Riders on the Storm


The four horsemen wear all white, as a base colour, with military style boots, accented by specified coloured accessories (the look should be reminiscent of A Clockwork Orange).  Coloured lighting will turn their white outfits to differing colours at times.  Each has a wooden hobbyhorse, identical except in colour, which they NEVER put down.  They sit on plain black wooden chairs, which are arranged in a diagonal line from front to back across the stage.  There is no other set.  Costumes and props are key.   They do not have to take the same seats every time – no set order.

The banter between the four horsemen should be very snappy – they are like friends or siblings who’ve known each other since early years.


WAR – Red horse, wears a red helmet and carries a red sword

FAMINE – Black horse, black weighing scales, large black scarf/cloak

PESTILENCE – Wears white, with a white horse, white crown and white bow.

DEATH – Pale green horse, pale green waistcoat, pale green sword

1st MAN – Wearing traditional Colonial East India Company Merchant garb

2nd MAN – Wearing traditional Colonial East India Company Merchant garb

WOMAN – Wearing black modern clothes, very simple

VARIOUS non speaking characters including soldiers of various eras and BioHazard experts.


As the curtains open, music plays: Riders on the Storm by The Doors.  The lights slowly rise.  The four horsemen are sat, semi-sleeping, casually nodding, lulled.  As the music fades, they sit, in various reposes of boredom.

WAR:                     Is it time yet?

FAMINE:              Time? It’s always time.

PESTILENCE:       Time waits for no man.

DEATH:                 Time and tide wait for no man, get it right.

PESTILENCE:       Bloody pedant.

DEATH:                 (Getting up, wandering around, hands in pockets)  We have all the time in the world, might as well be accurate about things.

WAR:                     I’m getting so very bored of waiting…

FAMINE:              You were bored by the Dark Ages.

WAR:                     (Sharpening his sword)  It wasn’t so much bored, as ready, you know?  I mean, such great battles – Hastings, the Crusades… and the Black Death, I mean come on, how great a collaboration between our two brethren here, Pestilence and Death…?

PESTILENCE:       (Folding arms, fed up)  You know I hate that name.  Conquest, Victory, names to be proud of… why in Hades does everyone refer to me as Pestilence these days?

DEATH:                 It was my idea anyway…

PESTILENCE:       (Getting up)  Excuse me?  Your idea…? Do you know how much planning I put into that, you cheeky bastard…

FAMINE:              (Slouched, laid back in chair)  Chill out, will you?  This pattern keeps repeating.  You get bored.  You all start bickering.  We have to pull a few stunts to amuse ourselves, the world thinks we’re coming… they don’t understand we don’t get to decide when we’re coming.

WAR:                     (sitting forward now, hunched over sword laid in lap)  No, we bloody don’t get to decide.  Why did we sign up for this job in the first place?  I’ve barely had a day off in millennia, and yet… (sigh) I have this persistent feeling of ennui this days.  This country invades this country, this one gets involved, this one doesn’t, this one wants oil so they help this one, bish bash boff, they’ve only got scuds and we’ve got nukes, let’s call the whole thing off…

PESTILENCE:       True.  There’s very little victory or conquest these days, maybe that’s why they’ve forgotten my name…

FAMINE:              And you do such a good sideline in wasting diseases… Look, most people’s careers develop as they stay in a role – yours has mutated.  But look what you’ve achieved in the latter half of the 20th Century, eh?  A disease that they get from screwing?  What a way to compound their misery…

DEATH:                 It doesn’t need much compounding, to be fair.  Miserable bastards out there.  So many doing my job for me.  On themselves.  Wasteful.

FAMINE:              You mean it’s so sad?

DEATH:                 I mean it’s selfish.

PESTILENCE:       For those left behind?

DEATH:                 For me.  Spoils my fun.  Saves me a job, means I get bored.

FAMINE:              You like your work far too much, Death.

DEATH:                 Nothing wrong with taking some pride in your work.  And it’s all a warm up, really, for the big day.  I feel like a bride without a groom right now, rehearsing for the biggest day of your life without a clue when it’s going to happen.  Got to keep sharp, got to keep fit, the apocalypse will NOT be televised but it could happen any minute and I want to be on the top of my game when…

FAMINE:              (interrupting)  Do you think it will?

DEATH:                 Will what?

FAMINE:              Happen?  Ever, let alone any day now?


DEATH:                 Of course it will.

PESTILENCE:       There’s been so many near misses, eh?  I’ve thought it was going to happen so many times…

WAR:                     Yeah, so many calls to the breach… only to find – life goes on.  No apocalypse today.

They all sit again.  The lights fade, leaving only a dark blue-black light on FAMINE.  The others are in freeze.

                                                                Music: It’s the End of the World as We Know It – REM

FAMINE:              What you have to realise in a job like this, is that I don’t cause the famines.  I marshall them, if you like… I infect them when they start and make them more than they are, I exacerbate them… But I don’t cause them.  I don’t have that much power.

Let me tell you about Bengal.  Bengal was one of the biggest, you see.  Yet I bet you don’t even know about it…

Two men enter in 18th Century sailor costume, carrying documents.  Famine watches them.

1st MAN:              Let us continue with this discussion later, Johnson, now is not the time…

2nd MAN:             But, sir, we have to address this issue – the effects are becoming devastating…

1st MAN:              It’s a minor problem, it will pass when those lazy natives get their arses in gear and supply the right amounts…

2nd MAN:             Sir, we’ve taken too much.  People are dying…

1st MAN:              If people are dying, that’s nothing to do with you, me, or the East India Company, Johnson.  If the farmers don’t know how to grow their crops properly and can’t keep their end of the bargain, well…

2nd MAN:             But you know there’s been droughts, they can’t produce enough to feed themselves, let alone provide the goods for export…

1st MAN:              Like I said, if they’re not keeping up their end of the bargain…

2nd MAN:             And now the company proposes to raise the land tax by – another ten percent?  How do we expect them to survive…?

1st MAN:              Truth is hard, Johnson.  But their survival is not the Company’s priority…

2nd MAN:             (sadly)  … and profit is?

1st MAN:              (slapping him on the back as they exit)  Now you’re getting it, Johnson!

They exit.

FAMINE:              The truth is, there’s always enough to go around, across the continents.  One country’s obesity is another country’s extreme weight-loss programme, right?  Because they never like to share.  We share.  We share a lot…You’ll see we’re all connected, me to war, war to pestilence, pestilence to death, and in any combination or order…though there is a thing.  Death.  He – he outweighs the balance somewhat.  He knows it.  He’s got an edge over us, and he knows it.

Lights dim.

                                                                                Lights up on all four horsemen again, back in their chairs.

                                                                                WAR is rocking, impatiently.

PESTILENCE:       Please will you desist?  You’re driving me mad.

WAR:                     I can’t help it.  I can smell it.  I can smell it down there…

PESTILENCE:       Fuck’s sake.  I remember you getting like this during the Cold War… jumpy, twitchy, ready to climb the walls…

WAR:                     So bloody frustrating!

(He jumps up, and during the next makes his way towards FAMINE)

I hate the dancing around before the event!  You know what I mean!  Like a dog on heat when I taste the conflict building, I just wanna … grrrrrrr…. (dry humping against FAMINE’s shoulder)

FAMINE:              (in disgust)  Get off you jackass!! Ugh!

