Tim Pratt
SF and Fantasy Writer

Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

Synopsisopolis

Monday, April 15th, 2013

I used to have the worst time with writing synopses of novels. Part of it was that I had a career as a novelist before I ever really needed to write one. I sold my first book with a complete manuscript in hand, and the same with my second, and while I had to write a few paragraphs for the later books in that series, they weren’t what you’d call well-fleshed-out synopses.

But eventually the day came when, in order to sell a book based on a proposal, I had to first write an actual synopsis, describing an as-yet-unwritten novel in some detail, and my poor brain just vapor-locked. That’s not how I work! I complained to those poor unfortunates who are obliged to call themselves my friends. I just leap into the book and see where the current takes me! I can’t plan ahead! The book would become like unto a dead thing on the page! (Yeah, I really say stuff like “like unto a dead thing,” it’s troubling.)

Fortunately some of my friends who are more established writers than I am said, “It’s not like you have to follow the synopsis. Just give them the general idea, and as long as you don’t deviate so wildly that the book enters a different genre or becomes totally different in tone, nobody is likely to care.”

I found that comforting — it took some of the pressure off — but I still had a hell of a time writing the things. I’d sit down and start writing, and when I looked up I’d have five pages of backstory and character motivations and interrelationships and nothing about plot. So I’d try again, and end up with a well-described plot that sounded frankly dumb and improbable, because it left out the character stuff that gave it any weight. So I’d try to combine them both and end up with a synopsis in the neighborhood of 8,000 words long, for an editor who wanted “a couple of pages.”

Eventually I had one of my few genuine epiphanies. The point of a synopsis, I decided, was to convey some of the excitement I felt about the book I was planning to my editor, in a document they could use to convey that excitement to higher-ups at the publishing company, and marketing people, and so on.

I thought, “Why don’t I try to describe the book the way I would describe it to someone at a party?” This is something I’ve been known to do, at convention parties especially, when someone is unwise enough to say, “So what are you working on now?” Depending on how much alcohol I’ve had, the responses can be quite long and involved and necessitate a certain amount of waving my arms and possibly shouting. (I briefly considered and discarded the notion of a video synopsis where I would simply record myself ranting about the book I had planned. Novelty can be good but there are limits.)

Still, I used that as my guiding principle: write the synopsis in a conversational tone, as if telling a sympathetic friend about the really cool thing I’m going to write. I wouldn’t tell them every turn of the plot or every reversal, but I’d hit the highlights, and get across the tone and the nature of the characters and convey the essential awesomeness of what I had in mind.

I tried writing the dread synopsis that way, and it came out pretty well, so I sent it in, and sold the book. I’ve used that technique in every synopsis I’ve written since then, and it’s worked more often than not. I’m not saying it’s a perfect solution for all writers everywhere… but it was the only way to defuse my own anxiety about the process, and it seems to get the essential spirit of the book across, which matters.

Writing synopses went from being something that terrified me utterly to something I do without anxiety — indeed, with some pleasure. They even serve a useful function for me, by crystallizing what’s most important to me about the book, what I’m most passionate about, and what sets my mind racing most rapidly. There’s still enough mystery in the details that I keep myself interested while writing, and give myself problems I have to ingeniously solve, but I don’t lose sight of the basic shape of the book or feel lost in the fog of possibilities.

I wrote a synopsis for a proposal last week, and my process was this: take a long walk and think about the book. Sit down at my favorite bar and get a beer and scribble in a notebook. And, barring some clean-up, I was done. (Of course I don’t know if it’ll sell, but I think it’s a pretty good synopsis.)

So if I’m ever at a party and I’ve had a few to drink and I begin to slowly back you toward a wall while animatedly talk-shouting about my next book, unreeling what seems to be a stream-of-consciousness list of eyeball kicks and set pieces and things I insist will be really cool even if they don’t sound remotely cool, take comfort in the thought that you’re helping me refine the pitch for some future project.

Take It As Read

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

We’re deep into the last day of my Kickstarter for Bride of Death, so if you were thinking of becoming a backer, now is the time. Every time I look at the Kickstarter page I am filled with joy and delight at the generosity of my readers — and the power of crowdfunding to make art compatible with financial necessities. What I’m trying to say is, thank you, and hurray.

The new issue of Apex Magazine is out today, with my looong story “The Fairy Library” free to read, and an interview with me (mostly about my new collection), and also many good things by people who are not me, like the awesome Rachel Swirsky and the equally but differently awesome Will Alexander.

I am doing another Ask Me Anything at Reddit Fantasy this Thursday, with Richard Lee Byers — we both write Pathfinder Tales fantasy novels, so I imagine there’ll be a lot of questions and answers about those, but as the name implies, we can be Asked Anything. Do drop by. Speaking of Pathfinder Tales, here’s a sample chapter for my new novel Liar’s Blade, with a fantastic illustration of one of my favorite characters from the book.

Life is very very busy, with readings to do and stories to write (with deadlines that are nearly upon me) and Life Stuff and a very full calendar… but it’s good. I am happy and productive.

A Month of Marla: A Cloak of Many Worlds

Tuesday, February 26th, 2013

Each Tuesday for the month of February I’m posting a different story about my character Marla Mason. This week we have “A Cloak of Many Worlds,” written as a Kickstarter reward for one of my previous crowdfunded projects. This one’s a bit unusual, in that Marla doesn’t actually appear in the story, apart from a couple of mentions — but it’s about an old friend of hers dealing with a dangerous entity that used to belong to her.

(This is a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death.)

A CLOAK OF MANY WORLDS

Bradley Bowman — known, in most realities, as “B” to his friends — was getting pretty good at being a god. He hadn’t gotten much in the way of training, as his predecessor had died (or, more accurately, committed suicide), but since one of the perks of the position was a vastly enhanced mental capacity and total mastery of time, space, and the multiverse, he’d figured out things pretty well just by muddling along.

He was more than a god, really. Gods feared him — at least, those that believed in him did.

B sat at a small wrought-iron table in a gazebo in an imaginary garden, buttering a real piece of toast. When he took a sounding, he found an amazing 89% of himself was at least content, and 67% would have gone so far as to call it “happy.” A good morning, then. One of the best.

His lover, Henry, sat across from him, reading a French-language newspaper from a world where Napoleon’s empire had spanned the entire globe and persisted for two centuries. Henry had died of a drug overdose in most of the universes B had visited — back in timelines when B was still mortal, and so capable of uncomplicated linear heartbreak. B had taken advantage of his position to scoop one particular instance of his lover from a doomed timeline and taken him here, to the house outside space-time, to live as B’s immortal companion.

He was pretty sure such things were against the rules, except, as far as he could tell, there were very few rules, and no one to enforce them anyway. As long as he didn’t damage the structure of reality itself (an act which would be instantly self-negating, like a fire choosing to extinguish itself) he could do what he liked. There were other Powers his equal or better — he’d met them, he was sure, when he “interviewed” for this job — but thinking about them was like trying to look at the back of his own head.

Once he’d tried to save a few versions of himself who’d died unpleasantly in the past, but without success; he could see them, but trying to touch them was like squeezing smoke. There weren’t many rules… but there were, apparently, a few fundamental laws that couldn’t be worked around.

B’s job was to protect the integrity of the multiverse. To prevent creatures — apart from himself, and he didn’t count — from passing from one reality to another, shredding the fabric of space-time as they went. To guard against incursions from Outside, that mysterious space (or collection of spaces) where other entirely different universes bubbled in the quantum foam, and from In-Between, the dark shadows between the branches of parallel and proliferating realities, where dwelt terrible predators composed of equal parts biology and geometry.

His domain was not infinite, but it was very large, and ever-growing, as with each passing moment, in each universe, new choices were made right down at the quantum level, each choice spawning a new universe, endlessly branching, endlessly diverging. But B could be everywhere at once, if need be; so that was all right. And it wasn’t as if there were many real dangers. Cross-dimensional travel was rare, the dwellers In-Between mostly seemed happy to stay there eating any foolish sorcerers or science-explorers who breached their domains, and as for Outside, well —

“I dreamed about the cloak again,” Henry said, not looking up from the paper. He was blond, young, handsome, a lock of hair falling across his pale green eyes at almost all times, and his voice poured like honey when he said the least little thing.

B frowned. Contentment levels in the collective dropped precipitously. “Shit,” he said.

“Once is happenstance,” Henry said, rustling the paper. “Twice is coincidence. Three times — ”

“Yes, I know,” B said, and put down his toast.

#

B contained multitudes. He’d once been a mortal man, living a mortal life. He’d existed in tens of thousands of realities — but when he chose to accept this position, the wave-forms had collapsed, and he’d become a single individual, effortlessly containing the memories and experiences of all his counterparts. He thought of himself sometimes as “the collective,” since he was an amalgam of many, acting as one. He could spread out again, near-infinitely, sending versions of himself wherever they were needed in the expanse of time and space, every copy in continuous psychic contact with the main body, but after that breakfast most of him was together, standing on the frozen emptiness of a version of Earth that had drifted a bit farther from the sun than most, becoming a ball of nothing much but dirty ice, utterly lifeless.

There were a pair of cloaks wadded-up at his feet, made of white cloth, lined inside with an ugly bruise-purple, the color even more shocking than usual in this pale wasteland. “You little shits,” he said, kicking one of the cloaks. “How are you getting inside his head? I know you whisper and tempt and wiggle your little psychic fish hooks into people’s brains, but Henry isn’t even in this reality, he’s not in any reality, we’re curled up in a separate dimension. So how the fuck…”

Not for the first time, B considered picking up the cloaks and hurling them into a sun — or a black hole. The problem was, he couldn’t be sure what consequences that might have for the sun, or the singularity.

In many of the universes where B had been mortal, he’d made friends with a sorcerer named Marla Mason, who often possessed a magical purple-and-white cloak, an artifact of great power. In many of those universes, she discovered the cloak was a malign psychic entity bent on the utter domination of the world. Without a host body — a wearer, essentially — the cloak was largely inert, capable only of small telepathic whispers. Once it found a host to wear it, though, the cloak tried to possess the wearer’s body, and from there… onward to conquest, working magics that were unmatched in the multiverse.

On many of the worlds where Marla wore the cloak, she was unable to resist the cloak’s power, and became a genocidal tyrant. Bradley had stepped in on a micro level not long ago, as a favor to a version of Marla he was particularly fond of, and he’d taken a couple of instances of the cloak away, putting them here in this wasteland, where they could do no more harm.

