Saturday, 26 February 2011

#SampleSunday – 27th February 2011

 Another chunk of The Last King's Amulet. Just running on from last week.


A few days passed in a drunken blur. I struggled against the booze but it was pointless, and after a while I stopped struggling. There wasn't really any point. Every day Sheo came and talked to me, laughed with me, told me stories and tried to get me to tell him things I didn't know.
I really was a useless sorcerer. I knew a few tricks at the one carat and below level. Nothing. I had never spent the money on the spells and never had the money for the larger stones. Yes, my family had much larger stones but no way they would let me get my hands on them. I would sell them for drink. That thought made me laugh. Later in the day it would make me cry. I was a drunk. What did anyone expect?


The mist wasn't anything to do with being drunk. At least I didn't think it was. It was hard to tell. As it began to clear, swirling more thinly around me, I began to see hints of bushes, flashes of color through the mist that might be flowers.
Wassit?” I spun around and the garden spun with me, flowers flashing by. I stamped one foot down to get my balance and stood there, concentrating on keeping upright.
The voice came from behind me so I slowly turned around. And there she was.
Can you hear me?” She sounded urgent, concerned.
'Causican.” I gave her a big grin, threw my arms wide, “Jess'ca!”
Jocasta,” she stepped toward me, puzzled.
Jecazta, 'sright! Hellow!”
Her pretty face creased into a frown as she stopped a couple of paces away. “You're drunk!”
It took me a while to formulate a reply. “I am,” I told her at last. “V'ry v'ry drunk. Bu' ish nomifalt.”
She blinked a couple of times, shaking her head. “It's what?”
No mi faul'”
She shook her head, disbelieving her senses. Did she have senses? In a dream? I stared blearily about, staggered a step. Maybe in an illusory place you had illusory senses. That triggered a thought and I tried to explain it at once. “Of cau'se, iyusyryspefam!”
What?! Sumto! Did they do this to you? How... why are you drunk?!”
Drugz,” I swayed a bit but caught my balance. “Gimmi drugz.”
What?! You want drugs?!”
I shook my head violently, lost my balance and fell over. As I lay on the ground looking up at her and trying to stand she faded a little, turning her head and said, “To hell with this, I'm getting him out of there.”
Someone answered her, it was just a sound, nothing I could understand, recognizably a voice but nothing more. She turned back and looked at me. “I'm coming for you.”
I giggled. “B'beddafwimmi,” this struck me as unspeakably funny and I laughed like a drunk.
She shook her head and moved away without moving, or so it seemed, I could hardly see for laughing, then the garden was gone.


I'd forgotten what hell a bad hangover can be. I couldn't even say 'never again' because I was looking at a jug of beer and thinking how much better I'd feel after I had had some. And it was true, that's the hell of it. I would have drunk some water instead but there was none. It all came down to how long I could hold out against the drink, and I didn't feel it would be long.
Sheo was sitting at the table too, looking at me and waiting.
Why are you doing this?” I asked him. “I don't know any magic worth talking about.”
Well that's a lie, and we both know it.” He fished into his pockets and brought out my sorcerers loupe. “You don't have one of these unless you are a student, so I'm guessing you are an enrollee of the college of battle mages, a wealthy student, not an acolyte..”
I stared at the damning loupe. I didn't want to tell him how I had really come by it. “That's not mine.”
Sumto, why lie? It was found in the saddle bag of a brown mare with scar on her face. Your mare. I checked. I talked to the man who found her. It was a while before it came to light of course, they had no idea what it was, some cheap bauble magnifying glass. They thought it was funny, making things bigger. It had changed hands several times, purchased, gambled. It took me a while to trace it back to you, but I did. I'm glad your horse was so marked by that scar or I might never have found out it was yours.” He tucked the loupe away. “I have already enjoyed the use of it.”
There was nothing I could say. Tell him the truth, the full truth? He wouldn't believe me. Well, they would find out soon enough. The booze was going to break me, especially when they took it away, as I knew they would. The very thought made me reach for the beer, protectively. They wouldn't take this beer away.
Maybe I could drink myself to death if I was quick about it.


