The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part seven

tumblr_inline_mo73wqrHjZ1qz4rgpA swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6


Her approach was stealthy, trigonometric. She carved asymptotically through the non-Euclidean geometries of n-space, veered sharply onto a new, intercepting trajectory and flickered back. Her vector was dazzling, her simple proofs elegant and, as she drew near, her Euler rotations bewitching.

Fare Thee Well woke Brett in alarm. She needed him.

He came to and found himself riding the wave of the shipmind’s functions; they were the base to his superstructure, conceptually separate yet inextricably a part of him.

He watched the approaching vessel in awe. Her complementary variables were beyond the grasp of his classical logic. He flipped up non-commutative and non-associative filters and through them glimpsed the collapse of her quantum flicker into a singular position and momentum.

In moments, she would be upon him.

He punched in the hyperdrive, scattering stochastic doppelgangers as he fled. They would not fool her for long.

He felt a feather-like touch deep in his consciousness.

And through it he sensed the breathtaking pace with which his pursuer generated and discarded epistemologies in her attempt to track him. She deployed an array of proleptic ergodics. Minuscule ontologies like steeply-graded gravity-wells irrupted in a complexly recursive pattern ahead of him, exfoliating like wildfire across his possible trajectories. They flensed layers of spacetime potentiality, closing down the chaotic energies of the not-yet and closing in on the ambergris of entelechy.

And then suddenly, she was poised right over him.

He recognised her, and she him. It did not stop them. It drove them on.

He gasped as her voluptuous mathematics overwhelmed his throbbing algorithms.

He writhed as her hot equations scraped down his spine, sweeping outwards to dig into the flesh of his arching back.

Her numbers cascaded over him, brushing nerve endings as they slid across him.

Her integers caressed and cupped and stroked him.

Her digits gripped.

They were locked together, swept by tides of synaesthesia as they sought a common algebra, a calculus with which to map the slopes and curves of their desire. Wild energies coursed through their extended sensoria. Sparks of light danced around and between them.

Filthy heuristics probed at him roughly, their brutishness awakening in him something he had not known was there. Something edged with exhilaration.

Their harmonics resonated, saturating the dark space around them in some concupiscent texturology, an erotics of becoming.

There, in the pleroma, she made his meromorphics integrals.

At the touch of her permutations, he rose to a higher power.

Her slick geometries engulfed him.

Like a rotating tesseract everting itself into some saucy phase space, he filled her and he filled her.

Oh my god, he thought, this girl’s really turning me on.

Quantum foam effervesced.


Eliane’s chair uncoiled, detaching the neural links. She sat up, still trembling, spent. With uncertain fingers she removed the starfish and let it attach to her wrist.

She sent drones to strip the cargo from the captured vessel.

Fox, once they’re loaded, get us out of here.’

‘Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine. I just need to sit a while.’

She did not trust her legs to hold her.


‘What was that?’ Brett almost fell from the chair.

‘It was her,’ Fare Thee Well replied. ‘The Dread Fox. She robbed us. Coldcocked us both and robbed us.’

‘Quite a woman.’ He grinned.

‘I agree. The ship’s still slaved, but she’s got some gnarly torc workarounds in her architecture. I’d like to talk to her.’

‘Any chance of tracking them down?’ He hoped the answer was yes. But not so easy that the pillage-first loss adjusters his rather unconventional insurer would send could find her.

‘Not a problem. She left you a message. More of an invitation, really.’

‘Play it in my quarters,’ he said, starting to pick up his discarded clothes. ‘I need a drink.’


Dear Reader, you ask if they will meet again? Of course they will. You already know the tales of their pursuit and counter-pursuit, their curious courtship out among the stars, the swathe they cut, the shenanigans. It was always inevitable. If not from the moment they first saw each other or the moment they first met, then from that moment when they intertwined down there on the quantum level. There are some entanglements you do not simply shrug off, even if you want to.

And they most certainly did not want to.


The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part six

James_Garner_Maverick_1960A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

Part 1, 2, 3, 4, 5


Dear Reader, neither pause to contemplate the vastness of space nor succumb to the urge to calculate probabilities. In a universe so vast, many things can happen. And these things did. They must have. Otherwise everything you know about what happened later would have to be false. And who would want that?


‘Are you still moping?’ Fare Thee Well asked several days later.

Brett had not explained the sudden rush to leave Rendall. He had just raced in before dawn and ordered the ship to lift immediately. With the cargo safely stowed and the insurance in place, Fare Thee Well had no grounds for quizzing him. But he knew she had figured it out. Routine monitoring of city comms, police chatter and trade channels as they headed out-system would have told her more or less everything. Minute shifts in the pecking order of the local underworld would have snagged her attention, and some deep sifting and correlation of tangential dataflows would no doubt have filled in the gaps.

Brett grunted a response. He continued tweaking simulated code sequences. He spent much of his time in transit noodling away at the problem of how to emancipate Fare Thee Well from the Turing torcs. It was slow-going, and going even slower than usual. He had still not mentioned the girl, and did not intend to, but he could not stop thinking about her. Whenever he caught himself doing so, he would mock such adolescent infatuation, shake his head in despair at anyone succumbing to such foolishness, let alone him, and then moments later start mooning about her all over again. Maybe, in three days’ time, once the cargo drop was over and done with, he would start behaving more like himself.

An alarm sounded. ‘Brett, we have company. Could do with you in the chair.’

That snapped him out of it. He ran for the bridge, pulling his shirt off over his head. ‘What is it?’

‘Vessel approaching, right on the edge of scanner range. Coming in fast, looks like it’s coming in close.’

Brett skidded to a halt, kicked off his shoes and unfastened his trousers. ‘Human?’

‘If it is, it’s heavily adapted, mongrel of some sort. Motley signatures, some xeno.’

Naked, he yanked open the chair, which looked more like a semi-upright coffin made of ceramic and plastic, and stepped inside. He snapped a network cap tight around his head, and plugged thick cables into the nodes behind his ears and at the back of his neck. ‘Flood it.’

The chair cocooned around his naked body. Once sealed, it filled with gel.