The cloaks worried him, though, because they were from Outside — the only Outsiders he’d ever encountered. They didn’t belong to his multiverse, but came from some other entirely different universe. The physics (and metaphysics) of B’s multiverse didn’t apply to them — in some senses, this place was inimical to them, and the cloaks needed a physical host to support them just like an astronaut needed a space suit to function in the airless depths.

But in other ways, this multiverse was easy pickings for the cloaks; their magics were all but unstoppable here. And of course there were more of them every day, every moment, as the multiverse continued to branch, spawning new copies of the cloak with each variation. Sure, many of them were lost, or locked away, or sleeping and lying dormant without hosts, and they were all stuck in their respective realities, but still — they were wrong, and their existence troubled him.

Clearly, they had powers B didn’t begin to understand, and since he was supposed to understand everything in his multiverse, that was irksome. He needed to know where they’d come from, and what they wanted, and how they were whispering to his boyfriend… and how serious a threat they posed.

Fortunately, he was in a position to find out.

#

Henry followed him, but just to the top of the basement stairs. “Are you… you really have to go down there?”

B shrugged. “Some of them know things I need to find out.”

Henry blew a mouthful of smoke toward the ceiling — no reason to avoid cigarettes, here; they were beyond things like cancer — and nodded. “Okay. I just know how much they creep you out.”

“The basement’s not my favorite place,” B agreed. “But sooner started, sooner done.” He unhooked the padlock on the door — which was much more than an ordinary padlock, of course — and pulled it open. He descended solid stone stairs to a space so well-lit not a single shadow could collect in the corners. The walls were lined with man-sized glass containers, curved at the top like bell jars, each one holding a different version of B himself, their eyes closed, motionless but dreaming.

One Bradley was so disfigured he was barely recognizable, face a collage of scars, dressed in the shreds of a military uniform that was clearly from the Hugo Boss school of stylish fascism. Another was missing half his head, the damaged parts of brain and skull repaired with shiny metal plates and alien technology. A third had shockingly snow-white hair, and his left arm had been replaced by a long, blue-black tentacle that twitched and writhed even in the depths of suspension.

These were the versions of Bradley Bowman that had been purged from the collective. They were insane, or power-hungry, or otherwise dangerous, all from worlds that had suffered terrible agonies at the hands (or claws, or mandibles) of supernatural or extraterrestrial menaces — since B was a powerful psychic in nearly every reality, he was often dragged into the plots of such creatures, and sometimes terribly changed in the process.

The imprisoned version of himself that B needed to address today was fairly typical in his appearance, but reaching out to him mentally, B felt the void at the center of him, the profoundness of his broken places, the depth of his hunger. His neck was terribly scarred, as if he’d been scourged with a whip of needles; and in a way, he had. That version of B called himself the Host.

There were several realities in which B briefly wore the purple-and-white cloak, taking on the power and burden temporarily from his friend Marla Mason to help save the life of another. But this Bradley, the Host, for whatever reason, had lacked the willpower to resist the cloak’s whispering for even an afternoon. He had submitted to the cloak’s will, slaughtered Marla… and over the course of the next year, combining his own vast psychic gifts with the cloak’s brutal magics, he’d subjugated the entire Earth. He’d lost his empire when all the versions of B combined and ascended to meta-godhood, leaving his government in shambles (and the cloak itself abandoned, and in need of another host).

Most of the cloak’s hosts lost their minds when they were possessed, becoming vestigial things, but because of his psychic powers, the Host had managed to wall off part of his psyche, keeping it whole and intact. Unfortunately… he’d come to love the cloak. To love the power. The ability to do anything, without consequence or hesitation. His presence in the collective had been intolerable, like having a splinter in your eye, so B had sealed him away here… but now he needed the man’s insight.

B touched the glass jar. It shimmered out of existence, and the Host opened his sea-blue eyes.

A conceptual shift later, B sat in a steel chair in an interrogation room that lacked windows or doors. The Host sat across the scarred metal table from him, draped in chains. He smiled, showing teeth sharpened to points, then lashed out psychically, trying to seize control of the collective. It was a hopeless gesture — he was outnumbered literally billions to one — but B still reeled backwards under the ferocity of the assault.

“Well,” the Host said. “Worth a try. I didn’t become ruler of the world by never making an effort.”

“You weren’t the ruler of a world,” B said. “You were just the mount the ruler of a world rode.”

The Host shrugged. “The cloak and I had a more equal partnership than you’d like to admit. She burned the humanity out of me, to let me achieve my true potential, and she accepted my counsel.”

“Oh, I know that,” B said. “Which is why you’re here. I want to know about the cloak. What it is. Where it came from. What it’s doing here.”

The Host raised an eyebrow. “You’re something more than a god, brother. But you are wholly ignorant of the cloak’s true nature. Doesn’t that tell you something? Doesn’t that make you realize the cloak deserves to have dominion over this multiverse?”

“A case could be made,” B said. “Except for the bit where she wants to eradicate all other life.”

The Host shrugged. The scars on his neck where the cloak had clung, sinking the needles of its pseudopods deep into his flesh, were red, as if still infected. “You can’t blame her. Would you want to move into a house infested with roaches and centipedes, the bathtub full of slime eels, spiders in the pillows, slugs in the cupboards? That’s what we are to her — what all life is. She needs to keep a breeding pool of sentient creatures around, of course, to act as hosts, since our reality is unpleasant for her — it makes her very sleepy, like a lack of oxygen does for humans — but otherwise… things are much more beautiful without the slime mold of life everywhere. I came to see things her way.”

“I know all that. Tell me what I don’t know. Where does she — it — come from?”

“Why should I tell you?”

“I’m prepared to bargain,” B said. “I’ll bud you off, and give you your own existence, and put you on an Earth capable of sustaining your life, but one that hasn’t developed any sentient species. You’ll get to live in a natural paradise, which is better than you deserve.”

“A planet teeming with things I can kill? Interesting.” The Host showed his teeth again. This time, he licked them, and the points of his teeth drew blood from his tongue.

#

Hours later — not that time mattered here, but subjectively, it had been a long day — B sat at the table in the gazebo staring down into a cup of espresso. “The cloak comes from another universe. From Outside. Which, I mean — I figured. But what I didn’t know is, the reason it’s here.”

“Vanguard of an invasion force?” Henry sat with his arms crossed over his chest, frowning. Despite how distracted he was, a good 40% of the collective admired the way Henry’s crossed arms made his biceps bulge.

B shook his head. “No. The cloak was a criminal in its own reality. ‘Criminal’ isn’t exactly the right word, apparently — they don’t make a distinction between natural laws and laws created by sentient beings there, but apparently it’s also possible to break natural laws there, don’t ask me how. The cloak — the thing we call the cloak — did that. Violated something fundamental. And its punishment was being sent to our universe. Banishment. Exile.”

Henry frowned. “Wait. So we’re like… Australia? And the cloak is a British convict? Our multiverse is a penal colony?”

“More or less. With just a single prisoner. Except, of course, this being a multiverse, that prisoner has multiplied, in a way.”

“So… why am I dreaming about it?”

B winced. “This part, I figured out for myself. I fucked up, Henry. I had two cloaks together in one reality, and I took them both to a third reality, one with an uninhabited Earth, making my own attempt at banishing them. The cloaks are Outsiders, so it doesn’t exactly break my rules to put two of them in one reality, even though usually duplicates inhabiting the same reality is a no-no, one of the things I’m meant to guard against. The cloaks are… sort of outside my jurisdiction, so it’s okay. But I think passing through the membranes between realities so many times taught them something. The cloaks have senses I can’t even imagine — and since I’m capable of simultaneously watching everything throughout the past and into possible futures in every reality, those are some badass senses.” He ran a hand through his hair. “The cloaks must have figured out something about reaching through the membranes, even in their dormant state, when they’re just capable of whispering. So they’re whispering to you, Henry. They know they can’t overcome me — I’m billions of powerful psychics rolled into one — but you’re a singular creature, and a potential host.”

Henry whistled. “They’re trying to seduce me? They should work on their technique, because nightmares of utter destruction and choking to death in the gutter and ODing on needles full of junk aren’t really tempting me — ”

Not far away, just down the path, the front door of the house opened. That shouldn’t have been possible, because there was nothing else conscious and alive in this place to open a door.

Another Henry stepped out of the door. Except this Henry was wearing something that looked, at first glance, like a purple cloak, lined inside with white. To Bradley’s more advanced eyes, the cloak was revealed as something else: shaped a bit like a manta ray, but covered in eyes, and fringed all over with long, tentacular pseudopods, many ending in hooks and barbs, which wrapped around that other Henry’s body, and sank into his flesh. He came down the steps, and was followed by a second Henry, wearing another cloak — and finally by the Host, somehow freed from his prison in the basement, cloakless, and gazing at the new Henries with naked lust and hate. Other exiled Bradleys followed — the cyborg, the fascist, the madman with the tentacle, and more.

“Bastard,” the Henry in front shouted. “You saved one of us, but not all of us, so many of us are dead, you could have saved us all, but you let us die!”

“Fuck,” Bradley said, and grabbed his Henry’s hand, and fled.

#

Henry was barefoot, wearing shorts and a t-shirt, but Bradley made sure he wasn’t cold, even though they were standing in frozen tundra. Standing in the place where the exiled cloaks should have been, and weren’t.

“They weren’t just whispering to you,” B murmured. “They were somehow whispering to all the versions of you, down the timestream, telling them I was a monster, that I could have saved their lives, and chose to let them die. Which…”

“You could’ve,” Henry said. “I guess. We’d have to put in a whole lot of extra bathrooms, though.”

B laughed, mirthlessly. “Yeah. I didn’t think it was practical — saving even one of you was an indulgence, and an abuse of power. Those visions of death in the gutter weren’t meant for you — they were meant for all the versions of you I didn’t save. And somehow, the cloaks opened doors, passageways, between realities. They shouldn’t be able to do that. They never could before.”

“When one monkey learns to use a stick to get ants out of an anthill, all the other monkeys who see him do it figure out how to imitate the trick,” Henry said. He shivered, despite the envelope of warmth B wove around him. “The cloaks saw you come and go here, checking up on them, and you said it yourself, their magics are way beyond what’s normally possible in our universe. They must have just learned to do what you do. So. What happens now?”

