The Unlikely Ones

I just finished reading a fantasy novel, and I really enjoyed it. In some ways it was a lot like other fantasy novels, but it was very different in several important ways.

It starts with the Unlikely Ones themselves. They are an odd assortment, seven souls brought together by the evil of a witch, bound to a quest to free them from the tyranny of her enchantments.

Ho, hum. Another Quest Story. But… consider. One of the seven is a fish. Another is a Toad. There is a gallant knight, and a lady fair broken and twisted young girl named Thing, along with a crippled kitten, a flightless raven, and a lovelorn unicorn who has lost his horn.

This quest is personal. None wish to change the world; they wish merely to be relieved of their burdens, to return to a normal life.

The setting of the story is England. Some kind of mystical between-the-ages England, but definitely not any sort of Middle Earth thing. I would like to go back and review the story and connect the events in the book with actual places. Because I’m absolutely confident the writer of this story had the full Ordinance Survey at her disposal while she pulled the party from place to place.

Back to the story. It is a play in three acts, clearly delineated by the chapter titles. At the beginning, just like in every fantasy tale, the questers come together. Even here, things aren’t completely according to script because, well… I’m not going to tell you. But you know how Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy starts with the world being destroyed? There’s a bit of that here, too, with one of the main staples of the quest story getting wrapped up right at the get-go.

The second act is perhaps the most predictable, as the unlikely ones are bound to each other, and Thing falls in love with the knight, and each of the seven must past a test of courage, or quick thought, or what have you. Before this stage of the quest is over, it is apparent to them that the quest has been specifically designed this way, so by the last test everyone knows whose turn it is. Which is kind of nice, because as readers we see it coming a mile away, and it would be disappointing if the characters in the story were too stupid to see the pattern as well.

The thing I most like about this story, however, is that victory has a cost. The story doesn’t end with the completion of the quest; there is a final movement in the book in which we watch the Unlikely Ones, no longer united by purpose, quietly return to lives suited to their various species. The world moves on, the ordinary triumphs.

I believe the book is targeted at young adults, but there is some “mature content” (rhymes with penises). I think some of Thing’s self-image issues would resonate more with a 15-year-old girl than with a 50-something male engineer, as we all wait for Conn to see her how she really is.

Overall, a mighty good read. A quest story that keeps things personal, avoiding the tiresome “Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy” mold, but for that, perhaps more poignant.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or a $1000 Generic Men’s 3D Print Skeleton Playing Guitar T-shirt), I get a kickback.

1

TFNIWLNW: 15

Time makes no sense when the world is ending before your eyes. We stood, watching, helpless, as the walls of the fortress sagged, the towers fell, and all that could burn was consumed until not even ash remained. The captain held his men back and held back his own tears. After a while the horror exhausted us and we were just a group of empty shells, staring down on the destruction. Some of the soldiers sat; Bags disappeared into the forest. No one thought to follow their prisoner. Kat remained mounted, watching the destruction and death with a jaw set so hard I thought her teeth would shatter.

Elena stood next to me, her hand forgotten on my sleeve. “I hate all the gods,” she said. The captain looked up at her, startled, his eyes empty. He nodded slowly and turned his gaze back to the fortress.

I wanted my knives back. My skin itched where they should have been strapped against my wrists and legs, my hands twitched and flexed, missing their reassurance. My mouth was dry, which is just as well because my throat was too tight to swallow. If I didn’t find a way to get my weapons back soon, I was likely to do something foolish.

Finally it was over. The land around us was released from its unnatural twilight, and the fortress cowered under a sun no longer its enemy. In the town, the bell continued to toll in its stone tower, low and mournful, as if it were accomplishing something. Several of the dwellings on the north side of town were now afire, their thatch roofs and timbered rafters engulfed in yellow flame. The wind pulled the smoke of the fires toward the ruined fortress, where it rose with the heated air high into the sky. At least the fire would not spread through the town. I watched as men and women rushed about, some to draw water from the river, some to the burning houses, and others, soldiers, mostly, stepping cautiously into the blackened circle where their home and their friends had once been.

The captain stirred. “Let’s give what help we can,” he said. He looked around. “Where’s the big one?”

“Right here,” Bags said, emerging from the woods. The wind at his back blew his hair into his face, where it clung to the moisture on his cheeks. A few chunks of what had once been his breakfast were caught in his shiny new ring shirt. I’d never seen him look so tired.

“Get ready to move out,” the captain said.

“I think that would be unwise,” I said.

The captain was too exhausted to be angry. “I don’t care what you think.”

“They thought we would be in there,” I said. “They thought Elena would be there.”

He looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“That was for us.”

He paused for a moment but in the end he shrugged and let out a long breath. “Then the last place they will look for us is in there,” he said. “We are going. If you don’t want to come along, I’ll be happy to cut you down were you stand.”

I looked over at Kat and Bags. They were watching me. “Might be someone in there,” Bags said. “In a cellar or something. Needs help.”

Elena’s grip tightened on my arm. “We have to help,” she said. The wind shifted for a moment, bringing the smell of burning fields. A large gray ash drifted between slowly between us, hanging in the air, twisting and curling in the wind. It came to rest in her hair. “We have to fucking help,” she said. Her eyes looked a little wild and I regretted saying out loud that all those people had died in an attempt to kill her. The only innocent in the group was going to blame herself for the evil of others.

And so we went. Somewhere, people who could melt a fortress were working to confirm they had killed Elena. They would have people in the town, or somewhere nearby. Eventually they would know they failed, and they would try again. I had no hope of protecting her. Against the might of the Soul Thieves I had a few pieces of sharp metal. And at the moment, I didn’t even have that. As we walked I flipped a piece of wood between my hands, shifting it in my fingers, keeping them moving so they wouldn’t shake so badly.

The center of the destruction was a neat circle perhaps half a mile across; around that the fields burned, but the ragged line of the fire, driven inward by the wind toward the shimmering heat of the fortress, was not moving quickly. Once inside that ring we were blanketed in choking smoke that burned at my eyes and nose. I moistened a cloth and put it over Elena’s face, then did the same for myself.

We stepped past the smoldering stubble onto the hardened earth where the sun had shone so brightly. Around the edges bones of people and animals lay in charred piles, distinguishable by their teeth. A few cautious steps farther in and the dark, once-fertile soil was hard on the surface. Shining stone. Life had been erased here, never to return.

Of the buildings at the foot of the fortress, little remained. A stunted, sagging chimney and a warped, blackened anvil marked the location of a forge. Livestock pens had been reduced to areas with occasional charred bones. As had the barracks. Metal glinted here and there on the burned plain; armor, swords, and the simple tools of everyday life were almost indistinguishable. No knives to be scavenged out here.

We reached the moat, and I felt my stomach twist in my gut. The slow-moving water was choked with corpses — men, livestock, and fish all floating together, pale and bloated, singed and burned and boiled to death. Beneath the surface I could see hints of metal, the armor of men who had chosen drowning over burning. The earth, the stones, the air itself radiated with heat. I felt sweat trickling down my spine.

The air was heavy with the smell of cooked meat and the astringent smell of baked earth. When the bodies in the river began to decompose, Brower’s Landing would face a host of new problems. But, cooked as they were, the bodies would be slow to ripen.

We joined a group of men working to build a makeshift bridge to span the moat and reach the hole in the wall that had once been a door. It was going to take some time; they were tearing down structures in town for the lumber, and dragging it behind reluctant horses.

“Tell those lazy sacks of shit to hurry,” Elena said.

I nodded, and tilted my head back to look at the wall looming over us. “I’ll go on up,” I said. “See if anyone needs help.” I did not wait for the captain’s response.

I slipped out of my cloak and waded into the river, pushing my way through the death, stumbling over soft objects wedged in the muck beneath my feet. Something brushed my leg and I looked down to find a face staring up at me, attached to a bloated body, the eye sockets burned-out holes, the flesh pink and gray and shiny. No hair, teeth blackened behind burned-off lips. I turned aside and puked.

My great aunt Heldie was the one who taught me to swim. She taught all my family the art. It was, of course, a pragmatic decision — the water, she taught us, could be a very effective avenue of escape for those who knew how to use it. Today I was inclined to agree with her. I was sure I was escaping something as I crossed the water, but I had no idea what. I would be alone for a short time, and perhaps that was enough. I came up on the shore at the base of the fortress, clinging to rock still hot to the touch, streaked with soot where shrubs had once grown in the fissures. Around me others were already working to create the footings for a new bridge. They assumed I was there to help them. Instead I climbed.

The climbing was easy at first, over the rough living stone. By the time I got to the remains of the dressed stone blocks of the wall, however, there were few handholds and heat radiated off the walls and through my clothing and I was sweating like a slave in the pits of hell. I took off my shirt, tore it up, and wrapped a sleeve around each of my hands. I looked up at the empty gate, my destination, ten feet above my head. Rubble had fallen, partially blocking the way but providing plenty of scrambling opportunities. Move fast, touch as little as possible. Once up there, try to find a safe place before my feet burn up. A simple plan.

The day dimmed again, but it was not like before. I looked up. The clouds were back, gathering quickly. I swallowed, took a breath, and started my scramble. Up, up, the stone heating my hands and my feet, I scrabbled and pushed over the broken wall and into the cluttered gap that had once been a gate. I fell on my shoulder, cried out, rolled, the heat of the stone cooking my skin. On my feet once more I found a fallen stone to stand on; exposed on all sides it had cooled faster than the rest of the fortress.

I crouched on it, lifting one foot and then the other, certain I was about to cook to death. When the first raindrop fell, hissing at it hit the heated stone nearby, I paid no attention. But then another raindrop fell, and then another. The sky opened and rain fell in earnest, heavy drops that slammed into the heated stone with purpose, only to be turned to steam. I was surrounded by billowing clouds, turning the demolished fortress into a strange, shifting world of air and stone. My imagination turned shadows in the mist into monsters come to eat me alive.

I stepped off my rock. The rain was no more natural than the sun had been, but I was happy for it. Somewhere, someone who could change the weather was on my side. Or at least, not on the side of the ones who had done this. I turned my face upward, closed my eyes and let the cold hard drops hit my face.

Other rescuers would be here soon. If I was to gain anything from my head start, I had to move quickly. First things first: find a sharp piece of metal.

first episode

The Expanse Trilogy

I recently wrapped up reading The Expanse Boxed Set by James S. Corey, and I must say I enjoyed it quite a bit. It is Space Opera — space ships shooting at each other is a pretty common occurrence.

Humanity is expanding out into the Solar system; Mars is populous and prosperous, Earth is crowded but surviving, and the population of the asteroid belt is growing. The belters are few in numbers, but if armed conflict should arise, they would just have to throw rocks at Earth and Mars and let gravity do the rest. The three factions are in balance at the start of the story, but it wouldn’t take much to really mess things up.

Something like, say, the discovery of some sort of bizarre, obviously-manufactured molecule on a moon of Saturn. The molecule, when it comes into contact with organic life, reshapes it to its own purpose, whatever that is. A weapon? A tool? Impossible to say without putting the molecule somewhere where’s there’s a lot of living matter. Best guess is that a distant alien intelligence threw the protomolecule-bearing rock at Earth two billion years ago, but Saturn caught the incoming rock and held it in cold storage while life continued to get more complex on Earth.

But if the protomolecule was the fuel to plunge the solar system into chaos, the spark that touched it off is named James Holden.

In the first book there are two main characters, moral-high-ground-hugging Holden and a dissolute detective named Miller. They find themselves looking for the same woman, but for very different reasons.