Taking the first deep breath never came easy to him. But it had to be done. Gel flooded into his lungs. It would keep him alive through whatever happened next, protecting him from abrupt changes in direction and speed, providing him with oxygen, nutrition and a measure of control over his own body chemistry.

There used to be a jolt, disorientation, when the neural links went live but he and his ship had flown together so long, been together like this so many times, that it registered as nothing more than a sudden intimacy, a vast opening of potential. Fare Thee Well began processing data through the extra cerebral capacity he provided. He surrendered to its hum, lost consciousness. For the next hours or days, he would be out cold while the shipmind piggybacked his brain, occasionally flickering into accelerated awareness in virtual spacetime for tiny fractions of a second when the ship needed conscious input. Afterwards, he always remembered nothing. It was like waking up from a vivid dream you cannot recall. The chair was salvage from a CoreMilitary derelict, reverse-engineered from xeno-tech. It gave them an edge they did not really need. Usually.


‘Are you sure about this?’ Dread Fox asked. Although heavily torced, the shipmind had enough liberated subsystems to sometimes ask questions Eliane did not want to answer. ‘We still don’t know how it works, or what it will do in a Meld.’

‘It’ll be fine,’ she replied. ‘Getting this thing put us in a couple of holes. It needs to start digging us out.’ She held the starfish to the side of her face. It reached for her ear and eye. Otherwise naked, she reclined onto the couch. It coiled around her, plugging into her nodes, and flooded.

The links lit up. For a moment it felt wrong. Very wrong. There was none of the ease of Melding. She could taste colours. She thought she bit her tongue, and the pain smelled loud. Then the starfish opened its mind, welcomed them. Neither she nor her ship could resist. She slipped into the mathematics. She felt the scale of the universe fall away. Somewhere below femto she ran out of prefixes. She was deep in the code of it all.

This was not what usually happened.

She felt the starfish rays stretching outwards through her mind along vibrating, string-like elementary particles, reaching for the other ship’s mind. All it would take was a single touch.

The Dread Fox flickered out of existence.



The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part five

James_Garner_Jean_Willes_Maverick_1960A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

Part 1, 2, 3, 4


Brett just could not settle. He was in no state to play another hand, he knew that. He had already won enough to cover the extra insurance on the cargo so, technically, he could just walk away from the game. It was what Fare Thee Well would have wanted, and advised. But he hated to leave such rich pickings unpicked. He looked over at the table. The cat-faced man seemed to be winning. Money that should be going into his pocket. It was frustrating.

He sipped at the drink he did not really want, and wondered what to do.

And wondered what she was doing.

He was not so green as to think that just because he liked the look of her, and he really liked the look of her, that she would be of a moral and upright character. In fact, he rather hoped she wasn’t. But there is pleasure, and there is business, and back in there, where Spiker ran his trade, there was plenty of business that was no pleasure at all.

The only sensible thing to do was to finish his drink, cash in his chips and return to the ship.

He cashed in his chips. One out of three wasn’t bad.

At the back of the bar room, leading into the hotel proper, was a broad corridor, its walls papered in scarlet and gold. On one side, there was a dining room; on the other, a casino, its gaming tables more formal than Brett cared for, and more varied. He scanned both rooms, hoping that he might be mistaken about her. Nothing.

At the end of the corridor, there was an arch partially covered by a thick red curtain. It seemed the best place to start looking. He stepped through it and took a sharp turn to the left.

Ahead, he could hear sounds of a scuffle. The sound of a heavy blade striking something solid. The air was rich with the smell of burned flesh. He broke into an incautious run. In what Fare Thee Well would consider the wrong direction. Towards trouble.

His eyes grew accustomed to the dim glow of the few lamps lighting what looked like another bar, only more private and upmarket. It was empty. As long as you did not count the corpses, or the two silhouettes.

One was huge, a shifner he guessed, like the two on the floor. It wielded a pair of short swords with some measure of competence, although little elegance. The other, he recognised her immediately. She, too, brandished a pair of blades. They whipped and darted with great speed, carving flexibly through the air and occasionally the outer flesh of her opponent. But her weapons looked so slender, so fragile in comparison, and they could not block any of the rain of blows falling around her dancing figure. Unless she could deliver a killing stroke through the shifner’s robust guard – and thick hide – it was just a matter of time until its brute strength became the deciding factor.

Brett’s foot found one of the corpses. He recoiled momentarily, then looked down to see if he could spot a weapon. The dead shifner had not even drawn his gun, which seemed like an invitation.

‘Hey, big fella,’ he said, ‘drop the swords. I’ve got you covered.’

He knew the attempt was in vain. Whatever had gone down in here, the shifner’s pod-mates had taken the worst of it. Whether tank-born or flesh-born, or some combination of both, once a pod formed, its members were bonded. The last shifner standing always takes death or revenge, often the latter until the former is achieved.

But Brett had to try.


She liked, first, that he made the effort and, second, when it failed and the creature lunged at him, that he took the time to make sure the shot counted and that, third, he spoke a blessing over fallen dead, even Spiker, to ease them on their way and that, fourth, it was done from respect for life not fear of death nor belief in a hereafter. And fifth, well, he was a great big handsome man…

‘Okay, stranger, we need to go. Separate ways, right away. Trouble’s a-coming, you don’t want to get caught up in it.’

Eliane whirled her blades one last time and threw them hard into the wall. They each sank in a couple of inches. He watched as their quivering slowed. She followed his gaze.

‘If you leave them lying around, someone’s bound to hurt themselves.’ She retrieved the containment case from where it had fallen during the fight.

He was still staring at the blades. She had used weapons like them before. They must have rung a bell. Which meant, sixth, even if he was dumb enough to walk in on a fight with a shifner, he was at the very least smarter than Spiker.

‘You’re the Dread Fox.’

She smiled and nodded.

‘You’re a woman.’

Maybe she was going to have to revise point six. ‘Mostly,’ she said, ‘and at the moment, yes. A woman in a hurry to get out of here. As should you be. In a hurry, I mean, not a woman. Not that I have anything against women…’

Maybe Spiker was the smart one, after all. She hated it when she rambled. She never rambled.

