Appreciation for Falling Stars a Must

We fell for each other.

Hard.

Like stars, it seemed.

Had I thought about falling stars then, how they’re just bits of space dust burning up as they hit the atmosphere, it likely would have taken some of the Zing! out of my romantic illusions.

But I didn’t think about it.

It was like we’d been made for each other, something I did let myself think even though I knew the cliché was only half true. I was as I’d always been. She, though, she’d been made for me.

By me.

It was a simple enough process. I’d designed every bit of her, filling in all the blanks and boxes on the Realationship™ site. And when I say design I don’t just mean the parts you might think. But everything. Down to the shape of her toes, the curve of her eyebrows.

I remember sitting at the keyboard, my fingers caressing the track pad, working my way through eye color and skin tone. Each drop down menu needed a carefully considered click, like a little nudge, a little push. Each choice opened a window to more, with all of them weighed against the ones that had come before.

And there’d been myself to consider as well–measuring my lips to match against hers, moving my hands in just the right way to see how they’d feel on the small of her back, following the prompts to upload my image so I could see how my brown eyes would reflect her blue. Finished, I’d just needed to click on all the agreements, debit my account, and wait for delivery.

The night I lost her, we lay in the back yard, a blanket between us and the ground. She rested her head on my arm, her blond hair threatening to make me sneeze as it tickled my nose. Our sweat had already begun to dry from the summer breeze, and if I moved my hand just a little I could trace the swell of her breast. It would have been perfect if we had seen a falling star then, but the cloudless sky yielded nothing but familiar constellations.

“What time is it?” she asked.

I’d designed her to disregard the tech she ran on. Occasionally, I’d hear a servo spin somewhere in her body, but if she ever heard the same, she ignored it. And so, though her operating system included a perfectly accurate internal clock, it was instinctive of her to ask me the time or to check the delicate watch I’d given her on our one-month anniversary.

She wasn’t wearing it now. Or anything else.

“Almost ten,” I said after raising my wrist and blocking out part of the sky for a moment.

She seemed to take a second to process the information, then sat up, leaving my right arm and whole right side suddenly cool as the night air touched the skin she’d just been pressed against. I smiled at the sight of her naked back.

“I’m leaving,” she said.

My smile faded.

“Leaving?” I asked, nonplussed. My turn to process.

“You,” she added.

Then she was up. Off the blanket and picking through the clothes scattered on the lawn.

“What do you mean?”

“What I said. I’m leaving you.”

Pythia – Part 2

Are you looking for Part 1? Click here to go back and read Part 1 of Barry King’s novella Pythia.


Deception is the way of serpents. In memory, I walk with the old Pythia. She tells me her name is Amantaeia. I give her the name Khalkis gave me: Spazakia. She snorts, finding it funny, but says nothing. We tread the steps of a hidden stair behind the temple. There are two points where the path seems to move on to the left, but she takes me down an animal track to the right, each time, and we find another hidden stair.

Reaching the crest of the ridge, she explains the need for such secrecy.

“Look down there, Spazakia. What do you see?”

I tell her. “The north road. It comes into the vale directly ahead. It would lead up here if it did not bend to the west and lead up to the sanctuary.”

“And down the slope? What do you see?”

“Trees. They are thick. They lean over a gully.”

“And in the gully?”

I squint against the harsh sunlight.

“Nothing. It is bare, like a dry stream.”

“It was never a stream. That way is cleared every winter, while we are in Eleusis, tending to the mystes there. Servants of this sanctuary keep it clear of all obstructions.”

“Why?”

“Look up there,” she says, and points to a crag above. I see that the top is levelled off and great stones, squarish, somewhat rounded, rest there. “If I was to go up there, and lever one of those stones off and into the gully, it would roll all the way to the road and down the road for several stades.”

“But that would kill anyone on the road!”

“Yes!” she says, grinning, and draws herself up with a look of vengeance in her eyes. “And if the road was filled with a thousand hoplites, neither bronze nor bone could stand.” Again I see the dramatic flair in her delivery, and realize that despite my horror at the idea, I can imagine myself breathless, watching the great unstoppable stones crashing out of the forest, bloodthirsty as charging elephants, tearing into serried ranks of men.

“Hundreds would perish,” she continued, “and they would be routed. Furthermore…” she says, pointing at spots below the forest canopy, “Men of brass and great engines would be released, and a vast horn would trumpet. It would seem as if the god himself were at war upon them. They would flee, and never return.”

“But…”

She lets her poise settle. “Deception, my little Spazakia. Deception has defended this sanctuary against the pillaging horde in the past, and it will again. How do you think we can live here at peace with half the world’s treasure in our vaults? The sanctuary is defended. Perhaps not by the god, but defended it is.”

“But it is a lie.”

“Is it? Is it any more a lie than a bit of doggerel that may kill a man as well as save him? More of a lie than the love of the god himself, who turns his lovers into bushes, or fountains, or mad things that no one will believe?”

I shiver at her words. Again, I see the distorted face, the pale eye of the monster that I fear I am. She speaks of me. Of my kind.

Quietly, almost like a concerned mother, she takes me in her arms. “Please, little Spazakia. Trust me in this. Do not strip us bare of our deceits. It will be the end of the sanctuary.”

I know she speaks for her family, for the priests, for the great wealth of Delphi. I pull myself out of her arms and look out on the plain below. I notice for the first time that the north road continues a ways, and joins an east-west road. The roads follow ridges, and the ridges converge on the sanctuary. She follows my eyes.

“Yes, you can see it only from up here. Those roads meet at the wound the god made in the earth on the fourth day of his life. It was there that the he forced his arrows into the navel of the earth. All the earth cracked around, and the dragon was pierced, and tore the ground around him. Since then, the dragon obeys. He speaks for the god.”

