The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms – Chapter 78, The Ritual

In which a goat makes the ultimate sacrifice to help a time-traveller marooned in ancient Babylon find his way home.

Chapter 78, The Ritual

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

The white-haired goat gave a strangled bleat, kicked against its bonds and lay still. Assisted by Ishkun, Asklepios hung the animal by its back legs from a hook set into a roof beam. The animal struggled briefly then hung still. Asklepios placed a deep bowl under the goat, took Ishkun’s proffered knife, and cut the creature’s throat.

Asklepios looked at the dying animal with some regret. He knew he did not need all this paraphernalia and that simpler was better, but couldn’t bring himself to give up on the ornate ritual. Not yet. For now it helped at least as much as it hindered. Experiment could come later, today was not the time for change.

While he collected the goat’s blood Banipal cleared away the rushes and gouged a shallow trench all around the table in the packed earth of the floor. He cleared the debris from the trench and swept the waste outside.

‘I shall send a simple message to my master,’ Asklepios said. ‘If he wishes to respond in person he will come. If not, his answer will reveal itself in a secondary divination.’

Banipal noted Asklepios had been careful not to mention his master’s name.

Now the incense was smouldering, the lamps were lit and the correct herbs placed in the seven equidistant positions around the table. Using the table was a joy, Asklepios’ insight had been vindicated and he felt his confidence grow. Already he could see how improvements could be made by adding division marks of thirds and fifths for simpler rituals, and sevenths for the more complex like the one he attempted now.

Banipal and Ishkun stood to one side. The priest held a flask of wine, the hunter his bloody dagger.

Asklepios went outside, changed into a short-sleeved knee-length shirt of clean white linen and re-entered the room. He took up the bowl of blood and carried it slowly and carefully to Banipal, who poured in a measure of wine. The he turned to Ishkun, who stirred the mix with his knife.

He poured the mix of blood and wine into the channel, put the bowl aside, went to his allotted place, raised his hands palms upwards and began to chant.

Time passed. Banipal’s feelings of awed anticipation gradually changed to the bored tension he often felt during the longer rituals in the temples at Esagila. Beside him Ishkun shifted his feet and Banipal knew his friend was itching to move.

Asklepios finished his chant and knelt on the spot he had marked on the ground, intermittently prostrating himself. As he repeated the move for the umpteenth time one of the lamps went out.

Ishkun sighed in exasperation and walked from the room.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 77 – The Truth

Author’s note: A day late, but it’s still the weekend and it’s only a day. This week’s chapter from The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms is called ‘The Truth’. So i suppose the question is – can you handle it? More to the point, can Heidi?

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

Chapter 77 – The Truth

There she was, dressed in another variation of lace-up boots, a long skirt and scoop top in black and purple. His heart in his mouth, Persistent Smith hurried towards the Kylma Kala main entrance.

‘Hello. It’s me,’ Smith boomed anxiously.

‘So I see.’

Smith grimaced unhappily. ‘Sorry I’m late.’

Heidi was incredulous. ‘Late? It’s not even the same day.’ She headed off along the pavement. ‘It’s my lunch hour, I need to do some shopping.’

Smith hurried after her. ‘I could buy you lunch.’

‘No, thank you.’

Nonplussed, Smith fell back. ‘Help me,’ he begged the Hand.

‘He was kidnapped!’ the Hand shouted. ‘Locked in the boot of a car and driven to Southampton.’

Furious, Heidi spun on her heels. ‘No you weren’t. Don’t you dare lie to me.’

‘Yes, I was. Honestly,’ Smith said.

‘It’s the truth, honest to God,’ the Hand cried. ‘Sure as the fact that I’m just a stupid hand pretending to be a person. Or am I a person pretending to be a hand? I don’t know any more. You’ve got to help me!’

Lunchtime crowds pushed around them. ‘Really kidnapped? Really?’

‘Only by accident. I escaped.’

‘Well, yes, I can see that.’

Smith grimaced uncomfortably. ‘It wasn’t that difficult.’

‘You’re impossible, do you know that?’

Heidi walked away. Smith bounded in front of her. ‘I’m persistent.’

‘Do you know how long I waited for you? I felt like a complete idiot.’

‘I don’t know where you can get one of those around here,’ Smith said. ‘I’m only part of an idiot, will that do?’

Despite herself, Heidi smiled. ‘What really happened?’

‘I was on an adventure.’

Heidi shook her head. ‘Tell me the truth.’

‘I was following someone and hid in the boot. Then they drove the car away.’

Heidi jerked her head towards the offices. ‘You don’t work here do you?’

‘As well as being a bit of an idiot I’m a bit of a detective too.’

Heidi absorbed the information. ‘Which bit?’

‘The bigger one.’

They started walking.

‘Then what happened?’

‘They got out the car. I escaped and we drove back to Brighton.’

‘We?’

‘My friends. They actually really were properly kidnapped, on a ship. They escaped and swam to shore.’

It all sounded utterly implausible. On the other hand this was Derek Smith. ‘So where’s the car?’

‘Just around the corner.’

Smith showed her.

‘Oh Lord, where did you get a machine like that?’

‘I just said.’

‘What about the owner?’

‘He drowned when the ship sank.’

‘I don’t know whether to believe anything you say.’ Heidi ran her hand over the crumpled rear wing. ‘What a shame this happened.’

‘I’m going to get that mended,’ Smith said.

Most of the damage was from Tim’s sideswipe of the Mercedes. There were also fresh knocks and scrapes on the front bumpers. On the drive back to Brighton Smith had leaned over the front seat and studied how Tim moved his feet across the pedals and moved the gear stick. It hadn’t looked difficult. When they pulled up in Tim’s street he said he would take over and drive home. And they let him.

Something beeped in Heidi’s handbag. ‘Dammit. Look, I’ve got to go,’ she said but didn’t move away.

‘OK.’ Smith shuffled his feet and stared at his shoes.

The beeper sounded again, louder. ‘That stuff you helped me with on the computer was really important. Thank you.’