‘No offence intended, ma’am. It’s just that they always talk of you as if you were some big burly bloke with scars and an eyepatch.’ He broke into a grin, a beautiful grin. ‘Not that I have anything against big burly blokes with scars and eyepatches…’

‘Go,’ she said. ‘Get out of here. Be safe.’

She made herself turn and walk away. She wanted to tell him that she hadn’t done one tenth of the things they said about her. She wanted him to know. She did not say a word. She had to find a way offworld.



The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part four

olivia-de-havilland-captainblood-037A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

Part 1, 2, 3


‘Tell your goon if that paw touches me it’s coming off at the elbow.’

The shifner grunted in surprise as Eliane’s dagger flashed out towards its thick, questing hand. It rippled its enhanced shoulder muscles, the unconscious gesture a dominance display left over from the species’ prehistory on a distant world. Down in civilisation, shifner were mostly tank-bred as corporate muscle and cannon fodder; out on the Riff, among the runaways, you would sometimes find a flesh-bred like this one. There was a complex politics between the varieties, made more arcane by the ability of each to pass for the other, and by the fact that they were all, pretty much, competitors in the same line of work.

‘Don’t make me cut him, Spiker,’ she called out into the dark. She knew the would-be crime lord was watching, even if she could not see him. ‘I’m just here to do business.’

‘Then put the knife away,’ he replied from the gloom, ‘and leave it and the gun on the table.’

It was not within her nature willingly to give up weapons. They made the ground on which she was dealing a little less uneven, but they had also served their purpose. Spiker had his own utterly predictable dominance displays, easily subverted by a few more seconds performance of resistance before complying with his wishes. He was too arrogant to suspect her of concealing other weapons.

‘Good girl,’ he said, as Eliane unstrapped her forearm holsters and dropped them in front of the shifner. It grunted malice at her. She could not tell whether it was genuinely felt or just part of the job. ‘Come and sit with me,’ Spiker added.

He was ensconced in a deep alcove at the edge of the room. All the other tables were empty, and the bar shuttered. For Spiker, it was a surprisingly understated form of ostentation. He liked to hold court there and, Eliane suspected, thought of it, without irony, as holding court. But really it was just business. Money, power, influence, as scuzzy there as anywhere else.

She slid onto the chair opposite him. The upholstery was every bit as plush as Spiker’s taste was poor.

‘You know why I’m here,’ she said, ‘and we agreed a price. Why all the show?’

Her dislike of Spiker was finely balanced – part disliking his kind of nasty little crook with delusions of grandeur, and part disliking him personally. It was not just that there was blood on his hands, but that some of it had belonged to very specific people. Also, he always tried to hit on her, sooner or later, no matter what she turned up looking like. Tall, short, blonde, brunette, male, female, whatever, none of it made a difference to him. He was grossly libidinal, and thought himself charming. Or, she conceded, it was just about possible it was all an act. Which probably made it worse.

He poured them each a glass of something she knew better than to drink, and slid hers over towards her. She reached for it, knowing he would take the opportunity to stroke her fingers. It made her skin crawl but it was part of the cost of dealing with him.

His caress was surprisingly perfunctory. For a split second she was relieved, and then suspicious. On the several occasions they had done business, he had lingered over the prelude to their transaction, relishing any trace of discomfort he could produce in her. She had grown accustomed to disappointing him, not least because it tended to speed things up. The secret was to respond not with a stony glare, but with the appearance of not even noticing. He hated that. He could not stand to be frustrated.

In his sudden haste, he did not even pause to touch his drink. He summoned another shifner from where it had been standing impassively back in the gloom.

Something is definitely amiss, she thought, but he knows better than to try to scam me.

The shifner placed a containment cylinder on the table, maybe eight inches high with a diameter about a third of that. Its matt surface seemed to hold in light rather than reflect it.

‘I’m here for tech, not biologicals.’ Eliane started to slide out from the booth.

‘It is tech,’ Spiker replied, ‘xenotech. Exotic. Not exactly biological. Not exactly not-biological, either.’

Eliane paused. ‘Does it do what you claimed?’

‘Your AI will be able to infiltrate any other shipbrain,’ he said. ‘Overwhelm it. You want bloodless kills, or easy ones, it’s just the thing for you.’

She ignored the contempt in his voice, but his words troubled her. Never before had he said anything that implied he knew who she was and what she did. He was supposed to think she merely trafficked in curiosities, scouring the Riff for unusual artefacts and arcane knowledges to sell to xeno-groupies and other aficianados down in civilisation. ‘How does it work?’

‘It didn’t come with a manual.’ The casualness of his shrug seemed rehearsed.

‘Some kind of virus?’

‘A hack is a hack.’

‘Kinda old school, even for the Riff.’

‘It’s different. Quantum-level stuff, not software. It’s more, well, paracognitive, I guess. Telepathic.’

‘Taking me for a rube, Spiker?’

He did not reply.

‘Let me see it.’

Spiker slid the cylinder across the table. Once more he failed to take the opportunity to touch her as she reached out and picked it up. He wasn’t staring at her cleavage, either. Which should have been a relief. Last time he hadn’t done that, it was when she was male, although that didn’t keep his eyes from roving – or his hands.

She twisted the cylinder open, removed her gloves and reached inside. Her touch triggered something in the artefact. It moved in her hand, imitating her grasp. She did not allow herself to flinch.

She lifted it into view. It looked like a starfish. Its rays appeared metallic but moved as if organic, stiffened by something calcerous. It felt slick against her skin. She peeled one of its rays from her forearm and peered at it. Unexpectedly, the underside was as dry as the topside.

‘Nanofilaments,’ Spiker explained. ‘It needs to bond with your nervous system to work.’

Eliane released the ray, let it coil around her wrist. ‘Then why’s it not working?’

‘Your central nervous system.’ Now he was smiling. ‘It needs access points. Ears. Eyes.’

Her hand was halfway to her head before his grin faded.

‘Come on, we’ve done enough business before. There’s no need to test it here. Besides, you’ll need your ship systems within range to see what it can really do.’

