The Year of the Cat

[Background: This is actually a part of a much, much larger Dr Who fanfic I did all the way back in 2012.  All that you really need to know is that Old Series Companion Ace, here using the pseudonym ‘Dot Shannon’ is chasing New Series Companion River Song, here using the pseudonym ‘Joan Frost’ through time.  Side note, Fey is a Companion from the Dr Who Magazine comic strip, although at a point in her own timeline before she meets the Doctor…]

In a morning from a Bogart Movie, in a country where they turn back time, you go strolling through the crowd like Peter Lorre contemplating a crime. She comes out of the sun in a silk dress running, like a watercolor in the rain. Don’t bother asking for explanations, she’ll just tell you that she came in the Year of the Cat”            -Year of the Cat by Al Stewart

 

She came out of the desert at midday, a thing that no local, neither townsman nor Bedouin would do. White men wrote poetry about the merciless, brutalizing sun of the Sahara; calling it the ‘Devil’s Forge’ or comparing it to the unblinking eye of the unforgiving god of the Old Testament, something both dangerous and exotic. The locals did not. They just knew to stay out of it. For them, it was just a fact, like air or hunger.

She came into the city from the direction of the mountains, but covered in the dust of the desert. Tangier was silent under the oppressive brightness of the noonday sun, no one moved or did business in such heat. The silence was broken only by the distant, undulating cry of the mullahs calling out for prayers, which echoed off of the blue-tiled cobbles and white-washed adobe walls of the narrow, canyon-like streets. Tiny pools of shadow lurked in doorways and under awnings, tauntingly small. She ignored them, although whether out of simple heat stroke or out of some perverse instinct that refused comfort even she couldn’t tell anymore.

Dry and hot and tired, she picked up her ears to the sound of jazz that drifted like a ghost floating along the boulevard. Music meant people and people, at this time of day, meant outsiders. And that’s where she’d find the one she was looking for. The jazz led her to a sleepy little cantina just off of a small square with a dry fountain. She dove into the gloom as one would the arms of a lover, long separated. As her eyes struggled to the lesser light within, she made out a dark, sullen man leaning against the bar, regarding her coolly moving nothing but his eyes.

Beer,” she croaked through the layers of dust that coated her throat.

The barkeep responded with the languid slowness of one still asleep. While he poured, she took a long, casual look around the shadowed cantina. She gaped openly to avoid suspicion. Nothing looked more suspicious like someone who looked like they were trying to be sneaky. The darkened cantina was a maze of shadows. It was hot, although out of the sunlight, it wasn’t furnace hot. Lazy, slow-moving ceiling fans cast rotating shadows and effectively failed to do anything more then move hot air from one part of the room to another. The jazz she’d heard earlier drifted from a record player with the full tulip trumpet in one corner of the bar. A couple of tables in one corner, currently unoccupied, had hookahs and the air had the sickly sweet reek of old hashish. The clientele, what few there were, were mostly foreign, Europeans, Americans, while the help was without exception local. But that’s the way it was in Tangier, circa 1936. This was the International Zone. The ‘Interzone’ as it would later be called. Just thinking the phrase sent a shiver up her spine, despite the heat, and she had to remind herself that it would be some fifteen years or so until that creepy bug-lover Burroughs would arrive. At least, that was how it was supposed to happen, however, as she’d recently discovered, not all was what it was supposed to be in this new version of history. She felt herself receding a bit from her surroundings. So much the same, but not quite. It was like watching a bad school production of the story of your life written from third-hand accounts.

She was snapped out her reverie by a sharp, upper-class English voice, almost defiantly feminine, that cut through the thick, turgid air like a new razor.

“…oh, my dear, naïve Kiki, it’s such a lovely thought, but lovely thoughts don’t change ugly facts. And the fact is, with al-Qassar’s death in November it’s only a matter of time before Palestine explodes. As much as our ‘benevolent masters’ would like to pretend it won’t.”

She perked up her ears and squinted into the gloom of the corner the voice came from. There, a lean figure in an impeccably tailored white suit lounged indolently at a corner table, taking judicious sips of something and idly fondling a dusky local girl who listened with practiced attention of a paid professional. There was something spare and androgynous about the figure, strangely beautiful, like a statue or a painting is beautiful, cast in the mold of an Annie Lennox or a young David Bowie. The clothes and the short-cropped hair were masculine, but the voice was feminine. The woman who walked in from the desert couldn’t keep from taking judicious glances towards that corner between healthy gulps of beer. There was something strangely compelling about the woman in the suit, the way she openly displayed her orientation in an era that still considered ‘inverts’ (as they were called) to be suffering from a disease to be cured. There was something almost out of this time about the carelessness with which she flaunted what she was. Despite being an obvious product of the 20th Century she seemed as much out of place in this time and this place as the first woman. There was a curious kinship there.

Her reverie was broken by the realization that the figure was looking back at her. Her eyes had adjusted to the dim interior of the cantina, and she could make out a single raised eyebrow of invitation even as the woman (and she could now see that with such delicate features, she was almost certain that it was indeed a woman) continued to stroke the hair of her Arab companion. The woman from the desert took one last glance around the cantina to make sure her target wasn’t in residence, then picked up her glass of beer and strode over to the shadowy corner.

This seat taken?” she asked as she grabbed the chair a quarter of the way around the table from the lady in the white suit, flipped it around backwards and threw herself down upon it.

It certainly appears to be,” the woman in white replied with mock graciousness as she quirked her thin lips up into a barely perceptible little half-smirk, at once both inviting and mocking. “Do, please join us, miss…?” With the woman from the desert already seated, the tone was now definitely mocking.

Me mum saddled me with the handle Dorothea Shannon, mum,” the woman from the desert extended a rough, muscular hand and the woman in white accepted it limply. “But everyone who likes me calls me ‘Dot’.”

Charmed, I’m sure. Fey Truscott-Sade.” The woman in white’s smirk grew to a full smile, still ironic, as she took the hand and felt it, like a blind person reading braille. The local girl next to her regarded Dot with cool calculation, but didn’t speak. “And if I call you ‘Dot’, does it oblige me to like you?”

Aw, you can call me ‘Dot’ anyway, I think. Beats me real name by half, it does.” Dot was sipping on her beer and smiling just a bit despite herself. “Don’t mind me taking this seat, do you? Only I’m new in town and don’t know anybody.”

Let me always be an oasis for weary travelers,” Fey demurred and took another sip of what smelled like absinthe. All across time and space there was only one thing that had that odor. “So, Dot,” Fey continued with a sly glance over at her, “what brings you to Tangier?”

Nothing much, nothing interesting anyway.” Dot shrugged and took a slug of her beer, not making eye contact

Oh, my dear, dear lady, this is Tangier,” Fey laughed. She had a low, throaty laugh that belied her delicate appearance. “And no one comes to Tangier without a story. And I do love a good story.”

Well, if a story will make you happy.” Dot couldn’t keep herself from letting out a little snicker herself. There was something infectious in the woman’s laugh. “I suppose you could say I came here looking for someone.”

Well,” Fey said coyly, a little half-smile dancing across her lips, as she shifted her posture to lean in towards Dot. “I’d say you’ve found someone”

Yeah, it should be so easy. No it’s someone specific. And not for a social call, neither.” Dot sighed and shook her head sadly. Then she lifted her head and gestured towards Fey with her beer. “And what about you? Bet you got quite a story yourself.”

Well, I suppose you could say I’m an artist.” Fey sighed heavily and rolled her eyes with boredom. “Although that’s not really a very clever thing to say. Simply everybody in Tangier is an artist these days.”

You have the desert disease, my pale angel,” the local girl piped up quietly for the first time. “It is a plague among you Europeans. Only Europeans love the desert. Arabs love the green and waters. There is nothing in the desert. But you who live in lands of wet and green, maybe you have a need to come to the dry places to miss what god has given you. You come to the empty places of the world hoping to create. Perhaps art comes from hunger and you must go to where the world is hungry to create.”

Oh, Kiki, my deep well, you flatter me.” Fey smiled a bit sadly and caressed the dusky girl’s face, then turned back to Dot, the sadness of her smile turned wry. “I’m afraid I’m not as deep as all that. Truth be told, I’m just here on a bit of a lark, an extended bender. As the poetess said ‘I love the sensual…’ ”

“…for me this and love of the sun has a share of brilliance and beauty,” Dot finished for her.

You know Sappho?” Fey looked a little impressed.

I’ve…” Dot paused for a long moment, getting a far-away look on her face. “I’ve known Sappho, yeah.”

Fey raised a curious and somewhat hopeful eye at this. Dot was considering how she should reply or whether to reply at all when her attention was drawn to a European couple entering the cantina. The eyes were drawn first to the woman. She was a statuesque figure, all red curls and flashing blue-green eyes in a sundress and hat. Dot recognized her at once as River Song. Her target. The man was wholly unremarkable, average of build, plain of feature, in a seersucker suit and panama hat. As they approached the bar, or rather, as the woman approached the bar like a one-woman invading army and the man was pulled along in her train, Dot tried to keep her eyes on the target, but they kept drifting back to the man, there was something about him, something familiar, although he matched no one she could remember.

Now, what about them, hmm? What can you tell me?” She tried to keep her voice casual, however found Fey regarding her with a calculating eye.

Miss Shannon is curious about the Frost couple,” Fey murmured coyly to Kiki, her eyes on Dot the whole time. “I think perhaps she would like to meet them.”

The woman might have sex with you but the man, he only like’s Interzone boys,” Kiki answered bluntly, as one might comment on the weather.

Crikey!” Dot swore, with a sharp look at the both of them. “I don’t want to fuck them, I just want to talk to them.”

You know how the middle class are, Kiki,” Fey sighed melodramatically, taking a large drink of her absinthe. “They all love to travel and then they only want to meet other tourists and talk about how hard it is to find a decent fish-and-chips shop.” [1]

Snob,” Dot growled into her beer.

Yes, quite,” Fey responded serenely. “Now are you going to go over to meet them or are you one of those tiresome sorts that finds it’s more poetical to pine?”

