Two New “In Love and War” Stories Available: “Neutral Ground” and “Ballroom Blitz”

I have another new release announcement to make. This one is for the two latest stories in my In Love and War space opera romance series.

Now I don’t always write in chronological order and I’m in good company there, since Lois McMaster Bujold and Fritz Leiber didn’t do it either and they’re both highly acclaimed multiple award-winning authors. And so, both new stories slot into an earlier place in the In Love and War chronology. Besides, the In Love and War stories largely stand alone anyway, though you’ll get more out of the series, if you read them all.

The first of the two new stories is another one to come out of the 2020 July Short Story Challenge, where the aim was to write a short story per day during the month of July. It’s something of a side story, set just before Collision Course and featuring Mikhail’s former commander, Colonel Brian Mayhew of the Republican Special Commando Forces.

It’s been established throughout the series that Mayhew has contacts in the Imperial military. In this story, we finally get to meet one of those contacts, General Roderick Crawford, who’s basically Mayhew’s Imperial counterpart or rather the counterpart of Mayhew’s boss General Honold. Even though they’re theoretically sworn enemies, Mayhew and Crawford get along really well with each other. Unlike Mikhail and Anjali, they don’t draw any conclusions from this at all.

In this story, Mayhew and Crawford meet over tea, coffee and pastries to discuss the very embarrassing matter of Mikhail and Anjali running away together. And yes, there are recipes in the Author’s Note.

So accompany Brian Mayhew and General Roderick Crawford, as they meet on…

Neutral Ground
Neutral Ground by Cora BuhlertTwo old soldiers share a coffee and fight for their lives

The Republic of United Planets and the Empire of Worlds have been at war for eighty-eight years now. But nonetheless, Colonel Brian Mayhew, deputy commander of the Republican Special Commando Forces, meets with his Imperial counterpart General Roderick Crawford to discuss an incident that’s a problem for both of them. For two of their elite soldiers fell in love and ran away with each other, an embarrassment to the Republic and the Empire both.

However, this secret meeting is not as secret as the two men think. And so Mayhew and Crawford are soon fighting for their lives side by side…

This is a novelette of 9500 words or approximately 32 print pages in the In Love and War series by Hugo finalist Cora Buhlert, but may be read as a standalone.

More information.
Length: 9500 words
List price: 0.99 USD, EUR or GBP
Buy it at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon France, Amazon Netherlands, Amazon Spain, Amazon Italy, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Japan, Amazon India, Amazon Mexico, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Google Play, Scribd, Smashwords, Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, Buecher.de, DriveThruFiction, Casa del Libro, Vivlio, 24symbols and XinXii.

The second new In Love and War story originally came about, when I was putting together my annual round-up of Valentine’s Day themed science fiction, fantasy and horror stories and thought, ‘You know, you ought to write another Valentine’s Day story, because holiday stories usually do well.”

So I wrecked my head trying to come up with an idea and finally thought, “Why don’t I write a Valentine’s Day story for the In Love and War series?” After all, it’s space opera romance set in a universe where everybody is descended from people who originally came from Earth, so it makes sense for there to be a Valentine’s Day in that universe. And so the idea was born to send Anjali and Mikhail on a romantic date that’s rudely interrupted by people with blasters.

Unfortunately, it was maybe two weeks before Valentine’s Day 2020, when I had the the idea to write a Valentine’s Day themed adventure in the In Love and War series. Besides, what had been supposed to be a short story turned into a fully fledged novella instead, so the story was not finished in time for Valentine’s Day. And then the pandemic happened and I found myself rather unexpectedly nominated for a Hugo Award and so the story ended up on the backburner for a while, until I picked it up again in the fall of 2020. However, I didn’t want to hold a finished story back until next February either, so instead of being released in time for Valentine’s Day, the story now comes out closer to Christmas.

Anjali and Mikhail celebrate their first anniversary in The Taste of Home. The Valentine’s Day story happens at an earlier point in their relationship, so I rearranged the series order yet again and slotted it inbetween Bullet Holes and Dead World.

Romance, action, crime, food, gratuitous destruction of property – this story has it all. So follow Mikhail and Anjali, as they get caught up in a…

Ballroom Blitz
Ballroom Blitz by Cora BuhlertAnjali and Mikhail go on a Valentine’s Day date. Trouble ensues.

Once, Anjali Patel and Mikhail Grikov were soldiers on opposing sides of an intergalactic war. They met, fell in love and decided to go on the run together.

Now Anjali and Mikhail are trying to eke out a living on the independent worlds of the galactic rim, while attempting to stay under the radar of those pursuing them.

It’s Valentine’s Day and so Mikhail and Anjali enjoy a well-deserved romantic dinner. But their date is rudely interrupted, when they find themselves caught in the crossfire of a turf war between two rival gangsters.

This is a Valentine’s Day novella of 23200 words or approximately 78 print pages in the “In Love and War” series by Hugo finalist Cora Buhlert, but may be read as a standalone.

More information.
Length: 23200 words.
List price: 2.99 USD, EUR or 1.99 GBP
Buy it at Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon Germany, Amazon France, Amazon Netherlands, Amazon Spain, Amazon Italy, Amazon Canada, Amazon Australia, Amazon Brazil, Amazon Japan, Amazon India, Amazon Mexico, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, Apple iBooks, Google Play, Scribd, Smashwords, Thalia, Weltbild, Hugendubel, Buecher.de, DriveThruFiction, Casa del Libro, Vivlio, 24symbols and XinXii.

The title Ballroom Blitz is a reference to the eponymous 1973 song by the British glam rock band The Sweet by the way. I chanced to hear it on the radio one day, while writing the story, and thought, “This is the perfect title for the up to then untitled story.”.

This covers for both stories are by the hyper-talented Tithi Luadthong. In the case of Ballroom Blitz, the cover actually came before the story, because I liked that image so much that I modelled the club where Anjali and Mikhail go for a night of romance and dancing after the image. And yes, that giant chandelier plays an important role in the story.

If you want to give the In Love and War series a try before buying, Double-Cross, another adventure of Anjali and Mikhail, is this month’s free story, which you can read right here on this blog.

And if you want to read the entire series of sixteen stories, the cheapest way to do so is via this handy series bundle, which is available exclusively at DriveThruFiction.

There’ll be at least one more new release announcement for 2020, maybe two, closer to the holidays. But for now, stay safe and healthy and have a happy Thanksgiving and/or First Advent, if you’re celebrating.

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Tha Mandalorian and Baby Yoda meet up with old friends and enemies in “The Siege”

Now I have this week’s Star Trek Discovery review out of the way, it’s time for my episode by episode reviews of season 2 of The Mandalorian again. Previous installments may be found here.

Also, since Star Wars is a Disney property now, may I remind you that Disney is not paying the royalties due to Alan Dean Foster and possibly others as well.

Warning: Spoilers under the cut! Continue reading

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Star Trek Discovery goes on an unsanctioned mission in “Scavengers”

It’s time for the latest installment in my ongoing episode by episode reviews of season 3 of Star Trek Discovery. Reviews of previous episodes may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut! Continue reading

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Two Articles in One Day

I’m blogging elsewhere yet again and I had not one but two articles go up today.

The first article is at Galactic Journey. It’s a follow-up piece to last month’s article about East and West German comics in the 1950s and 1960s and focusses on the wide and wonderful world of French, Belgian and Dutch comics. There are a lot of samples of the various comics discussed as well as some historical photos of Brussels and Antwerp in the 1960s.

