I spent a good chunk of the weekend painting, most of it on the cover art for Mike Reeves-McMillan’s novel Auckland Allies. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of my original concept sketch and something close to the final painting on the right. I’m very late on this one, but I love the way it’s turned out!
Tear Apart Worlds – PDF
Tear Apart Worlds – EPUB
Tear Apart Worlds – MOBI
Several readers have asked for details on how the “seaborn books” are connected, and in what ways. Most of the books and stories I have written over the last ten years are tied together in one timeline, sharing characters, a couple of them extending over a generation. A few clearly share the same setting–our near-future world, with seaborn characters, but without Kassandra making much of an appearance–or not at all (Salvage).
You may have noticed that there’s a genre mix, from what would neatly fall into fantasy, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, etc. to stories that could legitimately be categorized as science fiction or tech-thriller (Nanowhere, Salvage), to stories that may not clearly fall into any bucket (Winterdim). Futuristic fantasy?
You may have noticed that most of these stories take place in the future. That’s on purpose. You could also look at the stories in this timeline and see the advance of technology from one to the next–especially when you get twenty or ninety years into the future, from Nanowhere to Teller and finally to Winterdim. I am a software engineer and technologist, so I am always interested in the progress of technology, where it will lead us, and where it will be applied in the fields of health, culture, military, and–very important to me–in or on the ocean, in support of preserving ocean wildlife as well as how we will continue to provide enough seafood for the world’s every growing market for it.
Want to print out the timeline, or get a closer look? http://www.saltwaterwitch.com/img/TheSeabornBooks-ChrisHoward_rev9.pdf
Let me know if you see typos, problems with the order or dates. I threw this together quickly, a lot of of it coming out of long email discussions with Georg (https://www.facebook.com/gtrimborn), Lorena (https://plus.google.com/117462233542667604483), and others. Also, I mention characters, plot direction for future books, and other details that you may consider spoilers, so read some of the longer blocks of fine print at your own risk!
Katren was a ship without a port. She was a ninety-four meter OSV—offshore supply vessel—with big hydraulic knuckle cranes looming over an aft deck stacked with suspiciously positioned and locked shipping containers, some with armed guards. It had been years since she had last touched any legitimate world port, rarely coming in sight of land, but Katren was a ship with an active and deadly purpose, and as her captain, Reyes Lacourse, made his way from the bridge down to the mid deck, he pondered a word his ship was full of: surprise.
Reyes nodded to a tall, cold woman in a starched white labcoat passing him just down from the command crew quarters. “Laura.”
“Captain.” Laura didn’t return a nod, or anything that looked warmer than the Atlantic beyond the thick all-weather windows.
Reyes didn’t notice, or care. He was concerned—at the moment—with surprises and being surprised.
He quickly turned at the next corner, took another set of stairs deeper into the ship’s interior, fiddling with an adage from his line of work: only the fragile had trouble with surprise. The strong expected it. Anticipated it.
But there were certain times, and there were certain operations that could not cope well with surprise.
“Juggling, for instance,” Reyes said to himself as he ducked through the heavily-latched deck door behind the two giant drums of the ship’s towing winches. “Juggling with chainsaws.”
Sliding sideways through the narrow space, Reyes stepped into the open along Katren’s port side, the cool North Atlantic wind trying to shove him around, snapping at the collar of his shirt.
Ambush. Just one kind of surprise.
Harv Marsh, one of Katren’s DPOs was coming up the outside stairs with another kind of surprise—an entirely new kind—someone’s spying little submersible, an underwater vehicle that seemed to able to track his ship. Reyes walked out of the port-winch’s shadow and into Marsh’s path, hooking the half-meter long cylindrical machine right out of the man’s hands.
Marsh stumbled back, caught the railing and just managed to keep his feet. His eyes were widening, the quicker parts of his body already reacting. Reyes saw the angry expression forming, a snap response, muscles tightening across his face and throat. Marsh’s mouth opened with an infuriated shout before a few necessary pieces of reality came together in his head to guide him. The DPO suddenly recognized the captain. Just in time. He clamped his mouth shut, blinked a few times, and shuffled back several steps.
Reyes waved him off, smiling. “Thanks, Marsh. For bringing up the prying piece of plastic and propellers.”
Marsh nodded with a nervous gesture. “Captain, sure. No problem.” And then backed up a few more steps, wheeled, and took the stairs a little too quickly.
A minute later Reyes—“Captain Reyes” because he didn’t tolerate the written or spoken use of his last name—followed Marsh down to the ship’s main deck, seawater running off the sub, up his arm into the thick folds of his rolled shirt sleeve.
