Trader’s Honour snippet alert!

Trader's HonourI finished the first draft! Much work remains to be done, but here is a snippet from the middle of the first section of the book. Because I quite like this scene. And because I can.

Mikandra strode to the wardrobe and flung the dress onto the floor. She slammed the wardrobe door. She took the wad of paper with the text of the play–a stupid old-fashioned drama about some ancient event in Miran’s history–off the night stand and flung it on the bed. Papers flew like butterflies.

Stupid play with its pompous, self-righteous language. Stupid events in the past which still caused people to have hangups about participating in gamra society. The boycott had not started because the other gamra entities had cut off Miran, but because Miran was continuously obstructing foreign investment within its borders with arcane rules.
Because the council was stubborn and inflexible and old-fashioned. And then they were surprised that other nations got angry.

The Invasion indeed.

She spread the papers out over the bed.

Stupid noble arrogance.

Stupid traditions.

Stupid notion of being all nice and pretty and utterly useless.

So, she was not good marriage material, huh? Only to be passed to old creepy men who wanted a plaything. So, when she tried to be useful regardless, they treated her like this, huh?

Shut up and learn your lines, huh? Live the rest of your life in some sort of stupid fantasy oblivious to the burning of Miran’s society around it. Pretend Miran was still at the top of its glory. Pretend everything was like before The Invasion. Like the Coldi cared, like the Trader Guild cared. Those people were just laughing at Miran.

Clothes, plays, music, arts.

Stupid-fucking-make-up.

While in the poor parts of the city people froze to death and homeless were left to be eaten by wild animals. And then the nobles sent their girls into the hospitals to put bandages on their wounds?

And that was Miran’s noble culture?

She went to the mirror, picked up the eye paint brush and dipped in the paint. She wrote on the wall If you want to shine, be like a star.

There, that was better already, a much better use of eye paint than putting it on her eyelids where it irritated her eyes and made her look as if she’d been crying.

Bah, crying was for helpless damsels.

But that still didn’t make the decision any easier. She let her shoulders sag. It was easy to be angry in this room. Being angry when facing Father was a whole different matter. Or saying that she didn’t want to be in that play when Mother was crying.

There was a knock on the door. Mikandra looked from the door to the wall. If that was her father again, he’d be even more angry for painting on the wall. If that was her mother, she would say how disappointed she was in her eldest daughter. If it was Rosep, he would complain about having to re-paint the wall and tell her father.

There was another knock.

“Sis, it’s me,” a small voice said. “Open up, please.”

Mikandra sighed and went to open the door. Her sister slipped inside. In the low light, her face was a pale oval. She glanced from the dress on the floor to the papers scattered over the bed to the text scrawled on the wall. Her eyes were wide. Scared.

Mikandra sometimes forgot how young Liseyo was, and how much what Mother and Father said was still law to her.

“Why is it so cold in here? Hasn’t Rosep lit the fire?”

Mikandra gazed at the dark hearth. The fire was producing lots of smoke but no flames.

Annoyed, she poked the smothering fire bricks aside and fanned the tiny glow in the coals underneath. Flames licked the corner of the fire bricks.

Liseyo sat down on the bed amongst the scattered papers. She picked one up, and then a couple more, shuffling the sheets in order.

“Mother borrowed this text off Gisandra Tussamar. It’s very old and precious.” There was a tone of accusation in her voice, a tone that said that the noble lady would not appreciated if her precious play got flung over the bed out of order. She was right of course, and that was the annoying part.

“Don’t you start, too, Liseyo.”

“This is my favourite re-telling of The Invasion. I’m going to play Dinandra.”

“Isn’t that a role for someone older?”

“They’ll make me look older, with white paint in my hair and lines drawn on my face. I get to wear a really nice old-fashioned dress. I think you should join, too. It’d be great fun.”

Mikandra sighed. “It’s a hideously skewed view of history. There are plenty of documents in the library which say that there was no invasion at all. That the Coldi who came were weak and hungry. They say that the Mirani defenders killed a lot of them before the Coldi could make it clear what they wanted. It’s not as if they spoke our language. Flaming creatures came down from the sky indeed. Where is the truth in that? They didn’t shoot and weren’t aggressive. The truth is that Miran had the watchtower, the watchtower keeper used telescopes. Asto is by far the clearest point of light in the sky, and the Mirani council back then knew that people lived there. So why were they still surprised when these people came?” She spread her hands in frustration.