Why Brussels and Antwerp? Because that’s where I originally discovered and read many of the comics in question as a kid in the 1980s. In retrospect, I should have included some photos of Rotterdam as well, because that’s where my Dad worked in the 1980s and where I discovered and read a lot of those comics as well, almost always in the store, because Franco-Belgian-Dutch comic albums were pricier than US comic books and my reading appetite was more voracious than my pocket money plentiful. I’m also still grateful to the nice booksellers who just let me read in peace, even though they probably knew that I only bought something, when I had saved up enough money.

But even though I’m familiar with all of the comics featured in the article and consider many of the characters childhood friends, the article nonetheless required more research than I initially assumed. For starters, I only read the comics in album form, mostly in the store, so I had no idea where which strip had originally been published. In many cases, I didn’t know the names of the creators either, not to mentioned that many French and Belgian artists work under one word pseudonyms. And if that wasn’t confusing enough, many comics have a French and a Flemish title. Furthermore, most of these titles have never been out of print since they first appeared in the 1950s or 1960s. However, publishers, logos and covers change and therefore a 2020 copy of e.g. Astérix et Cleopatra does not look like a 1965 copy of the some album. Luckily, there are some excellent French and Belgian comic databases and websites. Even better, I can read French and Flemish well enough to navigate them

Finally, I had little idea for how long many comics had been going. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that the sword and sorcery comics I enjoyed as a teen clearly dated from the 1970s and 1980s, but sword and sorcery comics just weren’t a thing in the 1960s. But several strips I thought originated in the 1960s – particularly those with female protagonists like Yoko Tsuno, Comanche, Franka and Natacha – turned out to date from the 1970s and beyond. The Franco-Belgian comics world of the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s was very much a boys’ club with few female characters other than Wiske and Aunt Sidonie of Suske en Wiske fame and Bianca Castafiore of Tintin fame. Though the original Barbarella just slipped in, since her adventures first appeared in 1962. So did Lieutenant Blueberry, the western series Jean Giraud drew before he became Moebius for good, which debuted in 1963. Meanwhile, Valérian et Laureline just missed the boat, since they won’t appear until 1967.

Nonetheless, I had a lot of fun writing that article and revisiting a lot of old friends. It also makes me wonder why the Franco-Belgian-Dutch comics are not more appreciated in the English speaking world beyond some staples like Tintin (and note that Tintin lost the 1944 Retro Hugo to a not very good and racist Wonder Woman comic) and The Smurfs, because the sheer variety and quality of Franco-Belgian-Dutch comics is just amazing.

The other article of mine that went up today is on a subject that immensely important, though not nearly as enjoyable as Franco-Belgian-Dutch comics. For it turns out that Disney has not been paying royalties to Alan Dean Foster for his novelisation of the first Star Wars movie (which would subsequently become known as A New Hope), Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, the first ever Star Wars tie-in novel, as well as the novelisations of Alien, Aliens and Alien 3 since they bought up Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox. Today, Alan Dean Foster and Mary Robinette Kowal, president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, went public with the issue and held a joint press conference. I covered the press conference for File 770 and wrote an article about it. My fellow Best Fan Writer Hugo finalist Adam Whitehead also reports about the issue at The Wertzone.

Basically, Disney claims that they purchased the rights to sell the novels in question, when they purchased Lucasfilm and 20th Century Fox, but that they did not purchase the obligations to pay Alan Dean Foster royalties, as required by the original contracts. This flies in the face of every contract law in the world. As I said in the File 770 article, I translate a lot of contracts for my day job and every single one contains a clause that in case of a merger or buyout, any rights and obligations are transferred to the legal successor of the company that signed the contract. So what Disney is doing to Alan Dean Foster is flat out illegal.

I own a copy of the original Star Wars novelisation, which has the distinction of being the first English language science fiction novel I ever read, as well as Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. My battered paperback copy of Star Wars, purchased in 1988 at an import bookstore at three times the cover price, proudly states on the cover “5 Million in Print”. I can only imagine how many more copies must have been sold in the thirty-two years since.

As Mary Robinette Kowal said in the press conference, the potential implications of Disney’s behaviour are huge. Hundreds of Star Wars tie-in novels have been published since Alan Dean Foster wrote Splinter in the Mind’s Eye, not to mention comics and other media. Disney also purchased the rights to 81 years worth of Marvel Comics, a whole lot of X-Files tie-in novels which came out in the 1990s and early 2000s, lots of Muppets and Simpsons related books and other media, novelisations for all sorts of other movies and TV shows, etc… And Disney isn’t the only huge media conglomerate out there. There are others who may be just as bad. Alan Dean Foster’s case may very well be just the tip of the iceberg.

Two years ago, I wrote that Disney gobbling up media companies like potato chips was cause for concern, even if they had largely been benevolent so far, though there were signs of that changing. Disney’s behaviour in the Alan Dean Foster case is far from benevolent and I hope that they will come around and pay the outstanding royalties soon.

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The Mandalorian and Baby Yoda get their bacons saved by “The Heiress

Now I have this week’s Star Trek Discovery review out of the way, it’s time for my episode by episode reviews of season 2 of The Mandalorian again. Previous installments (well, actually just two and an aggregate review of season 1) may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers under the cut! Continue reading

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Star Trek Discovery is determined to fulfill its mission or “Die Trying”

It’s time for the latest installment in my ongoing episode by episode reviews of season 3 of Star Trek Discovery. Reviews of previous episodes may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut! Continue reading

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The Elusive Allison V. Harding and How to Suppress Women’s Writing… Again

Allison V. Harding, horror and fantasy author of the 1940s, is nigh forgotten these days, even though she was prolific, publishing thirty-six stories in Weird Tales between 1943 and 1951, as well as six non-genre stories in Weird Tales‘ sister magazine Short Stories.

I reviewed two of her stories, “Ride the EL to Doom” and “Guard in the Dark”, for my Retro Reviews project, and liked what I read, so much that I put “Ride the EL to Doom” on my ballot for the 1945 Retro Hugos.  Others must have agreed with me, because “Ride the EL to Doom” made the longlist for the 1945 Retro Hugos, as did Harding’s novelette “The Day the World Stood Still”, one of her rare forays into science fiction. I didn’t review “The Day the World Stood Still”, though Steve J. Wright did.

Allison V. Harding is also a mystery, because we almost nothing about her. Of course, there are plenty of pulp authors about whom we know next to nothing, but most of them are one or two story wonders, not one of the top ten most prolific contributors to Weird Tales. Furthermore, Allison V. Harding was clearly popular in her day, as the letter columns and reader polls in Weird Tales indicate.

So why do we know so little about her, even though the history of Weird Tales is fairly well documented? Part of the reason is that early Weird Tales scholars like Robert Weinberg didn’t much care for Allison V. Harding’s stories and dismissed them as forgettable fillers and therefore never even bothered to research the author.

What we do know about Allison V. Harding is that the name is a pseudonym. The person behind this pseudonym was unknown, until Sam Moskowitz dug into the files of Weird Tales in the 1970s and found that the cheques for the Harding stories were addressed to a woman named Jean Milligan, an attorney and daughter of a prominent East Coast family. Jean Milligan was also married to Charles Lamont Buchanan, assistant editor of Weird Tales and Short Stories. So mystery solved. Or is it?

ETA 3: Anya Martin, who has done a lot of research into the mystery that is Allison V. Harding, reports that Jean Milligan was not in fact an attorney, even though her checks were sent to an attorney. She attended Connecticut College for two years, but dropped out after the death of her mother in 1938. It’s not known where Jean Milligan worked, though both the Milligans and the Buchanans were wealthy families.

Because there are also people who believe that the author of the Allison V. Harding stories was not Jean Milligan at all, but Charles Lamont Buchanan himself who used his fiancée and later wife as a front to avoid the appearance that he was publishing his own fiction in the magazine he co-edited. But more on that later.

