Why Ignorance is Bad For Feminist Glittery Hoo Haas

Over at According To Hoyt today (linky), Sarah has quite a bit to say about the sterility of what the Social Justicy Glittery Hoo Haas call “proper” creative/artistic/literary pursuits. She’s right. More than that, she knows the emptiness of the kind of ideologies that have to lock people inside neatly labeled little boxes to “protect” them from the big bad world outside (hint: if merely being exposed to something else is enough to turn someone against your faith (or ideology or whatever the hell you want to call it), your thingummy belief whatsis sucks.

One of the side-effects of the sterility and mental walls is breathtaking ignorance from people who should – in theory at least (wonderful place, theory. Everything works the way it’s supposed to) – know what the freaking hell they’re talking about. And that in turn leads to the kind of nonsense that I, being a charter member of the Evil League of Evil (but not the Beautiful Evil Space Princess – that’s Sarah’s job) am obliged to poke fun at.

Exhibit howtheheckdoIknowIlostcountmonthsago: a book review column from the NYT. A little over halfway down the page you’ll find the review for the sequel to the Hugo winning Ancillary Justice (yes, yes, I know, but trust me I do have a point here. Remember what I said about breathtaking ignorance a paragraph back?). Now, the esteemed reviewer starts with the credentials of Ancillary Justice, then moves on to a truly impressive piece of ignorance, which I quote:

The central question is whether the story’s structural gimmick — the protagonist’s tendency to refer to all people as “she” regardless of actual gender or even humanity — is sufficiently mind-blowing as to merit all the accolades. It isn’t a gimmick, though; it’s a coup. Rather than seriously entertain the endless, if stupid, debate on whether women have a place in stories of the future, Leckie’s book does the literary equivalent of rolling its eyes and walking out of the room. Her refusal to waste energy on stupidity forces her audience to do the same: A few pages into the first novel, the reader gives up trying to guess each character’s actual gender, and just accepts that this will be a story full of interesting women doing awesome things.

Okay. First – if you have to say “It isn’t a gimmick”, it’s a gimmick. Second, this is only “mind-blowing” for a) English speakers who are also b) criminally ignorant of science fiction. Aside from the well-known efforts of Ursula Le Guin, I recall books from the Golden Age where there were species with sexes that completely defied human or earthly categorization. Of course, those were written by males, so they must not count.

Second, the grammatical gender one uses is a cultural thing. English has three genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. Most English-speaking cultures consider it highly impolite to refer to people by the neuter gender: if you’re talking about a person, you’re supposed to use he or she. Not, under any circumstances, it. Heck, some people are uncomfortable referring to their pets with neuter pronouns (which, just in case anyone is thinking of saying so, has nothing to do with getting said pet neutered).

Third, picking one quasi-random grammatical gender and using only that is not by any stretch of imagination, a coup. I’ve seen frigging fan fiction – and crappy fan fiction at that – do a better job of questioning so-called gender norms.

Fourth, while I agree that the so-called debate on whether women have a place in the stories of the future (when did they ever not have a place? There have always been women in science fiction and they’ve occupied the same wide range of niches that the men occupied. Sometimes you just have to know enough about the conventions of the times to read between the lines to see it) is as stupid as it’s become endless, the book (and its sequel) does not do “the literary equivalent of rolling its eyes and walking out of the room”. Would that it had. No, the book goes into a lengthy explanation (in the first damn chapter) of the POV character’s native language not having separate gender pronouns. The author could just as easily have rendered the pronouns as the English masculine or the English neuter but that wouldn’t get the Glittery Hoo Haas of Social Justice all hot and happy, would it?

Finally (well, not really finally but I can’t be bothered wasting any more time on this: it’s a work night and my alarm goes off at oh god AM each morning), just because everything in the book is referred to by a grammatical feminine pronoun does not make the book “a story full of interesting women doing awesome things”. For starters, the preview that was available before the Hugo ballot was anything but awesome. For seconds, since there’s some familiar anatomy there the odds against every character of note being actually female is kind of small. And for thirds, anyone desperate and stupid enough to claim that a bit of pronoun trickery is enough to make the book full of… well. Yeah.

There’s more ignorance to the review, claiming new and original for plot lines where Star Trek has gone before – repeatedly (and frankly in at least some episodes Star Trek did it a damn sight better). No, Ms Jemisin, Leckie is not “attacking the self-absorption of science fiction itself”. She’s following a very well-trodden path of which you, with your breathtakingly arrogant ignorance possess neither knowledge nor understanding.

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Something Must Happen – Novel Workshop 3

*Sorry to be so late.  We have ROOFERS, which means early mornings are not my own and late night is the only time I can concentrate to write, without roofers hammer-hammer-hammering on heaven’s roof.  Or something.*

Something Must Happen

 

When you’re starting to write, you don’t think of the parts of a novel or whatever. You think “I have a story and I’m going to tell it.”

Except that very few of us get fully-built-stories in our heads, by which I mean fully functional narratives with fully functional characters, an interesting build up, a solid climax and for preference a good emotional kick.

No, what we get, what you’ll hear at any gathering of writers, is “prompts.” You know “I have this idea for a novel where the sky is made of sponge cake.” Or “I have this idea for a world where the males are the ones who give birth.” Or “I have this character, right? He’s the king, but he finds out his father was illegitimate. The guy making war on him, otoh, is the bastard grandson of the real king. And because magic in this world goes with the blood of the kings, he’s all conflicted…”

The last one is the least interesting when you’re telling it. It’s also, I’m afraid, the type of newbie writing who has a hard road ahead. I know this. I was there once.

What I got were fascinating characters, but they didn’t do much of anything, except sometimes angst. Which makes for boring reading.

After a few people told me I needed a plot (ah!) I started reading how to write books, where I found the following definition of plot “plot is where things happen.”

Uh. Right. Thanks muchly.

Some of the books went into a lot more detail about the sort of things that should happen, but either they didn’t explain well enough for a born character-writer, or I was more obtuse back then, in my twenties. (It has to be the first, right, because I could never have been obtuse.)

I never made the most likely mistake in these circumstances. I know it’s the most likely, because I’ve seen a lot of fledgelings make it.

This is:

Make a lot of things happen around your character. Sometimes your character reacts to them. Sometimes he’s like a uber-Aspergers character and just wonders around, relating things as volcanoes blow up, Earthquakes destroy the land, monsters eat all his friends and corpses tumble from the sky at his feet. (This is the accurate description of the “plot” of a friend’s story when we were all beginners.)

This is things happening. It might even be fascinating things happening. But this is not plot. Not only does it reveal nothing about your character (unless your character is a camera) but it does not “pull” the reader forward. There is no reason to see what happens next, if what happens next is a random disaster, and we don’t care about the characters to whom the disaster happens.

This is also, btw, 90% of the drek on Amazon.

So, the next level, which I did fall into for a while (and which is why there’s a long trilogy awaiting a full rewrite) is to have things happen TO your character. This is mildly more interesting, at least if your character isn’t a simpering Sally like mine was, who just sat and cried about everything that happened to him and all his misfortunes. If you care for the character, you’re going to care that he gets eaten by monsters, has lava erupt under his feet, etc.

Only after a while it gets really tiring. You can get away with it in a short story. But not in a novel. After a while this process, which my friend Kate calls “dropping walls on characters” – i.e. the character is going along, and another unexpected event flattens him – gets really boring. And if you’re like me and start with a character that grows organically, after a few hundred pages of this treatment, he becomes mush. He doesn’t care anymore. He just wants you to kill him.

The next level up from that is to have stuff happen that’s in a crescendo. This is a “things get worse” plot. Yeah, you’re still dropping walls on the character, but they’re GRADUATED walls, and people watch, if nothing else out of the same morbid fascination that draws us to train wrecks. Works pretty well for short stories.

