Greetings dear readers. We have finally arrived at the last preview of Red Star Rising. If you’re not up to date on the story then I’ve got a couple of links for you:
And for those that are following, you’ll remember that Shale and Scar had taken a dive with some unforeseen consequences. But how will it all play out? The answer to that begins here……..
III: Remember Me?
A hand quested blindly for the pack of cigarettes on the bedside table, tipping an empty wine bottle into its neighbour. Together they clattered to the floor. Shale rolled over and drifted back into a half sleep of tentacled nightmares, hands reaching for something that sparkled in the darkness.
Shale pushed the horror as far to the back of his mind as he could, and as much as he’d tried to smash the recollections to pieces with booze last night, they were now pushing back with undiluted vividness. Cold sweat was soaking his t-shirt, and it was pinching under his arms…..
From somewhere Shale thought she heard Scamorza speaking.
“You owe me Shale.”
The veil of slumber lifted further and an awareness crept over him. Something was…. different. Hair tickled his face. He wondered why he didn’t have a raging headache as he brushed the strands aside, muttering to himself.
Then he bolted upright.
“What the fuck?”
He reached up and ran fingers through long, lush curls of red hair. As he did so awareness dawned of a rather more alarming and pertinent issue; the surprising weight of his chest. Looking down his eyes widened. His t-shirt was on the verge of exploding with a pair of….. of…..
There was a reality to be faced, but Shale didn’t want it. He dived under his blanket and shut his eyes. All the years of growing up on the streets began to evaporate in a rising panic; the years of shaving his head, of tucking a rolled up pair of socks down his trousers, all the times he had been made aware that it was safer to be a boy than a girl. He’d made a life in disguise, a life that could be lived as inconspicuously as possible.
These….. developments were anything but inconspicuous, and no amount of hoping or wanting could dispel the obvious. His mind churned. What was he going to do? Panic tightened in a circlet around his thoughts, choking off avenues of action, rendering options implausible and possibilities as slippery as greased soap. Shale clasped his knees to himself and rocked to and fro, suddenly lost on a dizzying tide of isolation, and despair.
Upstairs someone dropped something heavy.
The swirl of his mind stopped as Shale strained an ear in primal reaction.
He could hear the argument going on above him with surprising clarity. With a final exchange of harsh words the husband stormed to the door and slammed it behind him. The clump of his feet dwindled, and as Shale listened he became aware that he could hear so much more; the words of people talking in the street, the music from the radio playing upstairs and tenants doing everyday things in their apartments. Somewhere a baby cried with persistence until comforted, and in the skirting board he detected the skitter of tiny insect legs.
Shitshitshit! I’m going crazy!
Shale clasped his knees to himself and rocked to and fro, suddenly lost on a dizzying tide of sensations. He lurched sideways and sprawled on the floor, assailed by another wave of dreams and memories, but within the turmoil were cold facts that he could grasp: his best friend was dead, and acknowledging it brought tears. Shale wiped them savagely, scratching his face with fingernails that hadn’t been there before.
The pain bought a moment’s clarity and he dug the nails in deeper as he wonder how destiny could have fucked up so bad? It wasn’t meant to have happened like this! They should have been rich!
Scar never believed all that destiny shit anyway…..
How could he have? He had been ostracised by his own, banished for the kind of mistake that came with getting a big head. Back then he was one of the ‘unmade’, the closest gneblim had to priests, tasked with building augmentations to replace biological elements of gneblim physique. The more replacements, the higher it elevated them towards the pinnacle of existence. His reputation had grown quickly, his skills attracting a big client – a real deal breaker – who wanted something special. It was going to be the start of a brilliant career until the client died through a ‘miscalculation’ (as Scar had called it). His career was over, and so he had abandoned even tinkering with any tech. For gneblim it was tantamount to abandoning god, a heresy.
And into that void Shale had stepped to become his only real friend. Together, they had each other’s backs, sharing the trials of the Bierkase.
Shale sat against the bed and closed his eyes.
Why had he never told Scar the he was really a woman? By extension she’d never told the gneblim her real name either. Perhaps it was just a small thing, but what might have once been a trifle now seemed to eclipse everything, and despite the fact that it had never mattered to their friendship it was now an aching wound in Shale’s heart.
It was Shale the woman who regretted, Shale the woman that had lost her friend, Shale the woman who was….. immortal?
Shale blinked away tears and stared.
Like a seed the notion had been buried in chaos and grief, then watered with alcohol. In the dark it had waited until the light of day. Now its meaning was taking root, sprouting through the disorder of Shale’s thoughts. Tension coiled in her chest. She hugged her knees tight and drew a deep, steadying breath.