In fact, it was the man that Reyes took orders from who did not want his full name, Reyes Lacourse, used in any document—or even spoken aloud. In their line of work there was always the possibility of someone recording conversations—the CIA, NSA, MISTIC, MSS, Mossad, CGI, or just someone new.
There was always someone fucking new.
Parallel with that, there was no such thing as being too careful, and the appearance of the little sub in his hands proved the point.
With a sudden stab of paranoia, Reyes scanned the horizon off Katren’s port side, marching through the shadow of one of the ship’s knuckle cranes, toward a village of orange and blue shipping containers crowding thirty meters of aft deck space, some of them stacked two high with narrow spacing between them to allow access. Most of them were stores for gear, food, and other everyday work and living related items. At least three had round-the-clock armed guards.
Reyes nodded to one of these, and did a slow turn to take in the length of open deck along the starboard side, the hull’s blue showing in a machine-straight line from the stern. The blue passed behind the massive white-painted superstructure, a mountain of angled metal planes and windows that formed the bulk of the ship’s working spaces and living quarters. Reyes ended up making a complete circle, and then returned to the port rail to continue contemplating someone’s clever use of surprise, still holding the little sub in one hand as if he didn’t want it too close.
Katren was a heavily armed multipurpose offshore vessel with a crew of fifty, about half of them captive “employees” that Reyes and his soldiers—the ship’s “command crew”—had taken from ships they had seized, looted, and sunk—sometimes sold or set to drift. Katren’s home was international water, mostly Atlantic, a ship with a shifting identity, that could drop in and out of global mapping and tracking data like a ghost—a ghost with the occasional need to slip into the real world to refuel, stock up on supplies, find a victim, and do some damage. Or play host to even scarier people directing secret activities all over the globe.
So it was quite a surprise to find that something so small and intelligent—the interesting device with dive planes and propeller Reyes held in one hand—had been stalking them up the eastern seaboard of the US. It was a tiny autonomous sub with video capabilities—and who knew what else? The sub had doggedly followed them across several thousand miles of ocean—and even scarier—managed to track and pinpoint Katren’s location without a trail, somehow knowing the ship’s ever-changing course without close and continuous pursuit.
The sub had to be able to record and match the sound of the screws. And that really surprised Reyes. Identifying the Katren by listening and matching what it heard against a stored propeller-noise signature meant a rare level of sophistication in a commercial project.
Or it was an experiment in someone’s military.
Reyes had spotted the little machine himself a few times, sightings off the Carolinas, and once when the man he took orders from came aboard to remotely oversee a particularly dangerous and bloody rendering operation in progress somewhere near Vancouver.
Captain Reyes held up the autonomous underwater vehicle, seawater running down his arm to the deck. The shrouding around the propeller had been broken off during capture, exposing the blades. Tilting the sub on end, he inspected the clear bullet dome of the fore with the camera equipment on a panning mount, the lens sticking out like an eye. Some intelligence in the machine’s programming had the glossy black circle pinned to him, shifting on gyros as if trying to keep his face in the center of the frame.
Questions about the sub’s purpose kept piling up. Why would an autonomous ship-tracking sub have what appears to be built-in face identification?
“Hey, Cap. I saw the dive team fish it out of the water.” Katren’s Second Officer crossed the deck toward him. “The fuck is it?”
Reyes looked up, gave Mowen a sour look. “The little machine that’s been videoing our movement and operations.” He sighed, used the little sub to point east toward the American coast, one handed, his other hand gesturing toward his ship, Katren, her crisp blue hull standing out bright against the deep gray Atlantic waves. It was a dramatic gesture, as if Reyes was about to quote some early Yeats, or at least say something profound. “The question to ask is who the fuck is Valerie Bennefield?”
Second Officer Mowen stopped beside Reyes, leaned an elbow on the port side railing, turning to the captain with a confused expression. He gestured, twisting one open hand up to show that he had no idea what the captain was talking about.
Reyes smiled, rolled the autonomous sub around to display the name in clear block letters printed up by the sub’s tail. “A graduate student at the University of New Hampshire. Apparently this is her project, some sort of ship tracking service using these little autonomous subs. Says so right here.” Reyes tilted the end up, made a face that seemed to show he was impressed by the technology. “And this one happened to find us and follow us up the east coast.” He paused, gestured to the waves. “And way the hell out in the middle of the North Atlantic.”
Seawater was soaking through his shirt sleeve. The hull slippery under his fingers, Reyes tilted the machine away, resting it along the length of his outstretched arm, but at an angle to let the water run down the half meter length toward the transparent end with the camera. The sea and salt slid through his fingers, over bands of flexible solar panels, which made up most of the sub’s exposed surface. A rectangle of sensor arrays broke through a section of the exposed hull just up from the video gear.
