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ARC, Volume One

This is the first volume of something I've been working on for a while. I got intensely bored with bashing away at more traditional, linear storytelling and decided to try something a bit different.

I'd be interested to hear if you find it intriguing enough for me to post Volume Two.
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First, The City

The city broods under darkening storm clouds as oily rain cascades down from the heavens, running like ichor along the streets' arterial gutters. Shadows stalk the alleyways, only briefly banished by the hanging elektryck globes which flicker and spit like vipers in the rain. Steam rises from gratings and coalesces into vaguely human forms, dancing and whirling, before collapsing into wisps of near-nothingness. Water leaks and drips through ancient wood, swelling and distending the beams of houses that shudder and moan like dying old men.

A haze of colour, just a shade short of black, hangs over the Limbic Quarter. Looking at it hurts the eyes, burning writhing images on the retina. Spires and chimneys below the cloud glow violet as invisible and nameless energies arc down to ground themselves in the cold, rain-slicked buildings.

A thaumarc, a mage mist. Emanations of spent power flaying the skin off reality.
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///Colours// thinks the Bat. //Colours kill these days/Worse than kill/Make you wished you'd been killed//

The Bat shifts its weight, hunkering down onto the tiled roof. The brass wings arcing from its back click and settle into a new position. They scrape the chimney behind it and leave pale gouges in the crumbling mortar.

///Colours// thinks the Bat. //Colours give life these days/Food and coin/Depends who asks/Depends who wants/Bat knows who wants/Bat asks/Bat gets//

A croaking chuckle comes from the darkness beneath the Bat's cowl, then turns quickly into a rasping cough. The brass wings shudder, scratching more lines into the chimney stack. Pale mortar falls like snow. Like ash.

///Colours take// thinks the Bat. //Colours take their payment/Yes/Not food/Not coin/Just Bat/Poor Bat//

The cowled head shakes slowly.

///Colours are Bat// thinks the Bat. //Bat is colours/Nothing between/Not anymore//

Above the chimney stack, above the Bat, something in the air seems to turn inside out and slowly bleeds into a translucent purple. Brass wings crackle in response, flaring incandescent sparks from their tips, and the Bat looks up.

///Colours change// thinks the Bat. //Bat must move/Bat must search/Must search for secrets/City secrets/Sky secrets/Colour secrets//

The Bat rises into a hunched, half-bent stance and its wings flare above it. Crackling arcs of energy, searing webs of purple, violet and white, jump from wing-tip to wing-tip and skitter along the brazen vanes.

With a flex of its shoulders that sends a shimmering ripple through the wings of pure power now held above its twisted form, the Bat stalks off through the chimney stacks to hunt for secrets.
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"It's getting worse, Heinrich."
"Hmmm?"
"The thaumarc. It's…worse somehow. Brighter. Or darker, I'm not sure."
"It's the rain, I heard. They say that the rain leeches light from the sky and brightens the arc."
"Do they? And you believe that?"
"As much as I believe anything else these days. Why does it matter, anyway? So it's brighter…"
"Or darker."
"Or darker, whichever. It's always there. It always will be there. Damned robes and their mumbling…"
"Mumbling which is different from our work in what way, exactly?"
"I don't mumble and I don't meddle. I investigate, catalogue and understand…and I don't rend holes in the Aether just to poke a staff into it and see what happens!"
"I see. How is your en-djinn, by the way?"
"Working. Barely. I swear that fool Smink can't tell the difference between brass and copper. I almost fused the coil yesterday!"
"And that's bad?"
"Oh, no…only if you think that the loss of a half-year's work and the subsequent, brutal death of a local businessman is a bad thing."
"Ah…"
"Yes, 'ah'. Pass me that barsom-rod, would you?"
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In the Riddle, no elektrycks light the alleyways. Drenched torches sit in their sconces like blinded beggars and only pallid starlight, tinged even here with the unearthly arclight, shines from the rain-wet cobbles. On nights like these, rats and humans are brothers; huddled in their homes, fearful of outsiders.

Oil the window. Latched. Point 7 jack-lever. Softly, softly…

On Pinchpenny Lane, the sign of the Devil's Rose creaks in the gusting wind. Rusted hinges squeak a feeble protest into the damp air. Water gurgles in the gutter and swirls down sluice pipes to the street below.