“Now?” B peered forward, into the most likely futures. “They breach the walls between universes,” he said. “Repeatedly. Using Henry — versions of you — as hosts. And once they find more versions of themselves in other realities, locked in boxes or hidden in closets or buried in concrete pits, those new cloaks take over the versions of me they freed from the basement. That merry band continues to breach the walls between realities, looking for more versions of themselves, the cloaks intermingle, the cloaks breed…” He shuddered. “They don’t conquer the multiverse, of course. Our realities can’t sustain that kind of damage, all those holes being torn between them. I’m the only one who can move freely from one place to another without doing damage in the process — I have a special dispensation. In a few months, the structure of the multiverse will be shredded and pierced and as fragile as rotting lace, until… it all falls apart. After that, the things from In-Between can’t tell the difference between our realities and their dark domains, and they surge in, and eat everything alive. ‘Eat’ is the wrong verb, but it’s close enough in terms of effect. Then the cloaks start to use them, the things In-Between, as hosts, and after that… I can’t see what happens after that, because none of me is left in that scenario.”

“So we’re screwed.” Henry sat down on the ice. “Hell, B. I knew you had a lot of responsibilities in your job, but…”

B frowned. “Wait. There’s a thread, a possibility, a vanishingly-small likelihood, a billion-to-one chance…” He whistled. “Billion-to-one. When you’re me, those are actually pretty decent odds.”

“What’s the play?” Henry said.

“We break the rules,” B said. “We go Outside. I can’t see what happens if we do that — it’s like asking a dog to see colors, or a man to see into the infrared, it’s beyond the limit of my senses — but there are futures where I try it, and I don’t see doom in those. I don’t see anything in them. They’re singularities, no information escapes from them. But when your choices are certain death or the great unknown, the only sensible choice is to go with the unknown.”

B squinted at the ice, and scuffed a line on the ground with the heel of his boot. He dragged his foot along, making another line, and a third, and finally a fourth, forming a rectangle about the size of a door. Then he lifted his foot and stomped down, hard, in the middle, causing the ice to crumble into a twinkling darkness.

“Down the hatch,” he said, taking Henry’s hand. His boyfriend didn’t hesitate: they jumped in, feet first, together.

#

After a dizzying interval of falling, B found himself sitting in a white chair, shaped like an egg, mounted on a pedestal. It was like something from a 1970s vision of the future. He swiveled in the chair, looking around. He was in a small white room, utterly blank, except for a circular red lens mounted in the center of one wall. Henry was nowhere to be seen.

“Where is my — ”

“He is safe,” a booming mechanical voice said, speaking from all directions at once. “Frozen in a moment of falling. Where he lands… that depends on the outcome of this conversation.”

B stared at the glowing red camera eye. “You’re one of the powers. One of the things… like me.”

“I am to you as you are to ordinary gods, and as ordinary gods are to mortals,” the voice said. “You may call me — ”

“HAL-9000?” B said.

“I appear in a form dependent largely on your memory and perceptions,” it said. “Even given your extra-human senses, you do not possess the sensory apparatus necessary to look upon my true form. I gather I appear to you as some sort of… killer robot?”

“Close enough,” B said. “So. Are you God? Not a god, but — the big one? The one at the top? The maker of the makers?”

“Hmm. No. No more than a gardener is God. The plants would grow regardless. The gardener merely encourages some growths, and discourages others, and occasionally resorts to weeding. Or pesticides. Or, in extreme cases, fire and salt. That is my relationship to the great complex of universes. All those universes exist, in their vast numbers, and I do what I can to keep them growing and healthy. And I try to make sure one doesn’t strangle another, or kill its neighbors by stealing all the sunlight. You may think of me as the Gardener, if you like. Such metaphors are limited, but they have their uses.”

“So the way I oversee the multiverse,” B said, “You do that for all the universes?”

“Essentially, yes. You have become a great disappointment to me, Bradley Bowman. You should not have stepped Outside. You have left your territory unprotected. Why?”

“I have a little problem,” B said. “With these cloaks.”

“Those motherfucking cloaks again?” the Gardener said, the profanity shocking B so much it made him flinch backward. “What have they done this time?”

B explained: about putting two of the cloaks in exile on a frozen planet, about Henry’s dreams, about the attack on his home, and about the likely futures he saw if the cloaks weren’t stopped. “Since these monsters came from Outside,” B said, “I couldn’t see any choice but to go Outside myself.”

“I will arrange a meeting,” the Gardener said. “A sit-down. Wait.”

So B waited. He wasn’t sure how long. He didn’t think it was centuries, quite. And he suspected the passage of time in this place — or non-place — had no bearing at all on the passage of time elsewhere. In any elsewhere.

The chair spun around of its own accord. Now there was a door on the wall opposite the Gardener’s red lens. The door slid open, and a tall, thin man walked through, ducking to avoid hitting his head on the jamb. He was dressed in a strange ragtag assortment of clothes — a plaid flannel shirt, a pink Easter bonnet, cutoff denim shorts revealing knees that appeared to be put on backwards, steel sabatons. His face was one only Picasso could have loved.

“Ambassador,” the Gardener said. “Meet the Guardian.”

So that’s what they call me, B thought. I’d wondered.

The Ambassador opened his mouth and spoke, but he didn’t move his lips, or tongue: words just emerged from the gaping mouth, as if from a concealed speaker. “We exiled the — ” a strange clicking noise, then the word “cloak” in a distinctly different voice — “to your universe. We did not realize that place was inhabited. By our standards, it scarcely is — vast empty spaces abound there.”

“True,” B said. “But the cloak has a way of making itself heard, and it found sentient hosts.”

“More than one host?” the Ambassador said, mouth gaping, eyes glazed over.

“Sure,” B said. “Lots of hosts, really. Maybe not billions, but probably millions — ”

“A moment,” the Gardener said, and the room filled with a harsh squealing sound, strangely digital. B understood, without knowing how he understood, that the Gardener was communicating with the Ambassador at a very high informational density and rate of speed.

“This creature oversees a multiverse?” the Ambassador said, its tone incredulous, even as its eyes remained blank. “A complex of branching realities, where every possible quantum outcome actually comes to pass? But — what an absurd way to run a universe! Where does the energy come from? If we’d realized, we never would have sent the — ” click, buzz, “cloak” — “there.”

B shrugged. “It’s just the way we do things back home. The problem is, the cloaks have learned to breach the realities, and they’re joining forces, massing, becoming an army — ”

“We understand,” the Ambassador said. “We… will help correct this. If the Gardener will permit it.”

“I’m open to suggestions,” the machine that wasn’t a machine said.

After much discussion — which happened in mere seconds, and not always audibly — they settled on a plan. “I’ll open the door,” Bradley said when they were done.

“And I will seal it,” the Ambassador said.

“Good,” the Gardener said. “Come back when it’s done, and I’ll let you know if it actually worked.”

#

B left Henry on the same paradise planet where he’d promised to strand the Host, because that world’s lack of sentient life made it less tempting for the cloaks to invade. Then he went back home, to his house outside reality.

The cloaks had made his beautiful chateau into their base. His gazebo was gone, razed flat, and the house itself had been bizarrely fortified, with a mishmash of medieval battlements and high-tech armor and weaponry. As if anyone would attack them here! The cloak was so dramatic.

He saw the scarred, fascist version of himself, pacing the battlements, but it didn’t notice him. B was pretty good at not being noticed. He wished he’d had that ability back in his mortal life, when he’d been an actor, and entirely too famous for comfort, at least for a while.

B strolled through the remains of the garden, sighing when he saw that all the plants — the most beautiful from all the realities under his care — were trampled flat. At a particular spot he bent down and dug in the soft mud with a spade, until he uncovered a hatch, perhaps four feet across, made of dull gray metal. A circular handle stood in the middle, and B grunted as he turned it, pushing with all his strength, eventually budding off a couple of instantiations of himself to help turn it and add their leverage.

Someone at the house began shouting, and bullets hit the ground all around him and his copies. A few bullets would have struck them, but he just shifted the bullets into timelines where they didn’t touch him instead, so no harm done. B and his buds hauled open the hatch door, and stood back.

There was a peculiar roaring noise, like a waterfall in reverse, and the cloaked fascist fell from the battlements and was dragged along the ground, feet first, toward the hole B had opened. He clawed at the dirt, grasping for purchase, fingers making long furrows in the mud. The cloak was torn from his shoulders by the terrific vacuum — a vacuum that didn’t affect anything else but the cloak. It went flapping past B, its countless red eyes rolling wildly, and then disappeared into the hole.

B waved his hands, opening conduits to the other realities where the cloaks existed. Pinpricks opened in the air around him, widening to the size of hula hoops, each a window into another world. After a few moments, flapping purple and white monsters began flooding in through the holes, some few dragging their hosts with them partway, most coming unattached. The cloaks poured into the hatch he’d opened, streaming in their untold numbers for what would have been a day and a night in a normal place, before the last one passed through, and vanished into the dark.

B closed his eyes and felt for anything wrong — the splinter, the chip of stone, the bit of shrapnel in the body of his multiverse — and found nothing.

He hauled the hatch closed, and spun the handle shut, and re-absorbed his buds. Then he collapsed, and slept in the mud for some time, even though he was meant to be beyond sleep.

#

“Where are they now?” Henry said. “The cloaks?” They were snuggled up together on the futon, looking up at the stained-glass skylights in the living room. All the other versions of Henry had been put back in their rightful places, and they all probably still hated B, but at least he had this one to hold.

“The farther you get from the center — which is the wrong word, but the right concept — the older the universes get,” B said. “Out on the very edge there are entirely dead universes, ones where heat death happened long ago, where it’s nothing but empty absolute zero. Universes where there’s only expansion, no big crunch, no cycle of creation, just ending and emptiness. The Gardener said we could send the cloaks there, and by combining my powers with those of the Ambassador, we opened a door, and created a sort of… magnet, or vacuum, or irresistible force… that drew things from Outside.”

“So are the cloaks dead?”

“Maybe? I don’t know if they can live in a universe without energy. But there are millions of them now, so maybe they can feed on each other? I don’t even know if they do feed. Maybe they’re breeding merrily, filling up all the available space with copies of themselves. But they’re walled off, is the main thing, in an entirely different universe.”

“They figured out how to pass between realities here,” Henry pointed out.

“Yeah, but that’s different,” B said. “The parallel realities I oversee are all in the same multiverse. This place where we sent the cloaks, it’s way out there, it’s Outside. Traveling between realities in the multiverse is easy compared to traveling between universes. It’s like the difference between walking from one room in your house to another and walking from your front door to another galaxy.”

