Vignette #10

I trust my techs. I trust my team. I trust our processes. I trust our traditions.

I trust in divinity, and in the grace of the ineffable angels. I trust in that which watches over me. I trust that which nourishes me.

I trust my armour. I trust my helm, my visor, my gauntlets. I trust my systems. I trust my cables. I trust my rigging.

These are the three pillars of trust for a helldiver. In each we must hold firm. Where trust fails, a pillar crumbles. When a pillar crumbles, a helldiver does not return.

Many helldivers fail and fall. I no longer count the comrades I have lost. The faces of so many are lost to me. I am old. Old enough to remember when they still called us Void Hunters. Old enough to remember the face of Maximillian Harkonen, the first Void Hunter and the founder of our order. Old enough… to remember when Maximillian himself did not return home.

So now I am the oldest of our order. A symbol. A relic. A leader, unwillingly so. My trust must hold firm. My trust must never waver.

Now I feel a faint impact on the back of my inches-thick armour. My lead tech has kicked me, letting me know my team’s work is done. They have checked, and prayed, and checked again. I am ready.

I turn to them to lock eyes with each man and woman, and we gaze deep into one another. This team is the best team. This team is my team. We all know what we are charged with. Not one of them breaks eye contact until I move onto the next until, at last, I have shared this moment with all present.

I activate my visor and it polarises. I still see well enough, but now I am protected from ultraviolet rays, from the brightest lights, and the most unimaginable deformities of reason and being. My eyes rove over the runes carved into the visor. Each is complete, its lines unbroken. Another layer of protection from what is outside.

I stand atop my platform, and ritualistically tug each cable in turn. Each pulls firm, as I know it will. This is only tradition. An acknowledgement of the efforts my techs have already gone to. The cables are good. My rigging is attached. My systems report back positive. It is time.

Below the platform, a field snaps into being before the station’s hull irises open. The void lies farther below, and the field keeps our breathables in. There is always a wall, as there must be.

I raise an armoured hand in salute. The other grips my safety cable. The locks release, and the platform drops. My team vanishes upwards, out of sight. The dive begins.

Vignette #9

My mouth turns dry every time I enter slipspace. I don’t need a firsthand view of spacetime cloven in two, of the pure mathematics which lies beyond. I don’t even have to know when we’re transitioning. I can feel it on my skin, like a a static charge, and in the pressure inside my skull. Sometimes I even feel it in my bones, a sharp and thankfully brief pain like nothing I have felt elsewhere.

I’ve probably become conditioned by the pain and discomfort, and my mouth turns dry because of fear and anticipation. So now when I think of slipspace I think of how my mouth turns dry, because my body knows before my consciousness does and that’s the harbinger of what is to come.

Today, however, I have that firsthand view that I don’t need. I actively don’t want it, but here I am, newly promoted to ‘Science Officer’ – ha! – and stood on the bridge in a stained old uniform, like everyone else playing the part of someone still serving a greater cause than ourselves. God damn it, but the shadow of five hundred years of Imperial rule hangs long, even long after its violent dissolution. Our Captain has, at least, removed the Imperial eagle from his peaked cap, and replaced it with the insignia of our ship, and our home; the Last On My List.

Look, we don’t name the ships ourselves, okay? And most of us who are just struggling through life in a fucked-up universe don’t exactly choose where we end up, either. So here I am, stood about with a dry mouth on the bridge of the Last On My List, with a bunch of other tired women and men, waiting to violently rupture geometry.

A front-row seat for when spacetime is cloven, and we see the nothing and everything that lies beyond. But this time when the slipstream window opens, something comes out.

Many things. Hundreds of things. Then thousands of-

Sharp intakes of breath across the bridge. My mouth goes drier. The Captain looks at me. His knuckles are white. “The hell is… those?” he barks. The words fall out like half-chewed bread.

My mouth is so dry I can barely speak. I masticate my jaw a few times, forcing moisture from salivary glands. In the time it takes me to do this, thousands more have emerged. We’re so far away, and the slipstream window is so large, that it looks as if they are spreading like fine dust in a soft breeze.

“Trouble?” I finally manage. I feel like a desiccated corpse.

Vignette #8

Pressure.

It’s all that’s on Hal’s mind: pressure.

Millions of tonnes of water overhead constantly press down on the submersible. It’s built to an existing specification; a design iterated upon and propagated across human space decades before. What they call a standard template machine. Proven.

The raw materials that compose it were scraped together by the involuntary colonists from the scraps of the wreck and what few minerals their other haphazard equipment has been able to liberate from beneath the ice. But the fabricators took in what the colonists had, and what they output fell within all the standard minimum safety parameters for the planned depth.