Time for a fairly lengthy sidebar, here. Not long ago, a bunch of jerks fucked up the Hugo awards, ostensibly lamenting that all this inclusiveness and feel-goodiness was ruining Good ‘ol Science Fiction. Before us today is a massive work of GoSF. How does it compare to the Sick Puppies’ agenda?

In the first book, the main two characters are male. The third-most important character is Naomi, who apparently has hit the genetic jackpot, inheriting the best features of many of the races of earth. More time is spent on her more relevant differences in appearance, however; people who grow up in microgravity look different.

But still, the main female character in book one is attractive. Of course. The men? A little harder to tell. They’re not described in the same terms.

I wonder if Corey reviewed book one and decided that book two needed to be more diverse, or if he just felt the story had expanded enough to include more diversity. There are more characters, and one of the major ones, a skilled and powerful politician, is a grandmother with a foul mouth and a buddhist shrine in her office. She spends a lot of time with a Martian gunnery sergeant who also happens to be female. It’s not a big deal.

And that’s the answer to the Sick Puppies. There is a scene in which parents have to make difficult decisions about how to raise their daughter. It just so happens the parents are both women. But the argument is the same, the love is the same, and that’s what the story is about. Saying, “Fuck you, sick puppies! In my story everyone is gay!” is not the answer. But a heartbreaking moment between two people can happen no matter the genders of the actors.

OK, back to the books. A quick hit list:

Not to say that’s there’s no shooting in the first book, but it felt to me like shooting became ever more important as the story moved along. In book one, there was substantial opportunity for cleverness to prevail; by the end of the trilogy cleverness was more about gaining tactical advantage in a firefight. In that way, even as the story expanded in scope, the options open to the participants grew ever more narrow.

Favorite phrase: “vomit zombies”.

At one point, a character says, “Don’t you FUCKING touch me,” and I went, “oh holy shit.”

Later, another character says “We need to talk,” and I said “oh holy shit” again.

I’m willing to bet this is the first work in this genre to specifically mention Hatch green chile. Out there, the treasures of home are even more special. Bull is a good man, a long way from New Mexico. (Though it seems like he’s from northern New Mexico, and therefore might prefer chile from the Española area instead, given his druthers.*)

I’m very curious now about the TVizaion of this series of books (on SyFy). How will they make the Belters look distinctly different? Will they commit to the intimate moments between the action sequences? Will the cast be able to carry those moments? Will they make the spaceships sleek?

If you enjoy GoSF for the right reasons, I think you will appreciate this trilogy.

Note: if you use the above links to buy these books (or Bose Lifestyle SoundTouch 535 Entertainment System), I get a kickback.

___
* And with that, I win the award for ‘most pedantic, picky-ass novel criticism ever’. I’ve been working hard for this honor, and this effort finally put me over the top. We all covet the Hatch when we’re beyond the borders of the Land of Enchantment. Unless the Española is available, is all I’m sayin’. Seems to me Bull is from Española, but it never actually says so.

2

TFNIWLNW: 14

In the military, one comes to realize that every plan is opposed by an unknowable force. Nature, when it comes right down to it, is an asshole. If one were inclined to believe in gods, it is inescapable that one of the most powerful is the one that makes sure any plan you make will be broken on the rocks of cruel reality.

Even a simple plan — say, perhaps, “reach the outpost by nightfall” — is subject to the whims of cruel and capricious deities whose stature is raised when a working man curses.

The captain of the squad of soldiers who were our captors was building those gods a citadel with his angry words with every step we took. Brewer’s Ford was not far, a reasonable goal even though one of the party on foot had recently been beaten badly. Yet, as the day progressed we seemed to draw no closer.

First there were the signs of a poacher’s camp. We stopped, and the men around me prepared to approach the camp. But on this day one rider, a gruff man named Smalls who seemed to be part bear, tumbled from his horse and broke his arm. While some went to his aid the rest found that that camp was long cold. The sun was sinking toward the horizon by the time Smalls was back on his horse, and soon after that another horse threw a shoe and then it was a farmer’s cart broken down blocking a bridge. We could have forded the stream, but the captain was responsible for safe commerce. So we stopped and helped the old man get rolling again.

There may have been other delays I have failed to catalog; it was a slow and frustrating day. Frustrating for the captain because had an important job to do, and for me because I wanted to see little Elena protected from the Soul Thieves. But, despite our best wishes, when night stole over the land there were still many miles to traverse. The captain wanted to push into the night, but heavy clouds rolled in, until I could see no farther than I could spit. We had no choice; we made camp.

Another fireside knife lesson for Elena. She followed my instruction with uncanny focus, eager to move from stick to sharpened blade. At the end of an hour, I relented. I asked Wingles to give her my fish knife, a slender blade sharp only on one side, delicate in the same way Elena was delicate. Deadly delicate. After the lesson Wingles took the knife and we curled up together near the dying fire. We had no tent, but the soldiers had given us a heavy tarp we could pull over ourselves if the clouds turned to rain. She snuggled in next to me to share warmth, and for a moment I felt at peace.

The air was heavy and still, and carried sound well. Around the camp I heard the three sentries move, and breathe, and snuffle. Between the spits and cracks of the dying fire I heard the creatures of the forest as they moved around us in the night, some curious, some wary. The fire’s smoke hugged the ground and I heard some of the company snort and sneeze in their bedrolls. A perfectly ordinary night.

“Do you think I can be as good as you, someday?” Elena whispered.

“Better, I hope.” I think she understood because she didn’t ask any more questions.

The next morning, the clouds were a distant memory as the sun sparkled the morning dew. We ate a swift, unsatisfying breakfast of hard bread and cured meat, the soldiers decided who was to have the honor of carrying Elena for the next hour, and we set out, covering ground much more quickly than we had the day before. It was just before noon when we broke from the forest on a ridge over the flood plain and saw the outpost ahead.

What the captain called “the outpost” turned out to be a rather large military installation. I hadn’t been to Brower’s Ford in several years, and in that time the fortress had been expanded and the garrison greatly increased. It seemed that the King had decided to be more than just the titular lord of the north. The lands of the north were not as empty as they first appeared, and either the king or someone who whispers in his ear had decided that it was time for those folks to start paying taxes.

The fortress itself squatted on the banks of the Artles river, just north of the town, where the lazy water made a gentle turn in its easterly journey, dodging an outcrop of black rock that served as the foundation for the fortress. Some time in the distant past a channel had been dug to divert part of the river around the other side of the rock, giving the fortress a moat. While the outcrop was too small to support a castle of any real significance, the modest structure was impressive in its own way. Three stubby towers anchored a wall that followed the contours of the native stone, broken only by a stout gate wide enough for two horsemen. The bridge across the moat was wooden, and no doubt could be demolished in moments should the need arise.

The plain at the foot of the fortress was busy with human activity. I could recognize the stables even from a mile away, as well as other stone and wood buildings that appeared to be barracks, a smithy, and livestock pens. The fortress had outgrown its perch, it seemed.

Surrounding fortress and town were fields green with grain blowing in waves with the gentle breeze, fed by the rich soil of the river valley. Hedgerows separated the fields, the boundaries following a logic that I could not decipher.

When we came into sight of the fort, Katherine stopped. Bags pulled up his horse as well, and the rest of the party eventually followed suit. The captain turned back on his horse to see what the problem was.

“I’m not going in there,” Katherine said.

“You are my prisoner, your grace,” The captain said.

“I surrendered on the condition that you take me directly to the King. Is the king in there?”

“No, your grace.”

“Then I will not go there, either.”

“I must report to my commander, your grace. It is he who will see to your escort down to Langifer.”

“Langifer? What the hell is the King doing there?” Katherine asked. I was curious as well. Langifer was a capable military fortress, but away from any large city it lacked the amenities the king was rumored to enjoy.

“When last I heard, the king was en route to Langifer to confer with his liege lords in the south.” The captain shrugged. “Of course that news is weeks old now. Commander Harrick will know more, and will see to your escort.”

“Harrick. He’s in charge here?”

“Yes, your grace.”

Katherine considered a moment before speaking. “He hated my husband, and respected my father. I almost trust him.”

The captain looked relieved. “Then —”

“Almost. Once we’re inside those walls, it becomes much easier to forget promises made by underlings out in the woods somewhere.”

“I assure you, you grace, that the commander is a man of honor, as am I.”

They continued to argue, but I stopped listening. Something was happening to the sun. I looked around as it began to feel like twilight, though it was midday. The sun was just… dimmer. Down on the plain, a horse cried out. It was dimmer yet where I stood, but the castle on the rock below was lit so brightly I could barely look at it. As the world got darker, the fortress began to shine so brightly it seemed to be lit from within.

The commander and Katherine stopped their argument. A shout floated up to our position, then another. Suddenly, the air was filled with shouts and screams and smoke began to rise from behind the stone walls. On the plain at the base of the castle walls, buildings, crops, animals, and people all caught fire. Some rushed for the river, few made it.

Nearby an evening bird chirped as the day dimmed into night and the temperature dropped. I had to turn my eyes from the blinding furnace on the plain, and trails streaked across my vision as the image of the burning castle was seared into my eyes. More shouts, more screams, the animals and the humans no longer distinguishable.

A roar, and a blast of hot air on my face forced me to turn my gaze back toward the fortress, to try to peer between my fingers as I hid my eyes behind raised hands. In my distorted vision it was as if the stone itself was burning. I turned away again. In the town, a bell began to toll, calling men to action. But what could anyone possible do?

Elena found me and latched onto my hand. “What’s happening?” she asked. “What the fuck is happening?”

I shook my head, but it took me several moments to find a word. “War,” I said.

first episode

1

TFNIWLNW: 13

“Your grace, I accept your surrender. Please remove all your weapons.” The captain turned to Bags. “You, too. Tidwell, Mallory, search our prisoners. Thoroughly.”

Kat looked shocked. “I shall submit to no such abuse!”

The captain did not rise to her ire. “You have surrendered, your grace.”

“What about him?” She jabbed an angry finger my direction. “You have no idea how much cutlery he’s hiding.”

The captain looked pained and turned to me, shaking his head slowly. “You heard her,” he said to one of his men. “Apparently this gentleman has some other weapons. Make sure the only one here who can kill a soul thief is unarmed.”

Katherine stood, white-lipped, as she was relieved of her weaponry, and I of mine. Bags gave up his glittery sword and his hunting knife, but no one present considered him defanged.

I cooperated, giving up one blade after another, until I was naked for the second time in as many days. The soldier handled the blades with respect, pausing over the black blade. Traces of wizard blood clung to the base of the blade. “Beautiful,” he said. “Where’d you get it?”

“Old friend. There’s another out there somewhere.”

“Hopefully she’ll find her sister someday.” He was a big kid, angular, with a sideways smile and a crooked nose. I had been planning to kill him hours before.

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Wingles, sir.”

“I like you, Wingles.”

He gave a half-shrug, not sure how to take that.

“Take good care of these,” I said. “And if the world goes sideways, maybe you can help them back into my hands.”

“I can’t do that, sir,” he said as he nodded yes.

I smiled, but already that naked feeling was growing in my gut. “Well, I had to try.”

“All right, then,” the captain said. “Let’s move.”

And so I walked, the mounted patrol matching their pace to mine. Elena was on a horse always, riding behind the soldiers each in turn, entertaining them and worming her way deeper under their skins. They had already faced death for her once, and they would welcome the opportunity do it again.

The Captain’s plan was simple: travel some fifty miles to the outpost the soldiers called home, deposit the corpse of the man I had most recently killed, get more horses and men, and proceed on to Sky City to allow Katherine to face the King’s justice. I was confident that none of the prisoners in the group, myself included, had any intent to meet the king, but I was willing to follow long enough to see Elena under the King’s protection.

