Ba Renzhong screamed a war cry as he charged like a rhino into the midst of the bandits. A spear jabbed at him, but he ducked beneath it and tackled the brigand to the ground. His elbow knocked the criminal witless, and Ba grabbed the spear for himself. Seeing that he knew what he was doing, the other bandits surrounded him in a circle, swords and spears ready.
“There’s a dozen of us, and one of you,” one crowed. “We’ll slice you into mince!”
Ba rolled his neck around his shoulders. “I’m Ba Renzhong, known amongst men of honour as the Purple Demon. Any who flees will be spared. Those who stay will die.”
The outlaws looked at one another, eyes wide in fear. But none fled, for they had numbers on their side. Let this be a lesson to you, reader. A dozen sheep are no match for a single lion. Numbers mean nothing against skill.
Ba thrust his spear left and right, every stroke spraying red. The bandits’ blades came his way, but he dodged low and parried high. For all their attacks, the miscreants didn’t even manage to cut his robe. In a few moments, only three of them were left. One threw down his sword and ran, but Ba hurled his spear and impaled the criminal, pinning him to a tree.
“Please, gentlemen, make yourself comfortable.”
I polarised the windows against the glare of a SoCal summer as they took their seats. My two visitors were the proverbial ‘odd couple’: Air Force General Branning looked uncomfortable just being out of uniform while his aide, Major Cain, would probably have remained cool, calm and collected while wearing a tutu and whistling ‘Dixie’.
Branning shifted in his chair, glowering, while Cain remained bland and unreadable. He crossed his legs. “Very well, Mister Conway, you have our attention.”
I inclined my head. “The fact that you came to me in the first place, a civilian private investigator, meant you didn’t want an internal enquiry that would have to log its findings. Now, the general here is a shoe-in as head of the Joint Chiefs but you want to be sure, absolutely sure, that nothing is going to come crawling out of the woodwork once his enemies start digging. Nothing that will tarnish his impeccable military record. I get that, the Air Force takes care of its own.”
Cain smiled with zero sincerity. “So we understand each other. Now, did you uncover anything worthy of our attention?”
I sat back and steepled my fingers. “A Nazi flying saucer powered by the souls of death-camp inmates crashed at Roswell, New Mexico, in 1946. It was a German prototype salvaged at the end of World War Two, being tested by the United States Army Air Force.”
This is the story of a lord who mistook a diamond for a pebble, and threw it away.
Ba Renzhong hobbled through the wide streets of Tiangjin. Guards marched ahead and behind him, and he was shirtless so that the people lining the streets could see the marks of flogging ripped into his back. A heavy wooden cangue had been locked around his neck and both wrists. Until recently, he had been Lord Ximen’s general, and presided over a number of exile sentences himself. Despite being demoted to colonel, Lord Ximen had decreed his journey to Ganyang would be made as wretched as possible.
A few members of the crowd booed and jeered, but most watched in silence.
“Ba Renzhong! You saved my son from bandits! Gods protect you!” a woman cried out.
Ba smiled, and looked for her, but she ran away before the guards could find her.
Eventually he came to the gate from which the road to distant Ganyang began. A border province a hundred days away and full of criminals and barbarians, Lord Ximen had exiled him there as a death sentence. Ba looked this way and that, but there was no sign of his little brother, Ba Jiang.
Dawn. The time of day when the sky is a dangerous shade of red; day has almost arrived but night has not yet left. I’d been out all night and not caught a damn thing. In fact, all I’d managed to do was lose my best knife down a drain and get a bat caught in my hair. Okay, it didn’t get caught – it just startled me.
Monster hunting’s supposed to be glamorous. I was bitten by a ghoul last week and my arm damn near went septic.
I jumped down off the wall I’d sat on and made my way home. I’d have to sharpen up a knife from the kitchen and use that. I didn’t have time during the day to go to the supermarket, and unfortunately my local Monster Hunter’s Hardware Supply Shop doesn’t exist.
I was shattered and wanted my bed, and preferably a hot drink as I was bloody freezing and had pretty much lost all feeling in my toes.
As I picked the tiny darts out of my body, I watched Kordan, my creator, peering through the small panel into the arena. He sensed my eyes upon him and turned to meet my look. He glanced down at the darts in my hand. His expression was pained—his great creations brought so low. I nodded to him; he nodded back. Not many can say they’ve met their creator and lived to talk of it.
The head of the recently deceased Master of Games, Obbas, rolled to one side, and his tongue flopped out. Emperor Brulum examined my reaction. I smiled and gave a shrug. “Wasn’t much use without his eyes, anyway.”
The Emperor chuckled. A figure stepped forward. “You know Urran, my Lord Marshall, of course?”
“From that incident in Kookan,” I answered. “I hope my transgressions have since been forgiven, Lord Marshall?”
