Saturday, November 23, 2013

Chuck Wendig Flash Fiction assignment: First 200 words of Unicornocalypse

By the light of the blood moon the unicorn stepped into the boggy meadow. The fetid light washed pink on the unicorn's calico coat. Her head raised slightly, horn pointing out and up as she trotted through the crabgrass and half-frozen mud, which sucked at her hooves. A chill wind rolled in the nearby trees, the leafless branches rattling like bones in a bag. The far side of the meadow grew neaer as the unicorn kept her constant pace, quick enough to show purpose, slow enough to keep her fear reigned in.
Shadows flickered across the bog, but when the unicorn looked up she only saw dark clouds careening across the sky. At the end of the meadow was a stone tower covered in moss and half toppled. Beyond a shallow pond bubbled softly, emitting a rotting stench and swirling smoke. Frogs croaked loudly over the noises of the nocturnal insects that defied them by dancing across the pond's surface. The unicorn continued on, mud streaking its white and tan legs. She hid from the sickly moonlight, walking in the shelter of a row of decaying leper trees, their fallen branches crumbling without protest under her strong hooves.

Friday, November 1, 2013

NaNoWriMo, the first 1667

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month is simple, write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. That's 1667 words per day, and here is the first 1667 words of my NaNoWriMo offering, 'The Diamond Theater'. Thanks to Chuck Wendig from terriblemindsdotcom for the suggestion.


  The rain had stopped, but Joe Aquila was still underwater. Three hours after his scheduled home debut the rookie right hander sat in front of his locker in between the lockers of the back-up catcher and the future hall of famer captain shortstop, both of whom were chose to wait out the rain delay by watching the rival Minutemen in the clubhouse. Joe sat alone, slouched deeply in a director's chair, his hat pulled low over his face and a pair of large headphones covered his ears. His New York Americans jacket was pulled over his right arm to the shoulder, but the rest hung limp between his muscle corded back and the cloth chair backing. His duelists eyes were covered by the navy blue cap which was pulled right to the bridge of his Roman nose. His head nodded in time to the music, his music, the music they would play in American Stadium, the house that George built, as he raced to the mound that had seen more Fall Series' decided than anywhere else in the world. The Sultan of Swat may have built the place but Joe was sure that mound was made for him, and tonight, he would claim it. It was his, and like Jacob who acquired it from his starving brother with a bowl of lentils, Joe Aquila would let nothing come between himself and his birthright.
  The guitar riffs of the heavy metal flooding his headphones called to his tendons, the bassline was the cock, the snare the fire. The passion of the rapping soloist echoed the need in Joe's heart to bring the gas. He imagined the crescendo in the music to be the roar of the New York crowd, and he reached to turn the volume on his walkman up, only to find out it was already at ten. Joe's fingers flexed and unflexed, his head nodded purposefully, he was the calm and the storm, the hammer and the anvil. Joe's shoulder was shaken, pulling him out of his thoughts, he quickly pulled back his headphones looking at the man who had removed him from his temple, Joe's duelist eyes quickly softened when he realized he was staring at the Captain. Captain Jeets would have his number retired, a great white penant adorned only with the number two and pinstripes, hanging above in the outfield pavillion with the rest of the legends. Joe often envisioned his own number Seventeen hanging there next to the Captain's two, the Babe's three, the Iron Horse's four. But that would have to wait until his career was over, and tonight it was just starting.
"Rain stopped, you ready to go, Rook?" The short stop asked.
"I've been ready since the fifth grade when I struck out fat Benny to clinch regionals." Joe said throwing his headphones in his open locker, "Let's go kick some ass!"
The Captain smiled, "Skip says you aren't pitching tonight, since you were warm three hours ago, we're throwing Schmitty, but you should be in the dugout all the same, good experience."
Joe's eyes hardened, like he'd thrown down his gloves and drawn his steels, like he was on the mound. His jaw set, he stood up and looked down into the New York icons eyes as if he were a child. "Where's Skip?"

