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Excerpt for The Astonishing by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

BY

PETER ORULLIAN

BASED ON THE ORIGINAL STORY BY

JOHN PETRUCCI














ALSO BY PETER ORULLIAN


The Unremembered

Trial of Intentions

The Sound of Broken Absolutes

The Vault of Heaven – Story Volume One

Beats of Seven

At the Manger


(Forthcoming collaboration with Brandon Sanderson)

(Forthcoming – Wired for Madness with Jordan Rudess)




The Astonishing

Copyright © 2019 by John Petrucci

All rights reserved.


This is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations, and events portrayed in this novel are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously.


Printed in the United States of America


Dust jacket illustration by Aurélien Rantet.

Dust jacket design by STK•Kreations.

Map by Sean Mosher-Smith.


Published by Descant Publishing

PO Box 13017

Mill Creek, WA 98082

www.Orullian.com




TABLE OF CONTENTS


NOTE FROM JOHN PETRUCCI

AUTHOR’S NOTE

FOREWORD BY DAVID CAMPBELL

THE ASTONISHING

AFTERWORD BY RICHIE CANNATA

SHORT STORY: SONG TWO-THIRTY-SEVEN

GENESIS OF THE ASTONISHING

INTERVIEWS

LYRICS

SONG–BY–SONG BREAKDOWN

FINAL SYNOPSIS BY JOHN PETRUCCI

ABOUT THE AUTHORS






NOTE

JOHN PETRUCCI



IN THE MONTHS before the release of our self-titled album, I was in London doing some press engagements for the record. In my hotel room, I got hit with this idea that would later become, “A Life Left Behind.” I came up with the verse, chords, and melody, and sang it into my iPhone. I remember thinking, This has the vibe of a concept album. And that was the spark.

I realized the first thing I needed to do was write a story that we could base everything on. I didn’t want it to be haphazard. I didn’t want it to be loose. I wanted to have a specific foundation of a story.

We were headed out on tour soon, so I began framing the story in a mobile way, making notes as to what I wanted the story to be about. I’d jot something down on paper, or capture thoughts on my phone. Sometimes it was bullet points answering questions like: What’s the focus? What’s the main theme of the story? I began jotting down character names and other details that came to me in stream-of-consciousness sessions that occurred in the lounge of the tour bus or in the dressing room or at home on a break while I was driving somewhere. It was on my mind now. Things I was hearing and seeing in my life were informing it all.

Finally, I realized I needed to sit down and write the story. So, I sat at my laptop and wrote the title, and then started typing. I did dozens of revisions until I got it to a point that I felt like it was presentable to the guys. I bounced a lot of things off my wife Rena, who’s creative and a great sounding board. I tried to be disciplined about it, which meant I did the writing anywhere I could: airplanes, buses, you name it.

As I was putting the proposal together to show the band, I knew it was ambitious and would ask a lot of them, as well as of the fans and record label. It would be expensive and involved. But I had a certain fire to see it all through. Because of that, most of the critical decisions were made up front. I wanted it to be a show with two acts in presentation. I wanted it to be a double CD of two hours of music. I wanted to use a real orchestra, real choir, real piano, etc. I wanted to do a novel, a game, a Broadway show, and more. All of this was part of a fairly comprehensive outline I showed the guys once I had it all laid out.

There were question marks like, “Should we have guest vocalists?” That came later once we started having real discussions about the record. But a lot of the plan was laid out well in advance, even down to Jordan and me getting together in the privacy of our houses, just piano and guitar, to really hash out the themes, etc. I’d tried to think it all through ahead of time.

And while it presented a challenge to bring it all together, it’s been a satisfying journey to see it through.

That journey began in earnest right after the tour of the self-titled album. We knew The Astonishing was going to take a long time to create. So, rather than taking any real down time, Jordan and I began getting together almost immediately. We spent a few days a week in each other’s homes, developing iPhone recordings and song-seeds into more fleshed out musical ideas, recording them into software for a few months.

But at some point, working out of our homes wasn’t conducive to the process. So, we continued writing the score to the story in the studio with our engineer, Rich. And we did that for a few months more. But while we were writing it, we were actually doing pre-production with a click-track and mapping out all the sections. So, by the time we were done, and as we sent it to the guys, they had mature guides and demos to work with as they approached their parts. Then, one at a time, the guys came in to record the drums, and bass, etc.

The whole time we were sending these recordings to David Campbell, who was in California, so he could come up with the arrangements, which he then recorded in Prague and L.A. We recorded real piano, a Steinway Grand, and Hammond B3 at a separate studio. It was a huge project to manage. And the mix process was involved.

So, procedurally, it was different from most of our other albums, since the whole band didn’t move into the studio and record together all at once. And it took months and months to accomplish.

Obviously, now the album is done and we’ve toured extensively to support it. We released a game. And the novel has become a reality. Longer term, I’m still hopeful of seeing it as a live production, whether on Broadway or off-Broadway or as a one-off. I look at it as an evolving thing. And I’d love to see the various characters presented in that way.

As much as the characters, though—and maybe more—what I’m passionate about with The Astonishing from a story perspective is the theme, which for me has two parts. With music as a center-point, there’s this idea that not only music itself, but the act of creating music is so essential to who we are as people, and that the absence of music or the ability to create music would create chaos in the world, dystopia on a mass level. That was a powerful concept that I was writing and creating the story and characters around.

The second piece is the whole technology idea, which is where the scifi comes in. But it’s really based on what’s happening now, where so many things and jobs and actions that people used to do are being replaced by machines and automation. It makes you wonder how far is that going to go? Are we going to get to the point that even the creative arts are no longer done by people. I’ve seen these insane videos of machines playing guitars and drums, etc. Does it get to a point that they do it so much better than a person ever could that people just throw their hands up and say, “Screw it, I’ll do something else?” Is it like self-driving cars, where people ask why would I do it myself? Can creative arts be put into that same box?

