Override – Martinworld ASOIAF Reread

I just want to take a quick moment to let you all know how very excited I am to finally bring this story to the Martinworld-ASOIAF book club reread. I have been wanting to bring this beautifully written story to discussion for years, and now that time is here and I hope you enjoy reading it. Ok, on with the show…


Cain leadeth Abel to death, by James Tissot, c. 1900

Parts of the Story

To aid in the reread process, I broke the story out into parts and linked them here for quick reference when returning to complete your reading. Additionally, per usual, I added a few of my noted points along the way as talking points for discussion as well as the direct comparisons to ASOIAF.

The essay part of this reread includes:

The story itself begins with these sections:

  1. We should start back
  2. Going to pub
  3. Enter the dragon
  4. Having second thoughts
  5. Grotto’s morning Son
  6. The berth
  7. Mining begins
  8. Mind battle erupts
  9. Two more on him
  10. Dead Men Stalking
  11. Mummer’s farce revealed
  12. Knight of the Mind

Would you prefer to watch and/or listen to a synopisis of this story? I have a video prepared for that option here:


What’s it all about?

George likes paralleling events and archetypes, and this includes the interactions within his own writing world that go between the past and the present. The main page to this blog has several GRRM quotes where he talks of reusing his own ideas, archetypes, and themes. This story, Override, fits the arc that is primarily the Bran/Bloodraven/Jon/greenseer combination and the upcoming events against the ice dragon Others, and well, dragons in general, that we are going to see in the forthcoming book The Winds of Winter and then the fire dragons in A Dream of Spring. Matt Kabaraijian IS our skinchanger in Override.

“Well, of course, the two outlying ones — the things going on north of the Wall, and then there is Targaryen on the other continent with her dragons — are of course the ice and fire of the title, ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’— that they’re [the people] blind to the much greater and more dangerous threats that are happening far away on the periphery of their kingdoms.”/ “Who knows? I mean, we have things going on in our world right now like climate change, that’s, you know, ultimately a threat to the entire world. But people are using it as a political football instead of, you know … You’d think everybody would get together.”/This is something that can wipe out possibly the human race. So I wanted to do an analogue not specifically to the modern-day thing but as a general thing with the structure of the book.”– GRRM to Al Jazeera tv. Source.

Override is about a betrayal between “brothers”. We are introduced to the rather well adjusted, pacifist main character Matt Kabaraijian who is eventually sold out by his coworker/brother Ed Cochran. A blood betrayal in ASOIAF terms. The two work as corspehandlers on the planet Grotto and they mine for swirlstones, a desirable stone used throughout the Thousand Worlds universe. All is good until a new corporation moves in on the workforce, the usurping Bartling Associates. In order to save his own life, Kabaraijian has to learn to “open his third eye” to be able see and “handle” the dead worker men, to mentally override the system that was sent out via catspaw assassin. Even through all of this, Kabaraijian pities Cochran and always chooses the non-violent option first, with the death at the end being almost an unavoidable accident. In several of Martin’s stories we see characters come to a bad end because they try to slash away their problems with violence which tends to end badly for them (Note: Jaime Lannister). Here we have a protagonist who seems to embody how Martin himself thinks about how violence should be employed and this is based on his own younger days as a conscientious objector to war in his hippie days (also written as such with Sandy Blair in Armageddon Rag).

The reoccurring in-world dispute of brother versus brother did not start with A Song of Ice and Fire, but rather decades earlier in stories like this one here. A blood betrayal for money, notoriety, promotion, etc is GRRM’s own take on the biblical tale of Cain and Able; essentially the fall of mankind. The main reason why Bran has to play Lord of the Crossing with the Freys, it is preparation for when Bran has to defend the ‘waters’ as he greensees and has a mind-battle with the ice dragon Others. (Something I have gone on about for years)

This also has to do with how magic split in ASOIAF, how superficially readers assume they are the same yet fundamentally they function differently, this divide creating the two extreme dragon elements… but that is a topic for another post.

“In A Song of Ice and Fire, I take stuff from the Wars of the Roses and other fantasy things, and all these things work around in my head and somehow they jell into what I hope is uniquely my own.” –GRRM

Override has many references to other essays that are built on George’s Martinworld style story telling. Those essays include:

Written in 1972, then published in Analog September 1973, Override is a novelette written among other George R.R. Martin stories such as The Hero, The Second Kind of Loneliness, Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels, A Peripheral Affair, and Slide Show. As a subset trio of his Thousand Worlds universe, Override is the first published of his three corpsehandler stories which includes Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg (1976), and Martin’s BEST story ever, Meathouse Man (1976). (*Meathouse Man is in the reread works as of this writing, but I ramble about it here on the Twithole.) This isn’t a terribly long story coming in a with a wordcount around 10,510 words.

One of the first shared themes among the three corpsehandler stories is the location and occupations of the main characters; Valyria-like volcanic locations and mining, or rather, over-mining (Note: Doom of Valyria). This is shown directly in the repeating motif of work-you-to-death-and-beyond production of a powerful (extreme) dragon element. In short, slavery from a different face.

Another theme that GRRM is developing in his three ‘official’ corpsehandler stories is that of the ‘corporeal pear’. This corporeal pear idea is also used in every corpsehandler story to indicate the production demand of a powerful dragon element- However, it’s not the handler that is the ‘bad guy’ but rather the corporation or government that is in control; The Great Other. This mass production is what we see both extreme dragons require in A Song of Ice and Fire as the ice dragon Others with Craster and his sons, as well as a main reason for the Targaryen incest; it is breeding for the dragon cause, no matter how much life it consumes along the way. This breeding for the dragon (war) cause is also something GRRM uses in his unofficial corpsehandler stories Nightflyers and Sandkings. We also see this overreaching corporeal element spelled out rather horrifyingly in GRRM’s war story Armageddon Rag both in Sandy Blair’s fever dreams as well as the dragon (Ananda Cain) that he faces in his waking life.

But again, and I cannot stress this enough, we have a Martin character who is probably the most well-adjusted any of Martin’s protagonists and he is working as a corpse handler. This is important to keep in mind for Bran and Hodor and the situation we are going to see between them in The Winds of Winter. (Will Bran have to corpsehandle Hodor to get himself back to the wall/Castle Black? Twitter discussion here.)

In ASOIAF, the element of the ‘corporeal pear’ also calls back to Daenerys in the top of her pyramid with Viserion in the pear tree, whom she calls “lazy”. And Daario Naharis (a character taken from his proto-Daenerys story The Glass Flower) who eats the pear Dany gives to him, and his Tyroshi heritage that is known for pear brandy.

The Targaryens, and Martin’s dragons in general, represent one extreme controlling side or the other; corporate or government. In addition to the repeated Targaryen incest that was to control the “blood of the dragon” (code for females, like Craster), we see Daenerys as one of the current in-story examples of the corporate controller of the ASOIAF world. Everything she does that controls the flow of work and money (slave trade, fighting pits, timber control, weaving mills, etc), adds to her thoughts that she is the rightful person to sit the Iron Throne. She is a Targaryen and taking over because of who your father is/was is the basic definition of nepotism (derived from the word nephew 😉 ), a common corporate problem.

  • A Dance with Dragons – Daenerys IV

    Starlight and seafoam, Dany thought, a wisp of silk that leaves my left breast bare for Daario’s delight. Oh, and flowers for my hair. When first they met, the captain brought her flowers every day, all the way from Yunkai to Meereen. “Bring the grey linen gown with the pearls on the bodice. Oh, and my white lion’s pelt.” She always felt safer wrapped in Drogo’s lionskin.

    Daenerys received the captain on her terrace, seated on a carved stone bench beneath a pear tree. A half-moon floated in the sky above the city, attended by a thousand stars. Daario Naharis entered swaggering. He swaggers even when he is standing still. The captain wore striped pantaloons tucked into high boots of purple leather, a white silk shirt, a vest of golden rings. His trident beard was purple, his flamboyant mustachios gold, his long curls equal parts of both. On one hip he wore a stiletto, on the other a Dothraki arakh. “Bright queen,” he said, “you have grown more beautiful in my absence. How is this thing possible?”


What’s in a name?

Pear-Shaped Man from Martin’s story of the same title. Artist: Glenn Chadbourne.

In true Martin fashion, he takes his ideas to the limit, this time with the naming theme. This naming system also follows GRRM’s lose and general style of the color patterns of the red-green-blue magic and story organization. That’ll be another post, but basically the point is that green magic is grey, not “evil” not “good”; it depends on how green magic is used or abused whether it’s light grey or dark grey which is what gives us our extremes of the red fire and blue fire magics. However, since they have the same ‘root’ source, these two extremes can act as a mummer’s farce as they share the same talents. In Override we have Matt on one side, Ed on the other, but they share a simialar talent; it’s all in how they choose to use it.

 
magic venn
 

 

The main protagonist, Matt Kabaraijian, has a surname that I am not finding in real life. The closest I can find, which aligns perfectly with the green/seeing element in Martinworld, is based on a philosophy rather than a familial name. The Kabalarian Philosophy offers a complete guide to life—a blueprint to human existence sought since consciousness began. It is the culmination of thousands of years of intellectual thought that offers a broad perspective of life through a harmony of Eastern philosophy and Western science and practicality. It takes the universal concept of mathematics to develop a complete understanding of mind, health and cycles of time. Matt as a boy’s name is of Hebrew origin, and the meaning of Matt is “gift of God”, so again we have possible proto-greenseer elements. 

Then we have the reluctant antagonist, Ed Cochran, who is constantly trying to find a get rich quick scheme to get off the planet. His ideas tend to involves stealing and smuggling. The name Cochran has a few spelling variants, however, all are Scottish Gaelic or Irish Gaelic in origin and mean either “red brook” or Battle Cry(residential); Anglicisation of corcair, meaningcrimson“. Cochran is the one who commits the blood betrayal. There’s blood on the water, which is a hugely repeating theme across near all of Martin’s works. I’d say Ed compares closely, though not exactly, to other fiery hands like Melisandre, the cat’s paw assasin for Bran, and the whatever that wants Jon dead at his mutiny attempt. These are all puppet handlers being controled by a larger boss.

In Override, as in his story The Pear-Shaped Man, Lowell Bartling is the main villain and literally a pear-shaped man- a literal corporeal/corporate pear. The name, Bartling, is derived from two sources: Bartlett, as in the pear, and from the Germanic personal name Bertwald, composed of the elements “berht,” meaning “bright,” and “wald,” meaning “rule.”A recent interview with Elio Garcia by my friends at LaCittadella revealed that there is something to Aerion Brightflame that not enough people are paying attention to. Watch that part here.

Bright rule = Aerion Brightfire = Daenerys prototype Cyrain of Lilith and Ash.

  • Override– But his amusement died short minutes later, when Cochran suddenly stiffened and grimaced across the table. “Damn,” he said. “Bartling. What the hell does he want here?”

    Kabaraijian turned toward the door, where the newcomer was standing and waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He was a big man, with an athletic frame that had gone to pot over the years and now sported a considerable paunch. He had dark hair streaked with white and a bristling black beard, and he was wearing a fashionable multicolored tunic.

    Four others had entered behind him, and now stood flanking him on either side. They were younger men than he was, and bigger, with hard faces and impressive builds. The bodyguards made sense. Lowell Bartling was widely known for his dislike of corpse handlers, and the tavern was full of them.

  • The Pear-Shaped Man– The pear-shaped Man lives beneath the stairs. His shoulders are narrow and stooped, but his buttocks are impressively large. Or perhaps it is only the clothing he wears; no one has ever admitted to seeing him nude, and no one has ever admitted to wanting to. His trousers are brown polyester double knits, with wide cuffs and a shiny seat; they are always baggy, and they have big, deep, droopy pockets so stuffed with oddments and bric-a-brac that they bulge against his sides. He wears his pants very high, hiked up above the swell of his stomach, and cinches them in place around his chest with a narrow brown leather belt. He wears them so high that his drooping socks show clearly, and often an inch or two of pasty white skin as well. His shirts are always short-sleeved, most often white or pale blue, and his breast pocket is always full of Bic pens, the cheap throwaway kind that write with blue ink. He has lost the caps or tossed them out, because his shirts are all stained and splotched around the breast pockets. His head is a second pear set atop the first; he has a double chin and wide, full, fleshy cheeks, and the top of his head seems to come almost to a point. His nose is broad and flat, with large, greasy pores; his eyes are small and pale, set close together. His hair is thin, dark, limp, flaky with dandruff; it never looks washed, and there are those who say that he cuts it himself with a bowl and a dull knife. He has a smell, too, the Pear-shaped Man; it is a sweet smell, a sour smell, a rich smell, compounded of old butter and rancid meat and vegetables rotting in the garbage bin.

Ultimately it comes down to what sounds right. And I struggle with that, finding the right name for a character. If I can’t find the right name I don’t know who the character is and I can’t proceed.”George R.R. Martin

Then we have a minor character named Munson. This is a name GRRM will later reuse in his partially written 2001 story Black and White and Red All Over (discussed here). The name Munson was brought to England in the great wave of migration following the Norman Conquest of 1066. 

This story takes place on a planet called Grotto. The etymology of the word grotto means “picturesque cavern or cave,” 1610s, from Italian grotta, earlier cropta, a corruption of Latin crypta “vault, cavern,” from Greek krypte “hidden place” (see crypt). Terminal -o may be from its being spelled that way in many translations of Dante’s Divine Comedy.

There are various theories in the ASOIAF fandom that suspect something major is going to happen down the Winterfell crypts, and I have to agree with that idea.

  • A Game of Thrones – Eddard V

    “No, this one belongs to the queen. Notice that he enjoys a fine view of the door to this tower, the better to note who calls on you. There are others, many unknown even to me. The Red Keep is full of eyes. Why do you think I hid Cat in a brothel?”

    Eddard Stark had no taste for these intrigues. “Seven hells,” he swore. It did seem as though the man on the walls was watching him. Suddenly uncomfortable, Ned moved away from the window. “Is everyone someone’s informer in this cursed city?”


The slow and steady Greenseer

The third big theme in this story is how much of this setting and story provenance takes place on the water, an early ‘greenseeing’ developmental detail. And the fact that the main protagonist shares characteristics with a the Bran/Brynden Bloodraven Rivers/Greenseer archetype is important, especially when you read how this protagonist has to survive an attack by a catspaw assassin while in the cave… just as we readers will see happen to Bran and company while in the cave up north as the ice dragon Others come through the ‘back door’.

But again, and I cannot stress this enough, we have a Martin character who is probably the most well-adjusted any of Martin’s protagonists and he is working as a corpse handler. This is important to keep in mind for Bran and Hodor and the situation we are going to see between them in The Winds of Winter. (Will Bran have to corpsehandle Hodor to get himself back to the wall/Castle Black? Twitter discussion here.)

Fly or die; learn to greensee, or die; override the dragon system, or die.

The phrase “you will fly” is a common theme about societal progression+greenseeing across many a GRRM story… but you have to be careful which “ship” you’re flying. The idea that “you will fly” in Martinworld endgame is specifically the societal progression after the long night, or rather his long running theme of the interregnum. In the Martin-Tuttle story Windhaven, the societal progress only begins happens with those who can “wield” the special metal wings. The wings go to who’s worthy rather than following an antiquated idea of following a dynastic family name. This is akin to the sword Dawn and why Jon will get that sword. One key detail to remember however, you have to open your third eye to be able to fly in the first place, and this is what Matt Kabaraijian has to do to survive his ‘drowning’.

The “first” Long Night. The interregnum as described in Martin’s Thousand World’s Universe. Definition source: Dying of the Light.

-The only way to break free of a controlling force is to first recognize exactly what that force is.-

As mentioned above, this is the main reason why Bran has to play Lord of the Crossing with the Freys (the wights/Others of the Riverlands). It is preparation for when Bran has to defend the ‘waters’ as he greensees and has a mind-battle with the ice dragon Others (Something I have gone on about for years). Lord of the crossing is a game played at the Twins by House Frey; the “Lord of the Crossing” is one of the titles used by Lord Frey, as the bridge at the Twins crosses the Green Fork (again with the split-color magic). The game usually involves lots of hitting and arguing. The purpose of the game is to be the lord of the crossing, usually a player standing on a bridge over water. We will see this happen in Override between Matt and his supposed friend Ed.

  • A Clash of Kings – Jon IV

    Closer at hand, it was the trees that ruled. To south and east the wood went on as far as Jon could see, a vast tangle of root and limb painted in a thousand shades of green, with here and there a patch of red where a weirwood shouldered through the pines and sentinels, or a blush of yellow where some broadleafs had begun to turn. When the wind blew, he could hear the creak and groan of branches older than he was. A thousand leaves fluttered, and for a moment the forest seemed a deep green sea, storm-tossed and heaving, eternal and unknowable.

    Ghost was not like to be alone down there, he thought. Anything could be moving under that sea, creeping toward the ringfort through the dark of the wood, concealed beneath those trees. Anything. How would they ever know? He stood there for a long time, until the sun vanished behind the saw-toothed mountains and darkness began to creep through the forest.

  • A Dance with Dragons – Bran II

    “Is this the only way in?” asked Meera.

    “The back door is three leagues north, down a sinkhole.”

    That was all he had to say. Not even Hodor could climb down into a sinkhole with Bran heavy on his back, and Jojen could no more walk three leagues than run a thousand.


What does GRRM have to say?

GRRM with a Fevre Dream on the Fevre River (river of blood) cake. Yum!

I always like to add a few notes made by Martin when discussing a story of his, reason being I prefer the author’s own voice on the matter that they created. It helps avoid interpretation bias or confusion. In this case, however, Martin doesn’t have much to say about this story in particular. Why? Not sure, but this is what we do have.

From Dreamsongs:

  • My first two corpse handler tales, “Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg” and “Override,” were further fumbling attempts at the same sort of cross-pollination, offering as they did a science fictional take on an old friend from the world of horror, the zombie. I was going for a horrific feel in “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” as well, and (much more successfully) in a later, stronger work, my novella “In the House of the Worm.” Some critics have argued that horror and science fiction are actually antithetical to each other. They can make a plausible case, certainly, especially in the case of Lovecraftian horror. SF assumes that the universe, however mysterious or frightening it may seem to us, is ultimately knowable, while Lovecraft suggests that even a glimpse of the true nature of reality would be enough to drive men mad. You cannot get much further from the Campbellian view of the cosmos as that. In Billion Year Spree…

  • My corpse handler series went all the way to three: “Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg” began it, “Override” followed, and “Meathouse Man” brought it to … well, a finish, if not an end. A fourth story exists as a four-page fragment, and there are ideas in my files for a dozen more. I once intended to write them all, publish them in the magazines, then collect them all together in a book I’d call Songs the Dead Men Sing. But that fourth story never got finished, and the others never got started. When I did finally use the title Songs the Dead Men Sing for a collection (from Dark Harvest, in 1983), “Meathouse Man” was the only corpse story to make the cut.


OVERRIDE

img_7019
Main page artwork of Kabaraijian with the corpses. Original 1973 Override artwork by Jack Gaughan.

section 1

-The only way to break free of a controlling force is to first recognize exactly what that force is.-

Dusk was settling softly over the High Lakes as Kabaraijian and his crew made their way home from the caves. It was a calm, quiet dusk; a twilight blended of green waters and mellow night winds and the slow fading of Grotto’s gentle sun. From the rear of his launch, Kabaraijian watched it fall, and listened to the sounds of twilight over the purring of the engine.

