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TOWER LORD by Anthony Ryan

TOWER LORD Anthony Ryan

Following on from 2013′s bestselling epic fantasy debut is the second novel in the Raven’s Shadow series – a powerful epic fantasy from an exciting new British talent.
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VALORJohn Gwynne

War has erupted in the Banished Lands as the race for power intensifies. Sides are chosen and oaths will be fulfilled or broken in a land where hell has broken loose.
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A sample from THE FOURTH WALL

Read the first chapter of THE FOURTH WALL.

CHAPTER ONE

HEAVY LUGGAGE BLOG

When you spot someone sitting at the beach wearing a headset for Augmented Reality, or wearing AR specs on the bus, or smiling quietly in the back pew of the church with his video glasses on, what do you think?

I’ll tell you what you think. You think he’s watching porn.

Porn is the killer app for Augmented Reality, just as it has been for practically every other mass-media technology of the last fifty years.

You can do many things with AR. You can get information on the position of stars and planets, you can watch ambitious entertainment videos, you can view the menus of restaurants you happen to be passing. You can play three-dimensional games on a flat surface, you can view historical markers telling you interesting things that happened on the spot where you are standing, you can enhance your museum-going experience.

But you don’t need goggles for any of that. All you need is a handheld device.

But for porn, you need the privacy of goggles or AR specs. If you’re brandishing a handheld, anyone can look over your shoulder to view your personal kinks. The privacy of video shades permits you to enjoy your sexual fantasies without revealing to everyone around you how sad, lonely, and pathetic you are.

Not that I was thinking of any of these things as I field-tested my first set of AR specs. These were the new ARi designer shades, the handsome result of a collaboration between the Bangalore-based Chandra wireless company and the European designer Aristotle Despopoulos. The specs are the color of champagne, with elegant black ceramic inserts here and there. They retail for about $2,500.

I didn’t purchase them—$2,500 is a lot to pay for my entertainment. I found them in a gift bag at a Hollywood party, along with a TAG Heuer ladies’ watch, a silk Aristotle Despopoulos scarf blazoned with the AriPop logo, a GPS locator, and a top-of-the-line Chandra handset carrying the signature of Mahesh Singh himself.

I wasn’t actually invited to the party in question, but I had a friend who got me in, and whose name I will not reveal. Some of the official guests didn’t show up, and I was able to glom one of the gift bags when no one was looking.

This morning I spent a couple hours playing with the ARis. No, I didn’t watch porn, instead I took a stroll along Sunset in West Hollywood. Virtual icons have so proliferated there that they almost cover the Strip’s famous wall-to-wall advertising. A virtual doorman stands by every door in order to pimp the attractions of every bar, restaurant, or nightclub—or sometimes the bar, restaurant, or club that was located there three or four years ago. A rotating three-dimensional Lana Turner marks the original location of Schwab’s drugstore, and if you click her you get a canned history of the drugstore along with a lot of vintage photographs. (It’s pretty good actually.) More eerily, a ghostly River Phoenix stands on the sidewalk where he died outside the Viper Room. Actors and musicians are auditioning all over the place, as are sex workers. Political slogans pulse through the air, some of them marking election cycles long past.

Remember when AR was touted as a brilliant, dynamic new electronic tool sure to improve our lives? Advertising and porn, that’s what we got. You really need a traffic cop for all this dreck.

And unfortunately my ARis wouldn’t be that cop. I tried to turn the heads-up display off, by sending a command from the Mahesh Singh–autographed handset, but the damned icons just wouldn’t disappear.

I looked up the online manual and followed the procedure for turning off the AR function, but nothing happened. After I got home I called customer support, only to be connected to someone whose native language was probably Tamil, and who simply read me the same text from the online instructions that had already failed.

I tried deleting the AR app and reloading it, but it wouldn’t delete. Eventually I realized that the ability to switch off the AR function had been disabled. The same people who had given away the ARis wanted me to see all that advertising.

The chance to view porn in private sure as hell isn’t worth all this.

You might say that I deserve it, having got some video specs I wasn’t really entitled to and that now do nothing but laser tons of useless crap onto my retinas. And in my case at least, I might agree with you.

But what about the A-list celebrities who put on their designer ARis for a stroll down Rodeo Drive and discover that they can’t rid themselves of all the video hucksters? The same A-list celebrities that Chandra is counting on to tout their specs? How are they going to feel about being unable to turn off all that pimpage?

