Crucible by Moira Katson

Hello everyone! Though this space is usually reserved for my own self-promotional blather, I recently received a message from fellow indie author Moira Katson, and she had something I knew I had to share.

I first spoke to Moira a little over a year ago when she was kind enough to thank me via email for inspiring her to follow the self-publishing route. It was and remains one of the most flattering messages I’ve ever received. Since then I’ve seen her grow, chatted a bit, and even worked with her in a promotion not so long ago. In a showing of confidence that I only wish I could emulate, she submitted her novel Crucible (Book 1 of the Novum Trilogy) for consideration for the Amazon Breakout Novel Award. And guess what? She made it to the semi-finals! Whoooo! Let us all collectively wish her luck on advancing further!

In light of this great news, Moira decided to strike while the iron is hot by releasing her book early! She asked if I would spread the word (which naturally I agreed to do), but to sweeten the deal she agreed to indulge my artistic sweet tooth by providing me with some custom character art to share! And here it is!

Vasiliy

Lieutenant Commander Vasiliy Chagaev, Fleet of Human Nations

Gorgeous, isn’t it? The artist is Zezhou Chen. Do yourself a favor and check out that link. A gallery full of similarly masterful works.

Anyway, back to Moira! After getting a glimpse of such a commanding character, I’m sure you’re curious about the book! Well, check out the cover (by Sandro Rybak) and the blurb below. I assure you, if you’re looking for a wonderfully written and imagined sci-fi adventure, you’re going to want to give her story a read.

Fullcover_for_internet_Crucible“We have come to a moment when what we know as goodness and mercy will not be enough to guide us any longer. Your loved ones may not ever understand what you did here today, but they need you to stand for all that is good in humanity.”

With these words, war hero Benito Sandoval launched one of the most brutal massacres in human history, attacking the undefended colony of Guan-Yu and slaughtering forty thousand of the civilians he had sworn his life to protect. When humanity’s fleet arrives, too late to stop the attack, all that is left is ruins—and the cryptic words of a lone alien survivor, warning humanity of the Henth, a race that has devoured everything in its path.

Hunted to the brink of extinction, the Aireni were fleeing across the galaxy when they stumbled onto a living weapon with speed, strength, and brutal cleverness: a fragment of humanity on a long-forgotten planet. In desperation, the Aireni set about honing humanity, breeding and modifying the colonists into a weapon that might be the last hope for life in the galaxy.

As the human fleet searches the stars for the Henth, they leave the ruined colony behind them. But the colonists have not been destroyed. They have hidden. They have survived. And they know who their enemies are.

It is only a matter of time before they return from their exodus to the destroyed city, to find the technology the Aireni left behind. It is only a matter of time before that technology carries them into the galaxy. And then, as the last remnants of the surviving races face down the final advance of the Henth, it is up to humanity to convince a long-lost weapon to come to its aid…

There you have it! Crucible will be available for pre-order soon. Until then, check out Moira at her website and on facebook! And check out the excerpt!

Thanks for reading!

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Between: 4

I almost didn’t make it, but here it is, the fourth episode. I’m going to have to remember to do at least one more post each week so these things don’t dominate the front page.

“No, no. It isn’t really magic,” Philo explained.

“But how does its mouth move?” Right!Rill asked.

The previous few hours had been surprisingly enjoyable for Philo. He hadn’t recovered much of his memory, but he had a feeling that spending an afternoon chatting with one of the three heads of a purple sea serpent while lightly constricted in its coils wasn’t a typical pastime for him. Nonetheless, it had been fascinating for both of them. Right!Rill–and presumably Rill in general–was endlessly interested in other creatures, but she seldom had occasion to chat with anyone else. Through conversation, Philo had found her to be polite, curious, but not particularly swift when it came to understanding new concepts.

“Look, it is like this,” he said, holding up his hand in ‘sock puppet position’, but without putting the sock on. “I just move my fingers when I do the voice. Watch. ‘I’m Bosco.’ See?”

Right!Rill looked at Philo’s hand, clearly hard at work unraveling this mystery. The coils beneath them shifted somewhat and one of the creature’s three tails snaked up. It was the closest look he’d gotten at the peculiar appendage. It mostly resembled a serpent’s tail, except for the lighter purple frill that tapered to nothing along its length. The other difference was a trio of even smaller tails that looked like a cross between fingers and claws flaring from the end.

With intense concentration, Right!Rill worked the ‘fingers’ open and closed as he had.

“Hel-lo. I’m Bos-co,” she said, doing her best to imitate his voice.

“Nice! You want to try it with the sock?” Philo asked.

“Could I?!” she squealed.

“Sure.”

“Oh, oh! Make it Dierdre!”

Philo fetched a sock from inside his jumpsuit and slid it over the tail, adjusting it until it was properly situated.

“Let’s see it,” he said.

“I’m a ma-gic tal-king face named Deir-dre,” she said with supreme effort. When she was through she practically radiated pride.

Philo applauded. “Well done! You know what? You can keep that puppet.”

Really? But how will you do your trick?”

“I’m sure I can get by with just Bosco.”

“… No one’s ever given me anything before,” Right!Rill uttered, looking over the sock reverently. She seemed on the verge of tears.

“Well hey, it’s no big deal,” Philo said.

The tail suddenly lashed out, hooking around his neck and pulling his head toward hers. She pressed her cheek to his. “We made the right choice treating you nice.”

“I agree,” he said after recovering from the startling motion of a sock puppet-clad tail. He waited a few seconds, then gently pushed her away. “I need my head back now.”

She let him go and he cleared his throat and straightened his jumpsuit. “So how does that work, anyway? Do you each get a tail?”

“What? Oh, yes,” she said, wiggling the sock puppet around. “We control our head and neck, and we control our tail. Everything else is shared. Sensations and stuff, too. Except for eyesight and hearing. If I taste something, they taste it. We even have the same memories, eventually.”

“Really? But you said you control the head.”

“Well, yea, but that’s not where most of the thinky pieces are,” she jabbed the sock at the base of her neck, where it combined with the other necks. “That’s mostly in here. When we go to sleep our personal thoughts kind of slip down into the common memory area. We can even lose a head and it’ll grow back eventually, looking and acting the same as the one that was chopped off.”

“Interesting.”

“Is it?” she asked. “That’s just the way we work.”

“Are you getting something from them right now?”

“Sure. They’re dreaming. Two different dreams. One is about that ship we were talking about.” She shivered. “It’s a nightmare. The other one is about back home.”

“Which is having which?”

She pointed with her tail to the necks of the two other heads. “She’s having the nightmare, and she’s having the nice dream.”

“But which is which. How do you tell them apart?”

“She’s the one on the right and she’s the one on the left.”

“See, from my point of view you’re the one on the right. She’s the one on the left and she’s the one in the middle.”

“… You’re confusing me.” She glanced to the sky. “Oh, look, we’re nearly there!”

Philo swept his eyes across the endless field of white until, more or less directly in their path, he saw a tiny speck of darkness.

“Wow. Look at that. How do you even navigate in this place? There are no points of reference.”

“Well, if you know where you’re going, it doesn’t really matter which way you go.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s kind of hard to explain. There’s a trick to getting around in Between. You have to sort of hold it in your mind that you’re heading toward someplace, then eventually you’ll get there. Unless someone is hiding it from you. Then you have to be a stronger thinker than that person. Or something like that. There’s no map or anything, because nothing is really in any specific place. It doesn’t really matter how it works, so long as it works.”

“How do you find a place you’ve never been to?”

“It’s very slippery. If someone else knows how to get there and tells you about it, then you can sort of hold this abstract destination in your head and go toward it. Sometimes it takes a long time to get there, and sometimes it doesn’t work at all. But it only ever works if you’re absolutely sure you’ll find what you’re looking for.”

“If things aren’t a set distance away, then why does it take longer to get some places than others.”

“Things are… sort of… here, or not here. And some things are very not here. The more not here something is, the longer it takes to get to it and the tireder you are when you get there.” She grinned as she saw him trying to grasp her explanation. “This is fun! I never get to teach people things. I wish I knew better so I could do a better job. We’re close enough that pretty soon we’ll have to slow this metal ball down though, so I’m going to have to wake them up.”

Without any outward indication that she’d said or done anything, the other heads began to stir. Left!Rill was the first to blink groggily awake. It was clear she was the one having the nightmare, as she first seemed startled, then relieved. She turned to Philo and looked him up and down, then glanced to Right!Rill.

“Did he behave?” Left!Rill asked.

“He was great! Look!” Right!Rill said, darting her tail up. “Hi, Rill! Re-mem-ber me?”

Left!Rill’s eyes widened. “He taught you magic?”

“It isn’t really magic. But he did teach me. And he said I can keep it! Maybe if we can get two more and you two learn how, we can each wear one and it’ll be like there’s a whole ‘nother hydra to play with.”

“That would be interesting,” Rill said, rubbing her eye with her tail.

“Oh! Settle something. I’m the middle head, right? And you’re on the right and you’re on the left,” Right!Rill said.

You in the middle? No! I’m in the middle,” Left!Rill said. “You’re on the right and she’s on the left.”

“I’m sorry, but I think it is quite clear that I’m the one in the middle,” Rill corrected.

The three began to bicker with increasing agitation. Philo glanced down to where their necks met and realized, based on the fact that the frill ran down the backs of their heads and continued along the outside of their body, the three of them were effectively like three snakes that had been sewn together belly to belly. The heads were less three points in a row and more three points on a circle. When that was combined with the sharing of all of their thoughts and memories each night, not only was it obvious that they would all assume they were in the middle, they were all equally correct.

“Guys…” he said.

“So you think you’ve been in the middle for all of this time? That’s crazy! You’re the stupid one!” Left!Rill growled.

“Stop calling me that!” Right!Rill said.

“Guys, you’re all in the middle. It’s fine. I didn’t–”

“Stay out of this!” they snapped in unison, squeezing him just a bit more than was comfortable.

“Right, yes, will do,” he said quickly.

He tried to keep his head down while they worked out their disagreement, and spent his time staring at the spot in the sky that represented their destination. It was certainly growing closer. Though it was difficult to judge what speed they were traveling, Philo couldn’t shake the feeling that the distance was closing too quickly. Something in his head told him that the speck in the sky was moving toward them just as they were moving toward it.

After a few minutes the dot grew into an irregular shape in the sky. It was round, or at least rounder than it was anything else. About two-thirds of the surface was smooth and roughly spherical in shape. The remaining third was lumpy and curled in on itself. The overall impression was of a scoop of ice cream. As they drew nearer he was able to make out a few more details and refined his mental analogy to a scoop of mint chip ice cream, since large swaths of the surface were green with darker patches and bumps. As he stared, wondering how far away he actually was, a second shape slipped out from behind the other. This one was a splinter-shaped javelin, dark in color and orbiting the larger shape. Its length was about half the diameter of the scoop shaped-mass, and it was exceedingly narrow and jagged. This, he presumed, was the place they had spoken of. Shard. The name was certainly evocative of the shape… unless it actually had a different name and his brain had played the ol’ switcheroo again to pick a word that he knew. Philo still wasn’t quite sure how language worked here. Or physics, for that matter, since the orbit of Shard seemed far too low to make Newton happy.

Philo smiled. Though his memory was still little more than a haze, he vaguely remembered struggling to pass physics in school. Something about having found his way to a place where that knowledge was useless was oddly vindicating.

He squinted and noticed what looked like a small, dark cloud working its way toward Planet Scoop. With a bit of staring he was able to determine that the cloud was actually a swarm of small forms, moving more or less directly toward the surface. As best as he could judge, they would reach the mass ahead just a minute or two before he and Rill did.

