fiction

Writing in process

My writing schedule suffered some major disruption recently as a result of my job search (which ended quite well, incidentally). With that professional goal accomplished, I should be able to ease back into my regular writing routine.

I’ve got three projects in process right now:

  • My novella, The Bazaar, continues inching toward the end of its serial run, week-by-week. I will be self-publishing this once all the installments have been posted to the blog.
  • My short story, “Tail Risk,” is with a beta reader (aka my girlfriend – she reads a lot and ran her college newspaper though, so she’s pretty legit). I am also shopping for cover art. This story, too, will join “Vampire Brides from Planet Hell” on Amazon when finished.
  • My latest flash fiction piece, “Frankenstien’s Monster,” is submitted and in process over at Every Day Fiction.

Updates to follow!

The Bazaar: Chapter 22

Q&A

The more of the prison Emily saw the less she believed it actually held inmates.

All the cells were empty — the equipment disused, rusted and generally falling apart.

“Do they actually hold anyone here?”

Pritchard shrugged. “The ones who can’t pay. Or won’t, maybe.”

The commandante assigned a pair of guards to take them down to see Jefe. He said his staff would beat on Jefe as much as Emily and Pritchard wanted, adding cheerfully that they could torture him themselves for an additional fee. Pritchard of course declined this in deference to their ever-shrinking budget.

He (Pritchard) gave her a pair of sneakers so she no longer had to go barefoot on cold concrete. Brand name knockoffs with a misspelled logo, courtesy of a street vendor. The commandante returned the ear bud pre-loaded with Espanol Made Easy (“Apologies for the inconvenience, my dear”). Her weapon, on the other hand, was nowhere to be found. Not that it surprised her. A recent-model compact PDW would probably fetch a full year’s income on the black market.

Jefe had a cell block all to himself. They found him doing push-ups in his cell, banging out reps one after the other with perfect form. Emily gave him credit for that. He wasn’t built for it. Then again neither was she.

He had stripped off his shirt so she could see the muscles in his back work with each rep. A faded tattoo of the Virgin Mary sat square between his shoulders. The Blessed Virgin rippled as Jefe’s muscles flexed. It occurred to her that he was awfully strong, for a scrawny little monkey.

“Why’d you set me up?” she asked. “Is my money no good here?”

Jefe knocked out three more reps before answering. “Their money was better,” he replied, without looking up. His voice crackled as Emily’s ear bud calibrated to his tone and the background noise.

“I didn’t think the cartels were allowed to strong-arm brokers.”

He laughed a little without breaking form or pace. “What do you know about it?”

“They killed your boy.”

In fact, Flannel Shirt was probably still lying face down in that scuzzy hotel room.

Jefe finished a rep. He paused at the top of his form. “I have plenty of boys,” he said, then adjusted his hands for triangle push-ups and began again.

“Okay. We don’t have time to screw around. I’m going to ask you what I want to know. If you don’t answer that’s fine, but these guys-” she gestured to the prison guards “-are going to beat the shit out of you. All I want to know is this: who are the freelancers who set us up, and where do they work?”

Jefe ignored the question.

Emily hadn’t been trained for interrogation in The Program.

At first AEGIS hadn’t authorized her to do interrogations, either.

Not till Syria.

Everything she knew about psyops she learned form the militia. The elder statesman of the Democratic Liberation Front, Dr. Kamel, had a doctorate in psychology. He was a thoughtful, bespectacled man with wispy, receding hair. Before the war he practiced in a wealthy Damascus neighborhood.

Dr. Kamel refined his technique with scientific precision. He kept notes on his methods and results in a thick, spiral-bound notebook, fitting two lines of his cramped Arabic characters into every ruled line.

He did not approve of brute force torture.

Cut a man. Burn a man. Make him believe he is drowning. Insult his family and religion. Spit on the things that are sacred to him. Strip his clothes off and abuse him like an animal.

There Dr. Kamel paused to adjust his glasses on the bridge of his nose.

Hurt a man like this and he may talk. He may tell you this thing or that thing. But he will only give you bits and pieces in proportion to the pain, and only enough to make the pain stop. To break a man you must break his mind. Then it will all come flooding out like water through a crack in a dam. You will know everything he knows, as if by magic.

His technique of choice was burying prisoners alive for days on end with no food and limited air, then digging them up after they thought they’d died. At which point they’d usually spill their guts – in between convulsions and sobs, of course.

Dr. Kamel was living proof you had to worry about the quiet ones.

And while he wouldn’t approve of what Emily was about to do to El Jefe, she had neither the time nor energy to drive the little bastard slowly out of his mind. “Go to work,” she told the prison guards. “Extra money if he begs for mercy.”

The men began rolling up their sleeves.