“What’s also interesting is—”
The sub’s propeller spun up, a buzzing whine and chopping sound as the sharp blades cut into Reyes’ forearm, a spray of blood whipping across his face, splattering the front of his white shirt.
The sub hit the edge of the deck of the Katren, skidded up against the lip, into the air, and through the gap running the lower edge of the railing. It went over the side, nose down into the cold dark water, and Reyes, blinking blood from his eyes, went over the rail after it, a straight vertical dive into the angry Atlantic.
He surfaced a few seconds later, kicking wildly to turn his body toward the west, pointing over the waves. “Do you see it? Where did it go? I want it dead in the water!”
The panic in the captain’s voice stunned Mowen for a moment, and then he snapped out of it, tapped the comm plug in his ear and started mobilizing the ship’s forces.
Reyes kicked closer to the Katren, over ninety meters of metal-walled ship sliding by in the dark water, already slowing with the man-overboard signal. He had to kick back to see two of the command crew’s gunners already active and scanning the waves for signs of the little sub.
Lots of looking, and leaning into the scopes of their rifles. No shooting.
Rising to the sharp crest of a wave, Reyes jabbed a finger at his first officer, Mowen, who was leaning way over the portside rails and relaying orders to someone behind him on deck.
“Mowen, I want the nearest operative turned on. I want Bennefield dead inside twelve hours. I want a reduction and wash. Tonight if we can. Understood?”
The first officer was nodding at the orders before he could make himself act on them. After a few moments, he said, “Right,” and scanned through a list on a small tablet cupped in the palm of one hand. “Mourn just left for Canada. Not too late to bring her back. Numerology’s on the west coast—in operation. We have Asphodel coming in from Cypress in time for it. New Hampshire’s his neck of the woods.”
Reyes wiped saltwater from his eyes, looked up at his First Officer curiously for a minute, and said, “Isenart?”
Mowen glanced down at the tablet’s screen, a scowl at the captain’s sudden lapse in security—matching an actual name with the operator’s coded identity. “Yup.”
Maybe it was the cold Atlantic getting to Reyes after losing the sub. Maybe it was the fear of what Dagger was going to do to him when he found out. Because Dagger always found out.
The rescue team was lowering the sling for the captain of the Katren, with a diver on stand-by, and Reyes kicked for the web of bright orange straps as they curled and folded into the water.
Just as he reached them he gave Mowen a curt nod. “Give the kill to Asphodel. And I want a grab team deployed for Bennefield’s residence. We need to find out everything about this submersible project she has going.”
Nathan Isenart hadn’t slept in seventy-two hours, and moving through the streets of Levkosía at two o’clock in the morning felt like dreaming with his eyes open.
That’s how deployment usually felt. Distant and connected at the same time, sharing his head with another similar person—only colder and closer to some social edge that kept normal people from killing each other. Over there he was dreaming of predators and someone else’s blood running through someone else’s fingers.
That was with the idle-line side of his mind.
To his online side, everything going on over there in idle-line felt a bit deeper than an ordinary dream. It felt more like a game, with questions and puzzles to keep the killer occupied until he was needed. Over there, it was like a full sense-depth and scoped interactive, shapes sliding by in slow motion, angled red shades of death, a dance with fine bones—and the sounds they made when they broke. Over there, Nathan Isenart dreamed of questions and killing and the streamlined predatory rocketing of dolphins.
So many questions.
Do dolphins dream of razorfishes when they’re on assignment? When the assignment is delivery or the assignment is reduction? Any particular species of delivery or reduction? Any particular species of razorfish? Do dolphins dream of Iniistius celebicus? The crunch of fine bones between their teeth? And what do they taste when those teeth open up the flesh of the fish?
Nathan let the questions flow, and let his momentum walk him twelve meters vertical, up the wall of the castle-like office building adjacent to the target’s location.
In Cyprus it seemed to fit right in. Turrets and banners, like something out of that crusader movie with Brigette Raia.
That was a sudden and strange thought. He had no idea who Brigette Raia was, and no idea where the images of a fortified medieval city had come from. Was it possible to pick up memories from the Prime Nathan Isenart, who knew nothing of the two identities currently in command?
He dismissed it. Leave it for the killer to ponder.
With one hand hooked over the parapet, he stopped to catch his breath, kept his legs spread, toes bent in climber’s shoes digging into brick, clinging to the side of the building like a spider.
Let the other side play, he thought with his online side. Let it dream and question things all it wants.
