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An interesting endeavor

I’ve always steered clear of anthologies, having heard stories of the difficulty writing for them. You write up a tale tailored to that particular one, they don’t take it, then what do you do with a story about a purple top-hatted steampunk kraken? Anyway, on top of this, whilst I was at an impressionable age as a writer – just a couple of years ago in other words – I watched someone I know can write a novel at the drop of a hat being forced to gut and rewrite a story, and struggling with it because the editor of the anthology wanted to make more room for someone else’s story but couldn’t expand the size of the whole book.

So I just did my own thing. There was an anthology edited by a friend (you can find the Kickstarter here) that looked like fun, but I couldn’t come up with a story idea that fit into the corporate world and involved Chthulhu in time for it. But around the time I was writing Snow, I checked in at one of my daily blogs, and was surprised to see a call for authors… And I immediately responded.

I’d read the kernel novella JL Curtis had written, that he now wanted to spin off into a collection of tales by different authors, and I liked the central idea, but what struck me was more than the big story, there would be a lot of small stories going on. And I write small stories. In this one, a boy becoming a man in a time of turmoil. It’s a tale as old as time, but worth telling again and again, for my son’s sake.

I have had the great pleasure of not only getting to know this editor and a gentleman online, but in person, so I knew I could trust him with my work. One thing about us Indies (or maybe it’s just me) we’re particular about where our babies go. Also, his guidelines for word count and content were clear and easy to work with. The whole process has been terrific, especially when I got to see the draft and realized what great company I was hanging out with.

 

So to sum up: clear guidelines, light editing touch (he didn’t do much, but it was very helpful), and frequent but not onerous communication. If I do take part in another venture like this, he’s set a high bar! I’ve enjoyed the whole process, although I suspect that it has been an enormous amount of work and investment on his part. Hopefully it hasn’t held up his writing on other series too much (you should check The Grey Man out if you haven’t already).

I’ve read the draft, and there are some wonderful stories, and mine least among them. But mine I can give you a sample of, to whet your appetites.

The Carpetbaggers

Ryan sat at the top of the stairs, and listened hard to the conversation below him. It felt faintly ridiculous – he was, after all, fifteen — nearly sixteen — and technically almost an adult, not a toddler to be sitting here while the adults discussed stuff he wasn’t supposed to know. But what he did know was that if he went downstairs, the conversation would shift, and they wouldn’t be talking about what they were.

It wasn’t the political. He could hardly escape knowing that he was no longer a resident of the Beaver State of Oregon. He was now residing in the bright shiny newness that was Jefferson, a product of the messy split of California from the United States of America. That tear had left ragged edges, like ripping a sheet of paper from a notebook, and the inhabitants of the southern part of what had been Oregon, and the northern part of California, had banded together against all others, and formed the territory. It wasn’t a state yet. According to his social studies teacher, it just had to be ratified into statehood by congress. But according to one of the lively conversations that took place below him in the big great room of his parent’s ranch house, being a territory meant more independence from the Feds, and that was a good thing. They might vote to pass on statehood.

Ryan wasn’t sure where he stood on the issue of independency, to use a word from his mother’s favorite movie. In theory, he liked it. He was looking forward to becoming an independent adult, unlike his friend Brynna whose family had stayed behind during Calexit, and who had just found out that driver’s licenses were no longer available to minors. She wouldn’t be getting hers for two more years, while he would have his in just two months. California had decided that kids could get hurt, driving too early, and it was part of the sweeping Nanny Laws they had passed following their leavetaking from the good ol’ USA. Ryan had been driving since his feet could reach the pedals while he could see out the windshield, on the ranch. The license was just a formality. He remained indignant on Brynna’s behalf, though. She’d been quite vocally unhappy in the group chat they both belonged to when she found out she was going to have to wait. She couldn’t get a job, either. Child labor…

But politics was not the central part of the low-voiced and urgent conversation under him. That, he’d have been down there for. No, this was far more disturbing, and he strained to make it all out.

“… the Wilman’s place was hit hard.” His father’s low voice was gravelly, and hard to hear.

His mother’s voice was higher, and clearer. “I offered Vi and the girls a place, but they are going up to her aunt’s in Portland. There’s a hospital there, although she did finally give in and let the SANE nurse collect samples from them at Medford General.”

Ryan knew Pat – she purely hated Patty – Wilman. He went to school with her. She was a good kid, not girly at all. He was worried about her; he had texted her earlier and no reply yet.

