Veteran journalist Lex Stone fed a fresh sheet of foolscap into his battered Underwood and looked up at the clock. Fifteen minutes to the deadline. Fifteen minutes to write the words that would end the career of a man who had once saved his life, carrying him, wounded, through the hell of bursting shells that had marked the doomed last stand of the old Imperial Guard; words that would destroy the only woman he had ever truly loved, Anya, her fragile beauty etched in memory, standing as he had last seen her, proud and alone on the steps of the Winter Palace. He remembered them riding together along the Abilene Trail, two kids fresh out of Starfleet Academy, the cool intoxication of the nights when they had lain looking up at the stars they would soon claim as their own.... Damn! That wasn't Lex Stone! Lost the plot again!
The gale flung icy seawater into his face as he struggled across the heaving deck. He had to get back to that damned newsroom! He had to hang on to Lex Stone, that was one solid guy, a rock, even the name fitted! What was he doing on this bloody ship? He hated ships, especially the ones with sails instead of engines. All that technical stuff about luffing the mainbrace and keelhauling the capstan. You could never get it right. Some smartarse would always write in and complain.
He fetched up against the rail. The wind seemed to have dropped, and he could hear music, a dance band. There was a lifebelt with a name on it. He groaned. Not the damn Titanic again. There was a couple in the shadows, gazing into each other's eyes, lost in the rapture of the moment – was that Anya? Well, she'd get her comeuppance on this boat! Except it wasn't a boat, it was Fort Zamana! The Tuaregs were massing for their final attack at dawn! Brutal Sergeant Putain was rallying the last remnant of his men for the honour of France and the Legion! Not to mention the honour of – bloody hell, was that Anya again? The woman certainly got around.
An eldritch howl split the night. Not the Tuaregs this time, the evil Dwargs of Mount Krull were hunting him by the light of the Triple Moons – unless it was the Krulls of Mount Dwarg – either way, he was toast, unless the Elven Riders found him first, but where the hell were they? Why was there never an Elven Rider around when you needed one? Meanwhile, the poisonous mists of the Kraeth Marshes were rising...
The familiar chimes of Big Ben were deadened by the fog that shrouded the cranes and warehouses of old Limehouse. Screw the Dwargs then, although there were other sinister figures slipping into the shadows, along these mean streets down which a man must go – to the offices of the Daily Globe! Up the uncarpeted wooden stairs to the clatter and bustle of the newsroom, and there good old Lex Stone would be waiting! And still fifteen minutes to Press time!
He hurried, but this particularly mean street seemed to be getting longer. Suddenly a pair of menacing shapes loomed out of the mist in front of him, a car glided to a stop beside him, and he found himself being bundled into the back seat.
'Keep your hands to yourself, Buster.' Startled, he realised his hand was resting on the thigh of a woman sitting next to him. He removed it, with a muttered apology, then thought, 'Why the hell am I apologising? What's going on?' He turned to look at her. Anya! Well, who else would it be?
He opened his mouth to speak, then realised that she was speaking; 'Well, who else would it be?' Her words mirrored his own thoughts so exactly that he sat staring at her, his mouth still open.
She turned to look at him, full face. He was struck once again by her fragile beauty – 'Not so much of the fragile, damn it! I'm in charge. For once.'
He sat back, his mind racing. Then he thought, 'racing'? What does that mean? He was just scared and confused by a situation that appeared to be getting out of hand. He opened his mouth again to ask what was going on, then at the last moment changed it to, 'Where are you taking me?'
She had begun to speak but paused and looked at him. 'You're beginning to get the idea. As for where we're going, you haven't got a clue, and if you don't know, then neither do I.'
Her words seemed to be designed to throw him off balance. Could that be why – 'Yes, God damn it! And stop staring at me! Take a look at yourself, why don't you!'
She eyed him with amusement. He looked down. He was wearing a three-piece suit in a heavy pinstriped wool cloth with unfashionably wide lapels, a waistcoat with a watch chain, wide trousers, two-tone shoes, and – he ran his hand down his calf – sock suspenders.
'Awkward bloody things, aren't they? Maybe you'll let me wear tights in the future.'
There could be more than one answer to his question about their destination, he thought. Clearly, this conversation was leading somewhere, so – 'All right! Don't labour the point!'
They were no longer in the car, although he couldn't remember how. They were seated together at a cafe table on a wide terrace with a view down a long Alpine valley, the distant clanking of cowbells telling him they were in Switzerland – yes, probably Switzerland. 'Not that it matters,' she said. 'In another five hundred words, we'll be somewhere else. Prohibition-era Chicago, on the bridge of a starship, up the Orinoco, doing that leaping-up-and-down dancing at the Tudor court; anywhere that's been on Netflix, really.'
'Not just Netflix!'
'All right then, Amazon Prime, Sky, Disney, whatever. Your stuff's all so bloody derivative! If that's the right word. You can't be bothered to look it up, can you? You're too damn lazy to be a writer! Have you any idea how frustrating it is to inhabit a world where nothing happens, nothing exists, except what can be resourced by five minutes' worth of research on Wikipedia? Have you no care for your characters?'
'Well, come on, none of this is real, is it?'
'That's just the point! We're only as real as you make us! I mean, what am I? A profile, silhouetted against the cold prairie dawn? A pale, oval face lit by a single candle, lips moving silently in prayer? A pair of long, elegant, silken legs, swinging out of the door of a Lamborghini?
'What's wrong with any of that?'
'It doesn't add up to a life, does it? Although I suppose the legs bit is OK. But look at Lex Stone! All the poor sod ever gets to do is sit at his desk, in his shirtsleeves, with his hat pushed up on the back of his head, hammering away at that bloody Underwood! Does he ever get anything published? And the poor bloody Dwargs! Do they have a culture beyond killing and being killed, do they pair-bond, do they have inner lives? We never find out. Most of the time, you don't even finish your damn stories! Five hundred words, and you get bored and move on to something else, leaving us hanging. And you call it Creative Writing! Been to classes, yeah? Christ, I'd like to meet whoever turned you loose on us all.'
But the clear light of an Alpine morning was already fading. Steamy, tropical heat enclosed him. Giant forest trees towered up into the green gloom. An eerie stillness pervaded. Pervaded? Prevailed? Never mind, move on. He was in World War II British tropical field uniform (check details) with Captain's pips and carrying a Sten submachine gun (check if this was standard issue at the time.) Maybe he could work Lex Stone into this one? War correspondent? Be the making of him. Couldn't do much about the Dwargs, though, they'd have to wait. Chances were Anya was somewhere in the vicinity, awaiting rescue from her cruel Japanese captors. Could he still say that? It was a historical fact that Japan had been an enemy, and saying these particular combatants were cruel wasn't a slur on the entire nation, was it? But no doubt the Japanese commander (who didn't appear to have a name yet – Google 'Random Name Generator') would have something to say about that, and Anya would want to challenge the sexist assumptions underlying those words 'awaiting rescue.' God, he thought, who'd be a writer? You have to be so careful these days.