"The author’s creativity gambols across the planet along with his characters, and the journey is as much about the weird creatures as it is about the human drama. Readers will enjoy taking a trip to Junction and experiencing some of its bizarre wonders." - Publishers Weekly
When Japanese nature show host Daisuke Matsumori finds himself on an alien world, he hopes to rekindle his passion for his work. Traveling through a newly-discovered wormhole in the Papuan highlands, he joins biologist Anne Houlihan on Junction, a patchwork planet of competing alien ecosystems.
When their exploratory party crashes in the alien wilderness, Daisuke and Anne try to lead bickering soldiers and civilians back to civilization alive. As they trek across one unearthly biome after another and members of the party continue to die, however, Daisuke wonders whether human politics might be more deadly than alien biology. One of his companions might be a murderer.
FLAME TREE PRESS is the new fiction imprint of Flame Tree Publishing. Launched in 2018 the list brings together brilliant new authors and the more established; the award winners, and exciting, original voices.
About the Author
Daniel M. Bensen writes alternate history, science fiction, and fantasy – usually with kissing, always with a bibliography. His work includes Junction, the Sidewise Award-winning short story Treasure Fleet, and his novella Petrolea. He is represented by Jennie Goloboy of Donald Maass Literary Agency.
Dan was born in Chicago and has since lived in Maine, California, Montana, Japan, and Boston. He currently lives in Sofia, Bulgaria, where he teaches English and resides with his daughters, wife, and in-laws in the Balkan Tower of Matriarchy.
Treasure Fleet, Sidewise Awards for Alternate History, Best Short-Form Alternate History, 2016
Read an Excerpt
Daisuke Matsumori faked a smile and held out a dead mouse. The little corpse dangled by its tail, its eyes closed, its toes clenched, observed by the cassowary.
"Ah, he sees it," Daisuke stage-whispered at the camera. "See how he's focusing on it. Look at those forward-pointing eyes. Like a little tyrannosaurus, isn't he? All right. Here he comes."
The cassowary charged. Its beak gaped. The horny casque on its head cut the air like a shark's dorsal fin. Hairlike black feathers streamed behind pumping legs. The claws on its inner toes flashed, each the length of Daisuke's middle finger, ready to disembowel him if he made a wrong move.
Daisuke kept smiling. He even managed to keep his eyes from shutting as the flightless bird dashed past him, snatching the mouse from his hands. The cassowary ran until it got to the other end of the enclosure, then stretched its neck and choked its snack down with a toss of its wrinkly blue head. Its orange wattles jiggled and suddenly the cassowary was ridiculous again. Someone without Daisuke's experience would see only a fluffy puppet, prancing to entertain children.
Which was why Daisuke wasn't surprised when he heard his director say, "Cut! No, it's still not right. Not enough danger."
Daisuke allowed his smile to drop. "It could have killed me."
"Maybe, but it didn't look like it," said Yoshida from behind the camera. "We need to film you fighting something with more horror. A snake, a shark, a crocodile, or something."
"We've done crocodiles," said Daisuke.
"So we'll do crocodiles again. That's what the Iron Man of Survival Does! You throw yourself at dangerous beasts. You eat bugs. You gush about how splendid nature is." Yoshida made chopping gestures with his hands. "So tell the animal handlers to take us to their biggest reptile. And let's lose your shirt, okay? Smear some mud on your chest."
Daisuke suppressed a sigh and turned to the handler standing in the cassowary cage with his animal control pole held ready. "Thank you," Daisuke said in English. "That was very good. Now I must wrestle a crocodile. Okay?"
"Okay!" said the handler, obviously thrilled to be part of a Japanese wilderness survivor show.
Was I ever that happy to be doing this work? Daisuke tried and failed to summon up some pre-divorce enthusiasm. At least this guy's salary won't all go to a bunch of lawyers. Even the cassowary gets a mouse out of the deal.
"Stop frowning!" said Yoshida. "While the camera is running, that expression on your face is hard to look at.".
Yes, I am close to burning out. Thank you for your concern.
But Yoshida was right, damn him. Searching for control, Daisuke rubbed the groove on the finger where he'd once worn his wedding ring. The ring was no longer there, but the skin where it had been still bore a subtle groove. He could feel it, even if he could no longer feel Eriko's cool fingertips on his lips or hear her voice before he left for a shoot. "Switch on that smile," she'd told him, and he had. Daisuke had flashed his teeth like magnesium flares and ridden the dazzling expression to his spot as the star of the most popular nature show on Japanese television.
