Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 8

Cannon waited for Joe to cross the line. Together, they passed through Inconstant‘s bow platform hatch. The airship’s engines thrummed to life, her propellers reversed to push her away from Swiftsure aft end. At Swiftsure‘s bow, the Devil’s Daggers aboard Majestic tossed lines between the two zeppelins.

“Did I lay it on too thick?” Cannon wondered.

Joe shook his head. “Just right. Can’t have people thinking they can take what’s ours.”

“I’m with Joe,” said the third bodyguard.

“All right, if you say so,” Cannon replied. “Thompson, you’d better get back to the hangar. We’ll be turning around the cover flight in a few minutes.”

“Aye, sir.” Thompson slung his machine pistol and headed down the companionway ahead.

When Cannon walked the quarter-mile of Inconstant‘s length, he took the ventral catwalk. It ran past Iseabail’s lab, held into the zep by shackles which could drop it at a moment’s notice, if whatever the mad Scot was playing at got too hot. From experience, he knew it was a good idea to walk by and check on her when he got the chance.

The catwalk proceeded forward through the hangar, past the von Rubenstein machinery—Cannon could feel its hum even from here, a different tone than the engines, as it pulled helium from the air—and the pilots’ ready room. Along its length, side catwalks led up under the gas cells to the engine cars and broadside gun positions. The crew spent most of their working hours along the ventral catwalk. Walking its grating, Cannon could keep his thumb on the crew’s pulse. More than once, he had sniffed out trouble brewing before it came to a head.

The dorsal catwalk was, however, a more relaxing walk. Unlike the ventral catwalk, which ran level from Iseabail’s lab to the control gondola and crew spaces forward, the dorsal catwalk arched gently to follow the zeppelin’s curved topside skin. Inconstant‘s gas cells rose to chest height on both sides of the catwalk, near enough to touch. Much further aft from where they stood, at intervals of a few dozen yards, the catwalk sprouted a small platform to port, each at the base of a ladder which ran to the topside machine guns and lookout positions.

From the bow platform, though, the gentle arc was more of a steep climb. Fifty yards ahead, the catwalk ended in a hatch set a bulkhead, thin but covered in bare triangular bracing. Hidden behind the gas cells, below the compartment ahead, were five more decks, mostly cabins and galley: the crew spaces.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 7

Thorne returned Cannon’s gaze. At first, defiance blazed in his eyes. Cannon let him glare. He even felt a measure of sympathy for the man. It was hard on any captain to admit he was beaten, a lesson Cannon knew all too well from his recent adventures in Panama.

Thorne’s shoulders drooped, and he looked away. He took a breath, straightened, and met Cannon’s eyes again. “I take responsibility for this. Leave my crew out of it.”

Cannon smiled. “That wasn’t so hard, was it? Joe, does he seem contrite to you?”

Joe nodded.

“Me too. Look, Captain Thorne, I’m not in this business to make any more enemies than I have to.”

“That’s not what people say,” Thorne replied.

“I’m turning over a new leaf,” Cannon retorted. “I’m not going to hurt you or your crew, or your zep any more than I have. I’m not going to steal anything of yours, Captain Thorne. All I want is my property—Majestic—and any of my crew you have as prisoners. We leave, you patch up your zep and head into… Singapore, isn’t it?” Thorne nodded, bafflement written across his face. “Singapore, and before you know it we’re both cruising the skyways again, in search of fortune on our own terms. What do you say?” Cannon stuck out his hand.

Thorne watched it carefully. “No tricks?” he said.

“I told you, skipper, I’m turning over a new leaf.”

Thorne cautiously shook Cannon’s hand.

Cannon smiled without humor and held the handshake. Conversationally, he added, “Don’t think this means you can steal from me down the road. This warning, our pleasant chat? It’s a one-time-only special. If I catch you with your hands on my property again, well.” Something flashed in Cannon’s eyes. “All those things they say about me? You’ll find out just how true they were.”

Thorne nodded slowly. “That seems fair,” he ventured.

“Good!” Cannon let go of his opposite number’s hand. “You get on the radio with your men on Majestic. Have them moor with Swiftsure, come across, and leave my prize crew in command, and we’ll be on our way.” He turned half toward the door, then turned back to point a finger at Thorne. “Don’t cross me again.”

