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.


###

Friday, April 20, 2018

Samsa

Samsa
by
Bobby Derie


Wherever there is sufficient demand, a supply emerges. Get a few clients and suppliers together and you have a market. If the demand or supply is sufficiently strange, it becomes an underground - a shadowy demimonde of a few names and faces, a culture of its own that evolves languages and practices suited to it. Most folks think of underground markets for drugs, gun, terrible pornography. The weird underground deals in less tangible assets. More terrible hungers.


Detective Jack Bastard hadn't dealt much with the weird underground. Most of it wasn't strictly illegal, but only because it was so far off the map that lawmakers had never passed any laws against it - not in this century, at least. Still, cops tend to make people nervous. So he turned to one of his CIs.


Gregor was at the third bar Jack tried. If it ever had a name, he'd never learned it. At some point in its life, it had been a book store. Then they'd added a coffee shop. Then the coffee shop had begun to sell booze on the side - patrons sipping out of paper bags, reading old library discards. It attracted the type of quiet intellectual that liked to feed multiple addictions at once. Like Gregor.


He didn't look well, though Jack had never known him to look particularly healthy. Skin always looked a few sizes too big, shrunken folds of flesh piling up in odd corners of his anatomy. He had on the same grimy trenchcoat that Jack had last seen him in, weeks ago. The detective wondered if he slept in it. Jack let his knuckles brush the table, just to let Gregor know he was there. Or maybe to see if whatever was wearing the Gregor-suit would scurry away, that pale flesh deflating like a balloon...


Gregor looked up from his copy of Kafka. His smile made Jack's mouth crawl. The gums were brown. Something behind those yellow fangs wriggled.


"Detective," he said. "What brings you here?"


"I need an ear to the ground."


"Of course, of course..." He motioned at the chair opposite on the small table, and Jack sat his ass down. Gregor's copy of Kafka rested between them.


If you didn't know what it was, you might not have guessed. The original 1915 edition of the Metamorphosis had itself metamorphosed into a bulging, uneven tome, bound and rebound by Gregor's own additions, interpolations. Jack had caught a couple glimpses at the contents once. Glossy magazine cut-outs of The Fly and Mark Hamill's character from Guyver. Illustrated pages from at least a dozen editions of Kafka's story, in as many languages. Scrawled marginalia, executed with all the artistry and effort of a medieval illuminated manuscript: crawling cockroaches picked out in brown and green. There was, he suspected, more. Gregor was the type. Densely coded symbols and messages only he could decipher.


Jack wondered what the man had been like, before he got religion. Before everyone called him Gregor.


"Someone is...collecting. Body modifications. There have been attacks. No one's dead, yet. Surgical work is crude, rushed, but serviceable."


Gregor sighed, running a hand over his bible.


"Transhumanist, probably. I know the feeling. Wanting to complete yourself. That was always the funny thing about the Metamorphoses. Samsa regarded his transformation with such horror...when there are those who would so much have embraced it. To become what they have always truly known themselves to be." The fingers traced a strange spiraling pattern on the cover. "Competition can get fierce. Only so many resources to go around. Patience wears thin. That's when...folks can try to steal a march. Cannibalize the fruits of others' efforts. The quick and easy path to ascendance. A terrible, false path. When men and women that would be gods become demons, preying on each other. Bad for the community. Bad for the soul."


Little antennae were peeking out from the cuff of Gregor's sleeve, where it laid on the table. Jack tried not to notice, focused on the man's face, eyes wide and bloodshot.


"I'll make a few inquiries. And you'll keep to our deal?"


"No stepping on roaches." Jack said with a nod. "Although its hard sometimes, out on the sidewalks."


"I know," Gregor sighed. "But we appreciate the effort."


###



Friday, April 13, 2018

In the Lionwood

In the Lionwood
by
Bobby Derie


In the winter when bellies grow taut, none is sadder than the rabbit-eater, who may starve though their stomachs distend with hare-flesh. Long might a hunter stare at the brown hare, when the snow is on the ground, yet not waste arrow or spear. Yet when the spring comes, and the green grass breaks through, the trees bring forth new leaves, and the snow is only seen where the shadows of the trees shield it from the sun...then perhaps a hunter may stretch their legs and, secure in game, give chase after a coney. For a change in taste.


Hafdana chased the grandmother of all hares through the melting forest; the thing was as big as a greyhound, and bounded with astonishing speed between the evergreens, through thickets of wet bramble that two weeks before had been incased in ice, down little valleys and across narrow streams of meltwater. Whatever designs Hafdana had on the creature - whether for the stewpot or for its pelt - was lost in that glorious run, the little legs kicking up snow, and her long stride behind.


It was not until the brambles turned to golden wire, and small meadows of long thin grasses poked amid scraggly trees spaced wide apart like bent old men, and the grey stones piled up into mounds with gaping mouths that Hafdana realized she had entered the Lionwood.