Dot ignored her heroically and considered the pair as they bothered the barkeep for a bottle of sparkling white wine. Dot thought, briefly, about making her move right here. She should. The target didn’t seem to notice her at all. A bit of violence, a quick grab, a dash of random gunfire to sow enough confusion to cover her escape. And, like the old geezers used to say ‘Bob’s your uncle’. That’s how she’d do it if she wanted to do it cleanly. But, she decided, gazing curiously at the rather featureless man being dragged to a corner table with a magnum of wine, that maybe she didn’t want to do this clean. She hadn’t chosen this bounty and had no intention of playing this straight. There was too much she didn’t know about this situation. And that woman with the dyed red curls was the key to what she didn’t know.

So you know that lot, do you?” Dot shook herself out of reverie and tossed her head at the two of them.

Tom Frost fancies himself a writer,” Fey sneered with a quiet but convincing contempt. “Well, when he’s not out of his head on heroin or buggering the local rent-boys, that is. Never actually seen any of his writing appear in anything, but he doesn’t ever seem to run out of money.”

And the ginger? What’s her story?” Dot was careful to keep her voice even, not to evince more interest in her then her companion.

Oh, Joan? Joanie with the dyed red hair?” Fey giggled a bit spicily and Dot was reminded that she’d been swilling absinthe at midday. “His new, young wife, the perfect accessory for any respectability-minded English gentleman junky and queen. Loves him for who he truly is. Who he truly is being rich, naturally.”

You fancy her a bit, then, do you?” Dot teased lightly and sipped on her beer.

A bit of gold-digging piffle like that?” Fey snorted with real contempt, her intense spot-light eyes fixing Dot with a gaze that made her flush a bit warm. “I think not. Oh, she’s pretty enough, I suppose, in her way, but I can tell from a glance that she’d bore me silly before we ever got back to my hotel. No, I find that I need a bit more depth.” Here she winked at Kiki, who remained unaffected. “Or, hmmm, let’s call it texture to keep me interested.” She winked at Dot so quickly that it was nearly imperceptible.

She waited at Fey’s table, nursing her beer, keeping one eye on the Frosts, the other on Fey’s hands. Fey talked a lot about art and politics and couldn’t seem to keep the two straight. Dot told fragments of stories she’d either heard or lived, mashed together as the mood took her. One interesting thing, she could see Kiki’s eyes light up whenever she spoke of something true, bright as stars shining in her dark, pretty face. The shadows shifted as the harsh white light of midday became the long, yellow sunlight of late afternoon.

Finally, another figure, still European but with the olive complexion and dark, deep-set eyes of a Mediterranean, in a stained pseudo-military uniform and carrying a bulging satchel of some sort came into the cantina and looked around nervously for a moment before making a beeline straight for the Frosts’ table. There was a short conversation with Joan, difficult to make out, as the man was seated with the back of his head towards her and blocked her view of Joan’s thin, red lips. Joan took out her purse and made the universally recognizable movements of sliding money across the table. The local man pounced on the envelope and rather neatly passed off the satchel beneath the table. Shoving the envelope in his cargo pants he shoved himself out of the chair and scurried out of the cantina.

The Frosts sat for maybe fifteen more minutes, then they also got up and started for the door, or rather, again, the woman, Joan, launched herself up from their corner table and headed for the door, the man, Tom, following behind, like a man in a trance. Dot checked her Mauser in its holster to make sure the dust hadn’t gotten into the mechanism and made to follow.

Leaving us already?” Fey asked with a calm indifference although Dot thought she could almost detect the slightest catch in the voice. “I suppose if you were bored later, you could dine with me and Kiki tonight. We’re at the Hotel Internacionale.”

Don’t know if I’ll still be in town tonight. Honest.” Dot didn’t lie, not per se, except by omission. “Be delighted to any other time though.”

Will I see you again?” Fey asked, her voice getting a bit huskier, letting a bit of desire creep in. Dot felt tempted by this strange, brazen woman. It had been a long time, too long, nearly longer then she could remember. But no, like the Professor before her, she’d learned the hard way that it was no good for people to get too close to her. She had opened her mouth to utter some gentle brush-off when she found herself preempted by Kiki.

Yes. You will,” Kiki intoned softly to Fey. Blind-sided, Dot just stared at Kiki for a moment. Then Kiki nodded to her and then towards the door and she remembered her mission. Without another word, she was out the door and into the lengthening blue shadows of the Tangiers evening.

The Frosts weren’t that far ahead of her and weren’t that hard to track. Well, the woman calling herself “Joan Frost” wasn’t anyway and where she went, so went Tom. Pretending to be stumbling drunk, she followed Joan’s long, easy strides down twisting alleyways, the sound of the call to prayers once again ringing out through the city, echoing down the narrow streets. They came to a doorway set into the long, single wall of one of the canyon-like avenues. A rented house, surely. Dot carefully took up a slumped posture in a nearby alley way, like a passed-out drunk, her hand resting casually on the handle of her pistol.

A wait of half an hour saw the Frosts come and go, changed into dinner clothes. Joan Frost entered the house wearing a sundress and carrying a satchel and left in an evening gown and without anything larger then a handbag. Dot waited impatiently until the sound of Joan’s laughter had stopped echoing off the walls of the street before kipping up and sauntering over to the door, jiggling the handle and fishing around in her pockets exactly like someone who’s lost their house key for the benefit of anybody who might be watching from any of the dark, round-arched windows on the street.

A quick inspection showed nothing more exciting then a standard mechanical lock, like any in the 20th Century. It took her a couple minutes with the metal toothpick on her swiss army knife to persuade it open. Drawing her automatic pistol, she stepped cautiously into the darkened house.

Carefully closing the door behind her, she found herself cloaked in darkness, broken only by a pair of narrow bands of fading orange light cast by the front windows. Unconsciously, she relaxed. She was most at home in the dark, the unlighted, undefined places of creation. Crouching, she carefully considered the situation. Given the speed with which the couple had changed, it would only be natural to assume that Joan would have taken the satchel upstairs. And if Joan wasn’t also River Song, the criminal that eluded the Time Agency, that’s where she would have started. But Song was a professional. So the satchel was likely to be downstairs. Slowly, carefully, Dot began feeling her way around the lower level. An obvious floor safe under the rug she passed up as too obvious, but a barely detectable rip in the back of the duvet proved most useful.

Slowly pulling the wrapped bundle out of the slit, her blood froze to ice as she heard the a rattle as someone fumbled with the keys in the door. She froze as the door opened.

The woman who was currently calling herself ‘Dot’ (the latest in a long line of names she’d invented for herself, stretching back to childhood) crouched behind the very divan she’d just been exploring and tensed as the front door opened a crack, letting in a thin finger of moonlight. She could make out voices, the dull drone of a man, Tom Frost no doubt, and the broad, distinct laugh of the woman River Song, who was still calling herself ‘Joan Frost’ in this age and place, although she couldn’t quite make out what they were saying. Slowly, deliberately, so as not to make a sound, Dot shifted her Mauser C-96 to a ready position should she have to come out shooting from behind the divan, while with her other hand, she reached into the slit in the back of the divan and pulled out the satchel that she had seen the woman River/Joan purchase earlier in the cantina. She was surprised by the heft of the satchel and could feel some kind of irregular bulk inside it.

The wedge of moonlight grew wider as the door swung open a little farther and she could now make out what the voices outside were saying. Well, one of the voices, anyway.

“…just like you,” the woman’s voice berated. “Only the whole reason we came to this charmingly backward age falls into our lap and you forget to lock the door. Bloody typical.”

The man’s response was mumbled and just below comprehension.

What do you mean? Of course I didn’t…” the woman trailed off. There was a longish pause Dot disliked. When Song resumed speaking, it was with an artificial jollity that sounded forced. “Oh, well, maybe I did at that, sweetheart. Silly me. Well as long as we’re back, I shall go freshen up, hmmm?”

The house went dark as the couple entered the house and closed the door behind them. Listening carefully, Dot could hear one set of footsteps clomping noisily up the stairs and, under that, a second set of footsteps softly padding into the living room. She’d been rumbled, no doubt there, which was bad from the perspective of her break-in, but also an opportunity to collect the bounty on Song, if she grabbed her here and now. She came here for information, and with both satchel and woman both, she could use them to sort this whole mess out at her leisure.

Short moments became long eternities as the careful footsteps padded closer and closer to the divan. Dot held her breath, granite still, waiting in the eternal now. Concentrating, she could hear the footsteps shift direction, around towards the left side of the divan. With what seemed like glacial slowness in the lengthening moment Dot snaked the arm that wasn’t holding a pistol through the strap of the satchel and shifted to the right side of the divan, leveling her Mauser, ready to act as soon as the other woman rounded the back of the divan.

Dot moved as soon as the shadowy form came into view, launching herself towards the figure, leading with her Mauser. It took a moment for Dot to realize what she was looking at, that her pistol muzzle was pointed at a man’s chest instead of a woman’s face. The chest of the man Tom Frost. She realized with a start that she recognized his face. From where or as whom she couldn’t place at the moment but it was a face she knew, of that she was certain. Spooked, she stumbled backwards, and saw Frost’s eyes tracking the satchel. Improvising, she took advantage of his distraction and bolted, taking long, muscular strides across the darkened room towards the door.

The faint rectangle of blue moonlight that outlined the front door grew in her sight as she rushed towards it, she could hear nothing but her own running feet and thumping heart. Then, suddenly, there was a blinding, rapidly strobing, flash of light and a small fire sizzling at her feet that stopped her in her tracks. She spun around and glared upwards and there was River Song, in a slinky white satin nightgown and holding a military-issue Third Empire pulse laser and looking far too smug for either of their goods. Dot glared momentarily at her perfectly authentic Mauser C-96 automatic pistol and back up at the laser in Song’s hand and sighed a little to herself. All the effort she’d put into time-appropriate equipment and here she was, on the receiving end of a weapon centuries ahead of its time. Some days she wondered why she even bothered.

That a real C-96?” Song sounded a little impressed. “Very nice. I won’t quite use the word ‘timeless’ under the circumstances, but certainly a classic. Put it down, won’t you? And carefully.” She was smiling sweetly but at the same time in a way that suggested she was perfectly capable of burning a hole in Dot’s forehead and getting back to their dinner party with not so much as a twinge.

Thanks,” Dot replied more then a little sarcastically as she laid it at her feet, her eyes never leaving the woman at the top of the stairs. “I find they’re pretty reliable, provided you can take care of your equipment. Any hope I’ll see it again?”

