While you’re reading this, I’m either in the beautiful Hawkes Bay region of New Zealand onna break, or dead (I know which I’m hoping for!). The beauty of technology means I prepared this before I left, so I’m kinda talking to future you, from the past.
Sooo, while I’m visiting vinyards I thought it’d be a good opportunity to re-introduce one of the terrors of my life: The Red Queen. This week:
Finding a good book without being tricked;
Bloody murder (…of manuscripts); and
Your Tyche’s Crusade excerpt.
I’m about half-way through Godsgrave, and digging it. This week’s email’s brought to you by an old classic – The Chain, by Fleetwood Mac. Yes, I know I’m carbon dating myself a little here.
Let’s do it.
The Five-Star Review Economy
Any casual browser of the average digital marketplace will find two kinds of reviews: the 1-star, and the 5-star. The middle territory, which we’d expect to be populated by 2- to 4-star reviews, is surprisingly barren. Reading a book’s reviews on the Zon will suggest it’s either amazing, or total shit.
I’ve found life’s a bit more nuanced.
What we really need is a group of passionate people who love to read and spend time giving balanced reviews … and they exist. I touched based with Steph Warren, host of Bookshine and Readbows, for her picks of the best independent book coverage. I’ve salted the list with one or two of my own. Okay, just one, but it’s a good one.
Add these to your bookmarks. You will find books you never knew existed, with balanced, fair commentary on ’em. Me? I use these more than Amazon’s you-should-buy-this stuff these days. You also tend to get more insight into the authors, as bloggers like the people side of the writing a little more.
Bookshine and Readbows Steph’s been showing books since 2017, and favors comedic fantasy, other fantasy, and thrillers. She also has cats, which may or may not be related to the thrillers.
Aces High, Jokers Wild I’ve been following OE Tearmann since our interview. They’re an author as well as a reviewer. Lots of speculative fiction on the site, fantasy and sci-fi both. Warning: also has a furbaby.
The Beardy Book Blogger You need to go here, just to see the beard. It’s magnificent. If you like crime, thrillers, or the gritty seam between the two, you’ll find stuff here to like.
The Tattoed Book Geek The site has a bunch o’ content, but what might appeal to a busy person like you is the 200-words-or-less section. I’m sure you can work out what that means.
Zooloo’s Book Diary An excellent example of why you can’t have too much purple is right here. I like the wide range of book tastes – helps get out of a genre rut.
Sending a manuscript to her for editing fills me with crippling anxiety. How much bloody red ink will the marked up copy have? We’ve come to a middle ground of sorts: she still murders what I write with her pen, but Tiffany’s moved to a soothing purple color instead of Word’s default torrid red. Despite this, she’s still The Red Queen in my Outlook contacts.
Hey. It’s all about compromise.
Anyway. When people ask me who I use for an editor, I normally say a) editing’s a process, not a person, but b) give Tiffany a shout. So far John, Lawrence, Mary, and maybe even Saffron hit her up, which means I’m about #12 on the priority list. FML.
Since we’re on an interview roll from June, I thought it’d be fun to interview Tiffany, but with her writer hat on. Let’s see how this went, yeah?
Q: What made you want to get into the epic fantasy high-roller lifestyle?
A. Never thought I’d actually write epic fantasy. I first started out writing paranormal romance and thought that would be what I’d always write. I tried writing epic fantasy a few years ago but got bored. Same went for writing PNR. As much as I enjoy a good romance sometimes it felt like I was writing the same thing over and over again. And I also wrote urban fantasy for the past couple of years. Then I thought: what should I write next? It’s time for a change. So I took an idea from my old epic fantasy series and turned into my Rogues of Magic series. Now this my most favourite series I’ve ever written and is definitely going to be my longest.
Q: People on my list know you as The Red Queen. You copyedit pretty much everything I write – do you find it hard to switch between “author” and “death by red ink?”
A: Yes, we all know how much you fear the dreaded red ink, hence my title, lol. Contrary to what Richard believes, no one has died from my red ink! And he won’t either!
Yes, I do sometimes find it hard to switch between my author self and my editor self. As I work from home, it can be hard to switch off the editor and step away from doing other people’s work and turning to my own work. Especially if I’m editing and reading a particularly good book. So I usually have to tell myself to stop anything for awhile and switch my brain into writing mode.
If I can’t get into writing mode, I usually read part of what I’ve already written, or I just listen to what the voices in my head and see what they want me to write. I usually write all my first draft with good old-fashioned pen and paper too. I then write everything up with the help of trusty Dragon software – if it’s in the mood for writing and not snarling and hissing at me.
Q: You’re queen for a day, and insurgents try for the throne. Who’s attacking you, and who do you have by your side to defend the kingdom?
It will probably be characters attacking me from my rogues of magic series, giving how many people they have after them. I probably smother them to death with my red ink obviously! If I have to choose someone to fight beside me I would choose Ann, my main character from my Rogues of Magic series. With her fire power she can fend off anyone for me.
