Michael G. Williams has a new queer sci fi book out: A Fall in Autumn.
WELCOME TO THE LAST OF THE GREAT FLYING CITIES
It’s 9172, YE (Year of the Empire), and the future has forgotten its past.
Soaring miles over the Earth, Autumn, the sole surviving flying city, is filled to the brim with the manifold forms of humankind: from Human Plus “floor models” to the oppressed and disfranchised underclasses doing their dirty work and every imaginable variation between.
Valerius Bakhoum is a washed-up private eye and street hustler scraping by in Autumn. Late on his rent, fetishized and reviled for his imperfect genetics, stuck in the quicksand of his own heritage, Valerius is trying desperately to wrap up his too-short life when a mythical relic of humanity’s fog-shrouded past walks in and hires him to do one last job. What starts out as Valerius just taking a stranger’s money quickly turns into the biggest and most dangerous mystery he’s ever tried to crack – and Valerius is running out of time to solve it.
Now Autumn’s abandoned history – and the monsters and heroes that adorn it – are emerging from the shadows to threaten the few remaining things Valerius holds dear. Can the burned-out detective navigate the labyrinth of lies and maze of blind faith around him to save the City of Autumn from its greatest myth and deadliest threat?
Michael is giving away an eBook copy of “Perishables,” book one of The Withrow Chronicles, with this post:
Everybody hates their Homeowner’s Association, and nobody likes a zombie apocalypse. Put the two together, and Withrow Surrett is having a truly craptastic night.
Enter via Rafflecopter:
The sun was over the trees at the southeastern edge of the sloped opening in the forest when I awoke. The sun woke me, actually: its rays on my face, the flicker of shadow and light as it played across my closed eyes. I was half dressed: my shoes off, my feet bare, and my coat spread over me in lieu of a blanket. My shirt was somewhere, probably. I wasn’t wearing it, anyway, and my eyes hadn’t opened yet, but I could feel it nearby the way you can sense an old dog by your chair or a former lover on the opposite side of an otherwise perfectly nice party.
My back curled against something firm and supporting and I felt gentle fingers stroke the tufts of silvery black at my temples. Hematite, a man told me once. I would always love him a little for saying that. My hair there wasn’t yet gray but no longer black and when wet it looked like hematite, and he said it like that meant something deep and significant and mystical I didn’t understand. Having someone’s fingers run through it felt good, though. It felt like a happy memory, like something I didn’t expect would happen much anymore if it ever really happened in the first place.
That simple touch was a comfort to me. It’s the most minor thing and, for that reason, the most missed when it’s gone. I don’t go long stretches without being touched, but it had been a while between caresses. This was that: a caress, and more; not exactly sexual but not exactly platonic. It was that happy in-between we call intimate. I made myself vulnerable to other men, and they themselves to me, more times than I can count in my too-short life. It didn’t always work out, though, that my usual flavor of street trade would show basic human kindness in return for mine.
None of that mattered, though. Those guys were long gone. Right that second, someone ran his fingers through my half-asleep hair, intimate and kind and caressing. I felt vulnerable and that was okay. For a few moments I wasn’t dying and I wasn’t scared. I wasn’t lonely and I wasn’t alone. The sun felt good, and the breeze through the branches sounded like Gaia herself telling me to go back to sleep. I thought for a moment I might be okay with dying fairly soon if I got to wake up like this every morning for the rest of my life.
“Okay,” I groaned. I didn’t move and I didn’t open my eyes because I wasn’t quite ready for the moment to go away even as I lifted the pin to pop its balloon. “You want something. So tell me what it is. Because if I say yes – if– I may not have much time to hold up my end of the bargain.” My voice dispelled all the magic of the moment, but his fingers were still at my temple, resting there, ready to go back to what we shared moments before. I rolled over and looked up at Alejandro, his purple hair down over half his face as he leaned on one elbow. I didn’t kiss him, but I did put one hand to his jaw and brush his cheek with my thumb. I wondered if he could feel that – really feel it, like skin feels it. “Let’s not pussyfoot around this. You want me to do something. The whole story about the angel and thinking someone was trying to kill you was bullshit, but there was something there, something worth chasing, so let’s have the truth now and get on with things.” I tried to smile at him. His expression was completely blank.
