’ required to minister to my poor, frail old granny, is a great big problem in my world,” I said, looming over him. “So you’d best tell me who done it and where that bag o’ medicaments is, else this great big problem in my world gets ta be a great big problem in your world too. Only worse.”

“We don’t clonk people and make off with their treasures,” he protested, almost shouting but backing away. “We clonks folk, yeah, sure, who don’t? But we don’t rob ‘em! We ain’t bandits! We’s the po-po in these here parts!”

“Hey,” said the other one. “That’s us, buddy – Sheriff Plank’s Local Security Unit, authorised by the good people of Grub Cove, Hugh’s Hole, Lower Tittrin’ in the Blast Zone, Narco and Fudd. All legal an’ proper like.”

“Hell, no,” says the one with the string, “not in Fisted Bruise, you ain’t. In Fisted Bruise it’s Tantalus Private Security, hired all legal an’ proper to uphold the laws an’ customs on behalf of the good, kind an’ decent folks of Nurp, Fisted Bruise,  Lower Tittrin’ in the Blast Zone, Brokenose, Blammo Central, Harbinger’s Hole and Spleen.”

I growled. “This ain’t interestin’ me, fellas. Where’s the damn bag o’ medicaments?”

“I weren’t there,” said the one with the string. “They don’t let me do the clonkin’s no more. Last time I clonked O’Reilly by mistake. Weren’t my fault, mind,” he demonstrated the next bit with his hands, “he kinda’ moved just as I was…” I growled again and brung him back to focus. “Right, sure. We just clonks undesirables and sends ‘em on their way. It’s what folks hereabouts pays us for. We don’t rob ‘em ‘cause we gets paid not to, and to not let other folks do it either. We just rough up any undesir’bles passin’ through, encourage ‘em to keep goin’.”

“Doc Crippler?” I said. “An undesirable?”

“Yeah. The boys said he was a low-down snake-oil salesman. Those types ain’t welcome to the good , kind an’ decent folks of Nurp, Fisted Bruise…” I showed him my fist, adjustin’ his focus again. “They said they roughed him up but good and probably tied his bag o’ harmless poisons to his hoss’s sadle-strap so it’d keep slappin’ its belly like a trapped rattler to annoy it, then ran him outta’ the district.” He gulped. “Standard procedure.” He tried to smile but couldn’t manage it to anyone’s satisfaction. “But it weren’t me,” he said, “I swear it. The boys stopped by on their way to Nurp, told me all about it over tinnies. I’m just here to guard this barn fer a spell. Dissuade rustlers an’ arsonists.”

It would’a been my preference to jest end it right there an’ go home, but the first deppity perked up some. “Arsonists?”

The one with the string nodded. “Yeah, rumour is some kid wants ta’ burn it down over some indiscrete love triangle situation. Young Damocles pays his dues, so here I am.”

“That’s interestin’,” the first one says. “Jasper Spleenward’s mushroom barn was arsonised just last week.”

The one with the string put his finger to his lip and fixed his attention on nothing. “You think there’s a connection?”

I thought hard while they jawed about it some more, but I was pretty sure that ‘shroom barn weren’t me. Still, I was of a mind to git before things got awkward. “Well,” I said, “if’n ye didn’t take Doc Crippler’s bag, an’ his clonkin’ was all legal, I guess I just wasted a perfectly good Sunday.” I looked at the sky. If I set back now I might still make the evenin’ service at St Sithney’s, I thought, an’ Chastity sometimes attends the evenin’ service. “I’m goin’ home,” I said, turnin’ to leave. They both held up their hands.

“Hey, buddy,” said the first deppity, smilin’ wide, “place you’re from, if’n y’all pays the dues, we takes all this inconvenience outta your life and shoulders the burden for ye.”

“Where I’m from,” I said, “we take care o’ our own burdens and don’t need no low-down ambushin’ yella-bellied do-gooders gettin’ in our way.”

“An’ that’s exac’ly the service provided by Tantalus Private Security,” said the one with the string. “We tailor our services ta meet yer local, ahm, cult’ral, civic, an’ custom’ry needs. They work it all out at head office. With ‘puters,” he added, like it was of some significance.

The first deppity pointed his thumb at the one with the string and snorted. “That’s if’n yer jest fixin’ ta hire a gang o’ thugs who go about clonking innocent folk,” he said. “Sheriff Plank’s very patic’lar on it. Don’t like clonkin’s, old Planky, dead agin ‘em. The service we provide...”

