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

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

Did the sky look different?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, very definitely, shou ga nai.

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

Freedom had been nice while it lasted.

Snippet: The Youngest Kid

Okay, so…I have a couple of posts that I’m trying to work through. Unfortunately, those posts need some thought and attention before I’ll be ready to free them from my Drafts folder. I still want to post something, however.

I could go all random and weird and try to throw something together…or I could do some flashfiction…

Naw, neither of those appeal to me right now.

You know what I haven’t done in ages?  I haven’t posted any snippets from my real stuff! Well, then, there’s the answer!

I tried to pick up the scenes from where I left off oh-so-long ago, so hopefully this will make sense to those of you who have been around awhile. A suggestion for those who are new: if you search for posts with “snippet” in the title, you will find my earlier scenes from Somewhere Peaceful to Die and The Silence That Never Comes

Err…also…a warning for new folks: I curse. A lot. I curse in real life, and I curse in my writing. Yes, my stuff qualifies (sort of) as “Young Adult” material, but my characters are streetkids and criminals. Also, I use slang from different languages almost as much as I curse. You will see a number of words in italics in the snippet below — in this particular story, those words come mostly from Czech and Polish, with a dash of Russian thrown in.

Whew, that was a lot of caveats and addendums! Let’s move past that crap and see what Connor is up to:

Connor wasn’t sure if he loved the sky, or if he hated it.  A bit of both, then.  All to go with his healthy dose of fear, of course.

His work in the prison’s admin center kept him busy on most days.  It especially kept him busy when the other inmates were released into the outdoor exercise yard.  On those days when he did manage to go outside, it was all he could do to keep moving, and to maintain his focus.  A part of himself, deep and primal, wanted simply to stand and gape at all that air hanging over his head.

Connor had operated in space. He had floated — quite literally — in the middle of nothing.  But that, somehow, was less disturbing than the partially-overcast grey and blue expanse of a dirtside sky.  He understood planets, and knew the basic physics of the universe, but he had grown up in a world of hulls and passages and crowded cargoholds.  Every time he looked at the sky, there was always that little-boy wonder at the back of his mind: what kept it all in place?

The yard was big; big enough to swallow the two thousand inmates that were Chapman Pen’s reason for being.  Most of those inmates clustered in tight groups scattered around the yard.  Connor knew those groups, and what they represented.  They were the gangs.  Very few in prison could survive on their own, and the gangs were the easiest way to gain allies and defenders…for a price.  There was always a price.

Connor hadn’t joined the gangs back home, and he certainly wasn’t going to do so here.  Fucking gurentai…no, they were rvac now!  Whatever he called them, they never changed.  They were just as stupid on Redux as they had been Dockside.

“I swear to fuck, these debil get weaker every year,” Brian snorted derisively as they passed one such group while he walked at Connor’s side.

From Connor’s other side, Rahm answered with a laugh, “Not our problem anymore, kamos.  We’re out of the game.  Let the kids have their fun.  They don’t need you lecturin’ them ’bout the good ol’ days.”

Brian just shook his head and grumbled under his breath.

Connor chuckled at the banter.  The vast majority of those in the yard were simple prison-toughs; posturing fools who would’ve been eaten alive Dockside.  But Brian and Rahm…Connor knew guys like them.  He’d never asked the two old men about their lives before Chapman Pen, but rumor and the respect with which they were treated painted a picture far more clearly than any answers they would ever have given.

A turn at the end of the yard and they began to walk back the way they had come.  Redux was a cold world, and Connor walked bundled in a heavy coat that had earned a great deal of mocking from the other two.

Brian swung his big, bare arms — both covered in tatoos from shoulder to fingertips — and gave Connor a bit of a shove.  “You want to get used to livin’, what do you call it, dirtside?  You better ditch the fuckin’ jacket, kamos.”

“It’s a fashion choice,” Connor laughed.  “I’m makin’ a statement.”

A pause to eye three rvac walking towards them and Connor sighed, “Do pice.”

Two were nobodies, the simple goons you could find anywhere.  The one in the middle, however…he was the leader of one of the new, up-and-coming gangs.  Shotcallers, those gang leaders were called, and they did just that, call the shots for their followers.  And for their victims.

