Mary Robinette will be at the LTUE 2019 Symposium in Provo, Utah, from Thursday, Feb 14 to Saturday Feb 16th. Register here.
Here’s where to find Mary Robinette during the symposium:
Thursday, Feb 14
The Sagging Middle of Novels 3:00-3:45pm
You know the beginning and the end, but how do you get from one to the other? Authors give their favorite strategies for working up to the midpoint and breaking into the third act.
Narrator: The Invisible Character 4:00-4:45pm
Your narrator might not have a name, but their voice and style can add another dimention to the story. Creating great narrative voice and weaving it seemlessly into the story.
Outlining for N00bs 5:00-5:45pm
A survey of some of the most common story outlining methods with their pros and cons.
Friday, February 15
Feminism and Intersectionality in SFF 10:00-10:45am
Writers of every ethnicity, gender, and orientation are making waves in science fiction and fantasy. Come learn more about these works and the important impact they have on all of us.
Magic without a Magic System 1:00-1:45pm
Not to be blasphemous, but a world can have magic without having a highly structured magic system. How to write magic when it’s exact workings are not known.
Making a Protagonist Lovable 5:00-5:45pm
You may love your characters, but how do you get the audience to like them too? Authors will talk about creating protagonists that people root for.
Bradbury and the Art of the Science Fiction Short 6:00-6:45pm
It’s difficult to craft a compelling science fiction story, and even harder to do it in a short narrative. Come talk about how Ray Bradbury honed his process hundreds of times over, and celebrate the masterpieces that cemented in place his legacy.
Saturday, February 16
Science Fiction on the Modern Stage: The New Frontier? 9:00-9:45am
It’s been done successfully. Little Shop of Horrors, Rocky Horror, Starlight Express. Even the word “robot” originated from stage production. But science fiction in theater has suffered the same stigma as it has with film, if not worse. With the surge in acceptance on screen, we are seeing the seeds of acceptance on stage.
Writing Gracefully: Saying it with Few Words 12:00-12:45pm
Writing is telepathy–it transfers information from the writer’s brain to the reader’s. Some ways are better than others. Don’t let your meaning get lost in transmission. How word choice, sentence structure, and other technical elements can help you say everything you want in few words.
The Spark That Lit the Fire: Major Influences on Major Authors 1:00-1:45pm
Many major authors get their inspiration from somewhere. Talk about the major works that really gave you and other published authors the vision and drive to explore new worlds.
Writing Excuses Records Live
Exhibit Hall C
Come listen to a live recording of writing’s fab four: Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, Howard Tayler, and Mary Robinette Kowal.
Hurrah! I became a Level 50 Human today. I have soooooo been looking forward to hitting level 50. Why? Because as a woman, it’s already hard to be taken seriously. As a young woman… ugh. The sheer number of variations of “don’t worry your pretty little head” are super-annoying.
But older women? They have this power that is breath-taking. My entire life, I’ve watched my mother be this force of nature — she once pulled a police officer over for speeding. A colleague of hers said that “she could quiet you to death.”
So level 50? I get my Older Woman badge and, oh honey… It comes with a lifetime supply of “bless your hearts” and a serious buff against “giving a fuck.”
It also comes with a certain amount of perspective. One of which is the importance of not trying to do things alone. I’ll be honest… I’m supposed to be on a cruise ship in the Caribbean for my birthday, but there was a family medical emergency (do not ask me about the details) AN HOUR BEFORE I WAS SUPPOSED TO LEAVE. I stayed. I helped. But I also contacted a bunch of friends and asked them to text me random photos of awesome.
Those little pops of brightness kept me steady. That’s the thing about being level 50. I have great gear and the best questing party anyone could ask for. Honestly, that includes y’all, too. If you want to leave me a pop of awesome in the comments or on twitter, I would love that. Or… I’m doing a fundraiser for Parkinson’s over on Facebook.
Meanwhile! I have a party favor for you. Here is a story published in Magazine in Science Fiction and Fantasy in the July/August 2018 issue.
It is set in the Lady Astronaut universe, but you can safely read it without having read the novels. Although, folks who have read them might recognize the Geologist’s surname…
The Phobos Experience
By Mary Robinette Kowal
IAC HEAD WARNS ABOUT CUTS IN BUDGET
JOHN W. FINNEY, Special to The National Times
FEB. 6, 1972—Sheldon Spender, head of the International AerospaceCoalition’s base on Mars, warned the United Nations today via a remote connection that any cuts in the “minimal” budget of the Mars colony would increase the overall cost of the program. Budget overruns remain a concern as unmanned supply vessels have been lost in the depths of space, prompting Spender to call for more manned supply ships.
In the afternoon at the Bradbury Space Center, the light wells to the surface of Mars shone with a sticky caramel glow. Darlene hurried up the stairs from the computer center toward the director’s office. She ran one hand along the rail as she went, careful to keep her head level and looking straight ahead.
God. What if the director wanted to see her because someone had noticed her vertigo?
She was being ridiculous. The flight surgeon had cleared her. Said that BPV happened to a lot of folks in low-gravity environments and to return if it became a problem. It was annoying to be light-headed, but it didn’t make her nauseous or cause her to fall. So. Not a problem.
Darlene came out on the director’s level, which was at the surface and built into the side of a cliff wall. Some of the offices here had windows that looked out toward the new dome being built. Darlene stopped outside the director’s door and wiped the sweat from her hands onto her jumpsuit before she stepped inside.
His secretary looked up and smiled. “He’s expecting you. Go right on in.”
Of course, Director Spender was expecting her. He’d just sent a pneumatic down to the computer department telling her to come up. Her father’s voice ran through her head. Always be nice to the secretaries for they run the world. “Thanks. I appreciate it!”
As she opened the door to his inner office, the view through the small window caught her attention. No larger than Life magazine, the window was one of the biggest in the colony and looked across the reds and umbers of Gale Crater. Dust eddied on the surface of Mars in a smoky salmon plume.
“Ah! Lieutenant Ritika, thank you for joining us.” Sheldon Spender was leaning against his desk and gestured to three men seated near him on some of Bradbury base’s ubiquitous folding chairs. “You know Modesto Westenberg, of course.”
Mo gave her a two-fingered mock salute that just touched the edge of his dark crew cut. The sight of the astronaut immediately calmed her. He was a pilot, and if this were about her vertigo, they’d have the flight surgeon in here.
She turned, carefully, to greet the other two men. One of whom wore a US Air Force uniform and—Oh crap. A general. She saluted so fast she almost slapped herself. She’d been on loan to the International Aerospace Coalition for long enough that she had almost started to think of it as a permanent posting.
“At ease.” He was a tall Latino man with the weathered skin of a pilot and he smiled as he held out his hand. “Chuy Araujo.”
“Sir.” As she shook his hand, a voice at the back of her head was screaming that this wasn’t a social call. What the hell did they want with her?
Spender pointed to a lanky young black man with a spattering of acne under his chin and blue ink staining his index finger. “And this is Phillip Lindquist from our Geology Department.” The director looked down at his watch and then back up to smile at all of them. “All right. My part here is done—you’ve got my office for two hours while I attend a meeting on dome construction. Good luck.”
Mo and Lindquist exchanged looks of confusion as Director Spender walked out of the room. At least she wasn’t the only one who was baffled. When the door shut, General Araujo cleared his throat. “All three of you are US Air Force, with degrees in geology and appropriate security clearances.”
Two different alarm bells went off in Darlene’s head. Her geology degree was a minor and focused on lunar geology, not Martian. And then there was the phrase “security clearances.” What did she need clearance for on Mars?
Araujo opened a soft-sided satchel lying on Director Spender’s desk and extracted three folders. “I apologize for the short notice, but bear with me as I brief you on this mission, which is highly sensitive.”
Darlene’s heart started pounding harder than a mechanical calculator. Mission. Mars was neutral territory and belonged to everyone on Earth. There was no military presence, which was why she was “on loan” to the IAC rather than stationed here. She bent her head to look at the folder and the room started to spin about her.
Benign Positional Vertigo her aunt Fanny’s ass. There was nothing benign about BPV when you couldn’t even look down without getting light-headed. “May I sit, sir? So I can go over this?”
“Of course, of course.” He waved her to a folding seat next to Lindquist.
“What am I looking at here?” The geologist had hunched forward over the folder, his lower lip tucked between his teeth as he turned page after page of Type I or II carbonaceous chondrites rock formations.
“That is Phobos.”
Lindquist looked up, with his brows nearly together. “But . . . This represents a cave system.”
General Araujo smiled. “Correct. Phobos is hollow.”
The geologist wet his lips, looking faintly ill. “Sir, with all due respect.” He looked down at the pages, wincing, and then back up again. “There was . . . That was an April Fools’ joke back in ’59. There is no Doctor Arthur Hayall or a University of the Sierras. The moons are not artificial satellites. They aren’t made of metal. Sir.”
Darlene had to admire Lindquist’s frankness and did not envy him the task of contradicting a general. That was never a pleasant experience, but sometimes it had to be done. The report contained hand-drawn pages showing a system of interior voids in the larger of Mars’s two moons. It was a load of bunk.
“You are correct, and I am gratified that you think so.” The general gestured to the folders. “Keep skimming while I talk. The April Fools’ joke was a cover story created by the CIA. Currently, the US is the only country that knows about the cave system on Phobos. Our mission is to put a lander on that moon and find an entrance to the caves.”
And now she understood why she was in the room. They didn’t need her scant geology background. They needed a NavComp to plot the course to a moon that was only fourteen miles in diameter.
For the entire trip to Phobos, Darlene kept rechecking her math. The tiny moon was covered by a three-foot layer of dust and the legs of a standard Martian lander would slide right through it. But stretching wire netting under the ship created a sort of snowshoe that would allow it to nestle on top of the dust. Unless, of course, Darlene got her math wrong.
She hated not being able to run things past one of the other women in the computer department, but the general’s desire for secrecy meant that she could double check parts of the equations with them but not the whole thing. It was standard procedure and no one even blinked at getting part of a formula, but oh, did she ever want to talk through the entire problem.
As the dark gray surface of Phobos rose beneath their ship, Darlene ran through the NavComp checklist. “Stabilization and Control circuit breakers: DECA Gimbal AC—closed. Command Override—off.”
From the pilot chair, Mo flipped the Command Override switch, which allowed him to assume control of the descent engines. With his spacesuit on, she couldn’t see him nod, but he poised his gloves over the ship’s hand controllers. “Confirmed. Got a landing area in sight. Doc, look okay to you?”
Mo had the ship tipped forward as they flew so he could watch the ground. In the seat between them, Lindquist had used most of the five-hour trip from the Mars Orbital Station to review the mission’s survey goals mixed with a series of truly terrible geology jokes.
