Category Archives: Short Fiction
This began life as flavor text for a feat called “Fairy Doctor,” an idea from my longest-running fantasy d20 campaign.
It… got out of control.
And I STILL need to write the feat…
Cyble ran one thick finger down her archlute’s top string, listening intensely to the soft brushing sound. She needed to ensure every string was taught and tuned, to ensure none failed in the confrontation with the sirenwraith shortly after dawn. On the other hand she also needed to be quiet since her companions were all sleeping, and she also didn’t want any of them failing in the morning.
It was, perhaps, then understandable that she didn’t notice the winged mote of light sneaking up from the far side of the campfire, despite the fact she was on watch. Her party members knew she could get distracted by her work even in the middle of the night, and thus rarely gave her watch duty. But this time she was the only spellcaster who hadn’t expended any spells, and she had assured them she was too focused to sleep.
Even so, they had left Stumper, Hawkin Green’s faithful hornhound companion, to keep watch with her. Stumper had, of course, seen the winged mote. Had even sniffed it once. Stumper had then laid his head back down.
So when the mote suddenly hissed “Psssssssst!” in Cyble’s ear, her reaction was reasonable. A bit rough on her archlute, but it had thin mithral reinforcement for just such rough uses.
The mote was slapped to the ground, where it stopped glowing and held up two tiny arms in a gesture of surrender.
“Mighty doctor, stay they wrath! I am but a simple fey, come to beg they aid! For I have ails, and…”
“Oh for FU..” Cyble choked off her own voice just as she began to shout. She glanced around the campsite, but the other adventurers really were too tired to be woken by her near-outburst. Grim Gelda stirred, but settled back into her patchwork skin sleeping roll.
Cyble fixed her gaze on the “simple fey,” a sprig-sprite no more than three inches tall, with the dewdrop leaf attire of a minor noble.
“Listen you little shi… shifty annoyance! This is not the time for that “fairy doctor” stuff. I have real issues to deal with!” She managed to put some of her lung’s impressive power into the rebuke, despite keeping it quiet and focused on the intruder.
The sprig seemed unphased. “But you ARE the fairy doctor! You save Reseld Queen from the morosity that claimed her! Not for seven generations..”
Cyble cut him off with a sharp wave of her hand. “Reseld was just depressed, and I sang a song to cheer her up. That’s it! If I’d know she wasn’t actually a bunny…”
“The Bunny Queen!” the sprig interjected proudly.
“Shut up! My point is I am not some mystic doctor of fairy ills. I just cheered up one fairy, one, and she couldn’t keep her yap shut about it!”
The spring nodded enthusiastically. “Indeed, one song and our beloved Majesty of the Cotton-Tail was back to her cavorting self! And then you saved the Lady of Dawn’s Gold…”
“She was broke, it all,” Cyble interrupted.” I gave her one gold coin.”
“And the Prince of Berries…”
“He was choking. I hit him. It’s not my fault he spit out that seed and survived.”
“…AND the entire Dewdrop Brigade!”
Cyble paused. “Okay, they had devil chills. But it was Grimmy who cured them.”
The sprig’s smile literally glowed. “You found them, assessed their ills, and found the cure in another mortal! You are a fairy doctor!”
“If I diagnose your problem, will you leave me alone?”
The sprig nodded so hard his antennae slapped back and forth from his face to the back of his head. The noise was so ridiculous, Cyble could not help but smile.:
“Fine, but make it quick. And quiet! What’s wrong?”
His expression fell.
“I am small.”
Cyble gave the expression her acting maestro had called “deadpan.” The sprig got the message.
“Of course to you I must always seem small. But my heart, it is smaller. It struggles to meet the inside of my chest with each beat. Food has lost its taste. Flowers are no longer sweet to smell. I cannot match my shadow’s gait. In ways I was once enormous, I have shrunk into a shell.”
Cyble’s expression softened. She scooped the spring up, and set it on the apron covering her ample lap.
“Have you lost anyone close to you recently?”
The sprig shook its head, though large dewdrop tears formed at the corners of its now-huge eyes.
Cyble thought. “Pining after a girl?”
Another head-shake. This was going to be some weird fairy-problem, Cyble realized.
“When did this first begin?”
The sprig’s voice quavered. “Ten nights ago, as the first star sparkled. I looked at it, and wonder who else saw it. A hawk cried out. A child began to cry. And my heart sank, and I have been small ever since.”
“A child?” Cyble latched onto the one element that seemed un-fairy. “What child?”
The sprig shrugged. “I was near a town. Rocks-over-water, or some such.”
The sprig nodded. “Near an old farm. There was a child within, one old enough to care for itself, but seasons and seasons away from playing adult. It cried.”
“And how did that make you feel?”
Again, a shrug. “It’s mortal. It’ll play at being adult, be adult, learn to make cakes, gain a sliver of wisdom, and die.”
Cyble was trained to read as much into tone of voice as much as the words they spoke. And the sprig’s voice held a slight quaver, which deepened as it spoke.
She knew fairies had extreme emotions, and often it was a bad idea to let them interact with other races. The slightest insult could begin a lifelong grudge, and saving one could result in having them hunt you down for help for years afterwards. But if handled carefully, a fairy could be a real boon to a crying child.
“So, clearly the child saw, and wished on the same star.” She spoke slowly, making it up as she went along, but the sprig nodded again, and wiped a tear from its face.
“And,” she continued, “the child must have made a wish. Children do that. But the wish didn’t come true, and that made it cry. Children’s wishes” she added hurriedly “can’t always be granted. Sometimes it’s impossible, and sometimes it’s just a bad idea. But a sad child wishing on a star… you must have gotten star-worry.”
