Why YA, Eh?

September 12th, 2014

Elsewhere (i.e., Twitter) I have recently said that I consider myself to be retired as a novelist — that is, I’m no longer trying to write for a living, but just as a hobby. I have no intention of not writing, I’m just not going to worry anymore about whether my work is commercial.

This prompted a phone call from a friend who made several suggestions about how I might be able to resurrect my professional career and once again establish myself with a New York publisher. He did not ask whether I wanted to re-establish myself — a question I can’t really answer, as my emotions on that subject are very mixed.

He also kept making suggestions that involved writing YA — “young adult” — novels. This is not new. People, including my agent and a few editors, have been telling me for about twenty years now that I should write YA, since that’s a huge market and several of my novels would fit comfortably in that niche. They have not asked me whether I want to write YA. That question is much easier to answer. I don’t.

It’s taken me a long time to realize this, but I’m pretty sure now. I don’t.

I never read much YA as a kid. I started reading Heinlein when I was seven, but I didn’t read any of his juveniles until ten years later — I started off with The Green Hills of Earth. I never read any of Andre Norton’s at all — still haven’t. Missed the Winston series entirely, never saw The Runaway Robot or Revolt on Alpha C or any of the others that SF fans usually point to as their gateway drugs. From age seven on, I read adult SF and fantasy; the house was full of the stuff, since both my parents were SF readers.

As for other genres, I mostly missed those, too. I started reading mysteries with Rex Stout, adventure with Edgar Rice Burroughs and C.S. Forester, etc., all in grade school. The stories I read that were aimed at younger readers were mostly either 19th century, British, or both, and stuff like The Princess and the Goblin or Bushranger’s Gold did not provide a grounding in what’s meant by “YA” nowadays.

About the only exception was the Tom Swift Jr. series, which I discovered when I was ten or eleven — after reading stuff like The Door into Summer and Something Wicked This Way Comes. Oh, and do the Oz books count?

Anyway. People started telling me back in the ’90s, maybe even in the ’80s, that I should try writing YA. I did not really have a firm grasp on what they meant. Fact is, I still don’t. But once Tor dumped me in 2009, I figured I had nothing to lose by trying.

So I tried. I started several novels that I thought were YA. Most of them fizzled out; I just wasn’t that interested in any of them. A couple reached the point of being proposals I sent to my agent; he rejected most of them, for various reasons.

One proposal became Relics of War, which isn’t YA, it’s just another Ethshar novel.

I finished one novel on spec — Tom Derringer and the Aluminum Airship. My agent couldn’t sell it, as YA or otherwise, and pointed out that it was unmarketable as YA because it’s written in the style of the 1880s.

Well, yeah — it’s set in the 1880s, told in first person, so of course I wrote it that way. But I am informed that modern YA readers won’t tolerate such old-fashioned prose. I don’t know why not, really — when I was a kid I read plenty of stuff written in the 19th century, florid and prolix as it was, without any problem.

And then there’s Graveyard Girl. This was one I actually got moderately enthusiastic about, and which my agent was very enthusiastic about, from the proposal. I wrote it, delivered it — and was told that it wasn’t a YA novel. It didn’t have enough in it about relationships, or personal growth, or the other stuff that YA apparently needs to be about.

And at this point I realized that I really don’t care about YA, and I don’t want to write it. It’s not anything I ever cared about.

So I’m going to write what I please, and if any of it turns out to be YA, that’s cool — but I am not going to aim at that target anymore. I don’t grok YA, I never have, and at age sixty I doubt I ever will.

The Music Will Never Stop 72

September 10th, 2014

Well, this was interesting, and made my life a bit easier. The tape labeled “P.P.H. 2″ is mostly blank. There are two songs at the beginning, totaling thirteen minutes of music — a jam, and yet another rendition of “Parchman Farm” — and then nothing.

I still had to do two takes. The first time through the music was barely audible, as the 40-year layer of crud interfered. The second time, after vigorously cleaning the heads and rollers, it sounded just fine. Knowing the rest was blank, though, on the second play-through I stopped after fifteen minutes and turned it around to rewind. (Have I mentioned that “rewind” and “fast forward” no longer work on my recorder?)

But hey, it’s done and sounds surprisingly good. I’m pleased.

Then it was on to #5, “Coffeehouse – Pork Pie Hat (Two),” dated Aug. 27, 1973.

Played through Side 1. Stopped it twice to de-gunk the heads, but most of it was still faint, muffled, and generally crappy-sounding. It should improve the next time through.

So I have this play-list that was enclosed with the first Pork Pie Hat tape. It lists four sides. Two of them were on that tape, and I assumed the other two would be on either this tape, or “P.P.H. 2.”

They aren’t.

Side 1 here had not quite an hour and twenty minutes recorded, which is about right, but it doesn’t match the songs on the list. It should have “Jive, Jive, Jive” and “Maggie’s Farm,” along with a mishmosh of stuff I don’t have actual titles for, and that’s not what’s there. Instead there are half a dozen abortive attempts at “Badge,” a decent rendition of “Soul Kitchen,” etc.

