Snippet: The Birth of a Scene

A few housekeeping things before I get to today’s post itself:

1) Yes, I know I didn’t post on Wednesday.  *sigh*  The reality is, I’m doing some outside, temporary, non-writing work, and it snatched away my time and energy.

2) Err…I messed up the renewal on my WordPress plan, which is why my regular seatatthe.bar address is, err, not-addressing.  Hey, I spent years mastering the arts of procrastination and slacking, why would I ignore those valuable skills now?!  I should, however, have it fixed in the next few days…

Okay, now for the post itself…

I’ve talked before about how music influences my writing.  Sometimes it is merely a thing of tone and mood, helping me to nail the frenetic stress of a battle, or the intimacy of a love scene, etc…  Other times, however, the music plays a role in the very imagination and creation of a scene.

That process is as important as it is valuable to me, so I figured I would use today’s post for a bit of illustration.

First, what I am going to do is link the song itself that helped give rise the scene.  Listen to it first, then read the following snippets, and see if you can see where it played into things…

The song is called Halloween, by Gaslight Anthem (off their Get Hurt album).

Now, I do another thing for certain scenes, and for important characters.  It’s an idea I stole from Roger Zelazny — I write a piece about the scene from another (important) character’s POV in order to flesh out thoughts and impressions.  This is doubly important in the DockRat series because the the stories are 100% from my protagonist’s limited POV.

This is the background piece I wrote, from the perspective of his (ex) love interest…keep in mind, the writing for these background scenes is a one-off.  I do not revise or edit them because they will never (ahem) appear anywhere except my background notes:

Nat laughed at Eric’s story, could picture to herself the events he was describing. She was about to reply when some inner alarm told her all was not right.

Someone was standing near, that feeling said, and was studying her. In a house full of yet another of the endless parades of drones and sycophants that existed only suck up to her mother, she had no desire to be ‘studied’ by anyone.

She turned her head, an acid comment on the tip of her tongue.

She turned, and everything stopped. The comment stopped. The room stopped. The entire world stopped.

She was staring at a ghost, at the face of Miseries Past. The last time she had seen that face, it had left her alone with men as likely to kill her as say hello. And the last she had thought about the owner of that face, he had been headed off to begin a long sentence.

“Connor Spogelse, as I live and breathe,” she said, her controlled voice at odds with the emotions boiling up inside. “What are you doing here?”

Her muscles clenched, then, at the sight of him. His blond hair had grown back, almost to his collar, and his eyes were still that same intense, royal blue that almost seemed to glow. Part of her wanted to laugh, and to welcome him with a hug and warm words. Most of her, however, knew him for what he was: a liar and a criminal. A drug addict and a thief so lost to hope and honesty that he had chosen prison over her.

She had tried to save him, once. Now, she just wanted to hurt him. It was just as he had once told her, there was always a price to pay. She had paid, that day in the bowels of Dockside, and now it was his turn.

She turned, then, and looked again at Eric. If he lacked Connor’s knowledge and experience — let alone Connor’s charm and intelligence — at least he was hers. Eric, she didn’t have to share. And that mattered. It mattered a great deal.

Her voice was confident and imperious when she ordered, “Call the cops, this piece of shit escaped from prison.”

From the corner of her eye she saw Connor pause. The hurt in his eyes was almost palpable, but so was the cold, ruthless set of his expression. The coldness he wore as armor, she knew, but he’d damned well earned the hurt.

“Wait…Natalie…what the…?” Eric stuttered.

She only looked back to Eric for a heartbeat, just long enough to see the paralyzing confusion on his face. When she turned again to watch Connor suffer, however, he was already gone. A look around the entire room, then, and she still could not find him. How did he do that?

“Who the hell was that?” Eric asked, the confusion on his face turning to irritation.

Nat put a hand on Eric’s arm and squeezed gently, warmly. Her voice, however, still had that note of imperious command; never again would she let someone else take charge over her. “Never mind, Eric. I was just kidding. That guy is just someone I used to know. He used to screw up a lot, so I was surprised to see him here. He belongs somewhere…” a wave of her hand, vaguely indicating anything and everything that was not-Redux, “…else. Somewhere where his screw-ups won’t hurt real people.”

