Silent Clarion: Chapter One (Take 2)
April 9, 2014
I wasn’t happy with how my first attempt at beginning Silent Clarion, a Starbreaker prequel featuring Naomi Bradleigh. I decided to try it again using a perspective I don’t normally use: first-person. This is the result.
I expected to find John asleep after I finished my shower. He just began his last year in residency at an Ohrmazd Medical Group hospital, and by necessity often dozed after pleasuring me. As an Adversary sworn to the Phoenix Society, I often encouraged him to sleep whenever possible. Tired people make mistakes, and in our lines of work mistakes might cost lives.
I was surprised therefore to find him stretched across the bed naked, and reading a medical journal. I sat on the edge of the bed beside him, and dragged my fingertip down his spine to make him shiver. I leaned over him and kissed his ear.
He rolled and smiled up at me. “What were you singing in there, Naomi? I caught something about a gypsy.”
“It’s an old art rock song called ‘Ocean Gypsy‘. I’ll put it on for you.” It was easy for me to do so, since I finally prevailed upon him to come to my flat after our date. He usually took me to well-appointed, exclusive hotels. The expense conspired with our respective responsibilities to make our nights together less frequent than I’d like, but I stuck with John because I enjoyed his company.
We listened together as I dried my hair. As I began to comb it, John took the comb and began working out the tangles for me. He was less patient than I am, but would stop and kiss my shoulder if he saw me bite my lip in the mirror to hold back a whimper.
When he was done, I pushed him down on his back and settled beside him, my arm draped over his chest. I rested my head on his shoulder and studied him. His face was angular, and his default expression pensive. “Did you have a hard surgery today?”
John shifted beneath me and pressed his thin lips against mine. Their softness always surprised me. “No. I had today and the next three days off because of the hours I worked over the last month.”
He kissed me again, his fingertips tracing random patterns on my skin, but it was too soon for him to take me again. At thirty, he didn’t have the rampant hunger of men my age. I never minded, though I daresay my foster mother had other things in mind when she taught me to value quality over quantity.
Our affair sparked a little scandal at its start; I am ten years his junior, and became an Adversary because the Phoenix Society financed my education. John came from one of the few rich aristocratic families to survive Nationfall. I suspect many of his circle thought me a fortune hunter, though only one dared say so to my face. Were I not an officer of the Phoenix Society, I would have rewarded his cousin’s insult by letting him choose the terms of our duel.
Instead of pressing John to talk, I found pleasure in his embrace. I tasted him, and his skin was salty from the sweat I provoked earlier. He sighed beneath me. “Do you love me, Naomi?”
Every man I ever dated eventually asked this question, unless remarking that I was the first woman in their experience to make them be the first to profess love. It’s a worrisome question. I enjoy John’s company. He’s intelligent, serious, and frequently witty. He does useful, meaningful work. I love his hands and mouth on me.
But he never swept me from my feet the way the culture tells us men are supposed to do with women. I met him in the course of my duties, and decided after fifteen minutes’ conversation that if he were willing, I would take him for a lover. I began our affair expecting it to run its course and end with me quoting Sinatra. ‘Thanks for the memories.’
I kissed his mouth. “I suppose we’re due for this conversation after almost a year together. Is that what’s keeping you awake?”
I meant the latter half in jest, but his expression hardened. “I’m serious, Naomi. I need to know how you feel about me.”
I countered his question with one that just occurred to me, given my history with his people. “Has your family started giving you grief about me again?”
John nodded, and shifted as if he meant to sit up. I stood, poured the last of the champagne, and gave him the glass containing more. He drained it, and sat staring into it for a long moment. “How much do you know about my family?”
I admit it: I used my implant, a Society-issued bit of tech that served primarily to keep tabs on me during the course of my duties using Witness Protocol, to search the network for publicly available information. I never cared about John’s family before, because I had no inclination to join it by marrying the man. “You come from the old British peerage, and your family survived Nationfall with its fortune mostly intact. Your father would have held a title of some sort under the old regime, and a seat in the House of Lords.”
John nodded. “Did you know this before we got involved?”
Sounds like his family did start up that fortune-hunter rubbish again. “No. Has that cousin of yours been slandering me again?”
“It’s not my arsehole cousin, Naomi.” John looked away for a moment, as if ashamed. “It’s the whole demon-ridden family. I’m the oldest son, and I’m under pressure.”
“So, you’re thinking about having children?”
“Yeah. And my family seems to have the mother picked out for me. I met her this morning.”
I put aside my glass and found a fresh pair of knickers and a fresh camisole to wear to bed. I always slept naked with John, because he loved having my nudity pressed against him, but I suspected I’d spend the night alone.
