Monday, 9 December 2013

Empires!

Well, I always say, if you're going to be late, you might as well make it very late! I have finally managed to stop working, Christmas shopping and all the other things people need to do like eating and sleeping to finish last months pictonaut challenge, only 9 days overdue and way longer than it should by rights be. This one got away from me a little bit and I think it has now turned into the prĂ©cis for a full length novel. We shall see if I ever get the time to achieve that goal, but I find it highly unlikely. Anyway, without further ado, I present to the internet the drama, the mystery and the intrigue of Empires!



Sandra Valhir surveyed the empty room ahead of her. Empty of people, more specifically, and even that not for long. Still, besides its personal emptiness, the room contained a great deal. For instance, it contained opulence, and it contained this in abundance. From the two dozen empty, ornate mahogany tables, each of which would seat half a dozen comfortably; to the large leather and felt covered, solid wood, throne like chairs that supplied the seats themselves; to the individual crystal chandeliers above each and every of these tables; to the marble floors, the stone pillars, the vaulted, painted ceiling, the wall made entirely of glass looking on to the vast oil paintings in the corridor beyond; the room was, if a room could be, extraordinarily rich.

Sandra enjoyed these moments by herself, surveying the work done, taking quiet ownership of things so luxuriant before she was required to pass them on to The Charade. This particular event had been something of a coup and Sandra was, for the first time since she had begun what had now become her entire life, proud of what she had achieved. Not proud of the purpose, not proud of what might happen once those grand, gold encrusted doors opened and the games began, but proud of the ingenuity that it had taken to pull off what should have been an impossible feat. The feeling would not last. It would be moments more until the spell was broken by the marching of imperialistic feet and Director Valhir would sink from reverie into soulless pragmatism.

And then it happened. The doors opened, the first footfalls from foreign feet echoed around the great hall. The Director span to view the newcomers, her tight, straight pure grey suit falling neatly about her person, her sleek, black boots clicking together in a unanimous display of strength and respect, and her clipboard coming sharply under her arm. She allowed the man who had entered the room take several steps towards her before she moved forward the short distance left between, saving some amount of face.

"I trust security arrangements are to your satisfaction, General?" Valhir asked.

"Never," The General replied with masked emotion. General Kirchhoff was a rotund man, with a dull, scarlet face, whose body forced against the sides of a grey uniform that fitted him half a decade ago. His medals, now tarnished and oranging with rust, still glinted in the soft firelight of the spiralling black candles that made up the centre piece of each table.

"I must say, I'm impressed," The General offered to Sandra and she inflated with a deep breath of hubris but allowed the air to leave her again without adding a word. The General received her message. "To business then," he said. The Director nodded and began her brief.

"In a little under an hour," she explained. "This building will begin celebrating its centenary. The emperor shall arrive in just over half an hour to celebrate his own hundredth illustrious year on the throne."

"Yes, very good." The General smiled at The Director with satisfaction, but was repaid only with an impatient glare which he found he could not hold against. With his gaze to the floor, The Director continued.

"After a five course meal, there shall be a short fireworks display. The emperor will have a choice view from the balcony beyond the door at the back of the room." The Director indicated the door. "Where upon he shall be showered with adoration by his loyal subjects."

The General nodded with a smile, understanding the cleverness of the arrangements Director Valhir had undertaken. She continued. "The emperor shall return for dessert which shall be unsatisfactory. The chef will have to be punished I'm afraid."

"Is he one of ours?" The General asked.

"He is not," Director Valhir responded. "He took our money far too readily. He will sell at almost any price."

"A pity. Will he be missed?"

"Not by the staff of this building," Sandra said. "He doesn't work here. Nor can he be by lovers who do not exist."

"I see," The General said. He nodded solemnly. "And what of this room? Was it not needed for the celebrations?"

"The owner of the building is one of my girls." The Director smiled at the statement. The General sneered in response, but this only broadened Director Valhir's grin. "Those below have been led to believe that this room is for those above; those above that it is unworthy for their private amusement and so has been allocated to those below. They both have their own areas kept apart and never the twain shall meet. Interclass fraternisation does not happen in this town."

"And in return for her service, your 'girl' is allowed the grace of remaining under your domination," The General growled, low and soft, yet meant to be heard. Director Valhir's expression - cool yet agreeingly receptive up until this point - shifted into a dark and silent storm, impatient, resentful, pitying.

"Your continued ignorance as to the nature of our network is what keeps you outside of it, General." This last word of rank was barely vocalised, and what sound did escape Sandra's clenched teeth carried with it no respect. The palpable aggression between the pair may have heightened to levels of violent consequences, had they not been rescued from the situation by the fanfare of the beginning of festivities and the roar of the emperor's motorcade.

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Clarice smoothed down her skirts and straightened her small black hat. It was her first day on the job, and her last. Of the first fact, Clarice was painfully aware. There was an infinite cascade of ever decreasing butterflies within butterflies inside of her that relentlessly caused unending hurricanes on the other side of the world. This job, this night, was her chance, perhaps her only one, at a better life, and she felt the full weight of a moment in time on her shoulders. She was not aware of the latter. With a deep breath, Clarice took hold of the tools of her new trade, napkin and plate of h'orderves, and headed out of the kitchen, into the gathering crowd.

The centennial was in full swing. Many of the most important, the most fashionable guests had already arrived and the great crowd of the more common revellers was nearly at capacity. Most of whom the staff labelled the 'Downstairs Guests' were thronging outside around the front of the building, hoping to catch a glimpse, a touch, or even a word with those of the higher echelons of society. Anyone of these fancymen and fancywomen could take a liking to a commoner and change their lives forever. It was a commonplace enough modern fairytale. Clarice herself, however, had no time for flights of fancy. She would work to her own betterment, rather than wait for handouts from the fortunate and become a victim of fortune herself, trapped forever by unearned splendour that might be struck from her hand as swiftly as thrust into it. She could see the lie of it, and it repulsed her. Clarice's path to a new life was laid of different material than gold.

