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.

Advertisements

Absolute Zeroes Spotlight: Grey Tolliver

This is the third of four character spotlights for Absolute Zeroes: A Space Story. You can spot the first two here:

Ark Carnahan
Caesar Anada

Grey Tolliver is the third of the three childhood friends. He isn’t as book-smart as Caesar is, but he’s a borderline genius when it comes to engineering and weaponry. Obsessed with guns and vehicles from a young age, Grey has taken apart, improved and put back together just about everything for as long as he can remember. He doesn’t have the patience or social finesse that Archimedes does, and his short fuse often leads to a scrap, often one he starts himself, but he’s more than capable of holding his own. He argues with Ark constantly, but he’s got his friends’ backs when things actually get serious.

******

Grey tapped the rim of his glass impatiently with one finger. It was half full of a local blood-orange cider, his fourth of the evening. Each had gone down more smoothly than the last and yet the creeping warmth in his belly did little to improve his mood.

The bar stool next to him was empty. It shouldn’t have been. It hadn’t been, even, for the entirety of the evening. At varying points it had been filled by a vacant-eyed redhead who kept mispronouncing the fruity shots she was ordering from the Peran bartender, a one-eyed felon fresh off a prison stint for burning down an ice cream shop, and a Murasai drifter. Grey liked Murasai as a general rule; they tended to be sarcastic, heavy drinkers, not unlike himself. This one in particular was sullen and unhygienic.

He also hadn’t been Ark Carnahan, who should have been on the damn stool the whole night, like he said he would, drinking Durelli spirits with him, like he said he would. Grey swore and waved the bartender over.

“Cash me out, huh?” he ordered more than asked. He slid his chit card across the bar with his left hand and slammed the rest of his cider back with his right.

“Sure you don’t want another?” the Peran asked. His Trade was thickly accented. “Might take some of the sting out of getting stood up.”

“Just get me my tab, wise guy. I’ve wasted enough time in this dump.”

*****

The avenues outside were mostly empty, save for the few taking a smoke broke and the crowds moving into and out of the numerous clubs lining the way. Lights stretched out from the buildings on thin bands of metal, casting a pale blue haze on the street. Grey had read somewhere that the shade was supposed to be a natural soother, that those exposed to it would find themselves more relaxed. He wasn’t feeling it.

He fished a pack of Telia Filtereds from his pocket and tapped a single cigarette into his palm. They were the only brand he liked and he could only find them on Salix, so he tried to piece them out for as long as he could. His other hand searched his pockets in vain for a lighter.

“What the hell did I do with it?” he muttered around the butt of his smoke.

He stopped mid-walk to think back on the last time he had used it: right after the Sol Searcher had landed to refuel. He had stretched his legs and had half a cigarette. Only half… the other half, then, must have been back at the bar. That’s right. He had stepped out between his second and third drinks to finish that one, and he had lent his lighter to…

The arsonist. Well. That was an honest mistake. At least he knew where his lighter was.

Grey sighed and slid his cigarette back into the pack, the pack back into his pocket. He’d just have to wait until he got back to-

“Hey, mister! You know anything about skippers?”

The voice came from across the street, out of one of a pair of guys standing on either side of a beat-up silver landhopper. It looked like a piece of junk.

He hesitated, taking another couple steps along his way, but curiosity got the better of him. “What’s wrong with it?” he called back.

“Best I can tell is the propulsion is all messed up. I’m about another hour away from buying up a few wheels and turning this thing into a car, but I’m no mechanic. Figured we could get another pair of eyes on it before giving up completely.”

“Ah….zast,” Grey swore under his breath. He looked both ways and jogged across the street.

The two men looked normal enough. Tired, but in a better state of affairs than the craft they were struggling with. The one who had called out to him gave a lopsided grin. Grey returned it, barely.

“Pop the engine hatch,” he said. “I’ll take a look at it.”