I’m afraid you won’t.” River shook her head in a slight but definite negative. “Not that you’re really in a position to dictate terms, are you? Now, arms out from your sides, there you go.” Dot obeyed, slowly and carefully, stretching her arms out like a bad Christ figure in a Christmas pageant, although frankly, what with being in the front hall and the satchel hanging from one arm, she felt more like a coat rack.

There we go,” Song continued. “Now just be a good girl and sit still while Tom retrieves what’s mine, will you? I thought so. TOM!” she shouted towards the living room without ever taking her eyes from Dot. “Be a love and get the satchel back before Dot tries to do something brave and I have to mess up the front carpet with her brains. We paid quite a deposit on the place, you know?” she mock-confided to Dot, her smile turning almost fatally sweet.

What and used your own money?” Dot snorted in laughter. “What kind of crap time-traveler are you?”

Well of course not,” Song chuckled. Dot found it very telling that she hadn’t bat an eye at that last crack. But then, she was the one holding the pulse laser. “But that nice Emir was so very useful and I’d hate to disappoint him.”

Dot watched very carefully as Tom came out from the living room, as casually as if he was coming in for dinner. Once again, she was struck by his familiarity and bothered by her inability to recall how she knew him. She had a moment to study his face this time and while, if one considered it only as a collection of individual parts, it wasn’t particularly notable, there was something in it, something Dot couldn’t quite put a name to, that haunted her, like the face of someone she’d known as a child, something that made it more then rather a sum of its parts. He was at her and reaching for the satchel hanging from one arm when she came out of her reverie and without having thought about it previously, suddenly grabbed him, twisted his arm into a lock behind him and angled him so that with his greater height, he stood entirely between her and the muzzle of Ms. Song’s laser. There was no time for him to resist, she was well-trained and had the element of surprise on her side. Indeed, she was almost as surprised at her own maneuver as he was.

And why don’t I just burn through dear Tom there to get to you and just take my property off your rapidly-cooling, well-cauterized body?” Song asked, a perfectly reasonable tone for a perfectly reasonable question in a perfectly unreasonable situation.

If you were going to, I’d already be cooling and Tommy-boy would still be in the living room, looking vague and pretty. No, he’s got value to you, don’t know how or what, but he’s important somehow. So, which do you value more, the satchel or Tommy here? ‘Cause you got a choice to make, girl.”

And if I you’re wrong and I chose the satchel? What will you do then?” Song’s voice dropped half an octave with a bit of dangerous vibrato as the weapon in her hand made the high-pitch whine of a pulse laser switching capacitors to ready for another shot.

Hmmm, well, I suppose then I’d do something like… THIS!” Dot drove her knee into the small of his back and drove him forward at the same time as she spun around, threw open the door and dashed out into the night, which lit up behind her with the flickering strobes and distinctive ozone smell of a pulse laser being discharged wildly.

A laser burned past her ear and singed her hair as she sped down the street and Dot let out a wild, throaty laugh, the kind that doesn’t bother with the speech centers of the brain, and goes straight from the belly to the larynx. Her limbs took on strength and speed and she could feel the adrenaline burning like a cleansing fire. Nothing was as close to feeling alive as when she was close to death.

She could hear the woman yelling for Tom to ‘Get Her!’. As she swung around the corner, she laughed again, finding it funny how many times she’d heard those same syllables, or their equivalent over the years. She heard Tom’s footsteps hitting the tiles well behind her. It would have to be Tom, she reasoned, after all, futuristic tech or no, there was no way River Song was running after her in those heels.

She had the head start but Frost had the longer legs. She glanced back over her shoulder through the long blue shadows that overlapped the street behind her and the slowly gaining figure in the white tuxedo, which shone in the moonlight, like the first star to emerge after sunset. Her feet, and his, echoed loudly with every step she took on the tiled streets, so there was no chance of losing him, not on these back streets, nor by ducking into some conveniently placed alleyway. The lack of footsteps would stand out as much in the gathering silence of night as the current noise did. What she needed was more noise. Up ahead was an intersection and acting as much on instinct as reason, she drove left at it, pushing herself until the fire scalded her lungs. She needed to buy herself more time and only speed would do that now.

She ran and ran hard, eating up the street in long, athletic strides on legs used to running. Behind her, she could still hear footsteps, providing an arrhythmic counterpoint to the beat of her own. A sudden idea popped into her head, and she made an effort to slow down a bit, matching her steps precisely with her pursuer’s. She closed her eyes and concentrated, making sure that her feet hit the ground at the same time and with the same force as his. He was a bigger man and the effort sent a bone-jarring shudder through her lower legs every time she attacked the ground with the sole of her foot, but she concentrated and kept up the pace. She could hear him, now running at the same pace she was but with the benefit of longer legs, beginning to catch up, closer and closer, but, more importantly, wafting in on the wind that rushed past her face as she ran, she could now begin to smell the odor of animal wastes and cooked meat. A thin, satisfied smile danced across her lips and she had to will herself to not pick up the pace in her excitement.

Slowly, but surely, she could hear him catching up behind her. Only a short way more, she reminded himself, she just had to hope that her head start would buy her a few minutes more. They ran in tandem, her footsteps matching his precisely, two steady drumbeats become one steady drumbeat. She could hear both his steps and his breathing now, not labored, not panting, but certainly getting his exercise. She opened her eyes and up ahead, she saw it, the arched gate leading into one of Tangiers’ many open squares. It was not long since sunset and the busy marketplace that had been set up here was still closing up, the crowds of shoppers mostly gone home, but the hawkers and merchants still closing down their kiosks, packing up their goods and rolling up their mats. Busy grown-ups, their rushing children and milling donkeys and camels still roamed the square. The breathing and footsteps were much closer now, she could hear them nearly up behind her and at this moment, she skipped a step and heard him stumble behind her. A neat little trick she’d picked up from that old fraud Crowley around the turn of the century.

Using her momentary lead, she shoved her way past a merchant and into his closed tent. She did it noisily and he began to shout at her in Arabic. Dropping the curtain that served it as a door, she quickly and quietly crawled under the tent’s side into a neighboring tent, then out the back of the neighboring tent into the alleyway it faced away from, leading out from the square. She heard shouts and commotion back in the square and held her breath, curled up into a little ball around the satchel behind a rubbish bin, waiting for it to pass. Eventually it did. A white man in a suit while abroad was easily tracked by listening for the crowd of juvenile entrepreneurs, beggars, salesmen, thieves and would-be guides, which followed him. Finally, the noise started to grow distant and she begin to feel it was safe to move. Staying low, she crept slowly and quietly out the other end of the alley. Now all she had to do was stay clear until she got back.

So intent was she on watching her tail and staying clear of Tom Frost that she didn’t really realize her feet had taken to the Hotel Internacionale until she was standing out in front of its pillared pseudo-Arabic façade. She considered it for a moment, considered that she hadn’t made any accommodations of her own for the night and considered her standing invite for dinner. Stopping for a moment, she grinned in elation. She’d reached safety and avoided capture. Today was a good day indeed. The tired rush of victory, that feeling of clean exhaustion married to the residual jitter of adrenaline, even managed to forgive the rather arch, disapproving look of the desk man as she asked for Miss Truscott-Sade’s rooms. And should he phone her? No let this be a surprise. He again disapproved but acquiesced.

Once in the posh, brass cage of a lift, and headed up to the third floor, where Fey was staying, she then, and only then, dared open the satchel and see what was inside. Angling the bag so that the Arab bellhop couldn’t see inside, she opened the satchel. Within was an object, a little large then a cantaloupe, wrapped in what appeared to be a white silk scarf. Using one hand to hold the bag, she unwrapped the scarf with all the abandon of a child opening her first present on a Christmas morn. What was inside was a stone object, well-worn, of some reddish stone, shaped vaguely like a squatting man, its facial features left blank, either by design or worn away by long, unforgiving centuries. Sumerian? Prehistoric European? Mesoamerican? It resembled any of these. The stone didn’t feel cold to the touch, it was slightly warm, like the afterimage of heat from something that’s been recently handled. It meant nothing to her right then and there. Resolving to figure it out when she had some dinner in her, she shook her head and put it back in the satchel.

The hallways of the Internacionale were long and cool and dim and she felt a bit like a cross between a conquering hero and someone coming home from a long, hard, but successful day’s work as she strode down them. Hand was raised to knock on the hardwood door with the brass numbers on it when it opened and Kiki stepped out, clad in flowing, diaphanous robes. As she opened her mouth to greet her Kiki shook her head slightly and she shut her mouth.

What you have been, she may yet become. Treat her well.” And with that, Kiki was gone, silently, down the hall and towards the lifts, leaving the door ajar behind her. She followed the silent figure with her eyes, wondering whether it was worth it to go after her and find out what in the name of all that’s holy she was talking about.

Kiki, darling, who was it?” Fey’s voice escaped from the cracked door and broke Dot’s train of thought. Leaving wonderings about Kiki for later, she slipped into the white-walled suite and closed the door behind you.

Kiki seems to have gone walkies. Will I do? I seem to remember an invite to dinner. And lordy am I starved!”

How typically inscrutable of her. Well do sit down, by all means.” Fey wandered in from the balcony, holding a glass of thick, red wine and swept her other arm graciously towards the table that was set up there.

Don’t mind if I do,” Dot replied, her stomach rumbling as the last of the adrenaline drained out of her and she once again became aware of aching feet and empty stomach. “Been at it all day and I could eat a camel. Wotcha got there? Oh, Tajine? Wicked!” She paused a mere nanosecond to let Fey nod slightly in assent and then rushing past her to take a seat and address herself to the wicker table on the balcony. The balcony was all ornate white brickwork, overlooking the white-tiled main courtyard of the Hotel Internacionale, which had a burbling fountain in the shape of an eight-pointed star in the middle. The sky was a mantle of blue so dark as to almost be black, adorned with a crown of a million stars adorning its vast and distant brow. There was a cool evening breeze blowing across the courtyard now, cooling the sweat on her brow and offsetting the spice in the tajine, the lamb in stew. “Heyf,” she mumbled through her first mouthful of tajine. “Got any khubz to go with… ‘ey, there we are.” She reached for some of the Moroccan flat bread sitting at the table’s middle.

Here, let me pour you some wine.” Fey smiled a bit indulgently and filled a silver cup at Dot’s right elbow with some of the same deep, pungently red wine she was drinking and then topped off the crystal goblet of water next to it. “Sorry for the paucity of my spread, old thing. Its just that I wasn’t sure you would be coming.” She took a seat herself, a quarter turn around the table from Dot, where she could see the whole of the central courtyard.

