ClusterWars Vignette – The Other Death

As part of my efforts to bring my space opera Cluster Wars to life I have been writing bits and pieces that aren’t part of the main plot. They are not intended to feature in the text, but to help me pin down locations and how things work.

I also recently read The Aleph by Jose Luis Borges, which is an awe-inspiringly beautiful collection of short stories. “The Other Death” I found peculiarly affecting and as a means of processing that feeling I tried to write my own version of the story – this is the result: the bones of Borges’ story fleshed out in my imagined world.


Dear Sebastian

I am sorry to burden you with this, but you may be the only one who will understand what has happened. You may even be able to explain it to Carolina.

I have stumbled upon the most extraordinary mystery surrounding the debacle at Vennkiser Gap. You may recall my father served there with some distinction. I was approached ten days ago by a fellow officer of my father’s from that engagement: a sub Lieutenant Damian. He was a fighter pilot, and as he knew my father I felt compelled to meet him. We went to that bar in Port Seng you may recall from your last visit. Over a few brandies he asked me if I had the means to contact Admiral Sabian for it seems he was wracked by guilt over a dereliction of duty at Vennkiser.

Although my father was the Admiral’s confidante I couldn’t just approach him, even in his retirement, without doing a little checking. There was no mention of any dishonourable conduct in any of the reports on Vennkiser, even though some of them were scathing on the tactics the Admiral employed.

When I went back to challenge Damian on it I found him dead in the dingy quarters he had rented on the landward side. I was minded to dismiss the whole episode as the drink fuelled fantasy of a lonely and deranged man, but there were too many elements of what he told me that rang true. He had given me some papers to prove his bona fides, and they all looked genuine. I left it all alone for a day, but I found myself increasingly troubled by Damian. There was an intensity and an urgency to his request, and having waited with his body while the police arrived at his apartment I felt as if I had entered into a covenant with his soul.

Since I lack the authorisation to check the files myself, I took it upon myself to visit the Admiral and see if he recalled events that had not made the official record or the transcript of the court martial in which he was acquitted of the charge of incompetence.

I am glad I did, even though the interview only increased the mystery of the fate of poor Damian. The Admiral retains his granddaughter as his personal assistant, a singular woman who has affected me greatly. But I run ahead of myself and I must complete what I know of Damian. He had begun to weigh on me like a physical presence, and unless I discovered the truth I feared I would be crushed by him. You, Sebastian, will understand why.

The military facility for the retired is somewhat inaccessible on the far side of Primus.It is a little pastiche of military life where they still observe the hierarchy of rank. The non-commissioned officers’ rooms and mess hall are a far cry from the private suite the Admiral enjoys, and they all salute one another as if they were still on board their starships or on parade. The staff also indulge the Admiral’s penchant for fine cigars. The air in his study is thick with the remnants of the smoke. It was not altogether unpleasant, but it gave the place an otherworldly atmosphere.

He greeted me warmly and for a while we remembered my father; the Admiral smoked throughout, waving clouds of smoke with one hand in which he also gripped a glass of very fine whiskey, although I was surprised that he never seemed to drink it, just inhale the aroma occasionally between puffs of his cigar.

He was more than willing to talk about the battle at the Vennkiser Gap, despite the mixed reports of his leadership there, and the loss of life that lead to his court martial. In fact I think he alluded to some failings on his part that were not revealed in the initial despatches or subsequent proceedings. Of the sub lieutenant Damian he did at first seem to recall something.

With your intelligence role in the navy I am not sure how much you know about the tactics of close combat, but that is where our conversation began.

“Vennkiser should have been a classic takedown of a cruiser group.” He told me, “Whoever holds their nerve and gets their fighters into the action first wins, most of the time. Our textbook move was to deploy a fighter screen ahead of the heavy ships, backed up by a couple of shield generators, forming a protective arc.” Here he put down his cigar and glass for a moment to splay out one hand and cup another one behind it. “You see, the fighters are enveloped in the shield, and they are individually too small for the enemy to pick up. All the enemy can do is bombard the shield.” He moved his cupped hand to the other side of the splayed hand and pattered it with his fingers. “That is where the nerve and skill come in. The fighter pilots have to hold their position in the line as it advances, even if they see munitions coming directly at them. In most cases the munitions explode harmlessly on the shield, but breaking formation weakens the shield wall for everyone. And if someone does get hit,” he tucked in one finger from his splayed hand, “You need good commanders in the line who can rebalance the shield.”

This was the deployment he had attempted at Vennkiser and has since been superceded with the advancement in weapons. It also accords exactly with the version of history Damian shared with me. He claimed he had broken formation when he had seen missiles coming at him, not trusting in the shield, he fled in his close range fighter. He told me he ejected after setting a course for some battle debris which would credibly damage his fighter, and then discharged himself from the medical ship that picked him up. So few survived and the capital ships were so badly damaged his lapse was not picked up, or so he claimed.

