The Shadow War (Excerpt)

Check out The Shadow War by Rod Rees, second book in his Demi-Monde Saga, out now from Harper Collins:

The shadows of war grow ever darker across the Demi-Monde.

Norma Williams knows she was a fool to be lured into the virtual nightmare that is the Demi-Monde. When the agent sent in the game to save her goes rogue and a long forgotten evil is awoken, it falls to Norma to lead the resistance.

Lost, without a plan, and with the army of the ForthRight marching ever closer, she must come to terms with terrible new responsibilities and with the knowledge that those she thought were her friends are now her enemies. To triumph in this surreal cyber-world she must be more than she ever believed she could be . . . or perish.




The Demi-Monde: 1st Day of Spring, 1005


It has recently been recognized (see my own Dark Charismatics: The Invisible Enemy) that there is a small coterie of persons—perhaps no more than twenty in the whole of the Demi-Monde— who are immune to all blandishments and attempts to modify their brutish behavior. But small though this sinister and recalcitrant subclass is, it is very potent, for its constituents, by their perverted nature and gross amorality, present a morbid threat to the ideals which govern the Quartier Chaud and endanger the very existence of those charged by ABBA, by rank and by ability, with the execution of such governance. These abominations I have named Dark Charismatics.

Letter dated 53rd day of Spring, 1002, from Professeur Michel de Nostredame to Doge Catherine-Sophia

Beau nichon!

Examining herself carefully in her looking glass, Odette Aroca decided that she made quite a striking Liberté. That she stood tall and proud (as Liberté should), that she was strong and powerful (as Liberté had to be, though Odette doubted that Liberté had developed her muscles hauling meat to and from her market stall in Les Halles) and that the breast she had exposed was full and plump, all meant that she was the living embodiment of the figure shown in Delacroix’s famous painting of The Triumph of the Quartier Chaud in the Great War. When she marched with her UnScrewed sisters on the Bastille, she would certainly look the part.

Odette took a moment to adjust the Phrygian cap sitting atop her head. She hated the cap: it was shapeless and floppy and reminded her of a bed cap. It also, annoyingly, hid much of what Odette believed to be her best feature—her long, curly chestnut hair. Being by nature a pragmatist, Odette knew that she wasn’t a particularly good-looking woman—even her mother could only be persuaded to call her homely—so she had to make the most of what paltry blessings ABBA had reluctantly bestowed on her. Annoyingly, the cap refused to cooperate and, despite all her efforts at rearrangement, it continued to sit on her head looking like a partially melted blancmange.

Still, her robe was good. The word that had come down from the leaders of the UnScrewed-Liberation Movement was that for the assault on the Bastille, all demonstrators should wear a long flowing robe in virgin white, this to signify their refusal to indulge in sexual activities until Jeanne Deroin and Aliénor d’Aquitaine were freed and the lettres de cachet ordering their imprisonment revoked. Moreover, the instructions had continued, the robe had to be cut so that the right breast—and it had to be the right breast, the UnScrewed Committee members were devils for detail—was unsheathed. “Tempting but Untouchable” was to be the UnScreweds’ catchphrase, and for a woman like Odette this was good news. She regarded her breasts as her second-and third-best features, having, as was often remarked upon by her admirers—many of her regretfully few admirers—big breasts. But then Odette was a very big woman, so it was natural that she should have breasts to match her great height and her equally great girth. Still, never being one to look a gift horse in the mouth, Odette gave a wiggle and was pleased to see that her untethered breast jiggled in a quite charming fashion.

Satisfied with her robe, Odette strapped on the huge hobnailed boots she wore when she worked in the market. She’d have been a fool to go to any demonstration ill equipped to give someone a good kicking if things got bent out of shape. The GrandHarms had been none too tender with UnScreweds of late, and if any one of the sods so much as waved his baton in her direction, he would find himself having to buy a bigger codpiece to accommodate his swollen testicles.

Next Odette fastened a mask about her face. For the assault on the Bastille she’d chosen a full-face, Roman-style mask made from thick white leather. Not only was white leather very fashionable but it also had the advantage of offering at least some protection if she was hit in the face and, of course, made her homeliness a little more mysterious and alluring. She’d decorated the mask using red nail varnish, writing robespierre’s a piano across the brow, a reference to Senior CitiZen Robespierre’s rumored lack of sexual potency. This gesture was, she knew, a violation of the instructions of the UnScrewed Committee—their belief being that demonstrators should conduct themselves “with taste and decorum” and avoid “provocative vulgarities”—but as the Committee was made up of middle-class intellectuals who had never been involved in a street fight in their lives, they could, in Odette’s oft-voiced opinion, go fuck themselves. Odette Aroca and the regiment of market women she commanded were marching to free Deroin and d’Aquitaine, not to serve canapés or engage in learned debate.