Grotto was a quiet world, but the sounds were there, if you knew how to listen. Kabaraijian knew. He sat erect in the back of the boat, a slight figure with swarthy skin and long black hair and brown eyes that drifted dreamy. One thin hand rested on his knee, the other, forgotten, on the motor. And his ears listened; to the bubbling of the water in the wake of the launch, and the swish-splash of the lakeleapers breaking surface, and the wind moving the trailing green branches of the trees along the near shore. In time, he’d hear the nightflyers, too, but they were not yet up.

There were four in the boat, but only Kabaraijian listened or heard. The others, bigger men with pasty faces and vacant eyes, were long past hearing. They wore the dull gray coveralls of dead men, and there was a steel plate in the back of each man’s skull. Sometimes, when his corpse controller was on, Kabaraijian could listen with their ears, and see with their eyes. But that was work, hard work, and not worth it. The sights and sounds a corpse handler felt through his crew were pale echoes of real sensation, seldom useful and never pleasurable.

And now, Grotto’s cooling dusk, was an off-time. So Kabaraijian’s corpse controller was off, and his mind, disengaged from the dead men, rested easy in its own body. The launch moved purposefully along the lake shore, but Kabaraijian’s thoughts wandered lazily, when he thought at all. Mostly he just sat, and watched the water and the trees, and listened. He’d worked the corpse crew hard that day, and now he was drained and empty. Thought—thought especially—was more effort than he was prepared to give. Better to just linger with the evening.

It was a long, quiet voyage, across two big lakes and one small one, through a cave, and finally up a narrow and swift-running river. Kabaraijian turned up the power then, and the trip grew noisier as the launch sliced a path through the river’s flow. Night had settled before he reached the station, a rambling structure of blue-black stone set by the river’s edge. But the office windows still glowed with a cheery yellow light.

A long dock of native silverwood fronted the river, and a dozen launches identical to Kabaraijian’s were already tied up for the night. But there were still empty berths. Kabaraijian took one of them, and guided the boat into it.

When the launch was secure, he slung his collection box under one arm, and hopped out onto the dock. His free hand went to his belt, and thumbed the corpse controller. Vague sense blurs drifted into his mind, but Kabaraijian shunted them aside, and shook the dead men alive with an unheard shout. The corpses rose, one by one, and stepped out of the launch. Then they followed Kabaraijian to the station.

Munson was waiting inside the office—a fat, scruffy man with gray hair and wrinkles around his eyes and a fatherly manner. He had his feet up on his desk, and was reading a novel. When Kabaraijian entered, he smiled and sat up and put down the book, inserting his leather placemark carefully. “‘Lo, Matt,” he said. “Why are you always the last one in?”

“Because I’m usually the last one out,” Kabaraijian said, smiling. It was his newest line. Munson asked the same question every night, and always expected Kabaraijian to come up with a fresh answer. He seemed only moderately pleased by this one.

Kabaraijian set the collection box down on Munson’s desk and opened it. “Not a bad day,” he said. “Four good stones, and twelve smaller ones.”

Munson scooped a handful of small, grayish rocks from inside the padded metal box and studied them. Right now they weren’t much to look at. But cut and polished they’d be something else again: swirlstones. They were gems without fire, but they had their own beauty. Good ones looked like crystals of moving fog, full of soft colors and softer mysteries and dreams.

Munson nodded, and dropped the stones back into the box. “Not bad,” he said. “You always do good, Matt. You know where to look.”

“The rewards of coming back slow and easy,” Kabaraijian said. “I look around me.”

Munson put the box under his desk, and turned to his computer console, a white plastic intruder in the wood-paneled room. He entered the swirlstones into the records, and looked back up. “You want to wash down your corpses?”

Kabaraijian shook his head. “Not tonight. I’m tired. I’ll just flop them for now.”

“Sure,” said Munson. He rose, and opened the door behind his desk. Kabaraijian followed him, and the three dead men followed Kabaraijian. Behind the office were barracks, long and low-roofed, with row on row of simple wooden bunks. Most of them were full. Kabaraijian guided his dead men to three empty ones and maneuvered them in. Then he thumbed his controller off. The echoes in his head blinked out, and the corpses sagged heavily into the bunks.

Afterwards, he chatted with Munson for a few minutes back in the office. Finally the old man went back to his novel, and Kabaraijian back to the cool night.

section 2

A row of company scooters sat in back of the station, but Kabaraijian left them alone, preferring the ten-minute walk from the river to the settlement. He covered the forest road with an easy, measured pace, pausing here and there to brush aside vines and low branches. It was always a pleasant walk. The nights were calm, the breezes fragrant with the fruity scent of local trees and heavy with the songs of the nightflyers.

The settlement was bigger and brighter and louder than the river station; a thick clot of houses and bars and shops built alongside the spaceport. There were a few structures of wood and stone, but most of the settlers were still content with the plastic prefabs the company had given them free.

Kabaraijian drifted through the new-paved streets, to one of the outnumbered wooden buildings. There was a heavy wooden sign over the tavern door, but no lights. Inside he found candles and heavy, stuffed chairs, and a real log fire. It was a cozy place; the oldest bar on Grotto, and still the favourite watering hole for corpse handlers and hunters and other river station personnel.

A loud shout greeted him when he entered. “Hey! Matt! Over here!”

Kabaraijian found the voice, and followed it to a table in the corner, where Ed Cochran was nursing a mug of beer. Cochran, like Kabaraijian, wore the blue-and-white tunic of a corpse handler. He was tall and lean, with a thin face that grinned a lot and a mass of tangled red-blond hair.

  • More color theory by GRRM; the white and the blue together.

Kabaraijian sank gratefully into the chair opposite him. Cochran grinned. “Beer?” he asked. “We could split a pitcher.”

“No thanks. I feel like wine tonight. Something rich and mellow and slow.”

“How’d it go?” said Cochran.

Kabaraijian shrugged. “O.K.,” he said. “Four nice stones, a dozen little ones. Munson gave me a good estimate. Tomorrow should be better. I found a nice new place.” He turned toward the bar briefly, and gestured. The bartender nodded, and the wine and glasses arrived a few minutes later.

Kabaraijian poured and sipped while Cochran discussed his day. It hadn’t gone well; only six stones, none of them very big.

“You’ve got to range farther,” Kabaraijian told him. “The caves around here have been pretty well worked out. But the High Lakes go on and on. Find someplace new.”

“Why bother?” Cochran said, frowning. “Don’t get to keep them anyway. What’s the percentage in knocking yourself out?”

Kabaraijian twirled the wine glass slowly in a thin, dark hand, and watched the dream-red depths. “Poor Ed,” he said, in a voice half-sadness and half-mockery. “All you see is the work. Grotto is a pretty planet. I don’t mind the extra miles, Ed, I enjoy them. I’d probably travel in my off-time if they didn’t pay me to do it. The fact that I get bigger swirlstones and my estimates go up—well, that’s extra gravy.”

Cochran smiled and shook his head. “You’re crazy, Matt,” he said affectionately. “Only corpse handler in the universe who’d be happy if they paid him off with scenery.”

Kabaraijian smiled too, a slight lifting at the corners of his mouth. “Philistine,” he said accusingly.

  • Philistine: a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them.

Cochran ordered another beer. “Look, Matt, you’ve got to be practical. Sure, Grotto is O.K., but you’re not gonna be here all your life.” He set down his beer, and pulled up the sleeve of his tunic, to flash his heavy wristlet. The gold shone softly in the candlelight, and the sapphires danced with dark blue flame. “Junk like this was valuable once,” Cochran said, “before they learned how to synthesize it. They’ll crack swirlstones, too, Matt. You know they will. They already have people working on it. So maybe you’ve got two years left, or three. But what then? Then they won’t need corpse handlers anymore. So you’ll move on, no better off than when you first landed.”

“Not really,” said Kabaraijian. “The station pays pretty good, and my estimates haven’t been bad. I’ve got some money put away. Besides, maybe I won’t move on. I like Grotto. Maybe I’ll stay, and join the colonists, or something.”

“Doing what? Farming? Working in an office? Don’t give me that crap, Matt. You’re a corpse handler, always will be. And in a couple years Grotto won’t need corpses.”

Kabaraijian sighed. “So?” he said. “So?”

Cochran leaned forward. “So have you thought about what I told you?”

“Yes,” Kabaraijian said. “But I don’t like it. I don’t think it would work, first of all. Spaceport security is tight to keep people from smuggling out swirlstones, and you want to do just that. And even if it would work, I don’t want any part of it. I’m sorry, Ed.”

“I think it would work,” Cochran said stubbornly. “The spaceport people are human. They can be tempted. Why should the company get all the swirlstones when we do all the work?”

“They’ve got the concession,” Kabaraijian said.

Cochran waved him silent. “Yeah, sure. So what? By what right? We deserve some, for ourselves, while the damn things are still valuable.”

Kabaraijian sighed again, and poured himself another glass of wine. “Look,” he said, lifting the glass to his lips, “I don’t quarrel with that. Maybe they should pay us more, or give us an interest in the swirlstones. But it’s not worth the risk. We’ll lose our crews if they catch us. And we’ll get expelled.

“I don’t want that, Ed, and I won’t risk it. Grotto is too good to me, and I’m not going to throw it away. You know, some people would say we’re pretty lucky. Most corpse handlers never get to work a place like Grotto. They wind up on the assembly lines of Skrakky, or in the mines of New Pittsburg. I’ve seen those places. No thanks. I’m not going to risk returning to that sort of life.”

Cochran threw imploring eyes up to the ceiling, and spread his hands helplessly. “Hopeless,” he said, shaking his head. “Hopeless.” Then he returned to his beer. Kabaraijian was smiling.

section 3

But his amusement died short minutes later, when Cochran suddenly stiffened and grimaced across the table. “Damn,” he said. “Bartling. What the hell does he want here?”

Kabaraijian turned toward the door, where the newcomer was standing and waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He was a big man, with an athletic frame that had gone to pot over the years and now sported a considerable paunch. He had dark hair streaked with white and a bristling black beard, and he was wearing a fashionable multicolored tunic.

Four others had entered behind him, and now stood flanking him on either side. They were younger men than he was, and bigger, with hard faces and impressive builds. The bodyguards made sense. Lowell Bartling was widely known for his dislike of corpse handlers, and the tavern was full of them.

Bartling crossed his arms, and looked around the room slowly. He was smirking. He started to speak.

Almost before he got the first word out of his mouth, he was interrupted. One of the men along the bar emitted a loud, rude noise, and laughed. “Hiya, Bartling,” he said. “What are you doing down here? Thought you didn’t associate with us low-lifes?”

Bartling’s face tightened, but his smirk was untouched. “Normally I don’t, but I wanted the pleasure of making this announcement personally.”

“You’re leaving Grotto!” someone shouted. There was laughter all along the bar. “I’ll drink to that,” another voice added.

“No,” said Bartling. “No, friend, you are.” He looked around, savoring the moment. “Bartling Associates has just acquired the swirlstone concession, I’m happy to tell you. I take over management of the river station at the end of the month. And, of course, my first act will be to terminate the employment of all the corpse handlers currently under contract.”

Suddenly the room was very silent, as the implications of that sank in. In the corner in the back of the room, Cochran rose slowly to his feet. Kabaraijian remained seated, stunned.

“You can’t do that,” Cochran said belligerently. “We’ve got contracts.”

Bartling turned to face him. “Those contracts can be broken,” he said, “and they will be.”

“You son of a bitch,” someone said.

The bodyguard tensed. “Watch who you call names, meatmind,” one of them answered. All around the room, men started getting to their feet.

Cochran was livid with anger. “Damn you, Bartling,” he said. “Who the hell do you think you are? You’ve got no right to run us off the planet.”

“I have every right,” Bartling said. “Grotto is a good, clean, beautiful planet. There’s no place here for your kind. It was a mistake to bring you in, and I’ve said so all along. Those things you work with contaminate the air. And you’re even worse. You work with those things, those corpses, voluntarily, for money. You disgust me. You don’t belong on Grotto. And now I’m in a position to see that you leave.” He paused, then smiled. “Meatmind,” he added, spitting out the word.

“Bartling, I’m going to knock your head off,” one of the handlers bellowed. There was a roar of agreement. Several men started forward at once.

And jerked to a sudden stop when Kabaraijian interjected a soft, “No, wait,” over the general hubbub. He hardly raised his voice at all, but it still commanded attention in the room of shouting men.

He walked through the crowd and faced Bartling, looking much calmer than he felt. “You realize that without corpse labor your costs will go way up,” he said in a steady, reasonable voice, “and your profits down.”

Bartling nodded. “Of course I realize it. I’m willing to take the loss. We’ll use men to mine the swirl-stones. They’re too beautiful for corpses, anyway.”

“You’ll be losing money for nothing,” Kabaraijian said.

“Hardly. I’ll get rid of your stinking corpses.”

Kabaraijian cracked a thin smile. “Maybe some. But not all of us, Mr. Bartling. You can take away our jobs, perhaps, but you can’t throw us off Grotto. I for one refuse to go.”

“Then you’ll starve.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic. I’ll find something else to do. You don’t own all of Grotto. And I’ll keep my corpses. Dead men can be used for a lot of things. It’s just that we haven’t thought of them all yet.”

  • Like build the foundations for what became a huge ice wall?
  • It is not a Martinworld abomination to use a man after they have died, but to use the living and work them until death for your corporate-governmental spoils of war , or “foraging“, is the abomination.

Bartling’s smirk had vanished suddenly. “If you stay,” he said, fixing Kabaraijian with a hard stare, “I promise to make you very, very sorry.”

Kabaraijian laughed. “Really? Well, personally, I promise to send one of my dead men by your house every night after you go to bed, to make hideous faces at the window and moan.” He laughed again, louder. Cochran joined him, then others. Soon the whole tavern was laughing.

Bartling turned red and began a slow burn. He came here to taunt his enemies, to crow his triumph, and now they were laughing at him. Laughing in the face of victory, cheating him. He seethed a long minute, then turned and walked furiously out the door. His bodyguards followed.

The laughter lingered a while after his exit, and several of the other handlers slapped Kabaraijian on the back as he made his way back to his seat. Cochran was happy about it, too. “You really took the old man apart,” he said when they reached the corner table.

But Kabaraijian wasn’t smiling anymore. He slumped down into his seat heavily, and reached almost immediately for the wine. “I sure did,” he said slowly, between sips. “I sure did.”

section 4

Cochran looked at him curiously. “You don’t seem too happy.”

“No,” said Kabaraijian. He studied his wine. “I’m having second thoughts. That insufferable bigot riled me, made me want to get to him. Only I wonder if I can pull it off. What can corpses do on Grotto?”

His eyes wandered around the tavern, which had suddenly become very somber. “It’s sinking in,” he told Cochran. “I’ll bet they’re all talking about leaving …”

Cochran had stopped grinning. “Some of us will stay,” he said uncertainly. “We can farm with the corpses, or something.”

Kabaraijian looked at him. “Uh-uh. Machinery is more efficient for farming. And dead men are too clumsy for anything but the crudest kind of labor, much too slow for hunting.” He poured more wine, and mused aloud. “They’re O.K. for cheap factory labor, or running an automole in a mine. But Grotto doesn’t have any of that. They can hack out swirlstones with a vibrodrill, only Bartling is taking that away from us.” He shook his head.

“I don’t know, Ed,” he continued. “It’s not going to be easy. And maybe it’ll be impossible. With the swirlstone concession under his belt, Bartling is bigger than the settlement company now.”

“That was the idea. The company sets us up, and we buy it out as we grow.”

“True. But Bartling grew a little too fast. He can really start throwing his weight around now. It wouldn’t surprise me if he amended the charter, to keep corpses off-planet. That would force us out.”

“Can he get away with that?” Cochran was getting angry again, and his voice rose slightly.

“Maybe,” Kabaraijian said, “if we let him. I wonder …” He sloshed his wine thoughtfully. “You think this deal of his is final?”

Cochran looked puzzled. “He said he had it.”

“Yes. I don’t suppose he’d crow about it if it wasn’t in his pocket. Still, I’m curious what the company would do if someone made them a better offer.”

“Who?”

“Us, maybe?” Kabaraijian sipped his wine and considered that. “Get all the handlers together, everybody puts in whatever they have. That should give us a fair sum. Maybe we could buy out the river station ourselves. Or something else, if Bartling has the swirlstones all locked up. It’s an idea.”

“Nah, it’d never work,” Cochran said. “Maybe you’ve got some money, Matt, but I sure as hell don’t. Spent most of it here. Besides, even the guys that have money, you’d never be able to get them together.”

“Maybe not,” Kabaraijian said. “But it’s worth trying. Organizing against Bartling is the only way we’re going to be able to keep ourselves on Grotto in the long run.”

Cochran drained his beer, and signaled for another. “Nah,” he said. “Bartling’s too big. He’ll slap you down hard if you bother him too much. I got a better idea.”

“Swirlstone smuggling,” Kabaraijian said, smiling.

“Yeah,” Cochran said with a nod. “Maybe now you’ll reconsider. If Bartling’s gonna throw us off-planet, at least we can take some of his swirlstones with us. That’d set us up good wherever we go.”

“You’re incorrigible,” Kabaraijian said. “But I’ll bet half the handlers on Grotto will try the same thing now. Bartling will expect that. He’ll have the spaceport screwed up tight when we ‘start leaving. He’ll catch you, Ed. And you’ll lose your crew, or worse. Bartling might even try to force through dead-man laws, and start exporting corpses.”

Cochran looked uneasy at that. Corpse handlers saw ‘too much of dead men to relish the idea of becoming one. They tended to cluster on planets without dead-man laws, where capital crimes still drew prison terms or “clean” executions. Grotto was a clean planet now, but laws can change.

“I might lose my crew anyway, Matt,” Cochran said. “If Bartling throws us out, I’ll have to sell some of my corpses for passage money.”

Kabaraijian smiled. “You still have a month, even with the worst. And there are plenty of swirlstones out there for the finding.” He raised his glass. “Come. To Grotto. It’s a lovely planet, and we may stay here yet.”

Cochran shrugged and lifted his beer. “Yeah,” he said. But his grin didn’t hide his worry.

section 5

Kabaraijian reported to the station early the next morning, when Grotto’s sun was fighting to dispel the river mists. The row of empty launches was still tied to the dock, bobbing up and down in the  rapidly-thinning fog.

Munson was inside the office, as always. So, surprisingly, was Cochran. Both of them looked up when Kabaraijian entered.

“Morning, Matt,” Munson said gravely. “Ed’s been telling me about last night.” Today, for some reason, he looked his age. “I’m sorry, Matt. I didn’t know anything about it.”

Kabaraijian smiled. “I never thought you did. If you do hear anything, though, let me know. We’re not going to go without a fight.” He looked at Cochran. “What are you doing here so early? Usually you’re not up until the crack of noon.”

Cochran grinned. “Yeah. Well, I figured I’d start early. I’m going to need good estimates this month, if I want to save my crew.”

Munson had dug two collection boxes out from under his desk. He handed them to the two corpse handlers, and nodded. “Back room’s open,” he said. “You can pick up your dead men whenever you like.”

Kabaraijian started to circle the desk, but Cochran grabbed his arm. “I think I’ll try way east,” he said. “Some caves there that haven’t really been hit yet. Where you going?”

“West,” said Kabaraijian. “I found a good new place, like I told you.”

Cochran nodded. They went to the back room together, and thumbed their controllers. Five dead men stumbled from their bunks and followed them, shuffling, from the office. Kabaraijian thanked Munson before he left. The old man had washed down his corpses anyway, and fed them.

The mists were just about gone when they reached the dock. Kabaraijian marched his crew into the boat and got set to cast off. But Cochran stopped him, looking troubled.