WAR moves away, laughing, and paces around downstage.

A pause.

PESTILENCE:       What’s brewing, anyway?  What’s got him all worked up this time?  Where are we?

DEATH:                 Weapons of Mass Destruction.  Also known as Weapons of Fictional Imagination.

WAR:                     Doesn’t matter!  Doesn’t matter!  The tension is the palpable, breathing thing that is plucking at my heartstrings right now… can’t you feel it?  It’s dee-lic-ious…

PESTILENCE:       Don’t get yourself too worked up.  I’m cooking up the next big thing.  It’s my turn for a little attention…

DEATH:                 Oh, yes?  What have you got for us, then?  You always were an attention seeking whore…I mean that affectionately, of course…

PESTILENCE:       (smiling)  Of course…

Lights dim.  A harsh, bright white light on PESTILENCE.  The others are in freeze.

PESTILENCE:       This is my dream scenario.  I love the way things are connected, the way things spread… the infection, infestation, infiltration…

MUSIC:  Billy Joel, We Didn’t Start the Fire

                                As the music plays, an unspoken drama unfolds.  On a projector screen, images of computer failures, errors, viruses, flashes through.  Meanwhile, across the stage comes from one side, a young woman, seemingly cheerful; from opposite, two people in dustmasks, who stare at her as they pass, quite sinister.  They reach the other side, and look at each other, then turn around and come back.  They drag her back on stage, she is clearly unwell, carried between them, and drag her across the other side of the stage.  A fourth character enters in a biohazard suit.  They stand centre stage in front of the projector so that the images are projected across their white suit, as they turn to images of human infection, before becoming images of fire and burning. 

Lights fade on all but PESTILENCE.  The Biohazard-Suit-Wearer exits.

PESTILENCE:       Like my colleague said… when you can taste it all coming, it’s deee-lic-ious…. But you shouldn’t relish it too much… too much of a good thing is…the end.  For us all.

Lights fade.

Lights up on all four.  WAR and FAMINE are stood, seemingly chatting.  PESTILENCE looks in deep concentration.  DEATH sits resting against his scythe, bored.

DEATH:                 Bored.  Bored bored bored bored bored bored BORED… (he bangs his scythe on the floor in sheer frustration)

PESTILENCE:       (looking over at him, annoyed)  What is wrong with you? How can you be bored?  You get all the work out of our efforts, you reap the fruits of our labour…

DEATH:                 I like to have work of my own to do.  And it’s about time we had another bloody great big epic scale death-fest if you ask me…

PESTILENCE:       Death-fest?  You’re starting to sound like… oh, I don’t know… a bit common, these days, Death, my dear…

DEATH:                 (With a grin)  Death is common… something that unites all, that comes to all.  The great leveller… and whilst you lot help me out, I don’t NEED you.  Ultimately, I’m always the one that wins.

The others looks at him, a look of resignation, annoyed that he is right.

FAMINE and WAR come back to their seats. 

PESTILENCE:       What have you two been doing, anyway?

FAMINE:              Checking in.  Taking the temperature of things…

WAR:                     There’s this little project heating up nicely in Somalia…

PESTILENCE:       Oh.  Would have been nice to have been asked…I thought we were a team, worked together on things…

WAR:                     Come on, we knew you were busy, you were deep in thought til Death interrupted with his rattlish outburst…

PESTILENCE:       Doesn’t matter if I was busy.  Would have been nice to have been asked, it feels like you’re deliberately trying to keep me out of things…

FAMINE:              Of course we’re not, we’re just…

PESTILENCE:       I thought you were my friends, but you can’t even be bothered to ask what’s on my mind, or keep me in the loop, well thanks a fucking lot, friends…

WAR:                     We’re not though.

(Pause.  The others look at him, quizzically)

We’re not friends.  Colleagues, workmates, associates… business partners, maybe.  But we’re not friends, when it comes down to it.  We are just stuck with each other.  Waiting in this temporal, ethereal chasm between the divine and the human.  Waiting.  For something that might never come…

DEATH:                 (Jumping up in anger) Don’t say that!

WAR:                     But it might be true…

DEATH:                 (Having a proper tantrum)  Don’t say that!  Don’t say it!  Why would you say it, you bastard, don’t say it… It’ll happen, it’ll happen…

As he beats the floor with his fists and feet, lights dim. 

A red light shines on WAR, who is upstage right, looking out. He seems sadly reminiscent.  The other three are in freeze.

WAR:                     I’ve been so very, very busy all this time… how long?  We can’t really measure.  It’s like a stasis we’re in, a waking sleep.  We can see what’s happening, feel it, pull on the puppet strings from time to time, a tug here, a droop there, the marionettes of history dangle under our infernal hands.

(During the next, four soldiers, dressed each from a different war era – WWII, War of the Roses, Crimean War, Modern military gear, march across the stage, then turn and take up point behind each of the four horsemen’s chairs)

Death likes to boast and complain that he has the last word, that he has the biggest job.  But his goes on with or without him, really… the gears of war, they need constant attention.  I have to stay so alert.  Do you realise, my job isn’t all about bringing the end of the world to hand… No.  Not at all.  We have to make sure that the world waits for the right day.  Keeping them from spilling over, now that’s HARD.  Do you know how many times it’s been – on the brink?  Well, if you watch any of those American TV shows, you probably think it’s on track to end every twenty-four hours… it’s not really that dramatic, sure.  But over the course of time, there’s been more near misses than you’d know.  Some you might be familiar with, sure… especially this last 100 years or so.  I can feel the dogs of war marching on, relentless…I haven’t had a day’s rest, not ever.

Pause. The soldiers take aim, pointing weaponry at the four horsemen, as WAR sits back in his seat.

Some wise man once said he wasn’t afraid of terrorists… born during the Second World War, every decade someone new was trying to kill him… Hitler, Communists, IRA, Al-Qaeda…And he noted the persistence of repetition, of conflict and defeat, conflict and conquest, an end and a beginning, a circle with no end.

I’m just so tired of it all.  I am worn out.  But I have got to wonder… if we weren’t here – if there wasn’t the threat of us – how much worse might it all be?

He sits back, and with a casual wave of his hand, the soldiers turn to each other and fire, dropping dead. 

Swift lights down.  MUSIC: Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

Lights up on all four horsemen.  They have turned their chairs so they are astride them and holding their hobby horses out in front. As the music fades, they are banging the staffs of the horses against the floor rhythmically, in unison.

WAR:                     It’s time.

PESTILENCE:       It’s time.

FAMINE:              It’s time.

DEATH:                 It’s time.

Bang bang bang bang BANG to a crescendo as they stand and kick         their chairs over to the floor and stand, still banging the horses.

ALL:                        IT’S TIME.

They stop.  They look at each other.  A pause.

FAMINE:              Well.  That was a really good drill.  Same time next century?

DEATH:                 I guess.  Maybe we’ll get to do it for real before then though.

FAMINE:              Yeah.  Maybe…

PESTILENCE:       Look.  We need to talk… about what we were discussing the other day…

DEATH:                 I don’t want to get back on to that subject, I hate it, you know I do…

PESTILENCE:       I know, I know, but listen – it’s a real – a real gamechanger, isn’t it?  The thought that we’re in this purgatory, not to act, but to be…you know…

WAR:                     A deterrant?

PESTILENCE:       Yes.

