Children's Books, Science Fiction || The last boy on earth is out to save humankind!
Fisher is the last boy on earthand things are not looking good for the human race. Only Fisher made it out alive after the carefully crafted survival bunker where Fisher and dozens of other humans had been sleeping was destroyed.
Luckily, Fisher is not totally alone. He meets a broken robot he names Click, whose programmed purposeto help Fisher "continue existing"makes it act an awful lot like an overprotective parent. Together, Fisher and Click uncover evidence that there may be a second survival bunker far to the west. In prose that skips from hilarious to touching and back in a heartbeat, Greg van Eekhout brings us a thrilling story of survival that becomes a journey to a new hopeif Fisher can continue existing long enough to get there.
Fantasy, Urban Fantasy || Is this Ragnarok, or just California?
The NorseCODE genome project was designed to identify descendants of Odin. What it found was Kathy Castillo, a murdered MBA student brought back from the dead to serve as a valkyrie in the Norse god's army. Given a sword and a new name, Mist's job is to recruit soldiers for the war between the gods at the end of the worldand to kill those who refuse to fight.
But as the twilight of the gods descends, Mist makes other plans.
California Bones is the first volume in my trilogy about Daniel Blackland, a wizard trying to survive in a world that eats wizards. It’s a book about friends and family, trust and betrayal, the love of power and the power of love. But at its core, it’s a heist novel—and you can’t have a heist without a crew. So, here they are, wonderfully rendered by Goñi Montes.
Check out Greg van Eekhout’s Pacific Fire, the sequel to California Bones, set in an alternate-reality Los Angeles where osteomancers draw their magic from the city’s fossils. Pacific Fire is out January 27th from Tor Books!
He’s Sam. He’s just this guy.
Okay, yeah, he’s a golem created by the late Hierarch of Southern California from the substance of his own magic. With a lot of work, Sam might be able to wield magic himself. He kind of doubts it, though. Not like Daniel Blackland can.
Daniel’s the reason the Hierarch’s gone and Sam is still alive. He’s also the reason Sam has lived his entire life on the run. Ten years of never, ever going back to Los Angeles. Daniel’s determined to protect him. To teach him.
But it gets old. Sam has got nobody but Daniel. He’ll never do anything normal. Like attend school. Or date a girl.
Now it’s worse. Because things are happening back in LA. Very bad people are building a Pacific firedrake, a kind of ultimate weapon of mass magical destruction. Daniel seemed to think only he could stop them. Now Daniel’s been hurt. Sam managed to get them to the place run by the Emmas. (Many of them. All named Emma. It’s a long story.) They seem to be healing Daniel, but he isn’t going anyplace soon
Does Sam even have a reason for existing, if it isn’t to prevent this firedrake from happening? He’s good at escaping from things. Now he’s escaped from Daniel and the Emmas, and he’s on his way to LA.
California Bones is the first volume in my trilogy (out on June 10th) about Daniel Blackland, a wizard trying to survive in a world that eats wizards. It’s a book about friends and family, trust and betrayal, the love of power and the power of love. But at its core, it’s a heist novel and you can’t have a heist without a crew. So, here they are, wonderfully rendered by Goñi Montes.
Check out Greg van Eekhout’s California Bones, an epic adventure set in a city of canals and secrets and casual brutality, available June 10th from Tor Books!
When Daniel Blackland was six, he ingested his first bone fragment, a bit of kraken spine plucked out of the sand during a visit with his demanding, brilliant, and powerful magician father, Sebastian. When Daniel was twelve, he watched Sebastian die at the hands of the Hierarch of Southern California, devoured for the heightened magic layered deep within his bones.
Now, years later, Daniel is a petty thief with a forged identity. Hiding amid the crowds in Los Angeles—the capital of the Kingdom of Southern California—Daniel is trying to go straight. But his crime-boss uncle has a heist he wants Daniel to perform: break into the Hierarch’s storehouse of magical artifacts and retrieve Sebastian’s sword, an object of untold power.
For this dangerous mission, Daniel will need a team he can rely on, so he brings in his closest friends from his years in the criminal world. There’s Moth, who can take a bullet and heal in mere minutes. Jo Alverado, illusionist. The multitalented Cassandra, Daniel’s ex. And, new to them all, the enigmatic, knowledgeable Emma, with her British accent and her own grudge against the powers-that-be. The stakes are high, and the stage is set for a showdown that might just break the magic that protects a long-corrupt regime.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to present the first two chapters of my new middle grade science fiction novel, The Boy at the End of the World, which goes on sale June 21 from Bloomsbury Children’s. From the publisher’s copy:
The last boy on earth is out to save humankind!
