My Cuppa Runneth Over by Chris South

Chapter Four

My Cuppa Runneth Over.

(Part One: In Strictest Confidence!)

“Shhh!” murmured friar Tetley. “If word of this gets out the whole monastery will want it; and if that blabbermouth the Abbott gets to know of it the whole of Yorkshire will too after his next mass.” His companion friar Tips put his finger to his lips in acknowledgement before looking over his shoulder surreptitiously to see if they were being observed.

“This is in strictest confidence, strictest do you understand?” whispered Tetley

“Only me, thee and the Almighty know of this and I’m not sure that even He knows.”

Tetley and Tips slunk out of their dormitory amid the snores and grunts of their brothers and slid round the cloisters towards the kitchen keeping in the shadows. Outside the full moon hung low over the Abbey watching them like a big jaundiced eyeball that blinked every so often as a thick swirl of mist rolled up over the edge of the cliff top from the sea below.

“Quick put that kettle on those cinders!” Tetley bid his partner in subterfuge as they entered the kitchen, “Make sure there’s at least two cupfuls of water in it!” Tips complied keenly. Tetley dug deep into the left pocket of his cassock and produced a small cloth pouch. He brought it to his nose and inhaled deeply languishing in some sweet yet earthy aroma as yet alien to his companion.

friars-beer

“Can I have a smell?” asked Tips, his nose twitching like a guinea pig at the prospect. Tetley broke off in mid sniff and eyed him with reluctance. “Oh go on then” he relented handing over the pouch begrudgingly “you’ll be tasting it soon enough I suppose, so what harm can a little whiff do?”

Tips, grasped the pouch eagerly, loosened the drawstring and opened the neck, then stuck his nose deep inside and inhaled as though it were his dying breath. Coughing and spluttering ensued with much poking and prodding of his nasal cavity as he tried to extract numerous small particles of leaf and stick from his pointy conk with his stubby finger.

“For heaven’s sake man be quiet!” hissed Tetley “you’re making enough noise to wake the dead.” “Sorry” said Tips “but I seem to have got the sweepings of last autumn up my nose,” he mused. “What on earth is in that bag?”

“Give it here!” Tetley growled, closing it up again. With no explanation whatsoever he poured the now hot water into a wooden pot on the table in front of him and dunked the little bag of sticks and leaves into it for as long as it took him to recite the whole of Psalm 23.

“Take it, drink it!” said Tetley handing him a freshly poured cup. Tips looked at the golden brown liquid and sniffed at it cautiously (1). This time his nostrils were assailed by a piquant mellowness with a warm fruity quality that promised forbidden pleasures, reminding him very much of the days of his misspent youth chasing the love of his life Lillian Layman through the bracken on the moors (2). Hesitantly he took a sip.

The memories came flooding back to him in a wash of passion and emotion so intense that he momentarily spun around expecting a pitchfork to be pointed at his posterior with a ranting farmer behind it. “Wonderful!” he exclaimed before drinking deeper. He closed his eyes and drained the cup. An expression of sheer ecstasy then swept across his visage like a renaissance, his arms raised heavenwards in angelic rapture.

Tetley drained his cup also and gave an energized little shudder before being able to say, “I told you so! How do you feel, can you explain it?”

“Like a new man” said Tips “Invigorated, revitalised, rejuvenated, born again! I feel ten, no twenty, no make it thirty years younger, yes thirty definitely thirty maybe even more…”

“Isn’t it amazing stuff?” said Tetley. “Can you see now why we have to keep quiet about this?” he reminded his friend. Tips winked hard and rubbed at his nose, “What d’you call it?” he asked amidst much facial twitchiness.

“ I think it’s what all men have been searching for through the ages,” Tetley boasted “the fountain of youth, the water of life, The Elixir of Adolescence!” he boomed proudly before suddenly remembering it was a secret. “I call it TEA for short.” He whispered.

Tips’ facial spasms had reached the point of no return “HWAAAATCHOOOOOOO!”

The sneeze bounced from pot to pot out of the kitchen and reverberated down the cloisters like all seven trumpets of the apocalypse.

Tetley wiped a snotty twig from his cheek with the cuff of his cassock and discretely put the wet ‘teabag’ back into his pocket.

***

Footnotes
(1). Tips was not about to make the same mistake twice and had become suspicious of the fact that Tetley had recited scripture over the drink whilst making it. Although this was an everyday occurrence in a monastery and so was to be expected, the relevance of this particular passage, which speaks of walking through the valley of the shadow of death, had unnerving connotations at the time. There was however a quite simple and ingenious explanation for this. Having brewed this drink on several occasions now, Tetley had experimented with the length of time it took to make it the perfect strength. The Lord’s Prayer had proved to be too short and therefore too weak, The Nicene Creed too long and therefore too strong, hence after trying several other passages of well rehearsed scripture he came to the conclusion that Psalm 23 was the perfect length and therefore strength, well for him at least anyway. I recommend finding a biblical text suited to your own personal preference.
(2). It was in fact his misspent youth that had landed him in the monastery in the first place. After one long afternoon of chasing and catching and chasing Lillian again across the moors back to her father’s hayloft, Tips found himself being chased by her furious father with a pitchfork (after he had come in to get some feed for his cattle) all the way to the doors of the monastery. His out of breath cries of ‘Asylum’ were eventually heeded by a passing monk, who opened the door just in time to permit access to a flying pitchfork which almost ‘kebabed’ the Abbott on his way to vespers. For his own safety and atonement the Abbott insisted that Tips become a monk there and then.

Paddy Doran’s Box chapter 3 – by David Graham

David Graham’s Novel ‘Paddy Doran’s Box’ is coming along great. This is just a sample from the early section. Get an Irish accent in mind to help the hilarity of much of the mayhem.

Chapter Three

 

The reality of dreams

 

In the quietness of the cold chapel, Lord Frederick gingerly placed his hands on the edge of the altar and stared in disbelief at its macabre contents. In spite of his disbelief he took in every detail of the corpse, noting that it was clothed in a midnight blue velvet frockcoat, pale blue silk waistcoat and white blouse, white breeches and white stockings and that a pair of black silver buckled court shoes lay at an awkward angle to the legs. Although the clothing had succumbed to the ravages of time, it was still evident that they had once been fine garments.

Resisted a sudden urge to straighten the shoes, Lord Frederick turned his attention to the skeletal hands that lay on the remains of the corpse’s white ruched silk, cravat. The hands lay on top of each other, rather than crossed on the chest, as he would have expected and, on closer inspection, he saw that they were covering something. He hesitated for a moment, then reached in and carefully moved aside each one of the small skin sheathed metatarsals and phalanges.

The ‘something’ that he uncovered was a rawhide drawstring pouch.

The pouch was about the size of a man’s hand and although it showed signs of much use, it was still in relatively good condition. Aware that in the Middle Ages such receptacles were used for carrying valuables, Lord Fredrick picked up the pouch and shook it gently. His eyes widened in surprise when he heard the unmistakable clink of coins. With heightening excitement and his wounds momentarily forgotten, he untied the drawstring pulled open the neck of the pouch and looked inside.

Gold!

The word bounced around in his head like a long lost acquaintance, then slowed to a pulsating presence.

When his mind had stopped reeling Lord Frederick slowly upended the pouch over his left hand. His eyes widened that bit further when two gold coins dropped onto his grubby palm. His excitement dissipated somewhat, when he realized that that was all the pouch had contained.

Grimacing in response to the pulsating pain in his wrist Lord Frederick tucked the pouch into the right hand pocket of his frock coat and then examined the coins closely.

Having handled gold coins on numerous occasions, he was in no doubt that the coins he held in his hand were solid gold. Finely embossed with the image of a chalice on one side and that of a tree on the other each coin was about two inches in diameter and about an eighth of an inch thick. ‘Well, well. I have not seen the like of these before,’ he muttered; quietly intrigued that the coins bore no date or inscription.

Somewhat disappointed that the pouch had not been full of such coins Lord Frederick placed the two coins in the left hand pocket of his frockcoat along with his recently depleted purse of golden guineas. Then he moved round the altar to pick up the crucifix and his cane. Only to discover that both lay crushed beneath the edge of the slab. He had no choice but to lift the slab clear. By the time he had done so, the wounds on his wrists were bleeding again and his bruised and swollen jaw ached abominably.

Stiffly, Lord Frederick stooped and picked up the badly distorted crucifix, noting as he did so, that the crucified Christ had been bent into a sitting position by the weight of the slab. He was not the least bit concerned about the damage. As he had surmised the moment, he first saw it the icon was solid gold. Once smelted back in London, it would fetch a considerable sum of money.

With that thought in mind, Lord Frederick picked up his damaged cane. He did not intend leaving that behind. The head and ferule were sterling silver. He would have both fitted to a new cane. He checked that the two gold coins were still in his coat pocket and in spite of the pain in his jaw managed a faint smile of satisfaction. Then with no further thought to the damage, he had wrought on the altar or his disturbance of its contents he quickly crossed the room and opened the door.

When he stepped outside, Lord Frederick found the old butler slumped against the chapel wall fast asleep. His hat and wig had tipped back and his forehead was resting on the cloak draped over his knees.

‘Get up!’ Lord Frederick ordered harshly.

‘Umm,’ Patrick muttered sleepily and slowly raised his head. ‘Me’lord!’ he cried jerking instantly awake and bumping his head on the chapel wall. His throat was dry and the body heat he had generated on the way to the chapel had turned to a cold layer against his skin. ‘I’m sorr’y, me’lord!’ he said his voice heavy with mortification as he tried to get his cold legs to function. ‘I tried t’stay a ‘wake, me’lord,’ he said feebly straightening his wig and hat as best he could with one hand to avoid letting the cloak drag on the ground whilst he struggling to get onto his knees.

