The Terror of New Things 😨

This is one of my world-famous emails, sent Friday 24 May 2019. Get on the list here.


Being asked to do something different can be terrifying.

There’s a thing happening in AuthorLand™ – readers want new things and authors do not know WTF to do. I, because I have very little sense, pride, or self-preservation instinct, am trying new things anyway. This week:

  • How’s Boundless going?
  • Terror, and
  • A sample.

Let’s dig in.


Your Boundless update.

Boundless is kicking ass and taking names. I’m about 11,000 words into the manuscript so far (even ignoring the ~3,000 I ditched as a result of my Meriwether experiment [that link will take you to a before-and-after shot of two versions of Boundless’s co-hero, Meriwether]).

I’m having a lot of fun with it. I’ve spent more time worldbuilding this one than anything I’ve written before. In terms of what it is, it feels like a mix of Night’s Champion and Tyche. And having spent the morning re-reading parts of Night’s End, possibly my best ever trilogy finish, I’m good with that (the end of that book makes me cry, and I wrote the damn thing – I know what’s coming!).

One thing I’m dicking about with is what tool to use for worldbuilding. I spent a chunk ‘o time evaluating three:

The winner? OneNote. The ability to take quick notes on a phone, PC with only a web browser, or other weirdism outweighs most other factors. If I wanted to share a huge number of spoiler-ish things, I might choose World Anvil instead, but I’m not the guy who spoils the ending of movies.

I can’t divorce myself from Scapple, because it’s awesome, so my current suite of worldbuilders is OneNote & Scapple. They let me be thematic and pretty, which I dig:


Unbridled Fear

Authors hear two conflicting statements from readers:

  • We want new things, and
  • We want you to keep writing our favourite thing.

I read a thread in AuthorLand™ recently where someone lamented about this. Me, I don’t see the conflict, because I’ve a hunch that these can be two people, or the same person at different times, about different authors or works.

So, I’m experimenting. My upcoming Tyche’s Lost is a brand new thing, but old. It’s familiar Tyche, but with new people – Chad Forradel (a minor player at best) and Saveria Complex (also minor, except to Hope, who cares for her deeply).

People tell me my characters are excellent. I’m aiming to test that with Tyche’s Lost. I want to see if I can make you care about these two. One’s a man who backed the evil overlord of the last regime, and the other’s died twice before.

Wish me luck.


Speaking of luck…

I’m going to try to make some. I don’t expect you to fall in love with Chad and Saveria straight away, so I’ll share a chunk of Tyche’s Lost with you over the next few weeks. I’d be interested in what you think – not because I’ll change the ending, but because I like learning. Your first excerpt starts … now.

FALLING SKIES

The heavy roil of thunder beat the air. It strummed Forrest’s skin, more delicate than the rain that fell like endless tears. The night air smelled alive, the fresh scent of night flowers mingling with the petrichor of thirsty earth.

They stood at Vigil as they did every night. Marla was on the wooden stage, lantern light touching her face. She was a good leader, strong and just, not giving more to the gods than was necessary. She offered them the villainous and evil when she could, the weak and infirm when she couldn’t. Forrest would stand in a hundred more thunderstorms if it showed support. When he was close to her it lifted his heart, soothing his fears.

Fifty villagers shared tonight’s Vigil. They held clubs and ropes. Sometimes the Vigil was for sharing of thoughts and feelings. Other times it called for an offering to the gods. Forrest glanced at the stone statues surrounding the village square. Taller than two men, they leaned toward the flickering light, as if waiting for the rain to douse the fires. Ten in all, the village’s gods watched all, missing nothing. They looked like insect centaurs, mighty against the night. Long stabbing limbs reached through the rain. Forrest shuddered. I’ve nothing to fear if I do what’s needed.

Marla stared at the crowd. A wide-brimmed hat protected her straw-colored hair from the worst the storm had to offer, but she squinted as a squall tossed rainwater about. “Tonight, the world changes.”

The crowd settled. Forrest tightened his grip on the club he held. Marla often spoke of what was necessary to guide them forward. Of the cost to build the Church high enough to challenge the stars. Often, she spoke of change, but she’d never said it was time. He felt his heart quicken as lightning slashed the sky, the boom of thunder touching him again.

“Tonight, evil comes to us. The gods,” Marla swept a hand toward the statues on her left, “protect us, but we know they help those who help themselves.” A knowing nod, shared by many. “They will come to us with false promises of a better world. We must harden our hearts.” She squared her shoulders. “They’ll look like us, but make no mistake, they’re not our kin. We’ll take them to the Altar, and the gods will deliver justice.” She glowered. “If we fail, the gods will destroy us all.”

