November 1st, 2019

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s NaNoWriMo output to these hallowed pages. This year I’ve got a setting I like very much, and an opening that I can get behind, and little Malika promises to be a handful. But I don’t actually have much of a story figured out yet.

This part works, though, if you ask me, and sets up perhaps a Young Adult hard-sf story centered on a female character.

If it looks familiar, it’s because it’s based on a little piece I did a while back, but from the point of view of the more interesting person.

The Garden

The children walked single-file along the path, gravel cruncing softly beneath their feet. Malika was near the back of the line; only Remi was older than she was. She had walked this same path almost every day since her fourth traditional birthday, at the very front to start with, until Barry had come along and taken her exalted spot. Over the years new kids started at the front of the line and the older kids dropped off the back, to begin their vocational training and take the next step toward adulthood.

She had resented Barry at first, but after years of staring at the back of his curly-haired head, it had come as a shock the day he wasn’t there anymore. Now she followed Abigail’s pony tail.

They reached the half-bowl-shaped depression in the center of the garden, its gently-terraced sides providing seating in the lush grass. The little ampitheater was large enough for the whole clan to gather, but most of the time it was just the children, come for their daily histories.

They filed down the slope, and occupied the first two rows. The ground was cool beneath her, moist to her touch. She pushed her finger into the soil, then raised it to her nose to breathe its life. The garden was the center of her tiny universe.

Malika loved the history stories. It meant time in the garden, with the smells of the soil and the plants and the air heavy with moisture and oxygen. It was a symbol of their weakness, the older ones said, this desire of scarce resources, the drive that had been the undoing of her kind. But Malika didn’t care. She was a mammal, and she liked what she liked.

At the focus of the arc Evie waited for them to settle in, her pale face with that half-smile that almost never wavered. Evie was much paler than most of the children she faced, which was one reason Malika’s clan had traded for her. New Blood. Even now Evie’s belly was starting to grow for the second time. Malika’s family said that this baby was probably going to work out better than Evie’s first one had.

Most days, Evie would open her book of history and tell the children about one of the times a general or an ambassador had made a difference. These were the moments when all the other lessons the children recieved in the sterile classrooms outside the garden, from calculus to psychology, were put in context. When Malika was younger she had revelled with stories of success, tales of clever planning and dexterous adjustment, but now she was more interested in the failures. That was where the true wisdom was to be found. If Malika was going to be a general one day — which she most certainly was — then she needed to learn from the mistakes of those who came before.

Remi, to her right, would not be a general. Remi was smart, but he was a dreamer, and there was nothing in the universe worse than being one of those. When Malika leaned close she could feel his intelligence radiating from him, but he was unable to apply it to anything useful, anything that would justify his oxygen allowance. It’s not that he didn’t try, but his thoughts were often slow to develop. When he reached that thought it was often profound, at least to Malika’s ear, but profundity had little value. If he was better at math he might become a scientist, but numbers were as slippery as ion-repellent lubricant for him, never lining up in the orderly way they did in Malika’s own head. But there had to be some way he could contribute.

Thinking black thoughts, she pushed a little closer to Remi on the soft grass. The moisture from the earth soaked into the seat of her uniform, a feeling she could only know during the history stories.
Except this day, Evie did not open the usual book of history. She opened the Book of Earth. “It is time we remember where we came from,” Evie said in her soft voice.

While the little kids in the front leaned forward eagerly, Malika groaned. Once she too had been eager to learn of Earth, but not anymore.

“It used to be, in a garden like this one, the air was filled with music.” Evie waved her hand and cocked her head, as if she could hear the sounds. “All around were creatures called birds. They were like reptiles, but covered with lightweight, fibrous things called “feathers”. She held up her book so the children could see the illustrations. On one page was a strange creature with a pointed bone for its nose, an insect crushed in its mouth. The bird had its wings outstretched, to show the feathers. The other page showed one of those feathers; it resembled a leaf to Malika’s reckoning. Birds were reptiles that grew leaves and could fly. At least they ate bugs.

“Earth,” Evie said, her voice reverent. “It was a place like no other in the galaxy. A place of such rich variety and vast resources that mammals could flourish and build a civilization. Imagine,” Evie said, gesturing up to the dull metal over thier heads, measured by a grid of lights that emitted a set of wavelengths calculated to match Earth’s sun. “Imagine the sky, like a cieling but far above, blue, but not the sort of blue you can touch. Sometimes water would fall from the sky, and people would dance with joy.”

Malika closed her eyes and took a breath. She had loved that image as a child, she had imagined herself standing under the blue sky as water blessed her, but now she was almost graduated and she could see Earth for what it was: a mythical place. A story you tell the children. And the reason they made it sound so magical was to drive home the real lesson. All the stories of Earth ended the same way.

“No one knows what the music of the birds actually sounded like,” Evie said, her eyebrows sad over that same half-smile. She paused to turn the page of her history book.

“And then the mammals fucked it up,” Malika whispered to Remi. He turned to her, his eyes wide with surprise.

Evie hadn’t heard her. She held up the book again, this time to an image of desolation; trees burning and birds crying in fear as they were immolated. “But we know their music was beautiful. The first histories lament their loss.”

Evie pasted on a sad face as she turned to the next page of her history book. Malika didn’t have to look to know it would show their reptilian saviors.

“Malika.”

She whipped her head around to see Creche Master Willi rise from a bench in the foliage. The children went silent. Evie lowered her book, her eyes wide, her complacent smile forgotten. Willi held out his hand. ”Could you come with me, please?” It was not an idle question. The Creche Master held the power of life and death. It was the same question he had asked Barry.

Remi grabbed her hand without looking at her, but he let go as she stood on shaky legs. You don’t cling to compost.

Malika was having a hard time breathing as her heart tried to jump out of her chest. “Master Willi?” Her throat was so tight she could barely speak. She wanted to look him in the eye but inhaling was about all she could do.

His hand was still outstreatched. “If you could come with me.”

She didn’t have to stumble over anyone to shuffle up the slope to where Willi waited. Just breathe, she told herself. You’re going to be a general. She knew that wasn’t true. Not anymore.
Behind her the others were silent. She reached Willi, and he kept his hand out until she took it, gripping him tight. Her legs wobbled but Willi supported her through that link.

“Am I compost?”

Willi smiled, but it seemed forced. “We are all compost. You know that. Will you walk with me?” He didn’t wait for Malika to answer; he turned up the path to the bulkhead door, her hand still in his. The door opened and they both passed through quickly, allowing it to close again before too much magic leaked out.

The air outside the garden was brittle and cold, and left Malika always a little hungry for more. She followed Willi along a corridor, the deck the same gray metal as the bulkheads, stained here and there where humans were likely to touch. They turned in a direction that led to a door Malika had never passed through. A door to a differet world. No one ever came back through that door.
“Please,” Malika said. “I can be good.”

Willi gave her a sad smile. “I don’t think you can.” As her knees gave way he wrapped his arms around her, lifting her back up, supporting her. “But we’re not here to be good, whatever that means. We have to earn our way.”

They reached the portal that led from Malika’s tiny world to the domain of a star-conquering species. Willi lifted an oxygen tank from a rack by the door an Makila copied him, slinging the gas cylinder over her shoulder and putting the mask over her nose and nouth. “You are about to be judged,” Willi said. “I have told them you show promise. Don’t let us down.”

1

Frey

Prologue: If you like fantasy, should you read the first volume of this epic? I say “Hell yes!”

The review (two hours earlier):

Frey, by Melissa Wright, is the first installment of a rather long series. Often writers of series will offer the first installment for free to get readers hooked. I am a cheap bastard, and I do enjoy a high fantasy. I decided to give this one a go.

Right off the bat, a small warning sign. There is a prologue, but the action of the prologue actually happens somewhere around chapter four. So… not so much a prologue as a tease (also a time-honored literary tradition).

Mark Twain (I think it was) said (something like) “Start the story as late as possible.” It’s something I consistently fail to do. My Kansas Bunch Colleagues accuse me of “walking to the story,” meaning I have a bunch of stuff happen and then the story actually begins. Having a “prologue” that is actually something that happens not that far into the story strikes me as a way to create an alternate entry point into the narrative, as if the author is aware that the first few pages aren’t compelling enough on their own.

