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ISBN-10: 1-55404-188-0
Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy/SF
eBook Length: 549 Pages
Published: October 2004

From inside the flap

To the unaccustomed traveler, the overlands is a place of extremes. Itís a place where temperature swings and fluctuations in humidity bring on rapid fatigue; itís a place where the sun washes the body with searing ultra-violet rays that accelerate aging and decay; itís a place where technology is abandoned in favour of hard toil and long work days. But worst of all, itís a place of mortality.

The inhabitants, however, see it differently. They would argue that the overlands is a paradise: the rich harvest afforded by a diminished population and the restoration of the natural landscape. They would argue that they?re the envy of their forefathers, and the only true preservers of manís civilization.

As far as they?re concerned, their subsoil counterparts are inconsequential. Those people can live in their magnificent cities: cities littered with historical monuments and artifacts raped from the overlands. They can float about in their wonderland with all its wizardry and play out their meaningless existences. Just so long as they keep to themselves.

But Carlos has other plans. A shadow-hopper through and through, heís besotted by the rugged appeal of overland life. And heís happy to give up everything, including his life long friends, to immigrate and immerse himself in it. So, with his fair-skinned partner at his side, he makes a clean break and leaves his old world behind.

His friends are devastated. They?re still reeling two years later when they get word that Carlos has disappeared - possibly the victim of foul play. Advised by their council that the overland city-states have no interest in the disappearance, Carlos? old friends are persuaded to investigate themselves. That means going into the overlands. That means subjecting themselves to all the dangers of mortal life.

Unfortunately, things on the surface get about as bad as they could have imagined. Their own lack of cultural finesse and local knowledge sees them incarcerated in a tall ship, at the mercy of a local captain. And that man - the last person to see their old klassmates - is no stable individual. The group suffers injury and humiliation on board his wooden schooner, and are eventually marooned on an island. There they run into one of their lost companions, only to find out that the dolt is responsible for the whole mess in the first place.

Overlanders (Excerpt)

Chapter 1: Allegro

The air was charged with anticipation.

Eight hundred or so people, wrapped up resplendently in the finery of the times, were seated in the grand old festival hall. The men in the audience were adorned with embroidered waistcoats of diaper-patterned velvet, frilled cuffs and collars, silk cravats, cocked hats, wigs and make-up. Their partners were equally well decorated, with flowing dresses of Chinese silk or Indian dyed cotton wrapped tightly around their elegant, slender bodies and sprawled about their feet.

This was Europeís golden age. Life was a celebration of pomp and ceremony, and it showed at every turn. It showed in the tilted chins and downcast eyes of the aristocrats; it showed in the plain, bold columns of the architecture; and it showed in the clinical, polished concert music. It was all a show.

For Gius, it was perfect. He slouched back against his seat with quiet abandon. In stark contrast to the rigidly postured people around him, he didn?t wear the fanciful clothes or wigs. He didn?t need to. These people were his.

Instead, his short-cropped black hair, deep-set eyes and trademark black coat made him an intimidating presence. His expressionless gaze drifted from person to person as he studied the facial profiles of the people sitting in the rows before him.

They were motionless. Their spellbound faces were transfixed by the music pouring off the stage and filling the hall: the gentle swirling of violins, the mellow current of brass, the clamoring waterfall of percussion. It was slick and catchy; the intervals of music slurring together seamlessly as the composition ebbed and flowed. At times it would fall to a mere trickle; only to gather momentum again and surge into a thunderous, gushing torrent that burst through the main entrance and onto the street.

Yet Gius, in contrast to the rest of the audience, didn?t find it quite so enthralling. He wasn?t hanging on every note and waiting for the next with eager anticipation. Sure, he enjoyed the artistry of the piece with a passion, but he couldn?t help thinking about how pretentious the whole theme was. The music elevated a mundane, lifeless object into something surreal, spectacular, beautiful. In real life, the river was just a river. It meandered through southern Europe, collecting silt and debris from the continent before dumping it into some unknown sea. Indeed the river was usually a dreary gray, barely washing blue for a few days a year.

Gius figured that if the people in the audience were actually sitting on the banks of that river right now, their current high spirits would probably be replaced by a dark, inescapable depression. And if the warm, soporific Fohn wind was blowing, some of the more neurotic folk might well be floating with the current face down. Then they would need to get out the violins.

Although that notion was perhaps a tad morbid, there was some merit to it: the suicide rate in this town had an apparent seasonality that peaked when the wind poured down the northern Alps.

Yet here and now, that reality was far from the great hall. The music filling it was a fantasy. A spirited fantasy, about an Austria that didn?t exist. And the author of the piece was here to deliver it. The man was irrepressible. He stood in front of the orchestral pit on a raised dais, conducting the musicians in exaggerated movements by twisting his torso and wagging his fingers in anticipation of each note. His mop of curly hair, dyed jet black, shook as he swayed from side to side. It had a tendency to shake even more after every salvo of applause, whereupon he would spin around to acknowledge the audience with a broad grin that glistened beneath his stately moustache.

It was another pretence. In reality he too was as much a phony as his music. Gius knew that away from the spotlight the animated composer was a somber, driven man, no more frolicsome than Vienna was gay and frivolous. And he could relate to that persona. Perhaps thatís why he liked him.

He drew in a short breath, closed his eyes for a moment, and then switched his attention back to the audience. He had a penchant for scrutinising individuals in such a crowd, and these people were almost as fascinating as the conductor himself. A group of colorful people the English regarded as overdressed peasants. They were Austrians: a unique breed of German whose schizophrenic society had produced all manner of maestros and psychopaths to grace and disgrace the pages of world history.

