Australasia: Origin to Present

So when the world you know is going mad and monsters have become real, and worse still, the things your science have created are no longer your protectors but your hated enemies, where do you run to? Where is there to hide? Where lies safety?

To most people in the developed nations around the world, there were no easy answers. People who were part of establishments or elite ranks had secret bunkers they could hide in. Others who had the means could flee. Some could stand strong, use strength of arms or technology, or something else, to fend off the threats. For many, however, it was a case of get by. Try and survive. Adapt if you can. Suffer, if you can’t.

For those who could escape, it then became a case of where to go. Fleeing a short distance could be the only option, but if you really wanted to be safe, you wanted to get as far away as you could. The other side of the world would be a good bet. True, nowhere was safe, but of course, when you’re just normal people in your own little corner of the planet, you hope beyond hope that there will be safety somewhere. You want to go as far as you can because you tell yourself this will work.

So for those in Great Britain, a place where magic became readily available and in strong quantities, which then drew monsters to it, there were a few options. Some could just flee to Europe and see how that went. Others would use the magic power they now had to defend their home. Others fled. To some that meant places like Europe, Africa, even the United States, while people from there were fleeing in the other direction. Like I said, for many it was about getting away rather than worrying about where you ended up.

Some had time and resources to think and plan. Britain had strong links with Australia and this large island with a low population had plenty of potential as a refuge. Monsters were there, yes, but no machines or mutants. People who wanted to leave the magical island saw this far off destination as the perfect retreat. It did mean organising for a long trip, but it was considered worth the wait. It should also be noted that the vast majority of these people who gathered and prepared were white. Other ethnic groups had other targets, usually closer ones.

A significant number of people left Great Britain, travelled across the sea and arrived at Australia’s shores. The details of this journey aren’t well known, mostly recanted by the descendants in glorified, simple tales, as often becomes the way. None of that matters here. What concerns us is that British people arrived and the Australian government took them in. It was seen as a humanitarian act, yet it was a practical response as well. Australia needed numbers to defend itself. While they weren’t suffering as badly as most places in the world, they had endured losses. Fortunately for them, more people were soon to arrive.

Once the British had settled in, Americans showed up. They had seen this trip. A number of British ships had stopped at ports of the United States coastlines, so word had gotten out. White people heading for a land where they could be safe and secure. It appealed to many. Hell, even some non-white people wanted to go. The Americans were more organised. Military personnel were involved. Perhaps this was so as to make sure no wasn’t the answer given when they arrived. Perhaps not. Either way, when the Americans came to Australia, they had more weapons, more resources, and they could even offer to mine the sea so as to close the place off.

Before that could be achieved, the Japanese appeared. Now in their case, they were fleeing both magic and science, and had been pushing southward through Asia for some time. It isn’t entirely clear whether they knew about the British journey or not, but it is very likely some form of communication occurred. The Japanese had been driven from their home, they went to various places to make new ones, and a lot of them came to Australia to ask to join this new forming nation. There was some hesitation this time, and let’s not pretend race didn’t play a part, but there was also a fear of the magic and science the Japanese still wielded. This was especially troubling to the previous immigrants. The British had fled magic and many were fearful of it, although some were magic-users and it had defended them on the way here. The Americans were fearful of science for the same reasons and many had travelled here looking to find a new life without it, and the reports of magic devastating the world had put them against that as well. Let’s be honest, there was definitely a vibe of this mass migration that was reminiscent of the Puritan movement centuries before. People had left a home they were persecuted in to find a new land they could not only call home, but make it a home of their liking. Science and magic were best left outside of Australia, according to many voices.

Yet for all that, there was still the practical reasoning of survival, and this was still Australia back then. The government had the only say and they chose to let the Japanese in, as long as their magic and technology were put to the benefit of all. They had come to the northern shores so that was they would be stay, becoming a line of defence, should it be needed. As this was taking place, the British and Americans pushed for their own regions. Many of their people just took Australian citizenship and settled in, but most wanted to remain who they were, and to have a say in the future running of this transformed island.

The new nation was called Australasia, as in the name for the continent that has been used in the past. This was a compromise so that the natives felt it was pretty much their land, yet acknowledged things were different now. The British were given the west coast, the Americans the southern, with the city of Perth now a shared capital for them both. Australia kept the most important parts, remaining in most of the cities, and so while there was a good amount of shuffling around, it wasn’t too much. Considering how far most of this new population had travelled to be here, it was an easy task. During that time, they were able to set up defences – mining the sea, placing land-to-air weaponry, and culling the monster population so no threats remained to the cities. The inner region became the wild lands of Australasia, where people went to get away from authority, society, religion, etc. Monsters lurked out here, but they were badly outnumbered.

While the Japanese were allowed to continue their magic and science, it was strictly under the conditions of this happening in New Japan, and only there. As time went on, the other groups became more and more intolerant of those forces that had brought down civilisation. The British continued to practice magic; in a way they had little choice as the power lingered in their bloodlines so strongly, as with the Japanese. Yet it was best to keep it out of sight as much as possible. Rules varied from town to town. In some, magic was a sin and pretty much a crime. In others, it had a use if used only when needed. Americans rarely tolerated it. Australians were more open, but needed to keep a united front for political reasons, so magic was not exactly wrong, but nor was it right, across the land. This hypocrisy extended to science. Most new settlements became low tech within the following century, and yet power plants were built by the Japanese for certain cities, as part of their commitment to the island. Science was frowned upon in most of Australasia, and yet all major cities used electricity, and the Japanese continued to develop things that the other nations showed interest in. Condemn science and magic openly, make use of them quietly; this was the new way.

