Redemption Road Part 5

Soldier 2.jpeg

“What do you mean, he’s gone?”

The innkeeper flipped his record book around, showing it to Freeman. “Mr Johnson and his party checked out late last night. Right after the incident at the hospital. See?”

Freeman checked the log. Jude Johnson and his drivers had checked out at 0345, about an hour after Freeman and his team returned to bed.

“Did he say why he left?” Knight asked.

“He said it was too dangerous to stay here. Something about too many demons.”

“Yet he left his guards without telling them anything,” Bates said.

“When I asked, he said you’d completed your contract with him, and he and his crew can look after themselves.”
“That makes no sense,” Freeman said.

The innkeeper shrugged. “Did he pay you?”

“Just our signing fee,” Freeman said.

“Oh boy. Looks like you need to file a case against him.”

“Did he say where he went?” Knight asked.

“Nah. He didn’t tell me nothing. He screwed you good, huh?”

“Yeah,” Freeman said. “Got a job board around here?”

~

There were no motors in the caravan. Just wagons pulled by teams of oxen. No suspensions, no frills. Everybody left their belongings inside their assigned wagons and walked the broken road.

On the morning of the third day of the journey they arrived at Bernalow. It was a bustling town, but not so rich they could afford dedicated DNA testers and high walls. Once released from their caravan, Freeman, Knight and Bates dumped their rucks in their rooms and scoured the city in their assault packs and exos.

They visited the market and asked the merchants about Jude Johnson. They queried innkeepers about the man, and they asked the sheriff too. The response was always the same.

“You just missed him,” the sheriff said. “He was right here, talking business, looking to see where he could sell his stuff. I’ll get my boys to keep an eye out for him.”

Johnson was everywhere and nowhere in the town. Sometimes he sold goods, sometimes he just spoke to the people he met. But he was always one step ahead.

As dusk fell, the three men headed to the town square. Centred on a water fountain, there was Town Hall, people dining in the open air, merchants yelling out closing-time discounts, and most importantly, a church.

“Think they’ll let us in this time?” Bates asked.

“We have to try,” Freeman replied.

Inside, candles filled the stone building with light. The priest walked along the walls, extinguishing the candles one by one.

“Good evening, Father,” Freeman called.

The priest turned to them. “Good evening. What brings you here?”

“We’re travellers. New to town. Is it a good time for confession?”

The priest smiled. “There’s always time for confession. Who’s first?”

Freeman glanced at his companions. Bates raised his hand. “I’ll go.”

“Excellent. Come, right this way.”

The priest led Bates around the back where the confessional booth stood. Knight and Freeman planted themselves in the pews.

“How long has it been since confession?” Knight asked.

“Two years, eight months and twelve days.”

“You keep track?”

“You don’t?”

Knight snorted. “After everything we’ve done along the way, it’s hard to remember everything we’ve got to confess.”
“We do our best to remember. God will take care of the rest.”

“Like with all things, huh?”

“I—”

Gunshots ripped through the air.

Freeman’s rifle flew to his shoulder.

Another burst of fire.

Bates staggered out of the confessional, smoking pistol in hand.

“The priest! He’s a demon!”

A creature burst out of the booth. It had the face of the priest, but it had a thin proboscis for a mouth. Black blood dripped down its chest.

“Down down DOWN!” Freeman yelled.

Bates threw himself to the floor. Knight and Freeman cut loose. The demon sprawled face-first in a welter of gore, twitching.

The ground shook.

“What the—”

Tendrils sprouted from between the cracks in the floorboards. The wood blackened and softened, transforming into Bloom. Grey crystals condensed on the ceiling, long spidery lines cracking through the rock.

“We need to get out of here.”

Bates stood, swaying.

“Josh, what’s wrong?” Freeman asked.

“I…”

Blood gushed from his mouth and nose and ears. There was a thin ragged hole in his throat, surrounded with purplish flesh. A murky black substance plastered over the wound. Bates scratched frantically at his neck, drawing blood.

“Josh,” Freeman said calmly. “You’ve been infested.”

Bates opened his mouth, gasped. Black pustules burst from under his skin, hardening into carapace.

Freeman’s breath caught in his throat. It was Arkham all over again. It was a boy clawing his eyes out as the Bloom took him, a woman screaming as an infester mounted her, Father Abrams administering the last rites with Bible in one hand and pistol in the other.

“Do it,” Bates said. “You have to do it.”

Freeman aimed. The weapon remained silent.

“I can’t kill myself! DO IT!”

The trigger was stiff under Freeman’s finger. Nothing happened.

Bates’ voice dissolved into a growl. His flesh blackened. Bloom punched into his feet, engorging his torso, growing a hump on his back.

The trigger broke. Freeman howled, firing as fast as he could pull the trigger. The newborn demon dissolved under a hail of flechettes.

“I’m… I’m sorry,” Freeman whispered.

“You can apologise later.” Knight fished an incendiary grenade from a pouch, pulled the pin, and tossed the bomb on the body. “We gotta go.”

Freeman ran. Behind him, something, someone, screamed.

Bloom erupted all around the town square. People fled. Tentacles smashed through buildings, reaching for the sky. Roots erupted from the Earth and shattered the fountain. Water gushed forth for a moment, then a thick black patch smothered the spring. An arch, thick and sturdy, grew from it.

Jude Johnson and his four drivers strode from a side street and stood before the newly constructed Hellgate.

Freeman loaded his grenade launcher. Along the surface of every patch of Bloom, eyes and mouths opened. Dripping fangs and tentacles protruded from the openings. The eyes—dozens, hundreds of them, big and small—pinned the Crusaders with their wide, unblinking gazes.

“Freeman! Knight! So good that you came!”

Johnson’s voice echoed in the square, his back still turned to Freeman. But Johnson had lost the accent, and now he knew where he had heard his voice from.

The creature from beyond the Hellgate.

“You!”

A deafening cackle spread throughout the square.

“Turn and face me!”

Johnson laughed again. Flesh and clothes melted and regrew. He was turning himself around, rearranging his body so he now faced Freeman. The drivers mimicked Johnson, turning themselves inside-out, becoming perfect copies of the former human.

“Here we are, men of the cross,” the five Johnsons said.

“You used us,” Knight said.

It was obvious in hindsight. During the attack on Metro City, no one had screened the refugees streaming into the city. No one had stopped Johnson dispensing his medicines to the wounded. No one had stopped them from being evacuated to the hospital.

The demon laughed. “Of course I did! You were so—“

“Pete.”

Stepping up, Knight cut down the Johnsons with a long burst. The bodies went down, and the Bloom absorbed them all.
Johnson’s voice issued from every mouth in the Bloom.

“That’s rude.”

“How the hell?” Freeman muttered.

“We are one. We are all. We are coming. Behold, our true form!”

An unearthly sound issued from the arch. It was a thunderclap, a howl, a tear, and a rip all rolled into one. A force of nature that forced the men down. Red light blasted from the opening, and for a moment Freeman saw the benighted lands of Hell.

A black mountain of carapace-covered flesh crawled through the opening, blocking out the light. Eyestalks and tentacles sprouted from its body, dancing in the air. It had no legs, oozing across the ground like a slug, sucking up the Bloom as it rolled over the substance. The ground shuddered and cracked.

And it was still coming.

Footsteps echoed behind Freeman. Turning, he saw the sheriff and his men. They were outfitted in a variety of antique firearms. Against a monster like that, he didn’t think there was anything they could do.

“Crusaders! I heard about the…” The sheriff’s face paled. “What in the name of God…?”

“Boss, if you have any ideas, now’s a good time,” Knight said.

Freeman checked his grenade launcher. A fresh HEDP shell waited within.

“Pete, on me. Sheriff, take your men, get the civilians out, and distract the demon. I’m gonna blow down the Hellgate.”

The sheriff nodded. “Godspeed.”

Donning their masks, Freeman and Knight ran clockwise around the creature. The sheriff and his men went in the opposite direction. Rifles popped and shotguns boomed, but the Elder Demon didn’t seem to notice. It squirmed and writhed, forcing its bulk through the Hellgate.

Limbs whipped through the air. Looking up, Freeman saw a massive appendage falling towards him.

“Get clear!” Knight yelled.

The men jumped aside as the tentacle slammed into the ground. The shockwave threw them off their feet. Groaning, Freeman picked himself back up.

The tentacle was gigantic. Clad in thick armor and twice as tall as he was, it lay across the plaza, resting in the ruins of a three-storey building. Bloom sprouted from its tip. There was no way around it. Freeman scanned its surface, looking for handholds, but it was completely smooth.