The Vigil members shifted, some anxiously, some eagerly. Forrest shared a look with young Tom Baker. None of us want to die. He held his hand up. “What must be done?”

“Justice,” Marla crowed. “Redemption!”

The crowd cheered, raising clubs and lanterns high. Thunder boomed again, louder, immediate, and sudden. No lightning foretold the sound. Forrest turned to the east. The cloud cover was heavy, a thick blanket hiding the stars from view. Even so, light pushed eager fingers against the storm. Whites, oranges, and reds illuminated the clouds. The gods are fighting the interlopers. It was the only explanation.

A long line of fire broke free from the clouds. Forrest thought it must be a chariot of heaven. It burned, fragments of molten fury falling in its wake. Lances of light and anger stabbed skyward even as the chariot fell. The noise pushed Forrest to his knees, shielding his head with a raised hand. A roaring, like a titan in rage and pain, and then a crackling like bottled lightning. Behind the trail of fire, a boulder followed. Forrest knew the boulders carried their gods. Earth above, born of earth below. The chariot must be the enemy Marla spoke of.

Marla glanced up, and for a moment the peace of her presence flickered. Forrest felt uncertainty gnaw at him. He wondered how something so majestic and beautiful could be the enemy. Marla’s eyes fell back on the waiting Vigil, her teeth bared in a snarl. She stabbed a finger toward the falling star. “Bring them! Hurry!”

Forrest felt his heart swell. He turned, almost slipping in the mud, but his purpose was clear. Find the invaders. Bring them to the Altar. Sacrifice them for the Church. He ran, rain lashing at his heels like a thousand tiny whips. He felt joy in holy purpose.

• • •

But this isn’t how it started.

CHAPTER ONE

Three dead people crewed the ship.

The Gravedigger was no stranger to death. She’d flown Navy colors before turning pirate. The evil and the wicked called her home, wreaking all manner of injustice on the innocent. That was before the corvette fell into the hands of a liar, thief, and the most handsome man to walk the stars: Chad Forradel.

Chad’s back ached, but not as bad as his skull. It wasn’t the Endless jumps. The pain rain deeper, became personal, held his hand at night, and stroked his brow in the morning. It’d been like that since he’d woken from the grave and smelled the burnt air of Earth. Although dead Ezeroc lay stacked like fallen trees, victory for humanity and the constructs in evidence, it was rough for Chad. His esper gifts hadn’t worked right since throwing his life aside so the Empress could learn a few tricks.

The tricks saved the Empire, but they left Chad in dire need of a vacation.

The ship hummed, quiet, ready, and almost empty. The bridge itself was a standard design. A holo stage four meters a side sat at his feet. Consoles with empty acceleration couches sat to the sides. Tactical’s three couches sat on his right, Comms’ two on the left. The starry night lay about them, bridge windows showing all.

One Comm couch held the other dead people. Chad leaned toward her as much as his acceleration couch’s harness would allow, steepling his fingers. “This is complicated.”

Saveria Complex looked at him. That was about all the reaction he’d been able to get from her. She’d died on Earth right alongside Chad, but if he was being honest, she’d had it worse. The Ezeroc crawled inside her, corrupted her flesh, and stole her mind. Insects made a hatchery of her skull. AI intervention saved Earth when Algernon dropped a nanobot swarm. The nanites churned through Saveria’s body, tearing apart the insect tissue. There wasn’t enough left of her brain to put in a sippy cup.

We saved a planet at the cost of a woman’s life. It didn’t feel right at the time, and it feels worse now. Chad looked away from Saveria’s stare. There wasn’t any life in it. He felt like he was looking at a machine waiting for a program. Which led to the third dead person. Emberlie’s mind crystal lay in Saveria’s skull. The fallen AI gave thought and action to Saveria’s body. Algernon thought Saveria might keep her human memories. He was certain Emberlie was gone, a fracture running through the storage core tossing all she’d been to the emptiness between stars.

That’s not all that’s empty. All Chad saw since Saveria woke up was that blank stare. She hadn’t spoken, following Chad through the Gravedigger like a ghost, reminding him of his failings with her silence, sins with her loss, and weakness with her fragile frame. If you’d been a little stronger, she might still be alive. Saveria’s your responsibility, and you’ve got to do right by her.

Chad stood, stretched his back, and strode to the windows, pondering their next destination. The stars hung in the hard black. Their ship’s drives were quiet and cold. Chad swiveled to Saveria. She looked at him, same as always, patient and empty. “I figure the universe is about done with us.” She said nothing. “We need to do something about it.” Not even a blink. “I reckon,” he stabbed a finger at the stars, “there’s a good place for a couple margaritas.”

