My Birthday, Your Story

It’s my 30th birthday today. I had a dream about a story, so I woke up and wrote it. Hope you enjoy:

On a low hill in a quaint hamlet in the center of a very small island, there sat a tree. It wasn’t a very remarkable tree, though it was tall (three man-heights) and broad (three man-widths) and its two branches, like arms, stretched out and away and upwards toward the sky. The wood was gnarled and grey, for it was old (though no one knew how old) and wise (for wisdom grows in the roots of the land, and this tree’s roots were very long and very deep).

Leaves would go on this tree, always green and always rich. When autumn came to the island and to the hamlet in the center of it, the leaves did not wilt, nor did their color fade into the yellows and oranges of the season’s sunsets. They stayed green, like raw emeralds, and they kept their wide, hearty shape. When winter came, they would simply disappear, a few at a time, until the coldest days arrived and frost coated the dirt roads and the fields, and those twisted arms of the tree and its long, grey neck stood bare. No leaves littered the ground; they simply ceased to be, until spring brought buds and those buds brought leaves, rich and green and full of life.

This tree did not have a name, but though other trees (smaller, with more color, whose leaves did what leaves are supposed to do throughout the year) existed down near the water and in the yards fenced off and tucked away in yards behind quaint little homes, when someone wanted to go “out by the tree”, everyone knew it was the tree on the hill.

Picnics were had underneath the tree, and first kisses, and hounds would be taken up to play (though even the hounds knew better than to spoil that majestic trunk). Weddings were officiated there, and vows exchanged, and new lives began. It was a good tree, and a reliable one, and a wise tree, down to its deep, deep roots.

And every so often, every five years or so, that tree, in the center of its trunk and in the dead of night, would let off a peculiar light-blue glow.

Because this was a deliberate action on the tree’s part, there was no pattern to the glow’s arrival save for the whim of the tree. Though it was a fierce and beautiful shining light, it would sometimes go unnoticed. Though it always happened at night, the tree cared not for where the moon sat in the inky black sky. It would be discussed and questioned, but no one approached. To the hamlet it was a mystery, and mysteries were terrifying.

Now, this is a story about the tree, but it is also a story about a boy who grew. And before he grew, many years ago, he was just a boy who was, acting as boys do: impulsively and confidently and with little fear at all, through the mornings and deep into the afternoons, all up until late one night when he saw a thing that he maybe wasn’t quite ready to see.

Oh, he had heard about the light in the tree. From his parents and their friends, in hushed tones over an evenly-cooked dinner. From the older boys who were certain of what they would do should they see the blue glow in the dark. From the wizened old men and women who spoke in short sentences as they looked upon the hill with wistful eyes.

But one night, long after his mother had tucked him in under the scratchy warmth of his woolen blanket, that boy crawled over the ledge of his window and into the rocky little roads of his hamlet. He ducked and dodged through the shadows, sure that no one was awake and outside but cautious enough not to take a chance, until he reached the edge of the homes, back near the base of the hill.

Once out there, his eyes searched for more. The edge of the island, perhaps, and the waves there that lapped against the shore. Or a stick, maybe, with which to draw symbols in the dirt to confound the others once they woke. Instead, his eyes found the tree, that wizened, winding watcher on the hill, and as he looked a light began to form, faint at first but swiftly growing into a brilliant blue.

Before that night, the boy had never considered what he might do should he be the one so lucky as to see the light in the tree. Truth be told, he did not even know then, and so it was fortunate, perhaps, that his feet acted on their own accord. Left foot in front of the right and then the other way around, over and over until he had climbed the hill and stood directly in front of the tree. That close he could see clearly where the glow was coming from: four lines that appeared to have been cut into the trunk. Four lines that formed a rectangle, twice as tall as the boy stood. The light pulsed with a life of its own, and then flickered as the boy reached out his hand.

It died completely as the tips of the boy’s fingers touched the rugged wood, and the four grooves had disappeared completely, as if they had never been there at all.

“No,” the boy whispered, and it was all he whispered, as the rest of the words had snuck out of him as easily as he had snuck from his own bed.

The boy walked back to his house, the ocean forgotten, the stick forgotten, the light in the tree the only thing in his mind. He climbed back over the ledge of his window, climbed back under his thick blanket, and though he was not tired, he quickly fell asleep.

