What do you get when you throw Chuck Wendig, Anne McCaffrey, and John Scalzi into the blender and turn it up to frappé? You get The Fifth Circle, a 117,000 word adult science fantasy yarn full of dragons, spaceships, and political intrigue as told by a befuddled, unreliable Earthan narrator.
Ambien can make you do weird shit. For architect Jeff Miller, the dose he takes on an airliner home turns out to be a doozy.
As with many hallucinations, everything starts almost imperceptibly. He’s flattered into a screen test for a fantasy blockbuster, but strangeness kicks up a gear when he gets the lead role of Titus Dragonmaster. Paranoia ensues when he learns the producers are an alien black ops extraction team that’s hell-bent to get Jeff—who they incontrovertibly believe is the self-exiled Titus Dragonmaster—home to save their city-state, The Fifth Circle. At that point, shape-shifting into a dragon to protect the cast and crew from ancient enemies seems perfectly normal. Right?
When he wakes up on his home world, Jeff has a massive hangover because he has no recollection of being Titus. In the meantime, he has to fend off insidious politics and deadly rivals the only way he knows how: with expressive profanity, pop-culture references, and caustic Pink Floyd quotes, all while renewing an uncomfortable relationship with his spectral mate.
But those pesky ancient enemies find they rather like the idea of invading Earth, so, because the whole shebang is Jeff’s fault, he is sent back to stop them—and retrieve his unusual Earthan family. In an Ingmar Bergman fever dream, Jeff’s loyalties are tested: fight to protect the home world’s fleet, or save Earth from total annihilation. At last he’s reminded that duty means doing what you must do, even though it sucks. Especially if it sucks.
Sneak Preview of The Fifth Circle, Vol. II
The adventure continues as Titus fights his duplicitous past, a death sentence placed on him by political rivals, a race of beings from another Multiverse intent on draining ours of its energy--and the price he must pay to keep the Domains from annihilation. All the while, his extraordinary family takes their place at his side while the cosmos' plan for him is revealed--a plan that may cost him more than he can give.
I never imagined I’d have to fight the past to stay sane, but I’d run the numbers—me, my family, my mate, my fucking motley crew, my Circle, my home world, Earth, the Domains, plus a little solve for x—and the inescapable result stiffened my spine. By the time we finished the last vector and an entire wing of Razorfish escorted us to the flag’s landing bay, I was as ready as I’d ever be—which wasn’t saying much. At all.
Tanodal was a beefy Somathan, green-grey skin, a limp thatch of baby-shit brown hair, and a flat, mashed-in face with canines that peeked south of his colorless upper lip. Like most of Kell’s crew, he was an exo auxiliary from the Great Stripe where the main SC chicanery tended to occur, and human DNA-inspired was a generous characterization. Little went on upstairs that could be considered critical thinking but as weaponsmaster, Tanodal was mighty handy to have in a fight, particularly with the bag of tricks he carried around; you could always count on something in there that was going to surprise. Het would admire him—not like him, gods below—but she would appreciate his unique artistry.
He smiled, showed those canines. “You’ve changed a bit, Titus.”
“We all change, Tanodal, but I see time hasn’t been kind to you. In fact it’s been downright mean.”
“Aw, that’s the Titus we all know and love. So nice you’re back. Missed you so much. Missed you. And I mean—” Tanodal swung toward me and cocked his fist, but a gloved hand snapped out and pinned his arm behind his back. The Somathan grunted in pain and loathing.
“If I can’t hurt him,” Maz said evenly, “no one can.” She wrenched Tanodal’s wrist before releasing him.
Then there was Ju, a tall, snow-white Adani, almost mute because he was always plugged into data and comms feeds through at least a dozen dendritic implants. Usually SC would rip out such expensive and rarefied tech upon death, but he wasn’t dead, was he? Koun, the round but pretty human from Cowri expanse and Kell’s political advisor, a facile operative who walked the corridors of intrigue with ease, earning trusts that should not be so readily awarded. And those were only the ones on the main deck of Beats Working. The rest of the pack would be waiting in Kell’s lair, I was certain, but at least they were more or less harmless. Cha right. Harmless compared to Tanodal and Maz. I’d have to watch my back, my front, and both sides if I expected to get out of this cluster in one piece.