Clarice's duty took into this baying crowd of hopefuls, to serve light refreshment for those finding the closeness of the mass of bodies too much for them. These might be the Downstairs Guests, but Clarice was well aware that they were still a good few floors above her own station, and that sensibilities grew more delicate when at greater height. As she moved around the people, occasionally stopping to lighten her load at someone's request, she too watched the sleek black cars that delivered the Upstairs Guests. Here a politician entered the fray; she was perhaps half way to the top of the stairs. And next, a religious dignitary, who stood one third up. Finally, the district mayor - top three steps- swung her legs in a wide and elegant arc as she slid out of her car. Her business like evening gown was the perfect blending of function and style, and showed enough of her figure to remain flattering in the fashionably understated colours of the cloth. Clarice could not help but admire this woman and, just for a moment, she too wanted to be whisked away into the high arched rooms of the central government complex that stood, bold and dark, in the very centre of the district towering over all it surveyed. Clarice shook herself from this fantasy in time to see the final motorcade of the evening passing through the crowd, almost unnoticed with all eyes resting on the mayor. The car slid through, lights dim and engine silent, depositing no star or dignitary or leader as it went; merely slowing slightly as it reached the densest point of the congregation before moving around the side of the building and of sight and out of mind. Out of mind of most, at least. The mysterious car and its possible contents were still in Clarice's thoughts when the fanfare began to bring the merrymakers inside.

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From the grand golden arch that marked the main entrance to the Great Hall in which Sandra and Kirchhoff stood, ran a short flight of red carpeted steps. The feet that now placed themselves gently, precisely, upon these steps, in order, one after the other, never skipping, never missing, never out of place, were long and thin. These motifs of form and function propagated throughout the body above. The long arms were held rigid, one by the side, one at the lapel, speaking promise of the valiant heart that lay beneath. The spindly legs bent at the knee at precise angles, never wavering from the rhythmic motion of their march. The head was bald and bold, with eyes that did not move and did not blink. And the whole package was wrapped neatly in pristine dark grey cloth, fitted to the perfect form of the man who lay within - the emperor.

The formidable sight of this man, great in stature if nothing else, was further enhanced by the retinue that moved with him. Men to the last, and all attired in a colour to match, but not outdo, the emperor's own garb, they stood motionless along the short flight of stairs, watching the infinity at the end of their vision as if their dreams could be realised there, as the emperor sauntered past.

At the bottom of the stairs, Director Valhir waited patiently for her ruler. There would be no words between them, this was forbidden. With gestures alone, The Director led the emperor to his table, central amongst the vast empty room, and indicated the itinerary of his meal with a wave of her hand to a card on the table.

While the tables may have been empty, the room had filled upon the arrival of the emperor's motorcade, and before him now stood his staff for the evening. The small corps of waiters, waitresses and chefs, a few dozen strong and far too many to serve a single person, were nervous and respectful in the perfect measure to instil a sense of great importance on the man for whom they had been assembled. There was some fidgeting amongst their number, which gave The Director the perfect opportunity to display her complete control of the situation, by chastising and correcting the behaviour of those who could not keep still with a single, withering glance.

With a palpable tension filling the room, the very particles in the air stopped dead in anticipation, the emperor surveyed the scene before him with a critical eye and presently, pleased with what he could see, he sat. A spell was broken by this simple motion, and the statues that had surrounded the emperor a moment before sprang to life. The General made a series of quick motions, and his men moved from their guard on the entryway and staircase, to widen their net to include all the entrances and exits of the hall, and one long parade of military force along the corridor beyond the glass wall. The chefs scampered away into their kitchen with nearly too much haste, but still respectful enough to never turn their back on the emperor, and the waiters and waitresses positioned themselves around the room to be called upon at a moment's notice, it is true, but mostly to give the illusion of a less empty and depressing hall.

With the serving of the first bottle of high end imported wine, the festivities had begun.

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So far, Clarice had managed to navigate the evening with little effort. She had at one point confused a bottle of red as being an import when in fact it was a county wine, but this small misjudgement seemed to go unnoticed by the men and women at her table. Otherwise, the job was simple; empty is replaced with full unless a raised hand indicates submission from a guest, and Clarice found she had attention enough to share on her surroundings. In stark contrast to the Great Hall in which the emperor sat, Clarice could not cast a glance in any direction without her view being immediately blockaded by some body or another. Most people were sat, it was true, and this helped to give the somewhat lower-ceilinged room a bit more of an impression of space, but every table had at least three people serving it and six people to table, and there were dozens of tables. Clarice found the whole affair more than a little stifling and was greatly relieved when a soft bell rang, gradually increasing in volume as it decreased in pitch, a falling crescendo that was concluded with an almighty bang that came from the skies.

As one, the entire room began to stand and head out to the half dozen or so large double oak doors which lined one wall of the dining hall as people made their way, painfully slowly, out into the cool night air to enjoy the fireworks. As one of the help, Clarice was forced to remain indoors until all the guests had vacated, suffering herself to only hear and guess at the wonders which were being displayed in the darkening sky outside, aided by the occasional, particularly brilliant, colourful flash. Clarice waited with patience, however, confident that the best of the entertainment would be reserved for the finale when she and her fellow servers would also be able to soak in the colour and the splendour, and happy that she could finally let in and out deep, refreshing breaths of the cooling breeze that came in through the gaping doorways.

Clarice was not disappointed when she finally made her way outside. The sky was alive with a vibrant transience of light, colour and sound. Golden cascades of shining beads fell from a central explosion, tracing lines like giant chandeliers that terminated in brief sparks of brilliant blue; bright spirals of scarlet spun out into the blue-black night sky surrounded by a halo of piercing green fairies; and through it all, the house orchestra blared out the stirring brass and bass of the national anthem.

