The Rage is now available for purchase. Warning: this story is funny, dark, romantic, and PG13/R Rated.

Valentine’s Day Hangover Sale ($0.99)

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Favorite Passages in Literature…

A Wizard of Earthsea, Ursula K. Le Guin

This book is one of the classics. Set in an island realm of farmers, lords and wizards, it is the story of a young man who comes from humble beginnings to find a new name, new power and eventually an unexpected trial that would test him to the limits of understanding: attempting to conquer his own desires, fears, and ultimately the darkness hidden within himself…

(pg. 2)

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Progress Report

Still writing the new fantasy story which is really starting to find a good groove; I am very excited about this one. Began a first editing pass of the military science fiction story which is coming along well. Also: working on new covers for my original two releases. Übermensch is first, and so far the early sketches look great.

Much more to share in the near future 🙂

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The Rage

My third release will be an urban supernatural novel titled The Rage. The “Books” and “Excerpts” sections have been updated with blurb information and a sneak peak at the first chapter, respectively. You have my solemn word: this one is going to be a very different type of story…

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Favorite Passages in Literature…

Blindsight, by Peter Watts

This book is set in the near future, where the human race has taken multiple branching paths towards various expressions of the human genome, psyche, and self. Some give themselves multiple personalities by seperating their brain into multiple cores, interface with machinery to the point where they can almost forget the feeling of flesh, or raise back monstrous relics of the ancient past in an attempt to play god…

But then something entirely unexpected appears in the atmosphere. It is a beginning, and an end…

(pg. 2)

It didn’t start out here. Not with the scramblers or Rorschach, not with Big Ben or Theseus or the vampires. Most people would say it started with the Fireflies, but they’d be wrong. It ended with all those things.

For me, it began with Robert Paglino.

At the age of eight, he was my best and only friend. We were fellow outcasts, bound by complementary misfortune. Mine was developmental. His was genetic: an uncontrolled genotype that left him predisposed to nearsightedness, acne, and (as it later turned out) a susceptibility to narcotics. His parents had never had him optimized. Those few TwenCen relics who still believed in God also held that one shouldn’t try to improve upon His handiwork. So although both of us could have been repaired, only one of us had been.

I arrived at the playground to find Pag the center of attention for some half-dozen kids, those lucky few in front punching him in the head, the others making do with taunts of mongrel and polly while waiting their turn. I watched him raise his arms, almost hesitantly, to ward off the worst of the blows. I could see into his head better than I could see into my own; he was scared that his attackers might think those hands were coming up to hit back, that they’d read it as an act of defiance and hurt him even more. Even then, at the tender age of eight and with half my mind gone, I was becoming a superlative observer.

But I didn’t know what to do.

I hadn’t seen much of Pag lately. I was pretty sure he’d been avoiding me. Still, when your best friend’s in trouble you help out, right? Even if the odds are impossible—and how many eight-year-olds would go up against six bigger kids for a sandbox buddy?—at least you call for backup. Flag a sentry. Something.

I just stood there. I didn’t even especially want to help him.

That didn’t make sense. Even if he hadn’t been my best friend, I should at least have empathized. I’d suffered less than Pag in the way of overt violence; my seizures tended to keep the other kids at a distance, scared them even as they incapacitated me. Still. I was no stranger to the taunts and insults, or the foot that appears from nowhere to trip you up en route from A to B. I knew how that felt.

Or I had, once.

But that part of me had been cut out along with the bad wiring. I was still working up the algorithms to get it back, still learning by observation. Pack animals always tear apart the weaklings in their midst. Every child knows that much instinctively. Maybe I should just let that process unfold, maybe I shouldn’t try to mess with nature. Then again, Pag’s parents hadn’t messed with nature, and look what it got them: a son curled up in the dirt while a bunch of engineered superboys kicked in his ribs.

In the end, propaganda worked where empathy failed. Back then I didn’t so much think as observe, didn’t deduce so much as remember—and what I remembered was a thousand inspirational stories lauding anyone who ever stuck up for the underdog.

So I picked up a rock the size of my fist and hit two of Pag’s assailants across the backs of their heads before anyone even knew I was in the game.