The cassowary growled at him, a basso rasp evocative of wild boars and hungry dinosaurs. Careful not to turn his back on the murderous bird, Daisuke let himself out of the cage.
Yoshida scratched the back of his bald head. "It's just one more series, right? A month in the jungle and then vacation! What are you going to do with all that free time?"
Brooding, mostly. But what Daisuke said was, "Let's find those crocodiles."
"And take off your shirt," said Yoshida. "I was serious about that."
Of course he was. Well, at least I'll be cooler when I'm shirtless and smeared with mud.
The Port Moresby Nature Park was insulated from the noisy chaos of the rest of the capital of Papua New Guinea, but it was still too hot, and far too humid. The air still felt like it would be more efficient to breathe through gills. Why couldn't NHK have put my farewell performance in Kamchatka? Daisuke yearned for rustling larch forests and crystalline streams, but his most highly rated series of survivor shows had taken place in a jungle. Therefore, according to the merciless logic of funding, so would this last expedition.
On their way to the crocodile pool, Daisuke, Yoshida, and the cameraman passed under the malevolent gaze of the giant praying mantis statue at the center of the park. They were supposed to be establishing the scene before Daisuke was whisked away into the leech-filled marshes of the New Guinea lowlands. There, he would spend the next few weeks grinning into the camera as the elements punished his body, then back to eating microwaved rice in his empty apartment while despair shriveled his soul.
Suffering is the core of my career, thought Daisuke. What an asshole I must have been in my previous life to deserve this.
The satellite phone on Yoshida's belt rang.
"Hello?" The director's sweaty forehead folded with sudden confusion. "Who may I —? Ah, yes, sir! Of course, sir." He thrust the phone at Daisuke. "It's Mr. Takeda."
"Yes?" Daisuke took the phone and pressed his producer's chilly growl to his ear.
"You can speak English, right?"
"To some extent," Daisuke said, sharing a wary look with Yoshida. "Ah, you might not have been aware of this, sir, but we are in the middle of a shoot --"
"It's over!" barked the producer. "Pack up. Prepare for departure."
"Huh?" Yoshida snatched his phone back with nothing more than a perfunctory nod and a, "Thanks, Matsumori."
He wouldn't have done that last year. When his job was my favor to him and not his to me, my director would have let me hold that phone for as long as I damn well pleased.
Stop, Daisuke ordered himself. There might still be a camera trained on him. This might all be some bizarre stunt by NHK to insert drama into Daisuke's final performance.
That meant he couldn't let the bitterness he felt show on his face. Daisuke was as much a trapped performer as that flightless bird in its cage, forced to turn somersaults for food.
Daisuke rubbed his empty ring finger, pretending he could forget that he was standing under the glare of his future audience. Now, what could he do with his hands? How about wipe off some of the sweat piling up over his eyebrows? Yes, that would look natural.
The phone conversation had gone on too long. If there was still a camera on him, there was no way they were going to use this footage. And even if they were, the audience would certainly expect some curiosity on the part of the Iron Man of Survival. "What's going on?" Daisuke asked his director. "What's happening? What's wrong?"
His director waved him away. "Sir, I'm afraid that that is impossible," he said into the phone. "The money is already — Canceled?"
Daisuke allowed his face to show surprise, but none of the relief or fear he felt. He didn't have to drag himself through the New Guinea swamps. He could just drag himself back to Tokyo. Think of all the extra rice I'll be able to microwave.
Yoshida wiped his own brow, his face red. "So, are you saying we should just go home?"
The director pulled the phone away from his ear as if it had bitten him. That allowed Daisuke to hear that his producer was giggling like a schoolgirl.
"I'm not saying anything about going home," the producer said.
Daisuke grabbed the phone back from Yoshida. "What does that mean? Are we supposed to shoot in another location?" He reached for patience and the appropriate honorific language. "I'm sorry, sir, but I must have told you that this shoot was going to be the last. And I'm not in good health, either. In addition, in Tokyo there's, um, an important meeting —"
"Your wife's pack of lawyers can wait, little Matsumori," chortled his boss. "But the helicopter isn't waiting."
Surely a little anger would be expected of him at this point. "What damn helicopter?"
The phone crackled. It was hard to tell, but Daisuke thought he heard a door slam back in the NHK office. Voices rose in the background and the producer's syntax flipped from brusque command to obsequious servitude. "Yes. That is right, sir. I will do so, sir. I will tell them immediately."