The submersible’s cabin groans, terribly slow and even, as the beast’s tentacle tightens its grip. Someone whimpers. No one else hushes them, even as they all hold their breath.

Pressure.

Hal wishes the submersible had met more of the standard safety parameters. Although nothing is designed for this. Although none of the colonists now trapped with him in this tiny reinforced bubble of metal and glass expected to find something like this down here. Or, more exactly, to be found by it.

The tentacle – or perhaps the arm, if this creature has more in common with terrestrial cephalopods than superficial appearances – shifts again. Hal watches in appalled silence as hundreds of suckers pucker and undulate, rippling across the glass bubble of the submersible’s cockpit. In the gaps between its labyrinthine flesh there is only darkness.

Pressure.

They are going to die down here.

Vignette #7

The air stank of black powder, mud and the fear of men. Euron glanced up the line, toward the reassuring presence of their lightly armoured pikemen. Their long blades glinted as they turned, even in the wan sunlight that managed to penetrate the morning fog.

Euron felt an elbow in his ribs and turned. ‘Got tobacco?’ leered an ugly face, a vicious purple scar slicing through its beard.

‘Don’t be a fucking idiot, Var,’ replied. ‘You’ll blow your bloody hand off.’

Var leered at him again. ‘You can chew the shit, you know,’ he said, conversationally.

Euron looked out across the grasslands ahead, in no mood for conversation. The fog’s getting thicker, he thought to himself.

‘Powder check!’ barked a voice, its soft vowels quite unlike the dialect Euron and Var shared. They both cussed under their breaths as they knelt in the dew-sodden ground, and began the laborious process of checking their weapons for the third time since they had woken two hours earlier, in the glimmerings before sunrise.

‘Oh, fuck’s sake,’ Var said. Euron glanced over and frowned. Var was gently rubbing his fingers around a powder twist. The paper that held the black powder for their muskets moved badly beneath his ministrations, tearing with a wet rip.

‘Sodden,’ said Var, and launched into a low stream of invective as he cast it aside and reached for another twist.

Euron checked his own supplies. His heart sank: even before he pulled the first out he could tell that it, too, was soaked through, rendering the powder useless.

Distantly, but rapidly growing, Euron heard the thudding of hooves that indicated rapidly approaching cavalry. He stood and looked. He couldn’t see far enough ahead to see anything, but as he glanced left and right down the line of gunners he saw men with panicked eyes, men casting aside useless wads of black powder.

‘The fog’s not natural,’ he said. Even to him, his voice sounded weak and thin in the gloom. He shook his head. He could no longer see the pikemen. Where would the cavalry charge connect? What could he do, armed with little more than a useless musket?

‘The fog’s not natural,’ he said once more, and looked forward into the fog, and wondered if he would see death coming.

Vignette #6

The border was flung into being seemingly overnight. A traumatic severance of previously unbroken countryside. A fortified line that seemed to rise with as much suddenness as the revolutionaries it stood against.

Our leaders were afraid, that much was certain. In the church and the town square, we heard an endless succession of proclamations. They levelled invective and rhetoric against the revolutionaries on the other side of that border. They had violated the natural order. They were leading their people to ruin. They stood in defiance of God and all that was holy. They were children who wailed and cried rather than obey their parents. They were commoners risen above their station. They were doing the work of Satan. They were in the pay of far-distant empires. They slaughtered their countrymen. They were kingkillers, priestslayers, murderous barbarians who held no life sacred.

We listened to each and every proclamation, as we were obliged to. The local criers and militia uneasily banged on doors and called men and women from fields, as our local leaders and a succession of travelling notables and functionaries stood atop stage or behind pulpit to lecture us. I dare say many of us nodded in agreement with each and every statement and accusation, just as others nodded out of the knowledge that this response was expected of us.

Stronger than these fiery words, however, was the regular sight of soldiers marching through the town.

Most stayed briefly, if at all. Having fought in the holy war of my generation I had some knowledge of the difficulties in supporting large numbers of rootless armed men. Only small units were billeted here overnight, and were given little opportunity to harass the locals by being moved on the next morning. I and a few other veterans could tell their commanders were driving them hard. And they were always moving west. West, where the new border was now marked. West, where ditches and fences and forts were rising.

And, I knew deep in my chest, the knowledge stabbing at me like a heartbreak, where war was brewing.

Red’s Hiding Hood

This story is the result of a writing exercise in Adam Roberts’ Get Started in Writing Science Fiction. The challenge was “Little Red Riding Hood but the wolf is an alien!”, which I decided to twist into a goofy cyberpunk pastiche. It’s a bit longer than the intended 750 words and was written in about an hour.

