Put Down The News, And Step Away From Reality…

I spent some time looking at the “real world” over the last couple of weeks.  At the culture, and the politics, and the general insanity of it all.  I thought I wanted to do a post today on something current, something topical.

Let’s see what we have to choose from: Trump and Russia, Clinton and Russia, everyone else and Russia, sexual harassment and rape in the halls of the rich, powerful and unaccountable, lunatic dictators and terrorism and frosty international relations…

Umm, this ain’t goin’ too well.

Okay…deep breath…deep breath…

So much for current events.  While some (or all) of the above would make good fodder for a story, I’m not sure I want to want to focus their reality.  Plus, I’m just not in the mood — I’m in the mood to write, not just to write.

So, well, I’m gonna write — but I have to put up a post, too.  Below is a snippet that I posted (in an earlier version) over a year ago, when I was still technically working on the first story.  I mentioned several months ago that I wanted to be more intentional about posting snippets, and this is the result: if and when I post such little bits of Silence, I am going to do so in (current) story order.

And, yes, that means the scene below is (currently) the opening scene — and no bitching about an opening scene in bed!  That beginning has a purpose (for the moment)!

As ever, keep in mind all the caveats: this is early version stuff, before I do the heavy lifting on editing and rewrites.  Anything and everything is subject to change…

The whirring of yet another lock in yet another cell door.  Connor would never get used to that.  It was just as bad now, two months after his eighteenth birthday, as it had been at twelve.  Shit, in some ways it was worse.  The years of freedom between cells had taught him about suffering, yes, and about the price always waiting to be paid, but also about friendship and love.  And about loss.

A gulp, then, at the thought of friendship.  Of absent friends.  Of Oz.

Blood on the floor…blood on the knife…blood on Oz’s wrists.  And Connor too late to do anything other than hold his friend — his brother — as the last of a too-short, too-painful life dripped away.

At least Oz hadn’t been alone.  Only one thing had ever scared Oz: alone.  Being alone and, especially, dying alone.  Alone was worse.  That was lesson number one, a lesson Connor would never forget.

But Connor was alone now.

Oz was dead.  Marie and Vin were dead.  Fadi had crawled into a bottle and disappeared.  And Nat?  A second gulp, almost as big for her as for Oz.  Nat had washed her hands of him.  Takie princess that she was, pretty and rich, she had had enough of her foray into rebellion and danger.  She had cleaned away the dirt and grime of dockside, and Connor with it.

“Move your ass,” a voice barked from the small intercom by the door.  “Work details leave in ten minutes.”

Connor didn’t want to crawl out of bed.  For all its many faults, the bed was warm.  The floor was cold.  The cell was cold.  Hell, the whole fucking place was cold.  Less than a year into his five year sentence and Connor was already very, very tired of the cold.

At least it wasn’t dockside.

If they’d put him into the much smaller jail out there, he would have died months ago. Of that he was very, very certain; too many out there knew just who Connor Spogelse was.  Too many blamed him for the violent gang war now ripping that space station apart.  And far, far too many were ready to make him pay for his role in it all.  The cops almost as much as the remnants of the crime family he had betrayed.

Grim humor, and the memory of his sarcastic friend, were more than enough to find the absurdity in his life, however.  How many could say they’d betrayed a major crime family, brought down a powerful politician, and earned a price on their head, all before their eighteenth birthday?

He could all-but hear Oz’s laughing voice in his head, Fuckin’ overachiever.

Out of bed he did get, in spite of the cold, and down to the entrance of the pod of cells.  Even after many months, the dirtside ground still felt strange to Connor.  Most of his life had been spent in the artificial gravity of a space station, and the regular, real gravity of a planet was just different enough to be disconcerting.  With every step he felt like he was about to fall over.  And that was without going outside to see all that emptiness hanging over his head.

As stupid as it sounded, even to him, he just couldn’t wrap his mind around concepts like sky and horizon.  And God help him with the truly crazy shit like scenery and weather.  He knew he’d never get used to any of it.

The pod’s lights were still dimmed for the night, and just eight prisoners waited by the exit.  The only inmates of the fifty in the pod with the privilege — and the drive — to get out of bed hours before the rest and go to work.