With the creation of each nation, a new government was formed and the British, the Japanese and the Americans were able to govern themselves, at least to a degree. Even now, it is understood that the Australians call the shots in the end. Their population remains the largest, they run the most cities, and, basically, they were there first. Each nation can have some laws for themselves and of course keep their culture, for the most part, yet there remains a need for unity. It is about keeping a balance. Each group wants a semblance of independence while knowing that if any force came to their island, they would all need the others to defend it. It works well for politicians and agitators to claim they will ensure the voices of their people will be heard, but compromise and understanding are how things get done.

A useful way to get an insight into the relationships between the groups is to look at their intelligence agencies. Each people have their own spies and counter spying networks. There isn’t a great spy war going on, far from it, but each group wants to keep an eye on their neighbours while not giving too much away. In fact, the spying has reached an almost communal level. Basically, if no one knows anything about you, you must be up to no good, so each nation is aware of the others spying on it, and lets it happen. In return, the others do the same. Spies may even meet, have a chat, exchange information. This isn’t an open conflict where agents shoot it out in the streets. This is quiet, careful, and mostly open. Mostly. Everyone wants that one up. Each group has its own ways. For instance, the British tend to be about information gathering and then using this to barter with or blackmail. They lean toward not causing trouble, not making any ripples, just deftly listening in and then calmly using it. Smile, nod, be polite, and get what you want, is their way.

Religion remains important and is mostly the Christian church, as would be expected. For the most part they work a fine line of condemnation of magic and its use, and some even participate in persecuting the users. Obviously this doesn’t reach into New Japan. When it comes to policing, each nation have their own police, but there are Rangers who roam, especially into the less settled central region of the island. A Ranger could be from any group, but because of the nature of the quartet’s relationship, rarely will one be Japanese. The white races intermingle a lot more, sharing culture and history, as well as language, while the Japanese focus on themselves, refining their magic and science, and dealing with their own problems. More on that in another post.

For the most part, Australasia is a pretty good place to be. For a human. They have been cut off from the world and its problems for a long time, the monsters there are a threat but only if you go wandering into the central wilderness. There are bandits out there too, and criminals of other types around the cities, towns and villages. But crime isn’t a huge concern, nor is there any potential for war. Soldiers reside in outposts along the coast, with a headquarters in Tasmania, and the military is for Australasia, not each nation. Even though those soldiers could well side with their own people if conflict occurred, they pledge their loyalty to the island as a whole.

The people who live here may have left the incredible threats that once drove them from their homes far behind, but they haven’t forgotten them. There are difficulties in being four nationalities living together, of course, yet nothing approaching a desire to break this settled unity up. Their ancestors went through a lot so that the people living now can have a safe haven to reside in. Even if this isn’t said openly, that past migration still has an affect on the mindset of the Australasian people to this day. Their view of the world is fundamentally different from anyone else’s. Their home may not be perfect, but it is a good place, unlike those they fled from, and they wish to keep it that way. All of them. Any nationalism, racism and other divisive issues take second place to this.

Oh, a few minor details to add before I finish. Australasia has a lot of railways running to help connect the growing settlements, and this is an acceptable level of technology even for the religious zealots. Also, there is only one portal in the entire country, deep into the centre of its territory. Currently it is guarded by creatures that don’t want anyone new coming through, but the humans have long ago lost awareness of it. They consider themselves sealed off. Another point is that, as previously mentioned, the three white races speak English, while the Japanese speak English fluently as well as their own language. Gives them an advantage. A final note is to say that while New Japan has the city of Tokyo Two – made by the Japanese from scratch – as their capital, and Britannia and America shares Perth as their joint capital, the Australian, and so Australasian capital, remains Canberra.

How to Talk Around the World

So when the world is a broken and battered place, when civilisations have crumbled and many beings of all kinds live in their own communities, watching out for threats, there are obvious problems in communication. You can’t pick up a phone and call the next group over to see if they want to talk, trade or just fight it out. You can’t pick up a newspaper and read about the happenings on another continent. You also can’t surf the web, although you can paddle about in what’s left of it. More on that later.

The point is, for people to get to know those far from them, it takes a lot of work. Leaders around the world, at least those in strong enough standing to know there is a lot going on in the world, want to keep an eye, and also an ear, on current events. Even if they preach seclusion, they themselves need to know. Because there are a good number of individuals like this, various methods of communication have been developed. Some even reach around the world. But all have their risks and often different means are used by different people. Nothing is easy.

Any of the more technological groups that want to stay in touch have a few means of this. Cyborgs sects, machine nations, underground bases of humans – these usually possess equipment that can transmit messages over far distances. Not around the world though, not any more. Once the world was surrounded by satellites that, among other tasks, bounced messages between each other, on their way to and from places of the Earth’s surface. Many of those were destroyed as nations used cyber attacks and orbital devices to hinder each other in any way possible. Communications were cut. Spy satellites were shot down. But as well as this, control centres below were destroyed or abandoned, and so the satellites they were in control of were left to drift in the grasp of gravity. Due to human action, human dereliction and just the simple passing of time, the fact is that while there are a good number of satellites still circling the world, not many are functioning properly, and gaining access to them is very difficult.

As I said, the internet has gone, yet there remains some vestiges of it left. What was once a information highway is now more a series of streets and alleys that connect only if you know the right turnings. In essence, cyborg leaders and others who can access these satellites – and few can access all of them – know that at certain times certain satellites connect and they can talk to, well, certain people. Sometimes they can talk and just hope another is listening, other times there can be direct conversations. It all depends on equipment available, timing and power sources. Even then, there is no point where access grants world-wide coverage. You wait, talk within a certain region, then wait again or try passing messages around to get to the right person. This is also very difficult as most who can do this don’t let their guard down often. Some, not at all.

So the information network, as leaders such as Prime, Jamshid and the Grand Master call it, can be used by them to argue with each other or try to discuss problems. Eden, that bastion of humanity, can access it but won’t for fear of what the outer world may bring. Individuals like Miss Mech can work their way in if she finds the right place to link with satellites, which she is seeking as she wants to gather as much of the stored information within them as possible. The network has uses, and knowledge, and so both are sought after by those with power.

