27 November, 2013

The Long Slow March

'Tis a long slow march beyond the middle sea, where monsters flail and gnash their teeth. 'Tis a long slow march within the neverwhere, for the sun beats hard upon our weary heads. Blistered feet and weary limbs trudging ever onwards. Heads hang down and shoulders droop beneath the weight of armour. It's times like this that makes one regret the choice to join the army. It's times like this that you remember how frail, how blessed you are. Stretchers bear the sick and dying, the smell clings to our nostrils. Decaying flesh and bloody breaths, the rats need no other trail.

'Tis a long slow march after war is done, when neither side has won. Too many losses, too many brothers, both sides lost heart and stared. 'Tis a long slow march remembering the dead and how you didn't know. How Tommy was a father and Mischa had no mother and Reynald had a sweet heart. Tommy used to think up games to play, while Mischa played mouth organ all day. Reynald used to daydream until the sergeant made him jump. Now they lie in long muddy rows beneath the pounded dirt, where friend and foe were buried so disease would spread no more.

'Tis a long slow march when I think of home and all I left behind, but I heard that while we were away, the whole town had been wiped out. 'Tis a long slow march when there's nothing to return to, but broken buildings and loss. My wife, my children, my dog, my cat, Mum's vase sitting in the window. We go to war to prevent the loss, but in the end it's futile. For I did the same to another man and now we are truly equal.

'Tis a long slow march alone with your thoughts, I don't think I'll last much longer. This torture, this drudgery, this never ending glare - for me, I feel I've had enough. 'Tis a long slow march with a downward spiral, into the pit of despair. Others have gone, left me behind and what am I now to do?

13 June, 2013

Tappety bit

Sometimes I write things on a whim as a study or test of my abilities. You may notice that I'm no good at writing diplomatic things or meetings. Meetings are so boring. Anyway, let me know what you think.

I know every room and item in the palace. I know every scullery maid and groomsman, every guard and ornament, every bump and chipped brick. Margot sometimes calls me the Palace Spy, because I know everything that happens around the place, even what happens in the secret meetings that I am not supposed to listen in to. I may not understand everything, but I can repeat it to Margot when we go to our secret place where we will not be overheard. Sometimes the King or my Lord Tipstaff will be there, trying not to move or breathe loudly so that I would not know they are there. I go along with their little games, but sometimes I call them out to remind them that I am not stupid.

Officially, I am a tweeny maid, with no set work. I help everyone and anyone around the palace – if they want my help. Everyone calls me Tappety, short for Tippety-Tappety, because of the sound my little white cane makes on the palace floors. My real name is Fiona, but only Margot calls me that, and then only when she is cross with me.

My sister is very wise. She is one of the King’s favoured advisors and sits amongst his key chancellors in the Mirror Pool Hall, although the Sigello family have no place among the nobles. Father was a childhood friend of the king, a long time ago, but was banished to the Mountlands after an argument. Mother was sent with him and they died there during a night raid by the wild mountain dwellers. Margot and I were kept safe here in the palace. I don’t remember, but Margot said that when the messenger ran in, the King cried and came to inform us in person. He also told Margot that whoever married her would also have to carry Father’s family name, although Margot laughed at that.
“Who would want to marry a woman too wise for her own good and inherit a blind little sister at the same time?” she says. I tell her that she’s just so beautiful that she scares the boys away with her radiance. I’ll get a light slap for being silly, but she’ll be smiling. I know because she’ll move with a lighter step and sometimes even hum a love song.

I don’t know what’s better (or worse). To be considered stupid and worthless because you’re blind or thought senseless and weak because you’re a girl.

