Steam Highwayman II Playthrough 1-1

On a dark night, I set out to ambush travellers and seek my fortune as a highwayman in the wooded hills of the Chilterns.  My past as the scion of a noble family was forgot: only my high GALLANTRY score (6) and my inherited rapier (PAR 4) reminded me of my origin.

Yikes – what a playthrough!  As part of my editing, I’ve been playing Steam Highwayman II as a new reader.  Complementing the link-checking, this allows me to discover what balances are needed and tweak them before the final version is published.  But I’ve also been massively enjoying re-discovering the world I wrote earlier this year, trying to overcome the forces of the law and of poverty and sickness.  Nobody said that this life would be easy!

So I started by keeping my blade clean and talking my first victim into handing over cash.  I headed for the Crown at Pishill but was unable to take a room since the landlady lacked trust.  Listening to her sob story, I set out to try and right a wrong and made my way to Wallingford, where I was unable to convince a menial paper-pusher in the barracks, despite using charm and gold.  I’d be back with a bigger bribe, I decided.

So I set off to try and get a pot of guineas to throw at the problem.  My first attempts at ambushes were only mildly successful and I was wounded twice with little to show for it.  Now a new problem arose: finding medical treatment.  It was risky to continue to ambush carriages but with only a few shillings, I was unable to buy what I needed to set up a camp in the woods or to take a room at an inn.  One more robbery was needed…

I stopped a carriage and lucked out – a priest!  He showed fight and wounded me again, but I subdued him and stole his precious golden pectoral cross.  Earlier I’d found a goldsmith who had offered me a good price for these things, so I shot off in his direction, mercifully still unknown to the Constables as a result of maintaining my disguise.  The gold was sold and I had money in my pocket at last!  I returned to Wallingford, bribed the official, headed for the Crown and gave the good news to the landlady, who let me take a room.  Once inside I could attempt to tend my wounds – but required bandaging.  This was the first point at which I thought my gameplay was being frustrating and I decided to edit more bandages into some of these locations.

Things looked up!  I left the and decided to head out to find an adventure.  Not far away I came across a grand house, bluffed my way inside with my good breeding and a double six and burgled the place.  The lady’s jewels were in my grasp… but, folly of follies, I could not resist striking out for more and I came a cropper, trying to sneak around the house.

Beaten and subdued, I was handed to the Constables, who scorned me as an unimportant burglar (and to tell the truth, I had indeed achieved little of note) and threw me into prison – but not before confiscating my weapons, remaining cash and those lovely jewels!

Released, I completed a little honest work delivering parcels, but soon grew tired of this slow employment.  I desperately stopped the first two carriages I came across and scraped together enough coin to buy a sabre (PAR 3) at a market – oh for my lost rapier!  Doing so, however, I earned the wrath of the Haulage Guild and the Constables.  Eager to gain more gold and bootstrap myself up into some higher skills (I had also grabbed some goggles (MOT+1)), I returned to the scene of my earlier crimes and prepared another ambush.  This time, as a result of my growing notoriety, the Haulage Guild were ready for me and the vehicle I met was guarded.  A MOTORING test allowed me to dodge damage to my precious velosteam, but in the process I was wounded once more, and still without a firearm, I was unable to press home my attack.

I’m somewhat amazed at the story that has just appeared from an hour and half’s gameplay.  To me it feels realistic, challenging, gritty and hooky.  Is this just the start of a great tale or is it doomed to failure and replay?  If you’ve read this, you may end up recognising some of these events during your playthrough, but I’m also amazed that another reader or another reading of Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways could proceed for just as long without a single common event with the story I’ve just described.  From your choice of backstory and the manner in which you approach your first robbery to your decision of where to base yourself, how to treat wounds, which sort of travellers to target and the manner in which you pursue profit, your choices could be entirely different and your experience in the book much more – or less – successful.

That’s really the biggest difference between the two volumes of Steam Highwayman.  Smog and Ambuscade was open-world in many ways, but I created ‘choke-points’ to make the mechanics manageable and in the end didn’t feel that there were enough opportunities to behave as a highwayman should – essentially robbing travellers.  Now in Highways and Holloways, I’ve been able to develop my structures and instead of ‘choke-points’ I have what I think of a ‘dispersal passages’ that gather events from different locations, shuffle your options and send you back out to your region.  It’s a powerful mechanic that keeps the story moving and helps you zip across the map when you need to.

I’ll continue with this playthrough (I was sorely tempted to stop once I missed that NIMBLENESS roll in the night burglary!) and probably post some more, but I’ll try to avoid hard spoilers as I do.  Anyway, by the time you read the book, the world will be responding to your choices, not mine.

If you haven’t yet pledged on Kickstarter, why not head over and fund your copy of Steam Highwayman II: Highways and Holloways now?  The project is 87% funded and with unique custom art spots still available, this is your opportunity to appear as the Steam Highwayman in print!

Writing to Music

I’ve been writing for hours at a time again and it can be difficult, some days, to turn my mind and focus on an imaginary world when there are so many things to keep me in the everyday world.  Having a piece of music playing can help.  By filling up my ears, it over-rides part of my consciousness – the ‘internal editor’ that is constantly correcting and improving before I’ve even drafted.  But getting the right album or long track is tricky.