Liseyo’s mouth twitched. “Does it matter if it’s accurate? It’s just a story.”

“None of the historical plays is ever just a story. There are children in the audience, and this stuff is being taught to them as fact. They hear that Miran was glorious, yet the evidence is that it was not. We are far more healthy, better-clothed and better fed than the people back then. They hear that Miran was attacked, but the evidence is that these people came for help, not to conquer.”

“Baaah, you’re no fun.”

“This has nothing to do with fun. It’s about the way we learn to see people from outside Miran, and those views start when children are taught this sort of crap.”

She let an angry silence lapse.

Liseyo’s eyes were big. “I just wish you wouldn’t talk like this. It makes me scared. I don’t like it when Mother cries. Father is really angry this time, a lot more angry than he was when you refused to go to the theatre. Why do you do this?”

Mikandra sat next to her sister and closed her in her arms. Her shoulders were so thin. “Oh, Liseyo, I’d tell you, but you’re not old enough to understand.”

“That’s what everyone in this house says, and I’m sick of it. Try me. Why do you hate everyone so much?”

Was that what they thought? “I don’t hate everyone. I just want to make a difference and do something that helps.”

“Being in the hospital makes a difference. There are a lot of sick people who need you.”

“It’s all fake, Liseyo. Everything we’re allowed to do as girls is fake. The theatre, art, music, healing, nothing makes serious money or is anywhere near places where real decisions are made. Nothing is really important. While we’re in the theatre rehearsing the plays of centuries ago or in the wards covering up the problems of the city, they make decisions on our behalf, and nothing gets solved. Being in the hospital is just putting dressings on infected wounds that people wouldn’t have if they had houses so they weren’t sleeping in the street and attacked by maramarang, or if they had heating. I want people to stop the glorifying of Miran. I love Miran, but there are things wrong that we need to make better. I don’t think we can do that alone.”

“So, does that mean you’re going?”

Mikandra shrugged. For a moment she wished she’d never received that offer. Everything else she’d done in her life in the way of protest was gentle and reversible. She’d cut off her hair when Mother complained about her wearing it in a ponytail, but it had grown back. She’d walked around in hunting clothes in the city when she’d hidden that stupid dress Mother wanted her to wear so well that no one in the house could find it.

But she had never done anything or said anything that challenged her life with her parents and sister in a way this did.

If she went to Trader Academy, there would be no way back to this house or this room. She would have to be fully independent, and, since she would not find a husband to share her living costs, she would have to earn enough to support herself.

Money frightened her and the thought of not having any frightened her even more.

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.

Watcher’s Web sample chapter

Watcher’s Web is now available as ebook. Click on the image for a link to Amazon and on the image to the right for a link Smashwords.

Chapter 1

Wherever Jessica went, people watched her.
Like those two teenage boys leaning on the fence, akubra hats pulled down to shade their eyes. One of them dangled a cigarette in careless fingers, the other swigged beer from a stubby. Neither was watching her now, but she hadn’t missed their gawking, nor their low voices barely elevated over the noise of bellowing cattle, shouts and truck engines.
Wow! See that really tall one?
Bloody hell, yeah.
How’d you reckon she kisses a guy? On her knees?

