That One Key Image

I’ve talked before about the fact that books & stories are not necessarily about what they’re about. As a writer, I love that fact; I love using subtext and themes to communicate my own thoughts and feelings in the work.

I have, in past posts, described what Wrath & Tears is really about, talked about that one key image that really defines the book for me: one broken kid holding the body of another, far more broken kid. But what is the key image for Silence?

Given that the current story is only about a third of the way finished, that’s harder to say than you might expect. But…I write the end first. And the end, in the way I write, is that key image. The end is the thought, and the emotion, I want to linger in the reader’s mind as they walk away.

So what is that image? Where Wrath touched on suicide, and my own memories and experiences thereof, Silence is about the search for meaning – for faith, if you will – and the realization (Wish? Hope?) that there really is more to life than this.

If, in my own life, that is a question very real and hard to answer, just how much worse is it for a street kid who has never had a chance in the world? For years, Connor’s world – his meaning – came down to just one thing: Oz. The two needed each other not just to survive, but to truly live. But Connor grew and changed where Oz could not, and a big part of his problems in the first story came from his unspoken, unrecognized need to search for more.

Recognizing that need is hard, even for an adult. For a 17-18 year old kid? Yeah, right: self-reflection and self-awareness aren’t exactly part of the standard equipment. I will reiterate something a very smart lady named Janet Reid once noted: “a 17-year-old boy is just a walking erection with an iPhone.”

And, no, that is not the main/final image for the current story!

So, we have this issue where Wrath is unabashedly and unashamedly sad, but Silence is intended to (re)introduce that one concept so glaringly absent from the first story: hope.

That theme and image, then, comes down to one thing for me, to something Connor  would never have considered a year ago. It comes down to the realization that, regardless of how broken and screwed up both he and the world are, he has to believe. Believe not just in himself, but also in something bigger…the realization that he has stand for something. It comes down to that same kid – broken and hurting still – reaching out for help to the one person he fears above all others.

As a final note: the theme of the third book is already decided, as well. Hell, the third book was decided the moment I wrote the final scene for Silence.

The key is in fact hinted at throughout all of Wrath & Tears, actually: alone is worse.

It’s time to really tackle that concept, and to touch on in a new light Connor’s struggles from the first two stories.

It is time, when you get right down to it, to tackle the concept of family…and everything contained within that incredibly loaded word. It is time, especially, to address the reality that Connor learned so early, and so painfully: some families you’re born into, and some you choose.

A Snippet: The End Of It All

Do you show your last card in poker? You do if you’re an attention-whore writer…  The story still has a book or two to go, but the end…?  Well, there was no other way for Connor’s story to go:

The place was much cleaner than he’d expected. There was no trash, no crowds, and the smell was little different from a hundred stations.

The uniform didn’t fit right, not yet. It was tight and loose in all the wrong places, and the young man chafed wearing it. He chafed more, it must be said, at his assignment.

All he wanted was to get through the Academy. Join a ship, live a little. The universe was a big place, and he’d seen almost none of it. Quite why people insisted on throwing the father he’d never known into every assignment, every conversation, every word, he didn’t know, but he was getting very tired of being ‘that’ kid.

The whistle blew and he stepped forward, a wreath in his arms.

Why the fuck was he carrying a wreath?

“On this spot died those to whom we owe everything,” the admiral intoned.

Pontificated, really.

Everyone else stood in neat lines, but the boy in the ill-fitting uniform had to step forward, had to present his wreath.

“The chaos and death that overwhelmed so many of our cousins missed us…”

Jesus Christ, just let him put down this heavy fucking wreath!

“…so many lives, and so much blood. More than anyone else, we owe to one man’s sacrifice our peace, and our survival. One very brave, very young man.”

Fuck…finally!

The young man stepped forward, placed the elaborate wreath on the stand in front of the tomb.

Surrounded by trees and simulated sky was that tomb. A simple marble block with an even simpler inscription on its face: a name and a pair of dates. Those the young man understood, but what lay beneath everything else? That still made no sense.

“Attention!”

A thousand people snapped to stand erect. Hands over heart, or saluting at the brow, whatever was more appropriate to their own history, all honored the sacrifice of the dead.

Those who knew the truth had defined that inscription, the young man knew. He knew the name, knew the dates – as did any good son – but the two words? What the fuck were they?

