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Excerpt: Complete Sentences

5

Three flashlight beams lit the campground road. With Charlene to his right and Marianne to his left, Eric led the way to where the road swung toward the lake and the sand came right up to the crumbling edges of the asphalt. A slow breeze like a soft warm breath came off the lake, heavy with the scent of summer, and gentle water sounds joined with the August cricket song. Charlene’s left hand gripped Eric’s right arm just below the end of his T-shirt sleeve. Her touch was still magical, perhaps moreso because she was putting her weight on his arm whenever she took a step. She could walk because he was there to help. He tried to drive the thought out of his head, but with each tightening of Charlene’s hand on his bare arm, the intoxicating thought returned: She needs me!

The trio walked out onto the beach until they had gone midway across the sand, within several yards of the water. Eric scanned the horizon. “This should be good, right here.”

Charlene squeezed his arm one last time, and pulled herself against him. She tipped her head until her temple touched his shoulder. “Thank you,” she whispered.

“Whatever I can do to help,” he whispered in reply. He looked up again as she drew away. “Turn off your flashlights.” The three lights flicked out, leaving them in darkness.

No one moved nor spoke as their flashlight-dazzled eyes gradually adapted. Above them, in an order Eric had witnessed under many dark Wisconsin skies since he’d been a small boy, the stars were coming out. First, the brightest of the brilliant: Antares, Spica, Vega, Deneb, Altair, all torches of the night. And one more, in their league but not of their kind: Saturn, a steadfast untwinkling pale yellow in the southeast. As his eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, the second-string stars appeared. Eric could name some but not all, and they were everywhere, the framing members of the constellations, not torches but-he grinned-two by fours. Soon after emerged the multitudes of lesser magnitudes, down to the limits of his eyes to discern. Finally, meandering down the sky toward Sagittarius in the south, a river of pale stardust, the Milky Way.

“Wow!” Marianne said to his left. “I’m lost already!”

Charlene tsked. “Nobody’s lost with Eric around.”

“Especially you,” Marianne muttered.

It was a girl thing; Eric guessed that he wouldn’t understand. He shrugged, and knelt beside Marianne. “We’ll start right here. Turn toward the north.” He gripped Marianne’s hand and pulled her around until she was facing the same way he was. He noted that there was no magic in Marianne’s hand, as there was in Charlene’s. “Right over the trees in the north. Look hard. You’ll see the Big Dipper.”

He felt her hand tense. “Yes! It’s there! I see it! It’s really big!”

“Yup. That’s why it’s not called The Medium-Sized Dipper. Now look at the bowl of the Dipper. Find the two stars at its left side.”

“I see them.”

“Now draw a straight line between those two stars, and extend it upward until the line hits another star.”

Marianne remained silent for a few seconds. If she had never looked up at a sky as crisp and clear as this, she might have trouble separating the Dipper’s canonical stars from the clutter of fainter lights everywhere around them. So he was patient. She was only nine.

Charlene placed her hand on his shoulder and squeezed twice. Eric suspected she was thanking him for catering to her bratty little sister. Again, he felt Marianne’s hand tense as her eyes learned the skill of separating the brighter lights from the fainter.

“Yes! It’s there! What star is that?”

“Polaris. The pole star. The whole sky revolves around it.”

“Wow! And that’s really because we’re rotating, right?”

“Right. And Polaris is the end of the handle of the Little Dipper. It’s harder to see because its stars are fainter. It’s about the same shape as the Big Dipper, but smaller and aimed the opposite way.” Eric lifted lifted Marianne’s hand until it pointed to one side of Polaris. “See it?”

Eric could almost feel the epiphany that came upon Marianne. “I do! Wow! The Little Dipper! How do you knowall this stuff?”

Eric released her hand and stood. “I read books. Lots of them.”

 

In one rapid-fire lesson, Eric took Charlene and Marianne through the hallmarks of the late summer sky: Scorpius, the teapot of Sagittarius, the Summer Triangle, Delphinus, the Great Square of Pegasus, and all the bright stars from horizon to horizon. Halfway through the tour, he felt Charlene’s soft, small fingers wriggle their way between his. He lost his train of thought, and caught himself wondering where Achernar was. No, wait-that wouldn’t be visible this early until October. Only one thing was clear in his mind:

A beautiful girl was holding his hand.