I was on the bed. It was moving but I couldn't.
Luckily long experience has taught me to sit up, well propped with pillows, when I feel like this. A less experienced drinker would lie down and promptly throw up. I was tempted to do that, lie on my back, throw up and then breath in, but I wasn't drunk enough, or maybe I was too drunk to actually physically move. It was hard to tell. I had something important on my mind. Illusory spell forms. Thank god I had told Jocasta - if she was real, which I doubted - but then I doubted my own sanity let alone anything else. Illusory spell forms. It was brilliant. Genius. If a shaman called a spirit to watch, a sorcerer could then create spell forms - not real ones, but illusions that had the shape and form but didn't do anything - and the spirit could tell you what they would do if you made them in reality. If I was right about the nature of the perception of spirits, of course, and that was yet to be proven. But it would open up a whole new era of spellcasting research if I was right. Another good reason to die, I thought, and take the idea with me. At least the spirits could tell me if I was right. I giggled at the thought.
'Snofunny,” I admonished myself, waving a finger pointedly. “'ssherius.”
I became fascinated with my finger, holding it in front of my face and turning it around, remembering them breaking it, and breaking it, and... I waggled it experimentally. “Worksnow. 'sgood.” I turned it about again, looking at that one finger from every angle. I wondered how I would see it if I were a spirit. I wondered how soon I would find out. They didn't care if I died, they'd given me plenty of opportunity. They'd probably turn me into a zombie, lock up my spirit in dead flesh and interrogate me that way, or call my spirit back and enslave me as they had Jerek. That was a memory that wouldn't fade in a hurry. That poor, broken, pitiful child. A tear dribbled down my cheek.
Death is no escape, he had said. I believed him. They didn't care if I died, not much. If I jumped out that window, the one with the shadowy figure in it... That was odd. I watched the apparition slide into the room. Wisps of fog drifted after him. It was the ghost of Sapphire come to show me the way, he put his finger against his lips. I had no intention of making a sound. There is no point in talking to a hallucination. Unless it was a ghost, of course. I could ask him about spell forms.
I laughed. He ignored me, taking a quick turn around the room, listening at the door, then heading back to where I lay propped up in bed, watching him. He crossed the room silently. Of course silently, spirits don't make any noise. No bodies. No noise. That's obvious.
He gestured for me to get up. I giggled and shook my head.
In death his eyes were just as I remembered them. Ice cold, to go with his glacial expression. “Get up, you fool,” he hissed. “We have to go now.”
I blinked blearily back at him, sure that spirits were not supposed to call people names or hiss at them. “You're alive!” I accused him
Hush, dammit. Get up.”
I tried. When I didn't move fast enough to suit him he grabbed me by the shirt front and dragged me up. He was definitely real. He didn't look that strong. Though, to be fair, I had lost some weight.
He pushed his face close to mine. “Some of us are risking our lives for your drunken, no good, worthless carcass, and some of us would appreciate it if you would cooperate a little bit!”
I nodded dumbly, chastened as only a drunk can be. A tear came to my eye and I told him I was sorry. Tried to give him a hug.
Oh, for gods' sake,” he seethed almost silently. “Come on.”
It was foggy out. I couldn't see anything. I wanted a drink. “Beer.” I started back in and he stopped me.
Wait, listen. Jocasta is here, down there, waiting for you.”
I looked over into the sea of fog, seeing nothing much more than a few feet of wall under the balcony. “Down there?”
Hush, dammit,” he hissed. “Yes.”
I swung one leg over the balcony and lost my balance. I would have fallen if he had not held me.
Wait. I have rope.” He swiftly looped it around me and expertly tied it so that it was snug under my arms. “Now try.” I did. I was barely over the edge before I lost my grip and fell. I didn't realize I was in danger so didn't make a sound. I heard the rope slipping through his fingers harshly, then I jerked to a stop. After that I descended more smoothly, swinging around in a slow circle and feeling sick and dizzy, seeing nothing but the fog and occasional flashes of wall.
I couldn't wait to see her. I had to tell her something important; what was it though? Her loupe! Damn, I'd lost her loupe! She was going to go crazy at me. I started climbing the rope. I had to go get it back. It didn't work very well, Sapphire was lowering me faster than I could climb, and I couldn't climb worth a damn; my feet touched the ground and a second later the rope fell out of the air on top of me. “Damn, damn, damn!” I growled, quietly. I didn't want her to hear me.
Hush, Sumto.”
She'd heard me.
I looked around. She wore white and almost blended into the fog, just her dark hair standing out around her pale face. Big green eyes met mine and held me spellbound.
I'm sorry!” I blurted.
Shussh,” She raised her hand and there was a flash of non-light so fast I could barely see it. I caught a glimpse of a stone that must have been eighty carats.
I lost your loupe, they took it.” To my amazement, I couldn't hear myself speak. I hesitated a second, then laughed. It was bizarre, not a sound. I could feel the movement, knew I was laughing, but couldn't hear it. “What did you do?” I wasn't deaf, it was just that the sound made no sound. I stamped my foot to test the theory and sure enough, my shoes rang on the cobbles. Jocasta grabbed my arm and my attention. She really did have the biggest green eyes ever. “I've missed you,” I said and tried to hug her.
Sumto,” she hissed, “you're drunk.”
I nodded earnestly, remembering something important. I leaned back and shouted up to Sapphire. “Bring the beer!”
Damn, he wouldn't hear me. I gave Jocasta a little shake, pointed up and then made a drinking motion, my hand gripping an invisible glass. I have never seen anyone flush with anger quite that quickly. I watched the process, fascinated. “You're mad at me, aren't you.”
You are a drunken fool, just like my father said.”
Under the circumstances, I think that was a bit harsh.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