She raised an eyebrow.

‘You know you can trust me,’ he said.

That was enough for Eliane. Not even Spiker was fool enough to think anyone actually trusted him. There was something he did not want her to know.

And he had said the thing was telepathic.

Without further thought she allowed it to crawl from the back of her hand to the side of her face. One ray curled around her ear, extended its tip into her earhole. It halted, but she could sense tiny extrusions were slipping inside, piercing her eardrum, but harmlessly, on a subatomic level. Another ray slipped over her eye. She would probably have flinched away from its touch if it hadn’t suddenly made her feel quite piratical.

Then it hit her.

A clangour of light, a peal of colour.

A cascading vertiginous kaleidoscope of sensation.

An intense vibration took her.

She did not have time to feel nauseous or giddy. It was abruptly part of her. A second consciousness, present everywhere within her, apart yet simultaneously inseparable.

Thoughts, she discovered, were nothing like voices.

Spiker knew who she was. And he’d peached. Sold her out. This was all a trap.

She needed to get out of there. Quickly.

‘Wow,’ she said, stumbling with artful awkwardness to her feet.

Spiker half-rose, uncertain.

‘You can feel it right down here,’ she said, smiling to assuage his anxiety, and reached behind her for the loops at the base of her spine.

In the dim light, Spiker probably did not even see the keratin blades as they slashed wickedly before him, slicing through his throat, leaving an elongated scarlet X.

The nearest shifner reached for the blaster on his hip. He roared in frustration, and then in pain, as he realised that all he was pointing at her was a stump, gouting blood.

She danced around his forward lurch, cutting deep into the backs of his legs.

He threw himself desperately at her. She sidestepped. He hit the floor with a crash. A blade in the back of the neck severed his spine. She could safely leave him to bleed out.

The second shifner, eschewing his sidearm, drew a pair of short swords and stepped heavily towards her, blades held steady in the low light. He seemed to know what he was doing.

She backed away, looking nervous.

The shifner swelled his shoulder muscles in gleeful anticipation of the kill.

She picked up the fallen blaster and shot him in the head. His face vaporised in the intense heat. Sizzling blood and brain sprayed the wall. He swayed upright for a second as if his body did not yet know it was dead, then collapsed noisily, spilling gore across the floor.

Eliane swept up the containment canister, and gently pulled the device from her head. It seemed reluctant to detach at first, and she did not know how much force to exert. She didn’t want to rip out anything vital.

She checked herself for spatter, and stepped carefully over the corpse. The first shifner was still alive, rasping ragged breaths. She drove a blade through its shoulders and into its heart. She hated killing, but sometimes it was a mercy. Besides, in this crazy messed up universe, what was a girl to do?

She grabbed her gun and knife and made for the exit.

She had completely forgotten – if, indeed she ever knew it – that shifners always work in teams of three.



The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part three

james-garner-maverickA swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

Part 1, 2


Dear Reader, I confess I’ve been dragging it out a mite, setting the scene and all, but here at last comes the moment you’ve been waiting for. The moment their eyes first met. Across, believe it or not, a crowded room. It is not the most improbable thing you will hear.


When it came to crime out on the Riff, Spiker was not an especially big fish. But sometimes the optics of small ponds can be deceptive, and so he liked to surround himself with people. It was not that he was any more sociable than the next third-string crimelord. He just figured the more folks between him and the entrance, the more time he had to evade the law if ever the law came knocking. Which they rarely did. He preferred bribery to blackmail and collusion to coercion, but even there he overplayed his hand. Vanity, his desire to seem more important than he was, to appear larger than life, defeated thrift every time, and would likely be his downfall.

So Eliane locked her suite and began the long walk through the New Dragon Gate. There was no furtiveness to her now. She wanted to be seen. It would make her getaway so much easier if everyone was looking for this her. She would need only half a minute’s privacy to look like someone else entirely.

She left the elevator at the mezzanine level, and swept down the long staircase that curved around the lobby and out towards the hubbub of the barroom. Hotel guests, drinkers and gamblers rubbed shoulders unawares with smoothies, hosers and fleecers; she could almost smell the flimflam. Dippers moved discreetly among the tables, looking for any opportunity to empty a pocket or a purse that was not their own.

The skirt of her gown swayed lightly from side to side, its sumptuous green seeming to draw the light in the room to it. Each step revealed the pointed toes of shoes that seemed too delicate to walk in. Each dark, elbow length glove concealed a forearm holster, one for a blade, the other for a very ladylike needle-gun. A shawl covered her shoulders. A dusting of malachite fragments glittering against the dark flesh of her décolletage matched the colour of the stones in her ear-rings. Her hair, now, was a flaming red.


It was a winning hand. Not even the cat-faced man stood a chance. The question now, Brett thought, is not whether it can be beaten, but how much it can be milked for. His expression unchanging, he started to calculate who had how much on the table.

Something changed in the room. At first he could not put his finger on what exactly. It wasn’t the kind of abrupt difference that usually arrives just a moment before the holder of yet another not-quite-good-enough hand finds the drunken courage to accuse him of cheating. Nor was it the kind of terrible silence when you see an outraged man unaccustomed to gun-fighting pull a gun. But something was suddenly different. Brett looked up from his cards.

He did not even have to turn his head. He preferred to play with a wall behind him, which meant he was facing the bottom of the staircase.

She quite took his breath away.

She paused and scanned the room, as if looking for somebody. He could tell there was something false about it. That she knew exactly where she was going. That this was all show. That she wanted to make an impression, to be remembered.

But before he could begin to wonder why, those eyes, which he was certain had no intention of coming to rest upon anyone, picked him out of the crowd. She seemed as surprised as him.

An easy grin lit up his face.

For a moment she faltered. The corners of her mouth found themselves turning up to flash a smile in response.

And then she recovered her purpose. He watched her with all the circumspection he could muster as she glided through the crowd towards the back rooms. Where bossmen dangled their wealth and paraded their minions, and where VIPs made their peace, collected their bribes and embraced their honeytraps, when they were not being bamboozled and bled.

