S C I – F I SHORT NO.1 : Proof Of Dark

Neutrino

On 25 April 2053, the most important day of my life, everything in the world seems to be conspiring against my success.

I am hunched over the massive console that dominates the middle of the cavern. Our facility – the LOBE – consists of two rooms – the one I am in now, where we search for Weakly Interacting Massive Particles, or WIMPS; and the Neutrino Chamber, a vast tank half-filled with water and lined with sensors.

Dark matter is what we search for.

My name is Dougal Carles, and I am a man on the brink of insanity. It is a strange thing, searching for something that may not exist. Does strange things to the mind. And now, after fifty years of this search, I think I am beginning to see patterns. This leads me to ask two questions. 1) Am I finally decoding the mystery? And 2) Am I finally going insane?

I have made a resolution not to speak of it to anyone. Not even Agathe.

#

The buzzer goes off. Someone up top.
“No, no, no, no, NO!”

“What is it?” Agathe asks. I put up a hand, silence her. “Not… not now, dear,” I say, trying to keep my train of thought. You know when you’re trying to remember and it’s on the tip of your… brain… I squint harder at the readouts, trying to block out all distractions. The sound of a door creaking open, damn it! Raffy is just leaving the neutrino chamber. But couldn’t he do it a bit quieter?

Through the intercom, a low-res voice: “Professor? It’s Sam. I’m up top. Can you buzz us in?”

It’s hopeless. I let out a sigh, lean forward and push the talk button.

“Hi Sam. Can’t buzz you in, sorry. It’s not working.”

“Um…”

“Don’t worry lad. I’m on my way up.” I pause. “Did you said buzz us in?”

“Yeah. I’ve got my girlfriend with me. Tabitha. I’ve was going to show her around.”

I stand, sighing again. “On my way,” and flick the talk button off.

“That coffee ready?” I ask Agathe.

She gives me one of her shy little smiles. “It is.” She walks over with a cup. “Here you go Dougal.”

As the lift doors open, Raffy appears by my side. “Professor, can I quickly show you something…”

“Not now, Raffy,” I snap, stepping quickly into the lift, sloshing coffee on my lab coat. “Damn it.” I reach down to brush it off, then look up to see Raffy’s hurt expression disappearing behind the lift doors. He looks like he’s about to cry

As the lift starts ascending, I instantly regret my shortness. “Shit,” I curse quietly. Poor old Raffy. Wonder what he wanted to talk to me about?

The lift picks up speed. I watched the rock walls accelerate past the perspex. Have to get back to those readouts. Hopefully Raffy or Agathe could give Sam and his girlfriend the guided tour.

After about 20 seconds we are up to a respectable speed. I take a sip of coffee, watch it swirl. I remember my readouts, again… Damn it, it was just starting to form into something, which simultaneously excites and annoys me. After all, what business did particles have making sense? But it’ll get the American excited, which means money. Money we desperately, desperately need.

A good 7-8 minutes later the lift slows and the doors slide apart. Without disembarking I lean out and punch the release button for the outer door, which pops open, letting in an ice cold, howling wind.

That’s right. Cragness, for Newton’s sake. It always comes as a surprise, even after 20 odd years. The LOBE is on an island off the northern coast of Scotland, reachable only by ferry from John O’Groats. Two kilometres above our little underground paradise is a miserable, rain-drenched hell.

Sam and his girlfriend appear in the doorway, soaked head to toe.

“Come on lad, let’s go. In you get.”

The door automatically closes and seals behind them, and we’re enveloped by silence once more. Sam and his girlfriend start taking off their raincoats. She looks flustered, a bit out of her element.

I switch the mug to my right hand, lean forward. “Hi. I’m Dougal.”

She smiles, shakes my hand. “Hello Professor. I’ve heard a lot.”

“What was your name?”

“Oh, sorry,” she laughs. “It’s Tabitha. Tabs for short.” She is exactly like Sam in girl form. Bit awkward, dark hair, tall, quite charming. Perhaps a bit more confident than Sam though. Bit older too, I think.

“Right. Tabs. And what do you do, Tabitha?”   

“I’m a nurse. Well, studying to be a nurse. Doing a placement at Caithness Hospital.”

“Poor you,” I say. She laughs. “Student loan?” Ooh. Probably a bit personal.

“Nope. All paid for by the NHS.”

I nod appreciatively. We are plummeting now, hewn rock faces flying up transparent walls. Tabitha looks a bit queasy. “And who pays for all this then?” she asks.

