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Gumshoes and Grimm Tales
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Set


AHD Technologies Unlimited Headquarters
Raleigh, North Carolina
United States of America
24 February, 2141
   

    I spend a lifetime building an empire, and now you’re telling me it’s going to burn, and there’s not a god-damned thing I can do about it?” The short man with the out-of-fashion goatee and a Gallic nose snarled. “Worse! Hell if I’m not a selfish bastard bitching about my business when the whole damned planet is about to go up in flames.”

    “It’s only natural, Chairman Rocheforte,” the tall man fidgeted with his glasses as he continued.

    “Stop trying to cheer me up, Kettel,” he growled.

    The researcher gulped as he offered a tepid grin and continued, “The numbers are right. Government models have assumed a significant gravitational influence from Mars. That’s not going to happen.”

    Jonathan Rocheforte, President and Chief Executive Officer of AHD Technologies Unlimited, nodded grimly. “Alright Doctor Kettel, thank you for this information. I’ll be calling on you again shortly.”

    He sat back in his chair and watched his Chief of Research depart his office. Then he turned and looked south from their tower in the heart of the city’s skyline toward the old Freeway. We always think there’s more time. One day we find out we’re wrong.

    He hit a button on his desk, and waited for the call to ring through. When it did, a perky, if older, voice with a soft southern accent responded, “Hello Jon. How are you today?”

    “Outstanding. Until ten minutes ago, Sue,” Rocheforte admitted. “I’m about to make a serious change in my investment portfolio.”

    “Oh?” Sue’s grimace came through the line. “Have we failed to meet your expectations?”

    Rocheforte chuckled softly. “No dear. There’s nothing you can help. You’ll understand soon enough.” He paused to wonder if what he was about to do constituted Insider Trading. Hell with it! The SEC won’t have the time to prosecute me anyway. “I want you to liquidate all my planet-side investments, and then dump all AHD holdings not tied to space exploration.”

    The pause that followed lengthened until it compelled the Chairman to check that the phone hadn’t dropped his call. When Sue spoke again, her normal sweet Southern drawl cracked like an egg on the rim of a frying pan. “Sir, I apologize. A transaction that large will have to be cleared through our managers.”

    “Of course. Call me back when you receive it.” Rocheforte punched the button and picked up his VR headset. Slipping it on, he created a new message designated, ‘Emergency Closures.’ Then he flicked a button in the air corresponding to ‘all’, and then sent it to every Earth-bound facility in the globe. A confirmation with his password, and ninety percent of the empire he had spent a lifetime building would be closed within the month. Not quite as quickly as his world had been turned upside-down, but near enough.

    Jonathan Rocheforte had not gained his financial throne by ignoring bedrock realities. Tonight he would burn his empire. Tomorrow he would begin to build a new one.

     * * *

The White House
Washington D.C., USA
10 June, 2141
 

      I sell my soul to become the most powerful man in the world, only to discover that in the most important event in its entire damned history, I’m a kibitzer. President Artemis Jenkins heard a knock on the door as he scrawled a note. Damned Service Officers. Can’t I even go to the bathroom in peace?

    He reached into his jacket and palmed a small, silver box with a looped handle beneath. Turning it over in his hand led him to revisit the earlier audience with his Chief of Staff. One his Vice President, a walking liability if there ever was one, was supposed to have attended. Scheffer, the man would be late to his own funeral.

    “Do you want me to call the Vice President again?” his Chief of Staff, Maddix Kendell asked.

    “Why?” the President answered. “I’m sure if we were going to ask Scheffer about the best crawfish place in New Orleans, he’d have a useful opinion. Until then, let him stay wherever he is.”

    He glanced at the Resolute Desk to find a folder on his in-table monitor open, marked, ‘Set: Top Secret.’ Staring down at it, Jenkins frowned. “Why is our first order of business an astronomer’s curiosity?”

    “Mister President,” the Chief of Staff’s voice trembled. “There’s been a…change to the projections. This report is from two of NASA’s best astrophysicists.

    His frown deepened. Maddix was an old-school operator. It was his job to rattle cages, and he was damned good at it. If something had got to him, it was not good news.

    The President lowered himself into his high-backed black leather chair. The former Junior Senator from Washington tapped a finger to open the folder and scanned through it to the ‘Findings’ section. He had learned in his days as a staffer to not waste his time with the egghead research. Just find the practical material in the back.

