I will grant that this particular thing will not happen for everyone, but it will happen for some of you and award nominations come with no instructions. Over the years, I’ve learned a few things and so here’s the stuff that I’ve told new Nebula, Hugo, and Campbell finalists.
When they say confidential… What they mean is that they don’t want the news to get out into the wider world. There are two reasons for this.
They want to get as much traction with the news as possible. If it trickles out into the world a little at a time, it’s less good for everyone, including you.
People are notified at different times. Sometimes this is because of categories and sometimes it is because a nominee declines and they go to the next person on the list.
Try to avoid subtweeting Look. I’ve done it. I will do it again. BUT I try not to now because it is not even remotely subtle. Everyone knows when nominations start rolling out, so if you announce Secret Good News during that window, people know. I get that you’ll explode if you don’t tell someone and that you’re really excited so find another venue through which to express that excitement. For instance…
Tell your agent and editor. Your publicist, too, if you have one. They need time to get things set up so that when the news stops being embargoed, they are ready to go with announcements. Make sure they know the embargo date!
Tell your family. Look, you didn’t sign an NDA. As long as you respect the need for the organization to control when the news is released into the wider world, it’s okay to tell your family. Obviously, don’t do it on your cousin’s livestream but as long as you are clear about the embargo date and that they can’t tell anyone, you’re fine.
Write an announcement and have it ready to go. When that list of finalists goes live, people will want to congratulate you. It’s easiest if they have a place to do it. Plus there’s a chance some of them will repost it and that’s a good thing.
Write a speech. It doesn’t matter if you are sure you don’t have a chance and feel like an imposter. Writing a speech is a chance to think about everyone who helped you get to the place where your work has been nominated. None of us do it alone. Taking some time to think about who you want to thank and why is very centering. In the event that you win, it saves you from getting up there and forgetting to thank someone super important.
Once the announcement is public…
Tell everyone. Boom — your announcement is ready. Post it in all the places. Tell your family that they can talk about it now. Tell random strangers on the bus. (I may or may not have done that once.)
Congratulate and celebrate your fellow nominees. Look, your fellow nominees are your peers. They are not your competition. The book/story/radio play/whatever already exists in the world and there’s nothing you can do to change the quality of your work or anyone else’s. That truth will do nothing to reduce your anxiety. The only other people who completely and totally get what you are going through, right now, are the people you are nominated with. Even people who have been nominated in the past will have forgotten the crispness of the excitement. The frisson of the moment when you get the call or email. But your peers will grok the weirdness completely.
Plus, a rising tide raises all boats. Celebrating your peers raises the awareness of the award, which encompasses all the nominees, including you. Only one of you will take the award home, but all of you can benefit and enjoy being nominated.
You will get a lot of interview requests. Answer all that you can without breaking yourself. A nomination offers visibility. Start a spreadsheet with questions and your answers to them, because people will ask the same ones over and over. You can cut and paste a stock answer, tweaking it so it looks fresh where necessary.
Update your bio. It will feel odd and self-aggrandizing. It only feels that way. But it serves the function of raising the visibility of the award, which will help you and the other nominees. Especially remember to mention this when you are on panels at a convention. It doesn’t have to be hard. Just something like, “My name is Mary Robinette Kowal, I’m a professional puppeteer, an audiobook narrator and I write SFF novels and short fiction. Currently, my novel “Calculating Stars” is a finalist for the Nebula award.'”
Finally… you will probably completely freak out about being a finalist and have difficulty writing, because you will feel pressure to prove that you deserved the nomination. You deserve it. Know that.
Also recognize that the freak out is a perfectly valid response. It’s a desire to keep leveling up, but it’s misfiring slightly. The way past it is to set an external deadline on your next project and to keep writing. If you don’t have a deadline already, ask a friend to set one for you.
Above all, enjoy the glow. As previously mentioned, there’s not really anything you can do to improve your chances of winning. The work is the work. So focus on what you can control. How that manifests will differ from person to person. I like ballgowns, so I use the opportunity to track down a perfect gown. I get a facial. On the day of, I have my hair done. None of it matters, but it is stuff that is in my control and allows me to feel special.
Treat yourself like a goddess of fiction and buy something cool that represents all the hard work that got you here. Go to the spa. Throw a party. Whatever makes you happy, do it.
Michael R. Johnston is joining us today to talk about his novel The Widening Gyre. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Eight hundred years ago, the Zhen Empire discovered a broken human colony ship drifting in the fringes of their space. The Zhen gave the humans a place to live and folded them into their Empire as a client state. But it hasn’t been easy. Not all Zhen were eager to welcome another species into their Empire, and humans have faced persecution. For hundreds of years, human languages and history were outlawed subjects, as the Zhen tried to mold humans into their image. Earth and the cultures it nourished for millennia are forgotten, little more than legends.