We covered about half the distance to the outpost on the first day, and once more I sat by the fire as the soldiers made camp with unthinking efficiency. I found myself next to the captain.

“I wonder,” I said.

He smiled. “This should be good.”

“I was thinking that I should teach Elena the basics of the knife.”

He thought for a moment. “I can’t let you have a blade.”

“But she can have one. She needs to be able to defend herself.”

“I’m not so sure about that. I think half my men would follow her orders instead of mine right now.”

I smiled. “She does have a way about her. Still, I’d feel better if she knew how to use a blade without hurting herself.”

The captain mulled for a moment and nodded. “All right. But you don’t touch the knife. Ever. You’ll be strictly supervised.”

“I want to use the black knife,” Elena said. Of course she had been listening in.

“We will start,” I said, “With a stick. Tomorrow, if you do well, we will use a simpler knife. The dark one…” I took a breath as I allowed that it might even be possible. “You will have to earn that.”

I expected protest, but she was watching me carefully. I wondered what she saw. “I will earn it,” she said. “Let’s find some fucking sticks.”

When Kat finally cornered me after the lesson she didn’t seem concerned that anyone in the camp could hear us. “That wasn’t the first soul thief you killed,” she said. She’d been waiting a long time for this conversation, and I have to admit that after avoiding it for so long I was hooked by her opener.

“No shit?” I asked. I hope historians see fit to make my words more clever.

Kat rolled here eyes “No shit, Martin. If you spent a little more time with your eyes open, you’d know that.”

A petty jibe. An attempt for high ground in the coming debate. But false. My eyes are always open when I kill someone. “You husband, then?” I asked. After all, he was the only other one I’d killed that she had known.

I couldn’t remember her ever smiling before. “Don’t make me laugh. The baron was a boy playing in the games of men.”

“And women,” I said.

She paused, and her smile came back, a little different. “And women. But no, my dearly departed husband was not a Soul Thief. It was Bags who figured out who you are.”

Who I was, to the best of my knowledge, was a smaller-than-average man who was physically and emotionally well-equipped to solve my problems by cutting people open. When I had money I was rather unpleasant to be around. None of those characteristics is terribly unique. Nothing that makes “who I am” terribly interesting.

“You are known to the Shadow Thieves,” Katherine said.

“And how do you come to know this?” I asked.

“Bags has done some work for them in the past. So have you.”

Many of my employers over the years had gone to lengths to preserve their anonymity, so now that the existence of the Soul Thieves was incontrovertible, it was certainly possible that they had hired me before. But I don’t as a rule kill my employers. Bad for business.

“They called you the Gray Man,” Bags said, sitting on my other side. “I wouldn’t have heard about you, but your last job for them caused a shit-storm.”

“What’d he do?” Elena asked, injecting herself in the conversation.

“There was a power struggle going on. The wizard I took my orders from hired the gray man to eliminate one of his rivals,” Bags said. He turned to me with his gap-tooth smile. “I was unemployed soon thereafter. At least for the moment, all the other Soul Thieves agreed on something. My master had crossed a line.”

“And you think I’m the gray man?”

Bags nodded slowly. “I do.”

“I don’t remember killing any wizards.”

“You took something from him. The stiletto you keep strapped to your wrist. I didn’t see it until we were in Mountain Forge. That’s when I knew.”

Unconsciously I rubbed my forearm where the knife should have been. It was true that I had relieved it from a man who would not be needing it any longer. He’d been a big man, well-muscled, with hair cut to a rough stubble, sleeping in a run-down hostel surrounded by others down on their luck. He hadn’t seemed very wizardly, whatever that meant. It was entirely possible that the man I’d killed had been the gray man, but there didn’t seem much point chasing that idea any further. My comrades had made up their minds. “And that’s when Kat started trying to get me to join you.”

Kat snorted. “That’s when I knew I’d succeed.”

Elena jumped forward and sat on my knee and put one arm around my neck. “He’s with me,” she said. “You two can fuck yourselves.”

Bags laughed and tousled her hair. “Things like this don’t happen by chance,” he said. “Someone wants us together. Someone whose wishes come true.”

first episode

2

TFNIWLNW: 12

Sometimes even the least of us do something grand. Sometimes we stand before a force that will surely destroy us, simply because we have spoken certain words some time in the past. At a moment like that there is no time for thought, no time for doubt, no time even to relish the idea that you might be more than you thought you were. There is only time to fight, and to die knowing that you changed nothing. It is fortunate, perhaps, that those times do not announce themselves ahead of time, and leave us to plot our petty murders.

I looked up at the stars, hard and unblinking in the cold mountain air. “They’ll kill him,” I said, softly.

Elena whispered, “Mrkl? The blacksmith?”

I nodded in the darkness.

“You’d slice open all these soldiers, even after they gave us food, to protect him?”

I nodded again, after a short pause. “He’s my friend.”

“Maybe he can get away,” she said.

“Traveling with an anvil is slow.”

Silence for a few moments. “You’re in no fuckin’ shape to take on nine of them.”

“I have to try.”

“Please,” she said. “There has to be another way. What fucking happens to me when they fucking kill you?”

If it was anyone besides Mrkl I might have listened. “They won’t kill me,” I said, and sat up to look around.

The camp lay in stillness. I could see seven forms wrapped in their bedrolls, leaving two others. A simple plan is the best kind. Find the two on watch, kill them silently, then cut seven throats. I inhaled to test my ribs. Adequate.

I almost cut myself when Elena screamed. “In the woods! In the woods! They’re out there!”

Well-trained men rose from their beds with weapons in hand. Elena continued to scream, her voice high and cracking with panic, which added to the confusion in the campsite. The captain’s words finally cut through Elena’s piercing cries, and the camp was mustered and ready.

“Where?” asked the captain.

“Out there,” Elena said, pointing into the darkness. “They’re coming!”

I put my arm around her, acting the way I imagined a father might. “It’s all right,” I said, and things like that, hoping my anger was not visible to the soldiers around us. I would have done the same thing in her shoes, I knew, but she was going to cost my friend his life.

As the soldiers mustered, three people stepped out of the forest.

“Oh,” Elena said. “Oh.” Her grip on my sleeve tightened.

I had not heard them approaching, and I hear everything. The red glow of the embers in the fire ring painted their white robes the color of blood. The one in front, apparently the leader, was an older man, his gray beard long and tangled. On his left a woman watched us with hard eyes, her mouth set in a permanent frown. Her hair was pulled back so tightly I thought it must hurt. On the old man’s right a younger man stood, clean-shaven and fair-haired, perhaps my age if years meant the same to them as they do to us. He, at least, seemed to find some humor in the situation.

“State your business,” the captain of the soldiers said.

The woman spoke. “We are here for the girl,” she said.

The soldiers shifted, tense and ready to defend their foul-mouthed little mascot. “She is under out protection,” the captain said.

The younger man chuckled while the woman said, “Recent events suggest the reverse is true.”

I stood, slowly, prying Elena’s fingers off my arm. “She is under my protection also,” I said.

The old man spoke for the first time. “She is in no need of protection.”

There was no answer for that. I stood before the Soul Thieves, a tiny piece of metal in each hand, aware that I was probably going to die, for a promise I had made only hours before.

“Stand down, sir,” the captain said to me. His sword was in his hand. “No one will take your girl while I have anything to say about it.” He stepped between us and the visitors, and his men fell in with him. “You are trespassing on the holdings of Lord Fairmont,” he announced. “Surrender yourselves and we will escort you to Mountain Forge. If you cooperate there will be no further proceedings.”

“I am afraid, then,” the old man said, “that there must be further proceedings.” He stepped back as the other two stepped forward. The woman gestured, and with a cry that came from deep in her gut she sent a shock through the camp that slammed into my body with the force of a tornado. For a moment there was nothing but thunder — no sight, no smell, no touch of the ground through my boots, just a sound that filled me and broke me and the taste of metal in my mouth. Then it was over and I was lying on my back, blood streaming from my nose, my ribs on fire once again. And I was angry. I stood, cleared my vision, remembered how to breathe, and looked at the Soul Thieves.

The old man was talking again, but my ears weren’t working. I discovered I still had my knives. The woman gestured again but I shouted right back, leaning into the shock until I was almost parallel with the ground, my feet dug in against the log that had once been my seat. The shock passed over me — through me — and I regained my feet. I stepped over the prone form of a soldier and was peripherally aware that the captain was moving, but only slowly.

I am, I like to believe, an even-tempered fellow, not ruled by my emotions. I have been in love two times and shall not be again. In my life, I have been angry four times. The first was when I was very young, before my mother trusted me with even the most mundane of blades, and resulted only in a small fire. The second time I was angry marked the end of my second love. That night, at the campfire, being pummeled by wizards who wanted to take my friend, was the third.

The fourth — well, if you haven’t heard the legends already you will just have to wait for me to get to it. The stories aren’t terribly accurate anyway. But now let us return to the night the Soul Thieves came for Elena. The third time I was angry.

As I staggered forward the shaft of an arrow appeared in the older man’s chest. He looked at it in surprise as another arrived from somewhere out in the darkness. Kat had found us as well, it seemed. He staggered, steadied himself, and knocked the third shaft away with a gesture, smiling with teeth stained red by his own blood.

Another shock slammed into me but I was having no more of that. I was having no more of any of this. I set my teeth and pushed forward, aware of pain but only as a curiosity. This is the power of the white rage that consumed me. I was not immortal, but I was the next best thing: my own mortality meant nothing to me. I smiled to answer the old man, and I saw him falter. As I lunged forward the younger wizard put himself between me and my prey and I put one blade in his gut and the other in his throat and wandered though his life with both. His blood splashed over me and it was glorious.

The woman said something in a language I didn’t know and light hit me, so bright it threatened to blind me through my closed eyelids. But anger ruled me and I didn’t care if I never saw again; I rose and rushed toward the source, swinging my blades in front of me wildly, unconcerned with whose flesh they found as long as they cut someone. I heard a cry and darkness returned and I shouted in triumph. At that moment I was little more than a knife with a human body attached — sharp, unbreakable, eternal, a simple object created only to kill.

But force of will can only carry one so far. While my eyes were still nearly useless they hit me, the force of the impact doubling me over, and in my own tiny world I flung my blades about with a prayer to gods I knew didn’t exist that I might draw blood. And they hit me again, from the inside, and I felt my guts getting mixed up and if I wasn’t helpless before I certainly was then. As vision returned I found myself on the forest floor, unable to close my eyes as mud packed into my left eye, while my right struggled to focus on a frond of moss clinging to a rock red with blood. My whole world at that moment. The anger slipped away from me, back into the dark place where it lurked.

Eventually I realized that no one was trying to kill me anymore. Good thing, because I was pretty close to dead already. A hand touched my shoulder. A big hand. Bags.

“You all right?”

I wasn’t ready to speak but I managed to cough. A feeble cough.

He lifted me into a sitting position and next thing I knew water was splashing into my eye, clearing out the mud, leaving only enough grit to be irritating. I managed to blink, managed to croak, and finally managed to speak.

“Elena?”

“I’m here.” Her small hands wrapped around one of mine. “I’m here.”

“Good.” I tried to put together my surroundings. “Did we… win?”

“You killed a soul thief.” That was Kat’s voice, a safe distance away.

“Huh,” I said.

“They’re not going to like that,” Bags said.

“We won,” Kat said. “You won. But it’s only the beginning.”

I opened my sore and scratchy eyes. The sun was dragging its sorry ass up over the eastern horizon, turning the sky pink. Bags and Elena watched me carefully, and I made a wish of my own that someday Elena could go a day in my presence without crying.