As the light show went on, Clarice became aware of a growing murmur around the crowd. As one, the revellers had been intent upon the sky, a single mind, a single idea shared and intensified. But now, that intensity faded and the focuses shifted onto a new intrigue. Clarice she felt this pull of social unity drag her gaze upwards, towards a balcony being showered in small blue and green sparks. A figure stood there, amongst these ghostly and inconstant stars who was singularly unique to Clarice by his attention which, rather than be on the sky along with the masses was turned down towards the society itself, soaking in all the wonderment and awe that poured from them, intercepting it on its way to the skies. Clarice was entrapped by fascination in this character, regally in dress as well as in demeanour, and steely in vision. Presently, she became aware of a sound coming down towards her from up on high. A light and pleasant voice which called to her softly. She struggled to hear it and was broken from her spell once she realised that, in fact, the source was far closer to home, coming from her side rather than the heavens, and was far less pleasant than she had at first presumed.

"Clarice isn't it," the head caterer scowled at her, clearly unimpressed with her daydreaming. She could only nod in response. "Well, cut out that staring. They'll be none of that with Those Above. They hate to be watched while they eat." Clarice nodded again. "Well, don't just stand there. I'm telling you you're transferred girl. Get going."

With a final, far more emphatic nod, Clarice relieved herself of her tray and hitched up her skirt to trot back into the Dining Hall and make her way Upstairs. Upstairs, she thought to herself and smiled. They must have been impressed with me.

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There was a difference in the sound when the emperor placed his desert fork down on the plate, subtle but noticeable to those who knew the man. Or perhaps Director Valhir had imagined it, as she had known it was to come. There were a few moments of palpable silence as the emperor wiped his mouth clean before he spoke.

"Bring him to me," he said. The General nodded in response and waved a hand swiftly to one of his officers. A moment later, The Soldier returned, a worrying man dressed in the traditional white and red trim of the chef trailing behind him. The destitute baker's eyes were cast at all times to the floor, never to the emperor.

"Explain," the emperor demanded. The chef looked up to The Soldier, The General, The Director in turn, desperately seeking an explanation to the question. It came, finally, from Ms Valhir.

"The emperor was not satisfied with your work. How dare you serve such swill as desert to our illustrious emperor?" Her tone carried with it explicitly all that the emperor's question had implied.

"I... I... The pastry... well..." the chef babbled to the dust at his feet, searching for an excuse there, and finding none.

"Dispose of him," the emperor ordered. The General nodded once more and another complicated wave brought forward a man carrying a musket. The sight of the weapon, caught in an upward glance by the hapless wretch now grovelling on the floor, reduced the chef to tears. The General gave the order to take aim but was stopped short of the final deed by Sandra as she bent towards their victim, kneeling by his side and leaning into his ear.

"You have played your part perfectly," she whispered to the chef. "You'll be fine."

As she got up to allow The Soldier to carry out his task, her sight was cast in passing along the long glass wall of the room to the far end of the candle lit corridor beyond, and the blood drained from her face.

"Your excellency," she said, not taking eyes off the maid in the corridor who stared back at her now in terror. "I must attend to other matters." And without awaiting leave from the emperor, she headed toward the corridor with the ringing of a single gunshot echoing around her turned back.

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Clarice turned marbline, a statue of fear. She could do nothing but meet the stare of the well dressed woman on the other side of the glass. As the woman stood and walked towards her, never moving her gaze, Clarice wished earnestly that she could turn and flee, yet she remained powerless, motionless. Until the gunshot. At this terrible sound, the spell was broken and Clarice turned her head just in time to see the lifeless body of the chef collapse to the ground, blood already pooling around his head. Clarice couldn't process anything that she saw. Who was the poor man who had just been shot? Who was the professional looking woman bearing down on her now, with fire in her eyes? Why had the man sat at the table ordered the other man shot? Endless questions and no hope of answers jolted her into action, and she turned to flee.

"Hold her!" The Director ordered to The Guard at the furthest end of the corridor. A hand was on Clarice's shoulder before she had even taken a step. "What the fuck do we pay you for?" Sandra barked quietly at The Guard as she approached her new prisoner. "Didn't you see her watching?" The Guard said nothing in response. His loyalties lay with The General. Ms Valhir took out a small electronic tablet device and held it up to the girl to take a photograph. A few finger swipes later, and Director Valhir was presented with everything there was to know about Clarice Yegorov.

The great glass doors in the transparent wall of the hall flew open again to allow the passage of The General into the fray. The Director had moved off to the side and was pouring over her tablet.

"What the hell is this?" The General asked. "Did she see?"

Director Valhir nodded without a word, flicking through page after page of data, furiously assimilating it all as fast as she could.

"What are you waiting for then?" General Kirchoff barked. "Take her out and shoot her!" This order was directed at The Guard, who saluted with his free hand and turned to go.

"Wait!" Sandra almost shouted, but kept herself in check lest the emperor overheard. The General's voice was softer, but less controlled in its response.

"Damn it, Sandra! She's seen, she knows. If she tells anyone, if word gets out, we're finished!"

"She's no one to tell," The Director explained, holding the screen of her device up for Kirchoff to see.

"The more people who know," The General continued to protest. "The more chance of a leak."

"Don't get too carried away in your role, General, with your toy soldiers and your guns," Sandra hissed, expressing her anger freely at last. "The decision is not yours to make." General Kirchoff only scowled in response. "And it's not mine either," The Director concluded. Sandra moved over to the girl now quivering and whimpering on her knees and moved into her, a perfect replication of her motion towards the chef.

