Monday, December 31, 2012

The Short Story of New Year's Resolutions

New Year's resolutions make me laugh. Here we have this annual tradition of drawing up lists of desires - I mean goals - I mean resolutions. As in, "I hereby resolve." There's just no going back on a resolution. Yet we do. Before January's even over we forget all about them.

Do real people even make New Year's resolutions? Or do they just let the rest of us think so, because the characters in the Sunday funnies do it?

Personally, I figure life has enough stress already, and doesn't need me to tie it up with resolutions that rely on factors I can't control anyway. But as a writer, there are a few things I'd like to focus on in 2013:

  • Organizing my schedule better so I can spend more time writing.
  • Keeping my blog a lot fresher than I did, on average, in 2012. I think you deserve that.
  • Finishing the first draft of An Analysis of the Cardassian Language before November's NaNoWriMo begins.
That's it. If I make a long list, I'll lose my focus.

What are your goals for 2013?

Short Story: The Tarsus Secret

As my brother likes to say, Happy Old Year! Here's a short story for everyone who's ever thought of going on a cruise:

Twenty casinos that never closed. Thirty-six restaurants. Twenty-five nightclubs. Five Olympic-sized swimming pools, plus all the smaller ones. Room service, massages, the botanical gardens, maybe a hundred or so cute little shops. Movie theaters, plays and musicals. Skating shows, magic shows, strip shows, kiddie shows, water shows and laser shows. Batting cages, tennis courts, basketball courts, running tracks and racing simulators. And the Daughter of Tarsus didn’t just have all this, she had all this in style. Always the little drizzles on the plates, always someone waiting on you in starched white cuffs. The mini-bar in Connor Meara’s stateroom was always stocked, his bed was always made when he returned to his room, and the hallway (the ornate hallway with the beautiful carpet and the little statues in the corners) was always well-lit and immaculate.

It was like living in hell. The noise, the racket, never stopped. And it wasn’t just the noise; it was the lights, the people, the whining children, the claustrophobic awareness of being trapped in a city of over twenty thousand people without even the option of jumping in the car and driving to the country.

It had all sounded so good a year ago when he’d let Louise from the office talk him into booking a cruise. “Endless possibilities!” she had raved. “So much to do and see, you’ll never find the time to do it all.”

As if he’d want to do it all. There was nothing stimulating, nothing challenging. Sure, there were people on board to play chess with, and plenty of other games to play, but that was all it was: just play. He wanted to take things apart, figure out what was wrong with them and fix them. He wanted to be useful.

So here he was. It was two a.m. and he was wandering. He had wandered into the main kitchen and been kicked out. (Yes, they were actually busy cooking at one-thirty in the morning.) He had wandered into a janitor’s closet, but even the vacuums, lined up neatly against the right-hand wall, hadn’t needed any tinkering. All three hoses were clear and all three brushes were free of threads and fuzz. Six filters had been washed and were hanging above their machines, drying, while the remaining three were clean and dry and installed, their vacuum ready for use. At the moment he was wandering down a hallway somewhere near the starboard bow, on a level he guessed was roughly halfway between the keel and the highest deck, and it was looking promising. Well, maybe not exactly promising, but at least it was looking less glitzy and more utilitarian than much of the rest of the ship.

This particular hallway was narrower and less well-lit than the one outside his stateroom, and there were no statues in the corners. The carpet wasn’t maroon and tan with an intricate scroll pattern and plush padding, but a no-nonsense grey-brown mottle that tended to hide stains because it already looked dirty. Ahead, near the ceiling, was an exit sign. He walked toward it.

Under the sign was a grey metal door with a crash bar and another sign across it: “Emergency Exit Only: Alarm Will Sound,” it announced in red block letters on a black background. But the door was standing open, held by a brown rubber doorstop, and if any alarm was sounding, it was silent here. He slipped through the doorway.

The deck where he found himself somehow reminded him of a street between abandoned factories after a rainstorm. It was a dark place with a clean feel and a smell that was somewhere between fresh and sharp. A few stars, very bright and distinct, were visible overhead, but most of the sky was blocked out by high walls and shadowy angular shapes. He assumed the shapes were a few of the steel beams necessary to give support and stability to the decks above.

And then he found what he was looking for. On his left and well over his head was a horizontal service duct about four feet in height and at least as deep. It carried ductwork for the ventilation system, he figured, along with plumbing and wiring. A hinged access panel stood open, leaving a rectangular hole about two feet across. A man in navy blue uniform pants stood with his feet on a ladder and his head and shoulders inside the hole.

Connor smiled. He would try to make eye contact with the guy, and maybe he’d let him help, or at least watch. At the moment of course, eye contact was impossible, and Connor didn’t want to interrupt him, so he would wait. But he also didn’t feel right about watching a guy who thought he was alone, so he shuffled his feet and drummed his fingers gently on the metal wall.

The man quickly pulled himself out of the hole, scratched his stomach with his right hand and turned to greet Connor, coming down a step or two on the ladder. His blondish hair was tousled but his face was freshly shaved. He looked worried, or maybe just tired.

Connor stepped forward, too, and in an instant, the man had a pistol two inches from Connor’s face, pointed directly between his eyes. “I don’t want to hurt you,” he said, “but you must be quiet.”

“Okay,” Connor replied in a near-whisper. “I’ll just leave.”

“No,” the man said. “You cannot to leave now. You already see this.” He gestured with his head, a slight jerk upward, toward the hole.

Connor hadn’t seen what was in the hole, didn’t want to see what was in the hole, told himself not to look. But he looked. By habit, by reaction, as soon as the man jerked his head up, Connor looked up. It was money. Bundles and bundles of U.S. hundred-dollar bills. He couldn’t begin to estimate how much was there, but he was sure that whatever the amount was, it must be a staggering figure.

The man had a soft-sided tool box slung over his left shoulder, and now Connor saw that it, too, was half full of the little banded bundles of hundreds. Apparently he’d been either putting them in or taking them out.

With his right hand still pointing the gun at Connor, the man reached out with his left and closed the access panel. It made a loud popping sound when he pulled it past the hinge-spring, and then smashed shut. Connor jumped, even though he’d been expecting the sounds. The man descended the ladder, closed the flap on his tool bag and said, “Let’s go,” twitching the barrel of the gun slightly toward the door Connor had just come through. Connor started walking.

The man followed him through the Emergency Exit door and fell into step beside him with the gun at Connor’s waist, doubtless hidden under the hem of his favorite ‘34’ jersey. Even if they did meet anyone in the hallways at this hour, it would look—pale as Connor must have been—that the man was helping a sick passenger to his room.

They did walk to a room—the man’s own room, maybe. It was on a different deck from Connor’s, but looked just like it. Even the immaculate hallway was the same, except for the statues in the corners, which were still there but depicted different individuals. Beside the elevator here was a flirting siren instead of a fierce-looking sea god.

Connor couldn’t learn much from the room at first glance. The bed, of course, had been made up perfectly by the housekeeping staff, and the room was tidy. A book in Cyrillic characters lay on one of the nightstands and a pair of brown slippers was lined up neatly under the edge of the bed.

The man walked him straight to the bathroom and ordered him to sit on the white tiled floor.

Connor sat, of course, his back against the cool smooth side of the whirlpool tub, his elbows on his knees and his eyes on the pistol, which was still pointed in his direction.

The man used his left hand to open the linen closet, remove the towels one at a time and stack them on the sink vanity. Next, still gripping the gun and watching Connor, he removed the shelves where the towels had been and leaned them against the wall nearby. He was smaller than Connor and looked like he might burn easily in the sun. The embroidery over the left pocket of his navy blue uniform shirt read “P. Smith.” Connor figured that probably wasn’t his name. “Stand up,” he instructed.

Connor stood.

The man pointed into the closet, toward the floor at the back of it. “You get chain,” he said. “Give to me the end.”

In the back of the closet was a sewage pipe, and wrapped around it at floor-level was a heavy chain of the type used for towing cars. Connor squeezed into the closet, got down on one knee and found the loose end. There wasn’t room to turn around in there, so he backed out. The man took the chain from him and Connor stood back, keeping his hands away from everything. He wondered if he would have to sit by the tub again.

The man pulled a pair of handcuffs out of the tool bag by hooking it with one finger. Then he threaded one side through the end link of the chain and closed the other around Connor’s left wrist. “Turn around,” he said.

Connor obeyed, facing the bathtub. “I, um,” he began nervously, and hesitated. He put his hands up, surrender-style. The chain was heavy on his arm. “I’m not going to use it or anything, but I have a knife,” he said, staring at the swirly teal shower curtain and wishing he could see the guy’s face instead.

“Where is knife?” was the reply from behind him. If the guy was concerned about the knife, his voice didn’t show it.

“I have an inside pocket in my jeans,” Connor explained, “on the right side.”

“Okay.” The man pulled up the hem of Connor’s jersey, plucked the wallet out of his back pocket. “Take off shirt,” he ordered.

