Ghost excerpt: the concert in the ruins

A polite cough; a gentle old smile. A small ragged group hunched over strange instruments; scorched originals and makeshift approximations. A string quintet, of sorts. Dwarfed by the rubble, curving up behind them like a ruined theatre. The young solemn lead shouldered a strange charred something, like a violin. Took steady breaths in the shuffling silence, and blocked the crowd from his mind. Running the bow across otherworldly strings he produced a rising solo, rich and baroque; an abrupt gentle melody that carried through the sunlit gardens. Joined by the rest in full joyous harmony. Painting bright living music on the cool air that followed the storm; gilded and statuesque to hear. Such a strange sudden beauty, among the ruins and sunlit rubble; a burst of hope like a lightning bolt. High rapid notes like glorious birdsong. The village was gathering to see; parents held young staring children high against their shoulders to watch. Weary people, beaten and grieving; gathering around a precious remnant of better times. Kids and teenagers listened with fresh novelty. They’d heard of physical music, but it’d been out of fashion for two centuries or more. But older villagers smiled along to the tune in gentle familiarity; one lady beamed and clutched her hands dearly to her heart like she was a little girl again. One small figure in a tired happy gathering, standing close around their joyous music. For a few fleeting minutes, the sounds were the most precious thing in the world.

Tabitha looked on the scene from a distance, smiling despite herself. Leaning against a damp stone pillar in the outer cloisters. Listening in utter rapture to a gorgeous artwork, strummed and sawed and strung in silver-sweet divinities. A hopeful glimpse of civilisation, in the city’s torn hazing ruins. In a while the music took a melancholy turn; a brief mournful interlude that faded into solemn silence. And then, rising. Harder, and determined; colder and more beautiful than before. Constant stabbing notes, like ice and steel. Building, relentlessly, to a coming crescendo. The young man stood suddenly and broke into a hard slicing solo. So cold and fast and intense that the whole dead birdsung city stopped to listen. His face was set in stern determination, as he played rapid-fire in fierce virtuoso. Making his mark on this dim dying world, whether it wanted him or not. Years of endless practise, distilled in the greatest minute of his life. The quartet joined in the hard gorgeous harmony; the crowd watched in spellbound silence. Other races watched the strange music in stunned fascination, wondering at such beauty; as if the gods themselves had descended. Tabitha felt such a full sudden rising in her chest. Fresh purpose. But it wasn’t the art or the talent she saw in those people. It wasn’t even about the music, beautiful as it was. It was that energy; that dedication. Undying commitment to something greater and more perfect than themselves. To conjure thoughts and tears from wood and string and hard scorched silence. Carving angels from solid sound. The kind of will and artful determination that’d built this ancient city in the first place.

The kind that could rebuild it too, Tabitha told herself, as the quintet faded and the crowd applauded like they’d never hear music again. All they need is a fighting chance.

 

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A close encounter.

Hi everyone. Just some sneaky peekage at how my third novel, Ghost, is going. Kind of like a first-draft teaser trailer, for Tabitha’s third adventure.

In today’s roughed-out proceedings, Tabitha takes a trip to the museum. (Granted, it’s a blown-out museum in apocalyptic ruins. But a night out is a night out.)

Best enjoyed to the following spooky soundtrack, if you like the whole multi-sensory experience:

Tabitha stopped short; froze solid. There was a watcher there. A soldier. It was staring at something. Studying it. What was that, a fossil? A skeleton or something? Tabitha watched it from the shadows. Clenching her fists with a leathersteel creak.

The watcher startled and turned at a distant sound. Searching the shadowed hall for any sign of anything. Wait… there was a shape there. Dim, but moonlit. The soldier’s statue-head mask stared into the darkness. The stretched figure pulled the pistol slowly from its ornate belt. Taking aim on that hiding silhouette. Didn’t see Tabitha crouching, waiting. Staring with cat-glow eyes. She pounced from the balcony above it. Yelling and struggling as she shocked it into spasms and dropped it to its knees. Jerking and smoking from her crackling volts. Tabitha strangled it down in a deathly panic; it was flailing and gasping choked alien words. Struggling for life in the silence. Its armour grinding and squeaking on the hard shining floor. Jerking and shaking, and turning its gun on her. She tore the knife from its belt and cut its throat before the deafening shot. Held it in a writhing death-grip headlock until it gasped and struggled its last crackling breath. Finally fell limp and gigantic on moonlit marble, in a growing pool of golden blood. Sighing with relief, lying still to catch her breath, Tabitha grunted and shoved away its body on top of her.

