Friday, February 27, 2009


Free Fiction: Two Birds

Here's an odd one, at least considering the rest of my body of work. In the months after I quit my full-time job, in the fall of 2003, and the birth of Georgia in February of 2004, I wrote like a fiend. For the first time since summer breaks in college, I had all day to write. It was glorious.

The problem was, I very quickly had stories out to all the top science fiction and fantasy markets, and was waiting for rejections before I could submit to them again. And I already had a stack of unsold novels, so wasn't in any hurry to write another long piece without any idea where it would be going. So I decided to experiment a bit.

I tried different genres and subgenres. I tried my hand at a dark fantasy/horror story (which didn't sell), wrote a couple of short stories to submit to Boy's Life (which would have been a childhood dream come true, but those didn't sell either), and more others than I can remember. None of these experiments resulted in a sale, which convinced me that I was already working in the genre best suited to my talents. I trunked the stories, and never really thought about them again.

This morning, though, digging through some old files looking for a pristine version of a short-short I'm supposed to be revising, I came across one of the experiments that I was really sorry never sold. I've always loved mysteries, and tried on a few occassions to break into the mystery field, without any success. This short, written in those heady days when I first became a full-time writer, was submitted to all of the big mystery magazines I knew about, and bounced from all of them. Clearly, I wasn't cut out to be a mystery writer. But still there's a lot about this short that I enjoy, not least of which the trivia about the early days of aviation in Texas that I turned up researching it. I wouldn't be surprised to see elements of this story turn up in one of my sf/f stories, sooner or later. But in the meantime, it's a strange artifact from the trunk. Who knows? Maybe in some other branching worldline of the Myriad this thing sold to Hitchcock's or someplace similar, and there's an analogue Chris Roberson who decided at that moment to pursue a career as a mystery writer.

Two Birds
by Chris Roberson

May 1, 1911. Medina County, Texas.

Sergeant Calvin Reid wiped his face with a bandanna, and set his Stetson back up on his head. This was supposed to be the raining season, when the showers eased them out of the cool of winter and into the spring, but the rains hadn’t come. The ground was bone dry, and the air was humid and still. By midday, it felt like a man might boil out of his skin. Reid didn’t like to think what that said about the coming summer, a spring as cruel as this.

Reid looked down at the body in the dried grass, its face a red ruin, sightless eyes starring up at the brilliant blue sky. It was well past noon, and the shadows were starting to grow. Darkness fell across the victim’s mangled face, shade from the bulk of the aeroplane just a few feet from the body.

Reid looked over at the machine, with its sharp-bladed wooden propeller, boxy frame and canvas covering. He couldn’t help but whistle low in appreciation. He’d never seen an aeroplane before. He’d seen his fair share of dead bodies in his line of work, but never an aeroplane. He just couldn’t figure why someone would be willing to kill over one.


It had started that morning.

Sergeant Calvin Reid of Texas Rangers Company D had been investigating a murder on the eastern outskirts of the town of Hondo. The body had been found just outside the town limits, so it fell under the jurisdiction of the Rangers rather than that of the town sheriff. Sergeant Reid was responsible for all of Medina and parts of Uvalde and Bandera counties, and so when a local rancher had come across the body that morning, they’d sent for him.

Luckily, Reid hadn’t been far. He reached the scene less than an hour after the rancher had found the body, and by the look of things, the murder had happened only an hour or so before it had been discovered. It was ten o’clock by Reid’s watch when he hopped off his palomino at the scene, so the murder must have happened at about eight o’clock, if murder it was.

It was murder, though. That was clear enough.

The body was laying face down in the dust, at the middle of a small clearing, the back of its shirt blackened with dried blood. There were hoof prints all around, but with the ground so dry, it was hard to tell which were the newest. The prints heading towards Hondo could be a day old or a week, those heading out to the east could have been made that morning or a month before.

Another reason we need the rain, Reid thought, knocking the dust out of his hat.

A horse, presumably that of the victim, was lingering near a stand of cedars a few yards off, munching discontentedly on the meager grass. On the opposite side of the clearing a man in well-worn overalls and a wide straw hat leaned against a tree, contentedly working his way through a plug of tobacco.

Reid dismounted, and his palomino mare drifted over to try out the grass for herself.

“You’re the one found the body?” Sergeant Reid asked the man.

“Yassir,” the man drawled. “Name’s Culverton. I’ve got a little spread just south of here,” he pointed with his chin, wasting no effort, “and one of my calves went missing in the night, so I was out here looking for her. Didn’t find her, but I found this ‘un instead.” He pointed again with his grizzled chin, this time to the body.

“You didn’t see anybody else around, I don’t expect?”

“Nossir, I surely didn’t. I had my brother’s boy with me, and I sent him running into town to fetch the law.” Culverton narrowed his eyes at the glint of silver on Reid’s chest. “You a Ranger?”

“Yep,” Reid said, squatting down on his heels next to the body.

“Don’t reckon you’ll be needing me anymore, then.” Culverton leisurely pushed off the tree, and straightened.

“Hang on a bit, there,” Reid answered, holding up his hand. “I’ll need to get a statement from you.”

Culverton chewed his lower lip for a moment.

“That calf of mine ain’t going to find itself, now,” he said, contemplatively. “But you being the law, I reckon I can wait another minute or two.”

Reid turned his attention back to the body. The man had been on foot when he was shot, and the bullet had entered his body from the back. He’d fallen forward into the dirt, and hadn’t gotten up again. From the state of his clothes, the victim had been fairly well off, though Reid couldn’t find any wallet or papers of any kind in the man’s pockets. More telling, there was also no money on him, neither paper currency nor coin.

It could have been nothing more than a simple robbery, then. But who was the victim, and what had he been doing out here in the scrub?


Sergeant Reid didn’t have much opportunity to worry about the murder victim. Not long after he’d gotten a statement and the particulars from Culverton, the rancher’s nephew had returned. Reid and the rancher managed to arrange the victim’s body across the back of his horse, and for twenty cents the rancher’s nephew agreed to lead the horse into town to the mortician’s place.

Just as Reid sent the rancher and his nephew on their way, a rider approached from the south. It was nearly noon, and the sun blazed overhead in the clear blue sky.

“Ranger, you’ve got to come, and quick,” the man on horseback shouted, all out of breath. “I rode almost clear to Hondo to find you, but the sheriff’s deputy told me you were out this ways.”

“What’s the trouble, fella?” Reid asked, straightening up and dusting off his trousers.

“There’s been a murder!”

Reid glanced at the body laying in the dirt, and then back up at the rider.

“Another murder! Our near my place in Castroville.”

The man seemed a mite excited, especially after laconic Culverton. The victim must have been someone pretty close to him.

“Who was it, son?” Reid asked, whistling his palomino Bolillo over from the stand of trees. The mare came clopping over, reluctantly. He’d trained the horse well, but she had a stubborn streak still that he’d never yet been able to break. “Part of your family?”

“No sir,” the rider answered, catching his breath. “I’d never seen him before. But he was in a flying machine before he died!”

Reid grabbed hold of Bolillo’s saddle horn, stuck his foot in the stirrup, and swung up onto her back.

“A flying machine?” Reid repeated, his brow furrowed. “You mean an aeroplane?”

The man nodded, eagerly.

“How far?” Reid asked, looping the reins around a gloved fist. With his other hand, he checked the strap holding his holstered Colt at his hip. If he was to set off at a gallop, he didn’t want to jostle the gun loose.

“About fourteen miles thataway,” the man answered, pointing due east.

Reid relaxed a bit. If the crime scene was that far away, there was no need to rush. It’d keep.

“What’s your name?” Reid asked.

“Davis. Jim Davis.”

“Well, Davis,” Reid answered. “You mind leading the way?”

The man shook his head, and turning his horse’s head back to the east, kicked her flanks and set off at a trot.

“Well, I’ll be damned,” Reid said, urging Bolillo to follow. “A real life aeroplane.”


Around midday, Reid and Davis stopped at a livery station, about halfway between Hondo and Castroville. They had another seven miles until they reached Davis’ place and the scene of the second murder, but Davis had been riding for nearly two hours flat out, and his horse needed to be fed and watered. Reid, for his part, hadn’t eaten much since lunch the day before, and he was starved.

Tied up outside the livery was a horse that looked like it’d just run a cross-country race, flecks of foam still dabbing the corners of its mouth at the bit, its flanks caked with dust and sweat. Reid and Davis handed their horses off to the hostler, and headed into the small ramshackle building next door, where the hostler’s wife served up strong coffee and more or less palatable meals every day.

Inside, seated at a rickety table by the far window, was a man Sergeant Reid recognized.

“Horace Greene,” Reid said, taking off his hat and pulling out a chair at a nearby table. “As I live and breathe.”

Horace Greene was a big man, running to fat. He’d had some run-ins with the law before, petty thefts mostly, but he’d kept out of trouble for a while. He’d done a few months behind bars in Hondo after breaking into Judge Miller’s house, and the fear of returning to captivity seemed enough to keep him on the straight and narrow. For the moment, at least. He still owned a small ranch on the far side of Medina County, out towards Uvalde, but folks said that Horace had run into money trouble, and might have to sell it. The way Reid had heard it, Horace owed the bank a fair bit of money, more than he could make selling off his scrawny herd.

Greene looked up at Reid’s greeting, startled, eyes wide in a face the permanent red of an embarrassed blush. On seeing the Ranger calmly sitting down to table, Greene visibly relaxed, but kept his hands tensed into chubby fists, resting on either side of his plate.

“Howdy, Ranger,” Greene answered, nodding slightly. He didn’t say another word.

Greene seemed winded, out of breath. Reid wasn’t sure if that was the extra weight he’d packed on in jail, or because of exertion. Was that Greene’s horse out front, ridden nearly to collapse?

The hostler’s wife served up biscuits and gravy and cups of strong, black coffee to Davis and Reid. The three men sat in silence, Greene gulping down the last of his coffee and mopping his plate clean, the Ranger and Davis taking measured bites. When Greene had settled up his bill with the hostler’s wife, he nodded a quick farewell to Reid, and then hurried from the building without another word.

“Quiet type, ain’t he?” Davis said, disinterestedly.

“Yep,” Reid said simply, but suspicion hid behind his eyes. He looked through the dirty panes of the window as Greene mounted up on the beleaguered horse and rode off to the west, towards Hondo.


Davis lead Sergeant Reid to the site of the murder an hour or so past noon. The body was lying next to the aeroplane, just as Davis had said, in an open field just west of the town limits of Castroville. No one had touched the body, or the plane, since the Ranger was sent for.

The victim was dressed in a military uniform, khaki jodhpurs and jacket, with leather goggles pulled down and hanging around his neck and a holstered pistol at his hip. He’d been young, in his early twenties perhaps, with fine blond hair that hung in short curls around his head like a halo. The body was lying on its back, sightless eyes staring up at the blue sky overhead, its mouth and nose a ruin of dried blood and gore. The victim had been shot in the face by the killer, who by the angle of entry must have been on horseback.

Reid squatted down by the body, taking a closer look. The victim hadn’t put up any kind of fight. The pistol was still secured in the holster, and the lack of blood or powderburns on the forearms meant that he’s had his arms to his sides when the shot was fired. From the look of things, the victim had just landed the aeroplane, climbed to the ground, and promptly been shot in the face.

“Sergeant,” Davis said, directing Reid’s attention to the east.

The far eastern edge of the clearing was bounded by a rode that curved off to the south and east. A wagon had appeared at the clearing’s edge, a wide cart pulled by two big draft horses. At the reins was a stout man dressed in military khakis, at his side a taller man in the same uniform.

Reid stood up, and waited.

“How do, fellas,” Reid said.

The stout man brought the wagon up alongside the aeroplane, his manner casual. When he saw the body stretched out in the grass, though, his eyes went wide.

“Lieutenant!” the stout man said, and leapt to the ground from the buckboard.

“Aw, cripes,” the tall man said, wincing. He pulled the handle to lock the brakes of the wagon, and then followed his stout companion to the ground.

“What happened?” the stout man asked, looking up at Reid, his expression drawn.

The tall man drew near, and leaned over to get a closer look at the victim, grimacing.

“You fellas know this one?” Reid said, pointing to the body in the grass with his chin.

“Yeah,” the tall man answered, standing up straight. “His name is Hopkins. Lieutenant Dan Hopkins.” He glanced back at the body, and shook his head. “Dang it,” he swore.

“And who might you fellas be?” Reid asked.

“My name’s Johnston, and this here is Bloom,” the tall man said. “We’re enlisted men, out of Fort Sam Houston.”

“That where this fella and his flying machine are from, too?” Reid asked. He’d heard that the Army base in San Antonio had gotten an aeroplane the year before.

“Yessir,” the stout man called Bloom answered, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand. “Hopkins was due back at the base a few hours ago, and so Johnston and me was sent out after him. We figured that… well, we figured he might have had trouble getting back up in the air. We didn’t know…” Bloom’s gaze drifted back to the body, and his voice trailed off into silence.

“You didn’t know he’d go and get himself shot,” Reid finished for him.

Johnston and Bloom both nodded, eagerly.

“You know of anyone who’d have a reason to kill him?” Reid asked.

Both soldiers shook their heads.

“He just transferred in last month,” Johnston answered. “And he hardly ever left the base.”

“He didn’t have any enemies I heard about,” Bloom said.

Reid looked over at the body.

“Well, he must have found one at the end, I suppose,” he said.


Davis and Reid helped the two soldiers wrap the body of the dead pilot in a tarp, and loaded it and the aeroplane onto the back of the wagon. Before they’d gone, Reid learned from them that the pilot had taken off just an hour before Davis had found the body. The plane had a top speed of forty miles per hour, and the base was about 20 miles away, so to their reckoning he’d been in the air about thirty minutes. That meant that the murder had likely taken place thirty minutes before Davis had come upon the body, or sometime around nine o’clock that morning.

There hadn’t been a murder in Medina county in well over month, and now there were two within an hour of each other, fourteen miles apart? Sergeant Reid was going to earn his pay voucher this month. Provided, of course, he was able to solve the murders, and bring to justice the people who had done them.


That night, Sergeant Reid stopped in to visit the sheriff of Hondo. The manager at the local inn had reported one of their guests missing that morning, and the sheriff had put two and two together and identified the missing guest as the murdered man found just outside the town limits that morning. According to the inn manager, the murdered man had been in town on business from Dallas. What his business was, the inn manager couldn’t say, only that it was some sort of real estate speculation deal, and that he’d left the hotel the night before in the company of another man. Of this other man, all the hotel staff could remember was that he was a large man, taller than average and heavier than most. A telegram was sent to the man’s next of kin in Dallas, and arrangements were underway to transport the body back north.

The next day, Reid was up early. He rode east into the city of San Antonio, some twenty miles away. He had some questions for the aeroplane folks at the army base. Whatever the reason the pilot had been shot, the fact that a flying machine was involved was simply too unusual not to have a bearing on his investigation. It had only been a handful of years since the papers ran the first reports of those two brothers making it up into the air back east. Reid had seen a short film of an aeroplane taking off at the picture show the year before, but hadn’t figured on ever seeing on in person. The one that he’d seen the day before had surprised him; he’d never figured they’d look quite so… flimsy.

