Tag Archives: snippet

Beginnings, endings and everything in-between

I’m not sure I’ve mentioned it here — I know I have over on my blog — but I got jumped about 9 days ago with a new novel. Well, new in the sense that it hasn’t already been written. Not new because I knew I had to write it and had planned to get to it this summer. Oh, yeah, new in that this novel doesn’t remotely resemble the book I had planned in my head. Yeah, yeah, my muse is evil but we all know that.

Now, I don’t have time to sit down and write an entire novel out of my publication order. I keep telling myself that. More importantly, I keep telling Myrtle the Muse that. So, I bargained with her — what, don’t all writers bargain with their muses? And no, it’s not like bargaining with the Devil. Myrtle makes the devil look like a rank amateur. — and we agreed that she would get one week, give or take a day or two, to get the basics of the book down. Then I had to get back to the final editorial check and formatting for Dagger of Elanna (Sword of the Gods Book 2). Hopefully, Myrtle is going to stick with our agreement. Otherwise, I may have to murder my muse and I learned long ago that’s easier said than done.

And that, in a way, gets to the topic of today’s post. When I first screwed up the courage to show Sarah something I’d written — and, believe me, it took her pointy boots and threatening not to let me beta read anything else she wrote before I agreed — she looked at me, shook her head and told me I had the dreaded “start in the wrong place’ disease. What I’d written was serviceable but I had started about five pages too soon. Then, on rewrite, I started two pages too late. She finally got me to start it where it needed to begin. Then she nursed — and begged and bullied — me through the next few books with the same issues.

Beginnings are hard. You can spend pages giving your reader beautiful descriptions of the setting and what your characters look like. You can start with the day your character arrives in town. There are so many ways to start but, all too often, those ways fail in the biggest challenge we face as writers — they fail to hook the reader. You have to give enough about your character — and it doesn’t have to be your main character. It can be the antagonist or the victim who won’t appear except as a reference after those first few pages. But you have to give your reader a reason to keep turning the page to see what happens next.

I picked up a book a month or so ago that had gotten great reviews. The writing was supposed to be “alive” and “beautiful”. The characters well-developed. The plot engaging. And I should have known better. The opening pages read like a travelogue. There was nothing in them to give me any hint what sort of book I was reading, what the potential conflicts might be, etc. In other words, it gave me no reason to keep reading.

Another book, one I checked the sample for ten days ago or so had the opposite feel. I knew exactly what I was going to be getting by the end of the third paragraph. How? Because those three paragraphs read like the author and/or editor had a checklist of issues and characters that had to appear in the book and they were all listed right up front. It was a grocery list of social issues. Now, there is nothing wrong with having social issues in your work — as long as you make them interesting for your readers. And that has to be done from page one. Otherwise, you give your readers no cause to go forward with your book. You have to get them interested, have them want to see what is going to happen next. In other words, you have to tease them with the reward that will come as they continue reading.

That becomes more difficult when you write series. You need to offer your reader enough to catch them up on what’s been happening, especially if that reader is new to the series, without your first few pages becoming nothing but a synopsis of earlier books or stories. You need to also give the plot arc a push in such a way you readers, old and new, know something important or exciting or whatever is about to happen.

Even now, after more than 10 novels, I hate openings. I have to stop myself from writing and rewriting them so many times they lose any emotional resonance they might have had. There was a time when Sarah threatened to not let me edit my work at all if I didn’t stop editing the life out of my first chapter or two. I try to keep that in mind but it’s hard at times.

So, fast-forward to this book that demanded it be written NOW! It is the fifth book in the Nocturnal Lives series. I’ve known from the last few books that this book would be where several of the major plot lines would come together and life for the main characters would be thrown up in the air and some of them might not come through it. As I said earlier, I’d planned on writing the book this summer for release in the fall. I even had the basic plot figured out, notes taken and some research done.

I’ve worked on the book a little more than a week now. Today is the last day I’m letting Myrtle drive that particular plot line. So far, I’ve written approximately 25k words. So, I have a good feel for where the book is going — well, not really. Myrtle is making this a true pantsing novel. But at least I’m not screaming in fear — or hate — with it.

I even got up the nerve to send the opening sequence to Sarah to look at. Yes, I caught her at a weak moment. In other words, I caught her when she made the mistake of looking up from her computer screen and then I begged. Okay, I begged that she delete the file without reading it (for some reason, I am still terrified of letting Sarah read my work. I think part of that is I’m afraid she will realize she has spent all this time mentoring me for naught). Instead of deleting it, she read it.

Dum-dum-dum.

And said that, for once, my very rough draft didn’t read like I started it too soon or too late.

I even made her repeat it, just to be sure I heard right. Then I did a happy dance. And then I beat Myrtle and told her that, no, Sarah’s compliment didn’t mean she got to stay out and make me write the rest of the book.

Anyway, for those of you who haven’t seen the scene yet, here it is. As with everything, copyright applies. Also, this is a very rough draft. No editing, spell checking, etc., has been done. All of which means, things may change before Nocturnal Rebellion is released.

***

The bullpen fell silent as Chief of Detectives, Luis Santiago, moved to the front of the room. The look on his face mirrored how they each felt. Disbelief, sorrow and anger – but mostly anger – burned in his dark eyes. Every cop, not to mention every cop’s family, faced this possibility each time they stepped out the door. But that didn’t make it any easier, especially not when it hit this close to home.

Santiago looked around the squad room, making eye contact with every person there. It didn’t surprise him to find more than just the day shift present. He had no doubt were he to check the other squads under his command, he would find the same thing. When a cop went down in the line of duty, no one worried about vacation or sick leave. Every cop in the department would be doing all they could to find the perps responsible. That knowledge made him glad to be part of the family. Even so, it did nothing to make this part of his job any easier. Fortunately, it was not something he had to do very often but even once was one time to many.

Standing there, seeing how each of those assigned to Homicide waited, hoping he had good news to tell them but knowing he did not, he drew a deep breath. He could have let someone else handle this but that would have been the easy way out and he had never been one to shirk the uncomfortable parts of the job off on someone else. Besides, he owed it to them, and to their lieutenant, to make sure they knew that even though he no longer worked cases on the board, he was still one of them. He hurt with them and he thirsted for the same vengeance they did.

“I’m not going to tell you this gets easier. It doesn’t and each of you knows it. Let’s be honest. This squad has faced more than its fair share of challenges the last two years.” He paused and reached up to rub his eyes, burning with unshed tears, with thumb and forefinger. As he did, he felt every one of the last twenty-six hours he had been awake. Twenty-six hours of sitting vigil at the hospital room and then talking with family members, of briefing the chief of police, Darnell Culver, and of doing all he could to head off any interference by the feds. One of his own had gone down and he was damned if he was going to let the feds or any other agency take over the case. Then he cleared his throat and continued. “Each and every time, you have risen to the challenge and done what was necessary to carry out your duties as detectives for DPD. I know I’m asking a lot now, but I need you to do so once again.

“The next few days are going to be difficult for the entire force, but especially for you. You lost one of your own yesterday. I’ve spend a great deal of time with the family and they asked me to let you know that arrangements have been made. They thank each of you for all the time you have spent with them since the ambush. They have asked that, until the funeral, members of this squad be with them. They know you were all family and they will feel better having someone who knew their loved one with them. Sergeant Collins, I’ll leave it to you to arrange schedules to accommodate this request.” He glanced at the squad’s acting commander and she nodded, her expression grim.

‘In three days, we will lay your fellow detective to rest. I expect each of you to be there in dress uniform, representing not only this squad but the best of the force. Show the city that we bleed blue. Then show them that DPD does its job, no matter what. Find the bastards responsible for the ambush and bring them in to face justice.

“It would be easy to seek vengeance. I understand that feeling because I share it. No one, no matter who they are, is allowed to kill one of our own. But we will not lower ourselves, or the rest of DPD, down to those bastards’ level. Find them and bring them in. We will let the courts deal with them and, when the time comes, we will be sitting on the front row of the viewing chamber when they are brought in for their execution.” He glanced around as detectives, uniformed officers and clerical workers nodded grimly. “Do your lieutenant proud and find those bastards before they manage to kill anyone else.”