That is by far the most technological method. Cyborg sects have relays and bases so they can reach out across continents and talk to each other, but only within their sect. Some groups, such as the mutant military in the Middle East, have radio towers. In the Northern Federation, they have an actual media, made up of newspapers and radio stations. But otherwise, if you want to talk to others world-wide, you need magical or physical means.

Portals exist around the world and messages can be transmitted via them. This has been proven. It helps if you are a magic-user as then you can command the portal to latch onto the place you want – if it links there naturally – and then send a message through. Magic can be used that way, and in other ways besides using portals. Spells can be voice commands that open to the receiver. With a healthy power source and strong will, communication can be established and maintained over distance, if those at both ends are able. A group of magic-users who are attuned can spend time establishing a harmonious feeling among themselves so that they can later connect to each other no matter the range, although this is very difficult to accomplish. Magical items can be fashioned for this purpose as well.

So if there is such as thing as the information network on a scientific level, there is also a kind of magical version, where portals, spells, magic-users and magical items all come into play. Messages can be passed around, sources of transmissions can be detected, so that someone, such as the Demon King at Trade Island, could find a way to talk to other devil-beasts. Obviously this would be a fairly public form of communication. Instead of satellites, there would be living beings involved in spreading the word, and they can rarely be trusted. Which brings us to the next segment.

When it comes to a magical network, the most essential part of it has to be pixies. These tiny creatures are experts in camouflage and subtlety, and they are strong in magic if not in physique. Therefore they make outstanding messengers. Obviously, they could be told something and sent out to relay it verbally, and yet pixies are known for mischief and deception as much as anything, so unless someone has a pixie to send that is utterly trusted, the message will be magical, for the intended person’s ears only. For instance, the spell would be passed on from one pixie to the next, flying under the watches of so many, passing undetected by both science and magic, until the service was complete. Pixies have been around the world a great deal in their attempts to avoid being captured and utilised by other beings, so they know how to get around, and they want to be useful to powerful people. The same is true for magi. As I have mentioned before, magi and pixies have a close bond, a shard lifestyle. Both are hunted for their gifts, both known for cunning and trickery in order to survive, and so both work well together in organising and conveying messages around the globe. It leaves a bad taste in the mouths of many, like the Demon King or Gemini, that magi are out there, hiding, and yet know well a lot of the chatter going around. Magi make it their business to know, in case their ability to hide is ever proven inadequate. To some, magi are just gathering information, biding their time before they act against everyone else. Often that is mere prejudice or paranoia, and yet it isn’t unreasonable to suspect these two races of being up to something. However, without proof, both pixies and magi are too good at running the communications for anyone to want to remove them.

Still, there are further options. Sometimes you just want someone to physically take your message and bring it to your target. Takes longer, might seem somewhat mundane, yet there are two groups this can be entrusted too. The better is the Sect of Shadow and Steel. The members of this organisation of assassins can use shadows to travel around the world, so not only can they get from place to place a lot quicker and easier than most, they are far from vulnerable to ambushes. Usually the Sect are killers, lethal fighters with special blades, but they also sideline as spies and messengers, taking these duties as seriously as they do when dealing with death. The Sect hold honour high, among themselves and when concerning the outer world, so if you hire them to do something, they do it with their utmost ability. Messages that are vital are handed to the Sect. Even if an organisation has their own means to talk to each other, the Sect will sometimes be trusted the most. Of course, just as with the pixies and magi, it leaves a number of people resenting their position in the world’s set-up and wishing to usurp them.

The other group who can take messages around the world by physical means are the aquatics. These sea-living mutants roam all over and intermingle often. Now, they don’t have the intense honour code or deadly skills of the Sect, nor can swimming through seas be anywhere near as swift as jumping in and out of shadows. But the aquatics are trustworthy to those who have earned it and they feel very safe in their own environment, away from cyborgs and machines and most monsters and humans. The aquatics know the currents, and they can pass messages around so as to keep the line of communication as rapid as can be. This race has an uneasy relationship with the races who live on land. The aquatics see the seas as theirs, they resist strenuously serious attempts to enter it, and yet they know that trading with the others benefits them. They want to keep in touch, they want to lend a hand, they want to have an idea of who is talking to who. As the Sect and others know, being part of communications between other organisations means you have an idea of what is really going on, and who is doing it. You can’t pry too much, you can’t let anyone down or betray them, and others will want the information you have. But being a small part of the growing and developing networks is a lot better than being left out.

Those are the major forms of communication. None are fullproof. Everything is a risk when you try for something important. As well as these, there are spies and agents for various groups. Of course, if these are any good at their jobs then most will have no idea of who they are and what they are doing. If not, they won’t be around long enough to take note of. Speaking of such, there is a fabled cyborg sect claimed to be specialists in infiltration. According to the rumour, they are a sect who favour the human over the machine, much like the Order of Organic Triumph do. Therefore they can pass off as humans or even mutants, although, while the Organic Triumph can do so if they avoid close inspection, this sect is said to be able to fool all manner of tests and devices. Being cyborgs, they supposedly can go among the other sects as well, changing their forms to fit in. This is all hearsay, of course. The name and origin of this sect is unknown, and while that should indicate they are nothing more than a rumour, the fact they are so secret would support just how adept they are at infiltration.

As for any other type of messengers, there are two more worth noting. One are the messengers who operate around Europe, mostly between the market towns of the Mediterranean coastline. Lacking technological means to talk to each other, and to get word to mercenaries or pirate hunters on short notice, the towns have developed a messenger role. In essence, if you are quick, you can become one, and the more time spent proving yourself, the more important messages you get, along with better pay. The main feature of these beings is that they must wear red. This grants them some protection, but mostly you need to fend for yourself and get the job done.