I was happy to discover, then, that the first few pages actually were compelling enough to stand on their own. Perhaps a little more work was needed to make them really grab, but there was plenty enough happening that the artificial tension-upper prologue was not necessary.

Frey is just your typical elf, except she can’t do magic, which makes her not typical at all. She walks around with a big L on her head and she has a special tutor but she’s pretty much hopeless.

Except it turns out that the day before we start reading she got pissed off at some elf-bitch who was mocking her and kinda-maybe did some fully-justified hurtful magic.

When I read that part, I was reassured that there would be no walking to the story. Significant shit started going down even before we join Frey in her world.

In fact, I kind of wish the narrative had started one day sooner. I wish I was there for the teasing, for the avoidance, for the pursuit, and for that moment of anger when Frey turns on her tormentor and everything changes, even if we didn’t know it at the time. It could have been a powerful scene. And anger is one of Frey’s core strengths; we may as well start learning that.

A Mysterious Stranger arrives in town, and Frey is fascinated by him. We’ve read these stories before, and we know what that means. Frey has not read those same novels and will require more convincing. Mysterious Stranger’s name is Chevelle. That took me back for a moment, as that is a name I used jokingly in The Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy. It turns out this name will be the second-least silly name to follow in this entire book.

I think the author was having fun with the names, kind of a nudge-nudge game with her readers, but it was distracting.

So there is traveling, and the assembly of the party, including Steed (see what I mean?) and Ruby, who are themselves interesting, multi-dimensional, and well-rendered.

But here’s the thing that annoys me no end. ALL those people know things about Frey, about her muddled past. (Of course she has a muddled past.) But no one tells Frey anything. Frey, for her part, seems to be working extra-hard to be clueless about the intentions of the others. Information withholding and deliberate obtuseness — two cornerstones holding up a plot that would shrivel and die if you shone a light on it. That’s two stars off for lazy plotting.

One of the two stars I deducted for this sin shall be restored because one of the entourage found a way to circumvent the will of the others, adding complexity to the group dynamic. Then a star removed again for the author not exploiting the schism in the group.

What drives me crazy is that all this obfuscation just wasn’t necessary. And so many cool moments were lost because of it. Consider this modest modification:

“You need to learn to use weapons. Why don’t you give this sword a try?”

Frey takes the sword. It’s not as heavy as she expects. There are runes etched in the metal. “It’s beautiful,” Frey says.

“It used to be yours.”

BAM! That’s a moment. But that moment can never happen because the author is hiding things from the protagonist that even WE know, despite the first-person narrative.

There’s another part where Frey does something… monumental with that same sword. Not monumental in the sense of changing the course of history, but something that should have been personally monumental. Something that doesn’t fit with the image she’s built of herself, yet no identity crisis follows. What a great opportunity to start a personal struggle that could carry through the whole series.

So many annoyances, but. I got to the end pretty quickly, turning my electric pages. There must be a reason for that.

The prose itself is of the “do your job and don’t get in the way” school, not prone to strutting and preening for its own virtue. I can appreciate that. Descriptions and setting are good enough I’d like to know more.

But mostly it’s the ideas in this story that kept me going. Some are the same old tropes I love so dearly, like the rise of the lost and forgotten child. There’s a “let’s turn the myth upside-down” conceit that’s fun. There’s a whiff of elf-eugenics, thrown for a loop by an outside influence. But above all that there is a spirit of rebellion. Fantasy for so long was about defeating the evil, disruptive elements. I like stories where the protagonist herself is a disruptive element. By the end of her story, things are going to be different.

Mechanically, I have issues, but the story has heart and it has behind it an intelligence (that the characters don’t always share).

If you like fantasy, should you read the first volume of this epic? I say “Hell yes!”

Whether you read the second volume is up to you. I probably won’t. But I’m tempted. But I probably won’t.

Feeding the Eels: the end

I know you hate me for walking away when I did. I hate myself even more. Thousands of rounds were unleashed in that hotel, with the cops rushing in the front while the Blood of the Saint rushed in the back. Had Cello been alive, he would have orchestrated things better, reminding them all who it was they actually worked for. Instead the two gangs chewed each other up.

So much shooting, and Alice in the middle. The .45 APC is the opposite of Alice’s favored ballistics. She prefers a tight round moving flat and fast; the .45 is a beachball to her way of thought. But at 10 beachballs per second she could do some damage. I didn’t doubt for a moment that she had the strength to keep the muzzle down as she did what she does best.

On sixth avenue, treasure map in a bundle of laundry on my back, I considered my next move. I didn’t want the treasure, whatever form it took. I didn’t particularly want to live to see another sunrise. Seen one, seen ’em all. I thought again of Meredith jerking and twitching as the bullets found her, as I dove to the side. Maybe she had it right. Go out grandly.

I told myself that if anyone could survive the hotel it was Alice. A week from now she would be giving me the business for doubting her, and I’d be taking the abuse while hoping not to say anything too sappy. A happy ending.

I walked for a bit, hailed a cab, walked a bit more, hailed another cab, and when I got to Jake’s I had nothing except the suit on my back and a few tired sawbucks. I walked the length of the bar and sat on my favored stool, facing the door.

“The usual?” Jake asked.

3

Episode 32: Boiling Blood

A wisp of smoke trailed from the muzzle of Alice’s pistol as she surveyed her handiwork. But someone nearby would have heard the gunshots and would be doing something about it.

Get in the corner and start screaming,” I said.

“I’m not—”

“When they come in they have to see a dame losing her shit. A dame who’s not a threat.”

Alice hesitated. “Do it!” I said as I took the Luger from her hand and bent down to mash it into the mitt of the poisoned bodyguard. Gun and all I hoisted him up and staggered to the nearest window. Pain flared through my shoulder but I ground my teeth and ignored the dizziness that threatened to put me down.

About then Alice started shrieking, mostly incoherent but with occasional phrases. “He shot him! Call the police! Call an ambulance!”

I pushed the dead kid headfirst through the glass and shoved him out in three mighty heaves. Suddenly he was gone, but Alice was just picking up steam.

I collapsed on the floor by the window, sitting in broken glass, just as the door to the room burst open and three heavily-armed men made their entrance. My shoulder was bleeding again, and my hands were a mess. “I tried to stop him,” I said, to a world that felt very far away. Probably no one could hear my lie over Alice’s Oscar-worthy performance.

After taking a half-second to survey the scene, one of the men went to Santiago, the next went to Alice, while the unlucky third was left to look after me. Alice kept it going, probably to annoy them as much as to sell the hysterical-broad angle. She succeeded at both things.

My caretaker was a handsome kid, maybe eighteen years old and holding a Thompson, with the full 100-round drum, a choice that made me assume he was compensating for something. The kid hunched down over me. “I tried to stop him,” I said again.

“No English,” he said with regret. He inspected my shoulder without taking his finger away from the trigger. “You hurt,” he informed me, with a sad expression on his face.

Perhaps my reputation for honesty was simply because no one listened to me.

I fought back the cobwebs and managed to stand. Each second Alice and I were in the room was more likely to be our last. A shrill whistle reached us from the street below; someone on the hotel staff had noticed a corpse.

I staggered toward the door. “Come on, toots,” I said. “Before they get away.”

The gunmen exchanged looks, apparently none of them were in a position to make important decisions. “Wait,” one of them said. “Boss coming.”

“The guy threw the painting out the window,” Alice said, managing to regain some of her composure. “Mr. Lowell needs to go after them.” She was met with stares. “Painting! Window!” she shouted, with an edge of hysteria returning to her voice. “No time!”

Whether they understood or not, they didn’t shoot me as I walked toward the broken door. “You too, toots,” I said.

“I can’t go out like this!” Alice said. “You go. I’ll change and come after you.”

“The boss—” I started.

“Go!” she waved me toward the door. “I’ll deal with him. But you have to find the painting! Now hurry!”