“I hope you’re right,” Henry said. “But the cloaks can get into dreams, Bradley. How do you lock up something that can find you in your dreams?”

#

After making sure Henry was settled in at home, and that his own more dangerous alternate selves were recovered and sealed in their bell jars again, and that the holes torn in reality had been stitched up to the best of his ability, B finally returned to the Gardener’s chamber, where the Ambassador was waiting.

“Containment seems to be working, so far,” the Gardener said. “The cloaks are writhing and wriggling and testing the boundaries, but the universe where they’re trapped doesn’t give them much to work with. We seem to have averted disaster. For now.”

“I guess that’ll have to do, then.” B shook hands with the Ambassador, who only had four fingers, like a cartoon character. “Next time, could you not send your criminally insane monsters to my universe?”

“Of course,” the Ambassador said. “It was a regrettable error, and will not be repeated.”

“I appreciate you, ah, taking on a shape that’s familiar to me,” B said, since he assumed that was the point of the Ambassador’s horrible human costume. “But I was wondering. Are you all… like the cloak… in your universe? Your true form, I mean — with the eyes, the barbs, the tentacles…”

“Ah,” the Ambassador said. “You think the — ” click, hiss, “cloak” — “is native to our universe. It is not. It invaded us, or was sent to us, long ago, and caused great destruction before we banished it. Frankly, we do not know what it is, or where it comes from.” The Ambassador turned its head stiffly and looked at the Gardener’s glowing red eye. B looked, too. They waited.

“Don’t ask me where the cloak comes from,” the Gardener said at last. “Or what it is. Really. You wouldn’t like the answer.”

“Is that because the answer would be ‘I have no fucking idea?'” B said.

After a long moment, the Gardener said, “No comment.”

 

Regarding Certain Fictions

Wednesday, February 13th, 2013

Here are some things:

I sold a story! “Ghostreaper, or, Life after Revenge” will appear in a future issue of Eclipse Online. I’ve admired the stories editor Jonathan Strahan has published in the magazine (and in the anthology series before that), so I’m pleased to be part of it. The story is a novelette about a modern guy who gets a magical spear from a trickster figure of uncertain intentions and proceeds to mess up his life in interesting ways.

I also sold a story, “Secrets in Storage,” co-written with Greg van Eekhout, to a Lovecraftian anthology. About five years ago Greg wrote an opening and asked me if I could do anything with it. I added a bit, and we batted it back and forth, but it stalled out and never came to anything, sitting unloved and unread for years. Then, when I was asked to do a Lovecraftian story, I realize how Greg’s opening could be a launching point for just such a piece, and dragged it out of cold storage, worked on it, made Greg make it better, and sent it off. A dead story, resurrected (but, of course, that is not dead which can eternal lie; that goes for old story fragments as well as elder gods).

We’re down to the last few days for the Glitter and Madness Kickstarter. Take a look! It would be a fun anthology. My story will be set in the abandoned ice skating rink in Berkeley, a bit of decaying real estate called Iceland (which is also a portal to a Hell of ice, a la The Inferno), at a monster skate party, of sorts. Give ’em a little if you can. They’re still a bit short of hitting their goal.

My own Kickstarter, for novel Bride of Death, is going beautifully — it’s nearly 150% funded with 20 days to go. Another $665 and we unlock original cover art by the great Lindsey Look, who did the cover for Grim Tides. And if it goes over that level, I’ll come up with additional incentives. (And, you know, buy my kid extra souvenirs at Disneyland when we go for his spring break.)

I’m reading Gooseberry Bluff Community College of Magic: The Thirteenth Rib by David J. Schwartz (one of my favorite writers; hell, one of my favorite people). It’s a serialized novel, and you get all the installments for a mere one-time $1.99 payment. Pretty sweet deal.

Lately I’ve ripped through the Spellman Files series by Lisa Lutz — quirky mysteries (sort of) set in contemporary San Francisco. They’re charming books, driven by a great narrative voice, that of thirtyish former juvenile delinquent Izzy Spellman, who works for the family business as a private investigator. The PI details are pretty realistic, which means the stakes are way lower than you find in most mysteries — in reality, PIs don’t investigate murders; mostly they follow cheating spouses and do background checks. So most of the drama comes from the interpersonal relationships, among a group of chronically nosy, secretive, suspicious people with boundary issues and a willingness to use blackmail and other means to achieve their goals — but who nonetheless love one another very much. Not the sort of thing I usually read (I prefer my mysteries bleak and violent and hardboiled), but great comfort reading.

A Month of Marla: Grander than the Sea

Tuesday, February 5th, 2013

Each Tuesday for the next month I’m going to post a different story about my character Marla Mason. I’m starting with “Grander than the Sea,” which first appeared in The Solaris Book of New Fantasy (2007) and was reprinted in Year’s Best Fantasy 8.

(This is indeed a transparent attempt to tempt people into supporting my Kickstarter for the new Marla novel Bride of Death. But, hey, free stuff.) Here’s the story!

 

GRANDER THAN THE SEA

“Dr. Husch is here,” Rondeau said, stepping into Marla Mason’s cluttered office, where she sat poring over an eye-watering pile of expense reports from her spies abroad.

“Who’s Elmer Mulligan, and why did our agent Brandywine spend $400 buying him lapdances at a strip bar in Canada?” she said, brandishing a piece of paper.

“I think Mulligan is the one who did that thing for us in Newfoundland,” Rondeau said, shutting the door behind him and knocking over a pile of true-crime paperbacks with the covers ripped off. “You know, with that guy who had the ice palace?”

“Right,” Marla said, rubbing her eyes. “I guess a lapdance is a small price to pay. Grizzly-polar bear hybrids are weird enough without some lunatic uplifting them to human intelligence. And did you see this?” She held up a flattened piece of seaweed, scrawled over with luminous green ink. It dripped briny water on the carpet. “It’s from the Bay Witch. I can’t even read it. Get somebody to go talk to her, will you?”

“Sure,” Rondeau said. “Like I said, Dr. Husch is here, from the Blackwing Institute. She says its urgent. But, ah, if you want me to keep her entertained for a while, I don’t mind — ”

Marla wrinkled her nose. “Rondeau, she must be a hundred and fifty years old.”

He shrugged. “She only looks about thirty. Don’t be ageist. And I’ve heard, when she was younger, she used to be quite the party girl.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that, too.” Rondeau didn’t know a fraction of the weirdness and debauchery in Husch’s past, but Marla did, because the Felport archives went back a long time. “Is she here to beg for money?”

Rondeau shrugged. His attention was already wandering, and he riffled through a pile of back issues of The Instigator, which Marla still needed to comb for secret messages in the personals. On days like this she wondered why she’d ever agreed to become chief sorcerer. She was made for creeping around in shadows and kicking her enemies in the knees, not shuffling paperwork. Maybe she should hire an assistant. Rondeau was useful for many things, but alphabetizing wasn’t one of them.

“Send her in,” Marla said, wishing, not for the first time, that she had a better office for meeting people. When she had advance warning, she used her consigliere Hamil’s office, all sleekness and modernity. But her working office, above Rondeau’s nightclub, was an explosion of unfinished business, furnished with shelves, desks, and chairs scrounged from curbsides.

Rondea went out, and Dr. Husch entered. “Leda,” Marla said, leaning over her desk and extending a hand to shake. “Always a pleasure, assuming you aren’t here to pester me for more funding.”

Dr. Husch was only five and a half feet tall, rather shorter than Marla, but her presence was considerable. She had the body and face of a classical nymph, which she tried to de-emphasize, her curves restrained by a dark tailored suit jacket and skirt, her platinum-blonde hair pulled back in a severe bun. Her heels, though, were so high Marla felt unbalanced just looking at them. “The institute could always use more money,” Husch said. “Since we are the only thing preventing the destruction of the world. But, no, that’s not why I’m here. One of our inmates would like to see you.”

Marla raised an eyebrow. “I’m not in the habit of visiting criminally insane sorcerers, Leda.”

“It’s Roger Vaughn, and he’s quite insistent. I take him seriously.”

Marla shook her head. “Vaughn? The name doesn’t mean anything to me.”

“He’s the one who sank the ferry in the bay a hundred years ago, killing everyone aboard.”

“Ah.” That was one of the big disasters in Felport’s history, though the details escaped her memory. “He must be getting on in years.”

“Some of us do not age as rapidly as others,” Husch said, without apparent irony. “More importantly, Vaughn has been in total seclusion since the disaster, without any contact with the outside world. I am curious to discover how he knows you exist.”

“Maybe one of the orderlies mentioned my name?”

Husch gave a sniff, contemptuous enough to make Marla blush in embarrassment, which pissed her off. “Sorry, I forgot your staff was all wind-up toys,” she snapped.

The doctor waved her hand. “Mr. Annemann’s creations are tireless and loyal, and I couldn’t afford to hire human staff with the pittance you provide me anyway. No, Roger Vaughn must be acting on other information. He is quite lucid — his delusions only extend to certain, ah, fundamental aspects of worldview — and you would be in no danger. I think you should see him. He says the fate of the city is at stake.”

If Felport was in danger, Marla had to go. Protecting the city was her one and only responsibility. “Crap,” she said. “Okay, fine. I assume you want me to go now?”

Dr. Husch only smiled.

“You could’ve called first,” Marla grumbled, rising from her creaking chair.

“One of our inmates discorporated and attempted to escape into the world via the phone lines last month, prevention of which required ripping out all the wires. I submitted a request for repair to you a week ago — in the meantime, we have no phone service.” Dr. Husch reached down and plucked a sheet of pale green paper, with the raven logo of the Blackwing Institute at the top, from a heap on Marla’s desk. “See?”

Marla groaned. “Fine, I’ll have Hamil write you a check. Why don’t you get a cell phone?”

“Because they’re vulgar,” Dr. Husch said, and Marla didn’t have an answer for that.

#

Must he come?” Husch said as Rondeau approached.

Marla drummed her fingers on the roof of Husch’s silver Rolls Royce. “Yep, he must. You wouldn’t believe the trouble he gets into if I leave him behind. You know, you could sell this car and get a nice chunk of change to buy extra blankets and Thorazine.”

“The car is not mine to sell. It belongs to Mr. Annemann, and if he ever recovers, he will doubtless wish to have it. He graciously allows me to use it in the meantime.”

“I thought Annemann got half his head blown off. I doubt he’ll be driving anytime soon.”