There were wide paths through the Lionwood, which might once have been roads paved with stone; and the endless caves were thought by some to be too regular to be anything but some ancient city, weathered and swallowed by the advancing forest. Tales were told by granddams over the fire - of the lion that slew a god, and a cursed city whose people mated like animals, of an ancient law broken and a revenge claimed by strange felines - and perhaps these were of the Lionwood, and perhaps they were strange dreams brought by chewing the wrong roots to stave off hunger.


Yet Hafdana raced on. The hare was tiring, the pace told on its heaving flanks. The hunter herself loped with the long stride of the far-runner, keeping the prey in sight but not seeking to close, until it tired itself out.


Eyes watched her. Slit pupils in the tall green grass, the shadows of low-hanging branches and the dark mouths of caves. Tawny tuffs of fur marked the rough bark of the old trees, and the scars of claws. On, on into the Lionwood, and a great purr came up as Hafdana passed under those trees, a staccato cachinnation, and a hiss that had nothing of the reptile in it as she strode through the sun-dappled tall grass between the patches of shade.


Worst was the silence. When all the sound faded away, and all the eyes seemed to flee. Hafdana clutched her spear tight, for the great rabbit itself seemed to sense the stillness in the air, but just as it was to turn from its path, a vast golden paw came down.


The hare had been the size of  a greyhound, long body covered in brown fur. Yet the paw was as thick as the bole of an oak tree; each claw would have made a terrible curved sword for a woman of average height. Hafdana's stride broke, and she stumbled forward. Stared up through the leaves of the trees and caught sight of great slitted pupils in green eyes the size of pumpkins. If a cat had been built on the scale of an elephant, it might have looked like that. The paw pinned the great hare to the earth...and then rose, and the beast padded silently through the trees.


Hafdana stumbled forward toward the hare - it's neck carefully crushed - and wondered for how long the lord of the Lionwood had been following them in chase. She picked up the broken hare, slung it over her shoulders, and turned back along that lane. Cats, she knew, were wise - and knew better perhaps then women, not to rely too much on rabbit-flesh, when winter was not yet over.


###

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Central Mystery

The Central Mystery
by
Bobby Derie


We breathe the dead. All smell is particulate. When you catch that waft of putrescence in your nostrils, like spoiled ham and excrement, that's because pieces of the corpse are in the air, expanding outwards from the corpse.


Detective Keryes didn't seem to mind.


"Your problem, Jack, is that you think presentation matters. Truth, whether incised on an ancient tablet or captured in softcover and available at a reasonable price from Amazon, whether brought down from the mountain by a white-bearded prophet or shouted from the street corner by a wild-eyed homeless person that's wearing a three-day old adult diaper...is truth."


The call had come in from the mail carrier. Took three days for them to notice the pile up of bills and packages. Peeked in through the windows and couldn't see anything for the smear of blood.


"My problem," Detective Bastard said, "is with the idea."


The body was in the living room, which opened off of a short foyer. A nice little stucco two-bedroom with Spanish tile on the roof, white tile on the floors instead of carpet. Not much space, but there were no doors until  you got to the bathroom and bedrooms, so it had the illusion of being bigger than it was.


ID on the mail was Irene Caldwell.


We stood just outside the circle in the living room. Looked and smelled like blood. Strange symbols - Hebrew, maybe, and something else that looked like constellations, all straight lines and circles. There was a pool there, dark and sticky, a giant scab of old blood and dried shit. It had been a scorcher the last couple of days, over a hundred degrees, and the AC hadn't been running. When they tried to move the body, the skin of her back had peeled right off.


"You don't like truth?" Keryes wasn't smiling. One of the lab techs had a spatula and was making progress.


"Revelation," Bastard replied. "The idea that there's something ineffable. Doesn't matter how old or new the 'truth' is, you look at it in the light of day and it's stupid or silly. Because it's not about the information itself. It's about the process. The initiation. All those poor assholes that have to suffer through something, and at the end they get God, or aliens, or the Enlightenment or whatever...but that's it: you can't share it. You can't tell people about it. You try, and they don't get it. Because it's not in the words. It's something that can't be communicated." He looked around the room. Sparse furniture, no photos. "Cause of death yet?"


"They haven't got back with us yet. Best guess in the meantime is 'gutted from crotch to sternum.'"


"Right." Jack Bastard knelt down near the wall, looking at a pile of dust. Followed it up to an air grate. "It's not democratic."


Keryes followed his gaze, took out a small multitool from his pocket


"What's that?" he said, as he started to undo the screws.


"Revelation. That's part of what I don't like about it. Like Christianity, the inherent message is that everybody's saved. Jesus sacrificed us so God could forgive us of all the sins that...well, the whole weird recursion thing. But that was the kick with Christianity: everybody that wanted to be saved, done. Just accept Jesus. Don't even have to go to church, or read the Bible. Didn't have to earn it - just had to ask. But you see Christians, they still struggle with that. It's too easy. They feel they need to suffer for it. That they have to earn it."


"Sounds Libertarian." The grate popped out easy. There was a couple notebooks there. "Bingo. Think this will unravel the mystery?"


Detective Bastard grimaced, and looked down at the shadowy stain. The lab tech with the spatula had gone off to the corner to dry-heave.


"Not the big one," he said. "But maybe it'll help us solve a murder."


###