Timecheck. Three hundred thirty seconds more, and then he would let the dreams out.
Deep breaths, two of them.
And when he finally did—three hundred and twenty seconds from now—allow the other side to shift out of idle, he would let this side fall into dreams. Of calculating and puzzle solving. And dancing. Both sides could dance up walls and into ductwork, move silently through any city, speak half a dozen languages, and blend into a hundred different social forms and strata around the world. But only the other side—now idle—had learned to kill without feeling.
And it was nearly time to kill.
Noise in the alley below him. Nathan went still without a thought, his body blending into the shadows and the brick, his breathing already silent and slowing. He tilted his face forward to focus down between his legs, on the movement twelve meters below.
One of the target’s security detail: male, about 80 kilos, submachine gun, training down in Lemesos, desert tactics in North Africa, and seaport infiltration in the U.S. northwest.
Nathan knew everything about them, and it drove his plans. A rapid spread of future steps fanned out in his mind, the tree branching at decision points, a handful of them already flipping and crossing, calculating when and how and where they’d come back together if he had to drop and remove the threat.
The guard walked on, and alternative plans folded away in Nathan’s head like a map he didn’t need any more. He knew the territory. He was already over the top edge, swinging his body through the air and then panther-moving across the gravel roof of the castle, crouching under support cabling for a communications rig that branched black lightning across the sky, a haphazardly bolted together mass of microwave and satellite concaves and shields, and in between it all, a hundred beam reflectors gleaming in the night like ornaments on a Christmas tree.
Nathan jumped the north end of the castle’s roof, a good four meter drop, impact and roll, and he was up sprinting for the roof access door, his right arm curling back, one hand snaking through the backpack’s webbing, coming free with the chemcutter.
Thumbing off the safety, he pulled the cutter’s trigger, sprayed a tight circle around the doorknob. He tucked the chemcutter back into the web. The door eased open after the knob came off in his other hand.
And it was time.
The idle-side of Nathan’s mind reared up, banked into a roll that folded over his logistics side like day sliding under the dark of night. He felt dizzy for a moment. He felt empathy drift away like debris in a storm, and the killer came online. All in the time between an eye blink.
Nathan Isenart the Killer set down the doorknob, and tried to pick out shapes in the dark on the other side of the door. Nothing yet. It always took a few seconds for the needier parts of his vision to come online.
And there were other senses. Tilting his head back, he pulled in a long slow breath through his nose and open mouth. People had scents, everyone did, sweat, food, perfumes, the smells of their favorite clingy pets, and the detergent in their clothes.
Nothing out of the ordinary in the air.
His audio senses was also highly tuned, enhanced with implants—for hearing as well as localizing sounds.
Shifting his stance low to the ground, he swung the door wider, and he was inside, down the stairs, three at a time, footfalls sure and quiet as the night.
Now he could see in the dark.
Twenty-four stairs, gloved fingers light on the rail. Twenty-six. Turn at the landing, down one more flight, and he was through the fire door on the second floor.
A big guy in ten grand of Fioravanti tailored suit came around the corner at the end of the hall, black hair pulled back in a ponytail, eyes and fingers on some app on his phone, loaded H&K MP7 swinging free under one arm. Free and clear because he’s too busy fucking with his gear to notice me. Too busy worrying about looking like a bodyguard—dumbass ponytail. Too busy to keep a hand on the only thing that might save him now.
Nathan slowed his breathing, pasting himself to the wall.
The armed suit approached, bent over the screen, the glow lighting his face, bright against the dark hallows of his eye sockets, like a shiny superhero mask.
Nathan spent a couple seconds studying the material of the suit. Perfect fit. Charcoal gray. Some obscenely high grade of merino wool. What the fuck is the target wearing if his bodyguards dress like kings?
He decided right there that he would really try not to ruin the suit. The work of an artist. It would be criminal.
His hand shot out with the injector as the guard swept by. A quick squeeze and Nathan felt the jolt, a soft thump in his bones as the needle slid into the guard’s throat just above the shirt’s collar, carried and delivered a pulse of current to immobilize, and pushed the marionette load under the skin. By the time the guy in the lovely suit knew what had hit him, he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t move on his own. He no longer owned any movement of his body.
Steering the human shield through the door at the end of the hallway, Nathan reached under the guy’s arm left-handed, fingers sliding over the grip of the H&K, thumb sliding it into full auto.
That’s when the disappointment rammed home.
There was nothing he could do. The guy’s suit wasn’t going to survive the next few seconds. It’s going to be like a circus in here, isn’t it?