He did not dream.

That boy grew. He grew into a young man who learned to fish and found he loved it. He fought, once, his only fight, over the a woman he did not truly love and came away with a purple eye and a split lip. He learned early that pride was not as important as knowledge, and he learned many things about himself.

He grew into a proper man who learned to repair homes. His hands grew calloused as he prepared houses for the storms that came late in the year. He managed his tempers and frustrations. During the days without work, be stared longingly at the waters, wanting one day to take his boat out beyond the horizon on a journey with no set end. During the nights, he would look up at the tree on the hill. It had refused him once, and it would not glow for him again.

One afternoon came along, and as he looked at the frothy waves and the fish that would sometimes jump from them through the air, he found himself joined by a woman with hair kissed by the sun. She was a farmer’s daughter with strong shoulders and soft hands, and she would become his wife within a summer’s time. They married beneath the tree.

Though he loved his wife, though she stole the breath from him every time she walked through a doorway to greet him, he looked often at the trunk during their ceremony. At the space where lines had once creased it, and where once blue light had lit upon his face. His distraction did not go without notice, but his wife knew his love for her and knew he would tell her his secret when he felt comfortable.

He tried often, but felt foolish. He worried that she would not believe him, or that she would and think the fading of the light was an ill omen. He tried often, but said nothing of the tree. He spoke often of his love, and she was content.

He would grow into an old man with children of his own–two daughters and a son, all of whom were as impulsive and confident and with little fear as he had been. He nurtured them into adults and taught him what he knew of fishing and love and temperance. They asked him about the tree and he repeated the same stories he had heard as a child. A handful of people in the hamlet claimed to have seen it over the years, in the middle of the night. None had approached. It was a wive’s tale, and a husband’s tale, and a tale for children that few truly believed. His children had children, and he enjoyed afternoons bouncing them on his knee by the fire and carving for them small wooden toys with joints so that they moved and rocked and posed.

One winter the farmer’s daughter passed away. She was warm when she went, and sleeping, a half-finished scarf draped across her lap. Her knitting needles had fallen from her hand to the floor. One had rolled up against the side of her foot. The boy who grew found her as he prepared to bring her to bed. Though his heart fell, like the knitting needles, and though his hand shook, he simply bowed his head and ran his fingers through her hair.

The ground was difficult to shovel, but her funeral was nice. Warm in the cold winter day by the bodies of the hamlet, who had all turned out to pay their respects.

The winter was hard and dark. The children of the boy who grew checked on him but spent most of their time with their own young boys and girls. The days passed, and the weeks, and the spot in his bed that had belonged to the farmer’s wife grew no less empty.

The boy who grew would stand in his doorway in the middle of the night, skinny arms wrapped across his chest. He looked up at that gnarled tree, gray and wise on that hill, and he begged often with his eyes.

“Why?” his eyes would ask. “What did I do wrong? Why won’t you come back for me?”

And the tree was silent in its wisdom, and patient, and it waited. The days passed, and the weeks.

The boy who grew would weep sometimes at night, though he was filled with love. His children were strong. His wife was at peace. The bed was still empty and the oceans still called.

One night, when the skies were at their clearest and the stars were bright and smiling, he left his home and walked up the hill to the tree. He had had picnics there and married the love of his life. He had seen his children and his grandchildren play with the hounds. He stood before the tree and placed his palm against the rough bark of the trunk.

“I am tired,” said the boy who grew. “And I am cold. And for my mistakes–the ones I know and all those I don’t–I am sorry. But for all that, I have lived a good life to the best of my ability, and I am proud of those in it. Through it all, through every dark night and bright day and all of both that fall somewhere in the middle, you have been there. Thank you.”

And the tree was warm. And it knew it was time.

Lines began to form in the trunk: four, forming a square, with the hand of the boy who grew touching square in the center. It was not so big a square this time, as the boy had become taller and the tree had stayed the same, but the square was still large enough for him.

The light flickered to life, blue like orchids, blue like forget-me-nots. It washed over his face and his chest, warming him in the winter chill. The creases in the trunk, he realized, hand on the wood, formed a door. Should he knock? wondered the boy who grew. Or was the return of the light in the tree, now, in his twilight days, welcome enough?

He pushed and the door swung upon. The light grew brighter. As the boy who grew looked beyond, a single tear trailed down his cheek to catch on the turn of his smile.

