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All Sweeping Aside – On Writing the Chronicles of Amicae

Image Placeholder of - 68Story ideas can come from anywhere, but what does it take for it to flourish into a full-blown novel? Mirah Bolender, author of the Chronicles of Amicae series, joins us to talk about her inspiration for the series, its publishing evolution, and more. Check it out here!


By Mirah Bolender

It’s pretty common knowledge that story ideas can spark just about anywhere. Anyone writing probably has computer documents, notebooks, and paper scraps overflowing with pieces of inspiration. It’s hard sometimes to know which of those will actually keep your attention and grow—sometimes the ones you’re initially passionate about fall to the wayside, and something random you picked up on a whim turns into a monster of a draft.

I recently found my original idea for the Chronicles of Amicae: less than two hundred words jotted down in a junk file on my computer, forming the vaguest of outlines. While I can see the roots of the final story in there, it’s also laughably different! It was steampunk. It had very heavy The BFG vibes. It was weird. At the time I was a college student participating in a writing workshop; the professor was assigning us all sorts of prompts to combine together, and I was having a ball with those already. I thought to myself, why not use this weird idea for the latest prompt? The prompt in question was “a day on the job,” but this professor was also notorious for adding in conditions from whatever he was reading. In this case, he had just finished House of Leaves—we had to create separate but connecting narratives in layers of footnotes. The outcome became chapter one. While the footnotes never made it to the final product (readers will probably thank me for that), the paranoia and subplots from them were still material that became vital plot points for the rest of the series.

Characters are key to every story, and most of the time I come up with characters before I figure out anything else. In this case I came up with the clever and mysterious Sweeper Mentor, but I didn’t want to write from his perspective because 1) clever mentors already know things instead of unraveling them for an audience, and 2) keeping a mentor clever and mysterious when you’re writing inside his head is a very difficult task. I needed a protagonist, but I had no idea what kind of person she’d be. For this I turned to my favorite type of characterization: a pinball method. Basically, if you’ve got one solid character, you bounce the new one off of it and figure them both out based on reactions—after all, if you know what you want the solid one to say, what can prompt them to say it? I bounced the blank Sweeper Apprentice off of the Mentor, what immediately came out was sass, and I said to myself, Ah, yes, I like this one. Boom, I had “Laura” instead of “Apprentice.”

When it comes to plot, I’m absolutely a “pantser”: I “fly by the seat of my pants.” When push comes to shove I can be a hybrid “plantser” by including outlines, but the pinball method hits me here, too—I’ll write a scene, which will then ricochet into something completely unplanned because oh no that gives me another cool idea to weave in—and so it goes. I’m also kind of a story magpie because I’ll toss in recycled bits from my old work or other interesting things I’ve seen recently. If those elements bounce off the existing material right, they stay! Otherwise they get pulled out and thrown in the recycle pile again. For example, the character Okane’s appearance, his personality, and his physical inability to say the word “you” are all harvested from different pieces of old stories that ended up working perfectly into the established magic system here, and became key pieces of this series’ plot.

Writing a series is difficult. You probably already guessed that when pinball is so prominent in my writing process, but even after that stage is over it gets complicated. Imagine the series is a skyscraper. Your solid draft of book one is the ground level up to the fifteenth floor; your early draft of book two forms the next section up; and the mostly written version of book three is wavering up on top in the wind. Edits happen. Maybe they’re tiny edits, but they’ve shifted the foundations and suddenly everything on top is off balance. You keep the bones of book two’s draft but with much heavier edits. Suddenly everything you had for book three makes no sense, it doesn’t work, why did you even have a draft for book three? (The answer is that you should absolutely have something to go on even if it’s an outline). Edits across the books can be so dramatic, there are even two characters in book three that have completely swapped personalities from their original versions! I’ve had the great luck of working with an editor who’s been enthusiastic about my story at every turn and never once suggested a change that didn’t make the narrative stronger, so while it can feel hectic and rushed during edits, it’s also something I’ve been able to step back and marvel at once I’m done.

Writing a series is also a lot of fun. You become attached to the world and characters that you’ve created. After you’ve explained the basics of the magical society and forged the relationships during book one, you don’t have to leave! Everything is broken in already. You don’t have to reiterate the basics, just launch into the new situation! I always had a series in mind, because when I got invested enough to write the story, I kept thinking of all the different situations possible for those characters and how they all couldn’t fit into one book. If you’re going to invest your time, why not put in serious dedication? Case in point: my original thought for Chronicles of Amicae was more like five books. My editor and I took a different course and ended up at the far stronger three. We’re already dealing with politics, mobs, crusading cities, secret magical communities, and man-eating nightmare monsters living like hermit crabs in the equivalent of magical rechargeable batteries. There was so much already; snippets of other Sweeper plotlines had to be filed away to be recycled into future products.

Honestly, it still amazes me that I’m published. Every time that I remember I’ve seen my books on a bookstore shelf or available online, I have to lay down and try not to scream with excitement. It’s so cool that I’ve been able to do what I love professionally. No matter what happens to me in life, no one can take away the fact that I have been published. There are so many ideas, so many things I’ve tried writing…sometimes it’s strange which ones keep my attention long enough to become finished drafts. When I first jotted down those two hundred words, I never would’ve guessed they’d grow into something this big. It’s been a wild ride, but it’s also been a lot of fun.

Mirah Bolender is the author of the Chronicles of Amicae. The final book in the trilogy, Fortress of Magi, is on sale from Tor Books on April 20, 2021. 

Pre-order Fortress of Magi

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$2.99 eBook Sale: March 2021

It’s the start of a new month and that means…NEW BOOKS ON SALE!!! Check out what ebooks you can snag for only $2.99 throughout the entire month of March here.

Place holder  of - 88Space Station Down by Ben Bova and Doug Beason

When an ultra-rich space tourist visits the orbiting International Space Station, NASA expects a $100 million win-win: his visit will bring in much needed funding and publicity. But the tourist venture turns into a scheme of terror. Together with an extremist cosmonaut, the tourist slaughters all the astronauts on board the million-pound ISS—and prepares to crash it into New York City at 17,500 miles an hour, causing more devastation than a hundred atomic bombs. In doing so, they hope to annihilate the world’s financial system. All that stands between them and their deadly goal is the lone survivor aboard the ISS, Kimberly Hasid-Robinson, a newly divorced astronaut who has barricaded herself in a secure area.

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Image Placeholder of - 64Drop by Drop by Morgan Llywelyn

In this first book in the Step By Step trilogy, global catastrophe occurs as all plastic mysteriously liquefies. All the small components making many technologies possible—navigation systems, communications, medical equipment—fail. In Sycamore River, citizens find their lives disrupted as everything they’ve depended on melts around them, with sometimes fatal results. All they can rely upon is themselves. And this is only the beginning . . .

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Placeholder of  -39City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender

Five hundred years ago, magi created a weapon they couldn’t control. An infestation that ate magic—and anything else it came into contact with. Enemies and allies were equally filling. Only an elite team of non-magical humans, known as sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training. Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she’s the last—and only—sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.

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Every Book from Tor Coming in Spring 2021

Spring is in the air, and a new season means, you guessed it, NEW BOOKS!!! Check out everything coming from Tor Books in spring 2021 here:


March 1

Image Placeholder of - 85A Desolation Called Peace by Arkady Martine

An alien armada lurks on the edges of Teixcalaanli space. No one can communicate with it, no one can destroy it, and Fleet Captain Nine Hibiscus is running out of options. In a desperate attempt at diplomacy with the mysterious invaders, the fleet captain has sent for a diplomatic envoy. Now Mahit Dzmare and Three Seagrass—still reeling from the recent upheaval in the Empire—face the impossible task of trying to communicate with a hostile entity. Their failure will guarantee millions of deaths in an endless war. Their success might prevent Teixcalaan’s destruction—and allow the empire to continue its rapacious expansion. Or it might create something far stranger . . .

March 16

Placeholder of  -3The Fiends of Nightmaria by Steven Erikson

The king is dead, long live King Bauchelain the First, crowned by the Grand Bishop Korbal Broach. Both are ably assisted in the running of the Kingdom of Farrog by their slowly unravelling servant, Emancipor Reese. However, tensions are mounting between Farrog and the neighboring country of Nightmaria, the mysterious home of the Fiends. Their ambassador, Ophal D’Neeth Flatroq, seeks an audience with King Bauchelain. But the necromancer has some other things on his plate. To quell potential rebellion nearly all the artists, poets, and bards in the city have been put to death. A few survivors languish in the dungeons, bemoaning their fates. Well, just moaning in general really…and maybe plotting escape and revenge.

March 23

Place holder  of - 98Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner

Now in a Tor Essentials edition, the Hugo Award-winning, uncannily prophetic Stand on Zanizbar is a science fiction novel unlike any before in that remains an insightful look at America’s downfall that allows us to see what has been, what is, and what is to come. Now withan introduction by cyberpunk pioneer Bruce Sterling, author of Distraction and Islands In the Net.

April 13

Poster Placeholder of - 99The Helm of Midnight by Marina Lostetter

In a daring and deadly heist, thieves have made away with an artifact of terrible power—the death mask of Louis Charbon. Made by a master craftsman, it is imbued with the spirit of a monster from history, a serial murderer who terrorized the city. Now Charbon is loose once more, killing from beyond the grave. But these murders are different from before, not simply random but the work of a deliberate mind probing for answers to a sinister question. It is up to Krona Hirvath and her fellow Regulators to enter the mind of madness to stop this insatiable killer while facing the terrible truths left in his wake.

Image Place holder  of - 3Breath by Breath by Morgan Llywelyn

In Breath by Breath, book three in the trilogy, the residents of Sycamore River have weathered the Change and the nuclear war it provoked. They emerge to try to build a life from the shattered remains of their town. But for some, the very air has become toxic. The people of Sycamore River have to survived the unthinkable. Can they build something new from the ashes? Llywelyn blends her signature character-driven portrait of small-town life with the appeal of William Fortschen’s One Second After.

April 20

image-37675The Last Watch by J. S. Dewes

The Divide. It’s the edge of the universe. Now it’s collapsing—and taking everyone and everything with it. The only ones who can stop it are the Sentinels—the recruits, exiles, and court-martialed dregs of the military. At the Divide, Adequin Rake commands the Argus. She has no resources, no comms—nothing, except for the soldiers that no one wanted. Her ace in the hole could be Cavalon Mercer–genius, asshole, and exiled prince who nuked his grandfather’s genetic facility for “reasons.” She knows they’re humanity’s last chance.

image-37934Fortress of Magi by Mirah Bolender

The Hive Mind has done the impossible—left its island prison. It’s a matter of time before Amicae falls, and Laura Kramer has very few resources left to prevent it. The council has tied her hands, and the gangs want her dead. Her only real choice is to walk away and leave the city to its fate.

April 27

The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

They are the Beautiful Ones, Loisail’s most notable socialites, and this spring is Nina’s chance to join their ranks, courtesy of her well-connected cousin and his calculating wife. But the Grand Season has just begun, and already Nina’s debut has gone disastrously awry. She has always struggled to control her telekinesis—neighbors call her the Witch of Oldhouse—and the haphazard manifestations of her powers make her the subject of malicious gossip. When entertainer Hector Auvray arrives to town, Nina is dazzled. A telekinetic like her, he has traveled the world performing his talents for admiring audiences. He sees Nina not as a witch, but ripe with potential to master her power under his tutelage.

May 4

Immunity Index by Sue Burke

In a US facing growing food shortages, stark inequality, and a growing fascist government, three perfectly normal young women are about to find out that they share a great deal in common. Their creator, the gifted geneticist Peng, made them that way—before such things were outlawed. Rumors of a virus make their way through an unprotected population on the verge of rebellion, only to have it turn deadly. As the women fight to stay alive and help, Peng races to find a cure—and the cover up behind the virus.

May 11

The House of Always by Jenn Lyons

In the aftermath of the Ritual of Night, everything has changed. The Eight Immortals have catastrophically failed to stop Kihrin’s enemies, who are moving forward with their plans to free Vol Karoth, the King of Demons. Kihrin has his own ideas about how to fight back, but even if he’s willing to sacrifice everything for victory, the cost may prove too high for his allies. Now they face a choice: can they save the world while saving Kihrin, too? Or will they be forced to watch as he becomes the very evil they have all sworn to destroy.

May 25

The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Kinch Na Shannack owes the Takers Guild a small fortune for his education as a thief, which includes (but is not limited to) lock-picking, knife-fighting, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, trap-making, plus a few small magics. His debt has driven him to lie in wait by the old forest road, planning to rob the next traveler that crosses his path. But today, Kinch Na Shannack has picked the wrong mark. Galva is a knight, a survivor of the brutal goblin wars, and handmaiden of the goddess of death. She is searching for her queen, missing since a distant northern city fell to giants. Unsuccessful in his robbery and lucky to escape with his life, Kinch now finds his fate entangled with Galva’s.

June 1

The Library of the Dead by T. L. Huchu

Ropa dropped out of school to become a ghostalker – and they sure do love to talk. Now she speaks to Edinburgh’s dead, carrying messages to those they left behind. A girl’s gotta earn a living, and it seems harmless enough. Until, that is, the dead whisper that someone’s bewitching children – leaving them husks, empty of joy and strength. It’s on Ropa’s patch, so she feels honor-bound to investigate. Ropa will dice with death as she calls on Zimbabwean magic and Scottish pragmatism to hunt down clues. And although underground Edinburgh hides a wealth of dark secrets, she also discovers an occult library, a magical mentor and some unexpected allies. Yet as shadows lengthen, will the hunter become the hunted?

Alien Day by Rick Wilber

Will Peter Holman rescue his sister Kait, or will she be the one to rescue him? Will Chloe Cary revive her acting career with the help of the princeling Treble, or will the insurgents take both their lives? Will Whistle or Twoclicks wind up in charge of Earth, and how will the Mother, who runs all of S’hudon, choose between them? And the most important question of all: who are the Old Ones that left all that technology behind for the S’hudonni . . . and what if they come back?

June 8

Shadow & Claw by Gene Wolfe

The Book of the New Sun is unanimously acclaimed as Gene Wolfe’s most remarkable work, hailed as “a masterpiece of science fantasy comparable in importance to the major works of Tolkien and Lewis” by Publishers Weekly.

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Excerpt: Fortress of Magi by Mirah Bolender

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Image Place holder  of - 92Mirah Bolender follows The Monstrous Citadel with Fortress of Magi—the pulse-pounding conclusion to her debut fantasy trilogy in which a bomb squad defuses the magic weapons of a long forgotten war.

The Hive Mind has done the impossible—left its island prison. It’s a matter of time before Amicae falls, and Laura Kramer has very few resources left to prevent it.

The council has tied her hands, and the gangs want her dead. Her only real choice is to walk away and leave the city to its fate.

Please enjoy this excerpt of Fortress of Magi, on sale 04/20/2021.


1

Debt Repaid

“Gaudium’s quiet today,” said Laura Kramer.

She leaned close enough to the cable car window to make a mark on it with her nose. Currently she was descending from Amicae’s Fifth Quarter to the Sixth, and the cable line jutted out just enough that she could glimpse the speck of Gaudium in the southwest.

“Is it?” said Okane Sinclair, her coworker and the only other current passenger.

“Do you think something’s wrong?” said Laura.

Okane hummed. He moved to the same window, sat on the uncomfortable metal bench to angle himself the way she did, so he could look out with his unnaturally silver eyes. Honestly it was impossible to tell anything about Gaudium at this distance, but he always humored Laura’s moods like this. She glanced up to give him a grateful smile.

“Do you sense anything?” she asked.

“No, but Gaudium’s far away,” said Okane. “I’m not able to sense anything across the bay.”

“You were able to sense something happening way underneath Amicae, back during the Falling Infestation,” said Laura.

