[SHORT STORY] Secret Research

A flash of light notified a message coming from the small spaceship hovering outside of the Wei Han Federal Laboratories.

From: single-pilot corvette ARGO, serial number W-SR-213.

Crew: Space Ranger S-145 (Solar Federation)

Message: Asking permission to dock. Responding call for aid coming from this station.

A drop of sweat ran through Doctor Herrera’s brow, even though he had been the one to call the Solar Federation. Matters of law enforcement had never been of interest to him. He had always enjoyed his protected status and peaceful comfort as a perfectly obsequious model student in one of the many Federal Science Academies, and never had to suffer the sight of someone like a Space Ranger. Information about them was scarce, and the impression they left so strong that no one could tell if the stories about them were truth of legend. With an unusually high-pitched tone, he ordered the secretary to grant permission, cleaning his sweaty hands with a white handkerchief.

He forced his stone-like legs to get to the hangar, against the better judgement of his heart urging him to hide in his room until the whole matter had been settled. He arrived just in time to see the landed spacecraft hatching, and an armored man walking out, tall, bulky and imposing.

The Ranger identified Herrera in a moment. He held a small tablet in his hand.

“Greetings, Ranger” said the Director, clearing his throat. “I am so relieved that someone is available to help us. The situation is terrible.”

The Ranger gave a slight nod. He still had his helmet, giving not a single hint of the face inside.

“I have a Tier 1 permission” he muttered through the speakers in his gear, handing the tablet to the nervous Director.

“Oh, sure. The code.”

Pulling out a similar device, Herrera let it scan the barcode glowing on the screen. Both beeped and gave out a message: Permission granted.

“All right, your access is confirmed. Would you follow me to my office, erm, please?”

The Ranger raised his hand. “It seemed an emergency. If you want you can brief me right here so I can live just after.”

Herrera gulped.

“Excuse me, erm, sir” he whispered. “Doctor Robinson’s research was a secret operation explicitly requested by the Federation. It is… a matter of state, so to speak.”

“I understand, that was not clear on the message. Lead the way.”

None of them uttered a word as they strode across the cold and aseptic white corridors of the research station. Once inside the Director’s office, Herrera pointed at a chair on one side of the desk and sat on another, facing the screen of his own computer.

“What happened, exactly? The message was cryptic and the Federation forbid me access to any information.”

“As I said, Doctor Robison was working in great secret, and there are precise instructions not to mention his research via remote communication, in any way. Selected inspectors come here regularly to check the status of this research in person.”

The Ranger nodded again. This only made things harder.

“I am so thankful you came so soon; time is running short already. I do not know precisely when and how it happened, but it was during sleep time. The station’s main computer and the security system got hijacked, and the staff could do nothing but working to restore it – they were stuck in the control room, with a malfunctioning system! Eventually, they managed to repair it, but when Doctor Robinson’s assistants went to work again during work time, they found nor him nor anything related to the research.”

“Go it” sighed the Ranger. “Anything else? May he have escaped with the research?”

“Why would he ever do that? Erm, no, Ranger, sir. He has been kidnapped. We found this in his work device.”

Herrera searched for something in his computer and turned the screen. The Ranger saw a symbol he only knew from his colleagues’ reports and documents, stored in the Federation’s archive: a white alien skull, with long fangs clenched on a colorful snake-like creature, its coils all twirled around it. The sign of the Krazyt pirates.

“I have heard of them, but never such a clean work. They are used to raiding stations.”

“I cannot believe we have been fooled like this” whined Herrera.

“Did you call as soon as you discovered all of this?”

“Yes, sir. Immediately.”

“Maybe I can track them and bring back your Robinson and his research.”

“You alone against a band of outlaws!?”

“It is what we do.”

Director Herrera was about to protest, but then surrendered to the Ranger’s practical confidence.

“Very well. Please, Ranger, it is vital that you succeed.”

The Space Ranger nodded a last time. “You must understand that I do not know what the Federation will decide about this incident after the mission has been accomplished. You all got yourself in an ugly predicament.”

Herrera stared blankly at the table, as clean and anonymous as everything else in that station.

“I do” he sighed.

*

With a deep research in the Solar Federation Intel System, the Space Ranger was able to collect enough signals of the Krazyts’ passage and track an approximated route leading to them. They were know for leaving terror and destruction in their passage, for attacking any possible target they could find in their way, and for always seeking confrontation with the law. The traces they left were perfectly coincident with their habits, unlike the way they had operated Robinson’s kidnapping. The Ranger chose that the best course of action was to keep the attention high.

The Argo sprinted along the route until the pirate fleet became visible to the radars, and then to the human eye, the design of its ships so distinctive with its jagged points and heavy wings of a strange bronze-hued metal they used, and the red, gray, and black paint decorating them. The Ranger set stealth mode and approached them, looking out for the Captain’s vessel.

Small, agile, and technologically superior, the spacecraft managed to get undetected under the pirate fleet, thanks to its advanced tools and the lack of them aboard pirate vessels. It took little effort to identify the admiral ship, whose command position was signaled by red stain above the Krazyt skull sign.

The Argo attached like a parasite to the lower side of its hull. The Ranger got out activating a similar device installed in his boots, which allowed him to walk upon the bronze-like surface even though with great effort. Internal insulation prevented any kind of sound from announcing his coming to the crew inside.

Eventually, the Ranger found a small hatch used for maintenance operations. No sooner had he lifted it that a puff of air came out of the tunnel leading inside the ship. A trapdoor at the end brought him into a scarcely lit corridor.

He deactivated his boots’ attaching device and started exploring what seemed to be a storage area.

The pirates kept no monitoring system, as it was usual for their kind: no outlaw crew in the entire space would have accepted one, but no captain wanted to bother about it either. The Ranger crawled through heaped boxes, finding no one but a single guard sleeping on the job, his fanged mouth open and dribbling, his short but sturdy body abandoned on a metal chair.

Creeping behind the Krazyt he locked the alien’s mouth in the hold of his arm. Before he could wake up and understand what was happening, a handgun was poking at his ear.

“Do not struggle, Krazyt. Want to live? Then tell me where the prisoner is. Don’t feign ignorance of the common tongue.”

With a pirate’s typical cowardice in front of a proper soldier, the Krazyt started to shake and babble with agitation, his voice muffled by the armored arm blocking his maw.

“No prisoner!”

“Is the human scientist in another ship?”

“No, no. He no prisoner.”

“So he’s here, and walks free.”

The pirate nodded, heavily sweating with a gelatinous a.nd disgusting substance as he got increasingly anxious.

“Tell me where he is, and make sure to speak softly if you don’t want to taste a bullet. ”

The pirate hissed. “The command deck. He’s there.”

“I can understand if you’re lying, you know?” said the Ranger, pressing the handgun further on the Krazyt’s head.

“I swear, I swear! I’m telling the truth.”

Nothing in his body language said otherwise, even after attempting to get him. That was all the Ranger could obtain from him.

A strong hit on the top of his head, and the pirate collapsed to the ground with a thud.

The Ranger gave a last look to his informer’s narrow nostrils and scaly skin, pondering a way to get to the command deck, surely packed with henchmen and guards of any sorts. If Robinson was there, and not as a prisoner, something else was at work. And not a good thing.

He peeked outside, checking for further company, but those lower corridors were deserted. Storage and cells were rarely surveilled by more than one or two men, while the others toiled on more specific task proper of space travel.

The Ranger proceeded forward, looking for a way up, passing as silent as he could be under the pale lights of small lamps set on each side of the corridor. At last he found a ladder which brought him near a dormitory. Its metal doors were closed. The sound sensor gave no sign of activity inside.

A small ripple of sound on the wall of silence before him originated not far from his position, and soon became increasingly wider: someone was walking along the corridor, coming in the Ranger’s direction. He could hear no step at the start, but soon the sound of boots reached his ears. Behind him the way went on for far too many steps before he could get into a decent hiding place: all he could do was hiding inside the dormitory. Still quiet, he pushed the door open and slid inside before the Krazyt could notice.

The pirate, too, entered the room, but as he muttered something about someone running away from his work upstairs, a heavy punch crushed his face, breaking the long fangs and bleeding his reptile nose. The Krazyt slowly slid down the wall, losing consciousness.

In his pockets, the Ranger found what he needed most in the moment: a small tablet, easy to hold in a single hand. He looked through his functions and files until he found the plant of the ship, with approximate but useful information on its structure and functioning.

“I owe you one.”

Out of the dormitory, the Ranger turned to his left, always checking the sound sensor and the plant of the ship. Taking care at avoiding the main corridors, he reached the passage to the upper level: another ladder.

On that level, the rooms hosted the main functions of the ship: weapons, engine, and so on. According to the map, the command deck was on the opposite side of where the Ranger stood.

