Perchance To Dream

I’m still ignoring current politics (for the most part). I just don’t have the energy to dive into that particular cesspool, let alone try to tread water and swim…

My goal, as far as this blog (and my writing in general) is concerned, is for readers to never really know just where I am on the political “spectrum”. That is, to be honest, a pretty freeing thing as far as the ideas and dynamics I get to use in my stories. It also lets me play with assumptions and preconceptions*. I can use scenes and incidents as a bit of a Rohrshach Test to let people read in their own answers.

*I ran across this story/research on assumptions once, and it still is one of the best things ever – click the link and give it a read!

A separate part of the problem is that I don’t really fit all that neatly anywhere on the spectrum. I believe things from many different “camps”, and value things that occasionally set me at odds with even those who generally share my worldview.

*shrug*

What the fuck…it keeps life interesting and entertaining, at the very least. And, by definition, anyone who agrees with me 100% of the time is completely nuts anyway. Groucho had it right: I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would admit someone like me!

But…this post is something of a but.

Since I’m writing sci-fi* at the moment, I thought I would (should?) say a bit of something on plans and directions for the US space program for the next several years.

*It definitely ain’t hard sci-fi…I could actually set it in a current, modern city and get away with it, but by doing sci-fi for Connor’s stories, I get to exaggerate and emphasize certain problems and crises I see in modern western society and culture.

The elephant in the room, at this point, is climate and Earth-monitoring so I’ll start there. I know this will set some people off right away, but bear with me: I don’t actually see a problem with transferring the vast bulk (if not all) of those tasks to the NOAA. That is the NOAA’s mission, after all.

It does not mean those satellites and missions are going away – were that case, then there would be a real problem. But by putting them completely under the agency most responsible for analyzing and using the data, I think there can be some legitimate savings and advantages. There can also be a a greater level of recognition (and accountability) for what the NOAA does. That is a good thing.

To be honest, the more important part of this argument is, for me, about NASA itself. That space agency, once so geared to exploration and expanding the reach and grasp of human knowledge and endeavor, has become far too limited and narrow.

I would dearly love to see NASA leave near-Earth orbit (for the most part – certainly not completely) to the burgeoning private enterprises. The basic foundation has been laid – much like with the US highway system – now it is time to let the UPSes and FedExes and Amazons of the future develop and grow.

To be honest, I think the only way we will ever see near-Earth orbit and the LaGrange points develop the way sci-fi has been dreaming of for sixty-plus years is for creative, aggressive and ambitious folks to figure out how to make a buck up there…

The other benefit is “freeing” NASA to focus 100% on what it does best: pushing the envelope. A big reason why I want to see the monitoring and orbital stuff taken out of their bailiwick is so they can turn their attention and energy to exploring outside of Earth’s orbit. Manned missions focusing on the moon and Mars (at present). Asteroid mapping and exploration in order to eventually open the gates to mining, as well as adding a further “jump off” point for outer system exploration and development.

And then the really exciting stuff: the outer system missions.

New Horizons should be a starting point for Kuiper Belt and trans-Neptunian objects, not an end.

More missions to Jupiter and Saturn. No, really…please, more missions to Jupiter and Saturn!

Missions to Uranus and Neptune (neither of which we have, in so many words, so much as scratched the surface of).

More spaceborne telescopes and observatories for deep space work. Shit, I recently spent a couple hours obsessing over the images from HR 8799. Yes, I know, they were mostly from Keck, but still…direct imaging of an extra-solar system! That gives me a serious nerd-stiffie.

In the end, I want NASA to use and build on what it has done very, very well. Crap, the Mars rovers are fucking All-Stars at minor league prices. And don’t even get me started on Cassini and Galileo…

Once we accept that the way things are working in space has to change and grow (and I think most, if not all, can agree on that), then all that remains is to work out the details.

And to dream…always to dream, and always to reach farther…

The Peasants Rejoiced!

I gave myself the best present of all this week: I started the actual writing.

img_0028Yay!

Am I done with all the outlining? Nope.

Am I done with all the character details? Nope.

Is the Act I outline in good enough shape to start the process of laying out and writing scenes? Is the overall story idea developed enough? Big yes, to both.

I’ve mentioned before that I write the end of the story first (err, well, sorta…), then go back to the beginning. To me, you can’t go on a journey until you know where you start and where you finish. In between? That’s the time for all the wandering and randomness. And, yes, in real world terms that is how I ended up staying in a brothel in Spain. Don’t ask.

