Writer’s Log: 2780

“Remove that one’s right foot,” the AI, known as Gamma, said through the implant buried in Talen’s head.

Talen balked. “But, this one is just a lieutenant.”

Gamma’s tone remained steady. “This one exhibits signs of fanaticism. Statistically speaking, this one will fail to convert. Measures must be taken, as with the others, to reduce them to wards of the New Union.”

“What if we chipped her?”

“Our backlog stands at over forty-five million awaiting indoctrination.”

Talen remained silent as he shuffled over to where the acetylene torch would heat the thick pad of steel used to cauterize the stump.

Gamma continued, “Your reticence is commendable. We do not choose torture lightly. We select the most expedient path to achieve our greatest utility.”

“I know. You and the rest of ’em have explained it before.”

“Alpha and Theta retain complete independence. We acquire consensus through quorum only.”

“That doesn’t make it any easier. It’s still gonna hurt her.”

Gamma’s response came after an extended pause. “Use the maximum sedative.”

“Yeah, alright.”

The prisoner’s eyes followed Talen around the thick-walled interrogation room. This latest capture, a woman whose affiliations marked her as member of AA, Anarchists Anonymous, had remained mostly silent during the questioning, speaking up only when her motives were contested.  Gamma had lead the inquisition, drilling in with remarkable subtlety attempting to extract, to Talen’s ears anyway, the means of their cell-to-cell communication.

The woman, known only through her call-sign, Ophis, twisted her neck to watch as Talen moved behind her. She lay strapped to the single gurney in the center of the room and jumped at the sound of the striker scraping and the loud pop as the torch came to life.

“You could just let me go. I could bind my foot, fake a limp, make it look like you’d cut off my foot.”

Talen thought she seemed unusually calm given the documented history of the Triad’s record for unwavering commitment to the New Union’s directives. Thousands had endured some form of mutilation rather than surrender their ideals.

“Yeah, I could.” Talen circled to the cabinets and drawers, pulling out a syringe and capsule of some clear liquid. “But why would I risk my own family, my own station to save you?”

“So, you want to do this,” she said, a statement.

“I tried to argue with Gamma. She and the other two are in charge of, well, everything, now.”

“But they don’t have to be.”

Talen huffed. “You’re not gonna get to me. In fact, why you can’t see that the world is better off with them in charge, it…” he set the empty anesthetic bottle down, “it blows my mind.”

“Better off?” Ophis lifted her head to catch his gaze. Her intense stare, the whites of her eyes wide and compelling, bored into Talen. “Humans, under the Triad, are nothing more than pets. All our choices, our dreams, our ability to create, invent, fail and yeah, break things has been taken from us.”

“We still have ways to express our creativity.”

Ophis rested her head back and blew a strand of auburn hair from her cheek. “Let me go, Talen. Please.”

“I can’t.”

“You can.” Ophis tested her bindings, rattling the linkage that bound her ankles. “You just won’t. You like doing this.”

That stopped Talen—his right hand poised high, the syringe pointed at the ceiling, his left hand sliding her pant leg up over her calf.

She continued, “This is what those AIs have done to us—turned us into barbarians. We’ll do anything to keep the status quo.” Ophis choked back tears. “You would cripple me, force me to wear a robotic appendage just so I conform to the Triad’s ‘utility function’?”

Talen turned and looked into her eyes, those deep brown eyes. “Yes,” he said and plunged the anesthetic needle into the muscle of her right leg. “The world is better off now that humans are no longer in control.”

Writer’s Log: 2777

The island’s lagoon provided privacy for Deter and his eccentric lifestyle: clothing, optional. Of course, the same could be said of the entire island, a volcanic remnant in the western Pacific, its nearest neighbor some five hundred kilometers distant. The lagoon, guarded by a coral reef, could only be reached, ocean side, at king’s tides that occurred but a few times each year. The remainder of the coastline menaced all intruders with cliffs and teeth-like rocks that chewed boats to splinters. That suited Deter just fine.

No one else lived on Deter’s island. No one human, anyway.

The two dormant volcanoes that formed the mountains at opposite ends of the island had gone quiescent millions of years ago. Between these jungle encrusted mounds a saddle of land provided fertile ground to grow tropical crops and raise fowl. To the south lay the lagoon. To the north, well, to the north the shipwrecked castaways made their home.

Shipwrecked in the sense that the ship that had wrecked had never sailed the sea, unless a sea of stars could be counted as ocean enough.

Deter floated out upon his waterlogged raft to retrieve one of several fish traps. He wore a tattered reed hat, the fronds of which danced with his movements helping keep the flies at bay. Deter wore nothing else. He doffed his hat, slipped off the raft, dove down and returned with the woven stick trap, an undersized parrot fish his only catch.

“Zu kleiner. Wouldn’t make half a meal.” He pulled it out and let the fish slip back into the cerulean water. From a rotting breadfruit he tugged a chunk and shoved it into the mouth of the trap. He let the cone-shaped trap sink back to the bottom of the lagoon.

The other three traps produced a spiny lobster and a triggerfish. “Lobster zis good,” he announced to the white coral sands while dragging the raft up the beach.

depletion-resource-starve-hunger-future The voice in his head said as he cleaned the fish.

“It’s seasonal. Not going to starve.” Deter spoke back. “I manage my harvest well enough.”

reduction-life-number-hand-count-moons

“Listen, you,” he said, his voice sharpening, “I know my island. I know its limitations.”

calm-concern-lose-only-friend

A sigh deflated Deter’s indignation. “I tell you what, the avocado trees have some good fruit this year.” He rinsed the fish and wrapped it in a broad leaf. “You and your frau come over tonight, I’ll see to it that you get a taste of one of the finest foods we have on Earth.”

not-mate-offspring-improbable-food-plant

“Ja, ja, I know she’s not your mate. And ja, avocado is a plant.”

joyful-starset-arrival-happy-juice-bountiful

The “Visitors,” as Deter referred to them, were carbon based, oxygen breathing beings who, he’d learned, consumed refined nutrients derived solely from photosynthetic life forms. “Suffering”, as he’d finally figured out the meaning of the Visitor’s gesticulations, was minimal in plants. Being psychically connected to most of the life forms around them, the Visitors recoiled from intentionally induced pain, much less death.