CONNOR SPOGELSE
2/2/163 – 2/28/183
SOMEWHERE PEACEFUL

The Silence That Never Comes

It took some thinking for this post. It especially took some thinking to use this particular title. Those blessed with good memory may recall that the above is also the working title of the current story I am writing (the sequel to This Place of Wrath & Tears).

Now, for Connor, the title carries the message and symbolism of his search for meaning and value in life. Of his nend to answer the question/problem of “there has to be more to life than this.” I hesitate to call it a search for faith, but in all honesty there is an awful lot of that in there as well.

That search, very obviously, has meaning for me as well. Crap, I wouldn’t write the damn story if it didn’t mean something to me. Just as I wouldn’t create characters, or use themes and subtexts, that are meaningless to me.

I had the day off today, so I went for a hike. Rather than go to one of the well known sites, or use one of the marked trails, I decided to set off for a bit of back-country hiking*.

*Yes, Mom, I carried bear spray and watched out for hungry and/or horny animals.

Where I call home has more than doubled in size since I moved there almost 15 years ago. Do you have any idea how long it’s been, among all those people, since I’ve heard silence? Since I’ve been able to get outside without people and dogs and cars and noise all around me? Hell, even the trails and national forests in my area are crowded and noisy.

I didn’t reach my destination on the hike, but I never expected to. The ground was snowy and marshy, the hills sudden and steep, and the way overgrown and difficult. I walked until I found a good spot and sat for a bit, just looking around me. Again and again I did that.

More than looking around, however, I listened.

I listened to silence.

The sound of tall trees in the wind. The sound of an animal a couple of hundred yards off. A few birds. The rushing of a tiny rivulet from the rapidly melting snow. That’s it, that’s all I heard.

All the things I haven’t heard in ages. All the silence I haven’t heard in…oh…decades, it feels.

Being who I am, I spent the time not just wrapping myself in all that silence but also thinking and planning about the thematic elements of Silence. And about what I want and need to communicate, both for myself and for Connor.

My time finally finding silence, and my thinking about Silence, was a reminder and a reinforcement for me: I write this blog for other people. Oh, I enjoy it, and I get both fun and benefit from writing these posts, but this is by definition something I do for others.

For good or for ill, I write my stories for me. That I share them is a side-benefit. They are more than the way I give life to those ghosts fluttering around me, they are the vehicle for my own thoughts and emotions…both the good and the bad.

That is why I can’t give up the writing, no matter how frustrating it can be. That is why I chose this life, and this outlet. That is why, honestly, it works: a reader doesn’t have to like what I write, but I promise you they will feel what I want to communicate.

Who could ever ask for more?

Ruts, And The Strangers You Meet

I’ve talked a bit before about characters, and about the thought and effort we put into them. But just as important are the assumptions we make about them…assumptions both as readers and as writers.

Jumping with both feet into a an entirely new group of folks, very few of whom know each other, is one hell of a way to start testing your assumptions and judgements about people. It is, honestly, like going to summer camp…just one with plenty of booze to smooth over the awkward bits (and create other awkward bits).

For someone like me, it is also a topic of some interest to expand that thought and wonder how my assumptions about strangers affect those I make about my own characters. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that I also weigh all these strangers and new folks for personalities and life experiences to use for my characters…

People surprise me…all the time. In many ways that’s a good thing, since it means I’m not as jaded and cynical as I like to pretend. In other ways, it’s not so good since it means I probably made an ass of myself about them in the first place.

I think we can all agree on the need to be fair and honest in those snap judgments we make, and in the value of that fairness. But to those who read or write, or just plain dream, I will reiterate the broader question I posed above:

How often do you treat the characters that matter to you as strangers? How often do you step back to examine and reevaluate the snap judgments you made about them in the first place? Remember: good characters – characters that are complete and whole – should talk to you, should have depth and demands of their own.  Just like real people. Just like the strangers you meet.

I made assumptions and a snap judgment about one of my characters in Wrath & Tears that I regret to this day. The flaw is not so fundamental that I can’t go back and fix it, but it does mark a failure on my part to let her stand and tell her own story.

I knew, after all the revisions and edits, that I had not done her justice, but it wasn’t until I started trying to think about the assumptions I’ve made about the folks I’ve met up here in the park that I forced myself to really go back and look at her.

You never realize just how much of a rut you can fall into: a rut of people, places and things as much as of thought and experience. I had fallen into seeing and talking to the same people in the same places over and over. A couple of workers put together a “movie night” last night, and I was sitting and having drinks and a good time with several folks that never would have entered my orbit back home in my usual “rut”.