The target stood at a tall dresser across the room, back to Nathan, wearing a bathrobe, a big soft towel rolled around his neck, short dark hair glistening wet from the shower.
A glance in the mirror, and the target wheeled whip-quick and there was a big ass throwing knife thrumming in the center of the guard’s chest, the blade pinning a sharp wedge of the jacket’s left lapel, blood running to the handle and dribbling to the floor.
Nathan tilted up the gun, squeezed off a burst, punching the target against the dresser, another throwing blade that hadn’t been quite ready slipped from loose fingers to the rug.
Knees folding sharply, the target skidded down a wide slick of his own blood—now painting the face of the dresser, arms limp at his sides. Then he thudded to the floor inelegantly. He stared at Nathan, watching him without fear or pain or disgust. Just watching him step out from behind his shield. Then he stared at nothing.
Nathan came over, crouched down to check the target’s pulse. He fingered a couple of the bullet holes, lifted the target’s robe to see two knives remaining in the belt of sheaths across his chest.
Blood running through his gloved fingers and he wondered if the guy showered with his knives. I would.
He looked over his shoulder, lining up the scene: bodyguard betrays target, gets off a good dozen rounds just as the target unleashes his famed knife-throwing skills. Both dead.
Nathan stood, crossed the room, tipped the bodyguard in the ruined suit to the floor, and slipped out the door.
Then he was a shiver of motion in the shadows up the stairs, spider scaling walls, slipping clear through the windows of a neighboring building, out the other side, and he was gone.
* * *
Nathan Isenart was squeezing into the seat harness at the back of the gunship two thousand meters over western Cyprus, signaling mission success to his extraction team before he allowed his calm calculating side to come back online.
For now. The Killer would be needed one more time tonight.
Five hours later he was back in the States, driving up the coast of New England on one final operation before some well-deserved downtime. A quick kill the command center told him—commands came from a ship, code-named Krystal, operating outside any territorial water.
It was a quick one: sniper rifle—a G22 with suppressor—was under a blanket in the car when he picked it up in the Starbucks parking lot in Seabrook. One shot, dump the rifle, torch the car, and take a commuter bus to the station just outside Newington, New Hampshire to be processed by his ops manager.
Hands wiped. Operation complete.
Then he was sitting across the same pressboard writing desk from the man with the pink notched scar down one cheek and into his upper lip, in the room that looked like someone’s half-assed office-in-the-basement remodel.
“Thank you again, Nathan Isenart.”
“Listen to me carefully.” The briefest pause, as if Scarlip was about to say something terribly insightful.
Nathan leaned forward to catch everything.
“Wolfsbane procurator asphodel one zero zero four dazzle is constrained.”
Nathan blinked and swung his arms up, fingers clawing the air, a bloom of heat and sweat across his chest and shoulders, tracing lines of fire up the back of his neck. He felt that rip-current sense of disorientation, of not knowing which way to turn, and then he almost fell out of the chair.
The room felt alien, fictional, as if it didn’t belong to any reality Nathan knew, and he looked around to see if he could spot some piece of it that might provide a sense of place.
Spinning in his chair, his gaze stopped, fixed on the flowering plant on the filing cabinet in the corner.
That’s an Aconitum, one of the wolfsbanes or monkshoods. Had to be careful touching them. Poisonous. His fiancé collected them, loved them, and Nathan wondered if Umiko had placed the flowering plant in the room to help him find his way.
Whether she did or not, it worked. It calmed him down, and showed him the way home.
The world smeared by, then locked into position with an almost audible snap.
He cleared his throat, focused on the man with the cut through his lip, sitting and smiling in the chair across from him.
“Tom? What are you doing here?”
Nathan blinked at his old friend, Tom Cronall, a retired New Hampshire State Trooper, realizing at that moment that he was sitting in Tom’s basement.
He looked down at his faded camos, his boots planted squarely on the floor. It came back to him, a few stray memories clicking into place. He’d been at Army Reserve training—his Annual, two sleepless weeks of dicking around with guns and mud in upstate New York with a bunch of other reservists.
Tom slid a measured dose of worry into his look, leaning forward. “You must be tired. Umiko called, said you needed a pick-up in Portsmouth. Coffee? Need a ride into the City?”
Nathan rubbed his eyes, nodding as he stood and followed Tom upstairs. “Yeah, great, coffee, I think I need it.” Still disoriented, Nathan waded through the mess in his head to find his fiancé Umiko. God, it seemed like a month since he’d seen her. “Umi say anything else?”
“Nothing important. Let’s see…” At the top of the stairs, Tom shrugged and returned a laugh. “Yeah, I think it was something about how deeply she missed her true love. Come on, let’s get some coffee.”