In writing terms that means I get to spend the next month or two working on Acts I and IV. When those are finally pounded into first-draft shape, then I will go back and fill in all the blanks in Acts II and III to make everything come together.

Hey, it works for me.

Honestly, I’m pretty geeked up about this – I’ve done snippets and little bits and pieces, but to finally get to sit down and write…well, that’s the fun part.

Which brings me to the harder part: beta readers.

As writers, we need ’em. But finding the right ones? That’s pretty damned hard. Too often those we ask to read either give no feedback at all, or give feedback that is, err, “less than useful”.

Actors are pretty much the biggest attention-whores in the Universe – shit, their entire being depends on people paying attention to them – but writers ain’t all that far behind. We live inside our own heads, and in general we understand just how badly we can lie to ourselves. We need the feedback and comments from readers. Even misanthropes like me crave that feedback…

I know writers who insist they will only use other writers as beta-readers. That, to me, is a bit of a head-scratcher.  On the one hand I can understand the sentiment: who better than a writer to know what feedback is important?

On the other hand, isn’t that just a bit like a manic-depressive getting therapy from a sociopath?*

*An old Steven Wright joke: a masochist and a sadist go on a date. The masochist says, “Hurt me!” The sadist answers, “No.”

I’ll have to think pretty hard about my beta-readers for this one. Yes, I trust myself and what I imagine and write. But trusting myself does not mean I actually get it right. That is what a beta-reader is for: to find the inevitable holes and flaws. It most definitely is not a grammar thing, it’s a story thing, and not a lot of people are wired to think (let alone respond) that way.

Shit, I wonder if I can order one from Amazon…

Yet Another Random Post

I wrote a while back about different books that influenced me, as well as books that I thought folks should read (or have read) to really get their mind wrapped around a breadth of voices and visions.

Well, that topic is part of a much larger argument/debate in which I’m involved. I wish I could say the debate was new and fresh. It’s not. It’s one of the oldest debates around: what makes someone educated?

Now, to set the stage a bit…this debate is taking place in a forum for navalists. Many are current or former officers or senior enlisted, some are involved in naval history, and others are civilians in the world of defense policy or products.

All of that is a long-winded way of saying this is a STEM playground. My degrees in history and linguistics are not in the majority.

The gist of the argument is the same you can hear or read in the news these days: the only legitimate courses of study are the STEM majors. Anything else is a waste of time, money and effort.

Bullshit.

Now, don’t get me wrong, we need engineers and scientists and accountants.* We need lots of them. But is that the totality of life? Of intelligence and education? Not even a little bit.

*Shit like Marketing and Poli-Sci? Those we can drop into a hole, fill the hole, then nuke the shit out of the land containing said hole…

Short of modern day Germany, pretty much the most engineering-centric society in human history was ancient Rome. The Romans really only did three things well: make laws, kill people, and build stuff. We love to look at the buildings and roads they left, but how many names of Roman architects do we remember?

Exactly.

We remember Caesar (who could do all three superbly well), Cicero, Virgil and Ovid. Heck, we remember Marcus Aurelius as a writer and philosopher far more than as a general and builder.

I used Caesar and Marcus Aurelius as examples very intentionally. To them I could add other names: Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Ben Franklin, Tokugawa Ieyasu…

What do all these names have in common? They could do it all.

There was a current in history, up until the mid-20th century or thereabouts, that demanded a person who wanted to consider themselves educated have a wide and comprehensive base of knowledge.

Literature, Poetry, Music, Art, Personal Combat*, Engineering, Strategy, Politics, Math, Logic, Language. A bit of everything was expected, to be honest. Of course people could and would be better at some of those versus others – the Caesars and DaVincis are real rarities – but the expectation was to have at least a grounding in all.

*I’ll use that term to cover the wide variety of fighting skills (swords, spears, bows, guns, etc…) that changed and evolved as time went by.

But that message has seemingly been lost. We are telling students today that only math matters. That things like history and literature and art and music are wastes. I cannot and will not accept that. Not even the littlest bit.

To be honest, I would like to see all levels of schools, from elementary through college, bring back a breadth of education. I want kids to learn algebra, geometry and calculus, yes, but at the same time I want them to learn the basics of music. I want them to learn to appreciate art and literature. Crap, I also want committed and dedicated PE classes.

