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Fantasies: part 8
Chakraborty closes the loop
The Triverse is
Mid-Earth, an alternate 1970s London
Max-Earth, a vision of the 26th century
Palinor, where magic is real
Previously: A raid on a drugs lab has left DC Kaminski in intensive care, while his partner DC Chakraborty continues to follow the money. Meanwhile, the consequences of the general election are beginning to become clearer…
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Kaminski knew it the moment he woke, even before he opened his eyes. The smell was there, that antiseptic, too-clean mix of a toilet and a kitchen. A beeping, somewhere in the room, an electronic announcement that someone there was still alive. For now.
And there it was, as he cracked open his eyelids. The pastel green curtain, wrapped from one side of his bed to the other. His own little secluded private-not-private space, the translucent fabric the only separation between him and the rest of the ward. Silhouettes were visible through the curtain, shadow puppets of nurses hurrying back and forth and shuffling patients.
He’d not minded hospitals when he was younger, instead being fascinated by the technology and the skills of the doctors. The summer had come and gone, which meant it had been four months since his mother had died. Almost a year since he and Chakraborty had wound up in intensive care after being poisoned by the dopur. Clarke always complained about hospitals, and Kaminski was starting to see why.
Maybe it was a getting old thing. Spending too much time in hospitals, until eventually you don’t leave.
His clothes were folded on a chair next to the bed. He looked under the bed covers: yep, just an open-backed hospital gown. Always a good look. Leaning over, he reached for the pocket of his jacket, wondering if his cigarettes were still there, which was when he noticed a drip was in his arm, leading up to a bag suspended above the bed.
It occurred to Kaminski that he had absolutely no idea why he was in a hospital bed. He certainly felt rough as shit, like a vampire had sucked his insides out. Is that what vampires did? He wondered if there were real vampires on Palinor, somewhere. He’d have to look that up.
Rubbing his palm against the side of his head, he let out a low groan. His brain was rushing to a dozen places all at once, but was unable to focus on any of them. There was a pressure on his eyes, like they were trying to tip backwards into their sockets. And he was starving, like he hadn’t eaten for days. The jacket pocket was empty, damn it. They must have confiscated it, the bastards. He wanted to rip the drip from his arm and go find a vending machine. Something fizzy and a packet of fags.
Chakraborty slammed the transparent plastic bag down on the table in the interview room, prompting the suspect to recoil. He had the classic aen’fa features: high cheekbones, pointed ears - with cute little brown tufts of hair on the end, this one - and a deep purple hue to the skin. Aen’fa came in all colours, which had always intrigued Chakraborty. They were so varied that the idea of discrimination based upon skin colour was practically non-existent on Palinor. It was a nonsensical distinction: though those who might have had a predilection for such prejudice, had they been born on Mid-Earth, didn’t have much trouble finding other attributes with which to segregate a population. Bigots were nothing if not creative.
The aen’fa went by the name Achlin and was nursing a wound on the side of his head from where Chakraborty had knocked him out back at the warehouse. No wonder he was worried about what she’d do next. He’d been stitched up and would be fine, but it was useful leverage.
“This stuff you’re manufacturing,” she said, pointing at the bag, “it’s magick. We’ve been seeing it make appearances all over the city.”
Achlin held up his hands, which were shaking. “Listen, listen, I’m just a floor manager. I could be working in the post office, or food shipments. This was just a gig. A job. I’m good at it. Needed some money, but it’s not up to me what comes through.”
“Of all the jobs in all the world, you just happened to end up with this one?”
“Right, right. I wanted to get out. But once you’re in, you can’t leave.”
Chakraborty leaned back, wearing a sceptical frown. “Seemed pretty high up to me, with your fancy office.”
He looked nervously from side to side, over to the one-way glass. His teeth chattered together. “I’m good at my job, like I said. Like I said. Listen, I can’t go to Thamesmead.”