For novels, it tends to be curiously unsatisfying. It can work, mind, provided the disasters are interesting enough, but it leaves much to be desired. (Almost all novels of apocalypse, zombie or otherwise, written by beginners, follow this.)

So, Sarah, since you’re a know it all, what is a plot, optimally?

Optimally a plot, after a precipitating incident, consists of things that happen due to the actions of your character, which are in turn informed by this character’s flaws, and which proceed in a crescendo of seriousness and difficulty, until they reach a climax where all is either lost or won.

Yes, it bears a superficial resemblance to the things above, but the difference is it proceeds from the situation and the character, and resolves or highlights the character’s flaws or strengths. (Or both.)

Translated into human speech this goes something like this:

-there is an alien invasion

-Bob is caught at the office, where, out of a sense of decency, he tries to save as many people as possible. Which makes him responsible for Sobbing Sally.

-Sobbing women irritate Bob, so he tries to ditch her, which leads to drawing the aliens to them.

- This makes Bob have to fight them off.

-Sobbing Sally realizes Bob was trying to ditch her and walks off, which is okay with Bob who hates Sobbing Women, but Sobbing is captured and leads the aliens back to Bob.

-So Bob now gets he’s stuck with Sobbing, and has to escape and drag her alone.

- this escalates in problem severity, until Bob gets that Sally is Sobbing because she’s missing her favorite gun and can’t fight the aliens.

- they break into a gun store, get the gun and Sobbing and Bob defeat the aliens. (Yay.)

Yes, that plot is stupid and simplistic, but it is a functional plot.

Now grab your favorite novel and do a dual diagram, chapter by chapter – How do things get worse in each chapter? (be warned in novels there might be respite “catch your breath” chapters.) How did the main character bring this about by what he’s done and what he’s failed to do? How does this highlight his flaws/strengths? (If you don’t have a favorite novel, do this to Monster Hunter International.)

Next Week, Twirling our moustache and plotting – W plots, Thriller plots, romance plots, twisty plots.

 

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Of sequels, reviews and how not to behave

I’m up to my eyes with the final edits to Duty from Ashes and am determined that it will be out by Nov. 1st. That means my mind is so focused on the edits that little has gotten in the past week. Maybe that’s why I did something our own Jason Cordova may never forgive me. In my defense, he egged me on. I swear it. He told me that he would review a certain book if I sent him a copy. So I did. And, yes, I will link and explain in a moment.

A little background. In this day and age of social media, there is one truth. What you put out into the interwebs is always in the interwebs if you know where to look. That is a lesson a number of us seem to forget all too often. It is so very simple to take to Facebook or Twitter or any one of a number of other social media sites to express our outrage or anger over something.

As folks who live by their words, authors all too often forget this. Back several years ago, an author took to his blog and FB to blast his editor because he didn’t like the job the editor had done on his latest novel. Now, I’ve seen what some of the traditional press editors can and have done and I don’t blame anyone for the occasional blow up for idiocy but you don’t let yourself be so specific that anyone with just a bit of knowledge of the industry or a bit of google-fu can find out who you are talking about. In this particular instance, he named names and gave dates and got more than a bit profane. Within minutes, the internet exploded, his agent and others saw it and he was basically told to take it down, issue and apology and pray he hadn’t just killed his career. He complied by taking down the post and making a sort-of apology but for months after, people quoted the post because it was still out there in the interwebs for all to find.

More recently, there’s been the author who admitted she was so upset by a review of her first book she basically turned into a stalker. She used her computer skills to find out who the reviewer really was, tracked them down, called them and even went to the reviewer’s home. That is more than a little creepy and is a prime example of why there are fewer and fewer legitimate reviewers available, especially for indie and small press published books. (By legitimate reviewers, I mean those who actually read the book and post in-depth reviews that point out good and bad. In other words, those who aren’t just out for free books. Note also that I don’t include the majority of Amazon reviews that are left by folks who have — or have not — read the book in question.)

Then there are the authors who really go off the deep end and respond to negative reviews by calling names, resorting to profanity and generally making themselves look more than a little foolish. Sometimes this happens when an author goes after a blogger on the that blogger’s site. Other times, it happens in response to Amazon reviews. We hear about the former more often than the latter because of social media. However — and this is where I get to Jason’s review — there are times when an author acts so badly in response to Amazon reviews that he and his book come to the attention of reviewers and the results aren’t what the author desires.

For those of you who might not know, Jason is part of Shiny Book Review. SBR is one of the few review sites I trust because Jason and Barb Caffrey post their honest opinions about the books they read. Being an author who knows the importance of reviews — but who is always worried about what the reviewer will think — I figuratively hide under the kitchen sink when I know they are reviewing one of my books. What I have found is that they have always been fair and have pointed out problems where they see them. I might not always agree but I do consider what they say and I respect their honesty.

So, cutting to the chase, last night on FB, some of us were discussing a novel where the author has been a prime example of what not to do as an author when it comes to Amazon reviews. Most of us in the discussion had at least read part of the free sample and we had read the reviews and the author’s responses to them. The tipping point for some of us came a few days ago when the author, upset when a very successful indie author offered some very good advice, went to the listing for the other author’s latest book and left what can only be called a revenge critique and was then proud of it when called on what he had done. That sort of thing just isn’t done — or it shouldn’t be.

Anyway, during the course of the conversation, Jason said he would review the book if I sent it to him (full disclosure, I did taunt him with the comment that I was tempted to send it to him for review). I don’t think Jason expected me to follow through but I did and, well, we all owe him. He did the literary review equivalent of falling on a grenade for us. You can find his review of the book — the now, in some circles at least, infamous Empress Theresa — here. I guarantee you that, having read the sample on Amazon and having gone to the author’s website, Jason is right on the mark with what he has to say.

The lesson of all this is, if you put a book out there for the world to read, understand that there will be people who won’t like it. Don’t engage with them. Don’t go leaving revenge critiques. Most of all, if you invite teachers or others to read your book and leave an honest opinion, don’t then attack them when they don’t say what you want. (You can follow the link in Jason’s review to the Amazon page and the reviews and comments. I have never before seen a book with so few reviews and so many comments. If you go to the book’s website, you will find sample chapters as well. They are interesting, to say the least, especially when it comes to changing POVs, construction, suspension of disbelief and more.)

Anyway, go read Jason’s review. The lesson to take away from it and from the way the author has behaved on Amazon is that this is a lesson in how not to act if you want to be taken as someone who takes their writing career seriously.

Now I’m going back to work. Duty from Ashes calls and I really, really need to get these edits finished so I can move on to the next project(s). What I wouldn’t give for a vacation.

 

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The corporate heel crushing poor publishers (who prefer to do the crushing)

The outrage on a largely Trad published writer’s list I belong to on reading Matthew Yglesias putting forward this article was… so thick you could cut it with a knife. That was more than I could say about the response from one of the pampered intersectional dahlings – she’s of course entitled to restitution because she’s been oppressed twice (or so you ought to know and suitably grovel) which (I paraphrase) was that Amazon is an evil giant corporation and just interested in making money, and didn’t people understand the psychology of it?

Ain’t no knife tough enough to cut that.

It’s quite difficult, and I say this as a largely self-sufficient nutbar, to be ‘free’ of corporates. They certainly are involved in everything – from her bank account, her food, her internet, her cell phone, her mortgage, and yes, her sainted publisher. And as far as I can work out, any bits that aren’t corporate in the average urban dweller’s life are most probably run on taxes, which, um you’ll find corporates (including her sainted publisher holding corporate,) do their best to let someone else – like a working stiff, pay. Private individuals or small or family companies… get shafted. But as someone once said power corrupts, but we need electricity, and yes, everyone – including her, including me, would prefer to pay as little tax as possible.

For us it’s just less possible.