A pause.

Can you imagine what they’d be like down there if they thought there was never, ever going to be an apocalypse?  Never going to be an end of the world, can you imagine?

FAMINE:              It would be chaos.

WAR:                     It is chaos.

DEATH:                 No.  It would be worse.  Wouldn’t it?  No one would fear the consequences so much…

FAMINE:              They’d take the world for granted…

WAR:                     They do anyway…

FAMINE:              Yes.  But with – at least some sort of sense of conscience… somewhere…

DEATH:                 Without you three though… there’d still be me.  One way or the other.  Right?

They look at him, nodding in morose acquiescence.  He looks smug.

                                                                Lights dim.  Music – U2 – With or Without You.

Lights up on DEATH, a pale greenish grow enveloping him while the others remain in freeze.

DEATH watches as a WOMAN enters.  She crosses and kneels as if in prayer.

WOMAN:            Hear my prayers, Heavenly Father, I beg of you…

DEATH:                 I’m listening…

WOMAN:            You are not the Lord?

DEATH:                 I’m the only one listening.

WOMAN:            I beg of you to help my child…

DEATH:                 I’m only doing my job.

WOMAN:            But he is suffering so much…

DEATH:                 Hang on.  I’m not the cause of suffering.  I’m the release from it.

WOMAN:            Then I beg of you… help me.

DEATH:                 Yes then.  Yes, I can help you.

He touches her on the shoulder and she gets up and walks off.

(Once she has left) I’m not a bastard.  This is my job.  And sometimes, it’s for the best, you see… sometimes, always, it just has to come to the end.  My colleagues – and yes, they are colleagues, not friends, all in all – they cause the suffering.  I bring its release.  I’m the cure for their disease, I clean up their messes, frankly, and what thanks do I get?  I’m here constantly, waiting for the big ride out, but in the meantime it’s a waiting game where I’m constantly mopping up around their little projects.  They don’t ask me if I want to, they just assume, I’m obliged to do my bit.

Three figures enter – essentially, Jack the Ripper, Harold Manson and Harold Shipman or Myra Hindley if female.  They each have appropriate implements of death and they take up space by the three seated horsemen, poised ready to strike.  On the projector screen are images of war, armageddon and holocaust.

I assume this is what happens when groups or individuals don’t believe in us.  In the End to all Ends.  They can’t do.  Otherwise they wouldn’t have the lack of conscience to do what they do.

They strike at the three horsemen, who do not move.  They step back into shadow and turn around.  When we see them next, they are wearing identical plain grey executioners’ hoods.

During the next lines, DEATH returns to a position by his chair, standing behind it.  The lights rise slightly and all four horsemen slowly stand and position themselves behind their chairs, all four resting their horses’ staffs on the seat of the wooden chair.

It’s not that they – you – have to believe in us as individuals or the apocalypse as a predestined event.  Just – that if you didn’t think it was going to happen, would you live your lives more happily, or just more selfishly?  Answer me honestly now.

                                They slowly start to bang their horses on the chairs in unison.

                                The thing is, in this day and age, no one believes in us anymore.  We’re allegorical, fictional, redundant…as riders on the storm, anyway.  Oh, yeah, War exists, famine and pestilence…real enough.  I’m certainly a reality.  But not in this form.  My colleagues here, they need to get past it.  Get over it. Move with the times.  You don’t need them anymore, not when you’ve got me, right?

The hooded executioners take their places behind WAR, FAMINE and PESTILENCE.  They each hold a small grey scythe.

After all, I’ll always see you on the way out…

The banging gets faster and faster until suddenly the banging stops.

In the next instant, the executioners swipe the air rapidly and the hobbyhorses drop to the floor with a bang as the riders droop into their chairs.

A pause.  Lights dim until there is just a pale green light once more on DEATH.

…And I always, always have the last word.



Unspoken Word

This piece was written specifically for a project, ‘Beyond Wildfell’ with a local theatre company, using inspiration from Anne Bronte’s novel The Tenant of Wildfell Hall.  Performed at Scarborough Library in summer 2012.  Review of project available at: http://bit.ly/15Ttbqc

Unspoken Word

A library. A man, absently running his finger along the line of books on the shelf.

He pauses, engages the audience with his eyes, and loudly makes a ‘ssshhhhh’ noise, finger to lips.  He carries on a bit further looking at books onto the shelf, before pulling three or so out and piling them on the floor as he sits in a chair.

Man:    We didn’t say anything to each other, at first. Our eyes met somewhere along the shelf and I just felt it…a little jolt, a kind of spark.   Silent  electricity.

    Next time I saw her, we exchanged a few meaningless words, I got her name, a few details.  Enough to know that like me she appreciated that power to get lost inside a book.

    And there we were everytime we bumped into each other here.  Sharing our passion for words.  Those books there, you see them? I’ve checked out every one of those.  Full of words.  Words to tantalise your tongue and engage your eye.  Pages and pages of shapes with specific meaning, black on white, delicate in form but able to blast and bully an idea into your brain.

    Yet there were no words in there for me.  Oh no.  Nothing that adequately transformed from page to eye to throat to feeling…

    (He breaks off in frustration. He takes another few books and adds them to the pile)

     Even if I had a dictionary to hand, it would be insufficient.   I can have alkl

(Another 5 or 6 books are collected at random and tossed despondently onto the pile)

    I will have to content myself with the written word.  I can put anything onto paper, but some things are so hard to say…

(He picks a book at random, and reads a line or two of text)

    Have you read this?  Does it interest you?

(He puts the book down and picks up another, gestures towards an audience member, offering it to them)

    I can recommend this one.  Full of wonderful words and ideas.  Take it, please.

(He picks another one up himself, and walks along the shelf for a while, leafing through.  He laughs to himself; then closes the book and returns it to the shelf).

    Did you know, language is considered an art form; in one of these books, they call it a ‘primordial oral human art form’…yes, really! But I wonder if whoever said that also thought about how it could be a form of torture?

To say something…to not say something… either way can be torture.  Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words…

We saw each other here, we’d talk about all these literary love stories, these great works of art.  But we would never talk about – us.

(He pauses for a moment, then slams his book down in frustration.   Then, after a beat, he takes another pile of books, and starts frenetically counting them, sorting and rearranging them.  He hands the odd one or two to audience members, saying, “here, take it, take it”.)

    Now look, look inside there, and feel the power that is in those shapes, those lines and squiggles; do you feel it?  Do you?  Burning straight from your eye to your brain…from your ear to your heart… taking your heart and making you dumb…how can you live when the words you want to say burn like fire in your lungs, unable to form on your breath, causing your heart to stutter and falter as it crushes itself back down into cruel silence!

(He is on his knees now, looking through the books as if searching for something.  He gives up, piles them up in a stack.  He stands up.)

    The pressure of people’s unspoken statements must weigh on them heavily. Sometimes, I’ve read, or heard people say, that if you can’t tell someone something, you should write it down.  Write that letter – to tell your boss you’re leaving, to tell your Mum you’re sorry, to tell a lover ‘goodbye’… Do you find it helps?  Writing it down?


    I tried.  I did. I wrote down every word I needed to say to her.  A thousand times, over and over, until it became obsession… (he reveals from his pocket crumpled sheets of paper, he pulls them out and scatters them at his feet)  What use are they?