Connor pulled his jersey over his head without unbuttoning it and it slid along the chain to the floor.

“Turn around again,” the man said, and Connor did, making the chain clink and ring with his movements. The man checked near the neckband of the jersey and pulled Connor’s ATM card out from where he kept it between the tag and the back of the shirt, glanced at it and put it back. Then he felt the button band and the hem. “Now give me knife,” he ordered.

Connor slipped his index finger and thumb behind his waistband and pulled out the knife. It was a folded four-inch carbon-steel blade with a fiberglass handle that looked just like polished mahogany. He hated to part with it, and had even for the tiniest instant considered attempting to hold on to it, to keep it a secret from his captor. But a knife was no match for a gun, and it wasn’t worth risking his life for.

The man took the knife, slipped it into the tool bag. “What is in pockets?” he asked, waving the gun at the front of Connor’s jeans.

“Gum,” Connor replied, “and the stone for my knife, and my lighter, and a…well, I guess it’s a bottle opener.”

The man held his left hand out, and Connor emptied his pockets.

“Pull pockets out,” said the man.

Connor pulled out his pocket liners.

“You can put pockets back in and put shirt on now,” the guy said. He still held the contents of Connor’s pockets on the palm of his left hand, like a waiter holding a tray.

Connor pulled his jersey back along the chain, put it on and tucked his pockets in.

“You can take gum,” said the guy. “I will keep other things.”

Connor picked up the pack of hot cinnamon gum and put it back in his pocket.

“Take off shoes,” the man ordered.

Connor sat by the tub again and untied his sneakers, slipped them off.

“Throw shoes out door into bedroom,” he instructed, and then, “Turn socks inside out,” and Connor complied.

“You can put socks on again. I must go now but I will be back soon,” said the man, and left the bathroom. A moment later, a rock band from the Eighties began playing at high volume, starting suddenly in the middle of a song. Connor didn’t hear the stateroom door shut.

He set to work looking for a way to escape. The end of the chain that was wrapped around the sewer pipe was securely padlocked, the pipe itself was very sturdy, and the handcuffs at his end weren’t going to let him go, either. He examined the chain: every single link was closed and welded.

He had just begun a systematic search for some way to get a message out when the music stopped abruptly. Seconds later, the man appeared in the bathroom doorway, the tool bag gone and his arms full of folded blankets. He set them down on the floor--three blankets and a pillow—and walked away again.

He came back with one of the plastic deck chairs from the balcony, set it down and sat on the toilet with the lid down. He gestured gallantly to the empty chair and Connor sat.

The guy had Connor’s wallet in his hand, and now he opened it and pulled out the driver’s license. “Connor,” he read. “I’m sorry I have to do this, and I’m sorry I cannot explain to you why it is necessary--or at least not now. Later perhaps there may be time to tell you. For now I will only say that I am not bad guy. I must do what I came here for, and I cannot let you get in way.” He slid the license back into place and continued looking through Connor’s wallet. “I told housekeeping do not to come in. I told them I will make own bed, I don’t drink and I want privacy.”

Maybe Connor should have done that: made his own bed and stocked his own fridge instead of going out in the middle of the night and looking for trouble. “What do you want me to call you?” he asked.

The man shrugged and scoffed. “You call me anything you want,” he replied, “or maybe you call me nothing, just talk. There is no one else to confuse: if you speak, I will know it is me.”

Connor shrugged, too. He looked at the name on the guy’s chest: “P. Smith,” thought of the Cyrillic characters on the book on the nightstand, and told him, “I’m going to call you Pasha.”

Note: I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and The Tarsus Secret is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to The Tarsus Secret, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Marketing for Indie Writers: Facebook Pages

Someday I'd like to be so successful the paparazzi will do all my advertising for me. My dishes will magically wash themselves, and I can just write and eat and watch my books touch the world. Meanwhile, I use up a lot of the time I'd like to be writing in washing dishes, tidying up and trying to figure out how this whole marketing thing works.

So far, three things seem to be working: Facebook pages, a Twitter account, and this website. Of course none of them works without the other two, but here I'll focus mainly on Facebook pages.

A couple of things I've noticed:

  1. A Facebook page is not a website. I've seen authors comment that Facebook pages don't work as well as websites. That's true, in the sense that a washing machine doesn't work as well as a car.
  2. An empty or stale page won't help. The purpose of a Facebook page (it seems to me) is to bring your latest writing news to interested Facebook users. But, 
  3. Nobody likes to be spammed, either. I recently had to unlike an author's page because my feed was so full of random updates about her personal life that I wasn't seeing news from other authors.
  4. A Facebook page is great for keeping your feeds organized. I like authors' pages as my page, not as myself, and that keeps the author updates separate from the news about my cousin's pregnant goat and my friend's latest rant about the President.
I think that with any social or grassroots medium, cooperation is key. We want likes, of course. Likes are the essential first step in getting updates out there. But after that, we want interaction. We want engagement. We want people reacting to our posts, leaving comments, and most of all, sharing our posts on their own walls. And here's where the golden rule comes in: we can't like and comment and share on our own pages. Well, we can, but it won't do much good. What works is to do it for each other. Thanks to Kev Hammond of Magic, Fairy Tales and Inter Dimensional Poking Devices for demonstrating this.

What I like to do:
  1. Like an author's page as my page, not as myself. Not only does that help keep my feeds organized, but it helps other people find my page. I found out the hard way that if I like it as myself and my page, only my 'self' will show up in the list of 'who likes this' and people won't be able to find my page that way. Also, Facebook still calculates all my likes as just one like, no matter how many of my pages like your page. When I found that out, I had to make sure I had "Use Facebook as Jae Blakney" checked, and unlike a lot of pages.
  2. Check the feed from other authors' pages, leave comments and share any posts I think my fans will find interesting. I'm just starting to do this, and I haven't got the hang of it yet. If you have any advice, I could sure use it.
I'll end by passing along another tip from Kev Hammond: 'sex and bacon'. He says that when he puts that phrase in his posts, a lot more people see them. I have a hunch it's not the bacon that makes it work.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Science Fiction Story: Amalgam: Rocket Science

Here's the third science fiction story from the Amalgam trio:

It was the year, to use our terms, 2729, but according to the calendar adopted by the Universal Summit of Sovereign Planets and Federal Alliances of 2446, it was the year 10,342.

The orders seemed simple enough on the face of them: pick up fifteen-hundred miners from Europa and take them to Venus. But aboard the Rocket Science, nothing was ever simple. To start with, the ship was figuratively bursting at the seams with so many passengers, and it seemed Broderick Mazur’s security staff was always breaking up a fight somewhere.

And now they had slowed down. Captain Wendell could feel the change in vibration as soon as it happened, and she’d gone to the nearest interface and inquired about it, and sure enough, their speed had decreased by twenty-five percent. She frowned and left her quarters for the bridge, still in her off-duty buttercup-and-lavender sari. Hopefully, this would only take ten minutes or so. Hopefully, the outfit would help her get out of there a little sooner.

Shazzerine Wendell was an Orby brat. Far back in history, people started organizing themselves into fighting forces, and one of the words that came to describe these organizations was army, because they were armed. And then they started having armies on ships, and that was called the navy, because not only were they armed, but they also had to navigate. And then they started having armies in spaceships, and that was called the Orby, because not only were they armed and navigating, but now they had to navigate in three-D, taking into account all the orbit paths of all the celestial bodies along the way.

She was what people called an ‘accidental’, which meant she’d come about the old-fashioned way. Accidentals weren’t always actually accidental; sometimes they were planned. But not Shazzerine. Shazzerine had been a complete surprise, even managing to hide three months in the depths of her mother’s body before anyone even suspected.
Her parents had been delighted, and had opted to keep her with them - with both of them, as much as possible. They’d signed her up for remote school and volunteered for assignments based on how likely they were to let the little family stay together. Shazzerine adored her parents, appreciated their sacrifice, and was very careful with her birth control.

She made her way along the corridors and stairways to the bridge, where it was clear from the first glance that the bridge staff already knew about the problem. “So, did you slow the ship down because you found a problem, or did the ship just decide to slow down all by itself?” she asked the two staffers on duty.

“Just lost twenty-five percent of our speed about four minutes ago, Captain,” Jdind replied. “We don’t know why yet.” Lieutenant Vjidu Jdind was a Jasperian, a member of a purple-skinned species with hooves, and he was the senior bridge officer for gamma shift tonight.

A smile played at the edges of Wendell’s lips as the thought occurred to her that Jdind would be the perfect accessory for the outfit she was wearing. She kept that thought to herself, walked to one of the unoccupied computer interface stations and signed in. “What have you looked at so far?” she asked, “and has anyone communicated with Engineering?”

A voice from the wall answered. “We’ve got a channel open, Captain,” said the small image of Doreen Miran that seemed to be sitting just behind the monitor of the secondary communications interface. Miran was the gamma-shift duty officer for Engineering.

