Kevin J. Anderson is one of the best-selling novelists working in the field today, but over the course of his long career he has also produced a steady stream of short fiction, ranging from hard science fiction, to fantasy, to horror, dark fantasy, and humor. He has won or been nominated for the Hugo Award, Nebula Award, Bram Stoker Award, Shamus Award, Colorado Book Award, Scribe Award, New York Times Notable Book, and many others.
This first volume of Anderson's selected short fiction focuses on his science fiction stories, from flash fiction to novella length, written solo or with collaborators. These stories showcase his writing talent across a range of military science fiction, dystopian fiction, space adventure, humor, alternate timelines, and political and psychological extrapolation.
For the first time these stories are collected in "Selected Stories Volume "I of a series to celebrate a very talented and popular science fiction writer. Some of the notable ones to be aware of are "Memorial" that is a tribute to a well-known item in our culture, "Rough Draft" that has a most interesting situation with an author who makes it big with his first novel. And "Paradox & Greenblatt, Attorneys at Law" where there is a most fascinating client for a litigator team. There are nineteen writings with very interesting commentary about each one by the author that add to the enjoyment.– Gary Roen at Midwest Book Review
The roar of the ocean echoed through the empty sky, but no one was left alive to hear it. Waves, glinting from filtered light, lapped up against a long beach, leaving a deposit of deadly radiation which had made even the life-spawning sea sterile.
The sun burned down through a radioactive haze, warming nothing but the dead sands. No bird flew in the sky, no fish swam in the sea, no man walked the earth. Apart from the roar of the poisonous sea and the gentle sound of the just-as-deadly wind, the world was silent—the earth was dead.
The waves washed the shore again, taking with them a few grains of sand, exposing something to the sun's glare. More sand washed away, and the days passed.
The object became uncovered, something made of glass, clear, uncolored, but clouded slightly. Its shape was not what it had been, but was now warped slightly from exposure to the furious, raging heat of countless atomic blasts.
It had been a bottle once; and now it comprised the entire remnants of mankind. The bottle was the only representative of the human race, a memorial, a monument to the way of life which had been so suddenly destroyed.
Visitors coming and finding the earth dead would find this bottle, and from it try to reconstruct the civilization which had spawned it.
Paint on the bottle formed letters, now meaningless. The paint was blistered and burned, but the message, for all who could read it, was plain.
The words read: COKE ADDS LIFE.
When my professional writing career was just getting under way, I was eagerly pursuing book contracts, building my name, selling stories to the major magazines, clawing myself up one step at a time. A hot new author exploded on the scene with a universally celebrated first novel, which won a bunch of awards; everybody read it, everybody talked about it.
And we never heard from him again. No second novel that I knew of, no short story publications. The guy had achieved the pinnacle of success that so many of us longed for … and then he just disappeared. Why would anyone do that? The question obsessed me, and I still don't know the answer.
"Rough Draft" explores that question, and I think it's one of my most powerful stories.
(written with Rebecca Moesta)
After a decade during which he wrote and published nothing new, the fan letters dwindled to a few a year.
"Dear Mr. Coren, You're the best science fiction writer ever!"
"Dear Mr. Coren, Your book Divergent Lines changed my life. I felt as if you were speaking directly to me, and you helped me work through some major issues."
The entire experience, though great for the ego, had ultimately proved meaningless. Eventually he'd been forced to return the money for the second book advance, because he simply couldn't do it again. After enjoying a pleasant day in the sun, Mitchell Coren had retreated to his small apartment to live a normal life. The gleaming Nebula Award and the silver Hugo—both dusty now—were little more than knickknacks on the mantel of a fireplace that he never used.
Having convinced himself of the wisdom of J.D. Salinger's approach to authorial fame, Mitchell had squelched all thoughts of returning to writing. He immersed himself in a normal life with all its petty concerns.
Today, with an indifference born of long practice, Mitchell opened his bills and junk mail before finally tearing open the padded envelope that obviously contained a book. Another intrusion, no doubt. An annoying reminder of his old life. He still received advance reading copies from editors trying to wheedle a rare cover quote from him, rough draft manuscripts from aspiring authors who begged for comments or critiques, and books presented to him by new authors who had been inspired by his lone published novel.
