"The rampaging steed of death thundered like a plangent whirlwind through the misshapen alleyways of the imperial city of N'Tlrk." Owen groaned, but forced himself to read a little further. "'We are doomed!' Ts'mr'sh ejaculated in an anguish strewn voice, his eyes wandering frantically over the luscious breasts..."
Unable to stand any more, Owen tossed the manuscript to one side. The pile of unsolicited manuscripts in front of him looked even bigger than it had when he'd started reading at 9 o'clock that morning. Impossible. Or was it? He took a ruler from his desk drawer and measured the height of the pile. 11.75 inches. Absently he jotted the measurement on the yellow Post-it note that was stuck on his computer monitor to remind him to buy cat food on the way home. He reached for the next story, entitled "Survivors".
"It was midnight. The troops waited in frosted darkness, night-sights trained on the far hill where they knew the enemy waited."
Better. Owen relaxed a little more into his chair. But was it SF? He read on...
He tried to move, but couldn't. Cold panic swamped him, until he realised that he was not paralysed, just tightly wrapped in a scratchy army-issue blanket. Close beside him, he heard Tilson swear under her breath. He felt her move in the darkness, heard the faint scrape of her laser rifle as she shifted on the rocky ground. She's all right then. He tried to gather together the fragmentary memories of the past few hours. What exactly had happened since the fever had begun to tighten its grip on his body and mind? Like a vid of a shattering glass played backwards in slow motion, things began to drift into place.
The aliens his platoon were hunting had gone to ground in the ancient tomb complex. It was sure to be heavily defended; fighting their way in was going to be hell. Fight? Can I even stand?
He scrabbled in his memory for the details of their original briefing. The tunnels and chambers which honeycombed the dark bulk of the hill ahead held the DNA code and psi-matrices of every one of the Frezhali who had ever lived -- and was yet to live. The aliens would defend it to the death.
Silence hung over the battlefield like a shroud. He heard a snick as someone slipped the safety off his laser rifle. Was Hunter here too? How many of his platoon were hiding in this foxhole? Who else had survived the ambush? He was reassured to hear Hunter's deep voice say softly, "This is what I was born for."
"What? Dying in a shell hole on some Godforsaken planet?" Tilson moved again and a glimmer of torchlight briefly illuminated her face. The light flashed over Hunter. Gold and purple gleamed for a moment as the beam caught the insignia of the Interstellar Commandos on his shoulder. Then she flicked the light from Hunter to him. He half closed his eyes, squinting against the glare.
"Yeah," Tilson hissed back. "You fancy yourself as a hero, don't you? But I don't think Owen's going to make it. The fever's getting worse."
He felt her hand rest gently on his brow. It felt cool and dry. He realised his skin was clammy with sweat.
Owen's eyebrows rose suddenly and he looked up from the manuscript. Coincidence? Or was the author trying to ingratiate -- he glanced at the name at the top of the page -- himself with the lowly slush-reading editor? If he was, Owen could think of better ways of doing it than writing him into a story as a dying footsoldier. Offerings of chocolate were always acceptable. He read on.
The light flicked out. "I don't mind war," Tilson said, "I'm a soldier. Hell, all my family are soldiers -- my dad, my brothers. The army is my career and I signed up long before the war started. But this isn't war, it's bloody suicide."
"Meditation," Hunter murmured. "Before each battle. That's what I do. That's the difference between us. You're a soldier. I'm a warrior."
Someone -- Tilson? -- tucked the blanket a little closer around Owen's sweating body. He thrashed feebly, trying to free himself again. Too damned hot. Want out. But when he tried to speak, no words would come. He could only stare into the darkness through half-closed eyes.
"You think you're bloody Lancelot," Tilson said to Hunter, "Warrior, pure in heart."
"You mean Galahad," Hunter muttered. "Lancelot was the flawed hero."
"Whatever." Tilson suddenly chuckled. "But I bet Lancelot was better in --"
The rest of her words were lost as the sky above the foxhole erupted in flame. The Frezhali's heavy plasma weapons had obviously come back on line.