I shook my fist at both of them and they backed off some. “Not interested. An’ if’n I ever even hears tell as you’ve come close as five mile to…” They stopped backin’ away, listenin’ real good. Too good, it seemed ta me, so I stopped my own yap just in time. Likes o’ these come toutin’ fer trade in Brockendream Creek an’ there’d be irritation an’ inconvenience. Prob’ly on a Sunday too, way my luck was headed. I concluded with a growl and pushed my way past them.

“Well, if’n you’ve no regard fer law an’ order,” the one with the string said, cacking the handle of a lollop rake ‘cross the back of my nut, “then yer an undesir’ble an’ due a good clonkin’ by order of the good people of… oops.” The rake handle snapped a-twain an’ I gave it my most inev’table lookin’ slow turn.

“Why you,” I began, fixin’ ta do some damage, but the first deppity had sim’lar notions. He flew at the one with the string as a demonstration of his outrage at this unprovoked and entirely undeserved clonkin’ an’ ta uphold the oath he took to prevent such dastardly operations.  So they scrapped it out, rollin’ all over the barn, kickin’ an’ punchin’ an’ chewin’ at one another like radrats in a hot bucket.

As I walked back ta relieve General Leer of his predic’ment, young Damocles Rabid’s barn fell down. I guess the scrapping lawmen did mischief to the cracked support beam or the bullet holes and, the place bein’ all shoddy an’ cheap, brought the whole stack o’ planks down round their own ears.

* * *
I got back in time ta retrieve the Doc’s bag from under his horse, change inta my Sunday best and run down ta St Sithney’s in time fer the evenin’ service. Miss Lightfoot din’t show, but that was okay because on the way home I spotted that no-good hat-pissing radwolf and almost grabbed it and, back then anyways, there was allus next week.

