Sixty years after the Great Houses War, Samariel’s private quarters, House Hawthorn, Paris


(image: The Castle Gate, Ferdinand Knab, 1881)

This is the room of grief.

It lies empty, hollowed-out. Fire burns in the grate, a paltry light that doesn’t hold the darkness at bay, or fill in the void of its owner’s absence. Flowers have wilted on the mantelpiece; there is a faint smell of bergamot turned sour–and a sketchpad lies open on the bed, the graceful curves of oranges and grapes trailing off, the still life forever unfinished.

There is someone in the room–walking softly, noiselessly on the Persian carpets. He stops by the bed; stares for a while, at the sketchpad. His face is tight, emotionless. He does not weep. What good would it do? It will not bring him back.

He ponders, for a while–on other ways, on other prices to pay. On what he would get back–a blank slate with no memories, a lich risen from the grave with only hollowness in its eyes. On a courtship, which would have to be done again, painstakingly and methodically: no longer the wild and intoxicating one of their youth, but a thing burdened with too much memory and too much knowledge. Ponders, too, on the possibility that… Samariel might choose another.

His hands have clenched into fists.


He has loved, and lost–one should always admit when one has lost, it saves so much time, so much struggling. When one is beaten–and he’s not, in so many ways. The House stands strong. Silverspires is a wrecked ruin; and there is little to prevent his schemes from coming to fruition. But in this…

He picks the sketchpad from the bed; carries it, as gently as it were his lover, to the fireplace–stands, for a fraction of a heartbeat, the time it takes to utter a scream–and throws it in.

The door opens, as he watches the paper burn. He doesn’t raise his head, or indicate in any way that he has seen the woman. But she has–she stops, with a visible effort–everything about her poised to flee.

“Clothilde,” Asmodeus says. “What a surprise to find you here.”

“My lord.” She’s old–not lined or wrinkled, but with the peculiar smooth agelessness that comes of frequenting a Fallen too closely. “I didn’t expect–” She stops then, raises a hand to her mouth. “Forgive me.”

“What is there to forgive?” Asmodeus shrugs. He moves away from the fireplace, where the papers are still burning. “I was done, in any case.”

As his hand rests on the door handle, she speaks up. “My lord. I have to ask–”

“What will happen?” Asmodeus smiles, an expression that is as sharp and as pleasant as broken glass.

“Samariel–” She stops, again.

“I haven’t forbidden you to speak his name.” She flinches as he inflects the word “forbidden”–it gives him such petty pleasure, to see her still afraid, twenty years on. How it’s so easy, so… permanent, to imprint fear on someone. “You’re wondering if the… protection he afforded you still holds.”

She flinches again, not watching him. She was in a cell, twenty years ago–and he was angrier, and blunter than he is now, with no time for finesse or subtlety. That is what she remembers–the monster that haunts her nightmares, the smiling Fallen with the knife in his hands, assessing how much of a threat she posed to the House.

It’s not that he regrets; or that he wouldn’t do it again–if he thought it necessary, it would happen the same way in a heartbeat, and Samariel isn’t here to save her anymore. But… times have changed. She has changed–pressed and moulded by her proximity to Samariel until she hardly remembers what it was, to be a loyalist–or that she ever gave in to the folly of challenging him. “I still have a use for you, after all. Work,” he says, with a tight smile that has nothing of joy. “You are, whether I like it or not, one of the House’s magicians.”

“My lord–”

He says, softly, slowly–because things should be made clear, now, at the very beginning: “Uphir is dead. Ciseis is dead. It has been twenty years, and I am head of the House. Will you still defy me? You know how it would all end.” He brings his hands in front of him; extends finger after finger, like a pianist stretching for a concert. “You would make such sweet sounds, while I finally break you.”

The shudder that runs through her is a thrill in his bones–a hint of a pleasure he won’t allow himself. Cannot allow himself. She is loyal now, and he stands by his own. Always has.

She faces him–hands clenched, gaze raised to meet his–she’s trembling, and trying not to let it show–such joy it would be, in other circumstances. No matter. “My lord,” she says, again. “I am at your service.”

