Flash Fiction Friday: Permission

So, I’m hoping this becomes a thing.  I really like the idea of sf flash fiction.  Science fiction flash fiction.  That’s too many fictions.  Science flash fiction works well enough, I suppose. Anyway, I have far more ideas for moments than I have ideas for stories.  Sometimes it’s just a conversation, like today’s piece.  Sometimes it’s a neat bit of technology I hear about listening to Science Friday or a situation I imagine while doing my endless fucking stair climb.  Whatever it is, I think flash fiction is a great way to develop one’s self as a genre writer.  A way to go inhabit a world for a few hundred or so words.  I think flash fiction might actually be the future of SF in a way. Short little jolts of speculation shot out to smartphones and tablets.  As long as our attention spans.  Speculative fiction in the era of tweets, updates and vines.  

I’m not counting this toward my ten story goal.  Anything less than 1,500 words is flash fiction, and I’m also not doing the .5 story thing anymore.  If I’m going to write ten short stories I’m going to write ten proper short stories.  Flash fiction Friday will be more of a writing exercise than anything else.  Of course, I’ll still submit every one to Daily Science Fiction and 365 Tomorrows, so as to share my weekly genius with the masses. So, here’s my first Flash Fiction Friday piece.  Woot.

Image Credit: NASA

Permission

Stella was watching the blue plastic ice cube fall from her hand to the glass at quarter-G, about 2.25 meters per second. D-deck in the outer rings had the most gravity.  And the emergency hatches on d-deck, recessed a further 5 feet out, actually delivered a little more than quarter G.  Sometimes she laid flat on her back there, tried feeling the extra ounces she weighed.

A shadow fell across the glass on the floor in front of her. She looked up and saw Andrew peeking over the side of the hatch wall.

“Why are you drinking alone in an emergency hatch?” He asked.

“I like watching how it splashes at highest-G.”

Andrew looked around.  No one else in the deck. The floors sloping up and away a hundred yards either side.

“You’re an odd duck,” Stella.

Stella laughed. “You’ve never seen a duck.”

“Sure I have.”

“Not a real one.”

“No,” he admitted.

They were silent a minute.

“This is the closest we can ever get to being in a gravity well,” she said.

“That’s probably best,” Andrew said. “I don’t think our knees would much appreciate it if we suddenly made them carry four times as much weight.”

“Exactly.”

“Exactly what?”

Stella stirred her drink with her finger. Watched the light in the brown liquid sluggishly recover. “Our bodies,” she said. “So much taller and skinnier than our parents. There’s no place else we could live.”

“Well there’s no place else we’re gonna live, so that works out, too.”

She laid flat on her stomach and pressed her nose to the small circular porthole. All stars faint and equal, slowly arcing.

“Is it?” she said.

Andrew sighed. “You okay, Stel?”

Stella rolled over.  “They never asked us, Andy. We were born here and we’ll die here.  We’ll do the same to our kids. We won’t ask them if they want it either.”

“That’s why they call it a generational ship, Stel.”

“And it never occurred to them that that meant several generations of slaves?”

Andrew’s mouth worked a bit. Through the porthole behind her he could see the windows of Main Section, soft and blue and always. They had the illusion of rising as the ring continued its eternal 32 minute-long rotation.

“We’re not slaves, Stel.”

“We might as well be. We can’t leave.”

“People on Earth used to couldn’t leave, either.”

“Earth had a hell of a lot more room, though.”

Andrew laughed. “You’ve never seen room.”

“Exactly,” and Stella stretched long, and Andrew watched her shirt pull up over her stomach, which fell away between her hip bones.

“Besides,” he said. “You tested out engineering. I tested out sanitation. Count your blessings. In a year we finish school and you’ll be learning how to run this place. I’ll be scrubbing it.”

Stella fixed her eyes on the boy.  “It’s all the same, ship, Andy. We’re all going the same way.”

“Exactly!” Andrew slapped both hands on the rim of the hatch, and hopped upright.  “Now come on, you.  Zero-G soccer.”

She looked at him a while, backlit by the track lights. His knees the widest part of his legs, his mop of hair and high cheeks.

“No,” she said.  “I’ll stay here a while. Find me later,” and rolled back onto her stomach.

Andrew sighed. “Fine.” He turned to leave, then caught himself.

“Stel?”

“Mmm?”

“No one ever got asked. Remember that movie about the slums? People got born there, too.  They didn’t ask to be, but they were, and had to deal with it.  So we live here.  We keep this place going so in a few hundred years it gets somewhere.  Just the way it is.”

Stella lay there alone for some time, watching the lights of Main Section leave her sightline.

“Yeah,” she said aloud. “That doesn’t make it right, though.”

Turtle and Leech: 5/10

I called my last story, a quickie submitted to Daily Science Fiction, story 4.5  Anything less than 3,000 words I’m calling a partial story.  So, this is another half story – bringing me up to five.  This is something a bit different – my first completed draft of a comic book. I went through an phase of actively collecting comics starting in Spring of 2000, when Drew introduced me to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.  I’d previously been really into the X-Men in junior high but fell out of it when I spent 6 months in Romania and fell behind all the books.  I still don’t know how the Age of Apocalypse ended.

Comics opened something up for me.  My first creative fires in years.  I discovered Warren Ellis, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore. I went to Journey Comics every Saturday to bullshit with Paul and peruse books,  a ritual that included smoking and caffeinating and reading at the Sullivan Taylor Coffee House. Hanging out there lead to me to become friends with Boomer, to hanging out sometimes at the Chandler Boulevard House. To meeting Dave King and Kari and Derek and Jen. It also lead to my first abortive attempt at writing.

I bought the books Writing for Comics by Alan Moore and The DC Comics Guide to Writing Comics.  Damn, I should go buy them again.  Okay, I just went and did that.  I really shouldn’t have done that.  I cannot fucking be spending money right now. They were both cheap and used though. I just cut up my debit card. I’m only spending cash from now on. Having a debit card is kind of dangerous, when you think about it. None of those little purchases seem like a lot, and before you know it you’re broke and living at the Wooden Indian on Mishawaka. Anyway, where was I?  Also, I ordered a Will Eisner’s Graphic Storytelling and Visual Narrative, and Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics  and Making Comics on inter-library loan, which is totes free.

At the time, I decided I was going to become a famous comic book writer.  I got the books, I corresponded with comic writers, I started to formulate scripts.  As near as I can remember them:

  • A story about a shadow earth on the other side of the sun where dinosaurs evolved into sentient species because no asteroid ever hit it.  Some people can travel back and forth between the two worlds. It was terrible.
  • A 24-page story about a character named Melvin the Mayfly, which intended to do as a 24 Hour Comic. The story was that Melvin would learn of some plot to destroy the world but, being a Mayfly, only has 24 hours to save it.  Also, because he has no mouth, he can’t tell anyone.  I never made it.
  • A story called “Holding Unit,” a group of misfit space marines called upon to do a job they’re woefully unsuited for.  I actually liked this story a lot, and had a lengthy correspondence with Trey Wickwire, who at the time was formulating a military scifi series called Mamluk, and who appears to have brought it to life, though I can’t find it online anywhere. We were actually actively working ideas and I was on the verge of starting the script when I decided instead to move across the world to meet a girl I met online.  For a while that worked out: I got married. Then it didn’t: I got divorced. So it goes, so it goes.

And that was about as far as I got. I tried to find some collaborators for the awful dinosaur Earth story but there were no takers.  Then I tried to write Holding Unit but gave up before I started. Now, I’ve gotten a draft together – my first.  And, I have a collaborator!  My old friend Curtis Bisbee, who I know from days of harder living at WIU, is going to do all the artwork, and we’re thinking of releasing this in four page installments as a webcomic and DIY zine publishing the thing every so often as we go along.  Curt has already drawn his first treatment of Turtle.  I think this story is a good match for him. He likes to draw oddball/slightly disturbing characters, which is what this comic is all about. Example:

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LOOK AT THIS FUCKING THING. He drew fucking spider-bat-pig.  And look how happy spider-bat-pig is to be spider-bat-pig! He has no idea he is an unearthly monstrosity.  I am absolutely writing this character into the script somehow.

Think of this as Cerebus meets The Goon while listening to Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois.  Turtle and Leech are a very slow duo of adventurers traversing the shattered hellscape of post-apocalyptic Central Illinois fighting unspeakable evil at .2 miles per hour.  I’ve already got the second issue outlined, and I’ll be posting some sketches as Curt sends them to me.  Hooray!

So, after that super long fucking introduction: Here is story 5/10 on my journey to becoming a writer.

Turtle and Leech: ISSUE 1 

Page 1 Three equal panels, one atop the other.

Panel 1: In a forest clearing surrounded by dead, black trees whose spidery branches look like cracks pounded into the slate gray sky, lie half a dozen bodies in various stages of dismemberment, a broken wagon piled high with sacks and barrels, and a turtle shell, in the center of panel. A sword sticks out of one of the bodies. Others are missing limbs.

The view is from above, and the shell, being small, will not be immediately recognizable.  Among the debris scattered about, it might just be another piece of junk.

On the trees behind, nothing grows, nor is there any plant life on the ground.  Mist snakes and dances among the trees.  Whisps of smoke rise from the embers of a camp fire.

Text: Upper left, single box: MORNING, SOMEWHERE BAD.

Panel 2: Zoom in, the same drawing, and the shell remains in the center of the panel. We can see more detail of the shell and the things around him. A body, face down, clutches an antique-style double-barrel hammerlock shotgun.

We can the handle of a machete sticking up into the air behind the shell.

Text: Upper left, single box: THE MURKY DAWNLIGHT ILLUMINATES NEW DEAD THINGS.

Panel 3: Side shot of the shell and and upright severed head opposite — shell to the right and head to the left, facing each other. The shell is about 1.5 times the size of the head.  The head sits in the embers of the camp fire, eyes and mouth open in an expression of shock. Perhaps a little smoke rises from what is left of the hair — the head has been in these embers for a while. We can see that the carapace is battle scarred.  Several deep, vicious grooves are visible , signs of old violence.

Text: One box, long and rectangular, across the top of the panel like a banner. The second is on the bottom, right. In the middle, there is a single word bubble, coming from the front of the turtle’s shell.

First text box: THE LOCALS CALL THIS PLACE, SIMPLY, “THE DEAD FOREST.” THEY DO NOT GO INSIDE. THEY SAY ANY CREATURE OR SOUL IN THE FOREST WHEN THE SUN SETS WILL NOT LIVE TO SEE IT RISE, FOR THE FOREST WILL CLAIM THEM.

TURTLE: Zzz…

Page 2: Four equal panels in a windowpane.

Panel 1: A closeup of the font of the shell.  The top and lower lips of the shell’s front frame the sleeping face of TURTLE. A light colored scar runs diagonally across his face, cutting across one eye. At either end of the scar, there is a deep wedge cut out of the carapace of the shell — the intended effect being that someone swung an axe into Turtle’s head at some point, and he only survived by pulling the old turtle trick of pulling his head down. In this case, however, it didn’t get him out unscathed.

His eyes are shut tight, but even so he seems to wear a permanent scowl.

TEXT: Single box: SOME WILL SAY THAT DEMONS APPEAR AT NIGHT, AND THESE ARE SOUL HARVESTERS.

Panel 2: Closeup shot of the severed head. The bottom half of the face is blackened from proximity to the coals. The top half his normal enough, except for the loss of most hair.  What is left sending tendrils of smoke up into the air. One eye is open much wider than the other, giving the face a sort of o.0 look of disbelief, as if, prior to death, the man, not so much afraid, simply couldn’t believe what was happening to him. The mouth hangs open, and the bottom lip is more or less burned away, giving him the appearance of a horrible underbite. The gums are drawn back, making the teeth appear elongated, more like fangs.

Text: Single box: OTHERS, THAT THE TREES THEMSELVES COME TO LIFE TO SNAP AND TEAR HUMAN LIMBS.

Panel 3: Same as panel 1, only TURTLE’S right eye is now open. He scowls.

Text: SIX MEN DIED IN THE FOREST LAST NIGHT. THEY MET NEITHER DEMON NOR TREE SPIRIT.

Panel 4: Turtle’s face again. His eyes are open.

Page 3: Full page splash

TURTLE has leapt into the air. He is upright and a foot off the ground with the machete, held in both hands (which are not human hands, but ordinary turtle feet) pulled back over his head. The severed head is in the foreground to the right, and our view is from behind it. TURTLE is staring down at the head with with a calm face and same dark, angry eyes.

Text: Upper left, single box. THEY MET SOMETHING WORSE.

Page 4: Three panel page. One 2/3 panel.  Two smaller panels below.

Panel 1: Side shot of TURTLE from his right, standing, holding the machete outward.  It is buried in the severed head. TURTLE is on the left and the head is on the right. When TURTLE is standing, the top of the head is at the TURTLE’S neckline. TURTLE is looking down onto the head.

Text: Three word bubbles, spaced for effect.

TURTLE: I have already killed this one.

TURTLE: I really need to stop swinging a machete into the first thing I see when I wake up.

TURTLE: Where am I again?

Panel 2: Show from slightly below, showing TURTLE looking up and to his right.

Panel 3: The tops of the trees.  Dead, black trees snaking and splintering up into a dead grey sky.  Nothing alive can be seen.

Text: Blue text box, with a different font. TURTLE’S inner monologue. Box: Oh, yes.

Page 5: Full page splash:

Panel 1: Panel one is a map, with the edges of the panel the torn and curled edges of the brown and coffee-stained paper.  The idea is a map that’s been the glove compartment of a working truck for many years. A road winds down, top right to bottom left, where there is a wooded area, and, hand scrawled in ink, THE DEAD FOREST. The road is similarly labelled, THE DEAD ROAD. As is a creek that crosses it, top to bottom.  At the far right is hand-written, TO SPRINGFIELD and an arrow pointing right. Make it a map of central Illinois, but with the names crossed off and horrible things written in their place.  Have fun with it. It should have some cigarette burns on it, some ancient blood splatters.

The text in TURTLE’S inner monologue occur diagonally from top left to bottom right:

TURTLE: Uhn. The Dead Forest.

TURTLE: It’s always so. “The Dead Forrest” or, “The Dead Marshes” or, “The Swamp of Despair.”

TURTLE: … or, “Murder Mountain.” Fucking loved that one.

Page 6: Windowpane

Panel 1:

TURTLE is standing with his left side to the head, jerking out the machete. His head is down in exertion, and the machete is still imbedded in the head.

Panel 2: Shot from above, with TURTLE in the center, his right arm holding the machete out, away from him, away from the head.  The head has toppled over and gloppy stuff spills out of it. Bodies surround him. TURTLE’S head is still down.

Panel 3: TURTLE from the front left, placing the machete behind his shoulder. The machete will have no visible means of attachment, just as his ‘hands’ do not have opposable thumbs. When he is walking on all four legs, the machete will attach itself to his side, and poke out behind him.

Panel 4. Shot from the front, with turtle now on all fours, facing us, but looking to his left.

Page 7: Four panel windowpane.

Panel 1: TURTLE is in the same position as page 4, panel five, but now we see him from his right side.

TURTLE: Leech…

Panel 2: Closeup, head and shoulders shot of TURTLE, looking to his right now. His eyes are a little scowlier.

TURTLE: Leech!

Panel 3: Shot from the front. Turtle on the left, the face down body of the man holding the shotgun visible from just below the shoulders and exploding upward out of his head is LEECH. TURTLE is surprised, reels back a little from the exuberance of LEECH’s entrance.

LEECH: OH HAI!1 (LEECH only speaks in lolcat and his word bubbles are jagged, like explosions)

Panel 4: Closeup of TURTLE’s head, eyes squinched tight, as LEECH lands on his head with a squishy *plop.*

Page 8: Two atop, three panel

Panel 1: Side shot of TURTLE’s head, as LEECH looks out of the panel with big watery Bambi eyes.  His body, about as long as TURTLE’S HEAD, is formless black and aside from his eyes the only discernible feature is a soft pink tongue perpetually stuck out.  LEECH needs to be cartoon-y and adorable. TURTLE is looking up, trying to see him.

TURTLE: I wish you’d stop sleeping in those. You smell like old brains.

LEECH: I can has brains?

TURTLE: No, you’ll spoil your dinner.

Panel 2: Shot from TURTLE’s front right. His machete is at his side, horizontal to the ground. The head is visible in the background, split open. TURTLE is walking forward. LEECH is leaping onto TURTLE’s shell from his head.

TURTLE: Get off my head, we’re leaving.

LEECH: K-thx!

Panel 3: Shot of a man, sitting up against a barrel, with a vicious wound in his forehead, as if he was shot from behind with a very large caliber bullet, such as the shotgun on the ground. Beside him is a burlap sack, tied at the top. The sack is on its side.  A word bubble is coming out of the sack.

Text: whimper…

Page 9: Three panels, stacked.

