“Well… very impressive,” General Gao said. “Major Cho, you know where White Wood Fortress is?”
Iron Belly cleared his throat. “Yes, sir.”
“The bandits have been allowed to dwell there too long. Colonel Ba, take Major Cho and fifty men and destroy them,” Gao commanded.
Ba’s eyes gleamed at the thought of laying waste to criminal scum. He bowed his head. “Yes, sir. The worms and crows shall feast upon them.” He glanced at Iron Belly, but his face was full of troubles.
“Off you go,” Gao said. “Don’t come back until they’re dead.”
Ba and Iron Belly marched from the hall, leaving Gao alone with Ho.
“Are you sure this is going to work, sir?” Colonel Ho asked.
The safety pod’s almost completely circular bench is hard and there is no room to stand up with the table in its otherwise empty centre. Detective Torvinne Bergholm has to find a distraction from the discomfort.
She ups a holographic screen from the seam in her spacesuit’s forearm and stops short of activating her favourite games. That would be rude if her murder suspect and interviewee, Oona Campbell, were to open the door unannounced. So she reads her case notes: the suspicious death of Mike Benson, found near this mine’s face with his helmet’s faceplate smashed in, which had led to total air loss in his spacesuit. Locals, here on Miranda, had put the cause of death down to ghosts: clearly ridiculous. Hence the constabulary sent her all the way from Earth to investigate. Good job she likes weirdo puzzles.
She rereads Oona’s profile. Instead of, as expected, working alongside him, Oona said she had to get away from the mine’s face and was sitting in this pod to calm down at the time he died. Why would a practical, level-headed person be deterred from earning drilling premiums? Especially as this mine is a safe one. There was that word in the report again, ‘iceborne’. What the hell did that mean?
Ba left the Hall of Righteous Bloodshed and marched to the quartermaster. Everyone had seen him ride in with Governor Rong so, despite not yet having his seal of authority, the quartermaster readily provided him with a fresh uniform, armour and weapons.
Ba thanked him and piled the equipment and clothing into a huge heap.
“Aren’t you going to get changed out of those rags, sir?” the quartermaster asked as he carried the bundle to the door.
“General Gao’s having me clean the stables. I’m not changing into silk to get it covered in horse muck.”
He retrieved his horse from outside the hall, filled its saddlebags, and rode the short distance to his new home. It was small and sparsely furnished but had all the necessities of life. Ba had never spent much time at his house in Tiangjin either, and having his own place outside the barracks, away from General Gao, seemed like a fine gift. He left behind his horse and new gear, and loped back to the military district, pausing to requisition some spades from the quartermaster.
The muttering and murmuring of a thousand angelic voices filled the stark white space. Seleniel smiled at the newbie and patted the chair beside her. “Come, sit down.” She picked up her headset and switched on her computer. “Our shift starts in a minute. It’s 5 a.m. on the US East Coast. That’s our region. What was your name again?”
“Amiel.” The newbie sat, adjusting her bright new halo self-consciously.
“Welcome to comms central,” Seleniel said warmly. “So, did they explain the job?”
“We… warn people of things?” Amiel answered hesitantly. “The mortals, we pass them messages?”
“That’s right. We catch them when they’re in that in-between state, not quite asleep, not quite awake. That’s why they call us the Dawn Chorus. It’s remarkably effective. The mortals never listen when they’re conscious, and they always seem to forget their dreams. But at the awakening… It’s perfect.”
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.