Last week, we saw met the threat to the throne: Seth Cleaver and his army of the faithful. What an asshole.
The story continues below…
Chad chose the cafe because no one went there. It had bad service, worse coffee, and the cakes on display were of questionable providence. The cafe’s big desire factor was its location: it was on the second level of a megaplex. It had a balcony overlooking a massive outdoor area. Chad used the balcony to survey a vertical slice of humanity.
The outdoor area would have been, during happier times, the kind of grassy square people could take their families. Brave trees still struggled from the dirt. Their leaves would have an ashy residue like everything else, but because it was night, that detail was blessedly hidden. The square no longer held happy families. Hawkers vied with relief tents. Buildings stood vigil on the other three sides of the square, gentle guardians with faces made of massive vid screens. Entertainment shows gleamed in the night, but without sound.
“This place is perfect.” Chad turned at Saveria’s voice. She carried a tray with two cups of coffee and what looked like a collection of cakes. Chad retained his natural suspicion about the food. He’d eaten here before.
“I know, right?” Chad swung back to the vista of humanity. “It’s perfect for getting the pulse of the people.”
“I meant, this particular place. The bad coffee drives everyone away.” She put the tray on a table, then ran fingers through her hair. “I can’t always keep their voices out of my head.”
“You get used to it.” Chad hunched at the guard rail, peering down. “We still on for tonight?”
“Yes, but I’d like to once again raise what a terrible idea it is.” She joined him at the rail, arms crossed. “Dating is weird enough without us double dating.” Saveria looked out over the crowd. “Hope and I are, uh, new at this.”
“You think the admiral and I know the rules?” Chad hooked thumbs into his belt.
“At least you’re both people.”
“So are you. Kinda.” Chad tried a smile. “Like, ninety percent.”
“I hope you die of the bad cancer.” She settled at the table.
He watched as she took a sip. Her whole face puckered. “It’s horrible, isn’t it?”
“Is it even coffee?” Saveria put the cup down like it was an unexploded mine. “How do they keep this place open without customers?”
“It’s coffee.” Chad slid into the seat opposite her. “Big Tony Benedicto.”
“The who now?” Saveria nibbled at a cake, making a face. “It looks good. Why doesn’t it taste good? I feel cake’s like pizza. No such thing as bad pizza, right? But this cake is,” she hunted for the right word, “majestically vile.”
“Big Tony Benedicto is a wannabe gangster. He launders money through here. I let him do that, on account of him feeding me information.” Chad explored the plate of cakes, selecting one that smelled like it might not be poisonous. “I think his sister is the head chef.”
“You let a gangster setup shop here?”
“I let a wannabe gangster setup shop here. Big Tony Benedicto is large in stature but small on follow-through.” Chad frowned. He felt something stir in the air. Emotion ran fingers down his back. It felt like yearning/yearning, but he didn’t have the Empress’s knack with intuiting feelings.
Saveria mistook his expression. “That one taste bad too?”
Chad put his cake down, moving to the railing. Below, there were still gazillions of people. Something’s amiss. Is this what Nate’s future-sense is like? “You see anything odd?”
Saveria joined him, terror-cake forgotten. She scanned the crowd. “There.” Her finger jabbed toward the ground. Chad followed the line of her arm, spying a group of people clotted about a man in a cassock.
A small distance away, a woman in a cassock held sermon with another huddle. Farther away, a young man barely out of his teens held his hands high, preaching to more. Everywhere Chad looked, people clustered around pastors. “The Church.”
“Looks that way.” Saveria’s voice was sourer than when she ate the cake. “I want to know how they got here so fast.”
“I want to know what they’re saying.” Chad squinted. The closest group was five hundred meters or so away. He couldn’t see obvious weapons, just a bunch of people listening like the rapture was about to come.
The giant vid screens flickered. The smiling, benevolent face of Seth Cleaver looked down on the crowd. “People of Earth.” He paused, shaking his head, expression saying he was displeased with himself. “No, that’s not right. Friends. Family. You’re a part of my flock.”
“Uh oh.” Saveria backed away from the railing.
Cleaver boomed on, no doubt unaware the Emperor’s spymaster and his protege watched. “Earlier today the Empire stormed my place of worship. The pirate Nathan Chevell and his harlot bride Grace Gushiken turned their blades on me and mine.”
The vid screens blanked. Cleaver’s face was replaced by cam footage of dropships descending on his Chapel. Cleaver spoke on. “This man tells you he wants an election, but it’s a sham. We know I’m leading in the polls. There is no doubt of who would win an honest election.” Cleaver’s voice grew warm and soft, gentle and kind, all while blood, war, and fury took place on the screens. “The Empire wants me dead so their rule can continue, unopposed.”
“That makes no sense,” said Saveria. “If that was the case, Nate … sorry, the Emperor wouldn’t have mentioned an election. I don’t think he wants the job.”
