The opening two chapters of Liesmith, the first Book of the Wyrd. Enjoy!
Everything is true, especially the lies. That’s the trick.
Every tale ever told, every whisper, every song, every single string of words ever uttered by mortal mouths or carved in rocks or scrawled on paper. It’s the ultimate human trait, this endless urge to speak and name and label. To attach sounds to things and meaning to sounds. To make language.
Sometimes, when a sound refers to nothing, something comes in to take its place. Pulled up from the black void behind the world, shaped into form and given story.
This is the thing we call the Wyrd, and it’s the place where gods are born. Well. Gods and monsters, and sometimes the line between the two is thin.
Humans might not believe in the old gods much anymore—they don’t venerate our deeds or perform our bloody rituals—but that doesn’t mean that we’re forgotten. Not with our tales recorded in bestsellers and played out on film and collected in the bits and bytes of libraries that span the globe. That sort of repetition ensures our survival more readily than any sacrifice or prayer, and with less effort on our part, too.
It’s good to be retired, even for a god.
Not that we’re all living the life of worship-free leisure. More humans and more things mean more gods and more monsters; and for every gnarled, thousand-year-old sky father, twenty bright young memes spring up in his place: the Liberal Media, the Wisdom of Crowds, the Random Number Gods.
The Start-Up CEO.
Some of us don’t fully retire, don’t pack our things and drool out our dotages in some eternal old folks’ home. We go consulting instead. Pick new roles, part-time gigs, a little extra belief to trickle in over the top of our stagnating day jobs. The New World is crawling with us, and not just the United States.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, set not long ago on an isle far, far away. A wild place of danger and mystery; of deadly beasts and rugged men; of old clichés and biting irony.
This island called Australia.
A little over two hundred years ago—and much to the consternation of the locals—white men from Europe arrived and didn’t leave. They turned the land into a prison, the place to send the chaff they didn’t want back home—the poor and the Irish, the whores and the thieves—crammed onto stinking boats and abandoned in a hell of endless, burning deserts.
I heard someone once say that a country founded in the gutter has nowhere to go but up. And Australia did, more or less, dragging itself kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century. When it went, we came with it.
Because mortals weren’t the only ones to make the long voyage across the sea into the present. The old gods have always been here, of course. Ngalyod, the Rainbow Serpent, drives cross-country in a battered Land Rover. Waa and Bunjil make trouble down in Melbourne. And the kurdaitcha and illapurinja roam the sands, nursing old wounds beneath the blistering sun. A thousand gods from a thousand peoples, all fighting for space in the crowded cities and rural ghost towns of this new century. When they fight, they fight us, the exiled gods of Europe, come to languish in a new prison, one fitted out with shining beaches and reasonable Internet.
In Sydney, a fallen angel makes deals with politicians, promising good front-page press in exchange for souls. In Perth, the wife of a bound titan runs open-cut mines that dig deep beneath red earth, searching for a way to free her imprisoned in-laws. And, somewhere in between, an old trickster hides from death by crafting little altars in aluminum and glass.
That’s the country. Pinch and zoom, and end up in a city.
Its name is Pandemonium, but the locals call it Panda. It’s inland, temperate, surrounded by mountains and bush, its population three hundred thousand or so. Back in the 1800s, it was founded on dreams of gold. By the 1950s, it’d settled on mining coal instead. Nowadays, it oversees a global web of technology. Cell phones, computers, video games. That sort of thing.
This is where we start. There’s a house here, an unassuming white-collar relic from the 1970s, located in a suburb that’s largely the same.
Inside the house is a boy, standing just beyond the threshold of adulthood, metaphorically speaking. Literally speaking, he’s standing in his bedroom, wearing faded black briefs and not much else. He’s staring at a pair of crisp brown slacks, and his mind is thinking of the tattered jeans he’s only just kicked off, left in a pile on the floor, atop a T-shirt that threatens darkness with the spell of magic missile.
Stop me if you know this reference.
The boy does, and knowing that he does will tell you almost everything you need to know about him. These are the other things: He’s twenty-two; his skin and hair and eyes are cast in shades of brown; he wears glasses; no one would ever call him handsome; he’s somewhat overweight. If you asked him his greatest talent, he’d laugh nervously and tell you it was slaying dragons. On the Internet.
