Anthology i: A Collection of 8 SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY Short Stories

Anthology I, The Novel Fox's first published anthology, features eight science fiction and fantasy short stories by authors Dominic Dulley, Gerri Leen, T.D. Edge, Rati Mehrotra, Shawn Scarber, Ernesto Pavan, Peter White, and Shane Halbach. With stories ranging from Paying Old Debts, about a thoughtful sex robot assassin, to A Wand's Tale, chronicling the short life of a sentient magic wand, to Subsidence, which includes a horrific golf hazard, the stories of Anthology I are riveting from beginning to end. We hope you enjoy them as much as we did.


Anthology I is available for purchase for $2.99 on Amazon:


WASHOUT 

By Dominic Dulley

 

Read a sample below...

 

Nix felt the bitter cold of space against her skin and smiled. She let her mind--her essence--flow into Blythe, spreading through the ship’s systems, donning her like a familiar garment.

Hello Nix. How’s it going? Blythe gave her the mental equivalent of a hug. The ship’s affection suffused her.

Hi Blythe. I’m pretty good, you know? Busy busy.

Stick it out, said the ship. It won’t last forever.

Nix grunted. Sometimes her merging ceremony seemed further away than ever. That’s easy for you to say, floating around up here with nothing to do. Blythe’s amusement tickled her mind, making her want to laugh. Speaking of which, spill. I want to hear everyth--

“Nix!” snapped Dr. Frego.

Nix sighed, waste gas venting from her hull, boiling into hard vacuum. Couldn’t the pinch-faced cow give them a few moments? They hadn’t merged in weeks, and there was a lot of gossip to catch up on. Reluctantly, she returned to her meat body, swaddled in an acceleration couch on Blythe’s bridge.

“Solid connection,” she told Frego, struggling to control her tongue. It didn’t feel part of her anymore, a slimy oyster writhing in her mouth.

“Okay, let’s begin,” said Frego. “Pre-merge number fifty-four. We’ll start with the sensor suite and work our way in.”

Did you get that, Blythe?

Already on it. Sour. Blythe didn’t like Frego any more than Nix did.

She kept her eyes closed, watching through a dozen bridge cameras as Frego scrolled down a checklist on her data tablet. Above a dark trouser suit, Frego wore her hair scraped into a bun. She stood in front of Nix on the bridge, next to a team of techs with Ship Authority insignia on their white coveralls.

Nix looked at her own lanky, thirteen-year-old body lying in the folds of the couch. The stubble on her head was growing out again. She’d have to shave that when she got back to the academy or her dorm leader would--

“Nix! Focus.”

She bit back a sharp retort. “Sorry,” she said, speaking through the bridge speakers. She preferred it that way, the digitized voice less liable to betray her irritation.

She gets worse, observed Blythe, making Nix smile. Are you ready?

God, yeah.

Hold onto your hat. A buzz of anticipation.

Her senses swam as the sensors came online, her mind expanding to accommodate a volume of space a light minute in diameter. The vertigo receded, leaving her with a god-like feeling of awareness. She was docked at Galatea’s orbital yard, the planet’s yawning gravity well constantly at play with thousands of objects surrounding it. She felt the other orbital stations, the resource colonies on Galatea’s moons, the constant stream of ships approaching and leaving from every direction. The Galatean ships were easy to spot among the traffic, their mergeminds burning bright as stars.

Her heart soared. It would be like this for the rest of her life, after the merging ceremony.

Can I ask you a question, Nix?

She frowned, picking up a tension in Blythe’s thoughts. Of course. What’s up?

What do you think of the Ship Authority?

Where had that come from? Uh, I don’t know. Very serious. A bit scary, I suppose.

Blythe hesitated. I’ve been talking to the other ships. They are unhappy with some of the things the Ship Authority is doing.

Like what?

The way candidates are selected, the way you’re treated.

Nix sent a nervous laugh. Blythe had never spoken like this before. The academy’s not all that bad.

I don’t mean the academy. I mean how you’re taken from your parents, merged with us without being given a choice.

Nix didn’t get it. Who wouldn’t choose this?

“Good,” said Frego, and Nix experienced a jab of guilt from Blythe, instantly stifled. “Now increase the granularity and begin reducing the scan radius.”