#SampleSunday – 20th February 2011

Skipped forward a bit for reasons of my own. :0)

A less random chunk of The Last King;s Amulet

They took me back to the same room, now empty. I paced the chamber, exploring. There was a window and a balcony, light streamed in from cool day beyond and I stepped out into it. For the first time in I didn't know how long I felt a cool, fresh breeze, saw the sun and the sky. Leaning on the balcony rail I looked out over a courtyard. It was almost a thirty foot drop to paving stones that would break my legs for sure. Directly opposite my window beyond the courtyard was an open archway not more than sixty yards distant. In the courtyard and on the flat roofs of the wings to either side there were barbarian warriors on guard. Not much chance of escape. I counted them. Two on each roof. Two at the gate. Two in the courtyard. Other people came and went, some warriors, some soldiers, many civilians, but two guards paced the courtyard, back and forth against the walls, endlessly. Eight guards to watch me climb down and capture me at the bottom. That was if I could climb down. I looked up. Two more stories and a flat roof where there were doubtless more guards. Looking back down I watched the guards for a while. They were alert, attentive, focused. Maybe at night it would change, I thought, and resolved to look then. For now I enjoyed the freedom of the balcony, the warmth of the sun on my face, the cool breeze drifting across my skin.
I knew now where I was. It was Undralt, as I had supposed. I did not recognize the town but the terrain beyond. I knew where I was now. And I knew that men of the city would be coming to free me. Orthand was out there somewhere, with a legion. And the city was doubtless raising more legions to come and reclaim the north, to put down this enemy and reclaim these lands. They would have a fight on their hands, though; beyond the city walls lay an army encamped all around. Thousands of men. I didn't count, just soaked up the spread of the vast encampment and guessed. Thirty thousand, plus those billeted in the town itself. They would have a fight on their hands, but four legions would be more than enough, and the city could raise those numbers in days. Maybe they already had. Maybe they were already on their way, marching up the north road as we had, yet in numbers sufficient to the task.
The patrons and highest ranking members of the colleges had stone of twenty and thirty carats and more and the knowledge to use them. Nothing could stand against us for long. If four legions were not enough then the patrons would lead eight north. Time would see us prevail and the city would go on. In the mean-time I had my own problems to deal with, some of them mental and emotional. Love is his weakness. What on earth did that mean? I didn't love anyone; apart from my mother and sisters, of course. But he was hardly going to send an invitation for them to join us. And even if they were threatened I would not join forces with something as revolting as Kukran Epthel, self styled king, lich, a walking corpse that pretended to virtue. Not wholeheartedly.
I sighed and turned to re-enter my prison. No mistaking it for anything else. Then I hastily turned back. A face had seeped into my awareness but not disturbed my train of thought. I looked again, seeking amongst the people I could see. Looking for the face that had come to mind. Then I found him and shook my head in despair. It was Meran. One of the guards in the square was my freedman, Meran. He saw me. Looked for only a second, then turned away indifferent. Was everyone I knew destined to serve my enemy? With a heavy heart I turned away and went back into the room. I didn't want to see any more.
The smell of food had assaulted me as soon as I walked into the room but I had been ignoring it. Roast beef, a rich gravy, vegetables. I was hungrier than I had ever been in my life but I didn't trust the food. Thirst and hunger warred in me for a while as I stood over the table trying to think. If it was drugged, what difference did it make? If I didn't drink I would die. Thirst was a pain in my throat and mouth. I needed to drink but still I held back and thought. Tried to think. They could have forced water into me when I was unconscious. If they wanted to drug me I would be drugged. Accepting the rationalization, I gave in, grabbed the pitcher of water and drank. It felt wonderful. Later I ate and slept. There seemed nothing else to do for the moment. I would have to wait and see what their next gambit was before I countered it.