As he went on, it became harder to pass through unnoticed. One or two Krazyt would often get in his direction, and there were few places to hide. Often the Ranger had to enter adjacent rooms and took cover from those patrolling the corridors among the ones operating their tasks inside the room. Many times he had to knock a guy down, but eventually he got to the stern and located the ladder leading to the command deck.

He began climbing, but before he could reach the end he heard the sound of blasters charging behind his back.

“We’re not as dumb as you think. Climb down here, asshole.”

A group of Krazyt stood under the Ranger, all pointing their guns at him except one. He thought about jumping down and fight, but the blaster were near enough to hit him in any case. The armor would have protected him, but so many strikes at once would have damaged it heavily, putting him at a disadvantage.

The unarmed pirate look at the armor, recognizing the Solar Federation logo and the symbol of the Space Rangers. His wicked satisfaction depicted a distorted smile on his reptile face.

“A Ranger, eh?”

His voice was rough and dry. “I don’t know what the Fed could want from us.”

The entire group rejoiced in vulgar laughter, both sight and sounds almost provoking the Ranger’s pride. Before he could reply, the head of another Krazyt appeared from the open trapdoor above the ladder.

“Hanging around and joking instead of doing your job. Better for you to have a good reason.”

He noticed the Ranger just a moment later.

“We have one. Tell the Captain we have an important guest. And from the Fed, no least.”

The pirate on the upper level snorted and walked away. Heavy steps announced his return about a minute later, when he ordered them to come up.

“Bring him, but take his toys away first.”

The chief of his captors put his scaly hands on the Ranger’s armor, pushing buttons and pulling hooks, removing piece after piece. The man inside the armor was as fearsome as his armor, bulky, stern and frost-eyed, and even though they were many against one, the pirates were doing great effort to hide their trembling awe behind a tough arrogance.

“You want to get up there, don’t you? Move.”

It was in such arrange that the Ranger got to the command deck, defenseless and unarmed, guns pointed at his back, their tips pushing him forward. The room was not that big, half a dozen of Krazyt were stationed in front of old computers, monitoring the status of the ship with rudimental tools. The Captain awaited there with few guards, taller and broader than most of his men, his scarred face standing out as to mark his rank. Beside him, a middle-aged black man, still wearing the uniform of the Wei Han Federal Laboratories, eyed the Ranger with the look of a fox.

The Captain had an even wilder smile than that of his henchmen. He chuckled at Dr. Robinson.

“The Fed has already come for you, Doctor.”

“That’s why you had to escort me” replied the scientist. “We and your boss expected it.”

“You’ve got guts, Robinson, to betray the Federation” said the Ranger.

Robinson kept his clever smirk. “Some of us do sometimes.”

“Don’t think you can escape the Federation this easily. It won’t let you sell its secret so easily.”

“But I’ve already succeeded, Ranger. You’ve been captured. Before the Federation can react we will be out of reach already.”

The Captain was clearly enjoying the scene, his back leaning against the wall, but interrupted the exchange by addressing the Ranger.

“I think the boss will love to see you. But first, how did you come here? We didn’t detect any ship.”

“Sure you will find his one attached to this vessel somewhere. The Rangers have many trinkets” said Robinson.

The Captain’s eyes glinted with interest.

“Do you know how they work?”

“No, but I can study them if you let me near the ship. And also, I would like to look at his armor.”

“Very good. You, boys, lock him in the cell.”

The pirates pushed the Ranger away from the commander’s deck and back to the lower one, and locked him in a small room near the hatch he had entered through. As primitive as the rest of the ship was, the cell had the size of a storage closet, with a simple door of steel-like metal.

The simplest technology. The easiest to bypass.

“Sleep tight, Ranger. It’s the only thing you can do in there” cried one of the Krazyt. A vulgar laughter echoed across the corridor as they went back to their work.

The Ranger paid them no attention, being already busy making up a new plan to save the day and accomplish the mission. He had not seen anything yet that could contain the research, nor any document of sorts, as Robinson seemed to carry nothing with him. Still, he had to keep his treasure close somewhere.

He rested, waiting for the crew’s sleep cycle to begin and the pirates to go into their dormitories, leaving a small number to monitor the ship.

Metallic doors had never been a real problem to a Space Ranger. The Krazyt had taken his armor, yet the suit he wore under it provided useful emergency tools inside pouches hidden on the fabric.

A black stripe running through his left calf hid a lockpick. The Ranger pulled it out and started working on the door. Patience and skills did the job, and a low clack announced him his new-found freedom.

With the arrogance of all stupid people, the Krazyt thought it unnecessary to watch over their prisoner, and probably had done it against the better judgement of the Captain. Their neglect was about to ruin them.

Putting the lockpick back to its place, the Ranger exchanged it with a narrow blade hidden in his arm and started running nimble and silent. Being without armor left him completely vulnerable blasters but gave him the advantage of stealth.

His first objective was retrieving his armor, which must have been wherever Robinson kept his personal objects. He had an high chance to find the research in the same place. But first, he needed a fire weapon. A small dagger like the one he was wielding was not enough to take over an entire pirate vessel.

The Ranger traversed the lower deck carefully but swiftly. In his mind, he worked to remember as much as possible of the map he had taken from the Krazyt some hours before. His feet fell upon the floor making but the slightest rustle.

He got in front of the storage room again, and heard someone walking inside. A faint click echoed in the moment he pushed the handle of the door.

“Who’s there?” shouted the Krazyt inside. “No midnight snacks.”

The Ranger heard the sound of a handgun loading as the pirate approached the door. In the moment it opened, he sprang to the Krazyt and blocked his hands. Before the guard could react, a punch struck his neck.

The Krazyt fell to the ground gasping, leaving the gun in the Ranger’s hand.

“Keep quiet” he said. “Else I’ll shoot.”

The Krazyt was still grasping his aching neck. The Ranger walked next to him, pointing the gun at his chest.

“Where is Robinson’s cabin? Speak softly.”

“Near the Captain’s. Third level, just below the command deck.”

Using a technique he had learnt in his special training, the Ranger struck the Krazyt where his nerves were more exposed. The pirate bulged his eyes and lost his senses.

The first objective had been accomplished, now it was time for the second. The Ranger got to the third deck effortlessly, and finding the Captain’s cabin revealed an even easier task, given all the ornaments. Near it there was a smaller cabin on the right. From a narrow window above its door came a warm light.

The Ranger pulled out his lockpick and performed his trick again. Robinson did not hear the door opening, as its clacking was covered by the frantic clatter of a computer keyboard.

While the Ranger entered, Dr. Robinson kept typing unaware. When something cold and metallic pushed his nape, he almost jumped on his seat.

“Freeze!” hissed the Ranger. “Don’t dare alerting the crew.”

Robinson sighed. “These idiots pay well, but can’t manage to grant safety.”

“You should have realized it before selling them federal secrets. Where’s the research?”

“Look at your right.”

The Ranger pivoted around him, so not to lose his sight on him. Robinson was analyzing his armor, the notes on his laptop the first data he had acquired.

But most importantly, he saw a suitcase placed upon a drawer.

“Everything I’ve stolen is inside” said the scientist.

“Open it.”

“Smart move.”

Robinson got up and pulled a narrow electronic card: a digital key. He inserted it into an entrance on the suitcase. A beep notified that it could be opened.

“You don’t actually know what I was working on, mh?”

“Open the suitcase, Robinson.”

The scientist grunted. “Typical.”

He lifted the upper lid with extreme are. Black cloth covered the inside; pouches contained printed documents and an external hard drive. But the big thing was kept in the lower lid: in two different glass containers, their feeble form immersed in a dense liquid, there were two fetuses. Way bigger than a human one, their shape was like that of a small arrow, soft and malleable, coiled several times.

Robinson noticed the Ranger’s confused look. “They’re Xantos.”

The soldier’s brow furrowed with sudden realization. “The Federation wanted to study Xantos?”

Robinson nodded. “It did. You know, the people of Mars love freedom and martial prowess. The Federal Army can’t manage to break them, and the Space Rangers refuse to take part in this war. They’re still loyal to their original purpose: order and safety in the space routes. So, they needed something else. Maybe a bioweapon?”

He chuckled, enjoying the shock in the Ranger’s eyes.

“These are two clones, and here’s the purpose of the research. Xantos are too hard to hunt, right? They’re apex predators; catching one is extremely expensive in both monetary and human terms. Ask your friends at the Federation how many units and how much money they lost in order to bring a specimen to the Laboratories. If you can clone and breed them, though…”

Robinson left the Ranger to draw his conclusions.

“They’re a male and a female” muttered the Ranger.