Notice I didn’t say it has an hour and twenty minutes of music; it doesn’t. There’s a lot of tuning up, diddling around, talking, false
starts, etc. I doubt there’s more than forty-five minutes of actual music.

Very disappointing, so far.

(And where the heck is the tape on the list?)

Then I played through it again. Mostly better. There are a couple of tracks that could stand another try, though. I had to de-gunk the heads partway through, and there are two tracks where neither recording is really acceptable.

Played Side 2 for the first time, too. About an hour and a quarter, of which about an hour is music. Most of it came out well.

What’s interesting (to me, anyway) is that the playlist for Side 2 (if there were one) starts with the same five songs that ended Side 2 of the first PPH tape. It has three songs beyond that, though.

I don’t think these are different copies of the same performance, but I’ll want to check them against each other to be absolutely sure. And given how disorganized the band was, I’m a bit boggled if they actually had a set list — but on the other hand, they apparently didn’t bother to change it up between shows, even though it was the same venue, so that’s their sort of sloppy.

This had their best version of “Summertime,” and a kick-ass fifteen-minute jam of “Spoonful.”

But wow, I’m sick of “Parchman Farm.” And they used “Badge” for their soundcheck, so there are three partial takes (not counting abortive ones I didn’t bother to convert to MP3) as well as the final performance. Fact is, the band only seems to have known about a dozen songs, and I wound up with about five hours of them either playing those songs over and over, or jamming, or just messing around. (Actually, I didn’t keep most of the “just messing around” stuff, so that would be more than five hours, counting that.)

Anyway, I now had everything that was on the tape, but played through Side 2 a second time, and Side 1 a third, to get better transcriptions.

(I needed to play Side 2 a third time just to rewind the tape — “rewind” and “fast forward” aren’t really working anymore — but I didn’t bother recording it.

The third play-through didn’t help much. It was generally worse than its predecessors — the treble is noticeably degraded, and there’s added noise, maybe from crud on the heads or the tape.

So the whole thing was pretty much complete at that point, except that (a) I needed to choose my preferred takes on a couple of songs, and (b) there are eight songs I haven’t really identified yet; I have them listed as “Don’t Know 1,” “Don’t Know 2,” “Don’t Know 3,” “Don’t Know 4,” “The Great Escape (in theory),” “Don’t Know 6,” “Highway 15 (?),” and “Don’t Know 9.”

I used to have Don’t Know 5, 7, and 8, but then realized they duplicated others on the list of unknowns. “The Great Escape” and “Highway 15″ were titles on the song list in the box, but don’t appear to be correct. “Highway 15″ may have been an original.

Most of the unknowns are instrumentals, “Highway 15″ being the major exception.

I’ll track those down eventually. In fact, I just discovered that Julie is still more or less in touch with the Hat’s bass player, who ought to be able to identify everything for me.

I’ve chosen my preferred takes on everything, so that’s officially done — ID’ing things doesn’t count.

Anyway, there are fifty tracks, but I only count twenty-five different songs, since there are several repeats and one (listed simply as “Boogie”) had been split between two sides of the tape. There are also two jams, which I listed as “Jam” and “Jam Too.” It’s about five hours of music in all, as I said above.

Quality varies, but none of it totally sucks. (Mostly because I didn’t keep a few bits that did suck.)

Onward!

Beyond the Gate

August 27th, 2014

I’m back!

This one just popped into my head one day, so I started writing it. I do know most of where the story’s going.

I used to get really annoyed with my mother. She seemed so spacey; no one ever took her seriously. She would forget appointments, lose track of conversations in the middle of a sentence, and generally give people the impression she was a complete airhead.

She wasn’t an airhead. I knew that. She was just distracted, too busy with her own thoughts to pay attention to what anyone else was doing. If you could really get her attention, get her to focus, she was really smart. She just wasn’t interested in most of the stuff ordinary people talk about.

There were plenty of times I wished she was more involved with the stuff I cared about, but I’d gotten used to her always being busy with her stuff.

So when I came home from school and didn’t see her anywhere, I didn’t worry about it much. Her car was in the driveway, so I knew she was around – she never went anywhere on foot. I got myself a ginger ale from the fridge and settled in the kitchen. I went ahead and got my homework done, which took about twenty minutes.

Still no sign of her. I went back to the family room and messed around online for awhile, chatted with my friend Pete, watched an episode of “Continuum.”

It wasn’t until I looked up and saw it was after 7:00 that I began to wonder what she was doing. Usually we eat dinner at 6:00, and that’s about the one thing she generally remembers no matter how busy she is. I put my tablet aside and called, “Mom?”

No answer.

I sighed, and got off the couch and went around to the basement stairs, because the basement was where she kept her experiments. The light was on, as I expected, so I thought she was down there, probably working on her gadget. She called it a dimensional renormalizer, but I called it a gadget.