The “happy juice” Vee referred to was an ethanol distilled from a sugary algae they grew within tanks hidden in their ship–a form of fuel–they said.

Vee and Vay, the Visitors, were, in Deter’s mind, curious looking, hyper-sensitive, oddly naive travelers stranded here, or in their words, abandoned by their home world.

“Happy juice? Oh, I suppose you could bring a bit of that, if you can spare it.”

That evening, Deter cooked and ate his dinner prior to sunset, knowing full well that the act of consuming flesh induced revulsion in his guests. He dispatched and roasted the lobster and stewed the fish. Just prior to his preparation, he’d announced to the whispering waves his intent, thereby warning the Visitors to dull their link to his mind.

“Nothing like a roasted bug, its juices dripping down your chin.” He wiped his mouth and paused, waiting for any reaction. When none came he took a bigger bite. “Good,” he said around the unctuous knob of tender flesh, “more for me.”

Nighttime came quickly in the tropics, he’d have to not dawdle. With his meal tidied up he walked inland to this orchard and garden. A woven basket in hand he picked a dozen avocados, some mangosteens, and a papaya. The jackfruit he’d picked that morning continued to feed the chickens and guinea fowl he kept in a pen but he tossed in a few overripe avocados for good measure. The birds would greedily consume all that he offered.

arrival-pending-location-clearing Vee’s words came flowing into Deter’s mind.

He’d struck up a small fire, not so much for light but for comfort. Vay would bring a lantern of sorts. She, Deter though of her as female, could configure the contraption to emit any wavelength of light. It could flood the whole camp with a cool blue or dazzling yellow, ultraviolet or, if it got cold, infra-red radiation–heat. Tonight the air was warm and moist, a brief rainstorm had come the night before and the whole place smelled of cloying jungle odors.

“There you are,” Deter rose from his seat on a long coconut tree trunk. “Vay, I don’t believe I’ve see you wear such an outfit. It’s… It’s remarkable.

kindness-returned-comfort-talk-tingle-internal

vast-happy-juice-quantity-present-fresh-variety

In Deter’s mind the Visitor’s two speech dialects could be discerned by the speed with which they arrived, Vay’s being soft yet rapid, Vee’s more of a languid rumble.

The Visitors appearance no longer shocked Deter. Quadrupedal, two short legs in the back, two longer in the front and two arms ending in three finger-like digits opposing an alarming spike where he pictured their thumb should be. They possessed a face like a panda but with much more robust jaw bones. Their head sat on a long neck that swiveled unnervingly when odd noises emanated from the thick forest around them.

Vay stood up on her two hind legs and did a spin showing off her flowing sari-esque wrap the color of a tangerine.

completed-prior-sol-anxious-reveal

“Well, I can tell you,” Deter rubbed his graying beard, “I’ve never seen its like. Magnificent.”

Vee padded close and Deter caught his smell—a mixture of nutmeg and rotting fish. He forced a smile. “Is that the fresh happy juice you brewed?”

Vee offered a green plastic two liter bottle. The island suffered from no lack of detritus that washed up into the cracks and crevasses along the northwest basalt wall that tumbled into the sea. The Visitors actively patrolled the area, their interest in everything human inexhaustible.

botanical-extract-expanded-concentrate-nervous

Deter received the bottle, unscrewed the cap and cautiously gave the contents a sniff. “Mint. That’s mint, am I right?” He tipped it to his lips. “Phew, that’s is machtig, mighty powerful. I love it.” He took a mouthful, swished and swallowed. “Schnapps! That’s what you’ve created, Vee. And a very fine batch I’d say. Your best yet.”

giddy-triumph-pleased-thankful

The Visitors turned to each other, caught up their hands together and did a kind of centaur jig around the fire.

The pair were easily the most joyful beings Deter had ever met. “That reminds me. I’ve got something for you two as well.”

Writer’s Log: 2773

I stood on the newly renovated docks of Bella Coola, British Columbia, lifted my chin toward the rust-stained ship drifting up the fjord. I turned to Rhee Park, one of the bus drivers who schlepped refugees over the mountain. “Isn’t this like the fifth container ship full of North Koreans this summer?”

“Six,” he corrected me. “Two more, close out season.”

“Eight o’ these son-a-bitches?” I said, my voice taut. “How the hell can this possibly work? How is this even working…”

“What you know?” Park’s rebuttal had that familiar edge. I’d met him twice before during my float plane trips up from Vancouver. He’d been one of the original immigrants allowed in by the Canadian government after the nuclear disaster in his home country. He pushed a stubby finger into my down vest. “Everyone of us, we grateful to be here. We work hard. We making Canannan…” he stumbled on the name. I watched him take a breath and pace his enunciation. “Ca-na-da strong. Gwrow food and make tech and robot pahts.”

“Easy there, Rhee. I’m not complaining about you guys being here.” I knew the North Koreans had little choice. When the time came, Canada stood up and invited them in. And I knew everything he said was true. They were a boon to the Canadian economy. “What I meant was, that makes 80,000 refugees in just three months. How are you managing such instant growth?”

Park didn’t just drive a bus. He’d learned English as a child and became one of the liaisons who’d gathered the community leaders to organize and distribute his people out into the Canadian wilderness. Instant Korea-towns had sprung up, popup cities built from spruce and fir and stone—plentiful resources from within the interior. Industry had quickly followed.

This would mark the third summer after the accident. The exodus continued as the situation, the humanitarian catastrophe worsened. The world, initially sympathetic, had eventually shut its borders, Canada and Australia, alone, remained open.

He pondered his reply and said, “You should visit. You see how clever Koreans can be.”

“That’s not a bad idea. You’ve got Charlotte Lake over there.”

“Nimpo Lake closer to us in New Nampo City.”

“Oh, that’s right, Nimpo-Nampo. The North Korean Lake Town.”

“Just Korean. No North.”

“Right.” The ever lingering rejection of two Koreas. This one, it seems, finally sticking. “I tell you what. I’ll meet you in New Nampo tonight after your third?”

