Like all the Stories of the Restoration, Novices is set in a less-than-perfect future that is nonetheless better than the past its inhabitants remember. The world tore itself apart in fiery social upheaval and chaos, but now the fires of revolution and anarchy have cooled, and rebuilding is well underway. I think of Novices as a scrapbook of snapshots — a peek into the past of two characters who figure prominently in the plots of my novels Controlled Descent and Flight Plan. It’s two slices of two boys’ lives, set at the time they first leave home and test their beliefs against the worst they think the world can throw at them.
Joe requested that Eddie be sent upstairs on the pretext of a family emergency. It was even true, in a way. While he waited, he inspected the boy’s room. The place was orderly and clean. Rocks and feathers on the desk and frames filled with family pictures were the only personal touches. The austerity wasn’t what Joe had expected, but over a year had passed since he’d last seen Eddie, and children changed.
The young man who arrived at a run two minutes later was another surprise. His hazel eyes were still a little off, his body language still energetic and aggressive, but he was more than twenty centimeters taller than Joe remembered, and thin muscle over longer bones made him look a lot more wolfish than puppy-like now.
“GoodGod, you’ve grown.” The words got out before Joe could stop them. “Sorry, never mind. That’s not important. We need to talk.”
Eddie kicked the door shut behind himself. His hair was clipped so short his scalp showed through, and beard fuzz shadowed his upper lip. He wore only trainers and sweat-stained shorts, and he held a tee shirt in one clenched fist.
“What happened?” he asked in a high, hoarse voice. “Is it Mom? Bernie? Carl?”
Joe’s hopes withered at the last question. “Damn. I was really hoping you knew something was wrong already—Carl’s gone AWOL, and we need to find him fast.”
The sooner they found Carl, the less time he would have to hurt himself or someone else. That he would hurt someone was a likelihood Joe had to accept. This was far from the first time that an intern had gone over the Institute walls. No matter how thoroughly science came to understand the human brain, the mind wasn’t always predictable. Sometimes all the safety nets failed and a trainee succumbed to psychosis or major depression or paranoid delusion.
And right now, against all calculation, signs pointed to Carl being one of those failures. “Can you tell where he is now?”
Eddie sat on the bed and wrapped his arms around himself, and the guilt in his body language wailed, I didn’t know he was in trouble. Soon he whispered. “South-south-east a ways. Shit, he’s angry.”
“You didn’t know? I thought you always knew where he was.”
That anguished silence dragged on while Eddie rubbed a hand over his head and collected more words. “I don’t always tune in,” he said. “I butted out for the heavy stuff. I missed it. He up and left the campus? Without asking?”
Without me? was the plaintive undertone.
“Yes, he did, and that’s expressly forbidden at this stage of his training. He might not be thinking clearly, either. I was hoping you could help find him.”
There you go. Just the barest taste to whet your reading appetites. Novices releases June 23, 2015 as part of my celebration for my first novel’s first-year-in-print anniversary. It’s available for pre-order now if you’re interested. It’s priced at $2.99, and here’s a link:
This story comes with a bit of history. I’d reached an impasse while plotting my second novel because two of the supporting characters I wanted to carry forward from Controlled Descent needed more development. I’m not a fan of the usual tools–outlines, lists, personality profiles, and suchlike. Character design and plotting are discovery processes for me; setting down too many raw facts sucks the life out of my writing. Thus I did what I usually do when I hit a point where my subconscious is telling me I’m missing something. I wrote a story.
Actually, I wrote three stories by the time I was done: a prequel to Flight Plan, a sequel, and a deep background coming-of-age tale. That last one turned into the first of a novella trilogy that I’m working on now.
The other two turned into a nice pair of bookends for Flight Plan’s more sweeping action plotline. Turning The Work and Joining In the Round are as close to a standard romances as I’ve written so far. They’re about family, healing, and love; personal conflicts instead of criminal or political ones.
Quite a few readers have started with this novelette, then worked through Flight Plan & Joining in the Round before hitting Controlled Descent as a prequel read. Details from the resolution of Controlled Descent are necessary plot elements, so spoiler warnings apply. Below you’ll find an excerpt that isn’t included in Amazon’s Look Inside: Carl & Parker, brothers and experts in dispensing violence, are making their first visit to a knitting supply store.