    If I could say what I want to say…. On paper it was easy. But spoken words have such power, to transform, and once said, can’t be unsaid.

    (He looks around, as if something has distracted him.  He looks his audience in the eye, and once more asks them to ‘ssshhhhhh’.  Next, he opens a book, and places a note inside it.  He continues until he has at least three books in front of him, closed, but with ‘bookmark’ notes inside. He hands these to the audience, who can, if they choose, read his notes)


(He passes the audience members a pen and a small piece of paper).  

Here you go.  Write something here – just a few words – something you never could find the words for – something you always wanted to tell someone but never found the courage.  Write it down.  Let me see it.  I won’t show anyone else, I won’t tell them.  I promise.

I’ll tear it up once it’s done, so your secret is safe.  But let me see it.  Let me sense that someone else feels this too – this power, power of words you can’t say, things you can’t tell someone.  Just jot it down.  Please.  Please.

(He allows a moment, whilst hopefully, the audience writes something.  He can turn away to avoid embarrassment while they write, or indeed write nothing.  He then turns back, collects in their papers, blank or otherwise; and reads them to himself – if they are blank, acting as if there is something of interest anyway.  Then, as promised, he tears them up gently and places the pieces in his pocket.)

Thank you.  Thank you.  I mean – you’ve been so kind – kept so quiet – listened to me – what more could I ask?  Now it’s time you were on your way.  Shhh – quietly mind.  There are other people here today who have things they need to say.  Mind you listen up, won’t you?

(He looks around the room, makes a final ‘shhh’ gesture, smiles slightly sadly, and quietly returns his books to the shelf, turning his back on the audience to signal their time to leave.)

Tales of Janko 13: Past Blast

*The planet Fraus, five years after the birth of Janko Theserian*

The corridors of the government office were continually clanking with the heavy pad of bootfall.  Military leadership had exacted a toll on the former comforts of the chambers, and a rigid, authoritarian air dominated the annals of the parliament.

Fraus was a ‘seed’ planet, meaning, in short, that it had long been considered one of little consequence amongst the Intergalactic Corps; yet strategically it had been the key, the first to fall, setting off a domino effect that had rendered changes across the systems.  The Corps had taken over control of most planets in a short space of time, using military might to deadlock democracies and disenfranchise the potential rebels.  A schism between the financial leaders and the religious leaders had left the way wide open for the military, who garnered support from those disillusioned with the status quo, and ran fear into those who might have protested.

Thus Fraus, the starting point for the revolution, had become the new capital of operations for the main planets.  Their reach was not total, but it had grown fast and was awash with brutality and hypocrisy.

It was on Fraus that Kheiron Theserian had first been indoctrinated into the inner circle of the Officer’s Alliance.  He had heard rumours of such a group existing but like so many ‘special invitation’ clubs, there was a certain mystery shrouding them.  Not only did you joined by invitation only,  but you never left.  A tap on his shoulder one day and he was led away from drill and into the Marshal’s private quarters.  Over Mandorian Tea, the Marshal had interrogated him, then informed him – informed him of what joining the alliance could involve – the opportunities, the power… a heady mix.

Kheiron has wandered away from the meeting in a daze.  He was not sure he liked the elitist nature of such a body – was not sure why they even wanted to co-opt him – but he thought of his two children, Nerilya and Janko, and how close to starvation they had been before he had joined the Galactic Corps.  Now he had yet another opportunity to give them the life they deserved, and the means to live it.

He accepted his place in the Officer’s Alliance.  Over the next year, he found himself again and again having to act against his better principles, leading secret missions of dubious morality, all supposedly in the name of bringing harmony to the New Galactic Order – the name the military had given to their government.  The low point came after 15 months of these surreptitious, secretive duties.  He was given a mission he simply could not understand.

The Commodore of the Jerriet Squadron, a founding member of the Officer’s Alliance named Benedict, had called him to his office and plied him with rationed goods – the sort his children would relish.  Over a shot of illegal-proof Frausian brandy, Benedict relayed the instructions he wanted Kheiron to follow.  Kheiron listened intently; but as the instructions turned stranger and his amazement grew, he struggled to hide his inner conflict.  For Benedict wanted an assassination.

Not only had he never had to kill anyone before, but he could not quite fathom why his victim would be a target.  A shopkeeper, a man surely with no great political power or dissent, not strong enough to threaten the Order… without a strong ‘why’, he could not comprehend the brutality of the commands he had received.

He had summoned all his guts, floppy and bubbly as they felt that morning, and gone back to the Commodore to reverently request the purpose of his orders.  The Marshal had stared silently at him across the table, Kheiron felt like he was piercing his pounding chest cavity with his pin-sharp gaze.  Then, the Commodore had simply replied that it was an order laid down by the Marshal and that he had no more right to question his commanding officers than Kheiron did.

Gulping, Kheiron asked to be excused.  The Marshal had requested this task himself, picked Kheiron out for it; any fleeting sense of pride was drowned, engulfed by startling realisations – that to be picked, he must be thought to be compliant, complicit, willing to ask, so they felt, without question; and now he had questioned, what might the repercussions be?  How could he refuse this task?

So it was that the husband, the father, the lieutenant, all the labels he went by, added a new one to his repertoire.  Not with any pride.  In fact in earning this new title, he felt much more the stain, the loss of a small piece of his soul and, truthfully, it would turn out later down the line, the loss of a part of his sanity.  For this was not the battlefield, nor was this an act of self-defence.  Thus, albeit at the order of a senior officer but nonetheless himself the one performing the act, so it was that Kheiron now knew himself to be this one, consuming thing; a murderer.

He spent nights of agony after the act, remembering that man’s face; his soft, whiskery, old man’s face.  What sort of threat could he have been, a paunchy old shopkeeper, bespectacled, cheerful – Kheiron had bought sweets for the children from that shop many times.  It was later, reading the obituary that he had begun to catch some sense in the act, some hint of the reason.  The square little notice was beset with a symbol, one that was rare these days and still evoked suspicion on some planets, such was the way of prejudice.

The knowledge that he had been used to slay a Greschen brough mixed feelings; he was not a religious man, but these were a religious people, one of the oldest known religions, though tiny in numbers now.  He knew there may be more than people suspected, knew that many hid their beliefs for fear of mockery and derision, but now it seemed they had slaughter to fear as well.  He had heard whispers, that there were moves to sterilise the galaxy of these believers, whose strange prophecies and rituals caused much mistrust and paranoia to outsiders.  Yet to learn that strong military men, his own commanders, were involved, were fearful of what he thought to be mere fancies in a modern, scientific world, that knowledge floored him.

He also realised, with a grim tightening of the bilious knot in his stomach, that this obituary was a calling card by unwise, unwitting relatives who had plausibly marked their own hands for death.  ‘Leaves behind a daughter, two sons, and eleven grandchildren…’  He cursed, beating the ground, vomited; whether the job would be his or another man’s, he did not care; he could not sit idly by, whatever his loyalties, and see families massacred simply for a belief.

He did not know what he would do.  What he could do.  But he had blood on his hands and felt the warm, horrific weight of more to come.

Tales of Janko 12: Runners & Riders

Callow didn’t want to let on the fact that their new ship was a pile of junk.  He knew he could fix it up if he had a little time and the right tools, but they had neither.  So he was consumed with trying to steer the ship towards Aelia without vital parts expiring or worse, exploding.

