Category Archives: Putting myself out there is scary
Ee by gum, I’m chuffed to little mintballs to tell thee* that my short story for (or possibly against) Valentine’s Day, Be My Valentine, was placed second second in the Love Bites: Anti-Valentine Blog Hop 2014.
That it did so well against many other stonkingly good tales warms the heartles of my c… hang on, switch that… the cockles of my heart.
If you haven’t already, read it now to warm even more of my body parts, and you really ought to read the other stories entered too, for they are splendid to the max. Thanks to Ruth Long, Lisa Shambrook, Lizzie Koch and Laura Jamez for overseeing the whole thing.
*apologies for the brief tumble into Yorkshire.
I watched The Desolation of Smaug today; wonderful film. I particularly liked the way Thorin was written, as his urge to complete his quest began to overturn his decency. Yesterday I saw Django, and was struck by how well-written, how real, the title character was. A man who happily kills three men who were befriending and about to help him. I do wonder about my own characters. I thought I made Finn believable, and was happy with him. White was a bit too wry, though, and actually had moral reasons, albeit twisted ones, for what he was doing. Thea turned out a bit two-dimensional, but then Moth Girl was a short book. Cuetip was a rabbit.
You can probably tell that I’m currently fighting my tendency to make everyone I write likeable. Even my baddies aren’t without wit and charisma and an internal moral compass of some kind. It’s about time I handled a completely amoral character, one who respects no rules, or life, or anything but their own selfish desires. Chaotic Evil if you like. TOTALLY not me. Now THAT will be a challenge. And great fun. And probably happening in 1322.
Of course it’s a metaphorical drawer, existing only in my capacious head, and now on here. My list of possible future writing projects, once I’ve finished 1322 and the seven short stories I’m currently working on. Some of these will never see the light of day, and some will probably be stolen now that I’ve posted them. C’est la vie.
Which one’s your favourite?
- Inflatable Ingrid. A short story based on that photograph on the right there, which was taken by @leontia2001. I love the nonchalant daftness of it.
- Operation Dynamo. When the BEF was evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940, over 40,000 Allied men were left behind. I want to write about those men ordered to stay, to fight to the last man and the last bullet, to slow the German advance long enough for most of the BEF to be evacuated.
- Tam Lin. A retelling of the old folk song. I fancy writing this as a collaboration with another, each author writing as either Tam Lin or Janet.
- Death at The Slaughtered Lamb. A detective story collaboration with Alex Brightsmith which is already in the initial planning stages.
- Dads. An anthology of stories/memories about our Dads, using contributions from Twitter. Or possibly ‘Mums’.
- Heidishire. An graphical erotic fantasy about teeny-tiny people living on a human body. It would involve close photography to make said body look like a landscape. This one is not very likely, I admit, cos my body’s horrible and I’d need a willing collaborator.
- And So To Bedfordshire. Samuel Pepys and his wife come to the modern day through some random people who role-play them on Twitter. Yes, alright, through me and Leslie and our @SamPepys_1663 and @LizziePepys accounts. The Pepyses find that they are an ocean apart; the book would tell of their adventures trying to get back together.
- Sweet Fanny Adams. A ghostly horror story based on the tragic girl whose name has now become a commonly used slang term.
- What The Food? A collection of recipes for unusual foods or combinations thereof, like these scattered through this blog.
- The Drunken Potter. A story about Edward Raby, my OH’s great-great-great grandfather, who was a sublime artist, a roaring drunk, and a complete charmer with the ladies.
- Tabby. I’ve always thought my short story Salt would make a good opening chapter for a time-travel book, so that, but avoiding the tired, over-used Time Cop idea.
- Double Decker. Time travel, someone called Decker, multiple selves working as a team, that kind of wossname.
- Djinn. A story about an inept demon who keeps cocking up the three wishes he grants to people.
- Five Leys. A rollicking smuggling-cum-supernatural adventure set around and under Filey Brigg, based on the excavation there of a Roman signal station in 1857.
- The Sands of Time. A tale told by a beach. You heard.
- Bunny Prince Charlie. A Warren Peace sequel which begs to be written for that title alone.
- Advotaart. I was playing around with outtakes from #NuddyChristmas and as a joke made a mock book cover using this photo of my good friend @BottyB. I like it so much I’m beginning to consider writing a story to go with it.
- Moth Girl versus the Steam Scorpions. Another Moth Girl adventure, follow-up to Moth Girl versus the Bats.
Now I just have to manage to live to be 117 in order to finish them all. Wish me luck.
Here’s the fourth and final episode of my steampunky tale story inspired by that Thea Gilmore and her wonderful songs. I hope it has recalled for you a flavour of those serial films of the Thirties and Forties such as Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. As ever, thanks to @theagilmore and @ratporchrico for the initial spark. Fans of Thea’s music might like to amuse themselves by spotting song-titles and lyrics scattered through the text. If you are new to Moth Girl, click these links for the first three episodes.
At the end of our last heart-thumping episode, Moth Girl had discovered that the evil mastermind behind the metallic bat attacks has been collecting the blood of his victims. But why?
Now read on…
Episode 4 – Something to Sing About
Thea moved quickly, ducking into a dark corner close by the sparking sphere. Her nemesis obviously had some way to see her; that much was plain. She lifted the spyglass once more and searched the vaulted roof.
The thick arched girders were spattered with all manner of bizarre devices, any of which could be a viewing machine. It was a waste of her time even to look.
As she put away the spyglass there came a loud bang from her right that was quite separate from the cacophonous rhythm of the engine. A door had opened, but a spout of steam from nearby obscured her vision for a moment.
“Can I help you?” scraped a tinny, scratchy voice. It sounded as if it came from one of those new-fangled wax cylinders.
Thea immediately dropped into a squat so that she could see below the hot cloud of steam. What she glimpsed appeared to be a grotesque amalgam of man, machine and arachnid. The uppermost part of the creature was more or less humanoid, though made of a metal that shone ochre in the strange light. The head moved from side to side, the arms were outstretched as if in welcome. On the metal chest was some sort of identification plate. It read ‘29’.
The lower half the creature was not at all human. The torso of the creature squatted on a circular disc of iron, from which depended eight thin articulated legs upon which the creature scuttled further into the room, its pointed feet tip-tapping on the metal deck.
“Can I help you?” it repeated, its jointed jaw falling and rising in a rough approximation of a human mouth. Thea stood and readied her flintlock. It turned towards her.
“Can I help you?” once more, as it raised a hand as if to beckon her forward. A curve of electrical energy streaked out of its fingers like a bolt of lightning. The air crackled and the energy singed the end of Thea’s hair as it barely missed her head. The smell of burning hair mingled with the ozone tang of the electrical discharge.
Thea wasted no time. She raised her pistol and fired directly at the thing’s head. The bullet ricocheted harmlessly off the metal skull.
Stupid, stupid, stupid. What did you think would happen? And why the hell didn’t you reload?
She dropped to her knees as another bolt of crackling death passed close to her hip.
“Can I help you?” mocked the automaton, lowering its hand, its weapon, to point directly at her. She threw herself into a forward roll, moving immediately into a squat by the machine and scything her right leg across those spidery supports. The automaton crashed sideways, its legs waving helplessly in the air. Before it could push itself upright, she was on it and jabbing her knife into whatever orifice she could see.
“… help …” the thing said, discharging electricity wildly from both hands in a vain attempt to throw off its attacker. Finally Thea jabbed the knife directly into the rectangular slot that passed for a mouth. There was a smell of burning and sparks shot out of the mouth hole as the autominion, as the voice had called it, became still and silent, save for the occasional sparking of a short circuit.
