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An excerpt from The Trouble With Heroes....

A Science Fiction romance
"... a moving exploration of the consequences of war and power on the those who fight as well as those left behind." Donna Carter, Romantic Times.

The Trouble With Heroes is a brilliant novella..." The Romance Reader

" imaginative and moving allegory about war: those we've fought in the past and those we may fight in the future and on far-off worlds."

Winner of the Sapphire Award, Best SF Romance, short form.

First published in the anthology Irresistible Forces
Now available as an e-book. Buy links are here.

The people of Earth have learned to travel to the stars, though they have found no other highly developed neighbors. Earth-like planets are adapted for colonization with, in theory, due respect for any life forms already there.

When the planet now known as Gaia was discovered, it was the prize; an idyll almost perfect for humans and their chosen animals yet without any large creatures. There was one problem. A force, a something, that appeared to consume animals down to ash, but it was rare and hard to understand, and everything else was so perfect. So, despite the Hostile Amorphous Native Entities, Gaia was settled and has prospered, helped by the fact that over the generations, some Gaians developed an ability to sense and destroy HANES -- or as they are more commonly called, Hellbanes. This ability has a useful side effect. These people can fix almost anything.

Gaia was settled on the Earth Community Plan, which means that colonists set up communities according to their Earth nations and customs, and this story takes place in the English community, Anglia. Jenny Hart is an ordinary citizen leading an ordinary life until the Hellbanes begin to rise, fear drifts on the air, and everyone, but especially her childhood friend, Dan Fixer, begins to change.

