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Excerpt for The Worlds of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Volume IV by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


The Worlds of Science Fiction,

Fantasy and Horror

Vol. IV





2 0 1 9




Anthology rights © Robert N Stephenson

Copyright individual stories © contributing authors 2019

Cover design © Rob Bleckly 2019

Internal design: Mike Jansen

Editing assistance – Brad McNoughton


ISBN-13: 978-17-93943-3-85

ISBN-10: 1-7939-4338-9

BISAC: FIC003000


First published in 2019

(the worlds of science fiction fantasy and horror vol. IV)


This edition published in 2019 by Altair Australia Pty Ltd


The rights of the collected authors to be identified as the authors of this work has been asserted by them in accordance with the copyright amendment (moral rights) act 2000.


This work is copyright. apart from any use as permitted under the copyright act 1968. No part may be reproduced, copied, scanned, stored in a retrieval system, recorded, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written permission of the publisher and or the authors.*


The Worlds of Science Fiction,

Fantasy and Horror

Vol. IV


Edited by

Robert N Stephenson


Published by

Altair Australia Pty Ltd



Thank you to Alice Stephenson,
Mike Jansen, Brad McNoughton and
Rob Bleckly for helping to make all this possible.



Contents



Introduction



The Valley of Despair - Michaele Jordan (USA)

In the Dance of Lightyears - Mike Jansen (Netherlands)

None So Blind as Those Unseen - Richard Zwicker (USA)

Summerland - Gustavo Bondoni (Argentina)

The Freaks - Florin Purluca (România)

Scent of Hope and Cinnamon - Jonathan Shipley (USA)

Sorcery is the Body’s Pronunciation of the Soul…- Sergio ‘ente per ente’ Palumbo (Italy)

Socrates’ Army - Eric Del Carlo (USA)

Me and Septimus: IN EXTREMIS - Kain Massin (Australia )

Pirate with a Cause - Peter Hagelslag (Russian Federation)

The Life and Death of George Hayes - Floris M. Kleijne (Netherlands)

Operation Sylphinephrine - Ville Meriläinen (Finland)

Through Tiled Spaces - Dennis Mombauer (Germany)

Timkha - Laurence Suhner (Switzerland)

The Beautiful People - Bo Balder (Netherlands)

In the Field – With Janet 201 - Felice Picano (USA)

Lambs of the Desert - Emad El-Din Aysha (Egypt)

Striges - Nicola Lombardi (Italy)

Tasting the Data Flow - Marcie Franks (Australia)

The Story of Mynheer Reinaerde and the Purloined Tails - Tais Teng & Jaap Boekestein (Netherlands)

Wake - Maarten Luikhoven (Netherlands)

Chimeras - Agrippina Domanski (United Kingdom)



Author Profiles

Introduction

Every year brings its own set of values and issues and these are expressed through the stories we read. It has been said that science fiction isn’t an expression of the future but more an observation of the day, its politics and social structures and people. If you read anything from the Golden Years of SF you will find this to be true. The cold war was in full swing, the arms races were out of control and the pressure to be morally perfect was oppressive. What will you see in this collection of stories from around the world? It is hoped more than just one social structure view of the future, the past and the macabre. In this anthology you will see my first ever publications of a story from a writer in the Russian Federation, which is a story about pirates and the art of war. To gather stories from as many places as possible has its own set of difficulties and it is hoped each year some of these show in the construction of the book.

It is hard to create a book of light and positivity when world leaders are intent on diminishing any kind of service for the poor while at the same time filling the pockets of the non-tax paying corporations and big business stakeholders. Even in horror stories it is hard to justify the funnelling of wealth to those who don’t need it while stealing the bread from a hungry person’s table. Perhaps some of the stories here reflect that situation in today’s world.

While not a book to display political or social issues the Worlds of anthologies do in their own small way attempt to bring the world closer together. Not everything in life is done for profit and the continuance and display by Altair Australia Pty Ltd shows you can still deliver good product, pay writers and then donate the work to the community of readers out there. This is to encourage reading and help those who may have no money but love to read. Of course, much more can still be done and over time needs will be met.

This anthology would not be possible without the kind support of a group of people behind the scenes and the authors themselves. And if I didn’t thank Alice for the world in which I live, I would be doing a disservice. Read this book, enjoy some works, hate some others but please share your copy with others. Every little bit of generosity in this regard goes a long way.





Robert N Stephenson


January 2019

The Valley of Despair

Michaele Jordan (USA)

Yevka was not beautiful. Skinny and small, she lacked the jutting breasts and broad hips generally admired among men. Yet she was too chunky and broad shouldered for those who preferred their women slim and graceful. Her face was undistinguished, save for a rather handsome pair of sad, grey eyes.

In fact, she was of sturdy peasant stock, and had fate let her alone, she would have lived her life far from the great city of Sawr Even. She would have come virgin to a simple husband, and lived beside him until she died, bearing him ten children, and burying nine.

Instead the Lamrag hordes descended on her family’s village to burn and ravage and loot. A number of children, Yevka among them, were stolen and sold in the great slave markets of the south. She passed from hand to hand until she came at last to Sawr Even.

Somewhere in the long line of tasks and training set her by her various owners she had learned to write in a clear and pretty hand. So her latest master took to setting her by the road as a scribe, copying manuscripts for the occasional passing scholar, and writing letters for less literate souls.

That done, she would return to her master with a handful of coins. There she did the work of his household and was used by him and such of his friends as happened to be visiting.

One fateful afternoon a customer approached and asked her to write a letter. He looked prosperous to Yevka’s eyes, and she did not ask for his money in advance. When she discovered he had no intention of paying, she had not the wit to let him go, and mark in her mind the lesson. Rather she thought how her master would beat her when she reported the tale and tried to rip the letter from the client’s hand.

