Dust & Rain – Icefire Trilogy book 2

The saga continues…

Fifteen years ago, a brilliant scientist built a barrier against the dangerous power that radiates from the City of Glass in the southern land, allowing the citizens of Chevakia to live without fear of their lives. Since then, the democracy of Chevakia has prospered, with free-thinking scientists developing steam power and the beginnings of electricity.

But the power, which they call sonorics, controls the weather in Chevakia.

Senator Sadorius han Chevonian is the country’s chief meteorologist. While taking measurements for his job, he is the first to notice a rapid rise of sonorics levels out-of-season. The senate is locked in trivial debate, and to make them listen, he has to take a step he never thought to make.

After the huge explosion of the machine they call the Heart of the City, Loriane has fled the southern land with the sorcerer Tandor, who hovers in and out of consciousness. But while Tandor isn’t speaking, she cannot confirm her fears that he caused the explosion, and that the child she carries has something to do with his twisted plans to seize power from the Eagle Knights who rule the City of Glass.

Just before the explosion, southern queen Jevaithi fled into Chevakia with her young lover Isandor. While they think they’re free of the tyranny of the Eagle Knights, it soon becomes clear something very bad has happened in the City of Glass soon after their escape. Something so bad that it sends waves of sonorics into Chevakia, causing even the Chevakians to flee.

Several streams of refugees are heading for the Chevakian capital. Southerners by train, Chevakians by road, into a city that is tragically unprepared, a country in turmoil with a leader whose support hangs by the merest thread.

Available on:

Amazon
Smashwords

But I would love you to bits if you’d buy it from my site.

Read the first chapter below:

Dust & Rain, Icefire Trilogy book 2, Chapter 1

Sadorius han Chevonian dropped the pile of barygraph read-outs on his desk. Pages and pages of plotted squiggly lines slid over the wooden surface.
On top was a different sheet with a hand-drawn graph, a red line which jumped up sharply towards the right hand side of the page. He picked up that sheet, shook his head and frowned at the young man who had brought him these data.
‘Up by this much?’
His new student, Vikius han Marossi, nodded. Silver embroidery glittered on the young man’s white tunic, showing the insignia of the Chevakian doga, the government assembly.
The young man had left the door open and sounds of voices drifted in from the hall, mixed with the slapping of sandals on stone. A breeze carried the tang of summer that ruffled the curtains and nudged at the lingering chill in the room, a hint of the fury of hot weather to come. As chief meteorologist, Sady knew all about the weather; he could feel summer in his bones. And yet…
He looked at the graph, as if staring at it would change that ominous red line, and shook his head again.
‘What happened? When I checked a few days ago, sonorics levels were at three motes per cube, but now they’ve at twelve?’ Three was normal for this time of the year; twelve was slightly above the highest average level in the middle of winter. He wiped sweat from his upper lip, re-checking figures in the table on the second page, in the idle hope that the attendant of the met station who had plotted the graph had mis-read. He hadn’t.
‘It looks like we’re in for an interesting summer.’ Sonorics dictated the weather patterns across Chevakia. Sonorics, the deadly rays that came from the southern land, an ice-covered plateau so mysterious that it didn’t have a name.
‘I’m not sure I would call it interesting. I find it frightening.’ Viki’s tone was timid. He held his hands clasped behind his back and stared intently at the desk.
‘Viki, straighten your back and look up.’
The young man did as Sady told him, a startled expression on his face. Mercy, since when did the Scriptorium send him jackrabbits for students?
‘Imagine you’re making an important announcement to the doga. They’re not going to listen to you if you mumble, and they won’t take you seriously if you slouch.’
‘Uhm–I’m sorry, Senator.’
‘Viki, if ever you’re going to be chief meteorologist, you will need to show more confidence. How else are you going to argue against selfish senators that no, their district isn’t going to get an allocation of maize production, because the air current predictions are wrong and the harvest will certainly fail? ‘
‘Uhm…’ Viki went red in the face and went back to staring at the desk.
‘Stand up! Look me in the eye. Tell me what you’d say to them if you were in this situation.’
The young man straightened again, his eyes wide. ‘Uhm–I’d say that they were wrong asking for the allocation, Senator. I’d tell them about our high sonorics measurements and that they predict unseasonally cold weather in the south which means much less rain in the north. I’d show them the maps and show them how I calculated–‘
‘No, no, Viki.’
The student gave Sady a startled look. ‘But I have to–‘
‘You should always keep it simple. Don’t explain to them how you calculated the prediction. That not only bores them to tears, but it shows that you feel the need to justify yourself because you’re not sure of your calculations.’
‘But–‘
‘Confidence, Viki. You’ll need confidence in your work or the farmers and the districts will howl you down, especially those in the North. They seem to think that the sheer act of predicting is going to make it happen.’
‘But you can only predict rain when the circumstances indicate that there will be rain.’
‘Exactly, but do you think they care? Rain is money to them. If I predict rain, the doga gives them money to plant crops, simple as that. Then of course, there is no rain, the harvest fails and the meteorologist gets the blame.’
‘But that’s…’ Viki’s eyes were wide.
‘That’s how things go if you’re not careful.’ Sady sighed and shuffled the papers on his desk. He felt no patience with his student today. Those data were really too worrisome to ignore. ‘Have you looked at any other border stations?’
Viki pushed another bundle of papers across the table; his hands trembled.
Sady leafed through the graphs. Same results. Automated barygraphs were all recording low pressure, and the manual measurements taken by faithful meteorology staff in the stations reported high humidity, low temperatures and out-of-season increases in sonorics. Not just one station, but Ensar, Fairlight, Mekta, all of them reporting levels of twelve, thirteen, even fourteen motes per cube.
Mercy, what was going on?
