The Incrementalists are a secret society of two hundred people—an unbroken lineage reaching back forty thousand years. They cheat death, share lives and memories, and communicate with one another across nations and time. They have an epic history, an almost magical memory, and a very modest mission: to make the world better, a little bit at a time.
Now Phil, the Incrementalist whose personality has stayed stable through more incarnations than anyone else’s, has been shot dead. They’ll bring him back—but first they need to know what happened. Their investigation will lead down unexpected paths in Arizona, and bring them up against corruption, racism, and brutality in high and low places alike.
But the key may lay in one of Phil’s previous lives, in “Bleeding Kansas” in the late 1850s—and the fate of the passionate abolitionist we remember as John Brown.
Steven Brust and Skyler White’s The Skill of Our Hands is the thrilling and thought-provoking follow-up to their critically acclaimed The Incrementalists.
The Skill of Our Hands will become available January 24th. Please enjoy this excerpt.
What’s Your Involvement?
Phil’s first thought when the bullet hit him was, Oh, come on.
Some of his deaths had been easy and peaceful—in his sleep, just drifting off. He knew that was true. He was sure that was true. But those were never the ones he remembered. He remembered the times he was in horrible pain from some disease, or had been executed for heresy, or had died violently in some war, or someone had just killed him on the conviction he was “up to something.” Meddlework used to be much more dangerous on several levels for several reasons, one of them being how much clumsier he—they all—used to be.
But the thing that got him about so many of his violent deaths was how casual they were. Like, whoever killed him didn’t think it was a big deal. He wasn’t a person, he was just, you know, the guy who was there.
He found that offensive.
He had only rarely, in his two thousand years, had reason to take a life. And even back when society considered life less valuable than it did now, he hadn’t committed murder without thought, without soul-searching. And more often than not, he still came to regret it. He had never taken a human life casually.
At least this time there wasn’t any pain—there was a thump, like something smacked him with a solid thud in the back of the neck, and he’d thought someone had hit him. But then he heard the report—the distinctive crack of the 9 mm—and then another hit him in the back, and another, and he was disgusted. He tried to turn around to see who’d shot him, but ended up falling onto his face. His last thought before he blacked out was, “This is so not what Ren needs to deal with right now. Fuck.”
Then the lights went out for a while.
Ren figured yoga class was an hour long for the same reason there were a hundred pages in a self-help book, even if the author’s big idea could be restated twice in half that. Twenty minutes of stretching was great, just what her body needed, but hardly worth the trip halfway across Tucson and the cost. The class was just more than she wanted. She’d get a DVD, or go back to her preferred sedentary lifestyle, except this was the best way to meet girls.
Specifically, yoga was the only way to meet Jane Astarte, whom Ren didn’t even really want to know. She wanted to know her husband. But she liked Jane. They had smiled at each other last week, after Ren’s first class, and she’d made a note of Jane’s shoes—red floral Toms. Today, Ren had arrived late. After class, Jane helped her find her oh-so-mysteriously missing moccasin. It had gotten into Jane’s cubby somehow, and they had chatted all the way to the parking lot. They said good-bye at Ren’s car.
And that’s where Ren was still, with her head between her legs, when Jane circled back around and found her.
“Ren?” she called. “Are you okay?”
The parking lot asphalt burned Ren’s ass through her yoga pants but she was shivering. She needed to swallow, but there was no spit in her mouth. She closed her eyes and tried to taste root beer, or smell the brackish funk of her quiet, mental Garden, but someone was calling to her.
“Ren? Are you okay?” Jane clambered out of her car, leaving it running, and the bing-binging of its open door made as much sense to Ren as words did.
“I need to go to the hospital,” she told Jane. “UMC.”
“Okay.” Jane threw Ren’s yoga bag in the back of her car. She picked up the phone Ren had dropped when she stood up, and put it in Ren’s lap. Ren stared at the screen. Six missed calls and a string of texts. The amount of activity had been her first alarm. The dangerous calm of Jimmy’s voice mail had been the second: “Ren, I’m booking a flight to Tucson, but I won’t leave Paris until I hear from you that I’m not needed in the Garden.”
Jane pulled out of the parking lot. “Did you faint?” she asked. “Do you need some water?”
Ren shook her head. She still couldn’t swallow, but Jane deserved some explanation, so Ren put her phone on speaker and replayed the voice mail message—the first one. It had come in halfway through yoga, but Ren had heard it only after scrolling through texts from Ramon and Oskar, who said they were on their way, but didn’t say why.