“He doesn’t, but he doesn’t want the Ezeroc ruling humanity. And that motherfucker,” Chad stabbed his finger at a vid screen, “is Ezeroc, haircut to boots. Besides, it doesn’t have to make sense. Humans don’t think these things through very well. Stir in some fear, a little conspiracy, and some well-edited cam footage and you’ve got yourself a media scandal.”
“You know what this means, right? It means our double-date is off tonight.” She pulled out her comm, already connecting to Hope, and by inference, Karkoski.
Chad left her to it, digging his own comm out. Nate answered right away. “What’s up, Chad?”
“You seen Cleaver’s broadcast?”
“No, Grace and I were—”
“Doing something less important,” Chad cut in. “I don’t want to be rude, but get your Helm, get your ass in the Tyche, and get off Earth. Don’t ask me why, and don’t stop to think about it.”
A gentle hiss of static came from the comm. “Are you okay?”
Chad bowed his head. When the danger’s closest, he doesn’t run. He wants to know if I’m okay. “I’m fine. Peachy, even. But Cleaver’s swirling up a mob. Minting ‘em from fear and lies. He’s got espers in the crowd, or just good liars. I can’t tell, but I reckon this is everywhere on Earth.”
“Wait one.” The sound of blaster fire came from the comm. “Okay, let’s say I believe you.”
Chad raised an eyebrow. “What just happened?”
“Empire’s Black broke in. Tried to shoot me and Grace.”
“That’s what I’m talking about.” Chad closed his eyes. Think. “Get off Earth and into orbit. You’ll be away from the worst of it. We can fix this, but not if you’re dead.”
“And what about you?”
Saveria huddled over her comm while she talked to Hope. “We’ll be fine, Nate. Really. But I’d consider it a personal favor if you could get the admiral out too.”
“It’s already done.”
“Nate…” Chad groped for the right thing to say. “Look, if you get Ellen out, this means we’re square about the raise.”
Nate’s laugh came through the comm, bright and clear. “Where I’m going, I’ll need the head of the admiralty. We’ll get Hope, too. I’ve done a quick headcount. Kohl and Algernon aren’t on the grounds.”
Chad looked at Cleaver’s face as it reappeared above him, a giant issuing benediction. “I’ll find ‘em.”
“Godspeed, Chad.” The comm clicked off.
The crowd below surged and seethed like a living carpet. He tapped the comm again, hoping he could make a connection. It took longer, but Algernon’s voice eventually came online. “Hello, sneaky meat sock.”
Chad thought about how to bring the construct up to speed. “I don’t have time to explain, but—”
“Seth Cleaver is raising a mob against the Empire. He’s using mass mind control, hysteria, and panic, all useful, proven tools for hacking meat sock minds.”
“Uh.” Chad closed his eyes for a moment. “How did you know?”
“Lucky guess. Allow me to brief you on other events. There is another coordinator-class construct. They have taken one of Kohl’s friends—”
“Kohl has friends?”
“They have taken Dizzy to Mercury. This is the home of my people. I’ve sent out a broadcast message to my kind. I’ve asked them to leave Earth, but also to burn out their radios. Their minds aren’t safe if someone like me would do them harm.”
Chad stared at the comm for a couple heartbeats. “I have many questions.”
“I don’t have a lot of answers. October Kohl is hurt, but I suspect it’s more pride than physical. Cams around the city show violent uprising. I fear the worst.”
“Huh.” Chad tapped his foot against the railing. “You ever broken out of prison before?”
* * *
Breaking out of prison was simple. You needed to jimmy a few locks, smile at the right people, pay off the wrong, and knock out a guard or two. In Chad’s view, Earth was basically the same, but done at a higher resolution.
Saveria padded at his side, a new cap pulled low. It’d been a gift from Hope and was done in surprisingly good taste despite being from an Engineer. It was black, with a wide brim. Saveria’s ponytail slipped out of the back.
They hurried through the megaplex, making for an express elevator a half klick away. The elevator would take them to an underground carpark, where an autotaxi waited for them. People took little notice of them as they hurried along. That’s right. We’re two more souls in a world gone mad.
People inside the megaplex were generally oblivious to what was going on outside, shopping at stores with meager post-war stock or drinking better coffee than Big Tony Benedicto sold. Chad spied a man in a cassock marking their movements. He touched Saveria’s elbow. She took in the cassock, nodded, and picked up speed.
No one waited by the elevator. Shoring up by the door, Chad palmed the controls. The panel chimed, showing the car was expected in a handful of seconds. He bounced from foot to foot. “I’m a spy. I spy on things. This is about to turn frontline.”
Saveria hunched, cap dipping like a bird’s beak. “We’ll get in the elevator, head down some floors, and out. We’ll be fine.”
The elevator chimed, the doors opening with a hiss. Chad glanced up, taking in a car filled with Church-cassocked cock thistles. The moment held as Chad realized they were here for him, and they realized Chad was right there.
