Shorts & Excerpts

Excerpt from Wolfskin chapter five

 When I stepped from the thread to the path leading to Akiva’s front gate, there was a woman between me and it.

She was so beautiful. I’m not sure why I expected her to be otherwise. Her hair was black and glossy, and hung loose to her waist in a sleek, rippling sheet that mingled with royal purple satins and silks that were as sleek as her hair. Her eyes, framed by impossibly long, dusky eyelashes, were of an equally impossible shade of violet. I saw them and my herbs scattered themselves on the path, dropping heedlessly from my nerveless fingers. Those twin violets gleamed with the same darkness I had seen in Bastian’s eyes the first time I met him.

Horned hedgepigs! I thought, swallowing. It could only be Cassandra.

She looked me up and down with those brilliant, purple eyes while I regretted fervently that I hadn’t been a moment quicker, and then said: “You’re not pretty.”

Her voice was bell-like in consideration; and, like every other part of her, breathtakingly beautiful.

“I know,” I said. Even if I had been as beautiful as Gwendolen, I couldn’t have hoped to compare with Cassandra. I eyed her unblinkingly, wondering why it mattered to her.

“You’re not pretty,” she repeated; a statement, not a question. “I didn’t expect that. He must be desperate.”

“I don’t know what you mean,” I said, scowling. I was coldly frightened, and that made me angry. Black, tarry magic was stirring around her, creating nasty pockets of corruption in the air that made me feel ill: it was vastly more powerful than anything I had ever seen.

She looked at me contemptuously through the haze. “Beauty is all that matters to him, stupid child. You can only lose.”

“Bastian isn’t here,” said Akiva’s voice suddenly and startlingly. I tore my eyes away from Cassandra’s and saw her, knobbly and infinitely welcome, leaning on a stick behind the enchantress. For a horrible moment it had felt like I was drowning in the brilliant lavender of Cassandra’s eyes.

Akiva hobbled past her and put a hand on my shoulder. I felt a sense of her power, welling up deep inside her, warm and comforting. I think I was still looking up at her with wide eyes when she said quietly: “Go into the house, Rose.”

As I closed the gate with cold fingers, I heard Akiva reiterate: “The wolf isn’t here.”

“I can smell him all over her!” hissed Cassandra.

There was a silence suggesting that Akiva was shrugging; then her old, firm voice said: “I sent him away: he knows what I think about him. Today was goodbye.”

Their voices faded with distance, but as I loitered on the garden path I saw the warm glow of an astonishing and formidable power rising to meet and match Cassandra’s. I recognized it as Akiva’s, hale and hearty, and stronger than I could ever have imagined. After that I hurried to get into the safety of the cottage, feeling the hairs prickle on the back of my neck, because I knew that it was no longer safe for me to be out in the open. Once inside, I plumped myself down in Akiva’s chair, absently staring into the fire and contemplating the extraordinary power I had just witnessed. For the first time in the excitement of my new magical prowess, I felt thoroughly humbled and weak. My own power, puny in comparison to that shown so effortlessly by both Cassandra and Akiva, was pitiful past thinking about. I was suddenly very thankful for Akiva’s protection.In the coldness of the moment, I knew there was no chance that I could ever hope to fight against Cassandra and win.

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Excerpt from Masque Chapter One.

The library was pleasantly quiet when I wandered idly back through it. Someone had lit a fire in the grate, and orangey shadows flickered over the walls, pearlescent and warm. A comfortable-looking settee was set back a little from the fire, big and plush and just right for reading in, and somehow I found myself sitting down.  It wascomfortable, and before I knew what I was doing I had slipped out of my dancing shoes and tucked my feet beneath me as I did at home on a rainy day. I was stretching back luxuriously with a guilty thought that I shouldn’t stay too long from the ballroom, when I realised with something of a shock that I was not alone. Green eyes gazed at me from an identical chair opposite mine, and a familiar green waistcoat glowed rich emerald in the firelight: it was the man I had danced with.

“I do beg your pardon,” I said, startled. It seemed ridiculous to bleat that I hadn’t seen him there, since he filled the chair very obviously, his long legs stretched out in front of him; but I really hadn’t seen him. “Shall I leave?”

The man stiffened, his head jerking back a little as if he were also startled, but he said quietly: “Not at all.”

His voice was velvet like his waistcoat, deep with slightly rough edges, but now that I had a chance to really look at him, I found that there was something unnerving in his face.

To give myself time to ruminate on the sense of unease, I said: “I’m sorry if I startled you.”