Good writing music is melodic.  Some classical music does this, but film or game soundtrack is more reliable – the themes that repeat and develop are much easier to grasp.  Soundtracks are also explicitly written to create atmosphere, which is the other big reason for writing to music alongside focus.

When I’m writing cyberpunk – or gastropunk – I rely on Vangelis – either the extended Blade Runner soundtrack or his album The City.  Melody a-plenty, but I don’t get too distracted from what I’m writing because I know the pieces so well.

I’ve been focusing on Steam Highwayman II for the last week and so Blade Runner doesn’t match at all.  Following a few comments by Jonathan Green, who also writes to music, I discovered the soundtrack to Skyrim.  I only know the game through watching a few playthrough videos and (mercifully for my schedule) have never had a computer that could run a large CRPG, but I was really impressed both with the composition by Jeremy Soule and the simple arrangement into a long track by TheSagaris2.  This is perfect writing music – no jarring transitions, plenty of atmosphere, loads of melody, easy to get to know.

The sound might feel pretty open and natural, so it doesn’t fit the world of Steam Highwayman too well, but it certainly suits the writing of it.  I mean to post soon about my search for a ‘Steam Highwayman sound’ and what sort of music sounds steampunk to me.  Let me know if you’d be interested in reading that – or listening to a curated list.

Monks in Space

I wrote this piece in 2013, but I’ve had the concept since around 2004/5.  Monks in Space.  A space monastery in the Kuiper Belt.  Excellent.

The First Chapter
It was Brother Isador, returning from a baptism on a nearby asteroid, who found the drifting escape pod.  The spherical capsule had long since burnt out its distress beacon, but the polished reflective surface made a spark in the darkness that caught Isador’s attention.  As he neared it he scanned for transmissions – none.  He would certainly find nothing more than the remains of a lost soul forgotten in space.

But he didn’t.  Matching trajectory and velocity at about thirty metres he saw a movement through a tiny, trapezoid window.  Then a face.  A haggard and desperate face.  Isador offered a brief prayer of thanksgiving for the preserved life within the pod – and a prayer that he might serve his maker in preserving that life further.

He approached, programmed a tiny rocket drone to thread a cable through a projecting rung, fired it, and powered up all his boosters to begin to slow the pod’s flight. Once in the hangar beneath the refectory and with the gentleness of the abbey’s air on his cheeks, Isador and the other monks wrestled with jammed catches and an electronic lock coded in an unfamiliar script.  They opened the hatch and found a man inside, unconscious and breathing shallowly in the remnants of his thin air. He had a wasted and enervated body, lank and dirty hair.  He wore an old-fashioned suit that seemed to have been fitted to a larger, form.  How long had he been drifting in space?  Neither the pod nor he could tell the monks, who carefully carried him up to a cell and laid him on clean sheets. Continue reading

Josh Davidson 4.2

wp-1473764965004.jpgPart II

They were building a new shopping centre in Chesterfield and one morning Josh came past the site. He paused for a while, watching. He was watching two contractors – brothers – on the scaffolding. They were brickies, men his age, paid well for working fast and straight. He knew them from work they’d done previously, but this morning he wasn’t interested in what they were building.”Simon!” he shouted. “Andy!”

The two men looked up – gave him a bit of a wave – and paused.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Cladding this wall,” shouted Simon back. “What’s it look like?”

Continue reading

Josh Davidson 4

Dry thistles at Thames Barrier Point

Dry thistles at Thames Barrier Point

Part I

Now, Joshua didn’t stay there long. He followed the voice that told him to go out into the hills and woods of the country, and underwent a test of his own self. A time of self-seeking, some might call it, although this Joshua already knew who he was and what he was called to do. But every accusation that could come at him, as he walked and thought and prayed, attacked him with the voice of the devil. Because he wasn’t eating or drinking, the whole time, longer than a month, and if you’ve never been without food that long then you can’t say you know what hunger was. But he knew what hunger was – past the pangs of longing, into the feeling of bodily need, when your own body feels light because you have metabolised every scrap of fat between your sinews and under your skin. When the cushions of cartilage and fluid are empty and your nerves run directly over your bones.

“Hungry?” asked the Devil scornfully. “But you don’t even need to be hungry! You’re just indulging your need for drama – and needlessly. You’re going to survive – so why invite all this pain and starvation? Only a sadist does that. And are you a sadist?

“And anyway, didn’t we all hear it? If you are God’s son, you can turn any of these stones from the path into something good to eat – you can call a tree to fruit right in front of you. And I thought you liked that whole blossoming, fruiting, growing thing anyway? There’s no need for this stupid fast.”

But he knew why he was there. The hunger was the unavoidable companion of the degree of discipline and sacrifice he had chosen. The Devil was just trying to distract him from the real reason for his fast. “I know what it says,” replied Joshua to that needling voice. “Food doesn’t keep you going and breath doesn’t keep you breathing – it’s God’s promises that keep us alive.” He remembered the way his dad Joseph had said that – sometimes when he had been hungry and sometimes right before a feast. His dad had stuck to what he knew to be true.