“Who said anything about prison here?” Chakraborty shrugged. “Chances are you’ll be deported, end up in a cell somewhere on the other side of the portal.”
Colour drained from Achlin’s face and his already large eyes bulged. “No, I have people who need me here. What do you need?” He raised his eyebrows, his ears waggling a little. “I have information. Know a lot about clients, dealers. The whole supply chain. I’m just a little fish. You want a big fish? Lots of fish? Big shark?”
She made sure to look disinterested. “We’ve already got your files from the office.”
“No,” he said, holding up a finger, “no, that’s not all of it.” He tapped his forehead. “Lots up here as well. I can write it down for you. Not just the street dealers. High class clients. Politicians. Joint Council, probably. Police chiefs, yeah? Big business. And it’s not just magick. That place was a hub for everything. Local stuff, Palinese, even Max-Earth engineered. Half of it comes through the portals. LSD, crack, heroin, PCP, the best wacky backy anywhere in the empire. Did you know etorphine is big with koth? They cut it with all sorts of other things. But if they take too much they go batshit crazy? They use it on elephants, you know.”
There was an electronic buzz and the door opened. Miller was there, gesturing for her to exit.
“I’ll be back,” she said pointedly, sliding a sheet of paper and pen across the table. “Start writing.”
Outside was a typical London police station: telephones ringing, the bustle of arrests being brought in, witnesses being shuttled from room to room, the usual medley of lawmakers, law enforcers and law breakers. They’d brought Achlin here because it was closer to the drugs lab bust, and closer to the hospital where he’d been patched up and released back into their custody.
“Didn’t know you were here, DCI Miller.”
He nodded. The slimeball. “I heard what happened,” he said, handing her a fresh cup of coffee. “Kaminski is fine, just got word from the hospital. He’s awake and pissed off.”
The relief was a cleansing wave. She felt immediately refreshed and more alert. Zoltan was OK. “Have they let him out yet?”
“Not yet. Had to pump his stomach, so he’s dehydrated. And probably feeling like shit.” He angled his head towards the interview room. “How about our perp?”
“He’s scared,” she said, taking a sip of the coffee. It wasn’t bad, for a police station. Accepting it from Miller hadn’t felt great: she half expected him to have poisoned it, if that wasn’t so far fetched. The man was dirty, they all knew it now, thanks to the recording from Justin, but they still couldn’t prove it. Worse, she couldn’t let him know that she knew. “I’ve got him writing down everything he knows. Ready to turn on just about everyone, I think. Wants to stay out of jail and is happy to throw anyone under the bus.”
“Nice work.” Miller took a deep breath. “Look, Chakraborty. You’ve done fine work on this case, especially under the circumstances. I also got word from the management at the Lighthouse. The concierge is withdrawing the accusations of harassment against you and Kaminski. Consider that swept under the rug.”
“There was nothing to sweep. It was bullshit.”
“It’s about optics, Nisha,” he said, “you know that. This case is rattling some cages. We want to close it, get the right people behind bars, shut down the operation. Cut the supply lines and the distribution network. If he can give us that, then great.”
She leaned in. “…But?”
Miller chewed on his lower lip. “Don’t look too hard or too far. You know what city culture is like. You start shaking trees and god knows who’s going to fall out of them.”
“Follow the money, but only so far, then?”
“I’m saying don’t make trouble for yourself. This is good work. We can get good results, and good headlines. Let’s not over-complicate it.”
Sometimes Nisha Chakraborty didn’t bother sitting on the sofa, instead slumping on the carpet just in front of it with an array of snacks to one side and a bottle to the other. She was in loose house clothes, her office clothes strewn somewhere in the other room. The only light came from the small television in the corner.
Kaminski was still in hospital. They were keeping him in overnight, news which he had received with customary joy. She’d planned to drop by on the way home - not that it was on the way - but he’d left a message with the office making it perfectly clear he didn’t want visitors.