Corporates, in theory at least, do try to make money. That’s understandable, and something one can work with. Of course, they’re also bureaucracies – or, unless severely an constantly pruned by their shareholders, develop into that. And bureaucracies (of which governments are subset) only make money (or anything else) for others as a bare minimum part of their survival strategy. If they can survive and perpetuate themselves, as much of what they harvest as they possibly can will stay with themselves, and of course their loyalists will get the crumbs.

You see, making money may be a corporate strategy – which doesn’t mean the loyalists are favored, but those make most money for them, but for bureaucrats… it’s about control, power and a personally comfortable (and lucrative) fief. The can work hand-in-hand, and you can design your corporate so that in theory HR will not quietly filter for their own kind (their purpose, they are the genitals of the corporate beast) in at the expense of making money – but it is a constant struggle (and yes, I see it in Amazon too). The key of course is making their survival dependent on keeping customers and suppliers happy for a long time.

They think the best way of doing this is to have them entrapped, and fungible.

Oddly, very strange, that’s good for bureaucrats, bad for customers, suppliers, and yes, the long term future of the business. Because neither customers nor suppliers are really that fungible. In reading and writing, much, much more so. I’m sorry, Ms PC Blossom’s Grey Goo book of Bad Western Men will not replace the latest Sarah Hoyt, or David Weber without my blinking an eyelid, or withholding my money.

If Corporates want to enslave me… as a writer, they need provide something I need, and do a better job than I can myself (two things come first to my mind here: firstly impeccable record-keeping and accounting; and secondly effective retail marketing. Both are things that evil coroporate Amazon does well. Both are things all Trad publishers do for varying degrees of bad. Yglesais is right. They need to up their game, instead of hoping authors will do it for them, for free, and without noticing that Amazon allows up to the minute accounting transparency and rapid (by comparison) regular monthly payment. And as a reader, they need to give me something I can’t get easier, cheaper and better elsewhere.

My psychology, which I am sure is vastly inferior, says I kind of like both sides of that deal, as reader and as a writer. I hope they make some money out of it, as a reward for not feeding bureaucracy.

I hope I do too. I’m kind of sick of being delicate about the weight of the crushing heel.

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The Wild and the Tame

 

 

No, no Elf Blood, and yes, I promise it will return. I’m still hip deep in Through Fire though I THINK we’re reaching a detente. Maybe.

But lately I’ve been – through the magic of indie and mentoring – watching a lot of writers come to a level of maturity. And I thought I’d write about it, in case some of you are beginning writers.

Writing starts as a wild thing. All these things come at you, and they fall into your story because you don’t know how not to have them fall into the story. The elements just drop in. And when you’re done you think the story is brilliant.

You think that because all the elements are deeply significant TO YOU. If they weren’t you wouldn’t have dropped them in. On you they have the desired emotional effect.

Writing is not about words, and thinking it is is a great mistake. Writing is about emotions. When you first start writing, your only emotional model are the things you think deeply and feel deeply about. Writing is so difficult that only the greatest of emotional drives can push you to do it.

So you do.

And often you show it to someone and they look at it and go “Uh?”

One of my first novels (realistically novellas. I was writing long hand) at fourteen shocked me because when I showed it to my friend she didn’t cry. I’d cried wildly while writing it, but for her it was “uh.”

I’d dropped into it all my emotional triggers, see, redheaded young men, and a betrayal of innocence, and the sound of rain on the roof, and a lost kitten. How dared she not cry?

Little by little – and I’m ashamed it took me another 14 years – I came to realize that those emotional triggers are different in everyone, and that success comes from aiming for the “general triggers.”

Unfortunately me being me, and not particularly liking to commit emotional strip tease in public (what else would you call it?) I used this as an excuse to make my writing bland and anodyne, or in other words, to stay completely away from MY OWN emotional triggers and write generic.

The problem is that when you don’t have your own triggers in, when you’re not feeling it, when you’re not writing a wild, barely controllable feeling yourself, your writer won’t feel it either.

It is perfectly possible to write competent fiction without being consumed with emotion.

What is not likely is that you’ll write great fiction, the kind that stays with the reader for years and years.

And so, fourteen years after I broke in, I find myself not so much shutting out the wild: those impressions and feelings and things that come from the deep subconscious, but taming it.

Writing fiction – that is packaging emotions – as I’ve come to understand it is like translating from that space behind your eyes to the world at large. Yes, you need to be able to speak the language of those people, out there. But you also need to have something to say. And what is in you that wants to write is often so deep that the language it speaks in isn’t even fully rational.

So you have to let the irrational fall into your story – and more often your novel – and then integrate it and make it, by circumstances and surroundings, understandable to others, so they feel it with the same impact and force as you do, there, behind your eyes.

It’s not easy. It’s particularly not easy for the thinking, word-smithing self to allow the wild in. You let it in once, but only because you didn’t know any better. And it came in and painted itself all over walls, because it didn’t know any better. And it either repulsed people or, more often, confused them.

It’s much harder to let the wild in and tame it, and make it serve your purpose.

It can be done. It relies on reproducing the feelings that those things make you experience. There is a reason Heinlein left a trail of interest in redheads (not my interest, that seems to be instinctive, and before you ask, my husband is dark haired. This is good. I don’t think rationally around red-headed males) and fondness for cats in his wake, because he associated these with the same feelings they inspired in him. He ported them into other people’s brain, alone with more important concepts, such as the importance of giving one’s life to save the future (be it a nation or a child.)

I was recently talking to my older son about writing. This is normal, since he’s also a writer, and he told me that he thought for any piece of writing to be truly good, it needed to have something not quite rational in it, something not fully under the control of the creator. I think he’s right.

But I think to make it work, you need to be enough of a craftsman to bring the wild in and put a leash on it. You need to be able to tame the wild just enough it can live in other brains.

So, if you’re a beginner writer, yes, it’s likely you need more control over how these things spill into your prose.

And if you’re a more advanced writer and have filed away all the wild bits that fueled you into the beginning, let the dream time in. Let it in just enough to make your book a living dream and to impart emotions and a sense of completion to others.

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A Century of Science Fiction

Last week we took a trip through a century of Fantasy stories, exploring the language and writing style as it developed and changed. This week I intend to do the same with Science Fiction. Unlike Fantasy, SF is a relatively modern genre. Science fiction, as a term, evidently appeared for the first time in 1851, in this delightful definition I mean to hold onto.

“Science-Fiction, in which the revealed truths of Science may be given interwoven with a pleasing story which may itself be poetical and true.” – William Wilson

From the beginning, then, Science Fiction was to be about exploring the possibilities of science. Along the way it also became about humanity, or to term it scientifically, anthropology and sociology. I am no collector, merely a reader with an adequately stocked library. Working through my shelves for paper books from which to pull yielded a bare century – I currently have no print copies of any Jules Verne books, although I have several in my digital library, for instance.

Researching for this was fun. I had no idea, for instance, that one of my favorite early scientists, Johannes Kepler, had written a SF novel. Somnium, written in 1634, is the story of some alien race, and their trade with humans. (http://books.google.com/books?id=fRm5AQAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false)  Here, a description of travel as imagined by Kepler in an era before flight was dreamed of other than Icarus.

“50,000 German miles up in the ether lies the island of Lavania. The Passage to this island from our land, and vice versa, is rarely open, but when it is accessible, it is easy for our kind. However, the transport of men is difficult and dangerous for their lifes [sic]. We do not accept men who are sedentary, corpulent or whimsical in our expeditions. Rather, we prefer those who dedicate their time to ride a fast horse with persistence or those who frequently sail to the Indies, who are accustomed to survive two times a day only by means of bread, garlic, dried fish, and other unpleasant dishes. There are lean elderly women who are particularly suited to our purpose.”

I’m going to leap forward in time here to the oldest print science fiction book in my personal library, which extends back to 1910. Through Space to Mars by Roy Rockwood is a juvenile, written for the amusement and amazement of boys who were growing up in the age of the dirigible and infancy of the aeroplane.