Yoshida hissed through his teeth. Daisuke knew what he was thinking: Who could possibly be high-ranking enough to make the tyrant of NHK programming excrete oil like that?
"You will prepare to fly immediately," said the producer, back in authority mode. "If you don't, you will be fired and maybe dead and condemned forever as traitors to Japan and the whole human race!"
"Sir, what are you saying?" Yoshida pleaded into the phone, losing his honorifics as his desperation mounted. "Who're you saying is flying to where for what?"
But Daisuke could already hear the chop of rotors. On the off chance those hidden cameras were still rolling, he struck a pose, chin up, finger pointing. From beyond the bug-eyed fiberglass head of the praying mantis, a helicopter appeared in the sky.
Back in its cage, the cassowary growled.
* * *
"This is Daisuke Matsumori, the Iron Man of Survival," he found himself saying three hours later. "As you can see, I'm in a helicopter, not a Land Rover. I am not going to my scheduled destination on the Karawari River, but to Indonesian Papua, where ... well, I'm sure my esteemed viewers saw this footage before I did."
The Indonesian journalists that were this helicopter's other passengers had shown Daisuke the images: a series of photographs taken by a cell phone camera, time-stamped yesterday. Daisuke would have seen them on the news in his hotel room if he hadn't been at the zoo since before dawn.
The first photo was of a hole in the ground. Soil and rock sloped at a strange angle down to a blue and white distortion — something that was obviously not a glitch in a digital camera, because a human arm stuck out of it. In the next photo, the arm's owner was climbing out ofthe hole, the distortion behind him like a chromed bubble reflecting a sky clearer than the current weather in New Guinea, and with a different kind of sunlight.
Daisuke cleared his throat and spoke again to the mic on his headset and the camera in front of him. "There is a wormhole in New Guinea," he said. "On the other side, there is a planet very similar to ours, although not exactly the same."
Whoever edited this footage for distribution might choose this pause as an opportunity to insert the next pictures Daisuke had seen: a snow-dusted mountainside that matched no landscape on Earth, lots of pictures of animals, plants, worms, more worms. The photographer was apparently a biologist. An Australian woman who'd come here to study birds and found herself in the center of a geopolitical maelstrom. Daisuke hoped he'd get a chance to interview her, but that job would probably go to Nurul.
"There is life on the other side," said Daisuke. "Amazing life. Those animals are not giant caterpillars or scaly sea cucumbers." He chuckled, and if the sound was forced, nobody would be able to tell through the helicopter noise. "They are alien life, products of an evolutionary process entirely separate from ours."
And if those 'aliens' turned out to have been cooked up in some animator's computer, Daisuke would look like an absolute fool. Were his producers setting him up to fail? Was this some oblique punishment for his marital problems? An excuse to fire him?
Daisuke glanced out of the window of the helicopter and dismissed the possibility. Not that his bosses wouldn't be so vindictive, but he doubted they could rope the Indonesian military into their schemes. Those were Indonesian attack helicopters flanking the civilian model that carried Daisuke. Whatever this wormhole really was, important people were taking it seriously.
"I have been chosen. ..." prompted Nurul.
Daisuke blinked and refocused his eyes. His new director was seated next to him, impeccably dressed and made-up as if to announce the weather. Even flying a thousand meters above impenetrable alpine wilderness, Nurul Astarina looked as unruffled as if standing in front of a blue screen. Daisuke admired her professionalism.
"That's your line," she said into her own microphone. "'I have been chosen for the honor....'"
Daisuke waved his hand in front of his nose. "I am sorry, Ms. Astarina."
"Nurul, please." She smiled. "I did say."
Daisuke had traveled the world long enough to stop being embarrassed about calling coworkers by their first names. "I'm sorry, Nurul," he said, "I was just...."
Just what? Shocked? Overwhelmed? Burned out? Ambivalent about whether he really wanted to travel to another dimension and be eaten by alien worms?
"Ten minutes to wheels down," the pilot said into Daisuke's awkward failure to complete the sentence.
"Don't worry," said Nurul. Like the pilot and Daisuke himself, she was speaking English. "It is an awkward situation."
That was putting it mildly. Nurul had been reticent about the goings-on in the Indonesian government, but Daisuke could guess that a lot of people in Jakarta were still furious that big-brother USA had landed its soldiers on their territory. The rational thing for Indonesia to do would be roll over and play nice, but politics wasn't always rational.
