Friday, January 30, 2009


Best SF on We Think, Therefore We Are

Best SF Reviews has posted their full review of Pete Crowther's We Think, Therefore We Are, which came out earlier this month, and is the latest of Crowther's themed anthologies for Daw. The theme this time around was artificial intelligence, and here's what the reviewer had to say about my contribution to the anthology, "Dragon King of the Eastern Sea."
In Roberson's 'Celestial Empire' setting, he also provides a neat alternative to Asimovs Three Laws, as the spaceship AI which has got stuck in an infinite loop has to work within the confines of The Three Governing Virtues of Machine Intelligence.

Summoned from slumber, the Chief Operator finds not only the AI not working, the ship thus in imminent danger, but the death of a crewmate. He has to work out what is wrong with the AI, which is simply spouting historical texts, and work out whether the death was an accident as thought.

Yep, it's another Celestial Empire story. I just keep writing the damned things, don't I?



Sample Chapters of The Dragon's Nine Sons

BookSpot Central is featuring a preview of the first three chapters of The Dragon's Nine Sons, if you haven't read the book and would like to sample it. And if you like these first three, hey, why not buy the book and see how it wraps up?


Book Giveaway

The good folks over at the Fantasy Book Critic are giving away a bunch of books with my name on them. Check it out.
In support of the February 24/March 2, 2009 US/UK publication of Chris Roberson’sDawn of War II” (Warhammer 40,000), and the recent publication of the author’s novels “Three Unbroken” and “The Dragon’s Nine Sons” (Mass Market Paperback), Solaris Books and Games Workshop has agreed to give away FIVE SETS of all three books!!! So please read the rules below and completely fill out the form to enter! Open to Anyone. Giveaway ends Monday, March 2, 2009 – 11:59AM PST.
Full details can be found here, for anyone interested.


Secret Services: Torchwood

Only a few more entries in the Secret Services to go. Today we've reached one of the higher profile examples of recent years, the BBC's Torchwood.

was created by Russel T. Davies, spinning out of his successful relaunch of the Doctor Who franchise. The name, an anagram of "Doctor Who," had originally been used as a "code name" for production reasons in the early days of the new Who series, much like "Blue Harvest" was a fake working name for Return of the Jedi (see here for other notable examples... and really, would you rather have seen James Cameron's Planet Ice?). RTD reportedly liked the name, though, and began seeding it in the second series, beginning with the RTD-penned "Christmas Invasion."

As revealed in the episode "Tooth and Claw," the instory source of the name is the Torchwood Estate in Scotland, where in 1879 Queen Victoria had a bad encounter with a werewolf. some kung-fu warrior monks, and a certain Time Lord. It is revealed that the Torchwood Estate had been constructed with the express purpose of trapping the werewolf by the former lord of the manor, abetted by the late Prince Albert. When all is said and done, Victoria creates the Torchwood Institute in their honor, to safeguard the realm against any such unnatural threats (including, as it happens, the Doctor himself).

As the second series progresses, the Doctor encounters Torchwood a few times, in which they're revealed to possess alien technology which they use to safeguard Earth against extraterrestrial menace. They are a more secret, more dangerous answer to UNIT, their existence known only to a select few. Finally, in the two-parter "Army of Ghosts"/"Doomsday," we meet the modern-day Torchwood, based in a high-rise in Canary Wharf, from which they lead the defense of Earth against the invading armies of the Cybermen and the Daleks. The good guys win, the Daleks and Cybermen are defeated, but Torchwood is destroyed in the process. And that seems to be that.

Only all of us know that wasn't the end. The BBC had already started touting a Torchwood spin-off, and we had only a few months to wait. (And really, this was for many of us the weakest aspect of the second series of Who. In the first series, the question "What is Bad Wolf?" is a drum-beat that drives the series along, and even if the answer is somewhat less than satisfying, it's fun speculating on the possibility along the way. With the second series, we all knew from the start what Torchwood was, at least in general terms, and so the mystery was pretty much shot.)

In the meantime, there was the question of timelost Captain Jack Harkness, a rogue time agent and con artist from the 51st century, who'd first appeared in Steven Moffat's incomporable two-parter "The Empty Child"/"The Doctor Dances." At the end of the first series, in "A Parting of the Ways," Jack had been left--seeming for dead--in the future after the last big dust-up with the Daleks, and then restored to live by Rose Tyler's temporarily-obtained time-vortex powers. In essences, Rose turns into God for a few minutes, and rolls the clock back on Jack's death, restoring him to full health. Problem being, the Doctor thinks he's still dead and leaves him there.

Which brings us to the first episode of the new Torchwood, which aired in fall of 2006.

In a familar set-up, a police officer is investigating a crime when she discovers that the perpetrater is no ordinary human, at which point she encounters a shadowy organization with hidden ties to the government, licensed to investigate matters beyond the scope of the regular authorities. (Catching echoes of Ultraviolet, anyone? Or Hellsing, for that matter?)

The organization is, of course, Torchwood, their leader is one Captain Jack Harkness, and they are headquartered in an abandoned Underground station beneath the streets of Cardiff. Like Sunnydale's Hellmouth, there is a Rift in time and space that runs through the heart of Cardiff, from which things are constantly falling into our world. And like the Men in Black, the agents of Torchwood are able to induce amnesia in anyone who learns more than they should.

It's a familiar cocktail of genre elements, to be sure. The only notable feature of those early episode is the sexuality with which they're spiced; the series was billed as a kind of "Doctor Who for grownups," which largely devolved into characters having frequent sex with one another.

From humble beginnings, though, the show gradually began to improve. I think the end of the first second is better than its beginning (though they'd have been better served not showing the big monster in "End of Days," and just letting the audience's imagination do the work). There were some clever ideas in there, though, and some nice little touches. This five-person operation in Cardiff was revealed to be Torchwood Three, only one of several. Torchwood One had been the one we saw destroyed in the "Battle of Canary Wharf", Torchwood Two is one guy in Glasgow, and Torchwood Four is "missing" ("we'll find it one day," they assure). The episode that revisits Arthur Conan Doyle and the Cottingley Fairies is chillingly effective, and "They Keep Killing Suzie" stands alongside the best episodes of Who in recent years.

It's in the second series that Torchwood really begins firing on all cylinders, I think. James Marsters (Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer) shows up as Captain Jack's fellow time-agent, ex-partner, and ex-lover Captain John Hart, and Freema Agyeman returns as Martha Jones, the Doctor's former companion. The scripts are generally tighter, the ideas better, the episodes more satisfying. The penultimate episode, "Fragments," is a marvel of narrative structure, revealing the backstories of each of the main characters through flashbacks, adding new layers of meaning to character interactions we've been watching for a year and a half. The final episode ends on something of a downer, but manages to serve as a nice end-cap for the series to date.

There's apparently a new miniseries in the making, "Chidren of Earth," which is to air this spring. Unfortunately, though, three of the five episodes are written by RTD himself, and the experience of Doctor Who and Torchwood to date suggests that Davies's series are usually best when written by other hands. But I remain cautiously optimistic about its quality.

For comic fans, I'll point out that Titan is putting out a collection of Torchwood comics that haven't been widely seen under the title The Rift War, with contributions from Paul Grist (Jack Staff), Ian Edginton and D'Israeli (Scarlet Traces and Stickleback) and Simon Furman (Transformers UK). I've already ordered my copy, on the strength of those names alone.

In the end, I think the good outweighs the bad, and would recommend checking out Torchwood. You should be warned, though, that there is bad, and if you have a low tolerance for suck you might want to give it a pass.


Thursday, January 29, 2009


Scott McCloud: Understanding comics

Really fascinating video of Scott McCloud giving a talk on comics at TED2005. If you've read Understanding Comics and Reinventing Comics you've already encountered most of these ideas, but I think it's fascinating to see McCloud put them all together in such a small amount of time (and so entertainingly!).


Where is my jet-pack?

(via) If this is the future, where's my jet-pack?

Oh, there it is!




I'm starting on the next installment of Secret Services, taking a quick break from the story I'm writing to let it percolate a bit, and I come across this bit of inanity.

Check out the official Torchwood pages on the BBC site. If, like me, you live outside the UK, you get the following: "If you are outside the UK you will not be able to use for rights reasons."

I can understand not allowing non-UK residents to see streaming video and the like, but blocking access to the site itself? That's a little baffling.

At least the Doctor Who site appears to still be accessible.


New Representation

Have I mentioned that I have a new UK and foreign rights agent? I don't think I have. So I will.

I still represent myself for North American rights, but if any publisher listening is interested in anything else, talk to John Berlyne at the Zeno Agency Ltd.


Three Unbroken

I am informed by reliable sources that the new Celestial Empire novel, Three Unbroken, is now available. It's shipping from Amazon, and should be in brick & mortar stores any day now, if it isn't already.

The first two-thirds of the book are still available for free on the Solaris site, if you want to sample the book before taking the plunge. Come on, what do you have to lose?

Meanwhile, my masters at Pyr inform me that End of the Century has shipped from the printer, and should be available from Amazon and finer bookstores everywhere in another week or two.


Kage Baker Goodness Over the Horizon

In an interview with Nick Gevers over on the Subterranean Press site, Kage Baker (about whom I've raved at length) lets slip what is I believe a previously unannounced book in the making.
I just turned in a novel, And We Are Everywhere, to Tor. It’s steampunk and involves the Victorian proto-Company, the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, as does the story in Extraordinary Engines. The GSS was first introduced in The Graveyard Game, and at the time I’d never heard of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or that British comedy group with a similar name. Now I wish I’d named my group something different, but it can’t be helped…

Anyway, the book deals with a young Edward Alton Bell-Fairfax, how he’s recruited and trained, and the first mission he’s given, with two other trainees and an older, more experienced agent. I steeped myself in books on the Crimean War, Russia, and issues of Punch from the years 1846 to 1851. I researched arcane technologies. And, as with the other books, the characters took on lives of their own and did things that surprised me.

It was liberating, in a way, not to be writing about indestructible cyborg operatives. One set of characters appeared fairly briefly in the novel, but have occasioned a novella of their own, coming sometime next year from Subterranean: The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, about a sort of sister affiliate of the GSS, who operate a rather unique brothel in the vicinity of Whitehall.

(Of course, I have only to look at Baker's website and see that it's listed right there, under Forthcoming.)

I've got Extraordinary Engines on my To Read stack, and haven't had a chance to read Baker's contribution yet (I'm sidetracked by WFA reading at the moment, naturally), but the story she did for my Adventure Vol. 1 featured Bell-Fairfax and the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, and was one of my favorites of the anthology. Steam-punk precursors to the Company? Okay, I'm sold.

I cannot wait to check out And We Are Everywhere and The Women of Nell Gwynne's. (If you haven't read the Company books yet, what are you waiting for?!)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009


Writing Advice

The latest "Mind Meld" feature on SF Signal is on the topic "What's the best writing advice you ever received and who gave it to you?" The answers include some very good advice for all writers, both those starting out and those with a few million words under their belts.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Secret Services: Bureau of Extra-Dimensional Liabilities and Management

We're nearing the home stretch in my rundown of "Secret Services." Today's entry is the Bureau of Extra-Dimensional Liabilities and Management, better known as BEDLAM, from the pages of Todd Dezago and Craig Rousseau's The Perhapanauts.

The Secret Services I've run down so far have come from a pretty wide variety of comics, books, tv series, anime, and games, but of all of them The Perhapanauts is perhaps the most fun. This is not a dark and serious book, by any means.

Back in 2003, Todd and Craig produced The Perhapanauts: Dossier, a 24-page xeroxed-and-stapled "ashcan" run of 500 copies, that they sold at conventions and online. Dezago, perhaps best known for his creator-owned series Tellos (with Mike Wieringo), and Rousseau, who'd done some terrific work for DC, said in interviews at the time that they weren't interested in shopping the book around to publishers, but were happy to do it themselves, without any interference or influence. Here's how Dezago described the book at the time:
The Perhapanauts is kind of a cross between Men in Black, Mission: Impossible, and...uh, The Simpsons. The idea is that they are agents for an organization called BEDLAM - Bureau of ExtraDimensional Liabilities and Maintenance - and the police the boundaries of ours, and others’ realities.

”When a tear occurs in any of the dimensional barriers--allowing your bigfoots, your loch ness monsters, your chupacabra through--these are the guys who are called to stuff 'em back in and seal up the rift. That sounds like fun. To make things a little trickier, most of the team is comprised of some of the very creatures and cryptozoological entities that they are sent to confront. That's even more fun. Like, we've got a Bigfoot. And a Chupacabra. And a ghost. And...well, I don't want to wreck it... Plus, when they're home (at the Bedlam facility) they fall into typical family sitcom mode. That's fun times a hundred!”

The dossier introduced the Bureau of Extra-Dimensional Liabilities and Management (BEDLAM), and its agents, the Perhapanauts. There was Molly MacAllistar, a revenant (that is, a ghost); Arisa Hines, a psi-active with telepathy, telekinesis, and precognition; Sasquatch, aka Yeti, aka Bigfoot, aka Big, who had been gifted with genius-level intelligence through the use of an "Evolvo-Ray"; Chupacabra, aka Goatsucker, aka Choopie, who had been gifted with not-quite-genius-level intelligence the same way; and MG, a mysterious figure able to traverse dimensional boundaries at will.

Together, the Perhapanauts investigate the strange. Or, as the official site has it...
There are places in this world where the fabric of reality has worn thin, where strange and terrible creatures have crossed over to lurk in the shadows and the night.

There is an organization dedicated to finding these creatures and sending them back whence they came, sealing the rift behind them, and maintaining the integrity of those borders.

The organization is called BEDLAM. Its agents are...The PERHAPANAUTS!

You can think of BEDLAM and the Perhapanauts as lying somewhere between BPRD and Section Zero, but with a light touch and an "All Ages" attitude.

After the Dossier ashcan and a sketchbook, Todd and Craig produced a self-published full-color comic (on newsprint, no less!), The Perhapanauts not gigantic color special. Then the book was picked up by Dark Horse, who published two four-issue miniseries, The Perhapanauts: First Blood and The Perhapanauts: Second Chances. The idea was clearly do follow the same "series of miniseries" approach that's worked well for Hellboy and BPRD. For whatever reason, though, the creators were reportedly unhappy at Dark Horse, and after the second miniseries wrapped announced that they were moving the book to Image (who already had started publishing another "Secret Services" series, Proof, about which more soon).

The first four issues of the Image series have been released, with a fifth due to be released soon. There are trades available of the first two Dark Horse series, and another on the way collecting the Image issues to date. If you find appealing the idea of an all-ages light-sf book about a team of monsters and ghosts who guard the boundaries of reality (and really, who wouldn't?), you should definitely check it out.



Idle Thought

I am simple, and my brain works along comic book/pulp/sf lines in all circumstances. So imagine what happens in my brain when I come across an article this morning with the following headline: DR Congo gorilla numbers up 12.5%.

The slugline immediately clears up my first impression--"The population of mountain gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo's Virunga National Park has risen by 12.5%, a census shows."--but by then it's too late. In my fevered brain there already spins speculation about a supervillain named Doctor Congo who has managed to increase the number of gorilla henchmen on his staff...