And perhaps, after all, he has broken her. Not every crack is visible; not everything leads to a gibbering wreck seated in the emptiness of cells. Sometimes, screams are stuck inside like broken shards of bone–rubbing against throat tissues until every word comes out flecked with blood.

Listening to the dead

I walk in, sit down at the desk. I have to leave all electronic equipment outside. The computer in here is a stationary 386 from the last century, operating on MS-DOS only. No uplink. Apparently as safe as it can get. So there I sit, the computer fan like an aeroplane taking off, and listen to the whispers.

The whispers: sympathetic magic. Ancient. It’s disgusting. I dry-heaved the first time. But you get used to it. The attendant pierces the author’s tongue and smudges some of what comes out onto my ear. How they keep the author going, I don’t know. It’s rituals, amulets, fetishes. The actual author lies on a chaise-longue, all dressed up, like a real writer. It almost looks as if they’re resting after dinner. Sometimes their eyes are half open, maybe pointing in different directions. The cheeks are sunken, and the eye sockets. The mouth ajar. They often look surprised or a little grumpy. My mum has told me how difficult how it can be to dress up a corpse. Not emotionally difficult, but it’s hard to put clothes on someone who doesn’t help you out, or even has rigor mortis. But they’re not scary. They look like dolls. It only gets scary when they talk, but then you realize they’re really harmless. They’re me when I’m dead. It’s like talking to a sick relative maybe, if you can shut out the sweet-chemical smell of embalmed corpse.

The only one who was really difficult was a poet who had drowned herself; they found her only when her body had begun to swell up. She was really unusable; much of her brain tissue was gone. But she had a post mortem contract, so she had her way: they had to make an attempt to channel her words. She only had one manuscript in her. What she said was so disjointed I almost couldn’t turn it into anything. The result was a poetry collection that was lauded as ”a sojourn through the darkest places of humanity”.

A Storm is Coming


Manang Etta had opened her eyes as soon as she heard the stalks of the bamboo floor creaking under Socorro’s weight. While picking up strewn house dresses, Socorro observed that she seemed more lucid than she had in the last few weeks; however, whatever hopes she had were soon dashed by a fit of wet coughs.

Once it was over, Manang Etta intoned above the buzz of hundreds of tiny wings beating against their prisons, “I had a dream last night, borne on the wings of the cicadas. A typhoon of immense power is coming to our shores. It will be here exactly one week from now, and its wrath will wash all things into the bay. None will be able to flee it.”

Socorro straightened up, arms full of smelly garments. “You are sure of this, manang?”

“Fool girl,” Manang Etta answered. “I feel as if I have wasted this last year and a half on you. Have you learned nothing at all about insects?”

“I have learned plenty more here with you than when I was in convent school,” said Socorro. She fidgeted and her ears roared. “All the same, I’d rather that what you are telling me is not true and will not come true. You need to be moved.”

“That won’t be necessary,” Manang Etta cut in. “We do not speak of this, but I know you know I will not live out the year.”

Pre-Departure Guide for Manananggals

Welcome to the New Cities and congratulations on being accepted into Salvage Expeditors Incorporated’s Special Assassination and Removal Agent Program (SARAP).

As noted in your agent agreement, you will be targeting fugitives who are too dangerous for regular law enforcement, and are not eligible or cannot afford incarceration in one of our award-winning corporate prison programs.

Enlisting as a SARAP agent is not only a lucrative pursuit; it can also ensure you a consistent supply of fresh, legal viscera.

This FAQ compiles information relevant to duly-licensed contractors who will be living and hunting in the New Cities (as well as in participating affiliate jurisdictions).

Specifically, it focuses on useful pre-departure information that you need to be aware of before joining one of our 20 local offices. We hope to make your transition into the corporation as exciting and risk-managed as possible.