‘All part of the service, ma’am,’ the Hand said.

Heidi took a step away. ‘I really have to go.’

Smith took a deep breath. ‘I could pick you up after work.’

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 76 – The Beginning

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

Mrs Woosencraft recognised the distinctive tone of the Imperial as the car pulled up outside. Filled with trepidation she listened to the doors open and close and the car move away. The knock on the door was no surprise. Reluctantly she prepared herself, walked down the hall and opened her front door. What would be, would be.

‘I’ve come for Morse,’ Tim said. Beside him was the young golden-haired woman called Foxy Bolivia who Mrs Woosencraft had glimpsed in the Mercedes yesterday, only yesterday.

Breathless with relief Mrs Woosencraft stepped back. ‘Best come in, then.’

A dozen cats made themselves scarce.

Morse lay curled up on the tatty old sofa in the back room.

Mrs Woosencraft could hardly keep her eyes off Foxy. There was an aura of wildness about the woman. Not of aggression but of freedom. She was someone who lived and was at home in the wider world. The deeper world. The thought made Mrs Woosencraft’s mouth dry with nerves.

She took in the weariness on Tim’s face, the ill-fitting boiler-suit and the fact he had no shoes. Weariness, and something else.

You’ve come through testing times, she thought. They have opened your eyes.

‘I’m glad you made it back,’ she said.

Tim nodded. ‘Thank you.’

‘I’ll put the kettle on.’

Tim sat down on the sofa, picked up Morse and scruffed the top of his head. ‘Tea would be lovely.’

Morse purred softly and pretended to go back to sleep. If cats could smile…[1]

Mrs Woosencraft was almost but not absolutely sure. Hope put a catch in her voice. One short conversation in private… ‘Would you like to give me a hand in the kitchen, love?’

‘No.’

‘I could do with a hand.’

‘I’m sure you can cope.’

Mrs Woosencraft tried a different tack. ‘That’s Tim’s cat, Morse. I’ve been looking after it for him.’

‘I see it.’

‘Not a cat person, are you?’ Mrs Woosencraft said.

‘What are you supposed to make of an animal that likes fish but won’t go out in the rain?’

Mrs Woosencraft bit her lip. It’s you, Foxy Bolivia. It really is you and you are what they say you are. Oh, my goodness gracious me.

Even with that realisation, it was cats they were talking about so she tried for the last word. ‘You’re not meant to try to understand them. Just accept them for what they are.’

‘Some things are unacceptable.’

She means me and I deserve it, Mrs Woosencraft thought sadly. Deserve it in spades. Oh dear, oh deary me I’m in trouble now. Oh, bugger me sideways with champion leeks.

The simple of ritual of warming the pot, spooning leaves and brewing was as calming as ever. Some of Mrs Woosencraft self-confidence returned.

This was her house, after all, she told herself. And that meant a fair bit, even in this day and age.

She carried the tray into the back room. Tim and Morse occupied the sofa. Like Electra, Foxy had chosen the armchair, the one the cats knew not to sit in.

She put the tray down, sat on the piano stool and looked Foxy up and down.

And she could not help herself, she was just too excited. Things hadn’t gone as she’d hoped (there had never been a plan, just expectations). Yet now it looked as if it might now work out. She rubbed her hands and beamed her best sweet little old lady smile.

‘You really are her, aren’t you? The one we’ve all been looking for. The mermaid.’

Foxy looked down her nose at the dumpy little old lady. ‘And you’re a witch.’

‘Oh, but I knew it! This is wonderful, I’m so–’

‘You’re so sorry?’ Tim said sharply.

Mrs Woosencraft dipped her head. ‘Yes. You are absolutely right. Listen to me go on.’ She pressed her hands together. ‘Tim, I am very sorry for deceiving you. I have not behaved like a friend.’

Tim looked at her steadily. So did Morse.

Sitting on the piano stool with her feet not quite touching the ground Mrs Woosencraft felt a little interrogated. She bowed her head. ‘I’m sorry for the cat-napping too.’

She turned to Foxy. ‘And I’m very sorry for what you’ve been through, pet. Markus Koponen isn’t a bad man.’

‘Wasn’t,’ Tim corrected. ‘The last time we saw him he was trying to launch a boat from a sinking ship.’

That knocked her back. She’d known bad things were coming but to have them confirmed– ‘He might have made it.’

‘So might Troy, but Imelda hurt him badly.’ Tim sketched in the details of the fight and what had happened to Koponen’s women.

‘I tried to warn Markus. You were there Tim, you heard me.’ Mrs Woosencraft chewed her thumbnail. ‘I should have tried harder, I should have made him listen to the truth–’

There was scant sympathy in Foxy’s voice. ‘Yes, let’s have your version of the truth.’

‘Well–’ Mrs Woosencraft wriggled her bottom, she scratched behind an ear. ‘Well– It’s like this. You might not believe it but I was–’

‘There’s a lot I believe today that I didn’t yesterday, so just tell us,’ Tim said.

His sharp words were a verbal slap and brought her to her senses. ‘I was on my uppers, stoney broke and Koponen offered me money. Then I was one cat short, I’d been paid and I’d made a promise. Whatever you might think I’ve got my standards. I needed nineteen, you see? Nineteen cats to make it work.’ Her hands dropped into her lap and she sighed. ‘It all seemed so reasonable at the time. Looking back I can see how I talked myself into it. I thought it would all be all right, I’d be able to find Foxy first, we could have our little chat and you could go on your own way. All sorted out nicely. I never wanted any trouble, it’s all been very upsetting.’

Tim and Foxy exchanged puzzled glances. Tim poured the tea. ‘I think you’d better start at the beginning.’


[1] Was it affection or was it relief? No doubt a bit of both. After all, meal ticket #1 was back in town.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 75 – Perfection

Outside my window it’s a cold and miserable day in what is supposed to be spring.  I hope it’s warmer and sunnier wherever you are. If not, here’s the next chapter form The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms to entertain you. And so, without further delay, somewhere in ancient Babylon…

Chapter 75 – Perfection

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

The table was ready and it was perfect. Asklepios admiringly ran his hand over the smooth sanded surface. Two gold-inlaid lines divided the circular top into exactly equal quarters. He rested his cheek on the top and looked along them. Each one ran straight and true. Two finer lines subdivided each quarter into thirds, also inlaid with the precious metal.