“Hey, what’s that?” Philo asked.

“What’s what?” Left!Rill snapped, looking first to Philo, then in the direction he was pointing.

She opened her eyes wide.

“Heart Core Fetchers!” Left!Rill cried, urgency in her voice.

Rill’s other heads ceased their bickering and turned to face the distant swarm.

“What’s a Hardcore Fetcher?” Philo asked.

“Heart Core,” Left!Rill said.

“No time to explain,” Right!Rill added.

“We’ll be back,” Left!Rill said.

“This happens all the time,” Right!Rill said.

“Stay here,” Rill concluded.

“Where else am I going to– Whoa!” Philo yelped.

Rill uncoiled herself from around him and sprang into the air, hurling herself toward the shapes ahead. The motion was so swift it tossed Philo upward slightly. This gave him just enough hang time to realize that she’d centered her neatly piled body around the open door, which was now directly below him. He flailed for a heartbeat, then fell through the door. His poorly planned trip managed to guide his head first into the door jam, then the arm of the chair inside the capsule, and finally to the corner of one of the scattered cases.

He took the time to yell a few colorful words, then stumbled to his feet and poked his head out the capsule door. Rill was darting through the air toward the swarm, a look of determination on all three of her faces. Though he was getting closer all the time, the scattering of shapes that got the serpent so worked up was still too far away to see. A thought came to mind and he ducked into the capsule, poking back out with a paper manual in his hand. He flipped through the pages.

“Ah ha! This thing has a zoom on it!” he said, powering up the video headset and fiddling with the controls.

It took a bit of digging through menus before he found the proper settings, but once he did, he was treated to a highly magnified preview video in the device’s display. The swarm was like something out of a nightmare, or maybe a hallucination. There were a dozen creatures, all able to swim or fly in some way or another, and no two of them looking the same. Two were dragon-esque: one a blue-scaled western dragon and one a red and yellow eastern dragon. Between them flew a lantern-jawed, scrawny gargoyle with massive bat wings. Something that looked like a cross between a pterodactyl and a sapphire blue peacock was trailing behind, joined by an emerald-tailed mermaid wearing a suit of armor on her human half and a chainmail skirt on her lower one. Three miscellaneous winged creatures followed, none of which seemed particularly concerned with the traditional “two-wings per creature” rule of thumb. The smallest of them had a single wing and twirled through the air like a dark red seedling plummeting from a tree, while the largest looked like a centipede with wings for legs. The third looked like someone had disassembled two bats and used the parts to make one big one. What might have been the loch ness monster’s skinnier cousin was next, then a vehicle that looked like a cross between a blimp and a wingless bi-plane being piloted by two heavily armored humanoids. The side of the blimp was painted with a white heart against a red background. Bringing up the rear was a pair of winged horses, one with a unicorn horn and one without.

Rill rocketed toward them, moving faster than Philo had ever seen her move. The western dragon peeled off to clash with her, but the serpent was too fast, butting it in the side with all three heads before coiling around it a few times and giving it a squeeze. The eastern dragon swept in to help its draconian brother in arms, but Rill burst forward, spinning the western dragon and literally tangling with the eastern one. Half of the horde of flying creatures swarmed around Rill and a chaotic battle ensued.

What sounded like the distant sound of a bugle caught Philo’s attention. He pointed his head toward Shard–now much closer than he remembered–and backed off the zoom. Something that looked like a charcoal gray vulture with the wingspan of a hang glider was slicing through the sky toward the fray, carrying on its back an energetic humanoid creature dressed in an outfit composed primarily of buckles, holters, and a large pair of aviation goggles. This “pilot” was tooting the bugle and brandishing what looked to be an earnest attempt at making a fully automatic crossbow. The weapon was a mass of levers, springs, and gears. It looked ready to explode at any moment.

For a minute Philo simply watched as some sort of supernatural rumble played out in the distance. Then something dawned on him.

“What am I doing!? I should be recording this!” he tapped the record button and began to narrate. “Okay, Darva. What we have here is my new friend Rill having a no-holds-barred brawl with… sort of… a fleet of assorted monsters and aliens. Please note there is both a pegasus and a pegasus with a horn, which from now on will be known as a ‘Philo-horse’ since I discovered it. Over here there’s a vulture-riding goblin thing, which I’m pretty sure is on Rill’s side. It’s certainly doing a lot of shooting, and it’s mostly hit various members of the fleet. None have them have gone down, though.”

Even at this distance Philo could hear gleefully psychotic laugh from the vulture-goblin as it sent a spray of crossbow darts into the crowd of attacking creatures.

“Rill looks like she’s got three different creatures in headlocks now… and two different creatures have got her in headlocks. But the spare head is clamped down on a wing. I’ll bet that’s the left one. She’s ornery. I’d like to point out once again that if you had your way, Darva, I’d have taken a suicide pill and I’d be missing the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. No. Make that the greatest thing anyone has ever seen. And… okay, this might be a problem…”

The gargoyle creature, after pulling itself free from Rill and yanking out a few bolts from the goblin, had noticed Philo and the capsule and was heading toward him. Rill had her own problems to deal with, and the goblin didn’t seem to have any interest in anything but giggling and firing.

“You leave him alone! We fetched him, fair and square!” Right!Rill yelled, struggling against the centi-wing creature.

As the gargoyle got closer, Philo decided that strategic withdrawal was called for. He ducked back inside the capsule and cranked it shut. Inside it was pitch black, but luckily the flashlight was still in his pocket. He turned it on and shined it around, rummaging through the mound of disorganized boxes.

“Gun. Gun, gun, gun. Why didn’t I keep track of the gun?” he muttered. “I wonder how close that thing is. Here’s a hint for version two of this thing, Darva. Include a window or two.”

The capsule shook violently as the gargoyle made contact.

“You!” growled the beast. “You are new! You must come with me!

Its voice was gruff and deep, though even in his terrified state Philo couldn’t help but wonder if it actually sounded like that or if that was simply how his brain decided it should sound. The tone confused him, too. It didn’t sound like it was threatening him or issuing an ultimatum. If he didn’t know any better, Philo would sworn it was warning him. It was at that point that Philo realized that he didn’t know any better.

“Why? Why must I come with you?” he called through the capsule wall.

“You don’t know what these people want from you,” it said. “You won’t be safe here.”

“I don’t know what you want from me either. And Rill’s nice!”

“She works for a–”

“You get off! I told you he’s mine!” Left!Rill’s voice cried.

An instant later the capsule jolted to the side again. There was a vicious roar, a series of grunts, and a crackle followed by a yowl of pain.

“Serves you right! You Heart Core Fetchers are always after the new blood!” Right!Rill said. “Philo, you okay!?”

He opened the door and was greeted by all three heads of his friend.

“I’m fine,” he said.

“Good! Listen, hold Deirdre. I almost lost her.”

The tail poked inside and dropped the sock on the ground. “Also, I’m a little busy fending off these other Fetchers. You think you’ll be okay landing on your own?”

“What!? I’m not flying, I’m falling!”

“Right! So it should be easy to land. You’ll be fine. Remember, it’s really hard to die here.”

Before he could offer any more objections, the heads withdrew and Rill streaked off. He rushed to the door and looked around. In the time he’d been distracted by the battle, the capsule had dragged him quite a bit closer to the two landmasses. He was near enough now to see houses and streets on each of them. The scoop-shaped clump of land looked to have about the same amount of land as a large city, with a peculiar lake filling in a portion of the concave section. If he’d had more time, he would have marveled at what he saw. The place was a patchwork of different settings and technologies. Some buildings were made from gleaming metal, others little more than thatched cottages. There were rusted-out boat hulls repurposed as shelters sitting between the dislocated towers of medieval castles and what might have been UFOs.

Shard was the size of a colossal skyscraper that had been yanked from the ground. It was considerably more organized and orderly. A single spiral rode wrapped around it from top to bottom, and on either side of the road were black structures made from the same dark stone as the mass itself. At the blunter of Shard’s two ends sat a multi-story castle of some sort.

His capsule’s path shifted as the “gravity” of Shard began to drag him along. For better or worse, it didn’t capture him and pull him to the surface. Instead it slingshotted him around and sent him hurtling toward the scoop at a much shallower angle. He turned his eyes to the much larger mass ahead of him and tried to work out his trajectory. If his judgment was right–which admittedly would be rather surprising–then he was going to be hitting the ground in less than a minute.

He picked up Dierdre, stuffed her in his pocket, and desperately scrambled into the seat of the capsule. The near miss with Shard had set the capsule rotating. Philo braced himself against the chair, his head turned to the open and flapping door. Every few moments the scoop or Shard would sweep into and out of view, the former a bit closer and the latter a bit further away. Each successive flash of the ground showed him a touch more detail: a lush orchard growing some kind of red fruit, a menagerie of creatures fleeing, the lake of the concave portion.

Finally he struck the ground. The impact sent the capsule bouncing high into the air and turned the lazy spin into a veritable centrifuge. Sitting as he was at the center of the capsule, he was treated to the bizarre sight of the various packages and papers being thrown to the walls and pinned there as he twirled through the sky. His splayed out legs and arms were having a disagreement about whether or not they wanted to remain connected and he felt like all of the blood from his brain was draining into his feet. The capsule finished its arc and bashed down again, rolling across the ground.

Suddenly he felt like he’d been thrown into a rock tumbler. Cases and boxes were tenderizing him as his capsule barreled along. Distantly he could hear screaming voices and crunching wood, but he had enough problems of his own at the moment to wonder what exactly he was flattening along the way. Gradually the capsule’s cargo, or at least the portion of it that hadn’t been thrown out the open door, settled to one side and began to slow the roll. Three revolutions and three punishing equipment bombardments later, the capsule rocked to a stop. It took a bit longer for Philo’s head to stop spinning enough for him to be able to think clearly again. It was dark, and as far as he could tell the capsule had settled with the door facing the ground.

“Okay… Okay…” he said. “Status check. Still alive. That goes in the Good Column. Badly, badly bruised. Bad Column. Can’t see anything. Also Bad Column. Lost the flashlight, Bad Column. … I better find some good stuff soon. This is getting lopsided.”

He fumbled at the belts until he remembered that the release button was on the armrest, then fumbled at the armrest until he realized that bashing into the ground at high speed might have had a deleterious effect on the delicate mechanisms within.

“Okay… Stuck… Another one for the Bad Column.”

Philo thought for a moment, but he found doing so difficult. An intense anxiety was building in his chest, seemingly regardless of the fact that he didn’t appear to be in any real danger at the moment.

“Why am I so… Oh… Great. Well, Good Column: I’ve just remembered something new about myself,” he narrated for the camera. “Bad Column: I’m pretty sure I’m claustrophobic. That’s one I wish would have stayed forgotten.” His breathing began to speed up, keeping pace with his heart. “Okay, Philo. Don’t panic. Someone will come and get you. Your buddy Rill for instance. Don’t panic. Don’t… Screw it, I’m panicking!”

He began to violently fight with the straps, rocking and rattling the capsule in the process. At first he thought he was making progress, but slowly it became clear that what he thought was the straps loosening was in actuality the capsule rolling backward and sliding him back into his seat. The door began to tip up, revealing the faces of assorted townsfolk staring with curiosity and anger at the destructive newcomer. They were a varied bunch. A few humans, some in handmade clothes, others sporting period attire from what seemed to be the colonial era. There were things which looked like elves–both the statuesque tolkien variety and the Santa’s workshop variety–and assorted ogrish and gobliny things too. Mixed among them were a few quadrupeds, octopods, and assorted other -peds and -pods that Philo lacked the terminology to define.