1. Qualifications and Documentation

a. Do you have a valid passport? – All manananggals are required to bring a valid passport when flying from one territory to another (regardless of whether aircraft is used for travel or not).

b. Do you have an employment contract? – Hunting without a signed, official contract from Salvage Expeditors, Inc. is illegal and carries serious consequences.

c. Do you have valid Health Coverage? – Salvage operations carry a considerable amount of risk. While the company will co-pay for basic physical injuries in the line of duty (please refer to the employee handbook for more information), all contractors are required to provide their own comprehensive insurance coverage. Please ensure that there is a rider for blood-borne pathogens such as HIV, hepatitis and hemorrhagic Fever.

2. Licensing

a. Do you have a valid Hunting License? – Please ensure that your Hunting license has at least 6 months validity before reporting to your designated office. You may be required to present proof of a recent positive kill by your local Human Resources officer.

b. Do you have your Overseas Employment Badge? – Do not go anywhere without your OEB. This badge serves as your exit clearance at immigration posts and exempts you from all travel taxes and airport fees. When flying under your own power, the built-in transponder also serves to identify you to local air-defense commands. Salvage Expeditors Inc. will not be held liable if you are shot down because you are NOT wearing your OEB — even if you are carrying out an officially-sanctioned activity.

3. Before you move to a New City

a. Have you ensured that your lower body parts have been shipped correctly? – Remember to vacuum pack the two halves of your abdomen to prevent spillage. Always ensure that the container you use has NO traces of salt, vinegar or ashes. Shipping insurance is mandatory.

b. Have you done your pre-flight medical examination? – The company reserves the right to refuse employment or forcibly terminate any pregnancies that may interfere with carrying out salvage duties.

4. Placement

a. Have you already received your placement? – No placement means no hunting ground. You may negotiate with another SARAP agent to increase the size of your jurisdiction. However if negotiations result in the death of one party, the surviving agent must pay compensation and indemnify the company from any subsequent liability.

5. Arriving and Housing

a. Have you secured dormitory space? – Manananggals, like all overseas foreign workers, are required to stay in their assigned dormitories for hygiene reasons and to ensure harmony with their host community. You must remember that you are a guest of the New Cities, no matter how long you have been employed by Salvage Expeditors, Inc. You are contractually obligated to limit your non-work interactions with citizens as much as possible.

b. Are agents allowed to visit the New Cities when not on a hunt? – Please consult your employee handbook to learn about the wonderful and exciting shopping areas that are open to special contractors like you. All other areas are off-limits when not on duty.

6. Jurisdiction and Enforcement

a. What happens if you cross the border of your assigned New City? – If you cross your jurisdiction’s borders in pursuit of a target, you will get shot down by local law enforcement or attacked by the manananggal whose territory you crossed. Always remember to set your geo-tag alarms to prevent this.

b. Why do I need to carry a Salvage special power-of-attorney (SSPA)? – You must present this document to your target before carrying out a sentence. A kill is not valid without it. Where possible, please take a picture of yourself explaining the SSPA to your target.

c. Do I need proof-of-kill? – Before consuming your target remember to take a blood sample for positive identification, and do not forget to get his or her thumbprint in the acknowledgement portion of the SSPA. Also, remember to provide evidence that the body has been disposed off. You will not be paid for your work without any proof.

7. Offences

a. What happens if I do not kill my target? – You will be fired, arrested and deported. You are only as good as your last kill.

b. What happens if I do not eat my target? – You are required by law to consume what you hunt. However you may store any leftovers in designated freezers at your dormitory for a maximum of 15 days.

c. What happens if I do not clean up? – Salvage Expediters Inc. prides itself in being a responsible corporate citizen. You will be disciplined and fined if you do not clean and disinfect your worksite. Consult your employee handbook for more details.

d. Can I give/donate my target’s body? – No.

e. What happens if you kill a non-target? – You will be arrested, your wings clipped and your body immediately re-purposed. No compensation will be paid to your next-of-kin.

8. Other questions

a. Is it true that sometimes your target is not the actual person convicted of the grave offence? – The New Cities have a progressive criminal justice system that is the envy of the entire world. Every productive citizen who meets a certain income, IQ or genetic desirability level has the right to purchase their freedom by paying selected members of the immigrant community to receive punishment on their behalf. The family of the latter is then provided immediate citizenship, as well as a generous financial package.

b. Are Manananggals eligible for this special citizenship program? – No. You and your kind are unfortunately not eligible for citizenship.