No one ever asks. Which is why the boy never mentions the final detail. It’s about lying—or rather the lack thereof—and, if squinted at in bright light, it could be considered a kind of magic. We’ll get back to it later.
For now, know that the date is late December, and the time is evening. It’s a Friday. Tonight, the boy has his first official Office Christmas Party.
He doesn’t want to go.
His father, David, says he has to. Both father and son work for the same company, Lokabrenna, Inc., nowadays mostly rebranded as just LB. Once upon a time, Lokabrenna mined for coal. Now, LB’s computers sit on every desk, its smartphones in every purse and pocket.
The boy’s father is an accountant, the boy works in IT. Internal IT, of the have-you-tried-turning-it-off-and-on variety. His father believes in old-fashioned corporate progression, of starting in the mail room and working up the ziggurat with sweat and dedication. The boy knows this idea is a rusted relic of the past, a scratched record in an era of mp3s and online streaming. Because privilege is born, not made, and talent is scouted from abroad, not recruited from the basement. If the boy ever gets his name in the credits for any Great New Thing, it will be buried down at the end of a very, very long list.
He doesn’t want to shake hands and make small talk at the party. He’s young, has posters of dragons on his walls, and would rather spend his Friday playing games on the Internet with his friends. He resents the crisp brown slacks and nice new shirt, and he resents his father, just a little, for buying them. Mostly, he resents the arguments and awkward silences that won over his acceptance of David’s secondhand aspirations.
The boy dresses and heads downstairs. His father gushes and tries in vain to smooth his son’s hair down into something fit for corporate consumption. In the end, he gives up, but pretends he’s satisfied with the results. He is so, so proud of his boy, for whom he dreams great things.
He has no idea.
David drives them to the party. It’s outside, in the center of the city, in a place called Osko Park. The gleaming edifice of LB’s corporate temple looms large across the street, the grandest and most imposing building in the state.
It’s hot, and bright, because that’s what December evenings mean in this part of the world. The boy nurses an imported beer—a Corona—and worries that his sweat stains will show on his new shirt.
After an hour or so of misery and too many small spring rolls, the boy detaches himself from his father’s watch and retreats behind a large and ugly piece of public art. He sits down on the grass, fends off mosquitoes as best he can, and pulls something from his pocket.
It’s a Spark, a handheld gaming console made by Pyre Computers, a subsidiary of LB. The boy uses it to work on a game played by only two other people in all the world. Those two others are his friends, and the game is a project the trio makes together. One does art, one writes. The boy cuts code.
They have the first half of a level for an isometric dark fantasy RPG. The boy knows every part of it, and also knows how progress has been stalled for over a year. Knows that, soon, the console in his hands will be obsolete, taking with it both their game and their hope for breakthrough indie success.
Being adults got in the way of crafting dreams. It happens.
The boy plays his game. As he does, he’s transformed in the way of mortals inspired by love and art. His lips purse, his brow furrows. He’s not handsome but, in that moment, someone might imagine that he was.
Someone almost does and, lost in concentration, the boy misses the approach of soft footsteps. He doesn’t miss the voice.
The boy looks up.
“Um . . . ”
For one terrible, ceaseless moment, the Wyrd—fate—turns upon its gyre.
Then: “Shit, man. Didn’t see you. You escaping, too?”
The boy blinks. He suddenly feels foolish, sitting in the dirt in ill-fitting slacks and a sweat-stained shirt.
Looming over him is a stranger, wearing jeans and an LB tee beneath a trendy-ugly jacket. The boy is jealous of the casual attire. He’s not so jealous of the unlit cigarette hanging from the stranger’s mouth.
“Yeah,” says the boy. “Yeah, it’s a bit much.”
“It is, isn’t it? Mind if I smoke?”
“Actually, yeah. Kinda. Sorry.” The boy winces, but the stranger shrugs.
“Shitty habit. Picked it up before public health became a thing, now just can’t seem to drop it.” He tucks the cigarette behind his ear and takes a sip from the glass in his other hand, wine swirling rich and dark and red. Then the stranger leans forward, pointing toward the Spark. “There’s a new one of those coming out in April, you know.”