Malcolm Marx opened the door and froze with his mouth open, the blunt, perforated muzzle of a gun leveled on his face. He tried to get his focus to move beyond the barrel and got as far as the big knuckles of the hands that held it. The gunman had it gripped two-fisted in light gray synthetic gloves. Two words surfaced through the fear in Malcolm’s head.
“Detective Reely, SFPD,” said a man’s voice on the other side of the gun, a deep relaxed voice.
“And I’m Isabel Torrella.” She held up her ID, impatient.
Malcolm registered a smear of gold shield somewhere in the background, but there was no way he could pull his gaze away from the hole at the end of the gun.
Isabel continued, “The detective’s with homicide. I’m with the Behavioral Unit. Malcolm Marx? We’re here to ask you some questions. Can we come inside?” Then to her partner, “Reely, can you get that out of his face for a second so he can answer me?”
“Sure, Iz.” A swift mechanical motion and Detective Reely of the San Francisco Police Department folded everything deadly away, stowing it all under a long tan overcoat with the collar pulled up.
Malcolm started breathing again, and the two cops moved inside without being asked.
Godless neanderthals. Go kill each other in your dirty lawless streets. Go pretend there is law. Go serve and protect, you mindless, shit-eating…
“Hey, now.” Reely, the homicide cop spoke first, his tone matter-of-fact, not a hint of sarcasm. “That’s a pretty good act, or it really is like the interviews tell it—you weren’t one of the combat trained twenty-six at The Farm.”
Malcolm gathered his thoughts for another time, nodded, said calmly, “Nalli is the combatant.”
It was common knowledge. The whole world knew their names. The twenty-six alphabetically-ordered members of The Farm had been on the covers of People Magazine, OK! and TimeOut—several times for celebrity introductions, a few individual spotlights, and then a decade later in big detailed Where are they now spreads.
The secrets were in the depths. Very few knew what they were really capable of, what they were raised and developed for.
Isabel Torrella made a couple screen stabs on an old iPad in a beat up ruggedized case, slid a finger like it was on ice, gestured with three across the face. Malcolm counted another six light finger taps before the Behavior Unit cop came back with, “That would be Nalli Nascas?”
Malcolm didn’t bother to curb his sudden irritation with the obvious. “The combatant.”
Reely cracked a smile. “And what are you, Mr. M, her tool or her toy?”
He got an elbow from Isabel Torrella for that.
Malcolm just stared at him, calmly planning the cop’s painful death, something drawn out, where the victim saw and understood what was going to happen—without being able to stop it, perhaps something involving anesthetics and live amputation? And then it swung fully formed into view. Two chairs facing each other, Reely anesthetized and immobile in one while Malcolm slowly took the cop apart… Start at the feet. Two tourniquets just above each ankle, let the saw slide smoothly between them, keep the spilling to a minimum, then a slick stainless steel whine, the wound sucking on the teeth. What he wanted the cop to see was his own body being taken apart piece by piece in one chair and reassembled—and posed like a mannequin—in the opposite chair. Toes, the left foot, then the right, then one calf, then the other, fingers, arms, shoulders. It wasn’t about physical pain. It was about composition and decomposition, about being in two places at the same time—or part of you being in one place while the rest was waiting to catch up—one part at a time—in another. Physical pain could be handled. What about the pain of seeing your body taken apart, slowly, and turned into inanimate parts that can’t be reassembled? It would be like seeing yourself becoming a toy, something made of plastic, unreal. That was the source of the fear, right there. He wanted this ignorant cop, Reely, to realize that Malcolm Marx could make him feel unreal. Permanently.
What is your first name, Reely? Even Isabel Torrella calls you by your family name, last name, surname, Reely. Why is that? Because she doesn’t know it? Because it’s a big secret? Malcolm’s internal claw and info retrieve systems, almost always on and ready to track things down, spoke to him and gave him the answer. No, it isn’t a secret, is it?
“I am the SII, Detective Kenneth Reely.” He slowed down, as if Reely was a child, and he had to construct the next three words out of their syllabic parts. “Strategy, Inference, Interpretation. Nalli does the killing. I plan who we are to kill, and how we are to do it.” He paused, continued staring hard at Reely. “And how long it will take to die.”
Reely gave him a narrow-eyed look for a moment—not the least bit frightened, but clearly not missing the use of his first name. Then turned to his partner. “Present tense use. ‘Does’, ‘plan’, and ‘how long’?” His gaze slid back to Malcolm. “Not in the past anymore, Mr. M? Maybe we should be talking to Miss N.”