Push and through. Sweep the floor. Boarded. Third from window creaks.

A black beetle, dislodged from some scurry-hole in the rafters, rattles down the slating. A shiny pebble rolled in the breakers. Its legs flail weakly as it hurtles over the brink and drops into the blackness between the buildings.

Mark. Ingress secure. Stifle and cut. Ten count. Exeunt.

A window rattles faintly against the sill. In a sparse room a cooling body lies on a pallet cot. Bright blood stains the sheets, leaking from an opened throat, and another corpse will join the Riddle's Bed, buried in the morning's yellowing light. No questions asked. No tears shed.

You don't solve the Riddle, they say. The Riddle solves you.
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Internal memorandum
From: Nathanial Whallam, Acquisitions and Cataloguing
To: Chancellor Barslem (Thau)
Aliena pericula, cautiones nostrae

My Lord Chancellor,

It is with great pleasure that I am able to report a half-fold increase in returns from our agents. Intriguing advances have been made in nearly all the spectra and I am confident that this trend can only continue through the rest of the year.

However, I must also report that some elements within the campus have begun to advocate a more cautious approach to our research regime. Various factors have been cited, such as;

•Increasingly frequent spectral shifts in the arc,
•The overly erratic nature of certain agents, and
•Resistance from members of the off-campus populace.

This has led some of our more academic colleagues to withdraw even further from the practical layer of college life. I am sure you agree that this is a worrying trend, especially considering the current stages of research.

I would respectfully ask that you give this matter the level of attention it requires in order to ensure that all members of the campus are engaged as efficiently as possible.

I remain your vigilant servant,

Nathaniel Whallam.
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Second, The Aether

Thee Idea and Facte of thee Aetherick Ryft layes not welle in thee Mindes of Menne, Frende mine. 'Tis an Affronte to the Sanctitie of Earth and of Heavene that offendes both Eye and Thoughte. Willt it be welle that all Investigationes be halted most speedily and these Thynges of which we Discourse be layd at Reste as they be before.

Thys Talke of Poles & Wyres & Lodes breede nowe a Foule Notionne, as much as that of Devyls and Sprytes…
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"Damn!"
"What? Where's that smoke coming from?"
"Me! Blasted machine…"
"What happened?"
"I'm not sure… Wait. Damn. Damn!"
"Not good?"
"There's a tooth missing from the relapse cog."
"It's broken?"
"No, the tooth's missing. Gone. No longer here."
"Gone? Where is it?"
"Somewhere else. Look, it's hard to explain. The cog should have fifteen teeth. Now it only has fourteen."
"Things can't just disappear like that…can they?"
"Sometimes, yes. In some ways, that's what the relapse cog is for but I don't like it regressing like that without a reason. I especially don't like it discharging the potential difference into me!"
"Oh. I see. Your hair's still smoki…"
"I know!"
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Frende mine. Your Wordes have Borne in me a great Saddnesse. These Ryftes you speake of willt open a New Dawne of Energy and Thoughte for Mankinde and, thereon, all Thynges that dwelleth 'pon thys Lande, I am assured of it.

As the Balle raysed High gaines the Wille to return to its originalle Stayte so too willt those Thynges moved to thee Ryft gain the Wille to return unto thee Naturalle Lande, surfeit with Power…
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Third, Littoral

Upside colour lost-fall. Siphon-wall empty corridor light beckon. Step step stop loss spark-shine claw wing. Pick pick stop. Cold eye glance glitter seen lost beckon grasp. Spike blind claw wing dazzle. Upside colour stumble drop lost siphon-wall pit. Spark-shine cold eye reach touch capture. Lost.
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They say the mage mist is just a by-product. Acceptable levels of thaumic leakage, they say. Unavoidable and harmless, they say. It's not true, you know. None of it is true. It's as alive as you or I. More alive than that Boxer over there, anyway. Oh, yes, it's alive…and it speaks if you listen hard enough. On a quiet night you can hear it whispering sweet secrets and fortunes. If you lie there it can whisper all night sometimes. Tales of other places and other times. Before the City. After the City, perhaps, when there's nothing but trees and clouds.