Panel 1.  Shot looking over TURTLE’S shell from behind his head. He’s looking back over it toward the sound. Leech is in the foreground, same big dough eyes and tongue sticking out, looking in the same direction.

Panel 2: Shot from the side, TURTLE has his head lowered down near the opening, and has grasped in his mouth one of the ends of the rope tied around the top of the sack.

Panel 3:  From the font.  TURTLE’s face and rope leading into his mouth. He’s squinting with exertion, pulling on the rope.  LEECH is peeking around the side of his head, dumb happy look on his face.

Page 10: Two panel.  Panel one is very large, panel two smaller and overset.

Panel 1: Shot from above. TURTLE is facing the sack, rope still in his mouth. LEECH is on his back. A girl, arms and legs bound, with a gag in her mouth, has tumbled out of the sack onto her side. She is wearing only a small t-shirt and panties. Bruises and dirt stain her legs. She is facing TURTLE and LEECH.

Panel 2. Closeup of the little girl. Her hands are drawn up to her chest. Her eyes are wide in surprise.

Page 11: Four Panels, stacked.

Panel 1: Side shot of TURTLE, LEECH on his head with a very excited look on his face, and DAISY facing opposite.  DAISY left, TURTLE right.  No dialogue.

Panel 2: DAISY from front – right.

Daisy: Um, hello, Mr. Turtle. And little thing on Mr. Turtle’s head.

LEECH (Word bubble from off-frame): HALLO MISS HOOMAN PERSON!

Panel 3:  TURTLE from front – left. LEECH perched on his head.

LEECH: CAN I HAS…

TURTLE:  No. And get off my head.  Now, miss. A bag in the middle of a bunch of dead cannibals in the middle of the dead forest is no place for a little girl to be.

Or a big girl, really.

Anyone at all. Cannibals too.

Panel 4:  Perspective from just over a jumble of body parts.  DAISY, TURTLE and LEECH in background. DAISY is looking at the bodies. TURTLE is looking over his shoulder toward us in the same direction.

DAISY: Did you make all their heads fall of like that?

TURTLE: We’ve been tracking them since Decatur.  Not hard.  Just follow the bones and the Firepits. They’ve been eating their way across Central Illinois.

We caught up with them last night.

Page 12: 4 panel, irregular.

Panel 1: Foreground is the silhouette of a gnarled tree.  A skull is lodged in the fork.  Background, our trio, still conversing.

TURTLE: What’s your name?

Daisy: Daisy.

TURTLE: Where did they take you from?

DAISY: New Berlin. It’s west.

Panel 2: Turtle, facing Daisy, from front, left.

TURTLE: Are you hurt?

DAISY: No, I don’t think so.  They didn’t start eating me yet or nothing.

LEECH: OM NOM NOM!

TURTLE: Very well then, Daisy. We will take you home.

Panel 3: TURTLE from front, walking away. DAISY behind.

TURTLE: And no time to waste. We need to get some road under us if we’re going to be out of the Dead Forest by sundown.

DAISY: It’s like, barely morning.

TURTLE: I’m not fast.  Besides, do you want to hang out with all the rolly heads?

Panel 4:  Zoomed out of the forest.  Very stylized and black. On the horizon the sun is rising.  Word bubbles with long snaky tails rise up for the blackness of the woods.

DAISY: What’s your little black slimy friend’s name?

TURTLE: His name is Leech.

LEECH: HAI SACK LADY!1

DAISY: He’s cute.

TURTLE: He likes to eat brains.

DAISY: EW.

LEECH: OM NOM NOM NOM!1

Page 13: Windowpane.

Narrative box:

Panel 1: “And so our intrepid trio set off across a narrative interlude to show the passage of time through the Dead Forest.”

Side shot of the three. DAISY is skipping in the lead. TURTLE is plodding along with a morose look on his face behind. LEECH is sleeping on TURTLE’s shell.

Panel 2: “They saw many horrible things.”

Shot from behind.  The three are looking at a pyramid of human skulls.  LEECH is on TURTLE’s head again.

Turtle: “Get off.”

Panel 3: “Sometimes they did something about it.”

Again from the rear. TURTLE’s back is to us. He is holding his machete and katana high in the air against a serpent, coiled high into the air and baring huge fangs. It’s about three times his height.  In the foreground, DAISY cowers behind a tree stump, holding LEECH to her chest, who looks equally terrified.

Panel 4: “Sometimes, maybeee not….”

All three running away, toward us, from an entire herd of zombies.

Page 14: Windowpane.

All four panels here are looking down the same forest road.  All three are walking toward us, getting closer each time. DAISY mostly looks down at her feet.

Panel 1: Narrative: “Sometimes there were no terrible things for a while, so they just talked.”

DAISY: You think those men were gonna eat me?

TURTLE: That doesn’t matter now.

DAISY: Thanks for making all their heads fall off like that.

TURTLE: Any time.

Panel 2:

DAISY: So what’s your story, Mr. Turtle? Where are you going?

TURTLE: Wherever there is evil.

DAISY: That’s kinda everywhere.

TURTLE: Right.

Panel 3:

DAISY: Where you from?

TURTLE: Far, far to the East. We have traveled years to arrive here.

DAISY: How far is far, far?

LEECH: 47 MILES! MUCH FAR! SO JOURNEY!

DAISY: Oh, right. Turtle speeds.

Panel 4:

DAISY: This is gonna take a while.

PAGE 15 – 16: Two page spread:

NOTE: MAYBE DO A ROUGH, QUICK ATTEMPT AT DRAWING THIS LAYOUT. IT MIGHT BE TOO CROWDED.  ALAN MOORE USES A LOT OF 9 PANEL LAYOUTS ON A SINGLE PAGE, BUT HE’S WEIRD.  LET ME KNOW IF YOU WANT ME TO REWRITE THIS INTO A THREE PAGE SPREAD.

Panel 1:The top panel is just a little bit of cuteness.  On the far left is TURTLE and LEECH, plodding along. And on the far right DAISY is sitting, bored, on a tree stump with her head resting on her hand, waiting for them to catch up.  She’s embarking on a road trip to reunite her with her family and she has to move at a turtle’s pace.

DAISY: You’re slow.

Panel 2: Side shot, walking along. All three facing to the left. TURTLE is telling a story. LEECH is sleeping DAISY’S hands. She’s holding him up in front of her.

TURTLE: “…and so the demon lizard spawn of Joliet descended upon the..”

Panel 3: An abandoned gas station. A mad-max-looking lunatic runs out of an abandoned gas station yelling some pseudo Cthulic nonsense.

Lunatic: “BAGGAH SHA! GRAZH BAGGAH SHA!”

This is the first time we see TURTLE actually fight.   He calmly watches the guy running at them wielding a nail-studded baseball bat and calmly cleaves his head in two when he gets there.

Panel 4: Close up of TURTLE’S face. He has gone quite grim.

Panel 5: TURTLE calmly dodges the lunatic’s first swipe.

Panel 6: TURTLE equally calmly beheads the lunatic.

Panel 7: The trio staring down at the lunatic’s body.

DAISY: What was he yelling about, Mr. Turtle?

TURTLE: It’s the Black Speech of Gaggoroth

LEECH: MUCH GAGGOROTH! SO TRIBULATION! VERY TENTACLES!*

Panel 8: DAISY is making arm gestures.

DAISY: Sometimes I pretend my arms are tentacles. But they don’t move as good as tentacles, ‘cause they’re really arms.

Panel 9:

(close up of tattoos on the lunatics’s face)

TURTLE: Those are the markings of the West Toledo Bone Cults. I thought they were extinct.

Footnote: *Gaggoroth the Absolutely Tentacled emerged from the inky depths of Lake Erie during the Ascension of LeBron. Now the locals call it The Sea of Sighs, on account of all the ghosts.

PAGE 17: Four panel windowpane.

Panel 1:  TURTLE walking toward us, DAISY in the background.  She’s rolling her eyes.

TURTLE: Come on, then.

DAISY: Oh, you go on ahead. I’ll take a nap here and catch up later, slowpoke.

TURTLE: Newsflash: I’m a turtle.

Panel 2: DAISY turns her head and sees something.

DAISY: Yeah, like the slowest turtle ev…OHMYGOD!!!

Panel 3: DAISY is spring toward us.  TURTLE in background, watching. LEECH is looking on as well.

TURTLE: (thought bubble) Huh?

LEECH: OM NOM?

Panel 4: The backs of TURTLE and LEECH’s heads, looking at the abandoned gas station.  We see DAISY with her back to us, throwing junk to the side.

DAISY: Guys! Guys! I found the answer to our problems!

TURTLE: The Eye of Kothar-wa-Khasis? *

DAISY: Wha – no!  I found…

Footnote: Thought lost for many years, the Eye of Kothar-wa-Khasis was found in a mausoleum in Davenport. It’s discovery lead to the Third Tribulation of the Quad Cities.

Page 18: Full page splash!

Full body shot of DAISY, who has pulled a wagon out of a junk pile.  Old-fashioned Radio Flyer.  Light emits from it.  DAISY is all excitement and grin.

DAISY: A WAGON!!!

Turtle: (From off – left.) Oh, hell no.

LEECH: WHEEEEEEE!

Narration box: To be continued…
End of 1st issue.  I could have another page devoted to an “About the creators” section.  I also want to create a fake letters to the editor section, written by people who actually live in this hellscape.  We have to take up two more pages, though. So one side (Page 19) can be the about/letters section and the other side just a standalone art piece of the three. Maybe being pulled in the wagon? Or maybe some initial sketches?

The Colony

I finally write another short story!  A short, short short story.  1,500 words.  I found a great website called Daily Science Fiction.  Free SF, every day, to your inbox. 1,500 words or less. The kind of stuff you can read over your morning coffee in your office, during that first fifteen minutes that still belongs to you. So, I wrote this and submitted it to them.  Does this mean I shouldn’t have it on my blog?  I’m not sure.  If they want me to take it down I will! Anyway, so I figured this would be a great re-entry into writing fiction.  Well, not really a re-entry seeing as I never wrote even semi-regularly.  More, it’s that I started this blog Almost 6 months ago with the stated intent that if I told everyone I was trying to write ten short stories to get better at this and actually publish something that I would be more likely to do so. Because it’s really easy to let myself down, not as easy to let everyone else down.  And for six months I didn’t write.  I did go crazy, end up briefly in a mental hospital, go through a separation and spend some time kind of drunk.  I wrote some poetry, over on my other blog: http://www.stillonthebalcony.blogspot.com, but no fiction.  So I made a resolution (I know, I know) to write every day.  And I built it into my schedule. And I didn’t all month. I started another short story idea, finally, a week ago but couldn’t figure out how to get it going. When I found Daily Science Fiction, it seemed like something I could give a shot so, two days later, here it is!  Does this count as a full short story?  It’s only 1,500 words.  I’m not seeing any stories in Strange Horizons or Asimov’s that are so short.  Of course, that is Daily Science Fiction’s niche, and they pay 8 cents a word, which counts toward membership in the SFFWA. So, I guess I’ll count this as 4.5.  I have another 1,500 word story I’d also like to write and submit to DSF, and I’ll count them collectively as one. 

So, as always: what I’m doing here. I once read somewhere that everyone has 10 bad short stories in them before they write a good one. This is my attempt to get those 10 bad short stories out.

Image credit: mentalitch.com

The Colony

Aaron will be cleaning the solar panels, making sure we get as much juice possible for the Transmission.  Aaron is proud of his work and he’ll expect me to inspect his work, to nod and contemplate the glassy surface of the modules and perhaps draw out a cloth and remove a little speck of dust he missed and tell him what a fine job, buddy.  He’s got such a serious working face, the kind of pride only a young child can find in helping, in being included.  Aaron has polished the panels for 2 years now.  He is eight years old and the youngest person on the planet.

I rise and stretch and walk to the window and see a dronelight illuminating the enormous mushroom trunks. Thomas and Werfel, making rounds, every eight hours, twice around.  We’re only up here every 66 days and I tell them I don’t know who moves in during our time down in the valley and don’t want to be surprised. They’ll be armed and practicing good trigger discipline.

I open the hatch and flash red at them and after a minute and come running up to the station, their coats oversized and bulky, covered in patches. “All clear,” Werfel says. “We only seen some skitterers but no one on two feet.” “We only saw,” I say, correcting. “Right, saw” Thomas says. Thomas and Werfel are both 12.  They share our only gun between the two of them when they’re on rounds and as often as not they bring home food.

It takes 66 days for the panels to soak up enough sunlight to send the Transmission and it’s too cold on the mountain to stay up here permanently. The rest of the time we stay in the valley, in the wreck of the Fort Laramie, the seven-degree slope of her hull on the valley floor just enough to facilitate endless pinewood derby races. At first, we had enough in our group to keep the station manned in rotating shifts, cranking an improvised generator so we could fire the transmitter every two weeks, instead of every ten.

I send Thomas and Werfel to make sure Aaron has his dinner and go to check on Winter, Morgan and Skilly.  Winter is 14, Morgan and Skilly 16.  Morgan and Skilly have declared themselves to be in love.  It makes sense.  They’re lounging in the hall  near the rear entrance. Winter is looking at his bandaged hand.  The winds always knock some things loose while we’re away, things that need refastened.  Winter got careless and laid his hand open on a piece of paneling. Morgan sits against the wall reading and Skilly lays on her back with her legs propped over Morgan’s and her hands behind her head.

“It’s okay, chicks dig scars.” Morgan says, without looking up.

“This is true, scars are dug.” Skilly says.

“What chicks?” Winter asks. “

The ones that will be waiting for you when they finally pick up our signal,” Morgan says. “The adoring throngs turning out for the hero’s welcome and all that.”

“Yeah, but this is on my hand. Who’s gonna dig a hand scar? Who’s gonna even see a hand scar?”

“You’ll have to find ways to nonchalantly show them your hand scar.”  Skilly says.  “Stretch a lot.  Or tell people, ‘Halt!’”

“Nah, fuck subtlety.” Morgan says. “You need to show them that you know you have a sexy hand scar.  Run around holding your hand out in front of you yelling “Look, chicks! My scar! Dig my scar! Dig it!”

Skilly nodded.  “That’s how Morgan and I met. One aggressively presented scar and I was all a-twitter in my nethers.”

“No, you met because we crashed here together.” “

That too.”

We crashed here eight years ago.  The war that seemed averted when the Laramie launched was in full swing when we entered orbit eight months later. We’d barely had time to register another ship in our vicinity when the rail gun hit us.  Less than kilometer from landing and we get ripped clean in two amidships.  There were 200 colonists aboard when we left Earth.  The morning after the crash, by the light of my first Cydonian sunrise, I counted 27.

“You should all get to the radio room,” I say, “Make sure about the frequencies.”

“We double checked ‘em Cap’n” Morgan says, looking up for the first time.

“Better make it triple. Better safe.”

Morgan, with furrowed brow and salute: “Aye aye, Cap’n!”

There were a few permanent colonies on Mars by that point.  Gale Crater. Arsia Mons. Kasei Base. None of them had weapons.  Within two days all went silent. I hoped no one had overheard our communications to the colonies requesting help, our bi-weekly distress calls home. Then one night I woke to fire and screams and raining brimstone down on our survival shelters. Later, we watched battles in orbit.  Phobos station going up.  Then nothing. Two years since we last picked up radio signals on the portable. Since, we’ve hiked the few miles up from the Laramie to the transmission station, every 88 days, to try and phone home.

There is one more.  Jenny likes to look out the window.  She’s never spoken and she does not like eye contact.  She does like to sweep, and she sweeps often.  I find her in the hall on the way to the radio room, sweeping the large-patterned steel floor.  It’s the sound, I’ve noticed.  Repetitive and soft.

“Jenny,” I say softly, and she stops. “Come on, sweetie, it’s time.”

We gather here.  We hold hands.  Aaron likes to say a prayer so we say a prayer.  Morgan takes his place at his terminal and reads charge  levels.

“Five minutes and we’re good for fire, Cap’n,” Morgan says. Winter is holding Aaron in his lap; they’re sharing a protein bar.  Skilly has her hand on Morgan’s shoulder. Thomas and Werfel side by side against the wall. Jenny sits in the corner with a stuffed animal Winter made for her from rags and a sock. My colony.  From 200 to 27 to eight. The owners of a partially-terraformed Mars.

“We’re a go!” Morgan yells, and everyone but Jenny looks up.

“Hit it.”

It takes 88 days to charge the transmitter through the damaged solar panel.  Eighty-eight days of charging for over five minutes of transmitting our automated distress call, and one minute to see if anyone has responded.  Morgan flips the switch. “Hap-py Transmission Day!” we all yell together.  It’s the only holiday that really matters any more.  And it’s more frequent, which is a bonus. No one says anything while we transmit.  The only sound is the sharp hum of the transmitter pulsing outside and through the walls. We watch the green letters on the cracked screen:

TRANSMITTING…TRANSMITTING…TRANSMITTING…

“Five minutes!”

“Switch!”