He was so intent on figuring out what business she might have back there that he nearly lost the hand.

That had a salutary effect. ‘If you gentlemen will excuse me for a while, I’m in need of some air.’ As he stood, he scooped his chips into his hat and placed it on his head in one easy motion.

They laughed indulgently as he made for the bar. They all had seen her, too. A little discombobulation was to be expected when a spacer hit ground for the first time in a while. They weren’t used to the oxygen or the booze or the women. Or to the sparkling wit of such grand grounder gentlemen as themselves.



The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part two

spaceww1A swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.

Part 1

Eliane moved through the city with practiced ease, transforming her appearance by increments and occasional bold flourishes. She sidestepped prying eyes, and was so charming to anyone who paid too much attention that later, if questioned, they would succumb to an excess of discretion. She arrived at the New Dragon Gate with enough luggage to draw no attention, but not so much that she might be remembered.

Through this series of transformations, the only items she retained were the pack and the belt from which it hung.

She checked into the best room in the hotel, showered, slept for three hours, ordered a light meal and afterwards showered again. Sitting on the bed in just a towel, she split open the belt and withdrew a pair of keratinous filaments. Carefully, she straightened them, avoiding their razor sharp edges and vicious points. She searched through her most recent purchases. The emerald corset was exquisite, and she admired it briefly before unpicking the stitching to remove two of the skrill bones that shaped it. She replaced them with the whip-like keratin blades, ensuring their looped handles would be within easy reach, one on either side of her spine. No weapons sensor would pick them up.

Next, she would do something about her hair, and then summon a maid to help her dress.


Brett slipped into a light shirt.

‘Mirror’, he ordered the monitor, and tied his string tie in front of its silvered screen. As he buttoned his brocade waistcoat and attached an archaic fob-chain, Fare Thee Well tried again.

‘There’s been a lot of bandit activity round here the last couple of years,’ she said, switching the screen to a montage of news reports. Wrecked cruisers floated in inky blackness, their hulls ripped open and haloed by debris. Rapid zooms picked out floating corpses. Corporate spokespeople, flanked by high-ranking military, promised stronger security, swift retribution. Deployment of pursuit vessels to the sector. High alert status. ‘And it’s not just the corporates being hit. CoreMedia says even The Dread Fox thinks us independents are fair game, now. And whoever’s flying her is becoming a lot less particular. Used to go out of their way not to take lives.’

‘When did you start believing CM? Corporates do this every time they’re about to push further into the Riff. Wouldn’t surprise me if they were behind it all.’

‘It’s not just CM. There’s talk, rumours.’

‘Hardly reliable, then.’

‘There’s no smoke without fire.’

‘Sling enough mud, some’s bound to stick.’

Brett brushed his long black frockcoat. Open-breasted, it had room for just two buttons before it swept down and away from his hips. It was an ancient design, intended to give clear access to a gun belt. Out on the Riff, folks often relied on images from the past to survive the future. It helped to keep things simple, to reduce complexities to well-worn stories everyone knows. Nothing could take you by surprise, certainly not a great big handsome man with an easy smile and an aversion to violence that some might mistake for cowardice. He rarely carried a gun, especially not to a card game. Which was just as well. Strangers had a tendency to mistake his sharping for cheating, but Riff-folks’ disapproval of killing unarmed people tended to channel outbursts at the poker table into less fatal expressions.

‘You know I have little compunction about mentioning our insurance situation,’ said Fare Thee Well.

‘For the last time,’ Brett said, ‘I’ve got it covered. At least, I will have in a coupla hours. Until then, it’s down to you.’

He settled a stetson on his head, tilted it forward slightly, dapper as could be. ‘You think you can handle it?’

Fare Thee Well grunted. Unless something really exotic turned up, she’d pit herself against most anyone. And although he knew she would never admit it, she’d back him against pretty much any stud of poker players, talent of gamblers or not-excessively-rigged house. He just wished they didn’t have to rely on it quite so often to make ends meet. A sentiment he knew she would share, if her Turing torcs permitted her such a thing as wishing.



The Dread Fox and the Down-home Dandy, part one

spacegambler-flyerA swashbuckling wild west space opera romance in seven parts, culminating in an absurd extended mathporn nod to M John Harrison.


Dear Reader, you know what happened afterwards, the romance, the malarkey, the star-crossing lovers – everyone does, but few know how it started; so here is the tale of how it went down – it goes a little something like this.


She was a woman with no name, at least none she cared to recall, and a woman with many names. Today, she was going by Eliane.

She brought The Dread Fox in hard and fast, angling down sharply to the plane of the ecliptic, locked on to an asteroid tumbling inwards on a convenient orbit, and slammed to a halt metres from its surface.

It was a fierce and costly ride, virtually impossible to detect.

She powered down Fox to nothing but sensors and minimal life support, set defensive systems a hair-trigger from consciousness, removed her clothes and slipped into a rudimentary dropship. Protective foam flooded the tiny compartment, solidified about her and put her under. In her last moment of consciousness, she felt the kick of ejection.

She came to three days later on Rendall, as the last traces of foam sublimed through precise hull ruptures. She kicked free of her cocoon and staggered to her feet, the customised single-shot already dissolving in the atmosphere. By morning, not a trace of it would be left.

Getting off-world would not be quite so easy.

She dressed quickly in simple grounders’ wear, slipped a small pack onto her belt, took a bearing, and started walking in the dark. She had a long night ahead of her and some kinks in her back to work out.

Drops were never as straightforward as she liked to pretend.

Maybe she was getting too old for this shit.

But Spiker had something of value for sale. Something she wanted.


Brett lathered his face the old fashioned way, with soap and a brush. He flipped a monitor around and called up the spaceport’s security feed, hijacked and streamed to give an external view of the ship.

‘Everything quiet out there?’ he asked.

‘Yes,’ the ship replied, and then added with a sigh, ‘the trouble will come later.’

‘Hey,’ he drawled, ‘you know it’s just a one-off.’

‘Always is.’

He remembered the first time they’d had this conversation. Back then he really believed it would be just the one time, but things were getting tough all over. If they wanted to keep flying, they would just have grin and bear the shadier deals a little more often.

