The Blue Tigress Dreams

To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

From: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station


Did you know that at Rilltide, there are six names for mold? It all depends on what the color is and where you find it. Today we were scrubbing green slime from a bank of failed oxyinators. They call it “Green Jenny.” It smells like that time you decided to make us compost. Remember? A month of rotting garbage in bins before Mom called it off?

Gross. I can still smell it under my fingernails.

Work sucks, Tav. If we didn’t need the money, I’d find something else. I don’t know what or where but…

She knows when I hurt her. I don’t care what you say about “Machinae don’t feel pain” garbage. Blue Sion hates it when I weld her. And I don’t blame her, not really.

But there’s not much choice, is there? Palladium armor stripped off to keep the sodium-lights running and the saline purifiers keeping us wet or not and we shut down shop and that’s not going to happen.

So, that has been my week. Mold and torture.

We can’t leave her bone motors and silica-net to the air. It’s too wet in the station now, and we both know what will happen if moisture gets into the systems, let alone mold. I don’t know what they’d call mold inside Blue Sion.

She’s too old.

I asked around like you wanted me to, there’s no one at the station who has any idea what to do if she had a major malfunction. There are a couple of deadwater techs who think they know how. I wouldn’t trust them to fix the toilets right.

I’ve been here for six months, Tavis. And no one even knows my name.

To top it all off, the tide generators aren’t working right either, so they’ve shut down half the station and there’s talk about more layoffs. There are whole sections of the station where the lights are off and there’s nothing but the sound of the ocean pushing against the walls. Things aren’t looking too good. We turned the water system off for two days to get enough power into the mag-dock. No showers, only bottled water.

We both know I need this job, big brother. If we’re both not working… I don’t know what Mom will do.

The work still sucks though.

I felt bad about what we had to do, watching her handler lead her into the gate only to have the locks turn on. I don’t know what you do for Red Sion, but Blue fought it when the magnets pulled her paws down and made her crouch down. I worried that her plasteel frame would break under the strain.

She roared while we did it, Tav. There are only five people left on the welding team, it took most of the day to pull the plating off her. Without the dock I don’t trust our chances to do it again. Her claws are still palladium and there’s no way we’re going to declaw her.

At least we’ll last a little longer. The Site Manager said the palladium we took off her would keep us going for another six months. It’s sad to see the station this bad off. But what do you do with a weapon when the war’s over?

I love you. Please don’t spend your entire letter-allowance writing to me a lecture. You’re not a doctor yet.

Love your sister,

P.S. Everything still smells like mildew. The eco-grid is awful.

P.P.S. Yes, I remembered to transfer money into Dad’s account. I won’t forget again.

* * *
To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

Dear Sis,

I’m sorry things are mildewey. If the heating-shield fails this close to the caldera, mildew won’t be our problem. There are some issues with the thermal transformers, but all-in-all, things aren’t too bad out here in the heat. If I get bored, I can go out and get a tan.

Thanks for sending Dad the money. It’s been busy here, too, but just because we’re busy doesn’t mean we don’t have responsibilities, Lurie.

And yeah, it’s been busy here.

Can you believe we ran through an alarm drill last week? I don’t know what Management was thinking. A whole lot of work for nothing. Red actually tried to fire up his thermal cannons. The lights were flashing and the alarms blared for almost an hour. It’s been fifty years since there was an incursion.

The old thing actually thought his Pilot was calling. Red Pilot must be what? Seventy? It was actually sort of sad, Red bashing against the hatch.

There must be something wrong with his wiring. He should know better. Took his handler most of a day to calm him down. We’ve scheduled the blaster removal for next week. Something that old has no business with a gun the size of a star cruiser on his back.

Red’s been on half rations since the Calm started, thank god. You’ve probably sat through the same video training I did when I started: the Sions blasting away whatever the Enemy called up. We had to watch the one with Shadow Zerker at our last facility training. If you haven’t seen it, it’s the one from when the war just started and they were still filming in color.

There’s good footage of Blue Sion, if you ever get bored. You were always the sentimental one.

Still creeps me out to see that cannon’s turbines whirring though. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the sound.

Anyway, I’m going to write the Systems Manager at Cobblerock Station. He was visiting last month and I think we hit it off. I know they frown on inter-base relations, but it’s not like we get leave or live off-base. Can’t spill secrets, right? I’m sure Green Sion’s no different than Blue or Red—out to pasture waiting to get put down. At least it’s a paying job, right?

I know it gets lonely. I feel it too. Keep writing me.

Lurie—write Dad. He says he hasn’t heard from you.


P.S. Don’t forget to wash your underwear.

* * *
To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

From: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

Dear Smartass,

I’m writing from Blue’s observation deck. The windows look out over the enclosure with its deep pools and high rock. It’s amazing to think that the water goes down ten stories.

It’s quiet, and as close to abandoned as Rilltide is, quiet is a luxury, so I sit here and ponder three important things, dear brother:

1. My underwear is none of your business.
2. I’m not writing Dad anything. Stop asking. I sent the money and he can go to hell.
3. Tavis got a boyfriend? Are you kidding?

You can imagine which of these things matter to me the most. I thought you were dating an engineer? Did the volcano finally blow up? No, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know. I hope it works out, Tav. You deserve someone nice, and someone whose underwear you can ask about besides your sister’s.

I don’t know why I keep sitting here. Observation deck has a nice kind of mold they call “Grey Prancer” and it makes my eyes water. Too dry in here to get slime, but no one sits on these chairs and watches her anymore. Not in years.

She’s pacing in the enclosure tonight. Sometimes she acts like a real cat—dashes from place to place, claws at the rocks. Remember when Mom brought home that kitten? Kind of like that. I figure Red does the same, huh?

Do machinae dream, Tav? I wonder what Blue dreams of when her systems slow and the sodium lights are turned down for the night. I don’t dream of anything, any more. There’s not much in this place worth dreaming about, even if the pay is steady.

I don’t want to be here. I want to tell Dad he can pay his own bills. He could get up and find a job, do something good instead of live off his kids.

I’m watching her tonight to make sure the new welds hold. She doesn’t have any palladium left, and the metal looks like a motley coat. We’ve salvaged whatever we could—steel, aluminum plate to weld the gash. Blue Sion is twelve meters at the shoulder; there isn’t enough metal in stores for that kind of repair.