For almost seventy years, there was little interest in the works of Allison V. Harding. Her stories were rarely reprinted, not even by the indefatigable August Derleth who kept a lot of Weird Tales authors in print via Arkham House, until the fantasy boom of the 1960s and 1970s suddenly made authors like Robert E. Howard and H.P. Lovecraft hot properties again.

However, it seems that we’re in the middle of an Allison V. Harding mini-renaissance. Her stories are getting more attention than they have received in decades and there is even an Allison V. Harding reprint collection from a publisher called Armchair Fiction available now entitled Allison V. Harding – The Forgotten Queen of Horror. It’s certainly an apt title, though sadly, the paperback collection is only available on Amazon.com, not on the international Amazons. Armchair Fiction folks, if you happen to be reading this, please check the “expanded distribution” checkbox on the Createspace/KDP Print interface or Ingram Spark or whatever you’re using, so the international Harding fans among us can order the collection without having to pay horrendous shipping fees.

As for why Harding is experiencing a renaissance at this particular moment in time, a large part of the reason is probably that vintage pulp magazines are more accessible these days than they have been in seventy years. Original copies of Weird Tales are expensive and rare collector’s items, but pretty much every copy of Weird Tales and many other pulp magazines may be found online in their entirety at archive.org. So those of us who enjoy vintage speculative fiction can now read those vintage pulp magazines again the way they appeared on the newsstands seventy or eighty years ago and are not just limited to the stories that anthologists considered important enough to reprint. And some of us stumbled upon Harding’s stories and thought, “You know, those ‘forgettable fillers’ are actually pretty damn good.”

So why do Allison V. Harding’s stories speak to us today, when they obviously didn’t speak to previous Weird Tales scholars? Part of the reason may be that scholars of Weird Tales tend to focus either on sword and sorcery or Lovecraftian cosmic horror. And that was not what Allison V. Harding wrote. Most of her stories were what would be called urban fantasy now, tales about supernatural going-ons in the modern world (in fact, a lot of what could be found in the pages of Weird Tales in the 1930s and 1940s is urban fantasy). But unlike contemporary urban fantasy writers, the monsters of Harding’s stories are rarely vampires, werewolves and the like. Instead, her monsters are the mechanical objects of the modern age. Harding liked to write about haunted machinery and objects (which was something of a trend in the 1940s, also see the Retro Hugo winners “The Twonky” by Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore and “Killdozer!” by Theodore Sturgeon), whether it was EL-trains, automobiles, steam shovels, telescopes or toy soldiers. Her characters are often working class people like construction workers, motormen, conductors, truckers and steelworkers, though scientists, lawyers, teachers and journalists also appear. There is a certain noir sensibility to her stories and her descriptions of industry and urban life in the 1940s are dripping with atmosphere. In short, it’s good stuff and quite different both from the cosmic horror of H.P. Lovecraft (though Lovecraftian monsters occasionally show up in Harding’s work) and his acolytes and the more gothic horror of writers like Dorothy Quick. In many way, Harding’s stories are more reminiscent of Stephen King (whose 1983 horror novel Christine is maybe the last hurray of the haunted machinery story) than of her fellow Weird Tales authors of the 1930s and 1940s.

Armchair Fiction‘s Allison V. Harding collection is also getting some attention online. Sandy Ferber recently reviewed it for Fantasy Literature, as did Paperback Warrior, a blog that mostly reviews vintage crime novels, thrillers and men’s adventure novels. Both reviewers praise the stories and of course, also go into the mystery that is Allison V. Harding’s identity. And once you start to dig into Harding’s identity, you’ll quickly come across the claims that Allison V. Harding was a pen name for Lamont Buchanan rather than his wife Jean Milligan.

Sandy Ferber notes that some of the stories feel as if a man wrote them, some feel as if a woman wrote them and that it’s impossible to know either way. He also suggests that Lamont Buchanan and Jean Milligan may have been a couple writing together like Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore. That’s one theory that actually makes a lot of sense.

The Paperback Warrior reviewer, meanwhile, comes to the conclusion that Allison V. Harding was a pen name for Lamont Buchanan, because no woman could have written those stories. And why? Let’s have a quote:

There is no way hell that these stories were written by a woman of 1940s America. The first two stories have no female characters at all, and the even the third story is told through a male’s eyes. Furthermore, “The Frightened Engineer” has many technical details about turnpike road construction, a stereotypically manly pursuit in the 1940s.

Another large factor supporting this conclusion is that these stories are really good, even excellent. Without question, a female author was capable of excellence. However, I’m not buying for a second that the talented author of these stories threw her typewriter out the window without authoring another published word for the next 53 years of her life.

Sorry, but much as I like the Paperback Warrior blog otherwise (cause they do excellent work spotlighting vintage crime and adventure fiction), that’s just egregiously sexist. First of all, it’s not actually all that easy to tell an author’s gender by their writing alone. When I put some of my own writing into that online tool that supposedly determines the author’s gender from a writing sample, the program usually thinks I’m female when I put in a sample of my fiction and male when I put in a sample of my non-fiction. However, I don’t actually change genders, depending on whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

We all know the case of James Tiptree Jr., whose writing Robert Silverberg described as “ineluctably masculine”, until Tiptree was revealed to be a woman, Alice B. Sheldon – oops. And having read Tiptree’s/Sheldon’s fiction many years after her identity was revealed, i.e. with the benefit of hindsight, I always thought that several of her stories were very obviously written by a woman. On the other hand, neither Leigh Brackett nor Andre Norton have ever struck me as particularly feminine writers. Both frequently had male POV characters. Norton wrote a lot of boys’ own adventures in space and Brackett’s stories featured macho heroes and had a very hardboiled noirish style. On the other hand, Dorothy Quick almost always had female POV characters and is the only golden age writer of any gender whose stories consistently pass the Bechdel test. C.L. Moore and Margaret St. Clair can go either way, with some stories feeling more female and others feeling more male. The only published story (under that name) by Ruth Washburn not only isn’t particularly feminine and has a male POV character, the lone female character is also a stereotyped shrewish wife. The 1945 Retro Hugo finalist The Winged Man, credited solely to E. Mayne Hull, but attributed to Hull and her husband A.E. van Vogt, features an all-male submarine crew with the only female characters being a bunch of offensive amazon stereotypes from the future escorting a bridezilla to her wedding who are too stupid to understand the science of WWII era submarines. The sole female character in “The Martian and the Milkmaid” by Frances M. Deegan is also something of a caricature, though Deegan also hints that her (male) narrator is not exactly reliable. Alice-Mary Schnirring’s “The Dear Departed” barely has any female characters at all, as does “The Werewolf’s Howl” by Brooke Byrne. So in short, the women SFF writers of the golden age and beyond were all over the place with regard to female POV characters and themes.

Also, it’s quite an assumption to make that a woman in the 1940s wouldn’t have been familiar with the technical details of construction work, EL-trains, railroads, bulldozers, etc… that are found in Allison V. Harding’s work. For starters, there have always been women who were interested in technology. And in the 1940s, a lot of women were actually working in factories, as conductors, train drivers and in other traditionally male occupations to replace the soldiers that were fighting overseas. Furthermore, Jean Milligan may have come into contact with the technical details in her job as an attorney, if she worked on contracts, liability cases and the like. And according to the information Tellers of Weird Tales dug up, one of her sisters was married to an engineer, so she might have gotten the details from her brother-in-law. Or maybe she simply found heavy machinery fascinating. We have no way of knowing.