“I was standing on top of it. – – -’d notice a hornets’ nest if – – – stepped on it, too,” said Okane.

“I get it,” said Laura, turning back to the window. “I’m just worried, is all.” They were supposed to have infestations around every corner, with the size of Rex’s crusade. The further an infestation was from its hive mind the longer it seemed to take for the hive’s anger to reach it, but they’d had more than enough time to roll their way northward. “We should be in the middle of a catastrophe right now.”

“I’m glad we’re not. We have too few people to handle a catastrophe,” said Okane.

He and Laura were the only officially active Sweepers in all of Amicae. Sure, there were mob Sweepers in organizations like the Mad Dogs and the Silver Kings, but they were loose cannons at best, and the Mad Dogs had actually initiated one of the worst monster swarms in the city’s history; it was a wonder they’d made it out of the Falling Infestation alive. They weren’t equipped for a catastrophe in the least.

Laura picked at the seal on the cable car window, brow furrowed, before saying, “It’s kind of selfish, but I keep hoping Gaudium reports something. They’re south. Whatever comes up will hit them first. If we can get any kind of forewarning . . .”

“And you’re worried about Ellie.”

“Wh—But—Of course I’m worried about Ellie! But it’s not like I’m playing favorites!” said Laura.

Okane raised his brows, as if to say, Oh, really?

“Maybe I’ve got a little favoritism,” Laura admitted. “But you saw that letter, didn’t you? She signed it at the end herself! She used about twenty exclamation points to postscript how much she admired us!” When she’d first opened the letter, she’d hardly dared believe it. She was used to Amicae’s newspapers publishing trash about her, and their ongoing attempts to link her to the mobs. And to hear such praise coming from a Sweeper, even an apprentice, was precious validation. She’d kept checking it all through the day yesterday and come away giddy every time. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to get something like that?” Okane eyed her a little more closely, and she said quickly, “Don’t answer that honestly.”

“A long time, anyway,” said Okane. “I understand being acknowledged can be good for figuring out where you are yourself. I’ll admit, though, I’m not fond of attention from strangers.”

He turned to look out the window again, and one of the markers of his discomfort was made more obvious as a result. Two months ago, Rexian forces had tried to attack Amicae through the mines, and Laura and Okane had been the first on the scene to hold them back. Laura had emerged with branching discoloration up the length of her arms, but Okane’s injury was more obvious. A kin-infused gauntlet had missed his eye but left five welted burn lines where those fingers had been. The old money-shaped scars on his arms he could at least hide under his sleeves, but the new one on his face pulled attention everywhere they went. Okane still tended to associate attention with future pain. It wasn’t a good combination.

“You don’t have to be, right now,” said Laura. “It’s probably for the better, here in Amicae. If you did want the Council here to praise you, you’d be disappointed at every turn.”

Okane snorted. Outside, the roofs of the Sixth Quarter eclipsed what little of Gaudium they could see.

Amicae’s Sixth Quarter held no residences but the outer barracks of the military, the emptied Ranger district, warehouses of the fields, and, of course, the trains. The cable car station was wider and cleaner than most, considering the traffic—even First Quarter citizens had to use this landing if they went traveling—and when the cable car drew even with the dock, an attendant on the outside not only opened the door, but offered his white-gloved hand to help them disembark.

“I’m good,” said Laura, and hopped out of the car with Okane quick behind her.

The attendant accepted this with grace, and simply said, “Good day, miss.”

The Union Depot rose high before them with many spires, a clock face above its massive doors reading 9:10 a.m. They were running late. Laura hurried her pace, and Okane fell into step beside her with his head down to hide his face from the passersby. There wasn’t anywhere else to hide; with so many restricted operations in this Quarter, walls had been built to funnel everyone straight from cable car to depot to keep anyone from wandering. By contrast, the inside of the depot was wide and loud and open. Travelers and peddlers crowded around the pillars, the ticket stalls rattled, and the steam of arriving trains mixed with the smells from wheeled food stalls. Voices echoed high overhead among the arches and the hanging clocks. Simply put, it was chaos.

“More people than usual today,” said Okane.

“There are some big film stars coming in about now,” said Laura.

“Which ones?”

“Barnaby Gilda and Monica Reeves.”

Okane gave a low whistle. “The biggest film stars there are these days.”

“Exactly. That’ll give us plenty of cover to meet Byron,” said Laura.

“Platform six?”

“Exactly.”

Perfectly timed, the doors of the train on platform three opened. The crowd that had been milling before now surged toward it, and the shouting increased tenfold.

“Mr. Gilda! Mr. Gilda! Please look over here!”

“Miss Reeves, you’ve been nominated for the Golden Bough! Do you have anything to say to your fans?”

Camera flashes popped amid the clamor. Laura thought of her last visit to the depot, thought of Juliana MacDanel pointing a gun at her face, and practically ran to avoid the influx of attention. Unluckily for her, the uninformed people on surrounding platforms were hurrying in for a look at the commotion too. She fought her way upstream, and by the time she found some calm behind the pillars of platform six, she was panting from the effort.

“Okay. So. I may have underestimated the sheer amount of fans,” she said.

One of the actors must’ve said something, because the crowd shrieked with delight. Okane winced at the noise.

“Do – – – think Byron can even find us in all of this?” he asked.

“Are you doubting my skills already?”

They leaned around the pillar to find PI Byron Rhodes leaning against the opposite side. He wore his usual bowler hat, with the ever-present pipe stuck between his teeth. He didn’t look very threatening, but he had once been part of the police’s MARU task force, and Laura had seen for herself just how good his information gathering could be. He gave them his usual tired smile and said, “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”

“You’ve never called us out like this before. We knew it had to be important,” said Laura. “If you called us directly, it must be Sweeper business, right? But it can’t actually be Sweeper business if police haven’t roped this place off. There’s no infestation here, is there?”

Would one finally be here, come in on the trains? Laura automatically fell into a wider stance, looking around for hiding places and emergency exits for the crowd. Okane did the same, but his brow was furrowed in confusion.

“I haven’t sensed anything,” he said. “Has a hibernating one been delivered to Amicae?”

“There’s no infestations involved, so I wouldn’t say that it’s exactly a Sweeper problem. It’s more of a . . . Sinclair-Kramer problem,” said Byron.

“A Sinclair-Kramer—” The only thing related to them personally that Byron would be involved with . . . Laura’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t mean there’s a mob connection here, do you? Have you finally found a lead on the Falling Infestation?”

That would be worse. Laura could take on a monster easily, but she wasn’t so keen on being shot at by actual people. She was also sure she’d be a terrible detective.

Byron shook his head in amusement. “Do you really think the Mad Dogs are going to slip and expose their ties to that this late in the game?”

“Everyone says they’re cocky, and they’ve got most of the northern Fifth Quarter on lockdown,” said Laura.

“They didn’t lock down that area on luck or brute force alone. They’re clever. We’re a long way from proving anything on the Falling Infestation.”

“Then is there another mobster plan in the works we should know about?” said Laura.

“The situation here has nothing to do with mobsters, and it’s not an infestation.”

Laura and Okane shared an uneasy look. “Really? Then I’ve got no idea what you’d need us for.”

“It’s a bit complicated, but rest assured, you are exactly the professionals I need right now,” Byron replied. “Come with me this way. I’ll show you.”

He led them still farther from the cameras, almost to the end of the depot itself.

A small, square building stood between platforms eleven and twelve, bearing a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. Presumably it housed a break room or office for station workers. Byron knocked twice. After a moment it opened a crack. A woman in the depot’s red uniform peeked out. She took in Byron and the two Sweepers behind him with suspicion.

“We’re expected,” said Byron.

“If you’re looking for the timetables, you’re in the wrong place. Go back to the ticket booths,” said the worker.

“You don’t recognize the detective you personally called?” said Byron.

You’re the ex-policeman?” The worker deliberated a moment, then opened the door further so they could enter. “Fine. I trust you can pick your company well. Come in, but do it fast.”

They entered without further ado. As she passed, Laura noticed that the worker held a rifle under her arm, and her eyes flicked back and forth in such a nervous way that one would expect a cavalry to appear in pursuit of her. She closed the door and bolted it once they were all inside. Another depot worker stood deeper in with a matching firearm; luckily the muzzle wasn’t pointed at them, but at three people who sat around a small break table. The three seated people all had ash smeared across their cheeks; not the by-product of mining, but more as if they’d swiped the remnants of a campfire to mask something on their faces. Likewise, their clothes weren’t anything like a miner’s, or even the depot workers’. Two of them wore heavy uniforms with the shadow of a ripped-off crest, laden further with straps, buckles, and bags of supplies, and most importantly, long sheaths at the belts to hold familiar magical blades. The last member of the group was probably the roughest-looking—where the others had obviously prepared for a long trek, she wore regular civilian clothes, tattered and dusty from a journey that had certainly not been by train. Despite her shabby appearance, this last member clapped her hands in delight at the sight of them. Laura recognized her immediately.

“Zelda?” she gasped.

“How sweet!” Zelda cooed. “The dream team remembers me!”

How could Laura forget? Zelda had led them through Rex on their ill-planned rescue. They’d parted outside the city limits, and despite the mention of a reward, Zelda said she had another task to attend to. Laura hadn’t expected to see her again. Come to think of it, she’d seen the man sitting beside Zelda too: Ivo had aided them in Rex’s Sweeper headquarters. The third member, slight and blond with painfully green eyes, was a total mystery.

“They said they knew you,” said the worker at the door. “Mr. Rhodes, they mentioned you by name.”

“Yes, you mentioned that much over the telephone,” said Byron, striding closer. He stood in the very middle of the room to eye them all. “This fits into the situation as I understand it already. It appears they’re also familiar with the Sinclair family.”

Laura shot a glance at the station workers, but they didn’t seem at all intrigued by the mention.

Zelda grinned. “Isn’t that Sinclair a shining example of manhood? I gave him a glowing review.”

“It was crystal clear,” Byron said dryly, and Laura groaned at the awful joke.

“But why are – – – here?” said Okane. “Why would – – – come all the way to Amicae and then let – – -rselves get caught?”

Because they had. Zelda was a Magi, but while most Magi could temporarily boost their speed, strength, balance, or sensing, she could erase herself. Anyone not specifically looking for her or the people beside her wouldn’t pick up on their presence at all. She could’ve walked to the Cynder Block and knocked directly on Laura’s door, but no; here she sat in a train office, mashed between a pair of possible invaders and the depot switchboard, with guns pointed at her and an investigator watching every move. She looked quite pleased with herself.

“I’m here for my reward,” she said.

“Is it true that she assisted you in retrieving Amicae’s magic supply?” said Byron.

“We never would’ve escaped if Zelda hadn’t led us in and out,” said Laura. “I already told you about this.”

“You did, but it would be remiss of me not to double-check. It’s one thing to know someone helped you, and another to make sure we’re talking about the same person.”

“Well, it is. She risked her life. She’s our friend,” said Laura, with all the conviction she could muster.

“It’s good to see – – – again,” Okane said quietly. “When – – – stayed behind, I wasn’t sure – – -’d escape Rex’s notice.”

“I’m an expert,” Zelda replied. “Really, I’m more impressed that – – – two made it. I guess the Fatum station really helped?”

“It’s a long story,” said Laura.

“Let’s focus on the here and now,” said Byron. “You’re all Rexians, and you want something from Amicae.”

“That makes it sound so calculating,” Zelda grumbled.

“It very well could be,” said Byron. “What are your demands?”

Zelda spread her arms. “Sanctuary.”

For a moment silence filled the small room.

Byron slowly took the pipe from his mouth, as if he needed all his teeth to deal with this. He certainly sounded clearer that way, and it gave him something to gesture at Zelda with when he said, finally, “Sanctuary? You’re telling me that you came all the way from Rex, cut through the wilds on foot, to ask Amicae for sanctuary?”

“Exactly.” Zelda piously folded her hands but wore a too-smug smile. “As an informant, having secured Amicae’s interests, I’m a traitor to Rex and would be killed on sight. In keeping with the act of 1186, I seek asylum in Amicae with my family.”

The two other Rexians looked absolutely nothing like her. Neither of them had her dark skin or curls; Ivo looked Wasureijin, and the other woman—whoever she was—shockingly Zyran. This last addition unnerved Laura the most: she sat with her back ramrod-straight and ready to spring, eyes menacingly focused on the train attendant. She looked like Rex’s ideal walked off an assembly line. Only her Magi-bright eyes belied the image.

“Allow me to introduce them,” Zelda continued. “Ivo should be familiar already—he pointed us to Amicae’s magic in the first place—but this is Bea. She’s a stick-in-the-mud.”

Ivo inclined his head. Bea didn’t move.

“And you’re all here for . . . asylum,” Byron said slowly.

“We don’t wish to be a drain on – – -r resources,” said Ivo. “We’ve already supported Amicae, and will continue doing so. Bea and I are Sweepers. We can lend our strength and experience to Amicae.”

Dread filled Laura’s stomach. Amicae’s last attempt to bring “expertise” to the Sweeper department landed them with a pair of violent traitors; ex–head Sweeper Juliana MacDanel had been deported to Puer awaiting punishment, and her brother Lester had been kidnapped and killed by Rex. Zelda had proved her mettle, but the other two?

“As if we’d trust our city to you!” The second station worker hadn’t spoken until now, but spat her words as if she had a personal grudge. “Your people are the ones who attacked us. Rex tags all over in November, and the mine invasion in January? You’re just here to spy on more weaknesses! We don’t want you here!”

“We’re not the ones who attacked Amicae,” Zelda huffed. “At least aim that bravado at the right—”

“You’re Rexian!”

“Wait a moment,” said Byron.

“They’re invaders,” she snapped.

“They’re informants,” Byron corrected. “Spies. We need to know what Rex is thinking if we want to stay a step ahead of them.”

“Well, they’re not useful to us if they aren’t back there getting the damn information!”

That isn’t our call,” said Byron. “We’ll turn them over to the city guard. The Council can decide what to do with them.”

“We had a deal,” Zelda insisted.

“A deal in no way authorized by the city,” said Byron.

“So they should get the hell out,” said the depot worker.

“You can’t just throw them into the wilds!” said Laura.

The depot worker sent her a scathing look. “Of course you’d defend a threat, you Mad Dogs trash.”

“Excuse me?” Laura hissed.

“This is above us,” Byron said firmly. “I wanted the Sweepers here to verify their story. There’s no guarantee of anything—whether they’ll stay, whether they’ll work—and this should be determined by our highest authority. The Council will hear their story. The Council will pass judgment.”

“They’re Rexians,” the depot worker said again.

“Refugees.”

For a tense moment they stared each other down. Finally the depot worker averted her gaze and grumbled, “I’ll trust the MARU.”

MARU? For a moment Laura hesitated. The Mob Action Resolution Unit had been disbanded years ago, and the “enlightenment” had dispelled any notion that Sweepers were their heirs. There was no MARU left to trust, but then again, hadn’t Byron once been a member?

“Thank you,” Byron said anyway. “Laura, Okane, are you armed?”

“As armed as Sweepers can be,” Laura replied.

“Splendid. You’ll assist me in escorting them to police headquarters. They’ll need to be under observation until the Council can make a decision.”

Laura suspected there should be phone calls first—to alert the Council, at the very least to arrange a cell—but no one made any move toward the telephone.

Instead they ushered the Rexians up and out the door.

Outside the crowd hadn’t dissipated. If anything it had grown. The film stars held court somewhere near the main entrance, so Byron made for the depot’s side doors. Laura followed along, feeling on edge and foolish. The Rexians followed easily, heads down but strides sure, and Zelda glowered as she mashed an ugly hat on her head.

“I did everything – – – told me to,” she grumbled. “I contacted Byron. I pulled – – – in for backup. I thought I was supposed to be welcomed!”

Laura winced. “You have no idea how much I wish it were that simple.”

“Isn’t it?”