A brief stare from Connor, unintentionally baleful in the early hours, and the others gave him a respectful bit of space while they waited for the door to open.  With little to do but work, read and exercise, Connor had finally started to fill out his height.  He would never be considered big or bulky, but he was no longer the rail-thin teenager he had been just a year ago.

It was more than just size, however.  What Connor had done to the last aho who had thought to take advantage of the youngest kid in the entire prison brought its own respect, as well.  Dirtside criminals and thugs were little prepared for the sheer violence any dockside ikiryo could bring to bear with little hesitation and less warning.

The heavy door clanked open and the watch sergeant stuck his greying head inside.  “Alright, let’s go.”

The prisoners filed out, moved automatically to walk in single file against the corridor’s right hand wall.  You didn’t have to be in Chapman Penitentiary very long before the rules became automatic.  Fucking with the guards could offer momentary entertainment, true, but that most definitely did not make getting through your sentence any easier.  And Connor wanted very much to get through his sentence; wanted to get through with as little trouble as possible.

Down the long hall they marched, whispered jokes and comments the only sound.  It was early enough that not even the staff were moving around if they didn’t have to.  Later, when the day shift started, the halls would be full of guards and workers walking in packs alongside the ever-present movement of prisoners.

The small group reached an intersection and paused to wait while the sergeant called Central Control to open the heavy security door sealing the end of their corridor.  It was a major crossroads, this, and as the group of prisoners finally entered the intersection, all of the corridors leading out were similarly sealed.

A wave and an incomprehensible mutter from the sergeant sent Connor over to the one door painted a different color from the others.  Sky blue this one was, indicating its access to an area that led outside the prison.  The others, connecting only to internal areas of the facility, were a dull, earthen red.

A few steps and Connor pressed the small button on the door’s heavy metal frame, stared up into the holo-camera.  The door would not open until the operators in Central Control had verified his identity, and his permission to use this particular door.  No smile showed — could never show, not for this — but access to this door was his greatest accomplishment to date.

Quite how the prison officials had overlooked Connor’s past as a criminal specializing in cracking computer security and networks he didn’t know, but his first job in the prison library had offered just enough ‘net access to arrange this even-better opportunity.

“C’mon you little fucker,” the sergeant yelled, “hurry up!”

Until that blue door had closed safely behind Connor, no other one in the intersection would open.  Connor almost laughed at the grumbling from those behind.  The others were all headed to jobs in the prison’s kitchen and storage areas, and he would never understand how anyone could be eager to start burning fake-eggs and slopping out pseudo-oatmeal.

Finally, a buzzer sounded and Connor was through the door.  Barely a second later it slid shut behind him.  Those steps, as small as they were, took him into a completely different world.  Even the air smelled different.  Instead of the stale, chemical air of the prison, there was a taste of…something very different.

A few steps down the short corridor and he was into the big, busy room beyond.  A wave of sound washed over him as he entered, and a sense of activity.  Two steps inside and he was almost run over by a rushing prison guard.  Short and pretty this one was, with brown hair and bright blue eyes.

A distracted smile and a half-hearted wave from her, then.  “Sorry, no time to get things set up right now.  Just hit the basic stuff.  By the time you’re done with that, the rush should be over.”

Her accent was strange, vastly different from the hint of dockside that still clung stubbornly to Connor’s tongue.

A glance at the far end and Connor saw thirty new prisoners standing in a line, wrists and ankles shackled and their orange jumpsuits rumpled and dirty.  Four guards stood near that group, talking amongst themselves as much as watching the inmates in their charge.  Seated nearby, behind a high counter, several guards were checking ‘screens and preparing to call out names.

It was the prison’s Admissions and Processing Center, its link to the outside world.  Work in that area was one of the better jobs a prisoner could get…and was far and away the best job for a data-thief like Connor.

A brief smile, then, and a hint of self-satisfaction, as he moved to a small closet by the holding area.  A pull on the unlocked door and he was soon filling a mop bucket and readying his supplies.  A few hours of cleaning in exchange for several hours of datanet access every day?  Yes, please.

Maybe he’d arrange a little ‘donation’ to his commissary account today; why eat prison food when he could just buy his own on the prison’s penny?