Fisher is the last boy on earth—and things are not looking good for the human race. Only Fisher made it out alive after the carefully crafted survival bunker where Fisher and dozens of other humans had been sleeping was destroyed.
Luckily, Fisher is not totally alone. He meets a broken robot he names Click, whose programmed purpose—to help Fisher “continue existing”—makes it act an awful lot like an overprotective parent. Together, Fisher and Click uncover evidence that there may be a second survival bunker far to the west. In prose that skips from hilarious to touching and back in a heartbeat, Greg van Eekhout brings us a thrilling story of survival that becomes a journey to a new hope—if Fisher can continue existing long enough to get there.
This is what he knew:
His name was Fisher.
The world was dangerous.
He was alone.
And that was all.
Fisher became born in a pod filled with bubbling gel. A plastic umbilical cord snaked from his belly. When he opened his eyes, the first thing he saw through the clear lid of the pod was destruction. Slabs of concrete and twisted steel fell to the floor amid clouds of dust. Severed wires spit sparks into the air. The world was coming apart.
Something told Fisher to get up, get out, run away while he still could.
The world instinct came to mind.
He pushed against the pod lid and it came open with a hiss. The gel stopped bubbling and drained away through holes at the bottom of the pod. Cold air struck Fisher’s wet skin when he sat up. It was the first time he’d ever been cold, and he hated it.
He’d made a mistake. He never should have opened the lid. He never should have made himself become born. Maybe if he just lay back down and closed the lid the gel would return and he could go back to sleep and he’d be warm and everything would be all right.
A huge, explosive thud hammered Fisher’s ears. The ground shook and the dim lights in the ceiling wavered and died. It was some kind of disaster. Or an attack. Fisher didn’t know anything about attacks, except they were dangerous and should be avoided.
Pipes clanged against the floor and more debris rained down. More sparks, more dust. Bitter air stung his nostrils. Fisher had never smelled this smell before. In fact, it was pretty much the first thing he’d ever smelled. He was only a few moments old, after all, and hadn’t had time to smell much. Somehow, though, he knew the smell meant things were burning around him.
There was no choice now. He had to make himself all the way born and get out of whatever this place was before everything burned and crashed around him. He swung his legs over the side of the pod and set his bare feet down on the cold floor. He took a step, and then another, and that was as far as he got. The umbilical tugged him back. It was still attached to his belly. He would have to yank it out if he was going to become all the way born. But there was just no way he could do that. He knew this wasn’t how things were supposed to be. His birth was supposed to be soft. He was supposed to be soothed and bathed in light. He wasn’t supposed to be alone.
Another shuddering whomp, and Fisher’s ears popped. It felt like something massive had struck the building. Debris clattered down. A big chunk of ceiling fell right in front of him, and Fisher discovered another thing he knew: Profanity. Profanity was a collection of words that helped express strong feelings.
Fisher uttered a word from his profanity collection now.
It was the first word he ever spoke.
If the ceiling chunk had struck his head, Fisher would have been dead. Over and done with. He couldn’t accept the idea of dying before he’d even become fully born, so he wrapped his fingers around his plastic umbilical and gave it a mighty yank. The cord came out, spraying milky fluid and a little bit of blood, and Fisher bawled because now he was completely born and he knew there’d be no going back.
But he didn’t bawl standing still.
He bawled while running and shouting profanity.
Fisher found more pods lining the walls of vast, caved-in rooms. The pods contained all kinds of animals.
In one room, the pods held dogs. In another, pigs. In yet another, goats.
One room was full of pods the size of his hand, thousands of them, and inside were bees and worms and butterflies.
Another room held only four pods, each many times the size of Fisher’s own. Inside were elephants, their eyes shut, their curving tusks tinted blue through the gel.
All the pods were broken. The lights were out. The gel didn’t bubble. Many were cracked, their gel oozing to the ground. And many more were completely crushed by fallen debris.
Fisher knew what death was. He had become born knowing. Death was failure. All the creatures in these pods had failed to survive.
He came to one last chamber, stretching into the smoky distance, where the pods were smashed and buried. From a mound of rubble emerged a slender brown arm. A human arm.
Fisher silently approached it. He brushed pebbles and dust from the damp fingers and touched the wrist.