Thank you for joining Salvage Expeditors, Inc. We hope you enjoy your SARAP contract period in the New Cities and happy hunting!

Interrogating Your Ex on Her Offworlder Boyfriend


Friday night’s celebratory dinner was in full swing when Julie, beer in hand, sidled onto the stool next to mine, where I was waiting for my second brewed root beer (well, everyone except Ces, who liked to complain about how next to the US’s rotating skyscrapers and comm implants, the Philippines was still trekking in the quagmire of the early twenty-first century).

Julie had cut her hair since Roland’s dad’s funeral. She’d gelled them into spikes, which made her tiny face look younger and rounder. Maybe that was why she’d put on a lot of makeup tonight. I hitched my voice low and said, “Miss, ID po. Pang eighteen and up lang po yung bar na ‘to.”

Gago ka pa rin, I see,” Julie said evenly. She pinched near my elbow. I yelped—she’d been growing her nails and colored them metallic blue whereas when we were going out, she’d kept them short and clear. That was when I noticed her fingers: they had a light dusting of orange. Suddenly, I knew why she wore something that covered her neck and arms and why her face looked a little more bronze. It wasn’t like Julie to be secretive, and it made something in my chest spasm.

“Heard you’re dating an Offworlder now—a Jovian, right?” I said while rubbing where she pinched me.

“That’s right.”

“Mariel told us you’d gone to Jupiter a few months ago. Is that where you met?”

Hindi. We met at work. He was going to file a complaint with HR—”

The bartender slid me my root beer as I raised my eyebrow. “And he walked away with your number instead?”

I imagine the face Julie made was what anyone would make if they’d been suckling calamansi. She opened her mouth to retort, but I cut her off. “How old is he and how long have you been dating?”

“Who made you my father?” One corner of Julie’s mouth quirked upward, and just like that, her entire expression turned wry, mischievous, like she was hiding something behind her back. I remembered why we used to date. “He’s twenty-six Jovian years old and it’s been five months now. And just so you know, I’ve already heard everything about having May-December affairs with three hundred and fourteen-year-old guys, so you can spare me your sass, Migs.”

I did some quick math to confirm it, then grinned. “Planning to move there? Will we get to meet the poor bastard before you leave?”

“We’re dating, Migs. Not getting married—”

“And yet you met his parents already.”

I read Julie’s expression as I’ll never tell that tsismosang Mariel anything again. She continued, “At teka lang, ha. Doesn’t pitying him make you a poor bastard for dating me, too?”

I felt my grin getting wider. It hurt a little. “Never denied that.”

“Hate you.”

“Missed you too, Jules.”

We drank in chummy silence.

In the Dark Heart of Tundon


To the east of the Ayta Mountains lay the Village-Kingdom of Sambali and its capital of Olo Nin Apo (which meant “God’s Head” in their dark ancient tongue). The Sambali were slavers and preyed upon the Ayta or anyone else that wandered too close to their borders, particularly during the summer slaving season.

Bands of Sambali raiders were much feared among the small island kingdoms. They kidnapped anyone they thought would provide a good price at the slave markets, or rounded up those that had fallen into debt. They were said to provide the choicest of slaves, stocking all kinds of captives: men, women, children, and even the occasional Kamana to provide whatever their clients needed or desired.

Once a year, they would load a large boat, and make a dangerous sea crossing to the Land of Qin, where they hid under the name 三佛齊 or San-fo-ts’i. From there, their human wares were traded on the silk and spice road northwards through the strongholds of the Xiongnu and the Yuezhi, towards the remote Siberians realms of Hyperborea, and eastward past the Scythian steppes of Bactria. Their best slaves were sold for premium prices through the frankincense caravanserai of Iram in Parthia, as offerings for the golden temples of Chola and Suvarnabhumi, and even farther across the sands to the Great Empire of Maurya, where virgin slaves gathered white tea leaves at the foothills of the Himalayas.