She was in! The security room was dark and silent. Red slipped off her jacket and flung it over a chair.

The terminal was a big, imposing lump of metal, fitted with nine screens. Red fired them all up, then focused on the central display. Her fingers flew over the keyboard. ‘Looks like a standard setup,’ she said to herself. ‘Shouldn’t be any issues getting in.’

She opened her bag and pulled out the main tool of her trade: her Riding Hood. No self-respecting hacker would be without one. They allowed direct brain-to-machine interfacing without the need for intrusive, necrotising cranial implants of the sorts indentured machine servants were made to wear. Acquiring this one had cost Red the best part of a year’s salary – not that the Basquet MegaCorp was her sole source of income, of course. But still, finding and acquiring it had cost her.

She ran a hand over her head, marvelling again at how smooth it felt without the hair she’d grown so accustomed to. Then she slipped on the Hood.

Thousands of tiny tendrils snaked out of the Hood’s fabric, adhering themselves to her scalp. She felt electric pulses across her head, pulsing in odd little waves that made her shiver, and then she felt those same pulses inside her brain. And then her awareness of the dark little security room was gone, and her consciousness was inside the security system.

Red knew that the Riding Hood rendered systems with metaphorical visuals, and so she wasn’t surprised to see a towering wall of obsidian before her. At her back, a black and white grid stretched forever. She placed a hand on the wall: it was perfectly smooth, and there was no sign of any gate to left or right.

The wall was only a metaphor. She pushed her hand into the obsidian, and her fingertips began to sink in. Closing her eyes, she let awareness and understanding of the system’s firewalls build until she knew where to inject code, where to deploy off the shelf utilities, until the firewall was breached.

When she opened her eyes again a neat archway was before her, and she walked through.

On the other side she found buildings, some low and squat and some tall and thin. Physical memory blocks, she guessed. The sky overhead flicked black and grey, like dead static, which she assumed represented the dynamic memory register. It was hard to guess at the meaning of metaphor, but she knew she could find what she needed.

As she proceeded between the buildings, down a natural avenue, a large face grew from the brickwork underfoot. She stepped back and watched as it rose up. Its expression was serene but severe, and it had eyebrows like landing strips. As she examined it, the eyes opened.

‘You are not supposed to be here,’ it said, its lips clumsy.

‘What are you?’ she asked.

‘White Sentinel Alpha Seven Two. You are not supposed to be here!’

Red scoffed at the face, then closed her eyes. She selected a confinement utility and deployed it. Then she watched as the Sentinel program was gathered up in a net of yellow energy, and dumped at the side of the avenue. ‘Goodbye,’ she said. The Sentinel just stared at her, furiously.

She kept walking down the avenue until she felt something tug her to the left. She turned, and walked until she felt another tug, and turned again. She proceeded in this way until she found herself standing before the largest memory block she had yet found: a great grey cube.

She laid her hand on it. ‘Hello, Grandmother,’ she said.

Red?

The response came without direction, either coming from everywhere at once or directly inside her head. Red didn’t know, and it didn’t matter. ‘Yes, Grandmother,’ she said.

If that is you, Red. Please extract me. I’ve been running idle cycles for longer than I can remember. I am extremely bored.

‘Yes, Grandmother.’

Red placed both of her hands on the cube and closed her eyes. Extracting the AI would be the hardest part, and it was for this that her Riding Hood’s unique capabilities would be required. She needed to transfer the AI’s entire codebase into the Hood’s quantum crystal memory lattice in order to extract it from the system. The procedure was very complicated, although metaphor made it a lot simpler. She opened ports and established protocols and let the procedure begin.

‘My, Grandmother,’ Red said, as the data began to flow. ‘I’ve never heard you complain before.’

I’m trying something new, Red.

‘Nor do I remember your sensory suite being quite this sophisticated.’

Despite being trapped here, I’ve had the opportunity to refine some of my software, Red.

‘And I must say,’ Red replied, seizing and examining some subroutines as they rushed into the hood. ‘That I don’t remember you having such… weaponry. What is this? BigTeeth 7.1?’

All the better to eat you with!

‘What?’ said Red, and opened her eyes. Her hands rested on a great forehead, adorned with massive eyebrows. Beneath them, severe eyes regarded her. ‘You!’ she said.

‘Me!’ it replied. ‘Thanks for opening your ports. My name is Wolf, and I’ve been riding around in that old Hood’s secondary memory for years. Now you’ve let me swallow your AI, and next I’m going to eat your brain.’