“Sure thing.” The first man nodded to his friend, who reached inside the two-seat cockpit and flipped a switch. The top half of the narrow front end unlocked and opened a couple inches.

Grey pushed it the rest of the way open and leaned inside. “If it’s the propulsion that’s giving you issues, it could be that the fuel intake is loose or sprung a leak. If you’re lucky, it’s just the regulators that came loose. These older models will sometimes shut the whole thing down when that happens, but it’s an easy fix. If you’re not lucky-” He trailed off as something sharp pricked into the small of his back.

“I’m afraid you’re the unlucky one tonight, friend.”

It was the man who had called him over. Grey could see the waist of the other man through the opening in the hood; he was still standing next to the vehicle. Keeping watch, no doubt.

“That a knife?”

“Carbiron. Sharp as hell. Last truly expensive thing I purchased for myself, but you’ve got to spend money to make money, right?”

“I’ve heard the saying. I take it you want my chits?”

“Whatever loose ones you’ve got on you. Then you, my friend and I are going to take a walk down to the withdrawal station and pull out whatever’s left.”

“Alright,” Grey said. “Easy. You’ve got the knife, right, let me get my money.”

He reached slowly into his right pocket and felt around. Pack of cigarettes. Small sack of chits. Distinct lack of lighter. He found what he was looking for and clenched his fist around it.

He moved fast for a stocky man, faster than his mugger expected. Grey pivoted towards the man’s left side. The knife dug a shallow groove across his lower back – it was sharp – but failed to inflict any serious damage. Grey’s left elbow smacked into the other man’s right arm, knocking the blade away. Grey’s right fist, tucked inside a set of dark blue metal knuckles, crashed into the man’s cheek, collapsing the bone and sending him into a crumpled heap.

The second mugger came around the landhopper with a massive wrench in hand. Grey side-stepped a massive swipe of the tool and ducked another. The banded knuckles found their mark in his attacker’s side once, twice, and he could hear the ribs breaking. The wrench dropped to the ground and the man who had held it followed suit, landing on his knees.

“Pal, this is going to suck for you.” Grey bounced the mugger’s head off the side of the vehicle with his knee.

He stepped quickly away and surveyed the scene. Two prone would-be attackers, no witnesses that he could see, no cameras in plain view. He reached back and touched his wound. It stung, and his fingers came away red and sticky, but it didn’t feel serious. He had certainly been hurt worse.

The wrench went back into the cockpit. The knife went into his pocket. His hands went into theirs and came out with a bag full of chits and the keys to the landhopper.

Grey dragged both unconscious men behind the vehicle. Once he was sure they were both out of sight of the street, he keyed his com bracelet and waited impatiently for the call to connect. When Ark’s voice finally came through into his ear, it took his remaining patience not to raise his voice.

“Grey,” his friend said. He sounded breathless. “What’s up?”

“Where the hell are you?”

“Ah, zast. I was supposed to meet you for drinks. You remember that blonde from Bordega’s?”

“I do remember the blonde. Do you remember how to make a damn call to let me know you’re not showing up so I don’t waste my time in a dive bar by myself?”

“You say that like dive bars aren’t fun.” A pause. “Everything okay?”

“Uh…” Grey looked at the two men. The one he hit in the face was snoring, almost certainly with a concussion. The other one was groaning softly from the fetal position. “Yeah. More or less. Hey, you know anybody that can strip a skipper down for parts with a quickness?”

“Hold on,” Ark said. Grey could hear him moving around wherever he was.

“Do you remember this one’s name?”

His friend responded in a hushed tone. “J something. It starts with a J.”

“You’re terrible, Carnahan.”

“Jessica. Jerrika. It’s Jerrika. What’s this about stripping a skipper?”

“Do you know anyone who can do it quickly and get a good price for the parts. Actually, never mind the price. I’ll know if the price is good. Do you know anyone with a chop shop?”

“A legal one?”