Then Shale reached out and grabbed the pack of Bonchesters off the bedside table. With a shaking hand she lit one and waited for the smoke to take the edge off, then stood and went to the cracked mirror in the hallway.
Shale’s mouth dropped open, cigarette tumbling to the floor as a statuesque beauty stared back. She was taller by far, and what had been a baggy t-shirt was stretched tight around the top of an hourglass body. Her legs were long and shapely, while her once androgynous features were now altered and refined to heart shaped beauty, framed in a cascade of red curls. The line of freckles over her nose remained, underlining blazing emerald eyes. She stripped off the t-shirt, tearing it as she did so, and regarded the extent of her transformation.
Damn! If ever there was a body to be immortal in, then this is fucking it!
It didn’t kill the ache of grief eating at her heart, but with a body like this Shale was suddenly feeling a lot less apprehensive about the days ahead. A new body, a new start, and although she’d certainly have to be careful, new avenues of opportunity were beginning to open up.
And Shale had all the time in the world to make good on them.
What she needed to do was get her head straight and figure out how to get the ball rolling. There was no time for sulking about shit gone wrong, and Scar would have understood. He’d have been quick to remind her that if you were sitting still in the Bierkase you were either old, drunk or dead.
She closed her eyes and bit her lip, and whispered an apology to the aching hole in her heart that was her lost friend. Everything had been against them, hadn’t it? Shale had forced the issue, and that moment on the platform, the light and flask rolling away……
Would it have made a difference?
The answer was that Shale didn’t know, but to survive in the Bierkase you had to grind or you went under. There wasn’t time right now to consider it. She needed to move on, one step at a time, and so not a minute later Shale was vaulting the tenement staircase three at a time to come knocking at the door of the only other person she trusted.
The tread of heavy feet approached the door. It opened a crack, the small chain not as much a hindrance to entry as the colossal bulk of a dendrosymbrae, two symbiont life forms entwined together: one was small and brain-like, living inside a nook of the larger, heavy set body which resembled a walking tree trunk. Twin sets of eyes gave the woman on the doorstep a quizzical up and down.
“You might want to put some clothes on my dear,” it observed.
“Akkawi, it’s me! Shale!”
The eyes went up and down again without any hint of surprise.
“Perhaps,” it rumbled, “You’d better come in.”
* * *
Akkawi lumbered over to place a huge mug in front of Shale. She stared at the dark, steaming liquid within.
“Sorry, I didn’t have any human sized cups.”
“Tea?” Shale asked, and took a sip. It was thick and bitter, and whiplashed through her nervous system. Everything came into sharp focus. It was perception on the knife edge of the moment, like waking from a dream…. or a nightmare. “What the fuck is this stuff?”
“A herbal remedy,” the symbiont replied. It regarded her and smiled. “It’s concentrate is offered for the loss of a symbiont’s partner.”
“How can you…..?”
The symbiont shrugged. “It is obvious.”
Like a missing tooth Shale could feel the size and shape of the absence, and although there was still pain, the ache had been dulled into simple acceptance: Scar was gone. She could acknowledge that. They had taken a gamble and lost.
“How did you come by this new body?” Akkawi inquired. “It is certainly more robust than your previous one.”
“My body?” Shale blinked. The facts hadn’t changed, but somehow they had more clarity than five minutes ago. What had been miraculous was now almost mundane. When she looked at Akkawi, the symbiont was watching, waiting. Shale took a deep breath and, in fragments, told her story: the dive, the chamber and the strange voice, the tear shaped vessel of bottled time.
Akkawi digested this for a moment, then asked slowly, “So, you are immortal?”
“That’s what it said,” Shale said, taking another sip. “Mind if I smoke?”
Akkawi shook its heads and pushed a used plate across the table as Shale tapped one out. Once lit, she continued. “So I had a sample of the liquid – we were going to be rich – but then these….. these things came floating down and….. and Scar…..”
The events played again in her mind, the noise and the light, Scar’s screaming and her outstretched hand. The flask was so close, the light building to its flashpoint….. but now it was far away, all part of some other life.
“Scar’s dead,” Shale said.
“I am sorry to hear that,” Akkawi said carefully. “He was a good friend.”
“What happened next?”
“I….. they…. they took him away on a trolley. The medics were all shaking their heads, saying it looked bad. Real bad. They wouldn’t let me go after him, just kept asking me questions about what happened.”
“And you told them you were immortal?”
Shale shook her head. “I wasn’t even thinking about it.”