Inside this envelope, however, he found his own name on the dust jacket of a novel he had never written.
Multiple Award-winning Author of Divergent Lines
Whirling flakes of confusion compacted into a hard snowball in the pit of his stomach. "What the hell?"
His initial, and obvious, thought was that someone had stolen his name. But that didn't make sense. Though many editorial positions had changed in the decade since he'd published Divergent Lines, Mitchell was still well enough known in the insular science fiction community that somebody in the field would have noticed an imposter. Besides, how much could his byline be worth after all this time? It wasn't worth stealing.
Someone had tucked a folded sheet of paper between the book's front cover and the endpaper. He read it warily.
Dear Mr. Coren,
As a longtime fan of yours, I thought you'd appreciate seeing this novel I came across in a parallel universe.
I'm a timeline hunter by profession. Perhaps you've heard of Alternitech? Our company uses a proprietary technology to open gateways into alternate realities. My colleagues and I explore these parallel universes for breakthroughs or useful discrepancies that Alternitech can profitably exploit: medical and scientific advances, historical discoveries, artistic variations. My specialty is the creative arts.
I stumbled upon this book in an alternate timeline while searching for a new Mario Puzo. Since the science fiction market isn't nearly as large or profitable as the mainstream, I couldn't spend much time checking out its background, but a brief search showed that the "alternate" Mitchell Coren published a dozen or so short stories after Divergent Lines, then produced this second novel. I'm hoping Alternitech will want to arrange for its publication, but naturally I felt you should see it first.
With deepest respect,
Mitchell stared at the letter with mistrust and growing irritation. He had heard of this company that searched alternate realities for everything from new Beatles records, to evidence of UFOs or Kennedy assassination conspiracies, to cures for obscure diseases. He could understand the more humanitarian objectives, but why fiction? What gave Alternitech the right to infringe on his life like this?
He opened to the dust jacket photo and saw that the picture did resemble him, though this other Mitchell Coren wore a different hairstyle and a cocky, self-assured grin. The bio mentioned that after completing Infernities he was "already at work on his next novel."
Oddly unsettled, Mitchell pushed the book away. Its very existence raised too many disturbing questions.
Three increasingly urgent phone calls to his former agent went unreturned. Since Mitchell had neither delivered anything new nor generated much income, his agent wasn't in a great hurry to attend to his so-called emergency. Even in the days when he'd briefly been a hot client, Mitchell had been relatively high-maintenance, needing encouragement and constant contact.
He decided to contact his entertainment attorney instead. After all, Sheldon Freiburg charged by the hour and therefore had an incentive to get right on the matter.
"Mitch Coren! I haven't heard from you since the last ice age." Freiburg's voice was bluff and hearty on the telephone. "What on earth have you been doing? You dropped off the map."
"I've been working a real-world job, Sheldon. You know, regular paycheck, benefits … security?"
"Yeah, I've heard of those. Hopped off the old fame-and-fortune bandwagon, eh?"
"A modicum of fame, not a whole lot of fortune—as you well know."
Freiburg had handled the entertainment contracts for the two movie options on Divergent Lines. Mitchell had been young and naïve then, believing the Hollywood hype and enthusiasm. He'd been surrounded by smiling fast-talkers whose eager assertions of certain box-office appeal and guaranteed studio support were built on a foundation as strong as a soap bubble. After the attorney's fees and the agent's commission, the option money had been just enough to pay off his car, which was now ten years old.
"So, Mitchell," Freiburg said now, "people don't call me unless they have a situation—either good or bad—so let's hear it."
"Someone's trying to publish an unauthorized Mitchell Coren novel."
"You've actually done other work?" The lawyer sounded surprised. "Something new? I thought you'd turned hermit on us. Did somebody steal your manuscript?"
"This is trickier than that. It isn't exactly a matter of stealing. This is a novel from a parallel universe, and Alternitech wants to get it published here." He explained the situation in full.
"Oh, that is tricky—but not unheard of. Listen, since it's Tuesday, I'll give you a special deal, a quick and inexpensive answer."
"Inexpensive? You've changed in the last ten years, Sheldon."
The lawyer chuckled. "How could I help it? The whole world has changed. But you're not going to like what I have to say."
