An anonymous man in a suitably non descript black suit walked towards Woods, his hand gripping a briefcase.
Gabriel Woods watched from the corner of his eye, as the man stopped nearby and turned to examine the famous tourist square. The movement allowed Woods to see the the man’s hand on the briefcase, in which he was gripping it with just his index, and thumb. The other three fingers were splayed out.
Three is good, 2 is bad recalled Woods.
Miming his surprise at seeing an old friend, Woods walked over to the man with a smile and an arm outstretched. The man responded similarly and they mimicked a conversation, whilst the man handed the briefcase in an effusive gesture. Woods smiled and walked away, the grin wiped away the moment the charade was over.
Walking towards the Berlin Alexanderplatz Station, and past the famous Weltzeituhr (World Clock), displaying the current time in 148 major cities around the world, Woods rested the briefcase in one hand and popped the clasps with the other.
Taking out a small key, he walked over to the train lockers that lined the exterior of the station and searched for the number on the key.
Opening the locker, he placed the briefcase inside and looked at the contents proper.
Inside, Woods noted the new passport that had been issued to him, proclaiming his name to be Christian Taylor, a UK resident from Cornwall. Noting that the photo featured rather thick framed glasses, Woods looked inside for the pair of spectacles that would accompany him as a disguise. Opening the simple black case, Woods tried the glasses on, and was pleased with the fit.
Tapping the side of the glasses, he noted the thickness of the frame, a feature that allowed tiny pin-sized cameras to be installed on both sides of the spectacles. A simple unidirectional microphone also allowed remote recording of audio up to 20 metres away, and with its wireless capability, it could transmit intel to his phone that would send the audio-visual footage to a CIA station nearby.
Woods also noted the new phone that would replace most of the capabilities of the military laptop he was used to. An nondescript Android design, the phone hid its true potential behind false apps, that Woods would have to explore to unlock what each function would do.
The final spy-craft item in the briefcase was a pair of headphones, that disguised recording and transmitting abilities allowing him to talk and report back, or listen in on conversations heard through his glasses. Shaped like any wireless headphones, they were a functional black colour, and fit in his ears snugly.
In addition to the gadgets, Woods found a wallet with 1000 English pound and 1000 Euros, with plenty of different denominations, a car key that also featured another key to the safe-house and to his surprise, a spare pair of smokey lens for his glasses that would double as sunglasses.
Taking all these items into various pockets on his person, Woods left the briefcase in the locker and took out the key. He would head over to the Tiergarten,a huge national park that was near the US Embassy and deposit the locker key in an agreed spot for collection.
As he hopped aboard a yellow-white Strabenbahn tram to the park, Woods recalled the brief he had read onboard the C-17 from Afghanistan, about the target he was meant to observe and eventually stop.
Blessed with a photographic memory and near perfect recall, Woods replayed in his mind the personal call from the Station Chief in the CIA London’s operating centre, as the C-17 flew through the night sky, Woods gripping a headset that the loadmaster had given him.
You’re probably wondering why we took you out of Afghanistan and transferred you to Europe. Well, we’re aware of your history there and this is priority one. Our Foreign Security Assessment (FSA) indicates that there is going to be a global terrorist attack happening on UK soil in a week from now.
Intelligence suggests that it will be occurring on the Valentine’s weekend where traffic is expected to be at an all time high. We’re putting every major asset in Europe on standby and we’ll be cooperating with the UKSF and SIS on this.
The truth is, you were asked to come, because the UK PM specifically asked for your services. We know that you are on loan for us, so we couldn’t refuse when they asked for you to come back.
Anyway, the bad news is that we don’t know the exact time of the attack. We suspect the evening because that is where traffic will be high. However, because Valentine Day’s falls on a Friday, we are not exactly sure whether they’ll be hitting Friday, Saturday or Sunday or worse case …. all three fucking days.
In any case, it is imperative that you make contact with your SIS contact and start covert surveillance on Sofia, a courier for Hassan Malik, an operative we’ve nicknamed the Sphinx, due to how well he seems to hide his tracks. We’ve been after this guy for nearly 2 years and have still been unable to properly track his whereabouts and movements.
We know he is Europe based, because we’ve managed to extract intel from detainees and low-level HVTs in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He’s been responsible for the recent train bombings in Paris, Madrid and Athens and we think its only a matter of time before he strikes in England.
As you can already see in the brief, actual photographs and intel on Malik is scarce. The only photo we have is approximately 5 years old, way back when he was in AQ training camps in Iran. At the moment, he’s considered a rogue terrorist for hire, a highly dangerous operative who offers his services to any groups linked to anti-Western agencies and government.
We don’t know who is backing him, as it could be any source ranging from Hezbollah, the Ayatollah or even Saudi backers. All we know is, he’s got a domestic network in Europe, and the logistics and capabilities to strike almost anywhere on the Continent.
Thus the key for you, is to find Sofia. Detainee reporting states that she is one of Malik’s most trusted couriers and sources.
Find Sofia, track her, and then eliminate Malik.
Currently, Sofia is under heavy surveillance. A team from 14th Det is tracking her 24/7. She has not made any suspect moves, but we’ve done the usual tracking on her phone, apartment and email.
I’m not gonna sugar-coat it Woods, the reason why you were chosen, is because we still think you’re the scalpel you were in the past.
Europe could use help from a graduate from the Counter-Revolutionary Warfare. The guy known as the Prince only 10 years ago.
Show the Sphinx, why Europe is really the Prince’s domain, not his.
Good luck Woods.
Woods snapped out his reverie when he heard the tram driver announce the stop for Tiergarten. The change from the mountains of Afghanistan to the well-oiled streets of Germany still played with Woods’ mind. He found himself unused to the sensation of comfortable footwear that didn’t drag in the snow and mud. The sharper, cleaner air that didn’t have the faint scent of petrol, oil and spice.
Even the atmosphere was different, the sounds of people chatting softly in German, slower and more measured, relaxed and safe, a far cry from the rapid-fire Dari and Pashto in Kabul, the type of conversation you knew you had to hurry, because you didn’t know when something would end it terminally.
Even the idea of being onboard a functioning tram was alien to Woods, who had spend so many months simply walking everywhere in Kabul.
Acclimatise quickly and blend in even quicker recalled a mantra taught to him long ago.
Hopping off, Woods walked towards the park and began to countdown the trees, before hiding the key to the train locker underneath an auspiciously placed rock at the base of the 7th tree.
Walking away and taking the tram back towards Alexanderplatz, Woods tried to relax slightly, but his mind was occupied on the Sphinx. As Woods got off the tram at the Alexanderplatz station and began his walk to long-term carpark for his car, it was then he noted the odd shuffle of a man wearing a backpack nearby. He was making his way into the main entrance of the train station, pale and murmuring under his breath.
At first, Woods decided that it was just a homeless guy moving around the city. Berlin, whilst prosperous still had its fair share of homeless people.
But usually due to malnutrition and mental health, they would pick a spot and rarely move. They would beg along a popular street, they wouldn’t be out and about if they didn’t have to.
Besides this man didn’t have the usual ragged clothing of a homeless person. He was dressed like an out-of-towner. A man who didn’t belong. A tourist. An outsider.
Woods frowned as he noted people seemed to subconsciously give this man a wide berth. Women would give double-takes, their eyes coming up from their phones more than once, unsure about why the man had his head down and was shuffling his feet so much.
Men would take an extra step to the right or left, unwilling to brush past closely, as if he smelled bad. They made the extra effort to sidestep him.
An alarm bell began to signal in Woods head. The fresh scars from Afghanistan were still bleeding into his mind. He recalled his training, the impressions he had received on his very first tour of Afghanistan, embedded in him by a Israeli IDF Shin Bet operative.
The 12 ways to identify a suicide bomber. They all gave the same clues. They were all unprofessional at it. After all, they’re amateurs at blowing themselves up. This is their first time doing it.
No one gets another chance at doing it.
Nor does anyone get another chance at stopping it.
Woods dropped his carry bag, lifted his shirt to check the Glock 19 in his waistband and immediately starting running.
The scent of petrichor slowly permeated the air, until it was all CIA Special Operations Group (SOG) Paramilitary Operations Officer Woods could smell.
The spice that usually perfumed the Afghan marketplaces in Kabul slowly receded as rain began to hammer the streets, turning the ground into dark, muddy slush that stuck to boots and the hems of coarse hessian trousers.
Woods aimed his gaze upwards, staring up the street, that stretched towards the Hindu Kush mountains that dominated the landscape of the capital city.
In the distance, tiny dots littered the sky, kites being flown by children, as they weaved their creations in deadly dances, mock combat being practised by skilled hands.
Woods watched as a scarlet kite smashed into a green one, crumpling the frame, noting the strong gust of wind that discarded the corpse of the green kite further away than the children expected.
Looking down at the weathered crimson carpet, he picked up the small tea cup and tossed back the amber tea, savouring the slightly spicy, sweet taste of Afghan chai, before standing up and adjusting his colourful kufi cap.
Brushing down his Perahan tunban tunic, and buttoning up his sleeveless vest, Woods ambled slowly over to the reception desk and handed over a few afghani into the tin bowl.
The elderly shopkeeper smiled and nodded his head in thanks at Woods, who nodded back and wandered back onto the streets of Kabul, to resume his search for the missing hostage.
Making his way through the people of Kabul, Woods ducked and weaved past hundreds of small minivans and bicycles, the endless cacophony of traffic adding to the chaos of colours, smells and wares on display. The Market Sediq Omar was always busy, with hundreds of goods on display, piled together unceremoniously and without any true reason or logic behind them.
It was atypical of bazaar experiences, claustrophobic, dense, overwhelming and fun. Merchants would rapid-fire Pashto at anyone who would walk by, with a particularly bothersome salesman insisting that Woods examine his electronics.
Woods, politely extricating himself with a firm grasp on the hand that rested on his shoulder, demurred politely in quiet Pashto, before silently disappearing into the crowd.
Within the tall structure that housed multiple levels of residents, the marketplace itself dominated the courtyard of the apartment complex, a hotbed of activity, both illicit and legal.
Woods had been frequenting this market for the past month, his Taliban source, a certain “spice” merchant whose product had more white than any other colour, a regular at this bazaar. This was the cost of war, turning an blind eye to certain dealings on the streets to fight more effectively in the mountains.
However today, there were going to be no such appearance. The weather was only going to worsen, as the rain would intensify and turn to snow soon.
Gently pushing a tall man out of the way, Woods made his way into the only functioning lift and pressed a button to reach the 4th floor. Silence filled the empty chamber as the doors creaked shut, unconvincingly.
As the elevator groaned slowly upwards, Woods lifted up his vest and checked through a a slit in his tunban tunic, that he could still access his trusty Glock 19 in its appendix carry holster. Reassured by the weight of the cold steel, he counted down the seconds until the elevator would reach the 4th floor, the average time being around 40 seconds.
At 38 seconds, the doors rasped open, and Woods sidled out, and made his way around to room 417, looking down and admiring the view of the marketplace below, as noise and the smell of spice and nuts wafted upwards to the sky.
Taking out a cheap key, he slid it into the wooden door, and carefully scanned the spartan apartment, before locking the door behind him.
It was a bold decision to have a hideout, right atop the market where all sorts did business, but the risk had paid off for the past couple of months.
Actionable intel was genuinely rare to receive, and Woods had managed to score 3 crucial pieces of intel that led to boots on the grounds and bodies underneath the snow. 3 vital pieces of the puzzle in less than 6 months.