As one, everyone present turned to look at the darkened office with its closed door and silence so profound it felt almost alive filled the squad room. Then a tall blonde with short cropped hair, her expression stone-cold but pain reflected in her eyes, stepped forward. The others waited, watching as she approached Santiago.

“Sergeant Collins, the squad is yours,” the chief of detectives said. “Close this case before the feds try to take over. We will not step aside for anyone, not this time.”

The blonde nodded. As she did, she blinked back the tears burning in her eyes. “Yes, sir.”

He nodded once and then shook her hand. Then he turned, leaving the squad room. As the door closed behind him, Pat drew a deep breath. Whether she liked it or not, the squad was hers and she had a duty to do, a duty to the DPD, her former partner and her squad.

“The chief’s right,” she said softly. She did not try to hide her grief. Each person in the room, shared it. “We have to work this like any other case but let’s be honest. This isn’t just any other case and it never will be. We will have the press looking at everything we do, questioning each move and every word spoken. Worse, IAB is going to be nosing around.” She held up a hand before anyone could protest.

“Hear me on this. No one likes the idea of the rat squad poking around. This squad has first-hand knowledge how they can twist things to meet their own needs. So, I want every i dotted and ever t crossed in the investigation. Work this case like your own life depends on it because it very well may. We have cop killers running loose on our streets and none of us are safe until they are behind bars. So, when IAB comes calling, you will answer their questions. The quicker we do, the quicker we get them out of the squad and out of the investigation. Don’t play games with them. If they ask or allude to anything that sets off your warning bells, let me know.

“From now until this case is solved, it is all hands on deck. All vacation time is canceled until further notice. If you call in sick, you’d better damn have a doctor telling me you are on your death bed. Work your contacts and get your CI’s on the street and asking questions. Finding these bastards is our priority now. That said, make sure your other cases are worked as well. Don’t miss any court dates but this is our priority. We will find the bastards behind the ambush and we will be the ones to bring them in.”

With that, she strode across the bullpen. Pausing before the door to the office that had been her partner’s she reached down to turn the knob. As she did, her hand shook. A sob rose in her throat. She choked it down. She had to maintain control until she was behind closed doors. The squad was hers, at least until Chief Culver found someone to replace Lt. Mackenzie Santos, not that anyone could ever fill her shoes as a cop or as a partner and friend.

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An old snip, some promo and an achy shoulder

I hope everyone has had a wonderful — and safe — holiday season so far.

I’ll admit that I’m going to wimp out on the blog today. Part of the reason is I have a promo going on and today is the last day for it. Part is the injured shoulder is making it more and more difficult to sit and type. So, I’m going to fall back on giving you guys a snipped from one of the novels I have for free on Amazon today and then links to it and the other books currently free.

This snippet comes from Nocturnal Origins (Nocturnal Lives Book 1).

Some things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try. The memory remains, forever imprinted on your soul. It colors your perceptions and expectations. It affects everything you say and do. It doesn’t matter if the memory is good or bad, full of life and love or pain and death. That memory remains until the day you die – if you’re lucky.

If not, the memory haunts you for all eternity.

Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Santos knew that bitter lesson all too well. The day she died changed her life and her perception of the world forever.

It didn’t matter that everyone, even her doctors, believed a miracle had occurred when she awoke in the hospital morgue. She knew better. She knew she had died.

It hadn’t been a miracle. At least not a holy one. Ask the poor attendant who’d run screaming from that cold, desolate room in the hospital basement, when Mac had suddenly sat up, gasping for breath and still covered with too much blood. He’d been convinced a demon from Hell had risen to come for him.

Mac couldn’t blame him. As far as she was concerned, that was the day the dogs of Hell had come for her.

Now, standing in the alley behind Gunn’s, one of the most fashionable restaurants in Dallas, Mac closed her eyes and prayed. She suspected what lay ahead. She could almost smell it – not quite, but enough to know what was there. Sweat trickled down her spine and plastered her thin cotton shirt to her back. Her stomach lurched rebelliously and she swallowed hard against the rising gorge. She had to keep control. At least for the next few hours.

Easy, Mackenzie. Just take it slow and easy.

She opened her eyes and drew a deep breath. She knew it was bad. Two uniformed officers, hands on knees, vomited into the gutter. There was no black humor, no conversation, nothing. In fact, other than the sounds of retching, the scene was eerily quiet; it felt almost like a dream. A nightmare.

She took a few more steps. The harsh, unmistakable stench assailed her nose, warning her what she’d find.

Unless the restaurant had dumped several hundred pounds of raw hamburger out to spoil in the summer heat, a dead body lay at the far end of the alley. That was bad enough. Then she felt as though she were enveloped in blood, and her stomach rolled over once again.

Oh, God.

Jaw clenched, she stepped forward. Never before had it been so hard to approach a crime scene. Not even when she’d responded to her first dead-body call a lifetime ago. She hadn’t hesitated then, not like this.

But she was different now. She knew what sort of horror awaited her. She’d seen it before and it haunted her. Haunted her because it touched something in her very few suspected even existed, something she tried so desperately to hide. The beast within fought for dominance, called by the smell of blood, the sight of raw flesh.

She mustn’t lose control. Not here and certainly not now. She blew out a long breath and slammed her mind shut to the horribly enticing sights and smells. Even as she did, the nightmare that had become the core of her existence clawed against her all-too-fragile self-control as it fought for release.

Focus on the job, Mac. Just focus on the job.

Finally, satisfied she wouldn’t lose control – yet – she nodded once. It was time to get to work.

*   *   *

Also available for free today:

Hunted (Hunter’s Moon Book 1)

When Meg Finley’s parents died, the authorities classified it as a double suicide. Alone, hurting and suddenly the object of the clan’s alpha’s desire, her life was a nightmare. He didn’t care that she was grieving any more than he cared that she was only fifteen. So she’d run and she’d been running ever since. But now, years later, her luck’s run out. The alpha’s trackers have found her and they’re under orders to bring her back, no matter what. Without warning, Meg finds herself in a game of cat and mouse with the trackers in a downtown Dallas parking garage. She’s learned a lot over the years but, without help, it might not be enough to escape a fate she knows will be worse than death. What she didn’t expect was that help would come from the local clan leader. But would he turn out to be her savior or something else, something much more dangerous?

*   *   *

Wedding Bell Blues

Weddings always bring out the worst in people. Or at least that’s the way it seems to Jessica Jones as her younger sister’s wedding day approaches. It’s bad enough Jessie has to wear a bridesmaid dress that looks like it was designed by a color blind Harlequin. Then there’s the best man who is all hands and no manners. Now add in a murder and Jessie’s former lover — former because she caught him doing the horizontal tango on their kitchen table with her also-former best friend. It really is almost more than a girl should be expected to handle. . . .

 

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What happens when your muse hijacks you

I’ll admit it. I’m drawing a blank on what to write this morning. I think part of it is because I’ve been deep in editorial mode the last few days. Another part is I made the mistake of reading an article that continues to equate indie publishing with vanity presses and telling those who would listen that the only way to prove yourself is to make it past the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. So, until I can come up with something that doesn’t involve me getting on my soapbox and screaming profanities — I try not to do that here because it embarrasses Monkey — I’m going to inflict, er, treat you to a snippet from the work that hijacked me last month. It is untitled so far and, as I’ve said before, something of a mash-up of Slay Bells Ring (a romantic suspense) and Skeletons in the Closet(UF/modern fantasy and still unpublished). That’s mainly because it demanded it take place in the same setting as Slay Bells but it has elements of modern fantasy/UF. Oh, and it has a semi-sentient house. There are also character overlaps between the books. And I have no idea how or why this book decided it had to be written, much less by me.

Now, this is the rough draft. There will be changes made, including fixing spellings and punctuation, before the book goes live. Also, the usual cautions apply. This is my work, copyright 2016 by Amanda S. Green.

***

 It’s never easy going home, especially when you left under less than ideal circumstances. But that’s the situation I found myself in. It might never have happened if it weren’t for my daughter, the light of my life. Four months ago, Ali turned five. A month after that I finally admitted she presented challenges I didn’t know how to deal with. Fortunately, at least in some ways, my mother did know how to handle my special little girl. Like it or not, that meant returning home to Mossy Creek, Texas, smack dab in the middle of the buckle of the Bible belt.

