Poem in the new issue of Little Patuxent Review

Received two lovely copies of the new issue of Little Patuxent Review today. One of the pieces I wrote as a part of the flash fiction module in the fiction workshop I took last semester.  I really didn’t produce much quality work in that class.  The flash pieces were okay but they were really just prose poems, which I write anyway. I’m glad I branched out to write some longer stories, it was good to get out of my comfort zone, but also disheartening that the stories sucked.  Such is life.

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On being a good member of a literary community

Kelcey Parker, who teaches the fiction workshop I’m taking this fall, talked to us about being a good being good literary citzens during our last class.  Chief among her recommendations was to avoid being that person who just sits back, writes, submits and keeps it at that.  In other words, me!

Yes, I irregularly publish my own zine, Retirement Plan, but I don’t often attend events that other people put on, I don’t engage with other writers online, I don’t write about writing.  I could be doing so much more, in short.

So I can take some steps in that direction by being more active here.  Using this space to help hype the zine, to review and hype work by poets I know, to interact with the online poetry community.  To share my thoughts on writing, publishing, creating.  To stop just sitting in the dark with my blog on private and throwing my work out on Submittable.

Which, that’s been successful from a raw-numbers publishing point of view. These are all of my pubs/acceptances in the past year.

“I-55 by Pontiac, Illinois” in The Cobalt Review, 2019

Inula Helenium” in Up North Lit, 2019

”The Rover” in Stone Boat, 2019

“Gaps” and “Paradise by Postmodern Light” in Levee Magazine, 2019

“White Tail” and ”Right at the Sun” in West Trade Review, 2019

”County High Point” in Panoplyzine, 2019

”Milk Flowers,” in Obra/Artefact, Summer 2019

“Talequah” in mutiny! magazine, June 2019

“Tom Joad of Osceola” in Seven Circlepress, Summer 2019

“Orbiter” in Coast/noCoast, Fall 2019

The Message” in Levee Magazine, Spring 2020

“Exercises in Cross-Disciplinary Biological Care,” in Little Patuxent Review, Winter 2020

“The Seed” in After Happy Hour Review, 2020

But I don’t feel the least bit fucking connected to any literary community. On the contrary, it feels as lonely as cold as ever. I’ve been putting work into the world but not interacting with the world in any meaningful way.  I realize it’s silly to expect any sort of feeling of community from just publishing and nothing else.  But the periodic dopamine bumps from the publications make it feel better.

So, this place is a good place to start.  Start attending South Bend poetry events again and blogging about them.  Read poems my friends publish and write about those, too.  Reach out and touch some shit.

Specimen Case

Publishing poetry is so odd now. Basically, you have to spray n’ pray submit because Submittable has insured that every journal gets buried in an avalanche of submissions. Long gone are the days where the poet looks at journals they admire and arranges the perfect submission.

As a consequence, sometimes I get accepted to journals to which I probably wouldn’t have submitted had I done any research. This is one of them; The Meadow is a student publication of Truckee Meadows Community College. I wouldn’t have submitted to a community college creative writing journal and I didn’t realize what it was until after it was accepted and that point figured I’d leave it. Now, having received the issue, I’ve looked at the author bios in the back. Creative writing professors, writers for National Geographic and Playboy, a Pushcart winner, a whole bunch of MFAs, people with six, seven books out.

Ce’st la vie said the old folks.

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Eight days shy of four years

Since I updated this thing.  Four years!  This is practically a livejournal trapped in amber at this point.  Four years is college, a marriage, a fight with cancer.  I’m resurrecting it because I’ve actually been doing a lot of publishing and figured I needed a poetey presence online.  Seems to be the thing.

Should I do a four year catch-up? Is this a diary?  Really I just feel like I need an online presence as a Real Poet. I’ll stick with the poetey things for now and hint at the rest catch as catch can.  The meetings. The relapses. The attempts.  The hospitals. The broken romances.  So Byronic.

So, poetically, I’ve published a few poems over the past four years, about half of those coming this year alone.  I’ve started publishing my own zine, Retirement Plan, which originally published exclusively Michiana poets and writers and artists but has since moved on in scope, largely as I’ve run out of contributors in South Bend.  I’ll do posts on those later.

Perhaps most excitingly, I’ve got a book coming out, which was on my “do soon before you die and you can’t” suicide list.  My book, The Very Small Mammoths of Wrangel Island will be published by Urban Farmhouse Press in Spring 2020.  I should be writing about this in a much more excited tone but we’ve been working on it for 7 months at this point and the novelty has worn off.

Jenny

Checking back in on the Colony. It’s looking like everything I’ve written since and including the Colony, with the exception of the Hemingway re-write all take place in the same universe.  Currently it’s at almost exactly 10,000 words.  I’ve mapped out a number of flash fiction and short-story length pieces to fill it out.  In short, cataclysmic war on Earth leaves a lone remnant of a Mars colony, a generational spaceship on its way to Gilese 667 Cc and scattered survivors on Earth as the last of humanity.  I’m not as concerned with the overall story arc as with describing the period in a series of vignettes.  Think: a mostly-flash fiction I, Robot.  I’ve no idea how will this will work.  Anyway, best read The Colony before this one.  Cheers.

Jenny

You are in the midst of the sixes now, you know. Sixty six and sixty six. This is vital. You understand the importance right down to your bones.  Sixty six and sixty six and coming steady to the end of the world and the Armageddon is of your making.