“Uh—Matt,” he said, standing on the dock and staring down into the launch. “This new place—you say it’s real good?”

Kabaraijian nodded, squinting. The sun was just clearing the treetops, and framing Cochran’s head.

“Can I talk you into splitting?” Cochran said, with difficulty. It was an unusual request. The practice was for each handler to range alone, to find and mine his own swirlstone cave. “I mean, with only a month left, you probably won’t have time to get everything, not if the place is as good as you say. And I need good estimates, I really do.”

  • Note how Ed wants Matt to “split”, as we see with the color/magic/brother vs brother divide across Martinworld.
  • Also note that this is the clearest sign Ed Cochran has premeditated his plans. The game Lord of the Crossing begins here.

Kabaraijian could see that it wasn’t an easy favor to ask. He smiled. “Sure,” he said. “There’s plenty there. Get your launch and follow me.”

Cochran nodded and forced a grin. He walked down the dock to his launch, his dead men trailing behind.

section 6

Going downriver was easier than going up, and faster. Kabaraijian hit the lake in short order, and sent his launch surging across the sparkling green surface in a spray of foam. It was an exhilarating morning, with a bright sun, and a brisk wind that whipped the water into tiny waves. Kabaraijian felt good, despite the events of the previous night. Grotto did that to him. Out on the High Lakes, somehow, he felt that he could beat Bartling.

He’d run into similar problems before, on other worlds. Bartling wasn’t alone in his hatred. Ever since the first time they’d ripped a man’s brain from his skull and replaced it with a dead man’s synthabrain, there had been people screaming that the practice was a perversion, and the handlers tainted and unclean. He’d gotten used to the prejudice; it was part of corpse handling. And he’d beaten it before. He could beat Bartling now.

  • A Clash of Kings – Bran V

    Bran looked at him, his eyes wide. “What?”

    “Warg. Shapechanger. Beastling. That is what they will call you, if they should ever hear of your wolf dreams.”

    The names made him afraid again. “Who will call me?”

  • A Clash of Kings – Bran V

    “I don’t want it. I want to be a knight.”

    “A knight is what you want. A warg is what you are. You can’t change that, Bran, you can’t deny it or push it away. You are the winged wolf, but you will never fly.” Jojen got up and walked to the window. “Unless you open your eye.” He put two fingers together and poked Bran in the forehead, hard.

The first part of the voyage was the quickest. The two launches streaked over two big local lakes, past shores lined thickly with silverwood trees and vine-heavy danglers. But then they began to slow, as the lakes grew smaller and choked with life, and the country wilder. Along the banks, the stately silverwoods and curious danglers began to give way to the dense red-and-black chaos of firebriar brambles, and a species of low, gnarled tree that never had received a proper name. The vegetation grew on ground increasingly hilly and rocky, and finally mountainous.

Then they began to pass through the caves.

There were hundreds of them, literally, and they honeycombed the mountains that circled the settlement on all sides. The caves had never been mapped thoroughly. There were far too many of them, and they all seemed to connect with each other, forming a natural maze of incredible complexity. Most of them were still half-full of water; they’d been carved from the soft mountain rock by the streams and rivers that still ran through them.

  • A common theme in Martinworld is to have a place that is ‘honeycombed‘ to represent a location that is over-mined or as a place that causes fear.
  • A Feast for Crows – Alayne II

    “AWAY!” came Ser Lothor’s shout. Someone shoved the bucket hard. It swayed and tipped, scraped against the floor, then swung free. She heard the crack of Mord’s whip and the rattle of the chain. They began to descend, by jerks and starts at first, then more smoothly. Robert’s face was pale and his eyes puffy, but his hands were still. The Eyrie shrank above them. The sky cells on the lower levels made the castle look something like a honeycomb from below. A honeycomb made of ice, Alayne thought, a castle made of snow. She could hear the wind whistling round the bucket.

  • A Feast for Crows – Arya II

    “What kind of tale?” she asked, wary.

    “The tale of our beginnings. If you would be one of us, you had best know who we are and how we came to be. Men may whisper of the Faceless Men of Braavos, but we are older than the Secret City. Before the Titan rose, before the Unmasking of Uthero, before the Founding, we were. We have flowered in Braavos amongst these northern fogs, but we first took root in Valyria, amongst the wretched slaves who toiled in the deep mines beneath the Fourteen Flames that lit the Freehold’s nights of old. Most mines are dank and chilly places, cut from cold dead stone, but the Fourteen Flames were living mountains with veins of molten rock and hearts of fire. So the mines of old Valyria were always hot, and they grew hotter as the shafts were driven deeper, ever deeper. The slaves toiled in an oven. The rocks around them were too hot to touch. The air stank of brimstone and would sear their lungs as they breathed it. The soles of their feet would burn and blister, even through the thickest sandals. Sometimes, when they broke through a wall in search of gold, they would find steam instead, or boiling water, or molten rock. Certain shafts were cut so low that the slaves could not stand upright, but had to crawl or bend. And there were wyrms in that red darkness too.”

A stranger could easily get lost in the caves, but strangers never came there. And the corpse handlers never got lost. This was their country. This was where the swirlstones waited, cloaked in rock and darkness.

The launches were all equipped with lights. Kabaraijian switched his on as soon as they hit the first cave, and slowed. Cochran, following close behind, did likewise. The channels that ran through the nearer caves were well-known, but shallow, and it didn’t pay to risk tearing out the bottom of your boat.

The channel was narrow at first, and the glistening, damp walls of soft greenish stone seemed to press in on them from either side. But gradually the walls moved farther and farther back, finally peeling away entirely as the stream carried the two launches into a great vaulted underground chamber. The cavern was as big as a spaceport, its ceiling lost in the gloom overhead. Before long the walls vanished into the dark too, and the launches traveled in two small bubbles of light across the gently-stirring surface of a cold black lake.

Then, ahead of them, the walls took form again. But this time, instead of one passage, there were many. The stream had carved one entrance, but a good half-dozen exits.

Kabaraijian knew the cave, however. Without hesitating, he guided his boat into the widest passage, on the extreme right. Cochran followed in his wake. Here the waters flowed down an incline, and the boats began to pick up speed again. “Be careful,” Kabaraijian warned Cochran at one point. “The ceiling comes down here.” Cochran acknowledged the shout with a wave of his hand.

The warning came barely in time. While the walls were increasingly farther apart, the stone roof above them was moving steadily closer, giving the illusion that the waters were rising. Kabaraijian remembered the way he’d sweated the first time he’d taken this passage; the boat had been going too fast, and he’d feared getting pinched in by the ceiling, and overwhelmed by the climbing waters.

But it was an idle fear. The roof sank close enough to scrape their heads, but no closer. And then it began to rise again to a decent height. Meanwhile, the channel widened still more, and soft sand shelves appeared along either wall.

Finally there was a branching in the passage, and this time Kabaraijian chose the left-hand way. It was small and dark and narrow, with barely enough room for the launch to squeeze through. But it was also short, and after a brief journey, it released them to a second great cavern.

They moved across the chamber quickly, and entered its twin under a grotesque stone arch. Then came yet another twisting passage, and more forks and turns. Kabaraijian led them calmly, hardly thinking, hardly having to think. These were his caves; this particular section of undermountain was his domain, where he’d worked and mined for months. He knew where he was going. And finally he got there.

The chamber was big, and haunting. Far above the shallow waters, the roof had been eaten through by erosion, and light poured in from three great gashes in the rock. It gave the cavern a dim greenish glow, as it bounced off the pale green walls and the wide, shallow pool.

The launches spilled from a thin crack in the cave wall, carried by rushes of cold black water. The water turned green when it hit the light, and tumbled and warmed and slowed. The boats slowed, too, and moved leisurely across the huge chamber toward the white sand beaches that lined the sides.

Kabaraijian pulled up by one such beach, and hopped out into the shallow water, dragging his launch up onto the sand. Cochran followed his example, and they stood side by side when both boats were safely beached.

“Yeah,” said Cochran, looking around. “It’s nice. And it figures. Leave it to you to find a pretty place to work, while the rest of us are up to our ankles in water, clutching lights.”

Kabaraijian smiled. “I found it yesterday,” he said. “Completely unworked. Look.” He pointed at the wall. “I barely started.” There was a pile of loose stones in a rough semicircle around the area he’d been working, and a large bite missing from the rock. But most of the wall was untouched, stretching away from them in sheets of shimmering green.

“You sure no one else knows about this place?” Cochran asked.

“Reasonably. Why?”

Cochran shrugged. “When we were coming through the caves, I could have sworn I heard another launch behind us somewhere.”

“Probably echoes,” Kabaraijian said. He looked toward his launch. “Anyway, we better get going.” He hit his corpse controller, and the three still figures in the boat began to move.

section 7

He stood stock-still on the sand, watching them. And as he watched, somewhere in the back of his head, he was also watching himself with their eyes. They rose stiffly, and two of them climbed out onto the sand. The third walked to the chest in the front of the launch, and began unloading the equipment; vibrodrills and picks and shovels. Then, his arms full, he climbed down and joined the others.

None of them were really moving, of course. It was all Kabaraijian. It was Kabaraijian who moved their legs, and made their hands clasp and their arms reach. It was Kabaraijian, his commands picked up by controller and magnified by synthabrain, who put life into the bodies of the dead men. The synthabrains keep the automatic functions going, but it was the corpse handler who gave the corpse its will.

  • This control concept is also shown in detail in Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg as well as Meathouse Man.
  • The syntahbrain is akin to the crystal-etched mother that controls the spaceship Nightflyer in Nightflyers, one of the unofficial corpsehandler stories.
  • This is essentially how the Other control wights. This is also similar to how GRRM first established Daenerys being able to control the living people around her. The A Dance with Dragons prologue with Varamyr is more about the firy people like Ramsay and Daenerys than it is about the northern peoples.
    • GRRM’s outline: a young dragon will give Daenerys power to bend the Dothraki to her will. Then she begins to plan for her invasion of the Seven Kingdoms.

It wasn’t easy, and it was far from perfect. The sense impressions thrown back to the handler were seldom useful; mostly he had to watch his corpses to know what they were doing. The manipulation was seldom graceful; corpses moved slowly and clumsily, and fine work was beyond them. A corpse could swing a mallet, but even the best handler couldn’t make a dead man thread a needle, or speak.

With a bad handler, a corpse could hardly move at all. It took coordination to run even one dead man, if the handler was doing anything himself. He had to keep the commands to the corpse separate from the commands to his own muscles. That was easy enough for most, but the task grew increasingly complex as the crew grew larger. The record for one handler was twenty-six corpses; but all he’d done was march them, in step. When the dead men weren’t all doing the same thing, the corpse handler’s work became much more challenging.

  • A Dance with Dragons – Bran III

    “Only one man in a thousand is born a skinchanger,” Lord Brynden said one day, after Bran had learned to fly, “and only one skinchanger in a thousand can be a greenseer.”

    “I thought the greenseers were the wizards of the children,” Bran said. “The singers, I mean.”

“In a sense. Those you call the children of the forest have eyes as golden as the sun, but once in a great while one is born amongst them with eyes as red as blood, or green as the moss on a tree in the heart of the forest. By these signs do the gods mark those they have chosen to receive the gift. The chosen ones are not robust, and their quick years upon the earth are few, for every song must have its balance. But once inside the wood they linger long indeed. A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom deep as the roots of ancient trees. Greenseers.”

Kabaraijian had a three-crew; all top meat, corpses in good condition. They’d been big men, and they still were; Kabaraijian paid premiums for food to keep his property in good condition. One had dark hair and a scar along a cheek, another was blond and young and freckled, the third had mousy brown locks. Other than that, they were interchangeable; all about the same height and weight and build. Corpses don’t have personality. They lose that with their minds.

Cochran’s crew, climbing out onto the sand in compliance with his work orders, was less impressive. There were only two of them, and neither was a grade-one specimen. The first corpse was brawny enough, with wide shoulders and rippling muscles. But his legs were twisted matchsticks, and he stumbled often and walked more slowly than even the average corpse. The second dead man was reedy and middle-aged, bald and under-muscled. Both were grimy. Cochran didn’t believe in taking care of his crew the way Kabaraijian did. It was a bad habit. Cochran had started as a paid handler working somebody else’s corpses; upkeep hadn’t been his concern.

Each of Kabaraijian’s crew bent and picked up a vibrodrill from the stack of equipment on the sand. Then, parallel to each other, they advanced on the cave wall. The drills sank humming holes into the porous rock, and from each drill bite a network of thin cracks branched and grew.

The corpses drilled in unison until each drill was sunk nearly to its hilt, and the cracks had grown finger-wide. Then, almost as one, they withdrew the drills and discarded them in favor of picks. Work slowed. Crack by crack, the corpses attacked the wall, laboriously peeling off a whole layer of greenish stone. They swung the picks carefully, but with bone-jarring force, untiring, relentless. Incapable of pain, their bones could scarce feel the jars.

  • THIS is what we are going to see, and hear, the wights doing to the Wall in the north as the ice dragon Others come crashing through the wall for their invasion.
  • A Dance with Dragons – Daenerys VI

    A cool wind was blowing on her terrace. Dany sighed with pleasure as she slipped into the waters of her pool. At her command, Missandei stripped off her clothes and climbed in after her. “This one heard the Astapori scratching at the walls last night,” the little scribe said as she was washing Dany’s back.

    Irri and Jhiqui exchanged a look. “No one was scratching,” said Jhiqui. “Scratching … how could they scratch?”

    “With their hands,” said Missandei. “The bricks are old and crumbling. They are trying to claw their way into the city.”

The dead men did all the work. Kabaraijian stood behind, a slight, dark statue in the sand, with hands on hips and eyes hooded. He did nothing but watch. Yet he did all. Kabaraijian was the corpses; the corpses were Kabaraijian. He was one man in four bodies, and it was his hand that guided each blow, though he did not touch a tool.

Forty feet down the cave, Cochran and his crew had unpacked and set to work. But Kabaraijian was barely conscious of them, though he could hear the hum of their vibrodrills and the hammering of their picks. His mind was with his corpses, chipping at his wall, alert for the tell-tale grayish glitter of a swirlstone node. It was draining work; demanding work; tense and nervous. It was a labor only corpse crews could do with real efficiency.

They’d tried other methods a few short years before, when men had first found Grotto and its caves. The early settlers went after swirl-stones with automoles, tractor-like rockeaters that could chew up mountains. Problem was, they also chewed up the fragile, deep-buried swirlstones, which often went unrecognized until too late. The company discovered that careful hand labor was the only way to keep from chipping or shattering an excessive number of stones. And corpse hands were the cheapest hands you could buy.

Those hands were busy now, tense and sweating as the crew peeled whole sections of rock off the broken wall. The natural cleavage of the stone was vertical, which sped the work. Find a crack—force in a pick—lean back and pull—and, with a snap, a flat chunk of rock came with you. Then find a new crack, and begin again.

Kabaraijian watched unmoving as the wall came down, and the pile of green stone accumulated around the feet of his dead men. Only his eyes moved; flicking back and forth over the rock restlessly, alert for swirlstones but finding nothing. Finally he pulled the corpses back, and approached the wall himself. He touched it, stroked the stone, and frowned. The crew had ripped down an entire layer of rock, and had come up empty.

But that was hardly unusual, even in the best of caves. Kabaraijian walked back to the sand’s edge, and sent his crew back to work. They picked up vibrodrills and attacked the wall again.

Abruptly he was conscious of Cochran standing beside him, saying something. He could hardly make it out. It isn’t easy to pay close attention when you’re running three dead men. Part of his mind detached itself and began to listen.

Cochran was repeating himself. He knew that a handler at work wasn’t likely to hear what he said the first time. “Matt,” he was saying, “listen. I think I heard something. Faintly, but I heard it. It sounded like another launch.”

That was serious. Kabaraijian wrenched his mind loose from the dead men, and turned to give Cochran his full attention. The three vibrodrills died, one by one, and suddenly the soft slap of water against sand echoed loudly around them.

“A launch?”

Cochran nodded.

“You sure?” Kabaraijian said.

“Uh—no,” said Cochran. “But I think I heard something. Same thing as before, when we were moving through the caves.”

“I don’t know,” Kabaraijian said, shaking his head. “Don’t think it’s likely, Ed. Why would anyone follow us? The swirlstones are everywhere, if you bother to look.”

“Yeah,” Cochran said. “But I heard something, and I thought I should tell you.”

Kabaraijian nodded. “All right,” he said. “Consider me told. If anyone shows up, I’ll point out a section of wall and let him work it.”

  • The idea that working together is better than a fight. Something Jon Snow has been learning as he lives among the free folk.
  • A Clash of Kings – Jon VII

    A vast blue-white wall plugged one end of the vale, squeezing between the mountains as if it had shouldered them aside, and for a moment he thought he had dreamed himself back to Castle Black. Then he realized he was looking at a river of ice several thousand feet high. Under that glittering cold cliff was a great lake, its deep cobalt waters reflecting the snowcapped peaks that ringed it. There were men down in the valley, he saw now; many men, thousands, a huge host. Some were tearing great holes in the half-frozen ground, while others trained for war. He watched as a swarming mass of riders charged a shield wall, astride horses no larger than ants. The sound of their mock battle was a rustling of steel leaves, drifting faintly on the wind. Their encampment had no plan to it; he saw no ditches, no sharpened stakes, no neat rows of horse lines. Everywhere crude earthen shelters and hide tents sprouted haphazardly, like a pox on the face of the earth. He spied untidy mounds of hay, smelled goats and sheep, horses and pigs, dogs in great profusion. Tendrils of dark smoke rose from a thousand cookfires.

    This is no army, no more than it is a town. This is a whole people come together.

“Yeah,” Cochran said again. But somehow he didn’t look satisfied. His eyes kept jumping back and forth, agitated. He wheeled and walked back down the sand, to the section of wall where his own corpses stood frozen.

Kabaraijian turned back toward the rock, and his crew came alive again. The drills started humming, and once more the cracks spread out. Then, when the cracks were big enough, picks replaced drills, and another layer of stone started coming down.

But this time, something was behind it.

The corpses were ankle-deep in splinters of stone when Kabaraijian saw it; a fist-sized chunk of gray nestled in the green. He stiffened at the sight of it, and the corpses froze in mid-swing. Kabaraijian walked around them, and studied the swirlstone node.

  • Sidenote: the grey-green combination is common across Martinworld.

It was a beauty; twice the size of the largest stone he’d ever brought in. Even damaged, it would be worth a fortune. But if he could pry it loose intact, his estimate would set a record. He was certain of that. They’d cut it as one stone. He could almost see it. An egg of crystalline fog, smoky and mysterious, where drifting veils of mist shrouded half-seen colors.

Kabaraijian thought about it, and smiled. He touched the node lightly, and turned to call to Cochran.

That saved his life.

section 8

The pick sliced through the air where his head had been and smashed against the wall with awful impact, barely missing the swirlstone node. Sparks and rock chips flew together. Kabaraijian stood frozen. The corpse drew the pick back over its head for another swing.

Within, Kabaraijian reeled, staggered. The pick swung down. Not at the wall; at him.

Then he moved, barely in time, throwing himself to one side. The blow missed by inches, and Kabaraijian landed in the sand and scrambled quickly to his feet. Crouched and wary, he began to back away.

The corpse advanced on him, the pick held over his head.

Kabaraijian could hardly think. He didn’t understand. The corpse that moved on him was dark-haired and scarred; his corpse. HIS corpse. HIS CORPSE!?

The corpse moved slowly. Kabaraijian kept a safe distance. Then he looked behind him. His other two dead men were advancing from other directions. One held a pick. The other had a vibrodrill.