But once they started the landing sequence, he’d gone silent immediately, which she appreciated. Now he was leaning forward against his shoulder belts and peering out the small viewport. Set in a wall of gauges and toggle switches, it framed a landscape nearly as gray as the inside of the ship. Centered in the window, the ridge of the Stickney crater, which dominated Phobos, lay beneath them.
Lindquist gave a double-thumbs-up to accompany his voice on the comm. “Peachy. That’ll be as dust-free as we’re likely to get but it will probably have faults.”
She groaned at the pun. “You are terrible.”
Mo laughed. “Got the measurements you need, Darlene?”
“Roger.” Having done most of the math before they left Mars, all that remained was to plug the actual numbers into the equations. That was why you needed a NavComp aboard, to react to the realities of a situation. The first part of this, at least, was governed by a well-understood set of equations. Darlene watched the clock and her numbers. “Mark. 3:30 till ignition.”
“Confirmed.” Mo’s voice was as calm as if this were a sim and not an actual landing.
“Thrust translation, four jets. Balance Couple—on. TTCA Throttle—minimum.” With each phrase Darlene recited, she or Mo flicked a toggle switch on the control panel. “Okay. Abort Stage Switch—reset.”
Aborting from here would be fun if they had to do it. The moon had so little gravity that escaping it wouldn’t be the problem. The problem would be having their intakes clogged by dust.
“Attitude Control is all yours.” Darlene paused to double-check her math against what was actually happening. “Standing by for engine arm descent.”
“Override at 5 seconds.” Mo reached up and flicked the toggle switch within its cage. “Descent armed.”
The clock ticked over and Darlene braced for–
“Ignition.” Mo squeezed the engine thrusters and the ship kicked against them, asserting gravity for the first time since they had passed through Mars’s Orbital Station on the way here.
With it, her vertigo became distressingly apparent as her inner ears insisted she was doing a series of backflips. Darlene blinked, focusing on the dials on the control panel. “Ignition confirmed. Thrust 10 percent.” She needed him to stay at 10 percent to give her a window in which to make distance corrections. Darlene’s pencil flew across the page.
As she worked, Mo adjusted the ship’s pitch so that they were nose-up again, with the engines pointed straight down.
Watching the radar, Darlene kept up a recitation of their altitude and forward momentum. “76 meters altitude, down at 0.74, 5.80 forward. 67 meters, 1.06 down, 4 forward.”
Her surface radar blinked out.
Shit. Darlene reached out and tapped the screen as if that would bring it back online. Her pulse ratcheted up. Part of the briefing had warned them that this might happen when they got close to the surface. Phobos plowed right through the solar winds without an atmosphere, and there was a theory that it would build up a negative static charge. Predicted was great, but still unnerving. “Radar is out.”
Mo sighed, but that was all the commentary he gave. “Prepping for manual landing.”
“Roger, wilco.” She grimaced and flipped the gauge screen over the window. With that and her sextant, she could give him distances, but her palms were still sweating inside her gloves. Aborting would have been her preference but with a secret mission, they couldn’t easily make a second attempt without being noticed. “30.50 meters down, 1.06 down, 2.74 forward.”
She was using known measurements of the ship to gauge the distance to the ground, but it was always approximate. At this point, they were really relying on Mo to be able to set the craft down by feel.
“12.20 meters, down 0.75, 2.35 forward.” Dust swirled past the window like fog.
Over the comm, Mo grunted. All that dust would make it hard for him to pick out their lateral and downrange velocities. Visibility continued to drop as they descended and Darlene could barely find stationary rocks to base anything on, so she had no idea how Mo was making his translational velocity decisions.
“6.10 meters, down 0.15, 1.22 forward.” Almost there, although with the dark gray dust nearly obscuring the moonscape, they could have a giant rock under them and she’d never know. On the other hand, as light as Phobos’s gravity was, Mo could let them just drop from this distance and they’d be fine. Unless the ship tipped over.
The contact indicator on the dashboard lit up. She hadn’t felt them touch at all.
Lindquist pointed at the light. “Contact. In case you were taking it for . . . granite.”
The comm filled with the hiss of a huge sigh as Mo leaned back in the pilot seat and powered down the engines. “Granite confirmed. Let’s secure the ship and see where we are.”
On the surface of Phobos, Darlene weighed two ounces, but sinking through three feet of loose dust was still a concern as friction from dust in the seams of her suit could compromise its integrity. At least the additional rubberizing appeared to be keeping all of their electronics from reacting to the localized static charge.
Her calves ached from the awkward skip-shuffle forced on them by the snowshoe-like things strapped to the boots of her space suit. The contraptions kept them above the surface of the dust and also provided just enough drag that she wasn’t in danger of breaking escape velocity with a jump. Not that it was really likely. Probably. That’s why they all had SAFER packs attached to their suits. The Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue was designed to allow an astronaut to pilot back to a space station or ship in an emergency using compressed gas. Although…in this instance, they were a safety measure in case she was wrong about the amount of propulsion required to get off this rock.
And the US thought it was a good idea to establish a military base here, where a sneeze could shoot you into the sky? Sure, the general had never outright said that, but she could read between the lines.
Ahead of her, Mo steadied the line for the descent into a crater that led below the moon’s surface. Hopefully, they could work their way into the cave system from there. Lindquist had already gone down.
“Careful when you hit bottom.” As Lindquist’s voice buzzed over the common channel, it sounded like he was standing next to her. “The dust layer is thicker down here, but it clears out in a bit.”
Mo shifted to the side to make room for her to take hold of the line. “Good to know. Don’t go too far, Doc.”
“I’m just trying to figure out where the pun was.” As Darlene wrapped her hand around the rope, a wrinkle inside her glove liner bit into the base of her fingers. The pressure made the wrinkle feel like a metal bar. She ignored it, although she would check for “hot spots” on her hand when they unsuited. For the moment, though, it wasn’t a problem. Using the line to steady herself, Darlene walked backward over the edge of the crater’s rim to begin her descent of the rock wall.
“Huh. It clears out really fast . . .”
Darlene looked down to orient herself. And immediately had a problem.
The vertigo was worse. Tilting her head forward made the entire moon spin around her. Darlene tightened her grip on the rope and stopped moving. She lifted her head and stared straight at the nearly black rock face in front of her. Going in and out of gravity must have shifted more of the small crystal cupuloliths in her inner ear.
Over the comm, Mo asked, “Everything okay, Darlene?”
Darlene took another step down the wall without waiting for everything to stop turning. “Yep. I just have a wrinkle in my glove and was trying to reposition my grip to avoid a hot spot.”
It was a short descent, barely more than eight meters, and the gravity was so light on Phobos that she had to push with her upper foot to feel like she was making any real progress. The climb felt like an eternity, though, because she couldn’t look down to see how close she was to the bottom. In front of her, all she had was dusty rock and Lindquist’s bootprints.
The rope vibrated as Mo began his descent above her. That must mean she was close—
Darlene stumbled as her foot hit flat ground and the rear of the snowshoe bit into the dust. She tugged it free, stepping away from the rope. The moon pitched, but not enough to do more than make her feel light-headed. She stood still for a second, trying to orient herself. Lindquist had moved a short distance from the rope, dragging their pack of gear off the cushion of dust at the foot of the wall. Past that, the ubiquitous dust of Phobos gave way to nearly black stone. It was hard to see much further than that, between the low albedo of the stone itself and the shadow of the overhanging rock.
Darlene turned to face the wall and leaned back, carefully, to look up. Mo was nearly at the base, glancing over his shoulder as he came down the rope. Each step was an awkward dance as he swung his snowshoe things wide around each other.
Wait. She had seen a bootprint on the wall. “Lindquist? Did you take your snowshoes off for the climb down?”
“No . . .”
“Mo, look at the wall. I saw bootprints on my way down.”
“What?” Mo’s voice was sharp on the comm as he swiveled on the rope to check the wall. “Shit. Shit. Yeah. I see them.”
Her pulse was so loud in her ears, the guys must be able to hear it over their comm channel. “Think the Air Force sent a previous expedition and left it out of the briefing?”
“That would be nice . . .” Mo reached the bottom of the cliff face. “But I’m not taking bets on it. So the question is: Are they still here? And where’s their ship?”
They had entered the cave through a V-shaped shaft, an obvious choice for their descent since it was the only break in the rim overhanging the interior. Apparently, it had been as obvious to someone before them, too. Inside her suit, the liquid cooling system was not enough to keep her from sweating with worry.
Lindquist led them forward across the cave floor, deeper into the interior of Phobos. Darlene took photos as they went, trying to document the space. Drifts of dust lined the corners but the floor itself was largely dust-free.
“This isn’t natural.” Lindquist stopped and shone his suit light across the floor. “Less dust, yes, that’s to be expected, but not cleared down to the bare stone.”
“You think someone cleared it.” Mo aimed his light deeper into the cave but the dark stone swallowed the beam. “How long would it stay free of dust?”
“Tricky. There’s no wind so it could have been done yesterday or twenty years ago.” The nice thing about a worried Lindquist was that he stopped making bad jokes.
“Twenty years ago, no one was on Mars.” Darlene set the tripod down and tightened its legs.
“Thanks,” Mo said. “Real helpful.”
“My point is that given the available technology, it’s more likely that it was cleared recently.” Having a task helped keep her from screaming at the men to run. Nothing good came of going into dark holes where someone else might already be. She focused the instrument down the length of the cave. “Who has the resources to come here without the IAC’s involvement?”
“That’s not our purview. We’re here to survey and get out, and frankly, I don’t want to court trouble.” Mo crossed the camera’s field of vision. “Let’s just survey the next chamber and that’ll be enough. A temporary base only needs enough room to set up an IFFY.” Mo had a point, even if he was guessing about the purpose of the mission.
An inflatable habitat would be all the Air Force needed if they wanted to put a base here, at least to begin with, and the cave they were in was big enough for that. If the next chamber was as large, you could house forty people in a couple of IFFYs—assuming you could get oxygen, food, and water to them.
As soon as he cleared the frame, Darlene clicked the shutter button and the flash went off, lighting up the interior of the cave like day. Her breath caught.
An inflatable habitat module occupied the far end of the cave.
“God. Did you see that?” Nothing about this was right. Spots still danced in her vision from the flash and her breath rattled in her helmet.
“What?” Lindquist turned toward her.
“There’s an IFFY at the far end.”
Mo spun to look as if willpower alone would allow him to see through the darkness. “Back to the ship. Now.”
She didn’t need to be told twice. Darlene turned back to the camera, bending to smack the latches on the tripod legs, and everything whirled. She tried to straighten, to stop it, but the rapid movement only made the vertigo worse. She reached for the tripod to steady herself. If she hadn’t released the latches on the legs, it would have worked.