He was cheered slightly by the companionship of Aesa, who was happily sat in the cockpit with him, observing with her deep, intense eyes the controls of the ship.  They did not converse much, but a comfortable silence pertained.

She enjoyed staring into the deep dark universe, marvelling at the sights, the impregnable solid blackness of it all, decorated with astral patterns.  She could comfortably lose herself in its beauty.  All the same, she was taking note of the work Callow was doing; she wanted to be of use, and to know how to pilot the ship, if necessary.  She asked a few questions now and then, which Callow, despite the concentration required to make the ship hold together, answered as best he could.

Janko had been a little reclusive since they’d boarded the new vessel.  He felt the need for a little headspace, to really consider what his plan was, and what the future could hold for them all.  He couldn’t shake the sense of dread that he would forever be a hunted man on the run.  Still, as his old comrade Marabonne used to say, when you’ve made your bed in a cess-pool, you still have to sleep in it…

He kept thinking of Marabonne.  He felt guilty, he had betrayed – and physically harmed – the man who had , essentially, raised him and later employed him.  Janko had little memory of his real father, and Marabonne may not have been naturally paternal, but he had done his duty.  Janko felt scornfully ashamed of himself that he could not say the same.  Yet the situation with the trafficking of an innocent girl had been one moral line to far for him to stomach.  His head was swimming.

Back in the cockpit, something was also worrying Callow – worrying him more than the dodgy crankshaft he knew was imminent likely to fail.  It was a little dark spot on the navigation sensors.  A little dark spot that was indistinct, but was definitely trailing them.  He had been monitoring it for some time, had not been sure at first if it was even a ship, let alone following their course.  But it had been hours now, with some deliberate deviations in direction in order to determine how closely this dark spot was shadowing them.

He looked around for Janko, but could see the man was in no fit state for another problem.  He waited another half hour, running options in his head.  Eventually, he turned to Aesa;

“We’ve got a little problem.  Fancy taking the controls for a while?”

He was intrigued by how her eyes glinted at the prospect.  He knew this might be a crazy idea, but if he could get into the engine shaft and make a few temporary modifications, he could – he hoped – shake the shadow off their trail.

“When I page you, Aesa, I need you to hit this button here, and pull back this lever.  You might want to put the bracing straps on, it might get a little rough…”

She nodded, calm, not phased by the intonation, the serious stress he put on the instructions.  She settled snugly into the pilot chair and relished the task.

Down in the engine room, Callow set to work.  He would be taking a huge risk that he wouldn’t need the parts he was moving around in the meantime, but his temporary solution would optimise the turbo boost and give them a bumpy but speedy ride all the way to Aelia – without their follower.  In twenty minutes, he was done and paging Aesa to hit the controls.  He was thrown back with the force of the acceleration.

Janko too was jolted from his bunk, with a burst of expletives.  He jumped out of his cabin to see Aesa gleefully chortling whilst manoeuvring the controls.  Callow clambered back into the cockpit and faced a volley of abuse from Janko, demanding to know why he’d let the girl loose with the controls.

“Calm down, please… I didn’t want to bother you but … we were being tailed.  I’ve just checked the sensors and we’ve thrown them off now.  Thanks to a bit of actually rather exceptional piloting from Aesa.”

Janko stood breathing heavily for a moment, biting his lip, unsure how to react.  After a moment, he exhaled, relaxed, and even half-smiled.  It was a welcome relief to feel that his two companions could actually sort a problem without him.  Maybe, he allowed himself to hope, it would not be all on his shoulders to find them a safe haven… Though his cynicism did not let him trust to it entirely yet.

*                                           *                                                *                                             *

In a small, discreet vessel skimming the outer atmosphere of a tiny outpost planet, Nyyrikki  docked awhile.  His ship was fitted with a stealth sensor that could still track the ship he was following, even from a distance.  He had waited until their manoeuvres had shown that they definitely know they were being followed, before he held back and waited.  He wanted them to be rattled; paranoia always played into his hands.  Quite why he had received instruction from Mazany to track this small party he did not know; but he did not question.  He could see from their course that they were heading towards Aelia, and he would resume his pursuit there.

Tales of Janko 11: Cement Splice

Mazany was awake, but pretending to be asleep whilst the junior officers brought her breakfast in to the holding cell.  She had been onboard the Methusaleh for about 18 hours, and was slightly surprised that Marabonne had not yet been to see her, nor called to have her brought to his quarters.  She had wondered if his second-in-command, Redling, had perhaps not told him she was onboard; it would not affect her plans but it was an unexpected complication if so.

She need not have worried.  Marabonne had been taken aback by his commander’s speedy success on a mission he thought would bear no fruit; he had therefore felt the need to deliberately hesitate to meet his captive.  He was quite acutely aware that he would be looking at a portal to his past.  He was a hard man, numb to most of the range of normal emotion, he reckoned.  He knew though, that if she looked like her mother, it would hurt him deeply.  If she’d grown to look like her father, like her brother, it would wound him to the very core.

She had principles that meant she was not supposed to think of him in terms of her old life.  This was, however passionately she followed her cause, impossible for her.  Her reaction to Marabonne would, she knew, be a gut one.  She felt nauseous just anticipating meeting him again; having to have him accept her as Mazany now, not Nerilya.  Not as the little girl he had helped raise when her parents had died.

He remembered the little girl who had arrived, hand in hand with her brother, sad and forlorn, at his home.  Her mother’s funeral had been not long before.  He was still a compact conduit of rage and grief, having lost two friends in close succession and bearing a weight of guilt on both parts.  He had never wanted children, never warmed to them, but his friends had seen fit to appoint him as nominated guardian in the event of their death.  He had never understood that act.

She thought about the man, with his bloodshot eyes and sweating brow, hair dreadlocked and messy, who sat in his chair all day while she and her brother looked forlornly around the house for food and toys,the first with little success, the second with none.  Three days in to their new strange home, and still feeling the confusion of parental loss, she had come upon the man she knew only vaguely as Uncle Mar, crying at the foot of the stairs.  She had gone up to him, hugged him; he had cried even harder there in that child’s arms.  The next day, he was upright, cleaner, more alert.  She never saw him cry again.

He made his way slowly along the corridor to the holding cell.  His tazer scar was still hurting him and he found it easier to move slowly.  Every step brought a pang of frustration for the life he had led while raising these two orphaned children.  He first felt regret, wondered what more he should have done to raise them to a different life, to have made them lead happier, more stable lives.  What could he have done to avoid the betrayal he felt they had both played on him, he thought.  And then anger, as he thought that he should never have been given such a burden of care, he was never the man for that job and resentful to have been given no option.  Then guilt, once more, as he remembered the parts he had played in the loss of his friends.

She had taken years to learn the truth about her parents’ deaths, which had taken place within weeks of each other.  Her father first, her beloved Daddy, had read her a bedtime story one evening then she had settled to sleep; heard him go out, kissing her mummy goodbye.  She had fallen asleep, and woke to loud bangs at the door, her mother’s screams, her young brother waking and crying, not sure what the disturbance was.