Kabaraijian swallowed nervously, and stopped dead. The ring of corpses tightened around him. He screamed.

Down the beach, Cochran was looking at the tableau. He took one step toward Kabaraijian. From behind him, there was a blur of something being swung, and a dull thud. Cochran spun with the blow, and landed face down in the sand. He did not get up. His barrel-chested, gimpy corpse stood over him, pick in hand, swinging again and again. His other corpse was moving down the cave, toward Kabaraijian.

The scream was still echoing in the cave, but now Kabaraijian was silent. He watched Cochran go down, and suddenly he moved, throwing himself at the dark-haired dead man. The pick descended, vicious but clumsy. Kabaraijian dodged it. He bowled into the corpse, and both of them went down. The corpse was much slower getting up. By the time he did rise, Kabaraijian was behind him.

The corpse-handler moved back, step by slow step. His own crew was in front of him now, stumbling toward him with weapons raised. It was a chilling sight. Their arms moved, and they walked. But their eyes were blank and their faces were dead—DEAD! For the first time, Kabaraijian understood the horror some people felt near dead men.

  • A Dance with Dragons – Jon XI

    Jon had to laugh. “You never change.”

    “Oh, I do.” The grin melted away like snow in summer. “I am not the man I was at Ruddy Hall. Seen too much death, and worse things too. My sons …” Grief twisted Tormund’s face. “Dormund was cut down in the battle for the Wall, and him still half a boy. One o’ your king’s knights did for him, some bastard all in grey steel with moths upon his shield. I saw the cut, but my boy was dead before I reached him. And Torwynd … it was the cold claimed him. Always sickly, that one. He just up and died one night. The worst o’ it, before we ever knew he’d died he rose pale with them blue eyes. Had to see to him m’self. That was hard, Jon.” Tears shone in his eyes. “He wasn’t much of a man, truth be told, but he’d been me little boy once, and I loved him.”

    Jon put a hand on his shoulder. “I am so sorry.”

  • A Dance with Dragons – Jon XII

    The wildling rubbed his mouth. “Not here,” he mumbled, “not this side o’ your Wall.” The old man glanced uneasily toward the trees in their white mantles. “They’re never far, you know. They won’t come out by day, not when that old sun’s shining, but don’t think that means they went away. Shadows never go away. Might be you don’t see them, but they’re always clinging to your heels.”

    “Did they trouble you on your way south?”

    “They never came in force, if that’s your meaning, but they were with us all the same, nibbling at our edges. We lost more outriders than I care to think about, and it was worth your life to fall behind or wander off. Every nightfall we’d ring our camps with fire. They don’t like fire much, and no mistake. When the snows came, though … snow and sleet and freezing rain, it’s bloody hard to find dry wood or get your kindling lit, and the cold … some nights our fires just seemed to shrivel up and die. Nights like that, you always find some dead come the morning. ‘Less they find you first. The night that Torwynd … my boy, he …’ Tormund turned his face away.

He looked over his shoulder. Both of Cochran’s corpses were heading his way, armed. Cochran still had not risen. He lay with his face in the sand and the waters lapping at his boots.

His mind began to work again, in the short breather he was granted. His hand went to his belt. The controller was still on, still warm and humming. He tested it. He reached out, to his corpses, into them. He told them to stand still, to drop their tools, to freeze.

They continued to advance.

Kabaraijian shivered. The controller was still working; he could still feel the echoes in his head. But somehow, the corpses weren’t responding. He felt very cold.

  • I have long stated for years that the cold Jon feels at his mutiny attempt is not his own death, but rather the cold death-breath of the ice dragon Others about to breach the wall.
  • A Dance with Dragons – Jon VIII

    “My tongue is too numb to tell. All I can taste is cold.”

    “Cold?” Val laughed lightly. “No. When it is cold it will hurt to breathe. When the Others come …”

  • A Dance with Dragons – Jon XII

    “I know,” said Jon Snow.

    Tormund turned back. “You know nothing. You killed a dead man, aye, I heard. Mance killed a hundred. A man can fight the dead, but when their masters come, when the white mists rise up … how do you fight a mist, crow? Shadows with teeth … air so cold it hurts to breathe, like a knife inside your chest … you do not know, you cannot know … can your sword cut cold?”

And colder when it finally hit him, like ice water. Cochran’s corpses hadn’t responded either. Both crews had turned on their handlers.

Override!

He’d heard of such things. But he’d never seen one, or dreamt of seeing one. Override boxes were very expensive and even more illegal, contraband on any planet where corpse handling was allowed.

But now he was seeing one in action. Someone wanted to kill him. Someone was trying to do just that. Someone was using his own corpses against him, by means of an override box.

He threw himself at his corpses mentally, fighting for control, grappling for whatever had taken them over. But there was no struggle, nothing to come to grips with. The dead men simply failed to respond.

Kabaraijian bent and picked up a vibrodrill.

He straightened quickly, spinning around to face Cochran’s two corpses. The big one with the matchstick legs moved in, swinging its pick. Kabaraijian checked the blow with the vibrodrill, holding it above him as a shield. The dead man brought the pick back again.

Kabaraijian activated the drill and drove it into the corpse’s gut. There was an awful second of spurting blood and tearing flesh. There should have been a scream too, and agony. But there wasn’t.

And the pick came down anyway.

Kabaraijian’s thrust had thrown the corpse’s aim off, and the blow was a glancing one, but it still ripped his tunic half off his chest and clawed a bloody path from shoulder to stomach. Reeling, he staggered back against the wall, empty-handed.

The corpse came on, pick swinging up again, eyes blank. The vibrodrill transfixed it, still humming, and the blood came in wet red spurts. But the corpse came on.

No pain, Kabaraijian thought, with the small part of his mind not frozen with terror. The blow wasn’t immediately fatal, and the corpse can’t feel it. It’s bleeding to death, but it doesn’t know it, doesn’t care. It won’t stop till it’s dead. There’s no pain!

The corpse was nearly on top of him. He dropped to the sand, grabbed a hunk of rock, and rolled.

Dead men are slow, woefully slow; their reflexes are long-distance ones. The blow was late and off-target. Kabaraijian rolled into the corpse and knocked it down. Then he was on top of it, the rock clutched in his fist, hammering at the thing’s skull, smashing it again and again, breaking through to the synthabrain.

  • A Storm of Swords – Samwell I

    The fear that filled Sam then was worse than any fear he had ever felt before, and Samwell Tarly knew every kind of fear. “Mother have mercy,” he wept, forgetting the old gods in his terror. “Father protect me, oh oh . . .” His fingers found his dagger and he filled his hand with that.

    The wights had been slow clumsy things, but the Other was light as snow on the wind. It slid away from Paul’s axe, armor rippling, and its crystal sword twisted and spun and slipped between the iron rings of Paul’s mail, through leather and wool and bone and flesh. It came out his back with a hissssssssssss and Sam heard Paul say, “Oh,” as he lost the axe. Impaled, his blood smoking around the sword, the big man tried to reach his killer with his hands and almost had before he fell. The weight of him tore the strange pale sword from the Other’s grip.

section 9

Finally, the corpse stopped moving. But the others had reached him. Two picks swung almost simultaneously. One missed entirely. The other took a chunk out of his shoulder.

He grabbed the second pick, and twisted, fighting to stop it, losing. The corpses were stronger than he was, much stronger. The dead man wrenched the pick free and brought it back for another try.

Kabaraijian got to his feet, smashing into the corpse and sending it flailing. The others swung at him, grabbed at him. He didn’t stay to fight. He ran. They pursued, slow and clumsy but somehow terrifying.

He reached the launch, seized it with both hands, and shoved. It slid reluctantly across the sand. He shoved again, and this time it moved more easily. He was drenched in blood and sweat, and his breath came in short gasps, but he kept shoving. His shoulder shrieked agony. He let it shriek, putting it to the side of the launch and finally getting the boat clear of the sand.

Then the corpses were on him again, swinging at him even as he climbed into the launch. He started the motor and flipped it to top speed. The boat responded. It took off in a sudden explosion of foam, slicing across the green waters toward the dark slit of safety in the far cavern wall. Kabaraijian sighed … and the corpse grabbed him.

It was in the boat. Its pick was buried uselessly in the wood, but it still had its hands, and those were enough. It wrapped those hands around his neck, and squeezed. He swung at it madly, smashing at its calm, empty face. It made no effort to ward off the blows. It ignored them. Kabaraijian hit it again and again, poked at the vacant eyes, hammered at its mouth until its teeth shattered.

But the fingers on his neck grew tighter and tighter, and not all his struggling could pry one loose. Choking, he stopped kicking the corpse, and kicked the rudder control.

The launch veered wildly, leaning from side to side. The cave rushed past in a blur, and the walls moved in on them. Then came sudden impact, the shriek of tearing wood, and the short tumble from launch to water. Kabaraijian landed on top, but they both went under. The corpse held its grip through everything, dragging Kabaraijian down with it, still choking the life from his throat.

But Kabaraijian took a deep breath before the green closed over him. The corpse tried to breathe underwater. Kabaraijian helped it. He stuck both hands into its mouth and kept it open, making sure it got a good lungful of water.

  • Back to the idea of greenseeing-trees being connected to water and to stay too long under is to ‘drown in the green sea’, something that revealed itself to me years ago during a reread.
  • The Drowned God of the Ironborn, a water-dragon who does not sow/does not plant trees.
  • A Clash of Kings – Jon IV

    Closer at hand, it was the trees that ruled. To south and east the wood went on as far as Jon could see, a vast tangle of root and limb painted in a thousand shades of green, with here and there a patch of red where a weirwood shouldered through the pines and sentinels, or a blush of yellow where some broadleafs had begun to turn. When the wind blew, he could hear the creak and groan of branches older than he was. A thousand leaves fluttered, and for a moment the forest seemed a deep green sea, storm-tossed and heaving, eternal and unknowable.

    Ghost was not like to be alone down there, he thought. Anything could be moving under that sea, creeping toward the ringfort through the dark of the wood, concealed beneath those trees. Anything. How would they ever know? He stood there for a long time, until the sun vanished behind the saw-toothed mountains and darkness began to creep through the forest.

The dead man died first. And its fingers weakened.

Finally, his lungs near bursting, Kabaraijian forced his way free, and kicked to the surface. The water was only chest high. He stood on the unmoving corpse, keeping it under while he sucked in great drafts of air.

The launch had impaled itself on a crest of jagged rocks that rose from the water off to one side of the exit. The passage from the cave was still at hand, outlined in shadow a few short feet away. But now, was it safety? Without a launch? Kabaraijian considered making his way out on foot, and gave up the idea instantly. There were too many miles to go before he reached simple daylight, let alone the safety of the river station. It would mean being hunted in the darkness by whatever remained of his corpse crew. The prospect sent a chill down his back. No, better to stay and face his attacker.

He kicked free of the corpse, and moved to the debris of his launch, still hung up on the rocks that had caught it. Shielded by the wreck, he’d be difficult to find, or at least to see. And if his enemy couldn’t see him, it would be hard to send the corpses against him.

Meanwhile, maybe he could find his enemy.

His enemy. Who? Bartling, of course. It had to be Bartling, or one of his hirelings. Who else?

But where? They had to be close, within sight of the beach. You can’t run a corpse by remote control; the sense feedback isn’t good enough. The only senses you get are vision and hearing, and them dimly. You have to see the corpse, see what it’s doing, and what you want it to do. So Bartling’s man was around here somewhere. In the cave. But where?

And how? Kabaraijian considered that. It must be the other launch that Cochran had heard. Someone must have been following them, someone with an override box. Maybe Bartling had a tracer put on his launch during the night.

Only how’d he know which launch to trace?

Kabaraijian bent slightly so only his head showed above the water, and looked out around the end of the ruined launch. The beach was a white sand smear across the dim green length of the huge cavern. There was no noise but the water slapping the side of the boat. But there was motion. The second launch had been pulled free of the sand, and one of the corpses was climbing on board. The others, moving slowly, were wading out into the underground pool. Their picks rested on their shoulders.

They were coming for him. The enemy suspected he was still here. The enemy was hunting for him. Again, he was tempted to dive toward the exit, to run and swim back toward daylight, out of this awful dimness where his own corpses stalked him with cold faces and colder hands.

He squelched the impulse. He might get a head start while they searched the cavern. But, with the launch, they’d make it up in no time. He could try to lose them in the intricacies of the caves. But if they got ahead of him, they could just wait at caves’ end. No, no. He had to stay here, and find his enemy.

But where? He scanned the cave, and saw nothing. It was a great expanse of murky green; stone and water and beaches. The pool was dotted by a few large rocks rising from the water. A man might be hiding behind them. But not a launch. There was nothing big enough to hide a launch. Maybe the enemy wore aquagear? But Cochran had heard a launch …

The corpse boat was halfway across the cavern, heading for the exit. It was his dead-man seated at the controls, the brown-haired one. The other two corpses trailed, as they walked slowly across the shallow pool in the wake of the launch.

section 10

Three dead men; stalking. But somewhere their handler was hiding. The man with the override box. Their mind and their will. But where?

The launch was coming closer. Was it leaving? Maybe they thought he’d run for it? Or … no, probably the enemy was going to blockade the exit, and then search the cave.

Did they see him? Did they know where he was?

Suddenly he remembered his corpse controller, and his hand fumbled under water to make sure it was still intact. It was. And working; controllers were watertight. It no longer controlled. But it still might be useful …Kabaraijian closed his eyes, and tried to shut off his ears. He deliberately blotted his senses, and concentrated on the distant sensory echoes that still murmured in his mind. They were there. Even vaguer than usual, but less confused; there were only two sets of images now. His third corpse floated a few feet from him, and it wasn’t sending anything.

He twisted his mind tight, and listened, and tried to see. The blurs began to define themselves. Two pictures, both wavering, took form, superimposed over each other. A sense tangle, but Kabaraijian pulled at the threads. The pictures resolved.

One corpse was waist-deep in green water, moving slowly, holding a pick. It could see the shaft of the tool, and the hand wrapped around it, and the gradually-deepening water. But it wasn’t even looking in Kabaraijian’s direction.

The second dead man was in the launch, one hand resting on the controls. It wasn’t looking either. It was staring down, at the instruments. It took a lot of concentration for a corpse to run any sort of machine. So the handler was having it keep a firm eye on the engine.

Only it could see more than just the engine. It had a very good view of the entire launch.

And suddenly everything fell into place. Certain now that the wrecked launch hid him from view, Kabaraijian moved farther back into its shadow, then threw a hand over the side and pulled himself on board, crouching so he wouldn’t be found. The rocks had torn a hole in the bottom of the boat. But the tool chest was intact. He crawled to it, and flipped it open. The corpses had unpacked most of the mining equipment, but there was still a repair kit. Kabaraijian took out a heavy wrench and a screwdriver. He shoved the screwdriver into his belt, and gripped the wrench tightly. And waited.

The other launch was nearly on top of him, and he could hear the purr of its motor and the water moving around it. He waited until it was next to his boat. Then he stood up suddenly, and jumped.

He landed smack in the middle of the other boat, and the launch rocked under the impact. Kabaraijian didn’t give the enemy time to react—at least not the time it takes a corpse. He took a single short step, and brought the wrench around in a vicious backhanded blow to the dead man’s head. The corpse slumped back. Kabaraijian bent, grabbed its legs, and lifted. And suddenly the dead man was no longer in the launch.

And Kabaraijian, wheeling, was looking down at the stunned face of Ed Cochran. He hefted the wrench with one hand even as his other reached for the controls, and upped the speed. The boat accelerated, and dove toward the exit. Cave and corpses vanished behind, and darkness closed in with the rocky walls. Kabaraijian switched on the lights.

section 11

“Hello, Ed,” he said, hefting the wrench again. His voice was very steady and very cold.

Cochran breathed a noisy sigh of relief. “Matt,” he said. “Thank God, I just came to. My corpses—they—”

Kabaraijian shook his head. “No, Ed, it won’t wash. Don’t bother me with that, please. Just give me the override box.”

Cochran looked scared. Then, fighting, he flashed his grin. “Heh. You gotta be kiddin’, right? I don’t have no override box. I told you I heard another launch.”

“There was no other launch. That was a set-up, in case you failed. So was that blow you took on the beach. I’ll bet that was tricky—having your corpse swing the pick so you got hit with the side instead of the point. But it was very well done. My compliments, Ed. That was good corpse handling. As was the rest. It isn’t easy to coordinate a five-crew doing different things simultaneously. Very nice, Ed. I underestimated you. Never thought you were that good a handler.”

section 12

Cochran stared at him from the floor of the launch, his grin gone. Then his gaze broke, and his eyes went back and forth between the walls that pressed around them.

Kabaraijian waved the, wrench again, his palm sweaty where he gripped it. His other hand touched his shoulder briefly. The bleeding had stopped. He sat slowly, and rested his hand on the motor.

“Aren’t you going to ask me how I knew, Ed?” Kabaraijian said. Cochran, sullen, said nothing. “I’ll tell you anyway,” Kabaraijian continued. “I saw you. I looked through the eyes of my corpse, and I saw you huddled here in the boat, lying on the floor and peeking over the side to try and spot me. You didn’t look dead at all, but you looked very guilty. And suddenly I got it. You were the only one with a clear view of that stuff on the beach. You were the only one in the cave.”

  • A Dance with Dragons – Bran II

    The wights, Bran realized. Someone set the wights on fire.

    Summer was snarling and snapping as he danced around the closest, a great ruin of a man wreathed in swirling flame. He shouldn’t get so close, what is he doing? Then he saw himself, sprawled facedown in the snow. Summer was trying to drive the thing away from him. What will happen if it kills me? the boy wondered. Will I be Hodor for good or all? Will I go back into Summer’s skin? Or will I just be dead?

    The world moved dizzily around him. White trees, black sky, red flames, everything was whirling, shifting, spinning. He felt himself stumbling. He could hear Hodor screaming, “Hodor hodor hodor hodor. Hodor hodor hodor hodor. Hodor hodor hodor hodor hodor.” A cloud of ravens was pouring from the cave, and he saw a little girl with a torch in hand, darting this way and that. For a moment Bran thought it was his sister Arya … madly, for he knew his little sister was a thousand leagues away, or dead. And yet there she was, whirling, a scrawny thing, ragged, wild, her hair atangle. Tears filled Hodor’s eyes and froze there.

  • A Game of Thrones – Bran VI

    Broken, Bran thought bitterly as he clutched his knife. Is that what he was now? Bran the Broken? “I don’t want to be broken,” he whispered fiercely to Maester Luwin, who’d been seated to his right. “I want to be a knight.”

    “There are some who call my order the knights of the mind,” Luwin replied. “You are a surpassing clever boy when you work at it, Bran. Have you ever thought that you might wear a maester’s chain? There is no limit to what you might learn.”

    “I want to learn magic,” Bran told him. “The crow promised that I would fly.”

He paused, awkward. His voice broke a little, and softened. “Only—why? Why, Ed?”

Cochran looked up at him again. He shrugged. “Money,” he said. “Only money, Matt. What else?” He smiled; not his usual grin, but a strained, tight smile. “I like you, Matt.”

“You’ve got a peculiar way of showing it,” Kabaraijian told him. He couldn’t help smiling as he said it. “Whose money?”

“Bartling’s,” said Cochran. “I needed money real bad. My estimates were low, I didn’t have anything saved. If I had to leave Grotto, that would’ve meant selling my crew just for passage money. Then I’d be a hired handler again. I didn’t want that. I needed money fast.”

