Thursday, 4 October 2012

Kingsford: After Dark


Aiden shifted restlessly around the house, unable to settle. His wake was littered with discarded books, open CD cases and food wrappers. He checked his watch, for the third time in as many minutes and sighed. Still no sign of Brendan, he was running late; very late as a matter of fact. A tiny voice scratched at the back of Aiden's brain muttering that something was wrong. He rose and went to the phone, dialling the number that Brendan had stuck above it, on a yellow post-it note, the last time he had been home.

The phone rang for a long time before someone answered. A bleary female voice spoke, “Hello?”.

Aiden frowned, it took a moment to place the voice, “Jessica?”

“Yeah, who is it?” The voice asked.

“It's Aiden, Brendan's brother,” he told her.

“Oh, he's not here.” She paused, as if her brain was waking up. “Isn't he with you? He was going home this weekend.”

“No, he hasn't arrived.”

“Oh,” she fell quiet again. “He probably met up with some friends, that's all. Have you tried his mobile?”

“No, last time I tried he didn't have it switched on. I haven't heard anything from him since Wednesday, when he told me he was coming home,” Aiden told her. “He's late and I'm getting worried.”

“Let me check his phone,” she said. “It's probably nothing though.” The phone went quiet as she moved away, after a moment there was the sound of movement, of things been shifted, magazines being dropped onto the floor. There was a hoarse swear word as Jessica knocked something over and then a vague sound of triumph as she recovered her phone. An instant later the receiver made a sound as she lifted it. “I'll text him and call you okay?”

“Yeah, okay.” Aiden replied, his heart sinking. Jessica had always been a bit vague, especially when she had been drinking; he supposed that he was lucky to have caught her with only a few beers in her even if it sounded like he had woken her up. “Do you want my mobile number?”

“No, I'll call the house,” she told him. “I've got it programmed into my phone.”

He sighed, knowing that he was going to get no further. “Alright, just let me know if you hear anything. Bye.” He put the receiver down, stared at the wall for a moment and came to a decision. Something was wrong; he was filled with a sense of intense foreboding that went beyond worrying for his brother. He knew he could not rely on Jessica to contact him; she was probably going to fall asleep as soon as she sent the text message. No, he was going to have to go and look for Brendan himself.

He found his boots at the bottom of the stairs and slipped his long leather coat on. After a moment's consideration he went up to his room and, knelt by the bed. He reached underneath and pulled out a metal tool box. He opened it and took a Stanley knife out, sliding the blade out to check it was clean. It had been a long time since he had last touched it, but something prompted him to: tonight, he felt, it would be needed. He slipped it into his pocket and pushed the box back to its home.

He went out into the back garden; he had no idea why but it felt important to see the fox before he went out. He unlocked the back door and stepped out onto the patio, picking his way through the long weeds that rose like grassy walls between the flagstones.

“Fox, are you here?” He hissed into the dark. There was no answer and he called again. “Fox, fox, where are you?”

Again there was no answer. He sighed, realising that she was probably looking for food, wondering if she had slipped into the usual habits of urban foxes, raiding bins and stealing discarded junk food. She did not seem to have done, he had seen her crunching down fresh prey with gusto in the early evenings, snapping her jaws about a rodent of unknown genus. He called a last time and cast about, reluctantly moving back into the house.

Moments later he emerged into the street and set off towards the town centre, his hand wrapped about the knife's handle in his pocket, just in case.

*

In the dark, high vaulted chamber at the top of the Crimson School's highest tower the three men, Feydo master of the school, Alastair his assistant and Darian a courtier of the Summer King's court, stared into the vast scrying pool, watching the events that unfolded in the little town on the other side of the gate in the ford.

The hound, formerly known as Mungo but now entirely under the control of the trio's servant, an enchanted piece of cloth that had forced itself into the beast's back, inveigling its way his mind until there was only the servant, pursued a blonde youth through the streets of the town. It ran in long, easy strides after him, head held low.