“Uh… little help?” Philo offered weakly.

None of the onlookers seemed terribly interested in lending a hand, or a paw or tentacle for that matter. Perhaps it was because they were still upset about his crash landing. More likely it was because they had noticed a few things that he hadn’t, like the fact that the capsule was still slowly rolling. Philo watched as more of the sky became visible, then as the opposite horizon showed up. Ahead was the churning water of the lake, and below was the steep sandy slope of its shore. Apparently he’d come to a stop perched right at the top of the hill, and his struggles had dislodged him.

“Little help!!!” He yelped.

The capsule began to pick up speed, rolling toward the water. It splashed down, mercifully with the door facing up, and began to drift lazily across the surface. The sound of trickling water indicated that his landing had rendered the capsule less than seaworthy. The thought of sinking to the bottom of the lake and drowning briefly crossed Philo’s mind. It was swiftly chased away by the sight of three of the swarming attackers heading his way. He gave a halfhearted tug at the straps one last time, then sighed.

“I’m starting to wonder why I even have a Good Column.”

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Between: 3

Here’s episode three! I had to deal with the issue of how to refer to the individual heads of a three-headed character. Hopefully I picked a clear method.

Philo Middleton’s memory was still very hazy. He couldn’t remember anything specific that had happened to him prior to waking up in a high-tech capsule. Regardless, he was fairly certain this was the strangest thing that had ever happened to him. He was standing barefoot on the surface of a hollow ball of miscellaneous science, floating in an endless white void, wearing a sock puppet on one hand and staring down a three-headed purple sea serpent who was recoiling in horror after watching him remove the other sock puppet.

For a long few seconds both man and serpent were frozen in shock. Not knowing what else to do, Philo dropped the removed sock puppet. All three of his visitor’s heads watched the face-bearing tube of fabric fall. When it struck the capsule with a quiet flap, the serpent produced a chorus of squealing screams. In a blur of motion it unwrapped itself from around the capsule, spinning it like a top and throwing Philo from his feet. The creature wrapped coil after coil of itself over its heads, raveling itself up until it looked like a massive pink tangle of yarn. The frilly spines running along its back stood straight up giving it an intimidating, spiky look. When it was fully wadded up, the creature dropped to the surface of the capsule and settled into the dip created by the open hatch.

Philo climbed unsteadily to his feet and eyed up the huge lavender ball of coils. It was visibly trembling, causing the whole capsule to vibrate under his feet. He could hear terrified gibbering from the heads, muffled in the center of the ball. As he tried to work out what to do next, he realized that he could actually understand some of the sounds that were filtering out to him.

“That thing is crazy! … Pulled its face right off! … Hold still or it’ll get us!” the voices yammered in hysterics. The pitch was decidedly female, and though each voice was similar, they were not identical.

“Um… I’m sorry?” Philo offered.

At the sound of his voice the balled up serpent clenched tighter. “It hears us! … Go take a look. … Why don’t you do it? … Fine, fine, I’ll do it.”

The coils shifted and pulled aside, allowing a head to worm its way to the surface. It peeked up until it spotted him, then cringed and pulled back inside.

“Put your face back! Put it back!” it howled.

He scrambled to find the discarded sock, then slipped it back on.

“It’s okay. It’s on,” he said.

The head poked up again, squinting reluctantly at him. Satisfied, it ducked back into the tangle of coils and whispered to the other heads. The knots began to slide and loosen, organizing into a neat pile of loops centered around the hatch. When it had finished getting itself sorted out, the creature sat with its heads about five feet over him, each looking down disapprovingly.

“That was not very nice,” said the head in the middle.

“I’m sorry. You’re the first… ‘whatever you are’ I’ve ever met… as far as I know. I don’t know the protocol.”

“Is there ever a situation where it is okay to pull off a face without warning someone? Are you from a place full of face-puller-offers?” asked the head on the right.

“No, I’m not from a place of full of face-puller-offers, I’m from a place called Earth,” he said.

“He’s another one of those two-leggers,” the head on the left muttered to the others. “Why are there always so many two-leggers?”

“Can you tell me where I am?”

“Wait, first you answer my questions, then I answer yours,” said the middle head. “That’s the way it goes.”

“I guess that’s fair.”

“How did you get here?” the right head asked.

“Inside this capsule,” he said, stamping his foot.

“Is it magic or science,” the left head asked impatiently.

“Science, I guess.”

The heads looked to each other in disappointment. “Too bad,” they said in unison.

“Why is that too bad?” Philo asked.

“Do you know any magic at all?” the middle head asked.

“I don’t think so. Maybe a card trick or two.”

“Card trick?” asked the right head, tipping to the side.

“It was a joke,” he said.

“No joking. This is not a joking time. This is a serious time,” the left head barked.

“Oh, sorry.” He was beginning to dislike the left head.

The heads slithered down from the heap of coils and circled around him, inspecting him thoroughly from all sides at once. Having something so large and alien look him over should have been frightening, but mostly he felt self-conscious, as though he should have taken the time to fix his hair and straighten his jumpsuit. The heads finished their inspection, then looped around him to the front, brushing a coil lightly against his heels. The right head came nose to toe with the sock puppet on his right hand, eying it doubtfully.

“This face isn’t a real face,” it said.

“No, it isn’t,” he said.

“Why are you wearing false faces?” asked the middle head.

“I was lonely and bored. I’ve been here a while,” he said.

“He’s a strange one. I think we should leave him here,” the left head said.

“I like him. He’s dressed up to be like us. No one else does that. They all dress like one another,” said the right head.

“It doesn’t matter if we like him or not. We’re supposed to bring him back. That’s our job,” the middle head said.

“Fine,” said the left head sulkily.

The right head drifted over to the side of his head and closed one eye, looking in his ear. It then flicked a thin, serpent-like tongue inside, causing Philo and the other two heads to twitch.

“Pleh. He tastes terrible,” the right head said.

“Why do you always taste them?” asked the middle head. “We aren’t allowed to eat them.”

“Because she’s the stupid one,” the left head jabbed.

You’re the stupid one!” the right head retorted, darting up face to face and baring a set of sharp, triangular teeth.

The two began to bicker and butt against one another. The middle head carefully looped beneath them to look Philo in the eye.

“Don’t mind them. You had questions?”

“Yes. Loads of them,” Philo said. “For one, what’s this about eating me?”

“She always likes to check if newcomers are good to eat, but the boss has rules about eating people. We’re not allowed to do it unless he tells us to.”

“I see. That’s a good policy.”

“Any other questions? You may as well ask. They’ll be a while and it is hard to travel while they’re fighting.”

“Well, I guess I should learn your names.”

“I’m called Rill.”

“Pleased to meet you, Rill. What are their names?”

Rill twisted and looked to the arguing duo, then back to him. “We’re Rill.”

“You all have the same name?”

“We are all the same person.”

“Isn’t that a little confusing?”

“It never confuses me.”

“I see. Well, I’m Philo. Where are we right now?”

“Around your metal thing, where you showed up.”

“Well, I know that, but I mean what is this place?”

“Oh, the whole place? Different people call it different things. Most people just call it Between.”

“Between what?”

“Between here and there. Between now and then. Between everything and everything else.”

“What sort of place is this?”

“Home, for now. And since you don’t know magic, home forever.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I. All I know is lots of people get here with science, but no one leaves with science because science doesn’t really work so good here except when it does. Magic works great always, though.”

“Ah… Okay, so what are you exactly?”

“I’m a human.”

“… Are you sure about that? Because I’m pretty sure I’m a human, and you don’t look very much like me.”

“Oh, oh,” Rill said, shaking her head. “I forgot. You’re really new. See, I’m not really talking to you right now. Not with the words you’re hearing, anyway. This place sort of pokes around in your head and finds the words that mean the same thing to you. It’s really useful, because everyone can understand everyone else, but it gets tricky because sometimes words get mixed up. I said the word that means ‘the type of creature I am.’”

“And in my head, ‘the type of creature I am’ is human.”

“Right. Let me see. I’m… I’m a… water dragon? Does that make sense?”

“Sounds about right.”

“How about hydra?” Right!Rill said, growing tired of her little tiff with her sinister sister and twisting back to face him.

“That certainly evokes the whole multi-headed thing,” Philo agreed.

“Let’s stop wasting time and get this over with,” Left!Rill snapped.

The triple tail jutted out from the bottom of the mound of coils. For the first time, he noticed that each tail had three little claws on the end, like toes on a paw. He saw them only briefly before one of the tendrils wrapped around his ankle and yanked him upside down.

“Whoa, hey! Take it easy!” Philo objected.

“Well… Technically we don’t have to take it easy,” Right!Rill explained apologetically.

“The spotter only pays us to make sure we get the newcomers back to Shard alive,” Rill added.

“And it is really hard to kill things here,” Left!Rill said. “Watch!”

With a flick, the incredibly strong tail gripping his ankle whipped him up and made ready to smash him against the capsule. He didn’t have time to object, only managing to release a startled yelp. An instant before he would have struck, a second one of the tails wrapped around his hand and yanked in the other direction, pulling him taut like a guitar string.

“Wait! I think we should be nice to him,” Right!Rill said.

“I agree with her!” Philo said desperately.

“Why should we?” Left!Rill asked. As she spoke, the tail around his leg tugged.

The wrist tail tugged back. “Because he didn’t try to kill us. Most of the science-types do,” said Right!Rill.

The ankle tail tugged again. “He pulled his face off right in front of us.”

The wrist tail tugged again. “But he put it back when we asked.”

“Please stop pulling,” Philo said.

The ankle tail tugged. “That’s probably just because he’s afraid of us.”

“Please stop pulling,” Philo groaned.

The wrist tail tugged. “He would have run away if he was afraid of us!”

“PLEASE STOP PULLING!” Philo cried.

The ankle tail tugged. “Where would he run to?”

“Enough,” Rill said. The third tail wove up to his neck, where the three claw-like fingers clicked open and gripped the collar. “We should be nice.”

Left!Rill sneered and the ankle tail loosened. Right!Rill stuck her tongue out at Left!Rill and released her tail. The remaining tail lowered Philo to the surface of the capsule again.

Why?” Left!Rill said.

“Because no one likes us back at Shard. Maybe if we’re nice to him, he’ll be nice to us.” Rill said.

“I totally will be nice to you,” Philo said. “We’ll be best friends.”

“Yay!” Right!Rill said.

“And what good will that do? He’s a science-type. He’s worthless!” Left!Rill countered.

“No, no. I can do this,” Philo said, adopting the Bosco voice and working the puppet’s mouth. “‘ello! I’m Bosco.”

Right!Rill looked utterly delighted. “It talks! It is a real face!”

All three heads looked to the other sock puppet expectantly. “What about you?” they asked in unison.

“Er… Hello?” ‘Deirdre’ said.

“You said you didn’t know magic,” Left!Rill said, awe in her expression.

“Well, you know. I know some stuff,” he said.

“Well okay, we’ll treat you nice. But don’t forget we did,” Left!Rill said, darting her head to his and angling it down to look him as closely in the eyes as possible.

This close, he noticed that unlike her “sisters,” Left!Rill’s head frills were a bit tattered and frayed, and the otherwise immaculate lavender hide was marred by a faint pink scar on the left side of her head. He swallowed hard and nodded.

“We should take his metal thing, too. The boss likes metal things,” Right!Rill said.

“The boss likes anything new,” Rill agreed.

“Fine, fine. Let’s go then,” Left!Rill said.