You might say that Chandra made something of a marketing blunder here.

My ARis are going up for sale on an online auction site, along with the handset and the watch.

Maybe I’ll keep the scarf. It goes with some of my jackets.

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INT. ARENA—NIGHT

I come out of the darkness of the tunnel into the brilliant light and the whole arena erupts with a huge, hollow roaring made by thousands of enthusiastic drunken American males. Whooooooo. I’m stunned. I haven’t heard anything that enthusiastic in ages. Certainly not for me.

I’m so taken aback that I almost stumble, but my cornerman, Master Pak, keeps me going with steady pressure to my shoulder blades. My eyes are dazzled by camera flashes. People are reaching into the aisles to touch me or to offer high fives. I look to my right and see a whole row of bare-chested guys pumping their fists in the air and barking. They’re wearing weird alien bald heads, and their beer bellies are painted baby blue. Oogh-oogh-oogh-oogh.

Is that supposed to be my head? I think. These are my fans?

In unison they pick up suitcases and hold them over their heads.

Luggage. Oh God.

I blink and they’re gone, vanished back into the crowd as I advance.

Whoooooo. The sound seems to pick me up and fling me in the direction of the sky. My heart pounds. My veins are ablaze with adrenaline.

This is what it’s like to be a rock star. This is what it’s like to own an arena full of people.

Ahead the ring is like a silver crown gleaming in a pillar of light. Outlined in the shining argent floods I can see the referee, an enormous 240-pound bodybuilder crammed into a white shirt and bow tie. He wears surgical gloves in the event that I decide to bleed on him. And then an anomaly catches my eye, and I think, Why is the ref wearing waders?

When I hop up the stairs to the ring, I find out why.

This is the point where, in my mind’s ear, I can hear the television announcer: “This is where the contestant realizes that, without telling him, we’ve filled the ring with eight inches of cottage cheese!”

Oh yeah, I think. I am so pwned.

The ring is actually ring-shaped, a circle thirty feet across. It’s walled off from the rest of the arena by a six-foot curtain of chainlink. Overhead, against the rows of floods, I can see automated cameras swooping back and forth on guy wires.

My other corner guy, Ricardo, opens a gate on the chain-link wall, and I step gingerly into the cottage cheese. It’s very cold, and it squelches up over my bare feet. I stomp around a bit. The cheese is very slippery. It clings to my feet like buckets of concrete.

Pwned, I think. Totally pwned.

The ring announcer, who is wearing a rather smart pair of jackboots with his tux, fills the air with hype as I consider my situation. I have these freakishly long legs and arms, which constitute about my only advantage in a martial arts context. For the last four weeks, Master Pak has been drilling me on stick-andrun maneuvers—when my opponent charges me, I’m supposed to stop his attack with a stomping kick to the thigh, or jab him in the face as I shift left or right.

But I’m hardly going to be able to kick at all, not if I have to scoop my feet out of the muck. Even if I get the kick off, I might slip and fall. And I’m going to have a hard time maneuvering in any case.

I look at Master Pak for help. He’s just staring down at the cottage cheese with a stony expression. He has a tae kwon do background, and for him it’s all really about the kicking, which is something I suddenly can’t do.

I don’t know what I can do in the upcoming fight except stand there and get run down.

Whoooooo. That roaring noise rises again, and I blink off into the darkness and see my opponent and his entourage coming down the aisle from the tunnel.

He’s named Jimmy Blogjoy. When he was a kid actor he was Jimmy Morrison, and he starred in a third-rate knockoff of Family Tree, but as his career went into decline he renamed himself after his web log. This happened at roughly the time that everyone on the planet stopped reading blogs. They particularly stopped reading Jimmy’s, which probably gets even fewer hits than mine. You don’t want to do the self-revealing thing when all you’ve got to reveal is the vacuum between your ears.

Jimmy appears in the gate to the ring and looks down at the cottage cheese, which is as much a surprise to him as it was to me. He’s redheaded and stocky and short, and there’s a mat of rust-colored fur on his chest.

Jimmy looks over at me and snarls. His fists are clenched. He’s really angry. Like it’s my fault he has to step into the cottage cheese.

I snarl back at him. Fucking asshole.