Reid reached the center of town around midday, and decided to stop by the headquarters of Company D. He rarely had occasion to come back in from the field, and figured he’d get some official business out of the way while he was in town. On his arrival, though, he found that the Captain of the Company was down south in Starr county, investigating a large scale rustling operation, leaving the lieutenant in charge of the offices. Reid and the lieutenant had never gotten along too well, so after mouthing a few pleasantries, Reid excused himself and headed back out. He rode north through downtown, past the ruins of the Alamo, until he came to the big tower at the entrance to Fort Sam Houston.

The tower loomed a good ninety feet off the ground, making it one of the tallest buildings Reid had ever seen. Reid couldn’t see that it was good for much. It was only six hundred feet on a side, and seemed primarily to serve only to hold a clock way above the ground. He supposed that, in the event of an attack, the tower could serve as a good look-out point; but given the lack of fortifications around it, any attacker worth their salt would just know to ride around the side.

Reid was met at the front gate by a khaki-clad soldier with a carbine at his shoulder and a Colt holstered at his side. Reid was on foot, holding his palomino’s reins lightly in his hand

“State your business,” the soldier said, holding the carbine in front of him with both hands, finger near the trigger.

Reid thumped the star on his chest with his thumb.

“Sergeant Reid of Texas Rangers Company D. Here on state business. I’m investigating the murder of your aeroplane pilot.”

The soldier’s expression softened, and he quickly lowered the carbine.

“Oh, right,” the soldier said, nodding. “You’ll want Lieutenant Foulois. Come right this way.”

The soldier motioned for another to take his place at the gate, showed Reid where he could tie up his horse, and then led him across the grounds. It was only a few minutes before they reached a large building. The building was dominated by a single large room, filled with long rows of tables, hundreds of men crowded around the tables, eating with gusto.

“That’s the Lieutenant right over there,” the sergeant said, pointing to a table set aside from the others. There were fewer than a dozen men at the table, and their manner was much more subdued, much more somber, than that of the rest of the room.

The soldier returned to his post. Reid crossed the floor to the table.

“Lieutenant Foulois?” Reid said, addressing the table in general. He didn’t know enough about the ensigns of Army ranks to know which of the men he was looking for.

“That’d be me,” said a man at the end of the table. He stood up, and came around to face Reid. He was dressed in the same khaki uniform as the murdered pilot, jodhpurs and jacket, with high leather boots and an easy smile. “Lieutenant Benjamin Foulois, flight detachment,” the man said, and stuck out his hand.

“Sergeant Calvin Reid. I’m with the Texas Rangers…”

“And you’re here about Hopkins’ death, I take it?” Foulois said, before Reid could finish.

“I wanted to ask a few questions about him, if you don’t mind,” Reid said, nodding. “The way he was killed, I’ve got to figure…”

Foulois raised his hand, apologetically.

“I’m happy to tell you whatever you want to know,” the lieutenant said, “but if you want answers, you’ll have to do some walking. There’s work to be done, and I’m afraid I don’t have enough time that I can be generous with my attentions.”

Reid nodded.

“Alright boys,” Foulois said, addressing the table. “Back to it.”

As one, the ten men at the table climbed to their feet, bussed their areas, and marched out the door. Reid recognized Johnston and Bloom, the two men from the day before, who each gave him a slight nod in greeting as they filed past.

“They’re a good group of men,” Foulois said, following behind and motioning Reid to follow. “A bit unruly at times, but at the moment they’re all shook up over losing Hopkins like that, and they’re not sure which way to jump.” The lieutenant paused, and rubbed his chin. “You know, we figure it’s only a matter of time before one of us flyboys doesn’t walk away from a landing, if you know what I mean. Flying that high and that fast, there’s bound to be a dustup that will be fatal. But I swear, none of us ever figured it would be a bullet that would put a pilot down. Not at peacetime, at least.”

“Yep, that’s one of the things I wanted to…” Reid said, and then paused. Foulois was leading him to the north away from the buildings, off into what seemed like open fields. “If you don’t mind me asking, exactly where is it we’re going?”

“Back home,” Foulois answered with a weary smile. “The rest of the flight detachment and I are billeted out of our hangar, at the end of the old mounted drill grounds, but we eat our meals with the other outfits. We used to mess with the troops of the 3rd Cavalry, and that was a walk of just half a mile for each meal, but ever since the 3rd shipped out, we’ve been messing with the 22nd Infantry, which means a trek of more than a mile each way. It’s seriously cutting into our flying schedule, but so far I’ve been unable to get the Army brass to do anything about it. Hell,” he chuckled, humorlessly, “we’d be better off buying our meals at the civilians home off base.”

After a long enough walk that Reid wished he’d ridden his palomino onto the grounds, they reached the hangar. It was little more than an old barn, roughly converted into barracks and a big open room.

“I’m worried about the Military Flyer,” Foulois said, as they drew near the hangar. “That’s the kite you saw yesterday. Johnston and Bloom are square guys, but I’m worried they might have bunged it up a bit on that wagon.”

Reid followed Foulois through the wide doors and into the hangar, a seed of confusion squirming at the back of his brain. Something about the way Foulois had described the aeroplane. Not as the plane, so much as a plane.

“There she is,” Foulois said, proudly. Sitting in the middle of the dusty ground was the aeroplane Reid had seen the day before. A couple of men dressed in pilot’s uniforms were working on the engine. Otherwise, aside from a large shape in the far corner covered with a canvas tarp, the large room was empty.

“We call it the Military Flyer,” Foulois explained. “It was built by the Wright Brothers themselves, and delivered to the Army back in August of Aught Nine. Its official designation is Army Aeroplane Number one, and it was the only one the Army had for a good long while. The Wrights were supposed to train me up on how to fly it at Fort Meyer in Virginia, but the winters are damned cold there, and it never got clear enough to get off the ground. In the end, the enlisted men in the ground crew and I were send south here to Fort Sam Houston and told to get the thing in the air.” Foulois smiled, ruefully. “I had to teach myself how to fly, in the end. I’d take off, fly for a while, crash it, and then put the damned thing back together again.” He paused, a cloud passing across his face. “But no one ever died. Not before now.”

“You did all that by yourself?” Reid asked.

“Well, I had the ground crew here,” Foulois admitted. “And I had to write to the Wrights a time or two to ask for advice, but otherwise we were on their own. And the crew and I made a few improvements on the design, too. They added wheels, so the plane could take off and land without a track. That’s what Hopkins had been doing yesterday, out testing landing and taking off again in real world conditions.”

Reid walked in a slow circle around the aeroplane. He still couldn’t get over how light and flimsy it seemed.

“When was the plane last away from the base?” he asked. “Before Hopkins took it out, I mean?”

Foulois scratched his chin, thinking it over.

“It’s been a few weeks, at least. We had a pretty bad dustup a few weeks back, and it took that long just to get the thing airworthy again.” Foulois paused, and smiled. “That one, though,” he said, pointing to the far side of the hangar. “That one I think we could drop it off the roof and it wouldn’t get dinged.”

Reid looked over, and saw Johnston, Bloom, and two other crewmen pulling the canvas tarp off the shape in the corner. The tarp came clear, and Reid stood there, gaping.

Reid looked back to his left, and saw the flimsy frame and canvas flying machine called the Military Flyer. Then he looked to his right, and saw a larger aeroplane, looking larger and more sturdy. From a distance, he might have mistaken one for the other, but up close, there was no comparison.

“You’ve got two aeroplanes!” Reid said. Not twenty-four hours before he’d never have thought he’d see even one, and now just a day later he’d seen two of the damned things. “I’d only heard about the one.”

“Yeah,” Foulois said, walking over to the larger plane, running his hand along the canvas-covered frame. “Last month the brass sent four more pilots, who had been training out at Glenn Curtiss’ outfit in San Diego. Around the same time, we got the first of a new Curtiss Type IV military pusher.”

Reid looked at him, blankly.

“That’s a kind of aeroplane,” Foulois clarified. “It’s a single-seater, with a tricycle undercarriage, and a lot sturdier than the Flyer. These new boys had been trained on similar kites out in California, so they’ve been clocking hours of flight time on the new Curtiss ever since.”

Reid narrowed his eyes. Something like an idea was maneuvering into position, behind his eyes.

“Has that plane been away from the base recently?” he asked.

“As a matter of fact, it has,” Foulois answered. “Just yesterday, in fact. It was out scouting landing locations for the Military Flyer.”

“Who was flying it at the time?”

“Hey, Kelly,” Foulois shouted, motioning to one of the pilots working on the Military Flyer. “Front and center.”

The pilot stood up from the engine, dropping a wrench in the dirt, and came strolling over, wiping his greasy hands on a rag.

“Sergeant Reid,” Foulois said, “this is Lieutenant George Kelly, one of our new pilots. He was the one up in the Curtiss yesterday.”

Reid and Lieutenant Kelly shook hands, and the Ranger took the opportunity to size him up. Like Foulois, and the dead man from the day before for that matter, Kelly was of average height and slender, with long delicate fingers. Reid supposed that piloting must be like horse racing, and that certain body types were better suited to the job than others. He couldn’t imagine someone with the bulk of, say, Horace Greene up in an aeroplane like that.

“What can you tell me about your flight yesterday, son?” Reid asked.

“Well, I was scouting locations for Hopkins to land the Flyer. Anyplace flat and dry would do. I must have flown about forty miles, more or less due west, and the best landing spot I saw was a strip of clearing about half way.”

“So you just flew out and back?” Reid asked.

“Yessir. At forty miles, I turned tail and came back.”

“What time would this have been?”

“I took off at 0730, on the dot.”

Reid looked from Kelly to Foulois and back.

“Come again?” the Ranger said.

“That’s seven-thirty in the morning, Sergeant,” Foulois explained.

“Thank you kindly,” Reid answered. He took off his Stetson, and scratched his head. “And how fast do you think you were flying?”

“The Curtiss can do fifty miles per hour, flat out, and I was going about that the whole time, coming and going,” Kelly answered.

“So when you turned around, it was what? Eight o’clock, would you say?” Reid asked.

Kelly nodded.

“And you were about forty miles from here, just about due west?”

Kelly nodded again.

“Tell me, Lieutenant,” Reid said. “Did you happen to see anything… unusual on the ground, out that ways? You had an eye out for good bits of ground, so you must have been looking down, I take it.”

“Well,” Kelly answered, rubbing the back of his neck. “Nothing too unusual, I don’t expect. A ranch or two, a dairy farm, a little town. Mostly I was looking for clearings and fields, and ignoring everything else.”

“How about right when you turned around, forty miles out? Anything out that way?”

“Well, there was a good sized clearing that Hopkins could have used, but it was pretty far out for the Flyer, which doesn’t have the ranger of the Curtiss. Besides, there were two men in the field, and horses, so I figured there might be obstructions if Hopkins tried to set down there.”

“Two men?” Reid repeated. “What did they look like?”

“Well, I can’t rightly say. I was a hundred feet up, you have to understand. All I really noticed was that one was dressed like he was a banker, and that the other was a really big fella. I mean, big. Tall and fat, both.”

Reid smiled, grimly.

“Thank you, lieutenant,” he said. “I think that’s all I need.”

Reid turned to Foulois, and set his Stetson back on his head.

“Well, sir,” he said, “I believe I know who killed your man. If I hurry, I believe I can have him in custody by tonight.”

Foulois dismissed Kelly, and ushered Reid to the door.

“In that case,” Foulois said, “I’m coming along.”

Reid stopped short.

“Begging your pardon, Lieutenant, but this is a Ranger investigation…”

Foulois held up his hand.

“I’m not going to interfere, don’t worry. I just want to observe. I can’t say that I knew Hopkins all that well, but he was one of my men, and I owe him that much, at least.”

Reid just shrugged, and headed back outside.

“You can’t say fairer than that,” he called back over his shoulder, and he and Foulois headed out into the sunshine.


It had taken a little while for Foulois to locate a horse on base that he could use, and a while longer to get used to being in a saddle again. He was uncomfortable on the back of a horse, he’d explained. Having spent so much of the previous year and a half up in the air, he’d pretty much forgotten how to ride properly.

“Don’t that beat all,” Reid had said, after Foulois explained the loss of his riding abilities. They were halfway to Hondo, not far from the town of Castroville, heading towards the setting sun. “Forgot how to ride?”

Reid couldn’t imagine such a thing. There were days when he spent more time in the saddle than he spent sleeping on his back at night. He sometimes thought he’d spent half his life, or more, on horseback, all told.

“Yeah,” Foulois said sheepishly, clutching the saddle horn, perched awkwardly on the back of his borrowed paint. “But I don’t expect I’ll be the only one, nor the last. What with more and more aeroplanes being built every year, and automobiles starting to dominate the city roads, I imagine that before long, some folks’ll never have been on horseback at all.”

Reid looked askance at the lieutenant. In the fading light, he couldn’t see if the pilot were joking or not.

“That’ll be the day,” Reid said, laughing. He’d decided it must be a joke. “That’ll be the day.”

They rode on, through the scrub, into the west.


Long past nightfall, they reached the house of Horace Greene. The fat man met them at the front door, a shotgun held loosely in his arms.

“Howdy, Ranger,” Greene said, outlined by the light of the oil lanterns burning within the ramshackle house.

“How do, Horace,” Reid answered, his tone level.

Greene glanced at the pilot riding beside Reid.

“Something I can do for you?” Greene asked.

“Well, sir,” Reid answered, leaning on the saddle horn with his left arm, his right hand resting near the handle of Colt at his hip. “I figure you could first put down that scattergun, and then maybe we could talk for a minute.”

Horace narrowed his eyes.

“What do we got to talk about?”

“Well, you might be interested to know,” Reid said, “that those boys over at Fort Sam Houston don’t have themselves just one aeroplane.” Reid paused, and shook his head. “Nope, turns out they’ve got two of the danged things. Don’t that beat all?”

Horace’s eyes widened, and he made to swing the shotgun up to a firing position.

Reid reacted faster than he could think, years of experience taking over his conscious mind. His Colt was clear of his holster in an eyeblink, and he shot without even bothering to aim. A bloom opened on the fat man’s shoulder, and the shotgun dropped with a clatter to the porch planks.

“That doesn’t seem particularly neighborly of you, Horace,” Reid said calmly, still in the saddle.

Greene howled.

“I don’t suppose you’ll want to hear this, but I’m guessing, if you’d left well enough alone and hadn’t ridden after that plane, you just might have gotten away with it.” Reid paused. “Gotten away with killing the real estate investor from Dallas. I figured you lured him down here on some pretense, probably using a phony name, led him out into the middle of nowhere, and then shot him in cold blood. He was probably carrying a fair amount of cash on him, am I right? You’d convinced him it was necessary for some reason, and he was damfool enough to go for it. And then that aeroplane flew overhead, and you figured you was on the spot.”

Greene clutched at his shoulder, and fell to his knees.

“Oh, stop moaning, Horace, you’ll live. Anyhow, you figured the fella in that flying machine had seen you gun down the real estate investor, and so you tore ass after the aeroplane to catch up. You figured you’d wait until it came back down, and the put a bullet in him, too. Only problem was, you lost sight of it, and rode for damn near an hour before you saw it again, sitting there on the ground.”