“Mom?” I called down the stairs.

Nothing.

That was when I began to worry a little. I went down the stairs to see what was up.

She wasn’t in her workshop. The light was on, and the gadget was running, but she wasn’t there.

Now I was worried. I checked the bathroom, but it was empty. Then I went back to the middle of the room and looked around.

Everything looked the way it always did. There were shelves of books filling one side of the basement, and the furnace and water heater and laundry taking up most of the other side, and Mom’s workbench in between, and then there was the gadget.

She’d started with an old metal bed-frame stood up on end. Then she replaced the springs with this mesh she’d made herself out of something she invented, and mounted the field generators all around the frame. I’d asked her once what kind of field the field generators generated, and she’d gotten about three sentences into the explanation when she realized she didn’t know how to explain it in English, and I didn’t have enough math to follow anything else, so she just shrugged and said, “It’s complicated.” She had a Powerspec G420 PC on a table nearby, controlling the whole thing.

I told you she was really smart. She never finished her degree because she wasn’t able to explain what she was doing to her professors, and she couldn’t hold a job because everyone thought she was too spacey, but she knew physics by instinct.

Dad had a theory that so much of Mom’s brain was taken up with physics that there wasn’t enough room left for things like social behavior – or language; she wasn’t good with words. That was another reason she never got a degree – she couldn’t meet any foreign language requirements. She had enough trouble remembering names and ordinary English, and had managed to flunk first-year French, first-year Spanish, and first-year German before giving up.

But gadgets? She could do gadgets. And computers, as long as she could work with the code and not a natural-language interface.

She’d been working on this gadget for months, ever since she lost her last part-time job. It was supposed to let her see a dimension that’s always there, but that we don’t normally perceive because it’s a non-integer element of our space-time.

No, I don’t know what that means, but if the gadget worked, Mom thought she could get some university physics department to take her on even without a bachelor’s degree. Dad and I didn’t try to stop her. It seemed harmless, it kept her busy, and who knew, maybe it would actually work; neither of us knew enough physics to say it couldn’t.

Anyway, she wasn’t anywhere to be seen, and the gadget was running – there was a faint hum coming from the field generators, and the mesh in the bed-frame was sort of blurry. That wasn’t normal; generally she shut everything down if she wasn’t going to be around to keep an eye on it.

I looked everywhere, calling, “Mom?” every so often, but it’s not that big a basement, and it was pretty clear she wasn’t there, so after a couple of minutes I was just standing there next to the gadget, frowning. I couldn’t think where she could have gone.

Then I looked at the mesh. She had gotten it to look blurry before, but never this blurry – it didn’t look solid at all.

I looked at the computer screen, but that didn’t help; I couldn’t make any sense of the display.

I was starting to have crazy ideas about the gadget. Maybe it had done something to her. I picked up a piece of paper – a blank sheet, I didn’t want to get yelled at for damaging any important notes – and crumpled it into a ball. Then I lobbed it at the mesh.

It vanished into the blurriness, and it didn’t come out the other side.

I considered that for a moment, then looked around for something else I could throw at it. I found a broken piece of baseboard near the furnace, and tossed that into the mesh.

It disappeared.

There wasn’t any flash or bang or anything; it looked as if the mesh was, I don’t know, a shadow or something, and the piece of wood sailed into it as if it was empty air. It just didn’t come out the other side, and I couldn’t see where it went.

It didn’t seem to vanish all at once; it disappeared as it passed into, or through, the surface of the blurriness, so for a fraction of a second I could still see the nearer part of it.

I wasn’t about to touch that thing, but I wanted to figure it out. I went back up to the kitchen and got a piece of string from the drawer, tied it to a fork, then took it back downstairs. I had four or five feet of string with the fork at one end; I tossed the fork into the mesh, with the string trailing behind.

The fork disappeared, like the paper and wood, and a foot or two of string vanished after it, but it didn’t all go through – that was the whole point of the string. Two feet or so fell to the basement floor, trailing out of the blurriness.

I knelt down beside it, and very carefully touched it.

It felt like string. There wasn’t anything strange about it at all, except that one end of it curved up into the blurry mesh and disappeared.

I took hold of the string, ready to drop it the instant anything weird happened, and gently pulled on it.

String reappeared out of the blur.

I pulled harder, and the fork clattered out of the blur onto the basement floor.

I sat down on the floor with the string in my hands, staring at that blurry darkness.

Whatever that was, and wherever it went, things could come back from it. The string and fork didn’t seem to have been affected at all by their brief and mysterious journey.

Announcement

August 11th, 2014

There will now be a two-week hiatus while I attend Worldcon. When I get back I’ll post the opening scene from Beyond the Gate, and finish up the next “The Music Will Never Stop” entry.

See you then!

The Partial Observer, a.k.a. The Research Agent

August 10th, 2014

This one — well, I felt like writing some space opera. Which is what this would be, once it got rolling.