Almost on top of Miran, Jdind reported, “The first thing we tried was telling the ship to go back to standard cruise. But it seems to think it’s already going at standard cruise. So we changed the command to a hundred thirty-three percent and that did absolutely nothing. I was wondering if the problem is with the engines: maybe they’re already giving all they can give. But Miran says that’s impossible. She says standard tests and maintenance prevent that sort of thing, the last test was done yesterday and engines just don’t develop problems that fast.”

On the monitor, Miran nodded her agreement.

“So what’s left?” Wendell asked thoughtfully. “A problem with the programming? Computer hardware? The connection between the navigational computer and the engines?”

Jdind joined the brainstorm. “There could also be a problem with the processors in the engines themselves,” he theorized, “so that the engines are working on false information, not interpreting the commands they’re receiving correctly, or even working off false data regarding their own status.”

“In other words,” Crewman Eric Lobbs said playfully, from the helm, “the engines are confused. They need a psychiatrist.”

“Sure,” Jdind muttered, “whatever you say, Air Clobs.”

Wendell figured she hadn’t been meant to hear that, and pretended not to.

“Hey,” said Lobbs, “Could this be at all caused by what we’re doing right now?”

“Standing here talking?” Jdind retorted, making no effort to say it quietly this time.

“I was just thinking,” Lobbs explained, “is there any way the system could have gotten affected by Europa or Jupiter somehow? Maybe it could be electrical fields, or…I don’t, know, the miners? Could the mining equipment be causing some kind of interference? Or maybe a prank? Out of fifteen hundred people with nothing to do, one of them might have the skill and the lack of good sense to do a little hacking.”

“I’m afraid,” said Wendell, “that at this point we can’t afford to rule out any of these options.” It was also becoming terribly clear that the civilian-clothing trick wasn’t working at all. It didn’t seem to make the slightest difference to the engines whether she wore her uniform or not.

Sebastian Krazinsk held the rank of Lieutenant-Commander, but like most of the guys he worked with, he wasn’t very interested in titles and ranks and chains-of-command. He was interested in engines, in doing his part, in making sure the ship was ready to do anything its Captain needed it to.

For several centuries, Sebastian’s family’s name had been Kaczynski. Some time before that, it was sometimes Kaczynski and sometimes Kaczynskaya, depending on whether you were male or female. And then in only a generation or two, somewhere around the time when Earth’s sea level rose, it managed to be corrupted into Krazinsk. Maybe it was just the familiarity, but Sebastian liked it better that way.

Right now, it was gamma shift on board the Rocket Science, and for Sebastian Krazinsk, that meant personal time. He’d ordered some clothes from Earth, had them delivered to Europa, and now he was inspecting them. Only one was for himself, and it didn’t interest him much. It was a tough, practical pair of coveralls for all the jobs he’d need to do for his mother pretty soon. His leave was coming up, and he wanted to be prepared. He put it on and it fit, so he folded it and threw it in his suitcase.

Much more interesting were the clothes for his nieces. The youngest one was six months old now, and he’d never seen her. Lovingly, he lifted the first one and tugged at the wrapping, preparing for a thorough inspection of the little bright-yellow sun suit.

A jarring tone interrupted him. “What is it?” he answered it crossly.

“Commander, I’m sorry to bother you, but we’ve got issues and I don’t think they can wait till morning.” It was Doreen Miran, the duty officer.

“Of course, Doreen, I’m sorry I snapped at you,” he said, feeling like a heel. “What’s going on?”

“No problem. We’ve slowed down, and so far, nobody on gamma shift can figure out why. I guess the Captain has called up some of the bridge reserves, and I was wondering if we should do the same thing in Engineering, call up some reserves.”

“Yeah,” Krazinsk replied. “I hate to say it, but yeah, you shouldn’t have to field this one on your own.”

“Great, Commander, thanks. I’ll start waking them up.”

“No, wait,” Sebastian objected. “The first reservist is me. Let me have a look at it, and then we’ll go from there.”

“See you when you get here, then.” Miran looked so relieved and grateful that Sebastian found it necessary to suppress a laugh.

“Let me throw on a uniform,” he said, “and then I’ll be right over.”

The walk from his quarters to Engineering took just under three and a half minutes: he’d clocked it on several occasions. This time, it took a lot longer. Fifty-two seconds into the trip, he came to a knot of miners in the hallway. There were seven of them, all apparently male at first glance, five leaning against the wall, either slouched or sitting, and two pacing among them. None of them seemed to notice him.

“Pardon me, sorry to interrupt,” he said, as he approached.

“Well, what is this?” said one of them, a bearded human, pushing off against the wall to come out of his slouch. He took his place in the middle of the hallway and stood there like a bouncer, his feet set apart in a solid stance and his arms folded.

“That’s a Lieutenant-Commander,” another guy observed. He’d been sitting, and now he stood. The others followed.

“I’m sorry I can’t stay and talk,” said Krazinsk. “They need me in Engineering.”

“What, is it shift-change time?” asked the bouncer, without moving.

“No, not yet. Just a little issue with the engines they need my help on.”

“Can you get whiskey?” asked the bouncer.

“Whiskey?” Krazinsk repeated, surprised. Whiskey had been the last thing on his mind. “Not on board, I can’t.”

“Because that’s what we want: whiskey, vodka, rum, that sort of thing. No wine, no coolers, and don’t even talk about the fake stuff.”

“Sir,” said Krazinsk, “I’m afraid you’re talking to the wrong person. I have no way to get you any alcohol of any kind. We’re in the middle of space, alcohol is not available on board, and our next stop will be Venus, where, I understand, all of you will be getting off.”

“I bet you could get it if you wanted to,” said the bouncer.

“Aren’t you the big boss in Engineering?” somebody asked.

“Yeah,” Krazinsk answered. “Sounds glamorous, but what it really means is, if anything hiccups, I’m on duty, no matter what the schedule says.”

“Well, in that case,” the bouncer said, “you don’t have to get the whiskey.”

Krazinsk nodded and took a step forward.

The bouncer held up his hand, Krazinsk felt his arms being grabbed from behind, and somebody tripped him. He didn’t fall, though; they let him down onto his knees and tied his wrists together.

“Your Captain can get the whiskey,” said the bouncer. “You can stay with us.”

Captain Wendell had changed into her uniform, and she was in Engineering, along with Miran and about two dozen of her colleagues, all officially off-duty, some of them on the reserve schedule and some of them not. Miran hadn’t even had to call them. Most of them had felt the slow-down like Wendell had, and had started asking questions. And now the most troubling question was, where was Krazinsk?

Along with the bridge staff, they figured out that the engines were getting the right commands, that the settings were right so they should be going at the specified speed, and that, for some unknown reason, they were losing power. In fact, just a minute ago, they’d slowed down again. Now the ship was traveling at about sixty-two percent of normal cruise.

“Captain,” Miran called, “it’s Mazur for you.”

Wendell practically leaped to the nearest comm. Mazur was head of security, and she’d asked him to check on Krazinsk. “Give me good news, Rick.”

“We found Krazinsk,” Mazur said. “He’s been taken hostage.”

Wendell groaned. “Miners?”

“Yeah. Look, he’s unharmed, and we’re trained for situations like this. We’ll get him out of there. I just thought you should know.”

“I have every confidence in you and your team,” Wendell replied. “How can I help?”

“Be unavailable, for now,” said Mazur. “There’s a lot of symbolic power in getting an audience with the Captain. It’s a card we want to play at just the right time.”

“Sure. Anything else?”

“Not right now.”

“Okay, let me know.”

It was a grueling twelve hours of tedious work, checking and rechecking and systematically ruling out potential cause after potential cause, fighting the adrenalin, pushing down the urge to grab anything that would suffice for a weapon and run off to rescue Krazinsk. Gamma shift had ended and delta shift had run its course. Now it was alpha again, and most of the alpha staff had been here all along anyway.

“Okay, what have we got left to check?” Wendell asked Jibril Grenk, who should have been second-in-command on alpha shift, under Krazinsk.

“They just finished the signal diagnostic on the wiring,” Grenk answered. “Most of it was perfect and what wasn’t, they replaced. No effect at all, of course. That means we’ve got nothing else to look at except inside the engines.”

“And that means turning them off and letting them cool, like in dry-dock?” Wendell asked.

“Actually, there’s a diagnostic program built into the engines - assuming the program isn’t affected by whatever this is - that can capture images from inside the engine, during operation.

“Great!” said Wendell. “Can we try it?”

“Don’t see why not,” Grenk replied. “I wish I could confirm this with Krazinsk, but the way I see it, this is our last hurrah. The only way to do any further diagnostics is to shut the engines down completely.”

“Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that,” said Wendell. “How long until the images will be ready?”

“Five minutes, if it works.”

Like everything else, the imaging program seemed to be functioning perfectly. In less than five minutes, Wendell, Grenk and about twenty-five others began watching a slide show. Each image was a slice of an engine’s interior. To Wendell, whose expertise was in personnel management, interspecies relations and extreme piloting, the images held no information at all. She hoped the engineers were finding them more helpful.