The phone rang. Almost reluctantly, Owen dropped the manuscript onto his desk and picked up the receiver. It was the senior editor. "I've done them," Owen said, after listening for a moment. "Yes... Yes, my comments will be in the post tonight." He replaced the receiver.
Oh bugger, he'd forgotten all about that little job. Three novel manuscripts he was supposed to have looked at. His boss had told him to send a detailed reply to the authors.
Two of the manuscripts were from a total unknown. These had been passed around the office for months while everyone senior to him made excuses about how they were far too busy to do them justice.
Owen bent down and dragged the heavy folders up from the floor where he'd put them due to lack of space on his desk. He stared at the titles carefully hand lettered on the front: The Wise Dragon Wakes and Flower Dragons at Nightfall. Over half a million words between them, all poured from the word-processor of Ms Dawn Starbringer Trelawney. Owen suspected that this was not the name her parents had given her. Unless of course she'd been born in the 60s and her parents had been flower children.
He had to admit that fantasy wasn't really his thing, but he braced himself, prepared to give it a fair trial. He began to read...
"'Of course a woman can be a High Seer!' Molli-Joy cried desperately. ''Tis only tradition that decrees that our highest mages are men!' She turned to face the aged wizard who taunted her cruelly, seeing his repulsive face twitch into a smile as he observed her defiance.
"'I have the perfect position for you, wench,' Velandre leered suggestively. 'Much more suited to one of your station.'
"Molli-Joy put her hands on her hips and refused to bow before his odious innuendo. 'As you know, my lord,' she retorted hotly, 'I am only a poor ash-gatherer's daughter.' Her eyes flashed defiantly. 'But my ancestors were the Wise Women of the Sacred Isle, who knew the secrets of Moon Magic. And though my family were forced to flee into the Wastes of Upperwend after the Dark Lord Horence slaughtered all the true believers of the Old Religion and stole from Morgenstar the magical Orb of All Seeing...'"
Owen felt his mind begin to glaze. He sighed and started up his word processor. There was not only The Wise Dragon Wakes to deal with appropriately, there were also the proofs of the latest novel in Curt Daniel's popular Space Vets series to check, and a pile of faxes and phone messages to deal with. It was going to be a long afternoon.
Absently, he reached for the ruler. He blinked. The pile of unread short stories now measured 12.2 inches. Slightly unnerved, he turned to the second volume of Ms Trelawney's epic. He felt he ought to read a little more before sending a polite "Not for us, hope you have better luck placing it elsewhere" letter. Then, almost as an afterthought, he dropped the short story "Survivors" into his briefcase to read whenever he could find a moment.
Walking to the tube station, Owen felt a strange reluctance to go home. It wasn't just the fact that the journey was going to be difficult: there was a one-day train strike and instead of his usual, straightforward journey he would have to struggle on an overcrowded tube and then walk the last two miles home. It was because the house had seemed so empty since Anna had left. The familiar ache of loss, dulled only a little by the passage of a mere six weeks, settled over him. But he could hardly spend the night at the office...
The journey home was as nightmarish as he expected. To make matters worse, by the time he emerged from the tube station at the other end, it was raining steadily.
He arrived home, his feet squelching in his shoes, water dripping from his hair and from the end of his nose. He stood for a moment in the shelter of the arched porch, staring at the front door. There would be no welcome from Anna, no dinner simmering on the stove, but at least he could get warm and dry.
He put the key in the lock, opened the door and stepped through onto the doormat. Something squished under his wet shoe. He froze, looked slowly downwards.
Several letters peeped out from under his foot and under them... Owen's stomach churned queasily.
His cat had been sick on the doormat.
It must have been early in the morning, shortly after he'd left for work and just before the post had been delivered. The letters had fallen into the mess, and he had just made everything infinitely worse by stepping on them.
The junk mail was easy to deal with -- it went straight in the bin -- but he had to spend a long time with rubber gloves, disinfectant and a hair dryer before the letter from his mother and his pay slip were safe to handle.
