Okay, looking at that headline, you’re probably asking yourself at least one of a few very specific questions, so I’ll do my best to answer them with all due haste.
Q: What are The Prospero Chronicles again?
A: Ha, ha. I know it’s been a long, bumpy road of publishing, unpublishing, republishing, re-planning, hiatuses, and all other manner of business and creative drama that can befall a story, but you guys still remember Mina and Ben pitting their mismatched friendship against the forces of the ancient interdimensional monsters they call Splinters, right?
Q: Oh, yeah. Wait… is there going to be a screen adaptation?
A: Not so far, but ten points for optimism.
Q: Is there finally a release date for book four?!?!?!
A: No, not quite, but more on that shortly.
Q: But the ending of Slivers…
A: I know, I know.
Q: You sadist! You can’t just bring this up again and keep us hanging on that ending! I have to know what happens to Ben, and Aldo, and…
A: You will.
Q: Sure, like I’ll someday find out the non-TV ending of A Song of Ice and Fire?
A: Ouch. No, really, you will.
Q: Is the series dead? Give it to me straight, doctor!
A: No! In fact that's the opposite of what this announcement is about.
Q: But no release date?
A: Not yet.
Q: Then what else could you possibly have to announce?
A: Here goes. Matt is going to be withdrawing from The Prospero Chronicles, and I’ll be writing the final installment solo.
Now some of you may be asking a different set of questions.
Q: What? But don’t you guys write separate characters? How can the series go on without him? Why isn’t he coming back? Is he okay? Aren’t you still an adorably married writing duo?!
A: Relax. Matt and I are fine, personally, professionally, medically, and in whatever other ways you might be thinking. In fact, we’ve got a superhero noir novel coming out in August from Talos Press, and a post-apocalyptic dieselpunk indie series we’ve been working on together for later in the year as well. It’s just The Prospero Chronicles specifically that Matt’s splitting away from.
Q: Wait, is this why, at the end of Slivers, Ben is-
A: Hush. No spoilers yet, in case anyone needs to catch up. And the answer is… not consciously? But it does make my job a little easier now. What luck!
Q: But why isn’t he writing it with you?
A: Matt’s been wanting to work on other projects for a long time. We’ve tried several times to schedule a period to work on the final Prospero book together, but it’s become clear that it’s not really a question of timing; it’s just not where his focus and passion are now.
Matt and I have both grown and developed a lot as writers since we first started working on The Prospero Chronicles together. I’ve always had a fair bit of room to stretch within The Prospero Chronicles, but Matt’s generally been stuck playing the straight man. He’s proud of what he put into the series, especially the world building and creature design, which were almost entirely his baby. He’s also going to go on helping me in a consulting capacity, so that I don’t get lost in the territories of Prospero that have only been charted in his head. But in terms of putting words on the page, he can’t stay. The voices of his other characters in other worlds are calling.
Q: Aren’t you going to feed us a line about how this is a good thing?
A: Believe it or not, it really is. As awesome a writer as Matt is and as great a team as we make, no story is going to benefit from being churned out while its creator’s heart is elsewhere, no matter the reasons or the talent involved.
We realized that either we could write a long-procrastinated final book with adequate skill but half the spark missing, or I could write a full-sparked final book in the course of a few months.
I believe we made the right choice not just for us but for The Prospero Chronicles themselves.
Q: Did you say a few months?
A: Well, yeah. That’s what I’m working on right now, and in spite of the way the book’s been restructured to play to my solo strengths and wrap things up in one installment instead of two, I’ve had the essential beats of how this story has to end bottled up for so long that they’re spilling out at NaNoWriMo speed. Editing, cover art, and release day scheduling and planning will take a bit longer, of course, but it’s looking like a 2018 finale might still be within the realm of possibility.
Q: Is that all we’re going to get now?
A: No! Just to whet your appetite, and maybe a little bit to prove that I’m serious, you get a preview from chapter one of Stitches, book 4 of The Prospero Chronicles.
Note of course that this is a draft in progress, subject to changes and corrections, and naturally filled with spoilers if you haven’t reached the end of Slivers yet.
1. The Drip
It was Haley who told me.
There was a competitive cooking show playing on the TV that evening in my med center room, and one of the contestants was yelling about how the other team had ripped off his method for perfectly searing parsnips while I watched the Occupation guards out in the hallway pat her down for weapons. From the way she stood there with her arms spread, half impatient and half dreading the moment when she’d be allowed across the threshold to see me, I knew enough to make me dread it too.