The work — and the guards’ processing — took more than a few hours, but the end result was the same.  The floors were cleaned, the bathrooms were cleaned, and the guards entertained with jokes and stories.

Connor was well-known as one of the few docksiders in Chapman Penitentiary, and very few people on Redux — the capital of the entire damned star system — understood even a tenth of the reality of life out there at the very edge of the star system.  Dockside was nothing more real than the wild and lawless jungle of various holo-dramas to them.  Of course, it was wild and lawless, Connor reflected; the corporations who had colonized this system hadn’t cared enough to make it anything else.

The stories and jokes he told were just enough to hint to the guards that he was something special, something different.  Stories and jokes were powerful tools for confirming prejudices…and for gaining advantages.  And Connor — innocent, earnest Connor who the guards all liked — had lots of stories.  A few of them were even true.

It was the same guard — the pretty one — who brought Connor his breakfast.  Not for him a plate of food made from substances that almost, but not quite, resembled eggs and sausage.  No, sir, you couldn’t have the poor, abused kid who cleaned your toilets eat that shit.

A smile from her — one that offered questions, and hints of more — and she offered a small tray holding a pair of sausages and a strange, sour salad.  What docksider had ever tried fucking sauerkraut?  Connor wanted to find insult in the food; wanted to, but could not.  It was good.  It was also a hell of a lot better than anything those inside that sky-blue door were eating, that was certain.

That food came with a second benefit: after the guard had left to return to her duties, Connor was left alone at a desk-mounted ‘screen.  Antiquated that system may have been, and all-but useless compared to those he had used a year ago, but it did have one key feature that more than made up for its faults: a connection to Redux’s very modern, and very fast, datanet.

Connor’s life as a dockside ikiryo had given him many skills.  First and foremost among those: Connor could crack any security the ‘net could throw at him.  A smile, and a bite of food, and he began to navigate again through the prison’s security system.

That Peaceful Place

I really need to tell my brain to stop working. No, honestly – I just spent three hours working through the basics of a story that has built in the back of my mind over the past couple of days.

*sigh*

I have another book-and-a-half to write in Connor’s story, I can’t even begin to consider something new right now.

It is a good idea, though…

No! Bad, writer! Bad, bad writer! Focus!

The good news is that I am…well…there’s no other way to put it: I’m home. Back to that place where I’ve done 90% of my writing over the past couple of years. Back to the place that so helped me to learn to let go of my inhibitions and just write.IMG_0879

Hey, you can go write in a quiet office…and you others can go write in libraries… Me? I need me a nice taproom.

I have a lot of stuff to write today, so for the rest of today’s post a (very) brief snippet will have to suffice.

One note: this is a very early and incomplete version of a significantly larger piece…but I like this little bit for a lot of reasons. I wrote it – by hand – while sitting in the woods in my own snowstorm. I had a lot more to say at the time, but the last line – and the personal memories & sorrow it evoked – ended this particular writing session:

Nothing. Not a sound. Not the trees, not the few small animals…not a fucking thing. Connor had never heard anything like it.

He had, however, dreamed of it.

The snow fell in fat, soft lumps, piled unheeded on head and body. The thin, wide-set trees offered little protection from the weather. They were companions and witnesses, not protection. The cold and wet meant nothing, however. They couldn’t penetrate the distraction, nor the shock. Couldn’t, at the root of it all, penetrate the silence…and the peace.

In Connor’s early days on Redux, the trees had been the worst of the many oddities the planet had thrown at him; worse, even, than the alien concept of weather. They had been, to the eyes of one raised in the claustrophobic misery of dockside, the most unnatural things in the universe. Beneath all the bravado and cynicism, they had reminded him far too much of just how much he didn’t know, didn’t understand.

They meant something very different now.

In that snow, in that silence, he began finally to understand. He was surrounded, now, by life…by more life than ever he had imagined in those years of squalor and pain and death. Surrounded by the silence, and the peace, that he had never expected to find.

I told you it was there, Spog. I knew you would find it.

That old rule, that first lesson from Oz, no longer ruled his life. Solitary, under those trees, Connor still wasn’t alone.

