#FlashFiction – Mary Sue: The Story

Burnham finished the last paragraph, shook his head in disbelief and turned back to the beginning. Perhaps a third reading would make more sense, make the transcript of the interview more palatable.

Subject: Interview with Miss Mary Susan Broom, ATS

Interviewer: Thank you for coming today Miss Broom –

Broom (interrupts): Please call me Mary Sue, everyone does.

I: Indeed. Well Miss Broom, as I say, thank you for coming today. Could you tell me a little about yourself?

B: Oh, there’s not much to tell really. My mother joined the Women’s Volunteer Service as soon as it started and between helping out with air raid precautions, running the local evacuation effort and so on, she didn’t really have enough time to knit things for soldiers, so she got me started on that. But after knitting a hundred pairs of socks in two days, I felt there must be more that I could do, so as soon as I’d had my eighteenth birthday, I volunteered for the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

I: I see. And it looks like you passed the ATS training course with flying colours – (copy of training record attached).

B (interrupts): Oh yes! Such fun, and I really enjoyed helping the other girls when they found things a bit of a struggle.

I: Now, tell me a little bit about this reprimand on your record.

B: It was so silly. I still can’t believe that I was reprimanded for that. I was waiting to pick [REDACTED] up from [REDACTED]. I’d just finished the Times crossword – jolly nearly a personal best too, I think it took me three minutes that day – when I spotted this cove looking terribly suspicious and thought that he must be up to no good.

Burnham decided he couldn’t face dealing with the ‘tailing’ of the spiv again, especially the lengths Miss Broom had gone to to disguise her ATS uniform, so he skipped to the end.

B: And so they docked me a days wages and gave me an official reprimand, even though I’d caught this spiv and handed him over to the police. I thought that was jolly unfair.

I: Hmmm. Well now, could you tell me about this letter you sent to [REDACTED]? (copy of letter attached).

B: Well, I would have thought it rather obvious. There was a puzzle in the Times – jolly hard, too, took me nearly ten minutes to solve it – and it said if you could solve it to send your proof to an address and there would be a small prize. So I thought I would send in my proof.

I: Yes? And then what?

B: It turned out my prize was an invitation to sit some sort of exam! Cheek! Well, I swapped my day off and went and sat the exam, just for something to do really. I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about, because it was quite easy really, easier than the puzzle in the Times, although maybe I’d just got into the right frame of mind by then. Anyway, the whole thing took me about half an hour. On my way out, I pointed out that there was a mistake in one of the questions. The examiner was a bit rude about it actually. Anyway, I didn’t hear anything more about it, except that someone in my section was saying that her boyfriend had also answered one of these ads and was now working on something hush-hush somewhere. So I thought I’d write to [REDACTED] and see if there was any possibilities for me there. I do enjoy my ATS work, but this sounded like such a lark.

Burnham took a sip of his tea, and realised that it had gone stone-cold. He’d wasted enough time on this. He flipped to the last page of the interview.

Conclusion: Subject considered unsuitable for SOE work. Promote within ATS and move to non-critical sector. Surveil. Possible Security Risk.

Burnham picked up a rubber stamp, inked it, and brought it down firmly on the paper underneath the conclusion:

RECOMMENDATION APPROVED stared back at him in big red letters. He gave the stamp a moment to dry, closed the file and repeated the process with another stamp. When he was finished, REJECTED crossed over the legend ‘Special Operations Executive Recruitment Interview’. He sighed, rubbed his eyes and picked up the next folder.

© David Jesson, 2021

Author’s note – in answer to a comment made when we posted the prompt, the character is definitely not a reflection of an idealised form of the author! Also, regular readers of the blog may recognise the name Burnham. Yes, it’s the same chap, although until I’ve had a chat with Debs, this is very much non-canon…

#FF Prompt: Mary-Sue

I think I’ve mentioned ‘Mary-Sue’ in passing on this blog before, but I can’t now find the post. C’est la vie. Suffice it to say that a Mary-Sue (a male version is sometimes referred to as a Gary-Sue) is someone who is impossibly perfect (except for one, obvious, knowing flaw), typically has something tragic in their past (which is what drives them on), and somehow manages to stay on good terms with everyone on their side. The most blatant examples of this character are to be found in fanfic: the classic, and possibly definitive version is the raw ensign who is somehow able to out-Kirk Jim, out-Scott Scotty, out-Vulcan Spock, and out-Doc McCoy. This prodigy will probably die saving the Federation, and Spock will cry at her funeral.