The Behavior Unit cop stepped forward. “You’re a well-connected smart guy, Malcolm?”
She said it in a question, but he just stared at her, taking it as self-evident.
Torrella went on. “Laws are an inconvenience at best, aren’t they? You’re not really afraid of us?” She went on after another brief pause. “I can assume my partner and I wouldn’t be able to leave the room alive if you didn’t want us to?” She looked around, up along the sharp lines where the walls met the ceiling, taking in the rows of books in columns of built-in cases. Nothing deadly stood out.
He studied Isabel Torrella for a minute, and decided he didn’t really hate her. “It’s possible.”
Her look sharpened. “Possible that we might die, or possible that I can assume we might?”
Malcolm had to smile then. Clever cop. “The latter. I have not prepared as well as I should have for a visit by your law enforcement.”
She nodded, understood. And he could clearly see what she was thinking in her expression. With the twenty-six from the Farm, it was us and the rest of the world—angels and lower humanity. And it went deep. Your law enforcement. Your streets, your world. We’ll just take it from you at the right time because you don’t deserve it. You don’t seem to want it bad enough.
Torrella looked around the room, nodding again.
Her expression was clear. She could see he was closing up the whole show, moving on, and going underground.
Malcolm looked over and caught Reely’s grimace at his above-the-law-they-were-trying-to-enforce attitude. Malcolm said nothing. Let the cops ask their questions. Then he could continue packing in his operation, his belongings, kitchen tools, clothing, furniture, whatever he could safely and cleanly bring into hiding with him.
“Abbey Alder is dead, the first to be killed. Zia Zahniser was next. Then Brenden Bensing takes a couple shots to the head.” Isabel Torrella tapped a gun-barrel fingertip to her temple, dropped it—still smoking—to scroll down on her screen, and went on. “There’s a pattern emerging. You want to tell us about it?”
Malcolm said nothing. The prayers were in his head. He would let blood later in offering to the angels brought home to God.
Reely moved into threat range. “Someone’s cleaning out the Farm. First to die was A, then Z, then B… then Y? First off the bottom, then one off the top. When will it end? All twenty-six of you?”
Malcolm backed up a step. He wished Nalli were there with him.
Torrella finished up for her partner. “So, given that you’re M, that puts you—with N—Nalli, right in the middle.”
“Right in the fucking middle. In the middle of it all. Safely in the middle.” Reely gave them a dramatic expansive gesture. “And how are we—a couple of dumbass cops—not supposed to think it’s one of you? One of your fellow Farmies who finally got tired of the other letters in the alphabet soup?”
Torrella added what didn’t need to be. Repeating herself, thought Malcolm, just to make me angry. “Burning down starts at the ends. Puts you in the middle, Malcolm Marx. Kind of makes you last to get a turn in this game. What if you’re the killer?”
Malcolm shook his head.
Reely smiled thinly, jabbed at him with a finger. “Well then, farmboy, why don’t you fill us in with some of your magical Strategy, Inference, and Interpretation?”
Malcolm stared at Isabel for one long minute, ignored Reely, held up three fingers, then slowly curled one down into his palm, leaving the index and ring standing up. “Have you talked to any of the soldiers in Wolfsbane? Any of the Barnhouse disease-throwers?”
Reely shared a sudden confused glance with Torrella, turned back to jut his chin at Malcolm. “Barnhouse, the biowarfare school?”
“It’s never been just a school, Detective Reely.”
Torrella looked lost. “What’s Wolfsbane?”
“The scariest of us all.”
“Three of us. The Farm, Barnhouse, Wolfsbane. Rivals. Someone else might say more than rivals? We didn’t start out competing for anything, but the world is different now. We have the Cons—or MISTIC—doing who knows what behind the scenes. We have battles planned down to individual casualties—and then set in motion. Like a game. If I were assigned to your case, I would start with the others.” Malcolm kept the two fingers in the air, and said quietly, “The deaths in the Farm are clearly about who we are. Only two ways this plays out, but it doesn’t point to who it could be. Just why it’s moving the way it is. My colleagues—my angels—were hunted down and killed for who they were.” He shrugged, a new thought coming to him. “Or they were asked to do something because of who they were.”
“Do something? Then what happened to them?”
Malcolm sighed. “Obviously they refused.”
I post a lot of art—sketches, paintings, book covers. I occasionally post one of my short stories online. but I have only posted an entire book online once, and that was a long time ago—2005-ish. So, I’m doing it again. This is a serialization type thing, in which I will post three to four chapters every week until every last word is available to read. Free. Just so you know, Autonomous is complete and in editing, so there is no chance that I will post the first fourteen chapters and skip town without letting you read the rest. Well, there’s a slight chance of that, but it’s nearly zero.