Connor had been waiting for this.  Brian and Rahm had too much history, and reputations far too large, to be harassed.  But the youngest guy in the entire prison?  Whatever reputation Connor had built over the last several months didn’t matter, a confrontation was inevitable.  The various shotcallers did not like the idea of an independent.

From the corner of his eye Connor saw Brian’s small shrug.  This was Connor’s problem.  It had to be his problem — to seek protection would mark him forever as weak…as a victim.

Maybe thirty, the leader was.  His thinning hair was shaved to the scalp in front and grown long in back.  The tattoos on his face shifted and writhed in the wan sunlight, changing colors and designs in a random dance.  Very popular, those dynamic tattoos were…and stupid as shit, to Connor’s mind.  How the hell were you supposed to blend into any crowd with a bunch of random squiggles moving all over your face?  Fucking debil.

The leader was taller than Connor, and significantly broader.  He offered tiny nods to the old men at Connor’s shoulders, then took up an aggressive stance that blocked Connor’s path in the most offensive way possible.

Here it comes, Connor thought.

“Yo, little teplousi,” the man drawled, every syllable dripping derision.

It was meant to be threatening, of course, but Connor had been threatened — and almost killed — by people who cut people’s tongues out for fun.  This?  This was minor league kecas.

“You wanna get the fuck out of my way?” he answered, his voice quiet and cold.

“Naw, you got it all twisted,” the shotcaller answered with a sneer.  He paused to glance at Brian and Rahm, a large step back from Connor now, before he continued, “Don’t go all pissy on me.  These two, your friends, they got their own shit.  But you…I hear shit ’bout you, ya know, and I wanna be your friend, too.”

Yep, exactly according to the script.  Connor would retort, then the insults and threats would start flying back and forth.  A bit of that, then they’d get to the yelling and shoving.  A choice, Connor had: he could give in to their little recruitment drive, or have all three beat the shit out of him.  Or he could go with option number three.

Do haje,” he whispered, his voice more than half-sigh.

“What’s that?” the other asked, leaning close as he struggled to hear.

“I don’t have time for this shit,” Connor barked even as his knee slammed into the shotcaller’s groin.  The barest half-second of stunned silence, then the guy gave a strangled scream and tried to curl up, clutching himself.  Connor’s hands had tangled in the long, greasy hair, however, and he held the man’s head at waist height as his knee again swung upwards…repeatedly.

Not much more than two seconds after Connor’s words, the shotcaller was on the ground, writhing and groaning in pain as blood poured from the shattered wreck of his face.

The two goons may not have been stellar examples of human intelligence, but they did know their jobs.  A roar from each throat and they stepped together towards Connor.

Zatim ne,” Brian said calmly.  Just talking ’bout the weather.

The two hulking rvac paused to glance at the shorter man, the anger on their faces turned to confusion.  Brian raised a finger and the confusion turned to fear.  That was it.  No yells, no threats, not so much as a stern look.  A raised finger…one fucking finger.  And they stopped.

Even with his own shit to take care of, Connor was deeply impressed.  And very, very glad Brian was on his side.

Connor bent over and again grabbed that lank, dirty hair.  The groans became another scream when Connor jerked the shotcaller’s head up.  He leaned close and gave that convenient handhold a little shake.  “This is as close as I’ll come to a warning, curacek.  You fuck with me again and things’ll go downhill fast.  I got nothing to prove, and even less to lose.  I don’t give a fuck…about anything  You do not want to press an ikiryo who’s got nothin’ left, you really don’t.”

It was hard to say what was in that face.  Connor couldn’t decide if the eyes held terrified agreement or total agony, and he didn’t particularly care.  The debil understood the point.  That was what mattered.

All six men in that little knot of anger and survival knew the score; in places like Chapman Pen, you survived on reputation.  A failure like this— getting your ass kicked by the youngest kid in the entire prison — meant the loss of whatever power and position the shotcaller had once held.  And quite possibly the loss of life, too.

Shou ga nai.

Connor was ready to step past the crying, moaning idiot on the ground when another voice called from a few yards away, “Spogelse, what the fuck is going on here?”

The sergeant.

Connor sighed.  The sergeant might have glossed over Connor’s little booze-making operation, but sending another prisoner to the hospital wouldn’t be quite so easy to ignore.