“Extra?” Pritchard coughed — and she could have sworn his eyes were watering.

A Colder War

shoggoth

A shoggoth

So you’re saying the Russians have these, uh, Shoggoths, but we don’t have any. And even those dumb Arab bastards in Baghdad are working on them. So you’re saying we’ve got a, a Shoggoth gap? A strategic chink in our armour? And now the Iranians say the Russians are using them in Afghanistan?
–Charles Stross, A Colder War

It takes a lot of nerve to write a paragraph like that with a straight face. What’s a shoggoth, you ask? If you don’t already know you ought to quit reading now. Neither A Colder War nor this review are meant for you.

Charles Stross’ novelette (available online here) imagines the Iran-Contra scandal in a world where H.P. Lovecraft’s entire Cthulhu Mythos is real. Not much more to it, really. Rest assured there is a plot. I won’t describe it here because frankly A Colder War is at its best sketching the impact of Lovecraftian horrors on Cold War politics. Readers ought to have the pleasure of discovering that for themselves.

Stross combines a strong voice with deadpan humor and more Lovecraft references than you can shake a shoggoth at. The quote at the top of this post is one example. If you’re not satisfied with that, here’s another:

“It is not the Russians that we quarrel with,” Mehmet says quietly, “but their choice in allies. They believe themselves to be infidel atheists, but by their deeds they shall be known; the icy spoor of Leng is upon them, their tools are those described in the Kitab al Azif. We have proof that they have violated the terms of the Dresden Agreement. The accursed and unhallowed stalk the frozen passes of the Himalayas by night, taking all whose path they cross. And will you stopper your ears even as the Russians grow in misplaced confidence, sure that their dominance of these forces of evil is complete? The gates are opening everywhere, as it was prophesied. Last week we flew an F-14C with a camera relay pod through one of them. The pilot and weapons operator are in paradise now, but we have glanced into hell and have the film and radar plots to prove it.”

If there is a downside to all this it’s that A Colder War is essentially one big gimmick (albeit a very enjoyable one). The story doesn’t feel fully fleshed-out, especially in comparison to Stross’ later Laundry novels. The novelette also ends abruptly, as if afraid to wear out its welcome.

Finally, it requires at least passing familiarity with Lovecraft’s fiction to enjoy. I can’t imagine someone ignorant of “At the Mountains of Madness” and “Call of Cthulhu” would get much out of A Colder War. As I mentioned above, half the fun is spotting the Lovecraft references. The average reader may simply find the whole thing bewildering.

If history and Lovecraft are up your alley, however, you owe it to yourself to spend an evening with A Colder War.

Moment of clarity

The absolute, hands-down, best part of any writing project is the moment when everything suddenly snaps into focus and falls into place, and the piece begins to write itself. For me, the longer the piece, the longer it takes for this moment to arrive.

I am happy to report that I got there today on my latest short story project. Recently I revisited an old horror story of mine that never went anywhere, “Sweet Home.” It was a case of right character, right premise but wrong plot.  Now I’ve finally dropped this character into a worthy story and everything clicked. This afternoon I banged out 1,500 words in under 2 hours.

Incidentally, “Sweet Home” now has the new working title of “Mirror, Mirror.” Yes, I know there is a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode with that title and no, the two don’t have anything to do with one another. The title will probably change again before I’m finished.

Crash and burn!

Sad to report that “State of Grace” crashed and burned at Bewildering Stories. On the plus side it was not a form rejection. I actually got some great editorial feedback on the piece. There is also a promotional option available for “Vampire Brides from Planet Hell,” which I plan to explore in more depth later this week. So all is not lost. They did ask me if I had anything else for them to consider (which I appreciated). There’s just nothing else ready to go out the door at the moment.

I intend to go back through the story with the editor’s comments in mind. With any luck I can improve the piece and get it accepted somewhere else.

Flash Fiction Online submission

As part of my ongoing quest for increased visibility, I submitted my flash horror story, “First Corinthians,” to Flash Fiction Online. In an earlier post I described the story thusly:

“First Corinthians” is about a little girl speaking to the exorcist trying to throw a demon out of her sister. It actually takes place apart from the exorcism itself, while the exorcist is taking a break. This isn’t blood and guts horror. I’m trying for something more cerebral – maybe even philosophical. The story is about faith and God and how one copes in the apparent absence of those things. What if God didn’t exist but the Devil did? Pretty horrifying stuff, methinks, albeit in a much subtler way.

As usual, updates to follow.

The Bazaar: Chapter 5

Fulton in The Zone

Fulton found himself in a different hotel.

This one was every bit as drab as the room he’d left, only here the atmosphere reeked less of sleaze than faded glory. He sat in a lobby. No casino here. Just an empty front desk and faded, paisley wallpaper. It was a roach motel out of a B-grade noir flick.