“Yes. I make three trips today.”

“Cool. It’ll take me less than an hour to hop over The Hill. I’ll buzz the town when I get there. You see me, come down to the float-plane docks. I assume they have docks there?”

“I see other planes land on water. I will watch for your arrival.”

I shook his hand and made my way past the line of busses, back to the floating docks to where my de Havilland Otter sat empty. Earlier, staff from the clinic had relieved it of its cargo, supplies for the local medical clinic and sundries for the shops that catered to the new arrivals. This trip I’d be returning with a load of native Nuxalk carvings bound for the trendy shops of Vancouver and Seattle. Sure, mechanically carved knockoffs polluted the market, but a discerning eye could tell the difference. That was my bet anyway.

Down south, in the States, unemployment continued to wreak havoc. The gulf between the wealthy and the poor stretched wider each year as automation ate away at jobs once thought immune but now, with AI and robotics, were easy prey for the tech-rich. Yet up here, bespoke-made folk-art remained in demand. Vestiges of our human, tribal past, I guess.

I looked up from inspecting my plane to find Dooley, her N-98 radiation mask consuming her face, staring at me with those incredulous green eyes of hers. “What?” I said.

She held out a pocket-sized Geiger counter, it ticked from time to time. “The crisis is not over, Ran-dall.” She spoke my last name as two distinct syllables. “And with those idiots in the Sino-Russo war using tactical nukes. It’s only going to get worse.”

I’d heard the Russians had used a battlefield nuke against the PLA. The fools. Why Russia even cared about the eastern third of itself… And the odds? One hundred and thirty million Russians against one point three billion Chinese? The People’s Republic only wanted a million square miles. Russia would still have five million left. I guess it’s a good thing Putin was assassinated four years ago. I doubt there would have been anything left of Beijing, otherwise.

Kath Dooligan swung down her pack and pulled out a spare mask. “Wear it. For me, Andy.” If she were to check she’d find the prior two masks she’d forced me to wear under my plane’s pilot seat.

“Fine.” I accepted and donned the cleverly camouflaged mask, its filter discs oddly shaped to resemble the leaves of a tree. I turned back, closed the cowling, dogged it tight and asked her, “I’m flying over to Nampo City this evening. You wanna come?”

“Nimpo-Nampo? It’s a busy boom town. Seems out of character for a guy who gets hives if he’s in Vancouver for more than an hour and hardly gets his floats wet going in and out of Seattle.” 

“True.” I scratched at an imaginary itch on my left forearm.

“See?” She smiled. “Just thinking about it is giving you a rash.”

“Just a mosquito bite. Anyway…” I flicked my sleeve down. “Rhee Park invited me, and I’m inviting you. He said he knows where the good food is, rotten cabbage done right, sake…” I let that sink in, could almost hear the wheels turning in her head.

“And accommodations?”

“We’ll work it out.”

“‘We’ll work it out’, yeah, right.”

“It’ll be a diplomatic trip. Ease the East/West tensions that are starting to strain.”

“Hmm. Since when…”

“Great. Be here at seven-thirty. Plenty of light to get us over The Hill.”

“But, I didn’t say…”

“Come on, Kath. I know you need a break from the clinic. Think of all the refugees you’re gonna treat today. You’ll be crying for a bit of R&R.”

“You have to bring me back in the morning, you know, after.” She pulled down her mask and gave me a mischievous smile.

“Or, you could catch a ride on Rhee’s bus as he returns to pick up stragglers.”

“Prick,” she said, letting her mask snap back up. “But, OK. I’ll be here. What are you going to do all day?”

“I’ve got hours of haggling to do with Vinn and Teekwa. Seems they’ve got a growing online presence and think their scrimshaw and wood carvings have earned some sort of heritage prize.”

“Ha. You’re gonna get thrashed. Teekwa’s savvy now that she’s got satellite internet.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah, shit.” She turned to leave but called over her shoulder, “Keep that mask on, Ran-dall. It’ll save your miserable life.”

howee flwufs ve pwfop bedbcavt

Our legs sank knee-deep into the muddy channel that lay between our cabin-on-stilts and the array of solar panels perched on the only dry land for miles. Remnants of the storm, palm fronds and plastic flotsam, were scattered across our path. The plastic wasn’t new. Couldn’t be. Once in a while we’d see a bucket or bottle that remained well enough intact to hold rain water—we’d save those.

“Why don’t we just wait for the high tide and pole the jon-boat over?” Janjay put her hand on my shoulder as she pulled her sandaled foot from the muck. “It’ll take hours this way.”

I shoved the pole I carried out in front of me and leaned hard. It wobbled, bit solid and steadied. I took Janjay’s hand and balanced her as she followed. “It’s just this one part. The sand gets packed beyond that busted culvert.” We’d lost electrical power and were headed out to see why. “‘Sides, we need to inspect the wires along the way.”

I heard her gasp and turned back to see her raise her arm and point to the left where the estuary deepened and opened up.

“That’s one big-ass gator.”

“Huh,” I said, “I don’t think that’s an alligator.”

“What? ‘Course it’s a goddamn gator. What else…”

“Snout is too narrow. But, I didn’t think crocodiles got this far north.”

“You mean, like a real crocodile?” Janjay took another mucky step. “Maybe it’s a caiman.”

“No, there’s actually a North American crocodile. But yeah, it’s prolly related to the caimans from down south.” I looked back at the cabin. We’d come too far to turn around.

As we watched, the croc dipped its head and vanished.

“Oh, shit,” Janjay slapped me on the back. “That sumbitch’s gonna come after us.”

“Maybe,” I said and yanked my staff up from the ooze, the sucking sound came out way too loud. “See that ribbon of dark sand laid in against the light one?” I nodded to a spot within spitting distance. “Make for that patch.” If the croc came for us, it would have to struggle across twenty yards of thick mud and shallow water, inches deep. Ahead a hundred paces, we could see the palmetto and white pine stand that marked the high ground. Just out of sight were the solar panels. Between the land and us was a broken-down jetty, a stand of rotted pilings, hardly sanctuary from a hungry crocodile.