With the hand he used to brush my temples, he laid a fingertip behind my ear, cupping my face with barely a single point of contact. He still didn’t smile, but his eyes searched my face, my own eyes, for something. It occurred to me the correct phrasing might be to say he searched my eyes for someone. I assumed he’d been alive long enough to know a hell of a lot of people, and I would bet a nickel he looked for one of them in me. There are a hundred romantic stories about golems: meat sacks like me throwing ourselves at a golem out of infatuation with their embodiment of agelessness.
If he’d been there before, heard a hundred thousand of us wail about mortality and still willing to hear number one hundred thousand one, he must have a lot of love for humankind. No, I thought, more than that: he must have loved the hell out of oneof us at some point. Maybe he was waiting for that guy to walk back into his life, reemerging from the vast but finite pool of genetic factors we possess as a species. I wondered if I simply seemed close enough to that long-lost lover to pass muster for a night.
I also wondered what made a golem want to get laid in the first place: ever the detective, after all.
“I really did see an angel in Splendor,” Alejandro said. He still wasn’t smiling. If anything, he had the muted seriousness, the understated gravitas, I’d long since come to recognize as the posture of someone telling the truth at long last. I wondered how long it had been. “I swear it to you. I swear it.” He surprised me, then, because he didn’t cry, golems don’t have tear ducts, but his eyelids quivered with the autonomic response to strong emotion. He still hadn’t moved at all, and we were shielded from the breeze so that his hair hung straight down like a perfectly still and settled curtain across half the stage of his face. “And I believe it would try to kill me if it knew I were here.”
Michael G. Williams writes wry horror, urban fantasy, and science fiction: stories of monsters, macabre humor, and subverted expectations. He is the author of three series for Falstaff Books: The Withrow Chronicles, including Perishables (2012 Laine Cunningham Award), Tooth & Nail, Deal with the Devil, Attempted Immortality, and Nobody Gets Out Alive; a new series in The Shadow Council Archives featuring one of San Francisco’s most beloved figures, SERVANT/SOVEREIGN; and the science fiction noir A Fall in Autumn. Michael also writes short stories and contributes to tabletop RPG development. Michael strives to present the humor and humanity at the heart of horror and mystery with stories of outcasts and loners finding their people.
Michael is also an avid podcaster, activist, reader, runner, and gaymer, and is a brother in St. Anthony Hall and Mu Beta Psi. He lives in Durham, NC, with his husband, two cats, two dogs, and more and better friends than he probably deserves.
Author Website: http://www.michaelgwilliams-author.com
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To set up this exclusive excerpt for a moment, let me explain that at this point in the story Valerius needs to navigate a huge open-air market in the worst part of the city. It’s called the Lower Market Market because it’s a market on Market Street. Most people refer to it as just the Market, or the LM, or the LMM.
Valerius knows he’s going to have to contend with multiple gangs of thieves and enforcers to get from one end to the other, and he’s bribed his way through the first section by performing, uh, favors for a young knife-fighter named Fiono. Fiono has a big mane of hair that reminds Valerius of a lion, and he very quickly starts thinking of him that way.
Fiono is clearly talented as a fighter, but he’s somehow gotten in trouble with his very businesslike criminal outfit, the Hendricks Gang, and been busted down to guarding the boundaries of their turf. Valerius has bribed Fiono to accompany him to their contested border with the next gang, the Busters, who are decidedly less formal in their presentation and conduct. Valerius used to be a criminal himself – he spent years as a sex worker in this same market – but it’s been long enough that none of his old contacts are around and none of his old street cred matters. He’s become an outsider to this system he once called home, and now he needs that system’s worst elements to protect him from the rest of it long enough to follow a lead.