‘Senator, begging your permission… I made this.’ Viki put a roll of paper on the desk. Sady frowned and unrolled it: a map, showing isobars across the country.
It was a neat piece of work, impressively detailed. He gave Viki an appreciative look. ‘Now that is what I call initiative. That’s what I’d like to see more.’
The young man blushed.
Sady moved some papers aside and spread the map out over the table. Wavy lines ran parallel to the escarpment that formed the border with the southern plateau, a pattern that sometimes occurred in mid-winter, but even then the pressure lines were usually less crowded. There was a huge low pressure system building up.
Sady met the student’s eyes.
‘Any idea what it means?’
‘Uhm…’ The young man’s cheeks went red.
Sady sighed. ‘Viki, this is not a trick question. I don’t know either. Nothing like this has happened before. This is not a seasonal pattern. At this time of the year, we’d expect the low pressure systems to retreat to the far south and the air flow to swing around to the north.’
The young man looked up, his lips forming the letter o. ‘Well, in that case, I was thinking… I mean… Low pressure is usually associated with a rise in sonorics, because sonorics tends to increase the air humidity.’
‘Yes, but why?’
Viki hesitated. ‘What if… if the people in the City of Glass were releasing sonorics deliberately… Could they, if they wanted to?’
Sady shrugged, uncomfortable. They knew so little of the workings of the southern land and the source of its deadly rays that influenced far too much of Chevakia’s weather. Some sort of machine, the classic works said, somewhere under the City of Glass. No one knew if this supposed machine was a physical thing or a myth. Sady wasn’t sure the southerners themselves knew what it was. Then, fifteen years ago, after the border wars, the barriers went up and no one travelled to the south anymore. Right now, he certainly didn’t want to worry about whether southerners could manipulate it, although the thought chilled him. Sonorics were deadly to Chevakians.
‘Viki, I want you to give the Most Learned Alius the message that I wish to see him.’ Sady didn’t really expect much help from an academic who did not share his practical experience, but his old tutor had made an extensive study of sonorics and was without a doubt Chevakia’s most knowledgeable on the subject.
‘Certainly, Senator.’ Viki bowed and left the room at a trot.
Sady grimaced. Really? Am I that frightening? I must be getting old.
He shook his head. No need to worry too much over this student. After his traineeship, Viki would probably choose to move on in favour for a career in academia, or so Sady hoped, because the youngster really hadn’t the aptitude for a life as doga meteorologist.
Sady rose and went to the window.
Laid out before him in perfect geometric patterns, the splendour of Tiverius spread towards the horizon. Rows terracotta roofs basked in the sun. Perfect straight streets, stone buildings with columns. Trees bloomed along the roadsides, even numbers on both sides. Down in the courtyard, a man with a water truck was watering the flowers in the planter boxes.
A warm breeze stirred the curtains. A few moon cycles, and it would be mid-summer. Not at all the time high sonoric levels usually happened.
Sonorics levels wouldn’t need to rise that much before they caused trouble. At twenty motes, it would taint the harvest, at thirty, set off the first alarms, and affect exports to Arania. Chevakia couldn’t afford not to harvest in the southern border provinces. The northern region was too dry to produce much more than camels and the occasional crop of maize.
He didn’t want to start panic, but… why now? Why at the start of summer, when the annual cycle should be approaching its lowest level.
Back to his desk, where he pulled out a writing pad. He scrawled on the top page, Authorise dispensaries to start stocking salt tablets for general public use. Authorise protective suits to be taken out of storage and sent to border regions.
This he took to his secretary in the next room, who took the note, looked at it and met Sady’s eyes in a wide-eyed look.
The expression of worry cut Sady deeply. He only vaguely remembered the time of uncertainty before the barriers went up, but he had heard the tales told by older folk. The young man would have seen the barygraph readouts this morning. He would have heard the tales, too.
‘Just to make sure,’ Sady said, hoping he exuded a confidence he didn’t feel. A confidence that, following such a rapid rise, the levels wouldn’t hit twenty motes per cube and trigger the lowest-level warning.
The man nodded, but similarly didn’t look convinced.
Not good. Not good at all.