Naturally he grabbed her wrist and twisted it cruelly. Then, noting he was observed by some pedestrians, he shouted in happy inspi­ration, “Pick my pocket, will you? You thieving slut.” More passers-by turned at the cry and, seeing sides drawn twixt rich and poor, they allied themselves with the rich. An outraged crowd collected around her, some throwing stones, while the foremost defenders of justice beat her soundly.

Silken the Charmer was strolling through a nearby bazaar or, more accurately, admiring himself in a shop window. Although scarcely the tallest man in Sawr Even, he might almost have been the comeliest, with his lean dark face, and deceptively gentle green eyes. With not a little care he adjusted his soft, dusty blue cloak at a more becoming angle, exposing the richer blue of his tunic beneath.

The commotion caught his ear. Ever curious into every unfamiliar noise and scuffle, he sought out the cause of the excitement. Of course, he found a harmless slave girl menaced by a mob. Having time on his hands before dinner, he decided to play the dashing gallant and defend the girl.

Not even bothering to draw his beloved Kiss-and-Tell from its sheath, he whacked a few of the nearest bodies with it, and soon cleared out quite a number of spectators. When he came to a hard core of bullies, he was pressed to fight in more earnest; but he was good at fighting, especially in earnest.

Yevka looked up when the blows stopped falling, and saw the small, blue clad warrior fending off a half dozen staves. She looked a long while before realizing that he fought to protect her. Never before had any man—or any woman either—thought to spare her a beating, even at the smallest cost. Rather, they usually took pains to administer them. That a man should defend her at some risk (less risk than she realized) was almost beyond her comprehension, smacking of a godlike generosity. She gazed at him in awe.

And as she watched him, it flitted across her mind that of all the dozens of men who had bedded her there had been very few even near young, and none handsome. She had ever been the refuge of men who, by reason of their poor attractions or their peculiar tastes, had lacked for willing women. There had never been a one like this, with firm strong muscles, and a graceful, smooth-moving body.

She did not carry her thought to its conclusion. She had never learned to link love-making with pleasure, and so she did not recognize desire when it possessed her. But still she sensed that he compelled her in some secret way. When the victorious Silken strode over to help her up, he unknowingly caught up her heart in his hand.

As for the Charmer, he was much disappointed to find the girl he had fought for no prettier and decided against capping off his valor by seducing her. But there was no missing the reverent admiration in her eyes, and he agreed most heartily with her high opinion. So, he flipped her a couple of gold coins instead. He was well in funds that day, and doubtless judged them a poor reward compared to that she would have got had she been fairer.

“Ho, little hero,” called Windrider, scrambling up from his front row seat and pocketing the coins he had gained wagering on Silken’s prospects in the brawl. “Have you worked up an appetite yet? Or shall we find ourselves a Lamrag horde or two before dinner?”

The Charmer sniffed delicately and looked up quite a distance to meet his friend’s eyes. “Doubtless you intend to be more assistance with the Lamrags than you were just now.”

“I was but saving my strength for when you truly needed aid,” protested Windrider amicably. “And that’s oft enough, I needs must get much rest.”

“I’ll thank you to remember,” purred Silken. “I’ve slain men with tongues more civil than yours. If I were not very near starvation, I would give you a lesson in manners.”

“Doubtless you’ll tend to it after we’ve eaten.” Windrider gently steered his companion toward the nearest inn.

Yevka gazed dumbly after them, vaguely wishing she might crawl after them, on hands and knees if need be. Then with a sigh and a shrug she looked about her. Her reed pens were broken, and her little stack of paper torn and crumpled and scattered to the winds. Yet such ills mattered little. But one of the gold pieces Silken had given her would pay for these things ten times over and still leave so much profit that she would get a sweetmeat rather than a beating on her arrival home.

As for the other gold piece, she thought hard about giving that to her master also, for she had never dared to withhold from him her meager earnings. But she found she simply could not bear to part with it. So, she bored a small hole in it, and passing a string through that, she hung it around her neck as an amulet.

In that hour or so after dinner when her master lingered over a jug or three of wine, Yevka was free to do as she pleased. It had been her habit to use that precious leisure for a little extra sleep of which she seemed never to get enough. But after her encounter with the Charmer, she took to wandering the city streets. Sawr Even was ripe with tales of Silken and Windrider and their various and exotic doings. Like a dog in search of its master, Yevka followed the tales to the House of the Poor Man’s Gold.

She established for herself a favorite table, small and inconspicuous in a dark corner. There she would sit, night after night, for as long as she dared be out. Patiently she sipped at a small cup of wine--she had grown most sophisticated in the matter of cheating her master by a coin or two--and waited for the throb of her heart that told her he had come.

She wasted no envy on the girls that usually accompanied him. Indeed, she approved highly that he should have so many and so fair—although never so many or so fair as he deserved. Nor did she ever seek to attract his attention, rather shrinking back into the shadows if he should pass near her. She merely gazed at him in mute adoration, and deemed herself perilously bold in daring so much as that. Very few took any note of her at all, least of all her hero.

But Silken did not always go to the House of the Poor Man’s Gold. He had, as all men do, certain pressing concerns—here, a wall to be scaled, there, a purse string to be slit. On some nights he rested or caroused in private quarters. Sometimes he simply wandered in search of adventure. And sometimes it was the adventure that sought him out.

Death had been keeping an eye on Silken and Windrider for some considerable while. In the past he had stretched out his hand to take them, and been most fantastically evaded. Death looked on them both with a certain respect, for he was very rarely outmanoeuvred. He also looked on them with considerable uneasiness for he did not entirely like being outmanoeuvred. He suspected that it made him look rather ill in the eyes of whatever powers abided beyond him. Perhaps he should not have tried to take them together.

Death allowed his gaze to drift softly toward Sawr Even. His eye lit instantly on Silken. The Charmer was slipping though the misty streets toward the House of the Poor Man’s Gold. Windrider was waiting there with a colourful curse on all lazy Easterns who could not make their appointments on time.

Death indulged a soft sigh. Silken had served him so deliciously in the past. More important, he might serve him infinitely better with Windrider’s gentling influence removed. If Windrider were to die the first.... Death shook his head to rid himself of temptation. He had spotted Silken first; therefore, Silken would be gathered in the first.