“It was an atrocity.” And that voice, cutting through the murmurs, was Doña Marguerite. She wasn’t formally a Doña, but everyone called her that. Ryan thought he understood. She was regal, a real Lady.

She kept talking. “These Brownshirts are a plague on our land. They think they can come in, and take, and the Law matters not at all to them. My great-great-grandfather would have hunted them down and shot them. Or perhaps strung them up on the routes out of town. He did have a flair for the dramatic. He was also a law-abiding man, and would be horrified to see his race represented so.” She snorted. “La Raza, indeed.”

Ryan still felt a little cognitive dissonance – he rolled the word around in his mind, liking how it sounded – at hearing the tiny Hispanic lady talk about the formerly illegal immigrants who now made up the majority of the California Border Patrol.

“It’s not just the Brownshirts, although I think Don Miguel would indeed be rolling in his grave. It’s the carpetbaggers.” His mother was very close to Doña Marguerite, and Ryan thought it was weird both of them referred to a long-dead Mexican-Californian Don like he was still alive and in the room. He guessed that was what came of having a historian for a mother.

The next morning, Ryan seized the opportunity when he was alone with her. “Mom?”

She looked up from the tortilla dough she was kneading like it had done something to her. “What, Ryan? Is this about riding out on the south fence? Because both your father and I have told you that you cannot do that one alone already.”

Ryan felt a twinge. “I’m not a baby, Mom.” He was taller than she was by half a head, and still growing, she said.

“You’re always going to be my baby.” She looked up at him, her hands stilling and her face softening. “I know you’re near a man grown. But we want everyone to be riding in at least pairs, for now.”

“That’s not what I wanted to ask. What’s a carpetbagger?” He grabbed a piece of the dough, and she made like she was going to swat him.

“You haven’t heard that before? Oh, your school. Bleah.” She sighed, and he could tell she was about to go into the rant he’d heard before.

Ryan held up his hand to stop her. “I know, I know, I’m getting a very watered-down biased view of history and they don’t even call it history any more, it’s social studies…”

She laughed. “I guess I’ve said that too many times. A carpetbagger is a term for people who descended on the South after the Civil War. They preyed on folks who had lost everything, and they forced them off their farms, because they’d been on the losing side. They were like a cuckoo’s egg.”

“What?” Ryan was confused.

“The cuckoo lays their eggs in other bird’s nests, and when they hatch, they push the other nestlings or eggs out, until they have the parents feeding them and only them.”

“So what does that have to do with carpet bags, and farms?”

She covered the dough so it could rest. “Well, the South had spent a lot of money during the War. They weren’t material rich like the North was, so after the war ended, there were a lot of people who were flat broke. It wasn’t about slaves – we’ve discussed that before – it was sheer economic disruption.”

“Ok. What does that have to do with Jefferson? And cuckoos?”

She came and sat next to him at the table. “You overheard us last night.”

“A little. Not all of it.” He was pretty sure he wasn’t supposed to have heard any of it.

She sighed sadly. “Jefferson isn’t very rich, yet. We’re trying to abide by regulations put in place when we split off from the FedGov, but they will be ending soon. We had a three-year restriction on mining and five on logging, for instance. Once we can tap into our own resources, then we’ll be able to defend ourselves.”

“From the Brownies?” Ryan used the slang term for the Border Patrol, who weren’t as upright as their title made them out to be.

“And from people who are coming in, offering pennies on the dollar to buy ranches and farms, and desperate folks are taking them up on it. The cuckoo is pushing them out of their nests. But if the rancher doesn’t take the offer…” She shrugged. “Something bad happens.”

“Like their house burns down.”

“Oh, baby…” She put a hand on his arm. “I’m sorry, but that’s the least of it.”

 

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Filed under CEDAR SANDERSON, WRITING: ART

Ack!

That is the sound you hear — okay, maybe I’m the only one to hear it — when this writer’s brain realizes it has two active works-in-progress going on and suddenly, without warning, a third (and possibly a fourth) suddenly pops in and demands attention. That “Ack!” is immediately followed by hysterical laughter and then sobbing.  I’m sure a catatonic state will shortly occur. Not that it will silence Myrtle the Evil Muse. She, it seems, enjoys doing all she can to torture me.

I’m not really complaining. At least not too much. You see, I think this is Myrtle’s way of getting back at me because I’m not letting her have her way with one of the current WIPs. She might not care if some of my fans (waves at Amanda F.) would come after me with sharp objects if I did as she wants but I do. Besides, there are times when the Writer has to throttle the Muse, toss her to the ground and drag her, kicking and screaming, to the closet where she will be locked in until time for the next project to begin. This is especially true right now because she is drunk or high or just sadistic.