I love it. As a writer I love it, and as I person I need it. I joked about this in Monday’s post, but it really is like summer camp. Or better yet, your freshman year in college. You are, pretty literally, forced into close confines and friendships with folks from far outside your usual norm.

That is an experience and a skill that far too many of us who’ve made it through those early-twenties years tend to forget. Especially when you’re of the more…ahem…introspective type.

Peeing On Trees

I can feel, already, the pressure falling off my brain (and off my soul).

Now, I normally don’t remind folks of this, but I write these blog entries ahead of time. Seldom do I need to sit there on the morning of a post and bang one out on the keyboard.

Err, if I do, I screwed up. I screwed up bad.

Since I am heading into Yellowstone for days/weeks/months – with all the spotty internet and change-of-scene and dislocation that that entails! – I am trying to get a decent backlog of posts queued up.

Building that queue means I have to think and write through some things that I might normally push aside, or…well…massage a bit before I put them down for others to read.

But you know what?  I’m not gonna do that right now.

I NEEDED this change of scene. I needed the fresh air…I needed a new dynamic…I needed, honestly, to do something random and short-sighted and stupid.

I am, by the way, very good at those particular aspects of life: random and short-sighted and stupid. I have a PhD in random and short-sighted and stupid. I’ve also had a lot – A LOT – of fun in my life! I am, of course, also completely broke most of the time…

Like most people, I didn’t realize just how uptight and stressed I’d become. I definitely didn’t realize just how much I needed to change my surroundings…even if only for a few weeks.

I am not, I long ago realized, a domesticated animal. I need to roam. I need to try new things. I need to pee on trees. Err…never mind that last bit.

Of course, taking a fairly large weight off my soul raises one interesting question: do I lose the bitter, angry edge that has defined Connor’s stories so far?

Wait…

A more relaxed, optimistic story for Connor?

Umm…

Err…

Excuse me, but I have to go find a tree to pee on…

I Never Did Listen Well

I’ve been told I shouldn’t do these, I shouldn’t post snippets.

“Don’t give your stuff away, even if it’s an initial draft.”  “Too many complications, just keep it to yourself.”

Screw it, I don’t care.  I write…that’s who I am.  I write so people can read.  I write to share characters and stories, to share emotion and thought.  Everything else is just noise.  So…a snippet:

The guitar was a part of Connor, body and soul. The words and the music even more so. All of his emotion, and all of his memory, had been pouring into his music for the better part of two hours.

Connor did not lay himself bare to strangers. Hell, Connor did not lay himself bare to himself. The memories of those that mattered were too sore, and too near, however, for such control when he was playing.

Into every word and note of his music went all of the pain and loss – and the guilt and shame – that bore the names and memories of his ghosts: of his dad, of Marie and Vin…and of Oz. Always of Oz.

A final line sung about the price always waiting to be paid and he bowed his head, listened to the diminishing notes of the music. The heat on that stage, and the effort of his performance, had almost as much sweat pouring from him as emotion. The small, packed bar echoed with the crowd’s cheering applause, but Connor couldn’t hear them. The memories, and the unshed tears, were too loud.

A few breaths, a few precious seconds to gather himself, and the spotlight faded.

Thank you, Spog. I wish you’d sung to me before.

How did you answer that?

You remembered, and you felt, that’s how.

He could barely raise his arm, so much energy had he spent. But then again, he didn’t need much energy to drain the tumbler of whiskey at his elbow. There might be no forgiveness in alcohol, but there was numbness. He was going to need an awful lot of numbness after the music.

But not for anything would he trade that music. Nor the memories. His friends – his family – were dead, but they would always live in his music…and in his soul. They were something he could hold to, something he needed very badly.

Another drink was pressed into his hand, a babble of voices talked to him. He looked around, he answered and he drank. But it all took place in a daze, his body responding and functioning by the purest instinct and habit.

That daze didn’t end until a voice spoke; a voice he did not expect.

“You made me cry tonight, Connor. You promised never to do that again.”

He looked up. He couldn’t not look up, as hard as it was to do. No, he wanted to run away and hide. He wanted very much to hide.

It was Nat.

Connor hadn’t felt like this since the night he’d held Oz’s dying body: helpless and hopeless and beyond words.

Talk to her, Spog. Say something, you crazy ikiryo.

You could tell me what to say, he thought back to his dead friend.