My contention is that even if machines can do it better, humans need not just to hear music but create it. Creating is essential. It not only helps us express our humanity, it’s part of how we are human.

So, I’d say the concept of the story and those two ideas were maybe bigger at the onset than writing around the characters. But the characters grew and helped me land the themes of the story, and do so that much more here in the novel.

The Astonishing has been a meaningful journey for me. Everything from the process of such a large project, to the story themes, to the music, to the unique performance approach we took, it’s been a rewarding experience. I’m grateful to everyone who’s been a part of it.

And I’m excited to be able to share part of that initial vision with you in this novel. It’s going to take what you know and like about The Astonishing a little bit further. I couldn’t be happier with how it’s turned out. I hope you love what Peter’s done with the story as much as I do.


Enjoy!

John Petrucci

Winter 2017






NOTE

PETER ORULLIAN



TELLING STORIES ABOUT music isn’t new to me. It’s the perfect meld of my two greatest passions: stories and music. In fact, my fantasy series—The Vault of Heaven from Tor Books—is precisely that, with a music magic system centered on music principles. So, when it turned out that Dream Theater’s concept album, The Astonishing, was about music, it seemed a natural fit for me as a writer.

But perhaps some deeper context is important. I’d moved to Seattle to study with famed vocal instructor David Kyle, who trained the likes of Geoff Tate, Ann Wilson, and Layne Staley. During that time, I worked for Xbox, which provided an important touch-point for me with DT. I was doing some promotional work, and flew to NY to conduct an event with the band. I’d met them once or twice at after-parties when they were on tour. But this was a whole day hanging out, and then a whole evening at dinner. Good times.

It formed enough of a relationship that when The Astonishing was announced, I was able to shoot some of the guys a note suggesting a novelization. Turns out John already had that in mind. And truth be told, he had his pick of authors to write it. In fact, I know several who wanted the gig. But because I had an email address I was likely among the first to send a proposal.

Not long after, John and I had an extended phone conversation in which he shared deeply about the record. I, in turn, shared with him my writing and music background. Once I’d understood more about the core concept, I felt it was important for John to know that I had working knowledge not just of narrative structure, but voice and vocal performance, as I’d trained and been on tour with metal bands. My belief was that it would help me write with an authenticity that would be hard to find elsewhere.

John, though, is a smart and patient cat. He essentially had me audition. He wanted a sample chapter. I asked him which song or scene, since he’d forwarded me the album in advance of its release. He chose “A Savior in the Square.” So, I took a bit of time, wrote it up, and sent it to him.

The short story is: He liked it.

The longer story is that, meanwhile, James Labrie had dug into all my other books and short fiction and was delivering John the “book reports.” Turns out James loved my work, and gave it the thumbs up to John.

It’s probably also important to note that I’m a DT fan. I care about this project. Some writers dream of getting to novelize Star Wars or Star Trek. Both would be awesome, for sure. But getting to collaborate with DT, for me, beat all other collaborative scenarios.

It eventuated in eight or ten very long phone calls with John while he was on tour. We crawled through all his notes. I asked a thousand questions. I pitched new ideas on the fly. And we both got those goose bumps you get when something feels right and excites your imagination.

After that, I set to helping shepherd the book to the right publisher for this edition—a beautiful, comprehensive artifact that core DT fans could collect and treasure. I wanted there to be something that carried a bit of import to it.

Once we landed the publisher, I started to write in earnest. John had given me complete creative license to expand on the core narrative. And I did just that. New characters. Subplots. Backstory. World expansion and world building. In the process, I borrowed some of the more appropriate ideas from my other novels where music plays a role of magical influence. They were perfectly suited to how I envisioned Gabriel’s gift working. And then I took that further in this more post-apocalyptic, dystopian setting. I won’t lie: It was fun as hell!

There were also elements of the album I recognized where John—with a limited number of words and a more audio-visual depiction—had used some shorthand in his storytelling, and had, of necessity, left things out. My advantage with the novel is that I had more room to grow and explain and get inside the characters’ heads. And that’s what I’ve done.

Having worked for Microsoft, I’m a technology fan—an early adopter in many regards. But I’m also painfully aware of the degree to which it can place distance between us and humanity. And when you couple that with a conceit that suggests technology replace music and music creation … let’s just say the theme struck a chord with me. Corporations work hard to try and leverage music in their campaigns, because they know there are few if any passion points stronger than music. And they mostly fail, because music is so intensely personal. That’s part of its beauty. It’s why I personally dislike music distribution models that use gatekeepers or tastemakers to influence what music we should get to hear and enjoy. I’ll step down off my soapbox now.

Suffice it to say that I enjoyed exploring the theme John had set forth. I think it’s an important topic, as well as one that, hopefully, set the groundwork for a ripping good yarn.

I was honored to be a part of this project. I thank John for trusting me with something he cares so much about. And to Jordan and James and John and Mike, who gave me their time, too, with thoughtful conversation and responses to my inquiries. It’s a unique group of musicians, as I’m sure you’d agree.

With that, have at it! I very humbly hope you enjoy the book.


Peter Orullian

Winter 2017






FOREWORD

DAVID CAMPBELL



FIRST, IT WAS an exciting and then, a daunting invitation. Dream Theater had just reached out to me to help them arrange the music for their momentous album, The Astonishing. It was exciting to think about working with a band with the awesome artistry and virtuosity of Dream Theater, but it was daunting, due to the magnitude of the project and the amount of work it would require to pull it off. We would produce more than two hours of seriously substantial music, in great quantities, employing big forces: a symphony orchestra, a large choir, various folk-related ensembles, etc. It would become the most extensive band project on my resume.

Once I dug into the project, I found it interesting to compare it with earlier masterworks and artistic styles of past eras.

The Astonishing follows the tradition of grand opera, particularly Wagner’s dramatic stories, like Götterdämmerung, a dark, cataclysmic tale. These works from the 19th century utilized a large orchestra, a robust opera chorus and some new specialty instruments that were invented at the time, in order to make a louder impact, lower lows, more heroic fanfares. Wagner was trying to overwhelm the audience with sonic power, before the arrival of contemporary rock technology like electric guitar, deep bass, and elaborate rock drum kits. Some musicians would say that Wagner’s operatic spectacles were the precursors of metal music, progressive rock and dense electronica.