One of the first humans to be allowed to serve in the Zhen military, Tajen Hunt became a war hero at the Battle of Elkari, the only human to be named an official Hero of the Empire. He was given command of a task force, and sent to do the Empire’s bidding in their war with the enigmatic Tabrans. But when he failed in a crucial mission, causing the deaths of millions of people, he resigned in disgrace and faded into life on the fringes as a lone independent pilot.
When Tajen discovers his brother, Daav, has been killed by agents of the Empire, he, his niece, and their newly-hired crew set out to finish his brother’s quest: to find Earth, the legendary homeworld of humanity. What they discover will shatter 800 years of peace in the Empire, and start a war that could be the end of the human race.
What’s Michael’s favorite bit?
MICHAEL R. JOHNSTON
Writing is hard. Some days, it’s only as bad as pulling twice your weight across the room. Other days, it’s like trying to juggle fifteen balls while singing Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria. But sometimes you get lucky. Sometimes the fates smile on you, the heavens open up, Calliope wipes her soothing hands across your brow, and the words flow like perfectly clear and cold water, and for a little while, you feel like this writing thing is easy.
When I was writing The Widening Gyre, one scene flowed that perfectly. It is, in the current draft, almost exactly as I wrote it the first time. One of my beta readers called the scene “beat perfect.” My editor had little to say about it beyond some of my weird writer tics that had to be squashed flat.
It’s a heist, and while it goes very quickly, that was intentional. I didn’t want to bog the characters down in a long subquest; I wanted them to get in, get screwed, find out they were screwed, and then calmly shoot their way out in style while cracking wise at each other and, for a brief moment, having fun.
The secret about Tajen and Liam is that they love their lives. They’d never admit it, but being deep in the shit, outgunned and outflanked, is when they feel most alive. When things go south, they’re in their element, a smoothly operating team of grade-A smartasses. Meeting each other has only made them embrace that part of themselves. So, when they get captured and subjected to their captor’s ranting, neither of them can take it entirely seriously, even though they’re well aware of the danger:
Liam glanced sidelong at me and sighed. “You know, I’d pay good money for you to shut him up.”
“Why me?” I asked. “You’re the infantryman. I’m just a pilot.” I shrugged. “You do it.”
“Excuse me,” Simms said. “I’m standing right here, asshole.”
“He is,” I said.
“True,” Liam said. “I can fix that, though.”
Simms pulled a blaster pistol from his jacket and shoved it into Liam’s face, the muzzle pressing into his cheek. “Do you want to know why you’re not dead yet?”
Liam tsked. “Because the safety’s on?” he asked.
The one complaint I got about this chapter from every reader was that a character introduced in the chapter is never seen again; she remains behind when the characters leave. So here’s a secret, something only my editor knows so far—Seeker will be back in book 2, and she’ll be far, far more important than you’d think. I’m not done with her yet. But in the meantime, Tajen and Liam will be snarking their way into and out of danger, one quip—and a well-aimed blaster—away from destruction all the way.
Michael R. Johnston is a high school English teacher and writer living in Sacramento, California with his wife, daughter, and more cats than strictly necessary. He is a member of the 2017 Viable Paradise class. The Widening Gyre is his debut novel.
Dan Stout is joining us today to talk about his novel Titanshade. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Carter’s a homicide cop in Titanshade, an oil boomtown where 8-tracks are state of the art, disco rules the radio, and all the best sorcerers wear designer labels. It’s also a metropolis teetering on the edge of disaster. As its oil reserves run dry, the city’s future hangs on a possible investment from the reclusive amphibians known as Squibs.
But now negotiations have been derailed by the horrific murder of a Squib diplomat. The pressure’s never been higher to make a quick arrest, even as Carter’s investigation leads him into conflict with the city’s elite. Undermined by corrupt coworkers and falsified evidence, and with a suspect list that includes power-hungry politicians, oil magnates, and mad scientists, Carter must find the killer before the investigation turns into a witch-hunt and those closest to him pay the ultimate price on the filthy streets of Titanshade.
What’s Dan’s favorite bit?
My debut novel TITANSHADE is a noir fantasy thriller set in an oil boomtown where magic is real, disco tops the charts, and good cops are hard to find. This combination of secondary-world fantasy with 1970s police procedural results in over 400 pages of fights, explosions, false accusations, and murders. It’s massively fun and massively over the top. But in all that chaos, my favorite bit is a single paragraph where one of the characters decides not to change the radio station.
This simple act occurs near the end of the book, and is the payoff of countless early arguments between a pair of detectives over what music gets played in their car. These conflicts may have been about a radio, but they’re also about two different people with two very different ways of viewing the world. As these partners ride into a life-or-death final showdown, seeing one defer to the other’s taste in music shows how close they’ve grown in a way that pages of exposition could never have captured.
