From now till the end of January, you can download Tad Williams' latest collection of short fiction, A Stark and Wormy Knight, for only 4.99$ here.
Here's the blurb:
A fat new collection by best-selling fantasy and science fiction author Tad Williams, containing new material original to this book.
Tad Williams is an acknowledged master of the multi-volume epic. Through such popular series as Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn and Otherland, he has acquired a huge and devoted body of readers who eagerly await each new publication. A Stark and Wormy Knight offers those readers something both special and surprising: a virtuoso demonstration of Williams's mastery of a variety of shorter forms.
The range of tone, theme, style, and content reflected in this generous volume is nothing short of amazing. The title story is a tale within a tale of dragons and knights and is notable for its wit and verbal inventiveness. "The Storm Door" uses The Tibetan Book of the Dead to forge a singular new approach to the traditional zombie story. "The Terrible Conflagration at the Quiller's Mint" offers a brief, independent glimpse into the background of Williams's Shadowmarch series. "Ants" provides an ironic account of what can happen when a marriage goes irrevocably wrong.
Two of the longer entries show Williams working, with great facility, within the fictional creations of other writers. "The Thursday Men" is a hugely entertaining foray into the world of Mike Mignolla's Hellboy comics. The wonderfully titled "The Lamentably Comical Tragedy (or the Laughably Tragic Comedy) of Lixal Laqavee" is both a first-rate fantasy and a deeply felt homage to Jack Vance's immortal Dying Earth. Two other pieces offer rare and hard-to-find glimpses into other facets of Williams's talent. "Bad Guy Factory" is the script for a proposed series of DC Comics that never came to fruition. "Black Sunshine" is the immensely readable screenplay for a movie that remains, at least for the moment, unproduced. One can only hope.
These and other stories and novellas comprise a stellar collection that really does contain something for everyone. For longtime Williams readers, and for anyone with a taste for literate imaginative fiction, A Stark and Wormy Knight is a welcome, and indispensable, volume.
(Please note: Subterranean Books will be publishing hardback and paperback editions Summer 2012.)
And to give you a taste, here's an exclusive excerpt from the short story "And Ministers of Grace," courtesy of the author! =) It was originally published in Warriors, edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
The seed whispers, sings, offers, instructs.
A wise man of the homeworld once said, “Human beings can alter their lives by altering their attitudes of mind.” Everything is possible for a committed man or woman. The universe is in our reach.
Visit the Orgasmium – now open 24 hours. We take Senior Credits. The Orgasmium – where YOU come first!
Your body temperature is normal. Your stress levels are normal, tending toward higher than normal. If this trend continues, you are recommended to see a physician.
I’m almost alive! And I’m your perfect companion – I’m entirely portable. I want to love you. Come try me. Trade my personality with friends. Join the fun!
Comb properties now available. Consult your local environment node. Brand new multi-family and single-family dwellings, low down payment with government entry loans…!
Commodity prices are up slightly on the Sackler Index at this hour, despite a morning of sluggish trading. The Prime Minister will detail her plans to reinvigorate the economy in her speech to Parliament…
A wise woman of the homeworld once said, “Keep your face to the sunshine and you cannot see the shadow.”
* * *
His name is Lamentation Kane and he is a Guardian of Covenant – a holy assassin. His masters have placed a seed of blasphemy in his head. It itches like unredeemed sin and fills his skull with foul pagan noise.
The faces of his fellow travelers on the landing shuttle are bored and vacuous. How can these infidels live with this constant murmur in their heads? How can they survive and stay sane with the constant pinpoint flashing of attention signals at the edge of vision, the raw, sharp pulse of a world bristling and burbling with information?
It is like being stuck in a hive of insects, Kane thinks -- insects doing their best to imitate human existence without understanding it. He longs for the sweet, singular voice of Spirit, soothing as cool water on inflamed skin. Always before, no matter the terrors of his mission, that voice has been with him, soothing him, reminding him of his holy purpose. All his life, Spirit has been with him. All his life until now. Humble yourselves therefore under the strong hand of God, so that He may raise you up in due time.
Sweet and gentle like spring rain. Unlike this unending drizzle of filth, each word Spirit has ever spoken has been precious, bright like silver.
Cast all your burdens on Him, for He cares for you. Be in control of yourself and alert. Your enemy, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.
Those were the last words Spirit spoke to him before the military scientists silenced the Word of God and replaced it with the endless, godless prattle of the infidel world, Archimedes.