So, for a bit of fun, 500-1000 words about a Mary-Sue kind of character. Bonus points for:

-Fanfic – anything you like, but perhaps lets give Star Trek a miss. Double points for something non-obvious. This can include a parody of your own work, should you happen to have written something suitable.


Word count: up to 1,000
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday, 14th November 2021

If you can’t make this deadline, don’t forget you can use our #TortoiseFlashFiction page.

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

#ReadersResources: Read across the UK part II

A little while ago, Debs wrote a cracking post on Reading across the UK. We still need to agree a date for this, but I thought I might follow up with some further suggestions. Being naturally contrary, I’ve decided to present mine by genre…

Science Fiction

As might be expected, I’ve chosen to kick off with science fiction. Whether or not you enjoyed the film version with Tom Cruise (2005) or a repeat of Orson Welles’ (1938) panic inducing radio adaptation, you might not know, or may have forgotten that H.G. Wells’ classic War of the Worlds is set in the Home Counties around London. The description of the terrain – and the subsequent destruction of most of it – is beautifully evocative. I’m tempted to start running tours of some of the locations mentioned.

Similarly, the Day of the Triffids is worth your time. John Wyndham’s depiction of a world brought low by hubris and dubious experiments takes in a swathe of ground between London and the South Coast, not to mention the bastion of the Isle of Wight.

J.G. Ballard’s Drowned World sees London semi-submerged in a future where climate change has reeked havoc. Any day that is to hot for my liking makes me think of this book.

Detective Fiction

In the comments to Debs’ original post I mentioned Ian Sansom’s County Guides series. He’s going to have to pick up the pace if he’s going to manage to get round the whole of the UK, but so far the five published books give an interesting perspective on 1930s England, particularly bits that are not often looked at. The conceit here is that a prolific author is off collecting research material with his daughter and assistant for a series of books cataloguing the best bits of Britain, especially the things that are likely to fade in the face of technology and social change. Of course, they court disaster wherever they go. The assistant is, of course, plagued by demons: in this instance they arise from his time in Spain as part of the International Brigade.

The British Library has recently (over the last decade perhaps?) been republishing classic detective fiction, much of which has a locale element to it. So for example there is The Hogsback Mystery by Freeman Wills Croft and starring Inspector French. There are several others with this detective, and whilst he occasionally makes a foray abroad he is a Scotland Yard man at a time when local constabularies would call upon the Yard if they felt a case was a bit too much for them for whatever reason. So whilst a lot of French’s cases are set in and around London, he also travels extensively around the UK.

I’m also going to put in a shout for The Thirty-Nine Steps, even if it is not properly Detective Fiction. Whichever film version you’ve seen, the book is sufficiently different and exciting that it is worth your trouble to look it out and give it a read. Some lovely descriptions of Scotland in there, as well as the South Coast.

Non-fiction

I thought it might also be helpful to put in some non-fiction suggestions too. In this regard one cannot really go wrong with Notes From a Small Island by Bill Bryson. I’m less enamored of the follow up, The Road to Little Dribbling: to my mind, the Bryson who wrote the second book has become a grumpy old man and has lost some of the shine and verve of the younger Bryson – but that is just my opinion. There are still some splendid observations.

Footnotes: A Journey Round Britain in the Company of Great Writers by Peter Fiennes is, on the face of it, a bit niche. A description of walks around stomping grounds associated with particular writers. It is so much more though. Twelve mini-biographies which focus on a particular period of time or a particular piece of work by some of the greatest British authors of the last two hundred years or so, and how the landscape had an impact on their work. Beautiful.

Finally, this one really is niche, and is all about London, but is so joyous that you need to read it. Tim Moore’s Do Not Pass Go is, primarily, about Monopoly. Or is it? Sure that’s the framing narrative, in particular his carrying a board and some dice around so that he can work out where he’s going next, but this is, in a way, more of a socio-geographic history of London, and the changes that have occurred leading up to the London version of Monopoly, and those that have occurred since. Moore takes us around London, set by set, and explains the hidden meanings behind some of the collections – for example, Orange is the colour of justice… He even goes in search of Free Parking.

Do add your suggestions of potential reading material for future editions of Read Across the UK.

©David Jesson, 2021

Josephine Tey & Nicola Upson: a #SecondThoughts book review

A little while ago I kicked off a series of book reviews, where my intention is try and avoid star ratings and instead look at the good, the bad, and the ugly features of the book (or series) under scrutiny. Here then another in that series, and another look at detective fiction.