As for why Allison V. Harding suddenly stopped writing, people of all genders stop writing for all sorts of reasons. Furthermore, a lot of pulp authors just seem to vanish after a handful of stories, only to show up in a different genre later on. For example, Mona Farnsworth had five stories published in Unknown in 1939/1940 and then seemingly vanished, until she reappeared as an author of fourteen gothic romances in the 1970s. Did she really stop writing during the thirty years inbetween or did she work in a different genre or under another name? That’s something else we’ll probably never know.

As for the arguments that Allison V. Harding was really Charles Lamont Buchanan, I don’t find them all that convincing. For starters, there was no taboo against editors publishing their own work during the pulp era. John W. Campbell and Frederick Pohl both published their own work, though they used pen names, and no one objected. Pohl also published his then wife Judith Merril. So if Lamont Buchanan really did write the stories, he had a reason to use a pen name, but no reason to hide his identity from Weird Tales editor Dorothy McIlwraith. And even if Lamont Buchanan wrote the stories, it makes no sense for him to use a female pen name. Yes, Weird Tales was probably the most woman-friendly SFF magazine of the pulp era with a large female readership and a lot of female contributors, but the majority of the writers were still male. And while pen names were common during the pulp era, cross-gender pen names were not all that common and I can’t think of a single example of a male writer using a female pseudonym during the pulp era. So why would Lamont Buchanan use a female pen name for stories that were not even particularly feminine in tone and subject matter?

ETA: German critic and fan Peter Schmitt points out that Robert A. W. Lowndes did publish two stories “The Leapers” and “Passage to Sharanee” in 1942 under the female pen name Carol Grey. Bobby Derie confirms this, so there is at least one precendent. Bobby Derie also points out that H.P. Lovecraft occasionally ghostwrote for women writers and that the resulting stories appeared under the women’s names.

Peter Schmitt has also dug up a story attributed to Donald Matheson in the table of contents but to Florence Matheson in the byline in September 1934 issue of Amazing Stories. ISFDB lists the author as Florence rather than Donald. Whoever they were, we know nothing about them.

The fact that Allison V. Harding’s stories only appeared in Weird Tales and Short Stories, i.e. magazines Buchanan and Dorothy McIlwraith co-edited, is not as big a clue as it seems either, for plenty of pulp authors only wrote for one magazine or one publisher. For example, the above mentioned Frances M. Deegan almost exclusively wrote for magazines of the Ziff-Davis company, because the company was based in her hometown and she had developed a good relationship with editor Raymond F. Palmer, as she explained in the biographical note that went with one of her stories. Interestingly, Frances M. Deegan was also suspected of being either a house name or the wife of a Ziff-Davis assistant editor, who also happened to be called Frances, though those claims have been largely debunked.

Another argument is that no one in Jean Milligan’s family knew she was a writer. However, not every writer shares their work with their family and the family quite often doesn’t care either. If you asked the members of my extended family, quite a few probably have no idea that I’m a writer either. Furthermore, Jean Milligan might well have wanted to keep her writing secret from her family. It’s also possible that she worried being published in a lurid pulp magazine like Weird Tales (though it was somewhat less lurid by the time Harding was publishing there) might have harmed her professional reputation. That’s why C.L. Moore published under her initials, after all, because she feared that her employer, a bank, might find out.

As for the claim that Lamont Buchanan was both an editor and a writer of non-fiction, whereas Jean Milligan was not known to have written anything other than legal briefs, I’m not sure why writing books about baseball and the history of the Confederacy or the two party system in the US would necessarily predispose someone more to writing horror and urban fantasy than writing legal briefs would. And comparing the writing style of Lamont Buchanan’s non-fiction books to the Harding stories would only be of limited use, because fiction and non-fiction are different, though certain idiosynchracies might pop up.

ETA2: Anya Martin of the Outer Dark podcast and symposium, who has done some research into the mystery that is Allison V. Harding, points out on Twitter that Jean Milligan wrote during her teens and was a member of her high school literary club. Anya Martin has also dug up a page from Jean Milligan’s high school yearbook and an article from her hometown paper the New Canaan Advertiser, which confirm her literary activities.

Jean Milligan died in 2004, Lamont Buchanan in 2015, so it’s no longer possible to ask them directly, though it was possible well into the 21st century (and I’m side-eying all the Weird Tales scholars who’d rather pore over a crumpled shopping list by H.P. Lovecraft than interview the few surviving Weird Tales contributors/possible contributors).

As it is, we will probably never know for sure who wrote the Allison V. Harding stories, whether it was Jean Milligan, Lamont Buchanan or both of them together.  However, the strongest evidence we have is the fact that the cheques were adressed to Jean Milligan and the simplest explanation is that the person to whom the cheques were adressed was also the author of the stories. So what’s the need to come up with a convoluted theory to explain why someone else wrote the stories than the person whose name was on the cheques?

It’s still peddled as received wisdom in many circles (and not just the obvious ones either – you find this misconception both on the left and on the right) that women did not read or write speculative fiction before [insert date here]. Like pretty much any received wisdom, this is wrong. On the contrary, there were quite a lot of women writing science fiction, fantasy and horror even during the golden and radium ages, let alone later. Just as there were women editors, artists,  fans, etc… And it wasn’t just the one or two token women whose names we still remember either, but a lot of women whose names have been forgotten. The straight white boys’ club of SFF never existed.

However, it’s also true that women writers are less likely to be reprinted than male writers (though there are plenty of stories by male writers, including very good ones, which have never been reprinted either). The fact that early anthologies like The Great SF Stories anthologies edited by Isaac Asimov and Martin Greenberg tended to favour stories originally published in Astounding over stories originally published in Weird Tales or Planet Stories or Thrilling Wonder Stories, which were more female friendly, doesn’t help either. And while August Derleth did a lot of good work keeping the work of Weird Tales authors in print via Arkham House, he also favoured the male contributors to Weird Tales over the women.

The misconception that SFF was a white boys’ club prior to [insert date here] came about because women writers are more likely to be forgotten due to a combination of factors. Sometimes, you can see this happening in real time, e.g. how the Cyberpunks consigned the feminist SF of the 1970s to the memory hole as “stale” and “not worth remembering”. And how many of us bought into this claim hook, line and sinker? I certainly did, until I actually looked at Hugo and Nebula finalists of the 1970s and found not just a whole lot of good works, but also a whole lot of women.

Furthermore, the whole barrage of tactics Joanna Russ outlined in How to Suppress Women’s Writing is also still aimed at the women writers of our genre’s past. Over the past seventy years, Poor Allison V. Harding has been subjected to a whole bunch of them. First, we have “pollution of agency” a.k.a. “She wrote it, but it’s not really art and she isn’t really an artist”. And so Harding’s stories have been dismissed as forgettable fillers that just took up space in the magazine, which could have been filled by H.P. Lovecraft or Robert E. Howard, if they hadn’t died six or respectively seven years before Harding started publishing.

And once people started realising that many of those Allison V. Harding stories are actually pretty good, we get “denial of agency” a.k.a. “She didn’t write it” (the claims that Charles Lamont Buchanan wrote the stories) with a side order of “false categorising” a.k.a. “She wrote it, but she had help”, in this case via categorising Jean Milligan as the girlfriend/wife and possible collaborator of Charles Lamont Buchanan rather than a writer in her own right.

Nor is Allison V. Harding the only victim of these tactics. We can see the same tactics on display with many of the women writers of the golden age and beyond.  For example, early reprint anthologies often attributed the collaborations between Henry Kuttner and C.L. Moore solely to Kuttner, even though we know that almost all of the Lewis Padget and Lawrence O’Donnell stories were collaborations. Thankfully, later day anthologists have corrected this. And as I explained in my Retro Review of “Black God’s Kiss”, C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry stories also get hit with “pollution of agency” a.k.a. “She wrote it, but it’s not really art and she isn’t really an artist” in the form of “Well, those stories are not really sword and sorcery, because they’re not like the Conan stories”.