And now we’re listening.  Watching the screen to see the light turn from red to green.  It never has before and it does not this time, either. Instead, the light slowly dies and the sound too.  No return call.  Aaron makes a sound, his lip starts shaking.  Winter hugs him tighter. “Shh, shh, buddy. Next time, okay?  They’ll hear us soon.”

And Aaron buries his face and cries softly. “C’mon, buddy, let’s go get some juice.” Winter picks him up with a soft grunt and walks out.

“Why ain’t they heard us yet?” Werfel asks.

“Why haven’t they,” Thomas says, correcting.

“It’s a long way to call, Werfel,” I say.  “Don’t worry, though. Eventually we’ll…”

“…draw the one black marble!” Thomas says, finishing the first story I told them as a group.

“Exactly,” I say.  “Now go start packing up our stuff. I want to be back in Laramie by night. It’s cold up here.”

They help Morgan pack up his equipment and file out and it’s just me and Jenny at the console. When I hear the sounds of packing downstairs I produce a portable solar charger and plug it in.Two videos. The only two we ever received. Jenny and I the only to ever watch them. The first is my wife. She loves me, she says, and there are dull concussions in the distance. The second is a handsome, greying man in a blue suit, flag pin on his lapel.  He tells of missiles in the air.  Asks for God to help us all. Wishes us good luck. Is cut off in mid-sentence. I turn the screen off. My colony needs a purpose.  It does not matter if that purpose is ever realized.  I swore to a job when I took command of the Laramie, regardless of how many people I had under my command. My name is Captain Jiayi Liang.  I am 43 years old. I am the oldest human being left alive.

The Leviathans, written 2012.

I wrote this in 2012. Anyone who had the misfortune of reading my Facebook status updates at the time knows I was in a bad place. I submitted it to Strange Horizons, where I’ve submitted all of my short stories.  So far, they’ve rejected them all, and for good reason. I’ve read – I don’t remember where – that everyone has ten horrible short stories in them before they write a good one.  Which is fine. I’ve written four, which means that, if this is true, I only need to write 6 more and I’ll finally write something worth reading.  This means I only have six to go. So, here is a glimpse into the mind of a very angry, unemployed, 30 year old Craig. Hopeless in Chicago. 

Image credit: Wikipedia

The Leviathans

Murphy was trying very hard to avoid thinking of forbidden memories. Of the Thing He Must Not Remember. The thing so awful he couldn’t even call it by its true name. When he felt it try to sneak into thoughts during waking hours he shoved it aside without mercy. They hadn’t returned for some months, but now, as he stared at the changing world, he felt his grip loosen.

He saw a great swath of brittle, sunbaked prairie grass, trampled and brown, on and on until the horizon and black smoke beyond that. Nearer, along the ridgeline a mile west of town, backlit by the low sun: an exodus. A line of wagons and horses pulling carts piled high with chairs and chests of drawers and perched children with blank faces. Silhouettes in leaving that kept blending with the black plumes behind them appearing to Murphy as if turning to smoke and re-forming again.

He stood on the very edge of town, elbows atop a split-rail fence squinting into the low red sun illuminating the line of refugees. His face, detailed in harsh red light, betrayed no reaction as he spat onto the dry earth. Watching the sun sink fat and bloated behind the black, shifting pillars of smoke, Murphy thought of the last sand in an hourglass circling the neck. 

Of time running out.

They’d been coming through for days. Lines of fifty or five, any number more than alone. Murphy watched them riding with heads hung, slouching, with no destination save the next hill, the other side of the next river. And west, always west. With them came fire. The Union garrisons at Little Rock and Fort Smith had been burned out. Stand Watie was moving along the Arkansas River with his fleet of leviathans laying pure hell down ahead of him.

The only news came from the civilians fleeing west, and was as much rumor as terrified exaggeration. One thing was certain. He was coming, and nothing could stop him. And Murphy, staring at the line of filthy, terrified refugees, stood between the man and his quarry.

That morning, the refugees carried news from Fort Gibson a few miles distant, of finding the gates wide open and uniforms left in piles around the grounds. They hadn’t bothered to burn the rifles and cannon. The only thing missing was a sign on the door that said take it.

“Empty, by Gawd. Empty. There was coffee in the pot on the fire, lord as my witness, and bedclothes in the yard,” an exhausted, hollow eyed man in his sixties told the commander town’s 50-strong cavalry troop. The captain considered the pipe he was holding, never making eye contact with the dusty-faced man in front of him. After some moments reflection he tapped the pipe empty on his boot heel. He turned smartly stomping toward the group of squat improvised buildings clamped to the earth outside town. It looked as if he were walking into the setting sun. Fifteen minutes later, the townsfolk that had not yet joined the westward exodus heard a great pounding of hooves and yelling, and the whole lot rode due north in at a gallop, two abreast in columns.

From the black line of wagons, a figure broke off and cut towards the town at a full clip. A man with a soot blackened face on a wild, exhausted horse. The pair wheeled short at the fence and a rider with a black kerchief yelled at Murphy. His clothes were of fine cut, not suited for work. A banker or a postmaster, maybe.

“How many left here?” 

How many left of what?”

The man dropped his kerchief and the dirt caked on his eyes made him look as if he wore a mask.

“White folk, damnit.  How many left.  We got room in the wagons. We’ll take your women and children. We got soldiers, 50 or 60.”

The horse looked nearly dead. Its coat was afroth with sweat and its tongue hung thick and foamy from its mouth. Its head hung low and defeated.

Murphy decided he did not like this man. Your horse ain’t got much left, mister.”

The man sighed and adopted a look of worry. The furrowed brow. The stiff upper lip. He stroked the animal’s side. Such a sad thing. Look what they’ve made me give.

We been riding constant for three days, now. Hoping to make it to the mountains. Maybe they can’t go that high. Colo-rado is where we’re headin’. Through the passes.”

The wails of cattle and low rumble of hooves drifted through the air and around them as Murphy said nothing and watched the horse wither beneath its rider.

What is this place?”

Called Tallasi.”

Doesn’t look like much.”

Murphy returned his gaze to the rider. “Guess there’s not much reason to stick around then.”

None at all, stranger. Now, how many white folk you got left? We figure on safety in numbers. We’ll take any that come.”

“Mighty neighborly of ya.”

Damnit man, haven’t you heard? Stand Watie’s not two days from this very spot.”

Last I heard it was four.

The man nodded, turned to look at his train.  “Maybe, but I don’t think the fires’ll hold ‘em back much. He’s got his own fleet. Richmond kept their promise. Those damn things hang there like the judgment of the Lord and everything they see turns to ash.”

Murphy said nothing, and stared at the smoke.

“You heard the Leviathans hit Washington? It’s gone. Burning.”

We heard.”

By God, we were winning. We were winning and now Washington’s burning. How in the Devil…”

The man looked over. “You heard they’re scalpin’ every white they find, right? Those that don’t get incinerated first.”

“Yessir, I think the last group come through told me that very thing.”

The man threw up his hands. I just cannot believe what I’m hearing. “You seem awful calm about all this.”

“Guess I’m just a slow starter.”

“Well let me give you push, son. You got white women. You got white children. You jest tell me what you think he’s comin’ back here for.”

Murphy thought a moment, spat on the ground.  “Not that I’m in the man’s confidence, but I reckon it’s because he lives here.”

The man leaned forward and became very serious. You listen to the truth, now.

“He’s coming for vengeance, son.  You mark my damned words.  Whites’ been pushing the Indian west since before you or I was born and now they got their very own brand spankin’ new country and you tell me they ain’t got catch up on their minds.”

“Like I said, mister. I ain’t exactly in their confidence.”

Murphy turned his back to the man and made for the wide, dusty thoroughfare that passed for main street and the large oak tree at the end of it. Town was 60 or 70 houses in the middle of an ocean of grassland. Squat wooden structures on both sides and knots of men in front under the awnings, crowded around newspapers telling of the celebrations in Richmond and Charleston. Of two new nations coming into being.

“Hey!” The man yelled, riding after him.  He wheeled his horse around in

front of Murphy.

“Just why exactly you staying here, son?  Fixin’ to work for the Indians?”

Murphy thought a moment.  “No sir, just waiting until I find a place where you bastards aren’t.”

The man stiffened, as if in contemplation of violence. Murphy beheld him with the blank gaze. In the end, the man simply spat. “Dig your own grave, stranger,” he said through clenched teeth, and pounded away up the street, searching for little white girls to save. As Murphy watched him ride away the wind kicked up and the gigantic oak at the end of the street moved with patient immensity.

Murphy made for the Moses Saloon, on the other side of an empty lot filled with broken bottles and discarded bits of lumber. There, up some steps from the alley, the single thing in this town he gave a good goddamn about. Somewhere along the street, a window broke. They’re hitting the empty houses. As he walked to the steps he noticed the boardwalks were covered with abandoned possessions. Forced by necessity to reassess value and finding emotional attachment wanting in comparison to material need, they were leaving things strewn in the streets, the alleyways, the open doors. Precious things. He saw a Bible on the ground, the front cover open. Three generations of birth and death filled the blank first few pages in a looping scrawl. He’d seen such before.

He made for the steps around the side of the building and, ascending them, he could see down to a grassy area behind the saloon. A number of who he now recognized to be Cherokee had gathered around a fire. Some were dancing. Men, crouched low, taking small and deliberate steps, circling the fire. They held what looked to be clubs. The image returned to him – the single grain of sand circling the hourglass neck.

The room was dark and smelt of lamp oil and perfume. Katy lay on the bed, her legs spread, belly swollen and body all asweat, just as she had for the last 12 hours, since her water had broken and gone cascading down the flanks of her horse on their way to Tahlequah. This little knot of houses, they called it Tallasi – “old town.” It would have to do.

Her tiny brown body seemed dwarfed by the great belly that rested atop it.

Her black hair, long and damp with sweat, clung to the sides of her face.  Her eyes were closed and her breath was light. A short, fat woman lay snoozing in a wingback beside the bed.

Murphy coughed.

The plump woman jerked awake and looked up at Murphy.

“There is no change, Mr. Murphy.  The baby does not want to come.”

Instead of replying, Murphy struck a match and lit a lamp on the table by the door. Dancing yellow light bounced about the furniture and blackness pooled under. He walked over and squatted by Katy’s side. When she did not stir at the whisper of her name he occupied himself with pushing strands of hair away from her face.

“How much longer?”

The woman was on her feet now, at the end of the bed.

“We will have to cut it out soon.”

He looked up her now, her long white braids yellow in the dancing

lamplight.  “Miss Sissy…” he started.

“My family name is Anderson.”

“Miss Anderson, do you know how to do that? Cut out a baby?”

“No.  There is a doctor who does, but he is a drunk.”

“Is he…?”

“Yes, he’s a white man.”

“Alright.”

“Why are you taking her to Tahlequah?” the woman asked.

Murphy said nothing. He did not say that he loved the girl, that he had fantasies of opening a smiths there, of raising a family and never again returning to the old fields in Missouri.  He did not describe the alien and uninvited feelings of tenderness and vulnerability that had overcome him when he first saw this young girl in the company of men who were not her relation, far to the west in Arapaho territory. Or that, having taken her for himself, they found themselves alone together, without any ties, and Tahlequah seemed a big enough place to disappear into.

“I got a business partner, there,” he said.

The woman let his lie hang in the air for a full minute.

“Go back downstairs, Mr. Murphy. If I have to send for the doctor I will let you know.”

The front window was broken out. Most of the men inside were Indians, he noticed, as was the bartender.  The air was heavy with smoke and chatter, the odor of bodies and whiskey. He motioned for the bartender, who poured him two fingers of whiskey.  The man wore a sheriff’s star on his shirt, though Murphy would have bet his last dollar the man wasn’t sheriff when he’d pulled into town the previous day.

“Where’s the other bartender?”

“Gone. The owner too.  Took off with his family last night. Left everything.  It’s under new management now.”  He grinned a perfect smile.

“Got a paper?” Murphy asked. The bartender nodded and pulled a newspaper from under the head of a man sleeping on the bar and passed it to Murphy.

Have you seen one?” The bartender asked.

No, just what I’ve seen in Harper’s.”

They say they are the size of mountains, and they spit fire, and burn everything they wish. And Watie is burning a bath through Oklahoma with them, and no one can stop him.”

So why are you still here?” Murphy asked.

Another perfect smile. “I’m Indian. I’ll be fine.” He lowered his head, regarded Murphy with a furrowed brow. “You might wanna think about taking off, though.”

Yeah, people keep telling me that.”

His smile dropped. “You should listen to them. You know what happened at Wagoner.”

He did. He’d seen it, less than a month after arriving in Oklahoma.

They weren’t even soldiers,” The bartender said. “Haycutters. They had no guns.”

Murphy recalled the field of black, bloated bodies putrefying in the late summer sun, their shape so familiar to him that he’d simply ridden right on through the perverse monument without so much as a stop and look-see. He realized now he had not bothered to read a newspaper since that day. There was nothing going on he wished to read about but he had nothing else to do, so he perused the headlines of a week-old Cherokee Advocate. The broadside was a map of history being writ in ash.

OUR TIME AT LAST. General Watie returns with army to assume role of

Principal Chief. Ross establishes Government in Exile.

LEVIATHANS BREAK WASHINGTON DEFENCES. President Lincoln vows to continue fight. U.S. Government moved to New York.

ARMY OF POTOMAC BESEIGED. Remnants of Grant’s army surrounded in city of Baltimore; Lee delivers ultimatum.

Someone ran up to the bar and grabbed a bottle and threw a handful of coins on the bar.  There was singing and urgent conversation. Again, Murphy was seized with the same sense of the world changing, of something monumental manifesting itself with a strange vibration that travelled through the floorboards from the earth and into his boots and body. He did not have the language to describe it.

Then, unbidden, a memory. The Thing He Must Not Remember. He shoved it away.

Again he looked out of the window to the line of wagons and horses on the horizon. In the year since he’d run away from camp in the middle of the night he’d become used to the restlessness of a deserter’s life. Time spent among rough men in camps thrown together along remote stretches of riverside, in deep woods and caves. In Indian Territory he’d found freedom from the demands of distant and powerful men that he don a uniform and devote his life to austerity and deprivation, to extended bouts of extreme boredom punctuated by a day of horror and blood. It was Stone’s River that did it. Three days of grinding hell in the middle of winter. Out of 75,000 men, Yankee and Confederate, that took the field, 25,000 were killed or wounded. He’d stood the dark woods that night overlooking the battlefield and listening to thousands of screaming voices, begging for water, for help, calling for their wives.

The madness of war was only apparent to him at that moment, and he resolved to leave them all to their doom. It seemed such a monumental decision at the time.

Now, holding a damp and filthy newspaper, he realized that the world had not missed him one bit. That these great and memorable shifts had occurred just the same, and he felt less guilty about his desertion. The doom he saw so clearly in the woods and hills of Tennessee had indeed seemed at hand. Until a month ago when Union pickets watching the trenches at Petersburg saw, in the white light of another cold dawn, the great bloated shapes of the Leviathans come slowly into view, throwing great arcs of death down onto the ground. No one knew how the Confederacy had built them. Some said they were a gift from the English. Not that it really mattered, he reflected.

He drained his drink and then another and read the rest of the paper. An extended editorial talked of the long dark night of the Indian people, and the bright dawn of independence. How self-rule meant no more dispossession, no more lies and broken treaties. It spoke glowingly of the paradise that would be Indian self-rule and called

for all the five tribes to join together. Outside he could hear the soft, rhythmic singing of Cherokee men singing on the dancers. For the first time in a year he felt something pull at him from the east. Then, in the dirty mirror behind the bar, he beheld himself for what seemed the first time in months. He seemed much older than he remembered, and his face was hidden behind a great growth of dirty brown beard that extended down his kneck. Replacing the paper, he took the time to swipe a 5 dollar gold piece from the counter before excusing himself.

Murphy walked outside now, and next door the man on the dying horse was in front of Cyrus Hall’s Dry Goods, talking to a roundish man whom he assumed was the titular Mr. Hall. The man’s wife, tall and expressionless, sat birdlike at the reins of a wagon piled high with boxes of dry goods. In the dusklight he could make out some words. Bitters. Flour. Dried Beans. They did not appear to have saved any room for clothes or family heirlooms, just these wooden crates of things to sell. The youngest boy, blond and tiny, sat in his mother’s lap and shivered as he watched the little brown children run wild and free through the streets. As if feeling Murphy’s gaze, he boy turned and fixed a pair of white-blue eyes on the man. Forbidden memories tried to surface. He shoved them down again.

The man on the dying horse was motioning in the direction of the now setting sun, giving orders or directions of some sort. He kicked his mare fiercely and the beast managed a sickly canter out of town, with the Halls following. To Murphy’s left, the firelight of the stomp dance. Around him, that same sense of immanence, of grand events that moved with inexorable force, shattering and destroying the small and fragile things that did not move with them.