He shrugged. “I was going to try smuggling some swirlstones, but you didn’t make that sound good. And last night I got another idea. I didn’t think that crap about organizing us and outbidding Bartling would work, but I figured he’d be interested. So I went to see him after I left the tavern. Thought he might pay a little for the information, and maybe even make an exception, let me stay.”

He shook his head dourly. Kabaraijian stayed silent. Finally Cochran resumed. “I got to see him, him with three bodyguards. When I told him, he got hysterical. You’d humiliated him already, and now he thought you were on to something. He—he made me an offer. A lot of money, Matt. A lot of money.”

“I’m glad I didn’t come cheap.”

Cochran smiled. “Nah,” he said. “Bartling really wanted you, and I made him pay. He gave me the override box. Wouldn’t touch it himself. He said he’d had it made in case the ‘meatminds’ and their ‘zombies’ ever attacked him.”

Cochran reached into the pocket of his tunic, and took out a small, flat cartridge. It looked like a twin for the controller on his belt. He flipped it lightly through the air at Kabaraijian.

But Kabaraijian made no effort to catch it. The box sailed past his shoulder, and hit the water with a splash.

“Hey,” said Cochran. “You shoulda got that. Your corpses won’t respond till you turn it off.”

“My shoulder’s stiff,” Kabaraijian started. He stopped abruptly.

Cochran stood up. He looked at Kabaraijian as if he were seeing him for the first time. “Yeah,” he said. His fists clenched. “Yeah.” He was a full head taller than Kabaraijian, and much heavier. And suddenly he seemed to notice the extent of the other’s injuries.

The wrench seemed to grow heavier in Kabaraijian’s hand. “Don’t,” he warned.

“I’m sorry,” Cochran said. And he dove forward.

Kabaraijian brought the wrench around at his head, but Cochran caught the blow before it connected. His other hand reached up and wrapped itself around Kabaraijian’s wrist, and twisted. He felt his fingers going numb.

There was no thought of fair play, or mercy. He was fighting for his life. His free hand went to his waist and grabbed the screwdriver. He pulled it out, and stabbed. Cochran gasped, and his grip suddenly loosened. Kabaraijian stabbed again, and twisted up and out, ripping a gash in tunic and flesh.

  • Again in Martinworld we have a green guy that has to take out a dragon. This is another reason why Jon is the Sun’s Son and he will have to stop fire-dragon Daenerys.

Cochran reeled back, clutching at his stomach. Kabaraijian followed him and stabbed a third time, savagely. Cochran fell.

He tried to rise once, and gave it up, falling heavily back to the floor of the launch. Then he lay there, bleeding.

Kabaraijian went back to the motor, and kept the boat clear of the walls. He guided them down the passages smoothly, through the caves and the tunnels and the deep green pools. And in the harsh boat light, he watched Cochran.

Cochran never moved again, and he spoke only once. Just after they had left the caves and come out into the early afternoon sun of Grotto, he looked up briefly. His hands were wet with blood. And his eyes were wet too. “I’m sorry, Matt,” he said. “I’m damn sorry.”

“Oh, God!” Kabaraijian said, his voice thick. And suddenly he stopped the boat dead in the water, and bent to the supply cache. Then he went to Cochran and dressed and bandaged his injuries.

When he reached the controls again, he flipped the speed up to maximum. The launch streaked across the glittering green lakes.

But Cochran died before they reached the river.

Kabaraijian stopped the boat then, and let it float dead in the water. He listened to the sounds of Grotto around him; the rush of river water pouring into the great lake, the songbirds and the day-wings, the ever-active lakeleapers arcing through the air. He sat there until dusk fell, staring upriver, and thinking.

He thought of tomorrow and the day after. Tomorrow he must return to the swirlstone caves. His corpses should have frozen when he moved out of range; they should be salvageable. And one of Cochran’s crew was still there, too. Maybe he could still piece together a three-crew, if the corpse he’d pushed overboard hadn’t drowned.

And there were swirlstones there, big ones. He’d get that egg of dancing fog, and turn it in, and get a good estimate. Money. He had to have money, all he could scrape together. Then he could start talking to the others. And then … and then Bartling would have a fight on his hands. Cochran was one casualty, the first. But not the last. He’d tell the others that Bartling had sent a man out with an override box, and that Cochran had been killed because of it. It was true. It was all true.

That night Kabaraijian returned with only one corpse in his launch, a corpse that was strangely still and unmoving. Always his corpses had walked behind him into the office. That night the corpse rode on his shoulder.

Chicago, Illinois

December, 1972

img_7021
Kabaraijian in a fight. Original 1973 Override artwork by Jack Gaughan.

A Dance with Dragons – Bran III

That was just another silly dream, though. Some days Bran wondered if all of this wasn’t just some dream. Maybe he had fallen asleep out in the snows and dreamed himself a safe, warm place. You have to wake, he would tell himself, you have to wake right now, or you’ll go dreaming into death. Once or twice he pinched his arm with his fingers, really hard, but the only thing that did was make his arm hurt. In the beginning he had tried to count the days by making note of when he woke and slept, but down here sleeping and waking had a way of melting into one another. Dreams became lessons, lessons became dreams, things happened all at once or not at all. Had he done that or only dreamed it?

“Only one man in a thousand is born a skinchanger,” Lord Brynden said one day, after Bran had learned to fly, “and only one skinchanger in a thousand can be a greenseer.”


Want more GRRMspreading?

I have started a book club re-read for the older works of George R.R. Martin for purposes such as research, scholarship, and teaching. I own all copies of material that is used for this book club. If you have not yet read a story listed, please check with your local bookstore for your own reading material to purchase (Indie Bookstore Finder or Bookshop.org). The full list of GRRM stories outside of the A Song of Ice and Fire series that I have read can be found on this page here.

books sculpture write reading

It takes a while to transcribe and then note each story for research purposes, even the really short ones, so the main bookclub page will be updated as each re-read is added. Make sure you subscribe for updates.

If there is a story in particular you would like to ask about, feel free to do so in comments below.

If you prefer to listen to a podcast that gives synopsis and analysis of stories written by George R.R. Martin, please consider the new group A Thousand Casts to accompany your ears. Twitter or Podbean.

  1. NightflyersNightflyers is about a haunted ship in outerspace. This story is everything a reader would want from a GRRM story; high body count, psi-link mind control, whisperjewels, corpse handling, dragon-mother ships, the Night’s Watch ‘naval’ institution in space, and Jon and Val.
  2. SandkingsWelcome to the disturbing tale of Simon Kress and his Sandkings. Early origins of Unsullied, Dothraki, Aerea Targaryen, and Dragon who mounts the world, set among a leader with a god complex. One of the “must read” George R.R. Martin stories.
  3. Bitterblooms– In the dead of deep winter, a young girl named Shawn has to find the mental courage to escape a red fiery witch. Prototyping Val, Stannis, and Arya along with the red witch Melisandre.
  4. The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr – Discarded Knights guards the gates as Sharra feels the Seven while searching for lost love. Many Sansa and Ashara Dayne prototyping here as well.
  5. …And Seven Times Never Kill Man– A look into a proto-Andal+Targaryen fiery world as the Jaenshi way of life is erased. But who is controlling these events? Black & Red Pyramids who merge with Bakkalon are on full display in this story.
  6. The Last Super Bowl– Football meets SciFi tech with plenty of ASOIAF carryover battle elements.
  7. Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg– first in the Corpse Handler trio, and sets a lot of tone for future ASOIAF thematics.
  8. Closing Time– A short story that shows many precursor themes for future GRRM stories, including skinchanging, Sneaky Pete’s, catastrophic long nights…
  9. The Glass Flower– a tale of how the drive for perfection creates mindlords and mental slavery.
  10. Run to Starlight– A tale of coexistence and morality set to a high stakes game of football.
  11. Remembering Melody– A ghost tale written by GRRM in 1981 that tells of long nights, bloodbaths, and pancakes.
  12. Fast-Friend transcribed and noted. Written in December 1973, this story is a precursor to skinchanging, Bran, Euron, Daenerys, and ways to scheme to reclaim lost love.
  13. The Steel Andal Invasion– A re-read of a partial section of  The World of Ice and Fire text compared to the story …And Seven Times Never Kill Man. This has to do with both fire and ice Others in ASOIAF.
  14. A Song for Lya– A novella about a psi-link couple investigating a fiery ‘god’. Very much a trees vs fire motif, and one of GRRM’s best stories out there.
  15. For A Single Yesterday– A short story about learning from the past to rebuild the future.
  16. This Tower of Ashes– A story of how lost love, mother’s milk, and spiders don’t mix all too well.
  17. A Peripheral Affair (1973)When a Terran scout ship on a routine patrol through the Periphery suddenly disappears, a battle-hungry admiral prepares to renew the border war.
  18. The Stone City– a have-not surviving while stranded on a corporate planet. Practically a GRRM autobiography in itself.
  19. Slide Show– a story of putting the stars before the children.
  20. Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark– rubies, fire, blood sacrifice, and Saagael- oh my!
  21. A Night at the Tarn House– a magical game of life and death played at an inn at a crossroads.
  22. Men of Greywater Station– Is it the trees, the fungus, or is the real danger humans?
  23. The Computer Cried Charge!– what are we fighting for and is it worth it?
  24. The Needle Men– the fiery hand wields itself again, only, why are we looking for men?
  25. Black and White and Red All Over– a partial take on a partial story.
  26. Fire & Blood excerpt; Alysanne in the north– not a full story, but transcribed and noted section of the book Fire & Blood, volume 1.

If you want to browse my own thoughts and speculations on the ASOIAF world using GRRM’s own work history, use the drop-down menu above for the most content, or click on the page that just shows recent posts -> Recent Posts Page.


Thank you for reading the jambles and jumbles of the Fattest Leech of Ice and Fire, by Gumbo!

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Lastly, Martin is giving readers something called swirlstones in this story. He uses a myriad of stones and gems across his work, the most well known and oft used is a whisperjewel, defined and discussed here. It is not known nor ever specifically stated that swirlstones can be used for whisperjewel creation, but it seems plausible they can be etched, however, Override does not go into the crystal myth or use, just the mining and coveting of swirlstones… which is symbolic in and of itself.


The slow and steady Greenseer

The third big theme in this story is how much of this setting and story provenance takes place on the water, an early ‘greenseeing’ developmental detail. And the fact that the main protagonist shares characteristics with a the Bran/Brynden Bloodraven Rivers/Greenseer archetype is important, especially when you read how this protagonist has to survive an attack by a catspaw assassin while in the cave… just as we readers will see happen to Bran and company while in the cave up north as the ice dragon Others come through the ‘back door’.

But again, and I cannot stress this enough, we have a Martin character who is probably the most well-adjusted any of Martin’s protagonists and he is working as a corpse handler. This is important to keep in mind for Bran and Hodor and the situation we are going to see between them in The Winds of Winter. (Will Bran have to corpsehandle Hodor to get himself back to the wall/Castle Black? Twitter discussion here.)

Fly or die; learn to greensee, or die; override the dragon system, or die.

The phrase “you will fly” is a common theme about societal progression+greenseeing across many a GRRM story… but you have to be careful which “ship” you’re flying. The idea that “you will fly” in Martinworld endgame is specifically the societal progression after the long night, or rather his long running theme of the interregnum. In the Martin-Tuttle story Windhaven, the societal progress only begins happens with those who can “wield” the special metal wings. The wings go to who’s worthy rather than following an antiquated idea of following a dynastic family name. This is akin to the sword Dawn and why Jon will get that sword. One key detail to remember however, you have to open your third eye to be able to fly in the first place, and this is what Matt Kabaraijian has to do to survive his ‘drowning’ in section 9.

The “first” Long Night. The interregnum as described in Martin’s Thousand World’s Universe. Definition source: Dying of the Light.

-The only way to break free of a controlling force is to first recognize exactly what that force is.-

As mentioned above, this is the main reason why Bran has to play Lord of the Crossing with the Freys (the wights/Others of the Riverlands). It is preparation for when Bran has to defend the ‘waters’ as he greensees and has a mind-battle with the ice dragon Others (Something I have gone on about for years). Lord of the crossing is a game played at the Twins by House Frey; the “Lord of the Crossing” is one of the titles used by Lord Frey, as the bridge at the Twins crosses the Green Fork (again with the split-color magic). The game usually involves lots of hitting and arguing. The purpose of the game is to be the lord of the crossing, usually a player standing on a bridge over water. We will see this happen in Override between Matt and his supposed friend Ed.

  • A Clash of Kings – Jon IV

    Closer at hand, it was the trees that ruled. To south and east the wood went on as far as Jon could see, a vast tangle of root and limb painted in a thousand shades of green, with here and there a patch of red where a weirwood shouldered through the pines and sentinels, or a blush of yellow where some broadleafs had begun to turn. When the wind blew, he could hear the creak and groan of branches older than he was. A thousand leaves fluttered, and for a moment the forest seemed a deep green sea, storm-tossed and heaving, eternal and unknowable.

    Ghost was not like to be alone down there, he thought. Anything could be moving under that sea, creeping toward the ringfort through the dark of the wood, concealed beneath those trees. Anything. How would they ever know? He stood there for a long time, until the sun vanished behind the saw-toothed mountains and darkness began to creep through the forest.

  • A Dance with Dragons – Bran II

    “Is this the only way in?” asked Meera.

    “The back door is three leagues north, down a sinkhole.”

    That was all he had to say. Not even Hodor could climb down into a sinkhole with Bran heavy on his back, and Jojen could no more walk three leagues than run a thousand.


What does GRRM have to say?

GRRM with a Fevre Dream on the Fevre River (river of blood) cake. Yum!

I always like to add a few notes made by Martin when discussing a story of his, reason being I prefer the author’s own voice on the matter that they created. It helps avoid interpretation bias or confusion. In this case, however, Martin doesn’t have much to say about this story in particular. Why? Not sure, but this is what we do have.

From Dreamsongs:

  • My first two corpse handler tales, “Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg” and “Override,” were further fumbling attempts at the same sort of cross-pollination, offering as they did a science fictional take on an old friend from the world of horror, the zombie. I was going for a horrific feel in “Dark, Dark Were the Tunnels” as well, and (much more successfully) in a later, stronger work, my novella “In the House of the Worm.” Some critics have argued that horror and science fiction are actually antithetical to each other. They can make a plausible case, certainly, especially in the case of Lovecraftian horror. SF assumes that the universe, however mysterious or frightening it may seem to us, is ultimately knowable, while Lovecraft suggests that even a glimpse of the true nature of reality would be enough to drive men mad. You cannot get much further from the Campbellian view of the cosmos as that. In Billion Year Spree…

  • My corpse handler series went all the way to three: “Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg” began it, “Override” followed, and “Meathouse Man” brought it to … well, a finish, if not an end. A fourth story exists as a four-page fragment, and there are ideas in my files for a dozen more. I once intended to write them all, publish them in the magazines, then collect them all together in a book I’d call Songs the Dead Men Sing. But that fourth story never got finished, and the others never got started. When I did finally use the title Songs the Dead Men Sing for a collection (from Dark Harvest, in 1983), “Meathouse Man” was the only corpse story to make the cut.


OVERRIDE

img_7019
Main page artwork of Kabaraijian with the corpses. Original 1973 Override artwork by Jack Gaughan.

-The only way to break free of a controlling force is to first recognize exactly what that force is.-

Dusk was settling softly over the High Lakes as Kabaraijian and his crew made their way home from the caves. It was a calm, quiet dusk; a twilight blended of green waters and mellow night winds and the slow fading of Grotto’s gentle sun. From the rear of his launch, Kabaraijian watched it fall, and listened to the sounds of twilight over the purring of the engine.

Grotto was a quiet world, but the sounds were there, if you knew how to listen. Kabaraijian knew. He sat erect in the back of the boat, a slight figure with swarthy skin and long black hair and brown eyes that drifted dreamy. One thin hand rested on his knee, the other, forgotten, on the motor. And his ears listened; to the bubbling of the water in the wake of the launch, and the swish-splash of the lakeleapers breaking surface, and the wind moving the trailing green branches of the trees along the near shore. In time, he’d hear the nightflyers, too, but they were not yet up.

There were four in the boat, but only Kabaraijian listened or heard. The others, bigger men with pasty faces and vacant eyes, were long past hearing. They wore the dull gray coveralls of dead men, and there was a steel plate in the back of each man’s skull. Sometimes, when his corpse controller was on, Kabaraijian could listen with their ears, and see with their eyes. But that was work, hard work, and not worth it. The sights and sounds a corpse handler felt through his crew were pale echoes of real sensation, seldom useful and never pleasurable.

And now, Grotto’s cooling dusk, was an off-time. So Kabaraijian’s corpse controller was off, and his mind, disengaged from the dead men, rested easy in its own body. The launch moved purposefully along the lake shore, but Kabaraijian’s thoughts wandered lazily, when he thought at all. Mostly he just sat, and watched the water and the trees, and listened. He’d worked the corpse crew hard that day, and now he was drained and empty. Thought—thought especially—was more effort than he was prepared to give. Better to just linger with the evening.

It was a long, quiet voyage, across two big lakes and one small one, through a cave, and finally up a narrow and swift-running river. Kabaraijian turned up the power then, and the trip grew noisier as the launch sliced a path through the river’s flow. Night had settled before he reached the station, a rambling structure of blue-black stone set by the river’s edge. But the office windows still glowed with a cheery yellow light.

A long dock of native silverwood fronted the river, and a dozen launches identical to Kabaraijian’s were already tied up for the night. But there were still empty berths. Kabaraijian took one of them, and guided the boat into it.

When the launch was secure, he slung his collection box under one arm, and hopped out onto the dock. His free hand went to his belt, and thumbed the corpse controller. Vague sense blurs drifted into his mind, but Kabaraijian shunted them aside, and shook the dead men alive with an unheard shout. The corpses rose, one by one, and stepped out of the launch. Then they followed Kabaraijian to the station.

Munson was waiting inside the office—a fat, scruffy man with gray hair and wrinkles around his eyes and a fatherly manner. He had his feet up on his desk, and was reading a novel. When Kabaraijian entered, he smiled and sat up and put down the book, inserting his leather placemark carefully. “‘Lo, Matt,” he said. “Why are you always the last one in?”

“Because I’m usually the last one out,” Kabaraijian said, smiling. It was his newest line. Munson asked the same question every night, and always expected Kabaraijian to come up with a fresh answer. He seemed only moderately pleased by this one.

Kabaraijian set the collection box down on Munson’s desk and opened it. “Not a bad day,” he said. “Four good stones, and twelve smaller ones.”

Munson scooped a handful of small, grayish rocks from inside the padded metal box and studied them. Right now they weren’t much to look at. But cut and polished they’d be something else again: swirlstones. They were gems without fire, but they had their own beauty. Good ones looked like crystals of moving fog, full of soft colors and softer mysteries and dreams.

Munson nodded, and dropped the stones back into the box. “Not bad,” he said. “You always do good, Matt. You know where to look.”

“The rewards of coming back slow and easy,” Kabaraijian said. “I look around me.”

Munson put the box under his desk, and turned to his computer console, a white plastic intruder in the wood-paneled room. He entered the swirlstones into the records, and looked back up. “You want to wash down your corpses?”

Kabaraijian shook his head. “Not tonight. I’m tired. I’ll just flop them for now.”

“Sure,” said Munson. He rose, and opened the door behind his desk. Kabaraijian followed him, and the three dead men followed Kabaraijian. Behind the office were barracks, long and low-roofed, with row on row of simple wooden bunks. Most of them were full. Kabaraijian guided his dead men to three empty ones and maneuvered them in. Then he thumbed his controller off. The echoes in his head blinked out, and the corpses sagged heavily into the bunks.