The tripod folded, and even weighing only two ounces, she knocked it over. Grabbing for the casing, her glove hit the shutter button and triggered a rapid series of photos, with flashes going off like a strobe made of sunlight.
“Darlene! Are you o—” Mo’s voice broke on the comm. “Shit. Shit! Run.”
At the far end of the tunnel, lights came on.
Darlene wrenched the camera off the tripod and scrambled to her feet. The cave whirled about her, but she kept her head level and aimed toward the wall they’d climbed down. She switched from the skip-hop of the moon to the long, toe-propelled translation of the space stations. The gravity was almost low enough to fly but not quite, and she didn’t want to be that far from a surface.
Shadows danced on the wall as a light source behind her moved. Darlene didn’t dare to look back, so she kept following Mo. In her ears, his breath blended with hers and Lindquist’s. Who was behind them?
Mo bounded ahead of them, reaching the base of the wall first. Dust flared around him in a sheet of dark sand. He knelt, grabbing the snowshoes, and slung all six over his shoulder. “We’ll strap on when we reach the surface.”
“You’ll get snarled in the dust at the top.” Lindquist doubled back to help Darlene with the camera. She would abandon it, but they’d need to show the general pictures of the IFFY.
“Moot point if we’re caught before we make it up there.” Mo looked past them into the cave, light reflecting off his helmet visor. “You’ve got four unfriendlies on your tail.”
Lindquist glanced back, and instinct made Darlene turn her head. The moon kept spinning around her. She missed her next step, catching her foot on a rock. All that forward momentum translated into a sweeping arc downward.
Lindquist reached for her with one hand, but he didn’t have the weight to stop her forward motion and they both went down in a tangle of limbs. Her face slammed into the side of her helmet and the spinning wouldn’t stop.
She forced herself to stand anyway, legs wide, head up.
At her feet, Lindquist didn’t move. Oh, no, no, no. She crouched again and rolled him onto his side. All his suit indicators were green-lit, thank God. His faceplate was intact, but his eyebrow was split and bloody.
“Lindquist is out cold.” She knelt with her back to the escape route and faced the two people skip-hopping toward her. The motion looked like a drunken toddler’s gait but carried a great deal more threat. The other two were still headed for the team’s captain. “Mo. Get out of here.”
“Even if I were willing to leave you, I can’t navigate back to Mars solo,” Mo said.
“You don’t have to. Just blast off, straight up. Get out of the radio shadow of Phobos and call for help.” Sure, there was a chance this was a completely legitimate science expedition, but it might also be Russia, China, or South Africa, or some other nation that had decided to lay claim to the territory and would eliminate any witnesses. So her job was to appear as non-threatening as long as possible while Mo got help. Darlene put her hands up, arms out to the side as far as they would go in the bulky space suit. “I’ll narrate what’s happening here for as long as you can hear me.”
“Shit.” But the sound of his breath in her ears changed as he started to climb.
She swallowed and turned her attention to the space-suited figures approaching her. “All right . . . Their suits are two different styles, both older generations than the IAC standard. Looks like the X-3 Gen and an Artemis Class. Only the X-3 has a SAFER.” She had visions of setting it off and sending the person flying away. Very unlikely visions. She turned, as carefully as she could, and looked at the figures chasing Mo. “The ones after you don’t have SAFERs.”
“Roger that.” Mo dropped the snowshoes and deployed the arms of his SAFER. A moment later, a great wall of dust billowed away as he jetted into the sky.
Without air resistance, the dust flew in an inertial arc, creating a curtain of dark sand before it gently resettled on the surface of Phobos. Darlene swallowed and turned back to the ones coming for her. Mo only had enough nitrogen for 10 seconds of sustained flight, but he was an experienced pilot. He could do short bursts and make them count. She hoped.
A low groan sounded on the comm.
“I’m fine. Lindquist?”
The man before her stirred, blinking back into consciousness. “Wha . . . ?”
“Hey there . . . stay down, okay?” She tried to keep her voice as friendly as she could for him, and soft, because he probably had a helluva headache. “We’ve got unfriendlies approaching. Let them think you’re still unconscious.”
“Confirmed.” He let his head sag back inside his helmet. “Dizzy. Wha’d I miss?”
“Mo got clear. He’s heading to the ship to call for help. You and I are about to be taken captive.”
She wanted to bend down and help Lindquist, but as long as she didn’t visibly react to his voice, hopefully, they would think he was still unconscious. And while he was in his suit, there really wasn’t anything she could do for him. So Darlene kept her attention focused on the people coming toward her. Both of them had their gold visors down, hiding their faces. “The X-3 has tape over the insignia on the arm. The other has a name patch on the chest plate that says YORK. But if that’s Elma York inside the suit, I’ll eat my boots for breakfast.”
“That’s . . . that’s weird,” Mo grunted.
“Everything about this is weird. Pirates?”
“Pirates would have shot us by now.”
“Not in gravity like this. The recoil would be enough to escape the gravity well.” Which didn’t mean they wouldn’t kill her and Lindquist, just that they wouldn’t kill them using projectiles.
“Dammit,” Mo grunted.
“I landed to save gas but Lindquist was right about the dust. I’m hip-deep right now.” Mo sighed. “Really wish I hadn’t dropped the snowshoes.”
Lindquist gave a dry chuckle from his place on the cave floor. “My sediments exactly.”
They were making jokes while she was probably going to piss herself and thank God for the fact that diapers were standard issue for EVAs. On the other hand, the current problem was her klutzy fault. If she hadn’t lost her balance, repeatedly, they’d have made it out. But Mo still had a shot and if he got clear, he could call for help. “Mo, the ones coming after you don’t have snowshoes, either.”
“Great. So this is going to be the universe’s slowest chase scene.”
The one whose nameplate read YORK beckoned to her, pointing back at the IFFY. The emphatic gesture nearly tipped the suit, so either YORK had vertigo, too, or wasn’t used to light gravity.
Darlene pointed down at Lindquist and tried to indicate that she wouldn’t leave him. To Mo, she said, “The SAFER should be able to get you close to the ship.” She could draw the flight plan in her head, but it wouldn’t do Mo any good. And she didn’t really have the data she needed to direct him. “Right now, Lindquist and I are heading to the IFFY.”
Lindquist grimaced inside his suit. “If they get us inside, they’ll make us take our suits off.”
Which meant that they wouldn’t be able to talk to each other or to Mo. “Want to bet that we’re not dead yet because they don’t want to damage the suits?”
“You’re thinking pirates? Mars has pirates now? Fuck, no.”
If so, they were pirates with inadequate gear. She watched the one with the tape on his sleeve. What if that wasn’t to cover an insignia, but was a suit repair? “Hey . . . Lindquist. Only one of these guys has a SAFER.”
“You thinking of making a break for it with the jets?”
The X-3 pirate drew a long, thin piece of metal from the toolbar across his chest. For a moment, Darlene thought the guy had a sword, but it was a heavy tire iron, bent at one end and sharpened at the other. He pointed it at Darlene and then swept it through the air to point to the IFFY.
Oh ho! Their comms didn’t work. She’d thought they were just on a different channel, but these were old suits, unshielded and not rubberized to protect against Phobos’s static.
Miming confusion, Darlene tried to buy time for Mo to get to the ship. “Guys, I don’t think they have working comms.”
“Oooo . . .” She wasn’t sure if that was Mo or Lindquist and didn’t care.
The X-3 suit stepped forward, pointing the sharpened end of the tire iron at her. Getting stabbed would be bad. Getting stabbed in a vacuum would be worse.
“Lindquist.” She kept her gaze on the unfriendlies. “If I put you in a fireman’s carry over my shoulder, will you be able to reach my SAFER controls?”
“Yes. I can probably tether us together, too.”
“Great.” She waved at the X-3 suit and hoped he would understand that she was going to cooperate. Not that she would, but it would be easier if he thought they all agreed. Darlene rocked on her knees and pushed down hard with her toes to bounce to her feet in a way only possible in minimal gravity.
The rebound sent her higher than she’d wanted to go, but as she came down, she bent her knees to absorb the force of the landing. Keeping her head level, she straightened. Looking at the unfriendlies, she pointed at Lindquist and then mimed picking him up, finishing with a point to the IFFY.
X-3 turned to face YORK and used the modified SCUBA hand signal for “team up.” They leaned together, touching helmets so that their voices could transmit through the vibrations. Ha! She’d been right about their comms.
Trying to keep her head level, Darlene bent down to grab Lindquist’s suit. She did okay with that part, but when she hauled him up to sling him over her shoulder, she lost her balance and staggered backwards. Her klutziness would distract the unfriendlies. Truly. Part of her nefarious plans.
The X-3 separated from YORK and swung the tire iron at her. Darlene staggered, nearly dropping Lindquist on his head again. “Hit it!”
“I don’t have the controls yet.” His hands reached, patting her side.
“Crap.” Darlene kept an arm wrapped around Lindquist and ran for the rock wall. She’d fire the SAFER herself as soon as she got clear of the cave overhang.
And she’d forgotten about the ones who had gone after Mo. They were skip-hopping away from the wall. Four pirates all told, at least as far as she could see, and all of them were coming for her and Lindquist.
A hand clamped onto her arm. Darlene yelped. A moment later, the mass of Lindquist vanished from her shoulder with a startled cry. The X-3 held her suit and spun her. Vertigo pivoted the cave around the two of them. Flailing past, she saw Lindquist flying up into the air, nearly to the roof of the cave before he began a slow arc back down. He thrashed, tumbling end over end.
To hell with this. Darlene dropped her hands to her waist and grabbed her SAFER control. She toggled the safety off with one hand while reaching for the X-3 suit with the other.
Darlene closed her hand around his sleeve and fired one of the SAFER’s side jets. It was enough to send them into a wild spin. As the cave revolved around them, she watched for the other space suits. She shaped the trajectory of Lindquist’s arc in her head and as they came around again, she released the X-3. Flailing arms and legs, it crashed into one of the other suits.
The momentum carried her away from them and she let it, watching the cave spiral around her as she looked for the spot of white that would be Lindquist. There. She fired a double-tap on the SAFER thrusters, killing the spin—the physical spin, anyway. Her BPV still had her body convinced that she was tumbling through the cave but she could deal with that.
“Lindquist! Can you stabilize?”
“Negative.” His breath was unsupported like he was fighting not to vomit. “Control flung free. Trying to pull its tether back.”
“Starfish position. I’ll grab you.”
“Then we’ll both be spinning.”
“I’m used to it.” A brief spurt with the jet gave her enough inertial thrust to speed toward Lindquist. “Incoming.”