With the title of this post, there is a strong temptation to write ‘vs’ instead of ‘&’, but I’m trying to get away from that sort of book review. If you are a regular reader of this blog you’ll know that, of late, I’m probably getting through more books by listening to them than by ‘reading’ them. Audible and my local library’s current app of choice for borrowing audiobooks have been lifesavers for the times when I have chores that leave my mind free and otherwise boringly unoccupied. In that manner, I’ve been able to blast through several different series of books, as well as the odd standalone. So today’s post is more about looking at two bodies of work, one of which has been read traditionally – with actual books, not on the kindle – and one that I’ve listened to.

Elizabeth MacKintosh came to writing in her late twenties or so – that is certainly when her first publications came about – after a (short) career as a physical training instructor came to an end when she returned home to care for an invalid and dying mother. Later she cared for her father. Upson intimates that the writing was a means of escape, but more on that later. MacKintosh wrote poetry and plays under the pseudonym of Gordon Daviot: her most successful play was the historical Richard of Bordeaux, which, incidentally, is often cited as a major lynch-pin in the career of Sir John Gielgud. Her mysteries, of which there are eight, mainly feature Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard: of these there are five, and a further one where he has a bit part. This body of work features a range of realistic people, although generally sketched rather than laid bare in n overly detailed manner, and have clever crimes with clever twists – Grant is known for his ‘flair’ and usually has a sense that all is not right with the neat, pat solution, even if he stumbles on the truth by good fortune rather than solid police work. That said, he wouldn’t have the good luck if he didn’t do the solid police work in the first place. The nice thing about the Grant stories is that whilst there is some character development and a growing shared history, you can pretty much pick up the books in any order that you like and treat them as a standalone – no spoilers here. In particular, it is worth flagging the Daughter of Time, in which Grant, in hospital with a broken leg, is bouncing off the walls, if only mentally. his friends come to his aid he brings his intellect and detective skills to bear on one of the coldest of cold cases: the death of the Princes in the Tower. Daughter of Time was declared to be the Greatest Mystery of All Time (a mystery GOAT – therein lies a story prompt…) by the Crime Writers Association. It is not showy, there are no explosions, and there are no descendants of rival factions duking it out to protect ‘the truth’. But it is subtle, clever, and a good use of your time. Of the rest, probably the most well known today is the Franchise Affair, but in their day, most have received plaudits and awards around the world. If the new impressions that I found in the library are anything to go by, Tey seems to be having a resurgence. which is all to the good, in my opinion. It is worth mentioning ‘A shilling for candles’ (1936) and ‘To Love and be wise’ (1950) if only because they have a bearing on what comes next.

Nicola Upson is on her ninth Josephine Tey mystery, which is to say that she has created a fictionalised version of MacKintosh, called Josephine Tey, and placed her in a world with fictionalised versions of real people (such as Gielgud), fictionalised versions of fictitious people, and wholesale creations. What do I mean by fictionalised versions of real people? Well, for example there is Inspector Archie Penrose of Scotland Yard, who is categorically the inspiration for Grant, in Upson’s books at least. MacKintosh’s real fiance was called in WWI, and Upson presents Penrose as a brother-in-arms of a fiance who is also dead in her books. In ‘A Shilling for Candles’, Grant’s friend Marta Hallard is introduced, and there is a character called Lydia. Upson too has characters called Marta and Lydia, with Lydia taking the role of Anne of Bohemia, which in our world was played by Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies. (I couldn’t tell you how closely Lydia resembles her). In Upson’s Tey-verse, Lydia is closer in some respects to the original Marta – they are at least both actresses, whereas the Tey-verse Marta is a writer and artist.

I apologise for being cryptic: I’m endeavouring to unfold a line of argument without giving rise to spoilers. Suffice it to say that I believe that Upson has done a great deal of research about the period in general as well as the life and work of Elizabeth Mackintosh. I find myself struggling with this: the books are engaging, and I want to find out where the characters are going with their lives, and there are some clever plots with good twists, but…but…but…and again, but. I have a strong sense that we are somehow prying on someone (MacKintosh) who was an intensely private individual.

Compared with the Grant books, events in Upson’s Tey-verse happen at breakneck speed, so whereas Tey’s Inspector Grant first appears in 1929 (The Man in the Queue), and last has an outing in 1952 (the posthumously published The Singing Sands), the fictional Tey is much like any other modern sleuth and deals with a body or three every few months across the 1930s. A Shilling for Candles, the second Grant novel, actually forms something of a backdrop to Upson’s fourth, Fear in the Sunlight, where the fictional Tey is in negotiations with Alfred Hitchcock who might be interested in adapting ‘Candles’. (In real life, the book came ‘Young and Innocent’ and as with so many such adaptations bears only a passing resemblance to the book).