Beyond them, a shambles of a camp. The soldiers of the patrol, the five standing anyway, formed a rough ring around us. Their armor was dented and stained with blood, their faces bore the signs of abuse, but if anything they were more dangerous than they had been before. When you are given a chance to be a coward and you decline, you become a different person.

The captain crouched next to me. “Glad to see you moving.”

“Thanks.”

“Is anything you told me true at all?”

I pulled myself into a sitting position and Elena rushed to help, latching on to my upper arm. “The part about the berries,” I said. “That was true.”

“And the Soul Thieves want her?” He glanced at Elena.

“That was unexpected,” I said.

“I told you we had to go farther,” she said.

“Fuck me,” the captain said. “Soul Thieves. Never thought I’d actually see one. Didn’t really think they existed at all. Then the king puts out a bounty on the bastards and not a week later I’ve got three of them in my camp.”

“There’s a bounty?”

“Yeah. But good luck collecting it.” He sighed heavily and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m in an awkward position here. Your friends are fugitives. You knew that.”

“Yes.”

“Then there’s the girl. If the Soul Thieves want her, then the King will very much want them to not have her. I don’t think I can protect her. And you saw what those arrows did to the old man. Right in his heart and he barely noticed. But you killed one. Which puts you in a position to be a very good friend of the king, were it not for the company you keep. Tell me the truth. Are you the third one we’re looking for?”

“He’s not,” Elena said.

I liked the captain. He seemed bound by honor, which is an annoying trait in any man, but he was straightforward and at least somewhat pragmatic. “I’m the only one you’re looking for,” I said. “I killed the baron. You can let the others go.”

“The baroness must answer to charges of treason.”

Elena whipped her head around to stare at Kat. “She’s a fuckin’ baroness? I just thought she was a bitch.”

Katherine frosted. “‘Hostage’ would have been a more accurate title,” she said. “And I am not a traitor.”

The captain shook his head and stood. “That’s not for me to decide, your grace.”

I managed to pull myself to my feet. The world spun a time or two before coming to rest; I was leaning heavily on Elena. My tunic was caked with deep red mud. “You’re in no shape to fight those two,” I said, gesturing to Bags and Kat. “Not after the beating you all took last night. Take the victory you can. You’ve got the man who cut the baron’s throat, the body of a Soul Thief, and Elena, whom the King will want protected.”

The captain considered, and nodded. “I place you under arrest in the name of the King,” he said. “Please surrender your weapon.” He was very careful to emphasize the singular.

“We surrender also,” Kat said. “On the condition that we are taken directly to the capital.”

I looked at Katherine in dismay. She smiled. “You didn’t think you could get rid of me that easily, did you?”

first episode

2

TFNIWLNW: 11

As we staggered out of Mountain Forge the sun came out for the first time since I had arrived. Each step that separated us from that weeping sore of a town was easier than the one that came before, as if I had somehow been steadily getting heavier there and hadn’t realized it.

I took a long breath. The air was sweeter than it had been since I killed the baron. The road wound down and down beneath our feet for several miles before disappearing into the tree line. We had no food, no shelter, no money. The problems I fled would catch me soon enough. But for the moment, the illusion of freedom lifted my step and eased the ache of my cracked ribs.

Elena’s face was etched with fatigue, but her spirits were high. And why wouldn’t they be? She was leaving something bad behind, and ahead lay the unknown. I wish, sometimes, that I could remember what it was like when I was young and the unknown was exciting.

We were not moving quickly. However remarkable my recovery had been, I was still far from well, and Elena’s long night had taken its toll on her stamina. “She’s going to catch up to us,” I said to Elena.

“The fucking princess?”

“Katherine. Yes.”

Elena scowled. “Maybe the bitch’ll follow the wrong fucking trail,” she said.

“Not Katherine.” I looked up at the sky. “There’s some thrice-damned, ill-begot plan she wants me to be part of.”

“Why you?”

“It’s either my sunny disposition or the fact that I’m pretty good at killing people.”

“Is it true what Mrkl told those sorry-ass motherfuckers? That you could have killed them all?”

I didn’t answer right away, just concentrated on my footing over a stretch of road with loose rock. “It’s happened before. Mrkl was there once.”

“I’m glad you didn’t,” she said after a few more careful steps. “A couple of the motherfuckers weren’t so bad.” I wondered if she included her uncle in that list.

The sun had passed overhead and was descending behind us when we reached the trees. Just inside the tree line I sat on a stone to rest. My ribs were aching and breathing was getting difficult. I leaned back against a tree, trying to find a position where inhaling didn’t hurt so much. Unsuccessful, I looked back up the mountain. No sign of pursuit. I allowed myself a moment of hope that the woman had given up on me.

After a quiet moment Elena said, “We should keep going.”

I looked over at her and I wasn’t sure she’d be able to stand. She sat with her back against a tree, eyes closed, one slender arm across her knees and the other forgotten at her side. “You think your Uncle is coming after you?” I asked. I looked back up the road and wondered if I was well enough to kill the man.

She looked down at the ground, then back up at me, her eyes round, tears collecting at the edges. “Please can we go? Just a little farther?”

I pulled myself carefully to my feet; she found a burst of energy and rushed to my side to steady me. I put my hand on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze, and tried for a reassuring smile. “The farther we get from that piss hole, the happier I am,” I said.

That night we ate berries. A handful each. Delicious, bitter and sweet that turned our tongues blue, but not enough. The cloudless sky meant the night would be cold. I sent Elena to gather wood and prepared my tinder. A fire would be a beacon for those looking for us, but I was under no illusion that we had done anything to hinder a competent tracker. The only mystery was why we hadn’t been caught already.

We pulled close to the fire, and to each other, and as we sat in that glow I felt stronger. When Elena’s uncle found us, I was sure I’d be able to handle him.

“How are you feeling?” Elena asked. In the firelight her eyes were vast and dark, and hard to read.

“Better,” I said.

She nodded and turned to stare fixedly at the fire. The joy of freedom had already given way to a new fear I couldn’t put my finger on.

“We’ll be all right,” I said. “Those sons of four-legged mothers back there won’t be hurting you any more.”

“They’re not the ones who frighten me,” she said.

“You mean Katherine? She probably wants to spill my steaming entrails out onto the virgin forest floor, but she won’t do anything to you.”

Elena just stared into the fire. I thought the conversation was finished when she asked, “Do you think you could kill a Soul Thief?”

Three consecutive sentences without profanity. This was not the time to take her question lightly. “I don’t know,” I said. “They have to bleed, though.”

She nodded. “The day you came in, and you said you admired my fucking use of the fucking language. I fucking made a wish.” A tear caught the light of the fire as it rolled down her cheek. “I wished for this. For you to take me away from there.”

“And your wish came true.”

She nodded, crying steadily now. “I didn’t mean for you to get fucking hurt, though.”

I put my hand on her shoulder in a way I hoped would be comforting. At some time in every child’s life they are certain they have performed some feat of magic and are about to be taken by the Soul Thieves. Of course, they are wrong, but there’s no sense fighting the certainty; time will take care of that. “I don’t think what happened back there was magic,” I said. “It sure didn’t feel that way to me, anyhow.” She started to speak but I held up a finger. “But if it was magic, and they come for you, I’ll stand between them and you as long as I am able.” It was an easy promise to make, but I meant it absolutely.

“Tomorrow we have to go a long way,” she said. “So they can’t find us. After tonight I’ll stop wishing you better.”

I paused before replying. Say what you want about my mother’s people, we are one and all very difficult to kill. Pain does not slow us as much as it does others, and the injuries we suffer heal quickly. But I had plenty of reasons to put more distance between us and Mountain Forge as well. I smiled into her worried eyes. The discoloration from her most recent injuries was fading, but her lip was still swollen and angry. “Tomorrow the miles will fly beneath our feet, and when next we rest not even the eagles will know where we are.”

In that silence I glanced sideways at Elena and saw that she was asleep where she sat. I put another branch into our campfire and it flared up, snapping and sparking. Elena slept right through it. I sat next to her and wrapped my cloak around both of us, wondering when Katherine would finally catch up to us and bring us some godfucked soup. She was probably leaving us out here to freeze our asses off to teach me some sort of lesson.

I was starting to nod off when the sound of hoofbeats snapped me back awake. Several horses, heavy, mounted, no wagons. Military, but no foot soldiers. Most likely a routine visit to Mountain Forge, but they would bring word of a murder that had happened far to the south, along with a description of Bags and likely Katherine as well. Having that bunch between Katherine and me was almost too good to hope for.

The horses were moving slowly, guided only by moonlight. I sat as still as possible and pushed dirt over the glowing embers of the fire, but it was the wind that shifted and betrayed us, carrying the scent of burning pine back to the road. Someone issued a terse command and the riders came to a halt.

“Remain where you are,” a voice called out. “Identify yourselves.”

Elena started awake. “Oh!” she cried out, startled.

“We are just weary travelers,” I said. I stood and added a branch to what was left of the campfire. I heard the captain deploy his men, reminding them that we might be a decoy so poachers could ambush them or escape. Thus cautioned, it took a few minutes for the captain and two of his men to reach us, and the fire was lively once more. He looked at the two of us and took in the lack of shelter or evidence of food.

“You are trespassing,” he said. “This wood belongs to our Lord Fairmont. Taking game here is forbidden.”

“We are guilty of taking some of his Lordship’s berries,” I said. “Nothing else.”

“How come ye to be here?”

“The filthy buggers stole me,” Elena said. “Right from my father’s stoop. It was…” Elena looked away and took a breath. “They took me to Mountain Forge to work as a fuckin’ whore. Fuckin’ slave. They throw the dead ones out behind the fucking brothel for the fucking animals to eat. My father came and saved me.” She took my hand.

“Looks like you paid the price,” the captain said to me. I imagine my face was not looking its finest. “Jonesey, let’s camp here. I don’t want to take the road up to the Forge in the dark. And get these folks some supper.”

While we sat still, a small camp sprung up around us. Our meal was welcome but not without a price, as the captain asked us more questions about how Elena had been kidnapped how I had managed to secure her freedom again. I let her answer. The names she gave I had no doubt were worthy of the soldiers’ attention. Yet it wasn’t long before he got to the question he really wanted to ask, and her other answers were forgotten. “Did you good people happen to notice a big man, probably twenty-five years old, blonde hair, with his front teeth knocked out?”

“There was one sack of sorrow with boils on his pecker that had these two teeth missing.” She pointed to the side of her mouth, on top. “And another guy whose teeth were black and smelled like vulture cum. His breath was fucking so bad it made me puke.” Some of the soldiers chuckled at her choice of words.

“The one we’re looking for had all his front teeth missing. He was traveling with a woman, and probably another man as well.”

Elena shrugged. “Don’t think so. But I only saw the pig-fuckers that came to the brothel.” A few more laughs.

“And you, sir?” the captain asked me. I shook my head.

“What’d he do?” Elena asked.

“He killed a very important man. He is very dangerous. If you do see him, be sure to tell someone right away. There is a substantial reward, offered by the King himself.”

Elena’s eyes lit up. “I hope we do see the piece of shit fuckbag.”

“I don’t,” I said. “I’ve had enough trouble for one lifetime.”

The captain laughed. “Your father is a wise man, young lady.” By then he knew just how much of a lady she was.

The interview was over, but the soldiers lingered around Elena, asking questions that invited colorful responses. “That son of a whore fucked by three bulls while the cows watched can suck my big toe,” was my personal favorite. Complex, but worth parsing.