This Peaceful State of War – now as ebook

The good folks at WOTF have OK’d me to produce an ebook version of my winning story.

Here is the first scene:

“Ash,” Brother Copernicus says.
I rub the substance between the thumb and fingers of my gloves. It’s fine and powdery, and white, unbelievably white.
A thick layer of it covers the field of tree stumps and broken branches, all the way to the wall of rain forest in the distance. Heat shimmers above the brilliant surface.
Yesterday, when arriving from Solaris Station, I saw these tracks from space. They looked like scars, as if a deranged soul has taken a knife to the planet, cutting scores in the cover of forest.
“The Hern burnt these tracks wherever they destroyed the Pari villages.” There is raw hatred in Brother Copernicus’ voice, even when filtered through his rebreather mask. “They stacked up the debris from the houses and the bodies and burnt the lot. Always at night, so we wouldn’t notice.”
I let the powder trickle from my glove, fighting the impulse to rub my hand on my protective robe. I can’t. The action of rubbing might trigger a spark that will lead to all sorts of trouble in this high-oxygen atmosphere. Those warnings played in the cabin of the landing craft have etched themselves in my mind.
“Why is it so white? Has anyone analyzed this?” The color intrigues me, and I wonder why the ground underneath the patch where I’ve picked up the powder is moist and cool.
“I’m sure someone has. Is that important? It’s ash, Envoy, human ash.” Brother Copernicus brandishes the word human like a sword, challenging anyone who dares to disagree. “You’re standing on the biggest murder site in all of humanity.”

Available:

Amazon

Smashwords

free short story collection

Pending the release of part 1 of my fantasy trilogy, I’ve decided to make my short story collection Out of Here temporarily free. You can get it here at Smashwords (or click on the image). I’ll update this page when it has filtered through to Amazon.

The anthology contains more than 50,000 words of short stories both in fantasy and SF. All stories have been published previously.

Here are a few of the story beginnings for #SampleSunday:

Little Boy Lost

Originally published in Midnight Echo issue 4 June 2010

Some people say that when you die, they put you in the ground where worms come to eat you until there is nothing left but bones, and that’s what you are: dust and bones, never to come back to life. Other people say they’ve talked to the souls of the dead. Maria can do better than that: she feeds them carrots.
She sits on her knees in the grass, damp with dew, seeping into her jeans. The bag of carrots rests in her lap, the plastic crinkling whenever she moves.
It’s well after dark, and the back yard breathes mystery. The too-long grass casts tangled shadows and the forbidding metal fence hides just out of view. Even the concrete looks different: with deep cracks like hieroglyphs.
They come out of the shadows, one by one. First the nose, wriggling. Long ears, twitching, flashing pink when they catch the beam of light slanting out the living room window. Then they hop: two furry paws in the grass. Hop. Sit up on the back legs. Another cautious wriggle of the nose. Another hop.
Maria lifts her mobile phone. The screen lights up blue: a picture of a tropical beach. She presses send message from template. Scroll down the page.
It’s safe. You can come.
Select contact, a twelve-digit number. Press send. The icon bounces over the screen.

Never on a Birthday

Originally published in Byzarium November2008

They said in the corridors of the galaxy, if the galaxy had corridors, that no one could throw a birthday party as fine as Hermon Feyst.
Certainly no one did it as often. A thousand guests, magnificent food, outrageous ornaments, and the orchestra–such heavenly talent, especially that trumpet player who jumped on his chair in a magnifique solo at the end of ‘Happy Birthday’. One could of course argue that they got quite a lot of practice playing ‘Happy Birthday’. But then again, one could be accused of sour grapes. If you were the richest man in the universe, wouldn’t you want to celebrate your birthday every day?
On this day on Lokona, Hermon celebrated his birthday in Lokonian years, which wasn’t the same as Martian years and not at all the same as Earth years, but had he lived on Lokona, which he did not, it would have been his birthday, and that alone was worth coming here for a celebration.

The Invisible Fleas of the Galaxy

Originally published in MBrane SF

Jono Rasmussen became twice-dead on the night before the launch of the Giant Telescope. He had been working in the downtown office of Comtel Imaging and Telescopy when a mailbot ambled out of the lift to deliver a box of chocolate. Jono was very partial to chocolate. As soon as he picked it up, the box exploded in his face, and took out half the office as well.
The builder-bots fixed the office, while a medbot collected all the pieces of Jono, took them to the medbay where it put him back together again. That done, Jono applied for his second yellow stripe. Not just twice-dead, twice-murdered. Insignificant people died; important people were murdered. He’d be wearing the badge tomorrow, thanks insignificant Cygians; they hadn’t even made him late for his meeting with the president.