Oz’s only answer was the faintest of laughs, and the memory of warmth…and of love.

[Edit: cleaned up the paragraphs…copying stuff from my usual writing program into WordPress can be funky sometimes.]

The Snippets Shall Rise Again

It’s been a while since I posted a snippet, so I guess it’s time once again.

I do have to say, when I was proofreading the bit below, a thought hit me: why are my worst days (on a personal level) also my best writing days?

I suppose it’s because writing is a retreat from the real world. You get to write about someone else’s problems and ignore your own…if only for a couple of hours. Of course, given the tone and content of my current story, the writing also gives me a chance to vent about ‘real world’ shit.

The bit I am going to post is, err…well…angry, to be blunt. That, at least, was my state of mind when I wrote it. It is not a complete scene, but rather an ‘extra bit’ that I turned out at the end of a writing session. I had already written another scene by that point, but wasn’t in the mood to stop.

What do you do when you want to keep writing? Sing the chorus with me: you keep writing! So I did. The bit below is the first half (roughly) of the scene in question. It is also the opening of Act II, and so represents a transition from the set-up and exposition of the preceding scenes/chapters.

Standard warnings apply: this is a VERY rough draft that has only undergone proofreading for the most egregious grammar & punctuation errors. To all intents and purposes it is completely raw output that needs (and will receive) refining as I go through the rest of the writing process:

It was still cold outside. It would always be cold outside, Connor decided. Dockside hadn’t been particularly warm, and definitely not comfortable, but it was still a damn sight better than this frigid pile of rock he now had to call home.

They stepped through the huge lobby doors and onto the big plaza in front of the tower. A glance at Sonthi and Connor quirked an eyebrow. “You wanna tell me what the fuck we’re doin’, boss?”

They were the first words he had spoken since Sonthi had grabbed his arm and hustled him from Chapman’s office. Mumbled promises to the executive that he would ‘explain everything’ to Connor had not-very-successfully hidden a haste to get out that Connor found almost comical.

Did Sonthi think he was about to beat the shit out of Chapman? Another glance at the aging ex-cop and Connor decided that was exactly what the mappo feared. He clamped his jaws shut against the rising chuckle and did his best to look simultaneously angry and scared.

Oz would’ve been proud.

Sonthi’s hand tightened on Connor’s arm and he leaned close, whispered in a voice hoarse with tension, “Just hold it together, kid. We’re gonna take a little stroll and go somewhere we can talk. I’ll explain, I promise. But not here. Just stay with me a little longer. The walk will do you good, anyway; you looked like you were about to go full-fuckin’ ikiryo on Chapman back there, and that wouldn’t be good. For either of us.”

A year ago – in another place, and another life – Connor would have gone ‘full-fuckin’ ikiryo‘ on any patronizing aho who talked to him the way Chapman had. But now? Now everything was different.

Two steps and everyone on the plaza was staring again. Shit, even the Stationside takies were better than these idiots.

Sonthi expected him to be angry and resentful, so Connor decided to play to expectations. To over-play, really.

Go big or go home, that ghostly memory of Oz chuckled.

Sonthi walked…normally. Working to blend in with the other debil on the plaza as far as Connor could tell. But Connor…Connor most certainly did not. He strutted and rolled as he walked, carrying all the arrogance and attitude of a chinpira who’d just made his bones with a Family. That walk would very likely have seen him get a knife in the gut back home, but here? Here all the tight-suited fools couldn’t get out of his way fast enough.

Past the plaza and halfway down one of the semi-identical streets, Sonthi looked at him and said harshly, “Christ in a blender, chiima, what fuckin’ crawled up your ass? Relax, kid, it really does get better from here. I went to too much trouble getting you out to fuck you over now.”

Connor’s only reply was a grunt. Conversation was the last thing he wanted just then. No, he had thinking to do. A great deal of thinking, and even more planning. He hadn’t lied to Chapman: he would do whatever baka job the CEO had in mind for him, and do it well. But there wasn’t a chance in hell he would let these idiots take advantage of him. No, taking advantage was his job, not theirs.

The buildings lining that narrow street were taller and more confining than even the worst of the res-holds. This planet had nothing but space, Connor silently wondered, so why the hell did they all crowd so close together? What idiot had come up with this?

It was the concrete, he decided, that made it all so confining and oppressive. Made up of nothing but dark grays and blacks, that concrete was used for everything: from roads to buildings and everything in between. Even those few buildings with decorative facings, like the LRC tower, kept to the same dark palette of depressing monotony.

