The stories behind the stories

Overdraft: The Orion Offensive

“Don’t be smacking our trader like that. Not before I’ve had the chance!” — Bridget Yang

Overdraft: The Orion Offensive

Aliens and armored mercenaries take on Wall Street in my first non-licensed prose work! Click to see the glossary and the timeline for the series!
Published by 47North • April 2, 2013
Written by John Jackson Miller

Cover by Paul Youll

Edited by David Pomerico

In 2011, anthology editor John Joseph Adams approached me to contribute a story to the Armored collection. “Human Error” was, as described in its production notes, my first foray outside of licensed work in many years, and while a short story, it still involved the development of a science-fiction world with its own physics, politics, and economy – as well, of course, as the creation of a fun cast of characters. While writing about Bridget Yang and her “Surge Team” – surgical strike team – I began to set my eye on doing more with the setting. Overdraft: The Orion Offensive was the result.

Armored was published in the spring of 2012, and not long afterward, the opportunity presented itself. David Pomerico had been one of my editors at Del Rey during the production of the Star Wars: Lost Tribe of the Sith e-book series – a series which had seen more than a million downloads. By the summer of 2012, David had moved on to 47North – Amazon’s science fiction and fantasy imprint, as acquisitions editor. In discussing the series of short stories I had in mind for Bridget’s cast, David suggested that the work might be a good candidate for the then-as-yet-unlaunched Kindle Serials program.

Serialization is, of course, one of the earliest “delivery systems” for fiction: many books we know as novels today first appeared serialized in literary magazines, newsletters, or pulp magazines. I’ve written elsewhere that the concept of numbering in comic books likely comes from the “dime novels” that serialized fiction in the late 1800s and early 1900s: for those magazines, the most important fact was where you were in the story. As the pulp era waned, the Silver Age of comics largely picked up the serialization torch, beginning stories that continue to this very day (publisher “reboots” aside).

With the Kindle platform, 47North offered the opportunity to both write and tell a prose story in installments, just as I had been doing for years in comics. There’s not a lot of difference between writing 12,000 words of a prose story and writing an 8,000-word comics script, as far as time goes. And the set of stories I had in mind – all short stories with a single narrative arc – could be easily retooled into a serial simply by moving the ends of each pulse of action to create cliffhangers. The episodes would work standing alone to a degree, leading the reader from one to the next, and the eventual story would stand as a novel. Indeed, the work would be compiled as both a physical book and ebook at the end of serialization.

So I set to work serializing the work I’d envisioned, which now had an important and critical addition. I had always intended to provide a foil to the smart and resourceful Bridget – a woman so unflappable little got under her skin. I wanted a character that would rile her up – who would test her patience while testing the limits of his own endurance. The result was Jamie Sturm, a true fish out of water: a stockbroker, cast into the strange frontier world of interstellar sales. Jamie would be just as clever as Bridget was, but not in any way that she’d see as useful. He’s greedy, self-interested, and more than a bit corrupt (whether he saw himself that way or not). For my Star Wars fans, it was a little like pairing Gryph with Kerra Holt – except Jamie has a much bigger chip on his shoulder and is missing the loyalty gene (at least at the start), and Bridget has more of a sense of humor.

We looked at a number of different names for the story. “Surge Sigma” had been my working title – Bridget Yang’s surge team being headquartered out of Sigma Draconis – but that sounded a bit too much like a program a management consultant might present. And with Jamie’s introduction, the story became less of a rote military science fiction tale, and much more of a rollicking space opera, going from one world to another in the pursuit of profit on a deadline. Jamie had bankrupted the expedition – the “Overdraft” of the title – and they’d drafted him over the stars to fix the mess, so to speak. “The Orion Offensive” subtitle added a science fiction element to the title, ensuring no one thought they were looking at a letter from a credit agency. (And the abbreviation made you go “OOO.” Ahem.)

