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Announcement: Checkmate, by Dusk Peterson

CheckmateQSFer Dusk Peterson has a new alternative history book out:

The Eternal Dungeon is no longer a prison. It’s a battlefield.

Split apart from their closest loves and friends, a small group of prison-workers seek to abolish the use of torture against prisoners in the queendom’s royal dungeon. Time is running out, for the deadly High Seeker has already flogged and executed prison-workers who opposed his policies.

Do the reformers have enough time and skill to bring about radical change in the dungeon? Will they be able to overcome their mistrust of one another?

This suspenseful novel can be read on its own or as the fourth story in the “Sweet Blood” volume of The Eternal Dungeon, an award-winning speculative fiction series set in a nineteenth-century prison where the psychologists wield whips.


Excerpt

For a while they did not speak, as Elsdon carefully wiped Clifford’s
face, as though the guard were a child. Elsdon could hear faintly the soft
snore of Weldon Chapman, who had returned home from work to find his wife
kneeling over the prone body of Barrett Boyd. The senior Seeker hadn’t
said a word; he had merely walked through the anxious crowd around Barrett
and entered his bedroom, shutting the door behind him.

Clifford gave a gulp, trying to swallow a series of hiccups that threatened
to overwhelm him. “I didn’t know, sir.”

Elsdon nodded, keeping his gaze carefully focussed on Clifford’s forehead,
which he was wiping. “You’d asked him before to remember?”

Clifford nodded. The guard looked utterly miserable and entirely too
young. He was only a year younger than Elsdon, but since his arrival at
the Eternal Dungeon, Clifford’s youthful friendliness had kept everyone
entranced. Even – Elsdon was beginning to suspect – a certain guard who
hated every other prison-worker in existence. “Did you ask him to remember
work matters?”

The shame on Clifford’s face was answer enough. “No, I asked him . .
. I asked him to remember us.”

Elsdon said nothing. It was a trick he had learned from the High Seeker:
to remain silent in order to allow the man he was searching to fill the
silence.

“He didn’t remember us,” Clifford said, all in a rush. “Not for the
first three years. He’d pass me in the corridor, and he wouldn’t even look
at me. At first I thought he was angry at me, because I didn’t stay to
watch his punishment. D. said it couldn’t be that, though, because Barrett
wanted me to be absent that night. So one day last year, I managed to persuade
Barrett to listen to me. I asked him why he was so cold to me, his love-mate.
He just looked at me blankly. That’s when I realized. He didn’t remember
me at all.”

“It can happen, I understand,” said Elsdon. “Amnesia following a traumatic
event. It’s nothing he deliberately tried to do, I’m sure.”

“I know.” Clifford bowed his head as Elsdon set aside the handkerchief.
“I thought that all I needed to do was prod his memory. The first time
. . . It was like it was today. He began to sweat and to shake. I thought
it was due to simple exertion. I had no idea . . .”

Elsdon picked up the handkerchief again. After he’d wiped off the latest
tears, he said, “And it’s been like that every time?”

Clifford sniffed. “Every single time. Mr. Taylor, he’s been going through
torture for me for months! Why didn’t he tell me?”

“Because he thought you knew.” That would be the most honest
answer. Elsdon decided against saying that. Clifford’s repentance for what
he had done was clear. So instead Elsdon said, “He clearly loves you a
great deal.”

Clifford’s breath stopped. He stared at Elsdon, open-mouthed.

“Didn’t you realize that?” asked Elsdon in a mild tone. Keep the voice
gentle; that was best with frightened, cooperative prisoners.

“Of course I knew,” whispered Clifford. “He’d never stop loving me.
It was the last thing he said to me, before his arrest: that he would always
love me. He would never break a pledge like that, no matter what.
But everyone else thinks . . . Only D. understands. Everyone else has been
telling me to forget about Barrett, to journey forth with my life, but
D. has been saying I should stick with Barrett, I should figure out a way
to help him remember our love-bond.”