“The problem with you Kletti,” the Nominian said drunkenly, “is that you think you’re better than anyone else.”

Jeret smiled crookedly. He glanced at his drinking companion, then focused once more on his beer. There had been a time when he would have given the question of how best to respond to such an accusation serious thought, but some months ago he had concluded that the optimum choice was always the same. Old Sarg had always said that the truth was never believed and never gave offense if you made it sound like a joke, and Jeret’s experiences on a dozen worlds had yet to prove Sarg wrong.

“That’s because we are better than anyone else,” Jeret replied.

“Aaaah.” The Nominian waved a hand in dismissal. “You’re as bad as the Firrim.”

“Probably worse,” Jeret cheerfully agreed.

“Couldn’t be much worse,” the Nominian said. “The Firrim are really aggravating. You Kletti, the ones I’ve met, you’re just annoying.”

“So you’re saying we’re better than the Firrim.”

The Nominian hesitated for a moment, working through this, then said, “Yeah. But that’s not hard.”

“Still, it’s a start on being better than everybody else.”

The Nominian snorted, blowing foam off his beer. “Yeah,” he said. “I guess it is.”

“So tell me about the Firrim; I don’t think I know them.”

“I thought you Kletti all knew everything.”

“We’re working on it, but we aren’t there yet. So, these Firrim – where are they from?”

“Somewhere in toward the Ruins,” the Nominian said, with a wave toward the back of the bar.

“What makes them so special, then? Or what makes them think they’re special?”

“They’re cyborged. Phones in their heads, enhanced senses, all that crap.”

“So what’s special about that?”

“Ask them,” the Nominian said. “They’re the ones who think they’re so great.”

“I just might do that. Know where I could find one?”

“Oh, you never find just one,” the Nominian said. “There are always at least three of them.”

“Networked?”

The Nominian shrugged. “I guess.”

That, Jeret thought, might be worth checking out. Networking a few brains together wasn’t new in itself, but maybe these Firrim had a new angle on it. “So where would I find some?”

“How should I know?”

“Well, you’ve obviously met some before.”

“Ha! That was here in Port, a few times over the past couple of years. But I haven’t seen any in days.”

Jeret nodded. “Fair enough.” If these Firrim had been here, they had presumably come in on a ship, and there would be records. He already had a data tap into the port’s systems; he could search them easily enough. He sipped his beer. “So you said we Kletti are annoying – how many of us have you met?”

“I dunno – half a dozen, maybe?” The Nominian gulped beer. “I haven’t kept count.”

“Of course not. I was just curious; we don’t travel much.” That was certainly true of the Kletti as a whole, but of course the exceptions, himself among them, traveled a lot.

The Nominian set his now-empty mug down on the bar, and the bar top displayed a row of options. “There’s you, and there was a woman here last year, and back on Diplodocus there was a creepy old man, and when I was a kid there was this bossy woman who visited our school.”

“That was in the Nominian system?”

“Yeah,” the Nominian agreed. “I grew up in Shaftsbury, on Seven.” He stared wistfully at his mug.

“Let me get that for you,” Jeret said, tapping his credit finger on the REFILL circle; the options vanished with a beep, and the little “Coming right up!” logo blinked.

A school on Nominia Seven – that probably would have been Zella Tarasco. She was retired now, back on Central. An old man on Diplodocus – Lenster Capor, maybe? Also retired. And a woman passing through Port could have been anyone. Odd, that a random Nominian had encountered four research agents. Odd enough to be suspicious, perhaps? He brushed a finger against his temple, and signaled for a probability analysis.

The bartender set a new beer in front of the Nominian and cleared away the empty mug, and as the Nominian picked up the mug Jeret slipped away. He thought he had heard everything interesting the man had to say.

He had not learned the Nominian’s name, but identification should be easy enough, since the entire conversation had been recorded.

Azraya of Ethshar

August 8th, 2014

This was going to be the next Ethshar novel for Tor, after The Spriggan Mirror, if they hadn’t dropped the series. I had submitted the proposal before the decision came down, but when the series was cancelled they returned it unread. Once I was going alternate publishing routes there were others I did instead, so I still haven’t written all of this one.

The soldier grabbed Azraya’s arm and dragged her back into the shadows of the alley. She whirled and kicked at his kneecap, but he held on firmly. “Come on,” he said. “Just a kiss.”

“Do you really expect me to believe you’ll stop there?” she said. “Let go of me!”

“Well, I’ll admit I don’t want to settle for just a kiss…” the soldier said, grinning.

“Pig!” Azraya spat. “Let me go!”

He grabbed her other arm, instead, and pulled her toward him.

Azraya looked around the alley desperately, but saw nothing of any use. The shops on either side had no doors or windows at ground level, and the three upstairs windows were all shuttered. The only living thing she could see, besides the soldier and herself, was a scrawny orange cat watching from a corner. One end of the alley emerged into a courtyard that appeared entirely deserted; the other opened onto Panderer Street, and Azraya could hear distant voices in that direction, but no one was in sight. She had ducked in here to escape the attentions of a determined pimp, only to find this drunken soldier relieving himself against a wall. She had tried to turn and go, but he had been much quicker than she had expected, and had caught her easily.