“Thank you,” he whispered, and that’s all he whispered, for the rest of the words had walked away from him as confidently as he had walked up the hill.

He stepped inside.

The next morning, the hamlet wondered at length where the old man (once a boy, many years ago, who grew and grew and grew) had gone. When he never again turned up, they went on to grieve and to place a little marker down by where the farmer’s daughter lay. And up on the hill, that wise, gray, twisted tree sat with its roots deep down in the ground.

Absolute Zeroes Spotlight: Things Don’t Go As Planned

With the Convergence trilogy, I really wanted to create a world that felt really rough around the edges. There was violence in a lot of different ways and for a lot of different reasons. Some characters were crass while others were hopeful. There was romance, but it came with strings and burdens and sometimes a bit of desperation. I didn’t want clear-cut good and bad guys. I wanted compromise and shades of gray, and from the responses I’ve received since the books have been released, it was apparently a good mix.

Absolute Zeroes isn’t that. It’s supposed to be more light-hearted, more adventurous, a bit more action-packed. The protagonists are very obviously good guys. They’re assholes sometimes, but they love each other and they do their best to do the right thing. So here’s a first-day excerpt that hopefully shows how the guys try to keep their spirits up even in dire situations. Oh, and if you missed the character spotlights, you can find them here:

Ark Carnahan

Caesar Anada

Grey Tolliver

Euphrates Destidante

*****

Two more crimson blasts streaked across the ship’s hull and a low shriek sounded near the engine room. Lights flashed along the circuitboard, signaling nothing good. Grey glanced across the cockpit, past Caesar, to the planet on their starboard side.

“What planet is that?” he asked.

“What?” Caesar asked, eyes wide.

“Planet,” Grey shouted, dragging the word out. “What. Planet. Is. That?”

Caesar glanced out the viewport and then looked at the display monitor between them. Most of the information on the screen had been replaced by flashing red EMERGENCY messages.

“Uh, based on our relative location between the gate we came through and Peloclade, that could be probably one of two planets. Maybe.”

“You sound confident,” Ark said, standing over his shoulder. “Go on.”

“It’s, um, either Taggrath. Primarily a Dyr-occupied planet.”

“Oh, good. Because the Dyr love us so much. Or?”

“Or Astrakoth. It isn’t occupied, so far as I know, save for maybe a science base or two.”

“Even better,” Grey growled.

“Why is that better?” Caesar asked.

“I was kidding. Both are bad. We’re about to go down hard. Who knows what’s down there?”

No sooner did the words leave his lips did the Sol Searcher turn into an unstoppable dive away from the ship pursuing them and towards the planet’s surface. Flames licked up the front of their craft as they broke the atmosphere, and groans coursed through the Searcher’s body.

“Zast! Move, Caesar,” Archimedes said frantically, pushing into the co-pilot’s seat. “Move, move! Strap into a passenger’s chair!”

As Caesar staggered out of the cabin and towards the quarters reserved for extra crew, Grey continued to wrestle with the steering rig.

“I’ve got maybe half the control we need,” he said through gritted teeth.

“To do what?” Ark asked. He strapped himself in and began flipping the switches needed to access emergency power.

“To pull up. We can’t even her out for crap.”

A jagged crack stretched across the main viewport. The cockpit began to heat up and a shrill whistling caused both men to wince.

“Some warning you were bringing us in to land would have been nice,” Ark snarled. “There’s a split in the windshield.”

“I can see that there’s a split in the windshield,” Grey snapped back. “It’s right in front of my face. Toggle the Peregrine drive.”

“Come again?”

“Stagger the Peregrine, Ark! One second intervals. The start-stop might let me balance us out.”

“It might also blow the whole engine! Or rip us in half! Triggering a speed drive near-planet during a dive, that’s a bloody mad plan, Grey.”

“Look, the Searcher might be our ship, but she’s my baby. I know her better than anybody, and I’m telling you: we either try this and maybe die or don’t try it, crash into the planet going six hundred kilotecs and definitely die.”

Archimedes let out a mouth full of air with a whoosh. “To hell with it. If this doesn’t work, I’m kicking your ass in the next life.”

Grey just grinned.