“My first plan had you coming in with a massive bargaining chip. They wouldn’t have turned you away if you showed up with us and all the magic in tow.”

“So just making sure – – – didn’t die in the first place isn’t good enough?”

“No,” Okane said miserably. “We may be the only Sweepers left, but the Council hates us. We seem to undermine everything they do. Overthrow the wall policy, ruin their MacDanel publicity stunt, ask for funding—”

“They keep looking like the villain,” said Laura. “It makes sense, because they’ve lied through their teeth for years, but politicians don’t really like it when you confront them with their own bullshit.”

“Who knew,” said Okane.

“Hell, it might even be worse for you if we’re brought in,” said Laura. “If they think we’re on your side, they might just reject you out of spite.”

They emerged into sunlight. Byron sighed at the straightaway—there were no such things as side entrances or secrecy in the area between depot and cable cars—but the stars had bottlenecked almost everyone else at the depot doors, so Byron gestured for the six of them to walk tall and strode toward the landing. The celebrity arrival was so interesting, the car attendant didn’t fully notice them; he held out his hand mechanically as if to help them inside the nearest empty car, but his eyes were fixed on the crowd. You could’ve sent a parade in front of him and he wouldn’t have noticed. Only Zelda took the offered hand, and seemed thoroughly displeased that she was being ignored against her will this time.

“Good day,” the attendant said distantly, so late that the door was already clattering shut and autolocking. The gears above them ground into motion, and they left the dock. Now well away from prying eyes, Byron stuck his pipe back between his teeth and set to work lighting it. He looked like he’d aged a year in seconds.

“You do know if I turn you in to the Council, it’ll be a mock trial and execution waiting for you?”

“Execution?” Laura was horrified. “If it weren’t for Zelda we’d never have gotten the Sinclairs or our Gin back. They helped us—helped Amicae—at risk to their lives!”

“They’re still Rexian. They can be paraded as prisoners, so the Council can pretend they’re doing something about the attack.”

Laura rubbed at her temples. “We can’t just let them die! Can’t we sneak them out to a satellite town?”

“I don’t want a satellite town!” said Zelda, affronted. “They’ve got no defense against infestations! Besides, I didn’t risk life and limb just to live in some shithole with the Rangers and farmers.”

“Satellite towns are more on edge about Rex than the cities proper,” Ivo agreed. “We avoided them as much as we could on the way here, and were still almost shot near Avis.”

“Can’t we just vanish into the rabble Quarter?” said Zelda. “The extra Quarter is what Amicae’s famous for! If the Council never knows—”

“- – -’d still never survive without city-issued identification,” said Okane.

While they spoke Byron finally got his pipe lit and took a pull of sweet-smelling smoke. He held this for a moment, then said, “I’d rather not send you all to your deaths.”

“Thank you,” said Laura.

“But if you want to stay in Amicae, we’ll have to do this through at least semi-legal means. Heather is our highest authority who’d understand the risk you took and what it means to our city. We’ll appeal to her.”


Heather Albright, Amicae’s chief of police, was waist-deep in the latest mobster-related catastrophe but made time for them anyway. They crowded into her office and Byron related the entire situation. Albright looked over the Rexians with a critical eye, attention lingering on their ash-smeared faces.

“Sweepers,” she said slowly.

“They are, anyway,” said Zelda, gesturing lamely at her companions. “I’m nothing of the sort.”

Albright drummed her fingers on the desk. Every tap of nails to wood was slow, loud, and sharp, like the ring of individual gavels. Everyone was silent under the sound. Laura, the subject of her judge’s scowl, began to squirm. After almost a minute of collective discomfort, Albright brought all her fingers down at once and stood.

“Laura, step outside with me for a moment.”

Laura winced but did as she was told. Everyone left behind looked anxiously at Byron for answers, but the door closed before the investigator could do any more than shake his head. Albright led her directly into a neighboring meeting room.

While Laura gravitated to the table, Albright leaned against the closed door, peering through the window to ensure the hallway outside was clear. Once she’d confirmed it, she turned to give Laura a downright acidic look.

“You know, I used to hope that you’d learn from your old boss’s mistakes, but you seem determined to outshine him in every way.”

Oh, ouch.

“I’m sorry,” said Laura. “I know you’ve got a lot on your plate right now, but we can’t just abandon them to the wilds or even to the Council—”

“They’re Rexians,” said Albright. “You have brought Rexians into my office today.”

“Good Rexians!”

“Whether they’re good or not is irrelevant! How did they get into the city?” said Albright.

Laura honestly didn’t know, but admitting that wouldn’t be good. “I . . . well . . . I suppose they must’ve gotten in the way Okane and I got out, on our way to Rex?”

“Which was?”

“Hobo style.”

Albright inhaled deeply. She took off her glasses and pinched her nose. “So they’ve already presented a security risk.”

“What? No! They turned themselves in!” said Laura.

“They’ve thwarted our border guards, which have been significantly bolstered after the last attempt to attack Amicae—a Rexian attack, need I remind you,” Albright said icily.

“Would the border guards have let them through if they tried entering normally?” Laura challenged. “People have tried to shoot them on sight! It wasn’t an option for them!”

“And what else will they think isn’t an option?” said Albright.

“Nothing, if we can treat them decently,” said Laura.

Albright pinched her nose even tighter. She dropped into one of the chairs and kept her eyes squeezed shut, as if telling herself this was all just a bad dream could make it go away. Laura gripped the back of another chair and leaned over it to continue, “If these people wanted to hurt us, they would’ve done it already. Zelda had every chance in Rex to turn us in and didn’t. They had all of Amicae’s Sweepers in one spot down in the depot today, and all the way here, and they didn’t do anything.”

“You’re not all of Amicae’s Sweepers, though,” said Albright.

“We’re the only ones the public or the Council acknowledges!”

“Rex’s purpose isn’t silly little smear campaigns. They want to take out entire cities. You alone are too small a target for them. If manipulating your kindness will bring them to a bigger target—”

Laura huffed with annoyance. She dropped into the chair so she faced Albright properly across the table. “I’m not claiming that they don’t have ulterior motives. The thing is, Zelda’s motive is sanctuary. Remember, I’m the only one who’s been to Rex, and I have—” She hesitated. “I’ve got insight you don’t. Not just on the city, but these people, too. Zelda and the others, they’ll do anything it takes to escape Rex. They know how bad it is. They wouldn’t come all this way otherwise.”

As much as she hated to admit it, Albright’s doubt came with good reason; Rexian Sweepers didn’t value themselves. In their city she’d almost been killed by a Sweeper ready to put herself over the Quarter wall in the process; another Sweeper had killed himself without hesitation to fulfill some obscure rule; in Amicae’s mining tunnels, they’d fallen and been crushed by their own fellow Sweepers. It was a hallmark of Rex to not care about their own well-being, beyond completion of a mission. But because she’d seen those self-destructive Sweepers, she could see the clear differences between them and Zelda. Zelda was too much of a person to let Rex manipulate her, and Ivo had been desperate enough to escape it to assist traitors to the city.

“I find it hard to believe they came all this way alone,” said Albright.

“Okane and I made it to Rex alone,” said Laura.

Albright’s fingers moved to rub at her temple. Her brow remained furrowed, but it was less out of annoyance and more from weariness.

“I understand that you trust them—”

“With my life.”

“But I wanted to trust Juliana MacDanel, too, and she had all the recommendations we could hope for,” said Albright. “Your word is all I have to go on right now.”

“Is that not good enough?” Laura grumbled.

“It’s idiotic to place so much trust in something with only one source,” Albright retorted. “You Sweepers might have the luxury of following instincts over facts, but my job is to keep the civilians of Amicae safe. I can’t afford to buy into a single girl’s impulses.”

Laura leaned back sharply. Albright could be terse at times, and had shown clear irritation with Clae once upon a time, but she’d never been outright insulting.

Albright took another deep, slow breath. “That was unprofessional. I know that you’re just as invested in Amicae’s safety as I am. Instinct and magic go hand in hand. It’s part of your job. I have no right to nitpick. I’m still used to working with other police, and even Clae Sinclair. We’ve all had to examine the big picture, rather than have the freedom to focus on a specific issue. We have too many people to please before we can work on anything, and none of the people I need to please would be happy with this. You have to admit, it doesn’t look good to anyone outside your Sweeper department.”

Laura deflated some, but kept her hands fisted in her lap. “I’m aware.”

“The Council has placed a lot of time, effort, and publicity into the reinforcement of our gates and guard stations,” said Albright. “If it becomes known that a trio of outsiders thwarted all those measures, and thwarted them so easily that they got all the way here into the Third Quarter and were only discovered because they arranged it—that would be a catastrophe even if it were a trio from proven allies, like Gaudium or Terrae. The public’s peace of mind would be utterly shattered. If word got out that we were infiltrated by Rexians again . . . that makes three times in the past year. Confidence would erode on every level.”

“They tried to come here as legally as possible,” said Laura.

“And even if they had followed every legal measure, we would still end up with Rexians here in the Third Quarter. We’d be promoted as fools and traitors for allowing them so deep into the city that they could stage another attempt on Amicae’s structure,” said Albright.

Laura threw up her hands. “But that’s not why they’re here!”

“Frankly, Laura, the truth doesn’t matter,” said Albright.

Laura brought her fists back down on the table and seethed, “Then what does matter? What’s the point in anything if we’re going to reject the truth?”

Only now did Albright open her eyes, and Laura realized just how dark the bags under her eyes were.

“The Council’s been trying to remove you ever since the MacDanel incident,” said Albright. “I’ve been trying to downplay your recklessness so they’ll keep you on even after they get a new head Sweeper . . . but this is spitting in the face of everything they’re doing. It would be the final straw. If you propose having Rexians on board, you will cross a line. I can’t bring you back from this.”

“What’s the Council going to do, fire their head Sweeper?” Laura scoffed.

“They fired MacDanel.”

“And I was there to take her place. They don’t have another me around to pick up the slack. They’ve got a hard enough time trying to hire regular Sweepers right now, let alone a boss. Where are they going to get anyone with any experience? I guarantee Okane would quit as soon as I’m fired, and you can’t think anyone can tempt the mobster Sweepers into going straight, so there’s no one left here in Amicae. What other city is going to send us any extra Sweepers in a spike like this?”

“A spike with no monsters,” Albright said dryly.

“For now,” said Laura. “But no other city is stupid enough to risk it. The Council has no other options than me.”

“You can’t hide behind the numbers forever,” said Albright.

“I know, but I’ll use it as long as I can, if it helps me do what’s right.”

For a moment they were silent, simply glaring at each other over the table. Laura understood Albright’s point—of course she did—but this wasn’t something she could compromise on. She knew Zelda and the others were here to escape Rex, and as far as she was concerned, they’d earned their safety. Laura took a deep breath of her own, folded her hands to look a little more proper, and schooled her tone back to evenness.

“Look at it this way,” she said. “We’ve been trying to hire new Sweepers. Today, three professionals have come to us: at least two fully fledged Sweepers, and one expert in what happens behind the scenes. It would normally take months of negotiations with other cities to get someone with even an iota of their experience transferred over from another city. You want competence? Rex has the strongest Sweepers in existence. Low budget? They’re not asking for much. A lasting investment? There’s nowhere else for them to go. Loyalty? They’ve already proved that, and saved our city once. They wouldn’t hesitate to do it again. Accepting them is the best choice for Amicae.”

Albright shook her head slowly. “You really think these people are a benefit?”

“Yes.”

Albright pursed her lips. “I don’t approve of this. I can’t. It would be the end of my career.”

For a moment Laura didn’t believe her ears. Albright had been the Sweepers’ supporter through a number of incidents already—she’d kept Clae’s secret, of all things—and she hadn’t really thought she’d be turned away this time. What would happen to Zelda and the others now? She swallowed thickly, opened her mouth—

“But.” Albright slowly slipped her glasses back on. “The reason I took this job in the first place was to help as best I could. You’re the expert on Sweeping. If you say this could help us, I trust you. I’ll trust these people based on your trust.”

“Thank you,” said Laura, the relief making her sag. “Thank you, thank you—”

“This goes no higher than me,” Albright said sharply. “The Council will not know, and neither will most of the police force. You’ll tell no one the truth of this. These Rexians . . . they’ll need a cover. You were familiar with Rangers recently, weren’t you?”

“Y-yes,” said Laura.

“Then that will be our cover. Rangers aren’t citizens of the cities, and have no records to be researched. While you were in the wilds—or perhaps while repelling the previous Rexian invasion of the mines—you met them and recruited them. Rangers handle beasts and danger on a regular basis. It’s not a big jump for them to switch jobs like this.”

“Right!” said Laura. “Although, the, um . . . the tattoos? What should we say about that?”

“There’s a division of Spiritualism that puts their teachings into numbers,” Albright replied without pause. “The tattoos will correspond to a weave. I’d visit a church to confirm what their particular numbers equate to and come up with a story for them all to defend why they were tattooed with that sequence.”

“You thought that up quick.”

“I can’t afford to be slow on the uptake.” Albright stood again. “Are you sure this is the path you want to follow? You can’t turn back after this.”

“Absolutely,” said Laura.

“On your own head be it,” said Albright, and left the meeting room.

Copyright © Mirah Bolender 2021

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$2.99 Ebook Sale: City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender

Poster Placeholder of - 87The ebook edition of City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender is on sale now for only $2.99! Get your copy today and prepare for the sequel, The Monstrous Citadel, before it goes on sale on November 5.

About City of Broken Magic:

Five hundred years ago, magi created a weapon they couldn’t control. An infestation that ate magic—and anything else it came into contact with. Enemies and allies were equally filling.

Only an elite team of non-magical humans, known as sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training.

Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she’s the last—and only—sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.

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Excerpt: The Monstrous Citadel by Mirah Bolender

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Image Placeholder of - 40Amicae, City of Sweepers, survived the Falling Infestation which nearly destroyed it thanks to the efforts of Laura and Okane. While the ancient monsters have been beaten back for the moment, new and more monstrous dangers face them in the form of belligerent bureaucracy, dangerous gangs, grasping Sweepers bent on personal glory . . .

And Rex, the City of Kings, who breed their own kind of monstrosity.

Laura and Okane must go to Rex to reclaim the secret weaponry that keeps Amicae safe and come face to face with a horrifying truth about the Rex and their designs on all of Orien’s cities.

The Monstrous Citadel is the sequel to Mirah Bolender’s City of Broken Magic—a fast-paced, adventure fantasy where a bomb squad defuses the magic weapons of a long forgotten war. Please enjoy the following excerpt and head to PasteMagazine.com to read Chapter 2.

1

Backlash

Laura’s dismissal had been a shock, initially. It came on the tail end of an infestation, just as reported in the Amicae Sun. Damage had been done, yes, but it hadn’t been anywhere near as bad as what she’d done to the army barracks in September, or even what she and Clae had done to a residence in August. Where those incidents had been either picked at or overlooked entirely, stories about this one had ballooned. It couldn’t be blamed on mobsters or another far-fetched reason, not now in Amicae’s “age of truth.” As good as it was to have people who knew about infestations, in this instance it proved extremely annoying. When infestations came up now, the public reacted in hysterics. Citizens wrote to the papers, bemoaning her ineptitude: Why couldn’t she have just not damaged anything? Why couldn’t she have prevented the infestation from coming at all? Why hadn’t she done her civic duty and shared the truth with everyone from the start? Okane suggested that maybe she should avoid the papers for a while, but she ignored him. If she was head Sweeper, she’d do this right. She needed to know what everyone was saying, so she could give them a proper and well-educated fuck you in case she ever met one of these idiots in person. (“- – – sound like Clae,” he’d informed her, and even his lack of “you” sounded exasperated.)