You sure are keeping count Jenny and you sure are here.

You remember others, of course you do. There were eight and they counted to eighty-eight.  And there was comfort there so you knew there was meaning too and so you would line the rocks in 88 and straight and then over again and that helped. When you saw our faces and our faces were a thousand quick cut photographs spiked into your head like ice and you could feel all of the touching, everything, then 88 made like center.

We went away one by one and stopped being eight and that felt wrong but we kept at the 88 until it was just you and so just you did them every day.   You took the 88 steps to the sun and left a stone each step.   And the giant mushroom forests spread far and you found things to eat when the year came and the year said you were the last one and he didn’t wake up then. But you realized the numbers had to match and it hurt when they didn’t so the first year you did one. And two and two and three and three. And now your footfalls are already there to greet your toes in the stepping. Sixty six years and sixty six steps this year.

You sure are keeping count Jenny and you sure are here.

You sleep and you see the bringing you make with the steps. The world you’ll bring. You see your bones snap at the score marks, our grass and slab both queer in that strange endlight. There is a strange living vibration and a billion birds in panic, steadily rising wind. Already anguished, choked sobs there in the cold and the dark. The ground is drawn by a sediment of shining dark carapaces. The kind of black skittering things that scatter from the light when you flip the switch. They’re up your arms and down your shirt, tiny and busy articulate legs all in sequence.

There, the sharp angled bedrock of a cityscape, black as construction paper and more, the dull distant fire. Can you rise and be a living equation, the fit and cut of every numerator planted according to your own steely gaze? You see gathering pairs of lights on the horizon and the sharp detail of a rabbit with a shattered back drags its limp legs along a ditch.

You sure are keeping count Jenny and you sure are here. Sixty six years now and twenty two to go. There is a dusting of ash the threat of rain and what can you make of the world?

A Good Café on the Shoreline of Ontario Lacus

This is neither flash fiction nor a short story.  It’s a cover.  It occurred to me that people who play music and share it online often record and share covers of songs.  That’s normal.  But people never do covers of fiction.  I’m sure there must a be a perfectly good reason for that but as of right now I can’t think of it.  So here’s a cover of “A good cafe on the Place St.-Michel,” the first chapter of Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast.”

This is really just an exercise, a sentence-by-sentence rewrite.  So instead of Paris in the 1920s this story takes the reader to Titan in the 2320s. Hope you find it mildly diverting.

A Good Café on the Shoreline of Ontario Lacus

 

Of course, there was always the weather. You didn’t know anyone who’d been there long enough to really see a year’s worth of seasons change but every 15 days when the sun rose the temperature would rise just enough to rain methane. It was always cold on Titan and you always wondered what it would be like to stick your hand outside for just a moment but you knew that would be the end of your arm and instead you watched hydrocarbons lap in slow motion against the lakeshore. The mist was constant in the still Titan haze and the stripped down fuselage of the wrecked cargo unit shimmered in the soft yellow light from Saturn and the Café E Ring was always crowded and hot with sweat and drink and the condensation formed on everything. It was as bad a bar as any bar could be when it was the only bar around and that is very bad indeed. I stayed away because of the smell of sweat cooked in suit rubber and the scrubbers working constantly to clear to the air made it so you had to scream all the time. The cargo crews that frequented the E Ring stayed drunk the entire time they were moonside, mostly on shots of pure alcohol and water. Sometimes, if they drank their entire wage they drank darkmatter, which was based on hydraulic fluid and tasted the most like peppermint. Lacus Port had better than three thousand permanent residents then but still most people who moved past the belt still did it just to get away.

The E Ring was the cesspool of Enceladus Street which was the first street in Lacus Port and snaked with the landscape down to the lakeshore. The oldest housing modules were there, the ones that detached right from the ships and in the interest of efficiency the sewage hookups all faced the street and looked like oversized garden hose faucets. The recyc bots would move down the streets once a week and collect everything for reprocessing. Later modules put the hookups in the back so people didn’t have to think too much about who made their protein shakes. The bots were six-wheeled and squat and you would think of the photos you’d seen of the Mars rovers and get sad sometimes that their grandchildren just carried around shit all day. No bot stopped at the E Ring though, and its construction, grafted and welded into a discarded booster stage was seemingly as half-assed and ill-suited for the Titanian climate as its clientele was to have made the journey from the inner planets.

And the port was worse when it was warmer and the methane rain started. Because warmer was still cold enough to be instantly lethal and now the yellow haze was thicker with the constant methane drizzle. There were no great views of Saturn or the rings as you walked but only the opaque bluish orange over the dark sidewalks of repurposed paneling. And the research wing of the main unit assembly and the habitat pods and the few shops all shut their outer hatch ports against the methane drizzle so even the yellow glow of the round windows blinked out and everything was very much like sleep all the way from Mysi’s capsule to Hotel Huygens, where you had a capsule on the top floor where you worked.

I was staying in either capsule 202 or 222 and she was the next one over and we had to pay for any time on infofeed and knew how much it would cost for an hour on the stream, a small trickle of data down to my terminal that I would use to surf and harvest pictures and video and audio and some text and make something. I pinged the feed traffic from the other capsules and saw only a few units logged in. The mist made connections difficult and I thought about how the increased radiation reflection interfered with the signals from the orbital relay satellites and I wouldn’t be able to draw on enough material for a collage and the feed time would be wasted and my credits gone with it and walked on in the rain through the hydrocarbon puddles. I trudged past the towers of the main relay and the hull of the Hyperion¸ the one-way colony ship set down on the surface a century ago and the massive recyc center and cut down the narrow alley behind the tanks and finally came out on Calypso Street and worked my way toward the lake until I came to a good cafe I knew right on the shore.