Today, I was chased out of the scullery, because I chipped a plate. It wasn’t my fault. Roni kept tickling me. At least I didn’t break it. I tried helping the maids upstairs make the beds, but while I tucked sheets as well as any of them (without wrinkles too), Githa sent me away because they found getting around me and my stick a bit too tricky. So I went down to the pottery shed to help one of the assistants, Tony, with glazing some pots, but the Master Potter saw and said that a blind girl wouldn’t be able to see to make sure the glaze is even and boxed Tony’s ears. I heard him checking the pots I’d dipped after he’d seen me out and I’m pretty sure none were thrown away. I then sat listening to the ladies gossiping in the solar, but because it was already a little overcrowded in there and they considered me bad luck to have around the pregnant ladies, I was sent away. I tried helping the stable boys in pitching hay, but the Stable Master said it was no work for lack-muscled girls and told me not to disturb them today, because the Duke of Ellend-Stighen was taking the diplomats from Nebrodensis hunting and one of the Princes of Rhuscoriaria was expected to arrive today with a large entourage.

Feeling down that Cook wouldn’t even let me into the kitchen, I left my stick in my room and crept into my usual hiding place where I would be able to listen the Chancellery in session. Sitting in a hollow covered by tapestries can still get quite cold, especially when the hollow you’re sitting in is made of stone. So I have padded it with old rugs and blankets that would have been thrown out. It’s so cosy that it’s easy to fall asleep, which is what I did while below they debated from their seats around the Mirror Pool about the usefulness of sumac.

I woke to hear the King thumping his fist on the table and storming out of the room.
“He’s right too, you know,” Margot’s quiet voice echoed around the room.

“What would you suggest then, Miss Know-It-All?” asked the tired voice of the Chancellor of Trade. “We’ve discussed every avenue thoroughly.”

“There are too many variables,” Margot said. “We must show them our strength, but without showing all. Tell them we will be firm and that they cannot force us into one of their agreements.”

“Ah. You’re talking about parades and competitions. Sports and such,” said the Chancellor of War. “Poppycock. That stuff never works. If they want war, we should just hammer them.”

“Strategy, Lucius,” said Jaris, the Prime Minister. “You excel at strategy. This is us openly declaring that we will go to war if they dare push us. We want to show them that we’ll not be another of their puppets… but in a friendly way. Think of this as the opening moves of a serious game of chess.”

“Fine. Side with the girl.”

“The girl,” said Jaris in a frosty tone, “sides with the King.”

“Besides,” Margot said as if the temperature in the hall hadn’t dropped, “they may not present to us in the way we think they will. If anything, I believe they will try disarm us with friendliness first and when we relax our guard, they will strike.”

“All right,” said Jaris. “are there any other suggestions?”

“Besides crush them before they attack?”

“Yes, Lucius, besides that.”

“It’s a pity the King hasn’t any children yet. We can’t even propose a marriage treaty,” said the Chancellor of Foreign Affairs.

“We have discussed the cool treatment, the over-enthusiastic welcome and everything in between,” Jaris said. “Does anyone have anything else to add? No? Then, would someone please fetch his Majesty?”
I could hear the rustle of material, but no footsteps. Nobody dared talk to the King when he was in a bad mood, which meant it was a job for me and that meant that Margot would be sent to find me and charge me with calming the King down enough to finish the meeting.

Slipping out of my alcove, I hurried back to Margot and my room. Before long, the rustle of silk a light step-to-step-to heralded Margot’s arrival.

“Fiona, there you are,” Margot smiled. “Done anything interesting today yet?”
“Not really,” I said. “The usual.”

“I have a job for you. You know what it is?”

“Yes,” I nodded. “He’ll probably be in the art gallery.”

“Thank you,” Margot said. “I’ll let them know he’s on his way then.”

Tip-tapping loudly into the art gallery, I made my presence known to anyone hiding behind the statue of Grand Marshal Wilks who was probably staring at the painting of old King John the Talented. I could smell the King’s retainers standing by and his head retainer, Humphrey, guarding the door.

“Knock, knock,” I called from the other side of the statue.

I heard the King sigh.

“Knock, knock?” I tried again.

“I thought I told Humphrey not to let me be disturbed.”