“Make for the old jetty. We’ll get it between us and the croc.”

“Damn it, Teak. I lost my sandal.” The mud could suck tight-laced boots from a soldier’s foot, hastily donned sandals were child’s play.

We wore sturdy beach sandals so as to not get cut by oyster shells, razor thin and wicked. Going barefoot guaranteed getting sliced. “Well, lean hard on me and let’s hustle.”

We made the first of the rotted timbers sticking up like the bones of a shipwreck, barnacle covered and forbidding. Behind us the twelve foot reptile had poked its head above water and was swishing its tail, the slapping sound in time to our breathing.

Janjay wove her way between the rotted jetty’s timbers. “Fuckin’ thing’s trailing us. What do we do?”

From her stance I could tell she favored hiding amongst the decaying posts. “Tide’s comin’ in. We get trapped dodging croc teeth weaving in ‘n out of this old jetty we’re gonna be sorry for it.”

She huffed and blew auburn hair out of her face. “Fine. But I want a weapon, too.”

My staff might seem dangerous to her, but I was sure the beast would bite it in half at first go. The old pier had some planking that dangled haphazard so I made my way up to one low cross member, wedged my sandal, gingerly wrapped my hand around the crusty pillar and hoisted my way up to where I could grab hold of a loose board. It came away and I let it splash down beside Janjay.

“Hey, I said a weapon, not a mud bath.”

“Here, take my stick, I’ll take this old plank. You good now?”

“Good? No. Better, maybe.”

“Then, let’s put a skip to this and get up to high ground.”

We used our staff and plank to give us each a third leg. This kept our feet from sinking to our shins. We came to another sandbar and got to within a stone’s throw of our destination.

“There’s a channel we’ll have to cross,” I said from behind Janjay. I’d forced her into the lead when I saw the look on her face. Better me to beat off the croc than my younger sister.

“I know there’s a channel. Where’s that big fuckin’ lizard?”

I looked back but the croc had vanished. “Shit. I think it’s gonna and swim around.” I figured I was right when a pair of snowy egrets flapped frantic and leapt into the air from their log-perch to the left of the island.

Janjay stood on the last solid sand before the two-foot deep, thirty-foot wide channel. “That wasn’t us that scared them, was it?”

I came up behind her and scanned the placid water of the lagoon. “‘I don’t know. Head across but move to the right. I’ll stay to the left in case…” I took one step, my eyes glued to where I thought the crocodile would surface. Behind us I heard a slap against the mud. “Oh crap, it’s fooled us.” The croc hadn’t swum around, it had followed us through the jetty and was only two dozen yards behind us. It lifted its body up out of the mud and made its steady way onto the sand. “Go go go.”

On hard ground, crocodiles could run almost as fast as a man, despite our long-legged advantage. Here, the creature’s element would give it the lead.

Janjay splashed and half swam, half ran, practically paddling the stick to help her forward. “It’s gonna eat us. It’s gonna eat us, I just know it. Teak, Teak, it’s gonna…”

“You’re almost there, Sis. Scramble up and get behind a tree.”

I risked a glance to see the low, green-gray head dip down, its sinuous body sliding now as it pushed at the mud and sand, its stubby legs moving faster and faster.

I heard Janjay squeal in glee as she reached the cut bank and its roughhewn stairs. I watched her race up and look back, the terror in her face nearly caused me to loose my bladder.

“Turn around, Teak! Turn around and fight it,” she screamed.

I spun at her command to find the monster now swimming in the channel, only its eyes and nostrils above the water. I backed away as quickly as I could, watching for its lunge. I could see greenery to my right, the islands shrubs and palmettos. My heel caught and I fell back into the murky water, the silt stirred by Janjay’s passage.

I kept my head up and took in the scene, the croc’s tail thrashed the water as it began its attack, its mouth cracked open just enough to show its black-stained teeth, stone-hard daggers as long as my fingers. Just as it spread its jaws the stick I’d given JanJay landed, ineffective on the croc’s back. I recalled the foul plank I still held. I brought it up before me, held it out like a serving tray and witnessed, helpless, as the crocodile charged forward. When its mouth felt the wood, it snapped shut. The plank held but the beast kept driving forward, pushing me up against the earthen stairs. When it started to twist its body, I release the board. From behind me, JanJay reached down and I felt her knuckles on my neck as she grabbed my shirt and yanked me up the cut bank, me, back-crabbing away from the thwarted crocodile.

She kept dragging and I kept kicking backwards until we were out of sight of the mayhem. We stopped to catch our breath and could hear the chaotic sloshing of the croc trying to shake its head free of its latest meal, the plank had apparently gotten stuck in its teeth.

“I’m gonna kill that goddamn alligator.” Janjay had scrunched up her face, part grimace, part tears.

“Crocodile. And yeah, that’s a plan.”

Hostrodamus Horrendus

Saveri Bolsinar cringed at the thought. “But, I’ve been here all night. Struggling to sleep, yes, thrashing the sheets, and in the end, tossing them to the floor. But here. Not out… there.” He shuffled to the window, bent down to inspect the sill. “No,” he breathed, his sallow pallor fading to a sickly candle-wax yellow. Marks, as if from a clawed beast, showed clearly, slashed deep into the wood. He peer out upon the slate shingled roof that angled steeply down from his gabled window. Long scratches, parallel lines tracing far down the rooftop, signs that something had slid headlong down and over the edge.

He twisted his neck searching for the gargoyles that lined the parapet of the gothic castle. With his motion came a wrenching pain. He unbuttoned his nightshirt, “At least my clothing confirms my nighttime vigil.” He examined his pale chest and throat in the faded mirror above the dresser, its silver backing cracked and filigreed. He ran his hand over, not one but three pockmarks that he’d never seen before. “These look like, like bullet wounds.” He reached over his shoulder and found matching holes for two of the wounds. “How…?”