He cocked his head and leaned a little forward. “Most people don’t notice me when I don’t want to be noticed.” He said it more with interest than annoyance.

“I see,” I said quietly; and I did see. I saw two things: one, that this man was a magic user, and that was why I hadn’t seen him at first; and two, that my feeling of unease came from the fact that he was wearing a mask beneath a mask. The lips of it moved, but stiffly, and with imperfect synchronicity. What sort of a man wore a mask beneath a mask?

I said: “Lord Pecus, I believe?”

He laughed at that; a low, warm laugh as enthralling as his voice, and removed the green velvet mask. “You have the advantage, my lady.”

“Lady Isabella Farrah,” I said, inclining my head grandly, just as if I wasn’t curled up in a regrettably informal way. I offered him my hand, and he kissed it in the old fashioned way, cold porcelain against flesh. “I believe we have a mutual friend: Lady Quorn.”

He looked at me piercingly, and I added with mendacious helpfulness: “The one who stumbles.” I was enjoying myself immensely. I thought I saw a gleam of answering humour in Lord Pecus’s eyes, but it was difficult to tell through the magical mask.

“I think I would like to see your face,” he said thoughtfully. “Would it stretch politeness too far to ask you to remove your mask?”

“After you, my lord.”

I thought he laughed at me, but again it was hard to tell. “I don’t think I understand you, my lady.”

I looked at him steadily for a moment, my chin propped up in my palm. “Forgive me if I seem rude, but I think you understand me very well.”

He sat forward again, leaning his forearms on his knees. His bulk was so considerable that this maneuver put his face only inches from mine, and I found his eyes uncomfortably piercing. “Very well, my lady. Remove your mask, and I will remove mine.”

I was burning with curiosity that was tempered by a touch of self-satisfaction that I was about to accomplish something that even Delysia had not been able to accomplish, but I untied my mask with fingers that were steady enough.

“Well, my lord?”

“Charming,” he said softly, deliberately misunderstanding. I found myself blushing for the first time in many years. It was annoying to know that he’d intended as much. “How old are you, Lady Farrah?”

“Very nearly thirty, my lord,” I told him composedly, ignoring the rudeness of the question. “And a confirmed old maid, so you’ve no need to waste your compliments on me.”

“What brings you to the Ambassadorial Ball?”

“The proposed militia merger, my lord; and I believe you’re stalling.”

He gave me a slow, considering smile, and I wondered if the face beneath the mask was smiling also. “Is that so? Are you sure you want to see my face?”

Courtesy compelled me to say, albeit with reluctance: “Not if you’re unwilling, my lord.”

Lord Pecus sat silent for a moment as if in thought, his mask unreadable.

“Hm. I don’t believe I am,” he said at last, as if he had surprised himself. “Try not to scream, my lady.”

If he had said it with the slightest theatricality, I would have laughed and gone back to the ballroom, content not to know what his face really looked like. But he said it unemotionally, a plain warning; and I had to take myself firmly to task for the quickly accelerating beat of my heart as he removed the charms that kept his mask in place. I settled my chin a little more firmly in my palm and waited, watching the process with some interest. I had not much talent for magic, and my knowledge was almost as slight: my training had mostly to do with international policy and diplomatic processes.

At last he seemed to be done. He raised both hands to remove the mask – beautiful hands, strong and bare of rings – and it came away cleanly. For a moment I thought he had yet another mask beneath: firelight played on tawny brown hair – no, fur!- in a face that looked like the worst parts of wolf and bear mixed. I blinked once, realising in that instant that it was his face, his real face, and no mask. His mask must be magic indeed to have hidden that snout under the pretence of a plain common-or-garden human nose.

“I see,” I said into the silent warmth of the room. I dropped my hand back to the arm of the chair and let a small sigh escape. “That explains a good deal.”

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Excerpt from Spindle, chapter one