Weird, she’s grooming herself like a real cat. I never stop being surprised by her, Tavis. There’s something beautiful about her, the way she is so perfectly herself, no matter how bad things have become. She saved the world from the Enemy and we repaid her with a cage. I wonder sometimes.

Anyway, I hope things work out with the guy from Cobblerock. A piece of advice though? Don’t ask him about his underwear until the third date. Believe me. Third date.

Love you,

P.S. I overheard a couple of the deadwaters talking about Important Visitors coming soon (capital letters and all). Not sure what that’s about.

* * *
To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station


I know I said I wasn’t going to write to you this week, but my letter to Siao got returned, unopened and my letter allowance got credited. I don’t know if he just didn’t want to talk to me, or whether Management cares more about inter-station relations than I thought they did.

Damn it, Lurie. You know I agree with you. This is a good job and there aren’t a lot of them. The pay is steady and I’m not killing myself in a factory somewhere. But… it’s lonely. All the windows look out onto the Caldera. There are—what did you call them? Deadwaters. The old timers who remember when working on Red Sion was a privilege, they were helping stop the Adversary. There’s no one here that I’m friends with, and being stuck on “special assignment” makes it all that much harder.

Dad can’t work and you know it. It’s not his fault. I’m as lonely as you are.

You mentioned Blue grooming after you took the plating off: there’s a machine inside the tongue system on the Sions that regenerates armor after battles. That’s probably what she’s doing.

But look, Sis—go make some friends. It bugs me knowing that you’re stuck in that station and it was my idea to get you there in the first place. Don’t sit up in the observation deck for hours in the dark. That’s how you go crazy.

Anyway, there’s not much going on here. Work work work, sleep, eat processed food. Watch the lava flow, wait for the alarms to ring. They’re never going to ring, though. The Calm is going to last forever—isn’t that what the news says?

It’s good enough for me. It’s what people like Dad fought for. The least we can do it keep the lights burning a little longer.

Any new molds?

Love you,

P.S. No PS this time. But maybe you should talk to your boss about a promotion or something? Seems like you’ve been working hard. Tell them I recommended you.

* * *

To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

From: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

Dear Tav,

The Important Person was a surprise visit with the War Minister. Tav, you wouldn’t believe how crazy it was—like someone had kicked an ant hill! I don’t think an attack from the Adversary would have sent us scrambling so bad. They had to dig out uniforms from stores.

I’ve never seen a uniform in this place. And they were made of this weird plastic-feeling fabric. There was blue fringe and epaulets and whatever else.

Mine was too big, almost down to my knees. But something got through them so there were a bunch that were ripped or eaten or gnawed. There was mold on a few of them blue-grey like the dinner we had a few nights ago (Blue Jimmy, since you’ve become fascinated with mold).

We stood in line as though we practiced that sort of garbage every day. He walked down the line, didn’t stop to talk or inspect or whatever the War Minister does. He was about as tall as you. About as fat as dad with a thick moustache the silver of plasteel. We lined up on the launch deck and it surprised me how few people were actually at Rilltide. Maybe fifty. This station used to hold seven thousand.

Blue Pilot came, too.

She was old like you said, Tav. It’s hard to imagine her as our age. She was fat, and it strained the suit she wore. The suit was peach colored, like the water gets when the desalinators don’t work right and the chemicals wind up in the drinking supply rather than in the filters. She lurched behind the War Minister and didn’t say anything to anyone.

Tavis, she never saw Blue. She didn’t ask the handler anything. She showed up, walked a few hundred yards and then left.

How could she have done that? I don’t think Blue realized what happened. If she knew it, it would have broken her heart.

We got the order after the Minister left.

Tav, the order is to get the palladium off her claws. They’re going to declaw Blue Sion. The order says they expect “residual damage” from the process. They don’t expect her to make it.

This isn’t what I signed up for. I watched the videos again—where the Scions came together and made MechaSion and the final battle when they defeated the Adversary and brought the Calm. Where’s the pride we had then? Where is the loyalty? How can the Sions be scrapped for parts, while we wear hand-me-down uniforms and pretend to care?

It hurts.
* * *
To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

Come on, Lurie. They’re machinae. They were built for a purpose and it’s over. The bases are falling apart and they’re not going to upkeep obsolete systems. It costs money the government can’t afford. This isn’t about Blue Sion and you know it.

But sure, if you want to say it is, let’s talk about some things:

1. It’s been fifty years and there are still cities in rubble. The communication framework is restricted to military personnel. We have to write letters to each other and get one letter a week. The days where these stations matter are over.

2. We’ve been bleeding Red into the power systems for years. His reactor reinforces the Goutflame Station. If we weren’t, the Eco-grid would fail and the station would melt into the volcano. Same way Rilltide would drown or Guststorm Station would fall out of the sky. Hiding these bases made sense in the war, but now we’re haunting the relics.

3. It’s over, Lurie. Do your job. Get it done.

They’ll find another place for you. Maybe White Sion or Black. Look, I’ll talk to the Station Manager here and see if you can transfer.

You won’t be lonely forever. We can talk about Dad and see if we can’t figure out something. I’ll send him a little more and maybe he can just make do, okay?

Just get through it. I’ll take care of you, sis.

Love, Tavis

* * *
To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

From: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station


The mag-dock was broken. They’re calling it sabotage. There’s no way for them to take her claws now.

It’s not about Dad or the money. It’s not about mold or quiet halls or…

I’ve been dreaming, Tavis. That my claws are digging into the rock. The alarm is my heartbeat. There are monsters to fight. The Adversary cannot win. There is a Pilot to guide me. When I dream, I know I am not alone.

How did they build the Sions, Tavis? If they’re just machinae why does she howl and claw and pace? Why does dread move down my back when I wake up? I’ve started sleeping here in the twilight of the observation deck. I don’t want her to feel so alone.

– L
* * *
To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

Sis, you’re scaring me. I just got your letter. Are you crazy? Do you know what they’ll do to you if they think it’s you? It’s just a machina. It is just metal and parts and pieces. It’s not alive, Lurie.

No, I don’t know who built it. Some government program long-since shut down and forgotten. They’re going to shut down the stations. We just had a walkthrough too.