Part of her was viciously pleased when the Dead Ringer newspaper rose to her defense, but mostly she felt squeamish. Anyone with a brain knew that the Dead Ringer was run by the Mad Dogs mob. The Mad Dogs helped Sweepers during the Falling Infestation, but that had been basic self-preservation. With their own fleet of Sweepers far outnumbering the Sinclairs, there was no need for them to dig in their heels like this. Laura had a bad feeling that the Mad Dogs would come knocking on her door with a debt she’d never asked for. Furthermore, the obvious new link between Sweepers and Mad Dogs was a nightmare in publicity. Albright had since redirected any phone calls to the shop, but after the first Dead Ringer article a woman called the Sweepers and accused Laura of assisting the Mad Dogs in bombing a business on the east side and killing her son. Adding insult to injury, the bombing in question had been undertaken by Blackwater, a completely different mob. The very next day, the Dead Ringer churned out a page reading, You don’t even know which mob you hate! Why do you think you know enough to judge an organization you didn’t even know existed?

Laura had braced herself for a rebuke from the Council. Sure enough, she received a letter with the Council’s phoenix stamp. Inside it simply read:

Due to recent circumstances, we have agreed that you are no longer suitable to hold the position of head Sweeper.

Below it were signatures from multiple Council members. Councilwoman Victoria Douglas hadn’t graced the letter with her signature or approval, but majority ruled. Laura was demoted. She might have been biased, but she was still convinced this was a petty dismissal. There was no benefit for Amicae in removing the most veteran member of such a small Sweeper department, and Clae had remained in power for twelve years under the same tactics. Worse, there was no one to replace her with. The only Council-approved option was . . .

“Juliana MacDanel’s been authorized for full citizenship.”

In the here and now, December 5, 1233, Okane paged through another newspaper. It still took him a while to read everything, but he took in all the words with eyes she vowed never to compare to silver coins. “The Sun’s done a highlight on her in celebration.”

Laura’s head lay in the middle of a newspaper halo. She turned to look at him, scrunching the pages of today’s Dead Ringer.

“A highlight? Like they do for film stars?”

“Yes. I don’t see how they had the opportunity to do this kind of interview unless they paid for the telephone call,” said Okane. “It says she enjoys dogs, playing Aces, and eating Ralurian potato peels. When advertisements listed that as a delicacy, I thought it was a joke.”

“I’m still not convinced it isn’t.” Laura felt tempted to sink lower in her slouch, but there wasn’t anyplace lower to go when one’s face was plastered to the counter. She had no doubt this interest in Juliana MacDanel was engineered: a way to soothe the public, make Amicae feel like the Council was answering their call, all while endearing the Sweepers to them like the friendly entourage of a film star. “If they’re trying to make the head Sweeper into a mascot, I’ll admit I’m not a good fit for the job.”

Okane eyed her reproachfully. “There’s no way she would know the job better than – – – do.”

“With twenty years on the job, she would,” said Laura. “Knowing layout isn’t everything. She’ll probably learn quickly.”

“I still think – – -’re more suitable,” said Okane.

Laura snorted. “Look at it this way. If the head Sweeper’s going to be a media darling, that cuts back on her Sweeping time. She’ll be in an interview, and I’ll be on the extermination. I won’t have the title, but I’ll still be the real power here. So long as I can keep Sweeping, that’s enough for me.”

It was a lie, but admitting that felt petulant. She’d reach for any silver lining she could at this point. Okane seemed to be even more upset about this than she was, but luckily she was spared any additional arguing by a knock at the door. While strange during business hours, the gesture meant it must be one of two people. Okane waved at the large windows, and the visitor creaked the door open.

The police chief, Heather Albright, stepped in. She carried her black helmet under one arm, freeing dark red hair to fall in a frazzled braid down her back. Her glasses half hid the dark circles under her eyes, the sheaf of paper under her other arm presumably to blame. At one time her presence might’ve been odd, but ever since the disaster she dropped by to check on them multiple times a week. Whether this was because she worried over losing a vital cog in the city machine or actually felt concern for their personal well-being Laura didn’t know, but she appreciated the attention. She’d expected Albright to drop by, but the man who sidled in behind her, hands in the pockets of his overcoat and a pipe held loosely between his teeth, wasn’t familiar. He stood behind and of to Albright’s side, close enough to observe but not in the way, and seemed very used to this spot. Albright didn’t so much as look at him, instead fixing her tired gaze on the Sweepers.

“Good afternoon. Has business been well today?”

“Not really,” said Laura. “No one came in, even for recycling.” “After the incident I didn’t think we’d need so many warnings

printed, but I’ll ask for another round in the papers,” Albright muttered. “That should send them hurrying in.”

Laura smiled. “Did you need something today, Chief Albright?”

“Just giving you some news.” She brandished the papers. “For one thing, we’ve got the politics hammered out on this problem of yours. Might want to thank Douglas. She nearly turned the case into a crusade.”

The idea of the stern, elderly councilwoman charging into battle surprised Laura, but then again she’d never met Victoria Douglas. “How did it turn out?”

“Clae Sinclair’s will is going to be carried out as intended. Whether or not it was used for public service, all Sweeper equipment is privately owned, so the Council and city can’t claim it.” She muttered something about a gray area of whether Pits were considered private property, something the Council had argued over in the process. “And whoever inherits his estate gets all of it, since Sweepers are tax- free. The Council loved that. Bottom line: there’s a lot more up for grabs and possibly yours, but that’s all up to the estate administrator carrying it out.”

“Good. I wouldn’t trust the Council with it,” said Laura. She’d read more than enough about the early days when the Council had used Gin to pay of any small debt, and her personal experiences with their orders hadn’t been enjoyable. “Do you know how long an administrator should take?”

“I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had to deal with them.” Albright turned to look at the man, who’d drifted toward the counter to inspect the Kin. “Rhodes, how much time does it take for them to do their job?”

The man straightened up from squinting at a flask, pushing his hat back on thick auburn hair. “Depends,” he said, in a slow drawl. “If there’s organized documentation, they could be in and out in no time. If there’s not, you may have to deal with them for a while. Don’t worry, though. They don’t take nearly as long as people seem to think.”

Albright nodded her approval before plucking a small page from her papers and setting it on the countertop. Laura leaned over to see it better and recognized it as a telegram.

“In addition, your new boss is coming soon.” The mention made Laura’s stomach twist; half shame for her horrendously botched job and following dismissal, half dread for the newcomer. “Personally, I think it’s unnecessary. As far as I’m concerned you did the right thing. Clae Sinclair certainly wouldn’t have done any different. You prevented a massive loss of life, and—”

“And the Council doesn’t want another Clae,” said Laura. “I’m not happy about it, but there’s nothing I can do. Besides, I have faith in whoever Puer’s head Sweeper picks out.”

Albright pursed her lips but didn’t argue. “That man was in contact with us about her, and had a lot of good things to say. The Council sent someone to properly interview her and they were impressed, so she’s been accepted. This”—she tapped the telegram—“was sent yesterday. There was a mix-up in the mailroom so it only reached me today, but it says she’s eager to start and left for Amicae already. If the trains run on schedule she’ll arrive tonight, and if she’s as enthusiastic as I believe, she’ll swing by to look at the shop as soon as she does. You may meet her before I do.”

Laura wasn’t sure what to think. She thought they’d have a little more warning before the replacement swooped in to usurp the job. Time to mentally prepare themselves, time to hide the Sinclairs. She almost wished no one had been picked as head Sweeper.

She folded her hands, bit her lip. She glanced at the man before whispering, “Should we tell her about, um, those two?”

Albright leaned back and regarded them a moment.

“I think that’s up to you. I don’t know the extent of politics and rivalry between Sweepers, but I know nothing’s free of corruption. Wait awhile and judge whether you can trust her first. For the moment, I’d keep it secret. That said, I’ve shared information about the Sinclairs with Rhodes.”

Laura froze. “You what?”

“Rhodes, come over here.”

The man sauntered over to their group. He stood next to Albright, easily taller than all of them, though he had a slouch and his eyes were droopy in a friendly kind of way. If she’d met him any other time Laura would’ve thought he was harmless, but now she felt on edge.

“This is Byron Rhodes, a private investigator,” said Albright. “I’ve asked him to keep an eye on you. With the news and the recent riots, criminals have been getting bold. There’s been an upsurge in crime rates, mob and otherwise, so I won’t have the time to check on you. He’ll be monitoring you in my stead. He’s currently investigating the events leading to the disaster and evacuation, so in order for him to have a full understanding I gave him the whole story. What I know, anyway. If you have any other information I urge you to share it with him.”

So a stranger was free to know about Clae and Anselm while the head Sweeper wasn’t? That didn’t make much sense, but if the chief of police put so much faith in this investigator, Laura supposed she could trust him to an extent.

“It’s nice to meet you, Mr. Rhodes,” she said, trying her best to look unruffled.

“Just call me Byron,” he replied, tipping his hat. “No need to be nervous. I’m here to support you, same as Heather here.” Strangely enough, Albright didn’t look remotely concerned with the use of her first name. “Quite a few strange pieces in motion around that infestation. There’s no telling who’s behind it, but if they attacked Amicae on such a grand scale, I’m sure their next attempt will be just as vicious. I’d like to make sure you don’t become casualties.”

Laura blinked. “Next attempt? I thought Sullivan was the one behind it all, and he’s in jail now. It was his pipes, right?”

“Maybe, but the man himself couldn’t have done the deed,” said Byron. “Takes a lot of workers. We’ve got false IDs on what’s left of the interior record and no matches in his workforce. I’d say there’s another group at work here.”

It couldn’t have been the Mad Dogs mob. The Mad Dogs had a disagreement with Sullivan before, and their Sweepers had come to fight of the infestation rather than evacuate. That left another city, Rex: they’d sent a small infiltration force, and their crest was blatantly painted under the ruined bulwark tree. But they’d only had three men, two captured. Surely one man couldn’t manage all that. But Rexian rumor was worse than ghost stories, and Laura had to quash her unease.

“You’ll find out who did it?”

“He’s more capable than his looks suggest,” said Albright, “which is one of the reasons I’m assigning him to you. If you have any immediate problems, go to him.”

Laura nodded but said nothing. Byron seemed to understand her reluctance. He pulled a card from his pocket and set it on the counter before her.

“Here’s my information if you need it. You probably won’t see me often, but I’m there if you need me. Until then I’ll try to stay out of your way.”

“Thanks,” Laura mumbled, while Okane slid the card closer and squinted at the type.

Albright checked her watch and let out a short, angry sigh. “I’ll have to be going now. Good luck with your new boss.”

Business finished, Albright inclined her head and left. Byron followed close behind, and their forms flitted past the right-hand window as the door clicked shut. The pair stared after them, silence unbroken for a while before Okane gave a shuddering sigh.

“So what do we do?”

“We keep Clae secret.” Laura shrugged. “I guess we move him.”

“Now?”

“If the new head Sweeper comes by tonight she’ll want to get in, right? Best move them now. Just to make sure.”

“To where, though?” He gestured at their surroundings. “It’s almost closing time. There’s no way we can get anywhere without people seeing them. This is all the space we have.”

“What about upstairs?”

The second floor of the Sweeper shop was a living space, Clae’s— now Okane’s—home. Other Sweepers would have no reason to go up there, boss or not.

That was how they found themselves hauling Clae bodily up the stairs. It occurred to Laura that there was a reason they’d left him on the ground floor in the first place. The stairs were steep and he was extremely heavy, not to mention slippery after being stuck in a tub of water. Laura couldn’t get a good hold on his feet without losing grip, having to lurch sideways and hug his boots to her side. Okane didn’t fare much better, but at least he could grab Clae under the arms. Clae’s face was enraged, as it had been the past few weeks, but if he’d been aware of the proceedings she thought he’d make the same expression. She stopped a third of the way up the steps.

“I don’t remember these stairs being so much like a ladder,” she panted.

“It’s an architectural disaster,” Okane wheezed.

“How did the Sinclairs get any furniture up there in the first place?”

“Magic?”

Laura panted some more before heaving Clae’s feet up again and staggering. They went three steps before the crystal slipped in their grip and they scrambled to a halt. Clae’s form hit the steps with a loud thunk, and Laura sucked in a breath, horrified.

“Oh, shit. Is he okay?”

Okane squinted down and nodded. “This crystal must be tougher than it looks.”

Somewhat reassured, Laura steadied herself and they lurched up again.

“Why did we start with him?” Okane groaned. “Anselm will be a piece of cake in comparison.”

“Where are we putting him?”

“I don’t know. You live up there, you tell me!”

“Bed?”

“Just lead the way.”

It took an eternity, but they reached the second floor and hauled Clae down the hall, into the back room with the twin beds. They de- posited him none too gracefully, and turned back to the stairs.

Anselm was, luckily, a hell of a lot lighter. Okane hefted the crystal into his arms and took him up alone. Laura watched from the bottom and called up when he stumbled.

“You’re leaning left again! Don’t slip!”

He made a frustrated noise and disappeared into the second floor. Eventually he emerged again with a pensive look on his face.

“What do you think they’ll say about me? About the ‘- – -’ thing?”

“They won’t notice it.” Laura noticed, but she’d trained herself for it. Okane shook his head. “And the eyes?”

“If they give you trouble at all, I’ll back you up. Nothing like the Sullivans will ever happen to you again.”

Okane rubbed at his covered arms, and the scars there. “Thanks.” A clattering sound made Laura jump and look back at the shop.

There was someone by the windows, headed straight for the door. Could that be the new boss? She gestured madly for Okane to come down, hissing, “She’s here! I think she’s here!”

Okane sped down the stairs while Laura straightened, heart jumping into her throat. The door creaked open, admitting two people.

The first was a woman with long brown hair twisted into a knot at the back of her head. Her hazel eyes and upturned nose reminded Laura of a film star, and her expensive coat and fur stole only enforced the idea. She gave them a smile both excited and bashful. Laura was immediately distracted by the man behind her: tall, reedy, with the same coloring and upturned nose, though the rest of his face was long, thin, and gaunt, and he’d opted for a plain overcoat.

“Hello,” the woman said breathlessly. “I’m Juliana MacDanel. This is Sinclair Sweepers, right? It’s hard to read the sign.”

Laura forced a smile. “Are you our new head Sweeper?”

Juliana’s face brightened. “Yes! I was sent over from Puer. So you’re—Oh, I know this, they sent the information. Laura Kramer, and Okane Sinclair?”

At each name she went to shake their hands. She had a strong grip, and Laura needed to rub her hand to get the feeling back when the woman turned. Okane’s reluctance to touch ended up being interpreted as something completely different, and Juliana pulled back.

“Sinclair. So you were a relative of the previous head Sweeper? I’m sorry I’m not him, but I’ll try my best to carry on his great reputation.” She put a hand over her heart and said this sincerely. Okane shuffled and ducked his head.

“Did you know Clae?” Laura asked.

“Not personally, but he was something like a Sweeper celebrity: the youngest head Sweeper in recent history, worked almost solo most of his career, and still somehow managed to be the most effective fighter in Terual. Even Rex could see he was talented.”

A smile tugged at Laura’s lips. If the new boss had a healthy respect for Clae, she couldn’t be too bad.

“And, since my companion doesn’t seem interested in introducing himself, I’ll do it for him. This is my brother, Lester. He’s also a Sweeper. Once I heard how small Amicae’s force was, I begged him to come along. I hope you don’t mind?”

“Not at all!” Laura hadn’t expected more than one new member, but the help would be welcome.

Juliana shrugged of her coat and hung it up on the coatrack, revealing a dress underneath. She looked ready for an evening party. Had she dressed up to meet them, of all people? It was almost flattering.

“What do you say, you want to give us the grand tour?”

“Tour?”

“Of course!” Juliana laughed. “The Gin, the weapon construction, the storage areas, what have you.”

“Well . . . this is it.” Laura waved around at the room. “Everything is on this floor. We’ve got the Kin,” she gestured at the hissing setup behind her, “storage,” she tapped the glass of the counter, “and the Gin is in the next room.”