    “Water,” he breathed while reading it. “Damn it Maddix! You’re sure about this? When I was campaigning, they said Set would barely come close enough to be seen without binoculars? Now you’re telling me this?”

    “I’m afraid they’re convinced this is an extinction-level event, Mister President,”

    The President muttered a curse. “What are we supposed to do? Confiscate every telescope in the world?” His stomach turned in knots as he took the offered glass. “Why don’t we simply blow the asteroid to Hell? We’ve no shortage of nuclear missiles to shoot at it.”

    “I asked them the same question,” Maddix replied. “They looked at me like I was an idiot. At this range, they claim our weapons aren’t accurate enough, Mister President. The best we could hope is to divert the meteor enough to prevent impact. But even then, the bullet-burn would result in tidal waves and geological upheaval.”

    “Stop me if I’m wrong,” President Jenkins answered sharply. “That seems preferable to extinction.” He wanted to drum his fingers on the table, but that would appear undignified, and decorum was crucial to his role.

    “Art,” Maddix held up a hand. “I’m just the messenger. They say there’s next to no chance of that working. Also, General Torray is waiting outside. He’s seen this, and has another set of concerns.”

    “Oh why not?” he groaned. “Send him in.”

    General Torray, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, marched in like a private on the boot camp grounds. But he spoke in the educated drone of a university professor. “Mister President, we also should consider the possibility that the Caliphate or China will take advantage of the chaos when this becomes general knowledge. If they discover we’ve shot our entire nuclear deterrent into space, they might attack with weapons of mass destruction.”

    “You don’t believe they might actually care about the fate of the world?” the President replied.

    With a snort, the General deadpanned, “More likely the Caliphate would take it as a sign to kill some Westerners on their way to Paradise.”

    The thought of a year-long Jihad, or a war of retribution by China, followed by a meteor striking earth was only rendered slightly more palatable by the fact the projected impact zone was between Cairo and Tehran. Unfortunately, the fallout would still be felt globally, and there were other problems, as Maddix proceeded to point out.

    “Mister President, we also need to prepare for rioting and general anarchy. We’ve already seen a fifteen percent nationwide uptick in violent crime. That was while Set was a conspiracy theory.” He raised a finger out the window. “Now we’re going to tell them the worst fantasies of every tinfoil hat wearing survivalist are our optimistic projections? It’ll take martial law to maintain any semblance of order in the streets.”

    “How long do you think we’ll need to suspend the Constitution?” President Jenkins inquired.

    A long silence greeted his question. “Mister President, NSA says permanently. Assuming the meteor actually strikes.”

    “Sonofabitch,” Jenkin’s head fell into his palm.

    Maddix resumed, “Mister President, the increase in crime would be bad enough. But we’re going to have a flood of would-be-refugees at every spaceport, harbor, and air terminal in the country. Our roadways will be clogged within minutes of this becoming news. We need maximum security detailed to control travel before we announce Set’s impact.”

    “Let them?” Jenkins answered with a shrug. “Planetary Evacuation is the best solution.”

    “Evacuate to where?” the General answered with polite firmness. “I’m not with NASA, but I know these numbers. The average orbiting station is filled to eighty percent capacity. The Armstrong Lunar Colony reports ninety percent. The Mars colony is five years from launching.”

    “And, of course, all our current space-based colonies are dependent on planet-side trade for vital resources,” the President finished.

    “For survival?” Maddix interjected, “You don’t believe they can’t endure without Earth?”

    The President shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. I have a decent grasp on economic reality. Or at least I did until I heard I was going to have to announce the end of the global market a half hour ago.” He allowed himself a rueful grin. “But who knows what they can endure for a hundred years.”

    “Still, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to at least approach China and the Europeans to see if they would partner with us to expedite the Mars mission?” Maddix contested.

    “With all respect,” General Torray began flatly. “Now you want us to go public that our plan is to let at most fifty thousand people out of eight billion onto a Martian Lander? Dear God! You might as well shoot every officer in the military around the world while you’re at it!”

    “We can put out quiet feelers," the President answered flatly. "What about Fallout Shelters?”

    “For a hundred years?” Maddix’s face broke into a scowl. “Hell, they won’t be able to grow anything, keep water. Look at Chicago! Did the shelters work for them?”

    “We’ll dig them deeper, and load them with non-perishables and water,” Torray replied. “We’ve enough time and it will keep people busy and allow them hope. That might help stave off riots too.”