“Come on,” he said. “You’re a thief, aren’t you? Give me a kiss, and maybe I won’t take you to the magistrates.”

“I’m not a thief!” she protested. “Let me go!”

“Then why were you sneaking into this alley?”

“To get away from someone!”

“Who? Your master? Are you a slave trying to escape, then? An unhappy apprentice?”

“No! I have no master, and I’d like to keep it that way!”

“So you aren’t dodging a master, nor anyone you robbed – an angry lover, perhaps?”

“Let me go!” She kicked again, and managed to connect with the soldier’s shin.

His grin vanished. “That hurt,” he said. He jerked her forward, pressing her against his steel breastplate and glaring down at her. “I think I’ll need more than a kiss after all.”

Azraya had never for a moment believed a kiss would be enough to buy her freedom. “You won’t get it,” she said.

“You think you can stop me?” He turned, dragging her around, and slammed her back against the wall. The back of her head hit the bricks, sending a shock of pain through her. Momentarily dazed, she did not immediately see that the guardsman had released her left arm to reach for her skirt. When she did realize what was happening she grabbed for his wrist, but he barely seemed to notice as he clutched a handful of faded green wool and pulled it up.

“Stop it!” she said.

“Make me,” he answered, grinning again – a very nasty grin this time.

At that, she brought her knee up between his legs, as hard as she could.

The difference in their heights was such that this would not ordinarily have been very effective, but he was holding her about four inches up off the ground, which gave her a much better position, while his fierce grip on her arm and skirt provided a firm base from which to strike. A guardsman usually wore armor against exactly this sort of attack, but he had removed that particular accoutrement to conduct the business that had brought him to the alley in the first place, and as Azraya had noticed, he had not restored it to its proper position.

She did not think he had simply forgotten, either. That was one reason she had not believed a kiss would suffice.

Consequently, the result of her blow was all she could have hoped for. The guardsman let out a gasping bellow and doubled over, releasing his captive as he dropped to his knees.

Azraya did not wait for him to recover; she staggered, straightened, turned, and ran, out onto Panderer Street, where she turned left, ignoring the few pedestrians.

Her home, such as it was, lay in the opposite direction, in the Hundred-Foot Field beyond Wall Street, but she had a suspicion that that was exactly where the soldier would look for her when he could stand again. Besides, most of the city was to the west, and if she could put a few corners between them she doubted the man would bother to search for her, while he would probably find kicking down a few tents in the Field very satisfying right now.

She turned right on Trinket Street, then left again on Pawnbroker, slowing to a trot as she made a right onto Games Street, and then breaking the pattern with another right onto Camptown Street. Then a left onto Moneylenders Avenue, where she continued several blocks without turning.

She heard no pursuit.

She wondered whether the soldier had realized how young she was – and would he have cared if he did? Maybe he preferred little girls. He might have backed off, though, if he found out she was only thirteen.

Three Days Late for the Hanging

August 7th, 2014

I have no excuse for this one. The opening just showed up in my head one day and wouldn’t go away until I wrote it down. I did eventually figure out some (not all) of the background and plot, and wrote on past the opening.

We were three days late for the hanging, so there wouldn’t be much to see, but I stopped in Osborne anyway. We needed supplies, and I thought I’d pay old Tom my respects. Dan Bates didn’t have any objection – leastways, none he saw fit to communicate to me, given as he wasn’t able to talk just then, so getting my attention could be a touch problematic. Oh, he’d act up right enough if he thought it was important, but a visit to Osborne didn’t trouble him sufficient to stir him to action. He went where I pointed him without putting up a fuss.

Osborne wasn’t that much of a town. The main street was about three blocks long before it trailed off to nothing at either end, and the two cross streets didn’t go but a block in either direction before petering out. There were a few establishments outside that tight little collection of streets, but for the most part, that was what there was to see. The courthouse was dead in the center, of course, on the south side of Main Street, but they’d had the good taste to build their gallows around back, where it wouldn’t trouble any townsfolk who might be of a sensitive nature. I thought I should go take a look.

I didn’t need to use my heels on Dan, just pointed him in the right direction, and he ambled around the courthouse to the square.

There was the scaffold, fresh-built of raw lumber by the look of it, and there was old Tom, dangling from the crossbeam. That was a bit of a surprise, that they hadn’t taken him down and buried him, the climate being what it was, but it was an even bigger surprise when Tom kicked up his foot at me.

I frowned, and hopped down off Dan’s back. I could see now that Tom was watching me, and moving his tongue as if he were trying to talk, but he couldn’t get a word out with that noose around his neck. Didn’t have the air. And he couldn’t wave or sign to me, as his hands were tied behind his back.

I walked over to the base of the scaffold and looked up at him and said, “You ain’t dead.”