Didn’t know myself, truth be told,” Dot managed between mouthfuls of spicy stew and flatbread. “Although your Kiki did, didn’t she? Weird, huh?”

A mystery, my Kiki,” Fey sighed thoughtfully. “One of many I’ve found since coming here. Tangier is like one of the honey pastries they make here, composed of layers that flake and split. And between the layers, the honey that binds them is the mystery and wonder. In a lot of ways, just like old Blighty, except here, instead of Norman atop Saxon atop Roman atop Celt, it’s Spaniard atop French atop Bedouin atop Moor, and beyond the Moor, whispers and tag-ends of Rome and Carthage and gods alone know what else. They say that the witches of old, Hecate and her kin, they found power and danger at crossroads, and places like Tangiers or Macau or Britain, they are the biggest crossroads there are.” Dot waited until she was done chewing and washed down the lamb with a gulp of the hellishly strong wine before she spoke.

So, I was right.” She smiled at Fey like the cat that had caught the canary. “You aren’t just here for some upper-crust piss-up, are you? You’re chasing something, same as me.”

We’re all chasing something, my dear Dot.” Fey raised a single eyebrow and cracked a thin, predatory grin. “But yes. I suppose I am. But mine isn’t as conveniently embodied as yours. Although I wonder if your quest is as straightforward as you tried to sell it, dear. Of course, you found your quarry this afternoon, I could see it in your eyes as soon as you set them on the Frosts, but here you are, still searching.”

Well, that presumes a fair bit, don’t it?.” Dot raised her brown eyes to Fey under suspicious brows.

But is it wrong?” Fey countered coyly. “Layers, dear. Layers. I think you might just be a bit like Tangier in that respect. Listen to me,” she laughed suddenly and shook her head sadly. “I’m starting to sound like Kiki, all full of portent and meaning. Me of all people!”

Well, don’t you worry about me.” Dot grinned wickedly as she remembered this evening’s excitement and her back straightened a bit with the memory of the thrill. “I’m not done with this city quite yet. Whatever you might think I’m looking for, I’m finding it in spades.”

Oh, good,” Fey purred throatily, her lipless grin spreading almost imperceptibly. “And what is that? That you’re finding here?”

You,” Dot muttered and gestured accusingly with a kebab, “ask a lot of questions for an artist.”

Au contraire .” Fey shook her head as she took out a thin, hand-rolled cigarette from a silver carrying case. “I’m afraid I don’t ask nearly enough questions to be an artist. An artist questions everything. I’m no artist, only an educated observer. Patron, critic, confident, and occasional muse. And what about you? You’ve been as adept at avoiding answering questions as I’ve been in asking them. Have something to hide or are you just trying to enhance your mysterious allure, hmmm?

Dot took another bite of lamb off the kebab to buy herself some time to consider this Fey. This woman, who was younger then she was trying to look, was, ironically, the prettiest boy she’d seen in a while. It wasn’t that she wasn’t interested in what this girl was offering. Far from it. But that was the problem, wasn’t it?

What are you looking for here, in Tangier?” Fey’s asked again as her intense ice-blue eyes locked with Dot’s hazel ones. “Really? Not the Frosts or some other rot, what do you really want, Dot Shannon?”

Want?” Dot laughed single, rather hallow laugh and took another swallow of the tongue-stingingly strong wine. “I gave up on wanting things a long time ago. No future in it. No future, no past, nothing worth saving or destroying. The only way to get by is to just do the job in front of you, no matter how ridiculous it is, and try not to think about how flippin’ futile it all is in the big picture.”

Fey didn’t respond directly, only, slowly and almost timorously laid a single delicate ivory hand on Dot’s. It was warm, when compared to the night air. Dot knew she should pull her hand away, to keep from sending this girl all the wrong signals. She had a thousand good reasons for pulling away, mostly that it wasn’t good for people to get too close to people like her and it wasn’t good for her to get too close to people she lost. This train of thought was all well and good except that she hadn’t yet actually pulled her hand away and found that she didn’t want to. Now she was finally experiencing the kind of human contact she’d been denying herself, she remembered how much she craved it and wasn’t sure she could stand to give it up so soon.

Long seconds stretched out into even longer minutes and Fey’s warm, smooth hand still gently caressed her own.

So,” she poke the words so softly that she almost couldn’t make them out herself. “What do we do now?”

I think you’ve answered your own question. I’m beginning to think you’re the kind who always answers your own questions. If the past is a fiction and the future unknowable and all we have is the now, then I think we should take advantage of it, don’t you?” Taking a breath, Fey leaned in close to Dot and Dot felt the breath quicken in her lungs. Fey paused, questioningly, just short of Dot’s face, close that Dot could feel the heat from Fey’s breath on her lips. Dot hesitated for a moment, but only for a moment, then grabbed the back of Fey’s head and lunged into a savage kiss, nearly upsetting the table. Her water goblet leapt off the table and shattered, unnoticed on the balcony.

The couscous was going to go cold.

???????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????

“ ‘And with precious and royal perfume you anointed yourself, on soft beds you satisfied your passion and there was no dance, no holy place from which you were absent.’ ” The clear voice of Fey Truscott-Sade sounded distant, coming from no distinct direction, like the voice of a greek chorus. The woman who was currently calling herself ‘Dot Shannon’ stirred to wakefulness, reaching across the plush 600 count Egyptian cotton sheets to confirm that Fey was indeed not in the bed. Prying open her eyes, she immediately squinted them closed against the blinding white morning sunlight that assaulted them, catching only the briefest glimpse of Fey, up and dressed in her favorite white suit, the image softened by the gauzy mosquito netting that covered the bed like a canopy. It was like a dream, but Dot felt something twist in her guts. Maybe it had just been so long since she’d been happy, simple and clear that she had forgotten how, but something about this felt wrong, however she couldn’t pierce the cloud of grogginess to get at it. Or maybe it was just the poem that Fey was quoting.

Be careful of what you quote, Fey, the words that you don’t say have just as much power as the ones you do,” Dot muttered, raising her head without opening her eyes so that the blinding white light could play red patterns across her eyes. She barked out a sudden laugh. She was starting to sound like the Prof. She wondered what he would think of her if he could see her now and quickly changed the internal subject to keep from answering her own question.

My, aren’t we feeling profound this morning? And I disagree, author intent is an excuse. Meaning lives in the reader and the reader alone. We make our own meanings and write our own stories. We have to, don’t we?” Dot could smell the dry, bitter smell of cigarette smoke on the air and opened a single, rheumy eye to see Fey hiding her thin-lipped, mobile mouth behind her hand and a glowing ember. “You almost had me scared yesterday. Did you know that?” Dot opened both eyes and shoved herself up on one elbow to take a good look at Fey. As she lowered her hand and blew out a shapely stream of smoke, Fey had a wholly unreadable look on her face, half smugness and half something else.

Afraid? Really?” Dot chose to laugh, then let her smirk grow lascivious as looking at Fey brought up her recent sense-memories of what they’d experienced the last twelve hours. “There was nothing fearful about that girl I met last night.”

I did say ‘almost’, darling,” Fey chuckled in response. It was a low, throaty sound that further stirred Dot’s memory. “But I was almost afraid, back there in the cantina, with your interest in the Frosts and especially the way you couldn’t your eyes off of Tom Frost. I was afraid that maybe you weren’t the sort to… ah, be interested in me.”

My girl, my girl. How do I tell you what sort I am? I’m…” Here she paused to try to put it into terms the mid-twentieth century might understand. She had lived in this century once, but had been so long in ages where these weren’t questions that it took her moment to readjust her thinking again. “Let me put it like this. Down the coast from here, the Hausa-speaking peoples have a word, kifi. It means ‘one who doesn’t choose a role’.” She favored the young woman across the room with a quirky half-smile. “I guess you could say that’s what I am. I like who I like, nothing more, nothing less. Or better yet,” she said as she grinned lewdly. “Getcher self back over here and I’ll show you what I like. ‘Come now, luxuriant graces and beautiful-haired muses’.”

Oh, you are a temptation, you are. You’re interesting, and I’d like nothing better then to take the time to get to really know you.” Fey’s smile turned sad and Dot got that sinking feeling in her gut again. “Pity I’ve got other, more pressing business.” There was a moment’s hesitation and then she produced a snub-nosed revolver from behind her back. “I really am sorry about this, old thing.” Her voice shifted, losing its melancholy and regaining its affected toffee-nosed accent. Dot felt herself harden a bit inside as she saw Fey’s mask go up. “But needs must and all that. You were really very good, and I don’t just mean in the boudoir. Your tradescraft is impeccable. I mean, that little bit of business in the cantina, improvising a nickname on the spot there to add to the authenticity of your cover? Skillfully done. So who are you with? The Krauts? No, they’d never trust a woman. The Yanks? They have such a rum lot that they might have to hire a proper British operator just to get someone who knows what the hell they’re doing. One of the Irish mobs, maybe? Tell me or don’t, it doesn’t really matter, your mission’s finished either way.” Fey sighed dramatically and nodded to where the bundled statue from River’s satchel sat on the bureau. “I’ve got specific orders about that ugly little piece of bric-a-brac. It’s a pity, but needs must, I’m afraid.”

With a groan, Dot threw herself back onto the pillow as she put together the pieces. Wasn’t this just bloody typical? The first time she lets down any of her defenses in who knows how long and she pulls an SIS agent. Only her.

I probably don’t have to tell you to not follow me, but don’t follow me, love, neither of us would enjoy how that ends.” There was a long paused during which Dot didn’t answer, and Fey continued, a little more uncertainly. “Obviously, I’ll not be returning to this hotel, but feel free to order up breakfast, they do a lovely fry-up here. The Service will pick up the tab, and the room is paid up ‘till noon.” More awkward shuffling and then Dot caught the movement out of the corner of her eye as Fey slipped out of the room and, sure enough, the statue was gone, and so was Fey.

Dot sighed again and wallowed for a longish moment both in the opulent bedding and the shreds of her self-respect. Unbidden, another line from the poetry of Sappho, the poetry that had helped gotten her into this whole mess in the first place, drifted into her mind.

Once again, limb-loosening love made me tremble. The bitter-sweet, irresistible creature,” she quoted softly to herself and no one else.