The Admiral recalled something very different.  When I pressed him on the performance of his troops he was adamant that all of them, not least my father, had displayed exemplary courage in the face of new weaponry. He recalled Damian, and said he had held the line when the sunward side of the shield wall was broken, before the loss of the Brigantine Celeste.

It was then that he called for his personal logs and the crew manifests. While Felicity, his granddaughter retrieved the data files and the Admiral checked the details, I took the chance to examine the room we were in more closely. It struck me as unnatural, a created, studied thing. There was an unfinished game of chess in one corner, with crystal pieces. There was a thin layer of dust over it, as if it had been left undisturbed for some time. And yet the Brazen Knight had been cleaned, polished, and moved into a position it could not possibly have taken. Otherwise the formation struck me as a replaying of Vennkiser, with a shield screen of Brazen Pawns before their Primary pieces, and the Primaries of the Lustre forces pushing through on one side.

I thought the out of place knight must be Damian, and I could not shake that thought. I am ashamed to say it, while the Admiral and Felicity were busy I pocketed the Brazen Knight.

There were books, real books lining the walls, but all the spines were worn and faded and it was impossible to tell what they were, or who wrote them. Only one was slightly pulled out from its position, but other than the suggestion of three initials I could not make out any more details.

When I turned back from the bookshelf I was given such a measured look from Felicity I felt as I had been scanned from head to foot. In that one moment it seemed that she understood me, and in doing so had revealed herself to me entirely.

Do you recall the girl we saw that year in the Seminary? The one we thought was an Absolutist of the Ateneum, and yet there was no record of her presence among the supplicants or students. Felicity reminds me uncommonly of her. You will think me mad and infatuated, as I was then, for her hair and her eyes are different, and yet there is something in the grace of her movement, the way her head moves to one side as she considers a question, that can only belong to the same person. And yet that was half a lifetime and two sectors away from Primus and the retirement colony.

The Admiral broke the moment by handing me the data card. “I misremembered the name, but there he is. Dameaous it was, and a full Lieutenant, I wrote the citation for his posthumous award myself. Steadied the line in the sunward shield at Vennkiser for vital minutes that boy did, and then took out the laser battery on the Starlight Web knowing he couldn’t get his flight back to the carrier, but buying me time to retreat with the Harbinger, and pick up survivors from the Celeste.

There is a picture of Dameaous, and he is unmistakably the same man as I met in the bar in Port Seng. In his personnel files is the distinctive tattoo, and those details of his early life with the Free Constabulary against the slave runners of Tharl. The eyes are the eyes of the broken man who fled his shame and grew crops in the high plains of Bruyne. The man whose body I had found in a damp single room in the landward tenements. And yet here was undoubtedly a hero of the Vennkiser debacle, honoured in his death.

I could not bear to withdraw my hand from Felicity’s hand when we parted that day, and she gave no sign the lingering contact distressed her. Indeed she smiled and simply said, “Sometimes if we have not lived a good life, all we can hope for is a good death.” I murmured my assent, lost in how the planes of her face reflected light in the same way as the girl from the seminary. I asked to see her again, and she concurred without hesitation. “It is still better to live a good life,” she said, and placed a single dry kiss on my cheek.

A new fever took me then. I spent the day in my bed, refusing all calls and twisting in sweat soaked sheets. I turned the crystal chess piece in my hand, over and over, sometimes seeing myself in the cut faces and angles, sometimes Damian, sometimes Felicity. I left  a message for Felicity to call me, and then another. I don’t know if I desired her, or if she held some power over me, or if it was just the realistion that Damian’s life, and Felicity’s and mine were bound together and I felt I could not be free until I had found some absolution for the guilt-ridden farmer, or militiaman, or deserter, or hero or whatever he was.

I drank nothing but water that day, my teeth felt too weak even to chew on a piece of fruit, and the sight of it sickened me.

The next day I felt recovered and I went back to the tenement to see if there were any belongings of Damian’s that I could use to unpick his mystery.

The landlord denied there had been anyone in the room, or that the authorities had removed his body. When I insisted and pushed my way up the stairs, I found in his room a sweaty half dressed family of Frian refugees who had plainly been there for some time, their religious symbols tacked to the walls and clothes drying from lines strung across the room.

I went to the bar, but it was boarded up, as if it had been closed for months, and yet I swear to you that I had been in there sharing a cheap and harsh brandy with the man who said he was Damian just days before.

When I met Felicity we walked out on the hills above the  bay. We said not a word for it seemed as if I had known her my whole life, and there were no more words to say. We held hands.