Lord Frederick watched him dispassionately. ‘You evidently failed abysmally,’ he said coldly and turned way.

The feel of the solid gold crucifix in his left hand and the thought of the gold coins in the pocket of his frockcoat filled Lord Frederick with covert elation. He felt new energy and virility coursing through his frame. Avarice-fuelled energy rushed through his veins. Familiar feelings triggered by the imminence or possession of money. He immediately wanted to gather all the items his inventory had unearthed and return to London. His iron will won out over his feelings. He slowed his breathing and relaxed his bruised and swollen jaw.

Behind Lord Frederick Patrick had managed to get his meagre weight onto his good leg. ‘Forgive me, me’lord,’ he mumbled apologetically and paused to rest. ‘I jus’ need—’

Lord Frederick rounded on him ‘Where are my mother and father buried?’ he asked consciously injecting a neutral intonation into his voice. He was acutely aware that he was asking a member of his father’s household for information to which he should already have been privy.

‘Buried, me’lord?’ Patrick asked in a preoccupied tone as he commenced the tricky process of getting to his feet. ‘Forgive me, me’lord. I’ll have t’put y’ur cloak down, me’lord.’

‘Never mind about the cloak,’ Lord Frederick barked with growing irritability, ‘My parent’s graves. Where are they?’ he demanded with rapidly increasing exasperation.

‘Y’ur parent’s graves…me’lord?’ Patrick pondered the question with difficulty as he paused with his weight on his hands and his left knee and his bad leg slightly extended behind him. He braced his left hand on the chapel wall drew in a deep breath and hauled himself laboriously to his feet. ‘Uhhhh, dear me,’ he wheezed and leaned back against the cold wall. ‘Forgive me…me’lord. I…jus’ need t’get…me breath back… me’lord,’ he mumbled and closed his watery, red rimmed eyes, whilst he waited for his head to clear and the fire in his right hip to damp down.

‘Will you plea…’ Lord Frederick began then stopped. Even in his agitated state of mind, he would not allow himself to plead with a servant. ‘Stop repeating what I have said and tell me where my parents are buried,’ he commanded in a low succinct tone.

‘Why they’re in their gardin’ a rest, me’lor…,’ Patrick said stooping slowly to pick up the cloak.

‘And where exactly is that?’ Lord Frederick asked coldly.

‘Sorry, me’lord,’ Patrick said straightening up and draping the cloak over his right arm. ‘It’s, eh? It’s down by the river. There’s a lovely little meadow down there that y’ur mud’er an’ fa’der loved very mu—’

‘Who is buried in the altar?’ Lord Frederick interrupted impatiently.

‘…in the altar, me’lord?’ Patrick said still picturing in his mind the natural beauty of the waterside meadow that Lord and Lady Cairncross had had consecrated as their final resting place. Patrick’s old servant heart missed them both keenly. Now, more than ever, he needed their guidance and direction. He knew instinctively that he would receive neither from his new master.

‘I don’t know what ye mean, me’lord,’ he replied with evident confusion and fussed about smoothing the cumbersome cloak over his arm to give his head time to clear. ‘Y’ur mud’er an’ fa’der are buried in the groun—’

‘Stop saying ‘me’lord!’ Lord Frederick snapped.

‘I’m sorry…me…’ Patrick began and faltered in a complete flummox. ‘How shall I address—?’

‘Never mind! Just tell me whose skeleton is in that chapel altar?’

‘Skelitin’…me’…lord?’ Patrick said his voice low and hesitant and his heart heavy with gloom. ‘What skelitin is that, me’lord?’ he asked trying desperately to bring his mind back to the present and concentrate on what his master was saying.

‘There is a skeleton in the altar! In there!’ Lord Frederick said jabbing the silver head of his damaged cane at the chapel door. ‘Surely my mother or my father must have put it there.’

‘Oh. That skelit’in’,’ Patrick said greatly relieved at last that he understood what Lord Frederick was talking about, ‘Yes, me’lord,’ he said in an effort to pull himself together. ‘I’m sorry, me’lord. It was sixteen years ago. I’d almost forgottin’ abou—’

‘You were aware that there is a skeleton in the altar?’ Lord Frederick said.

‘Yes, me’lord,’ Patrick said tucking his arms under the cloak and hugging the heavy garment to his chest.

‘Whose skeleton is it?’ Lord Frederick asked annunciating each word. He was finding it increasingly difficult to deal with the old servant’s slow witted and irritatingly vernacular responses to his quest for information.

‘D’Viscount Tolbert, me’lord,’ Patrick said.

‘Viscount Tolbert?’ Lord Frederick said. ‘Who was he? And what is his skeleton doing in my mother’s chapel?’

‘Why he’s…He was y’ur Uncle Richard, me’lord.’

‘My Uncle Richard,’ Lord Frederick said growing increasing aware that the cold air was aggravating his swollen jaw and making his eyes water. ‘I was not aware that I had an Uncle Richard,’

‘I don’t t’ink ye ever saw him, me’lord,’ Patrick said his voice low and distant. ‘He went off t’the Holy Land after his new bride was killed be a mad cow at d’Dublin Docks. On the very mornin’ they were due t’set off on their honeymoon in Italy it was. Terrible t’ing it was, tragic. Nobody saw nor heard from him for over fourteen years after…’

Patrick’s voice faltered at that point in his painful narrative when the realization dawned on him that to have discovered his uncle’s remains Lord Frederick must somehow have removed the heavy slab from the altar. That must a been that loud t’ump I heard, Patrick thought. Is there no level t’which this terrib’il’ man will not stoop? He’s desecrated his uncle’s restin’ place an’…an’…’

‘And?’ Lord Frederick said cutting in on Patrick’s unsettling thoughts.

‘Sorry, me’lord,’ Patrick said mechanically. ‘Eh. Then, eh, one evenin’, sixteen years ago it was me’lord. Y’ur Uncle was found slumped at the main gates. More dead than alive he was. Riddled with sickness an’ fever an’ rantin’ about gold. Nobody could make any sense a what he was sayin.’ It was a terrible time here, me’lord, terrible. Y’ur dear…y’ur mud’er nursed him for t’ree days an’ nights before he passed away in his sleep. It was then that y’ur mud’er had this chapel built, an’ y’ur uncle’s body laid t’rest in the altar. I don’t think she ever really got over his dea…’

Ranting about gold, Lord Frederick said to himself and held up the pouch. ‘Have you seen this before?’ he cut in.

Patrick stared at the pouch in disbelief. The last time he had seen it was sixteen years previously, when he had watched Lady Cairncross placed it on her dead brother’s chest.

‘Well?’ Lord Frederick asked impatiently.

‘Yes…me’…lord,’ Patrick said in a breaking voice, ‘Other than d’filthy clothes y’ur uncle was wearin’ when he was found, that was d’only possession he had. There were two gold coins in it, me’lord,’ Patrick added making a concerted effort to emphasizing each word. ‘Y’ur dear mud’er left the coins in the pouch an’ put it on y’ur uncle’s chest an’ laid his hands over it, before the slab was put on the altar.’

‘Take that back to the house,’ Lord Frederick said dismissively and dropped the damaged cane against Patrick’s chest.

‘Forgive me, me’lord,’ Patrick said fighting to keep his eyes open and his courage up, ‘Are ye not goin’ t’put the pouch back in y’ur uncle’s grave, me’lord?’

‘No I am not!’ Lord Frederick scoffed derisively. ‘Of what use is gold to a skeleton,’ he added pointedly and turned away with the crucifix clutched in his left hand. He immediately turned back and drew the old pouch carefully from his frockcoat to avoid catching his still smarting wrist. ‘But,’ he said, tossing the empty pouch against Patrick’s chest with nonchalant indifference, ‘If it makes you feel better. You put that back. I will keep the gold.’

 

Paddy Doran’s Box. Chapter 2 by David Graham

Sunday 1st October 1747

07:30>11:00

Dungragh House: twentythree miles outside the hamlet of Dungragh in Wicklow, southern Ireland

 

From the hands of the dead

 

Lord Frederick was lounging abstractedly in a high-backed, green leather, George 11 chair behind the desk in his father’s wainscoted office. Despite the early hour of the day he was nursing a glass of claret in his right hand. The air in the cold, spacious, high-ceilinged room was heavy with the smell of waxed wood and old books. On entering the room, Lord Frederick had dropped his cane, his gloves, his hat and his cloak onto an ornately brocaded Meridienne and helped himself to the wine.

Now, lost in thought, he sat staring into the purple contents of the crystal glass. He was hungry, thirsty and tired; but he knew he would not stop to address his physical needs until he had taken care of his monetary ones. With that thought in mind he raised his eyes and looked about the room that had always been out of bounds to him as a child. Now, seated in his father’s chair, at his father’s desk, drinking his father’s wine, he felt a cold and hollow sense of defeat. His father was beyond ridicule now: beyond derision and hurting.

Lord Frederick felt an unfamiliar cold shaft of abandonment and loneliness, which roused again a very familiar and very potent urge to run: to get as far away from the house and all else that reminded him of his childhood days within its forbidding walls. His mind flashed back in an instant and he found himself on the swaying foredeck of the Harbinger as she entered the deep-water harbour of Port Royal laden with plundered English and Spanish cargo and he experienced an almost overwhelming sense of freedom and longing. With an effort he wrenched his mind from a past that he knew mean certain death to resurrect. ‘What other staff are here’? he asked reluctantly dragging his mind back to the present and couching his question in an offensive tone in order to vent his inner feelings on the old servant. With whom he did not deign to make eye contact. But instead busied himself adjusting the ruffs of his voluminous blouse.