He scanned the room and quickly found his study. She was a young adolescent, with slender shoulders and straight back, who sat a few meters away in the row in front of him. He found her particularly interesting. She seemed detached from the music, even somewhat bored. Like him, she appeared to be disengaged from the whole social aspect of the gathering: taking a step back, looking at people, wondering what they were thinking. Perhaps, in the same vein as him, she was wondering if their personalities could be derived from their facial characteristics.

He hoped so. He instinctively bit his lower lip at the thought and leant sideways a little to get a better view of her face. From behind, she appeared to be an attractive young lady. She wore a dainty jeweled necklace and green flowing dress; her brunette hair was bunched up in a headpiece that released only a few twisted, dangling strands to frame her slender neck; and one of her frilled sleeves had pulled away from the glove to reveal a milky white arm. At a glance she was breathtaking.

The woman who sat beside her had a similar frame, perhaps a few centimeters taller in the shoulder, and Gius guessed that she was almost certainly the girlís mother. The older woman had a more austere look about her: chin tilted up, eyes fixed on the orchestra, clapping at the right moments with the appropriate hand speed. In contrast to her mother, the young ladyís chin was relaxed, her restless eyes glanced boldly around the hall and her clapping was feeble and superficial.

To Gius, she had the demeanor of a typical Austrian girl. And there was nothing wrong with that: the young ladies of this country were renowned for being naive, artful and, invariably, oversexed. So with that reputation to live up to, this girl should be just his cup of tea. He pondered her age. Fifteen perhaps? About a third of his? He wondered what would happen if they met by chance and began a conversation. Somewhere discreet perhaps. Somewhere beyond the influence of this disciplined, cosmetically astute society.

His mind drifted, encouraged by the ebbing music, into a daydream of the encounter. It started with a trade of flirtatious smiles, followed by a reciprocation of brief, guarded lines designed to test for wit and intelligence. Her repartee would hit the mark, of course, and the posturing would degenerate into a provocative exchange of verbal teasing and innuendo. But soon the words would falter. They were merely a smokescreen for lust, and would give way to a much deeper communication. Their hands would touch. Her eyes would look up, fresh and inviting, and a spark of electric excitement would course through his body.

Gius suddenly snapped out of the daydream with a shudder. His imagination couldn?t handle getting overheated. Pulling his coat straight, he blinked back into reality and refocused his attention on the young ladyís face.

As he gazed at her, a few brunette strands fell from the head adornment and brushed across her cheeks. She tilted her chin up and flicked them away with a sweeping shake of her head. As she turned, Gius could see her sullen expression in the half-light: a pretty face with large eyes and lips turned down slightly at the corners. Although attractive, he felt that it was one of those faces that lacked a certain spark. He was disappointed with the look.

The young lady peered over her shoulder toward the high ceiling. She passed a brief downward glance at Gius as she did so, but it didn?t communicate any vivacity or passion to him. Her expression was distant, aloof, empty.

The girl quickly broke off and turned toward the front. Gius began to re-evaluate the character profile he had constructed for her: not the intelligent, risqu? girl he?d hoped for, but merely the dull, predictable, social product her parents had molded. And she certainly wouldn?t relate to a man of his years. She?d be repulsed by his advances, and think he was some sort of grubby philanderer groping in the cradle. Hey, perhaps she?d be right on that score. But so what? Life was short. Any normal teenage girl with a bit of spark would want to live it up. Stupid child, he thought to himself.

A sudden round of applause leapt from the audience and shattered his concentration. Taken aback, he sat up straight in his seat, looked about at the enthusiastic crowd and swept a hand though his slick black hair. He took in a deep breath, tensed his chest for a second, then relaxed, slipping back into his comfortable, slumped position. After a few minutes the ardent hand clapping subsided, and a new piece of music commenced.

Gius smiled as the next Viennese illusion slowly began to form. He loved this tune. He knew every note, and he knew which instrument that made it ? even the old zither, the traditional folk instrument. He put his lips together and began to whistle softly. It was a light, but audible whistle. No one responded. Closing his eyes, he swayed his body in slight movements from side to side, and the people sitting on either side looked across with guarded consternation before shuffling sideways in their seats to accommodate him.

His whistling soon sharpened into strong clear notes. Gius wasn?t concerned in the least about those around him. Eventually the brashness of his whistling, poorly timed and out of tune, reached a point where no person in close proximity could ignore it. Even the young lady with the bland personality turned and frowned at him, gesturing to him by pressing an index finger against her lips. Gius ignored her, and even began repeating bars after the orchestra had moved on.

The young lady persisted with her signaling. Gius finally looked up at her as the music reached its close, and his eyes engaged the youthful, frowning face with virile intensity. He smiled, and decided that it was time to teach this adolescent a lesson: a lesson in taking life by the horns.

He stood up just as the final notes drifted across the festival hall. The first claps soon followed, rattling out around the auditorium and quickly gathering into another salvo of applause. Gius grinned and raised his palms above his head. Then he shouted, almost to a scream, above the raucous.

?Play it again!?

The clapping fell away, and all of the faces in the hall turned toward him. There were a few uneasy, stifled laughs. The conductor stopped bowing, and his broad grin sank into an uncertain smile as he pushed his curly black hair away from his forehead and looked at the brash usurper with an irritated expression.

?I?m sorry sir?? he said.

Gius was unmoved. ?I said play it again!?

The scattering of laughs evaporated. The conductor seemed unsure about what to make of the outburst, and looked around with a mixture of disgust and indecision at his stage associates.