“So, the Guild doesn’t know?”
“No.” Shale gave a small laugh. “The medics scanned us but they didn’t find anything. Said I was in perfect health, and then they let me just walk out of there with my credits and this huge fucking secret, but all I wanted was to go and see Scar. I waited and waited outside the hospital, and eventually they told me that there was nothing they could do for him.”
Tears started down her cheeks, and Shale cupped her face in her hands. A faint tremor ran through her, but it was as if the pain didn’t hurt enough. She tried to force it, aware of the dendrosymbrae waiting. “Patient as a tree” as the saying went. After a moment Shale took a deep breath, blew it out and wpied her cheeks.
“What will you do now?” asked Akkawi.
“It have no idea.”
“Well, your life, it continues, yes?”
Shale stared at the dendrosymbrae.
“Is that what they say when part of a symbiont dies?” she replied with more bitterness than she meant.
Akkawi shrugged, unphased. “Life might continue for one or the other, it is true, but we are symbiont, two halves of one being. You are not. You are capable of independence.”
“Independence?” Shale snorted. “And just what am I going to do by myself?”
Akkawi’s next words invoked sage advise. “Does the spider await the fly, or does the fly seek the spider?”
“And just what the fuck,” Shale asked, “Is that supposed to mean?”
“It is an old proverb from your city. It asks whether you are patient and wait to see what life brings you, or whether you will seek an answer, for good or ill.”
Shale made a face. “Surely the fly’s looking to get eaten.”
“In a way that answers the first question; a fly might come your way at any time. But it also suggests that by seeking, the fly will learn whether it is is destined to be food or if it will survive. One way or the other it will come to an understanding of its destiny.”
“So, it’s a gamble then?”
“Is that not what our relation to destiny is all about? The question is, will you wait for destiny to come to you, or will you seek it out?”
Shale thought it made a certain kind of sense. She and Scar had agreed to a roll of the dice on long odds, had gone seeking the spider and she had survived while he had not.
Was it really her fault?
In detachment she saw it all again with cool clarity. There had been nothing she could do for him. The creatures barely responded to gunfire. She had emptied half her bullets into one and it had simply backed off for a moment. There had been a window of mere seconds to act, and she had chosen the one that would make the most difference. It had been a moment of desperation, and she had lost her friend and her fortune.
And now here she was, immortal and solo, ready to start afresh.
So, spider or fly? Shale didn’t need to think twice about the answer to that riddle.
“Guess I’m not the waiting around kind,” said Shale said. “I’ll have to be the fly, but where am I going to start?”
“Well,” and the symbiont gave her two crooked smiles, “You might want to start by finding some clothes.”
Shale stubbed the cigarette out on the plate and stood. “I’m gonna have a hard time finding anything that fits,” she said.
“Can you not buy some new clothes?”
“I guess – ” Shale stopped.
“What is it?”
“Money,” Shale said.
“You have some?”
“Yeah…..” but Shale wasn’t thinking about the small amount of credits she’d just earned. She was thinking about the money she and Scar had worked so hard to invest, the money they’d lost with nothing more than a half-arsed excuse.
She could hear Enebro’s words: “Someone fucked up”.
Shale’s eyes narrowed. She recalled that smug grin on Monte Enebro’s face when he’d fobbed them off. If there was one person who was a spider, it was Enebro’s boss Harlech Truckle, him and his merry little band of thugs and wannabes sitting up there on their pile of credits in Pelardon Hill. They’d screwed Shale and Scar over, left them so broke they couldn’t pay a damned bar tab, and that was the moment Shale knew.
“Son of a bitch must pay!” As she said it the cup in her hand cracked and exploded. Akkawi barked in astonishment. Shale opened her hand, fragments of cup falling to the floor. Blood was welling from a dozen lacerations, running and dripping from her hand for a few moments before they healed.
“That was impressive,” Akkawi remarked.
“I’ll fix this,” Shale said as she went to the sink and washed the blood off.
The symbiont chuckled. “I don’t think the cup can be put back together.”
“Ah, no. Guess I’ll have to buy you a new one.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“I have to go.”
“I can see that. You have the look of someone who has resolved to do something.”
Shale nodded. “I just worked out who my spider is.”
“I almost feel sorry for them,” Akkawi replied, picking up fragments of cup. “Can I give you anything?”
“No, it’s okay. I should have enough cash to get started.”
“What do you plan?”
“I need to find someone.”
“After you put some clothes on?”
“Yeah, after that,” Shale laughed, then thought of something. “There is one thing.”
Akkawi cocked its head. “Yes?”