But it doesn’t matter, we’ll land on our feet. Talk to someone you trust, sis. Or don’t trust. Only don’t do this. I’m half a continent away and can’t lose you. Who’s going to write to me? Or remind me of stupid stuff we did growing up? Pull yourself together. If not for yourself, than for me. Please.

Things are getting ugly here too. Pay didn’t get distributed this week, but they’re still collecting rent for rooms and food. There’s grumbling and a few people tried to talk to the Station Manager. No luck there. What else can we do?

Let me know you’re being safe. Please.

Love, your brother,

* * *

To: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

From: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station


I went into her enclosure tonight. The station sleeps by 20:00 hours. They’re rationing power now. Four of the tide generators shorted out over the last week. There’s water rationing going on too. More of the sodium lights are off and the hallways are filled with darkness so thick you half-expect a monster from the Adversary to materialize.

No one checks the doors anymore. There’s not enough people to care. There’s probably a system somewhere that checks for codes and scans finger prints or something. It wasn’t hard to pop the lock. We used to do it as kids, remember? One of the useful things Dad taught us from his army days.

I wanted to see her. No, I needed to see her.

It was cold in the enclosure. The sea water lapped at the rocks. They don’t bother with lights inside either, at night. At first, the only thing I could hear was my heart beating. They told me at orientation that the Sions weren’t safe to be around outside of a Mag Dock.

And I kept thinking that I was one of the people who peeled her armor off and replaced it with scavenged siding from walls and decking from old floors off the station. She should hate me.

Blue’s paws didn’t make noise on the rock. I didn’t realize she was behind me until I saw four stories of Sion leaning down. How she moves so quietly, I don’t know. Her eyes double as lights, Tavis, did you know that? They made two pools of blue light. And as I looked up there were her eyes and her teeth.

It felt like I stopped breathing, looking into those lights. It’s probably how a mouse feels before it gets eaten. But Blue didn’t stamp me out with her paws, or claw me. She didn’t knock me into the water and watch me drown.

She lowered herself beside me, tons of metal. She put her head down on her paws, looking out into the dark water. I don’t know how long we sat there, until I rested against the smooth metal.

I didn’t realize that Sions were warm. Is there a system that makes it happen?

She was warm, even though the air was cold and the sea lapped at the edge of the enclosure. I don’t know, Tavis, but as the hours past I watched as another light grew. There is a hatch near her shoulder. It opened on greased hinges. There is a stair that descends all the stories.

Blue didn’t move. Didn’t growl or shake. She only offered, Tavis. But as I saw it, I got scared. It hit me that I shouldn’t be there, like you said. That I had no business in the Enclosure and what would happen if I got caught. At best, I’d be fired and there’d be no one for Blue Sion at the Station. At worst…

Tavis—the alarm’s ringing. It’s ringing. The lights just went up. The sirens are echoing down the hall. Tav–I can hear her roaring. I can feel it echoing through the Station. I need to go, I need to go…

Be happy, Tavis.

* * *
To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station


What’s going on? Your last message was cut off. We had an alarm here. Lurie, answer me as soon as you can. Red went crazy. The containment systems failed. There was an alarm and the outside hatches opened. The Eco-Grid almost went off. We tried to stop Red, but he went out into the heat. No one realized that he had enough energy to get the jet boosters going, but he did.

Red Sion’s disappeared. We’re trying to get secondary systems up and running to track him, but they’re old. We’re not even sure which of the computer banks the trackers are, even if they worked, or if we could get enough energy without compromising the entire station

Jesus Sis, we’re not getting news reports. What’s going on? Management is telling us to calm down, but Red’s gone. Without him to back up the reactor systems, we’re not going to be able to keep the Eco-Grid going. I don’t know what we’re going to do.

When you get this, please let me know you’re alright. Hopefully—hopefully the Sions will be back. It must have been an accident, or some sort of test? No one’s sure and they’re starting to get scared. If you’re okay, I don’t need to be scared. I’m sending a letter to Dad too, to make sure he’s okay. Please, please, please tell me you’re okay.


* * *

To: Lurie Kysiene
Welder III
Rilltide Station

From: Tavis Kysiene
Systems Manager I
Goutflame Station

It’s been a week, Sis. You haven’t answered. Red hasn’t come back. There’s rumors that there was an attack on one of the cities. People are getting drunk and saying that the Adversary is back and the Sions were called.

How could they have called the Sions? The Sions were being scrapped. They didn’t have Pilots, or weapons or armor. How could they?

No one will say if Blue Sion was there. No one says what happened. They all just keep looking at me from the side of their eyes as if they know something I don’t. People keep asking me if I have a sister from Rilltide Station.

Where are you, Lurie? Goutflame’s Eco-Grid is failing. We can’t stay here any longer. I won’t be able to write you.

Look – I’m coming, alright? They’re shipping us out and I’ll start making my way to you. It will be a few weeks for me to get to Rilltide, but I’m coming. I promise. Please hold on.

Please be there.

I love you, Sis,

Sean is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA. His work has appeared in Daily Science Fiction and is forthcoming from Betwixt, and Apex Magazine. When not writing, he works in the social services field in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. You can find him (occasionally) on twitter @Kesterian

New Boy, New Girl

On a springlike end-of-winter morning I awoke to a furious itching deep under my skin, as if my upper ribs were chafing one against the other. I prayed it wasn’t a rash or a spider bite or any other mundane nothing. I mumbled silent vows. Tithing my allowance at church? I’d do it. Treating Dirty Joe to a dollar menu burger? As soon as he drew near. I’d even try and be gracious with my older brother, Pete.

Hours later, I fidgeted in the back row of Geometry class. The pain in my side flared with such searing intensity that I nearly fell from my seat. For two merciful inhales the agony faded. It swelled again. Pinprick needles chased a disconcerting crackle that I knew to be bone. I wiped away tears before anyone took notice and felt the inside of my shirt with the stubs of new fingers.

Approaching Mr. Henderson’s desk with casual swagger wasn’t easy. The titters of the class threw off my stride, and the singing in my head made my feet feel as if they weren’t my own.

“Johnathan?” Mr. Henderson turned away from his whiteboard proof.

“Yes, I—”

My voice came close to breaking. I couldn’t finish. I couldn’t risk the class hearing such a quaver at such a time. It was all too cliché.

Mr. Henderson didn’t miss a beat. “Do you need to see the nurses?”

The classroom stilled. They sensed the importance of this moment. Even the rudest among them found it too boorish to intrude.