Suddenly, just as a new image appeared, the near-silent crowd came alive. There were grunts and exclamations and a couple of whistles.

“What is it?” Wendell asked, out loud.

“See those black spots?” Grenk replied, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say they were fleas.”

“Well, is it possible?” she asked. “Maybe not fleas, exactly, but is it possible the engines are infested with some sort of insects, or small creatures of some kind?”

Grenk shook his head, “No, they’d never survive. It’s about a bazillion degrees in there.”

“A bazillion, huh?” said Wendell. “I thought engineers were always extremely accurate, especially with numbers.”

“I was accurate, Captain, just not exact. And I wish I knew what those things were.”

“What about Ioite volcano mites?” asked a Jasperian who’d been on the wiring signal diagnostic team.

“Well, maybe,” Grenk replied doubtfully. “To be honest, I know practically nothing about volcano mites. I guess it’s a possibility. But whether those are volcano mites or not, I think we’ve learned about all we can from these images. The next thing we have to do, and this is really up to the Captain, is decide whether we’re going to just keep on going to Venus at whatever speed we can manage, or whether we’re going to take the engines offline and make no speed at all, in the hopes that it’s a quick fix we can do in space and get them going normally again.”

“Or,” said Wendell, “turn around and let Jupiter Station get a look at them. To be honest, I don’t like any of these alternatives, not with what we’ve already got happening on the passenger decks.”

A message-tone sounded and Wendell nodded to the crewman at one of the comms. The engine-image was replaced by the oversized face of the First Mate, on the bridge.

“Captain,” he said, the Mind-Reader is on its way to relieve us of our, uh, cargo. She’s got the room: capacity for four thousand and only carrying two thousand at the moment. I explained the situation and Captain Guden agreed to take them.”

“Great!” Wendell replied, “Good work. It almost sounds too easy.”

“He wasn’t too keen on going all the way to Venus, though,” the First Mate continued. “But the Brain Surgery is in the area, or will be, I guess. The Mind-Reader is going to take them to the Brain Surgery and the Brain Surgery will take them to Venus.”

“And we’ll see if the engines can get us to Jupiter Station,” Wendell replied, “which means right now, all we have to worry about is how to spring Krazinsk.”

Note: I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and Rocket Science is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to Rocket Science, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Science Fiction Story: Amalgam: Mind-Reader

Another science fiction story featuring genetically modified humans:

The Mind-Reader, despite her telepathic-sounding name, was no spy ship; she was a personnel carrier. And she was huge: Captain Guden had crammed five thousand troops into her once. She was rated for four thousand, though, and right now she held only two.

Madaram Guden was born on Mars, the second child of a twice-elected provincial governor, and he was named for Kara Madaram, the great Twenty-Second Century Mars Colony pioneer.

Madaram didn’t have a father. He’d been created in a Martian lab from his mother’s egg and the stock genetic material called the Amalgam. The Amalgam was made up of material from more than ten thousand individuals, male and female, over ninety-nine percent human and all born on Mars. In school, the ‘accidental’ kids, the kids who’d been born out of passion, used to pretend they forgot his name was Madaram and call him Amalgam. Amalgam Guden. He liked that name well enough, too. As it was, he bore the name of the single most essential figure in Martian history. If the accidentals had had their way, he’d be named after the single most important application in the history of genetic science, not only on Mars but in the entire Human Empire.

Guden had always thought of the ability to read minds as a sleek thing, a nimble skill with a svelte shape that could turn on a dime. The Mind-Reader was nothing like that. In tight spaces she had all the agility of a walrus on the rocks, all the grace of a pelican landing on a post. Guden had technically never seen either of these animals, but like all the other kids, he’d met their simulations, along with those of hundreds of other animals, in Natural Science class in elementary school. He’d seen them, heard them, smelled them, touched them. They’d seemed real.

The Mind-Reader was a hunk of asterite half a reglek long and as black as the emptiness of space itself. She was beautiful, huge, intimidating: not just a personnel carrier, but if necessary, a virtually invincible fighting machine. And, Guden mused, it was precisely because she was virtually invincible that fighting was hardly ever necessary.

It was the year, to use our terms, 2729, but according to the calendar adopted by the Universal Summit of Sovereign Planets and Federal Alliances of 2446, it was the year 10,342. The Mind-Reader was on its way to a point halfway between Mars and Jupiter to rendezvous with the Rocket Science, which was having engine trouble, to pick up its cargo of fifteen-hundred Europan miners and transfer them to the Venus-bound Brain Surgery somewhere near Earth’s vernal region. Earth itself would not be attending, though, as by the time they got there, the planet would be on the opposite side of its orbit path, very solidly in the autumnal region.

Guden stood, satisfied that the appropriate directives had been sent instructing the various ship departments to inquire about, investigate and prepare for any medical alerts, special diets and so forth that the Europans might have. He adjusted his uniform in front of the mirror beside his office door and stepped into the hallway. He turned left and strode down the corridor with his shoulders back and his head held high, as they always were when someone might see him. It was important, when you were the Captain of an Imperial ship, to portray the right impression, to demand and deserve respect. It was important, probably, no matter who you were.

He settled into a confident but slightly hurried stride. He had a dinner meeting with the senior staff, they had a lot to discuss, and there would be plenty of work for all of them after that. Just as it did a thousand times a day, just as it had done with every step since he’d learned to walk without toddling, his center of balance shifted without his notice, subtly, gradually leaving the security of his left side, where his left foot in its perfectly-polished black boot made solid contact with the deck. His balance moved forward almost surreptitiously until the weight of his entire frame was committed to his right foot, and his right foot to the deck underneath it.

And then, in an instant, the deck disappeared. The whole ship disappeared. It didn’t go anywhere, or fade away or disintegrate; it just wasn’t there anymore.

A cloudless cobalt dome rested on a horizon of reds and yellows, of oranges and russets, that encircled a geometric landscape of perfectly-trimmed lawns and immaculate pathways lined with perky, multi-colored flowerbeds.

His polished left boot still rested on a flat and solid surface, his weight was still committed in good faith to the competence of his right foot and the strength of the metal underneath it.

His new location was a stairway, a set of wooden steps leading from the front door of a quaint red-brick building. And he had the misfortune to be facing down them. Underneath his right foot there was only air. It was crisp, clean, oxygen-rich air, healthful to the lungs and refreshing to the mind, but totally incapable of holding the weight of a man.

As his body pitched forward, almost in slow motion, he watched as one particular step seemed to rise up at him, coming closer and closer to his face. He had time to read the pattern of its grain through its nearly flawless transparent finish, and fix it in his mind, time to reach his arms out and land on the heel of his hand in a slow, rolling fall. But the momentum was too great and he didn’t stop there. His body did a sort of sideways somersault and he landed again, on his head this time, softly on the ground, rich loam mixing with his hair and a tangle of leaves and stems and petals obscuring his vision.

He put his arm down again, shifted his weight to it and picked up his head, and observed that he had an audience. Five human faces peered down at him, all of them laughing, none of them older than about fourteen.

“We should take him home,” said the youngest, as though it didn’t occur to him that Guden could hear him. “He could sleep in the guest room.”

“We really can’t do that,” one of the others answered while Guden stood up. “Sorry.”

“Why not?” asked the little boy. He must have been about five.

Great, thought Guden. Now I’m like a box turtle. They found me in a flowerbed and now it’s “Can we keep him? Please, Mom!” At least he hadn’t left his cap behind. He ran his hands over his hair, trying to get the worst of the dirt and plant parts out of it, and donned the cap.

The older one looked at him awkwardly, almost like he was apologizing for not greeting him, looked at the younger boy and back at Guden with a sheepish look. Guden nodded that he understood; the little kid was getting the respect and Guden, for his crime of falling face-first in a patch of chrysanthemums, was going to need to wait.

“Because, first of all,” the older boy explained, “we don’t even know if he wants to live with us. He’s probably already got a home.”

The little kid lost his smile and looked at Guden sullenly, like it was his fault.

One of the other kids touched the young one’s shoulder, to cheer him up. “You’re a fast runner,” he said. “Look, this is very important. Can you go real fast and get Mr. Berg? He needs to get here right away.”

The five-year-old nodded solemnly and darted off.

On the Mind-Reader, the Captain was late for dinner. He and the senior staff had a lot to discuss. What species were these miners? Would they all be able to stay in quarters designed for air-breathers or would some of them need to be housed in the aquarium? How much luggage and equipment would they be bringing on board? Had anybody made sure the Brain Surgery had enough space for everyone, and everything? Was Captain Hesterus of the Brain Surgery even aware of the plan at all?

The First Mate rested her elbows on the table, laced her fingers together in front of her face and pinched her top lip between her thumbs. This detour to participate in a relay race with the Rocket Science and the Brain Surgery was going to significantly delay every single one of the two thousand passengers already on board. That couldn’t be helped, of course, and for the most part people were very understanding, but complications had a way of arising. Even when the passengers were accommodating, circumstances weren’t always so flexible.