Mitchell braced himself, clutching the receiver; thankfully, Freiburg could not see his tense expression.
"Precedents have been set in this area. In every dispute about the use of materials from alternate universes, Alternitech has come out the winner. I'm convinced the company spends as much money each year on their team of lawyers as they did developing their parallel universe gateway. You'd be wasting your money to try and block the publication. Compared to the rest of the entertainment industry, authors and books are minnows in an ocean. Even the big fish in the music and film industries haven't won a single case.
"Alternitech's timeline hunters bring back intellectual property that might conceivably belong to a counterpart in this universe. The first big case was when one of their music specialists, a guy named Jeremy Cardiff—"
"That's who sent me the novel."
"Great," Freiburg said, then continued, ignoring the interruption. "In Alternitech v. the Carpenter Estate, Cardiff found several new albums by the Carpenters, in an alternate reality where Karen Carpenter never died of anorexia. The CDs sounded like the same old shit to me, but don't underestimate the huge amount of money generated by piped-in background music. The Carpenter Estate sued, citing copyright infringement and unlawful exploitation of a creative work.
"Alternitech countered that since Karen Carpenter was dead in this universe, she could not 'create' new works after the date of her death. They also argued, using an old favorite of the pharmaceutical companies, that since Alternitech had made such a substantial investment developing their technology, they deserved to reap the benefits of its commercial exploitation.
"The ruling sided with the Carpenter Estate insofar as establishing a 'fair percentage' of profits that should go to the creator's counterpart in this reality—fifteen percent, I think it was. But since Alternitech's timeline hunters did all the work to obtain the property, kind of like salvage hunters on the high seas, they were granted full control of its use. Similar lawsuits have been raised by individual movie producers, screenwriters, directors, and even actors who resent the release of 'new films' starring them for which they never got paid. Like I said, in every case, they lose."
Mitchell remembered that one of the alternate Mel Gibson films had caused something of a stir, because the parallel-universe-version of the actor had received an Academy Award for a role that this timeline's Gibson had turned down.
Freiburg continued: "When you get right down to it, Mitch, record companies and movie studios don't want the individual artists to win. Alternitech provides them with completely finished new work for a fraction of the cost or effort of making it themselves. Much less hassle, too. They just distribute the work through their normal channels and pay a standard percentage of artists' royalties directly to Alternitech. Then, if and only if the court orders it, Alternitech cuts a teeny-weeny check to our own world's parallel artist or company or estate, and everyone is happy. Well, almost everyone."
"So you're saying I shouldn't even try, Sheldon? It's not … not right!"
"Mitch, if Paul McCartney can't win, then a mere sci-fi novelist doesn't stand a snowball's chance." He paused as if reconsidering. "On the other hand, Mitch my friend, I just thought of a factor that's ironically in your favor, if you really want to stop publication. There's a very real chance that Alternitech won't even bother with your little book. Look at your royalty statements. You're a science fiction writer ten years out of the public eye. Oh sure, there'd be a limited audience for a 'lost unpublished work' by Mitchell Coren … but it isn't exactly a Margaret Mitchell sequel to Gone with the Wind. If this Cardiff guy is a fan of yours, contact him and tell him how you feel. Who knows, he might do you a favor and pretend he never found it."
Mitchell didn't know whether to feel stung or take heart from the possibility.
Distracted and fretting, he polished the two awards on his mantel—something he hadn't done for the better part of a year. They looked quite impressive, he had to admit, and certainly gave him bragging rights. His occasional visitors asked about them, and he answered with feigned modesty. The awards seemed so irrelevant to his current life.
These days, Mitchell used his skills as a wordsmith in the unglamorous but stable profession of technical writing, producing essential documentation and annual reports for a manufacturing firm. Although it was a challenge to write compelling prose about new cereal box designs or recyclable plastic bottles, he was a master at slanting his text toward investors or consumers or environmental agencies, as needed.
Many of his coworkers—what the science fiction world called "mundanes"—were aspiring writers who never managed to finish or submit stories. Few of them knew about his past, however, since Mitchell rarely mentioned his novel.