When he did lift his gaze, Lord Frederick found his mother, the late Lady Geraldine Amelia Cairncross, smiling down at him from her gilt-framed portrait above the room’s imposing marble fireplace. The gentle expression in mother’s eyes and the soft smile on her full lips, rendered perfectly by the young Joshua Reynolds, hit his senses like an unexpected blast of cold air. He was keenly aware that when his parents had been alive he had given little thought to them other than as a source of money. Now that they were both dead he felt their loss like a mortal wound that he instinctively knew would never heal.

Unable to hold his mother’s lifeless gaze, Lord Frederick surreptitiously averted his eyes and looked instead at a giant Kodiak bear standing to his left in the far corner of the room. The inert beast’s crimson painted maw was agape and its painted wooden eyes stared lifelessly up at the ornately gilded cornice on the opposite side of the room as though perpetually mortified by the ignominy of bearing a variegated Wandering Jew in a Spode tureen on a papier mache breakfast tray balanced across its huge forearms.

Standing in front of the desk with his hat tucked beneath his right arm Patrick was in too much physical discomfort to be offended by Lord Frederick’s tone of voice. To which he had become inured during the many years he had served as butler to his late father. He drew his eyes away from the view of the library garden he could see through one of the tall windows either side of a large bookcase behind Lord Frederick.

What’ll become a d’gardin’s now, he thought sadly and shifted his weight off his right hip. Bloody bowels, he exclaimed in silent exasperation and clenched his buttocks tighter. ‘Can’t even hold a drop a porridge for five bloody minutes!

The knowledge that but for the unexpected arrival of his lordship he would have been warming his old bones by the cooking range in Missis Moody’s kitchen did little to improve Patrick’s present disposition. He had discovered over the years that heat was the only sure remedy against the discomfort of his old war wound. ‘Eh, well’, he said pulling his thoughts back to the present, ‘d’ere’s Missis Moody, d’cook, is here. She’s got one a d’girls with her, me’lord. Then there’s d’one housemaid here, me’lord’, he said leaning further to his left in an attempt to relieve the pain in his right hip which had degenerated from niggling to nagging, whilst at the same time contracting his lower abdominal muscles in his effort to prevent his bladder from attempting to empty itself.

Having to list the members of staff reminded Patrick that none of them had been paid for several weeks. Even as he sought to maintain his balance and his sphincter control he pondered whether or not to mention the matter.

Observing Lord Fredrick’s cold unfriendly countenance, he decided against it. His clothes have seen better days, he thought critically reassessing the slightly frayed and worn condition of Lord Frederick’s attire, ‘eh, then…there’s d’gardener Mich…Mr Cullen’, Patrick said quickly refocusing on the question, ‘He has…had six men when yer father was… now he has two a d’stableboys comes in if he needs them. Then there’s meself, me’lord’, he added almost as an afterthought.

‘Oddly enough, I was aware of your presence’, Lord Fredrick said coldly. ‘Where is the housekeeper, Mrs’? After over two years of absence from the estate Lord Frederick was unable to recall the name of his late father’s housekeeper.

‘Missis Cass…idy, me’lord’, Patrick said relieved now that he had not mentioned the staffs pay. ‘I’m af…raid Berna…eh Missis Cassidy left…, me’lord. Soon…after yer fah’der…eh…past…’.

‘Yes’, Lord Frederick interjected brusquely. He took a sip of wine, placed the glass carefully on the desk, shifted the heavy chair and placed his forearms on the desk. He wanted to remove his wig. But he would not do so whilst a servant was present. Instead, he reached across the desk, picked up a Georgian silver inkwell from its silver tray and noted the JR over SJ hallmark of Judah Rosenthal and Samuel Jacob’s of London. He was acquainted with the company. ‘Listen to me’, he said carefully replacing the inkwell back on its tray. ‘I shall be returning to London at the earliest possible convenience. Before I do however, I intend to make a complete inventory of everything of value on this estate. Starting this very morning. You will assist me. Nothing will be left out. Do you understand’?

‘Yes, me’lord’, Patrick replied his tone of voice concealing his urgent need to get to the privy and his twofold sense of dread at the painful prospect of having to walk the entire estate with his bad hip and having to do so in the company of his new master. ‘Would ye like…me…t’get…Mr Cullen’s lad’s t’go with ye, me’lord’? he suggested hopefully, ‘They’re…very goo…’.

‘No I would not’! Lord Frederick snapped irritably and sat back in the chair. ‘You will follow me and you will not speak of this to any of the staff. Is that understood’?

‘Yes, me’lord’, Patrick said awkwardly. Whilst he derived a crumb of comfort from the news that Lord Frederick wished to return to London as soon as possible and resolved there and then to do everything he could to hasten such a welcome event; he was nonetheless anxious to know what plans if any Lord Frederick had for the future of the estate and, more importantly, the future of the remaining staff.

What’s t’become of us all? Patrick wondered anxiously. Our lives are in d’hands a this godless man, he thought pursing his thin bloodless lips and clenching his buttocks to deny release to his bladder and bowel. The unpredictability of which dictated much of his daily routine.

‘Yes, me’lord, yes, me’lord’, Lord Frederick mimicked somewhat churlishly. ‘Can you not think of anything else to say’?

‘No…me’lord. I’m sorry, me’lord’, Patrick answered narrowing his rheumy eyes and clenching his buttocks a bit tighter.

Lord Frederick picked up his glass, drank the remainder of his wine with evident relish and placed the glass on the desk. ‘Go and tell the cook to prepare luncheon for my return’, he ordered in a moderate tone that was calculated to throw others off guard. ‘Meet me at the front of the house as soon as you have done so’.

‘I’m… sorry, me’lord’, Patrick said with a trace of embarrassment on his pallid features. ‘I’m af…raid there’s very little in d’way a…food, me’lord’, he added as though it was his fault that the estate had fallen into disorder. ‘We’ve been livin’ off…d’stuff Mr Cull…en’s been…’.

‘Just do it’! Lord Frederick shouted with an angry and dismissive wave of his left hand. The old man oppressed him. The room oppressed him. The house oppressed him. Ireland oppressed him.

I must get away from here! Quickly, he thought to himself his cold expression unaltered by his weakening resolve.

Confound this place. It was a mistake to come back here!

I should not have allowed myself to be swayed!

But I need money!

I shall gather whatever items of value I can find today, preferably portable and I shall leave for London as soon as possible, he thought looking into the empty wine glass.

What will I do in London? he thought in a moment of uncharacteristically honest self appraisal.

What will I do when my money is spent?

What life is there for me in London?

Perhaps I might go to the Americas.

To do what, exactly? I am Eton educated; but I know only piracy. I dare not return to that occupation.

The Americas are a hellhole.

The East Indies perhaps.

‘Yes, me’lord’, Patrick said hesitantly and, in spite of his pressing predicament, made no move to leave the room.

Lord Frederick paused in the act of getting to his feet. ‘Well’? he asked dismissing his familiar thoughts and glaring at Patrick with barely contained distain. For the first time since his arrival he made very brief eye contact with the old servant.

‘I’m sorry, me’lord. I’m af…raid I was not…able t’pay d’driver… me’lord. D’fare was…twenty…four shillin’s an’ sixpence, me’lord’, Patrick explained with evident embarrassment. ‘D’cabby says he’ll not leav…’.

Lord Frederick stood upright. He was acutely aware that his present worldly wealth amounted to the fifty eight guineas remaining in his purse. His passage, which has included a cabin, across the Irish Sea had cost him a guinea. The departure of the Grenville from Holyhead had been delayed by foul weather, forcing him to pay a further two guineas for board and lodgings at Welsh’s and, on his arrival in Dun Laoghaire, he had boarded the coach that now stood on the forecourt.

He was loathed to hand over the fare. But he reasoned that if he did not, the cabby would undoubtedly return with the County Constable. ‘Pay the fellow’, he said tossing his purse on the desk in a manner designed to convey the impression that the sum was too trifling to warrant mentioning. ‘Whilst you are about it, you might suggest to the fellow that he devote some time and energy to cleaning the interior of his uncomfortable conveyance. I shudder to think what manner of creature his previous passenger was. Now get out’.

Patrick picked up the purse. ‘Very good, me’lord’, he said and left the room as quickly as his old war wound would allow. Sucking and puffing in response to the ache in his hip, he made his way out to the forecourt and, omitted any mention of the state of his cab, wordlessly paid off the belligerent cabby and limped back into the house.

Fully aware that he was going to need some sustenance to get him through the next few hours, Patrick had every intension of taking advantage of this opportunity to get a cup of tea and a large piece of Missis Moody’s fruitcake. Before he did so however, he had to eliminate waste. So, moving at a most ungainly gait through the old house, he mentally mapped out his quickest route to the servants privy.

A little over three hours later Patrick and Lord Frederick stopped by a wrought iron gate at the head of a wide, cobblestoned laneway formed by a high, buttressed, red-brick wall that ran parallel with the entire breadth of the east gable of the house and provided access to the stable yard where they had just completed an inventory. Far off to their left, a flight of balustraded steps led down from the north terrace onto the east lawn.

Warmed by the wintery midday sun, Lord Frederick turned from the gate, handed his cane to Patrick, removed his gloves and cloak, handed the garments to Patrick, retrieved his cane and unhurriedly adjusted his hat and frock coat.