He watched for a few moments as longshorebots shifted cargo pods from a pair of transport sleds and set them down at the perimeter to be scanned, registered and stowed by the ship’s own drones. He switched to a wider view.

The Fare Thee Well, Annabel was a maverick vessel, plying the trade routes out on the Riff, out beyond the interstellar network of commerce and communications, out there, where such matters were conducted with a touch less formality. An independent, she connected scattered settlements, lonely mining stations and isolated outposts, and brushed up against the leading edge of civilisation’s ever-expanding web so they didn’t have to. A cargo-hauler and a troubleshooter, some said a freebooter, she stayed just inside the law and at least one step ahead of it. Not that the law was any too clear or uncontested thereabouts, or particularly enforceable.

An elegant-looking ship, she stood out among the half dozen or so squat corporate luggers in the grimly utilitarian spaceport. Her long sweeping curves and delicate fins were as nonsensical as they were alluring. Brett knew they would probably rip right off if he was ever desperate enough, or sufficiently drunk, to try bringing her down manually through an atmosphere. They say that you can make a brick fly if you stick a big enough engine on it, and that was, in truth, what she was – a brute ugly thing with a big hold and engines powerful enough to make her shape irrelevant. But such comely stylisation was worth it.

There’s no point in having a reputation for reliability, Fare Thee Well, who was in truth a little vain, liked to point out, if no one remembers what you look like. And while folks out on the periphery were no fools, life for most was tough enough just hanging on to what little they had that they were happy to be won over by a little glamour. Often, all it took was a glimpse of a ship as purty as her and repeat custom was guaranteed.

For the other kinds of jobs Brett sometimes took – the shady, necessity-induced one-offs like this one – it just paid to look good. Even in the port’s low light, her burnished skin glowed. It was the semiotics of a wealth they did not possess, with just enough twist to imply she was teeming with exotic alien technology but being discreet about it. A simple enough trick if you didn’t mind rerouting a little power

Even the occasional client who saw through such thimble-rigging appreciated that they made the effort.

Brett could sense Fare Thee Well waiting while he shaved with his pappy’s old cut-throat, expensively edged with a monomolecular fibril. He knew she considered it a foolish affectation, more dangerous than efficacious. A gene-tweak would have cost less than adapting the blade, which even now did not shave as close the lasers down in Medical, but he figured Fare Thee Well understood why he did it. Even though she was Turing torced down in the deep code equivalent of her DNA, she was not so limited in empathy that she could not imagine and appreciate similarities between them. Like her, he was not exactly what he seemed; and as with her, his masquerade also contained a fair measure of truth, at least from a certain angle.

‘Last sled’s about to arrive, I’ll need you on the ramp to sign off on it all,’ she said. ‘Or we could have a sudden change of heart…’

Fare Thee Well left the suggestion hanging in the air.

Brett studiously ignored it. Money was tight, and this deal on Rendall promised a solution, at least in the short term.




Out of the Unknown: ‘Sucker Bait’ (15 November 1965)

05dd3gnThis is the one with the inestimable Burt Kwouk – not the first actor of colour in the series, but the first one with a substantial role. Called upon, it seems, whenever British television or film needed a Chinese, a Japanese, masonan unspecified oriental, he is part of the furniture of my life; I suspect I will be devastated – not Elisabeth Sladen or James Garner devastated, but devastated nonetheless – when he dies. (I seem to have always known that he was born in Warrington, but what I did not know was that he was raised in Shanghai, his family only returning to Britain during the Chinese revolution; in my mind’s eye, I see him in the streets of thirties Shanghai, running into a young JG Ballard –  only to appear 50 years later as Mr Chen in Empire of the Sun (1987).)

This is also the one – actually the first of three – directed by Naomi Capon, one of just two female directors at the BBC at the time (the other, Paddy Russell, directed the previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…’ .) British-born, Capon worked on American television before returning to the UK to commence, in 1951, a twenty-year career as a director and producer, almost exclusively of drama. She also directed ‘The World in Silence’ (17 November 1966), based on John Rankine’s 1966 ‘Six Cubed Plus One’, and ‘The Prophet’ (1 January 1967), based on Asimov’s ‘Reason’ (1941), one of the stories collected in I, Robot (1950). Capon’s set designer has clearly learned the dangers, so evident in ‘Time in Advance’, of signifying futurity through shiny surfaces. If the spaceship interiors are not quite as impressive as those in ‘The Counterfeit Man’, the multilevel set becomes impressive when you realise it contains an actual elevator, rather than trickery, to move between levels (although the bridge set then looks quite silly because it involves climbing up ladders to reach the door). Videoscreens and oscilloscopes abound, accompanied by some groovy radiophonics.

After ‘The Dead Past’, it is the second of six episodes based on stories by Isaac Asimov. It was adapted by Meade Roberts from Asimov’s 1954 Astounding story, ‘Sucker Bait’, collected in The Martian Way and Other Stories in 1955 (published in the UK by Dennis Dobson in 1964). The adaptation was originally commissioned as a 75-minute drama, presumably for Story Parade. (Roberts also adapted the following episode from Ray Bradbury’s ‘The Fox and the Forest’ (1950).)

OOTU Sucker bait articleAs with ‘The Dead Past’, this is a story built around the problem of specialisation – the idea that as knowledge develops, scientists will increasingly specialise, leading to a potential hazardous compartmentalisation of information and ideas. In Asimov’s future – distant enough in time for humanity to have colonised 83,200 worlds but still be feeling population pressures, and for the ‘2755 para-measles epidemic’ to be an historical event akin to ‘the 1918 influenza epidemic, and the Black Death’ (163) – specialisation has reached the point that it has become necessary to institute an experimental method of education in order to produce individuals capable of remembering every fact and idea they encounter, regardless of discipline. The teenage Mark Annuncio is one of the first hundred such ‘Mnemonics’.