Nope, I’m not going to do what she wants.

Oh, wait, you don’t know what she wants? Oh, that’s simple. She wants me to kill off a main character, THE main character, in one of my series. Sure, the current story arc is rapidly coming to an end but it isn’t the end of the series and, as I said, Amanda F. has threatened me if I kill this particular character. And that doesn’t even come close to what the other characters in the series said they’d do to me if I allowed Myrtle to have her way.

Actually, this all comes around to a question someone asked the other day. When do you know it’s time to end a series?

I wish there was an easy answer. Well, in a way, there is. The series ends when the story is over. Except, in a series, the story can be far-reaching and include many more plots and sub-plots than expected when it first began. So, the easy answer gets a bit more difficult in application.

We’ve all seen series that have gone on too long. Sometimes it is because the author is so in love with the characters that she doesn’t want to move on. Sometimes, and this is particularly true in traditional publishing, the publishing house relies on the name of the author to sell books. They know the author will bring in at least a certain level of sales. So, they keep wanting more in a series even after it has run its course. All too often in this case, the author is ready to move on but with the publisher waving money in front of him, he keeps writing. The problem is, if the author is ready to move on, the series can and usually does go stale.

Then there is the situation where an author isn’t ready to move on and neither is the publisher but the series itself is done. The characters have been developed to the point where everything now turns into Mary Sueism or deus ex machina. Or, worse, a combination of both. Sure, the books will sell but, a critical eye will see that the sales are decreasing. But, for whatever reason — and it can be the author’s love of the characters or universe, the money the publisher is throwing at her or even the author’s fear that the next series won’t be as well-received as the current one — the author doesn’t want to move on.

In each of these cases, the author is doing a disservice not only to herself but to her readers. It’s a lesson I try to keep in mind with my own work.

Currently, I have four series working. One, the Eerie Side of the Tracks series, is more a series of interconnected characters and stories all taking part in the same fictional town. Each book can stand on its own. Another, the Sword of the Gods series, is a very limited series in number of books it will contain because of its story arc. There are currently two books in the series and, unless something unforeseen happens in the third book, that third book will be the end of that particular series. Now, I might return to that world but the current plot lines will be tied up and the characters will be ready to figuratively ride off into the sunset.

The Honor and Duty series has surprised me. When I first began it, I did so with a three book story arc in mind. Then I realized that three books would become four. That fourth book is currently in the draft phase and, while it will tie up many of the plot lines, there will still be some unanswered questions. But that’s all right because it will allow me to continue playing in that universe but with other characters taking the forefront in some of the subsequent titles. In that, it will become like Eerie Side of the Tracks. The books will be interrelated but you won’t have to read each and every book to know what is happening in the latest one.

The one series I’m beating Myrtle the Evil Muse on is Nocturnal Lives. If I have a series that I have a real emotional investment in, it is this one. Mackenzie Santos is very much one of those voices in my head I don’t want silenced. Yet, even as I say that, I know the time will come when she no longer is an active part of my writing career. This next book, which will go up for pre-order at the end of the week, will be the culmination of the main plot lines in the series. However, it will open up a whole new series of challenges for Mac and company.

But what does that mean for the series?

To be honest, I’m not sure. Yes, there will be more titles with Mac and crew. Whether it will be part of another multi-book story arc or more a series of independent stories, I don’t know. What I do know is I’m not ready to let the series go and my sales tell me it’s not time to either. So, I have to figure out where to go from here.

In the meantime, here is how Mac’s story began in Nocturnal Origins, currently on sale for $0.99.

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.

***

You can find a snippet from Nocturnal Rebellion here.

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Filed under AMANDA, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Planning Ahead

There was a time when I never knew what my next writing project was going to be. Writing was something I did in the privacy of my room, never intending for anyone to see it. Even when I started getting serious about my writing, I was more of a pantser, even when it came to what I would write next. Somewhere along the line that changed — even if Myrtle the Evil Muse sometimes throws my plans out the window.

I’m not sure when that started changing but, as I sat down to work the other day, I realized that was no longer the case. My calendar has project dates on it now — dates showing when I need to have drafts finished and edits done, when I need to send work out to beta readers and when I need it back. What gremlin has been working with my electronic devices when I wasn’t looking? Surely, my process hasn’t changed that much.

But it has.