She turns, addresses me with her eyes cast down, her voice gentle, intimate as between two sisters. “Or so I am told. The dragon does not speak to me. I wonder if he speaks to anyone. I wonder if all our deceptions hide only a deeper deception. One that we have made for ourselves and have fallen for.”

I shudder, my arms prickling with gooseflesh. I also turn my face downward, unwilling to give her a glimpse of the dragon that may still linger in my eye. She leans in close, whispering in my ear.

“You know, girl, I have travelled and I have seen this with my own eyes: If you cross the sea towards the rising sun, you will come to another temple, far older, far greater, to the god’s sister. There is a navel there also, and all who dwell there say that is the true centre of the earth. And again, if you go south to the island of Crete, there is another navel to the earth where the god and his sister are holy and all who dwell there say that is the world’s centre. There are others. Many others. The earth must have many mothers to have so many navels!” She smiles at her jest, raises my face to look into hers. “So tell me, Spazakia, who is the real deceiver here? Would you be able to tell?”

I shake my head, as much to free it from her fingertips as to admit my ignorance.

“There is a reason the Oracle doesn’t interpret her own prophecies, girl. I hope you never have to learn that reason.”

But I have learned it all too soon. Sardis is burning.

I rage, shaking the bars of my tripod, trying to break it. I reach for the dragon, a thousand vicious claws at his throat. “You let me send Sheep-beard to Sardis, and now Sardis is burning!”

That was your choice.

“No!” I shout. The dozing mystia, who was waiting for me to speak, jumps up, her tablets and stylus clatter to the floor.

“Sister?” she cries out.

I do not know if I speak to her. Whatever comes from my mouth, she is frightened by it and runs out of the room.

“Do something!” I scream at a god who does not hear me. I beat the cage beneath me with my cracked hands. My hands, my arms are so thin, so wiry. In my imagination, I see Sheep-beard and his Oxana standing in the fire, calmly watching me as they are consumed like figures of melting gold withering into the coals. They dwindle to nothingness in my mind.

I reach out to the dragon again. My heart is full of vengeance. “Show them to me.”

But instead, I see the Mule-king’s bearded son, the new King of Kings, on a disc of gold, like the coins in Sheep-beard’s hand. He fires a great bow into the sky, piercing the sun. His promise of vengeance is terrible to feel. It ripples from horizon to horizon, echoing with the tramp of five million marching feet. Even the dragon is taken aback.

“Daughter?” It is Amantaeia. She is in a rumpled, hastily-donned gown. She approaches me, squats to look at me better. “Daughter, what is it?”

I try to form words, but I cannot get them to fit around the vast misshapen feeling in my chest. My mouth moves like a fish. “I killed him.”

“Killed? Who? How?”

“My step-father. I sent him to his death. With my words.”

Her face grows still, and a great sadness comes over her. With halting movements, she lifts me from the cage and holds me, but without warmth. I look up into the sad steel of her eye and I realize where her sorrow comes from. I return her cold embrace with my own chill. We have both spoken our heart in the name of the god, and felt the cold bite of our own venom.

I resolve then never to listen to my own prophecy. Never to winnow out meaning from the dragon’s words. I am the liar now. A woman deceiving the girl she once was.

Pythia – Part 1

The words of the god beat their fists on my teeth, my tongue tickles with the honey of them, but I will not speak these words of joy and hope for my enemy, the Lacedaemonian. I refuse them. I will not betray my mother, my promise, nor the years of my service by speaking them.

My face, the good side, is pressed to the hot brass bars, good eye closed against the stinging fume. The open cage swings in a gout of dragon-breath, suspended as it is from the crux of a tripod.

“Sister?” the young mystia asks, her voice muffled by the wet sash over her mouth. I hear her concern distantly—disconnected from meaning. It pulls me from the myriad cracks of time to the here and now, wakes me from my half-dream, from wandering the dragon-mind labyrinth.

I peek, squinting in the hot acrid air rising from below. She is bent forward, golden tassels in her headdress rippling in the updraft, lamplight quivering in watery motion. Her hands quiver also, the wax writing-board and stylus shaking in her delicate, pink hands. Hands that may one day be as grey as my own, cracked, the cracks limned by the ash of the dragon.

The dragon’s eyes close. The earth itself quivers as he breathes in… breathes out.

Speak. His voice is deep as chasms.

The verse bursts from me in a torrent of words. I gasp for breath after every line, each acid breath tears through the passages of my throat, burying its barbs within me. I dictate the words my enemy has waited long and travelled far to hear: By his hand, he will end the bitter feud which drove him from Lacedaemonia on the Laconian plain, the city we Euboeans call “Sparta”.

Tiavviastis of Laconia, be glad you tended
Your shining locks, for you have earned rewards
So long deserved. Go forth to conquer your foe;
Your name will be spoken in Attica for all the years
That stone shall prove mightier than rain

The dragon leaves me, and I abandon myself to silent tears. In the end, I have betrayed them all.

I am Pythia. A word with split meanings: a title and a place. It also means “I stink”. Thinking on this makes me smile. I do stink. Everywhere is the sulphur-smell of the dragon. In my clothes, in my hair. My poor hair. My once-dark, pitch-bright hair is grey, brittle, ragged. Uneven across my eyes. Moons of grey grime line my yellowed fingernails and moons of black ring my mouth and nostrils. I am burned and battered.

But I do not break.

Like water, I do not break, but flow.

A memory, Sheep-beard says to me “You can break a pot, not its water.” He clung to that thought, in exile, far from his beloved Sardis. I had broken an amphora that bright afternoon, trying to carry it despite my shaky knees. Spilled water roused the colour of sunlit stonework in the courtyard. Gentle vapour rose as he spoke.

