Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Guest Post: Lander by J. Scott Coatsworth

Hi darlins! I've got a friend stopping by the blog today with the latest installment of his Oberon Cycle series. Is this not the most gorgeous cover? And don't you want to get your hands on some wingfic? One stop shopping, right here ;)


Blurb: Sometimes the world needs saving twice.


In the sequel to the Rainbow-Award-winning Skythane, Xander and Jameson thought they’d fulfilled their destiny when they brought the worlds of Oberon and Titania back together, but their short-lived moment of triumph is over.


Reunification has thrown the world into chaos. A great storm ravaged Xander's kingdom of Gaelan, leaving the winged skythane people struggling to survive. Their old enemy, Obercorp, is biding its time, waiting to strike. And to the north, a dangerous new adversary gathers strength, while an unexpected ally awaits them.


In the midst of it all, Xander’s ex Alix returns, and Xander and Jameson discover that their love for each other may have been drug-induced.


Are they truly destined for each other, or is what they feel concocted? And can they face an even greater challenge when their world needs them most?

***
 Excerpt:

Jameson savored the kiss, his arms around Xander, the way they fit together just right. They were finally together, and Titania and Oberon were one again.

Erro, Quince had called this new world. Like the skythane god of the sun, the one Errian and the Erriani were named for.

For the moment, everything was right in his life, and he never wanted it to end.

A cold drop of water on his cheek brought him out of his reverie. He glanced up. Storm clouds were piled high, swiftly overtaking them. Rain began to pour out of the sky like a waterfall, and thunder echoed in the clouds as the valley went dark, sunlight smothered by the onrushing clouds. Nearby trees thrashed about in the wind, their purple leaves fluttering in distress.

“What the hell?” Xander said as the winds picked up and ruffled the feathers of his wings. He stared up at the black tempest.

“The Split!” Jameson shouted over the howling of the wind. He mimed the two halves of the world, each with their own atmosphere, suddenly being forced together in the middle. “When the Oberon half shifted, all the atmosphere it brought with it along the Split was forced up here!”

A bolt of lightning struck a nearby tree, crisping it to ashes and standing Jameson’s hair on end.

“Run!” Xander shouted.

Jameson’s vision swam, and a memory slipped into his conscious mind from that other part of him—a high-ceilinged cavern that was more like a faery palace than a cave—where he’d stolen away with a lover. More than once.

His stomach heaved at the displacement, and he clenched his hands. That wasn’t me. They were someone else’s memories.

“Follow me!” he shouted at his four companions—Xander, Quince, Kadin, and Venin—and ran toward the cliffs that were rapidly fading to invisibility behind the rain. He pushed down the memory-nausea, tasting bile in the back of his mouth.

Alia was missing. He’d last seen her as they had fled the Mountain, when it had begun to collapse. Jameson looked around wildly, but she was nowhere to be seen. “Where’s Alia?” he shouted at Kadin as they ran. Thunder shook the valley.

Kadin shook his head, mouthing, “I don’t know.”

Rain swirled all around them, coming down so fast that it pooled on the ground and ran in rivulets downhill toward the lake that was now half filled with the broken remains of the Mountain.

The mud made the footing treacherous. Jameson clambered up the hill, using roots and rocks that offered a firmer surface than the naked ground. The wind tugged at his wings, threatening to flip him over. He pulled them in tightly and glanced back to be sure the others were following him through the tempest.

Jameson reached the cover of the forest, plunging under the protection of the canopy. The trees here were tall and thin with white bark trunks and broad purple leaves that were being shredded by the storm.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Three, Part One

Notes: Time to get our sci-fi on, folks! Have some phage on your Tuesday morning. Not my longest update, but hey--at least it's here!

Title: Mutable, Chapter Three, Part One

***



Chapter Three, Part One



“It could take some time for Darven to get the information I requested,” Rone said, drawing Cas’s attention back from the tent’s exit. “Possibly not until dinner this evening. In the meantime, I unfortunately have a lot of work to do in preparation for our departure. Let me escort you to a safe place for you to wait, and get you access to showers and a hot meal. I’d like you to think about the sort of work you’d be qualified to do on another planet before we meet again, and present your options to me this evening.”

Cas nodded. It was as good a way as any to spend the time, but if he was cautious, he could use his relative liberty to do some research of his own instead. “I can do that.”

“Good.” Rone smiled, and Cas was struck by how immensely kind it made him look. Rone wasn’t a remarkably handsome man, his rare eye color notwithstanding. He had a square face and a strong jaw, a nose slightly bent and flattened in the center, and smooth, healthy skin, but all together he wasn’t someone Cas would look at twice. When he smiled, though, his features were elevated by the warmth in it from everyday to exceptional. Despite himself, Cas smiled back.