The plot completed in late 2012, I began writing the storyline in early 2013, after finishing the first draft on Star Wars: Kenobi. Novel-writing, they say, is the marathon to the short story’s sprint: the serial felt more like a relay race where I was running every leg. While I did work ahead as I already had the framework of the story, the dynamic was much more like comics in that the earlier chapters were already published as I was working on later ones. As in comics, it was still possible to make some changes to pieces already in production – and, perhaps uniquely, because of the fact that the work was basically being reissued every two weeks on Kindle, overwriting the past document, we were even able to correct the odd typo in earlier episodes on readers’ devices. Strange new world, indeed!

The production time for the serial ended up taking about as long as it took to write a full novel – which this basically is, at 100,000 words – but where my novel-writing regimen is to get a specific word-count done every single day, I tended to treat the individual episodes as separate works with separate deadlines. (That was how they were going through production, after all.) 47North has a talented group of proofreaders and marketers, and the process was very efficient. Kudos to David and the 47North team – things seemed to run smoothly, even when I had some emergency travel to do mid-serial.

The cover was by Paul Youll, the talented artist who did the covers for several Star Wars books including the Essential Readers Companion and Scoundrels. We were looking for something that recalled the old fantastic pulps – with a detailed look to the technology – and Paul really delivered.

An audiobook was released in MP3 form as well as on CDs; it was also made available for Audible. Luke Daniels narrated it for Brilliance Audio. His Jamie voice is delightful.

I moved on to other projects immediately afterward, but I did write a short story, “Burnout,” a year later, providing Bridget’s origin story. That would be my last Overdraft work for some years; it has not been in print since I withdrew the book from 47North, but I do expect to get it back in circulation eventually.

“In case any of us don’t make it, I want you to know: I hate you all.” — Kolvax

And now on to the specific notes and trivia, which I’m breaking up by episode. The episode titles all have financial elements:

Episode 1 (Chapters 1-7): Greenmail

Greenmail is the practice of buying enough of a company to threaten a takeover, in the interest of getting the company to buy you out. Jamie being blackmailed into service – where there are big green ugly aliens – was the connection.

I hadn’t included a year in “Human Error,” but decided to set the story in 2138, 125 years after the publication date – and 200 years after what was a very tumultuous time to be on Earth, the last year before World War II began. I’ll leave it to the reader to decide what, if anything, that portends!

The story takes place four days after the end of “Human Error” – see the timeline here – and while readers by no means needed that story to figure things out, it is pretty well integrated into the story overall. Formation Seven-Alpha had been introduced there, as had Bridget, Leonid Falcone, and Michael O’Herlihy.

One character that did not make the trip from “Human Error” was the quartermaster/armorer or Q/A, the somewhat precocious teenager Jake Temmons. I had other things in mind for that position, and I wanted to show that work for the expedition was an at-will thing: people could come and go, depending on what their contracts said.

I had established the international mash-up of cultures back in “Human Error” as well. Bridget Yang’s roots were from China, Ireland, and Greenland, and she hailed from Canada; Michael O’Herlihy was a good old boy from Little Arkansas just outside Beijing. Hiro Welligan’s name again fit that pattern.

The guacamole gag was fun, but it required figuring out a mechanism for Bridget to take internally something from outside her spacesuit environment.

We lay the groundwork here for what the SHELs – the Supralight Hygienic Environment Layers – do, but we won’t find out most of the details until later.

Jamie’s introduction is purposefully martial-sounding; he imagines he’s at war even when he’s at the trading desk. It’s a fun contrast with what Bridget is actually doing.

Jamie’s position as a hedge fund manager for his expedition is a far-future reimagining of how global finance works. It occurred to me that with tremendous sums being expended by expeditions to blaze the trail into space, it would be in their interest to both profit from and protect themselves against the influx of strange new commodities coming in through the whirlibangs. So the corporations are themselves players in the stock and commodities markets, playing off the information they receive at the Solar System’s point of entry — Venus. Other brokerage firms are on the bourse, as well; I imagine a trading desk at Ops is quite costly!

It’s a four-day flight from Venus to Earth, at least by Jamie’s carrier; we get a sense that it takes longer to travel within systems than between systems.

Jamie’s workstation’s ability to watch him and respond to his movements is not that far off modern technology, and you could do the mirror thing now.

Quaestor and Praetor are old Roman Empire terms, naturally. The expeditions are the modern empire builders.