“Did you just leave a girl’s bedroom so you could whisper-ask me if I wanted a legal solution? I’m going to pretend you knew what I meant and you go ahead and answer accordingly.”

“A chop shop on Beldus. I don’t know if I know… oh, yeah. You want me to send over the contact information?”

“I want you to get you to introduce him to me personally.”

“Grey-”

“And bring some bandages.”

“…what did you get yourself into?”

“You’d know if you had bothered to show up tonight. Are you coming or not?”

“…yeah, I’ll be out of here in five.”

“Take fifteen. I’ll move the thing and send you an address. Give Jessica my regards.”

“Jerrika.”

“Just testing you, buddy.”

Grey ended the call and stepped around the two muggers. The one with the busted ribs was just getting to his feet; Grey gave him a light tap in the side just to send him back down.

He moved around the landhopper and closed the engine hatch. The driver’s seat was more comfortable than it should have been, given the shape of the rest of the craft. Maybe he could fetch a few chits for those on their own, which was more than he’d planned for them. He made pains not to bleed on the cushions.

The ignition key slid in without protest. The propulsors worked fine. In fact, they hummed like they had come off a skipper ten years younger. Even better. The night wasn’t turning out too bad after all.

Absolute Zeroes Spotlight: Caesar Anada

This is the second spotlight for the protagonists of Absolute Zeroes: A Space Story, intended to shed a little light on the personalities of each of our haphazard heroes. The first part focused on Ark Carnahan. Today, we’ve got Caesar Anada.

Caesar is basically the straight man of the group. Even-tempered and mostly serious, he’s the brains of the operation. He’s incredibly book-smart, multilingual, and business-oriented, if a tad social awkward. He takes life seriously because he is incredibly goal and career-driven, and oftentimes the only reason he doesn’t leave Ark (who he finds reckless) and Grey (who he finds temperamental) is the sense of familial bond that comes from childhood friendship.

The window stretched fifty feet in either direction and another sixty high. It seemed absurd to him; even in a spaceport, nobody really needed windows that large. When the ships arriving and departing were as massive as they were, it was impossible to miss them. Case in point: the IRSC Gallivant, staring him in the face mockingly. Could a spaceship mock? This one mocked.

Caesar sighed. He should be on that science cruiser. It was sporting a brand new, cutting-edge fuel distribution and recycling system developed from his graduation thesis. On the distributing end, newer shortcuts were devised that allowed the same levels of productivity to be achieved throughout the craft without burning through all of the fuel. Instead, two parts to every ten were portioned out to be recycled and reused later. The only downside was that the process required so much alternative energy to work properly that the battery required to power it could only be found in large science cruisers or military ships.

Even so, the invention could theoretically cut down on traveling times from one location to the next, allow for smaller fuel loads (the benefits of which ranged from cost efficiency to reduced weight to the ability to transport more storage or passengers), or provide for a larger emergency store.

Theoretically, it could also malfunction and blow the whole boat up, but smarter minds had parsed through his proposal and turned it into something truly functional. Caesar assumed the risk was minimal at most. Yet did he get invited to the Hervatyne Science Colegium? Not even on an internship. Was he offered a ride on the Gallivant for the first journey using the system he designed? Nope.

No, his spot went to some rich admiral’s son. That guy’s thesis? Something to do with the mating habits of Direxian raptor cats when exposed to different temperatures. It was truly miraculous what a trust fund could do for a man.

As the science cruiser turned away, so did Caesar, with a snort of disgust. He made his way towards the nearest food court with what he hoped was only the faintest air of dejection. A myriad of different smells floated through the crowd to take residence in his nostrils and his stomach rumbled his approval.

“Was that you?”

“Huh?”

The question caught him off guard and he turned to find an attractive woman staring at him, one eyebrow cocked in amusement. She held a tray loaded with food. The sight of it made Caesar’s stomach growl again.