One at the front, a big Friar Tuck-sized asshole, roared, “Get him!”
CHAD This only happens when I’m with you
SAVERIA Don’t be angry at me because your timing’s off
CHAD This is going in your performance review
Saveria drew her sidearm, pointing it at the elevator car’s ceiling. She fired, blue-white plasma fzzzt-cracking like a banshee’s fury. Burning panels rained into the car. It gave a lurch, then dropped from view in a screech of metal.
Chad peered into the elevator shaft. Above, a severed cable’s molten end glowed orange. The car waited a floor below, emergency brakes holding it from certain doom. He unholstered his own sidearm, firing into the shaft. He placed his shots carefully, aiming for the visible anchors. Plasma lit the shaft like a strobe. Six shots did the trick.
Metal groaned as the car dropped away, gathering speed as it went. Chad turned back to Saveria, just in time to see a Churchwoman tackle her. Both fell into the shaft. Chad would have followed, but he had his own problems. A stocky man wearing a terrible mustard-colored shirt rushed him, brandishing a short piece of metal that might once have been the handle of a mop. No Church cassock, but maybe he’s on a break.
Chad drew his sword with a hiss of steel, blocking the man’s panicked swing. His rapier chimed, the hilt shivering in his hand. The man swung again like he was possessed by demons. The rapier needled his torso, red spots blooming through the terrible yellow dawn of his shirt. It didn’t slow the stocky guy at all. Face twisted in rage, he swung, the mop handle trying to find an opening. Chad backed up until his heel found the edge of the shaft. Air whistled at his rear.
Fuck all this. Chad flourished his steel, disarmed the man in a flash of metal, then kicked him in the groin as the mop handle clanged to the tiled floor. The man curled around his pain. Chad helped him on by slugging him across the jaw with his rapier’s finger guard, dropping him to an ugly yellow and red pile.
“That’s a tragic shirt to die in.” Saveria appeared as if conjured from air. Her cap was missing but she was otherwise intact.
“That’s what I thought.” Chad looked from her to the shaft, then back to her. “You good?”
“I’m good. Landed on a strut and jumped back up here. Don’t know what happened to my attacker.” She straightened her jacket.
“This guy,” Chad nudged the body at his feet, “isn’t wearing Church colors.”
“Maybe he’s on a break.”
“Snap! That’s what I thought at first, but… I think he’s under remote control.” Chad turned the body over, checking the wrists. “No anti-esper bracelet.”
“He made a lot of bad choices this morning, then.” Saveria scanned the crowd forming in front of them. “We should get moving.”
“We can’t go down.” Chad eyed the ceiling. “I don’t like the idea of the roof. No way out.”
“We could call Kohl and Algernon.”
“No.” Chad shook his head. “We’re rescuing them. If they rescue us, Kohl will never let us live it down.”
“Let you live it down, you mean. I’m still in training. I never did get that field promotion.” Saveria shrugged. “The other option is we cut our way out of here, killing hundreds of innocents. I’m done with that.” She looked away.
Chad nodded. “Me too. Let’s get Algernon back on the line while we get to higher ground. Moving might prevent us being brutally murdered quite so soon.”
“This isn’t much of a prison break.”
“Wrong. This is an epic prison break. C’mon.” Chad shared a smile with her. He’d never been one for trust back in the day. Kazuo kept them at each other’s throats. Turns out all he needed was a person as damaged as him. Half human, half machine, Saveria was the partner in crime he didn’t know he needed. “How about we do some spying for a change?”
Nate keyed his comm. “El? I need you.”
Her sleep-or-was-it-the-alcohol-fuzzed voice came back in mere seconds. “You’re married, and I’m not drunk enough for a booty call.” Alcohol it is, then.
Grace raised an eyebrow along with a quirk of her lips. She held position by the door, naked steel glinting in the gloom. They’d elected to leave the lights off while dressing for a rapid evac of the palace grounds. No sense in drawing attention. She called, “Are you too drunk to fly?”
“Is this some weird threesome thing?” El paused. “Hang on. Grace said ‘fly’ and you’re calling me in the middle of the night.”
“It’s ten. Our bedtimes come earlier as we age,” Nate said. “Here’s what’s going on. The palace is overrun by insurgents. It feels like everyone’s trying to kill us, excepting those who aren’t, but they’re all wearing the same team colors. We’re getting Karkoski, Hope, and then leaving. We need you.”
“If I couldn’t fly, would you just leave me here to die?”
“Quite likely,” Nate said. “You sobering up yet?”
“It’d take more alcohol than exists on this rock to make me too drunk to fly. See you in ten.” The comm clicked off.
Nate strode toward Grace. His black blade hung in a scabbard on his hip, a sidearm holstered on the other side. He wore an armor jacket more out of habit than need. Grace donned an all-black ensemble, the only visible skin her face. He was amazed she’d chosen him and winced every time he figured choice might get her dead. Quit your whining. She’d take Cleaver without breaking a sweat. “You ready?”