The whirlibangs and their curious limitations are the most obvious fantastical element in the series, and all sorts of economic and storytelling consequences spring from them. Some of these things were suggested in the original version of “Human Error,” but no details about the transit stations were given then.

Ops really is the Roman goddess of abundance. I’d never heard of that one before, but it really fit the station.

Leo Falcone is a lot of fun. Philip Baker Hall was my dream-casting for him.

The dollar figure Jamie was in hock for actually took a long time to figure out. I took a look at what extremely rare commodities were going for now, and built outward a bit to see how much value Jamie could cram into a single shipping container as his “profit.”

The destruction of the barracks is something we saw in “Human Error.”

Kolvax — a one-word name, like Voltaire — was a fun foil to introduce. He’s just as much of an operator as Jamie is – though by now, his followers are getting wise to his game.

All the star systems named in the series are real — and I calculated the distances between each star using the application here. Since the distance between stars influences the amount of time that passes both inside and outside a bangbox in transit, it was necessary to know.

The guacamole gag — or Jamie gagging on guacamole — was intended to be the most memorable moment in the first episode. It’s just the beginning of Jamie being up to his neck in trouble!

Episode 2 (Chapters 8-13): Golden Handshake

The Regulans built the Dragon’s Depot – and as it happens, they build quite a lot of things that end up not being used. They’re the galactic equivalent of real estate speculators, bitten here by the housing bubble!

The Xylanders’ preference for cooler climes is an early tipoff to who they are.

Giotto was an Italian astronomer, and also the name of the space probe that pursued Comet Halley in 1986.

Ascot Chang is a real-life clothier in New York City.

A chelengk is also real; Captain Jack Aubrey is given one as a reward in Patrick O’Brian’s Treason’s Harbor. They’re gaudier than you can imagine.

I didn’t want a whole lot of cybernetics in the story-world, but the EndoSys is an offshoot of some other technology I introduced. Nanoids in the surface of the skin trigger pigment changes, essentially working as animated tattoos, delivering information. I suspect no one ever needs a blood pressure or temperature reading to be taken externally with this system, but I also suspect that you don’t see that information by default. That’d be nerve-wracking!

We continue to hint about what happened at Overland in this chapter. The Walled Garden seemed like a natural societal response to the discovery of alien life – but we also see that it’s such a minority position that it’s turned to terrorism.

The north and south drums of the Dragon’s Depot spin in opposite directions, eliminating the need for a flywheel. It’s also large enough that it doesn’t have to rotate very fast to generate a single gravity — and that fact means the Coriolos effect isn’t a problem for residents living inside the outer shell.

With Welligan, we see that human hair has become a medium for animators, too.

A lot of the stars closest to Earth have really unwieldy names, like Struve 2398A. One hopes that when we get there, we’ll give it something more marketable. Calling Madison Avenue…

Jamie’s shuttle is initially referred to as Prospector. It’s actually just the class of vehicle.

Our meeting with Lorraine the Sheoruk establishes how communication takes place between different species. The knowglobes, introduced in “Human Error,” act as translators.

Readers – most of them, anyway – will instantly recognize what broadcast it was the Xylanx saw. There are a number of pieces online studying whether Lucy Ricardo could be our first stellar ambassador – she’s certainly a nicer one than Hitler, as seen in Carl Sagan’s Contact. Note that the story is aware of the limitations of leakage of ground-to-ground broadcasts; we find out the mechanism for it later on.

It struck me that the sales crew wouldn’t tote along samples through space, but would actually manufacture them on the spot. Thanks to 3-D printing, that’s not as far-fetched as it might once have been.

Episode 3 (Chapters 14-20): Underwater Holdings

Bridget’s inability to communicate in the undersea environment was intended to be accurate: radio wouldn’t be much help, but it made sense that she’d have the equivalent of an underwater telephone using water as a medium for ultrasound.

The fresherpak concept for the team’s armor helped to reduce the weight of the outfits, which carrying a lot of oxygen would aggravate.

The tale of Indispensable’s name – and some of the other options – is historical.

We don’t tell here what Coandacars are, but it’s assumed they work using the Coandă effect . It was a bear making that special character everywhere we used it in the book!