I love the memory of his voice. Kindness and patience in that voice. But listen, Sheep-beard, if you can hear me: The sun is too bright. I cannot gather the water back. Can you?

But he was not thinking of me as I am now, spread wildly as I am. He was thinking of his city, and how his city was once-broken like my amphora, all its people flowing away, spilt water flowing across the baked Lydian landscape in the shattering that came with the Medan Mule’s iron shoes.

The serpents warned them, those men of Sardis, boiling out of the earth and across the battle-plain in anticipation of Cyrus the mule’s armies. Oh, yes. Serpents always warn, but their cloven tongues form split meanings. And the dragon, King of Serpents, betrayed old Croesus of Lydia; betrayed him to the “King of Kings”. There is a third King of Kings, now. Grandchild of Cyrus; grandchild of a mule, so no heir of his grandfather’s loins. Xerxes is indeed coming, with five million in his wake to wreck the walls of Athens.

My hand is trembling. I am flowing beyond the cracks of my own soul’s amphora. I reach out to the dragon in the depths of the earth. He slumbers: a chance for respite. I am tired, slipping away, draining out into the place where there is no gulf between yesterday and tomorrow, no space between myself and another….

No space between myself and the dragon. The dragon promised me payment in kind, after the duty is done. I think he has forgotten his promise….

Promises are to be kept; I dream of the girl that is my distant hometown, and how she slips through the cracks of Gaia to come to me still. She has not forgotten Spazakia, “little cracked-pot”. Every month she comes, to give me her cold, sweet kisses to my face and cleanses me of the ash, of the duty. I need only hold my shards together for a little more. It grows harder, month by month, and memory of past and future presses upon me like a leaden fist.

I let go, spill out of myself.

Beasts on the Shore of Light

Keith Suarez emerged from a long, dark tunnel and scuttled across the cardboard-brown regolith of 21 Lutetia toward the sun. His eight tiny feet dug into the grit as he moved at a steady clip over crumbly mounds and deep craters. Keith wasn’t alone on his journey; this was, after all, the vacation season. There were hundreds—thousands—of others pouring out of hidey-holes, crawling away from the cold murk of 21 Lutetia and hunkering down on the surface, their matte black chassis glistening in the radiance as they absorbed all the energy they would need for the rest of the year. If you were to see the mass-migration of artificial crustaceans from above, it would look like a potato infested with mites.

On his way to his little plot of land in the sun, Keith waved an amicable claw at work-mates in the throng and flashed a quick laser “hello” at passing acquaintances, but he never stopped—in part because the animal algorithms that controlled this trek urged him on, but also because he really didn’t have any friends here. This was all simply the Kafkian nightmare that paid the bills; or was it Cronenbergian? Never mind that he spent most of the time as a bug eating dirt and defecating nickel, iron, gold and platinum. This was not a life.

Suddenly, something caught his infrared attention and he turned his eyestalk to get a better view. Someone wasn’t headed for the sunside. They weren’t moving at all. Grudgingly, he overrode the impulse to migrate and made his way against the current of pushy crabs toward the fallen person. In another life, some twenty years ago, Keith had been a pretty decent software engineer (before that career morphed into something incomprehensible and he was forced to retire), so the management of 21 Lutetia had promoted him to maintenances, although his main duty remained to gorge himself on flavorless rocks and shit out precious metals.

He approached the crab sprawled in the shallow frost of a crater and shone a cautious “Do you need help?” light.

“No,” replied the crab in the cosmic ditch.

“Are you sure?” He could tell that six of her long, segmented legs were broken.

“Really, I’m fine. Please, don’t let me stop you from your migration. I’m sure you’re eager to get on with your holiday,” she said, with a faint Slavic tinge to the beam of her voice.

Keith tried to imagine her as a gorgeous blonde with blue almond-shaped eyes, but the reality, rendered in the stark contrast of the intense light of the sun and the utter darkness of the pit, was much too sharp for fantasizing. She looked like every other crab on this rock. He did notice her smooth carapace lacked the pockmarks and scuffs that, over time, gave them their distinctive exteriors. She was recently fabricated and new to all of this.

“Here.” He crawled the few inches into the hole and the temperature dropped to minus one hundred degrees Celsius. “Let me help you.” He examined each of her shattered appendages and repaired what he could on the spot. “How’d this happen, anyway?”

“I fell into this hole,” she said, annoyed.

Keith knew that, between the robustness of the exoskeleton’s design and the microgravity of the asteroid, the fall shouldn’t have caused any damage at all. Deciding not to press the issue, he simply said, “If you spend your holiday down here your batteries will run out and then you’ll be in real trouble.”

She didn’t protest as he awkwardly hefted her broad, flat frame onto his back. He became aware that, aside from registering her weight, he couldn’t feel her on top of him and for the first time in a long time the absence of tactility bothered him.

“Have you been here long?” She asked as he climbed over the lip of the crater and joined the others on their long march. “Your shell is very rough.”

“About five, six years, I’ve lost track of time.” He turned an eye backward to see her bobbing up and down on his wide armor. “Where are you from? You have a nice accent.”

“Kiev, Ukraine.”

“I was going to guess Russia.”

“And you’re American?”

“Yeah, my body is resting somewhere in Atlanta, Georgia.” There was a heavy silence for a moment and he instantly regretted drawing attention to their existential predicament. He let the surge of the others and the ancient biometric subroutines guide him over the dull terrain. There was something reassuring and primal in this parade. This was what life had always been about, since the Paleozoic; horseshoe crabs striving for the shore by the light of the moon.

Alchemist’s Alphabet

I didn’t realize what the building meant when I watched it go up. I didn’t know what a blast furnace was, or a converter. I didn’t care when the first plumes of smoke rose from its chimney. It wasn’t until the orders stopped that I realized my life had changed forever.