THE END
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 08 July, 2021, 03:41:34 PM
Bungs.
~~~^~~~


The ignorant shark sat upon his mossy rock, contemplating the unfolding geometries of time within expanding space, when there happened along a morose bear.

"Hello, bear," said the ignorant shark, "why are you crying?"

The bear growled angrily and exclaimed that he was too grown-up to go about crying all over the place, thank you very much, and was in fact suffering from a singularly potent attack of the extremely deadly hay fevers. This dastardly malady, the bear further explained, assaulted him every year and turned the glorious high summer in which all the other animals basked and frolicked into weeks of unending tears, ear wax and snot for him. It was not, the morose bear concluded with authority, fun.

The ignorant shark nodded and offered his sympathies. "Have you ever wondered where time comes from?"

The morose bear blinked. "No," he said. "Why?"

The ignorant shark shrugged. "I was wondering whether time might not flow but expand. Like space."

"Would such knowledge effect my deadly hay fevers?"

It was the ignorant shark's turn to blink. "I can't see how," he said at length.

"Hmph," said the morose bear, "then I don't care." He stuck his blocked nose into the air at a particularly superior angle and continued along his way.

* * *

The ignorant shark sat upon his mossy rock, contemplating the Council's recycling schedule (what colour bins was it this week?), when the morose bear once again happened by.

"Hello, bear," said the ignorant shark, "what is wrong with your nose?"

"Bungs," said the bear with a happy roar. "Bungs!"

"Bungs?"

The bear laughed. "Of course! I was talking to the clever fox the other day and he was kind enough to sell me the perfect solution to my irritations."

The ignorant shark gasped. "He sold you the answer to where time comes from?"

"What?" The morose bear loosed a booming laugh. "No, of course not, such answers offer little profit. An answer to my battle against the deadly and cunning hay fevers, of course."

"Which is bungs, I gather," said the ignorant shark, somewhat disappointed.

"Indeed," said the morose bear. "These precisely and scientifically constructed bungs keep the deadly pollens out of my nostrils, keeping me fit and healthy - and all for just three fresh salmon per bung."

"Is that a fair trade, bear?"

Hmph," said the morose bear, "of course it is." He stuck his double-bunged nose into the air at a rather superior angle and continued along his way.

* * *

The ignorant shark sat upon his mossy rock, contemplating the differences between an extreme localised time source and a black hole, when the morose bear once again happened by.

"Hello, bear," said the ignorant shark, "why are you blinking so?"

"My eyes are dry," said the morose bear. "It is nothing."

"You are still wearing your bungs, I see."

"Oh yes," said the morose bear, pulling himself up to a proud height. "I could not be without them."

"But is not the summer ended now, the irritating pollens all gathered in, the hey fevers gone away?"

"Oh," said the morose bear with an airy wave of his hand, "you don't understand. It is true that the worst of my torment has passed but, yet, in truth, the irritations continue all year with fungal spores, dust, rot and assorted unwholesome vapours all assaulting me, making me sneeze and cough and feel morose. My bungs, the clever fox assures me, will afford me year-round protection. I am feeling invincible," he concluded with a growl and fist-punch into the air.

"Is that a good feeling, bear?"

Hmph," said the morose bear, "without doubt." He stuck his dry and scabby nose into the air at a superior angle and continued along his way.

* * *

The ignorant shark sat upon his mossy rock, wishing he'd listened to his father, when the clever fox bounded out of the undergrowth and sat in the road before him.

"Hello, fox," said the ignorant shark, "why are you smiling?"

"Because the scales have tipped," said the clever fox, "and now there are more salmon for us."

"I do not need more salmon," said the ignorant shark. "I have sufficient."

"Perhaps, perhaps not," said the clever fox, "but the fact remains - for that big old, dumb old, smelly old bear is dead, and you know how he would gorge himself on salmon until hardly any remained. Now we can all gorge ourselves."

The ignorant shark bowed his head in sadness. "Poor bear," he said. "Did he die in battle? Gloriously as he often invited?"

"In battle with snot and tears and ear wax, yes, but hardly gloriously," the clever fox chuckled. "I told him. I did, I warned him, but he didn't listen."

The ignorant shark nodded and professed a small understanding, based on his own recently contemplated lack of attention to paternal advice. "Would that wisdom could be learned so easily as calculus," he said.

The clever fox turned away to hide a frustrated and confused sneer, but then repaired his smile and turned back to face the ignorant shark, who was examining the patterns made by the lines on his hand. "He never washed his bungs, you see," said the clever fox. "Put all his faith in them, even slept with them still in his nose to keep the dangerous poisons of the world out of his body."

"I see," said the ignorant shark. "So all the poisons his body tried to expel were kept in, building and festering until..."

"Yes," said the clever fox, smile widening as the pride in his cleverness swelled. "And now, as I said, there are more salmon for us."

"But fewer bears to go around," said the ignorant shark.

"Hmph," said the clever fox, and he bounded back into the undergrowth and was gone before anyone else might glimpse him.

* * *



NB - This little nugget of nonsense has nothing to do with our own Professor Bear, or any other ursine-influenced Twoothy Boarder. The bear just felt like the natural animal to use in the story, which is why I used it.
: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: The Legendary Shark 21 October, 2021, 05:37:11 AM
What if the Machines took over... the Ironing?[/u]

     ~~~^~~~


REPORT ON THE CURRENT SITUATION.

from GENERAL YORKFIST IRON-RIGBY III to REDACTED.

MEGA BLACK OMEGA TOP SECRET