“This is Amy Schiller at University Medical Center calling for Renee Mathers,” said the voice mail. “I’m sorry, but we have Charles Purcell here in surgery. He had your phone number on an information card in his pocket. You can call me back at this number or just come in through emergency and ask at the triage desk for Amy or the social worker on call.”
“Oh, sweetie!” Jane reached out and squeezed Ren’s knee. “Is Charles your…”
“We live together.”
“I’m so sorry,” Jane said.
Some insulated bureaucratic part of Ren’s brain noted this fit the meddlework profile she and Phil had been compiling on Jane.
This. It’s exactly this kind of casual attitude to profile compilation—the sifting of your e-mails and diaries, doodles and rituals—that demands greater transparency from us. People are encoding more in symbol than ever before, so we see more of you, and must show you more of us.
Ren knew Jane was deeply compassionate, taught high school English, and practiced Wicca. She was also the reason Ren was taking yoga halfway across town.
“I’m sure Charles is going to be fine,” Jane said. “UMC is very good.”
“Phil,” Ren said. “He goes by Phil.”
“He—” Ren started, but couldn’t. “I always thought I’d know if something happened to him,” she said. “But I don’t know anything right now.”
Jane squeezed her knee again. “You don’t have to.”
“Thank you,” Ren said, wondering whether it was a mole or a zit on Jane’s chin. Either way, it helped her look the witch part—that, and the size of her nose. It was too big and out of place in the pretty, suburban rest of her. It was also the least reasonable thing for Ren to be pondering with Phil possibly dead or probably dying and Ramon, Jimmy, and Oskar already on their way to Tucson.
“I’ll park and come find you,” Jane said, pulling up to the emergency room doors behind a Lexus convertible.
Ren couldn’t tell her not to bother, that she’d be fine. “Thank you,” she said again. She wasn’t fine. She got out of Jane’s car and went inside to ask about Chuck Purcell, even though what she needed to know wasn’t anything a nurse or social worker could tell her. She needed the Garden, and a mind calm enough to reach it. She needed Phil, and even though she knew it shouldn’t matter, she needed him in the body she loved, the lanky, forty-two-year-old body with the one crooked toe and the mustache-cloaked dimples—Chuck’s body, the one dying just beyond the information desk.
The Garden was a strange place when you were dying.
It was a strange place anyway, what with being a product of your subconscious, blended with everyone else’s at the edges. But when you were dying, things got really weird there.
Phil was in his atrium, and then he was outside in the olive grove, and then he was on the other side, where his imaginary Garden bordered Ren’s. To him, her Garden appeared as a lush green valley dotted with windmills—put whatever Freudian spin on that you care to.
Phil stood above it looking down, and then he was back in his villa, flat on his back, staring up at a chandelier he didn’t have.
Confused? Yeah, so was he.
He fought to control it; to stay in one place. There was something he wanted to do, and he knew it was important even though he couldn’t think what it was.
He stood up, tried to walk, and stumbled over a tall vase filled with cattails. He cursed it for being in his way, and remembered that it was the seed of, of something.
That was it; he needed to seed the shooting.
Did he have anything useful to record and share with the others? He had been shot. Not a lot of details in that. He wanted to talk to Ren about it, but she wasn’t there. He was alone—where? His Garden, right. Seed the shooting.
He was still alive, anyway. You can’t get to the Garden while you’re dead, you’re just planted in it. Something about that struck him as funny, and he laughed, but then couldn’t remember what he was laughing about.
He wondered, if he went into Ren’s Garden—her Garden as represented in his Garden—if he’d feel closer to her. He picked up the vase, trying to remember what seed it contained, and wondering if maybe it had something to do with getting shot. He felt like it probably did, but couldn’t think why. Why—?
Why had he been shot?
Now there was a question worth exploring.
Consciousness in the real world and awareness in the Garden don’t strictly go together, but neither are they entirely separate. As you fade in the real world, your Garden starts to waver, and at some point you go so far down that you can’t hold the image. Phil didn’t understand how deep you had to go under to be unable to walk the Garden, but he’d only had a couple of thousand years to look at the question.
Phil considered asking Ray about it. But Ray was dead. Then again, Phil was dead too, or dying. Wait, no, Ray was alive again, spiked into a woman’s body this time. He’d come to visit them when—
The light faded, then came back brighter than ever; something to do with dying in the real world, or waking up, or maybe even surgical lights in his semiconscious eyes.