With her mask in place, the only thing that remained was for Odette to select her placard. All demonstrators had been ordered to carry a placard nailed to the handle of a broom, the broom symbolizing the UnScreweds’ avowed intent to sweep away the Gang of Three, the bastard Dark Charismatics led by Robespierre. The broom idea had caused no end of argument at the last meeting of the Paris Battalion of the UnScrewed-Liberation Movement, with Amélie Sappho arguing that as the broom was a symbol of domesticity and hence of female oppression, it was an inappropriate item to be carried by women demanding the upholding of the sacred rights of ImPuritanism and of Holistic Feminism. In the end, Amélie had been voted down. Odette hadn’t been surprised; everyone knew Amélie was a Dork—a closet HerEtical—who had very funny ideas about what a young woman should do with a broom handle in the privacy of her bedroom.

Odette chose the placard which read down with the gang of unfree, which she thought quite a pithy slogan, then she took a few minutes to use her trusty razor-knife to sharpen the end of the broom handle to a point. Now if any GrandHarm came to the mistaken conclusion that, because she was carrying a broom, she was ripe for oppression, two meters of pointed pine shoved up his arse would do an excellent job of disabusing him.

Her costuming complete, Odette spent several minutes standing in front of the mirror, striking what she thought were suitably heroic poses—there would, after all, be press daguerreotypists covering the demonstration—and grimacing in what she thought was an appropriately aggressive manner. In the end she gave up on the grimacing, as no one would be able to see her face behind her mask and, anyway, snarling made her face ache. Her practicing of her war cries was brought to a similarly premature conclusion by Widow Depaul hammering on the thin wall that separated her room from Odette’s and loudly demanding that she “stop tormenting that poor fucking gorilla.”

It was while Odette was striking a particularly pugnacious, if silent, pose for the mirror that she became aware of shouting coming from the entrance of the tenement building, three floors below her attic room. It sounded like someone was in loud dispute with the building’s formidable concierge, Madame Blanc. Odette didn’t like disturbances: they were usually a precursor to the arrival of the Inquisition.

It’s a Purging!

Instinctively she knew that the Quizzies had come for her. The chances were that her landlord, the odious and odorous CitiZen Drumont, had shopped her. He was always snooping around when she was out, searching her room, looking for the rent she owed him.

The bastard must have found the placards.

Realizing that the conventional route out of the tenement—down the stairs—would now be blocked by the Quizzies, Odette slammed a heavy wooden bar across the door of her room, and then opened the window that gave out onto the roof. Confident that her room was as secure as she could make it, and that she had an escape route, she hauled the two huge Ordnance revolvers out from where she had hidden them, wrapped in an oilskin, under a loose floorboard, and checked that they were loaded. Then she threw a cloak around her shoulders, blew out the oil lamp that was her room’s only illumine tion, and settled back in the darkness to wait—praying, as she did so, that it was some other bugger the Quizzies were after.

She didn’t have to wait long to discover that her prayers hadn’t been answered. Odette had barely got herself ready to repel intruders when she heard heavy boots pounding up the naked wooden staircase toward her room. As best she could judge, there were five of the bastards. She pressed her ear against the door, listening to the whispered instructions being given on the landing outside her miserable little room. Then a fist hammered on the door.

“CitiZen Odette Aroca, I am Chief Inquisitor Donatien. I have here a lettre de cachet for your arrest. You are accused of being an UnVirtuous CitiZen, of being an enemy of the Revolution, and of being one of those most despicable and censorable creatures known as UnScrewed-Liberationists. Further, the charges against you state that, being an officer in that prohibited organization, you did plot and connive in the execution of many treasonous and nefarious acts designed to endanger the quietude of the Medi, the Revolution, and the Rapprochement with the ForthRight. You have also been overheard engaging in calumny: to wit, expressing doubts regarding the parentage of Senior CitiZen Robespierre. I am therefore instructed to bring you before the Committee of Public Safety, so that you might answer to these charges, and thereafter be convicted and punished.”

Odette had no doubt about what being “punished” would involve. The guillotine Robespierre had had set up in the Place de Grève had been chopping away with a vengeance for the last few weeks. Let the Quizzies arrest her and the chances were she wouldn’t have much use for her bonnet in the future.

“Go fuck yourself,” Odette shouted back, rummaging in her memory for some of the bits and pieces of UnScrewed rhetoric she’d picked up at the meetings she’d attended. “It is incumbent on all free-minded CitiZens to act in defense of Responsibility Six enshrined in the Quartier Chaud’s Charter of Responsibilities.” Odette paused for breath, slightly amazed by her own pomposity. “This states that all CitiZens shall enjoy freedom of thought and conscience, and that CitiZens shall be able to openly express their opinions in public. By the arrest and incarceration of Sisters Jeanne Deroin and Aliénor d’Aquitaine, the Gang of Three has violated the tenets of ImPuritanism and has paved the way for the infiltration of UnFunDaMentalism into our beloved Quartier Chaud. UnFunDaMentalism is anathema to the inalienable Responsibilities of all CitiZens, these being enshrined in our Sector’s motto, namely ‘Liberty, Equality and Fornication.’”