Under ominous coercion—and Rannyar’s status as hostage—I parked Beats Working in low orbit and a shabby IRA docked, admitted us for the short journey to the surface. When anyone would mention, or when random access synapses would call forth the name Old Crobuzon, I’d get the willies and if that saucepan of strange appeared in my dreams, night sweats. The city’s origin was lost in antiquity (actually, 35,000 years ago, but who’s counting?) and it had blossomed from a semi-arid oasis to a swamp-infested metropolis that refused to release its grip on the past. It was cursed, or had cursed itself.
As a once-architect, I couldn’t grasp anything that smacked of aesthetics. Everything from squalid huts to post-modern Soviet-style blocks were omnipresent, streets intersecting and disappearing at odd angles, shops that had no stock. Everything was short and squat like a sumo wrestler and when you traversed the city, you felt every three seconds as if the weight of old, out of control magic was about to squash you. There were many, many object examples lest you forgot.
So here I was, trundling down a side avenue in the Domains’ weirdest city surrounded by an honor guard of hardened thugs on my way to the head thugee’s hideout. I think the massive infusion of adrenalin unlocked chambers of memory that I really preferred not to remember.
When the battered maglev convulsed to a stop outside of one of the ancient composite blockhouses, I was “invited” to follow Maz, et. al., inside, down a staircase into a poorly-lit basement right out of The Scorch Trials, and see Kell for the first time in nine thousand years.
“Thanks for coming,” he had the manners to stand, “and welcome home. We’ve missed you, Titus.”
Kell was an unremarkable human. Well, in the physical sense. He’d been a Fourth Circle City native, average height and looks, dark skinned and shaved head, that found life on Here rather boring, and set out to find mischief wherever he could. Naturally, Special Circumstances drew him like a moth to flame. Damn. I wished for a bug zapper.
Having said that about my erstwhile lieutenant, he was downright sneaky-nasty and put a sheen on our ops that was pure poison. He swallowed the SC creed hook, line, and sinker, and sunk to the top of their list of hatchet men (or women, to be fair) that performed the dirty work when it was necessary—which was almost always. I never liked or respected him, but he always had a fascination with my ops and seemed to magically attach himself like some tick to me and nothing succeeds like success. I had to endure him. Now as then.
“This is wonderful, Kell. Kidnap my son, threaten me with Maz the Butcher, commandeer my vessel . . . I’m lovin’ it.”
“We’ll have plenty of time to catch up and solve, if you are of a certain mind. But you know your arrival has been breathlessly anticipated.”
I recognized them all. Davossann, another eastern continental, sketched a salute. Bosston, one of the few Spannicol natives with an IQ above 90 smiled and we fist bumped. Harmless, if kept occupied. Kharlash, a strikingly beautiful orange-skinned Ra’nao who—besides being unbalanced and hated the fact that Mykanna and I were bonded so young—was an expert in untraceable terminations and never could come clean whether I was on her hit list or not. Then Spal, the whiniest of a race of whiners, the Jax, skinny little shits with four eyes—no glasses—who had cornered the market on the unintended uses of reflector tech. SurDhoop, a three-armed midget, worked a number of surfaces and ignored me, which was the way I preferred it as well. Asshole. A few others that need no introduction; Cosad was missing.
Kharlash hugged me warmly, but I hip-checked her embrace just as her knee flexed; without such an overabundance of caution, it would have come up in my nuts. “Ah ah ah, girl,” I said, and she pushed me away, fuming. “Gods, Kell. Can’t you control your people?”
“Let ‘em have their fun. Nine thousand years is a long time not having seen their favorite dragon.”