Carl’s first impression of the Knotty Issues yarn shop was one of dazzling color and crowded confusion. The instant he crossed the threshold he started to hunch, shoulders rounding and spine slumping forward. He channeled the tension down and out, exhaling it before it could build towards panic. A second deep breath quelled the claustrophobia. It wasn’t really a small space. It was just a very full one.
The overhead lights were bright and the walls white, but the cramped feel of too many things packed into too little space overwhelmed their cheery efforts. A counter ran across the window frontage, full divided shelves filled both side walls up to a four-meter high ceiling, and a long wooden table in the center of the floor left only narrow aisles for moving past merchandise. At the rear, an archway strung with hanging decorations led into another room.
Six women sat at the table with hands moving busily over and under bits of thin yarn. Knitting, Carl assumed, although he didn’t see needles. After cursory glances at the new arrivals they continued a quiet but spirited discussion about sourdough bread without missing a beat.
Parker had ground to a halt in front of a large metal washtub full of fluffy puffs dyed in neon hues. He glanced sidelong as Carl caught up. Now what?
Carl shrugged, and Parker headed for the rear of the shop to scout for exits and hidden threats. Carl gave the crew at the table a second look and was ignored a second time, so he took the time to look around without interference.
Yarn in every conceivable texture, color and thickness was everywhere, spilling off the edges of the higher shelves, lying in piles on the table and nestled in baskets on the counter. It was even strung and looped over the tops of the seats. Carl curled his fingers into his palms as a reminder to keep his hands to himself. The rainbow parade of textures invited tactile exploration, but he already felt large and clumsy and out of place. Better safe than sorry.
Some of the implements in bins on the lower shelves and in decorative containers on benches were recognizable from his perfunctory studies. The rest, like most of the assorted larger devices and freestanding equipment visible through the archway, were wholly outside his experience.
“What the fuck is this?” Parker said from somewhere in back, and the voices at the table fell silent. Five of the six women looked up at Carl, and he felt a tickle of humor at the nearly-identical expressions on their faces. The messages were variations on a theme. Rude. Ignorant. Unwelcome. Inappropriate. Offensive. Underlying all the disapproval was a single irrefutable accusation: Male.
Carl’s amusement grew from a tickle to mischievous impulse. He pasted on the best oblivious smile in his repertoire and sauntered past all the rejection with more than a little swagger in his step.
“How the fuck would I know what it is, asshole?” he called back to Parker. “What the fuck are you looking at?”
The unrepentant spray of expletives won him five audible huffs and five offended glares. The condemnation on four lined faces under gray thinning hair was nothing more than the blanket dismissal of callow immaturity by aging authority. The fifth face was barely adult, brunette and pretty, and her bristling was more about status than indignation. I belong. You don’t, it said.
The sixth woman continued smiling down at the material in her hands as she’d been doing the entire time. She was closer in age to the youngster than the elders, but laugh lines around her eyes and mouth cheerfully admitted maturity.
She was intriguing. The inattentiveness was an act, disguising a possessive awareness of her surroundings that pegged her as the proprietor or at least an employee. Ignoring new customers while the current ones attempted to chase them off seemed like a recipe for commercial failure, but the choice was deliberate. Carl could tell that much at a glance, and he gave her a respectful nod.
Her body was far from petite and closer to sturdy than lush, and short black hair hinted at impatience with appearances while a tailored jacket acknowledged their importance. The overall declaration was a blend of I know what I like and what you see is what you get. The brash attitude more than made up for a face too strong to be considered pretty, but it didn’t explain her aloofness.
And none of it was any of Carl’s business, so he kept on moving. He was here to keep Parker on task, not to entertain himself with attractive mysteries. The quiet noise of hands in motion announced vulgarity will now be ignored behind him. The conversation muttered back to life as he ducked under low-hanging obstacles in the archway.
The back room was twice as wide as the front. Shelves full of books framed seating areas with thick rugs and standing work lights. The chairs all looked a little fragile, but a worn leather couch had been pushed against the side wall under another painted-over window. Carl sank into it and stretched out both legs.
The fleece rug glowed with color-stained sunlight from the high windows, and it squished thickly underfoot as if inviting him to take off his boots. He smiled, considering the reaction from the biddies up front, and he put his feet up on the table instead.