Regulation One is “Protect the trader”; we now know that Regulation Three is “Don’t kill the customers.” Pretty good advice.

Baghula is tidally locked, so night never falls in Jamie’s location. But the planet’s star isn’t hot enough to make things too unpleasant.

Jamie, a student of 20th Century film and television, would know what Pan Am was.

The radio channel, five sixty, is one of a number of 560s in my work.

The automobile delivery silo at Autostadt is a real thing.

Virtual reality is nothing new, but it struck me that Hollywood would repurpose all of its old content in whatever was possible – such that sitting at a sitcom bar in Boston would become an actual thing to do. (And no, there was no wisecracking stockbroker in Cheers – until Jamie logged in.)

The Leelites, I figured, looked like transparent versions of the Sesame Street aliens.

Episode 4 (Chapters 21-27): Winner’s Curse

The term “winner’s curse” refers to a real-life situation in auctions where the buyer has incomplete information. For Surge Sigma, this is definitely the case in anything involving the Xylanx.

The members of Surge Sigma are all wearing gloves, so the signature handgrips are responding to something other than palmprints.

Yes, a Looney Tunes-themed musical does win the Tony in the far future. There’s hope for Broadway yet.

We’re beginning to find out more about Jamie’s family early in this episode; her mother has bodyguards.

Victor Gideon is somewhat different from the typical homicidal maniac in that there’s clearly a more mild-mannered Jekyll buried far beneath the Hyde that’s there now. No idea if we’ll ever see him!

The X-560 is yet another 560.

It was fun to realize that Gideon was the one human the Xylanx felt some kinship with.

Star shells exist, of course, and can be seen in many a war movie.

Boca Brahmins is a play on Boca Raton – many of the Keelers are from Florida – and Boston Brahmins. But we realize as well that the Keelers are everywhere on Earth, not just involved in U.S. politics.

Kolvax gives us a wink about how crazy-sounding the names are that we’ve given our neighboring stars.

Frocky is one of my favorite characters in the story. Look up Phil Silvers to hear what the knowglobe thinks his voice sounds like.

Episode 5 (Chapters 28-34): Tip from a Dip

The pedometer notion continues the idea that 22nd Century teaching tends to be absentee in many cases: Jamie’s athletic exercise was monitored remotely in physical education class rather than in person.

John Abaza‘s fate raises the stakes of the story at a critical moment: Jamie needed to see how dangerous things really were, and he and Trovatelli lose the confidence of the crew at the same time. It’s a shocking moment after what we’ve seen, but it sets up the rest of the book.

I always had to be mindful of the effects of high gravity; there wasn’t any easy evacuation to the ship that would be possible.

We’d seen the armor override capability demonstrated in the first chapter of the book, and I thought it would lend really well to the “dance exhibition” we got to see.

“Could it be that easy?” is a frequent refrain in dealing with aliens in this book, once you know what it is they’re looking for!

Cathe Wu is named for Cathe Smith, who suggested the dilemma that became the premise for “Human Error.” She is a geneticist, just as Cathe Wu is.

We learn more about the SHEL outfits in this episode, as the nanoid information will become important in the finale.

Kolvax sure spends a lot of time in the privy. Here, he’s on a killing spree in the Porriman men’s room.

The Queen’s Own Rifles is a real outfit in Canada. We also learn from this that the British monarch as of the hearings is a queen in 2131.

There’s a date error as Jamie’s thinking during the hearings; he’s just remembering the year wrong. The hearing is in 2131, not 2130.

The immerso goggles, set up as an entertainment system, here put Jamie in the middle of the flashback.

The number of the Congress is correct, but you’ll note the number of Senators is up to 118. Nine more states? Possibly…

I actually chose the name Overland before I found a town by that name. Overland, Nebraska, seemed to work perfectly.

Bridget’s confrontation of Lucas Baines was in the same sort of place where Kolvax just hunted down an alien: the rest room.

It was always my intention to have the SEC go after Jamie, and follow him to outer space. It was part of the fun mash-up between the Wall Street we know and space opera.

Dalrymple, the CFTC agent, was named for a street near where I lived in grad school in Baton Rouge.