“Why is it doing this?” Darien demanded. “Why isn't it hunting down the fox?” He flinched as he felt one of Feydo's eyes slide over to him. “I mean, the King will be displeased if we fail to capture the girl quickly, her crime ...” His voice trailed off as the master of the Crimson School's other eye turned to focus on him.

“What exactly is her crime?” Feydo asked intently.

“She's a thief,” Darian told him, dreading the next question.

“What did she steal?”

“She stole, uh, that is ...” The courtier's voice trailed off, a frown occupied his face.

“You don't even know?” Alastair's voice was incredulous.

“Of course I do,” Darian snapped. “But it's complicated.” In truth, he had no idea what Yelena had stolen, there were a number of stories circulating the court. Some said that she had stolen one of the King's treasures, though the details of what it was were sketchy. Others claimed that she had taken something far more valuable than a mere bauble, that it was a state secret that the fox woman had intended to sell to the King's enemies. One of Darian's lovers, Gwendolyn, claimed that Yelena was working with die hard Spring advocates, plotting to overthrow the glorious sway of Summer in favour of their own season's rule. Whatever the truth, he had been tasked to capture her, dead or alive, and it was only the matter of the gate to the mortal world being open too narrow for him to traverse that stopped him following her there.

Feydo snorted derisively, “He doesn't know any more than we do.” He dismissed the matter from his mind and turned back to the scrying pool.

*

Brendan ran through Kingsford's streets, the pack on his back felt heavy, his breath came in gasps. The dog had chased him for what felt hours, unrelenting; forcing him down into the narrower streets to the spots where the street lights were spaced further apart, in one of the town's idiosyncrasies. The youth was tiring, soon he would not be able to run any more, and he acted accordingly, making towards places where there would be light, and people.

He turned onto the high street and looked back, catching a hand on the lamp post to steady himself.

The dog still lumbered after him, growing bigger as it did so, muscles bunching in obscene clusters under its coat. Its eyes had taken on a terrifying aspect, bright and unnatural against its black fur. Its head, already big before the rag had possessed it, had grown to match its body, and sported a mouth so vast that it terrified Brendan, one bite would surely ravage a limb.

His phone rang in his pocket but he ignored it, there was no time to check the thing, and it was probably only Jessica looking to have phone sex. He kept running, saw a group of people and started towards them. Perhaps they would be able to help him. As he grew near he recognised one of them, Dave, an old school friend, who had a can of beer in one hand and his other about his girlfriend's, Amy, waist.

“Brendan,” Dave called. “How are you mate?” He disengaged from Amy and held out a hand.

Brendan skidded to a stop and bent double, panting as he sought to catch his breath. He unbuckled the pack and let it fall, wriggling his shoulders to work the tension out of them. He glanced back; the hound had not followed him out onto the street, he caught sight of it, lurking off the High Street, hunched down in the dark, watching.

“Are you alright?” Amy asked, looking at his face with concern.

“Yeah, just running late, Aiden's going to be having kittens.” He grinned up at her.

“Probably,” she told him, wryly. It was a pattern to the twins' behaviour, Brendan would rush into things and Aiden would invariably be the one to pull him out again. It had been the way things had worked ever since they were young. “Do you want me to carry that?” She lifted the pack, slinging it on a shoulder, casting a pointed glance to Dave as she did so.

“Thanks, are you sure?” Brendan asked. She nodded and the three of them began to walk up the high street. As they walked Brendan glanced back, there was no sign of the dog but something, he could not say what, told him that the creature was following them.

*

The hound paced the back streets, keeping out of the light. It slunk through the darkness, sniffing as it went. The addled thoughts that flashed through its mind could not identify why the youth was important, it was more a vestige of annoyance that the boy had seen it, known what it was. A low growl rumbled from the servant's throat. Even a street away it could smell the boy's sweat, his fear and it followed.