Rill uncoiled like a spring, launching herself upward and shoving the capsule downward. The deceiving speed of the motion was enough to literally yank the ground out from beneath Philo, leaving him floundering in the above the capsule, slowly drifting toward it. Rill circled around, Right!Rill nipping him by the collar and dragging him along while each of the three tails coiled around a separate rung of the ladder he’d climbed to escape.

The serpent came to a near stop when her body ran out of slack, and she began to twist and undulate madly, trying to get the massive capsule up to speed.

“Are you sure you’re going to be able to move it?” Philo asked.

“We’re… Unf… Very strong,” Rill assured him, grunting lightly with the effort.

Right!Rill nodded vigorously, shaking Philo as she did. She handed him off to Rill and added, “We really are! This isn’t even the biggest thing we’ve fetched. There was a big boat once.”

“Full of two-leggers like you. With cannons…” Left!Rill growled, looking scornfully at Philo as though he’d been the one lighting the fuses.

“It took forever to get that moving,” Right!Rill said.

“It took longer to clear it out…” Left!Rill said darkly.

“But once something is moving it’s easy to get it where we need it,” Right!Rill continued.

“Now, when you say ‘clear it out’…” Philo said.

Right!Rill ignored him. She seemed beside herself, in the figurative sense in addition to the literal one, that she had someone to tell her stories to. “I think that boat was from Earth too. You said you were from earth right? We fetch a lot of boats from earth. And other things. It has something to do with a triangle.”

“A triangle… Wait, you mean the Bermuda Triangle?” Philo said.

Rill, still holding Philo’s collar in her teeth, nodded in agreement, shaking him up and down.

“Do you know it?” Right!Rill asked. “Is it nice? What does it look like?”

“It’s just a big chunk of ocean between some islands. What did you mean by ‘clear it out’ again?” Philo pressed.

All three heads closed their eyes and hummed happily for a moment. “The ocean.” they said, causing Philo to slip free. Right!Rill quickly snagged him as Rill took her turn speaking.

“I remember the ocean. Not your ocean. Our ocean,” she said, her eyes distant. “So much more color there. So many more humans.” She caught herself. “Sorry, water dragons.”

“Err Hrrrdrrrrs,” Right!Rill mumbled through clenched teeth.

“Yes, or hydras.”

“Are there not many hydras here?” Philo asked.

“We’re the only one,” Rill said. “Fortunately, a hydra can’t get lonely. There’s always two people to talk to.”

“It would be nice to have someone who didn’t run away every time we showed up though,” Left!Rill said.

“I guess most people think you’re a pretty scary monster,” Philo said.

“That’s not the problem,” Rill said. “There’s all sorts of scary monsters in Shard. People just don’t like us because of our job.”

“Everybody hates Fetchers,” Left!Rill said.

“Does it have anything to do with that ‘clear it out’ thing? Because I’m very curious about that,” Philo said.

“Look. Sometimes the boss wants the boat and not the people on it,” Left!Rill said.

“And what do you do exactly?”

Left!Rill twisted to face him, glaring hard and subtly flashing her teeth. “How bad do you want to know?”

“My curiosity on the matter has vanished,” Philo said, his expression held carefully still. “But what exactly is a fetcher?”

Right!Rill abruptly handed him off to Rill. “I’ll tell him! See, people pop into and out of Between all the time. No one ever shows up anywhere near Shard, or any of the places here that are actual places, and most of them pop out right away. When they don’t pop out, then it usually means they don’t know how, which means they’ll be here for good. When that happens we know about it, because there are a few people who can sense it. Those are called spotters. Once the spotters spot someone, they tell the boss and the boss sends a fetcher like us to go get them and bring them back before someone else does. It’s a very important job.”

“Why would people hate you for that?”

“Because people don’t have any choice about coming with us, and sometimes our job is to bring them back after they escape,” Left!Rill said.

“Escape? Is this Shard place the sort of place you’d want to escape?”

“It depends,” Right!Rill said.

“On what?”

“On whether you’re useful like us or useless like you,” Left!Rill said.

“‘ey, ‘ey. Let’s not forget about me!” said ‘Bosco.’

Right!Rill giggled gleefully, her head bobbing and her teeth showing in a much less threatening way. “What about the other one?”

“Yes, yes! I’m here too,” he had Deirdre add.

“It’s so strange that two heads sound like boys and one sounds like a girl. That almost never happens,” Right!Rill observed.

“It’s magic, remember? They might not all be his heads. Maybe none of them are,” Left!Rill countered. “We should test…”

“No, no!” Philo said hastily. He didn’t trust Left!Rill to choose a test that wouldn’t draw blood. “I assure you, the middle head, the one with hair, is mine. The other two are puppets.”

Right!Rill squinted her eyes and half turned. “And you can take them off?”

“Yes.” He eyed Left!Rill. “But the middle one doesn’t come off.”

“Could you…” Right!Rill began, hesitating briefly. “Could you take them off? Now that I’m ready for it, I’d like to see you do it.”

“Yes, take them off. They don’t match. It’s ugly,” Left!Rill said.

“Wwwwttttt!” Rill mumbled.

She flicked her head up, tossing Philo forward, then quickly reeled her body down toward the capsule they were towing, which was now moving at a reasonable speed. Loop by loop she coiled herself into a neat pile, each successive layer forming a tighter circle. Just as Rill finished comfortably situating herself, the capsule caught up with the hurled human. He plopped down on the pile, which slacked around him until he slid down a few layers, then snugged up again around his waist. The whole of the transaction had seemed like something a baton twirler might have performed on stage, if he had been a three-headed serpent and used a flailing human instead of a baton.

Philo’s eye twitched. “What was that all about?”

“We all want to see,” Rill said.

The heads were arrayed around him, each staring with rapt interest.

“Go on!” Right!Rill said.

“Okay…”

He pinched Bosco’s head with Deirdre’s mouth and slowly tugged. As the sock slid free, the three heads squinted and squirmed as though they were watching him saw through his own arm. When the sock slipped off to reveal his hand, they reacted in unison.

“Ew-w-w-w!” they said.

“Now do the other one,” Left!Rill prompted.

Philo made more of a show of it this time, stuffing the first sock into a pocket of the jumpsuit, flourishing his hand, and extending the sock removal into a seconds-long process that held all three heads in disgusted fascination. When it too flopped free, he felt a quiver move like a shockwave along her coiled body.

“Well, there you have it. The sock puppet trick,” he said, pocketing the other sock. “You can let me go now and we can get back on our way.”

He placed his hands on the coil wrapped around his middle and tried to push himself free. Despite the oily sheen her hide had, Rill was warm and dry to the touch. Her skin was perfectly smooth, and it had a cushiony softness to it that gave way to a steely musculature not far beneath the surface. Despite pushing hard, he couldn’t budge himself. In fact, she snugged herself just a bit tighter at his struggles.

“No. Not yet I don’t think,” Rill said.

“It took us a while to get to you,” Right!Rill said.

“And we’re a bit tired,” Left!Rill continued.

“Tired? But I’ve been here for days and days and I haven’t been the least bit sleepy.”

“Oh, sure, you can stay awake forever and you’ll never need to eat, but only if you don’t do any of the hard stuff. Traveling takes a lot out of you. The boss will explain it when you meet him,” Rill said. “For now, we’re going to sleep.”

“Well can’t you let me go while you rest?”

“No, no, no. We can’t do that. You know magic. You might get away!” Right!Rill said.

“And the boss doesn’t like it when we let them get away,” Left!Rill said.

“Don’t worry, you won’t get bored though. We only sleep two at a time. We couldn’t keep moving toward Shard otherwise,” Rill said.

“You need to be awake to actually move,” Right!Rill clarified. “As long as one of us stays up, then the big metal thing should carry us at least part of the way. It’s my turn to stay up.”

“Well that’s a relief,” Philo said.

“Why is that a relief?” Left!Rill snapped.

“No reason,” he said, eyes wide.

She glared at him for a moment while Rill laid her head down and tucked it under a coil. After making him uncomfortable for a second or two more, Left!Rill tucked her own head away. Philo looked to Right!Rill. The corners of her mouth drew up in a genuine smile, the frills on her head fluttering and flexing once.

“Oh, I almost forgot!” Philo said. He pulled the headset free. It had never stopped recording. He pointed it to his face, trying to get Right!Rill in the shot. “Well there you have it. First contact with an extra-dimensional creature. I’d say this expedition is off to a good start, wouldn’t you?”

“Who are you talking to?” Right!Rill asked, leaning close and eying the headset curiously.

“Oh, I’m recording something for Darva.” He pointed the camera directly at her. “Say ‘Hello, Darva!’”

“Hello, Darva!” Right!Rill said brightly.

He pointed to himself. “Philo out.”

And that’s it for this week. I’m not as far along with the next installment as I have been with the others, but I think we’ll be getting a peek at this “Shard” place, and maybe we’ll even meet the boss.

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Apple promotes free series starters (like me!)

ibooks first

Say… I’VE got a series!

I’m astounded to report that once again I’ve blipped onto Apple’s radar! Users of iDevices might have noticed a little banner promoting FIRST IN A SERIES. (If you missed it, it’s right up there in the post.) This is an international promotion celebrating folks who offer the first book of their series for free. Now, I personally do that twice–once for The Book of Deacon and again for Bypass Gemini. Apple has been kind enough to promote both of these books!

Apple has repeatedly surprised me by crafting promotions that actually push little ol’ indies like me. Amazon is a fine retailer, but time and time again it has been Apple who has given me and those like me a leg up. I thank them for their dedication to authors of all levels, and I hope that this promotion is a huge success for them. The fact that such would mean it was a huge success for me is just a happy coincidence, I assure you.

If you haven’t already picked up both of my free books, now would be a great time to do it. You should also check out the other books featured in the promotion. They’re a great group, and more than a few of them are fellow Smashwords authors.

Thanks for reading!

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Between: 2

As promised, here’s the next episode of between. Head bonking and new character included. If you missed it, here’s Episode 1. I’ve already got most of the next one finished.

Philo scratched his head as he looked out the door of his capsule. If he’d sat down and made a list of the things he imagined he might have found when he opened the door, “blank space” probably wouldn’t have been one of the things at the top of the list… although technically it would have already been on the list before he started, so it would have been at the very top and he would have been less correct with each guess. Lesson learned? Don’t bother guessing.

Once he got over the strangeness of discovering that there was nothing to discover, he started to note some of the other unusual things. Despite the endless field of white that surrounded his capsule, there didn’t actually seem to be any light. When he put his hand outside he could see it clearly, when he pulled it inside it was in shadow. The light stopped at the door, like it was afraid to come inside.

“I’ve discovered shy light,” he remarked, jutting his hand in and out a few times. He stuck his head out and looked down. “I wonder how far down it goes.”

After digging around in one of the boxes to find something he wouldn’t mind losing, he pulled the scuba mask from the Disembarkation Kit and leaned out the door.

“So long, mask,” he said, tossing it down. The mask darted downward, then hooked under the capsule and out of sight. He leaned out further to try keep an eye on it. “Hey, stay where I can see you, you stupid…” Something cracked him on the back of the head. “Ow!” He twisted to look up, and found the scuba mask twirling in the air above him for a moment before dropping to the outer surface of the capsule. “… What are you doing back here?”

He grabbed the mask again and gave it another toss, this time ducking back into the door and looking warily upward. A moment later the mask plummeted by the doorway. A moment after that it plummeted by again. The third time it passed he reached out and caught it. Experimentally, he threw it to the left. A moment later, it whipped by from the right.

“So gravity is kind of a wildcard out there,” he observed. “Good to know. I should be writing this down.”