A high risk, high reward play. So, in spite of the danger, Woods chose to stay and maintain this hideout.
Looking up at the door, he slid a deadbolt into place and undid the hooks on his appendix holster and placed it on a table, where a dirty rag that smelled of oil and grease reminded him of his duties.
Walking over to his bed, he reached underneath and pulled out a military laptop, encased in ballistic padding and with a small secure aerial that allowed encrypted access to the internet.
Typing in a standard report, effectively stating that he saw nothing of note today, Woods spent a moment browsing area reports, and noted that this week was slow and quiet. Winter was like that.
Sighing quietly, he closed the laptop shut and placed it underneath his bed, before reaching into a large duffel bag and extracting his pistol calibre carbine (PCC), a venerable MP5A5 with a sling, a torch and Aimpoint Micro T-2 optic.
Despite its Cold War status and age in comparison to better and more advanced weaponry, Woods still enjoyed using the MP5. Its’ legendary status, sealed with his original unit, the 22nd SAS, had been proven time and time again, with its remarkable reliability, accuracy and recoil impulse.
It also helped that the ammunition that serviced the weapon was the same for his Glock 19, thus ensuring lower cost and more ammunition carried if there was ever a firefight.
Picking up the dirty rag, Woods stripped the MP5, carefully putting aside the T-2 optic, the Surefire torch and the sling in neat corners, before taking a screw driver and undoing the weapon. With a tiny plastic bottle of oil, he cleaned the weapon methodically, and caressed each part with care.
Once every part was well greased, he swiftly reassembled the weapon and leaving the magazine out, flicked the ambidextrous safety to semi and aimed the tiny red dot at a circle on the wall.
Hearing the satisfying click, he flicked down the safety, pulled back the charging handle and inserted a skinny magazine, before slapping the handle forward, allowing it to chamber a round.
Putting the MP5 aside, Woods examined his Glock 19 and had just tucked his weapons away, when he heard a knock on the door and his mobile phone buzz.
Staring at the screen, he frowned and moved to the door, where he saw a man dressed similarly to him, nervously scanning the area, his hands falling back his side, as he finished knocking.
Woods opened the door, his right hand concealing the Glock behind his leg and felt his eyes widen in surprise.
Khalid. This is urgent. You’ve been reassigned. We need to go now.
Samir, Wood’s local runner in Afghanistan stepped inside the room and handed him a burner phone. A heavyset man, with an impressive beard and dark enigmatic eyes, Samir was one of the many locals that helped Officers like Woods gather extra intelligence, in exchange for money or extradition to the States.
Samir, was one of the very first that had signed up to the CIA program, and was extraordinarily good at his job, despite the dangers and lack of training. For him to break cover and contact Woods in this manner, meant that this was serious.
Woods flipped the phone case open and keyed in the number his handler had reserved for emergencies. After a brief pause, a female voice came over the teeny speaker.
Woods. This is full priority situation. We’re pulling you out and reassigning you to Europe. More details to follow. Samir will organise extract and sanitation. This is a FSA (Foreign Security Assessment) priority level 5.
Understood. said Woods as he heard the phone click and watched as the screen self-destructed into darkness.
Give me five Samir.
Samir nodded and waited by the door, nervous. He looked out the tiny keyhole and noted that the weather had begun to worsen. Snow was now drifting lazily across the sky and the temperature was dropping further and further. Samir shivered involuntarily.
Taking out a large carry bag, Woods efficiently shoved the laptop, his MP5, and spare surveillance equipment, before zipping it tight. A well-rehearsed move, all traces of espionage equipment was gone in 2 minutes. Woods spent the last 3 minutes checking over his bed, desk or for anything he might have dropped or any incriminating evidence.
Pleased, he shouldered the heavy bag and walked over to Samir. The two left in silence, before hopping into a decrepit white Toyota Corolla. As Samir pulled away into the traffic, Woods took a look back at the place that had served as home for a while.
As he did so, he noted a large Toyota HiLux Ute also start up and begin to follow in the direction they were headed.
Scowling, Woods said quietly. We got company.
Samir looked in the mirror and felt the blood drain from his face.
I’m sorry Khalid. They must have followed me.
It’s alright Samir. Punch it. We can make it to airport. Go, go.
Samir nodded grimly and put his foot down, the Corolla jerking forward instantly and nearly hitting a donkey as it barrelled down the tight roads of Kabul. Despite its’ appearance, the car was actually well-maintained and had significant upgrades for emergencies such as the one Woods and Samir found themselves in.
Snow continued to pound the windshield. Their breathing fogged the glass and Woods found began a breathing exercise, designed to expel stress.
With a mixture of tight winding roads and super-highways, Kabul’s landscape was surprisingly modern, with many colourful buildings that were undergoing restoration and dozens upon dozens of stalls and vendors lining the streets, beside colourful flags and umbrellas.
To get to safety, Samir merely had to reach a super-highway and begin high-tailing down the long stretch of road for 5 kilometres, before they could be in the safe haven of the Hamid Karzai International Airport.
A simple task, but then the devil was in the details regarding execution.
Samir yanked on the handbrake, as he drifted the small car around a corner, nearly clipping a woman, who ignored the reckless driving and continued her way down the alleyway. Even when the HiLux’s side mirror nearly hit her arm as it blasted after the Corolla, the Afghan native merely gave a fatalistic shrug and adjusted the basket of laundry she carried on her hip.
Woods kept his right arm outstretched on the dashboard, securing himself as the Corolla harshly jumped a small hump, and kept an eye on the Ute, who he now noted had 2 individuals inside, with one man gripping an Uzi submachine gun and the other manically concentrating on the chase.
Hold on Khalid! yelled Samir, as he ignored the stop sign at the exit of the road and cut in front of a truck, whose horn blasted angrily.
The Corolla skidded across the highway, smoke shooting from the tyres and brakes squealing in a high pitched whine.
Woods and Samir yelled in unison, as the car came sliding towards a minivan, and they collided with a sickening crunch. Both cars reeled in the impact, shattering the window and causing Samir’s head to lurch into the side of the minivan, effectively knocking him out.
Woods, groaned and looked out his window and saw the HiLux coming out of the alleyway. His eyes narrowing in clinical concentration, Woods felt his hands yank out the Glock 19 and he aimed the pistol at the large front right tyre and pull the trigger rapidly.
The gunfire immediately sent the experienced people of Afghanistan scrambling for cover, those who had gotten out of their cars to help, running back and taking cover immediately, their hands over their heads.
The HiLux driving, intent on ramming the Corolla, felt pressure immediately slacken on his front tyre and to his shock, the car lurched to the right and narrowly miss the stricken Corollla. Realising his mistake, the driver tried to brake, but the concrete barrier that separated the two sides of the highway was now too close.
The HiLux smashed into the barrier and both men felt their bodies lurch forward and brought to an immediate stop, the pressure of their seat-belts smashing into their chest, and their heads experiencing extreme whiplash.
Both men vainly attempted to get out, but couldn’t, their hands unable to depress the button for the seatbelt. The driver opened his eyes blearily, and saw the damaged Corolla drive away, before blacking out.
Woods kept his foot down, the Corolla’s engine ticking over lively, as he sped down the highway and towards the airport. He looked at Samir, whose head had ceased bleeding, after Woods had dug out his first aid kit and applied battlefield superglue to the gash on his head. It had taken him considerable strength to move Samir from the driver seat and to the back, his eyes wandering over the HiLux constantly.
Minutes later, Woods pulled up to the NATO RSM (Resolute Support Mission, the successor the ISAF in Afghanistan) Base at the Hamid Karzai International Airport, digging out his ID card and allowing the U.S. Marine to call for a medic for Samir.
Squeezing Samir’s shoulder, he allowed the paramedics take him away. As they wheeled Samir away on a gurney, a young Lieutenant came running up to him, and saluted, her hot breath misting the cold air.
Sir! If you would follow me to the command hub.
Woods nodded and shouldered his bag, following the Lieutenant through the maze of temporary buildings and barracks, refamiliarising himself with the layout of the base. It had been over 4 months since he had last set foot here, his usual stop being Bagram Airfield.
Walking past the mess hall and a platoon of Marines going about their daily exercises, Woods could hear snippets of German, Italian and English accents mesh together, through the door, as men and women filed in and out of the hall. There was even a small hint of Australian, his native tongue, rising above the usual chatter.
The Lieutenant knocked on the door of the command hub and entered, Woods walking in and placing his large duffel bag near the entrance of the door. As his eyes adjusted to the perpetual darkness of the room, Woods noted the 3 men in uniform and a singular woman in civilian garb standing around, talking to each other animatedly.
His CIA handler, an attractive redhead by the name of Jessica, stared at him, initially unsure who the bearded, rough looking Afghan man standing before her was, before walking over and giving him a friendly hug.
Gabriel. I didn’t recognise you for a second there.
Woods gave an ironic smile.
Means the disguise worked. Good to see you too Jess. Why was my extraction hot?
It wasn’t meant to be that way. But somehow Samir was compromised. I’m not sure how. We’re looking into it though. They were following him, and it was poor timing that we asked him to get you out as well.
Who is ‘they’?
Our old friends. The Haqqani.
Jess noted his gesture and tried to reassure him. Samir will be on the first flight State-side. We own him that much. Anyway, I got to talk to your about your reassignment. Don’t worry about those boys over there.
Jess gestured to the men in uniform who were looking over at them, talking quietly to each other. I’ll handle the Colonel. He’s just upset about losing you, due to the quality of intel you’ve provided for RSM this rotation. However, I’ve already stressed to him about the FSA.
Jess walked over to her station, and bought up a PDF file.
I’ll be uploading this onto a tablet soon. It’ll explain why you’re being reassigned. A C-17 Globemaster is about to finish loading up its supply run. That’s your flight out of this shithole.
You’ll be flying to Germany, where you’ll be provided gear and coordinates for a safehouse in London. We want you as deep cover, thus no direct flight to London, I’m afraid. It’ll be a road-trip for you.
From there, you’ll have to do some detective work straight away to find Hassan, code-named SPHINX. A local contact from SIS will link up and you’ll get more info then.
You can read more about Sphinx in the brief. For now, Langley just want close surveillance. Good luck Gabriel. I’m staying here to monitor more movement, so I won’t be joining you.
Woods nodded and took the military tablet from her station and shook her hand. Ignoring the military men in uniform, he grabbed his bag and went in search of the nearest bathroom and a razor. It was time to remove the beard, and look human again.
10 minutes later, Woods stared at his reflection in the mirror.
At a rugged 31 years of age, Woods’ face was unconventionally attractive, with piercing green eyes and dark hair. His skin was well-tanned, and creased, an unfortunate side effect of his job, a feature that would make him stand out in a much paler Europe. His facial hair was shadowy, despite his best efforts with a razor to grant him a clean-shaven look. He had even given himself a rudimentary haircut, lopping long locks of his obsidian black hair off, to resemble that of a crew cut.
His flawless ability to navigate the many dialects of Afghanistan had made him a natural choice for the region, his features almost indistinguishable from a local once a thick beard was developed. To pull him out, and compromise his cover, meant that this wasn’t an ordinary operation.
Shrugging to himself, he slipped into clean civilian clothes that Jess had provided him, a white henley shirt, a thick navy woollen jumper, a grey waterproof jacket and black sturdy jeans to match the combat boots. Shouldering his bag again, Woods looked at the giant hulking military plane that was to take him to Germany.