Asklepios had been intrigued to discover the craftsmen worked in both base ten and base sixty, as did all numerate people in Babylon. He soon understood the advantages of working in a large base divisible without remainder by many numbers. Though it was difficult to learn the higher base he persisted.

Each third was further subdivided into thirty sections, each marked by a short groove on the table’s circumference, with every tenth line cut twice as long.

Banipal watched Asklepios closely, happy see the pleasure in his guest’s eyes.

‘Your carpenters are at least the equal of the finest in Baghdad.’ Asklepios’ vocabulary had increased rapidly, he was grateful he could now express his thanks properly. He clasped Banipal’s hands in his own. ‘Thank you, my friend. This is a gift beyond kindness, beyond hospitality–’ His throat grew tight, he wanted to say more but could not.

Banipal did not mind, he could see Asklepios’ joy, though he was not sure the cabinetmakers would appreciate being called carpenters no matter how fine.

Once he fully understood Asklepios’ request Banipal was interested in the idea for his own purposes. The cabinetmakers quickly grasped Asklepios’ ideas and encouraged by Banipal’s status and gold they worked fast. In fact Banipal found Abil-Ilishu, the shaven-headed and bright-eyed elderly guild leader, enthusiastic to the point of arm-waving.

‘It will be magnificent! Seasoned cedar, teak and ebony, ivory–’

‘Northern oak will be fine.’

Abil-Ilishu absorbed the instruction without pausing. ‘Yes. Fine-grained oak, an economic choice and almost as good quality. I guarantee not one knot-hole or other flaw. I propose it is inlaid with alternating segments of ebony and ivory, the contrast will be–’

‘Again, not necessary. This is a working table.’

‘–beautiful.’ Abil-Ilishu pouted, then burst back into life. ‘A double rim around the circumference bounding the degree marks and inlaid in silver, broad and deep. The marks and radii inlaid gold, major diameters capped with rubies and minor alternating jacinth and sardonyx. I suggest chalcedony–’

The conversation wore on. After a long hour, a pause for refreshment, then further negotiations they settled on a simple medium cost design with diameters, radii and tenth-angle marks inlaid with gold. There would be no silver, rubies, sardonyx or jacinth.

‘This is a prototype,’ Banipal explained, feeling oddly guilty about not spending his own wealth. ‘A table to your original design may well follow.’

‘I understand completely.’ Abil-Ilishu said, equably, his grumbling protests that a plain design was unworthy of the cabinetmaker’s craft apparently forgotten.

Looking back, Banipal wondered if Abil-Ilishu had in fact got exactly what he wanted. After all, he, Banipal, had only wanted wooden a table.

Asklepios watched as Banipal fetched twine and began measuring the table’s circumference.

May I help?’ Asklepios asked.

Banipal passed Asklepios one end of the twine. ‘Hold this against the table.’

Asklepios pressed down on the twine with his thumb. ‘What are you trying to do?’

‘The world is round. I wish to measure it.’

‘What is the problem?’

‘I do not yet understand how the diameter changes relative to the circumference as a circle grows.’

‘It doesn’t,’ Asklepios said.

Banipal looked up. ‘What do you mean?’

‘It is the same for all circles, part of their mystery. The ratio is always twenty-five eighths.’

Banipal stared in amazement. He drew lines and circles in the air with his fingers. ‘You are quite certain?’

‘Completely.’

‘How can you be sure?’

‘It is a part of our history. Once, a group of foreign monks fled persecution because of some learned scrolls in their possession. They founded a monastery at a place called Jundi Shapur, lived peacefully and obeyed our laws. In time the emperor became ill and no cure could be found. A servant sent for one of the monks and as a result of the monk’s medicines and care the emperor grew well. For a reward the monk asked only that he and his brothers be allowed to teach philosophy, medicine and astronomy from their scrolls, which were exceedingly ancient and the only copies that yet remained in the world.’

Banipal fetched parchment and drew more lines and circles. ‘How can this be? How can a line grow in simple length yet the proportion of the bounding circle–?’

 Asklepios spread his hands. ‘I don’t know, but it does.’

Banipal frowned, then laughed long and loud. ‘It was me all along. My mistakes, my errors. I’m relieved, you know. I really am.’

‘It happens to us all.’ Asklepios remembered his own mistakes keenly.

Banipal ran his hand over the table. ‘We need better instruments.’

‘We do indeed.’

That evening Asklepios narrated his own adventures to Banipal and Ishkun. They listened attentively, accepting not only had he been magically transported from another land, but from another age as well.

When he had finished Ishkun sat back, his hand on his chin. ‘Truly, Ea sent you here to teach Banipal. Before that could happen Marduk asked Ekad to test both of you with his river.’

Not wanting to argue religion Asklepios said nothing. Sensing his discomfort, Banipal asked him about his plans for the table. Specifically, when would he perform his magic?

Asklepios grew even more uncomfortable. ‘If I could teach you ten times what I know it would not repay you for your kindness. Before I can perform a ritual I have to ask you for even more – herbs, incense, lamp oil.’

Banipal sat forwards, his eyes burned bright. ‘Tell me what you need.’

Asklepios tried without success to describe the herbs and spices. Banipal clapped him on the shoulder. ‘We will go to the market together. You point to the things you need and I shall buy them. That way there is no risk you will have to jump into the river again.’

Late in the night Asklepios rose and went to the table. The wick from the evening lamp guttered as the oil ran dry. Idly he traced the ritual place markings, curves and lines crossing the surface. Once again he marvelled at the accuracy of the design.

Now there could be no errors, all would be perfect.

Banipal related Asklepios’ tale of the monks to Ishkun. When the story was done Ishkun wept.

‘What in this tale troubles you so?’ Banipal said.