Monday, January 26, 2009


Fantasy Book Critic on End of the Century

Fábio Fernandes (he of Post-Weird Thoughts) has reviewed End of the Century for the Fantasy Book Critic. I'm delighted to see that Fábio has "gotten" what I was hoping to accomplish with this book more than any reviewer so far, it seems. I'll quote more of the review than I would normally do, to point out a few examples.
Good writers don´t necessarily try to “make it new”, as Ezra Pound used to say. Pound, alas, is dead, and so is Modernism, for that matter. What good writers do, though, is tell a compelling story mixing and remixing old tropes and experimenting with clichés so they can still bring the reader some joy and surprise, suspending disbelief, even when he or she is pretty much sure that all the important, interesting things were already said and done (another assumption which should be very dead by now, by the way).

That´s what Chris Roberson does in his new novel, “End of The Century”—he mixes very different storylines and characters in a 21st century approach to a more than revisited plot premise: the Quest for the Holy Grail.


Roberson interweaves the three timelines very deftly, making the narrative an integrated, non-stop piece. The Galaad tale is told almost in an epic style. Dialogues are realistic, but the situations they come to face are indeed of an epic scale, reminiscent of Gene Wolfe in stories as “The Knight”. The Blank/Bonaventure narrative reads like a Sherlockian mystery, with a fair share of action scenes as well. The Alice Fell story is a high-paced espionage thriller, complete with secret hideouts (the entrance by a toilet stall is definitelyAvengers-like) and bizarre futuristic weapons. Her newfound friend seems to be a more tranquil, cool version of Moorcock´s famed Jerry Cornelius.


The coincidence is that I was reading Sideways in Crime at the same time I started reading “End of The Century”, so I read Roberson´s short story “Death on the Crosstime Express” and learned about his concept of the Myriad. Well, I not only love Michael Moorcock´s Multiverse, but Alan Moore and Kim Newman (to whom Chris dedicates the book, along with Moorcock) are among my favorite writers. So I figured “End of the Century” would make a good reading.

I was wrong. “End of the Century” is EXCELLENT reading.

One of the most important things the reader should keep in mind about “End of the Century” is that it stands all by itself. You may have never read anything by Chris Roberson before, and you will understand every bit of the story—or the stories, since there are three of them alternating with each other almost until the end, when they merge in a very coherent way, tying all (or almost all) the loose ends.


End of The Century” is one of the best 2009 books I´ve read in 2008. Roberson raised the bar of my expectations.

Thanks, Fábio!


Friday, January 23, 2009


Work in Progress

I've just written the first two sentences of a story I've been outlining for ages, and the second of them may be one of the longest sentences I've written in a while, if ever.
It was late afternoon when the three ghost-eaters came upon the dead village, where the foothills of the Apex Mountains laid down to meet the lowland plains.

Days had passed since the trio of Luminari left the valley of Silence, days of descending the mountains via mist-shrouded passes and snow-choked gullies, through scree and stone, fog and avalanche, fording treacherous rivers and silvery glacier-fed streams still swollen with the late Autumntide rains, through forests infested with leeches squirming hungrily for heat and blood, until finally they reached the lower slopes where yak grazed like phantoms in the mists, and the cries of unseen shepherdesses echoed off the distant cliffs.
Can you tell I've been doing some research on the Himalayas?


Coraline trailer

I've read and enjoyed the book, I've seen the television spots innumerable times, but only after seeing this trailer am I well and truly jazzed about seeing the movie.

Creepy, no?


TV's Sci-Fi and Superhero Characters - Now in Color!

Remember Dusty Abell? A couple of years ago I shared his amazing group portrait of Classic Seventies Action Figures, and early last year linked to his portrait of Saturday Morning Action/Adventure Television Characters. Last month I shared "stage one" of his latest work in progress, TV's Sci-Fi and Superhero Characters, when it was still mostly black-and-white. Now he's posted the full color version of it to his deviantART gallery, and it's a thing to behold.

To my shame, there's one or two characters here I don't recognize (but I did get Richard Benjamin as Quark, which Abell considers the most obscure character of the bunch). How many of these do you nice people recognize?


SCI FI Wire on End of the Century

Cynthia Ward has reviewed End of the Century for SCI FI Wire, and while she has some reservations, the review is the kind of thing that would definitely interest a reader like me in picking up the book.
Chris Roberson's latest novel proves that he's the Secret History go-to guy for the 21st century.

In End of the Century (Pyr, $15), he reveals the connections we never imagined between King Arthur and Alice in Wonderland, David Bowie and Jack the Ripper, swords and physics. To these elements, Roberson adds time travel, gaslight detection, Moorcockian extended families and temporal adventuresses, occult government research, cutting-edge scientific speculation and a sinister conspiracy that reaches to the end of time—and he braids everything together in three clever converging plots.


Thursday, January 22, 2009


You Need This: Mysterius

I have raved again and again and again about Jeff Parker's Agents of Atlas, and his current miniseries with Marvel Age of the Sentry (cowritten with Paul Tobin) is one of my favorite books going. I really enjoyed his creator-owned OGN Interman, am loving his contributions to Marvel Adventures and X-Men: First Class. In short, I will follow Parker wherever he goes. When I heard that Parker had a new creator-owned comic coming out from Wildstorm, even knowing nothing about the concept, my interest was piqued to say the least.

When I read a discussion between Parker and co-creator Tom Fowler about the book, and discovered that it was a book about a supernaturnal investigator, a combination of Dirk Gently and Doctor Who as played by Geoffrey Rush, I was more than a little intrigued.

The book is out in stores this week, and I've just now had a chance to read it. The verdict?


You. Need. This.

Here's the solicitation for this first issue, from the Wildstorm site:
"Will all patrons please be seated? Tonight you will witness supernatural feats that no mortal mind can comprehend! Your very senses will reel as Mysterius the Great takes the stage after years in absentia! And now please welcome his newest stalwart, the brave and beautiful assistant who will accompany our host on a journey beyond the boundaries of science and reason...the Lovely Delfi! Now, all join hands..."

Acclaimed creators Jeff Parker (X-Men: The First Class, Agents of Atlas) and Tom Fowler (GREEN ARROW, CAPER) make their WildStorm debut with this exciting, offbeat new miniseries!

Our introduction to Mysterius comes through the eyes of his new assistant, Delfi, who we quickly discover is only the most recent of the "Delfis" to have worked with Mysterius over the course of a century or more. He has his own private railway car, an old Pullman that tags along behind the mundane trains everyone else takes but that no one but him--and Delfi--can see. But his base of operations is the Mysterium, a home with doors that connect everywhere.

Here's the sequence where Mysterius first takes his new companion to see the Mysterium (and where we learn that he's older than he looks, and that he's had previous companions, etc--one of the things I love about Parker's work is how seemingly effortlessly he packs his stories with such a density of information).

Newsarama has a preview of the first issue up, if that's not enough of an appetizer. And there's more bits and bobs on the book site, the Mysterium, too.

Mysterius is something of a cad and a bounder, but an endearing one. And I love that he's not sexy, fit, or particularly attractive. The little hints that we've had so far about his past are intriguing, and I'm definitely going to be along for the ride on this one.

Highly recommended.


Beastmaster Jr.

(via) This movie has everything.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009


Dawn of War II

My first Warhammer 40K novel, Dawn of War II, is not due out for a little while yet, but the good folks at Black Library are starting to release little appetizers for the book. There are a pair of wallpapers available for download, with and without calendars, and a sample extract from the novel (pdf link).

And here's the cover again, just because.


Homer Groenig's The Story

(via) This is fascinating to me. In 1969 an industrial filmmaker named Homer Groenig made a short film of his son Matt telling a story to his two younger sisters, Lisa and Maggie. The film is called The Story, and it's now online at the Internet Archive.

(I'd embed, but can't figure out how to do so without having the thing autoplay, so you'll have to click through.)

The story itself is about what you'd expect a little boy's improvised story to his kid sisters to be, but what's fascinating is seeing the real-life models of the Simpson kids in living color.

Monday, January 19, 2009


Spirit of '76 (and my confused brain)

I am simple, so it confuses my brain when I think about the movie Spirit of '76 (directed and written by Carl Reiner's son Lucas Reiner, from a story co-written by Roman Copolla). I was in college when the movie came out in 1990, a bit of mindless fun, kitschy nostalgia about a bygone time.

It's not a bad film at all, and if it came on late at night while I had a beer (or other intoxicant) in hand, I'd probably watch it again.

What confuses my brain is that 1990 was fourteen years after 1976, the era to which the flick looked back with nostalgia, and 1990 was eighteen years ago. So more time has passed since I watched the thing than had passed since the Bicentennial when the thing was made.

(On a related note, where are the kitschy nostalgic looks at the 80s? I can think of a few examples, but they're few and far between. Were they just not inherently interesting, or has nostalgia moved on from kitschy movies to this kind of thing?)


BookSpot Central on Escape from Hell!

Brian Lindenmuth has reviewed Hal Duncan's Escape from Hell! as part of his regular column "The Electric Mayhem" on BookSpot Central, and seems to have liked it.
Escape From Hell! is like a John Carpenter/Walter Hill late 70’s-early 80’s movie in book form. If you understand the references then you get it right off. I mean if the bridge scene doesn’t take you back to Escape from New York then nothing will. The action is ramped up to insane levels, and it just keeps pumping forward at a relentless pace.

If you like stripped down narritives then the length of the book becomes a strength because there isn’t space for long expository passages that explain the mechanics of Duncan’s version of hell. We become immersed in the various levels of Hell at a break neck speed as our four main characters do. It’s a tricky thing to do, describing a world while keeping the reader on the run, but this as good an example as I’ve seen.

Points to BookSpot Central, too, for using the actual cover for the book, and not the "catalog draft" solicitation copy that seems to pop up everywhere else.


Monday Linkage

Happy Monday, everybody! Allison is in D.C. for the inauguration, and spent last night hobnobbing at the Biden Family Party. I spent Sunday with Georgia making robots out of K'Nex parts, and then drank too much wine watching old Filmation cartoons and the new SNL after she'd gone to bed. So really, party with Joe Biden and Bill Clinton or K'Nex robots, wine, and Blackstar--which is really more glamorous?

Here's the list of things of interest I've noted on the web since the last linkage roundup.
So how about all you nice people? How did you spend your weekend?

Sunday, January 18, 2009


The Guardian on Escape from Hell!

Keith Brooke has reviewed Hal Duncan's Escape from Hell! for the Guardian, and it's a rave:
Imagine hell as a police state where taser-armed guards shepherd new arrivals off the ferry and into a crowded immigration block for processing. Imagine hell as a distorted Manhattan where the damned live out the consequences of their sins for eternity, all of it televised 24/7 so hell's bad citizens can share in everyone else's suffering at the same time. Imagine a portrayal of hell too grittily realistic to be satire, too funny to be straight adventure romp. This is what Hal Duncan offers in this short novel, the tale of "a hitman, a hooker, a hobo and a homo" who go to hell and don't like what they find. The story opens with a tramp on the brink of suicide, a gangster handcuffed and about to be beaten to a pulp, a prostitute being battered by the pimp she has just failed to walk out on, and a young semi-conscious man being wheeled into ER with multiple injuries. Almost imperceptibly it shifts from tough action to comic adventure, in a gripping and stylish read from one of the most talented new fantasy writers to emerge in a long time.
Now, don't you want a copy?

Friday, January 16, 2009


People Talk

Apparently other people than me are interviewed, from time to time.

Look, here's Hal Duncan talking about battered haggis and Escape from Hell! while answering Questions Five.

And here's Matt Sturges on BookSpotCentral talking about House of Mystery, Midwinter, and why he hates short fiction, among other things.

As with all interviews, they'd be improved by more discussion of me, but otherwise they're interesting reading in their own right.


Unconscious Voice Casting

I'm in the middle of several different "reading assignments," as I like to think of them. Mornings during my walk I'm reviewing books for consideration in the World Fantasy Awards. At night, upstairs before going to bed, I'm rereading Matt Wagner's Grendel for the first time in two decades (about which more later). And when I've got a few minutes to spare in the middle of the day and need something to read, I'm working my way through Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's original run on Fantastic Four.

It's that last one that got me thinking. I'm towards the end of the first year of FF stories, and I noticed something strange. Not about the stories themselves, but about my experience reading them. Typically when I'm reading I don't "hear" the characters' voices in my head, except in a fairly generic way. The exception is when I'm reading a character that I associate for whatever reason with a particular voice, like the actors on a movie or tv series when reading a tie-in book. Reading these old Fantastic Four stories from the early sixties, though, I found that I had very distinct voices in my head for each of the main characters--but I didn't recognize where those voices came from. All I could figure was that Reed Richards sounded almost but not quite like Jonny Quest's Race Bannon.

Then I noticed that I was "hearing" the sound effects, too, and they sounded just like the stock fx used in the Hanna-Barbera adventure cartoons. And that's when I figured out where the voices were coming from.

How crazy is that? I don't think I've seen one of these cartoons in decades, not since I was a kid. And I've read countless Fantastic Four comics over the years without "hearing" any voices for the characters. But the FF stories I've typically read were later examples, often by other creators. I have read a lot of the Lee-Kirby FF comics, notably in the Essential collections, but perhaps it's significant that those were black-and-white reprints. This is the first time I've read more than a handful of Lee and Kirby Fantastic Four comics in color, and suddenly my unconscious is pulling from dimly recalled thirty-year-old memories to supply voices to the characters.

Weird, right?

Thursday, January 15, 2009


More Secret News

I've got a secret. Some good news. Can't say anything about it yet, but it should probably be announced in the very near future.

That is all.


Star Wars: Retold (by someone who hasn't seen it)

(via) Here's how Joe Nicolosi introduces this bit of amusement...
My friend Amanda had never seen a whole Star Wars film. When I asked her if she wanted to watch the original trilogy she said that she would, but that she already knew what happens. So I took out my voice recorder and asked her to start from the top.

I then created some very basic animation in Final Cut to go along with her narration.

Now, enjoy.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009


Secret Services: Department Q

Department Q? Where have I heard that name before? Well, there was a real "Department Q" in the SOE in the days of the Second World War, and after all, I did suggest keeping your eye out for that particular letter.

In today's installment of Secret Services, we've reached the 2002 debut of the "Caballistics, Inc." strip in 2000AD, written by Gordon Rennie and drawn by Dom Reardon.

What is Caballistics, Inc? Well, we'll get to that in a moment. First, let's get this other Department Q sorted out.

The site has a ridiculously detailed subsection on Caballistics, Inc., so I'll resist the temptation to simply point you in that direction, and instead quote liberally from it. According to the site, Department Q was...
A secret department of the British Government (Mininstry of Defence) founded in 1941 to combat Nazi occult warfare (specifically Sonderkommando Thule).
So far so good. What else can the site tell us? How about the WWII-era investigations of the group?
  • Something involving apparent Nazi lycanthropes.
  • The investigation of Sonderkommando Thule's Operation Doppelganger.
  • Enigma code broken using psychics and team of Jewish Cabbala scholars.
  • Doodlebugs knocked out of the air using telekinesis.
  • Divination to track u-boat movements.
  • Seances to gather military intelligence.
So far, so good. We're definitely in "secret government agencies that investigate the occult" territory here. Invoking 1940s British intelligence services and dragging in occult Nazi hoodoo is certainly a plus, as well.

So what's Caballistics, Inc., then?