As he rubbed a fingerprint off the Nebula's clear Lucite surface, looking at the suspended bits of metal shavings and semi-precious stones that formed a sparkling galaxy, he thought back to those brief, heady days. They were just memories now, but he wouldn't trade them for anything.
Divergent Lines had appeared with a splash like a giant water balloon. An excerpt of the novel had been published in Analog as the cover story and won that month's readers' poll. The novel itself had generated rave reviews and was immediately dubbed "a new classic" by critics and his fellow SF authors.
He had been welcomed as a hero at the World Science Fiction Convention. He'd always read science fiction, but had never attended a con before. The fans surprised him at panels, listening to everything he said. They lined up for his book signings in the autograph hall or followed him and asked embarrassingly earnest questions about details he himself had never considered.
When Mitchell went to the Hugo Awards ceremony, he found himself plunged into a sea of unreality as the emcee announced his name as the winner. Astonished and grinning, he stumbled up to the podium and held up his silver rocket ship with mixed feelings of shock and giddy triumph.
The following spring, thanks to the continued buzz, Divergent Lines had been a shoo-in for the final Nebula ballot. New to the entire experience, Mitchell stood like a lost puppy in the lobby and the bar, surrounded by luminaries of the genre. He recognized their names from the covers of well-loved books, famous writers ranging from Grand Masters to prolific hacks, all of them legendary and, for the most part, personable.
He'd been in a daze. These Titans of science fiction talked to him as a peer, praised his novel. Mitchell found it unnerving, and he began to wonder how he could ever live up to their expectations. Did he deserve so much praise and success? What if his next work didn't measure up to their expectations? Would he be exposed as a fraud and cast out of this distinguished circle of authors? How would he bear the humiliation?
His publisher paid for his Nebula banquet ticket, and Mitchell was treated as a celebrity at their table. With his stomach tied in knots, he could summon no appetite at all. In an agony of anticipation, he endured the drawn-out meal, the mandatory chitchat, the interminable banquet speaker. By the time the awards finally began, plodding through each category as if in a calculated effort to increase his anxiety, Mitchell had convinced himself that he had no chance of winning. He was a newcomer. He had no track record. He had never played the politics of exchanging recommendations. He had not campaigned for the award. These writers couldn't possibly consider him a friend and certainly didn't owe him any favors.
And yet the name in the presenter's envelope said Divergent Lines. The Nebula seemed even more amazing than the Hugo, because this honor came from his peers, fellow professionals who supposedly knew good writing when they saw it. As Mitchell stood clutching the award, he imagined that someday, when he stood at the Pearly Gates and looked back on his entire life, this would be the high point.…
After that night, though, Mitchell Coren never wrote another word of fiction. He had left the science fiction community behind and let Divergent Lines stand as his sole legacy.
Even in his heyday, Mitchell had not spent much time with die-hard science fiction fans. Not because he didn't like them—he appreciated anyone who bought and loved his novel. But he didn't understand their intensity or their passions and usually ended up feeling outclassed when they wanted to talk shop.
He met Jeremy Cardiff at a quiet place called Mrs. Coffee, a small bistro with shaded outside tables where they could have a conversation in a pleasant atmosphere. Mitchell didn't know which of them was more nervous. He could see in the timeline hunter's eyes that Jeremy was a bona fide Fan.
"This is really an honor, Mr. Coren. I've always been an admirer of Divergent Lines, and now that I've read Infernities, there's no doubt in my mind that you're one of my all-time favorite authors. I felt so surprised and fortunate to have found the book." Jeremy, a youngish man with a thin face, long hair, and a neatly-trimmed brown beard, looked like a waif hoping for a pat on the head. His blue eyes were wide, his smile tentative.
Mitchell took a drink of coffee, then cleared his throat. "Well, Mr. Cardiff, that's what I'm here to talk to you about."
"Please, call me Jeremy." Then the younger man's face fell as he interpreted Mitchell's reluctant tone.
Mitchell chose his words as carefully as he would have in preparing a viewgraph presentation for the board of the manufacturing company. He wasn't sure his reasons would make sense to anyone but himself. Though he knew he didn't exactly have a legal case, he might be able to play the celebrity card. Perhaps by asking a special favor from his number one fan, he could get what he needed. "I think you're perceptive enough to understand why I don't want the novel published here. It's not my book. Somebody else wrote it."