“You’re nervous.” She touched his cheek with a gloved hand. “Don’t be. We’ve got this.”
“We have to get out of here without killing any of the mind-controlled thralls of Seth Cleaver. It’s tricky to not harm people when they’re intent on your murder.”
“Which is why we’re leaving. Your plan is to get us away, so Cleaver can’t hurt more people. We find him, then clean his clock.”
“It sounded easier when I said it,” Nate admitted. “It’s possible some folks turned simply because they don’t like me.”
“That’s because you can be the most annoying man in the universe. You do unexpected things, like trying to keep the followers of your enemy alive.” Grace opened the door a crack. Light crept in, shadowed by the smell of burning plastic. “Let’s go.”
He followed her into the well-lit corridor. The palace was huge, its hallways built at massive scale. There were supposed to be guards most everywhere, but not a soul stood outside. Grace led on, prowling like a hunting cat. The light seemed to wash off her, the black material flowing like a second skin. Hell, she manages to make skulking look legendary. Nate hurried after, doing his level best to not clank, rattle, or creak.
The sound of blaster fire came to him, but faint. A scream, caught short. He didn’t know who died, but he was certain they’d given their life for the wrong reasons. No one deserves to fall so another can sit on a fancy chair.
They reached an antechamber. Nate wasn’t clear on its particular purpose. It held five doorways, one of which they’d entered through. Next to a short bench sat a table with a flower arrangement, perhaps waiting for a weary civil servant to abide a spell.
A blood-curdling yell came from a doorway. Nate spun, taking in a man coming around a corner. He ran like the devil was after him. Behind him, a man in a cassock rounded the corner, leveling a plasma rifle. Blue-white fire tore the runner apart in a shower of burning body parts.
Nate, never one to make himself an easy target, hustled to the side. He took cover against the wall. Grace hunkered opposite him, eyes hard, waiting. Nate drew his sidearm.
Step out two strides.
Raise your weapon.
Fire, then take one more step.
He rose, walking around the corner. Two paces took him off center, blue-white fire slashing the air where he’d been. He aimed his sidearm, the weapon flashing an angry response. The Churchgoer’s body exploded into flame, rifle falling to the floor. Nate took another step, his enemy’s weapon discharging into the space where he’d stood.
“I will never understand how you do that.” Grace swept past him, jogging around the burning remains of the runner and their enemy both.
“I can see the future. I’ve told you before.” Nate shrugged, holstering his sidearm. “Not my fault you can’t do it.”
“I can do it!” She shook her head. “I just can’t do it that well.”
“You can create shields with your mind. You’ve held a starship from falling into a gravity well. Saveria taught you her latest trick of using your mind like a razor, or bulldozer, cutting body parts without the need for steel.” Nate followed, trying not to look at the burning remains on the floor. “You can send yourself better than anyone, and make shadow clones. You can read minds, intuit emotions, and for all I know speak the language of beasts. Can’t you let me have this one damn thing?”
“It irks me because I’ll never win at cards against you.” She paused, hand raised as she peeked around a corner. “No one here.”
“You’d never win at cards anyway.” He strode past her, trying for a little swagger. For all his future-sense kept him alive, it was terrible for long-range planning. It supplied vague, not-very-useful hints, more feelings than anything. “Let’s get to Hope.”
Hope was guesting with them. She’d been going out on an experimental date with Saveria, Chad, and Karkoski. It kept her away from the Guild Hall tonight, and Nate counted that a blessing.
It’s not enough to run. You’ve got to run the right way.
Nate froze. That time, future-sense felt different. A warning, at scale. Grace padded on a few more steps, then turned to him.
GRACE Did you feel that?
NATE Something’s coming
He broke into a run. No time for finesse, not a moment for swagger. Pure adrenalin, metal leg boosting him along better than his flesh and blood one. He rounded a corner, coming face to face with a woman in an Emperor’s Black uniform. Her face was twisted into a snarl, her carbine rising toward him. Nate didn’t slow, cannoning through her, gold fist doing all the talking that was needed. She fell, two of her teeth clattering free on the marble floor.
A door ahead opened, a palace servant charging through with a metal tray raised high. Grace danced up the wall, dodging the wild swing, tray catching nothing but the light. She came down with a dragon punch, knocking the hapless man to stretch his full length along the ground.
The door to Hope’s room lay ahead. It hung broken, charred fragments of wood still smoking. Nate entered at a run, sword clearing its scabbard. Someone’s fixing to harm your Hope. Entering her room revealed the bed, rumbled but empty of humans, blaster burns through the sheets. On the floor, Karkoski in fine dress clothes and a jacket wrestled a man in a cassock. Hope backed away from a woman with a knife in each hand. She didn’t have her rig; she was clothed in white, perhaps a new fashion from Venus, underneath a clear plastic jacket. The lights flickered above all, a crazed rhythm faster than the beat of Nate’s heart.