Well, by the time the strip begins, the glory days of Department Q are long gone. Now the staff, which once included a whole host of adventurers, researchers, magicians, scholars of the Caballa, and others, has been reduced to just two paranormal historians, Dr. Jonathan Brand and Jennifer Simmons. The British government, looking to cut costs, is on the verge of shutting the whole department down when Ethan Kostabi, a former glamrock star from the 1970s who went on to become a dot-com billionaire, buys the whole thing lock, stock, and barrel, and uses it as the basis of a new venture: Caballistics, Inc.

Dr. Brand and Ms. Simmons are included along with the Department Q furniture and files, and are soon joined by Solomon Ravne, a mysterious figure who just might be the surviving founder of the WWII-era Nazi Occult division; and Hannah Chapter and Lawrence Verse, hardbitten and heavily-armed demon hunters. Together the five set up shop in Exham Priory in Sussex, which was once the home of Malcolm Critchley, a Aleister Crowley-like "Great Beast" who got up to some dirty deeds back in middle of the 20th Century.

As the series progresses, Caballistics, Inc. is brought in to deal with a whole host of occult menaces, from haunted movie studios to hold-out Nazi threats, from Lovecraftian monsters to demons and devils from Hell itself. Along the way Ms. Simmons becomes possessed by a demon, we learn the backstories of the various characters and start seeing glimpses into the doings of Department Q over the decades, and gradually discover that Solomon Ravne has hidden connections with Ethan Kostabi, and that both of them are much, much older than they appear.

The series, the majority of which is available in two collected editions from 2000AD, Going Underground and Creepshow, is consistently entertaining, clever, and frequently downright creepy. Rennie and Reardon have clearly done their home work, and the stories are littered not only with references to various real occult belief and historical minuteia, but also metafictional nods to the work of a great many other books, comics, and films (the haunted movie studio storyline is full of nods and "easter eggs," in particular).


Tuesday, January 13, 2009


BookSpot Beat interview

Jay Tomio over at BookSpot Central has posted a new interview with me on various and sundry, focusing on fables and Fables.


Monday, January 12, 2009


Monday Linkage

Here are a few things of interest I've come across in the last week.

Friday, January 09, 2009


Who Watches the Tilley?

Check out Marcus Parcus's entry in the New Yorker's Eustace Tilley contest.

Thursday, January 08, 2009


Milky Way Transit Authority

(via) Behold Samuel Arbesman's map of the Milky Way in the style of a transit map.

He explains the project thusly:
I was re-reading Carl Sagan's novel Contact recently, essentially a series of arguments about SETI wrapped into a story, and he alludes to some sort of cosmic Grand Central Station. That, coupled with my longtime interest in transit maps, got me thinking about all of this.


El Gorgo!

How have I lived this long without knowing about El Gorgo?

Who is El Gorgo? Well, in the words of his sidekick, Eddie Devil, "He's a rock star, a professional wrestler, a historical novelist, and a freakin' superhero."

He's a Luchador.

He's the front man of a surf-rock band, El Gorgo's Gorgo-a-go-go.

He has Einstein-level intelligence, and is a superb martial artist.

Oh, and he's a gorilla.

In the first issue, he fights cultists on a Hawaiian island who worship Lovecraftian Deep Ones, and after destroying their god Dagon is accidentally thrown across time and space to Saturn's moon Titan, where he has to fight hyper-evolved sentient dinosaurs in armor. Meanwhile, his assistants are growing increasingly anxious that he might not make his surf-rock band's gig that night.

In the second issue, after it turns out that the whole fight with the armored dinosaurs was a misunderstanding, El Gorgo has to fight a whole other group of reptilian baddies, before being thrown back in time to Ancient Egypt, where a cat-headed Egyptian goddess reveals to him the secret history of the world. Then his assistant (and fellow Luchador) Eddie Devil arrives with a purloined time machine, to take him back to Titan in the far future, where they are taken to Dinosaur City.

And so on.

El Gorgo! is everything awesome, crammed together in two-dozen-page chunks and sprinkled with kick-ass. I mean, the continuing adventures of a masked Luchador super-intelligent gorilla? What is better than that?

Well, better still is that you can enjoy El Gorgo! without spending a dime. On the site you can download the first two issues in PDF or CBR format, read the whole issues online, or buy print copies. Or heck, you could do all three!

I just lost the last half-hour of productivity to reading El Gorgo!, and I couldn't hesitate to share that manic thrill with all of you nice people. Check it out, read it, and if you like it, buy it!


IRoSF on "Mirror of Fiery Brightness"

Lois Tilton over on the Internet Review of Science Fiction has reviewed the Fall 2008 issue of Subterranean in her regular Short Fiction round up, including "Mirror of Fiery Brightness." She wasn't crazy about the story in general, but has some kind words along the way.

An alternate history spy thriller in Roberson's Celestial Empire series. Saito Ren is a covert agent of the Celestial Empire in the South American Republic of Fusang, allied with the Mexican enemies of the Chinese. When agents of the Mexica suddenly assassinate all his agents, Saito is forced to flee, but as he escapes, he becomes increasingly aware that this Mexican move is related to some project called "Tlatlauhquitezcatl," the Mirror of Fiery Brightness, and he is determined to discover what it means.

Roberson's Celestial Empire series has by now become one of the most extensive alternate histories ever. I have read quite a number of the stories set in this rich ongoing milieu and found them uneven; the best are quite good indeed, focusing on individuals caught up in the movement of history and the clash of empires. This novella, however, suffers severely from Seriesitis, as the author has overloaded it with way too much backstory–the backstory of the Celestial Empire, the backstory of the various South American polities, the backstory of the Nipponese in Fusang, and the personal backstory of Saito Ren and the ignoble deed that has haunted him all his life. Buried under all this information, Saito fails to come fully alive as a character, and his immediate problems with people trying to kill him seem almost an afterthought to the history. The author has also overused coincidence and improbability as plot devices to push Saito through his paces in the pursuit of the Fiery Mirror.

Elsewhere, Roberson has stated that this installment in the series is meant to present the Mexica from more of a neutral perspective as opposed to the villains that they appear from the Celestial point of view. It is in the person of the most unlikely possible character, the assassin priest of the Flayed God, that he succeeds, making the very end of the story the most interesting part–and without any intrusive backstory at all.

Has the Celestial Empire really become "one of the most extensive alternate histories ever"? I do keeping writing the damned things, don't I...?



Cover of End of the Century

Behold, courtesy of the Pyr blog, the full front-and-back cover to End of the Century. Art by Dan Dos Santos, and design by Nicole Sommer-Lecht.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009


For Your Consideration: Death on the Crosstime Express

Hugo nominations are open for the 2009 awards (pdf link to nominating forms; the online ballot isn't yet available). As the ever-helpful Science Fiction Awards Watch points out, " If you are already a member of Anticipation, or you were a member of Denvention 3, then you may nominate," and "If you are not yet qualified to nominate you have until January 31st to buy at least a supporting membership in Anticipation."

Of my 2008 published works, Dragon's Nine Sons is eligible in the Best Novel category; and "Thy Saffron Wings" (from Postscripts #15), "Line of Dichotomy" (from Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume 2), "Mirror of Fiery Brightness" (Subterranean Fall 08), and "Death on the Crosstime Express" (from Sideways in Crime) are all Novelettes. But of all the stories I published last year, that last one listed is the closest to my heart, and the one about which I'm proudest.

With that in mind, I humbly submit for your consideration, in the category of Best Novelette, the full text of "Death on the Crosstime Express".

Death on the Crosstime Express
by Chris Roberson

The airship which hung between the docking pylons, tethered fore and aft, was painted a dark shade of blue and trimmed with gold, the colors of the Crosstime Line. But even if one didn’t recognize the coloration, the sheer size of the craft alone would have been enough to signal its importance. It dwarfed the other airships drifting at anchor in the Texican National Airfields on the outskirts of Waterloo. The smallest of the other craft, neither equipped with translocation engines nor rated for underspace passage if they had been, were locals, carrying passengers and freight to the Anglo-American Confederation, or across the seas to the French Workers Concordat or the Russian Czardom or Chinese Collective. Slightly larger were the intercontinua airships which traveled to and from neighboring alternatives, spending hours, days, or weeks journeying through underspace to translocate into other worlds. But largest of all was the blue and gold immensity of the Crosstime Express, the pride of the line, which weekly made the journey from here to Helium and back again.

Vivian Starkweather checked the time. Slipping her watch back into its vest pocket, she held a lit match to the cigarillo clenched between her teeth.

“Don’t worry, darlins,” she said to the young women standing beside her at the base of the gangplank, jeweled bindis twinkling brightly in the morning sun against the dark skin of their foreheads. Starkweather expelled a stream of smoke from the corner of her mouth, and hooked her thumbs through her beltloops. “I expect we’ll be boarding directly.”

The Indian princesses didn’t seem much to mind the delay, though, hardly noticing Starkweather’s assurances, too busy making eyes at the younger members of the crew in their crisp white jackets and peaked caps, and especially at the ship’s young steward, supervising the loading of comestible provisions onto the blue and gold craft.

Aside from being the site for the Crosstime Line’s terminus, the only other item of interest about the alternative was that it was home to the Pinkertons, the private security firm routinely contracted by intercontinua businesses and governments alike. Many a smuggler, freebooter, or suspect fleeing prosecution had come to dread the baleful open eye which was the symbol of the men and women who lived up to their motto, “We Never Sleep.”

Most of the intercontinua craft anchored around the airfield had come here for the same reason, ferrying passengers from neighboring alternatives, who now stood ready to mount the gangplank to the blue and gold airship. Travelers from neighboring alternatives, they had made the journey here to catch the Crosstime Express, which would continue on to Helium, seat of the League of Worlds and hub of all intercontinua commerce in this region of the Myriad. A journey of less than three days, which shorter range vessels might take weeks or even longer to complete.

If the two young Indian women in their silk saris and silver bangles weren’t bothered, though, there were others less sanguine about the delay. A pair of Russian monks in heavy cassocks shifted uneasily, their gaze darting back and forth nervously as they held their hands against their round bellies. And the mandarin whose ruby button atop his hat indicated the highest level of service to the emperor, in some distant alternative dominated by the Chinese throne, seemed ill-at-ease, as though uncertain the correct protocol in such situations. But the most distressed by the inability of the passengers to board the ship were the trio of white-skinned men in their wool suits and bowler hats.

“This is intolerable, I say,” blustered the man with the bushy mustaches and red cheeks, who was evidently the leader of the three. “The agreement drawn up with the Crosstime Line clearly states that we are to have ample time to examine the security arrangements before departure.”

Behind him stood a short, round man with a sheaf of papers in hand, and a slender man with a long nose and piercing blue eyes.

“I assure you, Mister Engel,” said Captain N’Diklam, soothingly, “it will be only a momentary delay. We have had to take on relief crewmen, and it is simply taking longer to get them squared away than anticipated.” The captain smiled, teeth white and even against this dark brown skin, and turned to confer with the bosun who had just ambled down the gangplank.

The three men were clearly not satisfied, but evidently saw little to be gained from pressing the issue at this point, and turned to walk away. They moved in concert, with almost military precision, the mustachioed Engel in the lead and the other two following at his flanks like a vanguard of birds in flight.


In the end, it was less than a quarter of an hour later before the gangplank was opened and the passengers allowed to board the Crosstime Express. Vivian Starkweather was one of the first onboard, to the consternation of the trio in their bowler-hats, who were evidently some sort of security detachment that had booked passage to make preparations for another who would be joining them at a later stop on the journey. Starkweather, for her part, pretended not to notice the three men who glared daggers at her back, but had let her hand casual rest on the hilt of the Bowie knife hanging from her belt, as though to show that she was not without resources of her own. Rumored to be in the employ of one of the wealthier Texican gas-mining concerns, Starkweather was said to be journeying to Helium to negotiate an extremely lucrative trade agreement, but no one knew for certain.

In her mid-thirties, Starkweather was, if not classically beautiful, then at least ruggedly handsome. A few inches shy of six feet in height, with a mass of brown hair worn up in a bun at the back of her head, she had striking green eyes, a long nose and strong jaw-line. She seemed to favor riding costume, trousers and matching jackets, with dinosaur-hide boots on her feet, a luxury item from an alternative far off in the Myriad where the terrible lizards never died out, a popular destination for wealthy hunters.

The other passengers who mounted the gangplank, after Starkweather and the bowler-hat trio had boarded, included an ambassador from the Reformed Dynast of Heliopolis and his slaves, from an alternative where the pyramid-builders still held sway; a group of Berber scholars from an Andalusia on an alternative dominated by a Mohammedan caliphate; the pair of Indian princesses in their finery, their luggage carried on the back of a miniature automaton elephant, steam hissing from its joints with each cumbersome step; a group of Maori from an alternative on which Polynesian princes ruled both hemispheres, though with their fearsome moko tattoos it was impossible to say whether they were diplomats or warriors; the ill-at-ease mandarine; an Aztec warlord in linen suit and tastefully garish waistcoat, with jade plugs in his lobes and a labret through his lower lip, traveling with a silent, unsmiling woman whose hair was cut in a bob and died purple, her hands and feet hennaed in sinewy patterns; and finally the pair of Russian monks in their heavy cassocks, whose nervousness seemed to vanish as they stepped onto the gangplank.

Starkweather, Engel and his security detachment, and the two Russians were the only passengers of European extraction in the first class berths, with the rest riding in economy or steerage. Fair and even slightly tanned skin was something of a rarity onboard altogether, in fact, with only a bare handful of Europeans onboard at all, and most of those either servants to other passengers or low-ranking members of the crew, like the sandy-haired steward who had so captured the attention of the Indian princesses.

The captain, Mba N’Diklam, was a follower of Sunni Islam, and a subject of a Jolof Empire whose reach extended far beyond the shores of western Africa. He smiled often, teeth straight and white against skin so dark it was almost black, and peppered his speech with words and phrases from his native Wolof. The rest of the crew in their crisp white jackets and peaked caps, on their lapels the blue-and-gold rosette of the Crosstime Line, were a mix of Malay, Tamil, Dayak, Athabascan, and European.

After the passengers had all boarded, and the luggage had been stowed, chimes sounded throughout the ship, signaling their impending departure. At the captain’s invitation, the first glass passengers gathered in the drawing room to watch the launch through the heavily-shielded portholes.

From takeoff through to the next scheduled landing, the Crosstime Express would remain sealed and pressurized, against the airless vacuum of underspace. The sound of the hatches being closed and sealed rang through the ship with an air of finality, and a few of those gathered in the drawing room seemed unsettled by the sound. Or perhaps merely unsettled by the thought of leaving the sane world of three dimensions behind when the translocation engine was engaged, and moving into the less sensible realm of underspace. The security detachment, in particular, appeared novices when it came to intercontinua travel, hailing from an alternative which had only recently learned of the Myriad and of the countless alternate worlds stretching out to infinity. But the two young Hindu women, as well, seemed somewhat unsettled, and huddled near one another on a low divan, talking in voices so low they could scarcely be heard.

Elsewhere, deep in the heart of the airship, the navigator cleared her thoughts, and set her mind on their destination. A seer, one of those rare souls able to peer beyond the fabric of the world, into and through underspace into the worlds beyond, the navigator was arguably the most essential member of the crew, as without her to guide them, once the translocation engine was engaged the ship could easily be lost forever, adrift and directionless in underspace. Almost equally invaluable, though, were the ship’s defenders, senders able to broadcast their own thoughts into the ether; there were creatures who made underspace their home, monsters of pure appetite and sense-defying shape who swam in that strange region like sharks prowling the seas, and since conventional weapons were of little use against the creature’s diamond-hard skins, the only way to repel their voracious attacks was at the level of thought.