A person is a whole that is greater than the sum of his or her parts. But if you neglect any of those parts, that whole becomes vastly less. Challenge yourself, and challenge any kids you know and can influence: learn it all. Be a whole person, don’t be the limited stereotypes that “society” today seems to want.

When Commitment Becomes Insanity

Mmmm…commitment. Or a complete lack thereof. I’m not really sure…you be the judge:

It is still very much winter where I live. Now, winter here means we can get two feet of snow in an afternoon then have temps in the fifties for the next week. I have, quite literally, gone skiing in shorts and a sweatshirt since I moved here.

That being said, I do have my limits.

I’m still trying to be a good boy and ride my bike as much as possible.  It feels good, it’s healthy, and hey, I can confuse all the Prius drivers by riding like a “civilized” person then go off and tear up the countryside in a 4×4…

At any rate, back to riding. It’s supposed to be in the forties today. Supposed to be.

I’m tough, I can ride in that. C’mon – some gloves, a decent fleece…how hard can it be?

I made it two miles.

Holy shit it’s cold. “Walking in a Winter Wonderlond” my ass – I’m ready for some global warming right fucking now!

My fleece might as well be made from used paper towels. My gloves are, well, back at home. And my, err, “nether regions” have run away to hide somewhere warm. I hope they come back some day.

Soooo, either I’m committed because I decided to go for ride in the face of all common sense, or I’m a weak-willed failure because all I could manage was a ride to a coffee place. Evens worse, it’s the most annoyingly hipster coffee place within twenty miles of me. Shit.  I blame Al Gore for this.

All I know is it better warm up soon or I might end up living here…

Why Do You Write?

I was having dinner and drinks the other night with friends from my hockey group. Now, normally the games we play consist of just our core group: a bunch of (mostly drunk) middle aged guys who happen to be pretty good at the sport. The night in question, however, was our annual Friends & Family Night. We had wives and girlfriends, kids…there was even a hedgehog, for fuck’s sake!

Afterwards we went out. Small talk and chatting, laughing and mocking each other, annoying the shit out of everyone else in the restaurant. You know…normal life. One of my buddies mentioned that his son was doing a project for school, and wanted to ask me about writing – which, I have to admit, would probably get him a better grade than asking me about breweries…

So this kid, who is maybe fourteen or fifteen, starts asking his questions and I start answering. Some of them I even answer honestly, rather than blow my usual smokescreen. Then he gets to the hardest question of the lot….why do I write?

Let’s be honest, I can pull a dozen quotes from different writers on that topic. I can use canned answers that I’ve given before. I can sweep the question away with a hundred platitudes.

Here I am, at a table with friends of mine who fit the dictionary definition of “tough”, who all played sports at the highest levels (college, pro, etc…). All have the same sarcastic, caustic, biting wit that makes a locker room seem hostile and cruel to anyone who doesn’t actually play the game (yes, I’m just as bad), and all know me all too well.

The folks around me actually turn and look, start listening. Shit. I really need to make up something funny and urbane, something to make myself look like the second coming of Hemingway…or at least Spillane.

I didn’t.

I actually thought about it. I actually made an effort to answer honestly.

I had also had a couple of beers.

Why do I write?

More importantly, why can I not stop? I have tried, believe it or not. And each time I’ve tried, I’ve failed.

So…why?

I’ve talked around the edges of it in a couple of posts here. I’ve hinted around the reality with friends and family. But I’ve never actually come out and said it:

It’s the only time I’m happy.

For all the shit-money – for all the ups and downs, for all the bullshit – the only time I am really, legitimately happy is when I’m writing a story. All the planning and background stuff, all the editing and revision, those are just sideshows.

It’s the actual writing.

It’s the stories. More than that, it’s the characters. It is putting down for someone else all the emotion and imagery that is so real in my own mind.

So that was my answer, to him as much to myself: I write because that’s who I am.

There’s Humor In Everything

“Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.”   – Douglas Adams, Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency

There have been many artists and writers taken too young, but if there is one that we lost far, far too early it was Douglas Adams.  Writing humor is surprisingly hard, but that man made it seem just absolutely natural and effortless.