In that same 19th century era, composers wrote “Tone Poems”—music based on literary works. It was large orchestral music that inspired the listener to imagine scenes, stories and characters, using the orchestra to tell the story without narration. A notable example: Richard Strauss wrote Thus Spoke Zarathustra, based on a novel by Nietzche, again taking place in a dark world of philosophic struggle, involving an Übermensch—a super-human character. This piece of music is one you will surely recognize if you watch the “Dawn of Man” opening of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

A little earlier, Franz Liszt wrote numerous big orchestral pieces inspired by literary work written by Dante, or based on dark dramas like Faust or Hamlet.

The music of The Astonishing developed from John Petrucci’s fully conceived story idea, in similar fashion to those 19th century works. The story of The Astonishing, set in a totalitarian society that made humanly created music a relic of the past, is right in line with those earlier tales of epic consequences and philosophic struggles. While one might think that a society without humans making music is unlikely, we’ve had examples in fairly recent history of music being forcibly removed from daily life. For instance, earlier this century, the Taliban in Afghanistan banned the use of music except for ceremonial drum dirges. And in the 20th century, China endured the “Cultural Revolution”, which viewed the act of listening to Western music or owning instruments such as the classical violin as a criminal activity. Ironically, now that the “Cultural Revolution” is long gone, where do you find the greatest number of classical music students? In China. (Reportedly, at least one million Chinese children are learning classical violin, and playing Mozart, Beethoven, and other Western composers.)

Clearly, the concepts of banning music in society, and then the redemption and re-embracing of music after governmental policy is changed, are not as fictional as one might assume.

Today, one could argue that there is a variation developing on this theme. Music is more prevalent and accessible than ever, but fewer people are willing to pay for it, or even understand that it is a product of hard working professionals. Something so constant in people’s lives—music—has lowered in monetary value to the point where some musicians, just like Gabriel, the hero of The Astonishing, might find no viable profession in music while living in such a cultural climate. Theoretically, the music making and composing in our current culture could die out if the musicians can no longer feed themselves via creating music. It’s an ironic twist that could foreshadow a future along the lines of The Astonishing.

The idea of elaborate, allegoric tales re-imagined on rock albums has a substantial tradition as well. For instance, Rush envisioned a future society on 2112, and years later released a novelized version of their 2012 album Clockwork Angels.

Some might call The Astonishing a musical, but due to its big philosophic concepts, fabled story line, and hefty orchestral/choral backdrop, it rides confidently on the road paved by Wagner, Liszt, Rush and other epic musical storytellers.

It was an unforgettable experience to be part of the production of The Astonishing. Some days, while racing with time to pull off this elaborate and challenging project, I humorously thought about how much drive and speed was mustered by the heroes in those other literary works, and how that heroism inspired composers to create the thrilling music that followed. Dream Theater was certainly inspired in a similar way, by their own original storyline.


— David Campbell, Los Angeles, Fall 2017




BY

PETER ORULLIAN


BASED ON THE ORIGINAL STORY BY

JOHN PETRUCCI






PROLOGUE

YEAR 2277



THE SUN CAME down heavy. The air smelled of dry grass. Most days, there’d be a southeast wind brushing the blades together to form whispers only the wind and grass could understand. But along this long road that traveled out of the Borderland, the very edge of the Great Northern Empire, Gabriel waited in silence. A rare silence. Not because of heavy sun or dry grass or vacant winds. The silence was rare because neither his own songs nor those of the Empire’s noise machines—the people called them NOMACS—disturbed the stillness. Beside him on the migrant road his brother, Arhys, waited, staring down the highway with a furrowed brow. A contingent of Arhys’ militia watched with him. An escort of sorts. And in the moments after dawn, the sound of slumping steps rose in the distance.

The slow footfalls were music of a kind. A tired drone. Traveling field workers returning from spring harvests in the South Republic, where they slaved as loaned labor from the emperor. It pricked his conscience that the people of Ravenskill, people like these walking home again, paid him, and Arhys, and all the militia fighters for their service. What little they could keep for their work didn’t go far, but they portioned out some to keep the Ravenskill militia going.

“Do you see her?” Arhys asked soft as a whisper. Though his voice wasn’t good at it.

Someone else might not have heard the deep strain in his brother’s voice. Gabriel did. Maybe because it was his brother. Maybe because he had a sense of people. The sound of them.

“She’ll be here,” Gabriel assured. “Evangeline is stubborn. She married you, didn’t she?”

An old joke. But still good for half a smile.

The first of the Empire’s field laborers stopped at a rusted gate, where transport soldiers from the South Republic handed readmission documents to G.N.E. border guards. Routine exchange. But the enemy fighters still eyed each other with suspicion as each laborer was examined for damage and counted.

“They treat them like cattle,” Arhys spoke low and through his teeth. “But not much longer.”

“This isn’t the time.” Gabriel placed a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “They’re threshers and pickers. Machine drivers. Too weak to fight. The South will have walked them miles to bring them back just strong enough to pass—”

Gabriel stopped, knowing his brother’s wife should be among the hundreds being checked back into the Empire’s populace logs.

“And they’ll undercount by one,” Arhys said cryptically.

But Gabriel understood. “Evangeline is strong,” he said. “Your child will be fine.”

“She shouldn’t have gone. I shouldn’t have let her go.” Arhys started toward the gate.

Soldiers on each side of the entry raised pulse rifles toward Arhys, who’d worn field clothes today. His militia uniform would have gotten him shot on sight.

Gabriel grabbed his brother’s arm, pulling him to an abrupt stop. “Just where do you think Evangeline is in that line? Think about it.”

Arhys looked down the impossibly long queue of field-hands. “She’ll be last. She’ll make sure the rest pass through before her.”

