There are snippets from:
1. Dog Country (Social/Military SF)
2. Schuyler (Horror/Fantasy)
3. The Artisan's Forge (Alien Invasion/Military SF)
In this piece Eschowitz, a character from War Dog, the first published story about the clones from Dog Country, meets Alice, a citizen journalist who appears very briefly in Dog Country. She’s just travelled half way around the world, from London to the Middle American Corporate Preserve’s San Iadras, for a lunch date with her old friend Eschowitz, who she hasn’t seen since Tajikistan. But, she isn’t too sure why he’s sent her a plane ticket and asked for such an urgent lunch date in a commercial canyon (under-street shopping mall)...
Alice appeared more frequently in an earlier draft of Dog Country, but I couldn’t quite make it fit satisfactorily.
* * *
He didn't look up immediately. Folded up the phone in his big, red-furred hands, and looked up at her, big doggy eyes almost expressionless. No smile, no flash of recognition. For an instant she felt a pang of worry, maybe this wasn't Eschowitz -- maybe it was one of his brothers, they were all the same, she had no idea how to tell them apart -- but he pushed the chair opposite him out for her, with the toe of one boot. "Hi Alice," he said. "Been awhile."
"Been two years," she said, her smile flickering on and off, uncertain. He wasn't smiling, but, he didn't smile very much. Never had.
The last time she'd seen him was from the door of one of the last planes leaving Dushanbe's Somoni airport, four hours after the three day revolution began. He and his brothers, gengineered dogs all, had fought their way across the city to get her to the airport. They'd given up their seats on the plane for her, wounded brothers, and expatriate civilians as furious revolutionaries took to the streets and sparked a popular uprising into an unstoppable blaze.
She'd gone to Tajikistan for her gap year, in '04. Had thought that the experience of going to another country, of doing some blogging from the streets of an oppressed nation under near total internet censorship, would help her land a place at one of the better journalism courses. It hadn't. She'd been naive, in a lot of ways. Almost criminally so.
She'd just been lucky, so very, very lucky, that Eschowitz had found her in that hell-hole before the worst had happened, and volunteered as tour guide for the day and a half before Tajikistan ignited.
Eschowitz brought up the cafe menu on the smartpaper table-surfaces -- not on a phone, like at home -- and ordered a pitcher of water and two ham sandwiches. Alice decided to try the tea, and something she'd never heard of, called a roast-cheese flip, which looked a little like an omelette wrapped around a salad.
"How did you get out?" she asked, breaking the silence of waiting for their food.
"Walked," Eschowitz said, ears perking just like an interested dog's.
She brought out her phone, and set it on the table. "Mind if I record this? For the blog?"
He looked at the phone, a little distrustfully, but shrugged those shoulders again. "Sure, for now. Go ahead."
"So. You walked?"
"Out of Tajikistan?"
"Affirmative. Over the Gissar mountains and into Uzbekistan." He looked directly at her, snout slightly lowered, big brown and surprisingly human eyes blinking at her slowly. "Took about three weeks. Spent a lot of time avoiding hunting parties." He shrugged, casually. "Could have done it a lot faster without getting shot at by locals, but we didn't really have the gear to fight back."
He and his brothers had almost all been working for the government of the time. The revolutionaries had painted them as tools of an authoritarian regime... It hadn't been pretty, for those of Eschowitz's brothers who had been captured.
Not many had.
Alice stared at him, trying to square away the idea of the dog (Man? She still wasn't sure) in front of her hiking out of a country trying to kill him, hunted all the way, with the dog/man who had dragged her to safety, who had given her a bodyguard's tour of Tajikistan's insanity shortly before things had broken down entirely. At last, she smiled. "Well. I'm glad you got out."
"Thanks. That's us," he said, pointing across at the cafe counter. He got up, unfolding his too-tall six and a half feet from a seat for someone closer to her size, and took their tray from the cafe's lone worker in one hand, water-pitcher in the other.
The tea wasn't terrible -- just different, milkier than she'd expected. The roast-cheese flip bled grease onto the plate, but was annoyingly moreish. She'd wanted to be disappointed, had hoped capitalism's great experiment would feed her terrible food and make her long for the superiority of home, but even if it was a little expensive the equivalent greasy caff at home would have served worse.