I would sell most of my organs to have just one hour to pick his brain…

The problem with writing a story (or two, as the case may be) that is dark, bitter and intensely sad is that there are not many opportunities to exercise the “humor impulse”.  Oh, those opportunities do pop up, believe it or not, but in stories like Wrath and Silence those opportunities are either inside jokes only a tiny handful will get, or are of necessity subtle and low-key.

Some of those jokes take a while to build.  Occasionally this is intentional, but more often the silliness of the situation builds over time and only becomes visible after a certain amount of repetition.

In my little corner of reality, I’ve finally decided that Connor is going to have “What the fuck?” inscribed on his gravestone.  That phrase is – for both me and Connor – a mental shrug and a chuckle of confusion.  It is not angry or resentful, but rather is far more a passive acceptance that the universe really is inscrutable…and who really can understand, anyway?

I actually give a little laugh every time I type that phrase.  If I had to give a name to Connor’s series of stories, I would have to think about calling it (rather unseriously) the “WTF Chronicles”.

Most often, I type that phrase as a natural part of the narrative flow.  Given that Connor is generally struggling against forces he barely recognizes, let alone understands, it is a natural part of his life.  But there are instances where I use it intentionally…and repetitively.  Every single time Connor encounters Sonthi, the first thing he says is, “Sonthi?  What the fuck?”

Every…single…time.

It has become my own inside joke as I continue with the stories.  At this point, I engineer their meetings to make sure it is the only possible thing Connor can say in that particular instance.

What makes it truly entertaining to me is the fact that Sonthi is actually a character that comes from my own mix of frustration, anger and confusion.  His name literally means “combination” in Thai, and he was an amalgamation of several minor characters that were frustrating the living shit out of me.

Sonthi’s role in Wrath was pretty damn minor.  He was a spur for Connor, and a small-scale oracle to keep him on the path I wanted.  In Silence, however, that role has changed…and changed drastically.

There are only three real carry-over characters: Connor himself, Nat and…Sonthi.  All of a sudden he has become a key player, and I have to treat him very differently.

I still laugh at him, though.

His subtext is still to be the last person in the world Connor expects (or wants) to see in any particular situation…and to be the bearer of bad tidings.  If ever Sonthi brings good news, you’ll know I’m pretty much ready to kill him off…

And, yes, I am still irritated with myself for choosing to write Silence instead of the comedy/satire story about conspiracy theories.

SuperChicken Was Right! BAWK!

I had this wonderful plan to get a week’s worth of posts queued up over the weekend so I could concentrate on other things this week.

That got derailed somewhere between an early-morning cold-weather hike and fermenting on my couch. I can’t even blame the football playoffs for that last bit…I gave up cable a couple years back, so there is no channel surfing for me (just streaming).

Ah well, that just means I have to bang out a post for today…and it has to be quick as the real world is catching up with me. Of course, it doesn’t help that I just wasted a half-hour on a five hundred word rant for a naval blog/site I take part in.

I am, it must be said, behind in working on Silence. I figure it takes me 9-10 months to complete a full 120,000 word story from initial exploration to final editing. If I were at all efficient, and could keep from channeling my inner-slacker, I could probably cut that by 2-3 months.

Nah.

Then the writing might start to feel like work, and work is a four-letter word I try to avoid (err, the only four-letter word I avoid…).

If you haven’t noticed, I’m also not terribly focused this morning. I am pretty much a squirrel-ridden mess at the moment.

So, back to being behind.

When I outline the plot for a story, I actually do it in stages. After the initial explorations and quick summaries/synopses, I sit down and break the plot into several arcs: the main/overall arc and a handful of sub-arcs.

Maybe I’m over-complicating things, but bear with me.

Silence has five significant arcs: the overall plot, Connor’s personal journey, a building socio-political conflict, Nat’s personal arc, and a personal arc specific to a new character. Crap…I am over-complicating. Oh well, in for a penny…

What slowed me down and put me on the wrong side of my timeline is clarifying and detailing those arcs. For each one, after I have an initial 300 word(ish) summary, I sit down and work out a detailed, individual outline.

That process forces me to think about each arc as its own story. Each has to have tension, build-up, a goal, stakes (that sense of threat & risk), and a climax. You know the drill…the very same things the story-as-a-whole has to have to make it readable and entertaining.

Working through those outlines helps me find problems and weaknesses. It also, inevitably, causes me to re-think choices and options. Some things seem great when I originally dream them up, but fail when I get down into the dirt with them. Other times I get this itching urge to add something new…

Both happened during this process.