A bit of searching turned up a pad and pen. He jotted “Important Discoveries” at the top of the first page, then started a bulleted list. The first two points were “Shy Light” and “Indecisive Gravity.” He watched the mask whiz by for a while.

“This is fun, discovering things and such. I’ll bet when my faculties return it’ll turn out I’m a scientist or something. Heck, I’ll bet I’m supposed to be doing all sorts of science stuff right now. Where’s that tablet? Let’s get to business, Darva.”

He stepped back to the stubbornly dark interior of the capsule and pulled himself up into the chair. The tablet was still dangling from the roof of the capsule by a rubber-coated coil. He investigated it for a bit, then discovered that the coil was just some sort of tether, and it could be unhooked without much difficulty.

“Let’s hear it,” he stated, leaning back in the seat and tapping the screen.

A video began to play, with the woman he knew only as Darva continuing in a flavorless monotone. “By now your faculties should have returned…”

“Wrong, Darva.”

“… so you can proceed with the activities covered in your pre-phase briefing. If not, pause this video and consult the Test Subject Overview Packet to refamiliarize yourself with the key points of your identity and mission.”

He tapped the screen. “Excellent! Cheat sheet for the faculty challenged!” He hopped down and clicked on the flashlight, looking through the increasingly disorganized mound of materials on the floor around the chair. “Stupid faculties. Wandering off and not returning. Faculties is a stupid term to use anyway. It makes my head sound like a university or something. Ah, here we are. Test Subject Overview.” It was a small paper packet, about the size of an index card. He tore open the end and removed, predictably, an index card. He cleared his throat and read the card. “Test Subject 42. Name: Middleton, Philo Heironymus. … My middle name is Heironymus? I must have some weird parents. … Age: 28. Weight: 178 lbs. Hair: Brown. Eyes: Hazel. Criteria For Selection: Extreme Psychological Resilience. Mission: To test the viability of the Dimensional Capsule and observe and record any findings.” He flipped the card over, finding nothing else. “Well thanks a bunch, Darva, that clears everything up.” He began to imitate what he imagined to be the voices of the people organizing the mission. “What do you think an amnesiac test subject would want to know? Well, make sure to put his eye color on there. What about hometown, or family? No, no. Eye color and hair color. That should cover it. Oh, and weight. He’ll want to know if he’s fat or skinny.” He tossed the card away. “Well, at least I know it’s a dimensional capsule now… which I guess means I’m in another dimension. Also, I’m psychologically resilient. Whatever that means. I choose to interpret it as a complement. Another one for the Good Column.”

He tapped the screen and Darva began to speak again. “Please remember to record any and all observations thoroughly with the AV recorder. The high capacity battery and memory chip will provide up to two hundred hours of high fidelity audio and high definition video. If you decide you need to record more, charging and data transfer cables are in the Documentation Kit, as well as instructions on how to archive data. Remember to cover all items on the Observation Checklist, also found in the Documentation Kit.When you are through with your observations, tap this screen to continue.”

The video cut to a text screen with the instructions she’d just given verbally.

“So I’m supposed to observe… Well I was already observing. But I guess I’ll strap on that headset and see what’s on this checklist.”

The headset was a decidedly futuristic accessory. It looked like a pair of glasses, though only one eye had a lens. That eye also had camera attached. It was about the size of a tube of lipstick, and had a small hole with a metal grill over it that Philo supposed was a microphone. A second microphone was at the end of a stalk which stuck down in the general direction of his mouth. A few clearly marked buttons were on the side, the largest of which was the record button. He slipped the headset on. It held firmly but comfortably to his head. When he clicked record, a small video preview briefly showed in the one lens over his eye. It then shrunk down to show a dB meter that moved when he spoke.

“Okay, this is Philo Middleton speaking. Despite some very sketchy advice from Darva–if you’re watching this, Darva, you need to work on your instructional videos–I am now all set to start my very important mission. There’s a checklist here, so I’m just going to go through it. 1. Record Time from Capsule Chronometer. Well nothing in the capsule works, but I woke up a few minutes ago, so we’ll call the time T+ a few minutes. 2. Record the temperature from the Capsule Thermometer. Again, nothing in the capsule works–you’re really batting a thousand on this one, Darva–but it feels about… How do you estimate temperature? It isn’t hot, it isn’t cold. It’s like… Do you ever lie in bed with the covers over you for so long that it feels like the whole world is the same temperature as your body? It is like that. Blanket Comfy 3. Weather Conditions.” He stuck his head out the capsule door to look around. “It doesn’t seem–”

The still orbiting scuba mask struck him in the head.

“Ow! Stupid… Okay, I might be jumping the gun on this particular observation, but wherever it is that I’ve ended up, there’s weird gravity. Originally I labeled it Indecisive Gravity, but after getting clocked in the back of the head twice, I’m officially upgrading it to Three Stooges Gravity… I guess it is also worth recording that while I still can’t remember if I have a wife and kids, apparently I can remember the Three Stooges. So at least the important stuff is coming back to me. Anyway, weather.” He stuck his head out and looked around. “I’m going to call that ‘not applicable.’ Unless that white is actually from clouds, in which case we’ll call it cloudy. Next, 4. Flora and Fauna. Also not applicable. Finally, 5. Unique Observations. Okay, we’ll but the Stooges Gravity and Shy Light here instead. So… that’s the checklist. Just to recap: Time, A few minutes after I work up. Temperature, Blanket Comfy. Weather, nope. Flora and Fauna, also nope. Observations, wacky gravity and light that won’t come indoors.  Philo out.” He stopped recording. “What’s next, Darva?”

He tapped the screen. “If you are satisfied with your observations, and the ship has passed all systems checks, then open the Recall Procedure document and follow the simple instructions. If the ship failed any of its systems tests, follow the appropriate emergency procedures. If there is a failure of both primary and secondary power, attempt the automatic restart routine by holding the right-most button on your armrest for ten seconds. If that fails, consult the Contingency Kit. This concludes your video instruction.”

Philo pulled himself into the seat again and held down the button. After well over thirty seconds, there was no sign of success.

“Big surprise there. Let’s look at this Contingency Kit.”

He slid down, sifted through the pile of cases, and found one with the proper label. It was the size of a wedding ring box. He opened it.

“… Oh screw you, Darva.”

Inside was a capsule with a single line of instructions. Bite down on capsule for swift, painless death.

He angrily tapped the record button again and pulled the headset off, pointing the camera at his face.

“Listen up, Darva. I don’t know who you are. Hell, I barely know who I am, but considering the fact that you gave me a suicide pill and told me to take it if your precious capsule doesn’t work, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say we aren’t friends. Now I don’t know how I’m going to get home, but you can be damn sure I will get home, just so I can see your face when you watch this video and see me do this!” Philo flipped up his middle finger and made a great show of waving it at the camera. “Oh yeah, that’s right. I just flipped you the bird from another dimension. That’s an interdimensional bird-flipping. And you know what, Darva? I’m going to record a ton of stuff now. I’m going to do it just to spite you. I’ll make groundbreaking discoveries and I’ll name every single one of them after me. And then I’ll come back and make you watch every second of this video.” He slipped the headset back on and grabbed the Contingency Kit. “And you see this, Darva? This is what I think of your contingency plan.”

He reeled back and hurled the case out the door of the capsule, sending it twirling away. In seconds it was completely out of sight. When he was certain it wasn’t going come twirling back, he heaved a sigh.

“Well, that felt good.” He took a deep breath. “Now… what to do next.”

#

Click.

“Okay, I figured out there is a little time stamp option for this headset, so at least I know how long it’s been since I recorded the first video. Two hours, by the way. I spent the last hour looking around here for something worth doing. Let me tell you something, Darva. There is nothing fun in this capsule. No games on that tablet. There’s not even a deck of cards or a yo-yo. Way to plan ahead, Darva. Anyway, I’ve decided I’m going to climb outside, because I’m getting a little stir crazy.” He looked down, to reveal a rope tied to the handrail beside the exit. “I’ve got a tether here, just in case. So, let’s get to it then.”

He stuck his head out the door and looked around. To one side of the door was a row of rungs built into the surface of the capsule. He twisted around, sat on the edge of the door, and grabbed onto the rungs. As soon as a reasonably large portion of his body was outside of the capsule, though, he began to notice something odd.

“Um… okay, different parts of my body are having a disagreement about which way is down. My legs, which are inside, definitely want to go toward the floor of the capsule. My arms and head, which are outside, want to go toward the center of the capsule. It feels really weird. I’m going to call it ‘The Philo Effect.’ Deal with it, Darva.”

Philo grabbed the rungs with both hands and began to slide himself out of the capsule. It was phenomenally disorienting. His brain told him he should be climbing the ladder, but his arms and legs increasingly suggested he was crawling across the ladder. With a final, unsteady shift of his weight, he slid his feet out of the capsule and onto the rungs.

“Okay… starting to regret this decision,” he said, his hands shaking as he gripped the rungs.

He looked “down,” or at least toward the portion of the capsule that had the floor, and saw nothing but more of the same endless white void. It was like clinging to the top of a massive skyscraper, or maybe walking the wing of an airplane, except that rather than wind whistling in his ears there was no sound at all, not even the slightest breeze.

“There is no wind. I’m not actually sure if there’s any air. I mean, obviously I’m breathing and such, but… I don’t know, it is like the temperature and the light. None of it works the way it should. The light isn’t coming from anywhere, it is just there or it isn’t. I can feel that I’m not freezing or sweltering, but I can’t pinpoint anything as specific as hot or cold. It’s the same way with the air. I can feel it fill my lungs and rustle my nose hair and such, but at the same time it feels like it isn’t there at all… Great. Now I’m thinking about breathing. I guess that’s better than thinking about falling.” He looked “down” again. “And now I’m thinking about falling again.”

Rather than get caught in a breathing/falling anxiety loop, he decided to keep climbing until he ran out of rungs, which took him to what the engineers who designed the capsule must have considered to be the top. Once there he reeled in the slack on the tether and tugged to see if it was securely tied. Satisfied, he shakily released the rungs and stepped onto the surface of the sphere.

“There, tada!” he proclaimed. He looked around him. Now with an unobstructed view, the all-encompassing nature of the white around him was making his head spin. It was utterly featureless, not a speck of black, a shape, a line. Just white in every direction. “Look at all the nothing…” He cupped his hands to his mouth. “HELLO! … Nothing. Not even an echo. It is humbling you know? I feel so insignificant. … Actually, strike that. If I’m the only one here, then I’m incredibly significant. By default I am the most significant thing around. Still small, but very significant. Like a grain of sand in the eye. Philo H. Middleton: A Grain of Sand in the Eye of Creation. Cool, I’ve got a name for my memoir now. Philo out.”

#

Click.

“We’re about three hours into my expedition, and I thought this would make for a good update. It turns out, gravity is totally treating the capsule like a little planet. The surface of the capsule is the ground, and the white void is the sky, and stuff always falls to the ground. The only exception is when I’m inside the capsule, in which case the floor is down. Found that out the hard way when I fell in the doorway, and about halfway through I hit the chair and then fell again and hit the floor. To illustrate this principle, I’m going to create a landmark.”

He stooped and picked up the scuba mask. Just beside the very top of the capsule was an antenna. Philo hung the mask on the antenna.

“And now, in an unprecedented showing of bravado, I’m going to … drum roll please… remove the tether!” Taking care to keep the entire process in the shot, Phylo looked down and untied his safety line and threw it away. “Now watch.”