It started with the glow stones. People wanted oil lamps these days, and so I stopped enchanting glow stones. It was a small part of my business, not worth fretting over. Then it was the poultices, then the artificing. Then, finally, Alex came into my shop and opened my eyes.

I put down the scale I was cleaning as the door swung open.

“Alex, to what do I owe the pleasure?”

“Just thought I’d handle pickup this week, give the apprentice a break. You’re well, Alemnus?”

“As well as ever. I had a few steel orders dropped this week, but nothing too extraordinary.”

Alex pursed his lips, and I got the sense he was holding something back from me.

“Everything’s in order, I assume?” Alex said.

“See for yourself.” I pointed to the steel ingots stacked by the door. “Perfectly uniform, every one.” I might have been bragging, but I wasn’t exaggerating. A village wizard needed to know all branches of magic, but alchemy was my passion.

“Aye, looks good,” Alex said, though he’d barely glanced at them.

That was when I knew something was wrong. “Usual order for next month?”

“Actually, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about that. There won’t be an order next month.”

I must have heard wrong. “Excuse me?”

“I won’t need another shipment.”

A month of frustration poured from between my lips. First Ulrich, then Stefan, now this? Alex was my biggest customer.

“Who are you getting it from? Mendelus over in Greyspring? Because his work isn’t half what mine is, I assure you. If it’s cost–“

“It’s not Mendelus. It’s him.” Alex glanced out the window to the new building. “That Fletcher fellow.”

“The one with that glass contraption strapped to his face?”

“Aye, that’s the one.”

“You’ve been my customer for twelve years.”

“I know, Alemnus, that’s why I came myself. All the other smiths are buying from him, dropping their prices. I had to, to compete.”

“How much is he charging? I’ll match it.”

Alex leaned in, as if he were whispering some dirty secret. “Three marks a pound.”

I nearly gagged. That was impossible. I’d studied with the best alchemists at the academy, and my costs were twice that. There was no way, unless they had some new technique.

“Can you match that?” Alex asked. “Because if you can, frankly I have a mind to think you’ve been robbing me blind the last twelve years.”

“No, I can’t match it.” What else could I say?

“I’m sorry, Alemnus, take care of yourself.”

I nodded mutely, helping him load the steel into his wagon. The moment he was out of sight I locked up shop and went to see Fletcher.

Wings


Original painting by Candice Mancini

“Da? Da, look what I can do!”

I frowned at the monitor and the columns of numbers that refused to add up. “Not now, Becca. Da’s working.”

“Look, Da.”

I could try to ignore her and not get anything done, or indulge her for a minute and salvage the remainder of the afternoon. I turned around in my office chair, and my heart went cold.

My six-year old daughter pirouetted in mid-air, a flutter of wings between her shoulders where this morning there’d been only rose print pajamas and strawberry blonde curls. She smiled at me and spun again, arms outstretched. “I’m flying!”

“Yes, yes you are.” I tried to clear the anxiety clotted at the back of my throat; it wouldn’t budge. “Where did you, um, where did you find those?”

Aggie came in from the kitchen, saucer in one hand, dish towel in the other. “Here now, I told you to leave – oh!” She dropped the towel and saucer, the latter landing on the former, so no harm done to the dish at least.

Becca flew higher and rapped the ceiling with her knuckles. “Look, Mum!”

“I see.” The words trembled on Aggie’s lips. She lowered herself to the sofa and I joined her, putting a hand on her knee. Her words weren’t all that trembled. “I haven’t seen those since before Da and I got married.”

Our daughter flit close, hovering right above the floor. “Really? Are they yours?”

“Once upon a time, yes.” Aggie looked at me then, so wistful and sad it all but broke my heart. “Let’s have a closer look.”

There was enough of the mother voice to the request that Becca did as she was told, but not without: “You’re not going to take them, are you?”

Aggie answered before I could. “Not at all.” She motioned for Becca to turn around.

With both feet flat on the ground, Becca showed us her back. Uneven slits perhaps five inches long had been cut in her pajama top so the wings could poke through. A small part of my attention allowed that we would have a sit down about when, and on what, we used scissors, but not this moment. What mattered most was how the wings caught the blue of Aggie’s eyes, the blue of the summer sky over Niarbyl Bay, or perhaps the other way around.

Rabbitheart – Part 3


Looking for the beginning? Click here to go back and read Part 1 or Part 2 of Nicole Tanquary’s novella Rabbitheart


“And you said my ideas were stupid,” I muttered. We were walking side-by-side through the forest, with a host of not-vie around us. I couldn’t see them … they had covered themselves in some kind of blackish paint, which matched them perfectly to the shadows … but I could hear their breathing, and the clinking of their weapons.

Spiderhands clapped me on the back, grinning to himself. “Well, your ideas all tried to get One in trouble. This plan is about getting revenge for what Mama Salli did to the vie. It’s much more noble.”

I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, right, ’cause you’re the picture of nobility.” His night clothes had been scuffed up while running from the not-vie, not to mention filthy from lying in the dirt while I was explaining everything to Mestra. His Mother would probably cry if she saw him right now. The thought made my fingers clench. I couldn’t wait until I could remember my own Mother again. But Spiderhands … “Hey, Spiderhands. When you were talking to Mestra earlier, you said that later, Mestra could give me back my memories. But what about you? I thought you wanted the Ventine poison out just as much as I did.” This made him go quiet for awhile.

“Well … how do I put this. I guess I don’t really want to remember. I get a feeling that a lot of bad stuff happened to me when I was younger. I still have nightmares about it sometimes, when little pieces come back to me.” He shook his head. “I definitely don’t want all of it in my head again. That’d be too much to handle.”

