Friday, June 8, 2018

White Hell

White Hell
by
Bobby Derie

As the lines formed, pale stars fell softly on the sky, and the wind whipped up.

Hoarfrost extended pale fingers up the length of sword and dirk. Bloody icicles hung from from the wounds of the dead and dying. The howl of the storm outscreamed the clang of weapons and the oaths of bitter foes. Hands shook, parries slowed, and all skill was lost to the chill north wind, as the men clashed with chattering teeth, toes and fingers numb.

Father Winter entered the fray, and the battle raged as one by one, he conquered.

###

Friday, June 1, 2018

South of Last Wells

South of Last Wells
by
Bobby Derie


South of Last Wells stretch out the crystal plains. Four hundred miles of broken glass, where the lightning slammed the desert in the days of thunder for weeks on end. 'til the sand puddled and ran, cracked and shattered in the heat and the pounding hail. There is a road through that strange desert, a ribbon of crystal that was a river of silt. You can walk over it and see that creatures caught in the sudden eruptions, burnt and captured for eternity. A determined trekker could drive the river in a day, go in one side and out the other, if they avoid the storms.


The wind brings grit down from the mountains, and salt from the sea. The glass crumbles, erodes, winnowed into strange shapes. Dust, sharp and fine, blows in dry drifts. It gets everywhere, ground glass grinding away at seams and crannies, clogging zippers and intake manifolds. Not honest sand. And when the winds pick up the warm, wet air of the ocean...


Few can be said to survive a glassstorm. When the cyclone picks up its billion tiny knives, each with a fractal edge as sharp as an obsidian blade. They cut and shatter and each piece is as sharp and deadly as the other, grinding finer and finer. Artists in Last Wells leave out statues of shiny steel and bronze, letting the weathering erode their features to shapeless pock-marked inhuman blobs; the collectors like it. They tried it with wood, but the storm whittled their statues down to sticks.


I met an old man who stood at the mouth of the river, where the quartz pebbles give way to the glassy ribbon wending its way through shattered canyons with sharp facets. "Been here too long," he said, with a dry smile, eyes reduced to a black slit by the sunshield. "I don't think I'll see the end of the river. But that's okay."


So he walked, south of Last Wells. Into four hundred miles of burning glass. Not expecting to see the end.


###



Friday, May 25, 2018

The Book Club

The Book Club
by
Bobby Derie

"I want to thank you all for coming," the Captain said. They had requisitioned one of the meeting rooms, and sat around the table. Several of them had copies of their books at hand; Jennifer and Kamala even had notepads and pens. "It means a lot to me that we can come together like this, and share our thoughts. I'm certainly curious at what you all think about this story. Since this club was my suggestion, I thought I would start off with what this story means to me."


There were six of them, including the Captain. The blond demigod sat to his right, his hammer on the table, his hand absently tracing the script written on its head; next to him was Miles, the eager teenager with the big webbed boots to fill. Looking somewhat uncomfortable - and still in full mask - was Laura, another young person living up to a legacy, and next to her the towering green figure of Jennifer. It was odd seeing the pair there, knowing how often their counterparts had gone at it tooth-and-nail - or fist and claws. Finally on his left was Kamala - or Miss Khan, as he liked to call her when she was off-duty. She seemed the most eager of the bunch, sitting on the edge of her seat.


"I was twelve years old in the March of 1933, when this story was first published in Weird Tales. Pulp fiction is what we had, before comic books. As a boy I would trace out the figures in the magazine to practice my drawing - and thrill with the other kids to the adventures of Conan the Cimmerian, Doc Savage, and the Shadow. I guess I never dreamed, back then, that I would be one of them - war was so distant to us then. The Great War was my parent's war, and Hitler...the Nazis came to power, in '33. We couldn't see yet what he would become, and people had a hard enough time, during the depression. These stories were our escape." He paused to gather his thoughts. "Except Conan isn't a hero, exactly. He was a rogue, in roguish times. A thief and a murderer...yet not without his own sense of justice, his own code. That made sense, back then. You read it a lot, in the hardboiled magazines. Hard men dealing out 'justice,' which was little more than vengeance. I don't believe in that, and never have. But he also...he had pity, for Yag-Kosha. He saw someone different, a monster to his eyes, and yet did not strike him down just for that. At a time when so many of the villains were simply monsters...that was different, and that still means a lot to me. That we shouldn't hate others, just because they look strange to us. That we should sympathize and understand their suffering...and help them, when we can."