Cold and still.
A noise drew Fisher’s attention away from the dead human. Down the corridor, through a haze of powdery light, a creature was bent over another pod. The creature was a little larger than Fisher and roughly shaped like him: two arms and two legs, a torso, an oval head. It was shaped like a human, but clearly not a human. A machine of some kind. The word robot came to Fisher’s mind.
The pod had been knocked partway off its support platform, and the dead human inside dangled out of it. The creature was doing something with the dead human’s umbilical cord.
Fisher’s breath quickened with fear. He pressed his lips together to keep from making a noise and took a slow step back, then another. His heel struck a fallen pipe, and losing his balance, he went down hard.
The human-but-not-human creature’s head snapped around, turning its human-but-not-human face to Fisher.
It moved towards him.
“Fisher,” it said. “I have found you.”
Fisher ran. He scrambled over shattered puzzle pieces of concrete, though lung-choking smoke, through rooms where flames licked at pods of dead fish. He found a shaft of chalky light from above and began climbing up a steep slope of debris. Loose bits of concrete slid away beneath his hands and feet, and he struggled not to go sliding with them.
Behind him, he could hear the screechy movements of the creature that knew his name, but the sounds grew fainter the higher up he climbed. He kept going until, at last, he stumbled out into moonlight.
He took a moment to understand his surroundings. Creatures could kill him, but so could his environment. He knew this in the same way he knew his name and knew profanity and knew what kinds of animals lay dead in their pods.
He was on the summit of a mountain formed from colossal slabs of granite. There were no buildings in sight. Scant patches of trees smoldered and smoked. Soil and rocks tumbled from collapsing ledges. He couldn’t tell exactly what had just happened here, but he had a strong sense that the place of his birth had just been attacked from above. How, or by what, he couldn’t say.
And, actually, he didn’t care.
Later, he might.
But now? He just wanted to get away.
He took off in a jog down the mountain, his eyes never straying for long from the star-freckled night sky. As he descended, the way grew thicker with trees and ferns. Things rustled in the dark. Tiny eyes glinted with pinprick light from the high tree boughs.
Hints of old structures in the woods revealed themselves. There were small piles of concrete bricks, and crumbling sections of walls. Anything could be hiding among them.
The word predator came to Fisher’s mind. Predators were animals that used weaker animals as food. The eyes in the dark might belong to predators. The non-human creature down in the ruined birthing structure might be a predator. To deal with predators, Fisher would have to make sure he was always the strongest animal. He needed a weapon.
Keeping watch for approaching predators, he crept up to the remains of a building. There was just a mostly-fallen wall, overgrown with ferns and vines. From a jagged concrete slab protruded a thin steel rod, sticking straight up. It flaked with rust.
Fisher planted his foot against the concrete and grasped the rod with both hands. He bent it back, and then forward, and then back again, and continued like that until the rod snapped. The end was a jagged point of sharp nastiness.
Fisher knew what a spear was. Now he had one.
How had he known what a spear was? How had he known how to fashion one? His hands appeared to know things he didn’t quite know himself. For instance, they knew how to build a fire. Fisher could almost feel his fingers clutching tinder. Dry grass made good tinder. Or bark. Or leaves. Or tree resin. If he had tinder, then he’d need a way to ignite a fire. He could use flint sparks, or sunlight focused through a lens, or wood sticks and a small bow. Once the tinder was lit, he would need kindling to keep the fire going. There were plenty of branches around to use as kindling.
Fisher wished he could build a fire now. Sticky gel and clammy sweat coated his skin. It was bad to sweat in the cold. He discovered he knew the word hypothermia. But now was not the time or place for a fire. A fire might keep predators away, but it might also signal his presence to things. Things like the non-human creature. Better to get more distance from his birthing place.
A twig snapped behind him. Fisher spun around.
“Fisher,” the non-human creature said. “I have been looking for you.”
It reached for him with a soot-stained hand.
Fisher used profanity and thrust his spear into the non-human creature’s chest.
The mechanical creature’s face was a hideous mask. Two yellow globes bulged where eyes should have been. In place of a nose were a pair of vertical slits. Its mouth was an ear-to-ear chasm covered by fine wire mesh. Red wires poked from a small crack in its head. Maybe a rock had fallen on it during the attack. Fisher wished it had been a larger rock.
The mechanical man grabbed the spear with both hands and slowly withdrew it from his chest. The shaft was smeared with oil.