At a monstrous 53 metres with a wingspan of 51 metres, the dark matte grey plane was as long as it was wide, capable of accommodating a 69 ton M1 Abrams tank, and nearly 85 tons of weight.
This particular vessel housed a pair of Bradley Fighting Vehicles, IED damage evident on their exterior, no doubt being shipped back for extensive repairs. Dozens upon dozens of palleted cargo covered in camouflage netting lined the hull of the Globemaster and an U.S. Air Force loadmaster waved him onboard, handing him a pair of headphones.
Nodding gratefully, Woods made a motion about eating and the loadmaster nodded and shouted
Over there! Grab yourself some MREs! I’ve already placed a hammock for ya by the mess!
Giving him the thumbs up, Woods secured his bag in the webbing of the plane’s wall and walking over to the mess, ripped open an MRE (Meal Ready to Eat) bag and microwaved the contents, before tucking in to a hot meal of Sausage Peppers and Onions, chasing the main course with a trail mix recovery pack.
Looking over at the mess table, Woods felt the plane begin to move and threw away the packing of the MRE into a nearby bin, before keeping the unopened food nearby. Strapping himself in, he closed his eyes and waited for the ride to end.
I know, I am taking a break from my Sci-Fi Sol series, but I was clamouring to write something in this current reality and universe.
This will hopefully be a series I’ll smash through quickly before picking up where I left Raikkonen and Kournikova in Sol.
I have a much better feeling and sense of the ending for this story, than I did for Sol so I am hopeful it’ll be a nice quick story I can polish off.
I am attempting to be a bit more descriptive about my world building, akin to Ian Fleming‘s style, but it is taking a bit more work than I anticipated!
It’s been a long time, since I last wrote to you. I’m really sorry about that! But with John, and the kids Kristen and Amber, I’ve been so busy, that I lost track of time.
However, I know that Father’s Day is coming soon, so I wanted to talk to you. I hope things are going well for you, because lately things have been a bit rocky between John and I. His new job has been causing him a lot of stress, and his temper tends to run a bit wild sometimes.
But he’s still the same loving man I remember falling in love with years ago, and I am trying to apply all the lessons you taught me, when I was young, about how much patience men and women need to give each other. I still recall when you spoke to me, about how much Mum loved and cared for you, despite your temper and how her patience and grace allowed you to open up a bit more.
I’m trying to do the same with John, and while things were bad for a week, I think things have really settled down between us. The things you taught me about how relationships work, and the way how men behave under stress, really guided me to maintaining my own life and relationships. I wouldn’t be as strong as I am today, without you, Dad.
I do wonder though, how much did you keep from Mum and I? Recently, we went through some of your things and I had no idea that you were a pilot during the war. You never mentioned it, or bought it up, or even talked much about it, if at all. Mum told me that you kept a lot of what happened to you, to yourself.
I guess that explained the long scar I saw on your chest, when I was younger. I was always too scared to ask about that, but now I know where it came from. You can open to me about these sort of things you know. You were always so quiet, I sometimes didn’t know how to approach you.
Mum always told me to give you a bit of space, because of all the things you went through. I never really questioned it, but looking through your things and back on how things were, I see now.
I’m proud of you Dad, and I miss you so much. Mum and I have decided to remember you by donating your things to the local RSL, and we will definitely be celebrating ANZAC Day more, with you in mind.
I wish there was more I could do for you … John mentioned that there were a lot of forums and support groups for veteran families and I’ve been looking through them all, trying to find out more about you, Dad.
Anyway, I just wanted to say that I’m so proud of you and for everything you’ve done for me, my family, Mum and our community.
I miss you terribly, and will keep fighting to keep your flame and memory going.
Concept Art of Afterlife on Omega Station in Mass Effect 2 and 3.
The Baron stared at the Europa couple, sizing them up for the first time.
Raikkonen was tall, lean and motionless. When his helmet came off, the Baron noted immediately how pale he was, the bloodless skin making the ocean-blue eyes of his even more striking. He was not traditionally handsome, possessing a ruggedness that showcased his strong jaw, and patrician nose. The brow was high and intelligent, his dirty blonde hair cropped short in an undercut. He was lean and almost diminutive in size, as befitting the weight regulations for Formula 0 racing.
This was a dangerous and courageous individual. A man who always looked to the future, what was around the next corner, and planned several moves ahead. He was born racer, his surname a lineage to the legendary Formula 1 racing legends of generations ago.
Raikkonen was nicknamed “Iceman”, not only because of the Europa Grand Prix where he made his name, but also his ability under pressure. He never cracked once through his career. His piloting was effortless, calculating and ruthless. Overtakes seem easy, unorthodox techniques applied with aplomb, and his engineering was innovative and genius-like.
A proper machine thought the Baron, before turning her gaze over to the Amazonian-like woman next to him.
His co-pilot and long-time girlfriend, was another story altogether. A former Martian Marine, she had served with distinction and left immediately after her conscription term of 7 years had ended. Like Raikkonen, she was in her early 30s, but unlike him Kournikova was extremely attractive, with supermodel like features.
Platinum blonde hair ran long, and wavy down her back, often perpetually found in a ponytail. Her eyebrows were beautifully defined, arched upwards in such a way that gave her almond green eyes a constant challenging expression. Her nose was straight, smooth and flared gently to highlight her sensuous mouth. The overall effect Kournikova had on men, was one of astonishment, her features too elven and symmetrical to resist not taking a second look.
Where Raikkonen was quiet and reserved, Kournikova was aggressive and fierce, her soldier background often exploding through with predictable force. She was the Europa team’s heart, able to coax the couple to endure more in the pursuit of speed, whilst Raikkonen was the mind, ensuring the couple survived the chase.
A warrior through and through, thought the Baron as she noted how their Phalanx armour resembled those of Martian shock troopers, the famed RMS Marine Corps Praetorian Guards.
Fiercely loyal to one another, and as one of the most celebrated racing duos in the galaxy, the Baron wondered what bought them to her. It was then Hooper walked up to her and whispered quietly.
Her purple eyes blazed quietly in anger, and she stepped forward and looked down at them.
“You dare bring the Martians here?” the Baron demanded in a commanding voice.
Raikkonen looked levelly back at the Baron, matching her purple gaze with his blue.
“Earth is probably on its way too. The Aurelius is just closer.” he replied almost casually.
“If you want to keep breathing oxygen, Iceman … I’d suggest you come clean.” threatened the Baron icily.
“We stole something from UNF’s Luna Base.”
“Something?” queried the Baron
Raikkonen didn’t bother replying. Instead both Kournikova and Raikkonen turned abruptly, and sealed their helmets atop their heads. Back to back, their arms outstretched, Raikkonen aimed his right arm at the Baron’s head and manually locked on her 4 bodyguard with his shoulder mounted flechette launcher. Behind him, Kournikova did the same with her Phalanx staring down 6 other bodyguards, who were now levelling their guns at the couple.
“We’ll survive. You won’t.” said Raikkonen, whose voice was now muffled by the helmet.
The Baron, her hand on her pistol, knew that she didn’t have any choice. If their armour were to the same specs as a Praetorian Guard, it was unlikely any of her men would even make a dent. At this range, it was equally unlikely her pistol would intercept the bullet coming from Raikkonen’s wrist mounted submachine gun.
Smiling with amusement, the Baron returned to her lounge, her hand moving away from her pistol. Jerking her head over to the opposite couch, the Baron relaxed.
“What do you want?”
Raikkonen and Kournikova settled down, but left their helmets on.
“FAWN” said Kournikova, pronouncing it like “faun”, the Martian slang for “Food, Air, Water and Nitro.”
“The precious four … and what does Arcturus gets in return? A Martian flagship and a UNF Fleet?”
“Give us what we want, and we’ll draw them away with us.” said Raikkonen coolly.
The Baron glared at the Europa couple. She knew that her hands were tied. As deadly as she was, and as well defended the Arcturus was, it was foolish to think it could withstand a combined assault from the UNF and RMS.
However, there was her image to consider. She couldn’t just let total strangers come in and dictate whatever they wanted.
Raikkonen, sensing her consternation, knew he had put one of the most dangerous criminals in a very difficult situation. The Baron was not someone to be trifled with lightly. It was time to give her the carrot. He gently nudged Kournikova.
“In return, we’ll let you borrow us.”
The Baron looked sharply at them, her purple eyes narrowed in suspicion.
“What makes you think, I require your services?”
“This is Arcturus. Someone always need killing.” said Kournikova simply.
The Baron smiled icily.
“You have 12 hours. See Hooper.”
Dismissing them, the Baron turned her attention to Limbo and sent out a private message to her network to discover what exactly was stolen from an UNF Luna base.
Raikkonen and Kournikova walked down the steps of the platform, under the glaring eyes of the Baron’s guards and saw Hooper, who was sweating nervously. They started the walk to the maglev train, Hooper’s running commentary even quicker now.
“Man … this is the last time I hope you guys set foot here.” blabbered Hooper. “I’ve never seen the Boss so angry before. What the hell did you guys do?”
Raikkonen and Kournikova took off their helmets as they entered the train and gave apologetic expressions, but said nothing.
“Man, whatever. I’m just glad I’m not getting chucked out of an airlock. The assignment she gave you is fucked in the extreme. Are you guys sure you’re up for this?”
Kournikova looked over her armour. “We just broke out of an Luna base. What do you think?”
Hooper shook his head. “This is some crazy shit. Well, the Baron has asked you to take care of a Merc group that is holed up here. They’ve been on Arcturus for a couple of weeks now and rumour has it, they’re here for a hit job on the boss herself.”
“But they fucked up. The boss heard about it, and sent almost the entire 6th level after them. They lost about half their crew, before they’re cornered themselves in an apartment block. The whole level is on lockdown, besieging these assholes, but they won’t go down.”
“The baron wants you to go in and clear these fuckers out. She especially wants the head merc, some hardass called Zayne. Take him alive if you can, otherwise give us proof he’s dead.”
The train whirred to a stop, and Hooper showed them out. “The Baron would have called ahead and let the 6th level know about you guys. Good luck.”
Raikkonen and Kournikova stepped out into the 6th level of Arcturus, appropriately named Heresy. Looking at each other, they slipped on their helmets and braced for combat.
Apologies for the huge delay in between installations. Work and stocktake has taken grip of the past 2 weeks and the announcement of yet another lockdown in my state has thrown everything out of wack.
However, the solitude that gripped me, and made me write more is now back in full force at my workplace, so I will be writing quicker and more steadily now.
Here’s hoping my next chapter will be smoother to write. This one was a bit all over the place for me.
Check out my Patreon link to support me further if you wish.
Concept art of The Expanse’s Ceres Station …. in this Sol universe known as Arcturus Station, a marriage between Ceres and Omega (Mass Effect).
Arcturus Station was nothing but a glorified port on a giant spinning rock.
It was also one of humanity’s most crime riddled, destitute and lawless stations ever conceived. Originally designed as a mine, it evolved further than what anyone had anticipated. Least of all the original mining company, whose company and board were swiftly taken over by a criminal gang upon discovery of Nitro onboard the asteroid.
However, like all good news, it soon spread quickly amongst the criminal elite, and a vicious war was fought over the asteroid, with the station slowly built further and further as more and more pirate ships were docked and abandoned when they died aboard.