“Instantly there was a trembling though the whole length of the projectile. Would it move? Would it leave the earth and go to Mars?

There was a moment of hesitancy, as if the great machine had not quite decided.

Then came a more violent vibration. There was a humming, throbbing, hissing sound. Suddenly the boys, and all within the projectile, felt it swaying. A moment later it began to shoot through space like a great rocket.

“Hurrah!”cried Jack. “We’re off!”

I’m making another big leap forward, I’m afraid. I think I need to fill in some blanks in my library! I picked up Isotope Man, written in 1957 by Charles Eric Maine,  based on the title, which amused me. But this book isn’t necessarily intended to be science fiction as much as it is a novelization of the early Atomic Age, with all the attendant misinformation and fears, the repercussions of which linger to this day.

Presently he turned to me and said: “Did you ever meet Dr. Rayner, Mr. Delany?”

“Once,” I said. “About six months ago – at the time of the isotope K publicity. I seem to remember he was also interested in some scheme to create elements in the laboratory, apart from his work on rocket fuels.”

“That’s right’

“Is that what he’s doing here?”

“Something of the sort.”

“What the alchemists used to call transmutation?”

From the golden age of SF, the 1960s and 70s, I have rather too many choices, and it was difficult to thin the options out to a reasonable level. I wound up setting on some of our favorites, like Andre Norton’s Galactic Derelict. Published in 1959, it is a tale of time travel and aliens, and a rollicking good adventure story.

“Decided to join us for a look-see into the past?”

“Do you mean you can really do that?”

“We’ve done more than look.” Ashe adjusted a screw delicately. “We’ve been there.”

Travis stared. He could accept the cast of a new and greatly improved Vis-Tex to provide a peephole into history and prehistory. But time travel was something else.

“It’s perfectly true,” Ashe finished with the screw. His attention passed from the tripod to Travis. And there was that in his manner which carried conviction.

“And we’re going back again.”

“After a Folsom man?” demanded the Apache incredulously.

“After a space ship.”

EE “Doc”Smith, whose writing career spanned three decades, is considered the Father of Science Fiction. Sadly, I cannot find my copy of Skylark, so I am inserting a much later work of his, The Vortex Blaster (also published as Masters of the Vortex) which appeared in 1960 with the dedication ‘to Bob Heinlein, with Admiration and Esteem.’ This story is pure space opera, more like a tale of superheroes and comic book characters than extrapolation from existing or dreamt-of science.

“Two now. It’s the new one I’m talking about. It’s acting funny – damned funny.”

Cloud went through the data, brow furrowed in concentration; then sketched three charts and frowned.

“I see what you mean. Damned funny is right. The toxicity is too steady, but at the same time the composition of the effluvium is too varied. Inconsistent. However, there’s no real attempt at a gamma analysis – nowhere near enough data for one – this could be right; they’re so utterly unpredictable. The observers were experienced, I take it, with medical and chemical bias?”

“Check, that’s the way I read it.”

“Well, I’lll say this much – I never saw a gamma chart that would accept half of this stuff, and I can’t even imagine what the sigma curve would look like. Boss, what say I skip over there and get us a full reading on that baby before she goes orthodox – or, should I say, orthodoxly unorthodox?”

Skipping myself, to 1972, and Jerry Pournelle’s King David’s Spaceship, we find ourselves with galactic traders on a distant world. Humans are meeting with a more advanced alien race, and a description of something that wasn’t yet possible in the real world, but Pournelle had to have known was coming, follows.

“They want platinum and iridium, too; those metals seem to be very useful to them, and in short supply. But there isn’t much they can give us in return, because the Navy won’t let them sell us what we really want – technology. The Navy rule is, you can’t trade anything more technologically advanced than what your customer already has without special permission from the Imperial Council. We offered to buy those little devices they all carry around like notebooks. ‘Pocket computers,’ the Navy men call them. They seem to be machines. They can’t sell those.”

In 1986 Baen books published one of my favorite series, or at least, the genesis of it. Shards of Honor is one of the new breed of SF, less about exploring science and outer space, and more about the depths of humanity, and the impact of technology on cultures. Lois McMaster Bujold’s insights into motherhood begin here, with Cordelia Naismith… and after getting sucked into reading for far longer than I intended, I’m doing a quote that has nothing to do with SF.

“Not a visit. Permanently. As – as Lady Vorkosigan.” His face brightened with a wry smile. I’m making a hash of this. I promise, I’ll never think of Betans as cowards again. I swear your customs take more bravery than the most suicidal of our boy’s contests of skill.”

She let her breath trickle out through pursed lips. “You don’t – deal in small change, do you?”

Forgive my indulgence in what are perhaps my two favorite characters. I will wind up this rather lengthy post with the most recently published book on my desk, the shiny new copy of The Chaplain’s War by Brad Torgerson. Released only weeks ago, it is an alternating tale of a man rediscovering his faith after years of war, and the induction into the military that attenuated him to the breaking point. Stranded with only one other human, and a pair of aggressive aliens, they must find an outpost on a lonely planet. In the journey, much is discovered and remembered…

“What we saw was the most improbably beautiful thing I’d witnessed since going to space with Fleet as an older teenager.

The Queen Mother circled lazily around and around in the air, slowly spiraling with her wings spread to their maximum width, each beating in concert with the others, and together making a low rhythm that sounded not to dissimilar to a helicopter

“She’s beautiful,” the captain whispered.

“I didn’t know they could fly,” I said, still astonished.

After a couple of seconds, Adanaho’s lips peeled back from her teeth in a wide, genuine smile. “I don’t think the Queen Mother knew either. Until now.”

 

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Signals – Prologue

Hey, folks, I completely flubbed today. But then, Wee Dave has been … annoyingly needy recently, so it’s not like I’ve gotten anything else done recently, either. Since I’m late for a thing as is, here’s the rough opening of the thing Sarah and I are working on.

Edited because I was in a hurry the first time around…

###

Matthias Fairweather Grinn had cursed his ridiculous blue frock coat every day since a British musket-ball punched a fist-sized hole in his chest and he’d woken up in hell. He’d thought the General a madman to choose blue for their uniform coats. Certainly it showed them to be no longer British citizens – a thought that still pained him – but they should have adopted the green of the sharpshooter companies and the forest scouts. The battle line of the Continental Army must have been handsome to see. Nearly as handsome as the Redcoats, though Matthias had never had the pleasure, always marching somewhere in them middle of the formations. Still, blue? He’d thought it a foolish affectation with no place in such a serious conflict.

Here, in the land of the dead, his blue coat had marked him. Set him apart from the many who had arrived before he awoke; from the many more who would arrive after. In a place of such strange confluences as this City people by the dead, he’d been afforded no camouflage. He smiled at the word. He’d had no French in life, but had since picked up bits, and this word was on of which he heartily approved. This blending in with one’s surroundings appealed to Matthias.

Cowards are like that.

Eugenia Grinn’s middle son had always known himself a man without courage. The notion of violence turned his bowels to water. He could barely stand to hunt, and then only from ingenious cover and great distance. How he’d found himself shouldering a musket on the field of battle in defense of his home still escaped him.

He had a notion a rash vow to William Smith’s daughter Virginia while under the influence of too much of both her beauty and her father’s good punch had something to do with it. Coward though Matthias knew himself to be, the fear of embarrassment – and the loss of the fair Virginia’s good graces – had been enough to compel, though barely, to compel him to don the coat he so hated, and he’d cursed it daily since.

But not tonight. Whatever that term meant in this sprawling city of interminable twilight. Every day was almost-night, and not-yet-dawn, casting deep gloom upon this hotchpot existence. The coat blended into the shadows that always loomed close, and kept him from any curious eyes.

Grinn huddled in the lee of a massive building, bigger than anything he’d ever seen. Bigger than the Boston’s North Church, and made of something that looked like poured stone. He assumed it was some product of the new science in the time since he’d died.

