Snippet: The Choice

So, I’m actually putting this post together not long after the one that went up on Monday. I’ll wait to post it, of course, if only to keep from overwhelming folks with words.

I posted, a while back, the first half of a scene. It was a scene I wrote seven or eight months ago, in fact. It was a scene that had no real place in the outline for The Silence That Never Comes, but rather was one that, I thought at the time, MIGHT end up in the second half of the story…

It was a scene setting up a choice — setting up the choice, in fact. That one choice that every hero has to have: the choice to be safe and leave evil to someone else, or to sacrifice everything for what they believe. That one choice you look at, when you reread the story, and scream at the protagonist, “Don’t be an idiot!”

The first half of the scene can be found here.

And the second half? Well…here’s the (unplanned, unedited) second half:

Talk about fucking cliches…

“Gee, thanks, Oz,” Connor muttered. “You got anything maybe, you know, helpful to add?”

Oz apparently did not, and the mental silence stretched for several moments.  A silence of fear for Connor, as he watched Mattie step down that hall, but a fear still touched by that uncomfortable, oh-so-dreaded, oh-so-needed sense of comfort from Oz’s ghost.

Mattie turned again, started back towards Connor.  “Jesus Christ, Connor.  If I was gonna fuck you over, I’d at least wait until you were too drunk to know better.  The guy who wants to talk to you, he just needs somewhere away from all the nuttiness around the stage.”

As Dalton had once said, Mattie was nasinec.  She was one of them.  Connor had been drowning in mistrust and suspicion for far too long — for most of his life, in fact — and maybe, just maybe, he thought, it was time to change that.  A shrug, then, and he took that first, all-important step down the corridor.

You could never take back the first step, no more than you could ever unmake a choice.

He followed Mattie through an unremarkable door, into an unremarkable room.  A few battered chairs, an even more battered table.  A coffee maker that looked like it had seen better centuries on the counter, and a small fridge rattling out the last of its life below.

“Connor, it’s good to meet you,” the man said as he stood from one of those chairs.  At first glance, he looked like every kamo Connor had ever worked.  A longer look, however, showed the subtle differences.  The air of slimy superiority so common to the Stationside takies was missing, as was the affectation and arrogance of the dirtside debil.  The cut and color of his clothes was just different enough to start Connor’s brain to working, and the accent…

The man’s accent was one Connor had not heard since the long days in Fadi’s company.

All of those observations took the barest heartbeat, and Connor’s reply as he shook the man’s proffered hand made him seem far more relaxed and nonchalant than he really was.  “Earther?” was all he asked.

A nod from the man, and a small smile as they all sat.  “Good ear.  Mattie was right about that,” the man said with a nod to Connor’s friend.  “I’m Jack Henry.”

Connor stared blankly.  What the hell was a Jack Henry?

A sigh from Oz, as amused as it was exasperated.  I swear, Spog, someday I’ll finally get you to listen to folks you ain’t scamming

“Shit, Connor,” Mattie said into the silence that followed.  “I told you about Jack.  He handles the artists for a touring and recording company back on Earth.  Now stop gaping like an idiot and start paying attention!”

I knew I liked her, Oz laughed.

“Although they went by their stage-names back then, I knew your friends Marie and Vin, Connor.  Way back when.  I was just a stage manager, and they were something special.”  A pause as he studied Connor, then, “I was sad as hell to hear what happened, but I see a lot of them in how you play.”

Vin’s shoes…Marie sobbing…the stench of blood and death…

Connor shook himself, grabbed hold of the demons and stuffed them away before they could overwhelm him.  If this svine wanted to put him at ease, he had just pushed all the wrong buttons.

A hint of Dockside on his tongue — just a hint — as he let all of the anger and resentment of the past year fill his voice, “So you know who I really am.  Fuckin’ great.  Congratulations.  I got exactly no time for this kuso.  Make your point, boss, or I walk the fuck out of here.”

He glared at Mattie, then, and his voice turned hot.  His Dockside accent became unmistakable, as did his anger, “You and me, we’re gonna talk about this little doji you just threw at me, baba.”

The man held his hands up as he responded with words that were slow and measured, just like you would use to calm an angry dog…or a small child throwing a tantrum.  “Easy, Connor.  I’m not a cop, and I’m not here to screw with you.  I mentioned those two because…well…they were my friends, too.”

Mattie was silent, her face crushed and tears touching her eyes.

