Nothing To Lose

I don’t often write here about politics.

Err…DJT aside, I try not to write about politics, at least.

On the other hand, my fiction very much has modern/current politics as a subtext to pretty much everything, whether character or plot.  Like most writers, I just can’t help it.  They tell you in the writing intro classes to “write what you know.”  What they really mean, by the way, is that you need to write about those things that are important to you. When you write stories about things that do not truly matter to you, it is pretty damned obvious.

To me, writing is a way to talk about and explore the things I would otherwise keep to myself.  Yes, I put into words things on this blog that I would never say in any face-to-face setting.  Yes, these words scratch part of that “important to me” itch, but not all of it.  Not by a long shot does this blog scratch all of it.

I say more in my fiction writing than I ever would here.  In those characters and scenes I write about concepts and themes and ideas that I will not — cannot, even — express in any other way.  I’ve talked on this blog about depression and suicide and the power of music and words. I have talked about them, but never have I actually explored here the true emotional power those things hold for me.  Only in my stories have I let go of myself enough to explore the truth behind them.

With the words and opinions I have expressed here, and in my fiction, I have been told that I should “shut up and write.”  I should not focus on the dark side of life.  I should not expound on politics, nor on a universe and society that is seemingly inimical to fairness and equality and simple human dignity.  I should, instead, write about how those at the bottom have failed themselves.  I should, instead, write about how those at the top are the worthiest.  I should, I have been told, leave the dark underside alone so it can decompose and disintegrate in forgotten and ignored peace.

To answer that I have only my words. Whether those words project out into the world, or sit quiet and alone, they are still a shout.  They are shout of opinion and belief, yes, but they are more than that: they are a shout of defiance.  They are the throwing of emotion and thought into the teeth of a universe uncaring and cold.

When folks tell someone like me to “shut up and write” — or a musician to ”shut up and sing” or an athlete to “shut up and play” — they are showing not strength but fear.  Fear of those words and concepts with which they do not agree; fear of those things that might disturb the comfortable bubbles in which they have chosen to live.

Our first instinct, of course, is to respond with our own fear.  Our own fear of reprisal; our own fear of having our bubbles penetrated; our own fear of the darkness waiting for those who stumble and fall…

When you recognize that fear, however, you are freed to ignore it.  That is surprisingly liberating.  Oh sure, failure and darkness are still very real — and always near — but who honestly gives a damn?  We are all going to fail and fall at one point or another.  Most, actually, will fail and fall far more than once.  I know I sure as hell have.  I’ve fallen so often that I’ve lost count of the scars on my psyche, my soul and my liver…

I have put more than once into my protagonist’s mouth the words and concept of someone with nothing left to lose.  Beyond the agency and power of that concept for him, lies the agency and power of that concept for me.  I’m pretty damned sure I could never have taken the step to put personal emotions and truth into my words until I decided I had nothing left to lose.  I certainly could not have learned to give the mental finger to those who tell me to shut up and write without admitting to myself just how little I had to lose.

For aspiring and new writers, then, there are all kinds of articles and interviews out there with more advice than any one human can absorb.  Many of those pieces will tell you to harness your fear, or let go your inhibitions, or channel the wisdom you learned in kindergarten.  Plenty will also focus on the practical advice that writers need, too.  But the one bit of advice I wish I had received when I first got started?  I’ll give that bit to you in the form of lines from a song:

The beat-up side

Of what they call pride

Could be the measure of these days

p.s.

Musical Note — By the way, when it comes to music, if you’re not listening to Dave Hause, you’re doing it wrong.  I listened to the song below quite a few times before I decided to link it here.  In the end, however, I had little honest hesitation because, well, not only is it the song I quoted above, but its final line says it all for a writer with nothing to lose: “it’ll be alright.”

Snippet: “After you…”

*sigh*

I have no excuse.  I’d love to tell you about the pack of wild dingoes threatening the baby.  And the rabid gorilla.  There was definitely a rabid gorilla….

I’d love to tell you that, but let’s be honest here: I let the world and its frustrations come between me and the words for the last few weeks.  Yes, it happens.  It happens to everyone…

Err…wait…is this post turning into a damned ED commercial?!