“Please be careful,” said the machine, handing Fisher back his spear. His voice buzzed and hissed. “You nearly punctured my hydraulic pump.”
“What do you want?” Fisher said, ready to make another spear thrust. This time he’d aim for the machine’s cracked skull.
“I want to help you.”
Not what Fisher expected. He figured the machine wanted to kill him. Tear his head off. Eat his brains and guts as mechanical-man fuel.
“Help me do what?”
“My directives are to help Ark-preserved species survive so that they may reproduce and repopulate the Earth.”
Fisher didn’t know what most of those words meant, and definitely not in that order. He decided the safest thing to do was kill the mechanical man. Just as he prepared to spring, the machine’s head swiveled around.
“We are in imminent danger,” he said.
“Imminent…? From what?”
“Accessing database of fauna hunting behavior and calls. Please stand by. Database failure. Attempting access again. Please stand by. Failure. Hm. Attempting access again. Please stand—”
“Hey! What’s hunting me?”
“I do not know,” said the mechanical man. “That’s what database failure means. My brain is malfunctioning. How is your brain?”
More profanity almost shot from Fisher’s mouth, but words froze on his tongue. Creeping up behind the mechanical man, at least two-dozen pairs of little glowing eyes approached. They belonged to creatures about four feet long, sleek and brown-furred with pink paws and slender, naked tails.
“Ah,” the mechanical man said. “I believe these are rats. But different than the specimens preserved in the Ark. It appears that untold thousands of years of evolution have changed them.”
Fisher knew about rats. There were rats in some of the destroyed pods back in his birthing place — the Ark the mechanical man was talking about. The rats that encroached now were much larger, and their paws more like his own hands. A few of them rose up and walked on two legs.
Don’t get bitten, Fisher thought. Infection and disease were very dangerous. They could lead to his death. Fisher was only a few hours old and could not afford to die.
These thoughts kicked his heart into a rapid throb. His limbs coursed with blood and energy. He welcomed the sensation. It would help him fight.
One of the rats darted around the mechanical man’s legs and leapt at Fisher. With a swing of his spear, Fisher sent it squealing through the air. But more rats were upon him. He hissed in pain as rat claws raked his shins. He thrust his spear down toward his attackers, but they were agile and managed to twist and squirm away from the point of his spear.
“Run, Fisher,” said the mechanical man.
Fisher didn’t need to be told twice. He turned and took off in a mad sprint, slipping on mud, scrambling over ruined spans of walls. But the rats were faster. He could hear their squeaks and the splash of paws in the wet earth. He had no choice but to turn and fight. Facing them, he bared his teeth and raised his spear. The rats bared their teeth in return. Theirs were as long as his fingers.
I have stupid little teeth, thought Fisher.
But he had something the rats didn’t: A tool.
He rushed forward with his spear and jabbed at the rodents. They weren’t very impressed at first. The biggest of them squeaked, and in response the other rats surged.
So, the big one was their pack leader. That was the one Fisher needed to kill first.
He hurtled over a charging rat and drove his spear between the leader’s shoulders. The rat thrashed and convulsed on the point, its tail madly whipping around.
With the rat impaled on the end of his spear, Fisher slammed it down, right into the middle of the pack. Now the rat was still, and Fisher felt like throwing up. He clenched his jaw and tried to ignore the sensation. There wasn’t room for anything but fighting and surviving. No distractions. No feelings.
He braced himself, ready for the next wave of attacks. Instead, the rats fled, scurrying away into the surrounding ruins.
Fisher thought of giving chase, because he was angry at them for attacking him and the fight was still in his blood. But his head prevailed. This was a time to be cautious, or even fearful. Fear was another kind of survival tool. Fear reminded Fisher how soft his flesh was, how easily he could fail to survive.
Like blood from a wound, the urge to fight drained from his limbs and left behind exhaustion. His empty muscles burned. In all the hours since his birth he’d had nothing to eat. He needed food, or at least water. He remembered passing some ashy puddles. Maybe he could risk a few sips.
With nervous glances he turned and trudged toward a cement pylon jutting from the ground like a snapped bone. A pool of rainwater gathered around its base. It didn’t look at all drinkable. But maybe he could find a way to clean it. If he let it drip through rocks and gravel and then sand, and then boiled what was left …
A rat leaped off the pylon, straight for Fisher’s face with its grasping claws. But something knocked it out of the way: The mechanical man.