I felt the mood of the camp shift as the hardened men of the patrol adopted Elena as one of their own. She enjoyed it also; it was a sort of respect she had never known in Mountain Forge.

Eventually we were laying wrapped in blankets that belonged to us now, apparently, on a bed of pine needles. Elena dropped back to sleep again, and slowly the camp quieted. I was exhausted, but I forced myself to stay awake, though perfectly still, looking up at the stars between the treetops. Up here, they seemed closer, and numerous beyond counting.

The next day the soldiers would arrive in Mountain Forge. It would not be long before they learned about Bags and Kat, and not long after that before they heard about me, and they would hear that Mrkl was my friend. If they stopped to torture Mrkl before coming after us it would buy us a little time, but they would probably save that for later.

In the end, there was only one thing for me to do. I took a breath, put the best blades for the job in each hand, and started to rise.

Her tiny hand rested on my forearm. “Please don’t,” she said.

first episode

1

TFNIWLNW: 10

No one had ever seen a Soul Thief, of course, but everyone knew someone who’s friend’s third cousin had been taken away. Perhaps she had wished for the rain to stop and it had. Perhaps it was a boy who had wished just once to win a race. Then the wish came true — the sun came out or the opponent tripped on a root, and that night the third cousin disappeared to never be seen again. The stories were consistent enough that they could not possibly be true.

That the Soul Thieves existed no one dared deny, but finding anything in our dingy world that bore their mystical fingerprints was impossible. Which either meant they touched nothing or they touched everything.

I, a man of reason, chose not to think about it too much. As a child I was as careful as the next to contain my wishes — except, of course, for those stormy nights when imagination grows larger than caution, and preposterous wishes are floated into the night, to see what might come. Those wishes, followed by a delicious moment of fear and anticipation, always crumbled, fading into a mixture of relief and disappointment. On a night like that I might have wished for a grand house, with plenty to eat, or perhaps I might have wished to have had a different father. The foolish, small wishes of a child.

I had never, I was sure, wished to be beaten to within a finger’s-width of my life and dumped in a shit pit to die. But here I was. At least Bags was there to fish me out, with his little half-smile.

Bags lay me gently on the floor of Katherine’s room, then sat cross-legged next to me in the comfortable silence we had developed in the woods, until Elena arrived with my bath.

My bath that night turned out to be a bucket of warm water and a sponge. As I lay on the bare floor, Elena, suddenly protective of me, insisted that she would perform the honors, and she began dabbing at the filth that covered my body. She started with my face, with my mouth and my eyes, and I heard her careful breathing and felt her fingers brush back my hair. I felt eyes on me and I felt a hollowness in my chest I could not identify, as if part of me was still out there in the rain.

“Scrub, girl,” Katherine said more than once.

“I’m hurtin’ the fucker” Elena would protest, but she’d scrub harder.

I managed to pry one protesting eye open and to focus it, more or less, on the girl. Her lip was split, and swelling. I tried to touch her face but she pushed my hand away. “Woke up Uncle,” she said. “Be still. Gotta clean your fuckin’ scrotum.” She smiled slyly. “Unless you’d like her grace to do the honors?”

The water was long cold by the time Elena was done, and my humiliation forgotten as my shaking grew steadily worse, until it was a series of convulsions with smaller convulsions between. I was aware of motion around me, aware of pain as I was moved, but it was as if I was watching from a long distance as they wrapped me in blankets and lay me on the bed. Then, the return of blessed darkness. At that moment, I would not have complained were I never to wake again. Something was waiting for me in the morning, something I had been avoiding a long time — Katherine was only the most recent messenger.

* * *

Sometime in the night my shaking stopped, and it was still dark when I came to accept that I would live to see another sunrise. I tried to accept the gift gracefully, even as the void I had felt the before continued to grow, as if some internal organ I didn’t know the name for had suddenly been taken from me. I reached for a knife and found Elena instead, curled next to me, watching my face with round, unblinking eyes. When she saw I was awake she put a finger on my lips and shook her head. “We have to go,” she said, almost silently, exaggerating the movement of her abused lips.

I was more than a little surprised to take stock of my condition and discover that leaving was even remotely possible. I felt far better than I had any right to. I managed to sit up without puking or even screaming. Her tiny hand on my shoulder steadied me, and I smiled at the girl, feelings I didn’t know how to name clouding my thoughts of her. “We have to go,” she said again.

We went. Slowly, slowly, down the hall, to my room. It had been ransacked, but my extra clothes and boots were still there, and Elena helped me dress. Whatever else I needed, I would have to find elsewhere. The grey light of dawn was peeking in around the shutters as we finished. I leaned a bit on Elena as we made our way down the main road, out of Mountain Forge.

We paused at Mrkl’s place. She ducked in and was back with him almost instantly. He looked at me gravely, sadly. “Martin,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” I said. My voice didn’t have the solidity it usually carried.

He looked at Elena, then back at me. “Take care of her,” he said. “Here.” He held out a bundle and opened it. My knives. “I talked to the people who took them,” he said. “Told ’em a little about you, what might happen if they kept ’em. I said they could keep the money.”

I stared at the knives, reached out and touched them, ran shaking fingers over the cold metal. The hunting knife with the recurved tip, the sleek stiletto that could find a heart so easily, the thick-bladed weapon I called Bleeder, and the lovely, dark-bladed knife, simple in form, that made music even when lying still. Steel that has tasted human blood is no longer just steel, not in the hand that held it while it drank. I took a shuddering breath, released it, and accepted the gift.

One by one I placed strapped their sheathes to my body, each in its place, feeling more whole with each one.

“Watch, girl,” Mrkl said. “Those are Martin’s true love. Don’t ever think otherwise.” He turned and walked back to his waiting bed. I watched his receding form.

“We have to go,” Elena said. She took a step and pulled my hand, gently. “Please.”

It sank in. We. We were escaping together. I looked at her bruised face. She was counting on me to get her out of that place. Me, the guy who could barely walk. “All right,” I said, not sure how I was going to let her down, but certain I would. And so we walked, slowly, side by side, into the unknown.

first episode

1

TFNIWLNW: 9

Ah, greed.

Make no mistake, it is humanity’s greatest asset, the constant desire for more. The town I was in, the alcohol I was drinking, the friends I was renting — none of them would have existed were it not for greed. Avarice is, perhaps, my dearest friend.

But she has an ugly cousin: impatience. Some among us raise greed to an art form, manipulating the world with cunning and grace to take what they want. The most skilled practitioners of avarice have the patience of a toothless god. Alas, my acquaintances in that run-down tavern were not among that elite, to my sorrow and theirs.

For the happy part of my stay in Mountain Forge I was losing money to them steadily, each day enjoying my drink and leaving the tavern a little poorer than I had entered it. The dice were weighted, the cards marked, but I let them think I didn’t know, and enriched them a little more every day.

Little Elena was an island of light in the unbounded sea of gloom that is Mountain Forge when the rains come. My second day in the tavern, she greeted me, “H’lo, fucking Lord Toad-fucker.”

“Well, h’lo, you little festering pustule on a donkey’s scrotum.”

She smiled, then scowled. “What’s scrotum?”

“Ball sack.”

The smile was back. “Nice. Scrotum.” I watched her face as the word was neatly boxed and labeled, ready for reuse. And so began a tradition. Each day as I walked into the tavern she would greet me with a new insult, and I would respond in turn. She was a natural talent. On the last day she compared me to the offal running down the leg of the River God’s ox after it ate too much skungeweed. I was so impressed I almost forgot to insult her back. I sat down at one of the long tables with a warm feeling in my heart, and greeted my new friends.

But greed is always with us, and when not tempered by patience it will cause men to do foolish things. One of my new friends, perhaps the grizzled old man everyone called Mug, decided to accelerate the leakage of my funds into the community kitty. My wine that night had a little extra in it. Nothing dangerous, just enough to make a man feel invincible.

And invincible I was. Without the moderating influence of my own wisdom, I took the poor bastards for all they had. Invincible, I ignored Elena’s tugs at my elbow, her worried looks. I ignored the cloud gathering in the tavern, the angry glares and muttered curses. I laughed at them!

The illusion I had fostered was broken; my time in Mountain Forge was at an end. I don’t blame those men, not really, for what followed. I gathered their wealth, stood a little unsteadily, and stepped toward the door.

“Yer not leavin’ with that,” Jake said.

“It is mine,” I pointed out.

“Let the godfucked son of a whore’s twat go,” Elena said. Structurally a fine epithet but verging on nonsensical. She tried to push herself between me and Jake. Jake slapped her aside and I punched him in the face and to be honest I don’t remember exactly what happened after that. It was a blind and desperate struggle, surrounded, overwhelmed, crushed by numbers, flinging a fist into the confusion, feeling many land in return. Stars dancing as blows find my face, reeling breathlessly as fists hammer my gut. Sagging under the weight, in the end curling into a ball but there’s no protection in that, not really, as the kicks land on ribs and spine and death becomes a real possibility.

It was not the first time in my life my gambling friends had turned on me, but it was almost the last. This time, I did not draw my knives. I did not kill them all. Perhaps that small fact is significant, a sign that greater powers were in motion, twisting destiny. Perhaps I was just drugged and didn’t understand my peril. Perhaps, as Bags would say, there’s no use fretting over shit you’ll never know.

* * *

Consciousness was painful and unwelcome. I was lying on my back, and everything hurt. Icy raindrops stung my face. I took a cautious breath and my ribs protested while the smell of shit filled my head. I’d been thrown into a latrine. At that moment, it was difficult to appreciate the miracle of life.

“Marty.” I had heard my name used many times, I realized. I pried open one eye, puffy and reluctant. Elena was hovering over me. When she saw my eye open she said, “Fuck, Marty. I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. It’s my fault.”

I raised a filthy hand to touch her face. “It’s all right.” More breath than words.

She shook her head. “I brought the twat.” She glanced over her shoulder. “The lady. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Elena’s face was replaced with Katherine’s. I closed my eyes and wondered if dying from exposure was still an option. “It just keeps getting better,” I said. I think. Something else was wrong, as well. I reached to my side where I kept my hunting knife and found only bare skin. I was naked, without a single sharp instrument that I could kill people with.

“Let’s get you inside,” Kat said.

“Get Mrkl,” I said to the night, hoping Elena would hear me. I had no desire to be nursed by the blacksmith, under his silent disapproval, but that was better than being trapped with someone who wanted to change the world.

“You’re staying with me,” Katherine said. A statement of fact, not an invitation. I was in no position to argue.

And there was Bags, gleaming in his new chain mail, lifting me up like I was made of shit-smeared glass, and I clung to his tunic with a white-knuckle fist and choked off any sort of outburst as my ribs ground against one another.

Somewhere behind us Kat said, “Take him to my room. You, girl.”

“Yes, m’Lady?” I’d never head Elena’s voice sound so timid.

“You will arrange a bath. In my room. With hot water.”

“Now?”

“Of course now. This man is filthy. Go.”

I heard the girl’s footsteps hurrying off through the mud. I felt a moment of nostalgia for something that hadn’t happened yet. I was going to miss her when I left town.

I was beginning to shake violently, and Kat put her tunic over my naked form as Bags carried me into the boarding house, his strong arms cradling me. Light-headed, I began to laugh. “Be careful what you wish for,” I said.

A small smile from Bags in return. “Watch out, or the Soul Thieves will come for you.”

I pulled myself into his warmth and laughed at what I thought was a joke.

first episode

1

TFNIWLNW: 8

I stepped into the tavern and surveyed the room. The six tables were little more than planks nailed to trestles, the boards warped and greyed with age, stained by spills from countless mugs. Benches lined them on either side, and a three-legged stool stood listing at each end. The two overturned barrels that served as tables seemed reserved for dice games. Two smaller tables occupied corners of the room. I like that sort of spot, but both were occupied.