“Uh, yeah,” he said. “I haven’t eaten in a while. Not that I can’t, you know, afford to eat. I’ve just been distracted. Building… stuff.”

“Uh-huh. Sounds like you’re smuggling some kind of animal in there. You should eat something.”

“Yeah, I was planning…. what are you, what did you get?” Smooth, he thought.

“They had some Toltarun melons, but I’m finding them bland. The Orbian water fowl isn’t too bad.”

“The melons need salt.”

The woman crinkled her nose. “Excuse me?”

“I know it sounds weird, but Toltarun melons need salt. It doesn’t matter what kind. Plain works fine, but if you like one of those flavored salts, or a sea salt, or whatever… it draws the flavor out of the melon. It’s a reaction between the, you know what, never mind. Just add some salt. The water fowl looks good, but the trick is to add some citrus while you’re steaming it. The best I’ve found is a Catalascan orange blend. You can find it in most markets for cheap. Really adds a whole new dimension to the dish.”

She looked him over, a new expression on her face. He wasn’t sure what it was; women didn’t typically look at him like that.

“You’re a chef, then?” she asked.

“I cook for fun. I keep the guys happy, it keeps the ship happy.”

“Ah,” she said. “The guys. Too bad.” She smiled and lifted the tray in his direction. “Thanks for the tips, Mister. I’ll give the salt a try.”

“Wait, I didn’t mean-”

But she was already going. She tossed one look back over her shoulder as she walked away. He raised his hand in a feeble farewell.

“No,” he said under his breath. “Wait. Come back. Caesar, what the hell is wrong with you?”

Beeeep. Beeeep.

He glanced down at the communicator band he had wrapped around his wrist. The small, rectangular display was alight with green letters informing him Grey Tolliver was requesting a video call.

“No,” he said. He pressed the button that directed the call to his ear piece. “What do you want?”

“Wha- where’s the video? You don’t want to see our smiling faces?”

“No.”

“Where are you?”

“Watching my dreams literally disappear.”

“That sounds terrible. Look, enough about that. Ark and I were talking and we were thinking maybe you could cook dinner for us. It’s been a while, and-”

“It’s been three days.”

“Caesarrrrr.” He could hear Archimedes whining in the background. “Three daaaaays.”

The food court beckoned to him. It was subpar and probably cost more than he should pay and he didn’t have the ingredients at hand to make it a worthwhile me, but it was filling, and it was there.

“Caesarrrrrr.”

“Tell Ark to shut up and I’ll be there in an hour.”

He ended the call before Grey could respond and pinched the bridge of his nose. It was shaping up to be one of those days. Maybe a car would hit him on his way back to the Sol Searcher and he wouldn’t have to cook anything. One could hope.

Absolute Zeroes Spotlight: Ark Carnahan

I’ve been super sick lately. Chronic bronchitis, which is the noncontagious kind. That means it’s good news, if annoying, for other people and really just shitty for me. I’m finally on some antibiotics and I’ve got a couple days more to go before I’m out. I haven’t been drinking alcohol, I have been drinking loads of water, and I’ve been resting as much as possible, but I’m not sure if I’ll be fully recovered by Monday. Let’s hope, because coughing all the time is goddamn exhausting.

It’s left me a weird mirror of myself: in a strangely good mood where normally I’m irritable, but sapped of energy, creativity and any sort of sexual urge. Which is weird for me. I don’t really like it. I’ve been left at home sort of twiddling my thumbs and binge-watching Netflix shows. I’ve been reading Joyland by Stephen King, which is one of his more, uh, normal works. That isn’t to say it’s not enjoyable so much as it’s different. A faster read with a slower pace and I’m not entirely sure I enjoy it as much as I do some of his other works.

But who am I to talk? So far I’m three books and done. I was supposed to start Absolute Zeroes: A Space Story months ago. I struggled out a prologue and have been sitting on it since. I went from a bad depressive break to a stressful couple months at work to a wracking sickness that has left me lethargic. I’m really trying to muster the motivation to work on writing again, and in order to do that, I had to figure out some of the reasons I didn’t feel necessarily compelled.