The tricky bit for me, having recently caught up with myself, as it were, is that in ‘A shilling for candles’ Marta and Lydia are both integral to the plot – MacKintosh’s Marta and Lydia, that is (who may well be based on Marde Vanne and Gwen Ffrancgon-Davies respectively). Upson’s Marta and Lydia are integral to Fear in the sunlight, but I think if I were Upson’s Marta and Lydia, I would be having words with Upson’s Tey – perhaps they are both thicker skinned than I give them credit for. And then of course, it’s all make-believe anyway…

So. If you like detective stories, you should definitely look out for these two authors. Tey’s work is of its time and so there is something of a health warning with respect to social mores and attitudes of the time. For example, in the Man in Queue, Grant has formed a mental picture of the murderer that he names the Dago primarily from some assumptions about the nature of the murder. Were the story to be adapted today, this is the area that would probably require the greatest attention. Still, Tey is writing of the time and the writing has a freshness and immediacy that still comes through today – there are a number of Golden Age detectives who can make the whole problem a little too intellectual at times and miss the great morass of humanity that are at the heart of it all. On the other hand, Upson’s work has a certain Midsomer aspect in terms of the number of people that the fictional Tey comes into contact with who end up dead. Whilst the evocation of the 1930s is excellent, you can’t help but see the 21st century building materials that have been used to create it.

What do you think of the trend of making real life people into fictional detectives? Where do you draw the line when casting back through the years for reading material?

©David Jesson, 2021

Comic Timing

The Bandleader blamed the Comic, for adding extra material.  The Comic blamed the Bandleader for coming in too early, drowning out the punchline.

Less than an hour after the end of the show, the Comic stood in a darkened doorway.  He’d arrived early, and removed the light-bulb.

As the musician fumbled with his keys, a voice tickled his ear:

“Laugh this off.”

Puzzled he turned, only to see a figure turning the corner at the end of the street.  His back began to itch as if it were on fire.

He turned and, in extreme discomfort, ran to the shower.

© David Jesson, 2018

________________

A little bit of Flash Fiction, which I submitted to one of Janet Reid’s competitions a few years ago now, but which has kept on getting bumped from FCBF for one reason or another.

There are a number of rules, but the key ones are:

1. Write a story using 100 words or fewer.

2. Use these words in the story:

extra
hour
early
light
dark

To compete for the Steve Forti Deft Use of Prompt Words prize (or if you are Steve Forti) you must also use: Fortran

3. You must use the whole word, but that whole word can be part of a larger word. The letters for the prompt must appear in consecutive order. They cannot be backwards.

Thus: early/pearly is ok, but light/sleight is not. Hours is fine, but grouch is not

(You might have to look twice, but I did manage to get Fortran in there :0) ).

Filling time

Today was the day.  The handover had been completed without a hitch, and Joe sidled out of the rendezvous with the brown paper bag clutched in his hands.  There is an art to being unobtrusive: Joe had watched too many of the wrong sort of films and over-did his nonchalant departure.  Still, if his skitter from the protection of one doorway to another was attracting the attention of the crowds, it was shielding him from the one set of eyes that he was trying to avoid.

He’d spotted his stalker, quite by chance, when he stepped out of the office block on his lunchbreak and had become dizzy with indecision.  Why was his nemesis here now?  Should he abandon his plan?  No!  Audentes fortuna juvat, he muttered under his breath.  Very well.  If fortune favoured the brave, he would be brave.  He strode onwards, away from his destination, attempting to throw his stalker off the scent.  He walked down tiny side streets, aware of eyes on him.  Suddenly he twisted into a department store, zig-zagging amongst shuffling shoppers and exiting from the main doors on the other side of the building.  From there, Joe tried to keep out of sight, moving quickly until he reached his target.

There could be no question of returning to the office to open the bag.  Every one of his colleagues would come sniffing around.  But he had thrown off his pursuer, so perhaps he could risk opening it in the park…?

Joe looked around nervously as he sat on the bench and started to open the paper bag.  He’d lived on lumpy homemade cheese and pickle sandwiches all week so that he could save enough to buy one of the exotic creations from the Café Du Sept Hippocampes.  It would, perhaps, have been safer to eat his lunch in the café itself, but the extra cost was beyond him, and the bohemian nature of the pretentious venue brought him out in hives.  But the sandwiches…he drooled at the merest thought of them, which had led to one or two embarrassing moments when he’d started day-dreaming in long meetings.