“Did you see that?” Thea yelled, still kneeling and looking up. “I’m coming for you, you freak, regardless of what you send at me! I’ll be your silver bullet! I’ll be your knotted rope! I will end this madness of yours, and I will end you!”
Silence. Of course, her enemy might have heard nothing of her melodramatic outburst, but at least it had served to boost her confidence, steadying her determination to overcome any obstacle in her path. She would prevail, no matter what dangers she met.. Regardless.
“Can I help you?”
She whipped around to see a second autominion scuttle through the door, closely followed by a third. “Can I help you?”
It was like a weird scratchy echo, both automatons creaking the same inane words as they turned towards her.
“Can I help you?” “… help you?”
She thrust upward hard, leaping high into the air and somersaulting over an arc of lightning that would have taken off her head. She came down behind the nearest autominion, and whipping around, she took hold of both its arms from behind.
She forced the limbs together and directed the twin streams of electricity directly at its companion. The other automaton exploded loudly, shards of metal fizzing through the hot air, so that she had to use the robot she was holding as a shield. She wasted no time in leaning around and thrusting her knife into this one’s mouth, and it died like the first.
She ran to the door through which the autominions had emerged and found a corridor beyond. Tight-lipped with resolve she marched purposefully along it, boots ringing out on the deck. An autominion emerged from an alcove on her right. She thrust her knife directly into its mouth without breaking her stride, hearing it fall and spark behind her.
At the far end of the corridor was a metal ladder bolted to the wall, leading upwards. She gripped the knife in her teeth and scaled it; hand over hand, foot over foot.
She emerged into a large room, brightly lit from one side by the sun streaming in through a huge picture window. With a jolt she realised that she was looking out of the flying bat’s eyes, which gave a magnificent view of the arc of the earth’s horizon far below, the ocean glittering beneath the bright sun like a sea of jewels. No wonder she had been spotted approaching. She had been stupid to imagine otherwise.
“Hello, you wondrous thing. How did you get past my autominions?”
Thea turned to her right, towards the smooth voice that came from the far end of the enormous span of glass now on her left. She glanced about the large circular room. This must be the bridge of the vessel. Instruments and dials covered the walls, while in the centre sat a plush chaise-longue, upholstered in what appeared to be red velvet. Beside it stood a metal pedestal into which were built lights, switches and levers.
The man who had spoken from across the room was tall, and wore a top hat that made him appear even taller. An embroidered frock-coat swept around his legs. The wry curve of his lips lifted his firm jaw pleasingly. His eyes flashed, or maybe that was just a reflection from the monocle, fashioned from the centre part of a large cogwheel, fixed in his left eye. He leaned nonchalantly on a silver-topped cane.
“Baron Stonier!” she exclaimed.
“You know me? How flattering.” He gave a small bow.
“But you were banished,” Thea pointed out.
“And those who are banished always do what they are told?” He felt at his shoulder with a white-gloved hand. “I was tortured too, let us not forget that. But aye, I was indeed banished from the land. Not, however, from the air.”
“I’m sorry; I have to ask—what on earth is going on with your hair?”
“What?” she asked, putting her hands to her head. “Oh. Helmet hair.” She ruffled her dishevelled mane so that it hung more evenly.
“Oh, that’s far better! You have deliciously lovely hair, my dear.”
“Thank y— no wait!” What was she doing, engaging in chit-chat? He was an evil mastermind, a villain, not some man that she was trying to impress over a strong Bloody Mary down at The Murphy’s Heart. “What the hell do you think you are doing?”
“Flirting?” he grinned. God, his smile was lovely.
“Well stop it.” She shook her head to clear her mind of the thought that had just crept in, of what Stonier might look like naked. “I mean what are you doing with the bats and the killing and the huge flask full of gore?”
“Oh that,” he answered dismissively, “Measuring my revenge. Drink?” He crossed to the pedestal and pressed a button. A door opened in the back wall revealing bottles and glasses which shimmered in the bright rays of the sun.
“Oh, go on. Indulge yourself. After your exertions you must possess quite the thirst. If your plan is to attack me, then you would be fitter so to do without a dry throat. If, after our little chat, you decide otherwise, then you’ll have had a refreshing drink. Here, have a Berryade at least.” He held out a tall glass in which ice chinked and a green liquid fizzed. Thea removed her gauntlets and took it, noticing the man’s slender fingers and manicured nails.
“Now, please have a seat and rest those shapely legs,” he indicated the chaise-longue. Thea saw little reason to refuse at this juncture. The Baron was right. She needed a sit down and a drink no matter what might happen next. She sighed as relief spread through her tense calf muscles. The cool liquid coursed down her dry throat. It steadied her mind, too, and she realised what she had to do.
“A short time ago,” she said, “You were planning to fling me out of the waste disposal.”
“That was before I properly saw you,” said Stonier, pacing before the window. “It would have been a shameful waste. Now, however, I hope to persuade you to join me.”
“Piss right off. For all your handsome manners you are still an evil blackguard.”
“Oh, come on. Being an evil mastermind is fun! You’d enjoy it. You could say Mwahaha. And you’d be the cutest villain I’ve ever seen.”
“I understand that you were badly treated, I do! But you cannot revenge yourself on Lord Liejacker by slaughtering innocent people!”
“Of course I can. I am doing. And they are his people, tiny and insignificant.”
“No one is insignificant.”
“Oh, dear. You’re one of those. A moralist. You have misguided moral concerns.”
“Yes! I mean no, they are not misguided. The people you have slaughtered did nothing to you! You are so wrong. You are wrong, you are evil, and you have one hell of a high opinion of yourself. You have to stop this.”
“I see. You’re not persuaded at all, are you?” Stonier sighed. “In that case, I am sorry…” He stepped back to the wall and lifted a silver lever. A circular hatch in the roof irised open and bats tumbled out in scores, glinting in the yellow light that flooded the bridge. They arrowed at Thea.
She threw herself from the chaise-longue to avoid the vanguard as they sliced at her head, chittering. She caught a glimpse of Stonier, hands on hips, shaking his head at her and smiling. A bat cut painfully at her buttocks and she threw herself over onto her back, whirling her arms and legs as fast as she could, swatting away the bats that were trying to reach her. One got through and took away a chunk of cloth from her tunic. Another slashed the flesh of her thigh.
She could not last long, that was plain. Punching away a bat that took the skin from her knuckles she threw a despairing look at the mocking Baron Stonier, just as the huge window beside him exploded into the bridge, shattered by the enormous prow of a red and yellow dirigible that had ploughed into the face of the Pipistrelle, hidden by the sun.
Glass flew into the room, shards tumbling across the bridge, glittering among the wheeling bats. Thea was hit by several before she managed to cover her face.
Before Thea could properly grasp what was happening, a small figure leapt from a hatch in the front of the attacking vessel and leapt onto the bridge. Ratporchrico, for it was he, looked about quickly and grinned when he spied Thea. In his hands he gripped the end of a hose that ran through the shattered window back to the dirigible.
Baron Stonier, sprawled on the floor close by, mouthed a foul curse and pulled the silver handle of his cane, drawing out an evil looking blade. Before Thea could shout a warning, he had plunged the wicked blade deep into the old man’s body.
Ratporchrico grimaced and fell to his knees, but managed to turn a wheel attached to his hose. An emerald fluid spurted from the end and drenched Baron Stonier where he lay.
The bats attacking Thea suddenly swerved away and swarmed at Baron Stonier. She slowly lowered her slashed arms and legs and turned to watch as they tore at the man’s screaming figure.
“Moth Girl!” called Ratporchrico, labouring to turn off the flow of green liquid from the hose. Thea struggled to her knees and crawled over to him while the bats bit and sliced at the thrashing, heaving body of the Baron.