I’m sorry, bozu, he thought, the pain of Oz’s suicide fading to sad regret under the spell of that moment. I wish you could be here for this…for this peaceful place we always wanted.

I am here, Connor.

In Vino Veritas

Another snippet, one I wrote a while ago.  I’m still working out where and how this comes into Silence, but come in it does.  I’ve lived too many scenes like this myself to ever leave it out:

Connor pressed himself as deeply into the corner as he could. The shadows around him, the bottle in his hand, the worries and fears that he wouldn’t live to see the sun come up again—it was like being back dockside. He could all but hear Oz asking him just how fucked up did he plan to get?

“What the hell are you doing out here, Connor?” a voice asked. He knew that voice. He knew it, but it didn’t fit. Not with dockside, not with the memories.

He looked up. It was Matt. Innocent, earnest Matt. Poor foolish, naive Matt. The one who still believed in…anything.

A move of his hand and he offered the half-empty bottle. “Sit down and have a drink. I could use the company.”

A hesitation as Matt looked at the cold, wet ground before he sank down with a small shrug. He took the bottle and sipped cautiously. “Holy…what the hell are you drinking? This could strip paint from the walls.”

Connor laughed, then, with more than a hint of pain and bitterness. “Good ol’ fashioned shochu. Makes me feel young again. Y’all don’t get this kuso around here, so you don’t know what you’re missing.” Connor knew he should be careful about his speech, about letting dockside slip back onto his tongue, but he just couldn’t muster the energy. Or the care.

The bottle came back to him and he took a long, long drink.

It really was kuso, but he needed that particular burn from the harsh liquor. The burn of memory, the burn of forgetting. For a time.

“It’s, what, ten degrees out here? Are you insane? Why the hell are you sitting in the darkest, coldest corner in this whole city?” Matt asked, his voice full of care…and of the emotions and tells that Connor could so easily use.

No. Not this time.

Matt wasn’t a kamo, wasn’t someone to read and scam. He was a friend. That was all, just a friend.

Connor hadn’t realized just how much he needed a simple friend until he met Matt. Hopefully he wouldn’t kill this one.

Stop it, Connor, Oz said in his mind. You didn’t kill me. You did what you had to, and the price was paid. That’s how it works. Shit, I thought I taught you better than this.

The silence said Matt expected some kind of answer, so Connor obliged. He could laugh, and did, but he couldn’t stop the bitterness, not tonight. “It’s an old habit. If you’re in the corner, you only have to watch in front of you. Safest place to be. Of course, that means it’s also the place everyone wants. I’ve seen kids knifed for their little spots in the corner.”

A look over and he could read the shock and dismay on Matt’s face, even in the dark.

Fuck it, in booze lay honesty they said. Or something like that. Another pull at the bottle, then, “I saw my first murder when I was eight. This…this carnival you call civilization, it’s a sideshow. I know the truth behind it all. I know the blood and pain it’s built on. My pain, and my brother’s blood.”

“What the…” Matt stuttered, completely staggered, at a loss. He very obviously did not know what to make of Connor’s little speech, so he focused instead on the smallest of the details. “Brother? I thought you were an only child.”

Connor thought about that for a moment. “Some families you’re born into, some families you choose. Oz meant more—means more—to me than some random aho who just happens to share my genes.”

 

“Come pick me up from the night
From the hands of the dark
From the things I didn’t know
That would simply break your heart”

“Have Mercy”, The Gaslight Anthem, Get Hurt, 2014, Island Records

Cheap Guitars, And The Demons Of Memory

It’s Sunday night and I’m sitting out in front of the store drinking a beer while I plan my “Welcome To The Apocolypse” hike for tomorrow.  No offense, but the last thing I’m ready to do right now is write a blog post.  At least, not a post that is coherent and, well, useful.

Screw it…it’s been a while since I did something from Silence.  So, I guess it’s snippet time:

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, 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 for control. 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 that 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.

The Breakfast Of Champions

It’s hard to get enough posts stored away in time…the, err, call of nature is too strong.  No, I mean that: nature calls.  Hiking and camping and communing with the animals are pretty high on my list right now.