“Oh, the LOBE? An investor. American bloke.”

“Right.”

“Wants his name attached to a Nobel Prize before he croaks. Can’t blame him for that.”

“Sorry Professor,” Tabitha says. “At the risk of appearing ignorant, what does LOBE stand for?”

“I told you this, Tabs,” Sam whispers, poking her in the ribs.

“I can’t remember your geeky stuff, Sam. Just like you don’t share my enthusiasm for Famecast.”

“Oh come on, that’s hardly -”

“Large Obscure Bolometer Experiment,” I butt in. “That’s what it stands for.”

“Right,” Tabs says, face registering total incomprehension.

“He wanted to call it LUBE,” Sam chuckles. “I convinced him not to. Replace underground with obscure, I told him.”

“Sam’s big contribution,” I say, giving him a thwack on the back.

“You are 1 kilometre from the LOBE facility,” the lift interrupts.

“Professor,” Sam says. “You looked a bit pre-occupied when I called on the intercom before.”

“Hm. Yes.”

“Have you found something?” There is the slightest hint of maniacal enthusiasm in his voice. He leans in eagerly. “New scintillations?”

For a second I consider telling him my crackpot theory. “I -”

The lift intercom crackles into life. “Dougal?” Agathe’s voice.

“Agathe? What is it?”

“It’s Raffy… please, you must…. just come quick.”

#

We hit bottom and the doors slide open. I walk quickly over to Agathe who is seated at the console. She points up at the monitor where I see Raffy, inside the neutrino tank, in the little inflatable dinghy.

“Repairing sensors?” I ask.

“No,” Agathe says, sounding worried. “He’s just sitting there, staring into space. He won’t answer me.”

Behind me, Sam is hanging up his and Tabitha’s backpack and coats. Tabitha is gawping at the sheer size of the place. “Bloody hell,” I hear her mutter. “What’s that big metal thing?” She’s pointing at the detector, which is no doubt a shock to behold the first time. 30-odd feet of shining metal, tubes, sciencey-stuff.

“That’s the WIMP detector. The Professor uses it to look for dark matter particles.”

“WIMP detector? Really?” She lets out an incredulous laugh. “How come its not going off now that you’re here?”

I turn my attention back to the monitor. “When did he go in there?” I ask.

“Just after you left… He was muttering, and then he went back in the neutrino tank. He’s locked himself in there, Dougal,” Agathe says. The image of Raffy was small, lost amidst row after row of sensors. Hell, its like a cathedral in there. A huge cathedral of sensor-candles, half filled with water. Quite spooky.  

“He’s been spending more and more time in there lately,” Agathe says, just holding back the tears. “I didn’t…”

“Why didn’t you tell me, Agathe?” I demanded. She looks down. Always so quiet… Twenty years together, and it’s always me in the limelight, getting the accolades, giving the lectures. I suppose that would make anyone fade into the background.

“Well, just open the bloody door from here,” I say impatiently, leaning forward and smacking the release button. Nothing.

“He’s disabled it somehow.”

“How?”

“I don’t know!” she says frantically, looking near breaking point herself.

Christ, what have I done?

I look up at the screen again. Sitting limply in the dinghy, Raffy has gradually drifted back closer to the camera. What the bloody hell is he up to in there? I take a breath, clear my throat, and find the button to patch the mic through to the neutrino chamber. When was the last time I used that thing? Years.

“Raffy,” I say evenly. “It’s Dougal. What’s going on mate?” I leave his end open, switch the intercom to the Genelecs to pick up more sound.

Something indistinct comes back. A muffled sentence. I’m gonna… what?

“What was that, mate? I couldn’t hear you.”

Agathe puts a hand to her mouth. “I’m gonna bring it all down,” she says. I turn to look at her. Her eyes are wide with fear. “That’s what he said, I think.” Sam and Tabs are beside us now, looking concerned.

“Has he got his netphone in there with him?” Tabs asks.

“His phone? What’s that got to do with anything?”

Tabs is calm, despite my rudeness. “I don’t want to call him, Professor.” I have no idea what she’s talking about. I pull out my own phone, quickly find his number, thrust it at her. She pulls out a slim black unit, like a cellphone but narrower, and copies in the number from my cell screen. A few seconds later, a bunch of oscillating readouts and graphs pop up on her screen; Raffy’s vitals.