It rose, twisting towards him, and fell again.

Cursing, Freeman leapt.

BOOOOM!

He landed on his belly, his mask pressed against a pile of rubble. Getting up, he looked around.

Knight wasn’t with him.

“Pete! You okay?!”

A voice called out from the other side of the appendage.

“I’m good!” Knight shouted. “Finish the job!”

A desperate cacophony of gunshots filled the world. Explosions and tremors answered them. Freeman ran, placing himself directly behind the Hellgate. From this angle, the Hellgate’s mouth opened into an infinity of darkness.

He lased the arch of the Hellgate. His HUD told him how high to elevate his weapon. Taking careful aim, he fired.

The grenade smashed into the edifice. The Hellgate shuddered and crumbled. The portal winked out, leaving behind the monster’s remaining mass in Hell.

And opening an enormous wound.

The demon cried. Again the earpro saved Freeman’s hearing, but he felt its voice shaking his bones. A flood of black blood gushed from the wound, covering the square and filling the drains and gutters.

The demon was still in the fight. Fresh tentacles sprouted from its body and sucked up the Bloom. The gaping wound began to close. As Freeman reached for a fresh grenade, motion caught his eye.

A fresh tentacle, small but lithe, reached for the ground, winding around and snapping up a man. Peter Knight.
“Boss! Need some help here!” Knight called.

The tentacle was wrapped around Knight’s lower body, leaving his arms free. Knight pointed his weapon and ripped off a long burst. Freeman aimed carefully and fired too. Their flechettes simply bounced off its armour.

Swearing, Freeman advanced on it, trying to get a better angle. Another enormous tentacle came crashing down. He dodged it, but now he was cut off.

Knight’s weapon ran dry. He drew a knife and stabbed at the tentacle, but the blade did not penetrate. The monster’s body reformed. A pair of jaws opened in its flesh. Knight screamed, freeing one hand, then the other. He dug into a pocket, producing a small round object.

The tentacle flung him into its mouth.

DEUS VULT!” Knight screamed.

The monster swallowed him.

A moment later, an explosion rippled through its flesh, blowing out a large chunk of alien matter. The monster screamed, its voice filling the world.

ENOUGH. THIS ENDS NOW.

Eyes emerged all over its flesh. Its wound had become a massive mouth, lined with strange suckers and razor teeth. Crimson eyes turned on Freeman. Strange geometries danced at the edge of his vision.

He couldn’t look away. He couldn’t move.

COME TO ME.

Unbidden, he walked to the mouth. He willed his muscles to stop. They didn’t obey. Unearthly laughter filled his ears. One step, another, a third.

The maw yawned wide.

Under his shirt, Freeman’s crucifix crackled against his skin.

Breath filled his lungs. His lips and tongue moved.

DEUS VULT!

Freeman’s vision cleared. The voices fled his mind. He was himself again. He snapped up his M891 and fired.

The 40mm grenade hurtled into the darkness. A muffled blast followed. The monster roared in pain, its appendages flailing and trashing. Switching to full-auto, Freeman fired long streams of ultra-high-velocity metal into the mouth, tearing up its insides.

The creature squirmed, its eyes blinking shut. When his weapon went dry he primed an incendiary grenade and flung it into the hole. A glimmer of white flame shone in the dark. It grew larger and larger, consuming the Eater from the inside out.

The monster screamed, thrashing and wailing and gnashing and crying. One last spasm, and it went limp.

The demon was dead.

~

Clearing out the remaining Bloom took another day. The caravan he had joined left without him. Freeman stayed for another week, helping to rebuild. When it was over the townsfolk buried the dead in their cemetery. The priests offered prayers for everyone ‒ believers and seculars, excommunicated and faithful, they didn’t discriminate.

Freeman stood in front of the graves of Knight and Bates. Their headstones were marked with their names and simple stone crosses.

“And now it’s just me,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

The dead offered no solace or remonstration.

“I’m going to finish what we started. Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

Crossing himself, he walked away.

~~

Freeman signed on with another caravan to New Rome. During the Fall, a regiment of Old World soldiers had retreated here and set up shop. They worked with the Church to restore order and preserve knowledge. Between the two, in the centuries since the demons came, New Rome had never fallen. If anything, it had grown.

They still had his biometrics on file. After a cursory inspection the gate guards let him through. Inside the city, after collecting his pay, he took a long, luxurious shower and fell into bed. When he woke, he discovered he had slept for nearly a full day.

He spent three days asking around, looking for directions, restocking his supplies. In the morning of the fourth day, the Sabbath day, he dressed himself in his freshest clothes and walked.

The church was tiny but well-kept. The kind of church given to new priests to gain experience, old priests as a final post, or priests who had fallen out of favour but could not be expelled.

In the courtyard, a balding man in a black cassock, his back straight, his eyes clear, swept the lawn. He looked up as Freeman approached.

“Good morning, Father Kelly,” Freeman said.

“Morning. Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

“You look like a man looking for something.”

“Yes, Father. I am William Freeman, formerly of the Order of Saint George. I am here with my brothers in spirit. We have walked the redemption road, and have come for confession.”

Kelly smiled. Stepping back, he opened the door to the church.

“Come in. We’ve been expecting you.”

~~

PSX_20170918_044151

Previous parts: 1, 2, 3, 4

Thanks for seeing this story to the end. If you’d like to support my other fiction, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 3

apocalypse

Johnson had a fleet of four biodiesel-powered trucks. Clean and cool and quiet. Impossible to find outside the big cities and major polities. He had stocked his vehicles with fuel cans, leaving precious little space for cargo. Or people.

The men spread themselves into two teams. Freeman and Sharpe in the lead vehicle with Johnson, Knight and Bates in the chase truck. It was a tight fit; every spare square inch inside the cabs was filled with goods of some kind or other.

Freeman wondered how Johnson made a profit. His drivers weren’t anywhere near as chatty as he was, and Johnson himself wouldn’t discuss business. Pre-Fall long-haul trucks had disappeared with the advent of flying demons, and most traders went with cheaper horse or mule-powered wagons. The ones fortunate enough to have motor vehicles relied on high-profit low-volume transactions to survive. Food was not included in those. Johnson had to be carrying highly valuable medicine indeed.

The road out of town was rough and bumpy, the highway long dissolved into well-worn dirt. Freeman scanned the world outside the windows, his M891 close to hand.

Black dots danced in the sky. Birds or flying demons, he couldn’t tell. This far away from polities with functional air defences, it was best to steer clear.

The road led to an ancient abandoned settlement. It looked like a horde of giants had thundered through the place, smashing aside everything in their path. Out the corner of his eye, Freeman saw things skittering between piles of rubble. Johnson sped through the ruins, unwilling to stop.

Past the town, patches of Bloom marched across the land. Crystalline vines suffocated hollowed-out buildings. Here it came in multi-coloured hues ‒ grey, black, red, green ‒ showing the world what they had consumed.

“I heard demons make their nests in the Bloom,” Johnson said.

“You heard right,” Sharpe said. “We should burn the Bloom down the first chance we get.”

“That’s mighty wasteful, if you ask me.”

“Wasteful? The demons are making our world more like Hell with each passing day. We have to stop them.”

“The Bloom’s been here since who knows when. No point tryin’ to root it out. It’ll just grow back. Always does. Better we harvest it instead. Nothin’ we have on us woulda been possible without it.”

“What about the demons who use it?” Freeman asked.

“They’re intelligent creatures. Instead of tryin’ ta slaughter each other for all time, we oughta talk to them, see if we can reach an accommodation.”

Freeman shook his head sharply. “No. They want only one thing: the final downfall of man. You can not negotiate with demons. I say we kill ‘em all.”

“Amen,” Sharpe agreed. “Fire and steel, that’s the way to go.”

“You got that from your Good Book?”

Freeman nodded. “Church records show that demons don’t usually talk to humans. Those who do seek only corruption and conquest.”

Johnson shrugged. “Well, I suppose you’re the experts in this sorta thing.”

“You got that right,” Bates said.

~

Metro City was a living city built into the bowels of a dead one. When the Fall hit this part of the world, humanity took shelter underground and stayed there ever since.

Bloom had overrun much of the cityscape. Grey and brown growths sprouted from gutters, shops, skyscrapers. Now and then the convoy had to bypass roads choked off with Bloom.

After an hour of wending and winding through the streets, they saw the first sign of human civilisation: a bazaar.