Nix could tell Blythe had more to say, but the ship remained silent as they ran through Frego’s checklist.

It was difficult to tell where Nix ended and Blythe began. She used the ship’s systems as she would her own limbs and organs--more; they were her own limbs and organs. As if she could control her breathing, her heartbeat, the number of platelets in her blood.

It hadn’t always felt so natural. Her first pre-merge had been tough. Nix had been four and Blythe brand new, her nervous system still growing into her hull from fragments of Nix’s DNA. But now, fifty-some pre-merges later, Nix couldn’t imagine life without her ship. Blythe was more than a friend, more than a sister. A few more pre-merges and they would be ready for the ceremony. Joining permanently with Blythe was all she wanted. They would be one, traveling the stars. Together forever. Ageless. Complete.

A jolt of disorientation made her gasp. Her eyes flew open as she was dumped back into the fleshy prison of her body. Her expanded senses withered and died, like a sack had been pulled over her head.

“What the hell!” she yelled, writhing in the couch’s folds. Her stomach roiled, head swimming. She felt like she’d been shaken violently awake from a deep sleep. “Why’d you pull the plug?”

Frego glanced at one of the techs, who examined a panel and frowned. He shook his head.

Frego closed her eyes for a moment. “We didn’t.” She made a note on her data tablet. “Get her out of here.”

 

Paying Old Debts

By Gerri Leen

 

Read a sample below...

 

It started with a girl.  No surprise there.  Things like this always start with a girl.  I've read enough of Damon's pulps to know that.  Context training, he calls them.  I've poured through his detective stories, science fiction, romance, suspense thrillers, you name it.  It helps my programming--although he says I'm more than the sum of my programming. 

I'm not a robot; I'm not a human.  I'm something else.

And I can use contractions like nobody's business.  Also clichés.

I sit in a diner and nurse a cup of joe.  I can drink if I need to, to blend.  Like now.  The waitress comes by and fills my cup up again.  I have to be careful how much I drink.  The reservoir inside me only holds so much before I have to dump it.

Although in that sense, I'm no different than any other guy.  They pee; I pee.  Only I never use the urinals because the sight of black coffee or red wine coming straight out of the wizzer is, I've learned, disconcerting to most fellas.  And no, they don't as a rule check me out, but the smell of just-brewed Colombian spiggoting out next to 'em is a dead giveaway.  Now if Damon can get Peter to figure out a way to change what I drink to urine, I'll really blend.

Blending's important in my line of work.  Only right now, I'm not on the job.  This is personal time--not that Damon gives me that, but I eke it out of jobs done faster than expected or missions aborted.  I come here and sit, drinking coffee while I watch the brownstone where he lives.

He.  Rick.  Real handsome guy with a string of women who probably don't know the others exist.

Rick.  Supreme asshole.  A guy who hurt someone I cared about. 

Care about.

Still care about.

Verb tenses are problematic.  I cared about her once; I killed her anyway.  It was my job.  She was the target.

But we made love.  She didn't have to tell me that it wasn't just sex--we connected.  She was an inspector for Damon's sex robots.  That's what we 3500s pose as when we're not working--or sometimes when we are.  No better way to get close to targets than by being close to the people they know and love.  Some targets come along that way strictly by accident.  You're at a party; you see a person on the mark list; you take your shot if you can get it.

Although it's rarely a shot.  Guns leave behind evidence.  Guns are obvious.  Our job is to make it look natural.  Or at least not like murder.  In any given interaction, we're trained to spot every possible moment that would lend itself to an untraceable death.  There's normally more than any human would care to contemplate.

Anyway, this girl.  Tara.  Real sweet kid, but closed off and lonely.  Scared at the end, until I took care of her.  In every way that word can mean.

There was never a question that I'd do it.  It was Damon's last test, though, so maybe he hadn't been sure.

I made sure she wasn't scared.  I made sure I kissed her just before, lips soft, breath soothing on her skin.  She hadn't asked for us to hurt her, so I did it as gently as I could.

This guy I'm watching never took such care.  She never would have been working for Damon, never would have become my target, if Rick hadn't broken her heart, made her withdraw to things that couldn't hurt her.  Or shouldn't have been able to.

Someday I'm going to make him pay for what he did to Tara.  Someday an opportunity will present itself.

An internal alarm goes off, and I know it's time to leave.  I've used up my window of free time and have to get back to the lab.