“He’s ingested something,” she says. “His heart rate is elevated, look at this.” She holds the screen up to me. 176 bpm.

“That’s high.”

“Very.”

I’m getting bloody worried now. I hit the talk button again. “Look Raffy, whatever it is mate, we can talk about it, right? No need for all this carry on, mate!” I laugh nervously.

“I’m gonna BRING IT ALL DOWN!” roars through the Genelecs, making the cones pop.

Holy shit. He’s lost it.

Then a sob. Raffy is facing away from the camera. “I can’t fucking take it any more.” His voice is strained, tortured. “Can’t take being down here. You don’t respect me, I’m not your equal, am I Professor? Just your facilitator. Your servant. After all those years at Cambridge together. And to think,” he laughs bittery, “I had the naivety to suppose you might want to see what I’d found! Haha! Ha!” He turns, looks up at the camera, teeth gritted. “I wanted to show you. But you chucked it back in my face. You don’t deserve to see it! 20 years, Dougal. 20 fucking years, you bastard!” HIs shout causes the Genelecs to pop again. I cool the volume a little.  

“Show me what Raffy?” I say, trying to keep my voice calm. But inside I’m scared shitless. This is my oldest friend. “Tell me, Rafael, tell me what you’ve found.”

No answer.

“He’s gone quiet again,” Agathe quavers.

I clear my throat. “Professor McCord,” I state firmly. “I demand that you share your findings with me!”

“I’m going to try and get in,” Sam says, jogging over to the door.

“I was going to tell you I found a pattern,” Raffy sobs through the speakers, voice breaking, mind breaking. “In the neutrino readings.”

“A pattern?” Agathe breathes, shaking her head. “He’s mad.” I glance at her.

“It’s jammed,” Sam calls from the other side of the room. “I can get it open a little bit, but he’s wedged an axe under the push bar. I can’t get to it.”

“A pattern?” I breathe, trying to collect my thoughts. “Raffy?”  My head starts spinning, conflicting emotions, possibilities. Excitement mixing with dread mixing with panic. “Raffy? Come back, damn you…”

“Goodbye Professor.” The sound of the intercom being flicked off at the other end. How did he do that? I look closer at the screen. He’s got some sort of unit in his hand. A remote. Must have made it himself.

“He’s losing it,” I say.

Tabitha shakes her head. She has taken on a brusque professional air. “He’s far past that point, Professor. We need to get in there now. He’s going to try and kill himself.”

“What?” Agathe cries. “How can you know that?”

Tabitha looks me straight in my face. “Get in there, now,” she says flatly.

We watch the monitor. We can see Raffy’s actions, but they are accompanied by utter silence. He pushes a button on his little box, and in the background the tainter gates start to rise, water gushing through the openings.

“Holy shit. Holy shit.” I stand up straight, eyes moving from the monitor, to the console, to Sam. Sam. Quickly, I run over to the door to the chamber.

“Out of the way, boy!” I shout, grabbing the door, pulling hard. It’s jammed. Heart pounding, I move to the edge of the door and look inside. The axe, wedged behind the push bar, has a metal handle.

“Who the fuck makes axes with metal handles?” I growl, and try again to wrench the door open. Shame mixes with a feverish desire to know. What patterns? Raffy is my friend, but now a part of me wants to save him so I can see what he’s talking about.

My brain is imploding. I’m a terrible shit of a person.

The door is not budging, it’s never going to budge, and now water is streaming out through the opening. Sam stands, panting, looking hopeless. I turn to look at him, and at Agathe and Tabs who are standing over by the console. The horrible truth invades my mind.

You have to close the door to the chamber.

Agathe has read my mind. Tears are flowing freely down her face. “You have to do it,” she says.

I stand there for what seems like forever, water gushing out of the door and around my ankles, stronger now. Slowly, with limbs of stone, I turn and place a hand on the door. Leaning in, I push, waiting for the click.

Nope. The door is shut all the way, but it’s not clicking shut.

I let it go and the water pushes it open, jamming it back hard against the axe handle. It’s flooding out now, about a foot high beyond the door.

“Sam, come here!” I shout. We both lean into the door and give it all we’ve got. But it’s not closing, and now the water is too strong.

This can’t be happening.

“Professor, we’ve got to go,” Sam says, putting a hand on my shoulder.

No.

Numbly, I walk over to the console. Spread out over the far side are my readouts. Agathe is feverishly downloading everything onto an external HD.