Uncomfortably hot under his own winter coat, Patrick folded the heavy cloak across his right arm and placed the gloves in his coat pocket. He was heartily hoping that Lord Frederick was about to return to the house.

‘Are there any other buildings’? Lord Frederick asked in a preoccupied tone as he recalled the several items his ‘inventory’ had unearthed in the house. Foremost among which were two cartoons by the younger Holbein and a portrait of Elspeth, the artist’s wife. A sixteen fifteen edition of Cervantes original Spanish Don Quixote, an original Dante’s Divine Comedy; two thirteenth century Italian icons of the Virgin Mary, a sixteenth century English timepiece and the sterling silver inkwell and tray on his father’s desk. These items, along with some lesser finds, he felt certain he could conveniently transport to London.

His excitement at the prospect of putting his plan into operation was exceeded only by the prospect of acquiring a respectable sum of money for his efforts and he felt better in himself. The last few hours however, had convinced him beyond all doubt that he had not one jot of desire to remain on the estate a moment longer than was absolutely necessary. None of these thoughts however, were revealed on his gamblers stony face.

‘I think that’s all, me’lord’, Patrick answered lethargically. His thin, ashen, features were etched with

pain and fatigue after having accompanied Lord Frederick around the estate for the best part of three hours.

They had been through the house from top to bottom, spent nearly an hour in the basement, during which time he had had to hold a lantern aloft in order that Lord Frederick could conduct a very quick and thorough inventory of all of the cavernous room’s contents. From there they had moved on to the kitchen garden, where Lord Frederick almost reduced poor old Mr Cullen to tears by demanding a detailed inventory of all the garden’s annual produce and, more particularly, its meagre income. They had then moved on to the empty coach house and from there to the equally empty stable yard, by which time the sustenance Patrick had gotten from Missis Moody’s pantry had long since been dissipated and he was very hungry, very hot, very discomfited and very tired.

Lord Frederick turned his head to his right without making eye contact with Patrick, ‘What do you mean, You think that is all’? he mimicked cruelly, ‘Is it all. Or is it not all’?

Patrick ignored the mimicry. ‘There’s a little chap’il in d’birch wood down by d’river meadow, me’lord’, he answered in a decidedly sombre tone. ‘But no one’s been in there for years, me’lord’, he added quietly.

Although the prospect of walking down to the chapel was not a pleasant one. It in itself, was only partially responsible for the sudden and unnoticed change in Patrick’s demeanour. During the past eleven years, since the death of Lady Cairncross, neither Lord Cairncross nor any other member of the household had ventured to return to her private chapel.

‘Show me’, Lord Frederick ordered determined not to miss anything on the estate that might yield further saleable items.

‘Yes, me’lord’, Patrick said stoically masking his disappointment and silently braced himself for the long walk down to the point where the Slaney entered the estate.

Walking at his laboured pace and with the cumbersome cloak slowing him even further, it took Patrick and. Lord Frederick nearly twenty minutes to reach their destination. This far from the house the close proximity of the cesspit was unpleasantly evident on the temperate air.

Several minutes later Patrick led Lord Frederick slowly through a silver birch wood and stopped on the edge of a green glade. Several adolescent rabbits feeding on the meagre winter grass bolted for cover at their sudden appearance.

In the centre of the glade—with its sagging, terracotta-tiled roof carpeted in green folios and orange crustose lichen—stood an abandoned and neglected chapel.

‘Here we are…me’lord’, Patrick said breathlessly. His pulse was racing and his heart was pounding but he was relieved that here among the trees they were effectively shielded from the worst of the effluvium from the cesspit.

Lord Frederick stopped just ahead of Patrick, placed the ferrule of his cane on the ground, placed his hands on the head of the cane and stood looking at the small building.

A pair of blackbirds called briefly to each other and then the glade fell silent.

Lord Frederick’s head was hot and itchy beneath his wig and his feet were damp and uncomfortable in his court shoes. But, other than a rivulet of perspiration that ran down behind his right ear, he gave no outward sign that he was in any way discomfited by the exertions of his ‘inventory’ of the estate, or by the faint odour that wafted on the air. His mind was on other things.

As a consequence of his chosen way of life Lord Frederick had cultivated and honed his powers of observation and recall. Wherever he found himself, whether it be court or common; or whomsoever he found himself with, whether it be count or commoner; he noted everything about the person the place and the time and was able to recall such details at a later date should the need arise. His ability to do so had saved his life on more than one occasion.

He observed that the granite stone chapel had been quite cleverly constructed as a scaled down model. He gauged its height to be no more than twenty feet to its sagging ridge tiles and its length and breadth to be thirty feet by fifteen feet respectively. There were four small Gothic style recto arched windows on the visible elevation. He assumed that its apse pointed east. The granite walls were clothed with the powdery patina of age and the small building showed every sign of having fallen into disuse. Over the entrance a spire topped with a golden crucifix, rose ten feet above the roof.

‘Who used this place’? he asked his baritone voice breaking the silence of the glade and rousing Patrick from his semi-somnambulant state.

Patrick shifted the burdensome cloak to his left arm and made a concerted effort to remove the tiredness from his voice. Every muscle and bone in his old body ached with fatigue and he longed to rest. ‘It was yer dear…it was yer mother’s, me’lord, God res…’, Patrick said with a barely discernible catch in his voice. He missed his mistress terribly and recalled her like a warm spring day in the depth of a bitter winter.   ‘Me’lady’, he said in a barely audible whisper as he recalled the peaceful summer afternoons when tables and chairs had been brought to the glade and his mistress and her friends had sat drinking chilled fruit juices beneath the dappled shade of the birch trees.

‘I want to see inside’, Lord Frederick said abruptly cutting off any further mention of his mother. ‘Then I shall return to the house. I shall bath for thirty minutes and then I shall take luncheon’.

‘Very good, me’lord’, Patrick responded in a barely audible tone. Although he was somewhat relieved that they would shortly be returning to the house, he was dreading the thought of the labour required to prepare a hot bath. I’ll see if Michael can get his lad’s t’help me. I hope t’God they’re not all gone home before we get back, he thought anxiously as he shifted the cloak back to his aching right arm, crossed the glade as quickly as he could and slowly pushed open the chapel door.

The sounds of the door latch and rusted hinges brought to Patrick’s mind the many times he had accompanied Lord and Lady Cairncross to this private sanctuary. He lowered his head and clenched his grizzly jaw to cut off the tears that welled in his red-rimmed eyes. Those had been the golden years of life on the estate. The years when the young Sir Fredrick had been out of sight and out of mind. Grateful for a brief moment to compose himself Patrick stepped aside.

Lord Frederick was forced to bow his head in order to enter the chapel. Inside the small building, the heels of his shoes and the silver ferrule of his cane rang loud on the bare, flagstoned floor. He stopped several paces beyond the threshold, placed the ferrule of his cane on the floor, placed his hands on the head of the cane and silently surveyed his surroundings. The air was cold and musty and heavy with the cloying commingled smells of old damp stone and decaying wood.

Lord Frederick observed that, as with the south facing wall he had looked at from outside, there were four small, arched windows in the north wall and, in the apse, a larger version, above a very plain, rectangular, granite altar. There was much evidence that generations of spiders had colonized the safe and secluded habitat.

Behind the altar a low stone seat curved around the wall of the apse.

Apart from the altar, the room was empty.

Lord Frederick’s keen eyes saw the crucifix half hidden behind thick cobwebs on the windowsill above the altar. Even from where he stood he knew with a certainty borne of experience that the object was solid gold. He maintained his outward composure as avaricious excitement flushed through his veins.

The noise of his shoes and cane punctuated the silence as he strode the length of the room with practiced casualness, moved behind the altar and looked up at the crucifix. ‘Close the door’, he commanded without turning

‘Yes, me’lord’, Patrick said gratefully.

When he heard the door latch drop, Lord Frederick, without taking his eyes off the crucifix, laid his cane on the thick slab of the altar, placed his left foot on the edge of the stone seat, pushed off with his right foot and reached up with his right hand in one fluid movement. The moment his fingers closed about the golden legs of the crucified Christ, the flagstone under his left foot tipped forward and cantilevered on the riser of the seat.

Lord Frederick’s hat and wig flew off and his mouth flew opened in shock as he fell backwards. In the blink of an eye, his duelists’ reflexes reacted instinctively. He dropped the crucifix, twisted his torso to the left and stuck his hands out in front of him to prevent himself falling against the sharp edge of the altar. His hands caught the over-lapping edge of the altar slab a hard blow that sent a shockwave of pain through his arms and into his shoulder blades. Under the impetus of his body weight, the slab jerked sharply away from him. His cane rolled off the slab and clattered onto the floor.

Lord Frederick cried out in pain as the sharp edge of the alter base pushed the sleeves of his coat and the cuffs of his blouse up his arms and cut into the soft flesh of his wrists. The tension went out of his arms and his cry was cut off abruptly when his jaw impacted with the top of the slab. The blow jarred his teeth and his eyeballs. His face contorted in pain as he collapsed to the floor and stared in slack-jawed disbelief at the deep, bloodied, abrasions on his wrists. He heard the sound of the door latch and the shrill squeal of the rusted hinges as the door was slowly pushed open.

‘Forgive me, me’lord’, Patrick called tentatively from beyond the door. ‘Is every…thing al…right, me’lord’?

‘Out’! Lord Frederick managed to grunt loudly through a haze of pain that pulsated through his skull and coursed like quicklime through his lacerated wrists.

‘Very good, me’lord’.

The door squeaked shut.

Barely conscious of the ice-cold stone beneath him, Lord Frederick shifted his back against the altar, carefully laid the backs of his hands on his thighs, rested his head gently against the altar and closed his eyes.