“Your right, is it?” Mr. Henderson asked, but that’s not where his eyes were. He knew. He was giving this to me.

I cleared my throat. “Left.”

The class buzzed and whispered incredulously.

“Let’s see.” Mr. Henderson capped his marker and helped me with my shirt’s lateral zipper. It didn’t lower easily. Bad luck befalls eager fingers, as the saying goes—I’d never dared touch it.

My third hand slipped free. Everyone saw and everyone knew. My new arm was growing fingers first, fully sized and already straining out beyond the second knuckle. No infantile growth. No months of exercise to match my new limb to its peers. Not only was I a lucky lefty, I’d jumped over years of development.

The rarest of rare beginnings. And everyone saw.

Every other high school student already had a second right, though precious few limbs were yet the equal of the originals. Corey, in back, was respected for his three rights, and though Nathan, the star basketball player, had two rights and two lefts, both were slight compared to his natal pair. He folded them, smooth and feminine, across his desk. They’d look right at place on his sister—still, he took due pride.

Today though, belonged to me. I’d caught up. At the rate my arm was progressing, I’d be passing some of my classmates by the weekend.

Mr. Henderson slid open the bottom drawer of his desk, retrieved a double wrap, and secured my new fingers. I’d bled no little amount, but didn’t mind at all. I wished eleven through fifteen could feel the open air. I wanted to watch them wiggle.

“Get down there pronto,” Mr. Henderson said. “It starts to really bite in when the adrenaline fades—always just in time for the wrist too. Trust me.” He waved a dozen times at the class and they chuckled at his humor. Very few adults ever reached ten. That made Mr. Henderson the coolest teacher in the building.

“For the rest of the week I’ll pipe the lesson down to Miss Oshi’s offices. Channel—” Mr. Henderson punched at his computer keyboard while signing out a hall pass and gathering up the day’s assignment as he cleaned his glasses. “—twenty-three. There are so many mending this week. Something in the air?”

“I—I dunno.”

The class chuckled. It may have been at my expense.

“Hurry down. And call your parents too. They’ll be proud.”

“I know. I will.” I thought of all the early morning promises I’d made and didn’t regret a single one.

Final Exam at the Academy

Jhest waited for the toadstools to stop singing before emerging from his cocoon.

He peeled aside the gossamer threads of small magic that had cocooned him safely during the process of incarnation. The delicate web melted away to nothing, leaving him blinking in the bright starlight.

He was crouching on a beach of white pebbles, a lazy sea hissing up to brush his feet; further to landward, Jhest could make out the silhouettes of the toadstools he had heard, their strange booms almost completely closed now that their song was done.

To wait for the singing to stop, that had been the first rule the Warlocks had impressed on their young apprentices, five years and a whole lifetime ago. A diligent student would know better than to emerge from his cocoon before the singing was complete, lest they find themselves in a world not yet fully-formed, with dangerous currents of unearthed potential roaming the landscape, just the sort of thing that was liable to take an unwary apprentice before the exam had properly begun, and turn them from a promising candidate into a warning in tomorrow’s lessons.

Jhest stood, his lithe, efficient frame unfolding warily into an unconscious half-hunch, and tested the scent on the air. He could smell salt and sulfur and ozone, the bitter-blue tang of a freshly minted reality. Beside his feet, the last lambent strands of his decaying cocoon melted silently into the pebbles. He scanned the horizon, but saw no sign of any other nearby apprentices, no other flicker of magic draining back into the core of this little world.

For a moment he wavered, caught up by the unbearable solidity of the pebbles under his feet, of the sea as it rose to touch his bare toes, and of the impossibly bright stars that flamed in the sky above. The lessons had always made a point of emphasizing the solidity of this unreal exam world, the final hurdle after years of study, of how it would look and feel and taste, even, as real – no, more real – than the everyday world of lectures and libraries and endless hours of study. But even though Jhest had thought himself prepared for it, he and his little coterie of fellow apprentices, he realized now that understanding something on an abstract, intellectual level was no real preparation.

Then his months of training took over. First things first! He thought, and forced himself to concentrate on scanning the ground nearby. He made one pass, then a second, then a third. A feeling of panic began to rise within him. We’re meant to be sent with one, he thought desperately. They promised us! One amulet with every cocoon, so look carefully for it before running off into danger unarmed!

He stopped. Something faint glittered under the waves, a few feet out from the line of foam where the sea met the shore. Almost not daring to hope, he splashed out into the surf and bent down. The small amulet he pulled from the waves was silver and seemed to hold more weight than it had any right to. He turned it over, and smiled when he saw the blue lightning emblem that was engraved on the other side.

A lightning totem.

It could have been worse. A lot worse.


The old woman ladled broth and noodles from the clay cook pot into a wide wooden bowl. “Whatever your problems, they can wait until your stomach is happy with hot soup.”

Icho wiped a hand across his eyes. “No! You don’t understand! My family – ”

“Yes, yes, your family.” A spoon and a splash of shoyu, and she pushed the bowl towards him across the low table. “Problems can wait until after soup.”

“I can’t eat! Bandits attacked my village! They killed my father, and, and – ” Icho looked around the hut, eyes wide. He saw fire, bloody blades, his father falling. He’d run, run so fast he thought he might die like a coward and not his honorable father’s son. He’d eventually found the old woman when he really wanted a soldier, an army, anyone else. “Please, you must help me. They’ll kill everyone
if I don’t do something.”

The old woman patted his cheek. She was fat like a toad, with a wide mouth, and bulging eyes beneath wiry brows. She wore a simple green kimono and thick tabi. “Soup first, then talk.”

Desperate, Icho grabbed the spoon and took a sip of broth. The sweet warmth of ginger filled his head. Another. He’d had nothing to eat since his onigiri at midday. Tasty bits of daikon and egg hid in the nest of noodles. He slurped the bite of chilies and onion, the salty tang of fish sauce. Before he knew it he‘d finished his second bowl, and the autumn night had wound tight and dark around the tiny hut.

The old woman set the bowl and spoon in the wash bucket by the cook fire. “There. You have had your soup, and your stomach is happy.” She grinned with crooked, yellow teeth.

“I guess.” Icho rubbed his eyes. “Can you help me now, please? I need to reach the garrison in Nagasaki before. . .” He stifled a yawn.

