Mightier than Sword - A Short Story

Updated: Feb 12


Cassander and Dog-Tail Johnnie discover an abandoned Stymphalion assembly plant
Cassander and his associate, Dog-Tail Johnnie

[Next in our Ordinary People of The Empyraeum series, we have the story of how Cassander and Dog-Tail Johnnie met, as well as an insight into Cassander's motivations and background]



Terrible warrior I might be, but I knew the Code; leave no man (or women) behind.

“Over there, over there!”

“There are three of them, box them in!”

“Helfire take them, if they’re lucky.” This voice was deeper, booming and full of zeal, the voice of a leader. “Helfire take you if they get away”


We crouched under rotting wooden stairs hoping that the pouring rain and fog would help hide us better. We were all three soaked to the skin and shivering but in the waterproof satchel I could feel pressed against my back was the thing that made it all worthwhile. I tried to blend into the ancient wood and shadows, fought to control my ragged breathing and hammering heart, afraid that the cloaked and helmeted figures I could just about make out scrambling over the piles of broken refuse, wouldn’t take long to discover us. They’d stowed their shock-stocks because of the rain but that did not reassure me, The Choir – the Keepers - had other weapons than that. One wrong move and they’d hypno-dart us or, worse case, start tossing kòmos grenades about so’s we’d dance into their clutches, grins on pain on our faces as we did it. How could I have been so stupid?


“When Alexander first came to these islands, we stopped his unbeatable army dead. In Byrttan, we made him fight for every single step for five long years. In the hills and valleys of Cymru, he could not find us. Into Skotia even he dared not cross. Then we saw something amazing. We fought and we died in our droves but we were no match for his army, especially not those silent giants of metal and fire. They, however, chose not to kill us.


They could have slaughtered us without effort, wiped these islands clean but they did not. One day, they merely stunned our warriors and left them where they slept; they chose the path of honour. This impressed us and, after five long years we honoured Alexander as our High Druid and accepted The Empyraeum To Be. We never stopped respecting him because he could have come here, slaughtered and taken what he wanted like so many had before, but he did not; he respected our ways and demanded we change nothing, he just asked that we belong to something greater, something new.


He built us a grand city that he called Alexandria-Upon-Tameis. He built us temples and all kinds of things we had never before seen and even integrated our language into the new one this Empyraeum would be using. He asked for nothing but taxes and that we call him the boss. We agreed and he built a great big road that crossed the sea on boats making it easy to sell our tin, iron, and gold all across this emerging idea and in return, we got more cities, new foods, and the best brains the world had ever seen...”


The synthetik voice of the auto-diadakt ‘book’ droned on and on but I muted it with a fingernail. Just setting eye on this tech would be enough to earn me a private suite in the choir-cote, nice and deep down where I’d only be attended by only their very best torturers. Listening to it was enough to get me shot because none of that really happened, so the government assured us. It was lies, designed to draw the people away from the Church, from the True Way laid down by the Kristoman and transmitted to us by the High Prefect. To read this or listen to it would endanger my immortal soul and require drastic and, unfortunately, terminal intervention from our ever-watchful Keepers. Believing it would mean permanent damnation.


Utter jack, complete and total gaidàtoulà jack. I flexed the fingers of my right hand slowly, the fingers were healing up ok, I’d been stupid and taken too big a risk in getting hold of this auto-diadakt book, I’d nearly gotten caught to get it and because of it, one friend would never walk again and another was dead.


It happened so fast, one of the Choir, a big one with some kind of bulky backpack, emerged from the wake-up wagon with what looked like a launcher of some kind, I don’t know, weapons frighten me. He had some sort of lens thing over one eye and was playing it around. He braced his legs and loosened his back muscles...


Yak, toùl, and gaidàskoulà! Grenade launcher! I pushed Zekèrý with my shoulder and grabbed Misia by the arm so hard it must have hurt her, but she did not cry out. Her eyes showed her pain and distress, but they also showed understanding and fear.


What do I do? I’m supposed to be the leader here and I was yakking everything up over a stupid poulà book!