Frances M. Deegan, prolific contributor to Fantastic Adventures, Amazing Stories and several detective fiction pulps, was long considered a house name used either by the Ziff-Davis assistant editor William Hamling or his wife Frances Yerxa (who was a writer in her own right), even though evidence shows that Frances M. Deegan was a completely different person than Frances Yerxa.

E. Mayne Hull is also usually mentioned only as the wife of A.E. van Vogt, even though she was a writer in her own right. It’s also notable that the 1945 Retro Hugo finalist “The Winged Man” was attributed to both Hull and van Vogt (because ISFDB, which is usually the most reliable source in these matters, insists it’s a collaboration), even though the magazine publication in Astounding lists only Hull as the author.

Meanwhile, Dorothy Quick, who is one of my favourite golden age rediscoveries, is remembered more for having befriended Mark Twain at the age of eleven than for her stories, even though she was a fine writer and prolific contributor to Weird Tales, Unknown and other pulp magazines. Yet very little of her work has been reprinted, whereas much worse stories by male writers which appeared alongside Dorothy Quick’s work have been reprinted.

No one denies that Margaret St. Clair existed or claims that she was really a man, but we mainly remember her for two novels from the 1960s, Sign of the Labrys and The Shadow People, because Gary Gygax decided to list those in the Appendix N to the first edition of the Dungeons & Dragons Dungeon Master’s Handbook. And true, Sign of the Labrys is very good (sadly, I haven’t yet read The Shadow People). However, Margaret St. Clair had a lengthy career ranging from just after WWII to 1981 and wrote many excellent works, most of which are out of print, so we have a clear case of “isolation” a.k.a. “she wrote it, but she only wrote one [or two] of it”.

I don’t think it’s necessarily maliciousness or even intent that causes even well-meaning critics to dismiss the women SFF writers of the golden age and beyond. However, the patterns are very notable. And it’s sad that even though it has been almost forty years since How to Suppress Women’s Writing first came out, we’s still dealing with the same old tactics today.

 

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First Monday Free Fiction: Double-Cross

Double-Cross by Cora BuhlertWelcome to the November 2020 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. Well theoretically, this is the second Monday of November, because I forgot to post the story last week, but it’s still a free story and it will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.

Later this months, I will be releasing two new adventures of Anjali and Mikhail, my pair of intergalactic mercenaries on the run from two regimes that want them dead. So I thought I’d share Double-Cross, an earlier In Love and War adventure, with you today.

I tend to call the In Love and War series space opera romance, because the protagonists are a committed couple having adventures in space, but the individual stories are all over the genre map. This one has a strong cyberpunk vibe, largely because it was inspired by by two pieces of cyberpunk artwork, this one and this one. It also is a science fictional crime story. As with all the In Love and War stories, the cover art is by the hyper-talented Tithi Luadthong.

So accompany Anjali and Mikhail, as they retrieve some stolen medical nanites and deal with a…

Double-Cross

The independent rim world of Kyusu was infamous for its pervasive cloud cover and its constant, never-ending rain.

Landing on Kyusu was dangerous because of the low visibility. Yet its spaceport was one of the biggest on the rim. For Kyusu was also a major hub for both legal and illegal trade along the galactic rim.

The capital Shusaku was a neon-drenched maze of skyscrapers and open air markets offering literally any legal good in the galaxy and most of the illegal ones, too, provided you knew where to look.

A man and a woman strode side by side through the neon labyrinth that was Shukasu, their movements perfectly synched, indicating close companionship.

The man was tall with pale skin, striking blue eyes and long black hair that he wore tied back in a ponytail that was now dripping wet. He was clad in a long back synth-leather coat, the collar of which he’d pulled up against the rain. This was Captain Mikhail Alexeievich Grikov, formerly of the Republican Special Commando Forces, now wanted as a deserter and traitor.

The woman by his side was a good head shorter, with brown skin, sparkling dark eyes and black hair tied into a straggled braid. She was clad in utility pants and an electric blue tunic, topped by a poncho of transparent plastic as protection against the steady downpour. This was Lieutenant Anjali Patel, formerly of the Imperial Shakyri Expeditionary Corps, now wanted as a deserter and traitor.

They’d met on the battlefield of the eighty-eight year war between the Republic of United Planets and the Empire of Worlds, fallen in love and decided to go on the run together. Their flight had brought them to the independent worlds on the galactic rim, the only place in the galaxy where they could live in relative safety, far from the forces of the Empire and the Republic both that pursued them, determined to bring them to heel.

And now their flight had brought them to Kyusu, while their work as mercenaries had brought them to the rain-drenched markets of Shukasu.

Anjali looked up. Before her loomed two towers of stacked up freight containers, covered over and over in neon ads, many of them rendered in the boxy characters of the old script of Kyusu. A makeshift bridge stretched between the two towers, also covered in ads.

“Are you sure this is the right place?” she asked Mikhail, “Because I’m cold and soaking wet and not really keen on trudging through the rain for another couple of hours.”

“The pharmacist we interrogated said ‘the Open Market’. So unless you’re losing your touch…”

“I’m not,” Anjali replied.

The guy had practically peed himself as soon as he saw the dagger with the Shakyri crest at her waist. And afterwards he’d been only too eager to talk. He’d talked like the proverbial waterfall, confessing to every single substance of dubious legality he’d ever sold in his shop. No intimidation necessary, the problem was getting him to stop talking.

“…this should be the place.”

Anjali was still doubtful. “There are dozens, probably hundreds of markets all over the city. How can we be sure that this is the right one?”

In response, Mikhail pointed upwards at the makeshift bridge that stretched between the two towers. It was emblazoned with the words “Open Market” in Standard or rather what the Republicans insisted on calling Standard in their infinite arrogance.

“I’d say that’s a pretty big hint.”

Anjali still wasn’t convinced. “And how do we know that this is the Open Market the guy at the pharmacy was talking about? After all, the place where we found the pharmacist was also called Open Market.”

“Public Market,” Mikhail corrected.

“Same difference.”

“Not if you’re Kyusan, apparently.” Mikhail flashed her a quick smile. The rain pasted a few stray hairs to his forehead. “What’s the matter? I thought you liked markets and shopping.”

“I do,” Anjali said, “But not for days on end and not in constant rain.”

She tried to look dignified in spite of the downpour, but instead she only managed to look like a drowned kitten.

“And besides, we still haven’t found a decent Rajipuri spice merchant in this swamp. Let alone a clothing, jewellery or weapons merchant.”

To Anjali, the quality of a market was directly proportional to the number of Rajipuri merchants to be found there. And the many markets of Kyusu really sucked in that regard. Though she should probably grateful there was no jewellery merchant, cause that would only encourage Mikhail to buy her things they couldn’t afford and that weren’t appropriate for a mere peasant like her anyway.

“We did find a shop that sold bootlegs of Rajipuri vid dramas,” Mikhail reminded her, “You liked those.”

“I just want to know whether they’ll hang Roshani for that murder she didn’t commit or whether she’ll be saved at the last possible minute.”

“She’ll be saved, of course,” Mikhail said, “And then there’ll be a big song and dance number. Isn’t that how those stories always go?”

“Not always,” Anjali said. She’d tried to introduce Mikhail to the joys of Rajipuri vid dramas, but so far he failed to get it, “When I was a kid, we watched a vid drama where the heroine Chandara was actually hanged for a murder her husband committed. Okay, so maybe the fact that the drama was called Trial and Execution should have tipped us off, but it was still a shock. My sister Lalita was in tears for days.”