Marabonne remembered that night well.  Kheiron Theserian had arrived at his home in a state of agitation, banging and shouting on the door.  He had entered, ranting about the mission; Marabonne had no idea what mission he was raving about.  He had heard something about the Marshal, and the Commodore, that they were in league and it was all a conspiracy… he thought his friend had been taking something, drinking, or just cracked.  He made no sense.  He was urging Marabonne to help him, to spy for him, to take his evidence to the authorities… Marabonne was tired, and still jealously disconnected from his friend; he had the life, he had the wife…he told his friend to go home, chill the Hades out, and leave him alone.  A few hours later, Kheiron was dead.

She had crept down the stairs to hear the Patrol Corps Officers trying to calm her mother.  Peering through the gaps in the bannister, she tried to listen to what they were saying.  Even at her naive age, she knew the tone of the officers was wrong; they weren’t comforting, they were decidedly aggressive.  They kept asking where her husband had been that night, what did she know, what did he think he knew…It had puzzled her young brain, but when her brother began to sniff and cry with the stressful tension, she knew the best plan was to take him and tuck him up in bed, not interrupt the hostile situation downstairs.

Marabonne had spent time in the months and years after the sad day trying to piece together the last few hours of Kheiron’s life.  He had tried to be a support to Marina and her children, but she had shunned Marabonne, blaming him, somehow, for not saving Kheiron.     And then, shortly after, she had died too.  A tragedy of her own hand that he had striven to keep the truth of from the children.  He did not know how successful he had been, whether they had ever worked out that she had taken her own life.  Guilt upon guilt; but he did not know that there was ever anything he could have done.

She looked him straight in the eye as he entered the chamber; he betrayed no outward emotion, she had hoped he might be aghast at her symbols, her allegiance to the Baazarov.  Somehow she still wanted to rebel against him.  But he was too old for a shock like that, and he had one for her instead.

“Janko was here.”

She looked blankly ahead.  She thought of that flash, that sensory smell of him she had felt when she arrived.  She had thought it was just the immediacy of Marabonne, so closely connected to their lives.  Now she knew she was treading the same walkways as her brother.  She choked back a shocked response, and demanded, “Was here?  Where is he now?”

“All in good time, but you need to know that what he has done has changed the game for a number of parties.  Your brother has caused more trouble than he realises, and I think you’ll be keen to stop him, if I know anything of you now, Nerilya…”

She spat the retort, “You clearly don’t, it’s Mazany now, for starters, old man…”

He nodded, a wry smile.  He could see Kheiron’s face in hers.  But he did not find the fact as comforting as he had hoped.  Wanting to leave her to simmer down and make sure she knew where the power lay, he walked out, and ordered darkness in her cell for 24 hours.

Tales of Janko 10: The Deadhouse

Callow hugged his Grandma hard as he swallowed back a slight tear and loaded his bags into the skycraft.  The old woman had supplied them with a variety of goods that they would need for their journey – everything from food to weapons, whisky to playing cards.  Janko himself was loathe to say goodbye to the lady, having found comfort in her homestead that he had not known the like of before.  He avoided emotional goodbyes however, giving her a salutary pat on the shoulder and a grin.  She did likewise.

The plan now was straightforward, if risky.  Travel back to Citadellum; sell the Marus Skycraft they had stolen from Callow’s workmate, and use the cash to buy a cheap and cheerful Planetcruiser.   This would get them to Aelia, where they would hopefully secure some work – this being somewhere his talented young mechanic would be especially useful, he thought, almost enviously – and use the earnings to set up new lives for each of them.  They would not plan to stay long-term on Aelia – a stop-gap – but he felt a few months would be safe enough, and time to furnish them with new identities for onward travel and settlement.

A few hours in, and they had made connections in the city with a trader offering a good price for the Skycraft.  All would have gone well, were it not for a chance meeting with a former comrade of Janko’s from the Intergalactic Corps.  A former comrade with a passionate grudge.

It was as they were killing time in a greasy café waiting for the trader to return with the credits that the drunken ex-soldier staggered over to their table.  Sidling up next to Callow at their booth, he leaned over the table and stuck his alcohol-soaked face right up to Janko’s.

“You owe me, soldier.  You owe me,” he growled.  Janko stared hard back at him.  He remembered what a crackpot Grimmson had been, how he held a grudge against the world and liked to repay that grudge in fistfights.  Still, Janko was aware, this brickbuilt behemoth did have reason to feel Janko owed him.  Aside from a huge poker debt (Janko had not always been a card shark in his youth) there was the very acute situation whereby Janko had crashed Grimmson’s Unapod – the space equivalent of a jet ski – the night before Janko had deserted the flailing Corps for his job with Marabonne.  Thus he had never repaid the debt not the repair bill – together, a considerable amount of credits.

As the drunken ex-soldier breathed beery fumes in his face, Janko gave a sideways look to Callow and Aesa, who blinked hard back at him.  Then, as per the contingency plans they had formulated, they sprang into action.  Aesa, sat next to Janko, pushed the table up and over towards Grimmson.  Callow had already ducked and covered, sliding out and pulling a pistol to point at the man.  Janko had grabbed the edge of the table and rammed it against the man’s throat; he gave the signal and Aesa and Callow exited the diner; as Grimmson passed into unconsciousness from the pressure on his throat, Janko lowered the table and, with an apologetic look at the waitress, he ran behind them.

They knew that there had been associates of Grimmson in the diner, so it was vital to run and keep running; they would have to hook back up with their trader later, and hope he didn’t renege on their deal.  They ran through an alleyway and Janko detected a set of double doors that looked unlocked; his instinct was correct.  He ushered his fledgling team in, slightly proud of the way they had executed their escape.  Once through, he shut the doors behind them and looked down the dim, sterile corridor ahead of them.

“Come on,” he said, a little uncertainly.  The old phrase about frying pans and fires was coming into his brain along with pinpricks of doubt.  Whatever this place was, it was cold and eerie and full of thickly ominous air.  He could see it affected Aesa particularly – her eyes looked haunted and enlarged.  “It whispers” she breathed, as Janko gently touched her arm and nudged her gently along.  He nodded, aware of the sensation that was filling the very core of his spine with a chill.

They tiptoed down the corridor slowly, silently.

It was five long minutes before they came to any sort of room; peering through the glass of the windows, Janko could make out vague shapes, no movement.  It seemed vast.  Before he could decide if it was a safe choice to enter, Aesa had moved through.  Callow looked at Janko, shrugged, and followed, Janko himself shortly after.

The room resonated with a low hum and the dim outlines of light seemed to vibrate.  It was cold, and the light had a purplish hue.  It was just a few moments before Janko realised exactly where they were and told the others.

“This is the deadhouse.  Cemetery overflow.  Bodies they don’t have space to bury.”

He felt Callow and Aesa shiver, realising the depth of death that surrounded them; stacks 300 bodies high in cuboid frames, stretching 200 per row along the vast unit.  Callow wondered for a moment how a small planet like Citadellum managed so many bodies, but then he looked at some of the dates on the caskets, and realised that the practice had been going back for so long, and of course there had been recent wars; any bodies that had met their end in Citadellan space would have had, by law, to be interred on the planet.

“Why don’t they burn their dead, like the other planets?” Callow asked Janko.  It was Aesa who replied, startling them both.  They were still not used to her voice.

“The Messianic Scriptures.  They talk of a saviour who will rise again through Citadellum, through spiritual death and bodily death he will return…They daren’t burn a body here, for fear they burn their eventual saviour…”

Callow and Janko looked at each other.  As far as Janko could recall from his schooling, her answer was correct; but neither man could really figure out why such an ancient, decrepit myth still had such a hold over an allegedly advanced society.