“How long will that take?” I ask, feeling suddenly strangely calm all of a sudden. Twenty years of our lives, gathered into a little silver box.

“Done,” she says, picking it up, and sliding it into her pocket. Grabbing the paper readouts, stuffing them in my pockets, I look around. The place is bare apart from the instruments, we never kept much down here, apart from coffee. Up on the monitor, water has half covered the view, and Raffy is nowhere to be seen. Light from a thousand sensors has turned the water a bright golden colour.

“Professor, let’s go!” Sam shouts, shaking me out of my reverie.

The lift is a foot deep in water. We board. “One passenger must leave the lift,” it announces. the voice malforming digitally.

“Just go, you bastard!” I shout, punching the emergency door close button.

“One passenger must le-eave the lift.”

I turn around, wide eyed, gazing at the others. “I’ll do it,” I mutter, and just then the doors start closing.

“One paa-a-aasss-ee-eeenger,” the voice breaking up. Now the doors are closed, and we start the ascent, ankle deep in water. We’re all standing there, panting, shell-shocked. Then I see the little black unit in Tabs’s hand. Its still showing Raffy’s vitals, but the bpm now reads 0.

Breathing heavily, I pull the readouts from my pocket and start to fold them carefully. The tears come without warning, bursting out of me in convulsive sobs. I collapse to my knees in the water, and Agathe comes to my side, kneels down, embraces me, crying. Sam comes over and gently takes the readouts from my hand. “I’ll look after those, Professor,” he says quietly.

We’re moving up slowly, steadily. I breathe, composing myself.

Something hits me.

“Tabitha?”

“Yes?” she says, shocked that someone is speaking to her. Her eyes are wide, shot with red.

“That little… unit. What else can you get from Raffy’s netphone with that thing?” Tabs looks blankly at me. “Everything,” she says, wiping her tears. “I can get everything.”

BBC World Service, May 1st, 2053:

“Two Scottish Scientists Crack The Dark Matter Mystery: The international scientific community is this week praising the achievements of Professors Dougal Carles and Rafael McCord, who have made a breakthrough in the study of dark matter particles. Carles and McCord have discovered how the elusive particles interact and shape our universe, bringing a fifty-year search to a close. The scientific community have said the pair have “cracked the code of physics,” and it has been intimated that a Nobel Prize is imminent. Unfortunately, for Professor McCord, the Nobel Prize will be posthumous. Condolences from scientists, academics and dignitaries around the globe are flooding in following the laboratory accident which resulted in Professor McCord’s death not long after their breakthrough. Professor Carles could not be reached for comment…”

Greetings visitors and fellow creators of stuff

Welcome to my blog.

It’s called “mustcreateeveryday”, because that’s what I do. It’s a subtle examination of motive: why do you do what you do? For fame, recognition, money?

Or because you have to?

I write music and words. The music comes in all shapes and forms, the words usually in the form of short stories or a novel. But create every day I must, and do, when I can find the time and motivation.

So please, feel free to share your thoughts, stories, realizations on your creative process… I want to hear them, and I especially want to hear your thoughts about what it means to “succeed” in an era where we are flooded with so much creative content.

Anyways, it’s 9 am Friday morning, and this is my first post. What, you expected genius?? That’ll come eventually.

Stay tuned.

Paulbanksy

CHAPTER ONE – A new chapter every Friday. The freshest fantasy fiction you MUST read…

NIGHTSTONE

Paul Bimler

1

In darkness, he waited.
He? Words lost both use and meaning after so many ages of man. Time meant nothing. Existence meant nothing. What there was, what he could count, was being¸ thought, and darkness. Everywhere, darkness.
Still, the word he was as good a word as any to refer to himself. For millennia he had explored this dark labyrinth with the tentacles of his mind, felt his way around every inch, every speck of these impenetrable walls. To no avail. It was sealed, impenetrable.
Sometimes he fell to wondering what the world was like now, outside. How man lived. If there was still a world, or man, at all. Perhaps there was only a void, and himself drifting around in the empty blackness within his prison, trapped for eternity.
He wondered. And he waited. Waited for the end… or perhaps, a new beginning?
In darkness, he waited.