Music blared from the television’s tinny speakers: the news fanfare. The new government was being announced, a coalition the likes of which hadn’t been seen for over a century. In a single general election, Earth First had gone from a joke party to holding all the cards, grabbing every seat in which they’d fielded a candidate. It made Nisha want to puke.
The man speaking at a podium outside Downing Street didn’t help. Newly anointed Prime Minister Nigel Maxwell. The words left a bad taste in her mouth. She took another drink to wash it down. How had it come to this? He was supposed to be a chat show regular, a comedic presence near the back of the papers. What manoeuvres had been pulled to move him into position?
“It is with great import I take up this challenge and responsibility,” he burbled. “These last few years have not been easy for us as a country, as an empire and commonwealth. But I see no reason to despair. Under Earth First, and alongside my new colleagues as well as those across the House, you will benefit from a new era of prosperity, security and justice. It’s darkest before the dawn, and this, today, is our dawn. We will take you into the light. We will get control over our borders and stop the invasion from neighbouring dimensions. We will restore our rightful sovereignty and re-assert the Kingdom of Great Britain as the true centre of the triverse. We will achieve this through common sense policies aimed at benefiting the working man and woman. We are, after all, all in this together. With your support, we will fly high, and look over everything we have made, and see that it is good. There will be more details to come very soon. Thank you.”
The walking cliché retreated back inside the building. His very presence there would sully it for generations. So much for the office of Prime Minister being an aspiration.
It had been a day. The case was being fast-tracked, the leads being followed. Achlin’s information was already paying off. He’d be looked after and likely get off with a light sentence in return for his cooperation. Boorman already was in the clear and no doubt planning his next party. Miller had put clear guardrails on the investigation. They’d made progress, but could only go so far. The entire case felt like a waste of time.
She took another drink.
There was so much more they could have pulled out of that drugs lab. They could have followed the paper trail all the way to the top. Magick was the tip of the iceberg.
What was it that Achlin had mentioned? Etorphine? Some kind of tranquilliser that could affect koth. A thought waved at her from the distant past.
Dragging the the telephone over by its cord, she dialled Wong’s home number. They’d nearly gone on a date once, a long time ago. It rang twice and then there was a click and he answered.
“Steven, what was the substance the autopsy found in the koth that killed Callihan?”
There was a pause. “Good evening to you, too, Nisha. I’m fine, thank you for asking.” She could hear him rummaging about down the line. “I’m trying to remember. It was a long time ago, and it was quite a cocktail. Why?”
“Did it have an etorphine base?”
Another pause. “Etorphine, yes, that rings a bell. Yes, that’s likely - there was a big addiction problem with etorphine and koth ten plus years ago, before it was more carefully regulated. Much harder to get hold of now.”
He was still speaking as she hung up.
Miller had been insistent that the investigation not look too hard. She wondered if there was a connection there. A tenuous link back to events two years prior, when John had been murdered. That was the worst of it, of having to pretend like everything was fine: Miller was in on it. He knew what had happened to John Callihan and why; he might even have been directly involved. She had a perpetual sensation of wanting to vomit whenever she thought about Miller or was in his presence.
Prime Minister Nigel Maxwell’s face beamed out at her from the screen.
Lifting the bottle to her lips, she took a long drink.
She’d get revenge on the lot of them. She’d take down every last one of the rat bastards. Tear it all apart. She didn’t care any more. It had to be done, and soon.
Thank you for reading!
Fun times this morning, when I loaded up my Scrivener project file to discover that most of this week’s chapter had entirely vanished. It was my fault, largely, for failing to realise that Google Drive had not synced properly, leading to a versioning mess. Fortunately I was able to recover the work on my my main PC - and Scrivener keeps its own local backups of projects, outside of any cloud folders, which is a real lifesaver.
It was a tense and stressful ten minutes while I tried to untangle it all.
As always: backup your work!
Yesterday, Substack CEO and co-founder, asked for thoughts on why fiction doesn’t have as big a presence on Substack as non-fiction:
I don’t think it’s a great mystery: Substack went hard on non-fiction at the start, so there’s a real head start there. Fiction feels like it only really started emerging in a significant way a couple of years ago.