I’d not met many dwarves, personally, so kept my lip buttoned and observed silently as I travelled now with five of them, as well as ten other ‘passengers’ like me.

The Damocles heavy lifter shuddered and vibrated violently as it cleared Gaia’s atmosphere. I blinked and I was back in the actual. I was crammed here next to smelly, dirty crates of gods knew what realising that I was probably no cleaner myself. I probably smelled worse too. Crammed here among machine parts stinking of lubricants, caustic cleaning agents, and strange mineral odours, the dust was all-pervasive and clung like nothing I had before seen. It also both abraded and irritated the skin, I itched all over and was sure my eyes were red and possible swollen, my throat felt like I’d tried to swallow a shovel-load of anthrakìt dust. These fine quarters had cost me all the money I’d had left, and the dwarf load boss had wanted more. Obviously, I’d paid him and said nothing, let him shove me into the barely large enough hatch, out of sight of the ever-present Choir, without a word of complaint.


The relationship the dwarves have with The Union is a strange one. The dwarves, without intending pun nor disrespect, kept their heads down and did their jobs. The Union knew that the Selenar Ring was vital to the movement of material and commerce around the galàksia but, for some odd superstitious reasons, refused to leave set foot on Selène’s surface. Sèlene and The Ring were variously controlled by commercial guilds, some criminal organisations, and the dwarves. The dwarves were neutral; they’d service and repair any ship that could afford it and were, without a doubt, the best for that task, and they maintained the Ring docks. So, The Union tolerated them and gave them absolute autonomy to come and go as they pleased. They delivered even perishable items up there and The Union didn’t ask where it was going. Not that the dwarves would tell them if they did…


I’d not met many dwarves, personally, so kept my lip buttoned and observed silently as I travelled now with five of them, as well as ten other ‘passengers’ like me. The dwarves spoke among themselves in low voices once we’d left Gaia’s atmosphere, their words sounding oddly familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. Like many Bryttèn, I knew a bit of the Old Speech, as well as the common Easy-G of The Empyraeum. It was the Old Speech that their words reminded me of; I almost felt like, if I made an effort NOT to listen to them, I could pick up the general gist. Or at least I think I did because something told me that sharing my ‘discovery’ with the dwarves would not please a group of beings that was notorious for liking their privacy. Not that they were talking about anything I was particularly interested in, to be fair, though, in retrospect, I should have been. It would have saved me an awful lot of trouble in the long run.


I checked my ròlyo, 22:45 Gaia Standard Time, which made it…I struggled to do the conversion in my head…what was it? Three hours ahead or behind? I know the whole Selenar Standard Time problem had been an unholy mess of a thing, like how to measure a Selenar year and what constituted one; one orbit around Gaia or around Apollo? So, for simplicity’s sake, people living or working on Selène ignored the fact that their calendar should be drastically different and just accepted the time difference. It was not really a good solution and really not that accurate, but everyone agreed to it which meant that someone would find a way to make it work. I heard that there was no one better at matèmatika than the dwarves and they ran things up here. Clearly, they’d thought of something.


My fellow passengers were not exactly a talkative lot. Mostly, they snored, sniffed, sneezed, or coughed. No-one really spoke and the dwarves did not intrude on our privacy. I imagine that, considering our mode of transportation (the guilds operated official shuttles but those passengers needed papers for The Choir to check and approve) this was not unusual, we all wanted to be anonymous here, we all had problems we preferred to keep to ourselves. My papers were, shall we say, not really in order. I’d evaded The Choir and their hunters for four days solid before arriving at the boundary of the spaceport, imagining that they’d have figured out who I was by now, connected a few dots, and decided to invite me in for a nice chat so we could clear everything up. So I’d ran. A contact had told me to seek out Tadghor Oransson and where to find him, so I had.