A third, turning to face the new threat, took a blow to the face that audibly crunched the bones of his cheek. I remember wondering why I didn’t take any satisfaction from that sound, why it meant nothing beyond the fact I had one less opponent to worry about.

The rest of them ran at the sight of blood. One of the braver promised me I was dead, shouted “Fucking zombie!” over his shoulder as he disappeared around the corner.

Three decades it took, to see the irony in that remark.

Two of the enemy twitched at my feet. I kicked one in the head until it stopped moving, turned to the other. Something grabbed my arm and I swung without thinking, without looking until Pag yelped and ducked out of reach.

“Oh,” I said. “Sorry.”

One thing lay motionless. The other moaned and held its head and curled up in a ball.

“Oh shit,” Pag panted. Blood coursed unheeded from his nose and splattered down his shirt. His cheek was turning blue and yellow. “Oh shit oh shit oh shit…

I thought of something to say. “You all right?”

“Oh shit, you—I mean, you never…” He wiped his mouth. Blood smeared the back of his hand. “Oh man are we in trouble.”

“They started it.”

“Yeah, but you—I mean, look at them!”

The moaning thing was crawling away on all fours. I wondered how long it would be before it found reinforcements. I wondered if I should kill it before then.

“You’da never done that before,” Pag said.

Before the operation, he meant.

I actually did feel something then—faint, distant, but unmistakable. I felt angry. “They started—”

Pag backed away, eyes wide. “What are you doing? Put that down!”

I’d raised my fists. I didn’t remember doing that. I unclenched them. It took a while. I had to look at my hands very hard for a long, long time.

The rock dropped to the ground, blood-slick and glistening.

“I was trying to help.” I didn’t understand why he couldn’t see that.

“You’re, you’re not the same,” Pag said from a safe distance. “You’re not even Siri any more.”

“I am too. Don’t be a fuckwad.”

They cut out your brain!”

“Only half. For the ep—”

“I know for the epilepsy! You think I don’t know? But you were in that half—or, like, part of you was…” He struggled with the words, with the concept behind them. “And now you’re different. It’s like, your mom and dad murdered you—”

“My mom and dad,” I said, suddenly quiet, “saved my life. I would have died.”

“I think you did die,” said my best and only friend. “I think Siri died, they scooped him out and threw him away and you’re some whole other kid that just, just grew back out of what was left. You’re not the same. Ever since. You’re not the same.”

I still don’t know if Pag really knew what he was saying. Maybe his mother had just pulled the plug on whatever game he’d been wired into for the previous eighteen hours, forced him outside for some fresh air. Maybe, after fighting pod people in gamespace, he couldn’t help but see them everywhere. Maybe.

But you could make a case for what he said. I do remember Helen telling me (and telling me) how difficult it was to adjust. Like you had a whole new personality, she said, and why not? There’s a reason they call it radical hemispherectomy: half the brain thrown out with yesterday’s krill, the remaining half press-ganged into double duty. Think of all the rewiring that one lonely hemisphere must have struggled with as it tried to take up the slack. It turned out okay, obviously. The brain’s a very flexible piece of meat; it took some doing, but it adapted. I adapted. Still. Think of all that must have been squeezed out, deformed, reshaped by the time the renovations were through. You could argue that I’m a different person than the one who used to occupy this body.

The grownups showed up eventually, of course. Medicine was bestowed, ambulances called. Parents were outraged, diplomatic volleys exchanged, but it’s tough to drum up neighborhood outrage on behalf of your injured baby when playground surveillance from three angles shows the little darling—and five of his buddies— kicking in the ribs of a disabled boy. My mother, for her part, recycled the usual complaints about problem children and absentee fathers—Dad was off again in some other hemisphere—but the dust settled pretty quickly. Pag and I even stayed friends, after a short hiatus that reminded us both of the limited social prospects open to schoolyard rejects who don’t stick together.

So I survived that and a million other childhood experiences. I grew up and I got along. I learned to fit in. I observed, recorded, derived the algorithms and mimicked appropriate behaviors. Not much of it was—heartfelt, I guess the word is. I had friends and enemies, like everyone else. I chose them by running through checklists of behaviors and circumstances compiled from years of observation.