The discussion of children frequently follows on the heels of the love conversation. I was born with CPMD, congenital pseudofeline morphological disorder. Though I’m’ human, I possess some feline characteristics. My pupils are slit-shaped, instead of round. My ears are pointed, and covered in fur that blends with my hair. I have two extra pairs of nipples, and they are as sensitive as the ones capping my breasts. My fingernails grow into claws if I leave them untrimmed.
I have white skin and hair, with scarlet eyes, but I am no more albinistic than a white cat with blue, orange, or green eyes. I rather like the way I look, and because I have to live with myself my opinion is the only one that matters. I’m as tall as many men, and my training as an Adversary made me strong and agile. To John’s credit, he finds my atheticism erotic rather than unfeminine.
I hoped his acceptance would survive the conversation he forced upon us. “John, I know it’s outside your specialty, but have you ever heard of couples like us having children?”
He shook his head. “No.” He paused, as if to collect his thoughts. “Look, Naomi, I wanted to know how you felt about me so I could figure out how to explain this. I never brought up children before because I figured our age difference would make our relationship a temporary thing.”
“You figured I’d outgrow you?”
“I thought you’d get bored with me and meet somebody your age, but you stuck around. And I stuck with you. But I have responsibilities to my family. They need me to marry a young lady from a family with whom we frequently do business. It would unite our holdings and make our business ventures stronger, in addition to continuing our lines into the future.”
I closed my eyes for a moment, and strangled the urge to fly to John and beg him to defy his family for my sake. I never wanted a permanent relationship, but I had always been the one to end it. Welcome to how the other half lives, I suppose. “This isn’t how I wanted us to end, John.”
He smiled at me. “Who says it has to end?”
“You’re going to get married to somebody with whom you can have children, John. Of course we have to say goodbye.”
“No, we don’t. You could be my mistress.”
I suppose other women might have jumped at the opportunity to be kept in style by a man who loved them enough to willfully transgress the expectations of fidelity society places upon married people. I can’t condemn those women. The only sexual morality I accept is the necessity of informed consent. Despite this, the task of containing my indignation was beyond me. My voice took on the sharp edge I normally used on violent suspects. “Am I supposed to be flattered?”
“You’re angry with me.”
Did outrage cloud my judgment, or help to clear the fog of lust and affection that previously obscured my vision? I doubt I’ll ever know. “If that’s the extent of your intellect, John, I fear for your patients. I assume you haven’t been with her yet, so you’re plotting to cheat on a woman you don’t know and haven’t even touched yet.”
John must have found something intriguing on my floor, because he had stopped looking at me. “I spent the morning with her before I agreed to marry her. She wasn’t as good as you.”
“But she’s good enough to serve as breeding stock?” God forget John, but I wanted nothing more than just cause to run him through. I looked at my hand, and found I had drawn my sword without thinking. I used the tip to lift his chin. “Get dressed. Get the fuck out of my flat. If you ever speak to me again, I will find your wife-to-be and advise her to insist you always wear condoms with her, and leave the explanations to you.”
I wanted to shower again once John was gone. I wanted the torrent to carry away my tears and mask my sobs. I wanted to call my mother, the time be damned. I wanted to tell her everything that happened. I wanted her to tell me everything would be all right, that the next man would be better.
I showered. I sobbed. I did not call my mother. I changed the bedding, and spent the night curled around a pillow that still somehow smelled of John, and hated myself for clinging to that vestige of him.
Meet the Cast of Starbreaker
April 4, 2014
Meet some of the cast of my Romantic heavy metal science fantasy series, Starbreaker, starting in part one: Without Bloodshed. All artwork is by Harvey Bunda.
Ashtoreth doesn’t have to remember the days when men knelt before her and called her a goddess, because some still do. Is she an ally to our heroes, or an enemy? Perhaps she has her own agenda.
Christabel Crowley blazed as the star violinist of neo-Romantic heavy metal act Crowley’s Thoth until a brutal murder stilled her song, but is her tale truly over?
Claire Ashecroft might act like an oversexed otaku, but few can match her ability to sweet-talk an AI, charm her way into a secured location, or wage electronic warfare on her friends’ behalf.
Desdinova‘s gravely digs may surely prove a sight, but this surgical wizard in grey carries secrets that might shatter the Phoenix Society.
Edmund Cohen is a man of few virtues, among them self-awareness; loyalty to friends who stand by him despite his drinking, drugging, and whoring; and deadly aim with a Dragunov.
Imaginos became a demon to fight demons. What sort of man becomes what he despises for the good of his people? Is such a man truly a villain? Could a man with thousands of megadeaths to his name be a hero? Either way, he proves you can’t trust a white-haired bishounen.
Morgan Stormrider never doubted his work as one of the Phoenix Society’s Adversaries until a duel with a rival in Shenzhen cracked his faith. He wants nothing more than to put aside his sword and dedicate himself to music, but learning the truth about the Phoenix Society did not set him free.