Episode 6 (Chapters 35-41): Tender Offer

“Slumlord: The Next Generation” is a callback to the boardgame I created for my first Simpsons story, years earlier.

The fact that Jamie had a second scheme going on at the beginning ought to come as no surprise to anyone — but it served the purpose of giving the SEC a reason to get involved in what was otherwise a Quaestor matter.

Two Eighty, the valuable district, is half of 560.

Lissa’s surprise gesture to Jamie is the “tender offer” of the episode title, obviously.

Santos is every bit as upright a citizen as Jamie is a shady one; he worked as a good counterweight to have in this episode, where the fissure between Jamie and Bridget is becoming a chasm.

We finally see the extent of Trovatelli’s double game in this episode. I’d been laying the groundwork since early in the serial, and it and the secret of the Xylanx worked as a one-two punch when the episode was released.

We also see the extent to which Trovatelli has been improvising, changing her tactics as she goes along. We didn’t have any sequences from her point of view before now: this is why.

I love that 37 Geminorum is in the jurisdiction of the U.S. Third District Court.

And, yes, Kolvax knows how to pronounce Neanderthal correctly, even if most of us never use it right!

Episode 7 (Chapters 42-48): Strike Price

Again the immerso glasses prove useful in conveying information and experiences. It’s almost like having a portable holodeck!

There were clues earlier that the Xylanx might be the Luk’a: here, we see the truth, and how other species came to confuse the two.

The Shaft is, again, a very tricky place to have a firefight in: much more so, when the lights are out!

The remote-control override for the armor suits, established earlier, comes back to haunt Bridget here. But the SHEL suits have secrets of their own, as we see. I had known all the details about the SHEL suits and how they functioned from the beginning, but doled out the details and the hints sparingly until this moment. It’s not out of nowhere, but it is a game-changer.

If there’s one thing I regret, it’s picking the name Keeler for Jamie’s stepfamily. While the similarity with the Star Trek character Edith Keeler’s name should have made it easy to remember, “Keller” snuck in several times. I think the one in chapter 46 is the only one we didn’t catch.

Giving Jamie some preternatural responses to the unmasked Xylanx was a fun way of underlining their common origins.

“The Mournful Howells” is a joke I’d tweeted even before the story came out. I’d love to see that band!

The Kayman Weber detail addresses most of the objections this piece had to the I Love Lucy signal reaching the stars: it was no accident that the signal was sent out.

Platinum-190 I had studied up on early in the game: it’s the rarest, most portable commodity in the physical world common to the humans and the Xylanx.

I’d set up the little tree right from the start; it was simply a matter of finding a species that fit the story’s needs. There really is a szaferi birch in the Krakow Botanical Gardens collection!

Editor David Pomerico suggested that the ‘box the Xylanx were sending Jamie to Earth in was one of the ones from Jamie’s initial scheme. It wa a great idea and one I was glad to use.

Episode 8 (Chapters 49-57): Poison Pill

The St. Theobald’s at Brooklyn passage — about the university studying the various ways the world could end — nearly included a joke about their university initials. STBU equals “sucks to be you,” and that’s the case in most of the scenarios they study!

Having Kolvax use “monkey on one’s back” to describe his people’s conflict with another group of primates was a lot of fun.

Likewise, the only place to really have the humans and the Xylanx fight things out was the prehistoric jungle!

It took a while to think through the physics and the motion involved in Jamie’s escape from the whirlibang rings, but it was worth it. It’d be great to see it animated one day.

“In case any of us don’t make it, I want you to know: I hate you all.” Most rousing pre-battle speech ever?

Poor Tellmer. By this time, we should want to buy him a stuffed animal.

The idea of Jamie clocking Kolvax with the briefcase was there from the very start. Weapons of the stockbroker trade!

As always, Kolvax does most of his thinking in the bathroom. Prophesying, too.

The idea of the other big solution coming literally out of Jamie’s backside, on the other hand, was a later addition. But it also worked well.

And the $560 million sum gives us our last 560, honoring my grandfather’s ship. Thanks for serving, Granddaddy.

The end promises Overdraft: The Cygnus Campaign, which will happen as soon as I get time to get around to it. Stay tuned!