I could read in his expression that he was well aware of that fact, and didn’t much appreciate my pointing it out as I had.

“Seems to me that must mean Seth Pemberton ain’t dead, neither.”

It’s a sorry thing to see a man with his neck in a noose try to nod.

“Well, why the hell not? Seems to me that was at the heart of our agreement, Tom – you were to kill that son of a bitch.” My frown got a tad deeper. “And if you didn’t kill him, what the dickens are they hangin’ you for?”

“Horse theft,” someone said, and I turned to find a young fellow with a shiny badge standing behind me.

Myth America

August 5th, 2014

This is one I started a long time ago, and put aside because I thought at various times that readers would confuse it with Robert Asprin’s Myth series or Neil Gaiman’s American Gods (which I haven’t read yet). At one point I considered making it part of the Wayne Ellsworth series, and that might be a viable option, but here it is in its original form.

I wasn’t entirely awake yet, and when the doorbell rang I answered it, still in my bathrobe, without really thinking about it. I looked out at the guy standing on the porch.

I was expecting a neighbor’s kid selling something, or a delivery person with a package, so the grinning hairy face took a moment to register. I knew it was familiar, but right at first I didn’t recognize him.

When I did, my jaw dropped.

“Al!” I said.

“Hey, Will!” he said. “Get dressed, will you?”

I blinked at him.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because we need your help.”

“With what?”

“That’ll take some explaining,” he said.

“Who’s we?” I asked, looking past him.

There wasn’t anyone else on the porch, but parked at the curb was The Car, and I could see there were people in it.

I couldn’t believe he still had The Car.

Al Larson was my old college roommate, and I had sold him The Car five years before – and I hadn’t seen him since three days after that, when I went off to get married and he headed for California, driving The Car.

The Car, I should explain, is a 1957 DeSoto I had bought during our freshman year for $100 from some guy out on the edge of town, a guy with a back yard full of old cars and orders from his landlady to get rid of them while she still had some grass left.

The 1957 DeSoto Firesweep is a truly amazing vehicle, weighing two and a half tons, measuring twenty-one feet from the points of the protruding chrome dagmars to the tips of the magnificent tailfins, and powered by a Chrysler 383-cubic-inch V-8 engine with twin exhaust lines and a design or casting flaw in the left exhaust manifold that resulted in most of them shearing through just behind the rearmost cylinder. Intact left exhaust manifolds for Chrysler 383′s were therefore almost impossible to obtain. When The Car had suffered this inevitable malady while in my possession a search of every junkyard on the east coast had failed to obtain a replacement, so I had had the exhaust manifold welded back together; during the three-week period when this repair had not been made, and those four cylinders were therefore not connected to a muffler, a casual drive down the street sounded rather like a Boeing 747 warming up. If both mufflers were gone it would probably sound like World War III.

That weld job probably violated half a dozen safety laws, but it worked, and kept The Car quiet.

Built in an era of gargantuan automobiles, the Firesweep was big even in its day – I’m six feet tall, but I could lie down and stretch out in the back seat without bumping my head or sticking my feet out the window.

The controls were the height of populuxe design, with push-button transmission – the owner’s manual warns you solemnly not to operate the car in Low-Low gear at speeds exceeding 65 MPH – and thermometer speedometer. That is to say, the speedometer has no needle; instead, there’s a slot across it, and in the slot is a strip of orange-red plastic. The faster you go, the more of the plastic strip is visible, as it slides across from left to right. Since the tip is beveled, so that the end of the plastic strip covers a span of slightly more than three MPH, there’s no way of telling exactly how fast you’re going, you can only approximate. This fascinating speedometer goes to 120 MPH, though in fact I could never get the thing over 115, at which speed it vibrated so much I could barely steer.

I don’t know if Al ever managed to top it out.

This was never meant to be a vehicle for the hybrid-loving, fuel-efficient, would-be-green modern world; at its best, on the highway, it managed maybe seventeen miles per gallon, and I think it did that well partly by burning oil, a quart every two hundred miles.

I loved The Car while I had it – it was everything a college student needed. But when I graduated and got a job and set out on the road to the great American dream-state of suburban marital bliss I knew the time had come to put away childish things, and that included my chunk of ancient Detroit iron.
No dealer wanted it in trade, and I didn’t want to take the time to find a collector, so I let Al have it for $500, which I used as the down-payment on an ugly blue Toyota.

That lasted as long as my marriage – Sharon got it in the divorce settlement, and I had then bought myself a used Honda Civic that was, on this particular morning, sitting in the driveway rusting away. The transmission had committed hara-kiri a month before, and I hadn’t yet made up my mind whether to junk the car, repair it, or try to trade it in.

I was using my mother’s Chevy Lumina in the meantime. I’d ordinarily say my mother’s old Chevy, as it dates back to 1999 or so, but with The Car sitting out there, obviously still running, the Chevy suddenly seemed terribly small and modern and sophisticated by comparison.