“Whatever the reason is, I don’t really want to be outstaying my welcome in a Deadhouse.  Can we go now?” Callow urged, clearly feeling more and more uncomfortable.  Janko led on, a thought in his head nagging at him about the old legend.  Something he could not quite recall, dusty and out of reach, like a song you can’t remember the name for.

About an hour later, as they had found their way out of the cold, eerie building, and had contacted their trader to rearrange the handover, the nagging memory wafted back to him like a refrain on the wind.  In that old legend, there was talk of disturbances and riots before the saviour returned; of death that stalked the saviour during life; and the ‘dying of the light’, which he realised might be a reference to the ever-diminishing hours of sunlight on Citadellum.  He thought with chagrin that if ever the worlds needed a saviour, it was now.  But he just didn’t believe in ethereal solutions foretold by early dwellers.

Aesa, on the other hand, believed it with great conviction.  Though Janko and Callow were yet to learn about the process of indoctrination their young companion had endured, belief in this saviour and their imminent arrival was, she understood, part of her mission.

Tales of Janko 9: Star Performers

Redling woke up to the intermittent beep of a long-range transmission.  Shaking the grogginess out of his head he swung his feet off the bed and pressed them to the cold metal floor.  His muscular legs contracted with the cold;  his captain did not belive in home comforts aboard a working freighter.

The message was from his contact on Citadellum, the youthful assassin Nyyrikki.  It alerted Redling that he was soon to be rendezvousing with the Methusaleh, and he had what Redling wanted – whole, unharmed, dangerous.  He said that due to dangers he had encountered, his price had gone up.

Redling pondered who on his crew would be best able to serve the task of discreetly extinguishing this assassin once he had delivered his bounty.

*                                *                                  *

Nyyrikki knew that a man like Redling would be plotting his demise, or any way to get out of paying him.  He was simply counting on the ruse being that he would be paid first, then some attempt made on his life before he left the freighter.  He could handle that; he needed to ensure he had the money for the cause he now shared with his pretend captive.  She meanwhile was preparing herself to look the part of the beleaguered prisoner – a self-inflicted black eye and a split lip would do, she thought.  She knew that despite his violent lifestyle, Nyyrikki would have too much honour to relish hurting her without provocation, so she did not ask this; even though she knew that if she did ask, he would reluctantly acquiesce.  She had this power to make her acolytes comply; it was why she was so useful to the leaders of her cause – it was how she had risen so high up the ranks.

She had been required to give up every vestige of her former life in order to make this rise; Nerilya no longer existed, only Mazany, her designated name within the Baazarov.  A name  had to be earned, and she had worked hard and smart to get it; before that, she had been a nameless minion, identifiable only by the inks that all members of the faction were required to undergo; it served as a barcode in many respects.  Secret symbols of nihilistic intent.  even the removal of names underlined this; though after a while, some names were felt to be a necessary evil – and a token form of hierarchical reward.

Mazany rarely thought about Nerilya, her former self; annihilation of the self was a key concept in the beliefs she adhered to now she was part of the Baazarov.  Sometimes though, it was impossible not to consider, almost as an abstract concept, that former person, their formative years; what shaped their path. Especially when some of the most formative elements were coming back into the world of your new life.  One of these was coming hard and fast ahead for Mazany.  She had a twisted relish to see Marabonne again; revenge was redemption, so she secretly believed.  Any contact with Marabonne however would bring the harder emotive memories along with it.  She would not be unable to think of Janko, for all the pain it caused her hardened heart.

*                                                 *                                                       *

It has been easier for Janko, in some ways.  He had long lived with the belief that his sister was dead.  He had not realised that her bodily self still existed, and only the early persona of Nerilya was considered – by herself, and her faction – to be extinguished.  Little dared he dream the nightmare where her butterfly metamorphosis left her as a leading ruthless mercenary in the most dangerous rebel group in the seven galaxies.

As he packed his few belongings and prepared to leave the ranch where Callow’s Grandma had provided them with shelter and supplies, he was thinking about Nerilya.  Events in the last week had put her at the forefront of his mind; strange occurrences starting to make him wonder, to consider the heartbreaking truth that she may in fact still be alive.  He hardly dared let himself believe it, it had been little more than a doppelgänger on a TV screen, and the strange words uttered by a delirious, drug-addled girl.  Marabonne could have mentioned his sister’s name in front of the girl, he supposed; her cold-turkey symptoms causing her to blurt it out unwittingly.  No, it was better to know she was dead, he thought, and not get his hopes up.  He had mourned her, he missed her, but he had accepted her passing and was grateful she was at peace after all she had suffered in her young life.  Sometimes he was even envious of her rest.

*                                                  *                                                   *

A few hours later, Nyyrikki was guiding his ship towards the in-flight docking port of the freighter Methusaleh.  Redling was waiting impatiently, his demeanour giving away his state of slight trepidation.  He had earmarked a member of his crew to perform the vile duty of slaying this slayer when their transactions were done; but Redling was no cut-throat however much he liked to pretend.  Beads of sweat were dappling his brow.  Nyyriki smiled a little to himself; he had pre-empted all of Redling’s moves and would relish acting the part of unwitting dupe for a little while.  Overconfidence and relief on Redling’s part, brought on by this, would give Nyyrikki the edge when the time came.

Playing their roles with aplomb, Nyyrikki pushed the bound Mazany across the dock-port and into the hold of the Methusaleh.  They had agreed that method acting was best in this scenario; he pushed her hard so she fell on her side.  A slight kick, a gagged groan of pain from her; Redling smiled, pleased with the bounty he had secured and not suspecting their complicity with each other.

Between them, they dragged the girl to the freighter’s holding cell; small, cramped, dark, it was a cess pit.  It was the same cess pit that Janko had rescued the girl from some days earlier; though Mazany did not know this, it unnerved her for a moment how she somehow tasted a fragmented flavour of Janko in the air.  She swallowed the thought down, crushing it away.

While she sat on the metal bench of the cell watching proceedings, Redling and Nyyrikki conducted the financials.  A silver briefcase was presented to the young assassin, which he inspected, counting the credits therein.  He nodded and accepted the case, before Redling allowed his associate, a rough looking officer, ex-corps like a lot of the filth that ended up on Methusaleh, to escort Nyyrikki back to his own ship.

As they left, Redling turned and smiled at the girl, relishing his moment of pride and power.  “Well, young lady…my captain is going to be thrilled to see you.  What he has planned for you I daren’t even imagine…but I can tell you all the things I imagine I could do with you…” he leered.  She turned away, not in disgust but in glee; he was going to be fun to put down once phase 2 of the plan was put into action.

The officer, known as Bobcat, escorted Nyyrikki along the dark steel corridors towards the docking bay.  In the semi-light, Nyyrikki prepared his blades and waited for battle.  He did not have to wait too long.  Bobcat threw his bulky bicep around his neck, squeezing hard.  Nyyrikki was swift, and had seared two cuts in his arm and causing his release; with a flick of his body weight he was behind the officer, and had serrated his back with two deep gashes; enough to leave him in the medibay for months, but not kill him.  Nyyrikki needed him to send a message, so for their purposes, this man would live.

The message was resoundingly clear.  Do not double cross an assassin.  Redling would pay the price in due course.