I moved faster and I was out in the hall. At the far end the elevator showed that it was on the way up. I went the other way as quickly as I could and found the stairs. Another dizzy spell threatened to hasten my descent, but I kept my feet under me and breakfast in my stomach and got to the ground floor without incident. The lobby looked busy but I slipped out a fire door into the alley by the hotel.

I turned toward 5th and found it crawling with cops, jacked up and ready to shoot anything that looked suspect. Quietly I reversed course in the alley and decided to take my chances through the alleys to 6th.

I’d taken maybe five steps when something from above nearly hit me. I jumped aside when the bundle hit the pavement with a loud wooden crack. I looked up but all I saw was bricks and windows. I looked back down to discover a splintered wooden box tied with a bedsheet between two hotel pillows. The box was shattered, and the picture’s frame was banged up, but I didn’t stop to inspect the goods; I scooped up the bundle and got the hell out of there.

Whatever window this had fallen from, it was not one from our suite. Alice was resourceful.

As I moved toward the back of the hotel I wrapped the bundle better with the bedsheet. Just an ordinary man taking his laundry for a walk.

I peeked around the corner at the back of the building. The hotel had a loading dock back there, and it was a beehive of activity. There were two long, black limousines and a few other sedans, and a lot of angry men with guns. The Blood of the Saint, in full force, mad as hornets. I had gone to the back of the building to avoid attention, and so had they.

As they moved about their anger was a tangible thing; a blood-red haze I could almost see that filled them with the need to kill.

I was about to turn back toward the front of the building when from some undefinable place above us the muffled staccato of a Thompson echoed among the buildings in a series of short bursts, followed by continuous fire for at least five seconds, then bursts again. Perhaps two of them were firing, maybe more; it was difficult to tell.

On the loading dock orders were shouted, and most of the men charged into the building as glass fell from shattered windows above. While they were moving so was I; I made it across the service street into the alley on the far side. Ahead I could see the busy street that was my best hope for salvation.

Behind was Alice. I wanted to go back for her, but I couldn’t even slow down. The shooting had stopped, as far as I could tell, which meant either she was dead or about to face a very unpleasant interview, which would probably end with her being dead.

I couldn’t remember ever feeling so alone.

 

Tune in next time for… The Kiss of Death!

1

Episode 31: Final Offer

A Brief Re-introduction:

Feeding the Eels is a story I used to add to occasionally here at MR&HBI. The process was simple: Write an episode in 90 minutes, leave a title for the next episode, and don’t plan anything. The prose is spontaneous and recreational, occasionally clever, and does not aspire to the lofty title “literature”.

As time passed I regularly began to break the 90-minute rule, but to this day I start writing with a title and no idea what to do with it. In fact, I never went back and even read what had come before.

Until now, of course; it’s been far too long for me to remember more than the biggest events in the narrative. I can see why I stopped when I did, too. I left myself quite a little humdinger of a situation.

You probably want to start from the beginning, or perhaps Episode 2. (Episode 1 was an entirely different exercise, and I will be rewriting it.) Anyway, you can find it all here.

I moaned softly and sat up, lifting my hat off my face and tossing it onto the overstuffed chair that sat next to the couch that had been my bed for far too little time.

The knock came again. Gentle, patient. Surely aware that someone in my situation might be inclined to put a bullet or fifty through the wood of the door rather than answer politely. It was the sort of knock that said that whatever I did, there would be another knock, and next time it wouldn’t be so polite.

Stepping softly I slipped the painting and its box into a drawer in the bureau. The precious pieces of paper that had traveled with the map went under a sofa cushion.

Another knock. “Hold your pants on, sunshine,” I called out. I didn’t have to feign fatigue and annoyance. I slipped the little Walther into my suit pocket and trod more heavily toward the door, remembering that bullets could also pass through it in the other direction.

Civilized behavior carried the day; I opened the hotel room door and nobody shot anyone else. Two men stood there. Spaniards I had met before. The older of the two, his olive face topped by thick black hair going gray at the temples, was heavier, but still fit. The younger was not holding a gun, but was certainly ready to produce one if things got unfriendly.

“That was quick,” I said. I stepped aside to let them into the room.

The older man smiled as he walked slowly into the room, casting his eyes around almost casually. “We own this property. It is fortunate for us that you decided to live it up for a little while.”

I wondered if “live for a little while” was a threat.

“Your partner is also here?” He asked, though he certainly knew the answer.

“Hello, Señor Santiago,” Alice said from the doorway to the bedroom of the suite. She was wearing a silk robe with the initials of the hotel emblazoned on the breast, loosely tied around her narrow waist. Both her hands were empty. “It’s good to see you again.”

Santiago smiled. “Indeed, Miss Alice. I am pleased to see that you are healing from your wounds quite nicely.”

“Thank Dr. Mendez one more time for me,” she said.

Santiago nodded and turned back to me. “And how is your lovely employer?”

I made my way back to the bar. “I’m currently between clients. Can I offer either of you gentlemen a drink?”

Santiago nodded slowly. “Then what I heard is true. A Gin and Tonic would be refreshing. He glanced at my arm and smiled ruefully. Although please don’t trouble yourself. I can—”

“No worries,” said Alice. She glided to the bar, silk flowing behind her. “If you learn one thing working for a detective, it’s how to make a good G&T.”

Santiago studied her for a moment. “You seem… taller this morning.” In all honesty, I had to agree.

She flashed him a red smile over her shoulder as she set to making the drink. “I’ve been trying to improve my posture.” I suspected that perhaps she had instead been hunching down all along.

“To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit, Mr. Santiago?” I asked.

He looked at me with mild reproach. “Let us not play games, Mr. Lowell.”

“I just want to hear you say it.”

He sighed. “You have something that belongs to us. A painting.”

“I see,” I said. “I do have one of those. How do I know it’s yours?”

Alice arrived with a Gin and Tonic for Santiago, a soda water for the other spaniard, and then she retrieved a whiskey for herself. Santiago accepted the drink, looked at her, and smiled apologetically. “I’m sorry,” he said, and handed his drink to his retainer. The younger man took a sip.

“I’m hurt,” Alice said, but there was a hint of playfulness in her pout.

“You know how it is, Señorita. Guillermo would be terribly upset with me if I didn’t let him protect me.” His smile became less sincere as he turned back to me. “The painting was stolen from my people. It was entrusted to a humble museum that contains many relics that speak to the history of The Blood of the Saint.”

“What saint is that, anyway?” Alice asked.

Santiago chuckled. “Her full name is complex, with decorations and filigrees, but when she was alive, she was called ‘Mireia'”.

“A Catalalonian name,” Alice said. She moved to the couch and sat, inviting Santiago to sit next to her. I moved my hat and occupied the overstuffed chair. I gestured to the wooden chair by the desk and looked at the quiet visitor. He nodded and sat.

Santiago continued. “Yes, We are of Catalunya. I try not to take offense when Americans call me a Spaniard.”

“I’ve not heard of a saint named Mireia,” Alice said.

“Rome is corrupt,” Santiago said. “Mireia was a saint. She was a poor girl with a terrible affliction. She could speak nothing but the truth. Naturally that led to horrifying consequences. There are few who revere souls like that any longer.”

“She sounds like Charley,” Alice said. She stood. “Another drink?”

“Please,” Santiago said, handing her his glass. The he stood also, and then the rest of us. “I wonder. May I see it?”

“It’s intact,” I said. “But let’s not play games. Before I put that thing in your hands we need to discuss terms.”

Santiago scowled. “There will be no terms. It belongs to us.”

“You must appreciate the personal sacrifice Alice and I have made to ensure its safe recovery.”

“And what is it you want for helping to make our recovery task more difficult, Mr. Lowell?”

“More difficult? Without me, that painting would be in the hands of someone much less reasonable than I am.”

“What is it you want, Mr. Lowell?”

“Your handshake.”

Santiago hesitated. “What?”

“You shake my hand and tell me that we’re friends, that on the Blood of Saint Mireia, who could tell no lie, our business is finished. And I promise, based on my apparently-hilarious honesty that no word of this ever reaches anyone else’s ears. And then we’re done, and the painting is yours, and we live our lives.”