    When they emerged into the light and bustle of High Wall Street, Jenny sucked in a deep breath. She’d not thought she was claustrophobic. “Does anyone smell anything funny?” she asked.
    “Just the chip shop fat,” Gyrth said. “Look, there’s Dan.”
    Jenny turned, suddenly breathing more easily. Dan, and he looked normal. Not worried at all. Everything must be all right.
    He was in his fixer uniform of brown shirt and trousers, with assorted badges and braid of significance to those who understood them, but there was nothing special about his looks. Average build, average height. Brown hair and blue eyes in as average face. Like her, really. But then, not.
    Something drew people to Dan like flies to jam. A fizz in the air, a brighter light, an energy that meant there was never a dull time when Dan was part of a group. Jenny thought she could feel the fizz now, even though he seemed relaxed, as if this were just another evening in Anglia. Work over. Time to play.
    "I wondered where everyone was. Poking around down cracks between buildings?"
    "Peering out through arrowslits," Jenny said, hooking arms with him as they all turned to do down the circular staircase to ground level. "And re-analyzing Monty Python. Polly, tell Dan about the monty stuff."
    That kept things light and away from blighters for a while. Now, with Dan by her side and showing no sign of concern, Jenny wanted to forget about it all.
    But it wasn't so easy. Despite the chatter and laughter that something grated on her like an off note in music. When she and Dan ended up together behind the others, she had to ask. "Are there really more blighter attacks near the equator?"
    His look was quick, and perhaps guarded. "Yes, but don't worry. It's all under control."
    Leave it. Leave it. But she couldn't. "Then why are people pouring north?"
    She thought he wasn't going to answer, but he pulled a face. "You'll hear soon enough. Central has recommended that everyone in the affected areas leave until the hellbanes are stamped out. After all, one person ashed is one person too many."
    He declared it as a trite motto, but Assam caught it and turned back. "Damn right. But the problem won't reach here, will it? Polly can't travel now."
    Polly and Gyrth stopped to listen.
    "Blighters have always been more active near the equator," Dan pointed out. "There are plenty of fixers there, and Hellbane U as well., with the most skilled and experienced of us. They’ll deal with it."
    Jenny relaxed, and Polly said she was too tired to walk. Assam suggested a tram and Gyrth went with them.
    Jenny and Dan strolled along in comfortable silence for a while, but she had questions, and this seemed the time to ask them. "Fixers can feel blighters, can't they? That's how you hunt them."
    "I wouldn't exactly call it hunting. Just stand around and they come."
    "I thought you had trouble finding them."
    "True, but the only way we know is to bait a trap.”
    “With what?”
    “Cow, pig....”
    “Then you zap it?”
    “That’s the idea. Ideally before it ashes the poor beast.”
    “Do fixers ever fail? I mean... die?”
    “Very rarely.”
    They paused to let a tram pass and Jenny thought about that. She’d never imagined that fixing might be dangerous. "What does it feel like?"
    He pulled a face. "It can't really be described. It’s like a nightmare. It evaporates if we try to describe it."
    As they crossed the tracks, she asked, "Can non-fixers sense this? At a distance, I mean?"
    His look was quick and sharp. "You're sensing something now?"
    "No! Maybe... I'm not a fixer, Dan. Don't even think it!"
    "I don’t, but some people have a trace. What are you picking up?"
    She tried to explain, but it was as he’d said. Like trying to tell a dream. She didn’t like the fact that it seemed to make sense to him. "So you're feeling the same thing, but much stronger?"
    "I assume so."
    "So they are coming?" she asked.
    "No. Seriously, there’s no need to worry, Jen. The action is all in the hotter lands."
    She stopped. "What action?"
    "The blighters, and the fixers dealing with them.” He grabbed her hand. “Come on. The others will be there long before us." But three steps later he stopped and put his hand to his ear. He muttered something, but pulled the fine wire from his earring round to his mouth. "Fixer."
    After a moment he pushed it back. "Kid fallen off High Wall near Watling. Luckily, only a broken leg. Want to come?"
    "Of course!" She rarely got a chance to see him work, and it always delighted her.
    Hand in hand they ran across to the nearest tram line and Dan waved one down, his uniform his authority. He seemed to have a map of the lines in his head. They jagged rapidly across town to the west wall, where they found a boy on the ground with two nurses in attendance and a small crowd of gawkers.
    The patient was about thirteen with freckles and ginger hair. A tubby, dark haired lad hovered, looking more shocked than his injured friend. It turned out that the patient had already had something for the pain.