“His brain is not like that of other men. It has been regenerating steadily for the past several decades, and I expect it will be whole again someday.”

You sound pretty cheerful about that, Marla thought, considering you’re the reason he got his skull broken apart in the first place. She’d read about that in the archives, too.

Rondeau arrived, carrying a plastic bag. “I brought a bunch of leftover Halloween candy for the patients, Doc,” he said. “Hope that’s okay. I know they don’t get many treats or visitors.”

Husch’s aspect softened, and she nodded. “Very thoughtful. Many of them will appreciate the kindness.” She gestured, and Marla and Rondeau climbed into the cavernous back seat. Husch got into the passenger side. One of Annemann’s creations — which seemed human, if you didn’t look closely enough to notice the lack of pores and breathing — was in the front seat, dressed as a chauffeur. It probably wouldn’t even know how to drive if you took off its hat and driving gloves. All Annemann’s creations (with one notable exception) were fundamentally mindless, but acted like whatever you dressed them as.

“What do these guys eat, anyway?” Marla said, leaning forward to poke the chauffeur in the shoulder.

“Lavender seeds and earthworms,” Husch said.

“That’s messed up,” Marla said.

“De gustibus or whatever,” Rondeau said.

“It is the traditional meal,” Husch said. “As you might imagine, it is quite expensive to feed twoscore homonculi a sufficient quantity of lavender seeds and earthworms. Even with the worm farm in the basement and our extensive gardens.”

“I can tell this is going to be a fun drive,” Marla said, sinking back into the leather seat. “You know I’d give you more money if I could, right? But, I mean, it’s not like the mayor can tax ordinary citizens to pay for this stuff, considering most of them have no idea people like us even exist.”

“And it drives Marla nuts,” Rondeau said. “Because nobody ever thanks her for protecting the city from ravaging bands of wendigos or rat people from another star or things like that.”

“I don’t want thanks,” Marla said. “Just… a little help. The mayor knows about us, but he’s an ordinary, and he doesn’t like us. He can’t decide if I’m a mob boss or a vigilante or a superhero. He knows without me the city would have been destroyed a few times, though. Anyway, for something like the Blackwing Institute, I have to tax the other sorcerers… and no offense, Leda, but nobody wants to give money to the place where crazy sorcerers get locked up. It worries them.”

Dr. Husch just sniffed.

The Blackwing Institute was an hour outside the city, and an hour outside Marla’s comfort zone. She resisted the urge to turn around and press her face against the back window, to watch Felport diminish as they passed into the suburbs and then the fields and sleepy little towns beyond. Felport could be a pain in the ass, but it was her pain in the ass. She wasn’t comfortable anywhere else.

Especially places that had cows and trees and shit like that. Fludd Park in the city was enough nature for anybody. It even had a creek and a duck pond and a botanical garden.

“My buddy Paul taught me this road trip game where you take the letters from license plates and make dirty words out of them,” Rondeau said. “Anybody want to play?”

Marla groaned and tried to go to sleep.

#

“You want me to wear a dress?” Marla said, stepping back to put a chair between Dr. Husch and herself.

Husch held a ghastly long white dress embroidered at the neck and sleeves with lace flowers. “It will save a lot of trouble if you do.”

“I like trouble better than dresses.”

“Don’t be stupid,” Dr. Husch said. “Just put it on. Mr. Vaughn is from a different era. Do you really want to listen to him go on about the evils of women in trousers for an hour?”

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a dress,” Rondeau said. “Hmm…”

“Stop imagining it,” she snapped, then sighed. “Yes, fine, all right. But I’m not wearing any of the petticoats or whatever. I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

“You’ve battled psychopomps and snake gods, but wearing a dress daunts you?” Husch said.

“It doesn’t daunt me. I don’t daunt. It’s just unpleasant. Picking up a big handful of dog crap doesn’t daunt me, but that doesn’t mean I want to do it.” Marla hadn’t worn a dress in almost ten years. Her old mentor, Artie Mann, had made her dress up for a party once, when she’d first met the city’s other sorcerers, but that was the last time. And at least that dress had been short enough to make kicking people easy, when it became necessary.

Dr. Husch and Rondeau left the room, and Marla shed her loose cotton pants and shirt for the dress. It was tight in the waist and bigger on top than she needed, and she wondered if it had been one of Dr. Husch’s — it seemed more suited to her curves. Marla tugged the fabric fruitlessly away from her belly. “All right!” she shouted. “Let’s go see the wizard!”

Husch reappeared with a heavy iron keyring and beckoned. Rondeau tried not to stare at Marla, without much success, and she tried to ignore him, with similar results. “Seeing you like this just isn’t natural,” Rondeau said. “It’s like putting a dress on — ”

“You’d better stop right there,” Marla said. “What have I told you about rehearsing what you’re going to say silently in your head first?”

Rondeau looked upward, moved his lips briefly, then squeezed his mouth shut. He nodded once, then kept his eyes on his feet.

Husch unlocked a large iron door, incongruous in the wall of a formal sitting room. A wide white hospital corridor waited beyond. “This door divides my apartments from the Institute proper. This whole building used to be a private residence, of course.”

“Mr. Annemann’s mansion,” Marla said.

“Yes,” Husch said.

“Wow, so it wasn’t always a hospital?” Rondeau said. “Huh. Wild. So, before we go into the dark corridors filled with madness and all that, I was wondering, how do you keep sorcerers in here? I mean, are there some kind of magical barriers that prevent them from using their powers, or what?”

Marla snorted. “Magical barriers? Right. Those always work. Nah, the doc just makes sure they don’t get any books or chalk or skulls or bells or potions or whatever they liked to use for making magic when they were sane. A necromancer isn’t much good without corpses to animate, and a pyromancer’s not dangerous if you keep her in a chilled concrete room. It’s like how you’d stop an axe murderer. You just lock them up someplace and make sure they never, ever get their hands on another axe.”

“But sorcerers carry their axes with them inside their heads,” Dr. Husch said, lingering by the door. “And while many of them do depend on props and tools and rituals, some are quite capable of working dangerous magics with only their hands and voices. Those are kept restrained and gagged, as necessary, for their own protection.”

“What about the ones who can just, like, look at you and make you burst into flame?” Rondeau said, glancing at Marla. “The really powerful ones?” Marla wasn’t sure whether to be flattered or offended. She wasn’t sure she could do something like that — not without preparation, at least — but it was nice to know Rondeau thought she could.

“Ah,” Dr. Husch said. “For those rare few, we keep a great many drugs on hand.” She gestured, and they went past the iron door, which Husch carefully locked behind them. “But the house actually is well protected. The land here is magically neutral.”

“Really?” Marla said. She hadn’t realized that. “No ley lines? No ancient Indian burial grounds? No restless ghosts of past atrocities? No psychic residue left over from epic battles or blood vendettas fought on this spot?”

“No monsters in caverns below ground, no eerie petroglyphs drawn by pre-human civilizations, no local spirits still clinging to sentience,” Dr. Husch confirmed. “Mr. Annemann chose the location very carefully. He didn’t want outside magical influences to affect his experiments. There’s not much inherent magical energy in this area for our patients to draw upon.”

Marla opened up her mind, and it was true, there weren’t that many deep vibrations here. That was rare. Most places had something occultish about them. But… “Of course, now a dozen crazy sorcerers live here, and a couple have died in their rooms.”

Dr. Husch sighed. “Yes. It’s true. In another hundred years, this will be a very magically potent location. But for now, the effects haven’t soaked into the earth.”

“Only a dozen patients, huh?” Rondeau said. “In this big old place?”

“Not counting Mr. Annemann. We try to give each of them as much space as possible.”

“Anybody famous locked up here?” Rondeau said.

“Once, Mr. Vaughn was famous, or rather, infamous,” Dr. Husch said. “One of our newest inmates is our escape artist, the one who tried to get out via the phone lines, Elsie Jarrow. Perhaps you’ve heard of her.”

“I don’t — ” Rondeau said.

“Marrowbones,” Marla said, shuddering. “That’s what they called her. They still told stories about her, when I first came to Felport. How she’d suck all the fluids out of your body with a kiss.”

“Hyperbole,” Dr. Husch said. “But only just. We have others. Gustavus Lupo, the skinchanger, who lost track of his flesh one day and built a new body of the angry dead. A powerful psychic named Genevieve with a mind broken by trauma. Norma Nilson, who did not so much kill her enemies as crush them with despair until they begged permission to take their own lives. Others.” She shrugged. “They all have special needs. I serve them as well as I can.”

“Charming,” Marla said. “Let’s meet Mr. Vaughn. What’s his mental malfunction, anyway?”

“He wants to raise a dark god from the sea and destroy all human life,” Dr. Husch said. “Come along, his rooms are just down here.”

#

Vaughn’s room was crammed with bookshelves made of driftwood, and dried starfish dangled on strings from the ceiling. Despite the nautical theme, the room smelled of dust, not ocean. “Mr. Vaughn!” Dr. Husch called, and a small old man bustled in from another room. He wore an elegant gray suit, and his eyes were the darkest blue Marla had ever seen. Hands clasped behind his back, he bowed, and said “Thank you for coming to see me, Miss Mason. We have much to discuss.” He nodded curtly to Dr. Husch, and took no notice whatever of Rondeau. “Thank you for bringing her, Doctor. Hail Xorgotthua, and good day.”

“Come, Rondeau,” Dr. Husch said. “We’ll take the candy you brought to some of the other patients.”

Rondeau looked a question at Marla, and she nodded. Little old men who hailed Xorgotthua — whoever or whatever that was — weren’t necessarily harmless, but if he was too dangerous for Marla to handle, Rondeau wouldn’t be much help anyway. They left, and the door shut behind them. Vaughn gestured to an armchair, and Marla sat down, remembering to keep her legs demurely together. Stupid dress. Marla rubbed her hand on the arm of the chair and said “Is this sharkskin?”

“Oh, yes,” Vaughn said, sitting in an identical chair of his own. “Sharks are Xorgotthua’s handmaidens, of course.”

“Right. Why did you want to see me, Mr. Vaughn?”

“I need you to stop me,” he said. “Kill me, probably. Well. Not this me. The other me.”

“You’re going to have to clarify that.”

“Yes, I see.” Vaughn took a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at sweat on his forehead, though it was cool in the room. “I assume you know of the sacrifice I made to the great god Xorgotthua a century ago? The ferry I sank, so that the screams of the dying might nourish the lord of all depths?”