“Nonsense, you can’t travel at night.” The old woman led him to a tatami mat he had not noticed against the far wall. “Rest here tonight, and tomorrow you can go for help.”

The mat pulled Icho to his knees, then his head to the barley husk pillow. “But my family. . .”

The old woman tucked the kakebuton around his shoulders. “You are a good son. Sleep now, worry about your family later.”

Icho opened his mouth to protest, and was asleep before the first word came out.

The old woman whispered in his ear, “You must go now, Icho.”

He sat up, squinting in the candlelight. “How did you – ?”

Four men in dirty padded armor sat at the low table, battered helmets beside them. The old woman moved around the table, ladling hot soup into their bowls. Icho recognized the long knives tucked in their belts, and fear splashed like winter water down his spine. Brusque chatter, and the whinnying of horses came from outside.

The old woman set the pot back on the fire and wiped her hands on her kimono. “Awake finally, hmmm?” She waddled to the tatami mat and took Icho by the shoulder. “Up and off with you, then.”

Icho clambered to his feet. He screamed a bare whisper: “That’s them!”

The old woman looked over her shoulder. “These men? Bandits? Certainly not.”

Icho clutched her kimono. The threadbare cloth was bitter with woodsmoke. “No, you don’t understand. They’re the ones who attacked my village.”

The men watched him with sharp dark eyes, dog eyes. One sneered at him, made to stand.

“Don’t mind the boy,” the old woman said with a laugh. “Eat, eat. Make your stomachs happy with hot soup before it gets cold.”

The man hesitated, then settled back with the others. He lifted his bowl and gulped the broth. His eyes widened, he smacked his lips, and nodded to the others. After a moment, they lifted their bowls to join him.

The old woman walked Icho towards the door. “Head back home. Bring me noodles for my soup the next time you come this way.”

“They’ll kill us. We have to – ”

The men standing with the horses looked up from their dice as she pushed Icho outside.

“Of course not. Get on home now.” She motioned the men inside, her eyes sickly yellow in the dim light. “Come in. I have soup to warm your bellies.”

The dark woods reeked of smoke and hot metal. Blood and death grabbed Icho by the heart and he ran, the way he ran when the bandits came for his family. Left the old woman standing in the doorway, her terrified screams so much like his mother’s! Icho raced his shame into the night until fear tore the breath from his chest and he tumbled into darkness.

The next morning, Icho followed his shame along the path of broken branches to the hut. His coward’s heart would have rather kept running, but honor demanded he return. If he couldn’t apologize for his cowardice, he could still bury the old woman’s body then give himself to the sea in shame.

He stopped at the edge of a small clearing littered with slick, white bones and bits of cloth. Shreds of padded armor hung from dead black branches overhead. In the center of the clearing, leather reins knotted around a pile of human and horse skulls at the base of a small stone altar. A fine breath of smoke hung in the air, then drifted away on the wind.

Icho walked to the altar. He pressed his palms together and bowed low to the stone soup pot perched on top. A master’s hands had given it life – a wide toad mouth with crooked teeth, and bulging eyes beneath lightning brows. “I thank you. My village thanks you. My father thanks you.”

On the other side of the clearing stretched a wider path made by horses. Icho started home. Noodles. He would not forget.

Blood Feud

In the beginning, I knew her only as Kalomi of the Plains. The name, the simple and only vaguely descriptive sobriquet seemed enough to know. She was my Apprentice in the Sisterhood, bound to my side by chance assignment and solemn oath.

Soon, by shared experience, she became my true and trusted comrade. Inevitably, increasingly I came to know her as my friend. But still—and despite her many evident complexities of heart and spirit—she remained to my mind simply Kalomi of the Plains.

It is truly said that I am drawn to explore the exotic, the unknown. And yet, behold the paradox—I often fail to wonder at the unguessed ingredients in the stew, bubbling in the homey and outwardly familiar pot before my very eyes.

So it was with my Apprentice Sister—with my comrade and friend, Kalomi of the Plains.

Space Rat Black

I peered through the coffin window at the dead alien. “Are we at war with them?”

Yuko shrugged. “I’ll have to check the database.” Nothing the universe threw at Yuko – from exposed biological hazards to escaped flesh eating cargo – fazed her.

The Ithpek vessel had no crew and no declared cargo other than the blue-scaled humanoid stored in the hold. The inspection station’s scanners had verified the ship as clean. No trace of biological, nuclear, or chemical weapons or toxic nanobots.

“We were at war with the Ithpeks for about six years,” Yuko said. “The conflict ended forty-four years ago.”

“Who won?” I asked. Endless political tangles meant whole species were sometimes annihilated before outlying worlds even learned there was a war going on.

“Their colonies surrendered after we nuked their home world.”

“Go us.” The dead alien’s final destination was listed as Tokyo’s Museum of Defense. It must be a trophy.

I double-checked the ship’s flight logs. The ship had left an Ithpek colony world forty-three years ago, just after the war ended, but something just didn’t feel right. “I’m going to run a more detailed background check.”

Requesting information from the station’s byzantine computer system was a painful process. If I’d been on duty with anyone but Yuko, I would’ve had to justify the delay.

I joined Yuko by the ship’s viewport and we waited for the computer’s report. The viewport showed a dozen ships waiting to dock at the station. A deep space cruiser bypassed the line and proceeded to a private hangar.

Yuko zoomed the view in on the cruiser. A Kurohoshi Nisshoku, the fastest human ship ever built. “Captain Wonder got himself a new toy,” she said, using her nickname for Hashimoto, the station’s chief administrator.

The closest I would ever come to owning a spaceship was playing a space sim. At least there were some advantages to working at Earth’s most important space station. Any cargo bound for Earth had to clear our inspection teams, which meant every day I got to board a dozen different alien spaceships.

The station computer confirmed the accuracy of the ship’s logs. The Ithpek vessel had left the colony after the war ended. The delivery code for the Museum of Defense was authentic.

I looked over the ship’s stopping points. The logs said the vessel had taken four years to travel from the Ithpek colony world to the first world in human space. That didn’t sound right. I checked my calculations three times. A vessel of this class couldn’t have made the trip in less than six years. What if the vessel had left earlier than claimed, when the Ithpek were still at war with humanity?

