November 1911: Roald Amundsen discovers the Axel Heiberg Glacier on his journey to the South Pole. At its summit, the expedition is halted by a great, permanent ice storm, now known as the Scott-Amundsen Barrier.
December 8th 1912: Robert Falcon Scott, after persevering through the Barrier, discovers a vast, sunken crater in the Antarctic, somehow filled with tropical jungle. His party struggles to find a path down from the lip.
December 10th 1912: Amundsen's group descends into the crater following an ice-melt channel, discovering a plethora of unknown species of animal. These creatures, although small and of disparate forms, demonstrate intelligence at least that of chimpanzees.
January 25th 1913: Scott leaves the Antarctic, with a consignment of the creatures taken from the lip of the crater. They become an immediate hit in British society. Amundsen returns having documented them, but with no samples.
July 1913: Multiple expeditions from European nations flood to Antarctica and the Amundsen-Scott Void, bringing back scores of these valuable animals.
August 1913: The species' ability to form a psychic bond with children is proven. Pope Pius X condemns them as demonic. King George V makes a gift of some of these samples to Kaiser Wilhelm II, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, King Alfonso XIII and Tsar Nicholas II.
November 1913: The craze for these strange creatures reaches new heights, with daring thefts and murders. Their prices reaches obscene levels. Inconveniently, they do not always 'bond' to the child for which they were acquired.
March 1914: Specific lineages of the creature become a matter of national pride for European nations. Royal 'Dragons' step out of heraldry and onto the shoulders of monarchs. Back street 'Dragon Fights', with heavy wagers on the unbonded animals, become a fixture in London and other large cities.
April 1st 1914: You are given your first Dragon to celebrate your sixteenth birthday.
Katie and I were almost at the gate of Graham's house when we saw something was wrong. Two men in the drab colours of the Purity Alliance were stood at the door.
My first instinct was to turn and run, but Katie kept hold of my arm and walked the two of us past the house, staring straight ahead, as if we were heading elsewhere. Once we were out of sight, we ducked into the trees and tried to see what was going on. The men weren't knocking at the door. They were looking out into the street, relaxed but wary. That meant there were others inside. Had Graham been found out? We had to know, to warn the others somehow.
Graham Willoughby's house had well-kept gardens. We had to circle around some way before we could approach the house relatively unseen. Even then, we would have been obvious to anyone who was watching carefully.
The curtains of the sitting room were drawn. I took a deep breath, found my focus, and pushed my mind out. The edge of the curtain trembled at first, but eventually moved up and to the side. We risked looking in. Erica, Graham's wife, was sat on the comfy chair by the fireplace. At this hour the fire was cold and dead, and Erica's eyes seemed to mirror it. Inspector Brown sat on a facing chair, his back to the window, talking earnestly to her. We couldn't pick out any words. I let the curtain drop. Graham had never shared his secret with her. Maybe she was finding out now. The other downstairs rooms were empty.
Katie hissed and pointed upwards. I could just make out Graham stood at the window of one of the bedrooms. With Katie's help, I climbed the old oak. Graham was staring out of the window, resigned. His hands were behind his back, and I could just see the manacles. His eyes widened in alarm when he saw me. He tried to convey that I should leave by jerking his head slightly. I took that to mean there were inspectors in the room with him and climbed no higher.
The window was on a latch. I turned my mind to it, gesturing for Katie to join me in the tree. If we got the window open, we could get him to the ground and run for it. The manacles could be removed later, maybe at Katie's dad's forge.
The latch resisted. It took me a while to realise that it wasn't stuck - Graham was actively opposing me. We struggled with each other for a few seconds, then I gave up. He looked at me. He shook his head, slowly.
He was right, of course. There was no way we could get him out without our own faces being seen. He didn't want two kids to get into trouble just to save him. I think I knew all that, even at the time, but it didn't make it any easier.
As we dropped out of the trees and slipped away to let the others know, I couldn't see for tears.
I never saw him again. They would have tortured him. Somehow, he was strong enough to tell them nothing. I don't know what happened to him in the end.