With a seer to guide them and a sender manning the defense, the ship required only an engineer to man the translocation engine, a pilot to man the helm, and a captain to command them.

When the Crosstime Express slipped its moorings, the captain ordered her elevated some three-quarters of a mile into the air. It was safest, when moving from world to world, to translocate from high up, to account for variances in elevation and geography from one alternative to the next. Translocation displaced the matter occupying the volume of space a vessel enters, and if the matter is merely empty air, the result will be little more than a brief flash and an audible bang, as the molecules of the atmosphere are excited, forced out of the way of the incoming vessel, nothing more dramatic than a bolt of midday lightning and a peal of distant thunder. If the vessel were to translocate into any material denser than water, though, the mass at the target couldn’t be displaced quickly enough to accommodate the incoming vessel, and the craft would be compacted on arrival. An only relatively dense material like sand would likely only damage a vessel, not destroy it, but with a sufficient dense matter like rock or metal, an entire vessel could be compacted to only a fraction of its original size, with disastrous results for anyone onboard, and for any living things in the nearby space. Naturally, most intercontinua craft were airworthy, as a result, and it was only the most reckless of souls who translocated while anywhere near ground level.

As the ground fell away beyond the portholes, Starkweather chatted amiably in Spanish with the Berber scholars over cups of strong Turkish coffee, spicing her own liberally with a splash of Tennessee whisky from a flask she pulled from a hip pocket. A few moments later the ship’s physician joined them, an older woman named Ortiz who was a Guanche native who spoke Castilian Spanish with the slight accent of the Canary Island, her coffee so flavored with milk that it almost matched her tawny skin.

The Berbers, like Starkweather and all the other passengers onboard, were bound for the seat of the League of Worlds and hub of intercontinua trade, Helium. Knowledge, like wealth and natural resources, was something which the Heliumites had in abundance. And while the streets of Helium were not paved in gold, they may as well have been, as the alternative was rich in the lighter-than-air gas which gave the city-state its name. The gas helium was found in most all alternatives, but only a scant few, like Helium herself or Vivian Starkweather’s native Texico, had the resources necessary to mine and refine it. And though only the most trusted diplomats could penetrate to the heart of the League of Worlds headquarters itself, all were welcome in the public areas of Helium, and so it was not uncommon to find natives of all imaginable histories jostling cheek-to-jowl in the markets and thoroughfares of Helium, including elfish or brutish men from alternatives where different strains of humanity came to dominate, or even some who, while they walked and talked like humans, were derived from other animals altogether, lagomorphs and lizardmen and talking apes from alternatives where species other than man rose to sentience and dominance.

The ship’s steward entered the drawing room, a young man of European extraction who was no more than twenty years old and spoke with a faint Eton accent. He introduced himself merely as Patrick, and said that he’d been sent to see to the passenger’s needs, and that the captain would be joining them shortly.

When the airship had reached a suitable altitude, the chimes again rang throughout the ship, this time signaling that the translocation engine would momentarily be engaged. A short while later a brief, high-pitched whine sounded in the drawing room, followed by an almost imperceptible juddering, and then faded almost, but not entirely, away, the whine persisting just at the edge of hearing, the vibration only barely perceptible in the faint ripples in the coffee within their cups, or the gentle shake of the feathers the purple-haired Aztec woman wore through her headband.

Once the ship was underway, propelled by jets of air from nozzles mounted on the outer hull, the propellers useless in the airless vacuum of underspace, the captain joined the first class passengers in the drawing room.

Before Captain N’Diklam had made it two steps into the cabin, though, the three men of the security detachment, bowler hats now clutched in their hands, put themselves in his path.

“Captain, we need to discuss the security precautions you’ve taken for our empress’s impending arrival.” Engels blinked his eyes rapidly, punctuating his words with little stabs of his free hand, the fingers of the other wrapped tightly around the brim of his hat.

“And so you shall, gentlemen,” N’Diklam said with an easy smile. “We won’t be stopping at your alternative until late afternoon, the day after tomorrow, and I assure you that we will have everything settled to your satisfaction well before that time.”

Behind Engel, the little round man and the other with the piercing blue eyes exchanged glances.

The tall African looked down at the smaller white man still blocking his way. “But in the near term, I would very much like a cup of coffee and a chance to speak to the other passengers,” N’Diklam said, gently but with steel beneath his words. “If you wouldn’t mind...?” He made a short motion with his hand, as if miming opening a door, and raised an eyebrow, waiting a response.

Engel, flustered, clenched the brim of his hat tighter, but with a final harrumph turned to the left and moved out of the way, his two companions following precisely at his flanks, as in a carefully practiced maneuver.

As the captain moved to mingle with the rest of the passengers, introducing himself and giving the assurances of himself and the whole Crosstime Line that their journeys would be pleasant ones, the three men of the security detachment drifted to the nearest porthole and, peering out with open-mouthed expressions of wondered, gawped like rustics at the unsettlingly shifting colors and strange geometries of underspace beyond.


That evening, after dinner, Captain N’Diklam, Starkweather, and a few of the other passengers gathered at the card table in the smoking room, while in the salon the ship’s steward played a seemingly endless series of romantic airs on the aluminum grand piano for the entertainment of the Hindu princesses.

The Russians, with small glasses of vodka at their elbows, urged for a few rounds of durak, but the notion of a game with no winners, only a single loser for each round, soon wore on the other players, and another game was called for. N’Diklam exercised a bit of command authority and led the way with a hand of primero, which proved too complex for simple enjoyment but with stakes too low to be of much interest. When Starkweather instructed the others in the basics of Texican hold ‘em, though, the group seemed to have found its proper tempo, and a number of hands followed.

Starkweather had the button, and was sitting on a pair of queens in the hole, when the bosun burst in, eyes wide and white in his dark face.

“It’s the navigator!” he blurted out, rushing to the captain’s side. “She’s been murdered!”

And that signaled the end of the evening’s entertainments.


It was long past the hour when the passengers might have been expected to retire for the evening, but most of them lingered in the salon, waiting to hear word about the poor navigator. The Aztec woman, her purple bob somewhat ruffled, was uncharacteristically chatty, and reported passing the crewmen carrying the body through the companion-way to the medical bay, the blood seeping through the linen sheet which swathed her lifeless form. Her companion, in only his waist-coat and shirt-sleeves, tapped one of his jade earplugs and scowled, muttering something beneath his breath about the unseemly waste of so much blood.

There was some concern over what would become of the ship, without the navigator to guide her through underspace. Would the Crosstime Express drift helpless in that strange realm, never to return to the sane security of space-time, much less their intended destination? Those fears were quickly put to rest, however, when more seasoned intercontinua travelers among them explained about the standard practice of employing second navigators in the event of emergency. All agreed that brutal murder was likely not one of the anticipated emergencies, but were nevertheless relieved the protocol was in place.

A few of the crew mingled with the passengers, as the captain had evicted all but Doctor Ortiz, himself, and the bosun from the medical bay for the duration of the autopsy, and the crewmen were just as unsettled by the unexpected and brutal slaying as the passengers. The steward made a desolatory attempt to lighten the mood by playing music hall tunes on the aluminum grand piano, but abandoned the attempt in moments after catching a sharp glance from Starkweather.

Finally, the captain returned and gave a full accounting of the situation to the others. It appeared, he said, that the navigator had been assaulted at her post by an unknown assailant, and stabbed repeatedly with a slim blade. Nothing further was known about the incident, but the captain assured the passengers that the crew would be conducting a thorough investigation, and that on their arrival in Helium the matter would be remanded to the Crosstime Line and the authorities to investigate fully. In the meantime, however, the passengers should sleep soundly in the knowledge that he had increased the ship’s onboard security, posting armed crewmen in all of the companion-ways and public areas day and night, and that he would allow nothing to threaten the safety of the passengers.

At the captain’s side was a man of middle age with a double chin and tufts of hair sticking from his ears, who had the sigil of a seer emblazoned on the blue-and-gold rosette pinned to his lapel.

“Ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Mr. Tanacre, our ship’s second navigator,” the captain said. “You have my complete assurances that Tanacre will be able to guide our course successfully through the remainder of our voyage.”

Some of the passengers evidently harbored concerns about the man’s qualifications, but it was Engel who stepped forward to give those concerns voice.

“How do we know that this tub of guts has the stuff to get the job done?”

The second navigator seemed flustered by the brusque and outright rude manner of the man, but with a glance to the captain he calmly explained. “Well,” he began, his voice quavering slightly, “while my own mastery of the talent of seeing is not nearly so powerful or refined as that of the late navigator, still I am confident in my ability to fulfill my duties.”

Engel narrowed his eyes. “Just what do you mean, ‘no nearly so powerful’?”

“Well,” the navigator explained, with mounting confidence, “the late navigator was so powerful a seer that she might even have been able to read another’s thoughts if she so chose, and at the very least could have detected any extremes of emotion or distress onboard the Express.” He paused, then humbly added, “I, on the other hand, am able merely to peer through underspace into other worlds, helping chart the Express’s course through this tumultuous region.”

“Thank you, Tanacre,” the captain interrupted. “And thank you,” he said to the passengers, “for your patience and understanding in these unfortunate circumstances. Now, the second navigator is needed at his post if we are to reach our off-route stop tomorrow.”

Captain and navigator excused themselves, and then singly or in pairs the passengers drifted away from the salon and back to their individual cabins for the night.


The following day passed quickly, with most of the passengers seeming to prefer the solitude of their cabins to the exposure of the public spaces, and so it was not until the evening meal that most of them were gathered together again. At the captain’s insistence, the first class passengers had joined him at the captain’s table, which had been expanded by additional leaves for the occasion.

Whether by happenstance or design, the three men of the security detachment had been seated as far from the captain as possible. And when Engel began to belabor the captain about the failure of the crew to locate the killer, it wasn’t hard to imagine that the placement had been by design.

Starkweather found herself seated next to the two Indian princesses. Chatting amiably over appetizers and aperitifs, the young ladies with the former and Starkweather with the latter, it eventuated that the two Hindus were wealthy heiresses from an alternative dominated by South Asia, and were on one last grand voyage together before one of them went off to university and the other got married. They hadn’t traveled far at all from home before, and were almost as wide-eyed at the wonders of the Myriad as the backwater security detachment, though the young ladies handled it with considerably more grace.

Still, there were some realities of intercontinua travel that came as a surprise to them. For example, one of the two mentioned having been accosted back in Starkweather’s Texico by a young man who insisted that he knew her, when the young lady knew for a fact that they’d never met. The young man had pressed the issue, referring to some intimate history that they’d supposedly shared, and it was only with the assistance of passing Texican Ranger that the young lady had been able to extricate herself from the man’s grip.

Starkweather, taking pains to reassure the young women about the safety of the streets of her native Waterloo, explained how worlds which were nearest one another in the Myriad, whose histories diverged in the relatively recent past, could produce nearly identical duplicates of the same person, one in each alternative. But while the two duplicates might resemble one another physically, sharing a common point of origin, their own personal histories would diverge as much and as quickly as did the histories of their world. Such misunderstandings and misidentifications as the young women had encountered were actually quite common in intercontinua travel. With a sly smile, Starkweather confided that she’d pretended to be her own duplicate, on several different occasions, just to avoid uncomfortable reunions with her own past associates.

Later, after the first course arrived, conversation around the table turned, as it often did, to politics. There was some dissention around the table about the League of Worlds, and particularly its noninterference accords. The League, to which the native alternatives of most of the passengers and crew belonged, worked to prevent the disruption of developing worlds, in the hopes that worlds unaware of the existence of the Myriad might not be exploited by their more technologically advanced neighbors. However, as others around the table were quick to point out, the noninterference accords were only enforceable among member alternatives. Others, and in particular the Tenth Imperium, an intercontinua power which dominated nearly as many alternatives as belonged to the League of Worlds, in particular had a long history of interference. And, in fact, it was a customary tactic of the Imperium to offer intercontinua technology to worlds which had not yet discovered the principle of translocation or yet developed the Talents, in exchange for their allegiance to the Tenth Imperium.

The ambassador from the Reformed Dynast of Heliopolis, who had remained silent through most of the discussion, raised a grim specter when he suggested the possibility that the differing philosophies of the League and the Tenth Imperium might one day lead to armed conflict between the two bodies. It would be regrettable, the ambassador insisted, but seemed to him to be an inevitability. Something of a pall fell over the table, as the ambassador’s dire assessment settled in.

It was at this point, rushing to fill the silence, that Engel switched from opprobrium, directed at the captain and crew, to self-aggrandizement, directed at himself and his people. He boasted about how scientists of his own nation-state had independently discovered translocation the year before, and made contact with other worlds in short order. And that his own island nation boasted a disproportionately high number of Talents, or so he believed, including a member of his own detachment. He indicated the man with the piercing blue eyes, and explained that he had been found to have some ability to send, though understandably undeveloped and untrained.

Starkweather seemed unable to resist deflating the man, as puffed up as he was. She pointed out, casually, that in her own alternative it had been less than a decade and a half since William James pioneered the development of psychic abilities, fortuitously just in time for Nikola Tesla to complete the translocation engine. And yet with only a few years head-start, her own alternative was rapidly becoming a key player in intercontinua commerce, while his home was still barely dipping their toes into the shallow end of underspace.

Engel blustered, cheeks puffed and red, but failed to mount any effective retort, and when the next course arrived on the table, the conversation drifted on.


After dinner, Captain N’Diklam was joined by the bosun and the cook’s mate in an impromptu recital. All three men hailed from the western shores of Africa in their respective alternatives, and had brought onboard sabar drums crafted from the wood of the baobab tree; though they came from widely divergent histories, the rhythm of the drums seemed to cut across the Myriad. While he was the commanding officer of the ship, in their informal ensembles N’Diklam played the Lambe, the squat barrel-shaped bass drum, letting the cook’s mate set the tempo with the tall, slender Sabar N’Der, leaving the bosun to play the tenor Talmbat.

The rhythm of the sabar drums reverberated through the ship, and for a short while, at least, the tense atmosphere of the past day seemed to lighten, if only a little.


On the way back to her cabin, Vivian Starkweather nearly collided with Doctor Ortiz, who was visibly upset. With the promise of a nightcap of Tennessee whisky and a fine Virginian cigarillo, Starkweather lured the woman to her cabin, and there got from her the reasons for her distress.

The doctor’s report about the late navigator, it appeared, had differed in significant detail to that relayed by the captain to the passengers. Rather than being stabbed to death, the doctor explained, the amount of blood found on the navigator’s body suggested that the woman’s heart had stopped pumping long before she had died. In other words, the navigator had been dead before the knife had ever been plunged into her body.

“A sender,” Starkweather said, nodding.

“It isn’t unheard of,” the doctor answered, plainly distressed. “A powerful enough suggestion could convince the mind to stop the heart’s beating.”

Starkweather took a long drag of her cigarillo, thoughtfully.

“What I don’t understand is,” the doctor went on, both hands wrap tightly around her mug of whisky, “if the killer was a sender, why stab a body that’s already dead?”

Starkweather threw back the rest of her own whisky in a single shot, then wiped her mouth on the back of her hand. “Darlin’, that’s a fine question.”