Alice had the next round ready; she put a fresh Gin and Tonic and a Seltzer into the quiet one’s hands. After he sipped the cocktail and nodded, she took it from him and handed it to Santiago. When all that was finished she grabbed our drinks. Whiskey for me and it looked like a Manhattan for herself. Finished serving, she sat, and awkwardly the rest of us sat as well.

Santiago studied his drink, and took a sip. “It is a good offer,” the Catalan said. He thought for a moment. “I wish I could say yes. However…” He turned to his bodyguard in time to see Guillermo twist in agony and fall from his chair, foam escaping the corners of his mouth, his eyes wide as he suffocated on his own blood.

Alice had a gun, her Luger 9mm, and now it was trained on Santiago’s chest. She looked at him with sadness. “You say you worship the saint, you say you respect truth, but you are the one with the knife, cutting out her tongue.”

Santiago slowly raised his hands. “Truth,” he said, “Doesn’t exist.”

“What a sad view of the world you have,” Alice said. She pulled the trigger and her gun spat, and I tried to shake the ringing in my ears as Santiago slipped off the sofa and bled on a rug that his people apparently owned.

“That may have been a mistake,” Alice said.

 

Tune in next time for… Boiling Blood!

1

Robinson Crusoe Without the Whitewash

My recollections of the 20th-century film adaptations of Robinson Crusoe don’t include slavery. In the source material our hero is on a ship taken by Moorish “pirates” and he is made a slave.

(Pirates in quotes because they’re just doing the same shit as the Europeans.)

But slavery’s not so very bad, right?

While the rest of the crew is sent off God-knows-where, our narrator enjoys a fairly benign period of servitude. He’s technically a slave, but the degradation is absent. It’s just an involuntary job that Robbie executes well, and he is never beaten to an inch of his life, or raped, or humiliated in any of a thousand ways for the pleasure of someone else.

Then there is the escape. A pretty easy escape, really, but let’s just allow that literature was young and even the greats back then leaned on the gullibility of the bad guys. Crusoe escapes with another young slave named Xury who immediately becomes Robbie’s sidekick and biggest fan.

Free! Except of course they are on the open sea in a small boat and that is not sustainable. They have a few adventures along the shore, proving both the power of gunpowder and the stupidity of a hungry European deciding that lions aren’t fit to eat. Xury shows bravery and resourcefulness, and they continue to survive.

More than once, Crusoe said he was heading “south and east”. I checked the map, checked it again, and that just doesn’t work. South and east puts him right ashore. Which is weird, because otherwise Defoe’s descriptions of the geography are accurate.

As Crusoe is heading down the African coast bearing south and west, he reaches a point where Dakar now sits, thrusting out into the ocean. It is here that Robbie and his crew of one spot the sails of a Portuguese (slave) ship. They risk everything to give chase and attract the attention of the men on the ship, and eventually they are rescued.

The Portuguese captain is impressed with Crusoe’s little boat, and offers a nice chunk of cash for it. The captain is also impressed with Crusoe’s sidekick Xury, and offers almost as much for the kid as he did for the boat.

Before I tell you Crusoe’s response to that offer, let’s review. Crusoe has been a slave. He and the kid gained their freedom together, and have struggled together to stay alive. They have been partners, and Xury has shown some moxie in the process. Safe to say, without Xury, Crusoe would have died.

Yeah, you got it. Robbie sells his sidekick — but with a caveat! If the kid accepts Christianity he will only be a slave for ten years.

Well, all right then. I guess that makes it OK.

It was a different time. I get it. Slavery was to maritime trade what porn is to the Internet: The thing no one wants to talk about that funds the rest. But while Robinson Crusoe’s fortunes seem to be rising at this point in the narrative, I just don’t like the guy. Not at all.

I think the writer, Defoe, at a gut level, realized that his main guy was being a complete asshole. Friends don’t sell friends. So in the end Defoe (the writer) compels Xury himself to agree to the terms of the deal, where Crusoe (the character) could not consummate the deal alone without moral compromise. But if it was Xury’s choice, then he should have been the one to get paid.

In my previous episode about this story, I remarked on the lack of visceral detail during the scary times. Perhaps it’s this same detachment that allows Robinson to fucking sell his friend. Perhaps Crusoe doesn’t actually feel anything. That would explain a lot.

1

Burn by James Patrick Kelly

I was bopping around looking for some good ol’ space opera to read, and I came across Burn by James Patrick Kelly instead. I found it on manybooks.net, and after I registered I sat down to read it.

It’s really good.

We get a glimpse of far-future humankind, with tech that borders on magic, but there’s also a little mysticism. Or at least luck. That future is merely a backdrop, however; the actual conflicts, the personal and the political, are very human, and told from the point of view of Spur, someone we can understand. His acestors decided to abandon the tech and go back to a simpler life. While Spur knows that the “upside” exists and is filled with tech marvels, he also knows that the same technology at some point must undermine the humanity of those who wield it.

Of course he knows that; he’s been taught that his entire life.

There’s a shade of Buck Rodgers here — not the swashbuckling space hero nonsense I love so much, but “the future as seen by someone like me” narrative. Except Buck doesn’t have to deal with differences between past and future that are quite so fundamental as the ones Spur struggles with.

Spur is badly wounded fighting a fire that is almost a diabolical intelligence on its own. While convalescing he is in a hospital that gives him, for the first time in his life, a glimpse of the upside.

While healing, Spur is given a chance to reach out to the universe. It is a guilty pleasure, an idle conceit as he convalesces, one he knows his friends will not approve of. He pokes at the universe, almost randomly. But then the universe answers back. The fuckin’ universe answers back. Luck, it’s just luck. The event that triggers this story (or the part of the story we see here), is one of near-fantastic luck. It would be difficult to swallow, except, well, luck is a real thing.

The author does an admirable job of avoiding judgement; there is no absolute “right” and “wrong”. While characters make judgements, the author does well to not color the debate with his own leanings. One person says “terrorist”, another says “martyr.” “Us” and “them” gets tangled. And there are subtle elements, as well. Spur is married, but the marriage is on the rocks. There are the usual reasons, but perhaps he was in love with someone else all along.

One quibble: if pukpuk had been capitalized like most organizations of humans are, I would have parsed the opening sequence (which is pretty hectic) more cleanly.

Like all human conflicts, not everything is wrapped up in a neat package at the end of this story. The immediate conflict is resolved in a satisfying way, and the final choice Spur makes rings true. There are still large questions outstanding, about the future of the planet and the clever indigenous species. But Spur has had a taste of what the upside has to offer, and in the end this story is about him, and the choice he must make.

I wrote some of the above on the manybooks.net site, then I decided to share my findings here as well. As per tradition, I went to Amazon to get links to share. It was then that I learned that this story has earned the Hugo and Nebula awards. Well then!

Note: if you use the above link to buy the book (or an Antique Silver Multi Cut Rhinestone Bridal Royal Tiara Headband) from Amazon, I get a kickback.

Time for the Stars

Recently an acquaintance of mine asked the hive mind for examples of short stories that featured the time-dilating effect of traveling near the speed of light. Ideally the story would also feature one element where that rule is broken.

I immediately forgot the “short story” requirement and recommended Time for the Stars, a Young Adult novel by Robert Heinlein. It is exactly about that; it even takes a break for a lecture on time dilation, complete with the equation I call the “Einstein fudge factor” carefully typeset in the narrative.

I happen to have recently been reunited with a copy of that novel, one I received as part of a box set one fine Christmas morning in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of things I particularly remembered about that story, so I decided to give it a read once more after all these years.

The part of the story that Heinlein got the most pleasure from, I believe, is an organization called the Long Range Foundation, or LRF. They were endowed to pursue pie-in-the-sky research with no hope of commercial reward in any reasonable time frame. The kind of research that corporations and even governments can’t justify.

It turns out, however, that taking the long view can be embarrassingly profitable over decades and even centuries, and the LRF is constantly looking for deeper holes to dump their giant piles of cash into. One of those holes is interstellar travel. (They are already gushing cash from developing technology to allow travel all over the solar system.)