Now resembling a brain-stem like shape, with the asteroid’s craggy surface serving as the “brain” so to speak, and the mass of metal and engine parts as the spinal cord, Arcturus was as lawless and derelict as it looked.
The only reliable place, to be found, was the port, which welcomed all vessels regardless of affiliation and charged exorbitant prices for air, water and nitro.
Whoever controlled the docks, controlled Arcturus.
The Icarus IV slowly came in, after receiving a hail from the port-master, whose voice sounded eerily familiar to both Raikkonen and Kournikova.
“Come on in, my winged one. Docking Bay 95.”
Raikkonen stared at his sensors and activated the retrojets to begin the deceleration process, as he spun his ship to face opposite the station, and fire the MPDrive in the other direction to slow it down.
As the Icarus IV neared the large squarish bay doors, an mechanical arm reached out, and gently clamped itself around the Icarus and cradled it in.
Raikkonen switched off the MPDrive and looked at Kournikova, who was already unbuckled and putting on their armour.
Custom-built by Kournikova, using the livery of the ship as the aesthetic, the Icarus IV’s combat armour was built to withstand heavy attacks and ensure survivability in space and low-oxygen environments.
An open face helmet, made of crimson reinforced glass allowed excellent peripheral vision, allowing the pilots to see out, but nothing could come in nor see in.
The armour itself was reminiscent of knight plate armour, with many layers interlocking into each other to ensure maximum coverage.
Armed with wrist mounted pistols and submachine guns, as well as shoulder mounted grenade launchers, the combat armour was dubbed Phalanx by Kournikova, in keeping with the Greek theme of their vessels.
It was also startling beautiful, with a mostly white ivory base, red accents and a fading geometric pattern on their weapons and helmet. Kournikova’s one was more silvery, whilst Raikkonen was predominantly scarlet.
Underneath the Phalanx, Raikkonen and Kournikova kept their jumpsuits on, designed to be tightly sealed to their body, to keep them warm in space, and to prevent any excess material from interfering with the armour.
The words Icarus IV were emblazoned boldly across the back, as well as the Finnish and Russian flag printed onto their shoulders, as well as a small Formula 0 insignia on their chest.
Raikkonen waited for the slight hiss of air, indicating that the armour and jumpsuit were airtight, before activating the oxygen supply around the rear and performing a comms check with Kournikova.
“Can you hear me Frost?”
“Reading you five by five Iceman.” replied Kournikova.
Activating their magnetic boots, by tapping the heels together, they landed on the Icarus‘ deck for the first time in their long voyage and opened the airlock to Arcturus.
Before leaving the ship, Raikkonen sent out a signal to the mother-ship, Daedalus, indicating their status and where they were. Taking a look around, he blew an imaginary kiss and sealed the airlock shut.
Looking out, Raikkonen and Kournikova walked the skinny gantry to the main entryway, their eyes alert and arms ready to fire.
A loud disembodied voice came over
“Well, well. If it isn’t the famous Europa couple come to grace my port. Come on in, we’ve got you covered.” said the voice jovially.
Kournikova looked over at Raikkonen who smiled back at her.
The entrance to the docking bay’s airlock opened and air hissed in. Checking his helmet, Raikkonen took a breath of fresh air, and took off his helmet, clipping it to his waist.
Kournikova shook free her blonde hair, styled in a short bob and stared ahead, wondering if the voice she heard truly was who she thought it was.
The other doors to the airlock slowly revealed an old associate of theirs, James Hooper, a pit mechanic from Mars who used to work on the Icarus IV before the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile) kicked him for stealing parts. Raikkonen had protested but were overruled.
The last Raikkonen had heard of him, he was making a living repairing civilians ships. To see him here, was surprising but not unexpected.
Hooper opened his arms and hugged them both tightly.
“Jean, Lada!” he exclaimed. “It’s been so long!”
Kournikova kissed him on the cheek. “How have you been?”
“Well, as you can see … quite well” he smiled, patting a generous belly that wasn’t present during their time together. “I got a new boss now. She pays very well. I have to go introduce you guys to her, but first, what brings you here?”
“The Aurelius.” said Raikkonen casually as he continued to scan his surroundings.
Hooper stared at him in disbelief. “THE Aurelius?”
“Jesus Jean. We better tell the Baron. Let’s go.”
The three of them began walking to the maglev train that would take them down into the lower levels of Arcturus. Much like Dante’s Inferno, the lower the levels of Arcturus you went, the smaller, and more dangerous it became.
At the bottom of the “brain stem” design, was the ruler of Arcturus’ office, a sheer glass nightclub made of countless windows, twisted metal struts and dark ambience, known only to Arcturus residents as “Limbo.”
Everywhere on Arcturus was dirty, rundown and littered with abandoned transport crates, the stench of decomposing flesh hidden somewhere pungent in the atmosphere. Long ago, the mining company had installed realistic screens that depicted Earth’s blue skies, but now they were broken beyond repair, with cracks running across the entire expanse; the occasional rainbow flash of tech trying to start itself up, the only sign of life.
The maglev train went in a circular motion, concurrent to the asteroid, which was constantly spinning, courtesy of an attempt to impart artificial gravity. A noticeable Coriolis effect was observed due to the curvature and size of the station and taken into consideration for life onboard Arcturus.
Drinks had to be held at a certain angle, to allow for it to “semi float” into the cup. The horizon was never straight, the drop off always visible and for many newcomers, this created a sharp loss of balance and wonderment at whether Arcturus would ever end.
Gravity also only increased as you went lower and deeper into the station’s “brain stem”, the Limbo nightclub itself boasting the strongest gravity of the entire station and thus symbolic of the ruler’s status. It also served as a defensive mechanism against those who would revolt against Arcturus’ baron, impacting their offensive capabilities as those from outer planets would struggle to adapt.
Hooper kept an running commentary as they travelled further and further into the depths of Arcturus. Describing the various gangs that controlled the many levels of Arcturus, the Red Suns who dominated the area near the port, the Sidewinders who governed the middle sector and finally the Emperors who were loyal to the Baron who had access to the best of the black market equipment and served as the de facto military of Arcturus.
As Hooper continued to point out landmarks on Arcturus, miserable, emaciated people shuffled on and off the maglev, their misery evident on faces, as they cowered from the stronger, tougher thugs in armour, their demeanour, stance and equipment similar to Raikkonen and Kournikova.
As the maglev reached the final section, loud throbbing electronic music could be heard, its’ dark, heavy and seductive beat piercing through the walls of the train. When the doors opened, 4 armoured men stood at attention at the station, their helmets covered by heavy metallic mandibles that gave them an insect-like look.
Lowering their arms, when Hooper stepped forward, the leader, an imposing 2 metre tall man known only “Bouncer,” jerked his head and with a voice modulator said “Go ahead. The Baron is waiting.”
Walking the short distance to Limbo, the music only ratcheted up its volume, and both Raikkonen and Kournikova started to sense headaches develop, the pulsing sounds burying itself deep into their brains.
Limbo, itself was spectacularly dark and a testament to hellish interior design. A huge circular design, with a huge light shaft down the middle, where neon red and green patterns pulsated, Limbo had numerous platforms where nude twisted women and men danced constantly, their necks fed the same cocktail of drugs to combat G-forces. The floor itself was made of reinforced glass, to allow the stars to shine through, and have people believe they were dancing in space.
The bar was situated at the base of the light shaft, wrapping around it, the bartenders working half blind due to the intensity of their environment. Drinking here, was almost guaranteed you two option … an endless high, savouring every star that appeared beneath your feet, every touch, every breath or a gutter crawl, as people took away your possessions whilst you were dying from some stomach virus.
The best and worst drinks in the galaxy. Welcome to Limbo, where you wish you could leave, but can never do so. So to hell with it, dance, drink and destroy your life away.
Raikkonen and Kournikova kept their eyes peeled, astonished at the sheer amount of people waving their arms and legs in ecstasy or pain, faces wet with tears from crying or laughing, every spectrum of emotion, except boredom, on display in full force.
Hooper made his way past a giant woman, who towered above him, her skeleton stretched by Arcturus’ weak gravity. Leaning down she whispered at Raikkonen
“Hi honey” her voice dripping with promise. “Get out of that armour and slip into me instead.”
Raikkonen gently pushed her away, and kept going, ignoring the slur she directed at his back, and walked up a staircase designed to give the best defensive coverage in case of attack.
At the top of the walkway, reclined the Baron, an attractive woman of mysterious origins, flanked by her bodyguards, all of whom had kill switches in their armour, in case of betrayal.
Rumours and deceit followed the Baron whenever she was discussed. Some claimed she was a Martian Marine Corps deserter, able to access Martian technology. Others believed she was raised a whore on another station, but rose to dominance through her appetite and lust for power.
However outlandish the tale, the Baron did nothing to rescind or confirm them. All that mattered was that she was the apex predator atop one of the toughest food chains in the galaxy and every single organism beneath her had to pay her respect.
The Baron itself, was a name that had long been established as the title for the ruler of Arcturus, and there wasn’t anything she wouldn’t do to keep it that way. Out here, the politics of Mars and Earth mattered little.
With long sable hair, piercing purple eyes and a statuesque body, she stood tall at 185 centimetres, and was muscularly lean, her strength matched only by her skill with a experimental pistol she kept strapped to her thigh.
The weapon itself, was capable of a rare ability to “trace” targets via its’ onboard computer. Able to intercept incoming rounds and find heads, the Baron’s pistol was a one-of-a-kind weapon platform, needing only to cool down, to reuse after prolonged firing.
Clad in a white/blue jumpsuit that ran black from the waist down, and styled with a inner scarlet colouring, the collar was bared high around her neck, and the neckline was plunging, revealing her ample breasts. Her sable hair was often shaved in a styled mohawk, and concentric lined tattoos ran across her neck and collarbone. Expensive black combat heels and knuckled gloves completed her look.
She was every bit a pirate queen. Fierce, attractive and strong.
Hooper presented himself before her.
Raikkonen and Kournikova felt the presence of the paranoid Emperor guards, whose white and blue armour glowed menacingly under Limbo’s lighting.
“The famed Europa team.” intoned a husky voice.
“What brings you to Limbo?”
This is largely inspired by the Afterlife club as seen in the amazing sci-fi series, Mass Effect. I mostly wanted to mix Ceres Station’s design and realistic approach to space station design, with the bizarre and foreboding atmosphere of Omega from Mass Effect 2 and 3.
This went a lot smoother to write and I was pleased to see the story grow a bit more concretely, after a shaky first two chapters.
I am also loving the Youtube Sci-Fi club mixes that people like Gaming Ambience have developed, really allowing me to get into the mood of my story. Forever grateful for such great audio mixing.
The MCRN Donnager of The Expanse fame … the inspiration for the RMSMC Aurelius. I won’t lie, this whole series is just poor fan fiction of The Expanse series.
The twin Pilum torpedoes weaved through space, their onboard guidance homing in on the rear tail of the Icarus IV.
Onboard, Raikkonen waited calmly, as he looked at his monitor and watched the weapons close in, his moniker “Iceman” proving not to be false advertising. Behind him, the strained voice of Kournikova came through loud and clear in his helmet.
“2 missiles inbound! Closing in fast, 50K clicks and counting down! Preparing countermeasures.”
Kournikova’s hands flew over her holographic screen, as she pulled up the Icarus IV‘s only defensive option: highly experimental flares, that Raikkonen had designed himself.