"So how about you?" Eschowitz asked, over the slosh of his water into its glass. "Get that journalism scholarship you wanted?"
Alice shook her head slowly. "I wound up in indie media," she said. "A lot of reporting on NGOs in London. Some puff pieces for causes I agree with. The journalism courses... they're aimed towards working in one of the big six multinat media companies."
"I thought that's what you wanted."
She didn't look up from her cheese-flip. "I thought that too."
Eschowitz stared, then nodded -- his ears dipping back, short-clipped whiskers tightening toward his face. "I feel that. Tajikistan had a way of changing things, for a person."
"It did," she agreed. "How was it for you, when you came back... here?" She gestured out of the cafe, at the canyon's filtered sunlight.
He looked outside, shrugged. "It's home. I grew up in the suburbs about twenty miles that way," he said, pointing in the direction of the canyon's opposite wall. "Getting home was nice. Hadn't seen my fosters for awhile."
"Yeah." He picked open his sandwich, looking at the ham inside as if trying to figure out what it was. "My sister was real happy to see me. My parents were, too, but mostly my sister. She's the one that cried."
"I'm sorry. Hold on. You're adopted?"
"Yeah. Didn't I tell you, back when I was giving you the tour of Dushanbe?"
"Oh. Well. After the Emancipation, I got adopted by the Nicholsons." He poked at the ham distrustfully with the tip of his knife. "We all got placed with new families. I think the oldest production run, out of my production generation, anyway, were ten years old, maybe? I was seven."
Eschowitz the dog. Six and a half feet tall, holding her in the back of a van to keep her head down and out of the line of fire as the vehicle careened across Dushanbe's streets in the midst of all out war. Him? Seven years old? Adopted? A little kid in a family? Impossible.
"What's your sister's name?"
"Frankie." At last he folded the ham back into the bread, and tore a hunk out of it with his teeth. "She's a little younger th'n me," he slurred around the food in his mouth. "She cries a lot. I don't understand why she cries? But she does it when she's happy, when she's sad... it's real confusing."
"Some people are like that." Alice couldn't help smiling.
"Yeah. I guess so. Anyway. So they were happy to see me, when I got back."
"That's all? After you got back, your family were happy to see you?"
Eschowitz blinked at her. "Yeah."
"Really? That's all?"
"Well they'd been worried. So they were real happy, I guess." He munched another mouthful of his sandwich, chewing enough to not have been simply wolfing it down. "I was happy to see them, too."
"Well, that makes sense." She blinked back. "So what did you do afterward? New job?"
"Kinda. You remember I was lined up to work with my brothers, Mark Antony?"
"That's the private military company?"
"Yeah. The PMC. They were going to do personnel protection for the Red Cross and Crescent, the relief efforts... well, that didn't work out, but I'm with them now." Eschowitz nodded to himself.
"So what do they -- you -- do now?"
"Mostly personnel protection, but work's been slow -- people still talk about Tajikistan, don't like us much internationally -- so we used to play MilSim." His tail thwacked the wall behind him in steady, wagging thumps. "You know MilSim?"
"MilSim's great. It's like infantry training, and fire drills, and field testing, and they livecast it to subscribers, get sponsors -- like a sport?"
Wag wag went the big puppy's tail -- now that he was talking about something that spoke to him, instead of just, oh... families and coming home after weeks in a hostile wilderness. Alice held back laughter.
"A sport. Okay. So not like a military videogame?"
He waggled his head side to side noncommittally. "It uses a lot of augmented reality. We go out to the fields, shoot at each other with pretend guns -- most of the electronics are the same as in combat gear, but the guns have a recoil engine instead of bullets and a barrel? It's fun. We played in last year's spring and fall seasons, but not this year." He shook his head rapidly.
"It's all political," he grumbled, head bowed, shrinking in front of her eyes -- as much as he could shrink. "The organizing league's reviewing some regulations... we figured it'd be better for everybody if we took some real work, instead of playing."