Reid paused, and leaned across the saddle horn, his expression cold.

“Only thing is, that wasn’t even the same damned aeroplane, Horace. You killed that boy Hopkins for no reason. And it turns out that the pilot who you were after didn’t see anything. Not anything really incriminating, anyways, just a fat man and a banker in the middle of a field.”

Greene howled again, like the damned.

“Alright, alright,” Greene said, tears rolling down his face. “I admit it, that’s just what happened. I paid the money to the bank this morning, to get them off my back. Now can you just get a danged doctor! I’m bleeding to death, here!”

Reid straightened up in the saddle, miming shock.

“Oh, my, is that right?” He turned to Foulois, who sat on his borrowed paint, looking on in grim amusement. “Lieutenant, would you mind riding back into Hondo and fetching the doctor. It appears that Horace here has injured himself.”

Foulois gave a little salute, and with some little difficulty turned his horse’s head and started back the way they’d come.

Greene continued to moan on the porch, but aside from telling him to keep pressure on it, Reid didn’t make a move to assist. He stayed on horseback, waiting for Foulois to return with help.

Reid looked up at the night sky overhead, dappled with stars. His father had been a cowpuncher, and had laid under those stars by night. Reid couldn’t help but wonder, now that men could fly into the heavens, if his own son might not one day fly up to those stars himself.

Reid could only shrug. His son or his son’s sons might someday fly up into the skies, but Reid was going to stay here on the ground. On the back of a horse, if he could help it. He was just more comfortable in the saddle.

(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.



Adventures in SciFi Publishing

The uncanny Shaun Farrell of Adventures in Sci Fi Publishing was kind enough to interview me for his most recent podcast to discuss, as he puts it, "End of the Century, Three Unbroken, multiple universes, comic books, Monkey Brain books, his literary inspirations, judging for the World Fantasy awards, his inclination to over-research, and much more."

You can listen to the interview online, or if you prefer there's an MP3 link. So what are you waiting for?



More Batman: The Brave and the Bold

Newsarama has posted an interview with Batman: The Brave and the Bold producer James Tucker, mostly about the upcoming alternate universe story that airs tonight, but also about upcoming character appearances and plots.

The first question and response tells you everything you need to know about why this show is awesome.
NEWSARAMA: A lot of people are going to look at Owl Man and think Watchmen. The thing is, that’s not quite the case, right?

JAMES TUCKER: I hope not. This one is basically from the Crime Syndicate. I based the design on Blue Falcon though. I’m a huge Blue Falcon fan.

That's right, I said it. Blue Falcon is awesome!

Thursday, February 26, 2009


Time Travellers Lexicon

This article on the BBC site intrigues me.

Some of the oldest words in English have been identified, scientists say.

Reading University researchers claim "I", "we", "two" and "three" are among the most ancient, dating back tens of thousands of years.

Their computer model analyses the rate of change of words in English and the languages that share a common heritage.

The team says it can predict which words are likely to become extinct - citing "squeeze", "guts", "stick" and "bad" as probable first casualties.

"We use a computer to fit a range of models that tell us how rapidly these words evolve," said Mark Pagel, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Reading.

"We fit a wide range, so there's a lot of computation involved; and that range then brackets what the true answer is and we can estimate the rates at which these things are replaced through time."

And later...

The researchers used the university's IBM supercomputer to track the known relations between words, in order to develop estimates of how long ago a given ancestral word diverged in two different languages.

They have integrated that into an algorithm that will produce a list of words relevant to a given date.

"You type in a date in the past or in the future and it will give you a list of words that would have changed going back in time or will change going into the future," Professor Pagel told BBC News.

"From that list you can derive a phrasebook of words you could use if you tried to show up and talk to, for example, William the Conqueror."

That is, the model provides a list of words that are unlikely to have changed from their common ancestral root by the time of William the Conqueror.



Philip José Farmer: An Appreciation

I didn't get much work done yesterday. Instead, I spent the afternoon at Starbucks, reading all of Phil Farmer's introductions and autobiographical glosses in his 1984 collection, The Grand Adventure. I first came across the collection in the stacks of the University of Texas at Austin's Perry-Castañeda Library when I was an undergraduate there in the late 80s, and quickly tracked down a second-hand copy for my personal library. I've always owned lots of books, and had copies of Phil's work on my shelf since middle school, but it was during my undergraduate years that I set out to assemble a complete library of Phil's work. There are still a few gaps in my collection, all these years later--I don't have copies of The Green Odyssey or Cache from Outer Space, and only have Book Club omnibuses of the World of Tiers novels--but most of the omissions are either from fairly late or very early in Phil's career. The work he was doing from the late sixties through the mid-eighties is the stuff that's always resonated with me most, and what I consider to be the masterworks of an artist working at the heights of his power. And I have all of those stories and novels close to hand, often in multiple editions (and often multiple copies of the same edition.)

A couple of years ago, I had the great good fortune to be one of the first to read a collaboration of sorts between the Phil Farmer of 1970 and his grand-nephew Danny Adams in the 21st Century, having been invited by Nick Gevers and Peter Crowther of PS Publishing to write an introduction to the first printing of the novella. One of the most flattering things about the whole experience was that Nick had invited me to write the introduction after deducing the influence that Phil's work had on me just by looking at my writing, without having seen any of my frequent mentions of the debt I owe Phil's work. (Gary K. Wolfe later made the same deduction, I was pleased to note.) The mere idea that someone could see in my humble offerings some genetic inheritance from Phil's work means more to me than any nomination or award possibly could.

Following is the introduction that I wrote for that novella, The City Beyond Play.

A Grand Adventure
by Chris Roberson

In 1970, Philip José Farmer began work on a novella. Entitled “The City Beyond Play,” it was about historical recreationists in a post-scarcity future, a fugitive on the run, and things never being quite what they seemed. Having outlined the plot and written the first few chapters, though, Phil set it aside unfinished and moved onto other projects.

Thereby hangs the tale…


By 1970, Philip José Farmer had twenty-three books in print, five of them released in that year alone. He’d already published the first several installments in his World of Tiers series, the first of his John Carmody novels, his first works of pulp revival—including the incomparable A Feast Unknown, its sequels Lord of the Trees and The Mad Goblin, and the somewhat more serious examination of the “feral man” trope, Lord Tyger—and the first installment of his Riverworld sequence as a serialized novel in Worlds of If. He’d been nominated for the Hugo Award five times, winning twice, once for Most Promising New Talent, and once for Best Novella with “Riders of the Purple Wage,” which also garnered a Nebula Award nomination.

In 1946, at the age of twenty-eight, Phil had made his first sale, a non-SF story called “O’Brien and Obrenov,” to the hallowed pulp, Adventure. He’d been an avid reader of pulp magazines as a child, so there’s some fitting justice that his debut would come in the pages of one of the earliest, best, and longest-running of the pulps. A few years later, Phil would burst onto the SF scene, daring tradition and convention with stories like “The Lovers” and “Mother,” breaking new ground throughout his long career, but he never forgot his pulp roots. In his most prolific years, he revisited the fictional worlds of his childhood, those of Tarzan (A Feast Unknown, Tarzan Alive, Lord Tyger, Lord of the Trees, The Dark Heart of Time), Doc Savage (Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, The Mad Goblin, Escape from Loki), Jules Verne (The Other Log of Phileas Fogg), L. Frank Baum (A Barnstormer of Oz), Arthur Conan Doyle (The Adventure of the Peerless Peer), H. Rider Haggard (Hadon of Ancient Opar), and many others. His most successful works, it can be argued, are those in which he manages to capture the frisson of adventure and imagination he must have felt as a young reader first visiting these fictional worlds, but in new worlds of his own imagining, with horizon-expanding scientific notions and stylistic sophistication—the World of Tiers, Riverworld, Dayworld—settings to which he would return again and again.

And, just as the worlds of Burroughs and Robeson and Doyle had influenced a young Phil Farmer, so did Phil’s worlds influence a new generation of readers and writers, among them me and Danny Adams.


I was born in 1970, and for most of my life I’ve labored in Phil’s shadow.

I wanted to be a writer before I’d ever read a book of Phil’s, but in him I found a model for the type of writer I’d become. I dedicated my small press novel Cybermancy Incorporated to Phil (which recounted the adventures of Jon Bonaventure Carmody), and one of my proudest moments as a publisher was the release of Myths for the Modern Age: Philip José Farmer’s Wold Newton Universe, edited by Win Scott Eckert.

I’m not sure when I first read one of his books, but I couldn’t have been much older than ten or eleven when I picked up his Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life at a second-hand bookstore. By the time I was in high school I’d already worked my way through worlds of rivers, and of tiers, and of days, and was hungry for more. By the time I graduated from college I’d read everything of Phil’s that the University of Texas library system had in its stacks, which must have been nearly everything he’d published, including articles in obscure mimeographed fanzines devoted to writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs. I remember in particular studying the story collection The Grand Adventure with the intensity of a Talmudic scholar, and I still think that “After King Kong Fell” is one of the best stories I’ve ever read.

When I was thirty-four, the same age Phil had been when he sold his first science fiction story, “The Lovers,” to Startling Stories, I was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, named after the noted editor of Astounding Stories who, when he rejected “The Lovers,” reportedly said that the story had nauseated him. When Phil was thirty-five, he won the Hugo Award for Most Promising New Talent, precursor to the Campbell Award, primarily on the strength of that story.

The key lessons I learned from a careful study of Phil’s work were that big ideas and a sense of adventure need not be mutually exclusive, that there’s nothing wrong with a writer having fun, and the importance of never forgetting one’s influences.


Danny Adams, clearly, has learned those lessons, too.

Like me, Danny was also born in 1970. We’ve never met, but he had a childhood I can only imagine, and envy deeply. When he was eleven, right around the time that I picked up Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life, Danny read a book written by his grandmother’s brother-in-law, the man he knew as “Uncle Phil.” It was To Your Scattered Bodies Go, and it changed Danny’s life, in much the same way that it would change mine a short time later. But our experiences differ in that Danny, when he finished the book and had questions about it, could call up his Uncle Phil and get the answers. While I read and reread every scrap of story written by Phil I could get my hands on, trying to learn how to become a writer, Danny took family trips to Peoria, to visit the great man in his home, and got writing advice directly from the source.

By 2005, Danny was starting to build a reputation as a talented new writer, with story sales to online venues and small press magazines. He’d written a novel, and after sending the first few chapters to his Uncle Phil to critique, it was decided that he would be allowed to complete the novella “The City Beyond Play,” left unfinished since the year Danny was born, working from Phil’s original outline.

At the time of this writing, with the novella completed and set to be published, Danny (like me) is thirty-five, the same age Phil had been when he won the Shasta prize novel contest for his submission, I Owe for the Flesh, which he would later rework as To Your Scattered Bodies Go, the first of his Riverworld series, the book that set Danny on the writer’s path in the first place.


There are symmetries and coincidences that seem to link me to Danny, and both of us to Phil. But what of the novella itself? What of “The City Beyond Play”?

It is the story I never knew we were missing, but which I’m delighted has been found. Vintage Philip José Farmer, it possesses a quick tempo, clever ideas, adventure, and humor, but with an added flavor that can only be attributed to his collaborator, Danny Adams. Danny has risen to the daunting challenge of finishing a work begun by a master of the genre at the height of his powers, a task I’m not sure I’d have had the nerve to tackle. And he’s performed admirably, the result so splendidly seamless that I’m not certain where Phil’s words leave off and Danny’s begin.

In “The City Beyond Play” can be found all the lessons I learned from Phil’s novels, and which Danny, too, has taken to heart. It is a true collaboration, between a master craftsman and a talented journeyman. It is, in short, a grand adventure, and one I feel privileged to have been able to share.

Chris Roberson
Austin, TX
April 2006


Adepticon Guest of Honor

I don't think I've mentioned this here before, but since it's been announced on the website I don't see any reason not to share. I've been invited to be a Guest of Honor at this year's Adepticon, which bills itself as the "ultimate independent convention experience in the Games Workshop miniature wargaming hobby." I'm still learning more about Warhammer 40K all the time, despite having spent the last few years studying the codices and manuals (and reading all of the novels and anthologies I can get my hands on), so I'm really looking forward to a weekend surrounded by gamers, many of whom probably know as much about the universe of 40K as the developers at Games Workshop! Promises to be a lot of fun.


Sons of Dorn

My masters at Black Library have posted the cover to my next Warhammer 40K novel, Sons of Dorn, which is apparently due out in January 2010. I'm actually up to my elbows in writing the thing at the moment, so I hope the insides live up to this kick-ass cover.

If you're rusty on your Warhammer 40K, I'll point out that this gentleman on the cover is a Scout, not a full Space Marine, which you can tell because he's wearing Scout Armor. The coloration and markings make clear that he belongs to the Imperial Fists Chapter (as if the "An Imperial Fists Novel" didn't clue you in). If I recall correctly, this will be the first novel to focus solely on the Chapter since Ian Watson's Space Marine, published back in 1993, though Imperial Fists have cropped up as supporting characters in any number of novels and stories since then.

Before starting work on the novel, I wrote a short story featuring the three main protagonists, whom we follow through their recruitment by the Chapter through the early missions as Scouts. The story, "Gauntlet Run," appears in the forthcoming anthology Heroes of the Space Marines, and takes place inbetween chapters right in the middle of Sons of Dorn. And hey, look at that, there's an Imperial Fist on the cover of that one, too.

That, by the way, is a Space Marine, a full-blown Battle Brother of the Astartes. Big fellas, aren't they?

UPDATE: I completely spaced yesterday, and forgot to mention the man behind that awesome cover illustration. It's Hardy Fowler. Sorry for the oversight, Hardy! Terrific Work!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009


RIP Philip José Farmer

The man who had a greater influence on my development as a writer than any other, Philip José Farmer, passed away peacefully in his sleep this morning.

I never had the opportunity to meet Phil, though it was my great honor to republish some of his work in the pages of Win Scott Eckert's Myths for the Modern Age. We're just at the moment getting to files together for the forthcoming reprint of Two Hawks from Earth, and last week I was lucky enough to be one of the first to read Christopher Paul Carey's thoughtful and insightful afterword to the novel.

I wish I'd had the chance to meet Phil in his prime, and talk to him about his work, and about the characters and stories he grew up loving and never stopped loving. I wish I'd had the chance to talk about ERB with him, and Doc Savage, and John Barth, and airships. I wish I'd had the chance to have him read one of my stories and tell me what he thought of it. I wish, I wish.

Philip José Farmer made me who I am today. If not for Phil and his Wold Newton family, if not for Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life and Tarzan Alive, if not for "After King Kong Fell" and The Other Log of Phileas Fogg and The Adventure of the Peerless Peer, if not for A Feast Unknown and "The Jungle Rot Kid on the Nod", if not for Father to the Stars and To Your Scattered Bodies Go and "The Alley Man" and Greatheart Silver and "The Oogenesis of Bird City" and too many others to count...

If not for Phil Farmer, I might well not be a writer today. And if not Phil Farmer, I definitely wouldn't be the kind of writer I am today.