I may have grown up distant but I grew up objective, and I have Robert Paglino to thank for that. His seminal observation set everything in motion. It led me into Synthesis, fated me to our disastrous encounter with the Scramblers, spared me the worse fate befalling Earth. Or the better one, I suppose, depending on your point of view. Point of view matters: I see that now, blind, talking to myself, trapped in a coffin falling past the edge of the solar system. I see it for the first time since some beaten bloody friend on a childhood battlefield convinced me to throw my own point of view away.

He may have been wrong. I may have been. But that, that distance—that chronic sense of being an alien among your own kind—it’s not entirely a bad thing.

It came in especially handy when the real aliens came calling.

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Progress Report

Still writing the new hard science fiction story, and halfway through the final editing pass of the urban supernatural story set for release this February, but I am proud to announce that the 2nd Edition of Nightglory is now officially out on Amazon! Lots of great improvements (it went from 37k words to 43k, as well), and a new excerpt from the 2nd Edition has been added to the excerpt page for sampling. Also: working with an artist to finalize artwork for the urban supernatural story’s cover, the first excerpt from that story to be released after the cover is finished.

Very excited to share more with you all soon…

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Currently Reading…

Republic, Plato.

The premise: set on Earth, Socrates has a dialogue with various of his friends, acquaintances,and knowledgeable Athenian personages concerning the nature of justice. He plays devils advocate more than once to help to argument along, but explores every facet of the concept in the pursuit of understanding.

Intriguing. Reading this and the Sumna Theologica at the same time has provided a nice literary synergy.

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Favorite Passages in Literature

The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold

This book is set in a fantasy world with multiple kingdoms and factions, although the story takes place almost exclusively in the land-locked realm of Chalion. Political intrigue, deadly assasinations, mayhem, magic and romance are all to be found in this excellent tale which begins, charmingly enough, with a good man down on his luck after a string of disasters, and just looking for one more chance…

(pg. 3)

Cazaril heard the mounted horsemen on the road before he saw them. He glanced over his shoulder. The well-worn track behind him curled up around a rolling rise, what passed for a hill on these high windy plains, before dipping again into the late-winter muck of Baocia’s bony soil. At his feet a little rill, too small and intermittent to rate a culvert or a bridge, trickled greenly across the track from the sheep-cropped pastures above. The thump of hooves, jangle of harness, clink of bells, creak of gear and careless echo of voices came on at too quick a rhythm to be some careful farmer with a team, or parsimonious pack-men driving their mules.

The cavalcade trotted around the side of the rise riding two by two, in full panoply of their order, some dozen men. Not bandits—Cazaril let out his breath, and swallowed his unsettled stomach back down. Not that he had anything to offer bandits but sport. He trudged a little way off the track and turned to watch them pass.

The horsemen’s chain shirts were silvered, glinting in the watery morning sunlight, for show, not for use. Their tabards of blue, dyes almost matching one with another, were worked with white in the sigil of the Lady of Spring. Their gray cloaks were thrown back like banners in the breeze of their passing, pinned at their shoulders with silver badges that had all the tarnish polished off today. Soldier-brothers of ceremony, not of war; they would have no desire to get Cazaril’s stubborn bloodstains on those clothes.

To Cazaril’s surprise, their captain held up a hand as they came near. The column crashed raggedly to a halt, the squelch and suck of the hooves trailing off in a way that would have had Cazaril’s father’s old horse-master bellowing grievous and entertaining insults at such a band of boys as this. Well, no matter.

“You there, old fellow,” the leader called across the saddlebow of his banner-carrier at Cazaril.

Cazaril, alone on the road, barely kept his head from swiveling around to see who was being so addressed. They took him for some local farm lout, trundling to market or on some errand, and he supposed he looked the part: worn boots mud-weighted, a thick jumble of mismatched charity clothes keeping the chill southeast wind from freezing his bones. He was grateful to all the gods of the year’s turning for every grubby stitch of that fabric, eh. Two weeks of beard itching his chin. Fellow indeed. The captain might with justice have chosen more scornful appellations. But… old?