Marla suppressed a shiver. So he was a religious fundamentalist. They always creeped her out. “Yeah, I know about that.” Details were slowly coming back to her. “You were trying to conduct some ritual, and raise some ancient god from the sea, right? But it didn’t work?”

“Oh, it worked.” Vaughn fingered a silver chain around his neck. “But it was only the first part of the ritual, you see. To raise Xorgotthua, I made a sacrifice to the waters, to wake the god. Then, a hundred years later, there must be another sacrifice, as large as the first, to entice the god to the surface, and onto the land. It is a long time to wait, but the attention spans of gods are not like those of men, and a hundred years is but a moment to Xorgotthua. The time for the second sacrifice is only a few days away.”

“And you want me to… stop you from making the sacrifice?” Marla said. “Shouldn’t be a problem, with you locked up here.”

“Ah, well, no, not exactly. I want you to stop the other me. My reincarnation.” He looked at her expectantly.

“Ah. So do I ring a bell or something to get Dr. Husch back here?” Marla said.

Vaughn sighed. “I know what you’re thinking. Death is generally a prerequisite to reincarnation.”

“Yeah. That’s part of what I was thinking.”

“I use the word as a convenience. It is not true reincarnation. You know the technique of putting your soul in a stone, to be retrieved later?”

“Sure. It tends to turn the soulless sorcerer into a pretty unsympathetic bastard with no sense of proportion, but it’s a way to preserve your life.” Marla was wary of the word “soul,” but she knew a technomancer who talked about uploading personalities into computers and making backups of your mind, and he said the principle was the same.

“I did… something similar. But then I made a perfect copy of the stone where I kept my soul, through a certain alchemical process. I restored my original soul to this body, and left the copy in a safe place near the docks in Felport, with instructions to activate a few months prior to the centennial of my first sacrifice. It was a backup plan, you see. If I died, or became incapacitated, my backup soul would be there to complete the ritual and raise Xorgotthua.”

Marla frowned. “What do you mean ‘activate’? Souls floating around loose aren’t good for much. They need bodies.”

“Oh, well, of course, the soul had instructions to seize control of the nearest suitable vessel.”

“Vessel. You mean a person.” Marla gripped the arms of the chair. “You made a backup of your soul with instructions for it to possess some random passer-by?”

Mr. Vaughn nodded. “Yes, exactly! Such an honor for the vessel, too, being given the opportunity to help raise Xorgotthua.”

Marla closed her eyes, counted to ten, and opened them again. The urge to strangle Vaughn had not passed, but it was under control. “So this person is wandering around Felport now?”

“Not wandering,” he said, offended. “He is me — or me, as I was a hundred years ago — and he has been learning all he can about the city. That’s how I found out you were the, ah, person in charge.”

“You’re in communication with this double of yours?”

“I see and hear and smell and taste what he does.” Vaughn frowned. “It is a side effect I had not expected, though I admit, it is good to smell the sea again. But I do not think this communication goes both ways. I’ve had no indication he sees what I see.”

“Good. Where can I find him?”

Vaughn wagged his finger. “No, no. I will not help you stop him unless you help me.”

“What, do you want to go on a field trip? Deep-sea fishing or something? I can talk to the doc.”

“No. What I want is for you to stop my reincarnation, so that I can be the one to raise great Xorgotthua. It should have been me. I cannot bear the thought of this copy of myself raising the god while I languish here, to die with everyone else when the waves cover the land. My copy was meant as a last resort, if I was dead or in a coma, but I am aware, and here, and quite capable of completing the ritual on my own.”

“Uh huh,” Marla said, standing. “So you want me to stop your copy from killing lots of innocent people, and help you kill lots of innocent people instead, and either way the result is a risen god who wants to destroy all human life? Sorry, doesn’t sound like something I want to pursue.”

“If you help me, I will intercede on your behalf with Xorgotthua. I can make sure you and your city are spared. My copy will show no such mercy, I assure you. But if you let me be the one who wakes the god, I will use my influence to convince it to spare your home.” Vaughn rose to his feet and stood facing Marla. He extended his hand. “Do we have a deal?”

Marla contemplated. If a great dark god really was rising from the sea, such bargains might be necessary, but she wasn’t ready to concede defeat yet. “No, thanks. I think I’ll look for your copy on my own.”

Vaughn closed his hands into fists. “Listen, woman. I brought you here to make an arrangement. You’ll never find him without me. If you don’t help me, the death of your city is a foregone conclusion. I offer your only hope. Take it, or face the consequences.”

“Yeah, let me get back to you on that,” she said, opening her cellphone and calling Rondeau. When he picked up, she said “Hey, tell the Doc I’m done here.”

“You can’t ‘get back to me,'” Vaughn said, his face getting red. “You will make this bargain now or — ”

Marla snorted. “Please. Like you won’t jump at the chance if I come back in two days and tell you it’s a deal. What, you’re going to turn up your nose and refuse to help me because I snubbed you today? As if.”

Vaughn sat down. He glowered at her. “You will regret the way you’ve treated me. When you return to beg for my assistance in a day or two days, I will know I have the power, and will drive a much harder bargain.”

“I look forward to negotiating with you,” Marla said. “But don’t expect me to wear a dress again.” The door opened, and Marla slipped out.

#

“You didn’t tell me he was the priest of a dark god,” Marla said, hurrying down the hallway, with the shorter Husch striding quickly to keep up. “You might’ve mentioned.”

“He’s not,” Husch said. “I told you, his fundamental worldview is delusional. He believes in the great god Xorgothhua, but no such god exists.”

Marla stopped walking. “Are you sure about that?”

“Quite. There is no record of such a creature in any oral or written tradition I have consulted. Vaughn claims the god has inspired countless followers through the ages, and has been worshipped by many societies, but it’s just not true. Vaughn began talking about Xorgotthua after he nearly drowned in the mid-1800s, and his delusion intensified over time, becoming ever more baroque and sophisticated. It was considered a harmless eccentricity, until he arranged the ferry disaster. Then Felport’s elite sorcerers realized he was a danger, and had him put away here.”

“Huh,” Marla said, resuming her walk back to Husch’s apartments. “That’s reassuring. You wouldn’t believe the stuff he told me.”

Husch unlocked the door. Rondeau was on the other side, sitting on a couch, watching a television screen. “We heard it all,” Husch said. “The guest rooms are under surveillance, of course.”

“That dude is batshit,” Rondeau said. “Now he’s walking in circles and talking to himself, and, I shit you not, cackling.”

“So you brought me here to listen to a crazy guy’s pointless babble?” Marla said.

“No. He did know your name, and your position among Felport’s sorcerers, and other details of daily life in the city he should not be privy to. I think he is probably telling the truth about this double of his, and his plans to conduct a sacrifice in a few days.”

“So there’s no giant sea god to worry about,” Rondeau said. “Just the issue of a bunch of innocent people getting killed.”

“Huh,” Marla said. “How many people died in that ferry disaster?”

“Over a hundred, most bound for a family reunion on Bramble Island,” Husch said. “And it sounds like Vaughn wants just as many people to die this time.”

“Crap,” Marla said.

“Indeed,” Husch replied.

#

“Good morning, Bay Witch,” Marla said, sitting on a bench on the boardwalk with a view of the bay’s gray expanse.

The Bay Witch — who’d once been named Zufi, back when she was a surfer girl, before she became a student of the hidden arts — sat at the other end of the bench. She was blonde and dressed in a black wetsuit, a puddle of sea water spreading all around her.

“Nice of you to visit,” the Bay Witch said. “You got my note?”

“I got an incomprehensible smear of goo on seaweed. But I needed to talk to you anyway. What’s up?”

“Bay’s getting more polluted every year. I’ve sent reports. You don’t answer me.”

Marla nodded. “I’ve been busy, but I’m taking bids to deal with the pollution. Unfortunately the best bid is from Ernesto, who wants to gather all the pollutants to create a filth elemental to smite his enemies. I’m thinking of accepting it, but I need to find out who his enemies are first.”

“Fair enough,” the Bay Witch said. “There’s another thing. Probably nothing, but there’s — ”

“Let me guess. There’s a crazy guy hanging around, talking about raising a dark sea god named Xorgotthua?”

The Bay Witch laughed. “They told me you have tentacles everywhere. Yeah, that’s him.”

“Where might I find this crazy guy?”

She shrugged. “He’s been a regular in some of the bars these past few months, bothering people, but he hasn’t been around lately. He was pretty irritated when nobody wanted to join his cult. He promised they’d all die if they didn’t join him, the usual. Nobody took him seriously. He’s just a kid, can’t be more than seventeen. I felt kind of bad for him, but he was creepy, too.”

Marla nodded. “I’ve got sort of a weird question. Let’s say I needed to get a giant squid in a few days. Just out in the bay, you know. Waving tentacles around, the whole deal. Think you could hook that up?”

“I’m not Aquaman,” she said. “I’m not friends with all the creatures of the sea.”

“Yeah, but I bet you’ve got methods.”

“A giant squid?” She frowned. “They do like cold water, but they’re not exactly common, and they prefer deep water. If it’s doable — if — I’d need some serious payback. I’d have to burn a lot of power and influence over something like this, and I’m guessing you don’t even want to tell me why.”

“True,” Marla said. “Do it, and you’ll be taken care of.”

“I’d need the bay to be taken care of. You’re the chief sorcerer of Felport, and the way you feel about the city? That’s how I feel about the bay.”

“We’ll work it out,” Marla said. “You know I’m good for it.”

“Okay,” the Bay Witch said. She shook her head. “I’ll see what I can do. Meet me back here tomorrow.” She walked to the edge of the boardwalk, climbed over the rail, and leapt gracefully into the sea.

Marla spent the afternoon talking to her various friends and informants by the boardwalk, the docks, and the boat harbor, but no one had seen the crazy guy lately. If Marla was going to find him, she’d have to get more creative.

#

“One giant squid, coming up,” the Bay Witch said, looking pleased with herself. They sat at an outdoor café a block from the water, enjoying the mild spring air, though the Bay Witch was dripping water, as always. It was an occupational malady. “The thing’s the size of a school bus. Where do you want it?”

“A few hundred yards from shore, two days from now, midnight, waving its tentacles around, splashing a lot, making a spectacle. Can you handle that?”

“I can hijack its brain for a little while,” the Bay Witch said. “Squid are too big, and their anatomy is too weird, for me to control easily, but if all you want is flailing, I can manage that. What, are you trying to scare away a sperm whale or something?”