The black blade hungered free. Nate’s golden fingers held the hilt, tossing it to spin a deadly cartwheel. It caught the woman with the knives in the side, the force of the throw tearing her from the ground and slamming her into the wall. The blade pinned her body there, hilt thrumming.
Grace jumped a low divan as Karkoski kicked the man atop her clear. He came up, drawing a blaster. The weapon’s muzzle hunted for a target, swinging to Hope.
Nate’s sidearm cleared his holster, but Grace was faster. She flung her arm out, screaming, “No!”
The man was torn apart by the force of her will. Red mist sprayed the far wall, blaster battery exploding in a shower of blue-white sparks. The wall behind the man crumpled, stone and ceramicrete bulging as if a god’s fist slammed it.
Silence. Hope’s wide eyes. Karkoski’s grimace. Grace’s teeth, bared like a lioness. Nate’s black blade, blood slicking down the thirsty steel to trickle off the hilt.
“Jesus H. Christ,” said Karkoski. “You sure you hit him hard enough?” She rose, wincing and favoring her left side.
“No,” admitted Grace. “I wasn’t quite sure how that would work at range. Saveria and I are…” She shook her head. “She is master and student both.”
“Uh huh.” Karkoski went to Hope. “You good?”
“Um.” Hope’s eyes were still wide.
Nate went to his sword, curling golden fingers about the hilt. A tug, and it came free, body sliding to the floor. He turned to the door, anger curling inside him like bottled smoke. “I feel like we need an accounting.”
“Cleaver’s throat’s too far away to choke,” said Karkoski. “I’ve got a starship in orbit. Let’s go.”
Nate nodded. “Hope?”
“Um. What’s going on?”
“Mutiny. Insurrection. Devils and angels, warring above. A thin line stands between humanity and our extinction. Gods coming home, and the righteous burning false idols.” Nate closed his eyes. “They’re not our gods, though. We’ll bring our own.” When he opened his eyes, he found everyone staring at him. “Something I said?”
“What he means,” Grace walked to the door, checking outside, “is Seth Cleaver’s corrupting the minds of citizens, either with esper powers or good ol’ fashioned fear.”
“Okay. We should go.” Hope hustled to a cupboard, stepping gingerly around a pool of blood as she did so. From inside the cupboard she retrieved a small rectangle. Turning it on, it articulated out insect-like legs, clambering up her body and folding out into her rig. The visor lapped into place. “I’m good to go, Cap.”
“Then we fly.” He turned on his heel, making the corridor. Nate set a brisk pace, because if insurgents were in the inner sanctum, the Black were lost, the guard fallen, and all bets were off. They passed bodies aplenty. There was no telling on whose side they fought unless one wore a Church cassock.
They made it as far as the grand ballroom before anyone else did something dickish. Entering the huge doors, Nate found a group of people inside. There was a huddle of folk on the ground, perhaps twenty souls, and a larger group of more than forty standing guard.
The guards held blasters of various types. The captives held bruises and broken limbs. One was missing an arm, the charred stump showing the how if not the why of it.
A young man on the floor spied them. Hope bloomed on his face, and he made to rise. A captor, unsure how the winds changed but unhappy with their new course, gunned him down in a fusillade of hot blue-white fire.
“Hold!” Nate stalked forward. All eyes turned on him. He heard a small um from Hope behind him, but payed it no mind. “Seems folk are bent on hurting each other, either in my name or someone else’s. There’s no call for that. Put down your arms. Election’s not far away.”
“Die, Empire scum!” screamed a woman holding a carbine. She swung her blaster toward Nate before her torso exploded into roiling fire. Surprised, Nate glanced down at his golden hand, holding his blaster like it’d been there all the time.
“You’re outnumbered, Chevell.” A cassocked man with three-day stubble sneered. “It’s time for you and all your kind to burn in the holy fires of retribution.”
“A small point of order.” Nate put a smile on, though his heart wasn’t in it. “It’s Emperor Chevell.”
“I don’t bow to the likes of you.”
“You don’t look like you wash, either, so let’s agree your judgment’s not great.” Nate put a little swagger into his stride, drawing closer. “You’ve got forty seconds to lay down arms.”
“Take us less time than that to kill you.” Three-day-stubble glanced around for support, found it in the menacing eyes of his comrades, and took a step forward. “Why don’t we end it here?”
Nate held up a hand. “One moment.” He checked the time on his personal comm, nodded, and pocketed the device. “You want to gun me down?”
“I want to kill—”
“A simple yes or no.” Nate nodded, encouraging.
“Uh. I mean, yes.”
“Great.” Nate strolled toward the group of prisoners. “Why not kill us all?”
“Wait, what?” A woman on the floor looked panicked, like this wasn’t what she expected from her Emperor.
“I mean, put all the people who love the Empire on this side,” Nate walked toward the wall, arms wide, “and the rest of you over there.”