At any rate, I’ve done Yellowstone posts, I’ve done writing posts, I’ve done picture posts…but it’s been a while since I’ve done a snippet from Silence.  Err, well, yes…part of that is because I’m badly behind on my schedule but, as Connor would recognize, that’s the price I’m paying for the fun.

At any rate, a snippet:

It was hard not to laugh. It was very hard. Connor had not seen a person as painfully miserable as Matt in a very long time. He tried to look sympathetic, he really did, but even with his skill at scamming and fooling people, that solicitude wasn’t very convincing.

“Two days I’ve known you, Connor,” Matt moaned with his head in his hands, “and I think you’ve already ruined me. Where the hell did you learn to drink like that? You have a secret career in the navy or something?”

A laugh and a sip of coffee for Connor before he replied. “Call it the legacy of a misspent youth. Eat the damn eggs, Matt. Trust me on that. You need the protein and carbs pretty bad.”

A slow, quavering forkful of scrambled eggs went down Matt’s throat, and a long drink of water. “Misspent youth my ass. I drank my share of beer and other stuff as a kid, but what you were pouring down my throat last night was just plain evil. You have to be feeling it, too.”

“Crap, son, you’ve lived here longer than me. That was local stuff we were drinkin’: slivovice. And, yes, even I have a headache this morning.”

Another groan, then Matt looked up. His small grin, ironic and laughing, did nothing to lessen the baleful stare of those reddened eyes. “How am I supposed to go to work this morning? I can’t even see straight.”

Connor did laugh, then. “You just do it, that’s how. There’s always a price, Matt, so you pay it and do what you have to. Life just is, boss, and you deal with it.”
“What is it they say around here? Do haje. Go to hell. I think you might be that bad influence my parents always warned me about.”

Connor was proud of the control he was showing. Not the slightest hint of dockside touched his tongue, and only the most inoffensive and mild of curses slipped into his words. He also felt like he was about to explode. Explode or not, however, there was no way he was going to show this pampered son of the elite the real Connor. This kid–a decade older than Connor, Matt’s naivety and inexperience still made him more a kid than Connor ever had been–was just too unknown, and too different, to trust. The lessons of that misspent youth he had joked about were still too fresh, and too important, to forget.

“You’ll survive,” Connor answered with a smile. “And I’m the most perfect person on this planet. I raised the average IQ of this place as soon as I stepped off the shuttle.”

“I hope to hell your boss has a sense of humor. He’s gonna need it with you. Mine, on the other hand, is a jackass. I don’t think anything or anyone exists for him except formulas and designs. I know us engineers can be obsessive, but that man scares me. Where will you be working, anyway? If you ever said, I was too drunk to remember.”

Connor had given Matt, over the last two days, the cover story prepared for him by Sonthi. Had lived that cover story, had thrown himself totally into becoming Connor Torlae. It was almost fun, he had to admit, living as someone so completely different from who he really was.

Although he was going to kill Sonthi for the name.

He was about to answer, to offer some vague explanation of the job interviews he had to attend, when an alert tone interrupted. What the hell? It took a strange look from Matt, and a pointed stare at Connor’s pocket, to make the necessary mental jump.

He grabbed the ‘screen from his pocket and rose from the table. What idiot would be calling him? He thought–he hoped–Sonthi wasn’t stupid enough to use the city’s communications net for something like this.

“Back in a second,” he said even as he was stepping for the diner’s door. A few seconds and he was outside, tucked behind a corner to shield himself from the icy wind. He touched a control on the ‘screen still wondering if he really should take the call, or if he should just drop the ‘screen and run. It was even money on which was dumber.

A swirl of colors that resolved almost instantly into an image. Dockside reappeared on Connor’s tongue, along with the realization that he should’ve run. “Ai shia, Sonthi. What the fuck?”

“Ki ni shinaide,” the ex-cop placated. “LRC’s got its own in-house comm system. Heavily encrypted and secure as fuck. Plus, I’m bouncing this through about half the damn networks in the star system. No worries, chiima.”

“Fuck you, it’s my ass on the line you kwai bastard.”

A laugh from the older man. “Your apartment’s got the same system set up. You can trust the net in there; it makes Snug’s blacknet look like a fuckin’ nursery school.” The smile faded, and Sonthi’s face turned serious. “You settled in good? I gave you as much time as I could, but Chapman’s gettin’ itchy to…well, test you.”