The boy walked for a while, along the brightly lit road, the light hurt the hound's eyes. It was adapted to the night, to hunting in the dark; its primary quarry, the image of a vixen burnt in its brain, ready to be dealt with once the problem of the youth had been addressed, was out there somewhere and it would need to operate in the same world in order to serve the masters, no matter how far away they were.

It reached a new road and stopped, sitting to look towards the High Street, where the trio had paused on a corner opposite, to talk amongst themselves. They were discussing something, their heads held close. The blonde youth kept looking out, down the street. His eyes were bright and nervous.

The hound crept closer, keeping low, down in the shadows. Still in the dark it came to a halt and it listened.

“Are you sure? I can carry it a while longer,” the girl said.

The quarry shook his head, glancing out again as he did so. “No, I'll be fine and I should be getting back. Jess has texted me to say that Aiden's worried.”

“Ignore him, come back to mine and have a drink mate,” the other youth cried. “You can sleep on the sofa.”

“No, it's okay. Besides there's something I want to check on.”

“What's that?” The girl asked, curiousity staining her voice.

“Oh a fox that's moved into the back garden,” the youth said carelessly.

In its hiding place, the hound rose; the image of the vixen flared inside its skull at the blonde man's words driving it on. It took several steps forward and stopped, just shy of the light, its ears pricked forwards, its tail wagged, despite itself. A growl built in its throat, as the trio began to split up. It risked another step forwards.

The girl and the second youth split off, heading further up the road. The blonde boy began to make his way down the street opposite.

The hound dashed across the High Street, as quickly as it could, closing its eyes to shut out the troublesome light. On the other side it opened its eyes and began to track the boy again.

He was walking ahead, cautiously, he glanced back over his shoulder as the hound entered the street behind him.

“Shit,” he said, and the hound grinned, its tongue lolling over the great white teeth that lined its mouth. It bounded forward, eating up the distance between the two of them.

Suddenly there was the sound of running feet, another young man, this one clad in a long black coat, hurled into view, knocking the blonde boy out of the hound's path and across the street. The two sprawled against a car, and the sound of its strident alarm ripped out, filling the night.

“Where the hell have you been?” The newcomer demanded, helping the youth to his feet.

“Sorry Aiden, I didn't mean to be so late,” the blonde boy said.

“We should get out of here,” his brother replied.

“Yes, that would be a good plan. Can you take my bag?” Brendan asked, suddenly sounding tired.

The hound took in him, tall and thin, pale with black hair that fell in a mane. It sniffed, he smelt the same as the other man and it dawned in the back of the dog's brain that there was something... other about the way they smelled. A scent that marked them out from the other people hereabouts. Recovered from its leap, it turned towards them and readied itself to spring.

Across the street the two young men looked at each other, the pale boy looked back at the hound and then to the blonde haired man.

“Run?” He asked.

“You need to ask?” The other returned. He threw his pack to the pale boy and they took off, down the road.

As the hound took after him it could hear the sounds of the car's owners hurrying to check on the machine. It ran, sprang again, determined to end this. It's mouth closed on the pale youth's arm, biting into the leather.

He cried out in surprise, his other hand appeared, gripping a small knife.

*

Across the ford Darian started to his feet, “That's the youth that Yelena went off with!” His voice rang about the chamber.

Feydo jerked upright at the sound, “What is it?” His voice was thick with sleep; as some point the old sorcerer had slipped into slumber.

“The boy,” Darian pointed into the scrying pool, where the hound's gaze dimly showed the pale man's face. The courtier watched as the stranger raised a strange looking knife and, with some reluctance showing on his face, stabbed downwards, cutting at the dog. The vision shifted as Feydo's servant shifted, instinct taking over as it shied away from the knife, the observers saw the youths flee away, fading into the night, the disgusting, unnatural night. They receded in the hound's vision as it tried to get its bearings, the stupid canine mind working out what to do next.

“Get it to chase them,” Darian demanded, gesturing wildly.