“I told you—”
“Shu—HUU!” Ratporchrico coughed, blood spraying from between his wrinkled lips. He clutched his pierced side. Crimson oozed from between his fingers. “Throw the… the switch.” He raised his hand in the direction of the silver lever.
Thea struggled to her feet and limped around the mass of bats clattering about the Baron, who had now fallen still. She pulled the silver lever back down.
The bats immediately left Stonier and returned to their hole in the roof, which spiralled to a close after the last one had left. What they left behind was an oozing mess of bone, flesh and ragged bits of cloth. A cog-monocle lay in the spreading pool of blood on the floor.
Thea returned to Ratporchico, who now lay on his back, gasping for breath. She knelt by him and took his hand.
“Take it easy, you old git. Let’s see what we can do about patching you up.”
“It was the green… liquid. Attracts the bats… you see. He had vats… vats of it hidden about the town. He had—”
“Ssssh, save your breath. I’ll fetch cayenne, and honey.”
“No use. I’m a bit too knackered for med… Brought one vat of the stuff… with me. Thought it might… help.”
Thea soothed a hand over his sweating forehead. “Shhhh, don’t speak,” she soothed.
“Bugger off,” coughed the old man, spilling more blood. “I saw… through the spyglass… he had you drinking it. The green stuff. Had to… act fast.”
“By crashing your ship into us? You mad fool.” Her eyes softened. “You saved me, old man. Thank you.” She kissed his forehead. His eyes were turning milky. Blood trickled down his chin.
“I think I broke the dirigible… when I… crashed it. Sorry.” He looked up at her. “I’m a bit poorly, aren’t I, love?”
She nodded. “Yes.” Tears rimmed her emerald eyes and ran down her face, stinging a score of small cuts.
“Ah well. It’s been… a good life. A long one. I love you, Moth Girl. I’m proud… of you.”
“Don’t call me that.”
“Cheer up, girl. I may be dancing on the line, but there are still some things to sing about. We beat the bad guy. Sing for me, Moth Girl. Sing me on my way.”
Thea sniffed back her streaming tears and squeezed Ratporchrico’s hand as he closed his eyes. His breathing was shallow now. Hesitantly she began to sing, her voice wavering and weak.
Hope has roots like a willow tree
Arcing and searching for the water in me.
Oh I love you, I love you, and I watch you ascend
With joy and with loss, oh my friend goodbye.
My friend goodbye.
Ratporchrico gave a rattled gasp and his grip loosened. He fell limp. He was gone.
Thea hugged his body to hers and threw her head back in an anguished howl. Great racking sobs shook her body. Grief overwhelmed her. What was she to do now? She felt abandoned, lost, and thoroughly alone.
“Can I help you?”
An autominion scuttled towards her across the bridge, its thin legs scattering shards of broken glass. She began to reach for her knife. Somehow, though, her life did not seem important now. She left the knife where it was and awaited oblivion.
The autominion came close, the ‘29’ on its chestplate glittering in the radiance of the sun. It raised its hands… and gently began to bathe the cuts on her forehead with a moist cloth. She smelled antiseptic, and looked up at the creature, frowning. What had caused the change from deadly spiderbot to caring mechanurse? Whatever it was, she realised that was glad of it, and that this wasn’t the end. She released a huge sigh.
“Can I help you?” squawked the autominion.
“Can you help him?”
“I am sorry. I do not understand. Please rephrase your question.”
“Can you help this man here?”
The autominion laid a hand on Ratporchrico’s chest and Thea held her breath, hoping beyond hope.
“No. This man here is dead. Can I help you?”
“Help me to stand up.”
The autominion scurried behind Thea and lifted her to her feet. She limped over to the chaise-longue and sat down, letting its cushioned seat relieve her aching backside. She eyed the control pedestal curiously.
“My name is Stephen, Baron.”
“Oh. Stephen. Well then, Stephen, do not call me Baron. Call me Th…” she paued. “Call me Moth Girl.”
“Very well, Moth Girl. Can I help you?”
“Are you strong enough to push that dirigible out of the window?”
“Please define dirigible.”
“The great thing sticking its prow into this vessel. Can you move it, Stephen?”
“Yes, Moth Girl.”
As she watched Stephen heave the wrecked dirigible away from the flying bat, Thea mused on the possibilities ahead of her. With a little cosmetic structural work, a few sheets of metal, several thousand rivets, and a strong autominion, she was sure that the Pipistrelle could be altered sufficiently to look more like a moth than a bat.
Her way now clear, hair dancing in the wind that breezed through the shattered window, Moth Girl tilted the steering lever slightly to the left and followed the faint blue trail that led to home. She smiled.
A loudspeaker above her head crackled into life.
“NS13 calling NS29. Serotine to Pipistrelle. Do you read me? Hello Pipistrelle?”
Here’s the third episode of my steampunk-tinged story inspired by the serial films of the Thirties and Forties, although this tale will only have four episodes. Yes, I know I said five last time, but things are always fluid in writing. As ever, thanks to @theagilmore and @ratporchrico for the spark. Fans of Thea’s music might like to amuse themselves by spotting song-titles and lyrics scattered occasionally through the text. If you are new to Moth Girl, click these links for the first two episodes.
In the finale of our last thrilling episode, Moth Girl entered the gaping maw of the gigantic metal bat, unaware of the dangers that lay ahead. Now read on…
Episode 3 – Regardless
After the reflective brilliance of the outside, now she could see nothing. Her goggles steamed up in the warmth of the interior, and Thea pushed them up out of the way.
She could still not clearly see. Her pupils needed time to adjust, but did she have time? For all she knew she could be flying towards danger, capture, or both. Perhaps she should end her flight, but then could she be certain that there was actually a floor underneath her? Yes, she had flown into the mouth of the bat, but there was no guarantee that there was an internal base to the thing, or that if there was a base that it wasn’t covered with, say, deadly spikes.
Finally her eyes began to clear. She began to make out a moving spiral shape in front of her. Wait! The spiral was the movement of bats as they circled in to pass through a tiny hole just a few yards ahead. She was about to crash into the wall.
She frantically palmed the Big Red Button and fell, knocking several bats out of the way. They chittered and righted themselves, swerving back up to enter their hole in the wall.
Pain shattered through her shoulder as it hit the ground first, and she rolled onto her front. She tried to push to her feet, but her sense of balance seemed all wrong and she fell over once more. The heavy cloak wasn’t helping, and she struggled to unfasten the strap that held it about her shoulders. She would need the cloak to return home, certainly, but that did not mean she could not take it off for the time being, at least until she found her feet.
Suddenly she realised that her sense of balance was not the problem. The floor itself was actually moving. It trundled past the walls at no more than a walking pace, but it was enough to throw her off her feet when unaware. She pushed herself to her knees, leaning against the movement of the floor. The cloak of wings flumped to the ground as she managed finally to unbuckle the clasp, and she immediately felt lighter and more capable. A quick rotation of her shoulder assured her that she had suffered nothing more than bruising.
She took a moment to take stock. She was kneeling on a sort of moving belt, made of a hard rubbery material, and stained with… well; she did not want to examine the stains too closely. The belt passed close between riveted walls of metal. Copper, judging by the warmth of colour. Expensive. Whoever had built this flying machine was rich. Very rich. As she watched, a plate passed by that declared, mysteriously, ‘29’.
Some ten feet above her head ran thick cables and pipes. The walls that she was passing between reached almost that high, but not quite. If she could reach the gap up there she might be able to climb out.
She looked behind to where she had fallen and realised that she must have been very lucky not to hit the piping above. Or had it been luck? She was now trapped in a channel with a moving floor.