He drew in the smell first, the aroma being the first part of the feast.  There was always the temptation to nibble, to take mouse-like bites and so make the sandwich last as long as possible, but he’d discovered that to do so was to miss the point of this culinary sensation.  The only way was to take a deep, hearty bite and so draw in all of the separate ingredients in one mouthful and undertake some gastronomic alchemy and deliver an explosion of taste to the tongue.

Joe bit deeply, and lost himself in an instant of perfection.

His pursuer, that had followed him for just this moment, swooped over his shoulder and took its own bite out of the sandwich.  Landing on the grass in front of Joe, the seagull smirked, and eyed up the sandwich for a second go.

© David Jesson, 2021

#SecondThoughts: Blotto, Twinks and the new kind of book review

I’ve been becoming more disillusioned with ‘star’ reviews as time passes, so I thought I would pilot a new series here on Fiction Can Be Fun, drawing together approaches from several different sources. We’ll see how it goes: please do let me know if there is anything that you particularly like or dislike about the approach with a comment at the end. For the time-being, we’ll stick this under #secondthoughts, but if it looks like it’s a go-er, we’ll think again.

First up, Simon Brett’s Blotto, Twinks, and the Ex-King’s Daughter.

Simon Brett has a whopping 57 mystery books in four different series, plus a few other books (the most famous probably being the thriller A Shock To The System, with Michael Caine starring in the film adaptation). The longest running series is The Charles Paris Mysteries; the first of these was written in the mid-1970s. Bill Nighy plays the louche, alcoholic, shambolic, struggling actor, for whom the series is named, in a series of radio adaptions that were updated for the run that began in 1999. (They also had to make some changes to deal with continuity as the stories ended up being adapted out of order).

As I come to write this review, I realise that my experience of Simon Brett’s writing has mostly come from the radio adaptations with Bill Nighy, and from Brett’s series Foul Play, a panel game played by mystery writers. My only experience of actually reading his work is the first book in his Fethering series, which was a book club read. (Fethering is a fictional village on the south coast of Britain, just down the road from the very real Tarring. This probably tells you everything you need to know about Brett’s sense of humour). Brett has been on my TBR list for some time: I spotted Blotto and Twinks in the library recently, and I thought ‘why not?’

Blotto, Twinks and the Ex-King’s Daughter feels a lot like P.G. Wodehouse having a go at a Ruritanian novel, with a splash of Biggles, or something very much like. Blotto is the ‘spare’ in a ducal family, his elder brother Loofah having taken the seat when their father died sometime prior to the start of the book. Whilst Blotto is more athletic than Bertie Wooster, and very much more heroic, they have about the same capacity between the ears. His younger sister, Twinks, is the brains of the family, and in danger of turning into a Mary Sue type character. To Blotto’s relief, she’s more than happy to let him drive the car, even though she’s hopelessly modern and can change a tyre, something Blotto believes should be left to the working classes.

I read a comment recently about Rex Stout’s Nero Wolfe stories which suggested that the mystery was second to the interaction of the characters, particularly the badinage between Wolfe and his leg-man and general factotum Archie Goodwin. This just made me think I need to get back into reading Nero Wolfe stories, because it’s a while since I’ve done so. The reason for mentioning it is that this book is billed as a mystery too, but there’s very little of it, to my mind. Instead we have Blotto and Twinks, a miscellany of characters, including their dreadful mother (who is giving Loofah a hard time because he’s only given her granddaughters so far), and a rather heavy-handed Ruritanian king-in-exile setting.

You’re probably getting the impression that I didn’t like this book very much. There are indeed many things that I found it difficult to engage with, and if you’re selling a book on the one hand as a mystery and on the other on the basis of some loveable eccentric characters, then you want the mystery to be stimulating and the characters to be engaging. There are another nine books, so far, in the series, so maybe I’m being overly harsh in my assessment, or perhaps the books mellow with time, or perhaps you just need to be prepared that the book is not a full blooded (conscious choice of words there) mystery. I find it difficult to recommend this specific book to anyone, but if you enjoy your detective fiction then I would recommend the Fethering books, and I would definitely advise listening out for Bill Nighy as Charles Paris. If I manage to snag a book from that series I’ll keep you updated.

How about you? Have you read any of Simon Brett’s books before? What turns you off a book? What are your expectations for a mystery novel?