For the good of all mankind, they assured him: Lamentation Kane must sin again so that one day all men would be free to worship God. Besides, the elders pointed out, what was there for him to fear? If he succeeds and escapes Archimedes the pagan seed will be removed and Spirit will speak in his thoughts again. If he does not escape – well, Kane will hear the true voice of God at the foot of His mighty throne. Well done, my good and faithful servant…
Beginning descent. Please return to pods, the pagan voices chirp in his head, prickling like nettles. Thank you for traveling with us. Put all food and packaging in the receptacle and close it. This is your last chance to purchase duty-free drugs and alcohol. Cabin temperature is 20 degrees centigrade. Pull the harness snug. Beginning descent. Cabin pressure stable. Lander will detach in twenty seconds. Ten seconds. Nine seconds. Eight seconds…
It never ends, and each godless word burns, prickles, itches.
Who needs to know so much about nothing?
* * *
A child of one of the Christian cooperative farms on Covenant’s flat and empty plains, he was brought to New Jerusalem as a candidate for the elite Guardian unit. When he saw for the first time the white towers and golden domes of his planet’s greatest city, Kane had been certain that Heaven would look just that way. Now, as Hellas City rises up to meet him, capitol of great Archimedes and stronghold of his people’s enemies, it is bigger than even his grandest, most exaggerated memories of New Jerusalem – an immense sprawl with no visible ending, a lumpy white and gray and green patchwork of complex structures and orderly parks and lacy polyceramic web skyscrapers that bend gently in the cloudy upper skies like an oceanic kelp forest. The scale is astounding. For the first time ever in his life, Lamentation Kane has a moment of doubt – not in the rightness of his cause, but in the certainty of its victory.
But he reminds himself of what the Lord told Joshua: Behold I have given into thy hands Jericho, and the king thereof, and all the valiant men…
Have you had a Creemy Crunch today? It blares through his thoughts like a klaxon. You want it! You need it! Available at any food outlet. Creemy Crunch makes cream crunchy! Don’t be a bitch, Mom! Snag me a CC – or three!
The devil owns the Kingdom of Earth. A favorite saying of one of his favorite teachers. But even from his high throne he cannot see the City of Heaven.
Now with a subdermal glow-tattoo in every package! Just squeeze it in under the skin -- and start shining!
Lord Jesus, protect me in this dark place and give me strength to do your work once more, Kane prays. I serve You. I serve Covenant.
* * *
It never stops, and only gets more strident after the lander touches down and they are ushered through the locks into the port complex.
Remember the wise words, air quality is in the low thirties on the Teng Fuo scale today. First time visitors to Archimedes go here, returning go there, where to stand, what to say, what to have ready. Restaurants, news feeds, information for transportation services, overnight accommodations, immigration law, emergency services, yammer yammer yammer until Kane wants to scream. He stares at the smug citizens of Archimedes around him and loathes every one of them. How can they walk and smile and talk to each other with this Babel in their heads, without God in their hearts?
Left. Follow the green tiles. Left. Follow the green tiles. They aren’t even people, they can’t be -- just crude imitations. And the variety of voices with which the seed bedevils him! High-pitched, low-pitched, fast and persuasive, moderately slow and persuasive, adult voices, children’s voices, accents of a dozen sorts, most of which he can’t even identify and can barely understand. His blessed Spirit is one voice and one voice only and he longs for her desperately. He always thinks of Spirit as “her”, although it could just as easily be the calm, sweet voice of a male child. It doesn’t matter. Nothing as crass as earthly sexual distinctions matter, any more than with God’s holy angels. Spirit has been his constant companion since childhood, his advisor, his inseparable friend. But now he has a pagan seed in his brain and he may never hear her blessed voice again.
I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee. That’s what Spirit told him the night he was baptized, the night she first spoke to him. Six years old. I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee.
He cannot think of that. He will not think of anything that might undermine his courage for the mission, of course, but there is a greater danger: some types of thoughts, if strong enough, can trigger the port’s security E-Grams, which can perceive certain telltale patterns, especially if they are repeated.
A wise man of the homeworld once said, “Man is the measure of all things…” The foreign seed doesn’t want him thinking of anything else, anyway.
Have you considered living in Holyoake Harbor? another voice asks, cutting through the first. Only a twenty-minute commute to the business district, but a different world of ease and comfort.