Polyhymnia knew perfectly well that she was dreaming.  Her hair was in pigtails and she was wearing a smock, which pointed to an age of perhaps twelve or thirteen; and the dream itself was a distant memory of a history lesson with Lady Cimone, her teacher.  She had been amused for a brief moment to find herself daydreaming during the lesson: dreaming, as it were, during a dream, while Lady Cimone pointed out the various flaws in Civet’s latest sally against Parras.
Oh, I remember this, thought Poly suddenly.  Parras tossed over one of our outposts, and we walked right into an ambush trying to retaliate.
Pain, in her left ear.  Poly clutched the injured member in surprise.
“Ow!”  She hadn’t remembered that.
“Perhaps you could pay attention to your lesson, now that you’re awake?” suggested Lady Cimone.  She always did prefer boxing ears to using a cane.  Maybe it was her idea of the personal touch.  “This is important, Poly.”
Poly let her younger dream-self murmur the appropriate response, her attention snatched away, because a gold-edged rift was beginning to form in the blue-painted wall behind Lady Cimone.
The lady caught the direction of her gaze and gave a sharp glance behind her.
“Bother!” she said.  She seemed annoyed rather than taken aback.
Before long the perpendicular rift was tall enough to admit a human, and Poly wasn’t quite surprised when a young man stepped through.  He was wearing a long, mud-splattered black coat that looked as though it had seen one too many days travelling, and he had an inquiring, dishevelled look.  His forehead was wide and square, with dark hair springing upwards and sideways from it, and his mouth was both determined and wistful; though the triangular set of his chin spoke more to determination than wistfulness.  Poly shut her mouth, which had dropped open, and took one involuntary step backwards as the man pulled himself fully into the room.  He was fairly glowing with residual magic, which set every alarm bell ringing in her head.
“Shoo,” he said to Lady Cimone, and stepped purposefully toward Poly.
The lady smiled a little grimly and said: “I am no more a dream than you are, young man.  Kindly be polite.”
Poly became her normal, older self in confusion, and the dream-memory of the younger her melted away, leaving Lady Cimone and the young man behind in the resulting void.  The young man seemed almost as bemused as Poly felt, but Lady Cimone was looking, as usual, serene and omniscient.
“I tried my best, but I’m afraid he got you,” she said to Poly.  “You’ll have to go with the wizard for now.  Your parents said they’d try to find you somewhere along the way, but things might be a little more difficult than they realised.  Try not to forget everything the minute you wake up, child.”
“But-” Poly began; but Lady Cimone was already gone.  Poly put her hands on her hips and surveyed the young wizard, who was still standing where he was, disturbingly real for a dream figure.
“Huh,” he said.  “Didn’t expect that.  Come here, princess.”
Poly could have said: ‘I’m not the princess,’ but it didn’t see worth arguing with a dream.  Instead, she said: “I don’t think so,” and slipped up and out of the dream.

It should have woken her.  For a moment, she thought it had.  She was standing in her own small, rounded chamber, stranded aimlessly between her bookcases.  Through her window-slit the outside world looked sunny and normal.  Then she saw the translucent something coating her hands from fingers to elbow, and belatedly felt the odd, sideways pull that had brought her here.
“Bother,” she said aloud.  The translucent something wasn’t quite magic, but it seemed to be the dream equivalent.  In real life, Poly had no magic.  It was the one consistent way to tell dream from reality when her dreams became too realistic.
Poly wriggled her fingers and the translucency shivered coolly across them with a sense of familiarity.  When had she started dreaming about magic so often?  In fact, when had she started dreaming for so long at a time?  She felt as though she’d been dreaming for years.
Time to wake up, Poly decided.  She let herself slip upwards and awake, and again found herself sliding sideways to the pull of something strong and unfamiliar.
Someone said: “No you don’t, darling.  Back to sleep with you.”
Poly gave a little gasp of indignation and fought against the pull.  It was ridiculous to allow her dreams to be hijacked by an unpleasant dream entity of her own creation.  Where was it coming from?
She dragged herself around in the direction of the voice, feeling the reality of her dream-chamber wobble around her.   A nasty quiver of surprise shook her at the sight of the hooded, murky figure that seemed to be more shadow than substance, cobwebbed in the doorway.
To give herself time to become brave, Poly said: “Now, what are you?  I know I didn’t dream you up.”
“You must have,” said the hooded figure, its voice soft and amused.  “Here I am.”
Too smooth for words, Poly thought, sharp with fear.  There was a prickle at her back that made her think the enchanter from the previous level was making his way through to her again.  A panicked, nightmare quality had settled over the dream like a wet blanket, weighing her down, and for a brief moment Poly found herself unable to think.
The same soft voice said: “Darling, you’re being difficult.  There’s no need for things to become uncivilized.  Be a good girl and go back to sleep.”
“I don’t like you,” Poly said experimentally.
“That’s hurtful, darling,” said the voice reproachfully.  “As it happens, I’m really quite fond of you.  However, needs must, and you really need to go to sleep.”

The reasonable tone to the shadow’s voice was hard to resist.  There was her bed, in the middle of the tower room where it didn’t belong, and Poly felt herself take one step towards it.