New novellette: Luminescence

The short story Luminescence was published in Martian Wave in 2010. Because it is part of a world in which I ‘ve set more stories, and part of a greater story, I’ve adapted it and it is now available on Smashwords and Amazon. Click on the image for the Amazon link.

Smashwords link here.

Here are two first two pages, for #SampleSunday:

A bright flash turned the ice under my feet into a sheet of white.
The inside of the inflatable dome blazed in X-ray vision as my visor’s auto-polarise function cut in, providing me with a skeleton-view of the flexible struts that held up the fabric.
A split second, and then the murky orange hue of the Titanian atmosphere returned. Darker still inside our tent on the ice of Kraken Mare on Titan’s south pole.
I depolarised my visor, heart thudding. Black spots danced in my vision. ‘Paul? Did you see that? Paul? Do you hear me?’
I stared at the entry hole in the ice in the middle of the tent. The black surface rippled.
‘Paul!’
There was no reply.
The snaking hoses of the breathing apparatus and the heater were the only sign of Paul’s presence in that blackness. Through my suit’s helmet I couldn’t even hear the humming of the air compressor in the shed.
Static crackled in my earphones. Paul’s words garbled into unintelligible mush, laced with excitement.
‘What is it? What do you see?’
‘It’s . . . beautiful. You can’t begin to describe it, Hadie. There’s colours and pictures and . . . It looks like a spider’s web . . . Holy fuck!’
The line went dead. I strode to the reception unit and pressed the reset with clumsy gloved hands. The roamer icon tracked over the screen and found . . .
Nothing.
Oh for fuck’s sake. This lousy radio never worked when you needed it.
I waited. I told myself not to worry. Paul could take care of himself. The hoses still pulsed, and now–relief flooded me–the downrope was moving, a sign that he was climbing up the ladder.
Sure enough, ten minutes later Paul’s helmet broke the surface, then his shoulders, followed by his be-suited arms. I hauled him up the last rungs of the ladder, the touch awkward through both our suits.
‘You OK?’ I asked.
Vapour rose from the suit, methane gas curling towards the roof of the tent, where it would condensate against the fabric, run down until it met the ice and freeze in globby stalagmites.
Paul dropped his sampling canisters, which he’d taken to collect samples from bacterial patches we had found living under the ice. My helmet receiver remained silent; I couldn’t see his face behind his visor. I cursed. This time when we got back to the habitat, I would complain to the Research Division, fuck the notes it would earn me against future promotion. It was one thing to let scientists work with sub-standard equipment when they worked in an environment where they could breathe the air, and they could sit around waiting for a bail-out if things went wrong. We didn’t have that luxury. Small things about the Titanian atmosphere like the general lack of oxygen and temperatures that would freeze your butt off meant that any equipment malfunction quickly turned serious with big fat capital letters. The tight-arses could at least give us receivers that fucking worked all the time, not just when they felt like it.
I guided him across the tent. His steps were stiff, that all-too-familiar feeling that leg muscles had frozen senseless, through the suit and layers of insulating clothing.
Into the air lock. I pulled shut the thick door and operated the panel. Waited. Just us in our suits, and a tiny light. Vapour rising off Paul’s suit, curling up to the vent in the ceiling. I hated the silence.
Lights flashed; the inner door opened. I preceded Paul into the familiarity of the tiny lab of Research Station 5: a simple table and four straight-backed chairs, lab benches with stacks of sample tubes and an assortment of equipment parts, mostly spare parts for the dive gear, because the samples needed to be kept outside–too warm for them in here. A rack with protective clothing. Thermal under-suits.
Monitoring and comm screens blinked warnings against the back wall. Initialisation sequence not detected. Unease clawed at the back of my mind.
I flicked the heater up as far as it would go. Fans jolted into action. The pump hummed below the floor, sucking up methane from under the ice.
The light was warm in here, and when I wriggled off my suit’s helmet, the air heavy with the scent of synth-coffee. Empty cups still sat on the table.
Paul sank down in one of the chairs. He reached for his helmet and I helped him unclip it.
‘Paul? What happened?’
He said nothing, his hazel eyes staring at the opposite wall like a blind man’s.
‘Paul!’
I swung one leg over his so I faced him. His expression remained blank. His skin looked marble-pale, his eyes wide open. Most of his curly hair lay plastered to his head, his lips dark with cold. Those lips I’d kissed before he went down.

His Name In Lights – first scene

Here is the first scene of His Name In Lights for #SampleSunday, via Twitter.