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 6

A few years ago, Cannon would have gotten hot under the collar at that, on the theory that the defeated captain should have met them in person. Joe had watched Cannon turn into a fiery-tempered dark-hearted cynic after the war, a look which didn’t suit him. Joe finally put his foot down, and the intervening time had done much to smooth the boss’s rough edges.

Now, rather than roll up his sleeves and throw a punch, Cannon just smiled and gestured for the crewmen to lead the way. They exchanged an uneasy glance. That was another unexpected benefit. Anyone could gin up a burning rage, but the calm self-assurance Cannon displayed more often nowadays did more to put fear in the hearts of his fellow pirates.

The crewmen led them into Swiftsure‘s hull through a hatch in the zeppelin’s skin and along an gently arched catwalk running near the ship’s topside skin. Like Inconstant, her crew spaces were at her bow; unlike the Long Nines’ zep, the captain’s cabin was in the same place as the rest of her quarters.

The Devil’s Daggers ushered Cannon and his escort in.


Cannon approached Thorne’s desk. He knew Henry Thorne in passing; they had once met to discuss a temporary alliance. The take would have been good, but Cannon didn’t trust Thorne’s temperament. He was too greedy, and even if greed to excess was a common flaw in pirates, it was still a flaw.

Thorne rose as Cannon approached. Thorne was a dark-haired man, shorter than Cannon by a good few inches. The lines in his face suggested a sneer, but for the moment he had the good grace to look contrite.

“All right, Thorne,” Cannon said, putting his hands on the edge of Thorne’s desk and leaning toward the man. “I’ll give you thirty seconds to explain why you stole from me, and if I like your answer, maybe I won’t send your zep into the drink when I leave.”

Cannon had no real intention of sinking Swiftsure, but Thorne didn’t know that. Thorne jumped, held out his hands pleadingly. “I swear, I didn’t know it was yours.”

Cannon raised an eyebrow. “Until you boarded it and met my prize crew?”

“For all I knew they were lying!” Thorne protested.

“Look, Hank—can I call you Hank?” Cannon didn’t wait for an answer. “That’s not going to fly with me. We both know what happened. You ran across what I rightfully stole, saw the manifest, and got that itching in your fingers. You thought you could take it. You thought you could pull one over on me.”

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Commentary, Hunt for the Majestic No. 6

It turns out when I forget to update the website at the start of the week with both entries for the week, I usually forget Friday after I forget Tuesday.

If you haven’t checked out the new Twitter account @manywordspress (see the link in the sidebar), you ought to. I’ve been tweeting up a storm, and I’ve even shared a first look at a character you haven’t seen yet.

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#WIPjoy summer 2017: The Star-Studded Black

These are all my WIPJoy answers for the summer 2017 edition, revised and expanded from the social media answers. I’ve bumped it to the front page for that reason. Enjoy!

Day 1: who are you, and what are you writing?
Since you’re here, I imagine you have some idea as far as the first question goes. If not, there’s an ‘About’ page.

I’m writing a novel-length piece called The Star-Studded Black, set in the same universe as my debut novella We Sail Off To War. They take place in a hard science fiction universe in the middle of an all-out war, and both focus on characters’ experiences rather than the grand sweep of things. I find that the most relatable military history and military fiction does the same.

Day 2: describe your protagonist in seven words.
Lloyd Church, war correspondent: old-school. Trilbies, pen and notepad, newsprint.

Day 3: what was your first inspiration for this project?
I’m going to cheat and cite two.

First off, the setting for The Star-Studded Black features the Naval Arm of the Confederacy of Allied Worlds experimenting with a new class of ship: the gunboat. Small but heavily-armed, agile, and cheap, they’re well-suited to commerce raiding, fleet reconnaissance, and a number of other tasks, which our heroes discover over the course of the story. The idea for a gunboat story came from some reading about the Civil War. The Union had a fleet on the Mississippi River; at the outset of the war, they were all ironclad gunboats of idiosyncratic design. I wanted to do something similar, so I spent some time thinking about what sort of space terrain mirrors a river, and came up with asteroid belts and planetary ring systems. Both are constantly changing in terms of navigational hazards (though an asteroid belt isn’t much of a hazard). A working ship in such an environment should be small and have powerful engines, given that the obvious kind of work to be done is moving objects around. I won’t say any more, because doing so would give away a plot point.