He looked up, as he often did, and swallowed, shrinking deeper into the shadows. The sky overhead, or whatever passed for it, boiled. He’d seen storms that swept down upon the fair coastline of New England with less fury. Clouds of every shade of black and gray, limned from within by some infernal and constant lightning churned above him. Silent. Brooding. Hungry.

Occasionally he’d tried writing poetry about it, but hadn’t the gift. Death had not changed that.

A gibbering howl rent the air, sending the familiar wash of chill fear flooding through Matthias’ innards. Apparently it did the same for the others on the cobbled street, as shapes and figures half seen scrambled at the noise. Unlike such wise folk, however, his fear attempted to root his feet and hold him in place.

But Matthias had learned much in whatever time he’d spent in the City. While the slick darkness of shed blood stained his blue coat black in the maddening gloom, the wisdom of great experience drove him across the rapidly emptying street toward, the pinned-back tails of his frock coat flapping against his legs, urging him onward.

Another howl belled away to his left, higher than the first, and closer. Without a thought, he lurched to the right and picked up speed. The slap of his feet on the cobbles was loud in his ears, as loud as the rasp of breath in his throat. The second howl rang again, echoing weirdly from the hard walls of the building surrounding him, but Matthias had spent what might be a long lifetime hunting demons through the City. Once he’d been conscripted, he hadn’t had much choice.

He ducked into an alleyway that might have been at home in the Boston of his youth. Close-set cobbled gave way to imprecisely placed slate flags, unsteady under his feet. The closed and barred rear doors of what could have been a cooperage faced a wall higher than he was tall. The gate set in the middle of the solid stone barrier bulked forbiddingly. He’d try for it as an option of last resort, but it was imprudent to intrude in another’s demesne in this place. You never knew what you’d find waiting for you.

The same gibbering howl wailed down the street from which he’d turned. His face set, Matthias drew the short saber he’d found still strapped to his waist the first time he awoke in the City. Like the coat, he’d never been able to get rid of the thing, but unlike the coat, he’d stopped wanting to.

Claws scrabbled on cobblestone as the gloom gathered, masking the ends of the alley. The only real illumination came from a wrought iron lantern hung over the door of the maybe-cooperage. He’d have found it charming, but that in place of a dancing flame swirled greenish fluid. It swept from one side of the lantern to the other, casting its unholy glow upon the alley.

A squat figure advanced through the dusk on four limbs. Just out of easy sight, it lifted its head and sniffed, doglike.

Matthias hadn’t seen a dog in the good Lord knew how long. They didn’t exist in the City. He liked to believe that was because dogs, in their loyalty and unconditional love, all went to heaven. The very idea would have had him excommunicated when he’d been alive. But then, he considered himself a freethinker in the model of the great Franklin.

He waited, coiled and yet relaxed. The creature cast its head about, then stepped forward into the light, and Matthias’ sphincters contracted. He’d seen a shark pulled out of the bay once. This thing had the same gray skin and dead black eyes, and his heart – that old, familiar enemy – quailed inside of him.

The beast slunk forward into the pool of green light. Bulky shoulders followed the prow-shaped head with its short, broad muzzle. Legs like a dog’s held the thing off the ground, each terminating in almost-hands. A bear’s cruelly curved claw tipped each of the near-digits. With each step those talons scraped at the irregular slate flagstones, a shivering rasp that drove a devouring chill deep into Matthias.

It was never cold in the City, not like that last, bitter winter at Valley Forge. Likewise it was never hot, yet the curious and twisted beast’s breath plumed mist from its jagged maw with every exhalation. Presently, Matthias nostrils flared as the acrid bite of sulfur filled the little alley.

So, this was something genuinely infernal. It didn’t look the least bit intelligent, but appearances could be, and often were, deceiving in the City. He knelt and carefully pulled loose a small stone chip from the mess of the alley.

Carefully, quietly, he flicked it toward the stone wall opposite the cooperage. It hit with a click of stone against stone, and the beast’s head whipped toward the sound. Matthias stifled a curse as a gout of sooty, yellow fire burst from the thing’s mouth and splashed against the wall. The flames briefly lighting up the murk and left a black flower around the spot at which he’d aimed the tiny stone.

Even the small sound of his gasp had been too much. The creature’s head snapped back around, dragging it’s shoulder with it. The same hellfire again lit the alley, no doubt providing a beautiful beacon for Matthias’ enemies to find him. Ravening flames bore down on the spot he’d occupied, but he was already moving.

He thanked a Providence he wasn’t certain he still believed in for the miraculous boots on his feet. The soft, black soles of some material unknown to Matthias gripped the slate of the flags far better than even the leather moccasins he’d known in life.

Eyes slitted against the sullen yellow fury, he dodged to one side, praying his gamble would pay off. The tip of his saber flashed up over his shoulder. He brought the curved blade down in a powerful stroke. As it always had since he’d woken to the closeted madness of the City, the very edge of the wickedly sharp blade left a streak of light in the air the very color of his blue coat.

A thrill of elation surged through Matthias, threatening to turn his knees to jelly. He’d been right: the hell-beast’s eyes closed when it breathed its fire. His blade drove into the beast’s gray hide just forward of its heavily muscled shoulder, and the thing roared its sudden agony to the roiling sky above. It tried to snap at the blade deep in its dark flesh, but the flood of blood-ichor already took the thing’s strength with it.

Matthias wrenched his saber free and struck again and again at the monster’s neck until the heavy, prow-shaped head dropped free. Even then, the beast’s mouth snapped open and shut, open and shut, still seeking his flesh.

Matthias kicked the head into the shadows and drove his sword point-first between the beast’s ribs, pinning it to the alleyway. Heedless of the pool of its blood, he knelt by the still-twitching body. He pulled a sharp, little knife from its sheath at his waist and thrust it into the beast’s belly, opening it from ribcage to groin. His stomach churned to match the sky above him, but however much his gorge threatened, he’d learned. Oh, how he’d learned.

Dropping the knife, he thrust his free hand elbow-deep into the corpse, reaching, searching. The touch of the monstrous thing’s innards on his skin set him swallowing convulsively against his contrary fortitude. It had been thus since he was a boy. Slaughtering pigs had unmanned him then, and this was no different.

After a brief eternity, during which he warred against his known nature, his questing fingers found his prize. Seizing it, Matthias wrenched free the beast’s heart-sack. Leaving the knife where it lay, he ripped his saber free of the now-still body, and – heedless of his own skin – brought the blade down on the meaty, black mass in his hand.

Again, the edge flared blue light, and again demon flesh parted on it. A musical tinkle, as of fine crystal, sounded as a curiously faceted gem fell free of the hellish meat. Matthias scooped it out of the pool of drying demon blood and wiped it off on his coat. The green-black smear it left behind would be gone by morning, one more peculiar property of this endless existence.

He held the stone in the shadow his body cast in the light from the strange lantern and waited, his breath caught in his throat. After a bare heartbeat free from the ichorous organ, a spark shone from deep within the gem. Bright, crimson red, the color of fresh human blood.

Matthias’ bowels turned to water. It felt as though the whole grubby mass of the City fell out from beneath him, and took his heart along with it.

“It’s true,” he whispered, awe and horror in his voice. “They come, and there is no way to stop them.”

The first, deeper, howl rose on the still air of the City. He’d heard it what seemed like a lifetime ago. It sounded as though it was right on top of him, and Matthias lurched to his feet, glowing red gem clutched in one had, the other tight on the grip of his saber. Fear sank frozen talons into his guts and he bolted into the gloom.

Matthias let his terrified feet carry him along through the con-fused ways of the City. The pillars of a Greek temple flashed past on his left, and he dodged through them and found himself amid dead trees and brown grass. Nothing grew in this place, though plenty was dead. The statue of a dead god rose in a clearing as he ran past. The idol’s face laughed at his misfortune while bone-chilling howls sounded nearly on his heels.