We’d not shared what I’d call a conversation exactly, he’d given me a price, I hit back with the price my contact had quoted. Ký. Oransson has inferred that such a reduction would involve starvation for at least one of his many children and named another, only slightly lower price. I’d informed him I had no more than an amount that was slightly higher than I’d wanted to pay, to which I received a response loaded with studied offense. I was accused of insulting his fathers several generations back, of insulting his mother for thinking she would raise so naïve a son, of being nanòfobic and a height supremacist, before yet another price was named, neatly between the previous two. With a sigh I handed over the last piece but one that I had to my name. Then, cash paid, he’d unceremoniously shoved me into the now open hatch behind him and here I was, on my way to the uncertain life of a broke refugee on Selène. There were a few songs about that, and they rarely ended well.


“Get down! Get down! Keep your head down, gam you!” kinetic projectiles were everywhere. The spang and crack of them were the primary thing I could hear. That we were surrounded was obvious, that we had exhausted the pathetic set of weaponry we’d brought with us, even more so. The bulk of the liberated item felt nowhere near heavy enough in my near empty pack. I had a couple of knives in there, but I didn’t really rate my chances, even if I were to possess more than barely adequate skill with them.


Hummmmmmm-crack!

Hummmmmmmm-crack!

Crack-crack-crack-crack!


The Choir weren’t moving, they were all completely still, taking pot-shots at us. They knew we were trapped and were just waiting for one of us to panic under the hailstorm and show ourselves, then they’d just pick us off. Neither Zekèrý nor Misia were answering their fòno, so they were probably dead.


I had to know.


Terrible warrior I might be, but I knew the Code; leave no man (or women) behind.


Time to put the piècas on the pakàva…


I’d watched enough òlo dramas to know what you’re supposed to do; duck and crouch down, keep your head low, use the broken masonry around me as cover… absolute toùl, all of it. The hero on the òlo, weaves about, ducks and dives, and the enemy fire miraculously misses him, though it might come close once of twice. One projectile almost shaving off my eyebrows was enough for me to lose control of my bladha! One minute, probably less, of that and I’d be fuller of holes than the gwiail on sanhain! I either needed a plan or more luck than I knew prayers for…


“Then ya needs Johnny more, as smooth as shiny,” the flamboyant little creature leered. “I’s can tell that’s youse could use a job, sorta fing!”

They called this place llafblad in the local clèb, or Asphodel Field in Easy-G, either description was figuratively accurate and literally ironic. The place, a spread out shanty-town of sorts, was about as field or garden-like as the actual naked surface of Sèlene would be. It was a place that looked temporary but that transitory, slap-dash appearance has a well-worn and lived in aspect to it, set in caverns and tunnels within the bare, grey Selenar rock. Ancient bàmpa-globes followed patterns programmed long ago among the barely-seen ceilings of stone, bampàdromà, some of them very ornate and chased with silver, their glàs domes gleaming, stood at important corners and junctions. Considering all of these sources of artificial light, it was surprising that there was still a general gloominess here, almost as if it had to be intentional. To this place came all the lost souls that were neither dwarves nor members of the Empyraeum military, though we weren’t supposed to know about the latter. Of course, as with every such Big Secret, everyone knew about it but pretended not to, with many an exaggerated wink, elbow to the ribs, and overly-complex allusion. This whole place had originally been built by riggers to house refugees from the Union Wars. You just ignored the occasional rigger or naval rating you saw hanging around the bars or houses of transactional affection in order to avoid a good bàs in the baèk by the Cladders. Those Shore-Patrolmen, in plain clothes but with their Royal and gold armbands, went to round up those too far gone on the local dearg and wine. A few of them, I hear, went blind from drinking goblin ghâgh, in spite of the warnings those canny little fellas wrote all over the bottles!


There was what many might call a thriving goblin community here, though some might use much less charitable descriptions for it. At first, I thought I was discovering a previously unknown talent of mine for making friends until those new friends discovered my dire financial circumstances and lost interest. A few optimistic goblins continued to hang around, in the hope that I was briliant liar who was hiding his ghèan very well indeed. One such goblin was sidling closer to me right now. He wore tattered shorts of uncertain colour and, strangely, a very much oversized leather jacket and a battered and shapeless hat of dark canvas. Once he was close enough, he tried to whisper in my ear but ended up addressing my elbow.