Then, as her mind still dwelt gloomily on the recent past, her arms unceremoniously threw off the covers and legs woodenly stood and began tromping about the room, gathering her articles of clothing. Lover gone and glaring white sunlight still very much in presence, she could now feel the pounding in her head of all the wine they’d drank, and all the hashish they’d smoked, last night. What this called for was a bit of hair of the dog, but instead, she settled for calling down to front desk and ordering some fresh fruit and coffee, strong as only the Arabs can make it. While she was waiting, she did a thorough search of the apartments, looking for some clues, but the British Secret Service was just as depressingly efficient as their reputation made them out. So she contented herself by looting everything movable and even mildly valuable, from the silverware to some of the lamps, in a sack made from the shower curtain.

Coffee cleared her head from the wine, and the fruit settled her stomach from the coffee and soon, she was back on the street, sack and all. The sun was only halfway up in the pale blue sky and already there were shimmering heat mirages coming up off the cobbled streets. If yesterday was hot then today was going to be a real cooker.

If Fey was half the spy she suspected, she knew that trying to follow her directly would be futile. But if she was half the toff that she suspected, there were other ways to track her that she wouldn’t think of. Being a 1930’s European aristocrat, she’d be very careful of official sources and wary of other Europeans, true, but to her, the rest of the locals would likely pass entirely beneath her notice. And so, a silver candlestick to a beggar told her that a person who walked as a woman but dressed as a man was seen entering the Casa Barata markets, where a lovely old fence with one tooth and one eye gladly described the red-haired beauty the ‘young man’ she was looking for met with, in exchange for a dirty joke in French, a smile and a full set of real Egyptian cotton pillow cases from the Hotel Internacionale.

This last piece of information gave her pause to consider. If Song and Fey were connected somehow, then this whole thing, already a maze of mysteries and unanswered questions, just got a bit hazier. Knowing that two such slick operators as a time-traveling thief and an SIS agent would cover their routes like professionals, Dot decided, once again, to go perpendicular. She may not know where her quarry (and to be honest, she didn’t know which one she wanted most to find), but she knew where one of them still lived, at least had lived as of last night, and as she was learning, that was a long time in Tangier.

Keeping to alleys and back streets, she made her way casually down towards the rented house of the ‘Frosts’, eating up the distance with wide, confident strides, for all the world like just another gawking European tourist, just as inconspicuous as if she’d been skulking in every shadow (and even this time of day, there weren’t many) along the way.

She lurked in the same alleyway she had the night before while casing the house, this time pretending to be consulting a guide book instead of dead drunk.

She didn’t have to wait for very long. A long, white town car, done up gaudily in gold trim, pulled up in front of the ‘Frost’s’ and the leggy form of River Song unfolded herself from the interior. She was, Dot was interested to notice, carrying a rather large, bulky carpet-bag instead of the demure, sequined handbag she’d been carrying in the cantina the day before. Very telling for a woman as fashionable as River Song seemed to be here and now.

Oh, thank you so very much for the ride, Emir, you are such a dear!” Song was wiggling her fingers in a coy farewell and flashing whoever was in the care with one of her more blinding smiles. As soon as the car roared away in an explosion of smoke, River’s smile shifted from endearing to sly and smug. She lovingly patted the carpet bag and ducked quickly inside the house.

Dot thought about what Song had said last night, about that item, whatever it was, being the whole reason she was in this corner of time and space, and realized that if she didn’t act now, Song would be gone and she’d have to start all over again. But first she’d need a way into that house. Front door wouldn’t be unwatched again, not after last night. However, she’d seen signs of a kitchen the last time, while she was running for her life. And where there was a kitchen, there was a servant’s entrance. Feeling a little more like she had a plan, or as close as she generally had to a plan, she pulled back out of the alleyway and around the block.

There was indeed a kitchen entrance, in an alleyway behind the house so narrow that even in late morning, it was still cloaked in thin blue shadows. Doubtful Song would leave the item alone again, certainly not hide it in the same place again. Last time, she’d had a chance to search the downstairs. Nothing there had seemed out of place. And upstairs is where Song had emerged from with a pulse laser during her last little visit. For a moment she realized why the Professor hadn’t traveled alone, it would have been nice to talk this all out with someone. A companion. Her little encounter with Fey had reminded her how much she missed the company, missed people. But people could be fragile, a weakness she couldn’t afford. She shook off such melancholy thoughts and refocused on the task at hand.

The stolen item was probably upstairs, and River Song as well. If she was detected getting in the rear entrance, Song might be gone before she could get upstairs. She settled on the direct approach. Her eyes drifted upwards towards the arched and barred windows on the second story of the house.

The crumbling bricks proved decent hand and foot holds and she scrambled up the back of the building with ease. Hanging from the sill of one of those windows, she could see that on the other side of the latticework the room was dark and cool, only lit where the sunlight from the very window she was looking in struck the floor. Levering herself up onto the broad, brick sill, she brought out a penknife and began to work on the grouting, loosening it bit by bit, wincing every time some grotty little chunk dislodged and fell to the street, making a slight clatter that sounded like thunder in ears heightened by tension. As she scraped her little pocket blade along the bottom of the latticework, she leaned in to it a bit and felt a little give. Quickly flipping her penknife shut with one hand while gripping the sill with the other, she deposited it in her pocket. Then she squared her stance a bit, so she squatted balanced on the sill, laced the fingers of both hands into the lattices themselves and took in a deep breath.

Slowly, oh so very slowly, almost glacially so, she pushed inwards, gradually leaning into the lattice, hearing the creaking of the grout weakened by her chipping away with the penknife as it began to give way. She was careful, constantly on watch to avoid the temptation to push too hard, too fast, make a noise, and end the party very quickly. She was focused, her whole world contained within a decorative latticework not even as wide as her arm reach; the only thing she could hear was the grinding of the mortar and the creaking of the wooden lattice as the one warred with the other to see which would give first. Not even the sound of her own teeth grinding together made it into her consciousness.

Snap! Her heart nearly stopped as a tiny piece of the lattice snapped off between her right thumb and pointer. With a wince, she felt the splinter jam itself into the callus on her trigger finger on that hand. Reluctantly, she stopped to readjust her thumb, hooking it into another nearby lattice, letting the broken piece clatter to the ground. Steeling herself with another deep breath, she squared her shoulders and gave the lattice another short, sharp shove and felt it come loose from its grout. Careful not to make a noise, she pushed it out of its frame and laid it just inside the room, leaning against the wall next to the window, then quietly slipped in after it, landing on her toes to minimize the noise.

Glancing outside to the alleyway one last time, she stood and crept towards the door of the small room, pulling the splinter from her finger with her teeth and spit onto the wooden floor here. Reaching out a cautious hand to the handle, she tested the door and found it unlocked. She turned the knob and gave it an experimental twist, pushing the door open a mere inch. She let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding as the door opened noiselessly on well-oiled hinges. Opening it the rest of the way, she slipped quickly out into the hallway and closed the door behind her in a single smooth motion.

It was a well appointed hallway, thick Arab carpets on both the floor and the walls. Down the hall, she could hear a woman’s voice with River Song’s broad nasal tones talking excitedly to someone in a form of Panglish that wouldn’t exist in that form for several hundred years yet. Quickly scanning her head around the hallway for weapons, she came up empty. And Song still had her damn pistol. Just another day in the life.

She was up on her toes, trying to unfasten one of the hanging rugs from the wall to grab her prey in when one of the doors further down the hall opened. Quickly, she yanked hard and pulled down the hanging with an audible rip and prepared to grapple whoever came out of that door. And froze when Tom Frost stumbled out.

He was in a bad way. He was swaying gently, like a palm tree in a strong breeze, his fine clothes rumpled and half-undone. He wore no jacket and his shirt sleeves were rolled up to the elbow. One arm still had the piece of rubber tubing tied around it, making the veins, and the tracks on them, stand out. His eyes were dead and half-closed and there was a banal little half-smile dancing on his bloodless lips. Dot knew that in this state, having probably just shot up, he’d be devilishly easy to knock down or even just rush past. He wouldn’t even notice, the state he was in. But again, Dot found herself staring at him, in his strange, nagging, familiarity.

Her thoughts were racing, trying, desperately, to remember where she knew him from. She was absorbed in looking at him, analyzing every little detail of the blandly handsome face that she found she knew as well as her own. This was important, she knew it on some level she couldn’t quite quantify, but she couldn’t tell herself why. So caught up in her own thoughts was she that she nearly jumped out of her skin when he turned towards her and held out a single, imploring hand.

Remember me,” he said simply, without tone or inflection. “Please.”

I do,” a voice very much like her own whispered unbidden from between her lips.

Why?” they both asked at the same time, each staring disbelievingly at the other.

An eternity (or was it a second) passed as they stared into each others’ eyes, neither knowing what they looking for.

The moment was broken by a door slamming open and a woman yelling “Shit!”

Snapped out of her reverie, Dot charged the sound. There was the sharp buzz of capacitors connecting and she threw herself to the floor to avoid the coming laser bolts. She kipped up and found herself face to face with River Song’s humming pulse laser. It said a great deal about her lifestyle, she mused wryly, that this didn’t even give her the thrill of mortal terror anymore. She needed to find enemies with more interesting weapons.

So, gonna shoot me or what, ginger?” she said as she let out a tired breath. She noted with some disinterest that, despite what she’d just called her, Song was no longer a redhead but had now dyed her hair a blinding platinum blonde.

Might yet,” River Song growled, her face twisted into a cruel half-grin, part anger and part fear. “Still owe you from last night, don’t I?”

Oh, River,” Dot began coolly, looking contemptuously down at the pulse laser and then back up at Song without losing any of the cool contempt. “And it is River isn’t it? Of course it is. River my girl, you’re a top grade thief but you’re not much of a gunwoman, are you?”

I’ll have you know, I’m a hell of a gunwoman, top sniper in my old regiment, you, you, whoever you are.” Song brazened it out, trying to cover her own confusion with bravado. Dot relaxed and prepared, without even having to think about it, for what came next. As the mystery woman, she had the advantage. She liked to think of it as the ‘Sundance’ factor, from the “Who are these guys?!?” scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

That right?” Dot tsked and shook her head disapprovingly like an indulgent parent, she had taken control of the situation by . “ ‘Cause I gotta say, you’re not doing this very professional-like. Your professional bad guy now, well, they wouldn’t be fannying about trying to put the fear into someone on the end of their gun, they’d just shoot them. You know why? Because otherwise, they give the other guy time to do… this!” she shouted joyously as she ducked to one side and drove the heel of her hand into River’s wrist, throwing her shot off and sending the laser skittering across the hardwood floor.