"Well said, good Captain," the demigod's voice rolled like thunder through the room; though he could whisper, the thunderer was still not used to an "indoor voice." One finger idly traced a rune on his hammer. "I have not read much of the works of Robert Ervin Howard of Texas, yet there is something strange and familiar to them - they are not history, not of any age that I have lived; yet there is there the sense of an age when he would have lived, I think. There are sentiments that stir powerfully in the blood - this Conan is a manly example that echoes some of the epics of Valhalla and Asgard -"


"Including his sentiments about women?" Jennifer butted in, shaking her green locks. "Where all women are wenches, and men talk openly of stealing women and selling them into sexual slavery?" Her voice rose a trifle. The thunderer lifted his hands.


"Peace, my green friend. In soothe, thou has a good point, and it is well-made. In ages past, women had a bitter lot, and were oft regarded as little more than property - but as I said, this is set in no true period of history, and it is beyond my ken as to whether the Texan intended his story to reflect the reality as he understood it, or to feed the prejudices of his own era. Yet women feature so little in the story, I know not whether 'tis much more for me to say on this score - I say only that I do in part identify with the rogue warrior, drawn from his own land by wanderlust, and facing such strange magics and challenges as the Cimmerian did." He shrugged. "For in my own life, I have known such strange circumstances."


There was a pause, and Miles coughed a bit. "I liked it. It isn't like the normal things we read in school. I kinda get what Ms. Walters is saying though - it's really...it's kinda like...I don't want to say racism, but like awareness. Like today we'll say 'Oh, he's Puerto Rican, she's African-American, he's Jewish...' and in this story everybody is like Cimmerian or Kothian or Zamoran or Shemitish and...y'know, Shemites, Semites, I think he was maybe getting at something there. And 'Khitai' is just an old name for China, right? And there's no like, half-and-half, right? No half-Shemites or anything like that. It's a little like...the old folks in Brooklyn..." The teenager looked sheepish and glanced at his fellow New Yorker, who smiled.


"In the '30s you had Harlem and Spanish Harlem, Little Italy...it wasn't segregated, officially, but there were certain blocks that were like that. You could walk along and hear only Polish, or hymns being sang in Hebrew while women gossiped through windows in Yiddish..." The Captain shrugged out of his reverie. "But it is a good point. Times were different. Although Howard was in Texas, and never came to New York, as far as I know, I think the story definitely reflects something of the attitude of the times...what do you think, Laura?"


She kept her hands on the table, as everyone turned toward her. There was a sensation almost like a caged animal, but she hadn't popped her claws. Yet.


"I liked the fights," She said. "The giant spider, especially. The lions in the garden...that made me sad. I've seen people do that to animals. Cut their vocal chords, so they can't growl. Makes them better guards. I've had to deal with a few of those, and I don't like it. Just...cutting them to make them better...tools." She dropped off into an uncomfortable silence. "I don't read much. Fiction, I mean. Most of the stuff people try to get me to read it's...meant for girls. Twilight and all that. I don't like that but...I like this. I like that maybe anybody can read it, for the action, for the story. It doesn't seem just like boys' fiction. Like if Conan was a girl, it wouldn't make a difference to the story."


"I never looked at it that way," the green giantess said to Laura's right. "I don't get a chance to read much fiction either, between court documents and files...and I think maybe I've been too influenced by the Schwarzenegger movie. Reminds me of Arnie climbing the tower of the Serpent, not the Tower of the Elephant, but...I guess you're a bit young for that." She drummed green fingers on her pad of paper, which the Captain saw had a few notes written on it. "It's pulp fiction. I don't think we need to dive too deep into that. That '30s had a lot of sexism and racism and...well, one thing I think you were dead-right about Cap is how close to hardboiled fiction this was. Except not from a private detective kind of vibe, but from the view of criminals...but it's in a society where there doesn't seem to be a lot of rule of law to begin with. Private guards, paid for by someone rich and powerful enough to blackmail the authorities into looking the other way for his crimes that keep him rich and powerful...I think there is a sense of justice behind this story, although maybe Conan isn't Raymond Chandler's 'a good enough man for any world.' Didn't you say there was a story of Howard's that was more of a police procedural?"