Ark reached across the control console and let his hand hover over the switch that controlled the Sol Searcher’s speed drive. Not for the first time, he marveled that something with enough power to propel a spacecraft through the cosmos at a vastly accelerated rate was regulated by something as mundane as a little metal lever. He glanced over at his friend and began to toggle it back and forth.

The ship began to undergo a series of jolts, jerking the two pilots back and forth in their seats. Grey yanked the controls back, struggling for some semblance of control, even as two more cracks in the viewport split off from the original, making it look like a twisted trident. Below them, the world flashed by in streaks of color. The Searcher began to level out, but it continued its speedy drop.

“Grey,” Ark said, worriedly. He kept the Peregrine off and gripped the co-pilot’s controls.

“I can’t, man,” Grey said. “This is good as it gets. I’m aiming at that clearing up ahead.”

“What clearing?”

“The one. There!”

He flapped a hand on the display screen resting between them. It had automatically recalibrated itself to show the cleanest flight path, surrounding terrain and nearest plausible landing options…of which there were none.

“That’s not a cle- there are trees down there!”

“Do you see a better alternative, Ark? Because I am open to options!”

Archimedes’ eyes flicked from his controls to the viewport to the display monitor. He reached over and pressed a red button. The button lit up, indicating he had a clear transmission to the passenger’s quarters.

“Caesar, you hooked in back there?” he asked into the intercom speaker.

“Yeah,” came a tinny response. “What’s the situation?”

“We’re going down. Prepare for a crash landing.”

“Oh, god.”

“Whichever one you pray to, pal.”

Archimedes flipped the button back to its inactive position and focused on the controls at hand. He and Grey gave a single nod to each other and then strained to steer their ship towards the clearest patch of forest available to them.

They plunged amidst the foliage like an apocalypse. The sounds of trunks snapping around the wings of the Sol Searcher was near-deafening. Greenery rustled against and stained the viewport. The spacecraft moaned in distress and then slammed into the ground with calamitous purpose.

Ark’s shoulder belt tore at the buckle. He jerked forward, slammed his forehead into the corner of the control console and knew nothing but a blackness deeper than space.

Absolute Zeroes Spotlight: Euphrates Destidante

This is the fourth and final character spotlight in preparation for Absolute Zeroes: A Space Story, which should (hopefully) be finished and available for sale by the end of the year. The purpose of these excerpts and spotlights is just to give you a taste of the universe the story is set in, and the diverse little cast we have stirring up trouble. You can find the first three here, if you missed them:

Ark Carnahan
Caesar Anada
Grey Tolliver

Unlike the first three, Euphrates is not an inherently good man. He’s a liar, a manipulator and a criminal. He’s also very intelligent and immensely resourceful. He has used his life to build a network that protects and funds him, but he hasn’t come this far without the ability to improvise on the fly when necessary. Though he isn’t an outright antagonist, he certainly is in a much more sinister classification than our three bumbling courier friends.

Hope you enjoy.

*****

“That brings us to our spotlight item of the evening: an original Domingo Santano Flores painting, The Plight of Valerie’s Stars. Originally painted two hundred and two years ago in Flores’ hometown of Daraska on the planet Salix, this particular piece has been kept in miraculous condition despite the passing of time and travel through several Causeways. This is truly a magnificent piece that would be at home in any collection. Bidding will start at 250,000 chits.”

“Two-fifty,” a voice called out.

“Three hundred.”

“Three-fifty!”

The painting was indeed masterfully done, one of several acclaimed works of art from one more tortured creative soul in the universe. It hadn’t been depression that had plagued Domingo Flores, however, nor was it substance abuse Domingo had been a compulsive gambler and not a very good one. In his later years, he turned to his art with a desperate passion. As soon as he could finish a piece, he sold it in hopes of staying ahead of the debts he had accrued. It worked, up until the days that it didn’t.

Valerie’s Stars was completed near the start of Flores’ decline, when his concentration and affection for art still bled into the canvas. The image of a woman rising towards the stars in a personal craft, wonder in her eyes, while two drastically different lovers stared forlornly after her was striking. It really would look good on anyone’s wall.

“Five hundred thousand,” a man growled, frustrated. Dalton Hess, early fifties. Salt-and-pepper hair and a bushy mustache that liked to store soup at the politician potlucks. He had been the first to bid on the item and now he was growing impatient, as if he had really thought no one else might want the painting.