The heat in the tunnel was oppressive. More than oppressive, really. Sweat was dripping freely from my chin. I wanted to be out in the fresh air, even if that meant in the sun. At least then I could take a dip in the Mediterranean water, even if modesty would forbid me from doing so in front of the men. I held the lamp up to the bas-relief one more time.
Khaldoun shook his head. "Some of these symbols are Minoan," he explained, "But the rest are a mix of Mycenaean Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphs and nonsense."
"A fake?" I asked. My tone must have betrayed my disappointment.
"I'm afraid so," he said.
"That can't be right," I muttered, and fished my journal out of the satchel. The Red Scroll had been authenticated and it led us straight here. The chances that we'd head directly to a fake site after following its directions wrong were slim. I didn't want to consider the possibility that the scroll was merely a very good fake, part of the same hoax as this tunnel. My fingers were damp and the journal slipped out of them. I tried to catch it but, one-handed, I could not.
Khaldoun bent down to pick up the scattered pages, then stopped. He pointed, wordlessly.
My sketch of the Red Scroll was stuck to the side of the lamp. The light shone through the cheap paper and onto the bas-relief. The thick charcoal marks on the paper were just about visible in the pattern of shadow on the wall. The crown motif in the middle of one aligned with the crown motif in the middle of the other.
Leaving my journal in the dust, I adjusted the lamp's position until the correspondence was exact. Khaldoun used a piece of chalk to mark which symbols on the wall were circled or underlined by the other pictorial elements of my copy. He delved into his own notes to translate them out of their respective dead languages.
"Third four four legs twice finger door," I read over his shoulder. We kept silent as we thought.
"The relief includes horses - four legs - in rows of four," I said, eventually, "The third of those?"
"Right-to-left," Khaldoun said, "And we must push it two times - twice finger." He did so.
"And here is our door!" I exclaimed, as a section of rock swung inwards by an inch or so.
Khaldoun pushed it until it revealed a low passage leading further into the hill.
"I will summon the others," he said, and headed back outside.
While I waited, I found the heaviest rock I could lift and jammed the door open with it. I wasn't about to let us make the same mistake we made in Cairo.
Arpad stared out over the battlements and into the pass. Snow was still everywhere, despite the thaw.
The soldiers next to him were nervous - any why shouldn't they be? They'd never had to face a situation like this before. Some were still hauling baulks of timber to reinforce the fort's main gate. The walls were short enough that Arpad could have reached down to help.
Arpad was determined to help. They were good people. The night before the officers had arranged a hearty meal to improve morale, but the cold morning air seemed to have leached all the bravado out of them. Arpad was made of sterner stuff. He'd been in dire situations before. He'd walked away from all of them, but sometimes in defeat. There'd be no holding back if he wanted to save the previous night's drinking companions.
The thief, Zsuzsa, was watching the same horizon from a different section of wall. Arpad had met her once before, and she'd disappeared with a small fortune of his. Arpad didn't bear a grudge. A good sword and a sturdy shield were more important to him than gold or jewels. He knew she could handle herself at least as well as he could. She'd claimed to be just passing through, but passing through to where? She must have realised, as he had, that the invasion was coming and come here to help hold it back.
Every spring the thaw came. Every year an army would descend from goblin lands as soon as the mountain pass was clear. Every invasion was met by an army here at Fort Briggs. The stronghold provided a safe place to take the wounded and a vantage point for archers while the main battle happened on open ground. There was no army this year. When the the thaw finally came after the Year of No Summer the rivers had burst their banks, washed away bridges and turned roads in quagmires. The human armies, already depleted following the poor harvest, could not make it to the Fort in time. The goblin horde, however, was likely to be the largest ever seen after being pent up behind the mountains for over a year. If the Fort couldn't hold the pass, the farmlands were undefended.
Down in the ward, the young ex-cleric, Sandor, was putting the final touches to his improvised field hospital. Arpad found him young and nervous, but anyone who got thrown out of holy orders for answering back was all right in his book.
Along the valley, Arpad spotted the other veteran, Wiola, waving frantically. She was an archer, and a bloody good one from what he'd seen. He didn't understand her journey or vision quest or whatever she called it, but the steel he'd seen in her eyes when he'd explained the situation here had told him she could be relied on. From her position next to the rock traps the soldiers had prepared, she had seen the advancing army.