First Mate Alyssa Soren sighed, let go of her lip and put her hands under the table. She fingered her napkin and looked over the shiny pots of lobster and rice and Europan shoefish at Talia Mburu, the Navigator. Talia nodded solemnly and Alyssa announced to the whole table, “I think it’s time we make it official. I’m taking command. Shtuntu, you’re in charge of organizing the search parties.”

Barindubu Shtuntu, a purple Jasperian, rose and hurried out the door, her hoof beats ringing on the titanium deck plating.

“I hate cold lobster,” Mburu groused, and stood up. Soren knew that cold lobster had nothing to do with it; nobody felt like eating.

“He’s a tough old space tortoise,” she said. “You’ll see: we’ll find him, and he’ll be fine. Then I’m going to kill him, and he won’t be fine.”

Fifty-four years earlier, on a frigid day a week after New Year’s, Jochabed Amory had given birth to an accidental. Actually, the baby wasn’t accidental at all; she was planned. Jochabed and Emerson had decided it would be a lot more fun to play the lottery, to not choose their baby’s sex or eye color or earlobe shape or anything, and just see what they got. What they got was Phoebe, female with blue eyes and detached earlobes, and she was perfect.

In the year 10,342, Phoebe Amory was in her seventeenth year as the headmistress of Faraday Academy, a progressive private school, both junior high and high school, located only a few miles from the Atlantic on North America’s beautiful Champlain Plateau.

On the face of it, it was no different from a thousand other schools, but when people talked about the Faraday kids, they tended to use words such as phenom, prodigy, genius, wunderkind, super-child. The technologies these students developed were consistently ahead of the best work of the best students in the Empire’s top universities.

But it wasn’t just a school. In a way, it was also a town - a small, privately-owned town with a rather eccentric population. Because whenever a family wasn’t entirely comfortable with the thought of sending their child off to boarding school, Faraday gave them the option of moving on campus. So while a few of the students lived off campus with their families, a lot of the families lived on campus with their students.

Phoebe set down her teacup and looked out the window, contemplated the perfectly-groomed lawns, the immaculate walks, the manicured flowerbeds, and sighed. Was she doing the right thing? The technology classes were a smashing success: even she was almost surprised by what the kids were able to produce. Almost, not quite. But was she pushing them too hard? It was her seventeenth year now, and every year she felt compelled to do even better than last year. Kids applied to Faraday because of its record, because it gave them the opportunity to get the best technology education in the Empire. Donors supported the school, made it possible to run it tuition-free and admit students solely on merit, because every year, the kids produced technology even more amazing than the year before.

But how far was too far? They were just kids, after all, and her first responsibility had to be to them and to their families, not to the mega-corporations and their bankrolls.

She was startled by a sharp rap on the door.

“Come in,” she replied.

It was George, from Public Safety, wearing her ‘I’m here in an official capacity’ bearing. That was never a good sign. “Sorry to interrupt,” she said, “but you need to come. I’ll explain on the way.”

Standing over the crushed mums, Guden observed with a certain satisfaction that it didn’t take long for the cops to notice his arrival, and once they noticed, they got there fast. “Faraday Academy Public Safety” the patches on their triceps read. There were four of them that he could see, and they were armed, and Guden himself was not.

“Welcome to Faraday Academy,” one of them greeted him as they approached. They took up their positions carefully, surrounding him in case he tried to run, putting themselves between him and the kids.
“Thank you,” replied Guden, touching his cap. “I’m Madaram Guden of Mars, and I apologize for the inconvenience, but I seem to be without my ID.”

“And what brings you to the Faraday campus today, Captain Guden?” asked a second cop, with a professional mix of courteous respect and wary alertness that would have met with his approval in one his own security officers.

“I wish I understood that myself,” he answered, realizing how evasive he must sound. “I was aboard my ship, heading outward from Mars orbit, and then I was on these steps here.”

“We found him in the flowers,” one of the kids volunteered. It was a boy who hadn’t spoken yet. “He was laying down.”

“You found him lying down in the flowers?” said the cop to the kid. He shot a glance at a third cop, and the third cop nodded. She was going to find the kid’s parents, then, and ask for permission to interview him, and probably the rest of the kids, too. Then the second cop said to Guden, “I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, Captain, but this is a private school and some of the children here are quite young. Their parents place a lot of trust in us, and it’s our job to guarantee them that this campus is safe. That’s why we have the walls and the gates and the little guard houses at the gates. We have to take it very seriously when small children come and tell us about unregistered visitors they find just wandering around.”

“As you should,” Guden replied.

“I’m afraid the regulations are quite clear in this case,” said the cop. “We have no choice but to take you into custody.” He and his team were on high alert now, prepared for any desperate move Guden might try to make. The first cop, the one who had said, “Welcome to Faraday Academy,” pulled a pair of handcuffs from his belt.

Guden turned his palms out, moved his arms away from his sides, and bowed slightly. “Of course,” he said. “You have my full cooperation.”

Note: I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and Mind-Reader is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to Mind-Reader, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.

Guest Post: Security

Please help me welcome today's guest blogger, Bronwyn Cair:

I'm just asking for a little security,
An opportunity
To ask myself if this is what I want,
A chance to get out while the gettin's good.

I can’t pretend, keep telling myself
Can’t put it on a shelf,
I have to break my delusion, 
This is not the answer, and all I need

Is a chance to step back, to say 
That I need to breathe, need to feel the 
Wind in my hair, to 
Be free, I just need a minute, just

A little security.
Back when we started, it wasn’t
Hard to imagine where we’d be by now,
Because you would say anything,
Do anything just to get in my bed.

And I believed you, believed it all, even
As I watched you fall,
As I failed to catch you and let you blame me,
I still didn’t see,

That you’ll never give me a 
Moment to breathe, a lifetime to be
Everything I’ve always wanted, a 
Chance to fly, a little

I’m not an asset, another prize for you
To behold, I’m not going to sit there
And do what I’m told. I won’t let you

Groom me to be your china doll,
Because this shelf is just too small,
And I’d rather fall and crack my head than
Let you fall back in my bed,

Because I just need a second,
A moment to be me, a few hundred hours
To see what it means to be free,
And while you are tempting,

A lie, though so sweet, 
I am taking a step back, I’m stretching my 
Legs, I’ll stand on my own and find my own,
Be me own, thrive on my own


Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Science Fiction Story: Amalgam: Gene Pollution

A science fiction story about genetically modified humans:

If Ktashka Naladauk didn’t do something fast, babies around the world were going to grow up with misshapen hands and faces, overgrown tongues, stunted growth and permanently juvenile minds.

Primitive human offspring had always been accidental. Parents simply reproduced, never stopping to think what sort of genes they were passing down to their children, or what features, blemishes and even handicaps their combinations might cause. With civilization came the ability to custom-tailor a child’s genes in a complementary pattern, and as an added perk, to cater to the fancies of the parents.
And now, on One-Hundred-Fourth-Century Mars, there was the Amalgam. (In our terms, it was the Twenty-Eighth Century, but according to the calendar adopted by the Universal Summit of Sovereign Planets and Federal Alliances of 2446, it was actually the One Hundred Fourth Century.) The Amalgam was made up of material from more than ten thousand individuals, male and female, over ninety-nine percent human and all born on Mars.

Naladauk, a Quality Control Specialist at the sprawling complex that housed the Amalgam, glanced at her reflection by force of habit as she walked past the shiny chrome panels that decorated the walls of the hallway outside her lab. And by force of habit, she put her hair back in place: that one lock that was always springing out, making her look like a mad scientist on good days, and just plain mad on bad ones. When she’d been little, she had blamed her parents. They’d been the ones who had chosen her geneticist, after all, and they’d been the ones who had filled out the forms for the geneticist to work from. But when she’d started learning about genetics procedures and genetics law, she’d realized the unruly lock was actually her geneticist’s fault alone, and there was nothing her parents could have done to prevent it. But she had also learned very quickly in her lab classes how virtually impossible it was not to let one or two annoying little features slip through.

But right now, she wasn’t worried about annoying little features. Right now, she was worried about Down Syndrome - an epidemic of it, if you could use that word to apply to a condition that couldn’t be ‘caught.’

She stepped to the comm and got her boss’ office. “We’ve got a mutation,” she said.

Jack Grady didn’t miss the gravity of her tone. “Be right there,” he answered. In twenty seconds, he was at her side. “How bad is it?” he asked.

“Bad,” she answered. “Twenty-first chromosome, and it’s not a minor case, either. We’re looking at severe Down’s.”

“You’ve double-checked your work?”

“Yeah, three times.”

“I’d like to get Priti to have a look at it, blind,” said Grady, “see if she comes up with the same thing.”

Naladauk nodded. She didn’t mind. But she already knew what Priti would find.
Naladauk was a graduate of Earth’s prestigious Faraday Academy, a progressive private technology school, both junior high and high school, located only a few miles from the Atlantic on North America’s beautiful Champlain Plateau. On the face of it, it was no different from a thousand other schools, but when people talked about the Faraday kids, they tended to use words such as phenom, prodigy, genius, wunderkind, super-child. The technologies these students developed were consistently ahead of the best work of the best students in the Empire’s top universities.