When after several minutes the red hot pain in his wrists and the throbbing in his head had subsided to a bearable level Lord Frederick opened his eyes, rolled gingerly onto his knees, got to his feet without the aid of his hands and glared angrily at the altar.

The thick slab had shifted several inches under the impact of his bodyweight and Lord Frederick realized that it had formed a lid over the interior of the altar base. With his mouth hanging open and his teeth exposed, he glanced with fleeting curiosity at the dark, tapering gap created by the shifted slab. Then he turned away, carefully replaced his wig and hat and retrieved the crucifix and his cane.

He was about to leave the chapel when his curiosity won out over his pain and anger. He placed the crucifix on the floor with his cane, moved round to the back of the altar, braced his hands on the edge of the slab, let his jaw go slack in anticipation of the pain and pushed with all his anger-fuelled strength. The slab shifted several more inches.

He stood back and tried to blow cool air on his wounded wrists, but was unable to purse his lips. He gave up and turned his attention to the tantalizing dark interior of the altar. The slab was now an obstruction now: an opponent. He always met opponents head on. He placed his hands on the slab, set his face like a flint and pushed with all his strength and weight. The slab shifted again.

Pain induced tears ran down his cheeks, but he kept up the momentum until finally the slab teetered on the outer edge of the altar. Ignoring the pain in his wrists and his jaw, he placed his hands beneath the edge of the slab and heaved it upward. His face contorted in pain, he released a loud triumphant grunt as the slab toppled over the side of the altar and crashed to the floor.

Bent across the altar; with his hands braced on the outer edge, Lord Frederick barely registered the thunderous noise. He was staring at the face of a corpse.

He recoiled in disbelief.

The altar contained a human skeleton.

The altar was a sarcophagus.

 

Robin Hood (The true story of a Legend) by Gerry Fruin

[Re-listed June 2014 with the first section of three in full. Editor]

Rough draft of the start of a story in three chapters. Target readers 8 to 10 year olds. Total book words approximately 8,000

Part One

Robin Hood (The true story of the legend)

It all began a long time ago before iPods and computers. In a land of ice and frozen forests lived a people called Siberians. They hunted and fished for food and raised a very special type of horse that they sold all over a vast country called Russia.

To the south great armies were gathering and a wise old man decided that his life’s work in raising these horses would be lost if the Khans decided to take them all away. So the tribe selected the fittest and strongest young people to take their skills, and a small herd of horses, far to the West.

The journey took a long time and was very dangerous, but Sophiedropalotsky and her brother Benbowsky were as tough and strong as anyone. They crossed mighty rivers and huge mountain ranges as they travelled on. They met a group of people called Vikings who told them the best place to be was over a great sea even further to the west, called England. The Vikings agreed to take them in exchange for some of their horses, which they would use for farming and for fighting, for they were very fierce and frightened of no one.

Many months later the small group arrived at a place where they could start to make a new life on the edge of a great forest called Sherwood. It was a small hamlet called Clayton and right at the top of the hill. To the West they built a small house and workshop. The land belonged to Lord Locksley who when he heard their story gave them some land to raise their horses in exchange for some work they would do for him.

They learnt English from the local people and changed their names to Ben and Sophie because no one could say their Siberian names. Sophie, being Sophie, thought that a more English name would be better and said Marion would suit her; though to Ben she would always be Sophie.

One day Lord Locksley came to see them and was very sad as he thought that the new Sheriff would be taking his house and land to pay for his taxes. Unfortunately, his son Robert, the Earl of Locksley, was still on his way back from some far distant war called the Crusade and may not be back in time to stop the sheriff and his men. The trusting King Richard had left his brother John in charge of England and everything went bonkers.

It got worse. Lord Locksley was killed and all his land taken. That meant when the young Earl finally got back there would be nothing left for him. Soon after this a gang of thugs came and beat up the villagers. The gang leader, Sir Guy de Gisbourne  told them that the new Sheriff of Nottingham would need more money from them. Of course, they could not pay, so the thugs beat them up again and said they would be back.

What could they do? The villagers got together and decided to send their head man to speak to the Sheriff. He was thrown into jail and the villagers were told that unless they paid double taxes and a huge reward, their leader would be hanged. This was really bad, no one knew what to do.

Oh! Doom.

Oh! Despair.

Oh! Help!

Ben was worried that they would have to find somewhere else to live if these strange people kept fighting each other. For Ben it was good for his work as he was a master Bow maker and his sister Sophie/Marion the best arrow maker. Their skill had become well-known and people from all over the area came wanting the best bows and arrows for hunting. Also Lords and knights wanted the weapons for their men to fight, but Ben wondered what would happen if they killed each other off? One day, far to the south, while he was selecting the best wood for his bows Ben saw a man sitting hunched on a tree stump with his head in his hands. He seemed to be very sad as he gazed over what used to be Lord Locksley’s land.

“Hello.” called Ben. “Are you alright?” The man leapt to his feet and in a lightening quick flash whirled round, flung back his cloak and drew out his sword. “Whoa, whoa, hold on Sir.” Called Ben. “No need to get in a tiss. I only thought you might need some help.”

“Oh! Sorry.” The man said. “Just a really bad day.”

Ben shrugged and smiled. He told the man who he was and what he did. The stranger said.

“I am Robert of Locksley, Earl Locksley, but no longer. The pretender King seems to think he can take the land which has been ours forever. Now my father is dead I do not know what to do.” He looked very sad. Then he smiled a little and said. “Anyway I have never used my title so why not call me Robert.” He held out his hand and they shook hands in friendship.

Ben told Robert the sorry tale of the last few months. How small-holders of rented land had been forced off their land and farm hands and labourers had no work. Families were starving all because the dastardly Sheriff of Nottingham wanted more and more money, which they didn’t have.
“Lord Locksley told me he was waiting for you to return and sort out the problem, but…” Ben shrugged. “What can you do? This Sheriff is very bad and if you go to him he will throw you in jail.”

“Well I can’t wait until King Richard returns. So I will raise a band of men to fight for the return of everyone’s land and I will capture the thug who killed my father.” Robert announced bravely.

“That will take a lot of money.” said Ben. “But if you can find the men I will make the bows.” Robert thanked him and asked where he could find a fletcher. “Oh! Arrows and lots of them I guess. You need to talk to my sister So… er, Marion.” Ben said airily.

Robert thought this very odd indeed – a woman making arrows; he had never heard of such a thing. Anyway he was happy that his new friend had offered to help and shrugged of the thought off a woman making arrows. An arrow was an arrow, wasn’t it? Little did he realise the importance of his error.

They parted and Robert went off to find the men to fight the Sheriff of Nottingham. He soon realised that it would be difficult because many had left England to fight in the Crusade. Others had been put in jail for hunting on the King’s land. After a week he had a small group of men who had lost their homes and some, their families, but were not really fighting men. Then he came across a village by a small stream. A log crossed the water so people could keep their feet dry. At the far side stood a giant of a man. “Hello stranger.” called Robert in a friendly voice. The giant remained silent, standing with his massive arms crossed over a huge barrel of a chest. “What do you want?” rumbled the giant. “Well sir, free passage to the village where I wish to recruit men for a fight against the Sheriff of Nottingham.”

“Fight with that lot.” laughed the giant, pointing to the less than fearsome band Robert had gathered. “Go away, we have enough trouble from the villains of Nottingham without you making more. You’re not crossing here, this is what’s left of our village.” He waved a mighty arm at the burnt out shells of huts that had been the homes to the hungry crowd that had gathered behind their protector.

Robert was beginning to be annoyed. “Look, whoever you are, you are on my land and I demand the right of passage.” At this the giant laughed again, mocking the smaller man. “Really. Well my friend you will have to fight me for that right.” With that he picked up an enormous staff, which to Robert looked more like a small tree, and stepped onto the log. To the giant’s surprise a grim, Robert Earl of Locksley, turned to one of his men and asked to borrow his staff, and then he too stepped onto the log.
The fight became famous throughout the land and many a tale told of that day. The pair battled for nearly an hour; neither giving way. The giant swung mighty blows, slashing like a madman. Robert danced forward, and backwards, ducking and weaving out of reach of the bigger man, prodding his smaller stave at the big man until neither could move another inch. Both were exhausted. The villagers shouted encouragement; Robert’s men shouted louder. Finally the two combatants could move no more.

“A draw my friend?” said Robert holding out his hand.

The giant scowled then a small grin appeared behind his beard. “Aye.” he said, shaking the Earls hand. “I’ve met my equal and I’m proud to shake the hand of a fellow forester.” With that the two jumped into the water to cool off and the villagers and Robert’s band cheered and clapped for they had seen a jolly good fight.

Legend makes more of this but it was what took place when the two parties joined together in a meagre meal that changed the course of history. The men sat in what was the centre of the village while the women gathered what was left of their possessions in preparation to move to a new area away from the thugs from Nottingham.

“So my friend.” the huge man spoke in a deep rumbling voice. “First, what’s your name and second what’s this nonsense about this being your land? This is Lord Locksley’s land or it was until the swine from Nottingham killed him.”

“I am his son and heir, Robert of Locksley.” There was a gasp from the villagers and the women stopped packing and started to listen to the man dressed in rough Lincoln Green. “I have vowed to find the man who killed my father and make him pay. My plan is to gather a large group of men to stop the Sheriff stealing any more land and making people pay taxes they can’t afford.” He waved his hand at the ruined village. “Your name sir? enquired Robert.