Some indeterminate number of drinks later, when the patrons were just walking about the bar taking pulls off of random bottles and setting them down again, Murphy picked his way through the bodies on the floor and ascended again to the landing outside Katy’s room. A bonfire had been constructed in the vacant lot and it illuminated the last few wagons loading up and leaving town. Tiny figures of panic in dancing orange light. He made to open the door, thought better of it, then curled up and went to sleep on the hard, rough wood.

That night he dreamed of walking through town with rivers for streets. He’d seen a city like that in stereoscope once, and thought it damned strange of people to build in such a place. And he thought looked of the dust that covered everything and got in his mouth and eyes and whiskey and he thought it a very good idea at that. In his dream, too, he’d

seen glowing light appear behind him and dance on the river streets and turned around to watch the sunrise from the porch of his cabin.

No, not a sunrise.  A forest fire.

Something shook him awake. He was still drunk and his mouth was completely devoid of spit. The hangover was waiting patiently for the whiskey to wear off so he could begin his penance. His stomach already turned at the thought.

Mr. Murphy. An ancient voice, muffled through the drunk.

Hnn?” He groaned.

Mr. Murphy.” Again, more insistent. Then, “Wake up you damn fool.”

The cloud of alcohol cleared and he was aware of the world again. An ancient, cragged face stared at him in the firelight.

Who are you?”

Dr. Zeddidiah McDonough, at your service. And I need your help.”

Katy…” He said.

Stand up.”

The old man preceded Murphy into the room. He was stooped, gnarled. Katy lay in the same position as before.

Wake up, child,” The old man said. His voice was light and cracked and seemed to dance about the syllables. He spoke with the slurred enunciation of a toothless mouth. “Your fella is here.” He made the motions of checking, feeling her forehead and chest. “You’re doin’ just fine, child. Not much longer, now.”

He turned to the wash basin beside the bed and threw some water on his face. “I’ll leave you two alone, though I’d like to speak with you outside in a moment, if you don’t mind.” The man left and Murphy stood still, in the silent, stinking air. Katy was sleeping, it seemed, until she opened her eyes and jerked her head toward him.

Murphy…” she said.

He crossed the distance to the bed and knelt. Her face and hair were slick with sweat in the saturated yellow light.

My baby,” she whispered, and touched her swollen belly.

Doc says you’re doing fine.” He smiled and brushed slick, heavy black hair from her forehead.

It is too long. He must take it out.”

She mumbled some words in Cherokee he did not understand. She was silent a moment, then turned to him suddenly.

The General…”

They say he’s two days out still. I don’t think we’re going anywhere before he rolls in.”

She nodded, closed her eyes again and sighed heavily. When he was sure she was sleeping, Murphy joined the doctor on the landing. The old man leaned on the railing, smoking a cheroot, watching the stomp dance in the firelight of splintered lumber railroad ties.

That girl’s going to die unless you get me some supplies,” he said.

Murphy was taken aback. “But…you said she…”

I was not about to tell the girl that.” He pulled a whiskey bottle from his pocket and finished it. “I’m gonna need to cut that baby out.”

You drink much during surgery?” Murphy said.

The old man snorted. “You’re one to talk. Now listen to me. Whether you do this is up to you, but it’s her only chance to make it through the next day. This town’s been cleaned out. Every last white soul but you and me left while you were sleeping off your drunk. Including my apprentice.”

And you need him.”

I don’t need him. I need my medical bag. The little shit made off with it, and all the money in my office, and all my whiskey, while I was tending the girl and you were drunk on the floor.”

Murphy looked to the east. Fires glowed on the horizon. “He’s gone to Colorado?”

Wherever the last group was heading, sure. West, anyway.”

How long?”

How long what?”

When’d he leave?”

Five, six hours, must’ve.”

I’ll need a horse.”

Ain’t got one. But you’re right.”

They said nothing a moment.

You best get gone, no matter how you do it, Mr. Murphy. Sooner than later I’m cutting that baby out. She’ll have a hell of a lot better chance if you get me that bag.”

How will I know him?”

His name is Jacob Murlman. He’s got a red goatee. Wears a black tophat. He took my wagon. Look for a wagon. “

I’ll be back by midmorning.”

See you do. I’d rather not be here when the Leviathans start raining fire and brimstone on this place.”

Murphy had stolen a horse, once. As the wounded of Stone’s River were being carted and carried to and fro and the shattered army lay limp and exhausted in the hills of Tennessee, Murphy quietly grabbed his rucksack and made for the woods. In there, in the dark and shadow and blue moonlight, he saw black figures skittering through the underbrush. Sprinting and ducking and hiding behind felled logs. Fellow deserters heading home or to some place where men did didn’t do these sorts of things to each other, at least not on such a grand scale. He made due west, hoping to travel the better than 200 miles to Arkansas by night. On his third night of travelling, exhausted and on the verge of nervous breakdown, he stole a horse from a shed behind a small farmhouse and rode it near to death, not stopping until dawn. He was terrified, then, seeking only escape and self-preservation. As he pounded away from the farm at a full gallop, the familiar pop of pistol fire receded behind him, and he heard the sharp whizz of the balls zip by.

Now, descending the steps to the front of the saloon, he found he didn’t care as much. There wasn’t any law around, anyway.

Three or four horses were tied up at the hitching post in front of the saloon, which glowed bright in the early morning darkness. Somehow, it seemed, the party was still going. He simply approached the horse nearest him, a brown and white sorrel and cut the leather tie and mounted the beast in one motion. No one even noticed.

He was out of the town in minutes, cantering through cold moonlight. The refugees’ trail was easy enough to follow. Discarded property lined the trail; undergarments and dresses glowed white. The alcohol was wearing off now, the hangover kicking in. Murphy felt sick to his stomach and his head hurt but he pushed these feelings aside and gave the sorrel a little kick. To the north he saw more fire. The same dull, red glow he’d seen to the east. The prairie fires spreading and wandering about with the wind. It was not long, maybe a few miles, before he began to pass people walking the trail that the wagons and horses had carved into the grasslands. Some were alone, some were with children, some were children alone. He pulled out his pistol and rested it atop his lap.

The first one tried to take his horse not 10 minutes later. A lone man ran out from behind a broken down wagon and tried to reach for Murphy’s leg. He fell with a ball to the chest before he’d taken three steps, and Murphy urged the horse on a little faster. The next seemed to be a larger group. There were children among them, and they scattered to a man as Murphy fired a single shot into the air. As he rode away, muffled curses blended with the rhythmic thud of the sorrel’s hoofbeats.

The girl. She had become a totem to him. Her very life was as a chant, a prayer for forgiveness, for his sins and his murders. Her sweat, on his skin, was holy water and her breath on his neck the Holy Spirit. His own seed a savior delivered into a world tearing itself apart. The child would banish the Thing He Must Not Remember. He would kill any that stood in their path, and had done so several times. He rode on without fear, without looking back. The sky turned grey behind him and then pink. The sorrel was lathery with sweat and close to giving out, but that was no matter. He’d simply take another horse once he’d found his mark.

A few hours after sunup the horse gave out. She stopped, coat a-lather, tongue hanging out, and simply refused to move. He dismounted and considered the beast a moment, then set off at a jog, still west. The dry grass crunched beneath his boots and he could smell smoke. The wind was blowing west, too, moving the fires near him. His muscles burned and his mouth was as dust. He vomited and did not even slow down to do so. After half an hour, wild eyed and covered in his own sick, he saw a wagon pulling three horses come into view.

He recognized the tall slim figure of Mrs. Hall perched atop the contents of her husband’s store. And yes, when he overtook them, he stole one of the horses. And when Mr. Hall objected he beat him over the head with his pistol and the man slumped limp to the ground and his son screamed and cried. It did not matter, he decided. The child. He would take it into the north, somewhere along the Canadian River. There he would build a cabin, and teach the child to be good and love beautiful things. And some day the child, grown to manhood, would travel into the world and save it.

He would be close now, and indeed over the next ridge, not a mile distant, the main body of refugees and soldiers came into view. Murphy grinned and kicked the horse viciously, urging her into a full gallop. They were plainly visible now. They turned at the sound of his approach and turned again to flee. His lips pulled away from his teeth, stretching into a grimace. They would not escape him. Even the blue figures of Union troops now turned and fled from his wrath, he saw. All would flee before him. He could not be stopped. So close now. He sped down the line of wagons and horses, seeing in front of him people turn, point east, and begin running. And there, amid the figures fleeing, a black stove pipe hat atop a wagon. The thief Murlman. Murphy grinned ferociously and leveled the pistol at the hat, and fired.

The wagon exploded. There was a great flash of white heat and a bloom of black soil and the wagon was gone. He was not on the ground, he noticed. Motes of dirt fell about him and he looked at the hole in the ground where the wagon had been. He still held his pistol, and looked at it in wonder. What power did he now possess? Something started running into his eyes, and when he pressed his hand to his head it came away wet and slick with blood. Bodies of soldiers and civillians lay scattered about, and he was aware of a strange buffeting in his head, as if it were breathing. A deep thrumming penetrated his skull and made it hard to see. Murphy tried to right himself, and found that his right leg wouldn’t cooperate. Then he noticed he was laying on it, and saw bone protruding from his thigh through shredded, wet pantswool.

Oh.

Then he heard it, a terrifying scream of metal behind him. With great difficulty, he turned himself onto his back, and saw, for the first time, The Leviathans. They hung silent in the sky, great bloated things, like an unusually fat cigar. Great latticeworks of iron and roping hung from their bellies, and Murphy could see tiny figures scaling steps and ladders, to and fro, like ticks on a great beast. There were a dozen of them, travelling like a V of geese, just as he’d seen in the illustration in Harper’s Weekly. The weight of the mechanisms contained in their bellies caused them to sag in the middle, giving them a pregnant look. To the rear, he saw the great propellers that shoved them through the air. They left behind them great trails of black smoke and steam. Here it was: Stand Watie’s Leviathan fleet, a day earlier than promised, chasing down and destroying whatever remnants of the occupying army it could find. As unstoppable as the tides.

Suddenly, one of them threw down a great white arc of light. It appeared all at once, like lightning, and the earth below billowed into the air along with a few bodies. A second later a terrible crack and a wave of heat hit him. They were killing anything. And they were coming toward him.

It was no matter. He flipped over again and starting to crawl toward the hole where the wagon was, digging his elbows into the soil. Past bodies and body parts, bits of splintered wood. It was no matter. They could not stop him. He would find another horse, return to town, save the girl. The bag lay a few feet in front of the crater. A large, black leather satchel with the letters “Z.E.M.” embossed in gold. Various shiny surgical implements lay scattered around it. Saws and scalpels and piers. A couple of brown bottles of indeterminate liquid. He grabbed them all and shoved them inside, then pitched himself over the lip of the crater.

He lay at the bottom, panting, bloody, clutching his bag as if it were the child he meant for it to help bring into the world. His savior who would forgive his sins. And as he thought of forgiveness he thought also what must be forgiven. The old memories chose this moment of weakness to assail him. The Thing He Must Not Remember approached his mind. Go on, then. Let it come. It did not matter.

And just like that, he was there again. He saw the pale blue eyes of the three boys and their father, on their knees in front of a burning house. He was aware of the dark, grim countenances of Bushwhackers around him. And he saw himself raise a pistol…

Murphy did not even notice the great, black shape appear over the crater, so large that it blocked out the entire sky. He did not notice the steadily quickening thrum that filled the air and vibrated the earth from his shoulders, did not see ball of white light appear in the middle of the iron eye staring down at him, or the smoke that rolled from his body an instant before everything went white and clean.

Dr. McDonough sat back, exhausted, and pulled his bottle of whiskey from the coat that hung on the chair behind him. He took a goodly pull and watched Miss Sissy swaddle a healthy, baby boy. He stood, and walked to the window, from where he could see the grey columns of Stand Watie’s army march through the town, in pursuit of the fleeing. He turned to the Indian surgeon who stood in the corner, washing his implements in a basin of pink water.

Much obliged to you, Mr. Bradford.”

The surgeon nodded to a collection of bottles beside the basin.

Keep those. All I can spare, I’m afraid.”

After the surgeon showed himself out Miss Sissy came over with the baby. Zedidiah took the infant in his arms.

Healthy. Half breed, sure, but healthy. That’s something.” His pince nez reflected bright orange in the light of the oil lamp.

And you,” he said, turning his attention to the girl in the bed, “are one tough little lady.” He laughed. “Never made a sound. I’m damned impressed.”

She is sleeping, Doctor,” Sissy said.

Some hours later Katal’sta woke and asked for water, then for Murphy. Sissy Anderson told her that neither her husband nor his horse was anywhere to be found.

It does not matter. I can find another to take me to Tahlequah.”

Katal’sta managed the strength to walk to the window to watch the flames on the horizon. On the outskirts of town, a Leviathan was anchored to the ground, ready to defend its new nation. Her son lay small and quiet in a bundle of blankets by the stove. She named him John, after his father, and as he was growing up she would always tell him that he was born when the world was on fire.

Shards, Written 2006.

Image credit: sodahead.com

I wrote this in 2006.  I was living in Beirut again.  Not knowing what to do with myself and spending most nights smoking endless cigarettes at a coffee shop by campus.  I submitted it to Strange Horizons, where I’ve submitted all of my short stories.  So far, they’ve rejected them all, and for good reason. I’ve read – I don’t remember where – that everyone has ten horrible short stories in them before they write a good one.  Which is fine. I’ve written four, which means that, if this is true, I only need to write 6 more and I’ll finally write something worth reading.  This means I only have six to go. So here is a glimpse into the mind of 25 year old craig.  Drunk and overseas, figuring it all out.  

Shards

I throw whatever is close at hand against the wall and you duck under the shards that fly about the room. You back into the kitchen corner and sink down to the floor, hands held tight to the sides of your head.

I run to you and grab your shoulders. “He was right here! In this f*cking apartment! He was a part of us!”

You’re crying now, choking out the same sobbing questions. “Why are you doing this, Stephen? What, what’s wrong with you?”

I’ve done this a dozen times since you had the operation while I was at work, since I came home to find everything we’d bought for him gone and you suddenly believing we’d never had a son.

““He has to still be in there somewhere, Kate! You can’t just shut this out! You can’t kill him again! You nursed him right here, for two months, right here and one morning he just didn’t wake up and you can’t just…” but your eyes roll back in your head as the bots flood your brain and start erasing everything I just said. Every bad memory you didn’t want. A nice, clean whitewash that the implants are going to make damned sure I mess up.

“You…can’t…” I’m still trying. I don’t know what else to do. The only proof we ever had a son is in my head and it’s not enough. God damn it, I need him to live in yours, too. I stand up and watch, aware of how quickly this has become familiar to me.

You sit there, slack faced and drooling, while until the bots finish clearing your memory pathways. Your eyes come back into focus and you look around, the room, getting your bearings. I won’t put you through this again. No sense in wasting good china.

Glass crunches beneath your feet when you stand up.

“Oh sh*t,” you say, “I broke another glass.”

I head out the door without saying anything and make a beeline for the nearest bar.

I can’t blame her for wanting to forget falling asleep on the sofa with Sam on her chest and waking up an hour later to find she was clutching a tiny dead body that was once her son. That’s the kind of thing you can’t put away from away you. All the therapy, meditation and self-help books in the world can’t keep something like that from creeping back into your brain.

But the procedure can. It’s a same-day surgery now, and ever since the HMOs bowed to collective popular demand and starting picking up the tab for anyone who could get their shrink to write a prescription, well, I think I read in the paper that it’s now the most-common medical procedure in the country.

“Did you know that?”

The bartender looks bored with me but I’m the only one in here at 2:00 in the afternoon aside from the sad old *beep* down at the end silently sucking down PBR. “Nah, I’d of figured it was getting your tonsils out.”

“Hit me again.” I push the glass toward him. I gulp down the burning well whiskey and return it. “Yeah, something like two million last year. You know what number two is?”

“Getting your tonsils out?”

“Abortions.”

“Eh, well it’s kinda the same thing, huh? Getting rid of something you don’t want.” He looks down at my already empty glass. “Another?”

“Yeah, make it a double.”

He leaves me with the bottle.

***

I know all about the process of forgetting. I’m a cop. I’ve seen more than my fair share of awful things that I’d rather not have swimming around in my head: rape victims, dead kids, you name it. There was the time I got called to an apartment in Little Tokyo where 16 girls decided to commit mass seppuku after Johnny Matsui, the pop god, overdosed on heroin. They were all members of one of his internet fan clubs.

Some of them hadn’t done it correctly and were still alive, rolling around in the inch-deep blood with butcher knives sticking out of their stomachs. That’s something that you just can’t un-see once you’ve seen it. The trick is not to lock it away. Keep it, accept it, put it in perspective. That night I went home and made love to my wife like I was on a mission, so I could hold her afterwards, sweating in the darkness, and convince myself that, as long as I had Kate to keep me warm, the world couldn’t be a completely terrible place.