Parker was examining an elaborate cage-like contraption that took up most of one corner. It was a dangerous-looking piece of work packed with sharp metal protrusions and lots of overlapping moving parts. The lethal appearance was more than impressive enough to explain his startled vocalization earlier.
“That’s a loom,” Carl told him.
He received an incredulous over-the-shoulder stare. How the hell do you know that?
“Naomi gave you files, remember? You could’ve done your own intelligence-gathering, you know. Or you could try reading.” Carl pointed at the signs on the wall: pricing and rental options for spinning wheels, carding machines, looms and more. “Look, they even have pictures.”
Parker shot him a dirty look, and then was distracted by a wood-handled tool with multiple sharp tines. He tested the points with his hand and hissed. One finger went into his mouth, and his eyes tracked back to Carl. What. The. Fuck?
Carl sighed. “Wool comb.”
And? asked the curious eyebrows. Carl reminded himself to stop enabling the silence and gritted his teeth. Finally Parker said aloud, “What’s it for?”
“No idea. I would assume it combs wool, whatever that means. They come in pairs.”
Parker’s sniff expressed his dissatisfaction. He continued his haphazard explorations, braving the front section now and again, touching everything as he went. Carl picked up a printed book of patterns and leafed through it. The instructions reminded him of a mathematics text: the words looked normal, but none of them connected in expected ways. He hoped that the instructions would make more sense once the code was mastered, the way equations did. Otherwise Parker was totally screwed.
Parker brought over a selection of tools and spilled them onto the table, then crouched down and arranged them for review. What do you think?
Carl regarded the collection as objectively as possible. He considered and rejected several lines of inquiry before settling on, “Are you planning to knit something or assassinate someone?”
A warm, husky voice nearby said, “I was wondering that myself.”
Here’s a glimpse of my new Kindle short titled EXTRAORDINARY.
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A Night At the Carnival:
A hawker for one of the game booths leaned over his counter and waved, catching Valerie’s eye. “How about a free game for the kiddos?” he called out. A gold tooth flashed in his scruffy beard, and he tipped the velvet top hat on his shaggy dark hair. “And one for their beautiful mother.”
Mom snorted. “He must be blind.”
The insult poked right through Valerie’s temper and let the all sourness drain out.
“Well, Mom,” she said, “People do say I look just like you.”
They had looked alike once, before age hunched Mom’s spine and shriveled her skin, before the accident broke her hip and bed rest added pounds to her body. They were both big women, with thick arms and thicker thighs, and the blonde in their hair came from the same bottles these days. Valerie smirked at her mother’s shocked expression, then took her sons by the hand. “Come on, guys. This will be fun.”
The boys walked fast and bouncy. The words free and fun were enough to make them forget their small tragedies, and they left Mom, her poisonous tongue and her walker far behind. Valerie didn’t care if she ever caught up, but of course she did. The nasty comment went unremarked; things ignored ceased to exist. That was Mom’s way. They spent a lot of evenings not speaking to each other.
The boys tossed balls at painted boats floating in tubs of moving water, and Valerie chatted with the man running the game. He had a polished patter and a rough, gritty charm. Valerie paid for two more games after the first and considered it a fair bargain. The harmless flirting made her feel alive again.
“Bah,” Mom said. “Will you look at that? Back in my day, the freaks stayed in the sideshow tents. Disgusting.”
The boys both turned, eyes gleaming with curiosity, and so Valerie turned too. Her stomach knotted up. She had a bad feeling that she knew what she would see.
Two women in gray and black Department of Public Safety uniforms stood out from the rest of the crowd passing by. They weren’t just DPS employees. They were also visibly R-positive rollovers. One of them had purple hair swept back in a braid that went down to her waist, while the other had very short black hair, spiny lumps where most people had ears, and—
Gary crowed with laughter and shouted, “Look, Mama, he’s all scaly.”
“And a tail!” Johnny said even louder. “He has a tail coming out of his pants. I want a tail, Mommy!”
Valerie’s heart started to beat fast, and she said the first thing that came to mind. “She, sweeties. She has scales. Hush, please. Use your Sunday voices.”