    “You can’t possibly provide enough supplies, General!” Maddix cut in. “You’ll just be telling them to die slower.”

    “This is about survival,” the General countered, “That requires giving hope to as many as possible, so that those who can live get the chance to do so. If we announce ninety-nine percent of the human race has no chance of survival, we’ll all die before the meteor has the chance to finish the job.”

    President Jenkins waited, but the debate fell silent. He drained his glass of water, and then whispered, “Martial law, effective ten minutes ago. I’ll announce the crisis to the American people tonight. I’ll also tell them we’re advancing every contingency plan for the survival of the human race. Do we have any weapons more likely to destroy Set than nuclear missiles?”

    “No, Mister President,” General Torray answered. “Our best lasers wouldn’t have the power to disturb an object this size if they had a week of continuous fire. And the heat dispersion would leave them ineffective at over a thousand miles.”

    One hundred percent casualties if the meteor struck in the predicted zone. A mere ninety percent of humanity would die if it landed in the ocean instead. And according to NASA’s estimates, all the shelters would do was prolong the inevitable. That is, if the geological upheaval was not worse for them than on the surface. He sighed, “That’s enough bad news for this afternoon. It looks like I have a speech to deliver.”

    He hit a button on his watch, opening a communication channel, a second button speed-dialed his speech-writer. “I’m going to need to put a happy face on a veritable shit-sandwich, Drew.”

    After sending him a brief of the file on Set, his former campaign manager did not blink. “I’ll take care of the press conference after, Art.”

    He returned to the Oval Office and let them powder him. Drew e-mailed the file, and President Jenkins tried to read it as they tended to his face. Why doesn’t this ever work as well for me as it does the actors in Hollywood. How would one of them make this nightmare sound?

    They finished, and he ushered them out, announcing, “Computer, prepare message for tape delay, to be released at eighteen-thirty hours.”

    Sitting at the Resolute Desk, his eyes glazed over the words at first, and he began reading them as they scrolled over his screen as much out of reflex and rote memory as belief. But as he went on, he knew that Drew had outdone himself. It was a damned fine speech. Maybe the best President Jenkins had ever delivered. Smiling, he locked the file and retreated to the Executive Quarters. He actually enjoyed the hour he spent with his wife and children. Perhaps the first time he had done so since the election. After giving them a hug he nodded at the Vidscreen.

    “Dad’s going to speak soon, and I have some paperwork to finish. Watch my speech, it’ll put you all to sleep.” He winked at them.

    He stopped in the study and reached in his desk with a glance around the room. Inside was a pre-production EPS, Energy Projectile Sidearm. The gun-control crowd was already gearing up to say the Second Amendment did not cover beam weapons. But for now, they were still ‘arms.’ Hurray for the Constitution. Even the President had the right to carry, and no one was going to deny him a permit.

    Tucking the palm-sized box in his waistband, he left the study with some papers and returned to the Oval Office. He idled with an occasional stamp of a Situation Report until the computer beeped; telling him the speech had started. Then he stood and motioned at the Secret Service Officer.

    “I’m gonna take a leak, Frank.”

    The man looked too big for his suit. But his gaze was typical Secret Service automaton. Even in private, where many Agents would act almost human. But invading the President’s privacy in the bathroom was beyond the call of duty. Artemis Jenkins closed and locked the door behind him, and remembering the empty chair, he turned over the SitRep and wrote, ‘Don’t let that idiot Sheffer anywhere near this Office.’

    That final Administrative task complete, he drew his new weapon, Should it be called a Laserarm? It had a safety beneath the over-sized trigger beneath the box. The large ‘barrel’ was necessary to dissipate the heat. Or so they said. President Jenkins had never had a chance to test it.

    No time like the present, he decided. After all, do I really want to be remembered as the man who presided over the destruction of the United States? Would I want to live in the Hole? Or orbit in a tin can and watch everything I worked for get buried in a layer of ash? Hell no!

    Placing the working end of the gun directly under his chin, he took a deep breath, only to hear Frank beating on the door. He lamented his loss of privacy, and then pulled the trigger.

    Artemis Jenkins, the last elected President of the United States of America, was found dead before the broadcast of his final speech had completed.

* * *

Orbital Corporate Headquarters
AHD Technologies Unlimited
New Aberdeen Space Colony
2 October, 2141
   

        Jonathan Rocheforte set an empty brandy snifter on an end table before sparing a last moment to gaze upon the Earth. Three hundred miles below, his former homeland floated past beneath them. Damn you to Hell, Jenkins! If you hadn’t been such a pantywaist, the ones we’re leaving behind might have stood a chance.