The fire in the hearth did little to heat the room, but the smell of burning pine helped to cover the sour odor of unclean bodies and ancient puke. The floorboards creaked under my feet as I ventured farther into the gloom, but no one paid me any notice.

Men sat, men drank, men played cards. These were men who won their daily bread fighting the mountain, attacking the living stone and the wealth it concealed. There was a grey cast to the men to match the tables, their warped and knotted hands mirroring the twists and knots of the boards. They were strong men, and hard, but the mountain was winning. They played their games of chance listlessly, with a minimum of conversation, rarely even looking at one another.

I sat at the end of one bench, away from anyone else. I wasn’t ready to be social yet; that would come later, after the proper amount of lubrication. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in. It felt like I’d been holding it for weeks. Here, in the quiet desperation of a working-man tavern, I was as close to home as I can come anymore.

“What you want, mlord?” The serving girl was fourteen years old at most, her skinny limbs long for her torso, her breasts only just starting to bud under her shift. Her dark, short-cropped hair showed a desire to wave.

“I’m no lord,” I said.

She glared at me through narrowed eyes. I noticed that one was puffy and slightly discolored. “You got all your fuckin’ teeth?”

I smiled. “Yes.”

“Then you’re a fuckin’ lord. What you want?”

“You have wine?”

“Oh, fuck, wine,” she said. “Yeah, we got fuckin’ wine, m’fuckin’ Lord.”

“Then bring me some, before the Seven Gods of the Sky finish their circle-jerk and drown the world in their spooge.”

The girl hesitated, then smiled. “All right,” she said, and disappeared through the opening to the kitchen.

She was back in only a moment with a mug filled with sour red wine. I took a long sip while she stood at my elbow, and I felt the glow begin in my belly. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Elena,” she said.

“Elena. I admire your unrestrained use of our language.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“But you’re limiting yourself. You haven’t said ‘dick’ or ‘balls’ or even ‘twat’ yet.”

“Go lick your balls, you fucking twat,” she said, and turned away to serve other patrons. Smiling. In a strange town, in an unknown public house, the best friend you can make is the one who serves the alcohol. The rest will follow. And it is always refreshing to meet someone who appreciates the power of language. I took another healthy draught. Already the wine was tasting better. Things were looking up in Mountain Forge.

* * *

Katherine may have thought she was being subtle when she invaded our little haven, but every eye in the room turned to her when she came through the door. I was still seated in the same place, but now I was with friends, though we held our cards close to our chests.

Her nostrils flared as she took in the ambience, then she spotted me. I set my cards down as she approached. “Martin, I was hoping we could talk.”

Elena arrived with the wine pitcher. I’d lost count of how many I’d had, but it hardly mattered. “Who the fuck is this twat?” she asked me. Elena was going to be a project, I mused, but the kid had a gift, there was no denying that.

“Mind your manners, girl,” Katherine growled.

For a moment Elena seemed uncertain, hearing the note of high-born command in Kat’s voice. A note I find distasteful, even among assassins and fugitives. Instinctively I came to the defense of my young friend. “This twat,” I said, “was just leaving.” I took another solid gulp of wine and I was sure I had done the right thing.

Katherine looked like she had been punched in the face, but the shock quickly gave way to a hard, quiet sort of anger. “I’ll talk to you later,” she said, “when you’re sober.”

I looked a Elena. “Let’s make sure that never happens,” I said. The girl smiled, her grin toothy.

Katherine set her jaw, turned, and left. The inevitable conclusion to our acquaintance. I knew Elena would not leave me, though. Not until my money ran out. She would even pretend to like me, an illusion of friendship we both would maintain, for our individual reasons.

“There’s a special hell just for her,” Elena said as she refilled my mug. I smiled, but it was bittersweet. It was Elena’s first creative curse, which was worthy of celebration, but it was a disturbingly accurate one. Katherine was in her own hell. I thought of chasing her down and listening to what she had wanted to say to me, but it was my turn to play a card.

first episode

TFNIWLNW: 7

With every step I took through the sucking mud and dung and mule piss into Mountain Forge, the gold folded securely in my belt got heavier. I calmed my shaking hands and resolved that this time would be different. This time I would wake each morning clear-headed and I would go to bed each night having only lost enough money to make the locals happy to see me the next day.

It’s a little story I tell myself every time I come to a new town. My story is no more truthful than the stories of Evil Things in the Night that mothers tell their children to keep them from misbehaving, and no more effective.

My own grandmother told me of the Evil Things while I sat on her lap by the fire, with or without a roof depending on current circumstances, and from her lips the descriptions of the Evil Things sounded frightening indeed. Gloriously frightening, fascinating for their danger. In her tales, when the hero arrived it sounded like the party was over. I loved my grandmother. My mother, I think, ever the pragmatist, would have preferred dear Grams tell her stories in a more traditional form, but I caught her secretly smiling more than once. She was raised on the same stories, after all. You might even say that my mother married one of the Evil Things of the Night, but we shall speak no more of him.

As I trudged into town the air carried a feel of pent-up lightning, a tension waiting for release. Or perhaps that was just me. Ahead, beyond a handful of ramshackle hovels at the far end of the street, the mountain rose cold and hard, stunted trees clinging anywhere purchase could be found, shrouded in shifting clouds. A waterfall scarred its granite face, leaping down from above in a series of cascades with great energy, the sound of the rushing water a constant reminder that it was here before we were. Somewhere else, it might have been beautiful.

The street had been churned by heavy traffic and saturated with rain until it was a slow, muddy river, flowing with grim determination back the way I had come, as if even the mud knew something I didn’t. Somewhere nearby a shout was answered by the bray of a mule, while ahead of me two men in ragged clothes stood in the muck shouting at each other, their friends gathered under an awning nearby calling encouragement to both sides. That would be where the alcohol was. Even as I watched one of the pair took a hopeless swing at the other, and they both collapsed into the foul mud, either wrestling or drowning, to the cheers of the onlookers. I would not be one of the buffoons in the mud, I told myself. Another story.

To my right I passed a livery, the lower half built of stone and the upper half of green timber, freshly cut. The burned-out building next door told the rest of the story.

The ring of a blacksmith’s hammer pulled my attention to the other side of the street. The smithy was open on three sides, raised out of the muck on a stone floor. I recognized Mrkl hunched over his anvil, sweat streaking the soot on his face and somehow permeating his leather apron, and allowed myself a little smile. I paused to watch him work, his massive right arm striking the heated iron while his left hand turned the piece with a large pair of tongs. The wind shifted lazily and the acrid smell of the forge stung my nostrils.

The big man wanted nothing more than to do good work and to get paid for it, which meant he had devoted much of his life to avoiding military service. Behind him a stout boy worked the bellows, while another, skinnier kid moved efficiently, preparing the next piece in whatever it was Mrkl was making.

The world is vast almost beyond comprehension, yet the gruff blacksmith and I had crossed paths more than once before. One might be tempted to credit some mysterious hand pushing us mere mortals around for purposes beyond our comprehension, but perhaps a simpler explanation is that we both like to be in places where interaction with any sort of army is limited. I altered my course, delaying for a few more moments being warm, dry, and drunk. For Mrkl, I would do that.

He glanced up from his work as I stepped under the shelter of the smithy. He dismissed me, looked back down, then looked up again and grinned. “Martin,” he said. “You’re still alive.”

“I’m as surprised as you are.” I stepped forward and the big man dropped his tools and wrapped me in a hug that threatened to suffocate me. I don’t have many friends, and this is why. I freed myself, aware of the eyes of my traveling companions as they stood rooted in the muck outside the smithy. Mrkl seemed to think it was funny.

“The big guy out there,” I said. “I owe him a mail shirt. The best mail shirt.”

“You have money?”

“For the moment.”

“Shit.”

“I was wondering if maybe you could hold some of it for me.”

He looked at me with eyes gone cold. “Let’s not do that again.”

I nodded, but there was a hot coal in my throat. “All right. But I’ll pay for the shirt now,” I managed to say.

“You want the top?”

“Of course,” I said.

Mrkl smiled. “Of course. Let’s get him in here, then.” The blacksmith waved to Bags and Kat, drawing them into the shelter of the smithy. I had walked away from them a quarter of an hour before. Now here we all were.

“This is Bags,” I said. “He needs a shirt.”

Mrkl looked from me to the big man and to Kat and back to me. Kat somehow managed to say nothing, though I could feel her words trying to escape out of every crevice of her being. “All right,” Mrkl said.

“How much?”

He smiled down at me. “Pay me when I’m done.”

“I’d rather pay you now.”

“I know.”

I tested the air, in and out. “Just let me pay.” My fists were clenching and unclenching without my direct guidance.

“No. I will do the work, and then you will pay me.”

Cornered. “Kat,” I said. “Katherine, I mean. Let me give you the money for Bags’ shirt. More than enough. Then you’ll be rid of me.”

She thought for a good long while. Somewhere out in the rain the battle between man and mule continued, with no clear winner but plenty of noise. The cheering up the street had faded; the entertainment was apparently over. “All right,” she said. “I’ll take your money.”

Carefully I pulled out five fat coins, far more than any mail shirt had ever cost, and I felt the lift in my heart as I did it. The true joy of money is not the having of it. True joy comes from spending it. At last I would be able to set the coins free. Those who keep their money locked up are cruel at best.

Kat took the gold and didn’t even look at them before she said, “I recognize this coinage. You just paid me with money you took from my own estate.”

Bags laughed. “Your own estate won’t mean much if we fail.”

Kat glared at him. “We will not fail.”

Whatever they may or may not be failing at, I wanted no part of. “You want to join me for a drink later?” I asked the blacksmith.

“You going to be sober?” he asked.

I hesitated and said, “probably not.”

“Then I’ll pass. Maybe we can do breakfast tomorrow if you’re up before noon.”

“I’ll get up early tomorrow.”

“We’ll see,” Mrkl said. “I gotta work now.” He turned from me and shoved the dull black piece of iron he was working back into the coals of the forge.

I didn’t let it show that he’d stung me. I know what I am; I don’t need to be reminded. Especially not by him. “See you tomorrow,” I said, and stepped back out into the rain, which was falling with renewed vigor. I didn’t put my hood back up; I just let the rain fall in my face.

“You all right?”

I looked back down to see Kat studying my face. “Never better,” I said. “If you will excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”

first episode

TFNIWLNW: 6

Episode 6

Civilization at last. Or a reasonable attempt at civilization, at least. Mountain Forge is a squat stone blister on the side of a mountain, habitable only because shit runs downhill. Its five hundred inhabitants, mostly male, are there to extract wealth from the stone, and for little else. But where there are men with money there will always be alcohol, and where there is alcohol and money there will be gambling. A truth as eternal as the stones under out feet. The alcohol would be watered and the games would be rigged, but those are problems a resourceful man can manage.

We slogged into town through steady rain, the gray mud sucking at our feet adding to the effort of our climb. I had long since given up trying to keep the moisture from permeating my clothes, my skin, even my bones. My cloak weighed twice what it usually did and my trousers chafed my inner thighs. My feet had swollen up in my shoes and threatened to burst the worn leather.

We hadn’t spoken much before, but once the rain came we plodded in silence, each of us wrapped up in our own personal misery. We marched, Kat in front, Bags in the middle, and me staring at Bags’ rain-sodden ass mile after mile. The trees became sparser and shorter as we climbed, until they quit entirely on the outskirts of Mountain Forge. The wind kicked up and drove the raindrops under the brim of my hat, a thousand icy needles stinging my skin.