This would be the first live trial of the flares, dubbed Sprites. In his many experiments, Raikkonen knew that he had to deploy them at the very last second, otherwise their effectiveness would be highly compromised by distance.
But in order to do so, he had to let the torpedoes really close the distance. With each torpedo able to close nearly 10,000 kilometres in 1.5 seconds, timing was everything.
“20,000 clicks!” yelled Kournikova, at Raikkonen, whose stillness made her afraid.
Raikkonen permitted himself a small smile and waited for a single beat before activating his experiment into the field.
Packed tightly into hyper-velocity pods that launched from ejection tubes alongside the Icarus IV‘s retrojets, the sprites were always packed into pairs. Whilst only one was needed to eliminate a missile, Raikkonen knew better than to believe in chance, and always preferred redundancies.
Using advanced electronic warfare suites, the sprites would attempt to scramble the torpedoes onboard computers, causing them to decelerate, and turn into useless space debris.
Failing that, the sprites would seek out the torpedo itself and intercept them mid-flight, creating a small proximity explosion to nullify the incoming missile.
This would be their first live fire test.
Aiko Cicero onboard the RMSMC Aurelius stared intently at her screen, monitoring the twin Pilum torpedoes flight path, as they made a beeline towards the Icarus IV. Her plan was to allow them to overshoot the racer, and then detonate them at a safe distance, forcing Raikkonen to slow down.
But just as the Pilums nearly reached the Icarus IV, she saw a tiny blip appear from behind the Icarus IV, split into 4, and almost immediately she lost all connection to her torpedoes, staring in concern at her screen, as it began to flicker and a large “CONNECTION ERROR” sign appeared across the schematics of her weapons.
Frowning, she double checked her sensors, and zoomed in with an external camera tracking the torpedoes.
To her complete surprise, the two Pilums were not inert, and unresponsive, floating aimlessly in zero gravity, spinning in every direction, as four unknown crimson lights hovered near them.
“Praetor Quintus. You better come over and have a look sir.” suggested Cicero, the puzzlement in her voice evident.
Quintus looked over the weapon specialist’s shoulder and at her screen. The four crimson lights looked like missiles themselves, their sleek design sporting a similar livery to the Icarus IV.
“Perform an analysis scan on them. I don’t want the Aurelius to be hit by whatever the hell that is.”
“Copy sir. Give me a minute, read-out to your war-desk upon completion.” said Aiko, as the Aurelius’ onboard computers and sensor suites began to scan the outline of the sprites.
Quintus looked over at Vorenus, who made a motion about going around the blast zone of the Pilums. Nodding his affirmation, Quintus wondered What the hell is this … and how did Raikkonen get his hands on this type of tech?
Previously, anti-missile duty was performed with PDWs (Point Defence Weapons), hard-points on a spacecraft’s superstructure that had retractable Vulcan chainguns with complex computer algorithms to intercept missiles in mid-flight, and provide near 360 degree coverage in SCM.
It was a risky defence grid, but such was the reality of space warfare. No matter how bad-ass a ship was, it was still just a tin can in a hostile environment humans weren’t designed for. No amount of armour on a hull could withstand a railgun round nor the tungsten bullets of a PDW.
Could the Icarus really have counter-missile tech? If so, who gave it to them? pondered Quintus.
A tiny ping signalled the arrival of the readout on the war-desk, and Quintus read over the report. Smiling, he looked over at Cicero.
“Confirmed sir. The Icarus IV has interceptor missiles for our torpedoes. I saw a small signature emerge from the rear of the Icarus when our Pilums were 10,000 clicks from impact. It split into two and the four managed to successfully scramble both of our Pilums onboard computers.”
“Clever sonvuabitch. Icarus must have designed them.” said Quintus with admiration. “XO.”
“Set a course for Arcturus Station. I want to be there as soon as possible.”
“Understood. Plotting a course for Arcturus. ETA … well, we’ll be there after the Icarus. Hopefully not before they leave … Sir.”
Quintus merely shook his head in bemusement, and went to the Aurelius’ mess, to grab a cup of coffee. It was going to be a long shift.
The Icarus IV kept on going, its’ journey unimpeded by any future threats, Kournikova inside breathing out a huge sigh of relief.
“You crazy son of a bitch. Never do that to me again!” she yelled at Raikkonen who spun around and gave her one of his rare smiles.
“It worked didn’t it?”
“Too damn close Jean! My God.”
“How close is Arcturus?” asked Raikkonen as he inspected his instrument panel.
“It’s close. We can probably nitro-burn it there now and still have enough time to refuel and recharge and get away from the ship behind us. It’ll be at least 2 days before we can dock with the Daedalus.”
Raikkonen nodded to himself. The sooner they were away with their cargo, the better.
Reading his thoughts, Kournikova called out “Jean? Want me to check on it?”
Shaking his head, he unbuckled himself from his seat and allowed his body to float in zero g. He would do it himself.
As he floated past Kournikova, he kissed her gently on the cheek before moving to the doors that led to the engine room.
As the doors slid open with a metallic hiss, he beheld his beautiful Icarus IV‘s modified MPDrive.
Shielded by reinforced glass to prevent radiation leakage as well as allow visual inspection, the glowing ice-blue MPDrive was an scientific breakthrough that was made spaceflight possible and colonisation of the outer reaches of the solar system a reality.
Shaped like an cylinder, the core of the MPDrive was a centrifugal system, that allowed for the burn of the element known as “nitro”, a highly rare and stable fuel that granted vessels two types of speeds, sublight and NFTL (Near Faster Than Light) travel or more colloquially known as “nitro-burns”.
Current development of the MPDrive was still underway, with many scientists saying that they could still unlock more speed out of the engine. Raikkonen, with his modifications, owned one of the fastest vessels ever made in human history, courtesy of stolen Martian space-tech but even he knew that to push it further would risk destroying his spacecraft.
Nitro whilst highly efficient could only be “burned” for so long. This was the key problem with the MPDrives. The engines could only sustain a nitro-burn for a set amount of time, before its’ nitro supply would deplete. Pilots had to be extremely careful with such burns, otherwise they would risk floating in space for an eternity.
So many Formula 0 racers had overestimated their nitro-burns, and thus DNF (Did Not Finish) their races, not accounting for the supply needed to sustain reasonable sublight speeds.
However the Icarus IV had a glaring weakness. Whilst its NFTL speeds were the fastest ever built, its’ sublight speed was woefully inadequate, thus Raikkonen was forced to store a large abundance of nitro onboard, to “nitro-jump” most of his races, using controlled bursts of speed to gain and maintain distance on his rivals.
This weakness was what allowed the RMSMC Aurelius to catch up, its’ quartet of MPDrives sublight speed much quicker than the Icarus IV‘s. However, due to Martian doctrine, it could only nitro-burn in the most desperate situations.
In spite of its’ poor sublight speeds, Raikkonen loved his Icarus IV. It was his pride and joy, his one true love, beyond Kournikova.
Icarus allowed him to escape Earth, venture amongst the stars and almost touch the sun.
But he had risked it all, for the crimson red cylinder that was secured in a strong metallic case, attached to the wall of the Icarus‘ hull.
This is the future thought Raikkonen as he checked over the case and saw the 5 green lights, indicating its’ structural integrity.
What is in this case, could revolutionise everything. Time itself will be faster.
Patting the case gently, he spun around weightlessly and moved back to his chair and strapped the harness around his chest.
Giving Kournikova the thumbs up, he watched as she flicked him the trajectory to Arcturus Station and they both felt their chairs recline down, to lock itself into place as Raikkonen commenced the nitro burn.
G-forces slammed the breath out of their chests, and the Icarus IV’s blue MPDrive glowed icy white as nitro burned and the engine began to spin faster and generate more and more energy.
Raikkonen and Kournikova allowed the Icarus IV‘s auto-pilot to take over, as their bodies slowly succumbed to the immense G-forces and knocked them out, sinking their world into a high-pitch screams of engines and darkness.
Onboard the RMSMC Aurelius, Praetor Quintus and his crew could only stare in astonishment as the Icarus IV literally rocketed off their screens and sensors and into the emptiness of space.
So that’s the power of a Formula 0 racer mused Quintus.
Apologies for the delay in between posts.
My schedule is now more or less normal, so I hope to keep pumping this out soon. I might do a bit of different writing just to get my juices flowing again, but I will not be abandoning this world.
Quite possibly one of my favourite shape-ship design ever, the Razorback from The Expanse TV Series. The whole series just has a fantastic aesthetic to all their spacecraft.
It is the year 2279.
Humanity is now master and commander of the entire Sol region of the Milky Way, with colonies that stretch all the way to Uranus.
Mars is now a Empire, calling itself the Royal Martian Systems (RMS), ruled by a mysterious Emperor obsessed with Ancient Roman mythology and culture.
Earth is a shadow of its’ former self, governed by the United Nations Federation, clinging to former glory, deeply beset by internal in-fighting amongst various factions vying for power.
Both sides are locked in a cold war, limited only by their technology, which revolves around Magnetic Pulse Drives (MPDrives), advanced engines that can achieve nearly 10% the speed of light.
MPDrives require highly specialised minerals, known as Nitro, that allow the engine to burn at steady rates across large distances. While the mineral has an extremely long half life, this has sparked a resource-race, reminiscent of oil in humanity’s past, for reserves of Nitro.
Controlling this race, is the Quintant Mining Corporation, greedily monopolising the few reserves that can be found across the Sol system, trading with both sides with impunity.
This is the world of Sol, a solar system that shows, even with the ability to engage the stars, humanity will never truly learn to live together.
Europa floated gently on its axis, its bone-white surface, marked by thousands of soft brown cracks and streaks, a serenely beautiful moon, oblivious to the drama several thousands kilometres above its’ icy crust.
Jean “Iceman” Raikkonen glared at the blue holographic screen that showcased the trajectory of his beloved Icarus IV, as it rocketed through Europa’s gravitational pull, using the orbit as a sling to accelerate further out into the vastness of space.
A warning alarm pealed loudly in his ears, as he felt immense G-forces assault his body. Behind him, Raikkonen could hear the pained gasp of his co-pilot, Lada “Frost” Kournikova as their chairs injected a cocktail of drugs into their necks, to prevent blacking out.
With such immense force being applied to their body, Raikkonen and Kournikova could only stare at their screens, and watch as their racing craft began to peel away from the malignant blip behind them, until it was out of immediate danger.
Raikkonen, using the armrest controls, gently began to ease the acceleration of the Icarus IV, and ever so slightly, the huge weight on their body began to ease, as the vessel began the process of deceleration.
Kournikova’s thick Martian accent came from behind; deep, low, husky and gravelly.
“Do you think we lost them?”
Raikkonen stared at the holo screen, and shook his head, even though he knew Kournikova couldn’t really see it.
“No. We’re still in range of their scopes and missiles.”
Kournikova looked at her own screen, doing mental calculations of the distance between them and the pursuing vessel.
Frowning at the result in her mind, she pulled up a star-map, and began to look over the Icarus IV, noting the fuel load, and the stress the vehicle was under and where it was in relation to other colonies.
Kournikova found herself sweating profusely, nerves and fear and exhilaration racing through her body. Gingerly lifting her right hand against the G forces, she pressed a button on the left side of her suit, and felt her skin tighten as it was sucked against her suit, voiding the interior clear of sweat.
Sighing, she turned her attention to the screen again, and noted the critical systems status.
“We still got our full payload of counter-measures and enough Nitro to make it to Arcturus Station.”