Death gazed behind him to the vast and numberless hordes of those who had already answered his call. After a heartbeat, he brought forth one whose service he judged would be useful. And that one he set before Silken to distract him from his meeting with Windrider.

Komra had been a princess in the kingdom of Hedakla, eons on ages before, back in the long-forgotten days before the empire had shrunk to a dim memory of a tiny province. More to the point she was the loveliest, most exquisite of women that had ever lived in the history of the world. In her day, poets had slain themselves upon seeing her, lest their eyes be desecrated after witnessing perfection. Virgin saints had attempted to ravish her. It had even been rumored (untruly perhaps) that eunuchs had regrown their organs at the sound of her voice. She distracted the Charmer.

Some women, when set before Silken as bait, might have stooped to seductive manners. Komra had no need of such degradations. She glanced once with disinterest at her designated prey, and turned and walked away. She walked past the House of the Poor Man’s Gold where Windrider waited. She walked into a mist that was not wholly of Sawr Even, back to her master’s approving arms. And the Charmer shuddered and followed after like a man bereft of reason, with a flame in his heart and no memory of Windrider whatsoever.

Komra turned a corner but when Silken came after her, he found instead a huge manic hefting a mighty sickle. Had his life depended on his wits alone, he would have perished then, but he had instincts and reflexes as well.

He ducked beneath the blow designed to sever his head, then leapt over the counter stroke that flashed by at knee height. He drew out Kiss-and-Tell and thrust as far as he could reach. Finally, he jumped backwards so that the dead giant’s final slash passed a fraction of an inch before his chest. Over the fallen body he saw Komra, still walking away. Without stopping to wonder how the lady had got past the manic, he hurried after her.

When Komra turned the second corner, Silken was slightly more conscious of the risk involved in following. He even recognized that the corner she turned was not one he knew, for all that he had explored every nook and cranny in the neighbourhood. Therefore, he had Kiss-and-Tell waiting as he approached the shadow that had swallowed her.

Within he found a swordsman at ready. A few quick parries revealed that the new foe was no clumsy manic. Also, Silken sensed something familiar about his opponent’s style of fencing. He was much distracted with trying to discern a face through the gloom. Perhaps this was an enemy he had fought before. But the darkness was too thick. Silken could see nothing of the features but a pale blur streaked with shadows. He fought on.

Komra waited patiently a little ways beyond, a glimmer of light wrapped around her like a veil, her head slightly cocked as though she listened to some secret whispering. Glimpsing from the corner of his eye the sheen of her hair, Silken suffered a pang of urgency. Furiously he worked his trickiest and most favourite feint-and-thrust upon this man who dared to stand between him and the lady.

There was a husky chuckle from his shadowy foe. “Take care, Charmer. You’ve tried that one on me before, I think.” The favourite thrust was turned aside. The weakness it had left in Silken’s defence was explored with a gleaming blade.

The Charmer wiggled and twisted in a movement graceful enough, but not recommended in any fencing manual. He escaped, therefore, with but a small slash across his right shoulder. With matchless dexterity he tossed Kiss-and-Tell to his left hand. And before his opponent had time to rearrange the angle of his defence, he sprang forward in a perilous, all-or-nothing stop thrust.

The point sank deep and the blue of Silken’s tunic was splattered with scarlet. With a sort of respect, he knelt beside his victim to learn just whom he had defeated. But as he leaned forward to gaze into the face, a rustle caught his ear and he looked up.

With great delicacy, Komra adjusted her wrap more warmly against the night chill. She stepped around a greasy looking puddle and walked away. A faint tinkling drifted behind her from the jewels in her ears. With a soft sound almost like a cry, Silken rose up and continued after her.

It was with some trepidation that he watched her approach yet a third corner that had never before existed in Sawr Even. Turning it in her wake, he gasped. What exactly it was he did not know. But it was very large and shapeless, and appeared to be armour plated. Thick slime oozed from between its scales. The stench was incredible.

The thing filled the narrow street so completely that there was no passing it, yet nonetheless Komra had passed it. She stood quietly behind, awaiting her escort. Silken wondered wildly if she had somehow climbed over it.

The thing humped and raised up a bulge that might have been its head, then reared and glowered over him. He retreated a step and prodded it tentatively with Kiss-and-Tell. Much as he had expected, the blade slid gently off the invulnerable hide. Despite its complete lack of a face, the thing managed to look surprised at Silken’s presumption.

With an ugly grating, it half rolled, half lurched in his direction. The bulge proved indeed to be its head by gaping suddenly to reveal an alarming collection of teeth. Above the mouth glinted two dusky slits, which Silken presumed to be its eyes. Lacking any other worthwhile target, he thrust into one of them.

The creature fell back with an ear-splitting, mind-splintering howl. From the wound gushed liquid filth, steaming and viscous. For an instant the blood—if blood it was—curdled and boiled. Then it thickened along the nearest scales. The thing reared up again with both of its eyes gleaming anew. The Charmer had succeeded only in making it angry.

The thing advanced slowly. He backed away, desperately seeking a potentially vulnerable spot, and came up hard against a wall that had mysteriously grown up behind him. In a fog of panic, he considered turning and battering it down before he suffocated in the awful smell of the creature’s breath. Dropping Kiss-and-Tell, he caught up his dagger. With that he stabbed into the only break in the steely hide that he could see.

He wanted to scream at the sight of his own precious arm passing between the awesome incisors. He grew nauseated on touching the back of the mouth. In a kind of hysteria, he turned his hand and jabbed upwards toward the point where its brain must surely be lodged—if it had a brain, if its brain were not armoured also. He did scream as the great jaws started to close, in frantic anticipation of the pain to come.

The pain, when it did come, was not so bad as he had expected. Even as the agony wrapped scarlet around his bicep he sighed gratefully to himself, “It’s only a torn muscle, it will heal.” His fear still shrieked, “Why hasn’t it chewed my arm off yet?” But the monster slumped and fell, taking Silken’s arm—and hence Silken—with it. With some difficulty and much discomfort, he extricated himself from the corpse.