As a writer, it can be tempting to confuse “upping the stakes” with making things flashy and explosive. Don’t get me wrong: I love a good explosion! But sometimes it’s small details and quiet moments that have the most power. In this case, a simple gesture provides closure to a long-running argument while also giving a glimpse of emotional vulnerability between two fairly hard-nosed characters. And that makes the danger they’re headed toward even more meaningful.
It was an extremely satisfying section to write and — I hope! — just as satisfying to read. If I did my job, the book is a series of ‘loops’ such as this, each of them opening and pulling in the reader before closing in a satisfying fashion.
Sometimes closing these loops involves big dramas, like explosive fight scenes, or explosive love scenes, or explosive… explosions.
But not all loops are best resolved with big set pieces. Some are quiet acts, almost tiny. Like letting the radio dial sit where it is, even if you hate the music.
If I did my job right, the climax at the end of TITANSHADE is the closing of many loops of different size and intensity, the prose version of the grand finale at a fireworks display. It’s a climatic round of violent beauty that leaves the reader stunned and satisfied, with an ache in their chest and a smile that won’t go away. But it all starts with a moment of calm, and a radio that isn’t touched.
And hey… if that doesn’t work, I can always add in another explosion.
Dan Stout lives in Columbus, Ohio, where he writes about fever dreams and half-glimpsed shapes in the shadows. His prize-winning fiction draws on travels throughout Europe, Asia, and the Pacific Rim as well as an employment history spanning everything from subpoena server to assistant well driller. Dan’s stories have appeared in publications such as The Saturday Evening Post, Nature, and Intergalactic Medicine Show.
After we lost Marlowe in January, Sadie was clearly lonely. At night she would wander around crying and during the day she was extremely needy. So we went to the Critical Animal Relief Foundation, whence we had adopted Sadie, and told them we were looking for a new cat.
We wanted someone who was affectionate and very much a lap cat. Someone who would play with Sadie. We didn’t care about age or coloration, or gender. CARF suggested that we might like this six-month old calico, but she had some digestive issues so it would be a little while before she was ready to go home with someone but that we could meet her.
While we were setting up a meeting time, we got another email explaining that, for reasons, they needed to move her to a new foster home and that we could foster-to-adopt. Which means that they help with vet bills. We figured that even if she turned out to be not the right cat, we could at least help her get healthy.
She is very much the right cat.
This has been the smoothest new cat introduction we’ve had. Sadie had to do a little explanation about boundaries, but very little. They’ve had some honest games of tag. Nose sniffing. They aren’t BFFs and Sadie is very much Queen of the Hill when it comes to getting onto the bed, but tolerates the child if she’s up there first.
(If you will allow me to do an aside about bi-color cats… The mechanism by which a cat has white markings is related to the speed with which the color genes migrate through the kitten in the womb. So the effect is visible on both Sadie and Elsie. The more white, the slower the migration. What’s super interesting is that a calico is a tortoiseshell with white BUT the more white the cat has, the more discrete the orange and black patches are. So a tortie with no white gets that pile of leaves look, and one with lots of white winds up with very clear orange and black patches. And THAT happens because the genes for orange and black are carried on the X chromosome. You have to have one of each to get a tortie or calico and that’s why there are almost never males except in rare XXY cats. (Hi. I wanted to be a vet (specializing in cats (had a subscription to Cat Fancy)) until my senior year of high school.))
So… her name was not quite right. We toyed with some and then I went off on a cruise for a week (my life is hard) when I got back, I asked Robert if she had acquired a name.
Granted, he actually said, L.C. for Little Cat, but I heard Elsie and…
Allow me to tell you about Elsie MacGill, Queen of the Hurricanes. Born in 1905, she was the first women in the world to receive a degree in aeronautical engineering. She was the chief engineer, in charge of producing Hurricane airplanes for WW2. She owned her own aeronautic consulting company. She was the first woman to chair a committee for the UN. She was an advocate for women and children rights and worked to have abortion stricken from the Canadian criminal code and for paid maternity leave. She was a polio survivor and walked with canes.
Our little girl has a funky hind leg that doesn’t tuck under when she sits. As you see, it doesn’t slow her down and Queen of the Hurricanes is the correct name for her.
Amber Royer is joining us today with her novel Pure Chocolate. Here is the publisher’s description:
In a galaxy where chocolate is literally addictive, one celebrity chef is fighting back, in the delicious sequel to Free Chocolate
To save everyone she loves, Bo Bonitez is touring Zant, home of the murderous, shark-toothed aliens who so recently tried to eat her. In the midst of her stint as Galactic paparazzi princess, she discovers that Earth has been exporting tainted chocolate to the galaxy, and getting aliens hooked on cocoa. Bo must choose whether to go public, or just smile for the cameras and make it home alive. She’s already struggling with her withdrawal from the Invincible Heart, and her love life has a life of its own, but when insidious mind worms intervene, things start to get complicated!