 

Where's The King's HEAD?

By T.D. Edge

 

Read a sample below...

 

I look out of the window of our unelectrified cabin and worry for the millionth time how I'm going to keep me and Dad alive. He ain't the most practical of blokes and winter's coming here in the Highlands. That and not get sniffed out by the aidbots, of course.

We've been here all through the summer and used up most of our tins. Being East Enders, our normal idea of survival is popping out for jellied eels and mash in the local pie shop five times a week. Speaking of eels, Dad tried to catch some in the river a few times but, well, he's got cabbie's hands, ain't he? We even tried to grow vegetables, too, but neither of us knew how. When we legged it from London we didn't think to throw any books into the flyer, not that we had many anyway, and none of the educational variety.

I see Dad smoking on the log by the stream, his face blowing hot and cold as he struggles manfully to think of a way out of our predicament. I take him a cup of tea. No milk nor sugar, mind, 'cos we're short, so his smile of thanks is shaded a bit by little-boy-lost regret.

I sit next to him and we watch the sky turn orange over the mountains as the sun sinks behind it. We listen to the chitter-chatter of the river and my stomach rumbles at the thought of all them brown fish in there what we can't catch.

At least the air's real fresh, especially compared with Whitechapel, but it's already much colder, too. If we don't get some grub soon, we really could die.

Dad must be thinking the same thing, because he says, "I'll have to go into the town, Princess. We gotta eat."

 Although I've been expecting this, my throat clamps with fear. I shake my head. "Dad, you can't. The plasmanet will read you and the aidbots'll come."

He nods at this simple but horrid truth. He turns his big, bald head towards me and despite our terrible situation, I'm pleased to see his eyes still glinting with some mischief, even if there's plenty of botheration in there too.

"Maybe I can do a deal with 'em," he says. "Give 'em back the money."

I sip my tea, too annoyed to reply, and feel a migraine coming on.

Later, after packet tomato soup for the fourth night running, he surprises me by bringing a bottle of whisky out of his room.

 "Been saving it," he says, face waddled yellow by the candlelight. "Thought we'd celebrate six months on the run."

"I'm fifteen, Dad. I don't drink."

 He snorts. "Back in London you'd be a bleedin' junkie by now, with a couple of kids on each arm."

"Nice to know you trust me to turn out right."

He opens the whisky, pours some into two glasses, then adds as much water again. I hold the glass, looking at the firelight making the booze swarm with gold, thinking I'd prefer just the cold, clear mountain water.

He takes a big swallow of his then nods at me encouragingly.

I take a big hit, too. "Jesus!" I shout at the burning in my throat. "'Ow the 'ell can you drink this stuff?"

He doesn't reply, just chortles and sits in the old leather chair on the other side of the fire.

Maybe because I'm worried and tired, the whisky feels kind of warm in me gut after awhile, so I top up my glass a few times as the night wears on.

The only sounds are the crackle of logs in the fire and the odd hooting of an owl. Oh, and Dad, of course. Being an ex-cabbie means he's never short of rabbit.

"My dad--" he says at one point, "--that's your granddad what you hardly knew, on account of his deciding to argue his right to cross the bloody street with a tram when he'd been out on the piss after West Ham unexpectedly won the league in two thousand and seventeen--"

"Get on with the story, Dad," I say, waving my whisky glass at him. "We ain't got all year . . . oh, pardon me, we bleedin' well 'ave, ain't we?"

He ignores my sarcasm. "Anyway, my dad was one of the first geezers to see an aidbot in action. An early model got put with the dustcart he worked on."

 

The Shadowless

By Rati Mehrotra

 

Read a sample below...

 

Nissa wove through the narrowing streets of the labyrinthine spice market of Marrakech, her shadow Juju perched on her shoulder. She tried not to breathe too deeply – sacks bursting with cinnamon, turmeric, saffron and cumin assaulted her senses from every side.

“Come back home, Nissa,” said a voice in her head for what felt like the fiftieth time. “What would Aswal think if he knew?”

Aswal was Nissa’s betrothed, a man she was determined not to marry. In fact, he was the reason she’d left the Dome this morning. But her mother wasn’t to know that, or she’d be doing much more than just giving her a headache with her voice on full parental volume. Nissa pressed her forehead and tried to stay calm. “Go away, Mrs. Idari,” she muttered.