Garathok hurried along the footway, head down, trying to blend into the night. He had always avoided this part of Vishadesh, the Winehouse Quarter as the locals called it. Those same locals – dirty, repugnant creatures that they were – would gut you in a blink for any manush jangling in your pockets. The stout, short-legged visha was eager to get business done and be gone.
He felt eyes on him. Sizing him up.
I should not have come here alone. Curse you Mantok!
And the smell – Muutha, the smell. Equal parts shit and piss, with a couple of barrels of wine and a rotting corpse thrown in for good measure.
He saw the sign, finally – Traveller’s Rest, it was called, rather optimistically. A brute stood guard at the door. Anxious to get off the street, Garathok approached the door, flashed a quick smile and made to enter.
A thick arm was thrust in front of him, barring his way.
“Nope,” the brute grunted, shaking his head.
“You won’t get past him,” chirped a small voice. The speaker was a rakish-looking boy, leaning against a nearby wall.
Garathok shook his head in disbelief. These people, these commoners. “The man I search for goes by the name Kartakos.,” he said wearily, rubbing his eyebrows, eyes closed. “Mantok Assei,” he pronounced slowly, deliberately, “sent me on this errand. You may have heard that name?”
“All right, all right,” the boy said, straightening up a bit, tapping the doorman on the arm. Muttered something in Tilan. The doorman backed off, clearning the way.
Smiling, Garathok moved cautiously inside the door and began descending the stair. The visha squeezed past various motley characters, some exchanging money or things unseen, a whore or two plying her trade. A roar erupted suddenly from below, the sound of a mob reacting as one. He took a stopped for a moment and collected himself. There was a crowd at the bottom of this stair. Another loud cheer erupted.
At the foot of the stair was a large room, cavernous, thick with bodies and dimly lit. The visha struggled to squeeze through the drunken throng. Smells of smoke, liquor, and all sorts of body odors made the air unbreathable. The mob jostled with each other, joked, fought and bargained, a sea of transactions.
Gradually he neared the centre and glimpsed a raised platform through the crowd. Two warriors paced, skin shining with sweat and blood. A weed of a man, wearing a ridiculous pointed blue hat, like that of a pantomime wizard, spread his arms, palms down, and addressed the crowd in a hollow rasp of a voice.
“My good brothers, I present to you, tonight’s champions of the Pit!” A roar erupted from the crowd. The hunchback called for silence once more. Garathok pushed his way toward the stage, craning his neck to see the action.
“Trained in the mountain highlands of Ravata, the Brothers of Ai-desh!” Another roar, slightly less enthusiastic. Northerners. Garathok squinted up at the two fighters who were being wiped down by a couple of dirty assistants. Maybe Kartakos is one of them, he thought. Thinking was hard in here, though; the heat was unbearable, the air thick and rancid.
The hunchback motioned for silence once more. “Now, friends, I am afraid that our next fighter has changed his mind about entering the Pit tonight. He has decided he cannot face either one of these brothers. What do you think of that, good people?” He put his hand to his ear, the better to hear the shouts of “Coward!” and, “Gutless wretch!” that swelled up from the insatiable mob. He paused for effect, took a breath, then yelled, “He will fight both of them!” The crowd roared its bloodthirsty approval.
The hunchback waited for the crowd to settle before going on. “This man is the most vicious fighter ever to enter the Pit,” he enthused, turning to face the opposite wall. “A disgraced warrior of Khatradesh, he once captained the roving parties that patrolled the islands, raping and burning and putting all to the sword, and finally dismissed from his company, and the Khatra-mangal, for unspeakable acts. Where is he? Come forth, Kartakos!”
Garathok could not see a thing. Hutha.
A sweaty drunk shouted into his ear, “Isn’t this amazing, brother? Have you ever seen such a show?” Garathok grimaced, giving the man a curt nod.
“Care to make a bet?” the drunk slurred, waving a handful of tickets in his face.
“No thankyou.”
The master of ceremonies was looking this way and that, growing more anxious as the hubbub grew. “He is an exemplary warrior with no equal…. I… We can’t seem to find him!”