A dark suit at her shoulder, then, and Nat turned with a look of impatient contempt. It was Collins, of course, her mother’s top aide. The head of the line in the endless parade of sycophants worshipping at the altar of her mother’s power.

“Excuse me, Natalie, but your mother needs you. She’s about to make her speech, and she’d like you with her when she does,” the drone droned.

Nat dismissed Collins with words that were vague and disinterested. According to her mother, an ass-wiping errand-boy wasn’t worth any more than that. A twinge, then, as Nat realized Connor would very likely have been of the very same opinion.

No, she decided in a flash, she wouldn’t tell her mother. Not yet. If she told her mother, Connor would be back in prison inside of a day.

Nat didn’t quite understand why, but she wasn’t ready to do that to him. She didn’t love him, not anymore, but he still mattered…in ways she couldn’t understand, he still mattered to her.

Okay…now to being it all together.  Below is the (basic) scene itself.  Keep in mind, this is still a rough second-ish draft, so revising and editing are still to come:

Connor wandered the rooms of the house and nursed his drink. Everywhere he turned, there were familiar faces. Faces familiar not as friends, but as kamo, as marks to be manipulated and worked. He was surrounded not by those he wanted to be with, but by his co-workers at MDC. And every single one of them was almost as strained, and almost as false, as was he.

The conversations in that house consisted mainly of office politics and all the snide, insincere banalities that defined office relationships. And, underneath it all, was a feeling of tense anticipation. The feeling of a storm waiting to break, of something coming that could very well affect their comfortable existence.

Connor was used to that feeling, was used to the sense of impending disaster and doom, but the pampered and protected others? Every jerky move, every cackled laugh, every too-eager gulp at strong drinks, told of their tension and fear. Every face bore the stress and emotion he could so easily use to build a scam. Just as every face told the story of its owner’s hopes and fears. Those faces told the stories, but Connor had no desire to work.

No, all wanted was to be out of that house. A full day he’d had already, a day of wearing the mask that was Connor Torlae, and he was exhausted. He wanted nothing more than to decompress. To listen to music, or — better — to sit in silence and listen to…nothing.

An employee mixer, they called evenings like the one through which he was suffering. A chance to relax and mingle and form friendships, they said. Another sip of the wine in his hand, and Connor silently sighed. Do I really have to do this? he asked, not sure he actually wanted to know the answer.

Something’s coming, Spog. You can feel it. Hell, even these baka can feel it. You have to know what that something is, or you’ll get run over by it.

Connor’s drink was empty, and still he felt nothing. A few steps, to the bar, and he had already ordered a double whiskey before remembering that Connor Torlae didn’t drink whiskey. Connor Torlae was a good boy. Connor Torlae didn’t lie, cheat or steal, and he certainly didn’t down at one gulp a glass full of strong liquor.

Connor cursed himself, then, for carelessness, and for making stupid, dangerous mistakes. That mask he was so tired of wearing, it was starting to slip. Losing control like that was bad. It was very bad. When his control slipped Dockside, he had always had the chance of a sprinting escape into the farthest, darkest reaches of the res-holds. But here, on a planet, just where the hell was he going to run?

He began to slip through the room, then, all his old skills at ghosting through any crowd coming strongly to the fore. No one noticed him, no one thought anything of him. He was just another junior employee looking to escape from somewhere he didn’t want to be.

Oh, shit…

Once, in younger — better — days, Connor had loved parties. He’d loved long nights of booze and friends and music. Long nights with those he loved. In his universe, however, those he loved could be counted on one hand. But Oz was dead, a ghost now in Connor’s mind, and Nat was…

Nat was across the room.

He almost didn’t recognize her.

Oh shit, was she beautiful. He could still see in her face the same girl who had hidden in Dockside’s depths with him. The girl who had held and comforted him as he recovered from the worst beating of his life. But that girl had grown. Nat had changed. Maybe more, even, than Connor himself had, and that was something he would not have thought possible.

It wasn’t the first time he had seen her, of course, but it was the first time he had been that close. Seeing wasn’t enough, however, not in that place, not at that time. She was the last link to his past, to everything he’d lost. If he left that house without talking to her, he knew, the opportunity would never come again. He still loved her, and he had to try and salvage that love from the wreck he had made of his life. He had to salvage it. If it, too, disappeared, he really would have nothing.