Formerly a city square, makeshift stalls of wood and cloth now lined the sidewalks. Merchants hawked goods fashioned from the bones of a dead civilisation, and traders led horse wagons through the market and haggled for the best prices.
A pair of guards stood watch at every entrance to the bazaar. They were bedecked in Old World arms and armour: exosuits and full plate, gloves and masks, M891s and fusion goggles. It was the same gear Freeman and his team had, but newer and cleaner.

Johnson exchanged some banter with the guards, and slowly drove through the bazaar. The crowds made way for them, gawking at the battered vehicles.

At the heart of the square a squad stood watch behind a ring of sandbags. A pair of tripod-mounted machine guns rested close to hand. Nearby, officials and machines awaited in booths to inspect and admit travellers.

Past the checkpoint was a stairway that led down into the depths of the hollowed city. The sign above the entrance had long ago been painted over, bearing the words ‘METRO CITY’ now.

Johnson and his crew stepped out of their vehicles. The four drivers clustered around the man, utterly disinterested in everything around them.

Freeman and his team mounted their assault packs on their massive rucksacks, shouldered their bags and spread out, watching the crowds and watching the guards watching them. He made sure to keep his finger off the trigger and his rifle pointed safely at the ground.

“Passports, please,” the guard commander said.

Johnson patted down his pockets. “Hey, what the… damn it. Must have left mine back in the truck.” He cracked a smile. “Sorry, gettin’ old. I’ll just pop out, get it, an’ come right back, okay?”

The guard sighed. “Fine. Next please.”

As Johnson sauntered away with his drivers, Freeman and his team lined up, their passports ready. The guard inspected Freeman’s little blue book and lifted his eyebrows.

“New Rome, eh?” the guard asked. “You Crusaders?”

“We were.”

The secular authorities of New Rome had allowed the former Crusaders to retain their passports. The guard flipped through the passport and compared Freeman’s face to the photo. “Completed your terms?”

“Yes sir.”

“Thanks for your service. Please line up for inspection.”

Dogs sniffed Freeman for contraband drugs while millimetre wave scanners peeked into his packs. After that, a technician swabbed the inside of his cheeks and fed the sample into a DNA tester. No matter how hard they tried, demons could not hide the Bloom that permeated their bodies, right down to the molecular level.

When he was finally cleared, he retrieved his kit and presented his passport to the customs officer. She sat at a table just outside the entrance, a computer at the ready. It was pre-Fall tech, a slate-like device propped up at an angle on the table, wired to a thumbprint reader and a passport scanner.

As Freeman handed her his passport, she asked, “Where did you come from?”

“Holstead,” Freeman said.

“That’s to the southeast, isn’t it? Have you heard of the Eater?”

“Who?”

She indicated the reader with one hand and patted her slate with the other.

“Right thumb on the reader and eyes on the camera, please.”

Freeman complied.

“Thank you,” she said. “The Eater. An Elder Demon. Word is, he’s a demon in the shape of a man, or maybe a man turned into a demon. He rolls into town, all polite-like, and when he’s settled in he opens a Hellgate and gobbles up everyone. He’s been making his way northwest, eating every town along the way.”

A light turned green. Freeman removed his thumb from the reader. “What’s this Eater look like?”

“He keeps changing his human form. Only consistent description is that he keeps smiling a lot. And when he turns into a demon, he becomes this huge, fleshy…thing with eyes and mouths and—”

Gunfire ripped through the air.

The men dropped everything and fanned out.

“What was that?” Freeman asked.

“M891s,” Sharpe said.

High-pitched chattering filled the world. Men and women and children screamed. Sirens blared.

The guard commander sprinted over. “Demons are attacking! Get underground now!”

The bureaucrat blinked. “But their passports—”

“No time, dammit! Go!”

Freeman hefted his M891. “Sir, we have weapons. How can we help?”

The soldier gave him a once-over. Nodding, he pointed at the sandbags.

“Take up position over there. Cover the civilians. Don’t let any demons through.”

“Got it. Gentlemen, let’s go.”

At the checkpoint, guards manned the machine guns and urged the civilians through. Freeman and Knight positioned themselves to the left of the entrance, Sharpe and Bates to the right. More gunfire split the air. In the distance, demons ululated.

“No sign of targets,” Knight said.

“Set up for a static defence,” Freeman said.

The men set their rucksacks by their feet, donned their helmets, and dug out their spare magazines, placing the mags by the sandbags.

Freeman had six spares in his pack, three on his armour carrier, one in his rifle. A thousand rounds in all. He set the last mag down and saw Johnson and his men hustling past the checkpoint. They were hauling massive boxes and bags. Without a word, they disappeared downstairs.

“What the hell?” Knight said. “Their cargo worth dying for?”

“CONTACT FRONT!” a guard yelled.

Pillars of smoke rose from the far end of the bazaar. Civilians scattered before them. Freeman turned on his goggles and peered through the smoke. No go; the smoke was too thick and hot for his thermal vision to penetrate. Through the haze the demons fired indiscriminately. People screamed and died, but Freeman saw nothing.

“Anybody see anything?” Sharpe asked.

“Nothing,” Freeman said. “Be ready. They’re going to—”

They came. Through gaps in the crowd and in between the stores, demons streamed towards the checkpoint. Like the ones at the Anderson farm, these superficially resembled men, but their bodies were covered in jet-black carapace, and their four eyes blazed red. Their left hands ended in wicked claws, and their right arms were machine guns grown from their flesh.

They advanced in bounds, shooting at every human they saw. Freeman aimed, but there were still too many civilians in the way.

“GET DOWN! GET DOWN!” Freeman yelled.

The demons fired. The machine guns answered.

Blood sprays and body parts flew. The surviving civilians screamed, diving to the ground and crawling away from the guns. The smoke began to disperse.

Through the chaos, Freeman saw a cluster of demons. Freeman patted Knight’s shoulder and pointed.
“Demons! One o’clock, two fifty metres, by the store!”

Knight fired short bursts of six. Two demons went down. The rest scattered. One of them ducked behind a nearby wooden cart. Freeman walked fire left to right, right to left. Shredded cabbages and tubers and wood went flying. The demon slumped over, falling out of cover. Freeman placed three more rounds into it.

A high-pitched CRACK rose above the gunfire.

Next to Knight, a Metro City trooper fell from his machine gun, a massive hole in his head.

“Man down! Man down!” a soldier yelled.

That trooper dragged the body aside and took up the gun—only to have his face explode before he could fire a shot.

“SNIPER!” Freeman shouted.

Knight ducked and scooted away. The other mounted machine gunner stepped off, and a heavy shard blew through his chest.

“The sniper’s targeting the machine guns!” Knight yelled.

Freeman turned on his thermal vision and poked his head up.

The sniper had to be on the move. That was fine. All he needed was a glimpse—

—a flash of red—

Freeman pumped out rounds as fast as he could pull the trigger. With his left hand, he pulsed his weapon laser.

“Engage my target!”

A red crosshair appeared on his display, and everybody else’s. They opened fire ‒ Bates with single shots, Knight with disciplined bursts. Sharpe fired his forty. The window exploded in fire.

“Got ‘im,” Sharpe said.

A loud ripping noise.

Sharpe toppled over, shards embedded in his helmet, his face, his throat.

“Man down!” Bates yelled, pumping fire downrange. “Contact, ten o’clock!”

The demons advanced like a tidal wave, pouring out from behind cover. Their arm-guns pointed at the sandbags, firing with every step as they steadily advanced. Most of the shots went wild. Freeman ignored them, flicking to full auto.
“FPF!” Freeman called.

Final Protective Fire. The men unleashed storms of full-auto fire, punishing the enemy wherever they concentrated. The demons scattered, hiding behind barrels, stores, carts, and corpses. Freeman fired through them all, his high-velocity flechettes tearing apart everything in their path.

The magazine went dry. He grabbed a fresh one and scanned.

The Metro City troopers had rallied. They were back on the machine guns, taking over where Freeman’s team had left off. Freeman slapped in the drum, hit the bolt release, and saw more troops bearing heavy weapons charge out the stairwell.
They crammed themselves next to the living defenders and loosed an impenetrable wall of firepower. Freeman joined in, dialling down to single shot and firing at everything that remotely resembled a demon. Aim, fire, aim fire, aim—

“Cease fire! Cease fire!”

Freeman released the trigger.

Silence.

Stillness.

It was over.

~~

PSX_20170918_044151

Previous parts: 1, 2

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 2

soldiers-grave.jpg

The men removed the bodies, dug a firebreak around the house and set the house ablaze with an incendiary grenade. The wood burned, taking the Bloom with it.

Freeman dug out his radio and tuned it to a clear channel. “Sheriff Hart, this is Freeman. Do you copy, over?”