The sheets should have been cool and smooth when she slid between them.  Instead, they were fuzzy and warm, and Poly felt her eyes gum together in the last warning of approaching slumber, the prickle at her back fading in the warmth.
“Huh,” said a second voice.  “This is all very interesting.  Who are you?  No.  Not who.  What?”
“Undefined element,” said the hooded shadow thoughtfully.  Poly could vaguely see it through her gummy eyes, outlined in the brilliant gold of the wizard’s magic.  “You are not valid here.  Retreat or assimilate.”
“Tosh,” said the wizard.  “You’re what? A remnant?  Go away.”
“No, I don’t think so,” said the shadow; and it seemed to Poly, mired in sleep, that an impossibly strong magic was stirring in the room – no, in the very air – around her.  It was bright, fiery, and entirely translucent.
The wizard said: “Yow!” and did something golden and magical with more haste than precision.  Poly stirred, fighting against sleep, and saw his face briefly appear above her.
He said: “Well, better get on with it, then.”
Poly tried to say: ‘Get on with what?’ but found that she couldn’t move her lips.  It took her a shocked moment to realise that she couldn’t move her lips because she was being kissed. It took another to realise that she was waking up- really waking up.  Gold magic fizzed from her lips to her toes, and everything familiar . . . disappeared.

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A Time-Traveller’s Best Friend

            “Fuel approaching empty,” said the computer.  Marx thought it sounded smug.  It’d been giving him warnings every half hour since he exited the time stream and he’d ignored every one of them.  The exit from Third World had been hasty and extensively damaging: it was likely that he’d left a trail of fuel all through the Other Zone.

There were too many lights flashing on the console: more, in fact, than Marx knew what to do with.  One of them was the empty tank warning, and three were for the dampers, but of the plethora making a light show above his head, only two more were familiar.

A beep presaged the computer’s impersonal voice: “Preparations for re-entry into the time stream could not be completed.”

“I know, I know,” muttered Marx, rummaging in the console’s bottom drawer for the time-traveller’s best friend: his trusty shifting spanner.  Tools had changed times out of mind, but a shifting spanner could still fix almost any problem.

An alarm went off overhead.  Marx jumped, beaning himself on the open instrument panel, and spent the next minute yelling the worst words he knew in Third World dialect.  Since his grip of Third World wasn’t the most exhaustive, these consisted mainly of words like ‘cabbage’, ‘freight train’, and ‘eggs!’; but Third World Dialect had a bite to it that made even commonplace words sound rude, and the exercise was satisfying.

“Turn that flamin’ alarm off!” he ordered the computer, rubbing his head; but the computer, as he’d known it would, merely replied with the formal ‘unable to comply with your request at this time’.

And when he said ‘primrose!’ at it in Third World, the word angry and sharp, the computer added reproachfully: “Alarms are for your protection, and cannot be manually over-ridden.”

“Like heck, they can’t!” said Marx, and gave the console a good wallop with his shifting spanner.  The alarm gave a single, warbling death rattle, and ceased, bringing a moment of silence to the flashing cock-pit before the computer informed him primly that the Tesseract engine was going into overload status.

“I know,” Marx told it.

“All time and distance machinery is now off-line. We will enter the time-stream at an unknown point in time.”

“Yep.  Saw that, too.”

“Please repair all systems when ship has docked successfully in the time-stream.”

“Thanks.  I’ll do that.”

“Remember to consider causality and the environment when attempting repairs in earlier time-streams.  Dispose of all waste thoughtfully.”

“Well, heck, I thought I’d just blow the planet up,” Marx said sarcastically.  He nudged his aching head into the head-rest, and wondered which of the warning lights he should attend to first.  The dampers, probably, since he’d need them for landing; and the Pauli driver should be fixed unless he wanted to prove that no two bodies can occupy the same space at the same time.

“Spatio-temporal incurrence imminent.”

Marx sat up.  “Hang on, that’s new.”

“Entering time stream.”

“Wait, what?  It’s too soon!”

“Pauli driver off-line,” added the computer, its emotionless voice making Marx wish a little wildly that he knew how to say the really bad words in Third World.  “Spatio-temporal incurrence imminent: please brace for impact.”

“What the flaming heck is a spatio-temporal incurrence?” howled Marx, grabbing at anything remotely stable to brace himself against.

 

It felt like his atoms were briefly taken apart and put back together.  Perhaps they were.  When Marx could think coherently again, the first thing he noticed was that his console had sprouted a grey stone-work gargoyle and two decorative pillars, which immediately brought into question the idea that he was thinking coherently in the first place.

“Computer, when and where are we?”

A weak blooping noise was his only reply, and his first vindictive pleasure that the computer must have been taken apart and put back together, too, vanished as the implications of its loss hit him.  The output screen on the console was flashing a few words in time with the stutter of the dying engine.