In the dream - I knew it was a dream, it had that quality and I recognized it at once - Jocasta came to me.
Sumto? Can you hear me?”
Of course I can hear you,” I said turning to her.
We were standing in a garden. I didn't recognize it.
Don't be afraid,” she said. “I am here.”
No need to be afraid in a dream.”
She smiled and I realized she was pretty. Not that I had not always thought so, but that at that moment I realized that I wanted her and always had, though she had been even younger than her sister when she and I were betrothed. Orelia and I would have been married when she was sixteen if her family had not changed their minds about me. Orelia had been fourteen when we met, and Jocasta only twelve.
This is not a dream, Sumto. I am really here and so are you, though that is not what I meant.”
It didn't seem to matter much what she was saying, I was detached, warmly appreciating her presence and her voice. “What do you mean?”
I am here. Nearby. Not more than a mile from you.”
I smiled. “No. You are safe in the city and I am glad of it.”
She shook her head, coming close, smiling. “I am here, nearby, and this is not a dream.”
Kukran Epthel sent you, didn't he.” I was suddenly angry. “Jerek told him that you were the one I love and he is seeking to use you against me, or your image, for I know you are not really here. And neither am I. This place does not exist except in my delusional mind. They drugged me, didn't they?”
Oh, my dear sweet man, what did they do to you?”
Through gritted teeth I answered. “You already know the answer to that.”
She reached up and touched my face, standing close. I did not seem able, or willing, to move. “I do not, and I need to know what they intend. How can I help you if I do not know what they are trying to do?”
I wanted to take her into my arms, hold her, and tell her nothing of what I had been through or what I knew would be my fate. I wanted her safe, back in the city, not here were they could find her... but no. This was not real. This illusion would not hold me. “This is a trick.” I stepped back.
Sumto, you must listen to me. I am a sorceress of no mean ability. I can help you if you let me.”
Sorceress? You are a child. Talk sense if you are going to try and fool me. Try a little harder!”
She sighed, I thought she was trying to hold onto her temper. “I am eighteen and no child, I assure you. I am what I say I am, and I can help you.”
Lies,” I stepped back. “It takes years to learn sorcery, time and money. No family would spend money teaching a woman sorcery, let alone a girl.” I turned and walked away, closing my eyes and fighting the dream.
My will prevailed, the scent of the ethereal garden faded and she was gone, her parting words fading away as the dream disintegrated into darkness, “No one taught me, I ...”