“Am I disturbing you, Sire?”

“Yes, Tappety. Please, I’m not in the mood for jokes right now.”

“Would it cheer you up to know that I saw Cook making ice-cream?”

“They sent you to fetch me back, didn’t they?”

“Next time, Sire, I suggest you get permission to knock Sir Moustache into the pool.”

“Sir Lucius wouldn’t like it if he knew you were calling him Sir Moustache.”

“Did you know that his moustache fair rattles every time he breathes out? Most people can’t hear it, but you know, Sire, sometimes it makes me wonder whether there is a mouse stuck in there and is scrabbling to get out. That’s what it sounds like. Perhaps it twitches that way too. I wouldn’t know, but don’t be surprised if a mouse doesn’t suddenly pop out one day.”

I heard a faint coughing near the art gallery door where Humphrey was probably trying and failing in holding in his laughter. He never was very good at holding it in where I was concerned. I’ve never really understood why. He keeps admirably silent when the Jester plays the fool for the King.

“Tappety, I forbid you to do anything of the sort.”

“Oh, no, Sire. I’d never pull such a prank. You know me.”

“Yes, I do,” said the King, taking my hand and beginning the walk back to the Mirror Pool Hall.
Humphrey and the other retainers fell into step around us. “No mice.”

“Yes, Sire,” I replied, knowing that Humphrey would find someone else to play the prank now that I’d mentioned it and been forbidden from the act. Someone like the Jester.

We passed a window and I caught a scent of strange spices on the air. Down below in the courtyards, it sounded like mayhem.

“I guess they’ve arrived,” the King sighed. “We’d better hurry. We’ll leave you here child. Humphrey, please go ahead and make sure everyone’s ready in the courtroom.”

Their footsteps faded away with a clip-clip-clip.

I stuck my head out the window, pretending as if I could see what was going on down below. With all the smells and sounds, I could sound my own picture of the chaos. Taking my time, because I knew it would take a while before the newcomers were allowed entrance into the throne room, I wandered from window to window, trying to sort out the cacophony below. By now, the Prince and his officers would have been shown to a nice waiting room, provided with refreshments and left to freshen themselves up before meeting the King. I knew well enough not to go near the guest waiting rooms, but I did wander out into the Rose Hedge Garden to sit beneath the honeysuckle trellises to see what I could hear.

I heard voices in a strange running language that I couldn’t catch. I could make no head nor tail of any of the words they used. I couldn’t even tell where one word started or ended, so after whistling back to a song thrush happily eating cracked snails on the other side of the bench, I rambled toward a camouflaged garden gate to slip back into the palace building unnoticed. Only one gardener I knew of used this gate and door and so it was with great surprise that I ran into some Rhuscoriarians. The wind had been at my back and so I had not smelt that strange spicy smell that hung about them.

“What’s this here?” laughed an accented voice. I didn’t like the sound of his laugh or the tight grip on my shoulders.

“E-excuse me,” I gasped in a small voice. “I didn’t – I didn’t think anyone would be here. Please, excuse me.”

“A child like you has a staff of office? No. It must be stolen.”

My cane was ripped out of my trembling hand. Wanting to get away from these strange men, I listened to the whisper of their clothes, felt the warmth of their body heat and smelt their body odour and spicy scent in order to gauge who was where and how to escape.

“Perhaps she is a messenger,” said another man.

“Since when are girls messengers?” snorted the first man, saying something in their own language to which they all laughed in a way that made me feel dirty.

“Excuse me,” I said and twisted out of the man’s grip, throwing myself between two of the men and running away.

“Hey, come back,” they called.

I kept running. They could keep my cane. I had a spare one in my room.

“Tappety, goodness. Stop running, child. You know you’re not allowed to run in here,” Githa caught me when I spun around a corner. “Where’s your cane?”