Nyyrikki used the man’s weakness to steal some identification items; they would come in useful in later phases of their mission.  For now, he had to leave Mazany to play out her part.  He knew she would be a star in the role.

Tales of Janko 8: Screwed Up

The girl had woken early to the smell of bacon wafting from the kitchen.  Most people might find it warming, welcoming.  It reminded her of some of the most violent episodes in her young life.  She rolled over, and vomited.

Callow’s stomach grumbled as he woke to the same smell, feeling the comfort of the sofa, small and lumpy as it was.  It still beat the makeshift, lonely bed he’d left behind in the mechanical heart of Citadellum.  He realised he’d been dreaming of the girl upstairs in his sleep and had woken up showing the physical effects of arousal.  He was glad that neither his Grandma nor anyone else was in the room when he awoke.

Janko had been up for hours.  He’d spent an hour from first light practising quick loading – quick shooting, with Callow’s grandmother advising and critiquing.  The second precious hour of daylight he had used to work out, taking a long run to the foothills of the sand mountains and back again to the remote ranch.  He arrived back just as the generators were kicking in and the artificial light for the day was powering up.  The smell of bacon greeted him as he stood on the porch wiping sweat off his body.

Grandma watched Janko towelling off and appraised the man she had spent several days coaching in weapons skills.  He was rough around the edges, a life in commercial freight had added a flab to his aim and responses, but she was highly aware that his circumstances would correct this soon enough.  She was pleased with how his speed and strength had improved in just a few short days.  He was fit, but could be fitter.  She watched him as he put a clean shirt on over his slim torso and she decided to trim the extra fat of the bacon.  Slim he was, but he didn’t need the fat adding.

The four sat down to breakfast, no one saying very much.  Callow was steadfastly trying to avoid looking at the girl, for he might blush; and he still was not sure of exactly how she and Janko were connected.  All Callow knew was that soon they would be moving on, and Janko had asked him to act as their pilot.  He was unaware that this was at his Grandma’s behest, she having asked Janko to take him away from her ranch, for his own safety.

Grandma chewed her bacon and bread thoughtfully.  There was little reason to keep them here much longer, Janko was retraining well and they might be traced here eventually – best to keep moving.  She was concerned by the girl, who despite her best motherly efforts had not yet spoken much beyond brief responses or requests.  She had still not revealed her name, it was almost like a game she was playing now.

After breakfast, the men helped out with some of the ranch chores – Grandma grew several herbal remedies: Janko was suspicious that she probably grew Somniferum too, the plants had a heady aroma and she clearly made good money somehow.  Still, he reasoned it was none of his business and ignorance was bliss.  Whilst they earned their keep with the gardening duties, the girl earned hers with domestic chores.  Grandma was never one for gender stereotypes but it worked that way for the four of them just now – she wanted to keep the girl where she could see her.

The old woman tried, as she had everyday, to get the youngster to chat, to open up.  She used kind words and gentle tones.  All to no avail.  Today, she thought, I’ll try a different strategy.  Thus, as the girl turned her back to her to place some plates in a high cupboard, Grandma screamed at her for her name as an old ceramic bowl whizzed past the girl’s head and smashed on the cupboard door.  Quick, wiry and strong, Grandma was then behind the girl, her arm levied behind her back, and hissing in her ear, the same question.  The girl succumbed to what she knew, as Grandma had suspected, and was revealing her name in seconds.

“Aesa…Aesa…ahhh! Ow!” Grandma released her grip, and stroked the girl’s hair kindly.

“There, dear, that was all it took.  I’m sorry.  I just guessed that perhaps that was more what you were used to, poor thing…”

The girl turned to Grandma, a slight tear in her eye.  The women hugged, and maybe there was a small tear in Grandma’s eye too.

*                                   *                                       *

Later that evening Janko was resting, catching up on news-streams from the main planets.  His plan was still to get to the little planet of Aelia and find a quiet little set up where the girl could be safe, before heading further out into the galaxy himself.  Options were there to join the Deep-Exp teams, hardly a thrilling prospect but one that should mean Marabonne would never catch up with him.  He felt a pang at the thought of never returning to the planets of his childhood, and deep space exploration was, he knew, not as thrilling as old science fiction shows might have made it look.  Still, it would be a way of life and he would not be bothered by old troubles.

He was looking for news of the bombing he had seen briefly on screen the other day; aside from the shock of seeing a doppelganger for his sister, he needed to check out the current political landscape.  It could impact on his travel plans.  Aelia might be a small, quiet planet, but as such it only needed one or two zealots to make their presence known, and it would become a dangerous place for him and his wayward band to journey into.

He was acutely aware that Aelia was also the last place he had encountered Neith.  He wondered whether she was still as beautiful and exciting as she was when they were younger.  She was the only woman he ever had cause to think about, occasionally; her dark hair and sparkling eyes stayed in his memory, the mischief and the missions they had fooled around on were some of his happiest times.  Damn her, she was a free-spirited woman with better combat skills than himself, an ally he could do with now, aside from any personal comforts he might ever hope to find in her fold.  He could only hope that she still had some connections with Aelia, and he might encounter her there somehow.

Such stirring recollections were not helping him make his plans, however.  As he watched the news, he learned that no faction had as yet claimed responsibility for the bomb attacks, and were slinging accusations at each other with passion and ferocity.  He hated this political crap.  Every side was shallow, self-serving and deceitful, in his opinion. They’d never done him any favours.  He could feel the tide of something rising, though, and he knew he needed to keep his head above those waters, if he valued his freedom.

Freedom, he shook his head sadly at the thought.  Was he free in any way, now he had set himself up as this foolish hero, rescuing this girl, helping this boy, betraying his old Captain.  He knew he was far from free, but he had put himself in this position and though he knew not where the spirit came from, he knew that this was his fight now.  Saving one girl from slavery was not much, but it was better than saving no-one, he figured.  Maybe at heart he felt he had to save Marabonne somehow too… his old mentor had never stooped to this low form of smuggling before, and in this perverse scenario Janko had saved him from completing the dirty deed.

Janko almost laughed out loud at this last thought.  Grandma looked at him shrewdly, her eyebrows forming a silent question.

“Oh, don’t give me that expression, lady…I’m just laughing at how screwed up everything is.  How screwed up I am.”  He smiled, and shook his head wearily.

The old lady nodded in agreement, before breaking out the whisky and serving him up a straight double.

“Tomorrow,” she said.  “It’s time you travelled on.  You’re ready for the fight now.”

He looked at her, grateful for her help and her calm, comforting ways.  He was, he knew, in awe of this dame, so strong and capable and wise.  He wanted to ask her what the stories of her life were, but he feared that for her to share, he would have to share too.  And he just was not ready to talk about his life with anyone.

Better to move on, he knew.

Nowhere, now here

I go to places that you would not recognise,

through my tears that layer sadness on your eyes.

I wish I could bring you along with me,

to open your eyes and make you see.

Come along with me, hold my hand over sea, air and land,

through the needle’s eye and down the wishing well, secrets I can’t tell,

beyond wonderland and looking glasses, we’ve got free passes

and a ticket to ride, if you’ll ride along with me.

When you woke up days ago crying and in pain

I sheltered you, wrapped you up against my rain,

and you saw it for the first time, what could be ours

if you held my hand.  If you could understand.