In the heart of Olo Nin Apo was the slave market, a huge emporium where people and all manner of goods were bought and sold. This market surrounded the Great Hall of the Sambali Lords, like a living, ceaselessly moving moat.

Apart from slaves, the Sambali also traded in precious stones, which was the village-kingdom’s main currency. It was said that the Sambali market contained more mineral wonders than any kingdom that bordered Mother Ocean: red and green garnets the size of pigeon-eggs, rare bezoars, pearls as big as fists, and jade in all the colours of the rainbow. Most precious of all were the exotic black diamonds, which were said to be found only in the ruins of the ancient city of Tundon. The Sambali elders said that these were not native to the islands, save for a precious few that fell from the sky as bulalakaw or shooting stars. Every single one of them were all said to have once belonged to the dreaded Lord of Tundon. These dark gems were considered so rare and valuable that only the leader of the Sambali was allowed to own or trade them.

One fine evening, under the orange glow of mangrove-wood torches, an unnaturally tall young man inspected a hawker’s gleaming wares. The warrior’s bearing was straight and imposing, with the sturdy authority of a mabolo tree that lorded over the forest canopy. His skin was as dark and brown as Pasig river mud but his hair was as pale and silver as moonlight.

Underneath a short tunic, trimmed with wild cat fur, he wore the heavy leather armor worn by the Xiongnu nomads who lived in the shadow of the pole star. On his feet were something that few in islands were accustomed to see, a pair of royal scythics, Scythian boots of leather and metal.

“I am looking for your biggest black diamond,” the stranger declared, fingering a purse filled to capacity with gold.

“Only the Most Powerful and Almighty Lord of Sambali can trade diamonds,” the shopkeeper of shiny baubles and gewgaws said, with a wide smile that revealed that every single one of his betel-stained teeth was decorated with gold. “If you somehow get an audience my friend, you will need more than gold to entice him.”

The young man said nothing and walked away. He was joined by two burly figures flourishing an arsenal of strange weapons. Together the fearsome trio walked towards the Great Hall, stopping only to watch the human chattel on parade at the town’s central square.

The new slaves shuffled in with a cadence of dead sighs. They were led into the main bazaar with nothing but a scrap of bamboo hanging around their neck, scrawled with symbols indicating their age, origin, and abilities. The best were placed on individual revolving stages, where eager buyers could inspect them in the round. An auctioneer called out the attributes of each slave before haggling with buyers, who whispered each emulous offer in the traditional Sambali manner called bulungan.

The young man observed a family of indentured Namayan people, wailing as different buyers separated them forever. A dark Ayta woman with beautifully formed ebony breasts caught his attention. He watched as a buyer from the Middle Kingdom ran his wizened hands across her skin, as if it were a fine bolt of silk. Behind him, wearing only a leather collar was a young Yuezhi man with melancholy blue eyes and a sharp hairless chin. He had been given away as stock ransom to pay a family’s generations-old debt.

A series of small hanging cages also intrigued him. Inside were tiny humans, the size of crab-eating macaques.

“您好,” greeted a slave trader who wore an expensive tunic of silk and banana leaves. “What language do you speak stranger?”

“好, 谢谢你,” the young man responded. “I also speak Sambali.”

“Ah, you may not be such a barbarian after all. The creatures you looking at are called ‘Ebu Gogo’,” He said, pointing to the cage. “They may look like Kamana, but I assure you they are actually a type of relic human. There are not many left now.”

“Where are they from?” the outlander asked.

“We captured them on a small island many moons south of here called the Island of Flowers,” said the slaver, caressing a long grey mustache flecked with specks of gold. “It lies west of Apo Krakatau, the same island in where the heroes of old hunted dwarf stegodons. Ebu Gogo slaves are exceedingly rare and they almost never survive the sea journey.”

“Fascinating,” the young man said, poking the diminutive savage with a stick, “they look very fierce.”

“They are extremely strong and feral for their size. We usually lose a few of our slaves to their traps when we hunt them. Can I interest you in acquiring one? Every young lord should have a conversation piece in his camp, assuming of course that you can afford them.”