But then it was as though Josh’s wanderings had brought him, suddenly, around a dry-stone wall and beneath overhanging trees to the pinnacle of the tallest tower in London, the city spread our below him, the trains rushing into and out of London Bridge station, vans delivering, riverboats accelerating away, and no-one looking up. And the Devil challenged him again.

“I don’t even know why you’re being careful with yourself. If you fall, you’re not going to die! If you were God’s son he’d send an angel to catch you, wouldn’t he? Like it says in that book you love – ‘His angels have orders to protect you, so they’ll carry you and you won’t even stub your toe.’ It’s a written promise, isn’t it? So just jump and leave all this stubborn walking.”

Joshua shook his head. “And it says ‘Don’t joke about with God’s promise.”

But then it was like Joshua had climbed even higher, so that in one view he could see all the countries of the worlds, their rulers and parliaments, all the wonderful diverse and developed kingdoms of men. And he heard the Devil say. “And where is God, anyway? Have you heard him, after all this time not eating or drinking? But you can hear me. Do what I say and you’ll have this – you know you will. You’re powerful enough to take it, if you let me direct you. If you choose me instead…”

“Don’t you dare,” said Joshua. “Don’t you dare even suggest it, you liar! I know what it says: ‘You belong to God – so don’t let anyone else take charge.’ I know what will happen if I choose you, you liar! Go away.”

And that was the last he heard of that needling voice. But I tell you what, he didn’t stub his toe on any stone as he came off the hills and back towards home. And whichever way he looked he saw figures guarding and guiding. And they even fed him with a food that he couldn’t quite recognise. And by the time he was back from his walk, he looked better and fitter than ever.

On the journey back he heard that John Waters had been arrested and was being held pending charges. He returned to his mum’s place and picked up a few things. And then he went down to Chesterfield, because it had always been said that when God would choose to change things, he’d start there. Perhaps because if God could change Chesterfield, he could change anywhere. So that was when Joshua Davidson started to tell people. “Change your life,” he’d say. Whether it was someone on the bus next to him or when he got on local radio or a visit to a school. “Change your life, because God’s reign is coming.”

Who is Josh Davidson? 3

jd1Twenty years passed. And then, to follow our story, the BBC news ran a special report on a mystic who’d been living off handouts and and out of bins in Yorkshire. A beggar with a strange mysticism and an undeniable charisma who was starting to be followed.
Why anyone would want to follow this man was a mystery to the presenters. He seemed to have a completely negative message of a very old-fashioned, fire-and-brimstone type, but the makers of the programme noticed that such a message had been a cyclical part of British culture for hundreds of years, and this newer manifestation was simply a repeat of what had happened in the nineteenth, seventeenth and fifteenth centuries.
But it wasn’t simply a repeat. The man’s name was John Waters and he wasn’t so much a beggar or a tramp as a man who’d committed himself to a message. He’d been privately educated, raised in a wealthy home and in fact – not that anyone noticed – he was related, through his mother, to Moira Davidson. But this John Waters had dropped out and lived in the counter-culture, a hippy who still thought it was 1969 and that world harmony was around the corner.
He dressed from leftover and patched his own clothes, looking like a fool in motley from another age. His long beard was typically in a ponytail and his dreadlocks rivalled a senior rastafarian’s. Nobody could take such man seriously. He didn’t even wear shoes.
Yet when the Prime Minister came to Yorkshire, John Waters was somehow there, seen on camera, challenging him. When the new Archbishop was out surveying the church estates, John Waters managed to get through security and video of him lambasting the man went viral. “You’re a snake,” he’d said, toothily. “Looking for somewhere to hide? A nice flat stone to shelter under? You won’t escape. If you want to survive what’s coming, you need to change – you and all the church! You can’t simply say you believe in God! You’re a whole dead orchard without more than a few dried-up apples on branches that haven’t been pruned for years.”
The Archbishop’s reply was just as violent, but John Waters was suddenly headline news and people wanted to know more. He explained it all on video. “The washing ceremony is just to show that people want to change. That’s why they come to me and that’s why we do it. But that’s not the end of the story – because I’ve been told that we’re going to see someone with a real authority – someone who can wash with fire and God’s power and presence. And when he comes you won’t think I’m extreme.”
The Church of God had on official response. “God chose our people and this country thousands of years ago and it is the responsibility of our establishment and the government to maintain observance of God’s holy law. John Waters’ cries for change, although popular, in no way reflect the unchanging message of God for his people to obey the commandments and the traditions of our nation.” They believed he would disappear in time.
But John was right. He was carrying out his washing ceremony, as he called it, near Oxford on the banks of the Thames. Tens of thousands of people were there, being washed by John and his helpers – for he had quite a following by now, including a wealthy few who bankrolled him. And among the crowd, on a miserable Saturday in February, came a carpenter from Sheffield called Josh Davidson.
The whole thing was on film. People filming themselves, their friends going under, making promises to a new life. And you can find the clips were Josh Davidson’s turn comes in the queue. He’s been standing there in his work clothes, taken off his boots, clambers down the muddy broken-down slope of the cow-pasture and steps into the freezing water.
“What are you doing here?” asks John. “What have you got to change?”
Joshua said something, but no-one heard it.
“No,” said John. “You should wash me.”
“This is the right way,” said Joshua. And he turns and one of the videos shows the big smile on his face. He’s a typical looking guy with a bit of an accent – not strong, South Yorkshire, a beard, plaster-stained work overalls and up to his shins in muddy Thames water. “Look John, this is what was meant to happen.”
John relucantly agrees, shrugs and calls out to the crowd in harsh voice, tired by hours of calling in the drizzly late winter morning. “This man wants to change the way he lives! He will be made new, God promises!” And then he pushes him into the water and pulls him back out.
If you watch any of the videos, that’s the moment the conspiracy people go mad over. That moment when he came out. No-one can deny that Josh Davidson came out of the freezing February Thames near Oxford wet and smiling – a beautiful smile. But there’s plenty of people who will stand by all those who say they heard the voice of God shake the clouds and say something that really, if it’s true, everyone needs to know.
“This is my Son, and I love him, and I’m very happy with what he’s doing.”