    "Right leg," said the nurse who was kneeling beside him. "Tibia and fibula, I think. Might be spinal, too. Name's Jeff Bowlby."
    "Thought you could fly, Jeff?" said Dan, sitting cross-legged beside him.
    "Just fell. Will it hurt?"
    Dan smiled at him. "Not at all. Relax."
    He put his hands on the boy's leg, which was still covered by his jeans. Jenny knew the rules. Everyone did. In case of an accident do nothing except pain relief until the fixer comes, unless it's necessary to prevent death.
    The youth tensed anyway, but then his eyes widened. "It tingles."
    Dan didn't say anything. There really was nothing to see of what he was doing except a stillness that was very un-Danlike. But this time, Jenny realized, she could feel something.
    Tingling? That was one way to put it. What she felt was in the air, or in her mind, or rather, in a part of her mind she hadn't known was there. Oh, she didn't like this. She didn't like it at all. She wasn’t a fixer!
    A man rushed up. "Jeffy?"
    Jenny and the second nurse took an arm each before he could interfere.
    "He's fine," said the nurse, his voice steady. "Mr. Bowlby, is it? No great harm done, and it's being fixed. We'll just need some details from you."
    The young man led the father away to comfort him with record taking, and sting him with a bill. Co-payment for foolishness.
    "All right?" Dan said.
    Jenny turned back to see a slight shudder pass through him as he raised his hands from the boy's leg.
    "That's good as new, but take care of my work, okay, Jeff? Let's see if you've done any other damage." He passed his hands over the boy, pausing for a moment in one spot, then rose easily to his feet. "All clear."
    The boy started to sit up but the nurse beside him held him down. "Oh, no you don’t. We'll help your father take you home and keep an eye on you until the shock and medication wears off." She looked up at Dan. "Good job, fixer."
    Dan gave the nurse his tally and she typed the code in that would authorize his payment from Anglia's health program. Jenny let him guide her toward the tram stop, thinking about fixing. Really thinking about it for the first time.
    "Does that take a lot of your power?"
    "Not particularly. A string of those and I'd be wiped for a while. Normally."
    She thought about querying that, but he went on. "As it is, I welcome the work. If I don't use the energy it tends to... flare."
    "Flaring's bad?"
    “It can turn me a bit wild."
    "Wild's your greatest charm, Dan Rutherford, and you know it."
    He laughed. "I like it when you call me that. I know people like my energy, but there's an edge there."
    That put her worry into words. She thought he danced along an edge.
    Flaring. Good word for it. Flaring high spirits that led to exciting times, but that threatened a conflagration, perhaps mostly of himself. Though fixers could fix so many problems, they rarely lived to a hundred.
    "It's the magic," he said, putting an arm around her.
    A shiver rippled up her back at his touch. Not particularly unpleasant, but a shiver, and for a moment she thought that was what he was referring to. But then she realized he meant the flaring. "You mean fixing?"
    "Magic’s a better word. A more realistic one."
    She stared at him. "Realistic? It doesn't exist.”
    "Who knows? Why so many Earth stories if it never existed? And they show it as dangerous stuff. Magical creatures who lurk in dark places and trick people to their deaths. Or seduce them with gifts and feasts, then keep them prisoner forever. Or make them dance themselves to death for amusement. That fits."
    She eased out of his arm. "That's superstition, and it’s nothing to do with what you do. With fixing."
    "Isn't it?"
    She didn't want this, not now, with her stomach queasy and her mind jangled by his touch, and by an illusion of ashes on the wind. But his silence demanded something, and friends should be friends, so in the end she asked, "Well, is it?"
    He leaned against the tram shelter. "There's no way to compare, is there? They say it doesn’t work on Earth, but I’m not sure when they tried. I've thought of going back to find out, but who can afford it? Someone once said that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. That’s another way of looking at it."
    The tram glided up and they climbed on. He led the way to the back, where they used to sit as kids, but he talked quietly, even though there was no one close.
    "Fixers aren't normal, Jen. You have to see that. They warn us to be solitary, that it's safer. Not to return home. To keep aloof wherever we go."
    "Aloof?" It pulled a laugh from her. "Failed that part of the course, didn't you?"
    "Abjectly. And I insisted on coming back home." A fleeting grin faded. "But sometimes I think they're right."
    "No, they're not. Bad enough that you had to go away for years.”
    "People marry out. Your mother did. Or in, in that case."
    "That's different. That's love. And I wonder how people can love enough to do a thing like that."
    "So do I. I didn't like it, Jen."
    It was the first time he'd said that, and he'd been back two years.