We walked for maybe twenty minutes. Different people here and there greeted my Hendricks protector in various ways. Some of them were rent boys, some were rent girls, some were hawkers whose tone was the forced joviality I recognized as fear on seeing him. I wondered if he were especially cruel. Perhaps he had a reputation as a gifted slicer. From what his partner said, he was bumped back down to working the door because he fucked the wrong person, which meant he’d been high enough up to get knocked down. And, of course, maybe these people reacted less to him and more to the organization he represented.
I tried engaging him in conversation—I told him my name, offered a hand to shake—but he kept walking without even looking at me. Maybe he pissed off a trick who then made trouble to get back at him. Maybe he was mute. I found myself manufacturing a hundred different reasons why a street tough like Fiono would get blown in the shadows by a wrung-out stranger like me, then walk a mile without saying a word. In most of my manufactured scenarios, he did it by choice. I imagined Fiono aloof in that way a teenager might find romantic but I found a little sad. In some of them, it was tragic circumstance: Fiono cast in the role of my One True Love, found too late to save him from the gyro accident that stole his speaking voice; or the damage to his larynx from a case of Child’s Malady had been too severe; or he was born silent and would, like a swan, only speak on the day of his death at which time his voice would be shockingly beautiful.
After a sensory-numbing slideshow of spice merchants, back-alley pinpricks selling unfiltered shit in dirty needles, an arcade of manual games operated by the few kids not out trying to steal dinner, furniture huts, games of dice huddling in gaps, accusations of counterfeiting, and who knows what else, we walked down some rickety steps one at a time.
Fiono, The Boy Lion, nodded in the direction of one of the warrens and turned to go.
“Wait.” My voice was quiet, but I didn’t push my luck trying to sound intimate. He paused. “I may need them to see a little muscle to let me get through. I mean, these are Busters we’re talking about.”
He shrugged, leaned against a post, and a knife appeared between his fingers without his visibly removing it from anywhere on his person. Fiono started picking his nails with it. The knife was tiny, the weapon of a guy who enjoyed feeling a foe’s dying breath gutter out against his own face.
“What’s Hendy trash doing sitting on our curb?”
I looked in the direction of the new voice and saw two women with football bats and bandoliers of knives walk to within ten meters and no closer. The one speaking appeared the older of the two, but neither of them would have qualified as an adult in the Imperial census. Busters will take anybody desperate enough to volunteer, but these two looked like they had skills and intentions.
“He came with me. I need to get to a fruit dealer. Let us by.” I tried to sound proud but compliant: the default state of one who knows he’s been beaten by a larger foe. There was a middle finger in my voice, but my eyes didn’t meet theirs.
“Let you by, you mean. We’re not letting a Hendy onto our turf.”
Fiono turned to go at that, hands up in a gesture indicating very clearly he was done participating in this minor melodrama.
“Wait.” I didn’t try to hide that I was begging. “Please, wait. I need all three of you to go with me, and I’m willing to pay.”
Fiono turned back and stared at me. The Buster who’d done the talking burst out laughing. “You want Busters and Hendies to help you out at the same time? Buddy, you don’t need to work so hard to set up a fight. Usually throwing something will get it started.” She laughed again. “Now come with us, and we’ll figure out how to get you there and how much it’ll cost.”
That’s the thing about the Lower Em. I could have found the place on my own. I could have probably paid off the guards and kept walking, or bluffed my way through, but I needed some muscle for this trip to the fruit dealer. Yuri might have gotten bounced out because he didn’t know what he was getting into, but I did. I needed this guy to see I had friends and, even better, I wanted him to see I had friends in at least two of the big gangs.
“No.” I shook my head. “He comes with me, and we all go together. You and he make nice and it’ll be worth your time.”
They exchanged glances, and the younger one blinked at the older. Apparently, that was enough. The older went from pensive to sneering again. “Alright, buddy boy. I mean, it’ll be a hoot to tell the rest, right? For both of us.”
Fiono met my eyes and shook his head once to the left. No dice. He wasn’t sold.
I walked over and leaned in close enough to whisper. “You do this for me, and I’ll put a smile on your face twice a day for a week.”
Fiono considered for a long second, then stepped forward. This kid was going to get himself in real trouble one day.