“I was wrong about you.” Three-day-stubble gave a grudging nod. “I thought you were a coward, but I’ll give you your hero’s funeral. You’ve earned it.”
Grace joined Nate. “You know I trust you with my life, right? Except, I’d like to know the plan.”
He turned his smile up into the megawatt range. “The plan is, all Team Empire’s with me.” He unsheathed his blade, laying it on the cold marble, then tossed his blaster after. “The rest will burn in hell.”
Grace looked at his sword, blaster, then back to him. “You do have a plan, right?”
NATE Trust me
GRACE No one in the history of ever has increased trust on hearing those two words
Despite that, she tossed her steel beside his. Karkoski joined them, looking like this had better be the best fucking joke or someone was gonna pay. Hope trailed after, visor not hiding her confusion. In ones and twos, people got from the floor to join Nate by the wall.
He let them walk behind him. Standing at the front of the group of prisoners, they faced their forty-something-strong firing squad. Nate straightened his jacket, meeting Three-day-stubble’s eyes. “Last chance.”
“We’ll pray for you.” The man shouldered his plasma rifle. Like a wave, his comrades did too.
Nate retrieved his personal comm from his pocket. “Wait!” He checked the time. “Sorry. We’re good. After you.”
Three-day-stubble glanced to the woman at his right, shrugged, then said, “On three.”
Behind Nate, an older man said, “I’ve lived a long time, sire. I admit I don’t yet feel ready to die, but I won’t kneel for them.”
A woman crept up to Grace’s side. “Empress.” Her eyes found the floor. “Thank you for not letting us die alone.”
The windows behind the firing squad ruptured inward. Glass blew inside in a thousand shards of deadly hail. Nate squinted, golden hand up in front of his face. Shards rained on their location, tinkling against the faint shimmer of Grace’s mind-shield.
The roar of the Tyche filled the ballroom, the starship thunderous outside. Massive, brilliant lamps used to push back the hard black shone like suns. Air swirled, pulling at Grace’s hair. Nate spied El through the flight deck windows. She spared him a glance and a quick one-handed salute, her own golden hand catching the light and tossing it back.
Three-day-stubble roared, swinging his rifle toward the starship. He vanished into red mist as the scream of PDCs shook the room. Tungsten rained, fragments of marble, tables, and chairs swirled like flotsam.
Nate covered his ears. The Tyche’s rage at those that threatened her crew made him feel small, tiny, an insignificant mortal at the feet of a goddess. It lasted only seconds, then the PDCs settled to stillness with a whine and a clank.
The starship settled her skids on the ballroom floor, sinking through the marble and into the ceramicrete beneath with a crunch. El’s voice, booming like the goddess herself, came through the ship’s external PA. “You folks need a ride?”
“Aye, Helm.” Nate poked a finger in his ear. No sense wondering if your hearing’s damaged. You’re alive, by the grace of a goddess.
“That was your plan?” Karkoski rounded on him. “What if El was late? What if she couldn’t find you?”
“Admiral.” Nate jerked his head toward Team Empire, who were running the full range of emotions from surprise to elation. He walked to his ship, reaching a hand up to touch her flank. “The Tyche’s my ship. She’ll come across the hard black for me and mine. Her Helm’s the best there is or has ever been.” He offered her a smile. “This is what I do.”
“You do lucky?” Karkoski’s voice rose an octave.
“Pretty much.” Grace sidled past her. “You coming? We’ve got a universe to save.” Hope jogged in her wake.
“I will to the day I die wonder what I created, putting you on the throne.” Karkoski walked toward the Tyche’s waiting cargo bay ramp. She paused, glancing back at Nate, then the people behind him. “I think I did the right thing.”
“Don’t break out the champagne yet.” Nate broke into a brisk stride. “We need to get in the air. There’s a storm coming.”
* * *
The acceleration couch’s straps held Nate like an old friend. A slightly uncomfortable, clingy, yet strong old friend. Nate sat in the co-pilot’s chair, El across from him. Hope was in Engineering, while Grace and Karkoski traded looks in the ready room. I wish I’d never left this. I was supposed to captain a small ship in the hard black.
San Francisco lay beneath them. He wished he could say it sparkled like the night sky above, but there weren’t enough lights back in the city to do that, and the ash in the atmosphere clouded things some.
The ship grumbled up on Endless fields. El tapped her console with golden fingers, her flesh and blood hand on the yoke. “Where to?”
Nate jabbed a finger out across the bay. “That way. Not up. There are two reason for that. Above us, starships are gunning for each other.”
“Sounds bad,” El agreed, bringing the Tyche’s nose to bear on the water. It lay flat, dark like obsidian. “What’s your other boggle?”
“They’re launching nukes at us.” Nate shrugged. “Or, they will soon. We need to take ourselves out there, so when they miss us, on account of you being the best Helm that ever flew, those weapons hit water instead of people.”
“How do you know that?” El nudged the throttle. The Tyche’s drives rose to a savage growl.