What definitely is interesting is what we can do now to help readers find and enjoy fiction on Substack. The experience for writers is already excellent, but there’s a lot that could be done to enhance the reading experience. In fact (did you see this coming?), I wrote about what could be done back in June:
Today’s post is coming in a little late due to that cloud syncing issue this morning so let’s hop straight over to the notes…
Triverse doesn’t tend to be a triumphant tale. A lot of the stories end with a certain melancholy and lack of resolution. The setup is often fairly classic (a crime is committed! Who could have done it!?!?!), but for the climax I go off in other directions. I’ve always wondered if this is frustrating, and whether readers expect something a bit more traditional (the detectives solve the case and bring the perps to justice!!).
Thing is, it’s frustrating for Chakraborty and Kaminski. And Clarke (and even Holland, to a degree). They are often only able to do half a job, mg some progress but never enough. Which is the lot of a policeman: no matter how many crimes you solve, you’re never going to stop crime from happening. There will always be more.
Another angle is that the core SDC crew have, from the start, been undermined. There have been elements within the Met and Joint Council working against them from the beginning. They are now aware of this, but unable to do anything. It’s an exercise in frustration.
That’s all building up a lot of tension. That’s the intention, anyway. That can only keep building for so long. And then -
There are times when I worry about the length of Tales from the Triverse. It’s pacing and structure feels at times quite unnatural, and I think that’s because I’m comparing it to novels. My real intent was to write something with the narrative structure of a TV show - but even then, I wasn’t sure if that kind of semi-episodic approach would work on an online prose serial.
Something that’s given me a bit more confidence in that regard, in committing to a long-form story, is my gradual discovery of manga and anime. This year I’ve read Attack on Titan and have just completed Naruto (we’ve just started on Shippuden). The most striking thing about them is the way they weave such detailed and long form stories. They are intricately plotted, but also are very happy to go off on tangents and explore strange diversions. This is treated as a feature rather than a bug, though: you could boil Attack on Titan down to a much, much shorter story. Naruto’s story could be told in 2-3 seasons rather than over 200+ episodes, sure, but it wouldn’t be the same thing. The characters achieve a deep connection to the audience - even the minor players and guest stars - specifically because of the anime’s number of episodes.
It’s reminded me of older American shows from the 90s and 2000s, when it was common to have about 22 episodes per season. There were often criticisms of ‘filler’ episodes, and the shift to shorter form HBO/Netflix-style shows of 6-12 episodes was celebrated.
Thing is, these forms aren’t always accidental. A show that is designed for 22 episodes per season, or Naruto’s extensive run, fits perfectly. A show that is designed for a shorter number of episodes, like The Wire, fits perfectly. The problem is when one or the other is made the default, for commercial of production reasons, regardless of the story needs.
Hence we have the current situation in which all of the streaming shows focus on short-form serials, which can often end up with very odd pacing. Either rushed and breathless, with no time for decent character work or changes of pace (it should probably have been a 22 episode show 1990s-style); or oddly slow and meandering (it should probably have just been a movie).
You still get shows that hit the sweet spot, of course. But I can’t help but feel we’ve lost something in the TV space by having everything follow the same format.
But! That’s where online literature can come in. Writers on Substack, Wattpad, Patreon and elsewhere can do whatever they want. Short stories, short serials, serialised novels, or super long-form serials like Triverse. The shackles are off. Writing is unique in that it has no real production cost other than time.1 The story can come first, every time.
Thanks again for all your support. I feel like we’re in a really exciting time for fiction. It’s exciting to be going on the adventure together.
If you know someone who might enjoy Triverse or the Write More newsletter, do pass it along:
Obviously this is the most expensive cost of all, but you get what I’m saying. Writers don’t have to worry about building sets, or shooting during bad weather, or an actor getting sick.