A time-traveling federal agent doggedly pursues justice in Tom Sweterlitsch’s gripping novel ‘The Gone World’

April 12, 2019

By Matthew E. Milliken
April 12, 2019

I’d never heard of Pittsburgh science-fiction author Tom Sweterlitsch until I stumbled across a library catalog listing for his second novel, 2018’s The Gone World. Having read the book last month, however, I’m prepared to say that he’s a force to be reckoned with in the genre.

Sweterlitsch’s debut book, Tomorrow and Tomorrow, concerned a man who investigates unexplained deaths in a virtual recreation of a destroyed city. The Gone World is a complex time-travel mystery in which a Naval Criminal Investigative Service agent attempts to apprehend a SEAL accused of slaughtering his wife and children.

The protagonist here, Shannon Moss, is uniquely qualified to investigate the 1997 triple homicide. Like suspect Patrick Mursult, Moss trained to sail with Naval Space Command, a classified U.S. military fleet capable of probing the distant reaches of time and space. Moss was diverted to NCIS after her first solo excursion on a far-future Earth ended in a bizarre injury that resulted in the partial amputation of her left leg.

By a bizarre coincidence, the Mursult family lived in the same house in Canonsburg, W.V., that was once home to Moss’s best friend. This is all part of the background that Sweterlitsch offers early on, moments after a 2 a.m. phone call has summoned Moss to the crime scene:

When she stood, she perched on her single foot like a long-legged shore bird, rocking on the pads of her toes for balance. Her crutches were within reach, Lofstrand crutches she kept propped in the gap between her bed and nightstand. She slipped her forearms through the cuffs and gripped the handles, propelling herself through her bedroom, a cluttered mess of clothes and magazines, loose CDs, empty jewel cases — slipping hazards her occupational therapist had warned her against. 

Cricketwood Court… 

A shiver passed over Moss at the thought of returning. She and Courtney had been like sisters through middle school, freshman year — closer than sisters, inseparable. Moss’s memories of Courtney were the sweetest essence of childhood summers — endless days spent poolside, roller coasters at Kennywood, splitting cigarettes down by Charters Creek. Courtney had died their sophomore year, murdered in a parking lot for the few dollars she’d had in her purse. 

Headline News on the bedroom set while she dressed. She applied antiperspirant to her residual limb, then nestled her polyurerethane liner against the blunt edge of her thigh, rolling it to her hip as if she were rolling on a nylon stocking. She smoothed the rubbery sleeve of any air bubbles that might have accrued against her skin. The prosthesis was an Ottobock C-Leg, a prototype — a computerized prosthesis originally designed for wounded soldiers. Moss slid her thigh into the socket and stood, the volume of her thigh forcing out air from the carbon cuff, vacuum-sealing the prosthesis. The C-Leg made her feel as if her skeleton were exposed — a steel shank instead of a shin. She wore slacks, a blouse the color of pearls. She holstered her service weapon. She wore a tailored suede jacket. A last glance at television: Dolly skulking in her hay-strewn pen, Clinton touting the newly signed human-cloning ban, promos for NBA on NBC, Jordan versus Ewing. 

Moss has a unique advantage that her regular law-enforcement colleagues lack. When the investigation into the Mursult murders runs into a dead end, her boss can send her to the future: “IFTs, these futures were called… inadmissible future trajectories. ‘Inadmissible’ because the future was mercurial — the futures NSC traveled to were only possibilities stemming from the conditions of the present. She was prohibited against using evidence gleaned from a future to build a case for prosecution in the present because the future she observed might not ever occur.”

Unfortunately, when Moss arrives in 2015, the authorities have little additional insight into the Mursult killings. Nor can they explain why the primary suspect and the “river rats,” his associates, are officially listed as missing in action aboard the U.S.S. Libra, a time-traveling ship that disappeared in an eye’s blink. In an effort to avoid returning to the present empty-handed, Moss spends months earning the trust of a former lover of one of the suspects — a woman who, Sweterlitsch reveals in a startling moment, somehow knows more about Moss than she at first revealed.

‘The Gone World’ (2018) by Tom Sweterlitsch.

It emerges that Moss and the gang that she winds up tracking have been crossing paths, on Earth and in time, for untold years. What’s more, both Moss and the river rats are attempting to achieve the same ends using very different means: Protect Earth from a mysterious phenomenon known as the Terminus, which threatens all life on Earth. As she will eventually discover, the menace involves a patch of West Virginia wilderness centered around a strange, repeatedly replicated tree known as the Vardogger.

Moss pursues her investigation over the decades, reviving relationships with her mother and with once and future colleagues along the way. Sweterlitsch weaves a fantastic and fascinating story as he describes Moss’s intellectual and emotional journeys, which culminates in a desperate bid to avert disaster. The Gone World is a smart and gripping book. While it may be primarily of interest to science fiction fans, it has elements that should captivate mystery lovers and other readers.

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