Kat stopped before reaching the first stone hovel at the edge of town and waited for us to pull up next to her. “They will know about Sothron’s murder. There will be a reward. Someone here might try to claim it.”

At that point, I would have taken a cell in the deepest pit over more rain. Still, it’s important to remain pragmatic when running for your life. “Will there be time to get drunk first?” I asked.

Kat snorted as if I’d told a joke. “Just be alert. The baron was not well-liked here. Most people here hated him even more than they love money. But the temptation will linger in their hearts if they think they can get away with killing you and delivering your head to the authorities without having their own guts poured out in the street first.”

I looked up the muddy lane flanked by low stone structures, their granite walls dark with the rain. Coal smoke rose from chimneys only to surrender and roll back down to the ground, adding to the heavy mist, and giving the town a ghost-like cast. Farther up the lane the buildings became larger, more permanent-looking. One of those would have booze, a fire, and other entertainment. I started walking. “Speaking personally,” I said, “I’ve never heard of Baron Whosifuck. I just want a drink.”

“We’re in this together,” Kat said.

I stopped, turned, and regarded her. “No,” I said. “We’re not. There is no ‘this’ for us all to be in on. An asshole is dead. We all agree that’s a good thing. But that’s done now and the next step is to not be killed just because some rich bastard got his throat cut. I promised Bags a new shirt, and he’ll get one. But first I’m going to get warm, get dry, eat a hot meal, and try not to get stabbed for playing dice better than the locals. None of those things require your participation.”

She looked like I had taken her favorite toy away. “You don’t understand.”

“Actually, Katherine, I do. Better than you do, I think.”

Bags raised his big hand in a gesture somewhere between a wave and a salute. “See you later then,” he said.

I raised my own. “Let’s go find the blacksmith of this shithole after lunch tomorrow.”

He smiled. “You’ll still have some money then?”

“I’ll run out of welcome long before I run out of money in a town like this,” I said.

“Well, try not to get killed before tomorrow.”

“We’ll be staying in the same place,” I said. “I’ll leave it to you to keep me alive.” With that I turned and trudged up the road into town. I heard Bags and Kat exchanging words behind me, but I chose not to hear what they said. There was nothing she could say that hadn’t been said about me many times before.

first episode

Altered Carbon and Spin State

It’s been a while since I’ve shared my thoughts about books I’ve read. While I tag the episodes as “reviews”, I’m not really trying to write something to help you decide whether or not you want to read the story — it’s more an analysis of the writing to give me new ways to look at my own work.

Recently I bowed to the suggestions of Amazon and bought two Science Fiction novels, Altered Carbon by Richard K. Morgan and Spin State by Chris Moriarty. I must say that the Amazon suggest-o-matic did a fine job.

The two books have much in common. For instance, both take place in universes where information is not bound by the speed of light. This gives the universe the absolute timeline that makes faster-than-light stories so much simpler. Spin State uses Quantum mechanics sleight-of-hand (thus the title), while Altered Carbon uses less well-defined hand-wavery.

This leads to the core thesis in both books: If information can go faster than light, and humans can be described as information, then people can go faster than light. And if people are information, then information can be a person. Both stories have characters who are Artificial Intelligences. (They would argue that they are not artificial at all.)

In Carbon, (almost) everyone has a module installed in their head that records the current state of their brain. In the event of untimely death (‘untimely’ open to interpretation, budget, and religious belief), that personality and everything it knew up until the moment the recorder stopped working can be restored into someone else’s head (unless, of course, the recorder was also destroyed). Bodies are now referred to as “sleeves”, and there are more people than there are sleeves. The deceased and the incarcerated are now just files in a database, waiting for flesh to host them once more.

If you have enough money, you can live forever. You can even clone up a batch of replacement bodies, keep them in cold storage all over the place, and hop from one to another as a form of instantaneous travel. You can even have multiple copies of yourself, but that’s illegal, of course.

When you can live forever, it changes you. You’re lose a little of what it means to be human. You become a Methuselah.

Takeshi Kovacs is a bad-ass Envoy for the U.N., trained to withstand the stress of dropping cold into a new world, in a new body, and Doing What Needs to be Done. This time he finds himself on Mother Earth, the memory of his last death (and the death of good friends) only minutes old, subjectively. His sleeve this time has some fairly high-end cybernetic upgrades that make him stronger, faster, etc. He’s been called in by one of the wealthy immortals of Earth to solve that man’s murder — a murder so thorough that the ancient one lost two days of memory. The police have ruled it a suicide.

Takeshi has been downloaded into a body that used to belong to a cop who has been convicted of Horrible Crimes. The Envoy’s new employer chose that sleeve partly out of spite, as it’s the cop’s lover who is in charge of the murder case. She hates the Methusalahs, and they don’t miss a chance to rub her face in their power. Now she has to deal with some other asshole in the flesh of the man she loves.

It leads to some interesting questions about identity and what it is that attracts one person to another. Is part of attraction chemical, not governed by the information of who we are and how we think, but instead by glands and receptors and the stuff that’s built into our meat? Do we become chemically familiar with the people around us?

One thing I didn’t buy: criminals are put on the shelf for a given period of time. This is supposed to be a punishment, but think about it: if you rob a bank and get caught, you will be instantly (as far as you experience) shot a hundred years into the future. Sure there’s some shock there, but unless you posit that society and technology has completely ground to a halt, the future looks pretty bright to me.

Altered Carbon is a detective story with Science Fiction clothing, and it follows the Detective Story Contract: The reader is given the information needed to figure out the answer, so when the detective reaches the conclusion you say, “ah, sweet!” rather than, “Hey, I call shenanigans!” Morgan does this well, though there are a lot of moving parts. For a while I was reading this at bedtime, and not in big chunks, and found myself going “wait – who’s that again?” a few times. If your memory’s like mine, this is a novel to read in big chunks.

I had several theories as the story progressed, and was right often enough to feel clever but there were still plenty of surprises. It was a fun read.

Notable side effect of the technology: once everyone’s wired up, advertising goes straight into your head. And it’s really effective.

In Spin State, Catherine Li is a bad-ass Soldier with the U.N., specially trained to drop in on a planet and Do What Needs to be Done. Her body has some fairly high-end cybernetic upgrades that make her stronger, faster, etc, but it’s past time she took them in to the shop for maintenance. We first meet her on a commando raid on a facility on some backwater planet. Their mission: get into the facility and stand by while a kick-ass AI gets what is needed from their data systems. An AI has no physical presence, but it can temporarily take control of a body that has special hardware installed.

The raid doesn’t go perfectly; the person who was the host for the AI gets killed, and Li blames the AI. Then she’s sent off to her next mission, which turns out to be a real bitch. It’s on her home world, and a past she doesn’t remember starts to catch up with her.

There’s a wrinkle when people are sent across the void using quantum-mechanical spin state stuff: A person’s memories don’t always come out intact on the other side. As a person makes more jumps, they become more and more reliant on hardware installed in their heads to remember things for them. That means that their bosses see everything, and soldiers only remember what their boss wants them to. Li has a vague notion that she’s done some things she’s not proud of during a grinding, protracted struggle in a war that’s over but not really. It makes me think of Stalingrad. The enemy in this case is a system of worlds called the Syndicate who have decided that the old way of making new people is obsolete; instead they clone up batches and throw away all but the best, culling them as they develop until there is a family of exceptional humans who all have the same face.

It turns out Li has one of those faces, but she’s had it surgically altered to escape discrimination in UN space. Another woman with the same face is a famous scientist who has been murdered. And Whaddayaknow? We have an action-mystery story. You see, the quantum-spin faster-than-light mechanism relies on an exotic material that only comes from one place. Once that supply runs out, humanity must return to decades-long (centuries-long?) journeys between planets, and the UN’s benign rule becomes impossible to maintain. So Famous Scientist was trying to figure out a way to synthesize the material. Or at least, that’s what she told people she was doing.

So that AI that flaked and may have cause the death of Li’s comrade? It goes by the name Cohen, was born on Earth (when Earth was still a pleasant place to be), and clearly has designs of its own, however much it may be working with the UN right now. And it has a history with Li. Cohen interfaces with the world through a variety of people who have shunts installed, and I have to tip my hat to Moriarty for his carefully natural-sounding language differentiating the host meat from the personality within.

Lesson one: Don’t turn your back on someone with a shunt installed. You never know who might show up.

Li is the natural pivot point in all this: she has hidden Syndicate roots but embodies rugged individualism; she has a connection with a powerful AI, and she does the ugly jobs for her boss who is a Big Wheel at the UN. She’s a good soldier and accepts that she remembers what her superiors choose, but she’s convinced that it’s all for the right reasons. She roots for the wrong baseball team, but I’ll forgive her that.

Warning: Spoilerish paragraph:

While the AI in Altered Carbon is an interesting side character, Cohen in Spin State is central. He (yes, ‘he’) was one of the first machine intelligences to emerge, and much of the time he seems, well, human. Later Moriarty shows us that ‘Cohen’ is not really singular, and that the nature of machine intelligence is entirely different than our mushy biological intelligence. Yet they share one thing with us: a desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. They are also better than us at just about everything. In that light, the human engineering programs of the Syndicate start to make a lot of sense. Alter humanity or get left behind.

There were, I must say, a couple of things that bothered me about this story. I simply cannot believe that the mine for the material that the entire economy is based on would be run the way it was in this story. Even if extracting the mineral is an art form, the rest of the labor would be more cheaply done by robots in a society this advanced. I think the writer could have found plenty of other ways to create local unrest.

Also, virtual reality has advanced to the point where it’s indistinguishable from physical reality. I’m having a hard time articulating what it is about that that bothers me, except that it seems to be unable to let go of physical reality. People meet in virtual representations of real places, and can be embarrassed by the arrival of other people in that place also. If you’re a super-AI, how do you allow that to happen?

But for those nit-picks, I enjoyed this story quite a lot.

Two stories of hard-nosed people in over their heads. There is shooting, and sex, and explosions, and questions of identity. People die horribly when their heads are hacked. Philip Morris will be glad to know that tobacco has followed mankind to the stars and back again, to be thrown in an acid-rain puddle under a flickering streetlamp while taxis rush by.

Note: if you use the above links to buy one of these books (or The Kings County Distillery Guide to Urban Moonshining: How to Make and Drink Whiskey), I get a kickback.

TFNIWLNW: 5

Episode 5

There is a moment each morning when the night must recognize that day is coming, when darkness admits it must give in to the sun’s bullying ways, yet clings to the world for just a while longer before slinking back into the shadows. In the forest it is a time before color has awakened, when mist hangs close to the ground and the air is gravid with the scent of the earth. There is a silence then, broken only by the furtive steps of timid creatures trying to steal a meal in the stillness, before the predators of the day begin to stir.

Those who believe that the sun has no choice but to rise may not appreciate the magic of that moment. They forget that it will not be long before the uncaring ball of fire rises without them. When I am able, I stop at that moment and thank whatever gods might be out there for allowing me to know that simple peace once more.

It is also an ideal time for hunting. When my companions stirred with the growing light they were welcomed to the day by the smell of rabbits cooking over oaken coals.

“I could get used to this,” Bags declared as he tore dark meat from the bones and pushed it into his mouth, but I wondered if he could. The pace and the terrain were taking a toll on the big man. His hands bore a dozen cuts and scrapes from climbing, and fatigue was etched in his face. He favored his left foot when walking and I saw blood on his socks when he took off his boots. I had not been unhappy to bid the horses goodbye when the terrain got rugged and the forage sparse, but Bags, it seemed, had been born on the back of one of the beasts. Still he greeted each day of toil with a smile.