The inspiration for Lloyd Church, war correspondent, comes from something I’m reading right now. A year and a half ago, I was at the local library’s used book sale. I came across a volume called William Russel, Special Correspondent of the Times. Active from about 1850 to 1890, he was the first true war correspondent and a roving journalist for the Times of London. Through his descriptions, the Victorian world comes to life, and I wanted to write a similar figure.

Day 4: what are three books which go well with your work in progress?
1. Master and Commander, or any Jack Aubrey book: although I don’t go quite as far as David Drake in writing seafarers in space, I do aim for that aesthetic in many ways. The classics of the genre deserve a spot on your shelf.

  1. Red Storm Rising: Tom Clancy is basically the Rembrandt of military fiction. I don’t delve as deeply into politics in The Star-Studded Black, but I hope to write something similarly thrilling.

  2. Mr. Lincoln’s Brown Water Navy: an interesting read on a frequently-glossed-over topic in Civil War history, and the best source on the gunboats I mentioned in the previous answer.

Day 5: share a line where your story comes to life.

Lloyd Church was in the dark. He hated being in the dark.


For the last four weeks, he had been all but confined to his spartan quarters in the Caledonian freighter Katherine Anne, where his chief at the Confederate Press had booked him passage to Odyssey.

Life in Katie, as her crew called her, seemed normal enough at first, but Church had since compiled a long list of suspicions about her true purpose. For one, the crew were far too deferential to be merchant sailors. In his experience, only career Navy men could be so polite while saying so little.


Day 6: would you rather spend a week in your universe, or have your antagonist spend a week in ours?

Well, the antagonist in these naval war in space stories is “the horrors of war”, and as far as its presence in our universe goes, that ship sailed quite a long time ago.

To pick a more concrete antagonist, though, the warship commanders opposite our heroes are upstanding, gentlemanly sorts. I wouldn’t say no to having them stop by so I might pick their brains.

On the other hand, spending a week in my universe basically means I get to spend a week IN SPACE, which is pretty cool. I have to say I pick that one.

Day 7: share a line in which the plot thickens.

In which our intrepid correspondent is surprised:

In the belter hangar was what Church took to be a warship, but it was like no warship he had ever seen.


Day 8: what would your protagonist be like as the antagonist?

I’ll answer using the deuteragonist today. Confederate war correspondent Lloyd Church would very likely be United Suns war correspondent Lloyd Church, minus some lingering health problems from time in Caledonia.

Ship’s Lieutenant-in-Command Aubrey Harper, on the other hand, is more interesting. She’s part of the Naval Arm’s Special Action Group, where all the off-book projects end up, and while she enjoys the work, she hasn’t had much opportunity to distinguish herself as a commander. She has a knack for it, and Exile frigate captain or fleet admiral Aubrey Harper would be a formidable foe, given time to settle in. Daring, canny, and inventive are a dangerous combination of traits for a commander.

Day 9: what would your antagonists be like as protagonists?

I make my antagonists, for the purpose of this question, to be Exile captains. The short answer is ‘less effective’. The long answer starts below.

The Exiles—properly speaking, the United Suns—have their genesis in a splintering of the original colonization project which founded the Confederacy of Allied Worlds. Owing to disagreements which are too nuanced to recount here, one ship was exiled from the five-ship colony fleet. Four carried on to form the Confederacy. The remaining ship, locked on a different course by the other four, became the first world in the polity which would eventually become the United Suns. They never quite got over it, and their distaste for the Confederacy only increased when the Confederacy instituted exile as a form of capital punishment.

Fast forward 340 years or so. The United Suns make contact with the Confederacy. They have war on the mind—a war of conquest, yes, but also a war of revenge for three centuries of slights. Their spies bring back information on the Confederate Naval Arm, and their shipyards build their fleet with an eye toward beating their most hated foe.

The Exile War kicks off, and Confederate captains find themselves outgunned. The insufficiently crafty ones die. The Exile Navy, at the time of The Star-Studded Black, has not yet faced that kind of selective pressure.

Day 10: talk about a favorite side character.

Meet Leading Sailor John Ellet. He’s an ambitious young man in his early 20s, who, as the junior man in his boat, got stuck with minding the war correspondent. He takes to the task with aplomb. Not content with his lot among the ship’s enlisted company, he’s looking to join the Naval Arm’s officer corps by taking the qualification test in a few years, once he gets his warrant. Our reporter Mr. Church thinks he has potential.