Afterwards, he chatted with Munson for a few minutes back in the office. Finally the old man went back to his novel, and Kabaraijian back to the cool night.

section 2

A row of company scooters sat in back of the station, but Kabaraijian left them alone, preferring the ten-minute walk from the river to the settlement. He covered the forest road with an easy, measured pace, pausing here and there to brush aside vines and low branches. It was always a pleasant walk. The nights were calm, the breezes fragrant with the fruity scent of local trees and heavy with the songs of the nightflyers.

The settlement was bigger and brighter and louder than the river station; a thick clot of houses and bars and shops built alongside the spaceport. There were a few structures of wood and stone, but most of the settlers were still content with the plastic prefabs the company had given them free.

Kabaraijian drifted through the new-paved streets, to one of the outnumbered wooden buildings. There was a heavy wooden sign over the tavern door, but no lights. Inside he found candles and heavy, stuffed chairs, and a real log fire. It was a cozy place; the oldest bar on Grotto, and still the favourite watering hole for corpse handlers and hunters and other river station personnel.

A loud shout greeted him when he entered. “Hey! Matt! Over here!”

Kabaraijian found the voice, and followed it to a table in the corner, where Ed Cochran was nursing a mug of beer. Cochran, like Kabaraijian, wore the blue-and-white tunic of a corpse handler. He was tall and lean, with a thin face that grinned a lot and a mass of tangled red-blond hair.

  • More color theory by GRRM; the white and the blue together.

Kabaraijian sank gratefully into the chair opposite him. Cochran grinned. “Beer?” he asked. “We could split a pitcher.”

“No thanks. I feel like wine tonight. Something rich and mellow and slow.”

“How’d it go?” said Cochran.

Kabaraijian shrugged. “O.K.,” he said. “Four nice stones, a dozen little ones. Munson gave me a good estimate. Tomorrow should be better. I found a nice new place.” He turned toward the bar briefly, and gestured. The bartender nodded, and the wine and glasses arrived a few minutes later.

Kabaraijian poured and sipped while Cochran discussed his day. It hadn’t gone well; only six stones, none of them very big.

“You’ve got to range farther,” Kabaraijian told him. “The caves around here have been pretty well worked out. But the High Lakes go on and on. Find someplace new.”

“Why bother?” Cochran said, frowning. “Don’t get to keep them anyway. What’s the percentage in knocking yourself out?”

Kabaraijian twirled the wine glass slowly in a thin, dark hand, and watched the dream-red depths. “Poor Ed,” he said, in a voice half-sadness and half-mockery. “All you see is the work. Grotto is a pretty planet. I don’t mind the extra miles, Ed, I enjoy them. I’d probably travel in my off-time if they didn’t pay me to do it. The fact that I get bigger swirlstones and my estimates go up—well, that’s extra gravy.”

Cochran smiled and shook his head. “You’re crazy, Matt,” he said affectionately. “Only corpse handler in the universe who’d be happy if they paid him off with scenery.”

Kabaraijian smiled too, a slight lifting at the corners of his mouth. “Philistine,” he said accusingly.

  • Philistine: a person who is hostile or indifferent to culture and the arts, or who has no understanding of them.

Cochran ordered another beer. “Look, Matt, you’ve got to be practical. Sure, Grotto is O.K., but you’re not gonna be here all your life.” He set down his beer, and pulled up the sleeve of his tunic, to flash his heavy wristlet. The gold shone softly in the candlelight, and the sapphires danced with dark blue flame. “Junk like this was valuable once,” Cochran said, “before they learned how to synthesize it. They’ll crack swirlstones, too, Matt. You know they will. They already have people working on it. So maybe you’ve got two years left, or three. But what then? Then they won’t need corpse handlers anymore. So you’ll move on, no better off than when you first landed.”

“Not really,” said Kabaraijian. “The station pays pretty good, and my estimates haven’t been bad. I’ve got some money put away. Besides, maybe I won’t move on. I like Grotto. Maybe I’ll stay, and join the colonists, or something.”

“Doing what? Farming? Working in an office? Don’t give me that crap, Matt. You’re a corpse handler, always will be. And in a couple years Grotto won’t need corpses.”

Kabaraijian sighed. “So?” he said. “So?”

Cochran leaned forward. “So have you thought about what I told you?”

“Yes,” Kabaraijian said. “But I don’t like it. I don’t think it would work, first of all. Spaceport security is tight to keep people from smuggling out swirlstones, and you want to do just that. And even if it would work, I don’t want any part of it. I’m sorry, Ed.”

“I think it would work,” Cochran said stubbornly. “The spaceport people are human. They can be tempted. Why should the company get all the swirlstones when we do all the work?”

“They’ve got the concession,” Kabaraijian said.

Cochran waved him silent. “Yeah, sure. So what? By what right? We deserve some, for ourselves, while the damn things are still valuable.”

Kabaraijian sighed again, and poured himself another glass of wine. “Look,” he said, lifting the glass to his lips, “I don’t quarrel with that. Maybe they should pay us more, or give us an interest in the swirlstones. But it’s not worth the risk. We’ll lose our crews if they catch us. And we’ll get expelled.

“I don’t want that, Ed, and I won’t risk it. Grotto is too good to me, and I’m not going to throw it away. You know, some people would say we’re pretty lucky. Most corpse handlers never get to work a place like Grotto. They wind up on the assembly lines of Skrakky, or in the mines of New Pittsburg. I’ve seen those places. No thanks. I’m not going to risk returning to that sort of life.”

Cochran threw imploring eyes up to the ceiling, and spread his hands helplessly. “Hopeless,” he said, shaking his head. “Hopeless.” Then he returned to his beer. Kabaraijian was smiling.

section 3

But his amusement died short minutes later, when Cochran suddenly stiffened and grimaced across the table. “Damn,” he said. “Bartling. What the hell does he want here?”

Kabaraijian turned toward the door, where the newcomer was standing and waiting for his eyes to adjust to the dim light. He was a big man, with an athletic frame that had gone to pot over the years and now sported a considerable paunch. He had dark hair streaked with white and a bristling black beard, and he was wearing a fashionable multicolored tunic.

Four others had entered behind him, and now stood flanking him on either side. They were younger men than he was, and bigger, with hard faces and impressive builds. The bodyguards made sense. Lowell Bartling was widely known for his dislike of corpse handlers, and the tavern was full of them.

Bartling crossed his arms, and looked around the room slowly. He was smirking. He started to speak.

Almost before he got the first word out of his mouth, he was interrupted. One of the men along the bar emitted a loud, rude noise, and laughed. “Hiya, Bartling,” he said. “What are you doing down here? Thought you didn’t associate with us low-lifes?”

Bartling’s face tightened, but his smirk was untouched. “Normally I don’t, but I wanted the pleasure of making this announcement personally.”

“You’re leaving Grotto!” someone shouted. There was laughter all along the bar. “I’ll drink to that,” another voice added.

“No,” said Bartling. “No, friend, you are.” He looked around, savoring the moment. “Bartling Associates has just acquired the swirlstone concession, I’m happy to tell you. I take over management of the river station at the end of the month. And, of course, my first act will be to terminate the employment of all the corpse handlers currently under contract.”

Suddenly the room was very silent, as the implications of that sank in. In the corner in the back of the room, Cochran rose slowly to his feet. Kabaraijian remained seated, stunned.

“You can’t do that,” Cochran said belligerently. “We’ve got contracts.”

Bartling turned to face him. “Those contracts can be broken,” he said, “and they will be.”

“You son of a bitch,” someone said.

The bodyguard tensed. “Watch who you call names, meatmind,” one of them answered. All around the room, men started getting to their feet.

Cochran was livid with anger. “Damn you, Bartling,” he said. “Who the hell do you think you are? You’ve got no right to run us off the planet.”

“I have every right,” Bartling said. “Grotto is a good, clean, beautiful planet. There’s no place here for your kind. It was a mistake to bring you in, and I’ve said so all along. Those things you work with contaminate the air. And you’re even worse. You work with those things, those corpses, voluntarily, for money. You disgust me. You don’t belong on Grotto. And now I’m in a position to see that you leave.” He paused, then smiled. “Meatmind,” he added, spitting out the word.

“Bartling, I’m going to knock your head off,” one of the handlers bellowed. There was a roar of agreement. Several men started forward at once.

And jerked to a sudden stop when Kabaraijian interjected a soft, “No, wait,” over the general hubbub. He hardly raised his voice at all, but it still commanded attention in the room of shouting men.

He walked through the crowd and faced Bartling, looking much calmer than he felt. “You realize that without corpse labor your costs will go way up,” he said in a steady, reasonable voice, “and your profits down.”

Bartling nodded. “Of course I realize it. I’m willing to take the loss. We’ll use men to mine the swirl-stones. They’re too beautiful for corpses, anyway.”

“You’ll be losing money for nothing,” Kabaraijian said.

“Hardly. I’ll get rid of your stinking corpses.”

Kabaraijian cracked a thin smile. “Maybe some. But not all of us, Mr. Bartling. You can take away our jobs, perhaps, but you can’t throw us off Grotto. I for one refuse to go.”

“Then you’ll starve.”

“Don’t be so melodramatic. I’ll find something else to do. You don’t own all of Grotto. And I’ll keep my corpses. Dead men can be used for a lot of things. It’s just that we haven’t thought of them all yet.”

  • Like build the foundations for what became a huge ice wall?
  • It is not a Martinworld abomination to use a man after they have died, but to use the living and work them until death for your corporate-governmental spoils of war , or “foraging“, is the abomination.

Bartling’s smirk had vanished suddenly. “If you stay,” he said, fixing Kabaraijian with a hard stare, “I promise to make you very, very sorry.”

Kabaraijian laughed. “Really? Well, personally, I promise to send one of my dead men by your house every night after you go to bed, to make hideous faces at the window and moan.” He laughed again, louder. Cochran joined him, then others. Soon the whole tavern was laughing.

Bartling turned red and began a slow burn. He came here to taunt his enemies, to crow his triumph, and now they were laughing at him. Laughing in the face of victory, cheating him. He seethed a long minute, then turned and walked furiously out the door. His bodyguards followed.

The laughter lingered a while after his exit, and several of the other handlers slapped Kabaraijian on the back as he made his way back to his seat. Cochran was happy about it, too. “You really took the old man apart,” he said when they reached the corner table.

But Kabaraijian wasn’t smiling anymore. He slumped down into his seat heavily, and reached almost immediately for the wine. “I sure did,” he said slowly, between sips. “I sure did.”

section 4

Cochran looked at him curiously. “You don’t seem too happy.”

“No,” said Kabaraijian. He studied his wine. “I’m having second thoughts. That insufferable bigot riled me, made me want to get to him. Only I wonder if I can pull it off. What can corpses do on Grotto?”

His eyes wandered around the tavern, which had suddenly become very somber. “It’s sinking in,” he told Cochran. “I’ll bet they’re all talking about leaving …”

Cochran had stopped grinning. “Some of us will stay,” he said uncertainly. “We can farm with the corpses, or something.”

Kabaraijian looked at him. “Uh-uh. Machinery is more efficient for farming. And dead men are too clumsy for anything but the crudest kind of labor, much too slow for hunting.” He poured more wine, and mused aloud. “They’re O.K. for cheap factory labor, or running an automole in a mine. But Grotto doesn’t have any of that. They can hack out swirlstones with a vibrodrill, only Bartling is taking that away from us.” He shook his head.

“I don’t know, Ed,” he continued. “It’s not going to be easy. And maybe it’ll be impossible. With the swirlstone concession under his belt, Bartling is bigger than the settlement company now.”

“That was the idea. The company sets us up, and we buy it out as we grow.”

“True. But Bartling grew a little too fast. He can really start throwing his weight around now. It wouldn’t surprise me if he amended the charter, to keep corpses off-planet. That would force us out.”

“Can he get away with that?” Cochran was getting angry again, and his voice rose slightly.

“Maybe,” Kabaraijian said, “if we let him. I wonder …” He sloshed his wine thoughtfully. “You think this deal of his is final?”

Cochran looked puzzled. “He said he had it.”

“Yes. I don’t suppose he’d crow about it if it wasn’t in his pocket. Still, I’m curious what the company would do if someone made them a better offer.”

“Who?”

“Us, maybe?” Kabaraijian sipped his wine and considered that. “Get all the handlers together, everybody puts in whatever they have. That should give us a fair sum. Maybe we could buy out the river station ourselves. Or something else, if Bartling has the swirlstones all locked up. It’s an idea.”

“Nah, it’d never work,” Cochran said. “Maybe you’ve got some money, Matt, but I sure as hell don’t. Spent most of it here. Besides, even the guys that have money, you’d never be able to get them together.”

“Maybe not,” Kabaraijian said. “But it’s worth trying. Organizing against Bartling is the only way we’re going to be able to keep ourselves on Grotto in the long run.”

Cochran drained his beer, and signaled for another. “Nah,” he said. “Bartling’s too big. He’ll slap you down hard if you bother him too much. I got a better idea.”

“Swirlstone smuggling,” Kabaraijian said, smiling.

“Yeah,” Cochran said with a nod. “Maybe now you’ll reconsider. If Bartling’s gonna throw us off-planet, at least we can take some of his swirlstones with us. That’d set us up good wherever we go.”

“You’re incorrigible,” Kabaraijian said. “But I’ll bet half the handlers on Grotto will try the same thing now. Bartling will expect that. He’ll have the spaceport screwed up tight when we ‘start leaving. He’ll catch you, Ed. And you’ll lose your crew, or worse. Bartling might even try to force through dead-man laws, and start exporting corpses.”

Cochran looked uneasy at that. Corpse handlers saw ‘too much of dead men to relish the idea of becoming one. They tended to cluster on planets without dead-man laws, where capital crimes still drew prison terms or “clean” executions. Grotto was a clean planet now, but laws can change.

“I might lose my crew anyway, Matt,” Cochran said. “If Bartling throws us out, I’ll have to sell some of my corpses for passage money.”

Kabaraijian smiled. “You still have a month, even with the worst. And there are plenty of swirlstones out there for the finding.” He raised his glass. “Come. To Grotto. It’s a lovely planet, and we may stay here yet.”

Cochran shrugged and lifted his beer. “Yeah,” he said. But his grin didn’t hide his worry.

section 5

Kabaraijian reported to the station early the next morning, when Grotto’s sun was fighting to dispel the river mists. The row of empty launches was still tied to the dock, bobbing up and down in the  rapidly-thinning fog.

Munson was inside the office, as always. So, surprisingly, was Cochran. Both of them looked up when Kabaraijian entered.

“Morning, Matt,” Munson said gravely. “Ed’s been telling me about last night.” Today, for some reason, he looked his age. “I’m sorry, Matt. I didn’t know anything about it.”

Kabaraijian smiled. “I never thought you did. If you do hear anything, though, let me know. We’re not going to go without a fight.” He looked at Cochran. “What are you doing here so early? Usually you’re not up until the crack of noon.”

Cochran grinned. “Yeah. Well, I figured I’d start early. I’m going to need good estimates this month, if I want to save my crew.”

Munson had dug two collection boxes out from under his desk. He handed them to the two corpse handlers, and nodded. “Back room’s open,” he said. “You can pick up your dead men whenever you like.”

Kabaraijian started to circle the desk, but Cochran grabbed his arm. “I think I’ll try way east,” he said. “Some caves there that haven’t really been hit yet. Where you going?”

“West,” said Kabaraijian. “I found a good new place, like I told you.”

Cochran nodded. They went to the back room together, and thumbed their controllers. Five dead men stumbled from their bunks and followed them, shuffling, from the office. Kabaraijian thanked Munson before he left. The old man had washed down his corpses anyway, and fed them.

The mists were just about gone when they reached the dock. Kabaraijian marched his crew into the boat and got set to cast off. But Cochran stopped him, looking troubled.

“Uh—Matt,” he said, standing on the dock and staring down into the launch. “This new place—you say it’s real good?”

Kabaraijian nodded, squinting. The sun was just clearing the treetops, and framing Cochran’s head.

“Can I talk you into splitting?” Cochran said, with difficulty. It was an unusual request. The practice was for each handler to range alone, to find and mine his own swirlstone cave. “I mean, with only a month left, you probably won’t have time to get everything, not if the place is as good as you say. And I need good estimates, I really do.”

  • Note how Ed wants Matt to “split”, as we see with the color/magic/brother vs brother divide across Martinworld.
  • Also note that this is the clearest sign Ed Cochran has premeditated his plans. The game Lord of the Crossing begins here.

Kabaraijian could see that it wasn’t an easy favor to ask. He smiled. “Sure,” he said. “There’s plenty there. Get your launch and follow me.”

Cochran nodded and forced a grin. He walked down the dock to his launch, his dead men trailing behind.

section 6

Going downriver was easier than going up, and faster. Kabaraijian hit the lake in short order, and sent his launch surging across the sparkling green surface in a spray of foam. It was an exhilarating morning, with a bright sun, and a brisk wind that whipped the water into tiny waves. Kabaraijian felt good, despite the events of the previous night. Grotto did that to him. Out on the High Lakes, somehow, he felt that he could beat Bartling.

He’d run into similar problems before, on other worlds. Bartling wasn’t alone in his hatred. Ever since the first time they’d ripped a man’s brain from his skull and replaced it with a dead man’s synthabrain, there had been people screaming that the practice was a perversion, and the handlers tainted and unclean. He’d gotten used to the prejudice; it was part of corpse handling. And he’d beaten it before. He could beat Bartling now.

  • A Clash of Kings – Bran V

    Bran looked at him, his eyes wide. “What?”

    “Warg. Shapechanger. Beastling. That is what they will call you, if they should ever hear of your wolf dreams.”

    The names made him afraid again. “Who will call me?”

  • A Clash of Kings – Bran V

    “I don’t want it. I want to be a knight.”

    “A knight is what you want. A warg is what you are. You can’t change that, Bran, you can’t deny it or push it away. You are the winged wolf, but you will never fly.” Jojen got up and walked to the window. “Unless you open your eye.” He put two fingers together and poked Bran in the forehead, hard.

The first part of the voyage was the quickest. The two launches streaked over two big local lakes, past shores lined thickly with silverwood trees and vine-heavy danglers. But then they began to slow, as the lakes grew smaller and choked with life, and the country wilder. Along the banks, the stately silverwoods and curious danglers began to give way to the dense red-and-black chaos of firebriar brambles, and a species of low, gnarled tree that never had received a proper name. The vegetation grew on ground increasingly hilly and rocky, and finally mountainous.

Then they began to pass through the caves.

There were hundreds of them, literally, and they honeycombed the mountains that circled the settlement on all sides. The caves had never been mapped thoroughly. There were far too many of them, and they all seemed to connect with each other, forming a natural maze of incredible complexity. Most of them were still half-full of water; they’d been carved from the soft mountain rock by the streams and rivers that still ran through them.

  • A common theme in Martinworld is to have a place that is ‘honeycombed‘ to represent a location that is over-mined or as a place that causes fear.
  • A Feast for Crows – Alayne II

    “AWAY!” came Ser Lothor’s shout. Someone shoved the bucket hard. It swayed and tipped, scraped against the floor, then swung free. She heard the crack of Mord’s whip and the rattle of the chain. They began to descend, by jerks and starts at first, then more smoothly. Robert’s face was pale and his eyes puffy, but his hands were still. The Eyrie shrank above them. The sky cells on the lower levels made the castle look something like a honeycomb from below. A honeycomb made of ice, Alayne thought, a castle made of snow. She could hear the wind whistling round the bucket.