Instead of clawing Fisher’s eyes, the rat tore at the mechanical man’s. The machine said nothing, silent except for smack of its plastic hands as it swatted at the rat and the brittle crack of its eye socket as the rat tore at it.
Fisher swung his spear with a grunt and batted the rat off the mechanical man’s face. It arced through the air and landed in the mud, then scampered off with an angry squeal.
Fisher gaped at the mechanical man. One of his eyes hung loose on wires.
“Why did you…? You just stood there while… You saved me.”
“Yes, I did,” the machine said. “As I told you, my directives are to help Ark-preserved species survive such that they can repopulate the Earth.”
He stared at Fisher with his expressionless plastic face. Fisher got the feeling he was supposed to respond in some way, but he didn’t know how.
“Let’s get out of here before the rats come back,” Fisher said.
They walked together in the shadows, the machine creaking with every step.
Being part of the original Star Wars generation, I have always known a dark future. (And, yes, I say Star Wars and future in the same sentence, fully aware of the thing about “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” But these movies have blasters and space ships and robots, so if we’re going to argue about when Star Wars takes place, let’s do it later, over pizza and beer.) Anyway. The future. The dark, dark future. A future run by a brutal, Captain-Antilles-choking, Alderaan-obliterating, carbonite-freezing, hand-amputating, authoritarian government. You don’t think it’s a dystopia? Just look at Grand Moff Tarkin’s uniform. You don’t see jodhpurs in a utopia.
If Star Wars wasn’t enough to prepare me for a dark future, there was the Planet of the Apes franchise, conveniently repeated for me in Los Angeles on KABC’s Channel Seven 3:30 movie. Apes enslaving humans! Mutants with boils and an atom bomb! Ape riots in Century City! They killed baby Caesar’s parents!
New Mutants #2
“Return of the Legion, Part 2: Security Blankets”
Zeb Wells, writer
Diogenes Neves, pencils
Cam Smith with Ed Tadeo, inks
Back in 1982, when there were still only a manageable number of X-Men titles on the racks (by which I mean just one), Marvel quite reasonably figured the world could stand another team of beleaguered mutant superheroes. And so were born The New Mutants, junior X-Men whose powers had just begun to manifest at the onset of puberty. The X-Men’s original school element hadn’t been emphasized in a very long time, so it was refreshing to see Professor Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters return to its original function of teaching adolescent superheroes how to use their powers for the betterment of humans and mutants.
Since then, these new mutants have grown up and graduated and dispersed, but now they’re back in something very close to their original configuration. I have a tendency to get misty-eyed about my personal golden age of comic book reading (which included cola-flavored slushy drinks from the corner Mi-T Mart and many quarters sunk into Tempest and Tron), so I consider this relaunch quite rad. At least in concept.
Tor.com, in collaboration with Suvudu, is proud to present the first chapter of Greg van Eekhout’s debut novel, Norse Code, which goes on sale on 19 May from Spectra. From the publishers’ copy:
Is this Ragnarok, or just California?
The NorseCODE genome project was designed to identify descendants of Odin. What it found was Kathy Castillo, a murdered MBA student brought back from the dead to serve as a valkyrie in the Norse god’s army. Given a sword and a new name, Mist’s job is to recruit soldiers for the war between the gods at the end of the world—and to kill those who refuse to fight.
But as the twilight of the gods descends, Mist makes other plans.
ONLY TWO HOURS into Mist’s first job, things were already going badly. For one, the duct tape had come loose over the recruit’s mouth, and he was screaming so loudly that Mist was sure he’d be heard through the walls of the van, even above the roar of Route 21 traffic.
She turned to her companion in the passenger seat. “I thought he was supposed to stay out for at least another hour.”
“Do I look like an anesthesiologist? Chloroform’s not an exact science.”
Mist shook her head at Grimnir. He did not look like any kind of ologist. Decked out in black jeans, quadruple-XL leather coat, and black homburg crammed over his head, he looked like what he was: a thug. Her thug, she reminded herself, still amazed at the idea of having her own devoted thug after having been with NorseCODE for only three months.
In back, the recruit pleaded for mercy. Mist steeled herself against his cries. Too much depended on the work to let a soft heart get in the way.
Grimnir slurped hard on the straw of his Big Gulp and popped open the glove box to retrieve a roll of tape. “I’ll go back and redo him.”
“Never mind,” Mist said, aiming the van down the off-ramp. “We’re almost there.”
There was a vast, flat gray area of industrial parks and scrap yards, where a dummy corporation several steps removed from NorseCODE had prepared a warehouse expressly for this particular job.