So they build a bunch of giant spaceships to go out and explore nearby star systems. They don’t actually expect any of those ships to ever make it back home, so they need a way for them to keep in touch. Which brings us to another one of their projects.

Pat and Tom are twins, the youngest children of a family over the quota for number of children (the Earth is staggering under the weight of five billion occupants). The LRF offers them a bit of cash to participate in a study. While they think they are cheating on a test, they are actually confirming that they are psychically linked.

This linkage is not bound by relativity and does not diminish with distance. The LRF gathers up all the psychic-twin pairs it can and loads up their giant spaceships (called Torch Ships) with half of each pair, several teams per ship. Now, even should the spaceships never return to the home world, the information they gather will.

The dynamic between the brothers is interesting, as they jockey for which will see the stars and which will stay home. One of the moments in the book that stuck with me all these years was when the ship’s doctor points out that Tom really doesn’t like his brother at all.

So Tom’s Torch Ship, the Lewis and Clark (or Elsie for short) flies away, and the time shift between the ship and Earth gradually accelerates. Communication is more and more difficult as the brains of the pair work at different speeds. Finally there is a period of isolation — a few weeks on the ship, and many years back home. Not all the psychic pairs can reconnect after such a long break, and a lot happens on Earth during that time each jump.

Meanwhile, science is trying to recreate itself to allow the concept of simultaneity, which relativity pretty thoroughly ruled out. It’s quite a long range sort of project.

Decades pass on Earth, months and then years pass on the ship.

Small Spoiler: Disasters happen, friends die — including the people in charge of helping everyone get along— and morale among the survivors becomes very low.

Occasionally, especially during disasters, I had to smile at the casual 1950’s-era sexism, and while the crew is racially diverse without making a big deal about it, there is a Wise Old Negro. I hadn’t noticed that stuff last time I read the story. Also, there was a bit of recklessness on the part of the crew when it came to exploring strange worlds. Plague sucks.

Big Spoiler: The most striking thing about the story is how it ends. Once physics introduced the concept of “irrelevance” — the idea that some things were not bound by relativity but existed outside that framework — work began to harness that phenomenon. After one particularly bad disaster, the Elsie is orbiting a planet and is told to stand by and wait for a rendezvous. A faster-than-light ship arrives shortly thereafter, straight from Earth. The install a device on Elsie and say that they will be returning to Earth. This is met with great joy among the remaining crew.

“When will we get there?” Tom asks.

“I thought we’d wait until after lunch, if that’s all right,” is the answer. Or something like that. Push a button, you’re home again. No fuss.

They return to Earth little more than a curiosity, Rip Van Winkles rendered suddenly and absolutely obsolete. Already faster-than-light ships have far eclipsed what had taken the Torch ships decades to accomplish. That the new technology could not have happened without their sacrifice is not much of a solace. And women, apparently, no longer wear hats, which was unthinkable when Tom left Earth.

There is a happy ending, at least for Tom; others of the crew have highly specialized skills that just don’t matter anymore. At least they have a few decades of back pay that’s been earning interest all this time. After all, legend has it that Einstein said compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or these silly shoes), I get a kickback.

November 1, 2017

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s NaNoWriMo output here on this blog. Some years I’m happier with it than others; this time around I’m very happy with the idea, but not so keen on the execution. Maybe ok for a first draft (and hey, isn’t that what NaNoWriMo is all about?) but I’ve done better. This has the makings of a quiet, personal story, but this is November so at any minute someone may transplant an alien consciousness into the cat and off we go.

I’ll try to do right by Max and Fucking Cat another time. Oh, and by the way, there’s some profanity coming up.

Max woke from a dream of a rainstorm of needles to find Fucking Cat tearing at his face with age-worn claws. He pushed the cat away with his left arm — his organic arm; he couldn’t afford any more repairs on the other one — but the creature yowled and dove for his abused face once more.

“Fuck!” Max said. He held Fucking Cat away from his face and it went to work on his thumb with its teeth while its claws tore at the flesh of his arm. “Fucking Cat, OFF!” The cat went limp in his hand. At least the voice commands still worked; the last time Fucking Cat had been hacked he’d had to find the hardware switch under its patchy fur.

His cluttered little cube was dimly lit by dozens of red and green status lights, casting crazed shadows on the walls as they shone between the wires, gadgets, and simple junk that cluttered every surface other than his sleeping palette and a plastic chair which had one leg replaced by a section of aluminum conduit. Old electronics running a little on the hot side, last night’s algae cakes, and cheap gin provided the smell that Max thought of as “home”.

He rose from the palette and wiped the oozing blood from his face and his arm with a scratchy towel and examined the dark-red dots. There had been a time when he could afford paper towels, and just throw them down the chute when he was done. He put the cloth towel back against his face and sat in the chair in front of his main console. The metal leg shrieked briefly as it shifted on the hard floor to accomodate his weight. The screen came to life as he sat, bathing the room in a serene, blue-white light. The cube raised other lights in the room, warmer light, the better to care for his eyes. His left eye, at any rate.

It didn’t take long to find the information he was looking for. The virus that had infected Fucking Cat was called SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01 (pronounced peek-a-boy), and had first surfaced thirty-six hours before, somewhere in the home system, possibly even Terra itself. Max snorted. Rightly or wrongly, Luna would be blamed in the end. That’s how it always was with Terra. If they couldn’t blame Mars, they could at least blame Luna.

His research complete, Max turned to the portal for The Pet Smith, and found the expected announcement about SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01. He muted the corporate yammering of the stupidly-attractive representative, no doubt selected for him based on a marketing company’s databse of images Max lingered over just a little longer than others.

Ignoring the distraction, Max searched for the instructions to download the patch. They weren’t where he usually found them, and that’s when he noted the somber expression on the spokesman’s face. She wore the regrettable bad news face.
“Ah, crap,” Max muttered, and with his well-maincured right index finger he allowed the spokesman her voice.

The message began with the spokesman sitting at a table, wearing a conservative, her legs crossed, however, to display a shapely calf. “Hello. My name is Kiki Ventura. We at The Pet Smith are deeply troubled by this most recent attack on our most loyal customers.” A flash of anger crossed her face, her deep-red lips tight at the corners. “The latest viral threat attacks a positioning chip in some of our classic lines of companion animals. Unfortunately that chip set has not been manufactured in many years, and the manufacturer has not been able to provide a software patch to cover the vulnerability.” Here she looked almost heartbroken. “While we will provide tools to rid your companion of any current infection, we cannot guarantee it will not be infected again.”

Kiki raised a finger like a lawyer in court. “All patrons of The Pet Smith can be assured that SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01, or any attack like it, is simply not possible on our newer lines of animal companions. Later model positioning chips are self-contained and not vulnerable to outside tampering.”

One of Kiki’s eyebrows lifted, and she leaned forward in her chair just a little, forcing Max to appreciate her breasts. “For those many who have loved their classic companion animals for all these years, perhaps this is the time to move on. You will be amazed at the incredible range of lifelike behavior our Model 12 line exhibits, whether cat, dog, or less-traditional companion. As part of the transistion, at first your new companion’s behavior will be practically indistinguishable from your current beloved. And we will recycle your previous animal companion with all the respect and dignity it has earned after a lifetime of service.” A brief smile crossed her lovely face. “That’s seven lifetimes in tech years!”

Now an expression of hopeful earnestness. “For a limited time…”

Max silenced the feed again, sighed, and pulled up his bank statement. Enough to cover the deductible for a visit to the Alice, the local veterinarian. He looked at Fucking Cat where it lay in a gray heap on his desk, legs tangled, one yellow eye staring blindly into the corner of the room, the other closed.

The flow of blood on Max’s hand and face had slowed to a slow ooze; he put the towel carefully in the sink and sprinkled it with cleansing powder before turning back to the terminal.

The vet was busy, it appeared; he wasn’t able to get an appointment for several days. In a neighborhood like this one, most of the animals were what The Pet Smith would have called “calssic”. What they really meant was “old”. But having so many older pets in the area meant that sometimes there were solutions to problems that the manufacturers didn’t know about. Or chose to ignore. He made an appointment for Thursday, five days out, and set to work clearing Fucking Cat of his infection, knowing that as soon as he activated the beast he would be infected all over again. Max wan’t going to have anyone to talk to for a few days.