Lines were being drawn, ultimatums made, sabers rattled, and someone in the UN had seen this smoking powder keg and said to themselves, "Why, this looks like a job for a Japanese television personality!"
"I apologize," said Daisuke. "Of course, I am very happy to have this opportunity to —" he felt ridiculous saying it, "— explore an alien planet. But I am very surprised there isn't an American person they wanted to lead the expedition? Or Australian?"
"I don't think there is time for that," said Nurul. "I was told they needed people who they could get through the wormhole today."
And that was another thing that bothered Daisuke. The international response had crashed down on the Papuan Highlands with ridiculous speed. Mere hours after that Australian biologist had sent her alien photos to everyone in her address book, the sky had started raining American and Australian paratroopers. The Indonesian jeeps had arrived only a little later, and now it seemed there were two armies growing up around the wormhole, each making threat-displays at the other. Nobody had shot anybody yet. At least, not in any official capacity.
"This is all very fast, isn't it?" Daisuke said. "Why don't we wait until tomorrow? Do they think the, ah, wormhole will go away?"
Nurul stared back at him, eyes wide. "I don't know."
"Of course," said Daisuke, not at all reassured. Was he here as somebody's patsy? A scapegoat in case things went wrong? Orjust someone more personable than the typical soldier? A propagandist?
And if the photographs were genuine, that made Daisuke's position even more precarious. Three years ago, he would have taken the opportunity to explore a new world with lavish thanks and quite a bit of private ego, secretly certain he deserved it. Now, though, Daisuke could feel suspicious unease. Was he really just the first appropriate person they could find? Why did they need to work so fast? Why couldn't the American, Indonesian, Papuan, and Australian governments hammer out territorial claims quietly, then open a joint tour company and start charging admission?
Not that he had any choice in the matter. Daisuke was unequipped to imagine what a real encounter with extraterrestrial life would mean for him personally, but he knew how his public persona ought to react. Would the Iron Man of Survival turn up his nose at an offer to accompany Charles Darwin? Mamiya Rinzo? Lewis and Clark? It was impossible for him to refuse.
Look at it this way, Daisuke. Maybe an alien will eat you, and you won't have to go back to that empty apartment.
"We can always do this on the ground." Whatever her own private worries might be, Nurul gave Daisuke a smile indistinguishable from truth. "I'm sure they'll keep us waiting."
Daisuke laughed politely, but said, "No, no. Let's do at least one more take. I'm ready."
His director turned to her husband and said something in rapid Indonesian. Rahman Astarina had so far exchanged no words with Daisuke other than "Ya," "Okay," and "I what's your pilem," which Daisuke had eventually understood as "I watch your films." His wife's English, however, was better than Daisuke's.
"Whenever you're ready," said Nurul while Rahman gave a thumbs-up. She gave her husband a smile, and Daisuke tried to ignore the sullen swell of envy at a functioning married couple. What did they do to deserve their happiness?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Junction"
Copyright © 2018 Daniel M. Bensen.
Excerpted by permission of Flame Tree Publishing Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Q. What is the book about?
A. I have a friend from college who went on to become a marine biologist, the illustrious and amphipod-probing Dr. Kat Anderson (see her on twitter at @KatMAnderson). Once, talking about conservation, Kat wondered aloud whether, if we got a new continent to explore, we'd do anything better with it than the British, French, and Spanish did with North America 500 years ago.
That got wheels turning in my head. What would happen if we suddenly got access to a whole new world? I wanted the civilization in the book to be ours, so no space flight was allowed, and I wanted the wormhole to be old but unknown to science, so it couldn't be in downtown Baghdad or anything. I could have put the wormhole in Antarctica, but lichen is boring, so I put the it in the New Guinea highlands, where it could plausibly have stayed unknown until just now. To further stir the pot, I put the wormhole right over the border between the independent state of Papua New Guinea and Papua, a province of Indonesia.
So we have a situation just as interesting and full of conflict as the 17th-century North Atlantic. Lots of players, lots of asymmetries of power, tons of unknowns, and very high stakes. It will take way more than one book to let all the political dust settle.
Q. Did you base your characters on anyone you knew?
A. Dr. Kat Anderson was the inspiration for Dr. Anne Houlihan, except I made Anne Australian rather than American and, honestly, removed about half of Kat's biography because nobody would believe it.