#FlashFiction Writing Prompt: Expenses

A long time ago, a bit after dinosaurs ruled the Earth, but long before Google, I was getting used to having an email account, and people were starting to send spam. In those days not all spam was rubbish – for example, one email was a list of alternative answers to “Why did the chicken cross the road?” (Timothy Leary – Because it was the only trip the establishment would let it take). These days, you can google such things and find long lists of answers… I’m carefully not putting a link here.

What has this to do with expenses? Or flash fiction prompts? Well, one of the emails that filled up my inbox, back in the day, was a very clever ‘insurance claim’ which explained how certain injuries were received on the job. (I wish I still had that original). But it occurred to me that it might be quite fun to write something in a similar vein. So: what’s the explanation for the unusual expense claim that’s just hit the Finance Department? Your claim can relate to something pre-Covid, or slap bang in the middle, but needs to be just that little bit…odd. An extra screen for the computer because you’re working at home isn’t what we’re looking for. Similarly, a rock star demanding a bowl of purple skittles only is a bit passe.


Usual rules: keep it clean (which is to say, nothing NSFW)
Word count: 400-1000 words(ish).
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday 8th August 2021

Don’t forget, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page.

A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

#FlashFiction Prompt: Now with Added Sci Fi

A little throw back to James Pailly’s post that kicked off our #NowWithAdded series. A simple enough premise: look around you, think about your life…what would the consequences be if something ordinary became a bit more SciFi?

Word count: Approximately 1,000 words
Deadline: 8am GMT on Sunday 11th July 2021

Don’t forgot, if you miss the deadline, you can always post your story to our #TortoiseFlashFiction page


A reminder to new readers/writers, please post on your own site and add a link in the comments section below.  If you don’t have your own blog or similar outlet, do send us your story via the contact form on the About page and we’ll post for you, with an appropriate by-line – you retain the copyright.

One caveat, if you want to go down this route: this is a family show, so we reserve the right not to post anything that strays into NSFW or offends against ‘common decency’.

Whither goest thou?

“Quo vadis?”

It’s a busy day today.  There’s a long line of people struggling up the steep hill to our gate.  Our optio, Marcus, delivers the traditional challenge.  The voice in my head always wants to shout out “It’s bloomin’ obvious, they want to get in, don’t they?”.  But rules are rules, and the optio must challenge the travellers, and the rest of the squad must look smart, two with ceremonial spears blocking the narrow archway into the building, two to pat down the supplicants, and apply the wands that check for illicit chemicals and EM signatures.

That’s me – the spear-holder to the left of the arch, attempting to look impassive, disguising the fact that I’m clenching my buttocks in time to show tunes to keep the blood moving around my body whilst I stand here.  It also helps to alleviate the boredom, a little.

The optio is a twenty-year man.  He’s mulling over whether to stay on for another twenty years or take his land-grant and retire.  He looks good in his uniform.  His skin is leathery from years spent out under suns on myriad worlds, but it contrasts nicely with his body-armour, the chest plate embossed with the traditional abdominal six-pack, the golden emblems indicating his rank, length of service, valour.

Me?  Yeah, I’m the odd one out for sure.  I’m not from Nova Roma.  I’m a refugee.  Military service seemed like the simplest way to gain citizenship, although who knows what that will mean in the long run.  I’ve been lucky though – no off-planet wars to fight in so far.  Instead, gate-duty.

It’s strange how quickly you get institutionalised though.  This guy here, with his super glossy black hair – he’s not a local.  It’ll be subtle, but he’ll get worked over just that little bit more than a home-grown Citizen.  The next senior person in our squad is Francesca, and she really doesn’t like off-worlders.  Yep, there it is, an extra pat down, legs kicked a little further apart.  She’s not going to get promotion though – she’s a good enough soldier, but not leadership material.  Cassie will get promoted before her, but new optios don’t get the squad they came from, so if we lose Marcus and Cassie, there’s a good chance they’ll break us up and ship us to different squads, possibly completely different postings.

Titus is the poet.  That’s him, with Francesca, doing the pat downs.  He won’t do the full twenty.  He’ll probably just do his National Service, get his SPQNR stamp on his docket and…he says he’s going to travel, but I reckon he’ll just end up back in the family bakery.

The guy with the thick black hair is waved on.  Cassie and I stamp to attention, spears to the upright to allow the man to pass.  He glances up at the aquila carved into the archway and makes his way inside the cool marble halls of the Senate building.

The next traveller steps up.

“Quo vadis?”

© David Jesson, 2021