But it wasn’t just a school. In a way, it was also a town - a small, privately-owned town with a rather eccentric population. Because whenever a family wasn’t entirely comfortable with the thought of sending their child off to boarding school, Faraday gave them the option of moving on campus. Naladauk’s family hadn’t chosen to exercise that option; they’d stayed behind on Mars; but the presence of so many families gave the school a very different atmosphere. And Naladauk always wondered if that was why she’d stayed out of trouble, and whether that was why she found it relatively easy to get along with all sorts of people.

Like most of the other kids, she’d applied to Faraday because of its record, because she’d wanted to get the best technology education in the entire Human Empire. Her parents had encouraged her to apply to Faraday because it was tuition-free, admitting students solely on merit.

The Amalgam employed a lot of Martians. There were the security people who kept it safe from terrorists and pranksters, the maintenance people who kept it safe from weather and dust, and QC people like Naladauk who kept it safe from human error. There were the Customer Service Reps, who worked in shifts around the clock (it was always peak hour in one time zone or another) fielding inquiries from possible donors and potential customers. And then there were the geneticists. Because the Amalgam wasn’t like most other creations. It wasn’t like a bridge or a building or even a city park on Earth. It was like Mars.

Mars was, of course, a terraforming project. Buildings were always being built on Mars, but there always came a day for each building when it was complete. Mars itself was a living thing, a delicate collective organism of plants and animals, of oxygen and carbon dioxide, of water and sunshine and seeds and loam. They’d been building it for centuries, ever since its landmark beginning some six hundred years ago under the leadership of the legendary Kara Madaram, and they were still building it, would keep on building it, as long as there were people living on Mars.

It was the same with the Amalgam: it wasn’t a stagnant dead thing made of rock and wood and metal, it was a living, growing, developing thing like the embryos it helped produce. It responded to scientific discoveries, improved management methods and ethno-cultural trends, which meant that the Company had to employ a lot of geneticists to keep it from getting stale. Their job, one tended to gather from what the PR Department produced, was to screen potential donors and accept only those who were perfect in every way. That, of course, was impossible. By those standards, there wouldn’t be any Amalgam, because nobody’s genes are one hundred percent perfect. So what they really did was screen out certain problems and correct the rest in the lab.

It was Naladauk’s job to be their safety net, to catch their errors. Up to now she hadn’t needed to. She’d had this job for two years now, and this was the first time she’d found a problem.

Priti Svagna was another Faraday grad: a lot of Amalgam employees were. Sometimes that bothered her just a little. She was Martian, after all, and the Amalgam was the red planet’s Golden Child, Martian as Martian could be. So why couldn’t Mars have a school like Faraday, and keep their kids home?

It was Svagna’s day off and she was home, making soup out of leftovers, when the call came. She told Grady she’d be right there, asked her son to watch the soup, and went to the lab. Grady gave her a sample and wouldn’t tell her what it was, asked her to check it. She grumbled. “Where should I start looking?” she asked, but all Grady would do was shake his head.

Two hours later she was in his office. “You might have told me which chromosome,” she said reproachfully.

He shook his head again. “That could have planted an idea in your mind.”

“Well, it’s the twenty-first and it’s a simple fix,” she replied, “time-consuming but simple. May I go home now?”

“Priti, Priti,” he said, and wondered as he always did what she heard when he said that. Did she think he was giving her a compliment, that he was saying, ‘pretty Priti?’ If that’s the case, he thought, then let her think that, but she isn’t. I don’t know what her parents were thinking, because she’s not pretty at all. “You’re missing the herd for the zebras,” he told her. “Yes, it’ll be simple for me to alert Donor Screening. It’ll be simple for Kofi to assign a bunch of geneticists to overtime work and get rid of the flaw. It’s also simple to tell you that if you go home now, you may not have a job to come back to tomorrow.”

She stared at him like she was calling his bluff. “You really would fire me for refusing to work on my day off?” she asked.

“No!” he answered immediately, spitting the word out like she was being ridiculous. “Priti, no, of course not. What I’m trying to tell you is, this flaw wasn’t caused by some kind of slip-up in Donor Screening, at least not directly.”

She frowned. “What do you mean?”

“Before I answer,” he said, “I’d like to invite Ktashka to join us. I asked her to wait for your results.”

“Oh, sure.”

“I’m afraid we may have a much bigger problem than just one flawed gene,” he began, when Naladauk had come in and settled in a chair. “I fervently hope I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that this problem is showing all the signs of a cascade failure.”

Naladauk recoiled and her eyes grew wide, but Svagna pursed her lips skeptically. A genetic cascade failure, the Faraday teachers had said, was pure theory: nobody had ever actually seen it happen. Most of the students agreed that it was just a ghost story, invented by technophobes to discourage genetic research.

“Grady, I don’t know what’s gotten into you,” said Svagna. “The whole planet comes to us because the Amalgam has proven itself over time. And you’re sitting here trying to tell us that after all these years it suddenly, today, just decided to go unstable?”

Grady stared back at her, a dread calm in his eyes. “Yes,” he answered.

“Well,” Priti replied, like she was trying to shake off a bad dream, “this drama game is not for me; you’ll have to find someone else to play with you. Let’s inform Kofi so he can assign his overtime, and let me go home and kiss my son goodnight. There’ll have to be a temporary moratorium on new sales, of course, and a recall of all the samples that just went out. PR will say it’s just a delay, for precaution, and that will only reinforce the public’s trust in us. But it’s not going to cascade, come on!” She rose.

Grady shook his head. “I really hope you’re right, but from what I see, ten to one, as soon as the Donor Screening guys fix this trisomy, it’s just going to pop up in some other chromosome. But even if you’re right, there’s still one thing you’re forgetting.”

Svagna put her hand on the back of her chair. “What?”

“As soon as we put out the recall notice, the Imperial watchdogs are legally mandated to launch an investigation. We’re going to have snoops from Earth infesting every corner of this place.”

“A government compliance audit,” said Naladauk, thinking that maybe Svagna was right: Grady was starting to sound a bit dramatic.

“So?” Svagna replied. “We’re clean.”

“I’ll remind you both about the confidentiality agreements you signed when you started.”

“Yeah?” Even Svagna was beginning to look like she didn’t like where this was going.

“If you ladies will come with me,” said Grady, getting out of his chair.

He led them out of his office, off the QC wing, down six stories to the lobby and out the main front doors. The twenty or so buildings of the Amalgam complex cast dark shadows in the late afternoon sun, and the blue-shift of the oxygen-rich atmosphere mixed with the red dust whipped up by a recent storm to paint the entire sky in shades of purple.

The little group walked across the park-like central quad and down a red concrete sidewalk between two closely-spaced buildings: Main Administration and Public Relations. Grady turned toward a gate in a chain-link fence that surrounded a windowless cinder-block building only one storey high.

“We’re not going in there?” Naladauk asked.

“We are going in there,” answered Grady, who always had trouble replying to convoluted wordings.

“But it’s...” Svagna objected, and finished her sentence by gesturing toward the obnoxious red, black and white sign fastened to the fence.

“Radioactive?” said Grady. “Sometimes I don’t know what to make of that brain of yours, Priti. You don’t believe in genetic cascade failure, but you believe they’d keep nuclear waste in the middle of the Amalgam complex.”

“The isotopes,” Svagna replied defensively. “We use them all the time. We’ve got to get rid of them somewhere.”

“The isotopes are in the containment cylinders in lab storage,” Grady countered. “You use them all the time.”

“Not those isotopes, Grady, the rest of them.”

“That’s all the isotopes there are,” Grady told her. “Each lab has what they need. When they pick up your waste every night, it goes off-site. Nobody dumps it in a building in the middle of the complex.”

They waved their ID’s at the gate and when it clicked they went through it and Naladauk closed it behind them. At the door to the building they repeated the procedure and found themselves in a depressingly plain, narrow hallway.

Grady walked to a door and peered through its small window. After a few seconds he touched his imaginary hat to someone inside. Then he backed up and gestured to the window. “There are your isotopes,” he said, “if you want to have a look at them.”

Svagna looked first, and then Naladauk. The room inside had all the cheer that the hallway lacked. Several low tables dotted the room, each with its own collection of items. On one was a snack of cheese and crackers and fruit juice, on another, lumps of modeling clay of various colors and a few simple tools for working it. Another table was entirely covered with paper, and four tubes of finger paint lay lined up in the middle, their caps still screwed on. Creative scribbles lined the walls, and three huge origami birds hung from the ceiling. Naladauk counted four adults and twenty toddlers.

She felt Grady’s touch on her shoulder and looked back at him. “I’ll show you the next one,” he said, and led them down the hall to another door. This time he didn’t look in, just gestured toward the little window.