Thanks for the feast, Phil. If I have anything to say about it, you won't ever be forgotten. Rest easy. You earned it.

Philip José Farmer
January 26, 1918 - February 25, 2009. R.I.P.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009


Batman: The Brave and the Bold

I've raved before (and repeatedly) about the sheer awesomeness that is Batman: The Brave and the Bold. But this last week's episode, "Return of the Fearsome Fangs," kicked things up another notch or two.

Things start with Batman back in the days of the old west, teaming up with Jonah Hex to stop the Royal Flush Gang (doubtless the precursors of the modern day supervillains using the name, established in other stories as being a family tradition).

Then we jump to a mountaintop in Asia, to the Wudang Temple, where Master Wong Fei faces off against a group of shadow ninjas led by his former students gone bad, Fox, Vulture, and Shark.

Former student Batman is contacted via astral projection, and picks up his old classmate Bronze Tiger on the way.

Then Fox, Vulture, and Shark get their hands on the "Wudang Totem," get turned into giant anthropomorphic versions of their namesakes, and suddenly it is on like donkey kong.

So to sum up, this is an episode that involves Batman travelling to the old west and back, imagines the Royal Flush Gang as a band of western outlaws, reveals the origin of Batman's mastery of the martial arts (complete with secret temple), and reconfigures the Terrible Trio as kung fu villains. So tell me, is any part of that not completely awesome?

And what do we have in store for this week? Parallel worlds, baby...



Behold. A musical version of 'The Shadow Over Innsmouth' by H.P Lovecraft, set to a song composed by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society


More Myriad Worlds of Me has posted the second of Lou Anders's two-part overview of my writing, this one entitled "The Myriad Worlds of Chris Roberson: the Bonaventure-Carmody universe." This one focuses on the Bonaventure-Carmody stories, naturally, along with my franchise work.

Lou also reveals the "secret" that the Celestial Empire hooks up with Bonaventure-Carmody stories in sneaky ways. There's a fairly obvious appearance by visitors from the Celestial Empire in one of the Bonventure-Carmody crosstime stories, which a few readers noticed right away, but I don't know that anyone has caught the time that Roxanne Bonaventure went slumming in the Celestial Empire without me pointing it out to them first. Did any of you nice people notice Roxanne hiding in the background of a CE story?

Monday, February 23, 2009


Georgia's Fifth Birthday

Saturday was Georgia's birthday party. A handful of girls from her pre-K class came, along with her cousin Henry (her other cousin John unable to attend due to a Cub Scout conflict). The party started simply enough, with presents and playing and suchlike. Then came the birthday song and blowing out the candles (five with one to grown on, of course).

The theme of the party, at Georgia's insistence, was Backyardigans and Dinosaurs. Only fitting, then, that Backyardigans finger-puppets adorned the dinosaur cake (the dino himself is electronic and motion sensitive, hence the little hands waving to make him open his mouth and roar), that Georgia had picked out for her 5th birthday almost a year ago.

But the fun hadn't even started, yet. A short while after the kids were done with cake, they were crowded on our back porch, very excited about something...

What was that "something," you might ask?

What else? Ponies!

(That's my dad with the pipe and leather jacket, dragooned into leading one of the three ponies that were trotting around our back yard.)

Needless to say, Georgia enjoyed the pony rides. She'd ridden a couple of times before, but never in her own back yard.

Georgia rode (here giggling and grossed out by the healthy pile of pony poop on the trail behind them)...

...and rode (here with her cousin Henry)...

...and rode...

...and rode...

There were seven kids in all, and the rental company had brought three ponies instead of the two we'd expected, so by the end of the hour all of the kids had ridden to their heart's content.

If you've got a group of four and five year olds to entertain, allow me to suggest pony rides. I think when all was said and done it cost us just a hair more than one hundred and fifty bucks, but it was well worth it.

So, how did you nice people spend your weekends?


The Myriad Worlds of Me

The blog has posted the first in a two part series by Lou Anders entitled "The Myriad Worlds of Chris Roberson." Hey, that's me! First up is an overview of the Celestial Empire stories and novels. In this piece, Lou reveals that the whole damned thing is ultimately his fault. (And it is, too.)

Friday, February 20, 2009


Melvil Dewey is spinning in his grave

Surfing around last night, while Allison watched Grey's Anatomy, I came across an article about bookshelves organized by color, featuring the following image of an art installation built around the idea.

Years ago I was in Manhattan with Allison and a bunch of our gang, and we visited the apartment of a friend of a friend. The roommate of the friend's friend had a full wall of bookshelves, organized chromatically. Books were sorted by color, and not by author, subject, or any other sensible method. Most of our group was only mildly intrigued, but Lou Anders and I, OCD-ish bookfreaks that we are, were completely freaked the fuck out. We were still talking about it, hours later. "How would you find anything?!" we kept shouting over the noise in the bar, or the restaurant, or any of the other places we ended up that night.

I still think about those shelves, years later, with an intense feeling of unease. Sure, it may be aesthetically pleasing to look at, but let me assure one and all that it is completely and utterly wrong.


Jim Jarmusch on Originality

Thanks to Fred Seibert of Frederator Studios for pointing out this Jim Jarmusch quote on originality.

“Nothing is original. Steal from anywhere that resonates with inspiration or fuels your imagination. Devour old films, new films, books, paintings, photographs, poems, dreams, random conversations, architecture, bridges, street signs, trees, clouds, bodies of water, light and shadows. Select only things to steal from that speak directly to your soul. If you do this, your work (and theft) will be authentic. Authenticity is invaluable; originality is non-existent. And don’t bother concealing your thievery — celebrate it if you feel like it. In any case always remember what Jean-Luc Godard said: ‘It’s not where you take things from — it’s where you take them to.’”

Jim Jarmusch

Thursday, February 19, 2009


Bookspot Central on End of the Century

"Professor Crazy" has reviewed End of the Century for BookSpot Central, and seems to have liked it.

I also appreciated very much that Roberson obviously did a lot of research for each of the plot lines. He writes about each era as if he’d lived in them, and references many places, people, locations, and - at least with “Jubilee” and “Millenium” - street names, parks, museums, plays, and clubs, giving the plot lines a great degree of realism, despite the fantastic nature of the plots. Roberson, unlike other scifi authors, with End of the Century doesn’t create a world or universe out of whole cloth; but, he goes to incredible lengths and detail to make this particular Earth we all live on seem very real and a place where his characters fit in and participate in very well.

Sometimes, as I’ve hinted at, one of the story lines might be more interesting than the others. They’re all good, but a novel that attempts to tackle so many different things, as this one does, has its ups and its downs. Still, the novel, as a whole, while also being long - at over 480 pages - is one I’d recommend to anyone who likes their science fiction to involve time travel, action, numerous bloody casualties, and a Dr. Who type of ambience. It’s worth checking out for the cool references, alone, though who (no pun intended) can go wrong getting three books (figuratively speaking) for the price of one?


Wednesday, February 18, 2009


Drunk History

Thanks, metafilter! I didn't realize how empty my life was without Drunk History until now.

(Probably NSFW, depending on how your workplace is for drunken swearing. At my workplace, it's all but mandatory...)


Me on Warhammer 40K

Over on the Black Library site there's an interview with me about working with the Warhammer 40K franchise for the first time, advice to new writers, and such like.


Tuesday, February 17, 2009


House of Mystery #13

I was just glancing through the May 2009 solicitations for DC Comics, and noticed this little item...
Written by Matthew Sturges, Bill Willingham and Chris Roberson
Art by Neal Adams, Ralph Reese, Sergio Aragones and Eric Powell
Cover by Esao Andrews
Variant cover by Neal Adams
For its landmark 13th issue, HOUSE OF MYSTERY presents a special anthology featuring four separate stories written by Matthew Sturges, Bill Willingham and novelist Chris Roberson. This issue features the unique visuals of four artists including Neal Adams, Ralph Reese and Sergio Aragones, as well as a painted tale by Eric Powell (The Goon). Each story pays homage to that unluckiest of numbers.
Retailers please note: This issue will ship with two covers. For every 10 copies of the Standard Edition (with a cover by Esao Andrews), retailers may order one copy of the Variant Edition (with a cover by Neal Adams). Please see the Previews Order Form for more information.
On sale May 6 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • MATURE READERS

Mmm. I wonder if that could be the same Chris Roberson...?


48 Months of Rambling

Four years ago today I made the first post on the Interminable Ramble. Georgia was about to celebrate her first birthday, Allison still worked in film production, and my first (non-POD) novel hadn't yet been released.

Now, Georgia is about to celebrate her fifth birthday, Allison is working her dream job in political media, and my tenth and eleventh novels both hit stores in the last couple of weeks.

We'll see where we are in another four years. In the meantime, thanks for sticking around, everybody.


Writing on the Walls

Mo Willems, he of Pigeon and Knuffle Bunny and Elephant & Piggie fame (and Georgia's favorite author), has posted a few photos to his blog of a recent bit of home renovation, and it's such a genius idea I don't know why I haven't seen it before.
The cheapest and most fun renovation to our new house was painting the dining room with chalk board paint (available at any hardware store). Now, when guests come over they can sign in, doodle, or complete complex mathematical computations.
Check it out.

I suddenly have the burning desire to paint a room in my house...


SF Signal on Three Unbroken

SF Signal's unflappable John DeNardo, who previously reviewed The Dragon's Nine Sons and almost the whole dang Celestial Empire, has turned his sights on Three Unbroken, and seems to have liked it.

Chris Roberson's Celestial Empire series continues to be a rich setting for telling enjoyable stories. In addition to numerous short fiction pieces (some of which are reviewed here), Roberson has written a few novels that highlight an important milestone of this intriguing alternate future history -- a future in which Imperial China has become a superpower and wages war with their frequent enemy, the Mexic Dominion.

The latest book, Three Unbroken, details the fight to reclaim the planet Fire Star (Mars) as seen through the eyes of a trio of fighters for the Dragon Throne's cause: Arati Amonkar, whose dream to fly drives her to become a pilot for the Interplanetary Fleet; Micah Carter, whose failure to pass the Imperial bureaucracy entrance exams leads him to serve in the Green Standard Army; and Niohuru, a privileged youth who eschews the repetitive boredom of everyday life for the glory of battle as part of the elite group of Imperial Bannermen.

In telling the story, Roberson's approach employs several levels of logic. The book is subdivided into 64 short chapters (or Hexagrams) and for each subtitle utilizes some combination of Air, Water, Mountain, Earth, etc. - each one with an accompanying pearl of wisdom (many of which escaped my meager mental facilities). The story itself is structured by evenly alternating viewpoints of the three principle characters, whose paths only rarely cross. In the early parts of the book (training and the first operation), each character gets one chapter before the viewpoint changes. In the middle part of the book (the second operation), two consecutive chapters are used to convey a character's viewpoint. Throughout the entire novel, each chapter progresses the individual story of the character and the overall story of the war. With all of this logical structure, one gets the impression that the author had this story completely mapped out from the start - prep work that gives the story a distinct beginning, middle and end.


Monday, February 16, 2009


President Awesome

Well, I was late to the party with Dean Trippe's Butterfly, and I somehow missed the news last week about Trippe's new webcomic with Evan Bryce, President Awesome. It's about, well, our awesome new president, of course.

Here's the first strip, "Weapon O."


Pendleton Ward's The Bravest Warriors

Longtime visitors to the Ramble may recall me saying that Pendelton Ward's "Adventure Time", which I've raved about repeatedly, is probably one of the greatest things ever. Currently in development as a series for Cartoon Network, the original short recently aired as part of Nick's Random Cartoons show. Also featured on Random Cartoons a few weeks later was another Pen Ward short, one I'd not seen before but which I enjoyed almost as much as "Adventure Time." Now, thanks to the good folks at Cartoon Brew, "The Bravest Warriors" is up at YouTube and all of you nice people can enjoy it, too.

Saturday, February 14, 2009


Secret Services

[If you've been following along with the Secret Services rundown, this will be old news to you, but I wanted to put an introductory post at the head of the list, so that anyone who stumbles on this in future won't have to dig through my back posts to find all the entries. Feel free to ignore, if you like.]

As a reader and a writer, I have several obsessions, ideas and themes I return to again and again. Multiple realities and alternate histories. Masked avengers and heroic legacies. Immortal swordsmen and daring explorers. But one of my obsessions as a reader has been little exercised as a writer, until now.

I've always had a fondness for what I like to call "Secret Services," clandestine government agencies tasked with investigating and policing the supernatural. Last fall, after rereading all of Mike Mignola's Hellboy and its related series with its BPRD, and watching with my daughter the first episodes of Jay Stephens's sublime Secret Saturdays (which ironically doesn't make my list, as the Saturdays don't appear to have any connection with the government, clandestine or otherwise), I got a wild hair. I would track down all of the examples of Secret Services I could find on my shelves, and profile each of them on my blog.

I figured that it would probably take me a few weeks to get through them all. Ha. Ha ha.

Now, months later, I've finally reached the end of my completely arbitrary analysis of Secret Services, ending with my own contribution to the list, MI8 as seen in my new novel End of the Century. And here they all are, for your delectation and diversion.
There are a number of other examples that were suggested to me as I went along, which ultimately didn't make the cut--usually because the agencies in question weren't "clandestine" but instead operated in worlds that knew all about them and the existence of the supernatural, or because they were clandestine but didn't have ties to any government. I am positive, though, that there are examples that I've missed, in which case I can only humbly point to that word "arbitrary" above.


Friday, February 13, 2009


Secret Services: MI8

We've reached the end of my breakdown of Secret Services, my completely arbitrary list of "secret government agencies policing the supernatural." There's just one more entry to go, though you'll be excused if you've never heard of it before. If you blinked, you would have missed them.

I first started writing about MI8 ten or so years ago, when I first started putting together the Bonaventure-Carmody family. Diana Bonaventure, the mother of Jon Bonaventure Carmody and the aunt of Here, There & Everywhere's Roxanne Bonaventure, was briefly mentioned to be an agent of MI8 in the story "Secret Histories: Jake Carmody, 1961." Then in the vignette "The Funeral Affair," Spencer Finch's uncle Sterling says that he was once an MI8 agent before going off to work for the UN--but no one saw that story until I put it online here recently.

Aside from a few quick references in the out-of-print Cybermancy Incorporated, readers haven't seen much of MI8, but I've been quietly noddling away with them over the years, working out the agency's origins and history, its operations and agents, gradually adding detail to the fairly skeletal original conception.

Finally, this month, I've put some of that detail on display in the pages of End of the Century.

WARNING: Spoilers lurk beyond. Minor spoilers, to be fair, and nothing that regular readers of the Ramble wouldn't have already worked out on their own. But if you're the kind of reader who prefers to approach stories completely cold, best to stop reading now and run right out and buy a copy of End of the Century. This post will still be here when you get done.

Now, for those of you who are left, here's a little glimpse behind the scenes at my process. Years ago, inspired by something Tobias Buckell had said on his blog, I set up a personal wiki database for my research and worldbuilding. Rather than just littering my harddrive with Word documents and text files, and filling my closet with countless notebooks filled with my barely legible scrawl, I started to systematize my process. I created gazetteers for the fictional settings I worked up, detailed "Who's Who" entries for each of the characters (or "Official Handbook" entries, if you prefer), annotated chronologies and timelines. Now, a few years on, the research database is massive, with subsections for the Bonaventure-Carmody stories and the Celestial Empire, as well as "series bibles" for the space opera and epic fantasy I've been writing in my spare time.

