About The Fifth Circle

All architect JEFF MILLER wants to do is go home. After three months at a job site in London, he is making his way to his wife JENNY and their family in Hawai‘i. He has no idea that in the next ten days he’ll star in a major motion picture, shapeshift into a dragon, and discover that his real home is on an alien planet with no beer.

On the flight VIVIAN FLEISCHER—the consummately manipulative producer of the fantasy blockbuster The War of the Risen—flatters Jeff into a screen test that goes too well: he gets the part of Titus Dragonmaster, the heroic leader of the Fifth Circle who must be rescued from self-exile to save his city-state from annihilation. Only slowly does it dawn on Jeff that everyone believes him to be the real Titus Dragonmaster.

Yet the more he tries to call it quits, the more coercive Vivian and her black ops crew become, and what started as a lark turns into a constricting web of strange for Jeff. Especially with the unanticipated appearance of Titus’s arch rival HET, the deranged Third Circle dragonmaster who consistently warns Jeff that only death awaits him if he returns with the team to their home world.

As production commences, age-old enemies of Titus’s home world, the Axxaans, have at last discovered his whereabouts and make a bee line for Earth. The extraction team goes into overdrive and it’s a race against time as scripts change, reality shifts, and murder lurks before the Axxaans attack, forcing Jeff—in a wrenching acceptance of duty long shunned—to adopt Titus’s draconian form to protect the cast and crew, painfully aware it means leaving behind everything and everyone he’s ever known on Earth.

He is then returned to Here, his beautiful and supremely advanced home world. As dragonmaster of the Fifth Circle, Jeff has almost no memory of his life as Titus. Having lost his family, his home, and the world he once knew, he must now fake it ’til he makes it and avoid Het at all costs with help from a cryptic shaman, Vivian, and MYKANNA, Titus’s mate who has been condemned to a spectral half-life—an incident that ultimately prompted Titus’s unwitting self-exile to Earth.

But even the best jugglers can drop balls spectacularly, and Titus must return to Earth to clean up loose ends from the extraction. As he despairs his lack of memory, a duplicitous ally emerges in the thoughts of the old Titus he used to be, shrewdly bartering his memories for the price of a few sketchy do-overs. Emboldened but wary, Titus sets off to Earth to retrieve his unusual family and eliminate any remaining Axxaans, while his deceitful old self seeks the Axxaans’ cure to make Mykanna whole again—and undo her profane apotheosis at any cost.

Complicating matters is that Het insists on returning with Titus for her own corrupt purposes. Will she help him or kill him—or worse? All the while, an exposed Fifth Circle weighs constantly on Titus’s mind.

Back on Earth, he finds Jenny—in reality, SHANDANN, Fifth Circle’s house guard captain who deceived him as part of the initial extraction—and his kids, who emerge as anything but typical late-teen Millennials. Meanwhile, the Axxaan termination goes sideways and Titus finds that the history of the Axxaan wars has been maliciously re-written by the victors. Now it’s payback for Titus’s aggrieved foes, starting with an invasion of Earth.

After Titus and his family’s harrowing escape, they join the fleet sent to confront the enemy and he is torn: do whatever he can to protect his former home, or imperil Earth by negotiating for peace with the wronged Axxaans—and learn their secret to his mate’s revival. Yet when they return to the flagship, something is horribly awry. As Titus, along with Shandann and his strangely gifted children, engage in a desperate fight until the fleet can come on line, he learns that there are no do-overs in life and duty means doing what you must, even if it sucks.


Excerpt From The Fifth Circle

Filming was held over to morning, o’dark early. The blonde playing Korvaann had no first-day lines, and after watching her sit alone and down six stiff scotches in the green room that night, it was easy to lift her phone and disappear into the British equivalent of a broom closet. Dial. Busy. Redial. Busy. I had no option but to tuck the phone back in the pocket of her Chicago Bears hoodie. What the hell did Jenny mean about Pinewood? And how did she know about it? It was a movie studio, but . . . but . . . Gods and dragons. What did that mean?

Just like the previous night, I slept exceedingly poorly on a couch. When morning cattle call came I tried to be good and had poached eggs, back bacon, cold toast with strawberry preserves, eating maybe half with three cups of what could charitably be described as coffee made from brown crayons and I thought, That’ll keep you going for the show. Come on, it’s time to go.

Upon entering hair and makeup, things took a horrific left turn, the first of many over the next hour. The motion, the cadence of the crew was all wrong. Tension seethed throughout the department, even though it was almost empty with red-eyed staff that looked dead on their feet, gestures and tempers short. The gum-snapping cheerleader was neither namesake this morning; she pulled me onto a stool and dragged a comb through my hair before unceremoniously sending me along to my makeup station. Where there was no makeup artist.

Vivian burst into the bullpen, looked about frantically until she recognized me, and grabbed my arm. “Wardrobe. Come on.”

We bumped down a narrow, poorly lit hall and into the rag room. Someone handed me a wraparound military helmet while two more non-wardrobe staff started strapping me into body armor.

“What the fuck is this?” I cried, as my legs and arms were roughly pulled every which way. “Where’s the old-school stuff? Not that it made any sense with everything else, but really.”

A thin woman with an enormous cowl of gray hair that hung to her waist was watching me, arms crossed. “That’s a DARPA TALOS exoskeleton combat armor prototype, D-D-Dragonmaster.” The hair obscured so much of her face I couldn’t see her lips move. “The helmet is a Batlskin Viper 2 Modular Head Protection System with maxillofacial armor and integral ballistic goggles. Hope you won’t need it.”

I stared at Vivian. “Need it for what?”

“More script changes.” Someone closed the last aluminum buckle and it pinched my right bicep. “Our changes. C’mon. We’ve got to shoot now or be shot.”