Nightmares? I narrowed my eyes at him. How come he had never told me about this? Come to think of it, the circles under his eyes did seem a little darker than they should be. And his hair did seem a little thinner than other people’s. The nightmares could be stressing him out … then again, maybe it was just me. I wasn’t used to looking at him at night.

Acting on an impulse, I wrapped my arm around his waist and pulled him closer until our sides were touching. It felt natural, easy. Like breathing. “You can tell me these kinds of things more often, you know. I want to be there for you,” I said. Spiderhands smiled at me, then put one long arm around my shoulders. We had never been this close before, since it wasn’t allowed in the camps. The supervisors would probably have bitten our hands off if we tried. Now, though, I could feel the heat coming off of him in the cold night air. I could even smell his sweat. I knew that smell from when we mined together, but at that moment, it seemed a lot sweeter than it had before. A smoky kind of smell.

Things were quiet for a moment. Then I felt something crash into my back. There was a flash of blue-black hair, and then I was lifted off my feet and speeding along so fast that things started to blur. “Hey, lovebirds! You walk too slow!” said Tan.

“Rab? Where are- hey get off me I can walk just fine so you just put me down right now-” Bumping along on Tan’s back, I could see that a not-vie female had come up behind Spiderhands and had thrown him across her shoulder, and was keeping pace behind me and Tan. It seemed darker out here, in the trees, so I couldn’t see much of her. Just the gleam of her knives, and her chest, slick with war-paint.

“Aw, gross!” I said, feeling some of Tan’s paint rub off onto the front of my uniform. “And who are you calling lovebirds, anyways? We were just … just …”

“This is the way you miners use to get to the camp, right?” I glanced straight down at a bare path we had come across, a stretch of dirt pressed into stone by hundreds of footsteps, criss-crossed with tree roots.

“Yeah. Camp shouldn’t be too far away.” I felt Tan nod to himself, then motion a hand at the not-vie behind him as he disappeared back into the trees. Me and Spiderhands had warned him that the supervisors sometimes went hunting at night. They had to eat, too, and what they ate – besides miners who tried to run off – was small game like rabbits and squirrels. So the closer we got to the camp entrance, the slower and more cautious Tan became, until we were just barely creeping along, silent except for the occasional crinkle of a dry leaf and my own breathing.

Rabbitheart – Part 2


Miss Part 1? Click here to go back and read Part 1 of Nicole Tanquary’s novella Rabbitheart


The silence was what woke me up.

I had gotten used to sleeping with my thirty-or-so roommates over the years. A lot of them snored. Almost all of them tossed and turned, trying to find a comfortable spot on their mattresses (me included) … but even if every other noise was taken away, you could still hear thirty mouths breathing in, breathing out, filling the shack with warm, heavy air. Sometimes I thought I could even hear their hearts beating.

I blinked my eyes, disoriented. For a moment I thought that someone had stuffed poison into our room, and every women besides me had breathed it in and died – I couldn’t hear anyone, not even the snorers. Even more surprising was that there was no Gut standing over my head, banging on his piece of metal loud enough to raise the dead. No Gut yelling that we were behind in our quota. No Gut getting us out of bed for another day of work. So why had I woken?

“Gut?” I mumbled. I tried raising a hand to scrub at my eyes, but found that I couldn’t. They had been tied together with some heavy, greenish rope.

Then I remembered the blue eyes in the bush. The run. The cliff …

“So. You’re awake.” I rolled over to find the vie … the not-vie, I corrected myself, remembering the words that had been said just before I blacked out … sitting cross-legged in front of a yellow tree. The tree’s branches stretched above us to make a sort of makeshift ceiling. Curtains of shimmery green leaves hung off to my left, like the walls of a room. We were alone.

I dug my fingers into the loam beneath me, staring at the not-vie, not daring to blink. He had cleaned himself up while I was unconscious. He had changed his clothing, and his blue-black hair was combed and tied back. I felt a fierce pleasure when I saw that bandages had been wrapped around where I had bitten him. “It still hurts, you know,” he said, noticing my gaze. “You kept at it, even when I said we weren’t going to hurt you. The vie just want to ask you some questions, about the Ventine you’ve stolen. That’s all. So how come you bit me?”

My lip curled back in a silent snarl. He didn’t move, but stared coolly back, his head tilted to one side. I got the sense that he was studying me, in the same way I had been studying him.

Then I finally noticed Spiderhands. He lay on the ground a foot away from me, curled on his side. His wrists were bound, like mine, his long, stretched fingers balled into fists on the grass. I could see a spot of blood on his temple.

Finding my ankles unbound, I crawled to him and examined the spot. It looked as if something heavy had hit him. “Spiderhands, what happened? You were going to get away,” I whispered. Then I turned on the not-vie. “What did you do to him?” I spat.

“Calm down. He’s not dead,” said the not-vie, who’s name, I finally remembered, was Tan. He brushed blue-black hair out of his eyes. “When we got you under control, he came crawling back up the cliff, to save you, I guess. We didn’t know he was there; we figured he had fallen all the way down. Anyways, he grabbed my ankle and pulled me over the edge. You thieves are stronger than you look, as it turns out. Luckily, being what I am, I didn’t get hurt in the fall. Though I’m thinking you would’ve liked to have seen me die.” Tan smiled, and a shrug rolled through his shoulders. “The others didn’t like that I was attacked, of course. They got a hold of him and punched him out … poor guy. He’s gonna have one hell of a headache when he wakes up.”

“I’ll give you a frickin’ headache,” I shouted, and pushed myself to my feet. In an instant an arm was around my neck, in the same hold Tan had used on me. Except, this arm was much larger. I was forced to stand on my tiptoes to avoid hanging myself. A guard? I wondered.