  • A Feast for Crows – Arya II

    “What kind of tale?” she asked, wary.

    “The tale of our beginnings. If you would be one of us, you had best know who we are and how we came to be. Men may whisper of the Faceless Men of Braavos, but we are older than the Secret City. Before the Titan rose, before the Unmasking of Uthero, before the Founding, we were. We have flowered in Braavos amongst these northern fogs, but we first took root in Valyria, amongst the wretched slaves who toiled in the deep mines beneath the Fourteen Flames that lit the Freehold’s nights of old. Most mines are dank and chilly places, cut from cold dead stone, but the Fourteen Flames were living mountains with veins of molten rock and hearts of fire. So the mines of old Valyria were always hot, and they grew hotter as the shafts were driven deeper, ever deeper. The slaves toiled in an oven. The rocks around them were too hot to touch. The air stank of brimstone and would sear their lungs as they breathed it. The soles of their feet would burn and blister, even through the thickest sandals. Sometimes, when they broke through a wall in search of gold, they would find steam instead, or boiling water, or molten rock. Certain shafts were cut so low that the slaves could not stand upright, but had to crawl or bend. And there were wyrms in that red darkness too.”

A stranger could easily get lost in the caves, but strangers never came there. And the corpse handlers never got lost. This was their country. This was where the swirlstones waited, cloaked in rock and darkness.

The launches were all equipped with lights. Kabaraijian switched his on as soon as they hit the first cave, and slowed. Cochran, following close behind, did likewise. The channels that ran through the nearer caves were well-known, but shallow, and it didn’t pay to risk tearing out the bottom of your boat.

The channel was narrow at first, and the glistening, damp walls of soft greenish stone seemed to press in on them from either side. But gradually the walls moved farther and farther back, finally peeling away entirely as the stream carried the two launches into a great vaulted underground chamber. The cavern was as big as a spaceport, its ceiling lost in the gloom overhead. Before long the walls vanished into the dark too, and the launches traveled in two small bubbles of light across the gently-stirring surface of a cold black lake.

Then, ahead of them, the walls took form again. But this time, instead of one passage, there were many. The stream had carved one entrance, but a good half-dozen exits.

Kabaraijian knew the cave, however. Without hesitating, he guided his boat into the widest passage, on the extreme right. Cochran followed in his wake. Here the waters flowed down an incline, and the boats began to pick up speed again. “Be careful,” Kabaraijian warned Cochran at one point. “The ceiling comes down here.” Cochran acknowledged the shout with a wave of his hand.

The warning came barely in time. While the walls were increasingly farther apart, the stone roof above them was moving steadily closer, giving the illusion that the waters were rising. Kabaraijian remembered the way he’d sweated the first time he’d taken this passage; the boat had been going too fast, and he’d feared getting pinched in by the ceiling, and overwhelmed by the climbing waters.

But it was an idle fear. The roof sank close enough to scrape their heads, but no closer. And then it began to rise again to a decent height. Meanwhile, the channel widened still more, and soft sand shelves appeared along either wall.

Finally there was a branching in the passage, and this time Kabaraijian chose the left-hand way. It was small and dark and narrow, with barely enough room for the launch to squeeze through. But it was also short, and after a brief journey, it released them to a second great cavern.

They moved across the chamber quickly, and entered its twin under a grotesque stone arch. Then came yet another twisting passage, and more forks and turns. Kabaraijian led them calmly, hardly thinking, hardly having to think. These were his caves; this particular section of undermountain was his domain, where he’d worked and mined for months. He knew where he was going. And finally he got there.

The chamber was big, and haunting. Far above the shallow waters, the roof had been eaten through by erosion, and light poured in from three great gashes in the rock. It gave the cavern a dim greenish glow, as it bounced off the pale green walls and the wide, shallow pool.

The launches spilled from a thin crack in the cave wall, carried by rushes of cold black water. The water turned green when it hit the light, and tumbled and warmed and slowed. The boats slowed, too, and moved leisurely across the huge chamber toward the white sand beaches that lined the sides.

Kabaraijian pulled up by one such beach, and hopped out into the shallow water, dragging his launch up onto the sand. Cochran followed his example, and they stood side by side when both boats were safely beached.

“Yeah,” said Cochran, looking around. “It’s nice. And it figures. Leave it to you to find a pretty place to work, while the rest of us are up to our ankles in water, clutching lights.”

Kabaraijian smiled. “I found it yesterday,” he said. “Completely unworked. Look.” He pointed at the wall. “I barely started.” There was a pile of loose stones in a rough semicircle around the area he’d been working, and a large bite missing from the rock. But most of the wall was untouched, stretching away from them in sheets of shimmering green.

“You sure no one else knows about this place?” Cochran asked.

“Reasonably. Why?”

Cochran shrugged. “When we were coming through the caves, I could have sworn I heard another launch behind us somewhere.”

“Probably echoes,” Kabaraijian said. He looked toward his launch. “Anyway, we better get going.” He hit his corpse controller, and the three still figures in the boat began to move.

section 7

He stood stock-still on the sand, watching them. And as he watched, somewhere in the back of his head, he was also watching himself with their eyes. They rose stiffly, and two of them climbed out onto the sand. The third walked to the chest in the front of the launch, and began unloading the equipment; vibrodrills and picks and shovels. Then, his arms full, he climbed down and joined the others.

None of them were really moving, of course. It was all Kabaraijian. It was Kabaraijian who moved their legs, and made their hands clasp and their arms reach. It was Kabaraijian, his commands picked up by controller and magnified by synthabrain, who put life into the bodies of the dead men. The synthabrains keep the automatic functions going, but it was the corpse handler who gave the corpse its will.

  • This control concept is also shown in detail in Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg as well as Meathouse Man.
  • The syntahbrain, but especially the upcoming override box, is akin to the crystal-etched mother that controls the spaceship Nightflyer in Nightflyers, one of the unofficial corpsehandler stories.
  • This is essentially how the Other control wights. This is also similar to how GRRM first established Daenerys being able to control the living people around her. The A Dance with Dragons prologue with Varamyr is more about the firy people like Ramsay and Daenerys than it is about the northern peoples.
    • GRRM’s outline: a young dragon will give Daenerys power to bend the Dothraki to her will. Then she begins to plan for her invasion of the Seven Kingdoms.

It wasn’t easy, and it was far from perfect. The sense impressions thrown back to the handler were seldom useful; mostly he had to watch his corpses to know what they were doing. The manipulation was seldom graceful; corpses moved slowly and clumsily, and fine work was beyond them. A corpse could swing a mallet, but even the best handler couldn’t make a dead man thread a needle, or speak.

With a bad handler, a corpse could hardly move at all. It took coordination to run even one dead man, if the handler was doing anything himself. He had to keep the commands to the corpse separate from the commands to his own muscles. That was easy enough for most, but the task grew increasingly complex as the crew grew larger. The record for one handler was twenty-six corpses; but all he’d done was march them, in step. When the dead men weren’t all doing the same thing, the corpse handler’s work became much more challenging.

  • A Dance with Dragons – Bran III

    “Only one man in a thousand is born a skinchanger,” Lord Brynden said one day, after Bran had learned to fly, “and only one skinchanger in a thousand can be a greenseer.”

    “I thought the greenseers were the wizards of the children,” Bran said. “The singers, I mean.”

“In a sense. Those you call the children of the forest have eyes as golden as the sun, but once in a great while one is born amongst them with eyes as red as blood, or green as the moss on a tree in the heart of the forest. By these signs do the gods mark those they have chosen to receive the gift. The chosen ones are not robust, and their quick years upon the earth are few, for every song must have its balance. But once inside the wood they linger long indeed. A thousand eyes, a hundred skins, wisdom deep as the roots of ancient trees. Greenseers.”

Kabaraijian had a three-crew; all top meat, corpses in good condition. They’d been big men, and they still were; Kabaraijian paid premiums for food to keep his property in good condition. One had dark hair and a scar along a cheek, another was blond and young and freckled, the third had mousy brown locks. Other than that, they were interchangeable; all about the same height and weight and build. Corpses don’t have personality. They lose that with their minds.

Cochran’s crew, climbing out onto the sand in compliance with his work orders, was less impressive. There were only two of them, and neither was a grade-one specimen. The first corpse was brawny enough, with wide shoulders and rippling muscles. But his legs were twisted matchsticks, and he stumbled often and walked more slowly than even the average corpse. The second dead man was reedy and middle-aged, bald and under-muscled. Both were grimy. Cochran didn’t believe in taking care of his crew the way Kabaraijian did. It was a bad habit. Cochran had started as a paid handler working somebody else’s corpses; upkeep hadn’t been his concern.

Each of Kabaraijian’s crew bent and picked up a vibrodrill from the stack of equipment on the sand. Then, parallel to each other, they advanced on the cave wall. The drills sank humming holes into the porous rock, and from each drill bite a network of thin cracks branched and grew.

The corpses drilled in unison until each drill was sunk nearly to its hilt, and the cracks had grown finger-wide. Then, almost as one, they withdrew the drills and discarded them in favor of picks. Work slowed. Crack by crack, the corpses attacked the wall, laboriously peeling off a whole layer of greenish stone. They swung the picks carefully, but with bone-jarring force, untiring, relentless. Incapable of pain, their bones could scarce feel the jars.

The dead men did all the work. Kabaraijian stood behind, a slight, dark statue in the sand, with hands on hips and eyes hooded. He did nothing but watch. Yet he did all. Kabaraijian was the corpses; the corpses were Kabaraijian. He was one man in four bodies, and it was his hand that guided each blow, though he did not touch a tool.

Forty feet down the cave, Cochran and his crew had unpacked and set to work. But Kabaraijian was barely conscious of them, though he could hear the hum of their vibrodrills and the hammering of their picks. His mind was with his corpses, chipping at his wall, alert for the tell-tale grayish glitter of a swirlstone node. It was draining work; demanding work; tense and nervous. It was a labor only corpse crews could do with real efficiency.

They’d tried other methods a few short years before, when men had first found Grotto and its caves. The early settlers went after swirl-stones with automoles, tractor-like rockeaters that could chew up mountains. Problem was, they also chewed up the fragile, deep-buried swirlstones, which often went unrecognized until too late. The company discovered that careful hand labor was the only way to keep from chipping or shattering an excessive number of stones. And corpse hands were the cheapest hands you could buy.

Those hands were busy now, tense and sweating as the crew peeled whole sections of rock off the broken wall. The natural cleavage of the stone was vertical, which sped the work. Find a crack—force in a pick—lean back and pull—and, with a snap, a flat chunk of rock came with you. Then find a new crack, and begin again.

Kabaraijian watched unmoving as the wall came down, and the pile of green stone accumulated around the feet of his dead men. Only his eyes moved; flicking back and forth over the rock restlessly, alert for swirlstones but finding nothing. Finally he pulled the corpses back, and approached the wall himself. He touched it, stroked the stone, and frowned. The crew had ripped down an entire layer of rock, and had come up empty.

But that was hardly unusual, even in the best of caves. Kabaraijian walked back to the sand’s edge, and sent his crew back to work. They picked up vibrodrills and attacked the wall again.

Abruptly he was conscious of Cochran standing beside him, saying something. He could hardly make it out. It isn’t easy to pay close attention when you’re running three dead men. Part of his mind detached itself and began to listen.

Cochran was repeating himself. He knew that a handler at work wasn’t likely to hear what he said the first time. “Matt,” he was saying, “listen. I think I heard something. Faintly, but I heard it. It sounded like another launch.”

That was serious. Kabaraijian wrenched his mind loose from the dead men, and turned to give Cochran his full attention. The three vibrodrills died, one by one, and suddenly the soft slap of water against sand echoed loudly around them.

“A launch?”

Cochran nodded.

“You sure?” Kabaraijian said.

“Uh—no,” said Cochran. “But I think I heard something. Same thing as before, when we were moving through the caves.”

“I don’t know,” Kabaraijian said, shaking his head. “Don’t think it’s likely, Ed. Why would anyone follow us? The swirlstones are everywhere, if you bother to look.”

“Yeah,” Cochran said. “But I heard something, and I thought I should tell you.”

Kabaraijian nodded. “All right,” he said. “Consider me told. If anyone shows up, I’ll point out a section of wall and let him work it.”

  • The idea that working together is better than a fight. Something Jon Snow has been learning as he lives among the free folk.
  • A Clash of Kings – Jon VII

    A vast blue-white wall plugged one end of the vale, squeezing between the mountains as if it had shouldered them aside, and for a moment he thought he had dreamed himself back to Castle Black. Then he realized he was looking at a river of ice several thousand feet high. Under that glittering cold cliff was a great lake, its deep cobalt waters reflecting the snowcapped peaks that ringed it. There were men down in the valley, he saw now; many men, thousands, a huge host. Some were tearing great holes in the half-frozen ground, while others trained for war. He watched as a swarming mass of riders charged a shield wall, astride horses no larger than ants. The sound of their mock battle was a rustling of steel leaves, drifting faintly on the wind. Their encampment had no plan to it; he saw no ditches, no sharpened stakes, no neat rows of horse lines. Everywhere crude earthen shelters and hide tents sprouted haphazardly, like a pox on the face of the earth. He spied untidy mounds of hay, smelled goats and sheep, horses and pigs, dogs in great profusion. Tendrils of dark smoke rose from a thousand cookfires.

    This is no army, no more than it is a town. This is a whole people come together.

“Yeah,” Cochran said again. But somehow he didn’t look satisfied. His eyes kept jumping back and forth, agitated. He wheeled and walked back down the sand, to the section of wall where his own corpses stood frozen.

Kabaraijian turned back toward the rock, and his crew came alive again. The drills started humming, and once more the cracks spread out. Then, when the cracks were big enough, picks replaced drills, and another layer of stone started coming down.

But this time, something was behind it.

The corpses were ankle-deep in splinters of stone when Kabaraijian saw it; a fist-sized chunk of gray nestled in the green. He stiffened at the sight of it, and the corpses froze in mid-swing. Kabaraijian walked around them, and studied the swirlstone node.

It was a beauty; twice the size of the largest stone he’d ever brought in. Even damaged, it would be worth a fortune. But if he could pry it loose intact, his estimate would set a record. He was certain of that. They’d cut it as one stone. He could almost see it. An egg of crystalline fog, smoky and mysterious, where drifting veils of mist shrouded half-seen colors.

Kabaraijian thought about it, and smiled. He touched the node lightly, and turned to call to Cochran.

That saved his life.

The pick sliced through the air where his head had been and smashed against the wall with awful impact, barely missing the swirlstone node. Sparks and rock chips flew together. Kabaraijian stood frozen. The corpse drew the pick back over its head for another swing.

Within, Kabaraijian reeled, staggered. The pick swung down. Not at the wall; at him.

Then he moved, barely in time, throwing himself to one side. The blow missed by inches, and Kabaraijian landed in the sand and scrambled quickly to his feet. Crouched and wary, he began to back away.

The corpse advanced on him, the pick held over his head. Kabaraijian could hardly think. He didn’t understand. The corpse that moved on him was dark-haired and scarred; his corpse. HIS corpse. HIS CORPSE!?

The corpse moved slowly. Kabaraijian kept a safe distance. Then he looked behind him. His other two dead men were advancing from other directions. One held a pick. The other had a vibrodrill.

Kabaraijian swallowed nervously, and stopped dead. The ring of corpses tightened around him. He screamed.

Down the beach, Cochran was looking at the tableau. He took one step toward Kabaraijian. From behind him, there was a blur of something being swung, and a dull thud. Cochran spun with the blow, and landed face down in the sand. He did not get up. His barrel-chested, gimpy corpse stood over him, pick in hand, swinging again and again. His other corpse was moving down the cave, toward Kabaraijian.

The scream was still echoing in the cave, but now Kabaraijian was silent. He watched Cochran go down, and suddenly he moved, throwing himself at the dark-haired dead man. The pick descended, vicious but clumsy. Kabaraijian dodged it. He bowled into the corpse, and both of them went down. The corpse was much slower getting up. By the time he did rise, Kabaraijian was behind him.

The corpse-handler moved back, step by slow step. His own crew was in front of him now, stumbling toward him with weapons raised. It was a chilling sight. Their arms moved, and they walked. But their eyes were blank and their faces were dead—DEAD! For the first time, Kabaraijian understood the horror some people felt near dead men.

He looked over his shoulder. Both of Cochran’s corpses were heading his way, armed. Cochran still had not risen. He lay with his face in the sand and the waters lapping at his boots.

His mind began to work again, in the short breather he was granted. His hand went to his belt. The controller was still on, still warm and humming. He tested it. He reached out, to his corpses, into them. He told them to stand still, to drop their tools, to freeze.

They continued to advance.

Kabaraijian shivered. The controller was still working; he could still feel the echoes in his head. But somehow, the corpses weren’t responding. He felt very cold.

And colder when it finally hit him, like ice water. Cochran’s corpses hadn’t responded either. Both crews had turned on their handlers.

Override!

He’d heard of such things. But he’d never seen one, or dreamt of seeing one. Override boxes were very expensive and even more illegal, contraband on any planet where corpse handling was allowed.

But now he was seeing one in action. Someone wanted to kill him. Someone was trying to do just that. Someone was using his own corpses against him, by means of an override box.

He threw himself at his corpses mentally, fighting for control, grappling for whatever had taken them over. But there was no struggle, nothing to come to grips with. The dead men simply failed to respond.

Kabaraijian bent and picked up a vibrodrill.

He straightened quickly, spinning around to face Cochran’s two corpses. The big one with the matchstick legs moved in, swinging its pick. Kabaraijian checked the blow with the vibrodrill, holding it above him as a shield. The dead man brought the pick back again.

Kabaraijian activated the drill and drove it into the corpse’s gut. There was an awful second of spurting blood and tearing flesh. There should have been a scream too, and agony. But there wasn’t.

And the pick came down anyway.

Kabaraijian’s thrust had thrown the corpse’s aim off, and the blow was a glancing one, but it still ripped his tunic half off his chest and clawed a bloody path from shoulder to stomach. Reeling, he staggered back against the wall, empty-handed.

The corpse came on, pick swinging up again, eyes blank. The vibrodrill transfixed it, still humming, and the blood came in wet red spurts. But the corpse came on.

No pain, Kabaraijian thought, with the small part of his mind not frozen with terror. The blow wasn’t immediately fatal, and the corpse can’t feel it. It’s bleeding to death, but it doesn’t know it, doesn’t care. It won’t stop till it’s dead. There’s no pain!

The corpse was nearly on top of him. He dropped to the sand, grabbed a hunk of rock, and rolled.

Dead men are slow, woefully slow; their reflexes are long-distance ones. The blow was late and off-target. Kabaraijian rolled into the corpse and knocked it down. Then he was on top of it, the rock clutched in his fist, hammering at the thing’s skull, smashing it again and again, breaking through to the synthabrain.

Finally, the corpse stopped moving. But the others had reached him. Two picks swung almost simultaneously. One missed entirely. The other took a chunk out of his shoulder.

He grabbed the second pick, and twisted, fighting to stop it, losing. The corpses were stronger than he was, much stronger. The dead man wrenched the pick free and brought it back for another try.

Kabaraijian got to his feet, smashing into the corpse and sending it flailing. The others swung at him, grabbed at him. He didn’t stay to fight. He ran. They pursued, slow and clumsy but somehow terrifying.

He reached the launch, seized it with both hands, and shoved. It slid reluctantly across the sand. He shoved again, and this time it moved more easily. He was drenched in blood and sweat, and his breath came in short gasps, but he kept shoving. His shoulder shrieked agony. He let it shriek, putting it to the side of the launch and finally getting the boat clear of the sand.