It’s like talking to a tree that breathes. He sighed, more from habit, rubbing his forehead. This would be easier if his skull didn’t pound like the devil used it for a drum solo. Chad couldn’t think straight, let alone use future-sense to chart the stars. All he knew was getting clear from Karkoski was vital. She headed the Admiralty, and since they’d grown closer, she made mistakes. Just like he had. Hers were small matters, the loss of a starship, the failure of command. His were larger, almost costing the Empire their homeworld. It cost Saveria her mind. Chad reckoned in a different universe, one not rich with murderous insects, he and Karkoski might have a chance to be closer.

As it was, the Empire needed their focus. Focus meant distance. Distance meant a vacation.

Algernon said it would take time for Emberlie’s cracked crystal to meld with Saveria’s brain tissue. Time wasn’t a resource in rich supply, but Chad owed Saveria, and while everyone was squaring ledgers, Nate owed Chad some shore leave. He reached out to Saveria’s mind, trying to touch her thoughts like he had every day since she woke three weeks ago.

CHAD Hello Saveria, can you hear me

Silence. Not even the sibilant hiss of Ezeroc mind-speech. There wasn’t anything there. Or Chad’s gifts were so far gone he couldn’t talk to a fellow esper five meters distant.

“Good talk. Let’s get on, then.” He sauntered back to the captain’s acceleration couch and slung his lean frame into it. He pulled up the couch’s personal console. Viukde System waited for them. Thirty-nine jumps. It was far enough away that the light from Sol was a distant memory. So far away, no one would find them. The weary pair might find a little peace.

• • •

The obvious sign things were amiss was when a rock the size of an autotaxi tore a hole in the Gravedigger, but in hindsight Chad should have seen this coming. If he’d still had the gift of future-sense he’d have seen it plain as day. But even a normal would know star systems off the main galactic swirl were bound to be troublesome.

The Gravedigger shuddered from the jump, right into a cloud of rocks. Klaxons blared, the bridge lighting turning an urgent, angry red. The bridge holo stuttered, a wireframe of the corvette appearing in lines of orange light. Angry red highlighted the bottom deck. A chunk of the starship labeled SHIPS STORES was gone, now mere fragments on the drift. Chad tightened his straps, and ran a hand through his hair. “I meant to do that.”

Saveria said nothing.

Chad worked his console. Shaking off Endless fugue was second nature to him. Outside, the expected yellow subgiant star Viukde glowered from a heady distance. The bridge holo updated with system telemetry. Viukde Alpha and Beta were lifeless rocks. Gamma sat the expected 2.65AU from the star. The super-important thing was Viukde Delta was missing.

Another rock hit the hull, midships, directly on a particle beam mount. A tremble tickled his hands through the console as something in the belly of the Gravedigger detonated. Chad glared at the holo, expecting sense, or at least workable data. Planets do not disappear. It looked like Viukde Delta was no longer a planet, but rather a spectacular asteroid field. The hard black was alive with tumbled hunks of rock. The Gravedigger’s RADAR and LIDAR painted the void, mapped space, and showed a gazillion rocks in their vicinity. Velocities appeared next to the thousands of pinpricks of light on the holo.

Chad tapped his console. We’ve got to get out of this cloud of hell. The thrum of PDCs shedding tungsten into the hard black vibrated through the decking. He gave Saveria a glance, expecting concern, fear, or confusion. She remained a blank slate. He couldn’t tell if she prayed for deliverance or destruction. Or if she remembered how to pray.

The captain’s console chimed. The battle computer spied a mini-jump through the asteroid field. The holo churned with warnings. Gravitational interference could destroy the Endless drives. They could impact rocks the ship hadn’t mapped, birthing a new sun’s worth of energy as they hit at FTL speed. Chad spared another look at Saveria. Neither trusting nor anxious. Empty. You’ve got to get her out. You’ve got to give her the chance.

He slammed his hand down on the Endless controls.

Ahead, an eternity of faith. Behind, broken trust and promises. A vacant shell traveled at his side. Behind, he’d left the one love the universe gave him. Ahead, death and pain awaited. Impossible, unbelievable acceleration. He couldn’t feel it. He was it. He was everything. He was the universe.

Stars stretched, making streaks of light past the bridge windows. They jumped.

• • •

Stars shuddered, taking a breath. Smoke drifted on air cycler eddies. It was a promising sign, because they still had air enough to hear, and he still had senses and a mind. They hadn’t hit anything at FTL.