She struggled to her feet and stretched her arms high. Her fingertips were at least two feet short of the lip of the copper barrier. It was unlikely that she would be able to jump high enough to reach, given the limited space she had to work with.
She tried it anyway, running along the channel against the movement of the belt and then leaping high and sideways. She clanged against the copper, but her fingers were tantalisingly short of the top.
She turned to try again, and saw just ahead the mouth of a wide pipe that opened above the channel. Before she could begin to consider whether this might be of any assistance the pipe emitted a gurgle, and a stream of filthy liquid shot out of the end. Thea was showered with a noisome mixture of detritus; brown slurry in which were mixed potato peelings, filthy oil, rags and bones, dead fish, old grounds of coffee and roses that had died a long time ago. Also some rather more disgusting things that Thea preferred not to think about. The stench was overwhelmingly disgusting, and she was so busy gagging that she almost missed the barred opening in the right-hand wall.
Almost. It was perhaps a foot square, with two diagonal bars running across it. She walked along the moving belt to maintain her position by the opening while she peered through. Under a light the colour of rust, colossal glistening pistons pumped, massive cogs turned against each other, and centrifugal governors whirled madly. Titanic forces were at work here. Machinery this large must generate enormous power. Such magnificent power, controlled and directed, surely could only be that which drove this airborne behemoth and kept it aloft. This must be the engine room.
Perhaps this small aperture might provide her with hand and foothold enough to climb out. Thea paused, allowing herself to move several feet from the opening, then ran back and leapt. She managed to insert her boot into the small opening, and with that brief support thrust upwards once more, getting a good handhold at the top of the partition.
Yes, she could get over this way. She began to haul herself up, then suddenly remembered her cloak. Damn. She’d better not lose that, if she hoped to see home again.
She dropped back down to the conveyer belt and ran along in the direction it was moving. It had carried her cloak some way while she had been trying to get over the wall. She was but a few feet from it when it dropped out of sight. It took her a second to realise that the belt ended here, doubling back underneath itself and dropping whatever it carried through a hole in the floor.
There was no way of telling how deep that hole might be, and she furiously back pedalled to avoid falling through herself. Her boots slithered on the slimy detritus that covered the belt and she tumbled onto her back. Frantically she rolled to her front and pushed with her feet. In utter frustration she felt her boots slide in the mess, and then she was kicking air as her legs reached the end of the belt.
She scrabbled with her hands as her waist reached the edge, her fingers unable to gain any traction. She felt her body weight begin to pull at her too as her backside swung down and with the final desperation of those drowning, clutched wildly for anything. With a frantic squeal she felt metal with her left hand and grabbed at it just as her body fell from the moving belt.
She swung from the left edge of the opening by one arm, the belt in front of her face continuing to throw rubbish below her. Luckily she had managed a good firm grip with her left hand, and she looked down, hoping to see a foothold or maybe even a ladder that she could use.
What she saw was the earth, thousands of feet below, bathed in the radiance of a morning sun. Her cloak, her one hope of returning home, was now a mere dot in the distance as it fell away to the distant earth. Still, that was the least of her worries. She searched wildly for anything that might help her to avoid following it.
In front of her face, and just above, the conveyer continued to dump rubbish into the atmosphere. There was no chance that she would be able to get a good grip there. An old teabag bounced off her chest as she looked to her right. The far side of the opening was not close enough to reach with her right hand. If she tried to swing over to it, there was a grave risk of her left hand losing its grip.
She dangled helplessly over the vertiginous void, her forearm beginning to ache now. Thank goodness for her gauntlets, which prevented the sharp metal cutting into her fingers. Without those she would already be plummeting through the clouds.
She looked up. There! Far up near the top of the copper wall was a large metal lever, about a foot long and tipped with an ornately wrought knob. The lever protruded from the bottom of a vertical slot in the wall, and a metal plate beside it declared, in a curlicue script, ‘Maintenance’. A smaller sign, equally intricate, told Thea that the lever was currently in the ‘ON’ position.
She felt a glimmer of hope. She felt down to her belt with her free hand and unhooked her flintlock. It was a pepper-box with three barrels, so hitting the target first time was not vital, yet speed was important as her left arm was becoming weaker by the second. She took aim at the lever, adjusted for the weight of the barrels, and squeezed.
Close, but a miss, above and to the right of target. The pistol barrels rotated and she aimed once more, adjusting slightly left and down. This time the bullet hit the knob and the lever slowly lifted. Thank goodness for well-oiled machinery. The belt before her slowed and stopped. Now she stood a chance.
She was just re-attaching the flintlock to her belt when her left hand slipped. Just an inch, but enough to send a surge of alarm coursing through her. Now only her fingers held her from doom.
She drew her knife from its sheath and, hauling herself higher with the remaining strength in her left arm, plunged it horizontally into the hard rubber of the now stationary conveyer. It held, firmly. She paused for just a moment before hauling herself up and on to the conveyer, this time with the strength of both arms.
She needed a rest, but was worried that the lever above might fall back into the ‘ON’ position. Investigating down the side of the conveyer belt revealed several drive belts and wires. Taking her knife she slashed at whatever she could cut.. Finally satisfied that the conveyer would no longer move, she collapsed onto her back. She lay there for some time, breathing heavily, heart-pounding, and muscles tingling with the release of tension.
“Sinew into steel, Thea,” she told herself, and pushed upright. She walked back along the conveyer to the barred opening she had discovered earlier, and clambered up and over the copper wall with comparative ease.
Outside the copper walls that enclosed the conveyer belt, the noise from the mighty engine was much louder. Steam hissed, pistons shrieked, cogs squealed and governors rattled. Every minute or so there came an enormous resounding clang, as two vast yet unseen pieces of metal crashed against each other.
Thea threaded her way through the machinery, the red-ochre light glinting from the goggles atop her head. The engines produced a lot of heat, and she unfastened her helmet to take it off. Where the helmet had been her hair was plastered to her head by sweat, while the rest stuck out at wild angles where it had been flung about by her travails.
She dropped the helmet and goggles on the floor. Without the cloak she would not be flying back home and would no longer need them no matter what lay ahead.
She edged carefully around a large metal ball from which arcs of electricity reached into the darkness above. Then she stopped, puzzled by the thing in front of her. An enormous cylindrical flask, fully twenty feet high, stood in the middle of an open space. It reminded Thea of the ones, much smaller, that Ratporchrico used for his occasional experiments into alchemy.
This giant version was also made of glass, for she could see that it was half-filled with a liquid that looked deep-red, almost black, in the orange light that suffused the vast engine room. Three-quarters of the way up the flask a black line had been etched around the circumference, and labelled with carefully-crafted gothic lettering. It said ‘ENOUGH’.
There was some sort of movement above the flask; a dark cloud that coiled and writhed. It gave an occasional flash of yellow light. Thea reached inside her waistcoat and withdrew a small spyglass that Ratporchrico had fashioned from cogs, pipes and old goggles. Holding it to her eye she was able to make out what the movement was.
Bats. Hundreds of metallic bats, whirling and spinning, their wings occasionally reflecting a flash of light. They emerged from a dark hole in the roof, and as each individual bat passed over the flask it deposited a small amount of matter before disappearing back up through the opening. As Thea watched, the stream of new bats slowed and eventually the remaining bats disappeared, their job done for now.
Were these the bats that had returned with her? And if so, what—
Oh God. It was blood. Blood and slivers of flesh and slices of bone that they had stripped from the creatures that they had killed in the town below. This horrific thought was mercifully interrupted by a deafening voice that reverberated through the engine room, louder even that the racket of the machinery.
“Well hello, my little train wreck,” the voice boomed, “Welcome aboard the ‘Pipistrelle’, uninvited though you were. I regret that you felt the need to damage my property. Shame on you. However, you have managed to impress me. Twice, in fact.”