It’s had to. With four active series right now and several stand-alone books planned, I’ve had to get more organized about what I’m working on. What surprised me, however, was finding that I’ve made actual notes, some very detailed, about where two of the series are going over the course of the next few books. I’ve made less detailed notes about the other series and the stand-alones. But that is something I used to never do. I have a plan and it scares me.

Why does it scare me?

Because that is when Myrtle the Evil Muse usually rears her well-coiffed head. With a smile, she then tosses out an idea I can’t ignore — for something that is totally unrelated to what I’m working on.

So far, however, she’s being good. I have finished the final draft for Nocturnal Challenge, the fifth book in the Nocturnal Lives series, and have started the final edits. I have the next Honor and Duty novel mapped out (as well as some other exciting things in the series I’ll be announcing later). There’s one novel and several novellas mapped out — and one novella basically written — in the Eerie Side of the Tracks series. Best of all, inspiration has finally hit for the third book in the Sword of the Gods series. It is very loud right now, not loud enough to write but loud enough that I can jot down some plot notes for later.

Of course, Myrtle isn’t one to cooperate for long. She tried pushing a story — or two — on me last week. In fact, she gave me this opening and is all but daring me not to drop everything and get to work on it.

I was five when they came for my brother. Two men, one tall and thin the other short and stocky. Both wore uniforms I had never seen before with lots of medals shining on their chests. Mom cried. I’d never seen her cry before and Dad’s hands shook as he read the paper the tall man handed him. Then, with tears in his eyes, he told Mom there was nothing they could do. Before I knew what was happening, Aiden was gone and I haven’t seen him since.

I was thirteen when they came for me.

Not that I’m going to fall for it. I have saved that, as well as notes for the other story, in my future projects file and I’ve crossed my fingers — and my toes — that Myrtle is satisfied with that. In the meantime, I’m finishing the edits on Challenge, preparing to write a quick novella in the Eerie Side of the Creek universe. Then it will be the next Honor and Duty book followed by the third Sword of the Gods book. There’s more in the hopper but, if all goes as planned, there will be a new title, either short story or novella or novel, every other month. You see, if I don’t keep that busy, Myrtle gets bored and that’s when she’s her most dangerous.

In the meantime, here’s a teaser for Nocturnal Rebellion, coming soon.

***

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. They knew why he was there. Every cop, not to mention every cop’s family, faced this possibility each time they reported for duty. 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 each person there. It didn’t surprise him to find more than 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, no matter what their rank or their assignment, would report in, ready to do all they could to find the perps responsible. That knowledge made him proud to be part of the long blue line. Not that it made this part of his job any easier. Fortunately, it was not something he had to do 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 for 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 push the uncomfortable parts of the job off on someone else. Besides, he owed it to them, and to their lieutenant, to make sure they understood 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 these 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 and then talking with family members, of briefing Chief of Police Darnell Culver, and of doing all he could to head off any interference by the feds. Three 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 members of the 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 not only lost one of your own yesterday but others of the cop family as well. I’ve spend a great deal of time with the families of our fallen brethren and they’ve asked me to let you know 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 continue to 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 the first of our fallen, 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 executions.” 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, 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 swimming in her eyes. “Yes, sir.”

He nodded once and shook her hand. Then he turned and left 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 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 every t crossed in this investigation. Work this case like your 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 we find them. So, when IAB comes calling, we 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’s all hands on deck. All vacation time is canceled until further notice. If you call in sick, you’d damn well better 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 hear me,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.

Damn it, Mac. I wish you were here.

***

Nocturnal Origins is the first book in the Nocturnal Lives series.

Some things can never be forgotten, no matter how hard you try.

Detective Sergeant Mackenzie Santos knows that bitter lesson all too well. The day she died changed her life and her perception of the world forever.It doesn’t matter that everyone, even her doctors, believe a miracle occurred when she awoke in the hospital morgue. Mac knows better. It hadn’t been a miracle, at least not a holy one. As far as she’s concerned, that’s the day the dogs of Hell came for her.

Investigating one of the most horrendous murders in recent Dallas history, Mac also has to break in a new partner and deal with nosy reporters who follow her every move and who publish confidential details of the investigation without a qualm.

Complicating matters even more, Mac learns the truth about her family and herself, a truth that forces her to deal with the monster within, as well as those on the outside.But none of this matters as much as discovering the identity of the murderer before he can kill again.

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Filed under AMANDA, WRITING: LIFE, WRITING: PUBLISHING

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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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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