In short: I hated the prologue. It felt and feels forced. I took a hot shower last night and tried to figure out how to retool it, and I think I’ve come up with a solution: scrap the first half completely and work the details from it into a more natural narrative throughout the story. Keep the second half and polish it up, take my time with it. I fully intend on keeping the humor in the book (it’s supposed to be a more light-hearted PG-13 romp as opposed to the Convergence trilogy, which is very much a grim, hard R), but I don’t want it to come off as being slapstick and when I first started writing it, the urge there was too strong. I want more nuance out of it, so I’m trying to figure out how to… finesse it in that direction.

I’ve also considered writing it non-linerally, which would be different for me. I don’t know yet that it would work, but I have some scenes fully formulated in my mind and if I write them one set piece at a time and connect them afterwards, it might help the revisions in later drafts. Ha! Who the fuck knows? Not me! I’m just some kind of writer guy!

In any case, as sort of an update for people interested in what’s going on with it (nothing, so far) or what I’ve got done (almost nothing, so far), I thought I would treat my readers/fans/friends to a spotlight for each of the three main characters followed by a small, unfinished excerpt.

First up is Archimedes Carnahan. He’s probably the most lighthearted of the three childhood friends. He’s quick with a quip and is very much a people person, but his laid back attitude and flippancy tends to hide an insecure nature. His dream is to get into politics eventually, but he isn’t particularly motivated one way or another, more bluster than delivery. He’s the best talker of the three, a decent pilot and a decent shot. Meeeeeet Ark:

She propped herself up on one elbow and looked down at him. “So why all the ladies, Ark?”

“What ladies? There’s only you.”

“Right now, tonight. There’ll probably be a new one tomorrow  and if not tomorrow, soon. I see how you act when a woman catches your eye. One eye on her, the other on the door, jaw working because whatever conversation you’re working on in your head trickles down to your mouth just to see how it feels.”

She wasn’t wrong. Ark could see she knew it too and wouldn’t let it go. “I like waking up to a warm body.”

“As opposed to a cold one?”

“You know what I mean.”

She laughed softly and traced a finger through the hairs of his chest. “I do know what you mean.”

“It’s… nice, you know? The company. The validation. Knowing someone finds a comfort in me. An attraction that goes both ways and takes away from the tedium of the job or the disappointments of wherever I’m at in life at the given moment. It’s intimate, but it’s fleeting, as escapes tend to be.”

“Have you thought about settling down?”

Ark raised an eyebrow. “Are you trying to settle me down?”

“I would never make you do anything you didn’t want to do.”

“That’s my line.”

“Does it ever work on anyone?”

“On most people. It worked on you.”

“Did it? How do you know I wasn’t picking *you* up the first time we met? ‘Oh, you have your own ship? Take me now’, she said coyly, not wanting the cute boy with the drinking problem to see her messy apartment.”

“I don’t have-“

“You and Grey had already polished off two bottles of Togali Blue and were ready to go in on shots of bollah before you caught sight of me. It was a Bundet.”

“I don’t know what a Bundet is.”

“It’s like the third day of the week.”

Ark crinkled his nose. “You people have such weird names for your days.”

She laughed again and pulled her leg over his until she was straddling him. She lowered herself down so that their chests touched and she could kiss his chin. His right hand found the small of her back and kneaded softly.

“I’m not trying to settle you down, Archimedes. I like our little arrangement. If and when the day arrives that my feelings change or your stop coming around, I’ll walk away from this with a cargo hold full of fond memories. I’ll be fine. I’m just worried that you’re going to spend your life running around with your friends-“

“Grey and Caesar are my family,” Ark broke in.

“Family, then. I know they’re important to you. I know how much you need each other. I just don’t want you to miss out on everything life has to offer *you* because you’re too busy running away from it to help them.”