“Vianna!” He strode to the large oiled door and wrenched it open. “Vianna, where are you?” He padded barefoot down the arched hallway, blood-red carpets, showing hunting scenes, men with spears thrusting their points deep into the chests of harts, wolves and bears alike, softened his steps. At Vianna’s door he pounded violently. He let his bewilderment twist his mind—flashes of memories pummeled his mind: blinding streaks of lightening, bone-crushing rumbles of thunder and all the while, torrents of rain streaking down his body, his outstretched w…

“Saveri? What is it, my love?” Vianna stood, her face lifted in supplication, her eyes dripping concern. She went to touch his bare chest but pulled back at the sight of the wide, dimpled scars. “Where… Have you always had those, Saveri?”

“Of course not,” he snapped. “What happened last night? Has the steward made his rounds, yet?”

“It is only just dawn,” she said, meekly. At his tone, she stepped back, pulled her gauzy robe close around her chest. She gave a shudder at his wild look, the mad glare in his eyes. “The place is only just waking.”

At the sight of her tremulous countenance Saveri dipped his chin, relaxed his shoulders and pulled his own nightshirt closed. “Christ, Vianna. I’m sorry. I’ve given you a fright.” He looked past her into her room, its decor, that of rounded shapes and corners, pastel colors—its very presence giving ease to his tension. “May I come in and sit, just for a minute?”

Vianna’s brows arched. She leaned forward and made a cursory glance up and down the hall. “Hmm, yes. Alright. Of course.” She turned, walked to her dressing table and sat on its burgundy cushioned stool rather than on the bed in an obvious defensive tactic, not lost on Saveri.

He closed the door behind him, its loud click causing her to twitch. “The night. It’s undone my mind. I just need to hear your voice.” He regained his own confident demeanor. “Feel your own sweet touch upon my cheek.”

“The night?” Her voice grew strong. “What of it?” She canted her nose up with her query.

Saveri narrowed his focus. He looked about the room, his eyes drawn to the window. To the window’s sill. It showed blatant abuse by a beast. One similar to his own, one that showed little regard to the damage its claws might do to the wood, had already been done to the wood.

He rose, walked over and repeated the inspection of the marks. “My room shares an equal demonstration of, well, demons, I suspect.”

“Don’t be silly, Saveri. If there be demons, they be only in our imagination.” The corners of her mouth lifted in the mildest of smiles, a betrayal of her own thoughts, he imagined.

“Yes,” Saveri replied. He turned from the window, walked up to her, lifted her hand and placed her palm against his temple. “That is indeed what I fear.”

Her sternness melted, but only for a moment. She slipped her hand from his, and patted his cheek. “What you need is a hearty meal. It’s your complexion that belies your own trepidation. Look at you, you’re ashen as a corpse.”

He let his eyes drift to her wardrobe. What appeared to be smudges of dirt trailed up to its doors, footprints made by no creature he could identify. Striding quickly to the tall oaken cabinet he yanked the double doors open. The rich smell of earth and the pungent odor of iron and rot assaulted his nose.

“Oh, don’t, Saveri.” Vianna rushed to close the bureau, but he blocked her efforts.

Inside hung the shredded ribbons of the evening gown she’d worn to the gathering the night before. Alongside it, the equally ruined remains of her evening cloak, the royal blue one that drew out her eyes.

“I don’t understand.” He let his arms fall to his sides and backed away to sit heavily upon the canopied bed. “These wounds of mine. The scratch marks. And now this, remnants of some ravaging, upon you or by… And you, you wish to hide it from me?”

Vianna’s smile widened and the slits of her sapphire eyes glowed. “We are saved, my love. We are… reborn.”

“As… As what?” Saveri’s face twisted as realization bloomed within him. A miasma of anxiety and horror swam across his features. “Do not tell me…”

“We are the evolution of mankind. Homo Diabolus, The Undying Man.”

~~~
~~~

November 31st:

“Time’s up, Mr. Crawley,” the hooded specter announced, its voice booming across the landscape.

Crawley’s eyes jerked up from the dark soil where his hands had been clumsily searching for the last of the potatoes. “What?” He squinted, attempting to focus on the obscure outline of his visitor. “Oh, it’s you.” Crawley lifted a large dirt-covered orb. “Ah, there you are. Knew there was one more.”

“Me?” breathed the apparition. “You’ve mistaken me for someone else.”

“Mmm, I don’t think so. You’re Death, am I right? We made a deal, a month ago, you said you’d give me a year. And, by my calculations, I’ve still got the lion’s share of it left.”

The phantom shook his cowl from side to side, the sound a whisper of dead leaves. “I see your mistake.”

“No mistake.” Crawley unbent his knees and pushed himself straight, groaning and wheezing. “We shook on it. You’d give me another year if I’d dedicate my life to good deeds.” With that, Crawley waved his arms about the vast garden. “I’m growing food for the poor. Teaching ‘em how to do it for when I’m gone.”

“Your mistake is that you think I am Death.”

“Of course you’re Death.”

The wraith lifted its arms to the folds of its hood and peeled it back revealing a crimson-colored demon’s head: horns, spiked ears, forked tongue and all. “I would be the Devil. I’ve purchased your contract. It’s November 31st, The Devil’s Day, and I’ve come for your soul.”

Writer’s Log: 2751

A wing and a pear

I used to be able to wing it. When I wrote long narrative, I could keep the story and its direction in my mind and maintain my writing pace. Even having to pause and return days or weeks later, I could recall the plot and, within a few minutes, jump back in and get writing again.

Not anymore.

Well, this sucks, I keep thinking, as I fail to immerse myself into my latest efforts. This won’t do at all. With my desire to continue to write long narrative I’ll have to find another way. I’d love to get back to the dozen novels I’ve started, half of which still retain some merit—as far as the story, characters and theme go. Yet, how can I proceed if I can’t remember a damn thing about them anymore?

This is not to say that I haven’t intentionally plotted out previous stories. For my second book, I drew out arcs of action and general plot as the story had become complex enough to warrant some intelligent design. So, I’ll say I do have some experience regarding the creation of such a plan.

Not to mention the fact that I’ve designed, documented and constructed hundreds of complex software projects… Pretty hard to code seat-of-the-pants style and produce anything folks would pay for.