“Freeman, Hart here. How’s it going?”

“We’ve finished investigating the Anderson farm. We encountered demons and Bloom on site, including a Hellgate in the attic. Six demons KIA, Hellgate shut down, and now the site is being purged. No sign of the Andersons. But we saw six bodies being digested.”

Hart sighed. “Copy. Guess we know what happened to them. I’ll round up a posse and swing on over. We’ll be there by dawn.”

“Roger. And Sheriff?”

“Yes?”

“We need a priest.”

~

The team took turns to stand watch through the night. At dawn, a dozen hardy men headed up the main road. Hart was in the lead, and at the rear was an elderly man in a black cassock and white clerical collar. Freeman raised a hand in greeting, and Hart returned the gesture.

“Mornin’ gents,” Hart said.

“Morning, Sheriff.” Freeman coughed; his armour had stopped the shard, but it had left a deep bruise that he was only feeling now.

With a broad sweep of his arm, Hart gestured at the smoking ruin and the Bloom-covered field.

“Looks worse in daylight, don’t it,” Hart said.

“Yes sir.”

Hart looked at the bodies laid out by the road. “Those the demons?”

“Yeah.”

“Ugly way to die. But at least we don’t have to… Is that a child?”

Freeman sighed. This was never easy. “Yes sir. The demons must have taken her. Changed her into one of them.”

Hart crossed himself. “My God…”

“That’s demons for you.”

“Horrible business, what they do to humans.” He paused. “I only see four of you.”

Freeman pressed his lips together. Steadied himself with a breath. Looked into Hart’s eyes.

“We lost a man.”

Hart shook his head sympathetically. “I’m sorry. At least you stopped the demons before things got worse.” Digging into the pocket of his coat, Hart extracted a small bag. “Here. Your reward. I know it won’t bring your man back, but at least y’all did the right thing. And don’t worry; we’ll take care of the rest.”

“Thanks.”

Freeman stuffed the coin bag into a cargo pocket. It was so heavy his pants sagged.

“What are you planning to do with the Bloom in the fields?” Freeman asked.

“The Mayor’s going to ask AYG Mining to look at it. Might even sell land rights if the price is right.”

Freeman bit his lip. He’d rather burn it all, but he knew remote communities like this would see things differently.

The Bloom was both bane and blessing. It leeched out the life from the land around it, sucking up nutrients, metals, and other materials buried in the Earth and concentrating them in itself. When the demons were hungry or wounded, they ate the Bloom to restore their strength. When they needed reinforcements and there was no Hellgate nearby, the Bloom turned human prisoners into more demons.

When humans learned how to harvest the Bloom, it had marked the turning point of the Tribulation. Everything Freeman had on him ‒ his gear, weapons, ammo ‒ were perfect reproductions of pre-Fall tech. The Church had preserved the knowledge to create them, but only the Bloom had made the raw materials readily available.

“Think it might breathe life back into town?” Freeman asked.

“That’s the Mayor’s thinking. Got to make the best of a bad situation. For now, my boys are gonna guard it.”

“Fair enough. But be careful. The Bloom spreads fast. You’ve got to station the guards at least half a kilometre from the field.”

“Will do.”

The priest stood at the smoking ruins of the house, offering a prayer. Freeman and his men waited until he was done then approached him.

“Father, we need your help,” Freeman said.

“What’s the matter?”

“We lost a man last night. We’d like you to perform a burial service for him.”

The priest nodded. “My condolences. The Sheriff said you were Crusaders. Is that right?”

If the priest were an ordinary civilian, Freeman would have opted for an obfuscation. But he had never lied to a priest before, and this was no time to start.

“We… We were, Father.”

“Were?”

Freeman held the priest’s gaze. “We’re from the Order of Saint George.”

The priest pursed his lips, disgust lighting his eyes. “I cannot help you.”

“Father, please. He helped to save—”

“You are excommunicate and anathema. The sacraments are forbidden to you.”

“Can’t you spare—”

“You are no longer of the Church!” the priest snapped.

“Father—”

Knight laid a hand on Freeman’s shoulder. “It’s no use,” Knight said. “We’ll take care of him our own way.”

The priest grunted and walked away.

~

The four men carried Knowles’ body to a flat patch of ground, dug a hole so deep the Bloom wouldn’t touch him, and gently lowered him into the hole.

Bowing their heads, they gathered around the grave. Freeman cleared his throat.

“Lord, we commend unto thy hands the soul of our departed brother, and we commit his body to the ground. Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust. He gave his life in service to you and to humanity. Please have mercy on him and grant him the absolution he sought in life. Please continue to watch over us as we continue to walk the road. Thank you. Amen.”

“Amen,” the men echoed.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

Kyrie eleison. Christe eleison.

~

Back in town they divided Knowles’ belongings with the mechanical manner of men who had performed the same unpleasant task too many times before. Food, water, ammo and money they divided among themselves. Everything else was sold or traded to the town merchant. The gold they received was heavy, but it was the one currency accepted everywhere in the Fallen world.

With that out of the way, they made for the saloon. Checking in their firearms, they ordered drinks and clustered at a table in the corner. They rarely drank, but today they made an exception.
Standing, Freeman raised his mug. “To absent companions!”

“Absent companions!”

They drained their glasses in a single pull and slammed them on the table.

“And now, we are four,” Freeman pronounced.

“Gone too soon,” Sharpe said. “Too damn soon.”

“Oliver was the best of us,” Bates said. “No better friend, no worse foe. Saved our hides who knew how many times. Sent back too many demons to count. What the priest said doesn’t matter; if anybody earned redemption among us, it’s him.”

Knight signalled for another drink. “Amen, brother.”

“We’ll walk the road in his place,” Sharpe said. “We’ll finish what we started.”

A tall, thin man entered the saloon and scanned the room. He fixed his gaze on Freeman, smiled and sauntered over.

“Heads up,” Freeman said. “Single male approaching.”

The man raised his hand. “Hello. Mind if I join you?”

“What’s the occasion?” Knight asked, his tone taking on a studied air of neutrality.

“Just wanted to thank y’all for dealing with the demons at the Anderson place. Terrible business.”

The man had the strangest accent Freeman had ever heard. It sounded like it came from all over, a mix of hayseed twang and slicker sophistication.

“You’re welcome,” Freeman said.

“Heard the demons killed someone too. Friend of yours?”

“Yes.”

“My condolences. Mind if I get the next round?”

“Go ahead.”

The man flagged down a waitress and ordered five beers. Then he pulled up an empty seat and joined them.

“Don’t mean to intrude,” the stranger said. “Just wonderin’ if y’all are soldiers or mercenaries or something.”

“Pilgrims,” Freeman said.

The stranger’s smile grew broader. “Packin’ heavy firepower for pilgrims.”

“Dangerous world out there.”

“No kiddin’. Looks like you’ve got some trainin’ too.”

“Why do you say that?”

“You dress the same way, carry the same kind o’ gear, keep watchin’ the room even as we talk. You Crusaders?”

Freeman pondered his response for a moment. On one hand, lying was a sin. On the other, the men still had to earn their keep.

“We completed our terms.” Freeman paused, locking eyes with the stranger. “But we still keep the faith.”

“Ah. Well, are you boys interested in a job?”

“I’m more interested in your name right now.”

The man laughed. “Of course, of course. Where are my manners? Name’s Jude. Jude Johnson. I’m a travelin’ merchant. Heard the demons are actin’ up again ‘round these parts. Lookin’ to hire guards for my caravan.”

“What cargo are you carrying?” Knight asked.

“Medicines and food mostly. Nothing that goes against the Good Book, I assure you, but this cargo won’t keep for long and I’m itchin’ to offload them ‘fore they go bad.”

“You don’t have a freezer?” Freeman asked.

“I do, but they cost me money every day to run. I’ve got a real tight margin already, and if I don’t start sellin’ I’m gonna start bleedin’. I’m willin’ to pay a premium if you can get me to market safely.”

“Where’s your destination?”

“New Rome.”

The four men exchanged a look. Freeman raised an eyebrow. Knight, Sharpe and Bates nodded as one.

“We’re in,” Freeman said.

~~

Cheah Git San Blue

For more long-form fiction by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

Redemption Road Part 1

House 2

 

Something

Something stirred in the dark.

Dropping to a knee, William Freeman powered up his helmet-mounted fusion vision goggles. The machine combined night vision and thermal imaging into a single image, delivering it to the heads-up display over his left eye.

He saw it. The Bloom.