    Above the window, a screen displayed a magnified rendering of the region of space through which Set tumbled on its collision course. In four weeks, people in the Southern Hemisphere would be able to look into their night sky and observe the harbinger of the apocalypse with their naked eyes.

     “Thank God I won’t be here to see it,” Rocheforte whispered.

    The governments continued their two-fold strategy of martial law to contain the violent coupled with false promises to the masses of fallout shelters filled with a hundred years of food and water for every city of the world. Global communications were monitored and the Internet shut down for all purposes but entertainment; every comment searched for sign of discontent. “Temporary Measures,” they were told. Rocheforte had taken no chances, as soon as the sales of his Planet-bound corporate assets had been completed, he followed by selling his homes and moving into the Executive Suite of his Corporation’s Space Exploration and Research Branch.

    His best, brightest, and hardest working minds in space exploration, genetics, and zero-gravity engineering had signed iron-clad non-disclosure agreements before hearing the task in a personal meeting: Ten ships, three hundred people per vessel. Each would carry enough DNA samples to populate a small city once the ship reached its destination.

    “But the best landing sites are already taken on Mars,” they had protested.

    “Then it’s a good thing that’s not what I’m taking about,” he answered with a smirk calculated to infuriate.

    “Io? Titan?” they guessed.

    Rocheforte had waited with that mischievous expression, and then made a pushing gesture at the window while waiting for their heads to explode. They did not disappoint him.

    “No one’s ever sent a manned ship outside the Solar System! We don’t know of any exoplanets capable of colonization within the reach of our present technology! How can we create water for fifty years or more? People are going to die and be born in space. What impact will that have on them?”

    Rocheforte settled into his chair and waited for them to exhaust their questions without changing expression. When they had, he set his hands on his desk and leaned forward. “Necessity is the Mother of Invention. I didn’t invite all of you here to offer you ringside seats to the Earth’s destruction.”

    He tapped on a button on the side of his desk, and the top changed into a monitor. With a brush over the left corner, he pulled up a set of schematics. “Here’s the plan. We have all the funds and resources we need to build the ships. We also have four-fifths of the technology required. Drives, life support, waste reclamation. All are settled. Art-Grav can be produced with rotating sections. It’s not a matter of inventing the wheel, only making ten of them. Bigger than anything we’ve ever done before.”

    He slid the schematic over to the side, and then filled the empty half of the screen with a star map. “This is the real challenge. Where are we going? Ten colony worlds, in as many systems. We’ll never have the resources and motivation to attempt this again. So if humanity is ever going to leave this Solar System, it has to be now. If we can’t be motivated to do it with our survival at stake, then we’ve condemned humanity to wait for a disaster to strike our orbital colonies. Or war to destroy them. Or for the Sun to die.” Rocheforte jutted his chin. “Even if Set doesn’t kill the planet, the human race will go extinct if we don’t achieve this. You have all the resources of the Corporation at your disposal. Get crackin’.”

    If bankruptcy would have been an issue, Jonathan Rocheforte would have killed the project a dozen times over. When the last of the Persephone and her sister ships left orbit, the company would hardly have enough money to leave the lights on in their New Aberdeen offices. A skeleton crew, mostly accounting and public relations, would remain behind in case word could ever be sent back whatever remained of humanity in the Sol System of their venture.

    Rocheforte wondered if this was what the colonists of the Mayflower or any of those early sailing ships felt when they had braved the edge of the world and dragons beneath the waves. He turned away from Earth and crossed his arms to behold the docked Persephone. A half-mile long vessel, it’s bow a globe containing the control room and navigation systems. A long, narrow rectangular living area orbited by two rotating sections, one just aft of the bridge, and the other just forward of engineering. Estimates suggested it would take sixty years to cover the forty light years to their target system. Even with good health in his late fifties, he doubted he would live to see their arrival. Estimates suggested no more than a tithe of the three hundred boarding the vessel would leave it again. An entire generation would pass inside a flying tin can. Children unborn would be adults entering middle age as they reached a new world and touched ground for the first time. He guessed five hundred colonists would either disembark on a new world, or die in the void of space.