“I lost it,” I gave a guilty smile. I didn’t dare say that I had accidentally run into the foreigners. I would be caned so hard that I wouldn’t be able to sit for a month.

“Then go to your room. You’re not safe without it.”

“Sorry, Githa,” I mumbled and slipped off to spy on the throne room from behind a door covered by a hanging of a red war horse.

The Master of Ceremonies was directing some courtiers where to stand and I could hear the Chancellors entering to stand below the dais. Margot ended up against the wall to the right side, near my hiding place. It wouldn’t do for these patriarchal bigots to know that she was an advisor. Let them think she was someone’s wife.

“His Royal Highness, Prince Neto Niaz Saahir Kahil of Rhuscoriaria and Duke of Getlamh and Sumac. His Serene Lordship, Eorl Onkar Zeeman of Levo. And his Right Honourable Count Badhur Bakari of Bakehill.”
I heard the low murmur die down as everyone in the throne room stopped where they were and gave small ruffly bows as the trio walked through the hall to the dais where the chancellors had parted for them.

Margot took a sharp breath.

“Is that Fiona’s cane?”

There was a slight murmur among the courtiers and I cringed. Now these foreigners would rat me out and everyone would know that I’d disobeyed orders. I was going to be in worse trouble than the time I tripped and spilt a bottle of ink on her visiting ladyship Lady Pansy of Topple 5 years ago. They’d expressly banned me from going near visitors before they had entered court since then.

Because of the murmur, I missed the initial greeting.

“I believe,” said a voice I recognised to be the man who had grabbed me earlier, “that your people are wondering why I am carrying this white cane. We wanted to return it to the child we met and frightened earlier. She happened across us talking in a place she did not expect and ran away so quickly that she forgot her cane. One of your men told us that the girl was blind and we would like to return it to her and express our apologies to her before the court.”

That startled me so much that I almost fell out the door. Good thing there was a bracket in the wall to hold onto. The noise in the Throne Room rose a level or two.

I heard the King’s voice say something.

They’d be looking for me and I was about to be invited into the Throne Room for the first time ever. I couldn’t move for a moment and then I gently eased the door closed and hurried out the secret tunnel out into a nearby closet. Before I left the closet, I knew Humphrey was already there, waiting. I could smell the lavender that his wife used on his uniform.

I paused.

Humphrey peered in.

“You look presentable enough.”

I twitched.

“Thought we didn’t know about your hidey-hole? Come on, Tapp. Everyone’s waiting.”

I too Humphrey’s arm and he led me through the big doors and through the courtiers to where Prince Neto and his friends waited. Humphrey had told me where people were standing.

“Your Royal Majesties,” I curtsied first to the King and Queen and then to the foreigners. “Your Royal Highness, your Serene Lordship and your Right Honourable Lordship. Excuse me.”

“His Royal Highness, Prince Neto tells us that you ran into them quite by accident,” I could hear a crinkle in the King’s voice and fidgeted, not sure whether he was going to be amused or angry. “I’m sure you know you aren’t allowed to disturb our guests in any way.”

“Yes, your Majesty. Sorry, your Majesty. It won’t happen again, your Majesty,” I bobbed, feeling a bit like a duckling in the middle of a windy pond.

“Prince Neto, please meet Fiona, the younger of my goddaughters. Please forgive her for disturbing you. She has a habit of getting herself into trouble despite her handicap.”

“Apology accepted, your Majesty. And Fiona, we are sorry for frightening you,” I felt the cane being carefully placed in my hands. From the heat radiating out in front of me, it felt like my face was being closely examined too.

“It was my fault for not being more careful, your Highness. I’m sorry,” I bobbed again.

“Your Majesty,” there was a small squeak of a foot pivoting. “it is my understanding that you have no daughters or young female cousins of the marrying age, but you mentioned another goddaughter. I feel that if Fiona is anything to go by, her sister will be just as beautiful if not more. Perhaps you would be willing to part with a goddaughter for my sake, as I am in need of a wife,” Prince Neto said, placing a hand on my head, “that is if she is not married.”