To give Song credit, she was quick to recover, coming up into a lightning-fast spin kick that Dot barely dodged back from. She replied with a solid right cross that slammed into a raised forearm which drove it to one side of Song’s head. Song tried to turn the block into an elbow strike which Dot grabbed and twisted around with an old Venusian aikido throw to turn it into an armlock. She kneed Song in the kidneys and drove her down to her knees when there was the unmistakable click of a gun behind her and she froze in place, Song still held tight in the armlock, although the lithe, surprisingly muscular woman was squirming like mad.

How’d I know it would be you, Dot my poppet?” Fey sighed from behind her. “I told you neither of us would like how this ended, didn’t I?”

Fey.” Even Dot was surprised by the acid in her voice when she said the word. “This is no business of yours. Between my employers and the lady here. Don’t…” There was a catch in her voice and she quickly cleared her throat to cover it. “Don’t get yourself involved in this. Just don’t, alright?”

But I am involved,” Fey sighed. “My bosses, in their infinite wisdom, have a deal with the delightful Joan here, or River, if I heard you rightly on the way upstairs, or whatever. At any rate, it’s my first big assignment and my head if the deal doesn’t go through. So please, please, Dot my sweet, with a cherry on top, would you let the gold-digging, thieving tart up so I don’t have to simplify your complicated head considerably by putting a bullet through it.”

You’d shoot me? Really? Me?” Dot felt the thrill of fear dance up her spine for the first time today and tried not to smile. It really wouldn’t have been apropos to the situation.

Yes.” The answer was simple and sad and undoubtedly true. Dot had to suppress an entirely out-of-place giggle.

And that,” Dot whispered into Song’s ear as she let go suddenly on the armlock, causing the other woman to wince satisfyingly as the blood rushed all at once back to her forearm. “Is what ‘scary’ actually sounds like. Remember that.”

I’ll remember you ‘Dot’. Count on that,” Song sneered as she retrieved her pulse laser.

Please do.” Dot smiled pleasantly. “ ‘Cause you’ll be seeing me again. Count on that, blondie.”

Favoring Dot with a grim smile, Song quickly composed herself, nodded commandingly to Tom who stumbled after her and sauntered back into the room she’d emerged from, Tom trailing behind, the door closing behind them.

Dot and Fey were silent and still for a moment, neither looking at the other’s face. There was a strange buzzing sound and a flash of light from the crack beneath the door and then silence once more.

The silence was broken by the sound of Fey uncocking her revolver and letting out a tense breath.

Why do I feel like Horatio at the end of Hamlet?” Fey muttered to herself, punctuating it with a nervous giggle that made her sound as young as her age.

Maybe because there really are more things in heaven and earth then are dreamt of in your philosophies,” Dot answered softly as she turned around to face the girl. Despite her having betrayed her, stolen from her and threatened to shoot her all in one morning, she felt a pang of sympathy for her. She remembered what it was to be young and want to be tough and smart and dangerous. She also remembered what it was like when your assumptions about the world exploded with a bang.

So it would seem. They’re gone aren’t they?” Fey tried to sound casual, but her face was pale and her hands were shaking just the tiniest bit. “And you’re going to go, too, aren’t you? ”

Yeah, I am,” Dot stated with sad and simple honesty.

Must you?” And just for a moment, Fey was every day her age and not a day more. Dot put her hands on the younger woman’s shoulders to steady them and looked her straight in the eyes.

Do you remember the poem you quoted to me this morning?” she asked softly. “You remember how the rest of it goes, don’t you? ‘This parting must be endured, Sappho, I go unwillingly…’”

“ ‘I said go and be happy,’” Fey picked up the next line of the quote, reading Sappho’s own part. “ ‘But remember (you know well) whom you leave shackled by love. If you forget me, think of our gifts to Aphrodite and all the loveliness we shared’.” She dropped her eyes from Dot’s and was silent a moment after finishing the line, then continued, in her own voice. “Do you think, if I hadn’t had to do what I did, do you think we could have really had something, you and I?”

We did have something, Fey,” Dot whispered to her, trying to push the words up over the twisted Gordian knot in her gut. “It’s just that love betrays. Love always betrays.”

There was no response, as there could be no response.

She left her there, in a rented house in Tangier.

 

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Shotgun Wedding

An except from my misspent twenties for chuck wendig’s flash writing ‘True Story’ challenge: here

Shotgun Wedding

The two of us were just about out of our heads on sleep deprivation and Tom Clancy when we hit the California border. A straight shot from Montana through Idaho, paranoia radio country, Utah and the long nothing that is northern Navada will do that to you. It hadn’t been quite twenty-four hours since Jake and I had decided with all the enthusiasm that two boys in their twenties with a few beers in them are capable of that it would be a good idea to leave Missoula MT at eleven o’clock at night and drive straight through to Sacramento.

Sacramento is where Ray was getting married.

Jake and I were both in the wedding.

We had snuck through Idaho militia country where they hated long and loud in the name of Jesus on the radio, catching only an hour or two of sleep in a rest stop parking lot somewhere near Pocono. We had sped the rest of the way on adrenaline, caffeine and Tom Clancy audiobooks. Utah and Nevada are a blur of techno-thrillers and wastelands. Utah is just barren. Northern Nevada is a whole other thing, the kind of empty that chips away at the sanity. Listen, I’m from Eastern Montana (the part without mountains and trees) so when I talk about empty I know what I’m talking about. If the bombs ever dropped, nobody north of Vegas would ever notice the difference. There was one spot, marked in a fit of black humor as a town on the map, that turned out to be just a bunker surrounded by barbed wire. We decide we could hold it and kept driving.

Seriously, it’s empty enough to make Reno look like civilization.

Soon after Reno we hit the California border. Or rather, we got in line to hit the California border. There was a line that must have gone back a mile or two. California Highway Patrol had decided that this was a good day to do a border check. Or maybe that’s just how the Cali border is, I don’t know, I haven’t been back to California since.

We wait, what else could we do? And finally it’s our turn. A middle-aged Highway Patrolwoman comes up to the driver’s side window and it’s obvious from her face that she’s done about a thousand of these today and had about a thousand left to do.

Jake, who was working as a bail-bondsman at the time, considered himself to be something of a fellow law enforcement agent, rolls down the window and gives her his best, shit-eating, grin.

“Something I can help you with, officer?” Jake’s got a voice like a TV announcer and the crazy son of a bitch can be damn charming when he puts his mind to it.

“Yeah, are you transporting any fruits or vegetables with you today?” Her voice is flat and unaccented, like a robot’s. If there was a point where she gave a fuck, that point was well before she got to us.

“No, ma’am.”

“Open your trunk so I can take a look.”

“Sure thing, ma’am!”

What I saw and what she didn’t was that, grinning and pleasant all the time, while Jake was popping the trunk with one hand, his other hand was creeping towards the .38 in the door.

This is probably a good time to step back and tell you something about my buddy Jake. Jake liked to think of himself as a dangerous guy. He was always coming up with crazy action hero names like “Jake Danger” and “Jake Anger”, that last a personal favorite, and he had been that kid in school who was really into martial arts and knives and swords. He had, in fact, collected enough swords to arm our whole HS production of “That Scottish Play” (don’t look so impressed, we weren’t that big a school), which led MacDuff to face off with MacBeth wearing a kilt and wielding a katana. By the time we were in college he had graduated, as any good Montana boy would, to guns. Man loved guns. Not liked. Loved. He worked two jobs and one was at a sporting goods store, where he worked just for the employee discount so he could buy more guns. His pride and joy at the time was a sawed-off, illegally-modified Mossberg assault shotgun he lovingly nicknamed “The Violator”.

Anyway, he was never without a firearm of some sort on his person and his car was an arsenal. There was a .38 in the driver’s side door. For me there was a Walther P22 on the passenger’s side sun shield, because Jake was, you know, a sharing sort of guy.

So my eyes are on the door and my mouth is shut.

But like I said, this is a long day for the Highway Patrolwoman and she ran out of fucks to give hours ago. She takes one look at our luggage, apparently decides that none of it looks like a crate of smuggled oranges, slams it closed and waves us on our way.

I’m still looking at the door. And the gun.

Finally, when we’re out of earshot, I snap out of it and ask, with what I consider to be considerable restraint, what in the name of every holy fuck he thought he was playing at back there? Or to put another way, why did we almost get into a gun battle with the California Highway Patrol?

He calmly explains to be that he has the Violator hidden under our luggage. The weapon he carefully and lovingly made as illegal as he could possibly manage. He does this as if explaining gravity to a grade-schooler, like it was a self-evident fact.

Naturally, I inquire, with straining patience, why in the fuckity fucking fuck did he bring that monstrosity with us?

He continues, same calm tone, that it was a for a joke.

“A joke?” I screeched in the full realization of the four felonies I had become an accessory by unwittingly helping him transport this thing across a quartet of state lines.

“Yeah, you know, we’re going to a wedding, right?”

“So?”

“Shotgun wedding, get it?”

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Titan needs some freedom…

(the beginning of a story I never finished, or rather, haven’t finished yet…)
[based on this meme Titan Freedom ]

There had been rumblings of trouble from the outer system as long as anyone could remember. Sure, those bombings on Ceres the year before had sparked an increased military presence in the Saturnian refineries and ‘police actions’ against the Jovian moons. But it wasn’t until they blew up the oil ship from Titan that it became a war.

I was 26 that year and still as young and headstrong as I could be. I was a freelance stringer for MinuteWeb News, working mostly the Earth Affairs pages. Kravitz was the one who’d covered the Ceres bombings. The closest I ever got to the story was being told that my report on the Midway Talks, my biggest story to date, was going to be bumped off the top of the news feed to make room for it. I hated getting bumped but I wasn’t jealous of Kravitz. She was a good reporter and good at her job. It was Hu, the content editor at MinuteWeb, that I was furious at.

I was still kind of holding a grudge a year later, when he lensed me from New York. It didn’t help my temper any that when he lensed me I was caught up in the middle of the interminable and delicate process of getting past Chinese customs at Manila.