What’s Amber’s favorite bit?
Pure Chocolate is, in many ways, a telenovela laid out on the page. I write comedy, so I’m playing with the genre’s overdone tropes. You need someone who’s presumed dead but really isn’t? Check. You need an evil twin? Check . . . sort of. A character who doesn’t know her own true identity? An over the top conversation that gets taken entirely out of context? A tense courtroom drama? A touch and go operation? Check, check, check and check.
But at the same time, the Chocoverse is solidly space opera. Structurally and thematically, telenovelas are a whole different world, sometimes in ways that are going to surprise a reader of more traditional space opera. Bad guys don’t get destroyed. Mostly, they get redeemed. In fact, telenovela heroes sometimes look like space opera villains.
Many novelas run on two very specific character arcs. You have a strong heroine who is marked in some way – poverty, personal shame, disfigurement – and thus endures many trials, learns from them to turn that drawback into a strength and is then rewarded with both plot triumph and true love. And the hero is often a rich businessman, ruthless and cold, who learns from the heroine that people are more important than things and arcs hard to become worthy of her.
In the first book, I subverted that expectation. Brill’s character type in a novela usually provides contrast to the actual hero, and conflict as a romantic rival, before (sometimes) dying nobly so the happy couple can be together guilt free. Obviously, since Brill’s alive and well and standing with Bo on the cover of Book 2, we’re off script. Only . . . are we?
Look at Bo’s relationship to her home world, that out-of-balance Earth determined to hold onto an economic place in the galaxy no matter who gets hurt. Do you start to see a familiar character? This series is in first person because Bo’s the only one with enough unselfish love and inner strength to potentially change the heart of an entire planet. If she can only manage not to die in a very space-opera-ish way first. And if said planet isn’t destroyed by a Zantite invasion fleet. And if she can learn a number of specific lessons about the nature of love along the way.
One of my favorite bits in Pure Chocolate is near the beginning. Bo was taken off the beach as a prank on/dig at one of the other characters. Now, being confronted by the cops, she faces a dilemma: should she tell the truth, even though the context of the situation will be ignored? Or should she lie and show mercy? Keep in mind while reading it that the Zantites are giant, somewhat shark-like aliens.
I lean in towards Murry and ask, “What’s the penalty for kidnapping here?”
“If the victim was put in physical danger – as Tawny is insisting happened — it could be death. Or maybe just assignment to a warship.” Which is a life sentence. . .
I’ve said so much to Tawny about how horrible it is to lie. Pero, this time, if I tell the truth, my abductor might not leave this room. Who’d have to kill him? On the warship, that honor had gone to the highest-ranking officer. Dghax seems to be in charge here, so it’s probably him.
Dent Head swallows visibly and goes a bit greener. His hands ball into fists at his sides. And yet, he’s not trying to escape this. There’s a hint of hero to him after all.
Dghax holds out a voice recorder. “Did you see the face of or speak with your abductor?”
. . . He takes a step forward, about to confess. My heart lurches, as I picture his neck meeting Dghax’s teeth. I don’t want to see Dent Head die for one drunken mistake.
“No!” I say, mostly to him. Pero I smile at Dghax and repeat more calmly. “No y no. I remember being on the path, then I remember being in the tree.”
Amber Royer writes fun science fiction involving chocolate, aliens, lovesick AIs, time travel, VR, and more. She’s the author of the CHOCOVERSE comic space opera series (FREE CHOCOLATE available now, Book 2, PURE CHOCOLATE, coming March 5, 2019 from Angry Robot Books). She and her husband have also co-authored two cookbooks, one of which is all about chocolate). She teaches creative writing in North Texas for both UT Arlington Continuing Education and Writing Workshops Dallas. If you are very nice to her, she might make you cupcakes.
Dan Moren is joining us today to talk about his upcoming novel The Bayern Agenda. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Simon Kovalic, top intelligence operative for the Commonwealth of Independent Systems, is on the frontline of the burgeoning Cold War with the aggressive Illyrican Empire. He barely escapes his latest mission with a broken arm, and vital intel which points to the Empire cozying up to the Bayern Corporation: a planet-sized bank. There’s no time to waste, but with Kovalic out of action, his undercover team is handed over to his ex-wife, Lt Commander Natalie Taylor. When Kovalic’s boss is tipped off that the Imperium are ready and waiting, it’s up to the wounded spy to rescue his team and complete the mission before they’re all caught and executed.
What’s Dan’s favorite bit?