Following is the entry for MI8 in the research database, including some background and detail that doesn't get revealed in End of the Century. (Those who know something of my process know that I do ridiculous amounts of research for everything, and this is no exception. I think I read something like seven or eight biographies and histories just for the first two paragraphs of this write-up alone.)
During the Second World War, the Y Services of the armed forces and the Signals Intelligence Directorate of the Special Operations Executive began to intercept German wireless traffic encrypted with some new code. Ultimately, the SID and the cryptographers at Bletchley Park were able to decode these transmissions, which were revealed to contain information about top secret investigations carried out by the SS Ahnenerbe. These were immediately classified Above Top Secret. The Ahnenerbe, it was discovered, was involved in attempting to establish communications with intelligences in another plane of existence, another universe separate from our own. Operatives of the SOE were dispatched to intefere with these plans.

When the Special Operations Executive was dissolved on January 15, 1946, a secret charter was issued to continue the work of the former Signals Intelligence Directorate, now secretly Special Intelligence Directorate and known by the unofficial title used throughout the war, MI8. The new organization was tasked with policing matters considered too sensitive even to reveal to the other British intelligence services. It came of the Signals Directorate of SOE, which was responsible for signals intelligence and cryptography in the war, began to pick up strange communications during the war years. The Y Services of the armed forces were eventually instructed to divert messages on certain topics unread directly to the Signals Directorate. So from 1946 onwards, MI8 dealt with threats that were unsuited to the customary intelligence channels, matters that would either pass unnoticed by more conventional operatives, or else drive them stark raving mad.

The head of MI8 is referred to by the codename "D".

Officers of MI8 are unofficially called "Rooks". They are referred to as "Rook One," "Rook Two", and so on. There are typically three
Sterling Finch
Diana Bonaventure Carmody
Stillman Waters

From its inception in 1946, MI8 was headquartered in the disused Tower of London underground station. In 1967, when the Tower Hill station was rebuilt, it was put about that the remains of the old station had been destroyed, when in fact they'd merely been more heavily fortified. With the end of the Cold War, the focus of MI8 was changed, and the organization was relocated to offices in a commercial building.

Longtime readers of the Ramble may recall a few years ago when I revealed that, having always assumed that I'd just made MI8 up out of whole cloth, I discovered quite back accident that there actually was an MI8 during WWII. Here's what I said at the time.
I love the internet. A few years ago, I included an offhand reference in my novel Cybermany Incorporated to a secret British intelligence agency, MI8, operating in the 1960s. Diana Bonaventure was one of the agency's operatives, and in the chapter in question she came into contact with her American counterpart, Jake Carmody, agent of Bureau Zero. Like MI8, the Bureau "handled matters unsuited to the customary intelligence channels, matters that would either pass unnoticed by more conventional operatives, or else drive them stark raving mad." (This is the Diana Bonaventure, incidentally, who appears briefly in the first chapter of Here, There & Everywhere.) Familiar territory, and I don't kid myself I'm even among the first few hundred to have mined this particular vein. Kim Newman's Diogenes Club was an obvious inspiration, and Charles Stross's later Laundry stories captured much the same vibe.

In any event, Stillman Waters, one of the supporting characters in the forthcoming End of the Century, is intended to be another operative of MI8. It occurred to me this morning, though, while walking my daughter, that I'd been a callow, ignorant kid when I coined the name of the agency, thinking it amusing to think there'd be an intelligence agency two steps beyond MI6, three steps beyond MI5. I'd done some cursory research at the time, which suggested that the sections of Military Intelligence stopped at six, but never delved into it deeply. So I figured I'd check before I got stuck too deep in writing the new book.

Well, it turns out I was wrong, and that there was in fact an MI8 in the days of WWII (and, in fact, sections all the way up to nineteen, at least, with lettered sections beyond). But the remit of Military Intelligence Section Eight, listening for enemy radio broadcasts--signal intelligence, essentially--actually fit well into the backstory of my secret agency, and served to provide a nice bit of historical grounding. Some research turns up the fact that MI8 was headquartered in Devonshire House in Piccadilly in the war years. I recognize the name, but don't know too much about it.

A bit of googling reveals that Devonshire House refers to a block of offices facing Piccadilly, named for the residence of the Duke of Devonshire, demolished in the 1920s. For 200 years, the original Devonshire House was a fixture of London society life. Then I stumbled upon an amazing collection of photos, documenting the Devonshire House Ball in 1897.

And then I started jumping around the kitchen, waving my arms and shouting like a lunatic. In a good way.

Without going into any spoiler-level detail, End of the Century takes place in three time periods: fifth century CE, 1897, and 1999. Romanized Britons crowd the scene in 498CE; Sandford Blank, Roxanne Bonaventure, Lord Arthur Carmody, and W.B. "Little Bill" Taylor are featured players during the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria; and Samantha Lake and Stillman Waters scramble around the streets of millennial London.

In the outline for the 1897 sections of the plot, there are several scenes involving Victorian-era British socialites dressing up like King Arthur and his knights. This bit was strongly inspired by the photos of Julia Margaret Cameron, possibly best known for her shots she did illustrating Tennyson's Idylls of the King. Cameron had been dead for some time before the events of the novel, but I'd solved that minor difficulty by introducing another photographer who was following her example.

Then the aforementioned googling led me to this photo. Of a British peer. Dressed as a Knight of the Round Table. At a party in 1897. On July 2nd, to be exact.

Well, as it happens the mention about MI8 being based in Devonshire House appeared to be in error, upon further investigation, but you get the idea. (The "this photo" link is dead now, as well, so I've left it out. But there's loads about that Devonshire House Ball on July 2, 1897 in End of the Century, even so.)

MI8 is my take on the whole "Secret Services" trope. Well, one of two, to be precise, with Bureau Zero being the other. Well, then there's also the French agency, Cabinet Noir. And the Strangers, another British outfit. Okay, MI8 is one of several Secret Services in the Bonaventure-Carmody world.

If you're interested in reading more about MI8, though, you'll want to pick up End of the Century, in stores now (and online, too!). Heck, if you're interested in Bureau Zero, or the Cabinet Noir, or the Strangers, or any of the others, you'll want to pick it up, too, since healthy sales on this one will help ensure that I'll get a chance to write all those other stories.



Free Fiction: "The Funeral Affair"

Two bits of free fiction in two consecutive weeks? What is this, anyway?

This is something of a strange one. Written largely as a warm-up exercise for my novel Voices of Thunder (soon to be republished in a revised edition as Book of Secrets, about which more soon) and trunked after a round of submissions a few years later, I dug it out recently and polished it the tiniest bit. It's more of vignette than a story, but I still like it, for all of that. There are links here between the Taylor clan of Book of Secrets and the Bonaventure-Carmody family of my other novels (both of whom feature heavily in End of the Century), as well as in-jokey references to other people's work that would be more at home in a Wold Newton story like "Penumbra" than in something of my own. But while it's probably "non-canonical" as far as the Bonaventure-Carmody universe is concerned (don't quote me on that), here it is, for your diversion and delectation.

(So, can you spot all the references and easter-eggs in here?)

The Funeral Affair
by Chris Roberson

My brother has always said that funerals, like weddings, are something of a mixed blessing. You see people you haven’t seen for years, whether you want to or not, and you run the risk of getting so caught up in reminiscing, or avoiding, or both, that you forget why you’re there in the first place. He says that people would be better off going to such functions in masks, and staying comfortably anonymous until everything is said, and everything is done. I don’t know. Maybe he just likes to dress up, and is desperate for excuses.

It didn’t matter much, because he was off in Uganda or some such place, while I stood in the rain, my face bare to the world, finishing the soggy remains of my last cigarette, watching the last straggling mourners file into St. Paul’s Chapel. All around, through the rain-slicked streets, New York went about its business, not much noticing me. That was fine with me. I didn’t feel much like noticing New York either. I was too busy looking for people I knew among the attendees, and failing miserably.

With my brother unable to attend, there was only me representing the Finch clan. The deceased, my father’s older brother, had never married, and with my own parents in the ground twenty years now, there was only my brother and me, and our uncle. Now there was just the two of us. Quietly, just days before his sixty-seventh birthday, Sterling Finch had died in his sleep, alone. Now, those few that remembered him had come to pay their respects.

Finishing my cigarette, I made my way inside.


As children, we had seen our Uncle Sterling just once or twice. Our grandfather, who had taken us in after our parents’ death, had never thought too highly of his son-in-law’s brother, and with dad safely out of the way, saw no reason to be civil. Sterling, for his part, seemed more than content to accede to Grandfather’s wishes, and so kept his visits to a bare minimum. He was a busy man, and family obligations tended to get in the way.

My only clear memory of my Uncle from childhood comes from a Christmas when my brother and I were just eight years old. Sterling was in town on business, he had said, and so dropped in to share a family holiday. He only stayed two days, even that over Grandfather’s protests, but in those two days showered the two of us with gifts, and dazzled us with fanciful tales of his supposed adventures. Each of us he presented with matching replica Lugers, which could be loaded with red paper strips of firing caps, that exploded with a bang and a puff of smoke when the hammer fell. Our Grandfather objected, not because they were guns, and guns are inappropriate toys for young boys, but because they were of German design, saying that the only fitting guns for American boys were Colts.

Later while Maria, our maid, got the two of us ready for bed, Uncle Sterling and Grandfather got into some kind of argument in the study. Upstairs we could not hear the exact words they spoke, but the walls buzzed with the sound of their loud voices, and when finally we heard the door slam we knew it was over. Sterling was gone, and we wouldn’t seem him again. Not for long years.


Once inside the church, I found a pew near the back and, shaking off the rainwater from my suit coat and pants, sat down. Running a damp hand through my damper mop of hair, I surveyed the crowd. I didn’t recognize any of them, and had to assume that they were business associates of my uncle. Not a one of them looked a day under sixty, and several looked quite a bit older than that.

At the front of the chapel sat a dark wood coffin, closed in accordance with my uncle’s wishes. There were towering wreaths of flowers around it, looking more like a hothouse garden than a church. As each of the mourners entered, they walked first to the front of the aisles, laid a lily, or a wreath, or a bouquet, beside the coffin, and then found their seats. When the last of them had been seated, making some two dozen in all, the priest took to the lectern, and began to speak.

He said all the expected things, all the pat clichés any priest says when presiding over the funeral of a man he never met. The deceased was much loved and respected by friends and family, made an impact on the lives of so many, will be greatly missed, et cetera, et cetera. He showed as much emotion as he would have reading the ingredients of a box of breakfast cereal, and seemed relieved when he was finally able to call on one of the mourners to speak.

The man who rose from the front pew to walk to lectern looked eighty if he was a day. He walked slowly, deliberately, though out of habit or necessity I couldn’t tell. Finally, glacially, he reached the lectern, and clearing his throat slightly ran a wrinkled hand through his thick white hair.

“Most of you know me,” he began, in a thick Russian accent, “having worked either with me, or against me, over the years. Like you, I had the good fortune to know Mr. Finch, through I regret that it was seldom as an ally. Mister Finch and I had, how shall I say it, differing ideologies, and as such often found ourselves adversaries. Nevertheless, though never close, I always respected him, and I would like to believe that in the end I had earned the right to call Mr. Finch a friend. As time passes, and institutions come and go, the minor differences between peoples seem to blur, until in the end there are only people. No more us and them, only you and me. I regret that I did not know Mr. Finch better, but am grateful to have known him at all.”

The elderly Russian took his seat again, and another took his place at the front. An old British gentlemen this time, saying much the same thing, though a bit more intelligibly. Next went an American, next a British woman. In the end, some half dozen associates of my uncle had spoken, all received with somber smiles and emphatic nods from the rest of the mourners.

Finally, the bored priest, forced once more to stand up, called the ceremony to an end, and directed us to attend a wake at a nearby bar, were we so inclined. Dutifully, we all rose, and made our way slowly to the doors.


Several years before, while in New York researching a story for Wide Open, I ran into my uncle. I had been coming out of a deli in the Village, when I ran headlong into an older gentleman carrying a silver-topped cane. To my complete surprise, it was Uncle Sterling. After a hasty reunion, he invited me to join him at his home in the Hamptons for a few days, and having nothing much better to do, I agreed.

As we rode out from the city to his place, Sterling brought me up to speed on his life. He had been living in New York State for some ten years now, having finally sold his place in London and left forever his native home. England had changed beyond his recognition, he explained, and at least in America he expected to be a stranger. Besides, he explained, the company he had worked so many years for had cut loose most of its agents, and he was out of a job.

Once at his home, far too large for just one old man, we shared a quiet dinner, and then fell to talking about my brother, and me, and even about Grandfather. Sterling seemed especially interested in my career, my years as a reporter, and even my brief time as a burglar in my misspent youth. He seemed to be asking leading questions, directing me towards subjects he wanted to hear, and I had done too many interviews not to know what he was up to.

“What’s the story here, Unc?” I asked him. “You know more than you let on.”

“You’re right, son,” he admitted. “You’ve found me out. I know all about what you’ve been up to these many years. I still have contacts amongst those men and women whose job it is to know things, and I’ve made the occasional discreet inquiry regarding yourself and your brother.”

“So you just didn’t happen to be in Greenwich, did you?”

“Again, no,” he said, smiling slightly. “My contacts had informed me that you were in the city on business, and I thought this the excellent opportunity to catch up in person. You’ll forgive me, won’t you? You can’t blame an old man for playing one last game, can you?”

I explained that it didn’t bother me at all, that I was surprised, even flattered, that he had gone to the trouble of spying on me.

“Old habit die hard, my boy, even when not put into practice. The world has changed, you see, and left old duffers like me behind. We must find our own little divertissements now, and make do as best we can. Men like me never retire, not voluntarily at least. But sometimes the business just goes that way.”

“What business were you in, anyway, Unc?” I asked. “I’d always though that it was some travel agency, or an import/export business, but that doesn’t seem a good enough job to leave you with digs like this.” I paused, and added, joking, “Unless you were really in the mob, that is.”

Sterling smiled, and settled back in his chair.

“Nothing so dramatic, I’m afraid,” he answered. “No, I was only a spy.”

I nearly choked on my wine, and when I had found my voice answered, “A spy?” Just why I need, I thought, another senile old codger in the family.

“Yes,” Sterling replied, “a spy. An espionage agent. An intelligencer. I trust you’re familiar with the occupation?”

“Sure, but...”

“Oh, my boy, it’s just a job as any other. It simply requires a certain set of skills, skills which I was fortunate enough to possess.”

I decided to humor him. It seemed harmless enough.

“How, exactly, does one become a... spy?”

“I began my career with the British Royal Navy, as you may know. I had stayed in England, when your father and our parents moved to America, and with no other livelihood presenting itself, went into the military. I won’t bore you with the details, but after making enough of an impression on my superiors, was seconded to MI8, a branch of the intelligence service devoted to matters of a rather... delicate nature.” He paused, smiling. “Once upon a time, I would have to have killed you, even mentioning the name of the agency. But those days are now passed. It doesn’t exist anymore.