Shit, if only there was a little blue pill for writing!

At any rate, even if none of the ideas I had for a post today were worth a damn, I still want to put up something.  So…a snippet, then.

I know, I know — my last post was a snippet, too.  I’m overdoing it. But I want to get something out, and I failed miserably at the flashfiction challenge I set for myself this morning.*

*I fail that more than you would think.  I only post here the “successes” in that personal challenge…and seldom talk about the times I fail to come up with something worthwhile.

So, below is the scene that directly follows the last one I posted.

Since it has been a while since I offered my standard caveats, here is the reprise for new(ish) readers: any post I list as a “snippet” is a first- or second-draft scene from my longform fiction work.  They are only lightly edited, and represent those initial thoughts and plans for the story that are subject to change for the final version.  Additionally, I do not write stories in any kind of order as far as plot or chronology, so errors and changes abound in these early versions…

Snippet: “After you…”

Light colors accented and complemented paneling of some dark, densely-grained wood.  The seats were comfortable and plush.  A pleasant heat gently blew from discreet little vents.  If this was how the Families kidnapped people, Connor thought, maybe he’d picked the wrong side after all.

The gurentai next to him — no, damn it!  He had to remember where he was.  At all times, he had to remember where he was.  The rvac next to him gave lie to that luxury.  Connor had no doubt whatsoever there was a weapon hidden under that expensive jacket.  Just as he had no doubt the man could quite effectively tear him apart without having to so much as touch it.

The other man, the one so creepily slender, sat across from Connor.  Appearances aside, it was readily apparent just who was in charge inside that vehicle.

Connor quirked an eyebrow and asked, his voice light and easy, “A trip to vacant fields, I take it?  Maybe a nice tour of the better recycling plants?”

A small shake of the man’s head, and a brief smile.  It looked like it hurt, that smile, but Connor was used to expressions like that.  So, it wasn’t a thing limited to just Dockside and the Station, after all.  Rich folks everywhere resented the poor and unwanted.  Another item confirmed on Connor’s all-too-long list of shit the universe was doing wrong.

“Relax, Mr. Spogelse,” the man said.  “My employer simply wants to meet you.  Someone he trusts has advocated for you, and he is curious.”

“Advocated for me?” Connor responded with a chuckle.  Not even the most ignorant takie in the universe could miss the cynical disdain in that laugh.  “No one advocates for someone like me, boss.  People pay me, or arrest me, or kill me.  That’s pretty much it.”

Another shake of the man’s head, but no reply.

A shrug and Connor turned to look out the window, the dark tinting doing little to impair his view of the outside world.  So much for a little light conversation.

Connor had learned a bit about the geography of the city over the past year.  He knew the prison was on the north edge of Redux’s capital.  He knew, also, that there was little to the north of that rundown neighborhood apart from rocks and trees and frozen tundra.  Out that window, however, Connor saw neither trees nor swampy, half-frozen boulder fields.

What he saw were buildings.  Buildings that were growing larger and more dense.  The road they followed was narrow, as were all the streets in a city where personal vehicles were rare, but the traffic around them was picking up nonetheless.  That traffic was mostly large vehicles, double or triple the size of the one in which he was riding.  Trucks, he guessed, delivering goods and materials.

His trip in that particular van was, if not expected, at least not terribly surprising.  And the rvac?  He was most definitely nothing unusual in Connor’s little corner of the universe.  But why, in the name of all that was holy, were they taking him into the city?  Who dumped a dead body inside city limits?

No matter how many stories Rahm and Brian had told him, no matter how many holos he’d watched, nor stories he’d read, Connor still had never had any real experience of space.  Even the elite of the Station lived with constraints on the area available to them, let alone a res-hold kid like Connor.  But this planet…this planet was very, very different.

Connor had been born on a planet, but his memories of life on Mars were dissipating smoke, the dimmest memories of a long-forgotten dream.  No, Redux-the-planet just didn’t seem quite real to Connor’s jaded Dockside senses.