The time display said 33.16, an hour and a half after sunset. Daniel was so tired that he no longer appreciated the spectacular sky where Jupiter occupied a significant proportion of the horizon, an immense ball in white and red pajama-stripes. By its red-orange light, he staggered off the plate-ramming machine, rubbing muscles stiff with fatigue.
“Finished,” he said, a pre-set command, voice-cast to the immediate surroundings. His tech-bot team needed only that one word to start packing, which they did with their usual robotic efficiency.
Oscar rose from a crouch where he had been taking measurements. His voice-cast went straight into Daniel’s ears. “Hurry up. Scanner says an earthquake’s coming this way.”
“I’m onto it.” Thank goodness, only one more job to do.
Daniel slid the vibration gun out of its housing, ran his hand over the thick rim of hardened polymer that stuck about a hand-width out of the dust, found the joint between the two plates by touch, and attached the electrodes. Click – power. The gun hummed. Along the depth of the plates, about ten meters into the yellow soil, billions of atoms heated up, re-arranged themselves and formed a new matrix that glued the two plates together, completing the ring around the planned settlement.
Done. Great. Daniel straightened and looked over the dry valley, where the rims of seven similar rings stuck out of the ground, eight concentric plastic circles, the smallest more than 100 meters across, of carefully calibrated thickness and distance from each other: the installation that formed the planned settlement’s earthquake protection shield. A beautiful design.
“I’m done. Oscar, pack up your gear and–”
Crack. He didn’t hear it–the whisper-thin atmosphere meant there was little sound–but he could feel it in the parched dust under his feet.
What the–
[override command]
[emergency decision module]
[possible scenarios: 1. something in the ground cracked, 2. the seam has split]
The voice in his head soothed him. Yes, he could have figured these possibilities out himself, but he liked to hear confirmation, a clear plan to work to.
He knelt in the yellow dust and ran his sensitive fingertips over the rim. There was a hair-crack in the seam. He pulled the vibration gun out again–
The ground rumbled.
Crack.
[override command]
[emergency decision module]
[possible scenarios: 1. something–]
Yeah, yeah, he got it; he might not be considered entirely human yet, but he wasn’t stupid.
Now the split was wide enough for the tip of his little finger. “Uhm, Oscar, maybe we should go back to the truck.”
[advice: survey surroundings]
The caterpillar vehicle and its trailer stood near the far perimeter of the proposed new settlement, beyond white lines painted in the dust, where the major infrastructure would be built. Two tech-bots were tying empty crates onto the trailer bed in preparation for their return to Calico Base.
[advice: monitor geological activity]
Oscar was lazily packing away the geo-scanner, tying the leads in neat bundles before putting them into the case. “I wouldn’t worry about quakes now. We’re inside the barrier.”
[advice–]
Daniel cut off the internal voice. “A section of the inner ring just broke–Look, there, behind you!”
Black clouds billowed on the far side of the valley. Thick volcanic dust with flecks of orange. Damn it, an entire new volcano had sprung up–
[override command]
[emergency decision module]
[advice: 1. calm down, 2. prioritize personal survival]
Daniel ran, stumbling over the bucking ground. The neat white lines that demarcated the building site distorted under his feet. Rocks shook free of the yellow dirt.
To his right, a section of the outermost earthquake barrier flew out of the ground, a solid sheet of black plastic more than ten centimeters thick. The second barrier came up, buckled . . .
Yellowish sulfuric dust fell from the air, little specks of heat burning on his skin. Vision became murky. He switched to IR view. The rain of hot dust thickened. Daniel ran as fast as his human muscles and his mechanical frame could carry him.
Quick, the truck. He jumped up onto the caterpillar wheel, opened the cabin, crawled in.
[advice: 1. calm down, 2. shut cabin door]
Daniel froze. Shut the door and leave Oscar out there? He screamed into the billowing dust, “Oscar!”
[advice: volcanic dust is dangerous for equipment]
[advice: shut the–]
“Yes! Shut up!”
He grabbed his head. The module was wrong. Survival wasn’t just about himself. Real people would look after each other. He wanted to be a real person.
[advice:1. calm down, 2. shut cabin door]
It hurt, it hurt his brain. He had to obey; the stupid routine was part of him.
He slammed the hatch shut and sank in the driver’s seat, jabbing at switches and buttons. Thoughts raced each other through his mind.
Oscar!
[advice: unit XRZ-26 is programmed to find his own way back]
There’s no handle on the outside of the door.
[advice: unit XRZ-26 has excavation and cutting equipment]
I’m not leaving Oscar out there.
The truck powered up and displayed the surrounding terrain on the viewscreens, in IR vision. Most of the projection was a soup of grey, the regular scenery blanked out by an incredibly bright spot of spewing liquid. It looked like a water fountain, but was molten rock bursting from Io’s molten interior.
“Do you copy, Oscar?”
Oscar’s voice-cast came over the intercom, irregular, as if he was running. “Yes, I’m coming–” A silence and then, “Shit.”
“Hang on, buddy, I’m coming.”
Daniel crunched the truck into gear, but as the vehicle lurched forward, there was a sharp heave of the ground, followed by a snap. Something clanged against the outside of the cabin, and warnings flashed over the controls. A few seconds later the power flickered out. The floor tilted forward. Daniel scrambled over the seat towards the back of the vehicle, just as the front of the truck crunched into stone, and hung there, metal creaking. In the pitch dark cabin, Daniel could see nothing except the red glow of a button that said emergency.
“Oscar!”
There was no reply.
What now, what now? The inside of his head was quiet; he sensed the emergency routine was re-calibrating after he had ignored its commands and it was taking an extraordinarily long time in doing so. A moment of panic struck. Was it ever going to come back?
“Come on, tell me. What should I do now?”
Nothing. The cabin filled with eerie, throbbing darkness.
You wanted to be a regular human? Well, here you are.
Daniel hit that red glowing button.