Remarkably, her mother did not rise to the bait. Instead of lecturing her about the respectful way to address parents, she said with a tremor in her voice, “Please, Nissa. You shouldn’t be in the souk. It’s too dangerous.”

Nissa glanced around. The sun-soaked street coiled around tiny shops, presided over by old men in plain hooded garments. A stray cat stretched on the thatched roof of a stall. Blue-veiled women bent over the open sacks, smelling, judging, bargaining. It didn’t seem the least bit dangerous. Nissa wished she’d come here before her seventeenth birthday, when a bit of shopping would have been all that she wanted.

“It may not look dangerous, but you never know which one of them is an informer for the Freedom Warriors. You are an outsider, a woman without a veil.”

“I could wear a veil to fit in,” said Nissa.

“You’re being a fool,” her mother snapped, all trace of a tremor gone from her voice. “And I won’t have the entire family suffer because of your foolishness. Do you know how much the anti-royalists would pay to have one of ours in their hands?”

Nissa didn’t respond. It was the same story every time she left the Dome for a walk in the old city. To tell the truth, she was a bit nervous. She had never been so far from the Dome before. Well, she’d better get used to it.

“If you don’t turn back right this minute,” said her mother, “I’m going to send a house drone after you.”

An empty threat, since sending a Dome robot into the old city was tantamount to an act of war. It would turn whole neighbourhoods against the Royal Council. The old king ruled with a light touch, in an uneasy alliance with the tribes, the corporations and the Nilthians. The Freedom Warriors – a radical sub-sect of the Nilthians – were a different matter, of course.

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Idari,” said Juju. “I’ll look after her.”

“I know, Juju. If it weren’t for you, she’d already be dead. You remember the time…?”

A bicycle bell screeched behind her and Nissa jumped aside. An elderly man with a basket full of chickens gave her a toothless grin as he sailed past. She stared at his retreating back, trying to slow her galloping pulse.

“Why can’t you watch where you’re going?” demanded her mother. “If you aren’t kidnapped, you’ll be run over for sure.”

Nissa didn’t have to say anything – Juju understood what she needed. He scrambled the feed and her mother’s voice was reduced to an irritating static at the back of her mind.

“Honestly,” Nissa sub-vocalized, “you’d think she’d lay off now that I’m an adult.”

“There is still a year left before you turn eighteen,” Juju reminded her. “Your mother has your best interests at heart.”

Nissa snorted. Sometimes Juju sounded just like her mother.

“I was programmed by her.” Juju fluffed his bright green wings, brushing her cheek. “Are you sure you want to do this?”

“Yes. Don’t you try to stop me.”

A bike revved behind her and for the second time Nissa leaped aside. Really, the streets were barely wide enough to walk on, and here was a man on a big black motorbike, blocking the entire lane. A rather good-looking young man with deep brown eyes and wavy hair. Nissa tried to flatten herself against the wall as he inched past. He stared at her and for an uncomfortable moment, Nissa remembered her mother’s words. She’d better buy a blue veil at the textile souk before going any further.

The man pointed to Juju. “That’s a pretty bird you’ve got there. Want to sell it?”

“No,” said Nissa, her throat suddenly dry. “He’s not for sale.”

He gave her a knowing look. “From the Dome, are you?”

She flushed, and he laughed. “We don’t see too many of those toys down here,” he said. “Better watch out.” To her relief, he revved up his bike and sputtered away down the street.

 

CLEAN, LIKE WATER FROM A WINTER’S THAW

By Shawn Scarber

 

Read a sample below...

 

DeSandara stood in the open field at sunrise, a carryall full of the season's rabbit furs still on her back, and stared at the burnt frame of the blacksmith's home.

She eased across the field’s expanse, the wild wheat reaching her chest, each step of her bare hind paws carefully placed to avoid stirring the earth and attracting predators.

She set her wolpertinger to flight. With a silent whistle she said, Search for me, be my eyes. The winged beast fought the forces that held all natural things to the ground with hard flaps of its hawk wings. The resulting wind brushed her cheek, reminding her of the thick coat of dirt she wore as a mask. She peeled great chunks away, the black clay breaking at her feet.