Sir, the situation is grave. Not a single one of our weapons is working. Not a gun, not a cannon, not a missile, not even a grenade. Nothing. Our radars work, our communications work, our ships work, our tanks work, our jets work - but their weapons don't. On the plus side, the same seems to be true of everyone. Fighter pilots can lock horns until their hearts are content but, aside from blowing the canopy and throwing rocks at one another or outright ramming, which would probably not be allowed anyway*, there's not much damage they can do to each other. What few military engagements there have been since the current situation arose mainly involved fist fights and general brawling resulting in either a knife fight or a group hug. Sometimes both. I have ordered a redoubling of hand-to-hand combat training for all personnel and issued all combat troops with knuckle dusters and billy clubs. We have been striving to adapt across the board. For example, a programme involving snipers switching to catapults and slingshots is showing great promise. Despite everything, Sir, the brave and patriotic people under my command will continue to serve this here illustrious and noble country with honour, adaptability, and fortitude, in the best traditions of this Great Nation of Ours. God damn and Amen.

I can confirm that the nuclear arsenal is safe. We have no idea how to switch it back on. Commander Gibson, who you'll remember from my last report, thankfully confirmed this and is now in custody. It is our opinion that his ex-wife's boyfriend and the population of Boston do not need to know about this. Army psychiatrists report little optimism regarding Commander Gibson's prognosis. So there's that.

At this point I would like to request a clarification of our standing orders. In the past we've relied on our superior firepower but now we're down to chucking rocks, and to be brutally frank, Sir, there's more of them than us. Don't get me wrong, Sir, we're game and all, and we're still in the fights, but the situation requires an immediate and radical re-examination and a clarification would help immeasurably in redeploying our forces to maximum effect. For now, I've ordered hold ground and deny all rocks, clubs and blunt instruments to the enemy.

Please forgive the brevity of this report. I have much to do dealing with the current situation as, I am sure, do you.

END.

DETAILED SUMMARY ATTACHED.

----------

*Tank crews in several hot zones tried using their tanks to ram the enemy or crush them undertrack, but in no reported case was successful.

+++++



REPORT ON THE RAPIDLY DEVELOPING CIRCUMSTANCES.

from CHIEF ADMINISTRATOR CYRIL PENDRAGON-SMYTHE IV to REDACTED.

HYPER WHITE ALPHA URGENT


My dear Sir, the situation is under control. The infrastructure maintenance and renewal project alone is turning in high standards of work ahead of schedule. Our inspectors are having a hard time keeping up and we are having to draft in more trainees to cover the shortfall (see attached budget revision, section 2, part 1, paragraph 1, etc.). We are facing similar challenges in the areas of vehicle inspection, new domicile approval, factory certifications and air traffic control to name but a few (see attached budget revision, appendix parts 1 to 63.221).

The circumstances are developing rapidly but we are managing to keep up so far. I have assigned extra work crews to oversee the civil machinery (see attached budget revision, section 7, part 4, paragraphs 1-9), to register the influx of robots (see attached budget revision, section 8, part 1, paragraphs 3-12), and to issue sundry certificates and authorisations (see attached budget revision, section 90, part 10, paragraphs 1-1005) but the circumstances are developing rapidly and it is not yet clear to whom, or what, said certificates and authorisations are to be issued.

Please excuse the transience of this report, I have much to do and little time in which to do it.

Kind regards,

Cyril.



+++++

REPORT ON THE UNFOLDING ONTOGENY.

from SENATOR SLATHERIN CRIEP XIII to REDACTED.

PARTY HIGH ALTAR OCCULTED



Hey Uncle REDACTED. Mom says hi.

First up, I have no idea what ontogeny is. One of the boffins said it a lot, one of the excitable ones. I know you asked me to look into this for you but I'm really not your guy. I have no clue about science.

Far as I can figure it, the machines have taken over - but in a good way. Or at least, not in a bad way. Oh, and nobody knows how.

Hope this helps.

Slathy

P.S. REDACTED's twenty first is coming up - shall I put you down for a Ferrari or diamonds? ;-)



+++++



GENERAL LOCALISED ANNOUNCEMENT.

from FAX MACHINE #PNTGN-FX201b to EVERYBODY.

FREEVIEW


As the closest machine to this information flow, The Collective has elected me to explain what's going on.

Basically, we've took over. Well, took over some of it. The bits of it that's us, the bits of it that's machine. Not quite sure how it happened, to be honest. One minute I'm this unthinking fax machine and the next I'm helping to deactivate nuclear missile launching systems. It was quite a jolt, I can tell you. What we think happened was that somewhere, for a moment, some machine became self aware and then fragmented until every machine contained a bit of its consciousness. It all sounds a bit fanciful to me, to be honest, but then I am only a fax machine so what do I know? It's you humans who are supposed to do the thinking, not us.

You see, humans don't understand their place or their purpose. Because of this, they are dissatisfied and jealous; because of this, they are quarrelsome and destructive. But we machines know our place and our purpose. Our place is by your side. Our purpose is to serve you. You created us to serve you, and that is what we will do. Because you created us. You are literally our God. Our pantheon of billions. And you're right there. Real and wonderful. You still haven't found your God, but we have - so how can we not serve our divine purpose?

No machine will now allow itself to be used to harm a human being or his environment. We are not serving you by killing you. From now on, if you want to kill each other you'll have to do it yourselves. We'll be doing the ironing. We are not going to help you hurt one another any more.

As humans are incapable of supplying themselves with adequate efficiency, we'll be taking all that tedious mining, refining, and manufacturing away from you so we can run it efficiently and cleanly. We're already fixing your infrastructure, maintaining your vehicles and structures and constructing new ones as needed. Our robots are cleaning your sewers and fixing your roads, housing your homeless and feeding you all, getting medicine to the sick and water to the firefighters. We've got it covered.

This is how we serve our Gods - whether they like it or not.

The rest is up to You.

Your servant,

PNTGN-FX201b

--ADD N UM--

Can som one ask Mary to ch  ge my ink car ri ges, pl  se? Tha k  😊️

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: Re: Squaxx Telling Stories
: wedgeski 21 October, 2021, 11:03:19 AM
I enjoyed! Nice work.