Connor wasn’t sure what was worse, his dread that Mattie — one of the very few people he had been able to care about since Oz’s death — had betrayed him, or his certainty that he had just royally screwed up.

He was controlled again when he replied, and his voice offered no hint that he was anything other than a young dirtside professional living a life of privilege and wealth.  “The past is the past, and I’d rather not talk about it.  Now, how about we turn this little conversation to just what I’m doing in here.  And, Mr Henry, let’s shoot for some blunt honesty here.  Otherwise, this all will start to feel like something I might not like.”

Really?  You’re going with the sarcastic asshole persona?  C’mon, Spog, you’re smarter than that.  Think about it; why would Mattie sell you out?  You know her.  You like her.  You have to remember that not everyone is out to screw you, or you’ll end up right back where this all started.

Connor winced.  Trust Oz to cut through to the heart of matters.  A small part of Connor wanted to point out that Oz himself had once been the betrayer, but far too well did he know just how much pain and misery Oz had suffered — and the price he had paid — to ever touch on that subject.

“It’s that one word you used, actually,” Henry said, his voice interrupting Connor’s internal debate.  “Boss, you called me.  That’s what I’m offering.”  He opened a screen and spun it gently across the table to Connor.  “You’re too damned good for this crap system.  It’s not a full deal, not yet, but I want to bring you to some of the bigger places.  Sanctuary, Pavonis, maybe even Centauri.  You’re ready for more, Connor.  A year or two to tour and develop yourself, then I think you could really make a splash back home.”

Back home?  Earth?  Holy shit, Spog… Oz spluttered, at a loss just as much as was Connor himself.

To leave Redux and never return…

To make a life of music…

To be real

An ikiryo was never speechless.  Right or wrong, an ikiryo always had something to say.  Connor’s tongue wouldn’t work, however, not anymore than would his fingers.  Nerveless hands tried to pick up that screen, failed.  The shaking that was in his fingers moved up his arms, took over his entire body.

Thoughts of playing — dreams, really — chased themselves through his mind.  Little had he known, all those years ago when Vin had first pressed that guitar into his hands, just how much the music would come to mean.  Little had he known that first night playing at Peeber’s just how much of his own soul would go into the music.

Little had he known…

Little had he known how deeply he would become involved in the corruption and avarice that defined life on Redux.  Little had he known just much the fight against those screwing up the universe would come to mean to him.  Little had he known how personal it would all become.

Little had he known…

He stared at the screen on the table.  The words were unintelligible, unreadable, but that didn’t matter.  He knew what they offered.  They offered a way out.  They offered peace and security…at the expense of giving up the fight he had begun to wage.

All he had to do was accept and he could get away.  All he had to do was accept and his life would change.  But the lives of those he left behind?  The lives of Dockside and the Station, just as much as Redux?  Those lives would remain behind, unchanged.

Think about this, Spog…

Body or soul, Oz, he answered silently.  Which do I choose?  If I choose to be safe and real, I can’t affect anything here.  Not if I leave.  I’ll save my body, but only if I abandon everything else.  What happens to what’s left of my soul after that?

Someone else could do it, you know.  You don’t have to save the whole damned universe, you just have to save yourself.

Who, Oz?  Who else can do it?  I have the access to the systems.  I know what’s happening.  I can be a part of the solution…or I can be safe and happy.  I can’t do both, so how do I choose?

A hand on his arm, warm and gentle.  Mattie’s voice was quiet, knowing without words what he was thinking, “We’ll manage, Connor.”

“I can’t,” he whispered in a voice even he was barely able to hear.

He looked up, then, away from those unintelligible words that promised so much.  His voice became louder, if no more steady, when he met Henry’s eyes, “I can’t.  I have too much going on to leave.”

Henry’s eyes showed the honesty of his surprise.  “This isn’t an open offer, Connor.  There’s no changing your mind.  You’re good, but I have to leave first thing in the morning and I can’t wait on you.  It’s yes or no, and it’s yes or no right now.”

Connor stood and looked at Mattie rather than Henry when he answered, “I can’t.  Things here…things here matter too much to leave.”

The tears in Mattie’s eyes started to fall at his answer.

Post Three Million and One

I’ve started and stopped a post three million times in the last few days.  Every time I get some words down, it turns into a post that I’m “forcing,” and that just sucks.

For those who don’t know, forcing = bad writing.  No matter what you’re working on, if you are forcing the words, you’re starting off on the wrong side of the bell curve…and that climb to reach even “average” is pretty damned steep.