The first three arcs I mentioned above are the most important, and the most intertwined. Keep in mind, at the same time I am working on this stuff, I am also finishing the details of my characters. That process brings up its own changes and roadblocks.

img_0025At the end of last week I pretty much rewrote the last third of the main story arc. Some things in the background of my antagonist changed my thinking at basically the same time I found some weakness in my original plot idea.

So, out goes all the stuff I worked out for that last third and in comes a new way of doing things and…PRESTO! I’m behind!

Ah well, I knew that job was dangerous when I took it!

It’s A Cheese Stick, Not A Nuke!

So there I was yesterday, desperate for a snack. And I do mean desperate – the clawing-at-the-refrigerator-door, wondering-if-linoleum-tasted-good, eat-my-own-hand kind of desperate. But no, I’m trying to be a good boy and eat right…

I’m pretty sure linoleum is high in calories, so that’s out…and I might need that hand (no, not for that you dirty-minded reader!), so that’s out as well.

Crap.

Out comes a cheese stick. A nonfat, pseudo “cheese” stick that I doubt very much is any more natural than the linoleum. Before I close the fridge the nice block of Edam cheese still in the drawer calls to me, as does the nice crusty baguette I bought for dinner…

A “cheese” stick it is. *sigh* I hate my life.

Then I start fumbling with the plastic “easy-open” wrapper. And fumbling and fumbling. Then fighting. Then cursing. This thing makes child-proof bottles seem like they were designed by arthritic old people!

The edam is still calling. It’s good – I know it’s good – and all it has to keep me out is a bit of cellophane and wax…

Jesus Christ, who wrapped this fucking cheese stick?! I will have them destroyed! Just open, for the love of all that’s holy!

In the end I got my snack.

A beer and a pile of edam the size of Connecticut.

What does that particular story have to do with writing? Nothing, I’m just hungry.

Okay, I lied. It has everything to do with writing.

Ever read a book that was just too damned hard to get into? Me too.

The opening of a book has to be inviting and easy to get into or the reader will skip the shitty plastic-encased-unknown and go for the familiar, comfy cellophane-wrapped goodness still sitting on the shelf…

If something is that hard to get into, is there any chance at all of things improving? Will it ever be worth the effort?

It’s possible, but so is me getting drafted by the NY Knicks.  This is not, to be clear, a terribly likely outcome. I can think of two books – out of the thousands upon thousands I’ve read – that actually rewarded me for putting up with the shit and powering through a bad opening. Two.

Understand, I’m not saying an opening should be all fluffy bunnies and rainbows, or that folks should fall instantly head-over-heels in love with your characters from word one. Nope, not at all. But you do have to entice your readers and make them want to keep going. Need to keep going, actually.

To me, that means a tight, personal focus on one of your characters…one, not all.  Two if they’re closely tied from the get-go. Yes, that one character will most likely be your protagonist, but you can do it for someone else if you work it right. What it does not mean is going “big” in your opening and trying to give some massive overview and flood of exposition and backstory.

I’ve tried that, and it almost always sucks donkey balls.

Just to offer a couple examples:

Arthur C. Clarke opened the novelization of 2001 with a guy on a commuter flight (to the moon).

Robert Jordan opened Wheel of Time with Rand and his dad walking into town.

Ken Follett opened Pillars of the Earth with a hanging and the wreck of the White Ship – okay, so that one’s an example of the complete opposite…

More and more frequently (it seems) I’ve picked up books where I just couldn’t get through the first ten or fifteen pages. Too much expo, too much backstory, too much effort at forced foreshadowing, too many names and characters thrown at me…and at least ten more examples to too much/many, just off the top of my head.

Less is more, I have come to believe.

Simplify, simplify, simplify.

Now I just need to listen to my own advice…

Who Has The Keys To The Padded Cell?

There really aren’t many professions – or callings, or obsessions, or whatever term you prefer – that are, by definition, completely isolating. Of the few that do exist, writing seems to me to be the worst. The pay is (almost always) shit, and the costs are…unquantifiable.

Those of us who write live inside our own heads to a degree unimaginable to regular folks. We spend countless hours, and use countless tricks, to make real what we imagine. That is not, in all honesty, normal. It’s not even close.  I am, in fact, fairly certain that those of us who do decide to follow this path fit any number of definitions in psychiatry’s DSM. Writer is, after all, the Old English word for “fucking nuts”.