“Thergeant thith piethe of thit attacked me!” the crying, bleeding aho on the ground called out.  The blood and missing teeth made him almost impossible to understand.

The sergeant looked down, his face unreadable and his close-cropped gray hair as neat as ever.  “I didn’t see a damn thing.  I’ll have to look into that.”  The sergeant’s dark eyes, full of knowledge and experience, shifted to stare at Connor.

Connor could swear there was…something else in them.  Pity?  Sympathy?  Confusion?  What the hell was going on?

“Spogelse, the Captain needs to see you.  Now,” the sergeant said in a voice that held all of those things, and a great deal more.

Connor stared back, unable to find a single word.  He still had all of the fight’s adrenaline and violence flowing through him, and to instantly shift gears to something so different was beyond him.

“Let’s go,” the sergeant continued.  A wave of his hand and two more guards, young bachu Connor did not know, stepped up to flank him.  Brian and Rahm drifted back, making room for the guards.  They were just as confused as Connor.

This was not good, Connor thought, but what the hell was he going to do?  Take on three guards, when another thirty were just seconds away?  Yeah, that would end well.

He sighed and stepped forward, meekly following the sergeant and wondering just when the universe would stop screwing with him.

Every single eye in the yard was on him as he stepped through the door into the prison itself.  Just as, he knew, every single mind was wondering what the hell the obnoxious, dangerous Dockside kid had done to earn a special trip to the Captain’s office.

Faith, and the Loss Thereof

Okay, so I think I’m over my fit of temper from the last post.

Err…

Well…

I think I’m willing to work through it, anyway…and that’s almost as good, isn’t it?

Don’t get me wrong, I still think WordPress has achieved an entirely new level of moronicity* with their changes, but I’m going to try and struggle through.  And, yeah, some of that willingness to struggle is the ubercompetitive pride that I usually try to hide: I ain’t gonna let any other sonofabitchasswagon beat me! The less said about that side of my personality, the better.

*Why am I a sci-fi/fantasy writer?  Because I freaking LOVE to make up words!

Ahem.

So, where does that intro lead me?

Not into the following post, as a matter of a fact.

I, err…

Look, when the hell have I ever planned one of these posts?!  Yeah, yeah…I come in with an idea of what I want to talk about, but that original idea generally lasts about as long as a Twinkie at a table of 7th graders.  Once I start hitting the keys — once the words start to flow — that original plan is nothing more than a barely remembered aftertaste…

There’s been a conspiracy of late.  No, not THAT conspiracy!  No Satan-worshipping pedophile deep-state resistance for me, thank you very much.  No, this conspiracy is worse.  It’s a conspiracy of those I love, and those I read, and the world itself.  It is a conspiracy to remind of that which I no longer am; of that which I have left behind.

I just finished a new fantasy series that really put the capstone onto this “conspiracy.”  The first two books in the trilogy were good.  Good, but not Tolkien/Jordan/Martin good.  Just good.  They were also pretty basic, with not a lot of undercurrent and subtext to go with the plot and characters.  Then the third book…the third book went and pulled the rest of the clubs out of the bag.

Oh, the message wasn’t what you would call subtle…not even close, in fact.  This was CS Lewis-style allegorical fantasy, rather than Tolkien-style high fantasy.*

*If you don’t know the differing views and philosophies those two close friends brought to their respective works, you should probably go back and study more…

The backdrop for this is that I used to be a Christian.  I still consider something of a Christian, although I am far, far closer to a Deist than to any of the **intentionally skipping controversial comments here** flavors of “Christianity” that so dominate the US today.

So what got me to thinking about this?

That third book.  I copied out and emailed to myself several quotes from that book, but I’m only going to use here the first of those.  Mainly because it was the one that got me to thinking, but also because it is the one that I think has the most to say to modern US-style Christianity (note — I’m editing the quote here to be more general, but book details are at the end of this post):

“Because that’s not how it works. Faithful people suffer and evil people prosper all the time[…]you must know that is true. Besides, if our actions are driven only by reward or punishment—eternal or otherwise—then they are motivated by greed and selfishness, not faith or love. That is where so many people go wrong, even those who say they believe in [God]. They obey because they think it will make their lives better, rather than themselves. And that is very much the wrong reason.”

Why am I not a Christian?  Two reasons I’ll give you — and a third I will keep to myself, thank you very much.