A careful search of his house then followed, to make sure that there were no more signs of his cat's indisposition. The cat -- Anna had called him Merlin -- was fully recovered from whatever had upset him and now, being empty, demanded lots of food before he would settle. And as there was only a quarter of a tin left, and as Owen had forgotten to buy any on the way home -- despite the Post-it note reminding him to do just that -- he had to trudge out to the late-night grocers to buy more.
And so it was bedtime before Owen remembered the firefight outside the Frezhali's tombs.
As he finally opened the manuscript again, sitting in front of the gas-fire, a mug of coffee perched on the arm of his chair, he began to think that life often seemed more clearcut in stories. Maybe the fictional Owen's predicament wasn't too bad after all. He only had alien Frezhali and a nasty fever to worry about.
In the flickering light of the plasma cannon barrage, he saw Tilson half raise herself. "We can't stay here!" she yelled. "We'll be fried alive!
Hunter crawled to Owen's side and now his big hand, as cool as Tilson's, rested briefly on his forehead. He turned away. What Tilson saw in Hunter's expression, Owen could only guess, but she said, "And we're not leaving Owen!"
"He's dying," Hunter shouted back, raising his voice in order to be heard over the crackle and boom of the firestorm.
I am? Owen struggled feebly with the blanket, tried again to force words from his dry, swollen throat.
"He might pull through," Tilson said harshly. "He's survived worse. But even if he is dying, I'm not leaving him here to die alone.
Oh, thank you, he thought. Tilson... Have I ever told you how much I love you?
She flattened against the earth as the plasma fire scorched the rim of their small crater. "We've got to get back to the ship. That means going over the hill, or round it."
"Or through it!" Hunter shouted. "We can still complete this mission. But in that case, we need him." He stooped. Owen felt himself seized by large strong hands, then the world swung dizzily as -- still rolled like a chrysalis in the rough blanket -- he was heaved up and over Hunter's shoulder.
Hunter was a big man; and he exercised hard to keep himself in peak condition. Draped over one heavily muscled shoulder, Owen was dimly glad that the positions weren't reversed. There was no way he could have carried Hunter. Now he bounced, head down, as his powerful comrade charged over the lip of the crater and zigzagged over the broken ground, dodging the enemy fire, making for the entrance to the tombs.
"You're fucking crazy," Tilson shouted after them.
Being hung upside down and jolted was too much for Owen. Letting go of his tenuous grip on reality, he slid back into the fever dream.
When he finally came to himself, he was lying on smooth stone in cool darkness. There was an icy, tingling sensation on the side of his neck, fading rapidly. He heard Tilson saying, "...do next. That's the last shot of the anti-fever drugs. If he doesn't get back to the ship soon, he really has had it."
Owen felt the dose -- a cocktail of temperature suppressants, stimulants and painkillers -- surge through his bloodstream. How long was I out? How long did it take Hunter to carry me here? As the drugs began to take effect, he found that groping for scattered thoughts became easier. Unfortunately, that meant that the memories of his chaotic, fever-induced nightmares returned more clearly too.
He had been drifting, dimly aware of people pressed against him from all sides, packed along with him in a swaying, clunking container that rocked through never-ending darkness. Another snatch. Fighting his way upwards through a pushing, shoving multitude. He moved without walking, carried upwards towards daylight apparently without effort, while a hot dry wind blew through his hair and distantly there came the whine and rattle of something large swooping through tunnels.
And there'd been an even weirder dream from earlier -- from before he'd regained consciousness in the crater -- about oozing piles of paper, which buried him, squeezing the breath from his body with their weight. He frowned, as he remembered a particularly nasty bit about wading through stinking slime while a ravenous beast clawed at his legs and moaned.
It was almost a relief to find himself in the mouth of the Frezhali's ancient tunnel tomb. A dry, slightly electrical smell permeated the tunnel.
Tilson risked another quick flash of light. Statues and bas-reliefs of weird animal-headed gods stretched away into darkness, like something out of a temple in ancient Babylon. Heavy blocks of stone lined the tunnels; the jointed masonry carefully engineered to support the weight of thousands of tons of rock above.