Returning to cyborgs, we must mention the Order of the Hybrid Complex. This is one of the most powerful sects and led by the ancient Prime. He resides in a hidden base – secret to both enemies and most of his own followers. The only cyborgs he has any real contact with are his Ravens. These beings are more machine than human, unlike the sect itself, and contain his most loyal minions. They are built to be light, fast and very dangerous. Gabriel and Hermes are the two top ranking Ravens, said to be among his first disciples, and when Prime wishes messages to be so secret he won’t even trust his sect’s own communications, let alone the information network, he tasks them to get his order sent. If any of his commanders waging war see a Raven, they know it is more important than anything else they have been commanded to do, and just as urgent. The Ravens are revered in the sect, and yet also somewhat feared and suspected. After all, when your leader trusts an inner group more than those fighting for him, it makes you wonder what he is up to.

Communication is more important now than it has been since perhaps even the Shadow World’s arrival. If more nations had talked then, a lot of the madness that followed may have been prevented. May have. Powers and groups have been growing for some time and many are starting to think now is the time to act. Or sometime soon at least. The question is where to act, against who, and possibly with who on the same side. Allies and enemies are being sought. Knowledge is still power. Messages are vital and therefore so are the systems and groups involved in carrying them. Perhaps it will become truly global one day. Whether that will be good or bad is yet to be seen.

The Importance of Trade Island

So I haven’t put up a Sojourners in Shadow blog for a bit, and as I’m planning on bringing the shorts out (somehow) soonish, I had better get back into it.

A great place to start would be to talk about Trade Island. This is a place that has a lot going on, with a variety of characters and groups involved, and has an important role in the world, with that role getting more and more significant as times goes on. As I write the shorts, I have a general rule of writing two shorts set in Trade Island among every ten stories, all of which will be set around the world. Sometimes I may only do one, but no place in the world of Sojourners in Shadow has even that level of consistent coverage. Trade Island is a special place, a melting pot that reflects the world and yet also is unique, carrying its own history and future, both of which matter. A lot.

Trade Island is a fitting title, but not the full description, as you can imagine. It is an island and it is essentially a capitalist society, built upon trading with each other rather than killing. Of course, there is a lot of killing still, yet this is typically for gain or competition rather than old grudges or speciest warfare. Also, while it is an island, the domain stretches beyond that. There is a city on the island, a packed one, but there are also rundown settlements across the water where humans reside who want to be a part of the place yet can’t get there. To be accepted into Trade Island, you either need to be in it from the start or prove yourself useful. Both is best.

To explain the place we have to start with its past. As with everywhere else in the world, things were in turmoil due to the arrival of the Shadow World, but the real history comes slightly after. When society was collapsing, as order was cracking apart, humans fled to the city on this island. A mutant army was on its way, filled thoughts of revenge. People already lived on the island, obviously, but many more dwelt around it and they all crowded on, with what forces they had destroying the bridges and then setting up to resist the enemy. As the story goes, there was brief conflict, but the mutants couldn’t get far and they ended up settling nearby – in part to get their revenge at a later date, yet also as this region had been their home too. Here they could have a new life. So these two groups sat in a wary stalemate while the world around them tore itself apart.

When it happened isn’t certain, it is highly unlikely there was a specific day that everything changed. But eventually the humans, with their gathered resources, found the mutants, who had sat there for some time, were open to trade. The mutants weren’t starving or lacking for too much, but they were trying to build a new society up, whereas the humans were already set. Of course, the city that had once stood had taken a lot of damage, mostly from the mutants, and there were sporadic acts of violence as people tried to settle into a new way of life. The city before had been hectic, dangerous and capitalist. It wasn’t weird to anyone who lived in the transforming place that these ways continued. So, if the mutants couldn’t be driven away by force, then perhaps trade was a way forward. The mutants saw the sense too. It is very likely secret agreements went on for some time before it became an open thing, and yet it was made public, and it went well.

It was better to try and get along, for a price, than to destroy each other. This became the thinking of Trade Island, and also of the people around it. The mutants became a nation of their own, electing a president, having a standing army (which I can get into more another time), and benefiting from trading with the humans. Then machines arrived, and they saw this transaction, and they saw the logic in it. The humans and mutants were very cautious, but if they could overcome their mutual hatred, then they could overcome that. They did. Monsters came too. More beings of all types started to gather, hearing rumours of a city, of a living that didn’t involve scavenging and raiding.

That is to say, there was plenty of both among the lower classes, but still, the droppings of the city were better than out in the wastelands. Over the two centuries since the Shadow World came, Trade Island has developed from a place with a suspicious understanding between two enemies, to a gathering of various races and beings, where the city sits between a mutant nation, a machine nation and a kingdom of monsters, while within its border thrive humans, monsters and mutants, and even the odd machine. There are seven bridges and across them trade and people go back and forth. More recently, the docklands are becoming important as ships have started to reach to settlements across the seas. Word has spread of this place and is still spreading, so that far off lands want to get into a trade relationship with it, while others hear of it as a story, and often laugh at the idea of beings living together.

Trade Island has a mayor and a police force, along with public buildings like a library and a bank. It has the trappings of civilisation. It works and runs like a society should in many respects, with elections and taxes, crimes and arrests, with homes, taverns, the docks and more. Yet this isn’t how the city truly lives, and everyone knows it. Crime is so widespread it is the norm. The police are there for show mostly, usually paid to look the other way; also to make people feel safe by patrolling. They do act, but often when it suits the authorities or their wealthy allies. There is no justice system. Most of the arrests are on poor scumbags who get dragged to a prison and thrown in, with a sentence being handed out at some point, but who knows if anyone will remember it. Some escape, but if you know the right people, you can be escorted out with dignity. Crime pays.