Knife-sharp claws snagged his heel, sending Matthias tumbling, his heart in his throat. The dust of the clearing puffed around him, drifting on the still air and mixing with the chill sweat coating his exposed skin. He rolled, desperate to stay away from the dark form seeking his life. Snarls ripped at him, carried on chill breaths that stank of putrescence.

He rolled and continued rolling, finally getting a pillar between his tender hide and the demon-beast. Matthias flipped to his feet in a movement he could never have intentionally duplicated. He ripped his saber from its scabbard and slashed furiously as the hell beast closed.

At last, after a lightning flurry of blows, he slumped against a tree trunk on the edge of the godling’s defunct grove and tried to calm his thundering heart. Slowly spreading stains darkened one shoulder and the opposite calf. The wounds burned with a poison sickness he’d never encountered before. The affected members trembled with weakness at odds with the simple scratches left by the mass of flesh he’d left of the second demon.

Coming back to himself, Matthias stared at the corpse of his hunter and remembered his next task. Cutting out what passed for the creature’s heart served a dual purpose. He needed further proof of his suspicions to convince his nominal superiors. Further, he needed the hell-forged gem at the center to maintain his own existence. The cursed things were one of two forms of currency available to those like him. The other was simply their time, as this life as in the previous.

Of the two, the gems were by far the more valuable.

His weakened leg threatened to collapse under him, and Matthias suppressed a curse as he knelt beside the slumped form. Then he spat one in earnest when he reached for his knife and grasped only air. He raised the now mundane looking saber and contemplated how to use it to accomplish his goal, when another brace of howls rose on the hushed twilight.

Matthias staggered to his feet, abandoning the dead demon flesh to whichever scavengers had an interest. He burst out of the ancient temple much like a melon seed he’d spat as a child, a food he’d not tasted in an incomprehensible length of time. Like most food, you could find melons in the City, if you spent enough time searching. Also like most food, it tasted – off. Bland and somehow lesser.

His breath rasped in his raw throat, and chill sweat slicked his spine beneath his coat and shirt. His legs burned, and he missed – for the umpteenth time – the camaraderie and safety of the line of battle, as truly strange as the thought struck him. He’d been alone since he’d awoken in the City, and the simple presence of his mates would have been of enormous comfort. Instead, he ran alone through an alien world that had no place in his understand of creation.

He burst out of the press of buildings onto what was, for the City, a crowded street. It seemed a law of this unchancy place that the more use an area saw, the more kept up it seemed. The surface under his boots was of a patchwork, here cobbles, there paving stones, beyond it a contiguous surface of a black material he’d spent a bored twilit period picking at, only to find it was stone bound by tar. Brilliant and deceptively simple, but by the time he’d learned to communicate with the living, he’d found it had already been invented.

The crowd, such as it was, paid Matthias little heed. A grim smile teased at his lips as he elbowed his way through his fellow shades. In his youth, in life, an armed man whose brown eyes gleamed with a wild light, covered in blood and ichor, would have been cause for comment. Here, nobody gave him a second glance.

Except the Guards.

Matthias swore and jerked behind a portico, conscious of the glowing gem locked in his fist. He removed his battered hat and peeked between the polished granite balusters framing the broad steps beside which he hid.

Two figures moved slowly down the pavement toward him. Both appeared to be British Redcoats, though he was damned certain George III couldn’t have a colony in whatever afterlife Matthias had discovered. The one on the left stood tall, his uniform gleaming. His brightwork was actually bright in the dimness, casting a glow about him unaffected by the occasional flashes from the clouds above. His sober mien held hints of a sternness unswayed by human mercy.

The other figure slouched into rumbled clothes stained with blood and darker effluvia. Corrosion pitted the brass-work of his uniform, and wisps of darkness flowed around him. In marked contrast to his companion, he displayed a disconcerting interest in his surroundings. He eyed the figures around him with an unhealthy light in his eyes.

He’d been wrong to call the beasts he’d killed demons. Or perhaps not. These two were genuine devils, of that he was certain. Righteousness blazed in the eyes of the leftward one. Righteousness without kindness or affection. The one on the right oozed depravity, and he fiddled with a rusty razor of a knife as he walked. Only the edge gleamed, and even that shone with simple wickedness.

These two and those like them – and there were always two together – constituted the only peace-keeping force in the City. It needed no more. They existed seemingly to prevent the inhabitants of the City from slaughtering each other in the streets, as that was the only time they could be swayed from walking their rounds. Except to bother passersby, and that was predictable as the dawn in this place. Anyone who disrupted the peace, or looked like they might. Anyone who appeared to have been involved in an affray, carried bared weapons, or had obvious wounds. In short, anyone who looked like Matthias.

Or not.

Matthias held quite still as the two messengers of infinity drew even with his not-quite-hiding place. And while the agent of darkness flicked a quick look at him, taking in his wounds, his bared blade, and his grim countenance, the only response it gave was a grin that frightened Matthias in a way the shark demons hadn’t – in a way none of the demons he’d harvested ever had.

Matthias held his breath until the two drifted out of sight in the damnable twilight of the City. The explosive burst as he released it drew a few mildly curious glances from the sparse crowds on the street. He ignored them all, and shakily sheathed his saber. Better by far to stand out just a bit less. Besides, he’d become adept at drawing it at need.

A heave of shoulder against stone propelled him back onto the pavers lining the street surface, just missing a pair of figures walking along. A close look suggested they weren’t nearly as human as they appeared. They walked in lockstep, though that wasn’t terribly unusual. It was something about the eyes, and the set of jaws moving back and forth under heavy skulls as though their owners didn’t know exactly what they were for.

He’d never become comfortable with the different creatures that passed through the City. Most of them actually looked human, like those he’d just passed, or the Guards whose attention he’d narrowly escaped. Until you looked closer, and then invariably, the hair on the back of the neck would rise of its own accord. Few people smiled here, anyway, and almost nobody laughed. Occasionally a genuine madman – or more likely a normal soul who simply broke under the strain of the place – would arrive, and need to be put down. Not so much for the safety of the rest of the populace, but because, well, they got in the way. It was hard enough to survive in the City without gibbering lunatics reminding one of the unnerving reality.

They had gems, too, though. All sorts of colors, from the vibrant red of the one in his pocket, to brilliant azure the color of the clearest winter sky, to a sort of a greasy, greenish-purple that didn’t belong to the world he’d known. And everything in between. Matthias presumed he had one lodged in his chest, as well, for all that he could feel his heart beating.

The crowd thickened as Matthias made his way through a section of the City that aped medieval London. He quickened his pace as he moved past St. Paul’s Cathedral, eager to put the decrepit monument to English Catholicism behind him. It wasn’t popery that bothered him – the new United States welcomed all manner of religious persuasions, though papists were often encouraged to find the frontier – but the air of death that surrounded the building. Black streaks held the gutted place of worship in sooty claw, as though an infernal conflagration had devoured the church from the inside out, leaving only the bones. Truthfully, it wasn’t far different from many of the buildings in this part of the City.

The noise picked up when he crossed a boundary between regions, leaving London Aflame for something altogether … different. Buildings made all of stone dominated, pushing pillars toward the flickering sky. Here and there an obscene mural picked out in minute tiles graced the side of a building. More people wore robes of some kind, and the streets led uphill. A sense of impending doom and a whiff of sulfur lay over this part of the City like a bad dream.

He walked into a market, his nerves alive and every sense straining to find the demons he knew still dogged his heels. Figures of every description did something resembling business all around him. Here a woman wearing an odd outfit consisting of a scandalously short skirt – exposing her knees, no less – and a tight-fitting and oddly masculine jacket bargained with a man in garments more appropriate to the plays of Euripides. For all Matthias knew, it was the playwright himself. Across the small plaza, flashes of light briefly illuminated the fat face of a greasy man sitting behind a makeshift table, a matter of some planks resting across a pair of barrels.