We are in Episode Four of Celebrity Pitfighter, a new reality show. The rules for Celebrity Pitfighter are that while everyone in the contest has to have been famous at some point in his life, no one can be an actual pitfighter. We are all brand spanking new to the martial arts. Jimmy and I have trained for exactly three weeks. The world is full of drunks lying under bar stools who could take us with one hand behind their backs.

This is one step up from bum fights.

For my three weeks of training I’ve had cameras following me around at Master Pak’s dojang, and in addition to the training I’ve been given little challenges, like learning to toss throwing stars at targets, or being made to hold a padded shield while famously large bruisers tried to kick in my rib cage, or trying to look impressed and competent and grateful when martial arts champions taught me their signature moves.

As with most reality shows, everything is scripted. Sometimes I improvise around an outline, sometimes I have to learn lines. The only parts of the show that aren’t scripted are the fights—and they are only unscripted so far as I know.

None of my special training will be worth a damn when I’m rolling around in the cottage cheese. Because one of the other rules of Celebrity Pitfighter is that the contestants have to be given a surprise handicap just before the fight. In past episodes fighters have had to fight while wearing handcuffs or had fifty-pound weights attached to their right ankles, or the two opponents had their left arms tied together by a six-foot piece of elastic.

Because having a pair of untrained lames pounding each other in the ring just isn’t enough fun. You just have to have that extra handicap in order to bring the humiliation to its peak. Because humiliation is what reality television is all about—if the audience can’t watch someone utterly destroyed on camera, rejected by his judges and his peers, face not merely lost but annihilated for all time, it won’t get its sadistic rocks off.

The witless fucks.

The referee calls Jimmy and me together. As he tells us he wants a clean fight Jimmy looks up at me and snarls. He’s wearing a green mouthpiece impressed with silver letters that read KILL YOU. I sneer back.

Bring your worst, you half-assed gump.

We touch gloves and slosh back to our corners. Master Pak touches me and mutters in my ear.

“Look,” he says. “You’re still bigger than he is. Just beat the shit out of him.”

I almost laugh. It’s good advice.

I am bigger than Jimmy Blogjoy. I’m taller, I have five or six inches of reach on him, and I outweigh him by thirty pounds.

This shouldn’t be a fair fight at all. If I knew what I was doing, I’d rip his bowels out.

Master Pak stuffs the mouthpiece in my mouth, leaves the ring, and closes the mesh gate behind him. The audience is baying. It occurs to me that the whole game is set so that Jimmy will win.

“Have Makin train with the TKD guy.” I can hear the producer laughing as he says it. “Then put him in goop so he can’t kick.”

I wonder if the production staff has money riding on Jimmy.

The referee looks at me and asks me if I’m ready. I mumble through the mouthpiece that I am. Jimmy is also ready. The ref punches the air in front of him.

Let’s rock the world!” he says.

Whoooooo. My heart is crashing in my chest. I can’t see anything outside the ring. Master Pak is shouting at me but I can’t hear what he’s saying.

The audience noise reaches a crescendo as I slosh forward a couple of steps, then pause to await developments. Jimmy is coming straight on, balled fists on guard, his eyes fixed on my face. I raise my guard. He keeps on. He gets in range and I jab him in the face.

Nothing happens. Jimmy keeps coming. I jab again and he throws a pair of wild punches that miss. I jab and try to maneuver. The jabs aren’t working, even though I can feel them connect and feel the shock all the way to my shoulder. They’re supposed to stop Jimmy or rock him back on his heels, but he just absorbs the punch and keeps coming. So I kick Jimmy somewhere in his midsection.

This works, because Jimmy goes down. Except that I go down, too, because my support leg slips in the cottage cheese.

In wild panic I flounder to my feet, cold cheese chilling my torso. Jimmy’s already up, charging me, swinging wildly again. He’s actually growling. I jab, but there’s cottage cheese on my glove and the punch slips off him. He wraps his arm around me and the crown of his head butts me under my chin. I see stars and the next thing I know I’m back in the cottage cheese with Jimmy on top of me.

He’s sitting on my chest raining punches down. I cover my face and try some of the techniques that Master Pak taught me to reverse someone on top of me but the cheese is everywhere and we keep slipping. At least he isn’t hurting me much.

I wriggle and thrash and manage to slide a leg free from beneath his weight. I put my foot against his chest and push and he slides off me.