Rone stood and gestured toward the door. “Shall we?”

It had started to rain outside, a typical misty, fog-laden afternoon. Cas could barely see more than ten feet ahead of them, and he carefully counted his steps and looked for landmarks as they walked. Rone led him to a barracks-like building close to the camp’s fence, fielding curious looks and occasional salutes with easy aplomb. He pressed the thin skin beneath his wrist to the pad outside the door, and it immediately opened to admit him. “Come inside, Beren.”

His impression of a barrack was confirmed as soon as Cas got a good look around the place. Cots were spread along the wall in a neat and orderly fashion, each one with an attached footlocker. At the end of the building was a bathroom enclosure.

“Towels are stacked in there.” Rone pointed to the bathroom. “Feel free to help yourself to them, or to lie down anywhere if you’re tired. I’ll make sure someone comes in with a meal shortly.”

“Okay.” Cas made a show of looking around a little uncertainly. “Will anyone else be joining me?”

“No,” Rone said, making the assumption Cas was going for. “This isn’t a place for my troops, this was for refugees. Almost all of them are gone now, but we haven’t gotten around to breaking the hardware down yet. No one will disturb you in here.”

Damn it. Cas smiled. “That’s good to know, thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’ll be back once I have some news for you, all right?”

“That’s very kind of you.” Keep being kind to me, I need every edge I can get.

“It’s no problem.” He turned to leave.

“Captain?” Cas called out. “What, um…what’s your last name? In case someone comes in and I have to…” He laughed nervously. “Have to justify my existence to them, or something?”

“Ah.” Rone inclined his head. “Captain Basinti, at your service.”

“Thank you.” Cas waited for the door to shut behind him, then swore softly. Well, shit. It wouldn’t be as easy to get out of here and move around as he’d hoped, but with the weather the way it was right now, at least he’d have easy cover. There was no time to waste, though.

Cas stripped down to his skin as fast as possible, running the clothes back to the bathroom and turning on one of the showers for good measure. Unless they were monitoring the water use—and why would they be, on a planet so perpetually soaked in rain—any visiting Imperian would assume he was in the shower instead of seeking him out. Cas moved to the corner closest to the door, pressed as tightly to it as possible, and with a long exhale, let the phage crawl to the surface.

If he had been observing himself, he would have seen pale skin suddenly change, becoming mottled and then smoothing out to match the off-white color and slightly wavy texture of the wall behind him. Even his hair made the shift, while at the same time Cas’s chin became less pointy, his cheekbones a little less sharp. The phage was a miraculous creature, but it had its limits, and maintaining Beren’s more delicate features while reimaging Cas to blend into his surroundings was too much. Hopefully, it wouldn’t matter. He couldn’t allow himself to be caught. Cas held himself perfectly still, closed his eyes until they were nothing but mere slits, and waited.

Perhaps fifteen minutes later, the door opened to admit an Imperian soldier carrying a covered tray. She glanced around once, shrugged to herself and set the tray down on the nearest cot, then headed for the door again. As she scanned her wrist, Cas detached himself from the wall, creeping up on silent feet to stand as close behind her as he dared. He’d have less than three seconds to make it out behind her, so he had to make them count.

The door opened. The soldier left, Cas shadowing her so tightly he was a little amazed she couldn’t sense him right behind her. He made it out with a good second to spare, though, and dropped down into a crouch beside the side of the door as soon as he was clear. The phage shifted again, this time to a moving tapestry of dark and light greys—the perfect camouflage for a rainy day.

Cas watched the soldier walk away with a sense of satisfaction, then crept around the barrack until he was right up against the wall—also conveniently gray, so he wouldn’t have to tax the phage as hard as if he was trying to make it across the center of camp. He looked assessingly in both directions, building a map in his head of where he knew the largest entrance to the camp was, where the ships and Rone’s tent were, and where he was right now. Once it was done, he turned and began to work his way to the right.

He should have several hours to gather information on his new situation, and he was going to make the most of them.


Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Mutable: Chapter Two

Notes: The next chapter of Mutable is here! The plot thickens...

Title: Mutable, Chapter Two

***



Chapter Two



The captain’s tent was on the other side of the camp, close to where the enormous Imperian ships were docked. The Captain—Rone, apparently, and no one had said his last name yet so Cas didn’t have anything else to call him—must have been a fairly important man, because not only did the guards continue to escort both him and Cas to the tent, the officer who had called Cas a distraction came long as well. The other man was a shade or two lighter than Rone’s dark, earthy skin tone, and his face was fixed in an unimpressed expression. He looked like he was expecting a cave cricket to leap into his mouth at any moment.