Katherine, on the other hand, suffered not because the pace was too fast, but because it was too slow. Each day she would range ahead, finding the best route for the big man, and then sweep behind us, checking for signs of pursuit. For every mile we covered, she walked three or more. Each night she agreed with tight-lipped reluctance to stop when Bags could go no further.

For my part I was content to pace Bags, traveling mostly in silence, encouraging him when I could, carrying his pack on occasion — though never for very long — and helping the civilized man to negotiate the wilds.

North, we traveled, relentlessly north; only Katherine sure of our destination. She knew more than I did about the people who wished us dead and the people who might still have use for us in this world, so I was content to let her choose our path, all the while knowing that while we toiled through the rough country, word of the baron’s death was traveling by road and was by now far ahead of us. A problem for another day — but each day Bags was going to be less useful when it came to dealing with the unfriendly people we might meet.

“Going to rain today,” Katherine said.

I looked up into the brightening sky. There were no rain clouds, just high, feathery clouds drifting to the east.

For a moment Bags’ smile faltered. “Well that’s just grand,” he said.

“It is, actually,” Katherine replied. She softened a bit. “Hang on a little longer, Bags, and you can rest. I made you something for your foot.” She handed him a wad of leaves that smelled awful.

Bags peeled open the leaves and looked skeptically at the gray ooze she had given him. He took a suspicious sniff. “What is it?”

“I found some dragontooth while I was scouting yesterday. I made a balm last night. Rub it on your blisters.”

“Isn’t that stuff poisonous?” I asked.

She ignored me. “When you put it on, it’s going to burn like you stuck a hot iron on your foot. But it’ll harden up your skin where the blisters tore off. And, uh, don’t lick your fingers.”

While Bags tended to his wounded foot Katherine turned to the food I had prepared. She took a bite of rabbit and nodded. “Thanks for breakfast, once again,” she said. “I appreciate not having to hunt.”

“I just put out snares,” I said. “The rabbits do most of the work.”

Bags picked up a pebble and threw it at me. “Just say, ‘you’re welcome’.”

Katherine allowed herself a hint of a smile. “You’d rather not take credit for anything, would you, Martin?” Katherine asked.

“I have always found credit difficult to distinguish from blame.”

“You’re worried I’ll blame you for making breakfast?”

“Your breakfast is stolen property. This forest belongs to someone. I would rather he never give me credit for making your breakfast.”

She made a face like she had bit into something bitter. She had extremely well-developed scowling muscles, I noted, forming small knots at the corners of her mouth and between her dark eyebrows. “Lord Wilmont can choke on his own genitals,” she said, “now that Baron Sothron won’t be sucking on them.”

I had to chuckle at the fine polish she put on her obscenity. She had not grown up poor, but she was comfortable enough living simply now. The frayed edges around the hood of her cloak and the patches on her knees bespoke a thrift I was not accustomed to finding in one raised in comfort.

It was possible, of course, that her carefully-learned diction was simply artifice, adopted with care, with the intent to conceal, rather than reveal, her origins. I am acquainted with people who have made that effort. The roll of her r’s and the elongation of her vowels hinted of the north, an impression reinforced by her pale skin, but her northness had been muted, subjugated by the tyranny of a southern-born tutor. Father dearest had hoped to improve her value in the eyes of the powerful men in the moneyed south. Based on current circumstances, I hazarded that his plans were not working out the way he hoped.

“Why are you smiling?” she asked me.

“I was jut trying to imagine how it went when your father tried to marry you off.”

She stood abruptly and reached for her bow. Apparently it was time to start walking. “Oh, I married him,” she said. “Father did very well for himself. But that’s over now.” She held her hand out to Bags and helped him to his feet. “Better?” she asked him.

He tested his medicated feet and nodded. “Better.”

I stood also and gathered my few belongings.

“My husband is dead,” Katherine said. “He was mutilated before his throat was cut, in a tavern while surrounded by his own men. No one seems to know whom to blame. Or to credit.”

first episode

TFNIWLNW: 4

Episode 4

It was I who heard them first. Horses pushed hard by angry men.

We had covered perhaps five miles by sunrise; the terrain was still friendly enough, and as the clouds broke up a sliver of moon provided enough light for us to avoid the worst obstacles. A bed of pine needles on the forest floor softened our steps as we wove between the dark pillars of the tree trunks. Katherine, when I could see her at all, seemed to blend with her surroundings until she was little more than a shadow. If ever needed to kill her, I decided, I’d make sure I did it in town. But today we were on the same side, or at least running from the same people, and the sound of pursuit to the south meant that blood would soon be spilled.

“Horses,” I said.

The others stopped to listen. After a moment Katherine nodded. “Riding hard — they don’t care if some of them break their legs.”

“How many?” Bags asked his partner.

“Several. Maybe ten.”

I would have wagered seven were I in a more congenial crowd. “No dogs,” I said, with some relief. Dogs are harder to deceive.

Katherine scanned the rising ground ahead of us. Not far to the west a rocky outcrop peeked above the trees, its pale face shining pink in the early-morning light. “We’ll set up there,” she said and turned that way without waiting for an answer. Bags and I followed, jogging behind her.

She didn’t slow until she was at the top. While Bags caught his breath I explored the outcrop, listening as the horses drew near. We were in a a good, defensible position, the approach to the outcrop easily visible. To the right was the gentler slope we had climbed, to our left the rocks were broken and jumbled.

“I should be able to get a couple of them before they reach shelter,” she said.

“What if they shoot back?” I asked.

She smiled. “I hope they do.”

Bags pulled his sword free. Everything about him was ragged except that blade, gleaming in the early-morning light. “I can hold the path,” he said, “’till you pick them apart.”

I studied the outcrop, and realized that I would be little help in the battle they were imagining. I have no sword, no armor, and no bow. “I’ll see you two later, then,” I said, and started down the other side, away from all the trouble.

“Where are you going?” Katherine asked me sharply.

“Not sure yet. I’ll play it by ear.”

“You godfucked son of a mongrel,” Katherine said. “I didn’t take you for a coward.”

“This isn’t my sort of fight,” I said over my shoulder.

“See you later, then,” Bags said.

Her voice was steady and hard. “I will find you, Martin. You can count on that.”

“I’m counting the minutes, Kat” I called back. Then I was among the trees, and I began moving more quickly, while wisdom warred with curiosity in my head. If I kept walking, I could live to spend the gold in my wallet, Kat’s threats notwithstanding. I could be far from the ugly politics, far from hundreds of angry soldiers. Eventually Katherine and Bags would be killed, Katherine’s connections discovered, and I would be forgotten. All I had to do was keep walking west.

Wisdom lost the battle, but of course you knew that already. Wise men rarely have interesting stories to tell; people don’t crowd pubs exchanging stories with their friends about the time they did the wise thing. I found myself curving around to my right toward the jumbled rocks on the north side of the outcrop where my friends waited to fight seven to ten well-armed men.

Our pursuit would have seen our change in direction and known exactly what it meant. They would be cautious. Katherine’s bow would slow them, and Bags’ sword would push them back, but assuming my companions won those two skirmishes, there would be other men looking for a more subtle path up. I needed to find that path first.

I found a likely spot, a fissure in the weathered granite that provided shelter from arrows and unwanted eyes. Through that passage the honorable men who wished to slaughter us would be able to get behind my companions at the top of the hill, making the fight much more fair than I was comfortable with allowing. I moved through the gap and found a nice nook behind a loose boulder. I was just settling in behind the rough, weathered stone when I heard the first man cry out. An arrow had found flesh. There were shouts, the leader instructing his men, but I couldn’t make out specific words.

Another curse, and the clash of metal, then quiet. If Bags had been overwhelmed, the enemy was now above and behind me. Best not to think about that. I had only one choice: to trust my judgement, to trust my companions, and to do what I do best.

Perhaps ten minutes later I heard the first furtive sounds of men trying to be stealthy while wearing metal clothes. By the time they were near me I had identified three of them by the sounds they made. I would have preferred two.

The knife I chose for this job was thin and razor-sharp, her blade the color of a dark dream on a moonless night. The smith who had forged her was dead now, slain by her twin. If I was going to die today, I wanted to die with this lovely blade in my hand. The steel was surprisingly resilient, but if I erred and hit armor rather than flesh she would break in a thousand pieces. Mentally I promised the piece of metal that I would not miss.

Three of them. I’d have to wait until I was right in the middle of them to make my move. If they didn’t cooperate and pass where I thought they would, my best option was to start running and not stop until nightfall.

They cooperated. The first was past me when I lunged from my little haven and cut the throat of the second, my black steel sliding through his flesh like it was air. The third in line had time to raise his sword before I found his larynx and pushed my knife home. Blood gushed onto my hand, threatening my grip, as I turned to face the one who had been in the lead.

He was facing me, sword ready, shouting obscenities that were frankly unimaginative. His feet were searching for purchase on the rocks, his hard-soled boots with tapered toes were made for the stirrup, not uncertain ground. His armor was clean and showed not a spot of rust, his green cloak hung easily on his shoulders. He held out his sword, fighting for balance on the rocks, and he knew that his only advantage was that his deadly steel was longer than mine. We seemed to be in a standoff. From above came another clash of steel, another cry of pain.

“You’re the last one,” I said. “All your friends are dead.”

“You are a lying son of a whore,” the soldier said. He was barely more than a kid, the fuzz on his cheeks more a wish than a beard.

I shrugged. “We can stand here until my big friend comes down to see what all the shouting is about, or you can drop your sword and go back the way you came.”

“If I drop my sword, you’ll kill me.”

I smiled and moved my blade to the side just enough, my empty hand in a placating gesture. “Why would I do that? I just want to be on my way. Drop your sword and start walking, and we’ll have no reason to kill you. We’ll be keeping your horses, of course.”

From above the sound of heavy footsteps. One person, favoring a leg. If it wasn’t Bags, I wanted my current situation resolved long before he arrived. “You’re time’s running out,” I said.

The sound of his sword rattling among the rocks reverberated through the forest. “Thank you,” I said. I reached out my hand to steady him as he clambered back past me. When he was next to me I cut his throat and watched his eyes widen in shock as he choked on his own blood. “You saw my face far to well, kid,” I said as he slumped to the ground. He deserved an explanation.

I turned to meet the approaching footsteps. Bags greeted me with his gap-toothed grin. There was blood smeared on his cheek, but I couldn’t tell if it was his. “Good to see you,” I said.

“Dangerous work,” he said. “Three of them, huh?”

I nodded. “Kat all right?”

“Yeah. Might go easier for all of us if you call her Katherine.”

“I know.”

“You also should have told us your plan. So we could work together.”

“I didn’t know my plan.”

“Maybe not specifics, but you did know generalities.”

“To be honest, I wasn’t sure I wasn’t going to take the chance to leave you guys behind.”

His face was almost serious for a moment. “Fair enough. Why didn’t you?”

“Still might. But you’re a good guy. Hate to see you die some anonymous death out here in the middle of nowhere.”

“You imagine a better death for me?”

“Maybe not better, but later.”

Bags laughed. “I’ll take it. And I’ll tell Katherine that I’ve already chewed you out for not being a team player.”

“A lot of good that will do.”

Again that smile. That toothless smile that lacked any guile at all. “Oh, she’ll still be madder than a cat in sack, but she won’t say anything. And she knows that you’re going out of your way to annoy her for a reason. She just has the wrong reason.” He laughed again. “She thinks you like her.”

first episode