He’s named for a number of Ellets who served the Union in the Mississippi theater. They weren’t regular soldiers or sailors; they were private citizens who purchased a number of river tugs, armored them, added ram bows, and placed themselves under the command of the Union forces in the theater. Private soldiering at its finest.

Day 11: what parts of your story are based on personal experience?

Pretty much none. I’ve never served in a military, written for a newspaper, or been to space. That said, ‘write what you know’ is a terrible slogan for authors of fiction (provided you interpret it as ‘write what you’ve experienced’). If we all stuck to that advice all the time, we wouldn’t have speculative fiction at all. “Speculative” is right there in the name.

Day 12: share a line you nailed.

In which we meet our intrepid war correspondent:

Lloyd Church was in the dark. He hated being in the dark.


Day 13: would you rather never publish this WIP, or watch it be turned into a horrible movie?

From a crassly financial perspective, I’d much rather watch it be turned into a bad movie. Not only do I, in this scenario, have the money from selling the movie rights, I also have a book which sold well enough to in turn sell movie rights to.

Day 14: share a GIF which represents your main character’s personality.

Bonus: this is war correspondent Lloyd Church and, at present, me.

Day 15: share a line in which a decision is made.

Once again, it’s more than a line. My characters don’t do single-line things. Starting now:

“Did he mention the prize incentives?”

As one, every Navy man in the room leaned forward ever so slightly.

Harper stifled a smile. “I see he did not. No ten-percent prize if we destroy a target off his list. No, the Navy pays us the full appraised value, whether or not we bring it back.”

Church could see the avarice sparkling in the sailors’ eyes.

“Which is why,” Harper continued, “we won’t be hunting them in particular.”


Day 16: pick an ideal reading spot, musical number, food, and drink for your work.

Food and drink: something roasted, and a classic cocktail. (An Old Fashioned, say.)

Place and music: see this video.

Day 17: something you’re still working out.

That would be the main character’s voice. I haven’t quite decided yet if he’s direct and plainspoken, or eloquent and literary.

Whichever I pick, it bears heavily on editing. Unlike We Sail Off To War, which was a story about Winston Hughes narrated in the voice I commonly use for Exile War stories, this story is supposed to sound like Lloyd Church. (I toyed with the idea of writing it in the same old-time war-correspondent-memoir mode I’ve read in 19th-century newspaper archives, but passed on that as too gimmicky.) When I have Church altogether figured out, I’ll have to go back and put his voice in through the whole story.

Day 18: share a thought which keeps you going as an author.

It’s less a thought and more a routine. The steady drumbeat of serialization deadlines keeps me honest. For The Star-Studded Black, I plan on setting some milestones through the end of 2017 and mid-2018; by that time, I need to be done if I plan to hit my 2018 release date.

Day 19: share a line which was hard to write.

I can’t, because I haven’t written it yet. Suffice it to say that this is a war story. People we like die. That’s the nature of war. For all the fun I have writing these, I dread having to write the consequences.

Day 20: would you rather have tea with your antagonist, or be stuck in an elevator for three hours with your main character?

Lloyd Church is a fascinating man with a lot of stories. I’d probably aim to finagle more than three hours of his time.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 5

Emma led Whiskey flight away from the stricken zep. Swiftsure drifted, all her engines out of commission. Further ahead, Majestic cut her engines. It looked as though the Devil’s Daggers had chosen the better part of valor and hoisted the white flag.

Whiskey flight circled while Inconstant caught up. Boarding an airship with no engine power, like Swiftsure, was not straightforward. The typical solution—taking an airplane across to the other zep’s skyhook—only worked if the other zeppelin could make way.

The boarding party would have to go across from Inconstant. That could get very dicey indeed, as Emma knew all too well, if the other airship’s crew wasn’t in a cooperative mood. Swiftsure had surrendered, though, and some of her crew were already waiting on her stern gun platform.

Cannon laid Inconstant fifty yards aft of Swiftsure, and by means of a reduced charge and a heavy grapple in the bow gun, launched a heavy line across the gap. Other lines followed, and soon the two zeppelins were loosely moored together.

Emma led her flight higher, until they circled a thousand feet above the airships. Looking out the side of her cockpit, she could just see figures crossing the ropes between the airships.


Joe Copeland held his machine pistol across his chest, waited for Cannon to cross the ropes, slung his gun over his shoulder, and followed. He had never minded flying, but standing on a four-inch hawser two thousand feet above the sea with nothing but a lifeline around his waist was a different story. He hurried across, then took up position behind Cannon, taking the submachine gun in hand once again.