“Of course. But to tell you the truth they were meant to be artificially fertilized. Letting them be in a group is not safe. The papers contain all the details. The hard drive has a digital copy.”

Robinson patted the suitcase. “These guys will be able to slay entire space crews by themselves. They’re extremely resistant to most weapons, and have a killer instinct that is unmatched by all other forms of life. The less literate call them “space demons” for a reason.”

He smiled. “If you wonder why I’m telling it all: I just want to let you know who you’re working for.”

“Did you sell the research to the Krazyt? Or are they just an intermediary?”

“Ikhvyt is very ambitious” said Robinson, his wide smile shining of pure white. “He’s the most respected Krazyt corsair, almost like their warlord at this point. All the Krazyt pirates are uniting under his banner, as well as scoundrels of other races. Can I close the case now?”

The Ranger nodded, and Robinson sealed the case.

“Now give me that key.”

Robinson replied. “Of course. I was actually the first to enter in contact with him and he was really interested. He started to assemble a group of scientist as I planned my escape with this band.”

He made a gesture as to point at the whole ship while giving the Ranger the electronic key.

“My guess is that he wants to finance his future endeavors by selling Xantos to the best bidder.”

“And you will share the profits with him.”

“That, and I will finally be free. Not confined anymore by the walls of my own workplace, I won’t exchange my former prison for a golden cage that has the sole purpose of keeping me quiet and under the Federation’s eye.”

Suddenly, a Krazyt’s voice echoed outside the cabin.

“Human! You’ve left the door open.”

Robinson was of quick thinking. In that fraction of second in which the Ranger averted his gaze from him to look at the cabin’s entrance, the scientist pushed the Ranger’s shoulders and darted out of the room.

“Ranger’s here! Shoot him!”

“Sound the alarm! I’ll try to get him!”

The Ranger pulled a short piece of furniture away from the wall and crouched behind it. The suitcase was still there, but it was not time to worry about that. Two pirates had entered the cabin, blasters ready to shoot.

With the speed of a well-trained soldier, he sprang out of his cover and shot at one of the Krazyt.

“Down!” cried the other, but his comrade was not fast enough. The Krazyt fell to the ground lifeless.

Cursing, the second pirate fired back. His blaster burned and splintered the border of the Ranger’s cover while he dived back behind it.

Filled with rage, the Krazyt jumped upon the furniture ready to shoot down at the Ranger, but was met by a high kick hitting his chin. The Ranger exploited the moment and fired again, finishing his opponent.

Doubt crossed his mind as he eyed this armor, its pieces carefully laid upon Robinson’s working table. He wore gauntlets and helmet before taking the suitcase and one pirate’s blaster and running out of the room, where some of the reinforcements had already arrived. The Captain was with them.

“Kill this fucker!”

Both them and the Ranger raised their weapons at the same time, blasters against gauntlet. A white glow shone in his palm, its light growing fast until only the helmet prevented him from squinting his eyes.

The impact made the whole ship tremble. When the white light went out, the walls were torn apart and the floor was blackened and broken. Nothing was left of the Krazyt.

The entire ship was now on alert. Sirens blasted all around, almost covering the cries of the crew and the sound of people running. The Ranger ran beyond the Captain’s cabin; he had to make his way to the hangar and fly away as soon as possible. He may be not able to bring Robinson to Gaia, but at least his plans would be thwarted. This could buy time, or maybe, left without his exchange token, he would have lost his usefulness to the Krazyt’s eyes.

A small band of pirates jump from a sideways passage and stood on his way. They started blasting, but the Ranger jumped down, sliding across the pavement in their direction. A blaster shot put one down, and a wide low kick brought the other two to the ground: they fell, hitting their necks on the hard floor.

He kept descending. Red intermittent lights and pale white lamps flashed above him, the maddened whistle of the alarm attacked his ears on every side. Occasionally, some Krazyt would be in his way, but often they would run away on their own, or, too slow and still sleepy, they would be neutralized easily.

As he entered the hangar, he kept his breath. Krazyt corpses were all around him, and Dr. Robinson, a blaster in his hand, approached the launching pad, running toward the Argo.

The prospect of getting his ship stolen awakened a wild instinct in the Ranger. Stumbling on the bodies left by Robinson, he went after him, stopping from time to time to fire at him. The shots always missed by inches, yet hindered the scientist’s way to the spacecraft.

The Argo had been left open. When Dr. Robinson made his first steps on the ramp leading inside, the Ranger had already got near him.

“Hands up and blaster on the ground. Quick!”

Robinson complied, moving carefully, just in time for the pirates to get inside the hangar. Just as the Ranger had kicked the man’s gun away, a rain of blaster shots fell all around him, some shots hitting the Argo.

The Ranger pushed Robinson inside the ship, just in time to hear “Emergency mode. Ship under attack!” coming from the control panel.

“Here S-145! Initiate launch!” cried the Ranger, as he closed Robinson inside a small cell.

The Argo swayed as another charge of blasters crashed against the hull.

When the Ranger got to the cockpit, the Argo was ready to depart. He took control of the ship’s weaponry, aiming at the nearest group of Krazyt shooting him.

“Set route to Wei Han Federal Laboratories!”

He pulled the trigger. The blaster cannon wreaked havoc among them, as the impact burned them and shattered the floor. Many ran away as soon as they had seen the gun pointing at them, and rushed madly, caring not for enemy or friend, pushing and slamming against everyone who was in their way.

Setting course. Please wait…

The chaos gave him the chance to get out unpursued. The Ranger turned the cannon towards the closed shutter.

He fired as many times as he could before the weapon overheated. The pirate vessel trembled another time while as chunk after chunk of its hull were destroyed, until an overwhelming gust of air pulled the Argo out of it, dragging along living bodies and corpses, and boxes and tools, into the open space.

“Set maximum speed” said the Ranger. The Argo darted through the Krazyt fleet and far beyond before everyone could realize what had happened.

The Ranger let a sigh of relief. He was so tired that he fell asleep almost instantly.

*

The Ranger was woken up by the ship’s message. Destination reached.

The Laboratories stood in front of him, silent, most of its lights turned off. The Ranger typed a quick message for the station’s hangar.

Space Ranger S-145, single-pilot corvette ARGO. Operating under federal authority.

No response.

Space Ranger S-145. Please open the hangar and allow docking.

Still nothing came from the station.

S-145. Carrying important materials for this station. Let me in or I will force landing.

Nothing happened. It was almost like the Laboratories were deserted.

S-145. Forcing landing.

The Ranger lowered his ship to the same height of the hangar’s shutter. As it had done before, the blaster cannon fired against it, melting the hard steel until a hole was left which the Argo could pass through. Air started to pour out of the station; the security system inside activated at once, and the internal door leading inside the facility automatically shut to prevent further air losses.

The Argo entered the Laboratories and docked. No one was inside the hangar; complete silence loomed over it.

An emergency power armor was kept inside the Argo. Worried by this turn of events, the Ranger wore it piece to piece, and took a blaster rifle.

He walked through the hangar as fast as he the anti-gravity boots allowed. Beside the internal shutter sealing the area there was a security door. He turned the wheel at its center, so opening the door, and jumped in.

His feet slipped on something slimy and wet: a pool of red gore.

Gasping, the Ranger turned left and right. The corridor he was in was dimly lit by white lights projecting a scant and eerie glow. More blood had been splashed on the floor and the walls, leading further inside the station.

Turning on the lights on his helmet, he started following the red trail which had revealed to him. At its end, inside a dark room, four narrow fissures glared bright up in the ceiling.

A gut-wrenching screech pierced the silence, and the alien beast jumped on the Ranger. Though scarcely lit, he saw its body rotating on itself except for its center, where a circular maw showed lines and lines of sharp teeth. Around it, the eyes were surrounded by scales like steel. It was a Xanto.

The Ranger dived to the right, crashing against a group of steel chairs. Around the beast a set of thin antennae straightened to prevent a ruinous fall on the pavement, and not even a charge of blaster managed to make it lose its balance. All the Ranger could do was run away.

He zigzagged in search of a way of escape. The Xanto kept darting like an arrow behind him, trying to get its fangs on his head or his arms. Eventually, the helmet lighted a door in front of her.

He threw a small grenade behind his back to distract the alien. A flash of light sparked in the darkness and it exploded, burning a circular area around the beast. Its scales were unscathed, but the trick worked: the creature shifted its attention for just enough time to allow the Ranger to pass through the door.

Another wrathful screech echoed across the station. Apparently, the Xanto could not follow him through.

There was no hope for survivors. More blood and corpses lay all around. All the Ranger could do was finding another way back to the ship before the Xanto got him.

Another screech came from the distance: the alien had not called defeat yet. The Ranger moved carefully and silent through more corridors, hoping to avoid another encounter.