He was arranging a makeshift sling of strips torn from his cloak when a slight cough caught his ear. He looked up warily. Komra held a lacy kerchief to her nose against the odour of the slain beast. She stepped away. Silken giggled miserably at the thought she might turn yet another corner and lead him around four sides of a square.

But Komra walked directly forward toward a great archway. At her approach it filled with soft light. Beyond it, Silken glimpsed open spaces and green rustling leaves. A gentle breeze blew toward him laden with the scent of sweet grasses.

The Charmer moved to rise and pursue. And then he fell back. He did not want to pass through that arch. Its alluring promise seemed to him more intimidating than any of the dark and mutely threatening recesses he had encountered so far.

And most definitely, he did not want to follow Komra any further. No woman in the world could be worth the perils she was costing him. He could not even remember what she looked like. He had only caught that one brief glimpse of her face, back by the House of the Poor Man’s Gold. It was not humanly possible that she could be as fair as she had seemed then. He returned his attention to his bleeding arm.

“Silken.” Her voice was like a ripple in a quiet sea, and against his will he looked up to meet her eyes. She had turned to face him and stood—not entirely silhouetted—in the light of the archway. And she was indeed as beautiful as he remembered, and lovelier still than that. Sensuously virgin, arrogant yet tender, she was heartache personified. Surely in her arms all hurts would be healed, all ills made right. Hating himself yet compelled, he rose up.

In Sawr Even the night had been late, but beyond the arch it was but a few moments past sunset. The west was still gloriously streaked with purple and gold, the east a rich blue that hinted of perfection. A pale glow on the horizon marked where the moon would soon show, and a nightingale greeted its imminence deliriously. Silken repressed a shiver of fear, and tried to cast off his doubts in the face of so much beauty.

Komra strolled across a rolling meadow and down a gentle slope to a wooded dale. She paused to gaze at her reflection in a crystal pool. Silken laid a hand softly on her perfect shoulder. “Such a lovely place, Lady,” he whispered. “Shall we linger here a while?” She turned and offered him her hand, which he raised to his lips.

“Ah, Silken,” she murmured. “Think you even the dead can abide here?” The hand he held grew gnarled and arthritic, the silk and honey of her skin grainy and liver-spotted. Horrified he looked back to her face barely in time to catch the scorn lurking in her smile. Then the visage faded and turned haggard. The eyes glazed over and the jaw hung slack.

Silken had only to watch as the flesh rotted away, baring the skull here and there. The eyes melted and dripped. When she had decomposed to a skeleton she hung a moment in the air before she dissipated into dust. A breeze caught up her fragile remains and transported her away, back to her home of countless centuries and her pale lord’s rewarding kiss.

Silken stood overwhelmed with loss, and gazed at the place where she had been. Then he sank to his knees by the side of the still-faced pool. His reflection peered tauntingly up at him. Even to himself he looked grimy and wretched, with the filth and strain of his recent battles carved across a face that was not remotely handsome. “Did you think you were a man for the ladies?” mocked his image. “Apparently some women would rather be dead.”

He shook his head in a feeble attempt to retain his sanity. “Not all of them,” he informed the face in the pool with barely a trace of his usual easy manner. “There are women enough who think a little more highly of me than that.”

“Women enough,” agreed his other self. “And they were richly rewarded for their confidence in you, were they not? Your kindness to women is famed in Sawr Even.”

Silken opened his mouth to protest that he had been kind to his women, but the waters before him rippled. Instead of his own reflection he found himself gazing into a pretty tear-stained face he had almost forgotten. Behind her was another woman, gaudily dressed for a working night, and trying not to think of the day when she would no longer be desirable. And behind her was a third, bruised and battered from her husband’s disapproval.

The pool flowed and shimmered with the images of girls that had come to bad ends or were going to. Silken had never bothered to know what might happen to them when he was not enjoying them. Then the pool was clear and empty, and reflected no more than the tawdry remains of a sunset that would never fade to peaceful darkness. The nightingale squawked harshly in the distance.

“Silken.” The Charmer looked up wildly. Seated across from him on the opposite bank of the pool was a bent and white-haired figure. “Silken, do you remember me?”

“You are Hres,” the Charmer answered softly, and then added in a wail, “You are dead.”

“As is everyone you’ve met tonight.” Hres sighed. “So, you do remember me. I had hoped you would not.”

A warning of great hurt to come crept into Silken’s mind. “How could I not remember you? After all the years you cared for me?”

“And how could you be as you are if you have not forgotten?” Hres sighed again, and a tear crept from his eye. “You were such a lovely child, Silken. I had hoped you would be a good man.”

Unbidden there came to Silken’s lips the ancient excuse of his childhood. “I try, Master, but I have no talent for it.”

And as of old came the reply, “Perhaps not, Child, but you could try a little harder.” The old man shook his head. “No, you could try more than a little harder. You have been steeped in bloodshed since the day we parted. I cannot rest easy in my grave.”

The unfairness of the charge brought a cry to Silken’s lips. “Why shouldn’t you rest easy? I avenged you.”

“Did I ask to be avenged, Child? Because my blood was unkindly spilled, needed you spill buckets more blood over the memory of my peaceful life? Was one lonely old man’s death truly cause enough for the violence and destruction you wrought in my name? You did forget me, Silken, and that very quickly indeed. Else you could never have walked so cruel and bloody a road after my teachings. I am ashamed in the place where I now dwell.”

Hres gazed at him with dull and grieving eyes until with a cry Silken shut his eyes tight and pulled his cloak over his head, desperate to escape the sight of that loving accusation. Hiding bought him no peace, for he carried the image with him. But when he lowered the cape from his face, Hres was gone, leaving only a desolation and loneliness far worse than any charge he might have levelled.