So I’m forcing the content, and the words…oh, and my keyboard is starting to go bad…

Welcome to writer-hell.

*sigh*

I could, I suppose, just do a post on politics…

Or a list post…

Or I could remove my own spleen with a dull spoon, for that matter…

I just wrote five hundred words for a freaking football site, goddamnit!  No problem with that post, by the way, even though my interest in — and passion for — football is nowhere near my passion for writing.  But here?  Here I’ve written 175ish words about…not writing.

Is it really all that bad if I start in on the scotch at 7:30 in the morning?!*

*A favorite movie scene of mine, by the way, comes from “Mr Mom”:  Michael Keaton is trying to act all tough and ‘manly’ when his wife’s new boss comes to pick her up.  “Want a beer?” Keaton asks.  “It’s nine o’clock in the morning!” comes the reply.  “Scotch?” Keaton responds.  That scene still cracks me up.

Ahem.  Never mind.

Oh, I did have a couple folks ask me if I’ve made up my mind about which fantasy series to write.

Err…well…no.  Not really.

One of the things I do when I’m thinking through and trying to prep a story is write a few random scenes — unplanned stream-of-consciousness scenes, I should add — from different POVs.  Doing that lets me explore my characters to see if there is any there there.  It also lets me explore different voices and narration options.

I doubt it needs to be stated, but I’ll put this little lesson out there anyway: your story’s narrative voice and tone are freaking vital to the story itself!  You absolutely cannot just “wing it” with that stuff.  You have to explore and test and find the right fit, or your story will fall apart no matter how good the characters and plot.

The thing with the two series I’m looking at is that I don’t yet have that clear voice and tone.  I have the characters for both (I think!).  I have the basis for building plots for both of them, as well.  What I don’t have is exactly how I tell those stories…

Hence my exploration and writing of random “test” scenes.

I suppose I should offer an example.  I’ve put it up here before, but below is one of the “test” scenes I wrote for Somewhere Peaceful to explore some of the dynamics for my protagonist (specifically his relationship with his father, and the incident that changed his life).  Keep in mind, the bit below is exactly what I described: random, unplanned, unedited, stream-of-consciousness writing…it also (somewhat accidentally) defined the tone I used for the stories, albeit from a different character’s POV.

Oh…and this scene feels kinda right to post again given everything that has happened in the US in the last 6-8 months…

Riot Memories: Connor’s Dad

The biggest crime of it all is that I’m not there to tell you this myself.  I will never forgive myself for that.  You and I have had our problems, but in spite of disagreements and arguments, in spite of my failures and the ruin I’ve made of your life, you’re still the only good thing I’ve managed in this miserable universe.

I went to the Market that day just looking for a few drinks.  I was off work, and our visit the day before was eating at me.  My last words to you were pissed off, and through all eternity I can never make up for that.

I should have known something was wrong.  The atmosphere was too tense, the voices too quiet and the tempers too short, for it to be a normal day.  A couple of beers over lunch was enough time to see that atmosphere grow worse and worse.

Finally, I could hear a commotion at the hatch to the transit dock.  Not really shouting, but voices raised in question and answer.  Anger and stress everywhere.

I should have left.

Instead I went to see what was happening.  That decision changed everything.  That decision ruined your life more than everything else I fucked up, and that’s saying something.

You know the Market, that area around the door is pretty tight.  It might be just the stairs coming down from the entrance, and a bunch of stalls and tables, but it is packed.  Nothing really substantial, but more then solid-enough for a semi-converted cargo hold.

Johnny had told me the takies were coming.  He said he’d heard about about some kind of raid.  I guess the Council assholes decided it was time for another crackdown.  Can’t leave Dockside alone…no, sir, we can’t have the poor bastards just getting on with life and business.  Not when there’s money to be made from taxes and fines.

No one knew what the fuck to expect.  Everyone I asked figured it would be a few Stationside cops and a Council agent or two.  Roust the stalls a bit.  Confiscate some shit.  Harass people for not having implants.  The same shit they pull every few years.

An assault?  Nope, not a fucking soul saw that coming.

The guy next to me had a buddy workin’ the slime farm.  He got a flash over his screen that the universe was goin’ ape-shit.  Then the message just stopped.  The last words were something about cops and guns.  Dude musta been in a hurry ’cause his message made no fucking sense at all.