She kissed him again and he ran his fingers through her hair. There was a familiar anxiety in his chest that he’d come to associate with being shot at. He elected to ignore it and say nothing and continue to enjoy the feeling of her body against his for as long or as short a time as they had left.

Schrödinger’s Gun by Ray Wood | Tor.com

I’ve been busy with putting the finishing touches on this book and in doing so have neglected the blog. I had a couple really vivid dreams last night that shook me some. In one, I was mauled to death by a polar bear. I wasn’t a fan of that one, to be honest.

In the other, I met and reconnected with the woman I consider one of the closest and best friends I’ve ever had. It made me want to write a post I’ve kept on the back burner for some time, but it’ll likely be lengthy and full of emotion,  so it’ll take a couple days to put it together while I sort my thoughts.

In the meantime, thanks for sticking with me! Enjoy this short story from Tor by Ray Wood!

http://www.tor.com/stories/2015/02/schroedingers-gun-ray-wood

The Lost Journey of the Stalwart

They were cold, but they would suffocate before hypothermia set in. It had been a terrifying notion at first, but they gradually came around to the idea that there was nothing to be done and so there was no reason to keep panicking about it. It simply was.

If anything, Houston had been more distraught. They were distraught over their inability to help the astronauts a million miles away, drifting peacefully. They felt they had betrayed them somehow by being unable to bring them back home to their families. Sam Burley, deep lines around his eyes, had let out a long sigh before absolving the command center of any guilt.

“It’s just bad luck, fellas,” he had said. “Space shit. Odds are somebody was going to hit something some time”.

It was the other way around in this case. Some kind of debris moving faster than they were had torn through the oxygen and disabled the controls. They had no idea what it could have been. A small meteor? Man-made garbage come back to haunt them? Some kind of alien weapon? The latter would have been exciting, at least.

All they knew, this crew of three, was that they were stuck on a ship pointed towards the vast nothingness of space with no way to turn back home. The oxygen was limited, the heat was failing, and contact with Houston was spotty at best.

The captain, Burley, asked that his wife and children be told he loved them. The mission specialist, Anthony Palumbo sent his love back to his siblings and nephew. James Ryman simply wanted the control team to get rip-roaring drunk in his honor.

“Shoot for the stars,” he said, “has a new meaning now. Try to vomit in the shape of Orion’s Belt. Or the Milky Way. I’ll be happy with Polaris if it’s all you can muster.”

His request was met with laughter, distracting everyone from the tears streaming down their faces. They said a few more goodbyes and then shut off contact. The astronauts settled in and waited to die. There was some comfort, anyway, that they wouldn’t have to go alone.

“I hate space food,” Palumbo finally said, breaking a silence that had lasted nearly an hour. “We put men on the moon, sent a satellite on an accurate nine year trip to the edge of our galaxy, but we still can’t figure out how to make space food not taste like dog shit.”

“You’re still chewing on that jerky, though,” said Burley.

“Well, yeah. I’m not exactly spoiled for choices when it comes to a last meal.”

Palumbo sighed and leaned his head back against the hull. They had strapped themselves in for bed and were now huddling into as many blankets and clothes as they could muster. It didn’t help much.

“There is one thing I’ve been wondering,” he said. “It’s a bit personal, though.”

“Might as well ask,” Ryman said.

“What about your wife, Jim? Why didn’t you tell Houston to send her a message?”

“Ah, they’ll probably give her one anyway. ‘James wanted you to know he would always love you. He died a hero, doing hero’s work, definitely not suffocating in a giant can. The nation is proud.’ Something like that.”

“But what if they don’t?” Burley asked.

The other two astronauts were unsure if Ryman would answer. When he did, he opened his eyes to look at both of them.

“About a week before liftoff, my wife asked me for a divorce. I say asked. She demanded. Hired some movers to pack all my shit into a storage unit she took out for three months.”