Just how the hell could these people even function with all that empty space around them?  As the buildings grew larger and more elaborate — and more expensive, even to his architecturally ignorant eye — so too did the sense of space grow.

“This is where the local consumer goods are made,” the slender man explained.

Connor almost jumped at that voice.  The guy had kidnapped him off the street, and now he wanted to play tour guide?  What the hell?

“These are mainly the smaller, independent companies on Redux.  The large manufacturers, along with most of the refining and processing facilities, are in the Setdown neighborhood south of the city,” the man continued.

The guy’s smug tone and bullshit attitude irritated Connor even more than his skin-tight suit and carefully pampered face.  Connor’s already strained temper snapped, and he let free all of the disdain and contempt that seethed within, “Can’t have the little guys mixing with the big boys, can we?  No, we wouldn’t that.  Some drunk executive might go and get all honest.  Couldn’t have the little guys finding out just how fucked they truly are.”

And then, at that, there came the clearest memory of Oz’s voice, “Uh, Spog, that little observation was maybe not the best idea at this particular moment.

On Oz, the almost androgynous, effete look had been natural, and had earned him a reputation as one of the most attractive baita in all of Dockside.  On the idiot across from Connor it seemed a ridiculous attempt to recapture all the youth and vibrancy so long lost to him.  It was surprising to Connor, then, when that ridiculousness turned suddenly to intimidation.  The man’s slight attempt at false civility fell away and his eyes turned into the pitiless, dead orbs of a shark.  A hungry shark.

The van suddenly seemed much colder…and far, far too small.

“Prison is not all that far away, Mr. Spogelse.  You would do well to remember that,” the man snapped.  His voice had not risen in the slightest.  It had, if anything, become even more quiet.    And that was worse.

Connor was unpleasantly reminded of someone from his past; reminded of a man he had watched cut the tongue from some poor bastard of a makeinu without the slightest change of expression.  The same man who had once, ironically enough, also kidnapped Connor.

Shit, the universe really did have a sense of humor.

“My employer has a great deal of patience, but it is not unlimited,” the man snapped.  “If you can live up to the expectations created for you, we will be friends.  If you cannot…”

No one needed to hear the end of that sentence, the meaning was all too clear.  Maybe the damned rvac wasn’t the most dangerous person in that van after all.

Connor’s attention went back to the window, where the industrial buildings were giving way to a stretch of green-and-brown country.  For some reason, Connor was just all kinds of interested in the countryside at that particular moment.

The city wasn’t all that big, in spite of its population.  Five million people could live in pretty tight quarters, if the high-rises Connor saw ahead were any guide.  Several miles away, he could see also the semi-permanent build-up of haze and fog that clung to the mountains cupping the small plain on which they had built Redux’s only real city.  Those mountains caught the moisture that blew in from the sea and combined it with the smoke and emissions of five million people living in just thirty square miles.

Farther south, just barely visible, that miasma was at its most dense.  And under that grey blanket?  The neighborhood called the Haze.  Redux’s worst slum.  Home to the poor and the forgotten, right alongside the gangs and thugs that were this planet’s answer to Dockside’s Families and gurentai.

The faded, dull colors of the countryside disappeared not gradually, but in a sharp transition that had Connor rubbing his eyes.  One minute there were shrubs and rocks and a few stunted trees, and an instant later?  Buildings.  Dark grey and crowding closely against the road.  The shortest was ten stories high, and most were considerably taller.

Every block brought buildings that were taller and taller, until the sky itself began to disappear. It didn’t take long for Connor to feel like he was again walking the narrow passages between Dockside’s towering stacks of cargo containers.

As the buildings grew in size, however, they grew also in extravagance.  Starting from stark functionality, each block brought improvements in esthetics and design, and evidence of ever-greater attention paid to the environment itself.  Plazas began to appear in front of those buildings.  Simple and stark at first, but growing quickly into elaborate displays of fountains and greenery that served only to highlight just how dour and oppressive were the towers that surrounded them.