Hah, you're right. It does sound crazy. People always say it sounds crazy and maybe it is. Doesn't stop it being true. The mage mist is a mouth. Or maybe it's an eye. Maybe it's both. A mouth and an eye that speaks as it sees and sees what it speaks. It's all the same, really.

Crazy it might be but if you could get up close to it, up on the roofs, who knows what you might find, eh?
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Statement 1: There is a place that is no-place with a time that is no-time. A potentiality of Place, it could be said, but still a place nonetheless.
Statement 2: Things exist in this place. They do not "live", and they do not "die", as there is no time for these things to occur in. They merely exist. They are potentialities of Thing, it could be said, but still things nonetheless.
Statement 3: Sometimes, however, there is a ripple in the place that is no-place and the potentiality can become actuality.

Question: If there are ripples, are there waves? If there are waves, what then?
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Fourth, The City (Return)

Children are the greatest barometer of a civilisation. Adults are merely the way that civilisation operates, like cogs in a machine, but children are the means by which it gains expression.

I once had a birdie

As leaves skittering along a path show the invisible wind so the songs of children reflect the health of their civilisation.

Who sang all the day

In happy times, children are able to retain their innate understanding of the world around them.

He sat on my dresser

Their bustle and games parody the adult world, reflecting the chaotic cycle of existence with laughter and joy.

All coloured and gay

Yet, like all means of expression, it is frail and easily subverted.

And yet, my poor birdie

What was healthy can sicken. What has sickened can die.

Stopped singing one day

There are agents that know this and, as they please, turn children against their civilisation.

The blackwings came calling

And turn civilisations against their children.

And took him away.

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Y fckn lttl sht whn wll y fckn lrn y sty n th fckn bsmnt r y gt nthr fckn btng y fckn lttl drty bstrd nml dnt fckn cr fr fcks sk nne fckn crs y fckn mk m sck y fckn lttl sht.
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I've never left the City. Nobody that I know of has ever left the City. It's not like you can't go, there's nothing to stop you, but…well, it's just that nobody ever does. I sometimes wonder if there's anything else outside the City. I walked for a whole day once, down past Riddle's Bed and over the Choke out into the Fen but you could still see buildings and smoke rising up all around. When it's foggy you can go there and it feels like there's nobody else left alive but then I worry about Fen Dogs so I don't stay there for that long.

It's cloudy today. Might rain later. I don't mind the rain, really, I like the way it sounds on the ground. I might go to Riddle's Bed before it starts, though. I like to go there and read the writing on the stones. It's like the stones are there just to remember the people who've died even if no one else does. I try to remember as many names as I can, just to help the stones. Pieter Garman, that's one. I don't go there at night, though. I don't like to think of all those people lying under the ground. I sometimes wonder if they wake up at night. We live above ground and sleep at night so if they're below ground they might sleep in the day, mightn't they?

They might. I don't like to risk it.
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"Still missing?"
"Pardon?"
"The cog? Is it still missing?"
"It was a tooth that was missing. Not the cog. And yes, it's still missing."
"Ah. Not good."
"Things don't just re-appear like that."
"But they disappear like that?"
"You're not helping, you know."
"Sorry."
"Yes, well… What are you working on?"
"Just a poem, Some thoughts."
"Read it out then."
"I'd rather not, it's not finished yet. I'm not exactly sure it's started, to be honest."
"How can it not be started? You just said you're working on it!"
"Maybe I'm working on starting it."

Wow!

This is delicious -- makes me think of a blend of Phillip Pullman and William Gibson. The bits with the relapse cog are both fascinating and funny ("Where's that smoke coming from?" "Me!") -- where'd the tooth go? Why? What's the cog's function?; the last bit with about the kids is a little creepy but still an interesting note in the whole.

Do post the next volume, please!

Thanks very much for your

Thanks very much for your comments! I'm glad you've got some questions about what's happening in the story...that's partly my aim. I'm intrigued by writing that's more like a puzzle rather than stories that lay everything out for you. There'll be answers, eventually, but they might not be obvious.

There might be some more creepy bits, as well...