  Walt Calhoun was just getting up from behind his desk when his door resounded with three crashes.
"It's unlocked." Walt said easily. He'd been managing in the Big Leagues for nine years, had won four championships, and wore the rings in the dugout. To motivate, he said. The Door flung open and stopped violently inches from the poorly placed file cabinet in the corner of Walt's cluttered office. Flamethrower Joe, the first pick from the draft earlier in the season stood in his door. Joe, from Sola Dei Academy, via a quick stop in the Carolina leagues was Walt's newest roster addition, and Flamethrower Joe didn't look happy.
Walt smiled diplomatically, "Can I help you with something, Rook?"
  Joe looked across the little room, jaw somehow both relaxed and set at the same time. "I'm ready to pitch, skip." Joe said every word as if it pained him, but he said every word levelly and articulately, Walt had to give him that, even if the rest of Joe's demeanor had all the charm of a lava golem.
"I can't let you go tonight, you've been cold for three hours. Injury risk is too high, that golden arm of yours is worth more than a September rainout against Tampa, you know that."
"Skip, it's American freakin' Stadium, do I look cold to you?"
  He didn't look cold to Walt Calhoun. The rookie's cheeks were flushed, his fingers were flexing, his jacket covering his throwing arm to the shoulder. Those eyes didn't look cold either. Maybe his nickname, Flamethrower Joe didn't just refer to his fastball. Walt sighed, he'd dealt with all kinds of rookies.  potheads, lazy pull hitters, insecure players rushed too soon for whom the game was too big, he'd take the hotshots any day of the week, and Joe Aquila was nothing if not a hotshot. Still, with the signing bonus they'd already given him, caution was paramount. With what Walt had heard of Aquila's golden arm the Swamp People weren't worth the trouble even on a clear warm night.
"Save it kid," Walt said with an easy air about him, "It's the Swamp People. Half my lineup is gonna be scrubs and we'll still win easily enough. You can throw on Thursday. We play the Minutemen, it'll be nationally televised and you'll have four hall of famers in pinstripes on the field behind you. Doesn't that sound better than throwing at a bunch of 4A players in the rain? You wouldn't even be able to grip the ball out there. Shoot, I'm gonna send Shmitty out there, and next week we'll probably end up cutting him. What's the rush? It's not like your just up for a cup of coffee."
Joe sat down in front of the desk, running his fingers through his hair with his right arm, the Americans jacket flopping around his back like the fin of a captive orca. His breathing was shallow and rapid, eyes darting around. Walt frowned. What the hell was going on up there between the kid's ears? Whose idea was it to bring him up to the Show after a few months in A ball anyhow? The big club wasn't in playoff contention, and wouldn't likely be helped by Flamethrower Joe anyhow.
"Tampa. Rain. Minutemen. Nationally televised. Thursday. Television." Joe was muttering under his breath before his face shot up, his eyes burning holes in the Manager's face. "No good! It's gotta be tonight! I'm warm! It's gotta be tonight Skip!" He was standing now, was he panicking? Walt couldn't think of a better word. He'd like to call someone in to take care of the situation, security would probably be the most appropriate, but this wasn't a four year old asking for Candy, this was a man who had just signed a $7 million dollar contract and was considered the best prospect in America.
"What's the problem Joe?"
"My folks are out there, Skip. Family section, right behind home plate. Sitting together. They haven't done that since I was in Little League. Haven't spoken face to face for two years."
Walt nodded. "I see." So that was it. All the money a nineteen year old could ask for, and he was looking for a hallmark moment. Of course he was. Too young to believe it was baloney, even though he'd no doubt seen enough to put it together. But that was the deal with kids, they didn't put things together, not if they didn't want to. But if it took a comfortable lie to keep that golden arm attached to a level head, maybe Walt could risk it. Maybe.
"All right Joe. But I want you to take it slow. 80% until at least the third inning. Pitch to contact, keep the ball down. You understand? You get carried away and I'll pull you and let Shmitty get himself injured in this weather. Understood?"
Joe's demeanor softened, even if those piercing eyes didn't. Joe nodded.
"Go get warm."
 