It was a thing that defied classification. It was a living crystal, a voracious weed, a semi-sentient animal. Before him a dense mat of warm viscous matter covered the Earth. Here and there, hard nodules of crystallised Bloom poked above the mass. It had swamped what was once a field of maize, absorbing and transforming the crops into more of itself. As he watched, a fresh tendril burst through the ground and waggled in the air, discharging clouds of tiny spores.

The demons were here.

Touching the push-to-talk switch mounted on his chest, he whispered to his men, “Bloom sighted. Stay sharp.”

Oliver Knowles replied, “No point looking for survivors. We should burn everything down.”

Past the blighted fields, at the edge of his vision, was a three-storey house. Heat spilled out of the windows. It was the Anderson family abode. Where the Bloom appeared, demons followed. Everybody knew what they did to humans.

But they still had a job to do.

“We have to get eyes on survivors or remains first,” Freeman said. “Form a wedge.”

The five men arranged themselves in the dark. Freeman was at the tip of the spear, two men on either side. He wished for more men: a full squad, a platoon, everyone from the Order. But things were different now. They had to make do.

He dropped to his belly and crawled across the dry earth. His men followed. He led them around the house, keeping his bearings with the virtual compass projected at the top of his display. If there were demons about, going through the front door was suicide. He hunted for a side or back entrance.

It was slow, tedious work. Between his weapons, armour and gear stuffed into his assault pack and plate carrier, he was hauling one-third his body weight. Thank God the team’s exosuits were still operational.

He crawled on and on and on, brushing aside the odd fern, twig and stone. Now and then he looked up, orienting himself. They were getting closer, about six hundred meters out. He kept going, one inch at a—

“CONTACT!”

Gunfire ripped through the air.

“Who fired?” Freeman demanded. “What’s the situation?”

High-pitched roars answered, like angry giants tearing massive strips of canvas. Freeman’s earpieces dialled down the noise, saving his hearing.

“Contact!” Peter Knight called. “Demons at the rear door!”

Freeman zoomed in. Hot orange blobs flashed past the windows, brighter than the background heat. Incoming rounds screeched above his head. There were no muzzle flashes, no target indications he could call out.

Two could play this game.

“Flush fire!” Freeman ordered.

Taking up his M891 rifle, he set its optics to infrared and fired at the nearest window. Fired to its left, fired to its right. Picked another window, fired again. The shot pattern would keep heads down, maybe scare some demons out of cover. Or negate cover altogether; there were few things on Earth that could stop a ten-grain two-millimetre flechette screaming in at one and a half klicks per second.

The rest of his men followed, hammering out one round a second. Knight laid down the hate, his light machine gun ripping off three round bursts in rapid succession. Every weapon wore a suppressor, even the LMG. All the enemy would know was that someone was firing at them from somewhere; there was no muzzle flash, no cone of sound to pin down his team.

The incoming fire died down.

“Grenadier up!” Freeman called. “HEDP! Breach the wall!”

“Roger!” Neil Sharpe answered.

THOONK!

The 40mm High Explosive Dual Purpose grenade struck. Fire and thunder followed. His goggles cut out for a moment. When they were back online, Freeman saw a smoking hole carved into the wall.

“Push forward!” he ordered.

The team advanced, one man moving, four men firing. When it was his turn, Freeman got up and shrugged off his pack and sprinted. Counting to three, he hit the dirt and continued firing and firing—

CLICK!

“RED!” he yelled.

All around him, the men laid down a storm of covering fire. He ejected the magazine. Dropped it into his dump pouch. Slapped in a fresh hundred-round box. Hit the bolt catch.

“GREEN!”

The incoming fire died down. As they neared, they reduced the rate of fire. No sense wasting ammo on an enemy who wasn’t there anymore.

Twenty meters out, Knowles radioed. “We’ve got incendiaries. We should burn the place down. Only way to be sure.”
Close quarters battle with demons was for fools and the desperate, and the Order suffered no fools. But they weren’t here to slay demons. They were here to save lives. As he framed that thought, a long wail cut through the night.

A human wail.

A girl.

“We might still have innocents inside,” Freeman said. “Enter and clear.”

“Boss, it’s a trap,” Knight said.

“Of course it is. But we are not going to risk burning down a human.”

“Just sayin’.” Knight sighed. “We’ve got your back.”

“Thanks.”

They stacked on the breach. Joshua Bates up front, Freeman right behind him. When he felt Sharpe pat his shoulder from behind, Freeman squeezed Bates’ own.

“Let’s go,” Freeman whispered.

“I see Bloom. PPE up,” Bates replied.

“PPE up,” Freeman echoed.

One by one, the men paused to don their gas masks. When he felt a pat on his shoulder, Freeman doffed his helmet, dug out his gas mask and fitted it to his face, taking extra care to check the seal and filter. The mask would simply keep the Bloom spores out of his lungs; when this mission was over they’d have to wash themselves down and replace the filter.
He snapped his helmet back on and patted Bates’ shoulder. Ten seconds later, Bates had his mask on. Bates stepped through the breach. Freeman turned on his weapon light and followed.

Bloom coated the floor and far wall. Parts of it had been charred by the blast. The men edged their way around the biomass, careful not to step on it. They flicked their tactical lights on, examining the room.

“Blood on the floor,” Sharpe whispered.

The blood trail led to a staircase feeding up. Knight and Knowles stayed put to guard the stairs. Freeman followed Bates and Sharpe down a narrow corridor.

They found a closet. Empty.

They found a kitchen. Filled with Bloom.

They found a pantry. Flooded with Bloom.

Just past the back door, they saw a humanoid body, motionless in the dark. It was the demon Knight had seen. Maybe dead, maybe living. The men blasted its head apart. Now it was dead.

The girl shrieked again.

Back to the stairs. Freeman pointed up. The men formed up, Knowles in the lead, Freeman behind, and headed up.
At the top of the stairs, a girl stood.

“Contact,” Knowles reported.

Knowles trained his light on her. She was short, about chest height, dressed in a simple white nightgown. Long dark hair obscured her eyes.

“Hey there,” Knowles said. “What’s your name?”

She didn’t respond.

Knowles stepped up.

“Can you hear me?”

She tilted her head, tracking him.

Another step. “Are you okay? Where’s your family?”

Her hair retreated. Her skin turned black. Her fingers and toes transformed into short stubby tubes. She opened her eyes and howled.

“DEMON!”

It extended its hands at the men. Freeman raised his weapon—

A volley of blasts split the air. Shards slammed into Freeman’s chest plate and shattered into dust. Blood splashed across his face. A body fell against him. Freeman shoved it aside, wiped himself down. His men fired. He looked up, saw a shredded mess where the demon once was.

He glanced down.

Knowles was gone, his head obliterated.

Unearthly voices filled the air.

“DEUS VULT!” Freeman yelled.

He grabbed a stun grenade from his belt, pulled the pin and tossed it upstairs. Blinding light and thunderous sound followed. Freeman charged up, wafting through the smoke.

Another demon. It covered its blinded eyes with one arm, the other morphing into a gun barrel. Freeman doubled-tapped it in the chest and it went down. Another shot to the face and he moved on.

There were four rooms here, two on either side. Freeman found the nearest. The door was open. Knight was right behind him. Together, they entered. Nothing but Bloom here, creeping across the floor and eating the furniture.

“Clear!” Freeman called.

“Clear!” Knight replied.

“Coming out!” Freeman shouted.

“Come out!” Bates acknowledged.

Next room. Bloom, but otherwise empty.

Heavy footsteps sounded from above.

At the end of the room, a trapdoor burst open. A ladder dropped. A black ball followed.

“GRENADE!”

Freeman dropped. Closed his eyes. Opened his mouth. A flash, a thunderous boom. His hearing cut out. Unbearable light flashed through his eyelids.

Something heavy thudded on the floor.

Freeman pointed his weapon, flicked to full-auto and held down the trigger and swept from left to right. Pause. Right to left.

Sanity returned. A pair of demons lay broken and bleeding. Freeman rose to a knee, shot them again, then reloaded.

“Pete! Flush ‘em! Neil! Bang and clear!”

Knight reloaded with a fresh three-hundred round drum. Aiming at the ceiling, he placed bursts through the thick wood. As sawdust rained down, Sharpe dashed to the trapdoor and tossed a stun grenade through.

“Pete, lift fire!”

The grenade went off, Sharpe climbed, Knight ceased firing, and Freeman followed.

A dead demon lay just past the entrance. Bloom matted the walls and floor. A half-dozen bodies lay covered in the stuff, dissolving into their constituent elements. In the middle of the room an arch of metallic Bloom rose from the floor.
Deep red light leaked through it.