The captain pointed down the road to where another track crossed it. “Is that the road to Valenda?”

It had been… Cazaril had to stop and count it in his head, and the sum dismayed him. Seventeen years since he had ridden last down this road, going off not to ceremony but to real war in the provincar of Baocia’s train. Although bitter to be riding a gelding and not a finer warhorse, he’d been just as glossy-haired and young and arrogant and vain of his dress as the fine young animals up there staring down at him.Today, I should be happy for a donkey, though I had to bend my knees to keep from trailing my toes in the mud. Cazaril smiled back up at the soldier-brothers, fully aware of what hollowed-out purses lay gaping and disemboweled behind most of those rich facades.

They stared down their noses at him as though they could smell him from there. He was not a person they wished to impress, no lord or lady who might hand down largesse to them as they might to him; still, he would do for them to practice their aristocratic airs upon. They mistook his returning stare for admiration, perhaps, or maybe just for half-wittedness.

He bit back the temptation to steer them wrong, up into some sheep byre or wherever that deceptively broad-looking crossroad petered out. No trick to pull on the Daughter’s own guardsmen on the eve of the Daughter’s Day. And besides, the men who joined the holy military orders were not especially noted for their senses of humor, and he might pass them again, being bound for the same town himself. Cazaril cleared his throat, which hadn’t spoken to a man since yesterday. “No, Captain. The road to Valenda has a roya’s milestone.” Or it had, once. “A mile or three farther on. You can’t mistake it.” He pulled a hand out of the warmth of the folds of his coat, and waved onward. His fingers didn’t really straighten right, and he found himself waving a claw. The chill air bit his swollen joints, and he tucked his hand hastily back into its burrow of cloth.

The captain nodded at his banner-carrier, a thick-shouldered… fellow, who cradled his banner pole in the crook of his elbow and fumbled out his purse. He fished in it, looking no doubt for a coin of sufficiently small denomination. He had a couple brought up to the light, between his fingers, when his horse jinked. A coin—a gold royal, not a copper vaida—spurted out of his grip and spun down into the mud. He stared after it, aghast, but then controlled his features. He would not dismount in front of his fellows to grub in the muck and retrieve it. Not like the peasant he expected Cazaril to be: for consolation, he raised his chin and smiled sourly, waiting for Cazaril to dive frantically and amusingly after this unexpected windfall.

Instead, Cazaril bowed and intoned, “May the blessings of the Lady of Spring fall upon your head, young sir, in the same spirit as your bounty to a roadside vagabond, and as little begrudged.”

If the young soldier-brother had had more wits about him, he might well have unraveled this mockery, and Cazaril the seeming-peasant drawn a well-earned horsewhip across his face. Little enough chance of that, judging by the brother’s bull-like stare, though the captain’s lips twisted in exasperation. But the captain just shook his head and gestured his column onward.

If the banner-bearer was too proud to scramble in the mud, Cazaril was much too tired to. He waited till the baggage train, a gaggle of servants and mules bringing up the rear, had passed before crouching painfully down and retrieving the little spark from the cold water seeping into a horse’s print. The adhesions in his back pulled cruelly. Gods. I do move like an old man. He caught his breath and heaved to his feet, feeling a century old, feeling like road dung stuck to the boot heel of the Father of Winter as he made his way out of the world.

He polished the mud off the coin—little enough even if gold—and pulled out his own purse. Now there was an empty bladder. He dropped the thin disk of metal into the leather mouth and stared down at its lonely glint. He sighed and tucked the pouch away. Now he had a hope for bandits to steal again. Now he had a reason to fear. He reflected on his new burden, so great for its weight, as he stumped up the road in the wake of the soldier-brothers. Almost not worth it. Almost. Gold. Temptation to the weak, weariness to the wise… what was it to a dull-eyed bull of a soldier, embarrassed by his accidental largesse?