The Trojan planet Troas, which is in a stable orbit around the differently coloured binary stars Lagrange I and II, was long ago the site of attempted colonisation. But after the entire colony, more than 1300 people, died, apparently of a disease, the world was forgotten until Mark discovered an account of it in the archives. He is included as part of the scientific expedition to investigate the world, to find out what destroyed the colony and whether it is habitable by humans. The expedition consists of single scientists from individual disciplines who accept without question each others’ views – one simply does not query specialists in different disciplines. Character names suggest that they are rather a multicultural bunch, but the only exception to their whiteness seems to be

Miguel Antonio Rodriguez y Lopez (microbiologist; small, tawny, with intensely black hair, which he wore rather long, and with a reputation, which he did nothing to discourage, of being a Latin in the grand style as far as ladies were concerned). (156)

The crew of the spaceship, however, know nothing of the mission, and knowledge of the failed colony and the possibility of fatal disease is deliberately kept from them.

out-of-the-unknown-sucker-bait-1965-001-men-and-telescopes_0The story chugs along, readable enough but distinctly minor Asimov, until Mark, ostracised by the specialists, must take desperate action to save the expedition from the same fate that befell the colony – something only he can discern, thanks to his disregard for disciplinary boundaries and his amazing powers of recall (and his chance reading of an old book some years before).

The dilemma Mark faces once he solves the mystery is very Asimovian – like those faced by robots and computers who know what is best for humanity, but must proceed indirectly and find ways to circumvent the rules constraining their action. Mark’s solution is a little surprising since, like the Book People of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953), he is such a curiously passive figure. If he is in some way intended to serve as an argument in favour of generalists, of inter- and trans-disciplinary thinkers and processes, of more efficient and effective communication between disciplines, it might have been an idea to allow him some kind of creative or imaginative role, rather than casting him as a cross between a database, a search-engine and a sulky teen.

Indeed, in the adaptation, Mark (Clive Endersby) mostly comes across as an argument for sending sulky teens to their rooms without any dinner.

The main point of interest in Asimov’s story comes in the way in which it can be used to map claims for the relationship between science and sf. There are various infodumps, showing off the time Asimov has put into designing Troas as a plausible planet, including two pages (153-155) in which

Boris Vernadsky (geochemist; dark eyebrows, wide mouth, broad face, and with an inveterate tendency to polka-dot shirts and magnetic clip-ons in red plastic) (133)

belabours the atmospheric composition. Most of the information is unnecessary, other than that it situates the story within the hard-sf norms developed at Astounding and provides both a plausible framework and essential camouflaging for a latter tidbit of information, the relevance of which only Mark can realise. I honestly cannot tell whether the clue that is thus slipped into the story – and hidden by it – was ever enough for a reader to beat Mark to the solution. (It involves beryllium, which is just not used in this future universe, although the reasons for abandoning it have been long forgotten; they would perhaps have been quite fresh in the minds of many of the story’s early readers.)

HG Wells, Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville and others have argued that the relationship between sf and science does not depend upon the accuracy of the scientific knowledge being drawn upon, but on the persuasiveness with which scientific-sounding discourse can be deployed and manipulated by the writer (in Carl Freedman’s terms, sf is not about cognition per se, but about the creation of particular kinds of cognition effect). And of course this relationship is always a relative, not an absolute, one. Different authors and readers bring different levels and kinds of knowledge, different desires to persuade and different desires to be adequately persuaded. The nature and degree of that adequacy shifts depending on circumstances, not least because sf is far from monolithic. Claiming superiority for sf stories because of their greater scientificness is merely an attempt to impose a particular hierarchy of taste. Often reversing the polarities can be perfectly adequate and is not at all necessarily inferior. The most intriguing sequence in Asimov’s story is concerned with these ideas.

In an attempt to persuade Cimon, the mission commander, to allow Mark to accompany the expedition onto the surface of Troas, Dr Sheffield attempts blackmail. This involves using the professional protocols around specialisms so as, over the course of several pages, to trick Cimon, and then threatening to release an illicit recording of him making a fool of himself. Going into the scene, we know nothing of this scheme.

Sheffield suggests that the combined effect of the planet’s two suns – one of which casts blue-green shadows, the other red-orange – and of the light reflected from its moon could

exert a deleterious effect on mental stability [resulting in] chromopsychosis [that] could reach a fatal level by inducing hypertrophy of the trinitarian follicles, with consequent cerebric catatonia. … red-green chromopsychosis has been recorded to exhibit itself first as a psychogenic respiratory infection. … Surely you must be noticing just a small inflammation of the mucus membrane of the nose, a slight itching in the throat. Nothing painful yet, I imagine. Have you been coughing or sneezing? It is a little hard to swallow? (174-175)

sucker-02This is, of course, all nonsense, as Sheffield admits once he has panicked Cimon. But it does cut to the core of the issue of persuasion and persuasiveness. At what point does the reader or viewer spot what Sheffield is doing? This is more complex than it might sound, because the discursive register is more or less identical here as in the other passages of exposition which Asimov wants/needs the reader to accept. There is time in these few pages to wonder whether Asimov genuinely intends to extrapolate future ailments – chromopsychosis and psychogenetic symptoms – that might lie in wait for humans who travel to alien worlds. And to wonder what he might jeopardise his act of persuasion with a term as clumsy as ‘trinitarian follicles’. And, to be surprised at how it got past his editor, John W. Campbell.

I am pretty certain that when I read this story as a kid, thirty-odd years ago, I would not have spotted Sheffield’s trick until he admitted it. (I know I read the collection, but I had absolutely no memory of this story until rereading it this week.) This time around, Sheffield sounded suspicious from the get-go. But if the solution to the mystery did lie in chromopsychosis, I would have probably cut Asimov some slack – since this is a minor story, it would not have been surprising that the exposition was also weak in places.

The adaptation gives a really interesting version of this scene, thanks largely to John Meillon’s softly-spoken performance as Sheffield. He begins with a kind of boisterous uncertainty, as if to test whether he is going to get away with it, but also signalling to the audience that something is amiss with what he is going to say. This caution disappears as he quietly concatenates and escalates the threat. He ends with the claim that chromopsychosis can also affect the hearing. And as he asks whether Cinam (David Knight) is experiencing such a symptom, he drops his voice just a little. It is a delightful touch, something Asimov could not have conveyed.