“So relax.” Gabriel gave his brother’s arm a shake, then let go. “Let’s not get shot before she even gets here.”

“You afraid of getting shot, little brother?”

Another old joke. Good for a full smile, though. “You’re God damn right.”

So, they stood as the sun strengthened behind them. A mild breeze finally did kick up, sweeping the knee-high grasses along the road. It was the kind of day that would otherwise make you forget about human tariffs. Forget about the collapse of what they once called a constitutional government. People voting. What, two hundred years gone by? Now there were a dozen smaller Americas. Each with visions of their own. All fighting one another. Except when they had to share essentials.

Like human labor. Things machines couldn’t do for them.

“Oh God,” Arhys whispered.

Gabriel looked around fast. Evangeline was indeed last, and being helped by an older woman. She was emaciated. Frail. Sweat stood out on her dark skin. And she was gripping her belly down low. Where the baby would be.

And still, when she caught Arhys’ eyes, her face brightened a touch. She waved.

Arhys started forward fast, moving to intercept her at the gate.

“Stand back!” a border guard commanded.

Arhys didn’t seem to hear him. Or ignored the command.

A half second later, the guard focused his aim on Arhys and fired.

A deep pulse pushed fast through the space between them, dropping Arhys to the ground. His body folded, his muscles flexing, constricting. His face pulled into a rictus of pain.

Gabriel got fast to his brother’s side. “Breathe through it. Relax your back.”

The pulse shivered across Arhys’ skin, raising it in painful-looking bumps.

Mutters erupted from the line of field workers. They all knew Arhys. He’d stood to defend many of them. And a few began to mill nervously, angrily.

Gabriel held up a hand toward them. “We’re fine. Let’s just finish the transfer.” He shared a look with Evangeline. He’s all right.

But she didn’t look good, herself. How long had she been walking in such obvious pain. The child wasn’t due for six weeks.

Arhys grabbed Gabriel’s shirt, twisting it in his fist. “Sooner or later you’re going to have to do it.”

This was old, too. More argument than amusement, though. Arhys meant Gabriel’s sense of people. Their sound. He had an understanding of music as a human expression. So different from than machines of the Empire. And he’d seen it move people. Change them. Arhys thought it a gift. A weapon. Something the Empire couldn’t control. Gabriel wasn’t so sure. Sometimes it felt just like another yolk. Not too different from the kind the slave laborers wore—an expectation you couldn’t escape or understand.

Evangeline had just passed through the gate, when a new droning filled the air. Far away at first, but approaching fast. Moments later, three NOMACs appeared over the eastern hills. They were spherical, fitted with multiple lenses, armed with discharge arrays, and possessed of acoustic amplifiers that could throw sound in broad patterns or tightly focused bursts. They also acted as a communication net—roving signal transponders that connected to the Empire’s data space—perhaps the Empire’s greatest asset and weapon.

The machines swept down toward the crowd, one briefly blocking the sun as it came to hover directly over them.

Another NOMAC disappeared to the south—precautionary surveillance—sometimes the Southern Republic took back labor after it was checked in. The census accounts would appear correct, but field hands would be diverted back to Southern Republic tobacco and corn crops.

The third NOMAC began a broad loop around the entire valley—a video feed for the Empire’s remote combat team. Mostly a waste. The Empire would sacrifice field hands before deploying a fully trained contingent. Resource management was a science of precarious balances.

The southern soldiers started to withdraw.

“Hold tight,” said an imperial guard. “Just until we scan ‘em through.”

A shrill pitch erupted in the valley. It came almost inaudibly high. But it bit at the back of Gabriel’s head, like an ice pick pushing up into his cranium.

The others didn’t seem to hear it. Not in the same way, anyhow. Gabriel tried to block it out, shoving his palms against his ears. But it was no use. The sound moved along a spectrum beyond simple audio. Or in addition to it.

And he sensed what it was for. It sought the signatures inside them all. Validating them as surely as a fingerprint would. Only more authentically. It resonated down inside them, identifying them uniquely, making the accounting complete in a way paper and road tattoo permits never could.

This was new.

And it hurt like every last hell. Like a scouring sand wind-whipped against the skin. Only inside.

Then it was gone. The note abruptly ceased, echoing down the road in thin receding waves. And behind it, a smaller sound. A weak cry as knees met the road, and Evangeline collapsed.

Arhys forced himself to his feet, fighting the convulsions still wracking his body. The NOMACS took no interest, coming to form a line fifty feet above them at the borderline, slowly rotating.

The old woman who’d been supporting Evangeline was at her side, propping her head with a rolled up woolen jacket. “The child’s coming.”

“It’s too soon!” Arhys argued, taking Gabriel’s hand for support.

Gabriel helped his brother to Evangeline’s side. She stared up at them over gaunt cheeks. “Not how I pictured it,” she said with a weak smile.

“It’ll make a good story,” Arhys replied. “Now, save your strength.”

She nodded, while the people of Ravenskill—laborer and militia—formed a broad circle around her, turning their backs to give them privacy.

Gabriel noted the soft hum of the NOMACs above. When they weren’t issuing their dissonant songs or blaring notes, the soft hum was almost musical. Almost.

Over the next four hours, Evangeline struggled. Her body was weak. And there wasn’t much comfort or refreshment for her labor.

Arhys held her hand throughout, speaking softly to her. Encouraging her. Loving her the only way a man can when he’s mostly useless and worried and proud. And finally the child came. Its feeble cry fell flat against the whir of the NOMACs. The flying machines, as though completing a witness of the birth, then flew off to the northeast again, leaving the road in a heavy silence.

One of Arhys’ men removed his shirt and handed it to the old woman, who wrapped the child and gently placed him in his mother’s arms.

“Xander,” she said softly, giving the child a name. Her eyelids dropped, closed, and she sighed with exhaustion.

“Evangeline?” Arhys stroked her cheek with his rough fingertips.

She tried a smile to answer. It trembled on her lips.