The driving force behind what Trade Island is remains the business families. From the beginning there were a number of wealthy and influential groups in the city, and for all the necessary cohesion due to the threat from the mutants, these people were always intent on staying on top. The best residences were secured, private security was arranged, and a strong if quiet word in the ear of any form of leadership ever since has occurred. They made sure commerce was the dominant force and pushed for outside trade. They even chose new identities. They searched history, found people to imitate and then did so. Alliances were made, mergers took place. They evolved over the centuries. By now, only seven business families remain, yet their power is as undeniable as ever.

The gangs are almost as important. Again, they have been there since the beginning. In fact, if any had access to older history, the inhabitants would know that gangs have been tearing up the streets since well before the Shadow World came. But afterward, once humans had crowded on and the mutant attacks had subsided, criminal activity began to soar. To survive was to have to fight to keep and to strive to take. People endured as best they could, but for many the best way was the way of the gang. Join up, play your part and get by. There have been many famous gangs and most people can tell stories passed on of what gang did what and when. The gangs are so ingrained into Trade Island’s way of life that even the business families can’t remove them, but then they have no wish to – the chaos they cause helps hide their own activities and the criminal element can easily be hired to work for their betters. Sometimes a gang is so strong it sits on top, as Leopold’s gang does right now, yet often they are all a vicious, whirling mass of rivalry and resentment.

A quick note should be made here that only humans are among the business families, but all kinds rank in the gangs. Leopold has a machine working for him, which has given him a useful edge. The machine nation itself tends to keep its distance as the locals aren’t keen on them. Machines have a reputation for trying to eradicate and replace all other life. This group has thus far been benign, so it is tolerated and traded with, but Leopold is a rare being who has close links to them. He helped them trade, and so they gave him a destructive robotic henchman, and while he no longer counts himself as a businessman, he keeps his contacts. Just in case.

While Trade Island does good business with its neighbours, there’s no doubt the old fears haven’t left. As mentioned, machines are rarely allowed in. When it comes to the mutants, they can come over in groups, but nothing too big, and while it is normal for people to be armed, groups of mutant soldiers will be watched closely. The president, whoever that may be, can come and visit. After all, how else can business be done? Yet the military head is another matter. Right now, General Bracken leads the mutant army, and her belligerent manner has meant she is not welcome across the river.

Even the Demon King puts on a polite front. This devil-beast has created a kingdom to the south and his court makes many visits. His own son is a known presence in brothels and gambling dens. But then his son is a lazy brat, so the people tend not to cower before him. The same cannot be said of his father. Ballathane, the Demon King, is a very focused and powerful being, and for him to stride the streets of the city evokes deep-seated dread in many. Therefore, he can visit now and then, but not too often. He has allies and enemies within the city, and he finds the ways of humans fascinating, so the odd tour appeals to him. Otherwise he can sit on his throne and plan his way to greater glory.

Then there’s the Enchantress. The single surviving member of a powerful business family, now a mysterious woman none has seen for years who has the ability to capture people’s minds. Her followers are utterly subservient to her, not least the highly intelligent Hugo, her able assistant. Together they wield influence in slight and subtle ways, using people without them knowing too much about it, backing the current mayor into power, seeking to gain advantages to use. The Enchantress is a clever person, she knows she has to make the right moves, and yet she is perhaps one of the most ambitious in Trade Island. Needless to say, she and the Demon King are rivals.

Thus, with some significant individuals and groups stationed in Trade Island, it follows that power attracts power. Those who live, fight and die in the city have some idea that links have been established with other settlements, that goods are coming in and going out, that more mercenaries are arriving hungry for work. However, those at the top are working hard to establish greater and stronger links. Ships have already begun to create a trade network with the Northern Federation of Africa as well as European market towns. But Trade Island has scouts and agents who are setting things up for future profits. Word is spreading of a place where goods from everywhere are pouring in and can be sent out to anywhere else – not a true statement, and yet if enough believe it, maybe it one day will be.

There are a number of world powers, ranging from the Order of Mechanised Tyranny, to the Sect of Shadow and Steel, to the mutant army based at Constantinople, and there are lesser forces such as the militarised people at the Carpathian Mountains and the Coalition of the South. While to many people around the world the tale of Trade Island is just that, to those who run such organisations, they know it is much more. Or, if they really have fingers on the pulse of the world, they know it exists, where it is and who to talk to. This means that the business families, and others like the Demon King and the Enchantress, have a strong insight into the workings of the world. To them, to others in power who use it to search out and study their rivals, the world isn’t such a big mystery. Trade Island is a major factor in bringing leaders together.

Of course, it won’t work as well on a global scale as it does in the city’s local environment. There things are more stable. Fewer components, fewer variables, and a more balanced playing field. The mutants and the machines and the monsters sit around the city, and the humans clutter around it, and the families and gangs and others thrive within, and no one can try to take over without facing the full wrath of everyone else. Not so around the world. Too many power-hungry beings. Too many risks and unknowns. So while Trade Island has brought people together, often in secret, it has created potential conflict as well. Now powers are even more aware of each other. Secret pacts can be made. Plans are being concocted. As Trade Island furthers its own ends and pushes commerce out into a war-weary world, others are more than ready to spy out weaknesses and prepare to attack. Eventually. After they have gained more resources, of course.

The V.C.s – Hell in the Heavens

Finally I got to read this!

When I was young, I somehow read the last few issues of the V.C.s in 2000AD comics. I think my brother was given or loaned a few and I got to read them, I’m not sure. But I certainly remember the V.C.s. I thought I had just read the very last issue, I only remembered a few things, but once I had read this graphic novel, I recognised moments from the last few chapters. So turns out I had seen more of the V.C.s than I thought.

So what hit me? Why had I remembered this for so long?

The scenes I remembered was mostly a showdown between the main character and a scummy snob called the Dishwasher, and another character who hated the main character for being from Earth yet still stepped in to kill the Dishwasher. I also recalled that the humans attacking the Geek world by the end.