Certainly looked like a Reese production.

What struck Fulton most about the space was the quiet. Electricity pulsed steadily within the walls. Otherwise there were no obvious signs of life: no voices, no footsteps, no sex noises.

The visuals jived with Reese’s rendering style. The environment and objects in it had been sketched out in 3D wire mesh. Photo realistic skins had then been stretched over the wire frames. To pull this off properly you needed extremely high resolution images. Millions of pixels, if not billions. If you skimped on resolution everything came out blurry. There was a time and a place for that sort design aesthetic, but generally it left you with a wicked migraine.

Here the skinner had skimped in places. The wood grain on the front desk looked like a toddler’s finger painting. A drab service bell sat on the counter — battleship gray with no gradient. The shade could have come off any consumer-grade paint program’s palette.

Fulton tapped the cartoon bell with his middle finger.

Ping.

The sound echoed through the empty lobby. Crisp audio – another Reese-like touch.

“Hello?”

Stupid question.

Fulton tapped the bell again. Another crisp ping echoed across the lobby.

Whoever he was, the designer knew his stuff.

Spacial encryption had gotten more and more popular. Brute-force assaults became exponentially more effective each year, at about the pace you would expect given Moore’s Law (the number of transistors on an integrated circuit doubles every two years). This was hardware available at the retail level. Forget government agencies. Forget specialist contractors like Emily and AEGIS. Given enough capital you could hire all the computer power and hacking talent you needed on a freelance basis.

So governments and corporations got creative.

Spacial encryption required an incredibly detailed environment. Otherwise all you’d see would be items of significance. An effective encryption environment did one of two things: it either provided a highly-detailed, realistic environment filled with insignificant details, or it was a theater of the bizarre. Ideally both. Fulton knew this because he’d spent a not-insignificant amount of time studying the evolution of spacial encryption in augmented systems. The earliest examples had simply hidden information around a space (i.e. pick up a vase and engraved on the bottom would be the plans for your terrorist attack, the schematics for the latest wonder widget or a series of hacked credit account numbers). The next logical step had been to chop the data up and spread it across multiple places. In a hotel environment like this you might find a swatch of data printed under the bell, a bit more on a certain letter in a mail cubby, still more on the back of a particular room’s number plate.

The first documented example of data being abstracted into the actual environment came from Datadyne, the market leader in augmented chipsets. Its R&D department coded a set of blueprints as a maze. When you mapped out the maze in three dimensions and zoomed out far enough to see the proverbial forest for the trees you had the specs. Spacial strategies would eventually become so complex you would have to disassemble the entire environment and reassemble all its components in a different configuration to get at the underlying data.

Fulton sincerely hoped Reese had not made that leap with this particular project.

If he had anything to do with it in first place.

On the one hand, the slapdash attention to detail was pure Reese. He was a Big Idea man. A novelist, not a copy editor. Setting, too, was in line with Reese’s style. Faded glory appealed to him. Same with the noir undertones. But so far nothing had distinguished this app as a David Reese original. In fact Fulton found it rather boring.

Then, from down the corridor came a clicking sound, like knife-points on tile.

The figure that emerged was not human. Not entirely, at least. Up top was the familiar shape of a human female — a blonde woman wearing a bellhop’s jacket. She wore a red cap cocked to the right. Below the waist she had the body of a mechanical spider, polished chrome legs and abdomen. The legs themselves were narrow, spindly and pointed at the tips, vaguely reminiscent of javelins. Hydraulic pumps joined them to her body.

The bellhop jacket covered the place where flesh met chrome. Fulton suspected if he removed her jacket he would find a hyper-realistic surgical scar where flesh and bone had been grafted onto steel.

Forget the desk bell. The machinery practically glistened in the light. Of course the skinner could have used this same dynamic lighting on the service bell. Leaving it dull was an artistic choice. God forbid it detract from the spider’s entrance.

That was where Reese invested his creative energy. Here was his signature. His Big Idea.

“Good evening, sir,” the spider said. “How may I help you?”

The Bazaar: Chapter 4

Zoning Out

Emily watched him take the cartridge. As far as she knew the thing worked by magic.

Magic and a needle.

Emily didn’t mind needles, same as she didn’t mind these hotels with all-night karaoke and lousy sound-proofing. Hotels where all you had for company in the wee, lonely hours of the morning were junkies wailing “Endless Love” and the sound of your neighbors fucking. Once upon a time she’d spent long, sleepless nights in hotels like this, watching roaches scuttle across the ceiling, adrift on a rolling sea of feel-good.

Fulton stuck the cartridge between his teeth as he rolled up his sleeves.