Euphrates used his thumb to hook a loose strand of jet black hair behind his ear. “Eight hundred thousand,” he said.

His voice was a guillotine dropping on the crowd. Silence stretched out from him in every direction. Hess shifted in his seat to gape at him.

“Eight hundred thousand,” the auctioneer said. “Eight hundred, do I have eight-fifty? Eight-fifty, do I-“

“Here,” Hess croaked.

“Nine hundred,” Euphrates responded.

“One million chits!”

“One million and two.”

Silence again.

“One million, two hundred thousand. One million, two! Do I have one million and three? One million, three? We’ve got one million, two. Anyone? Anybody. Going once. Going twice.”

“Damn you, Destidante,” Hess snarled.

“Sold! For one million, two hundred thousand chits!”

The dinner following the auction was an immaculate affair. Two hundred tables were set up in a ballroom bigger than some houses. Servers carried trays of hors d’oeuvres worth four hundred chits apiece. Glasses were filled with exotic champagnes and brandies and were never allowed to be fully emptied.

Waiters delivered steaming platters topped with imported fruits and the choicest meats. Socialites and politicians picked at their dishes while gossiping and comparing fashions. Their disdain for each other was tucked away neatly behind a mask of politeness polished over years of forced interactions with each other.

Euphrates sipped at a glass of sparkling water while Gladys Epscot, the heiress to a chain of jewelry stores, regaled him with tales of her third husband. He nodded politely and listened, though he had nothing to contribute to her rambling. He felt no desire to escape; interacting with her was the safest discourse he could involve himself in while he waited.

Dalton Hess found him less than ten minutes later. Euphrates feigned surprise when the older man grabbed him by the elbow and he apologized to Mrs. Epscot for the interruption. When she waved him off and claimed she had taken up enough of his time, he expressed gratitude.

And as soon as she was out of earshot, the friendliness fled him and he fixed his gray eyes fully on Hess. “You’re wrinkling my suit.”

The older man released him and brushed at his own lapels nervously. “Sorry, sorry. I came to talk to you about the painting.”

“What painting? Oh, the Flores piece?”

“You know damn well I mean the Flores piece. I want it, Euphrates. It was the only item I came out here for. I’ll pay you back what you paid for it, plus thirty percent for the trouble. Just keep it safe until I can get together-“ He trailed off as Euphrates chuckled. “I’m not… I’m not joking, dammit. What’s the problem? Is thirty too low? I can offer as much as thirty-five percent, but you’re pushing me with that.”

“I’m not laughing at your offer, Dalton. It’s not that it isn’t enough. Quite the contrary. I simply found it amusing that you would offer me a thirty percent profit when I’ve already sold the thing for thirty percent of what I bought it for.”

Hess’ mouth dropped. “What? When the hell did you even find the time to sell it?”

“Oh, it was already sold. I had a private collector lined up, just waiting for me to procure it. I’ve never been much of a man for paintings, anyway. I much prefer sculptures. The margin for error in their creation is much smaller.”

“You threw away eight hundred thousand chits?” the older man asked, face crimson. “For what? Just to spite me?”

“Yes.” Euphrates’ expression grew deadly serious. He stepped in and Hess flinched despite himself. “To spite you.”

An unsettling quiet sat between them. The rich and bitter moved around them, oblivious or apathetic to the attention. A waiter hovered for a moment with the intention of refilling their glasses; he thought better of it and moved on.

“Why?” Hess asked. The word sounded scratchy.

“Walk with me, Dalton.”

Without waiting for a response, Euphrates began working his way through the crowd. His water glass found its way to a cluttered tabletop and his hands to his pockets. Neither man spoke until they had left the ballroom completely and entered an elaborately furnished smoking room. Euphrates closed the door and locked it.

“Is this because I spoke against your proposal?” Hess asked softly.

“I would never accuse you of being a stupid man. Misguided but never stupid. The thing is, Dalton, if your outbursts were sporadic or only on middling issues, they would mean nothing to me. Disagreement is politics. It’s life. But the constant undermining on your part, it’s beginning to build to a crescendo that can no longer be tolerated. You’re interfering with too many of my plans.”

Hess sneered. “So you piss away a painting you know I’ve sought after for years to insult me? Petty nonsense. You’ve gone from nuisance to enemy, Destidante. That’s a mistake you’ll rue.”