"What kind of real work?" she prompted.
"Well. We haven't gotten any yet, really -- some travel contracts, go with executives on their business trips out country, mostly out south, but nothing that keeps all eight of us busy."
Alice watched him carefully. "Oh."
"Hm?" she straightened.
"You look like you wanna ask something."
"I just thought you'd be doing something... different." She took a sip of her tea, still hot in its insulated cup. "Or why send me an air-ticket, instead of having this conversation online?" she smiled slightly.
He hunched low to the table. Ears flicked forward, back. Forward. "You said you went to Tajikistan because the local flavour is more authentic."
"Yes, but... we don't have to be face to face to catch up, Eschowitz."
He killed his sandwich with a single stab of his fork, and bent it around the tines with the side of his knife. "What did you think of the coverage we got in Tajikistan?"
"We? You mean, you? Your brothers?"
Alice sat back, and thought. Immediately post-revolution, the young government was eager to make friends. Which meant spending a lot on international relations, which meant lining the pockets of the powerful. And that meant their story, the revolutionaries' story, got precedence over any other. Not like the collapsed Tajik regime had still had a press office to handle enquiries, either.
"One sided," she said at last. "Very one sided. It made you out to be monsters."
"But we're not," he said, too quickly.
"You're not monsters," she agreed. "You were employed by a legitimate, if nasty, government. You fought an insurrection, the insurrection won. I know for a fact you didn't do half the things they claimed."
Eschowitz nodded. "That was mostly the secret police -- and the Presidential Guard. They just blamed it on us afterward -- none of us did anything to the civilians. We were hired to protect the civilians, like you said, from the insurrection."
"Right." Not that the new government who'd once been that insurrection viewed it like that.
He pushed his plate away, staring at her nervously. "It didn't go well for us, after that. A lot of people don't think of us as anything more than a private army for tyrants."
"That wasn't fair." He watched her eyes for approval. After what he'd done for her, how could she not approve of him?
"No, it wasn't."
"Nobody listened to you because you didn't get your report out first, right? If you'd gotten your report out first, more people would have listened to what you had to say? They wouldn't have thought we were an army for tyrants?"
"Eschowitz, what is all this about? What was so important you couldn't ask me online?"
He scratched at his ear, and looked down at the table.
"Can you turn that off?" He pointed at her phone.
She knew better than to ask why. She turned off the recorder, put her phone to sleep, and pocketed it.
"So," he said.
"So," she said.
"Are you going to cover the civil war in Azerbaijan, against Nesimi's authoritarian regime?" he asked, picking up the last corner of his sandwich. "For your blog?"
Alice frowned. "What civil war in Azerbaijan?"
"The one we're about to start."
* * *
In this piece, Gaylord (an indeterminate, but batlike creature) and Schuyler (a magnificent example of... something potentially catlike), denizens of a strange and nightmarish realm where thread and needle are habitually used to bind and remake flesh, share a pleasant moment beside a lake. While Gaylord hunts for crabs filled with mysterious oozing worms (which, when crushed, provide a fine black dye for him to stain his wings with), Schuyler realizes that his night sight is not what it was. (It is entirely possible that Schuyler lost his eyes, replaced them with far less fine ones, and is unaware of it.)
Gaylord, naturally, might have some insight into this tricky issue...
* * *
Thump! Whump! Crkle-Chlurk-Wrnch. "Yes, Schuyler?"
"You see your work very clearly, even though it is dark, do you not?"
"I do. The night hours are my most beloved. If I had a grand clock, such as that which turns at the heart of the world with the sun and stars as its hands, I should mark out each midnight in gold and silver." Gaylord tilted his head to this side, then that side, surveying the bloody mess beneath his feet.
"Yes." Schuyler folded his arms. "I know this well. No distant, dim memory this, but a well loved one, for the hours of the night, of shadow, are those in which we gambol about with great delight. This I remember, my memory has not faded me."
"Then why should you ask such a thing?" The sounds of shell grinding at guts halted, and Gaylord looked up.