He spent a lot of time playing the intimidating bodyguard. He was the largest Long Nine by a good margin, the fact that the gang’s most dangerous fighters were a skinny Australian woman and an old Chinese man notwithstanding. He looked the part, and that was what mattered at times like this.

The trio of Devil’s Daggers manning Swiftsure‘s aft platform were conspicuously unarmed. That was a good sign. They waited for the other two members of Cannon’s party to cross the lines, then informed the Long Nines that Captain Thorne would speak to them in his quarters at their leisure.

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Twitter changes

I’ve decided that, since my personal Twitter is primarily political in nature, I should have a writing Twitter too, for better separation between those two realms for those readers who prefer it.

Going forward, here’s how things will shake out:


  • Politics
  • Defense and geopolitics
  • Sports
  • Auto-Tweets for new posts and news here


  • Writing-related content (what I’m doing, little samples, and so on)
  • Also auto-Tweets

Update your follows accordingly. I look forward to sharing a bit more freely on both accounts going forward. (Also, TweetDeck makes me feel like someone awesome in mission control.)

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Book Review: The Humans Who Went Extinct

Occasional contributor Nasa, of Old English translation fame, returns to us with a book review. Like all of Nasa’s work, it is scholarly in both topic and length, and comes with a list of citations for your perusal. Given the size of it, and my desire to keep to a proper odd-Tuesday even-Friday schedule as far as Nathaniel Cannon numbering goes, I think I’ll let it stand for this week’s content. Enjoy! -Fishbreath

Imagine a campfire under a starry sky, and across the little, flickering fire from you, a storyteller. The light of the fire extends only a few feet, and only the closest patch of ground is really distinct; beyond, shadows that flicker with the shifting light of the fire quickly dim off into the vast, unbroken blackness of night in the great outdoors—the great unknown. Whatever may be out there in the vastness, submerged in the impenetrable dark, you can’t see it for yourself, but the storyteller weaves imagination and inference, dotted here and there with references to the few landmarks that you can recognize, perhaps, in the faint starlight, into a compelling narrative about the shape of the land around you, and the reasons why it has come to be so.

Appropriately enough, this analogy of a tiny campfire in the vast darkness of the landscape, and the contents of that darkness filled in by a canny storyteller, is a good fit to the narrative journey which we take under the guidance of Clive Finlayson as he traces the emergence from early hominins of modern humans and modern human society in his recent The Humans Who Went Extinct. The narrative is interesting, compelling, and plausible, carried by the author’s considerable knowledge, inference, and above all, his powerful imagination, but if we ask whether the story Finlayson tells is an accurate description of what lies covered by the vast, thick darkness of deep time, we are forced to admit firstly that it is probably inaccurate in many details and even some of its core points, but moreover and with much greater certainty, that we still do not know. The darkness of time still blinds us almost completely to the enormous majority of our past.

The scale of Finlayson’s book is nothing if not ambitious. He seeks, in a handy and trim 220 pages of prose (in the mass-market paperback, ISBN 978-0-19-923919-1) to trace an arc of cause and effect all the way from the climate-driven expansion of the earliest primates at the dawn of the Eocene, 55 million years ago, to the rise of agriculture within the last ten to twelve thousand. If, as the saying goes, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes” then Finlayson takes a step further, rendering a portrait of history as no mere casual rhymester, but as an intensely persistent poet, as a few key notions are brought to bear on situations again and again, all the way from the squirrely eocene ancestors we share with lemurs and capuchin monkeys up to the development of anthropogenic global warming: climate and geography determine history; stressed, marginal populations are better positioned to adapt and expand under changing conditions than their conservative and less stressed counterparts; luck often conquers all. Though I fully believe that Finlayson’s own conception of human history across this enormous swath of time is much subtler and more acute than this, pop-sci books that fly off the shelves because they’re tractable and interesting don’t lend themselves to nuance, and what we find ourselves being told in Finlayson’s volume is not that history has a certain rhyme to it, but that, essentially, the cause for the success of miocene apes is the same as the cause for the success of hominins, or anatomically modern humans, or Siberian big game hunters, and you don’t need to be a career paleoanthropologist to raise your eyebrow at that.