Who is Josh Davidson? 2

jd1It wasn’t a good time to have a baby. The whole UK had been in an increasingly tight grip of a government pretty much recognised to be heading to autocracy. But it was a short while after he was born that they’d had visitors. Joe hadn’t want to tell people about this – it was so wild and dangerous. These strangers had turned up, one evening, a group of about ten, Chinese and Tibetan and an Arab man, a woman from Russia, at the flat, on the doorstep, in a minibus. Seekers after truth, he’d been terrified at first. But they brought with them an air of peace and he’d let them in to the front room where they’d squeezed together and had a cup of tea in all the mugs and cups in the house while Moira brought the baby down. And as she’d come down the stairs, they’d fallen to the floor, all at once.
And there’d been the pop star, the American singer, who’d turned up right then. Joe had opened the door to his knocking and he’d walked right in, kissed the baby on the head and placed a big envelope on the mantlepiece above the gas fire. “You’re going to need this,” he’d said.
It was like another dream.
The strangers had given them strange, oriental lotions for the child, to help him grow, for cleaning, and weirdly, an ointment that was labelled for corpses at the undertakers. He’d shivered reading it, thanked them, and eventually they left, leaving Moira and Joe and the baby sitting on the sofa by the gas fire breathing in the smell of all the strangers and the baby crying too.
And then someone had said that the Seekers were a cult – they were wanted. Joe had known it was a set-up – there’d been nothing wrong with them. They hadn’t been criminals, he thought, but he didn’t want to be mixed up in it, but the next night he’d woken up in a cold sweat with a ringing voice in his ears, “Get out, get out…”
He’d shaken Moira awake, wrapped up the baby, taken the baby bag and the pram and a few clothes, the big envelope, and they’d left the flat without telling anyone where they were going. Joe had learned to trust those dreams.
Something compelled him to get to the Netherlands on the ferry, and there, on the early morning news, he watched the footage of a anti-terrorist squad searching for the Seekers as they rammed down the door of a very familiar Long Eaton flat and felt sick.
It was all to do with their son. He didn’t know why, but Joe knew that the government weren’t after the Seekers at all. They were after his boy, the little red, bawling fist of life wrapped in a crocheted blanket and held tight against his chest.
Leaving was the right thing to do. There were arrests and people detained – including some of Moira’s family – some without charge. But Joe and Moira found a place to work and live near Gronigen, somewhere entirely overlooked, while they began to build their family and raise their boy.
After three or four years the party tumbled and the minister who’d been scaring the country into self-destruction with his xenophobia and hatred, well, he’d died nastily. And the next people in had published a general amnesty, and they’d come home. The Davidson family had come home, but settled nearer Sheffield, put a bit of distance between themselves and some very scary memories.
From one perspective, it all made sense to Joseph Davidson. It felt as though protecting his family was his life’s work, providing for them and for Moira the highest calling. But from another, it looked like a badly-plotted drama on tv, something unbelievable, something that should only have happened in a far less civilised country. But it hadn’t. It had been their story and it had been his life and it was real. That was undeniable. The boy was there, Moira was there, they were living in a too-small house and although the old van had gone for scrap long ago and the cash in that envelope had gone too, there was still that bottle of ointment on the mantlepiece, so long a part of the family that its quiet threat had become an inaudible harmony to their ongoing life. Every now and then Joe would pick it up, hold it to the light, tip the yellowish liquid and watch it move sluggishly against the faceted glass.
And then most days he’d head out to work.