    No. We will not fail! The Chairman buried his doubts deep. He would provide the face of confidence for every person on the Persephone. They would continue to have faith, because he would assure them, like Moses to the Israelites. When systems that had not yet been tested needed repairs, he would assure the workers of their success. Perhaps he would never see their new home with living eyes. But he would ensure everyone knew he was certain of their success.

    Acamar. I like the ring of it. Jonathan Rocheforte watched one last display of the model depicting impact. The black cloud of soot and ash blocking the sun’s rays. Storms and earthquakes disrupting millions of years of tectonics. The slow descent of particulate matter to a brown, barren world. Then the Ice Age. His best minds doubted that Earth could ever support human life again. For all he knew, the last remnant of humanity would survive because of this voyage. So he turned his back on the Cradle of Humanity and stepped into the lift to take him to the Persephone. Set might kill every human being on Earth. Life would prevail.

    * * * 

Outside Highgate
Acamar V
24 April, 2200
58 Years Post-Set
   

         The strange creatures made walking on two legs look less ungainly than the hunter imagined it. Thoria distrusted these newcomers immediately. They had predator eyes, and yet worked like a hive of teal stingers. Their strange tongue lacked the clicks and whirrs that characterized Bhakatzi. Yet their machines indicated intelligence matching, if not exceeding, their own.

    Their Mellei had warned of the Star-travelers coming to their world. Some wondered if they were messengers from the Gods. Others said they should be killed before they infested Kr’Baja. Now that the Twin Brothers had risen, Thoria spared enough time to look into the sky, where he saw the not-star glimmering in the sky. He wished the Night Hunters would smite these invaders. But the Gods seemed intent to allow their Faithful to fight for their world.

    The Mellei could debate whether or not these ‘humans’, as they told Thoria the others named themselves, came as conquerors or saviors. But he already had his answers. Those large metal barrels looked like weapons, and the strange lightning that coursed through the fences had hurt several hunters already. War was inevitable. The Bhakatz knew Kr’Baja was deadly as it was beautiful. Danger lurked in the water and beneath rocks. Why should the stars above be different? If the Gods decided to test his people, Thoria would prove himself ready. To live was struggle. Only the dead knew peace. This was a lesson his people would teach these humans.

The Mimic's Mirror: Prologue
Welcome to The Mimic's Mirror. The work is a Space Opera, I would say *fairly* hard science, though I do allow for wormhole creation FTL & Telepathy. See here for genre description. Warning :icontropers: may ruin your life.

This Prologue occurs a hundred & seventy-five years before the events of the book proper. And it begins with an Earth Shattering KABOOM! Sorry, I couldn't resist. Basically this provides the impetus for humanity to leave the Solar System, via a number of arc-ships, NOT using cryogenic sleep, but rather DNA storage of enough genes to repopulate on the far end, and then a crew large enough for vital functions and survival on arrival.

I wrote this as my NaNoWriMo 2012 project. And it was, by and large, an excursion into writing something I would personally enjoy reading. I hope you enjoy the ride as well. ;)

Overall, this will be generally R-rated. Expect a large dose of adult language, violence (occasionally graphic), non-PC ideology, and sexual situations.

The prologue is 3900 words. Note, this has been redacted to address earlier concerns...hopefully with success. ;)
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I Am Neither GrimDark Nor PollyAnna

Journal Entry: Sun Oct 19, 2014, 2:05 PM
Tarien's Scribbling


While reading the ever-amusing Ace of Spades Book Threadace.mu.nu/archives/352551.php, I followed a link to this article, where it seems that some have had their fill of Sci-Fi Dystopias. www.huffingtonpost.com/kathryn…

This does not surprise me, as I suspect Dystopias grew popular in science fiction for the same reason that GrimDark rose to rule Fantasy. (A fact the author of the above article misses completely.) That is, that anti-heroes have grown from a once legitimate literary device to complement the hero/villain structure, to turn all of writing into a gray ammoral world where the only difference between protagonist and antagonist is who the primary point of view indicates we should root for. A fact Sarah A Hoyt commented on in her Human Wave manifesto (indicating this is no new concern):

5 – You shall not commit grey goo. Grey goo, in which characters of indeterminate moral status move in a landscape of indeterminate importance towards goals that will leave no one better or worse off is not entertaining. (Unless it is to see how the book bounces off the far wall, and that has limited entertainment. Also, I’m not flinging my kindle.)