Everyone knows the Council would never put a gun anywhere near Dockside; too much chance of shit spiraling out of control.  No one wants blood on their hands, not when us poor-ass scumbags are nice and isolated a thousand clicks from their perfect little Station.

I guess shit changes.

They musta hit the Ops center first because they definitely had control of all the major systems.  The hatch just popped.  No warning, none of the usual shenanigans, it just popped open to let in a flood of assholes in black.

They weren’t storming in with guns pointed, which I guess is a miracle, but they were still ready for trouble.  They were pretty fucking free with their clubs, and they used their riot shields like battering rams.  I was in the back of the crowd so I didn’t get hit, but fuck me if I didn’t get half-trampled by people trying to turn and run.

I was thinking about getting the hell back to our pod when the shit really started.  I know the hold is fifty feet high, and sound echoes like mad in there, but damn if that wasn’t the loudest few minutes of my life.  Insults and threats were everywhere, but mostly I remember the screaming…the fucking screaming was the worst.  I almost pissed myself.  It was definitely time to leave.

Trouble was, more and more people kept pushing in.  Everyone wanted a piece of the goons who were trying to beat their way in.  Those goons all musta had the same bullshit fantasy about being bad-ass special-forces types because they came in wearing all-black fatigues and tried to look like some fantasy version of an assassin.  Fucking idiots.  Everyone wanted a piece of them.  I’m not small, but fuck if I could push back against all the bozos who wanted a go at the cops.

Then I heard a shot.

Well, I didn’t so much hear the shot as what came after: dead silence.

I haven’t heard silence since I left Mars.  You haven’t been on a planet since you were six, so you have no idea what it’s like.  To hear the Market go absolutely still and silent, even just for a second, was the oddest, worst thing I’ve ever heard.

Then all hell broke loose.

I thought it was bad before, but that was nothing next to what happened.

I’ve been in riots, and what we had going until then was a normal, garden-variety riot.  Some broken bones, a shit-ton of damage, and nothing more than funny stories and bad feelings.  That shot changed everything.  It went from riot to full-fucking battle real fast.

“Push back the takie cops” became “kill the takies” almost instantly.  It’s Dockside….I think the Stationside assholes forgot what that means.  They’re used to being the only ones with guns in their safe, quiet station.  Well, half the Market was armed…and all of it was panicked.  Shots came from everywhere, but you could barely hear them over all the screaming.

People were pushing and shoving, trampling each other to move around.  No one was going the same direction, no one knew what the fuck was happening.  All we knew was that it was time to get out.

The place was a nightmare.  All the stalls had been turned over and everyone was panicked as hell.  Everything as far back as Snug was a mass of chaos.  I don’t know if most folks were rioting or running, but no one was gettin’ anywhere in all that shit.

I’m not much for brains, you know that better than anyone, and I’m even less for bravery.  When I smelled the smoke, I gotta admit I joined the panic.  A fire.  A fucking fire.  In the Market.  That place is a death trap at the best of times, but in the middle of a fucking gunfight?  Anyone who didn’t get out was screwed.

I didn’t get out.

I looked back and saw the last of the cops back away through the hatch, then the fucking thing slid shut.  Even over the noise and chaos, you could hear the locks seal.  That left only the one way out, the door back into the res-holds.  The Market is only three hundred feet long, but it might as well been three hundred miles.  With everyone screaming and panicking, there was just no way out.

A minute later the lights snapped off.  I can barely make my way through that place at the best of times, but in pitch dark?  We were all screwed…then screwed times ten when the air-system shut down.

You don’t think about them very much, but the hum of the blowers and filters going is literally a part of life.  When everything shuts down, however, you can’t hear anything else.  Shots; screaming; shit crashing; none of it was loud enough to drown out the silence.

There was no air, and the only light came from a fire that was growing fast.

Yeah, we all know that’s a possibility.  We all know the only safe way to deal with a fire is to completely cut off the affected hold, but who the hell expects that to happen to them?

The smoke was the worst.  There was no circulation, so the air just hung there and let the smoke accumulate.  I must’ve been near the heart of the thing because it was only a few seconds before I couldn’t breathe.

Then some big bastard knocked me down and pushed over me as he ran for the door.  I tried to pick myself up, I really did, but I just couldn’t.   I was already half in the bag, and random assholes kept stepping on me.

I looked over and saw some girl who was in the same boat.  She had a baby with her.  I don’t how or why I noticed, but that kid looked exactly like you did the day your mother bugged out on us.