“Star-worry?” The sprig seemed confused. “I’ve never heard of it.”
I imagine not, Cyble thought. I just made it up.
“Star-worry happens when a star wants to help someone, but it can’t. Someone else looking at the star. Someone like, say, a brave and wise fairy, gets infected with the worry. That’s why you got small. The worries of a star are pressing you down.”
The sprig shook. “I am doomed!”
Cyble smiled. “Not necessarily. The star is worried about the child who wished on it. All you need to do is make sure the child is all right, not starving, not being beaten, and the star will stop worrying about it. Then you can stop being small. BUT!”
The sprig leaned in, its ears actually getting slightly bigger.
“You MUST be careful. Mortal children aren’t fey. You can’t just bathe her in gold or grant her a wish. Like a caterpillar struggling to escape a cocoon to be a butterfly, if you remove all the obstacles in her life, she won’t grow strong enough to survive. But if you add to her woes, she may never escape her childhood at all.”
“But… but… “ The sprig nearly wailed. “Then what can I DO!?”
“Your kind garden, yes?”
The sprig drew itself up to its full, miniscule, height. “We grow the sweetest berries, the brightest flowers, and the hardest stumps!”
Cyble nodded. “Good. That takes care, patience, and time. That’s what the child needs. You don’t know yet if the child is a berry or a stump. You can’t know how much rain or sun it needs. But if threatened by fire or blight, that you can assist with. When the child is no longer at too great a risk.\the star’s worry will lift, and then so will yours. Can you do that? With subtly, and care?”
The spring, to its credit, tilted its head and clearly thought hard. Ten long seconds passed. Then it nodded, once.
“You have found my ail, and given me the course for cure. I’ll go to Rocks-Over-Water, find the sad child, and gentle shepherd it through any grave threat. I am saved!”
The sprig began to glow again, and its wings hummed as it flew up to Cyble’s right pinky finger, which it took in both hands and shook vigorously.
“Thank you, THANK you, good fairy doctor. I shall spread word of your wisdom far an… ummmph!”
Cyble was sure not to squeeze to hard, but she kept her grip on the fey firm.
“Tell. NO. One. Clear?”
Slightly blue in the face, the sprig nodded.
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It was a humid night, as Mhuoomphies forced air out his cloaca to hover pensively by the office window. It was the kind of night where a tentacle might be slick with something other than condensation.
His office was cluttered with images, each a fuzzy impression of a scene, projected from crystals floating apparently at random about the room. He reached out with a 7-tentacle, the scarred one, and spun one of the crystals. The out-fo-focus image spun with it, the psychic impression of a witness, able to be seen from any angle.
The witnesses all thought they knew what they had seen, but both the out-of-focus perfect psionic impressions and long experience told Mhuoomphies otherwise. Creatures thought their memories were perfect images, ingrained forever like stone carvings. But the mind of a sentient didn’t work that way. Emotions, distractions, preconceived notions, and bigotry flavored every thing every thinking creature remembered. In the flumph’s experience, many evils could be traced to different memories of the same events.
But there were hints of the truth in the memory-crystal’s images as well. Certainly SOMETHING had happened. The image of the adolescent iron-eater, rolled on her back, antennae straight in fear and shock, were similar in most of the images. Some showed her as larger or more aggressive, but metal-users usually despised and misunderstood iron-eaters. And even those who remembered the even as the adolescent’s fault remembered the position of her body, on it’s back, wing-tail raised in defense. They might think they remembered her being the attacker, but they were fooling themselves.
The true attacker was shown in fewer memories, and the image was much more indistinct. A red cloak was featured in more than half, but Mhuoomphies was suspicious of that. There had been a great deal of blood. Sentients often added red to a scene where blood has splashed like cheap ale.
The creature had been tall… maybe. Hunched… maybe. Neither detail was shown in monroe than a quarter of the memory images. And one, just one, showed an arm made of a swarm of roaches jutting out from a crimson robe, rather than a cloak.
That memory was alone in that detail, but it was otherwise so crisp. And it made Mhouoomphies port outages nozzle whistle a low, sad sound. He has never hoped so strongly for a witness to be unreliable.
Because the young iron-eater had been killed, and he hoped it was a simple hate crime, or a political gambit to convince the iron-eaters to continue to mine for a smaller share of the ferrous metals they unearthed. Those were terrible reasons to kill, but there weren’t any good reasons. The young iron-eater was dead, and the clumpy couldn’t change that. If the reason for her death was simple, he could gain justice quickly. He would have no living help.
When an aberrant race died, none of the breathing Lamplighters took it seriously. Aboleth crime lords and cloaked gangs had eroded any goodwill bipedal vertebrates felt for all his kind. And even those who wanted to care had too many other crimes on their plate. Only Mhuoomphies had the time, and only he was trusted by anyone in the Aberrant communities.
And with iron-eaters on strike, and the dark naga pressing for full voting rights, this needed to get handled fast. Even the Metalhearts might decide…
The flumph’s office door burst opened, the brief scream of its metal lock bending and shattering the only warning before it gave way. A lurking metallic humanoid stood in the doorway, a bullseye lantern in its chest leaking light through the cracks, despite being shuttered.
“You are the Aberrant Lamplighter, Muffles?”
Two of the flumph’s starboard vents honked quietly in annoyance. He pursed his feedhole, and forced air through it to emulate the annoying, imperfect language of the bipeds. He also pooled caustics into his adamantine-tipped primespike, in case the creature was hostile, rather than just dangerously bumbling.