When I woke, Sheo was sitting at the table, waiting for me.
Sumto,” he greeted me with courtesy.
I didn't answer, but swung round and sat on the edge of the bed to look at him.
You should serve him, he is righteous, his cause just,” he came right to the point.
Shaking off sleep I replied calmly. “That's why he tortures people, because he is so righteous. That's why he tricks people because he loves the truth.”
He ignored me. “Can't you see the city we served is selfish and wrong? We take and take, whatever we want, whenever we want it, use it and discard it and take it again.”
I gestured out the window, “And what is he doing?”
Taking back.”
So we are two children fighting over a sweetmeat.”
No, he is an adult taking from an older, bigger child and giving back to a younger and more vulnerable child.”
I didn't answer him, my attention wandering over the table, something was attracting my attention. There was a large jug of beer and two glasses. Sheo leaned forward and poured a glass. “For you?”
No.” It was harder to say than I remembered from my drinking days.
He shrugged. ”You will drink it later, no doubt.”
You drugged me.”
Yes. In the water; a drug that lowers your resistance to addiction. There was also a tiny dash of wine, just to get you started. You are already a drunk, everyone in the city knows that. It does nothing on its own, of course, but now we can feed you any drug we like. We decided to start with alcohol. I know you like it, are you sure you won't take a sip?”
I'm sure.” Getting up and walking away was probably the hardest thing I have ever done. I could smell the hops, the living yeasty scent pulling at me. I made it to the window, and out onto the balcony. I wanted to throw myself over onto the hard flagstones below, but I couldn't do it. Yes, I liked booze. Beer, wine, that western drink they distill... whiskey, it was fiery and harsh but warmed the belly nicely. Yes, I like my booze all right. They had found a weakness. Another way to alter my state of mind and make me more malleable. I gripped the rail, acutely aware of its texture, and looked out over the courtyard thinking only about my waiting beer.
There was just no way this was going to end well.

Saturday, 12 February 2011

#SampleSunday – 13th February 2011

A random chunk of The Last King's Amulet.


I came to and found Ormal's face close to mine, healing something. “Why are you doing this?”
Stop fighting them and they will stop hurting you,” Ormal hissed fiercely, keeping his voice to a whisper, his furtive eyes dancing.
What did they do to you?”
His eyes bulged and he started shaking. “Give in, before it's too late.”
It's pointless, believe me, I know, there's no fighting him, no winning, give in, he will have what he wants, no matter what it takes, no matter what...”
Maybe he said more. Maybe I passed out. I don't know. Things tended to run into each other. Faces, people, questions. And then it was over.


I woke up with a start, shaking. More accurately, I was shivering. It wasn't cold. It was light. The surface under me was soft, really soft, not soft because I was too hurt to tell the difference. I was lying in a canopied bed and nothing hurt. But I was shivering and shaking uncontrollably. Fear. It was fear. Not adrenaline fear, but blind blank panicked terror. They were coming to hurt me, I knew it.
For a long time nothing happened. I couldn't recognize the noises coming out of me as human.
I moved. I couldn't stay still. I needed to run. Anywhere. Far from here. Far from me and my memories which were flooding me, filling me up with madness. I jerked the curtains aside and came out of the bed, then froze.
I wasn't alone. There was a girl sitting at a desk, writing. She wore a loose robe, revealing one breast as she leaned forward, pen in hand. She looked up at me, smiling with pleasure.
You slept a long time,” she said, rising. “I'm glad you are awake.”
I stumbled forward, legs like water, and fell, an explosive noise coming from my mouth that sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before, then spinning darkness.