His arms and legs spread out to create the largest target possible. She snared his sleeve and for a moment, they were both free-tumbling through the cave. Around them, the other suits were swirls of color against the dark rock of Phobos.
Lindquist gasped. “Tethered.”
“Confirmed.” Darlene wasn’t a pilot, but she was still Air Force and she was still an IAC astronaut. She’d trained for this on the gimbal rig on Earth and in the large atrium on the space station. She got them stabilized in four taps on the control.
Another tap jetted them up, out of the cave. Inertia sent them arcing over the edge of the crater, but even Phobos’s light gravity was enough to drag the pair of them slowly back to the surface. She also had to keep correcting for spin—actual visible spin, not the one she felt. “Mo, we’re clear of the cave. What’s your status?”
“At the ship. Powering up.”
Their ship wasn’t even on the horizon yet. The tiny horizon, but still. She kept an eye on the gauge for her SAFER. She was already in the red zone. “I’m about out of gas.”
“We’ll use mine next.” Lindquist’s voice came from two directions, the comm and vibrating through the spot where their helmets touched.
Mo said, “Sounds good and—Shit.”
Darlene grimaced, waiting for his SysRep about whatever had just made him curse. The ship was probably on fire. Or maybe the electrical systems had all shorted.
“There’s a ship coming. It’s an old-model BusyBee from the early Expedition vessels, but they are definitely hunting you.” His voice hissed over the comm. “They have a machine-gun turret jury-rigged to the outside.”
“Fucking pirates,” Lindquist groaned.
He wasn’t kidding. And they weren’t just hunting for her and Lindquist. If she were them, she’d go for Mo first and contain all of them that way. She toggled off her mic for a second and spoke only to Lindquist through the vibration of their helmets. “Mic off.”
A moment later, his voice reverberated back. “What?”
“I don’t think we’ll get there in time for him to be able to take off safely.”
“Concur.” He moved a little against the tether. “How much air do you have left? And are you claustrophobic?”
“Eight hours. And no.”
“Then let’s go to ground. Mic on.” The resonance of his voice changed as it came through her comm again. “Hey, Mo. Take off, get help. We’ll hide until you’re back.”
“Hide—Where the hell? They’ve got to know the cave systems better than you.”
“Who said anything about caves?” Lindquist pointed toward a boulder with dust piled unevenly around it. “There’s three feet of dust on this moon.”
Darlene used the jets to send them down to the boulder that Lindquist had indicated. It was a genius spot because the natural eddies would camouflage their disturbance. “The longer we argue with you, the less oxygen we have.”
Mo sighed, long and heavy and angry. “Arming engines.”
“Confirmed.” She bent her knees as they landed, but they broke through the dust and just kept sinking.
The grains hissed around her thighs and hips. It didn’t take much effort to burrow under the dark sand. What took effort was staying silent in the darkness to conserve oxygen. It wasn’t any different, really, from the sensory-deprivation tank during astronaut selection. The only difference was having Lindquist’s slow, steady breath as her constant companion. She lay in the darkness, waiting for the cavalry, and Phobos spun on.
Nine hours later, Darlene had learned that Lindquist snored and that she could sleep through snoring. Which was good, since it had extended her oxygen supply. And at some point while she slept under the sands of Phobos, the pirates had fled the tiny moon.
By the time they were back on Mars, debriefed, fed, and given the astonishing treat of hot chocolate, the IAC had a team of people going through the cave they had found.
Darlene sat in Director Spender’s office with a blanket around her shoulders, cupping the glorious mug of cocoa. Lindquist sat beside her, also blanketed, with his nose practically buried in his cup. Every few moments, he inhaled the steam with a sigh.
It kept their attention off General Araujo, who was glowering.
Director Spender, on the other hand, was beaming at them. “We knew that we had a problem with supplies for the Mars colony going missing, but we thought it was happening on the voyage out. The idea that there were pirates grabbing unmanned drops never even occurred to us.”
Mo leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. “Any clue who they are?”
General Araujo cleared his throat. “Outside your purview, son. We’re just glad you accidentally stumbled upon those caves. What a lucky find.”
Darlene caught Lindquist’s glance over his mug of cocoa. She rolled her eyes and took a sip. Let the Air Force general do his thing of hiding the real purpose of their mission.
“Although I will say that perhaps the UN should reconsider the absence of military on Mars.” General Araujo’s glower deepened. “It’s one thing to say that they stole a couple space suits destined for a museum, but the machine-gun turret my people reported must have been imported from Earth. You’ve got a bigger problem on your hands, Director, than just a few smugglers.”
“Mm-hm . . .” Director Spender narrowed his eyes and stared at the general. “Funny, isn’t it, how ‘your people’ described a machine-gun turret that sounds like an Air Force model.”
Mo raised a hand. “I wasn’t close enough to ID it positively.”
“True.” The general nodded. “And even if it were Air Force surplus, that doesn’t mean it’s any more likely to be one of ours than that Elma York is a pirate.”
Director Spender gave a dry chuckle. “Fair point. And the pirates were just colonists who saw an opportunity for profit. Right?” Here Spender’s smile faded. “The colony isn’t so big yet that we can’t tell who’s missing, General.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” He straightened, lifting his chin, and glared down his nose at the director.
Director Spender smiled at him. “I’m sure you don’t.” He stood, brushing his hands off. “Well. You make your report to the UN and I’ll make mine.”
The general cleared his throat. Darlene kept her attention fixed firmly on her cup of cocoa and tried to ignore the implication that the pirates were a scheme to get a military presence onto Mars. She would bury people alive if she found out they’d been put at risk for that.
“Of course.” The general’s voice suddenly seemed too warm and friendly. “May I borrow your office again to talk to my people?”
“Your people?” The director looked out the tiny window in his office at Gale Crater. “Yep. Still on Mars. Per UN regulation 230-G regarding military on assignment to the IAC on Mars . . . these are my people. And my purview is keeping them safe.”
“Let me show you out.” Director Spender came around his desk and walked briskly to his office door, practically forcing the general into the corridor. Darlene lowered her mug to scramble to her feet but the director waved her down. “Sit tight and enjoy your cocoa.”
A moment later, he had somehow gotten the general out of the office, leaving her alone with Mo and Lindquist. She blinked at the door, head spinning.
Lindquist’s brow was wrinkled and the constellation of stitches over his eye bristled with confusion. “So . . . I know I’ve got a concussion, but—”
Mo shook his head. “Not our purview. You heard the director.” He walked over and picked up a mug, pouring himself some cocoa. “This is our purview.”
Darlene was lucky to be alive and lucky to work with astronauts like these. She grinned at them and held out her mug. “I’ll drink to that.”
The IAC logos clinked together and somewhere above them, Phobos spun past.
Micah Dean Hicks is joining us today to talk about his novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Swine Hill was full of the dead. Their ghosts were thickest near the abandoned downtown, where so many of the town’s hopes had died generation by generation. They lingered in the places that mattered to them, and people avoided those streets, locked those doors, stopped going into those rooms . . . They could hurt you. Worse, they could change you.
Jane is haunted. Since she was a child, she has carried a ghost girl that feeds on the secrets and fears of everyone around her, whispering to Jane what they are thinking and feeling, even when she doesn’t want to know. Henry, Jane’s brother, is ridden by a genius ghost that forces him to build strange and dangerous machines. Their mother is possessed by a lonely spirit that burns anyone she touches. In Swine Hill, a place of defeat and depletion, there are more dead than living.
When new arrivals begin scoring precious jobs at the last factory in town, both the living and the dead are furious. This insult on the end of a long economic decline sparks a conflagration. Buffeted by rage on all sides, Jane must find a way to save her haunted family and escape the town before it kills them.
What’s Micah’s favorite bit?
MICAH DEAN HICKS
I love a story with a robot. And I’m not talking about slick, more-human-than-human androids with synthetic skin. Give me FLCL’s TV-headed robot doing dishes, hanging up laundry, and playing baseball. Give me The Iron Giant bending down to scoop up a boy in a rivet-studded hand the size of a car, or Will Robinson’s dangerous machine. Give me Goro Fujita’s box-shaped, down on its luck, guitar-playing robot singing in the rain, or even the fretful and mistreated droids of Star Wars.
These robots are conspicuously machines. They stick out in a crowd, hiding under cardboard boxes or umbrellas. They seem a little embarrassed to have ended up here. They’re doing their best.
I love this trope for its contradictions. The robot might look like it’s made of junk, but its clumsy body houses intelligence and vulnerability, a ghost in the machine. With arms that can rip through steel doors, the robot softly catches a ball. With an unyielding metal chest, the robot pulls someone into an embrace. Built for violence, it will inevitably sacrifice itself to defend those it loves.
In my novel, Henry builds a robot to help around the house, but the gnawing swarms of ghosts that fill the town play havoc with the machine, changing it in ways Henry never expected:
The robot dressed itself in his father’s old clothes—something Henry was certain he hadn’t programmed it to do. Its work boots and jeans were stiff with mud. Bright stars of rust and bleeding tracks of white battery corrosion dotted its limbs and chassis. It moved erratically, slamming down plates and dropping silverware, movements jerky from spirits that had taken up residence in its servomotors. His ghost had driven Henry to build it after his father left, when Henry worried that someone needed to take care of his mother.
Henry’s robot suffers, and as it suffers it becomes more human-like. It feels jealous, unappreciated, neglected. It falls in love and isn’t loved back. It experiences heartbreak. Begrudgingly, it defends Henry and his family when they need it most.
Robots in fiction are a great way to explore our own humanity. They ask us to wrestle with our responsibility for the things we have made and set loose on the world. They force us to consider what it means to have power and hold back, to care about someone we can’t fully know, to love another on their own terms.
MICAH DEAN HICKS is the author of the story collection Electricity and Other Dreams—a book of dark fairy tales and bizarre fables that won the 2012 New American Fiction Prize. He is also the winner of the 2014 Calvino Prize judged by Robert Coover, the 2016 Arts and Letters Prize judged by Kate Christensen, and the 2015 Wabash Prize judged by Kelly Link. His stories and essays have appeared in dozens of magazines ranging from The New York Times to Lightspeed to The Kenyon Review. Hicks teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida in Orlando.
Charlie N. Holmberg is joining us today to talk about her new book Smoke and Summons. Here’s the publisher’s description:
As a human vessel for an ancient spirit, Sandis lives no ordinary life. At the command of her master, she can be transformed against her will into his weapon—a raging monster summoned to do his bidding. Unlike other vessels, Sandis can host extremely powerful spirits, but hosting such creatures can be fatal. To stay alive, she must run. And in a city fueled by smoke and corruption, she finds a surprising ally.