Matthias knew Rufus well. Some people seemed drawn to the back and forth of commerce, regardless of their plane of existence. The bursts of colorful illumination as people sold him gems much like the one in Matthias’ pocket made the sweating Roman – or at least so he claimed – a buyer of souls. The Guards never hassled this man, and Matthias had never pushed to find out why. The scattering of large, well armed and dour-looking bearded men around the merchant’s stall made angering Rufus Quintillus ill-advised. Pain still existed in this place.

Yes, Matthias knew Rufus rather well, to neither of the men’s pleasure. Still, he’d always been a source of information, and something almost like an ally in this strange place they’d found themselves in. Matthias’ feet shifted to take him in that direction. Indeed, he’d taken a handful of steps, when Rufus’ piggy, little eyes focused on him and the man’s fleshy jowls drew in as though he’d bitten into a lemon.

Matthias as he shouldered his way to the merchant’s table. Rude his actions might be, but Rufus was one of the best positioned brokers in the City’s strange society. Potential violence hung in the air, their stares boring into Matthias. He’d had a run-in or three with at least one of the slope-browed walking weapons, but he ignored them completely, fixing his attention on Rufus.

“What do have for me, Grinn?” It always amazed Matthias that such a corpulent man possessed so sweet a tenor voice.

Matthias pulled the soulstone from his pocket and placed it on the tabletop between them. He opened his hand without a word, taking care to shield the object from passersby. Rufus’ face went gray as the stone flared its sullen crimson light. He half reached toward it, then wiped his hand on his food-stained robe, and waved back his hirelings.

“Where, by all the gods, did you get that?” Rufus hissed. “And more importantly, why did you bring it to me, you barbarian?” Cold fury paled his skin, but for two small spots high on his cheeks. His eyes darted suspicious looks through the crowd, as though trying to keep everyone in the square in sight at once.

“Calmly, Rufus Quintillus.” Matthias kept the dread suffusing his being out of his voice. The last thing he needed was Rufus’ walking clubs using what passed for their minds. “I harvested it from a demon not half an hour gone.”

“They’re not dem-” The half-tired, rote response was nearly out of the fat man’s mouth before Matthias closed his hand on the gem and rapped the table with his knuckles.

“The word serves well enough.” He could feel his grin stretch taut his skin over the bones of his face. “And I brought it to you because someone else needs to know.”

“I won’t buy it!” Where Rufus’ fat face often resembled a pig, this was not the truculent boar of the forest, but the frightened domestic beast, bred for the slaughter.

“No more would I sell it to you,” Matthias snapped. He had no patience; could have no patience. Not with this. “Look you, if such as these are getting in, everyone needs to know.” And Rufus was well known as one of the City’s worst gossips.

Rufus drew back without moving a muscle, and weariness
swept over Matthias. At the fat man’s timidity, at his own
cowardice, but most of all at the sheer, unending mess of the City.

“I shall take my leave of you, sir.”

The man nodded so forcefully, his jowls bounced.

“Yes, yes, please do.” His gaze turned inward for a brief moment, then sharpened. “And come back and see me when you have something worth selling!”

Matthias left the square for a much smaller street, still moving uphill, and with the uncomfortable feeling of danger looming. Two such feelings, really. The mosaic immediately to his left, however, brought him up short.

The grinning godling held the same pose as the statue from the temple in which he’d fought the beasts. Now that his mind wasn’t gibbering in terror or blank in reaction, the message sank in. Mercury, the messenger of the gods. He patted his chest where a special pin rode the inside of his coat.

There was someone else he had to tell.

His pace quickened once more, and Matthias ran. Evasion was no longer important. He had to get this word out. And the only place to do that was home. He ran through sections of cities long dead, some just a few buildings huddled together, others nearly entire metropolises, and most nothing he recognized from life. Heavy over the City lay a sense of un-timeliness. Of the souls of people and places jerked out of their rightful place in history and planted slapdash. Matthias felt it despite the urgency burning through his veins.

Buildings and people – well, most of them qualified, of either variety – flashed by as he ran. No longer did he care about leaving memories of himself in those he passed. Even so, the habits of what felt like decades were hard to break, and so he didn’t even try. He turned at random, adding miles to his journey, but leaving such a trail that any pursuit would have to know his destination.

Finally, blowing hard with his pulse thundering in his ears, he arrived at an outlandish building. At least, it always seemed so to his eyes, which viewed it as a fortress designed by a man without a sense of good defense. Impatience warred with prudence in his heart, but Matthias cleaved to the caution that had saved his strange existence so many time.

He stood across the broad avenue from from the massive structure, in the shadow of an alleyway, and observed it for a handful of long moments. Doors yawned at every opportunity, usually doubled at the front, but studded all about the building at ground level. Broad windows stretched upward from the second floor, climbing over balconies and up toward the roof. Statuary of ancients in flowing robes – blackened with the sooty memory of conflagration so common to the City – punctuated columns racing the windows, gazing out of the lesser buildings all around as they held their silent vigil just below the roof.

And such a roof. A wealth of lead clad the broad peak that ran toward the rear of the enormous theater, where the roof leapt up in successive tiers until it reached a dizzying height. And theater it was. The interior reeked of opulence. Heavy velvet and gold gilt seemed everywhere, though often threadbare or tarnished, respectively, where it wasn’t smudged with the ever-present soot. Often, when he had thinking to do, Matthias would find his way through the warren of a building into the cavern of the main hall, and sit in one of the plush seats, imagining the marvelous shows that must have been put on in life. And remember. One of the last things he remembered before he’d awoken in the City had been the General ordering plays prepared and displayed for the men at Valley Forge after that bitter winter. Rumor suggested the fine gentlemen of the Congress had disapproved, but Matthias didn’t remember them freezing in the snow alongside the private soldiery.

He dashed across the street during a period of darker twilight while the wracking lights above the clouds took pause. Ignoring the main doors, he slipped around to a side entrance, keeping alert for prying eyes. It was more or less impossible to do anything unobserved in the City: the population was simply too high. Despite this, appearing ordinary usually prevented interest. Usually.

Once inside, Matthias relaxed somewhat. He rolled his shoulders and popped his neck, before muffling his customary sneeze from the combination of soot and dust that seemed to pervade the building. And ostentatious wealth, though he was more or less certain that part was all in his head. Fortunately, the lighting was always on. Unfortunately, it was slightly greenish-tinged flames dancing at the ends of narrow pipes sticking out of the papered walls at regular intervals. Having light pleased him; the color did not. Nor did the reminder of what had almost certainly brought the building to the City.

Matthias crept through the enormous theater as quietly as he could. So far as he knew, he was the only person to use it on anything resembling a regular basis; certainly he was the only one to actually live there. But that didn’t mean someone else wasn’t inside. There were too many entrances to guard them all, and likewise too many for him to place adequate precautions.

Which was why he made his cautious way down, and down, and finally down a spiral stair of marvelously wrought iron to a single, heavy wooden door set in stones that wept moisture.

He opened the door – though it bore an iron lock, he’d never found a key to fit it – and stepped through, into a cavernous cistern whose far wall disappeared in the dark distance. He took a moment to light a pair of oil lanterns he’d placed on the iron sconces he’d found bolted to the inside of the wall. Their warm, yellow light illuminated the huge room. Some of it, at least. Here and there massive pillars held up a ceiling that likewise faded into invisibility. The smell of a great deal of fresh water was a welcome one after the dry dust of the City. Drops of that water dripped from that unseen ceiling, dropping musically into the shallow pool that otherwise filled the spacious room.

Matthias strode down the stone pier and leapt off the end, splashing into the pool up to his knees. Cool water immediately filled his boots. Normally he’d have used the small boat tied to the pier, but here in his sanctum urgency prevailed over reason. He splashed through the cistern in the direction of the far wall, angling to his right as he went.