But as I read toward the end of this book, I realised I had already seen that moment when Hen-Sho forced the other two to take the only escape pods. Then I knew I had seen Smith and Loon landing, and that I had seen what happens to Loon.

Whenever I thought about this weird sci-fi comic I had read once as a teenager, I knew I loved the showdown, the dark tone of the story, the vivid war with an alien race and how brutal it was depicted. Later I found out it was the V.C.s from 2000AD. I read over the wiki page I think, remembered a few things, but it wasn’t until I got Hell in the Heavens for Christmas (finally) that I was able to sit and truly appreciate this. It might sound weird to claim that a comic I had only read a final piece of somehow left a strong impact on me, and yet this one had all those traits I love. Gritty war stories. Dark scifi. Brutal depictions of conflict that cost the characters we are following. So yeah, that brief glimpse of the V.C.s stuck with me, even though I didn’t know the names.

Which leads me to mention Bad Company. This is another story from 2000AD. I picked up the first graphic novel years back and I devoured the first series in one afternoon. I literally couldn’t put it down. My book contained the first two stories; I later bought another graphic novel that had the third series. To be blunt, I didn’t love the other two stories as much as I revered the first, yet I did enjoy them a lot and became a Bad Company fanboy. This was just like the V.C.s yet on an alien planet instead of being set in space. It became a huge influence on me. I can’t imagine what kind of hold it would have had if I had read it when young, like I did with the V.C.s. Still, it hit me.

I bring up Bad Company because I feel there is a worthy comparison between the two. I think if you have read either of these, you’d enjoy the other. Both deal with humans versus aliens in a war in the future, with a high body count and a grim, macabre tone. I would say I still much prefer Bad Company. You can’t beat Kano, Thraxx, Mad Tommy Churchill and co. There are more V.C.s stories and I hope to read them later. Maybe there are better ones to come. Maybe, like Bad Company, the first run was the best. I would say I really liked the universe created in the V.C.s story and would love to see it developed more. It could make a great tv series, as we’re seeing more and more of now, like the Expanse and Sense8. Small cast, strong characters, lots of action, a universe to be delved into.

Okay, so I’ll finally get into the V.C.s – Hell in the Heavens. Oh, and I will get spoilerish.

To give a quick overview: the humans are fighting an alien race called the Geeks. At the beginning it is mostly a space war with the Geeks raiding human territory, so ships with startroopers patrol to intercept and destroy. Our main character is Steve Smith, a human from Earth, newly trained and placed on the ships of the V.Cs. Here, his five crewmates are all humans from other worlds, so they dislike the earthworm and he has to go through a lot before they even see him as tolerable. As the war goes on, things escalate between the humans and the Geeks, with major attacks on the solar system resulting in a revenge mission in search of the Geek homeworld. It has to be said, the humans get a real arse kicking for a lot of the story.

The characters are the strong point for me. I do think they could have been developed even more, yet they each have strong definitions and change to some degree over the course of the series. Smith is very eager to prove himself and often oversteps or screws up because he is trying to impress the rest. This makes him flawed, but I also liked that he didn’t shrink away as the others put him down. He gets proactive, even aggressive, in order to help win the war and become a true V.C. He goes from rookie to hardened fighter and leader. Jupe is the leader of the crew for most of it. His phrase sums it up – suck it in. Anything, everything that goes wrong for anyone, they get told by Jupe to shut up, take it and get on with things. He is the tough grizzled sargent you often see in films and shows, and you’d certainly hope to have in real life. He keeps people alive. He is tough on Smith, but stands up for him and listens to his ideas over time. Ringer hates Smith. Ringer is the nasty antagonist for much of the story, if also an excellent pilot. He can get a bit one note, but his turn at the very end made all of it worthwhile. The other characters are Loon, Dwarfstar and Hen-Sho. Loon is mad, having spent time on the Moon’s prison. Dwarf is more different looking, having been mutated in space travel. Hen-Sho is a proud Chinese Martian, who is also a bit easier on Smith than the rest. It has to be said, these three have the least depth to them, yet each have their moments. We meet Dwarf’s brother, spend time on Mars where Hen-Sho boasts of his people’s accomplishments, and Loon has a freak out in which he nearly skins Smith. I’d have liked more of these moments, but the crew’s overall story, their differences with Smith as he settles in, the ongoing war and how it changes – these become the bulk of the series. I loved Bad Company’s first story because it was character focused and driven. The second run was more plot driven. The V.C.s story is very much a mix of the two. There was a point toward the end where we were spending a lot more time on Smith alone than the crew together, which I wasn’t so into, but that wasn’t for long. In truth, I would say this is more a Steve Smith story than a story about the V.C.s as Smith is the main focus constantly and gets more to do as he gets sent on important missions. Still, Jupe and the rest stand out enough to make you care. At least, I thought so. As the war starts to cost the crew, I felt for the losses and certainly wished at least one happened differently. That was something I admired the story for. The V.C.s get sent on more and more dangerous missions, and those high risks can’t be avoided for ever.

As much as I say the characters are a strong point, I also felt the world – or universe – of the V.C.s was the other strong seller for me. Yes, it is a fairly typical space war and the Geeks are pretty much just faceless baddies to get vaped. Some might not appreciate how it is very much a good guys versus bad guys war, or rather, the characters are fine with killing the enemy and never question this conflict. The questionable aspect comes in when we meet the Dishwasher. The diplomats are, as can be so, the real enemy of the soldiers. If the Geeks are the opposing force to be defeated, the Dishwashers are the ones the V.C.s really come to hate as they screw up and get startroopers killed. One Dishwasher proves to be Smith’s mortal enemy. That’s certainly the viewpoint depicted in the V.C.s – much like Bad Company and other war movies like the Iron Cross and Paths of Glory – that when you’re the soldier fighting the war, you’re stuck in the middle and have to get through it as best you can with your comrades, struggling against the enemy in front of you while watching out against your superiors behind you.