She ripped the belt from its waist. Checked the heavy pistol and gulped a good half from the scaly water bottle. She slipped the watcher’s knife on horizontally across the back of her belt, like the tribe. With one last look at its cold bloody corpse, pooled and spread-eagled among the skulls and fossils, she was gone.

SHARK

A short fiction. This morning I took a quick break from the epicness of Tabitha’s third book to head-hop into someone else entirely, in a different universe, with a very different life. Who knows – maybe this could grow into a novel of its own. This is Shark.

 

Your friends ask you what it’s like to commit. To sleep with one girl for the rest of your life. I wish I could tell them. Because a few years in, you sleep with precisely no girls for the rest of your life. Me and my wife grew into fleshy home appliances. Solid. Hard-working. Reliable. But not those smart appliances that communicate with each other. The dumb kind. The ones that do the same damn jobs, over and over, and never say a word. ‘Til one day, dull and forgotten and taken for granted… they just break.

And out the door you go, and never come back. Probably replaced, with something sleek and new and expensive. It’s a free market. But when the scrapyard looks more appealing anyway, you know that something wasn’t right.

So, divorce and carving up assets, and all that shit. Thank god we never had kids. I wouldn’t put them through this. In the end I just gave her everything. She was the one who wanted all that in the first place. House; cars; brand-new triple glazing. Showroom home with a series of endless fussy textile nests. And more pristine places to take a shit than two people could ever need. That weird retro cake mixer that she wanted for months, and used once. All that other expensive shite to fill our grown-up dollhouse; our aquarium. Our display case. It was all paid up, and she kept it. I took all I needed. Clothes, steak and a bottle of beer. Hardly sensible… but things always sound better in a list of three. There was other stuff.

Now I get it, as I finally drive away. That house was big. Big enough for two people to live together and hardly see one other at all. That’s funny. And I’m smiling now, for the first time in years. Not that plastic-shit smile you cover your face with to hide the cracks, that gets you through the day without killing something. I mean an honest smile, at something that’s true, and funny, and real. The kind that shows all your wrinkles and flaws. A revelation.

You get more clarity when you live in your car. You’re a guru-hermit in a cave. Your walls are glass and metal, and duct-taped bin bags. The world isn’t a hidden horror, vast beyond your doorstep. Now, you’re in it. And, mostly, it’s fine. Nothing happens. No one cares.

The looks and glances happen more and more, when you get to work extra-early in the same damn shirt and trousers. Angry voices, dismembered through a phone line, just fade away. You used to care, so much. Everything, every facet of your buttoned-down impotent life, hung on you giving a shit about these angry bullshit clients. Then… it’s like a light switch. You realise just how much you don’t need this bloated salary. It doesn’t take all this to live in a car. The voices tune out like talk radio, and you hear the real music. You don’t need the money; you don’t need the stress. The song closes out, and fades to silence. The next song’s waiting, and for once in your life… it’s up to you.

So, I quit my job. Started hanging around the boxing gym, or whatever you’d call it. Penniless community kind of building, where everything’s gone to shit or getting there. If you want to see how a town’s doing, look at the places like that. But, once I stopped being terrified of those people, who I assumed were all somehow connected with drugs and robbery, I couldn’t keep away from the place. I hung back, lifting weights. Keep turning up, making whatever small talk’s going around, and slowly you’re in the pack. You realise just how wrong you really were.

A few weeks on, I don’t look so much like a block of flabby ham. Still in the car, but I’ve taken to moving around. One fella’s wife is a hairdresser, and she keeps me neat for nothing. She’d do anything for anyone, and she’s beautiful for it. They’re both like that, and they don’t have a penny, and it makes me ashamed of myself. I gave them what money I could, when I finally left that town. It wasn’t much. The friendship’s worth more.

I found another gym. Now I’m even learning to fight. I’m not afraid any more. I’m in a garden centre in the back of beyond, on minimum wage. You haven’t known happiness like a minimum wage. It takes all the pressure off. Everyone knows you won’t amount to anything. You know yourself that your housing options are at the bottom of the barrel. You can’t afford certain food, and the fat melts off you, and life gets pruned right back to the basics. Tough choices disappear.

Life grabs you hard, in its teeth and perfumes. You don’t need TV or internet to drown out its knocking at the door. Life’s like an ocean, and you’re free to dive in. If it only seems vast and poisoned and full of dangers, then it’s your own damn fault for being a goldfish.