“Hey there, buddy!” I grit my teeth as his smiling face filled my datalenses. Hu only called people ‘buddy’ when he was about to screw them with their pants on. Hu smiling? Also a bad sign. I had the feeling that I was about to have my story pulled, and with it my diplomatic permissions and credit line. Again. This wasn’t the first time we’d gone around on this.

“Hey, what’s with the long face, Mohinder? I brought you a present.”

“Beware of editors, bearing gifts.”

“You’re too young to be that cynical. Wait, what am I saying? You’re too young to be anything but that cynical.”

“What do you have for me, George?”

“Got you a shiny new assignment. Oh, and what an assignment! The kind of assignment that any three of my stringers would kill for. Its got everything. An important story with excitement, travel, glamor, substance, a guaranteed spot at the top of the feed and a per diem that will raise your tax bracket. Whattya say?”

“I say I’ve already got an assignment. That’s where I am right now. On assignment. Right?”

“No you’re not. You barely got off the plane. Your status bar says you’re not even through customs yet. Legally you’re not even in Chinese jurisdiction.”

I took a moment to wonder how overprotective mothers, gossipy neighbors and micromanaging employers stuck their nose into your business before the WorldFeed. If ‘Privacy is Treason’ like the old jingle went, then I was just about in the mood to commit some treachery on my datalenses. With a hammer.

“Of course I’m not! You know how Chinese customs are. Especially in hot spots like Manila. And I was on assignment from the moment I pitched this idea to you in New York.”

I was greeted by a suspicious silence. The only thing more dangerous than George Hu when he was smiling was those rare moments when he was silent.

“Oh no! No you didn’t, you son of a bitch! I damn well better have an assignment. This assignment. You did NOT pull it! I signed a contract, you piece of shit!”

“Hey! Language.”

“Fuck your language, George! I worked hard for this story. I have bled for this story. This is important news! India is on the verge of joining the League of the South. The people deserve to… no, they need to know this!”

“The people may need to know it, but they sure don’t want it. Let me drop a little truth on you, newbsauce. Nobody gives a shit about the Southern League. Nobody wants to read about poor people politics. Mo’.”

“Exactly! That kind of thinking is exactly what makes this story so important. While we’ve been out exploiting space, we’ve been ignoring the growing problems of the exploited corners of our own world. And now, finally, when a great nation, when my people…”

“Your people? What the hell, Mohinder? You’re from Hoboken. You grew up like six blocks from my parents’ old house. You’re no more Indian than I am Chinese, or Vietnamese or Cambodian or Jewish or whatever my ancestors were.”

“Your consciousness of yourself as a part of world history is an inspiration to us all, George.”

“Fuck my part in world history. My consciousness of what generates hits to the site on the other hand is razor sharp. Eyeballs on screens, Mo’. That’s what pays the server fees. Eyeballs on screens.”

“No. I’m not doing it. I’m not giving up on this assignment to go off on whatever sensationalist tripe you’re offering me.”

“You don’t even know what the assignment is. How can you be turning it down when you don’t even know what it is?”

“Fine. Whatever. What’s the assignment, George?”

“You encrypted?”

I wasn’t, actually, but I switched it over to encrypted with a quick flick of the eyelid.

“Yes. Of course I am. Always.”

“’Always’ he says. Always my eye! Seriously, you’re encrypted?”

“Yes. Seriously. Will you stop it with the high drama and just tell me already?”

“Alright. Fine. Are you ready for this? It’s war! War in the outer system!”

“This is not news, George. It’s been war out there since before the bombings on Ceres last year. People have been fighting and dying and nobody’s been caring for years.”

“No, you’re not hearing me, pal of mine. Not just violence or even a police action. War! With all the bells on. The destruction of the tanker Glenn McCarthy inbound from Titan has bestirred the Council of Earth Governments, which most of us had mercifully forgotten existed, to declare a formal war over it!”

“Declared. War. What?” I was having trouble catching up to what George was saying. “But nobody’s actually bothered to formally declare a war since…”

“Since the Mars rebellion a generation ago. Since our parents went off to put the boot to Johnny Martian.”

“My grandparents, actually.”

“Crawl back in the womb, you fetus!” George was sensitive about his age.

“Alright. So it is news. Fine. But why are you talking to me about this? Kravitz is the lead System Affairs correspondent. This should be her baby.”

“She’s with her baby. Kravitz is on maternity leave, remember?”

“Lopez?”

“Still out sick.”

“Italiano? He’s got war correspondent experience.”

“Banned from spaceflight since that thing with the…”

“Right. Right. I remember. What about Kirschner?”

“Really? Kirschner? Really?”

I sighed. That had been a long shot.

“And what with you being free at the moment, Mo’, I figured that…”

“I knew it! I knew you’d pulled my permissions! That’s why it’s taking so much longer to get through customs than usual! You sneaky, underhanded, low-life, cocksucking…”

“Hey! Watch your motherfucking language, Pandit!”

And that was how I ended up going to Saturn.

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World Building Week, Day 2: Popular culture.

Another ‘how it’s done’ moment, this time, a bitchy, and hilarious review of a musical soap-opera from the entirely-believable universe of Jenn Manley Lee’s complex and magnificent webcomic Dicebox But when you’re done, tell me you don’t feel like you have actually seen an episode or two of this…

“Forever Between the Light and the Dark
Sesquicentennially Yours.
It’s not every day a soap celebrates its 150th anniversary. Maybe that’s why Adelaide Axeminster thought the structure for this year’s Forever Between the Light and the Dark seasonal sweep was a bold idea: why not build a buzz and celebrate the show’s long and storied history with tour-de-force restagings of some of the most famous and favored musical numbers ever produced by this misbegotten yet madly popular genre?

Why not, indeed?

Well, I’ve seen the advance cuts, so I’ll tell you.

Imagine, for instance, the percussive Savoy stomp of the Ding-Ding Song, “O Shalma Lama,” julienned into stutterpop overload. Sure, the rain-of-light visuals divebombing the Grand Canal are breathtaking—but what about the music?

Then shake your head at the heresy of putting comatose Janvier Gideon’s hipslinking theme song “Amanita Giddy” into the mouth of his number two grandson Alfaro Malone, who toasts when he should skank in front of a band that dubs when it should fug. And I’d advise you to leave the room altogether for the third night, when number two grandson’s boardroom shenanigans come to a head in a shockingly glossy reinvention of “Resolution Number 314,” from the all the way back in the dim and dusty third year. (No, I won’t spoil this eagerly anticipated plot twist; we have some standards to maintain around here. But I will tell you that they rewrote the rapscatting bridge in Varo. Does scansion mean nothing to these barbarians?)

And the grand finale? O, honey.

[Ed. note: If you are one of the seven people left in the system who doesn’t know about Ingmar Gideon’s upcoming battle royale, you might want to put down this newsfax.]

Much like the overall retro memory-lane remake idea, it might well have seemed brilliant on paper to weave together “Heroes with Odd Feet,” “Gwailoh Gringo,” and “My Mother Your Mother One Two One” with all five trumpet fanfares that have opened the show over the past century and a half and mixmaster the resulting shebang into a quarter-hour epic dancing swordfight down the Rialto and up the Esper Steps. If you’re going to think big, no use going halfway. Kick down the walls while you’re kicking out the jams. Why not?

Well, as a musical number, it makes for a halfway decent swordfight.

This is not to knock what Axeminster’s been able to do with the show when she isn’t raiding the Crepuscular boxed set. Go back to that Best of Forever Between (like I had to, to wash out the sticky traces of those godsawful remakes), cue up an old episode, any old episode, and you can see in stark relief what she’s doing well and right. Her verité visual stylings (when not divebombing the Grand Canal) remain breathtaking—a beautifully dissonant scrim of wear and tear and gorgeous natural light through which to watch what is still one of the most talented (and scrumptious) ensemble casts in all of sudsdom. Maybe Daniel Dae Kim can’t skank to save his life, but as Alfaro, he’s well on his way to locking down an unprecedented fifth Zuco for best acting—even though CJ Channey’s unflaggingly jaw-dropping performance as matriarch Ingmar keeps him running for his money. And even on the much-maligned musical front—there’s a surprise new song in the four-show sweep: “Over the Underneath,” a shimmeringly gorgeous icehouse ballad that comes out of nowhere, sung by of all people Ifa Ntobo as Captain Ajax from the crow’s nest of her dirigible, and by the time you’ve figured out it’s Ntobo, actually singing, she’s left a beautiful ache in the place of your heart. This is the song I fully expect to be the download queen, easily upstaging the brassy bluster of all the rest for the hollow, ill-advised gesture it is.

So give the girl a break. Axeminster’s moving into her third season as programmer; she needs to learn to trust herself and the strengths she brings to this 150-year-old table, which are not inconsiderable. A misstep—even one this ghastly—should not rob us of the appallingly glorious seasons I think are still to come. Just keep telling yourself: it’s only a sweep. Regular programming resumes in four weeks.”

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Showing us all how to do World-Building

What is this? It’s Samuel R. Delany showing us how to build the literary history of a world, a world that lasts less than a third of the novel.

pgs. 43-48 from Samuel Delany’s Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand
“The Nu-7 Poems – the collected poems and poetic fragments that a mail-routing engineer, Vro Merivon, had stored over many years in the unused Nu-7 memory bin of her communications department computer, perhaps seventy years ago now. Their wit their bright images of wind, cloud-forms and various structural materials for highways, all used as metaphors for certain highly abstract mental processes, he learned about from the introduction. But the more than seven hundred poems themselves, ranging from a few lines to many, many pages, well… somehow, he realized as the cube fell back into his hard, dry palm, he had, suddenly, read them …!
Understood them?

Perhaps some phrases here, some few lines there. But he had read every word of the carefully chronologized and annotated (by Merivon’s nephew) text!
He blinked.