My partner Ray called in sick to work the rest of the week. I couldn’t blame him. When I finally saw him again I told him the good news. Two of the girls from the apartment were in stable condition and expected to recover.

“What girls?” Ray asked, asked, lowering his eyebrows.

“Two of the girls from the apartment. They didn’t hit any internal organs and…”

“The apartment…” Ray said, concentrating very hard on the floor. When his eyes rolled back into his head I thought he was having a seizure.

Turns out Ray had gone to the clinic the very next day and gotten his memory fixed. The bots were programmed to respond to certain keywords to proactively keep this memory hidden in his subconscious where it belonged.

So Ray didn’t have to remember the sight of a dozen dead girls covered in blood. And it didn’t mean anything to him a few days later when on the front page of the paper there was a story about an investigation into the security at St. Francis Hospital after two 12 year-old girls on suicide watch managed to break into a janitor’s closet and split a gallon of Drano.

A week after that, Kate missed her period.

The three-inch long clipping I carry in my wallet reads:

Stephen and Kate Willis are proud to
announce the birth of their son, Samuel
Raymond, on July 14 at St. Francis Medical
Center. He was delivered at 2:17 a.m.,
weighing 7 pounds, 5 ounces.

Newspaper print is cheap, designed to be ephemeral. I need something more permanent, I decide, reading it over in by streetlight, the rain coming down on my shoulders.
I hail a cab and twenty minutes later stumble in out of the night, sopping wet, and the monster in the leather vest looks up from a bare, reddened ass.

“You can’t piss here. F*ck off.”

“Nah, I…I…” I point to the red neon glow in the window that reads OOTTAT. “I wanna tattoo.”

He jerks his head at some chairs by the wall. “Have a seat.” He turns back to the ass, on which he’s etching a broken heart with “MVN” written on side and “K.T.” on the other. The girl itbelongs to looks like she can’t be any older than 17. Whoever broke her heart, she’s not about to let it go. I can sympathize.

He finishes with a flourish, slapping the un-tattooed cheek. “That’ll do ya.” She pays him $200 and scurries out the door. He looks at me and makes a sweeping gesture over the chair. “Batterup.”

I slap the sopping wet newspaper clipping into his great, meaty hand and take off my shirt.

“That was my son. His name was Sam. Samuel Ryan Willis. He was my son and he was alive.”

“Wheredya want it?”

I point to my chest with drunken romanticism. “My..my heart.”

***

The procedure was originally developed by the military for soldiers who came back from North Korea with heads full of bad wiring. Mental hospitals were filled up with eighteen year-old kids who just cracked after spending months clearing Dear Leader’s suicide squadrons out of the caves they’d dug into the mountains. The procedure was quicker, easier and a hell of a lot cheaper than paying for years of psychotherapy.

For a while after that they started using it on rape victims and abused children and the like. Then the back alley erasure clinics started popping up when the public demand for cosmetic memory modification outstripped the number of shrinks willing to write up a recommendation to have an ex-boyfriend or a dead pet erased.

Elsie Liddle had a back alley job. Elsie’s boyfriend was a sadistic, drunken creep named Moulton who beat the sh*t out of her like clockwork. Every couple of months he’d break something and she’d actually call 911 and we’d go arrest the *beep*. And every time she’d refuse to press charges, telling through a face like hamburger that she’d fallen down the stairs. Then a couple of months later she’d call again.

One day he fractured her skull and we finally convinced her to press charges and got him put away for six months. He got out in three and she was right there at the prison gates, waiting to pick him up. You’d think he’d appreciate something like that. Instead, he put her in a coma.

He got two years for that one and no one was really surprised to hear that when he got out she was right there waiting for him. Only this time she never called. Either Moulton had mended his ways, in which case all those poor souls in hell better get sweaters, or he’d finally killed her.

I knocked on her door and something that looked vaguely Elsie-like opened it a chain-length and regarded me with a blackened eye.

She didn’t know who I was. I guess she’d known he’d never stop hurting her, but he only did it because he loved her – he told her so. So she went and got a hack-job done so every time he beat her she’d forget as soon as he tired out.

“Listen to me, Elsie, no, I know you don’t remember me, but just listen. Your husband’s a lowlife. You…”

“You don’t know a *beep* thing about my husband! Look at this face!” She opened the door all the way and pointed to what had once been her face. “I get seizures. I fall down a lot. But he’s good enough to stay with me so don’t call my husband a lowlife, f*ck you very much!”

And she slammed the door in my face.

They’d reprogrammed her to explain the damage she knew she’d be seeing in the mirror every morning. Lose a case of domestic abuse, gain an imaginary case of epilepsy.

And the horse you rode in, Jim Carrey.

You’re already coming down the stairs, I make such a racket getting through the door. The silk kimono you’re pulling around your shoulders trails behind you and I can see the stretch marks on your stomach that Sam gave you. I wonder how you explain that to yourself when you look in the mirror.


“Stephen, where have you been? Do you know what time it is?” But the tone in your voice is concern, not anger.

“Oh, I was at the…that thing.”

“What thing?”

“That, uh, Ralph Greer’s retirement dinner. “

“You didn’t tell me anything about a retirement dinner. I was worried sick!”

I can smell you from here. I reach out and talk hold of you, absorbing your warmth. “I’m sorry, babe. You know how many of those things I go to…”

“Ah, Stephen, you’re soaking wet!”

“Yeah, we had a few too many and I had to walk home…”

“Oh, Jesus. You should have taken a cab! Come on, let’s get you dried off.” You reach down to undo my belt and I feel myself respond. You look up at me with that same expression you wore in college when pulled me into the bathroom at a party and started taking off my pants while impatient drunks pounded on the door.

The world cannot be a completely terrible place. I’ve still got you and that counts for a whole hell of a lot. Now we’re up in our room, in our bed, where we made our son, and you’re unbuttoning my shirt. You lost your kimono on the way up the stairs. You’re pulling back my shirt but you stop and get a confused look on your face.

“Jesus, Stephen, when did you get a tat…” You’re eyes roll back in your head and your hands go limp at your sides. Oh, yeah. I forgot about the tattoo.

What a mood killer. You come to and start pawing at me again. Damn it.

“I…uh, I really think I’m too uh…too drunk right now, babe.”

“Awwww!!” And you blow a raspberry at me, bouncing up and down naked on the bed. “You sure?” And you grab at my pants again.

I give in. Life’s to short, after all, to pass up fine memories. After, I’m holding you, or sweat mingling, and reminding myself of Hemmingway said, that the world is a fine place, and worth fighting for.

“Stephen, are you still awake?”

“Yeah.”

“I’ve been thinking…don’t you think it’s time we tried to have a baby?”

Do not start crying. Keep it close but focus on the now.

“Yeah. Yeah, babe, I was thinking the same thing.”

***

The perspective that pain gives life is the reason we hold it so dear.

They say death brings people closer together. That’s because tragedy puts everything else into perspective. After Dad died it was amazing how all the trivial things that had gotten in the way of my relationship with the rest of my family just kind of ceased to matter.

After Sammy died my desk was a riot of flower baskets and cards expressing sorrow and remorse. Whenever anyone in the department loses a loved one everyone else is expected to send something over, whether you know them or not.

For over a week bits of manufactured empathy and assembly line consolations piled higher and higher on and around my desk, crowding out paperwork. The same cards telling me how sorry the sender was in spirally handwriting. Why is it we assume the best way to best way to comfort a grieving friend is to give them impersonal crap?

Half of the cards had the same poem in them:

If tears could build a walkway
And memories a lane
I’d walk right up to Heaven
And bring you down again.

If that doesn’t cheer you up, I don’t know what will. Ray didn’t give me a card or flowers or a sad teddy bear holding a balloon with “I’m sorry” written on it, he just held me and cried. He didn’t need to prove to me or anyone else how sorry he was that his godson died.

Death can bring families together because they use affection, tenderness and love to fill the void left by it. It’s how they cope. But what solace can I take from someone who does not and will not ever know of the death I still hold so dear?

You’re pregnant again. Two weeks late on your period and the test was just a formality. We both knew. I look at you in Sam’s old room, which you said would be perfect, just perfect for a nursery room, setting up a crib, packing the window with stuffed animals and singing, singing, singing.

I’ve made a to do list – three simple things I need to get done.

I wrap my arms around you, my hands on your stomach.

“I think it’s a boy.” You sound confident. “If it’s a girl we’ll call her Elizabeth after my grandmother but I think it’s a boy.”

I ask a question I already know the answer to. “And if it’s a boy?”

“What do you think about ‘Sam?’”

“It’s a great name, babe. Just perfect.” I kiss your neck. “Look I gotta run some errands, okay? I’ll be right back.”

“Ooh! I’ve got a list of stuff I need! Hold on!” And you run into the kitchen.

So add one more thing to my to do list. A quick stop by Bad, Bath and Beyond for two gallons of blue paint, a 15X12 section of blue carpet and set of blue linens for the crib (You’re really, really sure that it’s a boy), and I’m on my way.

The first one’s going to hurt. A lot. I had done once before to get rid of a drunken decision to immortalize a doomed relationship. It just wouldn’t do for a married man to carry the name of an old flame emblazoned on his chest.

Senior year I went on an all night bender in Vegas with my fraternity brothers and woke up with “Evangeline,” intertwined with red roses, tattooed on my left breast. She got “Stephen” on her arm which, considering the guy she left more for two weeks later was also named Stephen, worked out well for her.

Both times I’ve gotten a tattoo I’ve been drunk. There should be a law about giving tattoos to drunk people. Some kind of a waiting list to prevent “body modification under the influence.”

It’s just getting too awkward, having to always have sex with Kate with either my shirt on or the room pitch-dark. Seeing my wife gently convulse as the memories of our dead son are re-erased is, as I said, a real mood-killer.

“Just relax,” the nurse says, “this won’t hurt too bad.”

“Like hell, honey. I’ve had a tattoo removed before. I know what it feels like.”

“Oh. Well, yeah, it’s gonna hurt like hell. Sorry.”

“Not your fault.”

She moves something that looks not entirely unlike high-tech *beep* over my chest and stops long enough to read it. A quick glance at my eyes is enough to tell her not to ask any *beep* questions and she gets to work. Something like electric fire jumps from the *beep* into my chest, just for a fraction of second. “Stephen and Kate” fade away, leaving behind only a tingly pain like a sleeping limb. Or a severed one.

A few jolts later and “Samuel” vanishes, too.

“Sorry, buddy,” I say aloud. At this, the nurse fixes her mouth up and starts working faster.

An hour later I walk out of the clinic, eyes puffy from crying despite my best efforts not to, freshly de-tattooed and $2,500 poorer. I get in my car and cross the first item off the to do list.

“Get tattoo removed.” Check.

***

I leave you with all the things I bought at the store and, with a kiss, you get right to work getting the room ready for Sammy the second. Or, as far as you’re concerned, Sammy the first.

I can’t help but feel a terrible guilt at this, you busily making preparations to replace our child, but people replace children all the time, right? A few years ago our neighbors, the Ludvigs, lost all four of their children. The babysitter they hired didn’t make the children buckle up when she picked them up from school and proceeded drive right in front of a bus.

A year later Mr. and Mrs. Ludvig found out about these four orphans from Africa, all the same age as their own. It was a sign from God, they said, and immediately adopted them. They’re the happiest damned family I’ve ever seen. Keep the death close, for perspective, and move on.

An hour later, while you’re making a little part of the world ready to receive new life, I pull up in front of a squalid apartment building a couple of streets over from the endless rows of empty, decaying office buildings that used to be this city’s pride and joy. Rusting hulks of corporate art play host to indigents and stray cats.

A couple of years after the last of them closed down and moved everything to China the cops stopped getting out of their cars here. A couple years more and they stopped coming all together. Now this part of the city has the highest murder rate in the country.

The radio plays that forgotten song, a wounded voice crying,

Well there’s a piece of Maria in every song that I sing
And the price of a memory is the memory of the sorrow it brings

In the hour I sit, waiting for sunset, I hear half a dozen gunshots. This reassures me. I mean, who’s going to notice half a dozen more?

I take another slug of whiskey, then another to steady my nerves and watch the sky darken. None of the streetlights in this place work and it gets just about as dark as it can in this city; the only light comes reflected down from the smog. Aside from the occasional gunshot, all is silent.

Check the gun again. It was sitting in lockup for two years. I do, and the action’s clean. The ski mask is too tight but I can see well and start snaking my way through the burned out SUVs that they never bothered to clear off the streets after the riots.

On my way down the dark hallway, stepping over a vagrant passed out on the floor, I see not one but two doors with yellow police tape stretched across them, a pretence of police diligence left over from murders no one ever intended to solve. This, too, reassures me.
After a few minutes standing outside the last door on the left I hear a muffled thud and something crash to the floor. Then nothing for several minutes more.

The chain lock, probably the worst security device ever designed, seems almost too happy to give way. A second of protection is all a chain is good for.

Moulton’s right there, watching “Girls Gone Wild” and jerking off. He manages to get halfway out of his recliner before I put him back in it. A round from a .38 snub nose will do very bad things to a person’s internal organs. Six of them will do a great many very bad things to a person’s internal organs.

Elsie is slumped in the corner of the kitchen, unconscious. I push a clump of hair away from her bloodied face. I’m sorry you gotta wake up and see this, Elsie. But with any luck those cheap bots infesting your brain will erase everything you see and you’ll probably end up thinking he ran off and left you.

Better a broken heart than a shattered skull.

I dial 911 and leave the phone off the hook. As I step into the hallway half a dozen heads disappear behind slamming doors followed by the sounds of deadbolts and chains snapping into place. In my car, I cross off the second item on the list, “ Save Elsie,” – check! – before driving out and away from the ruins of the once-vaunted Silicon Valley.

***

The inscription on the tombstone at the head of burial plot 71, row five, lot 60 of the Saint Mary Children’s Cemetery reads,

Warm summer sun, shine kindly here;
Warm southern wind, blow softly here;
Green sod above, lie light, lie light—
Good-night, dear heart, good-night, good-night.

It was Kate’s idea to include the poem, written by Mark Twain and inscribed on his daughter’s tombstone. A message, carved in stone, to a son she doesn’t even remember having. You’re almost finished with the room now, it looks great, it really does, and I’m almost done with my list.

The graves they dig for babies aren’t as deep those for adults. The coffins are smaller and I suppose it’s difficult to dig a hole that’s two feet wide and six deep. Maybe the shallowness is keeping it from settling properly or maybe it’s the fact that it never rains here. Whatever the case, the sod covering the hole sticks up about four inches in perfect outline of the coffin.

I start tamping down the edges with my foot, hoping to convince the grass to reunite with the rest of the ground, finishing the burial. I feel like I could just grab hold of the sod with two hands and roll it back like a blanket to reveal a tiny, baby-sized coffin. Like a blanket, like his blanket, the one I pulled up to chin a dozen times a day when I was home and kiss his head and say, “Good night,” even if it were mid day.

But he died when I was work I never got a chance to say my last good night.

***

The last thing on my list is the hardest. My hands, covered in dirt and bleeding where some of the fingernails ripped off, grip a piece of paper and a pen but I can’t make them come together and finish it. The first three were easy – shopping, doctor’s appointment, murder.

This last one’s going to be hard. Back and forth, my eyes flick to the sign above the door to the erasure clinic on south Macarthur Street and back the bloodied, filthy sheet of department stationery. Just cross it off. Finish it. Just sweep up the shards and cross it off…

Geo Gratias, written in 2004

I wrote this in 2004, living back in Western Illinois, seeing my mother off in her last year of alcoholism and reflecting on the world. Anyone reading this who knew me back then will remember my columns in the Western Courier. I was angry, newly awakened to the injustices of the world, trying to find ways to express my anger toward them. I submitted it to Strange Horizons, where I’ve submitted all of my short stories.  So far, they’ve rejected them all, and for good reason. I’ve read – I don’t remember where – that everyone has ten horrible short stories in them before they write a good one.  Which is fine. I’ve written four, which means that, if this is true, I only need to write 6 more and I’ll finally write something worth reading.  This means I only have six to go. So here is a glimpse into the mind of my 23 year old self. Raging and thrashing at the world. Two down, eight to go. 

Geo Gratias

It is dawn and I’m meditating, crosslegged in the sand, hands buried to the wrists, feeling the movement of Mother Earth. From the center of the village, a ways down the road, I can hear the steady thwack thwack thwack of hammers.  The priests of Sol are building are building platforms for the Solstice festival tomorrow.  Remembering what that means snaps my concentration. I pull my hands out of the ground and stand, dusting the sand from my robe.

“Geo Gratias,” I say, bowing to the ground. 

I get up and walk to my house. The round dome is a black silhouette against the new sun.  Swirls of dust kicked up by the wind blow around the village. When I enter the house Nicholas is playing on the floor and I pass by him, walking to cupboard.  I open grandmother’s cupboard and begin pulling searching through her medicinal jars. 

“What are you doing?” Nicholas asks me. 