“Please show me Lyra,” Charlene asked. Eric’s heart was pounding. “In the book I read, it actually looked like a harp.”

Lyra was almost at the zenith. Eric craned his neck back until he felt it pop. “Straight up. A very bright white star with a touch of blue. That’s Vega, Alpha Lyrae. You can’t miss it.”

“Yes! It was so bright and beautiful in that book. I wanted a T-shirt with ‘Lyra’ on it, printed in gold ink on black above the constellation. I wanted it to be my symbol.”

Eric pointed at Vega. “Lyra is a parallelogram, with Vega above and to the right of it. Four stars. It would be easier to see if it wasn’t straight up.”

“That’s easy to fix,” Charlene said, and sat on the sand. She stretched her legs out toward the water, and lay down. “I see it! Perfectly! It’s better even than the book!”

“No picture of the stars ever does them justice.” Eric pointed again, almost to the zenith. “To the right of Lyra is Hercules. It looks like a keystone.”

Charlene grabbed Eric’s ankle. “Don’t look straight up like that. You’ll hurt your neck. Lie down like me.” She turned to her sister. “Marianne, you too.”

“I dunno about this,” Marianne grumbled, but complied.

Eric hesitated, looking back toward the trees that separated the beach from the tent sites. He had done plenty of observing flat on his back. It was certainly a more comfortable position for looking at the zenith. But he’d never done it with a girl-or anyone else-beside him.

Once Marianne was stretched out on the sand, he sat down between the two girls, took one more nervous glance toward the road and the trees, and lay down himself.

The lecture began again. He explained how you could follow the curve of the Big Dipper’s handle and “arc to Arcturus” and later, following the same general curve, continue to Spica. He showed them the close pair of stars called the “cat’s eyes” at the stinger end of Scorpius. Wistfully, he told them that if he had his telescope finished, he could show them the rings of Saturn.

Eric heard Charlene wriggling toward him on the crunchy sand. Her hand gripped his right arm. The next thing he knew, her head was on his shoulder, her body pressed against his side. He had the intuition that she was paying but a fraction of the rapt attention that she had shown only minutes before. His tour of the sky stopped abruptly.

A slow, silent minute ticked past. Eric oscillated between elation and dread.

Dread won, in the form of Marianne’s agitated voice. “Hey, Shar, what are you doing over there? If mom sees us lying down like this, she’ll be mad.”

“Your mom is always mad.”

“You’re lying down and hugging a boy!”

Charlene looked over Eric’s recumbent body at her sister “I’m hugging my friend.”

“He’s a boy. It’s not like hugging mom.”

Charlene’s voice grew sharp. “Your mom hugs you. She’s never hugged me. Ever. And your dad never hugs anybody. Who am I supposed to hug?”

The last thing Eric needed was for the girls to get in a screaming match across his ribcage. The pale green luminous hands of his watch showed 9:41. He had promised Mr. and Mrs. Sawyer to get their daughters back to the site before ten. This was as good an excuse as any.

“Um, we have to go home now. It’s quarter to ten.”

Eric helped Charlene to her feet, with Marianne standing nearby, her arms crossed. Charlene rubbed her eyes and cheeks against the sleeves of her T-shirt. Once their three flashlights were lit, they walked back to the tents without another word. Charlene’s limp was still obvious, but she did not take Eric’s arm. And one faint smile was her only reaction when he finally said ‘G’night”.

Announcing Complete Sentences

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And now for something completely, totally, top-to-bottom (for me at least) different: I present Complete Sentences, a short novel about two very articulate high-IQ 12-year-olds. Not in space. Not in the future. Not on some other planet nor in some unlikely fantasy world. No hyperdrives. No monsters. No magic. Nossir. On Earth, our Earth, our timeline, in Wisconsin. In 1966.

I’m not even sure the term is still used, but when I was first making my name in SF, we called such fiction “mainstream.” In other words, a story about ordinary people in the here and (approximately) now, with no fantastic elements at all. Yes, I wrote mainstream fiction. I’ve done this only one other time in my increasingly long life, back when I was in college in 1972. I wrote a short story about two guys my age who were sweating bullets about the draft lottery during the thick of the Vietnam meatgrinder. My Modern American Literature prof loved it and told me I should try selling it. The story is grim. One guy pulls #244. He’s free. The other one pulls #6. He runs. Mainstream literature is full of stuff like that, which is why I now mostly avoid mainstream literature.