I am pleased to see those who hailed the arrival of these ‘ambivalent heroes’ now finally come to the ground we have held for most of a decade. I find it amusing that of all people to blame for no longer envisioning big futures, ASU’s president picked Neal Stephenson. Whose Anathem was probably his biggest and most optimistic future, set well after the more dystopic cyberpunks that made him famous. And even his retro-futures, Cryptonomicon and The Baroque Cycle provide optimistic glimpses of science, finance, and the progress of society. There are MUCH better targets to aim this charge at than Neal Stephenson. Also, at this point, I remind you of my posts on dystopic Sci-Fi’s mystic cousin, Grimdark fantasy here:tariencole.wordpress.com/2013/…, and here:tariencole.wordpress.com/2014/…. Blatant pessimism, moral ambiguity for ambiguity’s sake, and no attempt to even FIGHT for a better world does not make for an entertaining story. Not fantasy, not sci-fi. And the prevalence of this nonsense is a large part of the reason for Mysteries being the big genre fiction for profit today. At least in those, there is closure, resolution, and a knowledge that justice has been done.

I don’t like them, by and large. As they are too formulaic, and the contrivances of the genre do nothing for me. However, their elevation at a time that Speculative Fiction is screaming ‘Diversity” and “realistic characters,” and hemorrhaging readership all the while, probably hints at a problem in the mindset. A problem that runs through the love of Dystopias, antiheroes, and an unwillingness to embrace a true heroic journey. You see, if you’re committed to moral relativity, there can’t be heroes. Everyone is just a different point of view. We can’t accept that some things are legitimately beyond the pale. A mystery gets around this by having a protagonist who is only judging the ‘facts.’ But what speculative fiction writers have to realize is that sympathetic aspects to a culture, or a villain, don’t make them heroic, as such. Just like flaws in the hero don’t make for anti-heroes, as such. A hero seeks to overcome their best qualities. A villain makes a virtue of his vices. A hero admits there is darkness and accepts a measure of (gasp) hypocrisy in any moral creature is unavoidable. A villain spreads his arms like Don John and says, “At least I am plain dealing!”

Yeah, that doesn’t commend him much. This isn’t to say villains can’t be redeemed (over time), or that heroes won’t fall. This isn’t to say people can’t die trying to change the world, and the villains maybe even win. It means that we accept that morality exists outside of who wins or loses. And that the true hero may calculate the odds, but that doesn’t mean they refuse to do the right thing because of them. Or for comparison, let me leave with this:

A hero: The Iron Code of Druss the Legend: Never violate a woman, nor harm a child. Do not lie, cheat or steal. These things are for lesser men. Protect the weak against the evil strong. And never allow thoughts of gain to lead you into the pursuit of evil.

An Antihero: Jayne Cobb from Firefly: “Like my Daddy used to say, ‘If you can’t do the smart thing. Do the right thing.”

A Villain: “Kneel Before Zod!”




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(Contains: sexual themes, violence/gore and ideologically sensitive material)

Chapter 29

    If the shindig assembled to watch Barclay Jamison Willis’ neck get stretched wasn’t the largest ever assembled in the Crux’s history, Phoebe hadn’t been alive to see its better. She sat beneath a pavilion with Underground to her right, Quique to her left, and the Witthered wearing a cowl and sitting next to a red-headed man he introduced as his captain, Treacy Yeang.

    They watched the crowd singing hymns, the Grangers praying that the end of this blight on the Crux would bring back the forgotten gods. A glance at the Hunter revealed a wistful look on his face. Phoebe reached over and squeezed his hand with hers.

    “You’re sitting next to me, mighty Hunter,” she reminded Quique while fluttering her lashes at him. “It can’t be that bad.”

    He almost chuckled, but caught himself with a furtive glance at the surroundings. She had to be contented with his wry, crooked grin. “Not bad at all, Phoebe. The song reminded me of when I’d go to Meeting before I turned to wandering, is all.”

    Phoebe wrinkled her nose at their words. They sang of the day the ones who had forsaken them would return from their voyage and heal this broken world and shivered. “I hope not. Because they won’t get what they want.”

    Quique regarded her with an arched eyebrow, but glancing back at them, he nodded. “I doubt I’m ready for that day either.”

    If only it was that, my brave gunslinger, she thought while recalling her night in the circle, and the claims of the demon who still held a promise against her. She managed a weak grin and replied, “I’m fairly certain I’ll never meet their definition of pure in heart, Quique.”