“Yeah, so I’ve heard.” April. The boy figures that’s when childhood truly ends.
“What’re you playing?”
The boy looks down, then looks up. The stranger is peering at him, all odd green eyes and chin-length hair. His skin is olive, his hair is black. He has a goatee. He is very, very handsome.
“Uh.” The boy knows he’s blushing. He hopes the stranger doesn’t notice in the dusk. “It’s, uh. Nothing really. Just . . . something I made. With my friends.”
The stranger’s eyebrows hike. “You made it? Cool! Can I see?” And he sits down on the grass.
The boy panics, just for a moment. He doesn’t want the stranger to see his game. It’s his heart, his soul. Not something he can give to someone he only just met, someone he doesn’t trust. What if they don’t like it?
He hands over the Spark.
“What’s it called?”
“Well. Um. We kinda hadn’t decided. Em—she’s our writer—she wants to call it Gangleri.”
The stranger looks up. For a moment, his green eyes burn brightly in the gloom. “ ‘Gangleri’?” He has a strange emphasis on the word. An accent.
The boy nods. “It’s, um. It’s one of the names of Odin. Y’know, the Viking god?”
The stranger nods, just once.
“He’s, uh . . . man. I don’t want to spoil the plot.” The boy tries a laugh, realizing how foolish he must sound.
But the stranger asks, “And what do you call it?”
The boy bites his lip. “Um, well. Gangleri’s cool but it’s a bit of a mouthful, you know? Not very marketable. So I was thinking something simple. So, like. Um. Saga?”
“Saga,” says the stranger.
The boy laughs, or tries to. “Too simple?”
The stranger looks down at the glowing screen. “Show me how to play,” he says.
The boy does.
That’s how his father finds him, over an hour later. Lost deep in conversation with his odd new friend. (Despite Saga’s flaws, the stranger loves it. If that doesn’t make him friend material, the boy doesn’t know what could.)
“Sigmund! There you— What are you doing back here? I’ve been looking all over for you.”
The boy winces at his father’s voice, the stranger sees it.
“Sigmund, this is Mai Vo. She works in the CFO’s office, and—”
The boy tries not to die. He’s sure Mai is a lovely woman. He’s sure he has absolutely no desire at all to meet her.
The stranger stands.
“I was telling her about your accounting degree. She says they’re always looking for— Oh.”
Because the stranger extends his hand, and the boy’s father has seen his face. He’s recognized it, in fact, in exactly the way his son did not.
“Hale,” says the stranger. “Travis Cameron Hale, CEO. But I’m sure you know that already.”
“S-Sir . . . Uh. David, sir. David Sussman. It’s an—”
“Is this your son? He’s been showing me the game he’s made. It’s pretty cool.”
The boy’s name is Sigmund. Sigmund Sussman. Right now, sitting on the grass, Corona in one hand, Spark in the other, he wants to die. Wants to die because he’s just spent the last hour showing the CEO of the fucking company that he works for—the CEO he didn’t fucking recognize, despite the fact that the man’s fucking face is splashed on every fucking magazine—his shitty little two-bit game.
Sigmund’s life, welcome to it.
This is his story. And mine.
Stick around. You’ll see.
One“Holy shit you are such a dork.”
“You were talking to him for like an hour.”
“And you didn’t recognize him.”
“I did not.”
“Holy shit, man.”
“Holy motherfucking shit.”
Once upon a yesterday, there lived a boy called Sigmund.
“Holy . . . You showed him our game!”
And a girl called Em.
It wasn’t like Sigmund didn’t know he’d been in the running for World’s Most Influential Loser since circa 1990. He’d been himself for over twenty years now, things like that weren’t exactly a surprise.
“So, like. What did he say?”
Monday. First day back at work after Christmas break. Outside was hot and bright and humid. Inside, Sigmund was getting the third degree from his best friend. One of them, at any rate.
“Um. He was pretty cool, I guess.”
Sigmund shrugged. That was the best he had. Hale had been nice. Personable, talkative. Polished. The guy was a goddamn CEO for Christ’s sake. Sigmund figured he probably knew how to make small talk with the plebes.