"I remember sharing in enjoyable pastimes with you, dear Gaylord, and seeing all things quite clearly, but now that it comes to it, this night is far too dark for me to make out much of anything. As to why I should be able to see all the glories of the night once, but no longer, this is a matter on which my memory has dried up and flaked away."
Gaylord looked up at the sky, though Schuyler could not read his expression. "Do you mean you cannot see in the dark?"
"No, I cannot."
"You mean you are vulnerable to night's predations and woes? Made all but blind, helpless before one who is a master of the midnight hours, sharp of tooth, mean of claw, silent in winging across the sky upon black wings of leather, soft as the moon's sweet touch?" Gaylord smiled, the shine of his teeth very apparent, for little Gaylord had come close to Schuyler, and even a small glint of light was made large when sharp teeth were very close to one's eye.
The foetid murk of Gaylord's breath washed, hot and eager, across Schuyler's nose. His tongue flicked, wantingly, its sharp little tip waggling about as if licking blood off the very air.
Oh Gaylord. Sweet, dear, enthusiastic, carnivorous Gaylord.
Schuyler smiled. A broad smile, that spiralled at the corners of his mouth into ever sharper angles, all filled with teeth. "No, Gaylord," he purred. "You are extrapolating some pleasant, happy dream which is sadly, quite far from the truth."
"Am I?" Gaylord demanded, holding up his wings and blotting out the sky, enveloping Schuyler in a dark and sweaty warmth. "Are you not vulnerable, dear Schuyler? At mercy to me?"
Idly, Schuyler scratched at his belly with his claws. "No, my sweet friend. Quite the reverse." Idly, Schuyler pulled his favoured knife from betwixt his guts with a wet joyous slithering, that made him smile all the harder.
The circumstances may have made Schuyler close to blind, but Gaylord was blessed with astute sight in the dark, even if he lacked somewhat in vision and awareness.
"Oh," Gaylord whimpered, letting his wings fall to the ground with a leathery clumpf, all illusion of his great size peeled away.
"Yes," Schuyler replied.
Schuyler's favourite knife dripped mingled blood and bile along the curve of the blade. It had beautiful rings piercing its middle, but wet, they did not jingle. It had no handle, which was part of why it was Schuyler's favourite. His favourite knife was all knife, and best still, it was a folding knife. Grasp it by the rings -- although there was much fun to have in cutting oneself, the rings gave a good grasp -- and gently tug one ring out from the rest, and with it came a lovely hooked blade ordinarily held snugly in the main knifeblade's engravings.
Delicately, Schuyler wiped the hooked tip clean upon his fur, which drank up all his blood. This done, he gently tickled Gaylord's quivering throat, careful not to cut it, but merely harm it.
"I had only thought--"
"I know what you had thought, Gaylord, and I know that you had not thought. Had you?"
"No," he sobbed.
"There there," Schuyler soothed. "We're the best of friends, aren't we, Gaylord?"
"Yes we are." Gaylord nodded petulantly, which required Schuyler to be very deft with the blade, to keep Gaylord from slitting his own throat. Thankfully what Gaylord lacked in foresight and good sense, Schuyler more than made up for in every way.
Tenderly, Schuyler gave Gaylord a soft pat upon the head, a gentle, loving stroke. Gaylord chirruped hopefully, and then Schuyler stabbed him betwixt the legs.
It was not a sound of joy. Gaylord did not take joy in pain, as Schuyler did, which was misfortunate given Schuyler's sharing nature.
"There. Now then. No harm done, no misfortune on us either," Schuyler twisted the knife, "and lessons learned."
Gaylord did not answer. He squealed, but that was not an answer.
Schuyler removed his favourite knife from Gaylord, folded it, and placed it back within himself. He shuddered with joy, at the fresh sweetness of the knife digging into his guts and tearing a ruinous canal of ragged flesh behind it, churning his guts into ever smaller slices and letting his blood mix with his juices in fiery burning agonizing glee, and held the wound pinched shut, tangling his fur with clotted blood until all was well in place once more.
"T-there," Schuyler said, with a smile. "I do not feel harmed. Do you feel harmed, Gaylord?"