The knotted rope that held me and her and Damian sank into to a still pool into which I was compelled to dive, to retrieve it and try to open the knot even as the rope dried and tightened. It gnawed at me as I wished I could gnaw at it, gnash it open with my teeth. The unwillingness of any trail or document to evidence the things I myself had seen and heard was a burning frustration.

When I held Felicity’s hand that restlessness subsided. If sub Lieutenant Damian had found himself to be a coward when facing his death in Vennkiser, and then spent a penitential lifetime in Bruyne, or if Lieutenant Dameous was a hero whose valour had saved countless lives,  what difference would my knowing or not knowing make? But she could see in my eyes that something rebelled against this truth.

I handed her the Brazen Knight unwilling to meet her gaze in that moment, but she closed her hand over my extended hand and pushed it back to me. “I cannot take you from yourself,” she said in those simple, sparse words she used which for an instant seemed to hold the entire understanding of the world, and then like a scene seen in a flash of lightning the understanding was gone, and all that was left was an echo of a prosaic sentiment.

She went with me to the Hub where I queried the authorities on Bruyne. They had no record of anyone matching Damian’s description, either as a holder of property or someone who passed through their ports. When I found that Felicity herself had been on Bruyne I began to suspect that there was more she was not telling me, that my innate comprehension of her could not encompass, or that she herself did not know. And undoubtedly a further mystery around the Absolutists of Ateneum, I feel their shaodw over this entire affair. There is more, much more that I cannot yet say, and that I do not yet understand.

I am left with the sense that all I met was a memory, the echo of a regret. Perhaps I witnessed the salvation of this man. I am also determined to overcome my own regrets, which why I have written to you Sebastian.

You have been with me through the Seminary, we have faced mortal danger together. You were with me when my courage failed in the mines of Caorramoor, and you hauled me from the wreckage, past the shattered bodies of the people we were sent to save.  As Damian looked upon his death and failed the test of courage, and now leaves only the memory of Dameaous, perhaps I too can find  redemption.

I don’t know how far the rope unravels. What will become of my sons if I succeed? If you read this and think Luis is deranged, the miners of Caoramoor were saved, then perhaps I have succeeded. I go to Bruyne. If on reading this you burn as I have burned with the untold history of Damian then seek out the Absolutists. Felicity has promised to come with me, but I am already sensing that she is less substantial, less present in the moment than I am, and I fear I will find she is only a delusion, or the means by which I have come to understand there needs to be a penance.

Tell Carolina why I must go, tell my sons that all I taught them about honour and duty is true, but that sometimes a different truth needs to be lived to give life to a lie.

Farewell Sebastian, for our paths will not cross again.

Your friend



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Our Works and Days

What we lost.

The interior love poem
the deeper levels of the self
landscapes of daily life

from Buried 2 (iv) by Michael Ondaatje


There is little that survives of my grandparents on both sides, or indeed my father. I did not meet any of them. What I have pieced together is through the distorted reflection of what my mother remembers as seen in others. My nephew has something of the precision of my father, my cousin shares the earnest, naive idealism of my maternal grandfather, I have something of my maternal grandmother’s gift of making.

I walk and laugh like my father, my brother inherited his enormous sense of responsibility.

It is these touches that endure, fragments of other lives that find their reprise in a syncopated, mutated form generations later, only recognised by those who form the bridge and can remember the stories.

The ankle bracelets in the picture belonged to my maternal grandmother. Little else survives from that era. My wife was given these when we married, and as we are preparing wills she needs to decide where they will go next. Fortunately there is another pair of similar weight from my wife’s family, so we will be able to arrange something equitable for our two daughters. To them my grandmother is just a portrait that hangs in my brother’s house.

More difficult to bequeath will be the family treasure. My brother is custodian of the decoupé art of my ancestor Abu Jaffer (and before you begin planning a heist, it’s not actually worth anything). The family legend is that the girl Abu Jaffer loved married someone else, and he spent the rest of his days a bachelor. There is some suggestion that he may have been a skilled poet, but among my ancestors that at least is not a peculiar distinction (if only a couple of poets could instead have been born with the ability to manage estates and make good decisions, but that story is for another day).


He had no children, he lives on only in these beautiful but fragile bits of paper, and a half remembered romantic tragedy. Or perhaps not, it has been remarked that most of my own stories are romantic tragedies. Perhaps a little of him endures in the family line after all.


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Autumn by Ruswa Fatehpuri

Originally posted on Ali Abbas:


At the dizzy end of Fall

Disoriented. Winter coat, summer shoes

Leaves wet in heavy piles, the smell

Your shawls retreived from plastic

Memories preserved in aspic

Quiet streets, the afternoon

Christmas lights and cloudless skies

I finger spines of all the books I will not give

Wind whispers in the branches, who and who?