“Thank you but I am not interested.” The young man remarked.

“Hmm…your Xiongnu armour usually means money. Perhaps the young warrior will be interested in one of my fine ladies?” the slaver said, clapping three times. His assistants brought out five magnificent young women for the young man’s inspection.

“Look at them my Lord, all soft and rounded, large-lipped, perfect and ample. This one here is from the odious Salt Kingdom, which lies north of the Ayta Mountains. The women there are deluded, thinking that they are superior to us men. We had to beat this one for many moons until she learned to submit like a proper wench. She still has a bit of a bite but I will stake my reputation on how excellent she is with her hands.” He tittered, pointing to a comely woman with olive-brown skin and dead, glassy eyes.

“I am not looking for a woman.”

“I see.” The slaver said, clapping four times. His assistants scrambled inside the jute tent and brought out four young men with delicate features and enormous reproductive organs. “You do look like you have exotic tastes.”

“No, I did not mean it that way.” The strange warrior said impassively. “I am not looking for slaves. I am only interested in diamonds.”

“You just wasted my time!” The slaver said, flipping open his palm-frond fan and walking towards another potential customer; “…so rude these barbarians.” he muttered. “你妈卖批”

The young man felt a wave of anger welling in his breast. “You have insulted my mother, slaver.” He said, pulling out his jian, a huge double-edged sword made from blood-forged iron. The blade was as long as a man’s arm and its width the breadth of a child’s palm. Its surface was covered in both sides with dark snake-like patterns, and decorated with white jade and black obsidian. The grip of the sword was bound by black silk terminating in a pommel of eleven concentric iron circles.

The slaver was unperturbed by the weapon and summoned his guards with a series of claps. “Kill him,” He ordered, “and someone bring me a cup of areca toddy.”

Six Sambali mercenaries rushed out from the tent, bearing bronze swords and spears. The out lander was joined by his two large companions, and a crowd formed to watch the fight. Unlike most societies, where people valued personal safety and moved away from the direction of danger, the Sambali were addicted to the low-brow theater of visceral thrills. The crowd jostled with one another to watch the fight from the best vantage points. It didn’t take long for a sizable audience to be assembled, complete with howling bookies calling the odds and soliciting bets.

The tallest and most muscular warrior thrust his panabas towards the young man’s chest. The panabas was a long, single-edged bronze sword, one of a Sambali’s four favored weapons which included the spear sibat, the leaf-shaped broad knife barong, and the wooden staves, baston. The panabas was known as the best blade for separating heads from necks. With a quick turn of the wrist and a hard swing it sliced easily through bone and flesh.

The stranger parried with a blow so powerful that it broke the bronze sword into two. Moving swiftly, he kicked his opponent in the sternum. He moved behind the slaver, knocking the man unconscious with the pommel of his sword. Another strong kick sent the dazed slaver hurtling towards a barbecue stand selling dried squid and roasted mud-skippers.

He jumped towards another warrior, smashing a bronze spear and immobilizing the slaver’s arms with a series of rapid straight punches to the biceps. His companion hurled the incapacitated soldier towards another group of stalls, sending chicken feet, duck eggs, cubes of boiled blood, and marinated pig intestines flying through the air. The small team quickly dispatched the rest of their adversaries and the slave trader found himself facing the three strangers alone.

“By my sword Lagim apologize, and I may let you live,” The leader of the out-landers ordered.

“I hardly think so,” the slaver snorted. The fight had drawn the attention of the Sambali authorities, and the young man and his companions were quickly surrounded by a contingent of twenty fierce Sambali warriors.

[Stay tuned for the next thrilling chapter. Hanggang sa susunod na kabanata…]

Data Recording 1602- EP32R : Pejura, Multiplicacion

Multimama is on the Nets when Francis arrives at Pejura. Multimama’s skin flickers and glows, and her hands wave about in front of her. She plucks a window from above her head and moves it closer to her left hand. Her right palm presses onto the boards, it’s like an intricate dance. Feet and hips, arms, elbows, fingers, every bit of Multimama hums with energy.