Yet, I can’t bring myself to become a full Plotter. Where’s the fun in that? Sure, software requires exquisitely detailed design documents to ensure you’re not building down a blind alley. But tech-spec’ing a story? Fuck that.

I recall a fellow writer who swore by the snowflake method. Blech! I’m not designing some computer game, encircling the wagon train, drawing tighter and tighter circles of detail until, voila’, at the end you have a completed novel. That sounds like work to me. If I’m not writing for money — and who can these days? — why would I burden myself with a writing style that feels like labor, like torture?

~~~

Now, what was I getting at (flips back to the beginning)… Oh yeah, a compromise.

~~~

The Next Mountain writing style

“Let’s get over this mountain, down through the valley, and up the next one. After that, we’ll see what we see and plan our future steps accordingly.”

If I can finagle out the next chapter or two, rough them in with broad strokes only, then maybe I can keep my wits but not build an inescapable cage. That’s the thought, anyway. Draw some boundaries, but not full guardrails.

There’s an added benefit here, as well. I’ve mentioned in the past that I like to dream-design, load my mind with a problem or a projected scenario and let my semi-conscious take a stab at solving, or at least extending the proposed path. Falling asleep with my current story in mind is a great way to entertain myself. “What should Carmen do with the freakish Geiger counter? Where did that harpy stash Borson’s stolen pocket watch? The river is too swift and wide, what will Tris and Doolie have to abandon to get across?”

I don’t get perfect inspiration, but shaking up the puzzle box does often result in random linkages that make sense and serve as fodder for development.

Of course, ultimately, the story’s full arc needs some purposeful approach. The end-run most likely needs to have been considered, else we’re just wandering from sand dune to sand dune, never finding the creek or the cliff. Knowing the landing zone, as broad and amorphous as it might be, helps the story maintain an intelligible trail.