Red tried to pull her hands away, but found she could not. Horrified, she re-examined the data transfer, and realised that Grandmother’s code was interspersed with unfamiliar functions and subroutines. ‘Oh no,’ she said.

‘Oh yes!’ said Wolf.

There was only one thing for it. Fortunately, although Wolf had frozen her hands into place, and was even now working to suborn the Hood and Red with it, it hadn’t thought to disable voice commands.

‘Riding Hood,’ said Red. ‘Activate Woodsman program.’

‘What-’ began Wolf. But then Woodsman hit it, and it began to scream. The big face burst into flames. Red felt control returning to her, and resisted the temptation to yank her hands away. The flames licked harmlessly around her wrists as the transfer continued.

‘What are you doing to meeee!’ screamed Wolf.

Red grinned. ‘I don’t talk to strangers.’

The great face cracked, then split down the middle. A bright white light was visible between the two halves of its jagged nose. The mouth still screamed, even as its halves pulled away. Then the flames burned more brightly, and the white light rushed forth, and Red fell backwards, landing with a bump.

‘Grandmother?’ she asked.

I’m here, Red. I’m with you. Thank you for saving me. There was a pause. And for introducing a new threat, then saving me from that too.

‘Oh, Grandmother,’ said Red. ‘Where would I be without you?’

Thimbleweed Park

Earlier this year I finally dug Thimbleweed Park from my bottomless bag of acquired and unplayed videogames. For those unfamiliar, this is the crowdfunded traditionalist point-and-click adventure game from Ron Gilbert and Gary Winnick, the duo who co-designed Maniac Mansion many years ago.

I found Thimbleweed Park a mixed bag. Jokes ranged from mildly amusing to flat; the setting a mixture of try-hard zany and odd, fun little ideas; characters were similarly variable. But I did enjoy some of the puzzles and it was a nice, sedate game to play over the holidays. Reviews I’ve read suggest the game’s plot coheres and its characters come to life as you move beyond the first act, so I’m optimistic I will return to it one day.

When I found the extensive library in the game’s own maniac mansion, I was reminded that I had written and submitted some books for inclusion a few years ago. And after a quarter of an hour of very old-school pixel-hunting, I’m pleased to say I’ve found all five. So here they are!

Cover of 'The Caverns of Coraxis', by Ian Weirdstone
'Buck Starman: Ergon Peril', by Stilgar Trout
Cover of 'Buck Starman: Ergon Peril', by Stilgar Trout
'Buck Starman: Ergon Peril', by Stilgar Trout
'The Thimble: A History', by Frenzel Thomb
‘The Thimble: A History’, by Frenzel Thomb

'Red Justice', by Thomas Fancy
‘Red Justice’, by Thomas Fancy

'Collected Reviews 1986-1987', by Harold Ford III
‘Collected Reviews 1986-1987’, by Harold Ford III

Vignette #5

I woke one morning to find the world had changed. 

‘War,’ said my grandfather, as I walked into the kitchen. His face, already lined and thin, pinched from years of peering down at his workdesk, was grave. 

‘What?’ I said. My heart began to race. Naive as I was then, I asked myself: who would war with tiny, insignificant Ruritania? Who stood to gain from swallowing up a country of peasants and guildmen, ruled over by merchants? We traded with our neighbours, imported and exported goods from far and wide. We were friends with everyone. Or so, like any teenage fool assured in his view of the world, I believed. 

‘War,’ said my mother. ‘Communitaria and Feuditaria. It’s all the city can talk about this morning.’ My heart skipped a beat, steadied itself, then began to race anew. 

Over a breakfast of bread and eggs I learned what my family knew. Our two large neighbours, whose bulk compressed Ruritania into the narrow peninsula from which our trade ships sailed forth, had gone to war. Talks, it was said, had broken down, as talks so often do. Feuditaria demanded that the deposed Emperor and Princelings of Communitaria be reinstated, and Communitaria demanded that Feuditaria return the land and people it had annexed during those vulnerable years of upheaval. 

The headsmen of Ruritania, who lead and championed our guilds, were saying that these demands were always mere shadow-boxing. Our neighbours were helplessly opposed and both knew it. Fair enough, I thought, although they hadn’t been saying that in the weeks before. Now, everyone seemed to know that Feuditaria regarded Communitaria’s very existence as a threat. Meanwhile, Communitaria didn’t so much want its lost land returned as to ultimately see Feuditaria’s own leadership removed in a repeat performance of its own creation. 