So what’s it about? Let me borrow the descriptive text I uploaded to Amazon with the book:

It’s late summer 1966. Family camping is the rage. Boomer kids are everywhere. Star Trek is brand-new. Smartphones and social media haven’t even been dreamt of yet. So summer crushes happen the old-fashioned way: young face to young face.

While scoping out sites for stargazing at Castle Rock Lake, 12-year-old Eric meets a girl from the next campsite over. Charlene and Eric are both gifted, highly articulate kids: Eric in math and science, Charlene in art and composition. He shows her the constellations in the ink-black Wisconsin night sky; she sketches him and writes him poems. An attraction neither has ever felt before soon blossoms between them. Eric’s sensible parents caution him that 12 is too young to fall in love, while Charlene’s parents barely speak to each other, let alone her. She aches for the love she sees in Eric’s family, and takes strength from the attention and kindness that Eric offers her.

For Charlene has a secret, one that cuts to the heart of who and what she is. When the conflict in her family threatens to end the campout early, she must explain that secret to Eric, and begs him to accept the vision she has of her own future. Facing the possibility that they may never see each other again, Eric and Charlene struggle to put words to the feelings that have arisen between them. They discover the answer in the language they both speak, and had spoken together all along: Complete sentences.

I’ll post a sample chapter tomorrow.

In the meantime, you all might reasonably ask, Why? For the same reason I wrote whacko humorous fantasy like Ten Gentle Opportunities and Dreamhealer: To prove that I could. Before I wrote Complete Sentences, I didn’t know that I could write mainstream fiction. Now I know. Before Kindle made self-publishing possible, I had to write what publishers wanted. I first tasted the forbidden fruit 25+ years ago, when Coriolis established a book publishing operation and I was the one who decided what to publish. Could I have sold The Delphi Programming Explorer to Wiley or Macmillan? That was a gonzo book. It was also the Coriolis book that sold the most copies and pulled in the most revenue for all of 1995. I (maybe barely) sold Assembly Language Step By Step (under its original title Assembly Language from Square One) to the late Scott, Foresman in 1990. That was just as gonzo, if not moreso. (My four-fingered Martians are standing up and cheering.) A guy once sent me an email telling me that that book saved him from flunking out of his computer science program. Yeah, that book is nuts. But I have independent evidence that it works, in the form of hundreds of fan letters. Not to mention the fact that it’s been in print now for 31 years.

These days I write what I do largely to push back personal boundaries–and sometimes try things I’ve been wanting to try for literally decades. I always wanted to write a love story where the nerd gets the girl in the end. It took awhile. Then there was Dreamhealer. I don’t call it a love story. But it contains one–in fact, two.

In writing Complete Sentences, I drew on bits and pieces of my own history. (Just bits and pieces. It is pointedly not autobiographical.) When I was 12, I found myself longing for female company. Not love, nor, lord help us, sex. I didn’t know why, exactly, but alluvasudden I wanted girls to be my friends. I remember that feeling clearly. I didn’t know what to call it, and for the most part it was an annoyance, at least for the next couple of years. I now know what to call it.

Complete Sentences is not a love story, not in the usual sense of the word.

Or…maybe it is.

You tell me.

 

Watch This Space…

(Something interesting coming soon to a Contra post near you…)


By the time Eric reached the road, his mother was already headed back to their campsite. He had to trot to catch up.

“She’s an interesting girl,” Marcia Lund said, when Eric drew alongside her.

“I think so too. But how did you…”

“No, I mean interesting.”

Eric’s mother had used that word with that emphasis before, sometimes of things she didn’t entirely approve of. “Mom, c’mon.”

Marcia laughed. “She came up to me and introduced herself. Dad came over and she introduced herself again. She said she wanted to meet you. I said you were down at the beach. Then your father invited her to have lunch with us.”

Eric grimaced. “Just like dad.” He took an uneasy breath. “Um…will she?”

“If her parents don’t object. And why would they?” Marcia grabbed her son’s forearm and squeezed it.

Eric waved her hand away. “Ok, ok. Now, what makes her, um, interesting?”

“Everything she said, she said in complete sentences. You could learn a few things from her.”

Eric groaned. “You’re an English teacher even on summer vacation.”

“I get paid year-round. And my kids will not be illiterate.”