A pause, then, to grab a new drink from a passing waiter and he took a sip…a very long sip. The booze offered that bit of warmth he needed to take the tension from his muscles. Everyone else in that house was a ghost to him, then. A ghost in the worst Dockside sense of that word: they weren’t real, they didn’t matter, not to him.

He couldn’t see or hear anything except the pretty, dark haired girl across the room. The girl with enough of a grip on his soul to push caution and care from his mind. The girl he had failed. The girl he had, in the end, abandoned.

It wasn’t Redux, not in that moment. It was Dockside rising up around him again. The smells, the claustrophobia, the danger…and the lost. Two places at once, one memory and one reality, and he wasn’t sure what was true anymore.

Was he in the spacious house on Redux, or back at The Beat? Hell, he wasn’t sure who he was anymore, either. Was he the corporate spy making a mockery of the planet’s best security, or the ikiryo expecting death at any instant?

He stepped through the crowd without any conscious decision. He pushed his way through, really. A few moments, and he was standing silently behind Nat’s shoulder. She was chatting with a group of friends, a small knot of people all about the same age. Connor’s own age, in fact, even if they did look impossibly young and naive. She laughed at something one of the guys said.

Her back was to him, and Connor reached out a hand, hesitated. What the hell was he going to say? He wasn’t ready for this.

He dropped his hand and began slowly to turn away when Nat turned her head, looked right at him. That she recognized him, in spite of a year’s worth of changes, was evident. She stopped and stared, her face momentarily blank with confusion.

It made her look younger, that expression. Made her look like she had a year ago. A lifetime ago.

Dockside’s accent was back, thick once again on Connor’s tongue as he lost control of the vital, hard-won habits of survival on Redux. “Hi, Nat. I’ve missed you.”

A moment of silence, of shock and emotion on her face, then everything closed down. Cold, that face became, and hostile. “Connor Spogelse, as I live and breathe. What are you doing here?”

Her look shifted to the guy next to her, the one she had been talking to, and her voice became commanding. “Call the cops, this piece of shit escaped from prison.”

There were just over a hundred people gathered in that house, yet only three had heard those horrible words. Among those three, the reactions were very different. The guy looked confused, Nat looked angry, and Connor…Connor looked desperately for escape.

There was no time for words, not if he wanted to get out with his skin intact. A heartbeat to look — to look, and to commit to memory the last he would ever see of Nat’s face — then it was time to go. A turn, and a few steps, and he was moving through the crowd with all of the skill at his command. A sidestep here, a dodge there, and he was into another room all-but unseen by those around him. He had put dozens of clueless coworkers between him and Nat, but that wasn’t enough. He had to get out of the house entirely.

The buzzing of the crowd had changed. Even as Connor slid past the knots of conversation, he could sense the change in tone, could hear rumors and hints of what was to come. Words like merger and buyout danced and fought with — and ultimately surrendered to — phrases like cost-savings and reductions-in-force.

It was important information to be gathered, information vital to his true purpose at that party, but Connor couldn’t stop to insert himself into any of those little groups. He could feel Nat’s emotional gravity pulling at him, could feel the tugs and twitches of memory and desire, and he had to get away from the danger of that. Even more could he feel the danger of her words, however, and of the reality of Connor Spogelse. That reality threatened to overwhelm the protection offered by Connor Torlae, and to take away everything he had gained, so he continued to move through the rooms, and to seek escape.

He slipped toward the very back of the house, then, and a door he had found in his earlier wanderings. He carefully worked his fingers over the ‘screen in his pocket as he moved, readying one of his secret, safe idents. As soon as he was out that back door, he would issue the final command and slip on another mask, become someone else. Again.

The buzz of conversation changed, became too much to ignore. Connor stopped and turned, look back at what had caused the disturbance. His coworkers had changed clothes for the party, were wearing what passed for casual outfits among the young, corporate professionals. The disturbance, however, was centered on dark suits. Several dark suits. A swirl of people, then, and the suits parted to reveal who stood at their center.

Amanda Hendricks…and Nat.

Amanda was talking to one of the suits, issuing orders, based on their expressions. She hadn’t yet looked his way, hadn’t noticed him.

Nat, on the other, was staring right at him.

Two steps and Connor was out the back door. He started to run.