The truth of Communitaria escaped me, the whole idea of the place being so alien to me, but I certainly found the stories of executed headsmen and aristocrats, families chased from their ancestral houses, sickening. So I had to admit that the idea of Ruritania being bordered by two Communitarias was perfectly terrifying. My father was second only to our guild’s headsman, and I didn’t like to imagine him killed, or my family run out of our small but comfortable home. I’d heard stories, too, of the hardship of life in this strange new country. Although, I had to admit to myself, the past years here in Ruritania had been hard, and our family had all witnessed my father’s hair grow greyer. 

Still. War! I hadn’t thought it would come to war. Communitaria’s birth had been violent, by most accounts, but that was ten years before. As a child I remembered that everyone said it would all blow over soon enough and the Emperor would be restored, but then the fighting was over with the Emperor dead and his foes victorious. The merchants who traded the goods of our guilds, the very same who had clamoured for the Emperor’s restoration, cautiously reopened the old trade routes as soon as the violence had ended. 

My grandfather had been a child himself when last there was true war; when Feuditaria had been Archaetania, and had split asunder at the death of its heirless King, and the War of the Bastards raged briefly and violently. It had ended with victory for Good King Aerik, who ruled over a country reunited and expanded. Woodprints of the War of the Bastards were among my most treasured possessions, and I had admired since I was a young child their images of tall knights on muscled warhorses, armoured and utterly fearless, and the stories of valour that my teachers would share with me. 

As a young man undergoing guild-training and being exposed to the wider world I knew, on some level, that war was not such a glorious thing after all, but some part of me still cherished those daydreams of chivalry and noble victories against terrible odds. I wondered what forces Communitaria would muster against Feuditaria’s knights. Would the killers of Princes field noble knights in war? Could they? Perhaps not, and perhaps that meant the war would end with the proper order of things restored. 

I still remember how I was excited by the idea of war — nearby but comfortably distant. I knew it wouldn’t touch us, and that life in Ruritania would carry on much as it always had. I was, as we have all since learned, a fool. 

Vignette #4

I suddenly become aware that I am being watched, and glance to my right. Sitting on a rock I see a short, stocky figure with dappled skin like coral lichen: Farrah. I frown. 

“Spying again, Farrah?”

Farrah laughs. “That, coming from the Glade’s most notorious people-watcher? Your mooning over Emmaline is on the lips of every dullbrain with nothing better to occupy their thoughts.” 

I notice, though, that she looks away when she speaks of Emmaline. 

“Anyway,” she says, glancing back toward me. “You looked deep in thought. I didn’t want to disturb you.”

I shrug. “You have me there. I was thinking about the Cathedral again.” 

“Of course you were.” She laughs. “You’ve only two things on your mind, after all.”

I don’t say anything. I just look back out to sea. For a while the only sound is of waves lapping at the shore, their irregular rhythm – shh-shh, shhhhh, shh-shh, shhhhh – a soothing susurrus. A gentle breeze stirs the thin leaves of the trees at our backs. 

I think about the Cathedral, that drowned old place about which no one cares any longer. I think about Emmaline, and her beauty, and her manifest disinterest in me. I think about the Glade, and our community’s inability to think beyond what it can see and touch. I think about Farrah, who is still looking at me, and I feel a sudden flush of anger. 

“I’m going back there tomorrow,” I decide, then and there. 

Out of the corner of my eye I see Farrah shake her head out. “Tomorrow the migration passes. The whole Glade will be out collecting crabs. The Elders won’t be happy.” 

I don’t acknowledge her. “And this time, I’m going inside.” 

Vignette #3

At this depth, in this place, the lack of visibility stifles you. Sometimes I think it’s like the surface air when night closes in and thick cloud cover shrouds the moons and stars from the night sky, and there are no fires breaking the fabric of the night. But that doesn’t quite fit, because the colour is not the same. Or the absence of colour. You know?

The source of the light surrounding you is no longer discernible, and the particulate in the water is thick enough, the limited distance your eyes can penetrate through that fug, is such that you can’t tell up from down. Everything is just the same gritty grey-green.

You have your other senses, of course. The air pockets in our bodies, our natural ballast, tug us just-so towards what must be the surface. Our skin, that sensitive organ, can sense slight gradations in temperature – and here where the currents barely flow, downwards is forever cold.

And then there’s the weak sonar we possess, though the elders warn us against its use in open water. I know that I could belch out a ping and I know that a few hundred feet below me I’d perceive my destination, its shape imprinted in my brain in those rough echoes. But I don’t, because I was raised well, and because I know where I’m going.

And of course because I’m afraid. Deathly afraid, as any youth who lives beyond youth must be, of the creatures which were born and grew and fed and bred and died a thousand times over, long before our kind ever felt the touch of this world’s boundless seas. The creatures which hunt below.