Gaylord rolled about on the dark earth, at last coming to rest, wings awkwardly spread between his knees. "I am glad to have been shown the misfortunes to which my unhappy ways might have led me," he murmured slowly, voice high pitched.
"I am glad also. It is good that you try so hard to find a little joy in this world, Gaylord. Commendable."
"Thank you," he wheezed.
"Are you bleeding much?"
"Good. It shall remind you why you must try so very hard to find a little joy in this world, will it not?"
Flopping about as if he were some manner of gutted fish, Gaylord let out a strained wheeze. "Just so, dear Schuyler. Just so."
* * *
In the following loose pieces, I explore some work for a military science fiction series I’m still toying with and not sure about. The title (for now) is ‘The Artisan’s Forge’, and it is about an alternate history/near future where, after discovering alien artefacts on the moon in the 1970s, left by a race called the Artisans, the Earth is taken over in a soft invasion in around 2000 by another race of aliens, the Conductors, who arrive to steal the Earth’s artefacts, and vassalize the planet as an afterthought. The story is about a rebellion, in around 2080, to overthrow the Conductors.
There’s description, some half-figured out scenes, and other miscellanea. A big part of my working process is writing short bits of scribbly nonsense, which helps me work out what I really want to write.
* * *
The Conductor slowly disembarked the cab. Its left feet briefly appeared, the slender appendages wrapped in a pair of hoof-like steel and leather shoes. Before its second pair could appear, it whipped its heavy robe out and over itself, rising slowly to its full eight foot height.
As ever, this close, Matt was struck by how familiar the creatures made themselves, simply by wearing those robes. No sign of the multi-jointed limb-pairs that let them walk as smoothly as if they were being pushed on ice-skates. Their arms were near enough human, though their three-fingered hands, each fingertip covered in a flexible organ, like the tip of an elephant’s trunk, were proof that they were far from it. Its face was covered in one of the masks they all wore -- artistically curving upward to the creature’s two thin, pointed antlers. The eyeslits on this one’s mask were open and uncovered, revealing a pair of frighteningly familiar eyes. No true irises, though the Conductors pupils were ringed in an amber shade that faded along the wet tissue of its eyeball to a pale, off-white colour at the edges of its eyelids. Convergent evolution.
It uncurled, taking on a straight-backed posture despite its being able to fold in a half-dozen places a tetrapod couldn’t.
* * *
The mutiny’s remains had dried out and decayed into a black dust, hiding between the Erinyes’ deckplates and beneath the sump grilles. The bodies of loyalist officers and crew had been spaced following execution, the moisture and scent left behind after that had mostly boiled away into the impossible dryness of vacuum, leaving only shadows and crumbling black flecks around Matt’s feet in the ship’s landing airlock. No one called it that, anymore. Now it was simply the slaughterhouse.
Light blinded Matt as the landing ramp began to lower, a single searing crack in the airlock’s gloom that expanded around the ramp’s edges into a vision of another world. Bright, clean, untouched by violence and pastel soft. Clean smelling, warm. The fact that it truly was another world seemed almost incidental.
He stripped off his gloves as he descended the still dropping ramp, even the shade beneath the starship’s hull brighter than any corner of the small, brutal and confined world he and the crew had existed in since the mutiny.
He went further. Picking apart the sealed seams on his jacket, he let it slide from his bare arms and kicked it over the side. He pulled off his mask, removed the mouthpiece, and threw the goggle-eyed protective cover away as he stepped out into the light of an alien sun. His skin was a fractionally different colour. The light was hot enough to sting, a purifying discomfort. Thin sand washed around his feet, unsettled by the breeze and blowing over dry, dense-packed soil beneath.
Eventually, after he began to feel breathless despite tasting lungfulls of the world’s dusty, dry air, he held the mouthpiece to his face for a few breaths of oxygen, then let it fall. He turned his naked face to the sun, and wondered why it had taken him so long to get here. Lamented that he couldn’t stay, forever, under the clean light and on calmly sloped hills that disappeared on a horizon that looked impossibly close.
* * *
Alexander-Beta site, 1976(?) -
“Okay Tommy. We’re getting Jim loud and clear now.”