Cazaril gazed around the barren landscape. Not much in the way of trees or coverts, except in that distant watercourse over there, the bare branches and brambles lining it charcoal-gray in the hazy light. The only shelter anywhere in sight was an abandoned windmill on the height to his left, its roof fallen in and its vanes broken down and rotting. Still… just in case…

Cazaril swung off the road and began trudging up the hill. Hillock, compared to the mountain passes he’d traversed a week ago. The climb still stole his wind; almost, he turned back. The gusts up here were stronger, flowing over the ground, riffling the silver-gold tufts of winter’s dry grasses. He nipped out of the raw air into the mill’s shadowed darkness and mounted a dubious and shaking staircase winding partway up the inner wall. He peered out the shutterless window.

On the road below, a man belabored a brown horse back along the track. No soldier-brother: one of the servants, with his reins in one hand and a stout cudgel in the other. Sent back by his master to secretly shake the accidental coin back out of the hide of the roadside vagabond? He rode up around the curve, then, in a few minutes, back again. He paused at the muddy rill, turned back and forth in his saddle to peer around the empty slopes, shook his head in disgust, and spurred on to join his fellows again.

Cazaril realized he was laughing. It felt odd, unfamiliar, a shudder through his shoulders that wasn’t cold or shock or gut-wringing fear. And the strange hollow absence of… what? Corrosive envy? Ardent desire? He didn’t want to follow the soldier-brothers, didn’t even want to lead them anymore. Didn’t want to be them. He’d watched their parade as idly as a man watching a dumb-show in the marketplace. Gods. I must be tired. Hungry, too. It was still a quarter-day’s walk to Valenda, where he might find a moneylender who could change his royal for more useful copper vaidas. Tonight, by the blessing of the Lady, he might sleep in an inn and not a cow byre. He could buy a hot meal. He could buy a shave, a bath

He turned, his eyes adjusted now to the half shadows in the mill. Then he saw the body splayed out on the rubble-strewn floor. He froze in panic, but then breathed again when he saw the body didn’t. No live man could lie unmoving in that strange back-bent position. Cazaril felt no fear of dead men. Whatever had made them dead, now…

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Progress Report

Currently more than halfway through editing the 2nd Edition of Nightglory for release in January 2016, just started the final editing pass of the urban supernatural story for release in Febuary 2016, and just started the first editing pass of the military science fiction story for release in May 2016. This is one of the first times in the last year where I am not writing new story content daily, but my manuscripts need the extra attention right now. Tangible benefits for readers 🙂

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Favorite Passages in Literature…

House of Suns, by Alastair Reynolds

This book is set millions of years in the future, in a universe where humanity has branched out in endless evolutionary permutations across the stars. The Gentian  line is a branch of humanity formed from one thousand male and female clones of Abigail Gentian (called shatterlings) which only reassemble during reunions held periodically between unimaginably vast swaths of cosmic time… until one day, a myserious attack nearly wipes them all out in one fell encounter.

However, the Gentian line’s story must begin at the beginning, showing how so many started as just one strange young soul…

(pg. 5)

I was a girl then, a single individual called Abigail Gentian.

During the thirty years of my childhood, I only saw a fraction of that vast, rambling, ever-changing mansion. Even as I grew older, and gained the authority to wander where it suited me, I doubt that I ever explored more than a hundredth of it. I was intimidated by the long, forbidding corridors of mirror and glass, the corkscrewing staircases rising from dark cellars and vaults where even the adults never went, the rooms and parlours that – although the adults and housekeepers never said as much in my presence – were alleged to be haunted, or in some way not convivial to anything other than transitory occupation. The elevators and dumb waiters alarmed me when they moved without apparent instruction, obeying some inscrutable whim of the house’s governing persona. It was a mansion of ghosts and monsters, with ghouls in the shadows and demons scuttling behind the wainscotting.

I had one true friend, although I cannot now remember his name. He arrived occasionally, but only ever for short visits. I would be allowed to watch the approach and docking of his private shuttle, viewing it from the airtight vantage of a glass-windowed belvedere perched above the mansion’s highest tower. I was always pleased when Madame Kleinfelter allowed me up to the belvedere, and not just because such an occurrence signalled the arrival of my only true companion. From there I could see the entirety of the house, and much of the world on which it was built. The house curved away in all directions until it met the sharp bend of the planetoid’s jagged horizon, a thin margin of rock marking the limit of my home.