Viukde Gamma hung in blue-but-mostly-green calm above and to the left of the bridge. An asteroid, not Ezeroc megaroid-sized, lurked above the planet. It was probably the equivalent of one of their corvettes, an even match for a fully-crewed Gravedigger.

“Oh, come on.” Chad tapped nervous fingers on his console. “Do these fuckers not have a home of their own?”

Saveria turned her gaze from him, eying the Ezeroc ship. He didn’t take it personally. If anything, this was a great success. She hadn’t looked with that much interest at anything, even his excellent cooking, in the three weeks she’d been awake.

The bridge holo cleared. ENEMY ORDNANCE INBOUND. The Ezeroc ship fired a string of rocks at them. Chad sneered, tapped on his console, and told the Gravedigger to light ‘em up with a particle cannon. Ezeroc threw rocks fast enough, but it was a lazy tumble through the dark compared to near-C of human weapons.

Nothing happened for a moment, then the holo updated. SYSTEMS DAMAGED. PARTICLE CANNON UNAVAILABLE. “Oh, come on,” he hissed. “This isn’t fair!” Right about now, he could use an Engineer or two. A couple of people to crawl about the hull, righting wrongs. That made him thing of Hope, which made him think of Saveria, and he clamped his mouth shut with a snap.

Okay, so you don’t have a particle cannon. While he thought about options, he told the battle computer to take evasive maneuvers. The rumble of thrust shook the hull, pressing a firm hand on his chest. He sank onto his acceleration couch. How about a nice bout of railgun fire? He checked the systems. Sure enough, railguns were ready and willing. He flicked a switch, tapped a few commands, and hit the fire controls.

The railgun mounted on the front of the Gravedigger swung about and lined up the Ezeroc craft. Brilliant white stabbed the night, the roar of the gun shaking the deck. It fired fifteen more times. Chad watched the weapon unload on the enemy while the bridge windows auto-tinted the glare to non-painful levels. The firing solution was standard buckshot spread, giving a small chance of hitting a ship even if they initiated evasive maneuvers.

He turned the Gravedigger about, and moved to engage the Ezeroc, because Chad wasn’t running. Although he had a slim physique, he hated cardio. Didn’t mind dancing, though.

The holo updated, noting a starship transponder signal on the planet below. He considered it. Normally there would be tens or hundreds. One was bad, because it suggested the Ezeroc were using this planet as a sashimi bar, but good because there’d be another hull. He opened the comm. “This is Gravedigger actual to the starship,” he checked the transponder, “Ardent Fury. Nice name, by the way. We are an Empire Navy vessel under fire from an Ezeroc ship. Please send any and all aid.” He gave it a couple seconds. Chad double-checked their distance from Viukde Gamma, noting four hundred thousand klicks and change. Call it three seconds there and back, ten seconds for a half-way competent comm officer to push a button… At twenty seconds, he knew he wasn’t getting an assist.

A railgun round impacted the Ezeroc starship, which surprised Chad almost as much as he figured it surprised the Ezeroc. They hadn’t moved out of the way at all. He eyed his wrist. Chad wore no anti-roach bracelet; he had the skills to protect his own mind. He hadn’t felt them probing at him, mental claws sliding against his thoughts.

They weren’t reading his mind. They didn’t know the Gravedigger fired. “It’s Christmas,” he breathed. He pushed the Gravedigger harder, the ship roaring toward the Ezeroc. He told the battle computer to keep firing until there was nothing but stray rock out there.

The Ezeroc, for their part no fools, increased their rate of fire. The Gravedigger applied lateral thrust, easing out of the way of inbound ordnance, right to the point where the bridge lights failed. Darkness fell, the holo dark. Chad’s console died. The lambent orb of the system’s star set around Viukde Gamma’s horizon. Gloom shrouded Saveria. He could only see the glint of her eyes as weightlessness took him.

They were adrift, with an inbound salvo of Ezeroc munitions. He spun to Saveria. “Get in the pod.” She stared back, unmoving. “No, seriously. I love the mime routine, but it’s time for you to wake up and get in the escape pod.” Chad nodded to the escape pod annex off the bridge. “We’re going to die, but our deaths could be delayed by at least minutes if we eject. And why the hell is there no emergency lighting?”

The glint of her eyes moved left to right and back again as she shook her head. Well, hell. That’s an unexpected level of consciousness she hasn’t shown in a while. It’s a shame she’s chosen to manifest independent thought as ‘ornery rebellion’ right as we’re about to die. Chad unclasped the buckles on his harness, slipping free. A quick tap on the console mounted in his ship suit’s sleeve and his boots clunked to the deck as their magnets held him fast. He clanked aft, making his way to a small diagnostic panel. The main difference between this panel and the rest on the bridge was this one still glowed with power.