The Clones of Tehran

Drones buzzed overhead as Miller entered the restaurant. The front looked normal enough, but the back half was a mess of rubble and blood. Policemen collected evidence and took statements as paramedics carried out bodies covered in white sheets. Miller flashed his badge at the soldier who greeted him and walked over to a pair of policeman chatting in the corner.

“Well, if it isn’t my favorite buddy cop duo.”

“Miller.” Ezra, the taller of the two, offered his hand. The short, perpetually scowling Ali merely nodded.

“How many this time?”

“We’re still scraping bits and pieces off the ceiling, but at least twenty. Mostly civilians, plus a couple IDF soldiers on patrol.”

“Any ideas on a motive, besides the usual troublemaking?”

“The owner is related to one of the big shots in the Transitional Government,” said Ali. “But he wasn’t in the restaurant today.”

“Wouldn’t be the first time they’ve acted on shoddy intel.”

Miller pursed his lips as he glanced around the remains of the building. This was, what, the third bombing this week? Fourth? At least it wasn’t as bad as the mosque. Shame, though—he had always meant to eat here.

“Another vatman?” he said.

“Do you even have to ask?”

“No need to get snippy, Ali. Let me know when your tech boys have figured out what the bomb was made of. I want to know how they got past the sensors this time.”

“One of the witnesses said he saw the host slip out the door right after the bomber came in,” said Ezra. “We’re thinking he was bribed to disable the sensors.”

“Find him, fast. Shouldn’t be hard for Tehran’s finest, right?”

Neither of the men looked amused by Miller’s joke. He made a mental note not to try another one just as his ear buzzed.

“Miller? It’s Browning.”

“What’s up, Chris?”

“The police have a guy they’re pretty sure has a connection to the Guard. They’re holding him for us.”

“Is ‘pretty sure’ more or less sure than when they were ‘really sure’ about that student being a Guard agent?”

“Come on, just get down here. I just had to listen to another lecture from Langley, and that was before they heard about the latest bomb.”

“Alright, I’m on my way.” To the policemen he said, “Duty calls, gentlemen. I take it you know the drill by now?”

They nodded and went back to picking through the rubble. Miller walked back out into the beautiful spring evening, taking care not to step in any blood on the way.

This Mortal Coil

“He’s real,” said Freddy.

“What? Who?”

“Death. The Grim Reaper.”

“What are you talking about?”

“I saw him, Dave. He was just as I pictured him.”

“The Reaper,” I said with some irritation. “Death himself.”

“Yes! He’s real! Are you listening to me?”

I was used to Freddy’s little jokes and this was not one of his better ones. When I turned to look at his face I expected his affable grin. Most of the time he can’t keep himself from laughing. He wasn’t even smiling and his face had a wild, intense look to it.

I replied, “You’re not making any sense. How did you come to this conclusion?”

“The climb, man. I was halfway up on Cannon when my carabiner malfunctioned. I was toast.”

“You fell off of Cannon? Weren’t you locked in?” I asked. Of course, I knew the answer. Fred had long ago dispensed with the safety protocols. He had been free climbing for years and this was not his first serious accident. I sat down, prepared for yet another of his narrow escapes from the jaws of death–except that there was no death anymore. There hadn’t been one in 340 years and for that reason his embellished stories were not the exception; they were fairly commonplace.

With a life expectancy of well over a thousand years, humankind had grown bored. Nobody died of old age. Our everlasting bodies were full of tiny Nanobots, their sole purpose to seek and repair cell damage at the molecular level. Accidents were rare due to electronic surveillance that reached even the most remote locations. Our microscopic caretakers operated as a single entity, communicating instantaneously over great distances. Death had been conquered, or so it seemed.

With a lifespan that stretched out infinitely before them, humanity had lost their sense of urgency. Generations of comfort had dulled our survival instincts, bringing progress and innovation to an interminable crawl.

The majority of mankind now fell into two categories, those who sleepwalked through their idyllic life seeking constant entertainment, and the StimSeekers who sought out physical risk, always on the lookout for dangerous experiences to make them feel more alive. Some of these adventurers found their way off-world, bound for the outer limits of the galaxy where unexplored planets were being colonized. As you may have surmised, Freddy was a Stimmer. He was always finding himself a new and ever more dangerous playground.

Good Guys Always Win

All of this will be gone soon, he thought, looking out his living room window at the quiet neighborhood. Ed Richards sipped his first coffee of the morning, admiring the poplar trees that lined both sides of the main road before it branched off into his cul de sac.

His house was on a higher elevation than most in this part of Poplar Cove, and that gave him an extra advantage when watching the sunrise peek just over the trees. He wondered about the people who planted them – did they have families too? They probably had never lived here, and likely never even visited the street again once their job was done. Could they have imagined the saplings they were putting into the ground would one day grow up to be such magnificent relics, standing guard over the families who breathed them in? Could they have imagined how the lives of these trees, of those families, were going to end?

He took another sip of coffee, not waiting for it to cool. It burned, and he held onto it until he could no longer feel its sweet black bitterness on his tongue, and then he let it continue its path down his throat.

The television had been unplugged since the weekend. He didn’t want to know any more about what was happening. Several evenings ago he’d watched the bombs take out a dozen cities on the east coast in just a few hours. Boston, New York, Charleston, Atlantic City, even as far south as Jacksonville. All gone. When they started hitting further inland, he just couldn’t watch more of the same. It was total destruction of every place that got hit, and they were hitting every place. Their country was helpless. The president hadn’t been seen for days. It was bad, and it sure as hell seemed like THE END. He didn’t want the kids to know about any of that. He wished he hadn’t known it himself.

His wife walked up behind him. He put his arm around her shoulders and squeezed softly.

“I think I’m going to make some eggs, how do you want yours?”

He didn’t answer right away. He couldn’t peel his eyes away from those trees. They seemed extra vibrant today and their solidarity felt comforting. “Thanks, hon. I don’t think I feel like eating anything. Not this morning.”

She rested her head on his shoulder. “Any idea how much longer?”

“No,” he sighed. “Just feels like today could be the day, you know?” He felt her head nod.

Ed couldn’t tell how much time had passed as he stood there holding Carrie, and he was fine with that. Time was something they had spent far too long paying attention to, and he was done with it. Her hair smelled like cinnamon and he was quite alright with that.