Ask any writer: beginnings and endings are easy. At the beginning of a story, everything’s fresh and new, brimming with potential and passion. Likewise, the end is often a roller coaster plunge as you tie together all the threads you’ve been laying for the story, wrapping it up in a hopefully satisfying conclusion.
Middles, though…middles are tough. That’s where the hard work happens, the careful intertwining of those threads you laid out in the beginning as they progress towards that inevitable end. (If you’ve ever watched The Great British Bake-Off and seen somebody mess up braiding a loaf of bread, you’ll appreciate the challenge of weaving all your plot points and character arcs into an attractive whole.)
So it’s as much a surprise to me as to anyone that my favorite bit of my latest novel, the sci-fi spy adventure The Bayern Agenda, is right smack in the middle of the book.
While on a mission on the planet Bayern, accidental Commonwealth agent Eli Brody has found himself roped into attending a black-tie soirée at the embassy of the Illyrican Empire, the Commonwealth’s rival superpower—and, as it happens, the very government that he himself deserted some six months prior.
My love for this whole sequence runs deep. Embassies are, of course, a staple of espionage stories, because they provide a space that is tantalizingly liminal in a number of ways. First, physically: you’re in the domain of the enemy, even though that domain is itself on foreign ground. Then, emotionally: this kind of professional environment requires a veneer of civility between rivals, of conflict blurred into fake camaraderie. Or is it real camaraderie? After all, the foot soldiers of a galactic conflict may have more in common with one another than with those calling the shots. Finally, politically. There’s a dichotomy of the overt and the covert at play here: an embassy is ostensibly all about diplomacy and good relations, even as hidden agendas lurk beneath. In short, it’s a setting ripe for subtext and tension.
Plus, of course, it’s dangerous.
Especially for Eli, a novice spy who’s been forced to learn the dos-and-don’ts of espionage in a hurry. Who can he trust? Is that pleasant civil servant he meets really all that he seems? What happens when the mission he’s been sent on takes a sudden and dire left turn? Throw in Eli’s fraught relationship with the Illyricans—who will not hesitate to arrest and perhaps even execute him if they discover who he really is—and it makes for (I hope) a tense scene that gets readers’ blood pumping.
As a writer, I have fond memories of putting this scene together, because I found myself rejoicing in the time-honored tradition of dunking your character deeper and deeper into hot water. Needless to say, Eli Brody’s situation gets only more dire as the lavish party progresses. Then, just when you think he’s in as deep as he can get, he makes a truly inspired—and truly ridiculous—choice: the kind of move that only an amateur spy would think is a good idea, since it leaves him with that hot water firmly over his head. And, as a bonus, it’s the kind of thing that makes even a reserved writer cackle in glee as everything clicks into place.
All in all, it makes for the kind of high-stakes cocktail party that you won’t soon forget.
Dan Moren is the author of the sci-fi espionage thrillers The Bayern Agenda and The Caledonian Gambit. By day, he works as a freelance writer, hosts technology podcasts Clockwise and The Rebound, and talks pop culture on The Incomparable podcast network. By night, he fights crime while dressed as a bat. He could use some sleep.
Keith R.A. DeCandido is joining us today with his novel A Furnace Sealed. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Bram Gold is a Courser, a hunter-for-hire who deals with supernatural creatures, mystical happenings, and things that go booga-booga in the night. Under the supervision of the Wardein—his childhood friend Miriam Zerelli, who is in charge of all magical activity in the Bronx, New York—he’s who you hire if you need a crazed unicorn wrangled, some werewolves guarded while they gallivant around under the full moon, or an ill-advised attempt to bind a god stopped.
The Bronx is the home to several immortals, who are notoriously hard to kill—so it comes as rather a surprise when one of them turns up murdered, seemingly by a vampire. In addition, binding spells all across New York are either coming undone, failing to work, or are difficult to restore. As Bram investigates, more immortals turn up dead, and a strange woman keeps appearing long enough to give cryptic advice and then disappear. Soon, he uncovers a nasty sequence of events that could lead to the destruction of New York!
What’s Keith’s favorite bit?
KEITH R.A. DeCANDIDO
The trick with A Furnace Sealed, the first in The Adventures of Bram Gold, is that I don’t have a single favorite bit, but rather the whole notion of writing about my home town of New York City in general and my home borough of the Bronx in particular is one that appeals to me. I rarely pass up an opportunity to write a story set in the Big Apple, whether original or tie-in.
To be more specific, though, I love writing about the people here. The Bronx is one of the most fascinatingly diverse places you’ll find. In 2009 and 2010, I worked for the U.S. Census Bureau, and I got to see so many different places and things and people.
My favorite was going to a Buddhist monastery, located in an old two-story house on a side street near Kingsbridge Road. From the outside, it looked like just another house, but inside I was greeted by a wizened old monk and his acolyte. They gave me tea, and for half an hour, I felt like I’d been transported to a secluded region of Asia rather than the middle of the Bronx.