You see more poverty though. You’re tuned into it. You talk to the homeless man; give him one stingy minute of your time. He’s not a junkie; he’s fucked up. He fought for your country in a pointless war, and gave up his innocence to do it. Now he’s a trained killer, with no one to kill. He’s a tiger locked in a supermarket. No point, no way, no sense. There is no metaphor, because the poor bastard doesn’t fit.

I ask him, one day, why he’s even here. Begging. If he’s trained to survive in wilderness, why he doesn’t just live in the wild. He gives his excuses, but maybe I planted a seed. Maybe he’ll sleep on it, and change. I tell him I hope I’ll see him again. I tell him, kindly, to think outside the box. To stop waiting for orders, and start fighting a war on his shitty life. He says he needs orders, these days. It’s how he’s been trained to think. So, I give him an order: change his shitty life. I say that’s his mission now. That’s his campaign. To drag himself out of the shit.

Talk to the right people for long enough, and you get to be a bit more blunt. They’re not rich clients, and you don’t need to please them. The right people appreciate it. It works.

I walked out of the garden centre after that. All my plants were rooting, and I was done.

When your life goes off the rails, you realise you’re all-terrain. There’s no track; no routine. The hours and minutes in the day just merge into awake, and asleep. There’s only hungry or full, and nothing else matters. It’s a different reality. You live in a separate dimension.

I’ve done everything I can to keep from seeming crazy. I wash; I shave. I live in hotel rooms, like a semi-normal person. I leave the tinfoil hat on the bedside table. But when I talk like this, people call me insane. They’re laughing it; they’re shouting it. Yelling it, like fanatics, from between their prison bars.

So, I work my odd jobs. More so online. I bank the cash. I keep quiet, and wander, and collect new friends. In some countries, it’s always just summer or storms. I like both. And it’s cheap.

I’ve always liked sharks. They’re vicious, and ancient, and stripped right back. Nothing extra; nothing needed.

When there’s something, they eat. When there’s nothing, they’re gone.

Ghost sneak peek: Boomer

Tabitha’s third sci-fi epic, Ghost, is taking shape. Random thoughts are growing into paragraphs and chapters. Vague ideas are morphing into characters. (Just trying to document the process as I go).

One such character belongs to Serenity’s Guardian marines. He’s Boomer.

A tank drone stared with a cold jerking lens; a twelve-foot giant twitching and turning fearsome guns with a dozen whirring servos. Moving too quick and coordinated to feel animal, though the troops seemed attached to it. Tabitha thought of Seven, and guessed she knew where they were coming from. If this thing had fought alongside them, and taken hits, and saved lives… hard not to feel that special connection, she supposed.

‘That’s Boomer,’ said a passing marine. She was smiling, with more than a hint of pride. Setting down a crate to scratch her oil-smeared forehead. ‘He’s high maintenance. Getting old,’ she confided. ‘But, I wouldn’t want any other heavy with me in a fight.’

‘He’s been around for a while?’ said Tabitha, studying its mismatched limbs and plate armour.

‘Since the unit started,’ the woman replied, with a dimpled grin. Her eyes were lighting up as she came over. ‘He’s had so many custom updates and part replacements, he’s not even the same mech any more.’

‘You’re his mechanic?’ said Tabitha.

‘Nah, just partner in crime,’ she replied happily. ‘I was there when he took an airstrike to the head, during the pirate conflicts,’ she chuckled. ‘Turned him into burning scrap, and a big ugly crater. But that gatling still had power, and his brain was still plugged into it. He just kept firing, until we won the checkpoint. Big dumb bastard,’ she said fondly. ‘But, he’s our big dumb bastard.’

‘I know what you mean,’ Tabitha replied, with a smile. Watching Seven lazing like a crocodile across the hangar.

‘Guess he’ll need a new upgrade now?’ said the woman. ‘You gonna work your magic on him? Bring him over to the land of the living?’

‘…I can try,’ Tabitha admitted, with a smiling shrug.

‘Ok,’ said the woman, hesitating. ‘But… with respect, ma’am, I’d appreciate if you did more than just try. We’d hate to lose him.’

‘I understand. I’ll be careful,’ Tabitha assured her.

‘Appreciated, ma’am,’ the marine said with a smile. Hefting up her crate again to carry it off across the hangar.

Well, no time like the present, Tabitha told herself. Walking up to the tank drone as she pulled a piece of the volt-tree from her belt. Boomer’s whirring lens stared coldly; the rest of the metal monster stood stock-still. The clear rubbery bark stuck and spread against the drone’s side; feeling and creeping with glowing tendrils to mesh with its joints and circuits. Tabitha watched its progress intently. Pressing a hard sparking hand against the material to direct its growth.

God, I hope this works.