“Then that’s where we’re going.” said Raikkonen quietly.
“OK. Let’s do it. If we continue this speed to maintain distance, and we should be able to Nitro-burn the final straight to Arcturus. I think.” said Kournikova, as she punched in the necessary calculations.
Spinning on a gimbal, Raikkonen turned his chair around and looked at his co-pilot in the eye. It was rare for her to second guess herself. But then the entire scenario they were in was alien to them. It was his idea to pull this off. His responsibility.
Kournikova looked through the holo screen, and felt her fear begin to fade, as she beheld her best friend’s blue eyes.
“Everything will be alright Frost.” said Raikkonen calmly, and holding out his hand, he squeezed Kournikova’s gloved hand reassuringly before readdressing his screen.
Shaped like an arrowhead, the Icarus IV was a crimson-silver bullet in space. Raikkonen affectionately once called it “an MPDrive with seats” and in essence, that was all it was.
Like most Formula 0 racing crafts, it was extremely lightweight, durable enough for the rigours of high G-force turns and reliable in most circumstances. Equipped with retrorockets near the base of the MPDrive’s main thruster, it could effortlessly spin around in any direction, and re-engage its MPDrive within a second of shut-off.
Yet acceleration was its primary purpose, capable of nearly 11% the speed of light, however after extensive modifications by Raikkonen and Kournikova, it was now on the apex of achieving 12%. But such speeds were unable to be proven, as both pilots would black out before they could hit such velocities.
With its’ distinct crimson and silver livery, the Icarus IV was a legendary racer, having already won several Formula 0 Grand Prixs and setting the fastest lap records for multiple inter-planetary-courses.
Which was why, the Captain of the RMSMC Aurelius was so utterly confused as to the reason why his ship, the flagship of the Martian Marine Corps, was chasing it.
At an imposing 2 metres and 20 centimetres tall, Praetor Deckard Quintus was as typical as a Martian could get; dark features, a tall, lean muscular frame and a deep guttural voice.
Aged 45, Quintus was one of the Marine Corps youngest and most exemplary officers/strategists. His numerous victories against several smuggling crews and pirates vessels earned him the title of Praetor, one of the highest honours bestowed upon anyone in the Royal Martian Systems, a rank only succeeded by Consul.
Taciturn, experienced, unflinchingly loyal to his men, and a surprising teetotaller, Deckard Quintus was a typical example of the type of men and women that were lost to Earth, during the Mars Revolt against the UNF.
As Quintus stared down at his war-desk, the Captain’s station on the bridge of the RMSMC Aurelius, his XO, Marcus Vorenus, came alongside him and saluted.
Looking across at the slimmer, younger man, who Quintus treated like a son, despite not ever having any children, he raised an eyebrow in question.
Marcus gestured at the war desk, and Quintus opened the readout his XO had sent.
“Arcturus Station hmm?” mused Quintus.
“Yes sir. We compared their Nitro load to other typical Formula 0 racing craft, and based on their current velocity, and trajectory, that is their most likely destination.” said Vorenus, curtly.
“Any chance we can make it there before them?” queried Quintus, with bemusement, knowing full well the answer.
Vorenus smiled back. “No sir. Definitely not.”
“Pity. If we can’t race them, give me options to slow them down.” said Quintus, with a wolfish smile, wondering which of the Aurelius weapon platforms could perform the job.
Vorenus walked over to the weapon specialist, Aiko Cicero, a tall, attractive young Asiatic woman who was now busy flicking through multiple options.
“What do you have for me, Principales Cicero?” asked Vorenus.
“Sir, they are out of our SCM (Space Combat Manoeuvring) range, so our only option is to use our torpedoes and set it to proximity.” replied Aiko
“What are the odds, it will destroy Icarus IV?”
“If we detonate 10,000 clicks ahead, it should be OK. At the very least, it will cause them to slow down or take evasive manoeuvres. We can always direct the missile away, further sir.” said Aiko confidently.
Vorenus clapped Aiko’s shoulders and reported the news back to the Quintus.
Nodding his approval, Quintus gave the order.
“2 torpedoes. Understood sir.” Aiko glanced at her holographic screen and with a flourish, tapped a button.
Seen from the outside, the RMSMC Aurelius was a incredible feat of engineering, a true military vessel, that had little penchant for flair, except in its brutal aesthetic. Coloured in orange and black, after its’ homeworld’s distinctive soil, the Aurelius was one of the most advanced and sophisticated warships ever conceived by man.
Essentially a tree-trunk styled vessel, with 4 large MPDrives at its base, and featuring multiple railgun turrets with a sharply defined nose section, the Aurelius was classified as a Decurion-class frigate, one of the biggest sized vessels in the system, dwarfed only by the Centurion-class capital ship.
The Aurelius’ front bays opened, and out shot two Pilum torpedoes, glowing blue as they engaged their small MPDrives, accelerating quickly and shot out in pursuit of the Icarus IV.
This is the first time, I have ever ventured into the sci-fi genre and what a ridiculous struggle it was. I don’t think I have ever even tried to build a world before.
I realise now, how easy it is, to get lost into the descriptions of things, and lose sight of the characters.
I scrubbed this story, 5 times, before being satisfied with how it starts. That meant 5 attempts to write the first 400 words and deleting it all to start afresh.
Fans of TheExpanse show will see obvious parallels. I truly tried to differentiate it, but since I am currently watching it, and was so inspired by it to write sci-fi because of it, I ended up borrowing almost everything.
Hopefully by the second chapter, I will be able to start pumping differences between this story and The Expanse, but I love the show so much, that I suspect this will just seem like a hollow fan fic story.
I will also start reading The Expanse stories relatively soon, because …. you can’t write sci-fi without reading sci-fi.
I will probably need 2 days to write chapters, instead of pumping them out day by day, because this is such a challenge for me to write.
I don’t know how many parts this will be either and I am definitely concerned I will run out of good images to use for this story.
It took me just over a week of dedicated writing, with an awful 3 day break just before the finale, that almost derailed the entire story.
The main reason why I wanted to write this short story is because I wanted to elevate my writing to a more useful and functional level. I wanted to treat writing as a job not a hobby that I indulge in.
This created a rather surprising mental shift in my attitude to the story, with certain plot elements worked on, thought on, and dismissed on before I put hands on a keyboard.
This is very bizarre for me, as I almost exclusively never plot out a story before I start writing. I tend to just let the story write itself out. I have a very empty mind when writing, only really engaging it to describe or look up a better word to describe what I want.
Thesaurus.com is easily my best friend when writing.
My biggest challenge though was actually learning to use “said Alex” at the end of each string of dialogue. It is one of my great weaknesses, to craft interesting and compelling dialogue and I found myself scratching my head often, how to end dialogue sentences with something other than “said Eveline”. It is definitely something I have to work on.
In a lot of ways, this was a return to my roots, when I used to compulsively write as a younger man, and my early obsession with film noir.
The whole endeavour was also made doubly difficult by my return to noir story telling.
I used to write heaps of noir style fiction in my earlier years, but for some odd reason, this time it was a lot more difficult. I know that traditionally, noir is set during a time period (the 1920s) but when the greats like Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett started writing, for them it was relatively contemporary.
I adopted a similar attitude, preferring to set all my stories during the present time, of 2020s. It only seems quaint for us reading back, but for them that was the time they lived in and they reflected that.
I was pretty influenced by both those greats up there whilst writing the story, as well as the book The Midnight Promise: A Detective’s Story in Ten Cases. by Zane Lovitt.
It was that book in particular that drove me when I was younger, as Lovitt proved successfully that you can create a noir/hard-boiled story in Melbourne.
Speaking of Melbourne, I really did try my best to showcase my home town as best I could, from personal experience. All the black and white photography were taken off Google Images, and in some cases, I used a black & white converter online to transform the images into the moody ones you see on all my posts.
The locations that Alex Ryder visits are relatively varied and I definitely wanted to ensure all the places were described as accurately as possible (without the stolen art of course).
The 1st iteration is a simple image of a North Melbourne tram line, which I wanted to establish as the main mode of transport for a poor guy like Alex, as not only is it cheap, it is also slow, moody and easy to cheat the system and never pay for a fare.
The 2nd image features one of my favourite places in Victoria, St Kilda. It is a very strange place, with a lot bizarre architecture and an extremely unique beach culture. It is situated on a beach, that is more or less exclusively used a backdrop for more interesting things like fusion Japanese restaurants, or a gorgeous theatre that Dita Von Teese loves to perform in.
In other words, if you find someone trying to surf there, let me know … because that’s as rare as a comet flying past.
The 3rd post has a photo of the Melbourne Citylink Sound Tube, which is a fascinating piece of architecture for what is essentially a freeway. It’s very attractive at night, with its rainbow spectrum of colours, and is a great backdrop for Alex’s home, which is literally maybe a 5 minute walk away.
The 4th chapter features a legitimate interior shot of the now-closed Pink Palace, which was as I described, a 70s style brothel that closed around 2 years ago. I have long had an interest in the lives and workplaces of working girls, and while I didn’t tour this particular brothel, I was given a tour of a similar establishment nearby. It was as eye-opening and interesting as I hoped. Many brothels in Melbourne, especially the more expensive one, feature some truly incredible interior design.
The 5th section is all about Collins St “The Dome.” I don’t need to elaborate much further than the description I placed in the story other than it also features one of the most gorgeous alleyways I have ever walked down.
The 6th part is a rather sombre image of the Docklands’ Central Pier. It is actually currently closed, as the entire pier needs to undergo structural integrity work, as a lot of the wood has warped after years of neglect. At night it is probably as moody and quiet and desolate as the image presents.
For the 7th stage, it is actually one of my favourite places in Melbourne. Collins Place features one of my best rated Japanese restaurants, my absolute favourite cinema, and the perfect transit atmosphere in the city. It is always quiet, clean, comfortable and beautifully tranquil there, and the exclusive Sofitel Melbourne hotel only enhances that vibe.
This leads me onto what music I listened to whilst writing this. Music, obviously, plays a big part in any creative endeavour. For this story, I was almost exclusively listening to Dr. SaxLove’s excellent Jazz Noir – 1 Hour Jazz Noir Saxophone Music playlist on Youtube.
When I got bored of that, I would switch over to Blade Runner 2049 soundtrack by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch which I have adored since I watched the film in cinemas.
Additional crucial tracks also include Andrew Hale’s definitive L.A. Noire theme, which if I am honest, you cannot avoid if you are writing crime and Bye Bye Blackbird by Diana Krall which of course is referenced in the final words of the story.
Overall, I was pretty happy with how the characters turned out, especially Eveline who I hoped, I created right by other femme fatales. It was extremely difficult to create her, as a complex and layered character, capable of manipulation, vulnerability and desperation.
Alex, more or less, is a straight man to all the more interesting characters in the story. Much like Batman, he will always be overshadowed by the other people in his story.
Francois was a genuinely turn I didn’t anticipate. When I originally created the character “Joel McNamara” I was going to make him a thief on the run, after a robbery gone wrong. Eveline, his lover would request the services of Alex and that was where the story was going.
However when I described the interior of his house, Joel became Francois and I found myself shocked at where I conjured this twist up from. He was always a tragic figure in my mind, and a bit of a lost soul, a guy who had everything, but never appreciated it.
I was honestly surprised at how much life Liverpool and Flat Cap possessed when I wrote them. I didn’t think I would grow to like them as much as I did. The obvious inspiration for them came from the show Peaky Blinders and my love for memorable henchmen, which stemmed from watching too many Bond films as a younger man.