“John Little, my Lord, and accept my apologies for my manners. Everyone thought you were still fighting in the Crusade. Your father was a kind man and I wish you luck in your quest, but we will move on before the so called knights return and kill us all off. We have no money and – as you can see – not many men of fighting quality.” Robert leapt to his feet and spoke to them all. “Then why don’t we join together and form a band. I will show you how to fight and with your forestry skills we can live in the forest until King Richard returns to take the throne back and bring justice to all England.”

The giant looked at the villagers. Shaking his head he turned back to Robert. “I’m sorry Sire but we…”

Before he could speak anymore a strong voice called out from the group of women. “John Little, don’t you dare refuse the Earl. We’ve had enough of cowering to the gang in Nottingham. It’s time to fight.

“Aye.” cried the villagers loudly.

The big man again shook his head. “I’m sorry my Lord. That’s my wife Bronwen. She and the others don’t understand…”

Again he was interrupted. “Don’t understand!” A small woman darted forward and stood in front of John Little with her arms crossed over her chest in anger. “We understand starving children, and men who are not allowed to work the woodland where we have lived for hundreds of years. Run or fight?” She turned to the villagers. “Say your piece. This used to be a free country” She shouted loudly. “Run or Fight?”

“Fight, fight, fight.” cried the villagers.

The big man tried to calm them but in the end gave in, and so the first band of Robert of Locksley’s was formed.

Robert was pleased with this and said to John Little, “We will be a merry band of fellows and I think a better name for you would be Little John, what say you?”

The big man grinned “Aye and I will call you Robin, My Lord Earl of Locksley, here’s my hand on it.

” Robert laughed loudly and shook hands. “Done.”

Posthuman by Henry Pailing

Posthuman by Henry Pailing

(Book Extract – start of a Novel)

“Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic” Arthur C Clarke’s Third Law

PL (Post Landing): 00:00:38

In the twenty third century bridges of light connect the settlements of mankind. They reach across the heavens to touch one world and then the next. The Solar Nexus is the name of this system, this collection of roadways. Each one ends in a terminal, a central structure where matter and men seemingly appear or disappear from or into thin air. A poet might describe it as a harkening back to Bifröst, but an engineer sees such things much more practically. Maintaining a transmission beam that does not lose a single fermion over those distances, for space is not devoid of all matter or energy, is no small task.

Along one of these tentative tethers a person is being transported right now. The energy-matter, or engmat as is the favoured portmanteau, stream’s destination is the ageing city of Atlas; the first city on Titan. Strange disembodied consciousness trickles back and forth until the individual’s body coalesces from the blinding chaos into one solid whole. Solar Nexus terminal T-1 successfully delivers its newest passenger. The dark haired man stretches a little feeling his extremities, a mental tick people tend to pick up after going through an engmat stream. Finishing with exercising his fingers the man steps off the little platform in the centre of the domed room he finds himself in and walks into the hallway just outside.

His body is not entirely flesh and bone, and his mind not entirely neurones and biochemicals. Several different implants down to nanoscopic devices practically infest his whole body. Cranial machines expand his mental faculties, an entire left arm replacement has left him with a multitude of “features” whilst on the surface its synthetic skin looks natural, to name but a few technological features. He is a transhuman, a new person for a new age and in his line of work it serves as an overwhelming advantage.

Outside of the terminal room a hologram is waiting for him. To a vanilla human they might at first glance be fooled into thinking a person is actually standing there, but the transhuman’s eyes can see in infrared and are failing to detect body heat emissions. The avatar of a man begins to talk, his voice cleverly thrown onto the projection to enhance the illusion.

“I regret that I cannot not be there to greet you in person marshal. Public interest has quickly reached a critical point and I am restrained by the responsibilities that pushes onto me.”

“No matter Administrator Grey, this interaction is sufficient for me.” The marshal is already connected to Titan’s nets. Holistic algorithms and classified data mining software already monitoring the “feel of the land”.

The marshal represents the most powerful law and para-military hegemony in existence today, the Terra-Righteous Group. Long ago, in another time, that name might have been a political correctness nightmare, but today’s meta-culture is a lot more direct. In a cluster of worlds where information and people travel at the speed of light, concepts like poverty, global war, racial, political, sexual and religious prejudices have become outmoded concepts. The only significant problems remaining are scattershot organised crime and the occasional natural disaster; as such the TRG has risen up to tackle these problems in the most direct and most efficient manner possible. And the only catch to this? When the TRG shows up, just shut the fuck up and do as you are told to.

The specific reason for the TRG’s presence here is still stranger than the man they have sent still. An object was detected only thirty eight seconds ago. This object entered from beyond the Kuiper belt and conducted an arcing trajectory before entering Titan’s atmosphere. The startling thing though is that its flight path was observed only after the object began its controlled descent onto Titan; thus also preventing interception of meteor deflection systems. Only two possibilities present themselves to those with access to the data: Either something perfectly fooled several clusters of observation satellites and proximity nets of which there is no proof of tampering so far. Or that the foreign extrasolar object defied the fundamental laws of physics and material science, by travelling at super luminal speeds and then surviving an astonishing deceleration. Both of these explanations offer something inherently dangerous and frightening:

The object was made by or is being directed by a vastly superior intelligence in comparison to that of humanity.

So potentially very dangerous, but also very rewarding if the right people get to it first. Thankfully restrictions on travel, along with a general safety warning have been issued to all citizens of Titan. However just now the marshal discovers a problem. One of the data miners feeds a profile directly into the marshal’s cerebral cortex. It is a family of four caught near the impact zone of the foreign object. In a picosecond the profile for each family member is sorted by his augmented hippocampus.

“It appears two terraforming engineers, their child and indentured AI are likely involved at the impact site.” The marshal dolefully informs the panicking administrator.

“I’ve got ’em, signalling fo-“

“Don’t bother, electromagnetic interference is continuously increasing from the epicentre. I shall head out in your fastest vehicle and assess the situation as normal. Hopefully the involvement will be minimal.” Indeed the amount of communications jamming radiation coming from the foreign object is definitely suspicious. A quick calculation projects that all long distance wireless communication will be impossible on Titan in a matter of two hours. The marshal forwards all of this to Administrator Grey, along with his requisition I.D. for the vehicle.

“Of course marshal, anything else?”

“Yes, tell your people to stay clear of my investigation. The TRG thanks you for your cooperation in this crisis.”

***

PL: 00:14:05

This was supposed to have been a regular check on a biomatter conversion station on their way back home. Chief Technician Hank Idris and his always serious spouse Dr Jessica Idris-Houne do this simply routing every Tuesday. They collect their daughter, Ophelia, from Atlas’ Carl Sagan Highschool and check on the bio converter before returning to Hyperion, Titan’s city-hub base for terraforming activity. This Tuesday however is turning out a little different than the routine.

“I still can’t get a signal. But I don’t think the T-links are down.” Jessica informs her husband from near the back of their converted flying utility transport. She has been checking on the vehicle’s own antennae system, but no mechanical fault can be found.

“Is the system dead?” Hank shouts over his shoulder but does not turn around. His eyes are focused, squinting actually, at whatever it is that got lodged in a small grove of specially grown trees; themselves engineered to maintain the terraformed atmosphere out here. But all he manages to see is a faint glow from what must be some sort of impact crater, yet the grove itself seems strangely unaffected. There should’ve been some kind of blast wave from an impact.

“It has to be too much interference. The hardware itself is checking out.” Jessica shouts back and makes her return to the vehicle’s cockpit, but then stops as she sees her daughter no longer immersed in cyberspace. “Are you alright dear?”

“Yeah, ‘mm fine.” She looks a little shaken, but that is only because of the sudden disconnect. “What’s happened? Why have we stopped?”

Her mother briefly summarises for Ophelia that they witnessed an object impacting only half a kilometre away. Shortly thereafter all wireless communications were lost, not even satellite links are working now let alone terrestrial ones. Ophelia announces her own dejection in so few words, having been interrupted from something which her mother suspects was not exactly family fun. Just now the fourth member of their little family rolls out.

“Something very untowards is affecting my systems.” The synthesised voice comes from a metal ball which starts unfolding on the ground. It is the physical shell of the Idris’ indentured second generation AI, Jerome, and never Jerry. Propping itself on four legs, the top of the sphere pops up to present a sensor array with discernible “eyes” to give it a slightly more personable appearance. “Something you’re not telling me hmmm?”

Jessica does not feel like placating the tetchy automaton. So she just walks on to join her husband whilst Ophelia tells the metal ball what is happening. Jerome then climbs up to join the girl, only to be kicked off as it begins on one of its long lamentations on what it could be accomplishing anywhere else than Titan with its high level heuristic programming. As it hits the ground it curses and shakes itself in agitation before rolling away and back out of Ophelia’s world for now.

“What do you think? Wanna go see?” Hank has that look on his face again, the one Jessica has learned to have an instinctive aversion to. Nevertheless there is something out there which Jessica has not known for a long time: A mystery, and possibly a challenge too. After a tremendously tense pause of a whole fifteen seconds she gives in to the eyes he is now making.

“Alright, but we go in with hazmats on.” Hank locks down the controls before following his wife to put on their gear. He tries to get his daughter’s attention but she is already plugged into her terminal again, the device blinking away hooked onto her armband.

“Just leave her here, you know teenagers. Always trying to passively disown their parents.”

“I keep trying to forget what it was like.”

***

PL: 00:19:32

Leaving their moody daughter back in the transport, Hank and Jessica bounce around on the low gravity surface of rural Titan.  Although the terraforming project has already enabled a breathable atmosphere to replace the previously toxic one, only in urban areas can near-Earth normal gravity be established. One of the problems Dr Idris-Houne works on in fact is developing a means of simulating normal Earth gravity across Titan without increasing its actual mass and thus destabilising its orbit of Saturn.