"No, Mr. Coren. You wrote it. Another version of you, maybe, but it was still your talent, your creativity. When I was in college I read and reread Divergent Lines until my copy fell apart, and I've been waiting ten years for a new novel by the same author. When I found Infernities, I sent you the physical book I brought back through the portal, but I made a photocopy. I'm already on my second time through it. It's brilliant—full of intricate layers and nuances."
Mitchell desperately wanted to ask which book he thought was better. Dedicated readers like Jeremy were generally his toughest customers and his harshest critics and, because Mitchell didn't think a new novel could ever live up to their expectations, he had decided not to try.
"That man may have the same name and the same genetics as I do, but he grew up in a parallel universe with a different set of circumstances. He's not me. He obviously reached a different decision about his career. But I didn't write Infernities, and if you published it here in our universe, people would see it as my own work, no matter how many disclaimers you put on it."
"But it's good, sir. Have you read it?"
"No, I don't dare. It would seem almost … plagiaristic."
As if clinging to hope, Jeremy said, "So … are you writing something of your own? Maybe a book that's similar to Infernities?"
"No. I'm not writing anything."
The young man looked at his coffee as if it were poison. He didn't seem angry at Mitchell's attitude, just deeply disappointed. "Then I don't understand. What made you stop writing? I mean, you got the royal treatment. People were lined up waiting for your next book. You had a contract to fulfill, didn't you?"
"Yes. And I … decided to return the advance."
"But why? It just doesn't make sense."
"Why? I'd already won the highest accolades in my field." Mitchell spoke softly, but his voice grew more intense. "Whether through brilliance or sheer dumb luck I muddled my way to the pinnacle of success my first time out of the starting gate. Divergent Lines was hailed as the best book of the year, won all the awards, got spectacular reviews in every periodical from Publishers Weekly and Kirkus to Locus and Chronicle. Library Journal called it an instant classic."
Mitchell sighed. "Don't you see? The weight of it all gets oppressive. Where could I possibly go from there? There's no place but down." An edge of bitterness sharpened his tone. "It's a very long way down. No matter how good it was, my second book—Infernities or whatever I might've called it—would never be good enough. The fans and the critics certainly aren't kind unless your sophomore effort is unbelievably spectacular.
"As it stands right now, I'll go down in history as the author of a great novel. But if I published twenty other books, regardless of how well-written they might be, I can tell you some of the review quotes already: 'A solid novel, but not as inspired as Divergent Lines.' Or 'A fine effort, though it doesn't live up to the promise of its predecessor.' Or, worse yet, 'A disappointing follow-on to the author's first novel.'"
Jeremy frowned at what Mitchell was saying. "I think you're too hard on your fans, sir. We would have followed you. Even after ten years, most of us still want to read whatever you have to say."
"Maybe I don't have anything else to say," Mitchell said. "I can name author after author who falls into that category. Being successful is a Catch-22. If your first novel is a smash hit, an award winner and a critical success, it might mean your career has momentum and you're launched. On the other hand, it could mean your writing will never be good enough again. What should I have done—expanded Divergent Lines and written a couple of unnecessary sequels, so I could call it a trilogy? I could have licensed my universe, farmed it out to other authors, but that just didn't seem right to me. Either way, I would have been crucified by the fans and the critics."
"Just by the snobs," Jeremy said, "not by the fans. But you disappeared from fandom altogether. When's the last time you went to a science fiction convention?"
"The WorldCon where I got my Hugo was the first and last. I stopped reading Locus and Chronicle and Ansible after one of them ran an editorial about one-hit wonders that led off with 'What ever happened to Mitchell Coren?'" He looked at his coffee. "I didn't stand a chance of keeping up the momentum in my career. Fans and critics are too unpredictable. So I controlled the only part of the equation that I could control: I stopped writing fiction. My life is stable now that I've accepted the wisdom of anonymity. But if Alternitech publishes this apocryphal second novel that I didn't really write, then I'll be at the mercy of the public's expectations again. Please, don't do it."