Second . . . World . . . War . . .

Marx groaned.  World War Two!  How had he managed to go back so far?  He looked at the gargoyle again, and thought he knew what it meant: with the Pauli Driver off-line, he had slipped into an occupied point in the time stream, and was now accidentally using the same space and time as the corner of a building.  He was lucky that he hadn’t merged with the gargoyle.

The first thing was to check the worst of the damage to the ship’s hull.  Fortunately the ship’s wardrobe was fully stocked, right down to the gas-mask that lent an air of authenticity to his disguise, and the shifting spanner didn’t look out of place with the drab work trousers.  He debated the suspenders for some time but eventually put them on, muttering, and was surprised at how much more comfortable they were to wear than a belt.  Ah, belts!  Now there was an old-fashioned and annoying accoutrement for you!

 

The sun was in his eyes as he climbed out onto the hull, and he’d walked the few steps forward to where the building roof merged with it before he saw the danger.  There was a kid there, sitting on an ancient chimney pot and watching him with bright, determined eyes that seemed by far too big for her face.  She had a dirty cut on one cheek, a ladder in her stockings; and, most importantly, she had a gun pointed somewhere at the region of his stomach.

His hands went out slowly, automatically, fingers spread wide.  “Careful, kid,” he said.  “You could kill someone with that thing.”

The girl considered this and then said judiciously: “Yah.  That’s why I picked this one.  You’ll die ‘orribly.”

“Why?”

“You’re not from here,” said the kid, as if it answered the question.  “Not here, not now.”

“Neither are you,” Marx said, making a discovery.  The gun wasn’t the bullets or powder version he was hazily sure belonged to this point in time, and her stockings were in fact First World light armoured leggings.  A ladder in light armoured leggings was a matter of grim determination, not casual mis-chance.  “Is that plasma bolt tech?”

She gave a quick, grim nod, flexing her fingers over the trigger, and Marx hoped, with a suddenly dry throat, that she wasn’t the clumsy sort of little girl.  A plasma bolt from that would cut him in half.

“I just wanna fix my ship,” he said.

“’Course you do!” the girl said scornfully.  “And you wouldn’t never kill a little girl, either, I s’pose.”

Kill you?” said Marx blankly.  “I’m more likely to spank you!  Give me that gun!”

The girl’s grubby chin went up a little.  “Stay where you are!  Cor, you don’t even have the proper clothes!  What kind of assassin are you?”

Assassin?” repeated Marx, irritated to find that his conversation seemed to have deteriorated to a series of repetitions.  “Look, you’ve- knife, kid!  Knife!”

She looked at him scornfully, unaware of the First World hunter stalking her from behind, his long legs quick and lithe, a hunter’s knife in one long-fingered hand.  “I won’t fall for that one again.”

 

Three things happened very quickly.  Marx leapt for the girl, fatalistically waiting to feel the heat as his body was cut in half via plasma discharge, but unable to make himself do anything else.  The girl fired, her aim suddenly unsure and too far to the side to do more than scorch him on its way through.  And the hunter leapt, knife cutting a piece of sunlight to dazzle Marx, his slit eyes intent on the girl.

Marx was there first, and when he snatched the plasma gun from the girl’s hand, she didn’t resist.  She even rolled with him when he swept one arm around her and hauled them both to safety, her head tucked into his chest and two thin hands clinging grimly to the sleeves of his shirt.  The hunter followed in two swift bounds, slashing wide and low with the curved edge of his knife, and Marx met it with his shifting spanner twice, wildly.

“Gun!” said the girl in a tight little voice, and Marx, amazed, found that he was still holding the plasma gun.  It was even pointing in the right direction.  He looked at the assassin, and the assassin looked at him.  Then there was a bolt of white, and no more assassin from the waist upward.

The little girl, shivering, pulled herself off him, and said in a scratchy voice: “Give me my gun back.”

“You’re welcome,” said Marx pointedly, keeping the gun.

“I can take care of myself!”

“Yeah, I saw that. Why are there assassins trying to kill you?”

“They’re not all trying to kill me,” said the girl, tugging at her leggings to straighten the wrinkles.  “Some of them are trying to take me alive.”

“Misdirection noted.  What did you mean when you said I’m in the wrong clothes?”

“Well, you’re all twenty-first century.  This is Second World.  Don’t know when.”

“Flamin’ heck!” said Marx, going cold.  The computer display came to mind, flashing Second World War into his mangled cockpit.  Not World War Two.  The war of Second World.  The War on Second World lasted exactly one day.  One day, and then the planet went boom!