“Disgraceful!” came the yell.
“Come on, Gajka! Give us a show!”
Suddenly Garathok felt something sharp pressing into his back. A hoarse command whispered in his ear.
“Walk.”
A hand squeezed Garathok’s shoulder, steering him towards a dark exit at the side of the room.
They were halfway down the side passage before his abductor relaxed his grip, then an iron forearm was at his chest, slamming him back into the wall. The blade moved to his throat. It was too dark to see in the narrow passage. His captor was hooded, shrouded in blackness.
“Why are you here, visha? Why do you seek me?”
Garathok swallowed, trying to not to show his fear. “We want to employ you, ulkhatra,” he said, voice breaking. “We… we have a job for you.”
“Job? Doing what?”
“We know you were… are a great khatra. You would make a journey. A long journey, but the salary will be… plentiful.” Plentiful? “Generous.”
Garathok held his breath. There was no answer. He continued. “And you wouldn’t have to do this anymore,” he waved a hand back towards the crowd. “You would have more manush than you can dream of. Gold.”
The hooded warrior was silent, but sweat and heat emanated from him, through his robe, and he breathed heavily, like one possessed. The blade pressed in, just short of biting into Garathok’s soft, moist neck.
He has fought already tonight, his blood is up… Raksha, please… don‘t let me die.
“Why don’t I just cut your throat and take your gold?”
Garathok looked up, and glimpsed the face within for the first time. It was noble face, but disturbed, haunted, the mouth a tight line. “You could take my gold,” the visha said, struggling to keep his voice even. The blade bit in a touch more, it seemed. “But it would be but a pittance compared to what awaits, should you come under our employ. It’s up to you. But… I wouldn’t wait too long.” The knife again, pressing. “My Assei is not accustomed to waiting.” These last words took all his meagre courage to say, but he could not show weakness. Not now. He represented the Guild.
The ulkhatra was silent, considering. “Hmm. Your Assei.” The knife relaxed a little, the word forcing him to consider something new, it seemed.
Muscle can be bought.
“Why me?”
“Because of your reputation. You’re… well known…” Please let this be over.
Suddenly it was. The knife was gone from his throat. He looked and saw the ulkhatra’s back, moving away into the blackness of the corridor.
“I will find you soon,” he uttered as he disappeared from sight.
“Wait, ulkhatra… I-”
Garathok coughed, then reached up to massage his throat, breathing heavily.
The visha turned, looking back into the room he had just come from. Time to leave, he said suddenly to himself. Already he was thinking of home, a little glass of wine, a book and bed. Then he remembered.
Mantok.
The Assei had wanted him to report back as soon as he had contacted Kartakos, for better or worse. Garathok sighed bitterly. The portly little visha pushed his way back into the throng, grimacing at the smell of sweat, alcohol, bodies.
“We found him, brothers and sisters, we found him!” the hunchback yelled. Garathok turned in surprise, but could see nothing as a huge roar went up.
Muutha. Fighting his way back to where he was before, near the ring, would be near impossible now – the crowd was crushingly close, raucous and impatient for blood. And Garathok wanted out of there. A slap came from behind him as he shouldered his way to the door, followed by a roar of approval, then another slap, and finally a sickening thud, collision of body with body. He couldn’t see. He didn’t want to see.
Through the seething mass he spied a familiar face; the boy from the front entrance watched him from a little raised stool at the back of the room, smiling.
Little wretch. It was you who gave me up.
It all made sense now – he had been out of his depth the second he stepped through the door. He thought of going over there to thrash the little imp, but he was out of breath already. Garathok pushed his way up the stairs, back past the loiterers and whores, and out onto the street. The Quarter teemed with people now; customers of the Gods of flesh, fortune, forgetfulness. Desperate to leave, the visha flagged down the first scrappy little street carriage to pass.
As he climbed in he flashed his Guild Amulet once more, and croaked, “Port,” to the driver. The little carriage rattled off, and Garathok slumped back into the padded seat, mopping his brow and thanking Muutha that he still had all his parts intact.