Where the hell was the van taking him?  No Dockside Family would center operations in the buildings Connor saw.  Just like Connor himself, the Families did best when they were able to blend into the background noise.  Simple warehouses and rundown office blocks no one wanted to look at, that was where they did business.  No kumicho who wanted to last longer than a warm jug of milk would go anywhere near a fifty story high-rise.

Connor had no idea just how long they had been driving, nor how far into the blocks of high-rises they had come.  It was too alien, too different.  He couldn’t wrap his mind around a place like that.

The van slowed, rolled to a gentle stop.  The plaza Connor saw through the darkened window was the most elaborate he had seen so far.  In it were huge, heavy planters full of trees and shrubs that were almost aggressive in their greenness.  Several sculptures stood among those planters, geometric and confusing as hell.  The smallest of those sculptures was easily twice Connor’s height.

And people…there were people everywhere.  Lining up to buy food from carts scattered around the plaza’s periphery, or sitting on concrete benches as heavy and dark and oppressive as the buildings themselves.  By Dockside standards it was nowhere near crowded, but on a planet?  When they had all that space?

Connor had accepted his lot in prison.  He had tried very hard to adjust to his new life.  In that moment, however, staring out that window, never had he wanted more to go home.  Wherever the hell home was.

That horrible noise happened again, the sound of something badly misaligned, as the door slid open.

“After you, Mr. Spogelse,” the thin man said.

{Musical Note — this song has no link to the scene above, I linked it because, well, it’s a great freaking song. It is also why I love music — I mean, c’mon, this song was a huge hit that happens to be based on a thousand-year-old poem! Also, I posted a while ago a song from this particular live show, and I will reiterate now what I said then: this video/album resonates with me not just because I love the band, but also because I was actually at this particular concert (at Red Rocks in Denver)}

Snippet: “No, Sir, It’s Not Convenient”

Following on from where I left off a couple of weeks ago because…well…I couldn’t just leave Connor standing there on the street! Also, to those readers and friends who were mad at me for killing off Oz — that part of the story ain’t over yet!

Did the sky look different?

Connor didn’t particularly want to think about that.  Things like sky and weather and horizons had been bad enough while still inside the structured environment of the prison.  On the outside, where chaos and confusion reigned?  Where everything — every thought, every emotion — seemed just that much more intense?  On the outside, those concepts became downright threatening. They were things Connor didn’t want to think about, not at that particular moment, not standing just outside the exit he had never expected to see.

There was a strange sense of loss as he stood there, and of vulnerability. You didn’t have to think in prison, didn’t have to deal with complications.  You didn’t have to do anything in prison.  You just had to survive.  That was why, he had long ago decided, so many inmates were so terrified of actually getting out.

Oh, they would talk about getting out.  They would say all the right things about what they would do when they got out. But as soon as release began to loom as a real possibility?  It was then that they would intentionally screw up and guarantee themselves another year or two inside.  In prison they could find the sanity and security of knowing exactly where they stood.  On the outside they would find nothing but uncertainty and complication.

The front of Chapman Pen was large, but not nearly so big as you would think, given the prison’s true size.  And around that front?  A whole lot of nothing, Connor noted.

Weed covered plots, for the most part, and a few rundown buildings housing what he could only assume were warehouses and small manufacturers.  A couple of hundred feet away, just down the road from the prison, were parked two of the autonomous taxis that were the planet’s only real option for personal, independent transportation for the vast majority of Redux’s population.

A sigh, then, and he took up his guitar and started to walk.  You had to have an account and an implant to use those taxis, and Connor had neither.  Connor, in fact, had no desire for either.  Connor wanted to fly under the radar, to disappear into the crowds and independence of the city’s east side.  He wanted, at the heart of it, to live again in the anonymity that had been his lot for so long.

The sun was out, and the clouds receding, as the planet offered the closest thing it had to a nice evening.  The weather was the final straw, the last incomprehensible in a day that had been full of them. It was too much for Connor, too much to process.  Four years early…why had they let him out four years early?  What the hell was going on?

He could think of nothing to explain it.  Nothing, at least, that did not involve him ending up dead in a ditch somewhere.  Someone, somewhere had pulled strings to release him, and something like that came with a price.  A very, very high price.