There were a number of cafes in the port and this was small and good and often empty and their infofeed free for patrons. It was warm and dry inside and the interface kiosk was well maintained and never malfunctioned or took your money. I welcomed the fresh air of the cafe as I removed my helmet and the air was cool on my skin. I hung my 50 Kelvin suit on a recharge rack and placed my old scuffed helmet and gloves on the low bench below and ordered an instant coffee from the kiosk. I took the cup and jacked my glasses into the cafe’s infofeed and began to collect. I was collaging about up in Michigan and since it was cold and raining methane on Titan that is the kind of day it was in the collage. I pulled pictures of grey winters in the Upper Peninsula, archival video, the sound of the lake and what people told about Michigan, and what I had told about Michigan and began arranging it all.

I had already seen autumn’s end as a boy and a youth in Michigan and saw it again on Mars as a young man on Phobos Station. From there I watched the fields of frozen carbon dioxide cover the pole and move south into the plains. Watching that gave me a queer feeling and that was the same time I ended everything with Caroline and it was easy to see metaphors on the surface. Now I could collage about winter feelings when they happen in Michigan or Phobos better than I could when I was actually there. That was called transplanting yourself, I thought, and thought then too of the acres of jack pine along the Valles Marineris and how some of them probably came from Michigan or at least a forest very like it and started to get all philosophical on myself. But I found some old Instagrams in the National Archive of boys drinking in the pine woods in the UP and it made me thirsty so I ordered a Sailor Jerry approximate. It was very close. This tasted wonderful on Titan and loosened my connections. I kept on collaging and feeling inevitable and feeling the strong kick of cherry rum warm me all through my body and spirit.

A girl came into the cafe and took a table alone near the windowscreen. It was showing flyers in a loose formation gaining altitude over Kraken Mare. The enormous carbon fiber-ribbed wings strapped to their arms had the look of bats and one of them suddenly cut toward the camera and left behind him the words “Visit Titan” which I thought was weird because we were already there. She was very pretty and pale and her skin reddened in the heat of the cafe giving her the appearance of blushing and her hair was a shock of unkempt red curls and tendrils still holding the shape of the helmet.

I watched her ping the infofeed and she excited me and I wished I could collage her as well, keep her, put her anywhere but she placed herself so she could face the window screen and the port door and I couldn’t get a good shot of her. She was waiting for someone and I felt like collaging her with the drinking boys in the jack pines would be a disingenuous thing to do so I went back to the UP and Phobos Station.

The collage was forming itself, finding its own level and space like leaves moving on surface tension and I was having a hard time keeping it contained. I ordered another Sailor Jerry and watched her often push her curls behind her ear whenever I took a drink or changed feeds. Even though I couldn’t put her in the collage I would someday and thought you belong to me, beautiful girl in the cafe on the lakeshore, whoever you are, and if I never see you again. You’re part of my collage and you belong to me and all of Titan belongs to me and I belong to the vastness of the things people leave as they pass, the photos and films and updates and little creations.

Then I went back into the collage and flew through it all and was lost in it. I was forming it now, it was no longer spreading itself and I did not pay any more attention to the cafe or the girl or anything else nor order a third Sailor Jerry. I was tired of shock of cherry and alcohol without having to tell myself to be tired of it which was a good sign that I was really working. I moved through the collage once, the boys in the pines after graduation, the expanse of Mars moving beneath my empty room on Phobos, the grey rains of the Superior National Forest and then I came out and looked for the girl and she was gone and I hadn’t even noticed the hatch open. I hope she’s gone with a perfect lover, I thought. But I also felt sad.

I shut down the feed and set it to back up and was hungry. I took a chance on some oyster approximates and 500 ml of Sauvignon Blanc. After finishing a collage I was always so melancholy. I loved myself more but I was also empty and sad and thought of girls I should have kissed more or never kissed at all and other things of that sort. I was sure this was a very good collage and maybe my sadness was the sad focus, the grey and the cold and rain, but I would not know for sure how good it was until I experienced it again the next day.

The oysters were very good and even had a faint taste of the sea but they also tasted metallic and I didn’t know if that was intentional or not so I pretended it was and also that this was something I knew. The cold white wine washed away the metallic taste and left only the sea on my tongue and I also drank the cloudy water at the bottom of the bowl and that was very cold and intense and I stopped thinking of lost lovers and started to be happy instead and make plans.

Now that summer was come to Titan and the methane rain I was tired of Titan and of the cold and the dark. We would catch a freighter and make it back to Ceres station and then Earth and maybe Michigan. We had never seen Europa but the orbits were wrong and we would have to take a much longer gravity assist sling to catch up. So we’d go in, find somewhere warm and breathe atmosphere and feel real rain come down through the pines and watch water we could not see across. In Petoskey there were places we could camp at the shore and be together out of doors and even read real books and feel the paper in our hands and at night I could roll over in a big bed and wrap her up and pull her tight into myself. That was where we could go.

We would give up our capsules at the Hotel Huygens where I collaged and there was only the rest of the Titanian day’s rent which was a sunk cost anyway. I had published a story on riding water jets on Enceladus for Toronto and the transfer for that was due. I could write more journalism on the trip home, maybe something about the Belt and politics and all of that was very boring but it paid and we could have the money to make the trip.