“Youse wants ta speak ta Johnny,” he cackled, which was pretty much the default tone and delivery I’d heard from the gobins here. “Dog-Tail Johnny can ‘elps ya.”


It was at that moment that I noticed the large and fluffy dog’s tail that was attached to his hat, hanging down behind his bulbous head, clearly the origin of his unorthodox name. Dog-Tail Johnny seemed rather persistant..”I’m groaning, mate.” I replied, making sure he knew I had as many coins as the Three Sisters had eyes and it was a battered old piece you couldn’t identify the face on.


“Then ya needs Johnny more, as smooth as shiny,” the flamboyant little creature leered. “I’s can tell that’s youse could use a job, sorta fing!”

I just gave the goblin a dumb stare in reply.

“Dog-Tail Johnny, him know people an’ peoples knows him! Many owes him favours an’ them’s the bestest kinda ghèan there is.” He swept off his shapeless, Dog-tailed hat and bowed. “You wan’ owe Johnny favor, Johnny firs’ does you favor. Big one!”

I drew a slow breath to give me (and him) time to think. “How long’ve you been here, Johnny?”

“A bit while, a bit while.” The goblin sounded defensive and refused to meet my eyes.

“How long?”

“Two weeks…givva take.”

“Two weeks. So you know everyone and everyone knows you?”

“S’right”

“How many clients do you have, or have you had?”

He looked at me, the most painfully beseeching expression on his ugly face. “One?”

“Potentially including me?”

Johnny nodded vigorously, causing his over-sized ears to flap.

“OK.” I sighed. In for a digit, in for a cubit. “Then let’s get to work.”

Dog-Tail Johnny agreed with such enthusiasm, he practically bounced off the ramshackle walls.


Night was falling and still I did not move. Maybe if I stay still for long enough, they’ll decide I’m dead and just leave? As stupid as that idea was, it was edging in the right direction; I could not go through that many Keepers. The fact that so many of them had turned up for a dusty little squeaker like me was strange, the response quite disproportionate. Unless…unless I’d stumbled into something much bigger. Èpo, they were not looking for me, mè tà; I was just movement in their engagement zone.


Therefore, I must remove myself from it.


I had no vehicle and absolutely zero hope of successfully obtaining one. That meant either crossing the hot zone on foot and hoping someone was both listening to my prayers and felt well-disposed towards me, in other words I was dead if I chose that option. Or find another way. See, Lùndùn is built upon Lùndùn, over the aion, when the Tamesis flooded, they’d seal off, drop ballast or rubble in, and build up. The long-disused Tube network of underground rail tunnels pierced the crust of the city like worms through an apple. Then there were service and access tunnels of all kinds so, were one observant and careful, one could easily find a way into this subgaian Lùndùn and leave the area one occupied unobserved…


Those Keepers had been quiet for an awfully long time and if there was anything they were not know for it was stealth. They liked to be seen, to intimidate, they didn’t sneak, they paid others to do that for them. I could hear none of the distinctive metallic cough-chatter of their rifles or even the crackle of their shock-sticks. Not wanting to be cliched but it was, indeed, far too quiet. Now, sitting here trying to quieten my breathing was probably not a sound tactical choice but it appeared to be the best I could come up with. I wasn’t a soldier, a real rebel like one of the Pans, I was a scared ‘nach who was out of his depth and worried about his friends. I held my breath and listened as I tried to gather my thoughts.


I heard an engine, but it was some way off, a big engine in the air. Huuur-hurrr-hudddddda-hudda. Huuur-hurrr-hudddddda-hudda. The sound was distant but sounded vaguely familiar, I was sure I could hear multiple engine sounds now, a tooth-rattling bass whine, a growling thrum, a shrieking, rippling, howl…The latter sound got louder, it was getting closer. This last sound dopplered over my head and faded into the distance, leaving nothing but a rippling thunder in its wake. Another one and, this time, I saw what was causing it; a dart of deep red with blue-glowing engines. Weapons fire arcing up towards it as it ripped the air apart with its passage. It was gone and the sounds of the air its engines tortured faded in a distant rumble once more. Then another and another, and another…


This time I heard the kssss-kssss, ksssss kssssss of the wake-up wagon’s PEP turret firing and saw the blurred lines of light reaching towards another deep red – Royal red – dart in the sky.