“Who’s in the car?” I asked.

“That will take some explaining, too,” Al said.

“So explain,” I said.

“I’ll explain in the car,” he said. “Get dressed, will you?”

“I’m not going anywhere without an explanation,” I told him. “And I’m not going anywhere without some breakfast. What are you doing here, Al? It’s been five years! And how the hell did you find me, anyway?”

“What’s to find?” he asked, gesturing at the house. “I’ve been here before, Will, remember? Sophomore year, Christmas vacation, when my folks were in the Bahamas.”

“But how’d you know I’d moved back in with my mother?”

He grinned and shrugged.

“Lucky guess,” he said. “Now, are you coming, or aren’t you?”

“I’m not going anywhere without an explanation,” I said. “If you and your friends want to come in for breakfast and tell me what the hell is going on, maybe I’ll agree to help with whatever it is.”

He considered that – I could see him considering, making all the familiar old gestures, cocking his head to the left and chewing his upper lip so his moustache hairs wiggled.

The son of a bitch hadn’t changed a bit since college, so far as I could see, and I suddenly regretted my own short-trimmed hair and clean-shaven face – or almost clean-shaven, as that was something else I hadn’t yet gotten to that morning. Al had a huge sloppy mustache and a Van Dyke beard and wavy brown hair past his shoulders, which left his general appearance halfway between Frank Zappa and Jesus Christ.

“Okay, Will,” he said. “I’ll just have to hope we can spare the time. Wait here.”

He turned and trotted back down the porch steps, out to the curb, where he talked to someone through the car window.

A moment later The Car’s back doors opened, and two people got out – a plump woman in a flowing paisley dress and jeweled tiara, and a thin guy in jeans and a lumberjack shirt. They joined Al, and the three of them trooped back up the walk.

“Breakfast?” Al said.

Well, I’d said they could join me.

The Wizard’s Path

August 4th, 2014

I decided I might as well get all the openings posted, so here’s another. There are actually at least two versions of this one — originally Dellen was male. Some of the others on my list, though, turn out to be vaporware of one sort of another — in some cases the “opening scene” I had listed turned out to be a paragraph or two, not a whole scene. One is a kids’ short story I’d been thinking of expanding into a middle-grades chapter book, but what I have is just the short story. For one I have several chapters, but written back in the ’80s, so the tech (it’s science fiction) is hopelessly out of date. One doesn’t even have its own file — it’s just an entry in a list of planned stories. Ah, well.

Dellen was hunting mushrooms in the woods when she heard whistling. Startled, she looked up, trying to locate the sound.

It was coming nearer. Dellen straightened up and picked up her half-filled basket. She peered through the trees at the sun-dappled greenery.

There were said to be dangerous people in the forests sometimes – thieves and poachers and so on – but Dellen did not think any of them would be whistling cheerfully. Whoever this was, he or she was almost certainly friendly.

But a girl had to be cautious. “Hello?” she called.

The whistling stopped. “Hello,” someone called back – a man’s voice.

“Who’s there?” Dellen asked.

“Why don’t you come see for yourself?”

Annoyed, Dellen replied, “Because I’m busy over here.”

“The mushrooms will wait,” the voice answered.

Dellen blinked. How had this mysterious stranger known she was gathering mushrooms? Could the stranger see her?

If the stranger could see her, she ought to be able to see the stranger, and even now that the voice had given her an idea where to look, she still could not spot anyone.

The mystery was irresistible. Basket in hand, she walked carefully toward the speaker, ready to turn and run if necessary.

Suddenly there he was, so close and so obvious that Dellen didn’t understand how she could possibly have missed him. The whistler wore a long white vest over a sky-blue robe, and a pointed hat of the same light blue, somewhat the worse for wear, was perched on his head. He was grinning, which made his gray-streaked beard bristle.

And he wasn’t a stranger at all, not really, though it had been years since Dellen had last seen him. “Uncle Zavar?” Dellen said.

“Hello, Dellen,” the blue-robed man said. “You’ve grown.”

“Uncle Zavar!” Dellen said. “You’ve come back!” She ran and threw her arms around him, not worrying about whether she spilled any mushrooms.

He returned her embrace and said, “You knew I would eventually, didn’t you?”

“I… I didn’t think about it.” She looked up at his face. “It’s been so long!”

“Six years. I know. Is your mother well?”

“She’s fine. She’ll be so glad to see you!”

“Well, I hope so. Shall we go and surprise her?”

“Yes, of course!” Dellen turned toward the village. “This way!”

Zavar chuckled. “I think I remember the way, even after this long.”

“Of course you do!” Dellen laughed. “Come on!” She grabbed her uncle’s arm, and together they headed for her home.