Maybe back on Earth I could collage about Saturn the way I could collage about Michigan and Phobos on Titan. I did not know that it was too early for that. That I did not know the people and only knew the views of Encelaedus and her jets, the sun over the rings and flying along the great and strange mountain range on Iapetus. And all of that was great to see yourself but I did not know the people there and that’s all that really matters in a collage and I would not be able to make anything meaningful until I went back there more than 20 years later. That’s how it worked out. But we would go back to Earth, if my wife wanted to and after the oysters and the wine I checked my balance and climbed back into my suit and made my way back into the haze and mist and shortest way possible back to the Hotel Huygens through the alleys and hydrocarbon puddles and Titan was now some place where enough people lived that walking on it wouldn’t really change your life.

“Oh god, please, Bubba. Let’s leave Titan,” my wife said. She had enormous blue eyes of the sort that stuck with anyone who saw them and her smile exploded at the idea of any adventure and she thought most things were adventures, whether they really were or not. “When should we leave?”

“Whenever you want. On the next transport if you like.”

“Oh, right away please. Didn’t you know how much I wanted to leave?”

“Maybe we can head north into Michigan and stay while on the bay in Traverse City or Petoskey. It’s so perfect to be there in the summer.”

“Oh I’m sure that will be perfect,” she said. “What a perfect thing to think of, too.”

6/10: Field Work

Go to Google and search “It’s been a while since I’ve posted,” in quotation marks, and you’ll get 83,000 hits.  Change the “I’ve” to an “I” and you’ll get a further 116,000.  I wonder if there’s an average lifespan of a blog.  A chart of average initial furious productivity and gradual disinterest until after a while all you see are few “It’s been a while” posts and then nothing for years.  The blog just sitting there waiting to be updated, the reader left hanging.  

Well, it’s been a while since I’ve posted. Aside from a couple cheap update posts I haven’t put any new fiction up since April 5.  What have I been doing that time?  Little of consequence to warrant such laziness.  I have, however, completed my 6th short story, which I present here.  So, woot. 

I’ve been working on this for a great deal longer than I should have, and much, much longer than one would  rightfully assume after reading it.  The truth is, I kind of fucking hate it.  It started out as a Flash Fiction Friday and suddenly it was 2,000 words and I had no idea what it was about.  What was supposed to be a 750 word piece about graduate students in a semi-rebuilt post-apocalyptic society tranquilizing and tagging the survivors who roam the wastelands ballooned into something larger. The problem was, I didn’t feel like it had the plot to warrant its newfound length. I put it down for a few weeks, intending to write other things, but found that I couldn’t do anything else until I got this fucking out of the way. So I eventually went back and hammered it out.  It ended up clocking in at around 4,600 words, which unexpectedly made it short story 6/10 on my journey.  So, silver linings. God gives you lemons, you find a new god. I still think this not enough butter spread on too much bread, and in a few months I’ll probably return to it and try to fix it.  Until then, I’m just happy to have it out of the way. 

I’m okay with writing things I don’t like. Things that suck. The great thing about any craft is you learn from making sucky things and what make later sucks just a little less. I think maybe this story has too much show instead of tell.  I don’t know. Tell me if you figure it out.

As always, what I’m doing here:  I read somewhere that every writer has ten bad short stories them before they write a good one.  This is slightly more optimistic than Ray Bradbury, who said, ““Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” Challenge accepted, Ray.

So, I dug out the four short stories I’d already written and threw them up here, warts and all.  I also post flash fiction here, but don’t count anything less than 1,500 words toward my 10 story total.  This is number 6.  It’s my least favorite story, and I’m not usually in the habit of handing out warnings. If you’re still reading, and plan to read a little further, feedback is always more than welcome.  

Field Work

Credit: Wikipedia

Ko now greeted the warming months with anxiety.  Not because of the oppressive heat that meant the band would have to spend mid-day in the shade — the day was longer so they could hunt longer, too.  And not because it would be months before they’d see rains again — any halfway competent hunter among them could find water when he really needed.

He was worried about the Visitors.

Two years in a row they’d come. Hiding in something terrible, something that reflected the sun and hurt to look at. When they came, the Visitors would chase his band.  His band would run and some would escape.  But not all.  The Visitors were fast and the things they sat on were indescribable in his vocabulary. They would take some of his band and shoot them with small arrows and when they woke up again they’d remember nothing. Not even being shot.  Certainly not being hauled into the Visitors’ home and cursed with their magics.

Ko looked to the East, his lithe and lean figure backlit by a setting sun.  The mountains on the horizon blazed orange at their peaks in the summer sunset. They always came from the east.

A crunch of footsteps behind and Ig was there.  Ig held an armful of wooden spikes, sharpened on both ends.  Ko tested a few for strength.  Good girl.  He motioned toward the others, digging in the dusklight. Ig ran to join them. The large hole was most of a man deep and fully four men wide.  Ig passed the bundle down into hole and jumped in after and set to work driving the stakes into the ground.  Ko turned back to the mountains. The east, the east. They always came from the east. And they’d keep coming, just as long as his band kept running.  He knew that.

Time to stop running. Start fighting.