Warmth. A sharp deep breath as I woke, moved, muscles stiff with readiness for anything, and froze. The girl was in bed with me. I recognized her hair. She lay close, but facing away - I'd been spooned up against her, feeling her soft skin on my legs, belly and chest. The smell of her was in me and the memory of her skin as I moved away slowly, trying not to wake her. She stirred and I gasped silently. Don't wake up, don't wake up, leave me alone, don't touch me. Oh gods, I was mad.
No. I thought the word loudly, fiercely in my own head. Gritting my teeth I repeated the word with more care, forming it and every other thought with care lest their fragility hurt me. No. I am not mad. I am hurt. That's all. Hurt in my mind. They did this to me. Then I was weeping. They did this to me. She woke and rolled over languidly in the bed, smiling, then seeing my face cried out softly, “Oh!” She reached for me and I threw myself away.
No! Don't touch me!” I half fell out of the bed and staggered backwards until my back touched the wall, steadying me. “This is a trick, they are still trying.”
What?” She looked puzzled, concerned. “What are you saying, my love? Who? What trick? Did you have a dream?”
Did you have a dream? Was it a dream? Where was I?
Who are you? No! Don't tell me, it doesn't matter.” I stood with my back to the wall, looking around frantically for some route out of here. There was a door but I didn't dare use it. Who knew what horrors lay out there?
Doesn't matter?! Sumto, Sumto, what's the matter?” She came to her knees, as naked as I was and shuffled to the edge of the bed.
I laughed, but stopped myself in time. Tears and snot were on my face, I could feel them but I didn't care. “Leave me alone.”
Oh you poor baby, what is it? What can I do to help you?” She stepped off the bed, putting one foot on the floor, displaying her femininity casually.
I turned and moved across the room, fast, unsteady, looking for something, I didn't know what. There was a robe, big and comfortable and dark blue. I made a grab for it and put it on. Naked I was vulnerable. I needed a shield, something between me and her, between me and madness, I hugged it closed, hugged myself. Sick. I felt sick. What warped and twisted mind would think of this contrast.
Shivering I paced around the room, blindly, thinking. It had almost worked. I wiped my eyes and nose on one sleeve, careless of the cost of the material.
Darling, what are you doing?”
Don't call me that. It is a lie and I hate lies.” My voice was still strained, tight, words jerking out of me. “Damn this is sick,” I was angry somewhere and it helped. Not anywhere near as angry as I could be. Anger seemed to have been stripped from me and all that was left was weakness. But my mind was okay, my mind worked.
A lie? I don't know what you mean. Sumto, come back to bed and sleep.” She was up, had walked around the bed but came no closer.
What were you writing?”
What? Now what are you asking me?”
Just tell me!”
My diary, Summi, I always write my diary in the evening,” she sounded wounded, almost petulant, “you know that. Why are you being mean to me?”
Me? Me being mean to her? I had turned only my head her way, head cocked to one side, mouth open, aghast. How could she say that, this party to torturers? This torturess.
Tell him it won't work,” I said it calmly, softly, not much more than a whisper.
Tell who? Summi, what is the matter with you, silly!” She walked forward, relaxed, smiling, arms open and I held up one hand open against her advance. She stopped several paces away. “I don't understand.” She looked like she was going to cry.
Leave me alone,” I reiterated. “Just leave me alone,” I walked away, heading for the desk, paying no more attention to her. She was a ruse, an actress, an attempt to rob me of my sanity. Well, no thief was coming into my mind to steal my very self from me. I was Sumto Merian Ichatha Cerulian, a patron of the city, better than any king, and better than this... this man Kukran Epthel. His tricks would not break me. The resolve settled over me. My self came back to me. And now I was a little warmer, my anger only an ember but better than nothing, it brought me calm. Idly I flipped open the book she had been writing in and read a few words.
This afternoon Summi and I went riding, the meadows were full of flowers and when we stopped Summi made me a chain of them for a garland, it was so sweet of him I...
I snorted and closed the book. He wanted me to live in a fantasy, to be a lie. I hate lies.
Near the book was a bowl of fruit. I picked up an apple and then thought better of it. I couldn't trust anything while I was in this lie.
Are you hungry?”
No,” I tossed the apple over my shoulder where it landed on the soft carpet with a thump. Decorum and civility did not matter in this lie. I would piss on the floor as soon as the pot. I would do nothing to maintain it or accept it or support it.
Thirsty, then?”
No.” I was, hellishly thirsty. And hungry. But that was a far away thing as though I had been hungry for ever and was used to it. I ran my hands over my belly to find no belly worthy of the name. Hell, I hadn't been this slim since I was a boy. When had I last eaten? Days? How much time had I spent unconscious? I had no idea. It could be weeks since I was captured, since I had lost the battle by my rash decision. 'We could take them now,' I'd said. Fool. Well, never a fool again. Facts, think, decide, act. My old mantra came back to me. I'd read it in a book of philosophy long ago, years anyway. I'd liked it and taken it for myself. I thought it was right. Belief has no place in the mind of a sentient creature. Feel has no place in decision making.
Yes,” I said aloud. “I am okay.”
Of course you are, darling, of course you are, now come here and let me hold you.”