Did you leave her? Did she leave you?

Ruswa Fatehpuri

from Sold and Bartered

Thematically related Post:

And as Autumn rolls around again, so does this poem, reblogged at re-linked…

View original

A Lesser Great Britain


Scotland has spoken. The answer is No to Independence. There is clear blue water between the two camps.

If you had asked me a week ago I would have said this was the best possible result, putting to bed the Independence question for a generation and letting economic sense prevail.

The concept of a wealthy independent Scotland is preposterous, and I am certain economic disaster would have follwed a Yes vote. But I am left with the nagging feeling that this is not the point. The key issue is democracy – the fact that Scotland has been ruled by Westminster with a succession of Tory governments that are unrepresentative of the wishes and mores of the Scottish people.

In the democratic process of a referendum Scotland has decided that it places the value of economic certainty over the right of self determination. I find myself disappointed by that outcome. The idealist in me wanted the right to directly elect decision makers and to hold them to account to be the first and final determinant of the decision.

It wasn’t. A cynical rationality has prevailed and we are all a little diminished by it. How inspiring, how energising it would have been if the decision had gone the other way, despite the huge transition costs and inefficiency it would create. How glorious if the Scots had thumbed their noses at prosperity and all the things capitalism tells us we should want and put their freedom first.

They could have borne a torch for the world, but the lure of filthy lucre won.

So what is the truth behind the economic doom mongering? I won’t bore you with all of the things that will bend and break, here is a selection.

Lets start with the basics – utility bills would go up in Scotland over a 3 year period. Most utilities are regulated, and their prices include a Return On Capital Employed element – basically a contribution to the cost of equipment and assets. In a large landmass with relatively few people there is more capital per person used in Scotland for energy and telecoms than the more densely populated parts of the UK.

Therefore within the timeframes that regulated prices can move, there would be a reduction in the rest of the UK, where capital use is more efficient, and an offsetting increase in Scotland. The newly formed Scottish regulators could compensate by reducing the ROCE allowed in their country, which would lead in one of two directions – the lawyers making money in the European Courts, or the companies involved under investing in Scotland because the returns are lower. Either way the Scots would lose.

Take that a step further – every business that today applies geographically uniform prices, whether regulated or not, would have the opportunity to price discriminate and with the geographic dispersion in Scotland it is rarely cheaper to do business there.

Now the oil red herring – the jury is out on just how much oil there is and how long it will last. Irrespective of that there is political truth that will change the energy production patterns across all of Europe. Russian adventurism in Ukraine and the role the Saudi and Qatari people have in funding ISIS / Al Qaida type terrorism means we have to reduce our energy dependence on them.

Basically Europe as a whole, and the UK as part of it, will have to frack. The environmental cost may be huge, but it will be lower than the political and security costs. It will also close some of the cost productivity gap we currently face compared to the USA. The change in energy mix and the development of more sources will reduce the value of North Sea oil, relative to the projections currently being made.

Given the overall political leaning of the Scottish parliament I would guess they would be less likely to frack than the largely Tory Westminster crew.

There is also the corporate question. The financial markets were jittery on Independence. Risk raises interest rates required on borrowing. it does not matter if the risk is real or only perceived, that’s just the way the money markets work. Higher borrowing costs would feed into higher experienced prices for us all. Companies relocating south of the border to minimise the impact would take jobs with them.

And the currency canard? Salmond made a crass statement early on that whether Scotland kept the pound was down to the sovereign will of the Scottish people. It couldn’t possibly be so – everyone who would be impacted by the increase in risk to the shared currency has a say in it. That means the currency question was actually at the whim of the Westminster crew, and their position is well documented. In any event, why would a fiscally independent Scotland tie itself to the monetary policy of a monetarily austere Bank of England. That kind of independence starts looking like DevoMax…

The final piece in this cursory look is self evident, and so I won’t dwell on it, but there is a bureaucratic economy of scale, we don’t need more BBC, government department and Qango management layers which would largely reprise policy developed in the rest of the UK.

All of that is relatively straightforward, but it cheapens the argument. I feel sullied that we have bought the Scots with real and inevitable consequences of lower prosperity, and they have sold their freedom cheaply. It is not quite slavery, but it tastes like bonded labour.


Devolution Music


Scottish Independence is a serious business, and I am working up a serious post about economics, but as the polls close I thought it would be fun to think about the musical anthems the Yes and No campaigns should have chosen.


Toxic – Britney Spears

I Will Survive – Gloria Gaynor

Call Me When You’re Sober – Evanescence



Layla – Derek and the Dominoes

What About Love – Heart

If You Leave Me Now – Chicago


And a couple of bonus suggestions for the North of England or Wales

Take Me With You – Vast

I Will Follow You Into The Dark – Deathcab For Cutie