###

The Journalist was new. He’d never left the city.  His only knowledge of the arid expanse of rock and scrub that stretched a thousand kilometers up and down the coast and inland away from the city and the sea came from primary school.  A vague knowledge plant and animal species, of radiation levels and scant annual precipitation. He rarely even bothered the trip to the outer rings to look it. Now, he stood at a window and looked out at the segmented trailer, flat topped with solar panels and fronted by a large, sleek engine. The mobile research biology lab. Everyone called it the Marble. Beyond that, only sand and ruins.

The loading dock was one of three on the northern stretch of the city’s outer wall ring. Inside was a few dozen square kilometers of the only civilization any of them knew.  He walked to the other side of the hallway and looked out over the northern greenhouse district.  Every square meter planned and sculpted and accounted for, so entirely unlike the world he was about to enter.

The Marble was backed up to a loading dock and he also watched a trio of graduate students checking a long line of crates against the list on a tablet and wheeling them through and into the vehicle. He pinged their bios to read on the videofeed.

Jeen, Brill and Minny. Graduate assistants in the biology department at the University. Jeen the oldest at 18 and evidently team leader. She had a shock of short orange hair and one side of her head was shaved.

Minny was a tall, gangly boy with an Adam’s apple for the ages. Brill was short and well built. The Journalist noted they were, oddly, brothers.

Minny grabbed the end of a blue power cable from a case and held it up. “Is the right MP cable, Jeen?”

Jeen didn’t look up. “Check the other end. If it’s threaded it’s the right cable.”

Minny rooted around for a minute. “I don’t see the other end, Jeen.”

She looked up for the first time. “I’m pretty sure if you just follow the bastard you’ll get to the other end, Minny.” She noticed the Journalist looking at her, flashed him a smirk.

“Two of modern science’s finest minds right here.”

“Found it!” Minny held up the threaded end of the cable.

“Imagine that.” Jeen said sardonically. “Two ends after all.”

The Journalist thought she was pretty, and blushed. A journalist’s training always left them rather awkward in every day interaction. They observed, recorded and interviewed. Small talk was typically a weak point.

Outside, a figure slid down an access ladder from the upper level of the engine. He recognized Professor Brien. Expert in exocity species. He’d made great advances in studying the scattered, primitive inhabitants of the vast, empty plains that surrounded the City.

Once inside he saw the Journalist and his face lit bright.

“So, a new Journalist!” He strode over and clapped the Journalist on either shoulder.

“New a new yes” the Journalist replied. “Six months recording, now.”

Professor Brien was tall and broad, with an enormous blonde beard. He had a look of permanent sunburn. He wore a white one piece work suit of loose fit, open in the front. He clasped the Journalist’s shoulder in a worryingly personal and firm way.

“Well welcome, Journalist. We do great work out there. I’m happy for the recoding.”

The Professor’s gaze turned to the tech on the Journalist’s temple. “Live feed?” He asked.

“Video, audio, bio. Environmental readings.”

The professor whistled. “The City will lose the live feed about 300 clicks out.  You’ll have to settle for recording.”

“Radiation?”

“That and remoteness. No infrastructure out there, not much of anything out there.”

The journalist nodded.  Jeen called out from behind them with a question for the Professor and with a nod he took his leave.  The journalist turned his gaze to cracked, arid expanse, so entirely different from the world his ancestors had carved out of the coast over three centuries ago.  They’d come from out there. Ruined the world and ran in desperation to the coast and now 12 generations later they were finally getting back out there.

“Journalist!” The Professor called out. “We’re almost packed! Time to go!”

“Pause feed.” the Journalist said.

###

Ko cut Ig from Nala, her mother.

Two days of labor and then she wouldn’t wake up again.  So he took the black obsidian knife his father gave him and made the cuts he has seen once before. Ko brought Ig from the wound himself and when Nala’s heart stopped he prepared her and fed her to their pack dogs himself, too. As band leader he had to do all of these things and show no fear about it.  He lead them south in the cooling months that year, feeding their pack dogs strips of his her flesh and all the time as hard and unchanging as the stones beneath their feet. But sometimes, during the new moon, he goes off alone and draws the obsidian blade across his chest so the blood flows and he weeps and rages at the stars.

###

The Journalist made his way amidship.  The Marble three autonomous units.  The engine contained sleeping bunks, restrooms and an array of scientific equipment for measuring radiation, moisture, temperature and communicating with field teams.  The long cylindrical center module was storage.  And the tail car was largely empty save for two hydrogen-powered off-road vehicles and medical station.  All were topped by solar panels. At full charge the Marble could make 30 kilometers per day.

He crossed between the first and second modules through dust-choked open air.  He could taste it.

Jeen, Brill and Minny were opening the large, squat crates he’d seen loaded back the city.  Jeen seemed to direct most multi-person tasks. Jyin, the fourth student on the professor’s team, spent most of her time in the workshop working on various  equipment. Brill and Minny, as far as he could tell, were considered to be particularly adept at picking up things and putting them down somewhere else.

“Hey, Journalist,” Jeen said. “Wanna see something cool?”

He switched to his live video feed and sent a backup to the mainframe.  Not quite a hundred miles out from the City the latent radiation was already interfering with his connection.  The feed was static-y and distorted.  Jeen bent over and pressed her thumb onto a scanner and the crate popped open with a hiss.

It was full of deer.  At least, they appeared to be deer.  They were packed neatly on their sides, 50 to a case.  Brill and Minny started to take vitals.

“They’ve been altered for survival in the desert,” she said. “We’ve found bones indicating an incredible amount of pre-burn biodiversity.  We’re working toward rebuilding that.”