“In any case, after a few years working in the service of my country, I was recruited by United Nations Command: Law Enforcement, and was called upon to respond to matters of a more global nature. I had taken on a code name when first conscripted by MI8, and continued to use it while working for the UN. We all used code names in those days: Solo, Steed, Drake. It made sense, really, as it wouldn’t do to give out your real name to every Tom, Dick and Harry bent on world domination. They might just look you up in the phone book and call upon your mother. No, code names were best, and that’s the way everyone did it.

“John Dee was the first spy, to be precise about it, and a magician to boot.” My uncle was seeming to loose the train of thought, and was barreling headlong down a tangent. “That particular combination was rarely a healthy one, and almost invariably led an operative to a bad end. The best agents tended to be more straightforward, thinking more with their fists than their frontal lobes, leaving introspection for after the bomb was diffused and the girl rescued. The world was a brighter place then, more clearly defined, and it never took long to tell the good guys from the bad. Everything is different now, with spookshows spying on their own, governments keeping their own citizens under constant scrutiny. The only enemies are under own roof now, and the watchword is conspiracy, not invasion.”

He went on in that fashion for some time, recounting story after story, the men he worked with, the men he’d fought against. Finally, long after midnight, he grew tired, and with after a brief embrace, returned to his bedroom. I wished him a goodnight, and went off to sleep myself. I knew from experience that it was tiring dealing with the unhinged, and this time was no different than any other.

The next morning, over breakfast, I thanked him for his hospitality, but begged off staying any longer. I had work to do in the city, and then had to get back to the west coast. A little tearfully, Sterling led me to the door, and made me promise to visit him soon. I did, and then didn’t. I never saw him again.


At the wake, practically all the mourners packed in a bar barely large enough to hold half of them, I worked my way through a gin and tonic, keeping apart from the others. The mourners stood or sat in little groups of two or three throughout the place, the groups drifting slowly around, bumping into each other and then reforming like clouds. I was able to get a better look at them, and they seemed a rather strange collection of retirees.

There was an elderly English gentleman in a bowler hat wielding an umbrella like a sword, a striking woman of middle years at his side. A grey haired American stood side by side with a thin, blond haired Russian in a turtleneck. Nearby stood a giant of a man, every tooth in his head capped in glittering metal. Near the bar there was an ancient man in a wheelchair, his valet standing beside him, the old man with a scraggly white cat sitting in his lap. In hushed tones they all spoke about my uncle, and about each other, and about the old days. I couldn’t hear clearly enough to get any specifics from the conversations, but each seemed to have known my uncle well, if only on a professional level, and had respected him.

Only once did one of them address me. I was on my third gin and tonic, and thinking quite intently about the bed back in my hotel, when a tall, grey-haired Englishman approached me and extended his hand.

“You must be Sterling’s nephew, right? Is it Patrick, or Spencer?”

I took his hand, and answered, “Spencer.”

“Of course, I should have known. Your uncle spoke often of the two of you. I feel I known you for years.”

“Did you work with my uncle?” I asked.

“Not... exactly,” the old Englishman answered. “He and I were both residents for a time in the Village, and often had occasion to talk about the relations we had left behind.”


“Yes. In our line of work it was quite easy to lose touch with the people who really mattered to you, but the best we could hope for was that they knew we still held them in our thoughts, and in our hearts.”

“Well,” I said, more than a little uncomfortable, “I know we’re going to miss him.”

“Of course,” he replied sympathetically. “We all will.” He glanced at his watch, and made a face.

“I’ve got to be going,” he added, extending his hand again. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Spencer.”

“Likewise,” I answered.

He smiled, a strange little half-smile, and gave a little salute.

“Be seeing you,” he said, and then turned to leave.

I finished my drink, had another cigarette, and then shrugged into my coat. With one last glance at the men and women moving slowly around the bar, relics of a time most have forgotten, or never believed to begin with, I turned up my collar, and walked outside.

(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.


Thursday, February 12, 2009


Secret Services: Occult Crimes Taskforce

Only two more Secret Services to go. Now we're up to the recent Image Comics miniseries (and soon to be a feature film), Occult Crimes Taskforce. Created by actress Rosario Dawson,writer David Atchison and illustrator Tony Shasteen, OCT as a four issue miniseries that ran in 2006, and was subsequently picked up for development by Dimension films.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: A young attractive law enforcement agent accidentally stumbles across the supernatural, and ends up recruited into a shadowy organization that polices things beyond the reach of mundane agencies. Sound a little bit familiar?

Yes, the introduction covers very familiar ground. And it's not hard to imagine that the four-issue miniseries itself was designed as a film-pitch-with-pictures in the first place. But they are very nice pictures, and the attention to detail in the world building and magic systems and such is all but staggering.

The set-up goes like this. NYPD officer Sophia Ortiz has an encounter with a serial killer who seems more interested in the souls of its victims than their bodies, gets put on suspension when she refuses to let the matter drop, and is reassigned to a clandestine division of the New York Police Department that she never knew existed--the Occult Crimes Taskforce. She learns that there was a reason that the Indians were willing to sell Manhattan for a handful of beads--the island is an "extant," a place where our universe overlaps with another. The job of the Taskforce is to police that overlap, and to make sure that no one from the other universe wanders into ours (and vice versa). She also learns that her father was secretly one of the OCT's officers, is partnered with a guy who may or may not be a fallen angel by her ghost sergeant, and set about hunting down the serial killer in earnest.

Dawson is clearly the physical model for the character of Ortiz, and Shasteen's art seems to be heavily photo-referenced. There is a nice fluidity to Shasteen's panel-to-panel transitions, though, that is often lacking in photo-referenced comics, and he's got a knack for making the panels themselves look like comic panels and not film stills.

The narrative itself is somewhat compressed, almost as if six issues worth of script had been shoehorned into four issues by taking out every third page. It reads well enough, but some of the transitions can seem a little sudden.

But, as I said, as much as I like Shasteen's art, it's really in the world building aspect that the book appealed to me. Each issue of the miniseries ends with a few pages from the "Occult Crimes Taskforce Officer Training Manual." These are jam-packed with interesting insight into this world, how magic works in it, and just what it means that Manhattan is an "extant."

Here are the backup pages from the first issue, to give you an idea what I'm talking about.

And that's really just the tip of the iceberg. The "training manual" pages in the other issues go into even more detail about the way the badges function, how spells are cast, and so on. It really is an impressive bit of work, and pretty much worth the price of admission.

The miniseries has been collected in a trade paperback, and individual issues aren't too difficult to find, as well.



Street Angel

Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca's Street Angel, about a teenage homeless girl who fights supervillains with her skateboard, is one of my favorite comics of the last few years. Like Benito Cereno, when I saw that it was being adapted as a short by film students, I was more than a little skeptical.

Here's how Rugg introduced the trailer on his livejournal:
Here's a little announcement for those Street Angel fans in the Los Angeles area. Last year, Brian and I were approached by a filmmaker, Lucas Testro, who was pursuing his masters degree from the Australian Film, Television, and Radio School. For his final project, he wanted to make a short film based on the first issue of Street Angel. Well, after some arm-twisting and wining and dining, he got his wish! Now, Street Angel, the short film, has been nominated for a Golden Reel Award for Best Sound Editing: Student Film.

There will be a free screening at the University of Southern California's School of Cinematic Arts main dubbing stage ["Dub A"] on Friday, February 20th at 7:30 pm.

And here's the trailer.

Okay, I am sold. This is one of the rare occasions when I'm sorry I don't live in LA.

For more info, visit the

Wednesday, February 11, 2009


Lonely Island's Incredibad

Remember Lonely Island? SNL's Andy Samberg and SNL writers Akiva Schaffer and Jorma Taccone? Perhaps you recall "Lazy Sunday," or "Dick in a Box," or "Space Olympics"?

Well, their first album, Incredibad, contains all those hits and more.

On the album (should we call this one a "deep cut"?) is one of my favorite Lonely Island tunes from the pre-SNL days, "Just 2 Guyz."

And here's the sequel, just released, entitled "We Like Sportz."

Tuesday, February 10, 2009


End of the Century sample chapters

Hey, look! My masters at Pyr have just posted the first five chapters of End of the Century for your delectation. Want to try a taste before picking up the book, here's your chance!


Morrison, the Overvoid, and the Multiverse

I've made no secret about the fact that I consider Grant Morrison one of the best writers currently working in comics, and his All-Star Superman stands as not only the best superhero comic in recent memory, but possibly the best Superman story to date. I was in the early stages of writing End of the Century when Seven Soldiers was published, and it was a definite late-stage influence on the novel (along with Paul Grist's Jack Staff, which I was also rereading compulsively at the time).

A few weeks ago saw the release of the final issue of Final Crisis, the Morrison-penned DC comics "event" that's been serializing since last summer.

Just how Final Crisis stands up as an event, as such, I leave to others to debate, and what its lasting impact on the DC Universe will be depends largely on your faith in the vision of DC editorial. But what I can say with confidence is that Final Crisis is a terrific Grant Morrison comic, and works as a perfect expression of the ideas he's been toying with since he first started writing superhero comics for DC some twenty years ago. You can draw a through-line from Animal Man through Aztek and JLA and Flash, through DC One Million, on through Seven Soldiers and All-Star Superman and Batman, straight through to Final Crisis. (With Zenith and The Invisibles and Marvel Boy and others offering interesting parallels and counterpoints.) I think that Final Crisis can probably be approached on its own merits, but I can't say for certain. I know it can't really be fully appreciated unless you've also read Superman Beyond and Batman Last Rites. And I'd recommend that anyone attempting to read it cold would probably be well served in reading at least the Mister Miracle issues of the Seven Soldiers series.

But as someone who has read all of Morrison's other work, Final Crisis pretty much mindblowingly awesome.

IGN has done an interview with Morrison about Final Crisis in particular and the DCU in general, and a few of Morrison's responses encapsulate perfectly what it is I find so compelling about his work.
IGN Comics: I want to get to the Monitors and their overall role in Crisis and Beyond, especially the role played by Nix Uotan - am I saying that right?

Morrison: It's pronounced "Wotan." Every one of them is named after writer gods from different cultures. So Uotan is named after Odin or Wotan from the Norse/Germanic tradition. Ogama is Ogma from the Celtic gods. Hermuz is after Hermes the Greek god. Tahoteh is after Thoth the Egyptian god. Novu is after Nabu from the Babylonian pantheon…there's a ton of them. The women's names, Weeja Dell, Zillo Valla, were inspired by the greatest lost love of them all, Shalla-Bal from Stan Lee's Silver Surfer.

IGN Comics: So that kind of answers my question, which is that the Monitors all seem like analogs for storytellers. There seems to be this never-ending cycle of the stories affecting the storytellers and the storytellers affecting the stories and on and on.

Morrison: Yeah, it's a bit of that. It's also the idea that they're like angels as well. For me, the cool, essential idea of all stories being real creates this great cosmology to play with. It's the notion that the white page itself is a void, and in the context of the DC Universe, well that's God or The Source. In the white page, or the void, anything can happen, everything is possible. As I dug down closer to the very root of the activity I find myself engaged in as a career, I was thinking "what is the basis of the comic book story? What actually is it?"

In the case of comic book stories, it's the war between white page and ink. And who's to say that the page might want that particular story drawn on it? [laughs] What happens if the page is a bit pissed off at the story that's drawn on it? So I thought of the page as God. The idea being that the Overvoid – as we called it in Final Crisis - of the white page as a space is sort of God. And it's condensing stories out of itself because it finds inside its own gigantic white space, self-absorbed pristine consciousness, it finds this little stain or mark, this DC Multiverse somebody has 'drawn'. And it starts investigating, and it's just shocked with what it sees, with all the crazy activity and signifying going on in there. It then tries to protect itself from the seething contact with 'story' and imagines a race of beings, 'angels' or 'monitors' (another word for angel, of course) to function as an interface between its own giant eternal magnificence and this tiny, weird crawling anthill of life and significance that is the DC Multiverse.

I reread the whole series after finishing the last issue, and had to resist the urge to go back and revisit JLA, and Aztek, and Animal Man, to see how this latest addition to Morrison's love-letter to superheroics affected my reading of the earlier iterations. There are broad hints dropped in this interview and elsewhere that Morrison's next big project, somewhere out over the horizon, will focus on the Multiverse itself.

Here's a brief glimpse from that final issue of Final Crisis, to give you some feel for what a Multiverse comic from Morrison might be all about.

Yes, that's "Obama as Superman" literalized (along with some deft nods to Silver Age DC continuity, as with Vathlo Island, the home of the black Kryptonians). And here's the scene a couple of pages later when he and Nubia, Wonder Woman of Amazonia, first encounter the interdimensional ship Ultima Thule and her crew of multiversal superman.

More of this? Yes, please!

Monday, February 09, 2009


Secret Services: The Lodge

We've almost reached the last of the Secret Services, with just a scant few to go. Now we're up to the Image Comics ongoing series, Proof, created by Alex Grecian and Riley Rossmo.

Image has really become Secret Services central these days. They've got The Perhapanauts with BEDLAM, the Occult Crimes Taskforce (about which more shortly), and Proof with its Secret Service, the Lodge.

What is the Lodge?

Well, here's how the book was encapsulated in the pages of the recent Monster Pile-Up.
In 1969, government agents captured Bigfoot. Far from being an ignorant savage, Bigfoot was smarter and more sophisticated than his human captors. Three years later the United States and Canada formed a special task force to find and protect other "cryptids": endangered animals that may not actually exist. This task force is called the Lodge and its star agent is Bigfoot. He now goes by the name Proof.
On the pages of Grecian's website there's a slightly more thematic description of the series:
Between the world we know and the world we don't want to know about, there are endangered species that the scientific community refuses to recognize.

Who's watching The Loch Ness Monster?

Or the dinosaurs hidden deep in the African jungle?

Or the Puerto Rican Chupacabra?

Proof is.

Special Agent John "Proof" Prufrock, also known as Bigfoot, works for The Lodge, an organization dedicated to preserving and protecting "monsters" from the threat of humanity.

If you believe in monsters, you need Proof.

So that's the Lodge in a nutshell. Secret government agency, dedicated to locating and protecting monsters, with Bigfoot as their principle field agent.

The series Proof opens with an FBI agent, Ginger Brown, encountering something in the course of a seemingly routine hostage negotiation that defies description--a golem. Agent Brown dutifully reports this to her superior officer, who thinks she's stressed and hallucinating and gives her a few days off to get her head together. She spends her free time investigating the golem, and when she gets back to the office finds herself with a new assignment, and orders to report to something called "the Lodge."

(A young attractive law enforcement agent accidentally stumbles across the supernatural, and ends up recruited into a shadowy organization that polices things beyond the reach of mundane agencies. Quick, as I describing Proof? Or Torchwood? Or Ultraviolet? Or maybe Occult Crimes Taskforce? Okay, that last one wasn't fair, since I haven't yet got around to summarizing Occult Crimes Taskforce, but you get the gist. This is pretty familiar territory to anyone who's read more than a few of these Secret Services. Proof goes them one better, though, by quickly introducing another law enforcement agent who accidentally stumbles across the supernatural and ends up recruited by the Lodge, and sets him up as a potential love interest for Ginger.)