Mikhail flashed her a quick smile. “What about you?”

“I fantasised about breaking Chandara out of prison and making sure that bastard husband of hers was hanged instead.”

Mikhail winked at her. “You would have pulled it off, too. If Chandra…”

“Chandara.”

“…had been real. But now let’s get on with the mission, so we can go somewhere warm and dry and watch some of your new bootleg vids.”

“Maybe we could first stop at one of those noodle bars that are everywhere,” Anjali said, “Cause a bowl of hot noodles sounds heavenly just now.”

Mikhail nodded. “Sounds good. First mission, then noodles, then home.”

***

So Mikhail and Anjali ventured into the compound of converted shipping containers that made up the Open Market.

The mission was to retrieve a shipment of medical nano-agents that had been stolen from the smuggler kingpin who was hoping to make a fortune with them. Okay, so the client was a crook and the nanos were not just illegal, but also cheap knockoffs of the military grade medical nano-agents that coursed through Mikhail and Anjali’s veins. But a job was a job and beggars couldn’t be choosers. And so they went about their business, scanning the shops that made up the Open Market.

Half of the businesses could be dismissed out of hand. Stalls that sold fresh vegetables and prepared foods, clothing stores, body modification shops or businesses that sold com units and vid players were all unlikely to carry bootleg medical nanos.

“The pharmacist we interrogated did say the guy’s name was Shibuki, right?” Mikhail asked Anjali, when he was both thoroughly wet and thoroughly sick of running about in the rain.

“He definitely said Shibuki,” Anjali confirmed, squeezing water from her braid, “Too bad we don’t know which of these shops is owned by Shibuki, because we can’t read the script.” She shot Mikhail a questioning glance. “You can’t read that, can you?”

The script was similar to the one used on the Republican world of Shubashi. It was logographic script, complicated to learn. And though Mikhail had tried, once upon a long time ago, he’d never been very good at it.

“Not nearly well enough,” he admitted.

“So you can read that.” Anjali looked serious impressed. “Is there any language in the universe you don’t speak or read?”

“There are plenty of languages in the universe I neither speak nor read,” Mikhail countered, “As for this language, I can tell that shop over there offers hot noodles…”

He pointed at a business on the other side of the street, where patrons were sitting along an open bar, slurping noodles.

“…and that the one behind us sells hairstylers…”

“That’s no big deal,” Anjali said, “I can tell what those shops sell just by looking at the displays.”

“However, I can’t tell if any of them are owned by someone named Shibuki.”

“So how do we find this Shibuki then, if we can’t even read the language?” Anjali wanted to know.

Mikhail flashed her a quick smile. “Simple. We ask.”

Since the noodle bar across the road was too busy, they decided to try the hairstyler shop instead.

A chime rang, as they entered. The owner of the shop, a woman in her fifties with a complicated upswept hairdo that suggested she was the best customer of her own devices, bowed profusely and complimented Mikhail and Anjali on their beautiful hair. Then she immediately launched into a spiel about how her hairstylers could arrange that beautiful hair into the most elegant styles in mere minutes.

“I’m sorry,” Mikhail interrupted her, “But actually we’re looking for someone named Shibuki. Do you know where to find him?”

The woman scoffed. “You should rather invest in one of my products than in Shibuki’s services. My products will make you pretty. Shibuki’s just a hack.”

“Oh, we’re not planning on engaging Mr. Shibuki’s services,” Anjali, who’d been studying holos of the hairdos the stylers could produce, said, “We merely need to talk to him. And afterwards, we may be back for some of your very impressive products.”

The woman smiled, her painted lips forming a blood-red crescent. “You’ll find Shibuki’s shop at the corner of Akira and Yuzu Street. But be careful. Shibuki is a crook.”

Anjali replied with a smile and a bow of her own. “Thank you, madam, but I think you’ll find that we can take care of ourselves.”

“You’re not thinking of buying one of those things, are you?” Mikhail asked once they were outside in the rain again. He loved Anjali’s hair just as it was, even now when it was dripping wet, and he wasn’t at all sure how he’d feel about the towering beehives an automatic hairstyler produced.

Anjali shook her head. “Goodness, no. Not my style.” Her voice turned quiet. “I just thought how much Lalita would love something like that.”

Lalita was Anjali’s younger sister, aspiring to become an actress in those silly vid melodramas Anjali liked so much. Anjali hadn’t seen her or the rest of her family in almost ten years now, ever since she left to join the Shakyri Corps and her family disowned her.

Silently, Mikhail reached out to squeeze her hand. Sometimes, he forgot he wasn’t the only one who’d lost his family to the war.

They found Shibuki’s shop exactly where the woman had said it would be, on the corner of two neon-drenched streets. It turned out to be not a pharmacy or a clinic, as they had expected, but a body modification parlour.

“No wonder we couldn’t find it,” Mikhail remarked, “Who would look for medical nanos in a place like this?”

“Well, I guess getting yourself injected with nanos does count as body modification,” Anjali replied, “Besides, the body modification parlour could be a front for his real business.”

Mikhail looked at the shop, at the screens displaying functional piercings, cyber-implants and animated tattoos as well as more traditional forms of body modification.

“Have you ever been inside one of those places?” he asked.

Anjali shook her head. “Nope. A bindi and pierced ears is as far as I’ll go. You?”

Mikhail nodded. “When I was a cadet, I had the names of my parents and my sister tattooed on the inside of my wrist, so I wouldn’t forget them.”

Anjali was still holding his hand. She turned it over and gently pushed up the sleeve of his coat, revealing smooth, unmarked skin. “But…?”

“The nanos erased it, just like they erase all other old scars.” Except for the ones that really mattered.

“I’m sorry.”

“Brian Mayhew said it was all right, that I would always carry their names tattooed on my heart.”

When they entered the parlour, a tattooed and goateed man, Shibuki most likely, was inking a complicated animated tattoo into a customer’s back. The customer was a young man, pale-skinned and blonde. Not Kyusan then, but probably a spacer on shore leave.

Shibuki did not even turn around, he just waved vaguely at them. “Take a seat. I’ll be right with you.”

Mikhail and Anjali exchanged a glance.

“Should we wait?” Mikhail whispered, switching to the Imperial tongue, so they wouldn’t be overheard.

““I don’t know.” Anjali glanced over to where Shibuki was tracing the outline of a foam-crowned ocean wave onto his customer’s back. “Any idea how long that will take?”

Mikhail thought back at the time it took to tattoo three simple names in a dead language onto his wrist ten years ago.

“Too long,” he said and got to his feet.

“Excuse me,” he called out, switching back to Standard.

“I said I’ll be right with you,” Shibuki hissed and mumbled something under his breath in his own language.

Mikhail did not sit down again. “This will only take a minute,” he said, “Madame Yasuhiro sent us.”

The effect was immediate. Shibuki dropped the tattoo gun and ran, vanishing through a beaded curtain into what Mikhail assumed was the backroom.

Anjali sighed, “Why do they always do that?” and set off after him.

The customer sat up, a look of pure confusion in his eyes and a half finished ocean wave tattoo on his back.

“You’d best come back some other time,” Mikhail said to him, “Mr. Shibuki is busy right now.”

The customer nodded mutely, grabbed his coat and shirt and left.

Once he was gone, Mikhail locked the door and lowered the shutters, so they would not be disturbed.

Meanwhile, Anjali had easily caught up with Shibuki and had him in a control hold. She pushed him out of the backroom and onto the chair the customer had just vacated.

Mikhail drew his blaster and levelled it at Shibuki, while Anjali strapped him to the chair with a set of insta-cuffs.