They left the road and rounded the family’s big blue tent.

Charlene was already sitting at the campsite picnic table across from Eric’s younger sister Lisa, with a bright orange Melmac plate in front of her and a very big grin on her face.

Pinging Jeff…

Pong, everybody. Relax. I’m still here. And I’m very glad to say that I’m probably 1200 words from the end of my current book project. If it weren’t for some home repairs and carpet cleaning I’d be done by now, and I expect to be done by EOD Friday. The publisher is still reluctant to say much about the book, for reasons I still don’t understand. I’m puzzled, but in publishing as in so many other realms, those who write the checks make the rules.

Much to do after the last word rattles out of the keyboard. Getting rid of XP is high on the list, given our April 8 deadline. This afternoon I ordered a refurbed Win7 laptop, a Dell e6400. How could such an old laptop be useful to me? Easy: I don’t do much on laptops. It’s a travel computer, for Web, email, and some light word processing–like writing Contra entries on the road. It cost me $240 postpaid, as they used to say. I’ve had very good luck with used Dell machines in the last ten years. Every machine in the house but my quadcore is a Dell refurb. I already have two Win7 Dell 780 USFFs for upstairs, and installed Win7 on my lab machine over a year ago. That leaves the laptop and the quad, basically, and if I didn’t need to use the quad to finish this book, the quad would be running Win7 by now as well.

The SX270s are now all bookends. They make very nice bookends.

Oh, and the computer junk pile is getting impressive.

The list of things to do Post Book is long. We need to replace our driveway slab, which is descending into rubble. Ditto the garage slab, the replacement of which will require putting my lathe, big drill press, tooling, and metal stock in storage somewhere. There’s a lesson here: Soil compaction matters. We spent thirty grand mudjacking the lower level, recarpeting, and repainting. Settling soil pulled our gas meter down so far the pipe cracked and damned near blew us over the top of Cheyenne Mountain. I made a number of mistakes having this house built, and I will never make those mistakes again.

Then there’s 3D. I drew 81 figures by hand for this book project, all of them in Visio. (I actually drew 83, but two of them won’t be used.) I’m very good at Visio. However, Visio is inextricably a 2D CAD program, and every time I’ve tried to use it for 3D, it makes me nuts. I took a lot of drafting and engineering graphics when I was in school and know how to do it. (Sure, it was with a T-square. Ya gotta problem widdat?) I need to be able to draw things in 3D. I downloaded the free version of Sketchup after Google bought it in 2006, but was too busy back then to spend much time with it. I see that Google sold it a year or two ago, and the new owners are positioning it as an architectural CAD system. That’s fine, since I know from earlier tests that Sketchup can do telescope parts, and if it can also design me an observatory, I’m good with that. I need somewhere to put an observatory, obviously, but that’s a separate challenge. So learning Sketchup is another priority.

Fiction, too. I’m going to try finishing Old Catholics. If that doesn’t work, I’ll start The Everything Machine, complete with a 3D scale drawing of a thingmaker, courtesy Sketchup. (I tried that in Visio years ago. Uggh.)

I will also be doing some intensive research on Oscar Wilde, for reasons that only a few people in my inner circle understand.

As I always say, Boredom is a choice. I may be tired, but I am not bored. And in a few days, I suspect I will no longer be tired. Bring it on!

Excerpted From Old Catholics

Cathedral Demonstration Turns to Riot

(AP) Violence erupted at a noon-hour protest in front of Holy Name Cathedral, as demonstrators from the liberal Catholic organization Christ With Us traded taunts with counter-demonstrators from the reactionary conservative group Voluntas Dei. The march, targeting the recent moratorium on marriage annulments announced by Pope Pius XIII on November 27, began peacefully, but descended into fistfights that spilled into the street near Wabash and Superior about 11:45 AM.

Chicago’s Cardinal Peter Luchetti quelled the riot by addressing the crowd through a police megaphone. Police arrested twelve of the demonstrators, who were charged with disorderly conduct and reckless endangerment. Two were later charged with criminal destruction of property. Numerous demonstrators were injured, seven requiring hospitalization.

Cardinal Luchetti later met with representatives from the two protesting organizations in his office at the Diocesan complex. No details of the meeting were released.