“Preparing for Mansol’s ordeal tomorrow.” 

“Why?”

“Because he will be very badly hurt, I’m afraid. Everyone who goes through the ordeal is very badly hurt.”  I pick up the three jars I’ve selected and carry them in a bowl to the table beside Nicholas. I open them and start mixing the contents in. 

“So why do it?” 

“Mansol is a very devoted man,” I say. “He wants to be a priest.”

“Are you going to be a priest?”

“Yes,” I say. The ingredients have formed a thick white paste in the bowl. I keep stirring, conscious to get all of the clumps out. 

“Are you going to do the ordeal?” 

I sigh.  Nicholas is only seven.  He won’t begin his religious instruction until next year.  For him, there aren’t the Two Orders, yet.  “No, it is not our way.” 

“Why?” 

Thankfully Grandmother enters carrying a large, steaming black pot full of stew.  It’s not my place to instruct Nicholas in our ways and he’s not ready anyway.  Grandmother puts down the pot on the table and looks at the bowl I’m stirring.  She puts her finger into the paste and tastes it. 

“To much alon,” She says in a disapproving voice.

“He’ll need a lot,” I reply. 

“It won’t hold over night like that.  You wait. It’ll be hard as bakesoil by morning.”  She grabs the bowl from beneath my arms and starts shooing me out of the kitchen.  “Go on, now, both of you.  I’ll fix this batch up. Go and fetch the others now.”

Nicholas has already run out of the kitchen. “Yes, Grandmother,” I say, and leave after him.     

Grandfather, Father, and Hadi are in the side yard, sacrificing a bird.  They will needle me for not attending again. It is a man’s duty, after all.  But I don’t like sacrificing and always meditate around sundown so I have an excuse not to go.  In the low light I can see Hadi is digging a hole with a spade while father sits on the ground binding the bird’s wings with leather.  Grandfather is sitting next to him.  Nearing, I hear the two of them speaking of the troubles far off to the East.  I hang back and listen.

“…And what do the Sols think about this?” Grandfather asks Father.

“Well obviously they ain’t having none of it.” 

“Bastards ought to mind their own business.”

“Ought to but they ain’t.  It’s the highest point in the region and they don’t want one of our temples so close to the sun.” Father says.

“But isn’t it our mountain?” Hadi asks. 

“Damn right,” Grandfather says, “And that’s why they can’t do a damn thing about it.”

“I hear tell they’re planning a rally tomorrow, though,” Father says, finishing up the knot. “Marching right up to the base, they are. Might be violence I hear.” 

Hadi sets down the spade. “Done.”  Father hands the bird to Grandfather. It’s his right to do the sacrifice, but his hands are too old to tie the knots properly.  He places the bird in the hole and it starts chirping wildy, but it can’t move.  He gently fills in the hole with earth. 

In unison, they bow.  “Geo Gratias.” 

Now I walk out and call to them.  “Grandma wants you. Breakfast!”

We eat breakfast quickly, so we can get out and do our chores before the Midday.  Grandfather starts a long story we’ve all heard before about how he single-handedly beat up 2 or 5 a legion of Sol priests at a bar in the City when he was young.  Grandmother hushes him up, despite Nicholas’s pleas for more.  He’s the only one who’ll really listen to Grandfather’s yarns.

“That’s enough talkin’ now, everybody eat,” Grandmother says, and we all dig in to our plates.  I finish up first and excuse myself.

“You gonna get around to the back field today, son?” Father calls after me, as I duck past the blanket. 

“On my way now!” I call back.

I make like I’m going away from the village, to the fields.  I pick up my weed hook and a bag and turn around the wall to the side of the house.  Quickly abandoning these, I run down the alleyway behind the house instead, deeper into the village, toward Mansol’s house.  The sun is still low in the sky so the heat is very mild.

Our village isn’t large, only about 200 homes, but it’s segregated just like the City.  I cross the main avenue to the Sol side of town and  when I get to Mansol’s house he’s at work in the garden alone.  He is constructing a shield over a row of plants to protect them from the sun.  I  run up beside him and sit on the ground, crosslegged. 

He sits up, dusting his hand together.  “Hey, Jordy, What’s new?”  His white robe is dirtied at the knees.

“Not much. I’m supposed to be de-weeding the back field.”

“Still?” He laughs.

I hold out my hands hand cock my head to the side. “Hey, there’s a lot of leaves.”

“There can’t be that many.” He laughs, and gently punches my leg. 

“Well Father never goes out there, so he’ll never know.”

The sound of hammering comes from the center of the village again as the workmen return from breakfast.  My brow creases and I stare at the ground, not saying anything.  Monsol looks at me and the same expression comes over his face, too. Whatever worry this causes me, I know it has to be tenfold for him.  Still, he places his hand on my thigh, and tries to comfort me.  We’re almost caught though, as the sound of feet crunching on gravel signals the approach of someone, and he quickly retracts his arm. 

A young Sol named Typhos walks around the corner of the house and as soon as he sees me his eyes harden.  Typhos is zealously religious, I’m guessing all the more so now, so close to the solstice.  His white robe is stark in the early morning sun. 

“Hey Mansol,” He says.  He doesn’t address me.

“Typhos.” Mansol turns his head but doesn’t smile, and I smile inwardly at this. 

“Just seeing if you’d  be up for a game later on in the courtyard, after dinnertime.” 

“Game of what?”

“Four on four kicker. We need an extra guy.”

“Sure,” Mansol says.  Mansol is extremely athletic,  muscular, and good at sports.  I’ve always been terrible at them.

“Great.”  Typhos looks down.  “Putting up a new shield?”

“Yeah. Old one got torn by that last windstorm.”

Suddenly he turns his attention to me.  “You know why those plants turn, don’t you, Geo?” He says.  “Because of the sun.  Without the sun you don’t eat.”  He smirks triumphantly and Mansol flashes him a glare which he doesn’t see.

“And what do you think they’re growing in, genious?” I say. 

“Why, you…” Is all Typhos says but he clenches his fist and takes a step toward me.  Mansol leaps up and stands in way, placing his hands on Typhos’ shoulders.  I stand up and clench my fists as well, though I wouldn’t stand a chance.

“Hey, man,” He says.  “I think you better go.”

“You sticking up for him?” Typhos points at me. 

“Yes. I am.”  Mansol says,  his voice nearly a growl.  “He’s my friend.  Now I think you better go.”

Typhos backs off and says “You need to choose your friends better, Mansol. It ain’t right.” Then turns and leaves.

Mansol turns back to me and his expression softens, but it’s clear he’s unhappy with me. Starting trouble doesn’t help either of us.

“Look, I gotta get to work,” I say, before he can scold me, and start to turn away.  He grabs my shoulder, stopping me.

“See you tonight?” He asks.

I half-laugh. “Of course.”

#

“This is just like when them bastards tried to build one o’ them damn spires in the bogs back in the old village.  Didn’t get away with it then, either,” Grandfather says. It’s Midday and we’re eating lunch.  The blankets are all closed across the windows, blocking out the light.

“But Grandfather,” I say, “This time we’re building a temple, not them.” 

“That don’t make no damn bit o’ difference, boy.” Grandfather says, leveling his spoon at me.  “It’s all the same them Sols buttin’ in where they ain’t welcome.”

“He’s right, son,” Father says.  “Things may be quiet around here, on account o’ we’re so isolated.  We gotta be.  In the city, things is different.  If the Sol’s don’t start mindin’ their own business, they’ll start trouble again.”

“Father, nobody started anything last time,” I say. “Everybody started everything.  What does it matter anyway, who builds what where? Why do they have to fight about it? It’s stupid!”

Father’s voice grows noticeable sterner, and he says “Don’t backtalk me boy. There are some things you just don’t understand yet.” 

Nicholas looks up from his plate grouba, which he’s sculpted into a mountain. “Why do the Sols care so much about the hot old sun?”

“Cause they’re wrong, boy.” Grandfather says. “Mother Earth gives us life. Gives us food. The Sols-”

“Grandfather,” I say, “He’s not ready to-“

“Mind your tongue, boy,” He snaps, then turns back to Nicholas. “The Sols think they sun created everything, damn fools, and they’ll pay for it, too. That includes that friend o’ yours.”

I can’t stay at the table and control myself so I make do with rather petulantly pounding  my fist on the table and going to my room.  When I leave, Nicholas is constructing a breadstick temple on top of his mountain of grouba.

#

Later, after everyone else is asleep, I steal out of my bedroom window and run across the dusty, quiet streets until I get to Mansol’s house.  He is waiting in the shadows behind the rear wall of the compound..  I run up behind him and kiss him on the neck. He wheels around, grinning.

“Hey.” He whispers, and pulls me close to him.  We kiss, and he grabs my hand, leading me out of the town through dark alleyways until we’re away from the village in our hidden spot behind the main house of a derilect ranch. He sits down, crosslegged, his back against the wall of the house and pulls me close to him. I lay his head in my lap and I stroke his hair. In the moonlight I can see the large red circle painted on the front of his robe; a symbol of our separation.  A few moments pass before I say anything. We’re in private now, and there aren’t any pretentions. 

“I wish you wouldn’t do this,” I whisper. “Please don’t.”

Mansol sighs deeply and his breath tickles my leg hairs.  “Let’s not go over this again, Jordy, please.” He says. “It’s too late anyway.”

“But there are other ways.  You don’t have to do it like this.  It could kill you.” 

“It won’t kill me.”

“It could”, I say. “People have died.”

Mansol sits up and grabs me by the chin. “Only the very old or sick. Not me. Besides, your order has an ordeal, too.  You’re going to do that, aren’t you?” 

“Being buried up to my neck in the Mother Earth for two days is not like what you’re doing. You won’t have water, you won’t have shade, laid out like a strip of leather…” My voice quivers and I cut myself off. 

He pulls me in close to him, and I lay my head on his chest.  “Shhh. Just be there for me tomorrow, that’s all I need. I’m going to need your care to get over this.” We sit late into the night like that, not speaking.

#

I oversleep the next morning, and when I wake up it’s nearly dawn.  Cursing myself I run to the kitchen where Grandmother is cooking breakfast. 

Without turning around she says, “The salve is on the table. Get going now.” 

I take the jar of paste from the table.  It’s very smooth and not as thick as mine was.  The blanket on the door is still tied and I unfasten it before running down the street to the square, where a good crowd of people has already gathered.  Mansol and five other initiates are standing naked in front of their platforms.  I muscle my way through the crowd, and put the jar down in front of him, careful not to stare at his bare body. 

“Thought you weren’t going to make it,” He laughs.  “Then I really mighthave died.” 

His grandfather is squatting next to him, fixing the bonds on the four corners of the platform.  He looks up at me and does not smile.

“Alright,” to Mansol, “Get down there.”  Mansol lies down on his back and I start rubbing the thick white paste over his dark skin.  I’m careful to look serious while doing this, not aroused.

His grandfather ties his wrists and ankles one by one, then looks at me, then at Mansol. “If you ask me I still say it’s a damn silly thing having an Earth Worshipper be your boy during this. Should be one of us.” He turns and walks off and it’s only then, following him with my eyes, that I realize the crowd at the square is entirely segregated.  On one side are Solarians, in their white robes with the red circles on the chests. On the other are the Geos, in the dark brown tunics we wear. 

“What’s this all about?” I ask him. 

“Word came in early this morning from the East,” He says, his voice heavy. “Transport pilot said violence broke out in the City overnight.  Two of our temples were burned by a Geo mob.”

I can suddenly feel the eyes of the Solarians burning into me.  This was always the one eventuality Mansol and I never talked about, because it was one thing we couldn’t control.  “Anybody killed?” I ask, but I’m interrupted by the head Solarian priest of the village who starts giving a speech.  The Sun is already peeking over the horizon.  I finish putting on the ointment and tell Mansol “Good luck,” followed by a whispered “I love you,” which is stupid but everyone’s attention is focused on the priest.

After the priest finishes up he blesses each of the young men and slowly the crowd disperses.  The men must be alone with the Sun through their ordeal. A group of men bring forth a wicker barricade they erect around the five platforms.

That morning, after breakfast, I sit out in the side yard with Grandfather, Father, and Hadi, listening to them talk of the troubles.  Nicholas is playing on the ground and Grandmother is inside preparing lunch. It’s only a few hours after breakfast and the heat is already getting bad. 

“There’ll be war, for sure.” Grandpa says, lighting a pipe.  “Bastards went too far this time.” 

“But what about the truce?” I ask.  “It’s been honored for three centuries, how can they just break it? Don’t they remember what happened last time?”

“Sols is to dumb to remember, boy.” Grandfather says, shaking his head.  He never used to talk like that, at least not openly.  I decide to ask father.

“What do you say, father? There can’t be a war, can there?”

“I don’t know, son,” He says, “I don’t think anybody around here wants it but city folk is different from us. They don’t think the same.”

“But last time millions died, father! Don’t they remember that?”

“I told you, boy, Sols is too dumb to remember that.” 

I lose my temper and yell at Grandfather. “Damnit, I’m not just talking about the Solarians!  I’m talking about everybody!  The Geos, too! Everybody who thinks it’s a good idea to run around killing each other over the Earth and the Sun! I’m talking about you!”

The four of them sit there, gaping at me.  Father and Hadi look to Grandfather for a reaction.  They won’t do anything; it’s not their place.  I’ve thrown down the gauntlet to Grandfather and he alone must pick it up.  He puts down his pipe and stands, quivering with rage. 

“You.  Get…out…of my house.”  He sputters.  He’s too old for a direct physical confrontation and he knows it, but the fact that he owns the house is a trump card.  What I did was stupid but I was planning to leave anyway. After Mansol became a priest and went to the city, I was going to go through the ordeal and move there, too.  That plan’s finished now but there’s nothing I can do.

“I’ll be gone in the morning,” I say, spitting on the ground, and go inside. I go to my room and close the blanket.  In the kitchen the family eats a hushed lunch.  They’re talking in low tones and I don’t know if they’re talking about me or the troubles, but I suspect it’s both.  Sitting on my mat I catch the word “militia” a few times, meaning, I figure, that the Geo mililita has been called up, and the war really is coming again. 

I’ll have to go to the City, of course, but I don’t know what I’ll do.  I can’t join the priesthood now but I can still get a job and support myself that way.  As I’m sitting, it hits me that this is moment that will change my life forever, and I’m scared.

A gong sounding outside tells us it’s now approaching noon, and everyone better get off the streets. 

Outside I hear someone yell “Stay inside, Geos! Sol’s wrath will be great today!  Hide from the truth!”

I can see through the gaps in the window between the blanket and the wall light starting to change, getting whiter by the second.  Bright shafts of it come into my room, cutting swaths through dust.  I position my eye directly in the path of one but can only hold it there for a brief moment. 

It’s even hot inside of the room now, in the shade.  Noon at any time of the year out in the West is a bad time to be out but on the solstice it’s deadly. That’s why they choose this time to do the ordeal; to show their devotion to Sol. 

The light grows brighter by the second, until I swear I can almost hear it humming.  Screams start coming from the village square as the initiates skin starts to cook on their bodies.  I try to pick out Mansol’s voice in the chorus but they all sound the same, shrieking, almost animal like.  I want to run out there but I can’t; I just sit there, bury my head between my knees, and weep. One by one the voices stop as the initiates pass out, and soon after the light begins to dim.  I run out of my room and the family is still sitting at the table, where they’ve been listening. 

I make for the door and Grandmother tries to stop me. He jumps up and grabs me by the sleeve. “You can’t go out there, yet, Jordy!” She yells.   

“I have to!” I say, the tears still in my eyes.  “It’s my job to treat him.”

“Jordy,” She says, “I know he’s your best friend, but…”

“He’s more than my friend, Grandmother!” I say, and stare at her.  She looks confused at first, trying to figure out what I mean.  Then the realization hits her and she jerks her hand away from me, putting it over her mouth instead. I don’t even wait for the other’s reactions, and head out the door at a sprint. 

When I was very young I was caught in the sun at noon. It was in the middle of winter, and I was out playing with friends.  We were playing hide and seek, and I had gone far off to find a good hiding place.  I got wrapped up in the game, though, and didn’t hear the gong sound. I sat there for a long time, underneath a bush, waiting for someone to find me.  When I finally noticed it was noon, it was too late.  I was too far from the village to make it safety.  I was in bed for a week as my skin blistered and peeled.  I almost forgot what it felt like.

The light is blinding, and my skin feels like it’s being filleted off my body.  I stumble down the street, my closed almost shut.  Each particle of sunlight that hits my body is like a needle.  ‘I’m being cooked alive’ I think to myself, and almost turn back before I realize what that means to Mansol. I can’t make it, though.  I fall into the shadow of an overhang on one of the neighbor’s houses, but quickly stand back up because touching the ground hurts so much.  Instead I stand there, in agony, until the light dims more.  When it does, people come running out of their houses wearing very wide white hats to protect them from the sun. 