…And of things which are not, that they are not, the first voice finishes, swimming back to the top. Another wise fellow made the case more directly: “The world holds two classes of men -- intelligent men without religion, and religious men without intelligence."
Kane almost shivers despite the climate controls. Blur your thoughts, he reminds himself. He does his best to let the chatter of voices and the swirl of passing faces numb and stupefy him, making himself a beast instead of a man, the better to hide from God’s enemies.
* * *
He passes the various mechanical sentries and the first two human guard posts as easily as he hoped he would -- his military brethren have prepared his disguise well. He is in line at the final human checkpoint when he catches a glimpse of her, or at least he thinks it must be her -- a small, brown-skinned woman sagging between two heavily armored port security guards who clutch her elbows in a parody of assistance. For a moment their eyes meet and her dark stare is frank before she hangs her head again in a convincing imitation of shame. The words from the briefing wash up in his head through the fog of Archimedean voices – Martyrdom Sister – but he does his best to blur them again just as quickly. He can’t imagine any word that will set off the E-Grams as quickly as “Martyrdom”.
The final guard post is more difficult, as it is meant to be. The sentry, almost faceless behind an array of enhanced light scanners and lenses, does not like to see Arjuna on Kane’s itinerary, his last port of call before Archimedes. Arjuna is not a treaty world for either Archhimedes or Covenant, although both hope to make it so, and is not officially policed by either side.
The official runs one of his scanners over Kane’s itinerary again. “Can you tell me why you stopped at Arjuna, Citizen McNally?”
Kane repeats the story of staying there with his cousin who works in the mining industry. Arjuna is rich with platinum and other minerals, another reason both sides want it. At the moment, though, neither the Rationalists of Archimedes or the Abramites of Covenant can get any traction there: the majority of Arjuna’s settlers, colonists originally from the homeworld’s Indian sub-continent, are comfortable with both sides – a fact that makes both Archimedes and Covenant quite uncomfortable indeed.
The guard-post official doesn’t seem entirely happy with Lamentation Kane’s explanation and is beginning to investigate the false personality a little more closely. Kane wonders how much longer until the window of distraction is opened. He turns casually, looking up and down the transparent u-glass cells along the far wall until he locates the one in which the brown-skinned woman is being questioned. Is she a Muslim? A Copt? Or perhaps something entirely different – there are Australian Aboriginal Jews on Covenant, remnants of the Lost Tribes movement back on the homeworld. But whoever or whatever she is doesn’t matter, he reminds himself: she is a sister in god and she has volunteered to sacrifice herself for the sake of the mission – his mission.
She turns for a moment and their eyes meet again through the warping glass. She has acne scars on her cheeks but she’s pretty, surprisingly young to be given such a task. He wonders what her name is. When he returns – if he returns – he will go to the Great Tabernacle in New Jerusalem and light a candle for her.
Brown eyes. She seems sad as she looks at him before turning back to the guards. Could that be true? The Martyrs are the most privileged of all during their time in the training center. And she must know she will be looking on the face of God Himself very soon. How can she not be joyful? Does she fear the pain of giving up her earthly body?
As the sentry in front of him seems to stare out at nothing, reading the information that marches across his vision, Lamentation Kane opens his mouth to say something – to make small-talk the way a real returning citizen of Archimedes would after a long time abroad, a citizen guilty of nothing worse than maybe having watched a few religious broadcasts on Arjuna – when he sees movement out of the corner of his eye. Inside the u-glass holding cell the young, brown-skinned woman lifts her arms. One of the armored guards lurches back from the table, half-falling, the other reaches out his gloved hand as though to restrain her, but his face has the hopeless, slack expression of a man who sees his own death. A moment later bluish flames run up her arms, blackening the sleeves of her loose dress, and then she vanishes in a flare of magnesium white light.
People are shrieking and diving away from the glass wall, which is now spiderwebbed with cracks. The light burns and flickers and the insides of the walls blacken with a crust of what Kane guesses must be human fat turning to ash.
A human explosion – nanobiotic thermal flare -- that partially failed. That will be their conclusion. But of course, the architects of Kane’s mission didn’t want an actual explosion. They want a distraction.
The sentry in the guardpost polarizes the windows and locks up his booth. Before hurrying off to help the emergency personnel fight the blaze that is already leaking clouds of black smoke into the concourse, he thrusts Kane’s itinerary into his hand and waves him through, then locks off the transit point.