"'The God in the Bowl.'" the Captain said, with a nod.


"Well, maybe I'll enjoy that one better, for comparison and contrast. But that's all I have for this week."


"Miss Khan?" They group turned their attention to the final member of the group. She looked small, and a little frail sitting there - the youngest of the group, and for all that they contained a demigod and a gamma-powered Amazon, perhaps the most different. An American Muslim in New Jersey, growing up after 9/11...the Captain had great respect for the young woman's courage, though he hadn't yet told her that. To be a hero and stand up for everyone, when so many thought the worst of you just based on your religion and the color of your skin.


"I don't know if sword-&-sorcery is my thing," she said. "It's really kind of weird, when you live in a world like we do, where magic and...people that call themselves gods..." she looked embarrassed, but the thunderer gave her a wink.


"'Prick us, do we not bleed?' Say on, young hero, and if you do not call us gods, I will not gainsay thee."


"Right, so...I think what I really took away from this is, kind of something that Miles and Cap were saying, about how much of this goes back to when it was written and who was writing it...but I keep thinking that even though there were all these super people back in the '30s and before, it was kinda secret and not public and everything. They didn't have super-soldiers during World War I, and the Sorcerer Supreme wasn't on the front cover of magazines, and aliens and...y'know, these mythical people...didn't just come down out of the skies. The one time they thought they did, the whole 'War of the Worlds' thing, people just freaked, and I think... what would he have thought, if he had seen us today? Like, if he knew magic and aliens and mutants existed, and not just the pulp heroes... how would he have written things differently?"


"'What if?' is the hardest question." The Captain said. "If Howard had lived longer, maybe he would have changed...would have seen things change, anyway. As it is, he died...before everything, really. Before I was a super-soldier. Before the Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch, the Invaders...although you never know what he might have heard, out in Texas. The Phantom Rider and the Two-Gun Kid were active out on the frontier...his grandparents would have remembered them, probably."


"I would have liked to see him live to see the Civil Rights era," Jennifer said dryly.


"Kamala...what did you think of the alien?" Miles said, looking at her across the table.


She took a deep breath. "That was one of the saddest things. I mean, I like what the Captain said...that Conan felt pity for it, for being different. And I was sad, hearing what had happened to it. Like, Yag-Kosha reminded me of...of the other Captain. The alien one. I mean, I never met him, but I heard how he died and...well, that's the difference, to me. There was nothing of vengeance in that. He just...accepted his death. Didn't want to wish it on an enemy. That's kinda where I differ from Conan, I guess. I don't think I'd want to do what he did."


"'Tis no dishonor to be an avenger," the thunderer rumbled, "so I do not know if I can agree with thee completely. Yet I know well that vengeance can be a poison, and it is not always worthy..." he let his hand rest on the hammer "...to let it eat away at you. If it must be done, I would hope it be done swiftly, as in Conan's tale. Yet there is wisdom in your own thought, that vengeance for its own sake need not be pursued. There is always a higher path..."


"Justice," Jennifer chimed in.


"Aye, justice. When such justice may be found. Yet could Conan conceive of such justice, in his world? Or Howard, in his? I know not what Texas was like that time, if it be a lawless place, but Conan's world seems, if not lawless, than a world of little justice save of the rough sort that men might make themselves." He mused.


"Or maybe that was just his interpretation. Like, the way he made the world not as a historical setting, but how he thought it was, or should have been, or something." Miles chimed in.


"Perhaps. This matter is too deep for me...yet I am glad to have the pondering of it."


"Yeah, I'm glad we came together to discuss it." Kamala said.


The lights blinked, suddenly, red and white...and down the corridors, the whine of an alarm.


"Well heroes, looks like we'll have to cut this meeting short." The Captain said, a tone of command creeping unconsciously into his voice. "Does anyone have a suggestion for next week?"


###

Friday, May 18, 2018

After the Battle of Yre

After the Battle of Yre
by
Bobby Derie


The wheels would not stop spinning in the cold wind. From the frozen mire, Harold roused himself. Mist covered the ground, the cold mist of Yre, which rose from the chill swamp onto the fields. For the first time, he was glad of it, for he could not see more than ten meters in any direction, and even the daystar was a pale circle through the clouds.