A welcome silence had descended over the Port District. This was his side of town, and it was good to be home in these dark, deserted streets. How could he have let himself be ambushed like that? Really, it had been foolish to go to the Quarter on his own. Mantok should have sent an escort with him. But that was his lot it seemed.
Get Garathok to do it. All the dirty work. No harm, Mantok no doubt had a nice fat pouch of gold manush to reward for his troubles. You could say many things about the man, but he always rewarded those who did his handiwork. His pockets were deep, and money was as nothing to the Assei it seemed.
Garathok leant forward to the little window, which was open to the driver‘s seat.
“To the end of this street, and turn left.”
“No trouble, sir.”
The carriage rounded the corner into Wharf Street. It had been a long night. Time to report to the Guild, and then home for a well-earned rest. Maybe a goblet or two to wind down.
“Turn right here.”
“No trouble, sir,” the old crone repeated.
The carriage turned down the side of a building, a warehouse.
“Stop here.”
“As you please, sir.”
From his pouch Garathok took two gold manush. He paused a moment, dropped one back in, then pushed the rickety door open and stepped into the alleyway. Garathok tapped the driver on his shoulder and held out his hand. The driver received the coin with head bowed. When he saw the coin, his eyes widened. “Gold,” he whispered to himself. “Thank you, good brother, Muutha bless you!”
“For your troubles.”
“Thank you, you are too, too kind sir!”
Garathok nodded curtly. “All right, all right. Take your cart out the end of this alley, circle back round to Wharf Street. There’s another one of those for you if you wait to take me home.”
“Certainly, sir. Nothing better to do,” he laughed, surprised at his own good fortune. “Muutha bless you.”
Garathok waited until the cart had rattled off before he knocked on the door. A long pause, and then one more. It creaked open. No trouble gaining entry here. This was home. Well, a second home anyway.
“Thankyou, Tuchak,” he said as he walked inside. Garathok paced as quickly as his little joints would allow, past stacked rolls of fabric, to a door at the far end of the warehouse. He opened it and entered the book-keeping room, immediately catching Reechak’s familiar whine coming from the room at the far end.
“… in place as we speak, if he is following the schedule we have laid out, Assei. The deed will be done within the week, I have no doubt.”
“And if something should hinder him? If he should be caught?”
Garathok entered the back room, where Mantok, Ajjak, and Reetchak were sitting at a table, along with a young man and another visha taking notes into a ledger. The last two he did not recognize. There were always new faces around these days. Mantok nodded at his confidante. The Assei’s content, olive-skinned face sat at the head of the table, swarthy complexion offset by a crop of unkempt black hair. He was draped in a plush ochre robe.
“If that should happen, then there are others who can accomplish the task, Assei,” Reechak continued. “You know me, never one to put all my parches on one horse.”
“What of our mines, Ajjak?” Mantok asked. “How goes Barbos?”
“Barbos goes as it always has, Assei. Steady revenue.”
Ajjak grimaced. “One has shown a drop in revenue.”
“Which?”
“Dukapal,” Ajjak answered reluctantly.
“Why?”
Ajjak returned a blank stare for a second, then made a face. “Perhaps we cannot rely on these mines to return manush to us forever. Perhaps the mountains have yielded all their wealth to us?”
“Nonsense,” Mantok waved the notion away. Ajjak didn’t seem too put out. “We must investigate this. Choose someone to travel to the mine to act as overseer. Give him whatever he needs. I want accounts made, in a ledger. I want him to assess the situation from top to bottom, and if we cannot extract money from it, then we will simply close it down, and find another hole. There are enough holes in this realm that I can make money from, why should I waste my manush on a stope? We cannot afford a drop in revenue right now. All our assets must be returning. And the tyrant Manu will not stop exacting his levies, you can be certain of that.”
Ajjak made another face, shaking his head as he motioned to the visha at the end of the table taking notes.
“What about Tomek, Assei?” Reetchak put asked “He’s very good with ledgers, good numbers man.”
“He is, isn’t he? Yes, I will talk to him.” Mantok nodded silently, considering, tapping his fingers together. Then his eyes shifted to Garathok, still standing near the door. Mantok sat back, assessing the little visha.
“So, my friend. Were you successful?”
Garathok took a couple of steps into the room, but did not sit down. “Yes, Assei,” he answered. “I found the ulkhatra.
“And?”
“He will work for us, I am sure of it.” Stretching the truth, possibly. He had to show something, though.
“What assurance do you have?”
Garathok took a moment to answer. “His word.”
“The word of an ulkhatra is meaningless, Garathok.” Mantok shook his head, and for a moment, Garathok thought he was lost. Then he reminded himself, this was Mantok’s way.
“You should have known that,” Mantok continued. “He is disgraced, faithless, loyal to no-one. Did you offer him gold?”
“I did, Assei. It did not seem to sway him at all…” Garathok chose his words carefully. “He is a brute, Assei, a killer. I don’t think he can be bought. But I piqued him, I am sure of it.”
A new voice spoke from the doorway behind Garathok, making him jump.
“Piqued, you say.”
No one had seen or heard the ulkhatra. Garathok felt his face turn red, a flush of embarassment and relief, not pleasant. In the light, the warrior’s features were more visible; a chiselled face which had been broken more than once, shoulder-length dark hair, and the build of a man who had done nothing with his life but fight.
Mantok laughed, clapping softly. “Aha! Oh, well done, Garathok. This is our man, doubtless. Doubtless.”