“Have you got any duct tape?”
* * *
“Typical,” muttered the attendant as he checked his watch, then smoked another cigarette just to pass the time.
The rear of the Guild medical facility was quiet. Workers came and went. The occasional transport dropped off supplies.
He waited some more, checked his watch, glanced at the cloudless sky, then checked his watch again in absent minded impatience. Beside him a trolley of bagged cadavers awaited collection. The bodies, parts and organs, were destined for any number of medical facilities where they would be dissected and analysed, assuming that the collection detail actually arrived to pick them up.
He went to check his watch again, but the squeak of a trolley wheel made him turn. A dark stain had begun to puddle at the lip of the trolley and he gave a world weary sigh. “Oh, fucking marvellous.”
The pick up guy would have a shit-fit if he saw one of the bags was leaking. The attendant flicked his cigarette butt into the gutter and rechecked the bags.
Someone probably forgot to zip it all the way up or something.
He found the leaky bag, partially unzipped.
Inside he could see the face of a gneblim. It was a bloody mess. Attempts had been made to patch him up, but they looked like they must have failed.
Probably bled out from those weird lacerations.
Somehow his arm seemed to be caught on the zip…..
The body moved minutely and the attendant gave a cry of surprise. Embarrassed, he glanced around to see if anyone had heard, but no one was paying him any attention. Relieved, he leant closer, assuring himself that it was just a post mortem spasm, probably an electrical impulse from one of the augmentations that gneblim invariably applied to their bodies.
A bloody bubble swelled, popped. The attendant peered closer only to have his attention drawn away by the sound of an approaching transport.
“Finally,” he said, and thought to quickly reseal the bag. He reached out to the zip.
The fingers moved quickly, clamped tight about his wrist. The attendant gave a panicked shriek and drew back, but the hold was strong and the whole trolley jerked after him.
“What the fuck!” the attendant shouted as he tried to pry the hand loose. Behind him the skimmer door slammed shut and the driver sauntered over, oblivious as he checked his paperwork.
“Help! Get someone! Quick!”
“W-what?” the driver looked up from his clipboard, bewildered. The attendant cursed and continued to struggle, but the hand was like a band of steel. He opted to shout to anyone else in hearing. “Get me some fucking help!”
“Is that normal?”
“Normal? Are you fucking joking?” the attendant was incredulous with panic and rage. “This fuckers’ alive!”
* * *
“You three!” called a stunning red head, her t-shirt bound in black tape. “You can piss off. Now!”
It had taken a pair of ten credit chips and a broken nose to find her quarry, and now it appeared that Shale wasn’t alone in that quest as she strolled into the garbage strewn alleyway. Three thuggish faces turned from their victim, and their piggy-eyed surprise became trouser tightening anticipation. The small, well dressed man they were accosting began to inched his way along the wall, his hand clasped around a brace of trinkets at his neck.
“You! Squirrel!” Shale commanded, nailing him in place with a pointed finger. “Stay the fuck there!”
Her attention flicked back to the three muscle bound goons advancing on her like wild dogs on a morsel.
“Okay boys,” Shale said, planting her feet and crossing her arms. “I’ll give you one last chance to leave. You’re done here.”
They made no move to depart, faces leering.
“Deaf, stupid and ugly huh?” Shale smiled, green eyes flashing. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
All three shared a horrid guttural sound that might have been a laugh.
“What’s the matter?” Shale chided. “Lost for words?”
“They, er…. they’re the….. the Tounjski Brothers!” Squirrel called over the broad array of their shoulders. “They’ve all had their tongues cut out!”
“Ah,” Shale said with a nod, bracing herself. She rolled her shoulders, raised her hand and gestured: Come get some!
Her first punch broke a jaw and sent a brother into the garbage, then she danced out of a grab, lithe as a cat. The two brothers circled, brows furrowed. One lunged and he went down a moment later, doubled over and unlikely to be fathering any children. The last brother caught Shale in a bear hug from behind. Before he could lift her, she had already crushed his toes with a stamp of her boot and shrugged him off. He landed on his backside, then a moment later was hoisted up by shirt and belt. Shale dumpstered him in flurry of disturbed flies, then dusted off her hands.
She turned around with a satisfied expression and Squirrel, wild eyed like a cornered animal, watched her saunter toward him, tapping out a cigarette.
Shale gave him a sweet smile.
“Hello Squirrel. Remember me?”
So concludes the previews for my novel. It’s been a long time coming, but hoepfully some of you enjoyed the ride. The collected previews will be available soon as a PDF/Word file if you want to download a copy for e-book or print one out.
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