Speaking of Bond, the Jackal is a direct inspiration from Mr Big in the novel Live and Let Die by Ian Fleming. I have always admired Fleming’s ability to create memorable villains (even though other aspects of his writing are deeply flawed by today’s standards) and I sought to emulate that aspect in the description of The Jackal.
His name is also a reference to the brilliant film The Day of the Jackal which I loved, and of course the villain in the Bourne books (not the films).
Whilst I am on a roll explaining all my references and loves in this story, I might as well touch on the concept of Caesar’s cipher. I love encryption and the science and inherent secrecy of it. Fans of Dan Brown‘s Digital Fortress will obviously see the parallels I drew in my own story. However, I will also admit to being a huge history nerd, and that my all-time favourite ancient civilisation will always be Ancient Rome.
So I just had to include something Roman in the story. But it was definitely a late inclusion. I actually forgot about the encryption in the excel sheet, so it was a late scramble to come up with Caesar’s Cipher.
Speaking of antiquities, I think it’s time I touched on Cezanne.
After burning through every single book written by Daniel Silva in his amazing Gabriel Allon series, I grew to appreciate art better and the skill on display that all the Old Masters generated in each of his paintings.
I genuinely despise contemporary art and their quasi-bullshit attitude in explaining literal heaps of junk and crap. If you look up the word “sanctimonious” in the dictionary, there should be a picture of some incredibly air-headed individual studying “modern” art.
But I digress … I used Paul Cezanne’s View of Auvers-sur-Oise because it was actually stolen in a similar way to how Francois described. Obviously I added some extra elements, but the smoke grenade, the timing of the heist are all factual.
I was very lucky to have found such a theft that matched perfectly to what I wanted in the story.
The Venus de Milo was actually placed in there, as an interesting interior design, that I ended up using more than I thought. It also helped tie in the idea that if Francois could source a replica of the Venus, he could also commission a fake Cezanne. This of course led to me referencing Twin Peaks and its’ infamous Red Room in the Pink Palace.
Another lucky coincidence if I am honest.
Anyway … Alex Ryder, is a sneaky reference to one of my favourite Young Adult series, Alex Rider by Anthony Horowitz, and Francois’ surname, Dujardin was directly stolen from Jean Dujardin, one of my favourite French actors, whose work in OSS 117 and The Artist still make me smile to this day.
(Also, the OSS 117 theme is also one of the best spy themes ever made.)
Overall, I was pretty happy with my first draft of this story. It was a struggle at times, but it wasn’t as horrible as I thought it was going to turn out.
I will probably keep at this, writing more and more, until hopefully I can turn out a proper novel. My retail job is now essentially paying me to write, since there are so little customers in my shop, so I might as well keep going.
I hope this was as fun for you to read, as it was hard for me to write!
Alex Ryder walked in, his heartbeat abnormally fast, his mind whirring at a thousand thoughts a minute, and his hands clenched into fists.
Liverpool guided Alex into the centre of the apartment, which was spacious, and had two connecting rooms; a bedroom and a bathroom. Like most modern designs, it was all about clean lines, a simple contrasting colour theme (black, white, grey, with a splash of dark brown) and slightly dull aesthetics.
It was as sterile an environment as it could get.
Flat Cap sat on a couch nearby, inspecting a small suppressed pistol, his hands at ease with the weapon.
“Easy mate. Our boss will be with us temporarily. He’s just dealing with a Frenchman at the moment. Why don’t you take a seat?” said Liverpool cordially.
Flat Cap pulled a chair from the nearby kitchen and slid it into the centre of the room.
“Don’t worry. We won’t hurt you. We just want to talk.” intoned Flat Cap candidly.
Alex sat down, wondering where the hell Eveline could be. Thinking to himself, how he allowed this to happen.
Liverpool and Flat Cap watched with amusement, at Alex’s fury. Liverpool even placed a placating hand on Alex’s shoulder.
“It’s alright mate. Everything will be explained soon.”
A knock at the door stiffened both men.
Liverpool checked the peephole, whilst Flat Cap hid the pistol behind his leg.
Motioning the all-clear, Flat Cap relaxed and Liverpool opened the door to reveal a mountain of a man.
At an imposing 2 metres tall, with a muscular frame, and dark eyes, the Jackal looked like if a bodybuilder was smashed into a scholar, his face was avuncular and intelligent, with soft brown eyes and a wry smile playing across his lips.
Expensive glasses were perched atop a sharply bridged nose, and the Jackal dressed more like a university professor out on a forest stroll than a highly trained, and lethal mercenary.
A dark brown tweed coat bedecked the muscular body, with a striped blue/green soft wool scarf tied loosely around his neck. A handsome classic umbrella was held loosely in his huge tanned hand, and in the other, gripped a large briefcase.
The Jackal, when he spoke, had a soft deep voice, his tone and inflection curiously flat. He spoke English, but without any trace of an accent. Not Australian, not English like his henchmen, and certainly not American.
It was a truly neutral accent. A voice you would hear in a strange forgettable dream.
“Alex Ryder. Private Investigator. I’ve been following your hunt with great interest. It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
Alex said nothing, as the Jackal came in, and gently placed the briefcase on the kitchen table, and grabbed a chair to sit in front of Alex.
“I must say, when I came after the former Francois Dujardin, I didn’t expect that there would be so many players involved in this … quest for a Cezanne.” said the Jackal with slightly bemusement.
Alex’s emerald eyes narrowed at the use of the word “former.”
“Oh yes. He … won’t be joining us. He has lost his usefulness. A pity. I would have liked to have seen the little stash that he kept hidden away. But I find myself unable to crack the code.”
The Jackal reached behind him and grabbed the briefcase off the table, and popped it open to reveal a convincing fake of The View Auvers-sur-Oise.
Alex stared at it. So this was the tiny 46cm by 55cm painting that had everyone searching and upturning Melbourne for.
“I think both you and I are aware this is a fake. The late Mr Dujardin kept two copies of this lovely painting. He commissioned a fake one so that he could actually keep one in his house, however, he never did so. He kept both in his vault.”
“How do you know it’s a fake?” asked Alex, curious despite himself, drawn in by the landscape.
“It lacks Paul Cezanne’s signature here, in the bottom left corner. Plus the brushwork is a little bit sloppier than the real one. However, the artist did an overall good job. I am impressed. A lesser student might not have been able to tell the difference.” said the Jackal softly.
Placing the replica away gently, the Jackal handed the briefcase to Liverpool who took it away.
“You may be wondering, what this all has to do with you, Mr Ryder. Well, the thing is … Ms Eveline Winston has actually double-crossed you. She sent you here, and promised Francois Dujardin that she would wait for him in this very room as well.”
Alex swallowed hard and felt fury like he had never experienced before.
“We actually were very surprised that you turned up. We knew that Dujardin was meeting us at the Central Pier, but I am sure you can imagine our shock when Ms Winston wasn’t in this room, that we found this room empty.”
“We were vastly disappointed of course, that you turned up. But it does allow us to dot the i and cross the ts.” smiled the Jackal.
“I already have Ms Winston’s phone number. I’ve tracked it. It’s at the bottom of the Docklands pier. So I doubt we’ll see any more of her.” said the Jackal with cold amusement.
A trace of emotion crept into the Jackal’s voice.
“I’ve spent the better part of a year chasing this painting, Mr Ryder. It has always been my desire to secure a Master’s work for myself. I will only ask you this once.”
“Do you know where it is?”
Alex ran through all the clues and decided to tell the truth. Survival was paramount here, not his revenge or anger.
“No, I don’t.”
The Jackal’s copper brown eyes scanned analytically over Alex’s emeralds.
Nodding to himself, he stood up and motioned to Flat Cap.
Alex squeezed his eyes shut.
Soft chuckles erupted from Flat Cap and Liverpool, which prompted Alex to open his eyes again.
To his surprise, his laptop was in his lap.
The Jackal looked at Alex seriously.
“I believe you. I suppose my only way to the Cezanne is to find Eveline hmm?”
Alex nodded wordlessly, fear and shock still burning through his system.
“Thank you for your assistance Mr Ryder. I don’t need the access Mr Dujardin’s stash. However, if you would indulge me, how do you solve his encryption?”
Alex took a ragged breath and softly replied “Caesar’s cipher.”
The Jackal smiled coldly and looked up momentarily.
“Ah yes. Niagara Lane. Most clever.” he whispered.
With a cold nod, the Jackal left the room, and Liverpool and Flat Cap, smiling in his wake, gave mock salutes to Alex and disappeared with the mercenary.
Alex stared at the open door, before rousing himself and grabbing his laptop and wondering what the hell just happened.
Tucking his laptop under his peacoat, Alex was about to leave, when he realised that the Jackal had left the fake painting behind.
You’re not going to get paid anyway. To hell with it. thought Alex, and he grabbed the briefcase, opened it, and tucked his laptop under to stop it from getting wet from the rain and then left the accursed Docklands to head home, on a lonely tram ride, with another precious cargo on his lap.
~ A month later.
The Atrium on 35 was Alex’s favourite haunt. A drink there was an affront to his bank account, but he had recently solved another case, involving a cheating husband and his concerned wife, so the bank app showed that he was flush with funds for now.
It wasn’t going to last long at the rate he was burning through classic cocktails at the Atrium, but the spectre of Eveline, and the Cezanne still lingered in his mind, so he needed more.
Set inside one of Melbourne’s most exclusive hotels, the Sofitel, the Atrium on 35 was a luxuriously quiet and elegant bar, that mixed Arabesque elements into its interior design and boasted the best toilets with a view in the entire of Melbourne.
Going into a toilet, was like stepping into a room made of glass, and it offered spectacular views of the MCG, and Parliament, often stunning patrons who were about to relieve themselves, only to be distracted by the magnificent scenery.
The Atrium on 35 itself was decorated by gorgeous gold diaphanous silk that hung from invisible wires, creating waves above the seated occupants, and beautiful amber honey lighting from the enormous roof above, lending the entire proceedings with a rich, private vibe.
The bar itself was circular, and it served classic cocktails, like Mojitos or New York Sours to grateful hotel patrons or diners who had just left the No35 Restaurants. Alex was a well known patron, the manager often reserving a private space near the edge of the bar, so that he could enjoy his drinks alone and in silence.
Nursing a neat whiskey, Alex stared at the amber liquid, forlornly considering the case that nearly killed him and robbed him of his dignity.
His paranoia was also at an all-time high, his nightmares often involving Flat Cap and Liverpool following him, causing him to always check behind him and walk around the block twice, before meeting anyone now.
Worse, Eveline’s blue eyes still haunted him, the scent of her perfume, the soft warmth of her curvaecous body and the taste of her crimson lips tormenting him with their broken promises whenever he tried to sleep.
As Alex took another sip, and tried to chase the buzz, his phone vibrated next to him.
Hoping it was a new case, Alex opened the message and frowned.
It was his bank, telling him that a lump sum had just been deposited into his account.
Enough to cover 9 month worth of bills.
Enough to grant him opportunities to eat out more and afford better clothes.
Enough to live like a stable person.
His phone vibrated again. An unknown number. No identity.
Alex thumbed the text open, his heart beating quicker as he recognised the tone. He heard her soft voice in his mind as he read the text.
As promised, here is the money I signed off to you, plus a little bonus.
No doubt, you’re probably wondering whether I meant anything of the last text I sent to you.