‘It tells me that one day Marduk and Ea will turn their backs on us. Babylon will be nothing but fallen walls under drifting sand.’ Ishkun dried his eyes. ‘Our achievements will be forgotten. We will be less than memories.’

‘No,’ Banipal whispered, half to himself. ‘No.’ he looked out across the glorious stepped pyramid of Etemenanki and considered the might of Babylon’s armies, her foot soldiers and chariots, the strength of her double walls, the wealth of her storehouses and granaries, the grand canals and temples and tried to imagine it all gone.

It was all too easy.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms – Chapter 74

It has been a distracting couple of weeks here in the UK, sometimes it has felt like the world has been on fire. Light, perhaps, at the end of the tunnel, except broadband issues then arrive. It’s not been easy to do the post today, but I made it and the latest chapter of The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms is now up! Yay!

Have good weekends, one and all.

Chapter 74, An Amazing Guy

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

Crouched behind the Imperial, Persistent Smith watched two anonymous silhouettes backlit by the dawn glow emerge from the water and wearily make their way up the slipway. When he recognised one of them he stepped out of cover. ‘Over here, Tim. It’s me, Smith.’

Tim’s companion was a tall athletic woman. She looked very tired. Even so, she began combing her hair. It was the longest hair Smith had ever seen and it glowed pale gold.

Not knowing what else to say, Smith put on a fake Chicago accent. ‘Who’s the dame?’

Tim was in a daze. His clothes were soaked, his sopping leather jacket sagged heavily from his shoulders. Smith’s words and big, eager face slowly registered. ‘This is Foxy Bolivia. She saved my life.’

‘Hey,’ Foxy said. ‘Got anything to eat?’

Smith dug around in his fleece pockets and offered a half-melted bar of chocolate and the broken remains of a few biscuits.

‘Thanks.’ Foxy grabbed them all. ‘Starving.’

‘How come your clothes are dry?’ Smith said.

‘BecauseImafrippinmermaidallright?’ Foxy said from a mouth crammed with broken biscuits.

‘Sorry. I just wondered.’

‘Wellgetusedtoit.’

‘Sure thing. No problemo.’

Tim stood in his socks in a puddle of sea water. He looked at Smith and tried to order his thoughts. Foxy Bolivia was a mermaid but the surprises kept coming. ‘Smith, it’s good to see you. How did you escape?’

Smith puffed an imaginary cigar. ‘They haven’t made the cage that can hold me.’

‘Of course not.’ Tim shivered. ‘I’m freezing.’

‘Wait here.’ Smith darted away and returned with two pairs of overalls from the alcove he’d used as an emergency latrine.

Tim stripped off his sodden clothes, careful to retain the pendant. His old jacket was ruined, the leather slimy and stretched, the sleeves reaching past his fingertips. He pulled on one pair of overalls and dried his hair with the other. His skin tingled as he grew warmer. He’d spent who knew how many hours underwater and felt like he’d run a marathon. Some food would be good. Ham egg and chips. He salivated. ‘Any of that chocolate left?’

 ‘Sure.’ Foxy handed the uneaten half of the chocolate bar. She looked fine, in fact she looked great. Her skin glowed with health, her clothes were perfect, her hair shone.

Tim devoured the chocolate in two bites. ‘We need to get out of here.’

Smith pointed to the Imperial. ‘I found the car.’

‘That was good work,’ Tim said. ‘Actually, it was great work.’

‘I know. Let’s get in.’

‘No keys.’

Smith extracted the keys from the exhaust pipe with a flourish.

Tim gave him a weary grin. ‘Smith, you’re quite an amazing guy.’

Smith looked steadily back. ‘Yes, I think I probably am.’

Foxy climbed into the driver’s seat. She twisted the wheel enthusiastically. ‘I want to drive.’

‘You can do that?’ Tim wondered about the pedals.

‘Humans do it all the time. How hard can it be?’

‘Move over.’

Foxy slid across the front bench, Smith climbed into the rear. The engine throbbed into life. The windscreen was coated in dew.

Tim operated the wipers, held the wheel and looked through the windscreen down the long black bonnet. He’d spent a lot of time and effort looking for this car. Barefoot and wearing a shabby old boiler suit, now he was behind its wheel. The search had shown him strange and terrible things. He looked at Foxy beside him. Wonderful things too.

The metal of the accelerator pedal was cold under his foot. He pressed down and the big car surged away down the quayside. Tim swung around in a fast one-eighty and headed towards the exit.

The engine had a superb tone. Tim listened then said, ‘The timing needs advancing by one half degree and the plug in cylinder three needs the gap setting.’ He frowned. ‘How do I know that?’

Foxy tapped his chest. ‘The pendant. It wasn’t just Sea Cucumber, it taught you the language of machines.’

It was true. The Imperial felt like a natural extension of his own body –  exhaust, transmission, valves and gears.

‘Look.’ Foxy pointed at the Mercedes parked beside a warehouse.

The Imperial was doing fifty and still accelerating.

‘Hold on.’

Tim dropped the clutch, span the wheel and hauled on the handbrake. The rear side of the heavy Imperial fishtailed hard into the Mercedes and slammed it into the side of the warehouse with a thunderous metallic bang and splintering of glass.

‘Yay!’ Foxy twisted in her seat. Behind them the Mercedes rocked from the impact, its windscreen was crazed, one of the tyres was flat, a hubcap spun madly across the quay. ‘Tim Wassiter, you bad man!’

Tim’s mouth twisted in a lopsided smile as he brought the Imperial back in line. ‘Two and a half tons and not a hint of understeer.’

Smith slid around on the bench seat giggling with excitement. ‘How fast can this thing go?’

‘Let’s find out.’

The big black car roared through the dockyard gates and tore through the empty dawn streets of Southampton. Out on the coast road they sped towards Brighton at over one hundred miles an hour, their headlights blazing to challenge the rising sun.

To be continued…

Third Instar – Out in the Wild!

Third Instar - Front Cover

My chapbook, Third Instar, has just been released by the innovative Eibonvale Press – Huzzah!