Mist rolled down her window, letting in a blast of cold air and April snowflakes, and punched a security code in a box mounted on a short metal pole. A moment later, the automatic warehouse doors opened and she drove onto the concrete floor. The doors screeched shut and she killed the engine.
Grimnir got out and walked around to the side of the van. With reasonable care, he lowered the recruit’s hogtied form to the ground and used shears to cut the plastic ties that bound his hands and legs. The recruit had gone quiet, but Mist expected he’d start screaming again now that he was unbound. The warehouse was well insulated and equipped with fans and blowers configured to be as noisy as possible on the outside, in order to conceal interior sounds.
Tall and trim in workout pants and a New Jersey Nets sweatshirt, the man stood, shoulders hunched, like someone expecting a piano to fall on his head. “I don’t know what this is about, but you’ve got the wrong guy.” His voice quavered only a little.
“Your name is Adrian Hoover,” Mist said. “You live at 3892 Sunset Court, Passaic, New Jersey. You’re twenty-seven years old. You’ve been an actuary for Atlantic Insurance since graduating with a finance degree from Montclair State. I could also recite your Social Security number, driver’s license number, cell phone, anything you’d like. You’re definitely not the wrong guy.”
Mist’s boss, Radgrid, stressed the importance of establishing authority early in the recruitment process.
While Mist spoke, Grimnir removed two shotgun cases from a compartment beneath the van’s floorboards.
Hoover’s face looked green and clammy under the fluorescent lights. His eyes darted around the warehouse, at the ranks of port-a-johns and the glasswalled side office, its file cabinets full of authentic paperwork provided in the event that agents of some Midgard authority came knocking.
“You are about to undergo a trial,” Mist said. “It’s your right to understand—or at least be made aware of—the purpose behind it.”
Grimnir opened one of the gun cases and withdrew a long sword. He rolled his neck and shoulders to loosen them and took a few practice lunges.
“Trial? But . . . I haven’t done anything.” There was at least as much outrage as fear in Hoover’s voice. Mist took that as a positive sign.
“It’s not what you’ve done, it’s who you are. You and your fathers.”
“My dad? He owns a dry cleaners’. Is that what this is about? Does he owe you money?”
“My name is Mist,” she said, forging ahead. “I’m a Valkyrie, in the service of the All-Father Odin. My job is to help him prepare for Ragnarok, the final battle between the gods and their enemies. To that end, I’m in the business of recruiting fighters for the Einherjar, the elite regiment of warriors who, when the time comes, will fight at the side of the Aesir, who are essentially gods. In short, if we have any hope of winning, we need the best army of all time. For reasons we can go into later, we have identified you as a promising candidate.”
Grimnir’s sword swooshed through the air as he continued to warm up.
“Are you guys in some kind of cult?” Hoover said, making an effort not to look at Grimnir. “Religion, I mean? I’ll listen to anything you have to say. I’m open-minded.”
Mist opened the other gun case and removed another sword. The blade glimmered dully in the flat warehouse lights.
“There are two qualifications for one to earn a place on Odin’s mead bench. The fighter must be a blood descendant of Odin. Well, that’s a preference more than a hard-and-fast qualification, but, anyway, we have determined that you’re of Odin’s blood. The second qualification—and this one is essential—is that the fighter die bravely on the field of combat.”
She presented the sword to him, bowing her head in observance of a formality she didn’t really feel.
Hoover looked at her, appalled. “A blood descendant of . . . ? I don’t even know what you’re talking about, and you’re going to kill me? You’re going to murder me?”
“Murder?” Grimnir scoffed. “Hardly. It’ll be a fair fight. And,” he added with a wink at Mist, “there’s always the possibility you could beat me. Now, take up your sword and prepare to be glorious.”
Hoover covered his face with his hands. His shoulders shook. “Please, I don’t understand any of this. I’m not . . . whatever you think I am. I’m an actuary.”
Oh, crap, Mist thought. I can salvage this. I’d better salvage it. Maybe Hoover possessed the potential to become a great warrior, but nothing in his experience had prepared him to be captured during his morning jog, drugged, tossed in the back of a van, bound and gagged, and told he now had to fight a grinning ox with a sword to determine his postmortal fate.
She decided to go off script.