And that made life very interesting for the citizens of Mossy Creek where normal was not something you encountered every day.

So I called my mother, scheduled a leave of absence from work and made our plane reservations. There were a few stops and starts and the trip had been delayed twice. But now our bags were packed and Ali and I were about to walk out the front door. That’s when my pocket started vibrating. Well, to be honest, it was the cell phone in my pocket that started vibrating but you know what I mean. For a moment, I considered ignoring the call. I knew from the ringtone it wasn’t my mother or any of the rest of the family. As far as work and most of my friends knew, Ali and I had already left town. Even so, years of conditioning had my hand digging into my jeans pocket before I realized it.

“Mama, we have to go!” Ali tugged at my free hand, pulling me toward the door.

“Hang on, sweetheart.” I glanced at the display, not recognizing the number. “Go make sure you didn’t leave anything you want to take with you. This won’t take long. I promise.” I waited until she raced toward her bedroom before answering the call. “Hello?”

“Moira Quinn O’Donnell?” a man asked.

“Yes.” A hint of concern fluttered in my stomach. He might have been calling to sell me siding or solar panels or the like but I doubted it. Something about his voice not only sounded serious but official. Besides, he had used my full name, something very few knew.

What can I say? When you grow up with the name Moira and your mother insists on the proper Irish pronunciation and you live in Texas, let’s just say it is easier to go by your middle name, especially if that name is easily pronounced.

“Ms. O’Donnell, my name’s Peter Sanderson. I work with Julianne Grissom.”

My brows knitted into a frown. “What can I do for you, Mr. Sanderson?”

“Ms. O’Donnell, I don’t want to worry you but have you spoken with your mother recently.”

That flutter of concern spiked and I swallowed hard. Whenever someone started a statement with “I don’t want to worry you,” it usually meant there was something to be worried about. If that wasn’t enough, Julianna Grissom and I were friends going back to childhood. If trouble wasn’t brewing, the call would have been from Annie Caldwell. Julianna Grissom was her very professional, all attorney persona. I closed my eyes and counted to ten. Then I looked toward the hallway, making sure Ali was still safely in her room. Whatever was going on, I most definitely did not want her involved.

“I spoke with her two days ago. Why?”

“Ma’am, Ms. Grissom asked me to check with you. We don’t know any of the particulars, only that the Sheriff’s Department attempted to do a welfare check on your mother after she failed to meet friends yesterday. While there is no evidence of foul play or, to be perfectly honest, of anything being wrong, they haven’t been able to make entry into the house to be sure.”

I closed my eyes and breathed deeply. I had a pretty good idea why the deputies hadn’t been able to enter the house. Unless I was badly mistaken, they hadn’t even been able to enter the yard. That was just one of the reasons why I had moved to Montana more than ten years ago. In Mossy Creek, when someone said you lived on the wrong side of the tracks, they weren’t talking about your financial status or social standing. Far from it, in fact. Life in Mossy Creek had been different from the day the town was founded. Mundane mixed with supernatural and, well, my mother might not be Serena Duchamp but she had been known to cast more than a spell or two.

Then there was the house. I swear it is more alive than a lot of folks I could name. If it did not want to let someone in, nothing, not even a battering ram, would get the doors open. The only thing keeping me from panicking was the belief the house would not keep help out if my mother needed it. Me, it never hesitated to try to lock me out. But Mama belonged there and it would protect her.

At least I hoped it would.

“What can I do?” I asked.

“Ms. Grissom said you were coming to town today. Is that still your plan?” Sanderson asked.

“It is.” I glanced at my watch. Ali and I were going to have to hurry if we wanted to make our flight. “Assuming no problems with our connecting flight, my daughter and I should be in town by five.”

“With your permission, I will let the sheriff know. Ms. Grissom would like you to stop by the office when you get here. Hopefully, we will know more by then.”

“All right.” She thought for a moment. “Have you checked with either my sister or my brother to see if they have heard from our mother?”

“They are my next calls, ma’am.”

“All right. Tell Ms. Grissom I will give her a head’s up when I reach Dallas.” I did not wait for him to respond. Instead, I ended the call and stuffed the cell phone back into my pocket. I had a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach but there was nothing I could do about it, at least not until I reached Mossy Creek. But it did necessitate a slight change in what I packed and in my plans not to check a suitcase.

“Ali, you about ready?” I called from my bedroom as I knelt just inside my closet. There, bolted to the floor was a safe. Inside were my service weapon, several other handguns along with my badge, ID and a few other items. Blowing out a breath, I retrieved an HK .45, pancake holster, ammo and my badge and ID. “Ali?” I repeated as I secured everything in a small, hard-sided case and then dropped it inside my bag that now would have to be checked.

“Mama, can I take Ruffles?” She stood in the doorway, a battered teddy bear almost as big as her in her arms.

“No, baby. Not this time. Why don’t you take Freckles instead?” I asked, referring to a smaller but equally beloved teddy bear.

“Okay.” She grinned and raced back to her room.

Five minutes later, we pulled out of the driveway and I did my best to put Sanderson’s call out of my mind. This was Ali’s first plane ride and I knew she was excited. The last thing I wanted was to worry her. After all, as far as she knew, this was a fun trip to see her grandma. She did not need to know that grandma had apparently gone missing and we might not be able to get into the house because it didn’t like me.

Heaven help me, how was I going to explain the house, not to mention everything else, to a five-year-old?

***

As for the book I’m supposed to be finishing, Dagger of Elanna, I am. One thing this hijacking did was it let me come back to Dagger with a fresh set of eyes. I figured out what was hanging me up in the book and have pushed forward. Hopefully, I will have it finished in another three weeks or so. In the meantime, check out the first book in that series, Sword of Arelion (Sword of the Gods Book 1).

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Filed under AMANDA, SCIENCE FICTION & FANTASY, WRITING

I said I’d return

Like many folks yesterday, I overdid. Not with food or drink but with too much heat and time on my feet. One of our annual fundraisers for the local library is parking cars for 4thFest. It is always fun because you get to spend the day with friends. I love seeing how kids dress up for the celebration and the anticipation they have for the fireworks is wonderful to behold. However, each year reminds me that I am getting older and working the full day isn’t something I will probably do in the future. The downside today is that my brain is still not functioning enough to formulate a coherent post. So, since one of the purposes of this blog is to promote our work, I’m going to do just that. This is the first section of my short story, Battle Bound. This is the second of three short stories I am writing in the Honor and Duty (3 Book Series) universe. It follows Taking Flight (Honor and Duty) and comes before the novels in the series.

War has been officially declared. The Devil Dogs, along with elements of the Fuerconese Navy are tasked with liberating a system that the Callusians have invaded.

As with Taking Flight (Honor and Duty), this is a rough draft and changes will be made prior to publication. It also means there may be some spelling and grammar errors that will be corrected prior to publication. The story will be posted in three or four parts. I will leave it up on the blog for a week or so before taking it down so I can post it on Amazon. This story is copyright © 2016 by Amanda S. Green, writing as Sam Schall. All rights reserved. This story or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the author except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

Battle Bound

battleboundAnother mission briefing with yet more plans that would not survive the first encounter with the enemy. Every Marine learned that lesson early in their career. Failure to do so, and to learn to adapt to new circumstances, meant death and not necessarily of just the Marine foolish enough to cling to battle plans drawn up in the sterile confines of a briefing room far from the fighting. Even so, pre-mission briefings did serve a purpose, at least if the mission commander understood how battles were won and lost. These briefings allowed those involved the chance to voice their concerns and offer alternatives should the proverbial shit hit the fan.

Something that happened more often than not when the Callusians were involved.

From where she stood near the far bulkhead in the Admiral’s ready room, Ashlyn Shaw, newly brevetted to the rank of major for the duration of the mission, studied those already gathered. The seven men and women gathered around the table wore the uniform of the Fuerconese Navy. Six of them represented Admiral Miranda Tremayne’s senior staff. The seventh, Captain Terrance Riordan, commanded the Frank Fletcher, flagship for the taskforce. The seven spoke softly amongst themselves, a few of them checking in with their stations as they waited for the Admiral’s arrival.