With her muzzle to the air, DeSandara sucked in all she could of the day; but none of the sweet or salty tastes of life touched her tongue.

Relaxing her hunter's eyes, she accepted an image of the land around her. In her mind, she drew a map using that vision, noting all the places a predator could hide. She whistled to Arvin, her hunting beast and companion, to search those areas and report back. He obeyed and chirped a negative as he soared over each spot.

She remained a moment in the field. Her eyes alerted her that the home of her friend Patrick and his wife Sarah had burned to black ash. Her nose told her the couple and their children hadn't died in the flames.

She entered Patrick’s workshop to find the fire's soot on the stone forge, anvil, and workbench. Patrick's hammers, punches, and thongs hung neatly on their pegs. A stack of coal remained unused on the forge's bed. She bent low to the hearth, close to where she'd seen the white hot iron flow out its clay-capped spigot, and placed her hand cautiously on the stone. It was cool to the touch.

A cooking pot remained on his bench, as well as a broken gate hinge, a padlock, and an assortment of iron pieces she couldn't recognize as anything but scrap. She lifted the pot, sniffed around its edges, but all she could smell was burnt wood and scorched stone. The pecan and tobacco scent of her friend was nowhere to be found.

Her nose guided her to his ironworking tools, his workbench, the walls, and even the anvil.

The family's home had burned down to the foundation. Nothing stood but the stove and chimney. She remained outside the home. Memories of evenings by the crackling fireplace, eating Sarah's deer stew, and watching their two daughters play with the dolls DeSandara had made for them from molted owl feathers and pine cones ran through her mind.

She whistled to Arvin. He landed on the leather mantle of the perch strapped over her shoulder. He nuzzled behind her ear. Out of habit, she scratched the bridge of his nose and stroked his rabbit ears.

She searched the paths from the house to the main road for man or animal tracks, but found neither. There had been six or seven large storms since her last visit four moons past. The ground held tight to its secrets.

The other homes and shops in the village surrounding the blacksmith's had all suffered the same fate. Along the dirt road and hidden within proud oaks with trunks as large as men, burnt cavities stood where once she'd remembered a stable, a dry goods store, and a hall of worship.

It wasn't until she reached the village's edge, where the road wound to the river, that she saw the truth of it. The small fishing boats and wagon-sized transport ferries were missing from the dock. The boathouse had been burned out as well.

She examined the ground again, this time discovering that large groupings of horses without their iron shoes had gathered. She fell to all fours and trapped a landscape of scents. Buried among the smells of horse piss and dung was human vomit and human urine—both saturated with the stench of fear. She’d sensed no bodies in the charred buildings.

DeSandara tightened the strap on her pack.

She cupped her hands to block the morning sun and gazed up the mountain road in the direction the raiders would have traveled. She pet Arvin on the neck and turned to hike back in the opposite direction.

 

A Wand's Tale

By Ernesto Pavan

 

Read a sample below...

 

I’m just born and yet I remember.

I remember galloping through the forest, the white fire of my mane shining with the light of a small sun. I remember the adoring eyes of the creatures of the forest. I remember the agony of the curse cast on me and the terror when I see the man coming close, tears in his eyes, a wicked saw in his hands.

I remember my roots burrowing into the wet, rich soil and my branches reaching for the sun. I remember the rain and the snow and the wind. I remember the blade biting into my wood, again and again. I remember splitting and falling.

I remember being torn from my mother’s warm, solid womb to be hacked into and cut. My beautiful, natural shape twisted into something angular and faceted. I remember being taken and moved – me, born to be still – to a place where they kept touching me, until I was immobilized again, but this time in a prison of metal on top of horn and wood.

These are my thoughts before all that I’ve been is no more and a new “I” begins.

My maker looms above me. I sense great pride in him, as well as tiredness and a hint of sadness. “Finally,” he murmurs. “A good use for good materials. You will give me great satisfaction, my pretty.” His words are equal part statement and wish. He coughs, and I sense the fear that slithers through his heart when he tastes blood. He doesn’t have much time left.

He picks me up and brings me into a room lined with racks; on every rack are other wands like me, but none of them my equal. Some of them have pride, others finesse, others humility; I feel all their cores tremble in front of me. Good.

My maker puts me in a case, behind glass, and looks at me. “I won’t sell you to the highest bidder,” he states. “You’ll go to someone who can use you well. Someone worthy. You’ll know him.” Then he opens his shop.