I’d stumbled into a full-scale battle…


The metallic crackle of various small arms the ksss ksss from the wake-up wagon, a curious stutter-bark sound I’d never heard before, all of this was close to a stadium away from my position. I let out that breath I’d been holding and almost smiled. From what little I’d managed to see, the Pans had quite unintentionally saved our gaìd, and the Choir clearly had bigger tatties to peel than us. I felt cold and fought to stop the shivering that threatened to overcome me, as the adrenaline I’d been surviving on drained. Get Zekèrý and Misia home and get all of us out, that was the only objective I might be capable of, and do it before our Pan friends stopped distracting the Keepers for us. Bring it in, Cass, bring it in and tie it up tight.


Right!


“So,” the goblin had his hands in the deep pockets of his jacket and leaned back as he walked, splayed feet flapping ahead of him, sinewy green legs pumping. Goblins appeared to be naturally built for this form of slouching perambulation, or at least they commonly adopted it, in my limited experience. Dog-Tail Johnny was in quite the exuberant mood, and it dawned on me that agreeing to “hire” him mightn’t have been the best of ideas although the little green fella was clearly delighted, he grinned in that wide and unsettling way that goblins have. He told me about his life and background. His dad was an assistant fabricator down in the dwarf mines and workshops of the Deep City, and his mum made jewellery and keepsakes by drying the mushrooms his people cultivated in certain tunnels. Both of his parents could construct a device of both fiendish and heart-breaking intricacy with their eyes closed but not little Johhny. Little Johhny was all thumbs and fumbles.


He’d tried to be a good goblin and had, at the age of six, tried to build a pocket krònograf, considered quite the basic task for a nimble goblin’s hands but it had not gone well. He’d been finding cogs and fly-wheels for months afterward, often in the most unexpected of places, as his project died a pingy death in his clumsy hands. His father had been furious and his mother silent, though disappointment was clear on her cat-like face. Little Johnny sought solace in the only place he knew, in his inner world of words. At the age of nine and three quarters, he started up what he called the Mushroom DisPATCH (puns weren’t really his strongest suit), a free circular that chronicled the weekly goings-on in Selenar dwarf and goblin society. It caught on much faster than even he expected because it was easier than finding out the news round the tavern and much cheaper too as one didn’t have to but the paper of news any drinks to get it to reveal its secrets. Soon, goblin fathers would read it to goblin families on a Saturday morning. It was remarkably successful, but little Johhny didn’t charge a single copper for it, he could’ve made a fortune easily, even if he just charged an obol for it.


“I enjoys it, I dids enjoy it, yassee?” he explained. We’d somehow found our way into a goblin tavern and Johnny insisted on paying for the drinks. The goblin himself was picking from a plate of mushrooms but insisted that I not share with him. He wasn’t being greedy, any one of those mýki could kill me faster than I could fart. Johnny told me, and others would send me on a journey I’d probably enjoy but never return from. Sadly, this tavern provided no catering for humans, though the wine was decent.


Of course, I had only one question on my mind and sipped my wine as I decided on the best words to frame it with. “So – so you…. what?...just ditched it all? Just like that?”

“Nah, satrap, youse might be surprised to know I getted quites the following back home.” He smiled “Lads an’ lasses was fightin’ to be part a’ it. Seeming I wasnae th’ only one who was better wi’ words than ‘is ‘ands. So, Savvy an’ Sappy took over an’ hired a whole staff.”

“Still for free?”

“Aye, fer now but we’s thinking we needs to find a way fer these lads an’ lasses to make thems way in life, sorta fing.”