Who is Josh Davidson? 1

jd1

“Oh yes,” Joe would say, “There’s royal blood in us. Way back, but royal blood.” And he’d sit his son on his lap, even when he was nine or ten and tell him about where he came from. “My dada, your grandad, Matthew Davidson, he was in the trades too. He died when you were very small. But he loved you, didn’t he, mum?”
And Moira would turn around, drying up the dishes or folding the clothes and say, “Oh yes. Your dada, he loved you, little Josh. When we got back he was always poking his finger into your face, laughing with you. You used to cling onto his big finger like that,” and she’d show the boy. The others would sit there around, little Jude tugging at something, James in his cot, the girls, a bit older, helping their mum or playing at house.
“And his dad, dad?” Josh would ask, and Joe would huff and puff and pretend to struggle to remember – but he loved this bit. He knew them all the way back.
“His dad was Elbert Davidson, he was a milkman. And his dad, who was born back in Queen Victoria’s time, he was George Davidson, and he was a blacksmith who moved here from Yorkshire. But he was descended, eventually, from a royal line, you see. Kings of the hill country, back, back in the distant past. And so are you. This is your country, lad. And all of yours,” for Joe tried his best not to let his firstborn son seem over-special in the family, although the truth was that he loved him like he loved nothing else in the world.

For it hadn’t been an easy birth and Joe Davidson, who didn’t talk about it that often and, when he did think about it, was amazed by what they’d been through and amazed by his power to begin to forget it, he was inclined to think of it as a miracle.
They’d been in love. Joe was starting out working for himself, subcontracting and labouring when couldn’t get the skilled work, driving around the Notts-Derby border in a beat up Vauxhall van. And Moira had just finished college, got herself a qualification in hospitality, although she spent most of her time looking after her aunt, who lived in the house. And they were going to get married, God knew how, with no savings and precious little to live on, when Moira, one tear-stained evening by the Trent, told him that she was going to have a baby.
It wasn’t his. Because although they’d been sweethearts through school and their teenage years, nothing had ever passed between them.
Joe had been heartbroken. He’d put Moira back in the van, driven her to her parents’ without talking and gone home to his own mum, cried and cried with frustration and disappointment. Life had only been just beginning.
His mum had said they were young, he still had plenty of chances, but he hadn’t wanted to fall at the first hurdle. He’d always wanted a wife and a family and boys crawling on the kitchen lino and girls to walk to school in their cotton dresses, one on either hand. And Moira… She was such a sweet thing. Overlooked. His. He had thought.
A bad week had followed. A bad week of work, he’d cut his hand and thrown the chisel away in self-disgust and anger. He’d taken long walks and not wanted to tell anyone anything.
And then the dream, which he barely remembered now, but he remembered it by its shadow. It had been so powerful, so important, that it had shaped his life, and though he couldn’t remember what the man had looked like or even what he had said anymore, his whole life since then had been changed.
He’d been sitting on a concrete wall, his legs dangling, looking down at the water and at the gravel embedded in the roughcast beside him. He could still feel the cracks in the concrete where he sat. And he’d looked up and there’d been someone walking along the very edge of the parapet, arms out, balanced, enjoying the edge, but not at risk, and as he’d come closer, he’d spoken to Joe in the dream and said, “Don’t be frightened.” Yes, Joe remembered that. And then the man had comforted him, somehow, with words or an arm around the shoulder and he had the feeling that Moira’s baby wasn’t a mistake or a broken promise at all, but like the sun that was sinking into the sea in front of him, was something that defined everything it touched. And he’d known, absolutely known, that it was going to be a boy, and a boy he could love, his son even if it wasn’t quite his son. For all children are gifts from God and belong to him, whoever conceives them or raises them.
And when he’d woken up, he’d even known what he would call him. Joshua. And he got out of bed and went to find Moira and instead of leaving her on her own to cry and weep and feel abandoned, he had chosen to be the man she needed as a husband and the man she deserved. They went through with the wedding, but brought it on. Civil ceremony, no big party, and they moved into a flat near her mum’s place, and he watched the child grow inside her and worked and worked to be the man he had dreamed he might be. And when the baby was born, Joe had told her all about the dream and she’d cried.