“Is this how far Masako Yasuhiro has fallen that she has to hire offworlders now?” Shibuki spat, struggling futilely against his bonds.

Mikhail settled down on the counter, the blaster casually resting on his thigh. “All right, Mr. Shibuki, let’s make this as easy as possible. My partner and I are here to retrieve a shipment that Madame Yasuhiro seems to have misplaced. Tell us where it is and we’ll be on our way.”

“Do you take me for an idiot? I know how Masako Yasuhiro operates. I tell you where it is and you’ll kill me.”

“We’re troubleshooters, not assassins,” Mikhail countered, “You have my word that if you give us the medical nanites you appropriated, we’ll let you go.”

Shibuki was still defiant. “And what if I don’t?”

Anjali picked up the fallen tattoo gun and switched it on. The gun buzzed, the needle vibrating faster than the eye could see.

“You know, I always wanted to try out one of those,” she said to Mikhail.

“Be careful with that,” Shibuki snarled, a hint of panic in his voice.

Anjali ignored him. “In the Empire in the olden days, criminals and thieves were branded with their crimes. The practice was abolished, but I always thought it was a good idea to warn people, so they know who they’re dealing with.”

She turned to Mikhail.

“How about the word ‘thief’ tattooed on his forehead in colour-changing nano-ink? To warn his customers.”

She leant closer to Shibuki, the buzzing tattoo gun still in her hand.

“Stop,” Shibuki cried, “I’m no thief, I bought the medical nanos from Madame Yasuhiro for a fair price.”

“That’s not what she told us,” Mikhail countered.

“You work for Masako Yasuhiro and you want to warn people about me?” Shibuki exclaimed, “I’ll tell you something about your boss. She’ll double-cross you, because she double-crosses everyone. I bought the nanos from her fair and square. We just had a… a disagreement over the price.”

“That’s an issue you should take up with Madame Yasuhiro,” Mikhail said, “We’re merely here to retrieve the nanos. So if you could just tell us where they are…”

Shibuki practically deflated. “They’re in the bottle with chartreuse nano-ink.”

Mikhail and Anjali exchanged a look. “What the hell is chartreuse?” Mikhail wanted to know.

“Top shelf, second bottle on the right.”

Mikhail picked up the bottle in question. It looked just like the other bottles of nano-ink that Shibuki used for his animated tattoos, except that according to the label, this particular nano-ink came in an ugly, green-yellow colour.

“Looks like snot or puke,” Anjali remarked, “Who the fuck wants a tattoo in such an ugly colour?”

“No one,” Shibuki said, “That’s why I’m using it to hide the medical nanos. Because nobody in their right mind ever chooses that colour.”

Mikhail put the bottle in a pocket of his coat. Mission accomplished.

“All right, you’ve got the nanos,” Shibuki whined, “Now let me go. You promised.”

Mikhail nodded to Anjali who put down the tattoo gun and released the insta-cuffs that bound Shibuki to the chair.

However, Mikhail still kept him covered with his blaster. “No false moves. We leave and you can reopen your shop.”

“Reopen my shop?” Shibuki emitted a bitter laugh. “I’ll pack up my stuff and make a run for it and hope I can get out of the city before Masako Yasuhiro finds me.”

***

Some twenty minutes later, Mikhail and Anjali were strolling side by side through a street that was lined with eateries offering all sorts of delicacies.

Anjali cats a surreptitious glance over her shoulder.

“What’s wrong?” Mikhail asked quietly.

“I have a feeling we’re being watched.”

She paused and looked around again. The street was bustling with people, all engaged in business of their own.

“I can’t see anything, not even Kyusan Peacekeepers. Maybe I’m just paranoid.”

Mikhail shook his head. “I trust your instincts. So let’s be careful and stay alert.”

Anjali’s stomach chose that moment to grumble. “I’m still hungry,” she said, “So what about those noodles you promised me?”

Mikhail nodded and pointed at a shop a little down the street where the customers were sitting outside, slurping bowls of noodles. “That looks promising. So what do you say?”

A few minutes later, Mikhail and Anjali were sitting at one of the colourful plastic tables on the sidewalk outside the restaurant, a bowl of hot noodles in front of them. The food was excellent. The broth was hot and spicy, the noodles had just the right texture and the various toppings — seaweed flakes, chopped scallions, pickled vegetables, soy balls and a poached egg — complemented the noodles perfectly.

But in spite of the fine food, Anjali still felt that tell-tale prickle at the back of her neck that someone was watching them, stalking them. Once, she even thought that she’d spotted a flicker of movement from the corner of her eye. But when she turned around, all she saw was a large vid display on the side of a building that played what looked like a Kyusan vid drama.

Mikhail shot her a concerned look. “You’ve still got that feeling?”

Anjali nodded. “What about you?”

Mikhail considered for a moment, then he nodded. “I can’t put my finger on it, but something is wrong.”

“So what do we do?” Anjali asked.

“Finish our noodles, deliver the cargo and head back to our quarters.”

But they never got that far.

It was the briefest of moments. The tell-tale red dot of the targeting system of a sniper rifle, reflected for a split second in a condiment bottle on the table. But it was enough.

“Down,” Anjali yelled and hit the floor. Less than a second later, a projectile ripped through the awning of the noodle bar and lodged itself in the counter.

All around, the patrons screamed and made a run for it. Tables and chairs, bowls, glasses, chopsticks, noodles and condiment bottles went flying everywhere.

Anjali and Mikhail sought cover behind the counter, which was solid enough that a regular projectile could not penetrate it. They both had their weapons drawn.

“Fuck! I knew someone was watching us,” Anjali exclaimed.

“Can you see where the sniper is?”

Cautiously, Anjali peered over the edge of the counter and scanned the street, that was suddenly a lot emptier, now the civilians had fled. On the wall display she’d noted earlier, an over-made-up woman was engaged in what appeared to be a tense scene with a silver-haired man. Her complicated hairdo was marred by a human silhouette bearing a rifle.

“Up there, at the wall display.”

Another movement caught her eye. Not at the display, but along the wires that stretched across the street.

“Bad news. There’s two of them.”

“You sure?”

Anjali nodded. “The sniper and another who’s sitting on the wires. That one doesn’t seem to have a rifle, just…”

Anjali peered over the edge of the counter again.

“Looks like some kind of knife or… nope, it’s a sword.”

“Not the Republic then,” Mikhail said.

Anjali looked at the two dark figures again. They were clearly professionals, but they did not move like any soldiers she’d ever seen.

“Nor the Empire either.”

Mikhail fired over the edge of the counter into the general direction of the sniper, but only hit the wall display. It exploded in a shower of sparks and parts of the image went dark.

The sniper answered with a projectile that shattered a bowl and dumped broth and noodles onto them both.

“Must be local talent,” Mikhail remarked.

“But who? Shibuki? Cause he didn’t strike me like the type to pull off a stunt like this.”

Anjali peered over the edge of the counter again. “Fuck, the one with the sword is dropping to the street.”

“Is the street clear?”

Anjali nodded. “All civilians have fled. Just them and us.”

Mikhail’s eyes met hers. “All right. I’ll take care of the sniper, you handle the one with the sword.”

The second attacker had almost reached the ground now. He was clad in a black utility coverall. Above the damaged wall display, the sniper was still keeping watch.

Anjali and Mikhail nodded at each other and burst into action.

Mikhail jumped to his feet, his own blaster drawn. He fired. The sniper returned fire, but Mikhail was quicker. He dove for cover and the sniper’s bullet only hit a pot of noodles that was still simmering on the stove. They exchanged fire once more, then the sniper cried out and fell from the display onto the awning of a shop selling fragrant dumplings in wicker baskets.