On Wednesday afternoon, Alice called him.

“Max,” she said with no preamble, “I think you should cancel your appointment tomorrow.” Her voice was tired, carrying the weight of decades of delivering bad news.

“Why’s that?”

“Your warranty company has dropped coverage of FC’s model,” she said. She didn’t like the name Max had given his cat. “I’ll have to charge you full. And on top of that, I don’t have any fix for PeeKaBo01. You’d be wasting your money.”
“You can’t fix him?”

“It’s hardware. You could put a new positioning chipset in, but standards have changed. You’d have to upgrade the feedback bus and get way faster-responding actuators to support the clock rate of the new chips.”

“How much would that cost?”

“Several times the price of a new cat.”

By now Max had curled Fucking Cat into a ball and closed his other eye, so it looked like he was just sleeping, the thinning gray fur of his tail wrapped around his nose. “I don’t want a new cat.”

“Max, I understand what you are going through. Really I do. But maybe it’s time to let go.”

“Can you deactivate the chip?”

He waited while Alice composed her answer. “I could, but…” Max kept waiting, and finally she continued. “That chipset is part of a feedback mechanism that constantly recalibrates FC’s movement. Without that system, FC will gradually become clumsier and weaker, until finally he won’t be able to move at all.”

“How long would that take?”

“In a cat as old as FC, probably a few weeks. Maybe a little longer. It’s… not how you want to remember your Fucking Cat. Not for just a few extra weeks.”

“You want to hear something funny, Alice?”

“This isn’t going to be funny at all, is it?”

“My arm has the same positioning chip set. My eye probably does, too. I got lucky on the leg and the fingers. I won’t ask you to shut down Fucking Cat’s positioning chips, but I’d be grateful if you’d teach me how to do it.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Alice said. “You can pay me in chickens.”

“If I had chickens I’d kill them for their chips,” Max said.

Alice smiled sadly. “You know what I mean.”

“I have to go,” she said.

“Why?”

“It dosen’t matter. I have to go. Can you look after Shadow? You’re the only one I trust.”

“I don’t want a fucking cat.”

“That’s not fair! He likes you!”

“It’s a fucking cat. It doesn’t like anyone. It pretends to like me to make you happy, because it pretends to want you to be happy.”

“What a mean thing to say!”

“It’s not mean if it’s true.”

“Just take him. Please. I won’t be gone long.”

“All right.”

“By the time I get back, you’ll be best friends.”

“I said I’d do it. You’re selling past the close.”

“You’re a good friend, Max.”

“Just fucking go if you’re going to go.”

1

Knives Episode 36 Published!

A quiet place, relatively safe. Physical wounds can be tended to, but perhaps those are not the only injuries our little band of heroes has suffered. It is, at last, a moment to pause, and to decide how to act rather than merely react. Which begs the question “Just what is it we want to accomplish?”

I like this episode for a few reasons. The last sentence is the biggest of those. A big moment for Katherine.

Anyway, enjoy Episode 36: People Like Us.

Behind the scenes, I didn’t get as many actual words written as I had hoped to while in Kansas. The reasons for that are complex, but with the help of the Repeat Offenders I came to a couple of significant decisions, story-wise. One of those changes is particularly scary (for me), and will be challenging to get right. To be honest, it paralyzed me for a bit. I have taken on a new tactic as I make my way to the big change: Try not to think about it too much.

November 1st, 2016

It has become a tradition for me to post my first night’s work here on the inaugural day of NaNoWriMo. This may not be all I write tonight, but it’s a good size for an excerpt.

Jaqi broke the surface with a gasp. “Four divers up!” Smokey called from the raft, his raspy voice carrying over the calm water. As Jaqi tread water, panting, she allowed herself a little smile. Last one up, again. Once the firefiles cleared from her vision and her breath slowed down she turned and swam to the raft, where her friends were already being pulled aboard. She passed her arm through a hoop welded to one of the steel barrels that foemed the floats of the raft, and waited until someone could pull her up. It would have been an easy climb, had she not just spent four minutes holding her breath.
After a few seconds Aaron’s sunburned arm reached down and she took his hand and let him pull her up.

Madre,” she said, and laid down on the sun-hot planks, feeling the heat of the sun on her skin. Someone handed her a tin cup with fresh water. Aaron had retreated to the sheltered section of the raft, heavy canvas supported by a steel frame cast half the raft into shadow impenetrable to her light-adapted eyes, but she could hear the children in there, doing their lessons with white-haired Annabelle, while young, gangly Alex no doubt watched over the cook fire. In the sun to her left Big John cursed steadily while fussing over one of the guy lines that held the mast in place.

“Anything?” Smokey asked. His dark hair was showing gray now. He had never been a big man, but now it seemed like a puff of wind would carry him back to his home in Cuba. He had threatened to pilot the whole raft there, one of these days, but Jaqi had heard that they were shooting new refugees there now. Sparrow said they were eating them, but Sparrow said lots of things.

Jaqi shook her head. “Fuckin’ South Beach,” she said. She sat up and looked down at the water, reading the gentle waves as they revealed where buildings stood below the surface. To the east, the rolling waves from the Atlantic broke over a reef that had once been the hotels and night clubs that lined Ocean drive, now just a jumble of broken, twisted beams and slabs of concrete breaking the surface, discolored by a slick layer of algae.

On the other side, the towers that lined Alton Road had also fared poorly when Henrietta had struck, the storm surge toppling two while undermining the rest. The Icon still stood, damaged when the Murano Grande went down, but only a few crazies lived there, distilling the brevetoxins from red tides into a substance they called “Brevelicious.” What they didn’t consume themselves, they sold to the archipelago. Sparrow knew a couple of them, he even said he’d spent the night there once, but Sparrow said a lot of things. At night the screams of madness from the Icon carried over the water for miles, while lights flashed wildly only to go abruptly dark

Jaqi lay back down, her black braid still dripping onto the deck. “Everything’s collapsed down there,” she said. “Your fuckin’ wine bar is gone, acere.”

Smoky looked up along the darker blue stretches that announced a streets lay below, forming a neat grid. “It’s around here somewhere,” he said.

Javy stood and spit over the side, his brown skin perfect in the sun, his lean frame starting to fill out with muscle. He almost caught Jaqi looking at him. “Either someone got it already or all the bottles are broke. There’s nothing left this close to the towers,” he said. “Fucking scuba dipshits were all over this.”

“We got time for another dive?” asked Jaqi.

Aaron frowned and looked at his phone. “Satellite says weather’s comin’ in.”

“Don’t look like it,” Javy said, making a show of inspecting the horizon.

Smokey shook his head. “Those are the worst ones. Barometer?”

“Dropping,” Aaron said. “But not much yet.”

“One more dive,” Jaqi said. She hated coming up empty-handed.

“You haven’t had time to recover from the last one.”

“I’ll make it a short one,” she said. “We’ll be heading for the towers in five minutes.” Already she was taking deep breaths, hyperventilting to fill her blood with oxygen.

Smokey sighed. “Anyone else want one more?”

Javy shrugged. “Sure.”

“You just said there was no point.”

He shrugged again.

Rosa said, “Fuck it,” and took her t-shirt off. Jaqi watched Javy watch Rosa adjust her bikini top. Jaqi busied herself with her fllippers and her mask. Short dive. The building she had tried to find a way into her last time down might have had retail space on the bottom floor. If she went straight at it, found an opening, there might be something worthwhile inside.
“Three divers,” Smokey said. “Get ready.”

Jaqi moved to the edge of the raft, and fiddled with her own one-piece suit, almost dizzy from the oxygen in her blood, but still breathing hard.

“Divers go,” Smokey said, and Jaqi dropped from the edge of the raft into the cloudy tropical water.

Starmind: Chapters 3 and 4

It’s not often I find a novel where every damn chapter is worthy of comment. Starmind, by Dave Van Arnam, turns out to be one of those. Not because it’s good, oh no, not all all.