The hazmat suits, although bulky, do additionally provide the advantage of small electro-plasma thrusters. They are custom made just for workers on Titan, although only a few people ever actually need to use them these days after the threat of cryovolcancoes was nullified early on in the colony’s life.

As they approach the grove Hank checks his instrumentation. The air is normal according to specifications; a higher percentage of oxygen is present as expected due to the trees. But the electromagnetic interference, whatever it actually is, appears to have a definite source of transmission directly ahead of them. In fact the extreme background radiation is starting to mess with the equipment internals.

“Ach it’s being fucking stupid!” Hank growls as his voice is projected thanks to a speaker in the suit. His hand clenches tightly around the handle of the toolkit he is carrying.

“Nothing we have has electromagnetic shielding, not for something like this anyway.” Jessica says back and goes on to speculate. “This kind of interference is almost like a weapons grade EMP attack. Maybe not a burst, but almost just as strong a signal being distributed across a large area. If so then this would suggest it is deliberate.”

“Why would anyone set off an EMP on Titan?”

“Just an observation dear. I really have no idea” Jessica frowns behind the visor of her suit. “I’m going to get a closer look. Are you coming?”

Going on ahead of Hank, she leaps with all the force in her legs and uses the thrusters to zoom forward. It is a little rough on the landing but she makes it without tripping. Now in the middle of the engineered grove of trees she can see the remarkably small crater. Her husband bounces across the ground in an attempt to catch up to her quickly; his competence at using the thrusters not quite as high as Jessica’s. However before he even arrives she is already approaching the object and stops about fifteen metres away from it to gawk.

There is a strange shimmer in the air and in the centre of it there are blurry colours of light. All instruments are failing to work via her hazardous material suit now. She deduces that the same electromagnetic interference is causing the strange disturbance into the visible spectrum of light. Unfortunately because of the curious distortion it is impossible to make out what the object actually is, at least not with the blurred and shimmering halo of light around it. Hank Idris catches up now and stares quizzically at the object whilst standing next to his wife.

“Any ideas?” She asks him whilst continuing to stare at the strange light at the centre of the crater.

“Well the crater is too small, it must have had some sort of decent at the very least. Whatever it is.”

“I agree.”

A moment of silence passes between the two. It has been a long time since any member of the human race, let alone a highly educated one, has had to deal with any unknown other than that or death. Even without the information that the marshal possesses, the two know deep down in their bones that there is something intrinsically alien about the object in front of them.

“So what do you want to do?” Hank asks with his hand reaching her shoulder reassuringly. “We can just go back to the transport and let someone else handle it.”

“No,” Jessica shakes her head inside the helmet. “We’re not letting someone else get a first look at this. Maybe if we get a closer look the distortion will begin to clear.”

He protests, suddenly feeling a lot less curious about the object. At the very least, he argues, that he should be the one to approach it first and that she should keep her distance. Dr Idris-Houne does not listen and tells the technician to get a safety harness from out of his toolkit. They will use it as a lifeline, if something dangerous happens then he will just have to pull her back in the low gravity. Hank hates the idea, but he prepares nonetheless by attaching the cable first to one of the larger trees.

Once they are ready Jessica starts to make her way forward across the mostly flat ground. Occasionally she has to look down and carefully lift her foot over a particularly thick root from one of the majestically tall trees. Her husband remains behind her, keeping a firm grip on the cable attached to his wife’s suit. Each footstep she takes makes her heart race faster, but the mysterious anomaly in front of her is beckoning Jessica to come closer. As she gets close enough to touch the edge of the distortion she looks back at Hank as if to ask his permission

He nods to her, his grip tightens around the cable and she turns back to the unknown. Reaching out with one a single arm she pauses just a fraction from the edge of the distortion. Before she can reconsider one part of her brain overrides the other and she plunges her hand into it. There is a slight dragging sensation as though she is moving her hand through a fluid, but nothing painful or the least bit unpleasant occurs. Jessica pulls her hand back and turns it around examining it. With everything appearing safe she takes her first step into the unknown,

As the scientist heads into the breach her sense are assaulted by strange upsets. Not just her vision but other senses, especially proprioception and balance are adversely affected by the electromagnetic anomaly. Dr Idris-Houne almost tumbles forward but stops just in time before she can fall upon the object. Everything becomes clear now, her body adjusting to existing within the inner shell of the distortion.

It is beautiful, like something from out of ice sculpture gallery. Metal and opaque crystal seem to merge into one another as the object levitates about a metre off of the ground. Jessica starts taking mental notes. It is cylindrical in shape with rounded caps, but its surface is uneven with almost crystalline formations appearing all along it. The metal part of its construction seems fairly asymmetrical, and is a silver coloured alloy with rivulet like imperfections just noticeable; assuming that they are imperfections.

With its overall structure combined with the knowledge that it fell from space, her best guess is that it is a capsule. A disturbing thought crosses Jessica’s mind regarding what it might be. Just suppose this is a military prototype, something that malfunctioned, they could be in a great real of trouble with the TGU. But looking back at the floating capsule it does not strike her as anything even remotely human in design, nor contraction materials. The continually thought of it actually being some kind of alien probe runs through the back of her mind making it giggle like a school girl. But she is getting ahead of herself now with visions of presenting this great discovery.

Popping her head back out of the distortion bubble she shakes away the nauseating sensation this causes and calls for Hank to join her. For a moment the man just stands there, the pent up dread he has been accumulating combined with the sight of his wife’s disembodied head just getting to something deep down inside himself. However he let’s go of the cable, attaches one for himself just in case, and approaches the distortion in much the same way Jessica did.

“Don’t be shy Hank, come take a look at this.” The engineer stops just inside of the anomaly, his head feels as though it is spinning around.

“For fuck’s sake Jessica, you sound giddy.”

“What’s the matter? I thought you wanted to see it too.”

“Yeah well, something here is giving me the creeps.” He is telling the truth as well. As he stares at the capsule with his wife, the scientist, he has a wholly different range of emotions playing; ones stooped more in fear and dread, and less in excitement and curiosity.

Jessica looks back at him and points to the toolkit. He sets it down on the ground and depresses the switch on the side making it open up all by itself. Inside the toolkit there are a range of technical and durable devices ranging from gas spectrometers through to adaptable power tools. These are all tools which are of use to a terraforming engineer, but not to study a strange foreign object. Walking over to him, Jessica hunches over her husband as he squats down over the open case.

“What do you want to try first?”

“Just checking my suit instrumentation now. It looks like the interference is the same but hopefully direct contact will help us.” Pointing over her husband’s shoulder she picks out what can only be best described as an industrial tin opener-type tool. He looks back up at her with an incredulous look on his face. “Lets not fuck around,” she explains with obvious impatience.

***

PL: 00:39:14

Simply unacceptable. The marshal is fuming on the inside whilst maintaining his cold exterior, even all of the way out here with no one to make an impression on. Appropriating his means of transportation, something mixed between a bike and a jet with two engines at each end, was complicated by the increasing interference with wireless systems. This delay may have already cost  But he is starting to calm back down, his destination in sight.

The grove of trees are obscured in some of the different wavelengths the marshal can observe. Electro-magnetic distortions seem to wrap around this little area, clearly the source of all this. Something like excitement builds inside of him and it makes his heartbeat race. He sets the bike down and dismounts before he begins to approach the grove. Suddenly the distortion field shuts off and as its effects dissipate the marshal becomes aware of a transport on the other side of the grove.

Outline and registry instantly confirm it, the Idris family are here. The cyborg breaks into a striding gait that propels him somewhere above the average human’s peak speed. Compensating for the low gravity he reaches the centre of the grove as his inbuilt sensing devices do a complete scan of the immediate area. But he does not need the report blinking in his peripheral vision, ready to be uploaded into his memory space, to understand this.

A macabre sight of seeping crimson and torn organs litter the ground surrounding the capsule. They were obviously both adult humans and the report the marshal now loads up summarises they were Hank Idris and Jessica Idris-Houne. This is not good, and for reasons other than those which are obvious, the capsule is empty and the marshal has a new quarry loose on Titan. His mental functions speed up, he can only do this for a limited time with the synthetic synapses pushing the organic ones. He grabs a firearm from his belt, upholstering it as nanosecond nerve endings connect the weapon directly with his augmented nervous system.

Continuing to look around the gruesome scene he fails to see any trail left by whatever emerged from the capsule. On a hunch he goes through various analysis sensors for the air. What he finds is a very slight ionisation occurring, something electrical has disturbed it and has left a faint trail which billows out onto the other side of the grove. Whatever this thing is it apparently went off in the direction to where the family’s vehicle lies.

With his gun still drawn he starts to sprint through the grove, the capsule will have to wait for later. But as he quickly draws in on the Idris family’s vehicle, a subroutine in his cerebral augmentation starts warning him of something unregistered in its threat assessment database.

Prologue to “Deadman Running” by Gerry Fruin

Prologue to “Deadman Running” by Gerry Fruin

PROLOGUE

The night air was still and cloyingly warm, with no breeze stirring to cool the heavy air. In the back of the old Renault van the silent men sweated uncomfortably. Outside, the village held its breath. With no moon to cast any light, even the light coloured buildings were barely discernible. Any windows there were, were shuttered and no lamplight filtered through. The narrow alleys that made up the small remote mountain village remained silent and impenetrable barriers.