What is unique with the V.C.s is the variety of humans. Unique might be pushing it, I’m not sure what else touched on this idea by the time the story was printed (in 1979!). I know I read some books by Anne McCaffrey which had heavyworlders in. Pretty good they were too. But few other things have gotten into the concept of humans being different because they are from different worlds. We’re too used to Star Trek and Stargate I think. Babylon 5 at least showed the issues of the Mars colony and others wanting independence.

In the V.C.s, we have Smith, an Earther, who is looked down on by the others. Ringer is from Saturn, Loon from the Moon, Jupe from Jupiter, Dwarfstar from Neptune and Hen-Sho, as mentioned, from Mars. There are indications that the others are tougher and better than Earthers. Jupe and Ringer are certainly stronger. I got the feeling they also saw those from Earth as arrogant and probably having gone soft. In return, though, the V.C.s are looked down on by the command of the human fleet. I’m not sure, but I think most of the frontline startroopers were colonists, and the commanding elite were Earthers. So this story dealt with prejudice going both ways, of conflict and variety among humanity, of the human race spreading out but not staying a happy and united family, as some scifi likes to present. The war with the Geeks is a bit straightforward, yet the current state of the human race is presented as being anything but.

Oh, and as I come to an end, I should say what the V.C.s means. Of course, any Brit with a knowledge of military history knows the VC stands for the Victoria Cross, which is the highest honour a soldier can get. So VC has a resonance. Yet in this case the V.C.s stands for the vacuum cleaners. Basically they are there to go around and clean up the mess. It is a neat little philosophy that tells you a lot about the crew early on – matter-of-fact, with a grim sense of humour and a disdain for the enemy. Geeks are rubbish to be removed. These blokes get the dirty work done.

Obviously I really enjoyed this graphic novel and plan to get the others sometime to see how they go. But for more, this had a special, personal side to it. When you’re young and developing your tastes in fiction and entertainment, certain things just click. Often, you become a fanboy/girl and they mean more to you than the same story does for others. Any remake or renewal usually doesn’t have the same power. You seen it all before. You’ve read this story. Little can get to you the same way that first glimpse into something you didn’t know you were into until you met it. That’s how the V.C.s were for me. A quick read when I was young, and yet I never forgot that image of the power-disc cutting through that fat neck. That bitter conflict and deadly exchange.

Very happy to finally be fully acquainted with you, V.C.s.

Random Shakespeare

I have nothing much to post right now, so here’s a random piece of something I wrote on a forum back in 07 (I think). It was done as Shakespeare in a western, and I always remember that my dear, late friend Janrae responded by simply saying: what hath Steven wrought? That, I recall clearly, was the first time she called me by name and I was so tickled as she was the one I was desperately trying to impress at the time.

So here we go:

“Why stand you there, grim visage set, hand but a breath from your gun? You think yourself unequalled; a man of such swift action and reckless nature that the Devil himself would stop from barring your way, instead preferring to skulk to the saloon with the other cowards? Let me assure you, fool youth, that speed of action does not necessarily mean speed of thought, and while you would blaze away in frenetic gusto, my one shot would prove true.”

“As usual you are quicker to words than you are to offer proof with deeds. Your time is past, you are a mere illusion of that deadly spectre who once ruled this town. Arrogantly you claim to perfection, yet how can any aim be honest when my gun, swifter to obey my call, sends shrieking lead to burrow deep in your frame? If I waver, it will be but a little, and you will react to pain as all living creatures must. So come, let us draw, and let loser taste the earth we stand upon, while winner will forever more have his name toasted as the greatest gunslinger of our day.”

Christmas on a Sunday

So I have gotten well behind on posts and posting due to the build up to Christmas. That and time consuming/wasting acts, but the build up to Christmas is a busy time for us all so things go by fast. Can’t believe it is next week. I need to write more Sojourners in Shadow posts to have ready, and I plan to start mixing in character bios for the series, like the ones I was posting last year for my book, the Silent Slayer. I plan to get a lot more going for Sojourners in Shadow and start putting the short stories out there, with help from my former publisher. Still, Christmas comes first.

But I have to say, as much as things have been busy, I’m really looking forward to this week. I still have things to do, but the worst is behind me and I know I’ll be finishing work and other things with time to spare. In the past, I’ve been preparing for Christmas up until the day itself sometimes. You don’t get time to appreciate what’s coming. Christmas can just show up and then you’re done, if you’re not careful.

So while this has been busy, having a week to head for the day itself really helps. I love the fact Christmas is on Sunday. It gives us the entire week to get there. Having it in the middle of the week can leave it feeling very rushed and sudden. If it happens at the start of the week, then it has this off-kilter feel, as you have a special kind of weekend right after the normal one. We may get that this year as we have bank holidays filling in for the holiday weekend, and yet Christmas being on Sunday just fits right. It feels like a perfect fit.

My mother and I were discussing it recently and it surprised us how many holidays have a fixed day. Easter and Mothering Sunday. Thanksgiving, for the Americans. There were some others I’m too tired to think of right now. But it left us wondering why Christmas can’t have a set date. I know, it’s the 25th and has been for centuries, and yet that’s a day the early Christians took up from a pagan festival. It’s isn’t a sacred day as such. Christmas could be the last Sunday of the year. I think most of us live by the named day of the week a lot more than we do by dates.

Maybe that’s just me. Maybe fixing a day over a date would be too much for too many. I can see the problems. But this year, I really appreciate that Christmas is happening when it is, to give us a week to ease into it, and maybe a week to ease back out.