Its prayers were not to be made true. The Xanto’s cries became nearer each time, as he walked the long way to the hangar, until, just before he got in front of its security door, the alien screeched some meters to his left.

He quickly threw another grenade at it. The explosion burst just under the Xanto, distracting it as the Ranger rotated the wheel and opened the door.

Inside the insulated hangar, hold to the floor by the anti-gravity boots, the Ranger thought he could allow himself a sigh of relief, but when he looked at the place, a new problem had risen.

The Ranger had payed for his hurry and distraction. Robinson had found a way to escape and was now stumbling with his hands and feet on the handles dotting the pavement, his breath protected by a small oxygen mask, carrying his suitcase to the nearest spaceship.

He had thought about everything, it seemed. Who knew what other trinket he carried with himself.

Cursing his naivety, the Ranger strode toward him. He still walked slowly due to the absence of gravity, but the boots allowed him much more speed than the scientist could afford. With a desperate look, Robinson pulled a small pistol from his suit and shoot at the Ranger. Being in great hardship, as he clang to the handles trying not to lose his suitcase, he missed all the shots. The bullets all hit the ground around the Ranger.

Robinson made greater effort to reach a ship before the Ranger got him. He had almost got near one, when a strong arm grabbed his leg and pulled him back.

“You go nowhere but back to Gaia to face a trial” said the Ranger. “All this is your idea, isn’t it?”

The scientist looked at his visor with hateful fear. He could not reply, and the Ranger was happy about it. He wanted to hear no more from him, nor see him again once he was in the hands of the Federation’s justice.

Robinson kept on resisting him even now that he was powerless. The Ranger grabbed the suitcase, and the other clang on it with all its strength, discharging his pistol at him. Those bullets could only but scratch the power armor.

The Ranger punched Robinson in the gut. Even covered by the mask, he heard the man gasping painfully as he left the grasp on the suitcase and the pistol. Of those the Ranger took only the thing he needed.

“Now come with me” he said, when the angry screech of the Xanto echoed again.

They turned left and right as they heard the alien smashing the steel with its own body, the weird scales clanging like metal on metal against a shutter somewhere in the aeration conducts.

At last the shutter broke. Further air was sucked out of the station as the Xanto darted out and toward the two men, with nothing but lust for blood in its four glowing eyes.

“Get out of here!” cried the Ranger. He shot the beast with his rifle, aiming at the center of its mouth as it approached, but the teeth seemed as resistant as its scales.

Robinson dared not move, but the Xanto had a special gripe with the Ranger who had tried to fool him twice. It twisted its unearthly shape and it dived onto him.

The Ranger tried to step back, but he was too slow. The alien bit his shoulders, gnashing its teeth against the power armor. They were sharp as blades; with every crunch, the armor got greater damage than with a blaster shot, until the Xanto’s fangs were almost puncturing the Ranger’s shoulders.

Warning! Armor suffering heavy damage!

The Ranger grabbed the Xanto’s tail and pushed it away just before the alien sank its fangs on his flesh. It screeched when he shot a blaster charge toward its eyes, which did nothing but burst on its face, allowing him to put some distance. Robinson had left the suitcase and it was now hovering a few steps to the Ranger’s right. He took it as he stepped back, giving a quick glance at the Argo. The spacecraft awaited there, still and silent.

The scientist had at last found his strengths and was crawling to another ship just as before. The moment the Xanto eyed the Ranger grasping the suitcase, something awakened in its mind, and it started to look for Robinson.

The Ranger shoot at it another time, but once again a blaster rifle was nothing to him. The Xanto dived on Robinson and closed its maw on his head. He shook and trembled, trying to pull the beast away, his head entirely engulfed inside its mouth, as the Xanto moved frantically like a fish out of the water.

Eventually, the alien left him, and a pale, withered husk of a man started to hover a few inches above the hangar’s floor, like a ghost haunting a tomb in the middle of space.

Now, the alien turned to the Ranger again. It threw itself at him, faster than before, opening its horrifying jaw, making his steel-like fangs clack.

As a last resort, the Ranger faced the Xanto, waiting for its time to strike. The alien opened its maw to its full extent to attack him.

The Ranger shoved the suitcase in its mouth at the very last moment, and stepped back. The case managed to block the Xanto’s mouth, and the alien was now looking confusedly at him trying to free its maw.

The Xanto munched the case, breaking it with just a single bite. The security system activated instantly: the case exploded inside the alien. This was enough. Its steel-like scales fell off and jumped all around it, along with black chunks of weird alien flesh, very similar to that of a snail.

The mission was over. A total disaster, but at least the Xanto had been killed.

The Ranger walked tiredly to the Argo, and was inside set an automatic route to Gaia. Before going to rest again, he sent a report to the Federation.

S-145: Mission failed. Setting route to Gaia to make full report.

The Ranger looked at the Laboratories as the Argo left them to reach Gaia. He thought at the Federal plans Robinson had told him about, imagining the Federation using Xantos against communities of dissidents, or against the free people of Mars.

“Thank God this one failed.”


COMMENT: I wrote this story last year, with drafting occupying the whole month of January and revision occurring in the summer. I had initially thought of planning this anthology of short stories set in a sci-fi future mixing a bit of galactic politics that could feel related to current history (which is hinted here and there in the story), with my appreciation for atmospheres and situations you can find in Metroid games. I abandoned the idea, at least temporarily, since it doesn’t really resonate with me at the moment, and since the only story I managed to write in this setting didn’t get to that standard of quality I find acceptable for publishing (as it lacks at least a certain depth of theme to me), I chose to publish it here. Given that I haven’t posted on here for a while, too, it seemed appropriate.

Though I don’t see this story as optimal, I hope you enjoyed it a little bit, and thanks for reading if you got up to this point. Until next time!

[POEM] The sea calling

This poem was composed a while ago as my submission to the Passage Prize contest. Moldbug seems to have find it “displaying promise” apparently, but unfortunately didn’t like it enough to avoid me a rejection. Hence I’m posting it here hoping that some among you may find my pen at least as promising as he did.

Who upon hearing waves clashing
Loud on stone pillars tall dashing,
When his eyes gaze the blue line
Where the sea, heroes’ dark wine,
Meets the sky brightly flashing;

Who, I say, feels but blood boiling
As the waves fall and rise toiling,
Whose his heart plays but proud beats
Like the war-drums from soft seats
Call to arms forth a spoiling.

Every beat leaves the heart mourning,
Fill the wise soul with faint warning
That of days past the cold gales
Soon shall bring funereal wails
And with ire hail the morning.

What shall we do, o man gazing
Lights of red fires your home razing
As the cold winds your bones pierce,
Grim their cries, snow their bite fierce,
Bringing waste white and dazing?

Will we hide, crouch as war’s thriving,
Underground trembling kin driving
Or instead stand against dark
Holding life’s joyous spark,
To our fate grant surviving?

A new blog for commentary and critique

Dear readers, I return after such a long time to notify you all of a change in structure of this blog. Having finished all the university activity, I can now focus on writing for real. The last two years have been, in hindsight, a good training and the perfect time to make my mind clear about all of this. I have now well-defined projects in my mind, and both time and energy to dedicate to them.

So, this blog will now only be used to post fiction and poetry, a sort of portfolio that will contain all the stuff that, by current standards, doesn’t need to be published. The culture commentary moves to Past and Future Fragments on Substack. I’m not using Substack with the intention to add a paywall at a certain point, it’s just that the platform frees me from my recurrent concern about aesthetics: since I can’t have the slightly older appearance I want on new blog editors, I will use Substack which is way more minimal.

Thanks for everything and see you there!

https://pastfuturefragments.substack.com/

[SHORT STORY] The Stone Demon

My consciousness awakened, and suddenly I found myself in a poor, dirty, decaying house. Imagine yourself in my predicament, opening your eyes and seeing that your home has disappeared, replaced by a decrepit hut in the worst of slums.

Yet, my confusion was soon subdued by a great anguish, and a sense of fearful urgency swelled in my guts while I looked at the maggots and spiders crawling all around the wooden hovel. By instinct I realized I was hunted by someone I knew not, and for reasons I was oblivious to, but which had been decreed so severe that they had to be punished like an unspeakable crime.

I dared looking at the windows, wondering if barring them all was the wise thing to do, and the strangest landscape revealed itself bright with unearthly gloom: under a purple sky with no sun and clouds of yellow and gray-blue, stood an entire city made of rotten, crooked huts like the one I was in, a place made to challenge the mind and body. Misshapen monsters born of several buildings cast one upon the other looked over streets whose broken stones had been pulled out, a war-like view where panicked throngs ran left and right in a wide-eyed frenzy, like ants to whose nest a cruel boy has laid siege.