“Altered in what ways? Pretend I don’t know anything about biology.”

“Do you know anything about biology?”

“No.”

“Good thing, because I’m a shit actress.They don’t need much water, and they dissipate heat very well.”

The Journalist scanned their bodies. Enormous ears, long, thin legs. An impressive achievement in breeding and bioengineering.The ship suddenly air-braked and the Journalist had to steady against a pylon and shot a quizzical look at Jeen.

“We have to drop them well outside of the Nomads’ territory. Any food we’ve tried to give them goes uneaten. Any game they see us release is killed and left to rot.”

On the ground, the Journalist watched Brill and Minny wake the skinny things one by one with a jet injector.  Some sort of stimulant, presumably.  After a few minutes getting their bearings they they loped off into the scrub and brush.

They’d set down on the remains of a road. Patches of black asphalt in stretched in a line across the savanna. Not a single road any more but an impression of one. A spotted pattern. Bristlecone pines and creosote, intermingled with the ashpalt patches, stretched away as far as he could see. As always, he directed his headgear through a series of subtle eye twitches to take temperature, humidity and radiation readings.

The video feed was getting worse. The Journalist decided to stop streaming live.

###

It was the day the sun rose along the notch.  They did not make the notch. The notch had been there when they arrived and so too the tall smooth stone with the hole in the top.  Ko stood at the end of the notch, nude and cold in the pre-dawn desert morning.  He waited for the sun to rise and find the hole and find him as well.  This was the day that the sun and night held equal say over them. Tomorrow the sun would have its way, and the heat.  They always made it this far north by this day.

Ko saw his eyelids turn pink and red, felt the warmth on his face.  Spoke to his father in silence and heard the crunch of feet as the circle around him shifted back and forth.

###

The Journalist turned his gaze in a slow sweep across the great brown waste passing beneath them.  Sometimes they passed the ruins of cities. Foundations, mostly. Squat squares in the dust. Sometimes twisted stumps of girders like the worst teeth. There were millions here, once.

Nice shot for a voiceover, later.

“Tell me about your box, Professor.”

Professor Brien motioned to Jyin, who retrieved a heavy looking case from the cargo strapped against the side of the hull. Her straight black hair hung like a cloak around the case as she unfastened it. Inside was a silver rectangle, plain except for a speaker. The Marble’s cab was pleasantly spacious. A bank of controls at the front occupied Jeen. The professor sat in the other driver’s seat and the rest of them perched on a low bench that wrapped half around the rear of the cab. There were windows on all sides, giving the cab a cupola feel.

“This is box 3,” Jyin said. “The first three they destroyed. This is very slim, easier to conceal.”  She swiped her hand along the edge and the box shimmered and was suddenly the same shade of brown as the Earth outside.

“This speaks with them?”

“That’s the plan, eventually,” the Professor said. “We’ve gathered quite a bit of their language from the previous boxes.”

The journalist stood and approached the box. He instructed his mounted camera to pull backup photos from the video. “And you understand th — shit!” The cab lurched violently to the side, sending him tumbling into the professor’s lap.

“Whup!” Brien yelled, catching him.

“Sorry, dude,” Jeen said. “Hit a bump.”

“I noticed that,” the Journalist said, pushing himself back up with a grunt.

Jeen pointed up and behind her without looking. “Best to use those handy dandy railings that we’ve installed, oh, everywhere you can possibly walk.”

The journalist nodded. “Duly noted, Jeen. Now. The box. Can you understand their speech yet?”

“Well no, of course not. We can’t risk bringing one back to the City, and the one we brought on board our ship turned so insanely violent we had to release him or he was going to injure himself.”

“So what does it do?”

At this the professor produced a remote control . “We know certain words associated with certain events. Food, mating, fighting. We assume food is also associated with contentment, with satiety.”

The professor pressed a button and a trilogy of words emerged from the speaker. The Journalist couldn’t understand any of them but had a feeling was listening to a kind of pidgin. One of the words had a harsh glottal stop and a guttural sound. Another was tonal and ethereal.

“These mean food?” The Journalist asked.

“As near as we can tell, these have to do with food, yes. We hope to play this and a few others for them and see gauge their reaction tomorrow.”

Jyin spoke up.  “You’ll want a good view for the video, trust me.”

“What of the previous try?”

The professor sighed. “It went poorly.  We waited until they were gathered around and turned it on.  At the first word they smashed it to pieces with stones.”

“And what’s changing now?” The Journalist asked.

“Well, the idea is that they’re learning.”

###

Ko and Ig lay flat on their stomachs. Ko inhaled deeply. The earth this far north smelled nice to him. It always had. If he had the word in his mind he would have called savory. He noticed Ig was doing the same and smiled. Ig. Ig. He was six hands this year. Middle aged and the unquestioned leader of his band.

She had borne him one hand of children. Only Ig survived. Ig, as strong as him.

They heard the sharp crack of the zik, a hollowed out log struck with a stick and they were both up and running, Ig half a second faster than her father.

They cut down the washout at a dead sprint. His band were all great runners. They could run down prey for an entire day, just waiting for it to drop dead from exhaustion. He willed himself to move fast. Ig kept pace, her long lean legs moving light and beautiful.

Another crack from the zik and they pulled up. Ig a few steps ahead still. Good girl.

Ko looked back and saw a dozen dark brown figures holding their spears high. Ig threw both fists in the air and the band’s cheer songs reached him clear even through the wind.