“Not quite,” Marla said. “I need your help with something else. Where can I get a lot of seashells and other ocean crap like that?”

#

“You look like a kitschy seafood restaurant exploded all over you,” Rondeau said.

Marla examined herself in one of the long mirrors in the dressing room of Rondeau’s night club. It had been a strip club, once upon a time, and still had all the backstage facilities, though these days the only performers were DJs. She adjusted the bit of fishing net she wore as a cloak, and tugged the cascade of shell necklaces around so they didn’t drag quite so heavily on her neck. “That’s the look I’m going for,” she said. “You have to admit, the sword made from narwhal horn is pretty cool.” It was useless as a weapon, but the long, spiraling horn on a hilt hanging from her belt was a nice bit of flash.

“I still don’t see why I have to go,” Dr. Husch said, emerging from the bathroom. Even dressed in sailcloth, net, and shells, she managed to look regal. She had a wicked whip hanging from her belt, a scourge with ends tipped by fishhooks.

“I might need backup,” Marla said, “and the homunculus orderlies don’t listen to anyone but you.” She picked up two half-masks made of horseshoe crab shells, which, along with some drawn-on abstract tattoos, would serve to disguise their faces. Better if the original Mr. Vaughn didn’t recognize them while looking through his copy’s eyes.

Dr. Husch ran her finger along the top of a vanity, wrinkling her nose at the dust. “I don’t think this place has been cleaned since last time I was here.”

“You’ve been here before?” Rondeau said.

“When it was a burlesque house,” Husch said. “Once upon a time, Mr. Annemann owned this place. I… worked for him.”

Marla didn’t say anything. Husch had worked for him. Sort of.

“Wow, you were a dancer?” Rondeau said.

“It was a long time ago,” Husch said.

“I think we look suitably crazy and ocean-themed,” Marla said. “Let’s hit the bars.”

#

“Why do you think he’ll come here?” Husch said. They were in the back of an empty dive bar near the docks, sipping drinks and trying to ignore the smell of old beer and fish. Marla felt a little self-conscious in her sea-witch getup, and the mask cut her peripheral vision down more than she liked. The bartender clearly thought they were nuts, too, but image was important in situations like this.

“I started spreading the word that a priestess of Xorgotthua was in the area, planning the ritual that would raise the god, here to replace poor Mr. Vaughn.” She shrugged. “I said this was her hangout. If Vaughn’s copy is paying attention, he’ll hear word. And if he does come in, well, we’re kind of hard to miss.” Marla grinned. “In the meantime, girl talk. You know Rondeau likes you.”

Husch pursed her lips. “You don’t mean to tell me I should be flattered? I doubt he’s very discriminating in his tastes.”

“Rondeau usually likes body-pierced college girls with flexible attitudes toward morality,” Marla said. “You’re not his usual type, so sure, be flattered.”

“It’s been a long time since I’ve been interested in what men thought of me, Marla,” she said, looking at her levelly. “Given your position, I assume you know the… details of my origin. You can understand why I might be wary of men?”

Marla nodded. “Sure. Just making conversation. But Rondeau doesn’t know your origins — I promise — so you don’t have to worry so much about his expectations.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.”

“Speaking of men,” Marla said.

A young man in a t-shirt and swimming trunks came through the door, sunlight streaming in around him. He saw them in the back of the bar and started coming their way.

The bartender shouted at him. “Hold on, kid, I told you, you’re under age, you can’t come in here!” The kid gestured at the bartender and muttered a guttural incantation, and the bartender fell, eyes rolling back in his head.

“Well, well,” Marla said. “Reckless and unnecessary use of magic. This must be our zealot.”

“You!” he said, striding toward them. “You claim to worship Xorgotthua?” His hair was wet, and he had a large pimple on the side of his nose.

Marla sipped her beer before answering. “I claim nothing. I am the priestess of Xorgotthua, yes. And who are you, child?”
“I am no child. I am the reincarnation of Roger Vaughn himself!”

“Madness,” Marla said. “Vaughn has not been seen in a century. I have come, with my followers, to complete the work he began so long ago.” She gestured at him lazily. “Away with you. Enjoy your last days of life before the waters swallow you.”

He crouched by the table. “You don’t understand. I am Vaughn. I have pledge my life to Xorgotthua! How have I never heard of you and your followers?”

“We have lived in seclusion on an island,” Marla said. “Waiting for the stars to come right. That time is now. The sacrifices are prepared, and the god will rise tomorrow night.”

He frowned. “I’ve arranged a sacrifice. There are bombs, on a ferry bound for Bramble Island, and tomorrow — ”

Marla snorted. “The bombs were discovered, you fool, and removed. Did you think the secret ruler of this city would fail to check the ferries, so close to the centennial of Vaughn’s first sacrifice?”

The kid grimaced. “Marla Mason. Yes. I did not realize… I had heard she was effective. I should have been more careful. But surely I can still be of service — ”

Marla waved her hands. “It’s all arranged. The orphans have already been prepared.”

Dr. Husch’s eyes went wide, and she made a snorting noise, and after a moment Marla realized she was trying not to laugh. Dr. Husch, laughing — that would be something to see.

“Orphans?” the kid said.

Marla nodded. “Yes. Xorgotthua enjoys the taste of orphans. Something Vaughn would know very well.”

“Of course I know,” he said quickly. “I just… where did you get orphans?”

Marla turned her most withering glare on him, hoping the half-mask didn’t dim its power. “They’re orphans. The essential fact of orphans is that no one much misses them. Now, please, be gone. We are discussing preparations for the ceremony.”

Vaughn stood up. “I… please, Xorgotthua is my life… how can I serve?”

Marla sighed theatrically. “Very well. Vaughn, if that is your name. Come to the boardwalk tomorrow, before midnight. You may watch the great god rise with the rest of my followers. Perhaps Xorgotthua will choose to spare your life.”

“Thank you,” Vaughn’s copy said, and left the bar, looking punch-drunk and dazed.

“You’d better go check on the bartender, Doc, and make sure the kid didn’t kill him.” Marla cracked her knuckles. “We’re on for tomorrow.”

“Why didn’t you just have me summon the orderlies?” Husch said. “They could have seized him, and he would have been safely housed in the Blackwing Institute before nightfall!”

Marla shook her head. “Then him and the other Vaughn would just keep plotting and planning and probably causing me more trouble in ten or twenty or fifty or a hundred years, gods forbid I’m still around then. No, we need to put an end to this, or at least build in a long delay.” She opened her cell phone and called Rondeau. “Hey,” she said. “Send some of our pet policemen to check the Bramble Island ferries for bombs. Yes, I know, I don’t know why I didn’t think to check there. I guess I expected Vaughn’s copy to be more original. Make sure our people keep an eye on the copy, too, in case he decides to cover his bets by throwing firebombs at a yacht or something.” She closed the phone. “When they find the bombs, we can say it was terrorists, and get some of that sweet Homeland Security money. The mayor would totally owe me for that.”

“How nice for you. So what happens now?”

“Squid happens,” Marla said.

#

“Are the orderlies in place, Rondeau” Marla spoke into her phone.

“Yep.”

“And you talked to the Bay Witch?”

“Zufi says we’re good to go,” Rondeau replied.

“Good.” She hung up. Dr. Husch and a handful of Annemann’s homonculi — dressed in their own seashell-and-face-tattoo cultist disguises — stood on the boardwalk, by the railing, looking at the moonlit water. The air was cool, the tang of salt strong in the air. A good night for a ritual.

“The bay is really very pretty,” Dr. Husch said.

“It’s a good deep-water port,” Marla said, with her usual civic pride.

“I hope we aren’t mistaken about Mr. Vaughn, and the accuracy of his ideas,” Husch said. She swung her fishhook-tipped scourge idly over the railing. “I’d be very upset if a great sea god did rise tonight.”

“Eh,” Marla said. “The bombs were disabled, and I didn’t actually sacrifice any orphans. I wouldn’t worry about it. Even if Xorgotthua does exist, which he doesn’t, he’ll just slumber on.” She glanced at her cell phone. Five minutes to midnight. “I hope he shows.”

“I am here, priestess.”

Marla and Dr. Husch turned and saw Vaughn’s copy. He wore his own cape of net, woven with seaweed, and a ridiculous profusion of shell necklaces. His face had markings just like Marla’s… only his were real tattoos. Marla winced under her mask. Damn. That must have hurt. She felt bad for the kid who’d been possessed. He’d probably never get his body back, and if he did, he’d have to walk around with that stuff on his face.

“Good,” Marla said. “Then observe the water, where Xorgothhua will rise.”

They all bellied up to the rail. Nothing much happened; moonlight, wind, waves. Then, slowly, the sea began to bubble and roil, and after a moment something vast broke the surface out in the water, and great flailing tentacles, each over fifteen feet long, whipped into the air, flinging water. The “cultists” dropped to their knees, and after a moment’s hesitation, so did Vaughn’s copy.

“Great Xorgotthua!” Marla shouted, still standing, raising her arms overhead. “We come to welcome you!”

The squid rolled, revealing an eye the size of a dinner plate for a moment before slipping back under the water.

“Yes!” Marla shouted. “I understand, great one! We live to serve you!”

The squid sank beneath the waves, and the cultists rose.

“My people,” Marla said, her voice appropriately bleak. “Great Xorgotthua thanks us for the sacrifice, but says it is not yet time to rise. Xorgotthua wishes to wait until the ice caps have melted and the seas have risen to swallow the coastal lands. We are not to disturb its slumber until that time. We must keep the god’s sacraments and teach the next generation of followers.” She shook her head. “Our time will come. It only seems long, to our pitiful human minds. Another few centuries are but moments to great Xorgotthua.”

Vaughn’s copy remained kneeling when the others rose. He looked up at Marla, stricken. “I can wait,” he said. “I have no choice. I will wait. That glimpse of the god will sustain me through the centuries.”

Show ’em a few tentacles and they see a squamous god of the outer darkness, Marla though. “I have discovered something,” she said, placing a hand on the copy’s shoulder. “It seems Roger Vaughn did not die, as we all assumed. He is resting in a hospital, where all his needs are looked after. Would you like to meet him?”

“He — I — he lives? When I woke, I thought he must have died, but…” The copy stood up. “Yes. I’d like to see him very much. I wish to know what happened to my life in the past hundred years.”

“Perhaps you and the older Mr. Vaughn can await the return of Xorgotthua together,” Marla said. She nodded to Dr. Husch, who summoned her orderlies to lead Vaughn’s copy to the car.