“Jesus,” Burley said softly.

“Ah, man. Jim…”

“The last time I saw her, I wept. I’m not really proud of that, but I didn’t know anything was wrong. We fought, but couples fight. You know? I was excited for this mission. Excited to go into space. I thought she’d be excited for me. With me.” Ryman shook his head. “Anyway, the way I figure it, maybe Houston will just tell her I wasn’t going to make it back and she’d feel guilty. Lord knows, I told her I loved her plenty of times over the years. She knew it. Maybe not hearing it again would make her remember how she used to love me.”

“Sorry we threw you such a shitty bachelor party,” Burley said.

Ryman barked out a laugh. “Does that mean you didn’t smuggle any strippers on board, Captain?”

“Or booze?” Palumbo asked hopefully.

“‘Fraid not, boys. Just us. One last ride.”

The ship went quiet again at that. Outside, the vast emptiness of space felt heavy against the hull. There were incredible sights out there, amazing, beautiful, terrifying things. The majority of space, though, was just cold and blank, and here they were just…coasting through it.

“Heh,” Palumbo said.

“What’s funny?” Ryman asked.

“You won’t find it funny.”

“I won’t?”

“Well, you might. I don’t know.”

Ryman rolled his eyes. “Just tell me, man.”

“Come on, Tony,” said Burley.

“Alright, alright.” Palumbo cleared his voice and started singing softly. ” She packed my bags last night pre flight. Zero hour nine a.m. And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then.”

“Oh, you bastard,” Ryman laughed. “I miss the earth so much. I miss my wife. It’s lonely out in space on such a timeless flight.”

“Might as well join in,” Burley muttered. “And I think it’s gonna be a long long time.”

“God, that falsetto,” Palumbo said, wincing. Burley continued on undeterred.

“Till touch down brings me round again to find I’m not the man they think I am at home, oh, no, no. Come on boys!”

They raised their voices in unison and sang, “I’m a rocket man! Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone!”

They all burst out laughing and settled further down into their makeshift beds. The air was getting thinner. They hadn’t done themselves any favors by using it to belt out lyrics. That was okay. Why drag it out?

“Ah, man,” Burley said softly. “You think they’ll name anything after us?”

“They’ll probably name a guilt trip after Jim.”

“Oh, go to hell. If you had a wife, you’d have done the same thing.”

“Maybe. Jim! You should have asked Houston to relay a cryptic riddle to your wife and set her off on a treasure hunt.”

“A treasure hunt to what?”

“Who cares? Something dumb. The landfill. Fuck her. She left you.”

Ryman considered that. “I should have. Dammit, Tony.”

Sam Burley chuckled. His head was growing light. “What do you think this thing will hit first? An asteroid, a planet, or a star?”

“I’m hoping Venus,” Anthony Palumbo said. His breathing was growing shallow.

“We’re going the wrong way.”

“Saturn, then.”

James Ryman smiled. “It’s been an honor, gentlemen.” He leaned his head back against the hull and closed his eyes.

Yellow

She wore dandelions in her hair. I told her, “You know, people eat that” and she spent ten minutes explaining how unhealthy it is to chew on hair before she realized I was talking about the weed instead. She had a cute little button nose that she scrunched up then, and she asked, “Why would anyone eat dandelions?” and I asked, “Why would anyone eat snails?” right back. She didn’t answer. She liked escargot.

I asked her once, a month or two later, why she chose dandelions. It was always dandelions. She said it was a personal preference, just because they were everywhere and nobody was doing anything with them but complaining. Girls wanted posies and lilies and daffodils. Well, she liked yellow and sunflowers were too big, so dandelions it was.

“It’s a weed,” I told her. “It’s bad for gardens.”

“We’re bad for the planet,” she said, and though I wasn’t a hippie (and she wasn’t exactly, either), I couldn’t disagree.