    Underground, whom Phoebe had known for years as Madame Amber McCrea, pondered the two of them with a finger curled under her chin. “I would not have imagined him to be the one to catch you, Miss Hanako. In fact, I’d wondered if I could entice you with my offer this time. I’ll be needing someone to take over The Fair Shake eventually.”

    Phoebe smirked. “But you made me a citizen. Why would I have to do that now?”

    Amber returned the expression. “Who said anything about need, Miss Hanako? We both know the folly of spurning desire. I have a friend who works in Antura. You would be trained by the finest of courtesans. That doesn’t interest you?”

    Phoebe felt Quique’s hand tighten around hers. Glancing up at him, she saw his eyes were narrowed. Her stomach fluttered, flattered and frustrated at once. She knew what the woman Quique wanted her to be should say. But everything in her experience reminded her that the kind of security Amber was offering could open doors to the heart of the Crux. Before she could bring herself to answer, Amber rocked back and clapped her hands. “You two are sweet on each other!”

    As Phoebe blushed and Quique cleared his throat, Amber waved her hand. “Even scoundrels like us deserve company when we can find it. Enjoy yourselves while you can. The Crux will have need of you both again, and I won’t forget about either of you when it does.”

    Turning to the pirate behind them, Underground added, “Or you, Captain Yeang.”

    Chortling, Treacy answered, “Here I was ready to sell my dreadnought to the Crux and hang up the rapier. After you generously honored Mistress Smallwood’s contract, I don’t think I need the headaches anymore.”

    “You will always want to fly,” Duma’s voice rattled despite his attempt to speak in a hushed tone.

    Treacy rolled his eyes. “You were a blazin’ awful second. I don’t know why I let you rejoin my crew.”

    “Because it’s a lot harder to get shot when his staff is spinning?” Quique supplied.

    The Captain nodded sagely. “That’s it. Self-preservation. The most important instinct a pirate can possess.”

    “I’m sure Outside would be grateful to trade that dreadnought you’ve acquired for a dirigible more to your liking?” Amber tapped her chin and shot a knowing glance at Phoebe.

    “It’d be built to my specifications?” Treacy inquired.

    “Within reason, Captain,” the Madame replied. Her eyes sharpening as she continued, “The Crux has already given you two large payments in the last two months.”

    The pirate chuckled. “Are you trying to whittle me down before Outside gets his whack at me?” He winked at her. “Since we’re clearly negotiating, maybe you’d provide me with an incentive to be receptive?”

    Quique’s eyes raised to the top of his brow, and Phoebe shook her head. But Amber smirked. “Very bold, Captain. Don’t let my son hear you speak this way to me. But it’s been some time since I’ve heard a man be so brave. We’ll speak again.”

    The singing stopped as the sun reached its zenith, directly over the gallows, where a lone woman sat between two deputies and the hangman. A prison cart’s wheels squeaked until stopping at the foot of the scaffold. A door opened, and Barclay Willis was thrust forth from within, tumbling to the dirt when his manacled feet got tangled in the chains. A burly deputy hoisted him upright and shoved the condemned forward.

    Willis’ eyes rose to the noose, and his posture straightened as one who has seen the face of his god. Phoebe knew the look well and leaned into Quique’s side. He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and the memory of the Circle faded to a dull presence. The hangman placed the noose around Willis’ neck and a Sheriff stood before him.

    “The condemned before us,” his voice boomed across the Wastes without sounding like a bellow. “Barclay Jamison Willis, has been found guilty by a jury of his peers of Treason, five counts of Murder, Conspiracy against the City’s Government, Conspiracy to commit murder, Theft of Crux property, consorting with enemy powers without permission of the Ten, and seven counts of assault. He is hereby sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. But before your execution, your widow would speak.”

    The tall, slender woman stood as a foal testing her legs. She gathered herself and accepted a speaking horn from the deputy alongside her. She looked over the throng and then announced in a clear voice. “I am Lyla Smallwood, wife of this traitor. I disavow all his actions and murderous liaisons. He brought foreigners into our home and threatened the lives of my son and me if we did not keep silent about his scheme to overthrow the Ten. I swore before Preacher Gaal, whose life I helped save, that I had no part in his schemes or desire to see the Crux overthrown.”

    Returning the horn to the deputy, she turned to face her husband. Phoebe tightened her free hand in a fist as the two Willis’ stared at one another. The silence was broken with the sound of a slap as Lyla struck Barclay across the face. After spitting in his face, she sneered, “Bark in Hell tonight.”

    “Nice theater,” Treacy muttered. “I don’t believe a blazin’ word of it.”