There are two unfortunate results of this: the smaller and lesser of the two is that occasionally Finlayson must allow facts a little more slack than some will be comfortable with (or, more precisely, a little more slack with the question of what is settled fact and what is still debated or speculative), but by far the larger and—to my mind—by far the more unfortunate is that he profoundly neglects honest reflection of the scale of what we don’t know. A single example of the latter may suffice to clarify what I mean.

A large part of the book (though not nearly as large as the subtitle might lead one to believe) is devoted to explaining why Neanderthals went extinct without a trace, while modern humans survived. First of all, though the evidence at the time Finlayson was writing seemed to be leaning in the opposite direction, we now have a much greater certainty that in fact, Neanderthal people didn’t go extinct without a trace at all— they are the ancestors (albeit the minority ancestors) of most human beings on the globe today, contributing a few percent of the heritage of probably all modern people whose background is not exclusively rooted in sub-Saharan Africa (see Racimo et al., 2015; et alibi). In light of this increasing certainty, Finlayson’s explanations for why Neanderthals and modern humans did not interbreed are obviously somewhat embarrassed.

A greater embarrassment for Finlayson’s narrative, however, is the mounting evidence that what has yet to be explained or understood is not the interaction between Neanderthal people on the one hand and our majority ancestors on the other, but rather a history of interaction between an as-yet unknown but certainly larger variety of human and hominin populations: we can now say with some certainty that an otherwise extinct population known as the Denisovans, only slightly more closely related to the Neanderthals than they were to our majority ancestors, recently inhabited central and South or Southeast Asia, and contributed a few percent to the genomes of populations who nowadays live in Australia, Papua, and Melanesia (Reich at al., 2011; Mendez et al., 2012). Beyond the contributions of Neanderthal and Denisovan people to modern gene pools, there is also emerging but less certain evidence for possible contributions from a fourth archaic population in sub-Saharan Africa (Hammer et al., 2011) and a fifth perhaps also in South Asia (Mondal et al., 2016a), although debate continues regarding the latter especially (Skoglund et al., 2016; Mondal et al. 2016b). There is also better certainty now than there was when the book was published that Homo floresiensis is a real taxon, deeply separated from our own ancestry (Argue et al., 2017; Van Den Bergh et al., 2016), although conversely we are now less certain whether they actually ever encountered our recent ancestors face-to-face, although they certainly overlapped chronologically, at least briefly, in island Southeast Asia (Sutikna et al. 2016).

We can take from this that the specific narrative which Finlayson offers of the interaction between early modern humans and Neanderthal people isn’t fully accurate, but that misses the much bigger point: in the less than a decade since this book went to press, our understanding of where our ancestry lies, and how different groups of people or less fully human hominins eventually became our ancestors or became extinct, has been completely up-ended. We can now say that the story is much more complex than we appreciated nine years ago, but does that mean that we understand that complexity well now? Of course we don’t. If we ask how many different types of human existed within the last 50,000 years, or which or how many became the ancestors of at least some people alive today, the only honest answer that can be given is that we don’t know. Where did they live, what happened to them, how did we interact, and why? We have only the vaguest shadow of an idea for some, like Neanderthals, and not even that for others.

50,000 years ago, it seems quite probable or certain that our majority ancestors were wearing clothes, building their homes, and speaking languages that would not be notably unlike those spoken across the globe today; they were biologically indistinguishable from us in all but the finest nuances and details, like lactose tolerance and innate immunity; they made and understood art, they were curious and brave explorers and settlers, given the opportunity, and they were creative and flexible innovators who readily invented or adopted new technologies when faced with new problems, not on the scale of geologic time, but in the scale of lifetimes or generations. That is to say, they were us, in every way that matters and in every way that can be said universally of people alive today. So, can the same be said about the other types of human they encountered? We don’t yet know. We know that they encountered others, and that some of those encounters ended with descendants shared between some of those groups, but we don’t yet know how, or why, or where, or even what people we’re talking about— we now know, for instance, that the people we call Denisovans are among our ancestors, but all the Denisovan bones we have would literally fit not just in the palm of your hand, but in a thimble— two molars, part of a toe bone, and a little dust of what was once a finger bone. We know that all our ancestors, along with those who did not survive, saw their world devastated and changed almost beyond recognition in that time by brutal and repeated climate change, by the fickle tyranny of the seas which have abandoned and reclaimed continents’ worth of land, over and over again, on short notice, and by the end-Pleistocene extinctions, which some of them may themselves have caused, but beyond that we know terribly little. The huge majority of history—of the history of people who were indistinguishable from us except in those ways in which we are equally distinct from one another, and whose actions and choices have lead to the world we live in today —the history of people whose lives were shaped not by the “nasty brutish shortness” of animal existence, but by the forces of language and culture, spirituality and technology— our history— is unknown to us. Finlayson’s book is an informative and an interesting read, but that is the critical realization that you simply will not come away from it with.