What is a chapbook? I hear you wonder. In the past they used to be short booklets, often printed on one sheet of paper and folded into four or eight small pages. In Third Instar’s case, it is an individually published long story.

Too long to be a short story, and too short to be a novel – it’s a novella.

What’s it about? Like most writers I babble incoherently when asked to describe my work. I think publisher David Rix, does much better than me:

“A vivid, evocative and ultimately dreamlike fantasy … set in a city on the edge of the world in the most profound sense – a city filled with colour and life against which David Gullen* creates a beautiful universal tale of romance and almost mythical loss.”

Until recently it was hard to find homes for stories of this length. Thanks to publishers like Eibonvale there are more and more available homes for them – just like there once used to be.

It’s great to have another story out there in the wild, finding its audience. If you read this one I hope you enjoy it.

~

*Yours truly.

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 73 – Sunrise

Two men in a boat, nothing to see here. Oh no.
Next week I should have some exciting – exciting for me, anyway – news about the print and ebook editions. Until then, have great weekends, and enjoy.

Chapter 73 – Sunrise

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

Troy knew he was lying on his back but he couldn’t remember where. Either the sky was moving or he was. It had to be him, shifting from side to side, rising up and down.

Salt water splashed across his face.

It all came back in a rush: The struggle to launch the boat, frantic and inexpert he had rowed away from Sea Cucumber as she slid beneath the waves. Then the fight against the sucking vortex of descending water while Koponen frantically baled water and roared with terror.

Jarglebaum jerked upright. Tim was out there, he’d seen him across the tilted deck as he and Koponen launched the lifeboat. He worked one oar and turned the boat, an open craft about twenty feet long, and pulled back to where the ship had foundered. He rowed into a white ocean, the surface covered far and wide by sodden ruined seeds. A flotsam of splintered wood, rope, plastic bottles, empty lifebelts floated among them.

Pain tore at his shoulder, back, legs and arms from Imelda’s punches kicks and bites. He refused to give up, Tim was still out there. A grey tunnel slowly closed around the edges of his vision. He drifted until his sight cleared, then rowed again, circled, drifted, rowed again. All the time looking, refusing to give up. Never would he give up.

He searched for a time he couldn’t measure. It could have been minutes, it could have been years.

One of the oars was wet, it slipped from his grip. He sat looking at his hand, unable to understand why his whole arm ran red.

‘Troy.’ Koponen gently took the oars from him and laid them inboard.

The boat rocked and pitched, adrift on the waves.

‘Tim,’ Jarglebaum’s voice creaked like a rusty hinge. ‘Foxy.’

‘They’re gone, Troy. We can’t help them.’ Koponen looked into nowhere. ‘You did your best.’

Sunrise was some time off though the sky was lightening. Waves of pain and dizziness came and Jarglebaum passed out.

‘Stay still.’ Koponen held something cold to his forehead. A rag pad soaked in seawater. ‘You’ve lost a bit of blood.’

‘A bit?’

Koponen smiled thinly. ‘Some.’

Troy’s head lay towards the stern. Koponen sat behind him with his hand on the tiller.

‘I don’t remember…’ Troy’s head swam and he slumped back with a groan. How had he even got into the boat?

Koponen put a water bottle into his hand. ‘Drink this.’

Troy gulped the water down, suddenly terribly thirsty. Everything swirled, his stomach surged and he had just enough time to get his head over the side before he vomited.

Jesus, I’m a mess, Troy thought as he watched his puke swirl away into the sea. The bite on his shoulder burned like it was on fire, so did the one on his arm. Gingerly he pulled up his shirt sleeve and winced at the state of his forearm. He’d seen human bite marks and they were nasty, bestial things. This one didn’t look like that. Each black and purple puncture still wept dark blood, the outline of the bite a wide triple-row of wounds.

He felt himself sliding away again and fought it. He needed a real drink. He wanted to tell himself his memories of the last hours on the ship were part hallucination, that Imelda, Electra and Dolores hadn’t done the things they had done. That they hadn’t changed into weird monstrous walking fish and dived into the sea. That they hadn’t killed so many men.

Christ, he felt rough. He wondered if the bites were poisoned or if it was simply because Imelda had beaten him flatter than hammered shit.

Koponen lashed the tiller into position. ‘There’s bandages and disinfectant in the locker. Take your shirt off and I’ll clean you up. These lifeboats have radio distress beacons. I’ve turned ours on.’ He looked haunted. ’We’ll be OK.’

‘Sure thing. Down but not out, that’s us.’ Troy winced as he shrugged out of his ripped shirt. After your first cracked rib you learned to recognise the pain.

Koponen cleaned Troy’s wounds. ‘These are nasty but the bleeding has nearly stopped. Your arm is going to be stiff as hell but I don’t–’

Something bumped against the underside of the hull. Both men froze.

The sound came again: quiet, testing.

Koponen carefully pushed himself to his feet and hefted one of the oars. He stood astride the beam of the boat, balanced, watching, waiting. Not this boat too, his whole attitude said. Not today.

Slumped against the side wall Troy looked up at the slightly built older man. Imelda ripped me apart, he thought bleakly, what chance do you have?

Not even sure he could stand, let alone wield something as heavy as an oar, Troy decided to stay where he was.

The bump came again, heavier, actually shifting the boat. A stealthy scratching, scraping sound moved towards the stern.

Troy’s hands were shaking. There was a cubby hole in the prow packed with survival equipment. He rummaged through it looking for a weapon. No way was he going out without a fight.

Markus raised the oar over his head. ‘Here they come.’ He sounded very calm.

Metal glinted. Troy snatched it up and turned just as Markus sighed with relief and lowered the oar. ‘It’s just wreckage.’

Drenched in sweat, Troy looked at what he held in his fist. Koponen dropped down beside him and drew up his knees.

‘This was all I could find,’ Jarglebaum said.

Koponen looked at what he held and chuckled. ‘A pair of tweezers.’ His laughter grew and grew, then turned to racking sobs.