When last we left this little yarn, I was wondering what possible excuse the author could find for medical professionals to even want to try to put the halves of two different people’s brains into one body.

Dr. Brian pretty much says he just wants to see what will happen. There’s a first time for everything, after all.

Yeah, Dr. Brian. The Brain surgeon. I have stopped correcting myself as I read. Nascent writers out there, if for some reason you want to call your guy Dr. Brain, just do it. No need to be coy. (Or better yet, call him Dr. Mtumbo.)

At this time, there are six characters of note. Inside the head, there are two men and one woman (although one of the men is more of an emotive blob). Outside the head, there are also two men and one woman. Both women are attractive, in nonspecific ways. Only one of the men has been described at all.

In chapter three, two of the three men capable of this sort of thought decide it might be kinda cool to have their brains installed in a hot female body. Both women find the idea of being installed in a man’s body to be loathsome. So… 1969.

On the second page of chapter three I laughed more than once. The dialog! Holy crap!

Here’s a choice nugget — the doctor, talking to the reporter:

I will not speculate on any emotional ties that might exist between you and Miss Rost, but it is obvious that your concern runs deeper than I, as a medical researcher and practitioner, dare to take cognizance of.

He better not dare to take cognizance of it! Or this gem three tiresome paragraphs later, as Parker, the reporter, continues his stilted verbal sparring with Dr. Brain Brian:

I am a professional in my own field, as you are in yours, doctor; and in my case it means I know how to research those necessary background facts that make conversations such as this more meaningful than the customary exchange of platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position.

Both those quotes are parts of much longer paragraphs. Despite this unbearable verbal mass, they do little more than exchange platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position, along with a heapin’ helpin’ of as-you-know-Bobs. The reporter, for instance, tells the brian brain surgeon that it has been eleven years since the first successful brain transplant.

But I will say this: although there are some horrible moments in the discourse between the characters inside the head, it is way better that the interactions outside the head. At lest so far; the head occupants aren’t to a stage where they can engage in stilted verbal exchanges. Though there are plenty of problems inside the cranium, as well. Jailyn is witness to one of Joe’s sex fantasies, then exercises her will to make it stop. She apparently has none of her own. Sex, it seems, is something men want and women allocate.

There’s a nice twist, though, as the “simple” thoughts of the Idiot Adonis unexpectedly rise from the previously-unmentioned surviving lower parts of his brain and provide an emotional foundation for the two intellects who discover themselves so intimately connected. In the hands of a skilled writer, that might make the premise of a great story. I could picture a one-act play based on that theme.

Alas, we are not in the hands of a skilled writer, my friends. Yet still I read on, finding comedy where none was intended, hoping the pretty nurse kicks her boss of irrelevant appearance in the balls, knowing she won’t. The mystery of “why would anyone do something so stupid” has been answered with a “why not?” and on we go. The next question is: how will the author contrive to expose this odd trio to pseudogravitic multiwaves? And will he manage that before the ridiculous dialog slips from funny to tiresome?

Stay tuned, dear readers, for the answers to these burning questions!

1

Starmind

I found a battered old paperback in a box I packed up back in 2004, as I was preparing for the Homeless Tour. It was not with other books; it was jumbled with stuff that had come from my desk in my previous job. Starmind, it’s called, by Dave Van Arnam. It didn’t look even remotely familiar. The crappy copy on the back cover, circa 1969, did not stir any recollections.

The cover carries the tagline, “What ships can be launched on the far seas of the mind?”

I have now read the first two chapters, and I think that’s enough for me to stop and write a brief commentary. You don’t have to thank me; it’s what I do.

In chapter one, we meet three people and a technology. The three people are: a super-studly super-rich super-idiot, a super-clever super-sexy super-rich woman, and a super-intuitive super-smart engineer. The engineer is taking care of one of the massive pseudogravitic multiwave generators humanity has constructed out in space. Multiwave is… well, that’s not clear yet, but the Boss of Earth has made a huge commitment to the technology, with the hope of achieving faster-than-light travel. The engineer (Joe) also has a broken back, which gives him a chance to muse about how amazing it was that modern microsurgery can even repair nerves.

First note: I don’t care how far away the year 2057 might seem when you’re writing a story, there’s no need to be so specific. There’s no need to mention that the engineer’s dad was born in 1997. There’s no need to put dates on medical breakthroughs.

Anyway, chapter two (uh, this is a spoiler, but it’s only chapter two so get over it) comes along and all three of our main people are killed. One is burned to a crisp in a spaceship explosion, one is baked by multiwaves, and one simply falls to his death.

But get this: half of super-clever Jailyn’s brain was preserved, and half of super-intuitive Joe’s brain was also put into deep-freeze. And poor, idiot adonis Benjy is still completely intact, except his brain was destroyed in the fall.

So that’s where I’m at in this story, but what comes next is pretty obvious. Someone, for some mind-boggling reason, is going to decide it’s a good idea to put the two half-brains together in Benjy’s head. Pseudogravitic multiwaves will get into the mix, and a transhuman will be created. One whose mind, I might guess, will hold far seas upon which ships might travel. Or something like that.

The writing really isn’t all that good, I’m afraid; at points the dialog is downright odd. Van Arman invented a reporter as a foil for the Jailyn’s exposition in chapter one, and the conversation between the two doesn’t really resemble human conversation. “Trumped!” the reporter shouts once.

Good or not, I’m reading on! I must learn the logic that will be used to even consider putting two halves of different brains in the same body, and why anyone would think the outcome would be other than a horribly deranged monstrosity not even capable of governing the body they occupy. But someone’s going to suggest it, and others are going to approve.

Unless… maybe the multiwaves are behind the whole thing…

With that in mind, consider the way the book reached me, here in 2016. Perhaps there are larger, subtler forces at work. Maybe the multiwaves put the book in that box. If that’s the case, the fate of the world may hinge on me finishing this book.

1

The Unlikely Ones

I just finished reading a fantasy novel, and I really enjoyed it. In some ways it was a lot like other fantasy novels, but it was very different in several important ways.

It starts with the Unlikely Ones themselves. They are an odd assortment, seven souls brought together by the evil of a witch, bound to a quest to free them from the tyranny of her enchantments.

Ho, hum. Another Quest Story. But… consider. One of the seven is a fish. Another is a Toad. There is a gallant knight, and a lady fair broken and twisted young girl named Thing, along with a crippled kitten, a flightless raven, and a lovelorn unicorn who has lost his horn.

This quest is personal. None wish to change the world; they wish merely to be relieved of their burdens, to return to a normal life.

The setting of the story is England. Some kind of mystical between-the-ages England, but definitely not any sort of Middle Earth thing. I would like to go back and review the story and connect the events in the book with actual places. Because I’m absolutely confident the writer of this story had the full Ordinance Survey at her disposal while she pulled the party from place to place.

Back to the story. It is a play in three acts, clearly delineated by the chapter titles. At the beginning, just like in every fantasy tale, the questers come together. Even here, things aren’t completely according to script because, well… I’m not going to tell you. But you know how Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy starts with the world being destroyed? There’s a bit of that here, too, with one of the main staples of the quest story getting wrapped up right at the get-go.

The second act is perhaps the most predictable, as the unlikely ones are bound to each other, and Thing falls in love with the knight, and each of the seven must past a test of courage, or quick thought, or what have you. Before this stage of the quest is over, it is apparent to them that the quest has been specifically designed this way, so by the last test everyone knows whose turn it is. Which is kind of nice, because as readers we see it coming a mile away, and it would be disappointing if the characters in the story were too stupid to see the pattern as well.

The thing I most like about this story, however, is that victory has a cost. The story doesn’t end with the completion of the quest; there is a final movement in the book in which we watch the Unlikely Ones, no longer united by purpose, quietly return to lives suited to their various species. The world moves on, the ordinary triumphs.

I believe the book is targeted at young adults, but there is some “mature content” (rhymes with penises). I think some of Thing’s self-image issues would resonate more with a 15-year-old girl than with a 50-something male engineer, as we all wait for Conn to see her how she really is.