The first, and primary, of those is that US-style Christianity is all about fear and punishment and force.  Do this or go to hell.  Live like this or go to hell.  Believe this or go to hell.

That there is some Kool-Aid-drinking, mind-control bullshit…especially when fed to children.  If a “god” loved me so much he would send me to Hell for even questioning, I’m quite happy to play for another team.

The second of the reasons is that Christians — mostly, but not exclusively, US-style — can’t leave well enough alone.  They can’t let anyone else get on with their life if that life conflicts with their own prejudices and intolerance.  And, yes, this second reason is basically a subset of the first…

But every so often my own prejudices and snap-judgments get challenged.  Every so often you talk to, or listen to, or read, that person who can iterate something different.  The best stories, by the way, can iterate something different.  Oh, it doesn’t have to be religion — arguable, shouldn’t be — but it has to be something meaningful.

Why do Joe Haldeman and Ursula LeGuin and Robert Heinlein and George Orwell still resonate as sci-fi writers?  Because they wrote far more than they wrote.  Their words were about more than plot and character, their words were about the freaking world…about life, and all the bullshit that goes with it.

I’m not going to hold James Islington up in that company — his books were good, but nothing near that good — but he gets all the credit in the world for making me think and question my usual knee-jerk dismissal of “message” writing.

My rule on this, by the way, is if the writer is someone with whom I would like to sit down and have a drink and talk through what they wrote. The list of such writers is pretty stinking small, but Islington (and his message) has made his way onto it.

Well done, sir.

**Note — The specific book in question is “The Light of All That Falls” from the Licanius Trilogy by James Islington.

New Year’s Nostalgic Eve

Okay, so I’ve mentioned before — oh so many times before — just how much I hate the “sin” of nostalgia.  Looking back, for me, is no road I ever want to take.

That being said…

That being said, the most dangerous minefield in the world for me right now lies in the various streaming services.  Oh, the danger is not physical, no more than it is political, social or even cultural.  No, the danger is for worse than that — the danger is nostalgic.

I am, I should probably mention, far more than hip-deep in that particular minefield at this particular moment.

I gave up cable and satellite TV because I was tired of wasting time watching shit I didn’t particularly want to watch.  “No,” I said to myself, “it’d be much better to stream and watch just those shows I want to spend time on.”

That thought sounds great on the surface.  Hell, it sounds like exactly what I want…

Then I start browsing the catalogs for various services.  Then I fall into the twin minefields of nostalgia and memory.  Then I start exploring all that with which I grew up…

Don’t get me wrong, I want and like to try the new and unique, but there is always the pull of the old and familiar.

“Wait a damned second!  Just what the hell are you talking about?” I hear you cry.

Star Trek (the original series, thank you very much!), The Twilight Zone, Battlestar Galactica, Robotech, Star Wars, BladeRunner, and…well…Lost in Space.

Yeah, yeah, I admit it: I (kinda) grew up on Lost in Space.  Crap, even as a kid, watching the show a couple of decades and more after it originally aired, I knew it was cheesy schlock.  I knew that, and still I watched it every Saturday morning.  Still I wished I was Will Robinson…

Okay, so that still doesn’t answer your cry.  Fine.  Here goes the answer, here is why I’m talking about this — I sat down tonight to stream something.  I checked out my usual options and nothing struck me, so I finally dusted off my old NetFlix subscription to check out what they had going.D49D5096-1FAC-42FE-B870-323E91CFD336

Danger, Will Robinson!

Crap, as soon as I saw NetFlix had a take on that old series, I had no choice but to renew.  I certainly had no choice in what I was going to watch tonight!*

*”Wait, why aren’t are you going out to live it up on New Year’s Eve?!”  Nope.  Not anymore, not for me.  Too much memory, too much pain.  I either watch TV, or I get bitterly, painfully, intentionally not-gonna-function-tomorrow drunk.  Since there’s no middle ground for me on New Year’s Eve, I have lately tended to go with the TV option…

I don’t even know if this particular version of that old show is any good; all I know is that it scratches an itch I didn’t even know I had.  And, even if the new Will Robinson fails, there still is Stranger Things to kick me in the nostalgia gland…D3DAD449-C104-43D0-B0DD-E1120154A44C

Happy Freaking New Year, Will Robinson!!