“Fun. So is singing an aria well above your range.” I adjusted my crotch. “You never paid much attention to discipline, so why start now?”
“Excuse the poor girl. I sent her to Here a while back, but you were nowhere to be found. The setback rekindled her . . . disorganization over you at Cert Minor which I thought was a phase and well-handled, but that again proves time doesn’t heal all wounds, does it? It’s her little way of letting you know she cares.”
“Hate to see what she’d do if she didn’t like me.”
“Just showing you how much. Got some Tarth-Spond blood liqueur. Real stuff that’ll move you crooked, not the watered down piss you find on the open market. Join me?”
“When I see my son.”
“Talk first. Maz has the same prohibition on him as you against . . . pain. Not to say she’s been constrained from other appetites.”
I stopped. “If she—”
“She won’t, Titus. Maybe. Just love your reactions, that’s all.”
“Some people call me dragonmaster.”
Kell stared at me and flashed a cynical smile. “I can call you many things, but dragonmaster probably isn’t one of them.” He indicated a side room lit by a dim yellow cylinder. It was as cluttered as Rondor’s office and had the same claustrophobic feel when the slider came down behind me.
Man, I was out of practice. I hadn’t touched my drink in half an hour and was still at the edge of looped.
“So it was Korvaann after all, that witch. Never occurred to me. Not in nine thousand years.”
“Yeah. She was pedaling as fast as she could to keep me out in front of Het.”
“That doesn’t fully redeem you, but under Het and Tannann you’d be useless to us. They give ‘in service to’ an entirely different interpretation. Be that as it may,” Kell sipped and his eyes defocused for a moment, “got a job for you.”
“Your weasel Cosad told me.”
Kell ran out a few affected tsks. “He may be a moldywarpe, but weasel is inconsiderate. At least he didn’t bolt the Corps at first opportunity. I value loyalty. Be glad I also value aptitude, so that evens out your faithlessness for the most part. Titus, they wouldn’t have dared dissolve SC if a dragonmaster was on planning circle.”
Ah. The truth comes out. Knowing Kell, he was trying to rope me into an argument that would end with fists. “I never thought about what I was doing, and even though you and I both know I wasn’t good enough for planning circle, it was well-timed that Korvaann got me out of the Corps before I could really fuck something up.”
“No need to be so modest. Remember Proxima Darfath? 82-PSD orbital? The Kaa Tract? Even when Korvaann made Diplomatic Corps spit you out, you were still working for Special Circumstances, just not as directly as planning circle would have liked. If you weren’t good, you were damn lucky and I’ll take lucky any day, particularly with what we have to do.”
“Back on point, then. An assassination you don’t want stopped.”
“Taker’s sour tits, I’ve forgotten how diplomatic you can be.” I shrugged and the he went on. “Well, Cosad is right, but he oversimplified things. This is a pretty big op and I’m going to need you for a while.”
“Define ‘a while’.”
“There’s a fair amount to be done so eight, ten months. Maybe longer.”
“T-ten months? What are you trying to do to me?”
“Wrong track. What can you do for me? During all this time, I’ve been waiting for an op like this where I could get you re-engaged. Convergence!” He laughed in the back of his throat, a choking, hissing wheeze. Gods and dragons, it was annoying. “Two assassinations. One must occur and the other must not be allowed to happen. Before that, first contact with the gen ship from Earth. They’re your people, after all, and I couldn’t think of anyone more qualified to slide right in and show them the error of their ways.”
“Bullshit, Kell. Who is feeding you this crap? An Earthan gen ship is right out of some sci-fi movie.”
“They have no tech to do it! Any of it!” I wanted a stiff slug of booze but had hopped on the wagon . . . for the moment. This was going to get dicey. “I told Cosad they could barely get IRAs into low orbit. Did he happen to mention that fact to you?”
Kell dismissed the question with a shake of his head and opened a screen. He spun up an optic.