Phil made a pen and paper appear in his hand. He wrote, “This isn’t leaving. I’m coming back,” and folded it into a paper airplane and sent it to Ren’s Garden.
Then he blacked out or went under or died or something.
Ren spoke to a redheaded nurse named Jenny who said Charles Purcell had been shot three times and was still in surgery. Ren spoke to a plainclothes police officer who asked if she knew what a law-abiding guy was doing on the southside. Ren thought she’d never seen a flattop that bristle-flat, and the cop said he’d never seen a woman who really knew what her man did away from home. He kept asking questions, and she answered them until his phone rang. He answered, listened, and after that, he was done with Ren.
She called Jimmy in Paris, who very gently told her that the fish pool in his Garden was nearly transparent—dangerously more air than water—which told Ren more about the fragility of Phil’s condition than any medical information could have. Ren thanked him and closed her eyes. In the blank sky over her Garden mudflats, a tiny puff of cloud unfolded, like corn popping in slow motion, “I’ll be back” scrawled across its belly.
It gusted away, but Ren brought it back, and made it swell, darker and fatter, until it thundered and rained, drenching her in him. “We’ll call Dr. Freud for a consult on that one,” Phil would have said, if he were there.
Which he wasn’t.
“Hi.” Jane touched Ren’s arm. “How’re you doing?”
“We were going to get married in the fall,” Ren said. “If he dies, I’m telling everyone he got cold feet.”
Jane looked at Ren before she laughed, sitting down beside her. “He’ll never live it down,” she said with a credibly straight face.
“The nurse said it could go either way,” Ren said. “I think it’s weird that there are only two options for something that important, but you’re dead or you’re not. Married or not.” Ren sagged into the waiting room vinyl.
Jane nodded slowly, hiding a smile. “They’re only mostly the same thing,” she said.
Ren elbowed her, glad to have been yanked back. “Don’t feel like you need to stay with me, Jane.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “I wasn’t really ready to go home anyway.”
“Oh? Too quiet?” Ren probed.
“Too small. My husband and I both teach high school. Every summer our house shrinks.”
“What do you teach?”
“And your husband?”
“At the same school?”
Jane shook her head with a hint of a blush. “No. I’m at Howenstine, just around the corner. He’s at Southside.”
“Is that how you met?” Ren asked, and just like that, she was working again, gathering the information she’d started taking yoga to try and collect. She focused on each moment, paying close attention to the way Jane covered her mouth with her hand when she laughed, and to what made her sit forward in the uncomfortable chair. Ren wished she’d prepared even one of Jane’s switches before class—maybe the cedar whiff of her best friend’s deep-closet clubhouse—to trigger trust so Jane would open up about her husband. “It must be tough to be young liberal teachers in a state that’s still trying to get anti-evolution legislation on the books,” she guessed.
Jane sat back and crossed her leg away from Ren. “It is hard,” she said.
Ren noted the withdrawal. She would need to sidle up to politics more subtly next time.
“You have to learn to separate personal and professional.” Jane made a guillotine of her pinky finger against her open palm. Her voice had the tightness of a mother saying to be a big girl and not cry. “But what are we doing talking about me when you’re the one with a Major Life Event unfolding right now?” she asked Ren.
“We’re keeping me from cycling obsessively through the text, mail, and voice apps on my phone, or through worse things in my head,” Ren said, mentally filing Jane’s chopped separation of person and politics to seed later when she got back to her Garden. “Without you, I’d be sitting here trying to conjure a smiling surgeon through that door or attempting to keep Phil’s heart beating with the sheer force of my will.”
Ren knew Jane was a Wiccan, but right now, if Jane told her about creating her own reality, Ren was going to have trouble forgiving her enough to do good meddlework. “Do you believe we can do that?” she asked anyway.
“You mean do I think there’s anything you can do from here to help Phil in there?”
Ren didn’t trust her voice; she nodded.
“No,” Jane said.
“You could pray.”
Ren untwisted her hands and looked at Jane. “It wouldn’t help.”
“Not him,” Jane agreed. “Maybe you.”
“He helps me.”
“I know.” Jane squeezed Ren’s knee, and didn’t tell her that things work out in the end, or that everything happens for a reason.
Ren closed her eyes, and let it rain.
Copyright © 2017 by Steven Brust and Skyler White
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