Naomi Bradleigh never looked back when she resigned her commission with the Phoenix Society and launched a musical career that led her to form Crowley’s Thoth with Morgan Stormrider and Christabel Crowley. When a dirty cop tries to frame Naomi for Crowley’s murder, she takes up her sword anew and fights beside Morgan.
Thagirion is the eldest of the Disciples of the Watch, and sworn to keep the Starbreaker from the wrong hands. She is the only one Imaginos acknowledges as his equal. What will happen when she decides Imaginos can no longer be trusted with the one weapon capable of killing gods?
This is where heavy metal, science fiction, and fantasy collide.
Silent Clarion – Chapter 1.1
March 18, 2014
I meant to continue with The Blackened Phoenix this afternoon, but instead finally started working on Silent Clarion, a new adult Starbreaker story I’ve been meaning to work on for a while. It’s an expanded version of an older story I wrote for Curiosity Quills Press called “Steadfast”, and features Without Bloodshed heroine Naomi Bradleigh from when she was still an Adversary. I think I’ll serialize the first draft here while keeping The Blackened Phoenix under wraps.
Naomi first got the call while stopping to recharge her rented motorcycle at a rest stop along the old interprovincial highway, IP80, and ignored it. The call came again five kilometers out from the rest stop, and with it a notification from the motorcycle’s onboard computer that the bike was under external control. The bike began a slow deceleration despite Naomi’s attempts to regain control, until she pulled off the highway and stopped. “Malkuth, I’m on leave.”
The AI, one of a group of ten called the Sephiroth due to their creator’s study of Jewish mysticism, was unrepentant. “It’s important, Adversary Bradleigh. We can’t spare anybody local, but we need an Adversary in Clarion as soon as possible.”
“Clarion?” Naomi called up a mapping application and checked her position. She doubted the app’s travel time estimate; it assumed the roads she used would be in good repair, an assumption frequently belied as one got away from the cities that survived Nationfall. “That’s at least an hour behind me.”
“You’re closer than anybody else we have available. However, it’s not necessary to rush.”
Naomi’s sigh fogged her visor for a moment. “Fine. What’s the mission?”
“For now, we need you to observe and report. Families from Pittsburgh moved out to Clarion last year to resettle the town. Some youths found what appears to be the remnants of a North American Commonwealth military base.”
So it’s an arms control job. That won’t be so onerous. “I assume you want me to lead the local militia, explore the base, catalog all armaments and ordnance, and make sure nothing disappears until you can send a cleanup crew.”
“Have you done a job like this before, Adversary?”
Naomi shook her head out of habit, despite there being no one to see her but some deer grazing to her right. The buck studied her for a moment, before lowering his head and returning to his meal. “No, but the Society has a standard operating procedure for missions of this nature.”
“Fair enough. We arranged lodging for you at the Gaslight Inn. Are you armed?”
Naomi considered the sword strapped to her back. “I left my pistol at home. I figured a blade would be enough while on leave, but I’ll requisition a firearm from the local arsenal.”
“Good. I’ll remain in contact.” Malkuth paused a moment. “Thanks for agreeing to take the job, Naomi. I’m kinda bending regulations here, since you’re assigned to the London chapter.”
Why am I not surprised? Naomi sighed again, and queried her motorcycle’s onboard computer. Whatever had overridden her control over the vehicle no longer did so. “You hijacked my motorcycle after I ignored your first call.”
“That sounds more like something Kether might do. He has no concept of people needing time off. I’ll have a word with him.”
Not to mention no concept of women wanting a personal life, or having outside interests. “It’s fine. I keep forgetting an Adversary’s life isn’t entirely her own.”
“You’re still angry about the time I called you while you were getting -”
Naomi cut him off. She didn’t want to think about that, since it meant thinking about the reason she fled to North America for a month’s leave. “I have my orders. Is there anything else I should know?”
“That’s all for now, Adversary. Again, I appreciate your cooperation.”
Naomi looked over her shoulder to check that the highway was empty before raising her middle finger eastward, toward New York. Appreciate this. “I’ll take care of Clarion, and continue my leave afterward.”
Transitions are Never Relevant
March 5, 2014
Here’s something else I’m removing from The Blackened Phoenix. It’s a transition scene that doesn’t really go anywhere. It’s just Morgan and Naomi walking home and flirting. It’s cute, but doesn’t drive the plot. Worse, it gets in the way of me moving moving Astarte’s scene to the beginning of Chapter 2, allowing her to wonder where the hell Morgan is before I show what he’s doing.
Scenes like this are the reason writers learn never to write transitions. They’re just bloat.