Lamentation Kane would be happy to move on, even if he were the innocent traveler he pretends to be. The smoke is terrible, with the disturbing, sweet smell of cooked meat.
What had her last expression been like? It is hard to remember anything except those endlessly deep, dark eyes. Had that been a little smile or is he trying to convince himself? And if it had been fear, why should that be surprising? Even the saints must have feared to burn to death.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil…
Welcome back to Hellas, Citizen McNally! a voice in his head proclaims, and then the other voices swim up beneath it, a crowd, a buzz, an itch.
* * *
He does his best not to stare as the cab hurtles across the metroscape, but he cannot help being impressed by the sheer size of Archimedes’ first city. It is one thing to be told how many millions live there and to try to understand that it is several times the size of New Jerusalem, but another entirely to see the hordes of people crowding the sidewalks and skyways. Covenant’s population is mostly dispersed on pastoral settlements like the one on which Kane was raised, agrarian cooperatives that, as his teachers explained to him, keep God’s children close to the earth that nurtures them. Sometimes it is hard to realize that the deep, reddish soil he had spent his childhood digging and turning and nurturing was not the same soil as the Bible described. Once he even asked a teacher why if God made Earth, the People of the Book had left it behind.
“God made all the worlds to be earth for His children,” the woman explained. “Just as he made all the lands of the old Earth, then gave them to different folk to have for their homes. But he always kept the sweetest lands, the lands of milk and honey, for the children of Abraham, and that’s why when we left Earth he gave us Covenant.”
As he thinks about it now Kane feels a surge of warmth and loneliness commingled. It’s true that the hardest thing to do for love is to give up the beloved. At this moment, he misses Covenant so badly it is all he can do not to cry out. It is astounding in one as experienced as himself. God’s warriors don’t sigh, he tells himself sternly. They make others sigh instead. They bring lamentation to God’s enemies. Lamentation.
He exits the cab some distance from the safe house and walks the rest of the way, floating in smells both familiar and exotic. He rounds the neighborhood twice to make sure he is not followed, then enters the flatblock, takes the slow but quiet elevator up to the eighteenth floor, and lets himself in with the key code. It looks like any other Covenant safe house on any of the other colony worlds, cupboards well stocked with nourishment and medical supplies, little in the way of furniture but a bed and a single chair and a small table. These are not places of rest and relaxation, these are way stations on the road to Jericho.
It is time for him to change.
Kane fills the bathtub with water. He finds the chemical ice, activates a dozen packs and tosses them in. Then he goes to the kitchen and locates the necessary mineral and chemical supplements. He pours enough water into the mixture to make himself a thick, bitter milkshake and drinks it down while he waits for the water in the tub to cool. When the temperature has dropped far enough he strips naked and climbs in.
“You see, Kane,” one of the military scientists had explained, “we’ve reached a point where we can’t smuggle even a small hand-weapon onto Archimedes, let alone something useful, and they regulate their own citizens’ possession of weapons so thoroughly that we cannot chance trying to obtain one there. So we have gone another direction. We have created Guardians -- human weapons. That is what you are, praise the lord. It started in your childhood. That’s why you’ve always been different from your peers – faster, stronger, smarter. But we’ve come to the limit of what we can do with genetics and training. We need to give you what you need to make yourself into the true instrument of God’s justice. May He bless this and all our endeavors in His name. Amen.”
“Amen,” the Spirit in his head told him. “You are now going to fall asleep.”
“Amen,” said Lamentation Kane.
And then they gave him the first injection.
When he woke up that first time he was sore, but nowhere near as sore as he was the first time he activated the nanobiotes or “notes” as the scientists liked to call them. When the notes went to work, it was like a terrible sunburn on the outside and the inside both, and like being pounded with a roundball bat for at least an hour, and like lying in the road while a good-sized squadron of full-dress Holy Warriors marched over him.
In other words, it hurt.
Now, in the safehouse, he closes his eyes, turns down the babble of the Archimedes seed as far as it will let him, and begins to work.
It is easier now than it used to be, certainly easier than that terrible first time when he was so clumsy that he almost tore his own muscles loose from tendon and bone.
He doesn’t just flex, he thinks about where the muscles are that would flex if he wanted to flex them, then how he would just begin to move them if he were going to move them extremely slowly, and with that first thought comes the little tug of the cells unraveling their connections and re-knitting in different, more useful configurations, slow as a plant reaching toward the sun. Even with all this delicacy, his temperature rises and his muscles spasm and cramp, but not like the first time. That was like being born – no, like being judged and found wanting, as though the very meat of his earthly body was trying to tear itself free, as though devils pierced his joints with hot iron pitchforks. Agony.