“It looked like there was a second floor.”

“That’s a home.”

My home,” Okane piped up. “I’d prefer – – – didn’t go up there.”

“Of course! We’ve got no reason to pry.”

Thank goodness they didn’t press the matter. Laura slipped off the stool and led the way to the black drapes. The newcomers followed, Juliana with a distinct spring in her step. Laura held the curtains aside and scrutinized them as they passed. She startled when she realized Lester was scrutinizing her right back.

“Is there a problem?” Juliana glanced from one to the other. Had Laura made a noise without realizing it?

“It’s nothing,” she said quickly. “Sorry, I’m just not used to letting people in here. Clae was protective of the equipment.”

“Was he?” Juliana sounded interested.

“Amicae has a long history of taking away Sweeper inventory and selling it of,” said Laura. “The Sinclair family had to purchase most of their equipment from the city to keep it from being destroyed. Okane, wasn’t there something about the Pits, too?”

“Functioning Pits are city territory, but sunken ones are private property,” said Okane. “Otherwise the mining would’ve disturbed them.” “A grave concern,” said Lester, and his voice sounded grave too.

“We’ll have to keep that in mind during our future dealings with the Council,” said Juliana, stepping through the curtains.

Laura leaned to watch as the pair inspected the Gin room. Without Clae or Anselm present it looked innocent enough. But rather than checking the water basin, the rocks, or the tubing, they turned to the shelves. Juliana’s hands sifted through the empty Eggs, moving the glass shapes in search of something while Lester did the same on the other side.

“Are you expecting something else?” Laura asked.

“Oh, nothing,” Juliana replied, even as she tilted her head to see the back of one shelf. “I’m a little surprised is all. Excelling the way he did, I thought Mr. Sinclair would’ve had a few more tricks up his sleeve.”

Laura leaned against the doorway and crossed her arms. “No. He was just talented.”

“You’re sure? There’s nothing else?”

“No.”

Juliana looked disappointed but moved on quickly. “Who’s the weapons supplier?”

Laura blinked. “The what?”

“Weapons supplier.” She held up one of the Eggs. “Who makes the Egg shells? The bullets? The Bijou?”

Laura didn’t have a clue.

“Her name’s Amelia.” Okane peered around Laura, content to use her like a shield. “She used to be a Sweeper, but now she works with companies to get equipment.”

Juliana perked up again. “That’s wonderful! Where’s her office?”

“I don’t know. We’ve only talked over the telephone.”

“Other Sweeper buildings?”

“None.”

“Our Council contact?”

“Clae harassed them on his own.”

Juliana gave a perplexed sigh. “How did you function with so few resources?”

“Clae.” Laura shrugged as if his name should explain everything. “We haven’t had experience with larger operations, so we have nothing to compare this to.” Okane ducked further behind Laura as Lester turned around.

“In any case, we’ve got a lot of work to do,” Juliana announced, folding her arms. “Sad as it is, that big infestation should’ve rattled your Council. Now that they’ve got some fear in them, they’ll be willing to pump up defenses. We can get away with a lot of demands, so long as we pitch it right.”

“Demands like what?”

“Like more funding, more equipment, more space.” Juliana gestured around the cramped room. “We can get this place back into shape and working properly.”

Laura decided she liked the sound of that; she’d given thought to such a plan during her brief stint as head Sweeper, but had no idea how to follow through with it. “How do we begin?”

“Tomorrow morning, as soon as shops open, we’re making phone calls.”

An hour later the MacDanels left. They needed to find their new lodgings and unpack their luggage. Juliana wished them a cheery good evening as she left, while Lester gave a solemn farewell of his own. The shop was quiet again. Laura sat heavily on a stool and looked at Okane. He lurked behind the inactive Kin with an expression like a kicked dog.

“Well?” she asked.

The single word implied more. Opinion? Trustworthy? Will this work? Okane gave a halfhearted shrug and wandered farther down the counter.

“That’s enlightening,” Laura grumbled.

“Well, what do – – – think?”

Laura paused, leaned back to look at the ceiling. Her mouth twisted. “I think . . . I think this might turn out okay. They—Juliana at least—seem like they’re going to put a lot into this. She’s a proper Sweeper.”

Okane peered around the tubing of the Kin, his eyes darker, brooding. “And?”

“And I don’t think they need to know about Clae or Anselm. Not yet, anyway.”

He nodded his approval, very slowly. “That sounds like the best plan. I don’t like them.”

“That’s a pretty quick decision.”

“They were snooping.” Okane circled all the way around the counter and sat on another stool. He looked very moody.

Laura sighed. “So we’ll keep Clae and Anselm a secret permanently? How can we manage that? The house works for now, but it seems too close. If anyone ever goes up there, they’ll find them.”

“Can we take them to – – -r house?”

Laura burst out laughing. Okane kept looking at her, and she realized he was serious. Her mirth died into uneven giggles.

“Okane, I live on the eighth floor. There’s no elevator, and Clae might be lighter than he was as a normal person, but if he is, it’s not by much. I can’t carry a grown man up all those stairs. Besides, I live with people. Should I stuf him in a closet to keep my cousin from finding him?”

“Maybe? I could help carry them.”

“We can’t set up the Kin in my house, either!”

“The Kin?”

“Well, yeah.” She avoided his gaze, staring at the toe of her boot.

“We can’t pull Anselm out of the Kin without losing all our power, can we?”

A long pause.

“I thought – – – didn’t want to include him.”

Right after the fact, Laura was very opposed to the idea of using either Sinclair in the Kin. It felt like desecration. But the more she thought about it, the more she wondered. Clae hadn’t liked using Anselm, but he’d kept doing it. It was the only way to get through the onslaught of monsters at the time. While there were more Sweepers now, nothing guaranteed they’d do well or even if they’d survive the first infestation that came along. Besides, another spike of stronger monsters would hit soon; Clae had said it himself. They couldn’t aford to lose any power. It was logical, but the more she thought about it the guiltier she felt. She’d barred Clae from being used. Would she feel the same about Anselm if she’d ever seen him alive?

Okane exhaled slowly. “So we need somewhere for the Kin.” Laura rubbed her face, suddenly tired as she thought over their options. Their only Sweeper building was now off-limits. Albright couldn’t take them. Even if Morgan and Cheryl happily accepted the presence of crystal people—doubtful—they might talk and the information would get around the whole city in an awful game of telephone. Perhaps they could create a space. She had some savings squirreled away with the idea of funding herself later in life: emergency money, college fund, rent for her own apartment. Whatever half-baked plans she had were flying out the window.

“Should we rent someplace?” she suggested, but her voice was forlorn. She was stingy and apartments were expensive these days.

Okane tugged at his hair some more, frowning at the floor. “I don’t like the idea of them being far away. I want someone to keep an eye on them.”

“That might be impossible.”

“Still.”

They lapsed into silence. After a while, Laura heaved a sigh.

“Tomorrow we can start looking at options.”

________

The next day was Saturday. Laura would typically be on call on weekends and not go in to the shop at all, but since today was Juliana’s first full day she felt obligated to go. Laura left at her usual time, arrived at the shop at eight in the morning, to find the blinds down on the windows. Strange. She rolled her bicycle up the steps and knocked on the door. A long pause followed. She started to wonder if Okane was even awake this early on a Saturday, but a muffled voice called through the door.

“Who is it?”

“Laura.”

A shorter pause, a clacking and shuffling at the lock, and the door opened. Okane blinked at her, very much awake.

“Good morning?” He sounded confused. “What are – – – doing here?” “I thought I’d come over before the MacDanels do. What are you sneaking around for?”

He glanced around, then opened the door wider and beckoned her inside. Raising an eyebrow, she hauled her bicycle over the threshold. The room felt hot and humid as if the Kin equipment had been going, but none of the usual gold could be glimpsed inside it. The floor of the shop, however, was cluttered: green Puer Eggs, more Bijou, more guns and bullets, along with bags, straps, masks, goggles, and tens of other things she couldn’t identify. Okane sat on one of the stools and resumed his earlier activity, trying to load one of Clae’s old pistols with Puer bullets. He’d gone through three varieties, and the fourth didn’t fit either.

“Juliana said we can take what we want,” he said.

“So she did show up,” Laura muttered. “I’m sorry. I wanted to get here before she had a chance.”

He shrugged. “It was uncomfortable, but it’s not as if I expected them to hurt me.”

“Will they be coming back soon?”

He shook his head and pointed; a note had been left on the Eggs.

Hi, Laura! Sorry if it feels like we’ve ditched you. Lester and I are on our way to the Council to get a full report of the city and what’s expected of us. With the situation as is, I expect we’ll be gone most of the day. In the meantime feel free to look through these presents from Puer! All this equipment is top of the line. Our kin formula and accompanying devices are all the product of years of scientific refinement; even cities as far south as Canis swear by it. I recommend giving them a try and seeing just how strong Sweepers can be!

“The first full day of the job and she’s already avoiding us.” Laura caught sight of his expression and snorted. “That was a joke.”

“I know,” he mumbled. The fifth bullet slid in clean and he popped the cylinder back into place. Almost immediately he hastened to get it out again. “Not good!” he squeaked. “Very much not good. That’s a disaster.”

“Didn’t it fit?”

“I get the distinct feeling that it won’t when it needs to. It feels like . . . like standing on the Quarter wall and looking down.” He eyed the bullet once it was out, expression defeated. “I don’t think our equipment’s compatible with Puer assembly lines.”

No, Laura agreed, it wasn’t. When she finally selected a sturdy supply bag, it was only to find that its compartments were designed for Puer’s rounder Eggs, with their greenish kin; the yellow, Amicae variety were too oblong and threatened to spill right out of the slots. Cursing, she went upstairs to raid the old sewing basket for stitch rippers and new thread. She set it all down before her and paused. Yellow Eggs on the right, green on the left. Dusty material worn soft but sturdy, versus the glossy reddish sheen of something new of the assembly line. Somehow she felt lost. She looked up at Okane, only to see him looking back.

“It’s different,” he said simply.

“Alien,” she agreed. “It’s better quality. I don’t know why I’m hesitating.”

“I like things staying the same,” he said, spinning the cylinder. “When they’re the same, they’re predictable. They’re safe. I don’t . . . I don’t really want to switch the gun, even if Puer’s is supposed to be better.”

“‘Better’ may apply to some things, but not others.” Laura stood and buckled on the new bag. There were four diferent buckles and chains, and by the end of it she was sure that not even a typhoon could pull it all of. “What do you think? We can mix the equipment and make it work. There’s more than enough bullets in storage to cover that gun.”

He perked up a little. “- – – think so? I don’t think we have the budget to replace them.”

“Even if the office itself doesn’t, once you get your share of Clae’s estate, there should be more than enough to cover anything you need.”

“My share?”

Why did he sound so surprised?

“Yes, your share. Albright was just talking to us about it.”

He grunted in disbelief. “Clae didn’t look like he was rolling in money. If he couldn’t replace his stove, what makes – – – think he had anything in his estate to cover anything?”

“His family owned Gin underground, and charged people to power amulets from it,” she pointed out. “That’s expensive, and he didn’t have to pay income tax on that.”

“But the stove—”

“Maybe he was a miser.”

Okane gave a short huff of laughter. “I could see that. Still, I don’t think he left me money, or if he did, not a lot. So we shouldn’t count on it.”

Laura frowned. “Why do you think that?”

“I’m not important enough.” He folded his hands in his lap as he said this, expression sad but earnest. He believed it.

“Okane. Okane.” Laura mimicked Morgan’s pitying tone as best she could. “Okane. You’re not that stupid.”

“Excuse me?”

“He gave the time and effort to get you out of trouble. You have his name. Of course you were important!”

“But—”

“But nothing.” She crossed her arms and frowned, daring him to question her. “I guarantee it. He left you a lot.”

“Hmm.”

Still unconvinced. Laura rolled her eyes.

Copyright © 2019 by Mirah Bolander

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New Releases: 11/20

Happy New Release Day! Here’s what went on sale today.

Willful Child: The Search for Spark by Steven Erikson

Image Placeholder of - 65These are the adventures of the starship A.S.F. Willful Child. Its ongoing mission: to seek out strange new worlds on which to plant the Terran flag, to subjugate and if necessary obliterate new life-forms.

We join the not terribly bright but exceedingly cocksure Captain Hadrian Sawback and his motley crew on board the Starship Willful Child for a series of devil-may-care, near-calamitous and downright chaotic adventures through the infinite vastness of interstellar space.

Steven Erikson has taken his lifelong passion for Star Trek and transformed it into a smart, inventive, and hugely entertaining spoof on the whole overblown mankind-exploring-space-for-the-good-of-all-species-but-trashing-stuff-with-a-lot-of-high-tech-gadgets-along-the-way adventure. The result is a novel that deftly parodies the genre while also paying fond homage to it.

NEW IN PAPERBACK

City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender

Image Place holder  of - 30Five hundred years ago, magi created a weapon they couldn’t control. An infestation that ate magic—and anything else it came into contact with. Enemies and allies were equally filling.

Only an elite team of non-magical humans, known as sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training.

Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she’s the last—and only—sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.

NEW IN MANGA

Akashic Records of Bastard Magic Instructor Vol. 5 Story by Hitsuji Tarou; Art by Tsunemi Aosa

Beasts of Abigaile Vol. 4 Story and art by Spica Aoki

Captain Harlock: Dimensional Voyage Vol. 6 Story by Leiji Matsumoto; Art by Kouiti Shimaboshi

Didn’t I Say to Make My Abilities Average in the Next Life?! Vol. 4 Story by FUNA; Art by Itsuki Akata

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas Story by Yoru Sumino; Art by loundraw

Juana and the Dragonewt’s Seven Kingdoms Vol. 3 Story and art by Kiyohisa Tanaka

Shomin Sample: I was Abducted by an Elite All-Girls School as a Sample Commoner Vol. 9 Story by Nanatsuki Takafumi; Art by Risumai

Toradora! Vol. 3 Story by Yuyuko Takemiya; Art by Yasu

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Learning to Write #FearlessWomen

Placeholder of  -68Written by Mirah Bolender

From the moment I started writing, I limited myself in the type of characters I created. When I was a child, I insisted that I’d only write about animals, because those were the only things that I could draw decently and I loved drawing my characters. I essentially wrote humans in fur coats, but that didn’t matter. I felt like I could understand them better this way, in their disguises. A popular saying is “write what you know,” which makes sense as generic writing advice and also because I was obsessed with the Redwall series at the time. I read about talking animal-people, so I wrote the same. I freely admit that the results were awful. I’ve improved since then, but the “write what you know” concept stuck to me harder than I thought. Years and years later, in a writing class, another student critiquing my writing said my piece was decent, but also “a sausage fest.” It was. And it rightly bothered me. Why did I write such a drastic imbalance, I wondered. I hadn’t even thought about it—I’d thrown together interesting characters from older projects, and it happened that few of them were female. What was up with that?

Imagine your favorite book or movie. What made it special? The action? The plot that kept you guessing at every turn? The indomitable protagonist, who always came out on top? Think a little more about that protagonist. In most of the mainstream plots I followed, the protagonist was male. He had male friends. If a woman was involved, she was never at the front. There were roles for her, of course: the girlfriend, the girl next door who’d become the best friend’s girlfriend, a trickster with girlfriend potential who led the protagonist on, and, of course, the villainess, usually a more complex flavor of the previous example. Sometimes a woman could be a hero, but she’d be horribly outnumbered by the men on her team, and as the only member of her sex she had to embody it to extremes. She had to be addicted to shopping or scared of bugs, anything interesting she knew came from her brothers, and she inevitably had to become a frail damsel that the male heroes could rescue and have crushes on. She had to fit a mold.