Tan heaved himself up. “I know the vie have been anxious to go ahead with the interrogation. Since one of the thieves is awake, I think we can start. The other one will wake up eventually, right? And you,” he said, addressing me directly now. “It’d be a real hassle to have to carry you all the way to the meeting chamber. I’d rather you walk yourself there. So I don’t really want to have to tie your ankles together. However, if I need to, I will. Understand?”

The not-vie guard who had grabbed me eased off my windpipe, but didn’t take his arm away until I gasped out, “Fine.” Tan nodded his approval. Then he moved to where the unconscious Spiderhands lay and, in a fluent motion, slung him over one shoulder.

Fingers like sausages clapped down on my own shoulders, and began to steer me in the direction of the leaf curtain wall. A moment later I was pushed through.

The Colored Lens Interviews Larry Correia

Daniel: The Colored Lens focuses on Speculative Fiction: specifically stories that cause us to see the world a bit differently after reading. Your Monster Hunter series of books are definitely different. Your writing style seems rooted in a desire to create characters who act in ways that, were they in a book more representative of “high culture” commonly found in modern Western canon, would result in a very short book.

Larry: I have never been accused of high culture. I write to entertain people rather than win awards. I’ve been called a pulp throwback, but I’m pulp and proud.

Daniel: Your plots are gritty and, despite the presence of magic and monsters, grounded with a heavy dose of realism.

Larry: I am a huge fan of horror movies, however as a gun nut and self-defense instructor, when I watched them I had to check my brain at the door. Most monster or slasher movies would be over during the opening credits if the protagonists had a clue. My original goal with MHI was to write about my kind of people stuck into those big B movie situations.

Daniel: Maybe there just wouldn’t be much of a story if the group didn’t split up and get picked off by the evil monsters one by one, yet you seem to pull it off with ease.

Larry: In the movies when the monster shows up people scream, run, and get eaten. In real life, my kind of people would simply get out their shotgun and blast the thing. Problem solved. So I needed to come up with a way to have smart, tough, tactically minded people running up against the mystical forces of evil on a regular basis. So I made them contractors who killed monsters for profit. One reason I think readers have liked MHI so much is because the characters treat it like a job. They do this stuff for a living, so they don’t screw around.

Daniel: Sometimes I find myself screaming at a character in a book… maybe I take them too seriously… but really, I want to know why sometimes it seems like, for no other reason that plot development, why don’t characters just do things that make sense?

Larry: They always say “write what you know”, but sadly most writers don’t know jack about weapons or tactics, which is why you end up with urban fantasy action sequences that read as flat out absurd to anybody with a clue.

Daniel: Some literary snobs look down on your style of writing as “pulp” – junk food of the literary world. And in once sense, it is, not that there is anything wrong with that. We need twinkies and cheeze-puffs as much as we need foie gras and filet mignon. And in that same sense, it’s fantastic. Like a B-movie turned cult classic, people seem to revel in the style and latch on to characters much the same as they would a “high-brow” deeply meaningful work.

Larry: There is this idea out there that “serious” authors only write message fiction, which usually turns into some ham-fisted politically-motivated bloated nonsense. Then the literati elite get together and issue each other awards for how brilliant they are. Meanwhile, readers are just sick and tired of getting preached at and just want to be entertained.

One time on my blog, I made a joke list of bad message fic clichés that you should put into your novel if you want to win prestigious literary awards. You know, the usual nihilistic twaddle that English professors love; dying polar bears, drug abuse, nobody is allowed to be happy, man has destroyed the environment, some character better get raped, and the villain should either by a right wing dystopia or right wing religious fanatics (bonus points for both) or a thinly veiled version of Dick Cheney. Then it was pointed out to me that the winner of the prior year’s Hugo award met 7 of the 12 criteria. (and I hadn’t even read and didn’t know anything about that book!)

Meanwhile the number of people who read for entertainment is ever dwindling, but the literati elite just can’t seem to figure out why.

When I became one of the finalists for the Campbell Award for best new fantasy/sci-fi writer, I had critics freak out. I had one critic say that if I won the Campbell Award I would “end literature forever”. Though the best negative review I ever received from a snooty literati critic was when somebody pointed out that MHI had Lovecraftian elements, but that Larry Correia was no Lovecraft, but rather more of a modern Robert E. Howard… He meant it as an insult but I took it as a huge compliment.

Daniel: Through all of this, you’ve had books rank up into the top 25 on the NYT Best Seller list. To what do you attribute this success?

Larry: I want my readers to have fun and be entertained, so I try to write books that do that. When people have fun, they tell their friends.

Daniel: What goals to you seek to achieve when you set out to write a new series of novels? Besides bringing home a nice paycheck of course 😉

Larry: I do love me some royalty checks. I’m not one of those sensitive artiste types. I like to get paid.

When I do a new series it is usually because I’ve got a bunch of stories in my head that I want to share. I love world building and I love research. A new series is just a great way for me to expand out and tell the types of stories that don’t fit in one of my already existing worlds. I’ve got three going on right now, but plans for an additional two and a couple of stand-alones.

Daniel: You do a lot of table-top roleplaying in various worlds such as Dungeons and Dragons. Does this experience affect your storytelling?

Larry: I am a gamer, and right now my game group is made up of a bunch of novelists. We’ve got Hugo and Nebula nominated writers, an award winning poet, and if I count the dude that is moving to Germany, 3 Campbell finalists. So my game group is pretty dang good at story telling. I don’t know if that has any actual bearing on my writing (other than sucking up my free time) but I am enough of a dork that I still write game journal stuff that is basically glorified fan fiction for fun.

Daniel: Your first Grimnoir Chronicles book Hard Magic just came out in mass-market paperback. One can’t help but notice certain similarities between it and your Monster Hunter series: individuals with special abilities being used by the government for their own purposes.

Larry: I think that is mostly a result of me having worked as a contractor. 🙂

Daniel: Do these series share the same universe?