"You have a choice my girl," Sandra whispered. "You are a problem for us now. We need to turn that problem into a solution." Clarice stared at Director Valhir, scared and confused, barely hearing the words spoken to her. "Now, there are two ways we can achieve this goal. Firstly, these men could shoot you in the head." The blunt expression brought a violent sob forth from Clarice's belly, but she was quickly hushed by The Director. "Alternatively," Sandra continued. "I can spare your life. But do not misunderstand me. You will still lose your self, to me rather than the General. You may at any time be called upon to do something you will later regret, something that might make death seem more preferable. But you will get to live. It's your choice." With that, Sandra Valhir unfolded her hand to reveal a small silver ring, a plane band without distinguishing features of any kind. Clarice's eyes widened.

"I know who you are," she stammered gently. "But... you're a myth."

"Mostly," Sandra smiled. "But this part is true."

Clarice was awestruck. What could she do but accept or die? Still, she hesitated slightly as she took the ring and slid it onto her right index finger, a perfect fit. There was a sharp pain around where the band touched her flesh, just for a second and then it passed. Instinctively, Clarice pulled at the ring.

"That won't be coming off, my sweet," Sandra said. "Now, you get one question. Just one. A little tradition. A gift from me. Think carefully, for it shall be your last." Clarice did not have to think. There was just one thing she wanted to know. She moved her sight towards the hall and the tall, slender man, sat bolt upright in pride, surveying the slowly bleeding corpse before him.

"Who is that man?” Clarice asked. “Who is he to have another man shot, and be surrounded by guards, and have you in his service? Who is it I am giving my life for?"


"Him?" Sandra said as she helped The Waitress back to her feet, power once again resting in the girl's limbs. "He is... nobody important."

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Pictonaut ahoy!

Another month, another image from the verbumancer. This time, we have been furnished with the illogical visage of a submarine in space. Pretty cool, no? Well, Halloween is coming, and it's beginning to look a lot like fishmen!

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The sirens began to sound a fraction of a second before the first shot detonated somewhere off the port side of the boat. Everyone on board felt the shockwave hit and the tub lilt over in the water, but while the regular crew took it nearly in their stride, Dr Stone was hurtled headlong across the bridge by his untrustworthy landlegs. The cut on his head, which he discovered as he righted himself, was new but his scowl was not.

"We can't," the professor began, but was cut short by the standard workings of a submarine in combat.

"Enemy to stern, sir. Sixteen hundred meters." The information was offered to the man stood at the centre of the chaos; stoic, strong built, their leader. Orders were barked in return - evasive manoeuvres, prepare to surface! In a moment of silence, Dr Stone took his opportunity to continue.

"We cannot let this discovery fall into enemy hands!" he exclaimed, as much to the air as to the captain, for his attention was elsewhere. "Captain Hargreaves?" the professor implored.

"Not the moment, Dr Stone," was the captain’s only reply.

"The exact moment, I am afraid," Dr Stone said. "We have no idea of the power or scope of what we have found out here. This could change the course of this war. Hell, it could alter the face of all mankind!"

"There isn't time, doctor!" The captain chastised the man. The professor was about to start his own counter offensive when another voice forced itself into the cacophony of siren song.

"Torpedo inbound!" came the cry from the comms officer. "Deploy decoy," came next and was swiftly followed with "Decoy away!" The shockwave of the explosion caused when torpedo and decoy met was less fierce than the first but was followed by an almighty bang followed by a half dozen new klaxons sounding, each with its own special type of warning, and each entirely incomprehensible to the professor.

"That was a depth charge," the captain explained. "The bastards are above us too!" Hargreaves moved over to the ship intercom.

"All hands prepare to dive!" He yelled into the microphone. Echoes of Dive! Dive! Dive! Spread around the ship and Dr Stone felt his stomach lurch at the sub quickly stalled in its ascent and began to plummet towards the ocean's depths.

"I really must insist you hear me, captain!" the professor tried once more. "Should the Nazi's get hold of this device..."

"Device?" Hargreaves shouted in response. "You don't even know what it is. It's a goddamn stone box we dragged up from the bottom of the sea! Even if it were some magical hocus pocus machine or whatever the hell you seem to think it is, I doubt it'll work to well after rusting to all hell on the sea bed!"

"Just because you can't understand it," Dr Stone began but was cut short by the sight of the captain's back turned rudely towards him. "Hey! Don't you dare..." This time the interruption came from the point of a gun as Hargreaves turned to once more face the professor. "What, are you going to shoot me now?" Dr Stone finally concluded, although the mocking confidence in his tone belied the terror that he felt at the sight of the weapon.

"Will you stop being so bloody melodramatic!" the captain insisted. "Here," he said passing the revolver to the academic. "If you think the damn thing is so bloody important, you go and protect it!"

"I'm really not comfortable..."

"Get comfortable!" Hargreaves yelled, thrusting the gun into Dr Stone's hands. A moment's more hesitation and Dr Stone took up the weapon and left the bridge.

"Five hundred metres from the sea bed, captain."

"Take her all the way down," the captain ordered. "We'll try and confuse their sonar. Order silent running.” The order was repeated and immediately obeyed. “Cut all engines, just let her drop, nice and gently."

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Stone was looking over his find when the order came through for silent running, moving his hands over the surface, caressing every flaw, each raised figure, examining in great detail all its ins and outs, trying to decipher what it might be and what it might do. He needn't be told to be silent. He would not sully this hallowed moment. As the doctor trailed his fingers over the runic symbols that covered the box, he found one that felt as though it were loose within the setting of the stone. Gingerly, he fiddled around with the protruding shape, until, by intuition more than anything, he pushed his finger down onto it. The switch gave way and slid into the device with ease. The thing came to life! The grinding of some centuries old mechanism forced its way into operation. Something deep in the heart of the box, something that felt like it came from miles away, yet the device was no bigger than a man's head, began to shine, emanating a deathly, pale blue glow around the small store room in which Dr Stone now stood. Each edge of the near perfect stone cube lit up with this ghostly pallor. Presently, four conjoined lines of light grew wider and brighter and one side of the box slid away revealing beneath a small, cylindrical button of stone, a slightly darker hue than the rest of the device and Dr Stone felt the overwhelming urge to push it.