I follow them and when I make to the square the wall has already been torn down and a mixed crowd of people has formed around the platforms. Everyone is yelling and I can’t make out what’s going on until I make my way through and see for myself.  I know they are all dead immedeatley.  Mansol’s flesh is blistered and peeled.  Blood pours from the places where the flesh had burst open.  He is bleeding from his eyes, too, which are still open.  His tongue hangs out of his mouth.  It is the same with the rest of them. Mansol’s grandfather is cradling his head in his lap, weeping openly.

“It was bad this year.” I hear someone say behind me. 

An elderly voice replies: “I ain’t never seen it like this. Not this bad.”

Mansol’s grandfather looks up, his face full of rage.  He points at me.  “This your fault!  You burned down Sol’s temples and brought his wrath, you bastards!”  This prompts a fury of yelling and screaming.  Blackness starts creeping in from the edge of my vision and I see myself falling…

#

When I wake it up it’s dark outside and I’m covered in white bandages.  I’m in my room, naked on my bed, and Grandmother is beside me, mixing up a batch of salve in her wooden bowl.  I jerk my head up and try to speak, but she puts her hand on forehead, forcing my head back down.

“Shhh, Shhh, young one.  Just lie there.”

“Mansol,” I say in a weak voice. “He’s…he’s…”

“He’s dead, Jordy.  He’s dead.”

I don’t weep. I just lay there, focusing on nothing, while she puts more bandages on me. After a minute there is a knock on the wall and someone pushes the blanket aside. I hear father’s voice say “Is he awake?”

“Yes, bring them in,” Grandmother replies.

Father enters the room flanked by two men in military uniform with weapons at their side.  Father squats down beside me and the men say nothing. 

“Jordy, these men are from the militia.  They’re here to take you.” His voice is cold.

“What?” I ask. 

“The militia, Jordy. We called them before lunch.  You’re going into the militia.  They’ll put some discipline into you.” 

“Father, please, I – I can’t, don’t do this,” I say. 

“Fighting’s broken out in the city, Jordy. Real fighting. You’re going to go there.” He turns to the men behind him. “Okay, go get the stretcher.”  They leave.  He turns back to me.

“I didn’t tell them what happened. If I did, it wouldn’t be the militia here. They’re going to help you be a man, Jordy.”

“No, please, not that,” I plead, but he ignores me and walks out of the room. 

A minute later the two men come back in carrying a stretcher and they put me on it.  They carry me outside, and it’s a full moon and torches are lit everywhere, so I can see what’s happening. Geo militia troops are all over the town, herding scared looking people down the streets at gunpoint.  Some of their white robes are splattered with blood.  Figures in brown tunics run in and out of abandoned houses, carting off goods. 

Outside the village, a dozen ships are idling.  Some of them are military vessels, some of them are cargo ships.  Outside of the military vessels are lines of young Geo men, waiting to go to war.  Soldiers are packing Solarians into the others.  As they hoist me into one our ships I can see, not too far off, soldiers throwing blistered, naked bodies into a large hole.  The last one is Mansol; I catch a glimpse of his face as they pick him up.  After they throw him in two soldiers start filling in the hole with dirt. 

I fold my hands, close my eyes, and say, “Geo Gratias.”

Solarbum Jaunt. Written 2002

I wrote this in 2002 while living in Beirut.  I submitted it to Strange Horizons, where I’ve submitted all of my short stories.  So far, they’ve rejected them all, and for good reason. I’ve read – I don’t remember where – that everyone has ten horrible short stories in them before they write a good one.  Which is fine. I’ve written four, which means that, if this is true, I only need to write 6 more and I’ll finally write something worth reading.  This means I only have six to go.  So, here is a glimpse into the mind of a 21 year old angry young man, a nascent traveller, with designs on becoming well-travelled and loved.  Looking back, I don’t like it very much. I see in it a melancholy reflection of my own insecurities and sadness. The kinds of things one needs to get out in writing, before one gets to heart of the matter. I’m going to post the other three I’ve written, then get started on new creations.

Solarbum

In a hot, gas-filled corridor crisscrossed with grimy pipes and tubing that served as the ship’s bowels, Palin stooped uncomfortably, cleaning away rust. The metal intestines and articulated plastic capillaries squirmed randomly about the place, carrying gases and fluids needed to keep the ship running until it reached its next port of call.  The groaning engines sounded, as always, as if they were about to explode. Or implode.  Or maybe even invent some new from of plode-ing, prefixed by ultra, super, or hyper. 

Palin and his bunkmate, Ohno were in the lowest section, by the shipping containers and the reactors, instructed to clean anything covered with rust or grime. And on this ship that meant, simply, everything.  Sweat poured out of his forehead and temples as he scrubbed, cutting white streaks across his grease-caked jaws. Oily black grime covered his overhauls, but the effect was barely noticeable, as the things had been caked with filth when issued to him. They were old-fashioned cloth and not self-cleaning.

The pipes he was scouring at the moment were situated behind a mesh of others, forcing him to stand in an awkward bowing position he could only hold for about fifteen minutes.  He put his reduction stimulator down on the black metal grating of the floor and stood, arching his back.  A vicious and heavenly series of pops traveled up his spine.

‘Back crap, man’ Ohno said.  Palin looked over at the large Japanese Rastafarian reclining in a jumble of rubber tubing a few meters down the dim corridor. A dozen feet beyond, the corridor swung away to the left. Ohno was smoking a kind of extra solar dope he called Garbo, the existence of which Palin had been ignorant before his arrival on board, nanodrugs being the limit of his experimentation.  His once-virgin lungs were well acquainted with smoking now, having roomed with Ohno since then in the same six by four closet. Its bright blue and purple leaves were like a fashion accessory to the man. 

‘Work too hard, man.’  Ohno said, holding out the joint, ‘Chill.’

Palin wiped his forearm across his brow, took off his gloves, and walked over. ‘Are you just going to sit there and get stoned all day?’ He took the joint and inhaled deeply. 

‘Yeah, man. Freedom.’

Palin laughed out a great cloud of smoke. Ohno used the word freedom in the same way some people used ‘um,’ or ‘like.’ Not for the first time Palin desperately wanted to point out to Ohno that, despite the dreadlocks and the smoke, he was not Jamaican. 

‘What if you get caught?’ He asked, passing the joint back.

‘Boss man not here. Easy.’

‘Damn, my back hurts.  I hate this crap.’ Palin pressed his hand into his lumbar. At eighteen, Palin had never performed anything resembling physical labor.  He had therefore underestimated the shortcomings of the activity and signed on as a grunt laborer on the freighter with little compunction. He regretted the decision now, especially because the whole thing was so unnecessary. 

‘Sit, man, chill.’ Ohno motioned to an adjacent pile of tubing with his hand.  A

reduction stimulator identical to Palin’s except for being anal-retentively spotless, lay beside him, in the same position it had all day. His overhauls he wore on his legs only, and the upper half lay underneath him. ‘Take this, easy.’  Again the Garbo changed hands, after Palin collapsed onto his back. 

‘When do we get into port, again? I hate this place.’

‘What’s to hate? Free food, free trip, man.  Bed, too, all free. Freedom.’ 

Palin blanched.  Ohno wasn’t exactly given to fits of verbosity, rarely exceeding three words in a sentence.  For him, that statement was a Jeffersonian oration. 

‘It’s not exactly free, we have to slave our asses off scrubbing rust in the hottest part of the ship, Ohno.’ 

Ohno wrenched his bulging, muscular frame onto one elbow, turned sideways, and pointed a thumb at his chest.  His upper arms, as big as Palin’s head, writhed beneath the skin.  ‘Lookit me, man. I’m not a slave. Freedom.’ 

The mild hallucinogenic effect of the Garbo started to kick in, and Palin sat for a moment staring at the bulging bicep.  Although he didn’t disapprove of he didn’t use them, either. He’d always considered kid kind of vain.  Ohno evidently endorsed the idea.  His torso was an inverted pyramid with tree trunks for arms.  Palin, by comparison, was thin as a rake.  His jumpsuit hung like a parachute.

‘Point taken. But if you get caught by one of those dickhead ship’s crew assholes then you’re free ride’s not going to be so free any more.  No more freedom.’ He folded his hands behind his head and reclined fully.

‘No, man. What they gonna do? Dump me in space? No, man. Just not pay me. Let me off at port. This ship dyin’ anyway.’

‘Still, I wish I’d just paid for a ticket on a jumpliner instead of working my way across.’

‘So why didn’t you?’ Ohno asked.  ‘Money problems?’

‘Nah, plenty of money, mom made sure of that.’

Ohno’s expression turned quizzical, or maybe just stoned.  ‘So why you here, man?’ Waving an open-handed arm around the reeking hallway.

‘Seemed like a good idea at the time,’ Palin said in a smoke-filled voice.  The sodium pentathol-like effect of the Garbo kicked in, and he could only speak the truth. ‘I thought it would be a meaningful experience, somehow.  Real living, like. Something I’d remember or something, y’know?”

Ohno just laughed. A deep, almost contemptuous laugh the way someone laughs when they watch old movies of people trying to build early flying machines. 

Don’t know how she’s still living. Ship’s the biggest piece I’ve ever seen,’ Palin said, changing the subject. In truth, he chose the Vossoff based solely on its well-used appearance.  He equated its appearance with experience, and experience with life.  Life experiences: that was what he was after.

‘Been on worse, man.’  Ohno said.

‘What are you going to do when we get there?’

Ohno brightened, and a grin spread across his face. ‘Man, New Port City Crazy.  We gonna have a time.’ 

Palin brightened. ‘Yeah?’

‘Yeah man. Crazy time.  Freedom.’

Palin turned toward Ohno, who was rolling another cigarette.  The latticework of the grill behind the Japanese Man pulsed slowly, almost imperceptibly. ‘Like what? What is there to do?’ He asked, though he already knew.

‘Everything to do. Smoke bars, drink bars, nanobars. All peoples like us, man.’

New Port City, a sprawling megalopolis of 200 million people, was the largest shipping port in the Local Group.  It was a Mecca for solarbummers and youthfully exuberant tourists with a system-wide reputation for no-holds-barred decadence. Palin had heard virtually nothing was illegal there. 

‘How many times have you been there?’

Ohno inserted a small black pellet into one end of the joint, put the other end in his mouth, and sucked hard.  The tip burst into a small blue flame, lighting the dope. ‘Lot, man.  Crazy city,’ He said.

Heavy, echoing footfalls on the grated walkway interrupted their break. They rose and made preparations.  Palin grabbed his tool and leapt back into his hole to frantically resume work.  Ohno extinguished the joint’s cherry with his foot and pulled up the rest of his uniform. He scooped up a big, glopping handful of ooze collected at the base of a pipe, spread it about his hands, fore arms, and stimulator. He picked out a random pipe, flicked on the device, and moved it slowly over the corroded surface, breaking down the grime at a molecular level and turning the rust back into iron. 

A pudgy member of the full-time ship’s crew with too much forehead and a receding chin sauntered around the corner wearing a sneer and air of superiority. His pant legs were tucked into his boots military fashion. 

‘What’re you two up to there?’ The man demanded in a military-like cadence.

Palin pulled himself out of his hole. ‘Cleaning, like we were told.’ Ohno kept at his cosmetics.

‘Oh, yeah, then what’s that smell there?’

‘Smell?’

‘Yeah, you heard me. Smells like you boys been uh…’ He raised his eyebrows twice and, bringing his hand up to his mouth, made a motion with his thumb and forefinger like he was giving a cat a blowjob.  ‘Smokin’ some…stuff.’

‘Stuff?’ Palin asked in mock confusion, holding back a chortle. He knew the asshole couldn’t smell anything because the whole ship reeked so strongly of chemicals, rust, and filth that after a few days on board the olfactory nerve just shut down.

‘Don’t play dumb with me.’  Then his face lit up as if he’d suddenly had a brilliant thought. ‘Let me see your thingies,’ He said with a sneer.

Ohno and Palin held out the slender black cylinders.  Both were filthy, but Ohno’s was almost comically so. Jerk scrutinized them with a scowl, and disappointment flashed briefly across his face, followed by anger.  ‘You,’ He pointed to Palin.  ‘Quit slacking off.’ 

‘I haven’t been,’ Palin said, his voice rising.  ‘I’ve been slaving at these things all goddamn day.’

Asshole arched his eyebrows again, and opened his eyes as wide possible, making his big bald forehead wrinkle.  ‘Yeah? Then why ain’tcher your oxidonzer as dirty as his?’ He hooked his thumbs under his armpits and let out a soft sigh of satisfaction with his bit of Holmesian deduction.

Palin looked over at Ohno’s hands, dripping with goo, then up to his softly smirking face. ‘I…I don’t know,’ He said after a pause.  ‘Sorry.’

‘Yeah, thought so.  You can’t put nothin’ by me.  I’m gonna have my eye on ya.’ He pointed two fingers at his eyes, then one at Palin.  ‘Don’t slack off.’  He walked away.

Ohno collapsed into his nest, giggling.  Palin hurled his tool and gloves against the wall with a curse, and fell onto his back beside him.  They didn’t move for the rest of the day, except to pass joints back and forth. 

Two weeks later Palin and Ohno were standing with the rest of the grunt crew at the main exit hatch, waiting to disembark. For the rest of the journey, save for the moments when he had to look hard at work, he’d done nothing but get stoned all day, and the absence of physical exertion made the rest of the trip only very uncomfortable instead of absolutely hellish.  Their final pay came to just over 7,000 credits apiece, or almost exactly the cost of a jump-liner ticket along the same route. 

‘This a crazy weekend, man.’ Ohno said, pointing to his check. 

‘I’m sorry?’

‘New Port City, man. Crazy weekend.’

‘Oh, right.  So what’s the plan, then?’

‘You’ll see, man. Surprise.’ Ohno grinned wide, shifting his pack to a different shoulder. He carried an old-fashioned black canvas duffle bag of indeterminable age, covered with rough ink drawings and quilted with sew-on patches.  Palin, by comparison, toted a 4,000-credit ultra-pocketed travel backpack, a parting gift from a worried mother making sure her son wouldn’t be uncomfortable during his first time away from home.   The bag was waterproof, fireproof, guaranteed for life, and could be converted to an emergency tent or four-person life raft.  It also contained a built-in Solar Positioning System, distress signal/homing beacon and view screen. All packed into less than a kilogram. Holding it now, and looking at Ohno’s, Palin thought it looked…touristy.

‘Crazy city.  We gonna have a time.’ Ohno muttered.

‘Freedom,’ Palin said, literally quivering. ‘This is my first time on another planet.’ Ohno made a sound like a giggle.             

A rough, loud jolt sounded as the Vossoff set down, and a short time later a large section of the wall dematerialized, and they stepped out onto the gangplank.

*

Eighteen hours later, on the cold, bare, aluminum floor of a filthy room with, Palin awoke with a severe hangover, not knowing how the hell he got there. He still wore all of his clothing, including the black zippered jacket and heavy boots. He was rolled up in his survival blanket, and his spare sweater was keeping his head off the floor.

A low, colorless light shone through the window and he briefly thought it must be morning, until he remembered that Sirius Prime only made one complete rotation every 20 Earth days, and it was their equivalent of noon when the Vossoff docked.

‘Window shut.’ He said, wanting the light to go away.  No wall materialized in the windows place.  The thing was built in.

  What time is it? Palin thought.  His the contact screen on his left eye flickered to life and glowing red numbers in a rough typewriter font flashed over his pupil.  The time seemed to hang in the air above his head and he saw the amount of time that had somehow passed since he’d arrived. Yesterday. Goddamn, what happened?

Again the screen changed, and he saw the ramp of the ship in front of him as he exited. He registered a fast-forward and in a flash the previous day to him in condensed format. He saw the short, sensory-overload of a walk through the buzzing docks and frenzied streets of Harbourville to a cheap youth hostel. A fat pixilated clerk checked them in, which took all of two seconds. Then he was back on the street with Ohno taking a short trip to a nanobar to meet with the Russian brothers Joe and Joe, two other grunt-workers from the ship.

The Joes had been assigned to a different part of the ship, and he hadn’t had much contact with them. He saw and remembered injecting a spray out of an unmarked orange canister they bought him, and then the feed cut out.  He must have disconnected the jack, he thought. It was all black after that.  He tried actually remembering what happened but couldn’t. No snatches, half-remembered, of doing something somewhere in a highly drunken or stoned state.  No memories at all, not even blurs of memories. Just blackness.    

He propped himself up on one arm, and the pain, a dull throbbing behind the eyes, came as soon as his head left the floor. No one else was in the room. Though was quite forcibly hung over, he didn’t remember drinking anything.  His open pack was still in the corner, right where he had thrown it.  He struggled to his feet and stumbled over.  So far as he could tell, everything was still there. Only the blanket and sweater were taken out.  Turning around, he looked the rotting mattresses on rusting metal frames; the reason why whoever put him to bed didn’t put him on a bed.