Naladauk looked first this time. This room looked a lot like the last one, except the children were younger. In place of tables and paint and finger foods, there were cribs and mats and mobiles and bottles. She started counting the care-givers, but Svagna was getting impatient. She removed her head from the window and commented, “Funny place for a daycare.”

“Really,” Svagna agreed, staring through the window. “Whose kids are these, anyway?”

“We’re getting to that,” said Grady. “There’s one more room I want you to see.” He led them on again, down a flight of stairs to what must have been the basement, into another hallway like the last one, and to a small window in a door again.

Svagna looked first, and she gasped and hogged the window for a long time. Naladauk tried to be patient, but Grady touched Svagna’s shoulder and Naladauk got her turn.

No wonder Svagna had gasped. This room had no little craft tables, no cribs, and no babysitters. Neatly arranged in rows and stacks like the books in an ancient library, were large jars - complicated jars with hoses and wires attached, that looked more like strange robotic squids than jars. And in each jar was a fetus.

She felt Grady’s touch on her shoulder again. “Sorry, but we have to limit how long we leave the light on.” he said. The room with the squid-jars went dark and Naladauk turned her attention back to Svagna and Grady.

“They’re trial babies,” he explained, “guinea pigs, in a test of whether the Amalgam can be used alone, without any other genetic material, to make babies with no parents. The kids I showed you first are the first batch to be viable - so far. The next one is looking good, and the third one is too soon to call.

Naladauk wondered how the previous batches had died, and whether they had suffered, but Svagna exclaimed, “Wow, that is amazing! Can you imagine the applications?”

Grady shook his head again. “Yeah,” he said.

“Parliament spent a lot of time imagining the applications, too: applications like manufactured armies and custom-made sweatshop labor. That’s why they made it illegal.”


  • I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and Gene Pollution is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to Gene Pollution, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.
  • Thanks to The Third Sunday Blog Carnival for including this story in your February 17, 2012 edition.

Monday, December 24, 2012

True Christmas Story: A Home for Christmas

The Christmas I was eight we were almost homeless and I didn't get any presents. It's one of my happiest memories.

My parents had been unemployed for a long time, and it didn't look like that was going to change any time soon, so my father decided to go back to school. We were in New Hampshire and Wheaton College was in Illinois, so we packed the van and headed west. We'd stay with friends until we found an apartment.

The drive out there was three days of fun. We took turns reading a book aloud (probably from either The Chronicles of Narnia or The Lord of the Rings), worked puzzle books, ate yummy snacks we never got at home, and watched my cat explore the packed van. My parents had a homemade mattress in the back, on a plywood platform with our household stuff underneath. They slept on that at night and took turns driving during the day. I guess my brother and I must have slept in the seats, but I don't remember. We were both small for our ages, and he was twelve. The van broke down once, and we sat in the breakdown lane for a while, but of course somebody got it going again.

Finding jobs and an apartment took a lot longer than my parents had anticipated, and with Christmas approaching they were starting to feel very much in the way in our friends' house. I was shocked when one of our hosts replied to my mother's 'thank you' with "It's the least we can do." I had thought these were generous people and close friends of my parents, and now it turned out they were only doing the least they could.

My mother did manage to find a job, and my brother and I went out every day with my father to look for a place to live. And that's how we met Preston.

Preston was cheerful and southern and he showed us around the apartment like we were old friends. He was the handyman, not the landlord, but he didn't see any sense in keeping us waiting while his boss was on her way over.

When "Mizz Norris" did arrive, she told my father that someone else was coming to see the apartment, and she had to give him priority because he had applied first.

"Don't make no difference nohow," Preston objected, looking at my father. "I rented it to him."

Preston got his way and Mrs. Norris produced a rental agreement, with the printed ban on cats crossed out before we could even bring up the subject.

We moved in on Christmas Eve. My brother and I got our own rooms, even though mine was small and didn't really have a proper door, and my parents put their homemade mattress in the living room.

We'd brought a plywood storage box, five feet long and two and a half feet long and lined with wallpaper samples, and that first day it was sitting on its end in the living room. To me it was magic just waiting to happen. I put a festive tablecloth in the bottom, a small lamp in the back and a scrap of red plexiglass in front of the lamp, and in front of that, the little porcelain nativity scene my mother had gotten from her mother.

That night we turned the rest of the lights off and sat in the festive red glow. My father read the Christmas story from his Bible with a flashlight and we sang carols.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

4 Short Stories for Christmas

A few Christmas stories you may enjoy:

"Here Comes Santa Claus" by Bill Pronzini

"Silent Night" by Marcia Muller

"The Three Travelers" by Edward D. Hoch

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Merry Un-Christmas!

This one's for everyone who doesn't celebrate Christmas. I know there are a lot of you. Some of you celebrate something else instead, while some just don't do the whole winter-holiday thing.

Some of my Christian friends would want me to try to pull you in. They'd want me to talk about Christmas this week, and nothing but Christmas. They're among those shoppers you hear in supermarkets, replying to a cheerful greeting of "Happy Holidays" with an indignant "Merry CHRISTMAS!" I love them, but when I hear that, I cringe, for two reasons:

First, no matter how strongly someone believes in Christmas, yelling at a store clerk like a petulant child probably, I'm guessing, isn't going to help the cause.

Second, there's nothing in the Christian Bible designating late December as Christmas. In fact, it puts the date of Jesus' birth much earlier in the year and never mentions anything about observing a holiday for it. Christmas is pure tradition, stemming from a European cultural background in solstice holidays and the desire of many Christians to celebrate one of the pivotal events of our history. There's no more basis in the Bible or in logic for insisting on "Merry Christmas!" in late December than there would be for yelling "Jolly Dove Day!" every August, in celebration of the day Noah released a dove from the ark in search of dry land after the great flood.

But in a broader sense, we all celebrate together. If you live in the northern quarter of the planet, this week is when the days finally stop getting shorter and start getting longer again. It's a physical reminder of something we can make real in our own lives and relationships: the theme of renewal, of new light and the hope of new life.

With that in mind, no matter where you live and what you celebrate or don't celebrate, I'd like to wish you a joyful and life-renewing solstice season.

Friday, December 21, 2012


Here's a short story for the season we think of miracles, and the day we remember the Mayans:

In movies, people die with perfect timing. As soon as the point has been made, the message delivered or the secret confessed, the dying character, like a skilled orator, punctuates the moment with the grandest kind of exit.
Life is exponentially messier.

I lost my mom when I was thirty. She’d gotten hooked on cigarettes at ten, weed at thirteen. Quitting them both when she found out she was pregnant with me didn’t save her from dying of lung cancer at fifty-four.
When she was near the end, lying there in the hospital under comfort care, she looked at me and I saw her mouth form the shape of my name. I’d been standing at the foot of her bed, close enough for her to sense my presence, far enough away to give her and my sister some space, and when she said my name, my sister and I switched places.

In the strained and breathless whisper that was all the speech should manage, she said to me, “Look for miracles, Edward. They’re more common than you think.” And then she closed her eyes and exhaled one long, peaceful breath and was gone.

No, she didn’t, because my mom wasn’t just playing a role, she was dying. It took her three more days to die, three days of slow suffocation, three days of pointless pain that even the brain-killing doses of morphine couldn’t erase, three days of futility.

I don’t look for miracles, but they seem to have a way of finding me.

I’m an archaeologist, which means I dig up tragedies for a living. Sometimes it’s a battlefield or a cannibalistic dinner scene, sometimes a Viking outpost littered with the bones of those who froze to death.

This year it’s a mysteriously empty Mayan city with projects left halfway done, and no clues at all as to where the people went. Baskets show up half-woven, tools and utensils appear laid out ready for use. Animal bones abound, in the expected places, but we haven’t found a single human bone yet. It’s a running joke around the dig that the Mayans didn’t have a civilization, they had a TV show, and now they’re on a really long commercial break. Either that, or they’ve gone on strike.

I don’t actually speak Spanish, just a handful of phrases to help me get along if there’s no one handy to translate. Anyway, where our Mayan ruins are, most of the people don’t speak Spanish any better than I do. There’s a linguist I work with who studies the ruins and studies the local language, and looks for connections. But that’s her job and not mine, and I don’t worry about it. I took enough time away from my work to learn my broken, phrase-book Spanish; I have no desire to take away any more.

Miraglo: it’s the Spanish word for ‘miracle,’ and I swear I must hear it at least once a week. Every time an accident is avoided, every time the sun shines through the banana trees just right so the shadow of the leaves forms a frame around a revered object, every time a rainbow appears, it’s a miraglo.

So I am not surprised in the slightest when I’m sitting in the makeshift field lab with the new intern, Larissa, bringing her up to speed on the project and the dangers of wildlife and weather, the local culture and where the coffee is, and a cute little raven-haired boy bursts through the door without knocking and yells, “Miraglo!”

Larissa jumps and looks at me for direction. She’s the right age to be my daughter, and for some reason, of all the interns I’ve worked with over the years, this one piques my fatherly instincts more than any of them. Maybe I’m getting old. Or maybe subconsciously, Larissa reminds me of the daughter I’ve always wished for.