“Wait!” Thea shrieked, irked that she’d been spotted. “Who are you? Why are you doing these things?”
“Your first impressive move was actually getting aboard,” continued the voice, ignoring her questions. “Ingenious. You further impressed me by managing to evade plummeting to your doom from the waste disposal. Although now, annoyingly, I have to repair said waste disposal.”
“Why are you collecting… is it blood? What kind of evil bastard does such a thing? And what does ‘Enough’ mean?”
“I am certain that you have many questions to ask me, and let me assure you that I will be answering none of them. My autominions will be along shortly to repair the damage that you have done, and also, incidentally, to escort you back to the waste disposal hatch and throw you the hell off my vessel.”
What will happen now? Will our intrepid Moth Girl succumb to the mysterious ‘autominions’? Who is behind the booming voice? And why is he collecting gore? Find out next time in this very blog in the final episode of Moth Girl, “Something to Sing About”.
Herewith an update on my current Works in Progress. This post is as much to help me keep track of what’s going on as to inform you, dear reader.
1322 is still being grown, almost organically at times. It’s long been my ambition to write a long chunky book, and my medieval baby is lending itself to that aim perfectly. When it finally appears you will find in its pages humour, shapeshifting, horror, a tantalising mystery, everyday life, action, a one-eyed mistress of fire, sex, weirdness, a fight in a cabbage patch and a whole lot of fascinating and minutely-researched 14th century detail.
Aaah and Moth Girl, bless her heart, is almost finished. This steampunkesque (it is so a real word) slice of fifties-matinee-serial adventure was begun as a whimsical tribute to Thea Gilmore, and is now destined for a forthcoming anthology of stories based on favourite songs. I’ll be editing the anthology, which will be called “Soul of the Universe”, from Plato’s quote “Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”
I’ll also be editing a second anthology; this one a collection of timber-shivering tales about Pirates. I will be making my own contribution, yes, which is already plotted out and includes a treasure map, a parrot, and not a few selkies.
On top of that lot I have four other short(ish) stories all plotted and ready to write. The one I am most excited about, being a complete departure from anything that I have done before, is a Western, tentatively titled “Cowboys on Ice”. That’s all the hint you’re getting about that one. Other tales that are gasping to be written are a comedy about a Dragon dentist, a very strange piece based on Shakespeare, and a spooky horror thing with the working title of ‘Descent’.
Another exciting possibility is a collaboration with the supremely-talented Alex Brightsmith, including a collection of our respective short stories and two new jointly-written pieces. This is one that I am really keen on, being a bit of a fanboy where Alex is concerned.
And then there are a dozen ideas that may never see the light of day before I shuffle off this mortal coil, including a tale that I want to write that bounces off this delicious photograph, taken by the very lovely @Leontia2001.
Other backburner stories are one told by a beach, ‘Heidishire’ my weird erotic fantasy thing (for which I may have to find another collaborator), and the hinted-at sequels to ‘Warren Peace’ and ‘Fog’.
I’m never going to get round to all that, am I?
Here’s another snippet of 1322 for you. Very much first draft, so please remember that and be kind.
He moved down the passageway a few paces and gingerly sat down, his back to the wall. His side and his hand throbbed with agony. His eyes felt raw. Perhaps if he rested them for but a moment.
Slowly his body slid down the wall until he lay prone on the hard stone floor. He began to snore fitfully, and fell into a sleep broken only by an occasional whimper.
Around him, the rats realised that he was no longer moving, and emerged from their hiding places. Creeping worms slid out of the grating, while beneath them blind colourless fish moved sluggishly to investigate the candle stub. A faint light flickered at the further reaches of the tunnel, indicating the presence of a higher life-form. Voices echoed, faint at first, then growing louder as they neared. John, deep in his coma, knew none of this.
“I am told that it is true of women,” said the high-pitched voice, “That they do possess the power to cure the King’s Evil.”
“How so, brother?” asked a deeper tone.
“As soon as the neck begins to swell, the poor victim must take women’s milk, and suck it directly from the breast.”
“A most pleasant cure, it sounds to me, assuming one might find a woman who is two things. Firstly that she be in milk, and secondly that she be willing to allow her breast to be suckled by the diseased.”
“Were I a woman, I would not allow that,” High-voice said.
“Were you a woman, you would do naught but gaze in the glass,” Low-voice mocked.
“Ha! No difference then to— what is that there?”
“By God, another corpse, think you?”
“I do wish people would dispose of their rubbish in the proper way,” High-voice sighed.
“Come, brother, let us bear this one to the Great Conduit too, that he be washed away to the river. Let the shit shovellers deal with him.”
The two figures bent over John, Low-voice lifting him by the arms. A strangled cry escaped John’s lips, but he did not wake.
“God’s teeth!” roared Low-voice, leaping back against a wall.
“Eek!” squeaked High-voice, jumping to the other and almost dropping his torch, which sputtered and gave off a gobbet of black smoke before settling back to a normal flame.
“’Eek?’ You great girl.”
“Shurrup. You were startled, too.”
“Yes, but in a manly way. As opposed to, oh I don’t know, saying ‘eek’ like a frightened maid.”
“Come, I think we should take this poor sod to the mad physician, don’t you?”
“Much good may it do him. I must bear our light, though. Do you think you can carry him yourself?”
“Of course I can, because I’m not a girl. Just help me to lift him from the ground. There. Now lead the way, mistress of light.”
The two men bore their burden through the dark passageways in a small puddle of smoky light cast by the burning of the resinous torch. John vaguely felt movement, and tried to drag himself out of a dream about a winged woman with the skull of an owl in place of a head. His head lolled and his throat felt tight. His hair brushed against something. Then he heard voices, the words twisting into and over his dream, dismissing it..
“Good physician, we have for you a patient.”
“Ah, The Brothers Birdlike!” exclaimed a smooth voice with a trace of accent, “What have you now uncovered? A smelly man? You do like to help those who have strayed from the light, don’t you? You want me to doctor this man, I think. Can he pay me, eh? I know that you cannot.”
“I saw no purse, but he has a dagger in his boot, see? There’s that. Oh, and the boots too, I suppose.”
“What use have I for boots, eh? You might as well tell me that he has swans, for I would get as much use out of them as from boots. At least I could eat swans, eh? Ah well, don’t just stand there Kaff, lay him down, lay him down. Dowse your light, Kit, and fetch me that bowl of water.”
John tried to drag himself out of his torpor, but still the last of the dream lingered, and held his eyes firmly shut. He was put down on his back on a hard surface. He tried to speak, but somehow could not move his mouth. He felt disoriented and distanced, as if he was simply a watcher at a play.
“Set the bowl on him while I check the planets. I have a terrible feeling that Saturn and Jupiter are in conjunction.”
A weight was placed on John’s chest, and he heard those present gather round. Slowly he began to feel a little more alert, and thought to attempt speech once more. Before he could, the doctor pronounced.
“I’m not dead.”
“He’s not dead. That’s what I said. Trust me, I’m a physician and a barber. Can you open your eyes, boy?”
John did so, although it took Herculean effort to prise his eyelids apart. He was in a small enclosed room, dimly lit by rush lights at the walls. Three men looked down at him; a dark man, a fair man, and a bald man, somewhat older than the other two.
“Ripples!” announced the bald man, unexpectedly. “How did you do that, eh, you clever bastard?”
“I don’t… ripples?”
“You made no ripples in the water, a sure sign of a dead man. Ooh, maybe you are demon?” the bald physician said tremulously, backing away.
“Or it is so dark in here that you just could not see them, Gio?” suggested the dark man.
“Oh yes, that makes more sense. He doesn’t look at all demonic. What’s your name, eh?”