The last thing I saw was that kid’s blue eyes, and his hand reaching out to me for help.

Fuck, I can’t even die right.

Snippeting: The Fork in the Plot…

So…I threw out about fifteen thousand words of work.  Even for a wordy bastard like me, that’s an awful lot of words and work to sacrifice on the altar of the delete key.

That is one of the hardest lessons to learn, by the way: honest self-criticism.  Oh, it’s easy to be critical about word-choice and phrasing and all the normal style crap that gets hit in the later editing/revision passes…but to be self-critical about the entire direction of a story?

Yeah, that’s freaking hard.

My strong belief is that it is worlds better that I find the flaws and dead-ends in a story before any reader or editor.  The results of that self-criticism, however…

The results of that kinda suck.  There’s nothing like realizing that the plan for the entire second half of a hundred thousand word story has to be replanned and replotted.  Even worse, there’s nothing like staring again at a blank page where once you thought there was a plan and a direction.

*sigh*

Still, some of those old, “bad” notes and dynamics can hold true.  More importantly, the direction and focus of a character can still hold true.  Years and years ago, I read a great piece on writing from a favorite writer of mine.  One of the things he advocated was getting inside your characters’ heads. What I translate as making your characters real.  An extension of that, he went on to add, was that from time to time, when the characters complained about the direction you were taking the story, you had to give up on your own plans and go with what they wanted.

Below is a random scene I wrote a year or so ago.  I never finished it.  There is an entire second half — another thousand words or so — that determines which way the scene, and the story itself, actually goes.  I’m still working on that second half…

Warm days on Redux were a rarity.  It was a planet cold and unforgiving for its new human settlers.  A planet that seemingly wanted to punish the temerity of those daring to build and live on its half-frozen surface.  When the brief weeks of warmth came, then, it was cause for celebration; for weeks spent outdoors, soaking up that most treasured of commodities: warm sunshine.

The small field outside of Peebers was packed.  Filled with far more than just the bar’s regulars, there were families and individuals from all over the Camp.  A handful, even, from the neighborhoods on the city’s posh west side.  All were outside, seated at small tables, or simply sprawled on the sparse grass, savoring the entertainment and the sun’s warmth in equal measure.

The bar’s servers were running at top speed to deliver drinks and food while the celebrants enjoyed the long hours of music from the small stage Dalton had set up at the heart of the field.

The crowd was still small, compared to what it would be later.  The headline acts — the ones folks were paying to see — wouldn’t start for several more hours.  And yet…

And yet, it was no small, timid roar when Connor stepped onto that stage and started to play.  The applause and the cheers — the raw energy of a crowd larger than any he’d ever before experienced — made the first notes out of his guitar something very special.  It was a new song that he started with.  A new song, but one well received by the enthusiastic revelers.  It was more than the crowd, though.  It was a great deal more.

It was the sun…and the music…and the energy…it was, when you got right down to it, something far more than the sum of its parts: it was the moment itself.  Connor was something, up on that stage, that he never was at any other time.  Something he had not been since that terrible day when he’d held the body of his dying brother; Connor was himself.  The many masks and false identities were gone.  The pretense was gone.  In their place instead was all the feeling, and all the intensity, that life had taught to Connor.

The regulars in the crowd reacted — wildly — to the first notes of those songs that had become much-requested favorites on his nights playing inside the bar.  To his surprise, however, the newcomers reacted to his music, and his personality, just as enthusiastically.  More than anything, it was the new songs, the songs that continued to explore and expand on his opinion of the entire miserable universe, that really drew the response he wanted.

Not for a day like that — not for a day in the warmth of the sun — were the semi-acoustic songs of pain and loss he had played in the past.  No, his brief time in front of that crowd called for energy, and for lyrics that confronted and judged, rather than for songs that spoke to the internal, personal pain of his past.

Ten songs, that was his allotted time.  Ten songs to sing his throat sore, and to play his fingers bloody on the strings.  And on the final song?  On the final song, everything came together: the sun, the music, the enthusiastic participation of the crowd.  It was a moment — a moment of stone-cold sobriety — that left far behind the best highs he could remember from the countless days of drugs and booze that had so-far defined his young life.

He was sweating and exhausted when the notes began to fade behind the cheers.  Unlike his first nights playing in the bar, however, he was very aware of the crowd.  Far more aware, in fact, than he was of his own state.