Gently the waters rippled. The naiad of the pool—whom some men named Futility—rose up, seeking a mortal’s embrace, as naiads do.



Several worlds away in Sawr Even, Yevka woke suddenly to a misty night. She knew not what had waked her but was trembling in its wake. She found herself possessed by an impulse to fly out free into the moonlight and mist, far from the dingy room where she slept fitfully in attendance on her master’s nightly whims.

Her master snored loudly. She cringed back into her heap of straw, clutching at the few more hours of rest before the daybreak and its thousand chores. But sleep snubbed her. So, she reached down into the straw where she had concealed her secret comfort, her golden amulet.

Tomorrow, she thought joyfully to herself, she would put it on, and wear his memory at her breast all day. And she would go in the evening to the House of the Poor Man’s Gold. Tomorrow, perhaps, he would be there, as he had not been tonight. It seemed as though the coin pulsed warmly at the blissful notion.

A chill blew imperiously by her from some hidden crack. She shivered and wrapped herself more snugly in the splendour of her thoughts, clasping her charm up close against her heart. Again, it pulsed, and the heat near burned her hand. She dropped it in astonishment. Rising to her knees she stared down bewildered at the fierce glow which rose up from the straw.

A whimper escaped her. Then fear passed away, for the coin was his token. That it should be wondrous and magical was only right and fitting. He was the only human being who had ever done her kindness. Surely no hurt could come to her through him.

So, she reached out her hand to claim the glory that was his gift. The tiny inferno nestled softly and harmlessly in her palm. The city outside her slavery beckoned and called. The fire in her hand strained to answer, and begged her to flee her master’s house. Armed with a miracle, she obeyed.

She came first through familiar passages to the House of the Poor Man’s Gold. She entered transformed, and walked quietly to the table where Windrider was entertaining two of the handsomest of the local girls with the most expensive of the local wines.

She marvelled briefly that she had ever been afraid of this man merely because he was immensely tall and broad-chested, more than a little heavily armed, and given to loud laughter. But she had an errand too urgent for thought. She cast aside reflections on her childish cowardice, and presented herself boldly for his inspection.

Windrider looked at her with mild surprise, and reached for the wine jug. Although Yevka was rather too plain for his taste, it was against his principles to let young women go thirsty. So, after he had consumed a healthy mouthful, he passed the jug over to the girl who stood so expectantly before him. Much to his surprise she spurned it impatiently. So he took another enormous sip, and waited to see what she wanted.

“You must come with me,” she demanded in tones that brooked no refusal.

Windrider paused to reflect sadly that a new generation of women that knew nothing of subtle allure was growing up in Sawr Even. Then he gestured toward the lovelies that were giggling by his side. “I fear you must wait your turn,” he informed her gently.

The girl seemed taken aback, and considered her reply for some while. “But Silken is in dreadful peril,” she countered at last.

“He is,” agreed Windrider gravely. “At this very moment I am thinking of dismembering him. He has unforgivably insulted this fair lady.” Of his companions he indicated the redhead. “She has been waiting for him here all evening. I have been very hard pressed to console her for his rudeness.”

“Silken is a cad,” pouted the lady in question, nibbling affectionately on Windrider’s ear.

Yevka swayed, assailed for an instant by all the old doubts and confusions. Then she clenched her fist tightly around her amulet. Hot strength flowed up her arm, and gave her cunning. She grabbed Windrider’s precious wine jug and ran out of the tavern.

For that treasure he would have followed past the edge of the world. Yevka was not quick enough to evade him much past the door, even with time out for angry spluttering. Catching her arm, he righteously demanded the return of his property. She did not comply.

Instead she threw the jug down against the cobbles, smashing it into a thousand pieces. Windrider gasped in horror as the sweet tide poured luxuriantly down the street. He reminded himself with some difficulty that it was not his habit to mutilate women. It occurred to him he might be justified in making an exception of Yevka.

But when he turned furiously on her she was smiling up at him trustfully, without the smallest suspicion that he might be so cruel as to hurt her. Innocence had always had its effect on Windrider. With an unhappy resignation he inquired, “Why did you do that?”

“You must come with me,” she explained patiently, relieved to have his full attention at last. She turned and walked away.

Windrider paused for thought. Then, with a shrug, he followed after her. “Where are we going?”

“To Silken,” she informed him promptly.

Windrider had hoped for something a little more specific. “And where is Silken?”

Yevka considered at length. With some hesitation she finally replied, “Far away.” And then more firmly she added, “In terrible danger.”

“He always is,” sighed Windrider. He wondered glumly what Yevka expected him to do about it if she could not tell him where to go.

His question was soon answered. Yevka turned suddenly and walked into a wall. Retreating a step, she examined it carefully until convinced of its solidity, whereupon she cast her eyes about in bewilderment. For guidance she lifted her clenched hand to her face and opened it, gazing into the soft radiance that burst forth. Then she raised her young star on high. Under that enchanted light, the thick and centuried stone melted to a mist and was gone.

Windrider paused only to reappraise Yevka with new respect. Then he entered the strangely revealed passage, which he observed to be partially blocked by the body of a dead manic. Yevka appeared undisturbed by the sight, and continued on, so he merely commented in passing, “It’s sure enough that Silken’s passed this way.”

He had advanced but a few paces when he heard a rattling from behind. Glancing back, he was a trifle startled to see the supposed corpse climbing groggily to its knees. The manic, on spotting Windrider, emitted the hideous howl that passed among his kind for a battle cry.

Windrider reflected briefly on the personalities of manics he had known. Then—without waiting for the one before him fully to regain his feet—he chopped off first the hand grasping for the sickle and then the head. “Careless of Silken to leave that one alive,” he murmured in apology to Yevka who was much annoyed at the delay.

She nodded abstractedly and darted ahead. “We have not much time,” she called back anxiously. Windrider would have followed her regardless, but he could not help noticing that the wall had re-established itself behind them.