The Far Horizon–chapter 1

Here is a sample first chapter of my Science Fiction for younger readers The Far Horizon. US readers please note I use Australian spelling and punctuation conventions. Click on the image to the left or in the bar to the right to purchase this ebook. Leave a message or email me if you’re a reviewer and are interested in a review copy.

Chapter 1

Cory ran, clutching the flapping sides of his uncomfortable jacket. The flower pinned to his breast pocket hung askew. Up the stairs between the townhouses, across the road to the park.
How could his father be so silly to leave the wedding rings on the kitchen table?
Panting, he stopped at the security checkpoint. Many people already waited, seated in rows on the slope between the road and the lake. Part of the lawn had been fenced off with posts and white ribbon. Small signs saying Private Function flapped in the breeze.
A security guard passed a metal detector over Cory’s back and sides. He patted the jacket’s pocket. ‘Excuse me, you have a metal object in here?’
Cory took out the box. ‘Just the rings.’
The guard’s face cleared. ‘Ah, you’re John Wilson’s son.’ He stepped aside.
Cory padded down the red carpet, which felt kind of springy because the grass on this side of the lake was really thick.
Wow, he didn’t know his father knew so many people. There was the director of the Space Training facility. In the second row from the back sat their doctor, and there was Mr Symonds, Cory’s teacher–
‘Pssst–Cory!’
Garreth waved at him from between his parents. Cory wished he could sit next to his friend, but his father waited in the front row of seats. ‘Got the rings, son?’
Cory held up the box.
His father gave a sheepish grin, making the skin around his eyes crinkle. He put an arm around Cory’s shoulder. ‘I’m lucky to have you. I’ll be lucky to have both of you. I love you, Cory.’
Cory didn’t meet his father’s eyes.
His father’s left hand was bare; he had taken off his other wedding ring, the one that had his mother’s name inside.
In the past two weeks she had barely left his thoughts. His mother sitting in the garden, a blanket over her knees. His mother in the kitchen, seated on her high stool, cutting vegetables. His mother, hollow-cheeked and giving a weak smile, in her hospital bed. Somewhere in the room behind him, a nurse was lighting the eight candles on Cory’s birthday cake. He remembered the smell of the burning match. He remembered staring at his mother’s bone-thin hands while the nurses sang Happy Birthday. Those hands were holding a present, but trembled too much to give it to him. Those hands he had touched for the last time three weeks later, the skin cold.
That was only two years ago.
Driving home from the funeral, his father had allowed Cory to sit in the front seat for the first time. He had said, ‘You’re a man now, and life will be about the two of us.’
Two weeks ago, his father had told him that he would marry Erith before they were to leave for Midway Space Station. As if his father had already forgotten his mother, forgotten the words he had spoken during that drive.
The hum of an electric motor drifted over the crowd.
‘Ah, there she is.’ His father sprang to his feet. Cory rubbed the warm spot his father’s hand had left on his shoulder.
Security guards swarmed around a black car that had stopped on the road. Both doors opened.
Harvey McIntosh scrambled from the front passenger seat. Even though he was their neighbour, and his father’s friend, Cory had never seen him in a black suit, with a flower at his breast, his wild mop of blond hair flattened down.
A pair of feet emerged from the back seat, clad in high-heeled sandals, and with toes so long they carried several silver rings. The frills of a silvery dress swished around long legs, the skin slightly grey.
Erith rose from the car, took Harvey’s outstretched arm, her hand slender with the thumb, index finger and middle finger much longer than the others. A spray of white flowers contrasted with her black curls. From under her heavy brow, her eyes rested on Cory’s father, eyes like a tiger–yellow with a black rim; she was a tiger, sneaking up on him like this. A tiger who had hypnotised his father.
The violins launched into a solemn tune.
Harvey led her down the aisle in slow steps.
Cory wished he could stop them. By tonight, she would have moved into his house, an ethie – Extra-Terrestrial Humanoid–an alien, making comments on everything he did, talking about nothing except his school work. His father had explained how study was very important in her world, but that didn’t make her sound any less like his teachers. She would never replace his mother, never, never.
He fiddled with the box on his lap, and started when Harvey McIntosh sank down on the empty seat next to him, spreading a smell of hair gel. Harvey’s blue eyes met Cory’s, and without a word, he put a hand on Cory’s knee. Cory looked away. A lump rose in his throat.
Were you allowed to hate your father’s new wife? He thought not. He pushed the thought away, because it would do him no good. His father would be angry and would call him selfish, and Erith would still stay, and she would be angry, too, as well as picking on his school work.
The celebrant climbed the few steps to the podium, adjusting his microphone. ‘Friends, we have gathered here today for this extraordinary event: the joining of one man and a woman. This marriage is all the more special because it joins cultures and worlds. It extends the hand of peace across the universe. In this day and age, peace is a valuable thing. Come forward, my friends who take this courageous step.’
Cory’s father climbed the podium, leading Erith by the hand.
A few people on the other side of the aisle started clapping, and the wave of applause spread throughout the audience.
His legs trembling, Cory rose from his seat. The box with the rings lay heavy in his hands. He shuffled forward, his mind fighting his feet every step of the way. He didn’t want this to happen, he didn’t want to be here, he wanted his father back. He wanted his father to stop listening to every word she said, he wanted them to stop holding hands–
The marriage celebrant continued, ‘When John came to me two weeks ago, I knew him only through his reputation at the Space Training Centre, in training for the position as youngest ever director of the Midway Space Station. I knew John as someone driven by his work. It turns out I only knew part of him. In John’s heart, there is a place for everyone, there is a place for peace–’
‘There will be no peace as long as ethie scum walk the surface of the Earth!’ A rough voice shouted at the back of the audience. Cory whirled around, but he only saw a raised fist. ‘No peace. No negotiations. Not here, or on Midway. No peace between Earth and the Union. Ever! Death to the ethie scum!’
Someone yelled, ‘He’s got a gun!’
People screamed.
Next thing, Cory was on the ground, his nose in the carpet and Harvey’s jacket over him. A thought slipped from that part of his mind where he kept things you weren’t supposed to say. I hope he shoots her.
That was so horrible it chilled him. He remembered his father’s face as he stood, for what seemed forever, looking at his mother’s unmoving face in the coffin, flowers clutched in a white-knuckled hand. He remembered tears running down his father’s contorted face and Uncle Peter having to force his father to come with the rest of the family. He never, ever wanted to see his father like that again.
There was shouting and screaming, the clanging of chairs and thudding footsteps, but nothing happened and Harvey released him. Cory pushed himself up.
A group of security guards pushed a man up to the road, his wrists bound. Cory had never seen him before.
At the podium, his father held Erith tightly. The marriage celebrant scrambled from behind a chair abandoned by the violin players, his face pale. The sound system rustled and squeaked when he hoisted his microphone back up. ‘Do you want to move the ceremony inside?’
His father took Erith’s hand and stepped onto the podium. People applauded. He shouted, ‘I won’t back down. I am a free man. Erith is a free woman. We believe in progress. Continue.’