“I need two lemons and a tub of glucose.”

“Your problem,” said the girl, with a sharp glance at him that made him wonder if she really was ignorant of the date.  She made a grab at her gun, and when he holstered it at the back of his waistband with one hand while pushing her away with the other, she bit his finger, hard.  Marx gave a snarl of pain and grabbed her by the scruff of the neck, wrenching his finger from between her teeth.

“Why’d you rush me?” she demanded, wriggling furiously.  “I shot at you.  Could’ve killed you!”

“I didn’t fancy the idea of watching your severed head bounce across my hull.  I’d never get the blood off.”

To his surprise, she stopped struggling.  “What do you need lemons and glucose for?”

“I need a tiny electrical charge to re-boot the starter engine on my Pauli Driver.  Second World doesn’t use batteries since everything is organically based.  Hence, lemons.  Once it’s up and running it can repair itself and hopefully separate from the roof.”

“What’s the glucose for?”

“Fuel.  It’ll work for long enough to get me away from Second World, but after that I’ll have to get real fuel.”

“Oh.  I’m Kez.  Who’re you?”

“Marx.  Why are there people trying to kill you, Kez?”

“I know where you can get lemons,” said Kez, wriggling away from his loosened fingers.  He let her go, but followed, and was led into a drop chute that had them at street level in three nauseous seconds.  A few blocks away was what looked like an ancient farmer’s market, complete with carefully rustic outdoor stands of produce and old-fashioned canned goods, and it was toward this particular store that Kez was leading him.

“Watch out for the salesgirl,” she muttered, popping her head around the corner to rake the store with a sharp look.  “She’ll try to pat you on the head.”

“Not the most common reaction I get from people,” admitted Marx.  “Still, I can’t imagine anyone trying that twice with you.”

 

Great was his surprise, therefore, when the shopgirl smiled brightly at them both as they walked through the entrance.  She even took a step towards them, flyer in hand, prompting Kez to scowl and produce a sound very similar to a growl.

“I wouldn’t get too close, if I were you,” Marx warned, displaying his swollen finger.  “You don’t want her to break skin: I think she’s infectious.”

The salesgirl’s eyes went even wider, if possible.  “What’s she got?”

“Don’t know,” said Marx reflectively.  “The tests haven’t come back yet.  But I’m beginning to feel restless at full moon.”

He propelled Kez away while the shopgirl was still opening and closing her mouth, and went in search of the lemons.  He found them without trouble: as well as the two First World hunters who were prowling the area without even the pretence of examining the produce.

Kez didn’t whimper, but Marx heard the sharp sound of her breath between her teeth and saw the brief flash of panic in her eyes.  It occurred to him suddenly that she thought he’d hand her over in order to clear the way for himself, and that made him so angry that when he whirled Kez back around the first aisle she had to punch him in the arm before he realized his fingers were digging into her neck.

“Sorry, kid.  Someone really doesn’t like you, eh?”

“Yeah, I got that,” Kez said gruffly, but her eyes were still big and surprised.  “What will you do now?”

“Find a replacement.  And the glucose.”

 

They had to sneak around two more aisles before they found the glucose.  One of the hunters was sweeping the front of the store as well as the produce section, and there were a few, heart-pounding moments while they squeezed just out of sight behind a colourful display of self-heating travel-meals, Kez’s white fingers gripping his shirt.  He half-expected her to reach for the plasma gun that was tucked beneath his shirt, but again she surprised him.

She waited, jaw tight, until the hunter patrolled back the way he’d come, then flexed her fingers free of his shirt as though surprised to find them there, and said in a rush: “I can get the lemons for you.”

“That’ll be a heck of a trick,” said Marx dryly, stuffing tubs of glucose into his pockets.  “Got any money, kid?”

“No.”

“Me either.  Oh well, it’s not as if we’ll be able to leave out the front door anyway.  What are you doing, kid?”

“Getting lemons,” said Kez.  Her fingers were damp where they wrapped around his, and the lights seemed to be flickering oddly.  Marx glanced up at them, frowning, but their glowing flower-faces only gleamed smoothly back at him while Kez said: “There we go.”

“Go where?” he asked, but Kez was already darting back toward the produce displays, heedless of where the hunters might be, and he had to run to catch up.

“Kid!” he hissed.  “You’ll get yourself killed!”

“It’s all right,” said Kez briefly, snatching two lemons from a display.  They made her pockets bulge, but she stuffed another two in anyway.  “They aren’t here yet.”