“I know how weird this is,” she said, trying to avoid using a kindergarten-teacher voice. “Ragnarok, Odin, all that. I was raised Catholic, so this was all very strange to me too. But what you are one day doesn’t have to be what you are the next. I wasn’t always a Valkyrie. Just three months ago, I was an MBA student named Kathy Castillo. Then . . . something happened. My world flipped over, everything spilled out of its tidy order. But it’s possible to go through that and thrive. Take the sword,” she urged. “You don’t have to beat Grimnir. You just have to fight him. You’ll be rewarded. Trust me.”
Hoover sank to his knees, convulsing with sobs. Mist continued to hold his sword out to him, awkward as an unreturned handshake.
She sighed. It cost NorseCODE a fortune in time and treasure to locate suitable Einherjar recruits, and nobody in the organization would be happy to hear they’d wasted their investment on Hoover. Least of all Radgrid.
“Grim, I don’t think this one’s going to work out.”
Grimnir looked down at Hoover as if peering beneath the hood at a hopelessly broken engine.
“Yeah, I think you got that right. Well, stand him up, then. I don’t like killing a man when he’s on his knees.”
Hoover looked up at them, his breaths catching in hiccuping gawps.
“We’re letting him go,” Mist said.
Grimnir pinched the bridge of his nose. “Kid, it doesn’t work that way. We have to finish the job.”
“We have finished the job. We’re supposed to fill the ranks of Valhalla, not Helheim. He’s obviously not fit for Valhalla, so I say we’re done with him.”
“Like it matters what you say? We work for Radgrid, and there’s no way she’d be cool with cutting him loose.”
“It matters what I say because I outrank you, and you’ve sworn an oath to me.”
“I’ve also sworn an oath to Radgrid. And to Odin, for that matter.”
“Great, and we can untangle that knot of obligations later, so for now how about we do what’s right? Hoover’s got no idea where he is now, no way he could find his way back. Let’s drive him even further out to the middle of bumfuck and dump him on the side of the road. We lose nothing that way.”
“Yes,” Hoover gasped, his eyes gleaming with hope. “Just leave me somewhere. I won’t tell anyone about this, I swear. I wouldn’t even know what to tell anyone if I wanted to.”
Grimnir ignored him. “The test isn’t facing death, the test is dying. You’ve been at this only three months, Mist, so maybe you still don’t get how important the work is. But I’m Einherjar myself, and in the end it’s gonna be guys like me with our asses on the line against wolves and giants. The system’s worked in some form or another for thousands of years. You can’t just start fucking with it now.”
But Mist did understand how important the work was. Radgrid had impressed that upon her rather convincingly, and Mist lived in the world. It had been winter for three years now. She knew things were falling apart. And Ragnarok would be disaster beyond measure. Worse than the Big One, worse than an F5 tornado, worse than a city-drowning hurricane or a land-swallowing tsunami. Worse than a nuclear holocaust. The thin shield line provided by the gods and the Einherjar was the only thing standing between continued existence and Ragnarok. It was absolutely essential that the Einherjar have enough fighters for the war, and Mist was even willing to kill to see it done. As long as whomever she killed went on to serve in Valhalla. But sending them to Helheim was a different matter.
Grimnir took two steps forward, his boot heels echoing to the rafters of the warehouse. Rain clattered against the opaque skylights. Hoover was crying so hard now that Mist thought he’d vomit.
Grimnir watched him with a pitying expression.
“Grimnir, don’t—” Mist said.
Grimnir surged forward. Mist tried to block his thrust with the weapon meant for Hoover, her blade sliding off Grimnir’s. She hacked downward, cutting through Grimnir’s hat, and when her blade edge bit inches into the back of Grimnir’s head, it sounded like pounding wet cardboard with a club. He squealed, his knees giving way, but not before his momentum carried him forward and his sword plunged into Hoover’s belly. Grimnir fell on him, and Hoover released two loud, whistling breaths before falling silent.
Mist stared in disbelief at the corpses, their mingling blood gleaming like black oil in the queasy fluorescent glare.
The air grew cold and thick with a stretched cotton haze, and Mist knew what was coming. She’d experienced it three months earlier, when she and her sister, Lilly, had been shot on the way home from the grocery store. Mist never learned who’d shot them and why—thieves after their groceries, senseless drive-by, crazy drunk sniper–homeowner, it could have been anyone for any reason. Ragnarok was coming, and people were falling to all kinds of craziness.