“Ten-hut!”

Shaw’s order rang out the moment the hatch slid open and Admiral Tremayne stepped inside. As those seated around the table stood and braced to attention, Ashlyn watched with the critical eye of a Devil Dog, the premier SpecOps unit of the Fuerconese Marine Corp, as Tremayne’s Marine escort took up positions on either side of the hatch. Their eyes swept the room, looking for any threat. They might not be Devil Dogs but they knew their duty – to protect the Admiral at any cost.

“At ease.”

Tremayne took her place at the head of the table. Once seated, she nodded and two stewards appeared to pour coffee and tea for those who wanted it. When one of them approached, Ashlyn shook her head. There would be time for coffee later. Besides, choosing to stand had its drawbacks, one of them being she had nowhere to put a mug should she have to move quickly. At least the Admiral had learned over the course of the last two months not to ask if she wanted to have a seat.

“As you know, we are on our final approach to the Bennington System,” Tremayne began as the holo display over the table came to life. For a brief moment, the taskforce’s icon filled the display. Then it disappeared, replaced by a 3-D representation of the system. “What you see displayed is the latest data received from the probes launched by the Asimov on its last pass along the system border. This data is less than forty-eight hours old.”

Ashlyn studied the display for a moment and then glanced at the Admiral. As she did, she frowned slightly. Tremayne’s expression betrayed nothing, unless you knew her as well as Ashlyn did. Not only was the Admiral one of her mother’s best friends, she was Ash’s god mother as well. Tremayne had been a part of her life as long as she could remember. Because of that, she noted the slight tightening around the Admiral’s mouth and the concern that darkened her eyes.

“As you can see, the data, for the most part, confirms what we have come to expect from the enemy.” Tremayne activated the virtual keyboard in front of her and typed in a series of commands.

A moment later, a number red dots appeared in what, at first glance, looked like a random patter than overlaid the original display. Ash studied the latest addition for a moment before pulling her datapad from the pocket at her left thigh. Her fingers flew as she typed in a command. She looked at the information on her screen and then back at the holo display. As she did, she had a feeling the new data was about to throw one very large wrench in their battle plans.

“As you can see, there have been some changes.” Tremayne highlighted the red dots. “Sometime between the previous data dump and this one, the enemy laid mines along the main approach lanes ot Pioneer’s Landing.” She typed in another command and a dozen or so green lights, some circular and others triangular, appeared. “They have also put additional defense platforms in place. The circles represent the new platforms, most likely mobile platforms that can be towed form one position to another as needed. These platforms represent a challenge we much address before entering the system. Tactical as well as CIC confirm that the platforms are not aimed outward but inward. They are targeting major assets dirtside on each of the system’s inhabited planets.”

“And the others, Ma’am?” Captain Riordan asked.

“Those are the original system defense platforms. It appears that the Callusians have repaired them after the invasion and have them armed and ready to use against anyone who might attempt to liberate the system.”

As the others discussed the new data and what it could mean to their current plan of battle, Ashlyn remained silent. She stepped away from the bulkhead and walked around the table, taking in the holo-display from all sides. As she did, she felt Tremayne watching her, no doubt wondering what she was thinking.

“Permission to speak, Ma’am?” Ash asked as she once again took up her position near the far bulkhead.

“Granted.”

Tremayne’s lips twitched in approval and Ashlyn fought back a smile. She had carefully phrased her request so it would remind the Naval officers not only of their breach in etiquette by speaking without permission but also that they needed to work together to figure out a plan of action. When several almost audibly snapped their jaws shut, Ash knew she had made her point. Good. It was time to get to work.

“Do we have a reading the locations of the enemy ships?”

Tremayne typed in another command sequence and white icons appeared. Ash frowned slightly as she studied them and their relative locations with regard to the targets her Marines were there to retake. The feeling of something being wrong she’d had since entering the ready room grew. Everything she saw on the holo display was wrong. Either their data was in error or the enemy had changed tactics and neither explanation bode well for their mission.

“Several things bother me about this latest data, Admiral. The first are these new platforms. I can’t allow my Marines to make planetfall until those platforms are taken off-line. The attack shuttles would make easy targets. Then, even if they made it dirtside, the platforms could still take out our target areas. We would be sacrificing the Marines for nothing.”

“Agreed. But you said several things bother you, Major.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” She quickly gathered her thoughts. It should be clear to anyone studying the data that something was wrong. She might not know the what or the why but her gut told her they needed to proceed with caution. Long ago, she had learned to trust her instincts. They had kept her and those under her command alive more than once. Now she hoped the Naval-types understood her concern.

“Assuming the data is correct, where did the rest of the Callusian ships go?” She indicated the white icons. “This latest reading seems to indicate there is, at best, a squadron still on-station. Our previous readings showed at least a taskforce. So where did they go and when?”

“Agreed, Major, and those are questions I’ve been asking since first seeing the data.” Tremayne nodded to Riordan. He typed in a series of commands and a moment later the holo display split into two images: the one they had been studying and one showing the previous data sent by their long-range probes. The difference was startling. “Major Shaw hit on my main concern,” Tremayne said. “Tactical and our sensor techs have checked and double-checked the latest information. The probes are functioning properly and each of those released by the Asimov responded when test signals were sent. That means something has happened in the last seventy-two hours to more than two-thirds of the Callusian force in-system. The question is what.

“While that is a question we have to address, one thing must be kept in mind. Sensor readings from the planets has remained unchanged for the most part. Groundside defense systems are active and the chatter is definitely Callusian. That means our mission is still in place. We are tasked with liberating the system no matter how the circumstances have changed.”

Having said her piece, for the moment at least, Ashlyn considered the data and her own mission parameters. Somehow, they had to deal with the new defense platforms so her Marines could drop dirtside. She also had to leave enough of her people onboard the flagship to help repel enemy forces should they manage to breach the taskforce’s defenses. Then there were the missing Callusian ships. Too many variables and even more possibilities and none of them eased her mind.

“I wish I could say we got lucky and something triggered a self-destruct sequence on the missing ships,” Tremayne was saying as Ashlyn once again turned her attention to the others. “If that were the case, sensors would have picked up both the explosions from the ships’ power plants going critical as well as debris. No such readings were made. Nor does this appear to be a case where the Callusians moved in, stripped the planets of resources and personnel and then destroyed the infrastructure.”

“It’s almost as if they want us to think they came and left without being forced out of the system,” Lieutenant Angelica Zamorano commented.

“Which is totally against the order of battle we’ve come to expect from them,” Tremayne said. “The question remains: what happened to those ships?”

For the next ten minutes, the Naval officers discussed various different ways to respond to the latest data. Ashlyn listened as several supported continuing with the current mission timeframe. After all, they argued, the lower number of enemy ships meant they should move in now, before reinforcements arrived. Even with the new defense platforms in place, Taskforce Liberator would have no problem securing the system and, in all likelihood, with little damage to their own ships.

Captain Riordan and several others urged caution. While it might be tempting to believe the Callusians had finally made a mistake that would work to Fuercon’s, not to mention the system’s, advantage, they hesitated. The Callusians had proven to be many things but cowards they weren’t. Even if they had discovered the probes the Asimov had launched in-system, they wouldn’t have run. History showed that. Instead of fleeing the system ahead of an anticipated attack by Fuercon or its allies, the Callusians would have destroyed the probes and increased system defenses.

“Major Shaw, I’ve heard from everyone but you,” Tremayne said.

Ashlyn fought the urge to hang her head and scuff her toe against the decksole as the Admiral looked at her, waiting for her response. When she had joined the taskforce, along with her company of Devil Dogs, she had done so as a newly promoted captain. Almost as soon as she was onboard, she had been breveted to the rank of major to avoid any possible confusion with Captain Riordan. Now she felt the rank and the responsibility that came with it weighing heavily on her.

“Ma’am, before I make any recommendations, I’d like to see each of the sensor reports side-by-side.” Hopefully they would give her an idea of how to respond to Tremayne.