The star of the book, in more ways than one, is John "Proof" Prufrock, the Bigfoot. Back in his "circus days" he was known as Gulliver, but we still know very little about his background. We've learned that he was discovered by Lewis & Clark in 1805, and brought back to President Thomas Jefferson, who would go on to raise the young Bigfoot, teaching him manners and decorum. Just what happened between the time he left Jefferson's care and was "captured" by government agents in 1969, we don't know, but it likely involved the search for more of his own kind. Proof has yet to meet another Bigfoot, though tantalizing clues have been dropped as the series progresses about what the others might be like.

There are echoes of other Secret Services in Proof. The "monster-hunting monster as agent of shadowy government agency" is certainly reminiscent of Hellboy and the BPRD, and of Big(foot) and BEDLAM for that matter. The notion of hunting down the "real" animals and beings behind crytozoological reports is similar to the mission statements of Section Zero and BEDLAM (and Cartoon Network's Secret Saturdays, as well, which was one of the catalysts for this rundown of secret services in the first place). But for all of that, I think that Grecian and Rossmo manage to make the idea their own, and make Proof very much its own book.

I think part of the appeal is that the creators of the book have put a lot of care and thought into working out the mechanics of their hidden world. Here's now Grecian describes it in the introduction to the first trade collection:
That's what sets Proof apart from all the other books in which people interact with monsters... Everything between the covers of Proof could happen, could exist. Okay, we'll admit that it's all more than a little unlikely, but Riley and I have a real-world explanation for everything here. There's no magic. There's no futuristic technology. There might be other dimensions or ghosts or mammals that can puff themselves up like blowfish, but those things might actually, somehow, have a basis in fact.
There are fairies in the world of Proof, but they are wild animals, effectively creepy little "piranha with wings" that aren't about to grant wishes. There's a goat-sucker, but it's nothing like the charmingly cute Choopie of The Perhapanauts. There are also animals believed by the world to be extinct, that survive in the nature preserves of the Lodge--dinosaurs, dodos, and the like.

The individual issues contain all sorts of nifty extras, articles about cryptids and such, back-up stories that show what supporting characters were doing while the main action was occurring. There was also a serialized story by Kelly Tindall featuring a leopard-headed adventurer and supernatural investigator, Archie Snow, which deserves a book of its own. I'm considering switching entirely from trades to individual issues on this one, because the trades only collect the main stories and the key backups, without the additional goodies.

There are sample pages online, if that will serve to sway any of you to check the book out.


Sunday, February 08, 2009


Masked Avenger Sunday

I enjoyed last Sunday's masked avenger post so much that I'm considering making it a semi-regular feature.

Do you know the work of Ruben Procopio, the artist/sculptor/animator behind Masked Avenger Studios? Well, you will now.

At NYCC this weekend (that's New York Comic Convention, in the rare chance this is the first website you've visited in the last few days), it was announced that Moonstone Books has obtained the license to do a series of Green Hornet and Kato prose anthologies, and were wise enough to enlist Procopio to do the covers and art direction. Two posters, above and below, were handed out at the Moonstone booth to promote the announcement.

And I'm pretty sure I shared this already at one point, but even so here it is again. A while back Procopio scuplted a pair of statues for Electric Tiki, painted by Kat Sapene. Behold the awesomeness my wallet sadly will not allow.

Okay, that's it for now. I'm off to rake leaves in the backyard.

Friday, February 06, 2009


Free Fiction: "Secret Histories: Jake Carmody, 1961"

It's been too long since I shared any new free fiction, I think. So here's a little trifle to make amends.

The following is a standalone chapter from Cybermancy Incorporated (which is currently out of print, but is available on the Kindle), and features a few characters and concepts connected with my new novel, End of the Century. I refer anyone interested in learning more about Bureau Zero and MI-8 to the final post in my Secret Services series, which I'll likely be posting in the next week or two.

Secret Histories: Jake Carmody, 1961
by Chris Roberson

Jake Carmody, agent of Bureau Zero, sat at the vingt-et-un table killing time. His target was not due to arrive in Monte Carlo until the next morning, and so Agent Carmody was whiling away the hours gambling, both in order to establish his cover as wealthy American industrialist on vacation and because, frankly, it beat the alternatives. After a couple of hours at it he was ahead, winning more often than losing, but not by much.

The assignment was a simple one, a straightforward extraction operation. He was to make contact with a scientist named Werner Eckhardt, try to convince him to defect to the US, and if he couldn’t, to handle matters accordingly. The section chiefs back at Bureau Zero were already drooling over the prospect of getting Eckhardt in their stable of hired intellects, so Carmody was fairly sure he wouldn’t be getting the warmest of receptions in the event he had to “handle matters accordingly.”

Carmody was dealt a queen and a seven, but the dealer was showing a ten so he decided to hit. It was a risk, but he wasn’t playing with his own money, so he didn’t mind so much.

“A bold move,” said an angel’s voice in a British accent at his elbow. “Or should I say, a rash one?”

Carmody turned slightly, his gaze taking in the statuesque brunette to his left. She’d sat down at the table a few hands back, and had been playing conservatively. She wasn’t exactly Carmody’s type, but in her form-fitting black gown, hung off the shoulder, it hardly mattered.

“We’ll see,” Carmody said softly.

The dealer laid out a five, expressionless.

“Rash, then?” the brunette added, smiling slightly.

“It would seem so,” Carmody answered.

The brunette stood pat on a nine and an eight, and when the dealer added a king to the ten and five in his hand, accepted her winnings graciously.

“Are you here on business, Mister…?” the brunette asked, stacking her chips in front of her in neat rows of fortification.

“Carmody,” he replied. “Jake Carmody.” He always used his real name when on assignment, shifting all the other aspects of his aliases and cover identities around this kernel of truth like the moon in orbit around the earth. He never worried. The agency to which he reported, Bureau Zero, was so secretive that no one in the standard intelligence community even knew it existed, not even the stuffed shirts at the FBI or the high-strung nuts over at the CIA. The Bureau handled matters unsuited to the customary intelligence channels, matters that would either pass unnoticed by more conventional operatives, or else drive them stark raving mad. There were rumblings around the head office that the new man in the White House had been asking too many questions, poking around in appropriations and mandated sanctions that were best left untouched, but if push came to shove there were always means of dealing with that sort of thing.

The brunette took Carmody’s proffered hand.

“Diana,” she answered, as though that was all the name she’d ever needed. “Charmed.” She let drop Carmody’s hand, and anted up. She then looked at Carmody sidelong, her eyes half-lidded. “But you still haven’t answered my question.”

Carmody tossed in the requisite chips, and turned back to Diana.

“No,” he said, “I don’t suppose I have. The answer is no, I’m afraid. I’m just vacationing.”

“And all alone?” Diana asked, glancing at the bare third finger on Carmody’s left hand. “Is there no Mrs. Carmody?”

“Only my mother,” he answered, wincing slightly despite himself. He quickly added, “And you? What brings you to Monte Carlo?”

“I am a scientist by profession, Mr. Carmody,” she answered, “and I’m here representing the Physics Department at Oxford to the Conference on New Technologies. It’s held here, I suspect, to give poor schoolmarms like myself the opportunity to dress up and go out a night or two.”

Carmody would hardly have pegged her as a schoolmarm, but that wasn’t the bit of her spiel that caught his attention. The Conference on New Technologies, an annual meeting of the best and brightest minds the world had to offer, had been started up by a consortium of researchers a few years after the Second World War. Everyone who was anyone in the scientific community regularly attended, including the maddest of mad scientists, Werner Eckhardt.

When, in the last days of WWII, the Allies had done their dash and grab for any and every German scientist they could find, they had hardly stopped to think who they might end up with. The game at that stage was one of numbers, the more the merrier, and the question of what to do with all these eggheads would wait until they had got back safely behind their own borders. Everyone was after the rocket boys for preference, naturally, but they’d take whomever they would lay their hands on. And that was how Werner Eckhardt came to be a citizen of the Soviet Union.

When the Science Committee in Moscow got around to Eckhardt, they had trouble deciding where to place him. They’d got their hands on a fair number of rocket scientists, though to be fair perhaps not the quality of those snatched up by the Americans, but the Committee found they had no notion of what to do with someone like Eckhardt.

In the early thirties, when Hitler was a name few Germans knew, and fewer took seriously, Eckhardt was a promising young physicist fresh from the University of Heidelberg, destined for a life of quiet contemplation and anonymity. At the urging of a former classmate, Eckhardt went to a meeting of a secret organization called Thule Society, and was instantly captivated. The Thule Society had dedicated itself to reclaiming the lost glory of the German people, an ideal which burned as bright in the mind of young Werner Eckhardt as it did in another member of the society, a frustrated artist named Adolf. Through the Thule Society, Eckhardt was exposed to the world of the occult, of means and ways not hinted at in his university education. He explored these avenues hungrily, like a starving man clawing for food, and in time developed his own unique fusion of technology and the occult, which he insisted be used only in the service of the German people. Over the years, though, the means became much more significant to Eckhardt than the ends, so that by the time the Russians pulled him from his bombed-out laboratory in Berlin, Eckhardt hardly cared to what use his work was put, so long as the work was allowed to continue. Few in the Third Reich had any idea what Eckhardt was up to late nights in his lab, and those that did regretted the knowledge. The Soviets, in the end, followed true to form, and found a place for him; they put him to work making weapons.

“Are you alright?” Diana asked, when Carmody had failed to respond to the dealer’s request.

“Just a little distracted,” Carmody answered, and stood on nineteen.

The dealer turned over an ace to join the king he had showing, and the game was through. Carmody smiled a bit wearily to Diana, who patted his arm in mock sympathy.

“There are times, perhaps,” she said, “when it pays to be rash.”

For the last few hands, the pair had been alone at the table. Now, they were joined by two more, women who looked enough alike to be mirror images, if not for their different hairstyles. One wore a fire engine red dress, cut low at the neck and high on the thigh, while the other wore a matching dress in dark forest green. They glanced at Carmody, casually, but didn’t speak.

Carmody, of course, recognized them at once, as they had him. He had run into them more times than he could count over the course of the past years, always on opposing sides, and while Carmody usually got the better of them, he couldn’t say it had been easy. They were the Fox twins, Melody and Harmony, and they were among the highest priced killers the world of espionage and organize crime had to offer.

Carmody couldn’t begin to guess who they might be working for now, but he was almost certain he knew their target. The only thing of interest for months in Monte Carlo was the Conference on New Technologies, and the only mind of interest at the Conference was Werner Eckhardt.

Diana seemed to catch the glances going silently back and forth between Carmody and the two women, and looked at him with… jealousy? Carmody wasn’t sure if he could trust his instincts, but he could swear that the woman was taking an almost proprietary interest in him. He’d had so little experience with women, provided one didn’t count the numberless femme fatales and seductresses who tried on a seemingly weekly basis either to kill him or pervert him to their causes. Little experience with real women, at any rate, the kind who didn’t carry poisoned blades in their stockings and derringer pistols tucked down their cleavage.

Carmody wasn’t sure where all of this might be heading, but he didn’t like the looks of it. He’d made his living off of going by his instincts, and his instincts were telling him to leave.

“I think,” he said, pushing back his chair from the table and slowly rising to his feet, “that I’ve had enough of 21 for one night. Perhaps I’ll get a bit of air.”

“I’ll join you,” Diana seconded, rising. She paused, a bit sheepishly, and added, “if that’s all right with you.”

Carmody smiled, and offered her his arm. Together, they walked from the table and towards the open balconies, leaving the twin sisters without mercy to play with themselves.


The next morning found Carmody showered and shaved, enjoying his breakfast on the hotel veranda. He had bags under his eyes, and a pulled muscle in his back, but he hardly minded. The night had gone on well into the morning hours, and it was nearly dawn before Diana had finally left and gone back to her hotel. They talked for hours in the open air, then talked hours more back at his hotel room over a bottle of wine, and then the talking had stopped and they moved on to other things.

Women were a luxury Carmody rarely allowed himself. He knew it was a cliché, the stuff of pulp magazines and comic books, but he really felt that allowing a woman to get close to him, bringing someone into his life, would only put them in danger. He felt that he was always under the gun, and it would be criminal to expose anyone else to those sorts of risks. Still, the life of a secret agent became lonely at times, and he did love the way Diana laughed…

Carmody shook his head, dropping his half-buttered toast back onto the plate and pushing the remainder of his meal from him. This was the other risk of getting involved with a woman, the other reason to run. The distractions, the constant preoccupation with anything that wasn’t work. To an average man, it could be a nuisance; to someone in Carmody’s position, it could be fatal.

He was about to rise, to make his way across town to the Conference on New Technologies, when he was stopped short by two visions of loveliness that appeared at either elbow.

“Leaving so soon?” said the vision on the right.

“But we’ve only just arrived,” added the one on the right.

Harmony and Melody gently guided Carmody back to his seat, each with a hand on one elbow, and Carmody didn’t struggle. It was neither the time nor the place. The Fox twins didn’t seem like they were planning trouble, not right away at any rate, and in the event that they did he had more than a few tricks up his sleeve waiting for them. Literally.

The twins sat down opposite Carmody at the table, genteelly, and smiled warmly at him from beneath their broad-brimmed summer hats.

“It’s been a while, Jake,” Harmony said.

“Vancouver, wasn’t it?” Melody added.

“Something like that,” Carmody answered, tense. “What’s the play, girls? Who are you working for this time out?”

The two tittered, almost girlish, glancing at one another and averting their eyes from Carmody’s. It was a few long seconds before they answered, breathless, seeming to have to hold back laughter.

“We’re working for no one, Jake,” Melody answered.

“No one but ourselves,” Harmony added.

“We have to look after our own interests, now and again,” said Melody.

It was suddenly becoming clear, and Carmody wasn’t liking the look of it. The Fox twins had no doubt socked away a considerable amount of capital over the past few years, and were not without their own unique “charms.” If they were trying to woo Werner Eckhardt to their services, and by some miracle succeeded… They could very well make the jump from high-priced assassins to players on an international scale. With the leverage Eckhardt’s rather unique weaponry provided, the Fox sisters could become a power to rival some of the smaller countries in Europe, possibly even Great Britain. The Cold War would be getting a great deal warmer.

“I don’t have time for this,” Carmody said brusquely. His chair slid back from the table with a squeal.

“Do you have to run off so soon?” asked Harmony, smiling seductively.

“We thought that, if we pooled our resources, we might have more time for, shall we say, recreation?” added Melody.

“I’m sorry, ladies,” Carmody answered, wiping his hands on a cloth napkin and dropping it onto his plate. “I’m afraid I’ve lost my appetite.”

Carmody stood, turned, and walked away. He needed to make sure he got to Eckhardt first, or at the very least make certain his offer was the more attractive one. Casting a quick glance back at the two visions of loveliness smiling over his abandoned breakfast, he wondered if such a thing were possible.