Disappointment and resignation filled Jeremy's eyes as he unzipped his backpack and reached inside to withdraw a thick stack of photocopied pages. "Look, this is my only copy. What happens to it is not really supposed to be my decision. Alternitech owns proprietary rights to whatever I bring back through parallel universes. Still, no matter how much I loved this novel, I have to admit that this doesn't have the equivalent value to Alternitech of, say, an unknown collection of Sherlock Holmes stories by Arthur Conan Doyle or the Dean Koontz/Stephen King collaboration I uncovered once. I think people deserve to read it. I was going to have you autograph this for me." Jeremy slid the stack of papers across the table. "But now I guess you'd better keep it, so you'll know there aren't any other copies in existence. You decide what to do. It's your call, Mr. Coren. It's your book."
"I—" Mitchell started to speak, but found his voice choked with emotion. He took a long drink of his now-tepid coffee and started again. "Well … don't you want to keep it? You said you were reading it."
Jeremy shook his head. "If you know I have a copy, you'd always worry that someday I'd be tempted to post it on the Internet. It's better if you keep it."
The papers felt warm in Mitchell's hands. His vision blurred, and he took a moment to compose himself. "I … didn't expect this."
"I'm a musician myself, Mr. Coren. I write and record songs, but I haven't had much success so far. It was a minor consolation when I found that I did have a hit record in an alternate universe, but nothing here yet. I was the one who brought back the new music for that whole Karen Carpenter debacle, and I don't feel very good about it. As a musician, I thought Carpenter or her estate should have had some control over her own creative work, no matter which incarnation made the album. The same goes for you, sir. If you're uncomfortable about having Infernities published, then …" He shrugged.
"I can't tell you how much this means to me."
"I think I understand." Jeremy slurped his decaf cappuccino. "Besides, I'm your fan. I can't think of anything cooler than to know I am the only person in this entire universe who's read your new novel."
Dozens of the loose photocopy sheets wadded up under the fireplace grate made for good kindling. Mitchell rolled the remaining loose pages of twenty-pound bond into plump literary logs, rubber-banded them, and set them on the log holder above the crumpled pages. Then he fanned out the hardcover book and flattened it across the white paper logs. He stood back to observe the diminutive funeral pyre with a sense of uneasiness.
He should have felt relieved.
This potential source of humiliation or disruption would soon be dealt with. The book would no longer be in his life, could no longer irritate or goad him by its very existence. No fans would have a chance to either criticize or clamor for more. The chapter would be closed.
Yes, Mitchell was definitely relieved.
After he lit the match, he hesitated for a long, indecisive moment before finally touching the flame to the edge of one of the loose sheets. There. A burnt offering to a cruel muse.
As the fire caught, guilt gnawed at the ragged edges of his mind. There was something intrinsically criminal about burning a book, especially the only copies of a book. While this event would not go down in history with the sacking of the Library of Alexandria, it was still a loss to at least some tiny backwater of the literary sea—especially to the hopeful fans who had waited so long for any work by Mitchell Coren.
The flames grew higher, devouring the loose pages and curling the glossy dust jacket of Infernities. An interesting play on words, he thought. Infinity, Alternative, and Eternity all rolled together. Now he could add "Inferno" to make it a quadruple entendre. He wondered how it related to the story.
Didn't he owe it to himself at least to read his own work, to see what he could have done with his talent? Infernities was tangible proof that in some other reality his author-self had overcome the pressure and the expectations. But how? Didn't that mean that he, too, could do it?
No. He'd made the right decision. He thought with some satisfaction of the author photo blackening and blistering, cremating his cocksure successful doppelgänger. The man had dared to risk his reputation, his spotless literary legacy, to write this second novel and offer it to an unpredictable reading public. He had dared. Had risked …
With a groan of annoyance and frustration Mitchell snatched the hardcover from the fire, dropped it to the floor, and stamped on it to put out the flames at the edges. He bent and picked up the singed novel that had disrupted his calm life.
As he picked up the blackened book, Mitchell's lips flickered in a smile. Though he still had no intention of publishing the novel, he would hold onto the book as a goad. Just to keep him honest. To remind himself of what could be.