Forewarned by his previous experience, Windrider paused at the second corner to inspect the body. Little as Yevka might care for the waste of a minute, he intended to make sure that this one was dead before he turned his back on it. The limp form proved satisfactorily lifeless, but the examination brought Windrider no peace of mind.

“Name of the Hell Queen,” he muttered in awe and a little dread. “This be Ebonlord, I’ll swear to that. Yet how came he out of a three year grave as fresh as newly dead?”

As though in answer to his name, the swordsman opened his eyes and smiled. “Windrider, what brings you here?” he inquired politely. “You were not meant to pass this way tonight.” With a sudden twist he escaped from a grip grown loose with surprise, and stood with his sword in his hand. “And so you shall not.”

Windrider withdrew but a step, and unsheathed his own blade. “Better I should ask you, Ebonlord. I seem to recall a little duel you fought with Silken. It was my distinct impression he had slain you.”

“Silken’s made quite a habit of slaying me,” commented Ebonlord with a smile. And then he added judiciously, “He’s truly a beautiful swordsman, I must admit.” With the words he aimed a vicious thrust toward Windrider’s heart.

Windrider found his guard not as good as he had hoped, and parried more by virtue of his heavier sword than by his skilled defence. “I will tell him you said so,” he informed his foe. “He will be most flattered to hear it.”

Yevka danced impatience by the battle. “Windrider, we have no time for this brawling,” she cried at last. “We must go to Silken.”

Her companion was not thrilled by the interruption as it nearly cost him his life. He narrowly avoided a sword point in the eye by ducking, and mounted a furious attack to regain the ground lost while his attention wavered. “Lady,” he replied with a hint of irritation, “I had best stay alive or I’ll be of little help to him.”

“But can’t you stay alive more quickly?” she wailed. Prying up a loose cobble from the street, she shrieked at Ebonlord, “Why can’t you just leave us alone, you bully?” She hurled the stone.

It passed within inches of Windrider’s scalp and caught Ebonlord directly in the eye. It distracted him thoroughly. Windrider did not waste the opportunity of stabbing home (at a point not far from the wound that Silken had left) but he was nonetheless a little disappointed. “I wonder if I could have beaten him in a fair fight,” he mused over the corpse.

“What’s that matter?” demanded Yevka, tugging desperately at his arm. “We must go.” Succumbing to her haste, Windrider was forced to content himself with the reflection that if Silken had been able to defeat Ebonlord (twice!) then surely, he could have done the same.

He could not move fast enough for Yevka. She matched his long strides with a run, and then ran faster than that, only to turn, distraught, and dash back to him, and exhort him to greater speed. Again, rushing on ahead, she found the narrow alley that was the third corner, and plunged into it.

Windrider approached the opening more cautiously, having acquired a powerful respect for strange corners. Even so, it was with some difficulty that he suppressed a retch at the sight and smell that greeted him. Yevka apparently possessed less delicate sensibilities. With no more complaint than a nose pinched between two fingers she was climbing clumsily over the hulk.

Windrider paused only to offer a small prayer that—whatever it was—it might stay dead, before moving to follow her example. It did not stay dead. Rather it reared up with a snuffling noise as though to inquire who dared disturb its eternal rest.

Yevka, still poised precariously on its topside, slid greasily down its back and landed in the passageway with a sticky thump. She leapt up, unaware of the bruises she had acquired and delighted to be past the obstacle so much more quickly than she had expected. She flew triumphantly toward the great archway. “Hurry, Windrider,” she called eagerly. “We’re almost there.”

After a prolonged silence Windrider replied in breathless tones, “Lady, there may be a slight delay.”

“But we have no time for delays,” she cried frantically, darting back to the creature as if to push it out of Windrider’s way. “Silken is dying.”

She was answered by a series of grunts and thwacks from Windrider, who had not entirely given up hope of piercing the steely hide if only he put force enough behind his blows. Then he remarked uneasily, “Silken may not be the only one.”

She waited twelve entire seconds, hopping desperately from one foot to another, clutching her amulet and moaning. Then she broke and ran back to the arch. Again, she paused in the hope that Windrider would join her. But the coin seared her hand with Silken’s pain. There could be no waiting in the face of her need to find him before it was too late. She passed through the arch.

She gazed across the meadow, uncertain which direction to turn. Then she lifted her hand, palm upwards; and the brilliance that streamed forth was like moonrise come at last to the valley of despair. In but a heartbeat she had found her beloved’s side.

Huddled and grey, he sat as one already dead, with his ragged blue cloak pulled about him against a chill that could not have been eased by all the furs and fires of Sawr Even. Futility nestled by him with her arms around his neck, stroking a cheek that grew colder with each touch, and whispering her sweetest promises into an ear that heard only the most awful of inner voices. Yevka stepped forward with magic in her hand.

The naiad cringed and howled at the blast of light across her twilight world. Then she fled back to the safe dark depths of her watery home, leaving only the ache of her dusky spell behind her. Silken sat unmoving, unaware that she had gone or Yevka come.

Yevka knelt beside him. She was bold beyond even the hungriest of dreams she had ever dared to dream in Sawr Even. She took his icy hand in hers and kissed it and laid it to her cheek. A tear or two splashed on numb fingers, which warmed not the slightest to their fall. With a deep sigh—not a sigh of regret or loss, but of fulfillment and a barren life made rich—she gave him her gift to help him in his need.

She had but one gift worth giving, the only thing she had ever possessed or valued in her life. So, she laid in Silken’s unknowing hand all the glitter of the universe, all the glory of love itself, her golden amulet.

For an instant it blazed blinding. Even Silken’s empty eyes were drawn and made aware. He grew almost warm enough to clasp its beauty a little closer. And then the glamour faded and grew dull; the wonder died.

In Yevka’s hand the amulet had burned with her devotion, a fire fed only by the hopes she had never had. In Silken’s hand it became but another coin like any other that might be tossed to a passing beggar or slave girl. His hand dropped back as listless as before. His eyes returned to view their secret agonies.