Gabriel had seen this too many times. How in God’s name could this happen? With the technology to make machines fly, and communicate over long distances, and look into the body of a man to know him. How did childbirth put a woman in such mortal danger?

The simple answer was that some had access to the keys of the kingdom. Others did not.

Arhys locked Evangeline with his serious gaze. “Xander won’t live like us. He’ll be safe. And he’ll have opportunities … he’ll be free.”

She might have smiled. It was such a slight thing, it was hard to tell. Then her breathing slowed. Her arms fell loose around the child. She never did look up again at Arhys before breathing her last.

The old woman retrieved the child as Arhys looked down at his dead wife. “No, Evangeline.” He shook his head. “No.”

There was dogged determination in his voice. He was willing her back to life. Defying her death. The anger of grief and desperation of loneliness filled his words. Arhys would battle this thing. He’d fight her death for her. And God be damned!

But she was gone.

And none of his determination or love could change it.

Men and women alike wept as they stood in the circle. It wasn’t the first time one among them had died giving life. And their cries suggested it wouldn’t be the last.

Gabriel listened to it all, hanging his own head at the loss of one who’d always made him feel welcome. Evangeline. She’d never asked anything of him. She’d always set a place for him at supper, insisting on his presence. She’d listened to his songs and found meanings in them he hadn’t been able to see for himself. She’d had that special kind of sight.

“Take it back,” Arhys said, hard and low.

Gabriel looked up. “Arhys?”

“Take back her life, Gabriel.” Arhys’ eyes were uncompromising and imploring. “With your song. I’ve seen you move people. Stir them. There’s something in your music. You can change this.” He paused a long moment. “I’m begging you.”

Gabriel shook his head, not to deny his brother, but at the incredible request. “It doesn’t work like that,” he said. “I’m not—”

“Will you try?” Arhys pressed.

Gabriel stared into his brother’s grief-stricken face. There was a hollowness opening up in the man. A loss.

Yes, Gabriel had stirred a thing or two. He’d been studying deep history and apocryphal writings of music theory. But giving life back to one who’s passed? That was a God’s power. He was just …

He looked again into his brother’s eyes. “I’ll try.”

Gabriel could never have anticipated the faith and trust Arhys had in Gabriel’s song, but the relief that filled his brother’s eyes told it clearly enough. He gently took his child from Evangeline’s arms and sat back to give Gabriel room.

Turning his attention to Evangeline, Gabriel took her hand, and began to feel for the sound of her. It had always been an easy thing with Evangeline. Hope lived inside her as natural and necessary as breathing. Where others had given into despair, Evangeline didn’t even need to think about fighting hopelessness. It had no hooks in her.

But like the early morning grass, her sound had gone dry. Still.

He’d thought he could take hold of that hope and brighten it, as you do when fanning an ember to make it bright and hot again.

But he had nothing to latch on to.

So, he came at it differently. He invoked memory after memory of Evangeline: The day she teased Arhys from his serious face to full-out laughter—there were many of those; her quiet feet on the floor as she left early, before any were awake, to tend to the sick and dying at the makeshift hospice at Gravesend Hole; the simple encouragement he’d heard her whisper to a ten-year-old James Kelvin, when the boy was rejected by his first love.

She had a way of helping people to their best self. To see the finest they had to offer.

And Gabriel had read in an old book once that memory had energy. So, maybe if he could capture the sound of her through her countless acts of kindness, he could give it a voice and somehow sing life back inside her.

It was an outlandish thought. But the way his songs often worked was … outlandish. It didn’t make sense, really. He couldn’t explain it. There was a gentle power in it. Arhys thought it could be more than gentle. And Gabriel had tried to understand how. Read anything he could find in a time when so much information had been lost to wars that often focused on destroying data and technology and infrastructure. Books were like precious metal. Education and understanding were hard won. If available at all.

Gathering everything he could summon of who she had been, he sang a long quiet tone. He voiced it in a deeper register, like a bow drawn over an unfingered cello string. It had an inviting quality, patient. And he did what he could to have it touch some inside part of her.

But he could feel nothing resonating. Nothing that heard his note, responded to it.

Gabriel began oscillations. Moving slowly up in pitch, following a melodic instinct that kept Evangeline at the center of his song. He sang no half-tones. He avoided sharp turns and staccato stops and barking rhythms. If hope still resided inside her mortal frame, he meant to call it forth with a similar long-suffering beauty.

He sang for several minutes. Or that’s what it felt like. No one spoke. No shuffling feet. Only the occasional gust of warm morning wind lifting the smell of fallow dirt and dry grass.

It was Arhys who broke the silence. “You can’t conquer death with supplication.”

Gabriel shot his brother a hot look. He had no idea what he was doing, and he damn sure knew Arhys hadn’t a clue about it.

But Arhys’ eyes never wavered. He might not have a gift of song, but he’d stared down death more times than any man should ever have to. His Ravenskill militia had always been badly outfitted. Men and women died defending an ideal. And they died often.

He was not a gentle man. Not by nature. But his hard stare might be right this time.

Gabriel thought he could feel Evangeline’s skin cooling beneath his fingers. If time were a factor, he needed to hurry. He squeezed her lifeless hand, and sat forward, his face now above hers. So peaceful. And was she wearing a slight smile, even now?

He let the question go, and took a lungful of air. Then he changed the images in his mind. He imagined all the dead Evangeline so thoughtfully prepared for burial in the aftermath of a militia battle. She’d always done so with reverence. With an unspoken belief that their stillness wasn’t final, but a transition to the next part of life. But there was still loss in these images. Children left fatherless, motherless. And it was this that gave Gabriel’s song its bite.

The initial deep sonorant note rose fast and full, both in pitch and volume. The song landed in violent stabs, commands to live. It still bore a melody, but now the vehicle for the song was a loud galloping insistence.

And none of it was planned. No part inspired by other songs.