Klaxons sounding in the middle of the night disturbed the slumber of the crew, and even woke most of the passengers in their sound-proofed cabins. It was a familiar sound in intercontinua travel, and hardly a cause for serious alarm, but even the seasoned travelers like Starkweather found it difficult to go back to sleep while the ship was under attack.

Beyond the pressurized hull of the Crosstime Express, the strange denizens of underspace swarmed, intent on consuming the ship and all within her. From time to time one ventured near enough that their diamond-hard hide brushed against the outer hull, sending vibrations rattling through the ship, setting teeth and nerves on edge.

Though virtually indestructible, the monstrous creatures of underspace were thinking beings, even if those thoughts were concerned only with their endless appetites and boundless rages. And since they thought, the creatures were susceptible to the talents of a sender. Like all the ships of the Crosstime Line, the Express numbered a sender among its crew as defender, on hand to project negative thoughts into the alien minds of the underspace dwellers, driving them away.

A quarter of an hour after the attack began the klaxons sounded the all clear, and the passengers and crew returned to their beds.

The next morning at breakfast, Starkweather overheard the ship’s steward chatting with the pair of Hindu princesses at the next table over. The steward related that he had heard the ship’s defender say that, while she was in the process of repelling the attack, that she sensed someone else assisting in the defense. At that hour, though, the second defender, who was her normal backup in such circumstances, was below decks and insensate with drink, and in no position to conjure thoughts within his own mind, much less project them into someone else’s.

As he passed by her table, Starkweather asked the steward to fetch her a fresh cup of coffee, complaining that the one from which she’d been drinking had gone cold. And if the steward noticed the tightly folded piece of paper which Starkweather had tucked between the cup and saucer she handed him, he gave no indication.


Under normal circumstances, the Crosstime Express made no stops between the terminus on the one end and Helium on the other. On this journey, though, an off-route stop had been announced in advance, to retrieve the security detachment’s sovereign. It seemed that, having only recently made contact with other worlds, having just mastered the principle of translocation and the rudiments of the talents, this new alternative’s application for admittance to the League of Worlds had been accepted, and the sovereign would now be journeying to the headquarters of the League to sign the charter. It was something of a signal honor, since only delegates from member worlds and their personal security retinues were allowed within the walls of League headquarters itself.

The stop was scheduled for later in the afternoon on the second day of the voyage. In midmorning, the passengers lingered over coffee at table while breakfast was cleared away. The only first class passenger not present was the member of the security detachment with the piercing blue eyes, who appeared to have slept late, and joined his two companions at the table looking bleary-eyed and squinting. A few moments after the blue-eyed man sat down, the ship’s steward Patrick entered the room, and then in full view of the passengers collapsed to the deck with a pained expression.

While Patrick was being helped to the medical bay for examination and treatment by the Berber scholars, a klaxon began to sound on the ship, which most of the passengers mistakenly took to signal another incursion by underspace denizens. Starkweather and a few of the others quickly pointed out that the sequence of notes was all wrong, and that it signaled another danger instead. Fire.


There was, in the end, only one fatality, though several more of the crew were injured in the blaze. The fire had broken out in the cargo hold, and since the hatches had all been closed and secured, only a single compartment was affected. A crewman had been caught in the blaze, and not discovered until after the fire had been completely extinguished. And while he was badly burned, all of his clothing and body hair scorched off, he was quickly identified as one of the relief crew who had boarded at the terminus, shortly before the passengers. He had been a solitary figure, with a bushy beard, who kept to himself with his eyes down and his mouth shut. None in the crew could remember exchanging more than a dozen words with him, and those only related to his work.

The fire appeared to have been the result of a dropped match, a careless mistake that had set alight a bolt of inflammable material, part of a shipment of dry goods bound for Helium. What the crewman had been doing in the cargo hold was unclear, but it was assumed that he had sneaked off from his supervisors to smoke some illicit substance or other, the use of intoxicants being not unknown among ship’s crew, though most such substances were contraband throughout League worlds.

A second death, following so closely on the heels of the navigator’s murder, was unsettling to some onboard, but it wasn’t until the dead man’s effects were examined that any connection between the two was suspected. However, when a thin-bladed knife, still darkened with the navigator’s blood, was found in the dead man’s trunk, along with a handwritten letter apparently in the navigator’s own hand, rebuffing the crewman’s crude and unwanted advances, an apparent narrative began to emerge.

The crewman, it would seem, had been a spurned lover, who in a fit of jealous rage had stabbed the navigator to death, when she refused to return his affections. When he had in short order been caught in an unexpected conflagration, it has been simply a matter of just desserts.

The captain considered it a fait accompli, and the case closed, as he explained once he’d gathered all of the passengers into the drawing room.

But not everyone was convinced.

“I’m sorry, captain,” Vivian Starkweather said, setting her reticule down on a chair and stepping forward, “but the second death does not solve the mystery of the first. It only compounds it.”

The captain cocked an eyebrow, intrigued, but Engel, under some stress over the impending arrival of his sovereign, was somewhat more agitated.

“And just who, madam, do you think you are?” he asked, red-faced.

With a smile, Starkweather reached into the pocket of her jacket, and produce a badge on which is embossed a stylized human eye and the motto “We Never Sleep.”

Engel looked at the badge uncomprehendingly, but the other passengers whispered to one another in hushed tones, muttering the word “Pinkerton.”

Starkweather flipped the leather wallet shut over the badge and slipped it back into her pocket. “What I am, as of now, is the law around these parts.”


“What business has a Pinkerton on my boat?” Captain N’Diklam asked, unsmiling.

“My outfit has been contracted by the Crosstime Line to ferret out a smuggling ring that seems to be using the Express as one if its principal conduits.” She paused, and then almost distractedly, added, “You might want to find a third for your little drum group, captain. You should likely go ahead and take the bosun into custody, along with those two.” She pointed at the pair of Russian monks. “The three of them are the main players in the smuggling ring, though there may be one or two others onboard that we haven’t identified yet.”

The captain didn’t bother to question her, but snapped his fingers and ordered two of his crewmen to take the Russians into custody, and ordered them to locate the bosun and take him in hand, as well. The Russians, objecting loudly if unconvincingly, were dragged from the room.

“And you say that this smuggling ring is responsible for killing my navigator and crewman?” N’Diklam asked, puzzled.

“Nope.” Starkweather shook her head, then stuck a cigarillo between her teeth and struck a match on the edge of a table. “The smuggling ring’s a coincidence, I figure. The killings are unconnected.” She held the lit match before her face, her long nose and strong jaw in stark relief in the flickering light, giving her otherwise ruggedly handsome features a somewhat demonic aspect. “But we’ll get to your killer soon enough. The way I figure it, the killer is one of the people in this room.”

“This is outrageous!” shouted Engel.

“You reckon?” Starkweather smiled, and leaned over to pick up her handbag from the chair beside her, the cigarillo still clenched between her teeth. “Think maybe it’s you?”

Engel opened his mouth to object, then slammed his teeth shut again, eyes wide and bulging. “I won’t stand for this!” He motioned for his two companions to follow, and then turned to the left to leave. Before he’d gone two steps, though, he collided with the man with the piercing blue eyes, who had turned right instead of left and blundered right into him.

“There it is,” Starkweather said with a smile. Snapping her reticule open, she reached in and pulled out a heavy Colt Navy revolver, which she cocked and pointed at the head of the man with the piercing blue eyes. “I’d ask you not to make a move, friend, not so much as a twitch, or I’m liable to pull this here trigger.”

Engel turned to look at his companion, evidently expecting to see the same outrage and annoyance he himself felt at this poor treatment, but was surprised instead to find the man staring calmly at Starkweather, piercing blue eyes narrowed and lip curled in a sneer. “Barclay, what’s this all about?”

The man ignored the other, but continued to stare at Starkweather. “If you know what I am, you know I could drop you before you even noticed a twinge.”

“That’s as maybe,” Starkweather said with a shrug, “but you can only think so many thoughts at once. Drop me and my partner’ll finish you off before you take another breath.”

From the door to the drawing room came the sound of a revolver being cocked, and the passengers as one turned to see the ship’s steward in the open doorway, a Webley revolver in hand, pointed at the man’s head.

“Patrick Lightfoot Carmody,” the steward said, flashing a badge like the one Starkweather had produced. “Pinkerton.”

The blue-eyed man sneered, but remained motionless. After a long silence, he said, in an unfamiliar accent, “How did you know?”

“Wrong place, wrong time, friend.” Starkweather slid onto the chair, crossing her legs but keeping her pistol aimed at his head. “We were after other fish entirely and you just fell into our lap. And if not for the knife, we might not have guessed a thing.” She paused, thoughtfully. “What was it? Were you worried that a stopped heart not might not be assumed to be natural causes, but that someone might suspect there was a sending assassin onboard? So you make it look like a mundane murder, instead, which has benefits of its own.”

“So he killed the navigator?” the captain said, jerking a thumb at the man. “But why?”

“The navigator was incidental,” Starkweather explained. “He planned to kill someone else, and the navigator being such a strong seer meant that she had a good chance of picking up on the crime. So she was eliminated to clear the way for another murder.”

“The crewman,” the captain said, nodding.

“But why would Barclay want to kill your crewman?” Engel demanded to know.

“No reason at all,” Starkweather said. “The question to ask, rather, is why would that crewman want to kill your man?”

Engel looked at her, confusion evident, while the blue-eyed man beside him stiffened.

“See, that isn’t Barclay,” Starkweather went on. “Or at least, not the one you know. I think you’ll find, if you were to quiz him, that he won’t be quite so up on trivia about your home alternative as the man you knew.”

Engel turned from her to the man beside him, and edged away, cautiously. “B-Barclay?” he said, disbelievingly. “Is... it is true?”

The blue-eyed man didn’t bother answering Engel, but continued to glare at Starkweather.

“Thing is,” she went on, “your Barclay wasn’t really the point of all this, either, but just another incident means to an end. See, once your sovereign comes onboard, the next stop is Helium, and the headquarters of the League of Worlds. And nobody, but nobody, can get into the headquarters itself unless they’re a representative of a member world. Unless...” She paused, significantly.

“Unless they’re part of the diplomat’s security retinue,” the captain finished.

“Got it in one,” Starkweather answered. “So the point of all of this was just to get someone in a position to walk through those golden doors uncontested, right into the midst of the League’s ruling council. And if that someone had the ability to plant powerful suggestions in the minds of others, powerful enough even to help ward off underspace monsters when he thought his ship might get eaten en route, then I imagine implanting enough suggestions to stop the hearts of the entire ruling council wouldn’t be beyond his abilities, and that he could do a considerable amount of damage before anyone managed to stop them.”

“So who is this?” the captain asked, narrowing his gaze at the blue-eyed man.

“I imagine he answers to the name Barclay, just like Engel’s late friend did,” she said. “They’re dead ringers and are both senders, after all. But I wouldn’t be surprised if this version knew the Tenth Imperium national anthem back to front, and was no fan of the League of Worlds’ notion of noninterference.”

The blue-eyed man drew his lips into a tight line. “I admit to nothing.”

“Figured you wouldn’t. But I reckon the League has a seer somewhere that can get past those shields of yours.”

“Shields?” N’Diklam repeated.

“I can explain that,” said the ship’s former steward, the young man who’d identified himself as Patrick Lightfoot Carmody. “I’m something of a seer myself, though I can’t manage much more than a surface scan of someone’s thoughts. This morning Viv slipped me a note, telling me about her encounter with Doctor Ortiz and asking me to scan the crew and passengers. I waited until everybody had sat down to breakfast, but as soon as I tried to see, I ran smack into someone’s mental defenses. You don’t get that kind of mental discipline just by accident. I knew then that the killer had to be someone in that room.”

“When the supposed crewman was found dead, we were able to work out the motive, and narrow the suspects down to Mr. Engel and his friends. But we couldn’t be sure which of the three was.” Starkweather took a final drag of her cigarillo and then ground it out under the heel of her dinosaur-skin boot. “We just had to keep an eye out, and wait for one of you to trip up.” She smiled, and then to the blue-eyed man said, “Literally, in your case.”


The Express was anchored at Engel’s backwater alternative, which had only just discovered the secret of translocation. The suspected murderer had been rendered unconscious by a serum provided by Doctor Ortiz, and strapped securely to a gurney for good measure, and would be handed over to the authorities when the ship reached Helium the next morning. At the moment, though, the ship hung like a balloon over a muddy field, while a small brass band played a fanfare for an old woman dressed in lace-trimmed black.

Intercontinua craft always reentered space-time at the same coordinates that they left, so having entered underspace from one Texico, they had translocated to another. This one was part of a larger Louisiana, and subject to a British crown that ruled more than half of the Earth. This Louisiana, though, was as much a backwater to this Britannic Empire as the alternative itself was to the Myriad, it seemed, if the expressions of the sovereign and her retinue were any indication of their feelings for finding themselves here in the muck and the mud, so far from Buckingham Palace.

Carmody and Starkweather stood at the landing, watching the old woman mounting the gangplank. She was evidently used to more pomp than the Crosstime Express offered, and was clearly displeased to be treated so much like a regular passenger.

“I feel almost like I should bow,” Patrick said, smiling around his Turkish cigarette. The young man was clearly relieved to be a passenger himself for a change, and not a member of the crew, but Starkweather had merely said that the experience had likely done him some good, forcing him to actually work for a change. And besides, as a steward he’d had an easier time pitching woo at the Indian princesses who had caught his fancy, as he seemed to have lost something of his allure now that they didn’t see him as a mere menial.

“Why the devil would you do a thing like that?” Starkweather said, and took a sip of whisky from her flask.

“Well,” Carmody answered, looking somewhat sheepish, “this alternative is more like my home than most, and when last I saw my England there was a duplicate of her on the throne there, as well.”

“I don’t know, Pat, I just don’t much get on with kings and queens. In my alternative, we Texicans never had ‘em, and the Brits got rid of them back in the days of Cartwright and Paine, back even before the Anglo-American Confederation got started.”

Carmody nodded. “Well, people back home had all sorts of strange notions. They figured that white skin was better than dark, that Britain was where the best white skin could be found, and that Queen Victoria was the best of the whole lot.”

Victoria?” Starkweather said, and cast an appraising eye at the woman. At that moment, the woman slipped at the foot of the gangplank, and fell sprawling into the mud. “I don’t know, Pat, doesn’t look much like victory to me.”

(c) 2008 Monkeybrain, Inc.



San Antonio Current on End of the Century

Austin's own Rick Klaw has reviewed End of the Century for the San Antonio Current, and seems to have liked it.
Roberson successfully repurposes the techniques of A. Conan Doyle and other 19th-century wordsmiths to accurately portray the world of the Bland-Bonaventure narrative. His three stated literary antecedents relied on similar tropes to great effect in their own works, most effectively in Moorcock’s Metatemporal Detective stories, Newman’s novel Anno Dracula, and Moore’s graphic novel series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.


The latest novel in the author’s Bonaventure-Carmody Sequence, End of the Century requires no previous experience with any of his other books, though as events unfold, prior knowledge of Roxanne Bonaventure and her extended family grant the experienced reader additional insights. A World Fantasy Award finalist and winner of the Sidewise Award for Best Alternate History Short Form, Roberson ultimately delivers a superior multi-linear novel worthy of the authors to whom he dedicated End of the Century.



Secret Services: The Laundry

Has it really been more than a month since I last did an installment of Secret Services? Yeesh.

According to my notes, we're up to 2001 in my list of "clandestine government agencies that investigate the supernatural," which can mean only one thing. We've reached one of my favorite Secret Services of recent years, Charles Stross's The Laundry.