“Dude. He’s like the richest man on the planet. How did you not recognize him?”
Third richest. Sigmund had looked it up.
“I dunno, man,” he said. “He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt. And was, like, talking to me. It’s not exactly something you expect, y’know?”
“Dude. I swear . . . ”
Sigmund held up his hands to stop whatever felt like coming next. “I know, I know,” he said. “Believe me, there’s nothing you can tell me I haven’t already told myself.”
A litany of excuses: It was twilight, he’d been drinking, Hale looked younger in person. And taller. And spoke with a slightly different voice. And what it all really boiled down to was the fact that guys like Sigmund didn’t get accidentally chatted up by guys like Hale. Didn’t sit in the grass for an hour, nursing lukewarm beer and getting their nerd on over shitty hobby RPGs. Not with the owner of Utgard fucking Entertainment (among other things), one of the most awesomest game development studios on the planet.
In the car, on the way home from the party, Sigmund’s dad had been oddly silent. Sigmund had expected him to freak, to hassle Sigmund over not, like, getting Hale to be his buddy on LinkedIn or whatever. (Not that it would help, given Sigmund’s stunning lack of a profile on said service.) Or maybe he’d been expecting dad to be angry, yell at him for wasting the CEO’s time and getting them both fired for his trouble. But Dad hadn’t done any of that. He’d just been quiet, and they’d driven home, and gone to bed, and by Saturday it had been as if the whole party had never happened. Dad hadn’t mentioned it, and neither had Sigmund, and now here he was. Back at the office. Not fired, not noticed. Not even gossiped about, at least not until he’d opened his big mouth to blab to Em. Just another average day in the Basement.
It wasn’t the literal basement, of course: It was the seventh floor. But it was where IT lived, so Sigmund figured it was going to end up being called the Basement no matter how high it was above sea level.
Not that the seventh floor was very high, particularly not compared to the exec offices, sitting way up above the skyline. LB was not a modest building: a thing of status and towering glass, one that seemed to get rebuilt every few years, get a new look and new floors. Sigmund figured that must cost LB a fortune, but the company was like that. Sigmund could hardly complain. Not when he got to spend most of his day nestled in the enormous expanse of light and glass and green. Lots of green: It was impossible to sneeze in LB without blowing snot all over indoor plants or “living walls.” Or whole actual gardens, trees and all, on the lower levels. Some environmental initiative, staff health or whatever.
LB loved things like that. Break rooms full of hammocks and beanbags and Inferno consoles. A gym. Even a day care in one of the annex buildings. And a chef in the cafeteria, responsible for at least ten percent of Sigmund’s body weight. (Because seriously: Best. Burgers. In town.)
It was a pretty sweet place to work, even for go-nowhere plebes like Sigmund Sussman.
Sigmund, who worked in IT ops. Third-level support stuff, when turning it off and on the first two times wasn’t enough.
It was a job. Not what he’d imagined doing as a kid, maybe, but money was money, and money turned into comic books and video games. Particularly given they were located, like, five seconds’ walk from Torr Mall, right smack bang in the heart of Pandemonium City.
Pandemonium. People got used to the name, growing up there. Some mining accident from the 1920s or whatever, back when there’d actually been a mine. Back before LB had taken over the place, like some enormous silicon cancer, gobbling up council and economy alike. Now everything Panda was LB, and everything LB was Panda. Anyone who wasn’t employed by the company itself was in some kind of support industry, like baristas at the coffee shops, pulling lattes for executives. Or barristers, pulling lawsuits for the same.
And Sigmund, turning things off and on.
Mornings were spent talking to Em, and then, when the boss emerged, flicking through the help desk system, looking for easy wins. Tickets Sigmund could send back to first or second level. That the monkeys could do, and should do, and would do, if they weren’t all a bunch of part-time kids who didn’t give a shit. Mailbox restores, profile resets, distribution-list creations, desktop reimages. Jobs that Sigmund would rather send back with a snarky thousand-word how-to guide in the comments field than touch himself.
That was all maybe an hour’s work, and fifteen percent of the overnight queue. The rest of the morning was the ten-minute stuff: anything Sigmund could knock off without a phone call to a customer. Server reboots and process kills. Log checking and clearing. Reporting. Un-fucking fuckups made by the n-minus teams.