The cube fell from his horny palm back into the carton. He stuck his hand down inside to retrieve it, to find out what it was, indeed, he had read. The cube he pulled out now announced on its black faces in white hieroglyphs: The Mantichorio, the epic narrative whose origin had been a subject of scholarly debate since the first incomplete copy had been discovered by the second wave of colonists in an abandoned outpost on the site of modern-day Kingston-prime, left by some of the first colonial wave sixty years before (again, the thirty-thousand word introduction): Were its great battles between the winged monsters and the children, its radioactive treasures in the sunken, red-walled caves through which rushed foaming black rivers, a fantasy of this world or a more realistic narrative surreptitiously brought here from some other? The 207 Cantos of the poem itself? (Cantos 199, 201, and half of 202 had been irretrievably lost in the early At-Man Devastations; Cantos 71, 72, and 73 only existed in the prose summaries that had survived the Censorship Acts of ’87.) What he knew, however, was that, out of the 137,000 lines of alternating heptameters and hexameters that were now an immediate part of his memory, the Nu-7 poet had consciously (or unconsciously) rewritten more than a dozen phrases from it into her own poems.
He scrabbled for another cube, hoping he’d find the first one but pulled out instead The Sharakik Years, a compilation of letters, documents, and diaries of people around the outlaw Ky Sharakik, who had roamed and robbed the disputed territories between the Forb Geosecter and Hykor Canyon – from its description, it must have been the chasm he’d once shot through! The 260,000 words of biographical commentary that Redyh Snurb-Nollins, who’d compiled and edited the three volumes, had interspersed among the documents, told a jaw-dropping tale of the exploits of the five-foot, white-haired, seventeen-year-old Sharakik, who’d amassed her gang of seven- and eight-foot criminals from the rejected dregs of several cloning projects that had been instituted in the early days by the Yellows as part of a later abandoned population push. Sharakik herself, illiterate, probably psychotic (though in the last months she had sent more than three dozen extraordinarily eloquent letters to the Ferawan Senate, which she had dictated to the second-rate poet Seb-Voy, who had recently joined the gang and who, numerous commentators still felt, was the actual author of at least some of them), had finally been captured, had been tortured, had been ultimately killed at age twenty by the Yellows’ “Gray Group” – though for years afterwards a myth had persisted that she’d been torn apart by her own rebellious gang before they scattered among the new cities, a myth that had only been exploded by the researches of Sargu-4, Redyh Snurb-Nollins’ immediate predecessor.

When he plunged his hand in again, he was looking equally for the first-rate Vro Merivon as for the second-rate Seb-Voy, but came up with The Lyrikz of Megel B’ber, which baffled him, because they were brief, beautiful, elegant, and more or less comprehensible, with few words or references he did not understand – because the last three tomes he’d managed to absorb (which were also the first three things he’d ever read which were not delivery instructions) had, among their thousands of sentences, managed to use most of the same words and grammatical constructions. He still found himself catching his breath: the scant sixty pages of the ninety-seven-year-old B’ber’s Lyrikz, in that tense and quiet voicing that seemingly made any object named shimmer so in his mind, were the most beautiful things he’d ever read! And he had read so much …!

Another cube: he read through the classic stories of Relkor, with their astute observations of technocratic life in the Jamhed Complex and their underlying note of surreal horror. Another: he read the Metropolitan Edition of the novels of Sni Artif – Wind (’15), Road (’17), To the Black River (’20; in Chapter VII of which he learned in the conversation of the tall girls and short boys who defied their teachers to indulge in long, drugged conversations behind the plastic sand-carts in the evening, that, though many people talked about it, unlike him, almost no one ever actually read the whole of The Mantichorio), Sand (’22), Air (’22), and Time (’24). Sni Artif, he learned in the afterword to the first novel (the fact then repeated in the introductions to each of the following volumes), had eventually committed suicide by burying himself in the dunes of the Nyrthside Range, before what turned out to be a futile and easily repelled attack of the Meyth in ’28. And the next cube was, oddly enough , Kysu Jerzikiz’s The Sands, a famous memoir written at about the same time as Artif’s Sand, but on the other side of the world, about the exploration of the intra-geosectral divides, during which some of the most famous technological infrasystems had been discovered, some of which, the afterward explained, had been recently disrupted because of later human development as the equatorial population belt had begun to close in on itself. He read the seven-volume psychoanalytic biography of Hardine, the legal philosopher whose work had been so influential in the organization of the Vresht Federation , which, only thirty years ago, had included twelve geosectors. Toward the beginning of volume three (Years of Noon: ’92-’01) he learned the full story of the deep friendship between Hardine and Vro Merivon; it had been Hardine who had, after Merivon’s death in ’95, rescued the poems from Nu-7 and overseen their first publication. He read Okk’s incendiary odes of jealousy and ennui, Hermione at Buthrot, apparently written offworld, which had supplied as many allusions for B’ber as The Mantichorio had for Merivon. He read the complete extant work of the twenty-two-year-old prodigy Steble, her five multicharacter dialogues, the handful of papers on algebraic agrammaticalities, the surviving fragment of her journal for the ’88-’89 concert season, and the final impassioned letters, sent from her deathbed in the disease-infested Jabahia Prison complex, to her old teacher Seb-Voy – the same Seb-Voy who, ten years later, would go off to fight alongside Sharakik between Farb and the Hykor. He read Gorebar’s thirteen dazzling Sketches – and read, in the introduction to that volume for perhaps the fifth time now (somehow it had come up in the introductions to a number of other books as well), about the nine other volumes of verse Gorebar had published, all of which were completely pedestrian and without writerly value – which only made him plunge his hand down among the cubes again, in hope of finding one of those nine so that he might read them for himself.

And came up instead with Byrne’s Marking/Making, her three-quarter-of-a-million-word experiential novel, a cascade of names, numbers, isolate phrases, and single hieroglyphs that created a kind of hypnotic, sensual experience in itself, unrelated to anything he had read before, but which, as much as any other affect now inscribed behind the bone of his forehead, had been clearly produced by the reading. Blinking he placed that cube carefully back in the carton and picked up … Weven’s classical cycle of twenty-six novels, written over half that years, until her death by fire in the printing planted where she molded cold type: Scenes on the Capitals. The opening three books, the introduction informed him, had been widely popular since their initial publication, though the middle cycle of seven were as unread as any great works from The Mantichorio or Marking/Making. But one after another of the tales inscribed themselves across his mind’s eyes, ears, hands, volume on volume. In six of them, he was surprised to find, the tragic hero or heroine ended by going to the Radical Anxiety Termination Institute; and the narrative of the third from last turned on the abduction of a young man who was illegally made a rat and then rescued by some well-meaning social workers three years later. He read Demazy’s series of tender and distanced novellas and a collection of the first three powerful novels by Horeb, who he knew now from some other introduction was a pseudonym for Saya Artif (a second cousin of Sni, though they had never met), a younger disciple of Byrne’s. Indeed he found himself recognizing, in her stripped down sentences with their sudden grammatical lurches (was this an analog of what Steble had mean by agrammaticality …?), the same sentence forms that had run through Marking/Making. There, of course, almost wholly areferential, in Horeb they were used to describe, with glimmering exactitude, dawn forays out from the early spaceports across the equatorial dunes, or evening fires below the awnings of the dark transport machines parked about the newly sunk foundations of the Selm Chain of urban complexes. (For almost three decades in the previous century, the introduction commented, Horeb could arguably have been ranked as the most popular writer in this world.) While he put that cube down to pick up another, he wondered if the similarity marked the success or the failure of Byrne’s experiment…

He had just finished a six-volume set, Classics of World Philosophers (selections from the major works of Tondi, Fordiku, as well as the complete proceedings of the Vedrik School, Seminars and Publications for the years ’82-’89)…”

(Now admit it, there was at least one thing on that list you would look up on Amazon…)

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Colin Cantwell II: The Man Who First Built Star Wars

Besides being a Concept Artist (see last post), Colin Cantwell did a lot of the first models for George Lucas’ original pitches when he was going around trying to sell Star Wars. Note that the ideas of the other concept artists are also on display here, as they had also been brought on board by this time.

The first Y-Wing, still showing its B-2 origins.

The first Y-Wing, still showing its B-2 origins.

A proto-Star Destroyer.  Note the iconic wedge shape is now in evidence.

A proto-Star Destroyer. Note the iconic wedge shape is now in evidence.

The TIE Fighter (Then still called a 'Two Man Star Destroyer' in the script)

The TIE Fighter (Then still called a ‘Two Man Star Destroyer’ in the script)

The Death Star station, before Lucas added the planet-killing weapon in the last draft.

The Death Star station, before Lucas added the planet-killing weapon in the last draft.

Original X-Wing, recognizable, but different.

Original X-Wing, recognizable, but different.

The original Jawa Sandcrawler.  Note the capture cages in front.

The original Jawa Sandcrawler. Note the capture cages in front.

The first Millennium Falcon (then just called a 'pirate spaceship').

The first Millennium Falcon (then just called a ‘pirate spaceship’).

A T-16 Starhopper.  Unchanged to this day.

A T-16 Starhopper. Unchanged to this day.

And this of course is... you know, I've got nothing.

And this of course is… you know, I’ve got nothing.

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Colin Cantwell I: The Star Wars Artist You’ve Never Heard Of.

For most of us die-hard Star Wars Fans, when we think about Star Wars Concept Art, the first name that comes to mind (and rightfully so) is the iconic Ralph McQuarrie:
McQuarrie Sabers

And if you dig a little deeper, maybe you know Joe Johnson, who did a vast majority of the technical drawings:
Johnson Gun

But I will bet you good money that you’ve never heard of, or seen the art of, George Lucas’ first Concept Artist, Colin Cantwell. Cantwell’s concept art lacks a great deal of the ‘space fantasy’ feel from McQuarrie and Johnson that would define what we now think of as the iconic Star Wars look, but it’s obviously 2001-inspired, more mechanical feel provide us with a strange, almost dreamlike look into a space fantasy that was never was.

The sporty one-man 'Devil Fighters' of the original drafts.

The sporty one-man ‘Devil Fighter’ of the original drafts.

Another iteration of the 'Devil Fighter'

Another iteration of the ‘Devil Fighter’

The 'Devil Fighter' starts to evolve into the X-Wing

The ‘Devil Fighter’ starts to evolve into the X-Wing

The first proper X-Wing image.

The first proper X-Wing image.

The 'Silvery Spaceship' that began the original pre-draft story treatment...

The ‘Silvery Spaceship’ that began the original pre-draft story treatment…

Is this a Star Destroyer?

Is this a Star Destroyer?

I believe this IS a Star Destroyer after all!

I believe this IS a Star Destroyer after all!

A detail view of an X-Winged 'Devil Fighter' attacking a proto-Star Destroyer

A detail view of an X-Winged ‘Devil Fighter’ attacking a proto-Star Destroyer

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