That night the band prayed long. They made three holes each a hundred paces apart and placed an ancestor’s tooth apiece in them. Ang’s teeth, they decided. The last one of the band the Visitors to fall under the Visitor’s sleeping spell.

Ko told Ang’s story. How they all cried and said goodbye to Ang from a distance. How they thanked him for being a great hunter. And, finally, how Ig took her first kill by sending a spear into Ang’s chest so he the sleeping spell wouldn’t infect them.

One tooth apiece in each hole and now they stood in Ang’s mouth. They’d be safe here, waiting for the Visitors.

###

The Journalist was born to be. Everything must be recorded, they told him, and recorded themselves telling him that. At three he kept a food diary, as practice. Breakfast. 200 millilitre protein shake.  Lunch. Seaweed and pine nuts. Dinner. Curried grasshoppers. The Journalist was the 10th. His mothers and father were the Journalist, too. He recorded their deaths. Recorded everything because someone else had lost it. His ancestors had done something broke the world and the city was the only place putting it back. His family had recorded this for ten generations so no one would ever forget just how hard it was.

Now, for the first time, he was recording people not from the city. The past six days since entering the nomads’ presumed migration corridor they’d been up at dawn, scanning the landscape. Finally, last night, they’d seen fires in the distance.

Now, he adjusted his gear, focusing the camera on the line of brown figures sprinting at an impressive pace down the washout 200 meters distant.  They were long, lean things. Built for extended running. An electric shiver shot up his spine. His heart raced.

“They’re beautiful, Jyin.”

“Yeah, pretty damn awesome, huh?”

His video feed stabilized and pulled a photo.

“Coloration identical to the landscape. Likely soil applied to the skin as camouflage.”

He thought about that a moment.

“No previous mention of camouflage among the bands. Indicates tactical thinking abilities.”

He lost them behind a ridge. The Journalist switched the comm in-ship and brought up Jyin. He was on the ground but she would have a better view 20 feet up in the driver’s seat.

“Jyin. Can you see them?”

A moment’s silence. “Negative. Nothing. Just dirt and Jeen’s dust.”

“What about your radio tags?”

“Still negative there, too. This must be a different band than the one we tagged last year.”

He scanned the area again.  The dust was a problem.  Jeen and the Professor were making toward the washout in one cart, Brill and Minny behind.  One driver, one gunner.  He could see Minny on the turret, face obscured by goggles and a breathing mask. The barrel of his tranquilizer gun.  And their tires throwing up plumes of dust behind them that made it impossible to record anything.

“I’m coming up.”

###

Ko watched the two approach, considered the fearful noise, the dust they threw up.  One could never hunt in such things.  Any game would scatter long before one drew near.  Any game except his band.  Ko looked to his right and caught Ig’s gaze.  Ig held up the black obsidian knife.  Ig’s now.  And as he was looking on his daughter with perfect admiration and pride the first of the two awful things ramped over the lip of the washout and landed right between them.

##

There was no one there.  Professor Brien ran the wipers and cleared the screen.  The washout was empty save for scrub and dead timber.

“Jeen! Do you see anything?”

“Nothing from here, Professor” She moved her goggles up to her forehead and raised her binoculars.

“Damnit, they must have doubled back. I swear they’re getting smarter!” He sounded excited.

Jeen clicked over to the open comm.  “Brill, Minny, circle wide. They doubled back.  Jyin, you reading?”

“Jyin here.”

“You see anything on your scopes?”

“Nothing. Journalist is up here too.  He’s got nothing.”

Her suit was stifling.  Sweat trickled down her face, into her eyes, stinging.  She raised her visor and wiped it away.

“Professor, is it just me, or are they getting smarter?”

Brien grinned and gripped his steering wheel, bounced up and down in his seat.

“I sure as hell hope so.”

And from her vantage point atop the ATV Jeen saw two things, simultaneously.  The ground in front of the vehicle shifted, in one smooth motion, and then there was a man standing in a low crouch.  She’d never seen anyone move so fast.  She didn’t even have time to call out to the Professor before Ko had thrown a spear directly at her chest.

Searing pain and loss of breath, and her vision went black a moment.  Jeen noticed she was curled up in the bottom of her cupola, gasping.  A pair of hands grabbed her and pulled her up, and she saw they were connected to the Professor.  He pressed his hand along her chestplate.

“All-damn-days that guy was fast!”  Brien said.  She vaguely heart Jyin’s voice on the com but couldn’t make it out.

“No, we’re fine, Jyin,” he said, and now spoke to Jeen. “But if that had been a foot higher you’d be dead. Keep your damn visor down, kiddo.”

Jeen coughed.  “Sorry, stupid, sorry.”  Of course the spear had been no match for her body armor.  Her face wouldn’t have fared so well.

“Where’d he go?”

The Professor threw a thumb over his shoulder.  “They. A smaller one hit my windshield with another spear, then took off north.”

Jeen lowered her visor. “Let’s go then.”

###

Ko did not expect that. He couldn’t even really process it.  Less than 20 strides away.  He had felled men at three times that distance.  And yet, his spear had bounced right off of the outsider’s chest.  The thought spurred him, and he ran faster.  Ig was keeping pace just to his right.  They ran free and naturally, long thin legs pounding toe-first into the cracked soil.  No matter.  It was up to the others now.

Behind him, he heard the roar of the Visitors, closing.