  Welcome back everybody, this is Charlie Stengel, thanks for staying with us, or coming back, after a three hour rain delay we're happy to have you. I've just received the lineup cards from downstairs and it looks like most of the starters will be taking the rest of the night off rather than fight through a late September night. Captain Jeets will not be in the lineup tonight, nor will Tim O'Neill, or Bruce McCoy, the starting catcher. We won't be seeing the originally scheduled starting pitcher for the Tampa Bay Swamp People either, who apparently hit the showers an hour ago. Interestingly enough, one face we will see is rookie sensation Joe Aquila, and I for one can not fathom why. With absolutely nothing to gain and the risk of injury fairly high in these types of situations I'm not sure why Walt Calhoun hasn't elected to replace Flamethrower Joe with a pitcher who wasn't throwing 95 mile per hour warm up tosses three hours ago, but here we are. 
And now with rain sprinkling down again, the Americans take the field. Even with this dreadful weather the pinstripes shine through, and by golly, it's good to be an American. And now here comes Joe Aquila out to the mound for his Big League debut. Joe begins his warm-ups tosses, and you can tell by his body language that this is a man on a mission. At nineteen years old Joe is the youngest active Big leaguer, having joined the team last week in Dallas, though he wasn't used against the Deputies. In his last Minor league game, Joe went five and two-thrds innings, walked seven and struck out ten. So with this kid it's feast, famine or both, and we'll see what we get tonight in his Big League debut.
The Umpires are signaling for warm-up's to end and here comes Dalton Parker, the lead off hitter for the Swamp People. Dalton, a scraggly fellow, hitting .268, and obviously facing young Joe Aquila for the first time in his career. Joe's first pitch here in American Stadium, he rocks back and fires a strike at the letters, and boy did he fire that one in there. The clock is saying ninety-nine miles per hour, and it can't be more than forty-five degrees out here. I suppose they don't call him Flamethrower Joe for

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Are we the last living souls?

This scene is dedicated to my spoiled goya pictured below. Goya, a kind of bitter cucumber popular in Okinawa should never be any color other than Robin Hood green. You are gone (and your insides looked like blood red kidney beans when I threw you in the trash) but not forgotten.



The last goya was irradiated. This was the end he realized. For two years he'd put all his efforts into the gardens, having promised Jessica they'd never go back. In this post-world wasteland going back meant being predator or prey, but not human. Not as it used to be understood. Billy, as he'd been known before the collapse, and as he'd been known to Jessica, the woman who'd given him back his humanity, realized that the gardens would never bear fruit again. Of course, there had always been that risk. The reason, it seemed, that the gardens were a safe haven from raiders and reavers in the first place was because of the radiation. You didn't need a geiger counter to feel that something was wrong here, you could see it in the melted buildings, the tortured undergrowth. Hell, you could feel it in your scrotum. He and Jessica had arrived following a stream, they'd only been traveling together for ten days, but that was all it took for him to want to be human again, to want to be himself, Billy again.

No one in the post-world could blame him for adapting as he had, everyone that was still alive after the collapse had adapted. That is to say, had done horrible things to their fellow man to survive. Humans had been talking survival of the fittest for almost 200 years, but for the past twelve they meant it, and there was no legislation to slow it down because there weren't legislators, just predators and prey. Just wasteland. Billy, the likable accountant and avid outdoorsman was uniquely suited to survival. Survival had been his hobby before the collapse, in those days it was simply man versus nature. But when the rules changed, when it was kill or be killed, Billy had become Sick Bill, ranger turned reaver turned gang boss, turned mass-murderer, turned reaver again. In the wastelands maintaining your humanity simply meant letting other people kill you. Carrion-eater or carrion, there wasn't neutral. Neutral was simply tomorrow's carrion. 

But then there was Jessica. What kind of woman traveled alone? Carrion to Sick Bill, who'd sized her up like he'd sized up so many others, like a shark sizing up a baby harp seal. But she'd only smiled, and asked his name. No fear in those green eyes of hers, no hate. No defiance. So he'd given her his name, Billy Crawford, CPA. Then she asked him if he'd go with her. Ten days later they arrived at the plant, and Billy understood. This place would kill you within ten years, but no one could expect to live half that long in the wastelands. There was always a bigger fish. And when you died here, you died disease ravaged, but humans could die like that. No one wanted to die gutted for their shoes or some moldy potatoes. Or for fun. If you wanted to survive in the wasteland it meant sacrificing your humanity, evolving as it were. Here at the plant you could be whatever you wanted for as long as your body could stand the radiation. Jessica believed the price was right, and being with Jessica made him believe it was too. In a fit of conscience Billy had tried to tell Jessica that he didn't deserve this peaceful life, the things that he'd, that Sick Bill had done, but she'd covered his mouth with her hand. 
 "I know what it's like out there, and that's no excuse for the things that are done in the darkness. Here it's different. Here we offer our lives to keep our souls, out there it's the opposite. You've chosen who you are Billy, and I love you for it." And that was all that was said. 