The poplars just stood there, looking back at him, and they hadn’t so much as swayed since he’d gotten out of bed. They were like the Royal Guard, standing at attention despite the world making a fool of itself right under their noses. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a bird in this area. He wondered where they’d all gone, and if his family could go there too.

The house was still. The boys were asleep and the only sound was the hum of the fridge (the air conditioner had not yet switched on due to the unusually cool summer weather). Earlier, Carrie had plugged in the coffee maker just long enough to make a single pot, and then she unplugged it again. Conserving electricity was the rule now. The President had addressed the nation briefly before the attacks, and with his signature game show smile he assured everybody that the United States would prevail, and that sourcing every working power generator in the country toward that one goal would somehow help. Not once did he ever refer to this thing as a WAR. Of course that was back when Manhattan was still an island.

Several days ago, a tall man with a white moustache on an otherwise clean face stopped by the house. A badge dangled from a blue lanyard around his neck. On it was a black-and-white picture of a clean-shaven version of himself, and the letters DOE spread across it in all caps. Ed knew that the letters stood for Department of Energy. He also found it odd that there was no name on the badge either. The Moustached Man announced that he was operating under Executive Orders and going door to door, checking electric meters and walking through homes, making sure people were complying with the Emergency Energy Conservation Act. Maximum kilowatt hours had been established nationally, with southern cities being allowed more kWh per month than the northern ones during the summer. The Moustached Man quickly made his sweep through the lower level of the house, like a trained dog in a canine unit, and then walked upstairs and did the same. After a few moments he briskly descended the stairs, and with a nod and a cowboy grin, he told them ALL CLEAR and thanked them kindly for their service and to have a fine day. The screen door whacked sharply against the doorframe as he left, like a rimshot at the end of a bad joke.

Ed had wondered why the Department of Energy wouldn’t just have the local government (or even the power company) do such a menial job. Couldn’t Southern Electric just send out their meter-readers and report anybody who was playing too much Xbox? He watched The Moustached Man walk across the street to knock on the Silverman’s door, and that was when Ed saw a large green truck that looked like something out of M.A.S.H. parked at the end of the street. The back of it was filled with men wearing camouflage and helmets, sitting along the siderails and holding M-16 rifles.

These are the good guys, right? he thought.

Ed took another sip of his coffee. It didn’t seem to be cooling off. Carrie leaned up and kissed his cheek and told him she was going to start some eggs anyway, and she’d make him a few over-easy just in case he changed his mind. “Don’t worry, I’ll unplug the stove as soon as I’m done.”

She walked off. In the distance, he heard what sounded like a low roll of thunder, and he thought about Moustache Man and the men holding M-16s, and he wasn’t sure if the presence of the soldiers was supposed to make them feel safe or threatened.

Last fall before any of this, Ed took the boys out to the lake up at Center Hill. He’d wanted them to start learning how to fish, and with Chris in the 2nd grade now (Luke wasn’t far behind him) they were old enough to start getting a feel for it.

They tied down their camping gear into the back of the pickup, and the small fishing boat stuck out past the tailgate. The campground was about a half-hour west, and when they arrived they paid nineteen bucks for an overnight pass. Then they found their campsite and Ed pitched the tent while the boys watched. Then Ed gave them each a paddle and a fishing rod and he hoisted the boat over his head, and they walked the trail down to the water.

Sometime later they still had not caught anything. He hadn’t really expected to, he just wanted the boys to experience sitting on the water, drifting in silence and without anywhere to be.

Then Chris asked him a question he wasn’t expecting:

“Dad, are bad guys real?”

Ed stumbled, not anticipating that type of question. He sure as hell didn’t want to answer it, either.

“Why are you asking that?”

“Miss Tanner told us they were real, and that they were the ones that made those buildings fall down.”

“Your teacher told you that, huh?”

“People died.”

“That’s right, they did.”

“So bad guys are real, right?”

“I wish I could say they’re not, but they are.”

“Do they want to hurt us?”

“Well…they do want to hurt some people, but not necessarily us.” His own use of the word “necessarily” made him cringe.

“Why do they want to be bad?”

“Well son, people have their reasons–”

“Do they even know they’re the bad guys?”

“I don’t know that for sure but I imagine they must.”

“Because we’re definitely the good guys, right dad?”


“I would never want to be a bad guy.”

“Of course not.”

“Because the good guys always win, right?”

“Right.” Ed knew better, but what was he supposed to say?

Chris sat in silence, looking out over the water with his fishing rod drooping near the water. Luke may have been listening, but he hadn’t said anything. Ed hadn’t noticed the clouds moving in until he heard thunder somewhere nearby.

“Better get back to shore, guys. We don’t want to get caught out here in the rain.”

They set down their poles in the boat and Ed picked up both paddles and handed one to Chris.



“The bad guys – they aren’t anywhere near us are they?”

The question echoed back at Ed in his living room. He couldn’t remember how he’d answered it, and it seemed like such a long time ago. He figured he’d said something about the bad guys being far away and that the Army men would surely stop them with their tanks before they got too close. And at the time he could have even believed that himself.

There was a knock at the door, and it startled him out of this trance. He hoped the knock didn’t wake the boys.

He looked through the peephole and saw the telltale gator-skinned cowboy hat perched atop his neighbor’s much-too-tan scalp. It was Joe and he was propping the screen door against his back, like he was waiting to get invited in. Ed opened the front door.

“Good morning Joe.”

“Mornin’, Buddy, hope I didn’t wake you. Hey, ya mind if I borrow your boat for the day? I had mine all loaded up when I saw this crack in the seam, and I don’t think it’s busted all the way through yet, but I don’t want to take the chance testing it out on the water. Know what I mean?”

“Sure, I guess. You know where it is, right?”

“You bet. Thanks Eddie-boy, I’ll try to bring her back in one piece!” Joe said, his voice trailing off as he disappeared off the front stoop and ran around back. Ed lunged and caught the screen door before it could wake the kids.

He walked into the kitchen and leaned over the island and looked at Carrie, who had two eggs on a plate and was frying two more. She’d unearthed the “special occasion” cast iron this morning. She asked him what all that was about at the door and he told her.

“He should have invited you to go with him! I’m sure you’d have loved to get on the water one more time.”

“It’s okay. Everybody wants to be on the water today, you know the lake’s got to be packed. Besides, why on Earth would I want to spend today with him when I could be right here with you?”