“Wait, what happened? Where am I?”
“We found you unconscious by the deep drain, obviously hurt,” the fair man told him.
“You seemed in need of physic, so we carried you hither,” added the dark.
“Now, your name, sir?” the bald man repeated.
“Four letters. Kaff, you carried him in,” Gio nodded to the dark man, “That’s another four. What day is it, Monday? That’s six. In total, fourteen letters. An even number. Sorry, boy, you are going to die quite soon now.”
“Wait, what? When?” asked John, terrified. The fair man laid a calming hand on John’s shoulder and spoke to the doctor.
“It is after midnight, Gio. Long after midnight. We are well into Tuesday now.”
“We are? Thank you, Kit, I lose track down here. Then you will live, man called John! Kit has saved you by correctly remembering the day. Now tell me what hurts.”
The physician removed the bowl from John’s chest and the three helped him to sit up. John got his first real look at his rescuers. Kit and Kaff were similar in all but size and colouring. They had the same hawk-like nose, the same keen eyes, but where Kit was lithe, Kaff was muscular. They both had tufty hair, but where Kit was fair-haired, Kaff was dark. They wore trimmed beards both the colour of amber. John turned his eyes to Gio, the physician.
He was naked. A thin man he was, hairless from head to toe. Scrawny buttocks jiggled in the low light as the physician threw the contents of the bowl onto the floor and turned. John tried not to look, but his eyes were irresistibly drawn to the man’s genitals. An incredibly long tarse dangled from a nest of curls between Gio’s hips, his only body hair. His manhood sported a thin ribbon tied around it in a small bow.
John gaped. Kit and Kaff laughed.
“Do not ask, I beg you. Gio’s a bit odd,” said Kit.
“A lot odd,” added Kaff, “But he is physician to all the below dwellers, and does well by us. His bizarre ways are harmless.”
“I don’t have bizarre ways,” argued Gio, “I am perfectly normal. Everyone else is strange. Where do you hurt, John?”
“You are naked, sir.”
“The wise man always goes naked. Clothes have minds of their own. Should they wish, they could carry you off against your will, to who knows what hellish doom? Now, you have pain?”
John exchanged a look with the brothers, who shrugged.
“Um, yes,” he said, “My side was kicked, hard, and my hand is broke. Two fingers.”
“Were you bled recently?”
“Good. Then piss in this and hope tis not green.” He handed John the bowl. Gio continued speaking as John used it.
“I can diagnose that you smell of horseshit. Bathe when you can. Then bathe again. Take a handful of rose-petals and rub them in your hair.”
John handed the bowl back to Gio after urinating into it. The physician raised the urine to his nose and sniffed.
“Healthy colour, healthy smell,” he pronounced. Then he took a sip. “No jaundice, good. Do you have any puppies on you?”
“Then we shall have to forego the boiled puppy bath and leave your side for God to heal in his own good time, eh? Your fingers I can set, although be warned, you are like never to use them efficiently again. Or at all. Still, it is God’s will.”
“The God must hate me, for I am a minstrel, and must play my gittern.”
“It is your right hand that is broke,” Kit pointed out, “Unless you are left-handed, you will still be able to finger the notes.”
“Perhaps then knock the strings with a stick in your right hand?” suggested Kaff.
“Hmmm, at a pinch, perhaps. It will seriously limit my repertoire. And I am to perform before my Lord in a few days. Damnation! And where am I, for Christ’s sake?”
“I am very sorry,” said Gio, examining John’s swollen fingers. “I will do what I can, and the bones will knit in time, but the extent of your injury tells me that you will never have fine control again.”
John sank into a depressed reverie. While the physician worked on setting his shattered bones and binding his hand to a wooden frame, the three men answered his last question and described the world into which he had descended. John only half-listened, worrying about his hand, worrying about his playing, interrupting only when he occasionally cried out as Gio heaved his fingers into line.
Beneath Northampton lay a labyrinth of interconnected passageways and crypts. This web of tunnels was ancient. It was said that two centuries ago Saint Thomas Becket had escaped the clutches of King Henry at Northampton Castle by fleeing through the tunnels to All Saints Church in Mercer’s Row.
It was possible to cross from one side of town to the other through the network without ever venturing above ground. Indeed, some people made their homes and their lives underground, it being mostly warm and dry, and rarely ventured outside. A whole community of subterranean dwellers had grown, with builders, artisans, merchants, and physicians.
One such physician was even now securing the wooden frame about John’s fingers. The skinny man hummed an air as he worked. John knew it. He joined in with final few lines, and exchanged a smile with Gio as he secured the last knot on his finger brace.
“Gramercy, but I cannot pay you, sir. I have lost my purse and have no coin.”
Neither have you the owl skull, now.
“Neither have you swans?”
“Oh well. I like your dagger. Is it sharp?”
“Sharp enough. It is yours.”
“Thank you, and God’s mercy be with you and your broke hand. Go well in the world, Minstrel John, and for the sake of that world, clean yourself at the earliest opportunity.”
“You need rest, man,” Kaff told him, “We can take you to a safe bed. Follow us. If you feel up to it, you can tell us your tale.”
Whoooa, I love what I’ve written this afternoon – or at least, I loved what Alex Brightsmith calls “the cinemascopic surroundsound experience of the composition itself”, i.e. the events described and the emotions felt. I actually punched the air at one point, and exclaimed “YES!”, which startled the cat somewhat.
I doubt that I’ve written it very well, for I tried writing longhand for a change so that I could sit on the comfy chair. I have produced pages full of cryptic scribbles, crossings out, weirdly angled arrows and tiny sketches.
Ah well, I’ll type it into manuscript form later, and then we’ll see how it pans out. For now, though, I believe that it’s the best entrance for a character that I’ve ever written. I’m a bit breathless from it.
This is the second part (of five) of a new short(ish) story inspired by a conversation with @theagilmore and @ratporchrico on Twitter, and referencing Thea’s haunting songs. You can read Part the First, “Start As We Mean To Go On”, HERE.
This Is How You Find The Way
The following night Thea stood ready behind the cottage door, mantled in the heavy shining cloak, flying helmet and goggles snug on her head. She had a knife and a flintlock secure on her new belt, for who could predict what might shortly happen? Thea herself hadn’t the faintest idea what to expect.
Outside, the deadly bats were still about their evil business, whirring and keening and destroying all in their path. Their usual hour of disappearance was near, however, and Thea stood ready.
Ratporchrico fussed about her cloak, checking each individual bat wing’s newly fitted remote relay. One click of the big red button on the buckle of her belt should activate all of the cloak-wings at once. If that actually worked, if Ratporchio’s intricate little switching mechanisms all functioned as they should, then one of two things should happen. Either the wings would gently lift Thea from the ground and take her with the rest of the bats back to whence they came, or she would be flung forcefully upwards to smash her head against the cottage ceiling. She devoutly hoped for the former.
“Bend your knees,” the old man told her, and she complied, her boots creaking. He stretched and fiddled with the contraption attached to the back of her helmet. The “Automatic Blue” he called it, one of his many inventions. It was at heart a small boiler, perhaps two inches square. The tiny chimney attached would pump out a viscous blue vapour as she went, leaving a small yet visible trail that would linger for up to a day, so that she could find her way home again after… well, after what? Who knew what she’d find?
Ratporchrico patted her on the backside and she stood upright again. The Automatic Blue made a small pocketa-pocketa sound to show that it was working. The racket outside died down slightly. She let out a huge sigh. Nearly time.
“Ready, Moth Girl?” Ratporchrico asked.
“I’ve told you—”
“Yes.” She opened the door tentatively. The bats were milling about the square, circling aimlessly. They did not try to attack.