“Yes,” the sorcerer nodded and muttered something in a sour tone, making a slight twist of his hand. His eyes glittered as he spoke and he cast a dark look at the courtier.

The hound shook itself, looked back, showing the other mortals, crowding around the wheeled metal box. They stared at it, concern, fear even, showing on their faces as it saw the hound, hulking and huge in the night as if it were Grendel. The hound winced, obviously chagrined by the mental touch of its master, turned and bounded after the fleeing mortals, running into the night.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

Review: The Home Front by L.M. Cooke.



Picture

Another first publication to wash up on the shores, the Home Front is a well conceived and executed book which serves as a strong introduction to the series, the Automata Wars. I would hesitate to call it a novel, in truth its a series of short stories, held together by the overwhelming concept of the setting and background.

This background is well established early on in the book and is simple enough to strike true: the idea of a long, mysterious war taking place somewhere in the world against a foe, the nature of the which is left a mystery, beyond the idea that they are highly advanced machines that occupy specialised roles within their society. Cooke creates 'Skimmers' and 'Burrowers' to menace the troops and android infiltrators who aim to topple the humans from within through sabotage, treachery and the creation of fifth columns. There's a sense of gleeful menace to her writing in places, as she describes the actions of the automata; never letting us doubt that these machines are a threat.

It is on the efforts of one of the infiltrator androids, one Mr Black, that the narrative really rests, as he worms his way through the home front, creating menaces to undermine society. Perhaps fittingly he's studiedly blank as a character, kept to the background most of the time, when he does step into the centre stage, in the fifth story 'Festival' he is both desperate and so goal driven that his personality is almost incidental, especially when taken in comparison with the mask of gentility he sports earlier in the volume. This functionalism contrasts well with the conflicting natures, drives and fears of his human opponents, which are deftly characterised by Cooke and well drawn throughout the stories. Black's plans are well conceived, without wishing to give too much away, a great deal of thought has evidently gone into what would be feasible for a machine in his position to be able to accomplish and the result feels neither too exaggerated nor too timid, the balance is achieved with apparently little effort.

His principle adversaries are another group of shadowy figures, a group of courtesans who seem to be working as a de-facto unofficial wing of the secret service. They are for the most part left in the shadows, serving as a set of enablers for the various heroes of the stories, where they exist. Their madame, who we only meet in the last story, is an interesting figure, coming across almost as if she were one of the automata herself; again raising questions about the mechanistic foes' true nature.

The book's world building is well accomplished, from the beginning the book feels grounded, there's a sense of time and place even if there are no real nods to real places or events within the stories (there's one reference to a place I recognise, but that's on the side of one of the enemy's machines, which raises interesting questions about their true nature). The idea that this is an alternate world is established very simply and very early on when Cooke refers to soldiers wearing red, which works simply because by the point in time in our own history that corresponds more or less to the society she's describing, the late Edwardian period, the British army had all but abandoned the scarlet uniforms in favour of khaki. Other details then fall in confirm the otherness of the world we're reading about, and the author successfully establishes a society that feels familiar but is filled with details that are new, and in some places alien. This after all is a world where apparently the principle deity is largely unacknowledged, even in a time of war and a church in a desperately poor area is left abandoned apart from the few foolhardy souls that make their way there especially.

Where the book does fall down, a little, is in the structure and pacing. There's very little to complain about with the latter but there were a couple of occasions where the description feels heavy and I found myself skipping through paragraphs rather than reading them properly in search of action and plot. This is only a minor thing and it may be a very personal one. The issue with structure is that there are places where I, and again this may be personal, found myself mentally rewriting sentences a little to make them make more sense in my head. This is probably more a matter of writing style's clashing than anything else however, and it should not discourage anybody else from picking up and enjoying the book.

Overall though, this is a fine collection of stories, well realised and written and building nicely, in the incidental snippets between each story, towards a satisfying revelation that hopefully will pay off in the second volume. If you want a new voice in science fiction and to support the vanishingly small number of women writing SF then I would recommend picking up this book.