Rone, by contrast, appeared serene, leading the way without a single glance back at Cas. Was it because he genuinely thought he had nothing to fear? Cas was outnumbered, after all, and the way he looked right now he knew he didn’t appear to be much of a threat. That was good. He needed to keep that up. The phage would last another few days without needing a break, if Cas was careful.

The inside of the tent—and tent was a little misleading, when the whole thing looked like it was made of opaque glass, and covered with opulent red and cream-colored fabrics inside—was big enough for four to sit comfortably, with a side room that was probably for sleeping. Once they were inside the captain dismissed the guards with a word and a smile. His officer friend rolled his eyes.

“I hope you don’t expect me to leave you alone with a prisoner, Rone.”

“I know better than that,” Rone replied. He sat down in a heavy-legged, high backed velvet chair and gestured for Cas to do the same. “Join me, Beren. Let’s get to know each other a little better.”

Cas sat down gingerly, very aware of the dirt embedded in his clothes and shoes, even the creases of his palms at this point. It wasn’t something that just washed away, the cavern dirt, not something that hot water and soap or one of those sonic showers could fix just like that. Cavern dirt stayed on you, it stuck with you. It seeped into every crevice until your body wouldn’t know what to be without it, until your skin stopped feeling abraded and started feeling caressed by it. Cas didn’t want to wash it all away. He wouldn’t, until he had no other choice.

Rone’s friend stood right behind him, looming. It made Cas want to turn around and slash through his fancy uniform, gutting him like a fish before he has a chance to do more than gasp in pain.

He didn’t, obviously. That wouldn’t get him off this planet, and that was where he needed to be. He affected a nervous demeanor. It really wasn’t much of a stretch. “What do you want to know?”

“What makes you think you’re not safe here?”

Cas couldn’t help hit; he snorted, and it actually brought a little smile to Rone’s face. “All right, then what makes you think you’re less safe here than any other Delacoeurian?

“Because…” Cas didn’t actually want to go into all of this, but it was probably going to be necessary. He might even score some sympathy points. “Because my brother was a phage. You know what those are?”

Rone’s face said that he did. His friend, on the other hand—“What the hell does that mean?”

“Phages were Delacoeurian assassins,” Rone said softly. “People capable of changing their appearances, thanks to the help of a rare protoplastic bacterium. Is that correct?”

“The bacteria killed more people than they worked for,” Cas said. He remembered the agony of the initial infection, how he was sure his blood was going to boil inside his skin and his bones would catch fire. “You had to have a really strong immune system to survive infection and learn to use them, and most of us have always been on the sickly side.” Being forced to live underground for generations would do that to you. “But if you survived and figured it out, then yeah. You might become a phage. My brother Cas was one.”

“Cas Farling.” Rone stroked his chin with a forefinger. “I think I remember seeing some sort of telecast about him. Wasn’t he killed—”

“In an explosion on Giverns Tower six months ago, yes,” Cas said, lowering his head. He hadn’t died, obviously, but it had taken him a long time to heal from the burns. Too long. By the time he came back to himself and was strong enough to work again, Beren was already dead. Not killed by a Leelanger, though.

Killed by a fellow Delacoeurian.

“What does this have to do with you?” Rone’s friend asked.

Cas swallowed hard. “Everyone knew my brother,” he said quietly, with an air of confession. “He was the most successful phage in the history of the war. If he hadn’t been killed—” injured to the point of uselessness, god damn it— “he would definitely have been executed by the Leelangers by now for war crimes. Because they can’t get him, they consider me the next best thing.”

Rone’s friend scoffed. “This sounds far-fetched at best. You’re saying you’re the subject of an extrajudicial manhunt that will end with you, what, being ‘disappeared?’”

“Not disappeared. Murdered.” Cas did his best to speak calmly, levelly, and to get his utter sincerity across to Rone, whose broad, handsome face gave nothing away. “I know I’ll be murdered if I stay here. There are people watching this camp right now, Leelangers who will follow me the moment I’m released through the gate. I’ll be picked up within a block, and dead within a day. I know it.” They warned me. God, I wish I’d done more to get Beren out of here before…

He coughed uncomfortably, trying to purge the memory of his last contact with his brother from his mind. Beren had been so afraid, but Cas had been bedridden, unable to help him. He’d sent him to stay with friends, with people who should have protected him.

Cas had been so, so wrong.

“All because your brother was a bigshot killer? I don’t believe it.”