I knew I was meant to be blushing, but instead I was horrified. Margot marry this pig’s backside? I clapped my hands over my face to try hide my expression. Perhaps I didn’t hide it well enough, I’m not very sure exactly what happened, because the King’s voice turned cool.

“I’m sure it can be discussed at some stage,” he said. “Fiona, you may go.”

Bobbing once more to all the important people, I fled the room as quickly as Humphrey’s arm allowed me.

“What’s wrong?” Humphrey asked when we were outside. “I thought you’d be pleased that a prince would want to marry your sister. You’ve been moaning about her being single for years.”

“Not that prince,” I said. “He’s nasty. You can tell his Majesty I said so later too, if you want to. There’s something about him that really frightens me.”

“New people can be frightening,” Humphrey said. “Give him some time. He seemed nice.”

“You’d better go back in,” I said, wrinkling my nose and shaking my disagreement. “The King will miss you.”

“Stay out of trouble,” Humphrey said, knowing that I was going to go back into the closet to listen through the tapestry again.

There was no chance to get back into the closet though, because I was soon dodging the number of gifts that the Rhuscoriarians had brought with them. Tigers and monkeys and trains of servants with platters of piled spices. Chests of precious items, bolts of cloth and dancing girls. Carved sculptures and near naked people who clinked with the sound of chains. I pressed myself against a wall for a basket of what smelt like weird fruits or vegetables to go past and at one stage, I thought I heard a crying child.

18 February, 2013


Ten minutes later, I’m revving in a cloud of dust, heading eastward toward some small hills in the distance. Grains of sand whip at any exposed skin. I can imagine the skin being whipped raw and bleeding, although I know it’s not that bad yet. The air smells of hot dust and bike exhaust. I can barely see Jack through the dust, although I can hear him revving his engine to my left. His dusty silhouette is of a giant trying to ride a toy bike and it makes me laugh. I skid my bike to a stop for a moment, coughing.

Shut up, lungs. You’ll be fine.

“You ‘right, Tia?” calls Jack from where he’s stopped some way ahead of me.

“Yeah,” I reply, kicking the bike forward.

Grainy red dust, little hills, scraggly bushes and scrawny grass, this place isn’t exactly what I’d call friendly or even welcoming. It gives of the sense of independence – tough, self-mindedness and strangers had better beware.

There’s a cave in a hill, under an outcrop of boulders that look as if they’re going to tumble down any moment and Jack points me in. He’s going to go lie in the shade on the opposite hill overlooking the cave entrance. I get to lie in wait in some unknown cave to play ambush. There’d better not be any giant monsters living in there. I feel at least 10 times smaller than usual just entering the huge yawning mouth.

I switch off the engine and back myself as far into the big cave as I dare, not wanting to reach the point where the dark shadows overwhelm the weak light. If there are any monsters who might want to eat Tia for lunch, I’d rather not wake them up. I fish out the tracker bug and toss it into the dark behind me. Although I strain, I can’t hear it fall through the heart beat throbbing in my ears.

Leaning forward on the handle bars, chin propped on my hands, I stare at the light at the end of the tunnel, waiting for Jack’s shout or the bounty hunters to come creeping into the cave. I hope those boulders poised above the cave entrance aren’t going to fall with the bang of a gun.

‘Let me know when they turn up,’ I message Jack on my phone.

My phone pings about half an hour later.

‘They cum,’ Jack’s messages are often full of hidden innuendo and I shake my head.

I see two shapes peer down the tunnelled entrance of the cave and hope they’ can’t see me hiding in the shadows. They make unintelligible noises. One of them suddenly falls. Likely snipered down. The other leaps up and disappears out of my line of sight. Tunnel vision can’t be helped when you’re in a tunnel.

My phone pings again.

‘More cumming. Too many. Hump yourself. Be back for you with back up.’