So they'd planted a garden. Life at the plant had given them all kinds of symptoms, migraines, nose and ear bleeds, vertigo, but they accepted all knowing that they weren't in danger of contact with other people. With wasteland people. Eight months later the child was born. Small and sick, her mother being nurtured on irradiated vegetables, but not deathly sick. When the child was born Billy began having second thoughts about staying at the plant. He and Jessica argued over it almost daily, Jessica firmly believing the child was better off dying than being taken to the wasteland. Billy believed so to, he knew what the wastelands were. But he couldn't stand the thought of the child dying of radiation sickness. Every nosebleed, every lost fingernail, every high fever, and Billy began to think about nearby water sources, natural caves he'd, no, Sick Bill had used in the past. 

And then Jessica died. She must have known it was coming. Billy had thought her increased downtime was due to exhaustion after childbirth, and then, as the months went by, due to her weakened state. Then he found the tumor. A baseball sized protruberance near her navel, discolored, and spreading it's tentacles in all directions. To her ribs. Her hips. Her knees.
 Her heart.
Panic spread in Billy as he realized the truth. But Jessica only smiled again. 
"This is the price Billy, and I'll pay it knowing what we are. There may not be anymore out there like us." The child was crying. Billy looked up.
"It's okay, Billy. It breaks my heart seeing her like that too. But she this is her world, her eden. The outside is just an early ticket to Hell." Tears ran down Billy's cheeks, but his jaw set. Jessica saw it.
"Don't do it Billy, you belong here with us, not out there killing and stealing. You and I, and the child, we belong here." She'd said, coughing up blood. "Sure it's a little rough on the body, but it's chicken soup for the soul." 
"Jess, I love you. I need you to love me, and I need you to understand." He said choking back tears. "I can't let this happen to our child..." 
Jessica grabbed his face roughly, nails digging into his cheek and ears. She was shaking. "It's not our child, Billy. It's my child! All this time, you really thought you were the father?! Don't take her out there Bill!" Jessica's eyes were beginning to lose focus as she began to rave. "Promise me you won't take her away from here! You have no right, no claim! She's mine! She won't turn into an animal or be killed like one! Promise me!!" 

So he'd promised her. 

And now, looking at the neon orange goya, he realized he would break his promise. For two years he'd kept the child, Eve, alive. He'd kept his promise to the only person whom he hadn't betrayed since the Collapse. The only person who saw him as he wanted to be seen. Eve's nosebleeds were getting worse, but they'd been able to manage. But the gardens were changing, and the last fruit had turned into a quivering mass of corruption. It took three weeks to starve to death, but the wastelands could kill you much quicker, or make you wish they had. 

Billy knew that sooner or later he'd regret leaving. That dying with Eve in the same place Jessica had died would be better than whatever death would take them, or whatever life would force on them outside. But looking down at the sickly child, Billy couldn't make the decision to kill her. So he made the decision to kill his humanity to try to save her. shouldering the few things he could use in a pack, and carrying the sleeping Eve in the other, Bill headed upstream, away from the plant.   
  