Shit, even the simplest personal interactions can get weird: I was talking the other day to a friend at the brewery when she asked me about characters. Specifically, she asked about how “real” they are, and did they really “talk” to their creators? Silly me, I answered honestly. She was very polite and impressed, but the look on her face? There goes getting that particular date…

This is (in part) why we drink…err, well, it’s why I drink, anyway.

Ahem. That’s enough on that topic.

There are, however, people who do put up with us. A few…a precious few.

It’s a rare person who can understand – I mean really, honestly understand – just how and why we do what we do (or, at least, try to do). Whether spouse, significant other, friend or family, those few are vital to our success and survival.

Value them. Celebrate them. They help keep us grounded in the real world*, and that is more important than I think they can ever realize.

*Some people refer to that as “sanity”.

No one can go all old-school-hermit and live in total isolation. Humans are in the end social creatures, and we need a certain amount of life and activity around us. Hell, why do you think I write in a taproom in spite of being pretty much a total misanthrope?

Since my man-crush on Chuck Palahniuk continues, I’m going to use some of his words & thoughts. He had it right when he said that a writer can never get back all the time spent alone, that it is never “worth” the personal cost. Of course, he also said: “That’s why I write, because life never works except in retrospect. You can’t control life, at least you can control your version.”

Now, please excuse me, but one of my characters is nagging me…

Shut up, Ilo! It’s not your turn yet!

Somewhere Peaceful…And All the Baggage That Goes With It

Okay, so I was in a certain…umm…mood the other day.  I was at the brewery ostensibly working, but for whatever reason there was a sense more of nostalgia than anything else.  I had originally set out to finish the plot outline I’ve been working on, but a scene idea came to me.  Actually, a scene idea jumped up and hit me over the head then started tea-bagging my unconscious mind.  You know how this ends…I had to write it.

Believe it or not, I actually have a backlog of ideas and semi-written posts building for the next couple of weeks, but I decided to share this instead.  Usually snippets are the last thing I post (for any number of reasons), but I’ve been getting the urge to relax that “policy” a bit.

At any rate, I’m not sure if this will actually make its way into Silence, but if it does it will (most likely) be an early Act II thing.  As ever, I give the standard warning: this is a (very) rough draft scene.  There was no planning and no editing, it is simply an idea that demanded to be written:

There were days when Connor couldn’t really remember who he was. Days when all the false identities and constant lies threatened to wash away what remained of Connor Spogelse and leave behind…what? A creature of smoke and mist, a creature with no name and no existence. Then who would he be? What would he be? A ghost in fact as much as in name.

There was no escaping his life, however. You did what was required and you paid the price. Always the price.

Some folks collected kitsch, others hoarded cash. A few even kept cats. Connor, though, he collected idents; especially idents that were safely anonymous. Life dockside had taught early on the value of always having ready a dodge and a quick change of name. If the dozen idents he currently had hidden and ready were overkill, well…those old habits had more than once saved his ass.

Connor’s life may have changed drastically from those days with Oz – those days that seemed so far away and so happy now – but the habits learned in his early years were still automatic, and still vital to his survival.

His boss had promised safety, and protection. Promises were lies, however, the pure bullshit offered by the powerful to the weak. He wouldn’t trust his boss any more than he would trust a dockside gurentai. No, safety and security were his own problem.  There was no one else.

A fleeting thought, then, and a quiet whisper from the depths of memory. A voice he savagely and instantly repressed, but not before the hit came: alone is worse.

A few hours of work the previous day, lifting ‘screens and idents from the oblivious lunch crowd around the corporate offices, had provided Connor with all the raw material he could want. No money did he steal. Not now, not unless he grew desperate. No, it was just ‘screens he took. ‘Screens and that even-more-valuable commodity: idents.

A few minutes of work to cover his tracks and several of those ‘screens were already set for instant use. You always wanted an option that was local and known. Others, though, were carefully and intentionally scrubbed quite blank.

It was one of those blank ‘screens he grabbed for the work he had in mind. More than any other thing from his life dockside, Connor regretted the loss of his “little grey box” and the unique tools and tricks it had contained. His work would be much easier with that particular little toy. That box, however, had been a shortcut and a tool, not the source of his talent. In Connor’s head still lived all the skills and knowledge that had outmaneuvered and abused every security system the Station had thrown at him.