It was a strange building, although for a long time I had nothing to compare it with. There was no organised plan to it, no hint of symmetry or harmony – or if there ever had been, that underlying order had been lost beneath countless additions and alterations – work that was still ongoing. Though the planetoid had no atmosphere, and therefore no weather, the house was designed as if it belonged on a world where it rained and snowed. Every distinct part of it, every wing and tower, was surmounted by a steep-sided, blue-tiled roof. There were thousands of roofs, meeting each other at odd, unsettling angles. Chimneys and turrets, belvederes and clock towers punctuated the haphazard, dinosaur-backed roofline. Some parts of the house were only one or two storeys high; others had twenty or more levels, with the tallest parts rising like mountains from the foothills of surrounding structures. Windowed bridges spanned the gaps between towers, a silent, distant figure occasionally stealing behind their illuminated portholes. It was less a house than a city in which you could walk from one side to the other without ever stepping outside.

Later in life I would learn the reason for my home being the way it was, the reason why the building work never ceased, but as a child I simply accepted it unquestioningly. I knew the house was different from the ones I saw in books and story-cubes, but then nothing in those books or cubes resembled any significant aspect of my life. Even before I could read, I knew that we were rich, and it had been impressed on me that there were only a handful of other families whose wealth could be compared to our own.

‘You’re a very special young lady, Abigail Gentian,’ was what my mother told me on one of the many occasions when her ageless face addressed me from one of the house’s panes. ‘You’re going to do great things with your life.’

She had no idea.

It did not take me long to realise that the little boy must also be the child of a rich family. He came on his own ship, not one of the company-owned liners that occasionally conveyed lesser mortals to and from our planetoid. I would watch it arrive from deep space, slowing down on a spike of cobalt flame before stopping above the outer wings of the house, pirouetting into a landing configuration, flinging out skeletal landing legs and lowering with elegant precision onto the designated touchdown pad. Our family’s symbol was a black cinquefoil; his was a pair of intermeshing cogs, the emblem painted on the ship’s sleek, flanged hull.

As soon as the shuttle was down I would rush from the belvedere, almost tumbling down the tightly wound spiral stairs threading the tower. Whichever clone nanny was looking after me that day would take me to one of the elevators and we would travel up, down and sideways until we reached the docking wing. We usually got there just as the little boy was coming out, taking hesitant steps down the long, carpeted ramp from his ship, with two robots gliding alongside him.

The robots scared me. They were hulking things of dull, weatherworn silver, with heads, torsos and arms, but only a single huge wheel in place of legs. Their faces consisted of a single vertical line, like an arrow slit in a castle wall, at the leading edge of a fierce wedge-shaped skull. They had no eyes, no mouth. Their arms were segmented and ended in three-clawed hands, good for nothing except crunching flesh and bone. In my imagination, the robots were keeping the little boy prisoner when he was not visiting me, doing horrible things to him – so horrible that he could never quite speak of them even when we were alone. It was only when I was older that I grasped that they were his bodyguards, that deep within the dim architecture of their minds was something perilously close to love.

The robots only came to the bottom of the carpet, never rolling off it onto the wooden reception floor. The boy would hesitate, then step off, shiny black shoes clicking on the varnished blocks. His clothes were black except for white cuffs and a wide lacework collar. He wore a little backpack, and his black hair was glued back from his brow with strong-smelling lacquer. His face was pale and slightly pudgy, with round, dark eyes of indeterminate colour.

‘Your eyes are funny,’ he always told me. ‘One blue and one green. Why didn’t they fix that when you were born?’

The robots would spin around at the waist and reverse back into the shuttle, where they would wait until it was time for the boy to leave.

‘It’s hard to walk here,’ the boy always said, his footsteps unsteady. ‘Everything’s too hard.’

‘It feels normal to me,’ I said.

It was a long time before I realised that the boy came from a place in the Golden Hour where the local gravity had been fixed at half-standard, which meant he found it difficult to move around when visiting the planetoid.

‘Father says it’s dangerous,’ the boy said as we made our way to the playroom, two nannies trailing behind.

‘What’s dangerous?’

‘The thing inside your world. Or has no one told you about that yet?’