Tensions between liberal and conservative factions in the Roman Catholic Church have been running high since the Pope’s unexpected announcement and promise of an encyclical on the indissolubility of Catholic marriage…

Rob again scanned the headline piece from Friday’s Chicago Tribune and tossed the paper back on one of Suzy’s end tables. There would certainly be more in Sunday’s edition, much more, especially now that reporters were doggedly searching for anyone who might have been there and could provide a provocative quote.

Rob had turned his cellphone off and yanked the cord from his answering machine in annoyance after the twentieth call. Merciful God in heaven, what were the chances? To one side of the news item was a photo of Cardinal Peter Paul Luchetti with his hand on the forehead of the young injured woman from Voluntas Dei. To the other side was a photo of Peter speaking into a police megaphone, at his elbow a befuddled-looking middle-aged man in a gray overcoat. The caption was peculiar, not only for what it stated but for what it left out: “Cardinal Peter Luchetti spoke to the crowd through a police megaphone shortly after violence broke out, accompanied by his seminary friend, former priest Robert Prendergast of Chicago.”

He had given his name to no one. And where was Suzy? The photo had been cropped to exclude her completely, even though she had been standing perhaps a foot behind him.

“Rob, stop staring at that paper!” Suzy had an ancient blown-glass ornament in each hand, and the pile of boxes labeled “Shiny Brite” was growing on the carpet by her bare feet. There were cookies in the oven and a new log on the fire, and it smelled very much like Christmas. Rob put down his brandy snifter of eggnog (spiced up and fortified with some very good Scotch whisky) and took the ornament that Suzy held out to him.

“They cut you out of the picture,” Rob said in protest, edging around Suzy’s half-decorated balsam tree to confront a bare spot with the ornament.

“Like I need that kind of attention.”

“But why me and not you?” Rob tucked the ornament onto a vacant branch, touching it with one finger to make sure it could swing freely.

“Resigned priests are hot right now!” Maria said, and laughed. From her place on the stepladder she stretched to reach the 8-foot tree’s tip with the little plastic angel she held. “Get an interview on The Talk and you could land a national book deal. You could be famous. Give me a year or two to get in with a big New York house, and I’ll even publish your book.”

Maria Farella was finishing up her master’s work in journalism at the University of Chicago, intending to build a career in publishing. Like her mother, she was intense, but did not have Suzy’s sense of irony. Rob had never met her before his return from Indianapolis, and still wasn’t sure when to take her seriously.

“I don’t want to be famous. I want to marry your mother, and…” Rob paused, thinking about those still-unmentioned incardination papers.

“…and still be a priest.” Suzy bent down to pick up another ornament. “All we have to do is crack the vows thing.”

Maria backed down off the stepladder. Rob had never met Joe Farella but knew that he must have been tall: His formidable daughter was at least 5’11” in her Christmas toe socks, and towered over Rob and Suzy both. “Poor angel,” she said, hands on hips, sizing up her work on the decorations so far. “We’ve stuck a tree up her butt every year now for how long, Mama?”

Suzy looked up toward the top of the tree. “Christmas 1979. Find me a treetop ornament in the shape of Pope Pius XIII and I think we’ll let her retire.”

Maria laughed again and bent down to the floor near Rob to pick up another box of ornaments. She put her left hand on his shoulder and shoved down far enough so that she could kiss the top of his head. “Please crack the vows thing, Fr. Rob. Andrew’s finally coming around, and I might find a ring in my stocking this year. I want you to marry us so bad.”

Rob felt himself blushing. As soon as Bishop Hughes received his incardination agreement, he would gain episcopal faculties and lose his last excuse to dodge the question of what he could and could not do as a priest.

Suzy turned back to the tree, glass ornaments in each hand. “Dumpling, he can marry you and Andrew any time you want. What he can’t do is marry me.”

Rob did not want to re-ignite the vows argument in front of a young woman who, in Dr. Pangloss’ best of all possible worlds, might have been his own daughter. “Maria, your mother and I both need annulments, each of a different sort. By our dumb luck, both kinds are hard to come by these days.”

Maria sat down on the stepladder, stretching her very long legs out in front of her. “It all sounds like a paperwork problem to me. Would God really get upset if you two just went off and did it?”

Rob blushed again, unsure what answer he could make to that. “Doing it” had more than one meaning, and both were an issue. He pursed his lips but said nothing.

Maria’s smile faded. “It’s really all about sex, isn’t it?”