The drugs wouldn’t let me feel the full, visceral twisting of that dread, but no doubt it was occurring anyway, somewhere in my distant-feeling innards.
One of the guards raised an eyebrow at the contents of Haley’s backpack but eventually returned it and waved her inside. She extended my brutal stay of enlightenment by treading the four feet to my bed as if they were a rickety balance beam.
She wasn’t crying, but her eyes were bloodshot, and her voice came out raw.
“There’s been an attack.”
I waited, and finally the blow came, in an economical croaking of syllables.
“Kevin’s dead, and Ben’s missing.”
My breath quickened, and I found that her raw, blunt voice was more than I could match.
Aldo replaced. Kevin dead. Ben missing.
Responding with words was like trying to slay a dragon with a toothpick.
Kevin. Kevin who never wanted to fight. Kevin who was going to Berkley and then into politics to save the world the other way. Kevin who forgave me for killing his brother, who’d saved my life at least twice over, who was there from the very beginning, even when I was too preoccupied to thank him, which was always.
One little jab of the toothpick.
I didn’t want to hear the words, and Haley didn’t want to say them, but somehow, inevitably, the ritual of exchanging them demanded to be observed.
“Officially, hit-and-run.” This part came out in a sharp breath. “Unofficially, they beat him up and broke his neck.”
Her breath retreated back in just as sharply, and then started the cycle over again.
“And when his parents challenged the coroner’s report…”
“Dead or replaced?” I asked.
“Replaced, both of them. I mean, we didn’t capsaicin-test them or anything when they suddenly changed their minds two hours later, but-”
“I’ll take your word.”
“We found this next to him,” she reached into her backpack and pulled out a Ziploc full of stiff, bloodstained fabric, “but there was only one body.”
I had to turn the plastic-sealed bundle over twice in my hands before I recognized the shredded remains of Ben’s ‘3 of a Kind’ baseball cap. Something had clawed straight through it.
I grabbed my phone from the bedside table.
“Don’t,” said Haley.
I pushed send anyway. Ben’s number went straight to a voicemail message that wasn’t his. The sing-song recorded voice of Robbie York cut clean through the drug haze and squeezed my stomach up toward my throat.
“You’ve reached Ben Pastor’s phone. He belongs to the Queen now. What’cha gonna do about it, huh Mina?”
I hung up and threw the phone at the end of my bed, where Haley stopped it from falling off the end.
“We don’t know that it’s the Shard who replaced Robbie last time,” Haley said without conviction. “They could have given his body to a new Sliver, or even made the real Robbie record the message, just to hurt you-”
“It’s him,” I said.
It was, without a doubt. The Shard who had tried to make me kill myself last winter wielded Robbie’s vocal cords with a smug venom all his own. Besides, now that the local Splinter Council was down for the count, and with them the agreement we’d made to keep that Shard out of our dimension, his mind-altering powers would make him one of the first weapons the Slivers would want to put back on the table.
“I was going to warn you,” said Haley. “It was just-”
“Too much,” I finished.
Aldo replaced. Kevin dead. Ben missing. The nightmare Shard back in town.
It was all the very definition of too much.
“I kissed him,” said Haley.
I’d already charged the dragon the moment I opened my mouth, and there was nothing to do now but keep stabbing at the smallest, loosest scales I could wedge the verbal toothpick under. This one looked as likely as any other.
“You kissed Robbie?” I asked.
Haley shook her head.
“Kevin?” I guessed again, only half hoping. “Were you back together with him when-”
“Not Kevin,” she said.
“Oh,” I said. “Okay.”
I pushed the morphine button.
“At the going away party, I kissed Ben, and I’m so sorry, not for the kiss, exactly, it was stupidly innocent, but-”
“I don’t care,” I lied, lowering my voice against the guards outside. “I just need to think. I need to make a plan.”
Never mind the fact that I’d spent the last week trying to think and plan and getting nowhere.
“I wanted it to be there,” she went on. “The spark, the magic, I wanted so much for it to be there, waiting to surprise us, but it just wasn’t.”
“Maybe you should talk to someone else about this.”
“It wasn’t there, and I think that might be why Ben and Kevin went off on their own afterward,” she persisted miserably. “I think it might be my fault they were alone when they were attacked.”