“Forgiven,” he answered. “But not forgotten.” He pointed at the wall and gestured I turn around. “A precaution, you understand.”
I nodded and assumed the position. His frisking skills were the same as ever—bad. When he had removed my knife and some other trinkets, he nodded to the Emperor, who then gestured that I follow him.
My daughter’s imaginary friend most likely came about because of loneliness, I surmised. It was all my fault. Nevertheless, it didn’t seem to matter too much as she played under the slide on the eighth level of Kastak Island. She laughed and chattered away. So what if her friend wasn’t really there?
We’d been living on Kastak for two months. It was a research lab for robotics and analytics that towered above the sea off the coast of England, where it had been purpose-built away from all the overcrowding. Construction was not quite finished, but I’d pleaded for the chance to start my new data job early, along with some others who were more involved in the setup side of things. My daughter and I were among the first families to arrive, though I’d been told that many more were to follow.
The balcony Dana played on was half-way up the tower. Gardens were spread across the levels, but this was the only outside space aimed at the employees’ children. It was nothing special, with only a swing, slide and climbing frame, but we treasured being alone out there – no one else seemed to enjoy the brisk outdoors so early in the mornings. Dana played, while I leaned against the balcony wall, relishing the sea breeze.
The entire complex was a refuge as much as a home. Until the note came.
There was little I could do. The lion man was as good as dead. The giant spider was but feet away from him, ready to pounce, when one of the other spiders collided into it.
I shaded my eyes to see that on top of this other spider was the crab man, who held both of the spider’s pincers in his one large claw, and was now guiding the creature at will.
“My own personal monster,” the crab man shouted.
Leo signalled his thanks. The crowd, silent up to this point, gave out a loud cheer. They were cheering that the life of an Altered had been saved. I looked over at Orrin. The significance of this was not lost on him.
The spider on the receiving end of the collision gave a might roar and lowered its head, crashing into the side of the crab man’s ride, throwing him to the ground. Maheras, the centaur, scooped the crab man up onto his back to another rapturous applause from the crowd. Maheras galloped up and down in a tight pattern, throwing his forelegs into the air and neighing loudly, while the crab man held on with clenched legs, and raised his one claw in salute to the crowd. They cheered even harder. Brulum may well win the upcoming war, but he was losing this battle.
And… play. Livestream is go.
Five minutes from the deadline. It’s quiet on the feed, but that’s the usual traffic this early in the game. Any people that are on are prowlers, the ones who obsess about my technique over the actual closer.
@thereathee: what model rifle is that?
@skilleez67: @thereathee it’s an S&W Dellax-77. He’s taking the shot from at least 49km.
@punfisher118: did he adjust for wind?
@feulkllr: @punfisher118 she, and yeah she did. She’s taken trickier shots than this.
@45yoigi gender is relative. #fluidsarepeople #equalityforfluidsnow.
Buncha nerds, geeking out about the little things. But prowlers and gun nuts justify the ad revenue alone. Gotta love ’em for that. Now if they only pledged more than the bare base donation amount. Cheapskates.
The arena was silent. I looked at the six mechanical monstrosities, then up at the crowd. None were cheering. None clapped their hands or stamped their feet. Brulum had overplayed his hand. He lacked his uncle Arak’s finesse. An empire was taken with fist, but held with heart.
A ruler who murdered his people, could never be loved. Arak knew that. The original fables of the great strength and prowess of the Altered—created to work where humans normally could not; the solar fields, the uranium mines and other equally harsh landscapes—turned to tales of barbarism and savage cruelty, when our purpose had been fulfilled. But Arak’s story weavers had proven too effective. The Altered still held some sense of awe and mysticism for the citizenry of Galicia.
We were the pure, the free, the ‘noble savage,’ they themselves often longed to be—but could never be. We bolstered their drowned dreams with the imagined possibilities of courageous action, and dynamic true-hearted purpose.
I tuned back in as Director Hobson came to the end of his welcome for the new interns. I’d heard his spiel numerous times before – he liked to have me there as an example of how agents could make multiple trips through the vortex and suffer no ill-effects.
Hobson drew himself up in a supposedly spontaneous display of righteous indignation, hands gripping both sides of the lectern. “…and despite what those deluded protestors outside may chant, we are not murderers, nor body-snatchers, nor are we devoid of conscience. All those we retrieve from the past vanished without trace – overlooked, unmissed, discarded by the society of their time. The organs and other genetic material we harvest both lend purpose to their passing and save the lives of countless recipients in the here-and-now.” He paused for an equally spontaneous smattering of applause, led by Miss Brunner, the head of Human Resources.
I shifted my weight to the other foot and idly picked at a barely healed scab on my left hand. The decay was troublesome, but time in the regeneration tanks didn’t come cheap.