“Mhuoomphies. ArchLantern, Mhuoomphies.”
The metallic creature nodded once.
“I am Malakrut. I am a fresh forged Spark. The LawKeepers have assigned me to assist and monitor your efforts to enforce the laws of DarkStar Station, in the matter of a slain iron-eater in the abnormals district.”
Mhuoomphies felt himself relax, and sucked his caustics back into their reservoir. Of course he would be saddled with a rookie to report his every misstep.
It was Inevitable.
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Léo strained his sight and hearing to the outer limits of their power. It was an act of will now, as instinctive as walking, to focus on the meditation that controlled his augmentations. Causing the right blood vessels to expand or contract had taken him months to master, and for a time he feared the core design was flawed. But just as an infant learned to walk, he had learned to master his new eyes, ears, lungs, and heart. The extra power did cause the augmentationss to heat uncomfortably, but Léo knew he was in no danger as long as he didn’t maintain the effort too long.
The thick fog coming up off the Nançon River made the bridge spanning the river hazy, but even that could not hide the looming wall beyond, or the massive Saint-Sulspice Gate just on the bridge’s far side. Normal eyes would have picked out little more than the wall’s shape in the dim light the few lightposts provided, but Léo’s augmented eyes were far from normal. Ultraviolet and infrared light flooded the nighttime scene, allowing him to make out the Vichy and Nazi flags hung along the wall, the guards on both the wall and bridge, and even the glint of snipers in the towers of Castle Fougères further beyond the wall.
Léo glanced at the speaker, the largest of the three figures lurking in the church behind him. The only American in the group, the man had originally spent weeks trying to communicate in his broken French. But since Léo and his compatriots all spoke excellent English, and generally used it in preference to suffering through his French, the man had long since given up the effort. Léo kept his voice low.
“Lupin was right, as usual, Captain Challenger. There’s an actual Nazi contingent here, and Fougères’ defenses have been significantly strengthened. Something is definitely going on here. As to whether the Professor himself is here… it is too soon to say. He stopped flying his own pennant after Marianne nearly killed him in Bordeaux last year.”
Challenger shifted his stance uncomfortably and glanced over at Marianne. The petite French woman flashed him a smile that appeared genuine, but lasted only a fraction of a second. Léo knew to look at her right hand’s grip on her pike, and saw her clenched knuckles were white. Marianne had been fighting the Axis since before Léo’s modern memories began, and Professor Ragnarok has been her chief target for much of that time. It was a credit to her iron will that she was able to stand, apparently calm, and wait in the church with the rest of them when her most hated foe might be asleep less than two kilometers away.
Challenger glanced back at Léo. “So, do we hit them or not? We can still cross through the water, using the bridge for cover, then sneak over the gate… ”
Marianne shook her head curtly, and her voice held no sign of the growing desire to act she must be feeling.
“Non, Captain. If Professor Ragnarok is within, he’ll have packs of kreighunds patrolling. We’d be discovered immediately. If he is NOT within, then we lack the reconnaissance to know where the high value target is, or even what it is. Lupin’s analysis can only tell us that something vital is being held here by the Boches. We cannot afford to stab blindly into a fortification this size. If Le Nyctalope,” she inclined her head toward Léo, “identifies a potential target with his observations we can consider a plan to breach. Otherwise, we wait for Fantômas to flush the target out or contact us with a map leading to something we can strike at clandestinely. As planned.”
Challenger frowned. “We wait how long?”
Léo shrugged. “As long as it takes, or until Lupin informs us he has a better lead. I did warn you, Captain. Fighting with the Maquis de Masque isn’t like the fighting you have done with the army. We cannot engage the enemy in direct, open conflict. The unorthodox nature of our goals and agents often leads to unorthodox solutions, and those are difficult to time to the minute. Or even the day. Schedules for our missions are approximations, at best. Fantômas has had only a day longer than we have. We should get comfortable, and rest in shifts. This may take days. Perhaps weeks.”
Captain Challenger chewed, though he didn’t seem to have anything to chew on. He moved back from the stained glass window, where Léo was keeping watch, and sat on a pew next to a young man who made up the fourth member of the team within the church, Wasp, who was casually laying along a pew while wearing a chauffer’s uniform with a domino mask and a wasp embroidered on his shoulder.
Challenger seemed to get through whatever he’d be chewing on.
“I don’t like letting Fantômas operate on his own, either. I don’t trust him.”
Wasp, sitting up and moving next to him, clapped Challenger on the back and laughed.
“Of course you don’t trust him. Lupin doesn’t trust him. I would guess no one trusts him. He’s a murderer and a madman. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he has chosen to support the Vichy, given his ties to Germany. But he didn’t, and he’s nothing if not prideful. As long as he sees the occupation as a greater insult than working with us is, he’ll hold up his end of things. At least that’s what Doctor Sun keeps telling me. And the Doctor has a great deal more experience with him than any of us.”
Challenger frowned, but leaned back and relaxed into the pew. Despite his size he blended into the shadows of the darkened church well, thanks to his dark green uniform, standard issue for an American Army Ranger save for the arming sword slung from his belt between a canteen and an ammo pouch.
“And were is Doctor Sun? Wasn’t the plan to rendezvous here?”
Léo winced at the entirely-American pronunciation of rendez-vous, but nodded.