Another dingy hall, another left turn; we flashed our lanyards and were admitted to the sound stage. I was thunderstruck. Overnight, they had reimagined a medieval battle for twenty-first-century warfare. Armor, pikes, and swords were replaced by camo, rifles, and RPG launchers, all watched over by a green screen of loving grace, ever ready for the postproduction CGI to render it wholly unreal, the backdrop to cinematic wizardry that was indistinguishable from reality. But which reality?

A production assistant helped me up onto a meager platform sunk inches into the crown of Storm Mountain, Titus’s last stand at far stage right and the only unchanged prop from maybe eight hours before. Toward stage rear, a coven of children huddled in peacock vestments, and rolling out before me, across the fronting of the green screen for all of its 114-meter length, about two hundred extras of the Seventh Infantry Regiment. God, it was beautiful. God, was I scared to shit. Another staffer crammed the helmet onto my head so awkwardly it hurt, so I wrenched it away and put it on myself. Vivian was on the built-in headset.

“Don’t argue. Just listen. Play this straight. We have to get you out of here now.”

“Well that’s the first coherent thing you’ve said in ten days!”

“Plans change, Titus. Probabilities shift. The movie was never important, it was just a way to get you to buy in, to believe. You could have been out of here days ago, if you only listened to us.”

“What’s wrong with now?” I drawled caustically and turned a slow circle. “Why go through the charade?”

“Korvaann says we have to. If you believe but one person in the world, it has to be her. She’s seen this play out.”

“You’re killing me, Vivian! Nobody can see the future! The only person I believe in is Jenny.”

“And she is one of us.”

A memory lanced through me: a small, redwood-paneled office. Sunny. Shandann. Captain of my house guard. The synchronicity flattened me. Earth and . . . there. Same role, same person, different names. Shit.

“Titus, even if you don’t believe that, we’re only fourteen and mixed in deep with the real crew. None of us can walk away without some serious questions and that takes time. Time we don’t have now. Play the part and we’ll get there faster.”

“OK. I’ll do it for faster. But don’t mess with me. Just get me the hell out. I don’t know how much more shit I can take.”

“Believe me, I’m tired of this whole thing myself. Master.”

When you only have five lines in the scene, rehearsals go fast—particularly when Costanza announced they’d dub in my voice because of the helmet. Which, during the long, strange trip through reality-bending scripts, continued to blow my mind: how could they be so blind to the wholesale changes in story, so nonchalant as if nothing were awry? Myth to reality? And even then, all bets were off. If I wasn’t living it I’d never have believed it, but it was accept the now or go stark raving mad. And if accepting the now, no matter how irrational it seemed, meant going home, so be it. Yet there was a deeper, chill current beneath it all: was I going home to a happy ending in Hale’iwa, or was I going home to protect these people, the Fifth Circle, something I had built but couldn’t remember? Time to put on the Zen cap, although it sat clumsily on my Halo-esque helmet. Take a deep breath. My mantra was Hoome . . . Sooon . . . Hoome . . . Sooon and in a bizarre way helped me focus on the task at hand.

Most of the thirty minutes leading up to live film was spent precisely focusing lenses, block checking, ensuring millions of watts of lighting hit its target for proper exposures, presented desirable shadows. A couple rushed takes and it was time to load stock. By then, I was a mess, mantra notwithstanding.

I decided that because of the hairy pitch to get to my mark, I’d just stand there for the duration, until Sunny came to the edge of the set and gestured wildly for me to come down. I ignored her. She then started peppering me with peanut M&Ms from craft services, which was highly annoying, but it only hardened my resolve to stay put. I wished it to be all over. I didn’t want to hear of new realities, bitter almonds, or political coups anymore, just do this fucking job and go home. I turned my armored back to her. Which, of course, was a mistake, because faster than a bighorn sheep, she scrambled up the hill and yanked so hard on my wrist I lost my balance and the only way to regain it was stutter-step down the side of the prop. As soon as we hit the stage, there was a hissing twang, like a god’s banjo string snapping, and behind me I felt as much as I heard a blunt thud; when I saw Sunny cover her mouth with her hand, I looked over my shoulder to see that a five-foot box truss with a pair of wash Vari-Lites had impaled itself in the apex of Storm Mountain.

I turned back to her. “Now I’m officially scared blind, shitless, and witless. What are you trying to do to me?”

Sunny arched her eyes in alarm. “Follow me now,” she demanded in a hiss, took a couple steps, gazed back at me. I was still in shock, unable to move, so she reached for my hand and I pulled it away quickly, then removed my helmet and followed.

As we mazed our way off the set, art and lighting techs clambered up to survey the damage. Shortly, the gaffer and the construction manager raised two thumbs up and Costanza grabbed a bullhorn. “Speed it up, people. We’ve got to go to film now and figure this out later.”

In the event, it was only fifteen minutes, but it seemed like I had hours to contemplate my circumstance, which, any way you looked at it, was pretty damn bleak. Vivian waited for us at the edge of the set and she and Sunny pulled me into a shadowy hollow in one of the folds of the stage.

Damn!” Sunny stamped her foot. “I thought we’d left that shit all behind in LA. Didn’t think it was going to follow us off the lot. There’s too many of us to let this keep happening.”

“Apparently too many is not enough.” I shook my head. Dealing with them, with what now, I could admit, were three attempts on my life, and with whatever imminent denouement awaited me was almost too much to process at once.

Sunny read the unspoken question in my eyes. “Pretty fucked up, I know. Maybe they’re will be time to explain later, but the short answer is Axxaans. They’re finally in atmosphere and they know where we are. They know where Shandann is, too. Your kids. I’m so sorry. That wasn’t supposed to happen.”

“OK. What the hell do we do? And when I mean we, I mean all of we.”