It was a gateway.

Past the opening, he saw barren rock, clouds of yellow dust, Bloom as far as the eye could see.

Hell.

A massive eye appeared in the opening.

It stared at him.

He froze.

It was a field of fire with a central slit of infinite darkness. Incomprehensibly complex diagrams danced at the edge of his view. Freeman tried to move. He could not.

A voice, deep and terrible, filled his mind.

I SEE YOU.

He tried to speak. His brain shut down.

COME.

Unbidden, he stepped toward the gate.

Another step.

A third.

Under his shirt, his crucifix warmed against his skin.

He drew a breath and the spell broke.

“DEUS VULT!” he yelled.

“DEUS VULT!” the men echoed.

They fired at the eye.

A sound, so massive and terrible the earpieces shut off, shook the house. A flood of black blood gushed forth. The eye retreated, leaving behind the wastelands of Hell.

“We’re done,” Freeman said. “Burn the place down.”

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For more works by yours truly, check out my Dragon Award nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS.

The Whisper Campaign Against SFF Author Jon Del Arroz

Gravity of the Game.jpg

Jon Del Arroz, a Dragon Award nominated science fiction and fantasy author, is facing a whisper campaign of blackballing, harassment, threats and ostracism. His crime: exposing the institutional sexism of the SFF short fiction field.

On 8 September, Del Arroz published a blog post highlighting the rampant misandry within the premier SFF magazines. He discovered that nearly every magazine was biased against men. 2.8% of female submissions were published — but only 0.8% of male submissions were given the nod.

Cat Rambo, the President of the Science Fiction Writers of America, decried the report as ‘alt numbers’ and turned on him. Previously, she was on cordial terms with Del Arroz, but after he published the article, she immediately turned hostile. In a clear violation of SFWA rules, she used SFWA’s Twitter account to tag Jon to discredit the post.

“I of course messaged SFWA and they did not care,” Del Arroz said in an online interview.

A week later, Jon offered to host her on a YouTube show to patch things up. Instead, Rambo threatened to sue him for ‘harassment’ if he ever contacted her again.

To Del Arroz, it was the last straw.

“That being a war declared, I started memeing about her / mean girls,” Del Arroz said. “She started Facebook messaging calling me a harasser — as if I attacked her — and stirring up industry professionals against me.”

Messages started pouring in across social media, calling him a “harasser”, with some originating from “people who get published in the big mags like Analog”. These are the same magazines whose sexist practices he exposed. A former editor of Clarkesworld took things one step further, calling Del Arroz on Facetime to berate him and his writing.

“Very bizarre,” Del Arroz remarked. “I don’t know him.”

The harassment campaign continued to escalate. A troll posted on his website with information about his children, while others did the same on Twitter.

“[Rambo] never disavowed that,” Del Arroz said.

Del Arroz has since deleted the offending comment, and Twitter has suspended the doxxers.

Throughout this ordeal, Del Arroz has received messages demanding he should make a public apology. As the whisper campaign continued, former friends distanced themselves from Del Arroz, unfriending and blocking him on Facebook. Among them are industry professionals and editors, including those who work at Baen — previously the only major SFF publishing house that strives to remain apolitical in its publication decisions.

Del Arroz believes Social Justice Warriors applied pressure on them to isolate him.

“A person who has worked for Baen told me he received messages warning him about being my friend,” Del Arroz said.

A whisper campaign of this magnitude is deliberately designed to isolate and pressure the target into admitting defeat, and threaten everyone who supports him. For an independent author like Jon Del Arroz, who depends heavily on social media to sell and market his books, this campaign is a threat to his writing career.

Jon Del Arroz is not a troll. While his communication style is upfront and direct, he has always comported himself in a sincere and friendly manner. Whenever he comes into conflict with someone, his first reaction is to attempt to bury the hatchet. In addition to his offer to Rambo, Del Arroz also entered into a spat with SFF author John Scalzi. Del Arroz publicly offered to have dinner with Scalzi, and later to watch a baseball game together, in an attempt to reconcile their differences. Scalzi ignored both offers.

The SFF community was once a big tent where people of all backgrounds could come together to celebrate a shared love for wonder and adventure. Now, a den of vipers has infested the tent, driving out everyone who disagrees with them. Jon Del Arroz is merely their latest target. The moment you question the narrative, they will turn on you and everyone you know. These harpies and backbiters will stop at nothing to destroy your reputation, your friendships and you.

Cat Rambo’s silence is deafening. The behaviour of the SJWs driving this mob is damning. By word and deed, by silence and treachery, they have shown that they are not interested in civilised conduct. All they want is to hang on to their crumbling empire as the seas of change relentlessly batter their strongholds, and to drive off everyone who isn’t one of them. The response to such behaviour is simple.

We will replace them.

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If you want to support Jon Del Arroz through this trying time, you can pick up a copy of his Amazon Top 10 bestselling novel Star Realms: Rescue Run, his Dragon Award nominated novel For Steam and Country, and new novella Gravity of the Game.

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Current serial fiction: INVINCIBLE Part 1 and 2

Dragon Awards 2017 Winners

Dragoncon

The results of the Dragon Awards 2017 are in. The winners have my heartiest congratulations for producing such fine stories, and the voters have my thanks for making the Dragon Awards the premier fan awards in science fiction and fantasy.

While my own novel, NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS did not win the award, against a titanic figure like Harry Turtledove there simply is no competition. Turtledove has writing since long before I was born, and has contributed immeasurably to the field. Likewise, while none of the authors I recommended for the award won, this was simply because they were up against names even more famous and accomplished than themselves. I am particularly pleased that John Ringo, Larry Correia and Jim Butcher have won awards; they are giants in their field, and such recognition is long overdue.

Going by the numbers alone, it’s clear that the Dragon Awards is far more representative of fandom. With double the total votes of the Hugo Awards, the Dragons have demonstrated which award fandom would rather be a part of. Bear in mind that in recent years the Hugos have benefited from press coverage (and lies) about Puppy-related drama, while the Dragon Awards have by and large flown under the radar.

Of course, the Social Justice Warriors aren’t going to take it lying down. N K Jemisin and Alison Littlewood failed to discredit the awards after they withdrew their nominations (and disrespected their fans). John Scalzi failed to win an award in spite of the drama he generated by first withdrawing from, then returning to, the ballot. To further discredit the Awards, the new narrative is that the Dragon Awards is sexist, because all the winners are men.

To this, I have the following rejoinders:

  1. Women swept the Hugo Awards. If this isn’t sexist, then it’s not sexist for men to sweep the Dragons.
  2. For women to have a chance to win an award, they have to show up and stay in the game. Jemisin and Littlewood, both women, abandoned the field of honour. Such a pity, too: being a double Hugo award winner, Jemisin would have had a decent chance at unseating James S A Corey.
  3. Patty Jenkins, a woman, won the Dragon Awards for directing Wonder Woman.

I have no doubt that next year the SJWs will again try to besiege the Dragons. And again, I must recommend that the organisers establish a firm withdrawals policy. They should either prevent authors from withdrawing works, or allow them to do so on the condition that they are permanently banned and blacklisted from future awards. They must be ready to stand fast in the face of pressure from SJWs.

As for myself, I’m in the final stages of preparing my next story. For those who have voted for me, thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.

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If you would like to get your hands on the Dragon Award-nominated novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS, you can find it here.

When In Doubt, Go Epic

High Crusade

Whenever I plan a story, I occasionally run into hang-ups. The setting isn’t coherent, the technology and/or magic system isn’t evenly applied, the characters aren’t plausible, the plot lacks history or context, the stakes are too small. In every single instance, they are resolved by the use of a simple expedient: make everything bigger, brighter and more beautiful.

Science fiction and fantasy is the literature of ideas. It is the celebration of the human spirit and a paean to the imagination. SFF readers don’t want to be reminded of the dreariness of everyday life; they want to be immersed in strange new worlds with cultures and characters and tools similar enough to ours to be understandable, yet strange enough to be exciting. They want adventure and treasures and righteous battle, they want romance and chivalry and intelligence, they want to be taken to the depths of despair and just as quickly be elevated to the rapturous heights. They want, if only for a short while, to be transported out of this time and place and be reminded of the glories of the universe.

Epics, in the original sense of the term, fulfilled that purpose. The great epics celebrated the deeds of legendary heroes, pitting them against gods and monsters and cosmic forces. They reminded the audience that evil lurked everywhere–and that even mortals can overcome the most terrible foe. Through the epics the people tasted strange foods that no human could create, saw riches and wonders beyond human ken, smelled the salt of the wine-dark sea, and heard the compelling, majestic and irresistible voice of the heavens. Through larger-than-life characters and conflicts, the epics showed the people that there was much more to life than everyday mundanity — and in doing so, expanded and elevated their minds. And, most of all, they were fun.