I should be terrified, he thought. But whether it was the drugs or the fever, all he actually felt was weak and slightly distant, as though separated from reality by a transparent film. He tried to speak and managed a faint croak. He tried again. "Are we where I think we are?"
Tilson grinned down at him. "You bet. And Hunter's still got the device. We'll blow these suckers sky high."
"And us with them, I suppose," Owen managed to reply.
"Not if we can find one of the transporter tubes still working," Tilson said.
"It's just a case of heading straight in, dropping the fusion bomb down the main ventilation shaft, then coming straight out," Hunter growled.
Oh, is that all? I'm sure the Frezhali will be delighted about that. And they won't even think of trying to stop you. Oh, no... "You are crazy," he said.
"Take care, Hunter," Tilson said, laying her hand on his arm, suddenly serious.
Hunter grinned, a wide wolf-grin. Even in the semi-darkness, Owen could see the battle-light bright in his eyes.
"And you, Tilson." He nodded at Owen. "See you both at the transporter." And he was off at a steady jog down the tunnel.
Owen tried to get up, but his legs were trembling and everything swam round him. Realising that he couldn't even stand unaided, Tilson put her shoulder under his armpit and heaved him to his feet. "Come on," she said firmly. "You're the one who knows how their tech works. You're the only one who can get us out of here."
Muzzily, Owen was aware of Tilson's body pressed against his. Wearing far too many clothes, he thought ruefully, then, What the hell was in that drug dose? This is Tilson I'm mentally undressing. She'd kill me if she knew what I was thinking.
Together they staggered on through the dimly lit tunnels. There were lights here, though they were low and reddish, as though the Frezhali were running the complex on emergency power. Owen smiled. Yesterday's air bombardment must have done more damage than they'd first thought.
There was little resistance. Most of the Frezhali were no doubt hiding in the deepest chamber; only a few stragglers remained in the outer tunnels. They were no match for Tilson in her present mood. Alien after alien fell in the stuttering light of her laser rifle. There was a brief, bitter firefight just outside the transporter station, but then Owen found himself being dragged into the driver's seat of the last, undamaged transport tube.
After the exertion of the last half hour, Owen felt everything begin to grey. He slumped in the seat desperately wishing Tilson had another dose of whatever it was that she'd given him earlier. The last shot already seemed to be wearing off. He shook his head slowly, forcing himself to concentrate; then he reached out for the controls.
As though he'd been driving the tube car all his life rather than just practising on a simulator in the mothership, he touched panels, spoke strange and ancient syllables into the control unit. Finally, with no more than a slight shiver, the engines started up, settling to a faint hum of constrained power.
Though they were far from the heart of the Frezhali's complex, he felt the earth shudder as the fusion bomb detonated. Owen waited, trying not to pass out, fighting off the darkness and nightmares that threatened to swallow him again. Time had lost all meaning.
Tilson paced the transport car, too tense to sit in one place for more than a few seconds.
Would she care that much if it was me she was waiting for? Owen thought groggily.
Then, finally, just as Owen was groping for the words to suggest that perhaps they should leave without him, Hunter's voice crackled over the com link. A broad grin flashed across Tilson's face.
"Hunter's on his way here," was all she said, but the whole set of her body, her sudden relaxation and increased energy told Owen how pleased she was.
Some time later -- exactly how long Owen had no idea -- he saw Hunter appear in the distance, running towards them down the tunnel.
As Hunter hurled himself into the car, Owen touched the last panel, said the last word of control. The door hissed shut and the car shot forward into the darkness like a bullet down the barrel of a gun.
Stumbling from the car at the outermost station, Owen felt himself half-lifted, half-dragged between Hunter and Tilson, down the long rough slope, away from the tunnels in the hill, back towards the landing craft.
A shadow moved, over on their right. Tilson whirled, dropping to one knee, laser rifle levelled. In the faint starlight, they could just make out a wounded Frezhali, trying to drag itself out of sight behind some tumbled rocks. Everyone froze. And then Tilson lowered her weapon.
The Frezhali slithered into the darkness.
"Why did you let it go?" Hunter growled.