Monday, June 10, 2013

Space

The transport Ji-Hyun hired was a real junker. Barely large enough to move the driver, Ji-Hyun, and myself, I wasn't sure how we'd manage to transport the household items from one rathole apartment to another. Ji-Hyun said something cheerfully that I think translated to 'She can't stay anymore, can't pay the bills'. I nodded from the cargo hold. The driver had a map out and spoke to Ji-Hyun, who waved his finger vigorously, seeming to affirm something. We were both learning the Kusari language, but apparently the driver wasn't, and having been from the same part of the solar system as Ji-Hyun they had no trouble talking to each other. It sounded like the conversation was going badly but it ended with Ji-Hyun lighting a smoke for the driver and turning back to give me a thumbs up. I nodded again.
 I'd never been through that ward before, Ji-Hyun informed that it was full of Han immigrants, though there were pockets of Hanguk, a people to which he and our driver belonged, and one of those pockets was our destination. Looking out the small rear window the neighborhood did look foreign. Clothing styles were daringly casual, unlike the anonymous suits worn by the salarymen and office ladies of New Edo. The streets were older as well. Not old enough to be problematic, but a contrast to the bright lights and glamorous facades the city was known for. The transport swerved throwing me and other loose articles against the side of the transport, I didn't feel anything give way, but I still wasn't convinced we'd make it to Ji-Hyun's friend's place in one piece. The transport shook like an epileptic every time the driver shifted gears, which was often. The driver said something that made Ji-Hyun laugh, and he replied amiably. He translated half-heartedly, something about him being not being a 'shark', but wishing he was, for the money. The term was used for junk collectors who bought things from failed immigrants returning to their home colonies then flipping them to fresh immigrants, for twice the  retail value. Ji-Hyun was in fact just getting some things for himself, having outlasted his friend. We'd both seen our fair share of foreigners like us come and go, though we hadn't been in atmosphere for long, two years for me, and less for Ji-Hyun. Still, with many of the Lunar economies hurt by the orbital debris storms crippling commerce for older transports, our home currencies weren't buying as many Koban as they used to, and there was nothing left but to pack up and go home. Dreams ruined by handfuls of interstellar garbage hurtling through space. The transport stopped abruptly pulling me out of my musings.
  I hopped out of the cargo hold and found myself in a narrow alley. We left the driver smoking and humming to himself. I didn't know that was possible to do simultaneously. It took a few turns in the winding corridor before we found the front door of an apartment. Ji-Hyun let himself in yelling something cheerfully in Hanguk, there was a soft, one syllable reply from the living room. I hesitated, then followed. The interior was much nicer, though most of the furnishings were gone, the place would be empty by the end of the week, and a crew would have the place ready to turn over to the next immigrant by Monday morning. Still, the apartment was much more comfortable than jostling through the busy streets in the cargo hold of a rented cart.
  "Binz. Wait. One more come then take, ok?" Ji-Hyun flahsed me his teeth and offered me a seat on the floor. I nodded, and sat. Then I saw her. It was unmistakably her, whom I'd met only once, and hadn't thought of much since, but I was struck by the contrast. Eighteen months earlier we'd met, just ol' Johnny, or Binz to Ji-Hyun, and a bunch of Hanguk kids, eating bibimbap with metal sticks and drinking thin beer. The party had been bubbling with pride and anticipation, everyone giddy to see the onset of their dreams. But there was none of that now. I wouldn't have recognized her at all if it weren't for her hair. I'd thought it a little out of place the first time we'd met, her bangs and neck length hair framing her face with tight curls. The style was out, but she didn't care. She had an air of certainty that mixed well with her friendliness. She couldn't have been more than twenty earth years, but carried herself like a mother among children. I'd suggested a Hanguk friend of mine should date her, which he laughed off. There was none of that confidence in her now, just the curly black arch framing her head. Ji-Hyun opened her fridge, soon to be his fridge, and offered me a beer. I thanked him, then thought better of it and thanked the girl, she nodded, looked at me without really looking at me. They continued to make small talk in Hanguk, Ji-Hyun amiably ignoring the girl's sadness, the girl glumly accepting the mercy. Me drinking her last beer. She'd be going back to her colony, her best chance at a better life gone. Against the dreams of a Hanguk girl without an edge, like a Kusari business certificate, cold hard life won in a boat race. I knew this, Ji-Hyun knew this, and the girl knew it. The next fifteen minutes were spent like a corpse viewing. She wasn't the first better student to go home ahead of me. Economies and blind orbital space junk didn't care which students passed their kanji tests. Some were sent home toasting their friends, ignoring the fact that they were leaving their dreams like ghosts on this heartless moon.
 This girl wasn't doing that.
 They say it's space that gets you. Cold, empty, space, billions of astronomical units from home, but that's a mother's fantasy. It's space that gets you. Not the space between stars and planets and moons, but the space in your apartment, where furniture, and food and laughter used to be. The coldness of the stars isn't the orphaner of dreams, but the coldness of an empty refrigerator, a vacant bed, a yearned for conversation. 
  I never saw that girl again. I haven't seen Ji-Hyun for quite some time either, heard he had some ghost problems of his own. Most of my old friends, who came to this pulsating neon rock with nothing but their black-rimmed spectacles and dreams, aren't here anymore either. Too much space.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Life's not fair