Technoplague

August 3rd, 2014

Ordinarily, one writes an entire novel before writing a sequel, but this is a sequel to Earthright, even though Earthright isn’t finished; I actually started writing Technoplague first, then backtracked. (I’ve done this with other series, as well.) I should maybe mention that Amelia Hand has already appeared in the comic book story “A Breath of Fresh Air,” and the short story “That Doggone Vnorpt,” though there are inconsistencies between the comic book version and the prose version. Also, I should maybe have mentioned when I posted the opening of Earthright that it’s the result of merging two previously planned stories, “Legends” and “Labyrinth.” This stuff didn’t exist in a vacuum; it was always intended as a series.

The Tristan Jones dropped out of hyperspace into the Lambda Aurigae system right on schedule, and alarms immediately began sounding.

“Damn,” Captain Amelia Hand said, her attention focused on the navigational displays. “Tris, what the hell is happening?”

“Nothing terrible, Captain,” the ship replied. “There’s a lot of unscheduled traffic in the area, that’s all. Those alarms are brainless stuff – unmapped objects, drive proximity, that sort of thing. There’s nothing I can’t handle.”

“Then shut them off.”

The various hootings and beepings suddenly stopped.

“That’s better,” Hand said. “Now, what’s all this traffic?”

“I don’t know, Captain. Lots of ships, apparently all headed out-system. None on a vector for our location, though.”

Hand frowned. That didn’t sound good – why would there be more ships than normal, all outbound? “How many is lots?”

“Thirty-eight.”

“That’s lots,” she agreed. If thirty-eight ships were headed out of the system at once, there was presumably a reason. “Are you picking up any chatter?”

“Nothing useful or out of the ordinary.”

“Any idea why everyone’s leaving?”

“Nope.”

Hand considered for a minute, then shrugged. “Keep listening, let me know if you hear anything, and meanwhile see if you can get us down on L.A. 3 without running into anybody. Let ‘em know we’re here.”

“Will do, Captain.”

They were, according to the displays, roughly six light-minutes from their destination: Amphitryon Port, on Continent Two, Lambda Aurigae 3. Their relative drop-out velocity was around thirty million km/hr, and decelerating at a steady two g’s would put them on the ground in about twenty-eight hours. That gave her more than a day to figure out what was going on and decide whether to land, or crank it back up and aim the next jump.

A day at twice her normal weight, of course, which wouldn’t be much fun, but she was used to these inconveniences.

“Put a call through to Amphitryon,” she said. “Let ‘em know we’re coming in, and ask why there’s extra traffic.”

“Will do, Captain.”

She sat up, no longer straining at the screens – the ship had things under control, now that the crucial moment of drop-out was past, and she could let it fly itself.

“Got ID on all those ships?” she asked.

“No, ma’am. One jumped out before I could get anything beyond a drive signature, and at least three appear to be running silent, but I’ve got the others.”

“Are they all human-built?”

“Yes, they are, Captain. No alien presence has been reported in the Lambda Aurigae system in a dozen kilodays – the local colonists, including the authorities, run to mild xenophobia, and nobody’s bothered butting in where they’re unwelcome.”

“So who are they?”

“Well, four are scheduled traders running late, seven are unscheduled traders, eighteen are local transports, two are local military, and three I can’t classify.”

Four traders running late?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

That was bizarre. Something was very definitely strange here – but bypassing the system would cost her money and throw her off schedule, and besides, her stores were low and she didn’t want to eat recycled paste all the way to her next port of call. “What’s the turn-around on that message to the port?”

“About another seven minutes lag-time if they pick up right away,” the ship replied.

“Put it through when it gets here.”

That said, she sat and watched the screens, counting the signals indicating other hyperspace-capable ships in the system.

Thirty-seven, as Tris had said – and then thirty-six as another ship jumped.
Thirty-five.

Of course, those ships had already been gone when Tristan Jones had dropped out, but their signals had taken time to reach her, just as her message to the port and its reply would take roughly six minutes each way.

She waited, and a moment later a screen lit up. An unfamiliar face appeared, and a young man said nervously, “Tristan Jones, this is Amphitryon Port – welcome! We’re expecting you on Pad Four. As for your question about the traffic, we had a little trouble here, but everything’s under control now, and we’re looking forward to your arrival.”

Hand stared at the screen as the man smiled uncertainly. Then the image vanished.

“Replay,” she said.

The ship obeyed, and Hand watched closely. When the message had finished again, she said, “I wonder what happened to Ricardo, and who this guy is.”

“I don’t know, Captain. Should I ask?”

“Politely, just for curiosity, yeah.”

“Done. We should have a reply in about eleven minutes.”

“Good. Tris, do you believe him when he says everything’s fine?”

“Nope. He’s lying about something. They shouldn’t have had a human reply – machines are more convincing.”

“That’s what I thought, too,” Hand said. “Stay alert, get ship’s defenses ready – but let’s go on in and see what’s up.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“Unless you spot wreckage. If they’ve shot up any ships, we’re out of here.”

“Understood, and may I say, Captain, I think that’s a good call.”

“Yeah,” Hand said. Then she slapped the console. “I’m going to go get something to eat. Pipe me any messages that come in, and keep an eye out for trouble.”