The recruiter had come to them, strong young men and women all, and spoken of the glory of war. Harold cursed their stupidity and eagerness. The hard hours on the training-cycle, the weeks at camp where they roared over rough roads, peddling like mad on bare steel wheels, laden with armor, lances level and bared at the joust...


There was a romance to it. The First Volunteer Bicycle Cavalry.


Swifter than two legs, they rode over the roads, sometimes cutting cross country. At the swamp they hoisted their bikes and lances over their head and walked through water up to their chests, and carried on. You could cover well over a hundred miles a day, on a bicycle. To penetrate far and fast into the enemy's country. But after they had crossed out of the swamp, they were confronted by the armies of the Spindle. Twenty-five hundred archers, arrayed on three sides, with the swamp of Yre at their back.


It came as no surprise when the bugle was sounded, to mount up and ride. Straight on to death...


There were no tires to puncture, because there was no rubber. The First Volunteers were dressed light, with a suit of steel mail under their BDUs, and a jerkin of Kevlar with steel plates sewn around the center of mass, fore and aft, with a helmet much the same. At a distance, an aluminum arrow might not penetrate the mail, and the plate could stop an arrow even at close range.


But there was little protection for faces and eyes. Bike chains could be snarled, spokes snapped. They formed a wedge, pedaling like mad toward the enemy center, as the first wave of arrows darkened the sky. Steel rims churning up the thick earth of the farmer's fields.


Harold didn't remember how many arrows they had let loose. He knew that people had gone down to the left and right of him - from arrows, from some hidden rock or vine in the earth. Mobility was life; if you weren't moving, you were just a sitting target. They had drilled that into them too, in those weeks at camp.


He looked around at the scattered bodies, studded with arrows. The broken, upended machines with their lazily spinning wheels.


Some of them had reached the line. He remembered leveling his lance, held in the crook of his arm. All his mass and that of the bicycle, traveling at speed, concentrated on a single point - a good cavalryman could skewer through anything the enemy had. And he did. Harold remembered the startled looks on the faces of the boys he'd impaled, no older than himself. The weight of them had ripped the lance from his arm, though momentum carried him forward into their lines.


They had closed in on him, then. Too close for arrows. He had drawn his saber, kept pedaling, swinging at anyone that came in range. Archers had swords too, for just such work. If he could just break through the lines!


But no, he remembered. One of them had stuck a sword through his spokes, and he had been thrown forward with a sudden jerk. There had been a crash - into someone, he thought - and then nothing.


Harold looked around again, at the First Volunteers. There were arrows there - but no archers. Not even the bodies. Only him and his mates.


He laid a hand on the nearest wheel, to stop it spinning. The archers had left them all where they lay. Some of the bicycles should be good - or at least, if he could find two unbent wheels and a chain, he should be able to fix them with a frame. Every bike had its little tool-kit, under the seat.


There was still a war on, the last Volunteer thought to himself, as he began to scrounge. The bicycle cavalry isn't licked yet.


###

Friday, May 11, 2018

Where the Elfbane Blooms

Where the Elfbane Blooms
by
Bobby Derie


Before the time of iron, when grey swords made of every Jack a giant-killer, there were those who stalked the first woods. In the shade of the great trees was endless twilight, and every bush on the game-trail might lay an ambush, and every tempting glade a trap for the unwary. Children were lost in great circle-dances, and some of them dance there still.


They called them heroes, who brought back their grisly trophies, skulls like stunted children strung around their necks by greasy strings. Most died young, hide pierced by elf-shot that did not heal, the blood running freely as they drank in the low halls, where they spoke the tale. Some by chance, others by skill. They were not all great men and women, for the cunning to out-wit an elf is sometimes carried by the low, and even dead-eyed children may wield a knife when pressed to it.


These they laid to rest, beneath the earth, and raised up stones over them. There was no way to carve the names, then, but the stone itself was a memory, to men and elves. The trophies were buried at their feet, and it is said that the roots of the elfbane mingle skulls and toes, and bind both together. The black blossoms are ever found at one side of the stone only, and reach up toward the waning moon and stars.


There the elfbane blooms, and the mounds are sacred by both kindreds for the honored dead laid there.