Troy put his good arm round Koponen’s shoulders and held him close. ‘It’s OK, Markus. It’s OK.’

Koponen fell quiet. They sat together looking across the grey, rolling sea. A thin layer of mist hung a few feet above the water. The sun rose. It was beautiful.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms – Chapter 72, Deep Magic

I’m sorry I wasn’t able to post chapters the past two weeks. I’ve been madly busy with the launch of my SF novel Shopocalypse, copy-editing for an anthology I am curating, and a short story commission, and other things. Something had to give, and this was it. I’m back on track and here is the next chapter, which is one of the focuses of the whole story.

Chapter 72, Deep Magic

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

Foxy swam steadily away from the ship with powerful beats of her tail. Tim looked around filled with transcendent awe. Violet-grey sea light faded into shadowed distance. Below lay a dark void, above their heads the surface shimmered liquid silver.

Foxy really was a mermaid. He was still alive. He really was here.

The sea was filled with sound. Creaks, thuds and metallic booms came from the broken ship, elsewhere sharp clicks and trills came from unknown sources. Deep and swooping, a near subsonic oscillation vibrated through Tim’s body. Knowledge came from Foxy along with her delight: whale song. She held steady in the water and they looked back.

A quarter of a mile behind them, her amber lights still glowing from portholes and masthead, Sea Cucumber sank stern down into the abyss. An enormous smoky plume trailed behind her from a long, ragged tear in her hull.

Not smoke, seeds, Tim thought sadly. Markus Koponen’s great, brave, mad and madly expensive plan to save the world, destroyed by people he loved and trusted.

Three shapes darted around the wreck and surged into the hold: Imelda, Electra and Dolores fully transformed. They erupted back into open water, came together, circled twice, and set off in pursuit. Tim shuddered. Despite the distance, he felt their fury.

Foxy flexed her back and surged away. Tim’s shoes were a dragging weight. He kicked them off and watched them jig and twirl in her wake. Away in the distance Sea Cucumber descended into the depths. Her last lights faded from sight and she was gone.

Now Foxy dove deeper, down into a layer of colder, denser water. They descended past a school of mackerel at rest on the thermocline, shimmering like a blanket of silver scales.

The shark-women followed, gaining fast. They burst through the shoal, scattering the fish in a whirl of panic.

Tim knew Foxy was strong but she was pulling his weight. On her own she would be able to escape.

‘Don’t even think about it.’ Foxy’s voice moved across his mind. ‘If you let go you’ll break my spell and drown.’

‘They’ll catch us.’ Tim tried speaking with his mouth closed, with no idea if Foxy could even hear him, let alone understand.

Foxy swam deeper still. ‘I’m going to ask for help.’

This deep the light was almost gone. Above and behind them the black silhouettes of the shark-women closed in through watery twilight. Far below Tim saw a titanic shape, shadowy and indistinct in the lower depths. Then he saw another, and another.

Tim felt the tireless energy of Foxy’s body beneath him, a tirelessness he knew would not, on its own, be enough. The huge shapes loomed closer. He looked on in awe as they resolved into a pod of humpback whales. Young and old, male and female, the bulls thrumming their life-songs as they cruised the watery night.

Foxy’s thoughts came again. ‘I’m going to sing to them.’

 Her music was so beautiful he nearly let go, transported by reefs of octaves, an archipelago of chords. The whales answered in subsonic rumbles that shivered his whole body and lifted his heart in high soaring cries. This was a language that was felt as much as heard, experienced as much as understood. Listening to it he was at once lost and found. Here was the real ocean, the source of Deep Magic and Foxy’s true home.

She firmed his grip on her waist. ‘The whales have agreed to help.’

Beneath them the entire pod began to circle and rise. Up above the shark-women hesitated then swam to one side. The whales moved beneath them then ascended in a great spiral. All at once every whale exhaled and enormous billows of gigantic flat bubbles rushed upwards.

Still rising the whales herded the confused shark women towards the surface in a net of bubbles.

Foxy swam hard and stayed deep for several more minutes. At long last she slowed and began to rise towards the light.

‘Where are we going?’ Tim thought.

‘Brighton.’

‘No! Smith is locked in the Chrysler’s boot!’

Foxy looked back at him with luminous green eyes. Locks of her hair slowly wreathed about her pale face. ‘No need to shout. I know the way.’

The passage of time lacked conventional meaning in this eternal place. Tim slipped into a different state of mind, aware but unthinking, seeing and accepting, surrounded by wonders.

They passed among a million jellyfish, ten million. Disturbed by their wake algae shimmered with organic light as they rose with the sunrise to feed and bask. Shoals of fish cruised, and once there were real sharks, quick and grey, black-eyed and impressive. There were sounds too, the clicks, buzzes and strange whoops of sea creatures, the chush-chush of a ship’s propellers. Ethereal in the far distance, whale song again.

Foxy swam steadily on.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 71 – Good Thinking

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

‘I think we should go,’ the Hand said.

Persistent Smith flicked on his torch and checked his watch. It was about an hour before dawn. ‘Far too early,’ he said curtly.

‘All right.’

Smith felt a little sorry for being so abrupt. ‘Well, we could take a look.’

He had spent much of the time in the boot of the Imperial in whispered conversations with the Hand.

‘You’re always popping up when I don’t need you.’

‘That’s not fair. I’ve been helpful.’

Smith had to admit this was true.

‘We’ve had fun together, adventures,’ the Hand said.

Despite himself, Smith had to agree with that as well.

‘Hand, when I was talking to Heidi you made me feel really embarrassed.’

‘She thought I was funny.’

‘I wanted to be with her on my own.’

A long silence followed during which Smith did some thinking of a type he’d done very little of before.

‘Hand?’

‘Yes?’

‘I know you’re really just me. You’re not a separate thing. I made you up one day and you hung around.’

‘I know. We’re the same person. You needed a way to share things. You needed a friend.’

Smith thought about that for a while.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You’re right. Or rather, I’m right.’

‘We’re right?’ the Hand suggested.

‘No,’ Smith said firmly. ‘We’re both me, so it’s still me who’s right.’