The Baby on the Bypass

There’s only one story to tell at this time of year. It’s the old, old story of a young couple on the road in a beat-up contractor’s van, driving to the place his family used to come from. They’re three months married and nine months pregnant and her folks don’t want to know. The van, one headlight dim, pulls over at service station where the A-road meets the bypass, but it’s well past midnight and the carpark of the Holiday Inn is rammed.
They park up on a loading bay and Joe goes in to see what comforts the last twenty in his wallet might get them. The tank is almost empty and they won’t be going any further tonight.
It’s the cold of a premature winter and the cold of another uncaring receptionist. Maybe it’s their rough appearance, maybe it’s Joe’s obvious poverty, but the woman behind the desk is not going to let them into the lounge, or the restaurant, or the lobby.
It’s while he’s in there, arguing behind the plate glass, that Moira realises the baby’s coming. What she first thought were shivers of cold have gripped her – and then a cramping pain around her that makes her gasp and water comes straight to her eyes. “Joe,” she calls, willing him to turn around and see her through the windscreen and come running back across the paving. But she knows he can’t see her. “Joe, the baby’s here… Joe…” she wails.
When he comes back she is gripping the seatbelt and making moans through clenched teeth. He realises straight away.
“Is she alright, mate?” There’s a man in overalls coming out of one of the units beside the Holiday Inn. A garage.
“She’s having a baby.”
“Bleeding ‘eck. Best get her inside.”
“They say there’s no room in there.” Joe’s panicking. He’s been the strong man for the last six months – but really he’s been dreading that it would end like this. He just needs someone to give him a helping hand.
“You’re right there’s no room. Seems like everyone’s on the road. I should have been home hours ago. She can come in here. I’ve got a waiting room – a little bed I use sometimes. Come on.”
They help Moira out of the van. She doesn’t acknowledge them at all, hobbles, supported by her husband and this stranger, looking at nothing, as they lay her down on the campbed the garageman has. He flicks the kettle on. “I knew there was a reason I stayed tonight,” he says to Joe. “Don’t worry – she’s going to be alright. You jus’ keep holding that hand. I’ll ring for an ambulance.”
But the phone doesn’t connect to start with and when he gets through, they don’t seem to care that a woman is having a baby. “Where’s she from?” asks a voice down the cold phone line. “What’s her trust?”
“I don’t know, do I?” says the garage man. A yell interrupts him. “I didn’t hear,” he says. “Look, send someone quick. She’s a first-timer and there’s no-one here but me and her partner.”
Joe is trying to do what he can. He can see the head of his son, red and striped with dark hair like a bald man’s across his pate, between Moira’s spread legs. There’d been a baby in the family just a few month’s before – Moira’s cousin – but who though to tell him what to do. He just hangs on to his wife’s hand while she shouts and heaves.
So it’s there. In the unheated waiting corner of the garage beside the compressed air tank and with the benison of a Vauxhall up on the lift that their son is born, and when he’s out – it’s mercifully brief bus desperate – the garageman offers a pair of metal-cutting shears to cut the cord and they wipe the little living thing down with paper towels and Moira, in her torn and soaked skirt, clutches him to her exhausted breast and cries with joy and relief.
The garage man doesn’t know what to do. It’s past three in the morning now and he and Joe have been wiping, bracing, holding the young woman as best as they could. He rings his wife, eventually wakes her up, gets her to say she’ll come to help, since a stranger has given birth in his garage.
She falls asleep for a moment, still holding the boy to her. Joe has fetched their blankets from the van, he bag with some clothes, and sits there, in the seats, looking at his wife, in awe of her, of the boy that has sprung out of nowhere and into life… He looks around with eyes drinking in the reality of the world and the garage man makes them both a cup of strong tea with UHT milk.
It’s not long after that they hear the rumble of engines and the shudder and hiss of lorry brakes. Disregard them, initially, but then a face looks around the side of the still open roll-shutters. It’s a guy with a badge that identifies him as a delivery driver, then another man, two more, five or six all trying to get in.
“What do you lot want?” asks the garage man.
The first one in seems to be their chosen leader. “Err,” he hesitates. “Have you had a baby?”
“How did you know that?” asks Joe. “What’s going on?”
“Long story mate,” replies the driver. “Where is he? Where is he?”
Joe doesn’t ask how this stranger knows that the baby is a boy. He doesn’t want to ask anything. Everything seems to be changing in front of his eyes, like he is watching his own life on film. “Over here,” he replies. He leads them to where his wife is now sitting on the campbed, leaning against the wall wrapped in the old van blanket with its oil stains and holes. The baby is in the crook of her arm – a tiny morsel of humanity – not even fully awake. “Moira”, says Joe. “They’ve come to see the baby… They knew. They knew about him. I told you this was meant to be.” He goes to sit with her, puts his arm around his family. “Everything is going to be just like it was promised. I’m sorry I was too slow…”
She shakes her head. “Doesn’t matter, Joe. He’s here now.”
The drivers are standing around in something like a semi-circle, watching, listening. Then, abruptly, one of them kneels down. And the others, drawn by something deep inside, follow.
“Your son,” says one, “Is going to be special. He is special, I mean. Look – I know it’s a funny thing to say. And everyone gets told their baby is going to be someone special. I mean, I’ve got two of my own – I know a bit how you feel, mate,” and he nods at Joe. “But I mean something else. Your baby is the… chosen one.” He looked around at the others for encouragement, dseperate to wring some meaning out of a cliche.
“We got told,” says another. “We got told that we would find a baby in a garage, wrapped in paper towels.”
“Who told you?” asks Moira.
“Angels,” says the first one, shaking his head. “Angels. I was driving, we were all driving…”
“I was pulled over in the layby up Ruggleford corner…” interrupts another.
“Yeah alright – we all saw them, didn’t we.” Nods.
“That’s right.”
“Angels. Had to be.”
“I thought it was some patrol at first,” said the one who’d been parked up. “Came up, tapped on the window, I rolled it down, then I looked at him… Like, shining. Like he had a light on the inside of his face. And he said…”
“Don’t worry,” interrupted another.
“Yeah – that’s what he said to me too.”
“Don’t worry – I’ve got something to tell you – it’s going to change the world…”
“Told us there’d be a garage – told us exactly where – and when we went inside we’d find this baby, wrapped in paper towels, with his mum and dad, and he’d be…”
At last one of them said it. “The saviour of the world.”
By now the garage man’s wife has arrived. She’s a woman with her own children, grandchildren, sees Moira like a friend of her own daughter, just a teenager, taken unawares, sees herself in her, takes her under her wing. The drivers stay, get out some food, even something to drink, continue to tell each other the story, the music they heard, wonder about this baby – this air-gulping, barely alive frail-fisted little child. Is he going to grow up to do something? To change the world like those angels said? Who are his parents, anyway? Why are they here? Joseph tries his best to be in charge, but the garage man sits him down, gives him a drink of something strong from a paper cup, and when he wakes up the lorry drivers have gone and someone has filled the van’s tank with petrol.