There was power in it, too. Gabriel could feel it. It surged inside him. Made his skin run hot and chill. He didn’t know to what end the power worked, but it was there. Unbridled. Important. Filled with grief and hope and worry.

It struck him indelicate, even as he sang it. So loud and so close to her face, and yet the entire valley filled with the sound of it. Did grass shiver at its touch? Did he feel that? Or imagine it?

And still, Evangeline did not stir.

Gabriel resisted the urge to look at his brother. Instead, he redoubled his efforts, weaving Evangeline’s name into the raw sound, since names have their own kind of power. Old stories told of clay brought to life by the introduction of a name.

In the end, he was unleashing a barely controlled barrage of her name, willing her to live.

Sweat dripped from his nose and cheeks onto her face. There was a pressure building inside him from the expense of singing this way. Though he knew not exactly what he was doing, or what that cost might be.

Sometime later, her cheeks wet but still cool, he stopped.

The silence that followed was more deafening by far than mere death. Death has its own silent song. Gabriel had heard it all too often. But this was different. This was the silence that followed a storm of noise that carried hope for the escape of death. The weight of it was crushing since the sudden stillness and absence of sound were a kind of final epitaph. Failure.

Gabriel’s attempt to revive Evangeline with his song had failed.

He’d failed his brother.

He’d failed all those who had, like Arhys, harbored hope that one day Gabriel’s song would show a new kind of power. One that would help them end the tyranny of the emperor.

He’d certainly failed himself. It was his song. He should better understand it. Better know how to apply it.

But most of all, he’d failed Evangeline, and the child that now came into the world motherless.

Involuntarily shaking his head no, he whispered, “I’m so sorry, Eva. I …”

No one spoke or moved for another long while. Then some slowly moved toward Ravenskill and home. One woman came and took Xander from his father’s arms, knowing he’d need them for other uses.

Alone now with Arhys and his dead wife, Gabriel finally met his brother’s eyes again. Not hard anger anymore. Disappointment. The start of long heartache. And bitterness. Gabriel wasn’t sure how he saw that, but it was there. It was the kind of inevitability that leads men to lives of quiet desperation.

Arhys then tenderly picked up his wife’s body and began the long walk home, leaving Gabriel alone in the midst of the vast clearing at the edge of the Borderlands.

His brother was nearly out of sight when another sound came up from inside Gabriel, unbidden. There are few things worse to see in the face of someone you love than disappointment. It may be worst of all.

Save for the special sadness reserved for those who disappoint themselves.

That was this sound.

It erupted from Gabriel into the bright hot morning. It laid the dry grass down. It cracked the earth as if parched by seasons in the sun.

The sound echoed up and out in long reverberating waves. The throb of it traveled the road and valley like a wall of sobbing sound. In the wake of it, more silence came. More stillness.

When Gabriel was himself enough again to see anything more than the blind grief inside him, through watery eyes he thought he saw Arhys at the farthest point in the road before it turned east, taking note of Gabriel and his shivering song.

Then his brother turned, and carried his dead wife away, leaving Gabriel alone.






CHAPTER 1

YEAR 2285



CHILL MORNING AIR hung like a shroud in the hills below Window’s Peak. The mountains behind Arhys and his militia—good men and women from Ravenskill—still held snow. The rising rock and cold made it a good defensive position from which to stage an attack on the convoy. A sizeable shipment of food and other goods were being transported overland from Eastgate to the Emperor’s Palace by way of the Grand Highway. Arhys planned to intercept it.

The mission had two objectives. First, it would provide for the fundamental needs of most of Endless Isleland. Such was the opulence of Emperor Nafaryus, that a convoy destined for one man and his palace could sustain a handful of cities. The second objective was a happy consequence. Seizing the goods meant the emperor wouldn’t have them. The idea of depriving Nafaryus of anything got Arhys as close to a smile as he was bound to get these days.

A runner sped into camp, his feet light on the cold ground. “Commander, the convoy is thirty minutes away.”

Arhys nodded grimly—which often served as enough of a salute for him. Then he stood. He’d been awake, fully dressed and armed, for hours, though the sun wouldn’t touch the sky for a while yet. But these were good hours. His hours. He liked to sit in the dark cold before leading his militia to fight. He would remember old promises, and he’d rehearse words he’d speak to the families of men and women who would die before the day was through.

The price of freedom.

Not something he said or took lightly. And it came with a weight, like a yolk formed of heavy stone. Still, he’d grown used to bearing it. Harder to do without Evangeline to lighten the load. But he’d spent enough time with ghosts this morning. He had to get his people ready to fight.

He started as he always did, he went to wake Gabriel. He found his brother already awake, sitting in front of a cold fire. Orders had been to eat a cold breakfast—no risk of signaling the convoy of militia presence.

But Gabriel wasn’t eating. He simply stared into the ashes.

“If I was a man of letters, I’d have a metaphor about ashes to share,” Arhys said. “But you’re the reader, not me.”

Gabriel didn’t reply. He didn’t even look up. A tense silence stretched between them. Finally, his brother spoke, his voice low and even, with maybe a hint of shame. “I can’t do it, Arhys. Not yet, anyway. You ask every time. And I try … I’m closer to understanding how the music works. But I’m not sure, even then, how I’ll make a weapon of it.”

Arhys sat opposite Gabriel. “It’ll come. Just keep trying.” He paused, thinking how to inspire his brother. “We’ll keep fighting, Gabriel. With or without you. But eventually, for us to win? For us to put down the emperor? We need you. We need your song, like the way you cracked the ground when Evangeline …”

Gabriel finally looked up at him, searching his face. “That’s what I’m telling you. I don’t know what happened there. I was just … grieving.”

Grief was something Arhys understood. So, he let that lie a moment before pushing. He slid around closer to his brother, put a hand on his shoulder. “Maybe the power in your song comes from intense emotions. Next time you take it to battle, try to harness what makes you sad or angry or just plain irritable.”

Gabriel smiled wanly. “Because I’m irritating.”

“Glad you said it.”

The old brotherly exchange eased the tension between them.