“Her highness is looking for you,” Multimama says the moment Francis steps through the door.

“You didn’t tell her where I was, did you?” Francis says.

“I told the truth,” Multimama replies.

Francis groans.

“I told her you weren’t here and I didn’t know if you were at home or on the way or if you were waylaid somewhere.”

Trust Multimama to give the right answers. Francis heaves a sigh of relief. Skyworld Heaven’s Queen can be cunning, but ever since she came to Silhouette, Francis believes there’s no one who can match Multimama, not even the queen herself.

“Did she leave a message?” Francis asks.

“Said you should come home,” Multimama says. Her face is a deliberate cream. She doesn’t ask any questions, just waves her hands, pushes three windows out and pulls a new one up.

I don’t like to meddle,” Multimama continues, “but maybe you should talk things out.”

Francis ignores Multimama’s words. Instead, she reaches for a headset.

“I’m plugging in,” she says.


Francis surfs the Net with thoughts of her mother pinging inside her head. Almighty Queen of Heaven with nothing to show for it. What honor they had was all reflected back from centuries ago when Heaven’s First King gave light to the populace of Silhouette. From there on the legend grew, and Gayum’s descendants either mooched off the glory or they went off and lived lives like Francis had chosen to do.

When are you coming home, Francis?” Her mother’s voice echoes through the headphones. Even on the Nets there’s no escaping her surveillance. Francis utters a four-letter word.

“F**k  Mom,” she says. “Even in here?”

The queen’s voice is full of self-satisfaction.

“What good is power if you don’t exercise it, darling?”

Francis curses again.

It’s an old subject of contention. Francis argues that power isn’t meant to be used for one’s selfish ends, but the queen’s principle summed up equals nothing less than using power or it’s useless.

“I’m not doing it,” Francis says. “No matter how you push, Mom. I’m not using the changer gene to influence people on your behalf.”

Mom’s sigh sheds a pink mist on the virtual world. Francis fumes and sends out her greys to neutralize the pink.

“At least meet the Manun’o emissary,” her mother says.  “Don’t do it for me, do it because it’s the polite thing to do.”

“Fine,” Francis says. “If I meet him, will you stop bugging me?”

Mom doesn’t answer, and Francis thinks of how it’s just like the queen to remove herself to another awareness the moment she hears Francis say Fine.

February, at a bus stop

I’m tired enough to be rude. I squeeze in. She doesn’t move. I can just about fit on the bench. Her leg is resting against mine. It’s warm, almost hot. Warmth spreads to my right frozen thigh. The woman smells unwashed and sickly sweet, with an undertone of something spicy. Like incense in new age-stores, but it’s probably pot.

Lindex, Synsam, Konsum, wink the neon signs from the back of the shopping centre across the street. On top of the building sits a large H, for the municipality’s name. The crossbar of the H is a heart, blinking on and off. Next to me is the woman’s breaths, small damp puffs against the side of my face. She’s watching me. I read Lindex, Synsam, Konsum, waiting for her to turn away again. She keeps breathing on my cheek. I read backwards – musnoK, masnyS, xedniL. She’s breathing with her mouth open. The bus isn’t on time. Lindex, Synsam, Konsum. The heart blinks on and off. I turn my head.

She comes back in my dreams. I sit on the bench by the bus stop with her leg against mine, the warmth intimate, and she’s breathing on my cheek with her mouth open. I read the signs on the shopping centre in dream fashion: Lindex, Synaps, Korfu, waiting for her to stop watching me, but then I turn my head.

Maybe she wasn’t expecting me to look back at her. She might be unprepared. Before her face slides back into place again there is something else peeking out between the lank strands. Then an anonymous human face meets my gaze and turns away. I turn away, too. I read Lindex, Synsam, Konsum. The warmth leaves my leg. The bus comes. She is gone.

On the outskirts of Kota Bharu, in a rental Perodua

Mouseover Malay text for an English translation

Kami kat luar Pacific Hotel, pak cik,” said Jen down the phone. She was still pink with frustration from driving in circles all morning.