“Yes Captain, that was the original plan. But after arriving and doing a brief recon, the Doctor felt it wiser to stay in reserve and I must say I agree. We may need to move swiftly through the streets, or flee into the swamps, and in either case the Doctor is better served ensuring our… transportation… remains in top shape. It… it does require regular maintenance, and if it’s spotted by sympathizers who get word to any member of the Zweckforschung, much less Ragnarok… ”
Captain Challenger gave a wry grin. “It… it is pretty distinctive, isn’t it?”
“Not always,” Wasp interjected. “As long as the Doctor isn’t threatened, and it can restrict itself to roads, it’s a fairly typical Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. Unusual, sure, but not unknown. Heck, Lenin had one, though his was a halftrack. It’s sound is distinctive, sure, but if it’s not running, it can blend in fairly well.”
“Oui,” replied Marianne, with a slightly longer-lasting smile. “But a stationary car isn’t very good back-up, no?”
Wasp opened his mouth, but his retort was lost as the room’s shadows were replaced for a moment by glaring brightness. Light briefly flashed through the church’s stained glass, flooding the interior with a riot of colors. A split second later a thunderclap shook the rafters, and the shadows rushed back. Léo spun to look out the window, his optics picking up a billowing column of smoke, throbbing with infrared light, gushing up from somewhere within Castle Fougères, well beyond the Saint-Sulspice Gate. A second sun-bright light flashed within the interior of the castle grounds, his augmented eyes automatically tinting to prevent blindness as the glare of temporary daylight presaged another church-rattling explosion. One of Fougères’ far towers, barely visible even to Léo, was now missing its upper half and belching fire and soot. He spoke without turning away from the scene outside.
“That would be Fantômas. We should presume he’s flushing prey toward us.”
“Holy mackerel.” Challenger replied quietly.
Sirens began to wail, first just within the castle grounds but shortly thereafter throughout the surrounding town.
Marianne had flattened herself on the far side of the window Léo was looking out of, cracking it open so her unaugmented eyes could see better.
“I think he’s got them thinking it’s an air raid, targeting the castle itself. If they have anything crucial, they’ll certainly move it. But will they take this road?”
“Fantômas knows where our vantage was. If he’s flushing a target, he’ll have ensured they’ll come by here. I have no idea how he’ll have managed that, but his record speaks for itself. Wasp?”
The young man hopped to Léo’s side.
“Dash across the street to the cobbler’s shop. Stay out of sight! Depending on what the Nazi’s are moving and how they’re transporting it, we may need to have you slip on board, rather than ambush them. Use your best judgement.”
Without a word, Wasp jogged to the church door. He barely seemed to open it, slipping through and disappearing quickly into night which was quickly adding smoke to its concealing cloak of fog.
Another explosion shook the church.
“Good lord almighty!” Challenger exclaimed. “What the blazes is he using to hit them as hard as an airship barrage?”
Marianne shrugged. “Perhaps an airship. Or warheads smuggled in on hay carts. Or he may have found their munition dump and spread around their own bombs. Fantômas is a maestro, and his preferred symphony is mass murder. He set fire to an entire city to cover a single art heist, killing thousands to modestly enrich himself. He’s the Devil, and I put nothing past him.”
She turned to Challenger and gave a toothy, decidedly predatory, smile.
“But for now, he’s our devil.”
Previous entries in ’49
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Death entered quietly, as she preferred. All too often her arrival was heralded by screams and explosions. But this was a quiet night, which allowed her to perform a quiet deed. Life was precious. It should be honored. Especially at its end.
Her client was laying on his side, his breathing labored. His eyes opened as she approached. One of his legs twitched, an instinctive reaction to the knowledge of her approach, but he didn’t otherwise stir. He had known she was due, soon. And in any case if he could still run, she wouldn’t have been there.
Death lay a gentle hand on his head. “It’s nearly time.”
Though she had not used words, he understood her. That was a relief. He often had trouble communicating with his loved ones. It was frustrating when they misunderstood him, or he didn’t understand why they did something. The ease of perfect expression was a gift, and he felt it make his fear fade.
“Do I have to go?” He knew the answer, but had to ask.
Death nodded. “You do. We all do, eventually.”
Death smiled, and nodded. “Oh yes. Sometime, I too will pass on. When there is nothing left to die, I shall cease to exist. But that is a long, long time from now.”
He sighed. “I… I had things I wanted to do, yet.”
Death shook her head. “Of course you do, but I don’t wait. And you’ve had a longer life than most, filled with more love than hate, more pleasure than pain, and more happiness than grief.”
“Grief.” The idea was not one he had ever considered much. “Oh… my family! They’ll be sad. I don’t want to leave them.”
Death nodded. “They will be. But that is just a tribute to how much you brought into their lives. Grief is part of life. And you gave them more than enough joy to see them through their grief. In time they will heal, and they’ll find new family to love.”
He felt his energy fading. “The boy. The boy won’t know what to do without me.”
“No,” Death agreed. “He won’t, at first. But he’ll learn. He’ll grow. You prepared him well. And you’ve earned your peace.”
He exhaled, for the last time. The pain, he admitted, had grown to be more than he wished to bear. “Thank you for letting me know.”
Death nodded, kindly. And removed her hand.
The cat lay still, his time done.
It was cold in the Box. Kol knew it was always cold, and he sniffed to see if something was making it seem colder. His stomach growled, and if he had smelled food he could not reach that would have been colder. There was the faint scent of smoke and burn, which made his spine cold, but that wasn’t new. The Workers had been smelling smoke for more than the day. Gray light filtered in through the cracks of the Box. The light did make Kol cold. It was a bad light. A pain light.