The three of us drew stares as we walked. Most conversations stopped, but some others took on new vigor—and new subject matter—as we passed by. There were people who were too stunned to contain their reaction on seeing a kid in Hendy blue walk with two beat sticks in Buster yellow rags. (Busters identify themselves with tufts of yellow woven into complicated braids in their hair.) I heard something metallic clatter against the scaffolding as we rounded a corner. The Busters refused to tell me their names, but they made constant patter with one another. One was in front, the other in back, with Fiono, The Boy Lion, walking beside. They joked with one another, they joked about one another, they joked at my expense, and they openly mocked the surprise of the people around us.
“Wot,” the one in front said to a pottery merchant selling plastic painted with shellac. “You never seen blue before? Look up sometime, grandpa!” The other shot back, “He can’t, when he does, he gets shit in his eye!” and then they both laughed these high, keening, vulture laughs, like harpies from prehistoric times. They snorted and farted and pointed at people, stuck their tongues out, made rude gestures. Where the Hendricks Gang has turned their turf into an operating business environment with sustainability and stability highly prioritized, the Busters keep people afraid and have fun doing it.
I remembered what it was like to be afraid all the time—hell, I still felt afraid all the time—and so I hated them for the way they used fear as a tool, but at the same time, I loved their energy. There was a time when I was the kid on the corner shaking my ass at whatever ganger passed, cracking jokes, taunting the serious ones and encouraging the silly ones. That kind of bravery comes from a place of powerlessness, from having nothing to lose. Everything looked like up from where I was back then, and in its strange way that can be liberating.
A part of me whispered there’s never been anywhere but the bottom, for me, that it’s always been nowhere to go but up. So where did that feeling of liberation go?
I didn’t want to go back to those times. I’m not trying to glamorize living on the street, sucking crusty dick in return for barely enough calories not to starve. I’m not trying to say it’s a party. Having nothing is not the same as having nothing to worry about. A lot of my bravery was a lie I told myself to make it through the night. There was a part of me, though, on that walk, with those three, that missed being able to summon up the bravado, false or otherwise. Only the terrorized can achieve fearlessness.
Some street kids—real kids, not the Buster teens, and not Fiono, whose age I pegged at twenty—fell in behind us, singing the songs they make up down here about the gangs and life and dangers to avoid. Like kids everywhere, they make up stories about what scares them, what to stay away from, who’s in charge and why. The songs they sang sounded half-familiar to me because they were based on the songs I heard when I was working these streets. They’d been remixed and rewritten over time, the names changing with the shifting tides of gangs and turf, but the tunes and the themes were preserved from one half-life generation to the next. Very quickly our little foursome turned into an informal parade of Lower Market Market street kids singing and skipping and waving scraps of cloth. Fiono looked a little offended as the Busters joined in on the songs, loving the attention, the grand show we were putting on. Like the one said, it would make a great story for them to tell the others. Fiono took himself seriously, though, so all this abraded his sensibilities, his notion of himself as a slicer who was going places.
“Don’t look so sour.” I hit him with a small smile. “They’re making noise because they’re scared of you.” I nodded forward and back. “And of them. If you were nothing, they wouldn’t need to warn each other of your approach.”
Fiono blinked. He’d never thought about that before. He probably was, once upon a time, one of these kids, too, but he’d never let himself examine that experience. He was too young and too focused on gang captaincy or new knives or his own dick or whatever else he saw as the measure of success. Most slicers only wanted to get rich enough to eat when they felt like it and fuck whom they wished, and eventually to die in a close fight after grievously wounding their opponent. I would probably outlive Fiono, given his current career, but he was still a person. He still deserved a moment of kindness as much as the next living thing.
“Don’t try pillow talk with Fiono,” the one in front said with a sneer. “Better’n you ‘ave tried to put a smile on those pretty lips.”
I started to say something smart, I don’t remember what, when I realized we were there: the fruit seller’s stand. Time to get back to work.