And that is one of the (greatly simplified) ways in which scenes and stories come together in my little universe.  Now go listen to the song again, after you’ve read the scene itself, and listen (again) for the echoes…

Ignore The Writer In The Corner

“Hey — I was wondering if you could give me a hand…wait, are you okay? What’s wrong?”

A wipe of the eyes, and an excuse: “It’s nothing, just some allergies…what do you need?”

There’s a reason why I train the staff and regulars at the brewery to leave me alone when I write. I get very into what I’m writing at the moment; if I don’t care about the characters, and about the death scene I’m writing, why the hell would any reader?

This is part of the deal, for me, as a writer. I’ve described before how my ideas are the ghosts that float around the back of my mind…and about how Connor & Oz were those ghosts who just wouldn’t shut the fuck up, who wouldn’t leave me alone and let me get on with other shit. No, they demanded to be written…and they became, over the course of all the effort and thought and emotion I’ve put into them, real.

Do your characters talk to you?

Is there any question more awkward to answer to non-writers? Because…well…of course they do, of course my characters talk to me.

If they didn’t talk to me, they couldn’t tell their own story. If they didn’t talk to me, they couldn’t force me to change my plots and plans and ideas to suit themselves. If they didn’t talk to me, they couldn’t, in the end, be real.

But it does make things awkward as hell when you write in a public setting. Especially when you’re killing one of those characters off…

I have become, it must be said, incredibly scattered today.

One (death) scene written…not really planned, nor really tied into the other stuff (because it’s the end of Flicker, and has nothing really to do with Silence), but written nonetheless. A second scene half-finished, before the emotion and the words ran out…

Hey, let’s try something different! I know — blog posts!

Two blog posts — yep, TWO — half-finished, as well. After the intensity of the first scene, it’s just hard to truly follow through and finish…well, anything.

This is why I usually try to have a plan for what I’m going to write in a given session. This is why I (usually) don’t just “wing it”.

On the other hand…I made myself cry. And, yes, as much as all the rest: this is why I write.

Grumpy And Distracted

I don’t really have a post in me, today.  Too busy, too tired, too frustrated.  Nothing terrible, just one of “those” days…

So, rather than put up something completely pointless and thoughtless, or delay posting until tomorrow, I figured I’d pop up another snippet.  The scenes are still going in order (well, theoretically in order).  As ever, this is the first draft of a work-in-progress:

A one-gallon bladder, soft and flexible — bought from a kitchen worker with the promise of free booze — was no easy thing to hide in a four-by-eight cell of concrete and steel.  Not when it was filled to the brim with a mash of ingredients busily fermenting away.  No easy thing, but not impossible.  No, sir, not impossible…not to someone who had grown up on t-deck.

Connor’s thin, cheap mattress might never be the same again, but a minute or two to open it and rearrange the stuffing and he had a neat little hiding spot.  If the mappo didn’t look too close.

That was the trick, of course: to distract the guards while they searched, and to point their attention elsewhere.

A shrug, then, and a mental sigh.  They’d find it or they wouldn’t.  Shou ga nai.

He took a moment to look out the small window in the now-securely-locked cell door.  There were just two teams tossing the cells, but they were doing a pretty damned thorough job.  Clothes and mattresses and knickknacks were flying out of the first two cells to land haphazardly on the dayroom’s floor.  Typical mappo bullshit: make as big a mess as possible to remind the animals just who ran the fucking zoo.

They were taking the cells in order, starting with the first floor.  That was a good thing; it meant they weren’t targeting specific people, nor looking for anything in particular.  The downside, for Connor, was that it also meant it would likely be a long while until they got to his particular cell, tucked as it was into the far corner of the second level.

A cheap, rudimentary ‘screen sat on the meager desk, called to him.  It connected only to the prison library, that ‘screen, but Connor had long ago learned the value, and the truth, in the written word.  Oz had taught him that.

His jaw clenched, and he fought the past.  The demons — those demons of memory, and of pain — they were always threatening to break loose, and that he did not need.  Not here, not now…not ever.

He drank the remainder of the jar in a single gulp and rinsed it carefully in the small sink bolted to the wall.  Why waste perfectly good booze on a shitty drain?

A moment more to consider, but the decision was easy.  No reading, not now.  His prize possession was calling even louder than that ‘screen, and the words and wisdom it contained.  Connor was one of the few in all of Chapman Pen with no cell-mate — few knew how much effort that had taken to arrange — and the cell’s top bunk served only one purpose: to cradle and hold his guitar.