This is where it all started, only not really. Controlled Descent is not the first novel I ever wrote. I finished four others before starting it. It isn’t even the first book in the future history collection I call “Stories of the Restoration.” It gets to proudly wear its “First!” badge based on its status as the first published Story of the Restoration. (For those interested, the series order is posted on the left sidebar of this blog and also on my assorted author pages.) And now, without further ado, let me present to you my firstborn.
Controlled Descent: Chapter One
Machines were Justin Wyatt’s life. The only thing he loved more than building them was putting the finished product to work, and the big, fast, noisy widgets were always the most fun to test in the field. The world might not need a revolutionary new snowmobile design, but he was having an immensely good time giving it one. He checked his safety straps and braced for the day’s third trial run. The rented helicopter lifted his prototype sled towards the top of the mountain, and icy rocks flashed by, far below. Watching engine readouts had kept him preoccupied during the first two lifts, but this time he enjoyed the scenery instead.
The view across the desolate peaks of the BrooksRange was stupendous. The biggest drawback to being rich was money’s tendency to attract people and responsibilities that he would rather avoid. Privacy was a luxury he was more than willing to purchase. The freedom to indulge his whims was the only real benefit of having more money than he could ever spend.
The helicopter dipped lower, and the sled cleared the top of the run. Justin released the tow cable. Thin cold air seared down his throat as the sled plummeted towards the steep slope. A thumb flick brought the motors online, and they whined as the gyros kicked in. Snow flared upwards on landing, the impact jolted through Justin’s body, and the sled roared as snow churned through the intake chamber. The mountainside flew past in a celebration of swooping turns and wrenching drops. Justin leaned into a sharp arrest at the end of the run, only meters from the waiting helicopter. Echoes bounced off the valley walls.
He peered upslope at the trails he had carved.The modified jetfoil was doing an excellent job. The sled would never be able to share a hill with skiers, but a groomed slope would survive reasonable traffic without damage. His client would be pleased.
The sound of rotors thumped overhead while he checked over the displays and reviewed the telemetry from the run. When he looked up, William Clooney was waiting for him beside a second helicopter at the far side of the pickup zone.
The rotor blades of both vehicles were lazily spinning at idle. The downdraft ruffled William’s stylish overcoat and made a mess of the man’s expensively cut gray hair. His expression was a courtroom blank, and the presence of his briefcase was a bad sign.
Justin stripped off his goggles and popped the safety harness. “Aren’t we on vacation? What brings you here?”
William glanced at the helicopter, and then approached awkwardly over the snow. “I brought you a problem.”
“I thought you and your pack of feral lawyers were supposed to tend to problems, so that I could ignore them.” Justin powered down the sled. The idle turned rough, developing a dissonant rattle that threatened to shake the engine cowling loose. He reached underneath to pull the plug. “Disaster can wait.”
William sighed indulgently a few minutes later.“Was it a successful test drive?”
“More or less. Wait a second.” Justin finger-tightened a questionable bolt and punched up the power again. The machine responded with a rumble. “Did you see me? How’d it look?”
“Terrifying, but I’m neither an adrenaline junkie nor addicted to snow sports. I don’t understand how you do it,honestly.”
“Practice. Ride the drop, keep your balance, and correct course so that things break your way. It isn’t hard.”
“Not for you, perhaps.” William paused. “Are the new power cells still meeting your expectations?”
Justin retrieved his toolbox from the helicopter and pulled out the diagnostic kit and a set of instruments. “They’re not technically power cells.”
“I don’t think the public will be comfortable with ‘ferroceramic electromagnetic storage capacitor,’” William said. “We can let Marketing decide.”
“No, we can’t. Wyatt R&D isn’t getting these. I don’t feel like listening to them bitch about my methodology. The patents are still sealed in my name. I might toss them to Dawnstar Foundation,once I work out the bugs.” Justin finished a few more adjustments to the motor before defeating the temptation to ignore his responsibilities. “All right,what’s the dire crisis? Another directive from an unhappy ex-Wyatt?” William shook his head. “Not this time, although ex-Wyatt the Second will be involved.” “Then it must be another licensing request from what’s-his-name over at Martin-Hong. Tiff’s been hounding me about expansion again.”
“His name is David Hong,” William said. “And he’s their director of R&D, as you very well know. You’ve invited him to dinner more than once.”