A man walks into a mom and pop restaurant. the place, Jen's Diner, has been around since he was a kid. The guy running the place, Aidan, looks to be ten years his junior, but still shows gray streaking through his hair and a lumbar support belt cinching up his gut. Nobody names their kids Aidan anymore, the man, John, thought. That craze was over almost before it started and now schools were filled with Johns, Jims and Toms again. John sits at the bar and begins toying with a pen. He rolls it through his fingers, checks this side and that. The pen is gold colored, and says 'for 41 years of service, thanks.' On the other side is the name of a courier service company. Not a gold watch. A gold colored pen. 41 years. They couldn't even splurge to spell '41', as if the extra seven embossed characters would have made the gift too classy. 41 years, and a retirement package that will supplement John's annual social security payment enough to pay the rent for his mobile home space in the old part of town. Take it or leave it, was the implication, but they'd already rigged the whole fleet of trucks to drive themselves. Making a smarter planet. The man sighs and signals for a beer. Jen's is quiet. A few kids at a corner booth, Dave, Dan and Mary, John surmises. Some stragglers, older, probably truck drivers or some other dying breed. Connors and Parkers no doubt. John sits alone at the bar, until another man walks in. This man looks to be about the same age as John. He could be an Aidan to whom time wasn't kind, there were plenty of those, but he had the walk of an older man than that. His walk said 'I'll get there when I get there', and the Aidans didn't have that.
  "Howdy." Barkeep/waiter Aidan says, just like his mom used to when she ran the place.
  The newcomer smiles. "Howdy pardner." He sat at the bar next to John.
  "What can I get for ya?" Aidan asked.
  "You don't have a Bass pale do you? I used to get those in London, long before the revolution. Fun place back in those days." The man says.
  "Bass pale? lemme check..." Aidan starts winking his right eye furiously, "that's a beer right?" His left eye stares while his mouth hangs slightly open. Was there anything fundamentally wrong with tablets or smartphones for taking orders? Even notepads got the job done. These Eye-pads might have looked cool from the inside but from the outside they made you look like an idiot.
  "It's okay. I'll just have what this guy's having." The man gestures to John.
  "Sierra Nevada. Not Bass. Maybe the bass of America." John shrugs.
The man laughs, "I know what Sierra Nevada is." Aidan brought the the cold beer bottle and a receipt. The man is dressed casually, but well. His clothes fit him nicely and have a workman's look to them. Not a real workman's look, but at least he tries. Nobody tries anymore.
  "I don't have a pen." The man replies.
This time John laughs. "Here, This has to be good for something." John pulls out his gold colored pen and hands it to the man, who thanks him and looks at the pen. His lower lip furrows and he nods.
  "Forty-one years is a long time. Congratulations." The man says.
  "Yes it is." John replies, "but it beats unemployment. Barely." John takes a sip of his beer.
  "This pen doesn't work." The man replies, which causes John to snort a laugh and nearly spray beer all over the counter.
  "Oh. uh, under a hundred bucks, no signature required." Aidan says, and grabs the reciept. "Sorry."
  The man waves Aidan off, and raises his glass to John.
  "Cheers."
They drink together.
  "Forty-one years, eh?" The man says.
  "Forty-one years." John agrees. "But that's all behind me now."
  "Newly retired?" The man asks. John nods.
  "Good thing too. They taught the trucks to drive themselves. How about you?" John asks.
  The man takes a sip of the American pale ale before responding, "I suppose I've been retired for some time now."
  "What did you do?" John asks.
  "This and that." The man responds. John frowns. The man sees John's reaction and elaborates, "Nothing terribly interesting or important, I suppose I haven't worked in about thirty years." John looks at him uncomprehending.
The man takes a longer sip of his beer and smiles, "Years ago, me and my friends had a band, one night I walked in on a jam session with some words I wrote on a napkin." The man softly sings the last part.
  "So if by the time the bar closes, and you feel like falling down, I'll carry you home, Tonight."
  John scowls at him. "You're buying the next round."