Jim Langfield lifted a chunkily-gloved hand, showing a thumbs up in the shadowy cavern.
Thomas Lake fixed the relay signal-booster in place, looping a strap around the rock pillar once, then twice, a laborious third time through his space suit’s gloves.
“We, uh. We definitely have signs of a structure in here,” Jim sent, Quindar system beeping as he spoke, for benefit of the radio relays.
Tom backed away from the relay in one big hop, then a second, scattering lunar dust. “We still clear, Houston?”
“That’s affirmative. Beautiful video feed.”
He turned himself, throwing his hips around in an arc to twist against the clumsiness of his suit and the giddily light lunar gravity. One bounce, two, his suit’s lamps lighting up the cleft in the crater wall. Except it wasn’t just some rift in the rock, past the entrance it was a corridor with a heavy dusting of lunar regolith piled up like dust.
“Look there,” Jim said, no beeps. Just saying it on local radio. He shined a flashlight up at the wall.
The wall was grey lunar rock, but there were clear tool marks. Broken chips of stone lay on the floor, covered in dust-drift. Someone had etched a series of interlocking circles into the perfectly smooth wall, crude chisel-marks apparent in the rock face.
“Looks kinda unfinished, wouldn’t you say?” Jim asked.
* * *
Matt cupped his palms against his forehead. “What do you think’s going on, Sam?”
Sam hesitated. Breathing deep. “Mutiny?” He ventured.
“OhgodOhshitOhdamn,” Sam spluttered, collapsing and pushing himself into a corner between the crates as if he could disappear.
Valentin shook his head. “He’s not with us.”
Morgans reached for her gun, but Matt stopped her.
“Sam’s a good guy,” he said. “He just... just... Sam. Come on. You know what the Conductors are doing to us.”
“J-just, just shoot me! Don’t drag this out, Matt.” Sam was hyperventilating.
Matt glared at Morgans, then got to his knees in front of his friend. “You’re not stupid. They sterilized you!”
“There’s a population crisis!” Sam’s face was red, streaked with tears. “I volunteered!”
“It’s fucking genocide!” Matt yelled back. “We petitioned the local authority to expand life support, we’re running out of spare capacity, and they come back and tell us we can’t? That we’re not allowed to expand the grid, that suddenly we have to go from two hundred fifty million people to two hundred million in the next fifty years? Same day as they move in fifty thousand biolifts?”
“It’s destroying the ecosystem! We had no right to be on Colony four in the first place!”
“They’re killing us, Sam. They’re killing the colony. They’re making sure we don’t have children, so old age kills us, and they’re replacing us with biolifted monkeys.”
“They’re engineered expert workers,” Sam said, voice trembling.
“They’re the slaves we won’t be.”
“We’re not naturally given to unity,” Sam protested. “We’re an individualist species. We think we know what we’re doing. We need help, we need them to help us.”
“We got to the moon on our own. In chemical rockets, before we even had a single global government. In 1976 Apollo 22 started excavations at the Alexander-beta crater, and we found the Artisan vault, and we brought the artefacts home. And we had thirty years of peace, and prosperity, and we launched the colonies ourselves, and then the conductors came and stopped us.” Matt pulled at Sam’s shoulders. “They don’t teach kids that in schools.”
“W-we nearly killed ourselves in nuclear war over the artefacts. The Conductors took it from us. The Earthforge is too dangerous for us to use ourselves. They’re helping us, Matt.”
“Too dangerous? We had it, we used it for thirty years. We made our world better.”
“I don’t know, Matt. I don’t know.” Sam shook his head, wiping his eyes. “This. This is something for protests, not mutiny.”
“You remember those poor kids protesting that they couldn’t celebrate landing day?”
Sam shuddered, nodding jerkily.
“If you try to protest the way we get taught our own species’ history, the conductors are going to fry you from orbit. You know that, Sam.”
“They didn’t register. You have to register with the authorities and get permission thirty days ahead of any protest. It’s the law.”
“They were fucking teenagers. Unarmed kids,” Matt snapped.
Sam didn’t have an answer for that.