A cunning thief for hire, Rone owns a rare device that grants him immortality for one minute every day—a unique advantage that will come in handy in Sandis’s fight for freedom. But Sandis’s master knows how powerful she is. He’s determined to get her back, and he has the manpower to find her, wherever she runs.
Now, to outwit her pursuers, Sandis must put all her trust in Rone and his immortal device. For her master has summoned more than mere men to hunt her down…
What’s Charlie’s favorite bit?
CHARLIE N. HOLMBERG
This is slightly tricky because my favorite bit is a major spoiler for the book as a whole, so for our purposes, we’re going with the runner up!
Smoke & Summons is a Frankenstein book, in that I harvested bits and pieces from other novels and ideas to put together its plot. I took the presence of a horse made of fire from an urban fantasy idea dredged in Greek mythology. I stole the abnormal characteristics of my demons from a novel I queried years ago that never got accepted. Half of my magic system, the hey-let’s-host-a-demon part, came from a story I was still brainstorming (which was inspired by Final Fantasy, let’s be honest), and the other half came from my folder of magic ideas: an immortality switch. After some operating, I came up with what I consider my best published work to date.
My favorite bit focuses on the first half of the magic system: the woman who is the host of an ethereal fire horse. Sandis Gwenwig was nabbed by slavers four years ago, branded with gold, and forced to serve as a vessel for one of the most morally dark people in the country. When she escapes, she makes three enemies. First, the man who wants her back. Second, the priests, who consider her a blasphemy. And third, the corrupt police force, also known as the “scarlets.” Since, you know, hosting demons is illegal.
Throughout the book, the scarlets have been a background threat, but in this scene they surge forward as a real one. After running for days with her companion, Rone, Sandis finally believes she has a moment of safety holed up in a nice hotel. But Rone is gone, and she runs into someone she—or, rather, her demon—badly hurt in the first chapter of the book. The cops are called, and Sandis is forcefully dragged from her saferoom into a prison wagon. All this time she’s been running away from monsters and those who control them, but it’s ordinary humans who finally capture her. And she’s without the man who’s been her shield since chapter five. No matter how many times she screams his name, he doesn’t come. (Kudos to my audiobook narrator, Lauren Ezzo, for making this sound especially desperate.)
Sandis is special. She knows that, and she knows her master knows that. That’s why she ran—she didn’t want to be next in his experiment to summon the Big Bad to the mortal plane. But only a day ago, she learned she’s really special, and that her connection to her demon is more powerful than she thought (and I won’t give details, because spoilers.)
I like writing scenes that are emotionally raw, and this was one of them. Sandis is in a cage she can’t break out of, riding toward a prison that will execute her immediately. She has no help, only herself . . . and her demon. Her newfound power might help her escape, but it also knocks her unconscious for six hours. She needs a quick getaway, and the swift waters of an upcoming canal could give her just that. But if she can’t stay awake, she’ll drown.
By the way, her brother died drowning in a canal. Just saying.
She’s damned if she does and damned if she doesn’t, but she hedges her bets, uses her power (which may result in the explosion of the prison wagon and everything around her), and falls into the canal. But she can’t stay awake. She’s unable to swim. She’s naked. And she’s alone.
And I’ll leave it there because, like my book, this article ends on a cliffhanger.
Born in Salt Lake City, Charlie N. Holmberg was raised a Trekkie alongside three sisters who also have boy names. She is a proud BYU alumna, plays the ukulele, owns too many pairs of glasses, and finally adopted a dog. Her fantasy Paper Magician Series, which includes The Paper Magician, The Glass Magician, and The Master Magician, has been optioned by the Walt Disney Company. Her stand-alone novel, Followed by Frost, was nominated for a 2016 RITA Award for Best Young Adult Romance. She currently lives with her family in Utah. Visit her at www.charlienholmberg.com.
David Niall Wilson is joining us today with his novel A Midnight Dreary. Here’s the publisher’s description:
A Midnight Dreary, the long-awaited fifth volume in The DeChance Chronicles, picks up outside Old Mill, NC, when Donovan, reminded that he has promised his lover, Amethyst, and Geoffrey Bullfinch of the O.C.L.T. a story, draws them back in time to a vision of the final chapter of the novel Nevermore, a Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe. At vision’s end, they realize that they have to act, to free Eleanor MacReady from the trap that holds her on the banks of Lake Drummond, in the Great Dismal Swamp, and to rescue a princess who has not known freedom in at least two centuries. The rescue that ensues crosses worlds and dimensions, wandering through Poe’s tales, the fables of the Brothers Grimm, and finally to a confrontation on a mountain in Germany. This novel draws upon characters and plots from many of the author’s novels, including his stories of Old Mill, NC, The O.C.L.T., Nevermore, and the vampire novel Darkness Falling.” It is rich with sorcery and adventure. Welcome to the world of Donovan DeChance.
What is David’s favorite bit?
DAVID NIALL WILSON
What I love the most about this novel is the character Edgar Allan Poe. Starting with the novel Nevermore – A Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe, he has been a recurring character in my fiction. My version of Poe wanders through mystical passageways in a place that Donovan DeChance, the protagonist of my series, calls the Labyrinth. Edgar sees this place as a long, gaslit hallway with heavy wooden doors that lead to different times, places, and dimensions. This place appears differently to all who can access it. When Edgar enters one of the doorways, what he encounters is a story that he must live through.
In each encounter, for good or ill, he meets his own doppelganger and interacts with a story that we are familiar with. In the novel A Midnight Dreary, there are stories within the story. Donovan reads the initial adventure that led to the story “The Masque of the Red Death,” and then, himself, walks into Poe’s “The System of Dr. Tar and Professor Fether,” where he and Edgar are both characters.
This novel gives me multiple opportunities to bond with Edgar Allan Poe on a creative level. The main plot involves saving his lost love, Lenore, from a magical trap, explains the odd circumstances surrounding his death, and adds details to two of his stories. This is fun, and makes me smile, but there is more.
In the last chapters of the book, we add Copper, a vampire, who is also a fan of Poe’s stories. He has them memorized, even some that Poe, who has not yet experienced or written all of them on his off-kilter timeline, is not familiar with. The back and forth between the two is one of my favorite parts of the book, and then, we have the ultimate Poe moment. The sorceress they are attempting to track down and trap, sets a trap herself. She creates a false world that appears, initially, to be another Poe story that he (and others) will walk into. She is arrogant, however, and does not understand the story well enough to create the experience fully. She also is unaware that he has already lived through the story in question (I won’t mention which, because I don’t want to provide spoilers). Poe figures it out before the trap can be sprung, and in the process, I am able to add another piece from his work into my personal universe. I have always felt a kinship with his prose, even the stories that are so over-written that they are hard to enjoy.
My version of Poe is likely a bit more interesting and adventuresome than the original. There are rumors that he wrote an early draft of “The Raven” at The Lake Drummond Hotel, which once stood on the banks of the Intracoastal waterway, directly on the border of Virginia and North Carolina. From that rumor, the novel Nevermore, A Novel of Love, Loss & Edgar Allan Poe was born (it was originally meant to be much shorter, and the prologue to A Midnight Dreary, before it took on a life of its own).
I am very glad that it did. There are plans in the works for another story with Edgar at its center, in which I fictionalize a meeting that actually happened between Poe and Charles Dickens, who owned a raven named Grip. History tells us that Grip died… In my version, I think he changes his name to Grimm and remains with Edgar. Time will tell…
David Niall Wilson has been writing professionally since the mid 1980s. He is a multiple winner of the Bram Stoker Award and has published more than forty book. He lives near the Great Dismal Swamp in North Carolina, with the love of his life, Patricia Lee Macomber (also an author), his daughter Katie (also an author) five cats, a chinchilla, a three-legged turtle, a canary and a very wise old Pekingese named Gizzy Momo.
David is the founder of Crossroad Press Publishing, with over 2500 eBooks, 650 audiobooks, and several hundred print editions spanning all genres. His most recent works include the novels Gideon’s Curse and Remember Bowling Green – The Adventures of Frederick Douglass, Time Traveler (written with Patricia). He is currently writing a fantasy novel titled Jurassic Ark and the first book of a series about teen heroes with unique abilities titled Hoods.
Django Wexler is joining us today to talk about his novel Ship of Smoke and Steel. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Ship of Smoke and Steel is the launch of Django Wexler’s cinematic, action-packed epic fantasy Wells of Sorcery trilogy.
In the lower wards of Kahnzoka, the great port city of the Blessed Empire, eighteen-year-old ward boss Isoka enforces the will of her criminal masters with the power of Melos, the Well of Combat. The money she collects goes to keep her little sister living in comfort, far from the bloody streets they grew up on.
When Isoka’s magic is discovered by the government, she’s arrested and brought to the Emperor’s spymaster, who sends her on an impossible mission: steal Soliton, a legendary ghost ship—a ship from which no one has ever returned. If she fails, her sister’s life is forfeit.
On board Soliton, nothing is as simple as it seems. Isoka tries to get close to the ship’s mysterious captain, but to do it she must become part of the brutal crew and join their endless battles against twisted creatures. She doesn’t expect to have to contend with feelings for a charismatic fighter who shares her combat magic, or for a fearless princess who wields an even darker power.
What’s Django’s favorite bit?
Choosing a favorite piece from a book always seems impossible, especially when I’m trying to avoid spoiling it for everybody. For Ship of Smoke and Steel, I want to talk about the magic system, the concerns which went into it and some of the odd little bits that I’m particularly happy with. We start the book with a list of the Wells of Sorcery, as follows:
The Nine Wells of Sorcery
Myrkai, the Well of Fire
Tartak, the Well of Force
Melos, the Well of Combat
Sahzim, the Well of Perception
Rhema, the Well of Speed
Xenos, the Well of Shadows
Ghul, the Well of Life, the Forbidden Well
Kindre, the Well of Mind
Eddica, the Well of Spirits, the Lost Well
Putting together the magic system of SSS was a slightly different task than my usual world-building, because I wasn’t starting from scratch; the core of the story and much of the world, though few of the characters, were salvaged from the remains of a defunct project. The concept of the Wells of Sorcery, metaphysical sources of all magical power, was one of main pieces I re-used, which means that the actual origin of it is lost to me, now. (I suspect Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen was an inspiration, though, with its fearsomely-named elemental warrens.)
At the same time, one of my core world-building principles is that the nature of the world needs to suit to nature of the story. SSS is a YA adventure story, which imposed some rules on how magic could work in this world — it can’t be the sort of magic you have to spend fifty years practicing to get any good at, because I wanted to have teenagers running around using it to fight monsters. Isoka, the main character, is a rare magical adept born into the lower classes; ability to access the Wells is partly hereditary, and largely confined to the “mage-blood” nobility. The combination of these two elements makes the magic of SSS more like the mutant superpowers of the X-Men, say, then carefully-acquired spells of the D&D mage.