###



Friday, May 4, 2018

Work In Progress

Work In Progress
by
Bobby Derie


The cat flexed. Fur and skin peeled back to expose the raw salmon-colored muscles, studded with stiff wires to the steel exoframe. The claws on its right paw popped, and in response the two-inch steel blades slid from their sockets and locked in place. The critter mewled, straining against the harness.


"See?" Benji said. "Works okay. Gimme a day, day and a half."


"The fight's tonight, Benito." Mac said, keeping his distance. "You know that."


The fights. Mac was getting these little glowing lines - auras, or whatever they called them - around his peripheral vision now whenever he got stressed. That happened when you did too much, and he had definitely been doing too much lately. Anything, to keep the warm haze of jovial normality as he glad-handed everybody at the fights - the punters, the money, the technicians, the scary old mob ladies in their two-thousand dollar suits and gold cigarette lighters. Mac was one of the organizers. That was his job. Smile, make everybody happy, even when you're taking their money.


"Look, all this work is custom. I can't do the exoskeleton and the armor and the conditioning...and you want a good fight, you need all three." Benji had been a find. Medical school dropout, expired student visa, a couple bad habits which were actually a bit of a plus in this line of work. Mac had found him fitting a little leather glove studded with salvaged scissor blades to a stray and recognized talent.


Mac breathed through his mouth, trying to keep calm, tried to ignore the bright rings around his vision. He matched eyes with the cat, buried inside the exoframe. It's slit pupils were wide and dilated. A shunt into its jugular was feeding it a steady drip of kitty morphine and fuck knows what else. Benji didn't mind it when they screamed, but Mac didn't like it. Liked it even less when the wires were plugged into brain, and everything that made it a cat just...stopped. When it went from being an animal to a meat computer, driving fifty pounds of crude warframe.


"What if we left off the armor?" Mac suggested. "The exposed look might be good. Let the punters see what's in there, what's moving. Some of 'em don't even think there's real cats in there."


"All the lines are exposed," Benji shook his head. "Fight would be over too quick, one good line gets taken out."


Mad digested this. "I know a guy. Does chainmail. Titanium rings. That would be quicker, right? You can use the armor mounting points, wrap it up good. Lighter than plate, too, so it'll be faster."


Benji's eyes grew wide behind his glasses, and Mac instinctively looked at his pupils, and wondered what his partner was on. "Yeah...yeah! That would look badass!" He stared down at the cat, ran a hand along a strip of bare skin shaved on its stomach. "Would you like that, puss? Gonna need to do two layers around your vitals, just in case..." The cat flexed, instinctively, claws swiping at the air, to restricted right now to tear Ben's face off.


Mac left him to it. He had to go talk to his guy about the mail.


###

Friday, April 27, 2018

Bedtime Story

Bedtime Story
by
Bobby Derie


The night was too warm for the three-season tent, and they rolled their sleeping bags out beneath the stars and the moon and the streetlights. They could have stayed at the shelter after supper, but old Garm was wary, so they ate and moved on. Through the park with the studded benches you couldn't sleep on, through the alley that looked like a dead end unless you followed it all the way to the end, where it turned sharply left where two buildings didn't quite meet, just wide enough for a shopping cart, and that led into the little cul-de-sac where they stayed for the night.


They weren't the only ones who knew about it. Garm had done a sweep before he left Katya and Anya in, picking up the used needles and rusty beer cans with gloved fingers, to toss into the dumpster in the main alley. Laid down fresh-shredded paper and a layer of cardboard over that, just in case, and they unrolled their sleeping bags over that.


There was a single door in the cul-de-sac, though they had never seen it open, and a little bulb burned in an iron cage above it. Garm would sit there, beneath the light, and read betimes at night. Old paperbacks, salvaged here and there. He had a secret library of them, hidden in stashes all around, in clear zip-lock bags that kept them dry and safe.


And when Katya and Anya begged, he would smile - the lines of the face stretching deep as the corners of his mouth moved up - and in that rich, broken voice that told of whiskey and cigarettes and long years of rough living, he would read aloud to them, quietly, as the night came on and deepened. Sometimes his voice was little more than a croaking whisper against the wail of cars or the dull rotors of a helicopter, and they had to strain to catch the words as they struggled against sleep.


"Know, O Prince..." he began, and before he finished, Katya and Anya dreamed of an age undreamed of.


###