Shit, these people had an entire fucking planet, and they wanted to live as crowded and confined as the poorest docksider? Baka, all of them. But crazies made the best kamo; ‘more money than sense’ wasn’t a curse in Connor’s line of work, it was a blessing and a wish.

Another few hundred feet and Sonthi turned to enter one of those buildings, just as looming and dark as all the others.

The windows had been tinted the deepest black, leaving only a broad, flashing sign above the large revolving door to provide any color whatsoever. Bright pink and blue neon proudly proclaimed “Washington’s” in what Connor suspected was meant to be the most up-to-date and fashionable way possible.

It just looked stupid to him.

He followed the older man through that revolving door and into a world of pale woods, green plants, and weird lighting. Dockside had interesting shadows and odd colors because the lighting was shit, and there was no chands the Station would pay so much as a penny to improve the living conditions of a bunch of criminals and malcontents. But here, in the capital of the entire damned star system? Here there were shadows and odd colors because…they wanted it that way? Baka, every single damned one of them was completely insane.

He was able to stifle the laugh that threatened, as rude and contemptuous as it was, but not the derisive snort.

Sonthi stopped to look back. Quietly, he said, “Give ’em a break, kid.  These idiots wouldn’t know a decent bar if it danced naked and slapped ’em on the ass. They call places like this modra. Means ‘blue’, for whatever that’s worth. Not sure what the fuck it’s supposed to really mean, beyond every haafu in here having blue-balls ’cause no one in their right mind would have sex with any of ’em.”

That laugh Connor couldn’t stifle. Sonthi may have been a kamo at that moment, but he was still a docksider through and through.

 

I Reject Your Reality…

Meaning and subtext. Well, hell, why not take a shot at it today? I’m behind on posts, so I have to get one or two prepped and scheduled if I want to actually stay ahead of the game. And, yes, that means the once huge backlog I had (about two weeks’ worth of posts that were stacked up and scheduled) is officially gone.

I got sidetracked by…well…the real world.

Damned real world.

IMG_0145LEAVE ME ALONE, REALITY!!

You know that old MythBusters saying? Yeah, that’s me…

Err, sorry…lost the thread for a minute there. Back to the point.

Wrath & Tears was a story about corruption and revenge and, most of all, love. But – yep, always a but – that wasn’t what it was about. It was about suicide. More specifically, it was about the despair and pain that lead to the act.

It was about a friendship and a love that, in the end, weren’t enough to save a life.

I’ve lived that. I’ve been in Connor’s shoes. What Wrath was about was both easy for me, and was the hardest thing in the world.

Silence is different. Where Wrath was external – about something outside of Connor (and me) – Silence is very much internal. It is about Connor’s own despair and survivor’s guilt. More than that: it is about the search for some form of faith and meaning in life, both for Connor and for me.

It comes down to a “quest” to justify and fulfill the sense that life is meant to be…more.

How do I do that?

Good question.

The simple answer is: I lose the inhibitions. I pour myself, emotionally as much as mentally, into the writing.

But that answer is trite and facile.

The reality is that I have to think and plan. Any good story has meaning and subtext. It may or may not be obvious, but I guarantee you: if you remember a book (or play or movie…) it said something to you.

But when said story gets preachy, or – worse, by far – self-indulgent? The journey from memorable to shitty happens at Warp 9. I try to very much keep that in mind. When I plan out the scenes, I (try to) ration out the emotion and subtext as much as I do backstory and exposition.

It ain’t always easy. Err, it ain’t ever easy, to be honest. But then again, that’s why writers get paid the…err, let’s just stop that line of thought right now. The damned real world is still lurking, in spite of my best efforts to ignore it…

When you get right down to it, hitting the right tone and level of subtext with Silence is a real challenge for me. In some ways I’m not quite as openly invested as I was with Wrath: the memories of those suicides that touched me personally are very real, and are in their own way concrete and “quantifiable.”

In other ways, however, I am far more invested in Silence: the emotions and thoughts are mine, which makes them rather more powerful, if somewhat nebulous and hard to “use” on an intellectual level.

Not to mention the fact that I have to take a plot about greed and corruption* and factional/corporate politics and weave it on top of a story about guilt and pain and the quest for meaning…

*Err, yes, that is indeed a focus for all of Connor’s stories…

Maybe I should switch to decaf for this one.