Marx’s eyes followed the line of the produce displays and right on past them to see the dawning day beyond the ‘closed’ sigil in the entrance.  Now that was odd.  He’d emerged from the other zone and into Second World in the early afternoon.

“Yet?”

 

“Didn’t Kez tell you her little secret?” said Someone.

Kez gave a little scream, cut off short, and when Marx shoved her behind him he could feel her trembling.  It was funny, he thought, looking at the slightly plump, ordinary-looking man who had emerged from the staff-only section: the hunters made Kez run and fight, but this man, this man made her tremble and hide.

So while the Someone said: “Time-travel at will.  Imagine it!  She’s the only human on seven known worlds who can travel through time and space unaided,” Marx was becoming very, very angry.

“How did you find me?” asked Kez, and her voice was tight and choked.

“I managed to get my hands on the action reports after you and your friend got away,” said the Someone pleasantly.  “First World knew you’d be here, but not why or when.  They’re an unimaginative lot, by and large- well, just consider the fact that they’re trying to kill you!  No, no, you’re much more use to me alive.  As to the specifics, it seemed obvious to me that you’d done a little, shall we say, rearranging? and fetched what you needed earlier in the day.  After all, you could hardly come back later, could you?  Lemons, is it?  You must have damaged your craft rather badly if you need to jump-start your engine with the starter.”

“You know, I’m finding this all very interesting,” said Marx, edging Kez toward a display of mirror-ball confectionary.  Inedible to anyone outside Second World, but it would play havoc with almost any kind of light-discharge weapon. “But we’ve got things to do, drivers to repair . . .”

“Stay a while,” invited the Someone, and when he brought one pudgy hand out of his pocket Marx saw with a gloomy lack of surprise that it wasn’t light-discharge weaponry he held.  It was a small-calibre, armour-piercing projectile model that looked old-fashioned but wasn’t, and mirror-ball confectionary would do nothing to deflect it.

“I assume that’s for my benefit, since you don’t want the kid dead,” said Marx.  Kez’s fingers were digging in his pocket; though for what, he didn’t know.  His own hand was reaching for the plasma gun that was still tucked under his shirt, but stopped abruptly when the Someone tsk tsked at him chidingly.

“Take it out slowly and put it on the floor.  I become nervous around guns- I’d hate to accidentally pull the trigger.”

“Got it,” Marx said, leaning over with studied slowness to place the plasma gun on the floor between them.  As he did so, he felt Kez slip his shifting spanner into his other hand, and when he straightened he said to her: “He’s not going to kill you, kid.  If he shoots me, run.  If I give the word, run.”

For the first time, the Someone looked startled.  To Marx’s secret joy, this made his gun drop a fraction: Someone was used to directing, not pointing guns at people.

“Off you go, kid,” he said, and threw the spanner at the other man.  It was a dead accurate throw, to Marx’s fleeting satisfaction: it hit the Someone’s face with a sickening crack, jerking his hand up as he fell backwards, and something loud and hot stabbed Marx through the shoulder.  He ignored the pain, because the Someone was grimly reaching for his gun again, face bloody and terrifying in its expressionlessness, and because Kez hadn’t run in the direction he expected.  Instead, she’d run forward for the plasma bolt gun, and now she had it trained on the Someone, her hands visibly shaking.

“Stop,” she said, in her small, scratched voice; and the Someone did stop.  Maybe he saw the look in her eyes.

Marx did, and it was that look that made him gently take the gun away from her and say: “Go check the entrance, kid.  I’ll handle this.”

To his surprise, she obeyed him.  He and the Someone watched her walk away before the Someone said: “You think I don’t have backup?”

Marx grinned.  “I know you don’t.  Your type doesn’t take to the field until there’s no other choice.  If you had backup they’d be here between you and me.”

“I’ve done my research on you, too, Mr. Marx.  You pilot a stolen time-craft, and trouble seems to follow wherever you go: do you really think you can keep her safe?  First World is running out of patience: they’ve given the word to nuke the planet.  The whole planet, Marx!  For one little girl!”

Marx shrugged.  “I can keep her safe from you.”

The Someone knew what he meant: he saw it flash across the man’s face along with something like respect in the brief moment before the Someone reached for his gun.

“Might as well die trying,” he said as Marx shot him.

*

            Kez was hugging herself and bouncing on her toes by the time he’d cleaned up.  Fortunately there wasn’t much left of the Someone after a plasma burst at close range, and the bullet hole in his arm was a through and through, so that was reasonably easy to clean up as well.

“What did you do?” she asked him anxiously.  “You can’t just tie him up: he keeps coming back in time again and again, and he’s gonna get me next time!”