The Laundry was first introduced in the novel The Atrocity Archive, which was originally serialized in the pages of Spectrum SF in 2001, and subsequently collected in book form by Golden Gryphon Press in 2004 along with novella "The Concrete Jungle," which won the Hugo for Best Novella in 2005.

The Laundry stories are alternatively referred to as the "Bob Howard" series, after the techie protagonist of the novels and stories to date. He works in the IT department of a secret branch of the British intelligence services known only as the Laundry, which uses modern technology to deal with the occult. Think Lovecraft meets Len Deighton by way of Slashdot and you'll have a pretty good idea what it's all about.

Here's the description of that first novel from the Golden Gryphon site:
In Charles Stross's world of "The Atrocity Archive," Alan Turing, the Father of Modern Computer Science, did in fact complete his theorem on "Phase Conjugate Grammars for Extra-dimensional Summoning." Turing's work paved the way for esoteric mathematical computations that, when carried out, had side effects that would leak through some kind of channel underlying the structure of the Cosmos. And out there in the multiverse were "listeners" — and sometimes these listeners could be coerced into opening gates: Small gates through which minds could be transferred and, occasionally, large gates through which objects could be moved.

In 1945, Nazi Germany's Ahnenerbe-SS, in an attempt to escape the Allied onslaught, performed just such a summoning on the souls of more than ten million. A gate was opened to an alternate universe through which the SS moved men and materiel — to live to fight another day, as it were. But their summoning brought forth more than the SS had bargained for: an Evil, patiently waiting all this time while learning the ways of humans, now poised to lunch on our galaxy, on our very own Earth.

Secret intelligence agencies, esoteric theorems, Lovecraftian horrors, Mid East terrorist connections, a damsel in distress, and a final battle on the surface of a dying planet — in "The Atrocity Archive," Charles Stross has written a high-octane thriller, and readers need to buckle up and hold on with both hands!

The "bonus story" in the novel, "Concrete Jungle," sees Bob Howard involved in a departmental power struggle involving the basilisk's stony gaze and the ubiquitous cameras of the modern British surveillance society. And intriguing hints about the background of the Laundry are dropped in the form of secret files and memos with which Bob is briefed.

In 2006, Golden Gryphon released The Jennifer Morgue, the follow-up to The Atrocity Archives. If the first novel had been Len Deighton, this one was Ian Fleming all the way.

Here's the description from the publisher's site:
In 1975, the CIA made an ill-fated attempt to raise a sunken Soviet ballistic missile submarine from the depths of the Pacific Ocean. At least, "ill-fated" was the information leaked to the press. In reality, the team salvaged a device, codenamed "Gravedust," that permitted communication with the dead — the very long dead. Enter Ellis Billington, glamorous software billionaire, who has acquired Gravedust by devious means. Billington plans to raise an eldritch horror, codenamed "Jennifer Morgue," from the vasty deeps, and communicate with this dead warrior for the purpose of ruling the world. Worse still, he's prepared occult defenses that can only be penetrated by one agent walking a perilous path.

But James Bond doesn't work for the Laundry. Instead, they send Bob Howard, geekish demonology hacker extraordinaire. Bob must inveigle his way aboard Billington's yacht, figure out what the villain is up to, and stop him. But there's a fly in Bob's ointment by the name of Ramona Random — a lethal but beautiful agent for the Black Chamber, the U.S. counterpart to The Laundry. Billington's yacht is docked in the Caribbean, and Her Majesty's Government is not allowed to operate in this area without an American minder. The Black Chamber has sent Ramona to ride shotgun on Bob, but Ramona has her own agenda that conflicts with her employer's . . .

Bob and Ramona become entangled (literally), and are then captured by Billington and used to further his insidious plot. But let's not forget Bob's significant other, Dr. Dominique "Mo" O'Brien, also an agent of The Laundry, who has been trained especially for this mission. Can these intrepid agents stop Billington from raising the dead horror and thus save the world from total domination? The Jennifer Morgue takes the reader on a wild adventure through the worlds of Lovecraft and Ian Fleming, non-Euclidian mathematics and computer hackerdom — sort of like Austin Powers, only more squamous and rugose — with fast cars and faster women.

(this sexy thing is John Picacio's cover for the SFBC omnibus of the first two novels, btw)

According to the faq on Stross's site, a third Laundry novel, The Fuller Memorandum, is due over the horizon, possibly in 2010. He has this to say about it:
Newly married and looking for a quiet life, Bob Howard thinks that a spell working in the Laundry's secret archives and catching up on the filing is just the ticket. But when his boss Angleton falls under suspicion and a top secret dossier goes missing, Bob is determined to get to the bottom of a historical puzzle: what was in the missing Fuller memorandum, and why are all the people who knew dying ...?
And I've just this very minute (!) learned that there is a new Laundry story I've missed, "Down on the Farm," which is available freely online at

Okay, so now I know what I'll be reading on my walk today...

Anyway, back to the Laundry. It's eventually revealed that the Laundry was originally Department Q of SOE, or Special Operations Executive, before being spun off as a separate black organization in 1945. As it happens, Department Q was a real department of the SOE during the 1940s, concerned with obtaining through clandestine methods all sorts of equipment, arms, and explosives for SIS operations.

Longtime readers of the Ramble may recall me mentioning the Laundry novels before, back when I was finishing up The Jennifer Morgue, the second in the series. There are many points of similarity between Stross's Laundry and my own MI8--their shared origins in the wartime SOE, the involvement of Turing, and their opposition by the Ahnenerbe being only the most obvious examples--and if I'd read The Atrocity Archive before starting work on my own MI8 stories I'd probably have just chucked the whole thing and gone off to work on something else. But I hadn't, so I didn't, and I stuck with them.

As I said in 2006, after finishing The Jennifer Morgue, "I like my own little occult spies too much to cut them loose, so they stay in the picture. But I don't kid myself that they're anywhere near as clever as Bob Howard and his crew at the Laundry. I'm reminded of Thomas Pynchon including a note in Gravity's Rainbow exhorting readers to check out Ishmael Reed's Mumbo Jumbo if they want to learn about African-American secret societies. I don't think I'd go quite as far as to put a foot note in End of the Century [I didn't, as it happens], but trust me when I say that if you want to read about occult secret agents, Charles Stross is the guy to go to."

I've seldom had as much fun reading in adult life as I had with the two Laundry novels. (And while I wouldn't dream of second-guessing another writer, if I were a betting man I'd wager than Stross had more fun writing them than he did on other stories.) Relentlessly clever, perfectly pitched, and more fun than you can shake a stick at. Highly, highly recommended.


Tuesday, January 06, 2009


Janelle Monáe's "Many Moons"

I've got Chris Bird at to thank for this. YouTube has it as
The Uncut version of the short film
Directed by Alan Ferguson and The Wondaland Arts Society, "Many Moons."

You might want to fullscreen this one, y'all.

Here's what Chris said about it in his post:
I trust that was self-explanatory, but if it wasn’t - that blend of nu-funk, futuristic soul and utter batshit craziness (it’s a concept album! Set in 2719!) is like what I think Legion of Super-Heroes should be if it were transposed into musical form. And she’s an obvious music nerd. Any other P.Diddy “discovery” diva-lite would want to be all pretty and sexified in their debut video. She wants to be Robot James Brown. How awesome is that?
I've got nothing to add to that but Wow.


Annual Output

Customarily, on the last day of the year, I post a little something about my annual output. Last week I was away from the internets on New Years Eve and for a few days after, so you'll have to excuse me for running a bit late.

This last year was a strange one. It felt as though I was busy all the time, but that I wasn't getting much work done. I have to go back and check out my productivity chart (a text file that I use to track work completed, revised, etc) to see that I actually was getting stuff done, it just wasn't the kind of "stuff" I was used to.

In years past, I've only counted new words written. New words of prose, that is. I'll start by measuring 2008 with that yardstick.

As a basis for comparison, here's my total output for the last three years (in the first two of which I was only able to work part-time at best).
2005: 158,985
2006: 169,800
2007: 441,666

Three Unbroken (2nd and 3rd thirds) 54,950
Dawn of War II 91,634

"Edison's Frankenstein" 7,193
"His Majesty's Menagerie" 2,314
"Gauntlet Run" 8,001
"Mirror of Fiery Brightness" 15,823

Total new words written in 2008: 179,915

At first glance, it looks as though I did less than half as much work as in the previous year, on par with the years in which I was only writing part time.

But then I remember all of that other stuff I did. Not counting the revisions I did to several novels under submission, all of which are difficult to quantify in a strict wordcount (the new revision might have the same or fewer words than the previous version, but they're not the same words), there's all that comics stuff I did.

Here are the entries from my productivity chart for just two weeks in October, for example.
10/03/08 Cinderella #1 - revision
10/03/08 Cinderella #3 - complete
10/03/08 "Firewalk" - proposal
10/14/08 Cinderella #4 - complete
10/16/08 Cinderella #1 - revision
In 2008 I wrote eight 22-page comic scripts (plus a 7-page short, about which the less said the better). These scripts tended to average anywhere between five thousand and seven thousand words, altogether. Taken on the basis of strict wordcount (dialogue, captions, scene and panel descriptions, etc) they amount to another 57,549 words. I could revise my total wordcount for the year to 237,464, I suppose, but it seems like cheating somehow.

(What's "Firewalk," you might ask? Mmm. Good question.)

Either way, though, I did get work done last year. About a quarter of a million words, of one kind or another. I wrote one and two-thirds novels, a handful of short stories, and more than half-a-dozen comics. (And shepherded another couple of MonkeyBrain titles out the door, while I was at it.) I didn't write as much this last year as I did the previous year, but to be honest I'm not sure that I want to write as much as I did in 2007 every year. I may stick here at a quarter-million-words for a few years, see how that feels.

Monday, January 05, 2009


Free Fiction: "Secret Histories: Peter R. Bonaventure, 1885"

It's been too long since I've shared any free fiction here on the Ramble. My apologies, internets.

The following is a standalone chapter from Cybermancy Incorporated (which is currently out of print, but is available on the Kindle), which might be of interest to the readers of my forthcoming novel, End of the Century. Several characters from this story reappear in the new novel, which also addresses the question as to whether there is any connection between this Jules Dulac and the Giles Dulac of Set the Seas on Fire.

Conversely, if you enjoy this story and want to find out what happens in that "story for another time" mentioned at the close, you'll want to check out End of the Century.

Secret Histories: Peter R. Bonaventure, 1885
by Chris Roberson

It was six weeks out of Bristol that the island was sighted. A Welsh seaman working aft had got the first glimpse of it, and for his troubles had earned a five pound bonus on their return to port. The steamer ship, the Clemency out of Liverpool, would be near enough to send over a landing party by sunrise on the following day. With any luck, the mystery of the phantom island would be put to rest by week’s end.

Professor Peter R. Bonaventure, noted explorer and member in good standing of the Hythloday Club, had spent the better part of the voyage stationed near the prow of the ship, his gray eyes scanning the far horizon, either alone or in quiet conversation with his associate, Jules Dulac. Bonaventure had been commissioned by the Royal Geographical Society to investigate reports of a new island which had appeared suddenly a few hundred fathoms from the coast of Ireland, as he had performed certain useful functions for the Society in years past. However, as he was not officially affiliated with the Society, except in the most tenuous of circumstances, it was decided that he should be accompanied by Mervyn Fawkes, MA in Geography and Cartography at Oxford, lecturer at Cambridge.

Fawkes had been a junior representative to the Society on Joseph Thompson’s later expeditions through eastern Africa, his contribution to the effort noted by the Society’s president. While still a student at Oxford, he had written a monograph on the problem of accurately sounding the depths of the continental shelf and the mid-Atlantic reaches, which had caught the eye of more than a few of the Society’s members, and had resulted in correspondence with such notables as Fergusson and Von Hardwigg. For all of that, Fawkes had developed the distinct impression that Bonaventure did not welcome his inclusion on the expedition, though the older man had not made any concrete statement to that effect. As it was, Fawkes held the Professor somewhat in awe, owing to the accounts delivered to the RGS over the course of several years as to the gentleman’s doings abroad. Having spent the past week in Bonaventure’s company, however, and having attempted unsuccessfully to draw him into discussions on certain key scientific topics, Fawkes had begun to suspect that perhaps the Professor’s reputation might have been artificially inflated.

The first reports of the phantom island had been made two months before, in February of that year. As the London papers to that point had been filled with stories of the bloody rebellion at Khartoum, and the subsequent massacre, the publishers were only too happy to turn their attentions to matters of a less grave nature, and to excite the public interest with a mystery of an entirely benign aspect. In the weeks that followed, the initial reports were corroborated by ship captains and sailors who frequented the North Atlantic passages, each offering detail in agreement with those previously recorded.

In short, it seemed that, in a theretofore open channel between Ireland and the reaches of the North Atlantic, had appeared without warning a new and fully formed island. It was, by all accounts, of perhaps a few square miles, dominated by two hills, with an open bay or river mouth presenting itself to the open sea. A low bank of fog seemed to shroud the island, in most reports, and any ship attempting to land on the island found herself lost momentarily in the fog, then passed back again to the open sea, the island nowhere in sight.

The initial accounts of this phantom island were dismissed out of hand by the educated men of England, the purported “island” seen either as seamen’s delusion or a mirage. With the increasing number of respected mariners coming forward, however, all with stories identical in most particulars, it was decided that some effort must be put forward to get to the heart of the matter. The Royal Geographical Society called upon Peter Bonaventure, and Bonaventure rose to the challenge.


From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:

I find, increasingly, that I do not trust Professor B___. His manner has been most dismissive throughout this entire expedition, and he seems more inclined to value the counsel of his manservant D___ or the seamen aboard this vessel than that of a fellow scientist such as myself. To that point, he seems hardly a scientist of any stripe. I have questioned him repeatedly on his theories regarding the phantom island, and advanced my own view that it might be the result of the gradual shifting of the earth’s crust around its molten core, resulting in the displacement of some seafloor strata. Professor B___ has not seen fit to share his own theories, and on the topic of my own will only point out, in his somewhat smug manner, that any tremor or displacement sufficient to create a new land mass must certainly have been felt a few hundred fathoms away on the coast. He seems extremely short sighted, in my view, and I have begun to question the decision of the Society to place him in control of this expedition, rather than opting for a member of the Society itself.


The steamer dropped anchor just after sunrise, Professor Bonaventure and his landing party setting out aboard two dinghies. In addition to the Professor, his man Dulac, and Mr. Fawkes, came two members of the Clemency’s crew, hand-picked by their captain for the occasion. Bonaventure had interviewed each briefly after his selection, and given the captain’s choice his imprimatur. The first of them, Taggart, an American, had in his youth fought on the side of the secessionists during the American Civil War, and had served as a midshipman aboard the CSS Florida, a steamer ship employed by the secessionists which had been sturdily built by solid Liverpudlian hands. The second, Calhoun, an Irishman, had been a supporter of Home Rule in his native country, a fiery-eyed follower of Charlie Parnell. With Parnell imprisoned, and Irish sovereignty no closer than it had been years before, Calhoun had put out to sea. Like Taggart, he’d been on the losing side of one too many fights.