Arhys clapped Gabriel’s back twice. “You’ll figure it out. And when you do, we’ll free every citizen of the Great Northern Empire. But right now, I’ve got to get the others moving. Be ready to go.”

Arhys made a hand signal, and his two lieutenants slid out of hiding—they were always close, watching out for him. Together the three walked briskly through camp. The measured sound of their boots over hard soil brought others out of their sleep and scrambling to dress and prepare. Some were up, and simply took hold of their weapons and followed.

Less than three minutes later, two hundred men and women had formed a semicircle around Arhys in a natural clearing hemmed in by blue spruce and aspen trees.

As he always did, Arhys surveyed his militia with deliberate focus, locking eyes with as many of them as he was able. He wanted them to feel counted, known, that they mattered.

“There’s no glory in war,” he began. “And seizing a number of transports isn’t the kind of hero’s moment that’s likely to be written about by storytellers.”

Arhys let that much settle in on his militia before going on.

“But every man and woman here has family back home that are hungry. It’s your mother or father. It’s a spouse. For many of you it’s children.” He started to pace slowly back and forth. “Most of these people work the crop fields, don’t they? They do it in the G.N.E., and then they follow the weather south and do it as traded slave labor. Our emperor—the one who’s supposed to lead us, take care of us—sends them to work for his enemies, keeping most of the wages and food that are part of those contracts.

“And those that don’t hunch over crops are running small shops in Ravenskill, Fountain Brooke, Whisper Point, Gravesend Hole and a dozen other towns, where they pay a seventy percent tax to Nafaryus, and from what remains have to buy goods and supplies and all the rest.”

The soldiers began to grumble.

“It should make you angry,” Arhys agreed.

“Hard to imagine getting any worse,” one man said.

Arhys stare at the man who’d made the comment silenced the muttering. He turned and walked toward him. The man smiled sheepishly as Arhys came to stand with him face-to-face.

“If we don’t stop it,” he said, speaking as much for the entire militia as this one man, “you can bet your life it will get worse. You have a daughter, John. What are her prospects?” He kept the man locked in an intense gaze as John’s eyes lit with internal revelations about his little girl’s future. Arhys nodded. “Help me stop it from getting worse, so she has options.”

He returned to where he’d been standing. “But here’s the good news: We can win. We can be free.” He spoke it softly, then again, forcing them to near silence in order to hear him.

Perhaps it was the cold air, or because they stood moments from possible death, but hearing these words whispered in the shadows of Widow’s Peak, spoken low and firm … it sent shivers down Arhys spine. He saw it do the same to the others. And strangely, above their shivering flesh the idea of it burned in their eyes. It was that sensation of hearing something that is right and true and making the choice to follow it with conviction, damned be the costs.

They were ready to go to war.

A few did shoot looks at Gabriel. Arhys wasn’t the only one who hoped his brother’s talent would prove useful to them in a fight.

Gabriel returned every look. “I’ll be there with you,” he said firmly.

Arhys nodded. But his mind shifted to thoughts of Xander, home in Ravenskill. That was his first and best motivation for everything. That and the vow he’d made Evangeline. He had only to invoke the thought of them to steel his blood.

His eyes focused again on his waiting army. “Let’s go.”

They fell into the four formations he’d outlined the night before. Two would wait in the scrub oak on the other side of the Grand Highway, and two would wait in the trees that lined the north side. Not an elaborate plan, but a good one.

An old piece of machinery—an elongated rusting tractor—was dragged over the highway to impede the convoy’s progress. One of the men believed that ages ago, the machine would do the work of a hundred field hands.

The morning drew out, and before long, the transports came into view. The Empire had vehicles with propulsion systems that allowed for low-level flight. But from what Arhys understood, they were costly to make and the fuel wasn’t easy to come by. They were used for war, for show, for demonstrations, not for mundane tasks like goods transportation.

So, these transports came along on heavy tracks and wheels. They could handle poor roads and fallen trees and the like. But a twenty-foot high, sixty-foot long hulk of a tractor? They’d have to stop to move it.

The smell of fumes boiled out of the transports as they came to an idle between Arhys’ four ready brigades.

Once hemmed in, the transport deployed a few armed guards. Standard procedure. Perfect. Arhys wended his way through the trees with a woman from his faction. They were dressed like country field hands.

“Need some help?” he asked. “My wife is good with a set of tools. Get you going again.”

The first guard pointed the barrel of his pulse rifle at them both, scanning them for weapons up and down with his scope. Finding none, he lowered the gun, and cocked a skeptical eye at them.

“Just happened to be close by?” he questioned.

“We live in the hills.” Arhys pointed back toward Widow’s Peak. “We walk the highway in the morning looking for roadkill we can use.”

The guard snarled with disgust and condescension. “That your rig?” he asked, looking toward the tractor.

Arhys followed the man’s eyes, playing dumb. “Not ours,” he replied after a long pause. “But if I don’t miss my guess, it looks suspiciously like a trap.”

With a hand signal from Arhys, close-combat teams stepped from concealment on each side of the convoy. In the space of moments two hundred men and women clad in soiled makeshift uniforms surrounded the seven transports. They wielded a broad mix of weapons—handguns, knives, fight-sticks. They came in staggered formations, giving room for the specialties of rear teams who remained hidden. Of these range-fighters, a few dozen had pulse rifles, taken from G.N.E. soldiers over the years. Roughly half carried carbine weapons, old things newly oiled and loaded with self-packed shells. Those shells misfired as often as they worked—brass and powder were generations old. A few dozen more carried bows; the engineering on these was quite good, and more than a few had explosive tips. Among the most important were snipers at longer distances still, in strategic firing positions. They’d learned to attack in a choreographed order and from different angles. This allowed each the benefits of his or her weapon without endangering the others.

They did have rockets. But they’d learned from experience that using them on a goods convoy defeated the purpose, since invariably the rockets damaged the goods.

When the shuffle of militia feet ended, the returning silence highlighted the laughter the guard blared at Arhys.