###

Standing at the open left engine hatch, the Journalist lost the the two ATVs in the clouds of dust as the pair chased down their attackers.  He could hear Jeen barking orders on the com.

“Brill, back on us!  You’re too far out!”

“Negative, chief.  We…drove into a hole.” Minny’s voice.

Silence, for a moment.

“You drove in a hole!?”

“Uh, yeah.”

From the rising dust the journalist could follow Jeen’s ATV. Her voice followed the rhythm of the bumps they hit. “Were you … chasing … something shiny … when you drove into the hole, Minny?”

“No, we didn’t even see the damn thing. All covered in brush. Like it was camouflaged.”

The Journalist stiffined. “Minny. Journalist here.”

Jeen responded. “Getting a good … show … up there, J-man?”

“Can’t see a thing, Jeen. Listen. I need Minny to mark that hole so I can scan it later.”

“Roger. Need to wench ourselves out first.”

The professor’s voice cut in. “Dead ahead, Jeen!”

“Make it fast, Minny!”

The journalist climbed down the front module access ladder and hesitated a moment before dropping down onto the first patch of natural Earth in his entire life.  It felt adventurous.  He dropped to a knee grabbed a handful of sandy soil, let it run through his fingers.

Jyin’s voice on com.  “Journalist. I’m in the ATV hold. Where are you?”

“Already outside.”

“Dork.  Come around back and I’ll pick you up.”

The Journalist turned and faced the ATVs, still obscured by the dust clouds in their wake.  They’d ambushed the tag teams.  This was unprecedented.

He switched to infrared, hoping to catch something through the haze.

“Shit.” He said aloud.

“What?” Jyin’s voice came over.  “We’re good to go back here.”

“No we’re not.”

“What?”

“We’re not going anywhere, Jyin,” the Journalist said.

“Why not?”

“Because we’re surrounded.”

In his viewscreen the Journalist could make out a dozen bodies lying prone in the scrub. Bright red and white against the Earth beneath.  As if on queue, they rose, and started to advance.

“The fuck you mean, surrounded?” Jyin yelled, and in the hold made her way to the port.  Her next words caught in her throat.  The Journalist was facing a line of a dozen armed nomads. They all had spears and were covered in pigment the exact color of the soil. The MARBL had driven right up to them and never even noticed.

Jyin barked over the com. “Professor! Get back here! The journalist is outside and there are runners here!”

The Journalist was calm.  He switched back a regular video setting and scanned the advancing line of men.  No use running, he guessed.  Even if he could make it, he’d be betraying the job.  The Journalist recorded and that was it.

A strongly built woman with hair in long thick tendrils made a strange, quick movement and then the Journalist was on his back.

He didn’t remember lying down, so that was strange.

The Journalist lifted his head and saw the smooth shaft of the spear in his stomach, saw the strips of hide and beads hanging from the grip mid-shaft.  He moved his head back and forth along the line of them, recording everything.  The Journalist noticed that his head was too heavy to lift now, so he laid it back and closed his eyes.  He noticed that the stomach made his stomach feel bad, but it didn’t seem to hurt as much something so big seemed like it should.

He didn’t feel the need to open them again, even as the high pitched engines of the ATV grew to fill the air. Instead he thought about how hard it was to put this all back. How everyone should know that. And he kept thinking that until the sharp pops of the tranq guns faded into the thick thrum of his own heartbeat, which then faded into nothing at all.

###

A few hours later Professor Brien watched Brill and Minny load the vacuum-sealed body of the journalist into one of the deer-crates.  Jyin was watching the footage on a pad.

“We’ve got good speech here, professor. They talked for a full minute before you scattered them.”

“He knew better than to go out there without a suit. Shit.”

“He got excited,” Jyin said.  “He was young.”

Jeen was in near the rear of the hold, two of the band unconscious at her feet.  She readied a small gun and put it to the back of their necks.  It injected a small radio chip that would hopefully ping the monitoring stations they’d set up on the way back.

Professor Brien walked over and grabbed one by the ankles.  Jeen helped haul the woman down the rear ramp and place her on the ground.  This was the one that had killed the Journalist.  Jeen had hit her on the run with a tranq dart. He guessed she must be someone of importance to the band, if she’d taken the kill.

“Hopefully we’ll get some good migratory data from the tags this time, Jeen.”

“Yeah.”

“I can’t believe they laid a trap for us. The faculty wouldn’t believe it if the Journalist hadn’t been here.”

Jeen looked out over the savannah, the sky a sumptuous, thick red.

“They really are getting smarter, Professor.”

###

The Visitors the next morning. The heavy drumbeat thrum of their beast faded first as the band stood alert, watching. They craned their heads and listened until even Ko, tallest and best-sighted, lost it in the distance.That night the band made fires and debated over the lives of the newly stricken, Ban and Aa’ly. After some debate Ko decided to leave them at a nearby Oasis for one moon.  If he came back and found them in good health then they could rejoin the band.  In case the magic took them, he left an obsidian blade in their care.

This was an era in which the world was full of magic and monsters.  Such was simply fact.  Spirits lived with the band, though they were rarely seen.  Some were benevolent.  Others mischievous.  Some were simply evil.  They told stories in flickering firelight in the cold desert nights.  Refined their myths and gave the world meaning.

Years later Ig would tell her band the story of facing down hunting party of strange silver beings during the Summer When the Deer Came Back. She told it with her father’s knife in one hand and his heart in a pouch in the other. It was an important story, as any story about conquering the world must be.