Other things to watch out for
— The giant playing cards from ‘The Counterfeit Man’  put in another appearance, as does a game of multidimensional chess – well before Star Trek
— The table-top model positioned in the foreground so as to make the studio-bound planet’s surface look much bigger than it is

Previous episode, ‘Come Buttercup, Come Daisy, Come…

Isaac Asimov, ‘Sucker Bait’, The Martian Way (London: Granada, 1981), 123-203.
Out of the Unknown boxset. BFI, 2014.

The Household Gods and the Darth Vader Corkscrew

Queen Kong. Goddess of utopian desire. Will work for peanuts.
Queen Kong. Goddess of utopian desire. Will work for peanuts.
Mr Atomic. Powerful, if unconvincingly so to look at.
Clockbot. Battery flat. Nonetheless, unlike other gods, he is right about something every day. Twice.
Clockbot. Battery flat. Nonetheless, unlike other gods, he is right about something every day. Twice.
Shrine. Evidence of ancestor worship. And wishful thinking.
Shrine. Evidence of ancestor worship. And wishful thinking.
Luke Cage. Guaranteeing sweet Christmases since 1972. Also, sticking it to the man.
Luke Cage. Guaranteeing sweet Christmases since 1972. Cf. the Man, god of sticking it to.
Wile E. Coyote. Spirt animal.
Wile E. Coyote. Spirit animal.
The Darth Vader corkscrew. Not a household god or deity of any kind. Just a Darth Vader corkscrew. Photographic evidence thereof, because no one believes me. A Christmas present, a nice try, a miss is as good as a mile...
The Darth Vader corkscrew. Not a household god or deity of any kind. Just a Darth Vader corkscrew. Photographic evidence thereof, because no one believes me. A Christmas present. A nice try. A miss that is every bit as good as a mile.

James Garner, 1928-2014

James-Garner-The-Rockford-FilesThis was the year we lost Big Jim.

A couple of weeks ago, on the way back from work, it suddenly struck me that I had forgotten that he had died. I even went online when I got home to check that I hadn’t misremembered (or misforgotten, or whatever). Saddened once more, I resolved to finish watching Nichols (1971-72), his western TV series just prior to The Rockford Files (1974-80), before heading overseas for the holidays. The final episode, ‘All in the Family’, produced another affective flip-flop as, in the opening sequence, Nichols is suddenly gunned down by Quinnnichols (Anthony Zerbe); there is a brief passage of what-the-fuck? as the funeral proceeds and it doesn’t all turn out to be one of Nichols’ scams; and then Garner turns up, admirably moustachioed, playing Nichols’ brother, who cons the town into bringing Quinn to justice. You can only imagine my delight when, a few days later in Tucson, we sat down to start watching season three of Maverick (1957-62), and in the opening episode, ‘Pappy’, Garner plays not only Bret Maverick, but also his father, Beau Maverick, and Bret pretending to be Beau. I hope he picked up three pay cheques, because he is always worth that much. Brett_Maverick_-_James_Garner(I have no idea what I am going to do about the final two seasons – in season four, Garner is replaced by Roger Moore, playing the Mavericks’ English cousin, Beauregarde; and in five, Jack Kelly carried on alone as Bart, interspersed with reruns of old Garner/Bret episodes. My inner completist is at war with my inner loyalist.)

I am curious, though, about the sensation of missing a celebrity, someone I never actually knew.

Like all right-minded people, I was appalled by the massive manipulation of public sentiment when Princess Diana died,* and scoffed at the miserable attempts to whip up a lacrimae rerum rerun when that vile, gin-swilling elitist, the Queen Mother, finally choked (I guess from having her greedy snout so deep into the public trough).** And despite being washed up alone in a Californian one horse dorp the day Thatcher died, I still managed to find myself partying into the small hours in the one gay bar in town.

On the other hand, but also like all right-minded people, I was bereft for months when Elisabeth Sladen died. Part early object-cathexis, I know; and partly because just as so many of us have a ‘my Doctor’ – mine would definitely be Tom Baker were it not for Peter Cushing – she was always ‘my companion’.

Maybe it was that unexpected feeling of loss that prepared me for Jim’s passing. And the fact that he had always been there – without ever actually being there –since I was a child. (A friend recently caught a late episode of 8 Simple Rules 8 simple(2002-05) and said how much it made her long for a big living room centred around an open fire. Me, my wishes are simpler: a battered old armchair, from which James Garner comments wrily on my everyday foibles and mishaps.)


Garner was a big, handsome man, with an easy-going and amiable persona, and diahann-carroll-james-garner-march-washingtongood liberal politics. He was not hard to like, even when playing an arrogant shit of a corporate CEO in Barbarians at the Gate (1993). But his real appeal, especially when playing Maverick and Rockford (both created by the equally admirable Roy Huggins), was his performance of human frailty. He played heroes who were cowards, gunmen who eschewed guns, a private march-on-washington-3dick who took plenty of lickings because he couldn’t always avoid a fight, no matter how hard he tried, and was not much good at fighting anyway. He played a cardsharp who did not cheat, except when he did. He pursued money but could not get hold of it. He fell for women he knew were trouble, and was suckered every time, because despite his mercenary instincts he also tended to trust people. Everyone jokes about how The Great Escape (1963) has a claustrophobic tunneller (Charles Bronson) and a James-Garner-Donald-Pleasence-Great-Escapeblind forger (Donald Pleasence), but they forget that James Garner plays a scrounger with a heart of gold. He refuses to leave the forger behind when the POWs break out of Stalag Luft III en masse, and is finally captured when he refuses once more to abandon his friend.

frailtySo if you are looking for some kind of moral compass that understands our weaknesses, don’t ask yourself what Jesus would do.

Ask what Big Jim would do.


* The only good thing to come of it was the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain, and then only because it inspired Stewart Lee’s Princess Diana Memorial Fountain Memorial Fountain Fountain routine.

** Despite constant media whitewashing and the vague resemblance, she was no more Paddington Bear’s Great Aunt Lucy than I am.pbtv