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"Fifty metres from the surface," the captain was informed. "Forty... thirty... twenty... ten."

With a soft thump that resounded around the entire boat twice the submarine found the bottom of the sea. Now all there was to do was wait. Captain Hargreaves moved over to his comms officer, indicating for a report.

"They're still up there sir," the officer whispered. "I get three U-boats and..." The man was interrupted by a noise from somewhere further down the boat, a noise of the scrape of metal against metal, but muffled, as though it came from outside the submarine. As the crew of the bridge waited, the noise came again, louder this time and followed by what sounded almost like an implosion and the rushing of water.

"Shit!" Hargreaves exclaimed, moving over to the intercom. "Report! What the hell was that?" A moment's silence followed and then the reply came.

"We're being boarded sir!" the crackly voice came from the speaker. "Some kind of disgusting, I don't know, some thing, has broken through the hull, we're taking on water fast! They… they’ve got gills and… oh God!" This was all the captain managed to receive before the radio went dead.

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Dr Stone had heard all that had gone on from within his store room and now he could see the first trickles of water coming in from beneath the door. He turned back to his device and held it tight as he heard the shouts and bangs of combat from the halls of the submarine. He could only see one hope now, and it was such an outside chance that the doctor had to laugh to himself, even as he considered it. But consider it he did, and he could come up with no alternative course of action. Besides, if he was going to die, he must know what the machine did first. His mind made up, the doctor struck down hard on the button of his device.

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Deep in the cold blue depths of the ocean, and high in the cold dark regions of space above the Earth, a simultaneous and precisely identical faint shimmering began to occur. Quickly, this ripple in reality grew and shaped itself into the outline of a submarine. On the sea bed, this anomaly surrounded first a real submarine, actual and whole, and then, a split second later, it surrounded nothing. In the vacuum of space, the faint undulations of the cosmos were as nothing at first, and a split second later, there was a submarine. The water on the outside of the boat quickly froze in the shadow of the Earth, and that inside stopped flowing in and began flowing out, carrying with it piscine intruder and crewman alike, out into the deadly emptiness of the universe. Not a soul on board had time to even guess at what had occurred, nor to take in the incredible sight that lay before them. Shortly, from out of the darkness a large dark shape slipped into being, vast but unseen, engulfing and capturing the small earthly vessel which now floated serenely and unmanned, at least by the living, above its home world, before sliding silently back into the unending blackness of space, leaving behind once again the empty vacuum and the unaware, blue marbline planet and its pointless and terrible war.

Friday, 30 August 2013

Pictonaut Aug '13 - Voyage to the Planets - The White lies of Pegasus.

Another instalment of wordascope challenge goodness from the inspiration that is The Rogue Verbumancer's pictonauts. My title for this one, The White Lies of Pegasus, is by far the longest I have given anything I've written that wasn't an academic paper (they have much longer titles). I hope you enjoy.

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A shadow drifted past Ai Niu Cho's field of vision, a dark blur that floated somewhere beyond the bright haze that, for the moment, made up her world. It was fast, already free and fully alert. The next was slower, more defined, but had no less an aura of urgency around it. As her vision returned, her limbs began to twitch and pulse, her heart to beat strong and fast, and her breath came naturally and instantly, as though it had never ceased. She had never felt the cold. Not once. That was what struck her first. Cho had really believed that stasis would feel chill, but instead, it was nothing, like death; no thoughts, no feelings, no Cho. From here to there had been all but instantaneous to Cho, yet she felt she had been missing for such a long time, and she was thrilled to be back.

A familiar face appeared before her capsule and beamed at her, a neat row of pearls beneath a flop of golding, mousey brown fur. Marcus punched a control, and the clear plastic shield slid away to release Cho.

"Come on, Kiddo!" he said at her. "Enough beauty sleep. It's Planetfall!"

The man's pep spilled into the corridor around him and infected all it touched. But it wasn't his alone. This was truly an exciting time, the beginning of a new life, a whole new world. And she was here, amongst The First. Work to do! Cho accepted the large, freshly trimmed hand that was offered her and allowed Marcus's full force to propel her rapidly out of the tube, catapulting her into the corridor and into destiny. She took the energy he offered and ran with it, all the way to her station, his beaming grin on her lips.

Cho had been last out of the Sleep of the command team. By no plan - it was the luck of the draw - yet it meant she had ground to make up in her preparations for dropout. But friends first, contact, people. People she had wished well on their journey not minutes before, and had not stood beside for countless years. Ai Niu fell onto the bridge of the Pegasus, staggering forward into the embrace of her large, gentle friend, Ivan Stepanovich. He chuckled, as he steadied her, at her clumsy attempt at feigning the deliberate trip.

"Woah, careful!" he cautioned. "You are over stimulated, I think."

Cho slipped away from him and onto her chair, at the console beside Ivan's, the science team finally reassembled, after all this lost time, after only minutes apart.

"How long?" Cho asked. The impatience in her voice was palpable, she was well aware, but the time and place for hiding such things was back on Earth. Any social contract had been left far behind, a new order was rising.

"Till what?" Ivan mocked her in response. It was a short retaliatory strike that Cho delivered, but it had accuracy, and a bright red sting shot up through Ivan's arm along his distempered nerves. He laughed all the same.

"Ok, ok," he finally conceded. "Pegasus is," -- checking a monitor -- "Four hours from dropout and so just five from Planetfall. And we have a lot to do before then."