He cast a quick glance over his shoulder at the view through the windows, then got to work. The panel showed power out to the bridge and major systems. The drives hit emergency shutdown once bridge control vanished. It should be a simple matter of rerouting power through the junction nexus down the starboard side of the hull. Who needs Engineers, anyway? He tapped the console, telling the system to get on with it.

The bridge lamps came back on for a second, then the ship shook as an explosion tore the starboard side of the Gravedigger apart. The shriek of tortured metal and gasp of atmospheric decompression was unmistakable, even though the blow-out was a deck down. He glanced at Saveria. “It’s not my fault.”

She said nothing but tightened the straps of her harness. Chad ran a hand through his hair, feeling his headache peaking as he glared at the readout. Focus. The power relays starboard were gone, but he could do a secondary route back to port, and … viola. The bridge lights came back on, as the holo stage bloomed to life. Gravity clutched at him as errors swarmed the holo. IMPACT IMMINENT BRACE BRACE BRACE.

The ship shuddered as rocks cored the hull. Chad stumbled, magboots clanking, making his way back to his chair. He fell into it as a shower of sparks flared from a tactical console. He brought up system telemetry, looking for a way out. The Gravedigger watched the starry night, noting another Ezeroc craft joined the first. It was smaller and moving to intercept.

He eyed the planet. It eyed him right back. The Gravedigger’s main drive shuddered, coughed, and fell quiet. Chad stared hard at his console. “Don’t worry. The drive will come back on, because otherwise we’re going to die.”

He didn’t expect a reply, but her voice raspy and rusty with disuse, Saveria said, “Maybe we deserve to.”

The drive rumbled to life, saving him from an answer. The Gravedigger lunged for the planet. He worked his console. They had no flight control. They were destined to impact the ground, no question about it. The smaller Ezeroc craft followed in their wake.

The problem with this particular Navy corvette is it’s not atmosphere capable. If the Gravedigger entered honest, air-filled skies, she wasn’t coming back out again.

Chad worked for a spell trying to get the ship to turn, but he couldn’t get control. The drive was on burn, the ship digging her own grave. The bridge holo warned ABORT ATMOSPHERIC ENTRY ABORT. To the side of the main fusillade of errors, he noted, PARTICLE CANNON CONTROL: RESTORED.

He leaned forward, rubbed his eyes, and double-checked. Despite his headache, today wasn’t a total loss. They’d take a few roaches down with them. He asked for a firing solution on the Ezeroc ships following them into the planet’s gravity well. The Gravedigger, no stranger to fisticuffs, obliged. As the tinge of re-entry fire licked the hull, the particle cannons spoke into the night.

Chad got out of his chair, steadying himself as he charted a course toward Saveria. He made it to her acceleration couch as the ship shuddered, metal crying as atmosphere flensed her hull. “We’ve got to go.”

Saveria nodded. He helped her with her harness, taking her hand as they made their way to the escape pod annex. The ship shuddered, rolling like a dying whale as they burned toward Viukde Gamma. The escape pod annex was a short, stubby corridor. Two doors aside, one at the end. Five pods, enough for a full bridge crew. More than enough for the two of them. He opened a door, pushing Saveria into it. “My luck’s terrible. Better if you go your own way from here. If I make it, I’ll find you.”

She shook her head, pulling him after. The pod was big enough for four, but she clung to him anyway. Chad sagged, then grabbed a handhold against the wall. He put a hand on the back of her head as she trembled in primal human fear. He wondered what it would be like to have only half a mind as the fire of assured destruction ate the hull of a starship you last crewed as a pirate. “I’m sorry.”

She pushed him into a harness. He helped her with her straps, nodded once, and yanked the launch handle. The pod shuddered as the Gravedigger spat them into the stormy night sky of a strange world. The thruster on the pod roared, and the walls shook as they rattled toward the surface.

It wasn’t the ground Chad watched as they fell. He looked up through a viewport at the Gravedigger, firing at the Ezeroc craft. He told himself he watched to make sure the Ezeroc didn’t follow the escape pod. His belly felt hollow, his heart empty as the Gravedigger died for their sins.

Viukde Gamma welcomed them with open arms.


That’s me for the week. Next time, I’ll share more Tyche’s Lost (and a cool 5-star promo I’m hosting). I hope your weekend looks and acts amazing. See you next week..

R


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