SFF continues the grand tradition of Beowulf, The Eight Immortals and Nieblungenlied. It doesn’t matter that it’s fiction written for a contemporary audience; there will always be a human need to experience awe and beauty and just plain enjoyment, and among the established literary genres, SFF fulfils that need. It is its raison d’etre. It is why a century ago, pulps were the best-selling stories in the world.

Much contemporary SFF no longer fulfils that desire. Pink SFF — SFF more concerned about virtue-signalling and evangelising causes — has perverted the purpose of SFF. Where we once had heroes, we now had amoral nihilistic villains; in the place of wondrous kingdoms we have rotting empires; virtue is punished and the evil elevated; gods were no longer mighty and dignified, but rather weak and piteous, or simply satanic. There is no beauty to admire, no virtue to celebrate, no heroes to adore, no truth to learn. This is why SFF is now the least popular literary genre in the world — and quite likely at least part of the reason why many people just don’t read any more.

Book of the Long Sun

Story worlds are fragile things. They are consensual hallucinations held together by skeins of words and dollops of imagination. To be complete, to be coherent, these settings must have histories, peoples, politics, cultures, religions, believable geography and climate, technology and magic, language and art. These seemingly-disparate elements feed into and build upon each other, organically growing into worlds. If you replace or subordinate these elements with a single overriding political message, one that must reign supreme over every other ingredient, the result is a bland and colorless word stew, barely fit to be called a setting.

Do you want to read a story that hammers home on every page the evils of racism and oppression and sexism, or would you rather follow Conan the Cimmerian as he travels through fantasy Europe, Africa, South Asia and the Middle East, fighting men and monsters and wooing beautiful women? Does a family drama following the travails of a pack of werewolves who live in a tiny island sound interesting, or would you rather follow the exploits of a masked black-clad vigilante who dispenses rough justice with psychic powers and twin .45s? Which sounds more like a space opera: The story of a young boy who discovers he has supernatural powers, joins an order of warrior monks, participates in a galaxy-spanning war to overthrow an empire, trains to be a fighter pilot and swordsman, struggles to stay on the side of light, redeems his evil father and destroys a superweapon capable of destroying entire planets; or some kind of revenge tale featuring someone from an empire whose major identifying marker is that its people refer to each other as ‘she’ — even those with masculine titles.

The answer should be obvious.

World-building is the Bifrost that connects the author’s vision to the reader’s perceptions. A story world must allow for adventure and romance, fantastic cultures and fascinating peoples, vice and virtue, horror and honour. Without these, a story lacks colour, coherence, and cheer. It lacks fun — and if a story isn’t fun, people aren’t going to read it.

If you’re an SFF writer and you hope to make a profession out of it, your stories have to be fun. It doesn’t matter if you’re with PulpRev or Superversive or you just fly solo. If you want people to read your stories, they have to be fun. To make a story fun, the story must be set in a compelling world where fun adventures await.

If you get stuck crafting a world, if you’re struggling to bind plots and ideas together, if your magic or technology feels boring, there is a single ready solution: go bigger. Don’t let yourself be hemmed in by your beliefs or assumptions; let your imagination run wild. Escalate your stakes to encompass cities, countries, continents, worlds. Enable your magic or technology to solve increasingly larger plot problems – with an appropriately higher price. Make your villains more crafty and well-resourced and intelligent, and your heroes more skilled and brilliant and dynamic. Make everything more.

Make everything epic.

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If you want to help make SFF epic again, do consider voting for my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS for Best Alternate History novel at the Dragon Awards. You can pick up a copy on Amazon here, and with 36 reviews and an average rating of 4.4 stars out of 5, I daresay it deserves a shot at winning.

Drama at the Dragon Awards

Dragoncon

The Dragon Awards made a colossal mistake: it caved to the whims of writers who disrespected their fans.

Alison Littlewood and N.K. Jemisin withdrew their novels from the Dragon Awards nomination. John Scalzi, who initially withdrew, decided to withdraw his withdrawal. The former two claimed they were being used as proxies in the culture war. Scalzi came back because the organizers asked him to reconsider.

This isn’t obvious to outsiders, but these are classic social justice entryist tactics.

The Dragon Awards was conceived of as an award by the fandom. No gatekeepers, no entry fees, no backdoor politicking. Just fans nominating their favourite works.

None of the major SFF blocs — PulpRev, Superversive, Puppies — had any intention to destroy the Awards or drag personal politics into it. The recommendations they made were in good faith. None of them recommended Littlewood, Jemisin and Scalzi; those works do not meet their tastes — but they didn’t go out of their way to actively discourage people from nominating the trio either.

The fans of these authors nominated them in good faith. By withdrawing their stories, the writers spat on their own fans.

Littlewood and Jemisin demonstrated that they didn’t have faith in their audience. In Littlewood’s case, she believed that she was nominated because Vox Day, the most controversial blogger in SFF, recommended her work. Jemisin claimed there was “no way to know if [her] book’s presence on the list was legitimately earned through individual, freely-chosen votes by a representative sampling of DragonCon members.”

Littlewood is saying that she didn’t want fans with the wrong politics to read her works. Jemisin’s rationale is utter nonsense: there is no way to enforce block voting over the Net, and Dragoncon had measures in place to prevent repeat votes. Jemisin was simply posturing to her loyal fanbase, allowing her to win the Hugo Award.

It seems odd that a writer would accept the Hugo Award for her latest novel, but refuse any chance of winning a second award for the same novel. But that’s because the Hugo Awards have been converged.

The Hugos used to be about recognising the finest SFF works. But for three decades and counting, it’s been about recognising the most propaganda-heavy message fiction produced by the most superficially diverse group of creators. The Hugo Awards is where SJWs in SFF go to congratulate themselves and shut out everybody else — it’s little wonder that the number of nominating ballots and final ballots dropped by 50% from last year.

Social Justice Warriors aren’t going to fight fair. They want the rules to be changed in their favor, and in so doing change the nature of the organization they are targeting.

By pushing for the right to withdraw their nominations, these entryists want to change the Dragon Awards from a fan-centric award to a talent-centric award — an award dictated by the whims of the people involved.

As for Scalzi’s case, when he first tried to withdraw, the Awards’ organisers refused. Then they changed their minds and allowed the withdrawal. Then they asked Scalzi to reconsider. This flip-flopping signals that the organisers lack spine, and aren’t willing to enforce their own rules and standards. Organisations that cannot stand fast will bend to suit the whims of the outrage-mongers.

In my last post, I stated that while you may not care about the culture war, the culture war cares about you. This is what the opening shots look like: an attempt to influence the targeted organisation to abandon its mission and serve the whims of those who will not respect their fans.

I don’t want the Dragon Awards to go the way of the Hugos. Nobody from the fandom does. We must roll back the entryists before they can gain a foothold.

John Scalzi cannot be allowed to win an award. If he wins, it will galvanise his fellow social justice warriors, giving them incentive to put even more pressure on the Dragon Awards next year. I would urge you to vote instead for Brian Nemeier’s The Secret Kings. Nemeier is one of the leading indie SFF authors of this generation, and should he win the award, he will cede it to L Jagi Lamplighter, whose work catalyzed the Superversive movement.

The Dragon Awards’ organisers must enforce their mission through a clear and unbendable withdrawals policy. Either they prevent authors from withdrawing once nominated, or they allow withdrawals on the understanding that it will irrevocably bar those authors from ever being nominated for the Dragon Awards again. I am personally in favour of the latter: any author who withdraws his work from a fan award has betrayed the trust of everyone who deemed his work worthy of the award.

The Dragon Awards is for the fans. Anything that compromises that cannot be tolerated. It’s time to kick out the entryists, enforce the core mission, and get back to celebrating the best of SFF. Life is too short for drama like this.

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I am grateful to my fans for nominating NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS for the Dragon Awards under the Alternate History category. If you’d like to check it out before voting, you can find it on Amazon here. When you’re ready to vote, click here to sign up.

My Winding Road To PulpRev

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I wasn’t always a science fiction and fantasy reader. Despite what my bibliography says, in some ways I still am not. At least, not the kind of reader most SFF is aimed at.