The voice that answered her was hard to make out, partly because it was fuzzed up by being on speakerphone, but mostly because it was pure Kelantan. But it only said a few words anyway:

Sampai dah? Awak tunggu!


But the pak cik had hung up. Jen and Hwee Ning shared a look of confusion.

“See lah, read food blogs some more,” said Hwee Ning. “That’s what happens when you try to follow the hipsters.”

“Are there even any hipsters in Kelantan?” said Jen mournfully. She jabbed at her smartphone, as if in hope that that would persuade it to explain where they were and how they had got there. “If there was at least they’d update Waze!

Hipste Kelate by Alina Choong
Portrait of a hipste Kelate by Alina Choong

Notes from a Chicken Rice Apocalypse


“Oh no, I hate this part,” the demon boy said. “Sometimes, I hate being omniscient.”

Alamak! I’ve seen this machine before,” Ah Kong said, as he stood over the three desk-like control panels.  Each one had CRT screens embedded in the top half while the lower portion was covered by a motley assortment of buttons, levers and dials.  “I know this TV show, lah. I used to watch it all the time.”

Before Laplace’s Demon could stop him, Ah Kong pulled down a big, important-looking lever. The control panels began to hum to life and a small wormhole opened in the alcove in front of them. A boom tube roared into existence — a tunnel connecting two points in time.

Aiyoh, this thing is stuck!” Ah Kong shouted. He tried yanking the lever upwards but it wouldn’t budge. “Help! It won’t shut down!”

The ground began to shake and a most peculiar noise came out of nowhere. It was a strange sound that seemed like something hissing and clucking at the same time. From the center of the wormhole the silhouette of several large birds began to appear like Indonesian shadow puppets. The CRT displays began flashing words that Ah Kong couldn’t understand: “Deinonychus antirrhopus

“I suggest we start running, Uncle,” the demon boy shouted. “Come on — run, run, run!”

Within seconds, the first of several emu-sized creatures popped out of the boom tube. Ah Kong had never seen anything so frightening in his life.  The coarsely-feathered beast had a long, meaty tail; a big eagle head; and a dragon-like mouth filled with many jagged teeth. At the end of each wing limb were three sharp, sickle-shaped claws.

The monster and six of its brethren jumped into the gallery where the lights and the strange displays quickly disoriented them.  The time-tossed predators grew confused and irritable.  Startled by their own reflections, they attacked the thousands of shiny surfaces in a vicious rampage. Loud alarm bells began to ring throughout the gallery, further fueling their violence.

The biggest of the Deinonychus spied Ah Kong and his friend running down the hallway. It let out a piercing, raptor-like shriek and came after the pair. The other five soon followed suit, knocking down everything that wasn’t bolted in place. A terrified Ah Kong shuddered every time a glass case broke, or whenever the monsters’ claws hit something metallic. He thought that the noise sounded very much like death’s nails raking over a blackboard.

When the two of them reached the place where the Historioscope was, he unwisely looked back, checking to see how far their pursuers were. Thus distracted, he tripped on a Korean mailbox, dislodging a fragment of a long metal label that read “Il Mare”. The leader of the monstrous pack was just a few meters behind him. It jumped over several pieces of machinery and landed right on top of Ah Kong. The creature pinned the helpless young man with its hefty weight.

“Help!” Ah Kong yelled as the Deinonychus raised its furious talons to strike.

The demon boy ran over to another display case and quickly lifted the cover. He sent a tiny bolt of lightning through the dial of an extraordinary crystal clock, causing it to tick once and freeze time all around them. Ah Kong was stopped in mid-scream; the slashing claws of the Deinonychus were just a centimeter above his carotid artery. The rest of the monsters were also trapped in mid-jump, along with magically half-toppled displays, and broken glass that hung in the air like exploded flowers. The label of this museum piece was also suspended in mid-fall, but the words were too far away to read properly. Ah Kong could only make out a strange name “Pratchett”.

The boy quickly dragged his time-locked companion into a blue police box that stood next to a DeLorean DMC-12 and secured the door. Outside, time restarted almost immediately and the two heard a loud crashing din.