They laughed, and when she came closer, faced the yard to watch the cattle as if they had said nothing.
Jessica walked past them to the gate, glaring at their straw-covered backs. Well, I bloody heard you. She was used to it, anyway.
It hadn’t been the worst thing people said about her. They hadn’t said the words ugly, or creepy, or freak, but she had become used to hearing those words, too.
They went into a little hard spot inside her where she scrunched up the hurt, forgot it, and remembered that she might look like a freak, but when she helped John Braithwaite and his mates from the Rivervale Stud Farm at a cattle show and Angus went into one of his fits, they still needed her to get him into the truck without spooking him. No one else could do that. No one knew how she did it, and no one should ever know. Because no one was crazy enough to get into a pen with a stroppy bull, right?
Well, we’ll see about that.
She grasped the top of the gate with both hands, stepped onto the middle bar and swung her foot over. Jumped. Landed in sun-baked mud churned with cloven hoof prints, and cow pats.
At least when Angus looked at her, he didn’t hide his dislike. A beady eye rolled, a gust of hay-scented air blew from his nostrils. He stiffened, all fifteen hundred-odd kilograms of Brahman bull-flesh of him. Then lowered his head, horns poised.
Someone yelled, ‘Watch it!’
No, he wasn’t going to charge. He’d charge at the boys, he’d even charge at his well-heeled owner, but never at her. Call her arrogant, but she knew that, and how she knew it would remain a secret, too, thank you very much.
She stopped a few paces inside the pen and crossed her arms over her chest. Well, bugger that. She had a bloody audience. About twenty people, mostly men, sitting on the fence, with cynical hey-look-at-this-mate expressions plastered on their faces.
Beef cattle farmers, their lackeys and other hangers-on, those clowns who had partied in the pavilion last night, those who owned the bulls that had occupied the pens next to Angus’. All their animals were already in the trucks, ready to be taken home from the Pymberton show. None of them with a ‘best of show’ ribbon, like Angus, and none with a diva mentality.
It looked like the boys had been trying to get Angus to move for a while. The gate on the opposite side of the pen was open, the ramp in place. Brendan held the door to the truck, ready to slam it. Everything about his expression said, rather you than me. The coward.
‘Come on, Angus, in you go.’
Men sniggered, including the two teenage boys. The one with the cigarette flicked ash into the pen and said something about a whip.
Now who was more stupid? Them or the bull? You did not frighten such a prize animal if you could help it. He might bolt and injure himself. An unsightly gash would take him off the show circuit for months. Sheesh!
Jessica reached through the fence into the bucket she had dumped there. Her hand came away black and sticky with molasses. Angus loved it.
She inched closer, holding out her hand Come on, look me in the eye, if you dare.
Angus blew out another snort, as if he knew what was coming. Backed into the fence. Met her eyes.
Jessica exhaled. Her breath seeped from her in tendrils of sparkle-filled mist, which sought out Angus’ fur and crept over his grey-mottled back, a bit like glitter-glue, but alive.
Jessica lunged for the rope that dangled from Angus’ collar. She couldn’t quite reach it, and while Angus backed further away from her, scraping along the fence, he planted his hoof on the end of the rope, squashing it neatly in a fresh pile of dung. Just her luck.
A bit closer.
She pulled the mist tighter around him, so his coat sparkled and glittered with lights. His outline became fuzzy. She didn’t know what to call it, and had learned not to talk about it to anyone. It wasn’t that she could communicate with him, but she could tell him what to do. Sort of. In a weird way she couldn’t explain in words. The mist soaked up emotions, as far as bulls have emotions, and dampened them, and she could override them with her own. If it worked.
Her audience had stopped talking. Anyone who watched always did that, even though they couldn’t see the mist and didn’t realise it influenced them. That was just as well, because she was making an idiot of herself. Angus was being bloody stubborn, his head still lowered, trampling the rope further into the shit. Something must have spooked him badly. Maybe it was the yapping from the dog pavilion. Well, she and Angus seemed to have something in common–she didn’t like lap dogs either.
But he was going to get into that bloody truck, preferably before she missed her flight back to Sydney. All kinds of hell would break loose if she wasn’t at the school basketball team meeting that night.
Jessica focused on Angus’ beady eye and let out another deep breath. More sparkling vapour flowed. Pinpricks of light soaked into Angus’ mottled fur. Angus relaxed, stuck out his head to nuzzle her molasses-covered hand.
But then. . .
The threads solidified and the mist spun into tightly-coiled cords, which wove into a formation like a spider’s web.
What the hell . . .?
She froze, staring at the writhing construction. It looked like someone had cast a living net over the bull, made of sparkling mist that yanked and stretched of its own volition, or . . . as if something pulled at the other end. There were shadows in a nebulous space over Angus’ back, and male voices, just outside the edge of hearing. The web vibrated and strained.
A tug of war between herself and . . . Who was pulling the other end?
In her panic, she broke loose from the construction. The shadows at the other end of the web faded. The strands dissolved into mist once more.
A wet nose touched her palm and Angus’ rasping tongue curled around her wrist. The molasses was clean licked-off, but he probably liked the salt of her sweat, because her arms glistened with it. She hoped no one noticed.
Her legs still trembling, Jessica pulled the rope and inched towards the gate. Angus followed her meekly, up the ramp, into the truck, where one of the boys was ready to tie him up.
The onlookers applauded.
Jessica leaned against the truck, forcing herself to grin at her audience.
‘Can anyone give me a lift to the airport?’

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.