‘Yes. Good Thinking,’ the Hand said with approval.

Smith knew he had changed from the person who had invented the Hand. He no longer needed another voice to help him make his mind up. The realisation felt very good. In that newly empowered frame of mind, though he couldn’t put a name to the concept, he knew he should be gracious.

‘Hand, you are fun to have around, but you can’t just keep appearing when you want to. I don’t want you to go away and, seeing as you’re me, I can’t really do that. Just don’t forget I’m the one who wears the hat in this relationship.’

Somehow the Hand contrived to look deadpan. ‘You’d have to be. I don’t have a head.’

Smith’s laughter boomed through the car. ‘Yes. I’m the one with the head, which means I get to do the thinking. Perhaps I should get a white hat like Markus Koponen. After all, we are the good guys.’

He checked his watch again. ‘OK, let’s get out of the car.’

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 70 – Brave

“Battered, broken, bruised, bitten and bloody, Troy Jarglebaum was in no fit state to stand up, let alone think. He was still alive, everyone else had fucked off. That was good enough for him.”

Things are not going well for our middle-aged cop in this week’s chapter of ‘The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms”. He’s not dead though, not yet, not quite.

Chapter 70 – Brave

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

Dolores straddled the rail. ‘Let’s go.’

‘I want to kill Jarglebaum,’ Imelda said.

Electra slid free of her own costume. ‘Do them both. I want to watch.’

Jarglebaum and Koponen backed away. Five meters behind the two men the deck was awash. Trapped air gouted from submerged portholes as Sea Cucumber lurched downwards.

Imelda kicked off her boots and paced towards Jarglebaum. Jarglebaum moved in front of Koponen and raised his fists, a brawler’s pose.

Electra laughed and slowly clapped her hands. ‘There’s nothing wrong with your arm.’

Jarglebaum rolled his shoulders. ‘Never give an old sod an even chance.’

‘Now I’ll break them both,’ Imelda said.

Jarglebaum considered his big, meaty fists. ‘I’ve never punched a woman before. I can tell from your dress code you aren’t ladies so I’ll make an exception.’

Imelda bounced on the balls of her feet. ‘Are you through with the macho posturing?’

‘Pretty much.’ Jarglebaum grinned. ‘Oh yeah, you’re under arrest.’

He settled into a wide-legged static stance. Imelda danced forwards and slammed her bare foot into his groin. She yelped and hopped back clutching her toes.

‘Right on schedule,’ Jarglebaum laughed. ‘Copper’s best friend, the cricket box. Added the spikes myself.’

His uppercut to Imelda’s jaw lifted her clear into the air and stretched her out on the deck. Jarglebaum swore and shook his fist. Flecks of blood glistened on his knuckles, Imelda’s skin was like sandpaper. ‘Christ, lady, you need to shave.’

Imelda rolled to her feet. She dug around in her mouth with her forefinger and extracted a tooth. Glaring at Jarglebaum she threw it at him. ‘You want a piece of me? Have this.’

Jarglebaum snatched it out the air. The thin, triangular object didn’t look much like a tooth to him. He tossed it aside. ‘Hope you’ve got dental insurance.’

‘They grow back, fucker.’

‘Now I know you’re not a lady.’

Imelda flexed her shoulders.

‘Let’s go, fat man.’

‘My pleasure.’

They went at it hard. Troy came off worst.

#

Concealed behind the base of the forward crane, Tim pulled open the control panel cover. He looked down at a complicated bank of yellow-painted levers, toggle switches, three joysticks, a large green button, a larger red one, and an amber light. The light was bad and the labels on the control panel were either badly worn or missing entirely. He pushed the green button. The amber light glowed, flickered, glowed brighter, then died.

‘Damn it.’

‘Wait.’ Foxy put her hands on the steel deck. ‘Come on, dear Sea Cucumber. Remember that humans built you and put their trust in you. I know you’re hurt, I know you’re struggling, but there are people still on board who need your help to stay alive.’

Foxy nodded to Tim. He pressed the green button again. This time the light stayed on.

‘What now?’ Foxy said.

Given time he knew he could work out which control did what. Once the crane started moving it would be obvious someone was operating it, and where they were. Electra and Dolores would not sit idly by.

Down at the stern Jarglebaum and Imelda exchanged a flurry of blows that left Jarglebaum down on one knee. Behind him Koponen sloshed through ankle deep water. Imelda bounced back energetically. Obviously in pain Jarglebaum pushed himself to his feet.

There was not time. Tim knew what he had to do.

He grasped Asklepios’ pendant in one hand and put his other on the crane’s control panel.

‘Grant me understanding,’ he said.

The last diamond crumbled to black powder.

In one grand sweeping moment Tim saw the entire ship. He was the ship.

The hull was breached in three places. Down in the engine room the great marine diesels had failed, starved of fuel from ruptured lines and suffocated by sea water in the air intakes. Six emergency pumps were distributed through the ship, four still worked. Designed to operate under water, those four were at full capacity. It wasn’t enough. It never could be. The last explosion had broken Sea Cucumber’s back and the Atlantic ocean was coming in.

So much knowing dazzled him. If Sea Cucumber could have sailed he could have sailed her. If she could have been saved he’d have known how. Compared to that, what he needed to know was such a small thing. His hands went confidently onto the crane’s controls. He knew exactly what to do.

#

Jarglebaum spat blood. One of his eyes was closing up and there was a nasty bite on his shoulder. There was a worse one on his forearm and he’d sworn he’d felt teeth on bone when Imelda bit him there. He was losing blood, losing the fight, and he knew she was better than him.

Imelda moved like an eel, weaving, striking, unpredictable. Despite his wounds Jarglebaum wasn’t finished yet. He kept telling himself he just needed to land one decent punch.

Electra and Dolores sat on the rail, fish-slender, brine-drenched and alien. They kicked their legs and laughed wildly as the waves broke against the foundering ship.

Koponen knew the Sea Cucumber was finished. On the rail a naked Dolores held out her arms and beckoned him. He was very frightened. Life had been reduced to a single unpleasant choice: how did he wish to die?