Suzy turned back from the tree, and nodded toward Maria. “It is about sex. It’s always about sex. Sex is the only thing the Church cares about anymore. If I could make a case that I’d never had sex with Joe it would be open-and-shut, but there’s this little problem I have, and she’s sitting right over there.”

Rob expected Maria to laugh, or at least work up a little of her mother’s impish grin. Instead, the young woman who was so good at eye contact looked down at her feet and smoothed her plaid wool skirt across her knees. Suzy and Maria had gone this way before, Rob realized, and it clearly hadn’t turned out well. What did Maria think of her father? One might argue about the process-and the paperwork-but under certain circumstances marriage could be reversed. Fatherhood, now…

Rob knelt on one knee by Maria’s feet and placed his hands over one of hers. “It’s not only about sex. Love needs to respect the promises that it makes.”

Maria looked up. Rob expected tears. What he saw was the sort of confusion that was the precursor to anger. “Maybe. But why shouldn’t promises respect the love that created them?”


(c) 2013 by Jeff Duntemann. All Rights Reserved. Do not repost.

Odd Lots

The Zombie Bandwagon

On this fine Halloween Sunday morning, I have to ask: W(h)ither zombies? I’ve read about why pirates like parrots, but the undying love steampunkers hold for death-in-self-denial has always puzzled me. I guess it’s part of the punk rather than the steam, and I’ve always been better at steam than punk. A recent blog post by Charles Stross has created enough noise in the blogosphere to wake the dead: Charlie is annoyed at the fact that steampunk has become a bandwagon, and he doesn’t do bandwagons. (My overall reaction to the post is that Charlie protesteth too much, and by the end sounds like he’s annoyed because he didn’t jump on the bandwagon when it rolled past his house.)

One place where Charlie and I agree: zombies. They’ve been done to, well, you know. He’s locked horns with Cherie Priest, a gung-ho Seattle steampunk writer who’s had a lot to do with populating the steampunk universe with shambling horrors, which she very aptly calls “rotters.”

The problem may be that steampunk as a subgenre is shattering, and parts of it are slithering across the floor and merging with paranormal costume fantasy. (I’ll know when I grab and read one of Cherie’s books.) Perhaps it’s time to claim a subsubgenre as “hard steampunk,” where we get to keep the pipe fittings but bury the dead. I could do that. I may already have. (See “Drumlin Boiler,” which I’d rather see considered steampunk than weird western.)

Zombies are not a new thing. I was given a zombie story called “Impulse” to read aloud at a Boy Scout summer camp campfire gathering in 1964, and it was decent. (I wish I could find it again, but I don’t remember the author. I think it goes back to the Fifties.) Unless I misrecall–and that was 46 years ago–it was about some sort of telepathic alien goo that tries to use a dead body as a disguise and finds it doesn’t work well. Surprise! I saw plenty of zombie movies as a much younger man, and have read more than my share of zombie fiction. (The best? George R.R. Martin’s “Override.”) To my hard SF mind it’s a difficult business. Biological systems are more resilient than mechanical ones, but after all, we call them “dead” when they don’t work anymore. If they get up and start working again, I find it hard to still think of them as dead.

In truth, what I mostly think of them as these days is funny. I have a whimsical novel called Ten Gentle Opportunities on ice right now that turns De Camp’s Harold Shea concept on its ear, and posits a sort of magic hacker from a universe where magic works as a consistent alternate physics (with spells a sort of immaterial software) who jumps universes to escape from an enraged magician and lands here on Earth. To escape pursuit while still in his own magical world, he makes his way into a zombie trap, where the zombies check in but can’t check out. Alas, physics is a bitch, whether magical or not.

Getting the dead to stay dead was an increasingly serious problem. Formerly living material was powerfully endomagical: Once the Great Magic of life drained out of it, a corpse would soak up any uncommitted Third Eye magic in its immediate surroundings, and if enough were available would get up and start shambling around again, breaking things and getting into fights.

