Overdraft: The Orion Offensive
While the production notes section immediately below reveals no
secrets, consider a SPOILER WARNING
attached to the Trivia sections further down. You'll want to read the
book before reading those.
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.
It’s been a great experience, and I definitely intend to do more with the cast of this series one of these days.
And now on to the specific notes and trivia, which I’m breaking
up by episode:
NOTES AND TRIVIA
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.
The episode titles may not survive when the serial goes to book form, but they all have financial elements:
Episode 1 (Chapters 1-7):
- 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
- 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
- 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 is 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
- 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 — many can
be found here — 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):
- 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
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):
- 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
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
- 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
- There's a date error as Jamie's thinking during the
hearings; he's just remembering the year wrong. The hearing is in 2131,
- 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,
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
- "Slumlord: The Next Generation" is a callback to the
boardgame I created for my first Simpsons story, years
- 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
- Again the immerso glasses prove useful in conveying
information and experiences. It's almost like having a portable
- 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
- 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
- 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!