Cas ignored him, focusing on Rone instead. “There was a price on my brother’s head, put there by the government. No one ever got to collect it because they couldn’t positively identify his body, but there are people out there who will still pay a bounty if mine is presented as his next of kin.”

“Fucking outrageous lies—”

Cas had had enough. He rounded on the guy behind him and snapped, “You’re an ignorant asshole who has no idea what was going on here before you flew in to save the fucking day, and you don’t give a shit what will happen once you leave! Your opinion doesn’t matter, because you don’t know anything and you don’t care to know anything! You don’t give a shit about us or about the war, you just want to leave! So leave!

In the resounding silence that followed, Cas wondered whether he’d gone too far. Then Rone started to chuckle and, oddly enough, so did his friend.

“Okay, so you might have a backbone after all,” the man said. “But I still don’t buy it. The Leelangers have promised to take all Delacoeurians into protective custody and keep you safe until you can take the blood test again.”

“I bet you anything that people have already mysteriously ‘vanished’ under their protective custody,” Cas said. “And I bet they won’t want to share their information with you when you ask. Ask them, find out. You’ll see I’m right.” It was a gamble, but he was willing to try anything at this point.

“Darven, go do just that,” Rone said. “Or get Jepson to do it. I want those numbers as soon as possible. And I want a verified, head-by-head count. Don’t just take their word for it.”

Darven groaned. “Damn it, that could take all night.”

“Then you better get started.”

“You want me to send someone else in?”

Rone smiled politely. “I don’t think I have anything to fear from Beren here, do I?”

“No, sir.”

Nothing I’m willing to let on yet, that’s for sure.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Mutable: Prologue and Chapter One

Notes: A new sci fi story, yay! This isn't Bonded universe, guys, but I hope you'll find it intriguing regardless. I'm excited to be starting it!

Title: Mutable: Prologue and Chapter One

***










Mutable: Prologue

Four hundred years ago, seven generation ships set out from known space to colonize the distant Tiresias System, one great sun around which orbited seven habitable planets. A charter was made between them before setting out, that each people would restrict themselves to their designated planet and refrain from imposing themselves on each other.

After a hundred and fifty years of travel with their inhabitants in cryosleep, the ships reached their destinations. Six planets were colonized successfully, but the seventh, dubbed Delacoeur by the distant stargazers who had first discovered it, turned out to be a barren ball of ice, without the liquid water and lofty, warmer plateaus they had been promised. A third of their people died during the crash landing, and another third died over the next twenty years of subsistence living that it took to repair enough of the ship to make a run for another planet.

Eventually the survivors left Delacoeur for their nearest neighbor, Leelinge. They arrived hoping for compassion, and a new place to call home. They were met with xenophobia and violence, and after a terrible battle they took shelter in the caverns underground that the original colonists had shunned. The caverns held creatures that almost killed the survivors off for good before some of them learned how to control them, and fought back.

This began a period of guerilla warfare that lasted almost a hundred years. By then, other planets had reached out, connecting the Tiresias System for trade and travel. The most powerful of these planets was Imperia, where the people let themselves be ruled by a king and his elected aristocracy. Imperians were the first to initiate interplanetary trade, but they refused to deal with Leelinge until they had settled their civil war.

It took another eighty years, but eventually the Delacoeurians, whose original settlers were long dead, were subdued in a final, brutal battle. The Leelingers would have killed them all outright if the Imperians hadn’t refused to deal with them if they did. Instead, every survivor was given a new assignment on another planet, mostly as agricultural workers, or to do the dangerous tasks that bots couldn’t handle. As long as you were healthy, you would have another chance at life.

If your blood work showed any signs of sickness or genetic oddity, however, you would be denied transit off planet. If that happened, well…

The Leelingers knew the truth about what those signs were. They couldn’t tell the Imperians, not if they wanted to preserve their bargaining power, but they would be watching for everyone who was turned away.

Those people were the Delacoeur assassins, bonded to dark creatures.

Those people would be marked for death.


***



You could tell an Imperian by the way they dressed. They wore layers upon layers, some thin and some thick, some long-sleeved and some short, all matching, all pressed, all bearing the royal red representing the Imperian king in some way. They carried swords that looked like they were never used, and held stunners on their hips that seemed far more comforting to them. They wore their hair long, and they pierced their ears with shining red gems.

You could tell an Imperian by the way they walked. There was a natural confidence to their stride, the motion of a person who never needed to be covert, because there was nothing to fear for them in the darkness or the light. They held their shoulders square, looked each other in the eye when they spoke, and used their voices like they were foghorns.