“Shit, I don’t even have the tools yet. You set me up with clothes and food, and the home system is pretty damn nice, but there ain’t a fuckin’ greybox or cracknet in sight. You expect me to…what? Just walk in somewhere and ask nicely for the info?”

“Flash those blue eyes and shake your ass to the right secretary and that just might work,” Sonthi laughed, unfazed by Connor’s sarcasm. “Sorry Connor, but that’s part of Chapman’s test. No tools, no shortcuts. It’s petty bullshit, but that’s life. Shou ga nai. I’m sending you a file with the targets. Five different ops. Just messin’ with data, no scammin’ or face to face work. Background and all the details you’ll need are in the file. Study it, then work ’em as fast as you can. Chapman wants to push you, so I told him it would take you a week or so. He was happy with that.”

Sonthi’s look turned from amused sarcasm to intense, deadly seriousness in a flash. “If it does take you a week, I’m sending your ass back to dockside on the next ship.”

“Heia. It’s fuckin’ doji, Sonthi, but I’ll get it done. But first…”

Sonthi raised a hand, forestalled what Connor had been about to say. “Don’t start. I got you covered. Ten grand when all five jobs are done.”

Connor repressed the smile that threatened: Sonthi still knew what the hell he was doing. That was good. Now it was time to press.

Trust no one and always have an escape plan; Oz’s lessons still mattered.

“In cash, boss. In fuckin’ cash. You know the drill: most of what I gotta do ain’t gonna go through accounts and idents.”

Sonthi’s eyebrows rose at that. “This isn’t dockside, Connor. Cash stands out. It raises questions and problems, and that’s not a good idea. I told you before, this place is run through damn ‘plants.”

“Dame. I don’t give a fuck. Remember where you pulled me out of. I need cash. You try to pay me through some baka account and you’ll never find me again.”

Hesitation, and the start of an answer, then Sonthi just shook his head. “Fine. I’ll have it brought to you, but not ’til you’re done. And that I ain’t givin’ in on.”

Connor nodded: he had expected nothing less. “By the way, boss, fuck you for the ident. What fuckin’ t-deck reject uses ‘liar’ for a fake name?”

Sonthi laughed. “You and me are about the only aho who’ll get the joke. Folks here…well, to folks here dockside slang might as well be from the bug-eatin’ aliens on the other side of the universe.”

Connor was about to close the ‘screen when a thought occurred to him.

“Boss…Sonthi. I need you to look someone up for me. Get me a full rundown on a guy named Matt Heaton. Has the unit next to mine in the building.”

“Somethin’ we should worry about?”

A shake of his head, but a hint of hesitation in Connor’s voice. “I don’t think so, but I’m not sure. Baka was introducin’ himself before I had a chance to even take a piss. I think he’s just a nice guy lookin’ for a buddy, but I just don’t know.”

“I’ll start lookin’,” Sonthi said with a nod, then closed the call.

Connor rolled the ‘screen and stuffed it back into his pocket as he re-entered the diner.

Matt was just getting to his feet. A look of curiosity, and a half-smile. “Everything okay?”

“Got a job interview,” Connor replied with a smile and a little laugh.

You always put the kamo at ease.

A Snippet: The End Of It All

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

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

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

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

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

Why the fuck was he carrying a wreath?

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

Pontificated, really.

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

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

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

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

Fuck…finally!

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

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

“Attention!”

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

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

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

I Never Did Listen Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you answer that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was Nat.

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

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

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

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

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

The Snippets Shall Rise Again

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oz would’ve been proud.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It just looked stupid to him.

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

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

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

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

 

Cry Havoc! And Let Slip The Snippets Of War!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Home sweet home.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, officer, he jumped, I swear…”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It was anything but.

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

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

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

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

It made all the difference.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shit.

 

Somewhere Peaceful…And All the Baggage That Goes With It

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The mail icon blinked.

There was a message.

What the fuck?

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

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

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

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

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

No one knew about this ident. No one.

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

It would be better to be dead.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There had to be a bottle somewhere in this shithole…