Living With The Ghosts

Now that the writing is in full swing, I’m thinking about characters.  Every day – hell, every hour – I’m thinking about characters.  The ghosts are, to me, very real at this point…and will be until I finally exorcise them by putting words on the page.

In more detail, I’m currently thinking about how to communicate all the little details and realities of my characters without resorting to the dreaded “info dump” of exposition and backstory.

One of the things I love about writing – and reading! – is when a well-crafted and well-used phrase, laden with emotion and meaning, communicates far more than 500 words of info-dump.

Now, there is a lot I’m proud of in my writing…and an even greater amount that I know needs work.  It’s not better editing, it’s not better vision, it’s simply becoming a better writer.  But…that does not mean there aren’t things I write that I don’t look at and think, “Fuck, yeah.  That worked…”*

*Goddamned triple-negative sentences!  Maybe it IS better editing I need…and, yes, I’m way too lazy to just go and fix the sentence.  Besides, it’s more fun to write this little aside and mock myself.

Heading that list of things that worked?  Oz.

Of course it was Oz…  He is still my favorite character, and is far and away the character most personal to me.  Shit, he’s still the only character that can bring me to tears…

There is a lot to Oz: a lot of meaning and a lot of emotion.  More than I ever describe, honestly, even in the text.  He is, after all, my stand-in for those friends of mine who committed suicide…and for my own issues with that same impulse.  One of the keys to Oz as a character, and who he is as a person, is his history…

Connor describes a bit of that history to Nat in one particular scene, but that description is matter of fact and simple.  He explains Oz’s life of rape and degradation in the bluntest, coldest way.  That’s all he really can say: he has no way to express to her the truth and honesty of Oz’s past, nor to soften his life of horror and pain…the life that Connor himself barely avoided.

His statement to Nat tugs at you, yes.  It communicates something about Oz, yes.  But it isn’t real.

No, for me the real success came with what I mentioned above: that one key phrase/sentence that captures everything in just a handful of words.

“…Oz was a lump in his bed, a tight ball pressed deeply into the corner—his normal sleeping position, a hunt for the safety he’d never known.”

I know I wrote the fucking thing, so I’m pretty damned biased, but to me that phrase still captures Oz’s history, and his reality, far better than all the exposition in the world.

As I get better at writing, I’m realizing more and more that you really have to be careful with your words.  You have to minimize.  A good writer can communicate in ten-fifteen words what a bad writer needs a hundred to do.

Now, I’m nowhere near that “good writer” point…and I know – being as competitive and self-critical as I am – that I will never consider myself to be there.  But that just drives me to work and practice and strive for constant (if slow) improvement.

The best personal sign of that development?  When I go back and re-read older stuff, I cringe at my wordiness…and at the lack of focus in my vision and in my words.  That I see and understand those problems is an official Good Thing, by the way.  Well, good nowadays…not so good back then.

There was, to tie everything together, no key phrase to identify the emotion and honesty of those older characters in just a handful of words.

Shit, maybe Steven King was right: the first million words really are just practice.

Cry Havoc! And Let Slip The Snippets Of War!

I haven’t done a snippet for a while, so I guess it’s time. Maybe I’ll shoot for “predictable snippetage” (best part of writing? Making up your own damn words!). Once a month sounds good to me…

As ever, my standard warning very much holds true: these snippets are (extremely) rough drafts. They have not gone through anything resembling my normal editing process, so they are raw and unrefined. They also may or may not make the final manuscript of the story.

Oh yeah, mandatory nanny warning: if you’re sensitive, just know that Connor curses…a lot. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

The door slid aside and the guard who had silently escorted Connor from Admin sent him inside with a peremptory wave. He had turned on his heel and was marching away before Connor had taken so much as a single step.

Shit…marching – the guy was literally marching. Connor could all but hear an imaginary band playing some old parade song. Terra Uber Alles, or some such bullshit.

A small laugh, then, cold and bitter, and he stepped through that door. The dirtsiders were even more nuts than the fucking takies.

From the quiet of the corridor, it was like stepping into a completely different universe; a universe of noise and chaos and stench to numb even the most jaded senses. Connor had grown up on the poorest and most crowded station in all of human space, but even Port Oblivion’s infamous dockside had little to rival an enclosed cell-block on a harsh frontier world.