“You just keep trying,” said the guard, composing himself for the moment. “We keep killing you and you keep trying. What will you do, you rebel mongrel? Steal forever? Sacrifice fifty to feed your little town for what … a week? You are all anger and bad planning. It’s good the emperor puts you under his boot or you might die in your own cesspools.”

None of it ruffled Arhys. Men with clean uniforms and new guns like to brag. But he’d put one of his militia up against any G.N.E. soldier in any contest.

“Drop your gun,” Arhys commanded in an even tone.

“I’ll do you one better,” said the guard.

The man waved a hand, and the transports at the front and back of the convoy opened on each side, spilling soldiers onto the highway. Maybe a hundred of them. Arhys’ battalions outnumbered them, but these G.N.E. goons were all armed with the latest pulse weapons. And this was twice the number a convoy usually came with. They weren’t prepared for this. Arhys would lose many if he went through with the heist.

That was the struggle.

Was leadership staying committed to something, regardless of the odds and sacrifice? Or was it looking after the best interests of those you led, even when that meant showing weakness to the enemy? Weakness that could later be exploited?

“Scylla and Charybdis,” Arhys muttered—something Gabriel had taught him.

“The bandit can obviously read,” the guard said, and rammed the end of his gun into Arhys’ chest, trying to provoke him. Killing healthy workers wouldn’t go down well with the emperor, not when subduing them might work. But if attacked, G.N.E. men had the order to put down insurrection with prejudice.

Arhys spared a look at Gabriel, waiting to see if his brother would do something. Maybe now he’d find what he needed to weaponize his song.

Gabriel ever so slightly shook his head. Disappointment rolled through Arhys. He’d be glad he’d rehearsed his words of condolence.

The soldier never saw the hand signal. But a small movement in his wrist, and a crew of archers who’d been ordered to stay back, launched a volley of explosive-tipped arrows into the troop transports.

In a second, the transports’ metal sheeting erupted into shrapnel that tore outward into the backs of the G.N.E. troops. Maybe half the bastards dropped. Some dead. Some screaming in pain. The other half began firing their pulse rifles indiscriminately toward the sides of the road. Towards Arhys’ militia.

The sound of a body slumping to old asphalt or packed soil was one Arhys would never get used to, no matter how often he heard it. A chorus of bodies falling to the ground was maddening. It haunted his dreams. Such a helpless, final sound. Like that of a sigh.

But this wasn’t Ravenskill’s first fight. Those of his fighters with pulse rifles dropped to kneeling positions and returned fire. Arhys had trained them to go slow when shooting to kill. Get into a stance where you can stabilize your aim. Take a full breath.

The air blurred again. This time energy pushing the other direction, back toward the transports. G.N.E. troops fell, their bodies clattering to the road-top more noisily for all the gear they wore.

Arhys drove forward, pulling a concealed knife, and pushing the length of steel into the lead guard’s chest. Not the safest attack, but maybe the most gratifying. He then gave a quick overhead wave, drawing his carbine wave of fire.

The crisp late August air erupted with gunfire, the reports echoing up and down the road. The disruption of flesh by pulse fire was replaced by mists of blood kicked up by iron rounds tearing into the bodies of G.N.E. troops. Most of these uttered guttural noises and stumbled backward with hands over bleeding wounds. The luckiest fell where they stood. Being gutshot was a horrible way to die.

Arhys snatched the pulse rifle of the man he’d just put down and searched for Gabriel, making sure he was safe. Still no kind of song from him. But his brother had begun dragging wounded Ravenskill soldiers to safety.

Then he saw her.

Alemdra.

The woman who’d approached the convoy with him, pretending to be his wife.

She lay sprawled across the highway.

Arhys rushed to her side and knelt. “Alemdra?” He felt for a pulse.

Silence.

He’d seen hundreds die in the past few years. Men. Women. Children … friends. The nature of their fight almost never left them time to see to proper burials. There was hardly time to grieve. Hesitation made you a target. And yet, this time, Arhys paused.

Months ago, when they’d devised the ruse of the scavenger family, he’d asked for volunteers to approach road transport and assault crafts with him. He had scores of brave followers. And any one of them would have said yes. But he’d scarcely finished asking before she’d shouted, “Me!” She’d come forward with a devious grin on her face. “I’ll play the wife. And if it comes to it, I shoot first.”

It was one of the rare memories of laughter Arhys could recount, and a favorite story when nights drew out.

Now she lay dead. Sadness and anger swelled in him at the sight of her.

“I’ll take down ten for you,” he said. Vengeance was all he could offer.

Without standing, he whirled and began firing the pulse rifle into the remaining G.N.E. soldiers. Bitterness had a way of steadying Arhys’ aim. And only one energy burst sailed high. The others compressed the chests of their marks and put down ten bootslicks—his name for G.N.E. men, whose leather footwear always gleamed too brightly for him.

A lull came. His militia awaited his next command. The G.N.E. reeled, scrambling for cover from which to shoot. Gunpowder, the scent of coppery blood, the fresh smell of seared ozone from the pulse weapons, it all lingered on suddenly still air.

Then the world erupted again. This time from above. Arhys shot a look skyward and saw six NOMACS descending with impossible speed. The sound they emitted grew louder and more cacophonous with each second. It burrowed inside his head, blurring his vision, clouding his thinking.

Arhys looked back at the fray. His own people were cupping their ears, trying to stave off the sheer oppressive volume and disorienting bray of the noise machines. G.N.E. soldiers were quickly inserting into their ears something they called “silencers”—form-fitted armament plastique that blocked all sound. He’d seen this before. His own fighters used cotton or wax when they had it.

But the reduced effect of the NOMACS blaring sounds still left his militia as target practice for G.N.E. pulse weapons.

He shot a last look at Gabriel, feeling like this might be the first or best way for his gift to answer the weaponry of the NOMACS. But Gabriel never saw him. He was trying to revive an unresponsive woman. Glenda. A mother of two.


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