He worried, and he thought.  That was nothing new, the worry or the thought.  Those had, in fact, been his habits since most of Dockside had decided the universe would be a better place if it were Connor-free.  Another part of him, however, a part far more primal and basic, could not escape the surge of joy that came with seeing that sky.  He was free.  Everything else aside — all the bullshit and danger, all the demons of his past — he was free.

Freedom meant everything.  Day after day in that prison, night after night in his cell, thoughts and dreams of freedom had been things to avoid, things to fear.  Freedom was…intoxicating.  Worse then the drugs he had been addicted to as an ikiryo, worse than the booze that still was a part of his life, the very thought of freedom set his mind to reeling and spinning.

Freedom was also dangerous.  That was the other part of the joy, the very real fear that asked just what the hell he was going to do now?

For the moment, Connor walked.  No matter what, he knew, he had to keep moving.  If he stopped, it was all too likely he would never again be able to start.

Most of the time, as he walked, he stared at the concrete under his feet.  Bare and cracked and dark it was…crumbling and decayed.  The neighborhood around Chapman Pen hadn’t seen better days, it had never seen so much as a single good day.  Amidst all the confusion and uncertainty, that concrete gave Connor something on which he could focus, so he stared.

What if he stumbled?  What if he fell?  He was smart enough, and remembered enough of Oz’s teachings about philosophy, and about life, to understand the symbolism in that particular fear, but it was very real nonetheless.  If he fell, he wasn’t sure he would ever again find his feet.

Almost a half-mile it was, from the prison to the nearest street corner.  Just what the hell that corner meant, Connor had no idea, but he had to have some kind of goal.  A goal he could see. A goal he could hold to while the universe around him spun and whirled in the purest chaos and confusion. So he walked.  He walked toward that corner.  He walked with his eyes fixed on the decrepit concrete and his mind working desperately to make sense of something that should never have been possible.

Connor had lived a life where the smallest detail, the tiniest clue, could mean the difference between survival and starvation.  He did not miss things.  To miss things, in his life, meant death, and he was still very much alive.

Still, he missed the hum of an engine.  The whoosh of air.  Even the squeal and complaint from its tires as the van turned sharply around.  The smell and noise as that same van swerved in front of him and slammed to a stop?  That he did not miss.

Wait…what aho with a private vehicle that would be interested in him?  That was a question unpleasantly easy to answer.  That answer brought a cold, quiet chuckle that told of fatalism, and of reality.

“It won’t be long now, Oz,” he whispered under his breath.  A bit melodramatic, he knew, but fuck it…if Dockside’s Families were going to kill him, he might as well go overboard while he still had the chance.

It was black, that vehicle.  Black and large, with heavily tinted windows.  And that observation brought its own laugh, sardonic and all-too-knowing.  “Oh, for fuck’s sake, can we skip the cliches?” he complained in that same low voice.  Then he started to laugh.

“Jesus Christ, Spog,” he could almost hear Oz’s voice, almost see his smile.  “If you’re laughing when the gurentai come to kill you, how are they supposed to take you seriously?”

A grinding sound, like an airlock hatch poorly balanced and out of its track, and the broad side door of the vehicle slide open.  Two men stepped out, their eyes fixed solely on Connor.

One was indeed the proverbial gurentai: big, athletic, and with eyes that said every other human was something he would prefer to scrape off the bottom of his shoe.  The second, on the other hand, was someone completely different.

Oh, he was just as tall — as was everyone on this world, so far as Connor could tell — but his tight, closely-tailored suit hugged and defined a body as rail-thin as Connor’s used to be.  Brown hair turning grey, and faded blue eyes, said that slenderness had nothing to do with youth, while the expensive suit said it had nothing to do with the ravages of starvation.

Why the hell would anyone want to look an underfed adolescent?  Connor shook his head and refrained — barely — from laughing out loud.  In a short life that had seen and known far too much, this had to be the most ridiculously surreal scene he had ever experienced.