More figures appear in the entrance and drag away their dead comrade. Then there is a boom, a rumbling and a tumbling of boulders blocking up the cave entrance. A whoosh of air, blasts cold dust in my face and I cough.


Sit tight, my arse. What else can I do?

Boss had better get me out of here before those bounty hunter dudes.

It’s funny how noises in tunnels and caves seem a lot louder than usual. It’s funny how echoes can amplify noises until you feel like you’re surrounded. It’s even funnier when you can feel warm air being breathed down your neck and there’s a thumping-swishing sound interspersing the distant drip-drip of leaking water. The most funny thing is when you freeze and forget that there’s such thing as a headlight on your bike, because something furry is brushing against your cheek.

I told you there were monsters in here.

I’m not really one to scream, but now would be a good time.

There’s an itch in my throat. The sort of itch that makes you want to cough and that you can’t ignore, no matter how you try. You can hold your breath, swallow or bob your adams apple up and down, but whatever you do, there is no way you are going to hit that spot without coughing.

In my case, I had a sneeze coming at the same time as that itch was tickling my throat. I desperately tried to hold it in, but in the end, I exploded and hurt my throat, sending me into a bigger fit of coughing.

Kablooey, that hurts.

The big furry monster behind me has a fit of coughing as well – or at least, that’s what I think it is. Perhaps it got a fur ball stuck in its throat or has a dry throat. It doesn’t seem to be afraid of me at all, because one moment I’m sitting on the bike and the next, the air is whooshing by my face and I’m plonked into something leathery on the inside and furry on the outside. If I didn’t know better, I’d say I was in a giant marsupial pouch. Also, from the way I’m being bounced up and down in this warm pouch, I’d say I’m in the pouch of some sorta giant kangaroo.

Hopefully they’re not giant carnivorous kangaroos. I have no desire to become somebody’s lunch. Please, God. You seem to be looking out for me. Keep me out of any monster’s stomach. Thank you.

Every time I start coughing, there is an answering cough from my host that makes my bone vibrate. They must have some nasty lung problems to be coughing that badly.

Bounding through the dark isn’t so bad. It’s a bit like some sort of fair ride. One moment you’re flying and hoping you won’t crash into a rock wall that wasn’t there before; and the next moment you’re falling and afraid that you’ll fall out the pouch and get ground into dust by giant feet. The thump-swish of these creatures echoes off the walls. It feels as if there are hundreds in here with me. The thought of that many giant creatures holding me prisoner isn’t very cheering. At least they won’t be cooking me alive. I hope.

I cough and cough and cough.

Coughs echo around me.

And then there is a distant rumbling from the directions whence we had just come. It sounds as if the tunnel is collapsing behind us.

We stop and I’m tumbled onto the ground where giant paws pat me gently all over. There appears to be more than one set and from the radiating heat coming from different directions, there’s definitely more than one monster in here.

Help. I’m in a nest of giant, furry, marsupial, kangaroo-like monsters.

I cough.
They cough.
We all cough together.

I’m so scared that my gassed lungs are struggling to keep up and I know I’m losing control.

Something whumps me in the back and I’m sent sprawling on the… what is this stuff? Grass? Moss? Whatever it is, it feels soft and has a marvellous fresh smell. The whumping hasn’t stopped, but now I realise that the whumping isn’t hitting, it’s more like having my back patted/stroked. There’s a soft musical humming. Different harmonies all around me. It’s like a rainbow in music form. A pleasant poem spoken at the right time. It’s like a mother’s lullaby when a baby is to be sent asleep.


I bolt upright. Coughs ripple all around me.

They just want me to fall asleep so that they can eat me. I haven’t lived this long as the Boss’s baiter to be eaten now. I’m not about to succumb –

A gust of grassy breath is blown in my face and a pair of paws gently lay me back down. Wait. Grassy breath? These guys are vegetarians! Just my luck. Thank God. I’m not going to get eaten tonight.