Tremayne brought up the reports herself. Once she had, Ashlyn again moved closer to the holo display to compare them. As she did, she nodded to herself. Each reading until this last had been almost identical. Oh, the Callusian ships had been in different positions from reading to reading, which was to be expected. Different patrol patterns would explain that easily enough. Nothing about the earlier sensor reports explained how the ships could have left the system without being picked up by the probes. So where were they?

“Admiral, I’m a Marine and the first to admit I don’t understand nearly all there is to know about naval tactics, much less engineering. Could the ships have jumped out of the system without our probes having picked it up?”

“Negative, Major. Even our passive probes would have picked up such a maneuver, especially one involving so many ships.”

Ashlyn studied the holo display for another moment before continuing. “Ma’am, if this was a ground operation and we were wondering where the troops had disappeared to, my first assumption would be that they hadn’t, that they were simply hiding from our sensors in order to lure my Marines into a trap. Is it possible that’s what the Callusians are doing with their ships?”

“That would be my guess.” Another series of commands and the holo screen returned to the current data display, this time with the orbital pattern of the probes displayed. “As you can see, the probes have not had full coverage of the system. If the Callusians realized we were keeping an eye on their activities, they could have used the gaps in coverage to move their ships. Unfortunately, because of those gaps, we don’t know where those ships are now. That means we don’t know which approach in-system is safest.” Tremayne leaned forward and rested her chin on one upraised fist. “How would you handle this situation on the ground, Major?”

“I would send a diversionary force in first, Ma’am, and try to draw the enemy out. It would have to be a large enough force for them to believe it was a real assault but the bulk of my people would be held back, far enough away they wouldn’t detect us but close enough to respond before the diversionary force was overrun.”

“Captain Riordan?”

“It could work.”

For a moment, Ashlyn said nothing. But there were problems with such a plan, namely the defense platforms. What guarantees did they have that the Callusians wouldn’t fire on the assets planetside the moment they picked up the Fuerconese presence in-system? When she voiced her concern, Tremayne nodded once. As she did, Ashlyn thought she caught a quick look of approval from the Admiral. That was enough for her to speak up once again.

“Ma’am, I may have an idea but I’d like to run it by my LAC commander first.”

“Agreed,” Tremayne said. “The rest of you are dismissed. We’ll meet again in an half an hour. Be prepared to discuss any action you and your departments believe we should take, considering the latest set of data. Dismissed.”

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It’s NaNo Time Again — redux

Ah, yes, November is here. There was once a time when that meant looking forward to a long weekend of family, football and guilt-free overeating. It meant starting to think about holidays and gift buying and decorating the house. Now, November is a month that brings both fear and anticipation. It’s the month when so many writers commit to trying to write at least 50,000 words. The anticipation comes from knowing that, if you are successful, you have completed a short novel or have a very good start on a longer work. The fear comes from the knowledge that there will be days when you sit down in front of you computer and stare at a blank screen, no words coming out.

And, no, blog entries don’t count.

Or you can be in the position I’m in this year where I’m doing the last editorial pass — that horrible one most writers hate when you do the odd work/spelling hunt through your manuscript — before uploading the final file to Amazon for sale. The hard and fast deadline for that is the 10th because, on the 11th, the manuscript goes live or I lose my ability to offer titles for pre-order for a year. Since I’m not about to do that, I will do whatever it takes to make sure Duty from Ashes (Honor and Duty Book 2) is ready to go ahead of time.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not doing NaNo. For one thing, Sarah informed me I am doing it. Seems she decided she was going to do it this year and she didn’t want to suffer alone. So she tagged several of us and “volunteered” us to share the pain — er, the fun. Yeah, that’s it. The fun. (Must remember to keep telling myself that.)

So, in between edit sessions, I’m writing. I have a short novel — as opposed to a novella — to do. It will be a romantic/suspense novel coming out under the Ellie Ferguson pen name. Once that’s done, I can get to Nocturnal Challenge. Of course, I do have another novel that’s decided now — RIGHT NOW — is a good time to demand attention. The fact I shelved the novel a couple of years ago because I couldn’t figure out where it was going matters not. It has decided it wants to see the world and I have to oblige. Sigh.

Anyway, with all this going on, I’m still trying to keep up with what’s going on in the publishing world. Sometimes, all too often it seems, doing so leaves me shaking my head and wondering just what in the world some folks are thinking. One of the first things I saw was the aftermath of someone who decided it would be a good thing to try to take on Larry Correia. I’m sorry, you’d have thought by now that folks would know how foolish that is. But this guy didn’t and, when people didn’t agree with him, he apparently resorted to calling names and not so veiled threats. When Larry weighed in, with both feet — as he should have — the troll deleted his posts, apparently blocked Larry and then went to his wall and at least one other to whine about what happened. He didn’t like it because the evil libertarian, gun-loving men and women — gasp — on Larry’s wall didn’t lift him on their shoulders and thank him for showing them the error of their ways.

Then there was this article out of Publishers Weekly that has one passage that truly has me scratching my head. Here is the paragraph in question:

Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson bookstore in SoHo, speaking of Amazon, said “I don’t know what impact Amazon has had on my store.” This comment came, though, after McNally criticized the retailer and vowed to never to shop there. Her store is celebrating its 10th anniversary with plans to open another location. Despite her feelings about Amazon, McNally acknowledged that when she opened her store, “B&N had already crippled indie bookstores.”

So, here is a store owner who admits she doesn’t know what, if any impact, Amazon has had on her store. She also admits — something so many other Amazon haters refuse to do in public — that B&N had already crippled the indie booksellers when she opened her store. Since she has been in business 10 years, that implies pretty strongly that she understands the real evil — if you have to ascribe it anywhere — is in B&N and the other big box stores and not in Amazon when it comes to destroying the indie bookseller business.

Yet, despite all that, McNally says she will never shop at Amazon. Without knowing if it has harmed her business — or anyone elses’s in all likelihood — and even admitting the real damage was done by B&N and not Amazon, she has drunk the kool-aid of the haters. It makes no sense. At least it doesn’t to me.

Anyway, all that is a distraction this morning as I get enough coffee in me to get back to work. I guess this is where I put in the obligatory plug. Over at my blog this morning, you can find a snippet from Skeletons in the Closet, the novel that has decided it wants to be written NOW.

??????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????Duty from Ashes is, as noted above, available for pre-order on Amazon. You can check it out here. And here is a short snippet from it. Enjoy!

*  *  *

Smoke filled the air and the ground shook beneath her boots as another explosion sounded. It was close this time. Too close. Cursing, she ducked behind the makeshift barricade she and her team had erected outside the school and tried to catch her breath. As she did, the tell-tales from her battle armor warned that her heart was racing and her breathing was labored, not that she needed the onboard computer to confirm what she already knew. This was her worst nightmare come to life and, just like the last time, there had been no way to avoid it.

But she’d be damned if it ended the same way as before.

Not this time.

Carefully, she inched forward until she could see around the edge of the barricade. As she did, dirt and rock kicked up just inches from where she knelt as yet another round of enemy fire filled the air. Even as her team returned fire, she scanned the area, flipping through the various screens of her HUD. Then her lips pulled back into an almost feral smile.

There!

Finally, she’d located the last of the areas where the enemy had dug in. Now it was time to show them just how foolish they’d been to think they could get the drop on her and her team.

“Boomer, two o’clock. The culvert near the edge of the first building.” Once again, she cycled through the various filters on her HUD, taking careful note of what each told her. “Scans show six bogies. Looks like one SAM and three unknown heavy weapons. We’ll give you cover fire so your team can move into position. Hold your fire until I give the order. We need to take those guns out before they decide to turn their attention to the school.”

“Roger that, Angel.”

“Hound, second target’s yours. Same building. Four stories up. Third window from the corner. I spotted at least one sniper.” She paused and scanned the area, looking for any indication the enemy had hostages with them. As much as she’d like to just level the building and be done with it, she couldn’t. Not if there were civilians inside and, knowing the Cabal, there would be. One of the first lessons they’d learned in the last war was that the enemy never hesitated to hide behind innocents. “I’m not picking up any other life signs in the immediate area but that doesn’t mean much. They could have hostages elsewhere in the building so remember your target zone.” She waited for his response, knowing he was calculating the best way to carry out her orders.