As a child I read voraciously, but I was always drawn to world myths, folklore and fairy tales. One day I would read about how a boy and a girl outmatched Baba Yaga with kindness and intelligence; the next I saw Thor slaying Jormungandr and in turn dying from the world serpent’s venom; the day after I witnessed Krishna opening his mouth to his human mother Yashoda to reveal the entire universe. These were tales of courage and cowardice, sin and virtue, heartbreak and sacrifice, duty and destiny.

When I finally meandered over to the fiction section, I found myself utterly bored. Age-appropriate stories had their own charm, but they paled in comparison to the stories I had read. How could a girl who used her photographic memory to solve small mysteries compare to the Aesir’s cunning scheme to bind Fenrir and prevent a premature Ragnarok? Why should I care for the everyday tales of the Bookworm Gang when I could read of the tragedies, labours and triumphs of Hercules? What were the exploits of Mr Kiasu when placed next to Scheherazade’s tales?

Nevertheless, I kept reading everything I could get my hands on. The TintinAsterix and the Hardy Boys series made regular appearances in my household. Readers Digest sent condensed novels to my home then, and there I ventured into adult fiction. At the age of 13, a classmate lent me a copy of Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six, and there I discovered a new genre: thrillers.

I read every Tom Clancy work I could find, and sought other writers in the same vein: Chris Ryan, Andy McNab, Larry Bond, Dale Brown. Here were stories of geopolitics, terrorism, war, of issues that mattered to readers of the day. These were events that could have happened and worlds that might have existed. Here I studied tradecraft, politics, human motivations, tactics, technology and absorbed the lessons of research, meticulousness and mindset.

When the Harry Potter craze hit Singapore, I got my hands on the first book, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. It was a decent story in its own right, but to someone who had grown up reading the tragedy of King Arthur, Xuanzang’s journey to the West, and the exploits of John Clark, Harry Potter was… underwhelming. It had its merits, but it wasn’t worth a second read. I understood its appeal to regular children, but I, having achieved the Grail with Galahad, slain the Medusa with Perseus and defeated terrorists beside Team Rainbow, was no regular child.

Nevertheless, I attempted to read other modern science fiction and fantasy stories. Storm Front by Jim Butcher was one of the few I remembered: it was raw, but even then it was entertaining, and to be fair Butcher got better with each successive novel. But the rest? There was no sense of tradecraft, no sense of stakes, no plot, wooden dialogue, characters who avoided death simply because the enemy lacked intelligence. They weren’t worth my time.

I turned elsewhere. Michael Connolly, Daniel Silva, Charles Cumming, Max Arthur Collins, Barry Eisler, Marcus Sakey, Stephen Hunter, Sean Chercover. In crime and spy thrillers I found a different emphasis: where the technothrillers of my youth paid fetishistic attention to technology and weaponry, these thrillers sketched out all-too-human portrayals of people and their achievements and failings. And yet… they still lacked something quintessential, something I had seen in my childhood books but not quite replicated.

I turned to the classics. Jules Verne, H. G. Wells, Bram Stoker, Mary Shelley. Here, I found it again: recognition of elemental evil, celebration of the human spirit, the triumph of transcendent goodness. I found adventure and excitement and philosophy and science and reason. In Around the World in Eighty Days I saw how decisiveness, technology, creativity and an obscene amount of money could take a man on globe-spanning adventures; in War of the Worlds I caught a nightmarish vision of an unstoppable alien invasion, on par with the Apocalypse; in Frankenstein I saw the consequences of mad science and an exploration of the human spirit; Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea mixed romantic adventure with then-cutting-edge science.

I had found the pioneers of science fiction and fantasy.

Once again I looked at modern science fiction and fantasy. And once again I was repulsed. I was the child reading a poor version of Harry Potter: having seen the enlightenment of the Buddha, the twilight of the gods and the resurrection of the Christ, what were these stories but pale shadows? But for a few glittering jewels, these stories were dull and flat, inspiring little more than boredom and contempt.

Then I found John Ringo. And from Ringo I found David Drake, David Weber and Larry Correia. These were the descendants of the stories that had fired my boyhood imagination: heroes facing mortal and moral peril, exotic locales, excellent tradecraft and tactics, weighty actions whose consequences rippled through the story universe, coherent technology and intricate settings. I looked at what inspired them, and I found Robert A. Heinlein, Raymond Chandler, H. P. Lovecraft, Dashiell Hammet, Mickey Spillane, Frank Herbert, Elmore Leonard.

In these stories I rediscovered what I had lost: expansive worlds and settings, characters clothed in their culture and their beliefs, exhilaration at overcoming impossible odds, unflinching explorations of the dark heart of man, epic struggles of good against evil, inhuman monsters and alien beings. In these stories I rediscovered the universal elements that lurked at the heart of the grand tales of my childhood. I saw the lineage of ideas and story elements linking these stories to the classics, and from the classics to the world myths.

I had rediscovered the pulps.

How could science fiction and fantasy have fallen so far? When did tales of galaxy-spanning empires give way to interchangeable dystopias in generic Earths wrecked by the predictable boogeyman of climate change? How did military science fiction, the literature of high strategy and wartime ethics and futuristic tactics, become stylized shoot ’em ups or bland sludge about everything but the military? Why do modern SFF stories have characters clinging to 21st century progressive cultural and political values in settings that could not justify them, while old-time stories had entire schools of thought and cultural norms that flowed organically from their settings?

These questions, and more, haunted me as I explored fiction. When I took up the pen, I decided I could not follow in the footsteps of modern SFF writers. Against the old masters, they were like candles to the sun, and I refuse to craft dim candles when I could ignite new stars.

In my writing and my research, I strove to keep one foot firmly in the Golden Age and the other in the present. As I studied the pulp masters I blended their techniques with the rest of my arsenal, drawing upon what I have learned from war stories and mythology, fairy tales and thrillers. And in doing so I found others who shared my approach.

This is where I found PulpRev. Be they members of the Pulp Revolution or Pulp Revival, the people of PulpRev respect the tales of the past while training their eyes on the future. They are the children of the Internet era: they banter on Twitter and Gab and Discord, they haul up the books of the past with Project Gutenburg, they make full use of blogging and self-publishing platforms to get the word out. They tell stories for a modern audience while honouring what made their literary inspirations timeless. For PulpRev, the answer to the doldrums and the blandness of modern SFF is simple: regress harder. Regress to the glory days of pulp, and revel in the forgotten era of SFF. Rediscover the tales of lost cities and atomic rockets, planetary romances and adventure fiction, and breathe new life into a stale, insipid, calcified industry.

PulpRev is a rapidly-growing movement in SFF. We are writers and readers, indies and hybrids, and we have come to create a new epoch. We uphold the old masters, and we birth new works of our own. Neither politics nor borders divides us. Ours is a big tent: all who appreciate the pulp aesthetic is of our tribe. If you wish for fiction that sends the spirit soaring, fiction that is romantic and heroic and thrilling, fiction that is just plain fun, come join us, and together we shall make SFF great again.

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If you’d like to see the fruits of my research in pulp and writing, you can find my novel NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store.

Initial Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS

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Reviews for NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS are rolling in, and reader reception has been highly positive. Here are a few samples from Amazon:

Ray, May 5, 2017

Great book, that took a surprising twist on the usual mixing of Urban Fantasy and Military cloak and dagger genre, plus a bit of alternate history. I’ll need to re-read it because there is a lot under the surface of this hard to put down well written book…
The action is fast paced and it reminded me of Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter series that is just a fun read, but with a much more sophisticated, serious world view… The mythology makes sense and is not the usual urban fantasy drek. The attention
to detail reminds me of the Laundry Series by Charlie Stross. I look forward to reading the next book in the series.

James Nealon, May 6, 2017

The book is damnably technical, or is it technically damning? Mr. Cheah wrote a very good military spy/thriller, of the type that pulls you into intense action… The book is very well written, with very good characterization of heroes and villains… I can’t wait for more in the series. Great action hook for the book, and a great hook for the series.

Koba, May 11, 2017

This is an action-packed story of “counter-terrorism with a twist”…The alternate Earth is extremely well-realized and convincing. It is just “different enough” that it is not too predictable… The system of magic and the “theology” of the book are also well thought-out and coherent… I would compare this favorably with Larry Correia’s “Monster Hunter” series – action oriented, lots of weapons, but with supernatural elements. If you liked his books, you will like this book. I am definitely looking forward to the sequels from this exciting new author!

NO GODS, ONLY DAIMONS can be can found on Amazon and the Castalia House ebook store. If you have already bought a copy, do consider leaving a review on Amazon or your blog if you have one. That would help others find and enjoy this novel too.

Thanks for your support, and please look forward to the sequel, HAMMER OF THE WITCHES.