She smiled. The toast was ready. She pulled it and set it on the cutting board next to the butter, and then unplugged the toaster.

Carrie had a sweet voice and he wanted to hear more of it this morning. She wasn’t saying much, but she seemed content. She spread butter on the toast and cut it in half. Quiet wasn’t so bad either though. The morning silence had been peaceful, and he was grateful for it, for her, for them.

Something suddenly broke the silence behind them and they both jumped, and they saw Chris and Luke on the staircase, leaping off the third step from the bottom. Carrie laughed.

“Look who’s up,” she said. “It’s not even eight! Who’s hungry?”

Both boys raised their hands and ran over to the kitchen. Ed didn’t know why they were in such good moods, he was just thankful they were.

“You boys can fight over my eggs,” Ed said. “I’ll get in on the next round.” He stood up and gave both boys a quick hug, kissing them on top of their heads, then poured himself another cup. “Honey, what kind is this?”

“It’s some kind of summer blend. I’ve never seen it before.”

“It’s good. You’ll have to get more, this isn’t going to last.”

“I’ll be sure to do that the next time I go to the store.” He knew she said that last part out of habit. It was hard to get over the thought of there being something called a “next time.”

He walked back over to the window and looked out over the scores of roofs that seemed to stretch forever into the distance. Their house had been the first one built in this section, and that’s how they’d lucked into being on the hill at the end of a cul-de-sac. And it also gave them a sense of security, tucked in the back where nothing could get to them that didn’t have to go through everybody else first.

That’s when he saw the mushroom clouds near the horizon. Not just one, but several. His blood froze, even with hot coffee running through his veins. This must be what happened out east, he thought. He’d expected something different, like explosions or some dramatic flash of light. He’d expected Hiroshima. But these mushrooms were silent and dark, appearing one-by-one across the sky like raindrops falling on a still lake. They seemed alive.

A part of him wanted to run, but there was nowhere to run to. During tornado-packed evenings the family would huddle in the downstairs bathroom, listening to the static-filled radio until the storms passed. But this time there was no safe place to go, and the radios had been nothing but static for some time.

From the kitchen poured beautiful sounds like he hadn’t heard in months, maybe even years. Carrie was making up silly songs and singing them loudly, making the boys crack up as they tried singing along. He had no intention of making that wonderful painting of a scene end a moment before it had to.

The sky over their street was cloud-free for the moment, but that was about to change. The poplars were still. They were ageless guardians, and Ed’s family was like a fragile figurine collection that the trees had sworn to protect.

But there was only so much the trees could do. Today they could only stare and watch as the clouds moved closer by the second, each one seeming to be larger and darker than the one before. In a few minutes, the clouds would cover their street and invade their homes and bring darkness to everything. But not yet. For now, for at least the next few moments, the sky over their street was still quite nice.

Ed sighed and finished the last of his coffee. He slowly pulled the curtain closed and walked away from the window. He crossed the living room toward his family, unaware and blissful. He placed his mug in the dishwasher.

“We can’t run that anymore, remember? Just set it in the sink instead and I’ll get it after breakfast.”

“Ha! You’re right, I forgot. Hey boys, your mom’s the greatest, isn’t she?”

They gave their thumbs up approval as they began stuffing their mouths with eggs and toast.

She smiled.

He smiled back.

Aaron Grayum is a writer and artist. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee with his wife Michelle, who is also an artist, and his son Sebo, who is also a ninja.


At first, Mark took her for just another illegal: they all looked the same, heads down, feet shuffling, dressed in off-white paper suits so thin that the whole line trembled on their way up the ramp and into the back of the lorry. It was only when she looked up that he realized who she was.


Asha to her friends. He had been one, once.

He had fallen for her hard, the first girl he had ever thought of as more than just a fluffy pink annoyance. The entire spring the year he turned fourteen had been spent trying to impress her and the entire summer holiday spent longing for her. He cried when he returned to school in September and found her gone. He suffered his first broken heart by proxy, victim of Asha’s family moving away from London to care for an elderly relative.

Six years had barely changed her; she was still Asha, still dark-haired and dark-eyed and petite, a cocoa-skinned pixie. She shuffled past on the ramp and for a second their eyes met. When she didn’t seem to recognize him, didn’t even blink, it was a sucker punch right in the gut. She was in the back of the lorry before he could catch his breath, just another illegal for Jones to tick off on his clipboard. Once the rest of them had joined her the ramp was lifted, sealing her away in the dark.

Jones drove, easing the lorry through the gate and out of the holding camp, a squat building that had once been a primary school. The outskirts of Leicester were a ghost town of hollowed-out take-aways and boarded-up corner shops covered in graffiti: “Illegals Go Home”, “Britain for the British,” slogans from the government’s last election campaign. They made Mark think of the prisoners, crammed in the back of the lorry like cattle on the way to the slaughterhouse.

Jones was old-school; shaven head, bulldog tattoo on one forearm and a pin-up on the other, a faded St George’s Cross poking out from the collar of his camo shirt. They hadn’t worked together before and Jones was too big, too imposing, for Mark to be the one to break the silence. Instead he checked the clipboard, as discreetly as he could. The girl in the back of the lorry was definitely Ashika. Seeing her name made him tingle.

“Done this run before?” Jones asked, making Mark jump.

“No,” Mark replied. “You?”

“Thought not,” Jones said. “Would’ve recognized you. Done this a few times meself. Never gets any easier. Searchers keep finding more ‘n more of ’em.” The older man flicked him a glance. “Strange, that, eh?”

There was a challenge in Jones’s voice that demanded the correct answer, something that was safe and appropriate to say. “Well, y’know, they breed like rats, don’t they?” He thought of Ashika and felt disgusted with himself. “So,” he added, trying to move the conversation on, “you been in the regiment long?”


“What did you do before?”

“Bit o’ this, bit o’ that,” Jones said noncommittally. “You?”

“Nuffin’,” Mark said.

Jones frowned. “Why’s that?” he asked. “Man’s gotta work.” There was another challenge in his voice, sharp and almost angry.

Mark swallowed; Jones was six inches taller and six stone heavier, built like he could bench-press the lorry. “It was hard,” he said, “until we started kicking this lot out. I’m working now, aren’t I?”

“Coming over here, taking out jobs?”

“Yeah, exactly.”

Jones nodded as if that told him everything he need to know and turned his attention back to the road.