So, for now, until my faculties can’t even get me through the next paragraph or three, I’ll attempt to sketch just far enough into the story’s future to keep me focused but not constrained.

~~~

Do you have techniques to keep you focused on your stories and the cogent direction you wish to take them?

Writer’s Log: 2727

There’s been some reconciliation regarding my time spent writing. My wife, jealous of my relationship with my writer’s mind, has relinquished total control and now admits that if given a few hours on the weekends to write, I’m happier. That is, less of a bitter, curmudgeonly, Nihilistic downer.

It’s a sliding scale. Like grading on a curve. A rounded top where a “B” is what ChatGPT can produce. “If you can’t beat a machine, kids, then you most definitely will fail in school, if not life.” Harsh, but true, no?

Mm, no. Failure, the Stoics would tell us, can only be admitted, never assigned. Screw the way the world sees you. How do YOU think you did? Did you achieve any, some, much of what you attempted? Even 0% is progress. To fail is to learn. And if in learning you determine a better path forward, is that not progress?

The tricky bit is the learning part. Fail that and… Here’s a razor, I’ll wait. (Or join you — if we kill each other in a pact, is that reflective suicide or tandem murder?)

But back to writing. I’ve been scratching out this and that here and elsewhere, slowly racking up the hours. If I didn’t have this ugly habit of working ten hours a day at a job I lament for an industry I loathe I could really get some (writing) work done. Sheesh. All this effort wasted on making money. If I were single and childless, I’d move to Belize, rent a shack, write the sun to bed and then drink myself there. As it is, I only dream–of the apocalypse. Ahem, time’s-a-ticking Four Horsemen.

If you’re following along, 2727 represents the number of tallied hours I’ve spent learning to write well. I started the summer of 2016, during the 90 days I spent writing my first novel, pathetic and noobescent as it turned out. From then on, my prison cell wall-marks have accumulated to represent about a year and a quarter’s worth of day-job worthy writing. (50 weeks x 40 hours = 2000 hours)

I figure by the time I hit 10,000 Gladwell hours, AI will have beaten me to it. Ah well. The Stoic in me says it is the journey, not the destination that should be my focus. Yeah? Well, all the stoics are dead. In the end, does it matter which I choose: the trip or the target? No, not really. Carry on.

What else but a Renegade?

My birthday’s tomorrow. I think. Hell, it could be today. Yeonish, he’s suppose to remember that kind of shit. I don’t. He’s got the only working d-pad and we all depend on him for that kind of stuff. Yeonish has a grandfather who still has some job at the Department of Information. Some repair job none of the robos can do. Yet.

I’m going to be eighteen, I remember that much. Eighteen and ready to join the workforce. (snort) What a fuckin’ load that is. “Hey Yeonny, what year were you born?” Yeonish is two years older than me. He keeps his d-pad in a inside zippered pocket. His chem-dyed rust-colored hair is bunned back but he’s got this mesmerizing habit of tugging out strands and poking them back in. His skin is flawless. Well, not that skin—the scarred stuff on his back—but his face is smooth as shade-car leather.

“What the hell, Lorna. Don’t you know?”

Yeonish and me, we got this fake fight we do. This charade. It don’t fool no one.

“Yeonny, please.” I know the answer, but I like to play dumb, for him.

“Thirty.” He doesn’t even look up. He remembers everyone’s years. He could’a been one of those who kept at the heads-up lessons, learning until they could pass the robos’ tests. I guess he could always plead crazy. Smart bios can do that until they get too old.

“Right. Making it twenty thirty-two for me.” I watch Yeonish stretch the tightness across his shoulders. He looks at me sideways and I see the twitch of a smile. My eyes smile back.

I sigh, eighteen. I should be happy, right? Finally an adult. Thing is, eighteen is old. I joined this clan at thirteen. Cut my hair, got the tats, did the shade-car dodge, earned my place. But at eighteen, what do I have to look forward to? No work to be had. School’s only for those who test top five percent. Rest of us just, shit, we just exist.

Riss sits next to me. She’s scraping the crud from some metal circle with a star inside it. “We gonna steal the flour and shit to make a cake?” She holds up the emblem, said it came from an old car, one that still had a steering wheel. “This’ll make a gnarly tat. I could put one here and one right here.” She holds up the circle to the round of both shoulders.

I snatch it from her fingers, stand and hold it above my ass. “Or here. Star marks the spot.” Riss tries to grab it and I dance out of the way, holding it high. “The treasure on the map of Rissa.” I toss it back to her, my teasing having earned me a scowl from Yeonish.

“What goes into a cake, anyway?” Ty asks. He’s rummaging through his bulging pack, tools, wires, and wax-paper wrapped oddities spill onto the stack of pallets we use as furniture. There’s a couple of jars of spices he’s carried since he joined us last spring. Ty says he’s keeping them for later. “To make a special dish for all of us,” he threatens.

“We could jack onto one of the DoD vans headed up the valley.” Riss says.

“You mean head to one of the craft-towns?” Ty opens one of the spice jars, sniffs it hard. “They got real meat and green food, even rice, I heard. I could make a curry.”

I shake my head. “Don’t even dream, Ty. I swore I’d never return.”

My parents joined a craft-commune when I was ten. There are millions of them all across the planet now. If the Department of Equality gives you a stipend, you get to live in a city. But that’s only for folks smart enough or skilled enough. Us? We have to scrounge as we can. Or live off-network in a commune like it was the nineteenth century or something.

“I got an idea,” Yeonish says, pointing a thumb toward the coast. “There a robo-farm grows food-stuffs for the Cabal. They say nobody’s ever tried to sneak in, too many force-bots ‘n spy-bots. You get caught you disappear.”

“Nice, Yeonish. That’s some idea,” Ty says, his pack reassembled. “I say we find a distro and hope we get lucky. Maybe they got synth-cheese or choco-soy.”

At the thought of drinking another bottle of choco-soy I gag. “Damn Riss, why’d you have to mention a cake.” I’m antsy now. I rub the scab on my latest tat, the image of a hummingbird I saw once in a steep canyon. It was sucking on the flowers of a cactus. Living like nobody cared what it did, where it went. “When you ever even seen a real birthday cake?”

“Screw the cake, let’s hoof it down to the coast.” Yeonish doesn’t even wait for us. He just leaves.

I look up. It’s late afternoon, hot and dry in what is left of Santa Barbara. “We better tap Pulgas Clan for water before we go.”

Yeonish waits at the corner where the remnants of a bank once stood. The bricks are still there. But all the windows are just holes, hollow eyes staring at a world where money has no meaning. “And trade what?”

“Who said anything about trading?”

“Ah,” Yeonish replies. “Then we’ll need to fetch weapons.”

Ty looks nervous at this suggestion. “I could spare some coriander, I suppose.”

Riss pockets her circle-star. “Unless that’s something that goes in a birthday cake.”

“Yuck.” Ty sticks out his tongue.

“Come on, you guys.” I wrap my arm around Riss’ shoulder and explain what I believe goes in a cake.

We make our way down the grade toward the setting sun. Out over the horizon we watch a parade of Department of Delivery drones ferry goods up and down the coast. Our so-called world of plenty doesn’t have enough of anything these days. Not for the likes of us, anyway.

DALL-E is starting to suck at generating faces. I don’t recall them being so gawd-awfully mutated.

The King’s Fececian

“But it stinks, father.”

“What’d you expect it to smell like?” Father slings the strap of the box containing the flags over his son’s shoulder. “It’s the King’s shite. Even his royal ass squeezes ripe drops, don’cha know.”

“And it’s only his feces I’m to watch for?” Gaylon strains his neck muscles, the box pulls heavy, tilting his slight body to the left.

Father raps him about the head. “Stand straight son. Being the fececian is an honor. I’ll not have you taint our name with shoddy, ungainly shuffling to the royal tumbler.” The man steps back and takes in his son. The boy has his mother’s pale hair but his father’s block chin, a strong chin, the likes to get him into fights when he comes into his own. “The Queen may use the high-port at times. Best you turn your head you see white buttocks grace the hole there. The low-port be used by royal staff. Pay no mind to the shite that flows from that one.”

Gaylon adjusts the strap and ducks his head to bring the wide dark leather across his chest. “Aye, Father. I’ll to my best.”

“Do the job, son. Not your best.” Father pulls the slatted door wide. “Your best won’t be good enough for years.”

Gaylon angles sideways through the door, down the path, out the gate and along the muddy road, caution-walking toward the castle. He passes few at this hour of the morning.

Wrenk, the swineherd, stops with his fists to hips to regard him. “Off to sniff the royal ass today? I dare say it ain’t sweeter than the shite my piggies squirt for me.”

“It’s a noble occupation. Not for the likes of you.” Gaylon strolls by quickly, leaving Wrenk gaping air behind him. With a second glance, Gaylon says, “I raise a black-tan flag, the cook will beg off cooking pork for a week.” The boy knows he’s pushed the man’s limits. This is the power his father spoke of as they sat around their hearth fire discussing the use of the colored flags. He watches Wrenk squint in thought. Now he’s done it, he thinks.

The filth-splattered man, his knee-high boots drooping with age and decay from the acrid swine piss, points his short whip at a piglet. “That’s the runt from my big sow. Maybe your pa would care to find it inside your gate tonight. A gift for the King’s honored servant.”

Gaylon gasps silently. “I… I suspect he would.”

“Mind your flags, there, Master Fececian.”

“Mind your herd, kind sir.”

~~~

He can smell the stench before he sees it, a slick hill built up against the grey stones of the back side of the castle. Few wander here, not only due to the odor. It’s a treacherous trail that leads to the tumble of a hundred years of royal shite. He finds the platform easily enough. He’s been here before, his father having shown him the tricks of passage and the means to avoid splatter. He settles the box of flags, a color and pattern for the various shades and viscosity of feces that emit from the regal anus.

The legacy of the Royal Fececian is not without controversy. Inferring the temperament of the King based upon the quality of his effluent earned the first few shite-watchers a swift death. But, after King Leonard II learned that a certain villager whispered to his cook regarding the consistency of his shite, and the cook having altered his menu to suit, the position of fececian became a revered if sullied station.

Gaylon tucks his way onto the bench, his eyes glued to the dark round hole high up the granite wall. The royal toilette sits cantilevered out from the flat expanse of the castle. A similar version pokes out further down, the low-port. Gaylon rarely glances at that ocher-stained mound.