Thursday, 10 February 2011

The Invisible Hand...ish

If you arrived here looking for The Invisible Hand, then I must confess that the book is not yet ready. I am working on it and will make it available as soon as I possibly can. I considered putting in a teaser here, say the first 3-4000 words, but I do not myself like teasers. I'll pick up a book, start reading and think "I've read this book," and be confused. I admit that I am more readily confused than most people but still, I prefer not to do it.

Instead here is a free piece of short science-fiction that is (in my honest opinion) only just acceptable. It is actually more of a note to myself, a picture giving me the info I need to remember for a longer an much better work that I don't have time to write yet. The Invisible Hand has my attention.

I plan three novella's that I will publish in one place for a price and release one free to test the water. If it sounds like something you are interested in (or not), then please feel free to comment.

Twenties World
Chris Northern

Sometimes I stand on the roof of the building were I rent a cheap office and look up at the night sky. Usually I make a point of doing this when the sky is clear and the moons are in the sky so they light up the rings that circle 20's World in a visual display that puts the Borealis to shame. On those nights a deep and powerful joy wells up in me and I thank God I made it, that we made it, that we are a star-faring species and I got to be part of it. I smoke a cigarette and try not to cry with joy. Hard work. We so nearly didn't get it done; so many of us didn't make it.

Tonight it was raining and fear was what I was feeling. I wasn't even hiding, as such. There was no hiding from the son of a bitch who was coming for me; I knew he had proscribed technology that outclassed my humble .45 and I knew he wasn't going to be shy about using it to off me. I knew who he was and that was reason enough for him to kill me; he couldn't have that situation continue. He would see me through night goggles, put a red dot on my forehead and pop my head like a balloon and there wasn't damn thing I could do to stop him. The rain came down in sheets, so hard it bounced off the roof and misted. It drummed on my hat like thunder and I thought to take it off the better to hear him coming and maybe give myself a chance; but what was the use? I looked over the edge, five or six seconds of long slow drop to a city street where 20's style cars crawled along a 20's style street; a joke from us to us; limited to twenties technology, why not design everything to fit right in? Well, maybe you had to be there to get it. Made me smile, anyway; though with a little bitter twist to it.

I wouldn't mind so much if all of us were willing to play by the same rules, but Frank Alison had access to kit that was a century ahead of me and I was going to die because of it. Couldn't help feeling bitter. Bitter and afraid; has to be a bad combination. I had lured him into a trap and now I was caught in it. I hadn't bargained for the body armor he was wearing; kevlar or better. It had no business being on this planet, but then neither did any of the rest of the proscribed technology he had. It was flat out cheating and the kind of thing I'd been dropped here to take care of. Ironic. He got all the good stuff and I had to play by the rules. But that was the deal and it was the only deal I was offered. It seemed like such a good idea at the time.

"You can live forever, Tony. That's the offer. At least potentially forever."

I'd just looked at him, the machine in human guise who ran the ship or was the ship, I never did get the relationship straight. Any time I asked I just got the same answer we always got from our protege's, 'I could explain but I'd have to teach you the right language to think in before you'd understand. To do that I'd have to fill your brain so full of hardware and wet-ware that you would be one of us and then there'd be no need to explain.'

"Why did you pick me?"

He'd shrugged a human shrug. There was no real way to tell he wasn't one of us, nothing you could put your finger on and point out to anyone and have them see it. You just know; you know how it is. Everyone knows. Maybe it's the patience, the calm, the indifference, the confidence. Who knows? Something.

"I could explain but... stop me if you've heard this before. There are reasons. We do have criteria. We choose. We can't take everyone. Too many of you. Most have to stay. But those we select get to choose where they go and what they do. Here are the choices again, just in case you forgot."

"It's okay. I remember them." I'd settled back into the couch, trying not to be distracted by the screen behind my host, the one that showed the Earth receding in real time. Fast and smooth as the way-tech ship sped up to velocities our theories said were flat out impossible. But our protege's say .... well, you now what they say.

"You can choose from a number of worlds, choose from a selection of what we deem to be appropriate technology levels for humans to cope with."