“Then it’s time,” Ratporchio told her, “Engage the bat wings, and just, you know, do your best.”
“I will not disappoint you.”
“I know. That would be impossible.”
Thea smiled at him.
“Oh wait,” he said.
“What?” she frowned. “Snag?”
“Did you have a wee? Best to go now. Who knows when you’ll next get a chance?”
“Yes, yes, I’ve been, you disgusting wazzock.”
“Then go, Moth Girl, and stay away from any naked flames.”
Smirking, Thea pushed the red button.
What the f…
The cloak lifted around her and her feet left the floor. It was only bloody working! Wait, the doorway – how the hell was she going to get out of the doorway? She should have stepped outside before activating the wings. She waggled her feet frantically, which achieved absolutely nothing.
Ratporchrico sighed, and gave her a push in the small of the back. Thea floated serenely outside, then slowed to a steady hover, bobbing up and down slightly in the pre-dawn light. A splash of blood on the snow beneath her feet marked where a bat had torn her flesh the night before.
The Automatic Blue provided a small amount of thrust and in a spirit of experiment she leaned forwards a little. She began to move ahead, slowly, but steadily.
She was just experimenting with steering by lifting her arms to angle the cloak when she suddenly shot forwards, head first, legs trailing behind her. The breath was sucked from her lungs by the sudden speed. The bats were on the move, and they were taking her with them.
She sped upwards, and due south. Around her, the mechanical bats flickered their wings. Her grimace slowly relaxed as she realised that the plan, impossible as it had seemed, was actually working. She was following the bats back to wherever they originated, back to their cave.
Oh God, she was following the bats to their cave. They hadn’t entirely thought this through, had they? For a start, how was she going to stop? She briefly considered hitting the red button again, until she noticed how high they had risen. The city below was tiny already. It turned beneath her feet as the bats curved to the right, eventually settling on a westward course.
Perhaps she could direct her own course a little. She angled her right arm up, clutching the hem of the cloak in her fist. She veered to the left. She lowered her arm and brought her direction back to that of her bat companions.
Success! In your face, Ratporchrico! The old fellow had been adamant that she would not be able to influence her direction of travel at all. He had thought the pull of the wings on her cloak would be too strong for her to divert. He had thought wrong.
She tilted herself to the right, beginning to enjoy herself. Her cloak brushed aside a few of the nearer bats, who simply ignored her and resumed their original flight plan.
Thea became more ambitious, she swooped and soared, turned and twisted, her breath vapour-trailing behind her to mingle with her faint blue lifeline. She laughed aloud at the unexpected joy of flight. She shouted with excitement. She imagined herself an angel, an avenging angel swooping to the rescue of her beleaguered city. The stars wheeled about her almost as if she controlled their arc through the heavens, and a song grew in her exhilarated mind.
There are angels in the intervals and angels in the stars
There are angels in the radio waves
She devoutly hoped that she would be able to experience this glorious feeling again, once her mission was over. Her thoughts were reluctantly dragged back to the mission. The ability to direct her flight, in addition to being a breath-taking experience, significantly improved her chances of dealing with whatever she found.
Now, when they reached their destination, she might be able to direct herself to a safe place. A shadowy hidden corner of the cave, perhaps.
She glanced around. Her tiny companions flew mindlessly on, rising still higher. The freezing air was getting thin, and Thea was grateful for the woollen gloves she wore beneath her gauntlets, and the extra set of underwear that Ratporchrico had insisted she wore.. The bat cave must be on the pinnacle of a high mountain, or perhaps even—
Wait, what was that ahead? Thea didn’t dare release her grip on the cloak in order to clear her goggles, but through the misty glass it looked like an overly bright star. It was not Harpo’s Ghost, that bright guide-star beloved of mariners and trans-desert caravans. There was Harpo’s Ghost, over to the right, close by the fading face of the moon. And the dot of light ahead was growing bigger. Stars don’t grow.
This object did grow. Or rather, she realised, it appeared to be increasing in size because it was getting nearer. Obviously, Thea reflected, clockwork bats do not roost in caves. Clockwork bats roost in… whatever the thing was that they were approaching.
It began to take on form as they closed the distance. It appeared to be vaguely wedge-shaped, with a protuberance at the point of the wedge. The sides appeared to be moving, rhythmically pulsing. As it came closer, Thea began to make out more details.
It was a mechanical behemoth, and now it filled her vision against the lightening arc of the sky. Huge pistons, driven by steam if the exhaust jets were anything to go by, pushed vast wheels around. These in turn acted via cogs and pulleys on great articulated sheets of metal that rose and fell in the roseate tint of the beginning dawn. At the rear of the flying machine, for such it was, a metal chimney of ornate design disgorged dark smoke. At the front, two large triangular satellite receptor dishes emerged like ears from a spherical cockpit, and below them a pair of large ocular windows allowed Thea to see figures moving about inside. This was plainly a craft of some sort. The whole contraption was a titanic mechanised creature of the skies. It was…
It was a colossal steam-driven bat.
Thea and her cloud of attendants were approaching the massive head. She hoped that the bats surrounding her, mere toys compared to the giant ahead but legion in number, would be enough to mask her approach from any sentinel that might peer out of the windowed eyes.
Behind her, the sun finally broke the curve of the horizon and threw blazing light on the craft ahead, which shone and dazzled like a fiery inferno.
Stay away from any naked flames, Moth Girl.
It was too late now for her to heed Ratporchrico’s advice. She was headed straight for the bright flame of the mighty head.
She shook herself out of her fascinated torpor. It would be better if she could angle around to the side, maybe find a way to creep secretly into the body of the beast through the struts and cogs that worked the beating wings. She angled her cloak accordingly, but was rewarded with only the slightest of movements.
Damn. It had worked before. She tried leaning the other way, but was unable to affect her course significantly in either direction. Either the aerodynamics of the cloak were less effective in the gruel-thin air at this height, or the power of attraction between the mother ship and her minions was far stronger at this small distance.
Thea tried loosing her grip on the cloak entirely, leaving her hands free. It made no difference. The cloak, attached securely around her shoulders, continued to support and direct her. Wherever the bat cloud was going, she was going too. She briefly considered hitting the power button on her belt, but a glance to the shadowed earth, far far below, convinced her that stopping the wings would only lead to long cold fall and a certain death.
Perhaps the rising sun would dazzle any watchers ahead, and allow her to slip in unnoticed. It was difficult to make out much through the dazzling reflections, but she could not see anyone gazing out of the windows at her; just dim, blurry figures moving about. Another movement of darkness drew her gaze down.
Below the eyes, a dark crack appeared in the bright metal face. It widened slowly. The maw of the beast was opening, hungry and black. Thea, enveloped in her glittering swarm of attendants, was flying directly into the mysterious blackness and into the belly of the beast.
Out of the moonlight they sped in their thousands, swift as death, razor wings glittering in the pale glow of the Wolf Moon. In the frost-shrouded city below, the final toll of the curfew bell faded. Latecomers hurried inside, the hems of their capes whisked through narrowing gaps as doors were slammed, shutters bolted and chimneys blocked.
Those without homes huddled in hidden crevices, or burrowed under piles of rubbish as the bats hurtled out of the night sky. A high keening filled the air – whether emitted by the mechanical creatures themselves, or created by their sharp wings slicing the air no one knew – and suddenly the streets were filled with vicious whirling things, shredding anything soft that they happened across: clothing, flags, living flesh.