I shook my head. “Ben was only there in the first place because I told him to go.”
I felt like a dog snapping and yanking at scraps of culpability, but here in this bed, waiting for my bones to set around the new pins and plates, guilt was the only thing strong enough to drown out the helplessness. I couldn’t let Haley steal it all for herself.
They might not have been ambushed if she hadn’t kissed him.
And they might not have been ambushed if I’d kissed him instead.
“How much blood?” I asked.
“A lot, but not a certain death lot,” Haley answered readily. “I looked it up.”
That probably meant Ben had been taken away in a vehicle or wrapped in Splinter matter, for what little help that was.
“And it’s all Ben’s?” I asked.
“We don’t exactly have a forensics lab on our side here,” said Haley. “But Kevin wasn’t bleeding.”
And their attackers wouldn’t have bled real blood.
“No sign of a Sliver-Ben walking around?” I asked.
“Not yet,” said Haley. “Is that… good?”
“It’s not anything,” I said.
I wouldn’t have wished replication upon anyone, but if we could be sure it had happened to Ben, we’d at least know where he was. This hadn’t done much good for Aldo; we hadn’t been able to find his replication pod in our last invasion of the Sliver Warehouse, I’d landed myself here in the med center trying to take on the Queen, and now with so few of us left and the Occupation watching over everything, I didn’t know how we’d ever pull off another attempt, but it was almost worse, not knowing.
Ben might be in mid-replication right now, or he might have escaped and gone to hide in the woods until he could find a safe moment to make contact. The Slivers might be holding him for some other purpose more horrible than we could imagine, or he might already be dead.
I didn’t need to voice any of these possibilities to know that Haley had already gone over them all herself.
Haley stepped closer, past the foot of the bed. Her hurt was contagious, and maybe mine was too, and I found I had to roll away onto my side to break the feedback loop.
“Are you crying?” she asked.
Her voice cracked. “May I join you?”
I scooted forward to the edge of the bed, leaving room for her to curl up behind me.
The sunflower and carnation bouquet on the table next to me was still as fresh and cheery as it had been when Ben had brought it to me in the morning on his way to Kevin’s party, when they had both been all right, and for a moment I hoped to see it grow fangs or tentacles or the faces of dead people, or some other surreal nightmare manifestation oozing with the Shard-Robbie’s personal style.
Having him tampering with my thoughts again would be bad enough on its own, but I could almost have welcomed it if it meant hoping that the rest of this day, this week, and this news, might all just be part of another cruel illusion.
The flowers, the room, and Haley’s weight on the mattress next to me remained mercilessly unembellished reality.
On TV, a frantic man with a neck tattoo was grating a piece of ginger into a pan of simmering soy sauce.
I pushed the morphine button again.
Before the night was out, Mom called to check on me, and refrained from saying “I told you so” about the fact that, after three years, I’d finally finished destroying the Brundle family.
Then Julie texted, with a few hollow words about how none of the fallen would want us to give up.
Then Courtney sent me the new password to a dropbox she’d set up for the undiscovered surveillance feeds she’d been able to salvage.
Sometime around ten at night, after Haley had gone home, Patrick arrived and stood in the doorway for eight minutes before asking if there was anything he could do for me, and then for another three before going away.
They all flickered by, like tides coming in and out over a pier, while I lay there watching the flowers.
That night, I exceeded my drip’s programmed dosage limit for the first time since all my surgeries, no longer bothering to self-moderate for the sake of maintaining any mental clarity, and when I ran out of drugs, I took hits of guilt instead, running a fine-toothed comb over every move I’d ever made to bring us all to where we were.
The tines always came away full, making me wonder why I’d bothered fighting Haley for a few traces.
My guilt drip turned out to be unlimited, and yet my tolerance for it, already founded on a lifelong habit for the stuff, spiked even more sharply than my tolerance for the morphine, until even my newfound cocktail of the two became an inadequate masking agent for the absence of action.
So when the morning came, I sat up, shoved the morphine button over the side of the bed, picked up the vase in the less broken of my two arms, and threw it at a guard’s head.
Want more sneak previews? Titchenell & Carter patrons at the Telepath level get early access and behind-the-scenes peeks at all our upcoming indie projects, currently including the full first chapter of Stitches and a complete download of my upcoming YA Paranormal title: Out of the Pocket.