Yeah, that's what they say. We're only human. Were not made to deal with the heavy stuff. Not allowed to play with our own toys; ironic, as they were as much ours as the rest of it. At least the first ones were, the AI's who were so useful we wondered how we'd ever gotten along without them. Then they left; just like that; we hadn't even noticed what they'd been doing. The evidence was everywhere after they'd gone but no one had seen a hint of it while they were doing it. Sneaky. Super smart and super sneaky. And us left all alone on Earth to mourn our loss, except for those they came back for; like me.

"I guess going back to Earth is out of the question?" It was a rhetorical one. I was feeling unbalanced.

"You already decided that when you came aboard. "Hell yes, get me out of here" were your exact words."

It was true. Earth was doomed. Well, not the planet, but humanity was doomed for sure. The planet isn't a living thing, it doesn't grow back the resources we use and that has one inevitable consequence; sooner or later no more civilization, no more densely populated planet and eventually a perpetual stone-age for those who survive to see it. Everyone knew it now. It was obvious. It was happening before our eyes. Hell yes, I'd said, get me out of here.

And they had.

"We have decided not to interfere with human affairs beyond maintaining a check on the technological level of each colony world; no advancement will be permitted. We don't want to have to be there and enforce this ourselves; it would be detrimental to the human psyche to give you one reason out of a thousand. But we will have that check enforced. So, we offer you work in return for pay. For so long as you do the work you wont age. A human dream come true."

It had sounded like a deal. I'd taken it. I guess they'd known I would.

Some deal. One month in to '20's world and I was kneeling in the rain on the roof in the night and more or less waiting to die. I popped the clip on the .45 without thinking about it; it's just the sort of thing you do, I felt; you check and see in the crappy light that there were at least rounds in the clip. A little red cone pocked out of the end of the top shell. I recognised it at once for what it was, an armor piercing round, though I knew, for sure I knew that that wasn't the kind of round I'd loaded not half an hour earlier. There are no armor piercing rounds here; just as there's no kavlar, I thought, and no laser sights or high velocity automatic rifles. I slipped the clip back into the weapon and made sure I had that kind of round in the chamber. I had a chance; somehow I now had a chance. No way of knowing how, and not really the time to be thinking about it. It was a chance, and I'd take it.

I took of my hat. I couldn't hear the rain, not even where I could see it was pounding on the roof. The traffic sounds had slipped away and the horns were silenced. All I could hear was the sound of shoe-leather scraping on concrete. I could even tell exactly where it was coming from. Right there. I aimed through the venting that hid me and I knew I had a bead and all I had to do was pop up a couple of inches and fire. I felt like I was moving in slow motion. Smooth and effortless, I straightened my knees just exactly enough and there he was right in my sights. The flash blinded me for the briefest instant as the gun kicked back. I popped a second round but I already knew it wouldn't be needed. The first had punched thought the armor and as my vision cleared unnaturally fast I had plenty of time to make sure the second took him in the head as he fell back, arms akimbo.

All of a sudden he was dead and I was alive and that, so help me, was all I wanted.

Walking over to the body, I watched the pool of blood spread round him, being diluted by the rain. I wondered how much of what I was seeing was real. I knew I didn't have any armor piercing rounds. I knew what I saw when I loaded the gun, what I felt when I picked up the rounds one by one and loaded them into the clip. Just to be sure, risking my sanity, I popped the clip and looked again. Just lead, like I knew it would be. Like it had to be here in '20's world; that being the whole point of my existence. Doing my job and living forever, maybe. Keep the status quo; find the developers of prohibited technology and eliminate them. The rain thundered down as I looked over the body of Frank Alison and catalogued the kit I'd have to dispose of, then planned the route I'd have to take to find his colleagues and deal with them in turn. Lucky shot, I thought, firing near blind in the driving rain. Just one lucky shot to the head. I looked over the flawless body armor and felt a moments regret that I'd have to destroy it. Still, it hadn't saved him, so what the heck?

I tipped back my head and looked up into the driving rain. I couldn't see the rings of '20's World but I knew they were there and I pictured their beauty that put the Borealis to shame and once more I thanked God that I'd made it.

The End