An unknown force urged me to escape, and since no one seemed to care about me at the moment, I obeyed it at once, and rushed out of the house.

I felt I had to escape an evil punishment, but I had no idea where to go. I was disoriented while sinking into that human tide where everyone appeared so different and yet so similar. Against common sense I tried to stop someone and ask him what was happening; the bald middle-aged man, clad in rags, was the only one who would suffer wasting two seconds of his time.

“Someone has been condemned. We don’t know who he is, but they’re coming for his judgment!”

“What did he do?” I asked.

He looked at me as you would to an adult man asking things that only children can without looking like fools.

“His very life is an offense to them. Now out of my way! I don’t want to be here when they come.”

No other would heed me, so I was left with nothing but engage in the same mad behavior, and I began running along the streets, going wherever my heart told me it was safe. Traversing that miserable city, I saw the effect of its madness unravel: many took with them their few possessions like they were to run away forever, many trampled upon each other in the attempt to make as much distance between themselves and whoever was to come, many other entered the abandoned houses to pinch any barely valuable item left inside. I was disgusted by that show of misery.

As we heard the sound of hoofs clattering on the stone, a choir of screams arose in response; the crowd around me began swirling faster and more desperate. Their contagious frenzy, and the echo of that ominous steed galloping, took control over me and even I started running madly in no particular direction, just to gain all the possible distance between me and the horse.

As much as I could run, the source of our collective terror pursued me behind every corner, hunting relentlessly. The screams got louder and more frightened rising above the clang of a blade cutting through flesh, until the creature was behind my back, and turning I gazed upon him.

His steed was a rotten corpse, with bones peeking out of putrid flesh. The harness was of blackened steel and blood-stained rags. Swinging his scythe, the dead horseman harvested the life of an unlucky couple standing between me and him. His perennial grin reigned over all that death and fear. He was living bone, armored with spikes of black steel melded with his cranium, his shoulders, his forearms, and his torso.

My legs became like butter. I fell to the ground, unable to move, to lift my gaze from the demonic knight.

He moved his horse forward, reaching to me with his writhing hands. Chill ran through my spine when he clutched me by my shirt’s collar. The last residue of will and consciousness slipped away from me, as if the rider was absorbing and feeding on them. My sight became blurry and I fainted.

When I awakened, I found myself laying on sand. I had not fully recovered yet from the spell of the spectral horseman: I could barely move my limbs, and my mind was confused.

I was at the center of a hellish-looking arena. Spikes of black metal rose above platforms where grotesque faces and monstrous grins leered at me, shouting curses and blasphemies. Horrendous gargoyles adorned the circular wall.

We are used to think these images are cool, but what happens when you are actually stuck in one that looks so real and dangerous? I feared for more than my life. I feared my soul would be destroyed forever, the plaything of a demonic legion.

And then I heard steps coming towards me, and I saw a being of stone. She had strong feminine features, generous curves that would have been attractive if not for the rugged gray surface, and the featureless head at the top. It resembled a stone egg, with no eyes nor mouth, no nose nor anything else you’d expect in a face. Her hands were reptile claws.

She sprang forward and got on top of me, holding my back to the ground with unexpected strength.

I cried out before I could notice. “Why are you doing this? I did nothing!”

A low, yet hear-piercing hiss came out of the demon’s stone head. “And that is why we like you the most.”

Then she started clawing at me. Each cut on my flesh left me with overwhelming pain, and stained the sand with blood, and with each wound the crowd cheered more loudly. The demons licked their lips and laughed with sadistic excitement, enjoying my desperate screams and the sight of my blood.

I begged her to stop, but she kept ripping my body with more intensity and cruelty, until I could not move my head anymore, and I knew that my body had been completely torn out.

“Now the final part” said the stone demon.

From the middle of her blank head opened a vertical fissure. The narrow hole became a gaping maw covering the whole space of her head. Inside it, long fangs jerked back and forth with anticipation; a long, forked tongue licked them full of anticipation.

The maw bent over me, a portal into a deep darkness where my screams fell silent.

I woke up. My bed sheets were soaked with sweat, my heart was racing and my limbs trembled. And I knew my soul had been attacked.

Vacation musings

Between vacation time and a extremely hot weather dropping my will to write to zero, I’m struggling a bit with posting, but I may finally reach the goal of a steady flow of releases in mid-August. The post on worldbuilding had the precedence, but Monthly Reads – June 2021 should be here in some days. The Monthly Reads after the June one will be “special” and feature both July and August, because admittedly I don’t read much during vacations, so I’m more comfortable with putting the two months together.

I have a couple of personal thoughts regarding my writing, the future of this blog, and other creative endeavors.

About writing

I’ve written nothing lately as I was more focused on producing music, but this gave me the opportunity to think a bit more about what I want to write.

I will not spend digital ink trying to give a complete account of my conclusions. Let’s just say that what I should do has become clear now. In theory, I want to see myself as a professional working to become able of writing in any genre and setting, as each is more apt to tell certain stories. But there’s something to add.

I’ve often looked at many arguments on the Internet (mainly made by writers I follow) on what the nature of heroism should be. I’ve concluded that altough I find their ideas are to be encouraged, I can’t say I exactly share them fully. Most of them seek a kind of 19th century hero, I believe, and that’s fine, but my pen wants to depict a classical hero. I want to look at that type. It be clear that as classical hero I mean any hero that precedes Don Quixote, from Achilles to Eneas to Beowulf to Roland to Perceval to Ruggiero. And I will focus mostly on classical masculine character, because most of my women tend to be boys with female bodies. I will leave female heroes to others, mostly.

I’ve written the vampire story as I planned to do, but it references Dracula a bit too much for my tastes. It needs to be rewritten but I am not in the mood for it. It’s frankly an hard choice, because I want to see my stuff released, but on the other hand I don’t want to put out garbage.

I will post more short stories like those that I’ve released recently. They are fun experiments. In time they’ll be enough to be released as a collection.

Raising the quality

Who has been following this blog for some time may notice that, while I attempted some literary criticism in the past, I have written nothing of the sort for months. The reason is that I wasn’t entirely satisfied with quality, length, and depth of my analysis. My intention is to end up writing proper essays, since I can see that the general level of literary analysis at the university level is really low. Our ability to understand the written word and the cultural world of our ancestors is waning, and even though I don’t see literary criticism as my main calling, I want to contribute in the effort of trying to stop this downward spiral.

The problem is, as I said, that I don’t think I have managed to write proper essays, in spite of maybe having good ideas and interpreations. I must work on my ability to provide good analysis, and that also means that I need more time to read more books. On the other hand, I want to write things here and now.

Part of this urgency and desire to write analysis again comes from the absolute shitshow I have seen among the self-proclaimed scholars of Tolkien. He’s one of the few authors I have a clear intention to cover already, because it’s evident that Academia has chosen to poison his work, and someone must save it before it has completely sunk in the abyss of Anglophone intellectual discourse.

Talking about music?

As I said in the previous update, I’m working on music. It’s now clear that this will be an important part of my future creative endeavors: I enjoy it very much and I think there’s some innate predisposition. We have a gem that is still uncut, but that promise great value in my opinion.

I was wondering: as music becomes more important to me as a creator, should I also start talking about music? There’s better guys than me that do this, and that’s why I don’t mean to write analysis, but just to spread the name of more artists. Let me know your opinion.

Changing name and platform

The previous point brings me to another thing. My ambient/dungeon-synth project will be called Heorot (by the way, I will soon release the demo). I think I will change my writer name to Heorot, too. After all the “Hart” comes from that, and I still like the original better. It also reflects better my creative intentions (being Heorot the legendary hall in Beowulf).

The more time passes the more I want to switch platform and get on Substack. It just seems better in general, and more focused on making the actual writing and reading comfortable instead of focusing only on the visual aspect like this one.

EDIT: A quick exchange with The Dacian convinced me to have my feet on both platforms. They have different strengths and it is good to use several tools rather than just one.

That’s all for now. Thanks for reading as always.

Until next time (ideally soon).

P.S.: photo is mine, taken in the beach of Castellammare del Golfo, Sicily. I’m no photographer and my phone is quite old, but I hope it’s enough for you to have a good mood.

What’s your world about

A realization that has come to me lately as I reflected about worldbuilding is that, at least to a certain extent, usually an imaginary world that has been well-received by the public is centered around a core metaphysical or meta-narrative idea. You can quickly examine many of the big worlds in entertainment and see a red thread crossing the entirety, or the main elements, of a setting.

I would like to pose some initial examples through a look to the medium where this core concept is easier to see, because it is the center of the experience: videogames.