Die Ner – Rafe Castleman Reviews

I didn’t fancy eating anywhere by myself that evening. There was a crowd I sometimes spent time with, a sort of fried-egg shaped friendship group, a bit crinkly at the edge, some genuinely pleasant people in the yolk and a lot of rather shallow and flavourless trend-followers around them. But it would be more pleasant than eating by myself. Before I decided where we should meet, I had to choose my target.
Thinking about Max’s warning, I aimed without a particular play in mind. A single spontaneous review was unlikely to do a lot of damage – or boost a first-tier noticeably. But I’d heard interesting things about a place called Die Ner in Covent Garden. It was a Sahi affilliation, so I tucked the Double-Diamond away and fished out a dormant contract I played with in the name of Lucretius Segnit. He had built up a considerable celebration allowance in the last year, so I fiddled his birthday and booked a table for ten.
Antony was in the bar when I got there, drinking Northumbrian lager. We chatted about shallow social things while I cracked the shop lay and started reading the place from the inside out. Our table had been ready for twenty minutes, but the staff wanted to keep us at the bar. I didn’t mind. It wasn’t my allowance I was drinking.
Antony’s friends arrived, together with a half-Samoan skinner called Timeo and a pair of sisters I had met before. We headed to our table in the dark rear of the restaurant.
This wasn’t a gimmick eatery like Eis had been. You could actually eat ten times a week here on a Sahi grade eleven, if you knew the exchanges, but I don’t think you’d want to. They had settled their menu a good long time ago and it wasn’t going to change any time soon. To access it here all you had to do was make your personal query gesture and it slid into view on the back of your sub-dominant hand. I watched Meera and Aruna scrolling through it with their elegant, lozenge-shaped fingertips.
“What do you fancy, ladies?” I asked. “Do you want a recommendation?”
Meera cocked her head. “Have you eaten here before?” she asked, coquettish and a little rushed. She’d had a strong drink before arriving, then.
I replied with a single nod. My eyes began reading her and running a tickertape of physical stats through her rather restrained aura. Height 1654, weight 5423 + 158, plenty more. I pinched it out with a hidden fingertip gesture.
“Perhaps you might enjoy the lobster quinoa salad,” I said. “Quite refreshing. Very reminiscent of a splash of seawater over the gunwale of a speeding catamaran.” It was in my interest for as much variety as possible to arrive on the table, of course. I watched Meera scroll back up and then flare her nostrils – almost certainly to find reviews on the social bands.
Her sister was seated beside me and hadn’t looked up. “I don’t know where to start,” she said. “There’s so much more choice than I’m used to.”
I leant into her personal space. “Then cross out anything you’d have normally. Live a little, Aruna!”
She looked up directly into my eyes. Something flashed there. “Well, there’s this fricasee of porq with araquee blossom and wild rice…?”
“Why not?” I replied.
“Oh, urgh, it’s tankmeat,” she said suddenly. “How tacky.”
“Try it,” I urged. “You might be pleasantly surprised.”
She looked unconvinced.
“Try it! If you don’t like it, have mine. I’m having the turbot in whitest sauce.” The top of the menu. “You can try both, if you like.”
She didn’t know how to take that. The invitation to actually eat off my plate… perhaps it slightly revolted her, as it would so many. Yet at the same time there was that transgressive playfulness. She was a couple of years younger than me and much more used to conventional eating habits. I was sure that she had never needed to scavenge behind eatery waste-chutes to quieten a churning stomach.
“Why not, then?” She gave a flick of her rather spectacular hair. “Four-score years and ten is my lot, after all.”