Inside the van a swift flash of the night-light from a wristwatch brought an instant tensioning from the men. A hand squeezed gently on an arm. The leader had given the ‘go’ signal. The five black-clad figures eased silently from the back of the rusting van’s well-oiled rear doors. No orders were given, and none expected. They had trained together for months, and their drill practised until each man knew precisely what the other’s role was. They were a team; they were the best.

Not a sound was made as they slipped through the darkness towards the house on the edge of the village. No cocking of weapons – this had been done earlier. Not even the click of safety catches. No sound. The team flanked the building as planned. The house stood alone, its single recessed entrance facing the village street. One man had taken position at the rear. He lay against the low dusty wall and sighting through his night-scope, he saw no movement from his comrades. Under his facemask he allowed himself a tight smile of satisfaction. The team were good, very good.

A muffled thump broke the silence. No shouting, no histrionics. The two clearance men had hit the door, and would now be in the building with their night-vision glasses sweeping the darkness. They would react instantaneously to any movement, moving at lightening speed, with weapons ready to be fired at any hostile figure. The earpiece of each man’s short-range radio crackled with the breathing of the two men in the building.

“Clear,” hissed the voice of number one.

He would repeat this every few seconds, so that the second entry team would know exactly where they were. Seconds passed.

“Chris, moving in.”

Wilson had no need to ask who had used his name. The French accent came over thickly, even though it was little more than a murmur. Jean-Paul Raoul, Lt. Colonel, French Foreign Legion. Team leader on this raid. Wilson scanned the roof and surrounding area. Nothing.

“Clear,” pause, “clear,” repeated the tension-filled voice.

“In,” came the French accent.

In those fleeting seconds, Wilson could not understand why no contact had been made. They had all been sceptical of this additional assignment. Most of them thought that the young ‘Rupert’ was too inexperienced an officer to be calling the shots. As a compromise, they had insisted that the legendary Jean-Paul lead the team. The intelligence team had added a new liaison officer and he was adamant that the information was good. With no time to check, the raid had been approved by ‘high authority’ on the dubious account of the unknown newcomer. It was against all the carefully laid out rules, but rumour had it that the new ‘Rupert’ had good connections.

The whole twenty-strong unit of special forces men had not liked the new influx of personnel. For eight months they had been one of the most effective anti-drug units in the world. Set up and run through an official multi-government quasi-police unit based in Brussels, they had been selected from the cream of the world’s special armed forces and tasked with spearheading the fight against trafficking. Most countries supported, at least on paper and with rhetoric, the drive to eliminate drug trafficking. Many, like the small Arab emirate they had flown into two days ago, were, at best, ambivalent. Despite this, the unit had fast gained a fearsome reputation for swift and incisive action.

They had flown in and out of numerous countries, striking ruthlessly at storage depots and distribution points. Such was their success, that some countries were even withholding approval of their entry on the grounds of “International violation of human rights”. The team knew little of and cared less about this political double-speak. They were now at, or purported to be at, a key manufacturing refinement base. Intelligence apparently confirmed that this remote and quiet village was a key distributor out of the Gulf area.

Uncharacteristically, Wilson was on edge, his gut instinct screaming that something was not right. He swung the night-sight ever more urgently left and right, his eyes straining to see any movement. The building and its surroundings, digitally enhanced in the state-of-the-art scope, showed nothing untoward.

“Clear,” pause, “clear,” he reported.

“Two, clear,” snapped the Frenchman.

Wilson came to his knees. The low ancient wall collapsed, leaving him with no protection. He sensed the danger and could virtually taste it. Sweating and adrenaline pumping, he swung round again to scan the hillside. Never in his ten years of soldiering had the feeling of menace and danger been so omnipresent.

A slight movement higher up the hill? He swung the scope back again while the calls kept coming through his earpiece. Time had stood still, yet only a few seconds had elapsed since the destruction of the door.

“Clear,” pause, “clea…er, smell,” hissed number one.

Wilson spun back towards the house, rising instinctively into a crouch, his nerves at screaming point. How could Rick smell? His self-contained breathing equipment would not allow him to smell. Unless… unless the smell was so powerful that it had penetrated the equipment.

“Allez, allez,” screamed the colonel, instinctively reverting to his native tongue.

In that same instant, Wilson saw the small house expand outwards in a fireball. Afterwards, he could not recall whether he had heard the explosion or had felt the searing heat first. He knew he was in the air, the black night turned into intense daylight for a few seconds, his night vision destroyed. The ground smashed into his back, stunning him and winding him at the same time. His instinct for survival took over. His night-vision destroyed by the intense light from the explosion and, although unable to see, he sought cover. Dimly he became aware of the sound of small arms’ fire. Christ! They’re raking the building.

He ran. A figure lurched away from the building, his flameproof clothes smouldering and stinking in the intensity of the heat. Wilson barely paused in his zigzag attempt to find cover. He heaved the semi-conscious figure across his shoulders, and ran. When the pain came it was after he knew he had been hit. He hurtled on down the hill. The pain became so intense that he struggled to keep upright and conscious. The body on his back had ceased screaming. Only the steepness of the terrain and his strength as an athlete kept him upright. His momentum came to an abrupt end when he literally hit the road into the village. He stopped fighting the nausea, staggering onto the road. The body fell from his shoulders. I’m dying, he thought. Slowly he sank to his knees, knowing that if he passed out he would indeed die.

The firing had ceased. Like a puppet he collapsed, his face hit the dirt and stone of the primitive road. As he fought to stay conscious, his unfocused eyes saw headlights.

“Are they alive,” asked the affected drawling voice from a long way off.

“Yeah! Or one of ’em is,” came the reply. “Shot to shit though, by the looks of it.”

“Get them then, and let’s get out of here quickly.”

“But the others, sir, we have to check!”

“Don’t argue man, you saw the explosion. No one could have lived through that. Get out now, the bastards may be following up.” There was no mistaking the fear in his voice.

“But sir…”

“Shift them now you idiot, snarled the Rupert.

“Sir,” came the surly, reluctant response.

Wilson heard this exchange faintly through the red haze of pain. Next came the jolting of the vehicle and he finally gave way to unconsciousness.
Briefly he was aware of the noise of rotors, and vaguely he guessed that he was being ferried to their base, HMS Vulcan. Hands lifted him gently from the armour-plated floor of the chopper.

“OK, now pal, hang in there,” a deep Midlands accent spoke into his ear. “We’re taking you straight to M.I. Have you fixed up in a jiffy.” A needle punched into his arm. He felt nothing.

His mind was softly drifting on a wave of painkiller. In a final moment of clarity Wilson struggled to stand.

“Steady, steady, Sergeant.” Hands held on to him.

“I want to stand,” he heard a muffled voice croak, and realised he was speaking, albeit from a great distance. A storm of rage seared through him, overcoming the powerful drug. He strained to focus his blurred vision on the object of his fury. The young Lieutenant was standing apart from the medics, aloof, yet with eyes darting nervously left and right. Wilson sought and found him.

“We were set up, you wanker,” he croaked, blindly trying to shake off the supporting arms. “You gave no support. You left them, you yellow snivelling bastard.” He felt himself fading.

“You ran, Sergeant, not me,” the young officer smirked, stepping back quickly, his confidence restored now that he was safely on board the base ship. The accusation and the sneering tone snapped the last of Wilson’s control. With a superhuman effort, he shook his helpers off and, before the astonished medics could move, he struck the Rupert in the throat.

A week later, Wilson stood before his base-unit Commanding Officer. Two escorts stood inches away on either side, facing him as military procedure dictated. The Regimental Sergeant-major was behind the guard, and the Adjutant stood behind the Colonel, staring fixedly above Wilson’s head. Wilson was still sedated, but charges had been brought and discipline would be discharged.

“To summarise, Wilson,” the seated figure of the C.O. gravely continued, “you struck an officer of Her Majesty’s Armed Services, abused him, and called him a coward.” He waved a hand dismissively. “Don’t bother denying it; more than ten people have confirmed in signed affidavits what went on.”
Wilson blinked. Bloody hell, he’s still alive! Throughout his week’s treatment, he had assumed the Rupert to be dead. He could only suppose that his injuries had prevented him achieving his objective.

“Apparently the officer concerned is lucky to be alive. You have a choice, based on your past impeccable record. Simply, you accept an honourable discharge as of now, or face a court martial. Of course,” the Colonel carried on as though Wilson was unable to speak, “you will accept a discharge!” His eyebrows rose in expectation. Dismissed.

Minutes later. “Richard, please bring the security coding up on screen, full eyes only for all security services and police anti-terrorist units.”

“Wilson’s that special, sir?”

The Colonel looked old and weary. “Yes I’m afraid he is, Richard, he’s more than special. Did you know they have a scale up to five, and would you believe they actually use X’s.”

“So how do we rate Wilson, sir. One X?” The newly-arrived adjutant smiled knowingly.

Deeply troubled the older man looked at his new aide. “To give you some idea, you remember the hoo-ha about the joker Carlos, the so-called Jackal?” The younger man nodded though his brow creased in puzzlement. Long before his time.

“Well apparently he rated a world-wide rank of 2 Xs, now Wilson, yes Wilson,” he paused brooding on his ancient pipe, and pointing at the office door through which the said Wilson had disappeared, “Wilson I would rate about 7.”
The adjutant looked sharply to see if the Colonel was joking, and gulped, and quickly bit back a smart response when he saw the look of deep foreboding on the face of the senior officer.

“I hope,” the older man spoke very quietly, so the Captain had to strain to catch the words, “that no one is stupid enough to underestimate Wilson.” He turned towards the by now clearly worried Adjutant, who had never seen the old man in this kind of mood; it was very disturbing. “That man is a walking death sentence.”