More From the Author
I loved writing this scene so much. It really let me dig into the mishmash of cultures and shifting lines of power at work in this seamy underbelly of the city. The Lower Market Market gets to be the place in the city that most feels alive. It practically boils over with activity, with opportunity, and with people taking advantage of each other and watching out for each other and everything between. Seeing all those factions and forces simultaneously entertained and intimidated by an impromptu parade of singing, dancing street kids and a few members of rival gangs made the Market come to life for me in a way it hadn’t in the first draft. It inspired me to go back and rewrite some earlier sections to bring a little more verve into a dingy part of town.
I loved this scene also because it’s a chance for Valerius to realize how far he’s come from the life he had as a teenage runaway – and how far he hasn’t come. After all, he turned to his old methods when he needed a way across, and he didn’t hesitate to do so. He’s still desperate, still just barely making it in a big, bad world full of people eager to gain the upper hand on anyone and everyone who happens to be around. Valerius hasn’t for many years felt afraid in the way he did as a kid, but he’s also starting to wake up to the fact he still does feel afraid all the time. He’s just afraid of different things.
I think it’s important to feature characters who are weak, and who are looked down upon. It’s important because it gives them powerful motivations to succeed, and powerful motivations lead to daring choices and meaningful turns in the plot. But I also think it’s important because that helps us build empathy for the people we think are beneath us in the real world. It’s important to me to emphasize that all people are people, and all people deserve empathy and consideration and respect. Like Valerius, I think almost everyone deserves more kindness than they’re getting, with the exceptions being the very rich and the very powerful. The powerless among us are the ones who most deserve to be recognized as our comrades in the constant struggle to get by. Valerius feels that, and he hopes this moment right here will teach the others to feel it, too. He feels real affection for Fiono, real sympathy, and I think that’s a much more complex and vulnerable and brave reaction to this silent street tough who’s unquestionably killed, probably many times, than simple cynicism would be. I would much rather work to expose what we have in common with those we think are the least like us than just tell another story of someone exactly like me.
What are you working on now, and when can we expect it?
I’ve just signed a deal for 4 more books in the world of A Fall in Autumn and will be writing the sequel over the summer. I can’t wait! I expect the second book, to be titled New Life in Autumn, will be out a year from now.
Later this year I have several other works, already finished and coming out from Falstaff Books:
Nobody Gets Out Alive will be coming out sometime soon, probably over the summer. It’s the fifth and final(-ish) book of The Withrow Chronicles, my suburban vampire series about a guy who became a vampire in the 1940’s and has declared himself the boss of all of North Carolina’s blood-drinkers. The series is a ridiculously fun sequence of genre mashups – vampires and zombies, vampires and superheroes, vampires and spy thrillers, vampires and war, vampires and their witch frienemies – telling a story that gets increasingly complex as Withrow slowly but surely learns the world of the supernatural is much bigger than he thought.
I also have the four-novella San Francisco urban fantasy series, SERVANT/SOVEREIGN. It starts with Through the Doors of Oblivion, and it’s about some of the most evocative moments in San Francisco’s history – such as the 1906 earthquake and fire – and witches and demons and time travel and real estate scams. I’m just exceptionally proud of it, and I get to really focus on the features of San Francisco I most adore, which are not necessarily the parts of the city they try to highlight for tourists. I don’t know exactly when that one is due out, either, but it’s made it through the content edits and the copyeditor and it’s now with the proofreader, so it’s getting close!
And, last but not least, I’ve reached the rights-reversion point on a bunch of short stories I sold years ago so I’m possibly going to reclaim those rights and produce an anthology of short stories and nonfiction essays I’ve written for various venues. That’s a maybe, though. We’ll see.
Thank you so much for having me – I really appreciate your and your readers’ time and attention. I hope you enjoy A Fall in Autumn and I would love to hear from you about it!
You can find me on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.
Folks who sign up for my monthly newsletter get a free short story and can read the ongoing first draft of a story set in the world of A Fall in Autumn but in our time rather than 12,000 years from now. Give it a shot! I keep marketing to a minimum and try to focus on rewarding your interest with new content.
And thanks again!
Thanks to the author and OWI for including us in the tour! Michael, I hope you will visit again. Thanks, readers for comeing by. Comments are always welcome.