The food came. It was good, unspectacular, the service unobtrusive and convenient, the wine I had chosen was drinkable and not extravagant. But the dessert posed a problem. As the waiting staff brought out the new dishes, something caught the edge of my attention. A scent. I had ordered a dish of pickled pears – something I had never eaten before – and it came, quite beautifully presented on a heavy cut-glass plate, garnished with tiny sprigs of mint in flower. But there was a taint in the flavour, even before I put it in my mouth.
I had stopped chattering and bent over the food to really smell it. Filling my lungs and dialling my nasal diagnosts to maximum sensitivity, I tried to identify it. Was there a hint of raw meat in this? A contaminated board, an unclean knife, a stained wipe… Perhaps even the hands of the waiting staff… And not any meat. Uncooked… Liverish… Whale meat?
The others had noticed my change in attention and were watching me. I ignored them. Lifted a spoon of pickled pears to my lips and savoured.
Beaver. Definitely beaver. I knew it. I had eaten beaver three times. Once in Canada at a rural festival, once in Deptford in a swanky sea-themed hole and once in Milan. I had eaten the tail, the flank, the brains and the loin. If that had not been sufficient for me to gain an exact flavour profile, then nothing could. I had eaten it more times than I had eaten many tankmeats.
I was going to enjoy this.
“What’s wrong, Rafe?” asked Timeo with a rumble. “Is something wrong?”
“Yes,” I replied. “I don’t generally expect to find stray flavours in my food – least of all in a finely balanced dessert like this.”
I raised a hand in the old-fashioned way. And clicked for service.
Our tableman had been fine – so far. How would he handle this?
“Your preparation area is contaminated,” I told him. “And it is very likely that you could cause a serious reaction in someone unfortunate enough to be susceptible.”
“I’m very sorry sir. You would like something else?”
“No. Not at all. I would like to talk to your head chef. You can tell him that Rafael Castleman of the Open Menu has some advice for him.”
The tables nearby had also fallen silent now. Silence rippled out like a stone disturbs still water.
Only a few moments later – to the house’s credit – the chef arrived. He was a tall, lanky man by the name of Giroflet. I’d never come across him before.
“What seems to be the problem, sir? I understand you do not enjoy the dessert?”
I gave him a toothy grin. “No, that’s not right. I’m quite enjoying myself. And I would have enjoyed this very-well executed little dessert if there hadn’t been an awful taint.”
He looked at me quizzically, whipped a forked spoon from his breast pocket and tried the dish. “What do you taste, Mr Castleman?”
“Beaver,” I replied.
He looked at his waiter. “The gentleman tastes beaver.”
“I do,” I replied. “Distinctly.”
“It is impossible,” he replied. “I taste nothing.”
“But I taste everything,” I said, pushing back my chair. “Have you ever eaten beaver, chef?”
He disregarded my challenge. “I can taste nothing of the sort,” he said calmly. “There is no beaver in the kitchen and there has never has been and there never will be such a ridiculous ingredient while I am chef.”
“You have a contaminated preparation area, chef,” I said, “And I will be writing exactly that unless…”
“Unless nothing,” he snapped. “Unless nothing. I expected nothing less from you, Mr Castleman. Or rather, Mr Segnit. Threats. Attempts to bully and bluster and bluff your way on an empty hand. I do not even desire to know what it is you want from me. I know your ways. I know your slant, sir, your thumbscrew words and reviews. But here nothing will work. In my kitchen I have the most up-to-date volatile chamber available commercially. And if you so desire, we can take your dish of pears and combust it right now. And exactly what flavours are present, perhaps we can let everyone see.”
I had to smile. The man was going to give me exactly what he wanted. The irony was that however up-to-date his volatile chamber, it could not compete with the three Rettier diagnosts implanted in my opthalmic bulb, each running their own identification protocols on every bite that I ate, every scent that I smelt, every savour that drifted past my nose. And I hadn’t even had to ask them about this – plain, simple old unaugmented memory had done it.
“Ideal,” I said. “I see no purpose in wasting any time.”

The kitchen had been in full swing, the very middle of service, but when the chef and I entered the brigade were standing back from their positions. Giroflet marched to a glass-fronted cabinet built into the wall and remotely slid a door aside with a gesture. “You will not be familiar with such equipment, Mr Castleman,” he said with a sneer. “Typically more useful for creating than criticising, but in this instance, perhaps demonstrative.” He nodded me the readout it stood, void and green in my upper left eye, while I waited with crossed arms for him to press the button.
He did so, and in a flash of intense heat and low pressure the food sublimed straight off the dish, its molecules unaltered. Every volatile was charted, right down to the single molecule.
Not a single shadow of beaver anywhere.
I immediately replayed my own readings. The two Rettier 409s in tandem had tasted, said their memories, nothing but perfectly ripe Wilson pear, cider vinegar pickle, anethole, menthole… Nothing indicative of raw meat.
The 309 said the same – after a rapid reboot.
So how had I tasted raw beaver?
The chef was looking at me. “It grieves me that you no longer have a dish of pears to enjoy,” he said. “But if you came with another intention – not the intention to enjoy the food set before you – who am I to cross your path? Please leave this kitchen. And my restaurant. And do not try to bluff with me again.”
A security man in his uniform black had appeared from somewhere, but I had no intention of staying. Return to the table and admit I had been wrong? Return to that silent room where I had faced the chef with such conviction? When my own nose had lied to me? What was this.
“Your machine says there was no beaver in this, but if I tasted beaver then I tasted beaver.”
“I think you are over-taxing your imagination, Mr Castleman. A hysterical experience, perhaps. And if a single subjective opinion should react in such a way… Well, I dismiss it!”
A heavy hand grasped at my sleeve, but I shook it off. “Get off!” I shoved a pastry chef out of the way and headed towards the service entrance.
“You’ll think hard before publishing a review based entirely upon your imagination, I’m sure,” said the chef. “Although perhaps rather more of what you have written was made up than you ever realised.”
His tone was so disgustingly smug that I wanted to spit. I wanted to throw something with clang or slam a door. I was searching for the last phrase to end it all.
I had nothing left to say.