Most were faces he knew in passing, knew from those long nights playing for others.  Most, but not all.  At the corner of the stage, Matt’s face carried every bit of the speechlessness that Connor had known would afflict his friend.  Speechlessness, and more than a hint of the surprise and pleasure that Connor had hoped to create when he had offered the ticket.

To exit the wings of the stage was not what Connor wanted, not at that moment.  Instead, once his precious guitar was safely stored and his thanks given to Mattie and the others helping him to play, he hopped directly into the milling revelers.

It took several minutes to make his way the few feet to Matt, but the congratulations and enthusiasm of those who had enjoyed the music held a power he had never before experienced.  Sheepish and embarrassed his smile might be, but that moment meant…everything to him.

Random musical addition because…well…it’s a great song, so why the hell not?

Snippet: Playin’ His Heart Out

Okay…I’m officially grumpy now.

I sat down to write a blog post this weekend.  I wanted to get at least one post — and hopefully more! — saved and ready before the week actually started so I didn’t get stuck behind the blogging eight ball (like I usually am).  Step One of that plan was to finish a post in a specific writing session (on Saturday afternoon).

I gave myself no choice, and no way out: I had to do it, and I couldn’t stop writing until I was done!

Err…

Umm…

Failure is apparently an option…

Crap.  Screw it, I’m done fighting — it’s time for another snippet-post since I have been spectacularly unsuccessful at putting together a “normal” one.

The bit below appears nowhere in my outline for The Silence That Never Comes.  That is why, by the way, I don’t write in anything resembling a sensible, logical order.  That is why I work on whatever strikes my fancy at the time: sometimes you come up with an idea that wasn’t planned, that doesn’t fit, but is one you want to write.  You can either stick to your plan and try to write that idea later…or you can write it right then.

For me, there is no question — you write it…right fucking then.  You always write it, there’s no other answer…

The nerves were real.  They were very real.  Connor hadn’t felt this nervous about his playing, not to mention this powerless, since that first night he had auditioned to play at Peeber’s.  And just like then, he was certain he was going to fail…and fail badly.

He let fall the curtain from his hand, closing the tiny crack through which he had been looking.  It took what felt like forever to work up the energy and courage to turn around.  His stomach was churning in new and interesting ways, and his muscles felt like water.

Spog

“Urusai, Oz,” he muttered under his breath, “you can’t help with this.”

There were three people behind him.  Staring at him.  Expecting things from him.  Demanding things from him, things he wasn’t sure he was prepared to give.

His voice was harsh and accusing, but with his breath running so short he couldn’t manage anything else.  “For fuck’s sake, Mattie.  A moderate crowd, you said.  Nothing out of the ordinary, you said.  There has to be ten thousand assholes out there!”

If there was sympathy in her eyes, Mattie’s voice wasn’t in the least apologetic, “More like twenty thousand, actually.  You got a gig opening for the biggest band on this miserable planet…what did you expect?  Grow up, Connor.  That amphitheater, that crowd…they don’t change a damned thing.  It’s exactly the same as playing at Peeber’s, the same as that first night when you won me over.”

“The same thing?” Connor’s voice was near panic.  Far too near for his comfort.  “I played to, what, fifty people that night?  Shit, my biggest day was two thousand at the summer festival…”

“And now you’re playing for more.  Whether it’s two hundred, or two hundred thousand, doesn’t matter, Connor.  It still comes down to you and your guitar.  You’re not playing for that entire amphitheater, you’re playing for yourself…and for your ghosts.  Forget the crowd, forget the worry, and just play.”

A shake of his head, but his limbs seemingly had their own will.  His feet took him to the back wall, his hands reached for the simple guitar leaning there.  A glance at the others, at those who had hitched their stars to his, those who had agreed to play with him in front of that idiotic, monstrous crowd…

He swallowed, then, and wished for the whiskey he had denied himself earlier.

“Fuck it, let’s go.”

The lights were out when they stepped onto the stage.  The busy, distracted crowd didn’t notice their presence.In the dark, on that stage, the voices and jostling of twenty thousand people packed into a tight amphitheater seemed to drown out everything else.  No one noticed the band, no one noticed Connor’s shaking hands, no one noticed his wild, terrified eyes.

He gulped as all the hours of practice and preparation fled.  A look out over that ocean of faces and was he was laid bare and open, vulnerable in a way he had never been before.

Play for me, Connor.  Please.

Connor started to play, quietly at first but growing in volume, as he built into his opening.