Here, a tunic accidentally left out on the washing line was shredded in seconds. There, a rat poked its whiskers out of a hole to investigate the noise and was seized upon by three of the deadly automatons. A beggar, too drunk on leafchew to ensure that he was entirely covered by the bridge under which he cowered, had first the shoe and then the flesh stripped from his foot almost before he could react. His screams brought more of the maniacal machines to him and he died quickly, his blood splashing the mossy stones of the bridge and darkening the stream that passed beneath it. Ten minutes later his bones glistened in the moonlight.
An anguished howl echoed across the town square as the bats found an unfortunate stray dog somewhere, to whom the curfew bell had meant nothing. Thea leaned on her iron spade and peered through a crack in the door. Her breath fogged in the freezing air. She rotated her arms, the better to sit the weight of her ankle length cloak on her shoulders. It clanked as it settled around her. Tonight’s haul should be the last. The final collection that she needed.
She pulled the leather flying-helmet over her head, tucking her chestnut hair safely beneath the sturdy leather, and fastened the strap securely beneath her chin. She lowered the goggles over her eyes. The thick glass fogged for a moment and then cleared. Taking a deep breath of frozen air that shocked her lungs, she opened the door and stepped out into the maelstrom of wheeling metal.
Immediately the bats arrowed furiously at her, intent on slaughter. She heaved her weapon through the air in a scything arc, smashing several to the ground. Some struggled and rose again, while others sparked fitfully and lay spent on the ground. Numerous others flew past the spade, and threw themselves on her, tiny steel teeth and sharp claws tearing at the cloak. The air was filled with an almighty clattering as their tiny attacks bounced off the metal outer layer. A few attacked her head, but the old flying helmet, reinforced with chain-mail that Thea had sewn on herself, deflected the worst of the attack. She would have a hell of a headache later, mind.
She gasped as a bat slashed at her eye, but the goggles did their job, and she continued to gyrate strenuously, laying about her with the blade of the heavy spade, bringing more bats down around her feet. They flocked about her, trying their damnedest to get through to her skin, to rip her apart.
A sudden pain in her calf caused her to stumble. Damn. A bat had found one of the few remaining weak spots in the cloak. She felt its teeth, claws, whatever-the-hell sink into the soft flesh and tear through it. Quickly she switched the weight of the spade to her left hand, and groped down with her right to dislodge the attacker. She ripped it away painfully from her leg, and held it up in front of her. It squirmed in her gauntlet, pinpoint teeth, sharp claws and slashing wings flashing in the moonlight.
Thea tossed the metal horror up into the air and in one fluid movement swung the spade to bat it forcefully across the square. That’ll teach you, you evil little tin bastard.
She continued swinging, gasping now and giving little moans as she tired. Her arms throbbed, burning with the effort, and the wound in her leg pulsed wetly. One last effort, come on girl!
She gave up on her to-and-fro sweeping, and simply circled wildly now, bats clanging against her spade as it cleaved the frozen air. Her head, her back and her arse stung from the constant battering from frantic metal attackers. She was becoming dizzy from the spinning, and decided to call it a day before she fell and allowed metal destroyers to creep under her protective shroud.
Slowing to a standstill, she waited a brief moment until the world stopped spinning too, then banged rapidly three times with the spade handle on the cottage door.
It immediately opened and she leapt inside, followed by half a dozen whirring bats. The door slammed behind her, and she concentrated on despatching those enemies that had entered with her.
Her grip now was tired, but Thea managed to smash five of the intruders to the ground before the spade twisted out of her weakened grasp and clattered to the floor. With a high buzz the remaining bat launched itself at her face, and she scrabbled desperately at it with her gauntlets, trying but failing to beat it off as it frantically scratched at her goggles. She felt a claw rake across her nose and cried out in despair. She was losing this one. One last desperate effort enabled her to fling it a foot away, but she was spent. Next attack it would get through.
The bat flew across the room and smashed into the wall, propelled by a hard blow from a dark object. Small cogs and metal screws tinkled to the dusty floor.
“Ee, Moth Girl, they nearly got you there!” creaked an amused voice.
“I’ve told you not to call me that, Ratporchrico,” Thea panted, shaking her head at the wizened old man by her side. He grinned a toothless grin, and put down the cricket bat he was holding.
“That’s what you look like, though, out there in the moonlight with your cloak, your helmet and your goggley eyes. Like a giant glittery moth.”
“I’ll moth you, you old git, if you don’t stop calling me that.”
“You make no sense,” he rasped good-naturedly, “How on earth do you moth someone? If you’re going to indulge in badinage, at least try to make it coherent and quippy.”
“It’s badinage that I have to talk to you in the first place. How’s that for quippy?”
“More pun than quip, but I’ll allow it, given how well you did out there.”
“Thank you,” she nodded. “Now, shut your whiskery face and help me get this cloak off. And then light a fire, for fuck’s sake. I’m freezing my tits off here.”
“Language, girl! You did not learn such speech from me. You’re not too old for a slapped backside, you know.”
“I’d like to see you try, old man!” she smiled, removing the helmet and shaking her burgundy hair free. It glowed in the flickering candlelight.
“You spend too much time down The Murphy’s Heart,” Ratporchrico continued, reaching up to lower the heavy mantle from Thea’s tired shoulders. “Common lot down that tavern, they are.”
“They are good friends, too. Do not forget that. I’m going to whack some cayenne and honey on this wound. When you’ve got the fire going, pick up these bats here. I can start attaching these until them outside sod off. Then we’ll gather the rest. I think I downed enough out there to fill all the gaps.”
“So you reckon you’ll have enough now?”
“You know, I really do. I put in a lot of effort out there.”
“I saw,” Ratporchrico nodded, “Moth Girl in thrilling action.”
Thea shot him a glance, which he ignored.
“Tomorrow’s the big adventure, then?”
She nodded. Ratporchrico peered at her closely.
“You’re still sure? You’re still determined to do this? To plunge into the unknown?”
“Somebody has to. It’s been five full moons now, three nights each time, that those buggers have been coming. Tomorrow will make fifteen nights of terror for the people of this city. And what does Lord Liejacker do? Bugger all. Oh, except hide. He doesn’t even know why or whence they come.”
Thea widened the ragged hole in her thick tights and washed the calf wound, then sprinkled cayenne to sterilise and stop the bleeding. Wincing, she smeared honey on top to aid the healing, and wound a strip of clean linen over the sticky mess as a rudimentary bandage.
“Well,” Ratporchrico told her, lighting kindling in the fireplace with the candle, “My Lord Liejacker has decided that since his biplanes and his dirigibles are too slow to catch the bats, they simply cannot be caught. He’s a great believer in the principle of ignore it and it will go away.”
“I’m a great believer in the principle that he’s a useless pillock.”
“He is that.” The old man stood up. “There. Fire. Come and warm your tits while I gather these bats.”
“Language, man!” Thea laughed at him. She sat on a rickety stool by the growing flames and warmed her boots, rubbing her hands together and flexing her fingers.
Ratporchrico carried Thea’s cloak over to the large oak table by the back wall of the cottage and laid it out, metal side uppermost. He lit a second candle and stood it by the cloak. Finally he collected the fallen bats and put those on the table by the cloak.
“Ready when you are,” he said.
Thea sighed and stood, tugging her tunic straight. She reluctantly left the warmth of the fire, and limped over to the table. She picked up one of the broken bats and worked the wings loose. She spat on them, and polished the metal to an unbroken gleam with a soft cloth. She sang as she worked.
We’re gonna start by aiming higher,
We’re gonna start by naming names.
We’re gonna start some rumours, start some fires, and then start to fan the flames.
Ratporchrico looked up from his book, a battered copy of “So You Want to Pilot a Dirigible?”, and a smile brightened his crinkled old face as Thea’s voice soared above the continuing clatter and screeches from outside.
Thea took up needle and thread, and began to sew the bat wings onto the few remaining bare patches on her cloak.