Naomi regretted turning down Morgan’s offer of a cab, which he repeated after the incident at Mr. Mouzone’s hot dog stand, by the time they finally managed the trek up Broadway to 96th Street. The physical training that kept her in shape for the stage did not save her feet from growing sore in boots too new for her to have broken in. Worse, she twisted her ankle a block ago while skidding on a patch of ice made possible by a failed sidewalk heating coil. Morgan caught her, but in his haste he pressed her too tightly to him, making her rib injury hurt. She gritted her teeth as they turned the corner and began walking the last few blocks up 96th Street to Morgan’s brownstone, where she would ask him to free her from her boots – and perhaps wash and massage her feet.
Morgan seemed to sense her fatigue, for he slowed a bit. “I asked Astarte to start up the hearth. I’ll move a chair and get a bucket of hot water so you can soak your feet. Do you want me to call in a doctor to check your ankle?”
“Damn. You saw that?”
“I caught you while you stumbled, and you’ve been wincing the way you do when your rib’s giving you trouble.”
Naomi nodded, and forced herself to expand her ribcage with a deep breath despite the pain. “It’s giving me trouble right now. I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but you were a bit rough.”
“Damn it.” Morgan hung his head for a moment. “I’m sorry, Nims. I–”
Naomi understood Morgan’s concern without needing an explanation. Every winter, at least one unfortunate pedestrian slid on ice or packed snow where a heating coil had failed, fallen, and suffered a concussion after their head struck the pavement. Seasonal public service announcements regularly advised people to watch their step, and to avoid sections of sidewalk or pavement that looked icy or were covered in snow. “You didn’t want me to fall.”
Morgan nodded, his expression still concerned, and Naomi decided a bit of flirtation might ease the mood. “What if I told you I like it rough?”
Morgan did not respond until they had reached his brownstone a couple blocks down the street. Instead of opening the door, he pressed Naomi against it and kissed her breathless before whispering in her ear. “Is that what you had in mind?”
Naomi found the doorknob, turned it, and let herself in while pulling Morgan inside by his collar. “That will do for a start.”
Too Close to Grimdark for Comfort
March 4, 2014
I wrote this on my lunch break for the first scene in Chapter 3 of The Blackened Phoenix, and then decided to take it out. Not only was it closer to grimdark than I usually go, since I’m not Joe Abercrombie, but it didn’t make sense for Naomi to relate this experience from her past when Morgan Stormrider and the others are about to learn that their operational security is a joke because of tech built into Morgan’s head.
Also, the nature of Naomi’s anecdote is just full of triggering content, and I thought it would be better to not include it. I’m just a bit old to be trying to shock people to get attention. However, I’m posting it here because it seems a shame to throw it away. I might get a short story or a novella out of it, if I can refine it and tone it down a bit.
With that said, I should clarify that I have absolutely no problem with Joe Abercrombie or his work. The only First Law book of his I don’t have is Red Country. Nor do I have a problem with grimdark fantasy. It’s just not what I want to write.
Also, my wife would kill me if I put my cast through half the hell Abercrombie, Martin, and the like inflict on their characters.
“One of my missions involved a bride farm, where captive women are impregnated, and then subjected to abortions if the fetus turns out to be male. The baby girls are then taken from their mothers, and inspected for defects. If they pass inspection, they grow up indoctrinated to be obedient wives eager to please the husbands to whom they’re sold as soon as they turn eighteen.”
Nobody asked what happened to the girls who failed inspection. Naomi suspected their fate was obvious from her expression and tone of voice, because she witnessed what befell one such unfortunate herself. “I left, and came back with a dozen other Adversaries, all women. I thought we’d be able to restrain our anger if we worked together. Instead, after we liberated the captives, we put everybody working there to the sword. We burned the bride farm to the ground after salvaging the records and documentation. We hunted down the customers, arrested them, and tried them. None were acquitted. I hear most died in prison, at the hands of their fellow inmates.”
Naomi fell silent and stared at her hands, unable to fathom why she let this story escape her lips. She had kept it to herself since her post-mission debriefing, and the subsequent trial by court martial. Judges left pale and trembling by the evidence recorded through Witness Protocol acquitted her and her fellow Adversaries. “I’m sorry. At the time, my only coherent thought was that what I saw was unforgivable.”
Morgan’s hand grasped hers. “I would have done the same in your position, with pleasure.”
She found Morgan’s expression on everybody else’s faces, as well. “You all agree with Morgan?”
Sid was first to show his assent. “Come on, Nims. You think I’d want something like that to happen to Elly, or my girls?”
Astarte’s voice was small, and quiet. “What happened to the women?”
“There were a lot of suicides, despite the Phoenix Society’s efforts to give everybody the care they needed to heal.” Naomi stared at the floor, recalling the names of those she proved unable to save. “Sometimes I get letters from the others.”