Without belief or understanding Yevka watched while the beat of her heart hammered through her throat and choked her breath. The scream emerged against her will, a thin high keening that had no beginning or end. Her cry declared the universe uninhabitable with Silken gone, the cosmos non-existent. She acknowledged her entire responsibility for his death; the enormity of her presumption and her failure overwhelmed her.

Dimly through her grief she heard footsteps rapidly approaching, but could not face the cosmic accusation lurking in any human countenance. Least of all could she face the huge and fearsome Windrider whom she had brought only to bear witness to his friend’s tragedy. Still sobbing, she crawled out of sight.

So, when Windrider came guided by her wailing to seek for the mighty sorceress who had led him so far, he found her not. Instead he saw what Yevka had not spared a glance to notice. Pale and proud, Death stood like an ivory commandment with a hand extended to his prey. “Silken,” he breathed in tones as tender as moonlight. “Silken, can you hear me?”

The Charmer did not even lift his head. “Yes, Master.”

“And will you come to me now?” inquired Death gently, knowing the answer.

Silken lifted his eyes at the great lord’s infinite mercy. With a sob of relief, he rose and reached to clasp the proffered hand. “Yes, Master.”

Windrider stood an instant, appalled and uncomprehending. Then his voice rose up in a roar of rage and denial. “NO!” he shrieked—to Death, to the valley, to anything that dared to injure anyone he loved. He flung himself forward. Not lunatic enough to tackle slender Death, he threw himself instead at Silken and hurled him violently to the ground before that dreadful touch could happen.

He wrapped an iron arm around his friend’s throat, dragging him up. And he ran. He ran, hauling after him Silken who scrabbled and kicked and clawed. He ran mindlessly from the power that stood behind and watched his flight with interest.

Death raised his voice to a whisper. “Windrider,” he called. The soft summons pierced Windrider’s heart and chilled his raging blood. His footsteps faltered, and he yearned to gaze back to the glittering eyes that held his name.

With a tongue-choked howl, Silken convulsed. And Windrider’s grave-ridden thoughts fell back to his thrashing burden. Gathering up his friend’s flailing limbs, he tore free from Death’s charms, and fled back to the great stone wall with its archway that led to reality.

Bursting through, he collapsed beneath the morning drizzle in an alley behind the House of the Poor Man’s Gold. There he sat some while, clinging against the echo of Death’s call to Silken, who shuddered and wept in his arms.



Death closed his eyes in deep consideration. He guessed by the taste in his mouth that some power other than himself had interfered in the night’s events. With some curiosity he turned to regard the pawn that had foiled him.

Yevka snuffled and hiccupped in self-abasement. Ever hungry for affection, the naiad curled beside her in sisterly embrace. And Yevka—who knew Futility from a thousand dreamed encounters—did not pull away, but attended humbly to her inhuman comfortings. Death meditated a moment before claiming his prize. “This be an ill place for such as you to linger,” he remarked at last. “Would you not rather come with me, Child?”

She grovelled hopelessly at his feet and whined in misery, “Lord, I am not worthy.”

“Unworthy even to die?” smiled Death. “Surely there be none so poor and undeserving as that.”

Yevka raised her eyes an inch from the ground. Blissfully, and for the first time, she saw herself loved and wanted and cared for. Awed by her great fortune, she gazed adoringly at Death who bent down tenderly to kiss her cheek.



Bathed and rested, with their wounds bound up in an appropriately conspicuous fashion, Silken and Windrider sauntered into the House of the Poor Man’s Gold. Despite Windrider’s extensive expenditures on the previous evening, they were not entirely without funds. Silken—true to his nature even after his ordeal—had somehow found a gold piece clutched conveniently in his hand.

“Not every man can keep his eye to what’s important in the face of Death,” opined Windrider, who was not embarrassed to voice his honest admiration of a deed well done.

“I try to maintain my standards,” purred Silken smugly. He tossed the coin to the innkeeper who received it graciously. The glint of flashing gold caught several feminine glances, so that the wine and the women arrived together.



In the Dance of Lightyears

Mike Jansen (Netherlands)



My name is Jeeza Tillari Pradash

And I have been found guilty.



Three hundred and twelve years ago we left Sol in our hollowed out asteroid. Nearly half way to our destination, Proxima Centauri, we rammed an unusually large chunk of space debris. No calamity, our rock is many miles long, wide and high, with a fairly pointed bow. We lovingly call our rock ‘Potato’; it can handle a bit of punishment. Just not too much.

My task as supervisor of the Mechaniki repair team – Mechaniki being much more aesthetically pleasing than the ‘Robot’ of our ancestors – was the demanding task of inspecting the bow. People did not have the strength and agility of a mechanika; however, we were better at discovering problems at an early stage and taking appropriate precautions.

The impact of the space debris registered in Shipnet as an eight-megaton blast, one of the strongest ever. In several of the forward compartments of the ship hairline fractures had developed, allowing precious air to slowly leak away.

My team and I left the airlock near one of the front observation domes. Pieces of rock blasted through antennas here. Twisted machinery slowly revolved, still attached to scorched electrical wiring. Many of the lights that illuminated the surface were gone or did not work. In the dark, star light provided just enough to cast thin shadows behind hardly visible rocks.

I ordered my mechaniki to spread out in a half circle around me to clean up the mess and to salvage any loose scrap metal. Although Potato used to be filled with ores, it was now empty, and metal was precious.

I sent my suit forwards the inspect the damage. Instinctively I shot my anchor hooks in suitable rocks. The slight acceleration and sizeable mass of Potato caused just enough gravity to not float out into space, as long as you followed protocol and controlled the force of your movement.

The space debris hit Potato frontally and the crater was an oval shape, more than three hundred yards across and some thirty yards deep. The surface was vitrified. In several places there were near invisible cracks through which I occasionally noticed, in my suit’s bright light, puffs of vapor escape.

Mentally I inventoried the amounts of borosilicate-gel that were needed to close off these cracks. I also considered ways to reinforce the surrounding area in such a way that a future head on collision would not result in a hull breach and perforation of our limited living space.