Argue, D., Groves, C. P., Lee, M. S., & Jungers, W. L. (2017). The affinities of Homo floresiensis based on phylogenetic analyses of cranial, dental, and postcranial characters. Journal of Human Evolution (30), 107-133.

Hammer, M. F., Woerner, A. E., Mendez, F. L., Watkins, J. C., & Wall, J. D. (2011). Genetic evidence for archaic admixture in Africa. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(37), 15123-15128.

Mendez, F. L., Watkins, J. C., & Hammer, M. F. (2012). Global genetic variation at OAS1 provides evidence of archaic admixture in Melanesian populations. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 29(6), 1513-1520.

Mondal, M., Casals, F., Xu, T., Dall’Olio, G. M., Pybus, M., Netea, M. G., … & Bertranpetit, J. (2016a). Genomic analysis of Andamanese provides insights into ancient human migration into Asia and adaptation. Nature genetics, 48(9), 1066-1070.

Mondal, M., Casals, F., Majumder, P. P., & Bertranpetit, J. (2016b). Further confirmation for unknown archaic ancestry in Andaman and South Asia. bioRxiv, 071175.

Racimo, F., Sankararaman, S., Nielsen, R., & Huerta-Sánchez, E. (2015). Evidence for archaic adaptive introgression in humans. Nature Reviews Genetics, 16(6), 359-371.

Reich, D., Patterson, N., Kircher, M., Delfin, F., Nandineni, M. R., Pugach, I., … & Saitou, N. (2011). Denisova admixture and the first modern human dispersals into Southeast Asia and Oceania. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 89(4), 516-528.

Skoglund, P., Mallick, S., Patterson, N., & Reich, D. (2016). No evidence for unknown archaic ancestry in South Asia. bioRxiv, 068155.

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Nathaniel Cannon and the Hunt for the Majestic No. 4

Emma nudged her control stick to the right, settling the Falcon’s nose on a point few hundred yards ahead of the zeppelin. Black puffs a dozen yards to the left, in between her plane and Takahashi’s, signaled bursting flak, but she barely noticed. She nudged the controls with her fingers alone. Almost in range, the Falcon’s gunsight slid onto the engine car. She fired.

Rockets shot forth from her Falcon’s wings, each a flash of fire trailing a pillar of puffy white smoke. She released the trigger after the second pair came free and watched them impact the engine gondola beneath her gunsight. Flung free by the blossoming explosions, the propeller whirled down to the azure ocean below.

Ordinarily, Emma went for the celebratory barrel roll beneath her target when she hit it. Given that the other half of Whiskey flight were, in all likelihood, lining up their shots at the very same moment, she settled for a more conservative hard break away. Looking over her shoulder, she saw flames darting out the windows of Swiftsure‘s other two starboard engine pods, trailing oily black smoke.

“Spot on, Whiskey flight,” she said. “Let’s see if they’ve left us any fighters.”

They hadn’t. The Kestrels, strange though they looked, were the best dogfighters in Inconstant‘s complement, and the skipper put only his best all-around pilots in their cockpits. Two parachutes floated down toward the water, and two life rafts bobbed amidst the waves. Still a few miles away, one of Inconstant‘s Albatross transports dropped from her belly. They, too, were odd aircraft: long, slender wings with two fuselages. The port fuselage was an ordinary tube, with an engine at its forward end and half a tail at its back. A cargo door allowed access to the hold. The starboard fuselage, a teardrop shape only half the length, held the cockpit in its glazed nose, a turreted pair of machine guns atop the wing, and a pusher motor and propeller at its aft end.

This example featured temporary floats bolted on beneath each fuselage, and gamely descended toward the sea to pick up the downed Devil’s Daggers. Captain Cannon had a policy: don’t make any enemies you don’t have to. Emma knew it to be a fairly recent development. It was the reason she was, for one, alive, and part of the Long Nines for another.

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