Anjali did not even wait for Mikhail to do his part. She vaulted over the counter and met the second attacker on the rain-slick street. The man had his sword drawn. In response, Anjali drew her dagger.

For a few seconds, they just circled each other. The assassin suddenly lunged with his sword, but Anjali sidestepped his attack. Undaunted, the man swung his sword in a wide arc that would have decapitated Anjali, had she not ducked just in time.

However, the attack also left the swordsman’s flank wide open. Anjali used that chance and kicked him in the side with all her power. The man staggered, but he did not fall, not yet. And he still had the sword.

Time to change that. While the swordsman was off-balance, Anjali attacked again, this time aimed her kick at his wrist. Her foot connected and the man yelped, but he did not lose his sword.

He swung his sword once more at her, while Anjali slashed at him with her dagger. His blade only managed to slash the sleeve of plastic raincoat she wore. Anjali was luckier and drew blood. Only a little, but it was enough to slow the attacker down.

And then Mikhail was there, attacking the swordsman from the other side and drawing his attention long enough that Anjali could ram her dagger into his thigh. It was only a flesh wound, but it was enough to drive the attacker to one knee.

He tried to get up again at once, but the ever present rain came to their aid and the swordsman slipped in a puddle.

The fall itself wasn’t very bad, if the attacker’s sword hadn’t gotten in the way, neatly impaling him.

Both Mikhail and Anjali rushed to the swordsman’s side, but it was too late. The man was dying.

“Who?” Mikhail demanded, “Who hired you?”

The man looked at them. “Madame Yasuhiro,” he said, blood trickling from his mouth.

Anjali and Mikhail exchanged another glance.

“So Shibuki was right. Yasuhiro did try to double-cross us.” Anjali shook her head. “Where do you find those crooked clients?”

“They’re not all crooks,” Mikhail replied, ever so slightly wounded.

In the distance, the sirens of Peacekeeper groundcars wailed, drawing steadily closer.

“I suggest we leave, now.”

Anjali nodded. “And then?”

“Then we’ll pay a visit to Madame Yasuhiro.”

***

Masako Yasuhiro had hired the best security money could buy. But it wasn’t enough to keep a very angry and very determined Shakyri warrior and an equally determined and equally angry ex-member of the Republican Special Commando Forces out of her luxurious penthouse office atop one of Shusaku’s tallest buildings.

And so, once they’d disabled her security system and taken out her bodyguards, Mikhail and Anjali burst into the office of Masako Yasuhiro, their respective weapons drawn.

Masako Yasuhiro rose, as they entered, hands held to her sides, clearly visible. She was a striking woman, no longer young, but endowed with the smooth agelessness that cost a fortune to buy. Her jet-black hair was pulled into an intricate up-do and provided a stark contrast to her elegant white gown.

“So I take it you have recovered my merchandise, Mr. Grikov, Miss Patel. But why burst in here instead of making an appointment like civilised people?”

“You know why,” Anjali said, keeping her blaster trained on Masako, “By the way, those assassins you sent after us won’t be coming back.”

“That’s a pity,” Masako Yasuhiro said, “And they came so highly recommended, too. Still, it seems that I underestimated you. And since you’re here, I suspect you’ll want your payment.”

Untroubled by the blasters trained on her, Masako rounded her desk and pressed her thumb to a scanner concealed inside what appeared to be an antique cabinet. The door opened and Masako withdrew a small bag of synth-silk.

“Pearls,” she said, “Natural pearls. Extremely rare, extremely valuable and — unlike credits — untraceable. I suspect you prefer it that way.”

She tossed the bag at Anjali who caught it with one hand, the other still holding the blaster.

Anjali opened the bag and glanced inside. She’d only seen pearls in vid dramas so far, but these sure looked like the real deal. Her brother Milan would know for sure. After all, the last time she’d seen him, he’d been an apprentice silversmith, dealing with materials way too precious for a mere peasant like her.

“And now, if I could have my merchandise,” Masako said.

In response, Mikhail took the bottle of ugly green nano-ink from his pocket and set it down next to a potted plant that looked like a full-size tree shrunken to miniature size.

“Why?” he asked, “Why did you try to double-cross us? It can’t be about the payment, since you’re clearly willing and able to pay.”

Masako settled down behind her desk again. “I know who you are, who you really are.”

She pressed a button and an old service portrait of Mikhail, with his hair still cut brutally short, appeared on the wall screen behind her.

“Grikov, Mikhail Alexeievich, Captain, former member of the Republican Special Commando Forces, wanted for desertion, defection and high treason. And…”

Masaki swiped across the air and another image appeared, a service portrait of Anjali in the green and gold uniform of the Shakyri Corps.

“Patel, Anjali, Lieutenant, member of the Imperial Shakyri Expeditionary Corps, wanted for desertion, high treason and fraternising with the enemy.”

Masako raised a perfectly arched eyebrow.

“The prize on both your heads is extremely impressive, too.”

“Is that why you did it?” Anjali demanded, “To collect the bounty for us?”

“Oh, please.” Masako rose again and picked up the bottle of medical nanos disguised as tattoo ink. “The bounty would merely have been a bonus — it does say dead or alive, after all. But the real prize is the blood flowing through both your veins. Or rather what is contained therein.”

Masako placed the bottle in her concealed safe.

“Don’t look so shocked, Mr. Grikov. I deal in bootleg medical nano-agents. Of course, I know what the secret of the Republican Special Commando Forces is. My bootlegs are only a pale copy. The nanos in your veins, Mr. Grikov, are the real deal and worth a fortune. Even better…”

Masako closed the safe again.

“…it appears the same nanos are flowing through your veins as well, Miss Patel. Which is fascinating. For personally, I had no idea that sexual transmission of medical nanos was even possible.”

“It’s not,” Anjali said.

“It wasn’t like that,” Mikhail said.

Masako cut them off with a dismissive wave of her hand.

“It’s really none of my business. And now take your payment and leave.”

“And why should we do that, considering you tried to double-cross us?” Mikhail wanted to know.

“He’s right,” Anjali added, “Why shouldn’t we take you out here and now? Or better yet, call in the Peacekeepers, so they can tear your operation apart.”

Masako seemed utterly unruffled by the threat. “Yes, I suppose you could do that. On the other hand, I’m a professional and I know when I’ve lost. And if you leave now, you still have enough time to buy a passage off world, before the representatives of your government arrive. Both your governments.”

“You called in the Republic?” Mikhail demanded.

“And the Empire?”

“Of course. They’re paying good money, even for your exsanguinated corpses. And I am, above all, a businesswoman. And I think you’re, too.”

Masako rose and bowed to them, a clear note of respect in her bearing.

“It was nothing personal,” she said, “And the pearls are worth more than the bootleg nanos, much more. So I suggest you take the pearls and run. Leave Kyusu and live to fight another day. After all…”

She bowed again, deeper this time.

“…we’re all professionals here.”

The End…

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new story will be posted.

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The Mandalorian Deals with Monsters and the Troubles of Parenthood in “The Passenger”

It’s time for my episode by episode reviews of season 2 of The Mandalorian again. Previous installments (well, actually just one and an aggregate review of season 1) may be found here.

And yes, I’m still annoyed at whoever thought it was a good idea to have Star Trek Discovery and The Mandalorian air not just at the same time, but on consecutive days. Have some consideration for the reviewers, particularly those of us who are not tied to the big pop culture websites.

Warning: Spoilers beyond this point! Continue reading

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Star Trek Discovery Deals with Trauma and Recovery in “Forget Me Not”

Here is the latest installment in my ongoing episode by episode reviews of season 3 of Star Trek Discovery. Reviews of previous episodes may be found here.

Warning: Spoilers behind the cut! Continue reading

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