Why bother with the sleeves? Unless he had a port on the inside of his elbow. Tech wasn’t Emily’s department but she knew it was all the rage to get the port on the inside of your arm. Made it look like you were shooting dope every time you popped in a disc.

“I sweat when I plug in,” Fulton said, to no one in particular, as if he’d read her mind.

Appearance-wise he could have been any nerd off the street. He wore a simple white button-down and dark slacks. Pretty much anyone could pull it off. Even this was impressive compared to the techs Emily worked with. Collars were their kryptonite. That and shaving. She guessed Fulton’s wife had invested serious time and effort in cleaning him up. Unfortunately the change hadn’t entirely taken.

His shirt was wrinkled.

That set tiny hairs on the back of Emily’s neck tingling. It would have earned her a beating in basic (Is that a fucking smudge on that button, Number Eleven?).

Fulton worked tiny buttons along the body of the cartridge. A green LED light winked on. He reached round the base of his neck with his free hand and began probing with two fingers.

No scar. He couldn’t pop discs too often.

The deft, probing motions took Emily back to Syria, to the twelve-year old who worked as a minesweeper. The kid lay flat on his stomach working the ground in front of him with a nasty-looking combat knife. Whenever he found mines he dug them up and dismantled them himself, using the knife tip like a screwdriver. He was Sunni. An Alawite death squad had massacred his family. Not only mother, father, brothers and sisters but uncles, aunts and cousins, too. They’d wiped out his entire village. As far as anyone knew the kid was the only one left out of his entire family tree. Nothing scared him. Not capture. Not torture. Not death. Certainly not little metal boxes with the capacity to horribly maim.

Because when you’ve watched everyone you’ve ever loved get machine-gunned to pieces, what was left to fear?

Emily knew something about that herself.

Finally Fulton found the port in his neck. He held a finger there to mark the spot while he stuck the cartridge up against it. He pressed a button. The cartridge clicked. Fulton winced then pocketed the device. “Dial in straight away?” he asked.

“We’ve got all the time in the world,” Emily replied. Not the first time she’d said that to a man with a needle in his neck. She might have said it a thousand times before. That phase of her life remained shrouded in a thick mental fog, a soupy blend of memory and hallucination.

If the disc held a hot dose Fulton would start convulsing immediately. Vomit would bubble from the corners of his mouth and dribble down his chin as his brain fried. Emily had seen this happen exactly once. A field tech dove into some intel without any kind of once-over. Turned out it was booby-trapped. A hot dose cooked him instantly. Emily remembered him blinking over and over, spitting up blood as he jerked around on the ground like a landed fish.

She was naïve then. She thought he might come out of it. No more. If Fulton caught a hot dose she’d put a bullet in his head. She’d make it easy for him.

Emily touched her palm to the gun holstered beneath her coat.

Across the room the broker tensed visibly. His eyes locked onto her hand and stayed there.

Instead of vomiting his guts out Fulton leaned back onto the bed. His eyes rolled up. His attention went beyond Emily, beyond the room, far from the muffled sounds of bad sex and antique slot machines.

He was in The Zone.

Taking a whack at serial fiction

I am currently busy both writing and marketing. The more I think about marketing the more I realize how important it is to have more of my work out there. I’ve posted some old writing samples on this blog, but I want to do something bigger.

Fortunately, I have The Bazaar.

I have gone back and forth about what I want to do with this manuscript. First I tried Kindle Singles. That didn’t work out. I want to move forward by self-publishing, but I don’t have the cash to invest in proper production values at this time. Hence, a new strategy: I will serialize The Bazaar on this blog. Each chapter will be a single post. Each will be available online for free. I will publish one chapter a week, every week, starting today. If/when I publish the entire novella in print or as an ebook, the full text will remain available for free.

Right now I need readers more than money. Hopefully this will be a step in that direction.

In the meantime, here is the blurb again:

Dr. Mitchell Fulton is an expert in augmented systems: computers implanted in human brains. To be “wired” is to have the entire internet inside your head (provided you’ve got a decent connection, of course). It also means a skilled operator could hack your brain. In theory, at least. No one’s managed it yet.

Yet.

Rumor has it someone’s come damn close. That someone happens to be Fulton’s late friend, brilliant but troubled programmer David Reese. If Reese’s code falls into the wrong hands it will pave the way for digital weapons of mass destruction: computer viruses that infect human minds.

Fulton agrees to help a team of military contractors retrieve it.

They aren’t the only ones gunning for Reese’s app, however. A group of freelance terrorists are looking to make a big score. They’ve got one of the best hackers in the business and no shortage of willing buyers. The drug cartels that control the Central American Free Trade Zone, for starters.

Fulton and Co. soon find themselves on the bleeding edge of a new kind of war — one fought in the streets, online and inside their minds.