That in turn has all kinds of interesting consequences for the social structure of the various societies in the world, since managing people with that kind of power isn’t easy. Isoka boards the ghost ship Soliton and meets others from all over the world, so I got to have great fun designing a wide range of societal adaptations to the way magic works. There are little asides in snippets of dialogue, some of which sadly had to get cut, that talk about the cultural differences — societies where mage-bloods rule, societies where they’re anathema, where they’re slaves, where they’re members of holy orders sworn to defend the throne, and so on. This is the kind of world-building I love, trying to imagine the consequences of some supernatural element in everyday life.
Some specifics of the Wells also bear mentioning as among my favorites. There are more of them than I really need for the story, which gives the system a pleasantly baroque feel and provides some interesting material for future books. We don’t find out much about Xenos, or Kindre, or Sahzim. Having those seeds there, without always precisely knowing what they’ll be good for, is another fun piece that only occasionally gets me into serious trouble.
Isoka’s well is Melos, combat, which lets her generate energy blades and impenetrable magical armor. From a metastory perspective, this has two important benefits:
1) It looks cool. Especially since they got Richard Anderson, maybe my favorite cover artist, to do the cover!
2) Isoka’s armor in particular helps make for a very fast-paced plot. Getting hit doesn’t injure her, usually, but the energy it uses builds up as heat under her skin, which means that getting really badly beaten will burn her and eventually kill her. This means that when she fights somebody, there’s still a real threat (at least if the person has their own Wells, or is a giant crab) but she doesn’t take the kind of damage that a “realistic” fight would inflict, stabs and cuts and broken limbs and so on. That helps keep things moving, without long hospital stays between battles!
But, you ask, what about magical healing? That’s another interesting part of the Wells: Ghul, the Well of Life. One of the major characters (spoilers, slightly) is a Ghul adept, and we learn fairly early on that Ghul practitioners are universally reviled. Their power can heal, but it can also harm, and in particularly gruesome ways — seeding a victim with fast-growing tumors, for example, or creating diseases custom-tailored to target specific groups. In the deep history of the SSS world, a city that prized Ghul mastery was destroyed by the hubris of its own adepts, some experiment gone wrong converting the entire island metropolis into an incomprehensible wasteland of riotous fungal growth and constant decay called the Vile Rot. The Rot plays a fairly minor role in the story, but it’s such a fun element of background — the trauma of it has worked into culture so deeply that characters say “rot” or “rotting” in place of words like “damned”. (Another piece from the old archive, incidentally, whose origins I have only the sketchiest idea of. I suspect Ian McDonald’s Evolution’s Shore played a role — I remember vividly reading it as a teen and being simultaneously fascinated and scared witless.)
Even with the best of intentions, Ghul can be dangerous. One attempt at healing gone wrong, for example, causes the intended recipient to rapidly bloat into a shifting, melting ball of flesh, screaming until they explode in a shower of gore. (Yes, it’s probably inspired by the movie you’re thinking of.) And that, obviously, is one of my favorite bits.
DJANGO WEXLER graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with degrees in creative writing and computer science, worked in artificial intelligence research and as a programmer/writer for Microsoft, and is now a full-time fantasy writer. Django is the author of The Shadow Campaigns, an epic fantasy series for adults, and The Forbidden Library, a classic fantasy series for middle-grade readers.
You can find him online at www.djangowexler.com and on Twitter as @DjangoWexler.
If you haven’t had a chance to pick up The Calculating Stars yet (look, I understand, my TBR pile is…large), Amazon is offering the ebook for $2.99 today. It includes an excerpt of The Fated Sky, with the hope that one taste is all you need. La!
I’m running for the position of President. For four years, I was privileged to work with an extremely active and committed board, first as Secretary of SFWA and then as Vice President. I stepped down because I believe that new voices are vital to a service organization such as SFWA. But there are still things that I want to see accomplished, particularly trying to find affordable health care options for our members. I feel that after seven years off the board, the time is right to run again.
I believe that SFWA is an important organization and that volunteering for it is a way that we can each help to pay it forward by making the field stronger. As a group, we can improve things within the industry in ways that individuals cannot, but we are dependent on our volunteers. We are dependent on you. I would very much like to help SFWA move forward so that it can continue to inform, support, promote, defend and advocate for our members.
Besides health care, what else am I interested in accomplishing?
New opportunities to help our members diversify their income streams
Strengthening the Nebula Conference as a professional development conference
Protecting our rights for free speech
Outreach to underserved and underrepresented writers in the SFF community
Taking full advantage of our 501c3 status to apply for grants that will allow SFWA to be a more active and useful organization for our members
For those of you that I have not yet met, here is a little about me personally.
I have been an Active member of SFWA since 2007 and served on the board from 2008-2012 as both secretary and vice-president
In addition to my Board duties, I also supervised the team which built the website, sourced the membership management software, and researched options for health insurance.
I was the 2008 Campbell Award Winner for Best New Writer, won three Hugo awards, and the RT award for Best Fantasy Novel.
Besides writing, I am a professional puppeteer and voice actor and have worked in the arts for the last twenty-five years. I served on the Board of Directors and as the Vice President of UNIMA-USA, the American branch of the international puppetry organization.
This background has given me experience in how effective non-profits function, as well as grant-writing and volunteer management.
David Mack is joining us today to talk about his novel The Iron Codex. Here is the publisher’s description:
New York Times bestselling author David Mack’s Dark Arts series continues as the wizards of World War II become the sorcerers of the Cold War in this globe-spanning spy-thriller sequel to The Midnight Front.
1954: Cade Martin, hero of the Midnight Front during the war, has been going rogue without warning or explanation, and his mysterious absences are making his MI-6 handlers suspicious. In the United States, Briet Segfrunsdóttir serves as the master karcist of the Pentagon’s top-secret magickal warfare program. And in South America, Anja Kernova hunts fugitive Nazi sorcerers with the help of a powerful magickal tome known as the Iron Codex.
In an ever-more dangerous world, a chance encounter sparks an international race to find Anja and steal the Iron Codex. The Vatican, Russians, Jewish Kabbalists, and shadowy players working all angles covet the Codex for the power it promises whoever wields it.
As the dominos start to fall, and one betrayal follows another, Anja goes on the run, hunted by friend and foe alike. The showdown brings our heroes to Bikini Atoll in March 1954: the Castle Bravo nuclear test.
But unknown to all of them, a secret magick cabal schemes to turn America and its western allies toward fascism—even if it takes decades…
What’s David’s favorite bit?
In the Dark Arts series’ first book, The Midnight Front, sorceress Briet Segfrunsdóttir was one of the bad guys until she realized that her master Kein had gone insane. At that point she deserted him and fled with her faithful rat familiar, Trixim.
Briet was found after World War II by Operation: Paperclip, a CIA initiative that recruited ex-Nazi scientists (and, in my book, ex-Nazi mages) to work for the United States’ defense and space programs. Briet was placed in charge of the U.S. Occult Defense Program, a role that earned her the suspicion of the first book’s main character, Cade Martin.
In book two, The Iron Codex, set nearly a decade later in 1954, Cade and Briet are forced to work together to halt a global threat that fuses black magick and nuclear science. After a brutal ambush critically wounds Cade’s best friend Miles and kills Briet’s beloved familiar Trixim, Cade and the grieving Briet go on the run and take refuge together in a deserted barn:
Briet had spent their shared drive asleep. Cade had seen no point to waking her. Once they were sheltered inside the barn, he’d set himself to work. He had compelled Seir, his demon of burden, to move the anvil closer to the car. Then he’d employed the fires of Xaphan to imbue the hunk of iron with Infernal heat, enough to keep him and Briet warm for most of the day. The rest of his labors he had seen to himself: using scrap wood, stones, and packed dirt to patch gaps in the walls, and bundles of straw to fill as many holes in the roof as he could reach.
Now if only we had brought something decent to eat, he lamented.
He heard Briet stir inside the car. She sat up in the backseat, pushing aside the extra layer of his bomber jacket, which he had placed over her the night before. She blinked and looked around, bleary-eyed and drowsy. “Where are we?”
“Southeast Colorado,” Cade said. “Middle of fuckin’ nowhere.”
She turned frantically to and fro, searching the car. “Trixim—?”
“He’s out back,” Cade said, wreathing himself in a short-lived halo of breath.
Briet clambered out of the car and rushed to Cade’s side, incensed. “You buried him?”
“Of course not. It’s ten below zero and there’s three feet of snow on the ground.” He stood and walked around Briet to the open car door. He reached in and pulled out their coats. He handed Briet her trench coat, and then he shrugged into his bomber jacket.
“Come on,” he said.
He led her to the barn’s back door, which hung at an angle from its rusted but still working hinges. It scraped and squeaked as the pair walked outside, down a path that Cade had shoveled a few hours earlier, after the snowfall had petered out. At the end of the path, in a small circular clearing, stood a two-foot-tall funeral pyre of twigs, kindling, and straw. Atop it, swaddled in a piece of floral-print cloth topped with pink silk roses, was the body of Trixim.
Briet stepped past Cade and stood beside the tiny pyre. She pressed her gloved fingertips to her lips and spent a moment looking verklempt.
Feeling awkward about the silence between them, Cade said, “The wood was easy to find. Most of it was in the barn, so it’s dry. Should light pretty quick.” Sensing that Briet still wasn’t up to speaking, he continued, “I checked what was left of the farmhouse. Found part of a window curtain. Used that for the shroud. Got the fake roses from a linen closet.”
Briet palmed a tear from her cheek. “You did all this for a rat?”
“Figured you’d want to say good-bye.” He reached inside his jacket’s front right pocket, pulled out his Zippo, and handed it to her. “When you’re ready.”
She declined his offer with a wave of her hand. “Thanks. Don’t need it.”
She faced the pyre and snapped her fingers. Fire sprang into being from its center. In a matter of seconds the wood and Trixim were consumed in tall orange flames.
They stood and watched it burn. Then she regarded him with more vulnerability than he had seen in another person since the death of his master Adair. “Thank you,” she said.
“Seemed like the right thing to do.”
The fire crackled and launched sparks into the gray morning sky.
There are a lot of details about this scene that I love, from simple gestures of compassion, such as Briet awakening beneath Cade’s jacket as a blanket, to the accessories that he seeks out to preserve the dignity of her familiar, which was killed beside them in battle. Up until this moment, Cade had been coarse in his dealings with Briet, who he was unable to see as anything except an ex-Nazi. Now, alone with her in a moment of sorrow, he sees that she is more than the sum of her past evils. He sees that she is every bit as complex and contradictory a soul as he is, and that her pain is as real as his. This moment is the beginning of true rapprochement between wartime foes, the start of a new alliance that can lead to friendship.