There are two things around which games usualy revolve: the solving of conflict and the struggle for power. Both concepts are the two pillars of gameplay that provide the engagement and fun players seek and that bring them to enjoy the experience for hours.

The core narrative of the world of Dragon Age is a neverending fight against arcane and cthonic forces constantly threatening to wipe out humanity.

Now, in successful videogames, usually, the world is built on an adjacent basis. You would argue that, since the plot must adhere strictly to the gameplay and serve its purpose, it makes sense that the world has to follow the same path. It is true, but on the other hand it is generally agreeable that keeping himself tightly attached to a core theme and experience allows a writer to focus on what matters to the light of the actual product he is working on. That can be a videogame, a novel, a comic, whatever.

Final Fantasy revolves around four magic crystals. Often you do not need much.

Worldbuilding is not a product or a work of art. It’s just the idea of an imaginary world, written down so that others may picture it. The stories that are set between its boundaries are the real deal, and many people have been fooled into forgetting or ignoring this basic truth. I know that there are books, in particular, where an extensive and pervasive worldbuilding, detailed even beyond what is necessary, is in fact a good part of the experience. I do not mean to dunk on them, especially since I hardly read any of those. In my personal experience, this trend is very similar to most avant-garde movements that, after a brief moment of glory, fell into partial oblivion due to the fact that they were revealed as unsuccessful experiments. I do not believe people under 25 years old ever read this kind of books. They may have been a nice artistic experiment, and I do not prevent anyone from remembering it fondly, but it never went beyond that. The point of worldbuilding was and still is to provide a setting.

That trend is not enduring because the reason people love imaginary world is that you can set the wildest stories inside their boundaries. What makes you love Middle Earth is not Middle Earth per se. Your opinion of it would be “this feels like history but pointless because it is imaginary” if Tolkien had not written the stories we love so much.

Changing subject to books gives me a chance to say another thing. While in videogames it is easier to see this criteria at work, books are where this red thread can get the most elaborate: the fight of Law and Chaos in Elric is to me a perfect example, as this is the central axis of Elric’s world(s). In general, the medium of narrative prose confers the most creative freedom in this regard, and this is something I want to underline given that videogames are for sure stricter in what your possibilities are.

Most people who wish to write a book fail even to subconsciously grasp what the importance of worldbuilding is, and that is, again, to provide a setting that is more than time and place, but is also a general narrative. So you can witness how stale and repetitive and samey their creations are, adding to the fact that already, for cultural and political reason, products tend to look the same. The problem is that often these people are not even working under the wing of a major corporation, they are just creating a setting for a series of books which at that point may or may not be actually written. You can imagine how harmful is to conceive something that offers nothing different or particular before even reaching the hands of corporate editors.

This is often due to a fundamental misunderstanding of Tolkien’s work, caused by something that is common among “nerds” or “fandom”, as you may call it. That is, The Lord of the Rings is often more watched as a movie trilogy than read as a book. Usually, in the minds of these people the content of the movies overlaps that of the books, and generate a failure to understand all the basic elements of the story or the core narrative of the world itself.

The fact is that the red thread traversing Arda is philology, and many other important elements stem from it. The average nerd, instead, believes that the setting is centered around Elves and Dwarves, epic battles, etc., hence his attempt at writing his own Lord of the Rings sinks when worldbuilding becomes a confused ocean of notes and maps without a clear purpose, almost all of them destined to be useless regardless of the writer actually writing the real story.

If it was not philology you would not have this.

I believe it important for us to think profoundly about the nature and the meta-narrative of the world we are to build up, if we want to keep things clear and easy for both ourselves and the reader. I confess that I am stating this as a critic and not as a writer, given that I have yet to venture into a journey as hard as the creation of an entire fantasy world; nonetheless I think that the conditions in which the indipendent artist has to operate today require him at least a minimum amount of smart thinking. Stating a clear narrative pervading the whole world is to me a smart tactic for someone who wishes to provide an extended world to his story without losing focus on what matters.

What do you think?

Comics Bimonthly #1 – May, June 2021

My first try with the Monthly Reads series has been a success. People have in fact read it contrary to expectations, and I discovered that it allows me a couple of things: mainly of hinting at elements of a story which I found notable but not so big as to justify an entire post, and of spreading the name of contemporary counterculture writers whom I like, without posting a simple advertisement to this or that Kickstarter campaign (a thing I have nothing against, but that I want to avoid on the basis that people just look at those posts distractedly).

Now we do the same thing with comics, though once every two months because I read less comics than prose fiction.

Mark Pellegrini, Timothy Lim – Kamen America Vol. 2

It’s a shame that I start to talk about Kamen America from the second volume, given how much deserving this comic is (and its crowd-funding success speaks for it). A sapient mixing of America and Japan, the story follows the steps of Carly Vanders, as she experiences an incident that turns her into a powerful weapon. Carly will soon put her newly found powers in service for good (that is, fighting giant monsters) as Kamen America, but soon we find her struggling with the mass media system which has made an industry out of the monsters that started appearing following the same incident that gave Carly her powers.

Much of the second volume revolves around the intent of an agent to catch the public’s attention away from Carly. We already know him from Vol. 1 – he was at first Carly’s agent – and we know he is doing all he can to stop her from getting recognized as a hero. This time he comes up with a shameless clone: Kamen UN, who, for worse, is no less than an old acquantaince of Carly.

It is a funny, light-hearted comic that becomes very wholesome when things get serious, and as serious things I don’t mean vapid philosophy, but daily-life moral questions, faced with simplicity and tact. In no way the comic is preaching at you but it is rather telling a moral story so rooted in good sense that no moralizing is needed. The story talks for itself. There is very good manga-like action, both in battle scenes and gags, and the colors are one of the rare cases where digital art shines out.

I think you can either find it on Iconic Comics or by keeping an eye on Lim’s Kickstarter profile. You’ll be able to get all the episodes once another campaing starts for the following episode (Vol. 4 at the time I’m writing). Or just follow Lim and Pellegrini on Twitter.

Jesse White, Crown of Iron Part 1

As many people are starting to get acquainted with Jesse after the successful crowfunding of Deus Vult, I thought it useful to talk about this other project of his. Jesse has got his own Patreon where he monthly releases instances of two of his on-going series, in single-page format. His stories are old-school pulps in both aesthetic, structure and theme.

To my understanding, Crown of Iron is a comic rendition of the script written by John Millius (sequel to Conan the Barbarian) which never got on film. On this basis is a really interesting project but I, who was ignorant of the existence of this script, find the comic enjoyable on its own.

As stated in the title we are still on Part 1, where the story is set up. Conan meets the Frost Giant’s Daughter, who exchanges with him two promises, one about her love and the other about the son that will be conceived.

Jesse’s classical illustration style always catches the eye, with his smooth lines and the masterful craft he shows in drawing anatomy. But praiseworthy as well are his inking, that confers a dramatic feature to the comic and underlines both motion and emotion (they are an essential part of the narration), and the pacing. Both because of the single-page structure and the adherence to old-school Marvel storytelling, the comic does not waste time and space in unnecessary detail, or trying to be something it is not (another point of strength: Jesse is taking inspiration from a movie script but knows he is not making a movie), and shoots all his bullets in merciless, and enthusiastic, succession.

You can find the story on Jesse’s Patreon.

Moebius, La Citadelle Aveugle

Someone should have told Moebius that he was only good as an artist, and as regards writing a story he was less clever than he thought.

This is a collection of very short comics (variable length), written and drawn by the man himself. It spaces from traditional fantasy to science fiction to more realistic stories, from fables to erotic tales (I wasn’t aware of that, mom) to (poor) social commentary. What keeps this salad together is its least palatable characteristic: they usually end abruptly and in useless tragedy.

I love Moebius as an artist, and I reasonably knew he was not near my alley philosophically, but far from being good stories by a very different mind, the works in this collection are the epitome of hippie Boomerism in art. The most promising stories have no point, their tragic endings have no meaning. The social commentary is full of nauseating hippie takes which were frankly stupid in the ’60s already and are tasteless now to all people smart enough to have their own thought. The erotic tale featuring a teenage girl is the most forgiveable thing and that should tell you something.

Avoid this at all costs. I hope that at least L’Incal, what should be his most famous work, is way better than this.

Also I do not seem able to find an English edition for this, so you just have to trust me.

That’s it for now. This month I should be able to increase my output of posts, so stay tuned!

[SHORT STORY] The Lovesick Prince

The sun kissed the minarets and domes of golden Parthulah the day her Prince became a man, His 20th birthday; and He arose early in the morning, when the sun is still cold and its shades jut toward the West, and gathered all the councils and all the court, and every servant and every outstanding citizen into his halls of marble, where tapestry told stories of old and visions of the future, and the mosaics praised Parthulah’s gorgeous daughters. Then the whole place was filled with people, rich merchants and fierce warriors, and holy men and humble peasants, who rejoiced to the music and the food and the wine that the servants had provided them. But then the Prince came, and He wore not His crowned turban, nor He bore the bright jewels of his family, but only covered in crimson pantaloons He slowly walked across the hall and sat in His throne.