The air shifted, and something within Ivan dropped, pulling his expression with it. Cho's features mimicked Ivan's frown in sympathy. Ivan leaned into Ai Niu and she instinctively followed suit.

"Did you dream?" he whispered to her. Cho was taken aback by the sudden mood change in her friend, and yet she knew, without question or hesitation, what his purpose had been in this question. She said nothing in response, but lightly shook her head.

"I think I was dead," Ivan concluded, almost as much to the spacecraft's thin air as to his friend. “It was… peaceful.” Cho nodded just as lightly before and moved away to her own business, a glimpse of infinity fresh in her mind.

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Tsukiko Wakahisa placed down her implements with care, exhaling with deliberation; she would not lose her patience.

"Blindness," Tsukiko said.

"What?” The viscous mixture of Scotch and Gaul did little to hide the bile with which this word was spat. Juliet McGivern had steeled herself for an argument. A single, uncontextualised word she had no offensive strategy for.

"Blindness first, followed by a weakness of the limbs, then, intriguingly, a sense of great foreboding. Most people who suffer from reanimation sickness slip off quite quietly in a matter of days. But if you're sure that there's nothing wrong with your equipment, there's the door."

Juliet considered her position and discovered it unsound.

"Fine," she conceded, rolling up her sleeve. "Do your tests, but they'll be negative. My stasis caps are flawless." A few needle pricks and button pushes followed.

"Ok," Tsukiko said. "You're fine."

"Just like I said. Right. Do you wish to waste anymore of my time or might I be allowed to do my job?"

Tsukiko's smile never wavered. "No, no," she allowed. "Off you pop."

The relaxation of Juliet's glower was short lived as the intercom sputtered into life with a ghostly, dead-radio crackle.

"T-minus two hours until dropout." Captain Khari Kiprotich's deep, commanding voice informed the empty halls of the slumbering spacecraft. "I want you all on the bridge."

Tsukiko shrugged and gifted McGivern with a sardonic grin as she swept passed her and out of the infirmary. Juliet cursed as she followed.

"Ah, the good doctor," the Captain greeted Tsukiko as she stepped onto the bridge. "All the team are well I trust?"

"Physically fit," Tsukiko replied with pointed meaning, nodding back at McGivern as she entered.

"You can keep your personal opinions thank you doctor." Tsukiko was deflated a little by this chagrin and slipped with a modicum of sheepishness into a chair besides Marcus. He gave her a wink as they made eye contact and she smiled back at him, uplifted by his boyishness, but not fooled for a second. Centuries in the ice had not changed him. It had changed none of them, as though it had never even happened. It had not, she supposed, to them.

"What's the status on the rest of the capsules?" Captain Kiprotich aimed his dark stare towards Juliet.

"All in operation and functioning. I foresee no causalities, Captain." Juliet could not conceal her pride in her ship, but she had her turn for Khari's scorn coming.

"Are you the doctor now, too?" he asked of Juliet. "Better let her speak for herself, I think."

Tsukiko piped up. "She's not wrong. No vitals to speak of. No fluctuations. No signs of life." It felt so strange to her to give such a report positively. "All quite normal and positive for stasis."

Juliet nodded in triumph and moved to her own position on the deck. Marcus tapped the chair to his right with his palm, Tsukiko sitting to his left, and grinned.

"You just keep your goddamned hands to yourself." Juliet chastised him as she passed.

"Marcus," the Captain cut in to prevent a scene. "Are we ship shape for dropout?"

The pilot ran his finger around a small, round, white control. "You give the word, sir, I push the button."

"Good, good. Science, are you prepared?" Ivan and Cho responded positively.

"I can't wait to see it, sir," Cho said. "It's going to be so pretty."

"You'd better hope it's pretty," Marcus scoffed. "You're going to die there."

"Well that's a very positive view, I'm sure," Ivan said. Marcus seemed unperturbed.

"I wonder what the fauna will be like," Tsukiko offered.

"I wonder what it will taste like," Marcus countered with a smirk.

"Marcus!" There was shock and disgust in Ai Niu's exclamation.

"Yes, love?" his cheeky response.

"Marcus!" Khari concurred.

"Yes, sir," the pilot said, in an entirely different tone.

"They'll be no room for your sentimentality when we arrive," Juliet explained to Cho. "We shall all have to get used to butchery as well as husbandry."

"Ok, Juliet," Khari said. "That'll do." And then to Cho, "I'm sure it will be beautiful."

---------------------------------

The space through which the Pegasus sailed was so much more than merely nothing, the quiet more than silence. Her great solar panel wings collected no light, her circular field generator, almost as large in diameter as the ship was long, produced no drag. It did, however, produce the field that kept the ship in the endlessness of Second Space, and it did this without a sound, with not-a-sound, with anti-sound.

Silence might have been less tense than the hushed activity on the bridge of the Pegasus, minutes away from dropout. But around Khari's orders and the responses of his crew, it was those things not being said that filled the empty space.

"Time to dropout?" Khari. Are we there yet?

"T-minus three minutes." Marcus. It's so close.

"Engine status?" Khari. Will we make it?

"Six minutes to overload." Juliet. We're cutting it close.

"ExoGeo systems check?" Khari. What will we find?

"All systems functioning and awaiting input." Ai Niu. I can't wait to find out.

"Physics?" Khari. Are we safe?

"No anomalies. All readings nominal." Ivan. For now.

"Prepare for dropout of Second Space in five, four, three, two, one." Khari pointed his finger to Marcus, barely perceptibly, not wanting to move in case the fragile dream they all shared of their future home was shattered. There wasn't a noise, not a tremor as the Pegasus’ great field collapsed, anti-sound became mere silence, the darkness became filled with points of light and the spaceship glided effortlessly from Second Space back into our reality.