Another thought assails me before I can fall asleep beneath the relaxing pat-strokes and humming.

What if they’re omnivores? Opportunists?

The thought sends me into a fit of coughs, but the pat-stroking doesn’t cease. Neither does the pleasant humming. There are a few coughs nearby and something that feels like a rough blanket covers me.

It’s made of something coarse and prickly, reminding me of those grass woven mats my mother used to carry into the fields during summer picnics or during autumn harvest. We would lie on those mats and eat freshly picked berries or sit on those mats under the shade to read. The same grass mats were used as kindling by my father when they got too worn out and my sisters would weave newer fresher ones, using a different pattern. I never got the hang of the weaving. Mother used to hold my hands and help my fingers move the prickly straw over and under, over and under. But when she took her hands away, my clumsy fingers would tear the grass or muddle the pattern up. Sometimes, when we had found special plants that could be used for dying, we would dye different grass bundles in a variety of yellows, browns, pinks and greens. We used those grass mats for fly swatters and as curtains. Once in a while, we’d even go sledding on the sandy dunes out beyond the river fields.

There’s a smell of freshly mown grass and sunned bed sheets. The smell of summer days and the wet earth after the first rains. There’s the feel of a flickering fire, fighting back the damp and cold. The feel of close family near and friends who care, the safety of togetherness.

There’s the sound of running water, deep and cold, bringing life to all it touches. There’s the sound of singing like a choir in an acoustic hall, grandiose and yet a sound like mourning for the lost. There’s the heat of beating hearts, yearning for a dream. Seeing a vision, reaching for it and yet failing to attain.

I see a land in coloured lay spread out like a blanket. Across it creatures great and small peacefully go about it. I see the mountains, cold and grey, as ancient as the sky, throwing up on icy wings, a heavy storming eye. I see the ground in muffled white, the rivers turned to ice. I see waves of snowy fright compounding as caterpillars pay the price. I see the trees laid bare and people running, screaming everywhere. I see an airplane falling, a chasing car burnt black. I see a giant monster rising and dominating until all I see is black.

13 February, 2013

Try again

You try and try and try again, but somehow, all you end up is with sand in your face.


By the way, this has nothing to do with flowers. It's just the working title.

The first time I try to kill someone – or rather, people, and my gun dies on me. It doesn’t work. Serves me right for trusting one of Zack’s new untested inventions. I wish he’d hurry up and make those stun guns, or that the boss would let me use a tranq gun instead. She knows I’m not one to kill, although I am very good at being the bait or distracting rivals. I’m a good shot, I just can’t sum up the guts to shoot someone dead. I had always hoped that if it came down to it, something would happen would stop me before the life is taken. And it has. I guess Providence has got His eye on me. The problem is, once the bad guys realised my gun wasn’t working, they were quick to jump me and now I’m trussed up at the bottom of a giant plastic bin, in the middle of a leaky gas refinery. I reckon if Boss and Co don’t come save me soon, I’ll be a suffocated, trussed Tia at the bottom of a giant plastic bin. It’s already getting hard to breathe and I don’t like the sound of my cough.

“Tia! Tia, where are you?” I hear Boss calling.

“Here, Boss!” I struggle and kick as best as I can, knowing that she likely won’t be able to hear me. I’m told I have a rather soft voice and my shout is the equivalent of Jack’s normal voice. Since it’s worse at the moment due to my voice starting to fade, I thump my feet on the plastic wall of my prison with all my failing vigour. The entire bin begins to tip.


“There you are, Tia,” says Boss, dragging me out and cutting the cable ties. “Good job. We got it.”

“I had a bead on both of them,” I say, glaring at my gun, “but it malfunctioned on me.” I point at another plastic bin some distance away and shoot.


Oh, now it decides to work.

I thump it into Zack’s hand, glaring at the big melty hole in the distant bin.

“Fix it, Zack.”