The fog bank, described in so many of the accounts of the phantom island, hung about the coast like a halo, nearly obscuring the mass entirely. From the deck of the Clemency, the crew had been able to sight the hills only dimly, and could not make out any manner of habitation or settlement. The dinghies, breaking through the fog, came at last in clear sight of the island. As described by so many mariners, the island presented two hills of identical size, one wooded, the other rocky and barren, with a valley in between.

“It has not, as yet,” Bonaventure remarked, “eluded us.”

“Perhaps,” his man Dulac replied, in his slight Gallic accent, “it is frightened off by the approach of larger ships, as reported, and our two small craft have yet to make an impression.”

“Hardly,” said Fawkes, from his position in the other craft, rowed alongside with strong strokes by the Irishman Calhoun. “I fail to see why you persist in anthropomorphising the thing.” This last was directed at Dulac, with whom Fawkes had shared hardly a civil word, but the meat of it was intended for Bonaventure.

“I have seen, in my time,” Bonaventure replied, “stranger sights than you might imagine. The reaction of some newfound land to foreign intrusion is hardly the strangest.”

Calhoun, from his post in the prow of the craft, turned momentarily to glance in the direction of the island, both to ensure his course, and to get at last a clear look at their goal. He wore a worried expression on his face, and turning back to his labors muttered something low under his breath.

“What was that?” demanded Fawkes, gripping the board of his seat. “What did you say?” He had displayed little patience for the crew of the steamer, and even less for the Hibernian.

“Tír fo-Thuin,” the Irishman replied in his ancient tongue, and then translated, “The Land Beneath the Waves. It is a legend in my country, the Island of the Blessed, the home of the saints.”

“Rubbish,” Fawkes answered.

“I wouldn’t say so,” Bonaventure called from the other craft, overhearing. “In my experience, the legends of the ancients often have a solid foundation in reality, and our Mr. Calhoun might be right in thinking we are seeing here the source and origin of his people’s myth.”

Fawkes sulked in silence, hardly seeming pleased with the company.

The two crafts beached at last, the expedition set out to make a quick survey of the island. They began by charting the shoreline, one party of Bonaventure, Dulac and Taggart starting off along the beach to the North, another of Fawkes and Calhoun heading off to the south. Just before they parted, strange sounds could be heard from the interior, like the wailing of the damned, or an animal’s cry of terror. Bonaventure, paused for a long moment, listening until the tumult died on the wind, and then ordered the two groups to proceed.

“But, pray God,” he added, “be careful.”


From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:

A quick note as I walk, a habit I picked up in East Africa from Thompson. Thus far, after less than two hours exploration, I can state with confidence that no such island has ever before been glimpsed by man. The regularity of the coast, and the uniformity of the twin hills, would indicate, were such a thing not wholly impossible, some intelligent hand behind its formation. The arc of coast the seaman and I have thus far marked out is, impossibly, a virtually pristine and perfect mathematical figure, describing a curve corresponding to one portion of a perfect circle. The twin hills, the bulk of the wooden one dominating this portion of the island, appear from my vantage point identical in height and breadth, the one distinguishable from the other only in the differing composition of their covering (the one covered in what appears to be stout pine or some other evergreen, the other seemingly barren and rocky). The river, which we glimpsed from the boats, seems to run on a gentle recurve, east to west, through the heart of the island. When the seaman and I forded it, we found it pure and sweet freshwater, and standing along its banks and looking inland, we fancied we could see straight to the ocean on the other side. We should rendezvous with Professor B___’s party shortly, at which point we will begin our journey into the interior, and hopefully quickly come to the bottom of those strange noises which earlier sounded.


The two parties convened again within a few hours’ time, and after a comparison of their findings, agreed that the island was, in fact, an almost perfect circle. A few theories were quickly offered, and as quickly dismissed, touching on the cause of such an unusual geographical formation, but with the return of the anguished wailing sounds from the interior, attentions were soon turned from the question entirely.

All told, the island seemed about three miles in diameter, with the river each party had passed, one group at the eastern extremity, the other at the western, bisecting it neatly down the middle. How this freshwater river might run in two directions, east and west, was another question postponed by the growing interest in the mystery of the interior.

Returning quickly along the coast to the site of their landfall, the party prepared a base camp where the tree-line met the sands, and then set off as a group into the heavily wooded interior. Taggart and Calhoun armed themselves with long-bladed knives, both to assist their passage through the undergrowth and to defend themselves should the need arise. Bonaventure wore a brace of pistols, and Dulac carried a long-barreled repeating rifle, while Fawkes was armed only with a revolver.

The going was slow through the trees, which as Fawkes had suspected were some genus of evergreen. Dulac, who had some experience with botany, could not say with certainty what type they were, though he agreed with Fawkes, somewhat reluctantly, that they seemed closely related to the pine.

At the first, Calhoun and Taggart led the party, hacking at the brambles and branches with their knives, the plants themselves seeming to resist their passage. After a brief rest, all of them fatigued and weary, Bonaventure instead took the lead, finding a passage through the growth that did not necessitate cutting, and the going was that much easier.

The party came at last to the foot of the wooded hill they had seen from the shore, and judging it the best vantage point to make a quick observation of the island, made their ascent.

“There,” Bonaventure said, once they had reached the hill’s peak, “do you see that shadow at the base of the opposite hill?”

He pointed, indicating a dark area across the river where the rocky hill rose above the trees.

“A cave?” Dulac answered, to which Bonaventure nodded in agreement.

“Still,” Fawkes observed, “nothing to indicate a source of that horrible wailing with which we’ve twice been assaulted.”

“Nor anything to suggest where this spot of land might have come from, two months past,” replied Bonaventure.

“Maybe what you’re looking for is in that there cave,” commented Taggart, momentarily breaking with his accustomed silence.

“Possibly,” Bonaventure answered.

“What in heaven’s name is that?” cut in Calhoun, pointing down the side of the hill upon which they stood.

The other four crowded around to see, and following the line of Calhoun’s sight saw a dark shape flit from the top of one tall tree to another.

“It’s just a bird,” Fawkes replied.

“I’ve never seen a bird like that,” Calhoun answered.

“Nor have I,” Bonaventure added, stepping forward. “Dulac, with me.”

The Frenchman joined him, and together they crept down the hillside towards the dark shape, leaving the other three to watch safely from the hilltop.

“It has no feathers, but leathery wings,” Dulac whispered to the Professor, his eyes narrowed. The Frenchman had remarkable eyesight, and was often called upon by his associate in that capacity.

“Nor any head that I can discern,” answered Bonaventure as quietly. “It looks something like a bat, but twisted and wrong.”

The pair stopped cautiously a few dozen yards from the tree in which the creature perched. Seen from this nearer vantage point, the dark creature seemed if anything more mysterious and otherworldly than it had from a distance. It clung to a high branch on the pine-like tree with menacing talons of the same uniform black as the rest of its body, slowly moving its wings as though cooling itself, or preparing for a sudden flight. As Bonaventure had remarked, the thing seemed to have no discernable head, just a cavernous wound-like mouth that stretched between the joints of the two wings, opening and closing rhythmically with an unsettling smacking sound.

“I can safely say,” Dulac observed, “that I have never seen anything like that in all my travels.”

“Nor have I,” answered Bonaventure. Holstering the pistol which seemed to have appeared unbidden in his hand on their approach, the Professor uncoiled a length of rope from the pack at his back, fashioning a hasty lariat.

“I’d like to have a closer look at that little monster,” he instructed his associate, “if you’d be so good as to keep your rifle at the ready.”

Dulac nodded wordlessly, raising his repeating rifle to his shoulder and taking careful aim. Both of them were reluctant to do much more than capture and examine the creature, but if it came to a choice between scientific discovery and the safety of his good friend the Professor, Dulac would err on the side of caution.

Bonaventure crept toward the tree which housed the black creature, positioning himself a few yards off, and began to twirl his rope lariat, first in a loop over the shaded ground, then to one side, and finally overhead.

“Now,” Bonaventure said softly, “to see if the tricks Taylor and his Chinaman friend taught me will pay off.”

With that, he let fly with the lariat, placing the loop around the creature squarely between its wings. Pulling taut the line, Bonaventure planted his feet solidly and brought it down to earth. In the span of a single breath, Dulac was at his side, his rifle still trained on the winged creature.

“Can you somehow stun the thing?” Dulac asked, eyeing nervously the rapid working of the creature’s mouth and talons. A strange, high pitched whine was issuing from the cavernous mouth, sounding like the pathetic cry of a drowning animal.

Before Bonaventure had the chance to answer, the ground at their feet seemed to erupt, the air filling in a heartbeat with a cloud of black wings, grasping talons and gaping mouths.

The Professor released his hold on the downed creature, his hands flying to the pistols holstered on either hip, and all thoughts of scientific inquiry forgotten, he and Dulac met the onslaught of the black creatures with a hail of bullets. A single shot appeared sufficient to take down each of the winged creatures, but the succeeding waves that replaced the fallen ones seemed almost endless. Firing and reloading, firing and reloading, Bonaventure and the Frenchman worked their way down the hill, joined partway by the two crewmen of the Clemency, whooping loudly and swinging their long knives at anything that moved. Fawkes, hanging back, let off a shot or two from his revolver behind the safe cover of sheltering trees.

By the time the party reached their base camp at the shore, bruised and covered with the gore of their countless kills, the last of the creatures was down. Thankfully, they had sustained no permanent injuries, and had even had the foresight to preserve one of the least damaged of the creatures for later study. As the light dimmed, they discussed in low tones the close shave they’d had with the mysterious creatures, and wondered aloud at what other perils the strange island might have in store for them.


From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:

We have established a watch for the night, and are spending the evening hours recovering from our troubles of the day. Come the morning, we will ford the river, and make our way to the cave I spotted from the hilltop. With any luck, we should avoid any more of these flocks of strange bats, and once within the cave will discover if it contains the keys that will unlock the secrets which have presented themselves to us. (The seamen, despite Professor B___’s gaffs of the day, seem more taken with him than ever. I had hoped to wrest control of the expedition from him by inches, but at this stage I’ll have to content myself with carrying out my own researches, and leave the Professor and his lackeys to their own devices.)


The party reached the cave’s mouth just after sunrise, having set out from the base camp in the still dark hours of the early morning. To that point, they had as yet not encountered any more of the black winged creatures that had harried them the day before, and which the American seaman Taggart had taken to calling “devil bats.” Even so, they were cautious as they proceeded, hands never straying too far from holstered pistols or shoulder-slung rifles, and each man carrying a surplus of additional ammunition.

Closer by, the stone of the barren and rocky hill was less gray, as it had seemed from a distance, and more of a pinkish green color. To the touch the stone had an almost porous quality, and when a small amount of water was poured from a canteen onto one area the stone drank it in like a sponge. What was remarkable about the composition of the hill was that, although it seemed as irregular and random in shape as any other hill or mountain one might chance upon, it appeared to be composed of a single large stone. There was no gravel, no boulders, no sand gritting underfoot. From the base to its pinnacle, so far as the party could see, the mountain was a single, monolithic mass.

The mouth of the cave itself, which they had glimpsed from the opposite hill the day before, was an irregular opening at the base of the mass, roughly ovoid in shape, and wider than the five men standing shoulder to shoulder. Within, the darkness was profound, an inky black well which seemed primordial night even when viewed from the bright day above. Taggart and Calhoun had fashioned torches for the party in the night, and with these lit, sputtering and smoking but casting a wide circle of light, the party descended into the cave.

Professor Bonaventure, in the lead, having had no small experience with speluncar exploration, quickly found that his expertise was of little application in this expedition. The cave did not conform to the characteristics of any subterranean cavity he had previously encountered, neither those created by the passage of molten hot rock nor those worn slowly away by water over the passage of millennia. If the cave resembled any others at all, in the Professor’s experience, it was the coral caves found in shallow waters; the delicately curved and slightly bulbous walls of the cavity were similar in some respects to those submarine voids left behind by the growth of a coral colony. Unlike coral with its delicate lace and filigree, however, the walls of this particular cave were solid and sound, virtually diamond-hard, and interrupted only by small openings every few yards, each about the size of a closed fist, which seemed to lead to narrow passages or fissures in the rock.

The party had descended for some time, single file, down the smooth and easy passage of the cave, when Calhoun remarked that he thought he noticed a lightening of the darkness ahead. They were, by the Professor’s best estimate, at or just below sea level at that point, and had as yet not encountered any obstacle, nor any useful information.

“What was that?!” barked Dulac, leaping backwards suddenly, almost colliding with Fawkes who followed in his steps at the rear.

Before anyone could respond, Fawkes squealed like a child in terror, and dropping his torch to the ground scrambled forward to join the rest of the party.

“What is it, man?” Bonaventure demanded of Dulac, ignoring Fawkes.

“Something brushed past my leg,” the Frenchman answered, angling his torch towards the ground.

“It… it… it b-bit me,” Fawkes added, his voice strained.

Taggart dropped to a crouch to check the condition of Fawkes’ legs, while Bonaventure stepped back to join Dulac.

“What was it, do you think?” Calhoun asked, holding his torch higher with one hand, tightening his grip on his long knife in the other.

“I don’t know,” Dulac answered, “but if felt as though something had passed over my foot. A solid mass, like a large snake, perhaps.”

Bonaventure stood still, his head cocked to one side, listening to the darkness beyond the meager reach of their torches’ light.

“How is he?” he asked the crewman.

“He’s fine,” answered Taggart dismissively, letting go of Fawkes’ leg and standing. “Not a mark on him.”

“I thought myself bitten,” Fawkes said in his own defense.

“Count yourself lucky you were not,” Bonaventure answered. He retrieved Fawkes’ dropped torch, relit it from his own, and returned to the head of the line. “Come on, men,” he added, “we’ll press on. But keep a watchful eye, particularly on these fissures. We don’t know what they might hide.”

The party continued on, and within a few dozen steps found their torches were no longer needed. As Calhoun had remarked, the cave grew lighter as they progressed downward the white bands, first with a slight lightening of the darkness growing slowly brighter with each step, until at last they were able to see one another and the cave around them unaided. The light, which seemed a variety of phosphorescence, had a pale greenish quality to it, and seemed to emanate from the very cave walls around them.

Further on, the passage seemed to widen, both in height and breadth, until at last they found themselves standing in the midst of an immense cavern larger than the grandest ballroom in Europe. In the center of the cavity rose a wide pillar a few feet tall, with a wide, chair-like mass at its crown. In the dim light, the party could see seated atop this chair the wizened and desiccated figure of a man in tattered rags.

“Hello?” Taggart called uncertainly.

“He’s long past answering,” Bonaventure replied, stepping forward. “By the state of him, I’d say he’s been dead some five years.”

The Professor waved Dulac and Taggart forward, and mounted the low step-like protuberances to the level of the “chair.”

“You’re right,” the crewman answered. “He’s not talking.”

The man, who seemed almost mummified, sucked dry of all life and moisture, was seated on the chair-like stone as though it were a throne, his arms at his sides, his hands resting palms down on the porous surface of the rock. His clothes hung in tatters around him, all colors dimmed to a dirty gray in the greenish light of the cave walls. His unseeing eyes were open, pointed directly ahead, and his mouth hung open in a silent scream.

“Look there,” Dulac said, pointing to the figure’s chest.

Around the neck of the desiccated figure hung a small bronze medallion on a fine link chain. Gingerly, the Professor reached forward, and drew the necklace from around the figure’s head without disturbing the remains. He turned it over in his hands, and found an insignia comprised of the letters “J” and “C” superimposed on an antique globe on the front, a brief inscription on the obverse. The inscription read, “In recognition for services rendered to His Royal Majesty Henry VII, 1496.