“Got it, Angel. I’ll be ready on your order.”

Her heart beat a little slower. So far, so good. Her team still had a chance to get out of this alive and, with a little luck, they’d manage to save those civilians sheltering in the school and elsewhere.

Knowing their next move could mean victory or defeat, she called up the last data they’d received on the enemy’s movements. As she studied it, her mind did the one thing she’d been fighting to avoid since the battle began. It went back to that terrible day more than two years ago. She’d been in this exact location, fighting this same battle. Only then she’d been given compromised intelligence. As a result, she and her squad, a different one from this time, had walked straight into a trap. So many had died. She and the six who had managed to make it back to the shuttle for extraction had been lucky to get out of there alive. At least that’s what she’d told herself. Of course, that had been before they were arrested, brought up on bogus charges, court martialed and sent to the Tarsus military prison.

Damn it! She couldn’t think about that. She couldn’t let the past distract her from what was happening right now. Not if she wanted her team to survive.

“We’re almost in position, Angel,” a voice reported over her comm a few moments later. Master Gunnery Sergeant Kevin “Loco” Talbot. Another asset, an invaluable one, and one she hadn’t had on that previous mission.

“Roger that, Loco. Let me know when you are.”

She paused, waiting to hear from the final team she’d sent out. As the seconds drew out into minutes that seemed like hours, her concern grew. She’d been forced to split her forces before with disastrous results. Was history repeating itself?

She licked her lips and fought the urge to message the last team. It was difficult, but she didn’t. Instead, she reminded herself that they needed to move slowly and carefully to avoid detection. At least she hadn’t heard anything from the direction they’d taken that might indicate they’d been discovered. Surely that had to be a good sign.

Stop it!

She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. Her emotions and doubts were running too high. She had to get them under control. This was her command, her mission. If she couldn’t hold it together, they would fail. But she couldn’t think about that. She couldn’t let herself be distracted by the dead, hers and the civilian lives that had been lost in that previous battle. This wasn’t the time to let distractions in.

Finally, just as she was about to give up and demand an update, her comm came to life.

“We’re in position, Angel. We have four bogies ready and we’re ready to paint them,” Captain Lucinda Ortega reported.

“Hold position, Sorceress. I say again, hold position until we confirm air support.”

“Roger that, Angel.”

“Eagle, are you ready to paint your target?”

“Eagle is ready, Angel,” the squad’s sniper replied.

“Alpha Team, prepare to lay down cover fire. Boomer, the moment we do, you and your team haul ass and take out those heavy guns and that SAM.”

“Roger that, Angel. Beta Team is ready.”

She nodded, not that the demolitions expert could see her, and drew a deep, steadying breath. A quick check of her battle rifle and she was ready. It was now or never. With a glance at the four Marines crouching behind the barricade with her, she snugged the butt of the rifle against her shoulder.

“Now!”

She leaned around the corner of the barricade and opened fire. Instantly, the sounds of weapons – battle rifles, railguns and more – filled the air. Three of the four teams laid down heavy fire to cover the fourth team as it moved into position. On her HUD, three small green lights moved quickly toward the target zone. So far, so good.

“Almost there,” Boomer’s voice said in her ear.

“Keep it up, Devil Dogs. Don’t give those bastards time to breathe, much less regroup.”

“Fire in the hole!”

Boomer’s shout was the only warning they’d get. Instantly, she set her visor to block the flash from the explosion even as she kept firing. At least this time when the ground shook, it would be working for them instead of against them.

“Keep firing!” she ordered. “Eagle, Sorceress, stand ready. I repeat, stand ready. Paint the targets on my signal. Once the air strike begins, we move in.”

Without waiting for the teams to respond, she activated her ‘link once again. “Angel to Kali, we are a go for the airstrike. I repeat, we are a go for the airstrike.”

She waited, scanning the battlefield in front of her for any movement. Smoke and dust from the explosion filled the air. From the distance, she could hear the enemy. Some called for help. Some, those caught in the blast and not lucky enough to be granted a quick death, cried out for their mothers. A small part of her felt sorry for them. But another part, the soldier in her, knew it was either them or her and she much preferred living.

As she knelt there, ready to swing her rifle toward anyone who came her way, she imagined each member of her team wanting to look skyward, but keeping their eyes on the enemy locations, as they waited for the air support to come.

Air support that hadn’t come that first time. Would it now?

“Angel, this is Kali. We are on approach. Paint the target. I say again, paint the target.”

The voice coming over the battle-net was like an answer to her prayers. She relayed the message to the rest of her squad. As she did, she inched further around the edge of the barricade. Once in position, she raised one gloved fist, knowing the others were watching for her signal. Then she waited, knowing any number of things could still go horribly wrong and praying that they didn’t.

Moments later, t sounds of the fighter wing racing in their direction filled the air. The target, six heavy ground transports that had been moving closer and closer to the Devil Dogs exploded into a wall of flames as the fighters dropped their payloads. Instinct and training had the Marines diving for cover, any cover, as shrapnel from the transports flew through the air. Screams from the enemy soldiers unlucky enough to be caught in the open followed. Then, before the screams died out, she gave the order to move in.

“Take out those snipers!” she yelled as she sprinted across the clearing in the direction of the school.

Damn it, this time she would save those huddling inside.

Hound, moving at a speed no human could without the assistance of powered battle armor, leapt from where he’d been taking cover. The moment he landed, he turned and leveled the grenade launcher that was currently his armor’s primary weapon at the target. The building she’d identified for him a few minutes earlier was soon missing part of its far side. Smoke billowed from the area where the sniper had been holed up. Someone would need a new office or apartment when this was all over. But, hopefully, they’d survived the fight and would be able to return home soon. Even as the thought came, she knew the truth could be far different. War was never clean, no matter what the politicians wanted. There was always the possibility of collateral damage, especially when the enemy had no compunctions about hiding behind a shield of innocents.

Ahead and to her left, a head popped up from the culvert. A split second later, it exploded. She smiled slightly as Eagle gave a war cry that almost split her skull. She’d remind him later about how that sort of thing sounded through the battle-net. Not that she blamed him. They’d spent too much time hunkered down behind makeshift barricades and hiding in the shadows. It felt good to finally be on the move again. Now it was time to make the enemy pay for all they’d done.

“Angel, to your right!”

Loco’s warning came at almost the same moment that her armor’s sensors warned her of someone – or something – suddenly appearing and moving in her direction. She turned, bringing her combat rifle to bear. Her finger slipped behind the trigger guard and she felt her combat implants coming to life as she focused on the figure running hell bent for leather in her direction.

“Hold your fire!”

Without waiting for confirmation, she broke into a sprint, racing toward the small figure. The child couldn’t be more than five or six. Where he had been hiding during the fighting she didn’t know and, just then, she didn’t care. Not when her armor’s onboard computer was telling her that several of the enemy were bearing down on them.

She had to get to t child before he was hurt – or worse.

Without conscious thought, she switched out her battle rifle for her sidearm. Using the targeting system of her HUD, she laid down fire in the direction of the nearest enemy soldier. A scream of pain followed. Good. One down but who knew how many more to come.

Three more steps and she scooped the child up in her arms. He cried out as an enemy trooper appeared to the right and opened fire. Reacting on instinct, Angel shifted the child so he was shielded by her armor before returning fire. Then she pivoted, running in the direction of Loco and the rest of his team. They were laying down cover fire, forcing the enemy troopers to duck back down into the trench. At the same time, Sorceress was calling in air support. But that was all in the background as Angel focused on the child in her arms and the need to get him to safety.

“Down!”

Loco’s shout was all the warning she needed. She dropped, sliding feet first toward the barricade. At the same time, Loco stepped forward, Tank and Hound on either side of him, and all hell seemed to break loose. As they opened fire with everything they had, so did the rest of the squad. If that wasn’t enough, three Sabres, the newest and most deadly fighters the Fuerconese Navy currently had in operation, screamed overhead and opened fire on the culvert.