The team I supervised for the main Census operation included people who were from (or whose ancestry traced back to) western Africa, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Korea, Cambodia, Trinidad, Puerto Rico, Cuba, Poland, Russia, Italy, and Ireland.
It was a joy and a privilege to be exposed to so many different cultures and points of view. And when I sat down to write A Furnace Sealed, I tried very hard to reflect that. The people in this book include the Jewish main character (Bram Gold), his Italian-American best friend (Miriam Zerelli), and lots of people from a variety of ethnicities and skin tones, including a wizard named José Velez, a magic shop run by someone named Ahondjon, with his nephew Medawe, and several of Bram’s fellow Coursers: Bernabe Iturralde, Hugues Baptiste, Sal Antonelli, Dahlia Rhys-Markham, and more. The four werewolves living in the Bronx spend the other 27 days of the month as humans named Anna-Maria Weintraub, Katie Gonzalez, Tyrone Morris, and Mark McAvoy.
While there are some neighborhoods in New York that default toward a particular ethnicity, even those have plenty of other folks living there—I myself am an Italian living in a mostly Irish neighborhood that also has a hefty number of dark-skinned folk from Central America and India—and most neighborhoods aren’t nearly that segregated. You’ve got folks all living mushed together ’round these parts, and it’s glorious. (It also occasionally results in culinary weirdness, like a Japanese-Cuban restaurant that I have yet to have had the courage to try.)
Variety, so the cliché goes, is the spice of life, and I for one prefer my life to be spicy. I tried to reflect that aspect of my home borough in this novel that takes place there.
None of that is really a favorite bit, so I’m just gonna close with this little bit of dialogue from Medawe, who helps his uncle Ahondjon run a magic shop on Jerome Avenue, talking with someone on the phone:
“Nah, he ain’t here,” Medawe was saying. Unlike his uncle, he was born in the Bronx, so he didn’t have Ahondjon’s thick West African accent. “It’s Sunday, he’s in church.… Nah, I ain’t telling you what church.… What, you telling me you found Jesus now? Bullshit. Just gimme the message, I’ll let him know when he gets back.… I don’t know when, I ain’t found no Jesus, neither. ’Sides, you know how he likes talking to folks. Could be hours.… Yeah, well, fuck you too.”
Shaking his head, Medawe pressed the end button on the phone.
“Another satisfied customer?”
Medawe snorted. “Yeah, somethin’ like that. What’cha need, Gold?”
“I need to talk to Ahondjon. He really in church?”
“Hell, no. Only time his ass goes into a church is to deliver their holy water.”
I blinked. “Wait, churches buy holy water from him?”
Keith R.A. DeCandido has written a ridiculous amount of fiction, or an amount of ridiculous fiction depending on your POV, for 25 years. His bibliography includes a metric buttload of media tie-in fiction in 35 different licensed universes from Alien to Zorro, as well as original novels and short stories set in the fictional cities of Cliff’s End and Super City and the somewhat real cities of New York and Key West. Recent and upcoming work, besides A Furnace Sealed, includes the Alien novel Isolation (which is partly a novelization of the same-named videogame, partly Ripley family backstory), Mermaid Precinct (the fifth novel in his acclaimed fantasy/police procedure series), four Super City Cops novellas (about cops in a city filled with superheroes), a graphic novel adaptation of Gregory A. Wilson’s Icarus, and short stories in the anthologies Unearthed, Brave New Girls: Adventures of Gals & Gizmos, Mine!: A Celebration of Freedom and Liberty For All Benefitting Planned Parenthood, They Keep Killing Glenn, Thrilling Adventure Yarns, Joe Ledger: Unstoppable, Nights of the Living Dead, both volumes of Baker Street Irregulars, and Release the Virgins!
Howard Andrew Jones is joining us today to talk about his novel For the Killing of Kings. Here’s the publisher’s description:
Their peace was a fragile thing, but it had endured for seven years, mostly because the people of Darassus and the king of the Naor hordes believed his doom was foretold upon the edge of the great sword hung in the hall of champions. Unruly Naor clans might raid across the border, but the king himself would never lead his people to war so long as the blade remained in the hands of his enemies.
But when squire Elenai’s aging mentor uncovers evidence that the sword in their hall is a forgery she’s forced to flee Darassus for her life, her only ally the reckless, disillusioned Kyrkenall the archer. Framed for murder and treason, pursued by the greatest heroes of the realm, they race to recover the real sword, only to stumble into a conspiracy that leads all the way back to the Darassan queen and her secretive advisors. They must find a way to clear their names and set things right, all while dodging friends determined to kill them – and the Naor hordes, invading at last with a new and deadly weapon.