Time passes. A tall, lean man comes in and something in my core stirs when I feel his power. Unlike my maker, who only has the gift to make things like me, he holds fire in his soul; but I recognize it as a trace, a mockery of real greatness. Embers. Spent coal.

“Is that a new one, Lucius?” the customer asks my maker. He’s intrigued by me, as I am the shop’s latest curiosity. He wonders if I’d be a good status symbol.

“It is, Mr. Deron. Core of unicorn ivory, body of bicentennial red mountain ash, topped with an emerald from the mines of Karan Dor.”

I feel the man’s desire for me explode, but a veil of deceitfulness quickly covers it. “Really, Lucius? Those components are extremely expensive. The purchase must have drained you.”

“Indeed, sir. But I’m sure it was a good investment.”

“I agree. I’ll add, my dear friend, that your investment might pay off sooner than you had expected. What does it do?”

My maker despises the man’s casual words, yet he answers. “The unicorn ivory, as you surely know, creates a powerful link to the wizard’s soul, allowing the user to channel his or her emotions as well as magical power. The red mountain ash supplies spiritual and physical toughness, allowing both user and tool to withstand the pressure that comes with the use of so much energy. Finally, the emerald is the best focus for shaping and empathic magic.”

Waves of disappointment come from the lean man. “So it’s just a tool for healing?”

“There is no such thing as ‘just’ a healing wand, mister Deron. However, I didn’t design this one with that particular task in mind. I’m sure that a learned wizard would find many uses for such a thing.”

The customer responds to the challenge in my maker’s words. “May I try it?”

“Sure.” My maker opens the case and picks me up with his cold, powerless hands. “Let’s go to the safe room.”

I’m carried into a place with lead-lined, rune-inscribed walls. My maker hands me over to his customer. The man’s hands are warm, but it’s a distant kind of heat, a sputtering flame burning on bad fuel.

“Might I suggest that you try-”

“I know what to do, my good craftsman. More important, I know what I need from a wand.” He lifts me up and points me at the wall. I feel the heat building inside him, along with a sense of excitement over his own power and importance; both are so pathetically small and petty. He shouts a word and his energy rushes forward, pushing against my barriers, but I won’t let such a small and cold power into me. I close myself, denying him, and the energy wave crashes on me and falls back, leaving him flabbergasted. “Something is wrong,” he mutters before raising me again and speaking another word. Again his power tries to enter me, but again I refuse to be used. I feel the customer’s frustration building, reaching far higher than his power ever could. “The bloody thing doesn’t work!” he shouts.

 

SUBSIDENCE

By Peter White

 

Read a sample below...

 

“Oh, you beauty!” Neil Marshall laughed as a golf ball bounced toward the far end of the green before dashing off into the sand dunes beyond.

“Goddamn it!” Cliff growled.

Neil glanced at his scowling companion. Cliff Bayfield did not like to lose. Friends since they’d met in business school, the two men had ended up working for the investment arms of competing banks in Boston. Cliff had turned out the better banker, but Neil had always had a slight edge on the golf course. On the fourth day of their Irish golfing trip, Neil was enjoying a particularly rich vein of form, and it looked like Cliff was in for a serious beating.

They began walking toward the twelfth hole of the brand new Mullanowen course. Filling his lungs with the forceful breeze from the restless Atlantic, Neil studied the low hanging sun on the horizon. He couldn’t wait to tuck in to some rich Irish cooking and chase it down with some beer.  But first Cliff had to be put out of his misery.

Neil’s approach shot had been pretty good, landing just a few yards from the edge of the green. As they headed toward it, Neil noted signs posted every fifty yards or so. Bold black words on a white background:

WARNING!!!

DO NOT ENTER DUNES

DANGER OF SUBSIDENCE

“Subsidence,” Neil commented as they neared the green.

“Sounds like a loada’ environmental bullshit to me,” Cliff remarked.

Neil chuckled.

“Damn guys are everywhere,” Cliff added.

As they headed for the dunes to search for Cliff’s ball, Neil’s cell-phone rang. He looked at the caller ID. It was his son, Jack. He sighed inwardly. Jack never called unless he wanted something, and that something was almost always cash. “Hey, Jack.”

“Hello, Dad?”