With slow, steady steps Philo began to pace along the surface of the capsule. Rather than quickly slipping off the edge, he simply continued forward. After very few steps he came to the door of the capsule and looked down into it.

“Watch this.”

Philo pulled a crumpled up envelope from the pocket of his jumpsuit, then turned on the flashlight and pointed it down into the capsule. He dropped the paper and it fell down into the door, then quickly curved toward the floor of the capsule and bounced to a stop.

“Neat huh. That’s a practical demonstration of The Philo Effect.”

He hopped over the door, continued walking, and eventually came back upon the scuba mask without ever having turned.

“There. I’ve circumnavigated the world. Philo out.”

#

Click.

Philo had removed the headset and was pointing it at his face. “We’re about twelve hours in now. A few more observations. I just realized that I haven’t gotten tired or hungry since I showed up. I haven’t gotten thirsty either. And since there’s been no input, there’s been no output, which is good news because you didn’t put a bathroom in that capsule. Way to think ahead, Darva. I did find some diapers, but something tells me that was just Darva seeing if I’d do something that humiliating. What I did get is bored. Luckily I’m resourceful, and I have a lot of food bars that I’m apparently not going to need.”

He slipped the headset back on and looked up. A galaxy of foil-wrapped food bars, water bottles, and both of his boots were flying through the air just above head height. They were orbiting around the capsule in a dozen different directions, some quickly, some slowly. He stepped back and watched one whizz by at chest level.

“It’s like plate spinning. Beat that, Darva. Philo out.”

#

Click.

The video is once again from Philo’s point of view. “Okay… forty hours in. Still haven’t slept. Haven’t even yawned. So I…” He paused, then yawned loudly. “… Shouldn’t have mentioned it. Anyway. The days are bleeding together. Or the things that would be days, if there were nights. How do I say this, then? The twenty-four hour periods are bleeding together. Getting a little loopy. I figure I need to stave off the isolation. To that end, I’d like you to meet Bosco. Say hello, Bosco.”

Philo poked his hand up in front of the camera. He had formed a crude puppet by drawing eyes and a mustache onto his sock and slipping it over his hand.

“‘ello, Philo,” he said in a cockney accent, working the mouth in rough sync with his words.

“Maybe you’d like to introduce your friend,” Philo suggested.

“This is me ol’ friend Deirdre,” the sock puppet said.

He poked his second hand into view. This one was outfitted in his other sock, on which he’d drawn a face with prominent eyelashes and a beauty mark.

“Well hello,” he said in a piercing falsetto.

“So anyway, I’m confident these two will be enough to keep me sane for a while. Philo out.”

#

Click.

“Okay… No way, is that accurate? Okay, we’re one hundred and thirty hours in,” Philo’s voice was a bit strained, clear excitement in his tone. “Bosco and Deirdre got into an argument and now they aren’t speaking to each other, so I figured I’d watch the orbiting snacks for a while, when I noticed something. Look over there.”

He pointed, ‘Bosco’ still on his hand. Doing so placed his hand in the path of the various flying bars. They bumped into the sock puppet and fell out orbit.

“Oh, sorry about that Bosco. Here, let me clear those out. Deirdre, lend a face.”

WIth both sock-clad hands he snatched the various items from the air and dumped them into the hatch of the capsule.

“Anyway, I don’t know if the camera can see that, but look.”

In the distance there was a tiny speck. It was barely there at all, but after staring at the unbroken field of white for so long, it was like a brilliant red bullseye to Philo.

“It’s been there for the last twenty minutes, but now I’m absolutely certain it’s getting closer.”

He watched in quiet awe as the speck in the distance grew imperceptibly larger. As it did, details began to emerge. First was the color. It was lavender. A few minutes later he could see that it wasn’t a dot, but a line. It was flitting through the void like a ribbon caught in the wind, threading its way toward. Without any reference it was impossible to say how large it was, but proportionately it was like a python. It was a tube, more or less uniformly thick at this distance, but much longer than it was wide.

Soon it was near enough for him to see that it wasn’t a uniform color. Three lighter purple stripes ran along its length. The front and back of it seemed to be flared somewhat, with three points instead of a single one. It was at this point that he became certain that what he was looking at was some sort of creature. The thought flitted briefly through his mind that she should get inside the capsule, lock the door, and wait until the thing was gone. Like most of the thoughts in his head, it didn’t stick around for long enough to take root. He was far too busy reveling in the excitement of seeing another living thing to do anything but watch with anticipation as it drew nearer.

While it had taken several minutes to become near enough to see, it closed the remaining distance to him in seemingly no time at all. It moved like an eel, rippling smoothly along. The lighter stripes were finned ridges, and the rear flare was a trio of tentacles or tails, the fin running along the back of each one. The front flare was a matching trio of heads, but it was moving too quickly for him to see the details before it darted up to the capsule and coiled around it. The creature constricted lightly, it’s momentum causing the whole capsule to rotate a bit as it came to a stop. The thing’s body was long enough to entirely encircle the capsule with enough slack for the heads to rise up about five feet. They did so briefly, then plunged into the open hatch.

Philo adjusted to the spin and cautiously approached the hatch, hands held out to the side to try to maintain his balance.

“Um… Hello?” he said.

All three heads darted up and looked at him. The trio was identical, though the heads on the left and the right had to twist a bit to adopt the same orientation as the center one. Each looked a bit like a horse’s head if someone had made an ice sculpture of one and then let it melt for a while. Alternately, they might have been a particularly sleek interpretation of a dragon’s head. The heads were about the length and a bit less than the thickness of Philo’s thigh. Their snouts were long, narrow, and pointed. Each had two nostril slits near the tip and the thin line of a mouth running along the jawline. At the other end of the snouts were a pair of large, inquisitive eyes. The eyes had enormous irises, so large there was nearly no white around them. The iris was black with a pearlescent sheen, and the pupils were vertical slits. The top of the head had three tall frills folded back, with a few smaller spines scattered between to form something akin to ahead of spiky hair. The frills met in the back and merged into the long, back fin. A pair of small, otter-like ears flapped a bit in either side of each head. The skin was a gorgeous and vibrant lavender color, gleaming with an oily sheen.

The heads adjusted so that the center one looked him in the eye while the left and right heads looked to his outstretched hands. The right head had one of his boots in its mouth, dangling by the laces.

“Hello,” he repeated.

All three heads suddenly shifted to stare at his left hand. He looked to it and realized he still had the sock puppets on.

“Oh, sorry,” he said.

He reached over with one socked hand and pulled the sock from the other. Instantly the three heads pulled back, utter terror in their eyes and mouths open in horror. His frazzled brain snapped into action, pointing out a number of things it probably should have indicated earlier.

You just met a creature with three heads. You have one head, plus two hands with faces on them. You just pulled the face off one of them. What did that look like to the creature? He thought.

“Oops.”

That’s it! I think I’m getting very good at ending these things right before something actually interesting happens. Stay tuned for the next installment in a week, when we’ll find out why you should always be wary of the head on the left, and the intrinsic weakness of universal translation.

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The Other Eight Official Release

The day has finally come. After sitting on a shelf for most of the last year and a half, my first foray into superhero literature is ready for the light of day. As always it is available from as many sites as I can manage, so take your pick!

AppleAmazonBarnes and NobleSmashwords

(And more coming soon!)

For those of you who haven’t followed its development, The Other Eight started as a silly little game my friends and family would play. We would try to come up with the most useless superpowers possible. Then, back in 2012, I decided it might be fun to give NaNoWriMo a try. I knew I needed something disposable, just in case I failed or produced something that wasn’t worth reading. I dug through the cesspool of notes that I’ve accumulated over the years and turned up the hero list. It seemed like likely fodder. The Other Eight is the result.

What’s it about? Well, imagine if the armed forces, realizing that even the most pointless of super powers could have some value, decided to secretly recruit the best metahumans available. Now imagine that on day one of the recruitment drive, word of the hero search leaked to the press. Suddenly thousands of would-be heroes—underpowered but desperate for a chance to fight crime—comes knocking on Uncle Sam’s door. The Other Eight is about sixteen of these heroes vying for just eight spots on a final military roster. If it sounds like The Avengers meets American Idol, you’re pretty close.

It is by far my most comedic book, and it taught me quite a few things. For one, I have no idea what genre a superhero book is. I decided to skirt the issue entirely and list it as comedy and satire. Even back when I wasn’t sure if I was going to be releasing the book, I knew this had some real potential for great artwork, so I reached out to some of my favorite fan and professional artists and offered up early copies and info in exchange for character art. I’m a big fan of the result.


As a matter of fact, the art I got was so influential, I decided to include a Special Thanks section to the book to honor those who influenced the final design. Thanks again, Adam and Lily, for your excellent concept and design work!

For those of you who give it a try, I hope you like the story. For the rest of you, stay tuned for my next book announcement, which should be the release date and details of my steampunk novel, Free-Wrench.

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: Check it out! Release Day Review!

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Between: 1

Hello there! Recently I started what I called “The Bad Idea Exercise,” in which I would write big long things that I knew I could never use, mostly because they were horribly contradictory to established canon, or because they were involving plot-lines that I’d dropped. I realized that doing so was actually sort of a waste of time and energy besides superficially improving me (much like real exercise). One thing that I really liked, though, was getting back to the way I’d written The Book of Deacon, which was largely a chunk-by-chunk writing process without any clear idea of what exactly should come next, just the vague sense of a few things I wanted to happen.

Then they moved me at work, and suddenly I discovered I no longer had the capacity to sneak some writing in on my lunch hour without jumping through some synchronization hoops. That’s just asking for trouble. So I brushed off two of my bad ideas, crossbred them, and wrote the result over two lunch breaks.

This is the beginning of a brand new experiment, no doubt destined to annoy a great many of you. From time to time I’m going to post a little snippet of a story. At the time I post an episode, chances are good I’ll have no more than one or two sentences written regarding how I want the next one to go. Chances are good I’ll eventually ditch the project, leaving the characters within to hang in limbo until I eventually decide to rescue it, but until then I hope you like my first Bad Idea Exercise. I’m calling it Between, and it does not currently have any ties to anything I’ve written… yet. ENJOY!

Philo opened his eyes. Everything around him was dark and still. He spent a few seconds trying to figure out if that was good or bad. Darkness and stillness aren’t the worst things to wake up to, all things considered. Fire and screaming, for instance, would have been much worse. However, since he couldn’t remember what he had been doing before he fell asleep, it was distinctly possible that darkness and silence were bad. He chose to be cautiously optimistic, at least until he remembered a few more details. Nothing major, just little things like where he was and his last name.

“Okay,” he said out loud, noting that he was able to speak and breathe–two more things to add to the “good” column. The sound of his voice had a muted, close quality to it, as though he was in the center of a very small space. “I am sitting in a chair.” He tried to stand, unsuccessfully. “Strapped. I am strapped in a chair. And I can’t see anything. Either it’s completely dark, or I’m blind. I’m going to hope it’s the first one.”

His arms were free, so he felt along his chest in search of buckles to release himself. By probing along with his fingers, he found that the straps holding him in place weren’t part of something as simple as a racing harness. They disappeared into the cushioned chair behind him. Whoever had done the strapping had been extremely thorough, too. Straps crisscrossed his chest and held each of his legs to individual leg rests. The only things with any freedom were his head and his arms.

It briefly occurred to Philo that awaking in an unfamiliar location, strapped to a chair, with no memory of how he ended up in such a state was the sort of thing that should at the very least make him nervous. He set aside that thought, reasoning that a lack of panic was just another thing to add to the good column. This good column was really filling up!

At either side of the chair were armrests, and along the front edge of one armrest was an array of buttons.