Some of it rang true at the time. But you know how it is. I don’t think anyone else understood that about me. You did, just for a little bit. That was enough.
You won’t hear from me again.
But I am grateful.
Alex’s finger hovered over the delete trash-can icon … but he ultimately didn’t press it.
Instead he locked the phone, took another sip of his whiskey and thought about the fake Cezanne that hung over his office.
He knew whose signature deserved to be on that painting.
Feeling the demons subside a little bit, Alex could sense that closure was all he really needed, even if it came from a cold bitch like Eveline Winston.
Studying the amber liquid in his glass, Alex gave a rueful smile and raised his glass in an imaginary salute.
Bye bye, blackbird. Enjoy the view.
That concludes my first attempt at writing a proper short story in a long, long time.
I hope you’ve all enjoyed what has essentially been a live-crafting of a first draft for a story.
I know there are plenty of errors, from “past/present senses” switching, and probably numerous spelling mistakes, as I wrote this on a far less precise keyboard at work, whilst serving customers at my retail job.
However, I am overall pleased with how everything turned out. I wanted it to end on a bittersweet note, as is the common thread with most crime noir stories, especially the ones by the great Raymond Chandler, who, whether I realised it or not, had a huge influence on my writing style for this story.
I will write a reflection piece that dives deeper into the crafting of this story, but for now, this note is about this final part, which proved really difficult to write and tie up.
I actually had to think hard and write down notes for this chapter, something unheard of me, as usually I follow whatever hops into my mind. I rarely ever script things in advance, I tend to let things unravel.
So this chapter was a bit uncharacteristic of my writing style and approach.
I originally had Eveline tied up in the room, and somehow Alex would contrive to rescue her and himself from the Jackal, Flat Cap and Liverpool.
But that didn’t fit the narrative, the whole “explosive” ending that I felt cheapened and made it too Hollywood.
Instead, I dove deeper into Eveline’s character, what type of person she is. If she truly is the femme fatale I wanted her to be, it only made sense that she would double-cross Alex in the end with the bait.
Alex, still in love with what might have been between them, would go and be confronted by a cleverer villain in the Jackal.
After all, she only sleeps with Alex, because she wants to manipulate him and Francois into working for her. But there is a strange connection there, so hence she gives him the money in the end.
I will explain in deeper details about characters and how I originally planned it all out, in my reflection piece!
However, a big thank you for all who have been reading along so far. I hope it’s been entertaining and that this ending wasn’t too much of a bust for you.
Alex stared at the grimy screen, a borrowed pen in his mouth, as he looked at the precious excel sheet.
He had lost his laptop and now his phone to Francois and Eveline. This left him with no choice but to spend a dollar at the nearest 24 hour gaming lounge.
All around him, the cacophony of mechanical keyboards, and optical mouses rattled away, as young men tapped away at their computers, oblivious to the private investigator searching for a Cezanne.
The room smelt rough, with cheap deodorant, spicy 2-minute noodles and arid energy drinks suffusing the atmosphere.
Chairs squeaked as gamers rocked back and forth, thoroughly engaged in their virtual world; numbers, lights and colours flashing across their tired, intent faces.
Alex jotted down on his notepad, and finally broke the 4 cryptic sentences and the strange caption that ran across the first Excel sheet. He arranged the letters and in a grid, fascinated as he saw one of the first examples of cryptography come to brilliantly to life, Roman ingenuity at its most innovative.
To solve the cipher, Alex merely arranged the long sentences atop of one another and read down.
Alex added in the spaces.
31 NIAGARA LANE BASEMENT ALCOVE COMBINATION 31 12 99 ASH M
VIEW OF AUVES SUR OISE CZ
Logging off the PC, Alex dashed out, and began his run from QV to the small, cobblestone alleyway, that held the Cezanne.
Alex ran down Londsdale street, the small decline in the topography of Melbourne assisting his speed. Buses blurred past him, as did hundreds of waiting passengers. A couple in a ramen shop, stopped slurping noodles for a second, as they beheld Alex in a full blown sprint, blast past their window and nearly careen into a mother with a pram.
Tram drivers pealed angrily as Alex sped across the tracks on Swanston St, and was now surging his way past Uniqlo and the iconic skyway that linked the two major shopping hubs, Emporium and Melbourne Central above him.
Two blocks were covered in less than 5 minutes, as Alex panted his way down, through Elizabeth Street and then up a small incline towards Niagara Lane.
A young, pretty girl, exiting the local Korean grocer, gave a muffled scream of surprise behind her face mask, as Alex shot his way up, nearly scattering her groceries everywhere.
Alex saw the blue and white sign ahead and performed a hard left turn at Club Retro, the loud disco music blasting the eardrums of a surprised bouncer who wondered why so many people were going down this alleyway.
Breathing hard, Alex pulled a powerful, rugged torch from the inside of his peacoat, and began to scan the alleyway.
Atypical of Melbournian alleyways, Niagara Lane was paved with uneven cobblestones that had a distinctive inward slant towards the middle, that allowed for drainage.
The lane itself, was wide, and featured several unique entrances to apartments, shops, and obscure law firms and private clubs. Small alcoves dug into the walls of the alleyway, with little concrete lips where people liked to smoke, obscuring the curious windows that allowed voyeuristic snapshots into basements.
31 Niagara Lane was signalled by a circular frame that proclaimed in faded gold text: 31.
To his disappointment, Alex was too late. The elaborate door, an imposing wooden modern design, was ajar, and the amber light inside left on, because doubtless Francois and Eveline had already absconded the premises.
However, clues needed to be found, so Alex found himself switching off his torch and wandering down the old concrete steps into a veritable valuables stash.
A shelf lined the wall on his left, a stout beautiful mahogany study table in the centre, against the back wall, and on his right, littered on tables, the floor and rudimentary shelves, were artworks and stolen antiquities. The rustic brick interior was beautifully lit and shadowed by an art-deco lamp, that cast a cheerful amber light over the entire cache.
Alex whistled to himself. Take one, no one will know it’s missing. said a voice in Alex’s head. I wouldn’t know what to do with one. answered Alex, as he held up an Impressionist piece.
Alex kept his eye on the open door behind him, as he looked around, paranoid that Flat Cap and Liverpool would enter and mess everything up. When he finally came to the back desk, he noted the wall safe next to it. It was locked.
Remembering the deciphered code, Alex keyed the code 311299 ASHM into the keypad and watched as the door slowly sung open on its hinges.
He was surprised by the sight of his phone lying there, in place of the Cezanne it would have held.
Frowning, he used his thumb to unlock the phone and saw that he had received a text message from Eveline.
I swear to you, that what happened between us, wasn’t nothing. There is something there, I promise.
Francois and I are on our way to the Docklands, at the Central Pier. I didn’t tell Francois did, but when you used my laptop to access the files, I actually solved the cipher before we met and I already took the painting with me.
Francois is currently holding a fake one, and just before the meeting with the Jackal I will disappear.
If there is anything between you and me, if you feel the same way, please meet me at Astra Apartment 79.
Alex frowned at the implications of the message.
Don’t do it said his mind.
Alex turned off the lamp in the treasure trove, and closed the door behind him as he re-entered the alleyway. Marking it in his mind, Alex felt torn between desire and paranoia.
Gritting his teeth, and knowing he had to see it to the end, Alex cut through more alleyways and made his way onto Bourke St, where he caught the 86 tram to Waterfront City, Docklands.
The tram was packed, filled with Melbournians who were quiet, silent and wet. Almost everyone had earphones in, their heads and hands subtly moving to the beat of their music. Alex watched as nearly three-quarters of the entire tram population got off at Southern Cross Station, Victoria’s most advanced looking train station, a mass of steel, glass and plastic, modern design at its finest.
He watched as people ducked for cover, as a deluge of water came rushing in, the soft howl of the wind abruptly cut short by the tram’s closing doors.
Enjoy this. thought Alex. In less than 10 minutes you’ll be doing the same thing as everyone else out there.
The tram slowly rolled past the huge Melbourne Police Station, the uniforms inside completely unaware of the treasure hunt that was happening in their precinct, before accelerating across a bridge that offered a spectacular view of the ever-pretty, but forever quiet Docklands.
The Docklands was evidence that no matter how much money is injected into an area, it is the people that drive popularity, not the other way around.
Despite the local government’s best efforts to drive the people into the area, from renovating the area into a glistening architectural hub of modern designs, creating Harbour Town with its affordable shops, and the huge Melbourne Star Ferris Wheel, no one lived there.
Apartments were highly affordable for those who worked in the city, but its emptiness, lack of activity and the freezing chill that came in from the ocean caused the entire area to be disliked.
There was something strange and artificial about Docklands, as if it tried to capture everything Melbourne in an area, but failed to truly replicate its essence and unique style.
However it was pretty despite its artificial charm. The huge West Gate Bridge towered over the area, Melbourne’s very own Brooklyn Bridge, complete with imposing concrete towers that glittered red to warn incoming aircraft of its’ height.
The water was tranquil and still, playing host to dozens of expensive boats, and even a restaurant boat moored at the Central Pier.
It was an area that spoke to those who enjoyed solitude. The urban sprawl, the modern designs, the silent shops and the lack of people on the streets, created a strange ethereal atmosphere, that made you think you were alone in a pandemic that caused everyone on Earth to disappear.
Alex recalled all of this from his experience and time, as the tram slowly descended the bridge. He also wondered about how many bodies were going to be dropped into the docks before the end of the night.
Patting himself down, he knew that he had nothing to truly protect himself with. All he had was a pen, a notepad and his powerful flashlight.
A pitiful collection.
Sighing, he waited for the tram to stop, before walking out, the shimmering water reflecting moonlight across his face. Rain lashed away at him, and Alex popped the collar of his peacoat and began to make his way across, ignoring the Central Pier, where the deal between the Jackal and Francois was taking place.
He was walking directly towards a uniquely unattractive apartment complex, its’ white exterior marred by thousands of hole cut into its shell, to allow for windows and balconies. It was triangular in shape, but curved at all the sharp edges, creating a rounded effect to the entire structure.
The Astra Apartments was also in one of the quietest areas of Docklands, with barely any souls walking the streets after work hours. It was a place where empty shop windows featured nothing but promises to be filled and residents were eager to get home and never leave.
Alex ducked for cover under overhangs and the shadows of buildings whenever he could, trying to get less wet, as the rain intensified and his thoughts threatened to overwhelm him.
His silhouette presented a strange sight, under the bright lights and rain, a lonely figure on the streets of an empty city.
When Alex finally reached the Astra Apartments, he buzzed the apartment number, 79, the designation indicating the 7th floor, 9th room.
The electronic doors silently slid open, and Alex was greeted by ambient music, soft white lighting and modern aesthetics.
Calling for a lift, he could feel his heartbeat grow quicker and quicker, as he wondered whether he truly would see Eveline waiting for him.
Padding quietly across carpeted flooring, and an empty hallway, Alex knocked on door 79 and waited for the reveal.
A smile and a thick Liverpool accent greeted him.
“‘Hello luv. Come on in, we’re just about to fix tonight’s entertainment.” said Liverpool jovially.
You ever write a story and find that it’s hard to wrap things up?
That’s what I’m going through.
If the finale is horrible, I apologise in advance.
If the final is decent, I too apologise in advance, because I should have made it perfect.
The end of the story is paramount to the success of whether people think it’s good or not.
I spent most of this part setting the stage for the finale.