I’m sure a lot of women remember a rejection of femininity during their early years. Pink suddenly a color to be avoided at all costs; bragging about having male friends because other girls were “too much drama.” You couldn’t enjoy anything girly, because it meant the mold. Male heroes, meanwhile, were allowed to have growth and depth. They could struggle and rage in situations deserving of it, while women became the distant trophy or got bullied into positions they clearly disliked, with the overwhelming message that this is how it has to be, and she was a bitch for trying to refuse abuse in the first place.

When I first came out of my only-write-animals phase, I wanted to write a male protagonist. He wouldn’t have the baggage a female would; he wouldn’t have to constantly reiterate his gender instead of who he was, would not have to exclusively focus on romance. As an asexual not quite at terms with myself, this was incredibly appealing. At the same time, it was awful. I was going to write what I knew, and I, a girl, didn’t think I could understand myself or people like me.

In the here and now, I’ve noticed something— the male characters I love have heavily feminine-coded traits. They are empathetic, thoughtful, vulnerable, and treasure other people above themselves. They teem with traits that would make a female character seem bland, but being male, they are allowed to play out grand stories where their compassion factors in without being written off. I want female characters to have that without being denounced as just another mold.

I think a lot of characters in my old works are like the animal ones: disguised, because that was the only way I could imagine them. I’m so glad other writers were able to dig out of that hole before I did, because these days I’m seeing so many female characters that are, unapologetically, complete people. Maybe they’re kind. Maybe they’re not. It doesn’t matter, because they’re compelling as all hell and I want to read about all of them.

Being a part of the #FearlessWomen campaign is phenomenal, because I’m surrounded by those who break the mold. There’s no need for disguises at this point. They are women, and they are whole, and they are not ashamed.

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Excerpt: City of Broken Magic by Mirah Bolender

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Image Placeholder of - 94Mirah Bolender’s fast-paced, adventure fantasy debut, City of Broken Magic, features a bomb squad that defuses magic weapons.

Five hundred years ago, magi created a weapon they couldn’t control. An infestation that ate magic—and anything else it came into contact with. Enemies and allies were equally filling.

Only an elite team of non-magical humans, known as sweepers, can defuse and dispose of infestations before they spread. Most die before they finish training.

Laura, a new team member, has stayed alive longer than most. Now, she’s the last—and only—sweeper standing between the city and a massive infestation.

12

Kaibutsu

Two weeks after the “temple test,” Laura woke to a noise at the door. She stirred, wondering dimly what was going on. It couldn’t be later than four in the morning. Shuffling. Door opening.

“Hello?”

Aunt Morgan had answered the door. Good for her. She could take care of it. Laura buried her face in her pillow and began to drift off again. Another noise came from much closer, and she squinted to the side. Morgan leaned against the doorjamb, looking exhausted.

“Hey, Laura.” The sleepy drawl slurred her words. “The office got a call for you from Mr. Sinclair. There’s something going on. Says you’re going to help him sometime today for something or other.”

“Oh?”

“Yeah.”

“Why’d he call now, though?”

Morgan shrugged. “Don’t know.”

“I’ll ask him about it when I go to work.”

“Sure.”

Morgan drifted away. The door didn’t close all the way behind her, but Laura was too tired to care. She closed her eyes and began to doze. She fell asleep again by the time the second noise came to the door. This knocking was much louder and more insistent, and Laura woke as soon as it began. Annoyed grumbling heralded Morgan’s shuffling feet. Cheryl made a loud, unhappy noise.

Clae couldn’t be expecting her to go to the shop at this hour, could he? Laura frowned at the idea and buried her head under her pillow. Maybe she could drown out the sound of the door. The next thing she knew, the pillow was yanked away. She glared at the culprit, but the look faltered as she realized that it wasn’t Morgan.

“Clae?” she spluttered, instantly awake. “What are you doing here?”

“Picking you up,” he replied, “like I said on the phone.”

“I don’t have a phone in here, you called the building phone! I didn’t get the message!” Laura snapped, sitting up and pulling her blanket closer about her.

“Person who answered it said she’d go tell you.”

“Well, she didn’t.

“You know now. So get out of bed and let’s go.”

“Go where? It’s—” She scrambled for her pocket watch on the bedside table. “It’s four in the morning!”

In reality it was four forty-five, but it was in the hour of four and she resented that.

“The police are already out there, and they’re expecting us to arrive before five.”

“Out where?”

“The Sixth Quarter.”

Laura had never physically been to the Sixth Quarter. Given the inhabitants, there were usually no amulets down there, and the few that did exist were with the military, so they were tightly regulated. No chance for infestation.

“What’s going on in the Sixth Quarter?”

“Stupidity, what do you think?” Clae scoffed. “Now get dressed and ready to go. I’ll be waiting outside.”

He tossed the pillow back and left, shouldering past Morgan in the doorway. Her aunt sent her a frightened look but closed the door behind him. Laura stared at it for a bit, then sprang up in a burst of energy. She rushed around her room, grabbing her clothes and supplies as fast as she could. Once she was decent, she tied her hair back and left her room. The first thing she saw was Cheryl leaning out of her own room, looking tired and grumpy, but lingering out of some begrudging interest in the strangers in the living room. Morgan stood near the sofa with much the same expression though less angry, twisting the cuff of her nightgown in anxiety; she followed their guests with her eyes as if afraid they’d snatch everything up and run. Clae inspected something on the wall, ignoring her completely, while Okane hovered near the door.

“Ready,” Laura called, and Morgan looked over in surprise.

“For what? What’s going on?”

“Just work.” Laura had to stifle a yawn.

“At this time of the morning?”

“Well, if someone wasn’t so impatient—”

“Don’t accuse me, go after the cops if you’re so upset.” Clae turned away from the wall.

“I’m sure she doesn’t mean it!” Morgan squeaked. “She’s just tired is all.”

“No kidding,” Laura muttered.

“Excuses. Come on. We’re going to be late already.”

Grumbling fitfully, Laura followed them out. Morgan watched as they passed.

“Good luck,” she called. “Don’t forget, call if you need anything.”

Laura was about to retort that we don’t have a telephone, that’s why they surprised us to begin with, but realization dawned. She meant the police, in case these strangers tried anything funny. Clae really did give off an awful impression.

She closed the door and they walked down the hallway. Laura wove a bit but rubbed her eyes and tried to wake up faster.

“Laura?”

She looked up. Charlie stood by the stairs, a jumble of metal parts under his arms. Suspicious Morgan and her current nemesis? It was too early for this. What was he doing outside at nearly five in the morning?

“What are you doing out this early?” Charlie glanced at Clae and Okane, brow furrowing in suspicion.

“Going to work?”

“Now?”

“Yes. Out of the way, you’re blocking the stairs,” Clae grouched, using the briefcase to push him aside. Charlie gaped after him.

“Sorry. See you later.” Laura hurried on Clae’s heels, silently thanking him for being so rude.

But it wasn’t to be. After only some hesitation Charlie followed them down, jogging to keep level with Laura and juggling his load at the same time.

“What kind of work needs a lady out at this hour?” he asked. “You understand what people might think, seeing you out with two strange men?”

Laura barked out a bitter laugh. “Sorry, but it’s a little too early for me to worry about ruining my reputation.”

“People talk.” He glanced at Clae’s back, as if torn between confrontation and fear.

“Let them. All I’m doing is working. Besides, I’m not interested in that ‘perfect bride’ image anyway.”

“That’s rather angelina of you to say.”

That last line was muttered, not meant to be clearly heard, but he might as well have shouted it. Laura stopped so suddenly Okane almost ran into her. She didn’t notice. She glared at Charlie, hate curling in her stomach.

“What did you just say?” she hissed.

At first he looked confused, but it clicked quickly; Morgan Chandler, that Angelina on the top floor.

“I’m just saying that you’re taking it too lightly!” he defended. “You’re closing off your future. No one’s going to marry a woman they think is immoral.”

“So I’ll end up like my aunt is what you’re saying?”

“That’s not what I—”

“Really? Because that’s entirely what I heard.”

“Well, she’s not exactly the best role model!”

“You little rat! After all the things she’s done for you, you turn around and—”

“She doesn’t want you going down the same path either!”

“Oh, and I suppose you’ve discussed this?” He didn’t immediately reply, but his expression said enough. Laura’s glower darkened. “You didn’t. I can’t believe—”

“We’re just worried about you,” he said. “I’m serious. Keep going like you are and you won’t have any options left.”

“She has plenty of options,” said Clae. They jumped; he had stopped to look at them, eyes narrowed. “If you think all a woman’s good for is marrying, you’re very behind the times.”

“I think you’re more out of touch with the times,” Charlie retorted, bristling.

Clae ignored him and looked on at Laura. “We have more important matters right now.”

“We do.” Laura took three angry steps before whirling to glare again. “Don’t you dare get near Morgan again. Ever since you started going to that university, you’ve gotten pretentious. You’re not a gentleman. You’re a backstabber is all you are.”

“Laura!”

She ignored him, pushing past Clae in a bid for the next set of stairs. Charlie made to follow, but Okane made a jerking movement and the machine parts spilled from his arms to clang upon the floor. Charlie let out a loud exclamation and Okane mumbled something about an apology before hightailing it. He passed Laura on the stairs, but luckily Charlie didn’t follow. Clae walked beside her, glancing behind them only once.

“Neighbor?” he grunted as they reached the next floor.

“Right.” Laura forced her voice into calm. She was going to work. The safe zone. She didn’t have to worry about nonsense like marriage or angelinas here. “We used to go to school together.”

“Good. If you said ‘boyfriend’ I was going to throw myself off the building.”

“That’s drastic.”

“So’s settling for a moron. It’d be a damn shame if you let someone like that limit you.”

They descended the stairs and made their way to the cable cars. The trolley ran at this hour, so the trek was made easier, though it was still time-consuming. Strangely enough, the police were waiting for them at the cable car station. Albright was at the head of the crowd, arms crossed and lips pursed. Laura wondered if Clae’s mere presence angered her.

“What?” he demanded as he stepped off the car, apprentices in his wake.

“It’s past five,” Albright growled.

“We ran into complications,” Clae sneered. “Now what’s going on? They’re not letting you in?”

Laura was mystified for a moment—who could keep the police from doing their job?—but she followed the gaze of one officer and spotted a grim-faced soldier with a rifle in his hands. Military.

“No,” Albright confirmed. It was obvious in her face that she took this personally. “We got the call, but we were only the middleman to get you here.”

“What’s the situation?”

“Five trainees were taken by an infestation in their barracks building. Apparently they disappeared into the dark. No bodies left, nothing—even furniture started vanishing. There was some sort of commotion. Hell if I know whether the rest made it out. Some hothead decided to lead a counterattack and asked for Sweeper backup. That’s all the information we have.”

“Are you expecting us to do a rescue mission?” Clae eyed her reproachfully.

“No.” She returned a withering look. “You get in there and get rid of the problem. If these people know anything they’ll evacuate on their own. But if you act quickly, you’ll limit the damage.”

“Roundabout rescue, then,” Clae murmured.

“Whatever you want to call it. You!” Albright called to the lone soldier. “Here are your Sweepers. Take them over.”

The soldier moved closer, watching them suspiciously, and Albright scoffed. “We’re not about to make a break for it. Hurry up.”

Scowling, he did as she said and moved faster. “Come with me,” he told the Sweepers, and led them away.

Their destination was a military barracks building near the middle of the Quarter on the west side. The structure rose half the height of the Cynder Block and wider, a dull gray color with windows marked by dark squares on its side, set in perfect rows that only added to the stern appearance. Its strict atmosphere was the complete opposite of the rickety shacks they’d passed on the way in. A few of those shacks were visible in the distance, but the military didn’t want any noncitizens (these days the thin Fifth Quarter overflowed into parts of the Sixth) getting too close to the barracks. A few sentries surveyed them suspiciously, glancing from wary noncitizens to the Sweepers being led past them. The building currently blazed with light, not from the inside but from an assembly of lanterns and electric lights dragged in from all over the Quarter. The Sweepers were asked to wait by a rickety jeep with its protruding headlights trained on the front door.

“They’re going all out,” Laura observed.

“The military is generally faster to act than the police and they actually retain some of the information on monsters, since they have to be able to deal with them beyond the walls,” Clae responded. “It’s unfortunate that they forget they can’t do a goddamn thing beyond trap it.” The last part was louder and directed toward the person coming toward them: a severe-looking man with a great mustache resembling a snake curling around his upper lip.

“It’s about time you got here.” His tone was as stiff as his posture.

“What’s going on in there?” Clae demanded.

“Our trainees started going missing. The signs point to it being one of your monsters, so we called for backup.”

“Yes, I’ve already heard that from the police. We need more details.”

The man grumbled, then elaborated, “It grew hands. The shadows grew hands and dragged them in.”

That definitely sounded like their sort of work.

“So you got out and set up the lights. But then you decided that charging in and antagonizing it was a good idea?”

“We were buying time for the rest of the trainees to get out, if there were any.”

“Don’t lie to me. Why did you really go in there?”

The man sneered. “You want the truth? Fine. It was one of the lower officers who rallied people here before anyone who should’ve been in charge arrived. There had to be at least twenty who ran in, but none of them have come out since.”

Clae heaved a long sigh, rubbing at his temple. “Of course. Besides the hands, do you know if there was anything distinctive about this monster?”

“I’m told it made a strange noise.”

“Was it a groaning sound? Screeching?”

“Scratching.”

Clae’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“It made a scraping sound when it followed them,” said the man. “It was fast, just about on the trainees’ heels as they got out, and it left scores in the floor.”

“It left marks?”

Clae shifted his weight, eyes pensive. Laura was confused too. On other jobs, even during an infestation there were supposedly few physical marks left by the monsters beyond what they ate. Only the tools Sweepers used should scar the area. She had no idea why or how this one was marking up the place. Unless it was like the weird ones lately? Maverick? she mouthed at Clae, but he was focused on the man before them.

“It did. Is that strange to you?” the man was saying.

“Indeed.” Clae pondered a moment. “Where was it when it was first noticed?”

“Third floor. Midway through the hall, in one of the sleeping quarters. Took the first boy right out of his bed.”

“And it followed them downstairs?”

“Took two more on the way, yes.”

Clae nodded absently. “And the trainees who escaped? Where are they?”

“They’ve been transferred over to the southern barracks.” When Clae raised an eyebrow (the southern barracks were probably a ways away), the man continued, “The surrounding buildings have been evacuated.”

“Keep an eye on them. Keep an eye on anyone who was in that building.”

“Do you suspect something’s wrong with them?”

“This infestation’s showing some unusual behavior, so best keep on the safe side. All we need is for it to develop some kind of venom or disease. God forbid it start using humans as shells instead of amulets.”

Everyone, even the sentries nearby, tensed up. Any one of those outcomes could be catastrophic. Laura had never considered them before.

“You don’t think that could actually happen, do you?” she whispered. The very idea made her stomach turn.

“These things have stayed the same for countless generations,” muttered Clae. “Nothing does that. Animals change, develop camouflage and defenses. Humans create things like guns and walls. Just because it’s been like this as long as we know doesn’t mean the hive mind can’t evolve.”

“Can you still take it out?” the man demanded.

“Probably. We plan for this sort of thing with kin.”

“When will you start?”

Clae set down his briefcase with a grunt. He opened it up and began to sort through the contents.

“Laura, Okane. Take these.”

Laura knelt down and reached out her hands, and Okane did the same on his other side. Clae divided equipment between them. Laura ended up with two more Eggs, a large handful of Bijou, some wire, and a few pellets that served as flash bombs.

“If you use the Bijou, be careful. They’ll roll down stairs but not up. And go slow enough that they can keep sensing the amulets in your shoes. They’ll follow you,” Clae told them.

“Will that make a shield against this thing?” asked Laura.

“Depending on how strong it is. Bijou can easily keep a smaller one away, but a big, moving infestation may prove difficult. And be sure to aim right with your Eggs. They won’t do any good if they miss the target.”