"There's been enough killing," Owen mumbled, his tongue clumsy, his mind hanging onto consciousness by the merest thread, poised on the edge of a jumbled confusion of darkness, garbled voices, tunnels and flashing lights.
"Nah," Tilson said, "The laser fire would have given away our position, that's all."
Forcing his head up, Owen could see below them the huge bulk of the landing craft.
"We did it," Hunter said. "Let's hope we're not the only survivors."
Owen felt that the last few metres were going to beat him. He felt very, very weary; the fever burned his bones. He ached all over. Just put me down and let me die.
As though she had sensed what he was thinking, Tilson said, "Don't give up on me now, Owen! You'll be okay. We're almost there. Once we're back in orbit on the mothership, you'll get the treatment you need."
Owen opened his eyes. Funny, he didn't remember them closing. Why do I do I keep doing this? You'd think I'd have learned more sense by now.
Once the medics had patched him up, he'd be given a few weeks to recover, and then he'd be dispatched to some other planet, some other war.
Tilson and Hunter were both staring anxiously at him. He forced a smile.
Was terror was an addiction? Was he hooked on the adrenaline rush? And a sense of duty has nothing to do with it, I suppose? There was that too. Keeping Earth safe. Feeling that what he did mattered, counted for something...
Owen half woke, then jerked fully awake. He'd been reading -- or dreaming. Bugger. He stared at the manuscript, thought back over the story. How much of that was on the page and how much only in his dream?
He turned back to the beginning, meaning to glance over it again, then hesitated. Dream or not, he wanted to carry the memory of his adventures a little longer. He smiled slightly, remembering the feel of Tilson's body close against his. Perhaps he could dream about her again -- away from the front line this time, where he could get to know her better. Somewhere away from Hunter. He would read the story again properly tomorrow.
He glanced at his watch. 1.00 a.m. He groaned. He was hot and his body ached all over as though he'd just climbed a mountain -- or been dragged through one. He shook himself. Was he coming down with 'flu? He looked at the gas-fire, turned up full. No, probably just too hot and cramped from sleeping awkwardly in front of the fire. A huge furry cat sprawled on his lap didn't help either. He stretched, and gently eased Merlin to the floor. Then he rose stiffly to his feet and padded upstairs to the bathroom.
He didn't get the chance to re-read 'Survivors'. The phone rang continually; the fax spewed paper and he had deadlines to meet. In the end he passed the manuscript to Geoff Robinson, co-editor of the Battles by Starlight anthology of military SF. During the afternoon, Geoff came into Owen's office looking smug. "That story, 'Survivors'." He looked quite cheerful for once. "It's just the thing for the Battles anthology. Pete Grayson looks like a promising author. I'm going to ask him if he's written any more. Just my sort of story. Clearly drawn characters, plenty of excitement. Grabs the reader right at the beginning."
"Yes, that's just what I thought," Owen said.
"I'm going to ask him to change the name of one of the characters though."
Owen raised his eyebrows questioningly.
"Biased though I may be --" Geoff was smirking "-- even I don't think Robinson's a very exciting name for an Interstellar Commando."
"Ah... No." Robinson? He didn't remember a Robinson. "So you think Owen's all right then? For a Commando."
Geoff frowned. "Owen? There wasn't anyone called Owen in it."
"No? Er... No, of course not."
When Geoff finally left him in peace again, Owen wandered over to the window and looked down into the street. People were hurrying past below him. Cars crawled between buses and delivery vans. A suicidal cyclist in a fluorescent lime green top and purple helmet swerved between the vehicles.
Damn. It was annoying to have missed a good story. Then he sighed. It didn't really matter which of them found the gems in the slush. He just hoped that the readers would get as much pleasure from the stories as he had. He could lose himself in a good story; and reading had helped him weather more than one rough patch in his life.
He thought of all the writers out there, binding space and time with pen and word processor, trapping a story on a sheet of paper, creating new people, creatures and places, giving them life. All he had to do was find them and set them free. He liked doing that.
Owen turned away from the window and picked up the ruler. The slush pile was now 17.4 inches high. He sighed, picked up the top story and began to read.
Created on ... April 23, 2007, which was International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day