Had the sister felt something like this at the end? Was there any way to open the door to God’s house without terrible, holy pain? She had brown eyes. He thinks they were sad. Had she been frightened? Why would Jesus let her be frightened, when even He had cried out on the cross?
Lamentation Kane tells the pain, This is Your way of reminding me to pay attention. I am Your servant, and I am proud to put on Your holy, I praise You Lord, armor.
* * *
It takes him at least two hours to finish changing at the best of times. Tonight, with the fatigue of his journey and long entry process and the curiously troubling effect of the woman’s martyrdom tugging at his thoughts, it takes him over three.
Kane gets out of the tub shivering, most of the heat dispersed and his skin almost blue-white with cold. Before wrapping the towel around himself he looks at the results of all his work. It’s hard to see any differences except for a certain broadness to his chest that was not there before, but he runs his fingers along the hard shell of his stomach and the sheath of gristle that now protects his windpipe and is satisfied. The thickening beneath the skin will not stop high-speed projectiles from close up, but they should help shed the energy of any more distant shot and will allow him to take a bullet or two from nearer and still manage to do his job. Trellises of springy cartilage strengthen his ankles and wrists. His muscles are augmented, his lungs and circulation improved mightily. He is a Guardian, and with every movement he can feel the holy modifications that have been given to him. Beneath the appearance of normality he is strong as Goliath, scaly and supple as a serpent.
He is starving, of course. The cupboards are full of powdered nutritional supplement drinks. He adds water and ice from the kitchen unit, mixes the first one up and downs it in a long swallow. He drinks five before he begins to feel full.
Kane props himself up on the bed – things are still sliding and grinding a little inside him, the last work of change just finishing – and turns the wall on. The images jump into life and the seed in his head speaks for them. He wills his way past sports and fashion and drama, all the unimportant gibberish with which these creatures fill their empty hours, until he finds a stream of current events. Because it is Archimedes, hive of Rationalist pagans, even the news is corrupted with filth, gossip and whoremongering, but he manages to squint his way through the offending material to find a report on what the New Hellas authorities are calling a failed terrorist explosion at the port. A picture of the Martyrdom Sister flashes onto the screen -- taken from her travel documents, obviously, anything personal in her face well hidden by her training -- but seeing her again gives him a strange jolt, as though the notes that tune his body have suddenly begun one last, forgotten operation.
Nefise Erim, they call her. Not her real name, that’s almost certain, any more than Keenan McNally is his. Outcast, that’s her true name. Scorned – that could be her name too, as it could be his. Scorned by the unbelievers, scorned by the smug, faithless creatures who, like Christ’s ancient tormentors, fear the word of God so much they try to ban Him from their lives, from their entire planet! But God can’t be banned, not as long as one human heart remains alive to His voice. As long as the Covenant system survives, Kane knows, God will wield his mighty sword and the unbelievers will learn real fear.
Oh, please, Lord, grant that I may serve you well. Give us victory over our enemies. Help us to punish those who would deny You.
And just as he lifts this silent prayer, he sees her face on the screen. Not his sister in martyrdom, with her wide, deep eyes and dark skin. No, it is her – the devil’s mistress, Keeta Januari, Prime Minister of Archimedes.
Januari is herself rather dark skinned, he cannot help noticing. It is disconcerting. He has seen her before, of course, her image replayed before him dozens upon dozens of times, but this is the first time he has noticed a shade to her skin that is darker than any mere suntan, a hint of something else in her background beside the pale, Scandinavian forebears so obvious in her bone structure. It is as if the martyred sister Nefise has somehow suffused everything, even his target. Or is it that the dead woman has somehow crept into his thoughts so deeply that he is witnessing her everywhere?
If you can see it, you can eat it! He has mostly learned to ignore the horrifying chatter in his head, but sometimes it still reaches up and slaps his thoughts away. Barnstorm Buffet! We don’t care if they have to roll you out the door afterward – you’ll get your money’s worth!
It doesn’t matter what he sees in the Prime Minister, or thinks he sees. A shade lighter or darker means nothing. If the devil’s work out here among the stars has a face, it is the handsome, narrow-chinned visage of Keeta Januari, leader of the Rationalists. And if God ever wanted someone dead, she is that person.