The ground shook again and another explosion – no, a series of explosions – deafened her. Then there was silence, the kind of silence that really wasn’t. Angel’s pulse pounded and her breathing was ragged. The crackling of fire mixed with the heavy smoke that filled the air. She heard someone, one of her people, offering up a quick prayer of thanks. Someone else uttered a curse. For once, she agreed with both sentiments. Then she heard the boy whimper. Much as she wanted to reassure him, she couldn’t. Not yet. She had to make sure the area was secure first.

Still cradling the child in her arms, Angel twisted around so she could look in the direction of the culvert. Nothing moved except for the smoke rising from it. Without warning, the silence was broken by a single shot to her left. Instantly, half a dozen battle rifles responded. Then nothing.

Barely daring to hope that it was over, Angel went to active scans. For several long moments, she studied the readouts on her HUD. The locations they had tagged as being held by the enemy were either showing red, indicating they were too hot for anyone – even armored – to survive or there were the tell tales of the dead and dying. Could it finally be over?

“Sound off!” she ordered as she carefully climbed to her feet.

As she did, the medic assigned to her squad hurried forward to take the child from her. Except the child had other ideas. He wrapped his arms and legs more firmly around her and burrowed in. with a jerk of her head, she motioned the medic off. She could spare the child a moment as she caught her breath and her people reported in.

One by one, each member of her team sounded off. A few sounded the worse for wear but she’d lost no one that day. Thank God. The nightmare hadn’t replayed in all its horror. It had come close, though, and she wanted to know why.

Relieved, she looked down into the child’s face and the world came to a crashing halt. No! He couldn’t be there. Damn it, he couldn’t be there. As bad as that time had been, that would have made it worse, so much worse.

“End sim!” she ordered, ripping off her combat helmet. “I said to end the damned sim!”

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ConFeyction sneak peek

I’m working away on the next book in the con vampire series, and Amanda suggested folks might like a sneak peek snippet of it. So here it is: a chunk of mostly unedited raw first draft ConFeyction. Now with added elves.

 

Chapter 1: Too Many Elves

I knew something was wrong within moments of entering the hotel. It wasn’t the crowd: they were normal for the first day of a convention. The usual mix of human oddlings milled about the lobby, most of them in jeans and t-shirts, waiting for registration to open.

Since this hotel was one of the ones that had added convention facilities as a kind of afterthought, there weren’t many places where people could gather, and the lobby was the main one.

The wrong wasn’t even from the demons whose true forms I could see as a kind of retina-burning after-image – a gift from draining a demon dry. I wasn’t about to do that again. Demon blood is horrible. In any case, for science fiction conventions, demons are normal. Most of them are editors, since the job fits so nicely into the whole mandate for spreading misery and despair.

No, what had my stomach clenching and my fangs starting to ache was the realization that at least a quarter of the crowd were elves, and more than half of them Dark Court.

Yes, I’m a vampire. I drink blood. Most of the rest is myth.

Elves are not myth, no matter what humans like to believe. They’re as real as I am, and as… let’s say misrepresented. Of all the authors I’ve read, Correia got closest – they’re parasites who have about the same level of good taste as your average demon. Not trailer trash though. Think of the Light and Dark Courts as being a bit like the Hatfields and McCoys – it doesn’t matter which one is which – and you’re close.

ConFeyction always draws a lot of elves, it being held in one of those mid-sized cities that’s a bit of a hub and has a large national park nearby. In this case the national park includes a whole lot of mostly inaccessible forested mountains, so it’s ideal elf territory. Usually ‘a lot’ amounts to ‘half the local Light Court plus a few visitors’. It looked as though all the warriors were here, along with at least two elves I knew were healers.

After the fiasco at ConSensual, I’d had four blissfully uneventful cons. I wanted that to continue, and a war between elf factions didn’t fit my desires in the least.

It didn’t look like war was going to break out right now, although I could taste the tension under the nicey-nice talk, so I took myself over to the hotel registration desk and gave the frayed-looking middle-aged woman a friendly smile – without showing my fangs, of course. “Checking in, room for Hickson.” I handed her a credit card in that name.

It wasn’t my real name, of course, but it was one of the legitimate identities I maintained. James Hickson, Jim to his friends, and Hickey to a certain smart-ass werewolf. That identity was getting towards the end of its useful life, especially with the world apparently going crazy and infesting conventions with demons and murderous elder vampires. I really didn’t need someone figuring out that every time a convention went to hell – damn near literally in ConVent’s case – Jim Hickey had been a member. And in the thick of the chaos.

The woman pulled a key card from a pile and ran it through the writer, then slipped it into a folded card. “Thank you, Mr Hickson.” She gave me my room number and directions to the elevators. “Enjoy your stay, sir.”

I smiled and blurred her memory of me. Not much, just enough that she wouldn’t remember my face. Maybe I’m getting paranoid in my old age, but I really don’t like to leave much trace. It’s too easy for a hostile vampire to read human minds – and if ConSensual had taught me anything it was that I have enemies who don’t care how much damage they do.

Vampires get stronger as we age. I’m technically an elder, being somewhere over two thousand years old, but I prefer to mask my ability and stay as close to human as something that sees humans as dinner can get. Besides, losing that last bit of humanity would also destroy what passes for my sanity, and I’m not ready to do that.

I travel light: a duffel bag with clothes – and a sheathed sword buried deep inside. This con was close enough for me to drive, so I didn’t need to worry about dealing with over-officious “security” officers at airports. Still, hauling swords around in plain sight is one of those things that people regard as antisocial. It gets you noticed and not in a good way.

I picked up my duffel and eased through the crowds to the bank of elevators at the back of the lobby. Those were getting a lot of use: after a moment I shrugged and opened the fire escape door. The stairs would be faster.

They usually are. Also the stairs tend not to be used by the more outlandish con-goers, which helps avoid moments where you want to carve out your own eyes with a spoon.

Not that I mind the… interesting choices of costume. It’s just that I have to mentally prepare myself for them. Fen tend to be disproportionately outcasts, so their social abilities are often less than ideal, and the same can be said for their notions of what should – or should never – be worn. The effect is kind of like the things you see in a Wal-mart in a low income suburb of certain cities, only science-fiction or fantasy themed, and the hygiene is often better. And that’s knowing that they can get a bit carried away by the freedom of being with their own kind for once, and forget things like eating and bathing.

Well, that and the – thankfully dwindling – adherents of ‘period bathing’. The adherents of assorted illicit substances is its own issue. Most of them are trying to medicate something that they can’t get treated in the normal human fashion. I help those where I can and try not to breathe too deep.

My room was not on one of the party floors, and faced west. I didn’t have a choice of north-south aspect this time, so west was a decent compromise. I could guarantee I’d be awake and about before sun started hitting the windows in the afternoon, and once I left the room I likely wouldn’t need to return before dark.

It was typical Hotel Awful, this one with a bilious green and tarnished gold color scheme, along with faux-Roman décor. The combination wasn’t the most tasteful I’d seen.

The usual particle-board dresser had a rather incongruous marble veneer, a flat-panel TV mounted to the wall above it, and the usual amenities. It looked like the hotel had got itself into a contract with one of the gourmet coffee groups, because the coffee maker was the fancy style where you don’t get to adjust the strength yourself. You just put the prepacked container in the holder, your mug – or waxed cardboard cup in this case – under it, filled the back with water and pressed the button. If it worked, you got someone’s idea of gourmet coffee. If it didn’t you might get a half-inch of lukewarm black sludge.

My experience with the things was that they worked a lot less often than they failed. I’d be patronizing the hotel’s House of Bad Coffee.

Unpacking was a matter of opening the duffel and pulling out the sheathed sword, complete with its fake peace-binding, then picking a clean t-shirt to wear. I went for one of my favorites, the black one with “And Buffy Staked Edward. The End” in a spiky gothic font.

I don’t think sparkly and vampire go together unless the vampire in question has been set on fire. So sue me.

With the tee, the sword, and my John Lennon sunglasses – more to protect my eyes than for any other reason – I had the ‘skinny male fan’ look down pat. A little vampiric fascination and no-one would notice the sword.

#

 Con registration had opened by the time I got back to the lobby. Rather than wait in the middle of the horde surging towards the tables – I try not to get trapped in crowds even when I’ve fed recently, in case the scent of prey overwhelms me – I leaned against the wall and watched, scanning the crowd for familiar faces.