Pain was very cold.
He pressed closer to his workmates for warmth. Kol was on the outside of the nestle, so he was colder than those further in. Kol knew he was among the biggest of the Workers. He could force his way closer to the center of the nestle if he wanted to. Maybe not the very middle – the Workers would complain, and while no one Worker was stronger than him, Workers together could do more than a Worker alone. The Bright Lady had taught all the Workers this truth, and Kol had seen the truth himself.
Thinking of the Bright Lady made Kol warmer for a moment, but when he realized she wasn’t in the Box, he became the coldest he could recall being. Of course the Bright Lady didn’t sit in Boxes. But knowing she was not nearby drew away his heat. His head sunk down, and a soft moan escaped his lips.
Gris, the Worker to Kol’s knife-side, placed a hand on Kol’s shoulder, then brushed the back of his hand past Kol’s cheek. Kol took the hand, and pressed it to his face. It was cool, but warmer than Kol’s face. That Gris would offer the comfort was warmer, still.
Together, Workers were stronger than apart.
The Box had a pattern. A sway to one side. Two kathunks, one louder than the other. A sway back. It was all the Box offered. Sway. KATHUNK, ka-thunk. Sway. The Workers swayed with the Box, and sometimes nodded with its kathunks. It wasn’t warm, but it was something to do. They knew the Box. They understood it. It was when it changed the Workers were unsure what to do. Sometimes change was warm.
But not often.
Thunder echoed in the distance, and may of the smaller Workers near the middle of the nestle whimpered and one, Kol thought it might have been little Ys, cried. Kol wanted to cry, too, but he felt the chill growing over all the Workers. If he cried, he who was among the strongest Workers with the biggest hands, then all the Workers would feel the chill that fire could not drive away. He knew he had to ignore the cold, and ignore the thunder. He snorted, derisively, then gave a soft grunt. Several Workers near him chuckled at his grunt, and the whimpering grew softer. Gris grinned at Kol, baring both slashing-teeth, and thumped Kol’s side with the back of a hand. Kol grinned back.
Workers were stronger than cold.
Workers had to Work, but that was okay. The Bright Lady gave them Work, and told them they were all equal. She was a Planner, one of those whose Work was more than others, and who made sure Work was not wasted. The Bright Lady was the first smell Kol remembered, from his time in the First Place. Like all his workmates, Kol had been taught to talk, and to use voice sounds to emulate talking. She had given him his uniform, and his knife. She had taught him how to hate the Bourj, and how to use his knife to free the Bourj’s slaves. That Work always made Kol sad. A Bourj slave looked a lot like a Worker once you freed them, except for the blood.
Not all Workers could do the Work. But Kol, and his workmates in the Box, had been praised and rewarded by the Bright lady many times. They had, she said, earned the right to have Rifles, as gifts from the Father.
Kol looked forward to meeting the Father. But apparently the Father lived far way. They had been in the Box a long time, waiting to get to the Father.
From outside the Box, the metal screams warned of a sudden jerk. No Worker liked the metal screams, but Kol had learned they sometimes meant change. And the Box was cold, so change might be good. When food came, it was after a jerk. And the quiet time was always after a jerk.
The metal scream weakened, and the sway and kathunks became uneven. Many Workers chittered their unease. None liked the Box, but steady was better than uneven. Kol did not chitter. He disliked uneven, but this always happened after a long metal scream. It was a kind of even, just one few Workers knew.
No kathunk. No sway.
The thunder continued, sometimes louder, sometimes not. There were pops as well, and slams, and sizzles. The smoke smell was stronger, and had many different smokes. Wood smoke, Kol knew that one well. Oil smoke, too. And hair. And flesh.
Kol did not think this change from the Box would be warm.
The silence in the Box was colder than the swaying kathunks. Kol could hear Planners make voice noises outside, and Tall Workers. They were not calm. When Planners were not calm, it meant a plan had gone wrong. Planners could not fix bad plans. All they could do was tell Workers and Tall Workers how to fix it. Tall Workers didn’t work as well as Workers, and many thought they were Planners, too. But they didn’t have the Brights the Planners did, and their plans were often bad for Workers.
Real plans were bad for Workers too, sometimes, but that couldn’t be helped. It was important for other Workers that each Worker try to finish a plan.
The side of the Box growled, and slid away. The gray light flooded in, and the nestle broke apart as other Workers moved away from the colder air. Kol was near the open side, and did not move away. He turned, to look out of the box.
Four Tall Workers, one with a rifle, stood in the open side of the Box. They were voice noising, loudly. Kol knew he knew the words, but he didn’t care yet. Beyond the Box were many Tall Workers, and they chattered. Some had a Bright marking them as little Planners, and these yelled at the Tall Workers without Brights. Kol realized there were many Boxes, rows and rows of them, sitting on the metal lines that carried them. They stretched out as far as he could see. Boxes. Tall Workers. Little Planners. Yelling, shoving rifles into Tall Workers hands. If there was a plan here, it had already gone bad. Kol felt his lips peeling back from his slashing-teeth. Bad plans were very, very cold.
“I said move!”
One of the Tall Workers standing in the side of the box grabbed Ys, and began hauling her out of the Box. Ys’s closest brother Yan, grabbed at her. No Worker would try to separate Ys and Yan, but the Tall Worker didn’t know better. Gris moved forward, using his hands to quickly flash a few words of explanation. Kol began to use his voice sounds to make words, to remind Gris most Tall Workers couldn’t communicate properly.