And that, as it happens, is what The Iron Codex is all about: letting go of the past in order to embrace the future, and passing through sorrow in order to emerge stronger on the other side.
David Mack is the award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of three dozen novels of science fiction, fantasy, and adventure. His new novel The Iron Codex is available now from Tor Books. Mack’s writing credits span several media, including television (for episodes of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine), film, short fiction, and comic books. He resides in New York City.
I named Marlowe after Christopher Marlowe, who went by Kit. I thought I was being terribly clever. Get it? Kitten Marlowe?
And he tried to live up to the name. We joked that he was a tragedian because he would come into rooms and his meow sounded like he was saying “My woe!”
He was also goofball. A black lab disguised as a cat. He had a helmet of invisibility, which he liked to wear around the house. Here– this is what I mean.
As near as we can figure, he thought he was in tall grass and hence invisible. When he was a kitten, it fit over his entire head. He would sometimes greet me at the door wearing it or fall asleep with it on. Whenever we had guests, I would break out the basket and he’d show them his invisibility trick.
You’d step over him saying, “Where’s Marlowe? Where did Marlowe go?” and he would crouch on the floor purring smugly.
Two weeks ago, while I was in Chattanooga, Rob called me to tell me that Marlowe was very sick. He’d been sluggish and Rob had come home to find him collapsed on the floor in a puddle of his own urine. He had kidney disease, so we thought that was the end. Rob contacted our vet, who makes house calls and– to our surprise, he thought it wasn’t the kidneys. He gave Marlowe a shot of an antibiotic and a steroid.
Rob watched over the next two days.. Marlowe couldn’t walk, still. He had spasms when he slept, so Rob made another appointment for the Final Visit.
And then Marlowe got up. He tottered around.
For the last ten days, he seemed to be on the mend. The vet concurred that we might have gotten lucky. There was a possible mass in his stomach, but it wasn’t conclusive on the x-ray. It might also have been his bowels being backed up.
I was still gone, but Rob reported that each day, Marlowe seemed to be a tiny bit stronger. He fell over periodically, but didn’t seem distressed.
Marlowe, two days before his last day.
I got home Thursday and Marlowe teetered out from his heating pad to greet me. He rubbed against me, purring. He fell over. But when he got back up, he played a little with a peacock feather. And by played, I mean that he batted at the feather very gently, twice. Still. When one was mostly dead, one takes such things.
Yesterday he wandered around the apartment to his favorite spots.
And then today, he declined. He still chatted at us when we came into the room. He got up to get water but otherwise, stayed put on his heating pad.
I offered him his helmet of invisibility and he put it on for a bit. We had dinner in his sickroom and watched a show. He got some skritches. Then we said goodnight.
Rob went in to check on him and Marlowe had passed. I’m glad that he had a good last day. It’s hard to imagine not having the old man around. I’ve known him longer than my husband. And conversely, given my travel schedule, Rob has probably spent more time with Marlowe than he has with me.
He’s swaddled in a towel with his helmet of invisibility. It’ll take me a long time to stop asking, “Where’s Marlowe? Where did Marlowe go?”
I counted it out – in 2018 I spent more days traveling than I did at home. I… I question my life choices sometimes. BUT there was so much cool stuff that I don’t know what I would have skipped. And since there is no reasonable way to cover everything I did, here are a few highlights. So many links ahead!
Last year I: published 2 novels, 6 short stories, wrote a game, podcasted, did many space things, baked a few pies, and spent a lot of time with family.
> I went on our 6th annual Writing Excuses Retreat and Workshop. I wrote on a balcony, taught in the R Bar, ate ceviche and wrote during a downpour in Cozumel, and got shingles (ouch). Join us next year – we’ll be going back for ceviche, but not for shingles. (Prices go up on Jan 31st!)
Ceviche and writing in Cozumel
> I got to watch a spacewalk rehearsal at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, and talked all about it during the actual spacewalk a few months later.
> Speaking of amazing space things, I’m just gonna leave this one here:
Yes, that’s an actual lady astronaut that loves my Lady Astronaut book. *Tahani hair toss*
> I started a Lady Astronaut Club. Official merchandise! (No Cream of Wheat boxtops required) Membership cards! Just send in a SASE! The Lady Astronaut Club is open to anyone on or off the gender spectrum.
Ed Crowell is joining us today to talk about his graphic novel The Jekyll Island Chronicles: A Devil’s Reach, written with Steve Nedvidek, illustrated by Moses Nester. Here’s the publisher’s description:
The thrills continue in this critically acclaimed diesel-punk graphic novel series set in a sci-fi version of the early 20th century!
At the beginning of the twentieth century, one sixth of the world’s wealth vacationed in and around the tiny Georgia island of Jekyll. Captains of industry like Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, and Carnegie all called the Jekyll area home. Blending elements of historical fact, clockwork technology, and diesel-punk style, The Jekyll Island Chronicles span an age of furious mechanical advancement while exploring the span of man’s soul – whether good or evil.
In Book Two of this alt-history adventure, Peter, Helen, and the rest of Carnegie’s “Specials” would like nothing more than to return to normalcy along with the rest of the country–especially after defeating their enemies in Book One. But the anarchists have other plans. Luigi Galleani and the Zeno cabal reach out from Europe, across the Atlantic, to wreak havoc, divide the enemy, build an army, and capture plans for the world’s deadliest weapon. If they are to be stopped, the tiny group of heroes from Jekyll will need to find new resolve, new resources, and new allies–and do it all before Nikola Tesla’s most terrible creation is unleashed.
What’s Ed’s favorite bit?
A Devil’s Reach (Book Two in The Jekyll Island Chronicles) is loaded with memorable scenes. There are battles, spy vs. spy moments, historical oddities – as well a few Easter Eggs – but my favorite bit is a dream.
To be fair, I need to explain some of the events in the first book, A Machine Age War, for the dream to make any sense. In that first novel Helen Huxley is introduced with the understated explanation that she is a woman “…from Innsmouth who had an electrical mishap during the war.” (Easter Egg alert). It is soon evident her body can conduct and even create an electrical charge, and this is creating no end of difficulties for her.
Helen falls to the ministrations of Charles Steinmetz and Nikola Tesla who see nothing but potential. With high enthusiasm they set about experimenting and augmenting her unusual quality and turn the lady into a powerful weapon. They deal with any physical effects, but it’s not clear she’s fully comfortable with who and what she’s being asked to become.
Other episodes in the first book hint at the turmoil within Helen. She voices her concerns to President Wilson, but her reticence about her talents is swept aside in the rush to battle evil forces and save innocent lives. She plays a pivotal and destructive part in the grand climax of the book and seems to be at peace with what she has done and what she has become…
Which is why I love the dream sequence in the second book so much.
In the pages that let us share Helen’s nightmare we learn about her history, her thoughts, her guilt and confusion. Helen had been a young, newly-minted nurse during the war. She’d taken the Florence Nightingale pledge to “serve and devote myself to the welfare of those committed to my care.” She’d volunteered to head toward the front lines with a willingness to risk herself to help others.
Near the front she learned the hard lesson that war is not neatly contained, that it doesn’t show consideration for those wearing a cross instead of a helmet or carrying a bandage instead of a gun. She saw things that burned in her memory and she lived through a disaster that burned her body. Perhaps she could have lived with the physical trauma, but there was more to come.
Helen seemed to become a diminished version of who she had been, but she also became something different. She would have gladly accepted the scars if she could have continued to be a nurse but was forced to leave the profession lest she prove a danger to herself and others. She was still wrestling with the complexities and contradictions of that situation when recruited to serve again. Then, the very power that troubled her was amplified by people who were supposedly helping. She learns to use and direct her newfound “talent” but not to fully control it. In fact, while using it to save thousands of lives, she kills dozens of others – and in her own thinking causes the death of a friend.
The dream sequence captures all of that, using beautiful haunting artwork to its fullest, taking the reader into the troubled psyche of Helen Huxley and showing us the demons that tear at her soul. Her dreams are a torment of grey Gothic naves, fire and lighting, faceless enemies and victims, personal failures, ghosts and guilt.
No matter the face she shows to the world, her nightmares describe how shattered Helen Huxley is. She’s fractured into conflicting pieces and the dream is her subconscious trying to reconstruct her, trying to reconcile who she intended to be, who she wanted to be, with what she has done and what she has become. The original pieces are still there: the selfless nurse, the competent assistant, the caring faithful friend, but they now share space with a damaged and scarred victim: a warrior, a killer and a very dangerous weapon.
The scene shows in its powerful dramatic panels the depth of the conflict in this reluctant hero and leaves open the question of whether the pieces can ever form a mosaic worth keeping. It’s my favorite bit and Helen is my favorite character. Her friends need her, so I surely hope she can work it out.
Ed Crowell is a science fiction and mystery author, world traveler, corporate CEO and head of a charity, a cryptocurrency miner and white-water enthusiast. He holds degrees from Liberty and Georgia State and writes fiction and nonfiction almost constantly. He lives outside Atlanta with his wife Cynthia and several rescued cats. He can be found as part of the Lost Mountain Mechanicals at www.jekyllislandchronicles.com
Shaun Barger is joining us today to talk about his novel Mage Against the Machine. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Harry Potter meets The Terminator in this action-packed adventure about a young man who discovers that everything he believed about his world is a lie.
The year is 2120. The humans are dead. The mages have retreated from the world after a madman blew up civilization with weaponized magical technology. Safe within domes that protect them from the nuclear wasteland on the other side, the mages have spent the last century putting their lives back together.
Nikolai is obsessed with artifacts from twentieth-century human life: mage-crafted replica Chuck Taylors on his feet, Schwarzenegger posters on his walls, Beatlemania still alive and well in his head. But he’s also tasked with a higher calling—to maintain the Veils that protect mage-kind from the hazards of the wastes beyond. As a cadet in the Mage King’s army, Nik has finally found what he always wanted—a purpose. But when confronted by one of his former instructors gone rogue, Nik tumbles into a dark secret. The humans weren’t nuked into oblivion—they’re still alive. Not only that, outside the domes a war rages between the last enclaves of free humans and vast machine intelligences.
Outside the dome, unprepared and on the run, Nik finds Jem. Jem is a Runner for the Human Resistance. A ballerina-turned-soldier by the circumstances of war, Jem is more than just a human—her cybernetic enhancement mods make her faster, smarter, and are the only things that give her a fighting chance against the artificial beings bent on humanity’s eradication.
Now Nik faces an impossible decision: side with the mages and let humanity die out? Or stand with Jem and the humans—and risk endangering everything he knows and loves?
What’s Shaun’s favorite bit?
When I was a kid, there was a moment in the first Harry Potter book that made me hate wizards.