That guitar was a cheap, battered pity-gift given by a sympathetic guard.  It was also Connor’s most precious possession.  His only possession, when you came right down to it.

Music…music mattered to him.  The only thing that mattered as much as reading.  It was equally a gift from his past, of course.  If Oz had given him reading, Marie and Vin had given him music.

And he’d killed all three.

There were those demons again.

Shit.

Teaching himself to play had been a slow process at first, but that same guard had linked him several songs and manuals, and Connor had worked hard to learn.  Harder, in fact, than he’d worked even to learn the languages and culture of his new ‘home’.

The desk was a tiny bit of metal sticking out from the wall, and its seat was an even tinier bit of metal.  No one could be comfortable sitting there, but Connor decided a perch on his bed would just attract attention to the fact that he did, indeed, have something to hide.  Onto that uncomfortable metal seat he went, then, guitar in hand.

He’d made the mistake of remembering, of course.  The past had power, tremendous power.  Even now, a year later — even after the demons had gone quiet and were staying in their little holes at the bottom of his mind — the past still called.  The emotion…the experience…the reality…the pain.

Around him echoed the typical prison cacophony: yells and insults between cells, inmates pounding and kicking at doors, the sheer joy of noise and chaos for the sake of noise and chaos.

It was complete misery to Connor.  Silence, and a bit of peace: the things he had never had in his life.  The things he wanted more than anything else in the universe.

He started to play, then, and to sing.  Quietly, yes, but with all of the honesty and emotion that Marie and Vin had taught him lay at the heart of music.  Emotions he could express in no other way.

Images went through his mind, carried by the music.  Flashes of those he had known.  Those he would never see again.  Marie.  Vin.  Oz…Oz’s blood, Oz’s body.

His friends.  His brother.  Everyone he loved.  Everyone he had.

The song was almost automatic, one he had played many times before.  It carried everything he could never express.  Not in prison…not in life…not ever.  Only through the music.

Every time he played that song, he found another layer to the music, to the words.  Every single time.  It said what he could not, carried everything he kept buried.

He had no idea how long he played, how many songs he sang.  It couldn’t have been long — he didn’t know all that many songs — but it felt like forever.  That was the only time in his disaster of a life when the prison went away, and the bitter rage with it: when he was playing.  When he let himself feel.

It was the closest he came to feeling that peace he and Oz had so wished for.  That peaceful place to die.

Oz had found his peace, but Connor?  Connor had found everything but.

He never heard the guards arrive outside his cell, so lost in the music was he.  Never heard the whirring of the lock.

“Shut the fuck up, you piece of shit!” a voice screamed, right next to him.

That he did hear.

A surge of violence in him, then.  It was a surge he resisted, but barely.  It was no easy thing.  The one thing that finally stopped his rage was the weapon in his hands; there was just no way he would waste his precious guitar on the head of some useless prison guard.

Snippeting, For Fun And…Well…

I started to write a post today…I started and failed.  It was pretty much on the far side of terrible, and I don’t really have the patience to try and punch it all the way up to “acceptable”.

Ah, well, time for my old writerly fall-back: the snippet.  I posted this one several months ago…but it’s going up again to stay in line with my theory of posting the scenes for Silence in something resembling proper order.  A couple of weeks ago I did the first one, so here is the second.  As ever, remember all the standard snippet-warnings about this being the rough draft, etc…:

The door slid aside and the guard who had silently escorted Connor from Admin motioned 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, Connor stepped into a completely different universe; a universe of noise and chaos and stench to numb even the most jaded senses. He 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 him 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. It was a lesson and a task 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 crazies, the cvok: those who raped and murdered, even in prison.

Down the stairs and he was pedaling a stationary bike, as fast and hard as he could. Lifting weights, also fast and hard. Stretching and movement, continuing to develop and hone 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 inmate 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 had 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 practice 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 insane, 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 reluctance. 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 had 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, then, 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 rule 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 that this man had once run the biggest, most violent 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. Better to always let these two feel 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 ignored only by the terrified new inmates — the fish, as they were called — and the crazies who had lost themselves.

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 the inmates all moved to their cells. No, he had bigger things to worry about…like where to hide a gallon of illegal prison wine.

Shit.