    Amber’s face as she drummed her fingers once on the chair. “As likely as not you’re right. But enough trouble for one day. Founders won’t like it. But we’ll watch her.”

    Lyla stepped away and the hangman pulled the lever. The trap opened and a groan rose from the throng. A crowd of urchins ran for the platform. They were common to every hanging, seeking to drape themselves on the hanged man’s legs to finish him quickly in return for the few coins he kept in his shoes or pockets. But this time the deputies ringing the gallows pushed them away, ensuring the traitor would suffer.

    Willis kicked at the air three times in rapid succession. But his feet remained four feet from the ground, hanging suspended between sky and ground. Then the spasms began, as the life was choked from his body. Phoebe found herself unable to tear her eyes away from the scene until his twitching came to its end. Then, in a final display for one whose family had once traced back to the Original Ten, they left his body hanging for the carrion birds to feast when the crowd left.

    The singing began again as the Grangers filed out. The deputies ushered the children away as well, giving them candy in place of their hoped-for gold. Quique offered Phoebe his hand, she accepted it, whispering, “I’ve never known a man who deserved to hang as much as him. But it’s still ghastly.”

    “I’d never watch one of these if I didn’t have to,” Quique conceded. “Not even his.”

    The Crux had rolled the Heroes of ‘The Estanian Incursion’ as it was already being called, in by coach. (The Estanian Kingdom, for its part, was disavowing any aggressive intent, and claimed the squadron had veered off course after overreacting to a pirate attack.) Now it carried them back to the city. Quique and Phoebe shared one, and he helped her up to it, with his hand lingering on her back before joining her inside. When the door closed and wheels turned, she saw the Hunter regarding her with a wolfish gaze that traversed every inch of her frame.

    “What are you thinking about, Quique De Soto?” she asked in her most innocent voice. Though it was betrayed by the flick of her eyes along his rugged body.

    He reached into his inside vest pocket and produced a deck of cards. “I thought of an intriguing way to pass the time with a pretty gambler.”

    “Oh ho! You think you can beat me at my game?” She laughed and clapped her hands. “What are the stakes, darling?”

    Quique shuffled the cards in his hands. Her eyes instinctively following for any skifting his deft fingers could manage. “Whatever you wish to play for,” he answered in a seductive voice. His eyes ignoring the shifting deck to rest on her bosom.

    Leaning forward to allow him a better view, her teeth peeked out to nip at her lower lip before replying in a husky tone, “I see a problem with this proposal. That being we both want the same thing, darling. Who is the winner in a game that cannot be lost?”

    He began to put the deck away and sighed. “Then you don’t wish to play?”

    Her hand darted out and caught his hand. Tracing his palm with her fingertip she smiled coyly at him. “I’m sure I can imagine something to make the game worth playing.”

    His wry smile returned and she felt her heart begin to pound as the cards flew. This was living! she exulted. And it might even be fun to let him win.

    She paused to pick up her hand before adding, Every once and a while.


A Winning Hand? Hanging Fruit
Well, what better way to organize a shindig than promise a wealthy villain gets his just desserts? And this is pretty much the only scene all our 'heroes' have been together all book. ;)

~1800 words for this final chapter. The full manuscript is 93,000 words, of which approximately 90 are included here. 

Thank you for reading, and if you've enjoyed this, please let me know! 
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TarienCole
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Artist | Hobbyist | Literature
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I'm a wizard, nah, I'm a spy, no no, I'm an evil genius! Yeah, that's it. :iconfoxevillaughplz: Alright, actually I'm a writer, which just means I've been restrained by society from fulfilling my desire for global domination through illegal means, and instead torment my characters.

Tarien Cole may only be the pen-name, but it's much more interesting than real life. ;)

I write, primarily in novel form, across the Speculative Fiction spectrum. Classic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Steampunk, Weird Western, & Space Opera.

:iconparentaladvisory2plz: I mark many of my Deviations Mature and Strict Mature because I respect the dA filter system. Please do the same when you read.
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:iconhappyhallow2plz::iconrudeboyskunkplz::iconrudeboyskunkplz2::iconrudeboyskunkplz3: Shawn! :)
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Thank you for faving :)
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HI! Just a friendly wave, and hope that you'll be able to participate in my kiriban! 
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WOW! :heart: Thanks for the watch! :heart:
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Your art has been featured here: roses2011.deviantart.com/journ…
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