“That is sedition, CitiZen,” came the response. “You will know that the Charter of Responsibilities has been suspended and thus, by your own words, CitiZen Aroca, you condemn yourself as an Enemy of the Revolution and therefore a cat’s paw for that most insidious of would-be dictators, the so-called Doge Catherine-Sophia of Venice.” The door handle rattled. “Now open the door and come peaceably. I would advise you that I am empowered to use whatever force is necessary to oblige you to accede to the terms of this lettre.”

“And I should warn you that I will not yield to a lackey of the forces of oppression. When Maximilien Robespierre, Godfrey de Bouillon and Tomas de Torquemada”—automatically Odette made the sign of Mannez across her chest as she intoned the names of the hated Gang of Three—“ persuaded the Senate to declare UDI, they made themselves enemies of ImPuritanism. Their attempt to impose UnFunDaMentalism upon the Medi is symbolic of their Dark Charismatic intentions.”

“Is that your final word, CitiZen Aroca?”

“No, this is. Fuck off.”

 “That’s two words.”

“Try ‘bollocks,’ then. I am not going to bandy words with you, a reactionary agent of repression.”

“I was an agent of oppression just a moment ago,” observed an obviously confused Chief Inquisitor Donatien.

“Oppression, repression: it’s all the same,” snapped a rather testy Odette, who could never quite remember which was which.

“Break down the door.”

A nail-studded boot smashed into the door, shaking it to its hinges, but the door was so heavy and the wooden beam barring it so strong that it held firm. The Quizzies must have realized that kicking at the door was a waste of time, as the next, very much heavier blow was delivered by what Odette suspected to be a sledgehammer.

Knowing that the door wouldn’t stand long against such punishment, and that she was now fighting for her life, she hauled one of her pistols out of her belt, cocked it, took careful aim at the middle of the door and fired. For an instant she was blinded by the pistol’s muzzle flash as it scorched the darkness, and choked by the stench of cordite smoke. She was also deafened: such was the tiny size of her room that the bang when the gun fired caused her ears to pop. But she wasn’t so deaf that she couldn’t hear the screams of the Quizzie she’d hit.

The eleven-millimeter slug from her pistol had smashed its way through the wood of the door like a fist, the soft lead distorting as it went. What had hit the poor unfortunate Quizzie on the other side of the door had no longer been the streamlined bullet that had left the muzzle of the Ordnance, but a five-centimeter-wide piece of angry shrapnel.

“You UnScrewed cow,” someone yelled, and then there was another hammer blow against the door, which now, savaged and splintered by the bullet, began to buckle.

Odette fired again, this time aiming at the wall to one side of the door, where she guessed the Quizzies would be cowering. The simple plaster-and-lath wall offered even less resistance to the bullet than the door. It disintegrated in a cloud of pulverized plaster, the bullet gouging an egg-sized hole before it hit a second Inquisitor.

“Let the bitch have it,” she heard Donatien shout, and immediately there was a fusillade of firing, the bullets smashing through the wall and whining about Odette’s ears. It was time to get out.

She fired two more discouraging shots, and then hopped over to the window and eased her considerable bulk out onto the roof. Her Liberté costume offered her precious little protection from the bitter cold of the night and, as her hobnailed boots scrabbled for grip on the snow-slick tiles, Odette could feel her fingers—and other exposed parts of her anatomy—already starting to stiffen and numb.

Not having much of a head for heights—she had never managed to get above the second level of the Awful Tower—she tried not to look down toward the cobbled street thirty meters below. She almost despaired. It seemed impossible that she would be able to climb over the roof to reach the adjoining building, the tiles were too slippery and the roof too steep. Then Odette had a brain wave. Bracing herself against a gutter, she used her pistols to blast holes through the roof tiles so that the wooden beams beneath them were exposed. These she used like the rungs of a ladder to clamber up the roof. She was almost halfway over it when the man living immediately beneath the roof stuck his head out of his window. It was CitiZen Drumont, her bastard of a landlord, and he didn’t look happy. He gawped, obviously shocked by the vandalism and by the sight of a half-naked Odette Aroca smashing her way across what was left of his roof.

“CitiZen Aroca? Just what the fuck are you doing? You almost blew my fucking head off just now. And who’s going to pay for the damage to my fucking roof?”

“Try the Quizzies. It was you who called the bastards here.”

 “That’s because you’re a despicable traitor to the Revolution.” And with that Drumont hauled a blunderbuss out from behind him and aimed it at Odette.

Odette didn’t hesitate: she shot him straight through the forehead. She felt no remorse. CitiZen Drumont was a horrible man who had made her life a bloody misery with his constant demands that she pay him the rent on her shitty little room.

Let’s see you try to collect it now, you bastard!


The Shadow War © Rod Rees 2013


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