The meet with Eckhardt had gone exactly as planned. Carmody had made his way into the Conference, using his credentials as an American industrialist to get past security, and had buttonholed Eckhardt in the men’s room with a photograph and a promise. The photo was of Eckhardt’s daughter, whom he’d thought killed before the war’s end during an Allied bombing raid. The picture didn’t show the five year old girl she’d been there, but a bright shining and well-scrubbed twenty-two-year-old on an American college campus. Was it really Eckhardt’s daughter? Had she really survived the bombing, in a coma, to be brought to the US by a well meaning American family? Was Eckhardt being given the chance to reunite with the one remaining thread of his tattered family tapestry? Carmody didn’t know, and didn’t care. He’d been given the picture and story by his superiors at Bureau Zero, and like a good little spook he did what he was told.

Eckhardt was, to say the least, captivated. He couldn’t take his eyes off the picture, couldn’t stop pelting Carmody with questions. Carmody thought it a bit heartless to take the picture back, and to answer only enough of the old man’s questions to keep him interested, but there were procedures to be followed in these sorts of circumstances, rules to be obeyed.

The arrangements were made quickly, without preamble. Eckhardt was to leave the Conference, that very minute, with Carmody, and rendezvous with American agents at the international airport. Once onboard the plane gassed and ready on the runway, Eckhardt would be escorted back to the States, there to be reunited with his daughter. And, it went without saying, to be put to work for the Bureau, building a better mouse trap than those he’d provided the Soviets. Carmody would stay on in Monte Carlo, making sure that all the loose ends were covered.

They managed to get out of the building without incident, but when they reached the secluded spot in which Carmody had secreted his car, they ran into trouble. Trouble in matching fire engine red and forest green dresses.

Melody and Harmony stood to either side of Carmody, their pistols trained at his forehead, all flirting forgotten. They seemed to have decided that Eckhardt was leaving with them, in their employ, or not at all.

“What is the meaning of this?” demanded Eckhardt. “Who are these women?”

“Your new employers, they hope,” Carmody answered, his hands in the air.

“Such a bright boy,” Melody said.

“Too bad he’s not got much of a future ahead of him,” added Harmony.

Carmody shifted slightly from side to side, on the balls of his feet, looking for an opening. There wasn’t one.

“Well?” asked Harmony. “How’s it going to go?”

“Hard?” Melody asked. Then she added, seductively, “Or soft?”

“Neither, I should hope,” came a voice from the shadows.

The Fox twins turned, just startled enough to give Carmody a chance to make his play. He pointed towards Melody with his left hand, palm down, and then slapped his left forearm with his right hand. With a click, a fletched metal dart flew from the casing above his wrist, thudding into Melody’s chest a full inch, pumping a fast-acting toxin into her system that rendered her immobile in a matter of heartbeats. She’d live, but it would be weeks before the bruise would heal. Carmody allowed himself a slight smile. He always kept something up his sleeve in case of trouble.

His last ditch spent, Carmody turned to Harmony, hoping for a miracle. Watching her collapse to the ground, with the sound of crackling and the smell of ozone in the air, Carmody knew his miracle had arrived just in time.

A woman stepped out from the shadows, reeling in the electrical line that an instant before had pumped enough voltage into Harmony to power a small town for an afternoon. It was Diana, the woman from the night, and the morning, before.

“But…” Carmody began, weakly.

“It’s alright,” Diana answered, smiling sardonically. “I’m on your side, more or less. Now let’s get Eckhardt to the airport, and be quick about it.”

Carmody helped steer Eckhardt to the car, his mind a rush of questions.

“But who…” Carmody began again, getting little further this time out.

“I’m with MI8,” the woman answered, “British Special Intelligence. We handle these sorts of things, much like your own Bureau I might say.”

“I’ll be damned,” Carmody whispered.

“I should hope not,” the woman said. She extended a hand, which Carmody accepted absently, unable to take his eyes from her face. “But we haven’t been formally introduced, have we? My name is Bonaventure. Diana Bonaventure.”

They got Eckhardt to the airport, and onto the plane, without interference from the Soviets or any other interests. He was soon on his way to America, to build bigger and brighter bombs and weapons for the greater glory of the American people. His daughter proved to be genuine enough, though perhaps not as happy to see her father as he was to see her.

As for Carmody, he and Diana Bonaventure stayed longer in Monte Carlo than anyone had expected, and when asked by their respective agencies what the delay might be, they would each answer that there were more loose ends needing tying up than anyone could have imagined.

(c) 2009 Monkeybrain, Inc.


Thursday, February 05, 2009


Locus on End of the Century

There's a review by Russell Letson of End of the Century in the February 2009 issue of Locus Magazine. He concludes his review with a mention of the Author's Note at the end of the book, which outlines some of the inspirations for the story.
Nor was I surprised to find among Roberson's inspirations various multiversal adventures of Michael Moorcock and the Yggsdrasillian family tree of Philip José Farmer's Wold Newton cycle. Those inspirations--dark Moorcock and manic-inventive Famer--locate the pleasures of this busy, complicated, symbolically and thematically fully packed book pretty accurately.


Wednesday, February 04, 2009


End of the Century, now shipping

I'm informed by reliable sources that End of the Century is now shipping from Amazon and B&, and should be in stores in another week or so.

Come on, you know you want it...


Secret Services: MI-13

Only a couple of entries left in my completely arbitrary list of Secret Services.

Today's entry might have been placed way back near the beginning of the list, arguably even as early as between the Guardians and Omega Factor's Department 7 since it's first incarnation appeared in the late 70s. But then, the case could be made that it wasn't until 2006 that it finally evolved into what I'm calling a "secret service."

But I'm getting ahead of myself. I'll start at the beginning. Stick with me, this may get complicated.

In the pages of Captain Britain Weekly #17, back in 1977, readers in the UK were introduced to S.T.R.I.K.E. (otherwise known as Special Tactical Reserve for International Key Emergencies), a British answer to the UN's SHIELD. Wikipedia has the creators of STRIKE as writer Gary Friedrich and editor Larry Leiber, and I see no reason to doubt it. STRIKE is of little interest to us here except as a historical precursor, since like SHIELD it isn't really a "Secret Service" dedicated to policing the supernatural and paranormal, but your basic comic book intelligence service and counterterrorism agency. (They did have a "Psi Division," though, which is a mark in its favor. And they fought Nazis, which is always a plus.)

Later, STRIKE is compromised when one of Captain Britain's villains takes over the outfit, and the British government shuts it down, replacing it with the R.C.X. More properly the Resources Control Executive, RCX is introduced in the pages of Captain Britain (vol 2) #1, by writer Jamie Delano and artist Alan Davis. Instituted to deal with the fall-out of the Alan Moore-penned "Jaspers' Warp" stories, the RCX gives its agents Biblical codenames (Gabriel, Michael, Peter, etc.), and recruits Captain Britain to serve as their figurehead (later to be replaced temporarily by his sister, Elisabeth Braddock, who wears the modified uniform of one of Captain Britain's multiversal counterparts). RCX is quite a bit more sinister and secretive than STRIKE, but still not a "Secret Service."

Sometime after the events of the second volume of Captain Britain, RCX is replaced by a new organization, and here we start getting into real Secret Service territory. First seen in in the pages of Excalibur #6, from writer Chris Claremont and artist Alan Davis, this new outfit was called the Weird Happenings Organization, or W.H.O., and was headed by Brigadier-General Alysande Stuart. And here we start moving into Secret Services territory. Headquartered in a secret base beneath the Tower of London, WHO is very much off the public radar, and charged with protecting the British realm against threats beyond the purview of the normal authorities. They interacted with Captain Britain on a regular basis, and Stuart twin brother Alistair Stuart even became a companion of Captain Britain's team for a time, travelling with them on a crosstime tour of the multiverse.

A brigadier named Stuart, in charge of secret organization called WHO? Mmm. What does that remind me of...?

(Parenthetically, I think that the potential of WHO was never fully realized. When I was asked to write an X-Men novel for Pocket Books, I jumped at the chance to feature Brigadier Stuart, then still a colonel in the Royal Marines. [I also showcased Betsy Braddock, and my personal favorite mutant Douglas Ramsey, but that's a matter for another time.] In the final pages of my novel X-Men: The Return, then, you'll the following "origin story" for WHO.
“Consider this call a courtesy,” the brigadier interrupted. “I’ve just received confirmation that Downing Street has accepted my proposal to create a tactical force of scientists and lateral thinkers, to anticipate, detect, and analyze the bizarre mysteries that lie beyond the fringes of man’s current knowledge. The next time alien invaders come calling, mankind won’t have to look to rogue elements like the X-Men for rescue, as the Weird Happenings Organization will stand ready to meet the challenge.”
But enough about that.)

When Warren Ellis took over the scripting duties on Excalibur, he introduced yet another British intelligence agency, Black Air. At first, Black Air was a counterpart to WHO, with a rivalry not entirely unlike that between MI5 and MI6, but in short order WHO is disbanded and Black Air takes over the whole show. Field agent Peter Wisdom is assigned as a liaison with Excalibur, and eventually ends up joining the team. Captain Britain was mostly absent by now, but popped up now and again. Black Air was, for all intents and purposes, a Secret Service, with a mandate to investigate and research all paranormal and supernatural phenomenon. They were also sneaky bastards, engineering weaponized viruses from xenobilogical specimens, allying themselves with baddies like the Hellfire Club, and generally looking after their own dark interests before anyone else's. Apparently they eventually moved to the private sector (remember Caballistics, Inc, anyone?), where that kind of thing is standard practices.

Which brings us to 2006, and the introduction of the latest British intelligence service. MI-13 first appeared in the pages of New Excalibur #1, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Michael Ryan. Captain Britain was once more in charge of Excalibur by this point, and when Pete Wisdom introduces himself in this issue it's as an agent of something called MI-13, which goes on to fund the newly reformed team.

But it's in the pages of Wisdom that we really find out what MI-13 is all about.

Written by Paul Cornell with art by Trevor Hairsine, Widsom introduces us to that branch of the British intelligence services responsible for "Weird Happenings." Threats from within the borders of the UK are the balliwick of MI-5, threats from outside the country are the responsible of MI-6, but invasions of faeries from Otherworld? Dragons tearing up the suburbs of Cardiff in Wales? A plague of Jack-the-Rippers on the streets of London, or HG Wells's Martians breaching the walls between realities? That is the responsibility of MI-13.

Pete Wisdom is back, leading a team of field agents that includes Tink, a fairy dissident expatriated from the Otherworld; John the Skrull, an alien shapeshifter who took the form of the "Smart Beatle" back in the 60s and never changed back; Sid Ridley, the WWII-era super-soldier known as "Captain Midlands"; and telepath Maureen Raven. Outfitted by MI-13's quartermaster O, and only occasionally butting heads with MI-6's new scientific advisor, Alistaire Stuart, the team investigates the strange, the inexplicable, the unusual--weird happenings.

Wisdom is full of gems, as when John the Skrull remembers the days of the Skrull Beatles invasion, before the four shapeshifters broke-up when Skrull John hooked up with Captain Boko of the Free Kree Liberation Army and Skrull george went on a pilgrimage with the Dread Dormammu. The miniseries ran for six issues, and was released in a dandy trade paperback collection.

And that might have been that, had the fates not shined on us all and granted Paul Cornell a second shot at the characters, in the pages of Captain Britain and MI-13.

Joined this time by Agents of Atlas artist Leonard Kirk, Paul presents us in the first issue of Captain Britain and MI-13 with a new team of agents. Pete Wisdom is on hand again, but most of the previous team is gone after the events of the Wisdom miniseries. In the face of a full-bore Skrull invasion (which I think may have been covered in one or two other Marvel titles...), Prime Minster Gordon Brown drafts all British superheroes as agents of MI-13, and puts Pete Wisdom in charge of the whole affair, answerable directly to the PM. Wisdom rounds up Captain Britain, John the Skrull, the Black Knight, Captain Midlands, WII-era speedster Spitfire (who has a few secrets to tell), and a young Anglo-Arab doctor who turns out to be not only a big superhero fan, but also is the only one able to pull the sword Excalibur from its stone. Together they travel to the Otherworld, to defend the source of all magic against the invading Skrulls, and once they've seen to the alien invaders, they've immediately got a haunted apartment complex to contend with, one that is capable of granting anyone's most cherished desires--for a price. Then Blade (yes, that Blade, the vampire-hunter) joins the team, and when Spitfire's fangs give away her little secret, things get interesting. Oh, and then it turns out that Dracula has been hiding out on the moon for years, and is now getting set to come back down to Earth, with a little help from his friend Doctor Doom.

Pure. Awesome.

Captain Britain and MI-13 is one of my favorite comic series in recent years, standing nicely aside Agents of Atlas, The Immortal Iron Fist, Jack Staff, Umbrella Academy, and the Fables titles. A trade of the first arc is due out soon in the US (and is already out in the UK), and if you haven't tried it yet you honestly don't know what you're missing. So get it, already!


Tuesday, February 03, 2009


Paul Grist's Big Cosmic Comic

Holy cow! I've just learned (thanks to the Robot 6 blog), that Paul Grist is serializing a work-in-progress on Facebook. Described as "The continuing adventures of the Eternal Warrior," naturally featuring the Eternal Warrior character from Jack Staff (an analog of Adam Eterno, by the by, and not Elric as some Moorcock fans have assumed). Grist has set it up as a Facebook Discussion Group, posting the pages a few of the time as photos, and anyone with a Facebook account can join the group.

Now, as I've told you and told you, and told you, and told you (and told you and told you) before, Jack Staff is the best superhero comic on the market today, and that everyone who doesn't hate goodness owes it to themselves to pick it up. If you haven't tried it yet, and you're on Facebook, here's your chance to sample a little Jack Staff-esque goodness for free.


SCI FI Wire on End of the Century

The unflappable John Joseph Adams has done another piece on me for the SCI FI Wire, this time on the subject of End of the Century. This one focuses a bit on the research for the novel, and in particular the "Briton ur-myth" that I think underlies so much of Arthurian, Welsh, Irish, and Scottish legend and myth. Want to know more? Read the book and find out!

And it's here we learn that apparently you can't say "batshit" on the SCI FI Wire...

Sunday, February 01, 2009


Masked Avenger Sunday

Here's a little pulp goodness for you, for no reason at all.

First up, Evan Shaner's portrait of the Shadow, Green Hornet, and the Spider, done for Francesco Francavilla. (You might recall me posting Shaner's kick-ass "Fantastic Four meets the Tom Strong Family" last year.)

And it seems only fitting to follow that with a Francavilla portrait of the Shadow that ran last month in his regular "Pulp Sunday" feature. If you're not following the Matt Wagner-scripted, Francesco Francavilla-drawn Zorro ongoing comic, you are really missing out.

And finally, Shaner's group shot reminded me of this image I ran across recently, hunting down Richard Dominguez's El Gato Negro. In the image, copies of the indy superhero comic are scattered on a table, around which sit the masked avengers who influenced the character's creation: Batman, Nightwing, The Phantom, The Shadow, The Crimson Avenger, Daredevil, The Spirit, and Zorro.

And if those poses are familiar, this might be why...

Once I wrap up Secret Services, probably in the next couple of weeks, I'll take a break from themed posts for a while, and then start in on a long-planned series of posts on the topic of Masked Avengers.

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