Ohno’s black canvas pack wasn’t in the room.   Palin couldn’t remember him leaving. He couldn’t remember anything.  He stopped trying when his bladder started violently contracting, nearly doubling him over with the need to piss. Bolting for the hallway, he almost walked into the door before remember he had to open it.  The floors outside were just like the room and clanged softly under his boots he made for the end of the hallway past the rows of scarred, peeling doors, to the communal bathroom.  In his brief time away from the ship his sense of smell had recovered, and the pungent, acrid odor of urine and feces hit him before he even got to the door. 

Now his head wasn’t just throbbing, it was methodically exploding.  Every pulse of blood to his brain felt like he was sniffing crushed glass.  The effort of getting to the bathroom and the clouds of methane rolling out of the door made him nauseous, and for a moment it seemed as if the vomit would come before the piss.  By the time he got to the toilet, exhaustion pushed all hygienic considerations aside and he collapsed onto the seat, buried his head in his hands, and pissed sitting down.  Luckily, he picked the one toilet out of 15 whose seat was not coated with feces, urine, vomit, semen, or blood.  Sometimes fortune smiles on the suffering.

The bathroom was of the sort one would expect to in a crumbling, beneath the bottom of the barrel place like his hostel. Half of the sinks were ripped from the walls or shattered.  The faucets were corroded in shades of white and green, and many of the knobs were missing.  Those that worked dripped, leaving dark brown stains like crap in a toilet bowl, running from the point of impact of the hard water drops down to the drains, which were all clogged with bad things. The mirrors, although unbreakable, were nonetheless obscured with graffiti.  Once white grout, long since turned brown and back, filled the spaces between tiles.  There was no visible way to clean or dry any part of one’s body.  Palin looked to his side with bloodshot eyes to read what someone had scrawled on the wall while apparently doing a very naughty thing.   

Fifteen minutes later the strength returned to Palin’s legs and he felt strong enough to attempt the journey back through the hallway.  Very few of the doors he passed still had numbers, but one that did stood out when his eyes crossed it: 77.  For some reason he knew that was where the Joes stayed the night before. A dozen-legged bug crawled out of the hole punched in the middle of the call screen.  He knocked: no answer.  He knocked louder, with his feet, and the doorframe around the bolt gave way, letting the door swing wide. Inside, a dozen tiny bipedal rat-creatures, feeding on open food containers, scattered into a pipe sticking out of the wall. He was too hung-over to be amazed though.

From the look of things, Joe, Joe, Ohno, and not a few other people apparently threw quite a party there.  Dozens of bottles, some alcohol, some hyperdrink, sporting a myriad of labels in several languages littered the floor, along with the remains of the beds and a card table. Nanospray cartridges of every color covered the floor like candy sprinkles on a cupcake. He scanned the room but didn’t see travel any bags.  The Joes were gone, and Ohno, he guessed, with them. A lone chair stood undamaged in the middle of the chaos, which Palin sat down on when his strength left him again.

While resting his head on his hands he surveyed the cartridges on the floor and saw one that was unused.  He picked up and turned it over in his hands. Silver lettering on a black background read ‘Dark Star Supershot.’  Uppers.

Back in his room, he retrieved his dermjack from his pack and shot directly into his neck. Ten seconds later the bots hit his brain, giving a slight reprieve from the hangover.  Probably not for long, he thought, but enough to grab his bag and get the hell out the place before someone found the Joes’s room and blamed him for the carnage. The elevator at the end of the hall didn’t respond to his repeated calls, and that meant walking the thirty flights of stairs down to the lobby.

The stairway was as filthy as the bathroom. The landings appeared to have been leased out as storage spaces for some kind of chemical waste. The last few steps of each flight were completely obscured by heaps of garbage. He leapt over them, fearful of what the piles might conceal. 

Palin, now riding high on the wave of a nanofreak, was glad he’d taken the hypershot.  Without it, he’d have never been able to make the trip.  The nanobots were reactionary; it turned out, and kept upping the speed every time he felt sick.  By the time he got down, he was wired to the gills.

Down in the small lobby, he slipped past the very fat desk clerk, shrouded in a bank of smoke, and out into the street. Not that he knew where he was going.  Not that he cared, either, just as long as it was elsewhere, a condition conveniently satisfied by everywhere.

Upon first arriving, he’d been too stunned to really see the city.  The seething masses of people on the dirty sidewalks, the thousands of personal transports, the huge, decaying buildings stretching upward until they disappeared in a ceiling of brown haze. Now it hit him in all of its glory.  Harbourville was like a humming bird on amphetamines, buzzing with life and activity.  Bright neon signs blinked and strobed in the daylight.  Bars were crowded to capacity, because, as it wasn’t going to be night for 120 hours, it didn’t matter how one set his or her drinking schedule. Countless spaceships ranging in size from personal craft to freighters that would dwarf the venerable Vossoff crisscrossed the sky in orderly rows.  The right side of the street was all buildings, and on the left were the endless 50-story docking stations of the harbor. 

The stations were huge square lattice works of metal and cement-like buildings without walls. The ships docked at the very top of the structures, on which sat the monumental cranes that unloaded their cargo into the circular 100-foot wide freight elevators.  He could see thousands of people scurrying about them, welding, hammering, and carrying.  At the top of the station nearest him, the nose of a massive ship poked out over the street below.  The circular elevator descended from its belly like a newborn child.

He was too tweaked, though, to be awed or overwhelmed.

Heading down the street, his aim was to find a more habitable establishment than the bombed out barracks he’d just vacated. The hangover gradually crept back into his brain as walked, and the sun stabbed his eyes like needles, even through the smog.  He was pretty sure the light even made a high-pitched ‘shing!’ sound, like the drawing of an infinitely long blade.  It was time for another bump, and he stepped into the first thing like a store he found, a place selling pornography, drugs, and groceries.  He couldn’t find any Dark Star; just something called ‘White Star,’ in an identical style can. At the counter, next to the guns and mints, was a medical rack.  There were blue cartridges marked ‘hangover,’ and orange ones marked ‘crash.’ He grabbed two of the blue ones, put them down next to the White Star, and handed his credit chip to the clerk, who appeared to be covered in head-to-toe clear plastic wrap.

There were just over 500 credits left on his chip, according to the receipt. That was about one day’s pocket money. He would have to replenish it from the other chip in his bag, the one he kept all of his money on, just as soon as he got to a hotel.  He did all three sprays before leaving.

Whatever the Dark Star had done, the White Star did times ten. Complicating things, the blue pill cartridges turned out to be some sort of violent speed.  His veins sizzled as he hurled himself down the sidewalk, trembling, eyes wide, body moving at the speed of the city around him.  He gnashed his teeth and clenched his sweating fists.  No thought of a hangover now.  No thoughts at all now, really. His thigh muscles twitched convulsively every time he lifted his legs.  Dark brown sweat stains engulfed his clothing.

After what might have been 2 or 20 blocks he came to an establishment that, for the presence of a janitor cleaning the lobby, looked respectable. The woman who checked him in didn’t seem to notice his uncontrollable grunts and craning of the neck

Palin stayed in the room for 10 hours, pacing around the room or sitting crouched on a chair, rocking back and forth.  Even though he didn’t smoke, he ordered a carton of barbiturettes sent up and chain-smoked all 300. Twice he switched on the news feed, but the influx of information into his head threatened to throw him into sensory overload and he had to turn it off. He shed all of his clothing soon afterwards, and laid naked on top of the blankets, sweating and smoking, wishing for the tweak to end, please end.  He just needed to sleep. Every minute seemed like ten.   Finally, sleep came. It was a restless sleep, and lasted only four hours. 

This time piss wasn’t the first thing on mind; thirst was. The 10-hour nanofreak had sweated all the moisture out of him. His mouth was so dry he couldn’t swallow.  His eyes were even dry. Dehydration caused a dull ache throughout his muscles.  It occurred to him that as far as he could remember, he’d had nothing to drink since arriving. 

He walked over to the screen on the wall and pressed it.  It flickered to life.  He touched the icons as they appeared on the gas-crystal display, ordering bottles of spring water, food, and two bottles of wine. 

With the food coming, he returned to his bed to wait, and his thoughts drifted back to Ohno’s departure. He felt hurt. A knot started to form in the back of his throat.

Then the room service came and he turned his attention to the giant bottles of water and piles of artificial food substitute molded into spaghetti form.  He inhaled the food quickly, not stopping to open the wine until he finished sopping up the last of the sauce with his bread.  There were no words to describe how much better he felt.

Palin sat back on the bed and drank three glasses of wine.  Everything was okay, he thought.  The trip had gotten off to a rocky start, but that was none of his fault.  It was going to be all right now. The situation in the hostel was a tough one, and the misadventure with the speed had made things worse, but in the end he made it through on his own. He felt rather proud, actually, even mature. He was finally holed up in a comfortable hotel room, ready to begin life.  He felt like a shower, and maybe some sightseeing.

An hour later, changed and out into the city, he strolled lightly, taking in the bewildering diversity of Harbourville. Away from the docks, small, cramped shops and bars populated the bottom floor of every building on both sides of the street.  Above them, the buildings appeared to turn into apartments.  He passed a dentist’s office next door to a whorehouse, next to a bakery, next to a mosque.

This part of the city was densely packed that there were three more levels of sidewalks above ground level, attached to the building facades. The side streets looked the same. There was no rhyme or reason to the place.  It looked as if some immense god had taken a perfectly good city, put it in a bag, shook it up, and poured the contents out in a great pile. To just do this part of the city would take weeks, he thought. 

For the first time he remembered how much he wanted to see the Sirius A an B up close.  The binary stars were supposedly one of the most visigraphed tourist attractions in the Local Group. He looked upwards, but the uniform brown smog still hung in the air, obscuring any view of the suns.

After a good bit of walking, careful all the time not to sway from the street he was on for fear of getting lost, he stopped by a coffee shop to rest.  The place was decorated eclectically.  Rifles, shrunken heads, musical instruments and erotic paintings hung on walls that were one giant, continuous collage of old black and white photographs and magazine clippings. A few people were around the place, talking or shoot up or sitting with feeds plugged into their temples.  He bought a coffee at the counter, found an empty two-seat table by the wall, and sat down. A pretty girl in a tank top and cutoff shorts immediately grabbed Palin’s attention.

Her hair was died half a dozen different colors, and she sported nanorobotic tattoos that flickered and changed forms at a constant, slow pace that reminded him of how the grating in the Vossoff looked when he was on Garbo. She wore hiking boots and a backpack similar to his sat by her.  A fellow solarbum, he thought. 

After a few minutes of periodic staring on his part, their eyes happened to meet.  She quickly looked away, as did he.  When he looked back half a cup of coffee later, she was looking his way again, but again, averted her eyes. 

Many of his imagined scenarios began just like this, with chance meetings with fellow travelers, invariably pretty females.  Should I go talk to her? Wait to see if she looks at me again. On the wall he noticed a page from an old calculus book had been pasted on the wall.  It was a cubic matrix equation.  He started working the problem in his head to appear calm, but watched her all the while from the corner of his eye. She looked at him again. This time he kept his stare, and, after she glanced at him yet another time, he got up and went over.

But then bad luck stepped in. It might have been fate, playing catch up for the fortunate toilet seat earlier. The nanobots he had injected hours before in the small shop suddenly reactivated themselves, triggered by the coffee. He’d been warned about doing unknown brands here, because they were sometimes defective and didn’t cycle themselves out. 

The resurgent bots hit his brain and his muscles started twitching again, violently. Palin was so caught off guard by this he didn’t see the briefcase someone left by a chair five feet in front of tattoo girl.  His foot hit the bag, and he lurched forward, his arms outstretched and quivering.  He saw the girl’s terror-filled face as she looked up at him, grasping for her key chain. And then – blackness. 

Palin collapsed onto the floor in heap. Above him, the girl stood, hysterical, surrounded by a self-defense force field.  The blue aura of the fields stun range extended a foot outward on all sides.

‘He tried to attack me! He tried to attack me!’ She sobbed.

Fifteen minutes later Palin came to, as a very large bouncer was dragging him out of the back of the store into a reeking alley filled with ooze-covered garbage and mud puddles that shimmered with psychedelic oil-made rainbows. . Seeing Palin awake, the seven-foot tall man threw him up against a wall and drew his fist back. Palin held up his hands and started pleading.

‘Oh, please, no, don’t hit me, it was an accident. Please.’ He said.

‘Accident hell. You tried to attack her.  We don’t allow that.’ He slapped Palin hard. Blood poured from one of his nostrils.

‘No, no no. I tripped. I wasn’t trying to attack her I swear. Please.’ He was crying now.

‘What were you doing walking over to her, then?’ He slapped him again the other nostril gushed forth.

Palin grunted in pain. ‘Oh, God, stop please. She’d been looking at me, I was just going over to talk.’

‘Why did you think she wanted to talk to you?’

‘She-She’d been looking at me.’

‘And?’

‘And nothing, just looking at me.’ 

‘That’s it?’

‘Yeah…I…I guess I made a mistake. I’m sorry.’ 

‘Yeah. You did,’ He threw Palin down into the garbage filled alleyway. The asphalt scraped both elbows badly. ‘Come back and I hurt you.’ The bouncer said, then turned and went inside.

Palin got up and ran down the alleyway to the road, where he turned and headed back toward his hotel. His head killed him, and he was miserably wired. He held his sleeve to his nose to stem the blood because his first aid kit was in his pack.  He made it back to the hotel without incident.

He washed up in his room and injected a first aid cartridge.  He felt his nose and elbows tingle as the tiny medics went to work. He couldn’t believe his rotten luck.  Tears welled up in his eyes as he cursed his clumsiness and weakness.    He felt embarrassed, he felt stupid, and his head felt like hell.  And then, while returning the first aid kit, he found that Ohno had stolen his main credit chip, and he felt sick.

*

At the police station Palin was met with a mixture of incredulity, bewilderment, and finally pity, when he explained that he was reporting a theft and actually seemed to expect somebody to do something about it.  With all the animation of  a tree sloth on barbiturates, a very fat androgynous desk clerk waved him to a bank of touch-screens built into a wall.  After entering his name and EID number, selecting ‘theft – monetary’ from a pull-down menu an describing the nature of the crime in fifty words or less, the computer thanked him for his input, told him it would take four to six weeks to process his report, and advised him to have a nice day.   

‘Go to hell,’ He told the thing, walking off. 

Fifteen hours of searching.  Fifteen hours of walking up and down sidewalks and streets whose names he did not know and all of which looked the same.  Fifteen hours of walking into every run-down hostel he passed, also all alike and too many to count, only to be told time after time that, no, he hadn’t ever stayed there. Fifteen hours of realizing that, while riding on the crackling energy of the Dark and White Stars, he’ bolted through the streets far too aimlessly to ever find his way back.   At one point he passed by a store for some water and, noticing again the orange ‘crash’ cartridges by the counter, made the connection with drugs he’d been given by the Joes.  Palin had lost it all: 53,000 credits. It was gone, and never coming back.

How the hell did it all go so wrong?  It was supposed to be the adventure of his life.  His boring, stable, exactly the same day-in and day-out life. How could bumming around the stars for a year possibly, conceivably, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever go wrong?  All of the experiences travel offered were supposed to build upon his inner self like coal polyps, slowly transforming him into a mature, complex individual. But all of those experiences were supposed to be good ones. He never took the time to imagine anything bad happening. 

After 53 hours on Sirius Prime, he’d certainly experienced things he never would have gotten to back home, but he didn’t, at the time, consider that a positive.  His adventures here had been uniformly awful, not horizon broadening.  They gave him no polyps.  Just sore legs, the recurrent tweak of defective speedbots, and no money, stranded light years from home.  The ear-splitting roar of a ship taking off overhead shook the ground.

The ship! Of course! 

As unpleasant as the idea seemed, the Vossoff was now his only chance. The room in the hotel was only reserved for one 25 hours and he didn’t have enough credits left to pay for another. There might be enough left for a cab-ride, though.  If he could reach the ship before it left, maybe he could get hired back on….

Palin remembered overhearing that the ship would be leaving for Earth again 55 hours after docking, which didn’t leave much time.  He made to race back to the hotel for his bag, only to find that after all those hours of wandering he’d again become hopelessly lost.

After some minutes, he located a taxi stand. The only transport available was an idling hodgepodge of yellow spray painted scrap metal that barely looked like it could hover.  The driver informed him that the amount on his card was, funnily enough, exactly enough for one short trip across town. So where to?

And he couldn’t remember the name of the hotel.  He hadn’t cared when he checked into the place.  And now he didn’t know.  There was no time and not enough money to search.

‘The docks, where the large cargo ships come in,’ He said, in the voice of someone who’d just been kicked in an open, freshly salted wound with a steel-toed boot, while lying face down in the mud.

‘Know the dock numbers?’

‘It was in the eighties.’

‘Kay.’ And they took off.

He leaned back in the seat, put his face in his hands, and sobbed quietly in the back of the filthy cab.