“No, I didn’t. Tiffany planned all those. She likes him. I think he’s a weasel. I don’t remember weasel names.”
“In any case, no, it isn’t a licensing issue.This is official trouble, and dire enough that I’ve scrounged up a backup pilot. Entirely too many people saw you drinking beer for breakfast for you to legally fly second seat. We don’t need the scandal of Civilian Security Bureau officers arresting you for violating flight regulations as soon as you get home.”
Justin stopped dead in the middle of repacking the field kit. “Home today? That bad?”
“Bad enough. Extremely bureaucratic.”
“What kind of red tape? Audit? Insurance? Asset taxes?”
William settled a long-suffering glare on Justin and refused to answer, which meant it had to be a regulatory issue. William was touchy about those.
“Articles of Restriction again?” Justin sat back on his heels. “Does the Fed want to drive growth or not? Is the US part of a global economy or not? Isn’t the government ever going to get tired of changing its own rules? Maybe it’s time for another Restoration. Maybe we could get itright the third time around.” William said stiffly, “Speaking on behalf of everyone who was out of diapers during the last round, I’ll thank you not to make light of that option.”
“I’m not joking. The never-ending new regs are choking us. We can’t sit back and let a pack of bureaucrats—”
“Dammit, Justin, shut up.” William folded his arms and deliberately turned his back. “You know I think that the Fed isn’t holding the reins tight enough. I am in no mood for this. You have no right to joke about Restoration. You didn’t live through it.”
Justin’s anger dissipated in an instant. “No, I didn’t. Sorry.”
William had lived through the riots and the militia-driven coups and the societal collapse that preceded Restoration, and the scars ran deep. He’d been nearly as old as Justin was now by the time the worst of the chaos was beaten back. The man brushed at his coat in a finicky gesture. “The Fed’s regulatory powers are nothing, compared to what they were,and the dangers of corporate or privately driven rebellion are still very real.Yes, we glued the broken pieces of the world back together, but it’s still fragile, and it needs corporate cooperation to survive. You know that, when you’re not acting like a child who’s been told to clean his room.”
“I said I was sorry.” Justin turned to finish packing. “You know I’m stupid about some things.”
“I’m sick and tired of that particular stupid,”William said. “Ignorant pouting was excusable when you were sixteen. It’s an embarrassment now. I hate it when you mock what my generation went through. I hate it. We built something good from the ruins we made of our country, and people died to make it real. Don’t even joke about tearing it down for your damned convenience.”
“I’m not mocking anything, William. I’ve helped rebuild it, thanks to you.”
The self-inflicted financial and physical damages of the Restoration years had stifled growth and innovation for a longtime, but overall the United States had come out ahead in the wake of the global meltdown. From its incorporation, Wyatt Enterprises had ridden the crest of a surging economic revival.
Justin walked around William to face him down.“Look, all I’m saying is that we never could’ve gotten off the ground today.The Restoration changes in patent law and tax structures, the consolidation of services and loosening of regulatory oversight; that made Wyatt Enterprises possible. Now the government is smothering everything again.”
William sniffed. “They can’t smother me.”
“Nothing keeps you down.” Justin caught William’s eyes and made sure his gratitude was visible. “Anyone who could take a fifteen-year-old’s crazy patent application and build an empire out of it can do anything. I’m sorry I pushed your big red button. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Without me you’d own a mechanic’s shop in Lincoln,Nebraska,” William said. He added with exasperated affection, “Finish up before you freeze to death. I’ll give you the full brief in the helicopter.”
“Should I give you my phone?”
William responded with an outstretched hand and a grimace. They had learned together the expensive consequences of expletive-laced phone calls made in the heat of the moment, but William had borne the brunt of the recovery work. Justin surrendered the device that had empowered so many impulsive rants. Once the sled had been wrestled into its carrier and both helicopters were on their way back to the lodge, William transferred the documents to Justin’s account and handed over a folder stamped with official seals.
Before finishing the first paragraph, Justin could feel his blood pressure spiking. He kept his mouth shut and kept reading. His temper was developing a sharp edge, but he refused to hit William with it again so soon. When he was done, he set down his datapad and took a deep breath. “You’d better keep the phone for a while,” he said.
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