When that slender man spoke, however, his clear voice carried a tone and accent that everything Connor had learned of Redux said belonged only to the rich and powerful.  “Mr. Spogelse, it’s good to see you finally free.  My employer would like to speak with you, if it’s convenient.”

This time there was no stopping Connor’s chuckle, as bitter and cynical as it was.  No, sir, it’s not convenient, he wanted to say.  The eyes of that gurentai, however, were answer enough.  Connor was getting into that vehicle one way or the other.  Shou ga nai.

Oh, very definitely, shou ga nai.

Connor shrugged to show his acceptance and stepped forward to sit where the looming thug pointed.

Freedom had been nice while it lasted.

A Bit of (Non) Random History

For some reason, the American media just gets all sweaty and shaking when the British royal family comes up for discussion.  That same media also loves a juicy family scandal, so when the two can be combined that sweaty-and-shaking thing turns into a flat-out orgasm pretty damned fast.

So, Harry and Meghan have been in the news lately, thanks to an Oprah interview session artfully crafted to maximize their future earning power as US-based influencers and celebrities.  Yes, that does in fact make them pretty much the Kardashians, but that’s what the public wants, so…

The historical snark in me, however, just can’t let the mediagasm pass without a bit of historical perspective.  Hey, I indulged my space-nerd side a couple of posts ago, so why not let my poor history-nerd side out of its cage for a few minutes?!

Let’s list, for just a moment, some of the — ahem — highlights of Prince Harry’s family history, shall we?

Henry I (very likely) murdered his eldest brother and (very definitely) imprisoned his middle brother for 30 years in order to sit his throne…

As prince, John conspired with the king of France to keep Richard I (the Lionheart) locked up indefinitely in a German prison.  Later, as king, that same John got drunk and personally murdered his 16-year-old nephew in order to secure his grip on the crown…

Edward III seized all goods and possessions from the Jews, then expelled them from England on pain of an agonizing death…

Richard II used to make people — well, nobles and rich commoners — sign blank confessions which he would keep handy in case anyone got uppity, or failed to send him enough money…

As regent and protector, Richard of Gloucester murdered his nephews — the 12-year-old King Edward V and 9-year-old Richard of York — in order to seize the throne and become Richard III… {And you wonder why “Richard III“ is in the top three of Shakespeare’s plays?! I am currently watching on Amazon, by the way, Ian McKellan’s fantastic version of this play}

Henry VIII…well, good ol’ Harry 8 executed pretty much anyone and everyone who possessed so much as a single drop of old Plantagenet blood besides himself and his kids (including a 9-year-old boy and a 70-year-old woman)…

Speaking of his kids, Queen Mary I very much lived up to the nickname that history has since surrendered to an alcoholic haze: Bloody Mary.  She was so ardent a catholic, in the days of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, that in her five year reign she burned at the stake more protestants than did the Spanish Inquisition in its entirety…

And let’s not leave the recent royal kids out of the loop, shall we?  Edward VIII, who popular fiction and perception has romanticized as abdicating the throne because of a love affair with an American divorcee, was (quite literally) a fascist who said — after WW2, mind you — that Adolf Hitler “wasn’t such a bad bloke.”

And Prince Andrew…err, let’s just skip Epstein and underage hookers until things like criminal charges and prison sentences are settled… [Edit: sorry to Prince Edward, Earl of Wessex, for screwing up the reference — it’s little Andy that is the creeper, not Edward]

Oh, and that list above leaves aside some of the most remarkable — and bloodthirsty — women in history, who sat not on the throne but behind it as Queens Consort:

Eleanor of Aquitaine, who spurred and guided her sons to rebel — repeatedly — against her husband, and their father, Henry II… {Yep, Eleanor and Henry are in fact the two main characters in one of my favorite movies: “The Lion in Winter”}

Margaret of Anjou who, quite literally — and quite accurately — was the model and inspiration for Circe Lannister…

Hell, looking back at that list, it’s pretty much Charles and William who need to watch their backs, not Harry and Meghan.  Given the family history with siblings and close relations — and Meghan Markle’s full-bore Kardashian-ness — one has to wonder just how long it will be until someone goes all Corleone…