For most of history, magic had been rare and valuable, and the few magicians in the world tended to be well-bred and tidy. Unnecessary or broken spells were always frotted back to the primordial chaos from which they had been drawn. Alas, as the archipelago grew crowded, younger magicians lacking an inheritance increasingly turned to drink and careless spellmaking to obtain what they wanted. Few landless magicians studied hard enough to advance to Adamant Class. The spells blikked up by drunken Ruby-classers were complicated and fragile, and rapidly broke down into increasingly tiny fragments that nonetheless had to be individually frotted to be rid of them. No one would bother, especially the Amethyst and Adamant classes, who thought of spellfrotting as something one did only to one’s own magic. So little by little, invisible grains of useless magic blew around the world on the very winds, ready to be absorbed by a corpse’s hungry substance.

Most folk lacking the Third Eye grumbled that Global Enlivening was a conspiracy by magicians, who were the only ones who could unbreakably bind a corpse to its own etheric shell such that both would comfortably and permanently disintegrate. Within Styppkk’s own lifetime, mean-time-to-shamble had fallen from a comfortable fortnight to only three days, and if a magician could not be found (and paid) to conduct a proper funeral and shellstaking by then, one’s deceased relatives would wander off, though walls as easily as through doors.

The problem had grown acute enough two centuries earlier that the world’s Adamant magicians had collaborated on the creation of the great lychfields, which were zombie traps: The bait was earth magic, which though powerful was not absorbed by dead flesh. The simple spell at the heart of every lychfield made earth magic smell like Third Eye magic, attracting zombies that were already ambulant. Once inside, they could not get out, and eventually exhausted the ambient magic they had absorbed and crumbled to bones and dust.

Styppkk had read it all in Wiccapedia, and as he got to his feet he felt around in his many pockets for the requisite spells. He knew how to command zombies and had done it a time or two, usually as a way of getting cheap if not especially skilled labor. This time what he wanted was a diversion. In only seconds, the shambling horrors in the lychfield would smell the magic he had in his pockets, and would turn in his direction. Then the real fun would begin.

Seconds passed, then minutes. Nothing. Styppkk looked around in the gloom. He saw no movement. There was no sound but the unnerving trickle of water down the granite walls enclosing the lychfield. He took a step forward, and crunched on ancient bones–then tripped over a motionless body that shuddered only slightly at the indignity.

Something was wrong, and Styppkk knew that in relatively short order, Jrikkjroggmugg would be over the wall and on his case again. He fished a clamshell phial from an inside pocket, snapped it open, and dipped his left pinkie in the dust it contained. Seconds later, his pinkie burst into brilliant but cold flame, and Styppkk could now see clearly to the far wall of the lychfield. There were plenty of zombies, but none were moving. In many places, they were stacked like cordwood or leaning against one another like tottering monoliths in a henge. Styppkk counted hundreds by eye.

On a hunch, Styppkk flipped down his helmet’s crystal daggers again, so to see how strongly the magically animated zombies were glowing. Nothing was glowing very strongly…but every zombie in sight was glowing identically. Of course! Like water, uncommitted Third Eye magic sought its own level, and newly-arrived zombies confined in close proximity to older zombies lost some of their magic to the lychfield’s older denizens, until at some point there was so little magic to go around that nothing was even twitching, much less shambling.

Styppkk fixes that, of course, and I get to make fun of the zombie fad on a large scale, while putting forth my own vision of magic-as-alternate-physics. (Want me to finish it? Then find me an agent. I’m not having much luck on my own.)

That’s my take on zombies. They’re kind of like reuben sandwiches or Drambuie: Not my thing on the consumption side, but as a bartender or deli owner I’d serve them up without a twitch to paying customers. (Hey, I sold lots of C++ books from Coriolis, right?) As for bandwagons, well, let’s consider that bandwagons don’t roll without customer demand to pull them. Sorry, Charlie. Zombies taste good, whether or not they’re in good taste. People are buying Cherie Priest’s books and those of many others who are plowing that same field, which means that zombies are now firmly planted in the fantasy landscape. I’m a starships guy by birth and I’ve been waiting for the elves’n’gnomes’n’dragons thing to die out for fifteen years or so, but by this time, them having taken over 80% of the SFF shelf space at Border’s, I’d say it ain’t gonna happen.

Which doesn’t mean I’m going to start writing zombie stories, apart from (perhaps) Ten Gentle Opportunities, which treats zombies only in passing. I will only raise for my fellow writers the possibility that unless you’re big enough to have your own wagon (as Charlie Stross certainly is) it probably makes sense to grab the first one past that you know you can ride–and if the other passengers’ arms come off as they pull you aboard, so be it.