“He won’t come back this time,” said Marx, a hard edge to his voice.  Kez looked at him for a moment with glittering black eyes, then threw her arms around him with sudden ferocity, hiccoughing – or was that a sob?  She pushed him away just as suddenly, careless of his arm, and wiped her nose inelegantly on the back of her hand.  Her sharp little face denied that she’d given way to the weakness of either crying or hugging Marx.

Marx found himself saying amiably: “Have some respect for me injuries, kid!  C’mmon, let’s get this ship up and running.”

And Kez said: “‘A’right,” and trotted after him, so perhaps some progress had been made, after all.

*

            They sat on the hull while they waited for the Pauli Driver to repair itself.  Two lemons were dangling from an open port nearby with copper rods thrust into them, and Marx had just watched the hours-younger versions of himself and Kez leave the roof with a perplexed kind of wonder.

“You know the planet’s gonna get nuked, don’t you?” he asked her, absently prodding his shoulder to see if it still hurt.  It did.

Kez nodded.  “Thought I might be able to convince them I died.  ‘Sides, I can only do the shifts when I’m scared.  Thought that’d scare me enough.”

“You’re telling me!  How many other wars have you started, by the way?”

Kez gave a humourless grin, but didn’t reply.  Below them, the hull creaked and separated from the roof, propelling them a few feet higher with a heart-stopping bounce.

“Well, that’s it,” said Marx, disposing of the lemons casually by dropping them to the pavement far below.  “C’mon, kid: you can’t stay here.  You’ll be safe with me.”

“No I won’t,” Kez said.  “I’ll just feel safe.  Feeling safe makes you forget to look out.”

“Don’t make me pick you up and drop you in headfirst.”

Kez waggled the plasma gun at him and dropped back down to the roof.  How she’d gotten it back, he had no idea, but there it was, pointed at him again.

“I’m having a strange feeling of de-ja-vu,” Marx sighed.  “You’re really not going to get in, are you?”

Kez shook her head defiantly.  “No.  It’s not safe for you.”

Marx chuckled.  “That’s adorable.  All right, so long, kid.”

He saw the flash of relief in her eyes, and maybe even a touch of regret, quickly hidden.  All right then, he thought, smiling.  He knew what to do.

She waved at him from the roof-top as he hovered, which made him chuckle again.  It took roughly two seconds to separate her signature from that of the plasma gun, then he hit the transfer button on his console and shuttled Kez directly to the padded Safety Room in the centre of the craft.  The dampers were still off-line and it was going to be a rough ride all the way back out of the time-stream.  Marx grinned, braced himself, and pushed all four thruster sliders all the way up.

*

            Some time later, comfortably in the Other Zone, Marx opened the fat, padded door of the Safety Room.  A shivering figure was inside, its face alternately green and white.

“Out you get,” he said cheerfully.

Kez climbed out, still shivering, and threw up on the floor.  When she was done, she huddled there miserably and looked up at him with baleful eyes.

“I hate you.”

“I hate you too, kid,” he said, hauling her up by one skinny arm.  “Funny, I thought you’d have better aim.”

Kez made a sound like “Blerk!” and threw up on his shoes.

“Well, it’s an improvement,” said Marx.  He jabbed a tiny Steady-Sailing tonic into her arm, which took away the green look almost at once, and tossed her up on the second bunk.  “Bottom bunk’s mine.  If you snore, I’ll kick you.”

Kez turned her face to the wall so that he wouldn’t see the grin that was trying to break out, but Marx, taking unfair advantage, added: “And no more of this starting wars and destroying planets.  Anyone’d think you’re Helen of Troy.”

There was a muffled snort from the top bunk.

Marx added firmly: “I’m a law-abiding, decent citizen.  I won’t have you pulling me down.”

He was half-way back to the cockpit when he realised that she’d picked his pocket again.  His voice floated back to Kez, who was trying not to smile at the ceiling.

It said: “And put me flamin’ spanner back when you’re done with it!”

4 thoughts on “Shorts & Excerpts

  1. Pingback: Shorts & Excerpts! | The WR(ite) Blog

  2. Thanks, Scott! I had an awful lotta fun writing this one, and it’s great to get a bit of feedback 🙂
    To be horribly commercial about it all, Volume One of ‘A Time-Traveller’s Best Friend’ is on Amazon and Kobo now, along with a stand-alone short story called Ruth and the Ghost (which I’m currently in the process of turning into a screenplay). So there’s that 😀

    Like

  3. Pingback: Full-length Novels Vs Short Stories | The WR(ite) Blog

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