What’s Howard’s favorite bit?
HOWARD ANDREW JONES
I’m a sucker for stories about heroes. I don’t mean the flawless, square-jawed kind, but complex humans who face nightmarish challenges to aid their friends and defend the innocent. Men and women who act with honor, who strive to be worthy of those they lead, and who do the right thing even when no one’s looking.
Maybe that fascination stems from catching the 1970s Four Musketeers movie in the theatre when I was very young, and being captivated by the close-knit unit who risked their all for one another with wit and skill and a little luck. Certainly I loved the heroism and sacrifice in all those re-runs I watched of the original Star Trek, where if not for devotion to one another and their belief in the best in humanity, the crew wouldn’t have survived the mission.
I’ve certainly been inspired by the astonishing exploits of Medal of Honor recipients, who risked and often lost their lives in defense of their comrades and those under their protection. Sometimes those actions were so jaw dropping they defy belief, like Audie Murphy’s heroism, toned down in his biopic lest the audience deem it Hollywood nonsense.
Given all that, it’s probably no surprise that I wrote a story about members of an elite group of highly trained warriors. When the novel begins, all’s not right in the Altenerai corps, or in the realm they serve. For some, honor has become an inconvenience. Leaders have gained authority not through hard won wisdom and dedication to their people, but because of loyalty to self-serving causes. A few veterans and squires stumble into what looks like a simple deception, only to discover a secret that’s festered into a conspiracy that threatens not just them, but their entire nation.
When it comes to my favorite bit, I could have written about my love for these characters, many of whom have been kicking around in my head for a quarter century, or my love for The Chronicles of Amber, which was as big an influence upon this book as the aforementioned musketeers. But I’m probably most pleased with the ceremonies I drafted for the Altenerai, the most important of them being the oath sworn when their members reach the seventh and highest circle of their order and don the sapphire ring:
When comes my numbered day, I will meet it smiling. For I’ll have kept this oath.
I shall use my arms to shield the weak.
I shall use my lips to speak the truth, and my eyes to seek it.
I shall use my hand to mete justice to high and to low, and I shall weigh all things with heart and mind.
Where I walk the laws will follow, for I am the sword of my people and the shepherd of their lands.
When I fall, I will rise through my brothers and my sisters, for I am eternal.
These words are the foundation of everything the protagonists of For the Killing of Kings believe. I like to think if I’d found them as a younger man I’d have judged them worthy of consideration and that they might even have impacted the way I conducted myself.
Howard Andrew Jones is the author of For the Killing of Kings, four Pathfinder novels, and a critically acclaimed Arabian Fantasy series. He’s the editor of the print magazine Tales From the Magician’s Skull and the Executive Editor at Perilous Worlds.
When not helping run his small family farm or spending time with his wife and children, he can be found hunched over his laptop or notebook, mumbling about flashing swords and doom-haunted towers. He’s worked variously as a TV cameraman, a book editor, a recycling consultant, and as a writing instructor at a mid-western college.
Alison Wilgus is joining us today with her graphic novel Chronin Volume 1: The Knife at Your Back. Here’s the publisher’s description:
2042, New York City: A day in the life of college student Mirai Yoshida means studying Japanese history, learning swordmanship, flirting with her TA, and preparing to travel to Japan in 1864. Everything changes once she goes back to the past. Mirai and her classmates are ambushed by rebel samurai. Her friends are killed, her time travel machine is lost, and Mirai ends up marooned. In order to survive, she disguises herself as a wandering samurai and is hired by Hatsu, a tea waitress, as bodyguard for her travels. Mirai has to find her way back to the future soon, or else she may be the first casualty on the bloody front lines of a conflict that is destined to shape a nation
What’s Alison’s favorite bit?
I love time travel stories with all my heart and I make no apologies. I was enthralled with the Back to the Future series as a child, and ever since I’ve been a ravenous consumer of time travel fiction and returned to it as a narrative device over and over again in my own stories. It was not a surprise to anyone who knows me that my first major work of solo fiction has a time machine at its heart.
There are many different kinds of time travel stories, featuring wild variations of mechanic and conceit. Plot-wise, Chronin is a “trapped in the past” type with academic interest as the “why,” which puts me squarely in the Connie Willis school. Regarding timeline logistics, I went with “parallel worlds” — one cannot travel into one’s own past directly, only to the past of a near-identical universe. And the tech? Absolutely shameless “don’t worry about it” handwaving.
As for why our main character, Mirai Yoshida, is personally hurling herself backward through time?
Because she’s a major in Time Travel Studies at a fictional Manhattan university.
As a high school student in Eastern Massachusetts, I was taken on a Physics field trip to visit the Alcator C-Mod tokamak fusion reactor at MIT. This was something like twenty years ago, but I have a vivid memory of walking into a cramped round room mostly occupied by the reactor itself. And I remember, in particular, how haphazard it felt — how it gave me the impression of being held together with chewing gum, duct tape, and hope.