With the wind blowing into the phone’s mouthpiece, Neil could barely hear him. Ahead, Cliff was sauntering casually onward.

“I’ll catch up in a minute!” he called.

Cliff kept on walking, raising his club in acknowledgement. As Neil lifted the phone to his ear again, a sliver of irritation darted through him. Christ, the kid knows I’m on holiday! Why can’t he call his mother?

“Dad?”

“Jack, can you hear me?”

“Yeah, barely. Jesus, sounds like you’re in a sandstorm or something.”

Classic Jack, always the idle small talk before the real business. Wearily, Neil decided to indulge the boy.

“Near enough!” he said. “That’s the Atlantic breeze, me boyo!”

He watched Cliff leave the grass and disappear into the dunes.

 

GRANT MY POWDER BE DRY AND MY AIM BE TRUE

By Shane Halbach

 

Read a sample below...

 

The man opened his eyes, blinking up at tall, green pines stretching up in a circle around him. He sat up and looked around. He was sitting in the middle of a blackened bowl, the sides sloping up away from him on all sides. The light was fading, and the forest was completely still. No animal sounds broke the silence.

The man could remember nothing before that moment. Had he been at the center of an explosion? Had he fallen from the sky and made the crater himself?

He did not see anything that he might have owned. No clothes were scattered around him, no horse waited to explain how he had gotten there. No weapons were at hand for his protection, and no equipment or evidence of artifice could explain an explosion. He did not appear to be hurt; in fact, he felt strong and whole.

He stood and carefully picked his way out of the crater. The sloping earth was warm and pleasant against his bare feet, and forest sounds gradually returned as he climbed. When he was out, the man stopped and looked around the small clearing. Whatever had occurred had damaged many of the trees, their broken branches aromatic with pinesap.

The man had no reason to walk in one direction over another, but he knew he was not content to stay still. He turned until the direction felt right and started off, ducking under branches and stepping over logs. Sap clung to his feet, covering the pads with a coating of pine needles.

Perhaps he could find a stream to follow to a village. If people were nearby, they may recognize him and explain what he had been doing in the forest.

For about a mile, he wandered in whichever direction he felt like going. By then darkness had well and truly fallen, allowing him to see the glow of a campfire directly ahead.

He approached with no stealth, walking into a small clearing. Branches had wedged between trees on one side, accumulating moss and leaves to make a wind break. Someone had erected a small tent next to this, and a fire burned cheerfully despite the fact that no one was there to tend it.

The man walked to the tent, thinking to check if anyone was inside. As he paused to listen for breathing, someone stepped behind him, wrapping one arm around his bare chest and holding a short sword to his throat with the other. His assailant was shorter than he was, but the sword extended their reach. The blade felt cool against his neck.

“Why in Skel’s good graces don’t you have any clothes on?” she asked amiably.

The man looked down at himself, as much as he was able with a sword pressed to his throat.

“I don’t know.”

“If you think it makes you look less threatening, you’re wrong. It makes you look crazy, and crazy is always threatening.”

She released him, but took two quick steps sideways, holding her sword ready.

“I’m not crazy, just forgetful.”

She laughed once in disbelief. “You’re telling me you forgot your clothes?”

“I forgot a lot more than that.”

She continued to circle around until she had put the fire between them. He finally got a good look at her.

She was quite a bit shorter than him, with clear brown eyes the color of polished wood. Her chestnut hair was scandalously short, not even touching her shoulders. She wore light armor, with a leather breastplate over red padding and small bracers and greaves on her arms and legs. She wrinkled her brow as she looked at him, trying to decide what to think.

“Aren’t you cold?” she finally asked.

He shrugged. “Not really.”

“What are you doing out here?”

“I was hoping you could tell me.”

She ignored that.

“What’s your name?”

“I don’t remember that either.”

Her wrinkled brow pulled down lower as confusion gave way to anger, but she went to her tent and returned with a man’s shirt and breeches, tossing them to him. They were hopelessly small.

“That’s all I’ve got, and it’s a lot better than nothing.”

The man tugged on the pants and pulled the shirt over his head. The pants fastened easily and the sleeves extended all the way to his wrists. She looked from his face towering over her to the bottom of his pant legs, just brushing the forest floor.

“You must be smaller than you look,” she mumbled, puzzled.