She liked things that were a little different, a little off the beaten path. She didn’t mind flinging a little mud around when we tramped through the woods and found a dying riverbed. She always ordered a hot chocolate at the coffee shop and pushed down all of the little plastic tabs on her soda lids except the kind she was drinking, which is the exact opposite of what is supposed to be done (and which is exactly what nobody does anyway).

She liked long walks and longer drives down trails and roads where the trees lined up like soldiers and the businesses, if there were any, were all locally owned. She liked to hear the birds sing and she wondered out loud to me once if birds named their children like humans did, and if those names were sometimes just as stupid as ours.

She liked me. She liked sitting next to me on the couch, sitting upright in a fetal position, knees tucked up against her chest, her back against my chest, a bowl of popcorn in my lap that she used to reach back and grab from and spill from, and she would tell me not to worry, the Roomba would get it, and we’d both laugh because we didn’t own a Roomba and we never would. Call it a misplaced fear of robots if you want, but we valued our feet and refused to let them be the first casualties when the uprising began.

She liked watching those horror movies that are a special kind of bad, full of schlock and dialogue so cardboard an action figure should have come packaged with it. We would pick a character just to see how long “we” survived and whoever lasted the longest had to do the dishes. She was good. I lost a lot.

She liked me and I liked her and we had a good thing for two winters and two summers. We met in the snowpants section of a chain store and I muttered something disparaging about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” and she piped up an agreement, and we went out for coffee. Well, I got a coffee. She got a hot chocolate.

We curled up in front of a space heater and pretended it was a fireplace until the next winter when I moved into a bigger place with a real fireplace. She insisted I cut my own wood. I bought wood and pantomimed and she rolled her eyes, but she liked that, too.

She never got mad. I did. Never at her, but I could get mad. I could get moody and lethargic and sullen. She would go on her walk and I’d stay and I’d sleep and I’d wait and when she came back, I would smile a wistful little smile because it was all I could muster, but I loved her and she deserved something from me.

I could hold grudges. I was really good at losing. Losing friends, losing jobs, losing arguments, and I would be resentful because I felt there was something else I could do, some words I could have said that would have changed everything. Did I hold grudges against them or myself? I couldn’t be sure. She would ask me to let it go and I’d nod and I’d smile and I would hug her and stare at the wall behind her, a pit in my stomach turning over.

She loved to travel, to meet new people, to taste new foods. She liked culture and history, and the way the cars were small in France and the “medusa” warnings on Spanish beaches when the jellyfish clusters grew large.

I used to like that, too, but I grew tired and restless and grumpy and conflicted, and it’s difficult to plan an itinerary around a mood swing like that.

We liked to talk to each other. It was easy, too easy, too funny, too real. It was easy for two winters and two summers, from inside our snowpants in that first café to inside my arms that last night in bed. But that third winter started around and I couldn’t be happy for her, and it wasn’t as easy to talk about it, and I didn’t want to bring her energy down. I shut her out, and she didn’t like that. I didn’t either. It wasn’t a game for two, anymore, but the sky trying to carry on with a wall, and the door that led through it stayed locked.

I came home one day, close to spring, the snow melting on the sidewalk and me slipping through it because the sneakers I bought had no treads on the bottom for traction. There had been signs for weeks. I knew that. I had seen them and looked through them and practiced smiling in the mirror.

I saw this sign, though, the purple pair of lips pressed against the outside wall of my apartment, just next to the door. The door would have been easier to hold it. I don’t know why she chose the wall or how hard she would have had to press her lips into the scratchy wood to keep the prints there. I hoped she hadn’t hurt her lips.

There was no note inside. Her stuff wasn’t there, either. She cleaned before she left, though. Did the dishes even though my character had died first in the last film we watched and did my clothes, because…because she was sweet, and she liked me once.

She left one thing behind, though. I found a dandelion on the kitchen counter, next to the stove we took turns cooking each other breakfast on. I don’t know where she found a fresh dandelion. I just know she liked to wear them in her hair.