* * *

Harvey McIntosh faced Cory on the dark porch. A lamp cast a pool of bluish light on the pavement. In the playground outside the unit’s entrance, tangled shadows of a bench and a swing looked like a huge spider’s web.
Faint light came from the doorway, where they had left his father and Erith at the candle-lit table in the living room, gazing into each other’s eyes.
‘Are you sure you’re all right, Cory? You have been very quiet today,’ Harvey said.
Cory nodded, but a lump formed in his throat. All day, people had congratulated him with his father’s marriage. He had smiled and wondered congratulations with what? Having his house invaded by a woman who two weeks ago he didn’t even know his father liked?
Harvey passed an arm over his shoulders. ‘It’s all right. We were all shaken by that man.’
Harvey didn’t understand either; Harvey couldn’t understand all the wrong thoughts in Cory’s mind. For a split second he had hoped the man would shoot Erith. ‘Did he really have a gun?’
Harvey shook his head. ‘He couldn’t have, with all those security guards.’ He sighed. ‘But still . . . the fact that he got in at all . . . The guards were supposed to check invitations.’
‘Was he from the same people who attacked the assembly last year? The Earth Front?’ Cory often wondered what Harvey had seen when the bomb went off in the assembly hall. He had asked, but Harvey had never answered that question.
‘Who knows? There are many lunatics out there who don’t want Earth to talk to the Union, and who think people like Erith are animals.’
No, Cory didn’t ethies were animals; he just didn’t like having one of them in his house. That was different, wasn’t it?
Harvey clapped him on the shoulder. ‘I wouldn’t worry too much about those idiots. Hey, you’ll be off the day after tomorrow.’
Cory smiled; he did look forward to going into space; he and his father had prepared for it for a year.
The smile must have come out wrong, because Harvey ruffled his hair. ‘Cory, I know what you’re feeling. My parents divorced when I was little and my mother re-married. For a long time, I hated my new father.’
‘Was he an alien, too?’ The words came out far too nasty. Alien was a bad word to use for people like Erith. He mumbled, ‘I’m sorry.’
Harvey shook his head. ‘No, I am sorry. I don’t know what I’m talking about. No, of course we were not a cross-species family. You and your father are pioneers.’
Cory shrugged. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be a pioneer.
‘Anyway, I’ll see you again at Midway.’
‘Are you coming on the Venture as well?’
‘I’ll be on the next passenger ship. The next Earth-Union conference will be held at Midway. I’m one of the delegates.’
‘You mean the same conference where all the people were killed?’
He still remembered how he and his classmates had been locked up in school until after dark, until security had made sure no anti-Union terrorists remained in the Nations of Earth compound. He still remembered how the teacher had cried. Everyone at school had known at least one of the dead. Seven children had lost a parent.
Harvey nodded. ‘Nations of Earth assembly has decided to have the conference at Midway instead. It’s safer, easier to protect. This conference is really important, Cory. It will be interesting for you as well.’ He winked. ‘I better let you get to bed.’
‘Good night.’ Cory remained on the porch while Harvey crossed the playground to the next porch, jingling his keys. The door opened, light blinked on, showing Harvey’s collection of African statues in the hall, and then the door shut again.
Cory leaned against the wall. A faint glow radiated from the open door behind him. He couldn’t hear voices. Did that mean his father and Erith had gone to bed? Or worse, were kissing each other?
He wanted to stay out here, but he was getting cold.
A piece of paper hung from the opening of the letterbox. Half-interested, he pulled it out and unfolded it.
Bold print read, You consort with the devil. Don’t think you are safe. Wherever you go, we will follow.

Short story release: Whispering Willows

I love a lot of things about this short story: its voice, its quirky character Loesie, who will be a character in a novel that follows the events in this short story, and the isolated feel of the farm with its people who are wise through experience, and not formal education.

The setting is based, of course, on random real-life facts about the pre-industrial area in mainland Europe that today is the Netherlands. The geography is–ahem–concentrated. Most of the names are made up, although one or two are real. For this story in particular, if you close your eyes and think away the cars and electricity lines, you could be forgiven to think not much has changed. The farms are still there, the truncated willows are still there, the lapwings and buttercups are still there. Just add magic… oh, and bears.

I’ve copied the first scene below. Click on the image for the link to Smashwords to download the entire story. The novel, which will most likely be called For Queen and Country, will be out some time later. Loesie will feature in the book, but not as the main character.

Clicking on the picture will take you to Smashwords. This link will take you to Amazon

***

The river behind Granma’s house runs deep. The water’s like a vat of dirty milk, all murky, with eddies and floating sticks that twirl and twirl downstream.
From the top of the dike, with only green fields and willows around me, I can see the other side – just. Maybe I could make out a person if they stood on the bank, but I’s not sure ’cause no one ever does. The other side is Gelre and them’s bad as they come, at least so says Granpa in between stuffing his pipe and stripping willow twigs.
No one with half a brain would try to cross the river. No one ever could.
Except the man and his enormous horse.
I were cutting willow switches, and then I seen them in the middle of the water. Two heads, a black horse’s and a man’s. It seemed the horse was walking-like, on the bottom, but I don’t know ‘s the river has a bottom. But whatever it were doing, the horse were coming straight for me.
I hid in the tree, which were pretty silly-like, ’cause a willow’s no leaves in early spring.
The man didn’t see me, or he pretended as much he didn’t see me as I pretended to be a bird. Or something.
He had hair red as a fox, all curly, and the bit below his shoulders were wet and dripped water onto his jerkin.
The horse – it were huge, with a long mane and masses of fluff around hooves big as Ma’s milking bucket. It were noisy-like, snorting and blowing and grumbling.
The stranger sat straight on the horse’s back, no saddle, and grabbed a breath of wind in his hand. He whispered into it, and let it go. He were using magic. His eyes met mine and my cheeks glowed like they’s on fire.
He kicked the horse’s sides and rode off. The orange spot that were his hair grew smaller and smaller amongst the grass and the buttercups.