"Dropout successful," Marcus informed his captain. The air grew denser from the audible sighs all round. But this was just the first uncertain footfall on this new ground. There was so much more to come in the following seconds, the tension was only increased.

"Ok," Khari continued down the list. "Release drive system."

Somewhere in the bowels of the ship, the white-hot glowing core of the spacecraft span in its chamber, suspended in its own magnetic field. A brief buzz might have been heard, had the chamber been safely habitable to human life, before the tiny sun slipped back into Second Space, leaving its payload, the Pegasus and her crew, behind in the first, the original universe. Somewhere in a now inaccessible dimension, there was an explosion that would shake worlds, had there been any there to shake.

"Core ejected and safe detonation is confirmed," Juliet explained.

"Can we..?" Cho began, but was silenced by a raised palm from Captain Khari.

"Confirm location," he said.

"Andromeda five three two point eight seven two. Position confirmed sir. We've come out in a near perfect orbit of..." Ivan cut himself short as he perused the readings that were displayed in front of him.

"Yes?" the captain prompted.

"Sir, I," Ivan tried again. "I'm not sure sir. But we are definitely in orbit. It's just..."

"I see it too, sir," Marcus said. "We're drifting in a little. That’s all. Compensating now." A short engine thrust was followed by a satisfying ringing noise and a friendly, solid green light display across the bridge's consoles. "There you go, Ivan. All better."

"Ok," finally Khari could give the order he had been waiting for. "Let's see it."

A large black screen that took up one entire wall of the small bridge, curving naturally into the ceiling and floor, sparked into life. The crew stared at the image before them. No one spoke; no one could speak. For a time, the sight was unbelievable, in the truest sense that none could believe what they saw. Tsukiko was the first to break the silence. A single word came out of her thoughts, across her lips and filled every corner of the bridge, resonating with the feelings of all of the woken crew.

"No."

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A faint red glow permeated the bridge. It wrapped itself around Tsukiko's word, taunting it, teasing it out and around the ears of her compatriots. A large ruddy sphere all but filled the view screens, violent electrical storms playing out on its surface, cold, lifeless rocks encircling it. It was doubtless to all that what they saw before them was not the SuperEarth they had been promised.

"It's a fucking gas giant," Juliet whispered, barely audibly, the crimson haze around her mouth making way for the new words with a vicious finality. There was a pause. Then another, and a third. After the fourth, the captain had prepared his shattered thoughts.

"Is there any chance..?" he began. Any chance of surviving on that, was the question he found impossible to ask. Ivan shook his head in response, Ai Niu confirming this with the simple look of terrified disbelief.

"Moons?" Juliet asked. "What about moons?"

"No," Ai Niu responded, tapping at her console. "Three moons. One volcanic. One lifeless rock. One ice."

"Water ice?" Khari demanded. Cho shook her head lightly.

"Dry." The moon was water ice. They would survive there a week before they gradually froze to death, one by one.

"Supplies?" the captain ordered. Juliet hesitated before answering.

"Life support, limitless. Food, a week. Water, hours at best, just with us." The craft could support the full crew for many years. The conditions would be desperate and cramped. Disease would spread like wildfire. Death would be lingered and devastating.

"Marcus?" Khari said.

"Yeah," he quietly replied. "Yes, sir?"

"Can we take her in?" Marcus released the least audible gasp. Tsukiko shed a tear before gathering herself once more.

"Yeah," Marcus eventually said. "Sure. There might be something to see." The ship would be torn to splinters within seconds of hitting the gas giant's atmosphere. There would be nothing to see.

"Ok. Ivan, get a signal out. Inform the next wave." Khari said. Ivan nodded and punched at a button here, a control there, before nodding again to indicate his task was complete.

"Will it make it?" Ai Niu asked. "Will they hear it?"

"Sure," Ivan replied. It would not.

As Marcus manoeuvred the spacecraft into a dive towards the gas giant, Juliet punched up a command and the view on the screen pulled back to reveal the system before them. The grand giant sat in the centre, an ice cloud ring surrounding it, diffracting the weak sunlight into faint rainbows. And around this, the three moons stood out; the orange-black fireball, the crystal and the crusted, rocky world.

"Will it hurt?" Ai Niu asked, with a faint tremor in her voice. Tsukiko shook her head.

"We won't feel a thing," she assured her friend. The agony would be sublime for a fraction of a heart beat, and then there would be nothing.

The crew moved together in the centre of the bridge, Captain Khari at the heart, his body providing a contact, a circuit for his crew. They were one in their shared fate, no longer a group of individuals sharing a mission, but a single thought, an end. All but Ivan. He stepped aside from the others and headed back to his stasis capsule. A second later he was within it, the icy haze coming over him, a contented smile on his face. The crew did not notice his absence. Their minds were blocked to all but their common experience, an experience of fearful awe and gentle relief. The glorious red and orange swirls grew and writhed on the view screen as the ship inched towards the planet, flashes from electrical storms and great fireballs in the sky illuminating faces that could not turn away.

"Marcus," Ai Niu said.

"Yeah?"

"It is beautiful."


"Yeah." Marcus smiled. It was.

Thursday, 28 February 2013

Pictonaut -Feb 2013 - Dead Places - Strange Attractor.

My second attempt at a pictonaut challenge from my good friend, the rogue verbumancer. Tried to stick close to the 1000 original prompt rather than the 5000 mess of a logic puzzle I wrote last time. This one is short and sweet and based on some pretty pretty physics. John called it Dead Places, I call it Strange Attractor.

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The car jolted as the road transitioned from rough dirt track to smooth tarmac. A short bump and the car was flying, gliding smoothly through the night as though there was no ground beneath it at all. She turned the lights out to enhance the effect, and now she was no longer on the road she knew so well, but soaring through a pitch black ocean of silence, just her, the car, and her thoughts. She drove, she flew, and the world around her melted away into so much dead space; an unthreatening void, without fear or punishment, without beginning or end.