‘There’s nothing inside the world but rock. I know – I looked it up in the story-cube, after you told me there were snakes living in the caves under the house.’

‘The story-cube was lying to you. They do that when they think you need to be protected from the truth.’

‘They don’t lie.’

‘Then ask your parents about the black hole. It’s under your house right now.’

He must have known that my father was dead, and that I could only ask my mother something when her face appeared on one of the panes.

‘What’s a black hole?’

The boy thought about this for a moment. ‘It’s a kind of monster. Like a giant black spider, hanging in an invisible web. Anything that comes too close, it grabs them and stings them and then eats them alive. And there’s a very big one under your house.’

Thinking I was being clever, I said, ‘So what happened to the snakes? Did it eat them?’

‘I lied about the snakes,’ the boy said insouciantly. ‘But this is real – ask the story-cube about black holes if you don’t believe me. Your family had it put under the house to make everything heavier – if it wasn’t there, we’d be floating now.’

‘How can a spider make things heavier?’

‘I said it’s like a spider, not that it really is one.’ He gave me a pitying look. ‘It’s a sucking, hungry mouth that you can’t ever fill. That’s why it pulls everything in towards it, making us feel heavier. But it’s also why it’s dangerous.’

‘Because your father said so?’

‘It’s not just Father. The story-cube will tell you everything, if you ask it the right questions. You can’t just come at it headlong – you have to go in sideways, like a cat stalking a mouse. Then you can fool it into telling you things it isn’t meant to. A black hole swallowed up a whole planetoid once – bigger than this one. It swallowed up the planetoid and everyone living on it. They all went down the plug, like water after a bath. Glug, glug, glug.’

‘That won’t happen here.’

‘If you say so.’

‘I don’t believe you anyway. If you weren’t telling the truth about the snakes, why should I listen to you now?’

Quite suddenly, the malice vanished from his face. I felt as if my friend had only just arrived – the teasing, spiteful boy who had accompanied me until now had just been an impostor.

‘Have you got any new toys, Abigail?’

‘I’ve always got new toys.’

‘I mean, anything special.’

‘There is something,’ I said. ‘I was looking forward to showing it to you. It’s a kind of doll’s house.’

‘Doll’s houses are for girls.’

I shrugged. ‘Then I won’t show it to you.’ Echoing the words he had spoken to me earlier, I announced, ‘I said it’s a kind of doll’s house, not that it really is one. It’s called Palatial; it’s like a castle you control, with its own empire. It’s a pity; I think you would have liked it. But there are other games we can play. We can play in the mood maze, or the flying room.’

I could be manipulative as well, and I had already gained some dark insights into the boy’s mind – I knew that he would feign indifference for at least part of the afternoon, while his curiosity to see the doll’s house was burning a hole right through him. And he was right to be curious, for the doll’s house was the toy I was most eager to show off.

With the nannies in tow, I brought the little boy to the playroom. In the dark-shuttered, gloomily lit room I rolled out boxes and trunks and unpacked some of the things we had played with on his last visit. The boy shrugged off his backpack, undid the top flap and pulled out some of his own favourite toys. There were things I remembered from his last visit: a scaly-winged dragon that flew around the room, spitting pink fire before landing on his arm and coiling its tail several times around it; a soldier who would hide himself somewhere in the room when we closed our eyes – it had taken us hours to find him the last time. There were marbles, little glass balls cored with whirls of colour, which rolled on the floor and organised themselves into shapes and figures according to shouted commands, or formed shapes which we then had to guess at before they were complete. There was a puzzle board and a lovely machine ballerina who would dance on anything, even the tip of a finger.

We played with these things, and eventually the nannies brought us lemonade and biscuits on a floating trolley. Somewhere in the house a long-case clock chimed.

‘I want to see the doll’s house now,’ the boy said.

‘I thought you didn’t want to see it.’

‘I do. Really.’

So I showed him Palatial, taking him into the room-within-a-room where it was kept, and although I revealed only a fraction of its capabilities, he was fascinated by it, and I knew even then that he was jealous, and that Palatial would be the first thing he would want to see on his next visit.

It was the first time I had felt him in my power. I decided that I liked the feeling very much.

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