The marble echoed with clapping and laughter and shouting and wishes of a long and glorious life. But the Prince was left unfazed, with His sad lips and black bags below His eyes, and He raised His right hand to command silence. As He had done so, Sound left the royal halls of golden Parthulah, and ran away to the river and the markets of far cities.

“I am now fully man, but I feel no joy and no strength. I have no will, for I am lovesick.”

Thus spoke the Prince of golden Parthulah, and all the councils and the court, and every servant and every outstanding citizen was troubled, and dared speak not.

A highly regarded courtesan approached the throne, for she had deep knowledge of many a young man’s heart and thought to find cause and remedy of that sickness.

“O sweet Prince, You are everything and own everything. You are the blazing sun and the gentle stars. Tell me, who made You sick with love and how, You that no woman would cast away?”

“I cannot tell” said the Prince of Parthulah. “I do not know her and may be that she has never heard of me, and I do not know how she enthralled me, because today I just awoke and realized I was lovesick.”

Now the courtesan smiled in her heart because she thought she knew what the Prince desired.

“O sweet Prince, I will give You the cure from Your sickness.”

She went away, and everyone waited anxiously. But she soon returned and ran to the Prince and extended her arm toward the entrance.

“Let her come in!”

And behold, a young woman of unmatched beauty knelt to the Prince’s feet and locked her eyes into his. Her skin was like amber, her hair like silk, her eyes light as gems, her frame the work of a divine sculptor. She had the name of spring, and her voice was like placid rivulets flowing through pastures upon sweet hills.

The woman danced for the Prince and won over Him, and smiling He held her in His arms and carried her to His chambers. And they spent the day and night together, and they were merry, until sleep fell over them and they wandered together on the roads of Dream. But the sun rose again, and a new day had come, and the Prince told the woman to go away and never return, and that if He saw her again, He would have made her killed. She ran out of the chambers crying, and met the courtesan, who had come early expecting a happy Prince, and told her of how He had loved her the day before, and how He hated her now.

The courtesan entered the Prince’s chambers and saw Him lay on the pavement as a dead man, looking at the pictures of gods and heroes painted on the dome of His august nest.

“O sweet Prince” she said, “are you still lovesick?”

“I am still lovesick” he answered.

And then he ordered to summon all the courts, and every servant, and every outstanding citizen, and to gather them again in the throne hall. And the courtesan went to refer the Prince’s order, which quickly spread through the palace and out in Parthulah’s humbler abodes, and went to hid the young woman so that the Prince could not find her if some mad idea would come to Him. But in her mind she kept devising a new cure to His sickness.

“He thirsts for domestic warmth” she said to herself. “A warm fire and hot bread, and laugh and love and affection.”

So her feet flied through the roads of golden Parthulah and into the Prince’s palace, and she pushed her way through the throng amassed in the main hall.

“O sweet Prince, this time I really know what you need!”

And she took the Prince by her arm and led Him out of the palace and into the plebeian quarters of golden Parthulah, and knocked the door of a modest wooden building, and entered with him. They found themselves inside an inn and there a warm fire was lit, and the keeper served Him a jug of warm beer, and his wife the hostess cooked a commoner’s meal, of warm bread and tasty cheese and fried eggs, along with talks and laughs and warm affection. And the Prince ate and drank and was merry and heartened, and thanked many times His humble hosts, and prized them with gold and praise and friendship and many gifts. But when the meal was digested, and the honors had been given to the innkeeper and his wife, the Prince looked at the sunset and sighed again.

“I wish I could have shared that meal with my love, for I am lovesick.”

The courtesan worried again, but it was now late, and everyone was leaving for their homes. And later all but the Prince slept pleasantly, and had wonderful dreams, but the Prince strode right and left, up and down, and went around all the palace, restless as He was, until He was exhausted. But then the dawn came again, and He prepared and went to the hall where all the courts, and every servant and every outstanding citizen was waiting him.

“I am still lovesick” he said as soon as He had sat on the throne.

“O sweet Prince, this time I really know what you need!”

So the courtesan spoke, and then went into the crowd to gather all the actors she could find, and poets and musicians, and told them to arrange a great spectacle, a beautiful tragedy of passionate love. Quick and good they had to be, for the Prince must be cured soon, else He would grow restless and mad.

The artists toiled all day and evening, until the play was ready. And that very night in the theater the Prince sat to His honor seat and enjoyed the show, and praised it with enthusiasm.

“O sweet Prince” said the courtesan, “I am happy you feel better.”

“I do not” He replied, and His face became sorrowful again. “If anything, I feel worse. I wish I could be like the hero of that story, for I am lovesick.”

Thus the courtesan was distraught and called defeat. But the Prince put His hand upon her head.

“I am grateful for your help. I know that you really care for me, and that you felt no fear when I said to be lovesick. I will remember.”

And the next day the Prince woke up as the sun had peeked out of the eastern mountains, when the sky was still grey, and purified Himself and began to arrange His last resort. And then He called all the councils and all the courts, and every servant and every outstanding citizen, and brought them into His halls.

“I am still lovesick, but now I know what I need. And many thanks you all shall give to this courtesan, the one who helped me and trembled not when I said to be lovesick. Know now that she will be your queen, and that you shall be cursed if you do harm to her. But you, queen, you shall learn my next lesson and then be purified before sitting on this throne.”

As He had spoken, all trembled and asked questions among themselves, for those words had hit their pride and their hearts were now troubled. But suddenly the Prince arose, and took the new queen by His arm, and led everyone out into a great square in front of the palace, where He used to give speeches and receive praises and salutations. And He knelt on a white platform, and drew out an ornate dagger, a trophy of His youth.

“Each of you all shall stab me with this very dagger, else my curse will devour his flesh and soul. It’s my last order.”

All were scandalized, and the new queen wept, and the people said that the Prince had become mad, but He warned them again.

“Doubt me a second time, and I shall curse you. Disobey me, and I shall curse you a second time.”

So they were convinced, for the Prince of Parthulah had divine blood whose power could move the mountains. With sad faces and trembling hands, they stabbed Him countless times. And at last only the new queen was left, and she was weeping still.

The Prince was soaked in His blood of gold and crimson, which had filled the white platform like summer rain, but he was breathing still.

“Do it, future Queen of Parthulah, and your soul shall feel relief. I can see already the land where I will meet my love, and the temple where I will marry, and the middleman who will let each other meet.”

Then the queen stabbed Him, and His soul left His smiling body, taking Death by her hand, and was brought to where no living man can be.

Monthly Reads – May 2021

In spite of myself being stuck with playing Yakuza Kiwami non-stop in the first part of the month, and of the subsequent return to studying, I have managed to read a good number of things. I’m one of those who read attentively rather than quickly, and yet reading as much as I can is to me a sort of pleasant duty, not only because I’m a writer and hence reading is necessary to me, but also because today some good written word is a primary need. The world is very fast, and I by no means dislike it, but man needs to slow down.

We have some good variation, too. Old pulp, classics, and NewPub. There’s some for everyone, so let’s go. I will talk as little about plots as it seems appropriate, for my interest is not in doing homework.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Pirates of Venus

GREAT NOVEL. The adventures of Carson Napier begin with his project of reaching Mars, but a mistake leaves him to drift in space until his vessel gets attracted by the gravity of Venus. After a rough landing, he finds out that certainly there is life on Venus and the planet itself has a long history: in ancient times, the (very) old Amtorian kingdom has been overthrown by an insurrection of space Communists called Thorists, and those who have escaped have built their refuge upon the gigantic trees of Venus, called Vepaja. Carson is found by the Vepajans and joins their society, but after a while some misadventures bring him away from Vepaja and on the hands of the Thorist; from here, his story and his feelings will tie with the story and people of planet Venus.

The book has some not-so-useful passage in the first chapter, especially when the narrator stops to define technical details of the space journey, but otherwise it’s a quick and entertaining read with very fluid prose. Events and adventures flow and happen one after the other with a crescendo of tension, and being it the first book in a series, it ends with a dramatic climax which makes you want to jump to the next episode. The single chapters follow a similar structure, and, of course, it works. It’s undoubtedly the best way to structure a pulp novel.