Don’t get me wrong: I LOVE the Potter series. Like most Millennials, they were a powerful formative influence on me, both as a person and a writer.
But the wizards themselves?
The moment I realized that wizards suck came during Harry’s first trip to Diagon Alley, in which Hagrid explains the totally shitty reason wizards hide their super cushy magical existence from the humans they refer to as muggles:
“But what does a Ministry of Magic do?”
“Well, their main job is to keep it from the Muggles that there’s still witches an’ wizards up an’ down the country.”
“Why? Blimey, Harry, everyone’d be wantin’ magic solutions to their problems. Nah, we’re best left alone.”
(Page 51, UK Hardcover edition of Sorcerer’s Stone)
I put the book down. Little pissed off self-righteous 9th grade Shaun Barger.
“Ohhhhh, I’m sorry wizards,” I said, angrily chomping on a candy cigarette. “Is the AIDS epidemic inconvenient for you?
“Oh, are the millions of people currently trapped in a thriving contemporary slave trade just TOO much of a hassle to deal with?
“Can’t do us a solid and cure cancer, huh?
“Can’t hook it up with the unlimited clean energy thing, huh? Not into the idea of totally awesome magic space travel to distant galaxies made possible by the combined efforts of the scientific and magical communities, huh? HUH?”
Fucking wizards, man.
In 2011, soon after I began living in Hollywood in a house with three friends and my sister, I remembered this moment, and found myself thinking about the long-term repercussions of magical isolationism.
That, and robots. Scary, evil, robots.
Swept up in the idea, I began writing the first version of what would eventually become MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE.
Great title, right? My sister came up with it, at a party. She awoke from a fever dream and came out of her room to shout across a courtyard full of drunk people over very loud music, while wearing pajamas.
“Mage Against the Machine!”
I raised my hand to my ear. “WHAT?”
“MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE!”
I looked at her. Nodded, solemn.
The characters of MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE have all been touched by the residual trauma of the separation of their worlds. Theirs is the story of that separation coming to end, in the most catastrophic and spectacular ways.
The following passage is a look into the world of magic in MAGE AGAINST THE MACHINE — a memory of childhood from our well-meaning but total-fucking-mess of a hero, Nikolai Strauss.
I wrote this scene on my way back from a Christmas family vacation in Santa Fe. My
dad was driving, and it was dark out. We’d been listening to the audiobook of The Sorcerer’s Stone, read by Jim Dale. I was sitting in the back seat with my kid sibs, alternating between furiously typed bouts of writing, and video game breaks playing Undertale.
I really love this scene, and the story it tells about the relationship between these deeply flawed characters.
I hope you like it, too.
One day, when Nikolai was eight, he’d hidden himself in a stall of the boys’ bathroom at his school, praying that nobody could hear him as he struggled through snot and tears to calm himself.
His mother’s lesson that morning had been particularly brutal, and all day he’d been distracted from class, struggling to breathe through the tightness in his chest that threatened to overwhelm him until he’d been forced to excuse himself.
He hated it—wished his body would listen to the cold logic of his brain, could listen to his mother’s voice calmly explaining that there were terrible things beyond the Veil, and that if she didn’t make him strong, he and the people he loved—the people he needed to protect—would be hurt. Die, even.
But Nikolai didn’t love anyone. Not really. His parents, of course. But did that even count? And weren’t they supposed to protect him?
A tiny fist pounded against the stall, hard enough to make him jump.
“What?” he said, yanking open the door to curse the intruder. Angry words died on his lips as he froze, stunned. Standing before him was a girl with short, straw-colored hair sticking out in all directions and a smattering of freckles across an upturned nose.
Her lips were pursed in a tight little frown—her chin jutted out defiantly as if she’d eaten something sour and was furious at the injustice that had been committed against her palate.
“W—what are you doing?” he asked her, hurriedly trying to wipe away evidence of his tears with a sleeve. “This is the boys’ room.”
“I used to cry like that,” she said, with a sort of twangy Southern Veil accent he’d never heard before.
“I wasn’t crying!” Nikolai said unconvincingly. “Crying is for babies.”
And Nikolai was no baby. Not after a year of his mother’s lessons, which she’d begun in secret when he was seven.
The girl gave Nikolai a knowing look with eyes too old for her little face. “My daddy used to call me stupid. And ugly. And he hit me. Then his mom always healed me so no one would know and told me to shut up when I cried.”
“His mom . . . your grandmom?” Nikolai said with wonder. His mother always did the same, using her golden mediglove Focal to heal his wounds and bruises with little clouds of sparkling light. Hiding what she’d done.
The girl crinkled her nose. “I guess. I hate her.” Who was this strange, angry little girl? He didn’t have any friends—didn’t need any friends—but there weren’t that many magi in his school and he knew everyone.
“I’m Astor,” she said, as if reading his mind. “I moved here last week from Blue Ridge. You’re the only one in our class who hasn’t talked to me yet. You don’t talk to anyone. And today you looked so sad. So I followed you.”
“I’m sorry,” he said, feeling ashamed. “I’m Nikolai. And I’m not sad, I just—”
“You should tell on them.” Nikolai froze. “What?”
“I know you don’t want to tell, ’cause you love them. But they don’t love you. Not really. Or they’d be nice.”
“You’re wrong,” Nikolai said, and looked away, unable to meet her eyes.
“I told on my dad,” she said. “He used to only hit me, but one time he started hitting my sister and she’s practically a baby.”
She stuck her chin out again with that defiant intensity only exaggerated by her wild crown of hair. “So I started calling him stupid and ugly and told him that I hated him so he would hit me instead. Mommy was always too scared to stop him so I ran away before his mom could heal me. It took all day but I found a Watchman and showed him and asked him to protect my sister.”
She beamed, proud, but Nikolai could tell it was for show. At least a little bit.
“So they took him to jail and he can’t talk to us anymore. We left his mom’s farm and came here to stay with my cousin.”
“I’m . . . glad,” Nikolai finally said. But he knew that he could never tell on his mom. His mom was an Edge Guard married to a Watchman. Even if they could arrest her, none of the Watchmen
would be strong enough to fight her anyway. She stared at him for a bit, pinching her chin thoughtfully with her thumb and her index finger. Then she nodded, having come to some sort of decision. “We’re friends now,” she said. “Everyone is nice here but they don’t get it.”
And that was that. Nikolai had made his first friend, and Astor wasn’t going to take no for an answer. She never took no for an answer.
Astor was very close to her cousin, a loudmouth class clown named George Stokes. And the moment she told Stokes, very seriously, that Nikolai was her friend now and Stokes had to be friends with him too, he just shrugged, said okay, and started treating Nikolai as if they’d been best friends their whole lives. Even though really, they’d been in the same class for two years and had never actually spoken.
Having friends changed everything for Nikolai. Stokes was funny—he was always joking around and laughing but never said anything mean about anyone. And when they watched the old human movies Stokes’s dad got for them from the university and something sad happened, Stokes would always think of some- thing happy to say, or at least try to make the others laugh.
Nikolai wasn’t sure Stokes had ever been sad. Not really—not like he and Astor. Because whenever they seemed down he would always start cracking jokes or fart and blame it on Astor, which never failed to make them all laugh—but it was in this sort of panic, like being sad was some sort of sickness he didn’t understand but couldn’t stand to see his friends suffer.
Astor and her little sister lived with Stokes until Astor’s mom saved up enough money as a waitress to get their own little apartment. Her clothing was all secondhand—frayed and stained and almost always too big for her. She pretended not to care but sometimes he would catch Astor looking at herself in the mirror and Nik could tell that no matter what she said, and no matter what he told her, a part of her still believed what her dad had said. About her being stupid. And ugly.
For the first time in his life, Nikolai knew what happiness was. In ashes and moments, at least. And when Nikolai was with Astor, there was this weird feeling in his stomach—this kind of warmth that made him want to smile and run around.
One day, not long after he and Astor had truly become inseparable, Nikolai got into his very first fight.
Astor tripped and fell during a game of tag—totally ate it, face-first in a puddle. She sat up and started laughing—grinning at Nikolai with a mask of mud, pretending that she’d transformed into some sort of monster as she began chucking handfuls of muck at him.
But then another mage said something that made her stop smiling. Nikolai couldn’t even remember his name now, or what he said exactly—all he could remember was that the mage had been one of the rich kids, and how ugly he looked when he and his friends started laughing, how ugly they all were when they pushed up their noses and started making pig noises at her.
It wasn’t the first time they’d teased her, though she’d been too proud to tell Stokes or Nikolai. Teased her for her clothing. Teased her for her tangled hair, which was rarely brushed because her mom was too busy with two jobs and taking care of Astor’s little sister. Teased her for being poor.
Watching Astor retreat inside herself as they mocked her was the first time that Nikolai had experienced a very specific kind of anger. He broke one mage’s nose, gave the other a black eye, and pinned the ringleader to the ground, forcing him to eat mud while telling the boy that he’d kill him if he ever made fun of Astor like that again.
It was only then that the horrified headmaster finally pulled Nikolai away, who, even as the much larger mage carried him off, continued thrashing and screaming threats back at the weeping boys.
It was the second time Nikolai had ever seen his Watchman father lose his temper.
“You could have killed them!” his father rumbled—barely raising his voice, but still terribly intimidating as he towered over him. Nikolai stared sullenly up at his father, his briefly broken but now-healed hand wrapped in ice, his still-bloody lip trembling.
Calming himself, Nikolai’s father explained that there was almost no fight you can’t talk your way out of—no mage you can’t reason with. That fighting should always be a last resort. That the most heroic thing a mage could do was to use reason instead of violence. To use kindness and love instead of anger, instead of hate. That there was always a choice, difficult as it might seem.
His mother, on the other hand, showed him how to coat his knuckles with a layer of hardened air, so he wouldn’t break his fingers next time he had to throw a punch.
She always was the practical one.
Nikolai never forgot how Astor slipped her muddy little hand into his as they waited outside the headmaster’s office for their parents to come get them after the fight. Never forgot how his mother’s lessons finally began to make sense.
Shaun Barger is a Los Angeles-based novelist who detests cold weather, idiot plotting, and fascism. He splits his days between writing, resisting the siren’s call of Hollywood’s eternally mild summer climes, and appeasing a tyrannical three-pound Chihuahua with peanut butter and apple slices. Mage Against the Machine is his first novel. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @ShaunBarger.
(Tor Books — August 21, 2018) Continuing the grand sweep of alternate history laid out in The Calculating Stars, The Fated Sky looks forward to 1961, when mankind is well-established on the moon and looking forward to its next step: journeying to, and eventually colonizing, Mars. Of course, the noted Lady Astronaut Elma York would like to go, […]