Thrust pressed Nate onto his chair. “I can see the future.” He held up his hand. “Grace felt it too.”
“Your whole deal was to get me out of a perfectly good bar so I could be a target?”
“My whole deal was to get you into orbit, because we’re going after Seth Cleaver.” Nate wheezed as thrust passed 4Gs, the ship trembling as they punched atmosphere aside.
“We need to talk about not rushing toward evil overlords who corrupt the minds of all humans everywhere.” She scratched metal fingers under her anti-Ezeroc bracelet. “How’s he getting through? Most everyone’s got one of these.”
“I’ve a theory or two. My best guess is, he’s broken them somehow.” Nate tapped his own console, pulling up the comm. “Algernon?”
“Everything is dire.”
“Good talk. How hard would it be to make nanites that attack the anti-esper bracelets, rendering them useless?”
“Difficult. I provided the admiralty a briefing on this possibility. You would need a sufficiently advanced crystal mind to complete the programming of the nanites…” He trailed off.
Nate tapped the console. “Hello?”
“Hello, Captain. There’s been an important development! It’s quite exciting. When I briefed the admiralty, I suggested the odds of subverting the bracelets was low.”
“Because all the crystal minds are on our side.”
“They were on our side.”
“Hah,” Nate said.
“Hah,” Algernon agreed. “Earlier this evening we encountered another such intelligence. One like me. The good news is, without the ciphers, it will still be difficult.”
“Ciphers?” Nate glimpsed the contrail of a missile above. “I’ll call you back.” He dropped the comm, trying to avoid El’s glare. After a moment, he sighed. “Out with it.”
“There’s another one? The last rogue AI cut off my arm!”
“Technically, she cut off your shoulder and your arm.” Nate winced right after the words escaped.
He felt El’s fury seething to a fury-level boiling point. “I think we need to—”
“Fly the ship,” suggested Nate. “Up there. Looks like a weapon headed in our direction.”
“Don’t change the subject!” El took a breath, but whatever she was about to say was interrupted by the flight deck holo clearing, smooth water replaced by an angry red telemetry map. BRACE BRACE BRACE INBOUND MISSILE BRACE BRACE BRACE. “Goddammit!”
She rammed the throttle forward. Nate slammed back onto his chair. His breath rasped out as the ship paced over the Atlantic. El brought the Tyche up aways where the air was thinner. Smoother, so the Tyche could race like she was born to.
“It’s. Coming. Around,” he rasped.
Her fury-laden screech was flattened by thrust. “Don’t. Tell. Me. How. To. Fly!”
The Tyche’s holo kept Nate abreast of their situation. They passed into hypersonic speed, MACH 7 slipping by like a twig dropped in a stream. MACH 8, then MACH 9, the ship shuddering with thrust.
They went higher, the missile still on their tail. It looped about, not hitting the ground or water, which was a blessing, but still chasing them, which wasn’t great.
“Hello, sire. This is Mercenary actual.” Captain McDonald’s voice came from the comm. “It looks like you’re in some trouble. Again. Would you like assistance?”
Nate toggled the comm. “Yes.”
“Excellent. Try not to move about too much. We’re in a space war ourselves, sire, and our Tactician is new at this.” The comm clicked off.
El knew the drill. She pointed the ship at the stars. They climbed from Earth’s gravity well, trailing twin pillars of fire. Atmosphere thinned, thrust growing stronger. The bright lance of a particle cannon’s beam slipped off their port bow, tearing the nuke on their heels from the sky.
The shockwave hit them, carrying them further into the heavens on wings of the devil’s fury. The Tyche bucked like a bronco. Metal groaned behind them, then eased to silence.
El reduced thrust, presumably so they wouldn’t stroke out. “Where to, Cap?” She sounded tired, but also soberer than before. “You want to resupply at the Mercenary?”
The Mercenary lay out there, too distant to make out with human eyes, but the Tyche saw her. The ship also caught the conflict about her, Navy dreadnoughts firing on each other. Civil war, at the gates of Eden.
“No.” He felt tired too, worn thin by conflict. “Slip us out of here, quiet as you can. Turn around Mercury and wait.”
“What’s near Mercury?”
“Friends, maybe.” Nate rubbed his neck. “Tell the Mercenary to fall back. We won’t turn our weapons on each other. Those who stand with the Empire, retreat to Mercury.”
“You sure the machines are our allies?” El plotted the course anyway.
“Not sure of much at the moment, except I don’t want people dying on my account. The constructs can’t be corrupted by espers.”
“Aye, Cap. Mercury it is.”
The Tyche scuttled around the perfect blue haze of Earth’s atmosphere. Nate watched their planet slip away. You’re not running. Your finding aid.
It didn’t help. He might never see humanity’s home again.
That’s it from me this week. I’ll see if I have holiday snaps for you next week, but there won’t be anything exciting like lions or bears. New Zealand doesn’t go in for that kind of thing. Peace out, and enjoy your week ☺️