Low-hanging fruit. It was Sigmund’s system, and it worked. So long as anything more difficult—anything involving talking to anyone, or thinking about anything—could hold over until after lunch. Or, preferably, tomorrow.
Or, today, after the team meeting. Not one of their usuals, something New and Exciting, which left Sigmund grabbing his phone off the desk when his calendar started chiming. Team meetings always sucked. He figured he could at least get some Minecraft in while pretending to check emails.
The meeting room was down at the other end of the floor, near the kitchen. It was round, and made of glass, and Sigmund supposed the intent was to be “creative” and “hip.” Everyone on the floor called it The Box, said it was where the supervillains were kept after hours. A life-sized cardboard cutout of Darth Vader lived in the room when it wasn’t used.
The half a dozen people of Sigmund’s team were already assembled: Chewie and Boogs, Van and Steph, Michael and Divya. Plus Harrison, their boss.
And, today, someone else.
“Okay, so as you can probably already tell, we’ve got a new starter coming on board.” Harrison, standing in one half of the glass cylinder, said new starter at his side.
The rest of them were sitting on the seats ringing the opposite side of the circumference. From his left, Sigmund heard Van mutter, “I didn’t think we were hiring.”
“This is Lain,” Harrison continued. “Lain, uh—”
“Laufeyjarson,” Lain finished, patient and smiling like he got people stumbling over his name a lot.
Tall, skinny. Coppery hair hanging in loose waves down to his chin. Freckles, attractively understated piercings, bright green eyes, and the edge of a tattoo peeking above his collar. Sigmund heard Steph whistle under her breath.
“Right,” Harrison said. “Lain’s got a background in ops, same as the rest of you, but he’ll need some help getting on his feet in the company. He’s gonna need a buddy.”
Hands shot up, accompanied by giggling. Most of said hands had long slender fingers and brightly manicured nails. Sigmund got it. Lain was hot, this was IT. The women would take what they could get.
He flipped out his phone, checked it was on mute, and launched Minecraft.
Which was about when Harrison said, “Sussman. There’s a free desk next to you, right?”
Sigmund looked up. Everyone was staring at him, new guy included.
“Uh . . . yeah. I guess.”
Crap. That was his desk. Except, well. Obviously not his his desk. Just . . . the desk between him and anyone else. The Buffer. Window on one side, no one on the other. Meaning no one to see Sigmund playing Minecraft, or watching Let’s Plays on YouTube, or reading comics. Or programming Saga, line by painful line.
Not that Sigmund would be doing that sort of thing. Not on company time.
“That’s settled then,” Harrison said, and it was. “Lain, you’re with Sussman. He’ll show you the ropes. Now, for the rest of you . . . ”
Team meetings. Lain sat himself down on the edge of the circle. Sigmund tried not to make eye contact.
“So, um. This is a pretty nice desk.”
Half an hour later, after the too-long, too-boring trip ’round the team, everyone spewing out as much as they could think of to try and impress Harrison with their corporate indispensability.
Lain had a satchel. Some hip distressed thing in army green. That described a lot of Lain, really: hip and distressed, from his skinny jeans to his unseasonal scarf. All he was missing were the nerd glasses.
Sigmund, at least, wore the latter because he had to.
“Yeah. It’s okay.” It overlooked Osko Park, the faintest smudge of lake glimmering just beyond. Then, because silence was awkward and small talk was coming whether he liked it or not: “Where were you before this?”
Lain waved a hand, something halfway between two gestures. “Around,” he said. “I kinda . . . went traveling for a while after uni, you know how it is.”
No, Sigmund didn’t. And neither did Lain.
Because that was the other thing, Sigmund’s Real Actual Talent. The thing he never got to mention. The one thing that maybe, just maybe, made him special. Just a little.
Sigmund was never fooled by lies, and could pick them, every time. Like now. Nothing in Lain’s voice or in his posture. Just a scratching at the back of Sigmund’s mind. Something prickly. Something wrong.
“Oh. Cool. I never did any of that.” Calling the new guy a liar within moments of meeting him? Probably career limiting. Sigmund decided to lay off.
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