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About the Author

Trent lives with his wife and muse Diana in Brisbane, Australia. His work has been published in Future Orbits, Agog, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Nowa Fantastyka, Aurealis, Eidolon, and Altair. He is fiction editor of Redsine(www.redsine.com). He is also a member of the Brisbane science fiction writers' Group VISION.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] Outside In: Review by A.L. Sirois

Bounty

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Night, and the birds were falling, again. Eagles and sparrows, doves and geese, starlings and crows, an avian rain. Pin could hear the dead creatures smacking onto rooftops. No one was outside tonight; a few people had died, brained in the previous evening's downpour. It was not as loud a rain this time, but after last night there could be few birds left, surely.

Pin trained his telescope on the craggy old moon—his eye pressed hard against the ocular—then the greater constellations. For all he knew they would be the next things to fall out of the sky.

Someone chuckled behind him.

"Thought I might find you here, Wizard. Head in the clouds as the birds drop out of them."

Pin sighed.

"Sendle, the answer lies up there. I am sure of it."

The king's Man-at-arms and executioner—he called it chopping wood—gripped a merlon and pointed down.

"The people grow nervous. But they are always nervous. Portents are always grim. Still this is disquieting. Even for a man like me.

"You know, there used to be a forest out there. My family cut it down. Every single last tree."

"Yes, you did a good job," Pin said, teeth clenched.

Sendle laughed.

"If there is one thing I know it is how to chop wood. A kingdom is much like a forest, Pin. It must be cared for; part of it must be culled. Get rid of the dead wood and the forest thrives."

"But not that forest, eh?" Pin stared down into the city.

Sendle jovially slapped him upon the back, jolting his spine, and Pin silently cursed his odd confidant.

"But there are other forests. There always are, and look at the wonder we built on the tomb of the old."

A bird fell at their feet, startling them both. Pin looked down at the broken-necked glassy eyed thing, face twisted with disgust, before picking it up. It's lifeless bones shifted beneath his fingers.

"The sky is a tomb now. And what can we build on that?"

*

Pin's room despite its size was cluttered. Live long enough and all you have is clutter, regrets, and fears stacked on high. And Pin had lived a long, long time.

He lit a half-dozen candles and, in their warm light, his machines and instruments glowed dully. In one corner, cups and plates piled up that would have been cleared away long ago if he ever let the servants into his chambers; cockroaches scurried from them and into the shadows.

He held the bird in one hand. It felt much lighter than it ought. As though with its life it had also lost a goodly portion of its weight. He dropped it on a work bench, brought out his scales, and weighed the bird.

Far too light. Far too light. He gazed out a narrow slit of a window up at the stars. What was happening out there?

He left the bird where it was and walked to his library. More clutter for the most of it. A few of the older volumes, long unread, he pulled from the shelves.

Clutter. Clutter. Clutter.

No answer to be found here, surely. Dissertations on the corpuscularity of light and the shiftings of constellations.

And then he found it. And was at once violently and terribly sick.

*

King Catchincraw rubbed at his bleary eyes as he stalked up and down the chamber, looking for something to hit.

"This cannot be. Entropy? The end of the world. I expected some sort of Avian disease, but not that."

Pin nodded, bones aching. He suddenly felt very, very old. His heart was a pain in his chest, a dull but weakening ache.

"But it is. The aether contains a finite amount of force and we have consumed all but the last. Our days run out."

Catchincraw scowled, and slapped a fist against the wall.

"This defies reason. It is Spring! The gardens bloom, the farmers are at harvest, and we are at peace."

Pin did not agree.

"And The Wilt we have been hearing of? You seem to have neglected that. Local farms may be ready for harvest, but the edges of the kingdom, on the slopes of the Wildern Range, their crops are dying. People lie sick in their beds—I thought it the plague, but now I know otherwise." He paused and held his king's scared gaze.

"Every flower, every breath is a drain in what are limited reserves. Life's bounty has become a curse. A day or two, no more, and then all that binds and drives our world will be used up." Pin had taught this king, had raised him, and even now he could not resist slipping into the role of lecturer. He paced the room, one finger upraised, an almost condescending expression washing across his angular face. "You see the world will not end in fits and starts, but suddenly, like a wind-up toy when its dance is done."

"Well, can we not just wind it up again?"

Pin could not resist a wan smile; my how quickly did they slip back into the old roles, pupil and student.

"Oh what Power we would need. More than was contained in our universe at its genesis. I do not have such magics at my disposal."

"So there is nothing we can do?" The King cleared the contents of a nearby shelf with an outflung hand. Glass and pottery shattered on the floor and with them were shattered Pin's illusions. "So we are dead? And so you tell me in such a calm voice. Well, perhaps dear Sendle should chop a little wood."

He reached to grab the wizard.

Pin ducked out of the way and, taking a deep breath, brought the glass staff forward. It gleamed in the candlelight, seemed to pull at it. The room was at once brighter and dimmer in its presence.

The King froze.

"What is that?"

Pin's hands shook.

"The one thing we can do."

*

"Are you sure this will work?"

How Pin hated that voice. His eyes flicked towards Sendle. The man was an animal, but after today, how could Pin count himself as any better?

"As sure as I can be of anything," Pin said. "What I am about to do breaks no natural laws, just cheats a little."

The King's axe-man laughed.

"Is that not the nature of magic? Perhaps you will destroy us all. Have you given any thought to that?"

More than you could ever know.

Pin brought his horse to a halt. His mouth was dry and his hands shook slightly on the pommel of his saddle.

"Why are you here?"

"To see that you go through with it. To stop you. I don't know. I don't trust you, wizard."

Nor I you, Pin thought; though he smiled a tight-lipped smile and kept quiet. Pin did not quite trust himself either.

He looked back at the city. Early morning and spring caught on winter's chill memory. The city was not big, and the road round its walls was a good one, so it would not take them long to circle it.

Not much to see in the near darkness; the barest inkling of form; the odd geometries of rooftops; the thicker darkness of smoke. Lights burned in the grey bulk of the castle above. Night was still a great carcass that the worms of morning had scarce begun to nibble on.

Not a soul outside the keep was aware of what was about to happen. Pin was uncertain himself, and scared, very scared.

His horse shivered beneath him.

"Time to begin."

The glass staff was in his saddlebag. It scared him; this was big magic, dark magic, the sort a wizard like him should have no truck with.

He took a deep breath and pulled the staff out. It seemed to suck at his fingers and, for a moment, all he wanted to do was hurl it away. Hurl it away and run. Instead he turned and faced the warrior.

"Mean magics and determination alone can save us," Pin said.

Sendle grinned like a wolf.

"And fear, wizard. Don't forget fear."

Fear, yes, plenty of fear.

*

(continued)

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