There should have been landing lights. She missed that thin strip of sodium yellow fireflies that guided her safely to her destination. The warm glow of their comet tails as she drifted past them through the darkness comforted her. Without them, her fantasies of the all encompassing and protecting night soon turned to a revulsion at the coldness of it, at the danger that lay within.

She flicked the lights back on and guided the car around a long slow bend. She took it casually, she was in no rush. Despite what horrors lay behind her, despite the dread from which she fled, she had time - all the time in the world.

The headlights of the car swept around as the car cornered, resting on a great grey disk, twenty feet high and ten times as wide; A building, crumbling and decayed like everything else in her world, the skeletal ribs protruding from the husk of the corpse where the brick work had fallen away. Yet, despite its dilapidated state, it could still inspire awe in her. Its symmetry, its size, the very fact that it still stood was enough to chill her spine and raise her hairs. She loved it, she was in love with it. But deeper than that now, she relied upon it.

She pulled the car up in front of the building, ignoring the fading car park bay lines, redundant now that whoever had once shuffled themselves into those little boxes, held in sway to the power of little white stripes, were long gone. She left the car running with the headlights pointed towards the great, wide-open doors of the disk. The lights cut two great swathes out of the darkness, a beacon to see by in the deepest gloom. She followed the line of the beams into the building, her shadow stretching on before her, entering the room beyond and spreading itself out luxuriously before she had even taken a single step towards the door, travelling ahead of her at the speed of night.

She stepped with the deliberation of routine into the great disk. Above her, an immense checker board of wires was suspended from the ceiling, from each one hanging vertically a thin, cylindrical electrode. At her feet, a vast array of concentric, copper coloured metal circles, epicentred to the middle of the room, lay recessed into the floor. An endless tangle of cables came from the back of the wired ceiling, bundling together above the cross-hatch metal strings into a single, massive, optic nerve that curled away and down one wall towards a heavy duty throw switch. A second cord led down into the floor, giving the impression of an equal and opposite nervous system below.

As she stepped deeper into the room, the obsidian giant of her shadow began to retreat back into her, ever decreasing until they were like for like, her shadow now a dark reflection of herself on the wall infront her. Her hand stretched out, her shadow hand followed. Her fingers of flesh and blood interweaved with her fingers of insubstantial dark as both hand and not hand wound around the switch on the wall. And here she paused and breathed, though her shadow did not. She threw the switch.

The floor sparked faintly beneath her rubber soled boots as she slowly paced back towards the centre of the room. Tiny blue forks of lightning licked at her toes and heels, growing brighter with each footfall until, a few paces from the central ring, some two feet across, there was an audible crack as her feet touched the ground. As soon as she had surrounded herself perfectly on all sides with the hall around her, she cast her glance from the rings beneath her, now beginning to emanate a constant, dim purple glow, to the grid above her.

From the lower point of each dangling electrode, a small white light appeared, first one, and then another, and another, until the room was filled with man-made stars. At first tiny pin pricks of heat, they slowly grew to fairy size, and as each one fattened up to its peak, ripe and bright and growing brighter, it separated from its metallic source, like a water droplet becoming too heavy for a tap. Yet, rather than plummet to the ground and shatter in a shower of sparks, these electric droplets hung in the air below the grid, humming and hovering. And then, almost imperceptibly at first, and never faster than dust floating in a sunbeam, one of the sparks began to drop. And then a second. And then a third. A force unseen took the starscape, the galaxy miniaturised and confined, and began to spin the floating shards of light in great, meandering spirals around the hall. Synchronous at first, the lights soon began to dance around each other, this one fell faster, that one lifted upwards once more, this gained speed, that slowed. They were almost alive with the chaos of their activity. When two began to fall into each other, they would spin and spiral and zip away rather than collide. She gazed in awe at the wonder she had created, not turning her eyes from one spot just ahead of her, but rather allowing chance to dictate the exact dance she witnessed.

Presently, a new event occurred. A near miss between two spiralling sparks sent one tumbling in a tight corkscrew over the other and towards the centre of the hall. It shot forth in a tightening helix straight for her. She did not move, she did not flinch, but she allowed the spark to strike her right shoulder. There was no force behind the impact, she remained steadfast in her place, but there was now a faint iridescence to her pallor. As the spark was absorbed into her flesh, the faintest of glows, almost entirely overpowered by the light emitted from the spiralling starscape around her, began to grow and spread from the point of impact. It was not long before a second of the dancing fairy lights was shaken from its path towards her, this time straight as an arrow and twice as fast, directly into her left hip, and her shine grew brighter with it. A third took a long spiralling arc towards her, but merely grazed past her face, right on the level of her eyes, at its first pass, only to be caught by the light field that now emanated from her, pulled round and into the back of her head. Her eyes sparkled at the impact as more and more of the pin points of light found there way towards her, infusing with her. She shone brighter and brighter until she was a beacon in the cold night air. At last, the final spark meandered towards her, her body now obscured by the oppressive brightness of her. Slowly, almost casually, the final spark was bathed and consumed by her light, and, at the same moment, a great column of pure white electric evanescence shot from her now shapeless form, penetrating through the ceiling of the building and towering into the darkness beyond. This was followed by an almighty flash, rippling from her very core, expanding outwards at an impossible rate. In a fraction of a heart beat, the building was gone, engulfed in the white hot shockwave, and on it went. The city, the county, the country, the continent, on and on the light cut through the surrounding darkness. The night, the all encompassing, never ending night, that had held the world in its sway for so many years, was over. Dead space was torn to living, breathing light. Now, the dawn had begun.