Infamous Pirate Captains of the Mediterranean

So to return to the world of Sojourners in Shadow, and to the Mediterranean specifically, I thought I’d post a little on some of the more notable pirate captains. Essentially, I’m doing this because at least two of them will be major characters with their own stories to be told, while others will be important to them, and to other characters later on. What happens in the Mediterranean, and to the pirates, and to those other places connected to both – such as the Northern Federation, the market towns of the European peninsulars, to the mutant forces and settlements, to aquatic communities and ranging trade – will only develop and matter more as time goes on.

I’ll keep these bios very brief as I’m not sure how much, or what, I want to reveal just yet.

The first I’ll mention is Tryst. She’s originally from the Caribbean, a survivor of the tiny islands left there, and has unnatural luck. This ability has enabled her to cross an ocean, start a life among pirates and even gain her own ship – the Slim Chance. She has several crew members loyal to her, almost all of them women. As a woman herself and knowing the nature of most pirate crews, and also because she isn’t much of a fighter, Tryst tries to keep her top personnel female so they have her back rather than challenge her. Running a pirate crew is well known to be difficult, with physical intimidation a major factor in keeping your underlings in check. Tryst has luck, charm and wits on her side, so she tends to draw in adventurous seamen. Still, while her luck is famed for helping her, it is also infamous for costing others. When things go wrong around Tryst, they tend to really hurt someone else, and she knows it. She has to take care who she hires, who she trusts, who she count on. If she wants to raise her standing among the pirate captains, she’ll have to take some risks soon.

A captain who loathes risk is Rodrigo. A seemingly simple human from Spain, this individual is known for his cunning and adaptability. His ship – the Grim Fandango – is a wooden vessel with sails and so forth, like all the rest, and yet it has several features that are far more advanced and useful than someone would suspect. Rodrigo has used his ship’s abilities to outmanoeuvre stronger enemies, just as he has used his ruthlessness and sharp mind to outwit opponents. Unlike Tryst, Rodrigo is a pirate to make a living, and he has worked hard to establish connections in the trade networks. Also not a fighter, he has three cloned super-soldiers who are loyal to him, along with other beings who stand out, even among pirates. Rodrigo isn’t considered one of the more powerful or famed captains, and yet, those who know him, know to take him and his determined crew very seriously.

These two are the major characters I mentioned. I have written a short story about each of them so far, not that either has seen the light of day. Yet. I aim to use both to reveal the world of piracy, from different angles, before moving out into wider territory.

To continue on to other captains that will gain mentions or encounters, I should start with Asafa. He is also known as the Black Lion and is one of the strongest captains around. He is also notable because he is from the Northern Federation, as is his entire crew. He began life in a prison on Africa’s coast, until he led a riot, which evolved into a break out as he and others captured a supply ship. From that point on, he has roamed the Mediterranean, unable to go home, forced to find a way for him and his men to survive. He does return to Africa now and then, but only to attack a coastal prison and gain new recruits. This isn’t such a bad thing for the Northern Federation because it means fewer prisoners to deal with and Asafa’s attacks are mostly aimed at Europe. Some would even accuse both parties of co-operation. Either way, Asafa has a much better ship now and a large crew, and he leads them formidably from the front.

A lesser rival and yet an equally aggressive one is Andre. In many respects, this shaven-headed human is just a thug from Europe. Born into the pirate life, growing up on one of the havens, he is well known for being a tough fighter and cruel enemy. Not someone you want to be on the wrong side of. He also isn’t much for restraining his crew. If you want to ride the sea, raid settlements and have your fill of plunder, rape and violence, Andre is the captain for you.

Torsten is the one who is strict on his crew. He was born into a life as well, but as a mercenary – recruited as a boy and remaining one as an adult. He sees himself as soldier really, and expects discipline and organisation from those who follow him. For some time he was a mercenary captain, but he was later hired to take his fighters to sea. He became a privateer – market towns would compete, even fight, and so would hire people like him to attack each other. To other pirates, Torsten was doing their job but with a permission slip. To him, he was being a soldier for hire. Now with greying hair, he has long moved past the pretence. While he does get hired for work occasionally, Torsten is a pirate captain in name as well as action, raiding as he wishes, yet maintaining his own code of conduct always.

Non-human captains are rare, even now, and Thrasher stands out for this reason and more. She is a super-soldier from the mutant forces in Eastern Europe and the Middle East. She has even fought at Eden. She left that horror some time ago and has forced her way to the higher ranks of pirate captains through sheer force of will, and also force of physique. Her name isn’t the one she once went by but has been earned because she uses a whip of four chains to beat her crew. She also prides herself on being one of the few female captains around, and she doesn’t like competition.

A final mention has to go to Djinn. While many pirate captains are nasty pieces of work, while many have fearsome reputations, even the more violent ones have their limits and try to live the pirate way. Djinn is someone that scares other captains. He is someone pirate crews will flee from. His ship is much bigger than any other, his crew a mix of psychopaths and tormented slaves. Worse still, he is a powerful magic-user with an array of magical rings and gems at his disposal. Few can stand up to him, and none would want to end up in his clutches.

I should add that Djinn has a history behind him that adds weight to the terror he can cause. A history that has left scars across the Mediterranean. I touched on it before, and it gets a stronger mention in Tryst’s story, and it will get more as time goes on, yet I don’t want to say anything here. But once, the Mediterranean was facing a horrifying enemy, and only just managed to win out. Djinn was part of that terror and the only remnant left. He wasn’t the main threat. He followed another. But now he is his own man, free to pursue his own twisted desires. Djinn is a threat all of his own, and yet his presence is a reminder to many of what once haunted them.

So that’s an overview of several notable figures. If everything goes according to plan, all of them will matter over time. Everyone will get an important moment. A lot has to happen in the Mediterranean. Just as so many other parts of the world have been earmarked for turbulent times and climatic changes. In that time, I hope to tell how many lives are lived, until they are ended.