The sound of the lock sealing behind broke Connor’s miserable reverie and he moved forward with a snort. Yells and curses all around, fists banging on metal tables, a poor quality holo blaring some idiotic children’s show, the stench of several dozen men of doubtful hygiene confined and competing for everything.

Home sweet home.

A place he hated. A place he resented. A place he had earned. Three times over, he had earned it.

A wave from a table drew his eye. A table off to one side, under the stairs and isolated…as much as anyone or anything could be isolated in this place. Brian and Rahm. The closest thing he had to…acquaintances in here. Not friends, no. Never friends. Connor had a bad habit of getting his friends killed.

He waved back and moved at a jog to his cell on the second level. Cards and conversation could wait, he had something else to do. Something he did every day, without fail. Something he had avoided for much of his life, a lesson he had truly understood only once he’d entered Chapman Pen.

A quick change into another of the ubiquitous prison uniforms, this one ratty and worn. Blue, Connor’s were, noting him as an inmate considered non-violent and worthy of trust. New prisoners, still untested and unknown, wore orange. The longtime inmates with no particular standing were stuck with tan uniforms that looked as shitty as they smelled. And the red? The red were for the violent nutjobs, the cvok: those who raped and murdered, even in prison.

Pedaling a stationary bike, as fast and hard as he could. Lifting weights, also fast and hard. Stretching and movement, continuing to develop his impressive speed and agility. Connor had never wanted to workout as a kid, had relied on his charm and his brain. And had been sent to prison for five years. No, Oz had been right, as usual: Connor could never again be the skinny, out-of-shape kid he used to be.

The others in the cell-block’s small gym gave him space. Whispered comments, yes. Strange looks, yes. But plenty of space. Throwing an erojiji asshole over the second-level railing would do that for you.

“No, officer, he jumped, I swear…”

No one would disagree with Connor. Especially not after he had cracked the prison’s datanet to erase the automated holo-recordings.

Reputation and respect were life itself in prison. Just like dockside. Just like home.

He would never let this be home, not Connor. No more than he would let himself be a victim. Not again. Not ever again.

A shower, then, fast but thorough. Water wasn’t limited in Chapman Pen, but old habits died hard. Water was precious where Connor came from. Water was life itself. He’d seen people killed for less water than he used in his two-minute shower.

Work: done. Workout: done. Now it was time for school.

He dropped a small jar in the middle of the table as he sat. A grin, then, for the two old men at that table. Both had been inside Chapman Pen almost as long as Connor had been alive. Neither was likely to ever see again the world outside its walls.

It still took thought, and effort, but it was getting easier: the accents and words of dockside were erased from Connor’s tongue, replaced by the still-uncomfortable cadences and slang of Redux’s east side. The poor neighborhoods. The criminal neighborhoods. Connor’s natural habitat.

“Just pulled that shit from the fermenter,” he said with a wave at the plastic jar that once had held soy paste masquerading as peanut butter. It now held something very different: a liquid dark and thick and just slightly effervescent. “I used more fruit this time, so it should be a bit sweeter than the last crap.”

“It better be,” the shorter of the two said with a grimace. “That last batch about peeled the goddamned paint from the walls.”

Short and stout he was, but the fat did nothing to hide the size and strength that even age had not stripped from his frame. The knuckles of his hands were scarred and battered, as was his face. Brian had led a long life before Chapman Pen, a life as dark and dangerous as Connor’s own.

“Screw it, na zdravi!” the other laughed. A reach and a twist of the cap and he took a long gulp. Then he coughed. He coughed a great deal. “Kurva! Boy, is there anythin’ but booze in this? The fruit is about the only thing keepin’ me alive right now!”

Rahm was tall and spare, dark of skin and of eye. His white hair was the barest fringe, clinging desperately to his scalp like some frightened animal. Few teeth remained to him, but he still would never visit the prison’s doctor. “Fuck ’em,” he would answer whenever Connor asked, his voice always full of anger and resentment, “they wouldn’t do shit for me on the outside, why the fuck would they care now? Svine.”

The drink was called pruno, the men had taught Connor, and it was one of the most valuable things you could get your hands on in Chapman Pen. Men with nothing but time and grudges would pay almost anything for the escape of a stiff drink.

If not hard to make, it was challenging to hide from the guards. The fermenting slop that was its base was fragrant, to say the least. These two old men had taught Connor the tricks to use for that even as they taught the recipe.

They had, in fact, taught him a great deal more: the language and culture of Redux’s slums, and of her underworld. It didn’t matter where you went in human space – didn’t matter how wealthy and powerful, how perfect, the world – there were always slums and criminals. Always people like Brian and Rahm…and Connor.