But enough of this self-psycho-analysis, I tell myself. I sigh and look at the little boy. I smile because it’s not his fault. His cherubic face is adorable in its sincerity: he is too young to doubt what his parents believe. I look at him and wonder what chance detail caused this particular interruption. A little girl who forgot where she was and nearly ran off the edge of a cliff, but managed to stop herself in time? An intoxicated old woman who fell asleep and woke up with a vision story? Sticks that fell into the shape of a cross? If I had to bet, I’d put my money on the soggy jungle weather. Last Thursday somebody noticed that condensation had formed on a painting, and we all had to stop our work to stand in line for a chance to observe the weeping saint (which none of us archaeologists actually saw, as the condensation burned off when the day warmed up, and we were set free to return to the dig).

“There’s been a slight adjustment to the schedule,” I say to Larissa. “Something has happened that the people are calling a miracle, and they’d consider it an insult to them and to God if we didn’t go and look at it. Make sure you’re duly impressed, too, because, trust me on this, nobody wants to get on these people’s bad side.”

Larissa nods “It’s understandable, really,” she replies philosophically. “We’re the outsiders, after all. It’s nice of them to even let us be here.”

“That’s about it,” I agree. “We’re the guests.”

We follow the little one out of the lab and along the narrow path to the village, Larissa first and then me, trying to watch for snakes underfoot and tarantulas spinning down from the canopy, trying to breathe in the steamy heat. The boy is naked, and even the adults of his people wear almost nothing. I think, for the thousandth time, that maybe they’re onto something: this climate is murderous and something has got to give. I tug on my grey cotton tee shirt, pulling it away from me as I jog along the path. It’s soaking wet already, at seven in the morning, and I’ve even cut the sleeves off and enlarged the neck. I long for a crisp October day with the teasing scent of first-snowfall hanging in the air. Then I look at Larissa, ahead of me. She wears a sports bra under her tank top: two layers and no room at all for air. I thank the universe I was born male, and decide to stop complaining.

This time, the miracle turns out to be a water-damage stain, on the ceiling of the church, of all places. With a little imagination, you can sort of see how it resembles a person: a head turned to one side, the half-profiled shape of a brow and nose and chin on the left, the smoother, rounder form of hair or perhaps a wimple on the right, and beyond that a sort of shapeless lump that could be taken for shoulders. To the villagers, it’s a portrait of Nuestra Dama, of Santa María; to me, it’s an expensive delay.

I glance at Larissa and she’s glowing, staring up at the stain, looking as transfixed as the villagers in the presence of the unsightly brown cumulous caused by a leaky roof. I wonder if I should start watching my tongue around her, if I need to protect her from my cynical irreverence: maybe she believes, and if so, it’s not my place to challenge that. Or maybe she’s just that good at looking ‘duly impressed.’ I find myself hoping it’s the experience that brings her joy. Her major is anthropology, after all, not archaeology. I imagine it’s moments like this one, sharing the awe of a communal religious experience with the people of an indigenous village, that bring anthropologists as close to heaven as anybody on earth can get.

But then, even our interruption is interrupted. This second interruption is heralded by another boy, an older boy this time, an awkward skinny pubescent boy with ragged hair and a grubby face, and this boy doesn’t say ‘miraglo.’

This boy says, “Médico,” doctor, and judging from the look on his face, someone is in a very bad way. I turn to look at Gary, the linguist’s post-doc who can run like a cheetah, to tell him to hurry and get the pathologist, but he’s already gone. Our very bored pathologist, who came here to study Mayan bones and try to figure out how their owners died, is currently out in the jungle looking for fallen coconuts with some local children. We’re lucky to have him: he manages to turn local ingredients into gourmet deserts using only the tools available in the camp kitchen, and he considers it fun. Speaking of miracles. And more to the point, he’s also a very good doctor for the living.

Photo: (Peter Le)
We leave the weather’s artwork to stare down from the ceiling in solitude, and let the scrawny boy lead us to the patient. He runs to a hut and goes inside, motioning us to follow, and we do.

Suddenly I think I’m back at the hospital again, looking at my mom. Lying in a hammock is a middle-aged woman and she’s obviously in a lot of pain. Her face doesn’t look the right color, either: it’s that sick color people call green, that doesn’t look the least bit green to me. And her eyes have that sunken, haunted look, like she’s had a fever for a while.

The villagers are all hoping for a miracle, crossing themselves and kneeling on the floor of the hut and muttering. And I hear the word ‘miraglo,’ over and over, like a refrain. They look so earnest as they try to communicate with my colleagues and me, telling us we must have “fe,” faith, that we must expect a miracle, that we could kill her with our doubt.

The linguist gets everyone’s attention and talks to the crowd, but not in Spanish. She must be telling them that Gary has gone to find the doctor.

I look at their faces and wish I could free them from their false hopes, loose them from the strain of second-guessing themselves, the guilt of wondering if their faith is too weak, the burden of suspecting that a neighbor’s doubt has prevented deliverance. I wish I could prove to them that it’s s science that can save this woman, if anything can.
Her suffering affects me deeply and I reach out. I wish I had the drugs with me that could lessen her pain, but all we can do is wait for Dr. Frankel for that. Maybe I can lend her strength, though, make her feel she’s not alone. I reach out gently with my right hand to touch the thin, wizened skin on the left side of her face, reach out gingerly to touch her cheekbone and temple.

My delicate touch becomes a rough shove as my hand and then my arm stiffen and then my whole body convulses. I stand there feeling my heart pound, feeling a rush of adrenalin that suits no useful purpose, not knowing if the loud buzzing sound I heard rang out through the air or sounded only in my own ears. I have no idea how or with what part of my body, but in the instant I touched her, I also managed to touch an electrical current. It felt like one-hundred-twenty-volt house current, but that makes no sense at all considering the hut isn’t even wired for electricity.

I could kill her, they said, with my doubt. And now I very possibly have killed her, not with doubt but by touching her while, somehow, also touching a live electrical current. It probably won’t make any difference to her family whether it was doubt or electricity: they’re both powerful forces we can’t see and don’t really understand much. Come to think of it, it doesn’t make any difference to me, either: if I’ve killed this poor woman, my career is over.

My career? Why am I worrying about my career? Like I told Larissa, nobody wants to get on these people’s bad side. Maybe if I’m lucky, they won’t drag it out too much.

I force myself to look at her again, to see if she’s alive or dead, to face up to what I’ve done. And I see her looking back at me, the pain and fever gone from her eyes, a tired smile on her toothless mouth. Maybe I’m hallucinating.

She says something in her language, and the scrawny boy repeats it, slowly, to the linguist, and the linguist says, “She’s saying thank you, and she’s asking for food.” A sort of cheer goes up, sincere but not too spontaneous, as both the villagers and my colleagues have been keeping quiet until the translation is over.

Larissa throws her arms around me, around my arms, even, gives me a quick, tight squeeze and lets go again. “You did it, Jefe,” she says. “I didn’t think you’d do it, but you did. You let yourself be the agent of a miracle.”

I look at her eyes and try to see what she’s thinking. Does she mean what she’s saying or is she acting for the sake of the villagers? Is she trying to give me some sort of message? Of course, it’s also very possible that I’m trying to read too much into this, and she’s just a young anthropologist, joining the party, enjoying the moment. “I thought I’d killed her,” I confess.

“I thought we’d lost both of you for a second, there,” she says. “What happened?”

“You know, I really don’t even have a clue.”

“Seriously?” she asks, piercing me with her eyes. “You didn’t plan this?”

“Swear to God,” I answer.

“I thought you didn’t believe in God.”

“Yeah, I didn’t believe in miraculous healings, either.”

The people are all talking at once now, some in halting Spanish, some in their own language, and I can’t isolate a single sentence from the noise. But there’s one word I hear over and over, like a refrain: “miraglo.”

The crowd parts and Dr. Frankel comes in with Gary on his heels. “Que pasó?” he asks. What happened?

“Miraglo,” a dozen voices answer at once.

“She seemed quite sick when we got here,” I say lamely.

“Who seemed sick?” Dr. Frankel asks, looking confused.

“La Señora in the hammock,” Larissa explains. “Edward healed her.”

Dr. Frankel watches the woman, toothless, wrinkled and happy, eating in her hammock. He looks even more confused than before.

“Well,” I say, “I don’t - something happened; we don’t know what yet.”

Larissa turns and gives me that piercing look again and asks, “You really don’t remember, do you?”

“Remember what?” I reply.

She answers with another question. “Do I look, at all, familiar to you?”

“Familiar?” I say, and give the word a moment to make its full impression on my mind before deciding. “Maybe not quite familiar,” I say honestly. “It’s more like…maybe you just remind me of someone.”

She nods, knowingly. “This isn’t the first time you’ve healed someone.”

Note: I answered a call from to write just the first chapters for several novels, and Miracle is one of them. If you'd like to contribute a chapter to Miracle, or check out the other novels-in-progress at Chainbooks, click here.