A few feet away Jarglebaum lurched and staggered. Head down, fists up, he came back to Imelda for more.

Koponen backed into deeper water. It was easy, the bows lifted higher, the slope on the deck almost encouraging. Jarglebaum went down again. Dolores and Electra applauded from the rail. Then, overhead, in the wind-racked sky, Koponen sensed unexpected movement.

#

Despite easily outclassing Jarglebaum Imelda was frustrated. The man simply wouldn’t stay down. A canny fighter, he hung back and refused to close in the desperate hope she might make a mistake. That wasn’t going to happen. Jarglebaum was old and slow but had weight and power. She had absolutely no intention of letting him use either. He’d caught her once, respect for that. It was the only chance he was going to get.

Every time she hit him he slowed. She feinted left, kicked him hard in the thigh and dodged back. Jarglebaum’s riposte cut the breeze way too late.

‘You can soak it up, I’ll give you that,’ Imelda said conversationally. He was going down soon, she could smell his sweat and fear, and over it all, his blood, a heady and appetising reek. ‘How long do you think you can keep going?’

‘Come here and find out,’ Jarglebaum growled. Inside he knew he was beat. Probably. All he could do was hang on and stay frosty. It was never over until it was over.

Behind him Koponen stood shin deep in cold foaming water and watched the sky.

Imelda gave a savage peal of laughter. ‘Stay there, old man. You’re next.’

Overhead, something huge swept by.

Startled, Imelda looked up.

Jarglebaum saw his last best chance. He pulled his back fist and rushed in. ‘Gotcha!’

Imelda vanished in a roar of wind.

Jarglebaum flailed wildly, desperate to connect just once before she tore him to pieces. Her counter-attack never came. He dropped into his brawler’s crouch and turned a slow full circle. Imelda had vanished.

Electra and Dolores looked out to sea in utter astonishment.

A hundred feet over the far rail, fifty feet above the rolling swell, the crane’s cargo net reached the end of its swing. Swept from the deck Imelda hung spread-eagled for a split second then tumbled down into the heaving water.

The crane turned, the trolley raced along the jib. The net hurtled straight towards Electra and Dolores on the port rail.

Dolores yelped, rolled backwards into the sea and was gone. Electra ran for the starboard rail. The crane juddered, the net swished past with the sound of rushing wind. Electric motors raced at maximum load, cable sang on the drum, the trolley raced out along the jib. Electra dodged left, then right, and the crane kept pace. Metal banged on metal, steel cable unspooled. The full weight of the cargo net dropped onto Electra’s racing form and slammed her face first onto the deck.

#

Battered, broken, bruised, bitten and bloody, Troy Jarglebaum was in no fit state to stand up, let alone think. He was still alive, everyone else had fucked off. That was good enough for him.

The deck lilted towards his face.

I’m falling over, I’m passing out, Jarglebaum thought serenely as the steel plating floated up. A heavy bolt was set in the decking right where he was going to hit.

Oh boy, this was going to leave a mark.

Then a slighter figure was by him, staggering with Jarglebaum’s weight. Troy found himself pushed back onto his feet.

‘The boats,’ Markus Koponen gasped. ‘We have to get to the boats.’

#

Foxy and Tim exchanged a look of satisfaction. They had done all they could. Things had gone a lot better than either had hoped.

She laid her hands on the deck one last time. ‘Thank you, dear, brave ship.’

Tim felt the ship like an enormous living thing. Wounded beyond salvation Sea Cucumber was on the edge of failing but she still fought on. Foxy was right, the ship had immense spirit but now it was nearly over.

The stern half of the ship was awash, the rear superstructure still ablaze, a flaming steel island assaulted on all sides by green oceanic waves.

Air and salt spume geysered from hatches and portholes as she began her descent beneath the waves.

He saw Koponen and Jarglebaum staggering towards one of the boats and started after them. ‘Come on.’

Foxy held him back. ‘I won’t be safe in one of those little things with shark-women in the water.’

‘We can’t stay here!’

The bows rose higher. Heavy chains slithered down the deck like dangerous iron snakes. A steel drum bounded past them, tumbling end over end into the waves.

Foxy’s eyes were wide and clear, and steady as the moon. ‘I can protect you better in the sea than any boat. The ocean is my world and they are the newcomers.’

Across the deck Koponen and Jarglebaum hauled one of the boats out onto the davits, lowering it the few remaining feet into the water. Beyond them glassy black waves heaved and tossed, a rising wind snatched spindrift from their foaming crests.

Tim hesitated. What was she asking? Ocean stretched to the horizon. ‘I’m not that good a swimmer.’

‘It doesn’t matter. Just trust me. Hold tight and trust me.’

Still Tim hesitated.

‘Foxy took hold of his hands. ‘You know what I am, and I know that all your life you’ve wanted to feel the touch of strange. Here it is. Here I am. Go to the boat or come with me. You need to choose and it has to be now.’

The two men had the boat in the water and struggled to free the ropes from the davits. There was still time to reach them.

Foxy stood at the rail, her hair a mane of pale golden fire against a storm-tinged backdrop of surging waves and dark sky. Tim had his doubts and fears but he also knew what he wanted. ‘I’m with you.’

Foxy tilted her chin. ‘Then kiss me. Kiss me and put your arms around my waist.’

Chastely, Tim kissed her.

Foxy grabbed his face in both hands and kissed him open-mouthed. ‘My breath is your breath, your life is bonded to mine by the ancient compacts of Deep Magic. Your kiss, my breath, our touch. Put your hands around me and never, ever, let me go.’

At that exact moment Sea Cucumber died. It was if she had been holding on, striving beyond her own endurance until her last crew were ready to go. Now, finally, she could rest.

Down she went and Foxy and Tim went with her. Water boiled up around them. Tim took a long last breath, scared now, really scared, and really trying to believe.

‘Hold on,’ Foxy cried.

The vortex of the ship’s descent pulled them irresistibly down, down…

To be continued…