Euphrates smiled. “It was to spite you, sure. More than that, though, it was to make sure I got your attention. I knew you would come to me after the auction. It gave me a chance to warn you.”

“Warn me about what?”

“Warn you that I know where your money is going besides auction houses and consolations gifts for your better half.”

Hess said nothing.

“The off-planet vacations you claim are business trips. The escorts. The shocking amount of escorts, really, considering your age and history of heart problems. It’s impressive, really. I hope to be half as virile when I reach your milestone in life.”

“Euphrates-“

“I wasn’t able to confirm use of REM powder, but the rumors are there and a urine test would settle it one way or another. Even without it, the locations you’ve checked into are alone enough to paint a damning picture. You’re fond of painted pictures, right?”

“Please. My wife-“

“Dalton, I don’t give any more of a damn about your marriage than you do. That ship launched long ago but the poor woman is too kind to leave you. If your expense reports and extracurricular activities were to get out, though, you would feel it somewhere else. Somewhere more important to me.”

“My career,” Hess muttered.

“Ruined. And your supporters tarnished. Believe me when I sat it would be enough of an opportunity for me to stifle any damage control your allies might attempt.”

“…what do you want from me?”

Euphrates grinned. “Your help. Your support. Not always, of course. That wouldn’t make any sense. It would only be when I need it, when your disagreement would otherwise ruin a bigger picture. That’s what you’ve never understood: everything I do is just a piece of a larger puzzle. I don’t need you to get it. I just need you to support it when I call on you.”

Hess sank down into one of the room’s pillowed chairs. His head found its way into his hands.

“If I refuse?”

“If you refuse, Dalton, my friend, then that feeling you got in the pit of your stomach when I outbid you for The Plight of Valerie’s Stars is going to define whatever is left of your life once I’m through with it.”

*****

A week later, Euphrates stood in his office, staring out of his window at the skippers passing by and the low-orbiters coming and going. From thirty-seven stories above ground level, he could see much of the city stretched out before him. He could make out freeways full of cars and buses and ant-like pedestrians who opted for neither as they navigated towards their destinations. Millions of lives existing, he knew, and yet naught but one merited any of his attention.

The door opened behind him. In the windows’ reflection he could make out dark purple hair and caramel skin. Nimbus Madasta. The one person who stood by him, even when she didn’t understand. The one person who challenged him. The only one he could not shake. She was a rock. She was his rock.

He was utterly and hopelessly hers, her harms reminded him as they wrapped around his waist.

“Your present was delivered this morning,” she murmured against the nape of his neck. “Pristine condition. The original?”

“Of course. I would never insult you with a reproduction.”

“I hesitate to ask what it cost.”

“And I resolutely refuse to indulge your curiosity, though I will say this: that Domingo Santano Flores was a talented man but no renaissance artist certainly helped keep things from ballooning out of control.”

“Is that what you’ve been doing in here, staring off into space? Musing on the cultural impacts of centuries-dead artists?”

“Mm? No, of course not.” He placed his hands over hers, leaning back into the warmth of her body. “I was thinking of the future and our places in it.”

Nimbus said nothing. She didn’t need to; he could feel her muscles tighten as she drew herself closer to him. Euphrates continued to look through the window, amused at how much could transpire out there when his world was contained in that single room.

Ken Liu’s Paper Menagerie

I haven’t updated this blog in a while, and I apologize for that to anyone who likes to read my nonsense regularly. I’ve just been so busy between work and moving into a new house (complete with larger office space so I can hopefully get more/better work done). I’ll probably write about the house soon, and I have a poem in the wings to share,  but I’m currently on my way out to Seward for a friend’s birthday weekend  (maybe another blog post there, too), so I don’t have time right now.

Instead, let me share Ken Liu’s short story, “The Paper Menagerie”. It raked in a ton of awards and is the title story on his upcoming short story collection. I haven’t read his work before, but both his short story collection and his novel, “The Grace of Kings” are on my to-read list. In any case, the story is tightly written, an intriguing concept, and full of sentimentality. I’m a sucker for those things, and good fiction, and I try to share it where and when I can. So read! Enjoy! And I’ll be back soon with a proper update.

http://io9.com/5958919/read-ken-lius-amazing-story-that-swept-the-hugo-nebula-and-world-fantasy-awards