They straightened up. Laura stored her new equipment in the various bags on her belt. She was stuffing the wire in, cursing because it kept trying to unravel, as Clae announced, “We’ll begin immediately. If we find any of your people we’ll send them out, but they’re not our first priority.”

“Understood.” The man nodded. “Are there any other precautions we should take?”

“Make sure no one comes in. I don’t care what excuse they have, we don’t want any other potential food sources available to it.”

“We’ll lock down the area even further. Anything else?”

“Have you got telephones in there? Of course you do. Get in contact with the police, have them get an operator to dial all the phones. It could serve as a distraction to the monster and might help locate your men. If any of them have survived, anyway. Doubtful.”

“Of course.” The man frowned. The military wasn’t fond of the police—something about child’s play in comparison to their job—so he probably wasn’t looking forward to working with them. His hand circled in a wordless gesture for any more information, but when none was forthcoming, he folded his arms. “Be fast. The creature has done enough damage.”

He turned away and began barking orders to the surrounding men, telling So-and-So to get those troops on the job, and So-and-So to regulate the lights and shut down any way others could get into the area. Soon only the Sweepers were left by the jeep. Clae shuffled, double-checking that his guns were still there and then checking the time on his watch, before putting a few more Bijou into his vest pocket.

“If you run out of ammunition, then get back out here if you can. There’s more in the case but I don’t want to bring it in there. Too bulky. Got it? Good. Let’s get going.”

The barracks doors were nondescript, but they opened on well-oiled hinges. Inside, the barracks were just as plain as the exterior. The walls had the same grayish color, the wooden floor polished to the point it shone dully in the light from the nearest window. Patches of light were visible down the hall, marking the places where windows were set, but for the most part darkness was overwhelming. Laura shook an Egg to get some better lighting.

“Now what?”

“We stick close and comb the place,” Clae murmured, taking a step forward.

They crept down the hall. The muffled sound of shouting soldiers could be heard outside, but in here their footsteps echoed loudly. It rankled Laura to hear how much noise they made. The hallway led them right, and they did a full circuit of the first floor. This first floor was comprised of classrooms, mostly empty, with chalkboards at the front and desks and chairs scattered throughout the room. Nothing was in there, or if there was, the others didn’t acknowledge it. They located a set of stairs and began to climb.

“Sir,” Okane piped up as they walked.

“I thought I told you not to call me that,” Clae retorted. “What is it?”

“I’ve noticed that—always refer to those things as monsters, or creatures, or just things. Do they not have a name?”

“Yes and no.”

Laura didn’t think of it much, but she was sure at one point he’d called them something strange. “You did have a name for them, though, didn’t you?”

Clae made a humming sound as he reached the landing and peered around the corner. “Sweepers sometimes call them kaibutsu or bakemono.

Laura tried to repeat the words and butchered them terribly. She frowned at that pathetic attempt. “Where do those names come from?”

“It’s the native language of Orien. Same language Sweepers used to name kin, same language your name comes from,” Clae replied, glancing back at Okane.

“Your name’s a word?” Laura asked, baffled.

“It means ‘money,’ ” he answered.

Silver-coin eyes. So someone else picked up on that too.

“What do those other names mean?”

“Essentially they translate into ‘monster.’ I’m not fluent so I don’t know the details or the differences, but that’s what Sweepers ended up using. The cities don’t uphold those as official names, though, so they’re falling out of use.”

“Why wouldn’t they—” Laura snapped her mouth shut and grabbed Clae’s sleeve. He stopped on the stair, turning his wary gaze on her.

“What is it?”

“There’s something up there.” She hadn’t gotten a good look at this distance, barely a glimpse out of the corner of her eye, but it was large and dark. Possibly their target. “On the floor.”

“Moving?”

“No.”

Maybe preparing to strike, she thought. Clae seemed to think the same. He held his arm out and motioned for them to move back. Laura descended two steps, quietly as possible. Okane leaned into the wall as if hoping to become one with it. No sound came from ahead. They stayed there, frozen, waiting for some kind of reaction. Nothing. The beam of a searchlight shone through the windows, dim and shifting slowly like the people outside were trying to observe them. It slid over the walls, just above the shape. It lit the Sweepers briefly, throwing Clae’s tense features into sharp relief before leaving them and tracking up toward the next floor. It took what seemed like forever. Laura held her breath so long she felt her lungs might burst.

Finally Clae moved his hand, a light wave signaling the apprentices to stay put. Slowly, slowly, he edged out and around the corner. Despite the warning Laura took his previous position, trying to see without exposing herself. There it was, a dark shape on the ground in the darkest corner of the hallway. It lay almost motionless, save for the slight rise and fall of its farthest portion. Clae approached as if expecting it to lash out and bite. Laura gripped her Egg tighter, calculating when to attack: before the creature moved, in case Clae couldn’t make a signal fast enough? He hovered by the shape, gun raised. After a moment he relaxed.

“Not our thing.” He toed it, no longer cautious.

Laura felt relief and disappointment in the same crashing wave. She relaxed her grip on the Egg, frowning at the lingering sting in her hand. How hard had she been holding it? “If it’s not one of your kaibutsu, what is it?”

“One of the trainees.”

Laura walked over to get a better look, raising the Egg to squint at the details. The boy sprawled there looked younger than she was, but he wore the trainees’ brown jacket, unbuttoned and thrown on over pajamas.

“The monster didn’t get him. What happened?” asked Laura.

“Hell, maybe he fainted.” Clae toed the body harder. “Hey, you. Get up.”

The body didn’t move, so he kicked it. This time the trainee jerked violently. He curled in on himself, coughing.

“Who are you and what are you doing here?” Clae demanded.

The boy looked up at him with wide eyes. He spluttered incoherently.

“I-I-I, uh, Jonathan Harrow! I, well, maybe I ah—”

“Spit it out.”

“I was running and I fell over and it was coming and I don’t know!”

“From which direction?”

“W-what?”

“Which direction, I said!”

The boy pointed back over his shoulder, down the hall.

“Of course,” Clae muttered. “You, get downstairs and out of this building. Get in our way and I might accidentally shoot you.”

The trainee scrambled to his feet and tore off down the stairs, nearly bowling Okane over and tripping over himself on the way.

“We know it can easily go down stairs, but we’re not sure about up.” Clae glared after the trainee before turning his attention to them again. “If he’s right and it was following him here, it might be on this floor. Keep an eye out.”

He kept walking as if nothing had happened, and after a moment the other two followed.

The rooms on this floor were a mix of classrooms and sleeping quarters. All of them were the same: classrooms identical to the ones on the last floor, and all the sleeping quarters with six sets of bunk beds, three along each wall, metal frames and thin mattresses. Footlockers sat at the end of these beds, and they were unmade, but if it weren’t for that, every room would’ve looked exactly the same: uninhabited.

“Are we sure he was telling the truth?” Laura muttered as she closed another door. “I’m not seeing or hearing anything.”

“Perhaps it’s moved on?” Okane guessed.

“Maybe, maybe not. Don’t let your guard down,” said Clae.

As the group climbed up to the third floor, Laura shook her Egg, causing it to give off more light. The renewed glow illuminated marks in the wooden stairs. They all paused to inspect them. The scratches were fairly deep, but not terribly so. It was like someone swiped at the stairs with a knife, a back-and-forth kind of movement with a larger, deeper, main gouge scribbling in the midst of the others. They ended a third of the way down the stairs, then doubled back.

“You think that’s it?” asked Laura.

“Probably.” Clae ran his fingertips across the scrapes, frowning.

“So it’s got a fixed form, now?” Laura wasn’t sure what kind of form or body could make this sort of damage, and she wasn’t looking forward to seeing it.

“I don’t think so. It’s developed enough to eat furniture and people. If it had a fixed form it would be big enough to fit those inside. These marks were made by something fairly small. I don’t think it has a fixed form at all.”

“Then how’s it making the marks? Or is that something completely different?”

“If we’re judging by that story earlier, they’re one and the same. I think this one’s dragging its amulet around.”

“They can do that?” said Okane.

“Usually, no. It’s in their best interest to keep their roots in one place and protect them at all costs, so this one’s a bit of a maverick. That could be good or bad. It drags its weakness in plain sight, but again, it moves. No way to pin it down.”

“If the amulet made the marks, what’s it shaped like?” said Laura.

She’d heard stories about previous occasions when infestations sucked themselves completely into an amulet to hide. She didn’t want to walk right past it while it was hiding, only for the thing to pounce when she looked the other way.

“How the hell should I know?” Clae straightened up. “Whatever it is it can’t be much bigger than a cat. Probably smaller.”

13

Two for One

The scuffs on the floor continued down the hallway. At some points they skittered away from the main, middle pathway. Some traces trailed up the walls too, as high as Laura’s head. It made her think of a spider. She shuddered.

Okane made an odd sound, and Laura felt his shoulder bump into her back.

“What?” she whispered.

Okane stared at one of the doors, eyes wide and spooked. “Did—hear that?”

“Hear what?”

“Listen.”

Laura strained her ears but heard nothing. The only things she could detect were their own breathing and the sounds of people outside. She glanced at him again in question. Almost as soon as she did, she heard it. A quiet, scraping noise. She tensed.

“Clae. . . .”

“I heard it.”

After some hesitation, Clae approached the door. The other two crept along in his wake, giving him a good head start. The door was already ajar, so Clae kicked it gently open. As he did he pulled out one of his guns. There was a split second of nothing. Laura thought maybe they were mistaken, but then came a high-pitched shriek. Clae jerked backward, but even before he did Okane moved, practically trampling Laura’s feet as he scrambled back toward the window. Laura lost her balance. She stumbled, and the world was a dark blur. She could hear Clae give a pained grunt, and a sudden splintering sound. There was a smash and a crash from either side of the hall, accompanied by an awful hiss and finally a burst of light before she caught the back of Okane’s vest. She blinked furiously, trying to haul herself back up and recover from that light.

“What the hell is going on?”

The hissing went off to her right and she jumped, still unable to make anything out. Soon enough the hiss ended, replaced by an odd skittering that faded quickly.

“Look,” came Clae’s voice, and gradually her vision cleared enough that she was able to see him again. “I get it, you don’t like it. But for god’s sake, don’t panic and take out your coworker.”

Clae happened to be glaring at Okane, who looked caught somewhere between the vestiges of fear and embarrassment. The remnants of an Egg were scattered on the ground, broken glass and kin liquid spreading along the floorboards. There was no sign of whatever had made that skitter noise, beyond a large chunk taken out of the doorway and a dent in the wall opposite. It looked like something had been launched through with enough force to rip pieces of the wall out with it. Laura gawked at it while the others squabbled.

“And you wasted an Egg. Didn’t I tell you to aim?”

“—know I hate it!” Okane hissed. “What did—think I’d do, seeing one of those things?”

“Use some sense,” Clae grumbled. “You were doing well with infestations in private lessons.”

“That one wasn’t flinging itself at my head!”

“You’ve got better defenses than we do, but we aren’t panicking.” He paused, took a deep breath. “You know what? Go outside. Wait by the briefcase.”

Okane looked horrified. “What?”

“I told you to go outside. If you’re going to be more hindrance than help, I don’t want you in the way. The light outside will keep you out of the infestation’s range.”

“But—”

“But what?”

Clae glowered. Okane quailed, but choked out, “—said I’d be a good Sweeper.”

“If you’re under control. Are you under control?” Okane didn’t agree, but he didn’t deny either. Clae huffed. “Stay or leave, just commit to the choice you make. Remember what I said at the temple.”

He pulled down his goggles in a manner that seemed very arrogant. Laura wasn’t sure how he managed it. She pulled down her own in case of more unexpected Egg explosions. She pulled up her bandana too.

“You’re okay though, right?” she asked Okane. “It didn’t get you?”

“Of course not,” he muttered. He made a big deal of straightening his vest before sulking after Clae.

The new set of scratches led them around the floor, in and out of two bedrooms. Here beds were overturned, a few bunks warped or even missing, and the contents of footlockers strewn in a mess across the floorboards. Their quarry was nowhere to be seen, and neither were any soldiers. At the next staircase, though, they heard shuffling. Laura squinted. Between the darkness and the goggles, she couldn’t spot anything up there. She held up her Egg as they began to ascend. The noise started up and stopped three different times, going from one side to the other. Laura couldn’t help but think it sounded gleeful.

“I don’t like this,” she muttered.

“And you did before?” said Clae.

“No, but—”

A particularly loud, long scratch came from above. Their footsteps wavered.

“Okane? You sensing anything to go along with that?” asked Laura.

He said something quiet and unintelligible, but she got the idea. He didn’t want to go up there. She walked in front of him this time; she didn’t want to be knocked over again, especially on stairs. As they reached the landing they saw nothing out of the ordinary. Marks on the ground, yes, but that was no longer unusual. The three milled about at the top of the stairs.

“We definitely heard it, so where’d it go?” Laura looked around, to no avail. She wished the lights were on in here; the darkness set her on edge just as much as the noise had. She clenched her free hand a few times, trying to keep shaking to a minimum.

“It’s a fast little bastard,” Clae grumbled.

Another sound caused them all to whip around. Farther down the hall, in a patch of faint light from the window, sat a large wooden object. It was a disc the size of a plate, dipping in deeply. It was weirdly shaped, with protrusions on the bottom so it lay lopsided.

“Is that the amulet? It’s a lot bigger than the others I’ve seen,” said Laura.

“That’s definitely the source,” said Okane.

Before their eyes, the wooden object moved. It jerked to the left, then back, then up. It stood upright on its thinnest portion, revealing exactly what it was. The thing was a mask. And god, it was creepy. It had stubby little horns, bulging eyes, and strange curved carvings and marks twisting its features into an ugly grimace. Its eyes glowed rosy red in comparison to its dark brown body. The nose was huge, almost a beak. Clae swore at the sight of it.

“Two!”

“What?”

“There are two amulets! The eyes! They’re amulets!”

The mask hissed, and the red sockets began to ooze blackness. That blackness grew, turning into long, thin, reedy arms that bent sharply and touched the floor like spider legs. It pushed itself forward, faster than a charging horse. The bumps on the front dragged brutally along the floor, nose gouging that deep mark from the previous tracks.

It seemed hell-bent for the wall, so Laura sprang out of the way. She nicked the Egg against her amulet and slung it down at the approaching creature. The glass cracked.

“Scatter!”

They fled as fast as they could before the inevitable happened and the Egg detonated. It went off with a roar and a blast that sent everyone reeling. Laura was thrown completely off her feet and tumbled onto the floor. She yelped in pain as she came to a stop, but the sound was overpowered by the shrieking of the creature. The Egg blast sent it straight up in the air so it smashed into the ceiling. It dropped back to the floor with a loud crunch against the glass shards. The kin liquid and glass pieces spat angrily and leapt up, stinging the mask’s sides. The creature hopped madly to avoid it. Unfortunately it was dancing toward the corner by the stairs, exactly where Okane was huddled. He stared at it like it was death approaching. Laura scrambled up at the sight, heart in her throat.

“Run!” she cried. “Get out of there, you idiot!”

But he didn’t move. He just tensed up more as it got within two feet of him. That was when it realized something was there. Halfway through a hop it raised some of its arms, ready to strike.

“Move!”

Okane still didn’t make to get up. Instead he drew back his legs, and in one suicidal move, he lashed out in a kick. It was a very bad idea to touch one of these monsters. They stuck to any living thing they touched, wrapped them up, and pulled them in to eat. As far as Laura knew, no one had ever gotten away from them before. Okane’s feet connected with the mask with a loud retort, but instead of latching on to him the creature let out an even more piercing sound. Its hands recoiled as if burned, and with a deafening snap it tumbled away. It rolled through the glass again, shuddered violently.

“Get up!”