“What does it mean?” asked Taggart.

“It means, unless I miss my guess,” Bonaventure replied, “that we have found the last resting place of John Cabot, a now nearly forgotten explorer of the late fifteenth century. He was commissioned in 1496 to chart a northern sea passage to the East in opposition to Columbus’ southern route, and was successful in that he eventually made landfall in the New World, thinking it the Asian continent. He was lost at sea a short time later, however, in an attempt to find an island to act as a midpoint station between the East and Britain. He was trying to find the fabled island of Hy Brasil.”

The others looked from Bonaventure to one another slowly, and then stepped respectfully away from the wizened figure on the stone. In silence, they surveyed the rest of the chamber carefully, though Fawkes lingered by the stone chair, his hands resting gently on the rough surface.

There were a number of smaller passages opening off the main chamber, seeming to lead up into the body of the hill, and the continuation of the small fist-sized fissures they had seen in the passage. Besides the central chair-like pillar, there were a number of other stone outcroppings of varying sizes positioned about the cave, though unlike stalagmites they did not have corresponding protuberances descending from the ceiling above. Other than the discovery of the four-hundred-year-old corpse in an unusually slight state of decay, however, they found nothing more of note, even after a few hours’ searching.

Finally, the Professor called the members of the party together. Indicating his pocket watch, he informed them that, if they planned to be back at their base camp by nightfall, they would have to start back. No one was eager to be out in the jungle after dark, not with the threat of the devil bats still hanging over them.

The caverns, Bonaventure announced, while still potentially part and parcel of the mystery of the phantom island, did not contain the answers for which they searched. There were still several square miles of jungle to search, and it would be best to get an early start the following day.

Relighting their torches, and returning the way they had come, the party made their way back into the light of day.


From Mervyn Fawkes’ Journal:

I find, hours later, that I cannot drive the strange impressions engendered by the green glowing cave, and by the figure of the man on the stone chair, from my mind. While Professor B____ and the others went about their pointless explorations of the chambers, I made it a point to make a careful study of the pillar. I thought at several instances that I could hear a steady and low humming noise from the roof of the cavity, though when questioned on it neither Professor B_____ nor the others would allow that they could detect it. Even now, miles away, in the quiet stillness I fancy that I can hear it still, like a low and thrumming song, the heart of the island calling to me. I have no doubt that the figure of the man in the stone chair is precisely as Professor B_____ has opined, a lost fifteenth century explorer, but I think that the others are mistaken in assuming it sheer chance that the sailor found his end here on this island. It occurs to me, remembering the air of potency which seemed to pervade the caverns, that the answers we seek are to be found there in that chamber, there upon that stone chair. Professor B____ does not agree, but in this, as in all things, the professor is a fool.


Come the following morning, the party found Mervyn Fawkes missing. He had pulled the straw for the last watch, from the early morning hours until sunrise, and appeared to have stolen away in the night.

“Where has he gone?” Dulac asked.

“From the looks of things,” Bonaventure answered, indicating prints in the beach sand and tracks through the undergrowth, “Fawkes has headed back towards the rocky hill.”

“I say let him go,” Taggart said.

“He’s not been much use to us so far,” Calhoun added, “no offense intended.”

“Hmm,” answered the Professor. “I’d hoped to make a closer survey of the jungle today, and look for any sign of other landfalls like the ill-fated Cabot, but I’m loath to put a member of my expedition at risk through my inaction. No, I’m afraid we’ll have to go after Mr. Fawkes, and hope that he hasn’t run afoul of any of those devil bats, or whatever startled Dulac in the caverns yesterday.”

Grumbling, the other members of the party reluctantly agreed, and provisioning themselves followed the trail Fawkes had left in his wake. Just after they had set out, the strange sounds they had heard soon after landfall sounded again once, like the plaintive cry of a wounded animal, from somewhere in the interior.

The tracks led directly to the mouth of the cave, which they reached much more swiftly on the second journey, aiming more for speed than surveillance. Arriving long before noon, they quickly decided that Fawkes had already descended into the caverns. Lighting their torches, they followed down into the darkness.

They had gone perhaps half the distance between the cave’s mouth and the glowing chamber with the stone chair when Bonaventure called the party to a halt.

“Something passed over my foot,” the Professor announced in a low tone, holding his torch near the cave floor. “The same something which plagued Dulac and Fawkes yesterday, unless I miss my guess.”

Calhoun gave a quick cry of alarm, almost dropping his torch.

“It brushed against me, too!” he answered.

“All of you,” Dulac said quietly, stepping forward and holding his torch high overhead, “do you note the walls?”

“They… they seem to move,” Taggart replied.

At a sign from Bonaventure, the party fanned out to the sides of the passage, holding their torches as high and as near the stone as possible. As they had seen before, the intermittently-spaced, fist-sized fissures covered the walls, but the bumps and protrusions they had taken for irregularities in the stone appeared to be dark, slug-like creatures the length of a man’s arm.

“What are they?” Calhoun asked.

“Some undiscovered variety of ophidian?” Dulac ventured.

Before the Professor had a chance to answer, a number of the cave slugs detached themselves from the passage walls overhead, and dropped on him with a low, sibilant hiss. At one narrow end, each of the creatures had a perfectly circular mouth, ringed with a double row of jagged teeth, with which they attempted to attach themselves to the Professor’s arms, legs and neck.

“Quickly, men,” Dulac shouted, “get him clear of them!” Before he or the Clemency crewman could get to the Professor’s side, however, each found himself encumbered by one or more of the foul creatures.

“Burn them off,” Bonaventure ordered, holding his own torch to the side of his neck, scorching the cave slug’s dark flesh and sending it dropping to the ground with a pitiful hiss. “The seem ill-equipped to resist the flames.”

In a matter of moments, the men had got rid of their unwanted passengers, but regrouping at the center of the passage, they found their way back to the daylight barred by a swarm of the creatures emerging from the fissures in the wall and snaking their way towards them.

“Too many to burn,” Bonaventure observed, “and there’s still no sign of Fawkes. We press on, quickly now, and hope they have not got to him already.”

The way forward was easier going, fewer of the creatures barring their way, and these few quickly dealt with at the end of a long blade or at a quick swipe of their torches. Moving with speed, they made their way to the lighted chamber without serious incident, though each of them were marked by one or more ring-shaped cuts and bruises.

It seemed, on first glance, that the figure of the man on the stone chair had somehow miraculously been restored to life and health in the night, lording over the silent chamber on his high rocky throne. Seeing the remains tossed carelessly to the cave floor, though, and more closely inspecting the features on the man upon the pillar, the reality of the situation quickly became apparent.

“Fawkes,” Bonaventure began, striding towards the stone chair, dropping his torch to the ground. “What the devil are you playing at?”

“He’s gone mad,” the Frenchman added, when Fawkes would not answer. “Look how he sits, head back, eyes closed, ecstatic expression on his face. He’s lost his senses, and wishes to join this corpse here in the bowels of this cursed island.”

Bonaventure waved his companion to silence, stepping closer to the chair.

“His lips move,” the Professor said, leaning in close. “He’s trying to speak.”

Putting his ear almost to Fawkes’ mouth, careful not to disturb his positioning, the Professor listened carefully.

“Lonely. Alone. The One.” The words issued from between Fawkes’ lips, but the voice was not his.

“What are you saying?” Bonaventure asked in a gentle tone. “Who are you?”

“The One. Lonely. Alone,” came the reply.

“He’s possessed,” remarked Calhoun, crossing himself.

“Or something very near the same,” answered Bonaventure. “I’ve seen this sort of business before. Now quiet, all of you. Let’s not alarm him.”

The Professor turned back to the rigid form of Fawkes’ upon the chair.

“Where is Mervyn Fawkes?” he asked. “What have you done with him?”

“The One has need of him,” the form of Fawkes answered. “The One requires a pilot, for the guidance of action and decision.”

“Where are you from?” asked Bonaventure. “What is ‘The One?’”

“The One is conveyance and habitation, home for the long journey and sanctuary in places inhospitable.”

“Journey from where?” Bonaventure asked. “Whence came you to this place?”

“Across the sea of stars, through the shoals of night, the One came gathering information. Worlds beyond count the One visited, until reaching this watery world, so long ago, where the Pilot fell to harm.”

The form of Fawkes paused, an expression of pain flitting across his face.

“The One failed in its duty to the Pilot, allowing the Pilot to come to harm. Awaiting orders, the One floated here, buoyed upon your waters, avoiding your constructs of minerals and dead organic material, waiting for one to come and take the Pilot’s place. Others have been tried before this body before you, washed up on the skin of the One by your waters, but their minds were fragile, their bodies frail, and they could not take the strain of communication with the One. Their thoughts crumble into dust after conversing with the One, and their forms are left to rot in the place prepared for the Pilot.”

Bonaventure straightened, rubbing his chin and considering his options.

“Is this body,” he indicated the form of Fawkes before him, “stronger in form or mind than those you have tried before?”

“No,” the voice answered simply from Fawkes’ lips, “but he is the body which answered the One’s call, and so he is the One’s only option.”

“What is to say that you will not drift on the seas forever, entrapping an eternal succession of shipwrecked sailors, each failing to meet your needs?”

Again, the form of Fawkes was silent for a long moment before answering.

“Nothing. Nothing is to say that is not precisely what is in store for the One, precisely what will happen for ages to come.”

“Then let us take this body away with us, and we will look for a body and mind strong enough to suit your purposes,” Bonaventure said firmly. “We will find your pilot for you, and end your ceaseless wandering.”

The form of Fawkes twitched slightly, in silence.

“To have purpose again. To receive instruction. To converse with a Pilot, and again sail the sea of stars.” Fawkes’ lips were stilled for a moment, and his head inclined forward, eyes still closed. “You would do this for the One? You would seek out the suitable Pilot?”

“In exchange for our man?” Bonaventure answered. “Yes.”

“Then take the body with you and go,” the form of Fawkes answered. “The antibodies within the One will not hinder you on your way through the One’s arteries, and the cleansing agents on the One’s skin will not trouble you again. Take this body with you, and return to the One a suitable Pilot.”

With that, Fawkes slumped forward, like a puppet whose strings had been cut, and in that moment came again the low, wailing cry the party had heard before. The wail seemed to issue from the very cave walls around them, as though they were standing in the midst of the sounding box of an enormous musical instrument, and all of the strings had been plucked savagely at once.

“Come on,” Bonaventure ordered, dragging Fawkes from the stone chair and helping him to his feet. “Let’s get out of here.”

Fawkes seemed to drift in and out of consciousness, but with Bonaventure on one arm and Taggart on the other they were able to move him without too much trouble.

As the strange voice of “The One” had promised, the party made their way through the passage to the light of day without incident, the few of the cave slugs they passed retreating into the fissures as they approached. They crossed the island to their base camp as quickly as possible, arriving with a short amount of daylight remaining, and wasted no time in breaking camp and readying the dinghies.

Though it would have been standard practice to wait until the coming of the next morning to set off for the ship, the party wasted no time in debate, in silent agreement that the sooner they were off the island and back on the deck of the Clemency the better. All except Fawkes, that is, who, too weak to resist, nevertheless objected weakly at being pulled from “the embrace of the One,” demanding that he be allowed to return to the glowing cavern.

Dragging the dinghies to the shore, the party pushed off, rowing their way back through the fog and towards the waiting ship.


At Bonaventure’s recommendation, the British government would instruct all commercial sea-vessels to steer clear of the area, at least until “Floating Island,” as he called it, floated elsewhere in the seas. Bonaventure likewise strongly advised the Royal Geographical Society to consider denying any future requests to investigate the island, or to ensure that any who did attempt an expedition did so heavily armed and provisioned. Calhoun and Taggart returned to their duties aboard the Clemency, though each seemed to have lost hise taste for life on the sea, and eventually returned to port once and for all. Dulac made a careful study of the carcass of the “devil bat” the expedition brought back to the mainland with them, though he found no one in the scientific community would take his findings seriously, and in the end he found it easier to drop the matter entirely.

As for Mervyn Fawkes, he was badly shaken by the events of the expedition, and of his brief encounter with the “mind” of the floating island, and was remanded to the care of a mental hospital for a brief time by his family following his return home. After a short stay, however, Fawkes left the hospital against his doctor’s wishes. He spent a good deal of time and energy attempting to charter a sea vessel up and down the coast of England, and at last report had gotten passage on a tramp steamer to Iceland, where he hoped to have better luck. It was several years before he would be heard from again, though that is a story for another time.

(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.



Booklist on End of the Century

The following review of End of the Century appears in the January 1st and 15th issue of Booklist, which mails out this week. Some slight spoilers included, so be warned.
Roberson conjures up a triple-threaded tale: (1) Driven by visions of a lady in white, Galaad gets Artur and his knights to help him find a glass tower. Breaching a wall of mist to the Summerlands, they are beset by terrible foes. (2) On the eve of Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Sandford Blank and Roxanne Bonaventure investigate brutal murders eerily like the earlier Torso Murders that defeated Sandford. They find links to Arthurian enthusiasts and an archaeological expedition to Glastonbury Tor. (3) As the twentieth century ends, visions of a glass tower drive Alice Fell to run away from home. Saved from spectral hounds by a retired spy (he says), she embarks on a wild hunt for the key to her visions. Behind everything is the far-future organization Omega, whose agents try to decipher the past. Roberson bedecks all three strands with a spectacular collection of secrets, murky underworld organizations, and everything from time travel to magical swords. In the dizzying conclusion, time lines converge in a satisfying reimagining of a very old story.
— Regina Schroeder




Last week (I originally typed "a couple of weeks ago," before realizing it was only last Tuesday), I posted a list of items of interest I'd noted in clearing out my Google reads after the weekend. I'm thinking now that I might make this a regular thing, collecting all of the various bits and bobs that may not merit a post on their own, but which I still think are worth sharing. Here's the latest round.

Friday, January 02, 2009


We Can Be Happy Underground

Happy new year, everybody! Normally I'd have already posted long digressions about the year that just passed, or the one that just started, or shared statistics and figures about my writing output for the last twelve months. But yesterday Allison, Georgia, and I became accidental tourists of a sort. We'd gone out to a lake-house owned by friends to ring in the new year in what was to have been an overnight stay, but we had such a good time we decided to stick around a while longer. We've just gotten back into town, and are exhausted, but it was a great little trip.

The highlight for all of us, I think, was the excursion yesterday afternoon to Longhorn Cavern outside of Burnet.

Here's me and Georgia, about to venture underground.

And here's all three of us, almost an hour and a half (and a mile and a half) later. If I look at all perturbed in this shot, I'm not, just a mite flagged after carrying and/or corralling a four year old the whole way down and up. We're at one of the deepest points of the cavern here, I think.

Our tour guide was a retired geologist, and knew a lot about the cave formations, and about the history of human interaction with them. Our friends (of lakehouse fame) had both been on the tour a number of times before but with different guides, and hadn't received even a fraction of the detail they got on this trip. If you're in the area and are interested in taking the tour, be sure to get on one of the tours hosted by Al Gerow, the on site geologist. (He was also kind enough to answer a bunch of questions for me after the tour ended, and to recommend some reference stuff. Expect spelunking in some of my stories, sooner or later.)

Anyway, regular service will resume shortly, but in the meantime, Happy New Year everyone!

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