 I recognized several of the editorial demons, all of them with the kind of browbeaten posture that just looks wrong when you see it in their demonic forms. Spiky wings and improbable appendages aren’t really suited to hunched half-cowering.

 Perhaps half the humans looked vaguely familiar: fellow con-goers who’d been at enough conventions that I recognized them without really knowing them. Half of the recognition was body-shape. While fen tend to fall into ‘large’ and ‘skinny’ without too much between, they also tend to some very… unusual anatomy. The pair holding hands were so close to spherical I half wondered if their relationship was entirely platonic because of the difficulty they’d have getting appendages into the appropriate orifices. Not that I wanted to know how they did it, if they did. Another familiar face looked more like the horses he loved than a human should – but he was all human. I guess that’s what happens when you gather a collection of outliers together. They tend to be outliers in everything, not just their choice of entertainment.

 A whiff of brimstone caught my attention, more because it came from an unfamiliar demon than because it was brimstone. I thought I knew all of the industry demons.

 This one’s human form was male, a short fellow with the kind of whipcord build that’s all muscle. He walked like he knew how to use it, too, where most demons endow their human forms for showing off rather than function. He gave off the kind of centered confidence that scared the crap out of the less secure – which meant he had ample elbow room as people sidled away from him. Other demons, too.

His demon form was more traditional, with the leathery wings and spiky protrusions and such.

Then I realized he either knew someone with taste or actually had some himself. He wore a plain black tee and black jeans. Nothing shiny or sparkly, and nothing that made me want to claw my eyes out. I was impressed – and that was before he turned to look at me.

He studied for a moment with his eyes narrowed, then shrugged and moved on.

I’d have to find out more about him. Good taste and discretion? This was one dangerous demon.

I didn’t get a chance to wonder about the unfamiliar demon: an elf approached me. Or rather, the King of the Realm of something unpronounceable approached me. Like all the elves, he was glamored to look human, which I couldn’t really see except as a kind of blur. I’d have recognized him without being able to see through the glamor: the scent doesn’t change.

Elves always smell like… well… not precisely ‘dessert’, but close. Something that could be tasty but gives no real satisfaction. I could probably survive on elf blood if I had to but I suspected I wouldn’t enjoy it. There’s no there there.

I glanced at his name tag, and gave him a nod and a smile that didn’t show my fangs. Convention etiquette – even if you know someone by another name, always use the name on the tag. “Al.”

He offered something between a bow and a nod. “Jim.” The slightly uncertain posture was something I ignored. Like all elf kings, ‘Al’ reigned supreme in his realm, and acknowledged the supremacy of the High King and Queen. And had no idea how to deal with someone who stood completely outside their hierarchy. Like, for instance, me.

“I gather you have a problem.” I wasn’t about to waste time dancing around the subject. If I could, I wanted to head off whatever had the Dark and Light courts here, so I could enjoy the con. If not, well… my own cursed stupid sense of responsibility wasn’t going to let me ignore whatever happened.

Al straightened a little. Whatever his glamor was couldn’t be too far from his actual appearance: most likely he’d dulled down the golden-hair, shortened it some, and made his eyes less green. Human green: eyes the color of new leaves aren’t exactly common among humans. Around here, he wouldn’t even need to change the pointy ears. Everyone would assume it was a costume.

Hell, by tomorrow night, he’d be able to walk around without glamor and get nothing more than “Nice costume.” and invitations from the braver souls.

More than a few elves had accepted those invitations in the past. I’m not going to guess how many of the second-generation con-goers are half elf, but it’s not ‘none’.

“Yes.” There wasn’t any change in his expression. Elves practiced keeping their emotions locked down – a necessity if you’re going to live with a relatively small group of people for eternity or as good as.

I could taste the worry – and fear – beneath the calm non-expression.

“You remember the agreement you brokered eighteen summers past, I trust.”

Oh, crap. “I remember.” I’d been here for a con, and Al had approached me with the Queen of the Dark Court and a proposal I doubt had been considered in any other elf realm before or since. They had both realized that their realms were doomed unless they found a way to increase their numbers: elves don’t have children often, and accidents – and of course the usual feuding – had been killing the adults at a rate that would drive both realms extinct in a few hundred years.

Other elf realms in those straits had returned to their parent realm, or called for misfits in other realms to join them. Al and the Queen had chosen instead to merge the two realms, and wanted me to write the treaty and merger conditions – I presume because a vampire older than either realm counted as neutral. Their child would inherit both when the parents abdicated, bringing the two realms together. In theory, at least.

Now Al showed emotion: anguish. “Our son was traveling to his lady mother. He did not arrive. We found his guardians dead. Murdered. Of him, there was no sign, but he lives.”

That was part of the arrangement, too – not the death, but the travel from realm to realm. The boy was being raised a year in each court, and at the start of the year as elves count – the spring equinox – he and his guardians moved to the other court. There were four guardians, two from each court, and all of them warriors.

That meant someone wanted war between the realms.

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There be progress

There be progress on the third con book. It’s slow, because I’m handwriting on a notepad in my lunchbreak, but it’s consistent, and more than that the itty bitty snips I’ve sent my first readers have got them giggling.

So far I’ve killed one of my designated redshirts – Synova, your crushed body has been found in the space where the dividers go… well, sort of. They’re going to have to replace that divider because some things just don’t wash off, and there was a bit of a mess when the con committee’s big guys finally convinced the panels to move (this little problem of having a body stuck between them really jammed the movement around) and it dragged you out to everyone’s view. Alas, there was nothing anyone could do by then.

The setup is in place for Run From the Nun, which I’ve combined with another story someone told me – I don’t remember who or when, except I was at a con at the time and I damn near wet myself laughing when I heard this.

So just for kicks, here’s the really, really rough setup for Run From the Nun, absolutely raw first draft without much beyond basic spell check.

The combination of an angry – and not a little frightened – female voice and an apologetic male one drew my attention to the bank of elevators.

 I blinked. And stared.

 The male voice belonged to a reasonably athletic-looking young man costumed as a demon. Elaborately costumed, with red and black skin paint, horns that had come off an actual animal, tight-fitting black jeans and a shirt that looked like it had started as a pirate style with the full sleeves and tight cuffs and lacing and all. And wings. Mechanical – or possibly animatronic – wings that looked close enough to the real thing I had to check that he was human. He was.

 He was also apologizing at speed to a middle-aged nun who appeared ready to commit assault and battery with one of those massive study bibles.

 A shorter, thinner young man hovered by him, adjusting something with the costume and making the wings move gently as if the demon was flexing them.

 Okay, I’m shameless. I peeked into their memories.

 Demon-guy had been in the elevators headed to the lobby with Friend trying to fix some problem with the wings. The combination of Demon-guy’s shirt and the wings completely hid Friend so when the lift stopped and the doors opened, what the nun saw was damn near exactly what you’d expect to see if a real demon dressed in black was in your lift.

 Demon-guy’s polite, “Going down?” started it.

 Now he was trying to explain that he was wearing a costume for the convention’s live action role-play without using the terms ‘LARP’ or ‘role-play’. I’ll admit describing it as improv acting on steroids was a nice touch, although the game – something called Fallen – and scenario – demons, vampires and werewolves fighting each other for supremacy after the Rapture – was hardly going to appeal to a nun.

 “It’s theological nonsense, of course, Ma’am,” Demon-guy said with a heavy southern accent – rural Georgia, I think. “The point is the acting.”

 The nun looked thoughtful. “Does this LARP of yours include a role for ordinary people?”

 When Demon-guy stammered she smiled a little. “Young man, I’m not cloistered. I know what a LARP is.”

 Demon-guy looked even more panicked. “Ah. Oh.” He swallowed. “Well. Yeah, there’s room for ordinary people, Ma’am.” I could hear him thinking that the role was usually ‘dinner’, but he was smart enough not to say so. “They’d welcome a defender, actually.”

 Now the nun’s interest practically sparkled. “Why don’t you tell me some more?”

 I made a mental note to keep an eye on the LARPers. This promised to be interesting.

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