Clae grabbed Okane’s shirt and heaved him up, shoving him away from the wall. Okane stumbled before bolting past the creature, only slowing when he passed Laura. The creature, meanwhile, began to grow. The darkness swelled, slimy body roiling and swallowing up the mask entirely. Soon it ballooned to take up the entire width of the hallway, a pulsing black mass that shone particularly slimy.

“C-Clae?” said Laura. “Clae, what now?”

“Get out of the damn way!” he yelled back, completely obscured.

Okane tugged at Laura’s sleeve, shaky but getting more adamant as the infestation hit the ceiling. Its black mass uncoiled there and spread, a disarray of muddled tentacles with acrid black smoke issuing from their midst. Laura gaped at it in horror, and Okane’s tugging increased.

“Laura, Laura, Laura—”

The ceiling tendrils began to fall, and Laura finally pedaled backward. She and Okane ran as fast as they could down the hall, and the blackness followed, crashing against the walls like a tidal wave. As she sprinted, Laura wrestled with the clasp of her belt bag, searching for more ammunition. She fished out another Egg and tapped her amulet before tossing it over her shoulder. She didn’t look to see if she aimed right. They rounded the corner just in time. This explosion shook the floor, and Laura heard windows shattering. More glass shards flew across the ground, hissing and spitting, and the creature wailed horribly. Their footing was thrown off. As she stumbled, two Bijou fell out of Laura’s pocket to clatter on the floor. She stopped short.

“What are—doing?” Okane screeched.

“Lighting it!”

Laura fumbled with the wire from her bag, and once she’d wrestled it out, she flicked it. Just like before, it sparked, and she dropped it down by the fallen Bijou as she dug the rest out. The first two lit up with a bang. More of the windows nearby smashed, and the force and heat caused Laura to fall over. Screw it. She chucked the rest of the Bijou at the hissing wire, then scrambled farther away. Okane practically dragged her to her feet. With the following blasts, the entire building shuddered. They were lucky to get around the other corner before it could reach them, but the roaring, rending, and crashing behind them made Laura’s heart sink.

The Bijou took out the entire wall and ceiling. A gaping hole was all that remained of that wall, and part of the floor above had fallen through, littering the hall with debris and dust. Underneath it all the Bijou popped and shrieked, throwing up sparks and causing patches of wreckage to rumble and quake. Laura doubled back, and Okane stumbled to a stop.

“Where are—going?”

“Bijou! Don’t worry, I’ll be okay!”

She hopped onto a busted beam and balanced there, looking out over the damage. She couldn’t see the creature, but she couldn’t see Clae either. Maybe he was around the corner. Out of the way of the blast. She hoped so. The popping grew nearer and a Bijou hopped up out of the bricks. It crackled and squealed and jumped some more, probably sensing the amulets in her boots.

“Clae?” she called. “Are you there?”

Another portion of the debris shifted. For a moment she was afraid he really did get caught up in it. There was an apology on her tongue that died as another beam shifted, and the mask shot up. Its dark arms sprouted again, gooier this time, and it landed in a cloud of dust. Laura nearly tripped in her haste to get off the beam and run. Three more Bijou followed the first, rolling under the beam after her, and she forced herself to go slower so they could keep up.

“Faster, faster!” Okane hissed, gesturing madly.

“No, you get over here!” she retorted.

“No way in—”

“The Bijou, stupid! Clae said they’d help!”

Okane made a long-suffering sound and joined her. The Bijou circled them as they moved, spouting tongues of white-hot sparks. In the meantime the creature had scrambled over the beam to follow them. Laura glanced back at it and wished she had a gun. The creature gained quickly. Two of its arms reared up, aiming down at them. Laura and Okane ducked, but it didn’t get within a foot of them before the Bijou spat even higher. They stung the monster, causing an acrid smell to taint the air. The creature recoiled immediately. Smoke rose from its burned limbs.

“Where’s Clae?” asked Okane. “Shouldn’t he be doing something?”

“I don’t know! I think I might’ve cut him off,” groaned Laura, hoping she was wrong as the Bijou assaulted the creature again. “It might take a little while for him to get over here.”

“Great, that’s just great,” Okane hissed, and Laura glared at him.

“What have you been doing, huh? At least I’m throwing things at it!”

“And blowing up the whole floor—”

“At least I hit it!”

The creature shrieked and swiped. They jumped out of the way in time, but it caught one of the Bijou. The bead was hit so hard it flew right through the wall, causing another crash and creating a hole big enough to be a window. As a result, though, the creature lost a limb. The rest of the arms kept scuttling, gaining, but one stump simply drooped, dragging along the floor and giving off black smoke. Okane slowed just enough to kick another Bijou at it, hoping to take advantage of this weakness. It caught the creature smack in the middle of the mask, sticking in the dip between nose and forehead, and let out a noise like a train whistle. The creature stopped completely, rearing back with a wail as its arms groped at the mask, trying to dislodge the thing causing it so much agony. It swung itself from side to side, crashing into the wall and flailing madly.

“We’re dead,” Laura said under her breath, “we are so dead. . . .”

“Well, what are we supposed to do?” cried Okane.

“Get to the amulets and douse them with kin! But we can’t get through that!” Laura replied, gesturing back at the creature.

As she did this, the monster decided it was impossible to get rid of the Bijou. Instead it turned on them with new vigor, blackness seething through the teeth and nostrils of the mask. It lunged, screeching a battle cry. Okane grabbed Laura by the sleeve and dragged her along, running so fast Laura could barely keep up. The infestation gave chase, thundering on uneven legs and spitting blackness to spatter the floor. They arrived at the stairs to the fifth floor. Okane took them two at a time, but while Laura did that going upstairs at home, she couldn’t do it at this speed. With a yelp, she tripped and went sprawling. Her fall yanked Okane down too, and he wiped out with a howl of pain. The Bijou spat near the foot of the stairs, but they were too far away to do anything. The creature’s legs grew longer, allowing it to walk right over them. Laura held up her last Egg, hoping kin light would deter the monster, but it was useless. The mask descended, and the creature shrieked with glee.

A shot rang out, and the mask jerked violently. Half of it was blown to bits in a flash of gold. The creature squealed. With half its form gone it couldn’t steady itself, so it plowed into the wall and slipped down to the floor. Laura stared at it in shock, then looked up. Clae strode down the hall looking rather the worse for wear. He was battered and dusty, blood smeared on his face and favoring his left leg, but he was still on the move.

“Thank god,” Laura whispered.

She scrambled over to Okane, pulling him out of his daze and onto his feet. As she did, Clae got close enough to plant one foot on the mask. The creature reached up to attack, but his eyes promised pain. He shot at the blackness, severing more limbs and making the creature squeal loud enough to hurt their ears.

“Get that Egg over here!” he barked.

Laura jumped down the stairs. She hurried up to him, evading the flailing limbs. He used his foot to flip the mask so it faced up. Only one of the eyes remained. Sucking in a deep breath, Laura cracked the Egg open and held it over the mask. As soon as the kin made contact, it bubbled. More blackness spurted and frothed from its mouth, but it was overtaken fast by golden light. It hissed angrily. Limbs sprouted to thrash in desperation, but they didn’t last any longer than the froth. An awful smell tainted the air. The kin condensed on the amulet, now cracking and spitting. It looked like it was getting cooked. The main form fizzled away into nothing, and Clae lowered his guns.

Portions of kin shone and glittered like gems, overshadowing the rest in a way Laura hadn’t thought possible. It emitted sounds eerily reminiscent of the plinking of a harp. With every note it grew louder and harsher, and the mask began to quake.

“Three,” Clae counted, and Laura realized what was going on.

“Okane! Cover your mouth and nose!”

Okane looked at her like she’d gone insane, but understanding dawned.

“Two. One.”

With an audible snap, a black cloud issued out from under the gold. It didn’t get very far, but judging by the gagging behind them it still had the same

potent stench. The kin now soaked into the mask without resistance.

“This one’s dead. The other one should be too, seeing as how I smashed it into a million goddamn pieces,” Clae seethed. He leaned to the side and spat out something dark.

“Are you okay? I didn’t end up hitting you with that Egg or the Bijou, did I?” Laura fretted.

“Damn kaibutsu knocked me down the stairs.”

“That must’ve hurt.” Laura winced, but secretly she was glad. At least she wasn’t the one to do it.

Clae gave her a look that said no shit and turned around.

“Stop that noise and start gathering up the pieces,” he barked, gesturing at Okane and the steps. “We have to get all of those together. Leave one piece and it could end up host to a new infestation.”

Okane scowled at him, eyes still watering, but dutifully began to pick up bits of mask from the stairs.

“Go help him.” Clae slapped a hand against Laura’s arm. “I’m going to find that telephone. It’s giving me a headache.”

It was only now that he mentioned it that Laura realized there was a phone going off. She could hear the tinny bell through one of the doors. She nodded and joined Okane by the steps. The pieces of the mask and amulet were anywhere from pea-size to chunks the length of a nail. It was hard to spot them all in the dark, and Laura pulled off her goggles to see them better. It didn’t help much. On the plus side, the floor was otherwise so clean there was nothing to confuse them with. Might as well just get a broom to sweep it all up.

“Why aren’t the lights on?” she muttered. “I’d think at least the military would have electricity.”

“Gas lighting.” Okane dropped another shard into his cupped hand.

“How do you figure?”

“The Sullivans used to have it before they remodeled their house.” He nodded up at one of the light fixtures. “See that valve? That turns on the gas. Then—light it.”

“We could turn it on now, couldn’t we? Have you got any matches?”

“No. Besides, I’m not an expert on gas and I don’t want it to explode. Come to think of it, the gas must’ve been shut off before we came in. Otherwise we’d probably be dead after all those explosions.”

Laura frowned and tried to redirect the topic. “Not an expert, huh? Didn’t you just say the Sullivans had it?”

“I wasn’t very old. I couldn’t even reach it at the time.”

“Ah . . . Makes sense, I suppose.”

Laura returned to gathering pieces. They crawled about in search of parts while Clae talked to the telephone operator in the other room. One of the things he said caught Laura’s attention: the mention of the missing soldiers.

“We only came across one. We’re on the fourth floor. They can’t all be holed up in the top level.”

Laura didn’t know how many people could’ve been in the building, except that there must’ve been a lot, judging by the number of beds and the mention of a counterattack. In an ambush, any number of people could’ve vanished. She hoped Clae was wrong, that a bunch of soldiers lurked upstairs. Soldiers to match the scattered lives and possessions in those rooms they’d passed. In the end the missing persons would be counted, and that number would determine the death count. It wasn’t like they could count bodies. Even when monsters were killed they left nothing behind. Whatever they ate was lost to the world forever.

Copyright © 2018 by Mirah Bolender

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#FearlessWomen Authors Tell Us How They Fell In Love with Sci-Fi and Fantasy

We’ve been celebrating Fearless Women all year, and we asked some of the authors who are crafting elaborate worlds and nuanced female characters to chat with us about how they first fell in love with genre storytelling.

 

How and when did you first fall in love with science fiction and fantasy?

 

Jacqueline Carey:

Through the wardrobe with Lucy Pevensie!  Narnia was my gateway. I’m not sure how old I was, maybe seven. After that, Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain was probably my second great love in the genre. That’s a series that I don’t see discussed often in popular culture, at least in the U.S., but when I reference it, other writers often nod in agreement and understanding.

To this day, I credit Taran Wanderer with teaching me to wrestle with challenging and scary adult concepts like the fact that you don’t always get your heart’s desire. It also gave me a life-long romanticized view of throwing pottery on the wheel (which, I will add, owes nothing to the movie Ghost, although it didn’t hurt.)

 

V. E. Schwab:

I was eleven when Harry Potter came out, so I am indebted to it for making me a reader, while Neil Gaiman’s work in poetry and prose made me a writer, and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell swept me away.

 

Sherrilyn Kenyon:

Honestly? Before I was born. My mother was a huge fan and I’m sure I heard it in the womb and knew I was in love prior to my arrival. One of my earliest childhood memories is turning the kitchen chairs on their sides and pretending I was an astronaut blasting into space. The first novel I wrote at eight years old was sci-fantasy mixed with horror. Maybe it’s because I was born the same year Star Trek debuted, but I was hooked and can’t imagine a life without it.

 

Mary Robinette Kowal:

I honestly don’t remember a time that I wasn’t reading science fiction. Children’s literature doesn’t draw the hard lines that adult works do. But I’ll tell you the first book that I was conscious of as science fiction: Enchantress from the Stars by Sylvia Engdahl. It’s YA, but I read it in elementary school, and it’s the first one that I remember finishing and thinking “I want more books like this.”

 

S. L. Huang:

I was long gone as a SFF fan before I even knew it was a genre. Thanks to my mom, the public library was a regular destination growing up, and I remember coming home every week with another boatload of books. I also spent all my allowance on books—well, books and Legos! I read everything I could get my hands on, and it was only much later that I looked at my shelves and realized somewhere along the way all my favorites had ended up being the ones with spaceships and sword fights.

If I had to take a guess, I’d say I love SFF so much because of the way it allows us to examine real, hard truths about the world through a metaphorical lens—sometimes when it’s too difficult to look at those truths straight on. But also, you know, spaceships and sword fights are just cool.

 

Robyn Bennis:

Like most nerds of my generation, my initiation came via Star Trek reruns. I might have been seven when I started watching the original series obsessively. It started as a childish interest in aliens and spaceships, but as I matured, I began to appreciate the deeper levels of the show.

I think this is why so many writers cite Star Trek as inspiration. It can be enjoyed on multiple levels, from mindless lightshow to philosophical examination, so it’s always ready to teach you a new lesson in storytelling. Beyond that, there’s such a strong sense of optimism written into the very fiber of the series. Kirk, contrary to his reputation, strives to find a diplomatic solution to every conflict, considering violence not just a last resort, but an outright failure of his core mission. Science and discovery are so highly valued that they’ve become the primary pursuit of Starfleet, with defense second. And need I even mention Uhura, who fearlessly stands up and takes crap from no man, whether they’re friend, enemy, or, in one case, even Abraham Lincoln? Perhaps my favorite moment in the entire series is when Sulu, who’s involuntarily space-drunk, reassures her, “I’ll protect you, fair maiden!” Uhura replies, “Sorry, neither,” and shoots him a look that says, “I can protect myself just fine, dude.”

 

Sam Hawke:

I can’t remember a time when fantasy and science fiction weren’t part of my life. We grow up surrounded by stories designed to ask ‘what if’ or to transport us to another world, and children seem to be hardwired to enjoy the wonder and curiosity and exploration that those stories invoke in us. It’s no surprise that fairy tales and myths in almost every culture are often based around speculative elements even as they are teaching about people and the real world. Most of the media I consumed as a kid was in the realm of SFF–from Hans Christian Andersen and Grimm Brothers fairy tales, Enid Blyton stories full of magical creatures and different worlds at the top of the Faraway Tree to Star Blazers and Astro Boy on the TV. I guess some people feel like they have to outgrow dragons–I just moved on from picture book dragons to The Hobbit and never looked back.

 

K Arsenault Rivera:

Honestly, I can’t remember a time I wasn’t interested in genre fiction. As a kid I wrote a letter to the mayor because I thought my elementary school library didn’t have enough books on Greek myth. Between my dad fostering in me a love of ridiculous over the top video games from a young age there was really no other path for me to walk. Or read, as it were. If I couldn’t swing a sword at a couple hundred demons while shouting “showtime!”, then I’d have to make a character who could.

 

Mirah Bolender:

Fantasy was the baseline of every story I read from childhood—what Disney movie or fairy tale isn’t fantasy?—but what really solidified it for me was discovering the Redwall series in elementary school. I latched onto sword-wielding mice and never looked back.

 

Fran Wilde:

I was eight, and being raised by a library and a small independent bookstore. The bookstore kept a box of science fiction and fantasy novels set aside for my sister and me. The library had a great collection too. We both started reading SFF and we never really stopped.

 

 

 

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