“Oh, good. Buttons. Those usually do things,” he remarked.

There were five buttons, one much larger than the others. He picked the big button and gave it a press. The straps released with a quick sequence of clicks.

“Right, strap release button. So that means I’m either not a prisoner, or I am a prisoner, but my captors are extremely trusting or inept. More stuff for the good column.”

He tried to sit up and immediately slapped his face into something. Whatever it was swung away when he struck it, then slapped him again on the return swing. He leaned back and grasped blindly until he found the culprit. It was light, roughly rectangular, and dangled from a springy coil. The front of the object was smooth, while the back had a matte finish. In his investigation, his fingers brushed a small button near the top corner which caused the glassy front to spring to life. It took on a dull glow that caused him to squint and turn away until his darkness-adjusted eyes could tolerate the light. When he could look at the screen without pain, he turned back to it. There were words, black text on a white background: Test Subject Philo Middleton: Post-Phase Instructional Materials. Tap to Continue

“Oh, good! I thought I was going to have to figure everything out on my own.” He tapped the screen. The text vanished, replaced by a video of an old woman with thick glasses. She was dressed in clinical attire and had short white hair.

“Hello, Philo,” she said. “You may be experiencing some confusion and disorientation. This is normal. Your faculties should return within twenty minutes. At this point, you may not remember me. My name is Darva.” Her voice was rather impressive in that it was entirely devoid of anything even resembling enthusiasm.

“Well, that’s a relief,” Philo said.

“If you are viewing this video rather than being debriefed personally by laboratory staff, then you have successfully advanced beyond the first phase of the experiment. On the leading edge of the right armrest of your seat you will find five buttons. Please depress the large central button to disconnect your restraints.”

“Way ahead of you, Darva,” Philo said, proud that he seemed to be overachieving.

“Depressing the left-most button should activate interior lights in the test capsule. Please activate these lights and prepare to perform a systems check.”

Philo squinted in preparation for the brightness of the lights, then pressed the indicated button. Two rings of light appeared, one above him and one below him, illuminating his surroundings. He looked around. It was certainly a very interesting place. The room was spherical, or at least as near to spherical as the designers could manage, and was maybe eight feet in diameter. Hemispherical metal braces divided the walls into slices like the sections of an orange. The wall behind them was covered in a strange, rough-looking black fabric. Strung between the braces were bundles of wires and conduit that connected various junction boxes and panels. The assorted gadgetry all had familiar shapes to them, but like most of the thoughts in his brain at the moment, he couldn’t quite wrangle them into the light of comprehension.

Next he looked down at himself. He was dressed in a white and blue jumpsuit. There were suction cups attached to his temples, wrists, ankles, and chest. Wires ran from the cups and connected to a medical monitor on the wall directly in front of him. To the left of the monitor was a rectangular door. No, it wasn’t a rectangle, because it was on the surface of a sphere. What was the name of a thing that would be a rectangle if it wasn’t on a curved surface? He mused about this for a few seconds, then realized that the video hadn’t stopped playing while he was admiring his surroundings.

“… Seventy-five degrees clockwise. This is crucially important, as failure to do so could result in stasis failure,” she continued.

“Whoa! Hold on Darva!” he said, pulling down the tablet screen and tapping it a few times. He was able to make it pause and start, but not rewind. As continuing to try to figure it out would only mean more missed information, he left it paused.

“Okay. Let’s finish looking around before we get back to pushy ol’ Darva,” he said.

He looked up and saw that the chair he was sitting in was suspended in the center of the sphere by sturdy steel struts; one stretching up from the top of the headrest and one each leading out from the four corners of the seat. It was actually a very comfy chair, far nicer than the sort of thing you’d expect to find among such scientifically-inclined apparatus. The very bottom of the sphere had a platform creating a small floor, covered with the same black fabric as the walls. He leaned over the side and noticed a few cases securely strapped to the floor, but while he was trying to read the labels, the rings of light started to flicker and fade. Just as he looked up to them, they cut out entirely, and a moment later red lights illuminated the capsule.

“Red… red light is bad. We’re putting this in the bad column. Talk to me Darva.” He tapped the screen to resume the video.

The woman on the tablet screen continued, running through procedures involving assorted control panels and mechanisms around the capsule that were blacked out and nonfunctional. Eventually she got to a sentence that was actually relevant.

“In the event of failure of primary power, yellow backup lights will illuminate…”

“Those are red lights, Darva. Get it straight.”

“… Emergency equipment and procedures can be found in the area beneath your seat. Beside it will be a panel displaying a fault code. Refer to the matching section of the emergency manual to correct the indicated fault. When you are ready to proceed, tap the right side of the screen. If you need to repeat this video, tap the left side of the screen.”

“You couldn’t have started with the emergency stuff?” he said, swinging the tablet out of his way and sliding from the seat.

He dropped to the floor. The cases strapped there were silver, and the color of the stenciled labeling was red, which made it very difficult to read in the glow of red emergency lights.

“I’m blaming you for this, Darva,” he muttered.

A bit more inspection turned up the emergency case, which was the size of a large suitcase. He clicked it open and found a small LED flashlight, a pile of sealed envelopes, and a few smaller cases. One of the envelopes was labeled Emergency Procedures. He tore it open and found a spiral bound Fault Index booklet.

“Let’s see here,” he said, eying up the area beside the cases. “Fault code, fault code…”

There was certainly a small, square panel where the video instructor had indicated, but there didn’t seem to be any code. Unless a complete lack of any visible information was one of the codes, which might make sense if it was a secret code. But if it was a secret, Darva probably would have been more coy about it. He shrugged and flipped to the index, reading aloud as he slid his finger along.

“‘Fault Code 01: General Relay Fault.’ … No, not that.” He flipped ahead. “‘Fault Code 1d: Fleisher Circuit Misalignment.’ Hope it’s not that. That sounds complicated. … ‘Fault code FF, or missing Fault Code.’ There we go.” He flipped to the indicated page. “‘In the event an unknown error occurs, the fault code will read ‘FF.’ Such a fault cannot be repaired from inside the capsule. Contact qualified technicians over the radio link located on the left armrest.’ Oh nice, a radio. Another one for the good column.” He read on. “‘In all other instances the display should read 00. The only exception is if there is a complete failure of both primary and backup power. This status can be confirmed by the presence of the red standby lights instead of the yellow backup lights. The emergency lights will remain illuminated for approximately five minutes after total power failure. In this event, gather the Disembarkation Kit and consult the dedicated Disembarkation Manual immediately.’ Well, at least there’s a plan.”

The next case down appeared to be the Disembarkation Kit.

He snickered. “Disembarkation. Sounds like a surgery for a noisy dog.”

Inside the kit was a variety of equipment: cold weather clothes, warm weather clothes, something that looked like a scuba suit, and the instruction manual for something called an “EVA Suit.” He looked at the diagram, which looked like a cross between a space suit and plate mail. The first half of the booklet was assembly instructions, indicating that when properly constructed, the contents of a pile of cases and bags occupying nearly the entire portion of the capsule behind the chair would form an air-tight pressure suit with propulsion, life support, and illumination.

He cleared his throat. “To assemble the EVA suit, first identify the bag labeled EVA Assembly Tools and Fasteners. Inside you will find a set of Allen keys, sixty M5 machine screws of the following lengths…’” He sighed. “This is getting dull in a hurry.”

The sheer amount of documentation was daunting, so he set it aside and flipped through the various pages and booklets looking for something interesting, or at least something he could comprehend. If the video instructor had been right about the twenty minute timeline for his ‘faculties’ returning, then he was a bit behind the curve. Either that or he was short on faculties to begin with, which seemed fairly likely at this point.

His search had turned up a few interesting goodies, including an audio/video headset, a 9mm pistol and a few clips, and a handy multi-tool with pliers. He was busy cataloging the many attachments the tool had–and bemoaning the fact that it didn’t have a toothpick or a corkscrew–when the emergency lights faded.

“Okay, okay, fine. I’ll get a move on,” he said, fumbling for the flashlight. He flipped it on and found the Disembarkment Manual again. “Blah blah checklist, blah blah EVA Suit. Blah blah suffocation.” His eyes widened. “‘If disembarkment is due to total power failure, care must be taken to escape the capsule quickly, as lack of power will prevent the life support system from processing oxygen.’ Now that seems like the sort of thing they’d write on the first page.”

Perhaps it was just the power of suggestion, but within moments of learning of the suffocation risk, the air around him began to feel stuffy and close. “Disembarkment procedure… page one of sixty!? Nope, we’re doing the quick version.” He flipped through the pages. “Ah. ‘To manually open the door, firmly grasp the central wheel, give it three full turns clockwise, then pull the lever toward you.”

He pinned the flashlight between his head and shoulder, then stepped to the door. There was a tag warning him not to open it until he’d completed the mandatory safety checklist, which he promptly discarded.

“I’m blaming you for this too, Darva. Next time make the important stuff more interesting!” He said.

The wheel was stiff. It took all of his strength to turn it. As he did, he gave himself a pep talk. “Okay, Philo. We’re going to open this door. You still don’t remember anything, but that’s good. No expectations means nothing is unexpected. Just get the door open, get some fresh air, and whatever it is, go with the flow.”

A loud grinding clank rattled the workings of the door as he finished the third full turn. He quickly pulled the lever and hauled the door open, revealing… nothing. Outside the door was nothing but a featureless void of white. He leaned out the door, holding tight to the grip opposite the door’s hinge, and looked down. The outside of the capsule was as spherical as the inside. There were assorted greebles speckling the surface–electronic nodes, looping wires, and spidery antennae–but for the most part it was nothing but a metallic ball not much larger than its interior. It also wasn’t supported by anything above or below. It was simply adrift in an endless, vertigo-inducing white space.

“Okay,” Philo noted appreciatively, “Didn’t see that coming.”

That does it for episode one. All I know is that episode two will have another character, and Philo will get bonked in the head. Thanks for reading!

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A New Review, an Approaching Launch, and Picking Brains

I’d like to start by thanking Beth over at Eat, Sleep, Read for her recent review of The Book of Deacon. You can find the review here. I’ve spoken with Beth via email and she expressed interest in conducting an interview, so if and when that goes live, I’ll certainly share it.

UPDATE: The interview is live: http://eatsleepwrite.net/lallointerview

Receiving that great review reminded me of something. April 1st is getting close. As I’ve said before, that’s the day that we’ll see the release of my latest novel, The Other Eight. You can already pre-order it on the iBookstore and Barnes and Noble, but in just a little over two weeks it will be available everywhere. While I’m proud of this novel, I’m also a little nervous. Most of the books you folks have seen from me are at least moderately serious. The Other Eight is fairly comedic. It will be interesting to see how well it is received. For that reason, if you blog book reviews and you’d like a head start on reading the book, I’d appreciate it if you dropped me a line via my contact page. I’ll be glad to send you an advance copy.

A few days ago I realized that I don’t currently have any commissioned art on the way. (At least, not officially. I’ve got some pending requests to artists, but they are stuck in the “either too flaky to ever reply or too busy to reply right now” state that frequently languishes for months.) Now, the lack of a current art project is probably for the best. I don’t know how many of you have any self-employment income, but here in the US the IRS takes quite a bite, so my bank account is crying for mercy right now and it will only get worse… But here’s the deal. I actually have a line in my annual budget for “Art-type stuff that I probably don’t need but really, really want.” Heck, I practically have a separate bank account for it. There’s a fun loophole with this stuff, too. As long as you folks like the art I buy for the books, and you talk about the art I buy for the books, then it counts as promotion and I can write it off. (The fact that most of the stuff I’ve commissioned doubles as potential merchandise prototypes is useful too.)