He had his own ideas for new stories and novels, of course. Every writer did. The ideas had never stopped coming, and he had jotted down notes during lunch hours at his tech-writing job. Some of the outlines were damn good, but he had been too afraid of failure to write the books, believing it better to let readers live with his mysterious seclusion than to risk them shaking their heads in disappointment.
Yet his alternate self had somehow shaken off the fear of failure. Therefore, it could be done. And that sincere, appreciative look he had seen in Jeremy Cardiff's eyes told Mitchell he still had an audience, no matter how small.…
Some authors were motivated to write strictly for the critics, for the kudos and awards. Others wanted the money and name recognition of sales, with big print runs and splashy publicity. Some wrote only for themselves, giving the finger to anyone else's expectations. But why had he become a writer?
Now there was a group to whom he owed something: his fans—the readers who understood what he was trying to do and who saw him as a human being with a talent that should not simply be thrown away. Those fans would enjoy whatever he wrote.
Certainly, a few of them went to the crazy fringe, seeing him as a guru with unparalleled insight into their particular problems. But most were just regular people. If he struck the right note, his pool of fans would be large; if he chose a path that was too esoteric, the numbers might dwindle. In either case, the readers still deserved his respect.
Mitchell looked at the charred copy of Infernities he held. He realized now that burning the novel was selfish. There were thousands (or maybe only dozens) of people like Jeremy Cardiff, who would have enjoyed this book if he allowed it to be published.
Setting the burned hardcover down, he opened the bottom file drawer of his desk where he kept the folder of notes and ideas that were just too good to throw away. If he was going to bury this cuckoo's egg of a book, then he was obligated to give the readers something in exchange.
Mitchell skimmed his outlines. He had forgotten how clever or thought-provoking many of them were. Had he intended to be an Emily Dickinson, locking his notes away in a box for someone else to find after he died? Not long ago, he had been tempted to burn these, too.
Now he would write some of them.
As he flipped through his notes, the ideas reached a critical mass, and Mitchell saw how he could combine concepts and characters. What might have been simple short story ideas now became enough material for a multi-layered novel. It wouldn't be just like Divergent Lines, but so what? It would still be good, still be worth writing.
He spread the papers out on his desk. He had an old, outdated laptop computer and plenty of time during his lunch hours. Some of the greatest works of literature had been completed a few pages at a time during lunch breaks.…
Mitchell glanced at the fireplace, where the fire had now died to a pile of orange embers. The photocopied novel was now nothing but ash.
On the mantel above, his Hugo and Nebula awards reflected the dull glow. He turned away from them and focused on his desk. Divergent Lines had been an unnecessary ball-and-chain to his creativity, along with all the other excuses he had made up over the past ten years. That was enough procrastination.
He looked at the charred but still readable hardcover of Infernities. First, before he started on any new book or short story, he had to write a letter.
"Dear Mr. Cardiff, let me make you a bargain." He proposed that if he had not produced any new novels or short stories in the next five years, then Jeremy had his blessing to publish Infernities, if only to reward the fans who had waited so long. He packaged the letter with the scorched book and mailed it to his "number one fan." Simply knowing the novel existed would be all the inspiration he really needed.
On the way back from the mailbox, he smiled to himself, convinced it would never be necessary for the other Mitchell Coren's book to be published here. He would take that risk for himself.
Richard Matheson is a seminal, brilliant, and highly influential writer who deserves to be a household name along with Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov, although he isn't as well known. You are familiar with his work, though, as the writer of the stories behind countless incredible films, such as I Am Legend, Somewhere in Time, Duel, The Incredible Shrinking Man, What Dreams May Come, A Stir of Echoes, Real Steel, The Legend of Hell House, and many others. When a specialty press asked if I would write a story for a Matheson tribute anthology of stories about the human effects of war, as a companion to Matheson's novel Beardless Warriors, I couldn't say no.
I had wanted to write this story for more than a year, but never had the impetus to do so. The idea kept nagging at me, and it seemed to fit perfectly with the anthology. After I turned in the story, I received this letter from Matheson's son, Richard Christian Matheson—an extremely talented novelist and screenwriter in his own right—saying he loved the story, "Its dread about war's futility (even far tomorrows, sadly, immunizing none) resonates with quiet melancholy and it absolutely belongs in the anthology." I knew I had hit the mark.