The tram stopped in Market Square then, however, and they got out and crossed to the Merrie England Pub. Gyrth, Polly, and Assam were at an outside table with a bunch of the others. Everyone hailed Dan as if he was rain in midsummer, asking where he’d been. Chairs shuffled. Yas, who looked like a princess from the Arabian Nights, snagged Dan's sleeve and towed him down beside her. Jenny went to a seat at the other end of the table, between Gyrth and Rolo.
    She needed space. Things were shifting, and she didn't know what to do.
    Seduced with gifts and feasts.
    Driven to dance to death.
    For some reason Dan had wanted to tell her about that, and now it was scarily easy to imagine when she remembered some of the wild times, often here, at the Merrie England. Not tonight, though. Beneath chatter, the mood was definitely not Merrie, and it wasn't just her group. The tavern, even the square, seemed subdued. Thoughts of war returned to trouble her. People didn’t flee their homes for no reason.
    A quarrel started behind them, then Yas complained about "some bitch" who'd stolen a promotion from her, and the means she'd used. Back in the tavern, a crash suggested someone had dropped a whole tray of glasses. Raised voices....
    But then it changed. Being so aware of Dan, Jenny saw him do it, saw him open his gifts and set everyone alight. Saw him create a wild Dan Fixer night.
    Yas laughed and let her complaints drop. The shouting stopped. Someone called for music. Jenny went with Rolo and Tom to fetch the instruments from the back room and started rollicking folk songs. That wasn't unusual. Three nights a week they did it for pay. It went beyond that, though.
    Market Square was ringed with taverns and restaurants, all with tables outside on two levels. Soon everyone was joining in, thumping hands and feet with the rhythm. Fiddling into a sweat, Jenny glanced at Dan. There was no way to tell whether he was still making it happen, but she knew he was.
    Dancing to death....
    Other musicians joined them, and the crowd urged the group of them out into the center of the square. Jenny ended up on a precarious spot high on the central statue of the first ship to Gaia leaving Earth. Perched up there, surrounded by singing and stamping, she felt like the heart of a bright-burning bonfire that shone out on hundreds of faces at tables, in windows, and crowding the open space as well.
    She realized people were being drawn here from all around.
    Like moths to a flame? Or like a firestorm, sucking everything into infernal destruction. And what became of those at the center of such a storm?
    Where was Dan? She found him, leaning against the base of the ship, singing along with the rest. This couldn’t be bad. Dan wasn't bad. He was just flaring, burning off his whatever, and creating light against the dark at the same time.
    But why tonight did Dan the Fixer need so much light, laughter, and song? Why did he have so much energy to burn, even after fixing that boy's leg? What did it say about the blighters?
    Jenny escaped that by diving back into the music.
    Tom called an end to it at midnight.
    "We've got to stop. I'll get fired if my mates turn up." He was a policeman. "Last song!" he called in his strong voice.
    Despite protests, they huddled, trying to come up with the best piece to wrap this up without a riot.
    "Gaia," Jenny said.
    Tom looked at her. "The anthem?"
    "You can sing it, can't you? I think it's right."
    No one argued, which was strange. They weren't in the habit of singing the planet's syrupy anthem based on a bad poem by one of the first settlers. Each settlement had its own anthem, but Gaia was dragged out at any planetary-wide event -- usually to groans.
     Jenny wondered where the idea had come from and glanced at Dan, but he was sitting now, an adoring woman in each arm. She didn't even know them.
    Flies to jam. She'd better watch it. She wasn't going to ruin a friendship by turning stupid over Dan. But if he wanted the anthem, he could have it. She struck up a chord and Tom started to sing in his deep, strong voice.
    What a wonder it is
    To find a planet like this
    In the limitless oceans of space.
    Where the air is pristine.
    And the oceans are clean.
    Oh Gaia, you sweet, blessed place.
    Though hellbanes may ash,
    Our dream will not crash.
    We will cherish our new home forever!
The crowd was singing along by then, and in the chorus, the thunder of it seemed to rattle the windows all around. With the gates closed and blighters attacking, the words had new meaning. Power crept up Jenny's spine, almost making her hands fumble on her fiddle.
    She glanced down at Dan again. He had his head back and his eyes closed as if he was absorbing something from the air.
    We come from an Earth
    Under burden of birth,
    Its beauty long gone and turned rotten.
    But here it is new,
    A rich gift to the few,
    Oh Gaia, here pain is forgotten.
    Though hellbanes may ash,
    Our dream will not crash.
    We will cherish our new home forever!
    With a treasure so grand,
    With such beauty to hand,
    What can we be but peaceful and giving?
    Never strife, never war,
    We will spill blood no more,
    Oh, Gaia, you were made for blessed living.
    Though hellbanes may ash,
    Our dream will not crash.
    We will cherish our new home forever!
    It was the crowd rather than Tom that repeated the chorus one last time, almost softly despite the hundreds of voices.
    Though hellbanes may ash,
    Our dream will not crash.
    We will cherish our new home forever!
    Like a lamp turned down, the roaring energy settled to a glow, and everyone began to drift peacefully away.
    Jenny sat in the convenient dip between ship and Earth because her legs had turned weak. The others looked pretty shocked.
    "The power," Tom said.
    The magic, she thought, and she might have a bit of it.
    Dan stood waiting to help her down, but she jumped down by herself then hurried back to the tavern with her fiddle. She was afraid of what might happen if they touched.

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