Alpha-Chi 24, my favourite mechanika, joined me. I showed the problem areas and explained my wishes; meticulously because the cognitive abilities of our mechanical sidekicks were hardly those of a human child. Artificial Intelligence was little more than a promise when we left. Aboard the ship there was insufficient talent for further development.

My suit reminded me that my work shift was nearly done. “Extend this shift,” I said. “Too much to do.” And a good excuse not having to go back inside. Potato may be our temporary home, but we lived in crowded apartments, too many people close together, just before the ion drives.

On a rock with a good view of the crater I anchored myself and signalled my team that they could commence repairs.

“In style, miss Pradash?” Alpha-Chi 24 asked.

“Of course. Where would we stand without aesthetics?”

“Your team is quite enamoured with the high level of efficiency of your method.”

“Thank you, Alpha-Chi 24. My mother called it dancing. It’s a shame your movements are still somewhat stiff.”

“We aim for perfection.”

Was I imagining a sardonic note? I nodded softly. “Inasmuch as a repair mechanika can achieve that. Unfortunately, you were built to do heavy lifting and finesse was of lesser concern.”

“Quite unfortunate, miss, quite unfortunate.”

That ended our conversation. I still wondered how Alpha-Chi 24 had learned to communicate like this. One of my ancestors may have had sufficient knowledge to reprogram the mechanika’s brain. Five generations. A lot has happened in that time. We once lived in the great central hall. These days that, as well as the officer’s quarters, were the sole terrain of managers, their families and offspring. I was not one of those.

Listening only to my own breathing I observed the mechaniki’s dance as they poured borosilicate gel and anchored steel rebar in Potato’s rocky surface.



#



My name is Tiffany Anselmus Epitrea

And I have been found guilty.



The light of the los-radio inside my helmet blinked. I activated it using a sub vocalized command.

“Why is your team acting like that?” A woman’s voice.

I looked around. Los-radio only worked when you could see each other. On the other side of the crater, hardly visibly in the faint star light, I saw two figures; one human in a space suit and a mechanika.

“They’re dancing. I use it to teach them to be more economic with time and movement.”

“Brilliant. Wait, I’m coming over.” With slow, deliberate steps the woman walked in my direction. She seemed unskilled with the anchor hooks, as if she rarely got out.

Not fair, that’s most everybody. Be happy your family has always managed the repair teams.

“Careful,” I said. “The ground is slippery and hard from the impact.”

“Thanks, I’ll take care.” No sooner had she said it when she tripped and fell up a few yards.

At full alert I stood up, until I noticed her secondary anchor still attached to the asteroid. She used it to return to Potato.

“Have you come to take my place?” I asked. “Did my message that I’m working late not get through in time?”

The woman floated upwards onto my rock until she stood before me. In the light of my suit I saw a pale face with large eyes behind the visor. “No. I’m here for my sanctions. I have to assist you for the duration of one month.”

I blinked a few times. “No one told me.”

“The verdict was less than an hour ago. The judge thought I should not waste any time.”

“This is quite unusual.”

The other woman sighed. “You can say that again.”

I stared at her face. She looked familiar. “Who are you? Do I know you?”

“Tiffany Epitrea, pleased to meet you.”

I nearly fell backwards from the rock. “The Captain’s daughter?”

“Yes, that one.” She sighed again.

The daughter of the highest-ranking officer. Here on the bow? What does it mean?

“Can I ask why you…?”

“My father wants me to learn a woman’s profession, as he calls it. And to marry the son of an officer. And to deliver a few kids.”

“And you don’t want that?”

“I want to program. Zeta-Zeta 8, dance!” The mechanika beside her started to dance to silent music in her own particular rhythm.

“Logics programmer is a lowly position. You’re prepared to give up the officer’s privileges?”

“What good are those if they don’t make you happy?”

“If you’ve ever spent some time in the Lower City, you would talk differently.”

“Do you live there?”

“Yes, I live there. It’s not easy. But, to business. What exactly are these sanctions?”

Tiffany hesitated. “My father has decided I should try my hand at some professions. I’ve worked in the filter house; waste recycling and I’ve done elder care.” Her mechanika joined the others and helped fix rebar.

“Those are some of the filthiest and heavy professions. Haven’t you changed your mind yet?” One look at her face told me everything. “And now you’ve been sent outside. Because only few people dare go out to confront the endless void.

“Poetic, probably correct.” Behind her visor Tiffany’s smile bared her teeth.

“You even talk like a logica.” She’s young, careless, privileged. But there’s something about her, a spark. “What do you think you can learn here?”

Tiffany did not hesitate. “Whatever you wish to share.”

“I guide the repair team’s mechaniki. In fact, I program them. Did your father know my work is exactly the kind of thing you’re interested in?”

Tiffany laughed. “I don’t think his screens mentioned that.”

“Hmm, I wonder who’s going to assist who.” Her humour and good spirits were catchy, and her presence made me feel good. “Can I ask you one more question?”

“Sure,” Tiffany said.

“Why did you… did your father pick me? I mean, from hundreds of thousands of people.”

Tiffany lifted her right arm and pointed at a command tower that was positioned inside a protruding rock. “From there I’ve often watched you work. I was curious.”

We then spent hours programming the mechaniki while we talked about life aboard Potato and the stories we heard about Earth with its oceans and blue skies.



#



When I heard you, I wanted to see you.

When I saw you, I wanted to feel you.

When I felt you, I wanted to hold you.

Now that I’m holding you,

I want never less.



When she stepped out of her space suit I knew I needed to spend more time with her. I felt my cheeks burn when my thoughts turned sinful. I looked towards the keepers who patiently waited for us to hand over the suits for cleaning and maintenance. They seemed uninterested.

Outside of her suit Tiffany moved with grace in Potato’s low gravity. Every move was controlled, and a mysterious smile was always on her lips and in her eyes. They were dark brown, mirrors so deep that I could lose myself in them.

“Have you ever been to the Lower City?” I asked.


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