An aching cold rushed through the warehouse, and then the road was revealed. The parade of the dead stretched as far as Mist could see, far beyond the walls of the warehouse. The dead shuffled forward, shoulders bent, eyes cast down, like slaves expecting the bite of the whip. Many of them were old and ill, dried out and hollow, their faces paper-white. Others had died more-violent deaths and shambled on with bullet holes in their bloody clothes. One teenage boy, dressed in the charred remnants of a T-shirt and jeans, trailed his intestines behind him like the train of a bridal gown. The dead were all around, dragging themselves in a queue without end, thousands, tens of thousands of murmuring dead, all walking the road to Helheim. Like Lilly three months ago. Like Mist, if Radgrid hadn’t intervened.
If Adrian Hoover had died bravely, Mist’s next job would have been to escort him through the seam between worlds and bring him to the warrior paradise of Valhalla in the city of Asgard. There he would eat the finest roast meats, drink the richest ales, enjoy the flesh of willing and comely maidens. Instead, he would now walk the road north and down, to Queen Hel’s realm of Helheim.
As one of the Einherjar, Grimnir would take a while to heal, but he’d be okay. Technically, he’d been dead for centuries.
“My stomach hurts,” said Hoover. Rather, his spirit body said it, staring mournfully down at his own corpse.
“I’m sorry,” Mist said. The words came out slowly, as though she had to carve each one out of stone. “I tried to stop him. He gave me some sword training, but I couldn’t stop him.”
Hoover’s spirit body shuffled forward, toward the slow herd of the dead. “My stomach hurts,” he said again. “When will it stop hurting?”
Mist thought of Lilly. The bullet had ripped through her sister’s side, under her rib cage, and exited through her belly. She had not died instantly. Neither had Mist.
“Adrian, don’t go with them.” She grabbed his arm. He felt like thick slush, and she couldn’t pull him away. He kept moving along with the other dead. “You don’t have to go with them,” she said, desperate.
“But I do,” he said. “Don’t you remember murdering me? I’m not sure why, but I have to go down the road.”
She had to do something. She had to save him. Somehow. She’d failed Lilly, but she wouldn’t fail Hoover. What if she went with him, followed him to Helheim, claimed custody? Maybe she could bargain with Hel.
But the procession of spirit bodies was already fading to whispers of light, and when she reached out again for Hoover, her hand passed through his shoulder. She walked alongside him for a few more steps, and then he was gone, as were the other dead and the road itself. Mist found herself alone with the two corpses under the buzzing warehouse lights.
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John was born with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men, and he often wondered why. But as a boy, it was simply wonderful to have those abilities. He could lift his father’s tractor overhead before he learned to read. He could outrace a galloping horse. He couldn’t be cut or bruised or burned. He could fly.
But his life was not a trading card with a heroic-looking photograph on one side and a convenient list of his abilities on the other. He had to discover himself for himself. It took him years to realize he could fire laser beams from his eyes. That he could force his lungs to expel nearly frozen carbon dioxide. And it wasn’t until his mid-thirties that he realized he’d probably stopped aging biologically somewhere around the age of twenty-two.
His parents weren’t perfect people. His mother drank, and when she did, she got mean. His father had affairs. But when they understood that the baby they’d found abandoned on the edge of their farm wasn’t like other children—was probably, in fact, unlike any other child who’d ever been born—they cleaned up their acts as best they could. They taught themselves to be better people, and then they conveyed those hard-won lessons to their son. They were as good as they could be. When they died while John was away at college, he decided if he could be half as wise, as kind, as generous as they were, then he could be proud of himself.
Driving back to the city after his parents’ funeral, he began his career. There was a commuter train derailment, a bad one, with a fully occupied car dangling off the Utopia Street Bridge, sixty feet above the Tomorrow River. John got out of his car and left it behind on the clogged highway. Fully visible in bright daylight, he leaped into the sky, and moments later, he had the train car resting safely on the bridge. He freed passengers from twisted metal. He flew those who needed immediate emergency care to the hospital, and then he returned to the scene of the accident. He thought it might be necessary to file a report of some kind with the police. With dozens of cameras pointed at him, microphones and tape recorders shoved in his face, questions being barked at him as if he’d done something wrong, he felt like he might suffocate. He wished he could turn and walk back to his car and drive to his dorm, maybe go out for beers with his friends. But he knew he’d never be able to do that now. He’d chosen otherwise.
He coughed nervously. The questions stopped. Everyone was quiet. Everyone was waiting. “I’m John,” he said. “I’m here to help.”
And for the next sixty years, that was just what he did.