I also based the story of Junction very loosely on the exploration of Lewis and Clark, whose Corps of Discovery trekked through my parents' back yard in Lolo, Montana. The geography of the Bitterroot Valley bears a strong resemblance to the area around the Earth wormhole on Junction, and two of Lewis and Clark's companions, Sacagawea and her common-law husband Toussaint Charbonneau, inspired the characters of Sing and Tyaney.
Q. Where did you write?
A. I mostly wrote on my kindle while walking around in circles in Knyazheska Gradina near my office or on the bus somewhere else in Sofia. Writing while traveling helps shut up my internal censor.
I also highly recommend Belchin Spa in Tsari Mali Grad as a good place to outline a novel. For editing, try a ski resort in Borovets. They certainly worked for Junction.
Q. Did you write in silence, or to any particular music?
A. When I'm at my computer, I listen to a book-specific playlist while I write. The Junction playlist is here, and don't look at me like that. It grew like that organically. I don't know how those Storybots songs got there.
Q. What was your process for creating the aliens in Junction?
A. For this project, my creature-creation started with biochemistry, then proceeded through mobility, then embryological development. So for the shmoos, for example, I imagined a system that used hydrochloric acid to dissolve glass and re-secrete it into a globe like a fishbowl to hold an animal's internal fluids and organs. The fishbowl moves by rolling as the animal inside it shifts its weight, and keeps its water-based and acid-based fluids separated by a layer of silicone. That logic generated a whole slew of creatures, from plant-like organisms that plate the ground of the glasslands to herbivores shaped like wheels and sea-urchins, to the predatory shmoos themselves.
Q. How do you do your research on the snippets of human languages you include in the book?
A. For Japanese, Indonesian, and Russian, I found native-speakers to help me. One, my Japanese teacher here in Sofia, was kind enough to help me translate Daisuke's conversation with his director in chapter one from English to Japanese and back again so could I get a grip on his voice.
I couldn't find native speakers for any of the Nun language's real-life relatives (Eipomek, Ketengban, Yali, and most importantly Nalca), but I read all the materials I could find about them. Then, I horribly misunderstood those materials! The mangled, simplified grammar and mixed-up vocabulary that resulted seemed plausible as an avoidance language (specifically a "pandanus language") spoken in taboo circumstances like, for example, when talking to outsiders or when on the wrong planet.
Q. How did you decide on the different alien ecosystems?
A. In some ways, the ecosystems of Junction predated the planet, itself. I'd been thinking about mutually lethal habitats interacting since my marine biology class visited a Maine salt-marsh. I figured out the wormhole conceit and put together a rough draft of Junction (which I called "Router") on Deviantart. There, with the help of such deviants as Carey N. Dunn and Luke Johnson, I put together alternatives to photosynthesis, including the arsenite => arsenate + carbon monoxide pathway of the Deathwind Biome and the water + hydrogen => methane + carbon dioxide pathway of the Toymaker Biome.
Many ideas ended up being merged, mutated, and sometimes driven extinct by the merciless selective pressure imposed by the story, but a surprising number survived.
Q. Were you ever tempted to just throw scientific realism out the window and create something impossible for the fun of it?
A. It wouldn't be fun for me. I learned a long time ago that the sort of world-building that satisfies me is speculation. Start with point A, say an earth-like planet tidally locked to its red-dwarf sun. It only has one face getting sunlight, so how does its biosphere evolve to deal with that? "Plants" that harvest energy from the wind that blows from the day to the night side? Crystals that redirect light onto the night side? How would animals evolve to take advantage of those plants, and how would the plants return the favor? The ecosystem I ended up with, besides being satisfying to make, has the advantage of teaching the reader something. Even better, the reader can keep track of Anne's discoveries about the biology of Junction and make predictions. There are more mysteries in Junction than just the murders.
Q. What are you writing now?
A. Right now I'm writing The Centuries Unlimited, a detective-noir family saga with gangsters and time travel. It's mostly about hope and the future.
Q. What are the underlying themes?
A. I wrote Junction in the year of the birth of my second daughter, which was also the year I developed cancer in my large intestine. At first, I thought my symptoms were just lack of sleep, and spent most of the year in a state of every-increasing pain, exhaustion, and depression. There are parts of Junction, especially the parts near the end of the book, where I can see my own problems reflected in Daisuke and his struggle to survive. Then, over the course of my recovery as I edited Junction, I saw another theme emerging; survival is hard, but it's also beautiful. As living things, we are the way chaos organizes itself, as wonderful as any wormhole.