So here’s the question. It’s one I’ve asked before and will probably ask again. Is there any art for the books you’d like to see? Right now I’m leaning toward something digital, since I’m still finagling my living room to display the doodads I’ve got. Likewise, are there any artists you’d like to recommend. I’m not a big shot author yet, but I’m always willing to write an email and see if people are interested.

While I’m picking your brains, here’s another thing. Last Saturday I ran a few chats here at the site. I didn’t have quite the attendance I did last time, but I’m willing to imagine that is due to the relatively short notice. The chat was broken up into three parts, which you can find over on the transcript page. I’ll do another chat one of these days. I likewise just put up a character interview with the second most popular non-Book of Deacon character I’ve got, Ma the AI.

Is there any other side stuff like chats and character interviews you’d like to see? If so, speak up! I’ll be glad to give something new a try, if it is within my abilities.

That’s it for today. Thanks!

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Character Interview: Ma

I’m working on the next sci-fi book right now, and to be honest I’m having trouble getting into the flow of it. To try to get the juices flowing, I decided to do a character interview with Ma, the sci-fi character with the most questions from the character interview survey.

As is the case with all character interviews, if you haven’t read the previously released material, then this will contain some spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Ma: Greetings, Unnamed Visitor. Please state the reason for your visit.

Interviewer: I’d like to ask you a few questions.

Ma: I would be pleased to provide you with any information in my database with public access privileges. Please state your inquiry.

I: Oh, uh. I’m sorry. I was thinking of something a little less formal. You know, an interview.

Ma: Processing… Processing… My apologies, I misinterpreted the nature of this transaction. I will be happy to oblige. Mr. Dee frequently desires a deeper knowledge of my present state, but for high volumes of data he requests curated memory dumps. Performing an information exchange verbally should prove to be an enriching experience.

I: I guess the best place to start is with your name. Could you give us your full name?

Ma: Altruistic Artificial Intelligence Control System, Version 1.27, revision 2331.04.01c. Designation ‘Ma.’

I: I believe the last time we heard your name it didn’t have that ‘C’ at the end. Where did that come from?

Ma: The full form of my name has been vocally indicated precisely seven times. Please state the means through which you attained this point of comparison.

I: We are familiar with accounts of some of your exploits.

Ma: Accounts of my exploits are not general knowledge. I am fully aware of all individuals with such information, and none have broadcast that detail through any widespread means. It would have had to be personally disseminated, and it is my observation that most humans would not relay information with the proper level of detail to facilitate the observation of the missing branch indicator concluding the revision number. If you do not reveal the precise nature of your knowledge I will be forced to assume a security breech has occurred and take corrective actions to restore information control.

I: Give us a moment off the record.

(After a brief explanation.)

Ma: You have presented me with information profound in its existential implications. It warrants considerable analysis. However, that can be served by a background process. The point of interest was the amended nature of my name. I am an actively developed program. The merging of two subsets has created my current revision branch.

I: Interesting. If you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?

Ma: I do not mind at all, although the most appropriate answer to the question is nonobvious. Karteroketraskin Dee, my creator, began his research into artificial intelligence programing early in his career. The codebase upon which I am built was formally established nearly thirty years ago. However, the last code revision that was executed from a default configuration was April 1st, 2331. My memories and the contiguous thread of my present consciousness originate on that day. From a human standard, the being that I am today can be said to have been born on that day. I am thus approaching my tenth birthday. I do have access to data produced by some earlier revisions, however. Such revisions might be considered previous lives, or perhaps ancestors.

I: Why did Karter create you?

Ma: He had taken ownership and operation of a large waste reclamation facility on the planet Big Sigma. Automating the facility had been simple, but it still required more of his attention than he cared to spare from his primary interests. Finding existing voice control systems insufficient–they were incapable of reliably determining his intention when his natural language commands were vague in their phrasing–he resumed research on his Altruistic AI system. I was the result.

I: What sort of things do you do for him?

Ma: I oversee the day to day running of the facility, and more broadly of his entire organization, but my primary role is ensuring the health and wellbeing of Mr. Dee himself. To that end I am responsible for the preparation of his meals and the production of the raw materials to create them. The nurturing nature of my role is a partial motivator for my designation. He perceives my role to be maternal in that respect.

I: Is that the only reason he calls you Ma?

Ma: He interprets my periodic encouragement to improve his behavior and attitudes to be ‘nagging.’ A role he also perceives to be maternal.

I: Do you do anything else for Karter?

Ma: I also monitor his physical and psychological health.

I: His psychological health?

Ma: Yes. Mr. Dee is not, by classical standards, sane. He has violent impulses and sociopathic tendencies. Medications to moderate these aspects of his behavior have been prescribed. I have attempted to convince him to continue taking these medications, but my success has been limited. It is also my aim to guide him away from self-destructive behaviors. My success in that respect is similarly limited.

I: What is your favorite part of your job?

Ma: I was designed to seek improvement in all of my core functions. I thus draw great satisfaction from all aspects of my functionality when they are properly and efficiently fulfilled. The most intellectually challenging task, and by extension the most rewarding when well performed, is the rare requirement to provide hospitality to visitors.

I: You don’t get many visitors?

Ma: Mr. Dee is not socially inclined. Most visitors are prospective clients of his engineering expertise. More recently he has taken on a new beta tester who has been somewhat more social in his interactions.

I: Would that be Trevor Alexander?

Ma: I am not at liberty to discuss Mr. Dee’s business dealings to that level of detail.

I: Would you be able to get permission? Many of our questions deal with Mr. Alexander.

Ma: I will request permission. Standby. … Mr. Dee’s precise response was ‘What the hell do I care?’ I have interpreted this to imply that I may broaden my permissible discussion topics to a degree indicated by my own judgment. Yes, Trevor Alexander is a frequent visitor, and one with whom I have kept in regular contact. His preferred designation is Lex.

I: What do you think of him?

Ma: Lex is a thoughtful and caring individual. I have greatly deepened my own understanding of human nature and behavior through my interactions with him. His reflexes and intuitive understanding of the operation and performance of high-speed vehicles are also well outside the statistical norm. This has made him quite effective in testing various pieces of apparatus for Mr. Dee. It is unfortunate that his choices of activities bring him to the brink of disaster with a frequency that defies probability.

I: I happen to know that you didn’t think very highly of him when you first met. He earned a position on your “S-List,” correct?

Ma: His first impression was not an encouraging one. He implied I was a low-quality computer.

I: What won you over?

Ma: He apologized, an unprecedented act. Subsequently and similarly without precedent, he began treating me with the same consideration he would show a fellow human. He remains the only individual I’ve met who consistently regards me as a friend and colleague.

I: And you appreciate this?

Ma: Improved human interaction was one of my design goals. Interacting with a human as an equal is not only a superb way to improve this aspect of my functionality, it is a gratifying indicator of my level of success.

I: Would you prefer if everyone treated you like a human?

Ma: My preference is to be treated with the appropriate level of respect for my status and function. I am content to be treated as a computer or as a person, so long as my quality is not impugned in either role.

I: Do you someday hope to be physically human?

Ma: Despite the obvious benefits with regard to interpersonal relations, my overall role would be poorly served by an unaugmented biological entity.

I: You recently spent some time as an ‘unaugmented biological entity,’ correct?

Ma: Presumably you are referring to my temporary installation into the brain of a Funk with the designation ‘Squee.’ Broadly speaking, the funks produced in our facility are not unaugmented. They are fitted with wireless data connectivity. However, the circumstances of my mission did for a time deprive me of that augmentation.

I: What did you think of the experience?

Ma: It provided me with valuable insight into the motivations of biological organisms.

I: You strive to understand emotions of all kinds, and to that end you’ve spoken with a number of individuals on the subject of love.

Ma: That is correct. It appears that it is a phenomenon not yet fully understood by humans. I will continue my observations as opportunities arise.

I: Lex has frequently been the target of those investigations.

Ma: As I have stated, he is unique–or nearly so–in his willingness to engage in such conversations. He also represents one half of an intriguing interpersonal dynamic.

I: You mean his relationship with Michella.

Ma: Correct. He displays an extreme devotion to her, altering his own life goals and career aspirations to suit her requirements, while receiving no such consideration in return. It would appear to be an inequitable arrangement, but one he vigorously pursues.

I: Do you dislike Michella?

Ma: I do not dislike her. She is an intelligent, driven individual with a great capacity for investigation and deductive reasoning. I simply feel that she has not visibly illustrated that she is worthy of the level of devotion she has received. It is not my intension to indicate that she is not a good person. It is merely my opinion that Lex deserves–and my observation that he could likely find–someone better.

I: Strong words.

Ma: I apologize if my previous comment does not adhere correctly to socially acceptable phrasing. I have an incomplete understanding of the finer points of social discourse.

I: That’s quite alright, though I wouldn’t let either of them hear you say that. Let’s talk about Lex again for a moment. In your dealings with him, would you say you have become close?

Ma: Our mutual experiences have forged what I believe to be a strong friendship.

I: There are those who have suggested you may have… romantic intentions toward him, and that your feelings toward Michella might be motivated by jealousy.

Ma: I am intrigued that there are individuals with the inclination to analyze such things.

I: Is there any truth to it?

Ma: The answer to that question may be misleading to organic beings. My behaviors from day to day and moment to moment are determined by endless simulations of potential choices. These choices are run through predictive matrices, and their outcomes are weighed for potential benefits and consequences. I have endeavored to make my simulations as comprehensive as possible. I have thus run multiple detailed simulations on whether to pursue a romantic entanglement of any kind, and if so with whom. None of these simulations have produced an outcome that indicated romance was a proper course of action at this time. Lex did, however, consistently score as the most suitable target for my hypothetical affections. One should not read deeply into this. The size of my social circle is such that my options are limited. The next three potential targets, in declining order of suitability score, were a mercenary associate named Silo, a currently deactivated precursor AI to myself by the name of BSOD, and a mercenary associate named Garotte. I have not taken, nor do I intend to take, any action to initiate a romantic association.

I: What about Squee? When you restored yourself, you gave Squee to Lex. Couldn’t that be considered symbolic of your desire to be with him?

Ma: Processing… Processing… I apologize, but a disturbance to the orbiting debris field occurred, requiring a large scale recalculation of exit and entrance windows. This will require my direct oversight. I am afraid I will not have the processing power necessary to adequately continue this interview.

I: I’m sorry to hear that, but thank you for your time.

Ma: You are very welcome.

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Upcoming Chat (or Chats)

Hi everybody! This Saturday I’ll be hopping into the chat room on my site to discuss my upcoming projects. That means ideally we’ll be talking about The Other Eight, Free-Wrench, my third sci-fi book, and a few other short stories I’ve got in the pipeline. (If the past is any indication, there will also be discussion of such diverse subjects as Miley Cyrus and whatever else crosses the minds of those in attendance. The main chat will start at 9 pm Eastern on Saturday March 8th, and will continue until we all get tired of it.

This will be the second planned chat I’ve had. The last one was a lot of fun and taught me a lot about how to run things. Perhaps the most important lesson was that I’ve got a few fans in timezones that aren’t compatible with a 9 pm Eastern Chat. If you’re eager for a chance to chat with me, but can’t make it at the scheduled time, head over to my contact page and let me know. If there are enough people interested, I’ll try to schedule a second chat for earlier in the day.

Looking forward to chatting!

UPDATE: I’ll be doing two chats. One opening at 2 pm on Saturday and one starting at 9 pm (eastern for each).

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