I nodded, that made sense, goblins usually had a hard time of it in human society because they would do for free what a human would charge good money for. I remember hearing a goblin refrain, badly translated of course, “a man who gets paid for what he loves doing is a thief”. They genuinely believed that while I was a “if you do something well, don’t do it for free” kind of bloke. Or was I? In my backpack, the auto-diadakt that had started all of this waited. Why had I needed to obtain it, what was the plan that had led to the death of one of my best friends and a life of disability for another? What was the endgame here? I wasn’t going to curate the information on this device and then start charging people to see it was I? I mean, I’m not even sure I had a plan, except for us doing something forbidden and rebel-like, so’s we’d feel we were doing something. That’s when it hit me, with Johnny’s eager and sparkling eyes studying mine.

“You’re expanding!” The gist of his story and my thoughts met in the middle.

Johnny nodded so enthusiastically that his ears flapped loudly and grinned in a way that really provoked a visceral reaction in me; too many teeth.

“And you’re looking for help?”

“I already knows most o’ tha’ goblins an’ a few dwarves but humans wants nuffin ter do with me,” it sounded like that last part hurt, Johnny was a proud little guy, I could see that. He held up his splayed hands with the too-long fingers of a goblin. “Way I see it, must be people all over Sèlene wants to know wass goin’ on where’s we’s free, right?”

“Right,” I just nodded, my mind aflame with the potential of this seemingly simple idea. Where’s we’s free…by the teeth of the dragon! That’s it! “Dog-Tail Johnny, you are a yakking genius!”

“I is?” I could see surprise and hope warring for dominance in his eyes. He needed this, he needed to prove to all his doubters that he wasn’t a wasteful nutter with funny ideas. He needed his kin to see that he was someone, that humans and maybe a dwarf or two recognised the talent he was certain he had.

“How many editions have you distributed in Asphodel, Johnny?”

His goblin face knotted in concentration for several moments, “More’n a hunner’” he finally said uncertainly. “Mebbe a couple hunner’


“Proper gander?” Johnny said, his forehead deeply wrinkled, as he pulled at his lower lip. “Whats have gooses gots to do wiv it?”

I smiled and tried to imagine what we could soon be starting here. I draped an arm across Johnny’s skinny shoulder and told him, watching the dual light of understanding and excitement kindle in his piggy red eyes.


Together we envisioned it. One day, soon, with me building connections in the human world as he had already done in the dwarf and goblin worlds, we could start production a paper of news for all of Sèlene. We could start slugging it to the military types next, they’ll have a piece or two going spare for sure. Then the dwarves that worked directly with them too. Then…then came the really big part. We knew that dwarf haulers went down to Gaia quite regular; what if they took a stack of our papers with them when they did, just handed them out to some people they saw or, you know, left them lying around where someone might see them? All sorta casual and innocent like. What if people on Gaia started learning about the lives of the ordinary people, free citizens of The Empyraeum To Return, up here in the one place The Union didn’t dare come? My palms were sweating at just the thought of it…


“Proper gander?” Johnny said, his forehead deeply wrinkled, as he pulled at his lower lip. “Whats have gooses gots to do wiv it?”


Never mind, Dog-Tail Johnny, my good green mate, you’ll figure it out soon enough, I smiled. I mean, it’s only real propaganda if it’s not true, isn’t it? We have the auto-diadakt machine, we have the lives and times of all three races on Sèlene. We’ll just be telling our compatriots on Gaia all the stuff that The Union was hiding from them.


Taking Johnny by his shoulders, I looked directly into his eyes and smiled. Releasing him, I spread my hands, trying to encompass…. well everything. “The Voices of Freedom” I framed the words in the air. “Will be read from here,” I thumped the table. “To the office of the thrice-yakked High Prefect his-gamin-self…”

“Oh, hes’ll hate that,” Johnny gave a wicked smile, showing he maybe did have a bit of Old Goblin in him after all. “Good.”


Together, we stood up and danced with glee around the tavern, not caring who watched but, of course, we’d find out what they though later and put it in the paper.

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