Larry: Nope. Totally separate.

Daniel: Give us a brief overview of this new world you’ve created, where, in an alternate history, magic reappears some time in the 1850s.

Larry: The Grimnoir Chronicles is a sort of alternative history/epic fantasy series. The timeline diverged from our own in the 1850s when a small section of the populace started displaying magical abilities. As time goes on, a growing percentage of the population becomes magically “active”, until by the 1930s about 1 in 100 has some form of power, and 1 in a 1000 is capable of really screwing with the laws of physics. The first book is Hard Magic, and it takes place in 1932.

The presence of magic has altered history quite a bit. As a history nerd this allowed me to really tweak a few things. I looked at how magical super powers would change things like war, art, culture, sports, even organized crime. It was also an excuse for me to read a four foot tall stack of history books.

So then I took that world and cloaked it in a sort of hardboiled-noir-action-pulp style. I went for Raymond Chandler writing the X-Men. The main character is an ex-con, war hero, bounty hunting P.I. named Jake Sullivan who gets roped into a case involving the Grimnoir. The Grimnoir are a sort of self-policing secret society that tries to protect people with magic from the world, and to protect the world from people with magic. Their main opponents are the magical Iron Guard of Imperial Japan.

This is the only book I’m aware of that features a teleporting magic ninja fight on top of a flaming pirate dirigible.

Daniel: Spellbound, book two in your dieselpunk series, continues on where Hard Magic left off, only now the members of the Grimnoir Society are being hunted, and Jake Sullivan once again finds himself in the midst of the adventure.

Larry: Spellbound was a ton of fun to write. I’m working on the 3rd book in the series now, Warbound.

Daniel: Monster Hunter Legion is slated to be available September 4th. Monster Hunter Alpha gave us some unique insights into Earl Harbinger and provided interesting back-story to the world you created in the first two books. Monster Hunter Legion will return to follow yourself… er, your main character Owen Zastava Pitt,

Larry: We’re both large, gun nut, accountants, but beyond that we’re really not very much alike at all. However, whenever a critic accuses me of creating a Mary Sue, I simply smile, nod, and say that particular Mary Sue has paid my house off.

Daniel: We find him at a Monster Hunter convention where, naturally, huge monsters attack and the fate of the world once again hangs in the balance. What other developments can we look forward to seeing in this newest book?

Larry: Legion gives me a chance to introduce rival monster hunters from around the world. A leftover from a WWI weapons experiment crawls out of the ground in Dugway which sparks a not-so-friendly competition between the various companies to see who can bag it first. Only the creature is a whole lot more dangerous than anyone suspects. It ties into the overall story of the first few books, plus it gave me an excuse to totally trash Las Vegas.

Daniel: Why Las Vegas? Is there only so much action that can take place with Owen et al. in the deep south?

Larry: The first two books were set primarily in Alabama, but Monster Hunter Alpha was set entirely in the upper peninsula of Michigan. The series will continue to bounce around to wherever I think sounds the most interesting, and that gives me an excuse to go on “research” trips that I can write off on my taxes. Come to think of it, I really should set a future novel on a cruise ship. 🙂

Daniel: Can you tell us any details of the much rumored TV deal?

Larry: Entertainment One, the same company that did the Walking Dead, optioned the rights to Monster Hunter. Right now they’ve got the rights, but I haven’t heard anything about it actually going into production. Hollywood is a strange place, and though it would be totally awesome to get a TV show, I have no idea if it will actually go into production or not.

Daniel: Joss Whedon to direct perhaps?

Larry: That would be great. However I’m hoping he takes all of his Avengers money and makes a new Firefly series.

Speaking of Joss Whedon, I’ve had a couple hundred emails from fans pointing out some similarities between the endings of MHI and MHV and something that happens in Avengers. Personally I think that was a coincidence, and that it was just something way too awesome not to do, and somebody else probably wrote that into a story long before I thought of it.

Daniel: How is it that a Combat Accountant / Author like yourself ends up inside a GI Joe comic book?

Larry: I’m a fan of the guy currently writing GI Joe. Chuck Dixon wrote the Punisher and Batman for a long time and I think he’s the best writer in comics (When you watch the new Batman movie this summer, Chuck’s the creator of Bane). I got to know Chuck on the internet and I gave him some gun advice. When he found out I was an accountant right when he had a storyline where GI Joe needed an accountant, Spreadsheet was born. Yes… Codenamed Spreadsheet.

So I am officially a GI Joe. 12 year old Larry Correia has now achieved all of his goals in life. (I also married a girl that looks just like the Baroness).

Daniel: Recently Apple has been accused of price-fixing. Amazon has long led the charge to discount E-books to prices that publishers say are unsustainable. You’ve partnered with Baen, a champion of DRM-free E-books in a variety of formats and available for almost every platform. It’s obvious that digital publishing has changed the world forever, but what do you see for the future?

Larry: The last few years have had so much change that it is hard to predict. People ask me all of the time about self-publishing, because that is how I got my start, but already only a few years later the way I did it is obsolete.

I do believe that Jim Baen got it right a long time ago though. DRM is annoying and stupid.

Daniel: Is there a balance where anyone can publish their own novel and yet the concept of digital-rights and copyright protection still exists?

Larry: As long as there is any kind of art, there will be pirates. I like to think that most people are honest and if given the chance to pay a reasonable price for something, they will. There are like fifty scumbag pirate sites ripping me off right now, but honestly most of the people who download thousands of free ebooks aren’t going to actually read them. They’re hoarders. Same as the dude with 100,000 illegal song downloads.

I work and produce a product, and decent people are going to pay for that product if they want it. Jerks will steal it. Same as anything else.