As I thrash to my feet blackness swims before my eyes. The fight’s just a few seconds long and already I’ve run out of steam.

Before I can quite come on guard Jimmy socks me on the side of the head. It feels like a gong going off inside my skull. I back up, trying to put distance between us, and come up against the chain-link wall. Jimmy clamps onto me again and tries to wrestle me into the cheese. It’s like fighting a rabid badger. My chest is heaving with the effort of staying on my feet.

In a rage I pound Jimmy in the body and the back of the head and try to break free, but the punches are too short to be effective, or I’m too out of breath, or both . . . and then our legs get tangled and I fall into the goop again, twisting away from Jimmy, facedown. A tidal wave of cottage cheese slops across the ring.Suddenly Jimmy’s on my back. He snakes a forearm around my throat, but I grab his hand and manage to pull it away and save my windpipe. His feet—his “hooks” as they are called in mixed martial arts—wrap around me and pull my thighs apart. I sprawl face-first into the cottage cheese, and Jimmy begins a flurry of angry punches to the back of my head. None of them is particularly damaging but there are a lot of them.

I can’t see. I can’t breathe. Cottage cheese fills my mouth, my nostrils, my ears. Jimmy’s punches rock my world every halfsecond. I try to push myself up from the floor of the ring, but I’m pushing up Jimmy’s weight as well as my own, and my hands keep slipping out from under me. My lungs are about to explode.

I’m drowning. The thought sends me into a spasm of activity. I wriggle, I slither, I manage to get out from under Jimmy long enough to catch a breath, but he grabs my head and shoves me under again. The bland, salty taste of cottage cheese fills my throat.

Surrender! I’ve got to surrender! I’m supposed to tap the mat as a signal that I give up, but the floor is covered by cottage cheese, and no one can see the taps that are growing ever more frantic. I begin to flail, clawing at the cottage cheese. My head is full of whirling stars. Pain erupts in my chest, as if my aorta has just exploded. In the moment before I die, I think of the next day’s headline.

HAS-BEEN DROWNS WHILE TRYING TO RESURRECT HIS CAREER. That’s what they’ll carve on my tombstone.

Then the bodybuilder referee pulls Jimmy off me, reaches his gloved hands under my armpits, and peels me out of the cottage cheese as if I were made of soggy cardboard.

 

INT. SHOWERS—NIGHT

Later in the darkened locker room I stand under the shower and let warm water sluice the cheese off my body. I pull off my shorts and my supporter and cup and wad them into a ball and hurl them into a corner, where as far as I am concerned they can wait for the end of time.

I try not to think of the expression on Master Pak’s face. He was so humiliated by my performance that he couldn’t even look at me. The guy was born in the States but is still Asian enough to be turned to stone by the colossal loss of face.

Christ almighty, I’ve just had my ass handed to me by a brainless loser like Jimmy Blogjoy. Who’s the fuckwit now?

First thing tomorrow, I decide, I’m going to fire my agent.

I wash the cottage cheese out of my ears and my pubic hair, then stalk into the locker room. The cheap towel they’ve given me is about the size of a dishrag, and beads of water are still clinging to my skin as I pull on my clothes. The briny taste of cottage cheese hangs in the back of my throat.

I step to the sink and look into the mirror as I comb my hair carefully over my balding scalp. In the merciless light over the sink I look more freakish even than usual.

Here I am, I think, twenty-nine years old. For years I’ve been working hard to regain some of the love and respect that I possessed when I was at my peak.

My peak, when I was thirteen.

Whoooooo . . .

Dimly, above me somewhere in the arena, I can hear the crowd still cheering. Only they’re no longer cheering for me.

I can’t get any lower than this, I think. The humiliation is complete, the self-respect has completely drained away. Maybe it’s time to give it up. Just walk away, and find something else to do with my life.

I look at myself in the mirror, the huge balding head with the large brown eyes.

What? I think. And give up show business?

Then I take my bag and walk off into the night.

THE FOURTH WALL
About the Author

Walter Jon Williams has been nominated repeatedly for every major SF award, including Hugo and Nebula Award nominations for his novel CITY ON FIRE. His most recent books are THE SUNDERING, THE PRAXIS, DESTINY’S WAY and THE RIFT. He lives near Alburquerque, New Mexico, with his wife. Visit www.walterjonwilliams.net for more information.