You could tell an Imperian by the way they spoke. Calm. Collected. Forceful when need be, but rarely unkind. Thoughtful. Compassionate.

Naïve.

You could tell an Imperian by their ignorance, because they would look you in the eye and sign your death warrant with a smile.

“Denied?” Cas stared at the glowing red X that had been embedded in the top of his visa paperwork. “You’re denying my exit?”

“Your blood work came back questionable,” the Imperian officer on the other side of the desk said apologetically. “There were traces of a foreign substance that our medics couldn’t identify. We can’t risk the spread of any sort of disease to your new colony.” She pushed the papers closer with a commiserating smile. “You can apply to retake the test in six months.”

“I won’t last six months here,” Cas said slowly, testing to see if she really was as ignorant as she looked. “I won’t last another day if you make me leave this camp.”

She shook her head. “We have assurances from the local government that all Delacoeurians who fail to garner an exit visa will be treated humanely.”

Yes, humanely shot in the back. “Can I retake the blood test now? It’s possible that something else contaminated it, isn’t it? Maybe the needle wasn’t clean.” Maybe I shouldn’t have let them take blood from me when I was trying to heal a fucking knife wound fast enough that they wouldn’t notice it.

“The six-month waiting period is mandatory, I’m afraid. No exceptions.”

“Then can I at least stay in this camp until then?” Cas was getting desperate.

“Our camp is disbanding in another three days.” She sounded like she was starting to get irritated with him. “Every Delacoeurian who stays here will be monitored for health and wellness. You’ll be fine.”

No, he wouldn’t. He would be murdered in a heartbeat, and it would be blamed on something else. A fire, an earthquake, a tragic accident. And these Imperian assholes would just tut-tut from up in the sky and let the Leelingers get away with it.

Cas wasn’t afraid to die, but he wasn’t ready to either. He had too much to do. Too many people to find.

Too many people to avenge.

“Please, there must be another way.”

“I’ve given you your options. Now, if you’d leave the tent, I have other matters to attend to.”

“Listen to me, just listen, let me—”

“Guardsmen!” Two of the red-coated, guards from outside the tent came inside at her call. “Escort this young man out of camp, if you please, and see to it that he connects with the Leelinger authorities on the other side. They’ll take care of him.”

“No!” Cas would have begged further, but she was already moving away from the desk. The guards took ahold of him, each pressing a heavy hand on one of his shoulders, and turned him about-face.

“Don’t do this,” he said to them as they marched him outside into the rainy gloom of a typical Leelinger day. “Please, don’t give me to them, they’ll kill me.” He had to make someone see reason, and fast, or he was going to have to incapacitate these fools and find a way to sneak on board one of the Imperian vessels. That would present a lot of challenges, and worse, a lot of distractions. Cas was on a mission, damn it. “I’m telling you, they’ll kill me. Please!”

He let himself sag between them, making it as hard as possible for them to haul him out of the way of a passing group of officers. “Let me take the blood test again,” he begged as they got closer to the electrified gate surrounding the camp. “I’ll pass, I know I will, it only takes a moment, doesn’t it? I swear to you, if you put me outside that gate no one will ever see me again!” Because I’ll have to kill everyone who gets in my way.

“Stop.”

It wasn’t one of the guards who spoke, which Cas had been expecting at this point, if only to tell him to shut up. Instead, one of the men in the group of officers had turned toward them.

“Oh, for king and common’s sake, Rone,” another officer said with a sigh. “We’re almost off this hellhole. Don’t get distracted now.”

“What are your orders concerning this man?” the first officer—Rone—addressed the guards. The one on the left answered.

“He failed the blood test, Captain. He’s to remain with the Leelingers for another six months.”

“That’s almost a third of a year. A long time, by the standards here.” The officer looked Cas in the eye. They were almost the same height, but his shoulders seemed twice as broad as Cas'. Maybe that was just the epaulets, though. His uniform was more decorated than anyone else Cas had seen so far. “You’re confident that you could pass the blood test?”

“Yes.” Cas had done far harder things under far easier circumstances.

“And you have a good reason for thinking that you won’t last another six months here?” His tone was light but his face gave nothing away

“Yes, sir.”

“Hmm.” Violet-blue eyes considered him thoughtfully. “Interesting. Let’s see if there’s any merit to your argument, then. Gentlemen, escort this man to my tent.”

“Lieutenant Commander Jepson said we were to see him out, sir,” one of the guards said.

“Lieutenant Commander Jepson will be informed of the possible change in outcomes when I’m done speaking with Mister…” He frowned. “What’s your name, then?”

“Beren,” Cas said without missing a beat. “My name is Beren Farling.”