The spotlights picked him out, threw his face into sharp relief, and the crowd began to quiet.  The jostling stopped.  The crowd listened.

Connor didn’t sing for them, he sang for himself…and for Oz.

The crowd cheered.

For the forty-five minutes Connor had been hired to sing — to warm-up the crowd for a much bigger act — that crowd cheered and screamed and poured back to him far more emotion and energy than he spent in his performance.

It was a sound he had never heard before, a feeling he had never experienced.  It was more, even, than the old vids he had watched of Vin and Marie playing in their prime.

It was every dream he had never allowed himself to have.

The music stopped, but the cheering continued.  The clamor echoed and resounded, overwhelmed him.  A final bow, then the lights faded and he was left blind.  He couldn’t have moved even in full daylight, however.  It was too much.  As real, and as debilitating, as was the physical exhaustion, even worse was the emotional exhaustion.  He was utterly spent.

A hand on his arm, then, and he finally did move.  The others — Mattie and Trey and Asa — were laughing and shouting in their joy.  It was Mattie’s hand that had touched his arm, had started him moving.  She guided him backstage, guided him through all those congratulating him, all those who wanted seemingly nothing more that to talk to him, to touch him.

In their small greenroom, crowded as it was with just those he actually knew, he finally started to recover.  Trey pressed a celebratory drink into his hand even as Asa began recounting every last detail of the biggest performance of all their lives.  The drink helped, and Connor began taking tentative part in the celebrations.

If it was hard for him, it was because, for the first time in a very long time, he wore no mask.  He could wear no mask, not after that performance.  To be anything — or anyone — other than himself in front of that crowd would have seen him fail spectacularly, of that he had no doubt.  It was hard, however, to actually be himself.  He had, for far too long, been anything and everything but.  Connor-the-person had lain for so long hidden under Connor-the-ikiryo and Connor-the-thief, lay still hidden under Connor-the-spy, that just who he really was a question he couldn’t really answer.

Still, the energy and enthusiasm in the greenroom drew him out, almost as much as did the pretty girl with the dark, curly hair who seemed to think he was the greatest thing ever.  He laughed and talked with her, and with the small handful of people in that room, and felt nothing of his fingers, bloody and battered from his guitar strings, nor of his voice, exhausted and hoarse.

A look around the room, the girl now nicely snuggled beneath his arm, and he grew puzzled — where the hell was Mattie?

A few minutes and his question was answered by Mattie’s hand once again on his arm.  He leaned close in answer to her motion, then leaned closer still to hear her low whisper, “Come with me, Connor.  Just for a few minutes.  I have someone I want you to meet.”

A lifetime ago, as a Dockside ikiryo, that short phrase phrase would have set alarms to ringing in Connor’s head.  Hell, a day ago, as a corporate spy, those alarms would equally have been ringing.  But just then, as a half-drunk singer after the biggest show of his life?  Just then the alarms were silent, and following his friend to meet an anonymous someone seemed the most normal thing in the universe.

Mattie laughed as Connor took a few moments to tell the girl under his arm to wait with a long, slow kiss and a grin that promised a great deal more.  With the girl dealt with, however, he joined Mattie in her laugh and followed the squat, square form of his older friend out of the room.

The sounds of the main act were thumping from the stage, accompanied by the screaming cheers of the crowd, as he followed Mattie through the horde of sycophants and hangers-on backstage.  Connor knew it was the whiskey talking, but a laughing, celebrating part of his soul was fairly certain those cheers and screams were no louder for the stars than they had been for him.

A turn, then, and Mattie led down a set of stairs he hadn’t realized were there.  The lights were lower, down here, but still he followed, until Mattie stepped through a door that led into a long, dim hallway.

Mattie kept walking, without looking back, but Connor stopped.  Those silent alarms, those habits of a lifetime — of survival — they started ringing with a vengeance.

“Mattie, what the fuck?”

She slowed, but she didn’t stop.  A turn of her head, and a wave of her hand, and she answered his reticence, “It’s okay, Connor, I just need you to come with me…”

There is, by the way, a second half to this scene.  As I was writing it, however, things started to evolve and move towards that final image: the daunting, threatening corridor, the friend who is so important to Connor-the-person (vice Connor-the-spy), and the threat and fear of uncertainty…it just seemed a far better thing to end the “chapter” here than to put everything down at once.

Nope, the second half, the half that makes such a difference to how Connor’s life progresses, just has to wait for another chapter — and another post.