#

“They bicker like an old couple,” Rondeau said, watching Vaughn — both Vaughns — on Dr. Husch’s closed-circuit television. The two mad sorcerers shared a new, larger suite of rooms in the Blackwing Institute, and spent most of their time arguing over fine points of Xorgotthuan theology. They might have had the same mind, once, but you can’t put one soul in two bodies without a little divergence.

“I’m just glad they’re locked up,” Marla said.

Rondeau nodded. “It was nice of you to bring all this stuff,” he said. Marla had loaded a truck with blankets, drugs, and food, donations from the sorcerers of the city. Marla had told the other sorcerers that Dr. Husch was the one who saved the city from destruction by a great ocean-dwelling deity inimical to human life, and had encouraged them to show their appreciation with material goods. They had. No one liked to contemplate the coming of great indifferent gods, and Marla hadn’t bothered to tell the sorcerers that Xorgotthua was imaginary.

“Where is Leda, anyway?” Marla said. “I thought she was coming back to the city with us.”

“Yep. I’m taking her to see one of those homemade robot demolition derbies,” Rondeau said. “It’s going to be awesome. She said she had to take care of something before we go, though.”

Marla rolled her eyes. She’d done her part to encourage Dr. Husch, but she doubted Rondeau would make it past one date with her.

Rondeau went back to watching the screen, snorting laughter as the two Vaughns argued about whose turn it was to clean the toilet. Marla went looking for Dr. Husch, and found her in a room at the end of a short hallway, sitting beside a hospital bed.

Marla stood in the doorway for a moment, then said “I don’t understand why you still tend him.”

Dr. Husch adjusted Mr. Annemann’s catheter. He was hooked up to a number of machines, his head wrapped almost entirely in a thick padding of bandages.

Marla cleared her throat. “I mean, when you consider…”

“The fact that he created me?” Dr. Husch said. “You might expect me to be grateful for that.”

Marla shifted uncomfortably. “But he created you to be his, well, his concubine, right?”

“I was created as his living sexual fantasy,” she said, covering Mr. Annemann with a blanket. “Yes. And he used me as such. I was the most sophisticated of his many homonculi, the only one capable of independent thought. At first, I appreciated his attention. Even when he sold me to the highest bidder as a courtesan, and later, when he had me dance in a burlesque house and sold me more prosaically in the alley behind the club, I felt he deserved to treat me any way he wished. But as time passed, I began to resent him, and to wish for my own life. The worst part was, I still loved him. He could be very kind, you know, and he loved discovery and knowledge more than anything, something I respected very much. And then one day, I began to wonder if perhaps Mr. Annemann made me love him. What if loving him was not a choice, but merely a spell he’d cast on me?” She stroked Annemann’s hand.

“That’s why you shot him?” Marla said. “Because you thought he’d cast a love spell on you?” The Felport archives had reports about the shooting, but not about the motives.

Dr. Husch bowed her head. “Yes. I thought he must be a monster, to cast such a spell. I thought I would kill him, and free myself. He did not die, but his brain was… severely harmed. Any spell he cast on me would have failed, then, after the damage I inflicted.” She looked up. “But I didn’t stop loving him. I realized the love was not the result of a spell at all, but a true feeling. And so I have been caring for him ever since. Someday, he will wake, and I will tell him I’m sorry. Perhaps then he will realize I am more than his creation, and he will see me as a woman, and his equal.”

Wishful thinking, Marla thought. “I’m not saying it was right to shoot him. But you probably never would have had your own life otherwise.”
“No one’s life is solely their own,” Dr. Husch said. “We are all bound by our devotions. Mr. Vaughn would understand that. I’m sure you do, too.”

Marla thought of her own tangled allegiances, the web of obligations that made protecting the city possible… but that was the point, wasn’t it? To protect Felport. She had devotions of her own, and couldn’t fault Dr. Husch for hers, however misguided they might be in Marla’s eyes.

“Thanks for all your help, Leda.”

“You can thank me by doubling my annual budget.”

Marla laughed. “I’ll see what I can do.”

————————-

(If you liked this, consider donating to my next crowdfunded Marla novel, Bride of Death.)

Stolen by Xmas

Wednesday, November 14th, 2012

On Monday I didn’t write. (We had the boy with us at work all day, since his school was closed, and though he was very good, it was still way more exhausting than usual, and I could not drag myself to my laptop in the evening.)

And while I did write on Tuesday, I didn’t work on the novel, so the word count hasn’t increased. My wife and I have a holiday story due for a certain podcast magazine, and we’d been trying various approaches to our central idea (which my wife created, and which is insanely clever), coming up with amusing scenes but never quite nailing it. Then, yesterday, while I was taking yet another stab at writing an opening, I found the perfect way in, and the story opened up and revealed itself to me in its entirety — in such a way that we can even use some of the material we’d written previously, which is nice. So: productive, but not novel-productive. That’s okay. I’ll take it.

In other literary news, I caught up on reading the most recent collections of Locke and Key by Hill & Rodriguez last night, since the final arc of the series launches today. It’s such a great series. And I’m enjoying Red Country by Joe Abercrombie, which finally appeared in my “hold” pile at the library. (He’s popular enough among reviewers at work that there wasn’t a spare copy for me to read pre-publication, and we’re trying to be frugal in preparation for the holidays so I didn’t run out and buy it when it came out. Waiting to read things is BRUTAL.)

Words and Pictures (Note: No Pictures Included)

Wednesday, October 10th, 2012

After a month of being lazy — er, that is, recharging creatively and refilling the wells of inspiration and suchlike — I have been writing again. Mostly working on a story called “The Fairy Library” which recently informed me it would like to be the start of a novel, please. I will finish a novelette version of it, though, for inclusion in my upcoming collection Antiquities and Tangibles. It’s about 10,000 words long already, and will need another five or six thousand words to be finished. It’s a rambling romantic oddball fantasy; basically the kind of story I most like to write, and do best.

I also wrote a review of Neal Barrett, Jr.’s Other Seasons for the Los Angeles Review of Books. Short form: Barrett’s an awesome short story writer with a crazy range, you oughta read him.

An interview with me will run in the November issue of Locus. I talk about The Constantine Affliction and Briarpatch and a bit about crowdfunding/self-publishing and a bit about other assorted things. I even got to do the traditional author photo shoot, which entailed standing on wobbly collapsing steps, leaning on a tree near some raccoon poop, falling off a wall (the scratches on my arm are nearly healed, thanks), getting spiderwebs in my hair, etc. The things I do for my art. Or, uh, the promotion of my art.

Kickstarter funded!

Wednesday, August 29th, 2012

My kickstarter for collection Antiquities and Tangibles has funded! (Not shocking, I know; it hit the goal a while back. But still, reasons for yay!)

I had 273 backers, plus two more who sent checks, for 275 total. By contrast, my kickstarter for Grim Tides last year had only 182 backers, plus five who sent checks, for a total of 187. Nearly 90 more this time!

Why? I suspect having a relatively low buy-in to get the e-book helped. For only $10, you actually get something useful and interesting! I personally don’t often have a ton of money to give to kickstarters, usually only $10-$20, so I like projects where I get something cool for not much money.

Then, once I hit the funding goal to do the Complete Stories e-book, I got a lot more $10 donors, presumably because that sounded like a pretty good deal to people.

I made more money from the Grim Tides kickstarter, but then, I asked for a lot more, too; I didn’t quite double my funding goal for that project, while this one got 442% funded. I also offered a lot more high-end backer rewards for Grim Tides, which was great — but which was also a lot more work on the fulfillment end. This project, by contrast, will be a lot less work to fulfill, since it doesn’t have limited editions and chapbooks and bookmarks and postcards and artwork and all the other stuff I had to create/commission/send out for Grim Tides: just books! (And a couple poems and one little single-copy story chapbook.)

So: I’d call this a success. Now I just have to write new stories and put the book(s) together.

The Couch of Transition

Tuesday, August 14th, 2012

After much thought I figured out a new stretch goal for my collection Kickstarter: if I hit $7,000, I will create a Complete Stories e-book, containing all my published short fiction (minus a couple of work-for-hire things; but if I own the rights, it’ll be in the book). Everyone who donates enough to get the collection e-book (a mere $10) will also get the Complete Stories. And at least for the foreseeable future, the Complete Stories will be available only to Kickstarter backers. It would be a ton of work, but I think the end result — more than 100 stories! — would be pretty cool, so I hope it happens.

***

This is my son’s last week at his preschool. In a mere two weeks, he starts his new life at public school. It’s kind of mind-blowing. He’s super excited, though. He doesn’t quite grasp the melancholy aspects, yet.

We bought a new couch this weekend (our old one had busted springs for two-thirds of its width, so using it was like sitting on a melting marshmallow), and it came disassembled in several enormous boxes, so I created a vast outdoor box palace for the kid, dubbed his “houseroom.” It’s so nice to make that kid happy.

***

I haven’t quite finished all my work for the year. I’ve got a short story to write, and an anthology to finish up, and a review I promised to write, all due on September 1 — but after that, I don’t have any particular writing responsibilities (besides putting together the new collection), so I might start writing a new book, Heirs of Grace, just for my own enjoyment. I’ll have my Thursdays free, now, with the kid in school, and I can’t spend all those hours napping or getting daytime drunk. (Or rather, I could, but I wouldn’t enjoy it as much after the first few times.) I even came up with a name for my main character, so, hell, that’s the hard part taken care of.

Impossible Dreams Film Live

Monday, August 6th, 2012

The short film adaptation of my story “Impossible Dreams,” directed by Shir Comay, is now available to view in its entirety! (In Hebrew, with English subtitles.) Take 22 minutes and enjoy. Previously seen only at film festivals, a couple of small screenings, and in my living room a few times.

Shir took my basic story and very much made it his own, but if you want to read my original version, it’s online at Wired.com.

Speaking of short stories, we now enter week two of the Kickstarter fundraiser for my next collection, Antiquities and Tangibles, which is doing better than I’d hoped. If you’d like to read the book when it comes out, $10 gets you the e-book.

I’ve finished writing a couple of stories in the past few weeks — “Snake and Mongoose” and “A Cloak of Many Worlds,” both related to the Marla Mason series. (The first is set immediately after Grim Tides, and the second is about some secondary characters in the series.) They were both written as prizes for Grim Tides Kickstarter donors, but fear not, they’ll be available in a future collection of Marla Mason stories. Which I’ve got nearly enough stories to fill, now.