Halfway there, far enough for the light from lanterns to be a dim spark in the black, he ducked around a pillar he’d marked with another lantern. Instead of lighting it though, this one he pulled from its niche in the stones. He waited until he’d passed beyond the massive piling before he lit it. Its light revealed a doorway cunningly hidden in another pillar, set so it would be unseen from the pier. There might have been an actual door set into it once, but there were no signs of it now.

Matthias heaved himself up out of the water onto its threshold, passing bodily through the pillar and into a secret space set into the foundations of the theater. A narrow passage led into a complete apartment. He’d been astonished when he’d found it. Someone had appointed it quite handsomely. There were several pieces of furniture – chairs, a couch, a bed, even a table with fine china and silver – as well as a large brass tub for bathing. Behind a cleverly hidden door in the headboard of the bed waited his line to the living world.

He strode through the front room, intent on reaching the device, when a sudden blow from behind threw him into the table, sending the china and silver crashing to the floor in a cacophony of sound. Pain erupted along his side where it met the spindly-appearing, but actually quite sturdy wood tabletop, and in his head as that worthy struck the floor. Matthias gasped and curled around himself, even as heavy, rasping footfalls sounded on the rough floor and a massive, clawed hand lifted him off the floor by his shoulder.

“Well, little game, it appears we have run you down. Finally.” The voice, at once resonant and sibilant, and punctuated with odd clicks, held equally parts cruel satisfaction and malicious amusement.

As the fog of pain receded, Matthias vision cleared enough to allow him to see his hunter. He immediately wished he hadn’t. Smooth skin mottled gray and a rusty red covered a powerfully muscled arm with too many joints. At the far end of the arm holding him off the floor, the creature’s neck arched up and up to terminate in an hairless head that was more grinning jaws full of cruelly jagged teeth than anything else. Above the mouth, it scented the air through a pair of slits, and an uninterrupted sweep of brow set Matthias to wondering how the thing avoided bumping into furniture.

He didn’t realize he’d spoken his question aloud until the thing’s jaw dropped open and it released a grating sound. It took him even longer to understand the monster was laughing.

“Such amusing creatures you are!” Its head shook back and forth on its snaky neck. “And impertinent. It is not for such as you to question such as me.”

A lightning backhand from its other arm crashed into Matthias’ face. His mouth filled with blood and his vision exploded in pain and white. He barely felt the thing tear open the side of his coat and pull out his tiny gold pin in the shape of Mercury’s rod. He did hear its sound of satisfaction.

“Excellent! I do so enjoy it when I chase the correct prey. Not that you are likely to appreciate it, but it is always pleasing to marry effort and pleasure.”

“That’s – mine,” Matthias muttered. Connecting words took too much effort.

“Materially, it is in my hand. However, morally-” the thing grinned, its jaw dropping open like that of a particularly loathsome dog. “This is true, and since I don’t want to be touching it-” A single milky white claw bent the pin out perpendicular to the miniature rod, and then jammed it into the center Matthias’ chest. He screamed as the point grated on and then into bone. He writhed in the monster’s grip as fire lanced out from the tiny puncture.

“Oh, I am a fool.” It sighed. “I am supposed to ask you questions before I torture you for the answers.” The ravenous maw leaned closer, until its unholy breath was hot on his face. “My mistake. Now then, little meal not yet eaten, who do you report to?”

“How-“

“Did I find you? It was not difficult. You have eminently corruptible compatriots. The hounds were mostly for show, though if they’d brought you down, they might have earned elevation.”

Matthias heart sank. If the Corps of the dead was compromised, who could deliver his message? Who could even be trusted to bear it, and to whom could it be given?

“Ah, but see, we’re getting our parts confused. I ask questions, and you answer them.” It’s harsh voice turned hard. “Again, who do you report to?” It punctuated each word with a blow to his gut. For all it felt like he’d been shot – again – Matthias knew these were just taps. It was clearly strong enough to tear him limb from limb should it decide to.

“George Washington.”

“That man never arrived here,” it grated. “I tire of this, man. Perhaps further pain will induce truthfulness.” It dug a claw into his chest and dragged it down toward his belt, cutting a trail of liquid fire as it went. Hot blood welled out and ran down his torso as Matthias screamed and thrashed in the monster’s grip. “It is fortunate that this place makes you more than you were, else this would surely kill you and I would not derive nearly such pleasure.”

It added another furrow to his chest, and then another. With each savage wound, Matthias’ will to resist cracked under the weight of the cowardice he knew lurked in his heart. Finally, with his shirt and chest in ribbons, the creature paused, as though to admire its handiwork. Matthias sobbed, tears, snot and blood making a mess of his brutalized face.

“Tell me, man,” the monster made the word an insult, “who you report to.” It’s voice softened, or at least rasped a bit less. “And I swear to you, your torment will end.”

The world seemed to pause, and Matthias knew he would not survive the night. That last night before the battle, his last on God’s Earth, he’d been terribly afraid. Afraid, and desperate for a reprieve from the battle to come. He’d feared the blood, and the noise, and the fury. And he’d feared the death which he hadn’t known would come to him.

Now that he knew his fate, that he would not survive the encounter, he found himself feeling only calm. And pain, terrible, searing agony, but his heart and mind were calm.

“You-” he rasped through a throat raw from screaming, “you may go to hell.”

“Go to hell? Go to hell?! I was BORN in hell, you pathetic, little worm!” The creature shook Matthias, rattling his head on his neck. The thing completely lost its temper. “I and my kin have been in hell all our lives, while you insignificant insects lived in a paradise you couldn’t even enjoy! You know NOTHING of hell! I will show you hell!”

The demon threw Matthias against the table, again, and this time the stout surface broke under his weight. In an instant, the demon leapt across the room on recurved legs ending in heavy claws. Matthias tried to dodge, but the creature was too fast. The demon snatched him up by his coat and kicked him in the side. The blow flung him bodily through the doorway into his bedroom, leaving his blue coat a tattered rag in the monster’s grip.

He had just enough time to scramble to his feet before the demon bounded through the door. Matthias ripped his saber out of its scabbard as the thing closed on him. He feinted and slashed at the demon’s leg, but quicker than he could see, monstrous hands snapped out. One caught his left shoulder again. The other closed on his sword blade.

They were both surprised to see the demon’s fingers fall away as the glowing edge sliced right through them. Man and demon stared as milky ichor spouted from stumps. Then the demon screamed. Dust drifted from the ceiling at the strength of the roar, but Matthias couldn’t see it. His head throbbed as the sound became his world for just an instant. The pain and fury in the sound shattered thought, and then he was flying through the air.

Wood and bone splintered as Matthias smashed into the bed, snapping one of the corner posts clean off. Fresh agony raged through his body from at least on major break, except below his hips, where he felt nothing at all. The pain was nothing to the chagrin that washed over him when he saw that his impact on the bed had exposed his device. The demon saw it, too, and roared its triumph.

Matthias had never seen anything like it before he’d been recruited. Well, reminded of his oath of service. It was a box, mostly, made from metal and a hard material something like horn. A thin, flexible coil sprang out of one side and connected to the end of the U-shaped device that rested in a cradle on the top of the box. He’d been told it was a “field telephone,” and while he understood the words, he didn’t really comprehend what they meant together. He’d always thought of it simply as the device. It was how he reported in, and it seemed it was what the demon wanted.

Fortunately, Matthias knew what to do. He thrust his saber into the center of the box, where a bottle shone with clean, blue light. The steel of his sword broke the glass, and the light flared. The demon’s roar turned into a howl of dismay as the raw energy chained within the now-broken bottle reduced the device to dust, and Matthias’ saber with it. He dropped the weapon, and the wild energy surged out, crawling over the bed.

Matthias’s injuries prevented his escape, and the searing blue light crept up the legs he could no longer feel. The demon howled its rage, but Matthias relaxed into the growing sense of heat.

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