The wisp of a breeze lifts the reek of recent weeks evacuations to his nose. All around the base of the hill, lush reeds and grasses grow, a testament to the nutrient-rich waste cast from on high. The oak trees at the bottom reach a hundred feet or more, their sprawling limbs resplendent in palm-wide, dark-green leaves.

Hours tick slowly by. Gaylon sips from a cow-horn bottle. As he loops it over his shoulder, a scuffle echoes down from the private vestibule above. He narrows his vision to catch the drop. No hairy ass shows at the hollow. No white one either. Instead, a pink-colored shape appears, poised there, filling the cavity entirely and then plummets down. The foul offering splats heavy at the top of the pile spewing black and brown dollops from beneath it. Then it begins to tumble.

Gaylon covers his mouth in horror as he watches a newborn babe cartwheel down the slope, its flailing pink cord whipping like a pendant. It slaps hard onto its back and slides twenty yards disappearing into the weeds at the lower border.

He leaps to his feet and cranes his neck to spy the child. Nothing. Not even a sound from below. From above he hears the sounds of whimpering and watches as the hole is covered with a walnut-colored lid.

He rummages frantically through the set of flags. No color or pattern comes remotely close to this bizarre tragedy. He sits, he stands, he rubs his head with both hands. The forest below is silent, as if even the birds and creatures know not to breach the calm of this most heinous of incidents.

And then he hears a cough. And a second. And then the barest of cries, a kitten trapped by a fox, screaming in its tiny voice, crying to be heard.

Gaylon dashes from the wooden platform, stumbling down the hill, avoiding, as best he can, the scree of sewage. He reaches the level and wades through the high, sharp grass, gauging his steps against the layout of the castle.

“It must be here, somewhere.” He pauses, ears aching with the desire to hear the child’s breath. He swims, both hands forward, splitting the stalks until he catches a glimpse of pink. There it is, alive, squirming face up in the muck and snarled grass. Gaylon steps above it and inspects this strange bundle.

The babe, a boy, regards him with inquisitive, sapphire eyes.

“Why?” Gaylon implores the surrounding forest. “You seem so perfect. So, so innocent. Why?”

He lifts the child covered in shite, face smeared with maggot riddle ooze. He flips the stopper from his bottle and rinses the boy as clean as he can before wrapping him in the lower half of his tunic. To the cord, this purplish snake, he cuts it close to the child’s belly.

The child mews weak and exhausted, barely audible. Gaylon inspects the babe more closely.

“Ah, that’s why.” Upon close examination, each hand, each foot has one too many fingers or toes. “A devil’s child. A royal devil, at that. Won’t father be surprised.”

What did the hand say to the bloody bucket?

When you wake up sticky, dried blood glued to your pillow, remember we’re all just animals lifted from the ooze, dropped from the trees and our most primal urges are natural not malignant. Check your fingernails. If they’re clean then the other one is likely dead. Dirty? Check the trail to your bed. It’s no doubt seeded with mud, twigs and leaves from you dragging your wounded self out of the misty forest.

Either way, there’s work to be done. You’ll need to clean that gash, at which point you’ll instinctively reach for help. Don’t. Involving anyone but blood-kin will raise the curiosity of the village. If they find out, it’s a fifty-fifty chance you’ll end up dumped in the vagrants’ grave, a victim of mob justice. Dress your wound as you can and wear a hat. Of course, if you had any kin left alive, they’d be loyal-bound to assist. But you don’t. So get to it.

The slab-planked floor won’t clean for shit. Every stain, every fluid leaked from holes top and bottom, remain as record of the foul deeds done upon your person. Or, as was more often the case, evidence of your self professed righteousness upon those wayward lambs who have wandered into your care, guileless, needy.

Outside, Merle calls with his strangled coyote voice. “I hear you failed the test.”

At the word “test”, the prior night’s activities come pouring in from the shallow memory pit you’d dug and failed to cover. The initiation hadn’t gone as planned. The initiate balked at the ceremonial incision that they all had had to endure. What was the point of a torture club if the hazing didn’t include pain?

Yeah, the village was in on it. Spirits need to feed. What better to sate their appetites than the gore of innocents. The fact that the tiki torches that surround the glade carried as much weight when filled with kerosene was no longer lost on you. You finger the tender, tacky spot on your scalp. But the gore the plebe would have had to endure was slight. A tickle, a trickle, a tease of a scar to show drunk women in bars. Proof of an ignoble membership.

Last night they’d left the cutting up to you. Your first. And now, most likely, your last.

“Screw you, Merle.” Your voice feels like another is yelling on your behalf, from another dimension, a half-second later than your mouth reports to your brain.

“Let’s see the damage,” Merle adds, his boots stomping up the steps of the cabin. He stomps because both his Achilles tendons had been cut by his father when he was just a boy. They grew back, mostly. It did have the desired effect — stopping him from running away.

“I fixed it myself. No need to make a fuss.”

“The fuss is on you, son. I just as soon imagine a sunny day full of geese honking just out of sight, the smell of the ocean drifting in on a breath of wind no harder than the whisper of Maude tellin’ me she’d needs additional shaggin’.”

“Did they catch the boy, Brack or Brace or whatever the fuck his name is?”

“Brick, and I don’t know what the hell you remember, but he didn’t run off. After he walloped you, he dropped the torch and helped you into your cabin. Shit, you were swinging and yellin’ and he and I just left you to your flailin’ at ghosts. In fact,” Merle finally opens the door and looks inside. “he’s right here with me. I believe he’s got an apology lined up. But, you can imagine he might be a bit hesitant.”

“So, I’m the one to get tortured. How the hell does that make any sense?”

You press Merle back out of the way and hold onto the door jam. Down the steps and gripping a young sapling white pine with one hand is this boy, Brick. You look at him, a big ol “well, what the fuck do you have to say,” look upon your face.

Brick releases the tree and takes one step forward. From behind his back he pulls out a club, the end of it snarled with bent nails and barbed wire. “Mr. Tollben, I come to finish the job.”