“Come on, Tia,” Boss puts her arm around my shoulder and waves to April who is standing on the other side of the field of plastic bins to say all’s well. “Maybe a tranq gun would be a better idea for you.”

“I’ve been telling you,” I say and start coughing. I guess you could rather call it hacking and wheezing. It’s not much like a normal cough.

“The air’s not so good around here,” says Boss. “We’d better get you in the truck and seen to.”

“You think?” I cough. “I’ll bet those pipes leak more gas than they carry.”

“If they did,” says Boss, “you would have blown us all up just now.”

“Good point,” I say, my voice getting hoarser and hoarser, “but there was a strong breeze. Cold too. Boss, I’m losing my voice…”

“You’d better stop talking,” Boss says, gesturing to Zack to help support me on the other side. “I think you’re having a reaction to the gas.”

I think of how carbon monoxide can kill silently by taking up all your red blood cells so that there are none left for oxygen to take a ride in. I wonder what the gas in the plant is. My stomach turns and I feel like throwing up, but can’t, because my lungs appear to have stopped working and I’m choking.

“How you feeling?” April leans over me in the truck.

I blink at my blurry vision and the oxygen face mask obscuring half my vision. I give her a half-hearted thumbs up, glad to be able to feel the cool oxygen filling my lungs. I have yet to go on a mission where I haven’t almost died. One day. Maybe one day, there’ll be a mission where I’ll be the Boss’s dependable one, like the others and I won’t almost die.

“She’s feeling better, Boss,” April calls to where Boss is driving. “We’re relocating the critter to a more suitable environment,” April says more softly. “We reckon the Emerson Foothills should do the trick.”

I nod.

Plenty of caves and rubble there for the monster they caught to play hide and seek in. Plenty enough rabbits and other creatures for it to prey on who aren’t human and plenty far away enough into the wilderness that humans aren’t likely to disturb it for several decades. We hope.

“Who were we up against?” I ask.

“What?” April asks.

“Who were we up against? Competition?” I try to enunciate through the mask, but aren’t sure how good a job I’m doing.

“Sickels Society,” April makes a face. “Bounty hunters.”

“Why didn’t they kill me then?” I ask, looking at the giant carnivorous insect sleeping in the cage. “Why take the time to tie me up and stuff me in a bin?” I take the mask off so that they can hear me more clearly. “If they were bounty hunters, they would have killed me to get me out of the way. Boss, something ain’t right.”

“Search her,” Boss says to April, flicking her eyes at me in the mirror.

“Zack, turn around and shut your eyes,” April snaps, slapping Zack’s face around, “and Jack, if you so much as dare to peep through the mirror, I’ll ask Boss to put your eyes out.”

April and I search my clothes, hair and shoes. We find the tracker bug tucked into the tongue of my runners.

“Boss, we’ve got it,” April says. “They must be following us.”

“They must’ve known who we were beforehand,” Jack boomed. “April, can I open my eyes yet?”


“Tia, you feeling better?” Boss asks, looking at me through the mirror.

I take the oxygen mask off, knowing what she’s asking of me and suppress a cough.

“Yeah, Boss,” I say. “Shall I take a bike?”

“Yes,” she says, lifting an eyebrow at me. “You sure you’re ok to do this?”

“Sure, Boss,” I grin. “It’s my job, ain’t it?”

“All right,” Boss shrugs her shoulders. “We’re coming up to a petrol station. We’ll split up when the tanks are full.”

“Sure thing, Boss,” I try to supress a cough and Boss’s eyes narrow at me through the rear view mirror.

“Jack, you go with her,” Boss says. “Find a good position and sniper.”

“Shotgun the dirt bike,” Jack hollers, making me clap my hands to my ears.

“They’re both dirt bikes,” I mutter, suiting and gearing up. I tuck the tracker bug back into my shoe where we’d found it. Jack can be such a - a... I don't think there's any word for it. For now, I'll stick to 'ass'.