It was an old ident he loaded on that blank ‘screen, one dating back to his years with Oz. To the last time he had been happy. A week of effort had gone into this ident back then, a week spent creating a “safe space” against the loss of…everything. The loss of stability and safe harbor, the loss of all friends.

Only he and Oz had ever known this name. Only he and Oz had ever seen the codes involved. It was the most secure ident Connor possessed. With this level of anonymity he could do…anything.

He had safed the ‘screen to enter the key information, had used a variety of tricks to ensure there was no contamination, no risk of compromise. No hesitation or worry did he have when he finally disabled those safeguards and re-linked to the net.

What did he have to worry about? Nothing and no one, not with this particular ident.

The ‘screen went momentarily blank as it rebooted, then the interface reappeared in a swirl of colors. He now existed – electronically, at least – as one Sy Bates, completely anonymous functionary and honest citizen.

The mail icon blinked.

There was a message.

What the fuck?

A string of curses, then. Heartfelt – enraged, even – and quite lengthy. Connor spoke four languages with ease, and could swear in several more. Each and every one of those he used to express his anger. He almost threw the ‘screen. Shit, he thought about vaporizing the fucking thing in a reactor.

Caution, however, took hold before his arm could so much as move. Who the fuck would know anything about a completely, carefully fictitious ident? Who could know?

The dark of the tiny, claustrophobic room around him became suddenly threatening.

What the fuck was he doing? This was bad…this was very bad.

Still, he reached a finger towards the icon on the ‘screen’s surface. He had to know. This wasn’t something he could just leave hanging.

No one knew about this ident. No one.

A face appeared on the ‘screen and Connor almost collapsed.

It would be better to be dead.

“Heya, Spog,” Oz said with that laughing, idiot grin that existed only between the pair of them.

A face from the past. The face from the past. His best friend. His only friend. His brother.

Blood on the deck…blood on the knife…blood on Oz. The tears started to roll, unnoticed and unchecked. The sobs wouldn’t be far behind.

A toss of his head and Connor took hold of himself, tried to shake from himself the fear and agony of the past. In spite of his broken, savaged heart he listened to the words of the only person in the universe who had ever mattered.

“You’re not stupid, despite all your efforts to prove different. You know by now I’m dead. I’m sorry Spog,” Oz said. That beautiful, epicene face changed from humor to pain, and to grief. “We’ve known each other too long to start lying now. I just can’t take it, not anymore. You’ve been the only thing in the world to me since that day we met, but I just can’t take anymore.”

Oz’s face changed again, from pain and loss to wisdom, and a certain amused disdain. “If I know you at all, you’re in deep kuso. You wouldn’t be using this ident for any other reason. I can’t help you with anything going on in your world, not anymore, but I can offer you the only words that matter. The only wisdom that has ever mattered.”

Those dark eyes, so soft and sad, turned sharp and intense. “Don’t forget who you are, Spog. I know more about this bullshit universe than you ever will. I’ve lived more in the black, and I’ve seen more shit, than even you can imagine, and I’m the only one who can tell you this: don’t fuck it up. You mean more than I know how to say, and I couldn’t stand it if you fucked yourself up.

“My death clears you, and you better fucking well use that. It clears you to get together with your girl, with this Nat, and it clears you to be real. You don’t have to be an ikiryo anymore, Spog, and you better not fuck it up. If you do, I’ll fucking haunt you for the rest of your life.”

The sharpness faded and Oz’s face turned soft again. Connor choked back the sobs that still threatened and saw – finally, really saw – the love in those eyes that he had ignored for so long.

“Be well, Connor. Be very, very well. Both you and the universe might hate me for what I did, but I will never forgive myself if you’re not happy. I never really said it before, so here it is: I love you, Spog. I always have and I always will.”

A flash of guilt, then, before Oz continued, “We always swore we would find that peaceful place together, but I can’t be there for that. Not anymore. The only thing that makes everything worth it is knowing that you’re not alone, that you have Nat.”

“But I am alone, Oz,” Connor whispered, what little remained of his soul dust at his feet. He was shaking as the image faded, the universe crashing all around him. He couldn’t move, couldn’t think.

There had to be a bottle somewhere in this shithole…