About a decade later, when designing the “Time Machine Room” for Volume 1 of Chronin, I tried to capture that same feeling — of a machine built by grad students and maintained by TAs, of a technology in its early years at a well-funded research university. I wanted the time travel in Chronin to feel a little dangerous — right at the edge of what you’d allow a living person to use, but maybe only after they’d signed a thick stack of forms. We see Mirai laboring through her thorough study of history, see her shepherded by cautious professors and warned of the dangerous responsibilities which she and her classmates have been given. We are told through the mouths of that same faculty how she’s in rarefied company; that hers is the first undergraduate class that will be allowed to access this machine.
The thing is, all time travel stories are built on a foundation of bullshit — it’s inevitable, because unless you’re writing an extremely strict no-free-will-closed-loop kind of a tale, the logic of even the cleverest mechanism will fall apart under sufficient scrutiny. So all you can do is treat your time travel like a science fantasy magic system and attempt, as much as possible, to address the concerns of consistency and justify your basic premise.
When I tell people the plot of this book, I’m often asked why anyone in their right mind would give college students access to a time machine in the first place. And hey, fair question! I can’t speak for everyone, but I was personally an impulsive idiot when I was in my early twenties.
As I revised and rewrote and refined my manuscript over the years, the solution I honed in on was fairly straightforward: the Time Travel Studies program would be framed as highly selective and prestigious, and also very, very new. New enough to still be in those early years of high ignorance and low regulation, the kind of technological bleeding edge which gave us clothing dyed green with arsenic and radioactive patent medicine. The sparkling debut of an experimental department at an elite New York City university….right before it learns some hard lessons via the misfortunes of its students and staff.
If I’m honest, I have a hundred favorite bits of this story — that happens a lot in comics, as you’re chiseling away at them for years and years and have to trick yourself into sticking with it through single-minded over-investment. But way up there in the hierarchy was building a time travel school which felt believable enough for me to care about, but which would also plausibly have sent Mirai Yoshida — a student barely old enough to drink — backwards in time with a sword shoved in her belt.
AlisonWilgus is a Brooklyn-based bestselling writer, editor and cartoonist who’s been working in comics for over a decade. Most of her professional work has been writing for comics, including two works of graphic non-fiction with First Second Books about aviation history and human spaceflight. Her short prose fiction has been published by Interzone, Analog and Strange Horizons. Her latest work is Chronin, a science-fiction duology from Tor books and her solo graphic novel debut. In her spare time, she co-hosts a podcast about comics publishing called “Graphic Novel TK” with Gina Gagliano.
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 Lindholm 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 Lindholm 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 Lindholm.
“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.”
Lindholm 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 Lindholm’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, Lindholm 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.
Lindholm 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.
Lindholm 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. Lindholm had already gone down.
“Careful when you hit bottom.” As Lindholm’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 Lindholm’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. Lindholm 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. “Lindholm? 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.
Lindholm 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.” Lindholm 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 Lindholm 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?” Lindholm 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 Lindholm’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.” Lindholm 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.”
Lindholm 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.
Lindholm 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, Lindholm 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.
“Lindholm 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. Lindholm?”
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 Lindholm, 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 Lindholm, just that they wouldn’t kill them using projectiles.
“Dammit,” Mo grunted.
“I landed to save gas but Lindholm was right about the dust. I’m hip-deep right now.” Mo sighed. “Really wish I hadn’t dropped the snowshoes.”
Lindholm 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 Lindholm 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, Lindholm and I are heading to the IFFY.”
Lindholm 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 . . . Lindholm. 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 Lindholm 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.
“Lindholm.” 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 Lindholm 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 Lindholm’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 Lindholm 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 Lindholm 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 Lindholm.
A hand clamped onto her arm. Darlene yelped. A moment later, the mass of Lindholm 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 Lindholm 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 Lindholm’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 Lindholm. 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.
“Lindholm! 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 Lindholm. “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.
Lindholm 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.” Lindholm’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,” Lindholm groaned.
He wasn’t kidding. And they weren’t just hunting for her and Lindholm. 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 Lindholm 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?” Lindholm 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 Lindholm 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 Lindholm’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 Lindholm 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. Lindholm 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 Lindholm’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 Lindholm. She blinked at the door, head spinning.
Lindholm’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.
(Tor Books – July 14 2020) Mary Robinette Kowal continues her Hugo and Nebula award-winning Lady Astronaut series, following The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky, with The Relentless Moon. The Earth is coming to the boiling point as the climate disaster of the Meteor strike becomes more and more clear, but the political situation is already overheated. Riots and […]