Then the Tall Worker hit Gris with the butt of his rifle. Gris was surprised, and fell, raising one long arm to protect himself.
“Get away from me, you freaks! And move out now!”
Kol felt his face furrow. Tall Workers and Workers didn’t hit each other, unless the ones being hit were breaking the Law. The Bright Lady had taught them that over and over. She had spoken of making sure Workers never hit Tall Workers, but obviously the rule went both ways. They were all Workers. They were all equal. They’d been told this.
The Workers behind Kol shuddered. Other Tall Workers grabbed Ys and dragged her away from the Box, throwing her down on the ground by the metal line. Blood leaked from her cheek, matting the soft hair covering her face. The red color and iron smell immediately warmed Kol. When a Worker bled, other Workers made it stop.
The Tall Workers grabbed Gris’s foot, and began to drag him out too. Kol didn’t know if these were actually Bourj, or if the rule against Workers hitting Workers was gone, but it didn’t matter. He knew how to stop Tall ones from hurting his Workmates. His hand dropped to his long knife, and he bared his slashing-teeth. Behind him, he heard the sound of three dozen palms slapping on knife-handles.
“Idiots! Stop this right NOW!”
The Bright Lady leaped over Ys, and into the Box. Her long coat was not as clean, and its many Brights were not as shiny, but Kol knew her scent and sound immediately. As she used her voice sounds on the Tall Workers, her hands spoke to Kol and his workmates. Wait, beloved Workers. She flashed with one firm hand.
If she’s said to stop, Kol wasn’t sure if he would have. Not even for the beloved Bright Lady. Not once blood was in the air. But she’d saved them many times by having them wait. Wait until night, when the Tall ones don’t see as well. Wait until the Bourj slaves walk past, then drop on their backs. Wait until the spoiled Planner is gone, then go back to doing things the right way.
Wait was a warm word. Kol waited, hand on his knife, and focused on her Voice.
“ …closer to death than you’ll ever know. Get back, and leave this to me.”
“Ye… yes commissar. We didn’t think… ”
“Obviously!” The Bright Lady’s voice was full of scorn. Kol knew the shame that Voice could bring, and the Tall Workers hung their heads with cold disgrace. They were, Kol thought, not that different from his workmates.
As the Tall Workers moved away from the Box, the Bright Lady’s knife-hand told Gris to pick up Ys, and bring her close. Her other hand flashed words to the Workers in the Box.
“Our Great Father is threatened, and this is why we are here. The Bourj and their slaves attack and burn his home. You can smell it now! He wanted you to have homes here, but the Bourj have burned your homes!”
Kol felt warm anger slowly fill him. The Great Father loved them so much! And if it weren’t for the Bourj, the workers could have lived here, with the Tall Workers. And then the Tall Workers would learn to work with them, as they worked with each other.
Gris brought Ys to the Bright Lady, who crouched and cradled the small worker to her. Other Tall Workers often turned their heads, and avoided touched the hair on a Worker’s face or arms, but the Bright Lady stroked Ys, and cooed at her while keeping her hand talking.
“Good Workers, it is time to fight. We do not want to fight, but we know we must, for all Workers everywhere. You were promised rifles for this fight, but the Bourj took them. We do not have enough rifles for all. And the Tall Workers, they are weak, and afraid. This is why they lashed out at you, in confusion and fear. You all know their weaknesses. They cannot climb as you do, or do red Work with their knives. We will let them have the few rifles here, for they are too fragile without them. We will forgive them for their weakness.”
Kol had only fired a rifle a few times, in training, but he had looked forward to having his own. When the Bright Lady took them to do red work and Bourj had rifles, they would hurt workers. Kill them. But the Bright Lady was right. Tall Workers were not as good with knives as Kol, or any of his workmates. And if they were afraid… Kol felt badly for the Tall Workers.
The Bright Lady kept her hand talking.
“Bourj slaves are attacking our Father’s city right now. The Tall workers can hear the fight, but we can smell it. The city may… “ she paused. “The Father’s place is threatened. The Bourj want to make all of this a Bad Place.”
Kol found himself exposing his slashing-teeth again. Only a Bourj would make a bad place.
“But we will stop them! You, and I, my dear, dear workmates. The Bourj slaves have rifles, rifles meant for you. We will scent them out. We will find them, and do the red Work. And then, their rifles will be ours! And the Father will be pleased, and we will be honored!”
Kol slapped his knife, as did every workmate. Even little Ys, laying in the Bright lady’s lap, slapped the handle of her knife.
Kol felt very warm. There was WORK to be done.
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Lt. Carcaso scanned the mountain pass as best she could under the circumstances. The Reade Goggles she’d been issued could pierce the darkness nearly as well as a German Vampir scope, though the image was all in shades of green, but even it was hindered by the heavy, wet snow falling around them. Smoke was still curling up from at least three fortified positions where the USS Savannah had dropped a half-dozen hundred-pounders. The crew of the “Savvy Sav” had a well-deserved reputation for being among the most accurate airship bombers in the Allied Forces, and the fact that a group of slightly crazed irregulars had successfully snuck into the pass to mark the positions with flares had helped.
But the Savannah had moved on to support the Copenhagen Offensive, and the irregulars had warned in advance they were moving on to find some secret underground castle beyond the pass. That left Lt. Carcaso’s weapon platoon to claim the pass itself and hold it until larger units of the Expeditionary Forces caught up to them, or they were ordered to move on to an active front. They’d taken some casualties getting this far, and the situation might have been impossible if the Savannah hadn’t swing by to lend a hand. But her troops still had two big 9kw Tesla tripods, the Browning H2MB, and three BARs. Those would hold a pass against anything short of actual armor units, as long as juice and ammo held.