Hence D.’s foul mood. D. must be in as much agony of conscience right
now as Clifford, but he expressed it in a very different manner. “Barrett
has given you as clear a testimony of his love as any man could,” said
Elsdon. He put his finger under Clifford’s chin, forcing up the guard’s
face. Another trick he had learned from the High Seeker, though Layle only
practiced it with him, not the prisoners he was forbidden to touch. Elsdon
asked, “Is something else bothering you?”

Clifford immediately turned his gaze away. “I was wondering . . . Will
this endanger Barrett’s job? Will the High Seeker dismiss Barrett when
he discovers that Barrett has lost his memory?”

Elsdon considered that averted gaze for a moment and then released Clifford,
stepping back. One trouble at a time – that was how to approach this conversation.
“The healer is the one who advises the Codifier on whether workers in the
inner dungeon are medically fit for their jobs. Mr. Bergsen didn’t strike
me as particularly alarmed today; he may well have known about the amnesia
already, if not the precise manner in which Barrett’s memories operate.
. . . I wouldn’t worry. Barrett has been monitored closely for the past
four years, and according to the High Seeker, there’s no indication that
he’s unable to do his job. Barrett may have lost his memories of the past,
but he hasn’t lost the knowledge he gained during that time. He’s still
what he always was: an experienced guard, skilled at his work.”

Clifford’s gaze remained fixed upon the sofa where Barrett had lain.
He finally burst out, “But he can’t speak well. Not in public. When he’s
alone with me or with the prisoners, it’s different. But when he’s talking
to other guards or Seekers . . .”

“I know. The High Seeker knows.”

“This dungeon has always taken a role of leadership,” he had heard
Layle tell Weldon on an evening three years before. “We were the first
prison to place a code of ethics upon our workers. We were the first prison
to permit adult men to mate with each other—”

“And the first to hire a woman Seeker,” Weldon pointed out.

“Yes.” Layle tensed, as he always did when references were made to
Birdesmond, but he went on, “This may be another occasion when we can show
leadership: by employing a mind-crippled guard.”

“They’ll say you’re insane,” warned Weldon.

Layle gave one of his dark smiles. “The world already has proof of
that. Sometimes my insanity bears fruit. We shall see.”

“The Record-keeper is under orders to pair Barrett only with experienced
junior guards, those who can take over the work of communicating on Barrett’s
behalf,” Elsdon explained to Clifford. “The problem has been that Barrett
keeps requesting transfers. He seems to be dissatisfied with every Seeker
he works for.”

“Or perhaps he’s dissatisfied with the junior guards he works alongside?”
suggested Clifford, his tears forgotten. “It must be difficult for him
to depend on another guard, one who’s lower in rank than he is.”

“Perhaps.” Elsdon scrutinized his face. Clifford appeared calm now.
This was the right moment for the question. “And perhaps difficult for
you, to know how much it hurts him to remember his bond with you in the
past?”

Clifford looked as though he’d been slapped. He lowered his head, gulping
air. After a minute he said in a low voice, “He mustn’t remember me again;
I realize that now. He must forget we were ever love-mates. He must . .
. I must stop making him love me.”

“Oh, Clifford.” It wasn’t hard to make his voice sympathetic. It never
was, when he was searching men who plowed forward, breaking themselves.
All they needed was a little guidance on their path. “Clifford, you can’t
make him love you – you never could. And whether or not he has clear memories
of you in the past doesn’t matter. Barrett knows what you are now:
a warm, gentle, generous, affectionate man. For your sake, he passed through
a nightmare of memories; for your sake, he has attended meetings organized
by a Seeker to help a former Seeker-in-Training, despite his hatred of
Seekers and despite the special dangers that rebel meetings pose for him.
He trusts you that much. What can you call such trust except love?”


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Author Bio

Honored in the Rainbow Awards, Dusk Peterson writes historical speculative fiction: alternate history, historical fantasy, and retrofuture science fiction, including lgbtq novels and other types of diverse fiction. Suspense plays an important role in many of the tales; the conflict in those tales is both external and internal. Peterson’s stories are often placed in dark settings, such as prisons or wartime locations. The mood of the stories, however, is not one of unrelieved gloominess; romance, friendship, family affection, and faithful service are recurring themes. Visit duskpeterson.com for e-books and free fiction.

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