That said, the absolute last thing I want is the government to overreact. I’d much rather be ripped off by pirates than give the government some sort of Orwellian powers over the internet.

Daniel: I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your stunning success as an initially self-published author. Do you have any advice for budding authors seeking to have their own works published?

Larry: Regardless of how you go about getting published, the traditional way through agents and submissions, or through the eBook revolution, self-publishing, or whatever:

1. Practice until you are good enough that people will give you money for your stuff.

2. Find the people who will give you money for your stuff.

Read Larry Correia’s newest book Monster Hunter Legion, now available for download in eARC (electronic Advanced Reader Copy) format exclusively on BaenEBooks.com

Marie Eau-Claire: Parts 4 – 7

Click here to read parts 1-3 of Caroline Miller’s Marie Eau-Claire.


Part IV

Though Geraldine arose early the next morning, as was her habit, Steven had already left the apartment. There were no traces of any activity in the kitchen so she presumed he chose to have breakfast somewhere along the boulevard. She had the place to herself but felt uneasy. What were his plans for lunch? Would he be in or out?

Her morning routine stretched before her exactly as it had done for years, but the rooms she entered seemed empty, as if each was holding its breath until Steven’s return. Of course, she understood she was projecting her feelings upon the cream-colored walls, but they seemed to reflect her emotions with an unaccustomed intensity.

The hours wore on at a tedious pace, each second punctuated by the ticking of the mantel clock. For once, it came as a relief when it was time to collect the mail. It gave her something to do besides think about Steven. But the little box contained nothing of interest. Even the newspaper seemed filled with the same reports she’d read the day before. There was trouble in the Middle East, the economy was in a slump and the politicians were hurling accusations at one another as the coming elections approached. Each day’s turmoil seemed indistinguishable from the last. If one were to depend upon world affairs as evidence of time’s passage, she grumbled, one would be lost.

The hour of noon was approaching when Geraldine, having nodded off, was awakened by a rustle at the door. A key was turning in the lock and she heard voices, one male and the other female. Rising from the settee, she had just enough time to give her reflection a quick glance in the mirror over the mantel before she heard that dreadful nickname being called out.

“Hello, Gerry?” Enid’s voice entered the hall before her followed by Steven’s deeper tones. Soon after, the pair entered the parlor, the nephew carrying an armload of groceries. He greeted his great aunt cheerily then headed for the kitchen with his burden while Enid flopped down on the settee. Her lips twitched with her approval of the new man in residence but she said nothing, as if she expected Geraldine to crumple beside her like a giggling school girl.

Geraldine did nothing of the kind but slid into one of the overstuffed chairs, taking a moment to observe her friend’s apple green dress with its white piping at the collar. The color struck her as unbecoming but far worse, the garment was sleeveless and exposed Enid’s wrinkly arms. Though Geraldine’s appendages were smoother, she never made that mistake. No matter the weather, she always wore long sleeves or draped a silk scarf over her shoulders. How like Enid to be oblivious of her defects her friend thought.

It was true. Enid had no notion of the poor impression she was making and seemed all too eager to discuss the new arrival. She leaned toward Geraldine as if to share a secret.

“What a handsome young man this nephew of yours turns out to be, Gerry, and how wicked of you to keep him all to yourself… though I can’t blame you. I’d probably do the same thing…”
“I’m not keeping him to myself,” the dancer objected. ‘He’s just arrived…”
“Yes, yes. Never mind that,” Enid interrupted. “Tell me all about him. How old would you say he is? Twenty-four? Twenty-five? And, oh, what a gorgeous pair of dark eyes — so sad and melancholy, as if he were harboring a tragic secret, perhaps the loss of a great love. Women will absolutely swoon for him, I warn you.”

“Don’t be so silly, Enid.” Geraldine crossed one leg over the other and looked annoyed, though it troubled her that her friend had seen that same haunted look she’d observed from the outset. Was her relative hiding something, after all? Had he come to Paris for a reason but refused to tell her? She tried to distract her doubts by staring out the window. “He has an interesting face.” That was the only truth she was willing to concede.

Edith gasped. “‘An interesting face?’ Are you blind? He’s utterly gorgeous. Don’t pretend you haven’t noticed. I’m sorry, Gerry, but I can’t allow you to keep him to yourself. There’s a younger generation that must have a peek at him. You’ll soon see I’m right.

“Please, Enid, don’t take him under your wing…”

“Too late, darling, I’ve invited him to the theatre this evening…”

Geraldine said nothing but uttered a loud and prolonged sigh. Seeing that she’d ruffled feathers, her visitor spoke apologetically.

“I don’t see the harm in it. I met him outside the concierge’s offices and guessing who he was, I introduced myself. Why not? As we were both coming here, I had to make conversation. He’s very easy to talk to, more friendly than his brooding look might suggest. Handsome men are usually far too pleased with themselves to take notice of anyone else. But this darling nephew of yours…”

“I’ve decided to make omelets for lunch.” Steven stuck his head into the room, unaware that he’d been the topic of conversation. “I’m pretty good at it, so I hope you plan to stay, Enid. You won’t be disappointed.”

“Dear boy,” Enid purred, “I can’t imagine ever being disappointed with you.”

“Yes, well, the trouble is, I can’t find a frying pan. You do have one don’t you, Geraldine?” He cast an appealing glance in his great aunt’s direction. Disarmed by it, she sat for a moment, thinking.

Of course she had a frying pan. But where did she keep it? She hadn’t a clue. Ah yes… she remembered. “I think it’s in the pantry beside the cooking oils.”

“In the pantry?” Steven raised one eyebrow in disbelief. “That’s an odd place for it.” He didn’t wait for an explanation but hurried from the room as if making an omelet had something to do with preventing World War III.

Enid tossed a cat-like grin in her friend’s direction. “And he cooks, too.”