If they were dug into the pass. Not if they were sitting in the open at one end, staring at it.
Carcaso glanced over her shoulder, and sure enough Gunnery Sgt. Macklin was hovering nearby.
Carcaso had learned he would tell her what he thought whether she asked or not, and asking meant it looked less like he didn’t trust her to know how to fight a war. Sergeants classically didn’t trust lieutenants with as little field experience as she had in any case, and Carcaso had nothing but respect for anyone who had survived the ’44 disaster and won a bronze V doing so. But Macklin was also struggling to adapt to the “Rosie the Rifleman” act of ’47, and it was a struggle he lost as often as he won. She’d never been concerned she’d have to actually draw her pistol on him, unlike a few men in training, but Carcaso had to constantly consider how Macklin would react to any order she gave, and how his reaction would affect the other marines.
To be honest, it was exhausting. She was here to fight the Axis, not the men under her command.
But Macklin was experienced and competent, in purely military matters, and if keeping that experience for the benefit of her platoon meant dancing around his prejudices and limitations that was, after all, the job.
Macklin was tall, well over six-and-a-half feet, but also the thinnest human being Carcaso had ever met. Rumor claimed he’d be a carnival thin man before the war, and as ridiculous as that sounded she could believe it. His neck stuck out of the collar of his uniform like a pencil rattling around in a mug sitting on an desk, and his gnarled adam’s apple fought with the kriegshund-bite scars just below his jaw to draw your eyes into a stare. His face looked just a hint too thin to be normal, and was pockmarked with pits and thin white lines, one of which split his upper lip.
He took one long stride to be next to her, sucked on the right half of his upper lip, and scanned the pass. Carcaso had no idea what he could be looking for, at night, in snow, without optics, but she knew from experience he wasn’t wasting time. She mentally counted down from five, wondering if this would be the magic moment when his timing was different.
As she reached “0,” he spoke.
“I don’t like it, ma’am.”
Carcaso didn’t wince anymore when he forgot female officers were always to be addressed with their rank by those in their command. Lord knew she’d be called worse than ‘ma’am.’
Macklin continued. “Those pillboxes weren’t just dugouts, but they also weren’t hardened at all. Sure, there’s nothing you can do if a Brooklyn-class airship takes a dislike to you, but those didn’t just break, they’re gone. A couple of Garlands, or any heavy walker, could’ve hammered them hard enough to crack without much bother.
“That means the Heinies didn’t expect their fortitifications to be enough to hold the gap from heavy walkers or artillery. But given the state of things, they wouldn’t have hauled in the materials to build full bunkers unless they thought they could hold the pass against any reasonable threat. There’s no way they expected us to grab local air superiority, we sure as shi… shoot didn’t expect it. So they were thinking in terms of armor. And if you have the time and supply lines to haul in munitions and engineers and build actual bunkers, and you don’t expect your guns to stop heavy units…”
Carcaso nodded. “Mines.”
Macklin grimaced. “They’d have to be set up so the weight of the snow won’t trigger them. We might be able to move troops over them safely, but the Teslas… “
Carcaso shook her head firmly.
“Too great a risk. And we have other options. Send some scouts to extend our perimeter, Gunney, and get the Teslas set up. If we have contact with anything too dangerous, we’ll open up with the lightning guns along the ground toward the pass’s mouth. HQ says that should detonate any mine the Krauts have access to, but we all know HQ can be wrong. If no one rushes us, we’ll let Ford handle it. And if there’s still something nasty in the pass, the Teslas can offer him cover fire.”
Macklin nodded, turned, and started barking orders. It was, Carcaso admitted to herself, something he was very good at. As long as someone told him what to do, or there was a fight raging and no time to think, Macklin was an amazing leader. It was only when decisions had to be made in the long silence, when there was ample opportunity to second-guess himself, that Macklin became too hidebound to adapt to a situation.
One of the sergeant’s barked orders caught the attention of the only member of Carcaso’s platoon taller than Macklin himself. The figure jerked to its feet, its head turning until it was centered on the lieutenant, then it marched toward her in even, if stilted, strides.
The metal man was slightly over seven feet tall, and painted in surprisingly bright green, though in several places the dull gray of his chassis showed through the paint’s chips and scratches. A “Big Tommy” .50 cal was slung over his left shoulder, leather and canvas pouches were strapped to his chest and legs, and a transport pack was mounted on his back, though instead of a blanket roll it had a chain wrapped around the top like a horseshoe. A single red shield device on the center of his chest had “R.U.R.” written in large letters, and “4D-4RS1T” in smaller type stamped beneath that.
He marched at a constant pace to stand exactly three feet from Carcaso, then stopped with a jerk.
“Re. Por. Ting. As. Ore. Derd. Lew. Ten. Ant.”
As always, Ford’s voice was flat, emotionless, and choppy. It has taken her nearly a week to consistently be able to understand him but now it was second nature to her. As was the more crucial task of giving him orders he wouldn’t reject as violations of his core commands.
“Ford, we have reason to believe the approach to the pass, and possibly the pass itself, are mined. These areas are now your current field of operation. Examine the field with normal caution, superseding secondary and tertiary duties. Any detected mine should be eliminated with maximum combined safety and expediency. If no acceptable parameters allow for this, mark the mine or return for consultation. If a primary duty interrupts the operation, return for confirmation of this operation after fulfilling the primary duty. Analyze operational parameters and suspend for adjustment if any violation of core commands is detected.”