Arpad watched the rabble appear around a rocky outcropping. Hundreds, no, thousands of goblins screeching their anger. Good news, then. Plenty for everyone.
The sky was the same blue it always was. Nicola found it strange to think that now it had become their enemy.
"Focus," Trevallion said, tapping the holodisplay with his finger, "This is no time to day dream."
The others were looking at her. She turned back to the table.
"What do we know about them?" she asked.
Juliana coughed, and swept new information onto the display, "A small strike force accompanying a factory ship. The fact is mining the gas giant moons, currently at Lion's Eye. The strike force consists of three corvettes, a carrier and a marine transport. There's no way to tell what they're carrying, but we can guess infantry, walkers and atmofighters."
"Before they took out the satellites, long-range sensors said they came from Joddrel, so it's a given that they're Alliance."
There was a few seconds of quiet thought. No-one really understood what the Alliance and the Pentarchy were fighting over. The affairs of the core worlds, even that of their own founding nation, had always been distant and unimportant. They felt as though the war was none of their business, and yet it had come to them.
Trevallion broke the silence. "They have the firepower to destroy the city. That they haven't so far suggests they're either reluctant to cause that many civilian casualties or they need the spaceport operational. They can't bring anything overhead without it getting pulped by the meteor defence barrage, so they'll drop forces over the horizon. We've only got patchy detection coverage since they started popping sats."
Nicola gestured behind her. "Can we hold them off with these? Obsolete ships and hand-me-down equipment?"
"It's all we've got," Trevallion said, tightly, "All that's between them and five million people."
"We have got some advantages," Nicola said, "They'll have imaged the entire planet, but our geodrones have been crawling over it for fifty years. Home turf is one advantage. We have a bigger industrial base, if we can harness it, but their fact is designed for military production."
Bruno was sweating. He looked seconds away from throwing up. "I can't do this. I'm an agritech. We're all part-timers. Someone has to suggest it - wouldn't it be better if we surrendered?"
Trevallion's voice cracked a little. "The mayor tried. When they first arrived. They didn't even acknowledge the message."
(March RPG candidate)
I leant on the rail, watching the stars spin on by underneath me. The mist was lifting. Finally. The captain had been crazied up by the weather, probably because it has screwed up his efforts at navigation. For all his bluster, I'd probably spent more hours at sea than him. Seems like anyone with the flash to buy a boat these days fancies himself as some kind of helmsman.
There was shouting from the crew; another vessel had been sighted beneath us. I slammed a carabina onto one of the rails loops and let myself fall over the side. Sure enough, two white sails and a distant flash of light. I climbed the rope back up onto the deck just in time for that kid to run into me.
"What's going on?" he wailed, eyes wide.
"Just a little piracy," I grunted, "Nothin' we can't handle."
A beam of light flashed past us, then one of the masts fell down in a tangle of ropes. The lad looked fit to piss himself. Called himself a mage but I'd be surprised if he was more than a month out of apprenticeship. Guess lasers were more than he could handle.
I span the chambers of my trusty .357. I'd been getting antsy, and this looked just the thing to let me stretch my legs. The pirate ship had risen alongside us and its crew was preparing to board us.
Worse luck for them, really.
There are many difficulties that face an emperor of a vast evil interstellar empire. Planets that need subjugating or destroying. The ever-present threat of a rebellion. Unreliable troops and scheming minions.
But none more challenging than having to live in a house-share in Coventry with the rulers of other, rival empires. They are not always reliable with their share of the gas bill. Someone keeps leaving the milk out of the fridge.
But by the Eye of Dread, you will endure. And find out who keeps leaving dead rebel leaders in the recycling.
So, I have approximately 90,000 words of novel, most of which I am reasonably happy with.
At some point, I intend to submit it to a publisher or an agent or something.
It's a sci-fi adventure yarn, in one of those rare far-future settings with niether Utopia nor a return to feudalism. It's a bit polticky in places, but I hope not too leadenly so. I also tried to inject more than a small amount of humour.
Would anyone be interesting in reading it? You don't have to be intimidated by the length; it is doesn't hold your interest for very long, then that's also valuable feedback.