Nothing would mark Connor a stranger in those neighborhoods more than the mix of Japanese, Thai and English that was dockside’s everyday language. No, Redux’s poor spoke something very different, and Connor had to learn how to speak, and how to act, if he were to have any hope of survival on the outside.

Strong the drink might have been, but that was no sin. The cards were dealt and the game began, the jar making its own rounds among the three. Connor still had no idea just what were the rules of this particular game; he just played his cards and moved his little peg on the board when they told him how many points he’d scored. Winning wasn’t really the point, anyway.

He’d tried to live in his cell when he first arrived, in the isolation and loneliness of his own mind. Tried to read, and to learn the guitar. Peaceful and quiet, most would have thought. A reprieve from the colossal noise and crowding he had grown up with, a chance to mourn and to heal after the death of those few he loved.

It was anything but.

The constant screaming and cursing, the banging and fighting, the sheer idiocy of the other prisoners. At least three hundred people, a place this size would have housed back home. Here, on this planet, the sixty-four inside made it feel more crowded than even t-deck. And louder.

He’d been going slowly nuts, isolated and alone and searching desperately for silence, when the two had poked their way into his cell. There was no hesitation with these two, never any reticence or hesitation. Both were inside for the rest of their lives, so what the fuck did they have to lose, anyway? From his first words, Rahm had started making fun of Connor, laughing and mocking, while Brian asked questions.

Connor’s impatience and anger had not made things any better. They had, in fact, made things worse as the two pressed all the harder.

Connor had started to feel ridiculous, then, yelling at two men so impossibly old they looked ready to die at any second. Then the unlikeliest thing in the world had happened: he’d started to laugh. For the first time since Oz’s death, he laughed.

It made all the difference.

They weren’t friends, could never be friends, not to Connor, but they were a connection. Alone was worse…alone was always worse.

“You’re doin’ your time better, Connor,” Brian said as he gathered the cards for a new hand. “That job you weaseled in admin agrees with you. You play this right, you not only live more comfortable but you also maybe squeak a year off your time.”

Kecas,” Connor answered with a laugh that held only a tinge of his usual bitterness, “what in hell I do if I get out anyway? Sure as shit no one here needs a kid who ain’t never lived under a sky.”

A shake of Rahm’s head, both at Connor’s words and at the cards in his hand. “You get out, you go look up my boy. He didn’t follow his papa into the dark side of life. Was too smart for that, my boy. He runs a place in the Camp. Nothin’ special, but he knows plenty of folks.”

The old man’s look intensified and his voice turned from his habitual relaxed drawl to a tone sharp and intelligent, “I’ll tell him to give you a hand, but no favors. You take care of him in return, and you keep your ass out of this shithole, rozumis?”

Connor did understand. Nothing for nothing. No matter where you were in the universe, that never changed. Rahm’s humor and relaxed old-guy attitude were an act, just as much as was Connor’s play at naivety. He could never allow himself to forget this man had once run the biggest gang in the Haze. This was no soft old man, and definitely no fool.

He nodded, then, but deliberately did not match the other’s intensity. No, better to play it soft and easy, always let these two feel like they had the upper hand. Connor needed what they had to teach. “Crap, Rahm, I got four more years in this hole. What was it you told me back when? ‘Do your own time and live in the day.’ That’s me, jus’ doin’ my time.”

A joke from Brian, and the game continued. And Connor continued to lose. He could count on one hand the number of games he’d won in the eight months he’d been playing cards with these two.

The big door by the guard station opened and all eyes turned, as they always did when that door slid aside. It was a necessary habit in prison, a tool of survival that only the terrified new inmates – the fish, as they were called – or the crazies who had lost themselves, ignored.

All were expecting the dinner cart, pushed by blue-clad inmates. The younger, and stupider, prisoners were already lining up, eager to receive the shit-filled-trays the prison called food. Only the colors and textures on those trays changed, the taste never did.

But it was not the cart, not the blue-clad kitchen workers.

Instead in rushed a group of guards. A lot of guards. A godawful lot of guards.

“Shakedown!” the watch sergeant bellowed. “Into your cells! Move it!”

Connor wasn’t one of those screaming curses and abuse at the guards as all moved to their cells. No, he had bigger things to worry about…like where to hide a gallon of illegal prison wine.

Shit.