Ford stood, motionless, and Carcaso was convinced she could hear a faint hum coming from his chest. Then his arms bent backwards and unhooked the chain from his transport pack, coiling it in a loop in his right arm. He lifted the Big Tommy and without looking hooked it behind his head onto pegs where the chain had just been. Once that was done he marched in the same quick but stilted gait toward the pass.
As soon as he reached the last “clear” flag at the edge of their position, he stopped. His body bent down, and he jabbed his left hand into the snow. Carcaso was too far away to hear or feel it, but she knew he’d just sent a ping into the frozen earth beneath the snowpack. He remained crouched for fifteen seconds, then stood, took five swift, stilted steps, and repeated the process.
When she’d signed up for officer school, Carcaso has been repeatedly told she be in command of a mixed-gender unit. Women were needed now as pilots, mechanics, and specialists in front-line roles, and US Command wanted very much for all front-line female military personnel to be assigned in large groups and always with a woman in the command structure. Carcaso hadn’t cared, but given how often her instructors had told her that was absolutely happening, it was what she’d come to expect.
But nothing is certain in war or politics. Edvard Beneš, resigned president of the First Czechoslovak Republic and now a visiting professor at the University of Chicago, had convinced someone in the US military to smuggle Alquist Fabry out of Czechoslovakia with the only copies of the full plans for constructing Rossum’s Universal Robots. With Rossum dead, his early research in Nazi hands, and his lone factory destroyed, it had been determined at the highest levels that the US could not allow an automaton technology gap between the Axis and the Allies. Early American-manufactured R.U.R. models, Ford included, had been tested in the same facilities where Carcaso was trained.
Working with Robots in the field proved difficult, but Carcaso had a knack for it. She and Ford consistently performed in the top 5% when teamed together, and hadn’t had a single pitchfork incident. Given how few Robots were available for the Expeditionary Force, it had made sense to assign Ford to her weapon platoon.
However, fearing some kind of horrible incident that would somehow sap the will of America to fight, Congress had decided no Robot would be assigned to any unit including enlisted women. So rather than be the officer of a mixed gender unit, Carcaso was put in charge of a veteran squad of 28 men who had never served with a woman, much less been commanded by one, and one Robot.
Ford paused, nearly a hundred feet away now, and stayed in a crouch for a full minute. Then he uncoiled the chain around his right arm. Gripping the last 3 links in his hand, he lashed the chain forward at an angle, swinging the hundred pounds of metal with ease. Where the very end of the chain slammed into the ground, an explosion shot up instantly. Snow, smoke, dirt, and shrapnel were flung out in all directions. Some fell on Ford, but did nothing more than scratch his paint. He began to re-coil the somewhat shorter chain.
Carcaso allowed herself a smile. Ford was worth dozens of human fighting men or women, and she was proud of their work together. There had been some unpleasantness early in her command, and she knew there’d be more in the future. But if it meant unleashing the full power of Ford on the enemy, it was worth it.
Besides, the Robot never forgot to call her by her rank.
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MundaneMan watched as Smart Alex neatly folded a high-thread-count sheet into a tube on her armor’s arm. She then loaded two cans of squeeze cheese into the side of the same device. Once those were in place, she ran a flexible feeding tube from the arm-cannon, under her shoulder armor, until it clipped onto the chin of her helmet, within easy reach of her mouth.
“Okay, MM. I’m ready.”
“I’m ready. Prepared. All set. We can go now. Those are perfectly mundane words, you should understand them.”
MundaneMan shook his head. “No, not ‘what did you say,’ I mean ‘what the hell are you doing?’ We’re going after Cocksure. He’s one of the most dangerous foes the Furious Folk have ever faced.”
Smart Alex nodded, grimly. “Right. And he’s bulletproof, energy-proof, super strong, and annoyingly good at Scrabble. That’s why I had to take time to prepare. I hope all of us working together can bring him down. But if not… ” she patted the sheet-and-cheese loaded cannon,” I’m ready with lethal munitions.”
“How. The . HELL. Is that thing lethal?”
Smart Alex shook her head. “I’ve told you before, it’s Trivianics. All my devices are powered by extraordinarily odd bits of information. In this case, it’s the Correlation Cannon, and my most dangerous ammunition. I’ve never actually used it before, but there’s almost no chance Cocksure will survive if I am driven to that extreme.”
MundaneMan found his jaw was slack, and closed it with a snap. He shrugged, and began walking to the FuryCar. Smart Alex fell in behind him, and he could feel her mentally replaying their stroll as a slow walk.
“No!” MundaneMan spun and pointed a finger at Smart Alex.
“I know I’m just a mundane, and you are one of the most respected of all the Furious Folk, but I just don’t buy it. There is no trivia in the world that is going to make cheese whiz lethal, unless he chokes on it!”
Smart Alex stopped, looking surprised, then shook her head. “Oh, the cheese isn’t for him. It’s for me. See, there’s a direct correlation between cheese consumption in the US and the number of people who choke to death in bedsheets. So the Correlation Cannon is designed to enforce that bit of trivia. The sheet is fired at my foes. A laser tracks it to ensure that at the exact moment it strikes, the soft cheese is forced down my throat in less than a second. This spike in cheese consumption makes the sheet lethal, just to ensure the local quantum correlation field is maintained.”
MundaneMan stared, for just a second. Then turned on one heel, and marched to the FuryCar.
Smart Alex smiled and followed, imagining what their march would look like as a slow walk.