This first book is most certainly a set-up for future events, and it excels in letting you have a taste of the basic elements of this imaginary Venus: the nature of the land, its different peoples and their relationship among each other. Burroughs mixed with creativity different branches of XIXth Century adventure fiction and spiced them up with the sci-fi element, a feat which may seem expected today but I believe it to be remarkable for the ’30s. Carson, our protagonist, is an archetype of the kind of traditional manliness which old adventure fiction had plenty of and that we lack so much today. He conquers your sympathies without much hesitation, something that, other than being perfect in a pulp context, I praise loudly. He’s an awesome Gigachad and you’ll love it.

Also shout-out to Burroughs for understanding and exposing the core metaphysical and existential essence of Communism. No wonder the bugmen hate him!

Note: I have bought the whole cycle so expect to read about the other books in later posts.

Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights

It is incredible that this is classified as a short story in spite of being about 50-pages long. Luckily, it is good story. Here, our protagonist is a typical 19th Century romantic, a lonely dreamer, stumbling upon an equally lonely lady, Nastenka, and her sorrows: she has been waiting a year for the return of the man she loves, who has not yet returned in spite of a promise he made. The meeting between the protagonist and Nasten’ka sparks a light in their common loneliness, and in the four following nights, our dear romantic can’t stop falling in love with the girl and deluding himself of being reciprocated. His hopes are crushed as finally the man Nastenka has been waiting for shows up and reunites with her.

Few things have left me a greater impression than the quality of the dialogue, which is neatly superior to that of most authors, if not all. It shows a brilliant ability of not just mimicking the way some real people speak, but also of putting on paper the nervousness and emotional distress of our two characters, of leaving a trace of gestures and tone through dialogue alone, without making it explicit through a direct narration. This is supposed to be a short story, so the prose does not wander and is strictly focused on telling the drama and the protagonist’s emotional movements. This happens in smaller scale with Nastenka, too, as she tells the story of her enamorment herself. However, she is also supposed to be a mysterious entity to both reader and protagonist. We are not allowed a look into her true feelings until the end, when a glimpse of them is showed as she sees her true love, when the protagonist’s hopes (and the reader’s, too) crumble. I would define the ending a small tragedy, but not a disappointment in the sense the current publishing industry has forced on you for decades. I would say that, a part from being a glimpse of truth, what happens is a good thing given that our main character is a fucking Virgin.

Read it here: https://dev.gutenberg.org/ebooks/36034

David V. Stewart, Middlebury (A Gen Y Tale)

As the title suggest, this short story belongs to a cycle of tales about the common experiences and feelings of Gen Y. That doesn’t mean an older or younger reader cannot enjoy them or be touched by the their themes, although being myself a younger guy they feel distant or partly alien to me. I am confident that the Gen Y Tales are some of those things that you understand better as time passes.

In this one, the main character, Tim, is stuck in a very odd situation: he keeps feeling that something is waiting for him beyond his attachments and daily life in the town of Middlebury. The slow start describing the monotony of Tim’s days gives space to an unexpected conclusion, and to the rising of a mythical and religious element, as the nature of this internal calling becomes clearer. A strange traveler will reveal the true nature of Middlebury and push Tim to leave it behind.

As I said, it starts slowly, but it is necessary to state Tim’s initial situation. It is more or less the description of a common day in the life of Tim, altough he is already starting to feel that something is not quite right. After the encounter with the traveler, the rhythm increases and the point of the story unfolds at the right pace. The theme of leaving away our material attachments is faced with expertise, since it mitigates any eventual heaviness with pleasant fantasy-style action (given David’s public and career, it was a smart move), and the resolution is especially touching. Very cool.

You can find it here: https://dvspress.com/middlebury-a-gen-y-tale/

Alexandru Constantin, Bobby

I remember Alexandru tweeting about prefering the horror inside the human mind rather than the cosmic one, and this story is a concrete example of that taste.

Bobby is our protagonist, a man with some unpleasant trauma on his back (in particular, one regarding a dog he owned as a kid, a dog that met a sad fate) and a disturbed mind. The story begins with him driving at night through the desert. It is said to be a special night, the kind Bobby likes, when the storms always come. Stopping into an old, familiar pub, he meets Marci, the once hottest girl in class, who has come to enjoy the night with her boyfriend.

Their presence is increasingly insufferable to Bobby, but at last they leave him alone, and he can return to enjoy solitude again until the couple exits the pub. Events take a wrong turn as Bobby makes the road home and finds Marci staggering on the street after a fight with her boyfriend, and an incident with a coyote causes him to face his trauma again.

Alexandru’s prose sinks the reader into a confounded state where always looms an element of disturbance, obsessing him with hints of the world as seen by Bobby. Sometimes you can truly feel his own emotions, especially when dealing with Marci. This disturbant air weighs on the story as an ill omen, and the ending is quite sudden in spite of the reader expecting something bad happening soon. I very much appreciated this artistic style.

You can find it here: https://terrorhousemag.com/bobby/

Note: having talked many times with both David and Alexandru, it felt odd to call them by “Mr. Stewart” and “Mr. Constantin”. If you are extranous to “our circle”, know that this is the reason I just call them by name, and my intentions are not disrespectful.

That is all for May. Monthly Reads returns in July!

Until next time.

[SHORT STORY] Snake’s Bite

Of all the memories of my time in the desert, when I, younger and bolder, worked in the African north, it is a weird dream to occupy the first place and rule all over the rest of my experiences. But this story, although developing in the realm of Morpheus, starts in the waking world, under the scorching sun of the Sahara.

As I said, I was working in the desert (the nature of my job is entirely useless to the means of this tale and altogether boring). How draining is that land, and how exhausting, but how fierce and fascinating to the human soul. The yellow dunes awaken something within you, that makes you feel what ancient men have felt when facing their primeval dangers in the first age of mankind. Despite the many warnings (and the somnolent security meetings), that place made me too distracted and rarely weary of my surroundings. Or maybe, my primordial instinct reborn sought the risk of death.

And as I had provoked Death, he struck in no time, brutal and unmerciful against his challengers. I was walking near an amass of rocks when suddenly I had him coiled around my left leg. Once I had noticed him, my convulsive reaction was followed by a strong bite on my ankle.

I cried help, and, luckily, I was near my colleagues and the local security agents, because that snake’s bite was poisonous and, as I discovered, potentially mortal. They instantly rushed to my rescue, killed the serpent, and brought me to our place where I was put into medication, already very feverish and debilitated. After treating me, the doctors assured that the fever would pass in a day and told me to just rest and relax.

However, I spent a hell of a night. Both fever and medicines made me feel sluggish and foggy; a weird, weak restlessness took over me, in which I could not fall asleep but had no strength to do anything else, either.

I had to wait until complete exhaustion, as my head started spinning and I began sweating profusely in spite of the colder climate of the desert night. My eyes rolled up like my irises were entering inside my head, and I fell into oblivion.

The fire of a luxurious hearth was the first thing catching my attention. I found myself in an extremely rich chamber from a time long past, which my consciousness recognized, but was unable to tell me. It was like it had been cut out from the rest of my perception, and even now, if I try to remember, I seem unable to connect the dots.

Suddenly, though, I felt another thing: that I was slithering above soft flesh… above the bosom of a woman!

Nay, it was not that kind of dream. I felt no desire for her, nor she did for me, however sensual her abandonment above her cushions, her parted lips through which her breath flew nervously, her heavy eyelids talking of sadness and despair.

Something made my guts clench, and that was the peculiar way I slid above her: not like a man, but like a snake, describing a S as I climbed upon her chest. She sighed, trying to hold her fear, but she could not prevent herself from trembling a bit.

I ignored her, yet once I was on her shoulder her resistance crumbled. She cried and raised her arms as to throw me away, but I was faster: as she had made the slightest, abrupt movement, my fangs were on her neck. Her spirit left her body as the cry died on her lips in a ghostly groan. And the dream died with her in a flash of light.

The bright white persisted, and my point of view changed. I was amorphous, and everything around me was heavy liquid. That sensation lasted for I do not know how much time, until a spark of energy and strength traversed my whole body. Just later, that white prison became suffocating and intolerable, and I began struggling with all my strength to break it down. I literally threw myself against the white walls surrounding me, which cracked and then broke. I was free!

I jumped raising a splash of liquid all around me until I landed onto the ground, realizing that I was a snake again. The furniture of the infirmary surrounded me, and I slid under the door on my way back to the desert. My desert, my land.

Abruptly, I came back to the waking world, just in time to see a reptile tail disappear beyond the narrow space between the door and the ground.  My fever had passed.

I never told this anyone, the reason being a certain shame the event left on me. The next day, I was fine and had no sign of complications, so there was no need to report my dream and be called a madman as result. Afterwards, I suffered no ill which I can relate to that event, yet sometimes in my sleep I can swear to see the desert again, and to slither above it, and to contemplate the daily lives of men and women, as a predator would lust upon a pray, already tasting my next rebirth.