Then the corpses were on him again, swinging at him even as he climbed into the launch. He started the motor and flipped it to top speed. The boat responded. It took off in a sudden explosion of foam, slicing across the green waters toward the dark slit of safety in the far cavern wall. Kabaraijian sighed … and the corpse grabbed him.

It was in the boat. Its pick was buried uselessly in the wood, but it still had its hands, and those were enough. It wrapped those hands around his neck, and squeezed. He swung at it madly, smashing at its calm, empty face. It made no effort to ward off the blows. It ignored them. Kabaraijian hit it again and again, poked at the vacant eyes, hammered at its mouth until its teeth shattered.

But the fingers on his neck grew tighter and tighter, and not all his struggling could pry one loose. Choking, he stopped kicking the corpse, and kicked the rudder control.

The launch veered wildly, leaning from side to side. The cave rushed past in a blur, and the walls moved in on them. Then came sudden impact, the shriek of tearing wood, and the short tumble from launch to water. Kabaraijian landed on top, but they both went under. The corpse held its grip through everything, dragging Kabaraijian down with it, still choking the life from his throat.

But Kabaraijian took a deep breath before the green closed over him. The corpse tried to breathe underwater. Kabaraijian helped it. He stuck both hands into its mouth and kept it open, making sure it got a good lungful of water.

The dead man died first. And its fingers weakened.

Finally, his lungs near bursting, Kabaraijian forced his way free, and kicked to the surface. The water was only chest high. He stood on the unmoving corpse, keeping it under while he sucked in great drafts of air.

The launch had impaled itself on a crest of jagged rocks that rose from the water off to one side of the exit. The passage from the cave was still at hand, outlined in shadow a few short feet away. But now, was it safety? Without a launch? Kabaraijian considered making his way out on foot, and gave up the idea instantly. There were too many miles to go before he reached simple daylight, let alone the safety of the river station. It would mean being hunted in the darkness by whatever remained of his corpse crew. The prospect sent a chill down his back. No, better to stay and face his attacker.

He kicked free of the corpse, and moved to the debris of his launch, still hung up on the rocks that had caught it. Shielded by the wreck, he’d be difficult to find, or at least to see. And if his enemy couldn’t see him, it would be hard to send the corpses against him.

Meanwhile, maybe he could find his enemy.

His enemy. Who? Bartling, of course. It had to be Bartling, or one of his hirelings. Who else?

But where? They had to be close, within sight of the beach. You can’t run a corpse by remote control; the sense feedback isn’t good enough. The only senses you get are vision and hearing, and them dimly. You have to see the corpse, see what it’s doing, and what you want it to do. So Bartling’s man was around here somewhere. In the cave. But where?

And how? Kabaraijian considered that. It must be the other launch that Cochran had heard. Someone must have been following them, someone with an override box. Maybe Bartling had a tracer put on his launch during the night.

Only how’d he know which launch to trace?

Kabaraijian bent slightly so only his head showed above the water, and looked out around the end of the ruined launch. The beach was a white sand smear across the dim green length of the huge cavern. There was no noise but the water slapping the side of the boat. But there was motion. The second launch had been pulled free of the sand, and one of the corpses was climbing on board. The others, moving slowly, were wading out into the underground pool. Their picks rested on their shoulders.

They were coming for him. The enemy suspected he was still here. The enemy was hunting for him. Again, he was tempted to dive toward the exit, to run and swim back toward daylight, out of this awful dimness where his own corpses stalked him with cold faces and colder hands.

He squelched the impulse. He might get a head start while they searched the cavern. But, with the launch, they’d make it up in no time. He could try to lose them in the intricacies of the caves. But if they got ahead of him, they could just wait at caves’ end. No, no. He had to stay here, and find his enemy.

But where? He scanned the cave, and saw nothing. It was a great expanse of murky green; stone and water and beaches. The pool was dotted by a few large rocks rising from the water. A man might be hiding behind them. But not a launch. There was nothing big enough to hide a launch. Maybe the enemy wore aquagear? But Cochran had heard a launch …

The corpse boat was halfway across the cavern, heading for the exit. It was his dead-man seated at the controls, the brown-haired one. The other two corpses trailed, as they walked slowly across the shallow pool in the wake of the launch.

Three dead men; stalking. But somewhere their handler was hiding. The man with the override box. Their mind and their will. But where?

The launch was coming closer. Was it leaving? Maybe they thought he’d run for it? Or … no, probably the enemy was going to blockade the exit, and then search the cave.

Did they see him? Did they know where he was?

Suddenly he remembered his corpse controller, and his hand fumbled under water to make sure it was still intact. It was. And working; controllers were watertight. It no longer controlled. But it still might be useful …Kabaraijian closed his eyes, and tried to shut off his ears. He deliberately blotted his senses, and concentrated on the distant sensory echoes that still murmured in his mind. They were there. Even vaguer than usual, but less confused; there were only two sets of images now. His third corpse floated a few feet from him, and it wasn’t sending anything.

He twisted his mind tight, and listened, and tried to see. The blurs began to define themselves. Two pictures, both wavering, took form, superimposed over each other. A sense tangle, but Kabaraijian pulled at the threads. The pictures resolved.

One corpse was waist-deep in green water, moving slowly, holding a pick. It could see the shaft of the tool, and the hand wrapped around it, and the gradually-deepening water. But it wasn’t even looking in Kabaraijian’s direction.

The second dead man was in the launch, one hand resting on the controls. It wasn’t looking either. It was staring down, at the instruments. It took a lot of concentration for a corpse to run any sort of machine. So the handler was having it keep a firm eye on the engine.

Only it could see more than just the engine. It had a very good view of the entire launch.

And suddenly everything fell into place. Certain now that the wrecked launch hid him from view, Kabaraijian moved farther back into its shadow, then threw a hand over the side and pulled himself on board, crouching so he wouldn’t be found. The rocks had torn a hole in the bottom of the boat. But the tool chest was intact. He crawled to it, and flipped it open. The corpses had unpacked most of the mining equipment, but there was still a repair kit. Kabaraijian took out a heavy wrench and a screwdriver. He shoved the screwdriver into his belt, and gripped the wrench tightly. And waited.

The other launch was nearly on top of him, and he could hear the purr of its motor and the water moving around it. He waited until it was next to his boat. Then he stood up suddenly, and jumped.

He landed smack in the middle of the other boat, and the launch rocked under the impact. Kabaraijian didn’t give the enemy time to react—at least not the time it takes a corpse. He took a single short step, and brought the wrench around in a vicious backhanded blow to the dead man’s head. The corpse slumped back. Kabaraijian bent, grabbed its legs, and lifted. And suddenly the dead man was no longer in the launch.

And Kabaraijian, wheeling, was looking down at the stunned face of Ed Cochran. He hefted the wrench with one hand even as his other reached for the controls, and upped the speed. The boat accelerated, and dove toward the exit. Cave and corpses vanished behind, and darkness closed in with the rocky walls. Kabaraijian switched on the lights.

“Hello, Ed,” he said, hefting the wrench again. His voice was very steady and very cold.

Cochran breathed a noisy sigh of relief. “Matt,” he said. “Thank God, I just came to. My corpses—they—”

Kabaraijian shook his head. “No, Ed, it won’t wash. Don’t bother me with that, please. Just give me the override box.”

Cochran looked scared. Then, fighting, he flashed his grin. “Heh. You gotta be kiddin’, right? I don’t have no override box. I told you I heard another launch.”

“There was no other launch. That was a set-up, in case you failed. So was that blow you took on the beach. I’ll bet that was tricky—having your corpse swing the pick so you got hit with the side instead of the point. But it was very well done. My compliments, Ed. That was good corpse handling. As was the rest. It isn’t easy to coordinate a five-crew doing different things simultaneously. Very nice, Ed. I underestimated you. Never thought you were that good a handler.”

Cochran stared at him from the floor of the launch, his grin gone. Then his gaze broke, and his eyes went back and forth between the walls that pressed around them.

Kabaraijian waved the, wrench again, his palm sweaty where he gripped it. His other hand touched his shoulder briefly. The bleeding had stopped. He sat slowly, and rested his hand on the motor.

“Aren’t you going to ask me how I knew, Ed?” Kabaraijian said. Cochran, sullen, said nothing. “I’ll tell you anyway,” Kabaraijian continued. “I saw you. I looked through the eyes of my corpse, and I saw you huddled here in the boat, lying on the floor and peeking over the side to try and spot me. You didn’t look dead at all, but you looked very guilty. And suddenly I got it. You were the only one with a clear view of that stuff on the beach. You were the only one in the cave.”

He paused, awkward. His voice broke a little, and softened. “Only—why? Why, Ed?”

Cochran looked up at him again. He shrugged. “Money,” he said. “Only money, Matt. What else?” He smiled; not his usual grin, but a strained, tight smile. “I like you, Matt.”

“You’ve got a peculiar way of showing it,” Kabaraijian told him. He couldn’t help smiling as he said it. “Whose money?”

“Bartling’s,” said Cochran. “I needed money real bad. My estimates were low, I didn’t have anything saved. If I had to leave Grotto, that would’ve meant selling my crew just for passage money. Then I’d be a hired handler again. I didn’t want that. I needed money fast.”

He shrugged. “I was going to try smuggling some swirlstones, but you didn’t make that sound good. And last night I got another idea. I didn’t think that crap about organizing us and outbidding Bartling would work, but I figured he’d be interested. So I went to see him after I left the tavern. Thought he might pay a little for the information, and maybe even make an exception, let me stay.”

He shook his head dourly. Kabaraijian stayed silent. Finally Cochran resumed. “I got to see him, him with three bodyguards. When I told him, he got hysterical. You’d humiliated him already, and now he thought you were on to something. He—he made me an offer. A lot of money, Matt. A lot of money.”

“I’m glad I didn’t come cheap.”

Cochran smiled. “Nah,” he said. “Bartling really wanted you, and I made him pay. He gave me the override box. Wouldn’t touch it himself. He said he’d had it made in case the ‘meatminds’ and their ‘zombies’ ever attacked him.”

Cochran reached into the pocket of his tunic, and took out a small, flat cartridge. It looked like a twin for the controller on his belt. He flipped it lightly through the air at Kabaraijian.

But Kabaraijian made no effort to catch it. The box sailed past his shoulder, and hit the water with a splash.

“Hey,” said Cochran. “You shoulda got that. Your corpses won’t respond till you turn it off.”

“My shoulder’s stiff,” Kabaraijian started. He stopped abruptly.

Cochran stood up. He looked at Kabaraijian as if he were seeing him for the first time. “Yeah,” he said. His fists clenched. “Yeah.” He was a full head taller than Kabaraijian, and much heavier. And suddenly he seemed to notice the extent of the other’s injuries.

The wrench seemed to grow heavier in Kabaraijian’s hand. “Don’t,” he warned.

“I’m sorry,” Cochran said. And he dove forward.

Kabaraijian brought the wrench around at his head, but Cochran caught the blow before it connected. His other hand reached up and wrapped itself around Kabaraijian’s wrist, and twisted. He felt his fingers going numb.

There was no thought of fair play, or mercy. He was fighting for his life. His free hand went to his waist and grabbed the screwdriver. He pulled it out, and stabbed. Cochran gasped, and his grip suddenly loosened. Kabaraijian stabbed again, and twisted up and out, ripping a gash in tunic and flesh.

Cochran reeled back, clutching at his stomach. Kabaraijian followed him and stabbed a third time, savagely. Cochran fell.

He tried to rise once, and gave it up, falling heavily back to the floor of the launch. Then he lay there, bleeding.

Kabaraijian went back to the motor, and kept the boat clear of the walls. He guided them down the passages smoothly, through the caves and the tunnels and the deep green pools. And in the harsh boat light, he watched Cochran.

Cochran never moved again, and he spoke only once. Just after they had left the caves and come out into the early afternoon sun of Grotto, he looked up briefly. His hands were wet with blood. And his eyes were wet too. “I’m sorry, Matt,” he said. “I’m damn sorry.”

“Oh, God!” Kabaraijian said, his voice thick. And suddenly he stopped the boat dead in the water, and bent to the supply cache. Then he went to Cochran and dressed and bandaged his injuries.

When he reached the controls again, he flipped the speed up to maximum. The launch streaked across the glittering green lakes.

But Cochran died before they reached the river.

Kabaraijian stopped the boat then, and let it float dead in the water. He listened to the sounds of Grotto around him; the rush of river water pouring into the great lake, the songbirds and the day-wings, the ever-active lakeleapers arcing through the air. He sat there until dusk fell, staring upriver, and thinking.

He thought of tomorrow and the day after. Tomorrow he must return to the swirlstone caves. His corpses should have frozen when he moved out of range; they should be salvageable. And one of Cochran’s crew was still there, too. Maybe he could still piece together a three-crew, if the corpse he’d pushed overboard hadn’t drowned.

And there were swirlstones there, big ones. He’d get that egg of dancing fog, and turn it in, and get a good estimate. Money. He had to have money, all he could scrape together. Then he could start talking to the others. And then … and then Bartling would have a fight on his hands. Cochran was one casualty, the first. But not the last. He’d tell the others that Bartling had sent a man out with an override box, and that Cochran had been killed because of it. It was true. It was all true.

That night Kabaraijian returned with only one corpse in his launch, a corpse that was strangely still and unmoving. Always his corpses had walked behind him into the office. That night the corpse rode on his shoulder.

Chicago, Illinois

December, 1972

img_7021
Kabaraijian in a fight. Original 1973 Override artwork by Jack Gaughan.

Take aways…

That not all shadesof grey are the same.

Not all of any one type of magic is the same.

The biggest lesson across Martinworld is personal identity and personal choice in the end.

” I don’t believe in black and white characters. I don’t want to write the band of heroes on one side and the orcs on the other side but that’s not to say that that old characters are equally gray, you know some are very dark gray and some are some are mostly white but they still have occasional flaws in them. You know, I’ve always been fascinated by human beings and all their complexity and even [newbies] who do appalling things. You know the question is, “why?” Why are they do appalling things and it’s interesting to get inside the head and see why you know some of my viewpoint characters are have done some incredibly reprehensible things.”

Characters, and possibly we living humans, are the result of our actions and choices. We can chose to not sow, the choice to burn things to the ground, or, we can be like a tree and fly.

  • A Dance with Dragons – Bran III

That was just another silly dream, though. Some days Bran wondered if all of this wasn’t just some dream. Maybe he had fallen asleep out in the snows and dreamed himself a safe, warm place. You have to wake, he would tell himself, you have to wake right now, or you’ll go dreaming into death. Once or twice he pinched his arm with his fingers, really hard, but the only thing that did was make his arm hurt. In the beginning he had tried to count the days by making note of when he woke and slept, but down here sleeping and waking had a way of melting into one another. Dreams became lessons, lessons became dreams, things happened all at once or not at all. Had he done that or only dreamed it?

“Only one man in a thousand is born a skinchanger,” Lord Brynden said one day, after Bran had learned to fly, “and only one skinchanger in a thousand can be a greenseer.”


Want more GRRMspreading?

I have started a book club re-read for the older works of George R.R. Martin for purposes such as research, scholarship, and teaching. I own all copies of material that is used for this book club. If you have not yet read a story listed, please check with your local bookstore for your own reading material to purchase (Indie Bookstore Finder or Bookshop.org). The full list of GRRM stories outside of the A Song of Ice and Fire series that I have read can be found on this page here.

books sculpture write reading

It takes a while to transcribe and then note each story for research purposes, even the really short ones, so the main bookclub page will be updated as each re-read is added. Make sure you subscribe for updates.

If there is a story in particular you would like to ask about, feel free to do so in comments below.

If you prefer to listen to a podcast that gives synopsis and analysis of stories written by George R.R. Martin, please consider the new group A Thousand Casts to accompany your ears. Twitter or Podbean.

  1. NightflyersNightflyers is about a haunted ship in outerspace. This story is everything a reader would want from a GRRM story; high body count, psi-link mind control, whisperjewels, corpse handling, dragon-mother ships, the Night’s Watch ‘naval’ institution in space, and Jon and Val.
  2. SandkingsWelcome to the disturbing tale of Simon Kress and his Sandkings. Early origins of Unsullied, Dothraki, Aerea Targaryen, and Dragon who mounts the world, set among a leader with a god complex. One of the “must read” George R.R. Martin stories.
  3. Bitterblooms– In the dead of deep winter, a young girl named Shawn has to find the mental courage to escape a red fiery witch. Prototyping Val, Stannis, and Arya along with the red witch Melisandre.
  4. The Lonely Songs of Laren Dorr – Discarded Knights guards the gates as Sharra feels the Seven while searching for lost love. Many Sansa and Ashara Dayne prototyping here as well.
  5. …And Seven Times Never Kill Man– A look into a proto-Andal+Targaryen fiery world as the Jaenshi way of life is erased. But who is controlling these events? Black & Red Pyramids who merge with Bakkalon are on full display in this story.
  6. The Last Super Bowl– Football meets SciFi tech with plenty of ASOIAF carryover battle elements.
  7. Nobody Leaves New Pittsburg– first in the Corpse Handler trio, and sets a lot of tone for future ASOIAF thematics.
  8. Closing Time– A short story that shows many precursor themes for future GRRM stories, including skinchanging, Sneaky Pete’s, catastrophic long nights…
  9. The Glass Flower– a tale of how the drive for perfection creates mindlords and mental slavery.
  10. Run to Starlight– A tale of coexistence and morality set to a high stakes game of football.
  11. Remembering Melody– A ghost tale written by GRRM in 1981 that tells of long nights, bloodbaths, and pancakes.
  12. Fast-Friend transcribed and noted. Written in December 1973, this story is a precursor to skinchanging, Bran, Euron, Daenerys, and ways to scheme to reclaim lost love.
  13. The Steel Andal Invasion– A re-read of a partial section of  The World of Ice and Fire text compared to the story …And Seven Times Never Kill Man. This has to do with both fire and ice Others in ASOIAF.
  14. A Song for Lya– A novella about a psi-link couple investigating a fiery ‘god’. Very much a trees vs fire motif, and one of GRRM’s best stories out there.
  15. For A Single Yesterday– A short story about learning from the past to rebuild the future.
  16. This Tower of Ashes– A story of how lost love, mother’s milk, and spiders don’t mix all too well.
  17. A Peripheral Affair (1973)When a Terran scout ship on a routine patrol through the Periphery suddenly disappears, a battle-hungry admiral prepares to renew the border war.
  18. The Stone City– a have-not surviving while stranded on a corporate planet. Practically a GRRM autobiography in itself.
  19. Slide Show– a story of putting the stars before the children.
  20. Only Kids are Afraid of the Dark– rubies, fire, blood sacrifice, and Saagael- oh my!
  21. A Night at the Tarn House– a magical game of life and death played at an inn at a crossroads.
  22. Men of Greywater Station– Is it the trees, the fungus, or is the real danger humans?
  23. The Computer Cried Charge!– what are we fighting for and is it worth it?
  24. The Needle Men– the fiery hand wields itself again, only, why are we looking for men?
  25. Black and White and Red All Over– a partial take on a partial story.
  26. Fire & Blood excerpt; Alysanne in the north– not a full story, but transcribed and noted section of the book Fire & Blood, volume 1.

If you want to browse my own thoughts and speculations on the ASOIAF world using GRRM’s own work history, use the drop-down menu above for the most content, or click on the page that just shows recent posts -> Recent Posts Page.


Thank you for reading the jambles and jumbles of the Fattest Leech of Ice and Fire, by Gumbo!

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