Overall, a mighty good read. A quest story that keeps things personal, avoiding the tiresome “Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy” mold, but for that, perhaps more poignant.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or a $1000 Generic Men’s 3D Print Skeleton Playing Guitar T-shirt), I get a kickback.

1

TFNIWLNW: 15

Time makes no sense when the world is ending before your eyes. We stood, watching, helpless, as the walls of the fortress sagged, the towers fell, and all that could burn was consumed until not even ash remained. The captain held his men back and held back his own tears. After a while the horror exhausted us and we were just a group of empty shells, staring down on the destruction. Some of the soldiers sat; Bags disappeared into the forest. No one thought to follow their prisoner. Kat remained mounted, watching the destruction and death with a jaw set so hard I thought her teeth would shatter.

Elena stood next to me, her hand forgotten on my sleeve. “I hate all the gods,” she said. The captain looked up at her, startled, his eyes empty. He nodded slowly and turned his gaze back to the fortress.

I wanted my knives back. My skin itched where they should have been strapped against my wrists and legs, my hands twitched and flexed, missing their reassurance. My mouth was dry, which is just as well because my throat was too tight to swallow. If I didn’t find a way to get my weapons back soon, I was likely to do something foolish.

Finally it was over. The land around us was released from its unnatural twilight, and the fortress cowered under a sun no longer its enemy. In the town, the bell continued to toll in its stone tower, low and mournful, as if it were accomplishing something. Several of the dwellings on the north side of town were now afire, their thatch roofs and timbered rafters engulfed in yellow flame. The wind pulled the smoke of the fires toward the ruined fortress, where it rose with the heated air high into the sky. At least the fire would not spread through the town. I watched as men and women rushed about, some to draw water from the river, some to the burning houses, and others, soldiers, mostly, stepping cautiously into the blackened circle where their home and their friends had once been.

The captain stirred. “Let’s give what help we can,” he said. He looked around. “Where’s the big one?”

“Right here,” Bags said, emerging from the woods. The wind at his back blew his hair into his face, where it clung to the moisture on his cheeks. A few chunks of what had once been his breakfast were caught in his shiny new ring shirt. I’d never seen him look so tired.

“Get ready to move out,” the captain said.

“I think that would be unwise,” I said.

The captain was too exhausted to be angry. “I don’t care what you think.”

“They thought we would be in there,” I said. “They thought Elena would be there.”

He looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“That was for us.”

He paused for a moment but in the end he shrugged and let out a long breath. “Then the last place they will look for us is in there,” he said. “We are going. If you don’t want to come along, I’ll be happy to cut you down were you stand.”

I looked over at Kat and Bags. They were watching me. “Might be someone in there,” Bags said. “In a cellar or something. Needs help.”

Elena’s grip tightened on my arm. “We have to help,” she said. The wind shifted for a moment, bringing the smell of burning fields. A large gray ash drifted between slowly between us, hanging in the air, twisting and curling in the wind. It came to rest in her hair. “We have to fucking help,” she said. Her eyes looked a little wild and I regretted saying out loud that all those people had died in an attempt to kill her. The only innocent in the group was going to blame herself for the evil of others.

And so we went. Somewhere, people who could melt a fortress were working to confirm they had killed Elena. They would have people in the town, or somewhere nearby. Eventually they would know they failed, and they would try again. I had no hope of protecting her. Against the might of the Soul Thieves I had a few pieces of sharp metal. And at the moment, I didn’t even have that. As we walked I flipped a piece of wood between my hands, shifting it in my fingers, keeping them moving so they wouldn’t shake so badly.

The center of the destruction was a neat circle perhaps half a mile across; around that the fields burned, but the ragged line of the fire, driven inward by the wind toward the shimmering heat of the fortress, was not moving quickly. Once inside that ring we were blanketed in choking smoke that burned at my eyes and nose. I moistened a cloth and put it over Elena’s face, then did the same for myself.

We stepped past the smoldering stubble onto the hardened earth where the sun had shone so brightly. Around the edges bones of people and animals lay in charred piles, distinguishable by their teeth. A few cautious steps farther in and the dark, once-fertile soil was hard on the surface. Shining stone. Life had been erased here, never to return.

Of the buildings at the foot of the fortress, little remained. A stunted, sagging chimney and a warped, blackened anvil marked the location of a forge. Livestock pens had been reduced to areas with occasional charred bones. As had the barracks. Metal glinted here and there on the burned plain; armor, swords, and the simple tools of everyday life were almost indistinguishable. No knives to be scavenged out here.

We reached the moat, and I felt my stomach twist in my gut. The slow-moving water was choked with corpses — men, livestock, and fish all floating together, pale and bloated, singed and burned and boiled to death. Beneath the surface I could see hints of metal, the armor of men who had chosen drowning over burning. The earth, the stones, the air itself radiated with heat. I felt sweat trickling down my spine.

The air was heavy with the smell of cooked meat and the astringent smell of baked earth. When the bodies in the river began to decompose, Brower’s Landing would face a host of new problems. But, cooked as they were, the bodies would be slow to ripen.

We joined a group of men working to build a makeshift bridge to span the moat and reach the hole in the wall that had once been a door. It was going to take some time; they were tearing down structures in town for the lumber, and dragging it behind reluctant horses.

“Tell those lazy sacks of shit to hurry,” Elena said.

I nodded, and tilted my head back to look at the wall looming over us. “I’ll go on up,” I said. “See if anyone needs help.” I did not wait for the captain’s response.

I slipped out of my cloak and waded into the river, pushing my way through the death, stumbling over soft objects wedged in the muck beneath my feet. Something brushed my leg and I looked down to find a face staring up at me, attached to a bloated body, the eye sockets burned-out holes, the flesh pink and gray and shiny. No hair, teeth blackened behind burned-off lips. I turned aside and puked.

My great aunt Heldie was the one who taught me to swim. She taught all my family the art. It was, of course, a pragmatic decision — the water, she taught us, could be a very effective avenue of escape for those who knew how to use it. Today I was inclined to agree with her. I was sure I was escaping something as I crossed the water, but I had no idea what. I would be alone for a short time, and perhaps that was enough. I came up on the shore at the base of the fortress, clinging to rock still hot to the touch, streaked with soot where shrubs had once grown in the fissures. Around me others were already working to create the footings for a new bridge. They assumed I was there to help them. Instead I climbed.

The climbing was easy at first, over the rough living stone. By the time I got to the remains of the dressed stone blocks of the wall, however, there were few handholds and heat radiated off the walls and through my clothing and I was sweating like a slave in the pits of hell. I took off my shirt, tore it up, and wrapped a sleeve around each of my hands. I looked up at the empty gate, my destination, ten feet above my head. Rubble had fallen, partially blocking the way but providing plenty of scrambling opportunities. Move fast, touch as little as possible. Once up there, try to find a safe place before my feet burn up. A simple plan.

The day dimmed again, but it was not like before. I looked up. The clouds were back, gathering quickly. I swallowed, took a breath, and started my scramble. Up, up, the stone heating my hands and my feet, I scrabbled and pushed over the broken wall and into the cluttered gap that had once been a gate. I fell on my shoulder, cried out, rolled, the heat of the stone cooking my skin. On my feet once more I found a fallen stone to stand on; exposed on all sides it had cooled faster than the rest of the fortress.

I crouched on it, lifting one foot and then the other, certain I was about to cook to death. When the first raindrop fell, hissing at it hit the heated stone nearby, I paid no attention. But then another raindrop fell, and then another. The sky opened and rain fell in earnest, heavy drops that slammed into the heated stone with purpose, only to be turned to steam. I was surrounded by billowing clouds, turning the demolished fortress into a strange, shifting world of air and stone. My imagination turned shadows in the mist into monsters come to eat me alive.

I stepped off my rock. The rain was no more natural than the sun had been, but I was happy for it. Somewhere, someone who could change the weather was on my side. Or at least, not on the side of the ones who had done this. I turned my face upward, closed my eyes and let the cold hard drops hit my face.

Other rescuers would be here soon. If I was to gain anything from my head start, I had to move quickly. First things first: find a sharp piece of metal.

first episode