About the story.
Autonomous is about wild-ass technology, the future of intelligence, floating cities in the middle of the ocean, murder, and autonomous underwater vehicles. It’s a stand-alone story, loosely connected to my book Salvage (Masque/Prime, 2013). If you’ve read Salvage then you’ve already met a few of the characters, but if you haven’t, what’s the worst than can happen? Right, but besides that?
If a story can have a shape, then I think Autonomous is funnel-shaped. It begins sort of loose, with a wide spread of characters who appear to be moving in different directions, and as we progress, the funnel walls impose their shape on the narrative. They close in—metaphorically—and most of the characters and their stories slip into the more concentrated flow with other characters and their stories until we have a richer, deeper, more complex story that carries everyone through to the end. (Almost everyone).
Then again, maybe that’s every story ever told?
Scratch all that. Autonomous is a murder mystery at its core, but it’s also about many different people, and groups of people, taking sides to solve a serious problem—I mean civilization-ending, deadly on a global scale. Not all of these people end up on the same side. Some of these people do not survive. Some of these people are inside one person—the principal character, Nathan Isenart, is made up of three very different aspects of the same person, sharing the same name, sharing the same physical form, but not much after that. Autonomous is also about three fairly-secret military programs with rival visions for the world’s future.
There, I think that covers some of it. If that sounds daunting or just weird, don’t forget that Autonomous is still mostly about wild-ass technology, the future of intelligence, floating cities in the middle of the ocean, murder, and autonomous underwater vehicles.
—Chris Howard, 2014, Somewhere near the Atlantic
Sign up for the Saltwater Witch Newsletter, one of the ways I will be telling the world that another set of chapters is ready to read!
Saltwater Witch News: http://eepurl.com/nkrLn
Follow me on Wattpad: http://www.wattpad.com/user/SaltwaterWitch
Subscribe to RSS on my blog (where you are right now): http://www.saltwaterwitch.com/blog
I’m happy to announce that my story collection, The Wine of Ravens, is live! (I have to add that I love this cover!)
Like a lot F&SF readers, D&D players, and geeks in high-school and college in the 70s and 80s, I was into Norse mythology, Vikings, longboats, and everything that went along with that chaotic, and often violent, world–although I probably went a bit far, and thought Vikings so passé that I changed my focus to the Saxons, Angles, Jutes, and Frisians instead. Enter my character, Aldred the Saxon, a sort of geeky version of a teenager living at that time, among the chaos, expansion, tensions with a fading Rome, and other territorial disputes. If you ever liked Robert E. Howard’s Cormac Mac Art stories, or Andrew J. Offutt’s Cormac books, you’ll be a fan of Aldred.
From the back cover:
If you can see into the future, gods will take notice of you. Aldred’s brother is killed unjustly, and Aldred is forbidden to bury or honor him. He defies the decree, and makes a pact with strangers, an old man who won’t show his face and a giant who requires a final battle before he lights the pyre for Aldred’s brother. Aldred returns to face his doom and discovers that an agreement he has made in life pursues him after death.
The Wine of Ravens is a set of six stories that cover a good part of the life of Aldred the Saxon, from his first meeting with old One-eye (Diminisher of Peace), his journey across Europe, tangling with the unjust, with various forms of death, to the Near East exploring belief among the ruins of the once great Roman city of Caesarea Maritima (The Breaker of Gods), and then back north to his homeland and across the channel to Britain.
The story “Diminisher of Peace” was originally published in The Harrow, and later as part of the short story collection Always Becoming. The other five stories, “The Witch of Khoreios”, “The Breaker of Gods”, “The Feeder of Ravens”, “Wonderdeed”, and “The Wine of Ravens”, along with Diminisher, were serialized in Sacred Twilight. Together they form a fairly complete tale of the life of Aldred, a Saxon who can best be described as a researcher with a gift, working around 420 CE for Wodan, a god who gave up one of his eyes for wisdom. This apparently gave him a leg up on how to deal with the Ragnarok, but also gave him the drive to spend a good deal of time trying to plan and prepare for that final battle of the gods. Aldred was presumably just one of several people Wodan gathered up from an unfortunate end to send on dangerous missions.
I started writing about Aldred in the early 1980s, and wrote the first drafts of most of these stories around that time. I refined them in the mid-1990s, and did a complete edit pass before sending them to Sacred Twilight around 2006. Look for the comic edition of Diminisher of Peace in 2015!
SF Signal just posted 314 Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Kindle eBook Deals $3.99 or Less, and Teller is 38 on the list!